I woke up in Boten, Laos and, waiting for the bank to open, ordered a coffee at the shop next to the guesthouse. First, they served me a cup of green tea, then a big bowl of noodle soup with fresh sliced tomatoes and, after I complained for a second time, they served a diluted coffee with too much condensed milk. The small village consisted of some shops and buildings that housed the officials. The only people staying overnight were shop owners in their adjacent houses, officers in the closed compound next to the border and truck drivers in their vehicles with noisy whores. Its single street had some twenty buildings scattered along it and ran parallel to the narrow road leading to Udom Xai, northern Laos’ main traveling hub, almost four hours south from here.
Two of the buildings were guesthouses with simple rooms. A double bed with a mosquito net in a wood structure with small neon lights was all the furniture featured. The toilets and the cold shower were shared, but at the time there were no other guests. At slightly less than two dollars per night, it was a little overpriced considering the location, but the rarity of tourists made the high price necessary for the guesthouse owner. However, I stayed to allow an early start in China, because an hour would be lost when crossing.
My intention was to return to Thailand once my trip in China was over, but now it was time to cross to the Middle Kingdom.
Zhongguo means the Middle Kingdom in Chinese and is their ethnocentric way of reminding foreigners of their country’s position in the world. "Zh," the strange couple of consonants in pinyin, their Romanized script, is pronounced like the English "j," Jong-guo.
The planned highlights of this visit would be my travels along the Silk Road, Kashgar and Xian. Sightseeing and the book business were not the main attractions on this trip. I was more interested in the train trips west.
At 8:20 AM the Lane Xang Bank was still closed, but a tourist entering from China exchanged some money with me, leaving me with just enough Laotian kips for the tuk-tuk to the China immigration office at Mohan, a couple of kilometers after the Laotian exit point. Mohan was a big town in Laotian terms, but a negligible one in Chinese terms. There was substantial construction work going on; a deep layer of rocks was being laid for a new road along the town’s center. Many buildings were built with diagonal layers of bricks. Sometimes one or two were missed and created holes. The method saved construction materials but it didn’t seem stable. Still, we negotiated the road.
Immigration gave us no problems and I picked a small minivan to Mengla. At the station I had a mute argument with a Chinese couple over the seats in the front row, the only ones with windows. I won when I signaled with my hands that I needed the window since everybody else smoked. After an hour and a half delay while they worked on another part of the road, adding a new layer of pressed ground before the re-pavement, the driver argued with the people at the barrier. Finally, they let us move forward to the actual construction site, where we waited till the ground was flattened enough to let us pass. Around us were rubber plantations. Each tree featured a black ribbon spiraling down and leading the precious liquid to a bucket.
An hour after noon, we reached Mengla’s southern bus station. It was a featureless city, except for the bright orange tiles on the roofs. After a short walk to the long distance bus station, I bought a ticket on a minibus to Jinghong. A heavy-set woman in a uniform checked the passengers’ tickets against a computerized list and we left on time in a half empty vehicle, an unthinkable thing in Laos. The road north passed left of the Xishuangbanna Natural Reserve and more rubber plantations, but I was thrilled by the road signs, which were made of pure cement and molded in one piece. However, photographing them while traveling at full speed proved to be a difficult task. At the passing villages we picked up people until all sixteen seats were full and then, no standing passengers were allowed.
People ignored me whenever I was looking around, but couldn’t take their eyes off me and my writing, whenever they thought I wasn’t looking. A man across the aisle kept spitting on the floor and smoking, the cigarette’s ashes dispersed over the spit with great care. Outside the window, a man was leisurely smoking and holding a big bag open, while a woman next to him was shoveling earth inside. At the different stops, women sold pomelos, sticky rice, peanuts, eggs and maize; fruit stalls bordered the station.
I had already seen the sun set in Jinghong, after crossing the Mekong River. China was the sixth country where I met this giant. Here it was known as the Lancang River. Next to the terminal was the Hong Feng Hotel. In the big room I secured there, the hot water was a dream. There were two beds to choose from, a television, a phone, lots of working lamps and mirrors, and a thermos with hot water. After the trip in Laos, this was a close replica of paradise. The television showed CCTV9, the Central Chinese Television English Channel, and documentaries accompanied me until I fell asleep.
Early in the morning I gave my laundry to Mei Mei Café, in the backpackers’ area, a typical Southeast Asian all-in-one service center for tourists. Then I went for a walk. Jinghong was a small and compact city. It felt more like an extension of Southeast Asia than like a Chinese province. Thais called it Chiang Roon (several Roman transliterations of this name exist) and considered it the
cradle of the Thai culture. It was re-baptized by the Chinese, following the annexation of the Yunnan province to their empire. Food stalls sold Thai Som Tam, a spicy salad of green papaya, peanuts and chili. The food ingredients all around were similar to those in Thailand with the addition of yams and carrots. However, the spices were different with less chili and more pickles.
Hungry for traditional Chinese sights, I bought a bus ticket to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, in a sleeping bus. The upper berth was slightly cheaper, so I took it. While boarding the bus, I was asked to take off my shoes and put them into a bag the driver gave me. In the bus were three rows of short beds, each one with a mattress, a pillow and a thick blanket, to protect the traveler from the strong air conditioning. The bus left seventeen minutes late, with only one third of the beds occupied. Two movies were shown in a row, both of them dubbed in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, because of the different spoken dialects; all dialects used the same written language. With Chinese subtitles any Chinese person could understand the movie.
The first restroom break shocked me. The toilets were constructed of cubicles over an open ditch, with no doors. To flush, a water hose was used at the beginning of the ditch, allowing the water to flow out the other direction. An hour later we reached a military checkpoint. Everybody had to show the soldiers their identification cards. When I asked the soldier if I need to show my passport, he said "Thank you" but refused to take it. Some people were asked to step off the bus for a luggage check, but everything ended well. After dark, we stopped at a bus station for food. We received a ticket from the driver, which we used at the restaurant to get food. A small metal tray was filled with soup, rice, two kinds of vegetables, and two kinds of meat – a reasonable variety. The taste was a bit strange, but I attributed that to my tongue being unaccustomed to the spices. However, after midnight my stomach started to rebel and I spent most of the night vomiting. Maybe that was the reason I was handed an empty nylon bag while boarding…
(Excerpt from Chapter 53. The Back Door to the Middle Kingdom)
The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.