vrijdag 1 april 2011

Oh, what beautiful nature!

Sunday morning 5:20 AM. My alarm goes off and despite the fact I didn't sleep at all last night I jump out of bed and under the shower. NEED to take a shower because it might well be my last for the next week. 5:45 AM I'm out the front door waiting for my trekking buddies. The streets of Thamel are already alive (who knew) and slowly as the streets fill with people, we make our way to the bus stop. 6:15 AM the bus leaves Kathmandu and we are on our way to Sundarijal. That's where we will start walking.
I have no idea what to expect and I feel a little nervous. I never really liked taking 'long walks through nature' and my condition is not that excellent. This trek is my first and could be my last. What if I can't keep up? What if I really hate it? What if I break down and cry? What if...?
We start walking around 8 AM and the first steps are already up, up, up! My God, I feel like my lungs are about to explode and sweat is already dripping down my face although it's still early and fresh. What have I got myself into?! But thanks to my buddies, Greet and Martine, they help me to find my pace. "Bistare bistare" (slowly slowly) I take one step after the other and try to match them with my breathing. I only focus on my steps and my breathing and after a while I find my rhythm. Everybody has his own rhythm. It can be slow or fast, with many stops or no stops, but steady. Mine is a slow rhythm, but I feel myself calming down and I have my breathing under control. After a while I even find myself looking around and enjoying the scenery. This goes on for several hours until we reach a first stop for tea. It's a small village where the women are making the local alcoholic drink, Raksi. This is amazing! It's so peaceful here, the people are so friendly and the air is starting to smell fresh! Waw!
After tea we go again and this time finding my rhythm comes more easy. I'm very lucky that Greet and Martine have a similar rhythm, so we walk together. Joke and Marieke have a much faster rhythm and so they go on ahead until the next stop. This time it's lunch, a noodle-soup, which will be our lunch every day from now on. It's time for a little check up and I take my shoes and socks off. Damned! There they are! Three huge craters in my heels. Only one of them is a little open, but the damage seems to be okay. Compeed, my friend, where art'thou? We cover it all up and then it's time to go again.
Walking is painful, but my 'rhythm' brings me in a state of trance. It's as if your body adapts to the pain and the pain becomes part of the rhythm. The scenery is beautiful and we are already quit high up. We reach the little village where we will spend the night and although our bedroom looks more like a stable or a barn than a room, this is perfect! You're so tired and happy to be there that it really doesn't matter that much. The food tastes excellent and the cold mountain water feels very soothing on my feet. The Compeed seems to hold only on one side, the other side the Compeed melted and my heel is uncovered. Only one solution: MORE Compeed!
At 8 o'clock we are tired and since there really is nothing to do in the mountains after dark, no electricity - no bars - no tv - only barking dogs - pitchblack night, we go to bed. This is the beginning of our new clock. The "clock of nature". Here you go to bed after sunset and you wake up at sunrise. So 6 o'clock the next day we get up, breakfast is at 7 and soon after that we start walking again. The mood is good. Although my feet hurt, we talk and laugh a lot. And I'm really enjoying this. Again we go up, up, up, but everything goes smooth. Except maybe when I'm being confronted with one of my old fears. A little puppy won't leave us alone (that is nothing to be scared of, I know!) and follows us along the trail when all of a sudden we have to pass a farm with a big dog out front. This dog is protecting the farm and so if you don't come too close you're fine. But the dog doesn't like the puppy tagging along and starts growling. Of course the puppy decides to look for protection in between our legs, and that's when I'm almost peeing my pants. If this big dog decides to attack the little puppy, my leg might actually be stuck in the middle. Okay, time to take a deep breath, calm myself down, focus on the road ahead and keep my rhythm.... pfff. I made it! The puppy turned back and the farm is far behind us! After that we bump into a couple of water buffalo's and the farmer makes us hide so they can pass without being scared. Yep, this time it's not me, but the buffalo's who are scared! ;-)
The rest of the day is smooth sailing and at night we reach the next village where we will spend the night. There was a little rain and it's becoming colder, the higher we are. Thank God this little lodge has a fire and after doing the necessary stuff for the night, like making your bed, taking your shoes off, we sit around the fire. There's two elderly French couples who are doing the same route as us and they stay in the same lodge. The men are both 75 years old, one of the women is 71 and the other is about 50. Waw, they are amazing, still trekking! It turns out one of them is a Guide in the Alpes, but still; they are here and they are doing it! Let's hope we can all be there at 75!
Again a good day passed and I go to sleep satisfied. The next day it takes a little longer for my feet to adapt to the pain. It's also still a little damp and cold, so it takes longer for you muscles to warm. But again we find our rhythm and off we go. This time it's more 'Nepali flat', which means it's not that steep anymore. And a few hours later we actually go up AND down, which is a nice change. After lunchtime we reach the lodge which is at 3200 meters. When I remove my shoes, my Compeed comes off and what we see underneath looks a bit scary. It looks worse then it is though, but because we are also at high altitude, we decide to take the rest of the day off and continue tomorrow. There's a fire in the lodge and we spend the rest of the day just sitting around; talking, laughing, drinking tea, an attempt to do yoga (which didn't work at all during the trek), a little walk...  It's weird to be at such high altitude. I never knew what altitude sickness meant and even now we are not really high enough to call it sick. But you do notice that you are tired a bit faster and there is a slight headache. Not really a head - ACHE, but there is a airy feeling in your head.
We wanted to go to Gosainkunde, but because of my feet (sorry), the slight headache with a few of us, and mainly because of bad weather, we decide to skip Gosainkunde and make our way around Helambu back to Kathmandu. It's either 3 short days walk or 2 long ones. We can't decide right now, we will have to see tomorrow how things are going.
Early morning we wrap up my feet in Compeed. At this point one of my ankles has about three of them and the other one and a normal bandage. It's fine. We can't prevent anymore, we can't let it heal (no time), so all we try to do right now is minimize more damage. We start the walk and it goes pretty well. We go downhill today and when we reach the highest point (for us on this trek that was 3600 meters), we decide to continue and it's down hill now! Soon after we leave it starts raining and that really breaks the mood a bit. The first hours we can still talk and laugh, but the trek is taking longer than we expected. Also because of the rain, the path is slippery and all of us, taking turns, hit the ground. Greetje hits it hardest and her back is hurting a bit now. The leaves are falling covering the path, that was already slippery, and so you can't really see where you have to walk. It goes down very steep and we turn to silence. Concentration is needed and sometimes I have to hold my breath when we take the small steps along a ravine. On top of this we have to cross a few bridges. You know those bridges; Indiana Jones - bridges! Small walking bridges over a river miles below? Yep, you know those ones? Swinging left to right when you cross them? And I'm not that keen on heights! But what to do? Nothing, just freeze your brain and keep going. Look straight ahead, put one foot after the other and keep going. Waw, the thrill I feel when I cross is amazing! If you had told me before hand I would have to do this, several times, maybe I wouldn't have come. But I did, I did and after two bridges I even feel confident enough to take a look around me while crossing. And it's beautiful to see the water beneath you splashing through the rocks. Such fresh mountain water, almost blue! And then, a few hours later than expected, we arrive in the next village where we will sleep. The lodge is nice and the son of the house makes us an excellent Dahl Baath. There's not really a restaurant and we sit in their 'sherpa kitchen' to have dinner. It is beautiful and although grandpa is in exile in the barn, they make us feel welcome.
Day 5. Last day of walking for me. Joke and Marieke are still full of energy and they will keep going all the way down. Martine, Greet and me will walk to the nearest village where we can take a bus to Kathmandu. The 'nearest' village, you say? Really? Well, we didn't know that morning that the 'nearest' village was only 7 hours walking. Haha! Thank God I didn't know. Seven hours actually sounds worse than it is! 
The action of the day was that we got to see the French people and their Nepali porters and guides before splitting ways (they kept going when we took the afternoon off). Yep, the Nepali porters didn't speak English but they looked really good. And when they decided to walk with us, at our slow pace, somehow it gave us some extra energy and so we went in the next gear! Haha! After splitting from the French we also had to say goodbye to Joke and Marieke. They were heading the same way as them and we were going to the other side of the valley.
The little path brought us through villages, over mountains, along waterfalls, across the river... the sun was shining today and butterflies everywhere showed us the way. All colors of the rainbow where represented in the butterflies and the flowers and it's hard to describe how little you feel when surrounded by so much beauty and greatness. We take a break eating cookies together with three little girls taking their oxes out on a walk (??), they are so cute and at the end they even start singing. Later that afternoon we stop for lunch. By now we already know that this walk is gonna be longer then expected, but we just have to continue until we get there. There's no point in stopping now. We can't! Can we? Well... just for a little while we feared logistic problems would prevent us from continuing! After lunch we see that the 'path' ends at the next house and the 'road' starts. For years they've been building roads in the mountains and apparently this is how far they have come now. There's a big bulldozer and men working. But where is the path? Gone. Where is the road? Not built yet. So where do we go? Well, Nepali style they tell us to just 'go'! Go where? There's a steep pile of sand that goes straight into the ravine! You want us to just 'go' and cross that pile? My knees start feeling a bit weak, but it seems that there is no other way. A drunk guy and an older man try to show us how it's done and they cross, but even then it looks so terribly dangerous. One wrong step and we just fall into the deep. The Nepali are laughing because for them this is a piece of cake, but after explaining to them that we don't have 'Nepali feet' they understand our problem. A few whistles, the bulldozer turns around, we quickly have to step out of the way, and a path is being made! Yep! You heard it! The bulldozer built a path along the pile for us to cross! They built a road, just for us! Yihaaa! This is Nepal! This is hospitality! My heart is singing and the mood is perfect again! Although it is hour 8, it is raining a little, our knees hurt from going down the whole day... they built a road for us and we see the finish! Silence disappears and the rest of the walk passes in a cheerful way. The lodge where we end up is nice, the food is just excellent, the best we had so far and the family running the place really makes us feel like home.
We made it! And tonight we even celebrate a little bit by sharing a beer between the three of us! And that's enough to get us slightly dizzy and ready for bed!
Friday morning; the bus is early (there might be another one coming, but you never know, so we have to take this one), but they wait until we are ready. The driver looks like he wouldn't be allowed to drive yet in Belgium, and at one point he switches places with a truck driver just for the kick of it, but he brings us back safe in Kathmandu. It took 5 hours, but the drive is beautiful. Along villages, down in the valley, up in the mountains... When we get back to Kathmandu I feel like I'm glowing. I'm tired as hell, and after a shower and removing all the Compeed the craters look bigger than expected, but I feel so satisfied and calm. Happy that I did this and that I made it! I love trekking! It is worth all the suffering to see all that beauty and to experience that relaxing rhythm that completely clears your head from all worries! Wow, this was my first, but not my last! Nepal... I promise I'll be back! x

vrijdag 25 maart 2011

What to do in Kathmandu...

Well, there's plenty to do! I've been here 12 days and I haven't been bored at all. Since I'm going on a trekking on Sunday, I decided to stay in Kathmandu until that day. Well, to be honest... I stayed in Thamel. That's the backpackers area, the busy neighborhood, the place to be for action, the beating heart! I left Thamel a few times because I had no other choice (and it was hard) but I made it back alive! ;-)
My 2 weeks here were all about Balance. Combining the functional and the dysfunctional. Let's start with the functional part. I took Yoga classes every morning and every night. I figured if I want to survive a trekking, my body would need some kind of training. And Yoga is also good for breathing and concentration. Both are things that could save my life up there on the mountains. My teacher in the morning, Mister Bim, is a bit weird. He gives us a very active workout and then pushes us real hard to stretch and hold our poses. He also gave a few comments that were maybe a little inappropriate...  The evening teacher is a lot more relaxed and is in my eyes a proper teacher. He doesn't push us, he wants us to push ourselves and he always, always explains what we are doing and why we are doing it and he corrects our poses. I stopped going in the morning, partly because I wasn't learning anything, and partly... because getting up early has not been my favorite thing here. The good thing about my evening class is that he's gonna give me some small exercises that I can do in the morning and in the evening while on trekking. He says they will give me energy and oxygen! And honestly I feel very good. The first days my body was aching all over, but now I don't even get that stiff anymore. I can stretch a whole lot more than two weeks ago and I feel my muscles slowly building up. I think I'm ready for the trekking!
Other functional activities have been a little bit of sightseeing. Not too much as most of that is outside of Thamel, but just enough to learn some things about Kathmandu. Also we had to prepare for the trekking and since we are not taking a guide (No; we are taking our Greetje!) we needed to get our permits. All of that went very smooth and having the right papers is already half the work. I had to buy a few little things to make the trekking more comfortable, like socks and a water bottle, but other than that I am so glad I can finally use those big boots and warm clothes that I've been carrying around for ages. The past 4,5 months I have cursed the bottom half of my backpack. It contained useless stuff if you're traveling in India. But now I remember again why I took it all! It's all about this, the trekking, the moment has arrived where I can say..."yes, have that, brought that... I'm ready!"
I'm a bit scared about going, but I feel like this is one of those things you just have to do. The main reason why I think I'll enjoy it, even though I might cry a little at tough times, is the people who are joining me. When I arrived 12 days ago I had no plans, but my friend Greetje invited me to join her and 3 other Belgian women on this trek. I've met them all except one and it clicks! I know we will get along and that humor will be just as important to them as it is to me! The trek we are doing is not a very heavy one (THANK GOD), but it's supposed to be a very beautiful area. For those experienced trekkers, we are going to Gosainkunda.
Another very functional part of my stay in Thamel are books. I neglected my reading after leaving India, but now I'm making up. My goal was to read all the books of Paulo Coelho and if I finish the one I'm reading now, I only have 3 more to go. If it wasn't for the 'dysfunctional' part of Thamel, maybe I would have finished them all by now... haha! But I'll keep going and hopefully I will have reached my goal. I still have four weeks to go!
And then we come to the dysfunctional part. Parties! Man, Nepalese people are a lot like Belgians when it comes to going out. They never want to go home and always feel like having 'one last drink'! Bars close around 11:30 pm, but there are ways around that. If your friend from Belgium brings you in touch with her friends, and they know the owner, there's always room for one last drink behind closed doors. Haha! Makes me feel like home! ;-)
I was also very fortunate to be here for the Holi-festival. I celebrated it last year in India and there it was pretty aggressive. I know we spent maybe one hour outside that day. But here in Thamel it was fun. Holi is the first day of spring after the full moon and people celebrate the coming of spring by throwing colored powders at each other making us all look like walking rainbows. Prepare yourself to get colored and wet, but other than that it was a lot of fun this year. We spent the whole day outside walking around, having a few drinks, something to eat. We heard afterward that around a thousand people got arrested that day, but that is also because Kathmandu police were out on the streets in high numbers. Everybody had been warned that this year should be a friendly year and that any kind of violence, dodgy substances for coloring, traffic violations... would be taken very seriously. And it worked, because apart from traffic jams, everything stayed pretty friendly here in Thamel. The weirdest thing for me were the streetkids. There's a whole bunch of them that wander around in Thamel, begging, sniffing glue... but on Holi they were playing along just like all the other kids. Okay, maybe not like other kids, since they did take a little break every now and then to sniff, but still. Just for a few hours you could clearly see that they are 'just kids'!
And continuing on about parties... last night was a big highlight for me. Greet and BJ were invited to a party of one of their friends and me and Martine were also welcome. It was a celebration for their baby who turned six months. This day the baby gets her first rice feeding and everybody gets together to celebrate this. It was amazing! First we got to witness the baby getting fed the rice. This was at their house and you only go there to say hello before going to the party hall, but I guess we were there right in time and I saw it all happen. The women were dressed in their most beautiful saris and the mood was just so relaxed. After the feeding and when most people have arrived, of about 500 guests!!, you take turns to eat. Everybody sits in long rows and then the staff comes and fills your plate. It's Newari style and you get several different dishes on one plate. There were at least 12 different dishes and then desert. Yep, there was plenty of food and the family went all out with chicken, mutton, bone-marrow... and of course 'drinks'! There were several choices; whiskey straight, whiskey cola, whiskey fanta or some kind of rice wine. Well, I went with whiskey cola! As did almost everybody there...In between everybody takes turns to go greet the mother and child and hand over presents and blessings. And this baby was just so calm through all of this. Yep, born in Kathmandu and already used to having noise and people around all the time! :-D
I could tell you more about concerts, bookclubs... but some things are just between me and Thamel (and Greet and Bj and Martine and...)! Haha!

dinsdag 15 maart 2011

A quicky in Bangkok and now taking my time in Kathmandu... ;-)

I left Laos and not a minute too soon. Vientiane is not my city and I was ready to move on. They came to pick me up and when we arrived at the trainstation near Vientiane I immediately started chatting to a Dutch guy and his boyfriend. We have to 'check out' of Laos in this trainstation, but because it's after 4pm the woman behind the desk wants more money... What to do? Well, you pay of course. Because she can keep you passport and make sure you miss the train. It was only 20 eurocents more, but when there is a hundred of you... she's having a good day working after hours! Haha!
Then you take a little train over the bridge to Thailand. This takes about 15 minutes and then you have to 'check in' in Thailand. We had half an hour there to get some money from the ATM, smoke a cigarette and then it was off to Bangkok. Jeroen, his friend and me had beds next to each other, but more importantly... we were next to the train-restaurant-cart. So I go on the train, put my backpack down and find my seat. Right then they are already standing next to me with big 'asking' eyes. "What you do? No sit! We go restaurant NOW!" Okay, so there we go. The train hasn't even left and the first beers are already on the table. I don't even know how many beers passed by that night, but the atmosphere was very laid back. I had so much fun that night and so did the other passangers. It was as if none of us had any worry, we all left them on that platform in Nongkai and all we had to do for the next hours was absolutely nothing.
The morning was of course a little bit less 'funny'. Only a few hours sleep, busy Bangkok, a hangover, it's already 35 degrees at 7 in the morning... I decided not to torture myself more than necessary and so I took a taxi to my hotel. A Czech guy who was also in the 'midnighttrainbar' offered to share the taxi 'cos he was heading in the same direction. Perfect! We arrived, HE payed the taxi and then we said goodbye... hihi.
Luckily my room was ready so I could check in right away and go upstairs to take a nap. After that I walked around a bit, had a swim in the rooftop pool and then... well, then I had to wait... My friends Kristel and Steph were on their way to Bangkok and I was expecting them to arrive at the hotel around 5 pm. 5 pm came and went... so did 6 pm and 7 pm... and I was ready to give up. Did something happen? Did they miss the plane? I had no cell phone so there was no way of reaching them. And taxi after taxi stopped in front of the hotel and every time my heart skipped a beat. You see, I haven't seen them in 4.5 months. I was excited. But excitement became nervousness and just when I was ready to give up and go for dinner... there they were! My God! Tired, pale, dressed far too warm, thirsty and hungry... but it was definitely them, finally!
We had a good time in Bangkok. We did a few visits, had massages, did a little shopping and took our time to eat and drink and talk talk talk. The weekend passed by way too fast and all of a sudden it was Monday morning. Time to part again. They went off to the south of Thailand and for me it was time to go to Nepal. Our planes left at the same time so we shared a taxi, said 'aerport goodbyes' and there I was, on my own again. On my way to the last new country to discover on this trip!
The flight was really nice, except maybe when we landed and we could feel the plane swinging left and right because of the strong wind. Nobody else seemed worried and we made it, so I guess it's just daily business here. When I stepped out of the plane; the first thing that hit me was the smell. That mixture of pollution with the sweet smells of oils and incense. A bit like India and so I felt pretty comfortable. My Visa on arrival went very smooth altough I kind of miscalculated. I was expecting to get a Visa for 60 days, but it's only for 30. I'm staying for 36 days, so I have to fix this. (I already know now that it won't be a problem, but I did NOT know that when I stood there...) I went out, ATM didn't work so all I had was 10 dollars. Taxi drivers and guides and all sorts of young men around me trying to take me to their guest house and in their taxis... this is SOO India. And yet it is SO NOT! People here are friendlier and they laugh more. There is no agression and they keep an appropriate distance. That will be my mission; to "stop comparing India and Nepal". Altough some things are maybe similar, they are even more different! Nepal is relaxed and friendly. I feel comfortable here.
Finally I took a taxi and just went with the oldest man in the pack. Police pointed him out for me and said he was 'good - honest'. The drive took about 40 minutes as traffic was busy. Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal, but don't expect a city like Delhi, Bangkok or Beijing. Kathmandu is smaller, without skyscrapers and flashy boulevards. It's as if Kathmandu has both feeth on the ground and that makes it a very charming city. I'm staying in Thamel, which is the backpackersarea. I have a good guest house and very cheap with tv and everything. Not that that really makes any difference here. You see, electricity is limited to a few hours a day. This week for example there are about 4 hours in the afternoon and about 6 hours in the middle of the night. Not really the times to watch TV or even be in your room. They do have back-up in the hotel. Of course they do. But that's only for the light. Sockets don't work; so no charging, no TV... Heyhey, look at it from the bright side: at least they put in the effort!! :-D
First job was to find a light, since I don't want to be lost somewhere in the dark. I found one of those headlights, since I "lost" my Petzel somewhere in Deurne! ^^ After that I phoned my friend Greetje and arranged to meet her, BJ (her husband) and Mira (their daughter) at six o'clock. It was just perfect! Nice restaurant, good food and seeing them again after three years was the easiest thing. As if we saw each other just last week! And I got the inside information on Thamel and Kathmandu.
More information came this morning when Greetje took me around Thamel and showed me where they have good food, good drinks, where to buy stuff. Yep, this feels like a home away from home! And after having lunch at their house I feel like I already had a little sneakpeak at how life in Kathmandu is! And I can tell you it looks very nice... ;-)
Now, I'm taking my time to get settled and explore this city.... and of course taking a break every now and then for a good cup of coffee and maybe I'll throw in a slice of chocolate cake today (just like yesterday). Who knows?! Haha! ;-)

woensdag 9 maart 2011

Lazy Laos

I arrived in Laos almost two weeks ago. I tried to figure it out, but I can't. Laos is a country stuck in the middle of the big players; China, Thailand, Vietnam... Apparently Thailand feels some affiliation with Laos, they're both boeddhist, and tried to take them over in the past. At this moment it's more China and Vietnam that are the big allies. Laos is 'communist' or that's what they call it and so they get a lot of support from China and Vietnam. It is a very strategic country geographically and apparently economy is not doing bad here. Because of the geographical importance, connecting South East Asia, trade is growing. What I noticed is that the standard of living is not that bad. At least not in the places I have been to here in the North. Tourism is definitely a big thing here. Transport, touristic tours, guest houses, restaurants... they are everywhere and it's all very well organised. And they are doing well. High season is coming to an end because in April rainy season starts, so March is hot hot hot. But still a lot of guest houses are full by noon. And the last two weeks I saw more 'Whites' than I had been seeing the past 4 months. I like the slow pace and the very laidback attitude. But at the same time this bores me a bit. After the challenge in India and the exploring in China, Laos has not much more to offer than 'relaxation'. I'm not complaining, this came at the right time, but now I'm ready to move on again!
My first stop was Luang Prabang and that is still my favourite. It is a small city next to the river. It's friendly, very safe and it has something to offer for tourists. I went to the caves on a river boat, to the waterfalls, the blue lagoon, the national museum, some temples, Lao Disco (which is really part of local culture, haha), the nightmarket, the little backstreets... it's very charming and beautiful. I had a good time here and ended up staying a whole week. I met some really nice people and thanks to them I had a very filling nightprogram aswell! ;-)
Then it was off to Vang Vieng. Now that is a weird place! It's a small city... more a village that consists of only a few streets, next to the river. And the main attraction is the 'tubing'. This is when you take an inner tire of a truck, blow it up, and float on it going down the river. What makes it even more 'special' is the amount of bars along side the river. So the plan is to stop at as many bars as possible and drink drink drink! You get free shots, and with the boiling sun people get really drunk, really fast. There's swings, diving decks and other 'toys' along the way and it's all about having crazy fun! I did the tubing and had a few drinks, but I didn't get waisted and we arrived at the finish on time. You see, if you're not back before 6PM you have to pay extra. And of course when you're having fun and drinks, you're not in a hurry. So my guess is that this is how they really make their money! There have also been a few accidents in the past, one girl even got killed a few years ago, but nobody seems to care. The locals don't think much of those hurdes of young tourists coming here for the tubing, walking around drunk and half naked, but at the same time they all make their money of them. So there is NO WAY that they will stop the exploitation of the 'tubing'. I hadn't heard of it untill I arrived there, but some people came all the way from Thailand or Cambodia JUST for the tubing! I met a guy who had been there for a week, going tubing EVERY day!
I had a fun day, met 3 girls that came along, but it would have been more fun if I had my own friends around. I don't like loosing control on my own, so I kept it nice and clean... :-D
Apart from the tubing Vang Vieng has more to offer thanks to it's surroundings. The scenery is just amazing; the mountain peaks, the river! You can go climbing, kayaking, swimming in the blue lagoon (which I did of course), biking... But my time is limited and so I only stayed three days and then I came to Vientiane. Vientiane is the capital of Laos and after falling in love with Luang Prabang (the old capital), I was expecting a lot. Well, don't do that! Vientiane is soulless and has absolutely NOTHING to offer. It's full of tourists, a lot of them just passing through or doing a Visa-run in order to stay in Thailand. It has the river but they don't really exploit it so it's not really an attraction. There is a morning market, but it's just like a mall. There is a lot of shopping for fake goods; Burberry, Lacoste... but there is nothing original to find. I actually need a bag and have not been able to find one without a brand on it. It's pretty expensive here in comparison with Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng and there's also more hostility and ripping off. I heard quit a few stories about people getting robbed 'cos they have quit a lot of problems with drugs here. And so my general opinion is that if you have to be here as part of continuing your travels, it's okay, but don't consider this a must-do. There's better places to go!
That said, I have to admit that I had one of my best meals so far. There's a Belgian restaurant and last night I had 'ballekes in tomatesaus met frietjes en mayonnaise'! Mmmm, perfect meal and after that I just went to my room and watched some romantic movie. Just like being at home! Haha!
I like Laos. I hope to come back one day and visit the South which is said to be even more beautiful. But there's no challenge in traveling here. Maybe the challenge would have been to go to the little villages, and that's something I will have to find out next time. This time I'm satisfied with the time off, the relaxing, the 'holiday'. But I'm getting bored now and so it's time to go! Tonight I'm back on a nighttrain... where to? Bangkok for the weekend and then it's off to Nepal!

woensdag 2 maart 2011

From China to Laos...

Kunming is beautiful and I had a wonderful time there. I walked around all day, every day just visiting some sights, but mainly I was 'people-watching'. Oh yes, my favourite thing to do! Chinese come in all sizes and shapes and they decorate themselves in the most crazy outfits. The park is generally the best place to go and in Kunming it was no different. Chinese go to the park to dance and sing and play music, and the atmosphere is just so nice. Of course they asked me a few times to join in, but I'm a big enough attraction as it is that I have no desire to hit the spotlight even more. But they're so sweet about it and they all let me take pictures, amazing!
I ended up staying in Kunming a little longer than I planned, because I had some bank-trouble. But after two days it was all sorted and I was ready to go. Not before saying goodbye to my 'posse' though. Hahaa! Despite the large number of young people in my Hostel I spent all my time hanging out with these 3 older gentlemen. All between 47 and 60 and all VERY experienced travelers. I had such a good time and the stories they had to tell... mindblowing! And I felt pretty honoured that they enjoyed my company just as much as I enjoyed theirs! And who knows... one day our paths might cross again!
And then finally it was time to go to Laos. Against some people's advice I booked a nightbus going straight from Kunming to Luang Prabang, the largest city in the north. They told me it would take 24 hours but it was a 'good bus'. Sleeper, which means I would have a bed. So I arrived in the busstation and of course had no idea where to go. Everything was in two languages, but it was Chinese and Laon. Have you tried reading Laon? That's even harder! So where to go? Fortunately the police, yes again the police, was so friendly and they sat me down, asked information all over the place and finally braught me to the right bus. Most people were already waiting and it was a nice crowd of older Chinese men and women, smoking their cigarettes and metal pipes, eating (of course, Chinese are always eating) and they were so friendly. I bought food for the long busride, but no drinks. So they sent me back to a shop outside the station. They talked to a security officer so he would let me back in by skipping a second security-check. They made it so easy for me. Haha! :-D And then off we went. I got up really early that morning so I would be able to sleep on the bus and so I did. We left at 6:30 pm and after the first stop around 8:00 pm I fell asleep. A stop at midnight gave me the chance to go to the bathroom... well, bathroom... I wouldn't exactly call it that. Let's say 'gave me the chance to pee'.
And then I didn't wake up anymore till 7:30 am when we were right before the border. A last 'clean-up-stop', changing some money, getting your passports out and off we went. It all went very smooth. The Chinese side is just a stamp and there were no difficulties. And then in Laos, I was a bit scared that my application might take up a lot of time and that the others might have to wait for me. Well, no! My Visa was issued in 10 minutes, I got my stamp even before some of the other passangers and since I had nothing to declare, I was ready to go. But not the bus! Because apparently some people were bringing in stuff to sell and 'gifts' for family, so customs took their time to get it all sorted. About 3 to 4 hours to be exact! And there I was, in the burning sun, after already 14 hours on a bus, waiting, not knowing why! Luckily I was not the only foreigner on the bus, a Canadian guy had joined us too and so at least I had someone to talk to. Finally it was time and we went back on the bus, for about 10 minutes. Because the driver had to eat and so we all had to wait again. So was it NOW time to go? Yes, the bus continued for about... 20 minutes?! And then the bus stopped along the road, in the middle of nowhere, and the drivers... well, they were nowhere to be seen. What? It was so hot at this time, mid-day, that I was just not able to stay in the bus. And so everybody was standing on one side of the bus, the shady side to get a bit of freshness. After 1 hour and 20 minutes we decided to walk a bit further down the road to check out if we could buy some cool drinks and of course right at that time, the drivers came back. Quickly we bought something and hopped back on the bus, this time for the finish!
The roads in Laos are not bad for Asia, but they're pretty wobbely and we were driving through the mountains, so that means a lot of 'up and down', 'right to left'... and then all of a sudden a big bang! What?! The bus stopped immediately and some people went outside to check what happened. We first thought it was a flat tire, but after 5 minutes everybody got back on the bus and we just started driving again. Nothing special then, hey? Haha! Well, this is Asia. Three hours later we arrived in Odoumxai and after stopping at the busstation, they went straight to a garage. Yes, we DID have a flat tire. It was the inner back tire. Apparently the bus can hold it without this tire (then why does it have it?), but now they stopped to fix it. Again... waiting!
In the end the busride took 28,5 hours and we arrived in Luang Prabang at 10 pm. The Canadian had nothing booked and neither did I, so we shared a tuktuk to the centre. A lot of places were full and so we ended up walking a fair bit up and down, with our backpacks, and unlike in China it is REALLY hot here in Laos. Finally we bargained a room for 15 euro and when we entered, we couldn't believe it. It is beautiful! A wooden house, wooden floors, aircon, tv, a super-kingsize bed and a large single bed. Matthew was a real gentleman and offered me the big bed! Wow, this was well worth the money!
Now I'm still in Luang Prabang. Matthew moved on, but I'm still fully enjoying my super-kingsize bed and my super hot shower... It's so beautiful here and so relaxed that I can't seem to be bothered moving! I do the sights, one every day ( temples, caves, museums)... and then I do... "nothing", for the rest of the day. I go swimming in the lagoon or go to the pool of this really fancy hotel (that only costs me 2 euro), go for a massage or sit around in some cafe-backyard reading a book... In fact, I'm already late for meeting the 'girls'! Yep, there's three Australian women in my Guest House, all my age and all enjoying the slow pace of Luang Prabang just as much as me. So I have to go, we're meeting for drinks!  ;-)) 

zondag 20 februari 2011

Did I really make it to Kunming? ;-)

My last day in Sanya was a beatiful one. 30 degrees and the sun was shining. So I went to the beach, a Chinese beach. And that means when the Chinese make something their own, they add tons of kitsch. Yep, floating tyres, airmatrasses, floating bubbles, pedalboats, parasailing, hawaiian outfits... it was all there. I for one have never seen a beach turned into an adult playground like the one in Sanya. It was hilarious. Except maybe the big telelens camera's pointing in my direction... that was more uncomfortable than hilarious. But in the end it was worth it. At night we had a little birthday celebration for one of the other guests at my hostel and we ended up going to the beach at midnight watching the fireworks! A perfect ending to my sunny day!
Friday was the day I was gonna get off the Island. I got that busticket out from Haikou and so all I had to do was go to the East busstation at 6pm where my bus would leave at 7pm. Easy! Or so I tought.
You see, getting to Hainan was very easy. I took a nighttrain in Guangzhou and when we got to the sea, they loaded the whole train on a ferry bringing us across to the Island. Yeah, it was a bit stormy that day, but in the end I didn't have to do anything except stay in bed and get off in Haikou trainstation. I figured that once I get on that bus, it would be smooth sailing like that again. Little did I know! ;-)
Noon in Sanya I decided to already catch a train to Haikou. Way to early, but something told me it's better to be early than late. When I got to the trainstation there were hundreds of people waiting at the ticket office. I see a short line, not sure why nobody is taking that one, but I go. The military agents waiting in that same line just smile at me and one even allows me to go first. I don't know if I'm actually allowed to be in that line, but it saves me a whole lot of waiting! Haha! And when soldiers are okay with it... who will dare to say something! ;-)
It turns out all the trains are full and the one at 4:15 pm is the earliest one I can take. That means I won't get to Haikou till 5:40 pm. That's close, but I figure if I take a taxi everything will be okay. When I arrive in Haikou I'm first out the train, I run downstairs to the taxistand and nope... nobody wants to take me. What is wrong? I can't ask anyone, they can't explain it to me, so there is only one solution: keep trying. I wave my ticket around and taxi after taxi signals me 'no' untill finally one stops and he will take me for 40 yuan. A rip-off, but I have to get there... now! It's 6 pm, so no time to waste. But how do you explain that you are already late when you don't speak a common language. The bastard picks up two more people and drops them off first. I see 6:30 pm on the clock and all kinds of disaster scenarios start popping up in my head. I will be stuck here till tuesday, I'm gonna have to pay hundreds of euros for a planeticket... pfff, just hurry! Hurry? The driver asks to see my ticket again because he's not quit sure where he has to take me. Are you kidding me? I think my heart just skipped a beat... Finally at 6:48 pm he drops me off at a place that could be a busstation. I run to the entrance and see at least 100 people in front of me in a line. No, I'm not gonna make it. A chinese man looks at my ticket and starts talking to me pointing in a different direction and he finally brings me to a policeofficer that points towards a bus parking lot. They both actually look more nervous than me now, yelling and pointing in that direction. So I rush there and start making my way in between the busses. It's like a videogame. The busses are parked so close to each other that sometimes I have to go back 'cos my backpack can't get through. I ask drivers the way showing my ticket and they all point to the front of the busstand. What? All I can come up with is that my bus left and is somewhere in this lot, so I have to look for it, and how do you do that not reading Chinese?! Finally the driver of the first bus points at a small building on the right that has 2 busses parked in front of it. Hallelujah! I think...
No, it's not my bus. So where is my bus? I don't know because they keep explaining me in Chinese, and all I can understand is that I have to wait there. It's 7:05 pm... wait for what? The next bus, tomorrow? There's nothing else to do but to just stay there now, at least so I can calm down a bit and think of a solution. But finally at 7:20 pm they all start laughing and pointing... my bus has arrived! Time to go! Time to go? Really, that easy? Pff, think again!
I meet my 'group'; 6 giggling girls, 12 giggling boys, 2 women, 6 men and me, the tourist! Yep, they all have to laugh and have a closer look at me before we can proceed. Ha! We get a ticket and in group we have to leave the bus. It turns out this is not a busstation, but the ferry terminal. And so I skipped all checkpoints and stuff, but everything is okay, I can join them now. At least now I know why they were all laughing when I finally arrived! They tought I got lost because I didn't get on where they got on. Silly tourist! ;-)
We have to board the ferry on foot and then on the mainland the bus will pick us up again. Okay, let's go then. And we're off to the ferry... passport check first... me holding up the line because I'm the only one with a 'weird' passport, and then we reach the waiting room. Yep, the biggest waiting room I've ever seen in my life. I'm not kidding, there is sitting space for at least 1200 people and the people standing must be at least the same amount. WHAT??? They all go first and then we go, they tell us that we might have to wait an hour or two, but it turns into 4,5 hours. It isn't till midnight that we can go!
It's just crazy. Nobody seems to be bothered by this, they are extremely patient and every time a ferry leaves, the passengers have to stand in 2 straight lines. Like in the playground in school, and everybody does it. Talk about obedience!! Unbelieveable!
Me, I've got 3 guardian Angels. 3 men in their fourties are watching out for me. They call me when it's time to move, they point me to a seat on the ferry, they show me where I can smoke... no, we don't 'speak but there's a whole lot of 'communication' going on!
2 am we reach the other side and my eyes are heavy. We wait for the bus and of course ours is the one that gets stuck with the bottom on the boat... it's too close to the ground and they have to use extra boards to elevate it. There's a crowd looking at the dent, but I can't be bothered. Please, let me get on the bus and go go go!!! I sleep the whole way through and at 9 am we reach Nanning.
Cold, raining, even less English signs than before... what to do?! Well, first of all I'm getting my ticket to Kunming, leaving as soon as possible. I get a taxi and this time they are so sweet. I always show my destination in Chinese in the Lonely Planet and here it takes 3 of them to tell each other where to go, even the police gets involved! Well, it's not every day that you can get up close to a Westerner here! :-D
And then the trainstation. I wait in line, only 45 minutes and when I ask 'today' 'kunming'... she tells me '100 yuan' 'standing'... WHAT? That's 12 hours of standing! I want to get to Kunming, but standing up for 12 hours? No way, so I start waving and somehow she gets my point and says I can still go 'first class'. For 288 yuan! Oh yeah, give me that ticket!
My God, only 6 more hours and I'll be on that train to Kunming. I spend the day walking around in Nanning, finally buying a warm jacket. The eskimo-look is in fashion right now and when I bump into a real bargain, only 10 euro, I finally look just like them. Or well, a bit more like them. Nanning is sweet. Twice people come up to me to "Welcome in China! Hope you have nice time!" And no, they are not selling anything or want something from me. They could be spies for the Party... who knows, letting me know they are following me?! Ha! I don't care. How many countries have you been to where the people in the street come up to you to welcome you in their country?! How many?! No, none!! Only in China! And while I'm waiting for the train this familly starts feeding me mandarins and dried meat, which I decline, but they are so sweet. When I put on my backpack grandma is the first one to help me. She's 1.5 meter, bent from working too hard, at least 75 years old... but she helps me with my backpack! Adorable! ;-)
The trainride is smooth and earlier than expected I arrive in Kunming. It's 5 in the morning and all I have to do is go to the hostel. Eeeuh, it's dark and cold and early. So I have something to eat first and when it's 6:15 am I finally take a taxi to the hostel. Or at least, I was really close. The taxi dropped me off in the street but no hostel in sight. I start asking to the nightguards and in a fancy hotel, but no one seems to know this hostel. Goddamned! It's cold, I'm tired, this is a bit creepy. So I decide to rest in a breakfast restaurant and wait for the sun to rise. Finally at 8 o'clock I find it. I was so close all morning, but that little corner is the one I didn't turn... Well, I'm here, finally and... they're full?! Pfff, I just can't be bothered right now. First breakfast and coffee! When I ask them to call another hostel, they find me a bed! Now, I can relax! I have arrived in Kunming! I'm not hurt, not robbed, I'm still alive... a bit tired and full of stories, but I feel very good! Once again I made it without Chinese and the Chinese did nothing less than show me respect, take care of me and help me in any way they can!!

donderdag 17 februari 2011

Everything seems to change, except the food...

This is my second trip in China and I'm happy I came back. A lot has changed since that time and it's almost like you can "see" changes happening, that's how fast it is all going. China is gradually opening up its borders and their economy is booming. It's unbelieveable to see how rich some Chinese people are. If you wander around in the malls, the prices are the same as Europe, but more customers are spending! Also tourism is growing, and right now China focusses primarely on Chinese tourism. They have money to spend and where better to do that than in China, their own country. Who needs the rest of the world?! ;-)
So the rich are getting richer in China just like in the rest of the world, but the poor are starting to benefit too. Although they have to fight for it! The worker is becoming rare in China and therefor more powerful; the population is very old and for every 3 people that retire, there is only 1 to take it's place. So if three factories want you, you'll go to the one paying the most. And that is where China is right now. Workers are becoming rare and so they get to pick the factory where they want to work. So the wages are going up and there is some kind of competition going on between the factories. Another issue for the industry is finding 'skilled' people. Apparently China doesn't really give any importance to the quality of what they manufacture, it just has to be cheap. But because of various situations in the past, giving China a bad reputation (the poisonous plastic for children's toys, bad milk...) the factory owners are becoming more carefull, especially when it comes to export. You see, the party doens't order them to produce better quality, but everybody knows what happens if you damage their reputation abroad! Now, to do that, they need skilled people and they have to pay for that. So working class is slowly becoming what we would consider the middle class. It's early days yet, but changes can't be stopped!
I know China has problems with Human Rights, but I have to admit that it is not the communist Island where all the peasants walk around in their Mao-uniform. Those days are over and the government is acknowledging this. If there is one advantage they have over most other countries, it's that they have long term vision. And of course the ability to stay in power long enough to change that vision into reality. I think China is exactly where it is supposed to be and exactly where the government wants it to be. It seems like an impossible task to manage a country of 1.3 billion people, but they are doing it in China and many Chinese think they are doing a good job. I almost feel guilty for saying something good about the Chinese government, but I can not deny that the situation is not as black and white as international media and politics proclaim.  
Western tourism is growing a bit too, but most Westerns come here to study or teach or do business. The 'pure' tourist like me is rather rare. One obvious reason for that is the lack of English, still. Chinese just don't speak it. Even when they are able to read and write and they learn it in school or at the university... they have a big problem speaking it. But there are ways to cope with that. It's amazing how creative you become in finding other ways to interact. I always prepare myself and have stuff written down in Chinese by others or I show people the Chinese in the Lonely Planet, I use my hands, face and body a lot, I even use mimicking sounds... everything that helps, and I get by! I really do. Most other Westerns don't really understand how I can cope without Chinese. Untill they tag along with me for a day and then they see how well I can 'interact' with them. I guess it is a lot easier with a bit of Chinese, but it's not impossible without! ;-)
I do have to admit that in Haikou I was very, VERY happy that 2 Chinese-speaking guys accompanied me in my search for a way off this island. When I arrived in Haikou someone trying to leave, found out that EVERY ferry is fully booked untill the 24th. The Chinese New Year is coming to an end and so everybody is keen on getting back home to work or to go to school. So that would mean, you can not get off this Island untill the 24th. Except flying. Now, I don't like flying and it became so expensive over the past few days, that I wanted to go and search for another 'way out'! We went to a trainticket office and there they told us everything was full. Even flight tickets were no longer available for the days that I wanted to leave. Finally we found a small busticket office and there she told me everything was full, for thursday. But here comes the typical Chinese part... Chinese people have not learnt to think for themselves. They lack creativity and flexibility. So if you ask if you can buy a busticket off the Island... they will not tell you what your possibilities are. They will ask you 'where' you want to go, 'when' you want to go, 'how' you want to go... and if you ask them a very concrete question, they will be able to answer with 'yes' or 'no'. So I asked first if I could go on Thursday... No. Maybe Wednesday... No. Friday... Hallelujah, we have a winner! Yes. I could buy a ticket for Friday! Now all of this takes a lot of talking and thank God I had friends to do that for me. If I had been alone, maybe I would have managed, but it would have taken me more than just one hour.
Right now I'm still in Hainan, but in the Southern part. I was up North first, but it was very cold and rainy there. I got sick there, coughing and fever, because I didn't really have any warm and dry clothes. Now in Sanya it's at least hot, 27 degrees. The sun is playing hide and seek, but it's so warm that you spend all your time outside anyway.
Tonight is the last night of the New Year. It ends with the first full moon and apparently that is tonight. There will be BBQ's everywhere and here in the hostel they are getting ready for some party. I' ve got my earpluggs ready, because there is gonna be some heavy fireworks all through the night! ;-)
And talk about BBQ, if there is one thing the Chinese are not giving up, it's their food. They seem to be nibbeling on something ALL the time. Their mouths chew even when they are talking or sleeping. Wether it's a piece of meat or fruit or beans... they always have something in their hand or pocket. They've got some really weird stuff to eat here and despite the disapproval from the international community, they still have dog, turtle, monkey and other animals on their menu. It's been their menu for ages and they are not giving it up. I still haven't tried any dog, but some crazy girl from Shanghai took us out to dinner in Guangzhou and she fed me all kinds of intestines, stomach, liver... I was the only one who was willing to try and the Chinese loved it! And I have to admit some things tasted pretty good. I'm looking forward to seeing what the BBQ has to offer tonight! :-D