Adventures in China

It rained a lot of the night and I was a little concerned about the balloon inflation the next day in the middle of Vang Vieng. It was cloudy, but not raining the following morning and we decided to bring the inflation of the balloon forward from the afternoon to the morning. We headed to the old runway that the US Airforce used during the Vietnam War, (which is now the middle of town). The clouds cleared and the sun came out as we arrived. Around 50 kids from the local school were picked up and brought so they could see the balloon. We gave them a bottle of water each, a CD of a popular Laos children’s show and some stickers.
I inflated the balloon and had it up for around an hour. The kids looked wide-eyed at it and asked me questions. The local UNICEF staff translated for me. Photos were taken and the balloon was brought down just before the wind began. Some Australian tourist helped me pack the balloon up. It was very handy they were there and willing to help. Later in the day big thunderstorms rolled in, so we did the inflation at the perfect time.

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I left Vang Vieng after a celebratory lunch with the UNICEF team and press, and headed for Luang Prabang. About 50kms out of Vang Vieng, I noticed the engine temperature rising. I stopped and checked the water in the radiator. Luckily I stopped by a stream so I could fill the radiator. I was shocked to see how much water I had to pour in. Water starting to come out and after further investigation, found a crack. I managed to limp the vehicle down the road where I found a petrol station. I drove it under cover and lifted the cab of the truck to see if there were further problems. There weren’t. A huge thunderstorm struck and I was happy to have found the station as they are few and far between.
I called a couple of people and used a translator to ask the owner of the petrol station whether there was a place to fix it. He said there was and it could be done the following morning as it was late in the day. He invited me for a meal with his family, which was very kind of him.

The mechanic arrived at 6.30am and efficiently took out the radiator. The owner of the petrol station took me 10kms down the road to get the radiator fixed. It took 10mins to fix and we headed back and the mechanic put it back in. I was on my way by 9am. The owner of the station didn’t want any payment for running me around. I was very appreciative and I gave an Upin toy to his young son.

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I decided to take a new, shorter Chinese-built road. It was one of the steepest roads I have ever been on and was wondering whether I had made a good decision. Just before the start of the climb, a massive pile of stones blocked the road. The week before the road had been closed due to flooding and slips. The road was covered in 3m of stones that the river had swept in. The huge pile of rocks was being cleared, but a rough path had been made over the top.

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I climbed and climbed very slowly in first gear. Just before the top, there was a huge slip which had occurred recently. They decided to make a track right over the slip. I was a little concerned due to it looking a bit unstable and on the other side of it was about a 500m drop, but I had come so far and the track they had made looked OK. I had to put the truck into low range to get up the track, it was definitely more than the 12% grade they stated for the rest of the road. Some vehicles would struggle to get up it.

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I made it to the top after a continuous climb of over an hour.  I eventually reached the original road to Luang Prang and arrived there around 1pm. I had lunch and had a quick look around the old town. It is a beautiful town with old buildings and temples, with the Mekong River flowing through it.

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The road is very scenic after Luang Prabang and follows the Mekong River for quite a way. Laos is still very agricultural and many people live in villages. It is interesting to pass through the many small villages. People generally have electricity, but no running water. There is often a communal tap or pipe from a stream and they use it to bathe and collect water. Kids are out and about playing football and other games. Not a computer or smartphone in sight.

Around dusk, I reached a small town where I would have to turn onto another road the following day. I parked in yet another petrol station and had dinner at a very local eatery down the road.

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I left early the following morning. The road immediately became potholed and was steep and windy. The Chinese have just started to reseal and improve it. It will take quite a while to finish I imagine. There were countless slips, which are an ever present battle on many roads in Laos as the land is slip-prone. The road was closed for a time the week before and sometimes I would have to stop as they were still clearing slips. The guys do a great job at clearing the road fast and efficiently.

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I came across an Israeli backpacker, Boris, in a very remote village. He was backpacking through Asia for 4 months. I offered him a lift as he was also travelling to the Chinese border. He had been doing it quite rough. Judging by his smell, he was in need of a good shower. I took him for around 50kms to the nearest biggest town. He was happy to hitchhike from there as he didn’t need to be at the Chinese border for a few days. We had an interesting chat and he told me of his adventures around Asia.

From there, I travelled another 50kms to the Chinese border, and reached it in the middle of the afternoon.  The town is very small and has an area of houses which look to be made of cardboard boxes. I assume truck drivers stay in them, and was a strange sight to see.  I had a look around the small town and had dinner at a local restaurant, where I was the centre of attention for the truck drivers eating there.

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I went through Customs on the Laos side at around 8am the next day, then drove 6kms to the actual border crossing. I left Laos and drove down the road to the much bigger Chinese border crossing. The truck had to be driven through a spray, and then I parked up and went to immigration. My guide, (Cui Wen) was waiting for me and we waited for the immigration officer to call the district police to make sure all was in order for the truck to enter. To travel through China with a foreign vehicle, you must be accompanied by a ‘guide’, who must stay with you wherever you travel. It is very expensive to get all the permissions, hence why I don’t intend to stay in China for long. It takes around two months to organise everything.

We did the necessary paperwork and all was done in around 1.5hrs. We drove to the nearby town of Shangyongzhen to try to find an ATM. I couldn’t find an ATM that would dispense cash for foreigners. I had run into the same problem when I had visited China before.

We carried on and reached the town of Mengla around lunchtime. We had lunch and waited for the traffic police station to open. They were going to check that my truck was safe, plus issue me with a Chinese number plate and driving licence. The process was straightforward and didn’t take too long. It seemed the truck check was to drive as fast as they could in a short distance then slam the brakes on as hard as they could.

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We left Mengla and reached the city of Puer just after dusk and stayed at the Chinese equivalent of a roadhouse. We ate at a restaurant there, filled up the truck’s water tanks and had an early night.

The following morning, I noticed the radiator was once again leaking. It wasn’t bad so I topped it up with water and we went on our way. Down the road I was wondering why steam was pouring out of the radiator reservoir behind the cab, like a steam engine. I realised that I must’ve forgot to put the cap on. I pulled over and my guess was correct. I limped the truck 10kms down the road to the nearest town, highly annoyed with myself as I knew the radiator cap would be hard to find. We found a mechanic and we searched for a radiator cap. I thought I may as well fix the radiator while I was there. When the cab was lifted, the radiator cap fell out. I was relieved.

They lifted the radiator out and took it to another place to get it fixed. The boss of the garage invited us for lunch while we waited. We gratefully accepted his invitation and went to a nearby restaurant with a couple of his friends. It is rare to see a foreigner in that particular town, Ninger. We had a great couple of hours and even had a couple of shots of the Chinese rice wine, Baijo. I told them I had to drive later and couldn’t drink more.

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The radiator was almost in when we got back and after a quick truck wash, we were on our way. 60kms down the road, at the top of a largish hill, I decided to pull over and check to see whether all was OK with the truck. When almost coming to a stop, the truck completely died. I was worried as the engine wouldn’t even turn over when trying to start it again.

I managed to start it by rolling it back in gear. It continued very slowly for a short time, but was making horrible noises. The truck died again and couldn’t be restarted. We called the mechanic we had just visited in Ninger and asked if he knew of any mechanics. There was a mechanic only 500m away. We called him and he came for five minutes, said he didn’t know what to do, and left. We called the workshop again and the owner, (Mr Dom) said he would come out. It was dark by the time he and another mechanic arrived. They discovered the starter motor had completely died and there was nothing they could do but tow it back to the workshop. Luckily he owned a couple of tow trucks and he called one out. While we waited, we took the starter motor apart. It was obliterated. The wires inside were completely mashed up and burnt out. If you look at the bright side of a situation like that, it was lucky I had left the radiator cap off that morning and found the workshop. The starter motor would’ve died down the road anyway and we would really be stuck with no one to turn to.

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The police came two times and checked to see all was OK. I didn’t have an emergency reflector triangle, so I did it the Chinese way and put small branches down the road before the truck to warn others that we were broken down. A couple of hours later the biggest tow truck I have ever seen turned up. It was the highlight of my day. The truck was hooked up and slowly made its way back to Ninger. I went with Mr Dom in his car, with Cui Wen.

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We arrived at 12am and Mr Dom found a place for us to eat. We ate possibly my most exotic meal ever, Pig’s brain and snails. I was invited to the other tables in the restaurant to have a drink with them. Some had never seen a foreigner before.  We were called when the truck arrived into town and we headed back to the workshop. We stayed in the truck that night as the truck’s engine doesn’t affect the living quarters. The next morning we spent a lot of time trying to locate a starter motor. We found a second-hand one in Thailand and ordered it. A big problem was that I was supposed to be in Mianyang, 1300kms away, a day later to inflate the balloon at an event for UNICEF. I decided the show must go on, and would rent a pick-up and drive there with the balloon. Taking the truck was out of the question. The date for the event couldn’t be moved. Once again Mr Dom helped out and located a rental vehicle for us in Puer. The car was delivered for us and we were on our way at 4.30pm.

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We drove only to refuel for the next 21hours. I drove around 80% of the time and Cui Wen drove when I was tired. I slept for around two hours. After a lot of difficulty to find the hotel close to Mianyang, we arrived at around 3pm. We met the UNICEF China staff and local helpers and were told that they think it would be better to inflate the balloon that afternoon. I was all ready prepared that that might happen as I had said that the forecast for the next morning was not great.
I had a quick shower and we were off to the school in rural Sichuan. It was in a spectacular valley and was one of the worst affected areas of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. 10% of the 8000 villagers died and it was completely cut off. Some of the men from the village climbed over the very steep mountains to get help. The village was bulldozed and the government built a completely new town, as they did for many other towns in Sichuan Province. Around 70,000 people died in the 2008 earthquake.

I was surprised when we arrived; around 500 cheering and waving people were waiting for us. I had lots of help to inflate the balloon. The kids had made postcards and we did an exchange with ones I had received from kids in previously visited countries. I was asked a lot of questions and I flew the balloon on a rope a few metres off the ground.  The site was next to a child-friendly space, set up by UNICEF. These are set up in towns, especially after a natural disaster, where kids can go and play safely.

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After around 45 minutes the children had to go as it was the end of their school day. It was great to have such an enthusiastic crowd.

An old lady came over to me very excitedly during the inflation of the balloon and even helped during the pack up. I was later told that she was 83 years old and had been evacuated by helicopter off the roof of her house after the earthquake. I assume her house was destroyed. She was full of energy and very bubbly.

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After the event, we went back to the hotel and had dinner. I was happy to finally get to bed that night.

I caught up with the UNICEF staff before they left and we left late the morning. The big Autumn Festival was going to start the next day. It is a week-long holiday for China and the roads are very busy as people go home to celebrate it, so I was keen to hit the road.

I decided to look for a place to leave the balloon as I didn’t want to take it back down, and then up again. I picked the town of Suining and looked for a place to leave it. It wasn’t very difficult, we only had to ask at two places. It was left in a compound next to a 24hr guard, which had the traffic police and a couple of businesses in.

We continued on our way and decided to keep going as we wanted to beat the traffic as best we could the following day. The road is great and is a real feat of engineering. I can’t imagine how many billions were spent building the many bridges and tunnels that make the four lane highway. There is a section of 100kms which is not yet complete and I wasn’t looking forward to going over it. The road is single lane each way and drivers constantly overtake on blind corners, making it extremely dangerous. I can’t imagine how many accidents occur each year on that stretch of road, we witnessed countless near misses. At least there was no chance of falling asleep at the wheel.
From around 11am, it was like someone had turned on the traffic tap. Oncoming cars streamed towards us as people had finished work in nearby Kunming and headed on holiday. It was almost bumper to bumper and made driving hazardous as everyone was trying to overtake each other. Luckily we had completed most of the bad section by then. We saw police and ambulances racing away from us, and can only assume there was an accident.

We stopped for a power nap after Yuxi and completed the last 300kms to Ninger. We arrived there at 9.30am. I had to catch up on e-mails and after finishing, was going to have a sleep, as I had only slept 30mins the night before. Mr Dom had other ideas. He came and asked us to go to a wedding of one of his mechanics. At first we said no, but he convinced us to go. We piled into his car and off we went into the mountains. The road became a dirt track and we had to cross a stream. It was a spectacular drive. The village was on top of a mountain and we arrived on time to see the Bride and Groom entering the Groom’s Parents’ house. We were given snacks and sat around and talked. It then poured with rain, lasting for around 45mins. It didn’t dampen the spirits of the couple of hundred who were there though.

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People were surprised to see a foreigner there and they took photos of me. Some practised their English. We had a great dinner and drank Baijo with all the mechanics from the workshop. I learnt some new card games and got taught a local dance. We left at around 10am, very tired, but pleased we had gone.

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The starter motor for the truck should arrive tomorrow. Once it is installed, we will have a few very long driving days ahead to get to Mongolia.

About the author: Andrew Parker

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