‘Your Wildest Adventure’ is a series featuring the most thrilling experiences from travel writers jaunting around the world. This week’s edition is a story about crossing borders in Asia, but they’re not just physical ones but psychological ones as well. Ben Colclough from the Tourdust adventure travel blog runs an adventure tour operator and has a wealth of travel knowledge and experience to share.
Photo by kristupa
Sapa to Kunming – A Wild Border Crossing
Sapa was a welcome respite after the bustle of Hanoi. The crisp high altitude air and incredibly picturesque terraced valley provided a tranquil colonial atmosphere. Trekking in Sapa was superb and enhanced by the unusual costumes of the eight local ethnic groups – the most prominent being the Red Dao, recognizable for their coin-dangling head-dresses and delicately embroidered waist coats.
At the time there was a remarkably un-touristy vibe to the place, but unfortunately that seems to have changed in recent years. We ate regularly in a simple restaurant whose friendly owner frequently embarrassed me in one sided chess and connect 4 battles.
Photo by Passetti
Eventually it was time to leave Vietnam and head for China. We chose to catch a bus to the border and then onto the overnight bus up to Kunming. It was mentioned in my guidebook as feasible so we thought little of it. The border was one of those typically intimidating affairs, consisting of a large bridge crossing a river with armed guards massed at either end. After clearing the first post we were beckoned to walk the bridge.
An Unnerving Crossing into China
We strolled slowly, the only moving parts on a bridge, with what felt like hundreds of armed guns ready to punish any false move. At last a Vietnamese guard stepped in front of us and demanded our passports again. He studied them, scratched his head, studied them again, spoke to us in Vietnamese and then studied them again for an unfeasibly long time. Unsure whether this was an invitation to slip some money across, our innate nervousness simply rendered us immobile. Eventually he returned our passports and let us through – little did we know this was only the beginning of our adventure.
Rural China differs from most of SE Asia in that it is simply far more impenetrable. Very few people speak English, signs, menus and names are written only in Chinese script – so any attempt at recognizing a string of characters and comparing to the guide book was simply beyond this simple mind. Our first challenge was to secure Chinese currency, our second was to find the bus station in time for the overnighter.
Hekou is a small town – but easily big enough to get lost, we eventually found a bank and approached the teller. She didn’t speak English so we were invited in to talk to the friendly bank manager. He reliably informed us that the only way to change dollars in Hekou was via the black market – he must have noticed our unease and incredibly agreed to accompany and aid us in our black market transaction.
Wallets bulging with fresh notes (which the whole town had seen us acquire) we proceeded towards the bus station – no easy task with signs only in Chinese script. As we struggled around hopelessly lost aware the minutes were ticking down, Anna (my other half) stepped unwisely into an uncovered man-hole and badly twisted her ankle. This could only go two ways: tears or an argument, luckily (for me at least) it went to the former and an onlooker, out of pity, volunteered to lead us to the bus station – only after we had performed some seriously world class bus impressions with arms manically whirling round in circles – a movement I’d not employed since pre school days singing along to “the wheels on the bus go round and round…”.
Winding through Rural China
The bus itself was the first and only time I have slept on a true sleeper bus. It consisted of rows of aluminum bunk beds bolted to the floor – no upright seats and certainly no seat belts. In a moment of incredulity we spotted the fuel tank, perched behind the driver with a plastic tube connecting it via the window to the engine below, laughing in the face of almost certain death we proceeded to make ourselves comfortable and settled down for a good nap.
The journey took us via a tortuously winding route to the lower lying city of Kunming. In the middle of the night the bus pulled to a stop. Without notice, police boarded, woke us abruptly and ordered us off. After another half hour of mysterious and studious interrogation of our passports accompanied by the usual chin scratching, shaking of heads and tut-tuts that seem to be part and parcel of every border guards weaponry we were cleared through. We sheepishly climbed back on board – acutely aware we were responsible for holding up the bus full of people.
The final drama of the night was yet to come. As the sun began to set our driver pulled to a stop on a steep switch-back mountain road. With much remonstrating (and a deeply concerning look of worry about him) he pointed to a mound of rubble in the middle of the road ahead – landslide. What proceeded can only be described as chaos.
As one by one the Chinese passengers argued with the driver to stop being such a sissy and get on with it, a rumbling from the hill-side proceeded a cloud of dust, rubble and boulders which struck the bus broadside. The bus shook violently, but appeared to still be upright and without a word of warning the quick witted driver slammed his foot on the accelerator and got the hell out of their sharpies.
From here on in I slept the deepest sleep I’ve ever had on a bus. We gorged on steaming roadside noodles as dawn broke and eventually fell into our hotel bed in the wonderful city of Kunming, relieved to be alive and eager to explore the slightly more accessible side of China.
Ben Colclough runs the adventure travel company Tourdust.com. Tourdust specializes in local tours and adventure holidays for independent travellers. If you’re looking for an adventure tour that goes beyond conventions, then this is the operator you should go to. You can follow his travel writing on the Tourdust adventure travel blog.
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