A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: grasshopper

On a Rocket Train through China

sunny 30 °C
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It sounds a bit naff but one of my favourite things about China was the trains, at least as I experienced them. Not so much the stations. There were security checks on bags for every single train and underground station. As if the queues weren't long enough already.

The T-series (middle-tier) train from Nanning to Beijing had cleared the city, passed through a couple of hills and valleys of varied crops before any other train I've been on would have got out of the suburbs. The terrain in Southern China was an extension of that further south - myriad hills and valleys. One thing that struck me was the number of tracks in China - it was common to pass under or over bridges of other tracks going in different directions. The carriages themselves joined seamlessly with one another with little indication of rattling over the tracks even though the speed was probably 130-140 km/hr.

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One of my days in Beijing was a bit dreary weather-wise so I took the fast train to the nearby city of Tianjin - 120km to the south. We had a stop on the way out so took a bit longer - 38 minutes. The return was non-stop. Platform to platform in 23 minutes. Top cruising speed of 290km/hr.

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Posted by grasshopper 14:31 Archived in China Comments (1)

Entering the Middle Kingdom

sunny 30 °C
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On leaving Vietnam I chose to travel into China by bus. Mainly because it travelled during the day and I could see the countryside. It is interesting landscape - the hills are like forested stalagmites on a flat plane - somewhat like parts of Southern Thailand.

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The border to China was located in a pass through the hills. The bus from Hanoi finished before the Vietnamese immigration and we took taxi carts across the border. The funniest part was that from Chinese immigration we actually travelled through a tunnel in a wall into China. There was a fenced garden area where the Chinese could venture out through the wall and look at life on the other side.

It was somewhat strange after the assortment of South East Asian roads to be travelling on a real freeway, every bit as good as any in the US. What struck me as we came into Nanning was the amount of construction work. There were literally dozens of high-rise apartment blocks being built, perhaps over a hundred. And the streets seemed relatively empty so I am not sure where all the people were coming from. I reckon crane-leasing business would do well in China. There is talk that the construction boom is coming to an end in China. I don't know if it is or not, but I do know - those cranes are still out there by the hundred.

Posted by grasshopper 22:09 Archived in China Comments (0)

Home of Ho Chi Minh

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Many people prefer Hanoi to Saigon, but for me it was the opposite. Hanoi does have a nice lake in town and the residence of Ho Chi Minh, who is credited with freeing Vietnam from French and US occupation. As usual, the most interesting parts of a country are often outside the main cities. In Vietnam I didn't have time to see them.

Lake in Hanoi

Lake in Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh's House

Ho Chi Minh's House

Posted by grasshopper 22:02 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Back on the Train Again

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The train from Saigon to Hanoi was the most basic I’ve been on this trip, reflecting the relative wealth of the countries. I chose “hard sleeper”, which actually was kind of hard - 3 tiers of sleeper. I was on the middle tier which turned out to be just right for looking out the window. The coastal scenery in Central and Northern Vietnam was spectacular, like New Zealand.

Coast line on the way to Hanoi

Coast line on the way to Hanoi

Posted by grasshopper 12:28 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Saigon

all seasons in one day
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Post Office in Saigon

Post Office in Saigon

Sometimes I arrive in a place and I just like it, even against preconceived expectations. I liked Saigon, 10 million people and all, with 5 million motorcycles. Vietnamese are persistent. One rickshaw rider tracked me for 5 blocks trying to persuade me of the merits of getting a ride with him, even though I only had a few minutes walk. Actually I did feel a bit guilty. He needed the dollar more than I did. Another guy followed me down the street insisting that my shoe needed to be glued up “very cheap”. I relented when he got down to a dollar.

The highlight for me was going to the Chu Chi tunnels, the system of underground tunnels and living quarters that the Viet Cong lived in for 17 years during the 50’s and 60’s. The more I learn about their determination and resourcefulness to gain independence for their country from the French and the US, the more I admire them. Not forgetting that they then took down Pol Pot in Cambodia.

Entrance to a Chu Chi Tunnel

Entrance to a Chu Chi Tunnel

Going to the War Museum was heart-wrenching, with respect to seeing the photographic exhibit on the ongoing generational effects of Agent Orange. Also, having seen Pol Pot’s torture chambers, it was sobering to see the torture systems of the South Vietnamese regime (supported by the US) being as or arguably more brutal.

Posted by grasshopper 12:26 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Farewell to the Mekong

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My last experience of the Mekong was the border crossing into Vietnam. After leaving Cambodian immigration I travelled to the Vietnamese border further down the river by boat. That gives me almost the full set of modes of transport across borders - plane, train, bus, boat and by foot.

The boat then carried on to Chau Doc at the top of the Mekong Delta. Here there is a much richer scene of river life than I saw further north. Given more time I would like to have explored this area more.

Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

Posted by grasshopper 21:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Rules of the Road

all seasons in one day
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A Norwegian who had been living in Phnom Penh asked me, “Do you understand the road rules here?”. My reply, “They have rules?”. “I don’t know”.

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam all seem to share similar ideas on how to use the road, but they manifest in their fullest expression in Cambodia. I realised there is one overriding rule of the road - the bigger the vehicle, the greater the right of way. Humans being at the bottom of the scale. As a guide, vehicles drive on the right but that depends a lot on the condition of the road and also convenience. Motorcycles in particular will ride on either side of the road, down one way roads the “wrong” way, through traffic lights, on footpaths and down “walking" streets. Using pedestrian crossings for their intended purpose will lead to a very short life.

Some of the roads in Cambodia are very good, brand new in fact. Others are in the process of being improved, so one side may be sealed and the other side not. So what happens is that everybody uses the sealed part with the motorbikes and tractors dodging the buses and trucks - there are some cars in Cambodia but not lots. Then other roads are dirt with pot-holes - the path of choice is made through - whether it weaves from one side to the other doesn’t matter.

It is obvious that many westerners waste fuel in private cars. What was not obvious to me before is how fuel-inefficient even motorcyclists can be. People ride a motorcycle to work and consider themselves energy-efficient but they’re only scratching the surface. A 125cc bike can easily transport a family of 4 including 2 young children. It can also be used with a wooden blank over the passenger seat to carry boxes, piled high and roped down. It can be used to move house. And when a tow-bar and trailer are installed, the possibilities are endless. Furniture, timber, sacks of seed, bales of crop, containers of fuel can all be transported, loaded up beyond what any non-existent safety regulations would allow. I saw one guy who pushed the envelope a little too far. He had 3 CRT TV’s, around 25”, on the back of his bike which he had dropped trying to avoid a truck.

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Posted by grasshopper 12:19 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

Please Sir, Can I Come In?

all seasons in one day
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The most daunting prospect when I started researching this trip was … visas. Requirements for official letters of invitation, confirmed bookings, return air tickets, covering letters from travel agents seemed to make an overland trip beyond reach. After having successfully gotten my Russian and Mongolian visas in Wellington, my Chinese visa in Chiang Mai, Laos visa on arrival, Vietnamese visa in Luang Prabang, I had only one left - Cambodia. This can also be bought on arrival. It was relatively straight forward apart from the $US10 overhead to the bus agent on top of the immigration cost. First time I have been stamped into a country in absentia.

The “bus” trip from Pakse, Laos to Siam Reap, Cambodia involved 5 contrasting vehicle changes - pickup in a ute, minivan to down near the border, an old bus to the border, walk across the border, an even older bus over an even rougher road to Stung Treng, a boat across the Mekong, finally a minivan over a brand new road. The last stretch was the easiest driving you’ll find in Asia - only an assortment of tractors and motorbikes here and there.

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The boat across the Mekong was a vehicular ferry - a large barge for the vehicles tied by rope to a smaller boat. I think the boat operated by expiating loopholes in the laws of momentum. When it started, it strained its guts out and couldn’t move. It reminded me of the children’s story about the little train engine, “I think I can, I think I can”.

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Posted by grasshopper 12:04 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Into the Wet

rain
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I was dropped off the Salavan bus at small village near the Tad-Lo waterfalls. After some wandering around I found a bungalow by the river with a water-view that I may not repeat on this trip.

Yesterday I biked about 8km up the hill to the highest of the 3 waterfalls, with views of both the base and from the top. Biking through countryside, coffee plantations, small villages with assorted goats, pigs and variations of cattle. And many of these strange tractors that fascinate me - the tow bar is directly on the back of the 2 wheeled motor and the driver sits on the attached trailer.

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It is ironic that on the first night here I dreamed of being flooded out. There has been some serious rain falling - much of it at night. Culminating in the river swelling to almost below my bungalow, albeit at a height difference of about 12 feet.

I saw the most amazing sight, twice, of Lao men on elephants enter the swollen river on one side, walk across it and out the other side. There was an obviously strong current but the elephants were completely steady. Which shows their immense strength, and also their reliability.

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Posted by grasshopper 19:33 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The Night the Earth Moved

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I had a choice when leaving Vientiane: a day bus to my intended destination of Pakse arriving ostensibly at 10pm; a day bus to a closer town; or a night bus to Pakse. I chose my usual last resort - the night bus. Except this one was different - it was a “sleeping” bus. A two-tiered bus, it had double-bunk style sleeping berths similar in size I think to the one I had on the train to Bangkok (pictured in an earlier entry) although a little shorter. Only thing it was shared between two. Plus maybe some gear. One way to meet people I guess.

The road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane may have been windy and narrower than usual, but it was generally an ok road. Roads further south are … not so ok. Not as bad as the road from hell; but rough enough to constantly feel. From what I could tell in the dark, the terrain was mostly flat. It was more comfortable lying down than sitting and I did get some sleep.

I arrived at Pakse northern bus terminal early in the morning, once again beside the Mekong river that would surely have given a smoother ride. It is a feature of Lao towns that they have a bus station on the north side of town, for buses to the north; a station on the south side for buses to the south; and maybe one near the centre for local and sideways, I guess. Guaranteed income for the tsongkaeo and yuk-tuk drivers.

So I got a ride into Pakse town, walked down one side of the street, picked up some information for onward buses, crossed the road. And took a yuk-tuk to the southern bus station. The town just didn’t inspire me at 8am.

The bus to Salavan, to the east, was a real bus. A couple of fans at the front. Seats from the 50’s maybe. Holes in it. No livestock on board which was the only thing missing to give it true character.

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Posted by grasshopper 19:28 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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