I’ll start this post by filling you in on the goings-on of the first couple days of our adventure.
As soon as we left Chiang Mai. the rains came, and came, and then came even harder. The farmers were finally happy, but the bikers unfortunately were miserable.
The farmers were happy but sad at the same time because it rained so hard so quickly that the streams and rivers starting overflowing their banks and washed away some of their precious newly-planted paddies. Mud slides spilled across the road from the mountainsides and newly-fallen trees blocked the roadway and slowed our progress through Laos.
We had the usual problems at the borders despite my assistant, Pae, driving up there one day before the group to expedite the paperwork process.
Since this is the first time we are doing a trip of this length, what we unfortunately found out was that if we take out Thai vehicles from Thailand for longer than 30 days there is a whole new layer and complexity of paperwork we have to work through. And, for every 30 days after that, there is even more paperwork and complexity to deal with.
Since our tour is 37 days, and then we have to ship all the vehicles back to Thailand by boat – an exercise estimated to take more than one month in duration – this will create the mother of all paperwork nightmares.
The rubber-stampers were having a field day with us and we must have temporarily increased the Thai govt. workforce by several percent just from the volume of our paperwork. Of course, the only people who really understood the entire process were the bureaucrats and they had on their shelves forms ad infinitum to spring on us.
After 5 hour, the powers-that-be finally allowed us to leave the Kingdom of Thailand and enter Laos. The first thing our group had to do at the Lao-side Immigration dept., was apply for a visa on arrival, which was just a fancy excuse to wring 50 bucks out of everyone for the privilege of filling out yet another form.
When we got to the visa window, there were 6 office workers in the office but four of them were sleeping and the other 2 weren’t much interested that 7 bikers just showed up and it was getting late and it was raining and that there was a long ride ahead of us.
It was after 3 p.m. when the powers-who-are granted us entry into Laos with permissions to drive our motorcycles out of their country and into China the very next day. Finally we were on the road and cruising.
The route we take through Laos and into China is a mountainous one, and the main road-users are overloaded lorries carrying lumber and farm products into China, and in the opposite direction, manufactured goods into Thailand.
These lorries creep up the roads at the pace of a fat man walking and on a bike it is pure torture to ride behind one. And they are tough to pass because the roads are real twisty and sight lines are bad, but pass the bikers must.
On one downhill pass, Don Hurst hit a deep berm gouged into the hot asphalt by overweight, downhill-braking trucks, lost control and crashed. Miraculously he was barely hurt and only damaged the bike to the extent of breaking off one footpeg, which we temporarily fixed with a vise grip.
The rain stayed hard all afternoon and we arrived at our Lao hotel in Luangnamtha in a downpour and in the dark. But at least we ate a scrumptious dinner in the only open restaurant in town.
Our group, on the 2nd day woke up to more heavy rain in the morning for the 60 km. drive to the Lao/China border. Thankfully everything at this border crossing went smoothly and quickly and glitch-free.
Next up was a 40 km. drive to the first significant city in China, Mengla, where we paid a stop at a large police depot to have all the vehicles inspected and temporary driving licenses and temporary vehicle registrations issued to all, valid for the exact dates we were to spend inside China.
On our past China tours this was a quick process, but this time they went over everything with incomprehensible thoroughness and we were stuck there for hours. In the rain. With absolutely nothing to do. We couldn’t even eat because we just consumed a huge lunch less than an hour before.
The cops finally sent us on our way late in the afternoon and we arrived once again after dark and in a downpour in Jinghong, a large shipping port on the Mekong River. Another delicious feast made everyone quickly forget about the trials and tribulations of a joyless day on a motorcycle.
Due to the weather, there is little in the way of photography to show everyone over the first two days except for some of the most delicious dishes we dined on.
AUGUST 3, DAY 3.
Woke up on the 3rd day in a row to heavy rain with our destination, Kunming, 550 kms. away but all over good highway. Kunming sits above the prevailing southeast monsoon and in a different climatic zone. An hour into the ride, the group drove out of the rain and into cloudy, overcast skies, but no moisture. It sprinkled lightly, intermittently, and the sun even poked out a few times.
The highway to Kunming is stunning and in great condition, and even though most bikers dislike highways, not a soul complained about the ride. Jah, our groundhandler and lead bike kept up a decent forward rate of progress, which was around 120+ kph.
Lunch was at a highway rest-stop and everyone had a bowl of delicious noodle soup for 50 cents. Since I am in the 4×4 and never laid an eyeball on the convoy once they left the hotel in the morning. When my 4×4 did catch up with them at the rest stop they reported no incidents of any interest worth reporting.
Let’s see what they’ll have to say about their drive into Kunming, one of the larger cities in China, a country with over 100 cities exceeding populations of one million.
As promised, over the next week I will introduce, one-by-one, the participants on this tour. Starting alphabetically, let’s meet Albert Waissman.
Albert was born in Russia, grew up in Israel, spent seven years in the Israeli army, decided to get into a safer line of work, emigrated to California and became an electronic engineer for Intel designing computer chips to keep up the pace with Moore’s Law.
Albert signed up for the Vladivostok Tour a year ago and is most anxious to visit Lake Baikal, where his father served in the Russian army, and he also wants to visit Birobidzhan in Siberia.
Birobidzhan has an interesting history. Just after WWII, all the displaced Jews in Nazi-decimated Europe had nowhere to go and this was a major world problem. There were high-level discussions about finding a place for all the Jews to live. Russia stepped up to the plate and offered to allow them to settle in Birobidzhan, a desolate area in Siberia with only a tiny, indigenous population.
Things ended up much differently as we know. The majority of Jewish people, instead, moved to Palestine and eventually, by a U.N. resolution, created the State of Israel.
Maybe if Birobidzhan won out, the entire Middle East would not be the powder peg it is today.
Enough now about politics and world events and let’s get back to the Vladivostok Expedition.
The afternoon cleared up nicely and the convoy rode into Kunming in the late afternoon incident-free.
Because of Chinese road regulations, my 4×4 is highly irregular, especially being right-hand drive, and attracts a lot of attention, from the wrong people, the police.
So Jah wanted us to regroup on the outskirts of the city because he was holding all the official tour documents (the 4×4 inside China is 100% legal for this tour though, though the chances were good that we would be stopped and questioned by men wearing badges and carrying side arms).
The 4×4, for a change, actually arrived at our meeting point before the bikes because we could drive right into the city while the bikes had to exit at an earlier exit because they are not exactly 100% legal on the highways and had to wend their way through heavy local traffic.
Upon regrouping we drove a few miles to the hotel and saw it was besieged by a mob of enraged protesters who were raising a ruckus and had the hotel entrance and parking area blocked off. A squadron of police were there to make sure the situation did not turn violent. It was an ugly situation and our plans to do some sightseeing were shattered because we had to come up with an alternative hotel and this took some doing because booking.com, agoda, travelocity, and all the other major hotel reservation websites are not available in China, as well as Google, Facebook, the N.Y. Times, and dozens of other websites the rest of the world takes for granted.
Once again we barely had enough time to check into our new digs, unpack, shower, and change before dinnertime. Funny how a great meal makes you forget life’s little annoyances.
That’s it for day 3 on the Vladivostok Blog. Tomorrow we drive to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Lijiang, around 500 clicks away.
Lijiang is the most popular tourist destination in the country among the Chinese themselves
Please stay tuned into this blog every day. Tomorrow you will meet Don Hurst, a North Carolinian whose hobby is big game hunting around the world. For this trip he left his rifles at home.
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Till tomorrow, Reed.