Travel Story Tuesday: A Rural Hmong Village and Sleeper Buses in China (Pt 1)

Drum roll please...today is the first installment of Travel Story Tuesday! I'm pretty excited about this feature, and you should be too. Basically, every Tuesday I will be showcasing funny/crazy/adventurous travel stories by different travelers, all over the world. I've got a few of the stories prepared, and let me tell you, they're hilarious. You're going to want to stick around for them. 

Who better to start off Travel Story Tuesday than someone very near and dear to my heart - my boyfriend! Phil and I have been dating for about a year and a half, and he is my travel idol. He's lived in Switzerland, Cambodia, and Egypt (where we met), and visited 32 different countries and 40 states. And yes, he's only 27. He is one of the craziest travelers I've encountered, because he'll do pretty much anything at least once (except lay on a beach, because that's too boring). Most of my favorite stories of his are from his two years living in South-east Asia, so, without further ado:

There are few places in the world that are better for travelers than South-east Asia; this area is loaded with tourist sites but is incredibly cheap to visit. During my two years of teaching in Cambodia I was able to travel to a bunch of very cool places and experience some amazing cultures, all while spending very little money (I mean, with $30 AirAsia flights, how could I not?). However, near the end of my first year teaching, I had to start searching for flights back to the US. I live in DC, making travel home from Cambodia quite tedious. However, I managed to find a non-stop flight to Dulles! The catch? It departed out of Beijing. Now, I don't know if your Asian geography is up to speed, but Phnom Penh and Beijing are very far apart. I decided that I would take this distance as an opportunity for more travel before going back to the States, and settled on doing a backpacking trip through Laos and later, China, to get there.

I packed my backpack and my duffel bag and got a ride to the bus station. I bought an overnight bus ticket to Laos; I had students from Laos I was going to meet up with when I arrived in Vientiane (the Lao capital) but until then, I was on my own. The bus was crowded but the AC worked, so I was happy. The trip was slow, but you won’t find many bus rides in Cambodia that aren’t. To me though, that is one feature of traveling that is so thought provoking and meaningful - the ability to witness a culture first-hand. I was able to see so much of the country, to see people’s faces in all the small towns we drove through. I saw the green of the trees and the yellow of the bananas and the rainbow of the sun setting over the jungle.  

When we got to the border with Laos, I started getting excited.  A new place, a new country, a new culture to see and explore! I love going to new countries; it's an adrenaline rush every time. That being said, The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms. Although at first there wasn’t a huge change in the environment or the people, there was just an overall change in the atmosphere. Surprisingly, it did seem more developed, but the jungle remained the same. We drove past the border with no problems, and continued for several more hours. After finally arriving in a small city, I was told (I think) that it was time to get off and change buses. It was pitch black outside, and I had no clue where I was. There were a few buses, but none of them were marked and no one spoke English. There was one leaving soon that was on the main road, and there really aren’t many roads, so I figured it had to be the right one. I hopped on board, and prayed I made the right decision. It wasn't until several hours later that I began seeing signs for Vientiane, and my hope was realized.

The next morning I arrived in Vientiane very happy to see one of my students there with his little motorcycle and an extra helmet for me. He had made all the arrangements, even booking a hostel for me to stay in with a ceiling high enough for me to stand in (which, being 6'4" in Asia, isn't easy to find).

Back in the glory days of my long, blonde locks.
Before we could go anywhere though, we had to figure out the visa situation for Laos and China. To get into China, you need to have a visa before getting to the border.  While in Vientiane I went to the Chinese embassy to get one, but they told me it would take several days to process it. I was leaving the next day for Luang Prabang, Laos, and then going to a rural area in the mountains.  I wasn't sure what to do. The idea of leaving my passport at the embassy was very disconcerting, but there was no other way for me to get my visa. My friends said they could pick up my passport from the embassy and send it via overnight mail to me in Luang Prabang…. They knew a guy….  And as much as I disliked going without my passport for a few days, it's what I had to do. I trusted my students and their enthusiasm that they would get my passport back to me safe and sound, while I continued to travel around Laos.

We spent the next day touring the capital (which stands on the border with Thailand), and that night we took another semi-overnight bus to Luang Prabang, a beautiful city with many touristy things to visit. I say "semi overnight" because we left late, maybe around midnight and arrived around 4am. We went around visiting some of the sights, and eventually met up with two more of my former students. Much to my pleasure, we managed to pick up my passport which my students had faithfully forwarded on to me. Passport in tow, we hopped on small motorcycles, and began the journey up the mountain to visit a local Hmong village where my students' families lived.

If you've never been to a local village, in any country, you are seriously missing out. Being fully immersed in another culture is something everyone should be able to experience. And when you're in a small, rural Hmong village with no English-speakers in the mountains of Laos, I guarantee you'll be fully immersed. I was welcomed by everyone and invited to eat with them, as is custom. They immediately grabbed one of their chickens, killed it, and began plucking it at a furious pace. I'm a vegetarian and my students know that, but the locals couldn't quite wrap their minds around the concept. After a bit of explanation and discussion, the compromise was that I ended up eating some kind of soupy noodly thing…. Who knows what it was, really. I was offered water and gladly said yes. South-east Asia is quite hot and humid, especially during the summer months during which I was traveling, so water sounded perfect. One of the family members quickly went and fetched a glass of water for me - a glass of brown, murky water that came from someplace I'm sure couldn't be trusted to keep my stomach functioning. I didn't want to be impolite, so I took a small sip and proceeded to hold the glass for the next hour or so. I continued speaking with the families through my student-translators, and eventually my glass of dirty water was taken away. It might sound unappealing, but it was truly an amazing experience overall.

After spending the next day hiking to various temples and seeing an incredible waterfall, my student brought me to the bus station where I bought my bus ticket into China. Next stop, Kunming. If you've ever traveled in a second- or third-world country before, you know that the buses and trains there are very different than in the US or Europe. They're generally quite crowded, dirty, and uncomfortable. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the bus I was heading for, but my student said it was "the nicest bus ever", so my hopes were relatively high. It was a sleeper bus, meaning there were going to be beds on board for the night-time hours.  

I boarded the bus, and am happy to report that there indeed were beds. But unfortunately they were quite small…. Like, not long enough for all 6 feet 3 inches of me, not even close. I walked to my space on the bus (as marked on my ticket), and looking up, I realized that each of the “beds” were meant for two people. That's right; I purchased a 'sleeper' ticket for a bed on a busy bus crossing the border from Laos to China, but I would be sharing said bed with someone else. As I soon realized this, I encountered my bed-mate. My sleeping partner was to be an elderly Chinese woman. As soon as she saw me though, she refused her spot (although I can't really blame her, haha). I don't speak Cantonese or Mandarin, and she didn't speak English, but it was clear she was having none of me. Another man on the bus realized what was happening, and volunteered to trade with her. Unfortunately he also didn't speak English, but he still wanted to chat with me well into the night. Over the course of the next few days, I didn't encounter a single person who spoke English, so I got by through communicating via hand signals and a little Khmer.

By the time I reached the Chinese border, I was pretty excited.  The roads changed immediately, and went from being filled with pot-holes and mostly dirt, to smooth, paved roads that were clearly leading to a developed area. Once at border control things continued on smoothly (get it? ha!). The only thing was...I didn't have any Chinese currency. Now, it is typical for people outside of border crossing to have a money exchange business, but they often greatly increase the exchange rate so that they make a profit from the exchange. When I got off the bus at the border, two old Chinese women came over to me, wanting to exchange money. I knew I needed to, but I was quite skeptical of the rate they were asking for. I love bartering, and although they spoke almost no english, we spent the next ten minutes or so bargaining down the exchange price. Eventually I got it to a rate I thought was fair, so we made a deal, and I got my Chinese Yuan. My solo trip in China was off to a good start. END PART 1 To hear the ending of Phil's (pretty crazy) story, come back for next Travel Story Tuesday!
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