Our first 24 hours in China - It's very hard to describe the confusion you feel when you cross the land border from Vietnam to China, but let us try to explain:
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Once you've worked that out, it's easy...
From a very wet Lao Cai in NW Vietnam, we walked just 20 metres over a bridge to enter SW China at Hekou. But the difference in that short distance, well, we may as well have dropped on to another planet, and not just because the people smiled again after the frowns of northern Vietnam.
Entering at that remote point meant nothing, zero, zilch, nada was written in English and nobody was close to speaking it. So the next 16 hours went something like this:
Thanks to a friendly man with Google Translator on his computer, we found the bus station.
Thanks to our guide book, we knew that our destination, Kunming, was written as 2 Chinese characters: the first was like a TV on legs, the left of which is broken; the second was like 2 small ladders, the right of which is standing on a small slope.
Thanks to a calculator, pictures of clock faces and comical miming, we found that there was a sleeper bus to 'TV-2ladders' at 8pm and it took 9 hours - it was now midday: great.
Thanks to Mastercard and an ATM with a funny English speaking man built inside, we got out 2000Y.
Thanks to the length of time spent finding said ATM and partaking in said comical miming, there was now no nightbus to TV-2ladders? More miming - there was one but it was now full.
Thanks to much shouting between ticket ladies and our ever increasing audience, a bus driver appeared. He was going to a place that looked like a TV crashed into 2 ladders. Not unsurprisingly, we didn't know where this place was but, given that anyplace is closer to TV-2ladders than our border town we climbed in to the last 2 seats. We set off.
Thanks to our seat numbers, we sat next to 2 members of our previous audience who, now fully briefed on our travel plans following the bus station kerfuffle, were able to 'tell' us that they were going to TV-2ladders. We had our guides.
Thanks to our guides, we successfully transferred buses at TV crashed into 2 ladders and embarked on a bone crunching, @rse numbing 6 hour journey, during which we mostly listened to locals smoking, spitting, eating chicken's feet and, not unsuprisingly, vomitting into little red plastic bags.
Thanks to the moon light, we could see the taxi touts descend on us in the deserted parking lot in which we were dropped but, thanks to some fierce negotiating, we had a taxi ride to our hostel.
Thanks to a really lovely receptionist, who phoned a whole list of alternative places to stay and wrote some directions for taxi driver number 2, the news that our hostel was full was not as bad as it could have been at just gone midnight.
Thanks to the buzz and hilarity of the day and the smell of BBQ smoke, we followed our noses down the street to a twin lock-up with a BBQ outside, an old woman with leg-warmers on her arms, and a table full of chicken skewers. So at 1am we dug into huge bottles of Yintang beer and the most delicious hot spicy Yunnan soup, 14 hours after we arrived in China. It was a wonderful end to our first day - let's hope the next three weeks live up to this.
The little tale above resulted from yet another change of plan. Instead of heading over the border in NE Vietnam towards Hong Kong and Beijing, we've instead gone rather more remote and headed over through the NW Vietnam mountains towards the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Why? We're a bit bored of cities and it's more yaks, cowboys and prayer flags than skyscrapers in this part of China. And it's closer to Tibet which opens up more contacts and possible routes in to this forbidden land than we'd get in the capital.
Watch this space to see if our diversion was worth it but, given that there seems to be more chance of the Dalai Lama winning the longest drive competition in the Mr Conron Golf Invitational on 29th June 2012 than the Chinese Government letting Jonny Foreignor into Tibet at the moment, please don't hold your breath.