DEAR old China was the stopover that was never meant to happen.
But somehow the end of our bloody long stint in the Asian empire swung around faster than a headache on new years.
I was ready to leave – hell I’d been ready to leave for 12 months – but as much as China had been like that half-deaf uncle with no table manners and a phlegm problem that you get stuck next to at a wedding, I knew I’d miss it when it was gone.
I’d miss the chaos of the markets, the vibrant, fragrant street food and even the way the steam rose from bamboo baskets stacked with soft white buns. I’d miss the endless opportunity that somehow managed to pack one of the most fiercely controlled countries on the planet and I’d miss the anything-goes attitude.
So it was with a feeling of nostalgia (and early morning grumps) that we left our little Kunming hostel before dawn to conquer a cruisy 20km to the bus station where a coach would drop us a couple of hundred kilometres from the Vietnamese border. Because as much as we’d (somewhat) miss China we were keen to get the hell out (and our visa was ticking) sparking us to skip a few chunks and farewell winter in one foul swoop.
There was an added bonus to “cheating” too and that was to be reunited with our friend Nick Thomson (https://cyclingelsewhere.com). We’d spent the better part of a year hanging out and burger bingeing with the British cyclist (who’d also pedalled his way from the UK only to get trapped teaching English in Chengdu) and while it had scarcely been two months since we’d seen him (he continued his world tour a month before we set off) we’d missed him.
Friends are plentiful on a world tour but good friends that you can spend significant time with are golden and seeing Nick again was like being reunited with family.
Nick had been going it solo for a while in a province of China that lacked the warmth and friendliness of Sichuan which meant our first few hours were one fat talk-fest – it was bliss.
And to make matters even better the bus hadn’t just reunited us with a good friend, but with temperatures over 20 degrees. We’d left Kunming wearing down jackets, thick socks and long pants and all of a sudden we were sweating like pigs in a shirt and shorts. Palm trees lined the run down town of Nansha in southern Yunnan while the almost physical wall of humidity meant one thing – we’d finally hit the tropics.
All of a sudden I was craving a mohito, a hammock and a good book on the kind of beach where everything from a three course dinner to massages can be delivered to your patch of sand. In fact screw amazing rare ethnic minorities and exquisite mountain scenery, I was tired and ready for the kind of beach holiday I’d been fantasising about for a year.
The following morning we set off along the winding Red River and within minutes our world had turned into banana plantations and run down shacks selling fruit for a pittance. Even the locals looked different (Yunnan houses the highest number of Ethnic minorities in China) making our road a stark contrast from the cold and icy trails of western Sichuan.
Lunch was a 10 yuan plate (about $1.50 USD) of fresh stir fried noodles from a street stall and dinner was a bowl of tuna pasta on the rocky banks of the red river. For the first time in weeks we dove into our tents later that night only to kick off the sleeping bags and marvel in the fact that we could read without gloves and breathe without creating an ice palace on the inner mesh.
The road continued to resemble a broken down roller coaster the following day as we sweated it out past colourful banana trees and grubby looking villages that seemed to have missed the Chinese building boom.
After about 60km we found a quiet rubber plantation and decide to pitch our tents for what would be our last night in the Middle Kingdom. I tried to feel nostalgic as we attempted to find sleep against the lullaby of farting trucks and obnoxiously loud long boats bellowing down the river but somehow I couldn’t.
Just 25km lay between us and Hekou – our final Chinese destination and after rolling into the neat and tidy border town we bee-lined for a cheap and nasty hotel to savour the milestone. The plan was to splurge on a room and a good meal with our remaining yuan – ideally incorporating the dishes we’d loved the most. Instead it was a rather tatty restaurant with an overpriced and sub-standard “kung pow” chicken that marked the moment, followed by the inevitable violent throwing up of the final moment in the dank squat toilet attached to our hotel room just a few hours later.
Feeling slightly worse for wear we rolled out of bed the following morning to face our last serve of Chinese bureaucracy while battling through our last stint of Chinese food poisoning. Unsurprisingly – it wasn’t exactly good-mood inducing.
After playing a messy game of toilet tag all night Scott and Nick felt like death warmed up and so we decided an “acclimitisation day” was in order for day one in Vietnam.
In our heads, we’d cross the border into what was officially “South East Asia” to the sound of 90s pub songs being blasted from beer huts with hammocks out the front but instead it took a matter of moments for the reality to sink in. We were in the cultural deep end where no one speaks English and we didn’t speak a word of Vietnamese beyond “pho”. Suddenly, China with it’s endless problems, questionable hygiene practices and fascist government regimes was a little less irritating and a hell of a lot more like a home we’d unceremoniously buggered off from in search of greener pastures only to realise it hadn’t been so bad after all. In fact we were having serious “Chexit” doubts but there was nothing left to do but battle on and lap up the chaos, flavour, bread and coffee – somehow I knew we’d manage.