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From Nong Khai, Thailand to Chengdu, China

31 Jan Posted by in Southeast Asia | Comments
From Nong Khai, Thailand to Chengdu, China

A strange idea for a fun challenge…

I am sitting on the banks of the Mekong in Nong Khai, Northern Thailand. Sipping in a coconut and Oreo shake, a funny question comes to me… How long would it take me to go from here to Chengdu, in the middle of China? The game: cover the distance using the cheapest and most local transport, not stopping anywhere to rest and going as quickly as possible. Exciting challenge…

It is a 2,500km travel to the north. I have to cross 2 borders, use 4 different currencies, deal with 3 different languages and experience a dramatic cultural change along the way. My Chinese visa is in order; I got my paperwork done a few months before in Brussels. I pack my things in my old army backpack and get ready for the marathon.

First day; across Thailand and Laos…

Photo Credit: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credit: Olivier Roulin

5:45 am, May 20th, I leave Nong Khai. After a quick 30 Thai Baht tuktuk run from my guesthouse, I am queuing at the Lao border. Most of the people waiting here are locals. When it’s my turn to appear at the counter, I try to negotiate a transit visa explaining I probably won’t be staying in Laos more than 2 days. My request is rejected, and I have to pay the $31 fee for a normal tourist visa. With my passport stamped, I jump in a collective taxi driving me to Vientiane north bus station, 80km further, for 30,000 Lao Kip. If you want nothing but the safest gaming conditions across the online casino market, find out on Wizard Slotsis dedicated to providing you with nothing but the highest quality of games on the market from recognised global games providers.

8:30 am, I have my bus ticket to Mengla. The coach will leave at 11, which leaves me a few moments to find a place to have breakfast. Easy; in South East Asia there is a great range of food stalls open 24/7 in every bus station’s neighbourhood. Be assured you can get tremendous food for a very modest price. After a delicious meal and an hour spent observing life in the station, it is soon time to hop onto the bus. Its hold is overloaded with boxes, luggage and fruits baskets.

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

The bus heads north, full with Chinese passengers… and me… I am indeed the only foreigner travelling in the vehicle. As we drive north, the scenery slowly evolves. Near Vang Vieng and in the Luang Prabang province, the limestone peaks start emerging from the plain. The Annamite Mountains provide a dramatic karst landscape as the road winds through a number of vertical cliffs covered in lush greenery. Gently rocked by the slow turns of the mountain track, I fall asleep as the first night falls on my journey.

The first steps on Chinese soil…

I wake up the next morning to find the bus stuck in the middle of the road. The passports are being checked by some Lao customs officers. After a long, very long wait, the bus drives off again and leads us to Mohan, the border checkpoint. We are asked to get off the bus, our bags are checked, and our visas are stamped. Again, it is a long, very long wait… After a last small drive, I get off in Mengla; first contact with a Chinese town. My Lonely Planet says it is a hideous town, but it is quite welcoming with nice streets bordered in palm trees. At last, I am in China after 26.5 hours in the bus. I paid $34 for the 750km trip, and I must go on.

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

May 21st, no time to waste. I change a few dollars, and get my bus ticket to the next stop: Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. The ticket costs 239 Yuan. The coach is about to leave. Climbing in the vehicle, I discover the Chinese way of travelling. For long journeys, there are no seats, only narrow mattresses. I lay on my 40cm wide mattress, stuck between the window and a big Chinese guy. The guy is really kind though and speaks Thai – as I do a little. We manage to chat. The second night falls on my tribulation.

We are heading right north to the middle of the province as I struggle to sleep. The western part of Yunnan is mainly mountainous, and it slopes down to a plateau region toward Guizhou Province, further east. Its average elevation is almost 2,000m. Sadly, I won’t be able to see anything for the main part of the trip made under the cover of darkness. It takes 13 hours for the bus to find its way along the 630km between the two towns. In the early morning the suburbs of Kunming appear. It’s a massive city of almost 7 million inhabitants, but only the 16th biggest city in China.

Second day; in the middle of Yunnan…

5 am, May 22nd, we pull off at the bus station. I’m halfway to my goal… I get off the bus, stretch my legs and try to find a taxi. It is not very difficult as I’m surrounded by a crowd of shouting cabdrivers. I hop in a random minivan whose driver navigates through the traffic with reckless agility. I get quickly to the train station, and buy my ticket for my last step: Chengdu. It is 1250km from Kunming, and I get the cheapest ticket I can possibly find. It costs me 140 Yuan for a hard seat 25 hours trip.

10:30 am, the train leaves the platform. The car is organized in three-seat rows facing each other around a tiny table. It is heavily crowded with people, luggage and packets of all kinds. Through the window, the scenery is simply stunning as the train runs on the side of the mountains. The railway hangs on the steep rocky slopes and the sight gives the impression of a low altitude flight. Tens of metres below, a green carpet of rice fields lie on immense terraces dug in the very stone.

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

Photo Credits: Olivier Roulin

As I am watching by the window, some Chinese youngsters show an insisting curiosity about my tattoos and a small group gathers around me to have a chat… to try to have a chat… They don’t speak English and I don’t know any Chinese but as in many situations miming and drawing is the key, and we finally manage to have a laugh for a while.

Time flies and my group of Chinese new friends start yawning, for the late afternoon turns into night. I am about to spend my third night in transportation, sitting in this Chinese train. As I fall asleep I try to do the count of the kilometres I covered, the money I spent and the different people I saw. In a few hours, the train will arrive at Chengdu, my final destination, and I’ll be able to do an exact count…

Third day; Chengdu at last

11am, May 23rd, Chengdu. I step out the train station. I need breakfast. I sit down in the first restaurant I find, grab a pen, and do the math:

2,500km covered in 77 hours.
64 hours dragged in tuktuks, vans, buses, taxis and trains.
6 hours waiting in train or bus stations.
7 hours stuck in borders, in passport check, or struggling with conversion rates.

So, mission completed. Now, for my next mission – to find a shower…

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