Wednesday, 16 September 2009

more Laos

From Vientienne I took a bus north to collect Pedro from the China/Laos border. A rock fall blocked our way so several of the guys got off the bus and moved the rocks. Sadly the Chinese transport company taking my car to the Lao border were not bright enough to use there initiative in this way. I received an e-mail from the Chinese tour company, who had already delayed us by over 3 weeks, saying that the transporter was stuck on the road because of a rock fall! It would be at least 5 days late! Border towns are usually pretty dismal, dodgy places so I decided to stay in Luang Namtha, 30km from the border, until it was time to collect Pedro.

Luang Namtha is a popular base for hikers, surrounded by rivers, paddy fields and a national park. Most of the other tourists I met on the bus to Luang Namtha were heading straight off hiking. As the tour company hadn't given me a definite date when my car would be delivered to the border I couldn't go on any hiking trips. Luang Namtha is a lovely, friendly town but quite small, after a couple of days walking around, looking at and sampling some of the gross food in the night market and buying bead bags and jewellery from the Akha ladies; I was running out of things to do.
Then I met Nicky, a kiwi girl, travelling through on her way to China. She suggested hiring motorbikes to explore some of the local Akha tribe villages. The only flaw in her plan was that I have never ridden a motorbike. So, I opted for an automatic model(the red one).
The Akha houses look quite flimsy, made from wood, reeds and straw. So it was quite surprising to see the odd satellite dish! Shortly after we set off it started raining. We parked the bikes under a tree in a village and were beckoned over by a local lady to shelter on her porch.
The family were lovely and offered us water. I was constantly amazed at how clean and smartly dressed the tribal people were despite their humble homes with no running water. The ladies clothes are beautiful and the men always wear sparkly white T-shirts!

When the rain stopped we rode on, arriving at a river, too deep to cross and with no bridge! We had to turn back, waving at the villagers as we passed through again. What a shame we couldn't speak each others languages, they could have told us "don't go that way, there's a deep river"

The tracks were pretty muddy and slippery and my first time riding a motorbike was quickly followed by my first time falling off a bike! This was just before my fall a little further up the track. I later realised that applying the Beetles off-road technique of gunning it through the soft stuff is entirely the wrong thing to do on a bike!

Eventually the day came when Pedro was due at the border so I got up early and took a bus from luang Namtha to the border town of Boten. I hung around the border all day but no Pedro. I had to find a place to stay in Boten and return next morning. Boten was exactly as I expected. Most of the hotels were full so I ended up at an over-priced Chinese monstrosity. I was kept awake all night by doors slamming and girls running around the halls screaming! I asked the concierge in the morning, were they prostitutes and completely un-phased he said yes. Apparently most of their customers are Chinese who come across the border to gamble in the hotel casino and use the prostitutes. The hotel and casino only accept Chinese currency so the Lao people do not benefit from this and the prostitutes are young girls from the local Lao tribes being exploited by the Chinese! It goes without saying I didn't like the town!

Pedro arrived at the border late the next but there was no way i was staying in Boten another night so I drove back to Luang Namtha. The guest house manager finally understood what i'd been talking about when i turned up with my car!

Next morning I went back to the border to finish the customs process then it was time to head south again. Arriving back in Luang Prabang I drove past a VW camper parked outside a guest house, well I had to stop! The camper lured me in, the gorgeous wood panelled room and massive bath sold it to me. A soak in the bath was just what I needed after my fall off the motorbike!
The camper turned out to be a bar so after a wander round the night market it was back for cocktail's and Lao Lao whiskey shots round the camper! Steph, a german lady I met in the market was clearly in need of a drink, she's been cycling round India and now Laos.

Worlds smallest Irish bar!!

The drive from Luang Prabang to Vientienne was stunning. How many times have I used that word in this blog! But it really was, I'll let the photos speak for themselves!

30kms from Vientienne there was an almighty bang and Pedro started running rough as old boots! I pulled over and took a look. Even with my limited mechanical skills the problem was obvious. Pedro had spat out one of his spark plugs. It was dangling on theend of the HT lead. The engine was far too hot to put it back straight away. Fortunately Pedro had picked a very pretty temple to break down in front of (although, as someone pointed out, you'd be hard pushed not to break down near a temple in Laos!) so I went for a look round while he cooled down.

I've never changed the spark plugs before and as it turned out I didn't do it very well as it popped out again about half a mile later. This time we were in front of a petrol station and the boy who worked there called his friend over to help me. The lads then invited me to have a beer with them. Their parents were a little confused to come home and find an English lady sitting in their front garden. Of course I drank mostly water with a few polite sips of beer as I still had another 30kms to drive into Vientienne.

Back in Vientienne it was time for Pedro to visit the Cope centre, of course everybody loved him and took his picture. I wrote about Cope in my last post but this time Rica and I were able to look around the workshops where the prosthetic limbs are made.

A diffused bomb on display in the Cope grounds. thousands of unexploded weapons like these litter the Laos countryside!

Donate to the Cope centre via my just Giving fundraising page at:

Vientienne, Laos

Laos really is a land of temples. It seems like every corner you turn in Vientienne you are greeted by guys like these! Wouldn't want to meet his dentist!

Every part of the temples are covered in intricate details, This is just a small part of one of the carved wooden doors.

Vientienne has a reputation as the most relaxed capital city in the world and I can't disagree, it's so chilled out. The gates of the temples stand open, nobody tries to sell you anything, you wander around and take your photos with just the odd smile or nod from the orange clad monks.

It's really hot and humid here though, I did have a problem with the camera lenses steaming up! this temple was beside the Mekong river which is lined with dodgy food stalls. Gave them a miss after my hospital stay in Pakistan!

I shared a Tuk-Tuk with a local lady when I went to the Cope centre, She didn't speak English so was rather bemused when she got out at her house and I started pointing and shouting "Hey, I've got one of those! I've driven it all the way from London." What a shame we couldn't understand each other! In one day I saw 3 beetles in Vientienne; a very good sign if I need a mechanic in town!

Also in Vientienne is our reason for coming to Laos, the Cope centre. Cope is one of the charity projects we are supporting on the rally. They provide rehabilitation for landmine victims. Laos was bombed heavily during the Vietnam war and the countryside is still littered with unexploded weapons of war like these.

People become injued through ignorance or through desperation. Children are curious and don't understand that the shiny metal thing can kill them. For adults, often they know the risks but scrap metal is worth money and they are living on the poverty line so they take a chance.
Cope are able to help firstly by providing education about the risks thereby, one hopes, reducing the number of victims injured by these weapons.
Secondly they help people who have already been injured by providing them with prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation.

With the benefit of arms like these victims of landmines can return to work and once again support their families.

Legs allow mine victims to walk again. Many people in rural areas are managing with crude homemade legs fashioned from pieces of wood.

For the more severly disabled Cope also have a wheelchair manufacturing unit.

Just $50 buys a leg! That seems like pretty good value to me, so if you would like to donate please visit the Cope website: or donate via my Just Giving page and if you are a UK tax payer you can claim tax back on the donation making it worth even more!\ozrally

Friday, 11 September 2009


We flew into Kuching in Borneo for a few days. kuching means "cat" in Malaysian and there are reminders of that all around the town. If the multitude of four legged felines roaming the streets aren't enough to remind you where you are then the massive statues adorning roundabouts and junctions won't let you forget!

Sea serpents steal the scene from the cats when it comes to the riverbank, swallowing up passing boats.

No visit to Borneo could be complete without a visit to the Orang-utan sanctuary. I was so busy with the video camera that I didn't get many photos. I'll upload some video of the gorgeous mum and baby when I get back. we only had an hour watching them; the park rangers are reintroducing them to the wild so try and limit their time around humans.


Flying out of Lhasa was a nightmare. We needed to go to Laos to collect the car but there are no direct flights and the car wouldn't be at the border for a couple of weeks anyway. We had to fly from Lhasa via Chengdu, Beijing and Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur!

Kuala Lumpur is knock off central, there are more fake Louis Vuitton bags here than any chav could wish for! Rolex watches. Mont Blanc pens, you name it, you can buy it on the market stalls in KL.
I decided to get away from the fake stuff and head out to see the real Malaysia on a day trip to the Elephant sanctuary.

No, thats not rica on the Elephant with me, she didn't make it out of bed in time, it's aussie girl, Nicky who was also on the tour. We were actually the only to people on the tour which was a bit odd.

The Elephant sanctuary was packed with tourists and it felt more like a circus than a sanctuary. The first elephant we saw was stood in a field swaying from side to side, obviously bored. It looked so unhappy that neither of us felt comfortable taking it's picture. The elephants were lined up to walk around in circles with tourists on their backs, they didn't look happy and I didn't take part. The "swimming with elephants experience was a similar affair with tourists getting on the elephants back, it walking a few feet and then dunking them in the river. Knowing how much elephants love water I didn't feel bad about taking part in this and as we were the last 2 people we got a little more time with the elephant.

We stopped at "Deerland" on the way to the elephant sanctuary. To be honest I was expecting this to be a sad affair with bored animals locked in cages but I was pleasantly surprised. The owner himself took us around the park and you could see the animals were well cared for and had a real love for him. Because the owner was with us we were even invited into the enclosures with the animals and fed deer, parrots and yes, even this bear! This was baby bear, he delighted in rolling on his back while being fed condensed milk from a bottle. The owner even put condensed milk on my hand for the bear to lick off which was an incredibly sticky experience! When we were leaving the bear followed the owner, rubbing against him like a pet cat and they then started play fighting or dancing I'm not sure which, judge for yourself in the photo.


My chinese driving license!

China! Where do I start? If you've been looking at the pictures then you probably think we had a wonderful time in China but pictures never tell the full story. Tourists are not permitted into Tibet without a tour guide so we had to pay a hell of a lot of money to a tour company to provide a guide and the permits for our drive through Tibet and Yunnan.

The problems started before we even entered China. When entering China through Tibet it is not possible to apply for your visa in advance. Instead, we had to apply for them in Kathamndu and NAVO, our tour company, had arranged for a small company called Terai Tours who are based in Kathmandu to take care of this. Unfortunately we were a few days behind schedule and NAVO had not ammended the dates on our permit to reflect this. That meant we would only have 10 days to complete our tour which was not enough time. The guys at terai were very helpful and called NAVO to try and fix the problem. The girl we spoke to said it was no problem, that the visa could be extended once I was in china and not to worry about it. So I went ahead and payed $120 for my Chinese visa which Terai had for me the next day.

Then, I received a phone call from the tour guide "Joe". He was wondering when I would be arriving at the border because we didn't have much time on my visa! He said that it could not be extended once I was in china. I called Terai who made some calls and confirmed for us that in fact the visa could NOT be extended once inside China, so NAVO had got it wrong. This meant another couple of days hanging around Kathmandu while NAVO got a new permit with the extended dates and I paid another $120 to re-apply for the Chinese visa with the new dates. We asked NAVO to apply for the permit for 21 days even though we had booked a 14 day tour to allow for unforeseen problems. Instead they made it for 17 days, giving us just 3 extra days should we have problems.

When we arrived at the border NAVO's guide, Joe, handed us a letter from the company asking us for more money! This was to cover the cost of the guide waiting at the border while we were delayed. The money was to be paid immediately and the guide would not provide us with the Tibet permit to enter the country or help us with the entry process until we handed over the money! Foreigners are not permitted to enter Tibet without a guide so they were effectively blackmailing us! They eventually agreed with us that we should only pay half the amount they were asking as half of our delay had been caused by their paperwork being wrong!

After all that when we tried to enter china we discovered that the dates on the Tibet permit they had for us were wrong, It gave us only 1 day to cross Tibet! So we were left waiting at the border while the guide went into town and arranged for a permit with the correct dates to be faxed through!
.....and things were set to get worse!

Pedro with Mount Everest in the background.
This viewpoint was a short drive from the village we stopped to have lunch in. Rica and I wanted to eat in a Tibetan restaurant. We went in and sat down, the owner was a lovely lady who immediatley offered us tea but then Joe, our guide walked in. Ignoring the lady he walked into the kitchen declared it dirty and said we couldn't eat there. He later said that all Tibetan's were dirty, that they lie and cheat and that he "couldn't get used to the way they smell!!" Pretty shocking from a tour guide who is supposed to be showing us the highlights of the country!
As none of the restaurants met his approval we wound up buying noodle boxes(like pot noodles) and sitting in a bus stop eating them with stray dogs and children begging around us! When we discovered the viewpoint we wondered why our guide hadn't suggested we eat lunch there instead of in the street!

Prayer flags, at the same viewpoint as above. It was a really beautiful spot.

White teddy enjoying the mountain views in Tibet.

The road to Everest!!
Pedro was feeling the effects of the altitude here. We had been warned in Kathmandu that this would happen and that we should get the mixture adjusted on the carb. Our "guide" said that the road to Everest was very bad and our car wasn't suitable for that road, so I said OK, we'll leave the car with a mechanic in town to make the adjustments and hire a landcruiser to go to base camp.
I can't begin to list every one of our guides f##k up's without writing a book but this is a pretty major one so deserves a mention! I dropped the car off at the garage with him in the morning where he told me that no landcruiser was available but the garage owner's brother would drive us in his car. "and" he said "because it is a small car it is only 400rmb"
"That's great" I said. The night before he had told rica and I that a landcruiser with a driver would be around 1200rmb so that was a really good price....or so I thought.
Rica decided not to go when she saw the little mini-van. She was still pissed off because, in 3 days, our guide had failed to find anywhere she could exchange money.
So I set out with Joe and the driver and eventually we stopped at an office to buy tickets. 120rmb per person plus 400rmb for the car. 400rmb for a ticket for the it turned out the car hire was another 1200rmb on top of that! I had been mis-lead big time!
A little further along the road we reached a police check point, Joe went in with his folder of paperwork. Returning to the car he stated that his paperwork was not valid for that day and the police wouldn't let us pass. He told me because we had already used the permit when we came through the previous day, we couldn't use it to go back again.
He didn't seem to concerned, casually saying to me "Do you really want to go to this place?" I was a little confused as we had passed signs back down the road that said "Everest base camp" So picked up the tickets and asked him where it was he was taking me. I said "Are we going to Everest base camp, or is this just a view point to take this picture?" indicating the photo on the ticket of a mountain range including a very distant Everest. "You just take this picture here" he said. So I told him "I saw Everest from a distance yesterday. I want to go to base camp". "Ok" he said "Thats back the other way".
So we returned the tickets and headed back the way we had come. Almost an hour later I asked him again "Where are we going?" because Everest which could be seen occasionally from the road seemed to be getting further away. "Everest base camp" he said. "Really?" I questioned him further "THE Everest base camp? The campsite at the base of mount Everest where the climbers start out from". "No" he confessed. It turned out he was actually taking me to a campsite with a distant view of Everest which just happened to be named "Everest base camp".
I exploded at him "Why the hell did he think I'd want to go there?, I've been saying for days I wanted to go to Everest. Surely that is where all tourists want to go when they ask for Everest Base Camp? Has he actually worked as a guide before?"
So we went back to the police check point. Again he went inside and returned saying the police would not let us pass. "right!" I said "I'll speak to him". Joe tried to stop me but I was not going to let his incompetence stop me from seeing the worlds most famous mountain which I had driven all this way and paid so much money to see! I don't know how much English the guard understood but after my shouting at Joe in front of him begging him not to punish me for having such a useless guide and finally crying he agreed to let us pass.

When we finally reached Everest Base Camp it was getting dark. The little min-van Joe had hired for us struggled on the dirt track with it's tiny wheels and I couldn't help thinking that we'd have been better off with Pedro. Landcruisers shot past us! It was really cold at base camp. I was stressed and upset, add to that the effects of the altitude and I soon became ill. My head felt like it was going to explode with the pressure and I felt really sick. We had to turn around and head back almost immediately. I didn't get a chance to look around base camp or soak up the atmosphere. It was even to dark for a photo, this one was taken on the approach road just before it got to dark. The video camera works better in low light so I took a quick video of base camp in the dark and we had to turn back.
I felt so sick, I curled up in the back and tried to sleep. The road was so bumpy it just made me feel worse but I didn't have the energy to sit up. The guide and driver were unconcerned and stopped for dinner, leaving me in the car. I tried to sleep but it was so cold that eventually I went inside to find them. I tried to eat a little food but couldn't, I was still handed the bill though!
Back on the road my head was feeling worse and I started vomiting out of the car window, crying out in pain whenever we hit a big bump which was a lot!
It was 3:30am when we got back to town and instead of taking me to a hospital Joe dropped me off at the hotel and asked me for more money for the driver because we were so late returning. I told him I didn't have anymore money and he should give him the 100rmb's he has asked me for earlier in case he had to bribe a policeman!
It wasn't until the following morning when Rica saw how sick I was that she asked Joe to call a doctor. The doctor gave me oxygen and a pile of tablets. He said I would feel better when we moved to lower altitude and wrote a note recommending that I didn't drive on the high plateau.

Rica drove out of town but struggled to reach the brakes and with the gears on the hills, so when I was feeling a bit better I took over. We thought we were driving to Lhasa which is lower altitude but instead Joe said we would have to stay in Shigatse as we had to do the police process there to get my Chinese driving license and car registration. I thought this would have been done at the border rather than several days into the trip. It was also not allowed for in NAVO's itinerary so put us further behind schedule.
Joe told the police that the doctors note was for Rica, not me and I passed the medical and driving test as required. The police loved the car, as you can see in the above photo at the police station!

Potola Palace, Lhasa

In Lhasa the guide had another surprise for us. He said that the road from Lhasa to Kunming was very bad and we would have to put our car on a truck as far as Kunming. The truck would cost 6500rmb! Of course we said no, this is a car rally, we've already driven 20,000 miles to get there on some very bad roads. The guide said No, that our car wasn't suitable for that road and only 4x4's could pass. We said, if the road was that dangerous then why couldn't we go the same route that the truck would go. He said that they didn't have the permits for us for that road. I asked why? Why if the road was dangerous and only suitable for 4x4's WHY had they arranged a tour for us travelling on that road with no alternative? They knew what car we were bringing, I had e-mailed photos from every angle and all the details they had requested about the car right down to the weight, engine size, chassis number etc. If the car wasn't suitable for the road they had bought us permits for then it was their fault as the tour organiser and if they insisted on us putting the car on a truck then they should pay for it!

This stand off went on for 10 days, not only putting us behind schedule but also meaning our Chinese visa was rapidly expiring. Finally with our visa almost expired we had to submit once again to their blackmail! Of course as our visa would be expired before the car reached Kunming it meant I had to pay for the truck to take the car all the way to the Lao border and Rica and I would have to fly out of the country. The cost; 10,000rmb's which the tour company have refused to take any responsibilty for. They act as if they are doing us a favour when in fact they have taken thousands of pounds from us for a tour which we didn't even get to complete half of! I am so angry at having to put the car on a truck when there is nothing wrong with it. All because our racist guide who has never even owned a car thinks it isn't suitable for a bad road!

The only plus to all of this was that we were able to spend some quality time sight-seeing in Lhasa. We asked the "guide" what there was to see in Lhasa but he said he didn't have time to tell us! So we left him at the hotel and had a much better time on our own.

Potola palace and man with prayer wheel

Prayer wheels around the walls of Potola

Our hotel seemed quite respectable, it even had this sign on the back of our room door. But when Rica suggested a massage in the hotel "spa" we were in for a surprise!
The "Spa" was a thinnly disguised knocking shop, I'm just glad I only asked for the foot massage! The girl who massaged my feet was wearing lingerie and when Rica asked what one of the more expensive items on the "menu" was she was taken to see a full on sex room complete with vibrating, swinging bed! The staff all found it hilarious and always had a smile and a wave for us when we passed on the way to our room.

The rent boy who worked in the brothel in out hotel.
Yep, it was an equal opportunities brothel, there were boys working there too...NO, I wasn't tempted! Rica thought he was cute but with her limited mandarin she was unable to discover whether he went both ways or not.

The main square in Lhasa

White Teddy in front of Potola Palace, Lhasa

Jihong(?-I'll check the spelling later) Temple.

Prayer flags outside the temple.

White teddy soaking up the sun in Lhasa, Tibet.
The "blind massage centre" is in this square. After our last massage experience I should have known better when Rica suggested we go in! The massage was actually very good, if a little to firm at times, we both ached for days. The boy who massaged us was very talkative but slipped up a couple of times. Firstly after telling me his girlfriend had hair longer than mine he then told Rica he was single. Then he span us a sob story about how he had been hit by a car and his white stick got broken so he was having trouble getting around........a new one would cost 800rmb and he couldn't afford it. Hmm, what's that white stick leaning against the wall then?