Our last night in Vang Vieng was less than what we had hoped for. We all got to bed fairly early knowing it might be the last time we could sleep in a comfortable bed for several days. Around midnight, we heard a lot of loud talking that aroused us from our sleep. We soon realized that just outside our room, where there was a nice little balcony, several people were having a party. It wouldn't have been so bad had not there voices filtered directly into our room making it difficult for us to sleep. We decided, though, that it was still early for most people and tried to sleep despite the constant rattling of stupid conversations that people have when they're drinking and socializing on Valentine's Day. Around one o'clock, Tommy got up and asked them to hold it down a bit. There were maybe a dozen or so people outside, but this one particular British girl was the loudest and most annoying. They continued despite our request for "quiet voices". A little later, Tommy went downstairs to see if the owners could do something about this. No one was at the front desk, however, and no one responded to Tommy's attempts to wake them up. Finally, Derek got up and talked reason with them explaining how we had several days of traveling ahead of us and just wanted a little sleep. The guys of the group were really nice and understanding. The girls were still loud. It wasn't long, though, before the group disintegrated and we had some peace. In the morning, the balcony looked like a wreck, dotted with beer cans and white with cigarette butts.
Derek and I left mildly early for breakfast. Our bus was to leave at ten so we had about three hours before we needed to be ready. Not many people were out yet (the result of a party town mentality) so Derek and I found an empty restaurant that had just opened. In the restaurant next door, the song Home by Michael Buble was playing. I thought it fitting since we would soon be heading home. Immediately after thinking this, the song Take Me to Your Heart by Michael Learns to Rock, which quickly became the anthem of China when we first arrived and will forever remind me of this country just because I heard it for two months straight on every street corner in Shiyan, came on. Then I knew it was time to come back. (-: Sitting in the other restaurant about a table away from us (we were sitting outside) was a young lady who is also an English teacher in China. We've met more people on this trip who are teaching in China! It's always fun talking to them and discussing our similar experiences.
The bus ride from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang took maybe six hours, but it seemed much longer. The road was not good and it twisted through lots of mountains so we were able only to move at a snail's pace. There really were not places to stop along the way - only tiny make-shift villages that consisted of maybe four or five huts which we saw rather infrequently - and we probably wouldn't have stopped at all had three quarters of the people on the bus not threatened to riot. The bus driver wisely pulled over on the side of the road to allow these anguished people to find a nice tree to serve as their WC (I've certainly used worse places which were actually supposed to serve as bathrooms AND had to pay money for them!). Anyway, the experience reminded me of old family roadtrips...
We arrived in Luang Prabang around six and quickly (and surprisingly easily) found where we needed to buy bus tickets to Kunming, China. The bus would leave that evening at 10 pm. We originally had wanted to spend a day in Luang Prabang, but at this point, I think we were all ready just to continue heading back. We booked the tickets and then set off to find food. We did have one manner of business to take care of in this town before we left, however. Earlier, in Cambodia, we met an older French woman. She was really eccentric but very friendly, and we found ourselves repeatedly meeting up with her in Phnom Penh, Kratie and southern Laos. During one of our bus rides together, she gave us a letter and a picture of her family with a guesthouse owner in Luang Prabang that they had taken when she stayed at that guesthouse some time before. She asked us to deliver the letter and picture to this particular guesthouse owner, and we could do nothing but comply with this request. We searched for quite awhile to find the guesthouse, and it wasn't until after dinner, when we tried again, that we found it. It was kind of a neat thing to do, I guess, and we got bananas out of the deal which came in handy a day later.
Luang Prabang seemed to be a nice town. We decided to splurge on dinner that night since we had some kip to burn, but even when we bought everything we wanted - nice dinner, dessert, drinks - we still only paid about four dollars! There was a night market filled with all sorts of tourist goods - jewelry, bags, shirts, coffee - and we spent a little time there before going to wait for our night bus.
3 SOLID DAYS OF TRAVELING
We had a sleeper bus so each of us got a really narrow bed - all top bunks - on the 30 hour roller coaster ride we were about to endure to Kunming. We were still winding through mountains, but this driver took the turns much faster than the previous driver. So the entire night we were being tossed to and fro in our little beds, getting slammed against the window and the bar that was the only thing that kept me from being thrown out of my bed (and it only slightly helped!). Somehow we did get some sleep (through the aid of Derek's limitless supply of sleeping pills).
The next day we decided to switch beds. At the back of the bus, there was one large bed that stretched from one side of the bus to the other. We had avoided it previously because we could imagine them overbooking the bus and us getting sandwiched between several greasy men for the remainder of the trip. But on the second day, we decided to go for it, and Derek, Tommy and I moved to this gianormous bed which was supposed to hold five people, but we more than used all the space - selfishly sprawling ourselves comfortably out like spread eagles. It turned out to be a good move since, for the first time since I've ridden any kind of transportation in China, the bus didn't get overbooked, AND since we lost several people at the border crossing (not really sure what happened to them), there were more than enough empty beds for any late comers who hitched rides along the way. The second night was much more comfortable than the first night, though we were still being thrown about and this time with no bars to prevent us from rolling all over the place. When we weren't trying to sleep, it was actually a fun ride.
I wish I could say that after we arrived in Kunming, we were almost home, but that would be a lie. We arrived at seven in the morning to a very cold China. We quickly found the train station, bought our tickets home and then found a small restaurant to eat a breakfast of baozi. Tommy's train to Beijing would not leave until 10 pm, but ours to Wuhan was leaving at 10 am. So we parted around 8:30 - him to find a hotel and us to buy some snacks for another long train ride. We got hard sleepers on the train which was a necessity for what was about to be another 29 hour ride.
It's surprising how much we slept during the thirty hour bus ride and the 29 hour train ride, but when there's nothing else to do, there's nothing else to do. Janice, who had kept herself hopped up on coffee and sugar during the previous week, finally crashed on the train ride to Wuhan. We were traveling on the 17th, and the Chinese New Year would begin on the 18th. We heard that it's practically impossible to travel three days after the new year because all the Chinese who had traveled to visit their families would be traveling during this time. We thought we would be wise and travel DURING the new year since most Chinese people celebrate this time at home. As we were traveling across the country side, we could see fireworks being shot off everywhere. I went to bed early, but at midnight, I heard lots of explosions. I was too tired to watch the celebration, but I heard the next day that we had stopped in a town and a lot of people got off the train to watch the display of fireworks.
We traveled all day on the 18th so we didn't really celebrate the new year. No one my age that I talk to really enjoys the new year anyway because they think it's boring; they just spend three days visiting family. I've been told that the Chinese New Year is like our Christmas, but the more I talk to people about it, the less I think it is. It is about family, that's the same, but level of celebration and the enjoyment factor is just not equal to what we feel, or I feel anyway, during Christmas.
Andrew and Jaime were also traveling back to Shiyan from another city in southern China. They arrived in Wuhan first and bought beds on the 5:15 train to Shiyan. We asked them later to procure tickets for us too, but they were only able to get standing tickets. Our idea that it would be easy to travel on new year's day was wrong! We arrived in Wuhan at 4 and had just enough time to get some Muslim noodles before boarding the next train home. It took about 6 hours, and fortunately, Janice was able to find a seat which she kept for the entire trip. Derek and I stood for several hours and alternated accepting the kindness of strangers who really went out of their way to allow us to sit in their seats or tripled up in some cases to allow us a little section of a seat to rest on. They were so nice to us.
We arrived at 10:45 to a Shiyan which was surprisingly warmer than we were expecting. There were a lot of taxis available since so many other people were arriving too, but since it was a holiday, they had turned off their meters, and we had to pay much more than we normally would of had to. It was really nice to get home. After several days of solid traveling and no shower, however, it was disappointing to miss our hot water time slot, though since we've arrived, we've yet to have hot water despite the fact we're supposed to have it twice a day. Maybe they don't turn it on when no one is here, and they just don't know we're here yet.
Yesterday we had planned to relax, but we actually were more productive than anyone should be when they've just spent a month traveling. Since the Chinese celebrate the new year for three days (though it's supposed to be 15 days, but apparently a little thing called work gets in the way of what used to be a two week celebration), all the shops and restaurants on our street were closed. Many people, including Happy Guy and his family, have gone to visit their families so their restaurants are closed. The streets were really quiet too, and there was hardly any traffic. We went into town where we found a few places to eat noodles and then proceeded to a supermarket to buy groceries. Besides the supermarket and a few restaurants, there were several stands throughout the city where one could buy oil, liquor and fireworks. Those three things must be the staples during this time of the year because everyone we came into contact with was carrying at least one, if not all, of these items. Fireworks are especially popular, and the town sounds like a war zone with loud explosions frequently startling us. Since none of the restaurants near us were open, we bought supplies to cook dinner. Derek and I also were able to buy external hard drives which we'll really need with all the pictures taken during this trip, and I even mailed a couple letters which is a huge accomplishment for me as I often write letters but don't mail them for a couple weeks later. When we got back home, we began what would be a full evening of watching sitcoms and shows. It was a good day!
So through all my travels in Southeast Asia, the one thing I learned is just how unique China is in the Asian sector. I really thought there would be a lot of similarities between the eastern cultures, but I was wrong. When we took the Chinese bus from Laos to Kunming, it was abundantly clear to me just how different the Chinese culture is. We were quickly reintroduced to China at the border crossing where we often saw lots of spitting on the streets, children in split pants and 15 layers of clothing, horrible bathroom conditions with no toilet paper or soap, drive by hellos by people like security check guards, good food (dishes and rice), fast bus drivers in dangerous conditions, and a host of other random bits of cultural things that are "so China". It's weird that many of these things are becoming a part of my identity whether I ever understand them or not!
CHINESE NEW YEAR FEAST
For lunch today Derek, Janice and I visited Janice's aunt and uncle who prepared a traditional New Year's feast. The food was especially delicious, and as is custom anytime we eat dinner in someone's home, we were forced to gorge ourselves. Even Janice, who was supposed to be our buffer and communicative liason, continued to feed us long after we should have stopped. But it was a lot of fun, and it's always cool to meet our friends' families.
This evening we went to Andrew and Jaime's to cook pizza and play a game called Settlers. It's a fun, strategic game that I'm not very good at but is easy enough to play. It's nice settling back into a routine that feels regular. Things are still really quiet around here since most of the students have not returned. The city actually woke up today, and it seemed to be more like it's old self instead of the ghost town it was yesterday. School is supposed to begin next week, but I'm not sure when or what I'll be teaching yet. No worries, though.