Flying on the ground

It was like flying

We’ve tried to avoid flying as much as we can on this trip, doing everything overland where possible. So we were a little surprised at our experience with the buses here in Peru.

We arrived at the bus terminal to be directed to a ‘check in desk’, where after confirming tickets and passports, they take your luggage, weigh it and tag it, and attach the luggage receipt to your ticket. It’s an odd experience having to trust the luggage will be making its own way onto the bus – not something we felt entirely comfortable since this wasn’t actually an airport!

But not just an ordinary bus...

You then queue to enter the departure lounge, where they search you and your hand luggage (for what, we’re not quite sure), and use one of those funky wand things to check for metal or guns or something. In the lounge itself (alas, no duty free) are comfy seats, and a queue building at the departure gate – no sign of Ryanair style priority boarding yet though!

The team on the bus, excited at our free headphones and pillows!

On the bus itself, the surreal experience continues. Someone comes past with a video camera to film the face of everyone in each seat for security reasons. The seats have blankets, pillows and free headphones and recline to 160 degrees – and there’s food on board. We were slightly disappointed to find they don’t serve complimentary alcohol, but the in-flight game of bingo made up for it!

It should be said this was with the expensive bus company ‘Cruz del Sur’ – peruvian roads are notorious for crashes and we weren’t going to take our chances. However, there are definately some things National Express or Megabus could learn from this!


PS. Having written this, we just had the most confusing bus bingo ever. Laura thought she’d won, but we didn’t want to declare it since we don’t actually need a (non-transferrable) bus ticket back to Cuzco. Then it seems like half the bus went up to claim their prize to be told they hadn’t actually won yet, including an elderly woman who was asked to sing to us for entertainment while her numbers were checked. And then when there was an actual winner, two people rushed to claim the prize. You definately don’t get this kind of excitement on the buses back home!


24 hours on the bus


View from my seat on the bus

I’m writing from an epic bus journey, 24 hours from Hanoi, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos. Laura and I have just had a tasty picnic lunch of baguettes filled with ham and actual cheese with flavour. My taste buds are still tingling from the sensation! Accompanied by stunning mountain panoramas and the great music of Electrelane, it’s gone a long way to break up the monotony of a long road trip.

The bus we’re on is a modern sleeper, with three lines of bunk beds running down its length, some flat screen TVs playing Vietnamese dubbed Kung Fu movies, and a lot of sweaty passengers in the near-flat seats, and also on the isles between them. We’ve seen this trip dubbed ‘The bus journey from hell’ online, but in reality it’s been pretty good, after a slightly shaky start.

Our last day in Hanoi started with a quick visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and House. It’s a bit of a logistical struggle, and we’d failed to make it into the complex before going to Sa Pa. The complex is closed Mondays and Fridays, and of course on weekends. It’s also closed after 11am daily. And for all of September, October and November, when his body is sent for it’s annual re-embalming. It still being November, we were expecting to only see the house (which is apparently open afternoons, although how you actually get in since the complex is locked is another matter), but unexpectedly found ourselves in a line leading to the Mausoleum. I don’t think either of us had quite expected to round a corner, be shushed to silence by a guard, and find his body on display in the spotlights. This is probably the right time to say that as much as it was a surprise to us, it would also have come as a surprise to him, given his final wish was to be cremated, something not honoured by his successors. We also went round his ‘Stilt House’, a very modest two room dwelling where he was said to have lived, exemplifying himself as a man of the people with modest ways. This perspective does somewhat overlook a few facts though – for this place is still within the lavish grounds of the presidential palace, and Uncle Ho (as he’s endearingly known) also had another more conventially-sized house within the grounds – complete with a collection of cars. Strangely although on the tour, this isn’t the one featured on all the photos of his life though…


Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House

We were picked up from our hotel by a minibus to take us and apparently 25 other tourists to the bus depot. Considering the minibus could seat 19, and we all had luggage a plenty, it was a bit of a squeeze! The obvious jokes about us being on the minibus all the way to Laos weren’t that appreciated by those standing in the isle, and we were pleased when rolled up at the city bus depot. Although not quite so manic on this sleeper bus, it’s still a squash for taller folks, with some bunks apparently built for dwarfs incongruously the place they were forced to sit by the driver’s shouting assistant. There’s a guy off to our right whose seat is so small that with his legs straightened out he was nearly sitting on the head rest! Fortunately our bunks are fine, even if the aforementioned shouting assistant has gone to sleep on the bit of corridor between us and occasionally elbows us as he stretches in his sleep.


The border, Laos side

We’re now in Laos, having crossed the border when it first opened at 7am this morning. So narrow is the country that we’re already skirting its western border, and as I write this I can see over the river to our left to the trees in Thailand, where we’ll be setting foot sometime in the New Year. Our border crossing earlier was entertainment in its own right, with a jester amid the border guards on the Vietnamese side. They’d collected in all the foreign passports in
order to stamp us out (for a princely $1), and so had to return them. The guy called out each name, after which the corresponding person jumped to the front and did their best to look like their passport photo. Hats and sunglasses were removed, smiles were suppressed, and we tried to look as 2D as possible. It was more of a challenge for one girl who now had frizzy hair in contrast to her straight-haired photo; the guard even showed me her passport in jest as he refused to return it to her. Fortunately she had ID to vouch for herself, although at one moment it did seem he was going to seize that too! Laura and I managed to make it through unscathed – she actually looks quite like her photo, and it turns out that for me, the trick was to put on my best criminal pose, and then puff out my cheeks like a hamster – it would appear that I’ve lost weight since the snap was taken!


A traditional stilt house we drove past in Laos

All in all, we found Vietnam a little hard to get stuck into after India. Some of the places we went to were fascinating, and some of the things we saw and learnt heart-wrencing, particularly around the war. Unfortunately these moments of shock and awe were interspersed with a bitter taste from having both a taxi driver and a hostel try to con us in Hanoi. Perhaps we’ve also travelled too fast and not stopped long enough to let the qualities of the locals and their way of life really settle; our few days in Hoi An, in Ha Long Bay, and in Sa Pa were each enchanting in their own way – but not quite enough to make the whole.

So with less than a month to go until Christmas, we find ourselves on a sleeper bus to sleepy Laos, where we hope to find a different pace with a relatively untouched way of life. As the French put it, “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow”. We’ll let you know what it sounds like next time!


The runaway ghost train

Our final day’s trekking brought us back down to our starting point, Shyaphru Besi, via a winding mountain path that would have given us superb views if it wasn’t for the clouds. The narrow wet trail overhanging the cliff edge wasn’t for the faint-hearted, particularly as we crossed (small) waterfalls, leaping from rock-to-rock. But this was a walk in the park (well, jungle) compared to our journey to and from Kathmandu…

Before I say any more, let me point out that I’m writing this from the comfort of a hotel bed safely back in Kathmandu. Our limbs are all still attached, and other than a cold, we’re both in good spirits.

A number of people have told us they recently saw a TV show about the worst roads in the world, and Nepal was featured. Deservedly so. The people at the shop we hired our sleeping bags from told us the roads have actually got worse rather than better in recent years – a huge rise in the number of trucks carrying goods across the country have torn the often untarmaced surface apart, with post-monsoon maintenance unable to keep up with the rate of destruction.

If the bumpy dirt road to Everest Base Camp was a rollercoaster, then this was (at times) a runaway ghost train.

Most of the ten hour journey was fine – surfaced roads, not that much overtaking on blind corners, even a break for a quick lunch. For something little more than a school bus, it was crowded (40 seated, 20 standing, 20 on the roof), but we had seats. And the cargo (a stack of TVs, sacks of rice, gas bottles, and a couple of live chickens perched in the head-height luggage rack for good measure) didn’t shift around too much.

The hair-raising bits were where there had been landslides, and road gave way to an undesirable combination of mud, boulders, waterfalls and sheer drops, and the bus company was diligently trying to ensure the full distance from start to finish was covered, in spite of the obstacles. Seeing the skeleton of a former bus lying on the hillside beneath us as we were leaving Kathmandu did not inspire confidence!

Anyway, the road was a challenge, and the driver was nothing short of amazing in his abilities to navigate the, well, seemingly unnavigable. A combination of momentum, lurching up to 30 degrees before hurtling back to the centre line, massive tires, and the sheer willpower of the (occasionally screaming) people on board seemed to get us through. We’re hoping the photos will do it justice.

We had to walk a bit where the road was actually entirely impassable, and for our return journey this had got worse, with us needing to hot-foot it over saturated mud that felt very much like another landslide waiting to happen. But we were triumphant!

For the way back, we decided for the first time to play our “I’m a wealthyish westerner, get me out here” trump card and take a jeep, which meant we got out and walked all the risky bits, and had the luxury of only 10 people in the vehicle for most of it. We met a lovely couple of honeymooning Australians, Mitch and Kirsty who offered us a ride – and we’ve been spending some time in Kathmandu chilling out (and celebrating the end of the journey) with them before they head off to the beaches of Thailand.

Our advice to anyone else going to Langtang – think seriously about taking a jeep, or going elsewhere! We won’t be repeating the experience – instead we will just cling to our memories (of clinging on for dear life) via the now oft-recited phrase “the bus would have done it!”