Distance: 54km on the bike
Another day, another bus. This time to the border town of Boten.
At the bus station we had a complicated time working out which bus was ours, and it turned out to be a tiny bus with a small rack on the roof. Sam and Francois managed to fit all the bikes up the top while Severene and I loaded the bags into the bus. There were some spare seats so I put the bags in a corner up the back, thinking they were out of the way. Some men had placed big bags of bamboo on the floor of the bus and we had to climb over them to get to the back, but at least our bags were out of the way.
Unfortunately, the ticket office sold tickets for every seat on the bus, and then some. And the mostly Chinese people on the bus were insistent on sitting in their numbered seats. Along the back seat – where we had all been given tickets – there were five seats but six numbers. The four of us were meant to sit there along with a Spanish girl and Chinese boy. No way. We had paid for a seat each, and we would take a seat each. We put our bags on top of the bamboo sacks and then more people got on the bus. Just outside of town the driver stopped again to squeeze more people inside. It was crazy.
Despite the cramped conditions we chatted happily to the Spanish girl and Chinese boy for most of the journey over the bumpy, dirt road. It was a really terrible road and we were glad not be riding.
In Boten, Francois and Severene needed to change their Laotian money (you can’t change it outside the country) and we all wanted food. It was Sunday so the official exchange building was closed, but the owner of the little stall next door gave them the same exchange rate as was listed on the door of the exchange building. We found a restaurant to make us some friend rice with beef (by pointing to the ingredients we wanted) and we rode the 1km to the border.
The Laotian side was quite easy – fill in the departure card and get a stamp. For some reason we had to walk our bikes for a few metres across the border, not ride them, but then we got back on the bikes to ride to the Chinese border crossing. In no-mans land there were people offering to exchange money, and Francois found some more kip he had originally forgotten so he was able to change that money.
We went into the Chinese border building and filled in an arrival card each. At the desk we all got a grilling on where we’d got the visa, where we were visiting, had we been to China before… it took almost 10 minutes each. Francois had his bag checked and Sam got asked to show extra ID to prove who he was.
Outside the building and the guard on the road decided to also check every page of our passports and our photos before we rode through. We ended up feeling rather privileged to be in China.
The first big town, Mengla, was 42km away and we decided to ride there together. Just over the border was a town called Mohan and since we had no Chinese money Sam and I stopped when we saw an ATM sign. Severene and Francois were ahead of us and it looked like they kept going down the road. The ATM had been removed so we decided to catch up to our new friends and worry about money when we got to town.
We rode as fast as we could to catch up but didn’t see them. Wow, they are really fast, we thought, and picked up our speed. For the next 42km we were surprised not to see them. We thought it was very strange that they had ridden so far ahead of us…
The ride to town was largely downhill and pretty easy. There were some tunnels to ride through which were a bit scary, because they were so dark inside. The worst part though was that we were really thirsty, and had no Chinese money to buy drinks. Not that we passed any shops anyway – we didn’t. But despite this we made good time and got there in the early afternoon.
Our first mission was to find money so we could buy drinks. When we turned off the freeway we turned left into the town but it seemed dead. We went back the other way and soon came to a city bigger than we’d expected. We found a bank and went to the ATM. But it was in Chinese. I went inside to get help. When it was my turn I was told that their ATMs only accepted Chinese cards. I asked if I could get any money out in the branch. No, they don’t service foreign accounts. Could I change some US money? No. I asked about other ATMS, banks, currency exchange – explained we had no money. They told me to go to Jinghong (150km away).
I tried a few more banks and they each told me the same thing. We tried every ATM we saw in the hope that it would work, but none even had the visa or mastercard symbols. We were in China with no money, and no way to get any.
Eventually I got so desperate in a credit union that I stood there and refused to move, even though I knew they were telling me to go to Jinghong. The man must have taken pity on me because he ended up changing US$40 from his own pocket. The exchange rate wasn’t great, but at least we had some money!
We bought some drinks and were sitting down on the footpath wondering where to stay when we saw Francois and Severene across the road. They came across and explained that when we stopped for money they had stopped for the toilet and then waited for us. But we didn’t appear. Eventually they figured we had passed them and they’d come here. We were all glad to be reunited again.
They had checked into a cheap hotel up the road so we went up there. As we arrived a Chinese man walked in and told us he had an information stall outside and could help us with maps and currency exchange – so we changed another US$100 with him on the spot. We also bought a map off him with both Chinese and English names. This man would help us many times in the next couple of days, as he was one of the only people who understood any English.
Happy to be back with our friends and secure that we had some money, we found a restaurant with an English menu but the food was terrible. I think we all went to bed more than a little hungry.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia