Tuk to the Road

The trials and tukulations of Jo, Ants and Ting Tong the tuk tuk and our three-wheeled odyssey from Bangkok to Brighton...in aid of the mental health charity Mind. For more information please see www.tuktotheroad.com

Friday, June 30, 2006

My new favourite food

Jiayuguan, North-west China

Another day, another pair of underpants (as my friend Sarah Craig used to say at school). Today was a really good day. Not only were the roads brilliant, but we also visited the last fort stationed on The Great Wall in the west, here at Jiayuguan.

My last blog was incorrect about The Great Wall. It's total length is actually 25000km. This sounds huge, but there is not just one long wall that makes up The Great Wall, but several that pass from eatern China westwards. The building of the Great Wall (GW) started in 700BC and was extended over the coming centuries.

We set off this morning at the leisurely hour of 9.30am- a very late start for us. The tarmac was beautiful (Ants and I are keen tarmac enthusiasts) and we covered 100km in under 2 hours. These kinds of distances have not been covered in such a time since Thailand. I felt quite euphoric and we stopped for a cup of coffee in the petrol station to celebrate. The roads became slightly less smooth when Ants took over, but we were still travelling at 40mph, which is our speed limit here in China for a three wheeler.

The beauty of not taking the Expressways has become apparent to us and we now look down on those poor people who are stuck travelling at speeds in excess of 60mph. Well, occassionally we are a little envious. The positives of travelling on the old (and slower) road is that we can stop whenever we want to take photos or have a short break. We travel through completely untouristy villages and towns, where we can stop and eat lunch. The local people are interested in TT and we are interested in them. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. However, we aren't always impressed when they shake her to test the suspension or when they get in the driving seat and start changing gears. Sometimes we start the engine while we are eating lunch to give people a shock. We have a remote control that can set off alarms and stat and stop the engine within a range of a couple of hundred metres. It is quite funny watching 30 plus people jump- not in a nasty way and they always find it funny.

The title of the blog indicates that I have found a new favourite food here and I ate about .5 kg of it at supper. In Chinese restaurants in England we have toffee banana or apple- here they have toffee potato. It sounds a strange combination, but is delicious and great energy food. I think I could do my russian dancing for at least an hour after a plate of the stuff, although I haven't tries it yet. That reminds me, supper tonight was very amusing. We brought in our own beer and were drinking it from tiny tea cups. The waitress came over and poured Chinese tea into Jack's beer, which made us giggle. Then our food arrived- coriander salad (devil's herb), cooked celery (double yuck), my favourite new food, a tofu dish and a fish Jack had chosen from it's tank. Jack asked Ants if she liked Wasabi (Japanese mustard based rocket fuel for the taste buds). She said she did and so Jack poured the whole bowl of Wasabi over Ants' coriander salad. Ants took a large mouthful, went red, nearly choked and tears poured from her eyes. We all collapsed into laughter and the waitress must have thought we were bonkers. The toffee potatoes had totally set and so we tried to prise them apart with a combination of chopsticks (useless), fingers (a little better), toothpick (the best), knife and fork (food destroyed). Bits of toffee started flying everywhere, the table, the floor, on us. We laughed again and ate more toffee (i.e. pure sugar) than is probably good for us. Good fun and a tasty meal.

Our new guide Jack just highlights the differences between him and Sam. Jack is the sort of person we would be mates with back home and Sam was grumpy and somewhat uninspiring company. Jack always asks if we slept well, what food we would like etc... Sam never did any of this and would often keep us waiting 10+ minutes in the morning because he was still asleep. Jack sings, dances, is funny and charming and a great person to be around. He is not as good as map reading as Sam, but who cares. He is such a wicked guy and we hope he can come with us to the border. Currently, his boss is due to escort us from China (I think to make sure we leave), but it is unsettling changing guides and why would we want someone new for 2/3 days when Jack fits our threesome so well.

Jaiyuguan Fort was impressive- incrediblt steep walls that I am sure would have been very difficult for any enemy to penetrate. They had obviously done some reconstruction to make the site more complete e.g. parts of the walls were reinforced and the pavillions on top of the fort had been rebuilt. The views were inspiring in three directions: mountains, snow cappes peaks and desert. In one directiuon you could see the town and four ugly power plant chimneys. Video cameras were not meant to be allowed, but that didn't stop Ants hiding behind the walls and filming anyway. We finished our touristy duties witha trip to the GW museum, which provided and detailed history of The Wall and various battles that were fought over the ages. By comoparing notes with Jack we realised that they had accidently put the wrong length of the GW in Chinese (50,000km instead of 25,000km). Jack pointed this out to the museum staff and it will now be changed.

So, life is good with the tukkers. We still drive long days, but have now got used to it and 6 hours driving feels short and fun. China has been an experience from day 1, at times trying and exhausting, but the experiences we will take away and cherish for ever. I wouldn't rather be anywhere else, or with anyone else (Ants I love you).

Tukking the Great Wall by storm

Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, North West China

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View from Jiayuguan Fort, Gansu

Its funny to think that when Jo and I first got our Chinese itinerary from the CSITS we balked at the sight of a 566 km day, imagining the horror of driving for eight hours. Now here we are, 21 days into China, and today, at six hours, was far and away our shortest day on the road. Even eight hours falls into the short day bracket now, so used are we to arriving at our destination each night after upwards of ten hours tukking.

Gansu maye be a very poor province but boy are its roads better. Today we covered 260 km's in six hours, cruising along almost pothole free tarmac at a steady 50 km's per hour. Since we left Lanzhou a few days ago we have been heading west, along the old Silk Road, more used to carrying precious caravans of silk and spices than Ting Tongs. Our road has taken us along the Hexi Corridor, a 1000km stretch of land sandwiched between mountains to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north. For centuries this was the trading route between China and the West, the only way for goods and people to cross the cultural and geographical divide. Today spanking new expressway stretches across the wilderness, a far cry from the camel caravans of ancient times, and Dong Feng trucks carry coal and other goods to Xinjiang and beyond. The Hexi corridor is also famous for being the location of 1000 km's of the Great Wall, which we saw yesterday for the first time.

This mythical wall, lauded as the only manmade structure visible from space, is always something I have imagined as a vast brick edifice. But the Wall we encountered yesterday is no more than crumbling mud ramparts, barely distinguishable from the desert engulfing it. For most of the road between Wuwei and Zhangye we tukked along beside this historic remnant, evocative even in its advanced state of disrepair. I feel sure that Ting Tong was the first pink TT to follow its path.

Today was equally impressive driving, the road continuing west through vast treeless expanses. Rearing up in the distance on our left were the snowcapped peaks of the Qilian mountains, to our right the endless horizon of the desert. Never before have I been somewhere so remote, it felt like driving to the edges of the universe. Which to the Chinese it almost is.

Jiayuguan, where we are now, has always been synonymous in Chinese culture as a place of grim desolation, comparable to the outer edges of Siberia in the Russian psyche. Here lies the last fortress of the Great Wall, built in 1372 by the Ming dynasty. Looking out over its ramparts this afternoon it was easy to imagine why this place has such connotations. Sand and snow-capped mountains filled the horizon and althougth the temperature was a scorching 34 degrees today, in winter the thermometer plunges to 20 below zero.

Thanks to Jack's encouragement - Jo and I were both feeling tired and idle - we also took in the Great Wall museum. Did you know that the wall was begun in the 7th century BC, took over 2000 years to build, and during the time of the Ming dynasty needed a million men to guard its 25,000 km length? No, neither did I. Quite amazing.

Tomorrow we continue further west, to Anxi. We've got to leave very early as for 250 km of the 320 km route there are roadworks, surprise surprise. Then hopefully we can have a day off paragliding or dune surfing in the desert. Double wooopeeee.

That's all from me... love to all in the UK xx Ants

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

North west for the British penguins

We are now heading westwards with our new guide Jack. He is total dude, dances with me in the middle of the road and doesn't mind us singing in public- in fact he joins in. Tonight he grossed us out by eating chicken's feet. They appear more meaty than I imagine and Ants has dared me to try one- not tonight though as I would like to keep my tasty supper in my stomach!

The scenery is so breathtaking here. What I would describe as raw nature- fewer signs of human activity and mountains surrounding us. It is very different to south china- the people have longer noses and some have green eyes. Also, the food is mainly noodle based and a refreshing change to rice.

I have refered to us as penguins for a reason and it is nothing to do with the Pingwu reference. In Lanzhou (a coupe of nights ago) we went for a wander and it wa raining. We both sported green ponchos to keep dry. The pavaments here are very slippery when wet and our foot atire i.e. flipflops don't have much grip. We both nearly went tit over arse a few times and realised that the only way to stay vertical was to shuffle along like a couple penguins in single file (we walk only on parts of the pavement that appear to provide us with more traction). The thought of either of us suffering a broken limb was enough to reduce our walk to the pace of a crawling baby, because if one of us breaks a bone, the other would have to drive the whole way back to england- I can tell you that this is our idea of a nightmare.

Today we drove along the Great Wall- not literally. I didn't know that it is about 5000km long and we were driving right next to it for most of the day. It was awesome. It is not how you imagine after perhaps having seen photos, but it is so tall and wide that old Genghis Khan must have found it a challenging obstacle. It was in a pretty tatty state for the most part, but still an imposing sight. Sometimes it continued undamaged for a mile and there were watch towers (I assume) at quite close intervals. It was a very special day.

I would love to write more, but I am about to get cut off and then will lose this blog and be unable to pot it. Hope to writ a mega blog soon and add more photos. Goodnight, Jo xoxoxo

The first pink tuk tuk on the Silk Road?

Wuwei, Gansu Province, North West China

The Union Jack flies over Gansu

Today we finally turned West and headed for the plains of Central Asia along the fabled Silk Road. Its good to feel that we are, after 5 weeks of tukking north, finally heading for Europe and home. Although we're not even half way yet!

We said goodbye to Sam this morning who flew back home to Kunming to sleep for a week and celebrate his survival. So now we are in the capable hands of Jack, aged 26, from Urumqui. After a day with him we feel sure he is going to be lots of fun. Rather than cringing with embarassment when we sing or when Jo sprung into an impromptu Cossack dancing display in the middle of a quiet mountain road today, he joined in. Several cars stopped to view this strange scene, I whipped out the camera as per usual and then off we went. Now we are in Wuwei and tomorrow its 250 km's to Zhangye.

Very amusingly, Jo just got an email from MIND saying we have been shortlisted for Cosmopolitan's 'Fun Fearless Female' award. Hilarious. Great for boosting our fundraising though - we are currently almost at 20,000 pounds so still another 30,000 to go till we reach our target.

I was just thinking as we were driving today how wonderful it is to be travelling with Jo. Ever since an, erm, eventful 5 day caravanning trip in Norfolk aged 17 - had a car crash, went to hospital, nearly blew up the caravan, evicted from the caravan park - we have wanted to go travelling together. University, jobs and Jo's illness all delayed us by 10 years. I couldn't wish for a better person to be doing this trip with; Jo makes me laugh hysterically every day, rarely gets grotchety and always makes me wear suncream. What more could I wish for. So thank you ferret.

That's all for today. Gansu continues to fascinate with its curious meld of Chinese and Muslim culture, the mountains get more beautiful by the day and the fruit is incredible. Jack ate chicken's feet for dinner which he says are quite delicious. I'm not sure I agree.

xx Ants

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Earthquakes, congratulations and get well soon

I had wanted to include the blog that I had written on the laptop, but nothing is simple in China and USB keys are yet again not allowed in this internet cafe. So, I will have to wrack my brain for the last few days' events. This also means that no more photos for the time being and we have lots of wicked ones to add. We are both slightly frustrated by the communication issues here.

Anyway, very boring first para. I last wrote a quick blog in Pingu the penguin and we are currently in Lanzhou. From here we head west towards Kazakhstan and are just over half through our China mission. Overall on our trip we have covered about 4000 miles and have another 8000 miles to go.

The last week has been filled with lots of driving, but overall the road conditions are improving. The stretches of pure unadulterated tarmac continue for longer, although our average speed is still averaging 30km/hour. When we get the chance to drive over 30mph it feels like TT is taking off, which is very strange.

TT is behaving herself, but has developed a few little sounds e.g. whistles, squeeks and groans. I interpret these as a form of communication and I think she is trying to sound like all the other Chinese vehicles. She had a good service and several mechanics have checked her over and assured us she is fine.

Even though we have been driving long hours, the scenery more than makes up for it. By taking the scenic route we are seeing parts of China that most tourists don't get to experience and appreciate. Therefore, our experiences in China are filled with beautiful mountains, landscapes and local people rather than the more conventioanl tourist sites e.g. the Terracotta army. I think the locals find us as intriguing as we find them. Luckily for me it is not rude to stare in China, so I can be really nosey without being accused of impoliteness.

The highlights of the last few days include being stranded by an earthquake. We had been on the road for a good 10 hours and were within easy striking distance of our next town. Ants and I were both experiencing our silly hour and as Ants mentioned I was singing 'Nee Hao' to every living creature that we passed. I think the combination of this and two foreign girls in a bright pink tuktuk was too much to take in and many jaws hit the floor. We passed through a town and I continued howling at crowds of locals, only to exit the town and to be blocked by a landslide. Apparently an earthquake had caused a landslide which had blocked our path. There was no escape and the locals all gathered around and had a good look. I was slightly embarrassed that I would have to look people in the eye after singing to them. The only option was to sit it out and spend the night on the road. It was getting dark and we couldn't reach the town we had left from that morning. Besides, to get to our intended town (for that night) going back the way we came would have taken another day and was over 300km. It would have been like driving 3 and 3/4 sides of a square. Before bed we went and met the local youths and enjoyed beer and karaoke with them. I agreed to do karaoke and was hoping for a Chinese song to sing Nee Hao to. Unfortunately they found me a famous Chinese love song sung in English which I had never heard before. I stood there like a total lemon, bum bag strapped to my waist and tried to sing the chorus. Amusing and confusing for everyone there, horrible humiliating for me.

Bed for the night was the back of TT for me and the pavement for Mr Ant. I got restless legs which totally did my head in, before tossing and turning all night. Mr Ant was in a deep sleep but was awoken at 4am by one of the guys we had met at karaoke- he rapped on her head hard and then blabbered some chinese nonsense to her. I found this highly amusing in the morning and Ants also managed to see the funny side. They used some sticks of dynamite to dislodge some more rocks and a digger cleared away the tonnes of debris on the road. At midday we were on our way.

the last two days involved more driving through alternating rugged, barren mountains and green lush mountains. We passed villages where people still lived in basic mud huts and were lucky enough to drive into an amazing sunset.

I would like to say a big congratulations to my brother on getting a 2.1 in his media degree (he is the future Nick Broomfield) and get well soon to my darling ferret Shrimp, who had a growth removed from his fat tummy.

Until we reach the internet again.........xoxoxo (Jo)

Time to head West

Lanzhou, north-west China

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The landslide at Linjian

18 days into our Chinese tukathon and we've reached the half way point in this neverending country. As you can probably tell by the absence of blogs in the last week, we've had our foot flat to the floor, driving on average 10 hours a day. If we didn't have a log book I (Ants) would find it very hard to remember where we have been or what day or date it is. It all melds into one long bumpy road.

I think the last blog I wrote was in Leshan...so I'll start where I left off. After Leshan we headed for Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and home to around 10 million people. We gave Emeishan, the Holy Mountain we were supposed to climb, a swerve and opted instead for a much needed day off in Chengdu.

Some day off. The CSITS insisted we went to extend our visas, saying it would take an hour. So we hung around, filled in forms, waited some more, only to be told after wasting about four hours that infact we would have to wait five days to get our passports back. We were not amused. It was our first day off in 12 days, we were desperate to explore the city and just chill out, and our plans had been scuppered, once again, by the CSITS. And guess what, Chengdu's piece de resistance, Tianfu Square, looked on by a towering statue of Chairman Mao, was a pile of rubble, apparently a new metro system is being built.

For the next few days we headed further north through Sichuan. The beautiful mountains of Yunnan and Guizhou were replaced by an endless stream of filthy towns, shrouded in a noxious cloak of pollution, some no more than mountains of bricks and half knocked down houses. I feel so sorry for the people who live in these towns, victims of China's frenetic quest for development, living in places that honestly looked like they have been caught in the Blitzkreig.

After the pollution and filth of central Sichuan came Gansu, where we currently are. Traditionally viewed as as a buffering zome between China and the barbarians beyond, Gansu is a huge province which goes from Lanzhou in the west to Dunhuang in the east. More importantly for us, as we tukked into it on Friday we passed the 5000 km mark, meaning we have covered 2000 km in China.

Driving into Gansu felt like entering a different country. The manicured hills of Yunnan and Guizhou were replaced by rugged, scree laden peaks. Hints of Muslim culture began to appear and the air became dry and stifling. And Gansu had a special surprise in store for us.

On Friday evening, after 11 hours on the road, the afternoon tuk fever and hysteria set in. With me at the wheel Jo launched into singing Nee-hao (hello), in perfect operatic tones, to all lucky passers by. Whether toiling in the fields, selling watermelons by the side of the road or just strolling to town, they all got treated to Jo's dulcit tones. Sam hid under his map in embarrassment (whilst trying unsuccessfully to contain his laughter) and I tried to drive straight whilst weak all over from laughing. It really was hilarious. The zenith came as we drove slowly through a small town. Tens of Dong Feng trucks were pulled up by the roadside and crowds of people milled around. We assumed it was dinner time and everyone had stopped for their rice and noodles. Jo continued her operatic offerings, safe in the knowledge that we would never see these people again. As we rounded a corner we saw the cause of the crowds, a vast landslide blocking a 50 m section of the road. We soon discovered there had been not one, but two, earthquakes, causing the landslide as well as destroying some houses. There was no escape. It was 8 pm, all the hotels were full, everyone had abandoned their houses for fear of an aftershock, and the only other road to Wudu - which lay tantalisingly close at 50 km's away - was a 300km diversion along dirt tracks. The only option was to wait till they cleared the path. It could be the next day, it could be in two days.

What followed was by far the funniest night we have had in China so far. Ting Tong and her inhabitants became an instant source of amusement for the locals and we spent the night at a karaoke bar, drinking far too much beer with the local lads. Sleeping on the pavement wasn't quite so much fun but hey, its all part of the adventure. Amazingly, by 12 noon the next day, one ancient digger and some dynamite had cleared the road and we were off again.

New karaoke friends..

Yesterday was another massive day of driving - 12 hours on the road, 365 km's covered. The long hours were alleviated by the incredible beauty of the country we were passing through. Magic. Mountains rose up on either side of the road, so perfectly green it was as if some ancient being had cast a giant velvet cloak over their shoulders. Funny yak like creatures, wild horses and goats grazed in flower strewn meadows. And to top it all off, we ended the day by driving into a perfect sunset. However long and tiring the days are, scenes like this can not help but lift the spirits. That's not to say I didn't feel slightly deranged by fatigue by the time we arrived in Lintao last night.

So now we are in Lanzhou, where after 5600 km's of tukking north we turn Ting Tong west and head along the Silk Road for Central Asia and home. Our visas are being extended today and we are changing guides, Sam is being replaced by Jack, who hails from Urumqui. Sam was so relieved to make it through his tukathon he leapt out of Ting Tong this morning and embraced Jack like a long lost brother. Sam's been a funny one - oscillating between perfect charm and vile sulks. We hope Jack is a little less moody.

As for our Chinese solution - well there isn't one. The CSITS can't /won't extend our permits and we can't drive any harder than we currently are. There is no way we will make it out of China by the 7th, so we'll just have to pray we don't get whipped and sent to prison at the border.

A few random observations about China: at least 20 % of the cars are VW Santana's, ankle socks are all the rage, perms a la 1980's are the height of fashion, and the biggest crowd TT has pulled so far is 46. That was at a 5 minute ice-cream stop yesterday. It is the most bizarre country and although its been a bit of an endurance test its been our favourite so far, every day something makes us really laugh.

That's it for now - sorry its a bit long and no idea when we'll next make it to the internet. x Ants

PS Got a load of pics on the USB key but this internet cafe won't allow them, ggrrrr

Friday, June 23, 2006

Pingwu the penguin

23rd June, Pingwu

Just a quickie as they don't have a USB point on my computer and so cannot add my blog.

Yesterday we had a day off (whoohoooooo) in Chengdu, but were both too knackered to fully appreciate it. We were planning on going to a Chinese opera/martial arts/drama show in the evening, but Ants put herself to bed and I got lost for an hour and wandered the streets looking at my Rough Guide for clues as to my whereabouts.

Left Chengdu this morning and TT had her front brake pad changed- cost a measly 70pence and they can do the job far more quickly and skillfully than me. I watched closely and will perhaps do them in the future.

Tonight we are in Pingwu, which we insist on calling Pingu (like the penguin)- we are slightly immature. Anyway, it is very Chinese and I doubt they get many tourists here. The roads today were brill- pure tarmac and our average speed has increased to just over 40km/hour. It doesn't sound much but it made the driving so much more bearable.

We are off to the hotel now for an early night- Ants and I are sleeping in separate rooms tonight, because neither of us are sleeping well and apparently I snored like a real man last night- my mother would be proud.

Will do a proper blog with more interesting news v soon. Goodnight, good luck to my bro who gets his degree result today and get well soon to my ferret Shrimp, who had an operation today. xoxo

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Giant Buddhas

A real quickie - got five minutes in an internet cafe, where we are trying to sort out our revised itinerary, before hitting the road to not sure where. We're supposed to be going to a Holy Mountain called Emeishan today but we are both in need of a sleepathon, not mountain climbing, so are going to see where we get to. Jo said the other day that the tiredness is cumulative, and she's right, every day you feel just a little bit less like getting up and a little bit more like sleeping for a week or two. Caffeine and cigarette intake is on the increase in a big way.

We are in Leshan now - home of the biggest stone Buddha in the world. He's pretty impressive and the mind boggles as to how they made him back in 820.

Jo bought an apron off some Yi people in Shilin the other day and is insisting on wearing it most of the time. Sam's embarrassment is complete.

Right, got to hit the road. Sorry so short and dull xx US

Monday, June 19, 2006

China rocks

Hello all, right now we are in a hotel and on the internet- a bloody revelation. China is brilliant and frustrating in equal measures.

Things I like about China:
- the people
- the food
- the scenery

Things I dislike about China
- Dong Feng trucks
- the driving
- the road conditions
- the public lavatories

So overall China gets a big thumbs up and we seem to be settling into a routine of getting up and driving for long hours without too many grumbles. It would be nice to have a day off at some point in the next three weeks, but if we don't it won't destroy us. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger and if you don't laugh you cry-oh how I love cliches.

Yesterday we visited Zijin caves, which were absoltely breathtaking. They must be one of the most impressive caves in the world. The length of the caves is 12.1km, although I think we covered about half that distance. There were no English guides and so we joined a group of Chinese. We didn't have a clue what the guide was saying, but she sounded like she knew what she was talking about. I have never seen such large stalctites and stalagmites in my life, some must have been about 60ft tall/long. I also learnt a new thing about limetsone rock formations created by dripping water, that when a stalactite and stalagmite join together it is called a stalacto-stalagmite. We have also created a new rock formation called a phlobomite- I assume that you can work out how this special rock formation is formed. The rocks were amazing shapes, with many looking like large jellyfish e.g. Portuguese Man of War. We passed through different levels of the cave and eventually came upon the huge main cavern, which was at least the size of a football pitch. I worried about a stalactite falling from the roof and causing an ignominious death for us both. I informed Ants that I thought it would be a very painless death and that it would make a good article in a newspaper. Unfortunately, we had driven in the morning and had a long drive ahead of us and therefore were too tired to enjoy the caves as we felt we should have done. In hindsight I am appreciating them alot more. I put on Ants' I-pod and was listening to some music, which inspired me to start cave dancing in a rather peculiar manner. What I had failed to realise was that a security guard was walking right behind me as I shook my little booty.

I thought I smoked too much, but the Chinese really put me to shame. I am not sure how the roads ever get built as there always seems to be someone having a cigarette break. They also smoke while riding motorbikes, which I am sure is quite dangerous. It wouldn't be hard for the ash to go in their eye, lose concentration and end up under the wheels of one of the Dong Feng army. You seem to able to smoke everywhere in China apart from the lifts and there are notices in all hotel rooms advising against smoking in bed, for obvious reasons. That just reminded me, in our hotel room today it is possible to buy a packet of blue pills, which I am sure must be the Chinese equivalent of Viagra. I suppose the population didn't reach over a billion for no reason.

Today we were on the road for 9 hours, which included an hour for lunch. We must be getting used to the long hours, because it was OK. Apart from Ants' incident with the rather cross Dong Feng driver there were no problems. Two strange things we saw today included a dead foal strapped to the back of a motorbike and a dead dog being dragged along the road by a small child- pet or lunch?

Tomorrow we are getting TT serviced. I will watch carefully so that I learn how to do the oil filter and air filter myself. I will change the front brake pad, but get a motorcycle mechanic to check my handywork. Changing the oil is something we will let a mecahnic deal with, because they can dispose of the old oil safely and we cannot. Also, we think her accelerator is starting to stiffen again and will get the mechanic to check that also.

That's all folks, time for bed as another long day beckons and the tired tukkers need their beauty sleep. xx

Grubby tukkers

Louzhou, Sichuan Province, China

Another day, another 300 km's covered. And as you can see from the photo I have hopefully posted above we are totally filthy. Eight hours spent tailing Dong Feng's belching black smoke tends to make one a little grubby.

War nearly broke out between the mothertruckers and the mothertukkers this afternoon. We've almost become accustomed to the driving here; the penchant for overtaking round the blindest corners, the neither a look to the left nor the right before pulling out, the constant near misses. But one Dong Fenger today really took the biscuit. As he roared past us, nearly sending Ting Tong and contents off a rocky precipice, I made the error of giving him the finger. The sight of an angry white arm appearing out of a mobile pink wendy house obviously riled him for as soon as he passed us he, whilst driving, opened the door of his truck, leant out and shook his fists in fury. Unluckily for us, a toll gate appeared 2 km later and as we pulled up the still seething trucker leapt out of his lorry and marched over to Ting Tong, gesticulating wildly and shouting what I can only assume wasn't 'Welcome to China, have a nice day'. I seriously thought he might punch me, and he probably would have if a burly security guard hadn't restrained him. He did however manage to unzip his trousers and reveal a pair of red Y front and all therein before Jo finally paid the toll and we zoomed off. All the time Jo had been oblivious to my plight, dealing with paying the toll, and couldn't believe it when I filled her in. Sam said maybe I shouldn't give anyone the finger and I think I agree. I spent the next 70 km thinking about that film Duel, waiting for the offended trucker to appear on our tail and force us off the edge of the mountain. Quite scary. I guess its all down to cultural relativism - driving that is totally acceptable here would lose you your license in the UK in 2 minutes. So he probably thought my finger was unjustified, while I saw our lives flashing before my eyes.

We're in Luzhou tonight, big, polluted and very hot. Sam has left us to our own devices so we're off to explore and hopefully not get lost or fed dog by accident.

xx Ants


17th June Huanguoshu Waterfall

I am sorry that we are not blogging as often as we would like. The reason is that we cannot access our blogging site properly in China and therefore have to write them on the laptop and send them back to my brother to publish for us.

Right now we in a hotel in Huanguoshu, where there is a very large waterfall that is supposed to be one of the key highlights of this province, Guizhou. We arrived too late to enter during daylight and were lucky enough for them to be doing a night lightshow (apparently because of the world cup). So we had some supper and descended 559 (Ants counted them as we ascended) steps to see the waterfall illuminated by green floodlights. I have never seen a waterfall by night and it was quite impressive- I actually think we enjoyed the experience more than if we had seen it during daylight.

Back to the last 2 days of driving. The roads seem to have improved since we left Yunnan, although rather than being bad all of the time, they are now bad just some of the time. Today’s drive had mostly good tarmac, but we were slowed down by the steep and windy mountainous roads. TT has a front disc brake and back drum brakes. The disk brake is a motorcycle brake and is used for about 80% of our braking power. This is not ideal when we are descending steep windy roads and instead of speeding up between corners, we have to keep her in third gear and use the engine as our main brake. This is not a criticism of her construction, because it is the only way that she could be built- she is not big enough to have a front brake like a car.

Yesterday was possibly our most challenging day, although I didn’t find it as mentally tough as the driving last week. Our accelerator pedal had felt really stiff for awhile and we think it had begun to get more stiff. I spoke to my dad and he warned that the cable may snap. Lo and behold, I am driving down the road and the cable snaps. We were right out in the sticks, with the nearest form of civilization 20 minutes away. I phoned Anuwat (our tuk tuk maker and guru from Expertise) and told him the problem. He told me that it was really easy to fix and that we needed to find a spare cable. Thank goodness Anuwat had sent us on our way with two full boxes of spares which live on TT’s roof-rack. We located the cable and Anuwat explained that we needed to unscrew the front seat and get access to the engine. He then explained that we needed to find the carburetor. I responded that I didn’t know what the ****ing carburetor looked like, to which he burst out laughing. We toyed with the idea of hitching a lift to the next town and getting a mechanic to come and help us. However, the fact that Anuwat had said it was easy to fix made me want to try it without help. The next two plus hours were spent on our hands and knees or back fixing the problem. This involved removing the old cable and putting in a new one. If we had to do the same job again it would probably take just 20 minutes, but we were trying to cut a new cable complete with plastic sheath down to size. A truck mechanic came over and told us it would be easier to just insert a new cable rather than try and cut a new plastic sheath down to size as well. You may wonder why we found it so hard to cut a plastic sheath, but the problem was that the plastic sheath had a metal coil wrapped around its inside and this was tricky to cut without crushing it and therefore affecting the movement of the cable inside. We gave up on our original idea and instead just inserted a new cable into the old plastic sheath. We then had to make sure the tension was correct and cut it to size, so that it did not dangle on the floor. Eventually we succeeded, a combined effort from Ants, myself and Sam (our brilliant guide). It was with great trepidation that I started the engine and drove off, unaware whether the tension would be OK. To our great relief TT was driving like a dream. Once in the next town we asked a mechanic to check our handywork and he said it was fine. I cannot tell you satisfying doing our own mechanical repairs was, even though it left us with many hours still to drive.

The rest of the day was OK, apart from a rather hairy patch of road that was under construction. I have decided to get a T-shirt made which reads “China, Under Construction”. The driving here is the worst I have experienced anywhere in the world. The Chinese make the Indians look like Formula 1 drivers. There is no regard for other road users at all and wing mirrors are not used. People here may as well be wearing blinkers (like horses) for all the attention they pay to other road users. Even if we are on a good stretch of tarmac and could drive at 60mph, it is very dangerous to do so for a number of reasons e.g. a buffalo cart doing a U-turn, a huge Dong Feng truck overtaking and playing chicken with TT.

Our day ended with a tropical downpour. The rain was like nothing we get in England. It is like having buckets of water thrown at you from all angles. I hate getting wet; when I was a child I would cry if my feet got wet. When the rain started I went out of TT with Sam and we put down the back rain covers, with me holding a limp and useless umbrella over my head. We hoped the rain would pass, but it got stronger and stronger, until everything in the back was soaked, having come in from the front. I had to get out and put down all of the covers. I screamed at the top of my lungs and got soaked to the bone. Ants was driving, it was dark, pissing with rain and really windy. We eventually made it to the hotel at 9pm. It was a town that I doubt sees any westerners and we park TT outside and emerge sopping wet and stagger into the hotel. I think they could hardly believe their eyes!

Over to Ants…

Well I won’t repeat Jo but this country really should welcome all visitors with a sign saying ‘Wecome to China – country under construction.’ Everywhere you go a plague of blue Dong Feng lorries blights the countryside, the beginnings of new expressways march across the mountains and piles of rubble litter the roadside. You can not drive more than 10 km without being met by queues of honking traffic waiting to pass a motley crew of roadworkers, smoking cigarettes and ostensibly improving the roads. It gives true meaning to the phrase ‘developing country’.

The last few days have, as Jo has aptly illustrated, been incredibly tough. We covered 270 km in 11 hours yesterday, and 240 km’s in 9 today. Yesterday was hellish; not only did we have to deal with fixing the accelerator cable (when Jo yelled down the phone to Anuwat ‘ I don’t know what the f*** a carburetor looks like’ I thought we were in deep trouble), but we got totally drenched by the most violent tropical rainstorm I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. So suddenly was it upon us that by the time Jo had bravely leapt out to put down the raincovers us and all our stuff was drenched. All I cared about was the DV camera, which we wrapped in my tropical poncho and luckily saved from a watery grave. You should have seen the faces of the people at our hotel last night as a pink tuk tuk pulled up and three sodden individuals crawled out. Jo’s T shirt ‘What the fook fook is a tuk tuk’ summed up the situation perfectly. However, the comically bad karaoke - a feature in every hotel here – soon had us laughing hysterically and forgetting the hardships of 11 hours on the road.

So now we find ourselves in Guizhou province. A traditional saying states that here there are, ‘No three days without rain, no three hectares without a mountain and no three coins in any pocket’. They also have a predilection of dog meat, which has me looking at every dog wondering if it is dinner or a pet. We’ve already experienced some of the regions famous karst landscape, and the roads today have taken us through some incredible mountains, rice terraces and lakes dyed electric green by the limestone. As for the roads, they are definitely better than Yunnan, but still hard work. The potholes are smaller but the S bends just as challenging. Having said that though, we did encounter a stretch of road this morning that had me wondering how the hell we would make it across. At one point I had to hang off the side of Ting Tong to balance her as Jo navigated one particularly deep rain-filled pothole. Slightly hair-raising.

The roads may be better but the driving is still totally bonkers. Our ‘best’ stretch of road yesterday was perhaps the scariest we have encountered; buffalo carts doing U turns onto the carriageway, trucks coming straight at you down the wrong side of the road and upturned nails where temporary speed bumps once were. You can’t afford to lose concentration for a nanosecond. I still can’t work out why so many people here seem to favour driving the wrong way down dual carriageways, or going round roundabouts backwards.

One final thing. The loos here are the worst I have ever encountered – think Glastonbury day three and you are almost there. I nearly vomit every time I have to use one, much to Jo’s amusement. She certainly has a stronger stomach than I have.


June 15 2006

Shilin (Stone Forest, Yunnan Province)

Today was the best roads we have had so far in China, although the road quality wasn’t consistent. At the beginning we drove through some serious off the beaten track routes, which consisted of a stony dirt track. Sam and I exited TT and left Ants to navigate the best route herself.

We now know for definite that we cannot drive on the Expressway during our time in China, which is pretty soul destroying. Consequently our average speed is reduced by at least half and we will be forced to miss at least two sights that we had in our itinerary. We are hoping that our time in China can be increased by 10 days, because driving for 11 hours a day is not practical or safe.

The last three days have consisted of driving, sitting in the back of TT and sleeping in hotel rooms. For me the days seem to blur into one long drive punctuated by different but ‘same same’ Chinese cities. The advantages of this are twofold: we get to see some amazing scenery rather than flying down the Expressway and we get to stay in cities that are very Chinese and not frequented by foreigners. The disadvantages are that we are very tired and under constant pressure to make up the time that we have lost from driving at an average of about 30km/hour. We are currently three days behind on our proposed itinerary.

Today we tried to pull a slightly cheeky one. To cut corners on the ‘old road’ (i.e. slow road) we tried to enter the Expressway so that we could exit 300m from the entrance onto the old road so that we would miss out a few miles. We pulled up to the Expressway entrance and several vehicles pulled up behind us. What followed was several phone calls to the managers at the Expressway as the lady at the toll booth did not want to let us enter as were not allowed. The cars and trucks behind us started beeping frantically and one driver looked at us with pure fury in his eyes. After about five minutes they all started to reverse and enter at a different entrance. In the end we were told that our sly ploy had failed because there were some police just down the road and we would get in serious trouble with them when spotted. So, Ants had to reverse TT back into the flow of oncoming traffic and we had to carry on and find the old road. This is when we ended up driving down the aforementioned dirt track. Oh well, at least we tried.

Eventually we came out on the old road and to our great surprise there were no potholes and we could cruise along at 40mph. This made for a smooth journey and a total driving time of about 3 hours, which made such a pleasant change. However, we were still very tired from our previous few days and felt steamrolled.

We parked TT outside our hotel in The Stone Forest, unloaded and then actually had time to go for a walk and be proper tourists. The Stone Forest is a huge area filled with amazing natural karst limestone rocks and trees. The scenery is like nothing I have ever seen before and quite spectacular. The rocks have been there for 270 million years and at that time were under the sea. Their structure (jagged, narrow and spear shaped) has resulted from millions of years of natural erosion, the retreating ice age and earthquakes. The latter makes some of them look like someone has glued an extra piece to the top, where the earthquake has obviously fractured the rock. We went on a well trodden and paved tourist trail through some of the rock formations. There were quite a few other tourists, all of whom were Chinese. We took some very cheesy photos (well, I did) and ended up buying a load of authentic hand made articles from the local Yi people, a minority in China to which our guide belongs. A very weather beaten old women clad in the local dress offered us some aprons and bags for sale. I bought an apron and have been proudly wearing it all evening. I think the locals think it is a bit strange. We spent an hour tasting teas unique to Yunnan province and purchased two different varieties, one that is good for digestion and the other for your liver and general well being. A couple of the teas tasted very strange; there were about three different flavours that hit different parts of your mouth in three hits- tip of the tongue, middle of the tongue and finally the back of the tongue. Then we went out for a meal with Sam and the lady who had sold us the tea and we enjoyed the best meal we have eaten in China; it was absolutely delicious and I honestly believe that some of the best food you will eat in a country like this is not in the posh restaurants and 5 star hotels, but just at a small local restaurant.

Today has been the best day so far in China, apart from the fact that I feel sad as one of my ferrets had to be put to sleep. Pebbles had been poorly before I left and I hadn’t expected her to survive while we were away, but of course I hoped that she would be OK. Her adopted mother Lara did a great job giving her a happy extra month of life and I am so grateful that she took the decision not to let Pebbles suffer. There have been a few tears shed and last night my snuggle blanket and Ants were well and truly covered in tears. I feel guilty that I wasn’t with Pebbles when she most needed me. Mum and dad have arranged for her to be cremated and they will scatter the ashes in the back garden between where Zed and Amber (two that died last year) are buried. Death is very strange and is one of my biggest fears. I am not scared so much of my own death, but of the death of the people I love, particularly my parents and my brother. I feel like if they died then my life would be over. Whenever anyone I love dies, whether it is a human or animal, then I think a small part of me dies too in my heart that will never be replaced. Anyway, enough misery because I am going to start crying again- a lump has developed in my throat and I don’t want to cry anymore.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


June 17th 2006

Dafan, Guizhou Province

Nothing is simple in China. Jo and I have not had access to the internet for days, so we have been diligently wrting our blogs on the laptop ready to email to Nick. So we eventually make it to an internet cafe, for some reason we can get on to our blog page, but USB keys are illegal here so we can't transfer the megablogs we have written. So we'll have to do it backwards and get them emailed to Nick somewhere where they do allow USB keys.

In short - we're driving, driving, driving. 11 - 12 hours a day. We knew China would be hard but this really takes the biscuit. However, our spirits were lifted this evening by the most spectacular sunset drive through the mountains. It was one of those magic evenings, where the sun was bathing the rice terraces in a golden light and all I wanted to do was sit cross legged on a mountaintop and enjoy the view with a cold beer. Another time!

Loads has happened in the last few days but the full news and schnews will follow as soon as possible.

xx Tired Tukkers

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Testing times

June 15, 2006

Camellia Hotel, Yunnan, China.
Distance covered: 2823 km’s

The last few days have been a blur of bad roads and blue construction lorries. Yesterday we covered 300 km’s in eleven hours, the day before 280 km’s in ten hours. Even if you are as bad as maths as I am you can work out that that is a painfully slow average speed. With another 6000 km’s to go in China we could be here a very long time.

Despite the British Embassy’s help, the Transport office have said a big fat NO to Ting Tong using the expressway. We have heard from several sources that the Chinese government are terrified of anything happening to foreigners, hence their refusal to bend the law. Apparently a lot of accidents happen on these roads – Sam said just last month there was a pile up killing thirty people. Who knows, maybe it is for the best and the expressway would have been dangerous, but at the moment its just
frustrating. While we crawl along in second and third gear on roads only used by waterbuffalo, goats, mule carts and the odd tractor, streams of blue Dong Feng lorries speed past us on the adjacent expressway. The mothertruckers.

The solution is uncertain at the moment. Put bluntry, we are in China and we’ve got to get to Kazakhstan, by July 7th if possible. The CSITS ( China Sea International Travel Service) are proposing that we drive in excess of 300 km's for the next 24 days straight. Given the evidence of the last few days this ain't going to be possible. So we find ourslves in a sticky situation. And no, we are NOT going to put TT on the back of a train or lorry. That would be cheating.

Jo and I are still in shock at the condition of the roads in China, well in Yunnan province – apparently they get better. Yesterday we arrived in Kunming – ‘the city of eternal spring’ and capital of Yunnan – home to 5 million people and one of China’s largest cities. Yet only 5 km from the centre the road was no more than a dusty track, riven with deep holes. Trucks, pony carts, tuk tuks (or ‘bom boms’ as they call them here), motorbikes and bicycles all bumped along at 5 mph in a cloud of dust. You should have seen the state of us and TT when we arrived at our hotel.
Grubby doesn’t even begin to describe it.

However, its certainly not all bad. Yunnan is absolutely breathtaking, a magic place. Our roads may have been bad but they are flanked by awe-inspiring scenery; mountains wreathed in tea and rice terraces, banana plantations and pine-forests. If we weren't under such time pressure we would be delighted to be taking these roads and not the expressway, you see much more of the real China. We also have the endless amusement of people's reactions to not only westerners driving past, but westerners in a pink tuk tuk. Reactions range from bewilderment to hysterical screams and gaping mouths. We even had one lorry full of construction workers hollering 'I love you' at us!

Sam, on the hand, is finding the whole experience mortifyingly embarassing. His most frequent expression is 'Preease, save my face'. In other words, stop embarassing me. This is normally provoked by our mid-afternoon outbursts of hysteria, when we start singing (Ting Tong merrily on high is a current favourite) and generally behaving in a puerile manner. There have also been a few occasions when, erm, nature called and we simply had to pull over by the side of the road. Sam was appalled but when you gotta go... The fact that we are travelling in a tuk tuk is also a source of constant humiliation for him. In China everyone wants brand new SUVS, a tuk tuk is something reserved for poor rural areas, he can not understand our choice of vehicle. Even worse is travelling in a dirty tuk tuk and most mornings we find him, sponge in hand, fervently washing the layer of mud and dust
of TT. Poor Sam, I think he might be in a straight-jacket by the end of his two weeks with us.

So times are hard but all is OK and the adventure is truly in full swing. The last few days have been very, very tough but we never expected it to be easy. We're off to the stone forest at Shilin today and hopefully in the next day or two the CSITS will come up with a solution.

Happy Thursday everyone... Ants x

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Very Long Way Round

Juang Ha Hotel, Simao. Yunnan Province. China

12 June, 2006

Free Image Hosting at ImageShack.us

China it seems, has been sent to test us. The last two days have been, to put it mildly, challenging. When we left Laos we felt sure that we had just conquered the worst roads we would encounter in our entire tukathon. The gleaming tarmac of the last 10 km to the Chinese border seemed an omen of things to come. How wrong we were. As soon as we were over the border the roads once again deteriorated, this time there was a total absence of solid surface and what was supposed to be a road was in fact a filthy quagmire.

We were scheduled to drive 200 km that night to Jinghong, but instead we only made it 60 km to Mengla. Yesterday (Sunday 11th) was even worse. The 140 km to Jinhong took us an excruciating six hours. By lunchtime Sam, our guide, a non-smoker for the last three years, was cracking into a packet of cigarettes. By mid afternoon the packet was nearly empty and a stream of English expletives was emerging from his normally clean mouth.

Its hard to describe how bad the roads are in Yunnan. They make Laos’ Rte 13 seem like the M25. Not only that but we have had to fight with literally hundreds of vast construction lorries, all of us after the narrow sliver of passable road on each stretch. I was so frustrated yesterday I wanted to jump out and pummel the potholes with my bare fists in fury, shout, scream and stamp my feet. Not that this would have achieved anything...but it might have made us feel better. By the time we arrived in Jinghong last night we were filthy, tired, hungry and in need of a mechanic. Ting Tong’s leaking front suspension had got significantly worse and Anuwat had advised us to go and get the front shocks replaced.

So rather than having the relaxed evening we were desperately in need of, we spent SEVEN hours sitting on the pavement outside a mechanic, Ting Tong resting her muddy haunches on jacks, whilst five men battled with fitting her new suspension. At 1.30 a.m they finally won the battle and we tukked back to our hotel, safe in the knowledge that this morning we would be cruising along the expressway to Kunming.

But oh no, such was not to be. Our arrival at the shiny new toll gates of the Kunming expressway was met with shaking heads and a flurry of men in uniform. We were ordered to turn round and go to the police station, where no end of persuading, pleading and stubbornness could change their minds. Three-wheelers and the Chinese expressways are mutually exclusive concepts and it seems nothing we could say was going to change that. Dejectedly, we turned round and turned onto the old road. What should have taken us one hour today took us six.

The implications of not being allowed on the expressway are massive. We have 28 days to travel 4000 miles across China, and our $9, 600 itinerary was arranged by the CSITS on the premise that we would be speeding along throughout on these perfect new roads. The alternatives are old, disused, windy mountain roads, littered with rocks and potholes. Enough to make any tuk tuk turn a funny shade of green. Of course we are not going to accept this without a fight and we are trying to mobilize the powers that be to give us special dispensation. But China is the worst place in which to attempt any bending of beurocracy and we could be facing up to double our planned tuk across China. Unbelievable. This makes both our Kazakh and Russian visas invalid and causes a whole host of problems. Jo and I have both been devising plans to give Ting Tong an extra wheel.

Sam is now not only smoking but has developed a gall bladder problem and a total loss of appetite. But then again, we never thought this would be a glitch free adventure, and Jo and I are both determined to succeed. The more challenges we face, the more determined we become.

Just to top it off our satellite modem refuses to work, as does our mobile phone. But at least Sam is a total dude and China an endlessly fascinating, utterly weird place.

Over to Jo…

Despite the hardship of the last few days I really do love China. The people are friendly, the food is good and the scenery that we have got to appreciate at about 5mph has been spectacular. In my mind I had an image of China and our experiences so far have been that image to a T. Terraced paddy fields and vast tea plantations, punctuated by rolling green hills. One advantage of the roads we have been forced to travel down is that we are going the scenic route and I have learnt to appreciate this from my childhood. If given a choice, Dad would always choose the scenic route. Nevermind that it takes 5 hours longer than it should have and leaves us two days behind schedule. At this rate we will be driving through China for at least the next year and should be fluent in Mandarin and about $120,000 in debt.

I am a strange creature, because if something small happens I will go off the handle e.g. I lose my cigarette lighter or miss a programme on TV. However, if something big happens then I tend to be far more calm and rational e.g. this whole China business. I tend to compare a big situation in my life to a big situation in someone else’s life who is less fortunate than myself e.g. people in the world who are hungry because they don’t have enough money to eat. Yes, our current situation is very frustrating but we are alive and well and it is not the end of the world. We will still make it back to Brighton and raise £50,000 for Mind and this slight delay will not affect that outcome. Anyway, Ants is on the case with her contacts
and we may yet get to drive down the glistening, smooth, beautiful black tarmac.

I honestly didn’t believe that the roads could be worse than Laos, but they are. At one point today I really wasn’t sure if we could make it through a particularly rough patch of rocks (we have upgraded from stones to full on rocks). What made it even more irritating was that our route ran right next to the Expressway; you could almost smell the smooth tarmac. This form of torture happened intermittently throughout our 6 hour drive, as we would often cross or drive next to the Expressway. Still, if you don’t laugh you cry and we certainly had a few laughs along the way. PMA (positive mental attitude)!

Yunnan Province in southern China (where we currently are) is very beautiful, but is also blessed with the worst roads in the whole country. We have been assured that the roads will improve as we head north and we can only hope that this is true. Thank goodness for the presence and company of our guide Sam, who is an absolute legend. He has been very patient, level headed and constructive since we met him, as well as being a really nice person who it is very easy to spend time with. I only hope that this trip is not causing him too much stress, although his smoking and lack of appetite seem to suggest that he is feeling the strain a bit. He has
assured us that this will be the first and last time a tuk tuk travels through China driven by foreigners.

As I previously mentioned we are now two days behind schedule and tomorrow we need to try and cover 566km north to Kunming, capital of Yunnan. This would be possible on the Expressway, but on our proposed route I think it is about as likely as me physically sprouting whiskers.

Last night was an interesting test of endurance, as we watched the wonderfully persistent motorcycle mechanics struggle with TT’s front shocks. I now understand more fully why every time we go over a really big bump my stomach ends up in my diaphragm. The mechanics’ comments were that she has been built really well of strong material. We know and are so glad, but last night I had visions of Anuwat having to fly to China and sort out TT himself. Those mechanics were such cool guys and they tried so hard to fix her. I suppose persistence pays off in the end and I am so full of respect for them. TT now has her new shocks and springs and is no longer leaking hydraulic fluid. As we were driving today the new springs made us
bounce around the driving seat like we were sitting on a pogo stick, which looked very amusing from the back seat.

An interesting and surprising fact that I gleaned today is that in hotels in China men are phoned up in their hotel rooms and asked if they want a special massage. My mouth dropped to the floor when I found out exactly what a special massage involves. Personally I think it is a bit sexist, but we now unplug our phone every night, so that we are not awoken from our much needed beauty sleep and offered the special treatment.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Welcome to China

June 10th, 2006.

Green Diamond Hotel, Meng La, China.

It’s less than two days since we left Luang Prabang yet already it seems like aeons ago, so much have we seen and experienced since then.

Jo, Ting Tong and I were reluctant to leave the safe confines of Luang Prabang. There’s so much to see there and one day didn’t even tickle the surface. So it was with dragging heels that we left Sayo River Guest house and turned north up Route 13. Next stop Udomxai.

Having conquered the worst stretch of Rte 13 the day before, we set off with increased confidence in our new found mountaineering skills. Udomxai was only 170 km’s away and we had been assured that the road was good. Slightly baffling was the fact that public buses take over 4 hours to cover this relatively short distance. Yet rather than making us suspicious of what lay ahead we just put it down to the spluttering, bronchitic old buses, and not the road conditions.

The first 100 km’s flew by. I lounged in the back and admired the beautiful country slipping by, and Jo skilfully navigated the road north. We’d practically be in Udomxai for lunch at this rate. Then things changed. The corners got sharper, the hills steeper and the potholes more prolific. And the road signs disappeared completely. As we rounded one particularly fearsome bend we were met by huddled groups of people sitting in the road; monks, women, children, old men. Behind them was the bus that was supposed to be taking them to Vientiane, clinging to the edge of the mountain, miraculously held there by a tangle of plants and trees. Only twenty minutes before the driver had lost control on the corner and narrowly escaped killing all. Terrifying. I should think those monks said a special prayer to Buddha last night.

After stopping to see if everyone was OK and if there was anything we could do, we tukked off, driving even more carefully than before. In the end we didn’t tuk into our destination until 4pm, over 5 hours after we had left Luang Prabang. In fact we had covered 215 km’s, and having had no lunch and little water felt totally exhausted.

If you’re ever contemplating a holiday to Udomxai, think again. It really is the armpit of Laos, a strange Chinese / Lao trading post teeming with Chinese construction workers and half-finished buildings. Rain, bedbugs, a plague of mosquitoes, extreme tiredness then insomnia made for a wholly unpleasant night there and in more driving rain we set off for the Chinese border this morning.

And we thought the roads yesterday were bad…as we drove the last 100 km’s to Boten I found myself thinking repeatedly, incredulously, that this was Laos’ main artery, the principle thoroughfare linking it with China and Thailand. Yet a few km’s north of Uxomxai the road almost disappeared altogether. It took us over four hours to reach Boten in conditions that would test the most hardy 4 x 4. Yet once again Ting Tong excelled herself. WE LOVE TING TONG.

So here we are in China, in some random town 60 km north of the border. Jo and I were so flummoxed by the whole place that at supper we just sat and gawped at the otherness of it all. Even the coke cans are weird. Thank goodness we’ve now got our Chinese guide Sam (his English name) with us, otherwise we’d get very confused and probably end up starving and very lost.

Laos...what an amazing place. We spent a mere six dayscutting a hot pink swathe through its middle, but itis definitely somewhere we both want to return to. The
Hmong, whose much talked of "rebels" stalked our imagination up Rte 13, turned out to be one of themost fascinating aspects of the country. Their remote
mountain villages were incredible, and at the risk of sounding occidental and patronizing it was extraordinary to find bare breasted women in tribal
garb wandering down the main road of the country. I was so curious about these people I had heard so many rumours about that I did some research and discovered
that Hmong means 'free' and that for hundreds of years these fiercley independent people have fought to preserve their autonomy. Hence their isolated mountain
dwellings and warlike reputation. Such brave fighters were they that the US enlisted their help in the Vietnam debacle, with the Hmong providing 99% of their ground forces in Laos. In return for their efforts they were promised a homeland. Of course this never materialised and after the fall of Saigon the US abandoned their brave allies to face the revenge of the winning communists. Out of an estimated pre-war
population of 3,000,000 less than 200,000 made it to safety across the Mekong.

The persecution persists today with the Laos Government forcing them from their mountain villages, in order to police them more closely. I recommend
everyone to visit a Hmong village and hang out with some of these
'rebels' before they are assimilated entirely.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Ting Tong's backside

I spent a fair amount of time this morning flat on my back in the middle of the road, fag in mouth and can of coke within reach. I was inspecting TT's undercarriage for any obvious signs of an exhaust hole. I found nothing out of the ordinary and the exhaust and its various nuts and bolts all seemed OK. The exhaust manifold (I think that's what it was) looks a bit rusty and so that may be the cause of the random noise on route 13. Ants started the engine and revved away while I poked around- the noise wasn't there anymore. Perhaps we had just picked up a stone or something on the drive and it had now gone. Anyway, we will be keeping our ears peeled. I did the usual tightening of the bolts under the handlebars as we break in TT's suspension further. If it keeps going on like this then we will be driving into Brighton on our nose. I am a pretty useless mecahnic, but look like I know what I am doing when armed with a 2ft long wrench, covered in dirt and oil and lying flat on my back under TT.

Anyway, enough about TT and more about us. She is getting all of the attention on this trip and is danger of becoming a bit spoilt and pampered; we will come back to England driving the Paris Hilton of tuk tuks and will have accumulated a ridiculously small dog that looks a bit like a rat and craps everywhere. Soon she will be deciding what we listen to on our soundsystem and flirting with other tuk tuks- this type of behaviour is totally unacceptable.

So, today was our first and last full day in Luang Prabang, which totally sucks as it is a wicked place. Not wicked as in, yeah wicked man, but just a lovely town. Although it is well developed for travellers it is not brash and unnatractive like Vang Vieng. It has an air of France about it, baguettes, coffee, quaint houses with colourful shuttered windows. The town itself is a World Heritage Site and is crammed full of temples, on top of being situated on the mighty Mekong. There is a real atmosphere about this place, something that is difficult to put your finger on, but that draws you to stay for awhile. We don't have the option to stay and explore and so today we jumped in a boat and travelled up the Mekong to visit Pak Ou caves. As far as caves go they weren't mind blowing- what was interesting about them is that they were full of stone, metal and wooden Buddhas, which just sat in small communities within the caves. The signs in the cave said that it is against the law in Laos to take images of Buddha out of the country, so that was a random fact for the day. The boat journey took 2 hours upstream and half the time downstream. There is something very relaxing about journeying down the rivers here, surrounded by mountains, trees and the odd small settlement. It certainly beats a cruise down The Thames. I became totally engrossed in a book Ants lent me called The Kite Runner- if you haven't read this book then I suggest you get your hands on a copy, it is compulsive and absorbing reading.

Now I am going to phone our tuk tuk guru Anuwat from Expertise (TT's place of birth) to try and do some more troubleshooting. We now don't have a day off for over 2 weeks until we reach Xian in China, so we will be eating a lot of tarmac. Somewhere along the way we need to stop and get a service for our pink madam.

Thank you to Stuart from Travelfish (one of our brill sponsors) for recommending some places to stay- we loved Riverside Bungalows in Vang Vieng, although TT didn't love driving to and from them.

Ants has gone off for a massage now, which she deserves after going for a half hour run this evening. While she was pounding the pavement and being healthy I took the opportunity to crank up the volume nob of our TV, crack open another can of coke and smoke lots of fags. When I get back to England I swear I am going to give up the fags and coke and start exercising properly again. Ants has threatened to drag me off for a run- we will have to see about that.

Goodnight from Laos and until next time when I satisfy my blogging addiction. xo

Do we have to go?

Luang Prabang

A very quick installment of Tukbyblog; its 10.15 pm and we've had a yummy day off in the super chilled Luang Prabang. This is somewhere we both definitely want to come back to and one day just isn't nearly enough to soak it all in. Particularly when we had to spend half the day tinkering with Ting Tong, trying to ascertain what the funny noise she's been making was. Unfortunately, despite Jo's wonderful mechanical skills, we are none the wiser. We've got some serious mileage to cover over the next few days and weeks - no more days off till Xian - so fingers crossed all will be fine.

Not sure when we will next have a chance to update the old blog, but we will do our best. Thanks for all your support and please keep donating to Mind at www.tuktotheroad.co.uk. We've topped 18,000 pounds so only another 32,000 to go. And don't forget that Jo is going to drive round the UK naked if we don't hit 50, 000 by the time we get to Brighton.

As they say in Laos, Khawp Jai Lai Lai

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Relieved, tired and missing my furry friends

Luang Prabang, North Laos

We made it, I am so relieved. As Mr Ant said we had no idea what to expect and to be honest Route 13 was not this big monster that I had created in my head from all of the stories. The roads were mountainous and bendy, but they were also a lot wider than I thought. At all times there was easily enough room for 2 vehicles to safely pass. The precipitous drops I had imagined were few and far between. There was no rain and the road was fully tarmacced over 98% of the time. We were not jumped by the Hmong Rebels, although we saw about three different men with rifles. The pot holes were navigable, although I probably looked rather funny driving- perched right on the edge of my sight to gain maximum visibilty and see the potholes before we ended up planting TT's front wheel in one. The gear of the day was third and what a great gear it is. Our brakes are not too sharp, but by using 3rd gear most of the journey, there were few times where we actually needed to use the breaks. TT performed like a true superstar and her engine never got too hot- rising over 25% only a couple of times. Towards the end of the journey her backside started to make a noise (not Ants', but TT's)- we thought it might be the rear suspension, but after pulling over and getting down on the ground we have concluded that she probably has a small hole in her exhaust, which we will get checked out fully tomorrow. It possibly happened when I sent her shooting up the drive to our guesthouse this morning.

Oh yes, I miss my ferrets and last night had a really good cry into my comfort blanket (sad that I still have one at 27). I am sure that this will not be the first time that I cry because I miss them , but I hope that I don't get upset too regularly.

Feeling tired and we're going to bed soon- not feeling particularly animated this evening, although it has been an amazing day.

We made it!

Sayo River Guest House, Luang Prabang

Another hurdle was crossed today by the the three-wheeled trio for Jo, TT and I are now in Luang Prabang, in three whole pieces. We packed up Ting Tong in blistering heat this morning and at 10 a.m hit Route 13 north. Jo bravely tackled the daunting slope out of our guest house - whilst I filmed her from a safe distance - and off we went.

The road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is, as we have mentioned before, notorious for a number of reasons. Namely hairpin bends, armed bandits and landslides. The public bus takes 8 hours to climb the 230 km's to Luang Prabang, so we banked on taking about the same time. TT may be supersonic but we weren't quite sure how she'd handle them there mountains. Spiffingly is the answer.

The fear of something is so often worse than the actual reality, and today was a perfect example. After all that we had been told Jo and I really had no idea what to expect, and set off this morning feeling very unsure of whether we would make it here or not. The road was indeed incredibly windy and steep and as we rounded each bend yet another alarming incline appeared ahead of us. For three hours we climbed and climbed, until stopping in a random town for coke and foe (noodle soup with many unidentifiable things lurking in its depths). We had read that the road after this was particularly dangerous and a favourite haunt of Hmong rebels. So I took over the driving, put my foot down and headed further into the mountains.

All the way here I was struck by the fact that this was Laos' main road, the superhighway linking Laos, Thailand and China. Yet all along its route are tiny hill tribe villages, populated by scruffy children, piglets, goats, chickens, wandering water buffalo, cows and bent old women. As we tukked through each settlement gangs of children screeched in delight at the site of the peculiar pink vision wizzing past, and livestock scattered from the road. However, I am now convinced that the average age in Laos is about 5 years old as the number of tiny children far outnumbered adults. Where have all the oldies gone? Maybe they were all watching TV....many of the rickety bamboo huts sported vast, incongruous satellite dishes.

So at 5.30 pm, we made it to Luang Prabang. Phew. No rebels, no mudslides and no toppling off the edge of the mountain. We did see several people wandering along with rifles slung their backs though, and some bored policeman decided to pull us over simply to see who we were.

Tomorrow we've got a day off, yes another one, and then we head for China on Friday. Strange to think we are so nearly through our second country. Poor Jo is missing her ferrets terribly and shed a few ferrety tears last night.

That's it for now....

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Tubing, BeerLao and sunburnt ferrets

Vang Vieng, Laos

Our second night in tourist-tastic yet beautiful Vang Vieng. This is definitely the most white people I have seen in one place since England.
Today we both woke up knackered, even though we had had plenty of sleep. We had planned to go on a full day of excursions but neither of us felt like being super energetic. After a huge pineapple pancake and cup of tea (yoghurt and rabbit food for Ants) we decided that we had to make the most of our day here, because the surrounding environment is breathtaking. We pottered into town and went to a tour operator recommended by the Lonely Planet. Within a few minutes we had sorted out a bespoke itinerary and went back to our bungalow for an hour before they picked us up.

We first drove a few km out of town and then ended up by the river to begin our first adventure, kayaking. I went kayaking aged about 12, but thought it must be quite easy as I have seen it lots on TV. The thing is, if someone makes something look really easy then it actually means that it is difficult and they are pro. I was put in the back and given the task of steering. I lost all knowledge of left and right, forwards and backwards and before long I was sitting on a rock in the middle of the river and Ants had jumped ship. I was then told to paddle rather than steer and I swapped to the front of the kayak. I am not particularly fit at the moment but I managed to propel us down the river at a sort of doggy paddle speed. Ants was much better at steering and there were no more rock incidents. My arms started to get pretty tired and I was glad when we stopped for our next adventure.

The next adventure consisted of two large tractor tyre inner tubes being given to us, which we put our butts in and pushed off into the river. This was a far more relaxed way to see the mountains and rocks at a half doggy paddle speed. Luckily we had a wonderful guide with us called Pon, who told us which way to go to avoid the rocks. We stopped for lunch at a riverside shack and had beer and spring rolls. There were lots of other tourists there who we had a nice chat with. We explained about our trip, which some other Brits had read about on GapYear.com- it's strange how many people we meet who have already heard about our trip one way or another. They only put two and two together when they see us in TT. Ants had started to look a bit lobster-like and had really caught the sun on her arms and chest. We are taking anti-malarials and one of the more common side effects is photosensitivity. We borrowed some factor 60 and covered Ants in it.

After lunch carried on our tubing and stopped at a water cave called the sleeping cave. The reason is that during the second World War about 200 people lived in the caves for a few months as the Japanese invaded. We didn't have torches and so swum in only a few metres. It was pretty amazing, but I get a little scared in deep water and Ants and I asked Pon repeatedly if there were any snakes, spiders or alligators. He assured us there were none.

Back on the river and soon it was time for another BeerLao break. I was a chicken but Ants threw herself off a 20ft rock into the river. The Loas family at this shack kept a pet baby monkey, which they had rescued after its mother fell off a rock and died. It was very cute and had a punky grey hairdo. Ants wanted to touch it but it squeeked and ran off when she approached.

Just as we approached Vang Vieng the skies opened and we got drenched. I found the experience very beautiful and refreshing- high tree covered mountains surrounding a river valley with no sign of modern life. It was one of those very peaceful and special moments.

Back to our hotel and quick wash before supper. Off to Luang Prabang tomorrow and we anticipate a good 7 hours on the road, providing we get TT up the muddy stony steep slope.


Tubing down the Nam Song

Vang Vieng, Laos

Another quick blog from me (Ants) tonight. We're sitting in the same internet cafe as last night, minus the grasshoppers and geckos, feeling a little sunburnt. Well I feel a bit like a lobster, and Jo is more like a prawn, being the olive skinned one.

Here's a view of the Nam Song..

We spent a day tubing, kayaking and drinking beer on the Nam Song River today. Lots of fun. Then tomorrow we load up Ting Tong and head north up Route 13 to Luang Prabang. Its only 250 km's but full of switchbacks, steep climbs and Hmong rebels just waiting to pounce if the rumours are to be believed. However, the bit we are most concerned about is actually getting out of our guesthouse since its a steep, muddy ascent and the rain over the last few days hasn't made our task easier.

Anyway, hope you like the photos and will write more in Luang Prabang.

Monday, June 05, 2006

A surfeit of cake

Jo and I are sitting in an internet cafe in Vang Vieng, tapping away with geckos and grasshoppers for company. I'm not feeling particularly verbose tonight so will keep it brief.

After 5 hours driving - punctuated by cake, beer and noodle stops - today we tukked into Vang Vieng. Laos could not be more different from Thailand and as we wound into the mountains, leaving the capital Vientiane behind us, I was struck by how incredibly bucolic this country is. Pigs, turkeys, cows and various other livestock roam the villages and the road (Route 13) was flanked all the way by rice paddies and tree-covered mountains. Very beautiful. A far cry from shopping malls and day-glo buses.

Vang Vieng is unfortunately a violent deviation from the rural idyll I have just illustrated. If any of you have ever been to Haadrin in Thailand then this is its Lao equivalent. Grotty guesthouses and TV bars cram the streets and everywhere there are signs of yet more grotty guesthouses being built. Yet the surrounding countryside is stunning and tomorrow Jo and I are going to kick back and spend a day tubing, imbibing - Beer Lao of course - and exploring caves. And probably eating cake, which we seem to have done quite a bit of lately. My visions of us returning lithe and brown after 3 months on the road are slowly dissolving and although I keep threatening to go running, I haven't quite made it yet.

Jo will fill you in on the rest...she's been beavering away on the nextdoor computer for a a while so I assume a masterpiece is in the offing. I've worked out how to resize photos so when I get my act together will brighten up our blog with some pics of our adventures so far.

Bye bye from Laos. x

TT's first real adventure

We are now in Vang Vieng about 150km north of Vientiane. Our driving speed has dropped to an average of about 30mph due to the copious potholes and winding hilly roads. Ants and I were both knackered today and so were each trying to get the other to drive. I thing that we both ate too many cakes over the weekend and as a result were feeling pretty sluggish.

I will back track now to fill you on the past couple of days.

On saturday night we headed out to one of the 2 recommended restaurants in Vientiane. The food was quite good, but not a patch on Thailand. The company was quite interesting. This guy came over and sat at our table who was totally pissed (I assume on BeerLao). He repeated himself very frequently (as drunk people do) and spoke in broken English. His best comment of the night was 'I love you Mr Ant', which I have taken to repeating far too frequently. He fell off the stool and nearly took our table with him. After about 10 minutes our food came, but we were being typically reserved Brits and didn't tell him to leave. In the end a security guard and a waiter asked him to go, which he eventually did. We paid for our supper and then left the restaurant to head back into town. Unfortunately our drunk Laos friend had hung around outside and followed us all the way back to town on his motorbike. We couldn't find a tuktuk and so had to walk. The guy could hardly walk straight and I was totally horrified that he was on a bike. If you want to drive me mad then drink drive. I think drunk people are pretty uninspiring company at the best of times, but to take charge of a car/bike when wasted is unbelievably selfish and stupid. We tried to ask him to leave and maintain a straight face, but when he kept saying 'I love you Mr Ant' it was hard to stop ourselves from giggling. After about 2km he finally got bored and went away. The situation did not feel remotely threatening, merely slightly irritating after the best part of an hour. In England I would have just called the police or been more agressive, but that isn't really an option here. I find that the best thing is to not get aggressive and potentially antagonize a situation.

Sunday: awoke and had breakfast with more Ants in it, which was charming. I didn't need to eat sausages as I had enough protein from the little critters. We went out sightseeing to the beautiful gold temple (can't remember the name) that is the most important in Laos. I don't wear sunglasses and therefore might have sustained slight damage to the innards of my eye- gold is worse than snow. We did a bit of filming and then in the 'avo went for a herbal sauna and massage. I didn't like the sauna and only had a short session. The hot moist air makes me feel panicky and I find the sensation really unpleasant. Instaed I drunk herbal tea and smoked lots of fags. We then had a massage, which was divine. I had a man and Mr Ant had a lady- Ant got the short straw it seems after we compared notes. Luckily I had put my underwear back on under my sarong as it fell off when I sat up mid massage. I know I am a naturist but there is a time and place for nudity and that wasn't it. Poor Mr Ant felt rather unrelaxed after her massage, especially having had the inside of her arm pinched quite hard (unintentionally). What better way to finsih off the aftrenoon than with a sandwich and chocolate eclair. The sandwich was good, but the chocolate eclair contained the wrong sort of cream and to add insult to injury they had added custard. I ate it all the same, but was none too impressed.

This morning we split up. Ants went to sort out our Laos permits and I did some minor tuktuk mechanics i.e. checked the oil, water, tyres and tightened the big bolt on our steering column as our suspension keeps on dropping. Ants returned from the ministry of transport without the permit. Apparently the staff spoke very little english and suggested we return to the Friendship Bridge. Not an option, so she managed to get them to agree to do the paperwork, which we would collect later that morning. Good one Ants.

10.30am we hit the road and I tried to drive down a one way street the wrong way- well done Jo. We picked up our permit and hit the road. As we headed out of town we pulled in to get the tyre pressure topped up. They were each 3psi down and I wrote down the required tyre pressures on my hand for the woman with the air gun. She nodded and squirted some air into TT's tyres. I wondered how she knew the correct pressure as there didn't seem to be a guage visible. Still, I assumed that as she filled up tyres all day then she knew what she was doing. TT suddenly felt very easy to steer and I thought she had probably put a bit too much air in. I didn't realise till later that she had double the suggested air pressure. I will never let a random person violate poor TT again. We are lucky her tyres didn't burst from the excessive air. Tomorrow we will get our digital tyre inflator thing from the roof and do our own air in the future. The vehicles in Laos must all have the most pumped up tyres in SE Asia and this is a risky thing if riding a motorbike- or a three wheeler. Next stop was lunch, which was cold and had unidentifiable objects floating in it- however, it tasted pretty good. As we neared Vang Vieng I thought it might be nice to stop and have a drink by a river. I assumed that the guy that welcomed us was the owner of the shack. He turned out to be totally wasted on BeerLao and proceeded to fill our glasses and slobber all over my cheek. Totally gross, but quite amusing and Ants got some good photos and filming- all at my expense. He got into his 4WD and started to drive. Here we go again, another drunk nutter on the road. He followed us for a few metres further down the road and then luckily turned off. They need some breathalysers in this country. By the way, I only had a sip of beer and totally practice what I preach.

Enough waffle from me now, good night and good afternoon to those in the west. Off tubing tomorrow and no more cake eating.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A 5 star celebration

Setta Palace Hotel, Vientiane

Yesterday Jo, Ting Tong and I tukked over the Friendship Bridge linking Thailand and Laos and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Ever since we arrived in Thailand two weeks ago crossing into Laos has been our biggest perceived obstacle. We’d heard from a number of sources that Thai registered vehicles had been banned from crossing the Friendship Bridge and there was also uncertainty as to whether you needed a carnet de passage to bring vehicles into the country. The consensus was that a carnet was unnecessary - they are very expensive and complicated to arrange so we had long ago decided against getting one – but we had heard from a few overlanders that life would be much easier if we had one. So it was with baited breath and butterflies in our stomachs that we eased down the gears and drove up to the border yesterday afternoon.

Jo has been in charge of organizing all the paperwork for Thailand, Laos and China, so as she disappeared into the ominous sounding ‘Room 6’ at Laos customs I selected Leftfield on my ipod and nervously waited. Leftfield was shortlived, however, as a bevy of Tourist Police, customs officials and bypassers were soon crowded round Ting Tong. ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘How much was your tuk tuk?’ – all the usual questions were fired at me. And then the familiar raised eyebrows and looks of ‘Are you crazy?’ upon learning of our destination. One lady spoke very good English and warned me that Rte 13 is very mountainous and that we should avoid driving at night due to the Hmong rebels in the north. All things we have been told before. More interesting was her revelation that there is only one psychiatrist in Laos and that depression doesn’t really exist here.

After about an hour Jo emerged triumphantly; we had been granted special permission to enter Laos, but had to wait till Monday in Vientiane in order to get permission to enter the other provinces. It seems that the Thai press cuttings Jo had showed the Laos immigration had worked their magic and rather than facing an unpleasant diversion all we had to do was endure a weekend of city arrest in the Laos capital. Not exactly a hardship.

We hadn’t even thought about where we were going to stay in Vientiane, so we glanced through the accommodation options in the Laos Lonely Planet where our eyes quickly fell upon the ‘Top End’ section. Overjoyed at being allowed across the border, we decided to celebrate and head straight for the best joint in town, The Setta Palace Hotel, lauded in the LP as ‘the place to stay in Vientiane’. The poolside bar and Venetian marble bathrooms sold it and off we tukked, realizing as we turned off the bridge that they drive on the wrong side of the road here. Not till England will we drive on the left again.

Crossing borders is a strange experience. How in the course of a few hundred metres everything can be so different? - language, faces, roads, food, smells. We had got used to the rampant westernization that has invaded Thailand, where the roads are nearly perfect, the cars new and shopping malls litter the roadsides. Yet the instant we crossed the mighty Mekong into Laos the cars got more battered, the tarmac more potholed and the driving more chaotic. The driving philosophy here is definitely ‘there’s room for three’. Cars, tuk tuks, jumbos -motorcycle taxis – bicycles and stray dogs all jostle for room and our 30 km tuk to Laos was not without a few squeaks from me.

So here we are at the aforementioned Setta Palace, where the pool is divine, the breakfasts delicious and the beds worthy of staying in for extended periods of time. Jo and I were also a little grubby after a week on the road so in need of hot showers and a good scrub. (Before anyone gets the wrong idea by the way, we have whipped out our own credit cards for the occasion and are not spanking our sponsors money on 5 star luxury).

A few brief notes on Laos. I can’t believe Vientiane is a capital city. Apart from jumbo drivers and the odd farang the streets are practically deserted. The pavements are lethal and too much BeerLao could result in an ignominious descent down a vast uncovered drain. The cakes are plentiful, the massages are excellent and the people are lovely.

On Monday morning we head north up the (slightly) dreaded Rte 13, stopping at Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Luang Nam Tha en route to the Chinese border at Boten.

One final thing. I forgot to mention the food market we stumbled upon at Phimai the other night. Amongst the gastronomic delights on offer were; crispy fried frogs on skewers, toad in a bag, still gasping fish and best of all, pigs willies. Whilst I recoiled and wretched violently at the sight of the latter, Jo whipped out her camera and zoomed in for the close up. If you’re lucky we might post the resultant picture on this blog.

Over to Jo…….

So, here we are in our luxury hotel, with the most comfortable beds outside of England. The food in Laos has been excellent so far and we had a breakfast buffet this morning. I headed straight for the pastries and took a plateful back to the table. I was just about to tuk in when I noticed that my plate was moving ever so slightly. I was sober and not high on coke (the liquid variety) at the time and the motion was caused by some Ants (not the one sitting at the table, but the small black ones with lots of legs). I went back to examine the pastry plate more carefully and found there to be quite a few Ants. I informed the staff and they quickly brought out a fresh plate. I loaded a new plate with more carb laden snacks and went back to eat them at the table. I decided to add some sugar to my cup of rather tastless Lipton Yellow Label tea and found a little critter in the sugar bowl as well. I avoided the Ant and added my sugar, before I informed the hotel staff. Is this really the sort of thing one expects from a 5 star establishment? Anyway, breakfast was quite a feast and made a pleasant change to rice or American pancakes.

I will now back track to recap on the past few days.

We left Phimai and its historical park (containing a Khymer temple that predates Angkor Wat) and headed for Khon Kaen. The drive passed without problems and we tukked up at our hotel. Ting Tong has us wrapped around her little wing mirrors and after unloading her we got her ready for bed i.e. unrolled her rain covers and put on her silver nightie (tuk tuk cover). Dad and I shared a room and left Ants in her own room. This is for a few reasons: I snore, I like to watch TV, I like to stay up and ferret around, I like to smoke in the bedroom, I like air conditioning. All of these habits are a little unsociable and I do not practice them when sharing with Ants. If I want a cigarette then I will have it in the bathroom, I will go to bed at a sensible time and not watch BBC World after lights out, the temperature of the aircon will be decided after a bout of Thai boxing, but I still snore. Our night out in Khon Kaen was a little bizarre. We went out for a meal and decided on a street stall. We were all given a plate of spicy salad which was flavoursome, but ultimately unsatisfying. We then went to a restaurant complete with a live band. Musically they were good, but they chose to sing a collection of old country and westerns, which dad found quite odd. We ordered some snacks to share and because the waitresses did not speak very good English we were presented with the wrong order. I don’t like to make a fuss and would have just eaten them, but dad asked them to change the order. I think I am paranoid about complaining about food in restaurants after seeing a programme in England where people spit in your food if you complain. The band ended and then came a couple of Thai comedians. I didn’t understand a word, but still found them funny. They called us farangs (foreigners) and said a joke that made everyone who spoke Thai laugh- I think the joke was probably on us. Then on came a dwarf, who proceeded to join together metal hoops. Then….on came another dwarf who was about half the size of the previous dwarf and a sketch started where they jumped on and off the stage, but the smaller dwarf was too small to do this. Then they started hitting the dwarves on the head with a plastic object and we all started to look a bit bemused. To make it stranger, the larger of the two dwarves wore a batman suit and had hearts painted on his face. As if things couldn’t get any stranger, a rather thin and old cross dressing man climbed on stage in a nightie. He took off his clothes and wig and was wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen and started singing, before being hit on the head by the two original comedians. Dad and I both agreed that one of the comedians looked like one of my brother’s friends (Pony), even though he was Thai- v weird. We decided to pay up and leave.

The following morning it was time for dad to leave and head back to Bangkok. I started crying and I think I upset dad too. Ants and I both had butterflies in our stomach for the first time of the trip and we realized that we had both found that having dad around was comforting and gave us more confidence, even though we can now drive 5mph faster. Suddenly we were on our own with 11,500 miles to go until England. We tukked north towards the Thai-Laos border and were both anxious about being allowed to cross into Laos. The Asian part of the trip has been my baby and therefore I would technically be responsible if things go wrong. The Thai side was a mere formality and they let us cross the bridge, spanning the mighty Mekong. We had arrived in Laos, although I knew that we could easily be retracing our steps back to Thailand at the discretion of the Laos authorities. I went from counter to counter before being sent up to room 6, where I knew our fate lay. Room 6 is where they decide if a vehicle can enter Laos. I provided our documents and a selection of press cuttings of us and TT from the Thai press. Luckily, we were given special permission to enter, although driving a tuk tuk we should have been turned around and sent back to Thailand. I was incredibly hot and needed both a wee and a drink of water, but I felt so relieved that our first major obstacle had been accomplished. After organizing insurance (£3 for 10 days) and having more papers signed and stamped we were allowed to pass. I suddenly realized that we were meant to be driving on the other side of the road and hastily changed lanes. I have never driven on the wrong side of the road, but better get used to it as we have 11,500 miles to go before being back on the right side. Immediately in Laos one knew that we were in a different country: the people, environment, smells, cars and the roads. There were pot holes galore for me to try and navigate around and I realized that Laos would be far more challenging to drive through than Thailand. I had already read about the hotel where we are staying and it was in my fantasy list. Ants and I decided to split the cost between our personal credit cards and indulge ourselves for the weekend, as we cannot leave Vientiane until receiving permits from the authorities on Monday. After a hectic couple of weeks, including a week of successful driving and Ants still recovering her strength we felt it was both justifiable and deserved.

So, today we were up and breakfasted before an interview via Skype with Five Live in England. I did the last one and so Ants had the honour this morning. We have decided to alternate interviews and I hope that we increase awareness about the trip and raise some more money for Mind. In a rather large nutshell that is it to date. Tonight we will go out to eat and spend a relaxing evening in probably the most chilled out capital city on earth. Tomorrow I will indulge in some minor tuk tuk mechanics e.g. tightening bolts that affect our steering as our suspension continues to be worn in (for those technical geeks out there, this needs to happen when the steering bars start involuntarily having spasms i.e. moving left to right without our input) Until next time, much love from myself, Ants and our beloved TT.