July 23rd, 2010
Train to Lao Cai, Vietnam

I’m writing this on the sleeper train bound for Lao Cai, on the Chinese border. I was hoping we’d take a sleeper bus before a sleeper train, so the train would be better in comparison, but it didn’t work out. This thing rocks and sways and arrives at 5 am, but we’ll be spending tomorrow night on a 12-hour sleeper bus to Kunming, and I expect this to be Nirvana in comparison.

We shelled out a whopping US $40 each for these tickets, because the train office was booked out and we had no option but to go through a travel agency. (Or take a hard seat, or a bus, but fuck that.) Travel agencies tend to buy them up in advance and sell them at inflated prices to idiot tourists like us who leave it until the last minute. It’s our own fault. We really should have remembered KL, and booked as soon as we got here, but we’re used to just jumping on our motorbikes and going whenever and wherever we want.

Speaking of the bikes, we finally sold them, to a very nice Belgian couple who are planning to ride across Laos and into Thailand. We actually spent a while talking to them, because they’re both keen bikers, planning to ride the Americas at some stage. The girl owns a BMW GS Adventure, the mere mention of which makes Chris perk up. I was honest with them about my bike’s mechanical difficulties – gearbox, carburettor, steering etc. – and warned them that it will break down a lot. I may have left out things like “I fucking hate this motorcycle,” but I’m pretty sure that was implied. The guy was quite amused at how excessively negative we were about Minsks, but hey, that’s Minsks for you. They said we could swing by and stay with them in Belgium when we’re travelling across Europe later in the year, and if they open the door and punch me in the face, well, fair’s fair.

The final price was $350 US for both bikes and all the gear, which Chris and I split $250 and $100. I don’t think my bike’s worth anything more than that. The day before we met the Belgians, a Vietnamese guy offered me $50 for both the bike and the helmet and I was seriously considering it. I’m glad to be rid of it, and I hope they manage it better than I did.

We saw Kristie and Elisha off at the airport this morning, getting up at 5.30 am, the first of three nights where we’ll get barely enough sleep. It went a little easier than last time, yet gave us a strange sense of deja vu: saying goodbye to the girls at an airport, travelling by night, and beginning a new leg of the journey. The next leg takes us through China, Mongolia and Russia, considerably further off the beaten track.

South-East Asia is the beaten track. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos have essentially become one enormous pub crawl for British and Australian twenty-somethings enroute to each other’s countries. That’s not all they are, obviously; countries are big things, and it’s entirely possible to break away from the tourist trail in all of them, and do something more than the typical Full Moon Party Vang Vieng Tubing Booze Cruise Hill Tribe Homestay “experience” that so many people come here for. And it’s not like these countries don’t serve any other purpose, either. But overall it wasn’t the best place for us to start. We’re not here for things like that. The only other places I’ve been are Japan and South Korea, but I highly doubt South-East Asia will ever be one of my favourite regions of the world. About the only things it has going for it are the low prices and (for some people) the climate. Personally, I can’t stand humid weather and I’m aching to get up into the Himalayas and not be dripping with sweat all the time.

Nonetheless, we had good times here. I absolutely loved climbing all over deserted jungle ruins at Angkor Wat. The day we spent biking around the back-country of Cambodia with Kristian and Nicole was a blast. And – although my thoughts on Vietnam are a matter of public record – we had one of the best experiences of our lives riding motorcycles from Saigon to Hanoi, with Max and Jess and Jimmy. Riding down the spectacular road out of the Central Highlands, exploring a ruined French hill fort, slipping out on a muddy road after an epic thunderstorm… I’ll be remembering these moments for the rest of my life. A brilliant experience. I highly doubt I’ll ever come back to Vietnam, but I think we made pretty good use of our two months here.

Our rough route for the next leg will take us up through Yunnan and Sichuan, two western provinces that hug the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau and are renowned for their natural beauty. I’d like to see Tibet, but access is highly controlled by the Chinese government, and it looks like a hassle. If we can go there, we might; if not, we won’t. After that we’re bound for Beijing on a route that I sure hope will favour trains over buses. In Beijing we’ll apply for Mongolian visas, and then travel by rail to Ulaan Baator, where we plan to buy horses and spend a few weeks riding around the steppe while a shady tour company back in the capital obtains Russian visas for us. Returning to UB, we’ll hop aboard the Trans-Siberian Express and watch Russia go by out the window of a train until we arrive in Moscow, which will be the end of the second leg and the beginning of the third.

I wonder if I’ll sleep on this train. There’s no doubt that Chris won’t; he’s utterly hopeless with sleep. I blame Elisha for it, since I don’t recall him ever being this bad at it before. He’ll stay up until 2 in the morning watching movies on his laptop even if he knows we have an early start the next day. He has a hard enough time sleeping in Asian beds, let alone on moving vehicles. back in Australia I constantly urged to go to a doctor and get his melatonin levels checked, but he refused. None of this would be any of my business, except that we’re together day in day out and, like all people, he gets cranky if he doesn’t sleep.

Anyway. I guess I may as well try.