Monday, May 22, 2017

Down And Out In Astrakhan

I arrived on the train in Astrakhan, Russia, fairly late at night. The hostel had emailed me and asked me when I was going to get there. I looked at my ticket and it said I was arriving at around 9:30 pm Moscow time, so I figured it would be about a half hour walk from the train station, and I told them 10 pm. But, actually, it was a little blip of time zone that was an hour later than Moscow; I had just assumed it was the same time zone, since all the other cities I had been at close to the same longitude had been in Moscow time. Let the lesson be here, always check. All train tickets are issued in Moscow time, regardless of local time zone, so you always have to translate. I guess I just got lazy about it.

I realized just as we were coming into the station that I was going to arrive about an hour later than I had told the hostel. No sweat, I figured, they are probably used to people who give estimates that are off a bit because shit happens. When I got off the train, I checked Google Maps for the way to get to the hostel. The first five blocks we're no big deal, just walking on well-lit commercial streets. But then I had to turn into this dark, overgrown mudpit with a lot of abandoned houses that looked really sketchy late at night (and even in the daytime it looked sketchy, as I found out when I went back to the station), and it was so dark that I couldn't even see where I was stepping, and there were a lot of deep ruts. Plus, parts of it looked like I was just walking through someone's back yard. I'm not all that crazy about getting into a strange city late at night anyway. I prefer to walk to where I'm staying, or if it's a really long way, I'll try to get public transportation. I've only gone by taxi a couple of times. So I had ignored all the taxis that tried to hawk me at the train station, in favor of hoofing it. Also, I never know whether taxis in a foreign place are crooked or dangerous, which they sometimes can be.

So after I came out of the dodgy looking stretch (it wasn't all that long, maybe a half a kilometer or so, but I had to take it really slowly because I couldn't see a thing), I came out, and saw there was a large police vehicle parked right near the road there, maybe to catch people who have just gotten off the train coming into town. There were five cops standing there, and they were busy with some other traveler, going through his stuff, and asking him a bunch of questions. Nothing to see here. Just pretend you don't see it and keep going. So I just averted my eyes and kept moving, and I had just about thought I had passed the engulfment zone, when I heard a shout in Russian behind me. I just ignored it at first, but then I heard more shouts that we're more insistent. I turned around and a Russian policeman was hurriedly approaching me. He motioned for me to go back to the car where the others were waiting. He seemed a little pissed that I had ignored his commands and that he had to come after me.

I got back to where the vehicle was, and two of the cops were busy with the other guy, but one cop started interrogating me in Russian. I just meekly said, "Ni ponimayu", which means, "I don't understand". The cop then asked me, "English?", and I nodded. He asked me, "Passport?", and I nodded again, but made no move to produce it. He then motioned me to open my big backpack. I had a lock on it, so I had to undo it, and it was so dark I could hardly see the combination dial. But I got it undone, and he went through every single thing in every pocket, leaving it all in disarray. Then he asked to go through my little backpack, which I carry on the front, and then my fanny pack. He was very thorough, and went through everything, leaving my meticulously packed stuff just scattered all around in the dark. They seemed frustrated that I couldn't answer any of their questions, and just gave up on trying to question me. Then they just waved me off and told me I could go. I had to shove everything back in to my backpacks haphazardly and get them closed, which wasn't an easy task, since they were overstuffed anyway even with everything neatly packed. The funny thing was, they never did check my documentation. I headed down the road, a little shaken by the experience, and since this confrontation had taken about a half hour, I was now an hour and a half later than I had told the hostel I would be.

Finally I found the hostel, and it was well-marked on the outside, which sometimes is not the case when it comes to Russian hostels. I followed the signs up one flight of steps, and the door was locked. So I tried what I thought was a doorbell, but I don't think it worked. Nobody was answering the door at all. I tried knocking several times, and nobody answered. Great, it looked like I was going to have to sleep in the hallway. So I set up my little backpack as a pillow, and lay down on the floor outside the door for a while. Well, that verily sucked, so I got up and tried knocking on the door one more time. Finally a woman answered the door. She was just a tenant, but she spoke really good English, and she said the owner was not there. She asked if I had told them I was coming, and I said yes, but I was a little late. She had the owner's phone number, so she called him, and he approved letting me in, so she did. Well, I had to figure out where the room was, and just pick a bed for myself, and then figure out where everything else was, like the bathroom and the kitchen. Usually someone will show you all that stuff. But I was glad at least that I had gotten in and had a bed for the night. There was one other guy asleep in the big room filled with bunks, and she and her boyfriend were in a private room to themselves.

The TV in the common room was on, and right as I got settled in, the show "Big Love" was starting, dubbed in Russian. I watched it for a while, but couldn't really understand it, so I blew it off and just started channel-surfing. The TV was hooked up to some strange glorified internet-dongle-slash-cable-box with a ton of channels from all over on it. I watched a French channel for a while, but then finally turned in, as it was getting late.
The next day, I woke up, and a hostel manager was waiting for me to collect my money and give me a key. That was all I saw of management there, except for the owner dropping by briefly later that night, which was great because he was able to fix the wi-fi, which hadn't worked at all up until that point.

I walked around the city, and toured the Astrakhan Kremlin. Astrakhan is in southern Russia, close to the Kazakhstan border, right next to the European part of Kazakhstan (it sounds strange to talk about European Kazakhstan, but about 10% of it is in Europe). I wanted to visit the Volga River Delta, but I found out you need a special border permit to do that, which is a bureaucratic mess and will take days at the least, maybe even weeks. So I didn't have the time, as I was only in Astrakhan for two more days.

When I returned from checking out the city of Astrakhan, it was just me and the other guy in my room.  He checked out the next day, leaving me the next night as the only person in the whole hostel, which was kind of weird. I went out for a second day of city exploration, mostly walking along the Volga River, but also checking out other parts of the city I hadn't seen yet. When I got back that evening, it was to the freaky ghost hostel, where I was the only restless spirit there.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hot Times At The Hot Springs In Tyumen

I arrived in Tyumen on the Trans-Siberian train very early in the morning. I got my stuff together on the train, loaded up my backpacks and proceeded to walk about two kilometers to the hostel​ where I was staying. When I got there, the room was pretty full and all they had available was an upper bunk. It had been a while since I had been assigned an upper bunk. In the last few hostels I had stayed in, they been empty enough that only lower bunks had been available, or I had just gotten the lower bunk by the luck of the draw. It was no big deal though, of course, I prefer lower bunks. But you gotta build some bunk karma, so every once in a while you get an upper bunk to take one for the team. Funny, when I was a kid, I always liked the upper bunk better.

As soon as I checked in, I wanted to look around the city. The city looked more modern than most of the other Siberian cities I had been in, and had a much more European vibe, even though I was still in Asia. So I walked around the town and just checked things out.  In the early evening, I ended up stumbling across a pre-Victory Day parade, so I made a video of part of it. After I had finished my wanderings through the city for the day, I got back to the hostel, and there were a bunch of friendly, talkative Russians who were curious about this American guy who didn't seem to fit their stereotypes at all. We had an amazingly broad range of conversation, considering that I know very little Russian, and each of them only knew a few words of English. But I really hit it off with my bunkmate, the guy in the lower bunk. I wish I could remember his name. I also wish that I had gotten some contact with him on social media; I realized a few days later when I was leaving the city that I hadn't. I find that a lot of Russians are not on Facebook, but Instagram is really big here. I started using Instagram just recently; I joined a few years ago but never used it and never took the time to figure it out much after the first couple of times that I had tried to do stuff with it. But I hadn't taken​ enough time to figure it out, so I didn't get far with it. Later in the night, a Russian guy who spoke English really well showed up with his girlfriend, and he kind of acted as an interpreter, which made the conversations easier. But he only stayed that one night. I asked him how he learned English, and he said it was almost all from movies and TV, and that he hardly ever had opportunities to speak English with anyone. He said he appreciated the chance to practice, though he spoke really well.

Over the next couple of days, my bunkmate and I had some remarkable conversations considering our linguistic differences. We discussed things like JFK's assassination, our respective countries' involvement in Syria, the situation in Chechnya, and so on. He was very surprised to find out that there were homeless people in the US, and that they could be found on street corners in cities holding signs asking for money. He asked me how much people made in the US; I told him I thought most people probably made between about two and three thousand a month, and he was surprised that it wasn't more. But I told him that many people made a lot less, and maybe had to cobble together several part-time jobs, and that jobs might not pay as much or have as many benefits as they used to; he made a wry face and said it was the same in Russia. He said he thought we were a rich country, and I told him we are, but the rich people have all the money. He laughed, and said, "Just like Russia!"

While in Tyumen, I wanted to visit one of the many hot springs in the area. I found that there were many hot springs within a fairly short distance, so I looked into trying to get to one of them. I found that some of them were attached to expensive resorts, and most of them were some distance out of town, and I couldn't find any information on transportation to get to most of them. Finally, I found one hot spring, Yar Hot Springs, that was right on the edge of the city, and there was a city bus that went there that only cost twenty-five rubles. What a deal!

I started walking towards the bus stop, and stopped to look at some plants popping up in a garden. The Russian spring is just starting, so green stuff is starting to come up. I was trying to figure out if some leafy stuff that I had seen elsewhere was a weed or some kind of cultivated plant, when I saw a gentleman with a sour-looking face approaching me. He stopped in front of me and unleashed a barrage of hostile-sounding Russian at me, ending in a question that it sounded like he wanted an answer to. I did not pick up on anything he said, since my Russian is still fairly terrible (though I'm studying every day hoping to get to at least a moderately communicative level), so I answered him with, "Izvinitye, ni ponimayu", which means, "Sorry, I don't understand". Well, I understood his response. He asked me, "What don't you understand?" OK, this is definitely hostile. I thought about answering him in English, and then saying, "Did you understand?", but I thought better of it and just gave him a half-smile and a wave, and scurried on my way.

I arrived at the bus stop, and waited for the bus. I was looking at the bus maps, and they didn't reveal much information. Many countries I've been to put their bus maps on straight lines with the names of the stops, and that's the way they did it here. But I sure wish they would draw actual maps. I wouldn't know where the listed stops were even if this was in English.

It turned out the bus I had to take was one of the big van type buses packed with seats, with a partition separating the driver. On most Russian city buses that I've taken, there is a conductor circulating among the passengers who takes your money and issues you a ticket at some point after you board (they use this same model in Vietnam). But there was no conductor in this bus. Usually I try to see what the other passengers are doing for payment, but I guess I didn't notice anything about that when I got on the bus. So at the next stop, I just passed twenty-five rubles to the driver through the window in the partition, and that seemed like the correct method. Every country does buses differently. Who do you pay and how? Some places have a driver and a conductor, others just a driver. Some places make you buy a ticket beforehand. On some buses, you pay at the beginning, and on some, at the end.

I missed my stop, even though I was monitoring Google Maps for where I had to get off. But Google Maps was doing a thing it does sometimes where it takes a minute to catch up, and suddenly the dot shifted to a place past my stop. Oh, well, I figured I would just get off at the next stop and walk a little farther, no big deal. The next stop was right outside the sign marking the city limits, and I got off there. On the way walking back into town, I passed a stolovaya, which is a cafeteria-style canteen with cheap food. I like to eat at these places because they are very cheap and popular with locals. Though all of the main courses are usually meat-based, (why did auto correct just change meat-based to near-impossible? I just changed it back) there are a lot of tasty side dishes that I cobble together a meal with. I had buckwheat groats with a cabbage-filled salad, tea, and a tasty onion piroshki. A piroshki is a bread roll filled with some filling, usually cabbage (kapusta) or potato (kartoshka), but occasionally with mushroom (gryb) or onion (luk). They are all over the place in little restaurants and street stands.

After eating, I moved onward toward the hot springs. Yar Hot Springs only charged 250 rubles to enter, but they also had little cabins there for rent that you could pay modestly more for. So, if you're thinking about staying in Tyumen, that's an option that would let you use the hot springs whenever you want during your stay. It looked like the price was about twice as much as the hostel where I'm staying, but still a deal for a single room, though the rooms looked tiny, and I have no idea what amenities the cabins have.

There was a changing room with a shower, but no place to lock up belongings, so I just hung a plastic bag I had brought a change of clothes in along with my wallet and phone on a hook near the hot spring pool, and kept my eye on it. It seemed like people were mostly just leaving their stuff laying around, so it seemed pretty safe. But you never know, there could be opportunity snatchers anywhere.

After I was there a few minutes, a bunch of Russian police in uniform came in, made some announcement that I didn't understand through a bullhorn, and then wandered around the grounds. They didn't mess with anyone, though. It seemed like there were a bunch of police hangers-on, people who were buddies with the police and hanging out with them, or maybe even police in plain clothes. I just try to keep out of trouble and nobody messed with me. The lifeguards seemed pseudo-police-y too. They would occasionally say something through a bullhorn, or release a siren-sounding alert with a stern instruction to someone, stuff like stay off the ropes or telling kids not to run...typical lifeguard commands.

The water was a brownish color and very minerally...I tasted small amounts on my lips, and it seemed like there were a lot of salts and minerals in it. I hung out in the pool for quite a while, and discovered there was a little walled-off section that was even hotter. It was very relaxing, but I realized I'd have to get out of the pool into the cold, windy weather, so I readied myself for that. I got out of the pool, got dressed, and then stopped in the little cafe that they had on the premises.

I just stopped in the cafe to sit for a bit and drink a soda. A few people came in and out while I was there, and there was a really drunk couple who were drinking a lot of booze while I was there. I saw them go through a bottle of vodka, then they ordered another bottle, and invited me over to drink Schnapps with them. I said, "nyet, spasiba," several times, as I'm not really drinking these days, but they were very insistent, and came over to my table to sit with me. I told them, "nyet alcohol", which was about all I could manage to communicate about why I wasn't joining them. They said, OK, then ordered beers. Apparently many Russians don't think of beer as alcohol. Last year, when I was traveling in Eastern Siberia, a guy in a hostel told me that we Americans probably think of Russians as heavy drinkers, but he had a neighbor who didn't drink at all. But in the course of the conversation, he later indicated that his neighbor drank beer.

So they poured me a beer, and I kept begging off, and finally pushed it away. I tried to be gracious about it. Anyway, the wife ended up drinking the beer. They told me their names were Sasha and Olga. After a while, the guy was so drunk I though he was going to puke on me a couple of times, and his wife was hanging all over me and pushing her legs against mine; I couldn't tell if it was flirty or she was just so drunk that it was for support, but I suspected the latter. He started ranting about Obama and giving him the finger.

This drunken, aggressive vibe was getting a little weird for me, so I started contemplating an exit strategy. They kept trying to get me to go with them in their car to their house, but I didn't want to be driven by people that drunk, and I didn't want to go from the edge of town to who knows where, and who knows how I'd get back. Finally Olga went out to smoke, and Sasha went to the bathroom, so I darted out the door to go catch my bus back into the city. But they ended up leaving right after me, and caught up with me, and kept saying stuff about money; maybe they wanted me to give them money, but I just wanted to move on. A guard at the gate asked me if everything was "normalna" (OK), and I smiled and answered, "Normalna". But I used the break in continuity to break away and walk faster, and they didn't catch up.

I walked to the bus stop and caught the bus back into town; that evening was pretty uneventful, but I had more conversations with my bunkmate. By that time, the room has emptied out, and I probably could have changed to a bottom bunk, but I just stayed in my bunk out of inertia.

The next day was Victory Day, May 9. I was planning to go out and check out the activities, but I procrastinated, paying bills and stuff, and ordering train tickets and hostel reservations online, and didn't get out until two in the afternoon. But by that time, it was mostly over. I guess it's more of a morning thing. I walked around the city, but only encountered groups of people in uniforms and wearing ribbons milling around after the celebrations. Oh well. But at least there were fireworks in the evening that several of us watched from the hostel balcony.

The next day, I had to take off on the train. I packed my stuff, said, "Da svidaniya, udachny", to my bunkmate, and left for the train station to take off for Kazan in Tatarstan. I looked at my electronic train tickets, which I had been able to use without printing before, but they didn't have a train number, car number or seat number on then, so I figured I had better get them printed at the train station. So I went to a window, and they printed tickets with all the required info on them.

Finally on this trip, I would leave Siberia, and cross over into European Russia. When I got on the train and got in my compartment, I found that I was the only one in the compartment, and there were even very few in the whole car; maybe only two other compartments were occupied. The pravadnitsa stopped by to offer me tea or coffee; I opted for a coffee. About a half hour later, I closed the door to my compartment for some solitude. After a few minutes, to my surprise, some woman barged in to my closed compartment to try to sell me some shawls. All I could think was, "what the fuck are you doing in my compartment." I kept just saying, "nyet" and didn't let on that I didn't speak much Russian and didn't understand anything she was saying in her obnoxious hard sell. What are you doing, lady, casing my compartment? Finally, I said, "Nyet, nyet, nyet!" very aggressively and waved her out, and she left. That was the first time anybody has ever just pushed their way into a closed compartment I was in and it kind of annoyed me.

Anyway, here I now sit on the train to Kazan, Tatarstan, awaiting new adventures.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

May Day in Novosibirsk

I woke up this morning and packed my stuff to take a bus to Tomsk. I repacked my bags and left my big backpack at the hostel because I'll be coming back in three or four days. I'm taking a smaller bag with just some essentials to Tomsk. I knew it was May Day but didn't think much of it. When I got to Red Avenue I quickly found that they were preparing for a May Day Parade. The parade hasn't started yet as of now but groups are assembling on Red Avenue.

I had to pass a certain corner I'm not too crazy about. Often in former communist countries there are barriers along streets dictating where you can go. On this particular corner there are barriers along all four corners of the street. You can cross the street if you go into the metro station underground, but the metro station leads into an underground mall. This particular underground area is fairly byzantine and twisty, and I often come out on the wrong cormer. You immediately have to go the wrong way to cross the street and then through a series of chambers that lead you past storefronts. Also, one of the corner stations is shut down for construction so you just can't come up in that corner at all.

I walked down Red Avenue and watch the various groups assembling for the parade and people getting together by the side of the road to be spectators. As I pull up to a big central square the police are not letting anybody past that point and they pulled me over for a document check and a search. This is not going to be easy now heading to the bus station because a lot of the way there is blocked and I'm going to have to walk a good deal around where I wanted to go. It's too bad that I'm going to miss the May Day Parade though because I have to get to the bus station.

I'm walking around the affected area but constantly finding that there are police blockades so I'm having to walk farther and farther out. I hope I can get back into the bus station without any problems. I left the hostel about two hours before the bus is scheduled to leave and under normal circumstances it would be a half an hour walk to the bus station but now I don't know how long it's going to take.

I walked up to the bus station and saw there was a police blockade right around it. But there was a walkway several meters away that I took and I did not have any problems. So now I'm at the bus station with about half an hour to spare getting ready to take the bus to Tomsk.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to Saigon

I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap on an airplane, and it was a very short flight. It would have been an all-day long bus trip if I had chosen to take the bus. But the flight was fairly cheap (I think in the vicinity of $45), so flying was worth it. When I arrived in Siem Reap, I checked my emails to find info on my hostel, and discovered that if I had let them know when I was arriving in advance, they would have arranged a free ride from the airport. Oh, well. I considered calling them, but just decided to pay for a tuk-tuk from the airport to the hostel.

The hostel was pretty nice. It had a pool, a movie theater, and its own fleet of tuk-tuks that charged fixed prices so you didn't have to bargain. I always feel a little bit weird about the bargaining culture in many Asian countries. On one hand, it's interesting to bargain down to get a better price, and to some degree, it is expected. But then again, the people you are bargaining with are fairly impoverished, and you are driving their income downward by bargaining. I hope to usually find a happy medium where I pay the expected Western surcharge, but don't get taken advantage of.

I spent a couple of days just checking out the town of Siem Reap before exploring the temples at Angkor Wat. There is a Pub Street and a Party Street, both of which are popular with tourists. The street that is popular with locals is Khmer Pub Street, which I never managed to visit because it was in a faraway location, and I never really had much reason to go there.

I bought a three-day pass to the Angkor Wat temples, which lets you go to all the areas in Angkor Archaeological Park. "Angkor Wat" is used in two senses; there is the actual Angkor Wat temple, which is the narrower use of the term, and then it can mean, in the broader sense, all of the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The first temple I visited was Angkor Wat itself. I opted for the sunrise tour, which meant that the tuk-tuk I had booked left at four-thirty the next morning. It is best to visit Angkor Wat first because it opens earlier than all the other temples, mostly because of the popularity of the sunrise tour. And there are a TON of people there that early in the morning.

So I set an alarm for four-fifteen in the morning. Most of my life, I haven't used an alarm clock; I have just woken up on my own when I need to. But that costs me a slight bit in stress, so I decided to set an alarm clock. Unfortunately, the sound on my phone was turned all the way down, so the alarm didn't go off. But I woke up and decided to check the time, and it was about four-forty eight. Oh, crap, I had overslept a bit. I hoped that didn't mean that I would miss the sunrise.  So I hurriedly gathered together the stuff I would need to bring with me, and bounded downstairs about five in the morning. Now I was about a half-hour late. But, no worries, the tuk-tuk driver was waiting for me, and there turned out to be plenty of time. The first stop was the ticket office, so I could buy my three-day ticket. And, as luck would have it, there were huge lines for the one-day tickets, but no wait at all in the lines for the three-day tickets. So I was able to just get in and out almost immediately.

Angkor Wat is probably the best restored of all the temples in the vicinity. It doesn't have many huge piles of rubble on the premises like many of the other temples in the area. I toured the temple and walked around the grounds. There was a donkey on the grounds; she looked friendly and gentle, and I had just seen a woman petting her, so I walked over to pet the donkey, and it bit me on the foot. It didn't bite very hard, just hard enough to tell me to fuck off.

After the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver took me to a place to eat breakfast. Then we went to more of the temples on what is called the Little Circuit. These are a group of temples that are fairly close together. These temples include several temples in the Anchor Thom area, and the tour ends with Ta Prohm Temple, which is where many scenes in the movie "Tomb Raider" were filmed, so it is also called the "Tomb Raider" Temple now. It was probably the most spectacular temple of the day (except for maybe Angkor Wat), because of the juxtaposition of chaos, rubble, overgrown mature trees that invaded the walls, and the finely sculpted structure.

That night, I watched the movie "The Killing Fields" in the cinema at the hostel. I had never seen the movie before, but I had seen "Swimming to Cambodia", which was about the making of "The Killing Fields." For some reason, I thought Spalding Gray would have a much bigger role in the movie, but he only had a small part.

The second day, I went on the Big Circuit of temples. These temples were a little farther apart, and there was a lot more travel by tuk-tuk in between the sites. The sites were also, for the most part, a lot smaller than the temples that I visited the day before, except for the first temple, Preah Khan Temple. But the subsequent sites of the day were not very big. The next site was Neak Pean, which was just a series of small shrines surrounded by water. Most of the paths were not open to the public; I went down one path that was apparently closed but marked ambiguously (there was a sign that indicated no entry, but it was not near the path, so I took the expansive interpretation and went down the path), and was immediately told to come back by park employees. Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup were the other sites I visited on this day, and they were much smaller than the other temples.

On the third day of my three-day pass into Angkor Archaeological Park, I went to some temples that were very far apart, so most of the day consisted of travel. The first temple I saw was Banteay Srai, which is also known as the "Women's Temple." Then there was about an hour and a half tuk-tuk ride to Beng Mealea Temple, which was far outside Angkor Archaeological Park, and was within its own park. This was probably the temple that was restored the least, and was filled with stone rubble and invasive huge trees, and they allowed much more climbing on the rubble than the other temples. Then it was back to Angkor Archaeological Park for the temples in the Roluos Group, which are the oldest temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. The Lolei Temples were the first ones of the group that I visited, and they are the ones undergoing the most extensive renovation. They were built within two layers of walls, each area raised up from the last, and there was an amalgam of ancient and newer buildings on the site. Then I saw Preah Ko and Bakong Temples, which were close by. This was the longest day of temple viewing because of all the travel to get to these remote sites, but not the longest day of actual temple visits.

After the three days of temple visits, I just spent the rest of my time there wandering around the town of Siem Reap before flying back to Saigon. This time I got a private room rather than a hostel so I could take apart my packs and re-pack them thoroughly, and get rid of some stuff (unfortunately, I didn't get rid of enough stuff to keep my main backpack from nearly bursting at the seams, so I'll have to revisit this project soon).

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Chilling in Phnom Penh

I thought that I had booked some flights from Vietnam to Cambodia and back.  I was getting ready to leave Ho Chi Minh City and head to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and I went to look in my email to find the airplane ticket, but upon checking the email trail, the fly-by-night online operation I booked with never booked the ticket.  I had booked Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, as well as Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh with Travel2Be (avoid them like the plague), but they had never booked my tickets or charged my credit card.  Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was OK and I had the ticket; I had booked that one through someone else.

So I had to find alternate ways to get to the places I needed to go around the same times.  I booked a bus to Phnom Penh, since it was only a six-hour trip, and then booked a plane fare from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, both of those voyages through the hostel in Saigon. So now I was covered again.

I've never been entirely happy with most of these third party online booking agents.  There are a lot of them, especially for Southeast Asia, and it seems like sites like Skyscanner are sending people to these third-party sites more lately.  Many of them don't have any contact info or method of redress if things go wrong.  Up until now, I've used some of them warily, and it has worked out, but I imagine if one little detail goes wrong, you are stuck.

I took the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, and got to Phnom Penh right after it got dark, and it started pouring rain.  I got out my umbrella and walked to my hostel since it wasn't too far from where the bus stopped.

Phnom Penh has been an interesting place to visit, but the place just doesn't grab me like some places do.  It has been raining a lot, too.  This morning I woke up, and it was pouring rain to the point that the streets were flooded.  But this afternoon it has calmed down.  It does look like it is going to rain all week.  Mostly I've just been walking around checking it out, but I did go visit the high school that was turned into a death camp, S-21. Of the tens of thousands of people who entered, only a small number were known to have survived. Many sent here were told they were being relocated to new jobs, or some other ruse. People who wore glasses were killed for ostensibly being "intellectuals."

In Cambodia, the US dollar is pretty much the de facto currency. The Cambodian riel  is the official currency, and when you pay with dollars, you will usually get back a mish-mash in change of riel and dollars. If you are due less than a dollar back, your change will be riel for sure, because nobody messes with US coins. Also the ATMs give out dollars; some might let you choose between dollars and riel.

So I've just been chilling in Phnom Penh for the last few days, getting ready for my next journey.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Riding from Da Nang to Hoi An

I woke up early in the morning in Da Nang, and packed my stuff to take off.  I went downstairs, turned in my key, and packed up my bike.  Then I took off to eat breakfast and have coffee at a little restaurant I had eaten at the day before.  After that, I headed south out of town.  On the map, it looked like I was taking the road that ran along the ocean.  But I didn't see the ocean at all, it was blocked all the way down by a line of buildings, or the road ran inland farther.  On the way down, a woman pulled aside me on her motorbike and engaged me in conversation while we were both riding down the road.  It seemed like she wanted to practice her English some, so we bantered back and forth for a while as we continued down the road.  She wanted to show me a mountain that she said she lived near, but I wanted to keep going to Hoi An, so I thanked her and kept going on my way, while she turned off the road to go wherever she was going.  Actually, the mountain looked pretty cool, maybe I should have checked it out, but I had a plan, I guess.

I arrived in Hoi An about eleven in the morning, and started looking for a place to stay.  I headed for the Old City to see if I could find a place to stay that was close to the center of the action, so I wouldn't have to ride my bike, and could just step out and walk around.  But I tried a few guesthouses and hotels, and they were full.  Then I tried Booking.com, but couldn't find anything in the area there either, except for a couple of hostels, but I wanted to try to get a private room.  A hostel would have worked if I couldn't find anything, but I finally found and booked a couple of nights at a homestay online that was several kilometers away from the center of the city.  That would work; I could just find a place to park my bike near the center and then wander from there.  And it would be a peaceful place to stay where I could get away from the hubbub when I needed to.

I showed up at the place, it was called Portulaca Homestay.  There was no sign at all signifying it as a place for people to stay; it just looked like a big private residence.  I wandered in, and there was nobody around on the ground floor at all, so I just sat down and waited for a while.  After a few minutes, a friendly Vietnamese guy came from downstairs and said he had just seen my booking online.  He spoke English really well so we did not have any communication difficulties.  He told me, though, that check-in time was not until two in the afternoon, and that the room would not be ready until at least one.  I told him that was fine, I would just leave my bags there and return when it was check-in time.  He sat down with me for a bit and showed me some sights in the area that I marked on Google Maps so I could check out some of them later.  Then I headed off to the Old City to wander around for a while.

The Old City kind of reminded me of a Vietnamese version of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The buildings were all very short and stylized, and almost all of them had a storefront on the bottom floor and then one more story that looked like a residence, or a more subdued business.  For some reason, there were a lot of optical stores that offered eye exams and glasses.  I was curious about what it would cost, since I hadn't had a new glasses prescription in quite a while, and probably need one.  A guy in one shop quoted me a figure of about $135 in US dollars for multi-focal glasses in designer (or faux-designer fake) frames.  Not too bad, cheaper than most storefronts in the US, but probably a little more expensive than it would be for me to buy glasses online from the US.  So I decided to pass for now.

Then I went by the clothing market, because I wanted to buy some cargo pants or shorts.  I need pants with lots of pockets, and hopefully fairly secure pockets.  But most of the stores there made stuff custom, and it was tailored, rather than off-the-shelf as I'm used to buying.  A woman in one of the shops called me over, “Mistah,” she said, “Come visit my store.  I no have good luck today, maybe you buy something.”  OK, sure, I'll check it out.

She offered to make some pants for me, and told me she could put pockets and zippers wherever I wanted, and she'd give me a discount if I bought two pairs.  She quoted me sixty pounds for two pair; I said that was a little expensive, so we went back and forth until we settled on forty-five dollars for two pair.  That was about what I would pay back home, maybe, at a discount store, but she did all my measurements and would do it custom fitted.  I asked her if she could make them into convertible shorts, and she said sure.  So I paid her the money, and she gave me a receipt and told me to come back tomorrow to pick them up.  It seems a little bit strange to have cargo pants custom tailored, but I guess that is the way things are done here.

After paying for the pants, I headed back to the homestay to check in and take a shower, as I felt pretty grungy from riding in the heat from Da Nang to Hoi An.  I checked in and my room was pretty nice.  I took a shower and also washed the shirt and underwear I was wearing in the bathroom sink.  I then lay down on the bed for a bit to relax.  When I went back out, I put on the wet shirt, and figured it would dry out riding around in the heat on my bike, which it did.

I went back to the Old City of Hoi An after eating dinner, and parked my motorbike in one of the many parking lots for motorbikes in the area.  Then I wandered around for a while, and a woman on a boat beckoned me over to take a boat ride on the river.  She asked for 150,000 dong, but I thought that was a little high, so I told her maybe I would come back later.  She then offered 100,000 dong, and I figured, sure, might as well.  I paid her the money and got on the boat.  It was a pretty enjoyable boat ride, and it was just starting to get dark on a night with a full moon.  But about halfway through the ride, I started thinking that the ride would sure be nicer if I had someone to share it with.  Especially since most of the other boats had couples on them.  Oh, well, such is the life of the solo traveler.  You get to do what you want whenever you want, but the tradeoff is that you usually do it by yourself, unless you meet a person or group of people who want to do stuff with you.

After returning from the boat ride, it had gotten completely dark, and I wandered up and down the area of the river.  There were more and more people arriving, and after a while it was starting to get to the point where many areas I was passing through were just major pedestrian traffic jams. It was cool being down by the river, but it didn't look like the flow of humanity was going to abate anytime soon, so I decided to go get my motorbike and skedaddle out of that area.  Little did I realize that I didn't just put my motorbike in a normal parking lot; it was one where they just jammed bikes in there wherever they would fit, without regard for whether there were any channels out of the lot or not.  So when I got there, I found that my bike was way in the back of a sea of motorbikes, and it was crammed in there about fifteen levels deep.  Great.  Getting out of here was not going to be easy. I tried to show the ticket they had given me to one of the lot attendants, but it looked like he had bigger fish to fry and was not interested in paying attention to me.  For one thing, hordes of bikers were lined up outside the gate of the lot in a huge mass trying to get in, and they were trying to cram bikes in closer to each other to make room for all the people waiting.  I managed to somehow squeeze past the crammed-in bikes to get to where my bike was, but there was absolutely no way to get out of that sea of bikes.  I did, with some effort, and just inching it back and forth and nudging other bikes over a bit, manage to get my bike turned around, so now it was facing outward instead of inward.  But there was no way I was going to get it out past all the other bikes.  I just started inching bikes over a bit, centimeter by centimeter.  Then one of the parking attendants started doing that too from the outer side of the bike blob.  After about a half hour of this, with me and the parking attendant working toward each other, we finally met, and I was able to pass my bike through a narrow channel barely big enough to squeeze through.  But the ordeal was just beginning.  I had to force my way past all of the motorbikes trying to get into the lot, and then once I crept my way into the street, there was a total gridlock traffic jam there.  It took about another fifteen minutes to get through the two blocks outside the parking lot, and then about another fifteen minutes to get through the next six blocks or so.  Then, for a few blocks, there was steady but slow movement, and finally I broke free into relatively unencumbered movement to be able to make my way back to the homestay where I was staying.  Fuck.  I definitely was not going to try to head back toward the Old City any more for the night.  I figured I would just head back to the homestay and call it a night, even though it was only about nine at night.

When I got back to the homestay, I found some leftover Mekong River weed (no, not marijuana, but an edible weed that grows in the river that they dry out into sheets) that I had bought in Laos, and started munching on it.  I love that stuff.  It's sort of like sheets of nori, only it has more of a cotton-y texture, and it is dried along with tomatoes, sesame seeds, and other spices, so it has this rich, complex, spicy taste that squeezes out of it when you chew it.  Not much of it left, have to savor it while I can.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

To Hue On The Train

I packed my stuff up from my hostel in Ho Chi Minh City, and asked Jessie at the hostel to call a cab for me.  She said she would call a Grab car, and that it would arrive at 11:30 in the morning.  I sat around and waited for a while, and before I knew it, it was 11:40 in the morning, and no car had arrived.  So I asked Jessie again when the cab was coming, and she got a flustered look on her face; she told me that she got busy and forgot to call.  So she tried Uber, and a car showed up within a couple of minutes.  It was no big deal; I had plenty of time.  I always try to get to a transportation hub earlier than necessary just in case some glitch happens.  I got in the car and headed for the train station.

I arrived at the train station, found out what track my train was on, and it was already there, and it opened to board about ten minutes before I got there.  I went to the compartment, and found that I had an upper bunk.  Bummer.  But definitely survivable.  There was still at least a half hour before the train took off, so I went and got some snacks and beverages.  Shortly after I returned to the compartment, the other upper berth passenger showed up, and he was from Italy.  I figured that the people assigned to the bottom would let us sit there until it was time to sleep or until they wanted to take a nap, and told the Italian guy that usually the bottom bunk passengers let you hang out on the bottom for a while.  But when the two passengers who had the bottom bunks showed up, they were an elderly Vietnamese couple, and seemed quite disconcerted that we were sitting on their bunks.  Oh, well, obviously they were not going to share their bunks with us, as others had on other trains I had been on.  So we moved to the top bunks, and I resigned myself to laying in that cramped space for the whole voyage.

Then the Italian guy had a great idea.  He said he was going to find one of the cars that just had seats, and sit in an empty seat by the window, and if somebody came along and asked him to move, he'd move.  Or he could go to the restaurant car.  So he took off for parts unknown.  Shortly after that, I decided to attempt the same move.  I went to the car right behind the one I was in, and it had a bunck of wooden seats, and was almost empty.  So I just sat by the window for a while, and I was able to snap some pictures too.

After a while, I decided to try to find the restaurant car.  So I went traipsing towards the front of the train, and in the process, got questioned by several of the car attendants as to what I was doing in their car.  I told each of them I was looking for the restaurant car, and then they let me pass without further questioning.  When I got to the restaurant car, I found my Italian suitemate sitting there talking to a Vietnamese kid who spoke English very well, but it was obvious it was just “school English” rather than English learned from conversations with people, which he confirmed.  I sat down to hang out with them, and he told me he was in the eighth grade, and that he hardly ever had a chance to talk to English speakers.  He was obviously a very smart kid; he picked up on a lot of things and liked to talk about subjects like the kinetic energy of the train.  One peculiarity was that he spoke EXTREMELY loudly.  But he was a good companion to talk to, and could converse fluidly on a variety of subject, even though his English was a little bit unusually stilted.  The kid was only going a short distance, so he got off the train about a half hour after I met up with the two of them; we wished him well.

I went back to the compartment shortly after that to lie down for a bit; I didn't really want to sleep, but just to rest my mind.  The Vietnamese couple was fast asleep on their bunks.  Maybe they were too tired to share, and just wanted to sleep without disturbances.  But it turned out they were going a shorter distance than the Italian guy and I were (we were both going to Hue), because in the morning, when I woke up, there were two kids who had taken their place somewhere along the line.  I went to sleep around one in the morning on the train; the Italian guy went to slep much earlier in the evening and woke up before me.  I went to the restaurant car to eat breakfast, and he was there again, so I joined him for breakfast.  When I woke up, we had just passed Hoi An, so there was only about two hundred kilometers to go to Hue.

Danang was the next major stop before Hue, and in Danang, the kids got off, and were replaced by a backpacking couple.  The guy was from Denmark, and his girlfriend was from Australia.  They had both been living in Australia for a while, and then took off to travel.  They were very social, and we had some good conversation in the short time that they were on the train from Danang to Hue.  It was a little bit drawn out, because we had two stops where we stopped for a very long time, so even though it was not that long a distance, it was a little longer than we thought it would be.  The whole trip from Saigon to Hue ended up being about twenty-three hours in total, but it probably saved me a week of travel from Saigon, and also may have saved me from backtracking (though I could have taken a different route the other way, it was still fun to have the experience of taking the train).

When I got to Hue, I had to bid the three of them good-bye, because I had to figure out where to pick up my motorbike, which I had shipped from Saigon a couple of days before I left.  So the three of them took off into the city together, while I wandered around the train station trying to figure out where the shipped motorbikes were.  I wasn't having much luck, so I asked a station officer, “Xe may di Saigon” (which is a poorly constructed sentence in Vietnamese that means “Motorbike goes Saigon”) and she pointed me to a dock at the very end of the station.  But she seemed impressed that I was speaking (or attempting to speak) Vietnamese, and smiled broadly.

I went to the dock, and immediately saw my bike surrounded by a makeshift crate there, and packed in cardboard.  Unfortunately, the helmet was on the rack, and had been wrapped to the rack with sticky tape (I was hoping they would use cord, but if they used tape, that they would wrap it in paper first, but no such luck), so there are now sticky, broad tape marks all over my helmet.  Oh well, I'll live.  There were a bunch of Vietnamese guys sitting on the dock drinking liquor and they tried to get me to drink with them, but I kept begging off.  I've been staying away from the booze lately, and trying to keep that going.  They were very persistent, but I kept saying, “Khong, cam on” (“No, thanks”), until they finally quit trying to get me to drink with them.  They started taking the crate and the packing apart, and screwing the mirrors back on.  While they were doing that, a couple of South African guys came along and were curious about the process because they wanted to ship their motorbikes, and so they asked me a bunch of questions about the procedure.  One of the Vietnamese guys asked where they were from, and they told them they were from South Africa, but the guy looked puzzled, so I told him, “Nam Phi”, which means “South Africa”.

As an aside, my Vietnamese is getting much better.  Its still not to the point where I can have a detailed conversation, but I've been finding that I can have entire simple interactions with people completely in Vietnamese, with multiple back-and-forths, and then understanding what they say back to me, which is really cool to me.

The South Africans stuck around to drink a bit with the Vietnamese guys, who had their hooch in a plastic water bottle.  I had to take off to find gasoline, because they had drained my tank in Saigon.  So I went outside the station to see if I could spot any gas stations, but none seemed to be in sight.  I was getting ready to check Google Maps to find a gas station nearby, when I heard a woman in a conical hat say, “Gas?” to me, and hold up a plastic water bottle filled with liquid.  Apparently there are a bunch of people who hang out outside the train station with water bottles filled with gas for those who shipped their motorbikes.  But they charge a lot more than the gas stations.  It was about 30,000 dong for a small size water bottle, so I bought two.  Strangely enough, the gas was a green liquid, and didn't look like any gas I had ever seen before.  But I poured it into my bike's tank, and it started up.  Yippee!

Then I had to drive my bike down this really steep ramp off the dock, and there was a concrete and iron fence just a few feet past where the ramp ended.  My bike was totally packed with my gear, which made it heavier and more unmanageable, and I didn't want to unpack my bike and pack it again at the bottom of the ramp, so I just gung-ho'd it, even though I thought I might crash into the fence, but it turned out OK.  So I set off to find a hotel in Hue.

I rode around for a while, and didn't see many places, and I thought the hotels I saw might be a little expensive-looking (you can really never tell here...some places that look high-class are amazingly cheap), so I thought I'd try Booking.com, even though I'd had some problems finding places that I had booked with them in the past.  Sure enough, I had a hard time finding the place I booked.  It was not where the map said it was, and I drove up and down the street where it was supposed to be over and over again without success.  I was groaning in frustration, and stopped several times to ask local businesses if they knew where my hotel was.  It turned out it was in this barely visible alley off the street shown on the map, but about a block away from where the map said it was.  I was relieved to find the place, and parked my bike where they told me to put it, a little ways down the alley, and unloaded my stuff.  I was a little concerned because this is the most open and unguarded my bike has been, but it is still there, hopefully it will stay there for my entire stay here.  The hotel is pretty nice, and only about ten bucks a night for a private room, though the wi-fi is spotty and mostly not working.

So I did some sightseeing around the city of Hue on foot, and then came back to the hotel to crash; I went to bed pretty early.  The next morning, I went out to walk around some more (still haven't used my bike since I parked it, but I noticed somebody had moved it a few feet away from where it was, which must have been quite a feat since my front wheel was locked).

I ran across a phone store, and decided to stop in.  I had gotten my phone stolen in Saigon a few days before, and bought one in Saigon that was the same model as the one that got stolen.  But my new phone had been overheating a lot, and the battery was depleting a LOT quicker than the battery in my stolen phone had.  The overheating was also making my camera shut down frequently.  I had decided that I was going to take it back to the store in Saigon to see if I could get it repaired or replaced (they had told me there was a one year warranty on it), but here was the same brand of phone store in Hue, so I decided to see if they would do something about it.  They were really helpful, they changed it out immediately even though I had thrown away the box and had left the earphones back at my hotel (of course, I hadn't planned on trying to trade in my phone when I went out walking, but since I ran across this store, I decided to give it a shot).  They told me they would give me the new phone without the box and earphones, and started helping me set it up.  But I couldn't sign into Google because it was telling me that it thought I was suspicious, and they needed to call my US number that I had given for verification.  Shit.  I'm not really surprised that they were suspicious, though, because I now have three different phones of the same model that have tried to log in to my account from Vietnam.  I couldn't do the verification to my US phone number from there, but I could probably do it from my hotel.  So I could not set up any Google stuff, and here I was all the way across town after just wandering aimlessly, with no access to Google Maps to help me get back to my hotel.  But I just went in the direction that I thought I should go in, and that worked out OK; I got back to my hotel fine.  Then when I got there, Google suddenly let me log in without the extra verification step that it had persistently asked me for at the store (I tried several times there).  So I was able to set up my phone, download needed apps, etc., for the SECOND time in just a few days.  And it seems so far like this new phone is not a lemon.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Shipping My Motorbike

Yesterday I was sitting in the lobby of my hostel in Saigon looking at the map of Vietnam and trying to figure out how I would be able to go to the places I want to go in the time I have left in the country, when Jessie, one of the women who works here at the hostel (I don't remember her Vietnamese name) told me that I can put my motorbike on a train and also head somewhere by train, so that opened up a whole new realm of possibilities to me.  I made a reservation on a train to Hue, but was told that I would have to go to the station two days before I was leaving to buy a ticket for my motorbike and have it shipped as cargo.

So today I set off for the train station on my motorbike to have it shipped to Hue.  I got to the station and parked in the parking lot, which charges 3000 dong to park there; it is maybe around 15 cents.  But I really didn't have to park there, as I soon found out.  The thing was that I didn't know for sure if they were going to take my motorbike right then or if I would just buy a ticket and then bring my motorbike when I was leaving.  But it turned out that they did take my motorbike right then.  They drained the gas out of it in preparation for shipping it, took off the mirrors and taped them to the rack, and covered the handlebars in cardboard.  I asked if I could ship the helmet with it, so I wouldn't have to lug it around with me.  The first guy I asked said no, but someone else who appeared to have more authority stepped up and said that I could.  I set it on the rack after they put the mirrors there, and made hand motions like, “are you going to tie/tape it up?”, and the authoritative guy nodded to indicate “yes”. I hope.  I stuck around for a while to see what they would do with it, but my helmet just sat there on the rack.  I certainly hope that it arrives with my bike.  For that matter, I hope my bike arrives OK with no problems, although it probably will.  I'll have to figure out how to get some gasoline into the tank, since they drained it.

The train to Hue will be about a twenty hour journey, and I will head up there in a couple of days.  This will be the first time I've taken a train in Vietnam, and actually the first time for me to journey by train anywhere in Southeast Asia, so I'll get to see what the trains are like.  I hope to ride down the coast back to Saigon and stop in several places on the way.  Taking the train will probably save me somewhere between a few days to a week of travel, though I wouldn't necessarily have to come back the same way I went up.

I decided to just walk back to the hostel from the train station, since it was only a few kilometers, and I wanted to take my time and check out some more stuff I hadn't seen yet.  I stopped by the Independence Palace, and was going to check it out, but I had gotten there too late...it closes from 11:30 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon, and I got there right after 11:30.  Maybe I'll head back in that direction this afternoon, maybe not.

So I have no motorbike for the next couple of days that I am in Ho Chi Minh City.  I doubt it will matter much because I have been walking almost everywhere anyway.  BTW, some people don't know that Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC, and Saigon are all the same place.  I talked to a guy the other day who had no idea.  Just in case you didn't know, they are.

Monday, February 27, 2017

At The US Consulate in HCMC

After some of the recent adventures that I have been through, it turns out that my passport is getting pretty full, and I will probably have to renew it fairly soon, not because it is about to expire, but because I am getting close to running out of pages.  Most countries that one can visit require a minimum of two blank pages in a passport to enter; some require four blank pages.  Right now I have six full pages left and spaces here and there for individual stamps on some pages.  But some countries take up a full page for their visa and then maybe a quarter of the adjoining page for the validity stamp.  Since I renewed my Vietnam visa, there are two full pages in my passport for the visas, and then multiple stamps on the next page.  I only had to get one visa sticker for Laos even though I renewed it; they were able to renew it in Luang Prabang with only a stamp, but if I had renewed it by leaving and returning, I would have gotten another full-page visa sticker.

So I have a conundrum coming up.  My Russian visa is in the passport I have now, and Russia does not allow a visa to be valid in an old passport (most other countries do allow you to have a visa in an expired passport, and then show it along with your new passport, but Russia does not allow that).  And I am hoping to visit Russia a few more times in the next few years, since I have a multiple-entry, three-year visa to Russia.  But Russia only allows you to transfer a visa to a new passport at the consulate or embassy where you got the visa, which in my case, was the consulate in Houston.  So I would have to either return to the US to transfer the visa to a new passport, or, possibly, mail my old passport and new passport (once I get one) to a visa service agency in the US to have that done and then have both mailed back.  I probably can't do that while I'm in a country where the mail service is sketchy, though I could do it by private carrier and pay through the nose...but I have time constraints that make it almost impossible.

So when I was in Laos, I figured out what I thought was a workaround to this problem.  Under certain circumstances (and it looked like this circumstance would qualify), one can apply for a second valid passport.  Usually this is only available in situations where it would be just about impossible for one's travel to continue without the second passport.  A good example is if one is going to Israel, and then to one of the Arabic countries that bars entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport (even though Israel will put their stamp in a separate card rather than in your passport if you request it).  That way, you can get the Israeli stamp in one passport, and stamps from any countries you enter via a land border, such as the West Bank or Jordan (because these stamps are circumstancial evidence that you entered Israel and grounds for some Arabic countries to deny you entry), and then get your stamps for the Arabic countries in the other passport.

My plan therefore changed from entering Vietnam somewhere in the middle and slowly making my way down to Saigon, to heading directly to Saigon so I could visit the consulate and get a second passport, then heading back up to the middle of Vietnam.  It took me about a week to get from Southern Laos to Saigon, stopping to rest in cities along the way and do some sightseeing.  I made an appointment with the US Consulate to get the second passport, and got together all my forms and documents to get it happening.

When I got to the US Consulate, there was a huge line stretching down the block.  But it turned out I didn't have to wait in the line, since the line was for non-US citizens applying for visas to the US.  US citizens could just go on through, going through security, of course.  I had researched embassy visits and it was a good thing I did, because there are a number of prohibited items that you can't bring into a US embassy or consulate, and they won't let you leave the items anywhere on the premises; you will just be turned away and have to make a new appointment.  You can't bring in a cellphone, any keys with electronic fobs, any memory sticks or cards, any cameras, etc.  So I left all those items in my locker at the hostel, and just went there with my identification and documents.

I showed up for my appointment, and presented all my documents, and my letter requesting a second passport, and everything seemed to be going fine.  They explained the procedure whereby I would get my second passport sent to me by courier, and I listed the hostel's address, after letting the hostel know that I would have it sent there.

But then it all went wrong.  I got called up to the window again, and was told that they might not be able to issue me a second passport, because there was a requirement for a second passport that I have a letter from my employer justifying my travel.  I told them I don't have an employer, and they said that they probably couldn't do it then, but they were going to look into it more to see if they could find a workaround.  I was completely baffled by the fact that they were seeming to tell me that I had to be employed to get a second passport.  I went to sit back down while they researched it further, and a woman tapped me on the shoulder, and said she overheard what they told me, and she had gotten a second passport a few years ago without having to have a letter from an employer.  So maybe it is a new thing.

Well, they called me up to the window again, and told me that they could not issue me a second passport, and gave me the cite to the rules in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) that supposedly explained why I couldn't get it.  So much for that plan.  At least they refunded the passport fee that I had paid.  Now I have to figure out something else.  I probably have enough passport pages to get to Russia once, but probably not after that; I'd have to get the visa transferred in the US to visit further.  So after I got back to the hostel, I went to look up the rules in the FAM online to see what they had to say...and the cites they gave me had no text at all, just said, “Unavailable”.  WTF? The rules they used to turn me down were unavailable for me to read?  What does that mean? Are they classified?  Or just not available for some other reason? It was getting obvious that getting a second passport was just not going to happen, at least not in Saigon, maybe I can convince someone at another embassy to do it.  But it looks like the second passport thing is just not going to happen, and I'll have to figure out some other workaround.  More than likely, I'll just visit Russia once on my current passport, and then apply for a new passport at some point after that, and then any other Russia visits will have to happen after I get the visa transferred via the Houston Russian Consulate, but until then, my Russian visa will be temporarily invalid.  This kind of has a snowball effect that changes around all the plans I had for travel, but I really don't know yet the extent to which my plans will be affected.  But it was my own country that messed up my travel plans, not any of the countries I wanted to visit.  And now I am hearing that Europe may start requiring US citizens to get visas to visit there.  If they go through with that, it will add some additional hassle once I want to visit Europe, but at least that is manageable with planning.  And, likely, it will require a visa sticker that will take up more valuable space in my passport.

Friday, February 17, 2017

From Don Det to Sanamxai

I made my way down to Ban Nakasang, Laos, which is where I needed to cross over to Don Det Island in the 4000 Islands of Laos on the Mekong River. It didn't take me long to find the ferry crossing from  Ban Nakasong to Don Det.  There were special boats that took motorbikes across the river to the island; they consisted of two little dugout boats about the size of canoes, with a platform between the two, and one engine running the whole contraption.  I had read online about the possibility of one's bike getting dumped into the river while perched atop the motorcycle ferry, but luck was with me and I made it across intact.

Once I got on the island, my first thing to do was to get a place to stay.  I rode up the main road through the village a bit, then a friendly German woman asked me if I needed a place to stay, and I went ahead and stayed there.  It was a nice guesthouse with lots of room, but I wish I had gone a little longer and found one of the bungalows with hammocks along the water. After I got settled, I took a motorcycle ride around Don Det Island to see the sights there. First I went down the road on the east coast of the island, the sunrise side.  There were a whole bunch of little restaurants offering “happy” pizzas, cakes, brownies, and shakes.  Then I went down the middle road on the island, which was not very picturesque at all and just ran between a bunch of farms.  The road was very bumpy and rough. At one point, the chain came off my bike. I struggled with it a bit, but didn't have any tools to help get it back on.   One guy stopped where I was wrestling with the bike and tried to help fix it, but he didn't have tools so he told me to wait while he went and got some tools.  He came back after about ten minutes, and tried to work on my bike, but he stripped the outside of the nut a bit using the wrong size wrench.  I thanked him, and said I would pay him and then find someone else to do ti.  After asking around a bit, the locals referred me to another guy, who successfully fixed it and tightened up the chain, which had gotten really loose.  Success.  I was able to get back on the bike and ride again.

I took a bridge on my bike from Don Det Island to Don Khon Island. The roads were very rugged and bumpy, and the island was more desolate and wild, though there were some tourist accoutrements in the north part of Don Khon. Once you get further south, it's all fairly wild.  At one point, I heard a huge noise to my left, and there were a whole bunch of water buffalo stampeding in my direction.  The center of the stampede was in front of me, but I was still on the sides of it.  I quickly started walking my motorbike backwards, and got it about a hundred meters back, and was able to avoid the stampede, hoping that there were no stray animals still to come out of the bush.

I explored around Don Khon island some more.  Don Khon was a lot bigger than Don Det, but much wilder.  I didn't get signal down there, so I had no online map, but I managed to make it back toward the north part of the island, where there was signal again.  I couldn't figure out why I kept missing the road that went to the bridge...I finally figured out that the roads on Google Maps didn't meet and there was an overpass to the road I was on that led to the bridge back to Don Det Island.  So I found a little side path up the hill that led to the overpass, and I was able to cross the bridge back to Don Det.

Later that night, I had dinner at one of the restaurants on the river, and I met Chido and Desi there.  They had been traveling together for a bit, and later that night we all went back to my guesthouse room to just chill for a while.

The next morning, I ended up walking along the sunset side of Don Det Island.  There were a whole bunch of spots on that side of the island where I could wander out into places among the 4000 Islands where the Mekong has receded or changed course, so the ground was walkable but sometimes muddy.

Walking down the west side of Don Det Island some more. I ended up walking all the way to the south tip of the island, where the bridge to the next island is. I walked back up the east side of Don Det Island. I ended up walking the whole circumference of the island that morning. It's not huge, but it's about a two hour walk. There are ruins of a century-old pier along the east side of Don Det Island. It looks like a section of a bridge that just starts and stops out of nowhere.

I met two guys named Tom on Don Det.  The first Tom was Tom from Israel, who had just gotten into a bad motorcycle accident, and had his knees and elbows bandaged up.  He just mostly lay on the floor next to a table in this bar and restaurant across the street from his guesthouse, while he waited to heal up from his accident.  I saw him there most of the time every time I walked by that bar.  The second Tom was Tom from the Czech Republic, who told me that I solved just about all of the IT problems he was having.  I helped him get the money in his SIM card account into a plan so he could use his phone.  He had put the money in the account, but not activated a plan, so I showed him the code to dial to choose the plan he wanted from Lao Telecom.  I can't remember what the other thing I helped him solve was, but he was grateful. Some of the people around were thinking about taking a “happy” cruise offered by some bar on the sunset side, but it turned out the bar wasn't doing it that day.

When I was leaving the next morning, I was walking my motorbike up to the boat ramp, and someone pointed out that my tire looked flat.  It was not yet completely flat, but was losing air rapidly.  I decided to take the ferry across and get it fixed on the other side.  My incident where the chain came off made me realize there were no bike repair shops on Don Det, just individuals who are willing to fix things.  I once again managed to get my motorbike off Don Det Island, back across the Mekong River, once again without my bike and my gear spilling over into the river.  But then once I got to the other side, my tire was completely flat.  I had to walk the bike, pushing it through the beach sand and then up a steep ramp, to try to find a mechanic.  And I found a little bike repair shop in Ban Nakasong.  They fixed the flat and I was ready to go.  I didn't realize that to fix the flat, you have to take the brake assembly apart and put it back together again, but I watched him doing that.

I headed back up Laos Highway 13 to get to a place where I could cross over to Vietnam.  On the way up, there was a particularly nasty looking tour bus wreck.  It had been run off the road, and there was a huge spider web crack/dent in the windshield on the driver's side.  I had already seen a couple of bad motorcycle wrecks along this road previously.  I found a road on a map, south of Pakse, that I decided to take. This road, Laos Highway 18, ended up being the most challenging road I had been on in Laos. It was totally unpaved and extremely rough. I was riding up and down steep rocky and sandy hills, crossing many bridges with just rickety boards. One bridge was closed, but I didn't find out until the end, when I had to slowly back my bike off the bridge. There wasn't enough room to turn my bike around, so all I could do was back it up.  When I got to the beginning of the bridge, I had to back it down a little sandy hill, and the bike slipped out of my grip and I dropped it.  Some guy fishing at the stream helped me pick it up with all my gear strapped on and then I crossed the stream on my bike. I had to ford six streams along the way with my bike, which were each pretty deep. The first time, I just stopped right before the water, wondering what to do, when I saw a local guy just purr right through the water, so I started up my bike and followed his lead.  It wasn't so bad, but my pants got wet up to knee-deep. In the last one, I got stuck in mud in the middle, and pulled the bike out by gently accelerating and guiding with my feet like ski poles. My pants got soaked up past the knees from the crossings, and my shoes got caked with mud. Moving along was slow (at one point, I timed myself and I only went three kilometers in 20 minutes), and so I didn't get to go as fast as I thought I would, and there was no way to get to my destination during the day. So I ended up riding at night in pitch darkness on this difficult road for a couple of hours, even crossing some board bridges almost blind at night, trying to find a village with a guesthouse, and I finally found one after several unsuccessful attempts. To top it off, the rack on my bike snapped off from all the hard bumping, taking my tail light with it, and forcing me to repack my gear on the seat, with the broken rack loaded on top, and I had to sit on the gas tank. I lost my jacket (it was bungee-corded on the back in case I needed it) and my water somewhere along the way when my rack failed. I was just completely exhausted, riding in the dark and hoping each village I arrived in would have a guesthouse.  I finally arrived in the village of Sanamxai, tired, hungry, thirsty, and emotionally spent.  There was one guesthouse in the village, and I jumped on it.  I was so happy to finally stop.  I motioned to my mouth, because I was really hungry, as I hadn't eaten all day, and they fed me some rice and vegetables.  I walked around the village at night a bit; there wasn't much open at night and there wasn't much to see.  Then I collapsed into sleep at the guesthouse.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leaving Vientiane for Savannakhet and Pakse

I left Vientiane and headed towards the general direction of Savannakhet, though the distance was so great that I was pretty sure that I was going to have to stop somewhere in between. And I was right. I ended up stopping in a little town right at the corner of Highways 13 and 8 in Laos at a guesthouse for the night. The room was only 50,000 kip for the night, or a little over six bucks, which was great, and I think it was the cheapest place I have stayed in Laos so far. It didn't have hot water (which was not a big deal because it was hot outside, and I didn't end up taking a shower in the one night I was there anyway), and it didn't have wi-fi in the room, but it did have wi-fi once I moved closer to the office, which was good enough for me. Actually, it probably would have been good enough even if it didn't have wi-fi. I have a Laos SIM card so I have phone signal in Laos. It only costs 50,000 kip, for 5 Gbs over an entire month, which is good enough for mundane tasks, and I just wait for wi-fi to upload pictures (sometimes I will upload just a few over the phone data) or to watch videos. I had a Vietnamese SIM card too, and I'll put it back into my phone once I get to Vietnam again.

I spent the next day heading down to Savannakhet. Southern Laos on Highway 13 is all coastal plains, in contrast to the Northern part of the country, in which there are a lot of mountainous areas. So the ride was not as spectacular when it came to scenery. I arrived in Savannakhet late in the afternoon and found a guesthouse pretty much right in the center of the city, which allowed me to just step outside and be right in the middle of things. Savannakhet is the second largest city in Laos, right behind Vientiane, and it has a large number of beautiful disintegrating French Colonial style buildings interspersed with Laotian shacks. There is a central square, Talaat Yen Plaza, in front of the Catholic Church, that turns into a vibrant night market after the sun goes down. It's probably the closest thing Savanakhet has to a downtown. I was astonished to walk into a convenience store and be in line behind a boy who looked about five years old buying two packs of cigarettes. Just a few blocks away from the central square is the Mekong River, with Thailand right on the other side. The first night I was there, I met a French guy and a Finnish guy in the common area. The French guy said he was 28 years old and was traveling with a brother and a friend, but they had gotten temporarily separated and his two companions were staying in Vientiane; they were due to meet up the next day. He was traveling on a budget of 50,000 kip a day, which was impressive to me, because I was definitely trying to travel cheaply, but even the places I stayed were always more than that. He kept his costs down by WWOOFing, so he would work on farms for free. He said that Couchsurfing didn't really work around Southeast Asia, and I told him I hadn't tried it, but that had been what I had heard from others too. He also did some hitchhiking sometimes, but people in this region didn't really understand hitchhiking, and those that did pick him up wanted some money. I thought that was reasonable, but he seemed pretty impoverished, so it was probably a burden on his budget. The Finnish guy was in his sixties, and he was traveling through Laos and Vietnam by bicycle. He said he had left Ho Chi Minh City and headed slowly this way toward Laos, and he was averaging about 100 kilometers a day. He turned in pretty early because he wanted to get on the road early in the morning; he was already gone by the time I got up.

The next day, I explored Savannakhet a little more. I wandered around for a good part of the day, came back for a bit, and then went out again in the evening into the night. After returning from exploring the city at night, I was going to stay in the guesthouse, but I got a little hungry, so I decided to explore the city a little more. What I didn't realize is that the guesthouse closed fairly early, so the front gate was already padlocked shut with a thick chain at 9:30 at night. I poked around the front desk and found the key to the padlock. I figured I would just run out and get some takeout food from a restaurant and come right back. I ended up taking the key with me so I could get back in, but that meant that everybody else was locked in the guesthouse. When I got outside, almost everything was closed; I guess Savannakhet closes early, but that is the case for many towns in Laos. But I did find one place open near the square, ordered a quick meal for takeout, and then snuck back to the guesthouse. Hopefully nobody else tried to leave in the time I was out, but I wasn't out for long.

The next day, I left Savannakhet and headed for Pakse. It was getting even hotter as I moved further south. But it cools off pretty quickly at night. The highway is straight, flat, and well-paved for the most part, so I was able to move much faster for the most part. I noticed there were a lot of passive police presences along the way, that is, little stations where there were police sentries and cones to narrow the road, but they didn't seem to stop anyone, at least not anyone that I saw. I also saw some gruesome motorcycle accidents along this stretch of the road. One motorbike had been hit by a car, and was barely recognizable. I can't imagine that the driver survived.

Pakse had a lot more foreign tourists than Savannakhet did, and also had a lot more international restaurants; it seemed like it was geared more for tourists. I have heard that a lot of expats live in places like Vientiane and Savannakhet, which are right on the Thai border, because they can easily renew their visas once they run out by crossing the border for the afternoon, maybe just to have lunch, and then returning. If you have no baggage, it is a pretty straightforward thing to get a new visa-on-arrival just by crossing and coming back. Although I have to admit, nobody ever checked my baggage when I crossed into Laos. Once you get down to Pakse, though it is on the Mekong River, it is no longer on the Thai border, because the Mekong has veered wholly into Laos by that time and is no longer the border marker. Still, Thailand is pretty close.

The hotel I stayed at in Pakse was once again right in the center of town and was only 150,000 kip a night. This one at least had hot water and decent wi-fi. There were also a lot of really good restaurants very close by; I ended up eating several meals at an Indian restaurant across the street. There was also a small grocery store right across the street from the hotel. There were a lot of foreign guests staying there so there were a lot of people to chat with in the little patio outside the lobby, which doubled as a table area for the hotel's restaurant and bar.

Pakse was interesting but not terribly spectacular, so I decided to check out Don Kho Island just a few kilometers north of Pakse. Very few tourists visit this island, and the only way to get here is to take a small local motorized dugout boat from the small village of Ban Saphai. The first thing I arrived at up the steps was the Vat Chompet temple, which is right up a steep set of steps directly above the boat docking area, and is inhabited by Buddhist monks. I met a friendly monk in an orange robe as soon as I ascended the steps, and he spoke some English and seemed like he wanted to practice with me, so we engaged each other in conversation. Unfortunately, I only know a few words in Lao, so I was not able to reciprocate.

After wandering around the temple grounds, I walked south along the east coast of Don Kho Island. There were a number of weaving houses right off this path as silk weaving is one of the major activities of the island. The weaving houses were out in the open, and you could just walk right though them; everybody was going about their daily activities and tourists were free to just wander right through the bottom part of the houses, which for the most part were just outdoors, but there was usually a concrete foundation and some posts holding up a building above the ground level area where the weavers were working. There were only two other tourists on the island that I knew of, a British couple from London that I kept running into over and over again as I explored the island.

Next I went down the path that went down the middle of Don Kho Island, crossing over to the other side of the island. There was a school on that side of the island, and I think it was the only school on the island, so it probably taught all grades. The beach on the west side of Don Kho Island was very nice and I descended to the shoreline to check it out and dip my feet in the river. Then I crossed back over to the east side of the island, and explored the north part. I covered a good deal of the island, as it is very small. One strange thing that I saw was a cow climbing a ladder up the side of the steep cliff on the east side, to get to the top of the cliff and onto the path. I have to admit that was the first time I had ever seen a cow climb a ladder.

I left Don Kho Island and headed back to Ban Saphai on the mainland. The boat guy wanted me to wait for the other two tourists so he could bring us all back at the same time and not have to make two trips. But it wasn't long before they showed up, maybe only about five minutes after I arrived at the docking area.

Once I got back on the boat to Ban Saphai, I walked around the town a bit, as I hadn't explored it before I took the boat to Don Kho. There was a booth in Ban Saphai where a woman had some sort of mill to crush sugar cane and make a pulpy beverage out of it, so I tried one. She ran the sugar cane through several times. The beverage was nothing special and was too sweet for my tastes, so I watered it down a bit with some drinking water. It was also an unnatural looking yellow color though there was nothing in it but the pure sugar cane squeezings. I also checked out the temple in Ban Saphai, Vat Saphai Kang, while I was there. Then I rode my bike back to Pakse, and did some more exploring there before coming back to the hotel for the night. The next morning I took off to head further south.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An Elephant Trek, A Cave Visit, and Visa Renewal in Luang Prabang

One of the last things I did in the Luang Prabang area was to plan an elephant trek near the village of Pak Ou. I wanted to take the trip by bus so I could just relax and let somebody else do the driving.  We took a bus about an hour and a half north of town to the village of Pak Ou, and when we arrived, there were several elephants there milling around the town.  Apparently the village has sort of a symbiotic relationship with these elephants.  The villagers guard them against poachers, and then use them for a few hours a day to do some moving and hauling chores, and to take visitors on treks.  Then they let them loose to hang out in the jungle around the village.  I hope that the villagers treat them well.

Each of us on the tour bus were assigned elephants to mount. Some elephants carried two or three people, but I was on the elephant I was riding alone, except for when the handler mounted the elephant with me.  We had to get on the porch of the second floor of a two-story building to get on the elephants.  The handler of my elephant tried to get me to ride on the elephant's neck, bareback, but the elephant started taking off and I did not feel comfortable there AT ALL.  I felt like I was just about to tumble off the elephant as it lurched from side to side.  So I had the handler lead the elephant back to the staging area, and I got in the basket on top of the elephant instead of sitting on its neck.  Once all of us were perched atop our assigned elephants, then we went trekking through the jungle.  The elephants went up and down steep hills, and through areas that I never would have thought an elephant could get through.

After trekking through the jungle for about forty-five minutes, we returned to the village.  The handlers then gave us a brief tutorial of the words that they had taught the elephants, and these were the commands that the elephants understood.  Then the handlers told us we were going to bathe the elephants.  I had no idea what that meant, but they told me I had to change into a swimsuit.  I wasn't aware of this beforehand, and hadn't brought a swimsuit with me.  They rustled one up from somebody in town, and I changed into it.  I figured that I had to wear the swimsuit because I might get splashed while bathing the elephant?

Next they had me mount the elephant, but not from a second story like I had before.  They had the elephant kneel down on its front legs, and I had to climb up the elephant from its front legs.  And there was no basket on the elephant to sit in this time.  They had me sitting on the neck of the elephant, which I was just as uncomfortable to do as it had been the last time I tried that, and I was not very secure with that at all.  Just as I got atop the elephant, the elephant started walking into the Mekong River, and I was not feeling very well positioned or secure atop the elephant, sitting on its neck; I was basically just clinging on for dear life.  When the elephant got into the river, it suddenly reared up on its hind legs, dumping me into the Mekong River.  The guides were all laughing their asses off, but I was not terribly amused.  I still had open wounds from my motorcycle accident and was not happy to be dumped into the river without warning.  I figured this was just kind of a joke that the guides pull on the unsuspecting tourists, but I bet they wouldn't do that to their grandmothers.  Later I Googled “Mekong River” and found out that it was loaded with pollution and disease, and I learned about horrible things like liver flukes, lung flukes, and other parasites you can get from the river, and also found out that there are things in the soil around the river that make their way up your body through your feet and do awful things to you.  And I had come out of the river and walked back to the village barefoot.  Great.

After the elephant trek, we all had lunch in the village, and then took a small dugout boat across the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves.  It turned out that the couple who took the boat with me (they were from a different tour bus) were from my hometown of El Paso, Texas, where I grew up.  Actually, they had grown up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, right across the border (which is where I went to elementary school), and had moved to El Paso, where they were going to UT El Paso.

The caves had been transformed into a Buddhist shrine.  They were filled with sculptures and statues and all kinds of Buddhist icons and offerings.  There was a set of upper and lower caves, and we toured through all the caves.  Then after exploring the caves for a while, we took the little dugout boat back, and returned to Luang Prabang.  We briefly stopped at Whisky Village, where the villagers distill various spirits and make wines, before returning to the town.

When I was on the way back, I started feeling a little bit sick.  Once I returned to my guesthouse, I was really sick.  I thought that something really bad was going on...I had been afraid of infection with my motorcycle accident wounds, and I was afraid that I had a systemic staph infection, or that I had caught something horrible from the river when the elephant dumped me.  But it was probably just coincidental, and I was only sick for about a day, and then I was fine again.

I stayed in Luang Prabang just a couple more days, but on the day before I was to leave Luang Prabang, I found out online that I could renew my Laos visa in Luang Prabang if I wanted to, so I decided to take advantage of that opportunity.  There are two ways to extend your initial Laos visa-on-arrival: one is to leave the country and get a new visa-on-arrival, and the other is to tack on up to an extra month by going to the immigration office in Luang Prabang or Vientiane (and maybe some other cities, I'm not sure), and doing it that way.  I figured that since I still time in Luang Prabang, I could extend my visa.  I had read online that they would do it the same day.  So the next day, I went off in search of the immigration office.  I first Googled it, but it was not at the spot that Google said it was; there was some sort of resort there.  The people at the resort thought I had to do it at the police station, and they gave me directions to a police station.  But I got there and found out that I had to go to a different police station, which I did, and it turned out to be the right place.  Also I found out that they would not renew it the same day; they told me I had to come back the next day.  That altered my plans a little, because I was planning to leave early in the morning as I had a long ride to get to the next town.  But it turned out not to be too bad.  At first they told me that I had to come back at three in the afternoon the next day, but when I told them that I was leaving and needed to travel, they told me that they could have it ready by eleven in the morning and to come then.  So I showed up at eleven the next day, and they had it ready within ten minutes.  I already had my motorcycle packed up and had checked out of the guesthouse, so I just left town right after I got the visa extension.  Strangely enough, they extended my visa to February 29, which doesn't exist in this non-leap year, but I figured I would probably be out of Laos at least a couple of weeks before that anyway.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hey, I Really Dig Your Rack

When I was pulling out of Sam Neua, Laos, several days ago, I had my gear all packed up on the back of my motorbike the way I usually pack it. I would lay down the big pack in the back, and stand up the smaller pack in front of it, using it as a back rest. Everything was going along fine, until about a half an hour out of town, I heard a loud metallic-sounding pop or twang coming from the back of my bike. Of course, being in the middle of desolate country, with no opportunity to repair anything that could have gone wrong, I immediately responded to the issue with denial. Everything has got to be OK. Just keep moving.

But everything was not quite OK. To be fair, nor was it catastrophic. After another half hour down the road, I decided to stop for a bit and see if there was a problem at the back of my bike. What had happened was that one of the front welds on my rack had broken loose. Of course, I wasn't terribly thrilled about this, as the rack was carrying all of my gear, but at least I had the other front weld and the back welds to hold my rack and my gear in place, and I could just continue hoping that they would hold, despite the laws of physics, which gave me a nagging suspicion that at least the other front weld would not last very long.

Everything was fine for a while, then I heard another pop, and this one was more muffled than the first one. Of course, I knew what had happened. The other front weld had given way. Now the rack was only held on with the back welds and bungee cords, with my gear weighing it all down in a bad way. Once again, denial was the solution I chose.

I went on for maybe another hour or so, and I finally summoned up the courage to look at the back of my bike and see how bad it was. It was not so good. The rack was listing about 45 degrees downward, rather than being perpendicular to the ground. This was not a sustainable situation. Fortunately, I responded with more denial, but this time, I knew that I had to hope that it would last at least until the next town where I could find a motorcycle shop where it could be fixed.

So I kept plundering forward into the back roads of Laos, with my nervous denial of the whole situation at hand at the forefront of my mind. I guess it's hard to call it denial if it is preoccupying your whole consciousness. But then again, if you're not doing anything about it...

Then, a little while later, I had a brainstorm; a revelation. Why don't I stop and re-pack my gear so it is almost completely on the seat rather than on the rack? Of course, this means that I will hardly have any seat left, and I'll be sitting way forward on the bike, almost on the gas tank. But that was worth a shot, and it was a step up from denial and inactivity, which surely would not have led to anything good.

So I stopped along the road, completely unpacked my gear, and then re-packed it much farther forward on the bike. I also packed the smaller pack on top of the bigger pack, instead of having one in front of the other. And that actually worked, and took the weight off the broken rack. The downside was that I was sitting way forward, and my long legs were terribly cramped riding like that. Also, since the whole gear package was now higher, and gave my bike a higher center of gravity, I had to be much more careful about tipping over on the side, especially when I was stopped, and especially in the case where my feet were on loose gravel supporting my bike while stopped. Also I had to pack it all just right to avoid the package moving to one side or the other, and getting everything off balance. But it was a sustainable solution, as long as I was careful about the things I needed to be careful about, and it took some pressure off as far as needing to find an immediate solution to the problem I was having.

In fact, it was such a usable solution, that despite the fact that I was sitting way forward and fairly uncomfortable, I didn't get it fixed for several days. I visited Phonsavan, knowing that I needed to get it fixed, but not really finding a place to do it, and being fairly rushed while I was there. Since I spent a week in Viang Xai to recover from my injuries from my motorcycle wreck, I was fairly behind in my itinerary (not that I had specified plans, but I knew covering Laos would be much more compressed in the month that I have for a visa here), and needed to make up the lost time. So I didn't get it fixed in Phonsavan.

Next, I stopped in Phou Khoun, which was a very tiny picturesque village (well, actually, it probably would have been picturesque, had it not been besotten with very thick fog the whole time I was there). I was only there for one night, and was completely soaked to the bone when I got there, because I had been riding in torrential rain the whole way there. So I mostly had to deal with the carnage to my stuff once I got there. Everything in my fanny pack was completely soaked, which was all my most important stuff. My passport was drenched. Everything in my wallet, and everything else in the pack was soaked as well. The fanny pack has really outlived its useful life; it is full of holes and the water resistant inner liner is almost completely deteriorated. If I were in the US or Europe, I would simply get another one of the same model, the Everest Extra Large, which is the most awesome waist pack that holds all my most necessary stuff, even though I always have to bolster the straps by sewing them up better, and sew up a couple corners that are always going to fail. But I know these restrictions, and I can prepare for them; in fact, I have on every one I have had. Any waist pack that I buy here will not be nearly big enough. In fact, I bought one in Thailand, and there was no way it would carry even half the stuff the one I have now does. So I'm just letting this one limp along much longer than I normally would have, relying on my old friend, denial. All of my other gear was OK; the repairs that I made to my raincovers for both packs held up pretty well. But clearly I need a better strategy to keep the contents of my fanny pack dry. Right now my interim solution is to put everything in a big ziplock bag inside the fanny pack.

Also, the place I stayed in Phou Khoun had a layer of awful slime on the floor. It felt like absolute, sickening, raw disease when I walked on it with my bare feet. So I tried not to walk on it without covering my feet with my sandals, but there were some times when it was unavoidable. I had stopped at one place first, in the pouring rain, shivering with discomfort and dying to stop and change out of my wet clothes. But the boy I dealt with couldn't find his mom to get me situated, and so finally he just told me to leave. I was not terribly happy with that, and groaned as I got back on my bike in the pouring rain to find another shelter. As soon as I found the place where I ended up staying, I was just happy to be able to change clothes and assess the water damage to my gear. The strange thing was that at this place, all my dealings were with a boy who looked about ten years old. I never saw an adult at all. He showed me the room, gave me the key, and collected my money the next day. I think I was the only one staying at that place. There was no wifi, but that was the least of my worries. If I had gone down the road about a hundred more meters, there were some much better looking places where it seemed that all the expats stopping through town were staying. But this place was cheap, it was decent enough, and I was dying to be situated. The bathroom only had a raised squat toilet on a platform, and you couldn't even put your feet in the footholds for it, because they were covered with the same awful slime the floor was covered with, and you would just slip right off and fall. But it was good enough, dammit. And I would only be there one night.

So I had more important stuff to deal with rather than fixing the rack, and putting my gear on the seat worked, though it was not terribly comfortable. I left out all my wet stuff to dry the best it could. I ended up packing up the wetter clothes in a bag, and wearing the rest. I probably could have worn them all, and they would have dried on the way, because the weather was great the next day, even though the roads were not. I left Phou Khoun the next morning on the long, winding trek through crappy mountainous roads to Luang Prabang, a journey that was little over 100 kilometers, but took all day due to the terrible quality of the roads, and the amount of winding that I had to do on hairpin turns through the mountains. It always seems like right when I get to the hairiest turns on the mountains, that is when the roads get the worst, with mud and/or gravel, and huge potholes or washouts right around the corner. But I guess that is the nature of the hairpin turn. It is always going to be in the place where the water washes down off of the mountain, and causes the maximum amount of erosion, so the road there will by nature be of the worst quality.

Then I got to Luang Prabang. I was rattled from the long, bouncy, unsettling trip all day through terrible roads perched on cliffs that would be unsurvivable, would one happen to fall off of them. There is a thing that happens to your brain bouncing around all day from the vibrations of driving over bouncy roads; it is probably comparable to a mild concussion. It's like when you're swimming in the ocean all day, and when you get out, you can still feel the waves as though they are still pounding you. Well, I could still feel my cerebral matter being battered against the side of my head for quite a while after I stopped riding. Also, I was loaded up with clothing to keep my warm in the high, cold, windy mountains, but now I had descended into a valley for the first time in a long time, and I was really hot. I needed to find a place to stay where I could peel off my sweaty clothes and get comfortable, and I was definitely not comfortable at that point.

There were so many options for places to stay, but I didn't know what the prices would be like, and what the amenities would be. So for the first time since Hanoi, I decided to book a place online. I booked a guesthouse that I figured would be decent. But the problem was, it had no address online, and I couldn't find the damned place at all. A restaurant owner saw me stopped, muddling over Google Maps trying to figure out where the place was, right after Google Maps had taken me to a place that was definitely not where the guesthouse was, and it didn't seem to have the guesthouse on the map at all. He invited me in and offered to call the place, so I looked for the phone number, found it, and gave it to him. He called, and whoever he talked to was no help at all, was apparently a complete jerk to him, and hung up on him. He showed me on the map where he thought it was, so I headed off in that direction. I poked aimlessly around that area, but could not find the place anywhere. I was really frustrated, because I had paid for a non-refundable reservation online that I had no way of finding out the location of. So I sent a message to Booking.com, the outfit I had booked it though, begging for help in finding the place. I still have yet to hear from them. Go fuck yourself, Booking.com.

Anyway, first stopped at the spot the guy from the restaurant thought was where it was at on my map. There was a guesthouse there, but nobody spoke English. I tried to tell them I had a reservation at the Souksavong Guesthouse, and tried to ask if this was the place? Everything was written in Lao script, so I couldn't tell. They very enthusiastically tried to get me to take a room, but I couldn't confirm that this was the place I had the reservation, and I had a funny feeling it wasn't. So I milled around a while, but it just didn't feel right. I would have maybe stayed there, but I had paid a lot of money (Luang Prabang is pretty expensive compared to the other places I have been in Laos), and I didn't want to double-pay. So, out of frustration, and with no other option at that point, I just methodically went up and down every street in the area. I stopped at a tourist assistance place, but nobody there spoke English, and that added to my utter despair. Finally I stopped at a guesthouse that had a similar name to the one I had booked; the person at the counter spoke English, and knew where my guesthouse was! I was about to jump for joy. I went down the street a ways, and it was right where they told me it was. I was so fucking happy.

I was glad to have a room, but even though the whiteboard by the front desk indicated there were only two people other than myself staying in the whole place, they put me in a back building with no wifi, in an upstairs area with very steep stairs with no lights leading to the second floor. I don't know why they did that when there seemed to be downstairs rooms right next to the wifi router in the front building. But nobody spoke English, and I was just happy to have a room. And I can always go to the front building to use the wifi.

Well, I've gotten way off track. This post is about my rack, and how it needed fixing. I spent the better part of one day trying to find a mechanic who could fix my rack. First I went to one mechanic, but he indicated he didn't do welding. I tried to see if he could just put on a new rack, but he just cut me off and kept saying no to everything, probably because of our inability to communicate in the same language. But he seemed to indicate there was someone down the road who did welding. He pointed straight down the road and then to the right. Great. So there was someone some indeterminate distance down the road, on some road that went to the right at some point, who might be able to fix it. Luckily I actually found the place he was talking about, down the road that first veered off to the right. But I pulled up to the place, tried to explain my problem, but the guy who seemed to be running things just waved me off as if to tell me to go away. Hell no. I was persistent. Finally one guy who spoke a little English told me to come back at two o'clock. Okay, that was progress, hopefully. I went back to the guesthouse and laid on the bed to relax for a while. Then I set off about a quarter to two back to the place. Guy who at first waved me off was working with a welding rig when I got there; that was a good sign. He finished a job for somebody else, and motioned me to bring my bike up. There is a bigger rack tied to the rack attached to my bike with a bungee cord; that was set up by the people who sold me my bike in Hanoi. It sounds iffy, but it is actually very solid. He motioned that I would have to remove the bungee cord and the other rack so he could work on it. That was fine, but it was tied really tightly and I had trouble getting it off my hand. I struggled with it for quite a while, and tried to ask him through pantomime if he had any pliers. He handed me a machete. Well, no, dude, I can't cut it off, because I still need the cord to tie it back on once I get it off, and no telling if I'll be able to find another one in Laos. But I would have done it as a last resort. He just walked away. So I kept struggling with it by hand to not much avail. I tried to cut it with the machete, but that didn't seem to work too well. So I poked around his shop looking for any tool that could help me, hopefully a pair of pliers. But I didn't see anything. Finally, I found a nail, and I was able to pry the knots in the bungee cord loose with the nail. Success! I removed the top rack, and he came back a few minutes later, and got to work on it with the welding rig. He was able to re-weld the two broken welds pretty quickly, and my rack was fixed! Yay!

On the way to the welding shop the first time, I had seen a place where someone was washing a motorbike. I wouldn't have even known that service was available there if I hadn't seen someone doing it. So I made a mental note to stop there after I went to the welding place later in the afternoon. And I did stop by there. They were willing to wash my bike. But, let me tell you, at every place I stopped at today, the first mechanic shop, the welding shop, and the bike washing place, there was a lot of rapid-fire talk in Lao between people there, in which I heard them say “farang” a lot; that was the only word I could pick out, and I heard it a lot. “Farang” is a derisive term for foreigner, especially one of European descent. So at all these places I stopped at, they were discussing among themselves about how this (bleep) foreigner was all up in their grill. Oh well.


The bike washing place was also a restaurant of sorts, and they invited me to come in and sit down while the guy washed my bike. I watched all sorts of fascinating transactions at the restaurant while the guy was washing my motorcycle. My bike was thoroughly caked in mud from the rides through dusty roads in the mountains, so it took a while to wash. In the meantime, I watched one customer come up to get some stuff that the woman behind the counter prepared by grating or peeling some stuff off of something that vaguely looked like okra, but was filled with fibrous material. Then she mixed it with some peppers and other stuff, and gave it to the customer in a bag. Another customer came up, and she cut some flesh off of what looked like a squash or melon (it might have been the fleshy part of a coconut), ground it up in a huge mortar and pestle, mixed it with some other stuff, and then gave the customer a taste to make sure it was satisfactory, and then sent it off in a bag with the customer. Many people came to order rice dishes, or some thing they prepared in a wok over a fire with some sort of egg crepe-like thing. They would crack an egg, mix it with some kind of batter, and then coat most of the hot wok with it so it was very thinly spread. Then they would add various vegetables to it, and a bit of some kind of meat that they had wrapped in several packages of banana leaves hanging from the wall. They would take one of these packages and add it to the mix, then wrap the whole thing in the egg crepe-y thing, and serve it. Some people took these in to-go containers rather than eating it there. The guy finished washing my bike, and did a great job, it was absolutely sparkling. So now my rack is fixed, my bike is clean, and at some point before I leave for the next town, I'll re-attach the bigger rack with the bungee cord.