Our happy Oasis family split up this week in China when we reached the final stop of our Silk Road journey in Xi’an. Since April, we’ve covered 20,363 km in our beloved Habibi and what an epic adventure. 7 countries through spectacular landscapes with a bunch of fun people = lots of fantastic memories. It was sad to bid farewell to the majority of the group (Kate & Kyle, Chris, Warner, young Kate, Daniel, Greg, Molly, Kevin, SCUBA Gill, Andy, and Ichi). Everyone but Ichi is headed onward to Beijing where their journey will end. Ichi will be hopping around to Korea, Japan and then back to Canada. The remaining 8 of us (Connie, Ant, Denise, young Gill, Lars, and soon to include Helen who will be meeting us in Laos) are about to embark on a new journey (Indochina Encompassed) which will be a whirlwind tour through southern China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. This portion of our adventure will take approximately 73 days and cover 10,125 km. We will now be in the capable hands of Tig, our new tour leader who hails from Australia. She has tons of funny stories to keep us entertained and we are looking forward to seeing what new adventures we can hatch up together over the upcoming 2 months.
From Xi’an, we caught a sleeper train to Chengdu where we had an afternoon to kill. From Chengdu, we had an all day bus ride to Xichang which made for a pleasant overnight. Then onward to Kunming in a sleeper bus (awesome!). Our 2 nights in Kunming (lovely city) flew by, and before we knew it, we were headed to the border town of Mengla to cross over into Laos. After over a month in China, we are ready for a new country…Laos here we come!!!
30 Jul – After 3 nights in Chengdu, we were on the road again, making our way towards Xi’an. After a quick breakfast, we trudged down the street over to the parking lot where we started loading everything onto the back of the truck. With our time on the truck coming to a rapid end, things were in a state of disarray with everyone organizing their personal gear. How on earth did we manage to accumulate so much stuff in such a short amount of time? Becky had opted to take out her big bag to give to Tom since he lived in Chengdu and we were coming back here after our Xi’an detour…no need to lug unnecessary gear back and forth, especially since we were returning to Chengdu via train. The morning started out hot and humid but things cooled off with a late morning rain shower which let up just before lunch in the parking lot of a rest area. After lunch we continued on to Hanzhong where we stopped for the day. After checking into the comfortable Jinjiang Inn Hotel, we linked up with Lars and Ichi to grab dinner. The evening was spent trying to take advantage of the decent Internet…our wifi in Chengdu was absolute crap so we couldn’t get anything done online. Hard to believe we will be in Xi’an tomorrow. We spent some time organizing our thank you envelopes for Kate and Kyle since our time in Xi’an will undoubtedly be quite hectic.
31 Jul – Today was a drive day to Xi’an. For lunch, Kate organized a cafeteria buffet meal on local payment while Kyle was busy at the gas station. We were more keen on checking out a massive wall monument dividing the highway but did manage to squeeze in a quick bite to eat afterwards. Lunch was OK…cheap and filling. After lunch we drove into Xi’an and checked into the Skytel Hotel where a happy (but confused) Tig was there to welcome us. She initially thought Lars was Robby and Ichi was Becky but eventually figured out who was who, ha. After checking in to our posh hotel, we regrouped to do one final truck clean. Amazingly, in a city full of tourists galore, we managed to run into several Dragoman overland passengers who were curious about our big yellow truck. After chatting with them briefly, we loaded onto Habibi for the short drive over to a parking lot where we unloaded everything for one massive truck clean. It was a hot and sweaty affair but with everyone working together, we managed to complete it in under an hour. After taking one final group picture (thanks Tig), we returned to the Skytel where we chilled for the remainder of the day. Our big priority was going through our gear to figure out how on earth we are going to survive the next 2 months of travel on local public transportation. We were lugging around way too much stuff that was no longer necessary for the IndoChina portion of our trip…none of our snivel and camping gear, heavy jackets or shoes were necessary. Unlike everyone else who was mailing stuff home, we were going to be passing by our home in Saigon so our ultimate decision was to suck it up and lug our extremely heavy bags around for the next 5+ weeks until we got a chance to offload them. At least it would save us some postage costs which should offset the inconvenience factor!
01 Aug – We enjoyed one of the better breakfasts in China at the lovely Skytel Hotel.
Chinese oil sticks (“fried bread”), yogurt, dried fruit, eggs, toast with butter or jam, and a selection of fruit…fantastic! The hotel had coordinated for an early breakfast for us but they were super strict in collecting our breakfast coupons. Apparently, we were supposed to have one each and the staff gave us a really hard time since we didn’t have a second breakfast coupon. After breakfast, we took Habibi for one last whirl to visit the nearby Terracotta Warriors. We were joined by a new addition to our team, Teresa from the US. She was a trip! The stereotypical bleach blonde from California, Teresa was now living in Singapore off of a more than generous divorce settlement. She joined our group at the last minute and didn’t have a clue what she was in store for. No idea about overlanding or the fact that we were now leaving the truck and would be taking public transportation everywhere. Becky had a nice chat with her and found her to be super friendly and nice, but also quite ditzy and unable to string along more than one coherent thought at a time. She will definitely make an interesting addition to our group! The Terracotta Warrior complex wasn’t opened yet when we arrived, so we had to cool our jets. Kate gave us a total of 4 hours here, which was more than plenty. It was stifling hot by mid-morning and we were on a quest for AC as we walked around. Since we had already visited before, it didn’t take us long to see everything again. The site has become even more crowded than before, which we did not think was possible. While the warriors are as impressive as ever, the inconsiderate tourists hogging all the space around them for the ultimate selfie shot quickly grew old. Seriously how many selfies with the warriors does one need? The pits were crowded enough, but getting up close to see the bronze horses and carriages on the bottom floor of a nearby museum was ridiculous…definitely a fire hazard with thousands of visitors pushing up against each other for one quick glimpse. The 360 degree theater looked old and dilapidated and is in need of an upgrade. After sightseeing, we followed Lars around as he shopped for his very own warrior replica, settling on one of the General statues. It was lunch time when we decided to wait for the group at the truck and of course we had to stop by McDonald’s for a quick snack. Actually the thought of a milkshake lured us in but no milkshakes were to be had so we settled on a chicken burger instead. Back on the truck, we had to wait around for everyone to regroup. Lars showed us a pic of his half sized warrior…what a heavy souvenir but he got free shipping so not a bad deal! Everyone felt a bit nostalgic as we realized this was our last ride on Habibi…she had treated us well over these past few months. SCUBA Gill and Becky spent time staring out the window at the Chinese phenomenon of men wearing their t-shirts raised up over their bellies. Not a good look for many of them! Back in Xi’an, we bid a final farewell to Habibi and had a quick meeting with our new tour leader, Tig, at the hotel before zipping out to lunch with Lars and Ichi. It was super hot outside so we were more than happy to chill in our room until dinner. We did manage to drop off our trip questionnaires and tip money/thank you notes to Kate and Kyle before heading out to dinner as we really didn’t want to forget to do that. Tonight was the farewell dinner with the entire group and we walked over to a restaurant that specializes in hot pots. Basically, there is one large bowl (filled with clear broth) that is heated from center of the table. The bowl has two portions, an inner portion of clear broth and an outer portion filled with a hot chili broth. The staff brings out trays filled with various meats, veggies and other goodies that you throw in, cook and consume. There was a sauce and spice station where you could load up on garlic or sesame oil, chilies or any other condiments. It was a tasty treat but we aren’t used to having to “cook” our own food at a restaurant! After dinner we pooled together tip money for Tom (which was a bit weird since we still have another week to travel with him) and had thank you speeches for Tom, Kyle and Kate. Most of the group decided to head out to Marley’s Bar across from the hotel for after dinner drinks but we were on a quest to find a fan at the Muslim Quarter. Gill wanted one too since the weather had turned stifling hot these last couple of days. Our post-dinner stroll took us past the Clock Tower, the Drum Tower and through the lively Muslim Quarter’s night market. We were shocked things were still lively despite the late hour (11 pm). Then we surprised the group by joining them at Marley’s Bar. Based on Lars’ tip, we ordered a pitcher of mojito which was lovely. There was bit of dancing and rice wine drinking and lots of fun. Lars and Kate swung those hips and danced on end, earning applause from the Spanish contingent who had joined the bar. Once the music switched to salsa, they showed us how it was done. Fun night…we are going to miss this lovely group. Around 2 am, we finally called it a night and returned back to the hotel with young Gill who was also keen on some shut eye.
02 Aug – After last night’s shenanigans, we slept in and managed to squeeze in breakfast at 9 am. We would have slept longer but we wanted to say goodbye to Ichi who was the first member of our group to leave the expedition. The reason she wasn’t joining everyone else to Beijing? Her one-month visa was expiring tomorrow and she had to be out of the country before then. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to Ichi…she has been a fun travel companion and we can’t wait to see her again one of these days. Lars was sad as he is gonna miss his super awesome tent buddy! Since we were taking the night train to Chengdu tonight, we had to check out by 11 am. Not wanting to be stuck in the Xi’an heat all day, we decided to hang out in our room until then, relaxing in the wonderful AC. After checkout, we lugged our bags over to the one room that Kate had organized late checkout for and dropped our gear there. Tig was keeping an eye on everything so we chatted briefly before linking up with Lars to check out the Shaanxi History Museum. It was a long, sweaty walk to the museum and once we saw the ridiculously long queue into the museum (at least a 1 to 2 hour wait), it was an easy decision to skip it. Instead, we detoured to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. It had green skirting around it for renovations so we didn’t stay long. Since we had opted to walk here, all three of us were pouring with sweat. Xi’an heat and humidity is no joke! We wanted to bid farewell to the group that was departing to Beijing and rather than hoof it back, we decided to split a taxi 3 ways…well worth it. It was a sad moment as we said our goodbyes to Kate, Kyle, Chris, Warner, Kate F, Daniel, Greg, Molly, Kevin, SCUBA Gill and Andy…it won’t be the same without them! After seeing them off in taxis, we decided to grab some grub for dinner. Gill had mentioned the McDonald’s down the street but that proved impossible to find. The golden arches were clearly visible from the road side but we went up, down and around the building before finding it tucked away in the basement. Back at the hotel, we cooled down with quick showers and waited for our departure to the train station. That was when we first heard that our new passenger, Teresa, had decided she couldn’t bear the thought of traveling on local train. Apparently she had a mini-meltdown and was signing off the trip already, with the vague promise of meeting us in Laos. We were shocked to hear that the idea of riding on the train was too stressful for her but wished her the best of luck. After a bit of a delay, we were finally ready to leave Xi’an. Tig organized a van to transport us all in one vehicle. The station was 27 km outside of town so it was a long ride to get there. When we arrived we still had about two hours to kill before the scheduled train departure. Unfortunately for us, passengers weren’t allowed to enter the train station until just before the train arrived, so we were stuck sitting outside on the ground. We found a spot large enough for all of us to plop our bags next to and sat down before we realized this was most likely a pee zone…the entire area smelled of urine! Gross!!! Two very long hours later, we were finally granted access into the train station and it was a free for all push-fest. Tig was given a hell of a time because of her pace-maker (security insisted that she pass through the body scanner) but after arguing for a while, they finally let her pass without going through the metal detector. Train arrived, we boarded the train and went in search of our bunks. Unbelievably, this sleeper train had bunks stacked three high and it was a tight squeeze to scramble on board. Our group was spread out but we managed to get settled in. Immediately after the conductor came by to examine everyone’s tickets, the lights were shut off and we managed to get a bit of shut eye. Onward to Chengdu!
03 Aug – 14 hours after boarding the train, we arrived to Chengdu! We slept in as long as we could before waking up and grabbing a bowl of instant noodle soup for breakfast (the train compartments provide free hot water). Once at the Chengdu train station, we grabbed taxis to the Lazybones Hostel. Even with maps.me, the taxis had a hard time finding the hostel but we eventually figured out that we had to walk a block away to find it. The hostel was nice…our double room was spacious and clean. Our plan was to do a bit of afternoon sightseeing but it started raining shortly after we checked in. Luckily, the downpour lasted about 5 minutes so off we went with Gill and Denise to the Wenshu Monastery. Unfortunately, the rain was intermittent all afternoon long, so we got drenched while exploring the monastery. Denise and Gill opted to head back to the hostel while we figured we’d check out the metro and hop over to Tianfu Square to see the Mao statue. Tianfu Square is home to several shopping malls so we figured we’d do a bit of shopping to buy some tank tops since the weather was gearing to warm up for the duration of the trip. We had a bit of a mix up with the metro tickets since you can’t buy them in advance. We thought we could buy all our tickets at once (for the roundtrip), but later found out you need to buy each set immediately before using them…lesson learned. Back at the hostel, we cooled down with a shower and then linked up for a group meeting in the lobby. Tig gave us information for tomorrow’s agenda and since everyone else raved about the burgers here, we opted to have dinner at the hostel (the burgers are good!).
04 Aug – Today we were leaving Chengdu for Xichang. Tig had coordinated breakfast at the hostel and we had pre-ordered our meals last night. Surprisingly, our orders were ready when we woke up. After breakfast we took taxis to the bus station and had about an hour to chill before our bus departed. The bus ride was comfortable and the AC was actually so cold that we had to dig through our gear to find long sleeves to put on. The 6 hour bus ride was smooth…every 2 hours the driver would pull over for a quick break, which meant we had plenty of pee stops. In no time at all, we arrived to the sleepy town of Xichang. Tig had briefly considered having us take the bus all the way to Kunming, but in the end decided to err on the side of caution, breaking up the journey into a short, more manageable one with an overnight in Xichang. After hopping into taxis, we drove around Xichang while our drivers desperately tried to find our hotel. Round and round in circles until we finally spotted the “Seaside Hotel” which is tucked away in a little alley. After checking into our room and dropping off our bags, we joined Lars for a walk along the lakefront. Xichang is a pleasant area but there is nothing special about it. While walking back to the hotel, we spotted a restaurant packed with locals and decided to see what the hype was all about, deciding on several large bowls of noodle soup. Boy were they spicy! All three of us were dripping with sweat…good thing our hotel room has AC where we chilled for the remainder of the night.
05 Aug – We had a sleep in and relaxed in the room until we were ready grab some lunch and snacks for the bus ride tonight. After lunch, we ran into Lars on our way back to the hotel who mentioned that the hilltop monastery was worth a visit. So we huffed and puffed and sprinted up the hill to get a quick view. Too bad we didn’t have enough time to fully explore because by the time we reached the top of the monastery, we had to sprint back down to catch the ride over to the bus station. Ant had a minor fiasco while transporting his big backpack into the hotel courtyard. He tossed it on the ground and smashed a bottle of wine that he had forgotten was tucked away in his bag for safekeeping…oh no! Ant was more concerned about the loss of his chianti than the wine soaking into all his clothes. At the bus station, we boarded our sleeper bus to Kunming. The bunks were two high with a single over/under on one side and a double over/under on the other side. In the back of the bus there were 4 bunks across for both over and under. Thank goodness we were lucky enough to be at the front of the bus, rather than crammed in the rear! The bus ride was actually pretty comfortable other than not having much clearance to sit up in the upper bunks. It was relaxing to snooze the afternoon away and by 10 pm, we had pulled into Kunming. After hopping into taxis to the “Hump Youth Hostel”, we checked into our room, took steaming showers and crashed right away. No wifi here…boo!
06 Aug – Since breakfast wasn’t included, we decided to grab some instant noodles from a nearby convenience store. At least the hostel provided hot water for coffee/tea so we were able to make breakfast. The Internet was down for the morning, so we can up with a plan to explore Kunming and were on our way. After leaving the hostel, we hopped on a bus to the Yuantong Temple, one of the city’s highlights. It was a colorful morning to visit because the monks were having a special ceremony. All visitors were invited to join them in prayer and a bowl of food afterwards but we declined. From the temple we walked to the Green Lake Park which was worth a quick wander. Next up was the Old Chinese Military Academy. It was a bit boring but at least the entrance was free. From there we walked through a local market that had lots of meat, pastries, pickled goods, and dried fruits and nuts for sale. We couldn’t resist grabbing a bag of homemade pork skins and pastries to munch on before we headed over to Wal-Mart. We only recently found out that the chain has made its way to China and this was the first store we stumbled across in China. It was actually quite impressive to see a huge store filled with local products alongside Wal-Mart’s generic “Great Value” products. Definitely the biggest shopping store we’ve seen over the past month in China. Understatement to say we went a bit overboard here in our snack purchases…mooncakes, roasted duck, snickers, spicy peanuts and chips were just a few of our buys. Lunch was roasted duck and mooncake and we immediately kicked ourselves for not buying more! After eating, we made our way to the Bird and Flower Market. There were birds and flowers for sale, but also lots of other random things so we’re not sure why the market is called the “Bird & Flower” market. Back at the hotel, Tig said the rest of the group had gone over to the Daguan Lake Park. Since that was on our list of things to see, we made our way out there but just as we bought our tickets it started to downpour. The bonus was that drove the crowds away. The cons were that it made for miserable sightseeing conditions. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stroll around since it felt like we had the entire park to ourselves…a rarity in China! After a couple of hours here, we caught a bus back to the hostel where took a refreshing shower. Tig warned us that Lars was keen for a night of karaoke but we weren’t up for it so we laid low for the rest of the night to avoid the peer pressure of being forced to go.
07 Aug – Last full day in China! After over a month in this vast country, we were ready for someplace new. After snacking in our room for breakfast, we checked out and hopped into a taxi back to the bus station. Today’s bus was the standard two-seats on each side of the isle with the baggage in the underside cargo area. The driver crammed in tons of extra cargo on either side while we tried our best to keep an eye on our group’s bags. The last thing we wanted was for one of our bags to be offloaded so more cargo could be stored and left behind! Today’s ride from Kunming to Mengla was pretty scenic, with lots of terraces carved into the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, we had rain for the majority of our trip. But when we arrived in Mengla late at night was when the real show began…torrential rain started pouring down. This was the hardest rain we have seen on the trip and it was relentless! All of us huddled together under a flimsy awning in uncertainty because there were no taxis and we were wondering what the hell was going on. Finally, a mini taxi van showed up and grabbed the first group. No way we were all squeezing into the first taxi so we patiently waited, and waited, and waited. About an hour later, we were picked up and taken over to our night’s lodging at the Xiong Feng Hotel. The streets were flooded but at least the rain had eased up slightly. When we arrived, Tig had already checked in and gave us our room key. Despite the late hour, we were hungry so we dropped off our bags and quickly went out in search of a bite to eat. Thankfully, a small noodle shack was open so we grabbed a quick dinner before taking a shower and hitting the sack.
08 Aug – Yay…after 5 weeks in China, we were moving on to Laos! We were really looking forward to today for a long time. After having a quick breakfast in the room, we met up with the group and took taxis to the border. Tom coordinated a ride for us from the Boten border crossing to Luang Namtha with a bus driver but it seemed shady as shit because the bus appeared full and no tickets exchanged hands. Just some money and a hand shake. But first we had to lug our bags over to the passport control area, have our gear inspected and get stamped out of the country. Tom vaguely promised us that the bus would meet us on the other side once we got through all the border crossing formalities. We thanked him for being our escort for the past month and just like that, we were through. Goodbye China!