Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Day 96 – Bye bye Laos, hello China. (Border crossing Laos to China)

It has taken many months of planning, a lot of difficult decision making and apprehensive separation with a considerable amount of money, but today was the big day. After spending the night in the tiny village of Boten on the Laos side of the border, we were up and ready to head off at 7:45 this morning, prepared for a full day of paperwork and various checks. The Chinese side of the border opens at 9:00, so because of the time difference the Laos side opens at 8:00 and we were keen to get the ball rolling as early as possible, unsure of how long everything would actually take, and aware that everyone goes on three hour lunch breaks.
We specifically left basically an extra day to get to the border, meaning we only had 80km to drive yesterday before arriving at Boten. We stopped at a quarrie on the way where Tunkles played with his bb gun for the last time, before giving it a proper gangster farewell by dramatically smashing it on the ground then leaving it to sink in the stagnant marshy water that had gathered. We completely missed the town, driving right up to Customs before realising we’d gone too far. There was a small restaurant amongst a strip of very abandoned looking buildings, where we decided to have lunch while we figured out what to do. Realising this was in fact Boten, we considered going back to Oudomxay 80km away. This didn’t really look like a great place to spend a whole day and night. Other than this small strip of dilapidated buildings, there was a huge gravel truck parking area and one motel type place that we couldn’t find anyone to work at. Remembering that we had driven through a small village a couple of kilometres before, we decided to check that out, and sure enough the tiny village was the actual town of Boten. There were two guesthouses in the town, both basically the same thing for exactly the same price. We chose the one with the slightly cleaner bathrooms. It turned out to be a great afternoon in the end, spent cleaning the car out in the afternoon sun, and playing cricket for an audience of curious locals. Everyone we came across wanted to wave and say hello, seemingly astounded that we were there. I guess they wouldn’t get many Western tourists crossing that border.

The last 80km or so of road approaching China is built and maintained by the Chinese government, and the difference between that and what we’ve been used to throughout Laos and Cambodia was incredible. As we got closer to the border, the Chinese influence became ever more evident, not only in the improvements in road conditions. After passing through Laotian Customs (which we weren’t required to stop at since we were leaving the country), we rounded the corner and were astounded with the sight of several huge buildings rising out of the mountains. It has been several weeks since we’ve seen anything higher than about five stories, and coming from the tiny village just a couple of kilometres away, it certainly was a sight to behold. Still in Laos though, the bank we went to in order to change our Kip to Yuan, was a single room behind a half closed roller door lined by a few chairs. While we waited for the bankers to decide what exchange rate they felt like giving us, and use the calculator to negotiate between themselves what they would do, we spotted the shower and toilet in the back corner. Even after all this time, these things never cease to amaze us.

We reached the actual border at about 8:15, where we parked on a bit of gravel and took our passports up to the window. This border was certainly a bit more of a big deal than the one we entered Laos at. The volume of traffic we saw here was probably similar to what they see in a year where we entered the country. We passed hundreds of trucks parked in various parks, and lined up along the side of the road, a few private cars scattered around. Despite the number of vehicles though, the buildings were still pretty non-eventful one-story cement blocks with little signage.

We made our way to two windows side by side that people seemed to be queueing up at with passports. We noticed most of them were also handing over cash which we were concerned about. When I said queueing I obviously meant the forming of a triangular shaped mass of shoving bodies, focused towards a single point that everyone feels they must get to right now. It’s actually been quite a while since we’ve seen something even that close to a queue. When we got to the front of the triangular shaped mass of shoving bodies though, we were pretty happy to have our passports stamped and handed back with not so much as a request for a “processing fee”. The conclusion that we came to is that most of the people travelling across that border are just locals doing trade and they won’t actually be required to have a proper passport. In that case, they’re probably paying for some sort of temporary pass. And the only way I can explain the fact that at the Southern border where we entered Laos from Cambodia we had to pay “fees”, but here we didn’t, is that the crossing is big enough that they just have to play by the official rules.

Back we went to the car. This is now in the top three most exciting and nerve racking moments of the trip so far – right up there with leaving Melbourne in the first place, and collecting Trevor from Port Klang. We only got as far as the passport windows though which was about 30m of road, before we were waved over by officials. With a bit of hand gesturing and shaking and nodding of heads, we discovered that only one person is allowed to be in the car at this point and the others must get out and walk. So Ben, Tunkles and Denner dutifully climbed out and walked along the side of the road, while Trevor and I entered No Man’s Land and drove towards China. 100m down the road I decided to pull over and wait for them, not actually sure how far they were supposed to walk for. Noone seemed to be watching though, so probably it was fine for them to get in now. While they had had their passports checked, I had driven out of Laos without anyone even glancing at me or the car.

We had a couple of kilometres of No Man’s Land before rounding a corner and being smacked right in the face with China’s audacity. The road suddenly widened and there were markings and signs left right and centre, ensuring that no driver would be confused as to where and how driving should be done. With only a couple of kilometres between us and the primitive Laotian side of the border, we were struck by the infrastructure. On both sides of the road were several large modern buildings, an enclosed pedestrian overpass over the road joining two buildings ahead of us. My instructions from NAVO about what to do when we got to the border crossing were at hand, expecting that we’d be confused and unsure about where to go. That was a waste of paper.

An immaculately uniformed guard at a booth before all the buildings pointed us to the paved car park in front of the main building on our right hand side. We parked there inside a designated spot, marked on the tarmac with bright white paint, and took our passports into Customs. The floor was shiny, the walls were clean and we walked through heat detectors to enter. Another guard pointed us in the direction of a stand holding arrival/departure cards. As we filled in the cards he asked if we had our own car. When we told him that yes we did, he asked us if we had a guide and checked we already had visas. This guy actually knew what was going on! Not only was it comprehendible to him that white people might be driving a car across this border, but incredulously, he knew what the process was in order for this to happen. He politely chatted to us while we filled in our details, helping Denner out a little bit when he got confused (Denner’s not the best at filling in forms), then led us to the passport desk. I’ve got no idea where all the truck and car drivers from the other side had gotten to, but we were the only people in this whole building so we had about half a dozen interested and helpful Chinese Customs guards to assist us.

At the passport desk we were greeted by Lui our guide, who we were pleased to note, was tiny and only had a very small backpack. That would make squeezing him and his stuff into the car less of a hassle. He had a list of our names and some details and asked us to show our passports in this order. When they were finished with our passports the other three followed him through, while I - as designated driver - was instructed to return to the car and drive it around the building past some parked trucks where I would be met by Lui and the others.

It felt odd doing this bit by myself, but off I went. I deciphered the instructions and found my way to the Customs checkpoint where I was stopped at a boom gate. Expecting to have the car checked, I switched the engine off and got out. The guard walked up to the back passenger door, which was locked, and tapped on the window. I unlocked it for him and he opened the door, turned his nose up and slammed it shut. Then he walked around to the boot which was also locked. The only really annoying thing about our car is that the back window is electric and must be down in order to open the back door. Unfortunately the lock has become really stiff and I can only open it now by switching on the ignition and using the button on the dashboard. So this is what I did. He looked inside, tapped on our box of paperwork which I opened for him, turned his nose up again and walked off. I took that as it was ok for me to drive on, so I did. The others had appeared at a doorway and followed me on foot to a parking spot. Lui ran off to take care of some paperwork and we waited by the car.

When he came back we all piled in and drove on through the vast car park and through a boom gate where we had to pay 2 Yuan for “parking”. At this point we turned onto a wide boulevard lined with big new buildings, trees and garden beds lining the road. It’s quite incredible to be suddenly thrust into this expanse of infrastructure and wealth, straight from the wooden shacks and potholed roads of Laos and Cambodia.

We were hesitant to begin celebrating our arrival in China, considering we’ve done that prematurely at every other border, but Lui assured us that we had completed all Customs and Immigration processes. Yay!

He asked us to stop for his luggage a little way down the road. Darn – we’d really hoped the little backpack was all he had. He ran off into a building and emerged a minute later with a full-sized suitcase, wheels and handles and all, and a huge calico bag. Altogether, his luggage is about three times bigger than him. What could he possibly need this much stuff for for less than three weeks?

The next stop was the border town of Mohan, to use the ABC (Agricultural Bank of China) ATM which is apparently the only bank that accepts international cards. Tunkles, Ben and I queued up behind each other and withdrew the maximum 2,000 Yuan each. Then we’re not quite sure why, but Denner allowed himself to be pushed in front of by a fat Chinese man. After five minutes we were all starting to wonder what the story was, so we went up to have a look. As it turns out the maximum amount per withdrawal is 2,000 Yuan, but apparently there isn’t a maximum number of withdrawals. So this guy did ten transactions. He kept pulling out his receipts after every one to count them. In the mean time quite a queue was forming behind Denner, but he was paying absolutely no heed to the comments and criticisms flying around at him. What a ridiculous person.

Eventually Denner got his turn at the ATM, and we were able to get on our way once again. The next stop was Mengla, the nearest major town about 100km away. This is where we would get all the car stuff sorted. Lui directed us to the police station where we joined a queue of about a dozen cars. Lui ran off and returned with the information that it is now time for the policemen to have lunch (it was about 12pm), so we would have to return at 3pm. With no other option, we chose not to get annoying over this and just use the time to go and have lunch and wander around the town. So we left the queue of cars to park in a proper spot, where a guy ran over and met us. I thought he was telling me I’d parked in the wrong place, but apparently he was telling us they’d do our testing now anyway. Fantastic. I had to get out though so that he could jump in and drive the car. Thankfully Trev started first time right then. He usually takes two or three turns, and just before I’d had quite a struggle. He drove Trev upto the testing area which was a 100m long area under a metal roof, dotted with desks and plain clothes policemen. We stood and watched as he stopped and started, cringing as he accelerated and braked hard. He did a couple of laps of the testing area, just accelerating and braking the whole time, then drove back out into the car park and nodded his head at us. We knew the car would be checked, but we hadn’t expected it to be in this form. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to check the breaks of cars entering a country, but it does seem somewhat redundant seeing a Laotian vehicle doesn’t need to be checked in order to drive around in China.

We waited a little while longer while Lui went into a different building to complete the last part of the process – the paperwork obviously. When he emerged he had our Chinese temporary car registration which is a laminated piece that sits on our dashboard, and four temporary Chinese drivers’ licences. We were all looking forward to using these as ID when we got back to Melbourne, but unfortunately there’s no DOB on it. What it does have though is our names translated into Chinese. They’re pretty awesome.

We had our first lunch in China and on our way we went.

(Posted by Eilidh's dad, a couple of weeks after the fact, which is as often as Eilidh &co are getting sufficient access to the web to send me stuff. Check on facebook shortly for pics of China that she has sent for me to post there.)

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