Update 4: 9th April 2003

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On 1st April I reached the Chinese border. Not by boat I’m afraid, nor even on the Mekong, but by an underpowered Toyota songtheaw which struggled over a pass to the border town of Muang Sing. ‘Songtheaw’ means ‘two rows’ – that is, it’s a pick-up with two wooden benches on the back.

On this journey, for the first time, I passed through forests which had not been devastated by the logging industry. This isn’t to say they were intact by any means; but the destruction had been wrought by locals and was on a much smaller scale. For centuries the Akha and Thai Lu people (so-called ‘hilltribes’) have made their living by the slash-and-burn farming method. They slash away the undergrowth, then set fire to the trees, before finally hand-ploughing the cinders to produce a rich and productive soil amongst the charred stumps. Ugly but effective, at least in the short term. Officially the crops grown are rice and maize, but in practice the hillsides are awash with opium poppies.

Opium has been grown and smoked for generations here, and despite government efforts the business is thriving. Within five minutes of walking into the Akha village of Namdad Mai I was discreetly offered a small packet. “Good quality, five dollars,” whispered the woman. Much of it is consumed in the villages by men relaxing happily in thatched bamboo huts while their wives and daughters hoe the fields. Time and again over the following few days, these men would offer me conspiratorial puffs at the giant brass-ringed bamboo tubes which they use as pipes.

Muang Sing has grown considerably as Laos’s trade with China has blossomed. Chinese lorries thunder down the main street, driven curiously enough by men wearing Mao caps – not exactly the height of fashion in China these days. In the bazaar Chinese noodles, Chinese toothpaste and Chinese transistor radios are popular items. I don’t know if it was just coincidence but Muang Sing’s bazaar was also the place to buy live frogs, each delicately shackled by its back legs to a bamboo stick.

My map showed a road heading north for 40 miles to Sop La, where Laos, China and Burma meet and the Mekong effectively leaves China. I hired a mountainbike and set off for this symbolically momentous spot. For the first 20 miles the dirt road was well graded and I swung easily over the hills. Gradually the scenery changed from ricefields to forest. The terrain became more mountainous, but I continued making good progress till the road gave out at the foot of a pass. Here I had to push the bike up half a mile of glutinous red mud. The camp I made at the summit was easily the highest of my trip so far, but it was still unbearably hot and I lay awake till the early hours listening to the sounds of the forest. Cicadas kept up a continuous and deafening trill, and the frogs – those that hadn’t been frogmarched off to Muang Sing bazaar – responded with deep-throated croaks from all points of the compass.

During the night I was visited by an odd couple carrying a paraffin lamp like wayfarers from a Thomas Hardy novel. The husband unzipped my tentflap. “Would you like a smoke?” he asked. “No thanks,” I replied sleepily. “Have you got any opium?” he persisted. “Sorry,” I said. “Could you give me some money to buy opium then?” “No, absolutely not.”

Unconcerned, he sat down in the tent porch, lit his pipe, and immediately collapsed into a fit of coughing which continued for a full five minutes before this strange pair said a polite goodnight and shuffled on their way.

The road had now become just a line of footprints in the mud, but I pushed the bike for another half mile until a group of boisterous lads blocked my way. They were sitting smoking cigarettes and obviously at a loose end. One of them immediately asked if he could have a go on my bike. I said OK and he set off downhill, but it quickly became clear that he’d never ridden a bicycle before. Gathering speed, he didn’t seem to know how to use the brakes, and soon went head-over-heels.

The damage to him was just a grazed ankle, but for the bike it was more serious. Its front wheel had buckled and was scraping against the fork. Amazingly, using a rock and a piece of wood, I managed to hammer it straight again, but looking at the bike, at the path and at me, I had to accept that my northward ride was at an end. I waved goodbye to the boys, thwacked the handlebars straight and turned back towards Muang Sing.

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