Days of Dust
I get a casually late start from Nam Tha. It feels like vacation to sleep in until eight and have a lazy two course breakfast. 220 kilometers until the Thai border. Should be two mellow days, although I'd been warned about the poor condition of the road. By now, I've ridden so many nasty roads, and felt fine doing it, that the horror stories don't faze me any more than the last stretch of dirt did. If it's not pleasant riding, I just deal, anticipating the reward of an endorphin rush at the end of a hard day.
A couple kilometers from the town center, I'm a spectacle again. I've grown used to staring crowds since my arrival in Vietnam three months ago. Indeed, I've grown addicted to the reaction I provoke as a foreigner on a heavily laden cyclocross bike. I even resent time spent in tourist centers where I'm just another white person. In this sense, Lao is great for cycling. Because there are so few things categorized as roads in Laos, there is one main tourist circuit. Most backpackers ride covered pickup trucks, stopping at the towns listed in guidebooks as being interesting. I'm following this well-beaten path, and yet just a few minutes outside of town, a falang is a rare sight. In the middle of the beaten path a cyclist can still find villages untouched by tourists and barely brushed by development.
The road does not scare me yet. Hardpacked dirt, a little rough with the occasional whoopdie. I motor. Git while the gittin's good, I always think to myself when on a stretch of good road in a country of ugly ones. I'm looking forward to entering the region containing the largest tracts of forested land in Laos. Smack in the middle of crowded Southeast Asia, Laos has one of the lowest population densities in the world, which makes it easy to get away from people and into nature. Soon the road climbs and dips into a heavily forested basin. Vegetation rises up intermittently to form a gappy wall on both sides of the road. The terrain begins to roll. I descend into drainages where I splash across gravely streams. Winding through tropical deciduous forests lends energy for a steady pace. Tall, bare trunks topped with bushy tufts of leaves poke through the low canopy covering the surrounding hills. Vines snake around every trunk. Epiphytes climb atop epiphytes, reaching for the sun. Even in the rising heat of late morning, birds outdo each other singing the praises of their masculine strength. A dozen species of butterflies swarm around a stream while a preying mantis strolls unconcerned across the road. And I take it as a welcoming sign that none of the multitudes of humming, buzzing insects wants to come near me, let alone bite or sting.
I pass a newly completed bridge spanning a stream which trickles through the dry season. Half of a hill has been scraped away into a huge mound of earth for the approach, and the concrete bridge stands connected to the road. Under the bridge I meet two hunters on bicycles, homemade flintlock rifles over their shoulders. They laugh as my cleat slips from a rock as I push the bike through the stream, soaking my foot. On the other side I hop back on my bicycle. My embarrassment lends me the strength to push my middle chainring up and over a steep rise, leaving the hunters shouting amazed congratulations as they try to catch up. A little farther along, I come upon a successful hunting party. Three men carry AK-47's and their kill. Attached to sticks they carry over their shoulders are the butchered remains of a small, reddish deer with a bullet hole in its forehead. They point credit to a small, proud looking dog when I congratulate them on their skill.
Towards evening I pull off the road and follow a stream into the woods, ready to relax with my book after a satisfying ride. As night falls, I sit listening to the forest come alive. Frogs and insects banter back and forth, warnings and invitations exchanged. Groups of people walk nearby, singing together after their day hunting or farming. How rare it is to hear spontaneous singing in the U. S., the country the world seeks to emulate. Here in this land of subsistence living, it is a constant. Stars emerge over the hills as I wander through the moonless dark, feeling the array of life. My book and shortwave radio stay in the bags. The outside world can wait for another day.
A half dozen women walk along, backpacks piled high with firewood. My day begins as I groggily push my bicycle out of the trees past the staring crowd, giving the women something to chatter about for the rest of the day. The hills begin increasing in frequency and amplitude. While the road is still rideable, muddy sections are more frequent. Where the road is exposed to the sun, a layer of fine dust often covers it.
A convoy of empty, brand new Mitsubishi dumptrucks passes me, on their way from Thailand to be sold in China. As the drivers gleefully gun their V-8ís to splash through a deep mud puddle and up a dusty hill, I wonder at the lack of development. This road is the shortest route through backwards, sleepy Laos between two regional industrial powers. Still, only a few vehicles pass each hour.
The terrain is rugged here. Although the elevations are not great, the hills are pushed closer together, forcing the road to climb improbable grades. I'm tired when I reach a little village way past lunchtime. Amazingly, the children are too shy to band together screaming "ooo falangooohfalangfalang." I take this as a blessing and tell some people that I would like to eat, laughing at my own combination of phrasebook Lao and charades. A man invites me to follow him to his house, the stump of his missing right hand self-consciously stuffed in his pocket. The children are torn between examining the bicycle and following me in to watch the show.
Like many rural Lao houses, his home is built on stilts from forest materials. The woven bamboo walls and thatched roof let in mercifully little of the sunlight and heat from outside. The smell of smoke and straw hangs in the main room, a five by five meter space which takes up half the house. From a platform suspended over a firepit hang various bits of drying meat, one of which my host picks up and offers to me. I nod agreement. Sure, whatever. The fire is resuscitated from the coals, and some broth brought to a boil to cook the meat. Three other men have climbed up to join us. As I'm looking around trying to make conversation, the depth of the poverty becomes apparent. The collection of meat smoking over the fire is sadly small and scrawny, and naturally the biggest hunk is in the pot. I ask if they shot it themselves, and one of the men grabs a calendar from the wall. A wildlife calendar. He points to a picture of a great, horned ungulate. Giant muntjak. Hmmm, where have I heard of that creature before? At the bottom of the calendar, next to Lao script are the words "Threatened Species of Laos." Oh, shit. I shake my head as we continue to leaf through the calendar, the men pointing to which animal they have each either seen or shot. Intended by the NGO which produces it to warn people of the scarcity of these animals, the calendar is being used here as a hunting guide.
One man speaks a bit of French. I point to a tiger, asking if they see them often. "Beaucoup, beaucoup," he says, indicating that tigers are plentiful in the forest.
"Pas beaucoup," I cry in alarm. I also recognize the saula I had seen on a stick the day before, a deer fallen victim of automatic rifles.
When the soup is ready, I seem to be the only one scheduled to partake. I work to force aside my guilt as I gingerly tuck into the boiled vertebra of muntjack, which I find unappetizing in spite of the tasty lemon and ginger broth. The outer layers are tough from smoking over the fire. But the inside is still, ulp, fresh and a lot more rare than I would like. Visions of myself buckled over while some gnarly intestinal parasite reduces me to a wasted husk rob me of my recent ravenous appetite. I try to be casual under the doe-eyed stare of my host's daughters. I focus on the jerky-like outside while avoiding the raw-looking ganglia which cling to the meat. Great, here I am eating this friendly cripple's best piece of meat, and it's an undercooked endangered species. I feel I can't refuse to eat it, but eventually visions of my own grisly illness compel me to put down the bone and declare myself full. I feel queasy as I get ready to leave. Then some other men come in from outside, grab a bunch of eggs from under a cloth, and proceed to make a huge, delicious looking omelet. I want to hang my head. The whole episode of the muntjak was unnecessary. Had I been more alert, I could have eaten well and saved the man his meat. I stuff some money in my host's hands and beat it, feeling like a total asshole.
That night I find a pretty campsite alongside a river which has been partially dammed with woven bamboo. The deeper pool seems meant to trap fish on their way downstream. I swim in the murky water to clean the grime from my tired body. A spider with a pentagonal, geometrically patterned abdomen hunkers grimly in the center of her massive web, three twitching bugs already cocooned in various corners.
After a few hours riding the next morning, the road turns miserable. I pass an ugly, open pit where Japanese steamshovels labor to fill streams of dumptrucks with coal and the earth covering it. To accommodate the removal of this raw material to Thailand, the road has recently been upgraded. In this hilly country, it almost always climbs or descends alongside a slope. The clawmarks of backhoes reach high up the hillsides, and the ugly, rocky, infertile product of their scraping covers the steep forest floor as far below the road as I can see. Trees buckle downslope under the weight of the debris. I hate to envision the erosion when the rains arrive. The new road makes yesterday's road seem like a velodrome track. I'm spent already from two days of scant rations, and I'm starting to get dehydrated. The night before, the plastic handle of my water filter had broken off in my hand while I pumped. Ideally I drink over ten litres each day, mostly bottled or purified water from restaurants. But this road is conspicuously devoid of either, and the prospect of scrounging for water does not excite me. I fill my water bottles with tea at villages, but I can feel myself getting parched in the blazing heat.
This new road is a convincing simulation of purgatory. Each truck that passes raises a billowing cloud of fine dust that lingers agonizingly long in the still, hot air. I choke through my bandanna while the dust settles. The new, rough surface apparently never saw a steamroller and has not yet seen enough traffic to be beaten into a smooth surface. My skinny touring tires translate the texture of the road directly to my body. Unlike roads with much foot and bicycle traffic, there is no smooth shoulder. No place to hide. Climbs start to seem steeper and longer than in previous days. Descents are slow and wrist-rattling on the cryptically vibratory surface. I pay going up, and pay going down.
Around lunchtime I stop by an old Hino truck, pulled off the road with its engine block removed and scattered in pieces on an oily tarp. The crew invites me to eat lunch with them, and I groggily accept. I watch one of the men make our implements. A mean-looking machete hacks a piece lengthwise from a section of bamboo to make a trough for a spicy soup. Thinner pieces of bamboo are cut on a diagonal at the end of a section, making a small wedge-shaped cup. The stems from each divider serve as the handles of these ingenious spoons. Our hands form the final implements to roll up balls of sticky rice and grab chunks of grilled bird and gray meat. I don't inquire about the species. After a nap under the truck, I set off for more of the same agonizingly slow progress. But on one particularly dusty section, I have a revelation. Each truck kicks up a cloud of fine, powdery dust, in which I and my bike are completely covered. In the center of the road, it is a centimeter deep, just enough to prevent me from seeing the nasty divots and sharp, protruding rocks without cushioning them. But on the shoulder, I notice that the dust has drifted into deeper piles up to 20 centimeters. I try it. My wheels slice through and I feel like I'm floating. My god, it's powder! I experiment with making little turns, and soon I'm swishing my way down, watching as I kick up a cloud of my own which envelops me up to my shins, letting the weight of my panniers slide me sideways until traction brings me around into the opposite pitchy aspect. I look back up to admire my tracks. Freshies! Just like skiing. I give a shout I hope my friends in Telluride can hear. "I'm getting some too, you El Nino motherfuckers!" I enjoy my descent immensely now, even stopping to hike back up especially good sections for another lap on the other side of the road. Eventually I make another discovery. The deeper dust can conceal deeper trenches. And this fine substance which has long since penetrated every part on my bike makes my clipless pedals quite reluctant to release. When these two facts are combined, I take a nasty sideways fall, my faithful steed turned into a menace which bodyslams me into the powder, pinning my leg under the frame.
By the time I've crested the last sizable hill of the day, I'm knackered. I've no power at all left. I'm bonking as well, with too large a portion of my insufficient caloric intake having come from dry packets of instant noodles, liberally sprinkled with MSG. Mmmm, I call it the Powerbar of Asia. But even a slight rise of 100 meters in length is too much for me to contemplate. I'm whipped. With webbing strapped around my waist and seatpost, I pull/push the bike as I stagger up each little hill.
The misery ends at a thatched hut where I have a hot bowl of foe, noodle soup laced with sugar and chili powder. The last stretch of road to Huay Xai becomes relatively smooth. The thought of a shower and privacy, along with familiar roadside caloric intake, summon the unexpected ability to spin it out as the dust of passing 4X4's settle in the purpling light.
The next day, dreaming of suspension in my hotel room, I cross the Mekong into luxurious Thailand.