Monday, November 12, 2012

A Road Trip Across the Northern Frontier. Sort of.

Written from Ha Giang City, 22 km southeast of the Chinese border, at the northern terminus of Hwy 2.  I didn't get here fair and square though.

It all started according to plan, we ran north out of Cam Pha (where I left you) through both coal dust mud and coal dust dust. . .got it both ways in one morning.  Black bike.  Gray trim.  We kept to the plan for quite a ways, spent the first night out in a scenic little isolated spot, called Na Sam. ..which, with diacritical marks is pronounced "Naw Some" but it isn't much really.  Sort of a fork-in-the-road kind of a place, with a major bridge for one of the forks, so it was probably worth starting a little town there.  Just wasn't enough business to make it into a very large little town.  So you have towering limestone cliffs, turbulent river, an interesting old dam, a really quite nice covered market, with twenty ladies outside sitting in a row and selling fresh soft tofu in linen napkins (they take off the napkin and slip your curd into a plastic bag and it's very very bland.  and soft.) On the other hand, there are also at least fifteen ladies and a couple of men selling slices of crispy roast pig, cut from wherever you want it.  Wow.  And there's a little bakery that made soft white not-baguettes and really excellent little coconut pastry.  I ate them both.

The town has one hotel, which was how many I needed, but a little competition would have done this one some good.  Old.  Ugly.  Big.  Empty (duh) and the staff was not terribly interested.  But it was clean and dry and the mattress was sleep-able.  You have to focus on the important things!  (Ed note:  He could have stayed the night in the lap of luxury in the city (Dang Dong)  if he hadn't been playing the fool and trying to get another 40 km before dark. . .he knows better.)

The road getting to Naw Some was a little dubious but not bad really, there'd been some goshawful repairs early in the day but nothing to stop you.  So leaving in the morning I didn't expect much worse.  That'll teach you.  The not-too-bad continued a ways and then went all to heck.  There was something on the order of ten miles of the worst sort of construction.  The old roadway was obliterated, a long stretch of mountainside was being cut back and armored (must have slid last wet season) and much of the road was just at the pioneered-through stage.  The basic fill material was a red clay (with colorful seams of white).  When I passed a big Hyundai 4-axle freighter (two drivers aft and two steerers forward, used to be the biggest freighter on the roads here. . .truly impressive trucks) when I passed the big Hyundai, as I was saying, it had slid off the road (rear wheels slid sideways down the crown of the "road", obviously no traction, clear off the "road" while the front wheels were skidding against counter-steer).  Yes, I knew things were getting bad.  Those trucks go pretty much wherever they want.

So I carried on (bike had nothing to say about it) and we dumped a half mile later at walking speed.  There was simply no friction to the damp clay at all, a huge boil of clay pushed up by a truck and a corresponding deep hole, and there was nowhere to go (you can't climb out of the rut you're in after you commit).  Over we went.  The arrangement pinned my left foot under the bike while I stretched out on my side in the mud (note that the exhaust is on the OTHER side of the bike. . .and I just barely pulled free (with my shoe!!) before rescue arrived.  Two ladies (with a little help from their husbands) took charge, stood me up, got the bike up (slipping and sliding, but there were five of us). . .and then she (clearly the boss lady)  hunted around to find a big enough rock to beat my footpeg back out of the transmission.  She took two licks to show me how to do it and then handed me the rock to finish the job.  We were a mess, the bike and I, though relatively speaking the rescuers were still pretty clean.

Surprisingly, we got through the rest of it right way up eventually and stopped at the first bike wash  we came to.  The little horse got a quick rinse and so did I, my pants, my shirt, my pack, my dispatch bag, my shoes, my socks (everyone giggled) and I bought a Red Cow (the Vietnamese literal translation of the Red Bull trade mark) to drink, and sat and answered questions. They wouldn't charge me for the rinse job (it must have been entertaining and enlightening enough to offset the costs).  The bike sat there and licked her footpeg and whimpered a little, but didn't argue when I said it was time to go.  I guess you have to say that any crash that can be put right with a garden hose and a nice sized rock isn't all that bad.

Now, all this time I'd intended to take Highway 4B and 4A out to Hwy 3 and follow it south just far enough to find Hwy 34 which would carry me across the mountains (by a very round about route) directly to Ha Giang.  However the very interesting smallness of the line that marked the middle third of it had begun to weigh on my mind.  I'd eaten enough clay for one day. . .so when we came to the turnoff and found the entire mouth of Hwy 34 was blocked by new construction work. . .I didn't even try.  The only other route lies a long ways south down Hwy 3 back toward Hanoi, then across some nice level farming country west on Hwy 37, and back North just as far and 100 km more on Hwy 2 to get to Ha Giang.  So that's what we did.  Wimped out.  Oh well.

Not to gripe though, the northern portion of both Hwy 3 and 2 (in that order) is plain lovely.  The highways run in river bottom land with steep mountains on both sides and the river (whichever) running fast and frothy brown over the rocks and shallows close at hand sometimes.  There were bamboo rafts (with small houses aft??) and long skinny steel river scows with long tail motors.  I saw a motorbike using both styles of crossing at one time or another.  I was not at all tempted to try the bamboo raft, though the bike and I have done fine with Lao canoes in the past.  The raft just looked dubious from where we were.  Besides we didn't need to get across THIS river.  Makes a difference. . .

And after the Hotel From Hell in Na Som, we hit pure gold the next night in a little place called Cho Moi.  Everything was right.  Great room, sweet people with a sweet 11 month old kid to tickle and pull my beard (I tickled her foot, she pulled my beard), a fine dinner in a rice-plate place (we all know bitter melon is inedible, but if you core it out and stuff it with pork sausage and a little onion top. . .surprise!).  Okay, so the stairs were narrow and steep and there WAS  a 90 degree turn in a spiral and that's pretty close to how I broke my leg in 2010, but the lighting was fine and it wasn't a problem.  I really am a little stronger now.  And I watch stairs like a hawk.

One more thing before the photos. . .imagine you're riding through a busy little town somewhere and you spot a motorbike parked on its side stand IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OPPOSITE LANE.  This is an odd place to park.  Now imagine there's a 3-year-old little girl sitting on the in-front-of-mom seat in the step-through of the bike.  Now notice that the mom is not behind her.  Look around.  There's mom!!  She's trotting back, and what's that she has??  A KID SHOE??  Yes by golly, a kid shoe.  Wow.  Now, imagine she gets back to the bike and carefully puts the shoe back on the kid. . .why not. . .and then gives her a quick kiss and a pat on the head (kids have all the luck) and then gets on and rides away.  That's just a little odd.  The miracle was that the big truck DIDN'T EVEN BLOW HIS HORN WHILE HE WAITED.  Wow.
Coal Country, black dust. . .
Coal Country, black mud.  Monstrous new project by Hyundai, looks like it will be a coal burning power plant.  Seven pile drivers, five tower cranes, too many crawlers and squirt booms to count.  My goodness.  And black mud.
And then Presto, past Cua Ong and into the hills and soon it's all a black dusty muddy memory.  The fun seriously begins!
Who'd want to ride on a road like that?  Hwy 18 between Cua Ong and Tien Yen
Harvest time on Hwy 4B--all along the route the rice is being cut (mostly by hand in these small fields), threshed (often by hand, but sometimes with small diesel powered portable threshers). . .and the grain spread out on tarps to dry, often right in the road.
The Kitchen Range in a first class Noodle Shop
Food Prep Counter in the truly fine Noodle Shop (most of the dishes are in the dishwasher right now).
The Chef supervising the dishwashing operation--the Noodle Shop (Little Horse in the background, she didn't get any)
A big Hyundai freighter on the main street of Na Som--both front axles steer.
Na Som is really a sweet place, you just might not want to spend the night in the hotel. . .
Somewhere along Hwy 4B, or was it 4A. . .h'mm.
I haven't gotten tired of the limestone cliffs yet.  Glad I don't have to hunt squirrels around here though. . .some of the trails must be pretty steep.
A quiet side stream, Ha Giang province (about 50 km from Ha Giang City)
Oops, I almost ran off to bed and forgot the best part of the Hotel From Hell. . .I went to bed just after 9:00.  About 10:00 a violent gale blew up (howling gale?) anyway, a very big wind, without any rain came roaring through town.  I snuggled a little deeper in the quilt and rolled back over.  Sleep found me.  So did the stranger at the door. . .I suppose I answered on the second round of knocking. . .fumbled around, checked I was properly dressed (shorts, watch, dogtags. . .) and opened the door.  The front desk lady was hopping mad about something and proceeded to tell me about it.  I understood exactly nothing of course, my hotel vocabulary doesn't go much past "do you have a room tonight?" so ". . .you've left your goldurned bathroom window open and it's blowing around and going to smash all the glass out any second so go pull it shut and lock it right now (I'm sure she said "goldurned", not anything harsher).  I answered (not at my best under the circumstances)". . .duh?"  After further consideration I finally managed a coherent "I don't understand. . ." and with an appropriate large gesture offered to let her in to do whatever she wanted with whichever.  She looked hard at my shorts and then sprinted for the bathroom.  I followed gaping like an idiot. . .oh well.  She did the necessary, scowled once and stomped out.  But the wind really did blow.  Good night.