Saturday, 31 March 2012

Barricades and kindness

"Go A-WAY" I screamed at the door separating me and some drunken Chinese men who had evidently heard that a 'laowai' was staying in the same bed-bug ridden guest house as them. Giggles from the other side then a rattling of the door handle. Fearing the construction of the door was as weak as the balsa wood scene set of a kung fu movie I grabbed the 1990's box television set. God, it's heavy. I ruminated over my pathetic budget; more money and I'm sure I could have had a room with a lighter-weight flat screen. Ahh but lighterweight flat screens aren't good for a barricade so stop complaining. Damn it's plugged in. Trying to balance the 10kg of tv set between my thigh and chin I fumbled behind the chipped dressing table. More giggles, more rattling then a "we make love" comment. I saw red. With that I yanked the tv set - wincing as the cable parted ways from the plug- and threw it against the door. What else can I use as a barricade I mulled then grabbed the end of the bed to pull it towards the door. The wood splintered and I was left standing with the end of the bed base in my hands. hmm.. glad I haven't paid a deposit for this room..

Oh for goodness sake what is the word for police. I dug out my iphone from the carnage of splintered wood, bits of tv set and duvet. Mandarin phrase book iphone app. hmm. "call the police". No no I need "I'll call the police". Foolishly I pressed the selection and my phone spoke to the men on the other side of the door. They laughed. I'm quite a placid person but when the adrenaline kicks in it, well, it kicks in. I hollered, I banged interspersed with random mandarin iphone generated phrases. Eventually the rice wine kicked in (or fear of mad woman on other side of door) and these men retreated to their rooms. Their fun over for the night while I slept restlessly with leatherman knife in hand.

Despite this mishap on my penultimate night  in China the ride through Yunnan province to the Laos border had been a delight. I'd had a tough time through China and I'm still reflecting on it.

The days in the desert in fierce cold had left their mark. Numb toes and damaged nerves to my feet still remain and I'm hoping it will pass. I'd met the kindest people and the most uncaring people.

I will never forget the gentleman that rescued me from the desert after I'd been trying to fix a puncture in -30'C. The water in my food bowl froze as I helplessly dipped in my inner tube trying to find the hole. My fingers froze to the rims of my wheel when trying to reinsert the poorly mended puncture (note. glue don't stick in those temperatures). I'd pitched my tent under a mobile phone mast and in the morning I woke and saw my tyre was flat again. Knowing I was still 2 days away from my destination I looked out onto the desert road. The day before I had tried to hitch to no avail. Noone would stop for me and fearing I was hypothermic with uncontrollable shaking, irrational thoughts, weakness ( the latter actually being not realising I'd been trying to cycle in a head wind with a flat tyre) I'd pitched my tent and tried to sort myself out.

I spotted a truck nearing me through the desert haze and I stood in the road and flagged it down. The most gentile Chinese man hopped out. I pointed to my bike and showed him the flat tyre. He shook his head in dismay. I could see his confusion and through sign language (not usually understood in China ) he learnt that yes I was alone in the desert and yes I had just slept under a mobile phone mast and yes I had cycled from the UK and yes I was bloody cold. We loaded my bike onto his truck and I climbed into the cab. He turned up the heating and watched me with concern until I began to thaw out, . He called everyone he knew and by the 6th phonecall with my limited Chinese and his gesticulations I understood: crazy, a woman, in desert, in winter, bike broken, on own, cycled from England. He drove me to a roadside cafe in a small village and there treated me to a meal of fried fish, dumplings. vegetables, fried beef, potatoes and rice and then ordered me seconds. He took me to the nearest town where he swapped his large truck for a small pick-up one and carefully transferred my bags and bikes from one to the other. He dropped me off on the corner of a street where men in peaked hats sat amongst an array of tubes, tyres and tools on the roadside. He signed 'no money', jumped back into the van and with a wave and a smile drove off.

 He reminded me of Horst, a gentleman in Switzerland who had helped me some 8 months earlier. The same quirkiness, the same concern and disbelief, the same horror looking at the state of me and my bicycle and the same kindness: wanting to help and wanting nothing in return.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Flight VN850: a tale of a hijacking

"Sorry for the lack of communication folks, but we have a hijacker on board"

I stop my gaze out the window at Saigon's spiderweb of lights beneath me and turn my head abruptly to the right.

"What did he say?" I whisper to my then boyfriend.
"I think he said hijacker" he replies staring intently ahead picking with one hand at a puckering of thread on the seat in front. He clasps my hand with the other.

We sit in silence, absorbed with our own thoughts and fear and wait for the next announcement.

Sometime later the intercom splutters to life again mirrored shortly after by the captain clearing his throat

"We are going to open the door of the plane. Please fasten your seatbelts tightly and please do not panic"

Hahahaha. Surely god.. someone.. please tell me this is a joke. Hijacker? Open the door of the plane? We'll die. We'll get sucked out. The plane will crash. Oh god I am actually going to die. Why am I feeling so calm? Blimey I hope I don't lose my front teeth when we crash land. Bizarre thoughts and airplane disaster films race through my mind and I turn towards Dan and grin "erm, now what do couples usually do at this point". He gives me a wry smile "Jill for goodness sa.." Fvutttphp!" WTF? and then another "Fvuttphp" and another and we watch in astonishment as our fellow passengers jerk in their seats and grow large yellow torsos. Aah lifejackets. What are you doing? Stop inflating them you idiots!  You inflate your life jacket when you're outside the plane about to go onto the slippery dip into the sea. Hold on.. we're circling over the land not the sea! Oh god I'm an extra in "Airplane"!

They must know something we don't: we lean forward and reach under the seat. Nothing. I laugh again.
You see Lonely Planet had advised all those years ago "whatever you do, do NOT fly with Vietnam air, even the people who service the Tupolevs refuse to fly on them. They've lost half their fleet etc" but the flight was cheap and Vietnam had just opened its doors again to independent travellers and I.. well.. I was on a budget.

The hijacker appears with the head steward tied on a rope and my stomach sinks with the plane as the door is opened..

He stands there at the door and I watch mesmorised as the green curtain separating first from second class twists and swirls, slaps and whips. The plane lurches forward, back, sideways and more life jackets are inflated. The green cape dances and lifts again. He's gone! Where is he? An elderly Vietnamese man gets out of his seat and bumbles towards the door, an air hostess grabs him by the waist and he sits there perched on her knee like a child on the naughty stair.

What is going on?

Time passes. I don't know how long. We hit the ground. Smooth.


 "Get off the plane". The calm voice of our captain is no longer "Get off the plane as quickly as possible". A bomb? Two giant Russians with two large metal suitcases apiece block my way. "Please. GET OFF the plane. Now!" I turn to the air hostess shaking behind me. "Open the back door" I say. She's in shock. Gently then.. "Come on let's go and open the back door". Gently, gently does it... "NOW FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!" and finally there is a spark of acknowledgement and weeping she does. I don't know how I left the plane. I find Dan on the runway, in shock, at the tail. Staring up at the plane. I grab him and we jump on an airport bus that throws us off our feet as it accelerates towards the terminal.

Before I was placed under house arrest for being a suspect in the hijacking and after I had been given my sandal back which I had lost when climbing over the shoulders of the 2 giants with the metal suitcases I spoke to the captain. The hijacker was an overseas Vietnamese who had fought against the Viet Cong with the Americans. He had earlier in the day attempted to take a Thai military plane. As that failed he booked on to our flight and walked through Thai customs with a parachute on his back. He had taken a hostess hostage in first class with, I believe, a cheese wire to the throat. His mission: to distribute anti-communist propaganda leaflets over the city of Saigon. 

I learnt we survived our ordeal due to being on a borrowed Airbus 310 and not the ill- fated Tuploev. He had ended up being sucked out of the cockpit window (before which he'd informed the crew that there were 3 other hijackers onboard - hence my subsequent arrest for being a fellow non-communist..thanks mate! - and a bomb) which is where he'd disappeared to when I lost sight of him at the door. He survived, landed in a swamp, got beaten up by fishermen who thought he was stealing their nets, the military rescued him and then realised who he was so also beat him up. Got sentenced to 20 years. Released on an amnesty then went on to hijack a flight in Cuba. I believe he's now doing public speaking in the US and has his own Facebook page. I have since read reports that we were about to be shot out of the sky by the Vietnamese airforce but we all survived and lived happily ever after.

My house arrest along with 8 other westerners was okay as house arrests go. In the days before mobile phones, twitter, emails there is not much you can do apart from demand your passport back every hour and try and annoy the armed guard at your door as much as possible.

Some 18 hours later my passport was handed to me with an Indochinese smile "Welcome to Vietnam and have a nice trip". As I snatched it from the hand all I could think about was that I had to fly out of Vietnam from Hanoi to Vientiane using Vietnam Air and the notorious Tupolev some 6 weeks later as no overland travel was allowed to Laos in those days. I did it and, despite my fear that there was a fire onboard due to the pea soup airconditioning that reduced visibility in the cabin to two foot, we landed unharmed in a paddy field.

So it is with great delight that in 3 days time I will have finished my cycle ride through China and will be arriving in Laos on an unhijackable bicycle.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

SherlockTales and the Hounds of Asia

"Helloogaarghhhgrrr" ... "Raaargh" ... and then rather elegantly "FFS!": my vocal entry to each village of Yunnan province as yet another rabid hound leaps from guarding the pigs, the child, the woodstore, the grandma and in a flurry of dust and fleas and snapping ivories tries to sample what the beast on the Uzbekistan border had found so attractive about my derriรจre.

The Uzbek border incident - resulting in the most punctures I'd received in one day, albeit to my left buttock - was not actually the guard dog's fault. After tackling and succeeding in the 5 day desert dash across the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan it seemed only fitting that a beer was had to celebrate and rather conveniently there was a cafe 1 metre from the border and even better the proprietor said yes you may sleep outside on the concrete. Before said beer was consumed I noticed that there were 2 rather unique looking sheep on the other side of the wall. Wanting to get a better look I climbed over the wall and admired these fine sheep with their chocolate curls then noticed there was actually a gate I could have entered by. And this was the route I took for my return..

Approaching a guard dog is a stupid thing to do. Standing on one is very the left buttock. Fortunately Shylock's pound of flesh only transpired to Sherlock's four puncture wounds, ripped shorts and a sheepish smile as 3 old ladies with grubby hands whisked me into a cess pit of a toilet and helped bandage my bottom. I tried to re-enter Turkmenistan as there had been a doctor on the border (who'd I thought was about to shoot me in the head but was actually taking my temperature) but was pushed back by the guard despite me miming that a dog had just eaten my behind.

It was 24 hours later that I reached the silk road town of Bukhara after a lopsided cycle.
"Where's the dog? You need to bring it with you if you want to get treatment"
"I'm sorry, f.. I.. what?!
"The dog, the doctor needs to see it"
"I need to go and collect the dog that bit me that is now 100km away?"

I limped off, redressed my wound, said a prayer and took a handful of antibiotics...