A Travellerspoint blog

May 2006

Back in the mother land

I awoke to a raging snow storm. I admit that this isn't unusual in Siberia, but in late May i was slightly surprised by it. In fairness, so was everybody else, and it was definitely unseasonable.

Spent a couple of days passing through the wonderful emptiness of Siberia. On the Southern edges near to Mongolia and China, there aren't even the trees and spread out shrubs etc that characterise the rest of Central/Eastern Siberia. Instead it's just empty rolling low hills and grasslands (or grasslands covered in Snow as much was). And after China, I loved the feeling of enormous emptiness.

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Passing through Snow covered areas and past obscure Siberian villages in the wilderness on the Trans Manchurian train between the Chinese border and Irkutsk

Passed through Ulan-Ude, but sadly without time for me to visit my favourite head (the huge Lenin head. For details/pics, see my previous entry for Ulan-Ude) and then around Baikal in daylight, allowing me to watch the Lake pass by, and see that the Eastern side at least is still entirely iced over, with people walking over the frozen lake.

Amazingly, I made it Irkutsk without killing or at least seriously maiming any of the aforementioned stupid traders, although it took will power of Churchillian levels to avoid it.

Irkutsk was my next deliberate stop off. Through tickets to Moscow etc are prohibitive in China, and also the through services only have 2nd class Kupe, so I stopped off with the aim of booking my own way Westwards, and saving money by doing it in 3rd class Platskartny. I managed to book myself through to Tyumen on the perfect train, and even then get another ideal service from there through to Kazan.

It's not supposed to be this easy.

After spending a night in Irkutsk, getting my visa registered, and catching up on such missed Russian favourites as Shastlikh (a kind of Kebab in Eastern Russia) and Blini (Pancakes), I headed down to Listvyanka for a night.

I really wish that I had significantly more time to explore the Baikal region properly, as indeed I had wished on my last pass through. It will happen, definitely, but that's for another trip. And indeed, I am opening the floor to anybody else that wants to spend some time around Baikal and cross via the more Northern BAM onto Sakhalin - If anybody else is interested in such a trip, and might want to share ideas or even team up, get in touch. It will be a great adventure, and probably somewhat mad!

All the way down from Irkutsk on the bus, I started getting flashbacks and fond reminisces of my last visit, in company of Ala, Irek and the Polish lot. Even remembering the packed bus and people squashed together sleeping in the aisle on the way down brought a smile to my face.

It was out of season still, and whilst the West bank was free of ice, there were no other tourists around that I saw, and I had the place pretty much to myself. The mountains across the lake were wonderfully snow capped, the sky was blue and cloudless, and the sun shining. It was a glorious spring day, and I loved it. After a visit to our old camping spot (where I had ended up sleeping on the beach until woken by a rain storm around 4am, and had also learnt probably the single cardinal rule from this entire trip [even more so than 'don't carry liquorice through customs" and "beware unmarried Japanese girls], namely NEVER try and drink vodka with a group of Poles. The people, not big sticks) and the half built house where i had later slept in to escape the rain (happily still half built and unchanged), I did nothing except walk.

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The house where i'd crashed to escape the rain on my way across from Europe, months earlier

On an aside, there's an almost funny story, or rather installment, in the travails of the wondrous Kiki and Christian, but I have decided not to regale it here unless requested by (un?)popular demand. It's up to you now.

After being in the chaos of China, and then on a train with stupid warring factions for 3days, it was wonderful to be out in the utter tranquility and calm of the shores of Baikal, in such glorious weather. I walked along the coast, and was quickly into an area of country and more or less utter silence. It was bliss.

With that, the following day it was time to return to Irkutsk, and after a quick wander around some of my favourite attractions (Lenin, of course, and the theatre for Dog shows) it was on to a train for another 50hours Westwards to Tyumen, and, almost, Europe.

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The tranquility of Lake Baikal, Listvyanka village with the snow capped mountains across the Lake in the background, and old and new side beside in the village

Posted by Gelli 00:10 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

And relax... Sort of.

There is no need to go through the at times chaotic and surreal details of my madcap dash through Beijing, but in the manner of Challenge Aneka at her finest, I made it with seconds to spare. 2 minutes later, several Chinese were curiously standing around a white guy sitting on the steps to an office block laughing hysterically, punching the air in delight and waving a small rectangular piece of paper around.

Happy days.

Had two great nights out in Beijing, although sadly due to a technological hitch (f*cking stup1d phone), never hooked up with Phil again for his birthday celebration. It was strange being back at Leo's. Two folks from my previous visit were still knocking around (one of whom, Jamie, I'd bet against with a Danish girl one night, and ended up being so embarrassed by the failure of the Canadian guy who I had backed and seemed unbeatable, that I'd changed my bet to "Random black guy" [this is not meant to be in any way racist]). In addition, Martin and his sidekick Christian, two Swede's we'd met on Don Det at New Year (although neither had any memory of that whatsoever, such was their addled state) turned up as well. In the way of hostels, we twice ended up with damned good groups of 25+ people heading out, and it was a fitting end to my time in China.

I'll really miss this country allot.

And I will return, I hope, very soon.

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Miles. Metres. Meh. Close enough!

After supplying up for the journey, I headed to the station with plenty of time to spare, not wanting another metal detector incident, or to push my luck in the slightest. Although not mentioned anywhere on any station publicity, it was obvious which platform queue was ours. I haven't seen a single Russian looking person in the whole of Beijing, and then suddenly, there is about 40 of them queuing up.
Oddly enough, despite the horror stories, there was no trouble at all, and my bags weren't weighed, and my ticket not even checked until i was entering the train. Got on the train, and we left a minute early. And yes, i was on it. It's now almost 3 days ahead of me to Irkutsk, and I was Finlay leaving China and with enough time to get back to Europe.

Still no planes, and few obstacles ahead. In theory.

I couldn't help but be bemused at my troubles to get hold of a ticket, when i realised that I was out numbered by the provodniks (2-1) as the only passenger in our carriage. Hmmmm.

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It says it's the Vostok, on the Beijing - Moscow run. And it even was. I'm on the way
Late the following afternoon at an obscure Chinese stop, i began to realise why, when the carriage suddenly started to fill in a big way with a large group of Chinese traders. They each had significantly more stuff with them than I own in total (let alone was carrying with me), and before long there was cr*p everywhere. 2 joined my compartment (China - Russia through trains only have 2nd class Kupe places, not the 3rd class Platskartny I normally use) and the remaining berth and all other space in the compartment where other useful things (such as oxygen) could fit were soon swallowed by their cr*p.

Oh well, doesn't bother me providing I still have my berth and enough space for my bag, which I did.

After passing through such delightful cities as Shenyang and Harbin, and spending the last of my Yuan in the restaurant car on a delicious but scarily overpriced (for a Chinese restaurant car) meal - where, impressively, with just a single look, the woman handed me the English menu as opposed to the Chinese, Russian or German ones, at 4am on the third morning, we reached Manschuria.

Manschuria is the Chinese border station. We were locked in our carriage for about 90mins whilst they whisked passports away (after a slight scare when a very friendly and English speaking inspector insisted I had overstayed my visa for a day, and I had to explain that he was looking at the last entrance date on my visa, and not the 30days after I had actually entered date. We then spoke at length about Lijiang - no never been, although he thinks I had - Tie Li, Brazil, Rawney [Rooney] and Sun Jihai before he eventually happily pottered off). No luggage or customs checks at all. Passports returned, and then we had about 90mins to wander the platform and small shop area.

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Manschuria station at about 5am after disembarking after passport control, the welcome sign at station (curiously not in Russian as well) and an almost perfectly phonetic sign

And then the fun started.
A sh1t load of new passengers, mostly Russian, then went through customs and boarded the train. I returned with about 20mins to go before departure to discover a huge heated row going on. It involved everybody else in the carriage, but was centered on my compartment. All the Russian boarders were also traders with large amounts of baggage and you can probably see where this is going...

Anyhow, everybody was being utterly stupid and I made the mistake of uttering words in Mandarin to a Chinese and Russian to a Russian (I think It was "Excuse Me" and "Thanks"). Upon which - and realisation that I was a third party foreigner - I was seized upon as translator extraordinaire. Despite maybe having as much as 100 words of each language, that was about 90 more than anybody else could muster of the other, and led to everybody shouting at me at once in 2 languages I don't speak, and my having to mediate between a group of extremely stupid Russians and a group of even stupider Chinese, who regardless of if they knew each other beforehand had now forged into a Chinese mass and a Russian mass.

Why me?

We went 25mins to the Russian border, in the process going from 7.30am and brilliant sun, to 2am and still brilliant sun, such is the way of Russian railways and use of Moscow Time. It was then 3hours stuck on the train whilst we went through Russian immigration (easy), and customs (easy for me and the Russians, hell for the Chinese). The Russian inspector enjoyed making every Chinese person open every bag and throw stuff everywhere whilst searching for anything vaguely contraband. In such an enclosed space and with so much stuff in it to begin with, it was utter Chaos. What struck me most was the sheer amount of utter, utter cr*p and entirely random rubbish which the Chinese "traders" were carrying. Very little seemed even good enough condition to sell, let alone be vaguely desirable. And whilst admittedly they may make their money on the return legs, I can't work out how they would even break even on ticket prices trying to sell stuff which second hand shops would normally turn down.

After 3hours, we were turfed off the train for 4 more whilst they changed bogie's. Russian Railways are at a wider gauge than the standard gauge Chinese - and most of the rest of the world - meaning time consuming delays at the border as they don't yet have TALGO technology, and I doubt, ever will.

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Dual gauge track at Zabaikalsk station, plus changing the bogie's in the shed from Standard gauge Chinese ones, to broad gauge Russian ones, ready for the trek through Siberia towards Moscow, and, below, Zabaikalsk station with passengers awaiting the re gauged train for re boarding

I spent some time in the carriage shed watching out of curiosity, wandered around the town of Zabaikalsk (and exhausted it's possibilities), got all misty eyed at the discovery that 2 carriages on my train had come through from Pyongyang, North Korea, got some food, did some reading and just farted around.

And then it was, finally, back on board to another 2full days of screaming, shouting, arguing and my needing to mediate as best as i could, whilst mostly swearing in an assortment of other languages and wishing they would all disappear in a cloud of smoke, or at least eaten by wild animals or some such.
As long journeys go, it could have been worse, but I admit that I've had more relaxing ones. Roll on Irkutsk. Or wherever the heck these people are getting off.

I've just realised that for all I will miss about China - and that is allot, even without considering the delights of watching old people ballroom dance in parks (I kid you not, this has become a major hobby of mine) - the hardest thing about leaving China (and everywhere I have been before it) will be learning how to use a knife again...

Posted by Gelli 23:33 Archived in China Comments (0)

It's getting really, really tight...

4 hours until I know if i'm forced to - shudder - fly

With Xi'an out of the way, it was back to the trek back. Although it isn't necessarily somewhere i will rush straight to return to, i like the city and am more than happy that i eventually managed to get to the Terracotta Warriors. But I'm in a rush, and after 2 stationary nights for leisure (a day at the Warriors, and a day spent wandering the city with some people including a long trek in the blistering heat around the impressive 14km long city walls), it's back on the road home. And no more Heart.

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View along the vast Xi'an city walls, then two views from the walls, and a brilliant sign on the South East Corner of the Walls, which I don't ever want to translate for fear that it might make more sense!

10 days down, only another 12 or so to go.

I headed back to Beijing, praying extremely hard for a sudden bit of luck, but not really expecting it at all. I've more or less resigned myself to flying. It's either that or go up via the river at Blagoveshenk on the least known and touristed (but actually cheapest surface route between Moscow and Beijing) and be a day or two late returning. Assuming I can then get a useful ticket in Blagoveshenk, of course. It's a possibility

And besides, I had an appointment at the Turkmeni embassy to meet the Ambassador.

I'm not entirely sure why, but things seem to be happening quickly and with an efficiency quite unlike anything I've come across in that part of the world before. The more I think about that evening, the more I'm convinced that there is a hell of allot more going on than I know about, and that is really playing on my mind.

What the hell is the real story here? Somebody? Anybody? Answers on a postcard, please.

4 hours until deadline moment (end of business on Friday, meaning last chance for tickets) and still nothing. I was expecting it to be tight, but 4hours - and i will still have to dash across the city and somehow find the correct building even if successful - is starting to cut things a bit fine, regardless of the confidence of my agent that it is early days yet.

The embassy experience was, erm, interesting, and curious but not exactly enlightening in the slightest. More than that, I won't say for now.

2hours to deadline I get a phone call.

Wrong number.

B*gger.

Fart around some more.

1hour 20mins to deadline.

YIIIIIIPPPPPPPPEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

One very lovely agent has found me a returned ticket, and in the nick of time. But it's too late to deliver it (meaning I didn't have to stay in the damned hostel after all, as the only reason I did was for a delivery address. Bah!). All I have to do is get to their office, in a neighbourhood which i don't know - and I don't actually know where I am myself, at this point - in the next hour to claim the ticket. If I fail, It's all over right at the end and in the cruelest way possible.

This is not necessarily a sure thing under any circumstances.

The race is on (and yes, I have Yello on my MP3. Groan. But at least it's a great track!)

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An odd building sign, in Xi'an. I have no idea what it's supposed to be, but I am definitely intrigued!

Posted by Gelli 21:40 Archived in China Comments (0)

How to get back from the Terracota Warriors, Gelli style

1. Turn down dodgy looking minibuses and opt for tried and tested 7RMB bus
2. Note in amusement that police car in front also stops to pay motorway entrance toll
3. Accept fact in resignation that bus and a tricycle delivery vehicle manage to have an, urm, altercation. Despite the fact that both are stationary in traffic....
4. Watch ensuing argument
5. Start laughing as in typical Chinese style two trucks behind funneling into the one free lane next to us refuse to yield and also crash
6. Watch ensuing argument
7. Accept that despite no obvious damage to either party, bus will not move due to assorted shouting matches
8. Funnel in a mad rush onto replacement (read: bus which departed 30mins later and has now caught up) bus and stand in a contorted squeeze for last 3km.
9. Get on city bus back to hostel
10. Laughter but pain (due to increasing need for toilet) after 100metres when van crashes into rear side of bus
11. Watch ensuing argument
12. Serene resignation and acceptance as another 20mins and 250m later, bus then dies
13. Funnel in a mad rush onto replacement bus and stand in a contorted squeeze for remainder of journey
14. Groan in disgust (and seriously increasing need for toilet) as 100m later, replacement bus mows down cyclist
15. Watch ensuing argument
16. Finally arrive at Bell Tower, and alight bus.
17. Make mad dash to hostel for light relief purposes, almost ignoring the crunch 10 seconds after alighting which signifies that a taxi is now embedded into the front end of the bus
18. Other urgent priority prevents watching the ensuing argument
19. Sigh happily with relief having occurred
20. Resume perch on balcony overlooking Bell tower and roundabout where the previous night 6 accidents were witnessed, and within 20mins, I've witnessed 3more.
21. Watch all of the ensuing arguments, with a well needed cold beer in hand.

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The Bell Tower at night, after all the crashes...

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Chinese style semi Propaganda at the Terracotta Warriors

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Assorted pics of the Terracotta Warriors

Posted by Gelli 23:18 Archived in China Comments (5)

Dashing through the South of China

You can always tell who is Chinese and who is Laotian in Northern Lao. the Chinese are the ones having huge animated "Discussions" with large crowds watching, whilst the Laotian's aren't. So after an hour of arguments between rival bus drivers (groan) we actually left heading to China. After 3 entrances with no problems, i was due an awkward Chinese entrance, so can't really be too surprised. Leaving through Mohan had been fine, but entering took time. And lots of it. All 4 foreigners on the bus had issues, and each of us took well over an hour to process for different reasons.

Yay.

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A sign outside the Luang Namtha Bus Station (no, I have no idea) and loading a bus heading south

But made it to Mengla OK, and lucked out with a berth on the last sleeper bus of that day to Kunming, leaving in about an hour. Was joined on board by one of the the most stereotypical ignorant American surfer dude type people it's ever been my misfortune to meet. Sat for over 3hours at the same spot (more or less) as was delayed on the way down due to roadworks, and had the most stupendous rain storm. My MP3, for the record had excelled itself with a string of China related songs within the first hour or so of entry, followed by such delights as Blind Melon (No Rain) just as the heavens opened.

In Kunming i again lucked out and got a hard sleeper on the next train to Chengdu (Xi'an full, Chengdu an easy alternative) just 2 hours later, and spent a day going through some fantastic remote scenery in the South West of China and Himalayan foothills. In Chengdu I managed to get a useful connection North, giving myself about 6hours to have a quick wander around the city (pleasant, if like all others, under reconstruction) before heading through to Xi'an. I really need to return to Chengdu, and also the area between there and Kunming, but for now, time does not allow it.

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Images of Chengdu, although the bottom one is really beginning to make me think that somebody (Kiki?!) is giving me not so subtle hints

And thus after 8days of straight travel, I had made it to Xi'an, my first rest point on the mad trek North. And even with a day or two free to be a tourist and visit some Warrior type people...

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Xi' an Bell Tower in the centre of the walled city

Posted by Gelli 22:58 Archived in China Comments (0)

Of weddings, rock stars, job offers and Turkmeni's...

I think this entry might just top all previous ones....

Enough people have laughed and commented on the whole Kiki incident (and continue to do so - update: I've been offered employment [yes, paying] to be their marriage councillor) and keep offering questions about whether I have since got married or am about to to some poor unsuspected fool, that I figured i should add a small side story for everybodies amusement.

A couple of weeks ago, Simon, a cheery Aussie we had met in Hanoi, and a few others happened to be on Don Det. This was barely a week after we had left there after New Year. There was a few of them around, and as happens, you pick up people as you go along. One afternoon whilst in a bar on the island, a Danish girl they had met and wasn't entirely free of the influence of chemicals, happened to notice that the menu of the bar included "weddings". Curious, the question was asked to the staff. When told that it did indeed mean that, she was somewhat enthusiastic and said that she was having such a good time that she wished she could get married there and then. Opinion was canvased of the assembled males, and Simon said he'd be delighted do it. After spreading the word in full, the next day in front of virtually the entire islands population of travellers, and a good 30 or so locals, they tied the knot. And you all thought that I got into strange situations?!

For those now sniggering people who actually know my life history, lets leave certain previous incidents out of this, shall we?

Sadly, it didn't work out, and they divorced about a week later.

I love Lao, I really do. It's an amazing country, and despite so many people saying how great and unspoilt it is, it does actually live up to it, and then some. It is great to be back, although I am admittedly somewhat depressed that it is only for such a short time, out of necessity. Better make the most of it.

In Vientiane, I met up with Troy. Couchsurfing's only Lao based member, and somebody who had been highly recommended to me by Kevin and Solene. In a slight twist, since they finally stopped stalking me, I've more or less been following their route and dropping by all the same people that they did. In this case, I'm glad I did. Troy is certainly one of the most interesting and intelligent people I have met in a good while, and I only wish that I could have stuck around for longer. After all, anybody that has lived in Yemen and Azerbaijan is bound to have a tale or two to tell.

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Luang Prabang's Night Market

Travel in Lao, at least North of Vientiane invariably means long daytime bus journeys, and with that I returned to Luang Prabang, 10hours and barely a few hundred kilometres later. It was another one stopper between transport, but entirely randomly and barely 30mins after arrival, I randomly bumped into Chevy (he of the fecked-up beer fish night in Yangshuo, ice hockey in Hanoi and the circuit in Nha Trang) and Mick Jagger (who's an old short guy with a young girlfriend who sings in some band). It was from Chevy that I got the Simon wedding story, and as they were still travelling together, later that evening I heard Simon's version as well. And met a curious Swedish tattoo-ist. I hadn't met anybody I know by accident since I was last in Lao (The French guy from HCMC) so I was definitely due.

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Assorted Tuk-Tuks waiting for passengers in Luang Prabangs North bus station

A good 7 or so hours of standard wonderful Lao scenery the next day took me to Oudomxay. Admittedly the also standard 2hour or so delay on departure meant It was too late for me to continue northwards when I arrived. And I did spent most of the journey being vomited on by an extremely cute, if admittedly slightly sick seeming young child. And being a local bus meant that we stopped once for a guy to get off and buy three large bags of salt, once for everybody to buy courgettes from a roadside stall (although one passenger somehow managed to buy a dead monkey instead) and numerous times just because they felt like it.

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Reasons I love Northern Lao numbers, whatever the heck we are up to now - The gorgeous hilly great mountainside, random roadside markets on the tops of hills in the middle of nowhere on virtually empty roads, and the ubiquitous black pigs that can be seen wandering unattended around every village

Many people get stuck in Oudomxay. It's in no way unusual, despite everybody desperately trying to avoid it. And all known guidebooks offering about a paragraph saying that it's boring, but you are likely to get stuck there at some point. Most of them seem to be German speaking. Those that aren't are either French Swiss, or Chinese. They only ever stay a night. It just is the way that Lao works. And as I discovered from talking to two German's who worked at the tourist office trying to encourage growth (Read: Bang heads against the wall in frustration of not being able to achieve even tiny things), until they come up with a way to take advantage of that, and get the locals excited (meaning they actually prepared to do something, instead of just take free money), that's how it will stay.

We also pondered the fate of a night bus alleged to have disappeared during a night the previous week (but being kept very quiet by authorities) and also an American, Ryan Braben Chicovsky, who had disappeared in Northern Lao a week or so previous. And as it's just one of those fairly mundane and standard travel things that just happen, there's no need to explain how I somehow ended up sharing a (tiny) double bed with a middle aged German lady who's name i didn't (and still don't) know. Not entirely related, I suppose, but more or less at this point my camera died. Grrrr.

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Our Guest House in Oudomxay (Close enough, I suppose...) and early morning clouds over the valley

What follows should probably come out of a work of fiction. In fact, its possibly all just too bizarre, and any author trying to pass it off (Carlie, believe me, i don't recommend it) would have been laughed out of their publishers at light speed. Sometimes, however, truth really just is so strange that you can't make it up.

Some days just defy all logic and expectation and it was simply one of those days. And with the possible exception of one of the days spent trying to leave Vladivostok, it certainly now tops my list of most memorable days on this trip. Curiously, 4 different people have mentioned that my blog is being serialised in a provincial Ecuadorian newspaper. What 4 different friends were doing reading provincial Ecuadorian newspapers, I'm still unsure. And have as yet not been able to confirm or deny these rumours (if anybody comes across an article from here, please, PLEASE save it and post/give it to me as i want to see if its true or not), but if they are oddly enough true, they may like the following. Or not. I don't really care.

After waking up slightly freaked (i hadn't remembered that there was an old German lady in the same bed until I was awoken by snoring), i had a strange twist, whereby I couldn't get on the bus as it was alleged to be "full". This is an interesting - and unusual - concept in a country where people and goods can be packed in with amazing skill, and for a bus which almost inevitably would then stop and start picking up more people of the roadside within 200m of leaving the Bus Station. If I'd have thought, I'd have jumped a tuk-tuk to the edge of town and then hailed the same bus and got on without a problem.

But the same delay meant that by the time I got to Luang Namtha, happy to return to the site of my first (and brilliant) Lao experiences, plus some evil looking clouds and thunder noises ahead, it was too late to make renting a motorbike any sense. A shame because in the short time I'd been away, all the the roads which had been dodgy - part of the fancy Chinese financed and built highway running from where the Kunming - Boten expressway will eventually end through Northern Lao and Thailand to Myanmar - had been fully completed and were stunningly smooth and tarmacked, like the stretch in from the border. The Chinese don't mess about. Things happen quickly, and the result is unquestionably the best road in Lao.

Instead I hired a mountain bike. At half a dollar, it was significantly cheaper than a motorbike, i love bikes anyway and in honesty i needed to work out some of the pain in my legs caused by being squeezed on the minibus for so long. I made it to the Luang Namtha museum, which had been shut when Erin and I first passed through, and was happy I did as it has some very interesting stuff especially about the local tribal groups. I then headed out into the country with no plan except just to ride quite hard for an hour or so, see what happened, and then probably turn back. I was on a fairly quiet road north towards the National Park, when what i hope will be the final of my 3 transport mishaps (think Cambodian minibus and Thai pickup) occurred. Without anything nearby, i went over a slight pothole and the rear triangle of my frame snapped. Both at the same time, and sheer. Obviously, the back of the bike gave way somewhat and I landed on the ground in a heap. No damage to me, but It really didn't take long for me to realise that I was about 10km north of the town with an utterly fecked bike. With the storm rapidly approaching. Bah. I hoped to catch a lift, but wasn't passed by anything in any direction for 20mins, so hung the bike over my shoulder and was about to start the walk back towards Luang Namtha.

The reason that I'm not convinced that it will turn out to be the final incident in my accident trilogy is that it was right at that moment that I got the most amazing and stunningly unexpected piece of luck. My eye was caught by movement round the corner, so I stopped expecting a motorbike or something that i could flag down. Instead, 3 elephants with riders came along. They stopped. The lead man got off and in a perfect Midlands accent asked what I was doing. I explained that I had no choice but to carry the bike and walk back to town. He - his name sounded something like Mwaaauy - asked why. I said because no cars or motorbikes have come past that i could hitch with. Mwaaauy asked why I wanted a car or to walk when there was an elephant right there. It took my brain a few seconds to register, and then i believe I may have had a large grin on my face.

Yes, I managed to hitch-hike with a bicycle on the back of an elephant.

And yes, you did just read that correctly.

I've had a lot of great moments on this trip, but it's going to be damned hard to top this. Admittedly, elephants are not quick animals, but no slower really than a pedestrian at Lao speed, and the time passed quickly. And the storm clouds broke off without more than a quick splattering, and thus we wandered under the most amazing rainbow I have seen in years. Deep colour and shine. I can't think of anything better. I was also treated to several gasps of delight and looks of awe from other travellers as we wandered into town. It was great! I was dropped outside the rental shop after agreeing to meet them a little later for food and to buy them a drink.

They wandered off to park the elephants or whatever you do with elephants, whilst i embarked on a long, calm and reasoned discussion with the rental owner. He wasn't overly surprised when I refused to pay him 500usd (!!!) for a replacement, and we continued a relaxed and open discussion as to what to do next. A few others appeared, and things started to get a tad more animated as two of them also got involved and seemed to want a cut of any money for unknown reasons. I had paid a 10usd deposit that I was happy to let them keep, but stood my ground refusing to pay anymore for something that blatantly wasn't my fault. What swayed me into giving them another 25USD was the guy who ambled over to see what the fuss was all about and had a machine gun swung over his shoulder. I'm not overly fazed by guns, but he seemed somewhat agitated, utterly reeked of alcohol, and was waving the gun in my direction, with rather more intent that I would ideally like. Especially when I noticed that the safety was off.

In cards, as in life, always know when to fold. I will gamble with the best of them, and can often bluff my way through, but a drunk guy pointing a live machine gun in my direction seems a good enough reason to fold. I meekly apologised, handed 25usd to the renter, apologising that I didn't have more (if he's have realise I had a money belt, i could have had a problem), and left pronto. I was a good 300metres away when I turned around to see another local waving a large sword in my direction and group of people watching the guy with the gun.

It can sometimes be useful having a good grasp of local geography and being relatively fit, although I admit that being a white guy in town meant I wasn't overly inconspicuous and had visions of the motley duo touring every guest house that evening, demanding to see all white people, and then me being dragged away to who knows what. If you are reading this, it didn't happen.

This is where the levels of credibility really start to get stretched.

I no longer have my passport.

Or rather, I do now again, obviously, but for a while that evening I didn't. Let me explain. Or at least vaguely try, for I'm really struggling to grasp this one as well.

After a very pleasant couple of hours with the elephant guys in a locals restaurant, they took their leave and headed off. With a few kip left over, and not enough to make exchanging it worthwhile, I decided to have another beer. An hour or so earlier, a very strange group of people had entered and occupied several tables near the back. Two were quite polished looking and white (i pegged them as Russians) and sat alone in the middle table, whilst those around them were locals but a tad ominous looking. But as they left us alone and I had my back to them, i had ignored them. About 30minutes after Mwaaauy and his friends had left, one approached me and asked in thickly accented English if I would like to join them for a drink. I politely refused, saying I was about to leave (I was as well) and had no money (also more or less true). He, erm, "suggested" that it might be rude to decline their hospitality and that I should at least stay for a drink. Looking back over my shoulder, the local guys seemed a heck of allot more ominous than I had remembered. So out of a lack of reasonable options, and in fairness, with absolutely nothing better to do, I accepted.

I discovered that my Russian guess wasn't entirely correct, and they were actually Turkmeni's. And allegedly not irrelevant ones either, although how true this is, I don't know. Turkmenistan is somewhere few people know much about, and fewer still visit. Having said that, I have actually been there in the past on more than one occasion (long story), and know a bit about it. In a nutshell, it can be characterised by Saparmurat Niyazov. Mr Niyazov is the President and essentially Turkmen dictator and is generally known as "Turkmenbashi the Great". In 2002 (i think), he renamed the month of January after himself, and amongst many other idiosyncrasies has also come up with a new system for dividing people's ages (which are not, as you may possibly guess, children, teens, adults, middle aged and elderly, or words to that extent). He's an interesting man leading an interesting country.

Oddly, they seemed to know at least a bit about me, which was a bit freaky and unnerving (especially as I had now quickly cottoned on to the fact that the ominous looking people were the heavies/security detail) although i am fairly sure that they had just overhead the previous conversations I had been having with Mwaaauy. Anyhow, one thing led to another and whilst I am aware that nobody will believe any of this in the slightest, but there I was in a locals bar in an obscure town in Northern Lao, being offered the job of chief strategic and planning officer to the Turkmenistan army and presidential advisor on foreign affairs.

..... I need time for that one to sink in, let alone you .....

I've always said that life is never boring.

My passport was whisked away for some kind of check of some description (i don't believe that there is a Turkmen military attache to the province of Luang Namtha, but on the last few days experiences, i really wouldn't bet against it) without my having any say or choice in the matter, whilst all manner of business was discussed. I believe that I managed to decline on the grounds that I already have a commitment to my current employer (Sten, the things I do out of loyalty to you and the company. I really think that I deserve a large pay rise for my loyalty here in the face of adversity....).

Long story cut short, but a couple of hours later, my passport was returned. They thanked me, i thanked them, they said they would be in touch, and I took my leave, wandering straight out of the bar and into two guys loafing against one of 3 jeeps who just happened to be the guys with the machine gun and sword from earlier. They gave me a drunken grin and wave. I started walking in a random direction at a fairly high rate of knots whilst desperately trying to work out what the f*ck had just occurred.

I am expecting an email from somebody at work within the next few days asking some very strange questions about why I am consorting with such people, and what the situation is. Plus potential correspondence from assorted Turkmeni's.

I have a feeling that this one is could run and run, although I doubt Kiki (or any of my normal crazy bet and strange situation - and that is one I'm not even going to try and explain to all those that have no idea what I'm talking about, except to say that these guys are so good that I once spent 8months trying to prove that I wasn't married. Which sounds easy enough, but when they can produce a wife, photos, and even get assorted random friends and family members swearing it was true and had happened, you get the idea that this is not an entirely conventional betting ring - group) is involved....

Despite being perhaps slightly unconventional by many peoples terms, and this pass sadly only being 4 nights, Lao has more than lived up to my memories, and I leave with it still being a top my list of favourite places on this trip. It's been utterly amazing, and on this brief transit, stupendously surreal, unlikely and just plain weird. I like that.

It's a wonderful country, and I really can't wait to return.

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[i]Taking a nap at work during the midday heat[i/]

Posted by Gelli 02:04 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

And so it begins...

... and from the Heart album, the Road home, no doubt! (possessed MP3 player in-joke)

Pained but alive and on my way, I left Thailand. Leaving Bangkok (on my first Thai train) for the last time was really strange for me, and not only because i was under the influence of assorted drugs from the hospital. I had a kind of sadness I don't usually have, but not simply because I was leaving Thailand, which if you remove the people I met (most of whom I already knew and was just catching up with) I could more or less give or take. Whilst in no way over - and months before i have to return to work - from here the journey is back. I have only about 25days before I need to be back in Europe for some commitments, and with i think a theoretical minimum of a 16-17day (on a pre-planned and pre-booked perfect scenario journey) trek from Bangkok to Sweden ahead of me, It means I don't have much room for manoeuvre.

In addition, with few exceptions, all of the journey I now have to undertake I have done beforehand, so there will be little new and really exciting stuff for me. And I don't yet know how I am going to get back. I have an idea of how things will go and how to do it, but I am gambling heavily on getting lucky in Beijing. I may yet have to insert a flight (believe me, I'm working on avoiding it) in to this trip, simply due to a lack of spare time to play with on alternative routes - of which there are many - if my gamble doesn't pay off. It's an all or nothing roll of dice, and only time will tell if I'll hit the double sixes.

Although my neck still hurt like heck and i had a general stiffness, I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt waking in the morning. I had expected to be feeling effects of my high speed tumble onto tarmac and rolling in broken glass and spilt diesel allot more. I crossed back into Lao (Really great to be back, Wish i had time for a much longer stay here) via the Friendship Bridge without incident and even got myself a cheap and rare (in SEA) dorm room in Vientiane, possibly as life compensation for the previous afternoon. I don't want to get cocky though, as I will be needing all the luck i can get in the coming 3 or 4 weeks, for both logistical reasons, and because i will be more or less living on buses and trains doing a number of long journeys, and with my 3rd strike of "things come in 3's, such as accidents" still to come...

And so, back to Lao and onto day 2 of the Road home

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A sign to strike fear (or alcohol poisoning) in the hearts of a certain couple of TPers after New Years exploits waaay back when...

Posted by Gelli 02:58 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

I think somebody is trying to tell me something. B*stard.

Another detour to a Thai hospital, and other stories.

In every travel, or indeed, life, you reach the stage where you start to think that maybe somebody is trying to tell you something and perhaps it's time to start heading home, or just quit. It could be as sneaky as an ATM taking your card due to big red flashing lights next to your account, as normal as dropping your bag into a crocodile infested canal by accident, or as simple as being arrested and interrogated for importing liquorice into a foreign country. Whilst I am, sadly, fast coming towards the end of my journey anyway, i have a way to go yet, let alone figuring how he fr1ggin hell i can make it back to Europe in time to fulfill some commitments without flying.

And hospital visits don't help.

They take time and money, and are usually the result of an infliction of pain.

And two transport crashes in two weeks is really beginning to make me wonder what the third one will be. At current rate, it won't be pretty.

But we're loosing chronology again. Important it might not be, but sometimes i just like it that way.

Together with Matt and some of the guys, I headed down to their home town of Hua Hin, home of the King's summer palace and a fairly relevant town about 3hours south of Bangkok. Thai geography and population growth means that they have one huge city of umpteen million (Bangkok) and then nowhere else of any great relevance whatsoever. Hua Hin is a strange place. Whilst I was aware that many Swede's and Scandinavians come to Thailand, I wasn't quite expecting them to have colonised entire towns.

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Part of the beach in Hua Hin

Swedish (or Danish) is significantly more useful than English in Hua Hin. I saw at least half a dozen Swedish restaurants alone - plus ABBA karaoke songs, but no Ikea or Volvo's, sadly - plus any number of establishments named to do with Danish (such as hairdressers), Norwegian (Dentist) and Finnish (no idea as I can't read enough Finnish to workout what it was), plus Scandinavian real estate negotiators and agents and the inevitable hoards of Bars, Guest houses and restaurants either to do with them, or at least having Scandinavian menu's and signage. It was very, very strange. Not entirely unpleasant, but extremely strange. The town also had a foreign population demographic which was more or less reads:

Foreign people aged under 40 - 15, give or take
Older Scandinavians, mostly couples - Absolutely Sh1tloads
Old fat ugly British men with young Thai girls - A fair few
Real old &/or Really fat British men with young Thai girls - An unseemly number
Young kids/babies born to the above mentioned two group - way too many, the poor kids

Anyhow, it was an interesting place. Seeing a small-ish town through the eyes of one of the very small young and established (as opposed to transient) foreign community was very interesting, and one of the reason that i love staying with people instead of in hotels/hostels where you are entirely cut off from real life. Every town and village with a small (and obvious) foreign contingent probably has the same stories, but suffice to say that Hua-Hin life would be more than worthy of it's own soap opera. Didn't do much the time I was there except relax, have a few drinks, catch up with Matt (when you haven't seen somebody since you were 11, there are a few details from the past years to catch upon), and wander around Hua Hin. I got introduced to the wonders of Hua Hin on a Saturday night - vaguely surreal - which included the inevitable late night trip to a Karaoke bar. I was actually quite impressed with Thai karaoke. It's a kind of cross between Oriental (private groups in private rooms, meaning there is nowhere to hide from singing, and no strangers to laugh at/at you) and European style bars (open to everybody, including non-singers) which means a string of small bars of about a 20-25person capacity where you get to laugh at people and can hide, but not with so many strangers that you are worried about singing. Not a bad idea, although Thai karaoke music in general, is.

And yes, there really are reams of "Michael Learns to Rock" songs to choose from.*

Randomly, and off topic, I've just discovered that two people have had the gaul to unsubscribe from my journal. In fairness, I'm amazed it's taken so long for them to get wise and leave. Why anybody wants to read this sh1te, i have no idea, let alone why there are still so many of you actually subscribed. You should get your heads examined. Having said that, the fact you even consort with me suggests that you lack some of the necessary mental functions to succeed anyway...

After a great few days in Hua Hin, I returned to Bangkok. It has been a great and surreal experience catching up with Matt,and I hope it's not another 16years since we meet again. Annoyingly, i arrived in Bangkok in time to cunningly miss Rick yet again (who I'd travelled through Sweden and parts of Norway with, on the now mothballed - kind of, for full details contact Morten - old Landy RTW project, still possibly online at www.landy-rtw.com/). Rick now owns a bar and does diving courses etc on Kho Tao, and had returned South before I had managed to catch him. And sadly, I don't have time to get to Kho Tao on this trip. There will be other trips though.

Instead, I met up with Sam and Des again at the Night Market, along with another CSer, Laure, and a couple of her friends. Laure is a French girl who my lovely stalkers Kevin and Solene had stayed with in Korea. And as they are now at more or less at home - oddly, Irish Kevin is now in France brushing up on his French, whilst French Solene is in Ireland to learn some Gaelic - and no longer stalking me, I've taken it upon myself to go and visit everybody that they met on their way around this part of the world in kind of a reverse stalking manoeuvre. Some astounding dreadful(yet funny) singing by the band on the big stage, food, many beers and several hours sat on the floor of an umbrella shop playing kind of battle of the CD players and it was time to move.

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Inside the Night Markets food complex

I also finally managed to do some of the touristy stuff. I went all around the Royal Palace and wonderful Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha, bounced through a couple of museums, finally tried Phad Thai (no idea what all the fuss was about), got myself the obligatory fake student card (as they sell so many, surely you would have thought that by now they would have learnt how to spell "University" correctly) and wandered around numerous Wat's. Preperations for the King's 60th coronation anniversary are well under way, and Bangkok is being given a well deserved make over. Why such celebrations delay things which should have been done 15+ years ago (and it was the same in the UK for the Golden Jubilee) I'm not entirely certain.

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Bangkok's Royal Palace complex, What Phra Kaew

I then spent a couple of days in Pattaya. Which I really don't recommend. It's Hua Hin on a significantly larger scale. A huge ugly resort town of the sort that i routinely detest. A couple of bus breakdowns leading to a midnight arrival meant i got hurled straight in to the "fun", and also was unable to find cheap accommodation that would let me check in at that time,meaning i had to stay in a fancy hotel. Neither of which helped my impressions. Whilst Hua-Hin is Scandinavian, Pattaya has a large German contingent, and also a large elder British one. Plus, slightly less expected, a large Russian presence. Whilst i never actually heard any Russian,and saw maybe only a couple of Russians (prostitutes,inevitably), there were signs in Russian everywhere, with a fair splattering of Russian restaurants (sadly, they didn't do Bosnian Cevapicci, but that's possibly unsurprising) and Russian estate agencies. Annoyingly though, my brain wave came to nothing as every time i tried to buy some Russian Roubles off people/exchange places/a Russian restaurant, I was looked at as though I was some kind of Martian, or Russian Roubles/currency were a new and unheard of type of algae.

Oh well.

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Sign in Pattaya. Eek. The Russians are coming. Or are already here. Either way, there's (annnoyingly) still nowhere to change money into Roubles

The reason i had come to Pattaya was to catch up with Jasper (A cool Kiwi i had met in Cambodia), and Kay and Dave, a British couple who I'd never met, but had known online for some time due to their website www.britishexpat.com. Sadly, Jasper's schedules changed and we missed each other, but i spent a great day with Kay and Dave touring some of Pattaya's, erm, sights, indulging in some great seafood, and wandering the more sedate end of town at night. Oddly, my mental impressions of them both turned out to be surprisingly accurate, which is scary tome, as my mental pictures of people i know but have never met are normally wildly wrong.

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Local's street market in a back alleyway, somewhere in Bangkok

I happily left Pattaya as soon as I could (i really don't recommend visiting if you can possibly avoid it). Admittedly not as soon as I'd hoped, due to the vagaries of Thai holiday traffic and bus services. Basically, you get a ticket for a specific bus and then end up on a completely different one an hour or two later along with people who all have tickets with wildly varying departure times (none being the same as yours, or when the bus departs), and to destinations in all possible directions, and pray that you get somewhere useful and returned to Bangkok for the final time. A boat across the bay - it's not far - from Pattaya to Hua Hin would make allot of sense, and would have saved me at least one trip through the mess and traffic of the capital. Just because I could, I staying this time at Sam and Des's, for my fourth different accommodation in 4 passes. Des was away for a wedding, so Sam and I and another CS'er passing through, Jessica, went for dinner at the curiously named "Cabbages and Condoms", where Condoms were much in evidence, but there was sadly no sign of any kind of Cabbage, even on the menu. An over sight which i was not impressed with. And then headed out for an interesting night of bar hopping in the Gay and Lesbian district. Having a 45year old man try and pick you up may be flattering in one sense, but wasn't really a particularly helpful event for either of us, and i have to say, even Kiki managed more charm than did this random Belgian.

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Cabbages and Condoms

It was the following day after i had left Sam's (i think she might have died from alcohol poisoning by now, although i swear that it is entirely her fault. I am fast beginning to think that Couchsurfing should carry a large health/alcohol warning. Soness, all is forgiven!) that the incident that i began this - a long time ago, i admit - entry with and which might have been the reason for your continued reading, occurred.

To keep a long story short and details between the relevant people (you REALLY owe big time for this one!), I had headed to the dreaded KSR to make some phone calls and get a student card which had the details correct, when i ran into somebody who shall remain anonymous at this point. The details and reasoning behind our subsequent trip will also remain hidden, but suffice to say that i got conned (don't ask) into joining her on a strange errand, and we took a speeding taxi across the city and deep into the obscure suburbs. That went fine, and astonishingly (especially to me) the reason for trip actually turned out fine. It was on our return, sitting in the back of a pickup truck at standard Thai speed (as opposed to BKK rush hour speed) on the 5lane elevated expressway that things went slightly wrong.

Let's just say that traffic accidents are not uncommon in a country where fate, and the religious belief that you will be protected until your time is up, in which case there is nothing you can do about it, run the rule. Impressively, our driver realised the trouble ahead in time to slam on the brakes and slow us down enough for it not to be fatal, and even more astonishingly, there wasn't anything coming at speed in the lane on our right to which i flew into as he swerved desperately into a wild spin.

Two weeks after jumping off the roof of a bus in Cambodia to avoid a crash, I'm being thrown out of the back of a pickup in Thailand on a 10lane highway due to another accident. As these things come in 3's, i would suggest that everybody takes care in being absolutely nowhere near my vicinity (Europe is probably close enough) for the next few weeks.

Ouch.

Amazingly, neither of us, or the driver/passengers up front were really hurt. A broken arm, an assortment of bangs and gashes, some bits of blood and lots of groans as we all struggled to shake off the effects were a small price to pay, especially as the pickup looked a complete write off. The people involved in the original incident which we had tried to avoid and a couple of other late comers to the party like ourselves all seemed to have come off a bit worse, but nothing seemed too serious. A few broken bones maybe, but not much more.

We were near a freeway exit, which allowed easy access through the chaos for ambulances etc, and after letting the more serious people head of first,we were whisked off with lights flashing and horns to blaring to a hospital. I may well be forgetting one or two, but I think that this is my first ambulance journey on this trip. WooHoo! A different one, but just as efficient as friendly as the previous one I had been to, and where we spent the next 3 or 4 hours being checked out. They wanted to keep us both overnight, but neither of us were keen to stay for differing reasons. And so, despite the odd bruise, bump, gash and assorted pains (my neck is really not happy by this constant state of affairs), i managed to get them to release me with enough time to have a fighting chance of leaving. And in a break with tradition, i successfully made it to the station just in time to jump onto the train north (and without the tuk-tuk crashing into a canal on the way) to Nong Khai.

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Passing the independence Monument on route to the station

Thailand has been strange time. I've spent waaay too much money, met some interesting people, caught up with a number of old friends, but i haven't really seen much of Thailand itself. It never really appealed to me prior to this trip, and on the evidence of Hua-Hin and Pattaya (which would both have been dreadful if I hadn't been with friends), I might have been correct. But there are chunks that i want to see and will be back. But now, I need to leave for liver and financial reasons if nothing else. It's been by far the most destructive couple of weeks of my entire trip, with way too many 5am + nights, and none earlier than 2am. Ignoring the fact that I have to if I'm going to make it back to China in time, and recent highway incidents, I need to leave Thailand in order to detox and preserve money. I will be needing both of these in the coming weeks, and more.

In a away, from here the journey is kind of over. Yes, I have almost 6months before I need to be back at work, but I have a few commitments coming up and now start the trek back to Europe. Don't worry, this blog and story has a ways to run yet. Hopefully, a long relaxing and incident and pain free journey awaits, but with the way i feel at the moment and the way things have been going I kind of doubt that's possible.

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This scary looking manequin has been all over Thailand and also Vietnam. I must admit, that I have to wonder who the heck the model was, and what the heck had just happened when they took teh photo that was used to make the manequin. Any ideas? Answers, as always, on a postcard

* Anna and Tania, the two Danish girls we met on our way to Vietnam and travelled through most of that country with, first introduced me to this the fact. Michael Learns to Rock are a fairly average (I'm being diplomatic) Danish rock trio from the 80's. I knew of them and a couple of their tracks beforehand, but they hadn't done all that much in the UK, and hadn't come up often during my many visits to Denmark. What they have done,however, is seemingly take over much of Asia. In China, the standard CD of Chinese songs which play includes two ML2R tracks (which is what the girls had said, when they discovered it to their utter astonishment. It seems to be the main reason most Chinese have heard of Denmark), and then all through Vietnam it was noticeable that their stuff seemed to appear with alarming regularity. In Thailand, they are possibly even bigger, regularly play concerts here and are still big sellers. Essentially they a Danish equivalent of Shampoo in Japan and David Hasslehoff in the old East and West Germany.

Posted by Gelli 02:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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