Luang Prabang, for all intents and purposes my last stop in Laos, my last stop on this amazing trip. A beautiful old colonial French town, a tiny calm pocket of old-world charm on a green peninsula jutting into and bisecting the Mekong, the green mountains forming a kind of half-hearted basin-edge. It was a town for walking, for observing the sleepy wats and the shaded alleyways littered with UNESCO-protected buildings and links to a simpler, slower time. It was a great way to end the trip, until I had to take a thirty-three hour bus ride from Luang Prabang to Kunming, China.
Stop for a moment. Take a breath. Say that number aloud. "Thirty-three." Thirty-three what, you ask? Surely only certain things are measured in such terms, small things, insignificant things. The number of seconds it took for the popcorn to burn, the change in your pocket ... these things and more are often cited in the thirties, thirty-three even, and people don't pause.
Thirty-three HOURS. On a bus.
But to be fair, it was a sleeper bus, and a remarkably empty bus, by Chinese standards. We left Luang Prabang around eleven in the evening, and awoke in time to cross the border into China that morning.
Back on the bus, for more than a whole day of travel, and I tried to sleep as much as I could, off and on, music and sleep, the ceilings too low to sit and read or do anything other than lay down and try to sleep through it all. And so it was that I found myself waking up in Kunming, approximately thirty-three HOURS later, asking in half-asleep Chinese, "Kunming ... arrived ... ma?" I stumbled down the street and checked into the nearest (cheap) room I saw, showered, and for some reason decided to go explore Kunming. One last city for the road.
And now I'm in Hong Kong, ready to leave in just a few minutes to cross the border into the mainland, and from there, fly up to the great frigid wastes of Jilin and northeast China.
I remember thinking this time last year, after first dipping my toe in the "backpacker" pool by doing two and a half weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, that long stretches of travel would be good things, maybe even great things. How the wanderlust was burning bright, and the flames were only fanned by a successful trip, not squelched. And how I could have gone on, maybe a solid month of travel, and while I thought that I might have become listless, unhinged after month on the road, but I knew it I could, should do it.
And here I sit at the end of nearly eight weeks of life on the road, a life of border crossing and bus riding and sight seeing, and I can't help but think: this is only a beginning. I thought crossing into Laos from Thailand that this would be it, this trip would scratch that travel itch for a while to come, and yet before I even arrived in Kunming, I was making plans on where to visit next: I cannot leave China without seeing Sichuan province, that mystical place calls to me, and hey, Tibet is practically next door ...
Travel. It seems like a way to rediscover yourself. You throw yourself into new places and things without much more than your instincts and, maybe, a guidebook with a lot of useless trivia but a few good maps and bus schedules. And that's the allure, I guess, of seeing what you can do and see on your own. It's easy in a backpacker ghetto where people order from English menus and mindlessly absorb repeats and Friends, but it's something different when you make your way overland from Singapore to China.
So the trip is over, the dream is ended. Further rumination is forthcoming, like it or not. For now, I gotta catch a bus into China, and then fly back to Jilin.