Travel: Tales of the riverbank

Ian Gardener had the bright idea of going by bike and boat to the source of the Mekong. Or so he thought

I had dreamt of sitting on the glacier that is the source of the Mekong river, smoking cigars and photographing myself with a small Union Jack. Instead, after 2000km of sweat in the jungles of Indo-China, I got to Zaqen: a remote and dilapidated town in the mountains of China's Qinghai province.

What was I doing here? Rewind several months to when I had decided to abandon my secure life in Britain in order to take off on a long journey by boat and bicycle. Following the exotic, beautiful and remote Mekong river as closely as possible from mouth to source had seemed such a fool- proof idea.

Once underway in southern Vietnam, the idea had not seemed quite such a good one. I spent hot, dreary weeks being pursued by mosquitoes to and fro between Vietnam and Cambodia, heading for Laos, where I really wanted to be.

After a long detour cycling uphill in high temperatures, I finally came to the Laotian border, only to be told by a female Vietnamese official - a stern stereotype of Communist officialdom - that I did not have the correct exit point stamped in my visa and that I would need to return to Dong Ha to obtain the stamps.

What? After all that cycling? This ugly little border town was crammed with smartly dressed and attractive female money-changers in obligatory baseball caps, each determined to sell me bricks of kip (Laotian currency). I wanted to get on. Instead I was forced to ride back to Dong Ha on a motorbike taxi for $25.

Angry days later I rejoined the Mekong on the Laotian side of the border, before resuming pedal-power. Through southern Laos the going varied from the smoothest tarmac to the roughest sandy, rocky tracks. No fun at all. Only the Laotian people kept me going. Each time I passed through a remote village of reed huts, a cry of greeting, "Sabaa-di", would rise up like a siren call, followed by children emerging from every dwelling, shouting and waving as they ran to the roadside. Except that if I stopped, the youngest would promptly run back to their mothers in tears.

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has a smaller population than Woking. I found it a charming, dusty town on the bank of the Mekong. Like everywhere in Laos, life in Vientiane happens only at the most relaxed pace imaginable. An aid-worker told me that the Vietnamese grow rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow.

By now I was suffering from tendonitis, which, by the time I reached Vientiane, had reduced my left hand to a redundant and painful claw. With conventional remedies exhausted, I called on an acupuncturist, one Dr Soulinthong. First impressions of his surgery were not promising. Beyond a row of filthy chairs (the "waiting room") was a dilapidated screen and a desk piled with medical rubble - books, medicine bottles, and syringes.

With two needles inserted in the back of my curled hand I was wired up to a machine which was reminiscent of a wartime wireless. The good doctor flicked a switch on the wall and a jolt shot through me. Laughing he twiddled some dials on the machine and the pain eased to a dull, pulsating throb. Curiously enough it solved my problems.

From Vientiane I continued awhile by boat. The world became odder by the minute. One day on the river border between Burma and northern Laos, the boat's captain suddenly pulled into the bank on the Burmese side. After scanning the dense wall of vegetation crowning the sandy bank he produced a stick of dynamite and expertly put together a home-made grenade complete with fuse. This he lit with the glowing tip of a cigarette from his lower lip and then lobbed it into the river's edge.

The result was a chunk of the river bank sliding into the water and a 4lb carp floating to the surface. The fish was popped in the back of the boat and on we went.

The short stretch of road from Laos to China typified the difference between these two countries. At the border the Laotian farm track was abruptly replaced by Chinese tarmac. Whereas the parched fields of northern Laos had been sunk in torpor, here the land was being worked with characteristic Chinese vigour. Little heads and bodies were visible all over the landscape, tilling, carrying and planting in plantations of tea and rubber and fields of rice, watermelons and pineapples.

Through northern Yunnan I followed the ever-shrinking Mekong into Tibet where I progressed cautiously, conscious of my lack of permits. Then, one fateful day in Qamdo I was on the point of ordering a sumptuous feast and was being besieged by two particularly persistent and pushy monks.

"Hello. I am in charge of the affairs of foreigners," came a voice. No flamboyant entry, no formal announcement. Just an unassuming introduction that I hardly noticed from a small, official-looking man.

"Where are you from?"

"England."

"May I see your passport, please?"

A rummaging through bags, and one grubby passport was handed over. A cursory glance was enough.

"Have you any other papers?"

"No."

A pause. "Have your meal. Then, please, will you come to the Foreign Affairs Office?" He gave me detailed directions and departed unceremoniously, carrying my passport.

I was fined and escorted to a bus out of Tibet. Down but not quite out. I still had my bike. I had used the intervening period to plot an alternative route back in, to rejoin the river further north and continue on towards the source of the Mekong.

And so it was, 10 days later, that I neared my goal. To reach this far I had struggled over a 16,000ft pass. The combination of low oxygen, a harsh gradient and a road surface of loose stone almost defeated me.

The panorama of snow-capped peaks only just compensated for the physical hardship of the ascent. It also revealed skies that were ominously dark and constantly punctuated with probing forks of lightning. Incessant peals of thunder erupted in a ferocious downpour of hailstones the size of table-tennis balls. I was left bruised by the bombardment.

Finally, through the driving sleet, the sad and horrible town of Zaqen appeared at the end of the valley. I summoned the energy to battle over the final kilometres, fuelled by thoughts of a fire to warm myself, huge bowls of noodles, and, hell, why not throw in a hot bath, too.

The reality was depressingly different. I arrived at a collection of crumbling barrack blocks, an iron gate swinging in the icy wind, and groups of mangy, uninterested dogs.

I finally located one of the population of 10 - some sort of administrator, I believe, though what he administered I have no idea. He would eventually evict me from this town, which in fact I had no permission to enter. Not that I cared any more. From the steaming jungles of Cambodia to the icy wastelands of eastern Tibet, I felt that I had seen quite enough of the Mekong river.

Ian Gardener's trip up the Mekong was to raise money for Motivation, a Bristol-based charity which designs and supplies wheelchairs for developing countries. He will be lecturing on his journey at The Royal Geographical Society on 10 February 2000. For more information please call Motivation (tel: 01275 464012).

UP THE MEKONG

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines (tel: 0870 608 8886) flies to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, fares from pounds 610.

VISAS

British visitors need tourist visas for all the countries that Ian Gardener travelled through.

Visas can be obtained in London for Vietnam (tel: 0171-937 3222), and China (tel: 0171-631 1430); those for Cambodia and Laos can be arranged at their embassies in neighbouring countries, or with tour operators.

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