I can't say that I'm happy about having to get our bike fixed, but I have been incredibly intrigued by these shops, and am actually looking forward to seeing these resourceful guys at work. It takes about five minutes of looking before I find someone that understands what the problem is, and he has the bike apart in no time. He's got his arc welder out, and before I know it the frame is as good as new (and the whole thing only cost me two dollars).
I'm still kicking myself for being to tired to remember to bring the camera to document the process...hence, no pictures.
I head back to the hotel to pick up Natasha with a sunny outlook, thinking that no matter what the road has to throw at us, at least our baggage won't be threatening to fall off every five minutes.
We head south out of town thinking that there would be a gas station on the way, but when we find it, they have apparently run out of gas. They tell us to head north so we back track, find gas, and come across what looks like a bumper car graveyard.
We finally make our way out of town, knowing that we need to find the ferry to cross the Mekong. We drive for a while and start to feel that something is wrong, so we stop to ask directions. The first guy we ask tells us to turn around, but he seems a bit drunk (at nine o'clock in the morning), so we don't believe him and continue on our way. We stop again to ask, only to find out that we really are nowhere near where we need to be (sorry drunk guy). We yet again back track and finally find the road to the ferry crossing.
We end up crossing the river with a truck that's transporting an elephant. It's a bit sad to see such a beautiful animal chained up in the back of a truck, but it is still an incredible experience to be so close. We weren't the only ones enamoured with the beast.
When we get to the other side of the river it feels like our journey is just beginning. At this point I should mention that from Pak Lai to Vientiane is about 210 Km; our longest day yet. We are probably biting off a bit more than we can chew. According to our map though, the first 50 Km after the river crossing are paved, and they turn out to be some of the most beautiful riding we've had. But, as always in Lao, the pavement must end.
I will take a minute to explain the mode of transport that we have seen more of than motorbikes and cars combined. It is a "two-wheeled" tractor of sorts that is used for transportation and can also be used as a power tiller for agricurtural needs and has been replacing the ox and cart in rural parts of Asia. We later find out from our friend Tyler that there has been a research study done on them and that they are incredibly unsafe and most do not have brakes. Regardless we both find them very interesting.
We endure the bumps and dust for a while when, surprisingly, in the middle of nowhere, there's a new bit of tarmac. I don't get my hopes up, but it lasts for quite a while longer than I expect. It seems we'll get to Vientiane much faster than expected.......
But of course the blacktop abruptly ends. I'm thinking to myself, "What the hell?" Somewhere, in some government office in Vientiane, some person is deciding which sections of road are getting paved and which aren't. Why would they create this wonderful piece of road in the middle of nowhere only to have it end? I kind of expect the roads to get better the closer we got to the capital, but no, after our brief respite, we come across some of the absolute worst roads we've seen.
My adventurous spirit, originally excited at tackling these difficult roads, is quickly dampening, when Natasha notices our gear is yet again slipping off the back of our bike. We pull over to examine the situation, thinking that our miracle welder didn't necessarily do such a good job, only to find out that it is the rack itself that is broken this time...in two separate places. We try yet more creative bungee configurations, hoping to pull the weight forward, and continue on, only to have the license plate/tail light/turn signals, bouncing up and down on the rear tire at every bump. After just a few kilometers, the rear end of the bike is ruined, so we stop at a spot on the banks of the Mekong to assess our situation.
As beautiful as the location is, I can't appreciate it, and realize that this is probably the lowest I've felt the entire trip. All I can think about is getting to Vientiane and not the beauty surrounding me. In travel, as with life, there are the inevitable ups and downs, and looking back I feel blessed that my low point came so late in our trip and at such an idyllic location.
My pouting done, we hop back on our broken bike and trudge along at a turtle's pace, not looking forward to riding this road after dark, when we come to a small village. We're not twenty kilometers from Vientiane, but since there's nothing "special" to see, and no paved road to carry tourists here, we're a bit of an oddity. Several people come up to us hoping to practice their English, but we're unfortunately in no mood to talk. While sitting outside of a drink shop enjoying a Fanta, we hear a clatter of drums and cymbals down the road. We look up to see a strange procession of musicians following an umbrellaed cart containing a frail looking old man. We have no idea what this is about, but we look on in awe as they approach. When they finally reach us, an old lady with a bottle of clear liquid in one hand, a mug in the other, and a huge smile on her face, gives us a welcoming "Sabaidee!!!" We have no idea what's going on, but she offers us some of her mystery liquid and we quickly find out that it's lao lao (rice whiskey). At this point it's just what we need. They ask us to join in their procession, and this simple act of hospitality is a soothing balm to our aching minds and bodies. Had there been a place to sleep nearby we gladly would have stopped and joined in what ever it was they were celebrating (my best guess is the old man's birthday). Instead we have to find a way to get us and our gear to Vientiane without further ruining the bike.
We end up with a small backpack on my chest, a large one on Natasha's back and a third, heavy bag between us. It takes about two hours more riding, on treacherous "bull dust" ridden roads, in the dark, before we finally hit pavement and are about five kilometers from the center of town. We find a nice place to stay, treat ourselves to an extravagant Italian dinner and finally go to bed completely spent.