It was another brutal hot and humid day in Laos. We were recovering from a long bus journey and it was the first day back on the bicycles since my rim was replaced. We were riding from Luang Namtha to Boten which is the last ‘town’ before you cross into China from Laos. It was a short 60 kilometres to the border and we assumed we would be there just after lunch but assumptions aren’t always a great choice when bicycle touring.
The road was covered by silt and there was a haze in the air from all the dust being lifted from passing trucks. The road began as bitumen for the first 40 or 50 kilometres, but enormous cracks and gigantic potholes were regular. As we approached the border town of Boten, the number of trucks began to increase and there were many passing cars. Suddenly the bitumen stopped about 5 to 7 kilometres outside of Boten. It was only about 1:30pm but we were about to be pushing our bicycles for the rest of the day. The road passed through a Chinese construction site where they must have been in the process of building a city. The way forward was pooled with a minimum of 3 or 4 mm of thick red-brown clay and gravel that was barely possible to ride and we had to push the bicycles nearly the whole way.
The going was slow, and it was tough. We were being beeped by passing vehicles and we were slowly becoming irritable. The mud and gravel were getting caught between our tyres and fenders (mud guards) which meant we could not push the bicycles any further as the tyres wouldn’t rotate. We had to regularly clean the mud out with a single pop stick each that we were lucky enough to have stashed away and had been saving for bike maintenance. The day quickly descended into chaos and with it went our last remaining spirit for Laos. We couldn’t wait to get out!
It was about two hours later when we reached the ‘town’ of Boten. We found the only hotel open for business in town and asked if we could use their hose outside to clean our bicycles. They were awkwardly kind enough to help us. As we turned on the hose the Chinese construction workers began to crowd around us to watch the novelty of two muddy bicycle tourers floundering around cleaning their bikes and gear for a solid two hours.
By the time we were finished it was too late to cross the border. We took a room at the hotel (even though it was insanely expensive) because we did not feel safe camping in the construction site, plus we needed to shower the remaining mud off ourselves. The town itself was a weird sight to see, with hotels that look like a small casino or the night clubs in-between noodle shops or the small 5 or 7 story apartment buildings crammed full of Chinese construction workers. This was our first taste of Chinese construction and it was extreme.
The next day we crossed into China. The border crossing was very simple, and we had no questions or hassles. When we were on the Chinese side of the border it was like entering a new world! The roads were in perfect condition, better than Australia, and the median strips were manicured with beautiful flowers. The border towns were two parallel universes, with the Laos side of the border looking like Armageddon and the Chinese side looking like a royal wedding, separated by only 200m of broken asphalt. We couldn’t believe the contrast, nor could we be happier to be in China after our struggles in Laos.
For the cycle tourists attempting this crossing, you should time your journey so that you camp/stay about 30 to 60 kilometres outside of Boten, even though a nice camp spot might be a little hard to find. Then you should aim to start early and cross the border in one day. You should factor in time to clean you bicycles and then you could either find a hotel or camping spot on the Chinese side of the border. Also, check if the construction has finished because the Chinese are very quick at building. It was a reasonable sized town on the other side of the border and I’m sure they would have an ATM. Otherwise, the next day you could ride to the next big city only about 50 kilometres from the border to get everything you need for China like money or SIM cards. Alert! Get your VPN before reaching Boten as it is not possible once you are there. Big brother is watching even in Laos.
It as only 60 kilometres but it is a rough day in the heat, dust, trucks and mud!