Mountain Roads

The road wound away from the Mekong and went on through parched savannah grass, stands of dry trees and the thatched huts that had been abandoned after the growing season. The land was empty and patches of it had been charred black by slash and burn farming. Sometimes a motorbike or a truck rolled along past me; most of the time I was alone. I stopped in an empty soda shed, looked around for the owners and a little lady came in the back door carrying a child.

I ordered a Coke and sat with it under the grass roof, looking at the red brown earth that stretched out and on until it met the edge of the sky.

I opened up The Old Patagonian Express. “One of us on that sliding subway train was clearly not heading for work,” it said. “You would have known it immediately by the size of his bag.”

For the first time in a long time I did not have the distant beacon of a city to welcome me. It was good to have Theroux.

I had traced an arc through the center of Laos on my map where a few little roads went through the mountain ranges. I would follow them out and go over the hills to Vietnam.

The sun was getting low in the sky and I got back on my bicycle and rode on under the red sun glowing on down beneath the distant hills. Long savannah, empty plains. The cows were coming home in droves and small boys walked alongside them carrying bamboo poles. I decided this was a good night to sleep in one of the growing huts and as the sky went deep dusky blue, I went into a little field past some fences and hay bails and crouched behind a bush as a team of farmers and cows went by clanging their bells. I told the farmers I was going to Vietnam and asked if they knew anywhere I could stay. They directed me to a pick-up truck and we went along a road, back the way I had just come from. The kilometer markers read “Vientiane” and I broke into a sweat, thinking they were taking me back to the capital. What took me a day on the bicycle could be done in an hour in a decent truck. Within the second kilometer, though, we were back at a village I had passed and they parked and turned off the juice. A guy came up to the truck and leaned casually on the window. In English, he said, “What’s up dude? What can I do you for?”

I was shocked. His English name was Russell and he had moved to the US at fifteen. Now he was back in Laos. “I’ll bring you to the chief,” he said. “We’ll check you in. No problem, man. You got a long way to go.”

The chief’s house was made of white painted concrete with a tile floor and a high ceiling. The chief was a little man, slightly balding, with black hair and a leather jacket. We sat around a little table on the porch with a chessboard on it—me, Russell, the chief, a few grey haired dignitaries—and we passed around a glass of beer. The men had gathered to discuss troubles in the village; young people racing motorbikes and throwing bottles in the street, old people yelling and getting drunk. They didn’t stop when the chief brought them to the office one by one, so the plan was to use a megaphone to announce them all in front of the village. The chief handled divorce papers, thieving, belligerence, departures to Thailand or other villages, and guest arrivals, among other things.

I asked Russell about the US. He had stayed for twenty years until his parents came back to Laos. Now he was looking after his mom. “Opened my shop here and I just chill out, man,” he said. I asked him if he ran for chief. “Too much headache,” he said. In the US he worked in a juice company with twenty people under him.

The house was lit with bright halogens and flowed out the big open front and glowed on the porch where we were sitting. Inside, the chief’s father was curled up in a purple sarong on the sofa, flipping channels on the television: a fashion show in Paris, bombings in Bangkok, Punjabi Bhangra dancing, plush resorts in Hong Kong. A hunching old lady brought the chief two leaves of paper declaring money sent from the United States. The grandfather turned up the volume on the resort channel.

It was decided that I would stay in the house of the chief. The bathroom was all clean tile with a squat toilet and a big basin full of water with a plastic scoop in it. I ladled the cool water over myself to take the bath.

Russell had gone out to the chicken shacks for a couple of beers, but I couldn’t find him in the quiet night and took a stroll instead. When I came back to the house, the chief and his wife had set out mats on the floor with pillows and blankets under a mosquito net. I felt like the world couldn’t have been a kinder place. On the walls of the house there were some Chinese posters of waterfalls and pagodas and a few black and white portraits of the grandfather in an officer’s uniform. The house glowed with warm electric light from the porch and I fell asleep in one of the finest places in the world.

When I got up in the morning, the village had already been up for hours. I ate a bowl of noodles for breakfast and the chief’s wife brought me brown rice and sliced limes in a bag tied with a string, and a little metal spoon, which I would carry with me for the rest of my journey. The boys were playing bocce in the yard and lounging around on motorbikes. The grandfather was sitting by the TV again, clucking his tongue: bombs and school fires in Thailand; concrete superhighways and police with batons. Skin cream ads, gum for fresh breath to talk to women. The chief’s wife twirled in front of a long mirror on the tile floor, inspecting her dress. I found Russell at a shack by the road, lying back with coffee and biscuits. I said goodbye to everyone and got back on the road.

Along the road there were little soda shacks and when the sun got hot, I’d stop in one until the cool afternoon. The simplest ones had nothing in them but a shelf of pop and beer and some snacks. Others were more ornate and the proprietors slept in them at the end of the business day. There never seemed to be any particular business hours on the road. Most places were open as long as someone was around, and the Lao seemed as though they always were—playing with their children, braiding their hair, cooking and chatting or just staring off into the occasional television set.

I stopped in a soda shack that afternoon. The wooden floorboards were raised on stilts for the sloping hill; yellow crates of Beer Lao were stacked on the floor. Painted buffalo skulls and Christmas lights hung on the walls. From the ceiling, strings dangled and little bags of goods were tied to them: loose hand-rolled cigarettes, candy, chips, and snacks. Bunches of green bananas the size of trekking bags lay around the shop. Two girls in white school shirts were scooping noodles into bowls with their black hair tied back. They adjusted a crackling radio: soft music and then the news. There were the calendars I’d seen so often: pretty long-haired girls in long patterned dresses sat barefoot with their legs tucked up under them; in front of them, heaps of white rice and sliced bananas were laid out on banana leaves and they smiled brightly over the cornucopia. Behind them, ferns hung over the wooden banisters of their huts. The calendars said a lot to me: the Lao seemed to glorify a simple life of plenty. The calendars and posters all over China had a generic sports car and two-story house with a fountain and circular driveway superimposed onto an impossibly pristine landscape of waterfalls. The woman washed turnips on the wood floor of the shack and the girls turned the radio button to soft singing voices. I finished my Pepsi and continued on my way.

I got into a town called Pak Xan well after dark and looked for a place to have a beer. The town had nothing; there was a big electrical station with high towers that hummed and little red lights clacking on and off in the sea of darkness. There was a small hotel open to the street and a woman sat in a rocking chair with a child in a basket, rocking back and forth under a golden, Happy New Year banner that sagged on the wall.

The darkness of my hotel room was so complete. In the courtyard boys were drinking whiskey and playing cards. I woke up at night in the pitch dark under the humming fan and heard them vomiting. For a moment I thought I was in Guatemala, and then I didn’t know where I was at all. But if I did not come here I would not have known. If I did not come here I would not have known.

In the morning, the town was illuminated. It was on a sandy bend of the Mekong and a few small barges went by. The little port split up faster than a Chinese village, and within one hundred yards there was nothing but burned out hilly farmland and the empty growers’ huts. I rode along until everything was shrouded in thick green trees and through the spaces in between them I could see the river. A red motorbike was parked in the bushes and I went to see who it might be. I looked down a sharp drop to the brown river shoals and a head in a red shawl stuck out of the bushes looking back up at me. Sharp sticks wrapped in vines were planted in the ground and next to them were cabbage patches and thatched roofed huts. Down by the river bed, a woman was walking—a tiny figure far away—carrying a pair of buckets from the river, leaving deep wet footprints in the sand.

I stopped in the afternoon at one of the growers’ huts close to the road. A small boy in a red elastic baseball cap and a brown jacket was sitting with his legs dangling off the porch, watching over a field of cows. I climbed up the ladder and said hello, then sat down and opened my bag of rice, which I shared with the boy. He had a small rice sack next to him and I asked what was in it. He had a slingshot made of rubber bands, a machete made of thick dull metal, sticky rice in a woven basket, and a dusty empty water bottle. I thought of all the mysterious sacks and bags I’d seen all over Asia, from the big dirt crusted bags that the Uighur harvesters shouldered on their way back to Xinjiang, to the plastic duffle bags that families hauled in on the trains to every migrant’s city across China.

I left the hut and the boy. The brown cows wandered over the rice paddies, bells tinkling quietly. Some banged up old trucks went by, hauling logs and tires and clay pots. Everyone was on the move and the little houses by the riverside could fall apart so easily and be digested back into the hills. The light glowed in the late afternoon, casting long shadows from the growers’ huts, and all the colors got rich and deep. I thought of a Buddhist meditation I’d heard: look at a knot on a tree trunk and watch it as the light of the day grows and falls and you see how fickle is sight because the whole object changes with the minutes of the passing day. And in the end how can we be sure, they say, that there is anything at all?

A group of boys in white shirts and ties caught up to me, coming home from school. We raced and they shouted and smiled and then turned off down a red dirt road like a flock of swallows making a dive. They went clattering away into the luminous green paddies and vanished into the hills. A motorbike ice-cream man came by with a metal refrigerator box mounted on the back of the bike and strands of cones in plastic hanging from the bars.

I went out into the fields and found a thatched hut where vines grew through the walls. Outside, there were low mountains—a long red ridge of land. The ceiling of the hut was braced with bamboo. Cyclones of yellow straw beat about swirling upwards and dispersing in the wind. Tally marks and small checkerboards were scratched into the floorboards of the hut, some with a series of ‘x’s and ‘o’s. I was far from the road and a solitary truck rolled by sometimes, but mostly the whole land blew loud and clear with the wind. I rolled out my sleeping bag and read until the sun went down.

Whenever I had a friend with me, I slept so well. Alone, it was harder and all night long I fidgeted in the hot sleeping bag meant for Tibetan snows. Ants and spiders crawled about in the hut and over my body. At the gas station nearby, I could see the young men silhouetted under the lamppost, getting drunk.

It was the same dark night as always; the fields laying low and beautiful under the moon. I knew the night would pass the same whether I feared it or not, but I couldn’t take hold of that and I remained afraid. I had stared into a thousand painted night landscapes on museum walls and wished that I was there. To sleep outside and think only how beautiful it was seemed like spiritual perfection to me, and I couldn’t do it at all. Bushes rustled on all sides of me and the moon was high over the empty fields. All night long, lone farmers and knots of drunken boys staggered to and fro along the road.

In the morning I felt ragged, having slept not even on boards, but on gnarled sticks. The day passed in soda shacks and growing huts and many miles of open road. I went on and in the evening reached the intersection where two of Laos’ major highways joined: route 8 off to Vietnam and route 13 from Vientiane to Cambodia. The two empty roads met and there was only a streetlamp with moths flying about it. The rest was darkness. A few restaurants that doubled as homes had their lights on and families sat around the tables with beer. Women swung babies in baskets hanging from the ceiling. A caravan of beer trucks went by and the red taillight of a solitary motorcycle illuminated a small tract of smooth, black pavement and then it was gone. I rode alone in the wide night road. Above me, endless stars dotted the sky. Past the campfires and motorcycle shacks, there was only blackness, only space: the starlit sky above and the blind emptiness of road that I could not see in front of me. It stretched on infinitely out towards distant firelight. For the first time in days there was no music, no sounds of insects or birds; only space.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.