Past few days' route in grey, today's route in blue:
Udomxai - HWY 2E (sealed) - Muang La - Pak Nam Noi (junction with road to Muang Khua & Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam) - HWY 1B (unsealed) - Ban Boun Tai - Ban Yo - HWY 19 (mostly sealed) - Ban Boun Neua - Phongsaly. 230+km journey took more than 9 hours. Wonder how long it takes during the wet season ;)
Udomxai was totally shrouded in thick ghostly fog before dawn. The roadside bonfires had long since died out, making it a little more tricky to avoid the usual booby traps - ditches, piles of ashes, potholes, animal poop, large cracks, pieces of wood & branches, uncovered drains, rocks, occasional dead animal - that decorate Lao roads. Surreal walking down a road that you couldn't see much of, not knowing if there was a world existing beyond the 50 metres barely visible in front of you.
Fog thinning out after sunrise:
The sound of Udomxai in the morning is that of trucks from China warming up their engines. Looking in the direction of Phou That - what Phou That? It was nowhere to be seen, as if yesterday afternoon's climb up to the top & all the people who had spoken to the cat were just an illusion.
Udomxai bus station:
Nicer looking coach on the left is the VIP bus to Luang Prabang. There are clean pay-per-entry public (squat) toilets, a tiny looks-like-an-internet-cafe, & a small stall selling food, drink & baked-&-packaged-in-China buns, all within the bus station building. Surrounding it are plenty of stalls selling fruits, noodle soup & grilled all-sorts-of-meat (tails, teeth & paws included for certain smaller items). Women will also appear in the morning with plastic baskets full of steamed bamboo sticky rice & metal trays of what-looks-like-doughnuts to sell.
Too few passengers, so the 8AM bus to Phongsaly would depart at 9AM instead - forget about reaching Phongsaly before sunset. Killed time reading notices pasted on the pillars. One was a recuitment ad for an NGO that needed English-literate Lao staff - presumably only those who could understand the English-only advert need apply. Another was in Chinese+Lao, seeking students for a new Chinese-built & -run school in Phongsaly offering a high school curriculum & college level courses in Accounting, Finance, Business Management, etc. Basketball courts appeared to be a major selling point in the rather detailed write-up on the school's sports & dormitory facilities. Basketball courts would turn out to be an indicator of the Chinese presence in North Lao. The cat would spot them wherever there was a sizeable population of Chinese in town, &/or a Chinese school nearby.
Majority of fellow passengers were Chinese men, & Mr Driver (a Lao) could speak a bit of Mandarin. No one seemed to realise that the cat was the sole tourist on board. In this part of North Lao, many assumed that the cat was some Vientiane-educated teacher, civil servant or bank employee, because it wore spectacles. Illiterate locals came up to ask for help in locating the correct bus/truck, not knowing that the cat could read as 'much' Lao as they could - zero! Fortunately place names on bus station signboards in Phongsaly province & Udomxai town are written in large Chinese characters as well as English.
After stopping by a hardware store for Mr Driver & wife to buy some blue PVC pipes, we were finally on our way to 丰沙里 (Feng1 Sha1 Li3), Fong(L) Sa(M) Li(F) or Phong(L) Sa(R) Li(H), depending on which passenger you conversed with.