Let me tell you, arriving by boat in the middle of nowhere when it is pitch-black outside is completely different from landing at an airport. Unlike ports in North America, in China docking your boat or ship involves a buddy system of sorts. There is usually one dock and 4-5 ships trying to unload. Instead of waiting for their turn (this is kind of a foreign concept here), they dock against one another. When we arrived in Guan Lei, we were boat number 4 and docking against a freighter was a bumpy experience.

As our boat docked an immigration officer came aboard. I sat as she made her way from passenger to passenger checking passports against the passenger list. She had an air of authority about her, but not the kind that makes you cringe in fear. She was more the kind who you could joke around with after she had finished scrutinizing your passport. As she finished she motioned for everyone to follow her outside to the stern of the boat.

As I stepped outside with my big backpack I was given hands to hold as I tried to step from one boat to another. I could hardly see where I was going. There were no flashlights, just bodies, hands and the sound of several people speaking Mandarin. As I stood on a freighter ship I could feel a load of lumber under my feet. I was feeling tired and a little disoriented. After a few minutes I was instructed to give my big pack to male immigration officer. I was under no illusions. I figured they would want to search it and to be honest I didn’t mind giving it up. Navigating across 4 ships in the darkness to shore is hard enough when you don’t have 20kg of clothing, shoes and random crap strapped to your back.

As we walked from freighter to freighter I kept chanting to myself, “Do not fall. Do. NOT. FALL!” Luckily arms and hands were thrown out in my direction, helping me step from ship to ship. When we finally stepped foot on shore I looked up to see a giant wall with people looking down from up top. I had a faint notion that we’d have to climb several stairs to reach the top of the wall, but I was hoping I was wrong. I could do a steep hill, but the idea of stairs made me groan. For some reason the Chinese people love stairs. Not that there is any wrong with them, I just have old knee injuries that make climbing stairs a pain in the arse, and fate usually steps in and throws a few hundred stairs my way when I’m tired, sore and ready for bed.

As I stood at the bottom of the long staircase, I took a deep breath. The climb was slow, but I didn’t care. I didn’t even register the fact that the male immigration officer was walking behind me the whole time. When I reached the top I breathed a sigh of relief. I did it. I was at the top. Or was I? After walking across a very dark courtyard I was subjected to yet another long set of stairs. Oh, crap. Deep breathing ensued. I kept my eyes on my feet, looking for obstructions that I may trip over. After all, falling in Asia has become an art form for me.

When I reached the top of the last set of stairs I was guided into a tiny room to have my passport checked. While I was waiting the immigration officer who had boarded the ship smiled and joked about the heat, then offered me some water. The whole experience was a lot more pleasant than I expected and within 10 minutes I had a Chinese stamp in my passport. Wahoo!

Due to the sheer darkness that surrounded us, traveling the rest of the way up the Mekong River to Jinhong was not possible. The river is hard enough to navigate during the day as it is. Instead the girls from the boat led us into town, bought some sticky rice and egg and put us on a bus bound for Jinhong.

For the next three hours I was bumped around as the bus navigated narrow dirt mountain roads. There were several twists and turns and in a way I was happy it was so dark outside. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the full reality of that drive to be laid before me. Especially when our bus driver decided to start chatting on his cell phone!

As our bus pulled into Jinhong I was surprised. It wasn’t even close to what I had expected. The city was lit up like a Christmas tree and the streets were lined with palm trees. It challenged every memory I had of China from my trip in 2008. I had to remind myself I was in a semi-tropical area of China and in a way I was a little sad that I wasn’t spending the night here. Instead I gazed out the bus window and tried to figure out I can come back before returning to Thailand.