The Road to Xien Khouang 2

Until midday we slithered and bumped along the track, walled-in by the monotonous forest. Then at last the forest diminished and shrivelled into bush, then scrub, and finally a savannah of coarse grass. Here crouching among Cyclopean boulders were the few huts of plaited bamboo which made up the first village. Into this we thumped, bursting out of our envelope of dust and swerving to avoid naked babies and senile dogs. A canopy of vultures driven into the air by thundering wheels hung in suspension above us.
This was the lunch halt. We had been eating dust for eight hours and had averaged seven miles an hour. It was from this point onwards that trouble might be expected. But I told Dupont that there would be no trouble. However many times the convoy might have been attacked previously it would not be attacked when I was travelling with it. For once I found someone in hearty agreement with me. Dupont said that the convoy system was a ridiculous waste of time. You could travel up and down this road with not much more hope of running into bandits than on Route Nationale number seven. Anyway, if you were craven about such things, what was wrong with travelling at night only, when bandits – especially Laotian ones – were in bed. He said that we would really have to think seriously about how we were going to get away from the convoy, because the risks we were incurring in swallowing germ-infested dust were several thousand times greater than stopping the odd bullet if we went off by ourselves.
Dupont, who refused to eat army rations while there were cooked meals to be had in the neighbourhood, led the way to the sombre Chinese hovel masquerading as a restaurant. He ordered three portions of Soupe Chinoise; one for his dog, which to his dismay was missing when the food arrived. The Chinese apologised for the poor quality of his soup, being deprived by his isolation, he said, of every accepted ingredient. He promised to send out for some tree-frogs to enrich the flavour if we could give him half an hour. Owing to the time limit set by the convoy- commander, we had to reject this offer, declining also to select for grilling one of a group of live lung-fish hastily lined up for approval.
The proprietor had not been over-modest. The soup was utterly negative in flavour. We were sipping our coffee, which tasted of earth and bitter herbs when a commotion aroused us. Hurrying from the restau¬rant we saw Dupont’s dog busy with carrion in a nearby field, surrounded by an excited huddle of vultures for whose benefit it had been exposed there. Dupont’s cries of horror were interrupted by the whistle of the convoy-commander, who this time signalled for all officers to gather round him. He told them that seventy Issaraks were reported to be in ambush, awaiting us at Kilometre 115 – about twenty miles further on. They were turned out in new American uniforms, he said, and were well armed. At Kilometre 115 a cross-country track leading from Siam into Vietnam crossed our route. It occurred to both Dupont and myself that if this report was several hours old, it was not likely that the Issarak would be in the place where they were first seen. However, the official view taken was that they would not have moved more than five kilo¬metres down the road in our direction, because orders were given for the infantry escort to dismount from their lorries at Kilometre 110 and to precede the convoy on foot for the next five kilometres. We noticed, too, that the officer assumed that the Issarak, if they had moved at all, would have inevitably marched towards us, and not in the other direction, because, once Kilometre 115 had been reached, the danger would be officially declared at an end, and the infantry ordered back into their lorries.
We now entered a country of low, bare hills; a whitish landscape, rarely animated by wandering pink-skinned buffaloes. In the hollows there were islands of splendid vegetation – flamboyant trees, arranged as if by design, with giant ferns and feathery bamboos. Peacocks gleamed in abandoned paddy fields, and storks, flapping away at our approach, trailed their legs in pools of yellow marsh-water. The vegetation was sensitive to quite small variations in altitude. The valley-bottoms were choked with bamboo thickets, and slender, segmented canes, wreathed in blue convolvulus, curved over our path like coachmen’s whips, flick¬ing us as we passed beneath. At this level the ditches were full of dead butterflies which seemed to have completed their lives’ span while in the act of drinking. But a climb of only a few hundred feet was enough to break right out of this hot-house profusion; to pass through the curtains of liana and to reach the first pines.
Approaching the portentous kilometre, the road became steadily worse. It was only just wide enough for the six-wheelers to pass and there were frequent tyre-bursts. Whenever a vehicle was put out of action, it was manhandled off the road and left to its own devices. There was continual trouble with the bridges, which were temporary affairs, put up at the end of the rainy season and only intended to last until the weather broke again. The most rickety-looking of the bridges had to be tested first with a jeep, followed by an unladen lorry. When this precaution was neglected, a lorry loaded with supplies crashed through and fell into the river below. This meant a painful detour through the water for the rest of the convoy. Several vehicles also got stuck and had to be hauled out. Any of these moments would have provided an ideal opportunity for an attack.

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