The Road to Xien Khouang 3

The Meo dog suffered from the heat just as badly as, according to report, its original owner would have done. Its tongue lolled from its mouth and, laying its head either on Dupont’s lap or on mine, it dribbled on our bare knees. It could not stand the dust, and wetted us further with its continual sneezings.
Some of the drivers were showing signs of tiredness, and probably nervous strain. The standard of driving was going down. We were once again in the bamboo thickets, and the road was no better than a ledge round the flank of a low hill. On our right was a precipice, but the vegetation was so thick that you could get no idea of the drop. Dupont, having profited by casualties in front, had now worked his way up to a position immediately behind the last of the lorries, and we were nosing our way round the hill, keeping a lookout for occasional gaps in the road left by subsidences, when the lorry ahead suddenly turned off the road and went over the side. Gently, almost, it was lowered from sight amongst the bamboos. Up till the last fraction of a second before a thousand graceful stems screened it from our view it was still upright and quite level. The soldiers in it had hardly risen from their seats and raised their arms not so much in alarm, it seemed, as to wave farewell.
Soon after, the infantry climbed down from the lorries and began their march in single file along the sides of the road in front. This manoeuvre seemed to me not only useless but dangerous, since nothing could have been easier for ambushers than to let the soldiers go by and then destroy the defenceless vehicles. In the spirit of one who whistles in the dark to keep his courage up, the armoured car ahead occasionally opened up with its machine-guns and 2-cm. cannon, provoking, to the great discomfort of the following cars, one small forest fire. We never heard that the enemy was other than imaginary. At five in the afternoon we crawled into the village of Vang Vieng, having done about twenty miles since midday.

Vang Vieng was just such another village as the one where we had had our midday Chinese soup, but it was set in the most staggering surround¬ings. Overhanging it was a range of mountains which were not very high, since the peaks only reached 8000 feet, but which did not look like any mountains I had ever seen before. There was no visual preparation by a gently rising foreground of foothills. These were stupendous walls of rock rising 4000, 5000 and 6000 feet sheer out of an absolutely flat plain. We were overhung, as it were, by a huge scrabbling in the sky, which at its base had been erased by mists. Dupont said that we would pass over these mountains that night.
It was at Vang Vieng that Dupont had planned to slip away. His resolution was only slightly shaken when it was announced that the whole convoy would stay in the village overnight, owing to the presence of a small force of Viet-Minh, which the infantry would have to clear out, in a village fifteen kilometres further along the road; but as all the men were thoroughly tired this operation would be postponed till early next morning. Dupont was determined not to stay in Vang Vieng, but even he seemed to think twice about deliberately disobeying the convoy- commander’s orders, and when he finally did so it was done in gentle stages, rather than in one flagrant act of insubordination. The excuse given for this phobia about Vang Vieng was that all the sleeping space would be taken up and we should find nowhere to stretch out comfortably.
We were still filthy from our travels; sweat-soaked and covered in bright yellow dust, through which the perspiration trickled down regular courses. As part of his campaign Dupont suggested that we should have a meal first and after that get permission from the convoy-commander to go for a bathe in a river, twelve kilometres down the road, where we should still be three kilometres short of the village with the Viet-Minh. Dupont described this river as if it had magical curative properties. It came out of a cave not far away, he said, and the water was icy cold. This course being agreed upon, we went to the usual Chinese eating-house run by one Sour Hak. Taken by surprise by our invasion, Sour Hak found himself short of food. However, as these villages are completely cut off during the six months’ rainy season, there are always stand-bys for emergency. Reaching to the top of the cupboard he found a hunk of venison boucane, dusted it off and set it before us. This meat, prepared in a manner similar to that employed by the Argentine gauchos, was black, fine grained in texture as cheese, odourless and tasted slightly of liquo¬rice. According to the usages of life in the bush, strips were cut off it with one’s clasp knife. Fortunately, Sour Hak was found, quite mysteriously, to have a stock of first-rate Burgundy; doubtlessly bought in the belief that it was Algerian. Dupont’s sudden optimism was only lowered by Sour Hak’s refusal at any price to sell a green parakeet, which had flown in one day and attached itself to the house. Since tasting civilisation nothing could persuade this bird to use its wings again, although like a true Laotian it enjoyed being taken for a ride on a bicycle. Dupont’s process of going native involved a craze for collecting animals. By the time the parakeet had bitten him several times, he was ready to offer anything for it – including a worn-out Citroen car he kept at Luang Prabang – but it was all of no avail.

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