It was not even the end of May, but the fierce early-summer sun and high humidity made Friendship Pass in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region almost unbearably hot.
The pass, one of the major tourist and cargo routes between China and Vietnam, was usually filled with cars and trucks. Recently, however, the flood of tourists and vehicles has trickled to a standstill.
A couple of Chinese took a sweaty stroll around an almost-deserted park before resting in the shade of a huge banyan tree that faces the symbolic Friendship Pass Tower. In the almost deserted parking lot, taxi drivers competed for trade among the few visitors, as two locals, a man and a woman, sat and ate their lunch. Occasionally, a dozen or so people arrived and went through the tower gate, which leads into the pass. They waited patiently at the security checkpoint that leads into Vietnam. Very few people were traveling in the opposite direction.
Just a 10-minute drive away is the largest Sino-Vietnamese cross-border trade zone at the Puzhai checkpoint. Once, trucks loaded with mahogany, finished and semi-finished goods, and fruit and vegetables from Vietnam plied the route, causing frequent traffic jams.
However, the volume of traffic fell dramatically when a UNESCO ban on the cross-border transportation of mahogany came into force on April 1. Meanwhile, the recent spate of anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam has further reduced the meager flow.
"The traffic has dwindled noticeably", said Lu Lidan, a 24-year-old sales clerk who has worked at a nearby store for a year, selling Vietnamese products such as wooden handiwork, snacks and balms. She attributed the lack of activity to the end of the season for some fruits, adding, "It's the low season for tourists, too."
A little further down the street, a truck from Linyi in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong was parked in front of a shop. A dozen Vietnamese women were busy unloading boxes of empty glass pickle jars destined for Vietnam.
"They come from the Vietnamese town at the other end of the pass. They come over here to make money because they have no work at home," Lu said.
The truck driver said that when the jars were unloaded, he would fill the truck with Vietnamese vegetables such as peppers and take them to Shandong, where demand is high.
By 2 pm, it was too hot to work, so the women took a break. They sat in the corridor and chatted quietly.