Wednesday, February 24, 2010

As Easy As

We depart the next day with Emmanuel & Nawal towards Oudomxay. Needless to say, It's the longest day of my life. Almost immediately the road begins to climb. It keeps climbing for about 30km. Back at home we live near a long valley road known by many cyclists for being the longest continual incline in England (rising 320 metres in about 9km) . It's called Cragg Vale. We have never cycled up it, but it was on my To Do List. At the top of Cragg Vale is a lovely lonely pub serving Marston's beer. At some point in our three-hour crawl up the road I begin to look forward to that pint. Deluded fool. The only thing waiting for us at the top is the road downwards.

We descend and pass through a few dusty poor villages. We can't see anywhere to eat so fall back on our supply of peanut brittle. And then we climb again. A thigh-buster. No really steep inclines, but after our 110km yesterday and the climb this morning, we're beginning to fade faster than the sun. Gayle, dehydrated and hungry, is hallucinating that we're in the Himalaya. I'd share more brittle with her and my water, if only she would catch me up. At one point I realise I can push the sodding bike faster than I can pedal it.

And then, gloriously, the landscape opens up in front of us and as the sun softens in the haze, we gaze down upon blue hills and a beautiful descending road. We freewheel with all the gusto we can muster almost all the way into town. At the guesthouse Nawal and Emmanuel are looking daisy fresh. We eat together in the evening and Gayle and I make a particular effort to stuff our faces. We stay two days in Oudomxay. It's not a remarkable place but after one rest day we can't resist another.

We wave farewell to our French companions who point their tandem towards Vietnam, and then we go for a short ride without baggage to stretch our legs. After an hour I regret losing my gloves back in Luang Prabang. I also regret trying to be a BMX bandit on a badly broken road. And I particularly regret riding into that sandy patch and falling onto that rocky patch. I'm 42 but I can still fall off my bike like an 8 year-old. Gayle clucks sympathetically whilst making it clear I have only myself to blame. She hasn't seen me fall but I know she's right. I'm covered in dust, grazes and have two gritty palms. I should stick to cycle-touring.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stage Eleven: Luang Prabang to Mont Ventoux

On our last evening in Luang Prabang we meet up with Gill and Bert who we first met outside the China embassy in Viang Chan. "What's your policy on responding to waving motorcyclists?" Bert wanted to know. I must admit I feel no bond whatsoever with Terminator-clad bikers riding noisy farty mechanical warthogs. Dirt bikes, pah. No, we only give our joyous love and kisses to the cycling fraternity, unless they act like shifty sex-tourists. Bert & Gill share ideas about routes through Yunnan. We, as ever, are rather undecided.

The day we ride out of Luang Prabang is the longest day of my life. The road is actually rather nice to ride, lots of small climbs and freewheels, a lovely river to follow upstream, but it's a long road to Pakmong. Along the way we are hailed by the tandem duo of Nawal and Emmanuel. They look lean efficient. I feel like Bilbo Baggins. We have a quick chat and they glide off effortlessly. After 70km we gladly stop for lunch and order a traditional Laos dish - laap - a chopped meat salad that reminds us of Peruvian ceviche. It's a big plate and sets us back more than the 14,000 kip we are expecting. It costs 40,000 kip. There's a world of difference between "sii sip phan" and "sip sii phan", don't you know. In the long afternoon we're glad of the food.

Each village provides cheerleading infants who shout greetings and wave. Later on we pass schools disgorging hundreds of children. Every single one wants to high-five us. By now we're leg-weary and panting up low climbs. It's a struggle just to wipe the sweat off my face. Every little high-fiving boy looks like he 'll knock me over, so I cheat and keep my hand too high for the little scamps. A milestone tells us that we are close to the finish just as two schoolboys make a break from the peloton. Gayle is caught napping, but I mange to catch the back wheel of one. However the lead boy has started his sprint for the finish early and is away. He looks a clear winner, but he's forgotten that last little climb. I get out of the saddle to power into the lead, crossing the line with chest out, fists in the air, the crowd go wild with shouts. Well, no, it's just Nawal calling from the guesthouse I overshoot. She and Emmanuel look like they've just arisen and are ready for a long day's bike ride. We look like we've raced a stage of the Tour De France. Even my socks are caked in brine.

In the evening we meet Alisdair & Rachel at a restaurant. Now we first met this young English couple in a bike shop in Bangkok and then again at Sukothai. They have cycled all the way north through Thailand, crossed into laos and are now heading south to Viang Chan. Along the way they've overcome some technical difficulties (uncomfortable saddle and broken spokes - the things I dread the most) and lived to tell the tale. We're glad to have met them here rather than in passing along the road., but even their youthful exuberance can't keep me from nodding off with exhaustion......

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Calorie Counting

So I've just finished a peanut butter and salad baguette and a large coffee and thinking about the past seven days. It's already a bit of a blur. It's a grey chilly day here in Luang Prabang, one of Laos' main tourist destinations, and it feels quite weird to be back in the land of tourists. What was once the capital city is really nothing more than a collection of villages, with a fine collection of wats and lovely old French colonial buildings. Thankfully UNESCO has given the town World Heritage status, which has probably saved the town from terrible development, and correspondingly it has brought said tourist by the minibus load. It sometimes feels like the only Lao people here are servicing the tourists. Or they are monks. A bit weird.

I am now beginning to understand how different it is to travel by bicycle. Apart from eating more. Our friend James couldn't have described it better when he told us that once he had a bike he never wanted to walk anywhere - it took too long. And although the bike gave him more freedom he was usually too tired to make the most of it. This we hope will change as our fitness improves. But first things first, let's eat. Luang Prabang is blessed with a variety of eating options, other than the noodle soup and cow pat moo (pork fried rice - linguistically a true false friend if ever I saw one) which we have been living on for a week. We shun the traditional Lao pizza and eat a huge plate from a buffet at a night stall. Along the main street there are baguette sandwich makers (pate, chicken, tuna, peanut butter, nutella, banana, condensed milk - very tasty but a bit sickly altogether). Our bike computer has a calorie counter and we have thousands to catch up on, which makes it all the more pity that we both eat something rotten. Of course, being a man, I take it far more seriously than Gayle, and remain bedridden and full of self-pity for over a day. Our rest stop in Luang Prabang is prolonged a further two days. To add to my woes I discover that I have lost my comfy cycling gloves. I despair. Gayle despairs of me. I despair of Gayle despairing of me. Well, at least it's not my passport. On our second evening we meet Mike, who is on the look out for cycling shorts after those tough hill climbs. We also meet the affable Bernd who tells us he has lost his passport. He will have to make the bike ride back the way he came to ask at the guesthouses for it. He seems remarkably calm about it. Calmer than I am about my gloves.

Lao get up early. They have to - the monks walk the streets collecting alms at daybreak. It's become a tourist sight in Luang Prabang. Strangely we never actually rise early enough to catch it. We do catch up with Gertrude and Rod though, whom we last saw in Bangkok. Gayle summons the energy to visit some of the ornately-decorated wats around the old town. She is stopped by an older English couple who need some help: "Could you tell us where the Mekong is?" So I'm not the only person losing things around here.

What to do on your day off from cycling

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Land in Between

Our first day out of Viang Chang seems like a doddle once we overcome the early morning start. Ouch. We pick up baguette sandwiches on the way out of the city (mustn't go hungry) and then we have a pleasant fairly gentle ride, but a long one of about 90km to stretch our legs, along Route 10. Noticeably we get less smiles per kilometre than in Thailand, from our brief experience. In the evening we stay in a simple guesthouse along with two Japanese cyclists and Bernd, a quiet German who has also cycled the same route. We meet him again the next day just before we reach a little village mid-afternoon. We are all ready to call it a day, having hit the main highway and ridden through the heat of the midday. Whilst we are trying to have hearty breakfasts, and long lunches of noodle soup, Bernd gets by with a morning coffee, but catches up in the evening. I try and boost my calorie intake with a BeerLao. I have long been obsessed with food and water whenever we leave the tourist trail. Whenever we go hiking I worry about our water supply. Thankfully here we have no problems. Every guesthouse and roadside noodle joint has a water cooler from which we can fill up our bottles, athough in some of the smaller roadside villages in the hills later on we see people going to collect water on their motorbikes.

Day three is a milk run of about 25km to the infamous town of Vang Vieng. Never heard of it, you say? Well, all I can say is tubing. Tubing? Yeah, sitting in a tractor inner tube and floating down the river. Drunk and stoned and covered in crude magic marker pen doodles, if you like. It seems for all Lao's good intentions, they had to let one place turn into a S.E. Asia teen-tourist hell-hole, and Vang Vieng is it. You can buy the t-shirt. You can sit on some wooden decking and get high listening to old techno and dance music played at full volume. You can wander around the town in your barefeet and swimwear like it's Torremolinos '88. Gee, three days cycling and I've become even more of a grumpy old man. Mind you, the traditional Lao dinner of cheeseburger and chips is delicious.....

With some relief at leaving, but intrepidation of the road ahead, we continue north. But not without another cheeseburger and chips for breakfast. Looking back now as I write it all seems a bit of a blur. There are hills. There are big hills. I'd call them mountains, but as another cyclist has pointed out, we're going to China. In China they have mountains. So, it's Laos, they are big hills. 10% gradient. Leg pain. Knee pain. Lung pain. Thankfully neither of us have saddle pain. We stop mid-afternoon in a charmless place called Kasi, full of truck stop cafes. But that's okay. We are now accustomed to arriving knackered, taking a shower, getting something to eat, rehydrating and then falling fast asleep.

Just in case we are going too fast, we opt for another short day, this time 21km up to a restaurant and guesthouse in a lovely spot by some hotsprings. It's all very simple, but we're so happy to have a hot soak. And the banana coconut shakes are wonderful. In the restaurant there's a bunch of monks chowing down and a tourist who won't make eye-contact. Sex tourist? Nope, just another cyclist. So much for the 'Fraternity'. Eventually we get him to speak. He's a tired Englishman heading south. A bit later Mike arrives. He's just got a bit of light luggage on the back, on his way to Hanoi. Laos seems to be crawling with cyclists. Or is it just that there's only 8 roads in the whole country.

The next day is the longest day of my life. It starts with a big downhill, which is kind of fun on a bike, but kind of terrible too, because you know you're going to have to climb again soon afterwards. The climb goes on forever. At one point I'm cycling up a steep bend in the lowest gear possible, feet a blur, going nowhere fast. The road bends are cambered at an alarming angle. As I inch my way up, leaning with the camber, I imagine myself on a Wall of Death. There's some traffic, but not too much to make it uncomfortable. Just too many trucks and old vans belching black smoke as they also struggle uphill. Now and again a minibus full of tourists whizzes past annoyingly. Half an eternity passes and we finally reach the top. There aresome great viewslooking back the way we came. We then sail down to a dusty road junction for the usual noodle soup lunch and litres of water. We've done well. We're carrying a fair amount of stuff but we've climbed 20km before lunch. After lunch, we descend for about 15km. I'm laughing and crying at the same time. Our second climb of the day goes on forever. Sometimes you can see the road up ahead, alarmingly high above us. We stop more frequently and drink more frequently. I seem to be riding in low gear only. It's hot. In the morning there was some cloud cover, but now we enjoy the full heat of the sun. Somewhere, somehow, we reach the top. Or is it? Those false summits can be a killer. Soon we find ourselves, uh-oh, heading downhill again. Ooooohhh, another biggie downhill...... This is worse than watching Manchester City. And another big uphill. The village we're aiming for is at the top. My eyes flit to the computer every thirty seconds to check the distance we've gone. Along the roadway are ditch diggers. Sometimes we don't see them, and then a pile of dirt gets tossed up onto the road. Often they are just sat on the side of the road, their legs dangling in the ditch. Some of them smile and laugh when we ooze by in a blob of perspiration. There are hundreds of 'em the whole day long. Some invite us to eat with them. Others just stare. They obviously think we're mad. It's about four in the afternoon and we've broken open the emergency peanut brittle. We're down to the last half-litre of water. Our thigh muscles are jelly. We are mad.
And finally we get there, and meet Johan and Wilhelmine coming in the opposite direction from Luang Prabang. We stay at the same guesthouse and hear about their rides in Africa and the Americas. We are so happy to have survived today and know that there's only one more day's cycling to Luang Prabang. But where's Bernd and Mike? We know they too are heading this way.

Day seven turns out to be just enough for us - 80km going down, up, down, which is about all the detail I need to know at breakfast. The early morning down lasts for 20km and takes us over an hour. A bit heavy on the brakes, but there are plenty of bends, plenty 4-wheel drives zooming up the centre of the road, and plenty of those annoying bumpy bits in the road that are very hard to spot until you bounce right over them. We're even slower climbing today - yesterday's supreme effort having drained us a little. However, the scenery has been much better on these hilly sections, and the views could even make up for the agony. We meet a Korean on his way to Europe on a recumbent bicycle. He looks kind of laid back, if you know what I mean. Then there's the chirpy Scots/Irish couple who tell us "You're nearly at the top". We meet Mike later in the day and they told him the same thing when he was only halfway up the hill. Mike catches up with us on the long descent into Luang Prabang, just after another noodle soup lunch. Mmmm. Already I'm dreaming of the treats and culinary delights that only the 'tourist' towns have to offer. Mike punctures soon after we meet, and we're too tired to wait with him, so we roll on towards the Big City, exhausted but happy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dementia in Vientiane

Okay, it's now spelt Viang Chan. Same same, but different. As we cruise into the city-that-is-a-village we suddenly remember that we should be finding the Chinese embassy. After a few dead ends we get there, lock our bikes and...... the gate closes. 11.30am. Shut. Next day though we're back bright and early at 9am for opening time. (Oh how I'd love to work in an embassy - such good hours they keep.) There's another couple, Gill and Bert, with bikes, so of course we start talking. An annoying young American is unfavourably comparing our bikes. I'm tempted to clout him with my handlebar bag. Oooooh. The embassy is almost efficient (they'd get full marks except they make you queue up just to get the application form) and we can collect tomorrow. We think we may get 90 days, the excitement's killing us.

While we're here we meet Coralie and Fabien, two lovely people we met in Iran in 2008 driving a 2CV to Laos and working on a water project. They have returned to look for work and it looks like Fabien has just walked into a job. Coralie has family here and they look very happy to be here. Laos, it seems, is changing fast. Like every other communist country they seem to have given up the ideology and the opening up of the economy has brought some investment, development and all those other wonderful things associated with capitalism. It's still called the People's Democratic Republic, but like China, democracy appears in name only. The majority of Lao are still very poor. To quote one ugly Brit who was shouting down his mobile in the street to a friend "It's not Thailand, y'know". The country opened up in the mid-nineties and there has been an attempt on making sure they learn from some of Thailand's mistakes when it comes to tourism, specifically the sex-tourism and the exploitation of minority villages. Still, on the surface at least, there seem to be plenty of what we snobbishly refer to as 'the wrong kind of tourist'. I need to expound on this a bit more to explain what I mean, but it may just turn out to be blithering drivel.......

Anti-drugs campaign in Viang Chan

I lose our alarm clock one morning. I'm in bed, switch it off and then cannot find it again. I'm losing everything at the moment, including my marbles. Ever since we switched from rucksacks to panniers it's thrown me right off kilter, disrupted my autistic tendencies. The clock turns up at the bottom of the pillow case, but no sign of my marbles. There are an inordinate number of wats to see in Viang Chang, but we're weary temple-goers.

The city sits on the bank of the Mekong although the river looks a long way off. So far away in fact that they've decided to build a four-lane highway along it. That's progress for you.

We meet up with Bert and Gill and Emmanuel & Nawal, a French couple on a tandem. Suddenly there are cycle tourists everywhere and we have an instant bond. Another tandem appears at our guesthouse and Gayle chats to the young woman riding it. The back seat is very low, so Gayle asks. It's for her six year-old son. She looks knackered. She asks if we know what the road is like between here and Luang Prabang. Well, yes and no. We've got a route description from Friedel and Andrew's Travelling Two website. It's a great help to us as we're just starting out and haven't a clue what we can do each day. They describe the stretch as a "challenging ride". This is from a couple who had been cycling for two years. I'm glad we packed some peanut brittle.

The Chinese give us a 90 day visa, hooray, and we have a farewell meal with Fabien and Coralie at a locals' restaurant serving some very tasty Laos food. Early to bed though - we need to pack as we're getting up early in the morning. Where's that alarm clock?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Great Rivers of Asia No. 5: The Mekong

So we're bussing across northern Thailand to pick up a train to the border with Laos, all in the name of saving time and getting that pesky Chinese visa. It's quite galling to find that our bus doesn't arrive ("accident") and that we have to wait 5 hours for the next one. When it does arrive the bikes are squeezed on through the back door and into the aisle because the bus is running on LPG and there's only room in the hold for five huge gas tanks. A big bunch of monks are sitting there and they prod and poke and ring the bell occasionally. But even more galling is the lovely scenery we pass through which we had originally planned to cycle. At least we get to Khon Kaen without "accident".

At the train station we get tickets for the 5am train. It's about 9 o'clock so we get some food, watch a bit of footie (surprise, surprise, it's Manchester United), watch a large thunderstorm and then return to the station to sleep. Gayle is quickly asleep on a bench on the platform, whilst I try and read, fanning away clouds of mosquitoes that are interfering with my vision and trying to eat me through my clothes. After fitful sleep we board the train and chug onwards to Nong Khai. This sleepy border town is alive with tourists, both Thai and foreign. There's a new promenade along the Mekong and just over the water, Laos. Once again we have crossed paths with Jurek, our Czech friend, as he has just come through Laos. We talk about each others' plans and what we've been up to since we met in Bangkok just before Christmas. Jurek seems to share our some of our feelings about travel in South East Asia (Burma excepted). There's definitely an odd mix of foreign tourists, and the impact this makes on the countries is not always positive. In my jaded vision it seems to be all bars, drugs and sex tourism. Ultimately though, it's probably just mass tourism. We haven't been anywhere else like this on the whole journey since we left the coast of Turkey.

Our last meal in Thailand is wonderful. The next morning we join the merry throng at the Thai border control and then pedal over the Friendship Bridge, which Jurek tells us is one of only two bridges over the Mekong. It's a lovely feeling not to have to wait for a bus again, and once through the Laos side we pedal off down the road to Viang Chan. Until we come to an unsigned T-junction. Which way? With true experience Gayle wets her finger and holds it up into the air. "This way!" and off we go.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A secure start

We get in to Phitsanulok station during the mid-afternoon siesta, collect our bikes from the baggage wagon, load up and cycle about 400 metres to a cheap and cheerful guesthouse. It's probably the easiest day's ride we'll do. The bed in our room seems to be designed for longevity rather than comfort - oh, I do hope this isn't a 'hotel for homeless lovers'. No, there's a few other tourists staying here too, thank goodness. Our first day and I have already lost the keys to my cable lock - a great start. We are self-conscious about our bikes - people have been giving them the once over and asking about them. Usually the first question is How much did they cost? An innocent question perhaps, but an unnerving one too. If we're honest then the questioner understands that our bikes are quite valuable (and that these farang will pay a huge sum of money just to ride a bicycle - stupid fools). What we need to do is make them look less new and shiny - I guess this will come with time and use. Oh, and maybe we should lie about the price.

road signs for the saddle-conscious cyclist

The town looks like a big one on our map but it feels quite sleepy and provincial. There's an important wat here, so we take a look to check out the unique bronze Buddha, along with quite a few other tourists. There are devotional prayers taking place, the monk's chanting being broadcast on loudspeakers and the temple floor filled with the kneeling faithful. But our priority is finding food, which we do in a busy night market selling lovely fresh take-away grub at good prices. We retire early after our dawn start and in anticipation of our first real ride in the morning.

Fortunately the skies are grey when we awake - postponing the blistering heat of the day. Our guesthouse owner kindly directs us out of the city, sending us the wrong way up a one-way street. Hey, it's Thailand. Soon Gayle is setting a ridiculous pace along the highway. We have only 57km to ride, but we're both concerned about the heat - we break sweat just eating. After a couple of hours and one long water break in the shade of a bus-shelter we stop for a refreshing noodle soup and cold drink. The ride hasn't been particularly interesting - but critically for us it's flat. The road is in good nick and there's even a bicycle lane. This is used by motorbikes too, and cars, going in either direction. A bit freaky. We are wearing our padded shorts - referred to as diaper shorts by Canadian friends - which feels like fancy dress once you step away from the bicycle. I'm sure we'll get used to them and the looks we get too.............

Sukhothai comes just in time before the midday heat exhausts us. There's a comfy guesthouse where we learn an important rule for cycle touring - if there's a ground floor room take it. Carrying our panniers upstairs is a pain in the arse. In the morning we cycle off along to the ruins of the old city. This was the Kingdom of Siam's first capital, built in the 13th century and with quite a few brick and stone religious buildings still standing (everything else was built of wood and is gone). What draws us here are the particular style of Buddhas, quite a few remain in situ, large sitting and standing Buddhas and some unusual Buddhas in walking postures. We spend a happy day looking around the main site before heading back to the new town and filling up on lovely food. We seem to have acquired larger appetites
. Fortunately Thailand is one country where you never seem to be far away from good food. We have just heard from our tenant at home that she'll be moving out soon. This comes as a bit of a blow to us as our savings are dwindling. However, we can't complain too much. She has been in our house most of the time we've been travelling and maybe it's better that we won't be asking her to leave. However, it suddenly adds some impetus to our journey plans. We also realise that we need to get our China visa in Vientiane before the embassy closes for the Chinese New Year holidays. This is an oversight on our part and so, after only one day's ride, we are planning again to take a ride, this time by bus towards the Thai/Laos border. At this rate we'll never find our legs..........

Monday, February 1, 2010

Biking Home

We've had a good time sorting out our bikes in Bangkok, not doing touristy things but trying to make the most of the facilities here. It's a big busy city perfect for shopping and we've spent more money in the last fortnight than I care to think about - but we're determined to make a go of cycle touring and we hope the investment pays off. I guess what we're hoping for is another kind of travel experience - a slower pace, an opportunity to see places that we wouldn't otherwise get to, and a sense of freedom - the feeling we get when we've set off trekking with our tent and food into the mountains - being independent and self-sufficient.
We've been inspired by so many other cyclists that we've met along the way. They've all been doing it in different ways too but their enthusiasm has been uniformly infectious. Callie & Luke, who introduced us to blogging, were going hi-tech London to Turkey. Callie was blogging on her mobile each evening in the tent and their parents were following them on Google Earth. Ruth & Gordon were just pootling about the coast of Turkey, taking it nice and easy. When we met John* in Dogubayazit he'd been going all out for Australia - and he's still going in the United States. Bishkek seemed to be the cycle-touring magnet though - here we met quite a few pedallers waiting for visas. There was Mikkel, trying to plot a route through Kazakhstan to Mongolia via Russia. Two crazy Germans were cycling Berlin to Beijing in 100 days for charity. Greg, our favourite Hungarian, was going low-tech from Beijing to Budapest on a Diamondback and with a Tesco's 7.99 tent. (When we asked what it was like in the rain, he told us it was s**t.) Greg, if anyone, showed us what is possible if you're determined enough. We met Dutch Jan no. 1 who was also heading to Beijing and cleverly raising money for charity by auctioning off souvenirs he found along the way. It was here that we finally got to meet Friedel & Andrew*, a couple who we had been following both geographically and electronically through their blog. They, along with John and Robin, who we haven't actually met, have been patiently answering our e-mailed queries about 'idiot' questions on How To Begin Touring.
Our occasional travelling companion and intrepid tour guide entrepreneur, James*, bought a bike in Kashgar and cycled to Islamabad along the Karakorum Highway. Then, most recently in China, we bumped into Andrea* and Gerhard. With the onset of winter on the Tibetan plateau they were toughing it out across the high passes and gravel roads. Whilst we rested in Chengdu we took long looks at the many bicycles that appeared at the guesthouse. Dutch Jan no.2, cycle-touring for the first time, and on his way to Australia, was happy to come along with us on a recce to some bike shops. Gayle met Chris, another Flickr junkie, loading his photos at the computer here.
As we're absolute beginners at this touring mularkey (I think the furthest I've ever cycled in one go was from my office to Manchester Town Hall and back), we have reconciled ourselves to the idea that we will not try to be purists - which basically means we'll take trains and buses when we feel like it. In fact our very first journey will be by train - out of Bangkok and north towards Sukhothai - to save us some time and avoid the terrible ride out of the capital!
*We've added links to their blogs, full of wonderful photos and accounts of their adventures, just on the bottom right of this page, below our photo links.