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.

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