Month: December 2015

Back to the Future

A long, long time ago (in March), I put up a post based on my (possibly slightly over-stated) surprise at finding myself in the year 2558, Thai style.

What I didn’t know then was that fate would decree a second visit to the the future.  Within a couple of weeks of that post, I’d been squashed by a truck, sampled the Thai healthcare system, and returned home to the UK to recover.

And yet, here I am again, back in 2558, and soon to tick into 2559.  I rolled across the Mekong into the country which temporarily thwarted my round-the-world ambitions on Sunday (27th December).  It still seems like a nice place, just like it did nine months ago.

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After spending over two hours negotiating the holiday carnage of the border crossing from Laos (what a contrast to my entry to that country, where I was the only person at the border post!), I was across the Mekong, back on the correct – that’s the left – side of the road, and pushing on.

No uncontrollable fear when I heard big diesel engines behind me, which was good (although not entirely unexpected, as I gave this a good dry run in the UK in September).  I am spending a lot of time glancing over my shoulder, though.

The roads up here in the north are just as silky-smooth as those I rode earlier in the year.  Thailand (at least in my experience, so far) has the best road surfaces in south-east Asia, which is saying something, as there are not too many bad surfaces to be found in the region nowadays (except in Indonesia).  UK local councils take note; it is actually possible to build decent roads!

Unfortunately, the miles I’ve ridden here so far have also been just as dull as the main roads in the south, as today’s pictures will testify.  They’re a pretty accurate reflection of quite how visually stunning the last few days have been.  Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Laos?

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Still, that should all be about to change.  I’m hitting mountains tomorrow.  It’s about 300 miles (maybe 470 km) from here to the border with Myanmar.  And it looks like there are four big ranges of hills before I get there (plus another one after the border).

Two of those ranges are on the menu in the next couple of days.  Two long (70-plus mile), and probably hot, days with 600 vertical-metre ascents (and descents, of course!) through National Parks.  I’m hoping that this will mean less traffic and improved scenery.  I’m also hoping that the hills won’t be quite as steep as some of the Laotian versions.  And that I won’t make any more amateurish hydration errors.

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And look!  I saw my first Thai hill on the way into town this afternoon!  Things are definitely looking up already…

Those long days through the hills should drop me back onto the flat in time for whatever New Year’s Eve celebrations happen over here.  I’d imagine that I won’t get another post in until New Year’s Day.  So, let me pre-emptively wish you all the best for 2559 (or 2016, if you prefer).

The big New Year’s news, by the way, is likely to be the shaving of my explorer’s beard.  It’s begun to catch its own food, and that must stop…

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The Mekong Cheese Obsession

Three days, just under 300 km.  Out of the hills, then a nice flat run along the Mekong river, then Christmas dinner in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

Couldn’t be easier, could it?

Well, it could have been.  Just a little bit.  If I hadn’t somehow forgotten everything I used to know about riding a bike in the heat.  It didn’t help that I was trying to push the average speed up.  It certainly didn’t help that I’d only marginally upped my water intake from Vietnam, where it was about  15C cooler.  This was especially dumb, as I know full well how much I need to drink when the weather gets warm.

But what really, really didn’t help was the brutal little climb as soon as I started on Wednesday morning:

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I say ‘little’, but it was actually around 300 vertical metres.  It was 30 degrees C.  And yes, it really was as steep as it looks in the picture (maybe a bit steeper, in places).  But it still shouldn’t have been a major problem; I’ve done plenty worse.

Trouble was, that I was already dehydrated.  And that the hill was just 5 km into the ride, and after a rest day.  So I hit it cold, hit it hard, and blew myself up spectacularly.  I’ve been recovering slowly ever since.  And giving myself a good mental kicking, as well as massive doses of water.

On the plus side, the view from the top was spectacular.  And that was the biggest lump in the road before Vientiane.  Highway 8 from Vietnam eventually dropped me onto the flat, flat flood plain of the Mekong river, so I could take it gently to recover.  Just one turn right onto Highway 13, and that was all the navigation done to get to the capital, too.

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I hit the Mekong itself at Pak Kading (above – the river Kading about to enter the Mekong).  It’s just been a case of following it ever since.  Me on the Laos side, Thailand waiting for me on the other side of the river.

Two more uneventful days (heat, straight, flat roads, cheap hotels and litres and litres of water) saw me rolling into Vientiane on the afternoon of Christmas Day.

I’d developed a slight obsession about cheese after leaving Vietnam; rural Laos really doesn’t have any, and I’ve always had a bit of a habit.  Towards the end of the ride to the capital, a large, cheesy pizza and a large, cold beer had cemented themselves as the centrepiece of my ideal Christmas dinner.  The reward at the end of Highway 13.  Not exactly turkey and roast potatoes, but it was what was required.

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Just an hour after hitting town, I was sat looking at exactly my fantasy dinner.  An hour-and-a-half after hitting town, I was absolutely stuffed.  Possibly, the side dishes were unnecessary.  I waddled back to the hotel, lay down, phoned my Mum in the UK, and crashed out.  That’s what I call a proper Christmas Day; 93 km on a bike, one large pizza, one beer, and passing out.  Don’t say I don’t still know how to live…

Today was spent poking gently around Vientiane on foot.  It’s a really small capital city, and very relaxed.  There’s a very European feel to it, too.  So I drank a few coffees, ate a few pastries, and generally loafed about elegantly.  Or as elegantly as one can in creased, plastic travel clothes.

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Tomorrow (Sunday), it’s back to the road, and another border crossing, just ten miles down the river from here.  I’ll be leaving the ‘Communist’ world behind, and re-entering my nemesis, Thailand.  Back onto the correct side of the road, but with a little trepidation after what happened last time I was there.

Fingers crossed, it goes a little better this time…

The Wet, Muddy and Slightly Spooky Way to Perfect Cycling Country

The story of a day of two halves (and the day after, too)…

Sunday started damp in Vietnam, at the foothills of the mountains which form the physical frontier with Laos.  It had rained most of the night, so the roads were wet.  Which translates into dirty.  But, by the time I was ready to go, the weather had decided to restrict itself to low, dark clouds.  So I set off.

The road deteriorated into mucky dirt for a little while.  Then it turned into a four-lane highway for a few hundred metres.  Then it stabilised into a normal, average road.  Gently rising through smaller and smaller villages.  With very little traffic, which was a plus.  If a little odd for one of the main routes between Vietnam and Laos.  Maybe it’s busier during the week?

Then the climb began.  I knew it was about a 15 km, 600-odd metre haul to the border.  Which is just a little different from the Dutch-style flatness of the Vietnam coast, but I was prepared for that.  Jens and Bjorn (the two German cyclists I’d met the night before) had said that the hill to the border was really steep on my side, but that I’d have a great run on the other side in Laos.  So I was prepared for that, too.  And in the end, it wasn’t too bad; three or four steep sections of around 10-12%, with decent stretches of false flat in-between to get my breath back.

What I wasn’t so happy about was riding more than half the climb in the clouds.  Which really means light drizzle, with visibility down to less than 50 metres near the top.  I ended up putting the high-viz jacket and lights on to give the logging trucks half a chance of seeing me.  Several sections of the hill, where the surface had been removed for repairs, had deteriorated to mud and slimy puddles.  One of the muddy puddles was deep enough for me to get my feet wet.  Grr!

And, if I wasn’t happy about it, the Beastlet was even less so, as it clicked and ground its previously spotless drivetrain (and even the disc brakes) on mud:

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I finally clattered and wheezed my way to the top of the hill to find the spookiest border crossing I’ve yet encountered.  The visibility was down to maybe 20 metres, and I spent a while on the Vietnamese side circling parked trucks, shouting “Lao?” at the handful of ghostly figures who emerged from the gloom from time-to-time.

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Eventually, I found my way to the apparently deserted border post on the Vietnam side.  I checked a couple of empty rooms which might have been passport control.  I began to worry that I might accidentally leave the country and enter Laos without even seeing an official, let alone having visas or stamps or anything in my passport.  About the fifth ghostly trucker I asked finally pointed me to the passport desk.

I knocked on the glass to wake up the sleeping border guard (as you do), who dealt with my stamp very efficiently, and then, slightly bizarrely, offered me some chewing gum.  I’m still not sure exactly what he was trying to say, but I was out of Vietnam.  Almost.

There’s about a mile of no-mans-land between the two frontiers, with another huddle of parked buses and lorries, and a massive building, which I guess will one day be a new Vietnamese border post.  It’s still completely deserted at the moment, but with near-zero visibility, cost me another few minutes trying to work out if I needed to do anything there.

I gave up in the end, and started down the hill, hoping to come across a border post for Laos.  The clouds began to lift almost immediately.  By the time I glided in to the well-staffed and friendly Laos border at Nam Phao, sorted out my visa on arrival, and had my passport stamped (all of which all only took about 15 minutes, but cost me an extra $2 because it was Sunday), it was dry, and the sun was threatening to put in an appearance.

By the time I’d negotiated my way around a comically aggressive miniature poodle, and got a couple of kilometres down the road, it was wall-to-wall sunshine.  On a perfectly smooth, almost empty road.  With a tailwind.  That is a decent recipe for a big smile on a muddy cycle-tourist’s face.

And I even got a nice sunset, just after I got into Lak Sao, the first town of any size (or the last, I suppose, if you’re going the other way).  I’d only been in Laos for a couple of hours, but I already liked it.

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If the first impressions of Laos were good, yesterday (Monday) blew me away.  I was only going 60-ish kilometres (still easing in to the ride, so not piling the miles on too hard).  But what a 60 km!

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The road from Lak Sao was stunning from the start, with mountains on both sides.  There was still virtually no traffic.  The sun was out, but up at around 400m altitude, the temperature was around 25C, and the humidity negligible.  And after the permanent haze, diesel fumes and clammy dampness of northern Vietnam, the air was crystal-clear.  Beautiful cycling in a beautiful country.

Towards the end of the ride to the little village of Na Hin (where I’m having my first full rest day of Part 2 today), there was a short, sharp 200 metre climb, with some properly steep (15% plus) sections.  So I got a decent workout.  And then, over the top, a superb, fast, twisty 400 metre decent to Na Hin.  I nearly hit a snake and a deer (not at the same time), and I did hit 40 mph on a loaded touring bike for the first time in ages.  An absolutely spectacular day’s riding.  I’m still smiling now, just writing about it.

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So, what next?  Well, it’s nearly Christmas, apparently.  In marked contrast to Vietnam (which left me never needing to hear Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, or any form of dance-remixed carols, ever again), it’s no big deal here in Laos.

I’m thinking at the moment of riding through the big day to Vientiane (I should be able to get there by Christmas afternoon if I can get across the mountains to the Mekong river tomorrow; it’s less than 300 km in total), and then having a mini-celebration and another day off on Boxing Day.

But we’ll see.  In case I don’t get another update in beforehand, I hope you all have a great Christmas.  I’ll certainly update this again before New Year.

Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying this spectacular country on two wheels.  Which feels like a pretty decent present at the moment…

The Flat Country – Cake, Coffee and Communism

I’m slightly surprised to find it’s my last night in Vietnam already.

I probably shouldn’t be, though.

I’ve ploughed mostly straight down the main road for hundreds of kilometres, mainly with a handy tailwind to this point.  And coastal Vietnam is one of the flattest places I’ve ever ridden.  But it still seems too soon to be leaving.

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For the main part, the road’s been a bit dull.  Wide, flat, well-surfaced and mostly straight.  It’s only really been enlivened by the entertaining traffic, though there’s been quite a lot more of that than the picture above may suggest.  Certainly enough to keep the adrenaline spiking every so often.

On the other hand, I’ve got sore smiling muscles, arms and vocal chords from the amount of ‘Hellos’ and waves I’ve had to return all the way down from Hanoi.  I’ve also drunk a significant quantity of coffee in a variety of formats (who knew that Vietnam was the world’s second-biggest coffee exporter?).

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And I’ve really enjoyed the country’s interesting mixture of cultures; the usual south-east Asian hotchpotch of cultures and religions, with an added dash of French patisserie and 21st-Century-style Capitalist-Communism (all highly appropriate when the father of the nation – Ho Chi Minh – once worked as a pastry chef on a cross-Channel ferry, at least as Wikipedia tells it…).

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Anyway, after the heavy miles of the first few days, I settled for a couple of half days in preparation for tomorrow’s (Sunday’s) big climb to Laos, with the border nearly 700 metres uphill from where I start in the morning.

As a result, I was on a slow meander today, with only 50-odd kilometres to ride.  This gave me the opportunity to discover that certain well-known mapping software is not always entirely accurate.  The road I was on looked like a highway on the map.  For a while, it looked a lot like the first picture above.

And a few minutes later, it looked like this:

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It still looked like a highway on the map.  A lesson learned…

So, with a bit of luck, it’s on to Laos tomorrow.  Hopefully just as interesting and as much fun as Vietnam has been.  I met a pair of German tourers this evening, accounting both for the fact that it’s now well past my target bedtime, and for my optimism about the road ahead.  They’ve run a lot of my route in reverse, and are (fairly) nearly finished with their ride from Germany to Beijing.

Luck, it appears, may be required with the weather.  Having been dry since the morning I left Hanoi, it’s currently tipping down outside.  So I may have the choice of getting extremely soggy, or having a day off after all.

Decisions, decisions…

The Start of the Road to Mandalay (and other Interesting Places)

I’m not sure I’d recommend the streets of Hanoi to an inexperienced cyclist.  I’m certainly sure that I wouldn’t recommend them to a slightly chubby touring cyclist who hasn’t ridden with bags on for a couple of months.

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But still, after an early morning today (Tuesday), I wobbled unsteadily off into the scooter lunacy.  Back on the road again.

And after just a few slightly anxious minutes (mainly involving remembering how to steer), I’d got my head around the virtually non-existent ‘rules’ of the Vietnamese road, at least roughly.  I’d found the main drag out of town.  And I’d picked up a reasonably strong tailwind to blow me south.  Apart from a little bit of drizzle, Round-the-World Part 2 began OK.

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I gave myself a few days off the bike in Vietnam to acclimatise to the tropical heat before I started riding.  But I think I might have misread a bit of my pre-trip research.  Although the rest of South East Asia appears to be basking in 30-degree Celsius sunshine, the north-east of Vietnam is grey and cool.  Perfect weather for cycling, but not so great for a nice bit of winter sun.

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Despite the slightly iffy weather, I had a really good few days in Hanoi and on Cat Ba island (near Ha Long Bay) with Matt, a friend I used to work with.  Hanoi is surprisingly relaxed for a capital city, and has all you’d expect, with a bit of added interest from the remaining trappings of Communism (like Ho Chi Minh’s giant mausoleum (above).  Although the global-standard advertising hoardings (TVs, phones, cosmetics) now heavily outnumber the old-school communist posters, which are presumably still exhorting the population to triple tractor production and so on.  It seems a shame in a way.

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Cat Ba island was a nice break from the constant traffic noise of Hanoi.  Vietnamese is a tonal language, with words which are ‘sung’ in different ways to give different meanings.  I’m sure that’s also true of the way that the locals use the horns on their trucks, buses and scooters.  But I’m equally sure that they would drive me nuts before I learned any of their subtleties.  You definitely need a break from time to time.

Anyway, getting back into Hanoi yesterday afternoon marked the start of a bit of frantic bike re-building (the Beastlet made it out here in one piece, you’ll be glad to know).  Followed by a quick round of re-packing all my stuff into the correct panniers.  A couple of insanely cheap beers, a nice steak, and then a relatively early night, allegedly ready for eight months on the bike.

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And so, back to today.  The first day of the second half of my round-the-world jaunt.  The first day back on a major Asian highway since I got scraped off one by an ambulance.

It ended up being the easiest day’s riding I’ve had for a long time while touring.  The traffic was fairly light once I got out of Hanoi, and the tailwind (combined with that painful early start) meant that I knocked off just over a hundred kilometres by three in the afternoon, even allowing for a gentle twiddle around the beautiful limestone hills just outside town (above).

Not a bad start, then, on day one.  Just another two-hundred-and-odd days to go…

Older and Wiser?

I’ll be yet another year older next weekend.  Or at least, the numbers will show that to be the case.

On that same date in 2014, I was rolling out of Newcastle, New South Wales, on the original Beast, having started riding up Australia just a few days earlier.

It was day 152 since I’d left London, and although I’d not yet covered half of my projected round-the-world distance, it felt like I was heading home already.  And things were going pretty well.  I’d ridden across North America with no worries, after all.  How hard could it be to get to London from Australia?

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Time moves on, and the experiences of the year since have made a mark.  Both literally, in terms of visibly broken bones, and metaphorically, in terms of some massively profound lesson-learning (you may decide after the next couple of paragraphs that this is overstating things, just a bit).

For example, I now know that riding a bicycle solo across the outback to Darwin in the wet season would have been a stupid idea.  It was hard enough riding fairly close to what the Aussies claim to be civilization.  I now know why Thailand’s apparently benign main roads are so iffy for cyclists.  I even now know that Scotland’s culinary reputation as the home of deep-fried-everything is a little harsh (you can get sandwiches up there, too…).

Perhaps most profoundly, sitting around waiting for my shoulder and back to heal this summer allowed me to revisit some reading.  Reading is a particularly risky pursuit, as there’s a perpetual danger that you might learn something.

I re-discovered a definition of madness from the famous cyclist, Albert Einstein: madness is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different outcome.  He was, by all accounts, a fairly clever chap.  And he clearly meant that trying to ride another eight or nine thousand miles will just end in another serious traffic accident (or a similar disaster, possibly with more fatal consequences).  This was obviously something that needed due consideration.

So where’s all that hard-earned wisdom got me?  Well…

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There’s a massive bag of anti-malarial tablets in my room.  And a mini-pharmacy in my first aid kit.  There are tools, spare parts, bearings, tyres and tubes, duct tape and kevlar emergency spokes spread around, seemingly at random (though actually – obviously – carefully filed and ready for packing).

Various potions are ready for embarkation: grease, mosquito repellent, chain lube, toothpaste, sunscreen, Loctite.  There are freshly-printed visas for exotic places in my passport.  There’s a large cardboard bike box waiting to accommodate a newly-serviced touring bike.

You don’t need to be a genius to work out what’s going on here.

There’s a seat on a plane waiting for me at London Heathrow on Tuesday morning.  And there’s very little between me and it (other than a little last-minute panic shopping, sock washing, and a horribly early start to get to the airport on time for the usual security hassles).

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Vietnam is calling, and the start of the road home.  After a week wandering around Hanoi and Ha Long Bay as a ‘proper’ tourist with my friend Matt, who’s kindly agreed to see me off.

I’ll be resetting the odometer at 14931 km (9277 miles), with a similar distance still to cover to get back to London.  Probably eleven countries to get through before I hit Europe (and the exceptionally over-rated ‘comfort zone’) again.  Maybe another fifteen or so (thankfully much smaller) countries once I’m back on my home continent.  And two countries to warm up before I hit Thailand to resume battle with their heavy goods vehicles.  About another eight months of sore legs, sweat, forests, deserts and mountains.

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I’m going to use part of my ‘tourist week’ before the riding kicks off to get my head around a slightly unpalatable fact: that I’m still only halfway through the round-the-world bike ride that I was halfway through at the end of March.  My summer reading indicates that this probably has something to do with relativity.  I think.

Anyway, I’m close to being finished with Einstein now.

Except that…  Ignoring Albert’s definition of madness, which was obviously not intended to apply to long bike rides (that’s my position, and I’m sticking to it), he did get some stuff indisputably right.

Einstein

I did say he was a famous cyclist, didn’t I?  Or, at least, famously a cyclist.  But he also dropped the following pearl, which is this year’s contribution to my dwindling collection of wisdom.  “Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

I couldn’t agree more with that.  In life, and on the bike, it’s time to get moving again.

Next stop, Vietnam…