Month: January 2016

Bumps, Fibs and SIM Cards – An ‘Interesting’ Intro to India

I don’t know why some people lie.

I was on a long one yesterday; over 90 miles.  All was well until I turned north towards Jamshedpur.  The road had got steadily narrower ever since Kolkata, but had been lovely and smooth throughout.  It was probably getting a little too narrow by lunchtime; diving off the road to avoid overtaking lorries was already getting a bit old.

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But I was going fine.  About 90 kms still to go.  I should have been OK to get to Jamshedpur just before the sun went down (which happens ridiculously early here; clearly yet another country of morning people).

Then it all fell apart.  The tarmac cracked a little.  A couple of holes appeared.  Then more.  The traffic slowed down and started to weave (a little iffy when it’s that narrow).  After a while, you couldn’t even call it potholed any more; there was nothing flat to define where the holes weren’t.

Clunk, rattle, stop to clip the panniers back on the rack.  Repeat endlessly.  Grrr…

20 km later, a minor miracle.  A road surfacing crew, and pristine tarmac beyond! Happy days!

10 km later, a stop for a drink.  A man coming the other way in a car.  He stops.  We chat.  He confirms that it’s about 60 km to Jamshedpur, and that there were about three hours of daylight left.  Still tight, but on the beautiful new tarmac, it should be OK.  I ask how the road is.  The man confirms that the smooth track runs all the way to the city.

He lied.  Big time.

Ten minutes down the road, I passed a decent-looking guesthouse.  I could have stopped, but I knew I could make town, because I’d been told that the road was good.  Half an hour down the road, the roadworks began.  Potholes, followed by dusty gravel, followed by more of the ploughed surface I’d been struggling with before.

I rolled into Jamshedpur about an hour after dark.  Looking like this:

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I don’t think the lies are meant to be malicious.  I think people here might just not like telling you bad news.  I hope it’s just that, in any case.  Because there’s a bit of a pattern developing.

It’s been a while since I arrived in India, after all.  Why no updates?  Well, there’s another fib involved in that.  But first things first…

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I arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta) in the very early hours of Tuesday morning.  After a hair-raising introduction to Indian driving tactics in an antique Ambassador taxi (like the ones above), and a nice long sleep, I was up and about around lunchtime.  As with everywhere else I go, I went straight out to have a look at town, and get a data SIM, so I could get some reliable internet access.

Tuesday was Republic Day, so most of the shops were shut.  This was bad news.  After a while, I found a little place plastered in advertising for a mobile phone company.  The sort of place that had sorted me out with instantly-functioning SIMs in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.  Great.

He sold top-ups, but not SIMs.  The place across the road sold them.  But not to foreigners.  They said I’d have to go to an official store, for registration purposes.  But the official stores were closed until Wednesday.  This was my first inkling that it’s almost impossible for a travelling foreigner to get a working SIM card in India.

So, I went to have a look around town, and watch some cricket in the park.  Which was nice.

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Cutting a very long story short, two days later I finally had a SIM card in my phone.  But, having been told when I purchased it, that it would be activated within two hours, it’s now over 50 hours, and it’s still not showing any sign of working.  Another lie.

Grrr.  Again…

So, three official shops in three cities; one was closed, one sold me a duff card, one couldn’t help because the card was bought out of town (don’t ask why, it doesn’t make sense).  Mind-boggling levels of bureaucratic nonsense.

While there’s only half a chance (at best) that I’ll get proper communications back before I get to Nepal, I’m pretty sure that there’s every chance that the roads will remain a bit interesting (at least away from the nice, smooth major highways).

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On the plus side, there’s also every chance that I can continue to gorge myself on curry.  Also, to add to the scary taxi drive, I’ve had the opportunity to get the more outdoor version of town-driving craziness on the back of a scooter and in a tuk-tuk (I know that’s the Thai word, but I can’t remember what they’re called here).  The temperature’s about 5C cooler than Myanmar, too, so the riding is a little easier.

And, once again (and even including the fibbers, who seemed nice at the time), people here are really great.  Not quite as smily as the South-East Asians, but friendly enough, and helpful with directions etc.

And they really seem to like bikes over here.  The Beastlet is getting stared at, prodded and admired every time I stop for a drink.  It’s getting a big head, which will only be truly justified if it continues not to break on the roads for another few hundred miles.  It’s doing well so far, but I do worry a bit.

Anyway, until I stay somewhere else with wifi (wifi that actually works is a bit of a rarity), or until the SIM card miraculously activates (some hope!), that’s it from India for now.  An interesting start.

It would be nice if things got just a little bit smoother, though.  And if I could get a blog post with pictures uploaded in less than two hours…

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To Mandalay, and Beyond

Well, that’s Myanmar done, then.

Due to the whims of international flights (primarily down to the fact that there aren’t many out of Myanmar) and pricing, I find myself briefly in Bangkok this evening, en route for Kolkata (Calcutta) in India tomorrow.

I’m a bit sad to be finished with Myanmar, to be honest.  Dodgy road surfaces apart, it was a really interesting place, with truly lovely inhabitants.  And I never did work out some of the odder aspects of the country.  Especially what the point of Nay Pyi Taw is…

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Still, as I rolled out of beautiful Bagan on Thursday, beginning the last hundred miles or so of the long road to Mandalay, there were already a few thoughts running ahead to India, and what I’ll find there.  I think this was partly influenced by the landscape, which had got much dryer and more scrubby than it was in the south of Myanmar.  More like what I (probably inaccurately) imagine India will look like.

I was also slightly haunted by the nagging feeling that I should be riding to India, rather than flying.  The German guys I met in Vietnam had made it through the high mountains of India’s far east, and entered Myanmar overland.  I should really be doing the same in reverse, shouldn’t I?

I still feel that I might be missing out a little, but there are (I hope) fairly sound reasons behind the decision to fly for a little bit.  The north-eastern states of India have ongoing issues with Maoist insurgents (how old-school is that?), and the UK Foreign Office, probably over-cautiously, advises against all but essential travel there.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in itself (I’m fairly sure the FCO would advise everyone just to stay at home if it could), but it tends to affect the willingness of travel insurance to cover you.  And, having required repatriation to the UK not so long ago, I’m not sure I’ve got the appetite for risk required to enter a low-level war zone uninsured.

Plus, there was a fairly major earthquake just a few weeks ago, centred on Imphal, the first big town across the border.  So after a fair bit of umm-ing and ah-ing on the way up Myanmar, the short hop to Kolkata seemed the better option.

Possibly a little cowardly, but there you go…

In any case, I had to finish Myanmar first.  The road toward Mandalay proved to be decently surfaced and full of cycle tourists.  Well, it had three other cycle tourists on it while I was there, and that’s pretty much a crowd.  On my very last day’s riding in the country, I met Alastair and Rachel (from London) in the morning, having stayed in the same hotel, and then I caught up with a French girl on her second-ever day of touring later in the day.

Whatever Kipling wrote about the ‘Road to Mandalay’ that made it so famous, it’s certainly true that (on Friday at least) the road to Mandalay is where the touring cyclists play.

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Mandalay itself has the great benefit (especially after the confusing nothingness of Nay Pyi Taw) of being a proper city.  ‘Bustling’ would probably be the appropriate adjective.

It also has the unparalleled tourist attraction of the best precariously-balancing-keepy-uppy-lady (as I believe the name of her act translates) in the world:

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Through a remarkable coincidence, I ended up watching the stool-climbing and bamboo-football-juggling display with Alastair and Rachel, who’d (entirely independently) turned up to stay at the same hotel as me again.  Even more remarkably, it turned out we were on the same flight out today.  So I got to see people over a longer-than two-day period for the first time since Vietnam.  And, even better, we got to irritate the airline staff with three bikes rather than just the one.

It’s hard to imagine more excitement, I know.

But I did manage a couple of exciting round-the-world milestones on the way to Mandalay: 11,000 miles for the overall trip so far, and my vertical climb finally reached the equivalent of 9 times up Mount Everest from sea level.  Phew!

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered what the end of the road to Mandalay looks like, it looks like this:

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A massive, square red fortress, surrounded by a moat.  I reckon it’s over a mile on each side, so massive is definitely the right word for it.

It’s well worth getting to.  And hopefully, India will be too.  I’ll find out soon enough…

Hills, Temples, Beards and Monkeys

A hot, dry day in central Myanmar.  A thirsty cyclist pulls up at a battered lean-to cafe at the side of a dusty, but surprisingly smooth road.

It’s a quiet day, just before lunchtime, and the owners are happy to see a customer (once they’ve stopped giggling at the sweating mass before them).

Then their toddler starts screaming.  And screaming, and screaming.  The cyclist waves, smiles, pulls faces and removes his reflective shades.  Nothing works.  The screaming just goes on and on, until the poor child is eventually removed to next door by his grandmother.

It’s the beard (the family explained in sign language).

As well as irritating me by its continued presence (it’s close to preventing me from eating properly now), it means small children think your head’s the wrong way up.  Which would be a little scary, I guess.

It’s staying ’til the end of Myanmar, though.  It’s itchy, and probably quite heavy, as well as apparently terrifying.  But it’s saving me a lot of sunscreen.

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Anyway, it’s been a few miles since the last post.

I never did find the centre of Nay Pyi Taw (if, indeed, it has one).  I entered from the south, crossed the urban area, and left to the north.  Plenty more massive and empty roads (above).  Quite a few imposing buildings in colossal plots of land.  But barely any people, and no city to speak of.  Very peculiar.

Soon enough, I was back on the bumpy highway, and heading through many towns and small villages, all with populations which might well be bigger than the capital’s.  A couple of humdrum and rattly days later, I’d made it as far as Meiktila.

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It’s an unsung little town, but was significant to me for three (I think) very good reasons.  It was rather beautifully located on a lake (above).  It was the point where I left the highway on a long, westward detour.  And it had a giant golden duck in the town centre.

Heading west, away from the highway, I was expecting the roads to get worse.  After all, the surface on the main road was (generally) pretty ropey, so the minor roads were bound to be hopeless, weren’t they?

So it was with some surprise that I found myself cruising along on the nicest road I’ve seen here in Myanmar (except for that lovely Thai highway at the start).  It’s not that the smaller roads are any better built than the highway.  They seem to be exactly the same – tarmac poured pretty much straight onto the ground, and then patted listlessly with shovels.  But the lack of trucks ploughing the road up makes a big difference.

It was great until that kid started screaming…

And so, after a relatively long, but pleasant run yesterday (Tuesday), I arrived at Mount Popa.

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Mount Popa is, for obvious reasons, a very literally big landmark around here.  To give you some scale, the temple complex (on the separate ‘little’ hill to the left of the picture) sits at about 750m above sea level.  Popa is just a bit bigger, as you can see.  And given that most of this part of Myanmar (in fact all the way up from Yangon) is at only around 100-200m altitude, it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Of course, I’d decided that a mountain-top finish was just what I needed after 100km in the saddle.  Not all the way up, obviously (that would just be silly), but up to the base of the temple rock.  How hard could that be?

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Well, it was a beautiful location, but the hill was a bit of a beast.  To say the least.  After a few kilometres of gently rising road, the last push to the summit was 350 vertical metres (call it 1000 ft).  No big deal, right?  Even after a longish ride.  With a 40-kilo bike and bags combo.  No big deal at all…

That’s true if the 350 metres is knocked off over 10 km or so.  The issue with Popa is that the 350 metres is reached in only two-and-a-half kilometres.  That’s just 2500 metres.  Or an average gradient of over 14%.  Now, I can do that sort of steepness with the bags on for a short while.  But 10% is about the most I can sustain for any length of time.  So trying to recover on a 7% or 8% section, before another 25% ramp heaves you skywards again, is just ridiculous.  Especially when there are monkeys trying to hitch a ride (or rob your bags) for the last few minutes of the climb.  Ouch!

Thankfully, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll have to ride another hill that steep on this trip.

Because I’ll be very carefully avoiding them.

Of course, there’s a major upside to overnighting high up.  It means that it’s (usually) all downhill the next day.  Today (Wednesday) was an absolute joy.  A steep, twisting descent off the mountain, followed by a fairly constant gentle downhill all the way (well, all of thirty short miles) to Bagan.

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And Bagan is an absolute gem (at least, if you’re into temples, pagodas and ruins).  It’s essentially a large plain between the mountains and the river Ayeyarwaddy (which used to be the more-easily-spelled Irrawaddy).  And the entire area is covered in archaeological marvels, dating back, basically, forever.

I had a poke around this evening.  You pretty much can’t walk for a hundred yards without stubbing your toe on another piece of history.

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And it looks pretty good as the sun goes down.  Well worth the (long) detour from the straight line to Mandalay.

It’s been a good few days, all in all.  I’ve even worked out how to fix a broken pannier with a water-bottle bolt –  a skill which I’m sure will be immensely useful in future.

Now I just need to sort out the scary beard…

Records and the Elusive Capital

It’s been a long few days since Yangon.  Over 400 km.  Two (sort of) records set.  And my first puncture of Part 2.

And yes, punctures are noteworthy enough to get a mention.  That’s only the sixth I’ve had in 12,000 miles of loaded touring.  I like my tyres.

Anyway, most of that mileage has been undertaken on the old Yangon to Mandalay Highway, which essentially runs pretty vertically northwards along the spine of Myanmar.  It’s remained crowded, bumpy, dusty and diesely.  But also flat, which is a bonus.

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After the excitement of my first day with zero climbing last week, you’re probably salivating at the thought of what other records could have been set in the last few days.  I’ll warn you now that they may also be slightly underwhelming.

The first ‘record’ was set on the first day out of Yangon (Tuesday).  I stopped overnight at Bago.  I’d also stopped at Bago on the night before I got to Yangon.  Which makes it the first place I’ve stayed overnight on two separate occasions.  In fact, if the rest of my planned route remains as it currently is, it’ll be the only place on the whole round-the-world trip to achieve this honour.

Well, I hope that met your expectations.

The second record is marginally more impressive, as I managed to put together the longest day I’ve yet done on Wednesday: 101 miles (162 km).  And all because of another glitch in the world of online maps.  They really don’t seem to have Myanmar dialled in properly yet.

It was hot, dirty and bumpy, but I did get to meet Marisa and Jiri, an Austrian / German couple, who were heading in the opposite direction.  We had the usual long-distance cyclists’ comparison of notes before they headed south and I headed on north.

After those hard miles, it was great to finally find the first of the smooth, empty highways I was obsessing about last time.  It’s the ‘Expressway’ between Yangon and the new, artificial capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw.  For some reason, while running parallel, and only a few miles apart from, the old highway, it’s barely used.  Maybe the tolls are too high, or something.

Unfortunately, it was only about 20 km of beautifully smooth dual carriageway before I had to turn off.  And the road (also kindly recommended by online mapping) suddenly looked like this:

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Still, I was well on the way to Nay Pyi Taw by then.  If you haven’t had enough of Myanmar’s oddities yet, Nay Pyi Taw is a classic.  The country had a perfectly good capital, Yangon, but the government decided to move to, essentially, the middle of nowhere.  They built several dual carriageway ring roads, and masses of hotels, conference centres and so on.  It covers a truly massive area.  I think they expected that everyone else would follow them here.

Nobody has, yet.

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This was one of those ring roads this afternoon.  Again, beautifully smooth.  With absolutely nothing on it, except for me and an ox-cart (or are they buffaloes? Some research required…), which was on the wrong side of the road (so clearly not expecting to face a huge amount of oncoming traffic).

I arrived in the city itself just after five this evening.  I’m about a mile from the city centre, apparently, although I’ve not seen it yet.

But this is what the Friday afternoon rush hour looks like in Nay Pyi Taw:

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Yup.  An entire herd of buffalo (or oxen?) crossing the main drag.  They would have been holding up the traffic, if there was any.

And so, I’ve apparently arrived at the heart of the capital city of Myanmar.  Anything resembling a city is elusive in the extreme.  But it seems like an extremely odd place, and I quite like odd places.

I should find out more tomorrow (Saturday), as I’m having another rest day.  Recovering from the road before, and looking forward to some more big miles afterwards.  So hopefully, a bit more intrigue and mystery, and a few more smooth and empty highways to come…

Rough Roads to Yangon

I’ve read a bunch of times about the joys of riding Myanmar’s smooth and empty highways.

This worries me.  Because I’ve not found any such roads in this country so far (with the honourable exception first few kilometres of Thai-built road from the border).  And because I have a sneaking feeling that most people are comparing Myanmar’s roads to India’s, having ridden India first.  Trouble is, that’s where I’m going next.

The average Burmese road surface between Hpa An and Yangon looks a bit like this:

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So if India’s too much worse, I’ll be looking to get some serious suspension for the Beastlet.  Or my teeth will rattle loose before I get to central Asia.

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The traffic’s varied from ‘interesting’ to ‘lunatic’, but that seems par for the course in Asia.  The trouble here, as in Indonesia, is that the roads are generally much to narrow for the number of vehicles.  A lot of the highways are being widened, to be fair, but a lot of that work appears to be done (literally) by hand, so it may take a while before they improve hugely.

All I can do is hope that the roads will get better en route to Mandalay.  However, I can’t ask that the people improve, as they’ve kept me endlessly entertained so far.  Despite clearly having some slightly uncouth English teachers (the standard shout here is ‘Hey, You!’ rather than ‘Hello!’).

My smiling muscles are having a hard time, again.  The entertainment value is considerably enhanced by the Burmese people’s 1970s attitude to health and safety.  I’ve been cut up by scooters, trying to stop me so they can offer me a tow to the next town.  I’ve watched two young sisters putting plastic carrier bags over each others’ heads as their parents looked on nonchalantly.  And I’ve had to get used to right-hand-drive buses dumping passengers into the middle of the road when they stop.

And the 1970s attitudes even extend to things we used to do at home, back before everyone got afraid to let kids leave the house.  As dusk fell, last night, hundreds of lads were out in the park, kicking footballs around, barefoot in the gloom.  Jumpers for goalposts, anybody?

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I suppose I should point out that I never had to play football barefoot when I was a kid.  And that my football days were probably mostly in the 1980s.

Anyway, for the last 30 hours or so, I’ve been resting up in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.  A bit like Vientiane in Laos, Yangon is completely different from the rural areas I’ve been through so far.  Totally unlike Vientiane, it’s a bustling, high energy, 24-hour sort of place.

There are a few havens of peace in the city noise, though.  There are some nice parks to wander through, and then there’s the Shwedagon Pagoda complex.

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Perched up on a slight hill (there’s been nothing but slight hills for a couple of hundred miles now), the Shwedagon is an absolutely stunning temple complex, built up over hundreds of years.  It made a change to be wandering around somewhere on my legs, rather than on wheels, too.

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And a swift return to the centre, and a nice cold beer on a rooftop terrace, gave me the chance to appreciate the Shwedagon from afar, as well.  A view only slightly spoiled by the mobile phone mast in the foreground, which I guess is a decent indicator of the speed of change in Myanmar.

It’s still a slightly confusing place.  As well as the various unanswered questions I already had about Myanmar, I’ve added one more.  If you rename a country, surely you rename the adjectives and the people as well?  But no.  People in Myanmar are Burmese (that’s the nationality, rather than the various ethnic groups), and the language is Burmese too.  Everything is Burmese except for the country’s name.

Frankly, I’m becoming less and less sure that I’ll get sensible answers to any of these questions before I finish riding Myanmar.  But I’m not sure it matters.  It’s been a great few days so far, and a few more to come yet.  Just hope those roads improve a little bit…

Red Dust and Curry – Welcome to Myanmar!

Myanmar felt like properly unknown territory for me, having only begun to open up to the world in recent years.  I’m not even sure whether I’m still in south-east Asia, as even that seems to be a matter of some dispute.

But what I wasn’t really expecting is that Myanmar is also a bit nuts (in a generally good way, so far).

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It begins before you even get through passport control.  Bang in the middle of the border bridge from Thailand, traffic is expected to switch from the left to the right-hand-side.  There’s some paint on the road, but not much else to show you how it’s done.

I made sure I crossed when it was quiet…

The vast majority of cars and trucks in Myanmar, of course, are not designed to drive on the right.  The government just changed the system a few years ago.  Nobody seems to know why.

Then there are the roads.  The road from the Thai border at Myawaddy used to be so poor that it only worked in one direction each day.  Now there’s a new road (below).  A beautiful, Thai-built, butter smooth highway, with a stunning, swooping descent off the top of the hills.

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This delightful introduction to the country opened last summer (2015), and follows a different route to the old road.  But it’s not on any online map yet.  You can see where it is only by looking at Google Maps’ satellite imagery, which shows where the trees were cut to make space for the new road.

And so, you enter the country along a beautiful highway which the maps say doesn’t exist.

About 45km out of Myawaddy, you then rejoin the old road.  It’s a designated Asian Highway, so it can’t be too bad, can it?  Well, just after a police checkpoint (with very friendly plain-clothes police who buy cyclists drinks), the main international route from Thailand turns into this:

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60-odd kilometres of fine, red dust, and a narrow, incredibly rough tarmac strip.  Tarmac so narrow that, when two trucks or buses meet, at least one of them ends up on the dirt.  Which puts the fine, red dust up in the air to decorate any unsuspecting bikers who happen to be in range.

It has improved since, thankfully.

Then, there’s the odd, half-hour time difference between here and Thailand.  Why not go the whole hog, and make it an hour?  Nobody knows.  Again.

And what exactly was the ‘pizza’ I found this evening?  It looked like a pizza.  It was described by the lady selling it as a pizza.  It was, as far as I could tell, a cold, sweet bread bun with some sort of topping involving crabsticks and peppers.  And some sort of tofu-like substance.  And possibly mayonnaise.

But definitely no cheese or tomato sauce.  And very definitely unheated.  I’m not sure what the dictionary definition of a pizza is, but I’m pretty confident that cheese, sauce and heat are fairly important to the recipe.  Not in Myanmar, apparently.

And how does a country where many of the villages still don’t appear to have reliable electricity (cool-boxes with ice, rather than fridges) have the fastest 3G speeds I’ve found anywhere?

So, Myanmar is a bit confusing.  Or, arguably, Myanmar is a seething mass of contradictions.  I ran into two other touring cyclists yesterday (Wednesday), who blamed it mostly on the change that’s happening politically here.  There are a lot of laws which still exist, but are no longer enforced.  Or are sometimes enforced, and sometimes not, depending on the individual with responsibility.  Or laws that no longer exist, but some people still think they do.

Like I said, it’s a bit confusing.

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It’s also a very beautiful place (above is the town of Hpa An, where I spent last night).  The people seem lovely (not just the policemen, though, given the amount of checkpoints, it’s much better for me if they stay nice, too).  And, although the roads are a bit ropey, the road manners so far are generally very good, so you don’t feel too likely to end up in a bus sandwich.

And I had a Indian-style chicken curry last night.  With Chinese-style fried rice, obviously.  Which is also a little bit odd, but illustrates the mix of cultures here.  I’m a big fan of proper curry, and this is the first time I’ve found the Indian type done properly in the region, which is great news.  It was delicious, and also massive, which is important for a touring cyclist.

So where from here?  Well, in addition to being slightly nuts and very beautiful and friendly, Myanmar’s a big country.  I’m still a few days from the old capital, Yangon (used to be Rangoon), and it’s a long road to Mandalay from there.  I passed 1000 miles for Part 2 of the round-the-world ride yesterday (i.e. 1000 miles from Hanoi), and there will be hundreds more on the clock before I get to India.

Which I’m not unhappy about at all.  Myanmar’s been fascinating so far, and I’ve every reason to believe it will stay that way.  And maybe I’ll work out some of those crazy contradictions before I’m done…

To the Border – the Hard Way

I moan when it’s flat.  I moan when it’s hilly.  I haven’t really moaned enough about the 30C heat yet, but I’ll get round to it, I’m sure.  Or when it’s too cold, or too wet, or too windy somewhere else…

I’m fully aware that I moan too much.  Especially when I’m having a good time (at least in retrospect; it’s that Type 2 Fun thing again).

Off the central hills of Thailand in time for New Year, and it then looked like a pretty easy run to the edge of the country, and the Myanmar border.  Three relatively short days, two flat and one (today) a bit lumpy.  And the ancient Thai capital of Sukhothai to have a poke around on the way.

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Well, in three days of extremes, it was only really Sukhothai which delivered what was expected.  Stacks of ancient stupas and temples from Thailand’s ‘Golden Age’.  I got on there on Saturday afternoon, in time to have a shower, some food, and then a stroll around the historical park (tick off another World Heritage Site) as the sun went down, and it was beautiful.

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The reason I was there so early was simple.  The single flattest ride I’ve ever done on a bike.  I know I was having a little whine about how flat it was when I first arrived in Thailand, but this was ridiculous.

In all the 300-and-odd days on the road touring (including the UK Tour), plus every short ride I’ve ever done, I’ve never finished with a climb count of 0 metres before.  There’s always, always one little ramp or even a bridge, or something.  Not on Saturday, there wasn’t.  Not a single metre climbed.  A record.  And one which is unlikely to be beaten, too…

After a much more average ride to Tak yesterday (a few ups and downs, a lot of sunshine, a handful of trucks and exuberant dogs), the switch was firmly flicked today.  Where I couldn’t find a single metre before, there was suddenly a glut.  I’m not actually sure if you can have a glut of climbing.  But there was definitely a surfeit of metres.

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The road started to rise straight out of town, and pretty much just kept on going.  A few relatively gentle miles, followed by two ranges of steep hills (one climbing to around 900 metres, the second to nearly 700).  And a lot of bumps in-between.  The Thai border with Myanmar is nothing if not hard to get to…

You can tell you’re in serious hill country when your average speed takes a beating.  Across central Thailand, I was still averaging around 20 kph (12 and a bit mph) through the hills.  Today, I was 20% down on that; every steep ramp followed by a typically grudging Thai descent, followed by another ramp.  Urgh!

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Still, there were some fairly decent views.  And a really testing ride always leaves you feeling like the massive dinner you trough down afterwards is well-earned.  Perhaps more importantly, it also boosts your morale.

Because while I may moan about the hills, the non-hills, or the weather, it’s days like these (when they finish well, at least) that make the trip worth doing.  Testing myself is part of the whole experience.

And never knowing quite what’s coming each day is the whole point.  There won’t be many days where I’m less sure about what’s next than tomorrow (Tuesday).  Just six kilometres (call it four miles) down the road is Myanmar.

I know they only began to open up to the outside world a few years ago.  I know they drive on the right, but that most of their cars are designed to drive on the left.  And I know that the border post at Myawaddy is reputed to be one of the friendliest in the world, for some reason.

But apart from that, I don’t know much.  Should be quite exciting.

Can’t moan about that, at least, can I?

The Hills at Last

First things first…  A very happy 2016 to you all.

I got my New Year’s wishes early.  I was moaning last time about the extreme dullness of the Thai roads I’d so far encountered.  Ploughing along for hours in a straight line, on the flat, is a very efficient way to get around.  But it’s not especially interesting.  Or interesting at all, in fact.

Still, that changed on Wednesday, as I hit the hills.

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You could see them coming from a distance.  And, with the temperature over 30C, I knew things were going to get harder.  Things did.  After 30 miles of flat road to soften me up, a 600-vertical metre hill on a brutal gradient got things started.  There wasn’t even a descent at the end of it; just a heavily-forested, bumpy plateau infested by wild animals:

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Although, in fairness, I never actually saw any wild elephants.  There were some ‘signs’ on the road that they were about (which needed severe swerving, while checking behind for trucks).  But thankfully, having had my route obstructed by cows, goats and dogs already in south-east Asia, there were no elephant roadblocks to deal with.

The downhill was incredibly grudging, dropping a few metres at a time before presenting me with another 15% incline.  It hurt by the time it started dropping properly.  On the plus side, the countryside finally opened up a bit, and I got some proper views of Thailand.  It’s not a bad looking country in places…

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The next day (yesterday) was New Year’s Eve.  So, of course, I’d set myself a little end-of-year challenge.  The same sort of amount of climbing, but with the eminently sensible additional aim of putting in 130km (around 80 miles).

And, despite the hard miles in my legs from Wednesday, it went much easier.  The road reminded me of some of the big climbs in the Rockies, back in 2014 (without the effect of altitude, of course).  Wide, perfectly surfaced roads on reasonable gradients.  Another big uphill slog, but with masses of encouraging honks and waves and thumbs-up from festive Thais.  There was even a big Buddha at the pass, which gave a nice target to aim for.

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There were a few more ups and downs along the way (and the ups in Thailand do seem to be especially steep).  But, after a lovely, long, gently downhill run, back onto the plains, I made it to Phitsanulok just in time for the last sunset of 2015:

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A nice day off today, and a chance to catch up with my family, thanks to the magic of the Internet.  It’s amazing to think that the first time I went outside Europe, you had to go to the post office to make a call home…

Anyway, tomorrow it’s back on the road, westwards towards Myanmar.  Hopefully, three more days should do it; still a long way to get home.  Plenty of miles still to come in 2016…