bike

50 Shades of Beige

Plans are strange things.

I’ve often been asked why I’m riding around the world on a bike.  I find it hard to answer.  I tell people that I’ve always liked bikes, and I’ve always liked travelling.  So putting the two together was obvious.  This is all true.  But I can’t pinpoint when it became obvious, or why.  I can’t tell people when the idea was born, or when it became a plan.

But at some point, it did.  And then the vague plan became a more detailed plan (though still outstandingly vague by most people’s standards).  And then the plan started to happen.  And now, here I am, bouncing around on a bike in Uzbekistan.

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Leaving Bukhara on Saturday, another plan was mysteriously germinating.  My conscious mind was preparing for a four-day ride across the Kyzyl Kum desert to the oasis city of Khiva.  I didn’t realise that my subconscious, having noticed the weather forecast, had already decided to do 450-odd kilometres (marginally under 300 miles) in three days.

Kyzyl Kum translates as ‘Red Desert’, and it’s the fourth-biggest desert in Asia, covering a massive swathe of Uzbekistan and neighbouring Turkmenistan.  But as you can see from the picture above, the rickety road out of Bukhara took me not into redness, but into a sea of beige.

The plan worked, as far as day one was concerned.  Just over 100km to Gazli, wafted along by a gentle tailwind (as my subconscious noted).  And the road improved all the way there, even turning into super-smooth concrete about 10 km before town (my subconscious noted, again).  Shower, kebabs and bed at a truck stop.  All very much according to plan.

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I still hadn’t worked out what my subconscious was up to when I woke up early on Sunday to discover that the south-easterly breeze had strengthened.  That’s a strengthening tailwind.  How interesting.  Eventually, after two cups of coffee, I started to put things together.  If the brand new road remained the same…  If the wind stayed put…  Maybe…

The wind stayed (at least until the last hour of the day).  And the road actually got better, turning into a perfectly smooth, almost completely deserted, dual carriageway, which might, for all I know, go all the way to Kazakhstan.  It certainly runs all the way until I got off it at the end of the desert.  So I got my head down and kept going.  There was nothing to see, anyway, and everything remained beige (picture above).  I stopped for a drink, and realised I’d been zipping along at 30 kph.

Lunchtime.  It may not be red, but the desert certainly is monotonous.  Concrete, sand, scrub.  Beige.  And 100km down.  Feeling fresh.  And finally, the thought lodged in my head properly: I might actually be able to hit 200 km for the day.  Which would be almost the end of the desert, and within one more day of Khiva.  Head down, push on.  Let’s see what happens.

This is what happened:

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That’s a record.  For me at least.  I’ve not been near 200 km before in a day (and quite possibly won’t be again), so I was reasonably chuffed with myself.  213 km.  132 miles.  And a friendly little teahouse at the end of it (or, more accurately, in the middle of nowhere), which was only too happy to let me stay, for a small fee.  Kebabs, bread, bed.  What a good day.

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It couldn’t last, of course.  The weather forecast in Bukhara had said there was rain on the way, which is one of the reasons my subconscious had decided to put the pedal(s) to the metal.  My pleasure at waking up to a view over the Amu Darya river to Turkmenistan was marred by two things: it was already drizzling, and Turkmenistan appears to be just as beige as Uzbekistan.

It doesn’t seem fair when it rains in the desert.  It certainly doesn’t seem fair when that rain continues for nearly the whole day.  Yesterday (Monday) was ugly.  Already wet and cold as I reached the end of the desert, I swung off the beautiful main road, onto the shortest way to Khiva.

Big mistake.

Potholes, washed-out roads, landslips, sand, mud.  The whole gamut of road problems.  Much grinding of drivetrain, much splashing of beige dirt onto previously non-beige shoes.  Wet feet.  Oh, and the most aggressive pack of feral dogs I’ve yet had the displeasure to meet (many thanks to the three locals who positioned their cars between the beasts and me, so I could make my escape!).

Still, cycle touring’s nothing without a little rough to make you appreciate the smooth.  And eventually, after a signposting error (i.e. there wasn’t one – a standard Uzbek problem) had cost me an extra ten miles, I finally ground and scraped my way into the ancient city of Khiva.

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Which was…  Guess what?  Beige.

Not entirely surprising, as the old city is surrounded by impressive walls made of local mud.  Hence the colour.  And, having recovered from the beigeness of the place, I think it’s probably my favourite of the three old trading cities I’ve seen in Uzbekistan.

Khiva’s much smaller than Bukhara, which in turn is smaller than Samarkand.  And Khiva’s old town is pedestrianised, meaning that you can just meander through the ancient alleyways and bazaars.

And there is even the odd splash of colour (like the famous unfinished minaret, below):

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I’ve had a rainy day off here today, but the plan (assuming the weather plays ball) is to get back on the road tomorrow, through the last of the irrigated areas of Uzbekistan, towards an even larger stretch of desert, and, eventually, Kazakhstan.

At least, that’s the plan as far as I know it.

If you’re still having doubts about plans being strange and unpredictable, by the way, consider this.  After eventually deciding to go, and with a little bit of a plan, I set off on my bike around the world.  I rode for a long way.  And I’m still riding.  Stuff has happened, plans have changed (whatever happened to South America?).  But I’m still rolling.

Today is the 29th March 2016, and in terms of days spent cycling around the world, today is day number 365.  Exactly a year spent on the round-the-world ride.

Of course, it’s a lot more than a year since I started.  The plan was a little disrupted by getting hit by the truck in Thailand.  And when did that happen?  The 29th of March.  Exactly a year ago…

Pretty sure I couldn’t have planned it like that…

For Touring Cyclists:  
If you’re coming this way on a bike, be sure to check out the Pedalling Prescotts excellent guide to this section of Uzbekistan.  They rode the other way (from Khiva) in early 2015, and their info is by far the most complete I’ve seen.  
Apart from the main road having improved (it’s still being built, so should continue to), a couple of police checkpoints having moved, and a couple of new chaikhanas having opened (so more accommodation options), their guide is pinpoint accurate in terms of where stuff is, and what’s there.  Including the hotel on the edge of the desert which no locals have ever heard of.  Oh, and where they say that the small road to / from the A380 deteriorates a bit, take that to mean ‘descends into hell’.
If you want my full list of places and mileages (from March 2016), I’ve put together a PDF sheet:  Bukara to Khiva March 2016.  Or give me a shout via the Contact page to discuss.
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Back in the (Former) USSR

I’ve been off the bike for a whole week.

I’m feeling a little bit chubby, and a little bit lazy.  Especially lazy, as I watch from my warm room as yet another band of cold rain strafes Tashkent.

It’s been worth the time off, I think.  A few days to recharge, and to ready myself for a lot of long, hard miles to come.  And a little time to adjust to the cultural and meteorological differences between India and Uzbekistan makes the change less stressful.

And it really is a different world on this side of the Hindu Kush.

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I was a little nervous flying over Afghanistan on the way here (above).  Not because I was worried about flying over Afghanistan, but because of some of the stories I’d read about Uzbekistan.

It’s apparently impossible to get hold of dollars here, as the handful of cash machines in the country are always empty.  And I wasn’t sure I’d managed to collect enough in India to get across Uzbekistan.  Customs apparently take your bags apart, searching for prescription drugs, undeclared cash and pornography.  And the currency is apparently so shot that you have to take your money around in carrier bags (due to the fact that the highest note here is only 1000 Soms).

All very dramatic and a bit worrying.  And mostly not quite right (dollar cash machine working, customs polite, bags scanned but unsearched).  Although the currency is definitely shot, and my Uzbek Som are, indeed, in a carrier bag…

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As it turns out (so far, at least), I feel surprisingly at home here.  Yes, it took a few minutes to get India out of my system.  I got in the wrong side of the taxi at the airport.  I gawped at the cleanliness and quietness of the streets on the way into town.  And I thought I might have gone deaf for a moment, due to the almost total lack of honking.  We even stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow people to cross.  It was all a bit disorientating.  Disconcerting, even.

But, fairly shortly after arriving at my magnificently old-school Soviet hotel (above), I realised that I actually knew how things worked here, and that I was probably going to enjoy myself.  Not that the relatively posh hotels will last for long, mind you…

I was lucky enough to spend many months in the former Soviet Union when I was (a lot) younger, as countries crashed, recovered and crashed again in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I speak enough Russian to get by (it’s the common language here).  By the time I’d had my second conversation about unofficial money changing (with the second person I spoke to – it’s a national sport over here), things were starting to come into focus for me.

The currency here is, indeed, something of a mess.  The government sets the official rate (currently just under 2900 Som to the dollar).  The market sets a more realistic rate (currently around 6600).  Although you’re unlikely to get quite the market rate as a foreigner, you can get close with a bit of haggling (another national sport).  You can see both rates here.

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The dual exchange rate basically halves the cost of anything which is priced in dollars.  Which means that dollar prices initially appear really expensive.  For example, my SIM card and internet package, which was outrageously priced up at $35, actually cost more like $17.  Still very pricey, compared to South East Asia and India, but not too bad.  And, unlike India, it worked as soon as I bought it.

While it’s no longer true that the biggest Uzbek note is 1000 Som (less than 20 cents), things have not changed that much.  The biggest note is now 5000 Som, which is still less than $1 at the ‘real’ rate.  The picture above is a million Som, or less than $200.  And it’s still pretty bulky.

Apart from readjusting to life in the 1990s, I’ve spent my two days in Tashkent generally staring at driving rain.  I managed a couple of little strolls, to inspect the impressive city centre buildings, but the weather has been woeful here since I arrived.

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I’ve also been enjoying the widespread availability of proper cheese, which is an immense step forward.  And I unpacked and rebuilt the bike today, alleviating the last of the major concerns that were bothering me over Afghanistan.  As always (so far!), the bike survived the flight with no obvious problems, and is ready to hit the road tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s hitting the road in a big way over here.  Most riding days will be over 100 km, as I head south-west for a long, long way, before turning to head north-west to Kazakhstan (for another long, long way).  Ancient cities, camels, and long desert days should be in the offing.

There are likely to be some tough days ahead.  But for now, I’m fed, rested, and raring to go.  The Silk Road is calling, and I’m excited to see what it brings.  As long as the rain stops, I’ll be happy…

The Capital

Most capital cities are a bit different from the rest of the country they’re in.

And New Delhi is no exception to the rule.  I rode out of town this morning along broad avenues.  Amongst grand buildings and elegant pavements, rows of columns, statues and monuments.

These are all a bit different from the rest of India.  But the biggest difference was the traffic:

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Yes, it was Saturday morning.  It’s a bit busier during the week.

But I walked around a bit on weekdays, and it’s just not that bad.  Far less of the driving mayhem.  Cars staying more-or-less in lane.  Levels of horn use so low as to be simply un-Indian.

As a result, I think New Delhi may well be the best city in India to ride a bike in.  Which might not be saying a great deal, but it’s definitely a massive improvement on every other town I’ve dealt with in the last few weeks.

There are other benefits to being in the capital, too.  I had errands to run.  The sort of errands that only Delhi could fulfil.

I got the Beastlet’s drivetrain refreshed at The Bike Shop.  I was expecting trouble getting hold of the parts I needed (conventional cycling wisdom says that it’s impossible to get 10-speed parts outside of Europe and North America).

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But they had most of it, and what they didn’t have, they managed to courier in within 36 hours.  And the mechanic (above) was top notch, despite having the street as his workshop.  I’m still not sure that the ultra-blingy golden chain is strictly necessary, but it all works really nicely.

I just have to make sure I’ve got my shades on when I look at it now – it’s really bright…

So the bike’s ready for the desert.  And after a day flapping around (three visits to the embassy, one set of emergency form reprinting, and one trip to a bank on the other side of town), I’ve got my visa for Uzbekistan.  And a flight out of Amritsar to Tashkent on the 15th.  The next stage is on.

That’ll mean moving on from India.  Into the former Soviet Union.  The sort of place you expect to see giant monuments and massive flags all over the place.

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Delhi has its share of both, mind you.  The enormous flag is in the centre of Connaught Place, which is pretty much the heart of the colonial area.  The area around the flag looks more like Regent Street in London than India.

And then there’s the huge and monumental scale of the parliament buildings, the massive mall which runs away from them, and the India Gate at the other end:

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All immensely oversized, and very impressive.  It’s a bit odd to me that this was laid out by the British while they were in charge over here.  While the style’s quite similar to home, the scale is definitely more American or Soviet than what I’d normally associate with my more modestly-sized homeland.

I guess maybe running half the world had gone to their heads a little bit…

Still, this morning, it was time to head north.  Given that it’s less than 500 km from Delhi to Amritsar, and I had ten days before the flight, I was back in gentle cruising mode.  A last look at those impressive avenues (below), and it was back to the main road.

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Still pretty flat, still pretty fast, even though the wind has finally swung against me.  It’s actually a bit of a relief, as the temperature had built up uncomfortably in the last few days.  It’s a lot cooler with the north-easterly breeze in my face.  And, as I’m in no rush, the headwind’s not really bothering me.

Should be a relatively gentle last few days in India.  Or back in India, as I should probably say, after the metropolis…

Is it Growing on Me? Or Have I Just Got Used to It?

A tricky question.

Can it be, despite the continued flat landscape, the homicidal driving, the noise and the dust, that I’ve quite enjoyed the last few days?  Or have I fallen victim to some Indian variant of Stockholm Syndrome?  What’s going on?

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On the face of it, not much has changed.  Since Lucknow, I’ve pushed nearly 400 km across India in four days.  The roads have remained pretty flat and featureless, and the temperature is starting to push upwards towards uncomfortable, in comparison with the lovely 23-24C which I’ve had up to now.

But there have been a couple of small but significant changes.

Firstly (and most astonishingly), my third Indian SIM activated itself.  Twenty-four hours later than it should have done, but who’s complaining?  It was the least promising of the three I’d purchased, having been sold to be by a pair of rank amateurs in a shop with wires hanging from the ceiling and protruding alarmingly from walls.  But it’s the only one that’s broken India’s bureaucratic stranglehold, and I finally have mobile internet!

That makes me happy.  As well as saving a fortune in more-expensive-than-necessary accommodation…

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Secondly (and probably more importantly for morale), I’ve had cross-tailwinds all the way from Lucknow.  I checked, and it’s been a while since I waxed lyrical about the benefits of tailwinds.  Especially on a touring bike, with the bags acting like sails.  The difference pre-and-post Lucknow is remarkable, according to both my GPS and one of the guys above, who chased me down the road on his motorbike, shouting my current speed at me for 20 minutes.  He didn’t speak any other English…

Before Lucknow, with an irritating headwind, I was struggling to average 20 kph / 12.5 mph.  And it was hurting.  After Lucknow, I’ve been cruising effortlessly at 28 kph / 17.5 mph on the main road, and averaging 24 kph / 15 mph including the standard (i.e. dreadfully slow) town riding.  And I’ve been knocking off 100 km days without even blinking.

Way quicker.  Way easier.  Way happier.

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Even a massive increase in long waits at level crossings (well, two in three days) hasn’t dented my spirits.  When everything’s running ahead of schedule,  you can treat it as an opportunity to people-watch, and to marvel at the myriad ways they slide their motorbikes under the barriers (and then look shocked when the train nearly takes them out).  It’s not intensely irritating any more; it’s kind of fun.

And then there’s what’s at the end of all those miles.  I rolled into Agra this afternoon.  There’s a fairly famous building here, which I’ve so far only seen at a (very) long distance.  It’s closed on Fridays.

But even from long range, with scaffolding on, the Taj Mahal looks quite impressive at dusk:

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I’ll have a closer look at the Taj tomorrow (and hopefully squeeze in Agra’s impressive Fort, too).  It’s the first really stunning landmark I’ve come across in India, and it’s a bit bewitching, perhaps because the scenery’s been a bit bland until now.  I was staring and taking photos for a couple of minutes before I realised I was stood on top of a massive open sewer.  Which probably sums things up quite nicely.

So, is India growing on me?  It might be.  I’m certainly less disgruntled by the dust and the traffic.  But I guess I’ll only really find out if when the wind changes…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…