border crossing

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…

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Border Country

UK Tour Stage 2 (Bristol to Heysham, Lancashire):
Cycling Distance – 385 km / 239 miles
Ascent – 1949m / 6393 ft (0.22 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 50.66 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 725 km / 450 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 4861m / 15944 ft (0.55 Everests)

Borders are funny things.

Funny in the sense of ‘peculiar’.  And sometimes funny in the sense of ‘not funny at all’.

They’re just (usually squiggly) lines on a map.  Artificial, squiggly lines, by and large.  Created almost at random, by geography, by prehistoric tribal areas, by war, by shifting royal alliances, or by the straight, ruled lines of an administrator’s pen.  There’s often no good reason why they cut through one field, rather than the one next door.  And there’s usually no significant difference between the people on one side and the people on the other.

But then we, our governments, and our media define ourselves against (and it’s pretty much always against) the people on the other side of the imaginary line.  We are good.  ‘They’ are bad.  Our religion is right.  ‘Theirs’ is wrong.  We go overseas to work.  ‘They’ come here to steal our jobs.  We retire abroad.  ‘They’ sponge off our healthcare system.  ‘They’ need to be controlled, or we’ll be ‘swamped’ by a ‘swarm’.

So we build the borders higher, and wonder why desperate people turn to smugglers to help them escape from death or persecution.  ‘They’ must be stupid, too, mustn’t they?  And we scratch our heads in puzzlement, and watch ‘them’ die against our fences.  For years.

Until a picture of a dead child on a Turkish beach reminds us that ‘they’ might be people, just like us, after all.  I wonder how long that little glimmer of truth will last…

As you can probably tell, riding long distances on a bike can give you a bit too much time to think.

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Thankfully, the border I was concerned with as I rolled out of Bristol was the border between England and Wales.  It’s been around pretty much since the Romans left Britain, which is quite a while.  The Anglo-Saxons, the English and the Welsh have all fortified chunks of it over the years.  And its history is just as messy as any other border.  Hundreds of years of keeping ‘them’ out of England.  Violently.  But the last couple of centuries have been a bit quieter.

Straight over the Severn Estuary from Bristol, you hit the Wye valley.  It’s a steep, beautiful river valley, with England on one bank and Wales on the other.  The ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) dominate the Welsh side at the southern end of the valley.

I lost track of how many times I crossed the border over the next couple of days.  Sometimes there were bilingual signs (that’s UK language number three, after Cornish and English) welcoming you to Wales.  The ‘Welcome to England’ signs were all monolingual.  Sometimes, there was a (thankfully) sleepy guard dragon instead of a sign:

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And sometimes, I only noticed that I’d swapped countries again when I saw the word ‘SLOW’ painted on the road.  If it just said ‘SLOW’, I was in England.  If it said ‘ARAF’ too, I was in Wales.

As I was approaching Welshpool, after a lovely-but-hilly day through the border area, I saw this signpost, which illustrates how hard it could be to remember how many border crossings had happened:

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It’s bilingual, so I know I’m in Wales.  Chirbury (2 miles down the road) is in England.  Church Stoke (another 2 miles down the road) is in Wales again.  I think that’s right, anyway.

After Welshpool, I headed into North Wales (or at least, in and out of North Wales).  The hills had levelled out, as I was avoiding beautiful Snowdonia, where the big Welsh mountains are.  But there was one more hill I had to climb before I left Wales.

Because I wanted to see the canal boats in the sky.

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I’ve come to the unexpected conclusion that there aren’t enough aqueducts in the world.  Many of those that do exist just move water from one place to another.  But the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a little more ambitious.  It takes boats across a valley.  A couple of hundred feet in the air.  Over a river.  Well worth the detour.

After the excitement of the aqueduct (boats go across it as fast as 2 mph!), it was back to the flatlands.  A quick nip through Chester, which was once a Roman fort, for controlling the Welsh border.  And a pause to appreciate what’s reckoned to be the world’s first ‘indoor shopping centre’ (note the medieval covered galleries on the buildings, to enable the wealthy shoppers to avoid the toilet buckets thrown from the upper storeys.  And the rain of course).

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At this point, I was only a few tens of miles from finishing the English section of the tour.  It was nearly time to depart the UK for a couple of days.  I just had the flattest day so far, across the plains of Lancashire, to go.

Liverpool is only a few miles up the road from Chester, and I trundled up the Wirral peninsular to take the ferry across the river into town on Sunday morning.  As you’d expect, no clichés were spared; The Beatles were playing on loop in the cafe while I waited for the boat to arrive, and they managed to play ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’ twice over the PA on the boat during the short crossing.

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I’d not really seen much of central Liverpool before, but the waterfront, which saw so many migrants depart from Europe (that’s right – hundreds of thousands of migrants leaving Europe; who’d have thought?) for Canada and the US, is really impressive.  And the city was quiet as I headed north across the flat lands for Lancaster.

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Another Roman city, this time with one eye aimed at the Scottish rather than the Welsh.  The last major Roman outpost before Carlisle, which sits right on the border of the Roman empire at Hadrian’s Wall.  It’s a bit of a shame that my route takes me away from there, and the Lake District national park between them.  But there’s new stuff to see, and I’ve been there before.

And so it was that I set sail yesterday, leaving England behind.  And leaving the UK behind, temporarily.

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A short ride from Lancaster brings you to the small port of Heysham.  Journey’s end for the English and Welsh section of the ride.  To the north of the port, you get stunning views across the bay to the Lake District.  To the south you get nuclear power stations.  Lovely.

Across the water to the west are new places for me to explore.  Tomorrow (Weds), I’m on an early boat to Northern Ireland.  For today, I’m offshore on the Isle of Man.  Same language, same accents, same buildings.  Different money, different taxes, and a roaming mobile phone.

But more on that next time.

I crossed a lot of borders on my half-way round the world trip.  Lots of border guards taking things very seriously.  Lots of people stuck on one side or the other because of their luck (or lack of it) in where they happened to be born.

On this ride, I’ve carelessly criss-crossed a border that was fought over for centuries, and left my country without showing any ID.  These are borders that don’t (at least generally) kill any more.  Nobody storming the ferry or sitting desperately behind a fence peering in.

Funny things, borders.

A New Thing – Border Control on the Bike

It’s a little astonishing.  Well, I think so, anyway.

In nearly 13,500km, and heading into country number twelve, yesterday was the first time that the Beast and I got stamped through an international border together.  Thanks to the EU’s lack of internal borders, the ferry crossing between Canada and the US, and arriving almost everywhere else by plane, it just hadn’t happened before.  It certainly won’t be the last time, mind you.

It wasn’t especially traumatic, despite the immigration officials on both sides of the causeway between Singapore and Malaysia struggling to peer through the sunscreen melting all over my chops.  Thirty seconds at each end, and I was through.

In fact , it hasn’t been an especially traumatic few days.

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After the slightly chaotic rush of nearly a month on the road in Indonesia, Singapore had a vaguely surreal and calm feeling about it.  It’s always reassuring to find a true mark of civilisation like a cricket club.  And I’ve been to Singapore before, so was prepared for the diversity, the prices, the smooth, orderly way of life, and the equally smooth roads.  The relative tranquillity was nice, for a day or two.

I had a wander around their giant sport park on Tuesday, which reminded me of a (slightly) smaller version of the Olympic Park in London.  An aquatic centre, kayaking area, and recreational cyclists whizzing around.  A bunch of fit-looking people in tracksuits, and serious-looking expats studying tablets (presumably coaches).  And an enormous stadium with a domed, retractable roof.  Which some poor council employees were either finishing off, maintaining, or repairing.  Rather them than me, I think:

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On the way out of town yesterday (Wednesday), I rode through the concrete-and-glass canyons of Singapore city centre.  There seemed to be a few more towers there than last time I was in town, but the biggest noticeable change was that the Marina Bay complex now dominates the shoreline in front of the city (it was still being built the last time I was there).

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Whatever you think about the architecture (the bit lying across the top is supposed to look like a boat – but with trees on it, apparently), it’s now an instantly-recognisable symbol of Singapore, and just as massive and deliberately impressive as those monuments in central Jakarta.

Anyway, I’m not at my most comfortable in big cities (especially when riding a bike), and a country which is basically nothing but city is a little too claustrophobic for me.  It was time to get moving.  Through the seemingly endless tower blocks, across the causeway, and into Malaysia.

I’ve been taking the riding easy for the last couple of days.  Easing back into oppressive heat and humidity seemed sensible (it’s nearly 10C hotter here than in Indonesia, and nearly as sticky as Queensland).  So it’s tricky to grab together a sensible set of first impressions of Malaysia; I haven’t really seen enough or covered enough ground yet.

It feels richer than Indonesia (most people are in cars, rather than on scooters, for example), but the prices are only marginally higher.  Which is good.  The main roads are generally well surfaced, and the driving seems pretty reasonable.  Which is also good.  It’s hot, and there’s been a nagging headwind.  Which is bad, but might change (probably to storms, knowing my luck so far).

The locals are quite a mixed bunch ethnically (mainly Chinese and sub-continental) and religiously (it’s another secular Muslim country which has been busy celebrating Chinese New Year).  And they seem friendly and laid-back so far.  I’d heard that Malaysians were quite reserved compared to others in South East Asia, but I’ve had several long-ish conversations already, and if ‘reserved’ means ‘prone to having a chat without pestering you for a photo because you’re foreign’, then I’m pretty happy.

I’m heading up the west coast of the peninsular all the way to the Thai border.  I should get to the seaside tomorrow (Friday), all being well.  The border is probably a fortnight or so away.  And the Beast and I now have a little frontier-crossing practice under our belts to stand us in good stead for it.