mandalay

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…

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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…