nay pyi taw

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…