temple

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…

Remembering How to Ride

It’s funny how you can forget how to do something you’ve been doing perfectly well for eight months.

Though, I suppose it’s no stranger than Tiger Woods forgetting how to play golf, or the England cricket team…  Well, the less said about them, the better, I think.

While I was moaning about the sweating and the headwinds last time, it also turns out that I’d forgotten how to ride in the heat.  I think it was the month in Indonesia; maybe ten degrees celsius cooler than Australia, but much steeper.  I got used to being able to go harder (and having to go harder over the hills) than I could before.  And then I forgot to readjust to new circumstances here.

Anyway, I’ve remembered in the last few days.  Start a little earlier, go a little slower, stop for a little longer in the shade.  And the miles will come.

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The last vaguely hilly section of road so far was just south of Kuala Lumpur, as I passed the motor racing circuit at Sepang (above).  I seem to be just missing a couple of big Malaysian sports events by a few days: Sepang will host the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix in a couple of weeks, and the country’s biggest bike race (the Tour of Langkawi) is on this week, but sadly nowhere near where I am.

Once past Kuala Lumpur, and having stopped, as expected, at Klang (not as noisy as I’d expected), the roads became pretty much pan flat, and the Beast and I have made some decent ground up the coast.

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The only vague complaint is that the scenery is a bit dull; billions of palm trees and not a huge amount else.

But the towns are as interesting as ever.  It’s still hard to get my head round the diversity of the Malaysian population, with every large-ish town sprinkled with mosques, churches and Chinese temples.  I’ve had a rest day today (Friday) in Sitiawan, which seems to have a large Indian population, and I’m just across the road from a large Hindu temple here:

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What’s surprising (to me, at least) is that there’s no real sense of tension or separation between all those different groups, unlike the immigration / ghettoisation / race-relation issues you tend to see in Europe and the US.  Everyone seems to get along with no major problems.  I guess there may be some underlying difficulties which are hard to sense just passing through, but it feels like it all works pretty well from my cycling outsider’s point of view.

Speaking of cyclists, I’ve started seeing a few other tourists on the road (I’d started wondering when I’d meet any more; half of Australia and the whole of Indonesia had passed without seeing any).  There were a trio in Singapore on my way to the border.  And then two yesterday south of Sitiawan.  All heading the other way, but it’s nice to know there are some others out there.

And finally, you expect to find a few oddities when you’re outside your own culture.  But this was just plain confusing:

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So, is it coffee?  Or tea?  Or something else altogether?  I can tell you’re on the edge of your seat.  Well, it turned out to be a mixture of coffee and tea.  Which is entirely peculiar.  And an innovation which I’m fairly sure nobody ever asked for.

I know it’s hard to see how things can get much more interesting than coffee-tea.  But I’ll keep you posted; you never know what’s out there…