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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…

Coming Down the Mountains

With the after-effects of that dodgy high-altitude chicken masala still haunting me as I rolled out of Kathmandu, I could have been forgiven for taking it a bit easy on the way back down to the plains.

So I did.

There’s no point in hammering yourself when you’re not 100%, and I’d lost a lot of energy.

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Nepal’s not the most difficult country if you want to slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery.  After just a few kilometres of gentle climbing on the main drag out of Kathmandu on Monday, I tipped over the pass (above), and had about 1400 metres of altitude to drop off before flattening out on the approach to the Indian border.

It’s not quite as easy as it sounds.  I was still in the Himalayas, after all.  So although there was all that height to drop, there were still quite a few climbs to deal with as the road contoured around valley sides and gorges.

And, despite being foothills, these are not exactly small.  Hopefully, you can get an idea of the scale from the size of the bike in the picture below.

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Given their proximity, and close economic ties, Nepal and India don’t seem to have a great deal in common.  Nepal loses on economic development (apparently, although it doesn’t feel any poorer than India), but wins on scenery, cleanliness, mobile internet access, traffic levels, chocolate availability, driving skills (marginally), the general level of English spoken, having bikes with gears, and having pavements to walk on in town.

But there is one area where both countries are on a par.  Unannounced, unsignposted, major roadworks.  As I headed down to Bharatpur on Tuesday, I suddenly hit a roadblock.  Loads of irate locals, trucks, buses and all, piled up at a barrier.  There’s only the one road to Bharatpur, so this was a bit of an issue.

It turns out that the highway is shut in both directions from 11 until three every day.  At three, the traffic tsunami at each end is released to smash together somewhere in the middle.  Probably right where the roadworks are.  This didn’t seem like a great idea.  Fortunately, after discussing with a few locals (and promising to carry a couple of them on the back of the bike – I think this was a joke), the fierce guardian of the gate agreed that it would be a tad dangerous to be caught up in the three o’clock stampede.

So I got to ride the valley road pretty much by myself.  This was good, because it was a rather nice valley to ride:

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After Bharatpur, it was more-or-less back to flat country.  Yesterday (Wednesday) gave me a chance to see if I’d fully recovered from the stomach bug, as I put in the first 100 km ride for a while to bring me to the border.  It went OK, although I still don’t think my energy levels are quite back to where they were.

Just one last big hill, which gave me one last Himalayan downhill to smile about as I headed onto the plain, in company with some of the many bicycle commuters of southern Nepal.

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Today is another rest, and a chance to refuel and look forward to heading back to India.  A few more decent roads and a little less dust than the eastern side of the country provided would be a good start.  And I’m going to give them one more chance to sort me out with mobile internet.

With the Taj Mahal and Delhi on the route for the next section, there should be a good chance for India Part 2 to improve significantly on Part 1.

Assuming the border presents no more problems than it did on the way into Nepal, I’ll start to find that out tomorrow…

The Land of Enlightenment and Salvation

Those awful roads and outrageous levels of dust couldn’t last for ever.

They just felt like they did.

One more day north from Jamshedpur, which got me even filthier than the road there, and things started to improve.

They kind of had to, or I’d have gone completely round the twist by now.

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The roads smoothed out, and, with the odd exception, have remained decently-surfaced since Ranchi, which I reached on Sunday.  I even found a few small hills to play around on, though the views haven’t been too spectacular (the picture above is about as exciting as the scenery has got).  And I’ve piled on some fairly big miles before another rest day here in Patna today (actually, the first rest was on Thursday; I’ve ended up having two days off here due to the still-ongoing SIM card saga…).

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While the scenery hasn’t been much of a distraction, the driving standards remain hysterical, and have kept me simultaneously entertained and terrified whenever I’m not on a dual carriageway.  It’s odd that the two German cyclists I met back in Vietnam were shocked by Hanoi’s traffic once they got there.  While Hanoi was pretty ‘interesting’, every large-ish town in India makes it look fairly tame, in my opinion.

My favourite Indian move is the ‘Double-Take, Double-Overtake’.  Usually carried out by a motorcycle with passenger, but can also be committed by tuk-tuk, or car.  You overtake a foreign cyclist.  You stare a couple of times, then slam your brakes on, and dive into the side of the road to let him back past.  Then you re-overtake with the smartphone snapping pictures or video.  Or just waving and shouting.

It’s clearly fun for the locals, but it makes for a few more mobile chicanes than I really need to be dealing with, given the general driving standards here.

And I never got driven right off the road in Vietnam.  I’m at 11 times and counting so far in India.  You definitely need your wits about you here…

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Still, mainly larger roads brought me into the state of Bihar on Tuesday.  A state with the best slogan I’ve seen in ages: ‘Welcome to the Land of Enlightenment and Salvation’.  A lot to live up to.  From what I’ve seen of Bihar so far, it actually seems to be the Land of Small Brickworks (pic above), at least in the more rural parts.

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I rolled into the state capital, Patna, on Wednesday evening (or, at least, pushed and scraped my way in through the gridlock), with the prospect of a day off and another attempt to get a working SIM card on the agenda.  As I said, it’s ended up being two days off, partly because of yet more comedy registration issues at the mobile phone shop (and no, I still don’t have a working phone, eight days after I got my first SIM card!).  And partly because I’ve developed a weird heat rash which seems oddly reluctant to go away.  I don’t really want to push on too far from a major city in case it gets worse, though it seems to be improving a bit now.  Fingers crossed.

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In any case, I’ve made it to the Ganges, India’s sacred river.  The picture above is just the arm of the river which runs closest to Patna city.  The whole thing is apparently somewhat bigger.  I’ll cross it when I leave here.

Even with the extra day off, I’m still making decent time.  It should only be a couple of days from here to the border with Nepal, which I understand will provide a little more in the way of scenic views.

And just a wee bit more climbing…

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 Start of the Road to Mandalay (and other Interesting Places)

I’m not sure I’d recommend the streets of Hanoi to an inexperienced cyclist.  I’m certainly sure that I wouldn’t recommend them to a slightly chubby touring cyclist who hasn’t ridden with bags on for a couple of months.

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But still, after an early morning today (Tuesday), I wobbled unsteadily off into the scooter lunacy.  Back on the road again.

And after just a few slightly anxious minutes (mainly involving remembering how to steer), I’d got my head around the virtually non-existent ‘rules’ of the Vietnamese road, at least roughly.  I’d found the main drag out of town.  And I’d picked up a reasonably strong tailwind to blow me south.  Apart from a little bit of drizzle, Round-the-World Part 2 began OK.

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I gave myself a few days off the bike in Vietnam to acclimatise to the tropical heat before I started riding.  But I think I might have misread a bit of my pre-trip research.  Although the rest of South East Asia appears to be basking in 30-degree Celsius sunshine, the north-east of Vietnam is grey and cool.  Perfect weather for cycling, but not so great for a nice bit of winter sun.

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Despite the slightly iffy weather, I had a really good few days in Hanoi and on Cat Ba island (near Ha Long Bay) with Matt, a friend I used to work with.  Hanoi is surprisingly relaxed for a capital city, and has all you’d expect, with a bit of added interest from the remaining trappings of Communism (like Ho Chi Minh’s giant mausoleum (above).  Although the global-standard advertising hoardings (TVs, phones, cosmetics) now heavily outnumber the old-school communist posters, which are presumably still exhorting the population to triple tractor production and so on.  It seems a shame in a way.

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Cat Ba island was a nice break from the constant traffic noise of Hanoi.  Vietnamese is a tonal language, with words which are ‘sung’ in different ways to give different meanings.  I’m sure that’s also true of the way that the locals use the horns on their trucks, buses and scooters.  But I’m equally sure that they would drive me nuts before I learned any of their subtleties.  You definitely need a break from time to time.

Anyway, getting back into Hanoi yesterday afternoon marked the start of a bit of frantic bike re-building (the Beastlet made it out here in one piece, you’ll be glad to know).  Followed by a quick round of re-packing all my stuff into the correct panniers.  A couple of insanely cheap beers, a nice steak, and then a relatively early night, allegedly ready for eight months on the bike.

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And so, back to today.  The first day of the second half of my round-the-world jaunt.  The first day back on a major Asian highway since I got scraped off one by an ambulance.

It ended up being the easiest day’s riding I’ve had for a long time while touring.  The traffic was fairly light once I got out of Hanoi, and the tailwind (combined with that painful early start) meant that I knocked off just over a hundred kilometres by three in the afternoon, even allowing for a gentle twiddle around the beautiful limestone hills just outside town (above).

Not a bad start, then, on day one.  Just another two-hundred-and-odd days to go…

Perspective and Bereavement

It’s been a busy, painful and tiring few days.

And I think, after making sweeping (and potentially erroneous) statements like ‘the trip’s over’, and ‘only a smashed collarbone’ in my Thai hospital post, you probably deserve a little more of a considered appraisal of what’s occurred.

I was in pain and in shock, after all.  Not a good time to be making decent assessments.  So let’s roll it back a little, and start at the start.

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The roads in Thailand had seemed pretty benign.  I was heading north on the coast last Sunday, with a gentle tailwind, in the sunshine, without a care in the world.  I passed a temple or two.  It was the middle of the afternoon.  The road was quiet.

And then the truck hit me.  And then I woke up in hospital.

My initial understanding of what happened was pieced together from shards of half-remembered conversations with doctors and policemen (quite possibly with a little morphine involved, too).

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Apparently, the truck had grazed the right-rear pannier on the bike, flipping the Beast and me sideways to smash my collarbone on the, erm, hard shoulder.  The doctors had scanned me while I was semi-conscious, and my head and spine were OK.  I was a very lucky boy.

But the more I thought about it, the less some of this made sense.  Why were all the scratches and scrapes down my left side, when it was my right collarbone which was damaged?  How did I end up with a bump on the back of my head?  And how was I knocked unconscious if I’d fallen off sideways?

Time, crash scene photos, and endless scans and x-rays have clarified things a little since.

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The collarbone didn’t break on the road.  That was a false assumption, based on how most cyclists pick up the injury.  In fact, the truck really did hit me, as well as the bike.  And it hit me hard.  The bike went down on the left (that’s the scrapes and scratches accounted for).  But all the damage to my shoulder was caused directly by the truck.

Tons of metal on flesh and bone at a closing speed of about 60kph.  Not what you’d call a fair fight.

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After finally getting back to the UK on Saturday evening (a long and tedious journey, of which little needs to be said), I spent most of the rest of Easter weekend in and out of another hospital.  More scans, more x-rays.  Every one identifying more damage.

The truck pretty much took out the whole upper-right quarter of my torso.  As well as the collarbone, my shoulder-blade is now in three big pieces (and several smaller ones).  I’ve got at least four broken ribs.  And at least four fractured vertebrae in my back to match.  So that’s technically a broken back, then.  Oh, and a bunch of neck vertebrae which now have bits missing.

And so I won’t be riding a bike for a while.

So far, so unlucky.

Or…

So far, so very, very lucky to be alive, sitting slightly uncomfortably on a sofa and writing a post.  So very, very lucky not to be paralysed or brain-damaged.  I’m actually a relatively happy bunny at the moment.

If I’d arrived at hospital in the UK with those back injuries, I’d have been straight into emergency spinal surgery.  If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet (smashed into a thousand tiny pieces), the truck’s indicator housing would have stoved in the back of my skull like an eggshell.  And if one of the broken ribs had punctured a lung (apparently pretty common), I’d have been in real trouble too.

None of those things happened.  So it all depends how you look at it.  Yes, I got hit by a truck.  Yes, I need an operation on my shoulder (that’s next week’s fun-packed agenda).  Yes, I’m finding it difficult to sit or stand or lie in comfort.  But if you’re going to get hit hard by a truck, this is probably the best outcome you can hope for.  I can walk.  I can think.  I can breathe.

Is the trip over?  Well, clearly yes, in its original form.  Even if I had a break and then went back to finish my planned route, that would be two ‘half-way round the world’ trips, rather than one whole one.  I’m a bit gutted about that.

But again, a sense of perspective is required.  Assuming the op goes OK, there’s nothing to stop me from cycling in the reasonably near future.  Am I finished with long distance touring?  I don’t think so; I’m already climbing the walls with boredom here (that’s obviously metaphorical, given my condition).  And I nodded off earlier, and had a dream about riding a bike through the Alps.  Or maybe the Andes.  Or the Scottish Highlands.  Some hills, anyway.

Will it be a series of shorter rides, or another intercontinental journey?  Will I finish what I started, or start something new?  I don’t know.

But I don’t think the riding’s over just yet…

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Now, some truly sad news.  Whatever the next ride is, I’ll be missing a faithful friend.  The Beast is, erm, deceased (well, it more-or-less rhymes…).

Tough old boot that The Beast was, the truck was one step too far.  It just wasn’t worth trying to bring it back to the UK for repairs, especially as the truck’s insurance were willing to pay me out for it.

So sadly, after over 15000 trouble-free kilometres (including a few before the trip), and at just over a year old (far too young), it’s time for me to look forward to whatever the next adventure is without the solid, heavy, reassuring presence of The Beast alongside.

I’ll keep you posted on what that adventure might be, how my recovery goes, and what Beast II looks like over the next little while.  Guess there are still a few unknowns out there to chase down…

To Jakarta: Hills, Traffic, and Football

It’s been a few days that have felt like an assault course at times.

You can feel the pull of the capital from a long way off.  A metropolitan area with nearly 30 million inhabitants (10m in the city itself) is hard to ignore.

The traffic gets heavier (and slightly more aggressive), the air gets dirtier, and the noises get louder.  The lack of decent sign-posting becomes a major issue instead of a minor irritation.  And the smells get noticeably stronger (and generally less pleasant).

But before all that, there were the hills.

The ride to Bandung on Tuesday looked tough on paper.  And it was in practice.  Two major climbs, topping out at nearly 900m, and an awful lot of little ups and downs in between.

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It’s hard to get a sense of steepness across on a photo, but you can hopefully see the gradient near the top of the second climb here (the road follows the line with the rock face behind it).  It was a brutal day, and I was pretty well knackered by the time I rolled into Bandung.  To the extent that I didn’t really notice the increasing traffic until I got back on the road yesterday (Wednesday) morning.

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It was mayhem.  And this was on the ring-road, rather than the city centre.  The traffic lights here are on incredibly long delays, resulting in hundreds of scooters, minibuses (‘Bemos’), vans and cars building up at every red light.  When the lights go green, everyone charges across the junction, and then screeches to a halt again as the Bemos pull up in the middle of the road on the other side to disgorge their passengers.  Once you’ve squeezed past them, it’s all clear for a few hundred yards to the next set of lights, where the whole process repeats.

Jakarta, I can now say with some authority, is worse.

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As I crossed the last of the hills, it was a steep, twisty and poorly-surfaced interlude between the traffic madness.  It was fun.  There was a constant stream of trucks, scooters and cars going the other way, draped in blue flags.  It turns out that football is just as big in Indonesia as it is at home, and that Bandung had just won the league, with stacks of fans heading into town to celebrate.  At least I finally got my own back on the photo-muggers, and got a shot of some of them (all, oddly, Manchester United fans too, and not even from Surrey).

So, having got as far as Jakarta, I’ve got some logistics to sort out.  I’ve got six days left on my 30-day visa, which is not really enough to get to a port or airport in Sumatra.  With a bit of luck, I’ll be able to get a ferry up close to Singapore from here before my time expires.  Trouble is, it’s pretty much impossible to work out when and if the ferries are running without going to the office and asking.  If there’s one in time, I’ll get it (hopefully with a couple of days to poke around Jakarta).  If not, it’s either a visa renewal or a flight.

Should all be much clearer by next update…

Notes from a Multi-Millionaire

Regrettably, that’s a multi-millionaire with a poor connection – no photos on this post, I’m afraid.  Anyway…

There’s something strange about the money here in Indonesia.

It took me a while to work out that everywhere I’ve been so far (including my evening in Mexico, where I used US Dollars) has had a Sterling exchange rate of one-point-something to the pound.  The Euro, the Canadian, US, NZ and Australian Dollars.  All of them.  You kind of get used to it.

Then there’s the Indonesian Rupiah.  Currently at around 19,000 to the pound.  That’s a bit of a shock.  I’m a multi-millionaire!  But only after several visits to the cash machine; most of them only give out a million at a time…

Of course, the cash is only one small difference now that I’m very definitely out of ‘the West’.  This is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and there are many changes from the English-speaking, first-world countries that I’ve left behind.

Apart from the changed countryside, there’s now a significant language barrier to overcome, the prices are way down, and south-east Asian scooter madness is a new challenge to the touring cyclist.  Oh, and there are sometimes monkeys by the side of the road (much easier to spot than kangaroos!).

I was delayed getting on the road in Bali.  Not, for a change, because of the weather.  I was ready to hit the road on Friday morning, when I discovered that an old friend and work colleague had just arrived in Bali on holiday.  He was staying just a couple of miles up the road.  Clearly, a swift change of plan was required.  And, eventually, a day late (but a happy coincidence, a couple of Bintang beers and a pizza richer), I finally rolled out on Saturday morning.

Anyone who’s ever been to Bali will be able to tell you about the nutty traffic in the Denpasar area, especially the tourist areas around Kuta.  Indonesians theoretically drive on the correct (left) side of the road.  But the roads are very narrow, there are a lot of taxis, buses and vans around to block things up.  And swarms of scooters make up their own rules; no one way streets or traffic lights for them!

Once you get up the nerve to jump in, though, it’s not so bad to ride inside the maelstrom.  Although it’s chaotic, speeds are very low in towns, and it actually feels a bit more dangerous on the open road, with long-distance buses the main threat.

Anyway, I’ve been going gently for the last three days, allowing my body to readjust to riding after over a week off, and giving myself time in the shade and to get used to the traffic.  And I made it safely off Bali on Sunday, and onto Java by ferry.

Java greets you with a view of a giant volcano, and it looks like there are a few big hills to be had over here, certainly in comparison with the last weeks in Australia.  I’m going to have to re-learn how to climb…

Once I get used to egg-fried rice and tofu in chilli sauce for breakfast, and figure out how to use a squat toilet (tricky when you can’t squat without toppling over backwards), I think I’m going to like Indonesia.  The first big hills rear up tomorrow, and then I need to crank up the kilometres to make the most of my 30-day visa.  At my current rate, I’m not going to get all that far.

Now, how many millions can a man spend in a month?  I’ll keep you posted.  And hopefully, get some pictures together for next time.