vietnam

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.

IMG_0879 Edit

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…).

IMG_0891 Edit

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…

IMG_0893 Edit

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.

IMG_0897 Edt

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.

20160204RTW Edit.jpg

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…

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:

IMG_0645 Edit

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.

IMG_0639 Edit

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.

IMG_0643 Edit

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!

20151222RTW_1 Edit

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.

20151222RTW_3 Edit

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…

The Flat Country – Cake, Coffee and Communism

I’m slightly surprised to find it’s my last night in Vietnam already.

I probably shouldn’t be, though.

I’ve ploughed mostly straight down the main road for hundreds of kilometres, mainly with a handy tailwind to this point.  And coastal Vietnam is one of the flattest places I’ve ever ridden.  But it still seems too soon to be leaving.

IMG_0623 Edit

For the main part, the road’s been a bit dull.  Wide, flat, well-surfaced and mostly straight.  It’s only really been enlivened by the entertaining traffic, though there’s been quite a lot more of that than the picture above may suggest.  Certainly enough to keep the adrenaline spiking every so often.

On the other hand, I’ve got sore smiling muscles, arms and vocal chords from the amount of ‘Hellos’ and waves I’ve had to return all the way down from Hanoi.  I’ve also drunk a significant quantity of coffee in a variety of formats (who knew that Vietnam was the world’s second-biggest coffee exporter?).

20151218RTW_5 Edit

And I’ve really enjoyed the country’s interesting mixture of cultures; the usual south-east Asian hotchpotch of cultures and religions, with an added dash of French patisserie and 21st-Century-style Capitalist-Communism (all highly appropriate when the father of the nation – Ho Chi Minh – once worked as a pastry chef on a cross-Channel ferry, at least as Wikipedia tells it…).

IMG_0633 Edit

Anyway, after the heavy miles of the first few days, I settled for a couple of half days in preparation for tomorrow’s (Sunday’s) big climb to Laos, with the border nearly 700 metres uphill from where I start in the morning.

As a result, I was on a slow meander today, with only 50-odd kilometres to ride.  This gave me the opportunity to discover that certain well-known mapping software is not always entirely accurate.  The road I was on looked like a highway on the map.  For a while, it looked a lot like the first picture above.

And a few minutes later, it looked like this:

IMG_0628 Edit

It still looked like a highway on the map.  A lesson learned…

So, with a bit of luck, it’s on to Laos tomorrow.  Hopefully just as interesting and as much fun as Vietnam has been.  I met a pair of German tourers this evening, accounting both for the fact that it’s now well past my target bedtime, and for my optimism about the road ahead.  They’ve run a lot of my route in reverse, and are (fairly) nearly finished with their ride from Germany to Beijing.

Luck, it appears, may be required with the weather.  Having been dry since the morning I left Hanoi, it’s currently tipping down outside.  So I may have the choice of getting extremely soggy, or having a day off after all.

Decisions, decisions…

Stuck Between the Past and the Future

Another month and a bit ticks by…

It’s sixteen months (almost to the day) since I pedalled out of London to ride around the world.  Seven-and-a-half since my unfortunate vehicular mishap in Thailand, thirteen countries and 9300 miles later.  Two-and-a-half since I began my ‘comeback’ tour of the UK.  And one-and-a-half since I got home from the far north of Scotland.

I’m getting older and fatter.  Rapidly.

Summer’s long gone, and the UK’s experiencing the usual downsides of its location; constant streams of rain and wind whipping in off the Atlantic.  The clocks have gone back, so it’s dark by four thirty in the afternoon.  And getting darker every day.

Having cheated the gloom and damp of the last English autumn and winter by cunningly being on the other, sunnier, side of the globe, it’s especially depressing.

But…

The passage of time does have some advantages.  At the moment, it’s bringing me closer to resuming the round-the-world trip.  Much closer.

IMG_0239
For the last eighteen months, most of my days have looked something like the picture above.  In just a bit over four weeks, they will again.  The road’s calling.

In truth, there’s a fair chance that the road involved will look more like this, initially at least:

IMG_0471
Because I’ll soon be back in South-East Asian Scooter Madness.  I’m flying out to Vietnam in early December.  I’ll spend a few days acclimatising to the heat (I rode into it slowly last time, rather than being dropped straight into the sauna).  Then I’ll be on the road to Laos, then back to Thailand, then (assuming I get the visa sorted) to Burma / Myanmar.  Then India.  And then onwards.

This is the rough idea of how it’s planned to go at the moment:

This obviously depends on all the usual things.  Continued health, fitness, bike road-worthiness, visas, natural disasters and the weather.  Oh, and careful avoidance of physical contact with goods vehicles.  I might need to go south, rather than heading for the Silk Road through Central Asia.  It’s even possible that Iran might start letting Brits travel independently again.  Who knows?

But whichever way it goes, I should be back in the sun soon, and back on the road.  And back to peppering you with far more regular updates than has been the case of late.  The future’s good, isn’t it?

Fingers firmly crossed…