Friday, 27 February 2015

Where's my flippin motorbike?

Day 3 deserves its own blog entry. Phuck a ding, what a day!!! The 60 odd km to Muang Khom started well. We were on the road by 7.45 with yet another noodle soup sloshing around in our bellies (they're not getting any smaller by the way which is a bit disappointing considering the recent efforts). The first 25km went pretty smoothly, rolling hills (= quite a lot of granny gear in these parts) and nice scenery.  

Then things got even better. I saw a bank note fluttering around in the road. The 50,000, 20,000 and 500 Kip note are all pretty much the same colour. 50K (about 4 quid) would get us either a room for the night, dinner for 2 or 4 big beers. Yep, you guessed it. It was a 500Kip (4 flippin pence), no wonder no other tight arse bothered to stop.....

After a pleasant morning coffee stop (picture us sitting on 2 miniature plastic stools in a lovely old ladies miniature roadside shop) the climb started. 

When does a hill become a mountain? Is there a definition? If not, we'll say its after you've been twiddling in granny gear for over 20 minutes and its still going up. Until now the view ahead had recently included some hills but always with gaps for the road to sneak through. Now all we saw was mountainside.

The cool of the morning was now gone, the sun high enough to make no decent shade to hide in. Now, we'd be the first to admit that we are not going to win any 'We can climb like Lance Armstrong' competitions, in fact we're more like 'a couple of flat whites please' so today was a literal baptism of fire. The heat, the 10% gradient, the 15kg of luggage (I weighed the panniers at a veg stall earlier in the day). Phuck a ding, we were struggling. I can't say that the pedalling wasn't hard but really it was the heat. In fact our legs feel fine tonight as we sit here having a beer (no, we weren't legless before you ask). The sweat was stinging in my eyes so much I deployed my yet to be patented invention, the BMOTF, better known as the Breathing Mask On The Forehead.

If a truck came down hill it gave us a gorgeous waft of cold air as it whooshed past, only to be followed by the acrid smell of burning brakes. The air was so still, hot, hot, hot....

Ok, I won't go on as long as the climb did, well I could, have you got all day? But Phuck a ding (I know I've said that already but...), 14km of it. I'm not sure how many 10% gradient signs we went past but enough to know it was steep. All I kept thinking about was my motorbike sitting in a damp garage in south east London. Oh for my motorbike.....

I spotted some shade and then there we were, the bikes dumped on the ground, sitting in the drainage gully eating the last of our cheapo pretend digestive biscuits and the remains of a manky bunch of bananas. We had half a bottle of water each and both had the shakes. "Calm down, slow down, it'll be ok" we told ourselves/each other. On we went, up and up. Then, in the middle of nowhere was a petrol station. Shade! We pulled up by the pumps, the lady attendant didn't even bother to stir from her chair. We sat there and peered out at 2 little kids who'd appeared from the jungle and slithered down the dirt slope of the cutting we were in. Look closely and you'll see them.

Luckily we found a restaurant in the next town. The first could only offer us a Pot noodle (FFS!). Kate went 'native' and soon the owner had cooked us up a spicy veg omelette, rice and chopped tomato. The table of bored youths knocking back the beers ("we don't want no trouble") found us most amusing. We sat there long enough to digest the meal but no way could we sit there for 3 hours for the sun to cool...

Up, up we went and then, "no, not down!" As nice as it was, the 4km downhill just meant that we'd have to do more up to get to the 1100m plateau where we were heading to.

As we climbed again, Kate spotted a most handy piece of Laos ingenuity. The cold water from the stream is channeled down a bamboo gutter which is propped up on various sticks & branches. The cool water soaked our clothes and really did help us get through the next couple of hours.

I'd not bothered to bring any gadgets for measuring the climbs, gradients, altitude of our ride. I knew that none of it would sound that impressive from the comfort of your armchair or wherever you may be reading this, but, let me tell you, if any of you fancy a bit of a work out, come on down and join the party!

I honestly can't remember all the distances for the up & down of the day. I know we went up continuously for 14km, then down, then up for another 5km, then.... Whatever, it's enough isn't it?!

At about 4 we finally got to Muang Khoun. There really wasn't much there. Another shite guest house? More noodle soup? Probably but no thanks. We flagged down a bus and for £5 between us, bounced our way along the remaining (flattish) 30km of road to Phonsavan, where we knew we could find clean cotton, hot water and dare we say, a banana pancake or 2.

We're back....

The mountain roads have not been (so far) the nightmare we had expected. Google searches brought up stories of cyclists running out of water and having to drink from muddy streams. 
Backpackers on buses had aborted their journeys, turning back because the road conditions were that dreadful. In fact, some of it was pretty flat

Day 1 
We averaged 16km/h, with a total of 54km and a max of 49km/hr. There were a couple of cheeky inclines marked as 10% but on the inside of the tight bends they must be double that. Granny gear definitely deployed. In the heat of the sun they are pretty tough going. Getting over the crest feeling a bit dizzy is not the relief you might imagine. You can't just go for it on the downhill as each blind bend holds some kind of surprise in store - a huge gravel filled pothole, a herd of goats (or is it flock or gaggle?)

There was a nice limestone rock pillar in the paddy fields out the back from our shite hole guest house. 

Kate is getting pretty damn good at ordering food in the little roadside cafes. They seem to understand her but then don't necessarily have the ingredients to make it. Oh well, noodle soup, sticky rice & omelette it is then.... Tonight we've got Larp (finely chopped meat with chilli, lemon grass, spices etc) it's a bit 'blow your head off' hot though. 

Who says there's nothing to eat out here? Tuck in Rowland!

Town is now dark and closed up. It's 7.30. Back to our room for a game of scrabble then I guess? We've got another 'living the dream' guest house. Tonight we have deployed our thermarest camping mats on top of the mattress as it is so hard it may as well be solid wood 

As kate made the word 'gaze' with the z landing on the triple letter score I thought the evening couldn't get any worse. It was peaceful & calm. Frogs croaking, insects chirping. The geckos were running around on the ceiling, feasting on crunchy delights. Doof doof, twang twang went the stereo of a metallic pink 4wd as it roared into the driveway, skidding to a stop. A truck followed. Chinese number plates. Oh no. Bish, bosh, bash. Noisy b@stards. It wasn't helped by the acoustics of the concrete and tile hallway. What's wrong with just going to your room, having a shower and reading your book? D'you have to have a 120 decibel mothers meeting, each of you standing in your own doorway shouting at each other? Now?. We went to bed and read our books pretending everything was ok (we're so British!). I found solace in my book, Blood River about a guy travelling down the Congo river. He was having a much worse time than us! And then, it went quiet. All of a sudden we were back to just the whir of the fan and the chirping insects. Sleeeeep

Day 2
We awoke to a chorus of snotting, gobbing & throat clearing. It was almost primeval. Off we went, back to the restaurant from last night where we'd tee'd up a 7am bowl of noodle soup. 

Once on the move again route 5101 deteriorated pretty quickly. Climbing on the hills where the tarmac has long gone is the hardest. The bikes struggle for traction as we attempt to pick a path through the sand and rubble.  One such hill heralded the "get off and milk it" (push) on one particularly steep section that was rutted, sandy and strewn with loose rocks that were anything between the the size of a pebble to a football .

I know it doesn't look like much here but believe us, it was tough

More up. More down. More bump. More grind. We made the 30km through to the main road and celebrated with rice and a BBQ (pork not rat) with a tomato salad (fancy name for chopped up). It was delicious. Now back on a proper road we sped up and made our intended evening stopover point by late lunch. Time to move on. These towns offer nothing but a place to rest so there is just no point in hanging around at 2.30pm. Riding through the hottest hours is a killer but we just can't find anywhere nice to chill. We're kind of following a river (soon to be dammed and used as hydro electric power by the looks of things) but there is no shade on the banks. Any shady roadside places are strewn with rubbish, used nappies and/or other people. The appeal is small. We rode on. The climbs got bigger and longer. So did the descents. 10km is no longer "just Guys Hospital to Greenwich", the terrain totally dictates the speed, time and effort it takes. This next 10km to 'home' turned out to be smooth Tarmac pretty much all the way to the bottom. Top speed 47km/h.

Another LTD (living the dream) guesthouse was secured for £4 (all its worth to be honest). There was a bucket shower, a squatteroo toilet and a single bare lightbulb hanging on the end of a cobweb covered  flex. We weren't the only ones enjoying rural Laos's answer to the George Cinq though, 2 French blokes turned up on these. 

We may ride together tomorrow. The map shows the road as ridiculously squiggly. We guess mainly up hill as we're heading up onto a plateau known as the Plain of Jars. Time will tell. If it gets too hard we'll flag down a bus.

Check out this weapon of mass destruction. There are loads of them around here. The winch cable comes up and over from the engine and it can then be used to haul massive tree trunks into the back. Nature just doesn't stand a chance

The mornings are getting much cooler now. It was down to about 18 last night which after pounding away in 35 sunshine all day feels pretty fresh. These towns don't seem to wake up until about 7. We'd like to be riding by them to enjoy the cool but need breakfast before we head off. As we climb the towns are getting smaller and more spread out so we can't risk leaving without eating - pedalling up hills on an empty stomach is not a good idea. Therefore by we don't actually get going until about 8 ( they open at 7 and then start cooking) which is a bit frustrating.....

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Heading bush

The anticipation of 'heading bush' built as we waited for yet another noodle soup breakfast. The road we intended to take was barely visible on our paper map and on the digital one only showed up when you zoomed right it. Flipping eck, route 5101 looked super wiggly (steep we guessed). More worrying was that there were only 2 villages shown in what could be 100km of uphill riding. One failing of these digital maps is that they only give distances 'as the crow flies' which right now, was a bit useless. We'd checked Google maps and in this region, they are useless.

We are getting cold feet. Access to food & water being the main issue, aching legs we could deal with. We can carry about 5 litres of water each (it's heavy though) but what about food? We've decided that whenever we find a little roadside cafe that we'll get a second portion from them as a takeaway - interesting challenge if its soup but needs must.....

Change of mood, change of direction

We both woke up feeling a bit 'heavy' yesterday. Possibly it was the bed who's mattress closely resembled a bad section of roadworks? Possibly it was the ceiling fan that only worked on 'hurricane' setting? Possibly it was the knowledge that when the night did finally end that we'd both need to use 'that' bathroom?

After more egg and sticky rice (we got omelette today, same waitress, same restaurant) we got on and started pedalling. It all felt slow and a bit of a grind. We stopped off at a little shop for a can of cold coffee and some water. After a bit of a rest, kate perused the fine array of goods on offer. The shopkeeper was most happy with Kate's copious selection for procurement - 2 umbrellas, a sachet of washing powder and various sweets & biscuits, all for a fiver. Maybe it was the little 'chat' we had with her? Maybe it was the little "kop jai lai lai" as she held her hands in the classic 'pray' position, smiled and slightly bowed, thanking us for the business? Maybe it was just the coffee? But we left her little shop with new found energy & enthusiasm. We rode along side each other, chatting and pointing at things, suddenly just enjoying the ride.

As hard as we try to ignore the remaining distance for each day (using average speed or calorie setting on the little computer things), the road markers clearly display the remaining distance, which usually feels like "gargantuan, can we really do this?"  or less often "cool, not long to go now". Why does it feel like a chore though? This is what we came here to do. Surely we should think "great, 60 more kilometres, that's about 4 hours of fun"?

It's just down to attitude. Virtually all cyclists we have met are really laid back, make it up as you go along types. They're not counting, calculating, clock watching. Why are we? Maybe we just haven't done enough cycling yet to get into the groove? How much do you need to do, we've done about 1500km all up now. Apart from a bit of dust, our bikes still look like brochure bikes, all nice and neat, with matching panniers clipped on neatly. All of theirs look more like a shopping trolley that a homeless person drags around with them. Bits of their lives bolted or tied on in various bags, straps, dirt, cable ties - life on the road vagabonds.

Maybe we're being too hard on ourselves but everyone has their own standards and all my school reports always said "good but could try harder". 

So, we're going to try something to make us feel more like 'real cyclists'. We're going to get off this kilometre counting highway and head north into the mountains. They were coming anyway but we're going into them earlier on a non touristy back route. The kind of route the 'real cyclists' take. Not a route where we can plan where we'll stay and then pedal away the distance in a timed process until we get there. This new route has small towns and villages along the way so food & water will be in good supply. There will also be some guest houses but we've got the tent and would quite like to use it (all the 'real cyclists' have been). In the hills we cannot predict our average speed as some (probably most of it actually) is pretty damn steep and slow. We will therefore ride as far as we can/want and stop where we can/want. If it all gets too hard we can always chuck the bikes on a bus and cheat. The 'real cyclists' have also done that so we feel ok to do it as well.

From Paksan (where we are now) we'll wiggle our way north up to Phonsavan and then head west to Luang Prabang where we were heading anyway. We won't get to see the capital city of Vientiane which is a shame but we will have much more of an adventure. 

To mark this change of direction we experimented at lunch today and had something different from the usual noodle soup, and very tasty it was too. Does this bode well?

So we finished our highway K's in style with a 90km ride in 38 degree heat (that's 100 for the oldies in the audience). It was pretty damn draining. It was like riding through the hottest, most barren parts of Provence in the height of summer but with the quietness of the most grizzly winters day in Whitley Bay.  We've found a nice guest house and will stay 2 nights. 

we plan to do nothing except sit about reading and writing. Prepare yourself for Blogfest...

Which sunset photo do you prefer?

At breakfast the 'we're on holiday and everything is lovely' spell is broken. The bed last night was so nice. Sheets that not only looked clean but smelt clean. Soft pillows of normal thickness compared to the (god knows why?) foot thick rock solid ones we've had everywhere else. Putting aside the disgusting deep, guttural larynx and sinus cleaning noises of our friend next door and the roosters and those pesky kids playing outside, we actually had a good nights sleep. Our bathroom also stands the 'light on' test with flying colours. But breakfast..... Muesli? Fruit? Toast? Even eggs again? No, noodle soup.... We reckon it was a quality one as well considering the quantity of indistinguishable bits in it. Once we'd eaten the noodles and veg it became quite a challenge to hold all these 'floaters' back with our chopsticks as we attempted to spoon the tasty broth into our mouths.

A quick visit to the supermarket ( think poxy corner shop) revealed some amusing items

You're spoiling us Mr ambassador, well, sort of...

More waffle...

To engine or not to engine?

Read only if you've really got nothing else to do.

Riding a bicycle across countries is a great way to see the world but it does have its drawbacks. Would a motorbike be a better choice of transport? One of the great things about a bicycle is that you travel slowly so have a chance to actually see and experience the people & places you'll pass through. 

One of the major drawbacks is that it takes so long to get anywhere. Isn't that the point though? Yes and no. However interesting a country is, it is bound to still have some relatively long & boring stretches of road to cover to get you to the next good bit. One solution is to put the bikes on a bus/train/boat. Once you accept that this isn't cheating (it's just a better use of your time & effort for the reward) then this works quite well.

Motorbikes (even small ones) can cover ground so much more quickly. On a  big one you could blast out hundreds of KM a day but that's a whole different type of trip altogether, I'm therefore going to think of a motorcycle only as a little C90/scooter or max 125cc which will naturally limit your speed.

The little villages we've been riding through on the bicycles have been lovely. Kids shouting out "hello", chickens crossing the road, dogs lazily getting up, stretching moving out of our way. At a speed of say 15km/h you get a proper opportunity to look at things and feel (if only slightly) part of the place. But after about 500km of them, we've kind of seen enough...

When we hired a scooter the other day I slowed down from a cruising speed of 50-60km/h to about 25-30 when going through the villages. That's way faster than on a bicycle. You definitely don't see or hear as much but you still do get a pretty good idea of what is going on there and I'd see it as a pretty good compromise of immersion in location vs distance covered. So that's +1 to the scooter!

One way that a bicycle wins hands down is bureaucracy when entering/exiting a country. No customs paperwork, no hassle, just straight in. You could travel on a £10,000 bicycle with no questions asked or on £1,000 worth of scooter and have a whole load of costs & potential hassle. It's crazy, but d'ems da rulz. +1 to the bicycle.

Also getting a bicycle to and from your chosen start/finish point is so much cheaper and easier. It could be as simple as riding to the airport, taking your pedals off, turning the handlebars and heading straight to check in. Try that with a motorbike! So another +1 to pedal power.

A big factor is which country(s) you plan to visit, what you want to see whilst you are there and how long you've got to do it in. Generally speaking, in a fixed amount of time, on a bicycle you will be able to see less places but potentially experience more of the ones that you do get to visit than on a scooter. A 200km diversion to see a castle/waterfall/beach on a bike just might not be possible if you're on a limited schedule (or its on the other side of a mountain range) , where as on a scooter, you could be there in a day. 

Developing countries tend to have less roads so you may find that the only option to get around certain areas is the main highway. These can be pretty bad on a scooter but believe me, they are worse by pedal power.

This thought process could go on all day and you'd never get a definitive answer, particularly not one that would be correct for everyone. 

After doing a bit of travelling on both forms of transport I think it really comes down to attitude. Presuming you have plenty of time, and if you can mentally slow yourself down, then I think a little motorbike could well be the right choice. But before you head off to Scooters R us with your credit card, do have a quick think about whether you'd feel that petrol over pedals may just be too easy an option. Oh and also check out the size of your beer belly before and after the trip.....