Thursday, 27 February 2014

Onto the Mekong

Bullet points

-Our journey in Laos has taken us south from Luang Prabang to Vientianne and onward through the cities of Thakek, Seno, Pakse to Don Khong Island on the Mekong River.
-We will soon cross into Cambodia and continue to follow the Mekong River southward.

  After a fun ride in the north of Laos, Luang Prabang proved a fun town to be stopped in for a couple of days. For the first time we laid eyes on the great Mekong river, already a phenomenal mass of water even this far from the sea and in the height of the dry season. With a population of 50, 000 it was big enough to provide us with a few treats and comforts and more importantly some bike replacement parts (again!). Being tucked amongst hills and at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers it all adds up to being a pretty pleasant place to hang out.

Mekong River from Phousi Hil, Luang Prabang.
Monks and Bamboo Bridge, Luang Prabang.
  Yet more hills awaited us as we set out again on the road south, each day consisting of at least one big climb and plenty of ridge top undulations, passing through villages of woven houses, some nice forest land interspersed with deforested slopes, and into dramatic limestone karst country. After three days we very suddenly dropped from the hills and exited out onto expansive flat lands like we’ve not seen in our whole year of riding. 

Enroute to Vang Vieng

Back into dramatic limestone country

Out onto the flatlands and long straights
Getting in the groove of flat land riding has proven to be quite a change, each day achieving many more kilometres but with less variety with which to stimulate the mind as we rolled on down into Southern Laos. In Laos there are two distinct seasons, wet and dry. Right now we are nearing the end of the dry season meaning that far from my misconception that all of South East Asia would be green and lush we have found a land that is dry, dusty and largely colored in shades of brown. To be honest we’d both say the recent days riding have held the least interest for us of our whole trip, yet we had a curiosity for this area and that curiosity has now been met, so we hold no regrets whatsoever. Even among the mundane there is plenty to observe and mull on…

In the north we loved seeing hoards of kids commuting to school together on push bikes.  Unexpectedly, from our short observations, motorbikes seem to be the more common mode of transport in the south, even amongst young school students! As the push bike is making a resurgence in much of the Western world I suspect here there will be a continuing trend toward racing around on a motorbike for some time yet. How the world swings in strange roundabouts!

What a beautiful sight!
 We rode with a group of really nice kids as they went home for their lunch break from school. We’ve come across very little English language in Laos (other than in tourist destinations) yet to our surprise in this relatively remote village these kids could all speak easily with us. I suspect it’s a result of one very motivated, committed and skilled teacher at the school. It’s quite phenomenal to think of the impact that this teacher will likely have and the opportunities that may well open up for these kids as a direct result. I’m not suggesting that speaking English is the be-all-and-end all, but let’s be honest with the world the way it is being an English speaker has huge advantages. What a reminder it is that a great teacher can have a big impact!
Joining the commuters.
To save ourselves a little time we took bus journey through some of Central Laos. We opted for the “local bus” rather than “VIP” bus in order to save $6.  The 350km journey, on well sealed, straight flat roads took 8 hours! Why? Breakdowns, re-loads, unloads, flaming vehicles blocking the road, picking up passengers from another broken down bus, and plenty of mystery stops with no explanation for anyone on board!

Road blockage. Eventually we raced by so we'll never know the outcome of this drama.
 Laos food isn’t too bad, we just find there’s not always enough of it to fuel our cycling engines. As our return to NZ gets ever closer I find food is becoming more and more of an obsession and several times now food crises have arisen! The greatest challenge is not simply the lack of food it’s just not quite knowing what food sources lie ahead. Will we get a hearty feed of eggs and rice and bananas for lunch, or will be left stranded with a measly little noodle soup?! The term ‘food security’ has taken on a new meaning for us!
Food crisis victim.
 I don’t know if it’s a result of natural atmospheric conditions or a consequence of all the burn-off that goes on at this time of year but each morning we see a stunningly beautiful sunrise. The sun glows orange through the haze and can easily be looked directly at. A pretty reward for those 530am wakeups!
Dawn beauty. Possibly a result of atmospheric pollution.
 Even amongst the northern hills many of Laos’ rivers are navigable by motorboat and so a strong river culture has developed. Now that we’ve reached the flatlands the Mekong has gained a huge volume, has widened, and is home to a larger population and a lot of boating. We’ve entered a river-life where commuters take ferries, tourists cruise on site-seeing vessels, and men buzz about casting their nets from small sleek craft to make their living and feed their families.

Ferry boats

Cruise boats

Work boats
 Sitting on Don Khong Island gazing over the river we pour over the maps in excited anticipation that we will now more or less follow this river to it’s end point, the Mekong Delta in the South China Sea. The river began it’s journey on the Tibetan Plateau and runs 4350km to the sea. We too began our journey on the Tibetan Plateau but by the end of it in just three weeks will have taken a slightly more convoluted journey to the South China Sea…via Morocco!

Final stage to Don Khong Island, Mekong River.

An Intoxicating Aura

An Intoxicating Aura
Reflections on the interface between curiosity and experience

It could well be an ancient phenomenon. 

Here is Scene One, set a thousand years ago:
I’m sitting at the fireside of a friend’s small roadside inn one evening when a traveller descends in from the cold to join our circle. His feet are dusty, his sandals well past worn-in. His walking stick looks strong and business-like and it fits the curve of his hand like a long-time friend. His robe is fringed with the same frayed and dusty look as his sandals, and from the folds of its fabric as he moves through us to settle into his seat waft intriguing scents – the incense of Eastern temples, fragrant spices from the South, the sharp tang of the northern forests.

Through the evening as he quietly, slowly tells us tales of the far-off lands he has trod, we listen spellbound. As he paints pictures with his words, our imaginations flesh it out still more. Mysterious, alluring something like a dream but with more colour and surprise. The strange foods we hear of are as heavenly feasts, the battles with wolves and coldness are tales of epic triumph, even the endless burning deserts are glorious austerity.

Scene Two, last year:
I’m sitting on the cream synthetic leather couch at 67 Hillary Street, Dunedin, the MacBook Pro warm on my lap, a cup of peppermint tea growing cold on the coffee table while I pour over a blog showing photos of Tajikistan’s Pamir. The raggedy endlessly-stretching road, even the slightly leaning wooden power poles, the dusty looking bicycle, all speak to me of adventure. The frames of photographs are small peepholes to some other wonderful, fascinating world. Brightening each of them, suffusing every object and place, is the intoxicating aura of mystery. Everything glows with a kind of otherworldly light. Even the snapshot showing an overnight snowfall blanketing tent and bicycle with a painfully freezing white crust produces in me a warm thrill at the glorious hardships and triumphs of high adventure, and I long to take part.

Scene Three, last month:
Ollie and I laze on the stained gold coloured quilt of a Vietnamese guesthouse, watching a slideshow run though of a random selection of our year’s photographs. We exclaim, sigh and reminisce over a bright Kyrgyz morning, a bread-stop in Georgia, a Turkish coast road. A photo flicks up of Vietnam hill country, and we are quiet. It is too fresh. Our older photos have gained a glow of nostalgia that this does not yet have. Instead it has an almost unsettling quality, reminding us that there is work still to be done to navigate our way safely and successfully through this part of the world, still guesthouses, roads, food and water to be negotiated and attained. I know that within a month’s time, when this chapter too is complete, this photo will glow as brightly with nostalgia as the others around it. For now though it is present, and that is too raw and not altogether relaxing.

Scene Four, recently:
I pull out our map of Central Asia, and look at our wonderful winding route through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. My mind flashes back to the map in the front of the book I read at home, “The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia”. Now our map of the area has memories attached. The names of little villages spring up for me an image of a friendly encounter, a confusing intersection, a particularly good bread oven. The high passes have a 3D and almost a physical memory, I know their height in my legs and lungs, and know the exhilaration of their drops. All so precious. But I wonder if it comes at a cost. I know these places with a different quality than I knew them as I read The Great Game. I’m not certain that these places have not lost some of their size for me. My eyes have seen the peaks, my bicycle wheels have rolled the trade routes, and I have been deeply blessed and in ways changed by them. But the thrill of mystique that made the peaks soar beyond comprehension in my imagination has lessened.

Scene Five, today:
We cycle the road out of Thakkek in Southern Laos. The road we have chosen is a flat road by the mighty Mekong River, fringed with palm trees, orange dirt and a motley collection of housing. Away to the west of us is a line of great looking forest clad karst hills. Appealing in the mystery they hold, they are just out of reach of this journey of ours, leaving us to wonder in curiosity what it is hiding over there. Our ride can only ever be one line on a sprawling map. There are always things just off our map that are tantalizingly unexplored. What is it like further up the Bartang Valley? How about in South Eastern Turkey? What is it like to ride in the Dolomites? Massive thankfulness for our amazingly full journey precludes any regrets, but does not squash a curiosity in the next hills over, the other road, the country across the border. Terra incognito (land unknown) will surely always be alluring!

Concluding thoughts:
I am not sad to not go everywhere in the world. I am massively happy that we have been given a world that as hard as a person tried, they could never reach the devastating position of having “seen it all”. I like it that some things are left to the imagination, because imagination can give so much delight! When we hear or read a tale, unbidden our mind builds worlds of pictures, pictures that seem deep with concept, feeling and wonder. I love it that for me, the ideas of the frozen Far North, where snow-covered forests are filled with bison, wolves and bears and the huge ice covered rivers lead out into a stark endless sunset tundra, are just that for me, just ideas. Ideas huge in their aura of mystery and wonder. Enriching me even without a physical encounter.

We look forward to getting home and watching some David Attenborough documentaries, reading more tales of daring exploration in the Himalaya and Pamir, finding out about recent Chinese history, keeping tabs on dam projects on the Mekong and finding “terra incognito” on the rough tracks behind Swampy Summit, Dunedin. So many ways to love and delight in this fascinating world. Our bicycle journey this year has given us questions, encouragements, sadnesses, curiosities, revelations. We have been challenged and enriched by experiencing the world in this way, and when we are back home we will carry all this with us, although we’re still unsure all the ways that that will play out. For certain, we will continue to find delight both in the intoxicating aura of the world's distant wonderlands, and in exploring the terra incognito that is there for the finding not that far from the back doorstep.


Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Hills of Northern Laos

Bullet Points:

- We rode across the Vietnam - Laos border at Dien Bien Phu to enter northern Laos.
- We spent one week cycling on the quiet hilly main roads and then a dirt backroad to get to the city of Luang Prabang.
- Our route was Namnga, Muang Khoua, Pak Nam Noi, Oudomxay, Pakmong, Nong Khiaw, Viang Kham, Sam Soun, Pakxeng, Luang Prabang.
- After a couple of days resting in Luang Prabang we now coninue our ride south towards Vientiane.

A Laos Morning

I think a part of me will be
riding these roads.
This morning cool air on my bare arms and
breakfast in my belly,
a hill under my wheels. Heart, lungs, legs
working strong and clean.
Bright morning mist glowing around me,
lip prickling droplets as I turn my face upwards seeing
white giving way to hot blue.
Smells of vegetation,
sounds of birds and people
calling out as they work.
Happy sounds.
And around the corner the happiest – is it not
for us all? –
Children’s brightness, speedy hands waving, clear voices
calling, bare
feet running in the soft dusty verges.
Scurries and shining grins, a giggle.
And the youngest
watching steadily, small feet planted squarely on the earth,
all that is solemn in their large eyes and careful quiet
greeting. Fresh in reverence at the
sacredness of a meeting.
where I am riding these roads forever and
this morning.


First Impressions of Laos

The reports we'd heard had all been rave reviews: "so peaceful," "very friendly," "highlight of South East Asia,""cycling paradise." So it was with pretty high expectations that we crossed the border last week, if also with some uncertainty about just how well we could really find all these claims met. It took all of about five minutes to realise that there was a huge difference on the roads - a near absense of motorbikes, or of any traffic at all. It really was peaceful, and we relaxed very happily into cycling the empty roads with a backing track of bird song and insects in place of the motorbike engines and tooting. Any stress left from the last week oozed off us into the quiet bush-covered land.

This legend of Laos friendliness was the next one to be overwhlemingly verified. As we rode into the first bamboo and thatch village we were greeted with the greatest celebrity welcome one could wish for, with children leaping up from their games and appearing from behind or within huts to greet us with calls of "Sa-bai-deeeeee!" (hello), sometimes followed up by the boldest spokespeople with "Thank you! Okay!! I love you!" This was accompanied by the most physically rigourous arm waving I've encountered. The adults, while not so flamboyant in their welcome, were equally warm in their returns of "Sa-bai-deee" as they worked, cooked or sat gathered in groups in the shade of their doorways.

So far in northern Laos we have seen people living with less of the mod-cons than we encountered in neighbouring Vietnam. A lot of cooking is done over open fires, a large number of houses are built of natural materials (wood, bamboo, palm), loads are carried by foot and a lot of back breaking labour appears to be put into gathering and processing by hand certain plant crops. Interestingly, alongside this we have noticed a greater international presence, with offices of NGOs such as World Vision, European Union marked trucks, Chinese road and dam building projects and China-Laos partnership hospitals and buses. After our time here, we will watch with interest how Laos develops in the next years and decades. Laos was known from the 14th to the 18th century as "Xan Lang", which translates to "Land of a Million Elephants", and we've learnt that it's rich forests have also been home to tigers, bears, monkeys, gibbons, snakes, rhinos, bats and a multitude of birds. The government has set aside a number of National Biodiversity Conservation Areas in an effort to protect these, but of course there are also significant pressures from deforestation for timber and farming, population growth, hydroelectric projects and mineral exploration. While we have enjoyed the bush-clad hills and relatively clear looking rivers, we have seen some of these pressures and realised it is not quite the unspoilt jungle paradise I had half hoped to find.

The main two cautionary notes that sat alongside the rave reviews from cycle tourists were that in Northern Laos there are a LOT of hills, and that food can be a bit scant. So we entered the country well stocked up with Vietnamese snack bars and back-up instant noodles, but quickly embraced the local specialty here, sticky rice. We have marvelled at its incredible qualities. It sits in the stomach like a happy brick, leaving you feeling full even after its energy-giving properties have well expired. It has a wonderful clumping ability in its stickiness, so that it is best eaten as finger food, pulling off pieces and dipping them in chilli sauce. It is sold in half-kilogram lumps for 80cents a pop, and can be taken as a takeaway lunch in small plastic bags. We have also enjoyed omelettes, noodle soups and the occasional bread roll, but they can't compete with the fill-for-money qualities of sticky rice!

The hills have been formidable at times, but wonderful. We really are passionate hill-cycle tourers, to the point where I'm a little anxious how I will find the upcoming flat lands of southern Laos and Cambodia. The bicycles though will be glad of some flatter land coming up I think, with signs of wear and age now coming rather thick and fast. Although we have replaced Ollie's bottom bracket, the rims, brakes, pedals and tires are all keeping us on our toes! Anyway, before we quite hit those flat lands, we have three more days of spectacular sounding hills as we make our way south towards the capital city Vientiane. I can't wait!


Sunday, 9 February 2014

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Bullet points

-North West Vietnam provided us with a few more days and a few more km’s of lovely cycling.
-We had the bottom bracket (the piece where your pedal cranks pivot around) break down on Ollie’s bike. This took a week and a whole bunch of bus journeys, problem solving and patience to get replaced.
-We have now entered Laos, our 14th country of the trip. It is a splendid place to be!


“Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”

In our minds cycling through Northern Vietnam would consist of two phases; the first stretching north from Hanoi up to Lao Cai, a city bordering China on the banks of the great Red River; and the second phase from Lao Cai through Vietnam’s tallest mountains and then south to Dien Bien, our gateway to cross the border into Northern Laos. As it turned out things weren’t quite that simple!

Life in the fast lane. Descending  from Vietnam's high places. Sapa.

Temporarily lost on a backroad near Lao Cai

Contemplative valley riding. Lai Chau to Muong Lay.

On Jan 30th the Vietnamese saw in their New Year. The ‘Tet’ holiday is the biggest event of the year and in the days and weeks beforehand we’d witnessed their preparations. Families were gathering, blossom and mandarin trees were being carted around on every motorbike, fattened pigs were being killed, and apparently gold fish and budgies were being released.

Typical Vietnamese rural scene

 As is the sad case with many folk, I saw in the New Year crouched over a toilet bowl hurling out the contents of my lunch. No alcohol had I consumed, not even a shot of rice wine, just a seemingly innocent Chicken noodle soup that turned out to be not so innocent after all. The Vietnamese were singing, fireworks were exploding, and I was rushing between my bed and the bathroom, violently emptying my stomach. “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!” (“Happy New Year!”)

Jan 31st dawned sunny and clear and my little bug appeared to have passed, the Chicken Noodle soup had all but passed out of me. From Lai Chau we cycled off into the new year, a little weak but in good spirits. The first 80km went well enough and then with a ‘clunk’ and a ‘crack’ and the tell tale wobble of my pedals I ground to a halt. “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”

My bottom bracket had decided that after offering its services for 13 000km it had done enough, it’s journey was over. I can’t complain really, that’s a fair few pedal revolutions it’s allowed me to do. But to carry on our way we’d have to find another, so the search for bottom bracket number two began. We set to work!

To sum it up in brief, we pushed bikes up hills, we waited for buses, we spent unplanned nights in unmarked villages, we rode on long haul bus journeys, we waited for bike parts to arrive, we navigated the chaos that is Hanoi once more, and we bartered and begged in chaotic bus yards to get us and our bikes on journeys at a time when all of Vietnam seemed to be traveling. The whole week has been a patience-testing, problem-solving fiasco. “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”

Wating for a bus. This one never arrived.

 “No bus to Dien Bien.” I couldn’t believe what I was being told. 36 hours earlier this same woman had assured me buses would leave at 6pm and 7pm from this station to Dien Bien. After a bit of fossicking and haggling it really did appear there were NO buses to Dien Bien.
“Take bus number 16 to My Dinh,” said another women, My Dinh being another station in Hanoi, a long way from where we were, in a direction we did not know, in a city of 9 million, in the middle of a chaotic public holiday. Bus 16 being an overcrowded local bus which we didn’t stand a chance of getting on with our bikes. With no map and no ideas we were stumped. “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”

Stumped that is until Anna and I both simultaneously had the same stroke of genius. If we can’t ride on the bus…let’s ride behind the bus! As Bus 16 rolled out of the yard we were hot in pursuit. For 12 crazy kilometres we sprinted and halted, we inhaled hot and stinky bus exhaust, we hollered and giggled, and as night fell we arrived victorious at My Dinh station…only to find all buses to Dien Bien were booked.
“Please come back tomorrow sir. No we cannot sell you a ticket. Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”

Hot on the tail of Bus # 16
 By the end of Thursday Feb 6th we were relieved to have escaped the clutches of Hanoi and be back in Dien Bien with functioning bikes, feeling like we’d completed something special. We honestly felt victorious and quite proud of our efforts and the fact that at no point had we completely lost the plot despite running into hurdle after hurdle! On Friday Feb 7th we rode out of Vietnam and into Laos, the work of the last week made our entry oh soooo sweeeet!! 

Celebratory feasting on western goodness. Medicinal for recovering stomachs.

Not the most remarkable photo at first glance but the first opportunity we've ever had to photograph a border post. Usually they're surrounded by armed guards, this time we had to rouse the slumbering guard from his post-lunch siesta!

Finally we've arrived in Laos!
 Chuc Mung Nam Moi!! Thankyou Vietnam for a Tet New Year we will savour forever!!

20 metres later...a flat tyre! What a welcome!


HUGE thank you to Hazel Murray for showering us with warm hospitality and great home cooking during our spontaneous stay in Hanoi and for pointing us to some great shops where we could indulge in some yummy treats!! This bike-breaking cloud most certainly had a silver lining! Thanks!