“Thank You & Goodbye”

It’s been a fair while since I last posted anything so I thought it best to wrap this up now before I never touch it again. It’s possible i might come back and write a bit about my month in Cambodia, and also a kit review, but for now please see the final synopsis below.

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Cycle touring has really exploded in the last 5 years. I met many many people over the months doing the same thing. And not just athletic young guys, but men and women of all ages and shapes, and even children and toddlers (on the back of tandems, or in trailers). Cycling with Hebert for 3 months through South China and Vietnam is testament to the fact that I could continue doing this kind of thing for another 40years should I so desire. And I certainly won’t rule out the idea or cycling some of the world’s other continents. I met a lot of people who were attracted to the idea of cycle touring and fancied doing it one day. All I would say is that the only prerequisite you need is an enjoyment of cycling and the outdoors and everything else will follow.

I left the UK with many people asking me why I’m not travelling with anyone else, but in the end I probably spent 70% of the time with others, and just 30% alone. Solo cycle touring, and cycling with others are two sides of the same coin, and in my mind both as important as each other. There were times when I was glad I was alone and opportunities which I seized which would have been difficult to do with others. Equally there were times when having a companion made the whole thing much more enjoyable. Simple things like buying food or keeping an eye on your bike when you are sorting something out are so much easier in a team. If there was one bit where I was glad I was with someone else it was the stretch through the Pamir Mountains. To do that alone would have been ‘ardcore, although I met several who did just that.

Regrets – Naturally there were many things I wish I could have done which I didn’t on this trip. Besides the obvious (not making it through Pakistan to India), I wish I had cycled more of Turkey,  visited more places in Iran, seen some of East China, hung out a bit more in Saigon and South Vietnam and a whole bunch of other things that don’t immediately spring to mind. The one consolation you have with this kind of thing is that you can’t see or do it all. An interesting phenomenon though about regretting not doing something was that every time I did just that, then something positive would happen over the next few days which wouldn’t otherwise have happened had I done that other thing. So for instance, I mentioned that I regretted not checking out Bratislava, but then the next day I met Patrick, Ugo, and Martin and spent a really fun few days with them which I don’t think I would have changed for a non-event of a night out in Bratislava.

Relativity – On paper the idea of ‘I’m gonna cycle to Asia’ may sound a bit extreme or crazy but I came to realise after a conversation with Cycle Strong Man Chris that it’s all just a question of relativity. One person’s cycling to the park and back is another person’s 40000km round the world tour. Looking over a world map I really enjoy the tacit knowledge I have acquired about the people, the culture, the landscape, and the distance in terms of pedal power it takes to cycle from A to B.

A level of flexibility is required when you cycle tour, and you need to be ready to change your plans at the drop of a hat. We read some horror stories about Iranianvisa.com (although they actually proved well helpful despite their threatening emails demanding cash), and for a while I was toying with various back-up plans for the continuation of my trip if Iran was a no-go. I was considering heading South through Syria and onwards to Jordan, but already then in July last year the political situation wasn’t looking great. So had it come down to it I think I would have tried a more roundabout way for getting into Central Asia i.e. through Georgia, Azerbaijan then across the Caspian Sea on the Caspian Sea Monster.

Cycle touring pros and cons: There are many pros and cons to cycle touring and there were definitely times where I would have been easier/cheaper to be backpacking. One of the pros which stand out for me is the greater contact with people that you have as a cycle tourist compared to other forms of travel. When your cycling it’s obvious what you would need e.g. food, water, and shelter, but if you turn up in the middle of nowhere with just a backpack on then it’s not so obvious what your intentions are and, I imagine, people would be less inclined to come up and talk to you and maybe offer you some food etc. I remember asking one traveller in Cambodia if she had had much contact with locals during her trip to which she replied ‘Yeah, I’m really good buddies with a Tuk Tuk driver I met in Angkor Wat’. Well fair enough, but the most interesting and genuine encounters with locals for me were the ones where there was no exchange of cash. The major disadvantage of cycle touring is if you need to get somewhere quickly like a trance party in South Cambodia when you’re stuck in the middle of Vietnam for instance. Or if your visa is coming to end and you wanna check out some other faraway places. It can fast become an expensive and hassle laden business transporting your bike and kit on public transport

Bike Maintenance: Boring! Throughout the whole of the previous 9 months I think the only form of bike maintenance I did was fixing about 25 punctures, removing a link from the chain, oiling the chain, replacing one brake cable, replacing the brake pads and tyres, tightening the odd loose nut, tightening the headset, fitting a temporary Kevlar spoke replacement, truing the wheel, and washing my bike maybe twice. Oh and replacing the chain and cassette, but the guy in the shop did that for me in China without any asking or prompting and for free. With the help of people who knew what they were on about I designed my bike to be as robust as possible, and for the most part it worked. I think those on €3000 bikes were much more inclined to clean their bikes thoroughly at every suitable opportunity.

Roughing it: It’s not for everybody but I really enjoyed the camping element of cycle touring. I know some people would be put off by not knowing where they are going to sleep every evening, but for me that was something exciting. As previously mentioned I came across some 10 out of 10 camping spots over the months, but also some get my head down in some places you don’t even want to know about. I tended to be more of a late starter and late finisher, often cycling ‘til well after the sun had gone down when I was cycling alone. I have to say though I much prefer the philosophy of getting up early and finishing early so that you can make use of some of the light (and sometimes warmth) in the evening to do anything you want to do. Those travelling with lots of expensive gear and bike were a lot less likely to be up for camping somewhere mildly dodgy, while others who had less electronics and unnecessary equipment were far more up for roughing it in more risky places. I guess I lay somewhere in the middle. One thing’s for sure though – no matter if it’s your €500 bike or your €3000 bike that gets stolen, then that this is your cycle touring holiday over.

Technology: Information is power and all that. For anyone who last went travelling 10years ago or thereabouts, it might be an odd experience walking into a hostel and seeing so many people staring into smart phones, netbooks, and tablets. One thing I found supremely useful during the trip was the All of Wikipedia app for the iPod Touch – a 4.5 gb cache of the whole of Wikipedia (minus the photos). Also interesting to consult was the World Facts app detailing everything about resources and demographics for any country and comparing it to others. The bike repair app I had came in really useful too. I’m still not sure if I would go for a GPS if I ever do another tour. For me it definitely takes away from the romanticism of travelling and not knowing exactly what lies ahead. It is pretty cool however to be able to dump your data in Google Earth and see exactly where you have been. There was a time in South Vietnam where I had no phone, no compass, no watch and no speedometer. Just a map and the sun. It was in fact a bizarrely liberating experience…until I got lost.

Money & the appearance of wealth: Sorting out money was surprisingly doable although at times a hassle. I managed to do the whole thing just using my debit cards at ATMs which of course required a little forward planning. I forget how many deals with various shady characters at borders I have now done, but actually it was something I came to enjoy. Having the XE currency conversion app was a mighty useful bargaining tool. Cycle tourists are, generally speaking, never really made of money (hence sleeping on the floor in a hotel back room in Ashgabat for $5, as opposed to the $135 hotel), but from the point of view of others it must look like we are minted cycling around on our flashy bikes, whipping out fancy cameras, and iPods and iPhones to check we’re not getting stitched on the price of half a kilo of Satsumas. A $20 dollar a day budget may not seem like a lot for us, but there was no doubt that for some people that this was a lot of money. Labourers in Cambodia for example got paid just $4 per day (7am-5pm) for building a house. So $20 is a working week of money for people and it was important to bare this in mind at times.

Schengen Agreements, Reciprocity, and Playground Politics: You might have gathered how much of a hassle sorting out visas was during this trip. It is something you can sort at home but for some places e.g. Turkmenistan you have to specify the exact date of entry for your visa. Of course it is very difficult to plan that far ahead. From the moment I decided I would actually do this to the moment of departure was maybe 3 months. I met others who been planning their trips for over a year and were much more on top of the visa game. While it was at difficult and expensive for me a Brit to get visas for Iran and the Central Asian countries, there is no doubt it would be 10 times more difficult the other way around, and to the extent I couldn’t really complain.

There were many exciting times on this trip but a few stand out: Final night before entering Iran in Doguabayzit,,Turkey Ararat in view out the guest house window, first day in Iran blitzing it through the rush hour traffic, arriving in the ancient Silk Road towns of Uzbekistan (Tajikistan), entering China, cycling through the luscious valleys of South China, and North Vietnam, and others which I was thinking about in bed the other day but I can’t remember now. Soon after I left in dawned on me how good it would have been to document the whole thing using a GoPro camera. It would have made for a nice fast-forward Youtube video. Actually I think I met one couple who were doing just this, but I need to track down their blog to check if this is true.

On a personal level one of the most interesting things I found about cycle touring is the headspace you enter into after around the 120km mark. It’s something I experienced just a handful of times on this trip but essentially it is a different level of consciousness, like you have climbed above the day to day noise and attained a higher of clarity of thought. So something like a cross between the runner’s high, and a meditative trance state. May sound like nonsense, but I’m sure endurance athletes experience the same thing….

I’ve often wondered during this trip what the ideal amount of time to do a cycle tour is. I met some people who were doing just a one month tour of the Pamirs, others who were doing a four month tour, many who were doing a similar thing to me, and then a few people who were doing mammoth multiple year tours. I don’t really think there’s an answer to the question ‘cos it depends on so many factors but I think you need more than four months to really get into it. An interesting feature of travelling is the transitory nature of relationships. In any of the places I hung around in for a week or more it felt great to nurture longer lasting relationships with people even if it was just a nod of acknowledgement with the old lady down the road you bought some eggs off the other day.

Favourite country: Iran. Why? Because this was the country I had most contact with the people and it was the most significantly different culturally speaking of any countries I had ever been to up until that point. Had I cycled more of Turkey then I’m sure that would have been in the running for favourite country but I just didn’t spend enough time there to soak it up properly. Iran was doubly interesting because it shattered so many preconceptions I had of the country. I was pretty ignorant about a lot of places I cycled through on this trip (and still am) but there is a certain feedback loop in that I am now eager to learn much more about the history, the culture, and politics of all the places I travelled through. One thing which was interesting travelling through the Middle East, and further East into Asia was witnessing the non-Euro centrism of news, politics, and discussion.

The International Bogeyman Phenomenon: It was funny how wherever I travelled I was always warned by others about the people in the next place. In Turkey ‘watch out for the Kurds’, in Kurdish Turkey, the Kurds: ‘Watch out for the Iranians’, in Iran, the Iranians: ‘watch out for the Turkmen’ and so on and so forth the whole way. That’s no joke it really continued through every country including England and France (watch out for the French Farmers!), and even Islands in Thailand (watch out for people in the next bay – they’ll ‘ave ya). Now there are of course places you would be a fool to go cruising around on a bike. Certain areas in South Pakistan, South East Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq to name a few. But what shocked me was how many travellers were travelling to these countries in the first place. The world is surely a lot more friendly and welcoming then a fixation on Western media might lead you to believe.

Looking back over a few previous posts it’s a clear that I could have done with an editor to correct the spelling mistakes, repeated words, and discombobulated half-sentences. Most of the posts were bashed out late at night before getting up early the next morning so you’ll have to forgive that. It’s been an interesting experience writing this blog, if at times a little head-doing and stressful. Towards the end when I was following a very well-trodden tourist trail it started to feel a bit like having to do my homework hence the drop in enthusiasm over the last two months.. You have of course been reading the censored version of events for the last 9 months, and the really best bits you’ll have to speak to me about in person one day. Before leaving I read a few other peoples blogs which gave a day by day account of what they got up to ‘Today I cycled 101km, it was hard, there were lots of hills, the sun was shining and it was very hot’..’Today I cycled 79km, it was even harder, the hills were steeper, the sun was stronger…’ so on & so forth ad nauseam. I’m sure I didn’t get it right every time, but I tried to select the more interesting stories to come out of my adventure although naturally there were a trillion and one things which didn’t make it onto the blog. I must have been given nearly a dozen blog addresses by various cyclists I met and I look forward to having a proper read of those once I get back. For now though I’m gonna sit out the rest of my time on various islands in Thailand before returning to the UK. Unfortunately I got my iPod nicked back in Hanoi so that was all the statistics, notes, unique photos/videos, and contacts from the whole trip lost. So if I met you on my trip and you were expecting to hear from me when I got back then I’m really really sorry about that. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and some of the funny/stupid/boring stories to come out of it. I want to say a big thank you to all those who took the trouble to leave comments over the months….

JFK once said ‘nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride’. I’m not sure that statement is universal but he was definitely onto something. To wake up most days for the best part of a year and think ‘All im gonna do today is cycle wherever I want to cycle’ was a fantastic and liberating feeling. I would have liked to continue onwards to New Zealand, or possibly deeper into Malaysia and to Singapore, but Thailand certainly isn’t a bad place to finish this adventure. I realise I haven’t got round to putting the photos up from some of the more interesting places I visited on this tour. For those of you who have subscribed I’m sure you will get a notification, otherwise just check back in about a month. Tonight is half-moon which means there is a certain party happening here on this island in so I’m off to see it lives up to its reputation…

So once again, thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed, and see you soon.

-Talan

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Paradise Cave / Cambodia Calling (December 23rd – 28th)

Grrrr. You know when you spend ages wording everything just the way you want it, and then you lose it all? Well that just happened. So enjoy reading a rough unedited version of this post….
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To visit paradise cave we had to take part in a tour of Phong Nha National Park. We opted for the back of the motorbike option as opposed to the jeep ‘cos it sounded more fun. The entrance to the park was like something straight out of Jurassic Park. Paradise cave was only discovered in 2005, and opened to the public just last year. It was everything I hoped it would be. Well, it was huge but it could have been a little bit bigger. Apparently Deer Cave in Borneo is big enough to fly a jumbo through it. Take that Paradise. No, it wasn’t that big (probabaly more suitable to fly Aquila through it), but it was the magical stalagtite and mite formations which really made this cave. Think many many 15+metre high collages of hyper-intricate mushroom/corals, pterodactyls, Elephant Man faces and strange geometries from the surrealist art world and you are getting close. That this cave wasn’t lit up like a disco was a welcome change from many of the other show caves I have seen. The wooden walkway they had built was pretty professional too.

It was heard not to imagine being the first person to discover this cave. What an incredible experience that must have been. But the reality of actually searching for caves like this through dense forest would be hard work if nothing else. Bug of the month, you may remember, died a sorry death after entering Iran and the internet lulz of Central Asia and China. Well had it continued then Vietnam would be miles ahead in the Best Bug polls. Barely a day passes here when you don’t see some sort of strange insect….

A 5.30AM bus would take me from the Farmstay to the ancient imperial capital Hue where I would rejoin Herbert and Philip in time for the Christmas celebrations. The Christmas party at the hostel was everything you imagine it would be. What a climax Brown Eyes nightclub proved to be….  Hue itself was moderately interesting. The citadel was impressive to see, but it definitely lacked the X-factor. Tens of drone tourists were enjoying the thrills of donning traditional attire and moping around the empty courtyards in the drizzle. Much more interesting were the tanks, helicopters, and war planes on display in the military museum next door. It would have been good to check out the demiltarized zone, not least the famous Vinh Moc tunnels, but time-wise it just didn’t fit with my plans. You see those Finnish girls back at the farmstay planted a seed….

After I learned of the 7 day trance party happening in Cambodia there was only ever going to be one place I would spend this most exciting of New Years: Brown Eyes Cambodia. Ditched were plans for Savanakhet and and the snore factor 5000 Four Thousand Islands in Laos. In their place are plans to see in 2012 the only way it should be seen in: a banging trance party! Yes 2012 is nearly upon us. The year we have all been subconsciously waiting for. The year when novelty will reach such cataclysmic levels that we collectively tear a new hole in the space-time-socio-politico-technologico-transcendento-complex.

It’s amazing how far you can cycle when you set your mind to it. One day I woke up in Hue, set off at lunch time, and 24hours later I found myself 1000km South in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it’s still more commonly referred to. The 20km cycle to a bus station on the other side of town was a blast. If Hanoi was suffering from an infestation of scooters and mopeds, then the situation in Saigon is of epidemic proportions. It would have been fun to hang around to see what the city had to offer. If you are into flashing lights and 1,000,001 cafes then Saigon would be hard to leave. Time, however, dictated that I make my way South on the double to make it to Cambodia. So last night I stayed in a hotel in Rach Gia in the South of Vietnam and today I cycled 90km nice n easy against a healthy headwind to Ha Tien – the final town before I cross the boder into Cambodia tomorrow morning. The temperature here must be up around 30C. With the assistance of the combustion engine I am finally in a place where I can say that it is definitely now shorts and T-shirt weather again. It felt amazing to cycle along the coast just 10metres away from the sea in places. Strange too cycling West towards the sunset for the first time since leaving. There are 150km to the festival site so if everything goes to plan I should arrive lunchtime after tomorrow. Aint no rush now, just gonna roll nice and easy in the warm sunshine…

What a year 2011  has proven to be. Not the cycle tour although that’s been pretty fun too, but the goings-on in the world at large. The riots, the uprisings, the revolutions, all the stories that have come to light… so much has happened it’s been nearly impossible to keep on top of it all. This quote from the keynote speech at last year’s C.C.C. sums things up pretty well: ‘Most of today’s politicians realise that nobody in their ministries, or any of their expensive consultants, can tell them what is going on any more. They have a steering wheel in their hands without a clue what – if anything – it is connected to. Our leaders are reassuring us that the ship will certainly survive the growing storm. But on closer inspection they are either quietly pocketing the silverware or discreetly making their way to the lifeboats.’

The lifeboat I will be choosing this NYE will be that of Quetzalcoatl, who will lead those of us who follow him to unparalleled higher dimensions. For those of you in the UK, you will be celebrating the countdown more or less the same time the sun will be coming up here (give or take a few hours or something) so there’s a fair to good chance I will still be up. To this extent I will celebrate it with you all a second time over. =S So that’s more than enough drivel for this final post of 2011 (and the hotel whose Wifi im rinsing just gave me the boot) so on that note Happy New Year to you all and, more importantly, see you in the New Paradigm!!! XXXXXXXXXX

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Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park (December 21st – 22nd)

[I’ll try to upload some photos for these last two posts later tonight…]

In one of the hotels I stayed in down the Road of Death I read this article about Son Doong Cave and got well excited. Read it first to set the tone for this post…

I found out about The Phong Nha Farmstay from the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree. All the ratings on Trip Advisor were excellent so this seemed like a natural choice from which to start exploration of this karst megascape. The place is run by an Australian and Vietnamese couple, neither of which are here at the moment but in their absence are an American and an Australian, both of whom know the area very well. I spent yesterday picking their brains where the best places to go are etc etc. Apparently there are some secret spots but the park is protected by armed guards carrying AK47s and the last time one of the guys went to check out one of the secret spots (a cave halfway up a mountain where weapons were once hidden) they were chased off by machete wielding locals.

In some ways this is a great time of year to come visit the Phong Nha Ke Bang park in that there are very few Vietnamese tourists here. This is the No.2 tourist attraction in Vietnam for the Vietnamese (Ha Long Bay being No.1). In other ways this is the worst time of year in the sense that the rain means the river water levels are a lot higher and therefore you cannot explore the underground river system as deeply. Apparently the writer for Lonely Planet stayed here recently and liked the place so much he stayed for 5days. The latest L.P. edition for Vietnam will be released in March next year and this place is set to be one of the editor’s choices. So you can guarantee that there will be a massive influx of western tourists coming this way in the near future with the corresponding loss of magic.

Today we went to see the Phong Nha underwater river and cave. I had heard that you can go up 1.5km but last night I heard that it was just 600m. When we arrived we learnt that it was now just 400metres. I was expecting the boat go through the entrance of the river cave and carrying on going, but instead  it stopped at the mouth and from there we walked.

Entrance

I was blown away. The most impressive fractal fungal-looking stalactites n mites I ever seen including a 15 metre phallus-mite stood up in the middle of river. It was strange to see giant sand banks within the cave, not just bare rock. The whole place was lit up like a bad discotheque but was nevertheless remarkable. We were the only people in the cave too which added to the experience. The river disappeared around a corner so we couldn’t follow it very far. I wonder what treasures lay upstream…

One of many churches spotted in Vietnam

I was saddened to learn that the mighty Son Doong cave is closed to the public but will be opened next year. Not only is this the world’s largest cave but it is also something of a natural wonder. A sinkhole caved in creating a mountain within the cave and skylight above. This means there is jungle growing within the cave. A few dinosaurs down there and the picture would be complete… Anyway tomorrow is the main event: Paradise cave by all accounts will set a practically insurmountable benchmark for speleological pizazz. An 80 year old geologist who has spent 60 years exploring caves around the world was here a few months back and reportedly said that this was the most impressive thing he had ever seen. So yeah it best not disappoint! There is the option to do a 2day trek here to another cave (there are over 300 in this area) starting on the 26th, but if tomorrow really does it then I will consider moving on sooner…

In other news, two Finnish girls in the Farmstay just told me about a week long trance party in Cambodia put on by some Frenchies. International lineup, everything that Thailand and Goa isn’t. It’s happening Christmas to the New Year but unfortunately because I’ve got the bike to worry about I won’t be able to make it out there in time. Gutted.

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The Road of Death (December 17th – 21st)

Leaving Hanoi was nice n easy. My original plan was to head South for a day with Hebert and Philip and then  break off West to take the newer Ho Chi Minh highway. One day’s cycle away was Ninh Binh – a place which many told us was a must visit. When we arrived is was a bit like er, why woz it we came here again? It was a lot quieter than the hustle and bustle of tourist crammed Hanoi, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be anything special about it. Well, it turned out the attraction was a National Park just 8km down the road. The next morning we got up early to be the first there. We organised a 2 hour boat trip through various karst peaks and small sections of underground river. It was nice enough, a bit chilly, but for me it felt like this was just the warm up for the mighty Phong Nha National Park.

It made sense for me to continue down South on the same road until as far as Vinh so I continued with die Deutschen. That day the road started to get pretty hellish. It was the usual story of trucks and buses driving too fast, and pot holed roads. I have just heard the statistic that apparently 40 people on this road everyday, and it used to be 200 (!). Seems a bit high if you ask me but from looking at how people drive you could well imagine it. It was on the third day I believe that the road lived up to its reputation as the so called Road of Death. There was a group of onlookers stood in a circle as we were cycling through a town.. As we approached we saw the skid marks of a truck, two scooters on the floor and a police officer photographing the scene in particular the helmets and accompanying big pool of blood next to them. There were no bodies to be seen but from the looks of things it was almost definitely a fatality. Grim. If that didn’t make you want to wear your helmet then I don’t know what would. So the following morning I put mine on.

It was more or less perfect cycling conditions all the way down except we didn’t really see the sun. Much of the way we enjoyed a strong tailwind which on one occasion was strong enough to push us up a hill at 30kph without too much effort.

It was funny how many times people tried to stitch us at restaurants. One night when they brought out the bill, they brought with it a menu with the “new prices” as opposed to the one we had just ordered from. They expected us to pay the new price but of course they didn’t a Dong more than the original menu they showed us. This has been the story time and time again in North Vietnam. Apparently the situation isn’t nearly as bad in the South according to other travellers.

Since back in China we have witnessed many shops and shopping malls decked out with Christmas décor. In Vietnam the situation has been significantly worse, or better if you’re into Christmas marketing. I have now had the joy of hearing Jingle Bells several times, but so far no Wham. What sort of Christmas is this?

On the way down I did some research about the Phong Nha cave system. It seemed the best place to stay was the Phong Nha Farmstay. This meant that it didn’t make any sense to leave AH1 RoD until the last minute. I felt like it would have been nice to have some more hours of sunlight to cycle in. After 7 months of cycling, and especially with the tailwind and on this flat terrain it felt like I could comfortably but down 140s and 150s so it has been annoying having to stop around 5ish.

The final day I said goodbye to Philip and Herbert who were heading further South to the Demilitarised Zone and onwards to Hue where they will be spending Chirstmas eve. I was lot of fun cycling with Hebert the last few weeks, and Philip’s good sense of humour also made it a pleasure to cycle with him too. There’s a good chance we will meet again somewhere down the line..  I cycled off by myself for the first time since I came off my bike in Tajikistan 3.5months ago. I was super excited to be making my way to this UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of the world’s largest limestone aprks.The road made its way past an impressive graveyard shrouded in mist and then through a pine forest, large swathes of which had been chopped down for rubber trees. A Vietnamese guy came out on a motorbike met me in the street, showed my the Phong Nha Farmstay business card, and gave me a one man escort down a mud lane to this unique hostel/homestay where I have been since yesterday.

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Hanoi / Ha Long Bay (Dec 10th – 16th)

 I can’t be bothered to give a full account of Ha Long Bay but it was really fun. It made up for missing out on the karst geology in Yangshuo. Basically it was the same, but x10 and out at sea. I’ll let some photos do the talking…

    

 

 

Hanoi has been a fun city but it seems to be the start of backpacker central and has a very different feel to anywhere I’ve been so far. We’ll see how it continues… The Jazz Club here was lot of fun, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was a bit like a bad Madame Tussaud’s but without the price tag. Plan now is to head South to Phong Nha Ke Bang national park which has the world’s largest cave (Son Doong) plus a 14km long underground river of which you can check out 1.5km. The weather is looking pretty bad. I’m continuing cycling with Herbert and another German guy Philip in his 30s who cycled with Herbert back in Central Asia/China. They aren’t up for cycling through the rain, but I’ll see how it goes. Plan then is to cross into Laos at Lao Bao border crossing then West to Savannakhet for Chrimbo, and then down South for those world famous pumping New Year parties in Four Thousand Islands on the Mekong.

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Tropic of Cancer (December 2nd – 9th)

C ya later Cloudland

Cycling out of Kunming I had forgotten just how bad it was cycling in. Any of the dozen or so cycle tourers who had spent hours cleaning their bikes in the hostel would have been sorely disappointed by the time they got out of the city. I wasn’t one of them. The first day we put down bang on 100km. This took us to a town where we got a great deal on a room in a business hotel. Finally I got to see CCTV News (yes it’s real name) – China’s answer to CNN which Hilary Clinton has been pooping it over. Actually for now she doesn’t have too much to worry about – it’s not a very polished job, but the genie of Chinese state run 24 hour English news coverage available in over 100 countries is now firmly out of the bottle and it will only get better.

The following morning took us past something which was marked on the map as South China Karst. This turned out to be the Rock Forest which many tourists visited while based in Kunming.

The road didn’t cut straight through the heart of it, but we got some great views of this alien landscape which made for fun cycling. Later that afternoon we climbed a good couple hundred metres and a thick fog came down on us. The roads were just one lane wide and the outside metre was caked in a very slippery mud. It made for particularly sketchy and unpleasant cycling. That night we checked into a different type of hotel.

Apparenly of 1.3billion Chinese people, 200million live on under one dollar per day. There was no doubt we entered met some of these people travelling through these hilly regions.

Super Factory

Construction

"Brilliant Resort and Spa"

 

 

 

Herbert has proven to be a Demon on the downhills and also an expert skitcher. Well, semi-pro might be a better description; he was skitching on the front of a truck back in the Taklamakan Desert trying to communicate with the driver while another cyclist was skitching on the back. He lost his balance and the front wheel of his bike span around and jack-knifed sending him flying down the bank. His panniers got totally trashed and he was left with a broken thumb which necessitated a trip to Hong Kong for surgery and a 6 week timeout from his tour. Ouch.

We sampled some really excellent Chinese food those last few days in China.

Lunch

An iPhone app came in really handy for ordering food. There were many occasions in China where waiters served an unordered small bowl of soup with the main dish. ‘Soup’ would probably be an overstatement. Rice/potato water would be a much more accurate description, and it was difficult to know if we were getting stitched just to see if the tourists would drink what they got given.

We saw some new cities being constructed which seemed most of the way complete, but too new to feature on our 2010 map. After crossing under railway line and coming on to the highway we would cross over the Tropic of Cancer and at last enter the tropics. About time too ‘cos it was still chilly. An incorrect reading of the map led us up a road which we thought was would take us down and along the valley bottom. How wrong we were. Instead it went up an up until it went around a bend and BAM opened up a view to breath-taking valley below. It was a postcard perfect picture of how you imagine S.E. Asia to look.

Tropical

We bombed it down the other side losing about 800metres altitude over maybe 10km. Banana trees and pineapples could be seen either side of the road in their thousands.

That final night in China my appreciation of the whole outdoor dance phenomenon backfired spectacularly. We ate out in a restaurant and throughout the duration I could hear electronic music emanating from the streets outside. I was curious what it was and planned to check out it out after dinner. We finished up our drinks and made our way outside (restaurants close very early here). In the car park/market place just outside our hotel was a group of maybe 40 women line/Chinese dancing to upbeatish tunes. We looked around and observed there were no men taking part. Then suddenly the music slowed to Waltz like tempo….A group of women giggling and pointing over to us clearly wanted us, or at least one of us, to join in… ‘Go on mate get in there’, I encouraged Herbert with a gentle shove in their direction. He made out that they wanted me to join but that wasn’t the case ‘No way, definitely you. In ya get!!’ And with that Herbert bravely took centre stage. He did Europe proud. I congratulated him on his performance but I should have foreseen what was coming. The next tune rolled on and, of course, one of the other girls wanted a partner. Alas I pulled the sweater so it was already off to a bad start. It started off awkwardly, and ended with barely a shred of improvement. It was just the four of us on the dance floor, everyone else looking on. Following the second dance we retired to the side and a round of applause from the onlookers marked the end of our ordeal performance. Herbert declared that they were leading the Waltz with the left foot here as opposed to the right. Ah, so that was where I was going wrong…. A funny final night in China.

The final day was an easy 65 km or thereabouts to the border. A wheeler-dealer Chinese guy (the only English speaking person in the border town or so he claimed) helped us change the rest of our RMB to Dong and sorted us out with Vietnamese sim cards. He also asked if we needed Vietnamese visas. He was mates with the immigration official and had a tidy little business on the go with

you where, mate?

him splitting the profit 50/50. £35 it would have cost us to get a visa through him and opposed to the £50+ we paid back in Kunming. He also said that to visit Vietnam he had a contact who would ferry him to the other side of the river instead of going through the whole visa rigmarole. And that then was China. Enter country no.18 – Vietnam.

We slept in a hotel just the other side of the border.

Welcome to Vietnam: Hotel Bathroom

That first day in Vietnam was amazing fun. The forecast was for rain but instead when we woke up it was dry and refreshingly cool. The clouds resembled a giant benevolent mackerel which had descended from the heavens to greet us. People were super friendly. Everybody from the kids to the adults and elderly dressed in traditional clothing were saying hello. Bikers even slowed down as they drove past us to say hello. What a pleasant welcoming.

The North of Vietnam was scenically very impressive. It was prime stomping ground for water buffallos – some of them crashing through the bushes, others tethered to the central reservation. The first night we pitched our tents for the first time since leaving Kunming. And of course we woke up in the morning to medium rain. But it was warm and we were after all in the tropics, so who cared? Hanoi was just around the corner. The final day was a nice 130km in sunshine and tailwind.

Arriving in Hanoi was as crazy as any other big city, only this one was truly overrun by scooters and motorbikes. We checked into Hanoi Backpackers and relaxed after 8 days on the road…

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Tiger Leaping Gorge / Releasing The Dragon (Nov 25th – Dec 1st)

So then, Tiger Leaping Gorge… It was pretty fun. A Chinese guy in my carriage in the sleeper train could speak English so the following morning he helped me buy a ticket back to Kunming but also gave me a lift with his Dad to the bus station. From there it was a 2-3 hour minibus ride to the start of the gorge. I met a South African Jacques working for an oil and gas company out here in China and he would be my companion for the trek. When the bus pulled up we had to buy our tickets immediately, but they never got checked anywhere. The road wound up to what was presumably the entrance (no real signs of gorge at this point, just a big valley). On one side of the valley you could see snow speckled mountains which I think were over 4000m high. It was impressive but I’d seen a lot of similar stuff already so I couldn’t really describe it as breath-taking. I had been warned by a few people back in the hostel in Kunming that on top of the fiver entrance cost there were various points where you had to pay extra to take a photo, and that at one of these points there was a woman who spat at you if you didn’t pay. It took only a matter of seconds to realise that the first woman we encountered was the spitter. We trotted up to the viewpoint and she shot out of her booth and started demanding cash. She motioned that she had constructed this viewpoint by herself and maintained the path. Noticing that we weren’t really that interested she then took her game to the next level and jumped to the ground flipping open a box to reveal some ‘Tiger Leaping Ganja’ she had on sale, and thrust a newspaper cutting in Chinese in our faces to give her story some credulity. We tried moving on and she tried physically blocking us! That didn’t really work so we walked past at which point she launched into a tirade and actually started spitting at us. This continued until we were at least 50metres away. It was all pretty theatrical and a little difficult not to feel bad, but what did just pay that fiver for? What an introduction…

The map showed that the first challenge we would encounter would be the ‘28 bends’. A woman was selling ‘Wind Fungus Root Chinese Medicine Energy Enhancer’ to help conquer the ascent. I can’t say it helped. The bends were easy enough, but by this time the sun was fully out and on us so it was shorts and T-shirt weather and hot enough to break a sweat. Two mountain bikers were half pushing, half down-hilling the path which was pretty brave of them. The path continued pretty uneventfully until we got to the Tea Horse Guesthouse where we stopped for a drink. I was tempted by the ‘Foot Feflexology’ [sic] sign to stay there the night but it wouldn’t have set us up particularly well for the next day so we missioned it on to Half Way Guest House. I think in total there were 6 westerners walking the valley that day, and guess what…two of ‘em were from Brizzle! Haha. The hostel was pretty beautiful – definitely one of the best guest houses I have stayed at this trip. It got pretty chilly at night but the stars were out in full…

The next morning we made our way down to the road in the valley below. Until this point the TLG experience had been good, but not OMG-good. I was a touch disappointed that the whole thing was a big valley and not a gorge. That was about to change.

Don't trip

You had to pay an additional squid to go visit the gorge itself, but thankfully this transpired to be the main event. It was a tricky descent which was at times hard work on the knees. In places there was the option of the ladder or the “safe” option. We took the ladder on both occasions – the sketchiest I’ve ever climbed down. You had to pay another squid to go on the Tiger Leaping Stone. According to the legend the tiger leapt across the 25 metre gap to the other side of the gorge to escape a hunter. Yeah it was a big tiger. It didn’t really look worth it, but right next to the stone was another one which took you close enough to get sprayed by the water.  I don’t think you were really meant to be on it, but here and only here could you feel the raw power of the gorge. Wowzerz. That bit alone made the whole trip worth it.

That evening I went for food with the Bristolians in the “Old” Town back in Lijiang. Lijiang seemed different to any of the other cities I had visited in China; it was super clean and had very few high-rise buildings. The fact that it is at a higher altitude means that it doesn’t suffer the same pollution problems that affect places like Chengdu which sits in a bit of a basin. It would have been good to stay the night and explore the city a bit more the next day, but I had a 10 hour train to be catching…

——

Back in Kunming I’ve finally replaced the cassette and chain on my bike which have now seen the best part of 10K km and are looking and feeling that way. Last night I experienced the sensory overload that was a few hours in a Chinese discotheque – a magnetic mix of electro, karaoke, and Mah-jongg. It was strange – the music was too loud to talk but no one was dancing, just people sat around small tables, and an amateur karaoke singer who fancied herself as a pro singing and gyrating on various podiums. One to avoid. The temperature here has dropped again and it certainly isn’t shorts and T-shirt weather any longer. I really feel like I’m done with the cold now and so I’m gearing up for cycling South. After getting some great advice from a South African/British couple about S.E. Asia my plans for the continuation of my trip are coming together after the unexpected change of direction. I really wanted to go see the beautiful karst peaks out in Yangshuo (and even more so now that I know about it the 800m high karst peaks at Wulingyuan where they filmed some of Avatar), but that would entail sorting out another visa extension, and it just doesn’t work out logistically or financially, and I am really really done with waiting around for visa stuff. So I have picked up my Thai visa (£23 – 60 day single entry. Bizarrely you only get 15days if you travel by land but you get 30 if you fly), and Vietnamese visa (£53 express 1day service for 30 day fixed entry) and tomorrow I’m leaving for Hanoi with Herbert a 66 year old cycle tourer from Germany. He has cycled all the way from Germany and is cycling to Bangkok where his wife is flying out to meet him. Cambodia and/or Laos might also be on the cards but for those countries you can pick up a visa on arrival so we’ll see how that all pans out.

The border is 430km away and the topography is pretty flat or even downhill (Kunming is 1900m above sea level, Hanoi is just 50m) so it shouldn’t be too taxing. I think it’s another 350odd K to the capital so all in all about a week’s cycle.

China has become the country I have spent the most amount of time in (Iran at number 2 at 30days). Apparently the language is actually quite easy to learn to speak but of course reading and writing are a different matter. I have met a surprisingly high number of westerners out here who can speak Mandarin or are in the process of learning it. Alas despite nearly two months spent here my vocabulary extends only to ‘Ni hau’ and ‘Xie xie’ (Hello, and thank you). Oh and ‘Chow mein’ ain’t how you pronounce it back in the UK.

The whole spitting thing is something worth half a mention. People who were out here 5 years ago say the situation has improved drastically but it is still pretty bad. Women are nearly just as guilty as men. The worst thing is when it comes to eating in a café or restaurant – people will spit and flob on the floor the bits of their food they don’t want to eat, and then someone comes along and scoops it all up after they are done. I have on occasions witnessed people cough up a super-loogie and spit on the floor inside a restaurant. Imagine a large dark cancerous chunk of bronchus landing next to you as you’re just about to tuck into your Kung Pao chicken. Mmmm. Chewy. At least the situation is improving huh?

China is where it’s if you’re looking for a comprehensive retail experience. It’s impressive to see so many clothes shops about – if you’re into shopping. I’m not the only one to have commented that by European standards a lot of the women here dress quite provocatively and that’s not just in the dodgier parts of town. Meanwhile you’ll notice that a lot of men dress sharper than their European contemporaries. It seems the Chinese sport the power-clothing to match their economic prowess. In some of the more provincial towns however you could see still see some really beautiful traditional clothing.

I’m pretty sure there were other things I wanted to mention but they don’t come to mind right now. It is such a vast country that you could spend many months cycling around China. I feel like I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of what it has to offer. It’s shame I didn’t make it out to any of the Alpha cities in the East and some other scenic spots, but you canne do everything. All in the all though I have to say that I enjoyed my time here and look forward to returning one day when, perhaps, the country is just one giant Babel of a skyscraper.

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