Thursday 30 June 2011

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Gab helping the locals

Luang Prabang

A bit up and down at times

Last of the Great Mountains

Some might say cheating'

Hwy 13 Laos


Road to the Blue Lagoon

Making Friends

Lazy Bhudda

"Well look at that" said Anja, stirring me from a deep green slumber and pointing out of the open door of the tent. "There is a monkey sitting on that rock eating some monster fruit".
As my eyes finally focused I located the said ape, a handsome feller, surrounded by the discarded shells of mangostines and 'monster fruit', so called (by us) because it reminds us of Animal, the drummer from the Muppet show.
"Funny" I remarked "because we have a couple of kilos of monster fruit and mangostines too".
"Had" said Anja dryly
"The little monkey"!!

After totting up the score over breakfast it was a landslide to the jungle creatures: them 4, us 0.
"Coffee" I shouted at the howling wall of the woods 20 yards across the campsite grass from our tent.
"You haven’t got hot coffee"
They did, it seemed, have most of our other stuff. How can a bag be water-proof but not ant-proof? Usually, when taking a break by the roadside we enjoy watching the ants cart away our crumbs; they have usually cleaned up before we move on and taken everything below-ground. Two ants working together look like removal men carrying a washing machine; "Left a bit John, now turn it, ok, forward.." Sometimes there is an ant road, two lanes, one way empty and the other way bread transport. There is usually one solitary ant on the wrong side going the wrong way, uninterested in our offerings. A rebel. "Turn around No.2763 and don't give me any of that claptrap about preferring brioche"!!
Today though, there was an ant-autobahn removing everything edible from out of our supposedly closed kitchen bag. A bit much, onto of the monkey stealing our fruit from under the fly-sheet, and the giant big-eared deer taking our rubbish bag from its monkey-safe hiding place. I had to chase it round the clearing in the middle of the monsoon night in nothing but my shreddies until the beast finally dropped it. We did not want it dying from plastic gut syndrome or suchlike.
          The flies and mosquitoes and leeches were intent on sucking our blood and even the butterflies kept landing on us and licking our sweat. The grasshoppers had decided they liked camping and were squabbling over who's side of the tent was who's.  Anja wandered off for a pee and came back with a large butterfly, a bush-cricket and numerous beetles riding on her hat. The dark face of the forest spat out the occasional bird, reptile or mammal who weighed up our potential worth, calorie-wise, before disappearing back into the underworld to make devious and daring plans for the next heist. I consider myself a fairly outdoor sort of chap but this day I felt like a townie. In fact a townie would probably fair better than me in this environment as he would most likely have watched more 'Bear Grylls' on the telly. Anja asked if I had to survive in the jungle and could take one thing with me what would it be? On reflection I said a good knife or a machete. Her answer to the same question: a camper-van!

We had the Kao Yai national park pretty much to ourselves people-wise, it being the wet season and all and we followed a deserted strip of tarmac 65kms through the woods. This is the same mountain range (though different named park) where we cycled up that dirt track a few years back Derek, do you remember? We ran out of water on a super-hot day only to find after 25kms the track, which was marked as a though-road on the map, had not the courage to cross the ridge and descend the other side but stopped dead. We had to return all the way. This time we made it right over and the next day pushed and shoved our way down that crazy road past the airport into Bangkok. At least this time it was daylight.

The ride from Vientiane was a pleasant one down the back roads in a seldom visited part of Thailand. We stayed in a couple of motels, camped, or crawled into the bushes as Anja calls it, and stayed in the grounds of a temple, where it seems you are always welcome. The monks are mostly young and seem like guys doing national service. They are all MP3's and mobiles, loud music, tattoos and Pepsi-cola. Very welcoming and generous.

We rode a few days through a strangely European or American style landscape, with dairy cows grazing in lush meadows and milk-churns waiting collection by the side of the road. Only the sugarcane fields and the pine-apple carts reminded us we were in the tropics. Oh, and the fact that you get sunburnt while it’s raining!!

Sunburn on a rainy day makes my skin peel, peel, peel away.

I must buy a new cassette, cogs and chain for my bike, after 17000kms they are all stretched and worn and finally slipping on the hills. Anjas was treated to a new set in Kathmandu. Our puncture-proof tyres bought in Istanbul are still looking good and have not let one thorn through. Our tubes though, wear out from the inside and need to be replaced sporadically, a problem I have been unable to eradicate even with tape wrapped round the rim. Otherwise, though looking a bit travel worn, our steeds our doing well. Us? Well, I am a bit thin and still have matchstick legs but am otherwise ok. Must drink more. Anja has is troubled by some kind of heat-rash thing on her legs but we are hoping some salt water will help. I have prescribed a week lazing about on a beech somewhere, drinking cocktails from a hollowed out pineapple (with or without little umbrella) and occasionally snorkelling or scuba-diving. Hopefully this medicine has no lasting side-effects!

The Road to Luang Prabang

Cloud Forest. Yunnan

Another Basket Case

An entimologists Desk

We are safer on our bikes

Did they put them in the tree museum?

Huay Xai Docks

Down the Mekong

Look out for Whirlpools buddy!

Our faouurite tree

Luang Prabang

If you have inadvertently stumbled upon this blog looking for useful information about cycling in China, or anywhere else for that matter, I apologise and suggest you immediately look elsewhere. If you are still reading I will give one piece of advice: do it, it’s a great place for a cycle-ride. Oh, and one little tip is learn to pick out the Chinese character meaning guesthouse. In Sichuan and Yunnan a symbol that looks like a B with a hat on and a squiggle a bit like a lightning strike before it means rooms available. It is usually the last of four or five other symbols. Of course, as in any land one can get by with two words; hello and thank you, but the more language you learn the better. In China the numbers are important because the hand signals for these are different to ours. Getting the hang of the hand signals is helpful. What makes it fun is that pretty much everyone is willing to try and communicate and have a laugh in the process.
            I believe the last instalment left us somewhere on the road to Jinghong, the county town of the Xishuangbanna region which though in reality is a large area of densely forested mountains complete with wild elephants and all, on the map is but a pimple on Chinas ample bottom being pinched between the totalitarian thumb of Myanmar and the sued-socialistic forefinger of Laos. Jinghong itself is an unusual town in that it has pretty much no buildings of any architectural merit but is a very attractive and pleasant place to be owing to the proliferation and maturity of the trees lining the roads. In fact it’s hard to see many of the buildings because of all the foliage. If 85% of London could be hidden in the same way it would in my opinion be a vast improvement.
            Jinghong lies on the Mekong and although here it is somewhere around 4000km from the sea, the river is wide with fairly large ferries and boats puffing around trying to give an air of harbour importance to the sleepy town. We rode beside the fast flowing river some 30kms before it turned towards Burma and we headed south to Mengla and the border crossing with Laos. On our map highway G213 looked like a motorway but in reality there were two roads, the old and the new. The newer was a typically Chinese two lane modern highway built largely on stilts over the valleys and through tunnels under the hills. Very impressive with the forest all grown back around it. As we have seen often there was little traffic, not enough to warrant such an expensive construction. I was told these roads in the border areas are commissioned by the military. Perhaps like the Interstate network in the USA. A system was wanted to transport troops and equipment to all corners in case of trouble. We took the old road and saw only occasionally the new one. In maybe 200kms we passed through only 2 or 3 small villages and the traffic consisted of a couple of motorbikes carrying bamboo poles or banana plants. As this twisting and turning forgotten highway saw so little use now, it was being claimed back by the jungle. Leaves lay at the edges and creepers were sending tentative tendrils on probing missions across the tarmac. One morning we went up and up through a wet cloud, finally emerging into sun just before a pass and being rewarded with a spectacular view over a mountainous landscape of cotton-wool and forest canopy.

One morning we crossed the border into The Peoples Democratic Republic of Lao. I cycled through Lao about three years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. Had things changed? I could not be sure but there seemed to be far less trees on the hills and far more shiny Hilux pick-ups on the roads. Economic growth in evidence I guess.
            The villages along the road were now bamboo huts on stilts and there were far more kids running around than in China. Also Compared to China there was very little food being grown. Yes there was still Jungle but large scoured and burnt tracts lay unused, baking in the sun. Passing through Luang Nam Tha, we arrived, after a 120km schlep, after dark and in torrential rain, once-more on the banks of the Mekong. The wet season here is, as advertised, occasionally a little damp. From Huay Xai we took a 2 day boat trip down river to Luang prabang.
            On boarding we realised we had joined well and truly the backpacker trail.  Mostly kids; the English drinking, the Germans reading guidebooks and the Americans claiming the boat was overloaded and dangerous and demanding a second craft. We met some nice folks though, Marco and Marica from Hawaii and Jason and John, Canadian and American. We would meet them a few times as we wound our way through the North part of this long thin country.
            Luang Prabang is a sleepy temple town on the Mekong the French Colonial centre of which has now surrendered to the backpacker dollar and is all geared to tourism. It had changed a lot in three years. We stayed a few days and rode out to my favourite waterfall then left for the challenging road through the limestone Kharst mountains to the capital, Vientiane. On the first morning out we met Gab, a Hungarian cyclist on his way to Bannock from Bangkok in aid of World Bicycle Relief, a charity helping rural Africans to build and repair bicycles and use them where they would normally have to walk hours to school etc.
            We rode 4 or 5 days with Gab, stopping in Vang Vieng for a day out at the beautiful Blue Lagoon cave. This town has gone a bit crazy and not in an altogether good way. The young tourists here enjoy floating down the river in a tractor tube and drinking a few beers along the way. Fair play. The problem is that they wander shirtless and bikinied through  he town after and stop in a 'bucket bar' to get totally drunk and worse so that they forget to dress, and crawl through the streets puking and swearing and wearing a bucket on their heads. The Buddhist locals don't really appreciate this behaviour. What is a Bucket bar? I hear you say. Get this, you get given a plastic bucket of the bucket and spade variety and it is cheaply filled and refilled with hard liquor and ice. Unsurprisingly everyone gets drunk real quick. I like the occasional snifter myself but was shocked, particularly as the majority and the worst perpetrators were the British. Why don't they just go to Newquay? Dammit, why don’t they stay at home!
            We finally climbed the last mountain and saw a flat plain stretching before us. Having been amongst the Himalayas and its offspring since Christmas and cycling over 3000 steep km we were glad to see a flat road again. Gab left this morning as he is much faster than us really and has a plane to catch, sad to see him go as he was good company. We have just picked up our Thailand visas and will head for Bangkok in the morning.
            Laos is a great place for cycling but somehow we feel a little disappointed. I think it lies in the fact that in this wet season we decided not to follow the network of dirt roads and stick to the tarmac. This left little choice but the tourist trail, in the towns anyway, and the people seem a bit bored of the whole thing. Understandably. They obviously need the money but have to make some large sacrifices and particularly in Vang Vieng I see trouble ahead as the local young men lose patience with the foolish children we keep sending to their town. Infect I was having a few beers with some lads last night, a good bunch, but after I went to bed they carried on till late and ended up getting robbed by a gang armed with Kalashnikovs. The backlash has perhaps begun.
            Possibly after so long on the road I am getting a bit bored being a tourist. I no longer desire to visit the temples we pass and have finally had enough of noodle soup!  I am happiest when pedalling and look forward to picking up the tempo a bit in Thailand and getting a bit closer to Australia.