Sweating it out in Southeast Asia

Since our last ‘proper’ blog post over two months ago (woops!) we’ve cycled through Vietnam, Laos and half of Thailand, and generally had a great time. Sorry for the lack of recent updates, but we kept finding distractions that stopped us finishing this post!

Rolling our bikes over the Friendship Bridge that marks the Chinese/Vietnamese border back at the end of July was pretty monumental for us. Vietnam had been our target for the 3 months that it took to cross China and it felt incredible to finally have made it. We spent our first evening in Vietnam watching the sun set over the river and had our last glimpse of China on the other side of the bank while sipping on a cold beer.

I love the first few days in a new country, when everything seems new and different. It had been so long since we’d crossed a border, and we noticed the differences with pleasure straight away – endless villages, roadside shack-style cafes serving iced coffee, kids sprinting out of their bamboo stilt house to shout ‘HELLO!‘ and bounding down the road cheering. We felt the weight of chasing a visa deadline lifting off our shoulders and knew that the next few months were going to be pretty different.

The heat in Vietnam (at a much lower altitude than parts of China) felt intense and we struggled to adapt, taking it in turns to crash out from dehydration or lack of sugar and salts during the midday sun. We stopped whenever we saw a waterfall or pipe by the road and lay underneath, soaking every inch of us before hopping to the next.

There were lots of small hills which meant low speeds and lots of effort – bad news for body temperature – and even when soaking wet it was difficult to cool off. Our water-drenched clothes would dry in minutes before quickly becoming soaked again, this time by sweat (Ryan created disgusting pools of sweat on the floor in every cafe for the first week!). Bursts of rain brought temporary relief, until we popped out the other side of the cloud and got another roasting. We tried to stop every hour for an iced coffee or a cornetto (how different it was to China!) and sometimes when it was unbearable found a shady tree and hung in our hammocks during the hottest part of the day.

The cycling days in Vietnam passed in a sweaty flash as we broke it up with a long rest in Hanoi with my Dad and sister. After a fantastic week with them eating amazing steaks and dodging the million beeping mopeds I woke up on the morning of their departure with a horrible feeling in my tummy at the thought of saying goodbye again. I know that as soon as they are gone I feel fine, and I very rarely miss home at all (sorry!) but after just getting used to being surrounded with people I love it was difficult to let them go.

As the taxi arrived and I had a last hug with Katy, her huge green eyes filled with tears and her lips started to wobble and suddenly I couldn’t keep the lump in my throat down any longer – my Dad bundled her into the waiting taxi and they were gone. I was feeling pretty blue and thinking about the thousands of kilometres left to go, but with a hug from Ryan and his promise of a curry for dinner (the food in Southeast Asia is awesome) it didn’t last long.

The hills started to develop as we approached the border with Laos which was only a few days cycling from Ha Noi. We’d heard plenty of stories about the hills in Northern Laos and they didn’t disappoint – the road constantly snaked up and down for the next two weeks, with stunning hilly landscapes stretching to the horizon in a million shades of green. It was so spectacular. Despite there being only one road across the country, hours would pass without any traffic – most Lao people are too poor to own a car. The villages were probably the poorest yet, consisting of groups of wooden stilt huts, with a comedy mix of chickens, dogs, cows, water buffalo and naked children all running free on the side of the road – cycling in Laos was never boring!

Physically the cycling was up there with the hardest so far, some of the hills were so steep that I struggled to go above 4kph (I was just about still upright), but the beautiful remote surroundings made up for the hard word. Cheap guest houses are easily found in even the smallest towns throughout Southeast Asia, so with the aim of travelling as light as possible we sent our camping stuff home from Hanoi (we can make do without it until Australia), which is lucky as I doubt I’d have made it up some of those hills had I kept all my panniers. We had to cycle more hours than we would’ve liked once or twice, but we’ve found a place to stay every night without too much difficulty.

In Laos it was quickly obvious that we were beginning to hit the tourist trail, for probably the first time since Istanbul (we didn’t see many holiday-makers in Turkmenistan for some reason?) and I felt like a kid in a sweet shop seeing so many Westerners as we rolled into the various tourist destinations on our route. I found myself wanting to chat to everyone! After so long in unusual places, it’s peculiar seeing writing in English, and sitting in cafés with English menus, with English-speaking waitresses, where they are playing Friends on the TV. At first it felt very weird… However, the beauty of cycling is that just 10km outside even one of the biggest tourist stops like Luang Prabang we’re back in thick jungle on tiny roads and the invites for drinks and conversation from locals begin once again.

During the Secret War in the 60’s and 70’s, Laos apparently became the most bombed country per capita in history. The statistics are virtually unbelievable – for example, Laos was hit with a bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day between 1964 and 1973. Around 80 million of these bombs didn’t explode which means that Laos still has a major problem, and every year adults and children are killed after stumbling upon unexploded ordnance. In most villages in Laos unexploded bombs (after being unarmed) are left on display on the side of the road, with some being transformed into things like plant pots.

The roads in Laos were paved and much better than I expected, yet they still caused us problems. Seeing landslides or rocks tumbling down the mountains was common, and at one point the entire road had fallen down a cliff face! We were stuck over night and had to haul our bikes over the top of the cliff before we could start pedalling again.

The result of these landslides was that parts of the road were covered by mud. Ryan had a nasty crash at 50kph as we flew down one winding decent, and a few days later I crashed on another slippy bend. Ryan was brave when he crashed, but when I did my belly slide across the tarmac he looked totally terrified and scooped me off the floor before I could get my breath back. In fact, I got more attention in those 5 minutes then ever before, maybe I should start falling off more often…

I’m in awe of pro cyclists now, they just bounce back up after really awful crashes yet my confidence was shattered. What I would usually think a thrilling decent now made me feel really shaky. I still can’t stop myself getting the sensation the bike is skidding beneath me round corners – and being nervous makes me so much more dangerous. I can only compare the feeling to that of being on a ski slope and not wanting to make the turn and your legs going to jelly. Any tips on how to get my confidence back up again are very welcome!

As the road flattened into gentle hills, we arrived at the border with Thailand and entered our third country in just over a month. Soon after, we were on huge pancake flat highways and flying from town to town. What would have taken us 10 hours of pedalling in Laos, we could do in 3 easy hours. It didn’t take us long before we were cycling into Bangkok, which is MASSIVE.

We spent two weeks off the bikes and had a whole gang of people come to visit us including Ryan’s family and some girlfriends. Having not had a good gossip in so long, the chattering between me and the girls went on long into the night – so much so that I could still here the babbling sounds as I went to sleep. We had massages, painted our nails, attended a Thai cooking class and I was given an entire pannier worth of fancy moisturisers and lingerie as birthday presents!! Thank you!! We also saw the sea for the first time since Turkey last December, four months after cycling through Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from an ocean.

Once again our break with friends and family flew by, and before we knew it it was time for another round of goodbyes. It’s been one year since we started pedalling, and although it makes me a bit sad that I’ve missed time with people I love back home, I’m having the experience of a lifetime here with Ryan and love every second of it….well, excluding the bits where I have to sleep in poo infested tunnels.

We’re both really excited about the next few months, and the beach:cycling ratio should be the best of the trip as we follow the coast down to Singapore (although we promise we’ll try and squeeze in a blog post or two). This is payback time for all those long hours spent slogging across deserts and mountains, and we’re going to enjoy them!

Video #5 and a few China stats

Whilst hiding from the monsoon rain in Hanoi we put together a video from our 3 months in China. But first, to celebrate finishing our biggest country so far, here are a few China stats:

  • Distance cycled – 5,130km (Kazakh border to Vietnamese border)
  • Time taken – 90 days (58 spent cycling, 32 spent doing panda impressions)
  • Shortest Day – 17th May, 25km (ridiculous headwind)
  • Longest Day – 18th May, 196km (ridiculous tailwind)
  • Highest altitude – 3,150 metres above sea level
  • Lowest altitude – 155 metres below sea level
  • Best bit – crawling up the huge sand dunes at Dunhuang
  • Worst bit – battling the headwinds in the Gobi desert

Click here if the embedded video above hasn’t worked.

China part #2 – half way to New Zealand!

You know that feeling: you’re freewheeling down a hill or cycling in the sunshine, and you feel invincible! Well I get that feeling every single day. Sometimes it only lasts a few minutes, sometimes when everything is perfect it can last 9 hours. I’m not crazy – obviously I regularly dread getting back on the saddle, perhaps the night before, when I wake up, as I’m loading up the panniers or sometimes right up until the second I start turning the pedals. But as soon as my legs are spinning, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I just love it – wind, rain, hills, sunshine – whatever is out there it can be wonderful (even if only for short while). The good thing about cycling is you don’t need to be Lance Armstrong to FEEL like Lance Armstrong… the other day coming down through a gorge I went flying past old men on rickety bikes, school children and mopeds overflowing with cargo. I tucked low into the time trial position – take that! Ha! It doesn’t matter who I’m overtaking, it’s always brilliant. That is the wonderful thing about riding a bicycle – anyone can do it, anyone can afford it – and you can’t help but love it when you get THAT feeling:-)

I was having one of those glorious moments described above when out of nowhere a fist flew towards me from behind, there was a massive crack, and someone had punched me in the side of the head!! What the hell!?!! I spun around, head reeling, to face my attacker. What did I see? A terrified and guilty looking Ryan. He had been eagerly trying to beat up my shadow, stretched out long in the early evening sun – a game he thinks is hilarious – but had misjudged the situation and smacked me in the side of the face. Not feeling in the mood for a fight, I let it go, but Ryan be warned an icy pint is coming your way!!

So cycling in China…we have got into the habit of cycling for longer hours, covering bigger distances (more than a few times we’ve racked up over 150km in a day) and are doing big hard leaps from city to city, where we then stop for a few days for a break. My Mum says she feels like she is holding her breath between jumps and then has a big sigh of relief once she knows I am safe and at the next town. I’m not really sure what she is expecting might happen; attacked by a Yeti, being left on the side of the road dying of thirst perhaps – but Mum, we finished the desert section so you can relax!

The longer breaks have given us time and energy to do a lot more “proper” sightseeing. Some tourist flashpacker days in between the grind has been great to keep spirits up and I have been absolutely loving our lifestyle of late. We really have had a wonderful few weeks and seen some breathtaking sights. In Dunhuang, an oasis city, we climbed Lawrence of Arabia sand dunes and watched the sunset over a beautiful crescent moon lake. Perched high on the dunes looking down on busy ant-like tourists we were pleased with our intimate spot and felt it was worthwhile skirting the fence and hiking into the dunes for some solitude (and avoiding the extortionate entrance fee).

We also had time off the saddle to visit 30 metre high giant Buddhas, sit in cafes drinking milkshakes and visit the Great Wall of China at Jiayuguan. Although we’ve been cycling next to old sections of the Great Wall for some time, it was kind of nice to go to the famous spots where we could see some of the old forts and everything was a bit more like the brochure. Most of the untouched original wall we see alongside the road is magnificent in its size but a bit pathetic in appearance otherwise, being crumbly and insignificant next to petrol stations or uninterested villages. It is pretty awesome to be cycling alongside it everyday, when I remind myself to appreciate it, but it was fun to see the wall renovated to its original grandeur. The fort and section of the Wall we saw at Jiayuguan (the far western edge of old China) is famous because Chinese people banished from their country were ordered to leave through the gates of the Fort for the west, never to return, and I can vouch that it is not nice being out there!

There is one problem with having a longer break, and it is getting back in the right frame of mind to actually cover any distance during the first day back on the saddle. Cycling out of Jiayuguan we hadn’t even got out of the city when we decided it was really rather hot so we better get an ice cream, then Ryan was “starving” so we stopped to get some sweet and sour pork, then 5 km further we saw a petrol station and feeling parched we had a cold coke (well who knew when the next one would be??) and after that it was the hottest past of the day so we thought we better just have a snooze in the shade…before we knew it the day was gone and we had covered a very meagre 60km despite being out for 12 hours.

Whilst cycling in China we have seen our first cycle tourers and I cannot tell you how exciting it is. Two little dots appearing on the horizon, growing bigger and growing wheels is one of the best sights on the road – and if they have western bikes loaded with panniers we know we have hit the jackpot and they are a long hauler and most likely English speaking. At almost precisely our halfway point (yes we think we are officially halfway there!!!) Jacqui and Aaron rolled into view, who are cycling from Australia to Ireland following almost the same route as us in reverse. We were pretty over excited to see them and leaped across the highway. They were far more cool, but I think equally happy to share stories of what lay ahead for the other.

We are now in Lanzhou, which we have been talking about getting to for the last 3 weeks. We went over a 3000 metre high mountain pass to get here, and the scenery has finally evolved from bleak desert to green hills and fields which is a welcome change. I have most definitely had enough of deserts (and sleeping in tunnels) for a lifetime…

So technically we are on the home straight – and Ryan promises it is downhill all the way to NZ. We had a celebratory night out on our arrival in Lanzhou and went to a fancy restaurant. It is always hideous trying to order food, but on this night we found ourselves in a Mongolian hot-pot restaurant where pointing at sweet and sour pork in the phrase book wouldn’t suffice and we displayed an exceptional level of incompetence as a result. An expanding number of Chinese people talking loudly at us resulted in our table being laid with a cauldron of boiling oil laced with wild mushrooms and bowls of unknown meats and miscellaneous ingredients orbiting around it. A kind waitress seeing our bewilderment helped us to eat piece by piece and prepared our next mouthful in the oil with chopsticks and loaded up our little bowls. The other customers who were all capable of eating their meals without assistance continued to stare at the Aliens (official word for foreigners, seen on signs in hotels) for the rest of this performance until, finally, we were declared competent to feed ourselves and the waitress took a step back and supervised the remainder of our meal from a distance. Not quite the romantic dinner I had in mind…

Overall, China has been very surprising and really quite brilliant so far. The hotels, restaurants and treats are so cheap that our standard of living has exponentially increased since the ‘Stans and the road surface on the most part is decent enough for some fast riding. Yes we have had really difficult times here, especially the blasted wind storms in the desert, but I am really happy with the way the cycling here has turned out and I am loving everything about the adventures we are having in China – whether good or bad they are certainly always interesting.

Video #3 – Iran & the ‘stans

Here’s video #3, made in Almaty using a few clips from the last 3 months or so. That cold winter camping seems a long time ago now thankfully! Hope you enjoy it.

Click here to view if the embedded version above hasn’t worked, or to view the HD version.

Vodka and spring in the ‘stans

With the sunshine blaring down upon our beetroot faces, we whizzed past the green fields and courtyard cafes lining the roads of Uzbekistan. The immense feeling of relief and glee at making it through Turkmenistan with a few hours left on our visa had us buzzing and loving the journey now that we could relax a little. We changed a single crisp $100 bill into Uzbek currency and got a plastic bag full of notes in return. The largest Uzbek note is worth $0.40, so paying for pretty much anything involves counting out large numbers of notes from a ganster-style roll of cash.

We had a mixture of wild camping and staying with locals in Uzbekistan and took days off to explore the famous Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.

The Uzbek people were keen to invite us into their lives and on Noruz (New Year, 21st March) we found ourselves topped up with streetside vodka in the afternoon sun before pedalling a few wobbly hours to a tiny village where a partying family gave us more vodka, dancing and a roof for the night. It turns out vodka would replace tea in our daily street side offerings in Uzbekistan – Woop!

Uzbek homes tend to have a large open courtyard with rooms surrounding it, a set up which is lovely in Summer but a bit nippy in colder months. The toilets continue to be a hole in the ground, and the ceramic footplates of Iran have been replaced with a plank of wood. In one home the toilet shared a sparse wooden fence with the sheep pen so I had a bit of a surprise when a few black faces peered through at me with a loud “baaaa”!!!

Much of the cycling in Uzbekistan was flat, but the road surface was a painful bumpy mess and my bum has left a lot to be desired ever since! We have also found managing our water supply increasingly challenging, given the rising temperature and the fact that there is very little infrastructure and no filtered water here – water from a tap is usually from a tank and we got a bit sick at one point so are more wary now.

The food is usually a choice between kebab and a dish called ‘plov’, a combination of rice and meat dripping in fat . Ryan has a weird obsession with plov and is mortally upset if a roadside cafe has run out.

The ride to Tashkent was long and tiring, and combined hot sun on some days with miserable cold rain on others. Feeling shattered in the early afternoon one day, Ryan sprawled out on the pavement gorging on chocolate, we checked the mobile with about 350km left until the city. To our delight we found a text from Dad saying he’d got an Uzbek visa and was flying out to Tashkent in a few days!! Shrieking with excitement we hopped back on the saddle and with new energy pedaled extra fast through the rain.

The arrival of Dad was like Christmas, with packaging sprayed round the room we delightedly tarted our beloved bikes up with new tyres, chains, brakes and handle bars. It was fantastic seeing him and we were in desperate need of some new kit. The day he arrived I wrote in my diary:

“YYYAHOOO! Saw Dad today!  Unbelievably impatient cycling in rain with a headwind – I just wanted to get there! At midday when I knew he was at the hotel every pedal felt like it took a lifetime. We texted him a few kilometers away and as we cycled to the hotel he was waving from the entrance – I felt like bursting into tears, but I beamed at him and jumped off my bike for a colossal hug – he squealed because I was so wet and muddy but I didn’t care and held him tighter”.

After lots of beer and sausages and a visit to the Central Asian Plov Centre (which made Ryan’s day) unfortunately we had to say goodbye.

The temperature rose as we crossed into Kazakhstan and our thirst with it, suddenly a 5 litre water bag is empty by midday. Our large scale map doesn’t show many villages where we know we can find water so we’re being more cautious now. We usually pass a couple a day, but as they’re not shown on the map we don’t know when we’ll reach the next one. Asking locals the distance results in wildly inaccurate guesses, so we leave each village with a full supply and so our already heavy bikes have become permanently obese. Currently Ryan carries the extra drinking water (I’d like to say graciously, but I’m reminded of it hourly!) and I carry an extra few litres for cooking and washing – we havent been able to spare enough for a full shower but amazingly just one cupful of water is enough to get pretty fresh and I wonder at the gallons of water I use at home! I suppose we should get rid of some of the excess fat we haul around with us to compensate for the extra water burden!

The green rolling hills in Kazakhstan have made spectacular camping spots, with brilliant starry skies. There is absolutely no light pollution so the scene is quite mind blowing, you don’t have to wait more than a few minutes to see seemingly everlasting shooting stars – the midnight toilet outings, which I have always dreaded, have become a real treat! In fact camping in general has become fun again, longer daylight hours and nice warm evenings make all the difference.  Kazakhstan is probably the first country that we’ve visited at the correct time of year – spring is glorious here, squeezed between a brutal winter and a scorching summer, and it’s made all the difference to our morale.

After a week with no shower or bed we felt pretty disgusting and desperate to get to Almaty, where we knew friendly faces and hot showers awaited. On the final night before arriving in Almaty we were about to crawl into the tent when a beast walker (shepherd) trotted over on his horse, insisting that we follow him because there are lots of wolves and wild animals (people always say that). Tired, we re-packed the tent and loaded the bikes. I rode back on his horse while he struggled with my bike back across the fields. It was pretty surreal travelling by horseback in the moonlight, but my life is pretty surreal these days so in a way it felt like a typical end to a very normal day.

His wife looked surprised as the three of us dismounted in her yard, but we were quickly taken into the little mud hut and settled next to the stove (despite the warm night). The house had two rooms separated by a curtain, dried cow dung fuelled the stove and as always there was no running water. We were offered tasty shredded carrot dumplings for dinner and despite no common language (as usual) we had a lovely evening. We all snuggled on the floor to sleep and the cowboy rested his shot gun by his pillow – just before sleep caught me he rushed outside and fired a shot!! Not understanding why, but comforted because mother and baby looked unfazed, we didnt say anything.

In the morning we went to see all his beasts, his whole world, and were amazed as 500 sheep left the pen to graze free on the huge grass plain between his home and the mountain range that separated us from Kyrgyzstan. He then follows the beasts around on horseback for most of the day. A comparatively affluent beast walker perhaps (his flock was one of the biggest we’ve seen) but still with the most basic standard of living we see – I asked to use the toilet expecting a hole in the ground and was shown to the side of the house and told to just go in the yard.

That evening we arrived in Almaty, after 100km of exhausting hills and hot weather we were not looking our best – and punishingly the couple we were visiting live to the South of the city up the mountain and so we had a very long, sweaty and polluted finishing climb to the house.

Alex and Anja have just moved to Kazakhstan from Berlin, with 2 beautiful little girls and are really living the expat dream in an amazing house (our guest room had 2 showers, a balcony and a swimming pool sized hot tub!). Waking up in our king sized bed, the contrast to where we’d woken up the previous morning was fantastic and one of the things I love about this adventure. Anja is fully embracing Kazakh life and has been feeding us horse and we also went to a local restaurant where they set a whole beast (I think it was a sheep) on fire!! After a few beers it only seemed appropriate we check out the nightlife and we were overly excited to find a rock bar with a live band – having a few too many wasn’t a problem as we had the use of a driver for the weekend, the Russian way apparently. It’ll be very hard to leave this comfy bubble tomorrow morning for more sweaty cycling and dirty camping!

Almaty is only 400km from the Chinese border and we feel our batteries have been charged ready for this daunting leg. We’ve been following other cyclists who have recently done long journeys with similar routes and very few people seem to make it all the way across China without using a plane or train at some point, so we’re a little worried and hope we can do it. We have a 90 day visa to cycle the 5,500km (ish!) from Kazakhstan to Vietnam. The vastness of the country and the heat is going to test our food/water planning and our determination to new levels – I can’t decide if I am looking forward to it yet.

The recent long days in the saddle and milestones reached (200 days on the road, the 10,000km mark and our first thousand pounds for our charities!) encouraged me to reflect on the journey so far and my friends and family back home.

I think of you coming home and flicking a switch to boil water, getting cold fresh milk from the fridge and making a cup of tea. Having a deliciously cooked meal and listening to some music. Then taking a hot steamy shower and letting the water engulf you, the stresses and worries of the day washing away. Clean, warm and safe with loved ones near by you sink into a soft bed surrounded by fluffy pillows and a duvet. I imagine Ryan and I, hidden in a little green tent, perhaps in a field in Kazakhstan, having just washed with one capful of water and drinking a cup of tea with a petrol stove built from scratch. I think that getting into my bed was probably more fun, and the effort going into preparing my tea makes it taste even sweeter, so despite it being hard work I think I will miss the simplicity of our life once back in the safety of home…