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!

One year in one minute

Exactly one year ago we took our first few pedals down the road from my parents’ house, and today we cycled into Bangkok. Lots has happened in between! Thanks to everyone who has followed the blog, left comments (we love reading them), and donated to our chosen charities (the total so far is £3,341!).

We’ve made a one minute slideshow which fires through some of our favourite photos from the last year – we hope you enjoy it!

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

Kit review #1

After 11 months and 10,000 miles of cycling it’s time for the first in a short series of blogs reviewing some of our top bits of equipment. If you don’t care what we’re carting around with us, then I’m afraid it’s probably best to skip this blog! Here are 5 bits of kit that we wouldn’t leave home without if we were planning another big bike trip:

1. Bike

There are loads of options when deciding what to ride, ranging from converting an old steel framed mountain bike on the cheap right up to top-of-the-range expedition bikes costing thousands of pounds. The choice depends on the type of tour, and fatness of wallet.

As ours is a long ride across multiple continents we decided strength and reliability were more important than speed, and so we prioritised steel frames, steel racks and well-built 26 inch wheels. (Compared with alternative sizes, 26 inch wheels are stronger and more common outside of Europe & America, making repairs and finding spare tyres etc much easier. When we’ve met other cyclists on the road, broken 28 inch wheels have been the most common tale of woe by far).

Our bikes (VSF Fahrrad Manufaktur T400) have been great so far. I weigh 90kg and have carried up to 40kg of kit, food & water in remote areas, but my frame has stayed strong and the wheels still spin perfectly true. Fingers crossed this remains the case all the way to New Zealand!

2. Panniers

We both use Ortlieb waterproof panniers (two front rollers, two back rollers, a bar bag and a rack pack) and they are ace – simply designed, quick to use and 100% waterproof. After a long day of cycling in the rain, the knowledge that your possessions are safe and dry is priceless. Well worth the money.

We both started off with the full set of six bags listed above when we had to carry winter clothes, camping gear and occasionally lots of food and water. Now that we’re in SE Asia we barely need any clothes and have hammocks instead of camping kit, so we only need two back panniers and a bar bag. It feels much nicer travelling lighter – both from a cycling and simplicity perspective.

3. Camera

We started the trip with a small point-and-shoot camera (Panasonic Lumix) which takes reasonable photos and video, but best of all is very small and light. When we emerged from the Central Asian winter we swapped thick sleeping bags and down jackets for a second-hand DSLR camera (Canon 350D). It’s bigger and heavier, but takes better photos.

If I could wind back time I would carry a DSLR from the start, and probably take a photography course before leaving. A few lessons and a decent camera could make a real difference to the photo album we’re looking forward to making when we get home.

As back-up, we upload our photos to Flickr, and also keep a copy on SD memory cards that are stashed in my money belt (which never leaves my sight). For this reason I think a few 16GB SD cards are better than a bulkier portable hard drive, as theft is less likely.

4. Down jacket

Whilst cycling through winter, we always looked forward to zipping ourselves into our down jackets (Montane North Star) at the end of every day – it feels like wearing a nice warm down duvet! It has to be seriously cold to warrant wearing them whilst actually cycling, but whenever off the bike these were invaluable. They also make great pillows if you don’t need to wear them inside your sleeping bag. Hoods are essential for maximum warmth.

5. Cooker

We carry a stove to cook with when we’re camping, or when we’re in an expensive country. The MSR Whisperlite International runs on pretty much any fuel, but we use petrol as it’s very cheap and available everywhere. Ours has worked perfectly and boils a large pan of water nice and quickly. The downsides are:

  • the fuel bottle needs to be pressurised and stove primed every use (a two minute job, but a faff compared to gas canistor stoves that need no preparation)
  • using petrol makes the stove dirty and smelly
  • there’s only one choice of cooking temperature, officially known as “hotter than the sun”. Good for boiling pasta in sub zero temperatures, but a bit annoying when you have to hold the pan above the flame to simmer the pan. I’m no Ainsley Harriott so I’m not too bothered, although there is another similar model by MSR that has a simmer function.

In our view, the downsides are outweighed by the brilliant ease of refilling our fuel bottle. Finding any other kind of fuel would require a lot more effort than simply stopping at the next petrol station and as I’m pretty lazy, this makes our stove a winner.

The medium fuel bottle fits in a normal bike bottle cage but the large 1 litre fuel bottle does not. We found this  adjustable cage from Topeak which holds the large bottle perfectly.

Next time: 5 pieces of summer kit!

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 #3 – Wild China

We left Lanzhou having finished our mostly eastwards path since England – now we head south all the way to Perth, Australia! The land had also changed significantly, the desert of north-west China finally overcome by green mountains and hills.

Back in the desert, thousands of kilometres of land were empty and dead. Now pretty much every available inch is used for growing crops. Tiers are cut into hills to create a flat surface for rice or corn, and water from the streams and rivers feeds the fields through carefully cut irrigation channels. In this part of China water appears plentiful – every field and river is full of it, and the mountainsides sparkle with waterfalls. As a result, the landscape is full of noisy wildlife and extravagant colour, but China as a whole faces a water crisis that may lead to other areas being unable to irrigate their fields.

All work is performed by hand and every day we cycle past thousands of villagers – men and women, young and old – tending to their crops. We’ve seen no mechanised farming equipment at all in China, although we’ve seen a few water buffalo helping out with some ploughing.

As to be expected in such fertile land, villages are everywhere. They vary in wealth quite significantly, to the untrained eye at least. The poorest we saw in south Gansu were made from mud, covered in rubbish, no running water and complete with an appalling smell thanks to the lack of plumbing and the fact that anywhere passes for a toilet. Further south the nicer villages have brick houses, taps with running water, cleaner streets and maybe a few cafes serving up noodles or fried rice.

The intensive use of land makes camping more of a challenge – in Kazakhstan we could literally stop where we pleased, with empty grassy plains everywhere. Now we have to be a bit more cunning and search out a quiet spot big enough for a tent. However there does always seem to be a spot somewhere and we’ve had a few great ones, sometimes with the holy grail of a freshwater stream to wash in.

We’re still finding towns most days and we’re still enjoying being able to spend evenings in towns and eating most of our meals at cafes (definitely more interesting and much more tasty than cooking up some slurry on our campstove). Our eating technique has evolved too: our heads have lowered steadily towards our bowls over the last two months, and chopsticks are used to shovel the noodles or rice into our mouths (Bex is particularly good at this). If we don’t fancy camping, every town has a guesthouse (cheapest yet has been £3), with the bigger towns often having really nice hotels for around £10-15, which isn’t too bad if there’s two of you to share a room. Although we’ve camped a bit between towns, it would be possible to travel light and cycle around China without camping equipment, with the exception of the desert stretches in Xinjiang.

The language barrier remains impenetrable for the most part, despite our efforts with the phrasebook. The sounds are subtle and completely alien to us, and each word has multiple meanings depending on the intonation used. I’d love to see some of our ‘conversations’ played back with subtitles – most of the time neither side has a clue what the other is on about. However, we have met some English speakers in a few of the cities, and have been taken out for dinner and beers and introduced to friends, all excited to meet an Englishman. Foreigners are rare in all but the major tourist cities – an English teacher we met in one city of half a million people had only previously seen one foreigner, 10 years before. It’s not surprising that we’re constantly stared at everywhere we go – especially in the smaller towns and villages, we may be the first foreigners that some people have seen.

Recently we’ve been faced with a choice between roads – the ‘old’ road, or the new expressway. The amount of infrastructure construction in China is incredible, with a brand new expressway and highspeed railway built (or being built) alongside most of our route all the way from Kazakhstan. These new routes take no notice of the hills in the south, bridges and tunnels both kilometres long flatten out the ups and downs. The cost of these projects must be enormous – the roads are thousands of kilometres long and nearly always on a bridge or in a tunnel – and they strike an uncomfortable contrast as the new roads slice through villages that have no water or sanitation facilities.

The roads present a bit of a dilemma for us as well: do we stick to the old road (quieter traffic, more shops, much more interesting, more miles and up and down every hill) or sneak onto the expressway (bikes not officially allowed, nice wide hard shoulder, flatter road blasting through the hills, no shops and much more boring)? It’s far quicker on the expressway but even if travelling through the exact same landscape, when on the expressway surrounded by crash barriers we feel bored and disconnected, whilst on the narrow winding old road, often with a lethal drop on one side, everything suddenly seems much more interesting!

To occupy my brain one day on the expressway I listened to a Tour de France podcast as we cycled, daydreaming about team time trials and solo breakaways. The end of the podcast jolted me back to reality and I found myself on a solo breakaway of my own, dripping with sweat, panting hard and cranking the pedals, with Bex nowhere in sight. Whoops!

We’ve taken a couple of shortcuts on smaller roads, hoping to slice hundreds of kilometres off our route whilst exploring some really quiet rural areas. The first one turned out to be a mud track over a 2,200 metre mountain pass, and the unsurfaced road had become almost un-rideable after it rained. Even downhill we were forced to drag our bikes through ankle-deep mud and it took us 3 days to cover the 120km until we rejoined tarmac!

Whichever road we choose, mountains and hills are unavoidable in this part of the world. Generally the road weaves through a valley, following a river or a gorge. But once every couple of days, the road bends up and over a 3,000 metre high pass. On the old roads the grand finale of these already challenging climbs is a savage switchback road snaking the final few miles up to the peak, followed by superb views and an exhilarating winding decent. The difference in temperature at the top and bottom of these climbs is hard to believe. In Chengdu, down at 500 metres, I couldn’t leave our air conditioned room without breaking into an instant sweat . A few hundred miles further south, and I was digging out my long-forgotten coat and gloves at the top of a pass, preparing for a chilly descent.

We stayed in a backpacker’s hostel in Chengdu, and after being stared at 24/7 for the last few months it was nice to be able to slip into anonymity, surrounded by other ‘aliens’, burgers and cold beer. I had a grin like a Cheshire cat on that first evening – the novelty of western food and home comforts like the hostel’s 500-strong DVD collection was too much to take in. The burgers must have been good as Bex managed to put away 4 of them during our 5 night stay. My first English breakfast since leaving home also slipped down a treat. We indulged without a shred of guilt about ignoring Chinese culture for a few days – after we finish our 3 months in the country we’ll have had enough noodles for a lifetime!

Whilst in Chengdu we took the obligatory trip to see the pandas. You go in the morning to see them eat, as apparently they spend the rest of the day sleeping. The pandas were weirdly human-like, lying on their backs and reaching up to grab bamboo branches, all in slow motion. Bex had obviously been taking notes as she used the afternoon to perform a very realistic panda impression of her own, spending the afternoon lying on her back in bed, covered in food.

It’s time for another toilet update – unfortunately they’ve been getting steadily worse the further east we’ve travelled. If the current trend continues I’m not looking forward to New Zealand. The norm in China is a communal trench, there’s nothing like the fear of falling backwards into the pool of slurry and a grunting Chinese man squatting two foot to your left to focus your mind. After using a petrol station’s facilities recently I actually commented to Bex that they were pretty good – they were still communal squatters, but had separate holes, metre-high dividing walls and flushes! It appears my standards have dropped to previously unimaginable lows.

We’re now in Kunming in south China, with just 400km left until the Vietnamese border (and having passed the 15,000km marker a few days ago!). China has felt enormous at times and we’ve both occasionally struggled with the motivation to get back on the bikes for another day of pedalling, knowing it’ll be largely the same as yesterday. But just as we begin to feel sorry for ourselves, something happens – the road twists through some incredible scenery, or we spend an evening eating and drinking with some new friends mentioned above – and we give ourselves a kick and remember how lucky we are to be living the dream.