This is our online journal with news, photos, tours and all sorts of interesting stuff... We like to post from the roads we cycle throughout Asia to help give you a little insight into our cycling holidays so you may read words from the road in Vietnam, the mountains in China, the beaches in Thailand, a village in Laos, a bar in Taiwan, or the stunning hills of Sri Lanka.
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My nose bore the brunt of the beating, my face contorted and my eyes streamed as the violent hail stones raged at us unrelenting. It had been a long tough climb on a rough dirt track to the pass we now crossed, and at five thousand metres the air was thin and dry and breathing was strained.
The weather hitherto had been kind to us, just about, but the threat of rain had been omnipresent with clouds following us up the valley, driving us on each time we stopped to eat.
Crossing the pass the hail relented, only to be replaced by an ever strengthening wind. As we wrapped up warm for the descent the temperature began to fall and ominous black clouds loomed in on us from the south. We ate a little bread and cheese and sipped from our frigid water bottles before releasing our brakes and letting gravity take us on.
The road this side of the pass was rougher, strewn with rocks and mud and patches of loose sand. We passed streams of water fresh from the snow melt just above us, we stopped to refill our bottles before it had a chance to freeze, and then the hail returned.
With our faces screwed up tight against the stinging pellets of water, we nearly missed the tent and two bicycles just a few metres from the road. We pulled up and hailed the tent’s occupants. “Hello! Good afternoon. Hellooooo”. Our words apparently fell on deaf ears, so we edged a little closer to the tent. The bicycles laying outside were without doubt European. “Ola ciclistas”, cried Sebastian. He was, without a doubt, becoming rather efficient in Spanish I thought, and with that, the door of the tent popped open and out popped a smiling female face, “ola’” she said. “We too are cyclists” Sebastian explained to her in what to my ears was impeccable Spanish. At this, she seemed quite surprised, which struck us as odd, after all, we were both holding bicycles heavily ladened with luggage and were clearly not from these parts. Sebastian spoke a little more Spanish, the girl looked even more puzzled and I began to wonder if his mastery of Spanish needed a little polishing after all.
We decided to dispense with the intricacies of the spoken word and gave them some bread, wished them a good evening, and moved on down the valley to where the land lay flatter and a stream flowed, it was time to stop for the night.
It was a little after sunrise and by the time we woke. I opened the tent’s inner door and still laying on my back reached for the zip to the tent's outer door. I gave it a pull, it didn't budge. I rolled onto my front to allow myself a better angle of attack and gave the zip another tug, it gave a little before once more resisting. Deciding to really put my back into the task now I grasped it firmly with both hands and, as though I meant business, gave the zip a vigorous yank, the ice in the zip gave up it’s grip, the door opened, and frosted condensation fluttered into the tent like a little snow flurry - it was a chilly morning.
Peering out of the tent we were met with a joyous sight. The day had dawned bright and the scenery was breathtaking. With the door open and still wrapped in the warmth of our down filled sleeping bags we took our time drinking coffee and bathing in the beauty of our surroundings as we waited for the sun to rise and dry the tent and warm the earth. What a perfect start to the day.
Tent dry and packed we set off. We crossed a five thousand metre pass that gave way to a spectacular gravel road descent through stunning scenery where the occasional horse rider would disappear along loose scree trails, and small herds of lama would graze. At the bottom of the hill legs that thought their work was done were rudely awakened with five hundred vertical metres of winding tarmac climb through a rarified atmosphere to a where a beautiful new valley, fresh and green greeted us.
We picked up a dirt track and rode on dropping to a slowly flowing river where the grass on the bank, kept short by grazing sheep, cried out for the company of a tent. Awestruck by the beauty I felt sure that were we to camp here we would soon have the company of hobbits to share our wine with.
Alas, camping was not an option, food was needed, and so we pressed on to La Union, a dusty ramshackle middle of nowhere sort of town seemingly in the midst of mighty celebration. Quite what it was that was so worthy of this fiesta we could not ascertain, but a tireless New Orleans style jazz band that played with far more enthusiasm and volume than skill had the town in a frenzy. La Union may not have been the most perfect of towns to overnight, but it sure had been a most perfect day.
Military roadblocks were a regular occurrence during the course of today’s journey. Of course for the silly foreigner with his odd hair, funny coloured eyes, long nose, and big bicycle this was no problem, just a wave and a hello and through I went. But the frequency and density of military presence brought home the fact that there was for sure some bother afoot. And then I turned left.
I had turned left many times already of course, but this left turn was noteworthy because it appeared nice kilometres sooner than I had expected, and for a big dual carriageway it was astonishingly empty. There was not a sole in sight, barely a living creature. “This”, I thought, “is odd”.
“Don’t go on that road, they shoot everyone” the words from the government lady last night came back to me. Maybe this is the road that she was talking off. But then again, if all who travelled along here got shot, then surely the road would be closed. It’s a little odd to leave a road open to folk if it is a sure-fire certainty that all who travel along it will be shot, isn’t it? But what if each time a soldier goes to put up the Road Closed sign he gets shot. But then again if that were the case there would be a big pile of dead soldiers and Road Closed signs at the beginning of the road. Just as I was working my self into a bit of a fluster over this a motorbike and sidecar rumbled by, “see”, I said to myself, “all is fine and dandy”. But still, if I were to be honest, I would have to say that it was quite some road to cater for the odd passing foreign cyclist and local sidecar combinations.
I took to bothering myself a bit more before coming to the conclusion that if I were to be shot then not to worry, I will for sure die some time, and if it was now it would save me the bother of finishing this journey and looking for whatever it may be that I am looking for, which could be a blessing as whatever it is either doesn’t exist, or I have passed it by which makes me a total ass. But, there you go, no sooner had I accepted my fate than I came to a junction and the traffic grew in density.
All parked scooters had to have their seat open at all times, evidently to allow the army to check for bombs
It was now, as I approached Sai Buri that the troops intensified in number significantly. It appeared there were several guards on each bridge, and in the tropics, there is much call for bridges, what with all those tropical downpours and the resultant streams. Then there were the periodic roadblocks with many troops and armed police at each, and then there was the general scattering of soldiers for good luck. All in all, lots of soldiers.
They were a friendly bunch. Friendly and young. They would generally great me with a big smile and a ‘hello’. They were, I realised, boys. Maybe I am getting old, but the fact remains that these soldiers were young lads happy to see what appeared to them an exotic adventurer. So there I was, having been told of all the dangers of this route and how I should avoid it, and here they were, young lads who stood there all day every day like sitting (standing) ducks. Should the insurgents wish to take a pot shot, these were the likely targets, not me.
It was around about five thirty when I rolled into town. Not a bad time. The sun was low in the sky by now so I stopped to remove my shades. Ahead was the part that I have done so many times before and still I am not as relaxed with as I should be. Riding into a big town and finding a place to lay my head for the night. I should be more relaxed, I have never failed to find a place, and so far as I can recall I have never stayed at a really bad place. “In a room sitting on the bed with a beer by six and all will be well,” I told myself.
As I rounded one corner cursing the lack of hotels I came across a boy, or perhaps a young man, wandering down the street. I mention this as he was not a typical Thai lad of his age, no scooter, no cool clothes, no beautiful girl on his arm. No, he didn’t even have shoes, and his arse was, quite literally, hanging out of is britches. His hair was tangled and he carried from his shoulder an old rice bag. He was, in short, a raggedy-man. But highlighted by the blackness of his filthy face was the whiteness of his teeth and the white of his eyes that shone. I smiled and nodded, and within a moment I was past him, and I cursed myself for not greeting him verbally. I was just another who passed him and his plight by. As for his story, I shall never know.
I cruised around the town a little more bemoaning the lack of hotels, when, as the memory of the raggedy-man already began to fade, a cobbled together motor scooter and sidecar drew alongside me. The rider (driver? I am never sure about this) was a middle-aged man with a moustache and a big grin. His sidecar was of the I-have-a-welder-and-can-soon-whip-one-of-them-up-from-some-old-pipe-and-a-wheelbarrow-wheel sort, and in it where two plump middle-aged Muslim ladies wearing headscarves and grins from ear to ear.
“Sewadee kha” they all greeted me in the vernacular. I returned their greeting, and by way of polite conversation, I mentioned that I sought an inn for the night. This was done as much through universal sign language as through the spoken word, well more so actually, but they got the gist. Follow me gestured the pilot, and to the sound of the laughter of his lady companions, we were off - off like the clappers I have to say. We did a U-turn, took a left, hung a right, and blasted off into the thick of the traffic. He accelerated (as best he could, given two overweight ladies and sidecar to hold back his 125cc scooter) and soon we were in the thick of it. A crossroads with traffic lights just changing to red, he revved his machine up and, drawing enough extra breath to curse, so did I. It was a tight manoeuvre on a laden touring machine but I feel I pulled it off with aplomb. Soon we were passing the solo machines, weaving in and out, and the astonishing thing about it was that although all around me looked like mild madness, my guide rode as though it was the most casual ride of his life. I was impressed, he never cut anyone up, or got in there way, or acted erratically.
So here I was, after riding 160kms blasting flat out weaving through a mass of motor scooters following a homemade motorcycle and sidecar with two plump Muslim ladies, head scarves waving majestically in the wind as they waved and grinned and shouted encouragement to me, and every now and again a little of the scrap metal he seemed to have gathered in the sidecar would fall out and bounce in my path to give me something extra to think about.
And then a swift left into a quiet side street and there it was the Palace Hotel. My friends pointed to it, spun their machine around, waved and acknowledged my thanks, and were gone. I just had to sit for a moment and laugh out loud. What great folk.
A recent rummage through an old diary of thoughts and observations from a life on a bike, living on the road has inspired me to publish a tale and some old pics. Throwback Thursday I thought I would call it, and the plan is a tale and a few old photos, once a week, you can guess which day. First up, a chance encounter as Phong and I explored our rather super Northeast Vietnam tour.
Northeast Vietnam, 2011, summer, around lunchtime.
At lunchtime, we roll into the dusty main street of a one-horse town. A wooden lean-to fixed to the front of an eggshell blue house with wooden lattice shutters serves as the town diner. We lean our bikes beneath the shade of a banyan tree as a girl, hiding from the sun beneath a turquoise parasol, drives a small heard of cattle along the dusty main street. I pause to watch the girl use her parasol to urge one of the cows to stop eating an old ladies poinsettias, and by the time I enter the restaurant, Phong is already in deep conversation with the proprietor and his wife. I am not an expert in the Vietnamese language, but for all the world it appears that Phong is explaining how to fry noodles. Our hosts appear fascinated by this new learning from the wise city boy. They stand transfixed as Phong goes through the finer details of stir-frying, their concentration was only broken when they realise that standing in the doorway, framed by the bright light of day against the dark interior of their home, is an Englishman.
We exchange pleasantries and I take a seat. There is a little more conversation regarding the frying of noodles, and then three small glasses are plonked before me.
I am hot, thirsty, and very hungry, I know full well what the three small glasses mean, I am gripped by fear. I protest I ask, nay beg Phong to politely explain to this gracious man that as much as we would love to join in an afternoon of frivolity and merriment, needs must that we soon need be on our way - sober. Phong flicks me a glance, I know it well, it says "there will be no discussion, no negotiation, we are in Vietnam and we must honour the traditions and customs of this proud nation" (yes, he can convey all that in one glance, he would make a fine wife). Our host makes a small speech as he fills each glass with home-distilled rice liquor, Phong translates; â€œit is not often I have the honour of hosting a well-spoken city slicker from Hanoi, and a worldly travelled foreigner - friends, a toast!â€ We down our tots of fiery brew in one and our host pours three more glasses and commences on another speech, I can see where this is heading - and so it begins.
Each moment, each movement, every thought made by man and beast, and every incident of nature for the next hour is deemed worthy of a toast. Scattered around the room are bodies, clearly victims of previous toastings. In a dim corner sits a jovial looking fellow, his eyes roll slowly, and from time to time his tongue flops from his mouth only for him to look thoughtful for a few moments before returning his tongue to a more dignified position with a grimy finger. In the middle of the room is a large table where an elderly fellow in a straw hat wobbles precariously on a flimsy plastic chair, seemingly oblivious that one leg is on the very edge of a step and that he was on the brink of disaster.
One hour, a plate of fried noodles, and countless glasses of hooch later we emerge staggering, ever so slightly, and blinking weary eyes into the bright tropical daylight. Our host sways in the doorway as he bids us a thousand fond farewells, and we wobble through the dust narrowly missing several more victims of our host’s hospitality as they snooze quietly in the afternoon sun.
We cautiously mount our machines and gingerly pedal on to the top of the next pass where we stopped to catch our breath and rehydrate. The view is magical, mythical. As I sit sipping from my water bottle I am spellbound by a scene where I quite expected to see elves and goblins and Hobbits, and little green dragons that puff plumes of smoke instead of breathing flames. I turn to Phong, “I think I can stop now” I say. Phong looks puzzled. “Now I have seen this,” I say gesturing at the jungle-covered karst hills spreading out to the distance, “I think that I can find a home, and settle down”. “Oh yes,” says Phong, “I think you probably can”
The lovely village of Tam Son where we spend two nights which allows us to explore one of South East Asia's best-kept secrets.
Phong heads into a small Hmong village
Winding up to Heaven Gate Pass
Typical Northeast Vietnam scenery
As has become our want following a China tour, Echo and I opted for a few days with our China tour partners Cath and Lee in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.
A city of some six million people, Kunming has earned the rather apt moniker of The Eternal Spring City. Just a few degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer and perched in the hills at a lofty 1800 metres the weather in Kunming retains an agreeable climate mostly year round, that is, spring-like and splendid.
Providence, or good planning, has it that Cathy and Lee live on the western edge of the city beneath Xi Shan, the West Mountain, a veritable garden of Eden for the eager mountain biker, and, I dare to say, even more fun on a gravel bike.
Before reaching the multi-surfaced playground up above the city through a warm-up awaits in the form of a character building 400-meter ascent, a fine workout that leaves a chap either knackered, or ready and eager to for the byways, tracks, and trails that abound.
Our most recent visit followed the inaugural South China tour and was also the first proper shakedown ride for my newest bike, a Kinesis ATR VII, the successor to the brilliant and highly acclaimed Version 1 of the early pretender to the crown of gravel bike king. This new bike has already plodded around some trails in the UK, and has earned its wings as a tour-leading rig on the South China tour, but the variety of surfaces, climbs, descents, sealed country lanes, gravel trails, rocky climbs, single track, and rooted descents, all in the company of the young, lean, muscular, and somewhat fit Lee really put the machine (and it’s raging pilot) through its paces.
More of the bike and it's built shortly, for now though some photos from above Kunming.
Wooden houses, rice terraces, rivers, valleys and rural lanes. Long climbs and lovely descents sweeping through terraces of rice and past traditional dressed minority ladies in working the fields.
A small group is never a bad thing with an inaugural tour as it allows some flexibility to iron out any creases. It also gives the opportunity to assess the tour in a real-world situation, with guests on board. And so when Pat & Keith got in touch to say they would like to join this year's South China tour we jumped at the chance to run the tour with a couple of good fun good riding regulars. And so, with Echo taking the role of lead guide we all set off with our regular driver and ace mechanic Lee at the wheel of our support vehicle.
What followed was two splendid weeks of bicycle exploration along the byways of China’s Guiyang Province and Guanxi Autonomous Region. Ancient wind & rain bridges, villages of wooden houses, intricate terraces of rice, bamboo forests, challenging climbs and winding descents, the cycling was as beautiful and enjoyable as the food was fine and the company a pleasure.
Thanks Pat & Keith, looking forward to seeing you both again, hopefully before too much time passes.
Echo takes care of most of the organisation of the China tours, and South China was her first time as the local guide - a task she carried off with aplomb.
Keith takes a rest by the Li River
Pat on one of the many extended downhill sections
Long Ji Rive Terrace, the dragon's back - it's a fine challenging climb to reach our guest house with a view by noon. The afternoon can be spent relaxing or wandering through the beautiful hills, crafted by hand.
Pat & Echo.
Referred to by some regulars as "David routes" PaintedRoads tours are just not right without some gravel excursions.
It's China, some construction is inevitable.
Not as lost as she looks, or felt, it's always great to explore the countryside at close range.
PaintedRoads' tours always take post ride rehydration very seriously.
The back streets of Da Xu old town.
Guide on parade. Wooden houses are typical architecture in the villages of Guiyang Province.
With the building of new highways, such as can be seen top right of this image, the old roads are left quiet, ideal for rural riding.
heading out of town following our rest day.
Ancient (or at least a little bit old) storage huts with corn cobs drying outside.
Winding a path along the Li River.
Posing for a snapshot a kilometre before tour's end.
Our driver, mechanic, and tea brake provider Lee.
A cynic would argue with gloomy enthusiasm that high hopes and fine expectations are a sure-fire recipe for disappointment, as, I suspect, would many a realist. And so it was that I headed for Mongolia earlier this month with both high hopes, and a niggling foreboding of doom.
It is for some years now that I have been eager to host a Mongolia tour, and so the surprise meeting early this year with an agent in Ulaanbaatar who asked to cooperate on a camping tour in the Kangi Mountains gave me cause for much excitement and the anticipation of a super adventure to come.
As I discussed the details of the tour and my requirements with the agent I felt more and more that I was dealing with a trustworthy fellow who valued the need for quality highly and believed in a fair and honest working relationship. And so it was that for the first time ever rather the venture alone or with a chum to inspect and explore a route I contacted a small group of PaintedRoads valued regulars and invited them to join me on a Mongolia expedition. Unsurprisingly most eagerly jumped at the chance of adventure in an unknown land and quickly became known collectively as, the LabRats.
And so it was that Dianne, Nigel, Marko, Phil, Keith, Echo, and I all met early in July in Ulaanbaatar’s Grand Khan Irish Pub, eager for a few pints of Gobi Gold and two weeks of Mongolian cycling adventure.
Rather than describe the two weeks in detail here and now I will let a few of my photos from the trip give you a little flavour of this wonderful land, and over the next week or so as I go through the pics I will post a few more prior to adding the tour to PaintedRoads' collection.
It is early days at the moment, we have just returned to our respective homes, but soon I will add the thoughts, comments, and opinions of the LabRats along with further images.
The bottom line, for now, is that I had no concern whatsoever to lumber my journey to Ulaanbaatar with nagging doubts. The Mongolia LabRat Run was absolutely superb in all respects. The crew were excellent, the food, produced in a kitchen tent was exceptional, the tents and the camping were great, and the overall organisation was splendid.
For anyone wishing to exchange the Westernised life of the 21st century for two weeks of wilderness, where neither car nor wifi nor crowds of people roam, then this tour is just the tonic. It’s a wilderness of trails, through desert and meadows and forests and pastures, across hills and valleys and rivers. It’s a land of nomadic herders who live a tough but pure life and understand the value of kindness, sharing, and friendliness, far above and beyond greed and materialism - am I smitten with Mongolia? Yes, I most certainly am, and I cannot wait to return.
Full details of the new Mongolia tour will follow soon.
Finally on a personal note, many thanks LabRats, it was, and you were, brilliant!
Our support vehicles were the rather wonderful Russian made UAZ - think of it as a VW camper on steroids.
A wilderness tour for sure, Mongolia offered a wonderful variety of terrain and riding from smooth tracks and grassy hills...
to river crossings
Camping was a civilised affair with a kitchen/dining tent, shower tent, loo tent, and a four made dome tent between one or two depending on booking
The camp chefs turned out an amazing selection of quality cuisine
The Orkhon valley, quite lovely
Cycling guide, mechanic, camp guard, and instant PaintedRoads legend - Toro
Riding across the pastures
From time to time we would overnight in a ger camp, an agreeable and comfortable experience
Another wonderful meal. The food far exceeded expectations
Wide open spaces
One of the many nomads we met along the way
More friendly nomads
Meeting yaks, a regular occurrence
Cheers all, a typical tea break