We pull off of the Pan Americana highway for the final time with a feeling a relief. Sometimes hectic, sometimes tranquil, we have been dodging on and off this road for the past 4000 kilometres. In Peru, the standard of driving has fallen to an all-time low (which is takes some achieving) and we are happy to leave the lorry drivers, coach chauffeurs, and various other homicidal lunatics behind us.
We pull up at the gatehouse of the private road, shake hands with the jovial guard who merrily waves us on towards the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas, The Cordillera Blanca.
The road is a gravel track and will continue so for the lions share of the next month. We are in a desert now with not a sign of life. The desert is beautiful, the contours of the hills the rocks and the sand cast a multitude of hues.
This is the South America that we came here for, wilderness open space and beauty. Amidst this parched lowland desert, it is difficult to comprehend that just a hundred or so kilometres away stand giant snow-capped mountains. Come dusk we find a fine camp spot with a magnificent view, the only sound is silence. The sky is clear as we lay outside the tent after dinner watching the stars. We try to identify the Southern Cross. We think we find it, then we find another cross, then another, it is astonishing just how many celestial crosses there are in the night sky. We find Orion's Belt, we always find Orion's Belt, we are happy that Orion's Belt exists for there are few other constellations that we can identify here, then we spot the Plough, larger than in the northern hemisphere and upside down. We discuss the size of space and the fact that the universe is expanding at an incomprehensible speed, we wonder how, given that space is infinite, it can be expanding. We discuss black holes and white dwarfs and wormholes and light years. We discuss things that are really beyond us, we realise that we are becoming very confused and so we retire for the night. This always happens when we camp in a desert.
There is a momentary silence as the roar of the raging torrent bellow is replaced by the crunching of gravel beneath our tyres. It is now the second day of the long climb to Huaraz and we are entering one of the many narrow tunnels hewn into the side of the Canyon del Pato. The single lane track clings to the cliff face high above the Rio Santa, the river that relentlessly gouges out the canyon on its journey to the sea. The tunnels on this rock-strewn gravel road are narrow and we are pleased that the traffic is light, to meet a lorry in one of these dark passages would be far from good.
Finding camping in this narrow valley is a challenge. Tired after a long day in the saddle we fuel ourselves with a sugar hit from a battered bottle of warm cola before clambering to a ridge high above the road. We while away a pleasant evening there laying outside the tent drinking tea and arguing about which constellation is the Southern Cross, we have to date discovered 37 crosses.
The following morning the wind is kind on the climb to the Cordillera Blanc. When it builds to something closer to a gale in the late morning it is behind us. Still, our progress is always slow, we blame this on potholes rocks and piles of loose sand, not on our tired old legs. We stop for a drink break at a small settlement of just a few houses, what do people do out here? There is mining but the level of traffic is so low that despite the occasional appearance of men as black as soot we conclude that it cannot be coal; I see a small restaurant with the word opal in its name, and wonder if this is what they are clawing their way into the rock face for.
We sit down with a big bottle of something fizzy and full of sugar, the proprietor gives us an apple each and engages us in a short conversation, where are you from? Where are you going? By bicycle? Wow, very strong? We agree about our strength and point our handsomeness as well. He seems impressed. This open friendliness is repeated all along the way.
Exiting the final tunnel we leave the canyon and find ourselves in another world, metaphorically speaking of course. The valley is green, cultivated, and populated with a backdrop of giant snow peaks. The contrast to the past three days is startling.
It takes us a total of four days to complete the 330 kilometres to Huaraz. The final 70 kilometres are on paved roads peppered with potholes and populated by drivers who can most politely be described as incompetent, although we came up with a variety of more colourful adjectives with which to describe them.
Now at 3100 metres, we will spend a couple of days here acclimatising before heading higher into the thin air of the big hills.
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