It is difficult to gauge just how good a route is when riding it alone. Solitary riding is always a different experience, tending to be harder, faster and more tiring. The consequence is that it's never easy to gauge how well a tour will be received when first presented to a discerning group.
Living close to the start of the Thailand Gravel tour I had plenty of time to put what we believe to be Thailand's first-ever long-distance gravel tour together. It's a concept I have harboured for some years now, and from inspecting the initial course to settling on the route for the inaugural tour took three years.
I rode the entire route several times, and inevitably each time it changed. I would wonder 'what's along that lane, what's down that path, how far does that red gravel road go', and I would look. Sometimes I would find improvements, and sometimes I would not. Sections closer to home I rode more regularly and changed more often, and the section that traces a seventy kilometres arc around my humble abode I re-rode and pondered and altered and worried over until Echo said, 'maybe you shouldn't ride it again before the tour runs', and she was, of course, right'.
Fortunately, the five gravel riders who rode out of town with me on a mid-January morning were easy going laid back folks with a mind to have fun whenever possible - and fun we had. Ten days and a thousand kilometres later we rolled into a quiet guesthouse in Ayuthaya, the former capital of Siam, sharing the opinion that the tour had been as described, a 50/50 mix of gravel roads and deserted byways, a ratio we all felt was an ideal mix of exhilarating riding, relaxed cruising, and the opportunity to see a side of Thailand rarely seen, let alone experienced by most tourists.
If you would like a unique and exhilarating gravel cycling adventure whilst experiencing Thailand in a way most foreigners never will, we have two dates for next year. A Christmas getaway, and a mid-Jan start date. Please click here for full details.
Cycling in beautiful solitude
A sneak peak at a whole new tour
So many images and impressions are swimming in my head at the moment that it’s difficult to believe they are all from just one tour. It has taken me some time to calm these swirling fragmented images and organise them into some semblance of a tour description, but I am getting close, and am rather excited about it.
If you're after advice on a cycling route you need to ask a cyclist. Fortunately, this fellow turned up on cue with some sound advice
Lijiang is a much-visited tourist haunt in the very north of China’s Yunnan Province. Many visit this town with good reason - once away from the tourist hordes its cobbled streets are a delight to explore. Few though head north from here, quite likely because what lays ahead is a little daunting. On the southern edge of China’s Tibetan region, the area north of Lijiang takes one into a land of immensely high mountains, dry dusty valleys, forests of pine and rhododendrons, pastures where yak graze, villages of wooden houses, and the traditional fortress-like stone mansions of the Tibetan people. Nomad camps are populated by motorbike-riding cowboys (yak boys?) and guarded by roaming Tibetan Mastiffs. And so with much excitement Echo Lee and I drove north from Lijiang to explore PaintedRoads’ latest Chinese adventure.
Typical Tibetan architecture
Wot, No Bikes?
For the first time ever a PaintedRoads tour has been explored by car rather than by bicycle. Having made such a statement I shall state that it is not exactly true, as I have explored the region by bicycle on more than one occasion (see pics from the previous blog post). What we were doing this time was going over ground previously ridden to see how things look in 2017, and to see how best to piece together the collection of routes we already have. Taking the car proved to be wise as we backtracked and amended the route on enough occasions to cover 1700 kilometres in order to put together a 900KMS tour.
Our research vehicle
A Little Bit Of Yunnan
Early on in the tour is the dramatic little town of Bao Shan. Perched precariously atop a rocky outcrop high above the Yangtse river this delightful little spot has narrow flagstone streets where ponies are the only transport. Were it not such a choir to get to and from, Bao Shan would be a major tourist hotspot, however it is not easily accessible with the result that during our visit we were the only tourists in town. But a journey is what we are all about, and so the dramatic bicycle ride into town combined with the river journey away is perfect, and the dearth of tourist is a delight as we wander the streets.
Bao Shan perches high above the Yangtse river and is home for one night
Lugu Lake, our next port of call, is a beautiful body of fresh blue water right on the Yunnan/Sichuan border, and a fine spot for a rest and acclimatisation day before we head into the Tibetan world.
Lugu Lake, the site of our first rest/acclimatisation day
The last time I left Lugu Lake on a bicycle was ten years ago, and the way we chose back then was so vague it took us two days to find our way into Sichuan. Today the road is better, it is sealed, it is quiet and it is immensely beautiful. Two days after leaving Lugu Lake we find ourselves heading towards our first 4000-metre pass via our first climb in excess of 35KMS. The surface is super, and the gradient is kind, gaining just over a thousand metres during those 35KMS. But the air is thin, and one must never underestimate the effect of altitude when cycling.
And herein lies one of the beauties of this tour, although it is by all accounts a high altitude tour we have the benefit of sleeping notably lower each night that the day’s highpoint. This is a great feature to ensure safe and comfortable acclimatisation to altitude.
The only night we do not sleep lower is our overnight at Baheng Pasture. This is the midway point for our two-day off-road section, mostly gravel tracks, but with some rocky stuff thrown in to keep us on our toes. The pasture is a beautiful spot situated a tad below 4000 meters, and the following morning our first hour or so takes us to a beautiful pass that offers stunning views of snow peaks and a forty-kilometre descent on a white gravel road - strada bianchi, fantastic stuff.
And In The End
As always when exploring a route there are highs and lows. The lows are generally when a part of the planned route doesn't work out for one reason or another, which in the case of this tour was the originally intended ending.
Chengdu was initially pencilled in as the end of the tour, but as we explored it became acutely apparent it was just too far to fit into a realistic time frame.
So we drew things a tad closer to the start with the lofty town of Litang, which according to sources is the highest in the world. Cycling to the world’s highest town has quite a touch of drama, doesn’t it? It gives a wonderful element of romantic adventure, people would like that we thought, and so we went to Litang. This was an option that seemed quite splendid until we reached Litang, where we discovered that a decade after my first visit this dusty Wild West town remains a veritable dump. It has beautiful evening light, and we found a great hotel, but a tour must end on a high, and Litang, although lofty in altitude, does not create a sense of euphoria when, after a tough two weeks cycling, one rides into town. Litang also lacks a good infrastructure for departing the tour, and so with a flourish of pen, we crossed Litang off of the list of ending places and refilled the car with fuel.
Three cycling day’s east of Litang is the town of Kanding, the final Tibetan town before dropping to the provincial capital of Chengdu at a lowly 900 metres above sea level. We set off to Kanding crossing valleys and passes and high plateaus on a road that a decade before had been bereft of traffic. Now, alas, dreadful internal combustion powered vehicles blight the road with fumes and noise. The road has no shoulder, and the traffic, whilst not exactly an endless stream, was to my mind too heavy to make for an enjoyable three days riding however beautiful the vistas may be - “this will not do” went the cry.
One of the hotels we will be using on the tour
And so we backtracked to the ending I had favoured secretly from the start, Shangri La. It was to my mind, in all ways but one, the perfect finale to this tour. To end with a dramatic ride across rugged wild passes into a beautiful Tibetan town with character, fine food, good locally brewed beer, and an airport was surely a winner. And so we looked.
It was a road I had ridden back in 2007 when it was empty, very empty. It was also remote, it was high, and I was keen to see it again.
Now it is remote, high, and empty. It is sealed in places and not in others. We also found the finest hotel of the tour along this route, which came as a surprise as finding accommodation was a big concern.
Typical for this tour, baron brown walls, a blue and white ceiling, and a carpet all hues of green
All but one?
I said that ending in Shangri La was a perfect finale in all ways but one, and that one shortfall is an imaginary shortfall. Unfortunately, a lot of things in life are imagined but believed to be true. I expect that many people will tell you that Iran is a dreadful country to visit, that it is a nation of dastardly characters all out to slit your throat. You will, however, only be told this by people who have not been there, it is imaginary, it is untrue, but it stops people from visiting. Likewise fitting Shangri La into this tour can cause the imaginary problem that because Shangri La is the start point for our Yunnan tour the Sichuan Tibet tour must be similar, it is not. It is in actuality very different. Shangri La is the edge of the Tibetan world. In the Yunnan tour we start on the edge of Tibet and travel away, we drop lower and towards SE Asia. The Sichuan tour is high, and it is, for the most part, Tibetan in culture, in architecture, in scenery and smells and textures and taste. Shangri La is a fitting and very suitable end, a lovely place to wind down and relax, to wander the cobblestoned streets, to drink good coffee, and to enjoy a fine craft ale.
Architecturally this tour is divided with the earlier days seeing bare stone houses that give way to white painted abodes as we move on
This road is so new it doesn't even appear on digital maps, fortunately, we stumbled upon on and it fits perfectly in the tour
Anyone who has been on the PaintedRoads Yunnan tour will be only too aware of how delightful the little town of Shangri La is. Fly into Shangri La from the low lands and it feels high, Tibetan and exotic. Cycle into Shangri La from Sichuan and it feels low altitude and more regular Chinese. It also has all the little luxuries one will no doubt have missed during two weeks of high altitude adventure cycling, cappuccino, apple pie, pizza, strong beer. It also boasts an airport but an hour’s hop from Chengdu and Kunming, and a lovely comfortable little boutique lodge we have been using for the past few years.
A small town as we head towards Shangri La
Oh, I am looking forward to this tour. It will be the 2018 Lab Rat Run beginning in Lijiang on June 2nd next year, and finishing 16 days later in Shangri La. Full details soon.
Yaks graze in a high altitude pasture
A Buddhist monastery along the way
High passes are always crowned with prayer flags through which the wind blows and sends incantations to the heavens. This pass sits at a lofty 4250 metres
The streets of Tibet
Yak pastures and pine trees at four thousand metres
The road into the village of Longsa Pasture, the highest night of the tour
Yep there's even cactus
The streets of Bao Shan
Many of the roads are perfectly sealed and bereft of traffic...
some are not sealed - this deserted gravel road descends for forty kilometres into the valley below...
where these fellows reside
My first shock upon arriving in Taiwan a year ago, with the intention of crafting a tour for the less physically inclined, was the discovery that it is, in essence, one big mountain.
An island a tad larger than Belgium, Taiwan rises almost immediately from the ocean and rears up to a lofty level above the briny of 3250 metres. As I had travelled to this island looking for a less demanding tour two things quickly became apparent, A: I was very poor at advanced research, and B: I had my work cut out. Fortunately, #B turned out to be incorrect, for Taiwan is an island paradise for the cyclist and offers much forgiveness for the bumbling tour researcher.
And so it was in the middle of April this year, armed with a tour I had toted as being of a level of physical demand suitable for those who are happy riding our Northern and Southern Thailand tours, I arrived In Taipei with the usual apprehension of a first tour and a merry band of PaintedRoads’ finest lab rats.
Taipei is, in my experience, the most developed and orderly capital in Asia. That is not to say that there are not even more orderly capitals, for there may well be, but if there are I have yet to visit one. Everything I experienced is orderly and organised (except for the machine at immigration that scans visitors fingerprints, that is the sort of rubbish Microsoft would be happy to sell). For example the colourful lights found decorating road junctions in most Asian capitals are also abundant in Taipei, but rather than simply brightening up gloomy days during the monsoon season, in Taipei they appear to indicate to road vehicles when to proceed and when to halt, and the whole nation, with few exceptions, seems to have accepted, and even, perhaps, embraced this concept.
Leaving Taipei, a city with a population of nigh on three million is an absolute delight as we cyclists follow the Tamsui river north along a network of dedicated bicycle paths bereft of both traffic and hills.
The following two days contained short but significant sections to which I had given much consideration since first riding them. The main concerns I had were a couple of short but hilly sections that I considered suitable for the tour, but having toted the tour as suitable for those of a certain physical disposition it was clear to me that only when those people had ridden these undulations could I be sure that my appraisal was correct. Fortunately, a combination of providence and knowledge of my guests proved the choice of route to be a success, and even a little push or two on a couple of steeper sections were deemed an acceptable trade-off for a beautiful and tranquil route. And so, with that, I relaxed.
Midway through the tour, we rode the wonderful East Rift Valley. I love this road, it is a two-wheel paradise, with gentle climbs and descents on a rural road that winds through emerald fields of rice, plantations of betel nut palm, and orchards of fruit. As an added attraction we also crossed the Tropic of Cancer before lunch, and we finished the day at a hot spring resort. Before setting out on the bikes that morning the group suggested that perhaps my description of the day’s ride made too much of what a great day lay ahead and that I should perhaps have lowered expectations in a bid to lessen the chance of disappointment. As it turned out, I had it right and the group concurred, it is a beautiful day to be on a bike.
The final day’s cycling begins with the longest climb of the tour which sees us gain 450 metres over 10KMS. Its a satisfying sort of a climb that leads us via an equal satisfying descent to the south coast and some truly outstanding scenery. As we round the southernmost tip of the island the end of a wonderful tour through a cycling haven is rounded off with a crescendo of cliffs and downs, and a sparkling ocean of most vivid turquoise and blue.
The ride draws to a conclusion in the thoroughly popular coastal resort town of Kenting Street, that with its selection of restaurants serving pizza, burgers, and steak, and Thai to name but a few much-embraced delicacies was the icing on the cake for a group of Western cyclists.
This is but brief highlights of a wonderful tour which is encompasses highway, byway, rail and wonderful cycle paths that together constitute a national network of bicycle routes.
With this inaugural tour being a resounding success I will now make a few detail improvements and before the passing of much more time announce the dates for the next tour of Formosa.
Many thanks to Rod, Mark, Peter & Anne, JP & Alison, Priyen, Kevin, and Mike coming along, providing the fun, and helping to make the tour a great success, looking forward to seeing you all again, hopefully before too long.
Riding through the betel nut palms gives the journey an altogether exotic feel
Narrow lanes light of traffic are a cyclist's delight
Ah, yes, someone led the group along a little lane to a gate that was locked - well, you can't always get it right, can you?
An old suspension bridge as we near our rest day venue in the little surfer's town of Dulan
An old harbour wall and cloudy sky lends a somewhat Cornish atmosphere
Peter and Rod rest after a long and hot climb
A brief pause as we cross the Tropic of Cancer - that it was less than 20º at sea level was a little odd.
Rice fields and jungle
At one stage we managed to become muddled up in one of Taiwan's major iron man events...
and so we released our stallion - he soon showed them all a thing or two
It’s rest day here in Northeast Vietnam, so time to sit back with a coffee and post a few images from the tour so far.
As always seems to be the case we are once again blessed with a great group of people all possessing a fine sense of humour, good nature and enjoyable conversation. That they are a group of competent cyclists is the cherry on the top of the cake. Three Kiwis, an Italian, a Canadian and a Brit, along with Vietnamese Phong, and I makes for the sort of cosmopolitan group I love to share an adventure with. Rather than be categorised by our nationality I feel the world be to be a better place if we were categorised by our persona, and if this were the case we in this group would all hold the same passport.
As for the tour, well it’s been mentioned before, and will undoubtedly be stated again, that exploring this route reignited my passion for adventure cycling a few years ago, and since then I have not looked back. The route is stunning, with otherworldly scenery, quiet roads, satisfying climbs, descents that make the climbs more than worthwhile, ever friendly welcoming locals, interesting hill tribe people, and …… Well, I could wax lyrical at length regarding all that makes this tour great, but suffice to say that it is a firm favourite of mine.
We chose to run the tour during December this year in a bid to escape some of the hot days we have at other times of the year, and a tremendous success it has been. A couple of evenings it has dipped to a nippy 13º, but daytime we have pretty much perfect cycling weather with the mercury hovering around the mid to high 20s - never too hot on the climbs and never too cold on the descents, one could say ideal.
As is always the case with PaintedRoads tours (and this is one of our rather unique characteristics) the tour has evolved and improved over the years that we have been running in. Phong and I had a quick tot up over dinner last evening and concurred that this is the fifth incarnation of the tour. We have had three different start points, three route variations, two rest day venues, and of course the addition of the stunning and tantamount to secret loop ride near the small town of Tam Son.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow's ride already.
Phong makes a fuss about nothing - no change there then
It was the mid rain season 2011 that Phong and I set out on our bicycles to explore what, unbeknown to me at the time, was to become PaintedRoads’ very first tour. Before we explored the route I was glum, neigh, melancholy. Quite why I was melancholy I could not say - such is the nature of melancholy, but my passion for bicycle adventures was frayed, and I was feeling lost. But those two weeks in Northeast Vietnam changed all. I recovered, I perked up, I became non-melancholy, and I have never looked back. So beautiful did I find the region, so enamoured was I by the adventure and the sheer pleasure and privilege of exploring such a region, by bicycle, and with a close friend, that my zeal was reignited and has burned most brightly since.
Phong and I have since run the tour countless times and never do I tire of it. We have changed it, we have improved it, we have added sections and moved the rest day, you might like to say we obsess over it. And so it is with much excitement that I fly to Hanoi early next month to ride the wonderful tour with a group of like-minded cyclists from as far afield as the Antipodes, Europe, and the seemingly more sensible section of North America.
So with this tour on my mind, I have just been flicking through some images from last years wonderful Northeast Vietnam tour, some images I find inspirational, and hopefully, you will too.
Cheerio for now
It's always lovely when those who came along take a little time to write afterwards and let me know what they thought of our journey together. And judging by the comments from those who have recently been in touch following the inaugural Tr-Nations tour through Vietnam, Lao and Thailand, we have just had a splendid time.
So here are some thoughts from some of those who recently rode from Vietnam's Hanoi to Thailand's Chiang Rai with me.
Thanks for coming along folks, and I look forward to seeing you all again, hopefully soon.
"The Tri-nations tour exceeded my expectations in all areas. The scenery was spectacular, like something out of a movie. As we moved from country to country through some very remote villages the locals and children all gave us a wave with a smile on their faces. I feel I have seen the country, not just the tourist hotspots".
"What I find his most important asset is that all participants get the impression that David is personally looking out for them and that his bottom line is not foremost in his thoughts, giving the result that accommodation, meals, snacks and hire bikes are probably the best you will find on any Asian tour. I encourage anybody who is thinking about going on a cycling tour where PaintedRoads has a presence to first make contact with David - you will not be disappointed."
"This trip was my first experience cycling mountains and I was apprehensive at first and fully prepared to use the support vehicle. I gave it my best shot and with the encouragement of David and his team I have come away with a sense of achievement, tackling far more mountain passes than I ever expected to on the trip".
"David is an excellent tour leader and uses excellent local guides and drivers who make you feel welcome in their country and help to give an insight to the local culture and cuisine".
"Excellent food, splendid company and awesome riding."
"In the past few years I have taken part in Painted Roads’ tours in Northeast Vietnam, South Vietnam and North Thailand, and with another cycling tour operator, I cycled through Laos. Having enjoyed all of the lands on separate tours the opportunity of combining all three countries into one long tour could not be missed.
To say that I found the Painted Roads Tri-Nations tour the most challenging, but at the same, the most enjoyable and satisfying of all my twelve cycling tours to date is an understatement. I could continue in this testimonial by comparing the routes, scenery, atmosphere and cycling through all three countries, but that would not emphasise what makes a PaintedRoads tour superior to all other tours. That superiority is simply the presence on all tours of David, who by living permanently in Asia is alert to all possible route and accommodation changes and can make alternative arrangements seamlessly".
"The inaugural Tri-Nations tour appealed to me as it traverses three distant lands, combining adventure and mystique. And so for me, it became my third Painted Roads tour. I find David Walker's tours so different in that his personal attention covers all the things you expect whilst also helping you take care of all the little things you forgot to bring".
"This tour gives a taste of it all..from cycling in the high country and magical scenery with buddies from far afield who soon become friends..to super downhills, and snacks by a cool shady stream. The tour has hills, and more hills, but it also has long stretches of flat passing through remote villages where people's lives can be seen and experienced, cooking, working, and even rice whiskey distillation in the back shed".
"The tour is relaxed, but the attention to detail behind the scenes on this tour makes it all work like clockwork, just turn up, cycle, and have a fabulous time - and of course a cold beer always greets a weary traveller come day’s end...the David Walker way, you’ll just love it...I did."