….And setting out for the ride to the train station in Nanning, for the beginning of the end
And, so eventually the wheels stop turning. And for us that happened about 4 weeks ago when we arrived in Hong Kong.
John takes apart the bikes to fit them on the train
‘Blue Peter’ project style, replete with cardboard and sellotape
Waiting for the fun of arguing passed the next set of officials
After a ridiculous day in Nanning negotiating our way onto the train with our bikes. This largely involved us relentlessly ignoring the staff telling us that our bikes were not allowed until they gave in. John came up with the effective strategy of learning the Chinese word for ‘boss’ and telling anyone we came up against that the ‘boss’ had given us permission. We had to pack the bikes up the way you would for flying, but the results were more like a ‘Blue Peter’ project, complete with cardboard and sellotape, but we made it. And 700 kilometres later we were rebuilding our bikes at one in the morning, on the streets of Zuhai, the border town with Macau.
Happy to wave goodbye to our brief visit to Macau
And hello to wet and windy Hong Kong
Macau is one of the most expensive countries around (city state), so our plan was to get up early and ride in and straight through to the ferry terminal and be in Hong Kong by lunchtime. While China has some ridiculous bureaucracy, that turns out to be possible to bypass, Macau has rigid rules which reminded me of the UK that we had left behind 20 months ago. No longer could we get away with riding the wrong way up the street to get to our destination. Nor could we ride on the pavement when the roads got too busy. John got into a lengthy altercation with a man who turned out to be an off-duty police officer, who was most upset at approach to bending the rules (and frankly we thought it was much safer for us to be on the wide, virtually empty pavement as opposed the the dual-carriageway replete with lorries heading to the ferry terminal). Eventually we disentangled ourselves from the angry locals and swapped the land for the sea, arriving in a very wet Kowloon an hour later.
It really was very wet and pretty chilly. It certainly was not the wall of heat I was lead to believe I would cycle into on arrival in Hong Kong. But rain or no rain, we had to find our way out of the city centre and head east towards Sai-Kung in the New Territories. After so long on the road John’s city navigation has become pretty slick and we had left behind the centre in swift time. We dripped and shivered our way east until we arrived at our destination.
Which is where this story ends and a new one begins. Outward Bound Hong Kong. John was last here 12 years ago and I have never been here, although all those years ago when we first met (2004) we were both working for Outward Bound Loch Eil (Scotland) and now here we are again working together at Outward Bound Hong Kong. It was time to stop moving for a while, we’d both been feeling it for at least a couple of months. There is freedom on the road, but also it gets wearing having only each other to talk to (small talk in broken English is not a real conversation), and we were realistically spending less time having adventures on our bikes and more time hanging out in hotels. Of course it is hard to say whether this was in part to do with arranging to work in Hong Kong, after all if this hadn’t have been on the cards we would never have stayed in China for as long as we did. But now we are here, with a whole host of new friends to hang out with and that feels really good right now. Our brains and bodies have got used to having to work for a living again; I’ve had to remember how to work in outdoor education after 10 years away. I’ve got the next 3 and half months to practice it again, at least. I’ve discovered that I’m much better at communal living than I was when I was younger and it feels just great to sit in a kayak after 20 months away.
Outward Bound Hong Kong
A room with a view
Our new home from home for the next few months
We’re so busy working now that cycle touring has already become a memory, or a story to tell to other people. When I ride my bike I’m aware that the bike fitness is declining and when we put the bags back on it again the pain to build it up again will start all over, although I don’t suppose it will ever feel like it did that scary morning 21 months ago when we weren’t really sure whether we could roll down the street with our luggage, let alone all the way to Hong Kong. Well we could and we did. But for now, we are here until at least June. I can’t really say whether I will want to carry on pedalling when our end date here comes around. We’ve had some amazing adventures and experiences that cannot be easily replicated, and I don’t know just yet whether new continent/same style adventure is the way forward. I happy to have an open mind right now and see what comes our way. But until that time I want to thank everyone who believed in us and supported us on our journey. As a great writer once said ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’……Until the next time……….
The first thing worth knowing is that this year is the year of the Pig. And, of course we wanted to join in with the spirit of things and get ourselves a little pig mascot, and funnily enough reminds me of my childhood pig collection.
In the days leading up to the start of New Year (5th February 2019), the mass exodus begins. Apparently it is the biggest human migration event on the planet, which sees people travel ling to be with their families, because that is what Chinese New Year is really focused around: family. What we saw in Yunnan Province was lots of people moving from the cities and bigger new towns to the smaller towns and villages where their families were from (of course this is a generalised observation, lots of people are from the bigger places, too and I’m sure lots of people also don’t leave home for any number of other reasons). As the 5th approached some of the market towns became absolutely chaotic. But then, suddenly on the morning of the 4th as we were riding to the small city of Funing, it all became eerily quiet. The roads were empty. And that is no small thing in China, because the roads are never empty here. It was bliss (this was also helped by the region to the west of Funing being beautiful),
That eeriness continued as we entered Funing. The streets were empty; the shop shutters were all down. It is hard to express how weird this felt if you’ve never visited China, because this is just not normal. And, I started to worry that we’d missed a trick by riding so hard to get to the only city nearby for 3 days, after all, if people leave the cities to visit family in rural areas, there won’t be much going on will there? Wrong. Although it wasn’t hustle and bustle as usual, there was life and celebration. During the day, those quiet streets would regularly explode with noise, and I mean explode literally with bangers. Now these bangers are not like little cap gun bangers that I remember from childhood, or even the kind that French revellers like to throw on Bastile Day. These bangers come in the form of a wheel the size of a large pizza. From a secluded street, a form would be seen ambling out of a closed shop-front, clutching the red wheel, they would then unravel it on the ground, light it and hurry back to a point of safety. And then, ‘bang, bang, bang, bang’ for the next couple of minutes, while flashes were consumed in a growing cloud of smoke (To be honest, we had been hearing the bangers for days (they are load), and we continued to hear them for days afterwards, too). As the day moved towards evening, people started to appear on the streets and start to gather in the main square. We headed out for the evening, where families were thronging through the park, which had a proper carnival atmosphere complete with fairground style stalls (think throwing hoops over cans to win prizes and candy-floss), alongside paper laterns being sent skywards; cartoon-style go-carts and some live acts, all of which kept the family fun moving towards midnight. We were back in the hotel by then, but our room was a great place to watch the main even from: fireworks. We’d seen the giant rockets on sale for weeks, and for the next hour (no exaggeration) they exploded over the whole city, and these were not organised displays, they were just happy families making a glorious noise to welcome in the new year. By 1am the sky was obscured with smoke and it was time to sleep.
Over the next few days the world came back to life and all that was left were the memories and the mountains of red celebrations everywhere. Here’s to health and prosperity for everyone in the Year of the Pig.
Route: We followed the S219 for this route, parts of it are marked as the S214 on the map. Simao/Puer to Yingpanshan village, to Menglongguang, to Hongjiang, to Machang, to Hongmaolvxiazhai, to Daiheishan town, to Yaojia, to Luchun Lvchun), to Yige, to Xinjie (Yuanyang region).
When we looked at the map in Simao/Puer, the choice simple. The two roads east looked similar in distance, but the south road that ran close to the Laos and Vietnam borders potentially offered a route free from big roads and large-scale industrial traffic (but who can tell in China). Added to the decision was that the northern route would mean travelling through Shiping and Jianshui again, and the road wasn’t that exciting first time around. So, we chose the southern route. It was time to get out of our South-East Asia holiday mode which had seen a couple of months of pretty lazy riding, and to get back to full days and one day off a week.
We were motivated that first day we set out, which was easy of course because we were well-rested, well-fed (all you can eat buffet breakfast at the hotel), and to be honest the road gradients eased us into the week’s riding. Immediately it was great; the busy roads, filled with road-building traffic soon disappeared. And, do you know, they didn’t reappear again for the whole two weeks. I will say this right now, this ride was amazing. From start to finish, there were zero expressways and there were no works building them either. Perfect. The roads very simply went up and down the mountains (and up and down and up and down) every day, from start to finish. After that first day, the easy gradient disappeared though. In fact it was pretty tough riding; not tougher than the rest admittedly (for that think northern Albania), but requiring a fair bit of effort each day.
John and I are attracted to these kind of roads. Admittedly when I’m riding I might occasionally ask myself why I want to spend the day on a slow 1400 metre ascent, but the answer is because it feels great and with very little traffic (by Chinese standards), no other tourists that we could make out and a much more natural feel to the landscape (by Chinese standards), I couldn’t really have asked for much more. Oh, and it was some of the nicest camping in China; good weather, flat ground, possible to get away from the road, and even next to the odd river. We even had a water Buffalo try to eat the top of our tent one evening, before it ambled off across the river. That said, we also stayed in a lot of hotels, but when you rock up in a town that does not get any fair-share of westerners passing through, and the hotel owners actively court your custom for as little as £4.00 a night, it seemed silly not to.
One of the nice things about a lack of tourist saturation (apart from the cheap hotels) is that curiosity often comes mixed with kindness. We experienced this on our first day when we stopped for a cold drink at a shop and were given oranges and buckwheat tea (I love this, I would recommend it over green/black tea) in addition to our fizzy pop. The next day it was bananas. They were always welcome as I like a steady stream of bananas to fuel me up the hills.
One of the things that was less nice about this region was what we named ‘pig slaughter Saturday’. The clue is in it’s name. Every single village we passed through for the whole Saturday was filled with the cries of pigs, and the roads ran with blood. Needless to say we turned down the offers of food we received this day.
The other thing that became apparent on the first day was the high concentration of the Hani population. In this region of Yunnan they account for 54% of the population; the Han population is about 12% and the rest is accounted for by a number of other local ethnic groups. Of course, one of the most obvious distinguishing features to define the Hani population was the women’s tradition dress. That first day close to Simao/Puer it seemed to be just for celebrations (we saw three weddings that day and entire villages were in the equivalent of traditional ‘Sunday best’, but here it was long skirts slipped on over the top of jeans). Beyond the first day, however, it became clear that a lot of the women and some of the men of this region continue to preserve their dress traditions beyond celebrations. There were wide variations though and a bit of reading taught us that each particular ‘clan’ or local group has their own distinctive variation. I tried not to be the gawping westerner, but to be honest John and I get relentlessly gawped at ourselves out here, so really we are the biggest spectacle around, by far.
Anyway, back to the ride. Our second day saw an immediate pick-up in the gradient and it was this lack of horizontal road that remained. It took a lot longer to get anywhere than expected. But, it was not this that surprised us; it was when the perfectly serviceable road that we rode into one village on about the third day, disappeared at the other end and became dirt. We stopped and looked at the map; we were still on the right road. So we followed it down off of the hill for twenty-odd kilometres, hoping that it would stay as beautiful as it was at the top (hard-packed dirt, tree-lined, sweeping road). It didn’t; well it mostly did, but the hard-packed dirt became mixed with a lot of wet, churned-up ground. We had to do a lot of one-footed pushing to keep the bikes rolling. Actually, it was fun. And, by the end of it we were down in the bottom of the valley, ready to roll down-river for a little way before climbing right back out of the other side.
The other side continued as before; super-hilly. If you can imagine drawing a road-map on a piece of paper and then scrunching it up, then you have our ride. So, by the time we got to the ‘county town’ Luchun, a few days later we were ready for our day off. High up on the hillside, it was a hive of activity compared to the countryside we had just travelled through. And it definitely felt like the heart of the Hani population. But, most impressive was the Giant shop that was able to fix the problems John was having with his bike. he’d been riding for a couple of days with a broken spoke and he had to replace the bottom bracket that was only replaced in Kyrgyzstan (the bit that attaches the pedal cranks to the chain-set…front-gears for non-techiness). All this for £8.00 was cheaper than the new sunglasses he bought at the same time!
Our plan from Luchun was to take two days riding to Xinjie. There were two available roads. The one we chose would involve a day-long climb up through the UNESCO world heritage rice terraces, which we had hoped to see on the way to Vietnam but didn’t have the time left on our visas. With this in mind we set out from Luchun. Leaving the town was more confusing than we expected and we wasted at least an hour riding the wrong way through the middle of the town. By the timed we’d climbed up to the edge of town, we were both a bit frustrated, and we still weren’t entirely sure which road we should be taking. We asked the police and took the road they directed us to. It was a new road and involved a nice timed tunnel to cut out the top of the hill (some days I love riding through beautiful landscape, but sometimes it’s ‘tunnels of love’ all the way). Now, it might have been because we were arguing that we didn’t question whether this was the right road, but we got on and rode it. It was a fantastic, road that swept all around the bowl-shaped hillside before dropping us in the bottom of the valley. This was a much more open landscape than we’d seen for the last week and it was joyous to me to watch it open up ahead of me. Of course, by the time we got to the bottom we had both admitted to ourselves that it just was not the road we had planned to be on. It was too nice a road to be that bothered though and we knew that we would still make it to Xinjie the next day. And, there would still be views of the rice terraces en-route.
Wrong again. When we woke up the next morning we were in the mist. That was pretty normal for this area, but the norm was for the mist to clear by the middle of the day. This day it didn’t.
We got into Xinjie in good time, but everything was still in the cloud. Instead we had to make do with taking in Xinjie. Now, this is a town that is built on a tight steep bit of hillside. In fact it is a city which is very much squeezing itself into the space that the town had on the hillside. It is no more horizontal than much of our riding had been for the last 10 days. It is a fairly bonkers place. Our hotel is opposite the bus station and the main square (there it is, one horizontal space). The activity around the bus station is permanent, but up at the square when the mist descended in the evening, it was more like an eerie ghost-town. One of the consequences of squeezing in more people than can naturally fit is the solid traffic-jam that snakes through the town at all times, with the requisite beeping of the horns to accompany it. In fact, it is just a demonstration of the terrible driving we have witnessed in this region of China. We wonder what the standard for a licence is, our guess is quite a lot lower than at home. Mirror use, looking before maneuvering and giving way at junctions all seem entirely optional.
Actually, Xinjie is the most touristy place we have been since leaving Simao/Puer, due to the rice terraces, although I suspect this is not the prime season. Everywhere there are signs advertising tours to the terraces and to the ‘traditional’ villages up the road. Well, I didn’t take a tour, but once I’d researched where to go, I did take the bike the next day.
I cannot emphasise enough how much I enjoy taking the bike for a ride without weighty luggage on my day off. This ride was perfect. I snaked back up the road into Xinjie and turned towards the road that John and I had planned to ride in on (had we not got the wrong road), spinning pedals past the ‘traditional’ villages that looked a lot like a Disneyfied version of the world from the outside. I climbed up and over the pass and dropped into the steep-sided valley beyond, enjoying rare quiet and a view down onto the terraces. This particular area has had terraces for about 1400 years. They are intriguing to view. From a distance they look like tiny little fields stacked on top of each other, but up close they are much larger, some with ducks bathing in them, one with a man plowing the terrace using a water-Buffalo, moving slowly through the knee deep water. I felt compelled to keep heading down the steep windy road, I always need to make sure I don’t miss anything. I played ‘leapfrog’ with a taxi filled with tourists at all of the lay-byes to catch a glimpse of the best views. Eventually, I came to a corner where western tourists were set up with large cameras on tripods. I stopped to enjoy the view. Their Chinese guide came over to chat. She had impeccable English and explained to me that we were at the famous Dragon’s Mouth area. Sadly a large part of the terracing has collapsed through the middle due to subsistence and the farmers are unlikely to be able to use it again. She also explained that many of the farmers of the region are turning their terraces over to wheat as it is a better cash-crop.
After chatting for a while, I said goodbye and headed back up the way I came, delighted by the ease of turning pedals on my light bike. Even though I took the time for some drawing en-route, I was still back at the hotel quickly, feeling refreshed for the riding ahead and hoping that our next stage through China will retain some of the wonderful backwater feel that we’d had for the past couple of weeks.
Route: Laos/China border to Mengla, to Jinghong (Xishuanbanna), to Menghai, to Lancang, to Pu’er/Simao (not all days included as my online map is not working, but these are the main points on the route)
So, here we are back in China.
To be precise we have been riding around the most south-westerly part of China, through the Xishuanbanna and Pu’er regions of Yunnan Province.
Was it a shock to the system to re-enter China? Well no, not really. After all the northern most part of Laos (aside from all the Chinese building projects) is dominated by the Hmong people, who are ethnically Chinese, as well as a lot of Chinese migrants. So we were eased back into some of the features of Chinese life which seem pretty unique to us: 1. the noise; whether that be the loud tone of voice which is common, the preference to have music blaring from tanoys/big speakers everywhere urban and of course the incessant beeping of vehicle horns; 2. the things we see as rude, such as spitting in the street; dropping litter everywhere; dropping litter inside eating establishments including cigarette butts (it’s okay, it all gets swept away, but we still can’t get used to it) and of course 3. being stared at constantly. Well, to be fair the third point is on us, we choose our lifestyle and the staring comes with it.
As it happens crossing the border was a little sigh of relief, because all the chaos being caused by infrastructure projects in Laos stopped immediately. China is much further ahead in ‘upgrading’ itself, so much less chaos ensues as it’s home projects progress. So, it was actually a little bit quieter across the border. We were also immediately struck by how much cheaper food was, both to buy in markets and at eating establishments. The one thing China is really good at is agriculture and it is committed to ensuring that it’s population does not suffer another famine in this lifetime (who can say what the effects of massive scale mono-crops will have on climate change though).
The first few days riding north towards Xishuanbanna were really pleasant; we were back on road 214 which we’ve spent so much of our time in Yunnan riding, the traffic was light and there was a conspicuous absence of lorries beeping their horns, the small villages and towns were friendly and the road wound its way through rolling hillside covered by trees. Admittedly, an awful lot of the trees came in the form of rubber plantations. Now I know at this point I should be bemoaning the loss of natural habitat and I do, but the truth is we were rather selfishly pleased by how easy it was to camp in the plantations. The ground was terraced and the space between trees tended to be perfect for our tent. Also, after nearly two months without camping we were both a bit worried at the prospect of camping in tropical forests with a tent that no longer zips up (think mosquitoes, big spiders, snakes), and cultivated land basically eliminated that, so the planet’s loss of bio-diversity was our short-term gain!
Now, for some reason we decided to take a little detour away from the 214 to get into the region capital Xishuanbanna by what we expected to be a quiet back road. We thought it might be a little bit less cultivated. Silly, silly us; this is China after all. Pretty soon it became clear that our quiet back road was undergoing a transformation into a new highway. In true non-western European style it was entirely acceptable for us to cycle along the closed sections of the road passed the sections where upgrading was in progress, until we joined up with the already completed busy highway section. It turns out this little detour takes in one of the big-scale agricultural sites of the area.
Xishuanbanna itself is a pretty relaxed, small-scale city. The major highlights were the availability of good coffee, which is something of a miracle in China; really good produce in the markets, being back on the Mekong and timing our day off to hide from the torrential rain!
We are ultimately travelling east through China, hoping to be somewhere exciting for Chinese New Year, but before engaging with the madness of big populations we decided to cling on to the quiet rural backwaters for a little bit longer. We headed west. Now the rubber trees gradually gave way to sharing the ground with green tea plants. After all, this was now the famous Pu’er tea region. One of the things that we both noticed about this region was that it was far friendlier than a lot of other places we had been in China. Now, instead of simply being stared at, it was common for people to actively try to engage with us, and of course to invite us to join them for tea. This time last year we were experiencing the tea-filled hospitality of Turkey and now it was being repeated Pu’er tea style. Luckily my taste-buds have become much more accustomed to the flavour of tea these days, and besides I much prefer green tea to black tea.
A couple of days riding took us towards Lancang and then we took another little detour south around some obscure villages near the Myanmar border. It was cooler around here and the mornings were shrouded in thick mist, which ‘required’ late starts and warm clothes until the sun broke through in the afternoons. We decided to head off of the main road and to track back to the 214. It was a little concrete road up and around hills dotted with tea plantations and tiny villages. It certainly wasn’t on the tourist trail, but it was lovely to be away from any form of large, noisy vehicle. This was definitely a quiet backwater. Eventually the road acquired a covering of thin plastic, which was tricky to ride on the sections where the wind blew it about. It should have been an indication that up ahead the road was not quite finished. But it almost came as a surprise when we reached the end of the concrete and found the crew busy laying the latest section of the road. Once again it was fine for us to pass through, only this time not on the freshly laid, wet concrete! So we pushed through the mud along the side and eventually got a lift over (well me anyway) the end-point and back onto the old dirt road, and waving goodbye to the amused workers, off we went down the hill.
It wasn’t long after that we rejoined the main road again in what felt like a much busier, noisier version of China, and then we rode onto Lancang, our furthest west point. Lancang was a city for passing through and apart from its large, busy market didn’t hold much interest, so we hit the road heading back east towards Pu’er city.
Leaving the city we saw two accidents in the space of two minutes. The first was a small car crash. We were surprised to see that the drivers didn’t get out of the cars to exchange details, but both sat in their cars contacting the relevant (presumably) people on their phones, and no-one went over to them to see if they were okay. The second was a woman on an overloaded scooter. It overbalanced and toppled over as she drove around a corner. John and another couple ran over to help lift the scooter up, with the woman still seated on it! After which she simply reloaded the bike and carried on.
Once again we expected the smaller road to be quieter than the 214. And for the first day of riding it was beautiful; more quiet tree-filled hills to climb and descend, relatively natural by the standards of China. But, it wasn’t to last. A new expressway is being built through this lovely 120-odd kilometre valley to join Lancang to Pu’er and it is well and truly under construction. Another accident, this time a big construction lorry caused a tail-back that wouldn’t have looked out of place in England and that was the beginning of the demise of the quiet beauty. It pretty much lasted all the way to Pu’er.
There was however one big saving grace on this road. His name was Ing. We stopped for some dinner (there weren’t many villages with markets in this section) in a large roadside restaurant, the type that coaches stop at. When we went in to order we were served by a young man who spoke some English. Ing and his friend came and joined us at our table; he explained that he was using an app on his phone to teach himself English and would like the opportunity to practice. We welcomed his company. Between the two of them, Ing and his friend could maintain a pretty good level of conversational English, which is not that common in western China. His range of conversation was surprising, too, considering how authoritarian China is, and therefore how cautious Chinese people are when conversing with us. Ing brought up politic and was keen to say that he really wished for democracy. He also talked about how as tourists we didn’t always see the ‘real’ China and particularly wanted to talk about the drugs problems in his home town of Lancang. It was a much more informed level of conversation than we have generally had with locals in China. Once we’d finished eating Ing invited us to stay for the night. The restaurant belonged to the family of one of his friend’s (the chef) and a big group of their friends, presumably from school, were all there for the night. And so we found ourselves at what was essentially a student party, replete with drinking games. It was a funny night. The local beer was 2.5%, so although a lot was consumed there was only one of the party who seemed overly intoxicated. Sadly, I don’t like beer so I had to play the ‘old woman’ politely drinking tea while John and the ‘young folk’ drank beer. The parents, mainly in the form of three women came to join the party and they could certainly hold their own. In fact they livened things up with some traditional singing, which required the downing of shot glasses of beer at the end of every song. Given that most of the people around the table were students, the standard of English spoken was pretty good and we were made to feel really welcome. At the end of the night we were given a room with some really scary electrics and we had to stop the inebriated students from trying to get the lights to work for us! Sadly, Ing had not surfaced by the time we left in the morning, but we hope we helped with his English practice.
Now we are in a rather plush hotel (by our standards) in Pu’er/Simao, enjoying the ‘all you can eat’ breakfast buffet. And I’ve treated myself to a proper short haircut. What a great start to our return to China.
It is hard to write about the last week of Laos without feeling some sense of sadness and frustration. I touched on the reason in my last blog when I briefly talked about the impact of massive infrastructure projects on the road in northern Laos. At that point I was trying to understand whether I was just thinking selfishly about my experience as a temporary user of Laos roads. So now I am trying to take a more rounded view.
First of all I should say that China has invested over 7 billion dollars in infrastructure projects in Laos. Laos is a poor country; I think it currently sits 22nd on the world poverty index. John, who was here 12 years ago was quite surprised at how different Laos is now, in terms of infrastructure, on the surface at least, social conditions have improved. Investment and real support is needed to help continue to lift its population out of poverty. At present the only country interested in doing this in any meaningful way is China. The big questions are though: whose interests are being met by the investments?; will the benefits be felt by ordinary Laotians, particularly those who are impacted directly by the large-scale works?; and what are the long-term negative costs of these projects, if there are any?
So, I am not realistically going to answer these questions in this blog. For one thing it would take a lot of research to be able to enter into this in any meaningful way and I have only scratched the surface. Most of this lies in geo-politics which goes beyond just Laos and it would be naive to assume that there is even one right or wrong answer to my questions. I can comment on what I saw as I rode through the north of the country and on the small amount of reading I have done around this, but I do not speak Laotian and I cannot know what the views of people who live around the project are. Here is what I saw:
As we rode north from Luang Prabang the infrastructure work chaos became considerably worse. The road we were following runs alongside a river which feeds into the Mekong. There is a damming project taking place on it. I do not mean there are some small innocuous dams being built; I mean it is being dammed along at least the length of the river where the main road runs (it is the road that goes from Vientiane to the Chinese border at Boten). The work is being carried as far as I could tell by China Power. Now, I should say here that I have no problem with state owned power companies, in fact it is my personal preference (China Power is a Chinese semi state controlled company) and I have no problem with renewable sources of electricity when the effects they bring are genuinely to the benefit of both the local population and the environment. My concern for this damming project is that it is neither of these things. Along this road are many small villages. The people of the villages live largely outdoor lives, often right next to the road. The dam works seem to have brought vast amounts of pollution to these villages through both a massive influx of big-vehicle traffic and cement-work factories on their doorsteps. Everything is covered in cement-dust, including crops that people grow. Children play near or on the roads where huge lorries come rushing through the villages. Land which may recently have been used for growing crops, keeping animals, hunting and fishing in the river is no long available for use. And be assured these villages have a subsistence living. The eco-systems that are formed around the river that feed this valley will be changed by large dam constructions, so they are not necessarily clean, long-term alternative solutions for electricity use.
And on that point, in the many of the villages of the north basic infrastructure is very limited. Cooking is done on a combination of open fires and for some families plug-in items such as kettles and rice-steamers, but possibly not the latter two. Now, the people of the villages are right to expect the same quality of infrastructure as in other places in the world (and I certainly can’t imagine a life without access to modern comforts, even though I superficially chose to give them up for a time) and perhaps they would benefit from cheaper electricity, but it strikes me that they are not suddenly going to swap to cooking on electric cookers which will cost money to buy and to run in a way that their current methods don’t. Some of the villages don’t even have communal stand-pipes, let alone running water to each home and in some we saw people collecting water from streams off the side of the road. What I don’t know as I pass by in a moment is whether there are longer term plans alongside the damming project to invest in these villages to provide for improved basic infrastructure, too.
The further north we went the more destruction was evident, not for the dam, but for the train-line that is going to link China to Thailand (and beyond?). Will the people whose villages it is passing through have access to it, or will it only stop at the big cities? All of the concerns about the damage being done for the damming are visible in the villages affected by the train-line building, too, and it was the train-line that was being built further south, too. But, on the other hand, all of these things have been in evidence in the ‘west’ for decades, so shouldn’t so-called less-developed countries such as Laos have access to infrastructure, too? Should Laos be dependent on dirty coal-based electricity? These projects bring jobs to Laos, not just pollution and upheaval, and maybe they are welcomed by locals. Although, every village we passed through that was being noticeably affected was populated with less than happy looking locals. And it was clear that a lot of the jobs are being filled by employees from China and not local people.
Other questions that I have are: if China owns these investments, what control does Laos have over its new infrastructure? Will there be political leverage levied as a result? Has China loaned Laos part of the money for the investments, to be re-couped at excessively high rates as has allegedly happened in other countries, at high costs to the local economies?
We are back in China now and the attitude towards taming the environment at any cost is evident here, as we have seen before. Where there should be rain-forest there is instead rubber plantations, and there are a multitude of almost empty roads on stilts and through mountains and more are being built everywhere. Concrete walls ‘shield’ us from encroaching nature. Villages are turning into cities. At what cost to our planet is the continuation of concreting over the whole of the natural world (count-down to the climate change tipping point)?
Anyway, I did a bit of reading about these major investment schemes; they are a part of China’s controversial BRI (Belt and road initiative). This is an investment project in less developed countries on an unprecedented scale, and China has been clear that it sees it as an alternative to the globalisation project that the west began in the era of Thatcher and Reagan. Globalisation has been a project to enrich the already rich at the expense of the poorer parts of the world and the main beneficiaries are the major multi-national corporations who now have a lot of control over global politics, so attempts to counter it are in my view welcome and need to be ambitious. However, I am still unconvinced as to whether the BRI is actually a positive counter to globalisation or just a replica of it using the same destructive, aggressive methods. At the very least the environmental destruction that is present in these projects seems ill-conceived when the very real risks of climate change are reaching a tipping point. The countries that China is investing in are the ones who may be at greatest risk currently of resource insecurity (food and water, plus all the natural assets the rest of the world wants to strip), with wars and the necessity of migration to seek security some of the current outcomes. But will destabilising the planet’s climate further actually make those countries more secure and protected?
I don’t know the answers to these questions and to be sure I am aware that I may well be guilty of a Euro-centric perspective, despite being a socialist. I am sure there can be benefits to China’s project; in Laos I saw the current turmoil it is. All in all it is hard to know whether, when the dust settles (pardon the pun) whether this is beneficial to the Laotian economy as a whole and to its village populations who are most directly affected by the projects. creating, too, but then I wasn’t here 12 years ago like John when it was an even poorer country.
Route: Vientianne to Thalat (road 10), to Tha Heua (road 13), to Van Vieng, to Phoun Khoun (the viewing point) to Kasi Hot Spings (way beyond Kasi), to a village that does not show up on google map!, to Kuikacham, to Luang Prabang
We’ve had a rather special Christmas week in Laos with our old friends Annette and Andy (no honestly we’ve just known them a long time, they’re not really old!). Life on the road is an amazing opportunity and I wouldn’t trade it in for life in the ‘real world’, but I do miss my family and friends. So, when Annette hatched the plan of flying out from Malawi, where they live, for some good riding and good winter solstice shenanigans, we were very excited. The 10 days we spent together didn’t disappoint, although they didn’t always go entirely smoothly. Since they left the UK before us, it has been a long time since we have been able to spend so much time together and I am glad to say that it was easy to fall back into the friendship of old (where I generally get the micky taken out of me mercilessly; cheers guys).
What was also nice was seeing South-East Asia through their eyes. We have grown accustomed to how it is and cycling across borders eases the changes, as there are often cross-overs with the country being left behind. Flying from another continent though, means absorbing everything that is different immediately. As Annette and Andy took things in for the first time, I was able to look at things with nearly fresh eyes again. What I really realised was what a safe experience John and I have had cycling for the last 18 months. Annette and Andy had to adjust to a more relaxed approach after becoming completely used to taking nothing for granted in Malawi (we don’t lock the bikes when we go for a coffee, neither do we need to plan in advance where we sleep each night).
We made the decision before Annette and Andy arrived to put our usual budgetary constraints on hold while they were here. It would have been virtually impossible for us not to, and after all they were on a well-earned holiday. Still, I must have seemed like a total bore on occasions when I would be muttering about the extortionate price of things (largely Gin and Tonics, or food in restaurants owned by westerners). Now that they’ve gone I hope John and I haven’t got too accustomed to the luxurious change of lifestyle or we’ll end up having to go home quite soon. Honestly, though our friends were very generous and paid for more than their fair share of drinks and meals this week. Not to mention Annette topping up my drawing materials with some of her own.
When riding with other people for the first time, regardless of whether they are old friends or not, it is important to establish where and how to ride together. John and I were happy to say that since Andy and Annette only had limited time that we would fall into their plans. That’s good, because Andy is always a ‘man with a plan’. Of course, it ultimately became more fluid as the week went on and there was plenty of time off of the bikes to enjoy some natural and urban delights, and importantly, to drink, particularly near the end of our time together when we became holiday-makers as opposed to cycle tourists. I’m sure Annette and Andy will have made up for it on their ride back to Vientianne with some tough long rides.
After negotiating the main route out of Vientianne, we headed onto the road 10 leaving the hustle and bustle behind. There was some beautiful and occasionally steep hills to ride while we got use to the rhythm of two different riding styles. Whilst John and I tend to ride miles apart (normally because I like it that way), stopping every hour or so to meet up and take a break, Annette and Andy ride together and don’t take longer breaks as often as us. They live in Africa and find it is safer to stick together. It took us a couple of days to ease into each others habits and for Andy to relax into the easy South-East Asian vibe.
The next morning was a bit of a faff, it’s true, as we tried to introduce our friends to the joys of the Laotian early morning markets. I’m not sure they enjoyed the banana fritters quite as much as us. And, they certainly weren’t too happy about the puncture Annette’s bike had acquired overnight.
After enjoying the quiet riding on the remainder of road 10 for the rest of the morning, we had to rejoin the main road north (the 13). Immediately we were bombarded with heavy lorry traffic, damaged roads and concrete dust which lasted the rest of the day. As Annette commented ‘you don’t read about this is other people’s cycling blogs for Laos’. They all seem to be about a decade out of date. So, here is the 2018 reality: China investment has arrived. I could go into a lengthy ‘analysis’ of the impact (good and bad) of this. The short version of this is that China appear to be building a motorway from China, via Laos, possibly to Thailand and beyond. The telltale concrete pillars of Chinese sky-high motorways are already in-situ in some places, and the pollution and heavy lorry traffic through the roadside villages is noticeable. I’m not being a cycle-touring NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’), I have a view on the costs versus benefits for the people living here and I really am planning on dedicating the next blog to that. At any rate, Annette was feeling the effects of the dust after just a couple of hours and ended up having to buy a face-mask to wear, so for the people of Laos who live a largely outdoor life away from the cities, I wonder about the health of their lungs right now.
Whilst trying to ignore the traffic, I couldn’t ignore the variable road quality. I did try, which resulted in only my 7th puncture of the whole 18 months on the road. I provided amusement to Annette and Andy by resuming my age-old habit of not liking being ‘audienced’ which made me nearly incompetent at this beginner level cycling task, and I’m sure the tears of laughter were rolling down their cheeks in the realisation that I remain as ridiculous as I have ever been.
The next day provided a morning of easy riding to Van Vieng, followed by half a day of easy tourism. Van Vieng itself has a reputation as an unruly destination for western tourists, where drink, drugs and bouncing down the river on inner tubes are combined in a way that does not take account of the needs of anyone but the holiday-makers. However, in recent years efforts have been made to clean up the town’s image. It certainly was difficult to see beyond the tourism to the Laotian town underneath it, with bars, restaurants and tubing tours aplenty, but the leary, beery, druggy image seems to have evolved into mainstream tourism. At any rate, we took advantage of the opportunity for some nice food (it’s pretty hard to get guaranteed veggie/vegan food away from tourist hubs) and for me and Annette to swim in the river. I do love the opportunity to play in the water with a friend rather than on my own, so thanks Annette. As it got towards evening we found ourselves clambering up to a viewing point across the river. From up there it was actually possible to take in and appreciate the natural beauty that marks Van Vieng out as a special place. It is in the heart of the limestone Karst mountains, and they feel close up in a way that they never did in Vietnam. And then of course, we found an Irish pub to finish the evening with.
After our half day off, we were keen to get a good start, but a hearty breakfast in tourist land slowed us down a bit. Luckily, it was a flat road to Kasi, and thankfully the heavy traffic was left behind. This was the start of beautiful climbing that would eventually take us up and over to Luang Prabang, and I certainly would not have missed the stunning riding of the next few days. Here the villages returned to the diminutive size that we remembered from before Vientianne; we watched a life that is less influenced by the explosion of tourism, and up in the mountains this Saturday it was washing day. Women and children were out at the standpipes taking ‘showers’. The children were unaffected by their nakedness and the women demonstrated the versatility of their sarongs, which they were discreetly washing beneath.
That evening adding to the fantastic riding, we finished just as dusk approached at the Kasi hot springs (many kilometres beyond Kasi, but that’s the name I can find on Google Map). Our cabins looked straight out onto the water and it wasn’t long before we were watching the moon rise from the water of the warm pools, with the mountains silhouetted above us (while the local children swam in the pools below). It was at this point, with a beer in his hand that Andy jinxed himself by saying this was shaping us to be the best Christmas ever, but we weren’t to know that for another day or so.
His misfortune might have been caused by the shorter than planned distance the next day. Not that it was a lazy, short day. In fact it involved a lot of climbing with absolutely fantastic views along the road, as we passed through the mountain scenery. We stopped for a break at the viewing point to look back at the sinuous road we had ridden and to have some lunch. Of course it would have been rude not to chat to the cycle tourists who were going the other way, and before we knew it over an hour had gone by. But there was still more road to climb, along a winding, broad ridge, with little villages lining the road. People live an outside culture, as has been common throughout Laos. From here onwards though, cooking is added to that. Perhaps it was the case further south too, but this was the first day that I noticed that every house/family was cooking sat outside on open fires (in fact, even in Luang Prabang this was the case, although in the city and in some other places the fires are contained in little concrete stoves). It is a bit of a culture shock when the fire or stove is so totally basic and on the side of the road.
Anyway, because of the long lunch we realised we would have to stop in one of the little mountain villages, but there were no signs of guest-houses. We pushed on to the biggest one around and asked about accommodation. Some hand waving directed us to a building with a ‘restaurant’ sign outside. We asked about sleeping and were told ‘yes’. This place was as basic a possible. It was definitely marketed at passing Laotians than tourist trade, but was more comfortable than many a Central Asian place we’d stayed in (yes, there were outside, if very clean, toilets). The food was pretty poor though; I had some badly cooked rice and the other three added eggs to that.
And here is where we think Andy came a cropper. Because the next day he woke up ill, which is rotten luck when you have travelled across the world for a short holiday. At least when it happens to me and John, we know we have all the time in the world. That day at least though, we all had to accept a short ride over to Kuikicham. It was where we had planned to get to the night before, and whilst it was a great shame for Andy to have to spend the afternoon in bed, the guesthouse at Kuikicham was lovely, with a quiet courtyard, where Annette and I could look sit out and draw the view. I’m not really that callous though, I would rather that Andy had not been ill and we’d pedalled passed it instead.
That left us 85 kilometres to cover on Christmas Eve to make it Luang Prabang. Luckily Andy was feeling a lot better, so it seemed realistic. Here was the day I had really been looking forward to; with a 20 kilometre descent to start us off. Downhill is my favourite part of any ride and I took my usual approach of saying ‘ see you at the bottom’ and buggering off ahead like the big kid I still am at heart (I just love having my own space on the downs, I don’t even want to see the other bikes nearby). John had been worried about the hub on his rear wheel the day before and had it been just the two of us, we would have stayed together. And he was right to worry, as I was sitting at the bottom of that first big descent revelling in the simple joy of it, John arrived looking less than happy. Yes, the rear hub had died a death. We took the back wheel off and the very last ball-bearing fell out of what should have been a closed unit. For anyone who is not a bike person, that means the back wheel doesn’t spin anymore! Andy and Annette arrived shortly afterwards and we all did some standing around saying a variation on ‘well, that’s broken’. Luckily we were in a village at the bottom of the valley and John was able to rustle up a ‘taxi’ to drive the two of us to Luang Prabang. We waved goodbye to Andy and Annette who would complete the ride and loaded the bikes. It turned out though, that the price John thought he had negotiated with the driver was wrong. So, after emptying out our wallet, he agreed to take us for 350,000 (about £35). He bumped up his earnings by picking up a broken down motorcyclist en-route, who had to sit on his bike on the back of the flatbed all the way there, for some reason.
On Annette’s orders we found a hotel down by the river, which is the centre of the tourist area of the city. And, by the time they arrived that afternoon, John’s wheel had very nearly been rebuilt by the local bike shop.
Luang Prabang itself has been granted Unesco World Heritage status, which means limited ‘development’ in terms of new buildings. As a result the part of town that we stayed in retains it narrow backstreets with pretty half-timber buildings, with many monasteries. Architecturally, it is a mixture of low key colonial French and traditionally Laotian, and is very green with lots of trees along the waters edge. It is also very touristy and not necessarily what the average cycle tourist is looking for, however, it was perfect for a little Christmas holiday with friends. We ate lots of food, drank a wee bit (Laotian ‘vodka’, coconut and ice, who knew?), and probably spent too much time wandering through the night market looking at pretty things that wouldn’t fit in our panniers.
Christmas day itself was pretty low-key, which is nice when I think of the UK Christmas madness we could have been experiencing; good coffee, lazy lunch chat, a curry and Skyping home pretty much sums it up. Unfortunately Andy was still ill for most of the day, too, so he failed to spend his day drinking lots of beer as planned.
It wasn’t all lazing around though we did two cycling day trips. The first was a 50 km round trip to the Kuang Si waterfalls. The road was a quiet, hilly back road, with small villages and interesting monasteries en-route. I love the sheer artistic variety on offer in Laotian monasteries. These ones had some odd shaped Stupas and informative murals on the walls, not to mention the usual array of multi-headed serpents and scary monsters guarding the doors.
Even my comedy moment falling off the bike didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride. Okay, here’s the story: the road was perfect for practicing my no-handed riding, but it meant I fell behind the others. I decided to catch up, for once not wanting to ride on my own. So, I grabbed the handlebars and sprinted off downhill, failing to notice the trench across the road until I was about to hit it. I managed to avert the disaster of buckling my front-wheel, but I did go over the handlebars and landed with the bike on top of me. A fine sight for the local man on his scooter!
Anyway, the waterfalls, whilst very touristy were delightful if a little chilly. John and Andy once again declined to join us in the water, so Annette and I had a lovely swim in the bright blue pools, with an audience of happy-snappy Chinese tourists.
The next day we took in the other big tourist attraction of the area, the Pak Ou caves, riding the round trip of 60-odd kilometres via as much back road as possible. The first bit was just over the bridge from Luang Prabang. We turned away from the main road for a few kilometres through the part of town where the fabric the area is famous for are woven on hand-looms and hand-made paper dries out on frames in the sun. And, after a little bit back on the main road again, it is possible to do the last 10 kilometres on a very quiet untarmacced road that winds along with forest either side and the Mekong just below us. A five minute ferry ride took us over to the two caves. On the steps leading up to them locals sell tiny birds in tiny wicker cages, for tourists to release back into the wild. Andy explained that Buddhists believe they gain ‘merit’ by either doing good or enabling other people to do good (I think that’s right), and releasing the birds is an act of good. It doesn’t really make any sense to me, because catching them in the first place isn’t very good. Of course, we did not partake, but headed up to see the 4500 Buddha statues that adorn the caves. These Buddhas have been placed here over the course of the last couple of centuries and it really is an intriguing thing to visit. It was well worth the effort to see them.
Sadly the next day we had to say goodbye to our good friends. It really was one of my favourite Christmases. Hopefully we’ll get to do some more riding together soon.
Route: Savannakhet to Nong Bok, to Thakhek, to Vieng Kham, to Paksan, to Pak Ngum, to Vientiane
One country, two cities, connected by one river, but oh so different. This week saw us leave sleepy Savannakhet, Laos’ second biggest city and ride up the road to Vientianne, the capital of Laos. In contrast to Savannakhet, Vientiane is not sleepy. As we approached it we were struck by the plethora of shiny new high-rise building projects, which we speculated were probably being funded by Chinese investment (which amounts in the billions across the country). They are the kind of buildings that have not existed since leaving coastal Vietnam. In it’s centre it is a bright modern tourist hub. Neither of these things are surprising, it is the capital city after all; although it was a bit of a shock to John who was here 12 years ago when it was a much quieter place. Truth be told, compared to the western Chinese provincial capitals and Hanoi, Vientiane still feels quite small. That it is touristy focused in it’s centre actually makes it feel a bit bland compared to Savannakhet and Thakhek which we visited a few days ago. The best bit is the broad-walk along the Mekong, which wakes up for tourists and locals alike after dark, when the night-time market opens, selling everything you could possibly need or want (like all good markets). From our window we can hear the popping of balloons as middle-aged Dads throw darts to try and win their small children giant teddy-bears.
That Laos feels less poor than it did when John was last here is great, as long as the wealth that is being invested is for the betterment of the quality of life of the population. Whether that is the case though, is not something I can answer. It has definitely felt that in the ride this week along the Mekong Valley region, the population has a seemingly better standard of living than in the through-towns and villages we passed last week.
The first two days out of Savannakhet were delightful actually. We stayed on the meandering old main road, rather than heading back to the faster, more direct highway to Vientiane. This passed through more small, quiet villages that felt established, comfortable and friendly. The riding was easy and fun after the harsh heat of last week.
Our second day we were motivated for our early starts again and by lunchtime we were buying fritters and barbecued sweetcorn at the stands that operate outside of the high-schools (which were all in one central point) in Thakhek. This was a significantly bigger town than we’d passed through since Savannakhet and we decided to head down to the river to relax for a while. The boardwalk was lovely, with a big monastery/temple complex and small restaurants overlooking the river. Actually, it sits halfway between the feel of Savannakhet and Vientiane, which is just perfect. We quickly made the decision to stay and whiled away a lovely afternoon. I had an hour sat opposite the temple drawing the fantastic 3-headed serpents (or maybe dragons?) that adorned the stairways. I even managed not to run away when the man on the food stall opposite came across the road to peer over my shoulder whilst I was drawing (normally a major no-no for me).
The afternoon was enough time to enjoy the town and then it was time to hot-foot it up the road. The next four days saw us back on the main highway, but of course, this being Laos, it was on the main part still a relatively small road, where until the day before the capital the traffic consisted of bikes and lorries. Although the road quality deteriorated around specific transport hot-spots (quarries and crossroads towards another border with Vietnam), it was fast riding. We knocked off 105 kilometres on leaving Thakhek , followed by two 90 kilometre days. Given that we had been suffering so much from the humidity last week, and it has been a while since we’ve genuinely made any effort to make distance, this seemed like quite an achievement. I don’t always enjoy those kind of rides. I tend to prefer the opportunity to take the world around me in and feel that I am not just number-crunching when we get mileage-focused. But, on those days the riding was just straightforward and I let my mind drift, which as usual means day-dreaming about future art projects which may or may not ever be realised! I find those miles just fly by when I am in that mind-set.
But why rush, rather than coming off of the road and exploring some more? Well, that is because today we are meeting our wonderful friends Annette and Andy in Vientiane. They have flown over from Malawi and we are going to have a week riding with them. It is such an exciting thing for us, much as we love this journey, it is positive to change things up from time-to-time and riding with other people is one of the best ways to do that. Plus, at the risk of swelling their heads too much, Annette and Andy are two of my favourite people, so I can’t wait for them to wipe the sleep out of their eyes after being delayed on their flights yesterday, so that we can enjoy the road together. Of course their bikes will be much lighter than ours, so when Andy’s not looking I’m definitely going to be slipping some rocks into the bottom of his panniers. It’s going to be lots of fun.
In the meantime, we’ve made the effort to get a little bike service, a haircut (for me) and to go out for an Indian meal. After all we eat noodles and fritters most days, so why not indulge in the ‘international’ cuisine that is on offer to tourists in this ‘kinda could be anywhere (if it wasn’t for all the beautiful temples!)’ city centre.
And for a short time we get to share all our enthusiasm for riding in Laos with our friends. What in life could be nicer?