Thursday, January 11, 2007

The End

สวัสดีเพื่อนตอนนี้ถึงเมืองไทยแล้วหวังเราเจอกันเร็วๆนี้ โจ
So this lightening 5 month trip comes to an end in Taathon, Chiang Mai Province, North Thailand. I seem to have overshot the Caspian by a fair way. I cycled to the place I used to work and call home to find that it had been bulldozed to the ground and my friends house is now a fried chicken shop. The times they are a changin' around here.

My 40 pound bike is now as smooth to ride as a tractor. Every bearing needs servicing. All cables, housings, brake pads, tires, headset need replacing/overhauling.
The front wheel is the original 8 year old, cheapo wheel that came with the bike and it still runs perfectly true. I look at the rim in awe that it made it all the way without breaking. The front panniers no longer meet the basic definition of "a bag". The rear tire is the original Schwable tire I put on the bike before leaving, Schwable are bullet proof.

There is more cycling to do but when and where I've no idea. I will be resting for now and trying to address the imbalance between my massive legs and tiny arms. For those avid blog watchers out there, why don't you check out Rob Thompson at www.14degrees.org as he cycles to England through an ice cold Turkey and Europe.

And so in summary, Kidderminster to Taathon:
Kilometers cycled: 14,000
Number of countries: 18
Number of days: 159
Number of days off the bike: 41
Number of days ill: 6
Most expensive hotel: 50 USD, Tbilisi.
Cheapest Hotel: 3 Yuan (less than 20 pence) Gansu province, China, see here.
Longest time on the bike: 19 days, to Budapest.
Longest time off the bike: 8 days, Istanbul and Kunming.
Best Food: Doner Kebab, Germany.
Biggest Binge: 7 kebabs in one day, Germany.
Worst Food: My cooking.
Best Roads: Germany, see here.
Worst Roads: China, see here.
Favourite Cities: (In no order) Bratislava, Kunming, Chengdu, Nukus.
Worst City: Calais.
Favourite Countries: (In no order) Germany, Romania, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Laos.
Worst Country: None, I enjoyed them all.





Before.



After.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Welcome to the Jungle















Knnnnnnnnnnnnnnn knees knees

So long then China and farewell Dong Feng, may you rust in hell.
50km of the smoothest tarmac I have ever ridden on takes you from the Chinese border to Luang Namthaa, the first sizable place in Laos. You have to see it to believe it. A sleepy village in the middle of nowhere with 10 guesthouses, 4 internet cafes and a population of about 50 backpackers. When you consider that on my whole bike ride here from England I have only met about 20 other travellers that is pretty special.

The road to Thailand is currently being upgraded (by a Thai/Chinese group) in a bid to create a stable trade route. Completion is set for March 2007, I wish them luck. At the moment the 200km to Huai Xai is about 25% finished, the rest is a sandy, rocky, pit/construction site. It is for the most part rideable apart from a few nasty stretches where the diggers are in action and some nasty climbs where the road is deep sand and its happy pushing to the pass. There are no cars in Laos..OK there are some but not many, I loved it and I will return.



















Sunday, January 07, 2007

Kunming to the Laos border





Leaving Kunming was tough. For the first time in months I had the chance to talk, make friends, go out etc and leaving to face 3 weeks of solitude was hell. For the most part I prefer cycling alone, I can go where I want, when I want and do whatever I want, but sometimes it gets to me and this was one of those times. It was a real rollercoster of emotions. Part of me wanted to finish the trip as soon as possible, part of me was looking for a way to extend the ride and part of me didn't want to do anything at all. You know a place has made an impression on you when it's that hard to leave. (Hello everyone from Cloudland!)

I was in the pit of depression, I wanted rid of my bike and I nearly quit. It didn't help that I was hungover and covered in mud and dirt. I actually went to a bus station and asked about overnight buses south but I was so filthy from cycling muddy roads in the rain that they wouldn't take me seriously. I kept on going and kept on feeling worse and worse. I even started to beg passing trucks for a lift but I looked such a freak they wouldn't take me. Eventually I began to feel better, the physical challenge became my fuel. I wanted to find out just what my body is capable of and it turns out it's capable of a fair bit. This part of the world is seriously mountainous, large sections with no flat at all just big ups and big downs. I used to fear facing the pass but after this leg I think I could face Tibet on a one speed clunker. Descending into Simao I felt like Lord of the Mountains. Probably the most physically challenging and rewarding part of this bike ride.


































Kilometers to the cause.

The road south leads into Xishuangbanna prefecture, a special place where the full on hustle and bustle of Chinese culture collides head on with the more chilled out South East Asian way of doing things. Gliding through the jungle in total silence with nothing but monkeys swinging through the trees for company. Again, what more could a man ask for?



















Soon I will be in Laos. I speak passable Laos (I speak muck better Thai) so it should be a be a very different experience. In China it is pot luck whether people understand me and I almost never understand them. It takes its toll on a man's patience but all that will change soon.

Other: I spent New year in my preferred habitat, a 1 dollar truckstop and got my hair cut by a very camp, very drunk barber.

















Typical Chinese truckstop.

















Your 1 dollar gets you stylish decour and all the mod cons.

Route info, Kunming to the Laos border:
I followed the G roads all the way. The expressway is now finished for almost all the whole route and it takes nearly all the traffic. It's flat around lake Dianchi all the way to Ershan. After Ershan there is a small muddy climb then you descend off the high plateau around Kunming in a series of 4 or 5 big downhills (with some small uphills as well) to Yangjiang. After Yangjiang you better have your climbing legs ready. It is a big, big climb to Mojiang, maybe 40 or 50 km of steep uphill. After Mojiang there are a series of 30km climbs and 30km descents through stunning green mountains before you finally descend to a river and get some flat. It is hard to overstate just how mountainous and how beautiful this section is, there are no flat sections at all. The road is good so there is plenty of chance to savour the nature as you grimace your way up the climbs. It is worth the effort.
I think the expressway runs out 20km before Pu'er, the G road started to take all the traffic. There are loads of truckstops around here to overnight in. There a some small ups and downs and then one big climb before descending to Simao. After Simao the expressway resumes normal service. Its a relatively flat as you cross the river into Xishuangbanna then a long descent into Jinghong. I loved this part, very chilled out, loads of camping opportunity and the climbs are nothing compared to what came before.
After Jinghong follow the Mekong and then on to Mengla. The expressway is nearly done for this part so soon you will have the road all to yourself. About 1000km all in all.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Kunming


















I arrived in Kunming and discovered something called a "backpackers hostel". For the first time since Istanbul I met English speakers, travellers and tourists and had a conversation beyond, "how much?", "how many kilometres?" and for the first time on this whole trip I met some other long distance cyclists, no fewer than five on my first day here! Apparently there are tourists all over this country but my route across China has managed to bypass them all. The staff put on a Christmas spread, there was no Turkey but they did manage to make decent Christmas pudding and custard served with sliced carrots and cucumber. Then we celebrated with that most traditional of Christmas games, an arm wrestling competition.






























Roar like a tiger.



Enter the local champion.

What about the cycling I hear you ask. Well, I sit in the saddle, turn the pedals, which turns the wheels and moves the bike forward. Sometimes I move fast, sometimes I move slow and sometimes, when the road has descended into a muddy pit, I don't move at all.
Good Chinese road atlases are available everywhere but they never (ever, ever) show topographical info. I got my first look at a topographical map of the country here in the hostel and it confirmed to me what I have been suspecting for a while now. China is very mountainous. It has been fun travelling without really knowing what lies 100km ahead, to start the day not knowing whether the road will take me through an industrialised river plain or over a roadless, snowy mountain. It has led to some memorable experiences.




The roads have been horrendous in this part of China. Main roads linking big cities will just descend into roadblock without warning. After the advice of local police I embarked on a big detour to find smooth asphalt but in the end the road failed me, it was total road block. What did I do? Well first I cried and then I back tracked to the last town I had past. There was no traffic going south (because there was no road) so I got a train ride to the next town, arriving in some skanky suburb in the middle of the night. Some rat/feret like kid took me to a 1 dollar hotel. It was so rough that before I could sleep I had to hurl out of the window. Actually it wasn't a window, it was a hole cut in a piece of plywood that served for the wall of my 7th floor hovel. At first light I escaped and got a police escort out of town (me following a police car, flashing lights and all).


The G213 "national highway", China.



It's all worth it in the end though.

I was planning on a short trip through Vietnam but the visa takes 4 working days to issue and I can't be arsed to wait. It's tempting to stay here watching DVDs and eating pie until new year but I have an appointment to make in Bangkok so it's the Jungles of Northern Laos for me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lanzhou to Chengdu
















Seasons greetings from Chengdu, China. I wasn't planning on stopping here but my bike needed some major repairs so here I am. Here's a piece of advice for anyone planning a trip like this one. Buy a kickstand. I can't begin to describe how annoying it is balancing a loaded bike up against your bum whilst trying to fiddle something out of the panniers only to have the whole thing come crashing down onto the road. Way back in Georgia the bike took a bad tumble whilst I was messing about in the panniers and it bent the rear drop out. Result: The bike went from 21 gears to 9 gears and those 9 do not include the lowest "climbing" gears. That's right, I've cycled the length of Central Asia and more with only 9 gears. It hasn't been too much of a problem until now but China has proved to be relentlessly mountainous and covering the distances with only nine gears has been slow and has taken it's toll on my legs. It even put me in bed ill for a few days.

I was always too gutless to try and straighten the drop out myself, if I got it wrong the bike frame would be a write off. So I find myself in the Chinese mega city of Chengdu, a city which seems entirely devoted to selling mobile phones. I found a decent bike shop and with the entire staff, all the customers and a good few people that came in from the road to watch, the mechanic straightened my drop out by bashing it with a big hammer. It feels good to have a full 21 gears at my disposal again.
I've had to resort to Mcdonalds for food here in Chengdu. Is my impression of Chinese food, as an unnourishing, watery slop, a unique one?
















It's getting worse. The kids don't run screaming anymore, they just burst out crying.
















The China I imagined, a flat, industrialised place criss crossed by big expressways has so far failed to materialise. Instead this is the China I will remember. Very rural and very beautiful.

Route info Lanzhou to Chengdu: The G212 is recommended. It is quiet, very remote and stunningly beautiful. There are three fairly big passes to Minxian. The road then descends to Dangchang and follows a river cutting through steep mountains (a gorge?). The scenery is amazing and it follows said river for a few days until finally leaving the river to go up a massive climb over a series of switchbacks to Wenxian (try counting them, I lost count after 30) .
After that the river is dammed and you follow the resultant reservoir. The road here is in horrendous condition, is mercilessly up and down and the views are jaw dropping. Don't expect more than mud hut villages and some agricultural traffic in between towns.
The G212 eventually runs out and it's the G108 to Chengdu. More developed and not as stunning as the G212 but still nice. The road "rolls" it's way through a few valleys before finally flattening out at Zitong.

Next stage: I can't stay here too long or the winter will catch me up again. I'm heading arrow straight south to the tropics.



Switchbacks to Wenxian.



Every cyclists dream.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

First Taste of China


Looking at the map it seemed the G212 "national highway" going south would be a flat, busy road running through a developed part of the country. It's turning out to be a quiet road snaking it's way over some not unsubstantial, remote mountains. In some of the places i've passed through even the adults are too shy to speak with me but once they realise that I won't eat them everything is fine. Spent most of last night autographing school children's homework and having my photo taken with an endless stream of visitors to my "hotel" room.
The last 4 days have been the hardest, coldest and most fun in months, i've only managed 260km, which speaks for itself. I don't know how cold it's been, cold enough to freeze a freshly boiled bottle of water in a couple of hours. Hasn't been too much of a problem but I can't believe that this time last week I was considering cycling across Xinkiang, I would have died.

The Chinese are a very shy lot. They never shout or whistle or even say anything unless I speak first. They just stare....silently. I'm back below the snowline tonight but what lies south of here is anyone's guess.

(A few peolpe have asked for more photos of me....fools, here they are.)














Climbing the pass. When it's not winter all those steps cut into the side of the mountain must be farmed. Impressive no.
















Making the pass.
















Going down the other side.
















Children running at the sight of me.





















Not suprising when I look like this.
















The cheapest 'hotel' yet, 3 Yuan.


Entertaining guests.



















The rural Chinese are a tough lot. Could you imagne your granny doing this?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Map Gazing, Lanzhou

Ni Hao!

A good thing: I cycled into Xinkiang, China last week. Xinkiang, the north west plain of China, is dominated by the second biggest desert in the world, the Taklamakan which translated means: what goes in doesn't come out.
My dad points out that Taklamakan is an Arabic word. Makan means place and Takla means eaten out i.e. the place eats everything and nothing comes out.

A not so good thing: I spent a few days in Urumqi, capital of Xinkiang, to see if there would be a break in the weather/a miracle. It didn't stop snowing, the temperature kept falling and the wind started to blow..........so.........I took the gentlemans option of the train east, out of Xinkiang to Lanzhou.
I always knew the winter would bugger me eventually, a few trips on the bike around Urumqi convinced me that I am completley unprepared for an extreme winter ride across an empty desert. Any other time of year and I would have blazed a trail all the way to Japan but it wasn't to be. "Xinkiang the revenge 2007" is already in the planning.

China, a land of plenty. In Central Asia I wasted entire days searching for maps only to be told "nyeto" and tssked away buy a grumpy book store owners. Here in China it's possible to buy maps for every country in the world, including Iraq! Seem to have lost a few days somewhere on the way here. I thought it was the weekend but according to this blog it's Tuesday?!?

Been toying with the idea of continuing east, to Korea and Japan, but I think i'll lose too much focus going meandering off like that so i'm pointing the tyres south to S.E. Asia.
Since leaving Turkey, planning a route has been easy. In Central Asia there's only ever one road going to your destination. Here in China the route possibilities are mind blowing. I've been staring at maps the last few days trying to plan a route and been getting nowhere, now I realise why. This trip has been completley unplanned since the begining so why start now. I'll leave here soon enough and just see where the road takes me.

Until next time

Ham

And to all the people I know in Australia (all 4 of them), maybe see you next year sometime.