Breathing the thin air

 

Lijiang to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

 This part of the journey took us from ancient Lijiang through forest and mountains up to the high altitude lake of Lugu on the remote Yunnan/Sichuan border. It remains imprinted on my memory as a time of solitude, surrounded by high peaks, firs and Spanish moss. Of icy thin air, breathlessness, and seemingly endless sweeping views of mountains and blue sky.

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It started like most of our days start, with delicious steam buns and noodle soup. This was followed up by shopping at the market for supplies, before heading off towards Lugu Lake, about 200km away according to the signs. We are however in China, a country that is constructing roads at an alarming rate, and where change is a way of life. It was not surprising then, that our road simply ended with a boom gate and we were directed onto a secondary road. Later we would learn that this route added at least 100km to our journey, and was in use while the main road was being resurfaced. At first we weren’t even sure we were on the correct road, but after asking a man herding cows, we were assured that yes, this was the road to Lugu. We climbed steadily through pine forest and then descended forever to a tributary of the Yangtze. This was followed by an epic winding climb, past villages, rice paddies but alas, no shops. We really wanted a snack! Finally around 5pm we found a small store selling biscuits and drinks, and gorged ourselves and collected some more water to filter. The lady who ran the shop was incredibly fascinated by my hair. This would become a theme in China (people are often more interested in my hair than in Astrid or myself) and it was not long before we decided to give the dreads their own identity. They are now called ‘Martha’. Anyway, after she had admired and photographed Martha, we bid her farewell and continued to ascend. Soon the villages and traffic petered out, and just before dark we made our camp in amongst the pines. It felt so good to be camping again.

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Leaving Lijiang

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Best and cheapest place to shop, the local market.

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The long and winding road

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Biscuit with hole in it is a winner

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Ever upward

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First night’s camp

Continuous climbing through forest greeted us the following morning. And it was cold! Soon we were afforded views of snow capped peaks, and lucky for us, also a small restaurant selling soup. The uphill was making us hungry! It was also where the Chinese tourist buses stopped, transporting the New China. Urban middle class Chinese, toting Cannon’s and wearing Northface, on a whirl wind tour of a chosen province. Something unimaginable a generation ago. Some spoke a few words of English and soon their curiosity overcame their shyness and we were asked what we were doing, and for the obligatory photo shoot. Everyone was so positive and friendly, we really can’t say enough about how wonderful the Chinese are.

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Through the forests

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Loving every minute

Uphill 'rage'

With occasional uphill ‘rage’

In the late morning we passed through a town, where we bought supplies and then, yes, continued climbing. It really was unrelenting, but so beautiful. We began to see firs, some Spanish moss and even rhododendrons. As the afternoon wore on, what was already a lightly trafficked road, became even quieter. We would hear the tingle of cow bells, or spot a herder with his goats. This was the other China, the one forgotten by the 21st Century. As the day wore on we began to feel like we couldn’t get any higher, as we appeared to be level with almost all the peaks around us. The view was incredible. Finally we reached a sign that told us we were indeed high, at 3660m! Both of us were really excited. Until we saw Yaks. Then the Yaks were more exciting. Yaks. Wow. So adorable. I will let the picture’s tell of their cuteness.

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Rhododendron’s with goat.

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Getting colder and colder as we climb higher

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Officially at altitude!

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It feels like we are on top of the world.

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Mountains make me happy

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Yak of awesome

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More yak’s. They are surprisingly agile and were high above the road.

After losing our cool over the yaks it was time to find somewhere to camp. We were so high now, that it was freezing. All the spots we could see were way too exposed. Then Astrid had a brilliant idea. I am the one who has often been accused of being a cave troll, but it was Astrid who came up with the idea of camping in a tunnel under the road. Not only did it have a great view, offered protection, but it also had a place to build a small fire. Not since our days in the Australian outback have we enjoyed a cup of tea in front of an open fire. Perfect.

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The ‘troll cave’

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Enjoying our first fire since Australia

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End of the day ‘cup o’ soup’ from the front of our ‘troll cave’.

Watching the sun come over the mountains from our ‘troll cave’ we both felt that Lugu was within our grasp that day (at this stage we did not know how much longer the road we were on was). A few kilometres further on and a ripping descent began. After almost two full days of climbing it felt amazing (except for my brakes, which are on their last legs and complained bitterly). The views of the Yangtze were incredible and I ignored the fact that we were descending into a basin, surrounded by nothing but mountains. At the bottom, it was hot! We pealed off our layers of clothes and set about finding some food. After soup, ice cream and chocolate we felt like we could almost face the climb out.

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A fine view to start the day

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Is that downhill I spy?

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Yep! Down to the Yangtze.

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Looking like an utter tool, dressed for the chilly descent

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Happiness!

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Mountains all around..

It looked very steep. The road ascended as far as the eye could see. We climbed at first through dry and cultivated land, passed small villages, crops and herds of goats. As the afternoon wore on, the road deteriorated, slowing our progress. Soon, the air became thin and cold again and we were climbing through the most beautiful forest of Spanish moss and firs. It was perfect camping terrain but we both felt we could still make Lugu that day. The light began fading (which meant it was close to 7pm) and our progress was down to 5km per hour due to the incline. Still, we were nearly at the top. The summit was reached as the last rays of the sun were fading from the sky. It was freezing. We piled on clothes and switched on our lights, anticipating around 25km of downhill to go. Unfortunately (or fortunately in this case) Astrid’s dynamo was broken, meaning that her lights were not amazing. Descending down a winding, steep mountain road in the pitch dark, you really want amazing lights for that. So after inching our way down painfully slowly for about 8km Astrid called it quits. It was simply too dangerous without two working dynamo’s, and too cold to continue on so slowly. Although we usually like to hide ourselves well, at this stage we were way too tired and cold to care, and instead pulled over at the first half sheltered place we found, right next to the road. The wind was incredibly cold and the tent was put up in record speed, more layers were added and we scrambled into our sleeping bags. Too exhausted (and cold) to cook, we ate a left over apple with peanut butter for dinner and then promptly fell asleep.

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Down on the valley floor. It’s time to face the climb out..

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And climb we did. All afternoon and well into the evening

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A break from the climbing to filter water and eat a second lunch.

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It just kept going!

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But it was beautiful

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The light fades as we try and make it to Lugu

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Our camp beside the road

The decision not to push on was a smart one. Although we thought Lugu was only another 17km down the road, we were mistaken. Signs on Chinese roads should never be trusted! In the morning we set off on what we believed would be a short 17km descent. This was not to be. Instead we found ourselves in a muddy town, where pigs and rubbish covered the streets in almost equal measure. To this day it’s the only really dirty Chinese town we have come across. We cycled around, looking for the lake and feeling perplexed and relieved that we had not arrived here at 10pm the previous night. Eventually we decided to have some breakfast and ask some locals where we were. Up until then no one had been able to tell us, but after a bit of pointing at the i phone (which wasn’t working properly) and hand directions we figured out we were 10km from Lugu. To two exhausted cyclists, this seemed insurmountable for about 5 mins. After some rage and quiet swearing, I gathered myself together and we both cycled the remaining kilometres to Lugu. Luckily, this was primarily through a flat valley. It was with relief and joy that we finally reached Lugu Lake. We took some time, just sitting in the sun and enjoying the view, which was spectacular.

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Town of giant pig

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Our first glimpse of Lugu Lake. It was worth it.

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Tired but happy to have made it

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Yep, it really is beautiful!

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Lige. Pretty typical Chinese tourist town.

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View of the island across the lake. You can get there via a bridge.

From the initial view of Lugu, in was a short descent to the tourist town of Lige. Here we secured some accommodation and set about dealing with the necessities of living on the road. Which included an immense amount of washing, drying the tent, cleaning our cooking pots, contacting our families and showering. This was interspersed with cups of tea and snacks. Finally in the late afternoon we wandered around the town and sipped some well earned beers while watching the colours changed over the lake.

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Well deserved beer on the lake front

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Some more view of the lake

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And more

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And even more

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Tibetan prayer flags above the lake

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Till next time!

 

 

Time to be a tourist in China.

 Dali, Lijiang, Shuhe and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

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We explored the historical cities of Dali, Lijiang and Shuhe.

After cycling through the relaxed back waters of Yunnan, the tourist meccas of Dali, Lijiang and Shuhe were like stepping into a shopping mall on Boxing Day in Melbourne.  It was great to jump in with the crowds and explore the beauty of these (renovated) ancient cities, and then hide away with a cup of tea (or beer) in our guesthouse.  We were to learn that Chinese tourisms is definitely in a league of its own with large tour groups, astronomical price hikes and loads of bling.

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Having a leisurely stroll through the streets of Dali.

Relaxing morning Dali.

Relaxing morning with tea, porridge and a book.

Dali.

Main tourist street of Dali.

Dali.

Full of life and colour

Good coffee is a must on rest days.

Good coffee is a must for Jude, especially on rest days.

South Gate Dali.

South Gate Dali.

Luckily our rest day in Dali meant: no alarm waking us up, a relaxed morning with tea in one hand and book in the other, a leisurely stroll around town looking at the colourful old buildings, good coffee, tasty treats and a reprieve for my bum.  We enjoyed ourselves so much that we didn’t want to leave the next day and a smattering of rain provided a good excuse for a sleep in before hitting the road.  As we cycled out of town the clouds hung heavy over the mountains to our left, while the waters of Lake Erhai sparkled on our right.  Despite cycling along a major road, we enjoyed looking at the fields filled with farmers tilling the land and large groups of women gossiping and planting rice.  Passing through numerous Bai villages we admired the women in their traditional dress and enjoyed spicy hand made noodles and baked bread.  Near the northern tip of Erhai Lake we were passed by a group of cyclists who invited us to join them for lunch where we shared a veritable feast of food we would never have known how to order in our non-existent Chinese.

Our funky hotel in Dali.

Our funky hotel in Dali.

The three pagodas Dali.

The three pagodas – Dali.

Women gossip and plant rice.

Women gossip and plant rice.

Bai women at the market.

Bai women at the market.

Hand made noodles.

Hand made noodles.

Xizhouzhen.

Xizhouzhen.

I’m still getting used to the decisions and concessions we have to make now that we are cycling through China.  With limited time (due to visas) and large distances, our ability to be spontaneous has been dramatically curbed.  Our new cycling friends had inviteded us to join them for drinks at their next stop, but after cycling 15km in the opposite direction from the one we were meant to be travelling, we had to stop and have a serious heart to heart about how we were going to tackle cycling in China.  We decided that changes to our route can be made, but it needs to be in the direction we are going so that we can make it across China in time.

Lake Erhai.

Lake Erhai.

An amazing feast to be shared.

An amazing feast to be shared.

Group photo shoot with our new cycling friends.

Group photo shoot with our new cycling friends.

Threatening clouds followed us that day.

Threatening clouds followed us that day.

Feeling back at home - our first camp in China.

Feeling back at home – our first camp in China.

Back on track along the S221 we cycled for the remaining daylight hours, squeezing in a climb and just before dusk we made our first camp in China.  Hidden amongst pine trees we snuggled in our tent and enjoyed the beauty of being back in our mobile home.  A handful of towns were dispersed along the road to Lijiang where we were able to collect some water and fill our bellies with steamed buns and plates of rice and vegetables.  The valleys we cycled through were abundant with wheat heads swaying in the wind, the smell of roses mixing with smoke as fields were burnt after the cops were harvested.  Roadworks are a constant in China and after sharing 30kms of potholed dirt road with impatient drivers we were excited to find ourselves alone on a new road which became a expresswayway.  Despite big signs saying no bicycles, we thought ‘stuff it’ and cycled passed the toll gates to enjoy 40kms of smooth cycling in to town.

Waiting for our water to filter.

Jude reads the classics while waiting for our water to filter.

Steam bun heaven, especially when we added Nutella.

Steam bun heaven, especially when we added Nutella.

Typical Asia, women working while the men look on.

Typical Asia, women working while the men look on.

Wheat and transport.

Wheat and transport.

Women harvesting roses.

Women harvesting roses.

Jude enjoying the smooth surface of the motorway and the smell of roses.

Jude enjoying the smooth surface of the motorway and the smell of roses.

Old Lijiang town is what my tourist nightmares are made of.  Flashy rebuilds, hundreds of shops selling the same three items, touts trying to pull you into restaurants, food and accommodation triple the normal price, and thousands of people packed into narrow streets and alleys while we try to push our laden bikes to find a place to lay our heads.  Once inside our little courtyard we could relax and breathe again.  Around dinner time we did venture out, but if I had found our earlier foray excessive, Lijiang at night is like a show pony on speed.  It was too much for a couple of road weary cyclists so we ate, we bought chocolate and we hibernated until morning when we could explore the town as it slowly woke up.  In the cool morning air we ate street snacks, laughed at the comically translated signage and became lost in the little alleyways that ran amongst the waterways that meander through the town.

Main square Lijiang.

Main square Lijiang.

Washing day Lijiang style.

Washing day Lijiang style.

The streets run alongside the waterways.

The streets run alongside the waterways.

Enjoying street snacks in Lijiang.

Enjoying street snacks in Lijiang.

Remember that people, shopping should be rational.

Remember that people, shopping should be rational.

Really?

Really?

Ladies preparing tasty treats.

Ladies preparing tasty treats.

As Lijiang was swinging into its daily ritual, we waved it goodbye and cycled north towards the town of Shuhe.  We had read that it was less full on than Lijiang and that there was a cafe/hotel there run by a dutch cycle tourist.  Having no internet access due to the incompetence of Chinese mobile phone providers, we rocked into town not knowing exactly where it was but thought finding the place would not be hard.  Oh how wrong we were.  We spent hours trying to find a place that no longer exists, so much for our rest day.  The chaos continued when our bank card no longer worked and I spent the next couple of hours cycling around trying to find a place that would accept our card so that we could buy dinner and pay for our adventure to Tiger Leaping Gorge the following day.  Turns out we were the victims of credit card fraud and luckily our bank had picked it early.  Luckily we had a back-up and as the full moon rose we treated ourselves to homemade pizza and banana cake.  Tomorrow would be a better day.

Quiet streets in the morning.

Quiet streets in the morning.

Wishes.

Wishes.

Cycling out of Lijiang.

Cycling out of Lijiang.

Towards Shuhe and some snow capped peaks.

Towards Shuhe and some snow capped peaks.

Where is the place we are looking for????

Where is the place we are looking for????

Our excitement was palpable when we woke.  The ladies would have a rest while we headed off for some spectacular hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The bus dropped us off at the trail head and we began our climb along the track that we would be following for the next two days.  Words cannot do justice to how stunning the gorge is.  Every hundred metres we would stop and ogle at the surrounding mountains, the snow capped peaks, the Yangtze River pounding far below.  It was intoxicating.  Banter was exchanged with other hikers on the track and we spurred each other on through the numerous switchbacks and on rest breaks we revelled in the beauty of the surrounds.  Our room for the night had 270 degree views of the gorge and after a few celebratory beers and some dinner we lay in bed and watched the surrounding peaks disappear into darkness.

Trail head to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Trail head to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Harvesting by hand.

Harvesting by hand.

We stopped and ogled every hundred metres.

We stopped and ogled every hundred metres.

I don't know how we got anywhere with views like these...

I don’t know how we got anywhere with views like these…

Walking along.

Walking along.

Yep, it's pretty spectacular.

Yep, it’s pretty spectacular.

Beauty and beauty, ha ha ha.

Beauty and beauty, ha ha ha.

Looking down the gorge towards Shangri La.

Looking down the gorge towards Shangri La.

Snow capped majesty.

Snow capped majesty.

As first light coloured the sky we snuggled into our thick blankets and were grateful for our wonderful life.  The clouds changed from pink to red and the 2000m cliff face opposite us loomed large in the morning light.  We hit the path early catching the first rays of the sun as they peaked over the mountain tops.  Passing shepherds with their goats and a handful of waterfalls, we soaked up the last few hours of high road hiking before heading down the 1600m pass to the Yangtze River.  It churned and roared through the narrow gorge where legend has it a tiger leap to its safety over the river.  The power of the area affected all our senses and we lost ourselves for a while.  On the return hike we took a short cut up a ladder and I clung on for dear life refusing to look down until I reached the top.  By late afternoon it was time to pile back on the bus to Shuhe and our hiking adventure was complete.  As the sun set we walked through town with smiles on our faces and a glow in our hearts.  Tomorrow we would be back on the bikes cycling towards Lugu Lake, but tonight we would sleep and dream of snow capped mountains and tigers leaping.

Jude looks over the mountains and the Yangtze.

Jude looks over the mountains and the Yangtze.

We would have just kept hiking.

We would have just kept hiking.

Jude is an animal whisperer.

Jude is an animal whisperer.

Inspired by thoughts of beer and dinner.

Inspired by thoughts of beer and dinner.

Looking out of our bedroom window.

Looking out of our bedroom window.

Celebratory beer with a view.

Celebratory beer with a view.

Our room overlooking the valley.

Our room overlooking the valley.

The sun's first rays come over the mountains.

The sun’s first rays come over the mountains.

Until next time,

All my love,

Astrid.

(Just a little disclaimer, we are sorry for the long delay between blogs.  Poor wifi, 12 hour riding days and amazing things to see and explore have put us behind by over a month.  After some blog tutorage from some friendly travellers we may be more on top of things this month.)

Skipping passed waterfalls.

Skipping passed waterfalls.

Bok bok at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Bok bok at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Down by the raging waters of the Yangtze.

Down by the raging waters of the Yangtze.

Climbing the 'white knuckle inducing' ladder.

Climbing the ‘white knuckle inducing’ ladder.

Feeling small next to such power.

Feeling small next to such power.

Locals keep donkeys to help tired tourists - if required.

Locals keep donkeys to help tired tourists – if required.

Back in Shuhe - tired but happy.

Back in Shuhe – tired but happy.

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A stroll through Shuhe as the sun sets on another wonderful day.

China – a land of contrasts.

Mohan to Dali

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Happy to be in China

On the surface China is a dazzling, modern nation. Take the time to look a little deeper and a slower, more timeless world emerges. It is in one-minute familiar, the next a parallel universe that leaves you reeling and confused. It is hispters on i phones, neon colour, communal dancing in the public squares at night, shopping malls, Cannon toting tourists in buses and sleek freeways. It is also a man ploughing the land with a buffalo, a woman tilling the land by hand, a goat herder on a remote mountain highway, cooking on open fires and villages only touched by the slightest hand of modernity.

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Welcome to China!

The first thing we noticed as we pedaled the small distance between the Laos border post and Chinese immigration was that the aim was to impress. And impress it did. Everything was state of the art and we passed through immigration without any issues. Mohan, the town on the other side was a world away from the dusty, small villages on the Lao side. It was something of a reverse culture shock. We eyed the footpaths, tree lined streets and rubbish bins with suspicion. It was weird. A footpath that wasn’t a car/scooter parking space? Recovering, we took care of the normal ‘we are in a new country’ tasks and bought a sim card and exchanged the rest of our money. Soon we were sailing along a smooth new highway with a wide shoulder, but being us we couldn’t resist the small, shaded road we kept seeing to our right. Checking the phone we found that this ‘old highway’ the G213 in fact ran parallel to the new road. A few kilometres further along we met a Malaysian cycle tourists who gave us the good news that this road continued on our planned route for a good long while.

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The perfect road?

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Tofu on a stick being prepared

So here we were, on a shaded road with barely a car in site, passing through the odd village, things couldn’t have been better. Well, until we found milk tea in a bottle that is. Delicious. We took it slowly and reached our first destination of Mengla around 4pm. Again we were a little culture shocked; it was huge (by our current standards), bustling, shiny and modern. Friends had told us that ‘look for places with clocks behind a desk’ because they are bound to be hotels (there is very little English writing). This proved to be useful and after not much fuss at all we were checked into our first Chinese hotel. By our standards, this $10 room was pretty fancy. We were to learn that Chinese hotels can be excellent value. Often from $8-$12 you get a light, clean, airy room with hot water, TV (never use this), aircon (most of the time), and a kettle (the best!).

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The markets are similar to SE Asia – very colourful

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Watching life go by with a beer

Eager to explore this new country we were soon walking around checking out the sites. People stared and giggled at us and we saw no other foreigners. We did find amazing street food and then wandered around until we found somewhere to observe life go by and have a beer. From where we sat, the China we could see looked overwhelmingly middle class. Families out to dinner, groups of teenagers on smart phones, shops full of goods and electronics. It could have been the west, were it not for all the Chinese characters and the people themselves. Oh and the middle aged ladies all dancing in lines to Chinese pop music in the public squares on the way home.

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A different China – side of the road soup – delicious!

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Soup happiness

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Some chicken’s are purchased..

It did not take long for us to see a different China the next day as we pedalled out of town. The villages and farmland outside of Mengla was a world away from the modern city we had seen the night before. The cycling was beautiful, but really, we would have achieved more if we had stayed in bed all day and watched Spooks. Unfortunately we had a severe navigational fail (trying to take a short cut), which culminated in an argument half way up an impossibly (we were pushing our bikes) steep dirt track where we made the decision to turn around. To top it off, on the way back we were caught in a severe rainstorm and rolled back into Mengla after 90km completely saturated, exhausted and a bit dispirited.

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We have bloody gone the wrong way! For some reason I look remarkably happy for someone who is about to cycle 45km back the same way!                   I was NOT happy at all.

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A storm is on it’s way..

Take two. The next day, feeling a bit shattered we made sure to take the correct G213 and ignored the apparent shortcuts. The road was a dream. Undulating through forest, cool and damp from the previous days rain. We had glimpses of the new highway below on our right but barely saw a vehicle ourselves. For lunch we happened upon some noodle stalls and after some shy staring worked up the courage to see what it was all about. We were rewarded with a delicious noodle salad kind of thing. In the afternoon the rain pelted down again, but by the time we reached Menglum it had cleared. A quick search and another cheap hotel opened up its doors to us. The power was out in town for a while, which added to the atmosphere as we ate our street side noodles by candlelight. Some men nearby invited us for a drink and we shared some kind of hideous spirit with them. I don’t think I have tasted something so disgusting in all my life!

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Beautiful cycling

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Some kind of noodle thing is being prepared..

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Yep, it’s a winner!

Climbing greeted us the next day and it pretty much continued all morning. We began to get glimpses of the tea plantations and had some sweeping views of the valley below. The afternoon again brought a ferocious thunderstorm and we sheltered in someone’s garden with some men until passed. The day seemed to be slipping from us but somehow we managed to do 54km after 4pm, including 15km of climbing through tea plantations in the fading light. By the time we rolled into the small village it was dark and cold. Looking a little lost I imagine, we were spotted by an entrepreneurial woman who ushered us into her hotel. We gladly accepted. Walking out onto the street for dinner we were relieved to see the usual wok for noodles and ‘things on sticks stand’. By now we had figured out that we are in fact like giant, useless babies. That is, we can’t read anything and can only purchase food we see in front of us, or if there are pictures on the menus.

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It’s delicious!

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In Yunnan (so far) you add these flavours to your noodle soup

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The beautiful hills of Xingshuabanna

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So beautiful..

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An afternoon shower was common for the first few days

By the next day we were really tired. The hammocks of Laos seemed a long time ago. It was also strange not being hot, as we had to layer up for the decent. And descend we did, through a heavy mist with tea plantations on either side of us. Unfortunately no teahouses eventuated, we would have loved nothing better than a hot cup of tea! By mid morning the sun was out and we were climbing again. To our delight we met two cycle tourists within about 500m of each other. A Japanese guy, carrying what looked like almost his entire house (including undies drying on his handle bars) and an enthusiastic Chinese guy who snapped photos of us and chatted away in Mandarin. By early afternoon we had reached Pu’er, the town we decided to have our first rest day in. It was a huge mass of seemingly unending mobile phone shops and we had trouble finding a hotel at first. When we did find one, the woman behind the desk became flabbergasted by our Australian passports (some hotels in China cannot accept foreigners, or don’t know how to register them properly. I suspect our problem was the latter). We were made to reload our bikes, marched to the most expensive hotel in town and then promptly abandoned. Sitting outside this shining monstrosity, dirty, tired and having no idea where to find an affordable hotel that would take us, things seemed a bit overwhelming and bleak. However, if there is one thing I have learnt on this adventure, it is that things always turn out okay somehow. We were not disappointed. A very kind English speaking lady from the expensive hotel came to our aid, not only taking us to a cheap hotel but also making sure we were checked in correctly by the staff. What a sweetheart. It was not the last time we were to be rescued in this fashion by the kind Chinese.

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Tea growing region of Pu’er

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Vegie steam bun, the breakfast of champions.

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Pretty happy with this $10 room.

Our room was amazing. We spent the next day and a half drinking tea, watching Spooks, reading, writing and generally recovering from 7 days of cycling. We did venture out into Pu’er but there was not really much to see, mainly just mobile phone shops. Back on the road after our rest day we met some Chinese cyclists on the first ascent. They invited us for tea and then looked rather alarmed when we showed them our planned route to Dali. We were promptly told our map was too old and then drawn and shown a better route. They soon sped off on their mountain bikes and we continued our slow plod up the hill. That night was spent in a kind of truck stop and we watched the sunset over the surrounding mountains while drinking a beer and listening to a lady belt out some fine Chinese pop tunes.

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Tea with the Chinese cyclists on top of the climb out of Pu’er.

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Showing us the right way to Dali

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Overnighting at the truck stop

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Valley riding

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Ah, too much texting perhaps?

The next 3 days involved climbing over mountains and then descending into vast valleys, where every inch of the ground appeared to be farmed. We passed through small villages, where the locals found us quite a curiosity and we found the noodle soup to be quite delicious. For snack breaks we ate mountains of Chinese sponge cake  (a new discovery) and drank milk tea from a bottle. We learnt about the infamous Chinese toilets (yep, they’re as bad as everyone says they are) and spent our nights in small Chinese cities. One night we were confronted with not being able to eat on the street and were shown a giant fridge full of produce in a restaurant.  Confused, we pointed vaguely to a few items, vegetables? We tried to look up the mandarin for it, but of course, the phone was dead. Hmm, the Giant babies were faced with a new obstacle. After a few minutes of everyone being rather confused, we figured out that you point to whatever item you want (eggplant, tofu, egg) and they make one dish out of it and serve it alongside rice.  Now we could even eat in restaurants without pictures!

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This public toilet gets 5/10. Not too bad.

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Wide cultivated valleys and villages became the norm

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Sponge cake and strawberries part way up a climb

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Lots of up and down!

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Every inch appeared to be cultivated

 

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Getting close to Dali now

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We bought these berries on the side of the road one day, then found them free to pick a few days later.

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New Dali

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Evening falling as we approach old Dali

Late on the third day, we rolled into Dali. Despite feeling like any elevation we had gained had been promptly lost by a long down hills we had encountered, we were in fact now at 1900m. It was a little chilly, and clouds hung low and heavy over the surrounding mountains. We found the most gorgeous hotel just outside the east gate. Then, hand in hand we walked the darkening streets of the old town, observing the tourists (mainly Chinese), street vendors, trendy bars, café’s and beautiful architecture. A rest day stretched before us, we were tired but happy.

love

Jude

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Dali, old town.

 

Sabaidee Pii Mai!! Happy Laos New Year!

Vientiane to the China Border.

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Sabaidee Pii Mai!

Our departure from Vientiane coincided with the first day of Pii Mai – the Laos New Year.  The Laotians love a good party and Pii Mai is ‘the favourite’ – three days of family fun, frivolity, beer drinking and water fights.  As most homes in Laos have no backyard, tables covered with food and beer are set out the front of every home, blaring sound systems pump out Thai pop music and buckets of water line the streets to be thrown at every person who passes by.  I can honestly say that I have never cycled through a 160km street party, but that is what we did for the two days from Vientiane to Vang Vieng.

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Fun for all.

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It all involves water.

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Everyone’s a target.

The atmosphere was electric and the good vibes flowed as freely as the beer and water.  “Sabaidee Pii Mai” was heard everywhere.  Being falang (foreigners) and being on bikes, we were the perfect targets for everyone who had a hose, water pistol or bucket of water.  ‘Drenched’ is an understatement on how wet we became.  Luckily the water provided much needed air-con in the scorching hot weather.  In addition to the soakings, beer was handed to us as we cycled by and despite the impromptu dance & beer parties, we were lucky to make it as far as we did in those days.

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Free air-con.

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A free beer with a soaking.

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Welcome to Vang Vieng.

Once in Vang Vieng, a bamboo bungalow overlooking rice paddies and limestone karsts became our haven.  Lying in our hammocks we drank copious amounts of tea, read books and made plans for our 3-month journey across China.  Hours were spent with map and tourism guide in hand, creating a tentative plan of where, when and how we were going to achieve such a massive feat.  We escaped our hermit tendencies with a stroll in the countryside and a dip in the river.

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The view from our bungalow.

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And the other direction.

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We love hammock time.

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Despite being hermits we made a friend.

Being so caught up in future planning we forgot about the present and made a rookie mistake in our travel plans.  Having cycled most of the route from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang previously, we went against our better judgment and caught a bus.  Yes it was as bad as we remember backpacking with bikes, and yes there was another road that we could have taken that we hadn’t ridden before.  Note to self – always double check all route options, not just those you think you know.   That said, we spent some lovely days relaxing in Luang Prabang, eating bakery treats and enjoying the vibe of the city.  We also shared a couple of dinners with Kat and Alee (and Kat’s folks Andrew and Ruth) – two amazing Melbournians who are cycling a tandem bike from Holland to Oz.  Check out CyclingAbout.com for their biking adventures around the world.

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Introducing the amazing Kat and Alee from Cycling About.

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Most of our time was spent cycling along the Pu river.

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After a refreshing swim.

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We are sometimes joined by school kids on their way home.

Not tiring of relaxing, it was time to get on the bikes and head north for some more hammock time.  Most of the journey was spent cycling alongside the Pu River, providing us with ample opportunity to refresh ourselves in its cool waters.  Being accessible only by boat, most of our time in the tranquil village of Muang Ngoi was spent by the river.  Having no access to the outside world we slowed our pace further and were content to just be.  We could have spent a week swimming, reading and eating, but our visa was soon to expire and China was calling.

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The view from our bungalow.

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The main street of Muang Ngoi.

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More hammock time.

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Muang Ngoi dock.

Three days of mountain riding stood between the Chinese border and us.  Setting out early in the mornings to take advantage of the cool weather, we pedaled all day stopping only to eat, filter water and sleep.  Things in the northern regions are changing quickly, and progress here seems to mean mass deforestation and crop burning.  The mountains and roads were scarred by human activity and it was sad to spend our last days riding through such an environment.  I did a happiness dance when the roadside counters began to incorporate ‘China Border’ in their countdown.  Our last night was spent in an overpriced hotel room squashed between the first slum we had seen in Laos and the customs gate before the Chinese border.  We have loved our time in Laos, but the excitement of a new country had entered our souls.

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There was some nice mountain riding.

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But mostly not so nice, due to human destruction.

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Happy to be in Pak Mong.

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Compared to the rest of the roads in Laos, this one was in terrible condition.

All my love,

Astrid.

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Counting down to the Chinese border.

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Laos border post.

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Exit stage right.

The road to Vientiane

 

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Classic Laos

Reaching Laos again felt good. It had been a push to make it to the border in time and once our visa’s and stamps were received we could finally relax. Borders are strange and interesting places. This one was quite remote, although it was on a major Asian goods route, which links Vietnam to Myanmar, through Thailand and Laos. All around us trucks waited to be let through to Vietnam, carrying cattle and other supplies (probably a lot of Laos natural resources). For the next few days we would see Thai, Lao and Vietnamese trucks heading in both directions. The Vietnamese still drove the worst.

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Happy to be back, waiting to collect our passports at the border.

Dusk was settling on the on the mountains as we left the border, snaking our way a few kilometres down the road, before scrambling down an embankment to make camp. Even after all these months of stealth camping, I still prefer to be hidden well away from people, even when I know the people won’t care or harm me. Somewhere, in the back on my mind, not matter how much I try and block it out, a tiny part of me still feels vulnerable out here at night.  I hate to admit it and I know it’s illogical, for if anything, hasn’t the last 12 months taught me that the world is a much a kinder place then we are often led to believe back home?

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Our tents on our first night back in Laos look kind of eerie..

It was already heating up when we woke at 5am. A taste of what was to come. Thanks to my mum we had rice noodles with vegetarian mince for breakfast, followed by a hefty hit of Ovaltine. Then it was time to hit the road. To our delight, the first part of the day saw us freewheeling down on to the lowlands. The Laos we found at the bottom of the mountains was so different to the one we had left behind a few weeks ago. The villages here were well stocked, almost everyone had fridges and to our joy ice cream made a return to the scene. There was even an ATM, sticking out like the Tardis on the dry baked Laotion plain. The heat drove us underground like trolls in the afternoon, as we cooked our lunch under a bridge. I longed for a river, but it was bone dry, even the buffaloes could only find the smallest, muddiest water holes. We camped in a field that night, watching the sky turn red and laughing at the buffalo family that came to check us out (they make some pretty weird noises and sniffed us in a funny way).

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What’s with this strange, flat Laos?

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And the random ATM?

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There is even ice cream here – good ice cream!

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I was accused of being a ‘bridge troll’ for wanting to have lunch under this bridge

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Collecting water for filter from the village pump. All villages have at least one communal pump

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The Buffalo’s are coming to check us out..

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Preparing dinner and relaxing after a long, hot day.

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Sunset from our camp

Karsts appeared the following day, towering over us on both sides. Our map had told us of a climber’s camp (Green Climbers Home) and it was here that we stopped after 50km. It was an oasis in the otherwise hot and dry landscape. Tents, bungalows and shady sprawling restaurant/bar as well as a swimming hole and cave. Astrid and I camped in the forest and Marita escaped into a more suitable tent. Her $20 kids tent had started to show it’s quality (or lack there of) and she had spent the previous night unable to sleep due to the lack of ventilation and presence of ants. The rest of the day we spent relaxing, swimming and reading. All three of us were very impressed (and slightly intimidated) by the incredible buffed climbers we encountered there. I started doing push ups again that very day…

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mid morning Lao cow going for a casual stroll..

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Beautiful cycling..

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Camping in the forest at ‘Green climbers camp’.

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The swimming hole at Green Climbers

Having decided not to climb this time (but with a plan to return) we cycled the remaining kilometres to Thakhet the next day.  Charming run down (but beginning to be done up) colonial era edifices predominate in this laid back riverside town. Trees offer shade along the riverfront, cows meander down the road at sunset and across the Mekong you can see the glitz and glam of Thailand, which seems a life time away. We found ourselves the most ridiculous 70’s style hotel and sat drinking shakes and making plans for the following day. At sunset we had the good fortune of meeting Fanus, a South African mine consultant (yes, we confirmed that almost all the mines are Chinese owned in Laos) with whom we swapped stories about our homelands and life on the road. He was one of the most kind hearted people we have met.

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I have all the baguette’s! A kind lady got her daughter to buy these for us.. we didn’t expect them to be quite so large!

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Sunset over the Mekong and Thailand

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Sunset Beer Lao

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Casual sunset Lao cow

To avoid some of the heat and try and make it to Kong Lor cave we were up at 4am the following day. Ear splitting karaoke was still going on. We suspected it was the karaoke bar behind our hotel until we ventured outside to load up the bikes. The noise was coming from Thailand across the Mekong, which was still lit up like a Christmas tree! You could tell it was the end of a long night as the singing was slurred and the karaoke duet soon disintegrated into drunken crying. We imagined the couple holding each other, singing and sobbing, ‘I love you,’ ‘no, I love you!’ Drunk people are the same the world over. It makes me smile.

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There are always baloons

While cycling that morning I began thinking about the similarity between drivers all over Asia. Yeah, the Vietnamese are the worst for us cyclist, but all over Asia, the driving leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not uncommon to see heavily overloaded buses, sway dangerously to one side while overtaking at speed, drivers passing on blind corners, vehicles narrowly missing each other, no helmets on motorbikes, no giving way when pulling out, and almost everyone using their mobiles constantly. I don’t know what the road toll is, I only know the hospitals are basic at best, and as a foreigner you are told ‘go to Thailand,’ if you are injured. That morning, unfortunately I was presented proof of the consequences of this disregard for safety, when a motorcyclist crashed into a van behind me. I did not see it, only heard it. The injured man was not wearing a helmet, had a massive skull fracture, and never regained consciousness on scene. At one point Astrid and I thought he was going to arrest on us, and he was showing clear signs of a serious head injury (decelebrate posturing). Without Western standard hospital care (which he would not get, unless he could pay and possessed a passport) I doubt he would have survived. Possibly he wouldn’t anyway. I actually felt quite helpless at this scene, for even though Astrid and I both had all the knowledge and skills to care for him in the pre-hospital setting, without our equipment, all we could do was take his pulse and try and get the locals not drag to him too violently off the road. In the end, the injured man was bundled into the car that he had hit, music still blaring and driven off somewhere.

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Not the accident we attended but perhaps a classic example of the consequences of some of the drivers..

It was a sobering reminder about how far we are from ‘first world’ medical care.

If this accident had been in rural Victoria, this man would have had at least 3 paramedics with a helicopter on the way to airlift him to a trauma hospital. How lucky we are. Even though our health system is far from perfect, to have a system that will take us to a first class hospital (where we don’t have to pay for the services) when we are seriously injured is something very precious. Something worth protecting and fighting for.

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The long hot road to Kong Lor

By 12:30 we had covered 100km and were at the first turn off to Kong Lor Cave. We ate lunch, then threw our bikes on the roof of a tuk tuk that took us over the mountains for 40km. We were dropped at another dusty junction and decided to cycle to remaining 40km into Kong Lor. What a beautiful cycle it was. The light was turning golden and it reflected against the karsts and the stark beauty of the bare fields. Kong Lor is a small village, with a scattering of guesthouses and primarily exists because of the cave. We found a delightful place to call home for the night and cooked our food on the back porch, watching darkness come over the valley.

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Back on a tuk tuk..

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Boat ride anyone? It must be wet here when it rains..

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On the way into Kong Lor

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So dry but so beautiful

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Such beautiful light

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Dry rice paddies

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Kong Lor valley

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Dinner after another epic 140km day in the heat

Kong Lor cave was worth the trek. It’s a 7.5km boat ride into the heart of the mountain, through vast caverns with towering stalagmites and stalactites. You get to walk one section and occasionally go over rapids and have to get out of the boat, while the driver and guide expertly maneuver it through the shallow water. At the end you get spat out on the other side of the mountain, surrounded by dripping rain forest (well for us, because it was raining). After this early morning adventure, with thunderstorms rolling in over the valley, we decided it was a perfect opportunity for a rest day.  So while the thunder clapped and the rain fell we relaxed and read books. I may have had an afternoon nap.

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Ready to cave!!

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The entrance to the cave

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Photos inside caves never do them justice.. It was awesome.

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More cave action

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Coming out the other end was pretty special

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Trying to eat ‘local style’ ice cream. It was ice cream, literally between 2 frozen pieces of bread. Fail.

Our bikes were loaded back on to the tuk tuk roof the next day and we crammed on with a small bunch of travellers and locals. Kong Lor is just that little bit harder to get to then your average tourist attraction (especially without a tour) and we found the other westerners to be an interesting bunch of people, many of them long term travelers like us. Soon we were joined by more local kids, women with babies, chickens, bags of produce, and by the time we were back at the main highway, there were people hanging off the back of the tuk tuk. It still amazes me how many people can fit in to one vehicle.

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On the road again with a hat, courtesy of the road!

Arriving later than hoped for at the crossroads, we still managed 90km to Paxsan, where thanks to some travellers on motorbikes we found a charming bungalow by a lake. Another storm rolled in that night and it delayed our departure somewhat, although we still managed to leave before 6am. It was 150km to Vientiane and our pedaling was interspersed by noodles, drinks, ice creams and chocolate and by 5pm we had made it to the capital. Exhausted but happy, we celebrated with pizza.

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150km day to Vientiane deserves pizza and beer!

The sixth of April, one year after our departure from Melbourne. How fitting that it was the day my sister also arrived. I cannot really describe how amazing it was to see her after a year of separation. What followed was one of the loveliest and most relaxing weeks. We started our days with delicious Pho, followed by meandering around the city, having coffee, checking out temples, going to museums, a trip to a Buddha park and generally enjoying the Lao capital. In the afternoons, when it got really hot, we hung out in our lovely room, chatting, reading, and laughing. Mish treated us to picnics and dinner, mum again provided us with joys (cheese) from home as well as supplies (dehydrated food) for the road ahead.

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12 month living on a bike, we couldn’t be happier!

 

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So happy to have Mish visit!

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Morning Pho

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Some temples..

 

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A picnic in our room..

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Checking out some sites – the ‘vertical runway’ as it was built with American concrete allocated for the airport…

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Lunch time pool..

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And beers..

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A ride in a tuk tuk

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To see some crazy stuff

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The Buddha park really was weird!

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There lot of laughter (Astrid has the best laugh ever!)

Most of our time in Vientiane was about spending time with Mish, but we also applied for our Chinese Visa. We had been quite nervous as we had heard of people being rejected and of how difficult it was. Luckily all our internet research and careful planning paid off and we were rewarded with a 30 day visa (not possible to get longer) with minimal fuss. It felt like a real victory, if we had been denied entry, it would have really stuffed our plans.

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China visa win!

Soon, after a week of laughter and fun, the goodbyes started. First was Marita, off to Vietnam to meet a friend and then home for her brother’s wedding. We have plans to meet again in China. Then Mish, back to Melbourne and her PhD. All I can say is, I cried like a baby. It was such a wonderful week and I was reminded how awesome and precious my sister is. Family visiting is a little bittersweet. It reminds you how much you miss and love them.

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Saying goodbye to these two was hard

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Best sister ever

We have been traveling with Marita on and off since Malaysia, as well as having other friends, backpackers and family join us. Now it’s back to just Astrid and I. It feels a little strange, but also good. Our time in SE Asia is drawing to a close; the vastness of China and the mountains of Central Asia beckon us.

love

Jude

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Our time in SE Asia is drawing to a close

 

 

Is it a good morning Vietnam?

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Hanoi night life.

Every country radiates a different energy and the one that I felt when crossing into Vietnam was something akin to desperation.  Added to this, the border town smelt like urine, there was garbage strewn everywhere, the road disintegrated and grim faces looked out of dank grey houses.  As I watched the scenery through the bus window I lamented how often ideologies, like communism, are ruined in practice by the corruption of people.  We were to learn that as with other dictatorships, corruption in Vietnam continues to be endemic and as the saying goes “money talks”.

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Mum in Hanoi.

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Sellers walk the streets carrying their wares on bikes or their backs.

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Soviet style building are everywhere in Vietnam.

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The old city walls, with mum, Jude, Marita and Ben.

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Old cyclos in front of the Metropole Hotel.

Fortunately our main reason for visiting Vietnam was to spend some quality time with my mum Ilze, who was flying into Hanoi to visit us for a fortnight.  Mum had booked us a lovely hotel room for the first couple of nights and you know that you look like a bum when the staff eye you disparagingly as you rock up on your mud covered bike dressed like a hobo backpacker.  They quickly learnt not to judge a person by their looks and we were soon sharing a cup of tea together.  Anticipation had been building in me all day and when mum walked through the door we hugged like we would never let each other go.  I had planned to show her around the city that afternoon, but time warped, and we spent the whole afternoon chatting over cups of tea and treats that mum had brought.

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The Opera House, a lovely example of French colonial architecture.

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Looking at the displays in the Women’s museum.

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Propaganda posters.

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Entry gate for the Temple of Literature.

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Temple of Literature.

Our time in Hanoi was shared between sightseeing and relaxing in lovely cafés.  We roamed the Old Quarter where shop keepers have pedalled their wares for a thousand years, every street named after the produce sold in its’ stores.  We strolled around Hoan Kiem Lake and imagined the grandeur of old Indochina from the colonial architecture in the French Quarter.  We admired the bravery and resilience of Vietnamese women as displayed in the Women’s Museum; the beauty of Vietnamese arts and crafts at the Fine Arts Museum; and the people’s dedication to education at the Temple of Literature.  Our taste buds were tantalised with a variety of different noodle soups, street eats, roadside barbeques and the highlight of a chocolate buffet high tea in the grand surrounds of the Metropole Hotel – decadence at its best!

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Street eats.

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This place smelled so good we had to give it a try.

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Decadence plus, chocolate buffet high tea.

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Happy to be hanging out with mum.

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We were all a little bleary eyed from the night train, in need of coffee and croissants.

An overnight train journey delivered us to Hue, and on arrival we located a French bakery where we revived ourselves with coffee and croissants.  Chance fortune smiled on us that day, when we stumbled upon Jess and Charlotte (from the megapod).  They were heading north that evening so we had a girly afternoon of drinking wine, eating comfort food and chatting, before we waved them off.  The next day found us exploring the ancient imperial citadel and palace of the Nguyen Dynasty.  Bombing during the French and Vietnam wars destroyed most of the buildings, yet what remains is still impressive.

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Girly afternoon with Jess and Charlotte.

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Locals relaxing around the citadel walls.

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East gate of the Palace.

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Main building of the palace where the emperor held court.

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Overlooking the Emperor’s reading room.

 

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Thien Mu Pagoda.

In Hoi An, a week of gourmet living ensued.  The old town has been beautifully restored and we spent hours wandering through the streets and alleyways.  Unfortunately tourism is the main industry here and as such much of its Asiatic charm has been lost.  The only locals are the ones running the businesses and most of the time I felt like I was somewhere in Europe.  Though when in Rome…  So we had some clothes tailor made (yes I am the proud owner of knickerbockers and bright red pants) and we dined at top class restaurants.  We escaped the crowds with an overnight trip to the Cham Islands where we spent the day relaxing and swimming at a secluded white sand beach (if only the wind wasn’t whipping sand everywhere).  But best of all, I spent lots of time with my mum.  The morning she was leaving I watched her with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes knowing I wouldn’t see her or hug her again for another year.  Time like we had is so precious and for it I will always be grateful.  Thanks mum for coming to visit, I love you very much and can’t wait till we are together again.

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Hoi An has been beautifully restored.

 

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Exploring the alley ways.

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Enjoying a spot of shopping.

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Enjoying a cup of tea.

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Loving the bamboo bike.

The heavy heart remained, so the following day we had a ‘cycling fail’.  Instead of riding we holed ourselves up in our room with a few bottles of red wine and watched a whole season of Rake in our underwear.  In addition, we had planned on leaving Vietnam as soon as possible but after looking over calendars, visa requirements and maps we found that we needed to spend an extra week in Vietnam.  In all honesty we really disliked the place, actually to be more specific we disliked most of the people.  Interesting that for a communist country, capital seems to be the only culture that is of any value to the people.

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Arriving at the Cham islands.

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The lovely Cham islands.

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Mum the beach babe.

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Our secluded beach.

Seeing that we had not cycled for two weeks, it may have been a good idea to ease ourselves gently back into the swing of things.  Being us though, we decided that it could be a great opportunity to break our ‘longest distance cycled in a day’ record.  After a buffet breakfast (you know how much we love them) we set off for our 140km cycle to Hue.  It felt great to be back in the saddle and we sped along the coast happy not to be restrained by the confines of public transport any longer.  Not even the 10km climb up the Hai Van pass could dampen our spirits.  The views back along the coast were as breathtaking as the climb, and we were lucky enough to reach the summit just as the clouds began to roll in.  At the summit we were mobbed by sellers all wanting us to buy, buy, buy.  Nothing new there, except that they followed Marita into the toilet, tried to charge her 10 times the normal price to use the toilet (there was no sign about payment) and then hit her when she refused to buy anything.  I can just imagine what customer service representatives in Australia would say about such tactics.

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Cycling out of Hoi An.

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The views back along the coast were breathtaking.

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Climbing the Hai Van pass.

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Happy to be at the top of Hai Van pass, until the sellers started to mob us.

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How we felt after 140km.

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The view from our room.

Probably the same thing as the Australian driving standards regulators, if they saw how the Vietnamese drive.  Despite poking fun in Indonesia about them stopping on the wrong side of the road on a blind corner to smoke a cigarette, I can honestly say that the Vietnamese are the worst drivers in S.E. Asia.  Crazy and dangerous, and obnoxiously loud when they blast their horns next to us as we cycle passed.  After 100km we were sick of the drivers, the noise and we were getting tired.  Maybe 140km on the first day wasn’t such a great idea.  To keep me focused I started dreaming of the delicious Indian dinner I would soon be eating.  It worked, but not before darkness settled and we had to ride the last 20km without lights.  On our arrival we were given the best room in the hotel with 360-degree views of the city and we celebrated our ride with a mango lassi and a delicious curry.

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On the road to Dong Ha.

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To eat the best Pho ever (in Dong Ha).

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The memorial marking the DMZ, the most bombed area during the Vietnam war.

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Sunset beers in Dong Hoi.

The next two days found us cycling first to Dong Ha and then to Dong Hoi.  Both were prosperous sister cities before the Vietnamese War saw the area divided and the Demilitarised Zone drawn between them.  Unfortunately the terrible traffic was never ending, the horns so loud we couldn’t think, we were again hit for not buying produce in shops and were the centre of attention for sleazy men.  One confrontation culminated in Jude having to push a guy, as he didn’t get the message that we weren’t interested.  Dong Ha, being on the ‘losing’ side of the DMZ, ended up being the poorer sister but we loved our time there all the same.  We rode the streets at night watching life go by, we ate the best Pho we have ever had, and we had the pleasure of meeting Tam of Tam’s café (who is one of the most community minded people I have ever met).  Dong Hoi provided the glitz and glamour as we drank beers on the balcony watching the sunset over the city and the river.

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Relaxed cycling.

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Marita fixing her first flat.

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Coffee and pancake break turned into a couple of days of R&R.

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Catching up on some reading and Skyping with family.

The caves near Song Trach had come highly recommended by our mate Ben, so we pedalled on to the Ho Chi Minh road and headed west.  Ah to be free from the mayhem of (sub)urban Vietnam.  On the way, Marita experienced her first flat of the journey and with a little instruction from Master Jude she had the tyre fixed in no time.  We continued to enjoy the tranquility of rice fields surrounded by mountains and chatted excitedly about the future.  As it was a short days ride we stopped for a coffee and pancake break at the Lakeside Resort.  The place was so relaxing and familiar we decided to stay and make it our base for a couple of days.  I think we were a bit frayed from the last few days and we were also quite homesick, so a little R&R was required.

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Boating up the river to the caves.

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Paddling up to a fairyland.

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Excited to be at the caves.

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A variety of formations.

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Standing under the giant jellyfish and its babies.

Ben was right, and the caves at Son Trach are well worth the visit.  After a little incident involving being punched by two boys and me stomping on their bike in retaliation, we arrived at the tourist office in town.  Due to the big spending of the last fortnight we had to keep the purse strings tight, so we chose the cheapest tour option.  In no time we were on a boat cruising upstream between limestone karsts and at the cave entrance the motor was cut and we were paddled into the cave, which had been wonderfully lit up like a fairyland. On the way out we were dropped off at a sandy beach and were able to walk amongst the stalactites and stalagmites for as long as we wished.  Never before had I seen such varied formations, one even looked like a giant jellyfish giving birth to hundreds of baby jellyfish.

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The green fairy almost camouflaged.

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Cruising along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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There were some climbs.

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Perfect riding.

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Yeah, it’s pretty spectacular.

The R&R had to come to an end as the border and Laos were waiting.  The Ho Chi Minh trail wound its way through karst country, rice fields swaying in the breeze, buffalos chewing cud in the paddocks, pigs and chickens wandering between wooden houses and children swimming in the rivers.  It was idyllic, a far cry from everything we had experienced thus far.  We camped in a field that night and I think I may have scared a farmer herding his cows when I popped out from behind a bush to say hello.  Fireflies lit the sky that night providing the perfect ending to a perfect day.  Well not such a perfect ending due to the leeches, but close enough.

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The heat was a killer.

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So we found ways to cool off.

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Some not so conventional.

Heat seemed to be our main problem now and finding ways of keeping cool were fun.  We splashed about in a river and ate watermelon on the banks.  We found a water tank that was overflowing and jumped under it for a fully clothed shower.  We lay in the shade of trees and ate mandarins and napped to rest.  I even considered joining the water buffalos in their mud pools, but logic got the better of me.  The heat and hills continued, and we were lucky to make it to the border just before closing.  The immigration officers on seeing how hot we were positioned their fan on us as we waited.  This small act of kindness and the beauty of the last two days almost made me forget how much I disliked Vietnam.  Was I sad to go?  No.  Would I ever return?  Probably not.  But it is all an experience and that is what this journey is about.

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Happy to be cycling towards the border.

All my love,

Astrid.  xxx

Mountain Life

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The mountains begin

Laos. The most bombed country in the world. A place where a secret war played itself out more than 40 years ago between those on the payroll of the CIA and the forces of communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese army. Every week the Lao people still suffer from the consequences of unexploded ordinances (UXO’s) dropped by the American’s. Since the end of the war, more than 20,000 people have been maimed and killed, and it’s still a major contributing factor to ongoing poverty, as land affected by the ‘bombies’ is effectively locked away from being able to farmed or developed for infrastructure.

Image It was the three of us that left Luang Prabang early, to head east towards Vietnam to meet Astrid’s mum. Viktoria had taken ill and we planned to meet her again in a few days time. Our panniers were full of food from the market as we had heard that there is not much to eat in the mountains towards which we were heading. This was to prove true, as village after village contained only the smallest store, selling sweet biscuits and soft drinks, and if we were really lucky, eggs. The mountain people in Laos seem to mainly subsistence farm on ground that appears impossibly steep. It did not take us long to appreciate how mountainous Laos really was. Soon our poor lungs and legs, having not climbed since the Cameron Highlands were burning. We did get a 15km down hill after a 15km ascent, but the joy was short lived as we were soon climbing again. Just before sunset we limped into some scrub on the side of the road and made camp. It felt wonderful to be self sufficient again.

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The nutritious food available in the mountains

 

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Cycling through a typical village

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The huts seem to cling to the side of the mountain, in between the road and the edge.

The climbing continued, we were often cycling through areas that would have once been forested but had been subjected to ‘slash and burn’ to make room for agriculture. When there was forest, it was very beautiful, but overall there was more deforestation than I expected. The villages we passed through consisted of neat clusters of mainly wooden houses, often appearing to cling to the side of the mountain. Cows, buffalo, chickens and pigs meandered around freely, kids played and called out shy ‘sabaidees’ from the shadows of doorways. Women washed by the communal tap, or scrubbed children in buckets. Although poor by our standards, these villages all appeared to have some form of running water and electricity. The roads are quiet compared to what we are used to with only semi frequent trucks and buses during the day. We met quite a few cycle tourists, some on SE Asian tours, and one couple on a tandem who had cycled from Poland.

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Villagers washing clothes in the river

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Washing wherever possible on the side of the road

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Old man Buffalo

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The end of the day in near

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Curious village kids watch us collect water

In the afternoon of the second day in the hills we chanced upon what seemed like a rather random guesthouse in a small village. We had planned to go further, but not used to the climbing, we were all pretty exhausted. It seemed like too good an opportunity to bypass. Furthermore, another cyclist, Peter was already staying there. He was a lovely guy from Austria on a tour around SE Asia and we swapped stories and shared dinner and hot chocolate.

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Being a bit immature..

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Peter, from Austria

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Making ovaltine for everyone

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Outside the random guesthouse we found in a mountain village

It seemed that the hills would never stop. While not unrideable, or even crazy steep, they were unrelenting. We stopped frequently for snacks, which unfortunately often translated to sweet biscuits and soft drinks. That night we made our camp in a banana plantation and were visited by ‘the night cow’ a few times; a curious cow that kept checking us out, as it is normal to find livestock roaming around free on the roads and in the villages. I always wonder how they know which animal belongs to whom.

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A pig family on the side of the road

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These girls watched us shyly as we drank a dirty green soft drink in their village

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Collecting water to filter at the village tap

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In the Banana plantation where we were visited by the ‘night cow.’

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morning tea happiness

Finally we found ourselves on a rather desolate plain. The flat cycling was a relief. We were to learn later that the landscape had been dramatically changed from the intense bombing raids in the 70’s. The area surrounding the plain of jars was one of the hardest hit, due to its proximity to Vietnam. Exhausted, we finally rolled into Phonsovan, slightly shocked by the amount of people, shops and produce. After having been in the mountains for four days, it felt like a big city, not a small provincial capital. That night we met up again with Viktoria (who had taken the bus from Luang Prabang) and were treated to a lovely dinner by some Canadian motorcyclists who had seen us on the road. What lovely chaps, we really are lucky.

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Lao cow

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Yep!

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The plain of jars; burial ritual or to hold beer for giant’s?

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Plain of jars

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As it was back out to the mountains the following day, we stocked up for the next few days at the market (so much food!) before heading out to the ‘Plain of Jars’. What a strange place. Like the name suggests, it’s a vast plain, which was heavily bombed but has been cleared by MAG (mind advisory group). What makes it so bizarre though is the presence of large, megalithic jars. They are scattered in groups throughout this plain and look very mysterious and odd. Apparently they were used as burial jars by some ancient people, although not much is really know about them. I like the myth that they were used by giants to brew beer better. After our site seeing side trip, it was back on the loaded bikes and heading east. We had a pleasant afternoon, cycling mainly downhill, surrounded by mountains, rice paddies and the occasional village. Reaching a small cross roads town we tried to find some accommodation. We shouldn’t have bothered. There was only one room in one hotel, and although we were happy to all share it, once they realised there were four of us they wanted to heavily over charge us (and not provide any bedding). So we left, picked up some water and made camp outside of town. This is one of the reasons I like having a tent, even in a place like SE Asia where many people tour without them. I like having the choice to walk away, and really camping is so much nicer. Especially in Laos where no one bothers you. Of course, UXO’s are a concern (although fairly unlikely), but we made sure always to camp on well trodden land.

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They are huge!

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Many UXO’s were found on around the plain of jars, luckily it’s been cleared by MAG

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Beautiful scenery as we head out of Phonsovan

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Much better than an overpriced guesthouse

 

It was back to climbing now and we ascended steadily for most of the next day. Not so much deforestation in these parts, which was a nice change. That night, instead of finding somewhere to stealth camp we asked if we could camp in a small mountain village. They villagers, almost all women (we are thinking the men are off working somewhere) readily agreed and we pitched our tents in the centre of town and even got to have a shower (local style) at the communal tap. Everyone was so friendly, very curious and also quite shy. We had quite a large audience as we cooked dinner. One elderly lady was particularly impressed by our aubergine, and when Astrid gave her one, she was delighted. We decided to call her aubergine grandma. It was a really wonderful experience getting to observe village life at the end of the day – the boys playing soccer in a small field, kids carrying chickens back to their cages, a lady hand feeding a buffalo in a pen, women washing, kids being called to dinner. Our experience in this village made us feel like we will definitely ask to do this again.

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Cooking lunch with the eggs we found to buy

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Beautiful scenery, quiet roads.

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The village we camped in

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Curious locals watch us cook

Like the village, we were up early and soon pedalling. The mornings were cool with a light mist blanketing the mountains. After a few hours we had descended into a valley and village that actually had a restaurant. Over some soup (the only thing you can get in these parts) we realised we were exhausted. After 7 days of cycling, mainly in the mountains, Marita, Astrid and I were in need of a day off. After some discussion and weighing up options we decided to hitch on a truck or see if there was a bus. We asked around, there was a bus in an hour. None of the trucks heading our way were empty, so at 12pm we loaded our bikes onto the roof of a small bus and squished inside with the locals and 4 other foreigners. Laos is one of the only countries where putting your bike on a bus is not an issue and you are unlikely to get ripped off. Ah buses. Blasting Thai music videos (men in pink shirts, crying about girls), inching down the winding roads (much slower then we would cycle) and taking four hours to cover 88km. Although I was grateful for the break, we were all reminded why we choose to cycle.

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Morning mist

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Nicest part of the day to cycle

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Typical Lao noodle soup.

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Tired, waiting for the bus

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On to the bus they go

The bus stopped in Xam Neua, another provincial capital. This town had a palatable soviet feel, with big boulevards, statues and huge public buildings. I liked it a lot and we secured a great guesthouse with a big balcony looking over the rooftops. There weren’t many tourists, and the ones that we met were mainly traveling by motorbike. It was good to get some information about the road ahead in Vietnam. Apparently it was shit.

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Xam Neua

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Xam Neua, heading to get Vietnamese currency

Early the next morning we headed to the market to buy food and then to the gold shop to change some of our Laoation Kip into Vietnamese Dong. Sadly the gold shop wasn’t nearly as black market and secretive as we had hoped it would be. We then cycled the 35km to Vieng Xai, the old headquarters of the Pathet Lao. What a fascinating place. It’s in a large valley, surrounded by karsts and rice paddies. During the secret war, while the American’s dropped bombs on Laos, the Pathet Lao and the people from around Vieng Xai lived in the caves of the karst mountains. At one point up to 20,000 people resided in the caves. They had a school, bakery, hospital and also housed the army. The caves were altered by blasting, to fashion rooms and passageways, and it was from here that the Lao resistance ran its entire operation. It was certainly quite amazing walking through the caves and trying to imagine what it would have been like as the bombs fell outside.

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Bright colours are popular in Asia!

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On the road to Vieng Xai

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Nearly at Vieng Xai

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Vieng Xai also feels very Soviet

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Our cute guesthouse, opposite a Karaoke bar..

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Heading into the caves

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In the caves

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Soviet air pump

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Checking out the reading material in the cave

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After falling to sleep to the sound of bad karaoke the following day it was time to split up. Astrid needed to be in Hanoi the following day to meet her mum and Viktoria had decided she would also take the bus. Marita and I were not quite ready to stop cycling and opted for the open road. It was very sad to say goodbye to Astrid, as we had not spent a night apart for almost a year. The morning’s cycling was stunning, and mostly flat. We reached the border at just after 1pm and it was very casual, men with underpants showing crowding around the official, who was unhurriedly inspecting passports. The town on the other side of the border was not particularly pleasant, so we had some lunch and continued on our way. The road was indeed awful, but not as bad for cyclists as it would be for other traffic. Lots of mud and pot holes. After having cycled though some very dry country on the Lao side, we were amazed to find bright green rice paddies on the Vietnamese side. It also looked like it had rained not so long ago. We made camp on the side of the road, cooked a delicious curry and went to bed early.

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Goodbye Astro!

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On the road to Vietnam

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Everyone loves the hair!

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Goodbye Laos! We will meet again soon

I woke up feeling over it. The previous day had been fun but I now wanted to be in Hanoi. I missed Astrid and was tired from the mountains and no real rest days. We headed off early, cycling through villages and bamboo plantation. The kids of Vietnam were not shy like the Laotian kids. They screamed ‘hellos ‘ with all their might. In one village, as we stopped to buy snacks, I was randomly handed a baby to hold by a smiling villager. Marita thought it was hilarious. I felt sorry for the baby, I was not at my most cleanest. We cycled and cycled, ascending, descending, but never really appearing to make it that far. In the afternoon we hailed down a truck and got a lift for 20km – the roads are definitely worse in a vehicle! The truck dropped us in a village with a slightly ‘crack den-ish’ hotel. We were filthy, tired and then it began to rain so we took it. I was feeling really down at this point, Marita cheered me up with chocolate and we discussed trying to make it to Hanoi the following day by cycling and hitching.

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The crack den was a little gross

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It did have an Avril Levine table though! Which was odd and typical Asian in it’a apparent randomness

The town we were in had felt deserted the previous night but in the morning it was much more alive and we were excited to ‘smash’ two Vietnamese rolls. As we were eating breakfast and discussing our options, a bus with ‘Hanoi’ written on it passed us. We kind of looked at each other and went, ‘fuck it, lets do it’. I raced after the bus, hoping it had stopped further up in town, it hadn’t but some locals told us another bus would come at 9am.

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Waiting for the bus

So began our long and frustrating trek to Hanoi. We hailed a bus at 9am, heaved our bikes onto the roof and making sure several times that they were indeed going to Hanoi. Yes, yes we were assured. Somehow neither of us were convinced. After an hour or so we managed to find out that we were on a bus full of teachers heading on a shopping trip to Thanh Hoa and not actually to Hanoi. It was okay as we knew we could get a bus from Thanh Hoa to Hanoi. Once we were dropped at the bus station we got our first real taste of how pushy the Vietnamese can be. We were immediately surrounded by men hassling us. The bus clearly market ‘Hanoi’ would not take us because of the bikes and a very annoying guy kept at us to take another bus. A lot of the other buses were too small and eventually we took the bus the annoying man wanted us to. It was a rip off, although we did get the price down somewhat. Backpacking with bikes, not fun. The bus ride sucked, overcrowding, constant blaring of the horn and taking hours and hours to go only about 150km. The bus didn’t actually go into Hanoi, but dropped us at a petrol station about 16km out.

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The first bus

It was getting dark but the end was near. We loaded the bikes and carefully negotiated the crazy traffic into the old quarter in Hanoi. It was cold – like a Melbourne winter night. I actually loved it, after months of hot weather, the cold was refreshing. We found the hostel, showered and were then reunited with Astrid, her mum and Ben. It felt great to have arrived.

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Till next time

love

Jude