Tag Archives: cycling

Malawi and the end of the road

A final update on the 2012 trip:

I spent a very enjoyable 3 weeks in Malawi on and off the bike. After a couple of days in Livingstonia I cycled to the Vwaza Marsh Reserve on the border with Zambia where I camped on the edge of a lake full of hippos and visiting elephants.

Elephant and calf, Vwaza Marsh (50m from my tent!)

Elephant and calf, Vwaza Marsh (50m from my tent!)

Following that I spent 5 days up on the Nyika Plateau, a vast area of wild grassland, zebra, bushbuck, viewpoints and great biking trails!

Camping on the Nyika Plateau

Camping on the Nyika Plateau

Then I stayed for a couple of days in Mzuzu before heading down to the lakeshore via the Chikangawa forestry road, an old road from the colonial days that zigzags down from the highlands to the lakeshore through pristine indigenous forest. On my second night I found my favourite camping spot of the trip: in a wood beside a lake full of loud birds during the day and insects and frogs at night.

Campsite at a resevoir near Mazamba, Malawi

Campsite at a resevoir near Mazamba, Malawi

Entering the forest, Chikangawa

Entering the forest, Chikangawa

Crossing a 'bridge' on the way to the lake

Crossing a ‘bridge’ on the way to the lake

I visited my old school at Bandawe, where I had volunteered for 7 months in 2006. All of my old colleagues had transfered to other schools or other jobs, but the school itself was in good shape, well equipped with a new science lab and computer lab and girls’ dormitory, all provided by the good old EU.

Back at Bandawe Secondary School, 6 years later

Back at Bandawe Secondary School, 6 years later

And to finish off my time in Malawi I went up to Ruarwe for a few days, a village I had visited before that can only be reached by a hot 11 hour boat ride. It was on that boat ride that I randomly bumped into Cuthbert – one of my old students – who was on his way home from university, so I had a chance to visit his family’s farm perched on top of a hill overlooking Ruarwe bay.

With Cuthbert in Ruarwe. You can see his house on top of the hill in the background

With Cuthbert in Ruarwe. You can see his house on top of the hill in the background

The best thing about being back in Malawi was seeing my old students again. The great thing about Facebook is that I’m back in contact with a lot of them, after a 5 year gap in communication. It was nice to hear that they had the second highest grade in the whole Northern region in the JCE (Junior) examinations the year after I left Bandawe and that now most of them are studying in 3rd level education. It’s difficult for students from a rural background to study in university because of a lack of scholarships or bursaries, but the government (and their donors) have recently introduced ‘bonded study’, paying the way for hundreds of budding nurses and teachers through college who then must work for the government for 3 years at a reduced salary.

Finally, it was onto a bus to Johannesburg to catch my flight home, where I’ve spent my time with family and friends at home, skiing in France and at my grandfather’s 90th. Good to be home! It was quite a trip.

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Slowly down the Great Rift Valley

I really didn’t expect to be freezing cold in Ethiopia, of all places. On my first few days in Addis Ababa the temperature went below 10 celsius and it rained constantly. I couldn’t handle it – I had to wear all my clothes, sleep in my hoodie and got a head cold. Don’t know how I’m going to survive back in Ireland!

I had chosen Addis as an entry point to Africa because of a cheap promotional flight from Mumbai with Saudi Arabian. $200 for the biggest jump of the trip so far – from the steamy monsoon of Mumbai to the chilly rains of Ethiopia. Otherwise I would have just taken a flight to Nairobi and headed to Malawi from there. But I’m really happy I decided to come to Ethiopia; the country is really beautiful in parts. I spent a month in the North of the country, wandering around some ancient Coptic churches, trekking up to the highest mountain in the country and then driving into the baking Danakil desert to the edge of very active volcanos.

Had a good time in Ethiopia

But first I had to learn a bit about the country. I spent the first couple of days visiting the excellent museums of Addis Ababa. Being from Ireland, I’m quite proud of my country’s ancient history going back to the megalithic tombs of Newgrange, but the age of history anywhere in Europe is nothing compared to here. The first exhibit of the first museum I went to was an original 3.5 million year old humanoid skull, found out in the deserts. From there the museum was full of discoveries charting the evolution of mankind, all found in Ethiopia.

A skull in the Ethnological Museum, Addis Ababa. Dated at around 3.5 million years old.

Then there were artefacts from the beginnings of Christianity (which came to Ethiopia in the 4th Century, 100 years before most of Europe) and older rock inscriptions that suggest the existence of a Judaic civilization long before that. Other museums were full of stories of the Italian imperial army’s  defeat to Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century (the only African army to defeat a European invading force) and pretty shocking collections from the time of the Derg, when Mengitsu armed local militias to kill thousands of dissenting civilians. In the Red Terror museum there are rooms full of skulls of the victims of the cold-war regime, toppled by a group of fighters that included the prime minister Meles Zenawi, who had just died two weeks before I arrived. The country was still in mourning, and every street is still lined with images of the ex-prime minister.

Fish for breakfast by Lake Awassa

After Addis I got a series of buses for 2 days through the fertile highlands filled with green and gold fields and round huts to Lalibela, an area full of 12th Century churches and tunnels hewn out of solid rock. I had a great day wandering between the churches – which are sunk into the rock rather than dug into a rock face – and getting lost in the labyrinthine tunnels.

St. Gyorgis Church, Lalibela. Cut out of solid rock 900 years ago.

The weirdest thing about Lalibela is that at any moment you could come face to face with a skeleton. Ethiopians believe that dying in the vicinity of a church grants you automatic entry to heaven, so many arrange to die in cells peppered around churches. As a result, walking down dark tunnels or entering the compound of a church, I often came face-to-face (or face- to-toe) with skeletons hundreds of years old packed in to small enclaves in the rock.

Some skeletons I found along the path

But the best part of Lalibela was just hanging around the cafes and restaurants. Ethiopia must have the best coffee in the world, and I became addicted to the stuff while I was there. For 10 cents you can have a cup of the best black coffee around or for 20 cents a thick, sweet macchiato. It’s central to the culture here and just walking down the street you can constantly smell it wafting around. I spent most of my time in Lalibela in coffee shops chatting to people. I hung around with the night receptionist from my hotel (BSc Pharmacy), the waiter their friend, a local technical school teacher (BA Education). Most young people in Ethiopia are very well educated but the opportunities for employment are pretty limited, so you meet them on buses and hanging around the towns with little to do.

Lunch, Ethiopian style

Next I took more buses North for one and a half days. Journeys in Ethiopia were very long but most of the road system was very good. Chinese contractors are building thousands of kilometres of roads around the country – on any given road construction site you can see a big group of Ethiopian construction workers with picks and shovels labouring away in the hot sun under the supervision of usually one Chinese engineer with a massive straw hat and smartphone. I arrived in Wukro, a one-horse town and entry point to the Tigray region, home to around 80 clifftop churches that date back as far as the 5th century.

The road to the Gheralta (with the worst bike in the world)

I rented a dodgy bike for two days and squeaked my way through the roasting hot countryside to the churches, climbing up the sheer cliffs using centuries-old hand and footholds to the little churches, perched on pretty stunning ledges and caves 100-200m above the plains. When the first Christian monks came here to convert the locals, they found that they got the most respect if they built their churches and monasteries on top of the rocky cliffs that jut out of the scenery. It worked, and the locals stopped worshipping sun and moon gods who lived on top of the hills and nowadays most of them are Coptic christians.

Climbing up to Abuna Yemata Guh, part of which includes walking along a 1m wide path with a large drop on the left.

While in the Gheralta area I stayed in Hawzen, a village infamous for a different reason. In the 80s the Tigray region was full of rebels trying to topple Mengitsu’s regime. In response he waged the ‘red terror’ campaign, killing thousands of people who lived in the rebellious region. One of the worst atrocities of the time was when Mengitsu sent in his Russian planes to bomb Hawzen on market day, when people from miles around converge on the village. Over 2,000 people died. Mengitsu fled Ethiopia when the cold war ended and his military support stopped, and now lives with Bob Mugabe in Zimbabwe. I gave the bike back and took trucks and buses along the very North of Ethiopia, up to the Sudanese border and back to Gonder to join up with some other travelers for a hike. It was market day as we traveled along the roads, which were full of hundreds of camels being driven to market accompanied by herders with AK47s on their backs. The Northern region is fairly volatile and is dotted with refugee camps full of Eritraen and Sudanese refugees. The Ethiopian government has offered all the refugees full citizenship but most of them haven’t taken up the offer, instead prefering to wait in the camps in the hope of gaining asylum to countries such as Sweden or Norway. They seem to have a decent enough quality of life; each camp I saw had a massive UN compound on the edge with WFP feeding tents, UNHCR tents and Medicen Sans Frontiers jeeps driving around.

Somewhere in Northern Ethiopia

We hiked for 7 days in the Simien Mountains to Ras Dashen (4500m), the highest mountain in Ethiopia and the 4th highest in Africa. It’s a beautiful wilderness area on the edge of the Northern tip of the Great Rift Valley with endemic species such as the Gelada Baboons that wander around, a special type of Ibex and the Ethiopian wolf.

Gelada Baboon

We hired a donkey, a scout with an AK47 (mandatory for any off-the-beaten-track travel in Ethiopia, it seemed) and a guide and set off into the hills. The hiking was fairly tough but the views were amazing – sheer drops off the edge of the path of up to 2,000m into the plains below. At night we camped in rented tents. I had rented a sleeping bag as well which ended up being a bad choice as it was infested with fleas. After 3 nights of scratching and feeling them hopping all over me I ditched the sleeping bag and wrapped myself in aluminium foil instead – less comfortable but just as warm! We crossed rivers in full flood that nearly washed some of us away, passed kids playing homemade guitars and donkey trains carrying WFP maize up into farms in the mountains.

Yotam, near the top of Ras Dashen

On the 6th day we reached the summit, up a sharp scramble on an exposed rock face. That evening back at camp we bought a sheep, butchered it and ate almost the whole thing (I accidentally had a chomp on a testicle before spitting it out).

Trekking along the escarpment towards Ras Dashen

A great thing about Ethiopia was the type of people I traveled with. Most people don’t think of Ethiopia as a travel destination, and the type of traveler that makes it here tend to be quite ‘intrepid’. India had been full of hippies and culture vultures, Nepal had its fair share of no-nonsense hikers and Southeast Asia was full of kids on their first trips abroad. But in Ethiopia I traveled with a mad mix of people – a Tanzanian historian trying to prove links between the Queen of Sheba and the West Arabian Old Jerusalem theory, 2 lawyers who had worked on Charles Taylor’s case at The Hague, a Japanese teenager who had bet his friends that he could travel from Cape Town to Egypt in 60 days by public transport, a Belgian who had worked with the Rwandan government for a year researching renewable energy possibilities and an Israeli student who was tracking down and interviewing Sudanese refugees who had been expelled from Israel earlier this year. Great bunch of travelers.

Hiking with friends at the Jinbar Waterfall.
Noam (Israel), Luke (Ireland), Liam (Ireland), Amelia (USA/UK), Yotam (Israel)

After the Simiens we took a bus journey from hell along an as-yet-unfinished road to Axum, capital of the Axumite kingdom that lasted from the 3rd Century BC to the 7th AD. At its height it was the only civilization apart from the Persians, Romans and Chinese minting their own coins, hosted the prophet Mohammed’s daughter and wife who fled from persecution in Saudi Arabia, and stole the Ark of the Covenant from Israel!

A tomb in Axum

We had a touristy day touring the tombs and visiting the huge stelaes, one of which had been stolen by Mussolini and shipped to Rome, where it stood outside the UN building until 2005, before the Italians finally agreed to fly it home to Ethiopia. The history and stories there would have been enough to fill a week, and the good food and great beer we consumed could have lasted us days, but after a day it was time to move on.

Stelae. Nobody really knows why these were built

The last trip in Ethiopia was to the Danakil Depression, a huge saline area over 100m below sea level along the border with Eritrea. We went there mainly to visit Erta Ale, one of only 6 continuously erupting volcanos in the world. It’s way out in the desert, 2 days drive from the nearest road. It’s also a very volatile region where Eritraen forces occasionally slip across the border to get up to mischief, and 5 tourists were killedon the volcano crater in January. The Afar people who live in the region are quite warlike, and kids threw stones at our jeeps as we drove past. Because of these things, we hired 2 jeeps for ourselves (8 tourists) and an extra jeep with 3 army guards and 3 local Afar scouts – all with guns.

Afar kid (photo by Jonathan)

This area was the stage for the Ethiopian – Eritrean War from 1998 – 2000, when both countries – already dependent on aid – spent 100s of millions of dollars on a pointless border war over an area of arid desert, causing around 100,000 deaths. Our little convoy drove through the arid desert, stopping off at tiny scruffy villages to pay homage to the local chiefs along the way. On the evening of the second day – after the heat of the day had disappated – we climbed up to the volcano crater over sharp lava contorted into weird and wonderful formations.

Pushing parts of the drive to Erta Ale

Standing on the edge of a volcano, looking into the red-hot lava that occasionally flared into 3-4m ‘fountains’, it was hard to believe that it wasn’t going to blow at any moment, entombing us all in lava. Apparently there are tunnels and passageways under the volcano that allows the hot lava to flow away from the crater, enabling a ‘circuit’ of boiling and cooling lava that prevents a major eruption. It was every boy’s dream, standing on the edge of the volcano throwing stones into the lava and playing with our guards’ AK47s. That night we slept on mattresses on the edge of the crater, in the light of the full moon and the glow of the lava, listening to the sound of the ebb and flow of the volcano underneath us. That day was also Dad’s 5th anniversary so it was extra special – I think he’d be pretty intrigued if he knew I was sitting on top of a volcano that night!

Looking into the crater of Erta Ale (photo by Yotam)

Erta Ale from 100 metres away from the edge. Hot stuff

We spent the next two days driving around the Dallol area that surrounds the volcanoes. It’s a huge saline area formed when the Red Sea flooded the Danikil Depression. Over thousands of years the water has evapourated and mixed with gases pushing up from the volcanic activity underneath the earth, creating otherwordly chimneys, poisonous pools, brittle terraces and deadly geysers. I got some good recordings of stinky sulphuric gas escaping from one of the psychadelic chimneys in the middle of a pool of water with a PH of around 3. Best to describe it more with a couple of photos:

Somewhere on the dark side of the moon

Walking on seas of cheese

Walking on seas of cheese

Detail from a bubble of sulphur coming up through the ground, Dallol

Detail from a bubble of sulphur coming up through the ground, Dallol

After the Dallol it was time to leave Ethiopia. It was nearing the end of September and I had only planned to spend 2 weeks there. So I took a series of buses back to Addis – relatively cool and refreshing after the 45 degree heat of the desert – and watched the All-Ireland final two weeks after it happened. It was great to watch Donegal win the Sam for the first time in 20 years, sitting in a hotel lobby stealing their fast wifi and drinking copious amounts of coffee to steady my nerves.

Time off from the road in Awassa, Southern Ethiopia

On from Addis it was a four day journey to Nairobi, down the Rift Valley through rich farmland and past lush lakeshores to the border at Moyale and then on through the Northern Kenyan wilderness, full of ostriches, dikdiks, zebras, giraffe and monkeys, dotted with nomadic villages and ubiquitous Chinese road builders toiling in the sweltering heat. I arrived into Nairobi at 5am at Eastleigh (nicknamed ‘Somaliland’), a dodgy area full of lads lurking in the shadows and angry looking graffiti. Luckily I was helped by some friendly ladies on their way to work who showed me the right busline into town from where I walked – covered in sand and mud from the bus journey – past all the smartly dressed people on their way to work in the CBD to my hostel where I stayed washing and recovering for two days. Kenya seemed so developed and efficient after Ethiopia. Nairobi was an exciting city to walk around – not the ‘Nairobbery’ I had been told to expect. Out in the countryside farmers used machinery and grew cash crops rather than the subsistence farming everywhere in Ethiopia (I saw 2 tractors in a month’s travel in Ethiopia; hundreds in Kenya).

Cycling in West Kenya’s forests

Everybody in Kenya speaks great English and were friendly and easy to talk to; in Ethiopia 90% of the conversations I had with people had contained requests for money. I was also pick-pocketed 4 times in Ethiopia, never felt unsafe in Kenya. In Ethiopia as I cycled in the countryside kids had thrown pebbles at me and shouted “YOU YOU GIVE ME MANEY”, in Kenya they waved as I cycled past and said “Hello, how are you?”. In Ethiopia every restaurant bill I received had some extra fake charge on that I then had to haggle about, in Kenya this didn’t exist: many things were easier. I spent three weeks in Kenya. An idea had been growing in my head since India to cycle down the Rift Valley to Malawi. So I bought a bike, a phone and a tent and started out from Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria (where I bought the bike).

Cycling with the Kenyan cycling team

Armed with a phone and fast internet I was more organized, and contacted cycling organizations and groups around the country before setting off. I also used Couchsurfing for the first time since Korea, and stayed with couchsurfers all over the place. First I visited Buffalo Bikes in Kisumu, a factory that produces extremely strong bikes suitable for African roads and paths. They sell all over Southern, Central and East Africa and also support communities with free bikes in some cases.

Pedestrian

From there I headed up to Kakamega, in the heart of sugar cane country. It was quite hilly around there and I found the speed of the slow-moving sugar cane tractors perfect for a bit of ‘surfing’. But I wasn’t the only one grabbing on to the back as they moved up the hill. Kids would appear from the fields and run along beside the trailer, grabbing desperately at the canes to get some free snacks. I have to admit I munched on some myself. Extra energy. I visited the Kakamega forest reserve the next day with Miles (an American couchsurfer and avid cyclist!), walking in to the jungle during the night to watch civet cats hunt and eating a buffet dinner in the nearby colonial-style lodge (the waiters wore dickie-bows). From there it was a long slog up to Iten, the home of long distance running in Kenya. I checked out a cycling club there – Kenyan Riders– who train professionally for big races (they placed 4th  in last week’s Tour de Rwanda 2012). I had tea and banana sandwiches with the lads and tried to keep up with them on their morning ride – 70km down the rift valley escarpment and back up a 15km hill to Kabsabet. I managed to keep up with them for all of 3km! My thick MTB wheels and inferior gears held me back, honest! But I caught up with them around 20km down the hill, where two of them had collided and caused a pile up. Teeth had been knocked out, backs bruised, but nothing serious. All in a day’s work.

50km/h down into the Rift Valley on a Monday morning

I stayed for a while by Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley. I camped for the first time 10 metres from the lake. It was an amazing location – hippos grazed in the lake and a rather large crocodile sunned himself around 20m from the door of my tent. The next day I cycled further down the valley along dry and hot roads to Lake Baringo, where I lazed in hot springs all afternoon, ordering cocktails from the bar. And they say travel in Africa is difficult…

Camping spot, Lake Naivasha

Over the next couple of days I made my way back to Nairobi. Cycling in the Rift Valley was very hot, but enjoyable. There were wild animals everywhere. I stopped off at a seasonal lake beside the road for a while and watched hundreds of turtles slouching about in the water as a herd of Zebra drank from the other side. Later I bought wild honey from a lady by the side of the road north of the equator and ate it with some chapatti a kid was selling from a stall south of the equator. The countryside became more lush as I approached Nakuru, and more commercial farms started springing up along the road. Long avenues of trees marked entrances to white-owned ranches and private conservancies.

Walking down the Hell’s Gate Gorge

I spent a couple of days by Lake Naivasha, cycling through Hell’s Gate gorge, created by a massive flow of water millennia ago when a huge lake burst and flowed down the rift valley. Nowadays it’s full of warthog, zebra, hot springs, buffalo, baboons, 5 geothermal power plants and giraffe. I went right down to the bottom of the gorge, where it gets so narrow I had to walk sideways to squeeze through the caverns and then raced a 12 year old English kid to the gates before they closed for the evening. After a week cavorting about Nairobi I was ready to head to Malawi. I had had to change my route. My original plan of cyclingdown to Lake Marigat (you might know it from the movie ‘The Constant Gardener’) and across into Tanzania, past Lake Natron, up to Ol’ Doinio Lengai (an active volcano) and around the edge of the Ngorogoro crater was too adventurous, according to the Tanzanian embassy who wouldn’t give me a visa to cross at that border point.

Road to The Mara

So I contented myself with a cycle to the Masai Mara and on to Lake Victoria. On my first day I made 156km, the biggest distance so far. I was helped massively by David Kinjah and his Safari Simbazclub. He’s a pro-rider in Nairobi i had made contact with and he’s training up a young team to be the next generation of world beaters. And they’re tough. Riding down the escarpment into the rift valley at 60kms an hour, we overtook trucks and safari jeeps and belted it around the bends. One of the kids took his eye off the road for a second and collided with the guy in front, doing a full flip over his handlebars onto the road. Undeterred, he got back on his bike and kept going. I said goodbye to them at the bottom of the escarpment and headed on to the Masai Mara, another day away on good roads.

Cycling with the Safari Simbaz. I’m second from the right. Also, that’s not my bike

I cycled through the Northern area of the Masai Mara, outside the park boundaries. But it was full of herds of buffalo, wilderbeest, gazelle and zebra, with cows being driven by Masai warriors winding past them.

Nice place to watch sunrise over the Masai Mara

It was a beautiful cycle through classic African scenery along a bumpy dirt road, and I camped that night on the escarpment overlooking the Mara. I woke up before dawn and watched the most amazing sunrise as herds of animals trotted around hundreds of metres below my rocky outcrop. I felt like an extra in ‘The Lion King’. From there I headed on to Migori and on Halloween crossed into Tanzania. Three days later I landed in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. I had been camping out for a long time, and had been washed out one night when I chose a low camping spot that got flooded during the night (I woke up puzzled at how I had acquired a waterbed), so it felt amazing to be sleeping in a proper bed again and dry out all my stuff. I stayed with Feng Tingkai, one of the million or so Chinese entrepreneurs working in Africa.

With Tingkai on the shores of Lake Victoria, rain coming in off the lake

He’s developing a satellite TV company in Western Tanzania – Startimes – providing decent subscriptions at a fraction of the price of DSTV, the South African owned competitor. Mwanza was a nice town to relax in for a couple of days – crumbling colonial buildings, a busy port, a forgotten railway line that has found a new life as a fish market, and a really good Chinese restaurant with Sichuanese chefs! I biked out of Mwanza finally on the 6th November, well fed and rested. From there it was 5 days to Kigoma, along the southern shore of Lake Victoria past the gold mines at Geita and on through the bush, turning South near the Rwanda border at Biharamulo to Nakanyazi and on South along the Burundi border to Kigoma. I found the cycling relatively easy compared to India. It was relatively flat (if you call 3km gradual climbs followed by 3km gradual downhills flat) and the weather mostly behaved itself (apart from the occasional downpour, when I put on my ridiculous superman-style plastic poncho and pedalled on).

The road to Biharamulo. Plenty of sand for my chain to make friends with

Cycling in East Africa is pretty repetitive. The scenery doesn’t really change: forests occasionally give way to scrubby maize fields cut out of the bush fronted by a well-swept mud hut compound with 7 kids playing around it, a man sitting in the shade checking his mobile phone and his wife washing clothes, preparing dinner, feeding the baby and pounding maize all at one time. “Mzungu wa bisakelli, wayway?! Ah ah AAAH!” (“A white man on a bike, why why?! Ah ah aaah”). Then the villages: all exactly the same. Two rows of mud huts with tin rooves front on to the road. The population is ever fluctuating: people walk to the village to drink tea and catch up on gossip and buy a miniscule blue plastic bag of salt or a single cigarette before walking back into the bush to their farms. I usually took an hour’s lunch break and sat watching the world go by. A truck or bus would arrive in a cloud of dust and suddenly the village is a frenzy of activity – a month’s produce of onions, mangos, firewood, charcoal or potatoes is offered on outstretched hands or in tubs expertly balanced on the seller’s heads.

One of my cycle buddies in Tanza. 100kg, no problem bwana!

Every village in Africa has a speciality – one will produce very good red onions while 3km down the road you’ll find everyone selling good quality toothpicks. There’s no diversity – usually only 3 or 4 types of local produce will be for sale. The truck revs up needlessly for a couple of minutes and then hurtles off, and the village settles with the dust. A crazy man with matted hair and bloodshot eyes (every village has one) wanders around in filthy rags, shouting abuse at everyone. People shout abuse back, then chuckle and give him food and beer to placate him. In the restaurant on the side of the road I’m usually sweating at a too-small table still wearing my helmet and eating a delicious meal of rice or ugali and goat meat (boiled vegetables if I’m lucky). The waitresses always insist I wash my hands in filthy brown water with a bar of laundry soap, then fills up my teacup with too-sweet spicy tea.

“mazuuuuunguuuu”

The kids amble around in their starched school uniforms with their schoolbooks. It’s 11am but there’s no need to actually go to school – the teachers are all sweating in the shade of the mango tree in the street checking their phones and conducting business (their salary of $70 per month isn’t enough to support their own family so they spend their time trying to make money on the side). But it was enjoyable – Africa is a continent of cyclists so I was never really alone. I’d be accompanied for a couple of kilometers every couple of hours by lads carrying huge loads of charcoal from the bush to the next market town or passed out by cheering bike taxi men with a chortling African mama on the back, weighing in at around 90kgs. Everyone rides ‘Black Mambas’, single speed Indian-made bikes that last forever and every time i stop men crowd around my bike, marvelling at the gear system and disk brakes. The only bad experience I had in 3 weeks cycling was being slide tackled by one of the aforementioned ‘village crazy men’ in SW Kenya, who ran from a roadside bar and took out me and the bike with a premiership – worthy 3 metre slide tackle. We both landed in a heap in the dust, luckily uninjured. As I picked up my bike and straightened the handlebars he did push-ups in the street in front of me and then stood up bellowing and approached me again. I threw a pebble at him and he scarpered. The whole village fell about laughing.

Back to civilization at the end of a long day

I reached Kigoma – the end of the road on the shores of Lake Tanganyika – for the weekend after a long long ride, and waited there for a week to catch a ferry down the lake. I stayed with Insun, a Korean volunteer teaching physics at the local secondary school, teaching Taekwondo in his garden and cultivating a lush garden of crops for his very productive kitchen.

Scruffy Irish Cyclist Reaches Shores of Lake Tanganyika. Washes Properly For The First Time In Weeks.

We went camping by the lake that weekend and I swam actively for the first time since Thailand. We set up tent on the beach, barbequed up some tender goat and fended off the monkeys when they tried to steal the mangos and bananas. On Monday he headed off to work and I explored the town. Kigoma is the end of the road and railway from the coast and feels like it. In the distance across the lake were the mountains of Congo with permenant thunder clouds hanging over them. Fronting on to the lake is a busy port with a large ship docked loading equipment for a prospecting voyage around the lake. Other boats were shipping goods up to Burundi and at night the lake lit up with fishermen fishing using spotlights to attract the fish. I cycled around the sleepy town eating endless snacks and drinking fresh passion fruit and mango juice before catching the MV Liemba on the 14th November.

Sunset over the Congo

The MV Liembawas built in Germany in 1913 and sailed to Dar Es Salaam, where it was taken apart and transported by the newly built railway line across the country. By the time it arrived World War 1 had broken out and it was fitted with guns to fight the British and Belgians on the lake. It’s a long story but basically it was purposefully sunk and lay at the bottom of the lake for 9 years before being resurfaced and has chugged up and down it ever since.

On the roof of the Liemba, the Mahale Mountains in the distance

Nowadays it ferries people and goods up and down Tanganyika from Kigoma to Zambia and back. I got myself into a tiny 1st class cabin and tied the bike up on deck and for the next 3 days sailed down the lake. There was a great bar on the boat and good food, and I got tours of the engine room and could drop in to the bridge to hang out with Captain Titus Benjamin whenever I wanted. There were other travelers on the boat too – a German social worker, Austrian architect and English sculptor. We spent a lot of time up on the roof of the ship watching sunsets and sunrises among the drying piles of fish.

The Liemba, almost fully loaded

Every time we stopped at one of the little fishing villages a frenzy of canoes and boats would surround the boat and start trading with the passengers. Fish, pineapples, baskets, roofing wood were all thrown on and off the boat as prices were agreed or disagreed on. Passengers disembarking at the villages also had to jump off the Liemba onto little canoes to make their way back to the villages and I saw more than one baby slung unceremoniously over the side and down into a canoe. We passed some ultra-luxurious wilderness lodges along the way too: Mahale Mountains national park had a forest lodge Bill Gates hangs out in and further south near Kipili is a $2000-per-night island where Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently spent his holidays last year. This all contrasts ridiculously with the people making their way up and down the lake in their canoes, but such are the paradoxes of Africa.

Trading boats, Lake Tanganyika

After leaving the Liemba at Kasanga we stayed at Oscar’s place for 3 days. He had made his money trading fish with Congolese and bringing back gold to Tanzania in his boat and had beached it in Kasanga, built a bar and some chalets and set up a tourist camp. Great guy.

Chipwa village, hiking to Kalambo Falls

We rented his boat out and sped down incognito into Zambia for a day to climb to Kalambo Falls, the 2nd highest waterfall in Africa. It was a great day, but a bit uneasy when we almost ran out of fuel on the way back, being chased by a huge electric storm coming across the lake from Congo. And finally it was up to Mbeya from Kasanga. I had wanted to link up with a Dutch cyclist on his way to Cape Town from the North Cape of Norway, so put the bike on top of the bus instead of cycling (which would have taken 3-4 days). 18 hours after leaving Kasanga we met up in Mbeya. After a day’s rest sipping juices and fixing up the bike a bit in Mbeya (the gear cables had snapped, of all things) myself and Gijs set off for Malawi.

Gijs cycling along Lake Malawi. He had just passed his 15,000km mark, I had just passed my 1,500km mark! We celebrated with beers on the beach. http://www.capetocape2012.com/

He’s riding an electric bike, which gives a little boost when the batteries are plugged in. He’s also got narrow tyres and is much fitter than me. But he’s carrying 70kgs and I only have around 25 so we even out in most things. We’ve tried swapping bikes and we still can keep up with each other.

Parting ways by the lake

We made it across the Malawi border in one day from Mbeya, up through pretty tea and coffee plantations, camping in a chief’s compound on the Malawi side. On the second day we cruised along the lake, looking out at the beautiful Lake of Stars I last saw 6 years ago. We parted ways in Chitimba, he to Mzuzu and myself up to my current position at a permaculture farm near Livingstonia.I’ve been here 3 days swimming in the nearby waterfalls, hiking up to see the 104 year old hydroelectric system on the nearby hill, having a barbeque and helping out a bit in the gardens. Auke – a Congolese-Belgian who has been here since 1995 – is an avid cyclist and i’ve already agreed to sell him the bike after I finish. He’s given me lots of ideas of places in Malawi to cycle, and I’m already ready to head off again into the Malawian bush.

It’s good to be back.

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From South Korea to Southeast Asia by bike, boat, train and bus

So I eventually made it to Bangkok, after 2 months wandering from the chilly shores of Northeastern China to the tropical jungles of Eastern Thailand through the Yangtze River plains of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces, then the foothills of the Hengduan mountains in Yunnan, followed by three weeks spent along the Mekong river and its tributaries in Laos and a final week on an island in the Gulf of Thailand.

Actually, I started long before that. I finished work in Korea on the 27th February amid around 2 weeks of farewell dinners and lunches with colleagues, friends and students. The next day I went on a quick three day roadtrip with Dahye and Sunjin to Gangneung for raw fish and karaoke, the DMZ to hear the armies shouting and look at the barbed wire beaches and Seorak Mountain to get vertigo on a freezing, clear day.

Seoraksan

Finally slipped up one of the Seoraksan peaks, 3rd March

Between then and St. Patrick’s Day I took my bike out on the roads along the Southern edge of the Korean peninsula, finally being able to do them in my own time, without the constraints of a school calendar to draw me away. It was warmer down there also – a big pulling point. I skirted the Southern coast from Busan to Geoje to Namhae to Yeosu, passing through dying fishing villages full of old people sticking to the old ways. I had a policy of having a midday nap at 12 on the nearest beach, and stayed at Jjimjilbang every night, to rest my muscles.

After three days cycling I took a boat to Geumodo – a remote island off the Southern coast of Korea, of interest to me because it was the set of the brilliant Korean horror movie ‘Bedevilled’ (김복남 살인사건의 전말). I spent the day walking a circle route around the idyllic place. Most of the farming out there was still being done by hand and oxen, and the population was old, very old.

Geumodo

Geumodo (금오도), South Korea

Walking through some of the tiny communities, I was reminded of the ‘Bedevilled’ movie, in which a girl returns to the island of her birth after years spent away in Seoul. Her former neighbours are now suspicious and cautious around her, and she begins to notice some strange changes in the atmosphere of the place. I did get some strange looks that day, but i’ll put it down to the sight of a white man ambling along the paths at the bottom of their fields. That would freak me out, too.

Fast forward 10 days and I’m on my last weekend in Korea, visiting the DMZ.

There is only one place where you can visit the ‘demarcation line’ of the DMZ proper, and that’s at Panmunjeom, the only place on the peninsula where South Korean soldiers literally stand face to face with their North Korean counterparts. I was lucky to be visiting the week before Barack Obama himself was due to fly in, and preparations were underway; the South Koreans installing bullet-proof plastic for his 10m walk to the conference room on the line, and the North Koreans watching them every step of the way (standing only 20m away).

We started our standard tour of the conference room (the blue cabin to the left of the photo below) but in mid-talk were suddenly ushered out, our guide hastily padlocking the door behind us. We were herded back up the steps just in time to see some North Korean generals come out of the North Korean building, 20m away, preceded by goose-stepping soldiers. Our guide – Patrick, an Irish-American soldier with tattooes to prove it – muttered “watch these guys step over the line” and indeed they did. 3 of the Nordies turned into the alleyway between the two buildings and stepped up ON to the concrete boundary between the two Koreas. Doing this, they were liable to get shot. But Patrick re-assured us later that they do this quite often, just to rile up the South Koreans, who indeed did get tetchy; moving into battle stance (all the South Korean army in Panmunjeom are over 6’3″ and are the country’s best experts at martial arts). It was a surreal moment, one I’ll never forget. After all that, the North Korean generals took a quick poke around the conference room we had just left and ambled back to their own building, stopping for a moment to point and laugh at us and take photos with old Kodak reel cameras from the 80s.

DMZ

Left: The view North from Panmunjeom. The blue buildings are shared ‘conference rooms’, built half in North Korea, and half in the South. The far building is in North Korea, with the generals appearing. The closer guards are South Korean, and the far guards are the North Koreans who had just stepped on the demarcation line. Right: pointing at us, the imperialists.

And then, after a suitably debaucherous St. Patrick’s Day with good friends, followed by a quick jaunt across the Yellow Sea to Northeast China and a 22 hour train journey South, I found myself in Anhui province, 500km Southwest of Shanghai, and itching to get back on the bike.

Southern Anhui / Northern Jiangxi provinces was where a lot of rich merchants were exiled to during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644). They came with all their wealth, and set up a feudal system – using the locals as their serfs – a system that effectively still exists. They built beautiful merchant villages and towns among the valleys and plains that I cycled through, the buildings all built to allow water to flow through during times of flood, when the families and servants would just migrate to the upper floors. Each village had a pond (Chinese love looking at water) usually situated in a beautiful courtyard where the old women would come to wash clothes at dawn and the old men would come to play chess at dusk.

Honcuen

Walking around Honchuen in the evening

In Honchuen, on the second night, I turned up to my hostel to find they were having a family party. My host apologized profusely for not having a bed free, but insisted I stay, and offered me a tent in the courtyard beside the pet monkey’s pen. I stayed for 3 days. Nayxier – the man running the hostel – had been an electrician in Shanghai for 15 years, but got sick of the city life, saved up $30,000 in 10 years, and bought an old decaying merchant family’s mansion in Honchuen to refurbish with the money.

Nayxier

In Honcuen with Nayxier, outside his home.

I earned my keep by helping him lug wood in from the road to the courtyard, where his craftsmen were cutting them into shape to replace the old rafters of the mansion. In the evenings I gave his 9 year old daughter English lessons. I was fascinated by the way the old mansion was built, with intricate carvings in every nook and cranny and little solars for old people to rest in. I’d love to see how it looks in 5 years.

Cycling

Some eejit with a bike, South Anhui province, China

After the success of that trip I rented the bike out again for another 3 days and struck out for Jiangxi province – 150km to the south over a small range of hills. There, I found more stunning villages and riverside ports, although unfortunately the tour groups had found a lot of them. Then on my last day in Tunxi I climbed Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), one of the holiest mountains in China.

Wangkou

A random village I cycled through, Northern Jiangxi province

It was a bit of a farce. It cost $40 to climb, and was swarmed with hordes apon hordes of screeching Chinese tour groups. My first experience of mass-tourism in China was a bad one. I was almost knocked off the path at times by convoys of older tour groups going up the mountain on the backs of porters, and was constantly harraunged for photos with giggling teenage girls on school trips (“huallo, pickature ok?”). At the top I could barely find a place to get a good view, and ended up almost killing myself by falling off a cliff trying to find a peaceful spot (OK, I was also trying to take an artsy photo). Eventually I gave up and ran down the mountain, tail between my legs.

Huangshan

Huangshan: almost falling off a cliff trying to escape the tour-bus crowds.

Next was a 36 hour train journey (eat, read, sleep, repeat) followed by a 12 hour sleeper bus (full of chinese college kids playing out of tune guitars) and a 7 hour minibus ride (where my neighbour spent a good 4 getting sick into her shopping bag of groceries) to Shangri-La!

After the debacle of Huangshan, I wanted to have some time to myself – sans tour groups – and really off the beaten track. So, having done extensive research almost exclusively on google maps (NEVER plan a trip based solely on google maps, by the way) I set off on another rented mountain bike from Shangri-la – a picturesque frontier town up in the mountains between Burma, Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The name is actually a Chinese government fabrication – they changed the name from Zhongdian in 2001 – and the ‘old town’ has actually all been built in the past 10 years. It’s all built in Tibetan style, a beautiful style of architecture that meshes logs together to maximize their strength against the ripping winds up there.

Shangri-la

Overlooking Shangri-la

From Shangri-la it was a very tough 2 day cycle to Tiger Leaping Gorge. In my amateur research I had figured that the drop in altitude from 3,200m at Shangri-la to 1,900m at Tiger Leaping Gorge could only mean a chuckle-worthy freewheeling descent with stops only to take photos and have picnics beside mountain streams. Couldn’t have been more wrong. What I didn’t realize was that to reach Tiger Leaping Gorge, the road needs to cross 5 river valleys first, and when you cross a river valley in Tibet it means falling a luxurious 500m in altitude before grinding the gears to make up the distance on the far side. Absolutely exhausting, mentally and physically. Thank God for the old lady in the guesthouse in Baishuitai, the halfway point, who cooked me up the best noodles i’ve ever eaten for breakfast on the second day. Noodles, bananas, water and snickers. That’s how I got through it.

Anyway, it was all worth it in the end. Tiger Leaping Gorge was stunning. Coming in from the bottom down a 30km (yes, that’s right… 30km) straight descent, I nearly fell off the road when I spotted the gorge opening up below. It’s the deepest gorge in the world; a full 2km almost vertical drop from the top of the mountains to the Yangtze river far, far below. Legend has it that it’s so narrow that a tiger hopped it back in the day and blah blah blah, but really it was quite a sight. I stayed for 2 days.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Cycling down Tiger Leaping Gorge. My photos can’t possibly do it justice. Google it.

After another very enjoyable week in the outer regions of China, it was time to go to Laos.

The 24 hour bus journey from Kunming to Luang Prabang was the most fun of the trip so far. The bus driver was – granted – crazy, but he stopped every 4 hours for a bite to eat, and dragged all the occupants of the bus with him. We had a couple of hours kip at the border before it opened and then lumbered into Laos. It was the most marked change in landscape i’ve come across. Laos – in contrast to China – didn’t have any grey buildings to form its village streets. Everything was built from bamboo. Kids were walking around with hoes and buckets in their hands – whereas the precious Chinese kids would never be seen to be doing labour – and animals were roaming free in the streets. And it was Songkran.

I am so lucky to have arrived in time for Laos New Year. The New Year (a.k.a. Songkran in Thailand, Pi Mai in Laos) is a time when everybody goes to the temples to pray for good fortune, and on their way back home proceed to soak eachother – seen as a sign of good blessing – in the biggest water fights i’ve witnessed since Glenties harvest fair 1998.

Pi-mai

Kid with semi-automatic weapon. Laos is a dangerous place, water-wise.

The whole country disolves into mayhem, as families take to the streets to soak anything that comes near. It took our bus 11 hours to drive the 250km to Luang Prabang from the border, because we were constantly stopped by people running out onto the road, ambushing us with buckets, flour, food colouring, whatever they could get a hold of. Our Chinese bus driver found all of this side-splittingly hilarious, and could barely continue driving the bus at times he was laughing so hard. Once he even stopped the bus to chase a kid down the road who had soaked him through the window, much to the hilarity of the whole village.

On arriving in Luang Prabang it got more intense. I met up with Andrew, David, Eoghan and Mark and immediately entered the fray. The next day was parade day, at first a respectful affair, with beauty queens and recently graduated monks walking in an orderly fashion down the street. But it quickly gave way to anarchy, as houses produced huge buckets of water from nowhere and everybody filled their bottles or water guns to soak everyone else. We commandeered an old Land Rover, and spent the afternoon driving up and down the street in pitched battle with the locals. Andrew thought he was back in Nam. It went on and on into the night. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Pi-mai Laos

Screenshots from Laos New Year. Take a look at bottom-left: a gutted Beatle still doing the rounds.

4 days later we were 150kms North, on the Nam Ou river, a tributary of the Mekong. It was quite far upriver, and our boat-bus almost collided with an oncoming boat as we navigated a series of rapids – we missed eachother by inches. We arrived in Muang Ngoi, on a bend on the river, at the same time a pig was being slaughtered in the middle of the street. There was a big funeral going on over those couple of days, and the village was full of people who had come in to attend. We spent about a week up there between swimming, trekking through the jungle and visiting caves.

We walked through large areas of former jungle that had been ‘slashed and burned’ in the past year. At night it would rain, and just before the rain hit, we’d see flares of fires being lit on hills surrounding the village. They would burn fast through the bamboo and undergrowth before quickly being extinguished by the rain, and the next day the farmers would be out in force clearing the burnt remains to transform it into farmland, or for palm oil. The local government have a policy of ‘grouping’ villages together into one central village to improve services and reduce this style of slash and burn farming, and a couple of the villages we passed through were empty shells of their former selves. Vita, the lad guiding us (great petanque player) told us the government want to stamp out slash and burn farming in this area altogether by 2015.

On the last day, we walked by a cave system in the jungle. This was where the local villagers hid in the mid 70s for years, as American bombers blew everything that moved around them. The cave had a natural spring inside, electricity and even a school, but still many people died when they ventured outside the cave at the time, as much from poison gas dropped in the local rivers by American planes as from the bombing itself. During the ‘Secret War’ – a war that officially didn’t exist according to the US – bombers dropped the equivalent of “one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973” (The Guardian) – targeting supply routes of the Viet Cong by employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy. In fact, the Americans dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war than during the entire WWII campaign. It is the most bombed country in history, yet was a neutral country for the duration of the Vietnam War.

Muang Ngoi

A ‘new village’ near Muang Ngoi. High up on the top of a hill, this replaces several smaller villages in the surrounding area.

A couple of days later, 3 of us decided to get off the main roads for a couple of days, and rented scooters to head off into the interior of Laos. Laos is a country bigger than Britain but with only a population of 6.5 million. This means large areas remain wilderness, and we hoped to do a circle route along back roads that I planned using my own map and (sigh) google maps. To cut a long story short, we had an amazing time chugging over mud tracks getting hopelessly lost, taking a boat across a huge resevoir that wasn’t marked on any maps but eventually being turned back at an army outpost after 2 days driving, because it was a ‘special zone’, and outsiders weren’t supposed to be there. I did the trip with Andy and Eoghan, and Eoghan wrote up a decent account of it on his blog, if you’d like to read more.

Xaysomboune Special Zone

Eoghan on the boat across the reservoir: 3 bikes, 5 people, 1 lawnmower engine.

Then, for our final week in Laos, we met up with the other lads to ‘relax’ in Vang Vieng, the ‘party capital’ of Laos. It’s an awful place on first impression, a case-study in where backpacker tourism goes wrong. In the 90s – when tourists were first allowed in Laos – people came here to relax among the beautiful hills that jut up from the riverside, and to float down the river on inner-tubes of truck tires. Gradually the clientele has changed. It was the first time i’ve seen backpackers like it. Angry looking, muscular English and American guys strutting down the streets like cockerels, wearing t-shirts reading slogans like ‘why not?’ or ‘drink triple, see double, act single’ and getting into drunken fights in the evenings. These guys were invariably followed by tanned blond girls wearing almost nothing, usually drunk.

They come to Vang Vieng for the ‘tubing’, which has evolved from a relaxing activity to a full on all-day all-year drinking/drug festival. The river is now lined with bamboo shacks with guys employed to throw out ropes to backpackers floating down the river. After being pulled in to shore, you get offered a free shot of ‘Laolao’ whiskey, followed by a free bucket filled with knock-off coke, knock-off whiskey/rum/vodka, knock-off red bull and possibly drugs. Revellers will stay at one of these bamboo bars for around an hour before hopping back in to their tubes to float down to the next bar. There are around 10 along the length of the river, some built high off the water with rope swings and slides into the shallow water. People die every year falling off these bars while rotten drunk, or smashing themselves off rocks at the bottom of the river. Back in town, around a third of the backpackers walking down the street have gashes or open wounds on their bodies, many choosing alcohol to kill the pain instead of going to hospital. The bars employ ‘volunteers’ – Western backpackers who are broke and get free room and board for their services – to heckle people in to the bars and offer them free drinks before encouraging them to buy more. A Western traveller will be less suspicious of another Westerner offering them drink or drugs at inflated prices, so the system works well for the bars.

Vang Vieng

Memories of Vang Vieng. L-R: Drinks literally ‘on the river’; Dr. Joynt; One of the death-defying jumps off the bar;
Bottom L-R: Mr. Hornshaw enjoying a cold one on the river; Typical example of the ‘dirty backpackers’ we met; the slide I nearly lost my camera on

Although we were affronted by Vang Vieng at the start, we had to ‘get amongst it’, to quote Andrew Hornshaw. So a couple of days we went down to the river for a float down the stream and some drinks. It was – i’ll grudgingly admit – good fun. Every bar had drinking games which served their purpose well. One, a massive Jenga tower on a floating platform in the river, was especially entertaining, and we were amused by the random characters wandering around the bars. I talked to an English guy who didn’t seem to know how he had got here, talking vaguely about taking a bus from Chiang Mai to Phuket and then flying in, which is of course impossible. It’s 1500km from Chiang Mai to Phuket and there’s no airport in Vang Vieng. A Scandanavian guy was full of hyper energy and spent the whole afternoon swimming over and back between the two bars in the strong current. As it got dark he disappeared down the river into the gathering darkness, not to be seen again. I nearly had a disaster myself as my underwater camera fell off my head after coming down a huge slide at one of the bars. It quickly sank to the bottom of the murky river and try as I did, I couldn’t find it. After exhausting myself by diving down repeatedly – I could barely touch the bottom – I sat at the edge of the river dejected. Then after a full 15 minutes later a little kid surfaced clutching the camera, still recording! It was a pure miracle, and the resulting video is amazing to watch.

A week later I had split from the lads (they were heading North to Vietnam and I was heading down to Thailand) and spent a week on Koh Chang, an island lying off Eastern Thailand in the gulf within sight of Cambodia. It was a much needed beach holiday. I rented a bamboo shack for $4 a night, a motorbike for $2 a day and spent the time snorkelling around the outlying rocks and islands, scooting around the islands’ little roads and tracks and reading Max Hastings’ massive history of the Second World War (a random book I picked up in China). On my second day I found a hidden white sand beach at the end of a forest track edged by coconut trees with nobody around, and spent a lot of time there. I also met up with Eoin, an old friend from Korea now living and working in Bangkok, who was on holiday with his girlfriend. Koh Chang’s a lovely island, as yet not over-developed but all around the island ‘land for sale’ and ‘sold’ signs crop up everywhere, and I think it’ll have been transformed in another 5 years. But for now, it was a little paradise.

Koh Chang

Secret beach in Koh Chang. Anybody who wants directions, email me

It was a perfect way to end the journey down from Korea, through China, Laos and Thailand before heading to Bangkok and taking the flight to Kathmandu, which ended up taking 40 hours, 35 of which were spent waiting in airports for delayed or re-scheduled flights, where I had enough time to finally write this blog.

And now it’s on to Nepal for a month with Eileen and Suzi, India for a couple of months with possible onward trips to Bangladesh, Central Asia or Africa. It’s all up in the air as of yet, but that’s the way I like it.

Bangkok airport

Bangkok airport, en route to Dhaka after a 24 hour delay

3 best and 3 worst of the trip so far:

BEST:

The architecture:

It makes me sound really boring, but i’ve been really impressed by the way people build their houses differently in these countries. In central China, villages have to deal with flooding every year on the river plains, and so under the flagstones of all the houses and in the streets are drainage systems that allow the flood waters to flood through the houses, and then quickly away. In Tibet there is a culture of Polyandry, where one woman has many husbands. This makes for a lot of extra hands around the house, and they build huge houses on the steppes, with large compounds just to – as far as I can see – keep busy! Then in Laos, everything is made from bamboo. Rice is cooked in bamboo, bamboo soup is the national lunch and elaborate huts are constructed from all sorts of materials derived from bamboo. They build beautiful homes on stilts with balconies to sit on during the hot, hot days.

Architecture

L-R: Typical houses in Central China; typical Tibetan-style compound, (always) under-construction; typical Lao house containing typical kid at the door

The cycling:

It was an obsession I had cultivated on the weekends in Korea, and in China I spent most of my month on and off the saddle. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s by far the best way to see a country. China’s cities were well developed for cyclist – with roadways parallel to the main street reserved exclusively for cyclists and mopeds. In the countryside people almost exclusively used bike transport, so I didn’t feel as intrusive on a bike. I could just shoot off on little side tracks and explore the fields on a whim. Ultimate freedom.

Baishuitai

The road from Shangri-la to Tiger Leaping Gorge, high above the Baishuitai terraces

The food:

$5 dinner in China. The fish had been swimming in the bathroom sink minutes before. Delish

$5 dinner in China. The fish had been swimming in the bathroom sink minutes before. Delish

China is famous for its food culture. Unfortunately, I can’t read or speak Chinese. As a result, I would walk into a restaurant, sit down, and commence an extremely awkward situation which eventually usually resulted in me being brought in to the kitchen to point at the ingredients I liked. Sometimes though, the ‘lao-ban‘ (manager) would realise my predicament and cook me up the house special without question. It was very hit and miss, but I had some delicious stews, weird hot-pots and amazing fish in China.

Then in Laos it was all about the ‘sticky lai’ (sticky rice). Cooked in a hollow bamboo shoot, it’s slightly undercooked rice that was the national staple, and which I got quite addicted to during the 3 weeks there.

WORST:

The cycling uphill:

Needless to say, cycling in Tibet was a challenge. I can handle an uphill, as long as it’s followed by a nice down. But when you spend 2 hours climbing a switchback section, just to reach the watershed, descend for 10 minutes and then face in to another punishing uphill it can be demoralising to say the least.

Climbing

This may not look like much, but it’s a 15km hill climb in Yunnan, on the way up to Lugu Lake. During those 10 days I’d climb around 3 of these a day. Torturous

Chinese mass tourism:

Huangshan

Climbing Huangshan at times felt like exiting the Seoul subway system in rush hour

China has 1.2 billion people milling around. All (or most) with annual leave from their jobs. And with such a huge, vastly varied nation to see most of them end up holidaying in their own country. The result is that any tourist attraction you visit in China is invariably mobbed by tour groups of older Chinese, or tour groups of college-age Chinese, or tour groups of schoolkids. I found that after a while I started avoiding places mentioned as ‘popular’ in the Lonely Planet, and instead of visiting famous cultural or historical villages, I would skirt around the edges of it and visit a nearby village, usually with similar sights but without the crowds.

Another thing that was sometimes a bit tiring was the paparazzi that followed me around. If I was in a town or village frequented by tour groups, I learned to run down an alleyway and hide before they descended on me. It happened quite often that a group of brightly coloured tourists would break away from an  ancient temple or suchlike tourist attraction to stream after me, snapping away on their DSLRs, fascinated by the one white tourist in the whole village. They’d follow me up paths (as happened on Huangshan) or into restaurants (as in Wangkou). Humorous for a while, but became a bit annoying when they stood videoing me eat my dinner!

Tourism

Being photographed while eating my dinner in China: a favourite pasttime

Southeast Asian ‘dirty backpackers’:

Shouting at hostel owners, arguing with taxi drivers, getting drunk and disorderly in quiet towns, complaining when their Western food doesn’t taste Western, paying triple for an air-conditioned van instead of a local bus, pointing at people, wearing skimpy clothes in conservative societies, drunkenly lifting up kids and throwing them around: it’s all part of being a Southeast Asian dirty backpacker. And somehow Southeast Asians seem to deal with it calmly.

VV

A typical backpacker specimen in Vang Vieng, on the hunt for fish ‘n’ chips

Books read:
Jung Chang – Wild Swans
Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything
James Hilton – Lost Horizon
Max Hastings – Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45
James Gleich – The Information

Music listened to:
Cliff Martinez – Drive (Soundtrack)
Eddie Vedder – Into the Wild (Soundtrack)
Paul Simon – Graceland
Primus – Green Naugahyde
Bon Iver – Bon Iver

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