Hey guys. Sorry for being lazy not posting anything in the last couple months. I’ve made it safely to Tehran, Iran. I’m planning to get back on the road in the upcoming days for the final 2 months of this amazing journey. There’s a lot to come, believe me. For now, here’s a resume of what happened:
Cycled the mountains of Kyrgyzstan (for the second time!).
Waited 2 minutes for Jack to go and change money in a country side town in Uzbekistan. This is what happened.
Negotiated my liberty from police officers and locals in Uzbekistan’s bazaars.
Admired jaw dropping beauty of girls in what is probably the most bizarre city on the planet, Ashgabat.
Spend hours sitting around at border crossings.
Enjoyed the legendary hospitality of Iranians as well as doing some sightseeing in Iran.
I’ve also done some cycling (3000kms) and my beard grew longer.
The valley between Ala Bela pass and Too-Ashuu pass
Before laying my eyes on the Kyrgyz Mountains, I had to cross the Chinese immigration office so I could leave the country. The Chinese have a funny way of doing things and leaving didn’t go as fast as I anticipated. The immigration office is located in Uluqqat (the new town previously called Wuqia) about 140kms from the border itself. I could cycle the 90kms between Kashgar and Uluqqat and the next day all I had to do was to cycle about 5kms to the immigration office. I got at the entrance 15 minutes before the gates opened which I spent showing my gear to the friendly police officers. After 10 minutes of trying to find my way inside the building and being directed in different directions, I could sit down for the 3 hours waiting period. I was asked for my passport 5 times by 4 different officers, my bags were searched, photos on my camera were scrutinized (I was asked to delete 5 photos with army trucks on them) and an officer flicked through every pages of the 2 books I was carrying – one of them is a Central Asian phrasebook. At one point, we were asked to go outside to look at posters of officers catching drug smugglers. These same officers we waiting for us outside along with photographers taking photos of us while talking to proud officers. When the immigration procedures started, I passed 3 checkpoints; first one was simply to look at my passport, second (10 meters behind the first) was to manually enter my details onto a paper ledger of some sort –passport number, name and Chinese visa – and the third and last point where I finally got the exit stamp. Then it was towards the compulsory taxis to the Kyrgyz border, 140kms away. Why the Chinese decided to put their immigration offices 140kms from the actual border is unknown. I, two Japanese backpackers and a Kyrgyz man shared a taxi and left at 13h30 – Chinese time. Zigzagging amongst the line of merchandise trucks, we finally arrived at the border at 13h30 – Kyrgyz time is 2 hours behind – where the guards were in their lunch break. After being told the guards will be back at 14h, we decided to go eat something and comeback. The guards came out of their hideout at 14h30 and everyone wanted to cross at the same time. I was told I could cycle the no-man’s land to the Kyrgyz border; HURRAH! By 15h Kyrgyz time (17h Chinese time), I was finally riding towards Kyrgyzstan.
Enjoying a break at the top of the first pass towards Gulcho
Camp beside a local house towards Sary Tash
My first pass in Kyrgyzstan, towards Sary Tash
Arriving at the Kyrgyz border, the huge guard (about 2 meters 10, 110kg of pure muscle) blankly looked at me and said “Passport” in a neutral tone. Looking at my mugshot in my passport then looking down towards me, he goes “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan! Please, go this way for immigration office”. After 10 minutes I got my passport stamped by a friendly officer (again!) before making my way to my first pass in the Kyrgyz Mountains towards the village of Sary Tash. The scenery was spectacular; green valleys, emerald green rivers and snow caped mountains. This road was closed a few weeks before my passage because of a large quantity of snowfall. The mountains still showed a very heavy coat and the air became colder as the sun went down. By the time the rays disappeared behind the 5000 meters peaks, the air was freezing my well-covered hands and legs on my way down. With another 20kms before reaching Sary Tash, I decided to stop and ask to pitch my tent beside a family house along the road. The family invited me inside their mud-brick house for a great meal of lagman, a mountain of sheep parts, bread, tea and kumis (fermented mare’s milk). After a flicking through my photo album, I retreated to my tent and quickly fell asleep to the sound of the farts coming from the sheep’s pen 10 meters away. In the morning, I was woken up by the yell of donkeys and realized the night was pretty cold as my tent and bags were covered by frost.
Colors of Kyrgyzstan
My first pass in Kyrgyzstan, towards Sary Tash
The road leading to the a pass towards Osh
I quickly managed the breathtaking road leading to Sary Tash where I took 2 hours to discuss with a Russian photographer and sip coffee while admiring the scenery. On the last pass leading to Gulcho I met Gabor, a Hungarian coming from the Pamirs along with a Polish couple. From there, I teamed up with Gabor for the stretch to Osh and eventually to the capital, Bishkek. We spent a few days in Osh to relax. After the long distances in China along the northern branch of the Silk Road and hurrying up trying not to overstay my visa, it was good to take a few days doing nothing much.
Mural in Osh
Campsite with Gabor
The weather changes quickly at 3500 meters – Too-Ashuu pass
We opted to take to main road connecting Osh and Bishkek, the M41. We started to enjoy the road around Karakol when the traffic started to thin out and the mountains started to appear. We were also invited for dinner in a Mosque by a very friendly Kyrgyz man working at the Mosque. While eating the delicious shashlik, bread and the customary kumis, he offered us to spend the night on the outdoor tea place which we both really accepted without much thinking. The following morning started with the climb to the first pass. With roughly 6 kms to go, I was hit by strong chilly winds, hail and rain. Gabor was about 5 kms behind me luckily avoiding the bad weather. I had the intention of waiting for him at the top but it was pouring down and pretty cold so I went down the valley so I could enjoy the last sunrays of the day to dry my clothes. While waiting for Gabor, I was invited by a Kyrgyz man for dinner in a nearby yurt; a mountain of sheep on a large plate, bread, tea and the traditional snicker bar for dessert. Shortly after I came out of the yurt with my belly ready to explode, Gabor rolled by in shorts and sandals stiff as a stick as he slowed down and stop. I smiled and asked “How was the descent mate?”. “Fucking cold”, he replied. After exchanging our climb and descent experiences, we found a camp for the night large enough so Gabor could mount his family size tent.
Me and Gabor rolling
Conquering Too-Ashuu pass towards Bishkek was a relief
Sunset in Kyrgyzstan
The following day was awesome riding in the valley for about 45kms before the climb to the second pass which we assumed will take about 1 and a half hour. Our maps were showing the second pass standing at 2568 meters high. It was a mistake of about 1000 meters as the pass is apparently at more than 3500 meters. The road linking both passes was the highlight of my ride in Kyrgyzstan so far. The scenery was fantastic; many yurts set on velvet green grass leading to mountain tops covered in snow on each side of the road, horses freely roaming crossing crystal clear streams and rivers. We both wished this road never end but eventually we started our 4 hours slog of the second pass. It was mentally hard as we both expected a 400 meters climb but turned out to be three times more than was our maps showed. On the other side, the descent was breathtaking despite the low light conditions. We rolled in Kara-Balta in complete darkness and collapse on our bed in the guesthouse showed on Gabor’s GPS. The ride to Bishkek the next day was horrible; lots of traffic and road filled with potholes impoverished of any shoulder.
The descent after Too-Ashuu pass towards Bishkek
The valley between Ala Bela pass and Too-Ashuu pass
Once in town, we went straight to Nathan and Angelica’s house where we could pitch our tent in their backward. The place was filled with fellow cyclists; great atmosphere and awesome place to relax for a few days. Since many had to wait about 2 weeks for visas, a group of 7 decided to trek in the mountains for a couple of days led by Nathan who knows the region pretty well. We rode to the base of the mountain before leaving our bikes at one of the chalet there and trek to basecamp. The day after reaching basecamp, we took off in an attempt to climb Uchitel summit, 4500 meters high. The view from the summit was sensational; 360 degree view of the national park, snow-capped mountains in every directions. The way down was good fun but hard on everyone’s legs (except Nathan who is a machine). Next weekend getaway will most likely be at the hot springs without much hiking involved but fun guaranteed nonetheless.
The mighty Tian Shan mountains, northern branch of the silk road. This direction is where China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan meet.
After nearly a month in China, I had to extend my visa for another month. One of the best place to do so was Leshan where I absolutely needed to reach before my current visa ran out. Struggling to find recent reliable information about this process, I was eager to get this done and enjoy the riding. The process was relatively easy and straight forward as I described on this page. I enjoyed a few days off in Leshan but refused to pay the relatively high entrance fee to the giant Buddha site. I was told it was very nice, but I’ve had my share of Buddha statues and decided to spend time reading, relaxing, do computer work and plan the route ahead.
In the mountains in Sichuan
The following days towards Chengdu were easy riding on beautifully paved roads and no hills to climb. I spent 2 complete days in Chengdu. I met with hundreds of Chinese cyclists going towards Lhasa, a pilgrim of high importance for Chinese cyclists, young and old. The courtyard was full of bicycles every night. Great atmosphere with the place packed with travellers alike. The Wuhou Tibetan temple is a large complex where strolling can easily take half a day. The food stalls on the narrow street beside to temple is an amazing place to have a feed and taste local spicy cuisine. The next day I visited Wenshu temple, the best preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu. Relaxed atmosphere, large gardens and beautiful buildings dating from the 7th century provided the perfect environment to relax. The afternoon was spent in Bronze Goat temple, a Taoist temple dating from the 7th century and one of the most famous Taoist temples in China. The wall paintings and carvings inside the temples were impressive.
Resting in the Qingling ranges
Chinese Baozi… HHHmmmmmm!!
Since I had time up my sleeve, I’ve decided to ride towards one of oldest cities in China: Xi’an. With more than 3100 years of history, it was hard to let this one go. The ride there took me to the fabulous Qingling mountain ranges, a chain of mountains defining south and north China. The 4 days I’ve spent in this range were phenomenal riding despite some rain and foggy conditions. The last 2 days of clear blue sky and shear mountain peaks covered in a velvet green canopy was a sight to remember. It’s also in that mountain range I encountered my first serious issues with my bike. A spoke on the back wheel snapped and since I didn’t have a cassette removal kit I had to ride on a missing spoke for more than 250kms. The last 100kms, the back tire started to show a bump; the inner face was split open and I needed to replace that tire ASAP. Luckily, as soon as I rolled in the outskirts if Xi’an I could find a small bike shop where the very friendly staff (bike shop staff are always super friendly and generous!!) who did the whole job for free, including truing my wheels. I spent a week in Xi’an where I could explore the impressive army of Terracotta Warriors, the magnificent bell tower, the large mosque and stroll the Muslim quarter, meet a few backpackers and have my first alcohol fuelled night out at a Karaoke. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave Xi’an but I had to keep going. Xi’an also marked the eastern most point of the silk road which meant my journey on this legendary road was about to start.
Basket shop in Qinan
The first few days west-bound were pretty easy riding on mostly flat terrain and tailwinds. I could do 100+ kms days without pushing hard. Reaching a lovely small town called Qinan, I ventured in the local supermarket where I was mobbed by the workers and customers! For 10-15 minutes, I explained what I was doing here, where I was coming from and where I was going to before an intense photo session started; everyone wanted their photo taken with me! I got this many times in China, but this was exceptional. The supermarket completely stopped its operations during my presence.
Nice road towards Xining
Terracotta Warriors in Xian
Being the second most polluted city in China, Lanzhou was covered in fog and pollution. The ride there wasn’t really enjoyable too with the thick air, lifeless and arid mountain surroundings. The only thing that worried me since leaving Xi’an was getting to Lanzhou in order to apply for a second visa extension which was apparently impossible to have. I managed to talk to friendly officers who accepted to give me a new 30 day visa! See here for more details. Whilst waiting to pick up my visa, I took the opportunity to do some repairs on my bike; new rear gear cable wire, 2 new tubes, new spare spokes, 2 pairs of brake pads and changed my cassette and chain. All pretty good quality gear, for a total of about $100. So with 30 more days in China and a “new” bike, I was ready to do part of the silk road towards western China and the last city before entering Central Asia; Kashgar.
Family who invited me for a glorious dinner
Buddhist sutra (scriptures) in Ta’er monastery, Xining
From Lanzhou, it took 2 days to reach Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. The region used to be part of Tibet hence the presence of many Tibetan villages in the area. I enjoyed a day visiting one the yellow hat sect (Dalai Lama sect) monastery, the superb Ta’Er monastery. I had the chance to witness elderly women (in their 50s) pilgrims coming from Lhasa by foot, prostrating in front of every Buddha statues in the temple; respect. The next day I encountered my first Caucasian cyclist since Luang Prapang in Laos, almost 3 months ago. Jacques has been on the road for about 4 years, cycling and sailing around the planet. We stayed together for the next 10 days or so and had a great time together.
Prayer wheels in Ta’er monastery, Xining
Reaching Ta’er monastery; Tibetan pilgrims coming from Lhasa, Tibet.
Muslim food in Xining is fabulous!
The following week, we crossed 2 spectacular mountain ranges before reaching the most important route in northern China history, the Hexi corridor. Part of the northern branch of the Silk Road, the corridor is defined by the Tibetan plateau in the south and the Gobi desert as well as the Mongolian steppe in the north. We stopped at Jiayuguan to visit the western most point of the Great Wall of China and the highly renovated Jiayuguan fort before heading towards Dunhuang and the magnificent Magao Grottoes. The ride there was very arid as the Taklamakan desert started to come to live. We rode to the grottoes and spent the night at the top of a sandy – rocky hilltop hidden from view. We visited the grottoes the next day; we were both very impressed by the superb details of the paintings and carvings in the caves.
Mountains of Qinghai
Camping before crossing to the Hexi corridor. Jacko is impressed by my tent…
Since Jacko’s visa was running out and I needed to gain some distance to reach Kashgar before my last visa expires, we both decided to jump on an overnight bus to Turpan. We had to pay for our bike to be put on the bus and I kinda lost my temper a little… We could deal 150 yuan ($25) for both our bikes. We got good berth so we could sleep a bit. And since the bus drivers in China are not allowed to travel between 2 and 5AM, we could enjoy a bit of quiet sleep.
Valley before crossing the last range to the Hexi corridor
Reaching the last pass before the long descent in the Hexi corridor. Prayer flags everywhere.
Arriving in Turpan we both got to the train station to purchase our next bus ticket; me to Kuqa, Jacko to Kashgar. There, we were told to pay the fee of our bus ticket for our bikes. We both we stunt by those high prices. Jacko had to pay 320 yuan for his ticket plus another 320 yuan for his bike! After a day in Turpan, we were back in the bus towards Kashgar; so we thought. In the middle of the night, I was told to swap bus to Kuqa. I said goodbye to Jack and promised to meet each other in Kyrgyzstan. Entering my new bus, there was no seat available. The bus stopped about 20 minutes later and a seat freed up so I could finally lie down. I reached Kuqa at 5h30AM and after 2 consecutive nights in buses and a sweaty day in Turpan, I badly needed a shower. Since every hotel charged me 100 yuan, I decided to fill up my water bladders and find a quiet place to wash up. I was really tired that day, but ended up doing 200kms with terrific tailwinds. I later learned that Jacko ended up in Hotan, on the southern branch of the Silk Road! He ended up in Kashgar after almost 48 hours on buses!
Mountains before Ebao and the last climb before the Hexi corridor
Mountains before Ebao and the last climb before the Hexi corridor
Ebao in the distance, storm was brewing…
I rode in Kashgar in 5 days due to long days (the sun set at 10h30PM), generally good winds (except for 1 day) and flat terrain. I enjoyed wild camping similar to Australia for the first time since I am in Asia except for a night where I was invited to spent the night in a toll gate building where the officers are staying. These Uyghur officers fed me very well and took good care of me. After showing them my photo album in the morning, I took off with a magnificent view of the Tian Shan mountain range.
In the Hexi corridor, towards Jiayuguan. Arid scenery starts to appear, note the snow capped mountains on the right.
Some Chinese structure, possibly a tomb. Hexi corridor.
Hexi corridor, towards Jiayuguan.
I arrived in Kasghar pretty tired after knocking off more than 700kms in 5 days so it was great to take some days off and work on how I’m going to cross the border in to Kyrgyzstan. Whilst in Kashgar, I was fortunate enough to join other travellers for a day drive on the breathtaking Karakorum highway to Karakol lake. I rode to Uluqqat where the Chinese immigration office is, 140kms away from the Kyrgyz border. I spent 3 hours mostly waiting in the immigration office before getting on a taxi to the border, another hour and a half away. We arrived there around 13h (Kyrgyz time, so 15h China time) where the guards were having their lunch break until 14h. The border finally re-opened at 14h30 creating a commotion as lots of people wanted to get a ride into Kyrgyzstan. I was told to ride to the Kyrgyz immigration where it took 2 minutes to get the visa by a very welcoming officer saying “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!”.
Me and Jacques taking a breather
Taklamakan desert on the road to the Magao Grottoes around Dunhuang
So much has happened since I entered China 2 months ago. I still remember how much more shops, people and cars there was 5kms passed the Laos border. It was quite a contrast with the quiet streets of Laos. The road became an elevated highway with 2 lanes on each side. The mountains of Yunnan province finally showed their towering green peaks. I was still with Chen, happy as a fish in water being back in his home soil. As for me, I was glad to team up with him for the first few days in China as he thought me a few words, food and a few ethical aspects of the Chinese world. On the very first day in China, we rolled passed an outdoor party and got invited to join the festivities. We were told to sit down on seats at a circular table about 30 centimeters high. Large portions of various communal dishes lay on the middle of the table and small individual bowls of rice were served in no time, along with cups of rice wine filled to the brim. Chen confirmed it was brewed by the man sitting on my left; alcohol concentration was around 50%. We discussed, ate and drank for about 30 minutes with our new friends. After a while, we gathered ourselves and jumped back on the bike, the alcohol slowing taking control. Thankfully, we didn’t have too long to go.
Joining the festivities along the road
Chen trying to fix his tire
Advertising painted on walls are everywhere in China
Unfortunately, once in Mengla, Chen blew his back tire and couldn’t fix it. I’ve never seen a tire so worn out in my life; every 2 inches there was a rip in the tire where the tube was visible! I was amazed it didn’t blow up earlier. Despite our attempt to fix it, he simply couldn’t roll on it without getting a puncture. And since he was on 29ers, the only chance to find a replacement was in Jinghong where I’d meet with him for the last time.
River carving its way through the mountains
Camping was a challenge in Yunnan
For the following couple of weeks I was tackling the amazing mountains of Yunnan on my own. Yunnan province is well-known around the world for its tea. After leaving Jinghong, it wasn’t long before I started seeing terraces forming spectacular views on mountain faces. Along the road, tea shops were inevitable; some were offering free tasting!! I find it fascinating how they prepare the tea with all the cups on beautifully carved wood tables. At the edge of a town I once stopped for 2 hours in this beautiful tea shop, sipping different kind of tea and talking with the owner and its staff. Friends stopped over, asking questions about my journey. Since they didn’t speak much English I went to get my dictionary and phrasebook to communicate which went surprisingly well. After going through my photo album and many cups of tea, they decided to find a guesthouse for me. All I had to do is follow their car. Problem is that they thought I was super-human. I can sustain 30km/h for a while, but going up on small hills I’m reduced to a crawl. I lost them pretty quickly so I found a binguan on my own without too much problem.
Yunnan tea plantations
Amazing views down below
Along with the fantastic and unforgettable landscape that wowed me on numerous occasions, the people in villages were extremely friendly. On one occasion I arrived in a village called Dadugan, people looking at me like I’m from a distant planet. After spending 20 minutes with the police officers and the lady working at the binguan – guesthouse – to register my details in the computer system, I decided to hit the local market just up the road. Upon 15 seconds of wandering in the market, I was invited to a table and thrown food. Again, rice wine was served and my cup never ran dry. All man smoked, filling the air with smoke. Low ceiling didn’t help with the air circulation. One of the men spoke a little English so we could have sustained conversations. After an hour of eating, drinking, talking and smoking, their kids came back from school. They were quite a good fun to be around; answering their questions, teaching them English, doing some funny faces while taking photos. I even nearly forgot to drink the expensive tea that was served; 3000 Yuan (about $500 AUD) for a kilo. One of the men at the table was cultivating tea and knew what he was talking about. I went back to my room a drunk without knowing what time it was.
On a plateau of the Yunnan mountains
Fixing a puncture
I had really good days in the mountains of Yunnan, but also frustrating and challenging ones. I lost my South China map, notes and the waterproof map cover they were in. I spent 1 hour trying to find it, but no success. There was a fair bit road works sometimes making conditions awful. Something inevitable in China is the constant infrastructure building or maintenance but sometimes the roads high in the mountains are simply a nightmare for cyclists. One of these roads awaited me before Leshan where I needed to be on time to extend my visa. From Kunming, which I really liked and from where I met up with the first Caucasians since leaving Luang Prapang, I had to cover 770kms in 7 days. I intended to camp on pretty much every day since I was going to be in the mountains. What I didn’t know was that the road I took turned from good to intense road works then to long dirt sections affected by landslides to finally become cobblestones making Paris-Roubaix look like a Sunday morning ride. Going to bed that first night after leaving Kunming, I only hoped things will improve the next day.
Cobblestones… hellish road
The Yangtze river, an amazing river sneaking its way through the mountains
I woke up in a good mood, but after 1 hour of bone-shaking road I started climbing gradients of 15-18% on this hellish road. I had to get off my bike several times of push. At lunchtime I had averaged 9km/h and barely covered 40kms. Later in the afternoon, I came to an intersection where a couple of guys were sitting on their motorbikes. I inquired about the road ahead and they all confirmed my worst fear; the cobblestone road keeps going for at least 200kms. My bike computer indicated an elevation of around 2500 meters and I had to bend my head backwards to look at mountain peaks I was heading to. By 18h30 I passed by a school where I hoped to pitch my tent. After a short photo-session with the kids, the teachers didn’t allow me to spend the night on the yard. Instead, they told me to get to the next town where I could get a guesthouse; only 8kms they told me. That’s about 1 hour on this shitty road and it was getting dark. Luckily, I made it to the village with just enough daylight and found a guesthouse with a teenager at the reception with basic English skills. She confirmed the road I was on didn’t improve for another 200kms. So the next day, I decided to jump on a bus to the next city of Zhatong. From there, I’d go back on the bike towards Leshan which I could reach in time.
Managing the troops
Landslides were regular
After spending the night in Zhatong, I was back on good roads towards Leshan; or so I thought. The road I took went up the mountains and started to deteriorate once again. This time, it was hard dirt rather than cobblestones which made for a more enjoyable ride. One of the mountain pass on that road was literally in the clouds. Since the road was dirt and filled with rocks, the mist – which turned to rain at times – transformed some sections in mud and made the rocks very slippery. Sometimes my vision range was limited to not more than 20 meters. I passed goat headers and many rural villages surrounded by lush green hills. After 3 hours of climbing, I was finally starting to go down. It was getting dark when I started the descent. I was cold, sweaty, tired and hungry on a muddy narrow track filled with rocks. I was limited to maximum 15km/h even on the descent. Coming out of the clouds, I could make up a few white spots way down the valley forming the village where I spent the night. The road was winding along the mountain face. It took more than 1 hour to get down that mountain, using my brake pads to a point where they only slowed me down. I stopped every 10-15 minutes trying to warm up. I was glad to find a guesthouse upon arrival and be registered by a cute female police officer. I asked her if the registration came with a leg massage. Unfortunately, the answer was no. After a warm shower I went out for a much needed feed. A bunch of kids were waiting for me at the front the guesthouse! They followed me everywhere I went, asking questions. They even walked in the little restaurant where I decided to have food, surrounding me at the tiny table where I sat. There must have been about a dozen of them at some stage. They were good fun, but I was spent after the long hard climb and tough and challenging descent. The next day I reached Kunming where I stay for a few days to recover and do some sightseeing before heading towards Leshan to extend my visa. The way was as great as the first couple of weeks in China.
Narrow road going up the mountains
Coming out of the clouds
Mountains top sometime looks like giant shark teeth
After spending a few days in beautiful and laid back Vientiane, I took off towards the northern mountains of Laos towards Vang Vieng. Pretty flat, some undulating terrain and friendly locals made the ride much more interesting than the monotonous surroundings of the stretch from Savannakhet. On the horizon I started to see mountains, a sight I longed waited to lay my eyes on. I’m not talking about limestone rocks in Thailand or the Blue Mountains in Australia, but proper mountain peaks reaching several thousand meters.
Mountains and Nam Xong river in Vang Vieng
Farming field in Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng’s surroundings are impressive; limestone rocks, mountains and the Nam Xong River sneaking its way along town. The city is, in my personal opinion, ruined by the backpackers on a party binge. In the past, many have lost their life going tubing on the river, consuming alcohol and drugs along the way. Drowning of Australians has made the news on several occasions in the past couple of years. Bars, restaurants – some offering “happy meals” by putting mushrooms in the meal – and street drinking is everywhere in the main area. Vang Vieng is not a place where someone goes to have quiet time. Still, the place is worth a few days exploring the surrounding; numerous caves systems, treks and visits to nearby villages can make for interesting experience.
Admiring the view
Drying tobacco in a village near Luang Prapang
Then it was towards Luang Prapang, a World Heritage Unesco protected city. The riding was awesome; incredible roads climbing along the edge of the mountains, relatively quiet roads, amazing views and hospitality from the villages – mostly Hmong minority group – makes the journey memorable. Stopping in villages for a break is something I loved doing, sometimes giving candies to the local kids. On one occasion, they (about 10 of them) literally ripped the bag full of coconut sweets off my hands and took off running with it. Within a second, I was left alone. I simply smiled and jumped back on my bike and kept going.
Trash lady roaming the streets of Luang Prapang
Young monks at bank of the Mekong, Luang Prapang
I stayed in Luang Prapang for 3 days. I caught with friends I met earlier on my journey, explored nearby villages and went sightseeing. Luang Prapang is a beautiful city and it’s easy to fall in love with it. The Mekong being at its feet, thousands years old charming and authentic buildings and the many temples in the city makes it a popular stop with many travellers. Having been there 7 years ago, I was surprised at the incredible number of guesthouses. The city was a lot busier than what I remembered, but still kept its laid back atmosphere and friendly locals. Walking on a track along the Mekong, I was invited to drink beer with 4 local men sitting on tiny logs admiring the view over the Mekong. From their vintage point, it was the perfect spot to truly admire and take in the scenery. It was 10AM when they started to skull glasses of beer. It didn’t take long before I started feeling the effects and by midday I was happily smiling, head spinning and without a care.
The blokes I had a few beers with in Luang Prapang
Bamboo bridge, Luang Prapang
Walking at the market one morning, I saw this guy on a push bike. Chen is from China and was cycling around South-East Asia on his way back to China. As I was going in the same direction, we exchanged emails in case we met along the way; he wasn’t sure how long he would stay in Luang. After about 15kms riding out of Luang Prapang, I saw him in front of me resting and drinking water. Great I thought, I have a partner to ride! We stayed together for a week or so.
Me and Chen the moment we met on the road
We tackled the most difficult section of the mountains together; from Pakmong village to Oudomxai. We started the day with a 30 minutes wait due to road work; time wasting for cyclists about to tackle some climbing. Once on the go, the road quickly disintegrated to become part bitumen, part rocks and part dust, sometimes with long stretches of rocky terrain. Throw in there huge pot holes, heavy trucks, quite a number of pickup trucks and temperature in the mid 30’s. Gradients of 8-10% became extremely challenging in the tough terrain. We were limited to basically 12km/h on the descent so we could make up too much time. It was full darkness when we reached Oudomxai. We found a cheap guesthouse, ate 2 excellent and cheap ($0.70 for a soup) noodle soups each and collapse in bed, spent.
The next day was again in the mountains, but this time the road was is impeccable condition. It was so much easier and we had a lot of fun on the descents. The view was sometimes limited to a few 100 meters mostly due to smoke; local villagers are burning their paddies, dead leafs and debris as well as the occasional trash. We came across a huge fire on a mountain face obstructing the mountain views, making the air think with smoke. We could sometimes look down to see the road sneaking it way along the mountain ledge. The feeling of making a pass after a 20kms climb and looking down on the road ahead is sometimes hard to describe but surely is satisfying.
Getting dark on the way to Oudomxai
We reached the township / large village of Nateuy by about 16h, more than enough time to find a campsite. Earlier during the day, we decided to wild camp along the river if we could find a good spot, my first wild camp since Thailand. Later, Chen told me it was his first wild camp ever. He was a bit nervous, I could tell by his behaviour. I reassured him there was nothing to fear; there were no crocodiles in the rivers of Laos. After finding a good spot, we cycled back in the village and picked up some food; 2 packets of 2 minutes noodles, 5 uncooked eggs, plain sticky rice (about a kilo), canned fish and soft drinks. We gathered fire wood, cooked the delicious food (yes my friends, 2 minute noodles are a delight after 90kms of cycling in the mountains of northern Laos) and dipped in the chilly waters of the river for a brief wash.
Sunset over the mountains of northern Laos
It was great to be back in the wild after such a long time sleeping in cheap guesthouses. I realised how much I miss being out there, cooking at the end of the day, enjoying the moment and reflecting on the events of the day. I promised myself to camp more in the mountains of Yunnan in China. As it turned out, it proved difficult to find good wild camps in Yunnan; the steep mountain cliffs made it a challenge to find flat ground and where the flat ground was, so did the Chinese.
Surprisingly, riding out of Bangkok was easy and fast. I was surprised how easy it was to cycle in and out of this super busy metropolis. I rode to Ayutthaya in no time where I spent a day exploring the quiet, slow pace streets and its temples. Being the ancient capital of the Kingdom, there are quite a few temples in and around town worth visiting. My time in Thailand running out, I couldn’t spend more than a day there and had to make a dash to the border towards Savannakhet in Laos.
Country side Laos
I intended to cross over Laos rolling on the Friendship Bridge II but things didn’t go that way. Arriving at the immigration stall, I noticed that there was no motorbikes around; only cars, SUVs, buses and trucks. I handed my passport to the official who ask me how I was travelling. He’s reply to my answer was “Impossible to cross the bridge by bicycle; too dangerous.” I thought of making a run for it and try my luck anyway, but he simply refused to stamp my passport. I directed me to his supervisor into a different building. The chief officer there explained, in very good English, motorbikes and bicycles weren’t allowed on the bridge for safety reasons; the bridge is too narrow. After trying to convince him in friendly matter, I agreed to try and find someone with a pickup truck welling to pick me and my gear and cross the bridge. He stamped my passport, thanked him and went on hunt. After an hour, a friendly Laos dam engineer agreed to pick me up. For a minute spent crossing the wide 2 lanes bridge, we were alone. I didn’t see any danger for a cyclist or a motorbike crossing that bridge.
Building in Savannakhet
Towards Vientiane, break stop close to a viallge
Once on the other side, the Cambodian visa process was a breeze. I rolled into Savannakhet on nearly deserted roads until I got to the town center where traffic picked up. The slow pace and quieter roads of Laos were a contrast with busy and fast pace roads of Thailand. After spending a few days with fellow cyclists in Savannaketh, I was excited to take on these quiet roads and get in touch with the friendly Laos people in villages.
Towards Vientiane, rolling into yet another village
Billboard In Thakhek
Despite the scenery of repetitive similar forest and fields, I enjoyed the ride up to Vientiane mostly because of good quality food and friendly people in the many villages dotting the way. One late afternoon, I rolled in a small town looking for a guesthouse for the night. As I rolled towards the entrance of one, I could hear music pumping from a large speaker, laughs and the sounds of empty beer bottles clinging onto each other. As soon as I rolled in the front fence, the group sitting at the table gestured me to join in. A feast was going on with fish cooked on the traditional charcoal BBQ, fresh green papaya salad, a large bucket of sticky rice, large portion of sticky noodles and 2 cartons of large Beer Lao was waiting to be consumed. As I sat down food was thrown in front of me, a glass of beer was poured and the discussions started. Despite the language barrier, there was understanding of my story and laughs were frequent. For about 30 minutes, I had a mouth full of food or skulling down another glass of beer. My glass was refilled immediately after either taking a sip or finishing it. After about 2 hours of non-stop alcohol consumption, my head was spinning. I went to my bungalow earlier than before and drunker than I’ve ever been for a long time. I woke up in the middle of the night realizing that I didn’t take a shower, smelling of a mix of alcohol and sweat. The next day, my head was surprisingly in good shape. No hangover and energised. So I jumped back on the bike, slowly making my way towards Vientiane, the Capital.
I was excited to cross into Cambodia. I longed wanted to visit this country so many people raved about. Crossing into Poipet gave the wrong impression about the rest of this fabulous country. Like many border towns, Poipet is dusty and not an enjoyable place to linger but after riding about 50kms to get to the border and spending a little bit of time for visa formalities, I decided to spend the night there. Many overloaded trucks, motorbikes and minivans were going over the border to sell their goods. Over the next month, I’ll sometimes be smiling at the sight of those overloaded buses and trucks sometimes carrying way too many people, livestock or goods.
A man and his ducks
The next day I met Mark and Mio, a couple riding on a tandem bike. We rode together into Siem Reap. We rode on the highway all the way which was ok, but some of the construction works along the way were doggy. Arriving in Siem Reap 2 days short of Chinese New Year, we had to search a little bit for a room. We finally settled in a large room which we decided to share. It was great to have some company after so long on my own.
The following morning as I was doing some computer work in the lobby I met with Christine, a Chinese radio DJ on holiday. She decided to tag along with us to visit the incredible complex of Angkor wat. The tuk-tuk drove us all day around the historical site. I sometimes marvelled it as impressive as the Taj Mahal.
A farmer and his buffaloes
After resting for 3 days in Siem Reap, it was time to get moving again. I decided not to stick to the highway and head to the northern country side. There I found quiet roads, lots of small communities and villages, great people (kids running after me, welling “hello!” as many times as they could), unconventional food (deep fried spiders, snakes and rats, boiled eggs with embryo) and beautiful landscapes. I also had the chance to spend the night in a village where I was offered a bed for the night.
Carved Buddha faces in Angkor Thom
Cute and funny kids
I met Matt and David in Preah Vihear while searching for a room. They were going to ride to Preah Vihear temple the next day so decided to tag along. The ride was quiet and the road was as good as it gets. Arriving at the small village of Sram Emm, we negotiated moto-taxis to take us to the base of the mountain where the Banteay Srei temple was built in the 11th century. From there, it was on another motorbike to the top of the hill which was incredibly steep towards the top. Sitting on the top of a steep hill overlooking towards Thailand, the land surrounding it has been subject of continual dispute between the two kingdoms until very recently, hence the high military presence in the area. Most of the soldiers were chilling out at food stalls watching the volleyball match in the center of it all.
Preah Vihear temple
The next phase of my journey was to join the Mekong and ride along it for as long as I could. The country side road to Stueng Traeng was very quiet and in nice condition. I encountered fewer villages on that stretch but when I met locals they were super friendly. From Stueng Treang I opted for the highway after being told the road was good. It proved wrong as that stretch to Kratie was the worst I encountered in Cambodia. It was a hell road; construction work, patches of big rocks, long stretches of badly maintained roads reminding me the Gibb. From Kratie though, I flirted with the Mekong all the way to Phnom Penh. The next 3 days were the highlight of my journey in Cambodia; continuous villages, friendly locals and good seafood.
Along the Mekong
An entrance to a temple
I rolled in Phnom Penh with 4 frenchies I met along the road, all in their 60s. Ken, the organizer, planned a journey along the Mekong which they followed no matter what. They spend a few days on a boat from Stueng Traeng which I probably should have done. They were great fun to be with. The first night in Phnom I got sick. Fever got me up for most the night, diarrhea forcing me to numerous trips to the toilet. I rested most of the next day, running some errands around the place where I was. When my condition got better, I ventured out to visit the museum and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. Many have died in this prison during Polpot’s regime. I went out that night, played pool and had good fun. The next morning wasn’t so fun though, headache caused by the alcohol the night before saw me resting for another day before starting my journey back towards Thailand.
Country side road
The next 2 days back on the bike I had no energy. After doing 50kms I was out of gas. On the third day I got my strength back. For most of the way to Battambang, I rode on the highway. The original plan was to ride the Cardamon mountain but after my first day there was no way I was going to venture there given my physical condition. I spent a day in lovely Battambang visiting some Wats around and relaxing before going towards Pailin and the Thai border.
Crossing the border into Thailand was a breeze despite 3 bombings several days prior to my passage. It was calm in Pedang Besar; no cars queuing or motorbikes waiting to get their visa stamped. As a cyclist, I was ordered by the machine gun armed guard to go through the pedestrian way. I pulled out my Australian passport and the custom official lady smiled at me arriving on my push bike then stamped my passport in an instant. Smiling back and thanking her, I turned around and looked at the stamped. To my surprise, it allowed me only 15 days in the country whilst I was told by an agent back in Penang that I would get 30 days. I turned around and demanded explanations. According to the official crossing the border by land, 30 days allowance was only available for countries of the G7 group – 7 countries which Canada is part of. Since my Canadian passport expires at the end of January 2014, I couldn’t use it. I cursed myself (again!) for not having done that in Sydney before departure. I needed to work a plan to get more days in Thailand since I’ll never cycle to Cambodia in 15 days from the Malaysian border.
Country side road
Wat along the road on the way to Krabi
Being in Thailand was a good change. Malaysia has been a great discovery, but I simply love the Thai people energy and attitude. This makes the driving a bit crazier and I’ve noticed that no more than 15 minutes after crossing the border. To get to Hat Yai, I’ve elected to ride on rural roads before getting on the highway about 30kms south of one of the biggest cities in Thailand. The cars and pickup trucks were passing me at a relatively high speed for the width and curvy country side road, sometimes taking over from my opposite direction. The highway was even worst, but I could share the shoulder with motorcycles. The shoulder, luckily enough, was wide enough to let bicycle-touring nuts and motorcyclists coexist. Since drivers are used to motorcyclists here, they are giving a lot of space to them as well as cyclists, things that Aussie drivers are not willing to do so easily.
Road out of Khao Sok National Park
Thanbok Khoranee National Park waterfalls
Earlier in Malaysia I came across 2 Englishmen going in the opposite direction and told me there was some fantastic road in Thailand. They couldn’t have been more correct. One of the best so far was the Krabi region. I was surrounded by huge limestone cliffs for 2 days. Once in a while, a man on a motorcycle accompanied by his worker monkey passed me. There are numerous rubber tree plantations as well as the occasional palm oil plantation along the road. Since this region is popular with tourists mostly for its beaches (Ao Nang and Railay the most popular), rural roads were a tad busier than what I’ve seen so far. But the section that took my breath away was crossing the mountain range hosting the popular Khao Sok National Park. There was some climbing in that section but what a spectacular view it was. Once again, massive limestone cliffs into rainforest were dominating the landscape. I was heading for Khlong Phanom National Park but when a guide I met on my way told me it was another 25kms passed Khao Sok (I didn’t see a road sign for that park since I entered the range), I decided to pull out at Khao Sok. It was an easy decision after an 85kms ride of which the last 5kms were uphill. Arriving at Khao Sok, I picked a bungalow by the river (300baht – about $10AUS) and decided to relax the next day. Photography, relaxing in a hammock reading a book and sleeping was the activities done that day. And Skype with my mum!
Riding around Krabi
Khao Sok National Park
When finally the mountains range were behind me the next day, I rolled in quiet Surat Thani with only one thought; running to the Malaysian border and come back without any major dramas. I had already been in Thailand for 14 days; I had to get out and back in to get another 15 days allowance. I heard storied of officials trying to extract money out in these situations by questioning the traveller, asking them money in the process. I was even told that some are not allowed back in the same day. Since I was doing that visa run on the same day Bangkok was in closedown because of the upcoming elections in February, it made me a bit more worried. If things heats up during the demonstrations in Bangkok, would they close the borders? Were there any stupid terrorists wanting to blow things up at the borders again?
Buddha statues at Wat Phra Borommathat, Chaiya
Buddha statues inside Wat Phra Borommathat, Chaiya
So I left my gear at a hotel in Surat Thani and boarded a minivan bound for Hat Yai where I’ll take another minivan heading for the border. The van for Hat Yai was supposed to leave at 8h30AM; the engine didn’t start until 9 and it was almost 9h30 when we left the bus terminal. Four hours later and several pickup stops along the way, I was back in Hat Yai. Surprisingly enough, the van departing for Dannok, the Thai border town where Malaysia is accessible, was just around the corner from where I got out. And it departed 5 minutes after my arrival. Steeping down in Dannok, I walked through the Thai immigration and got stamped out of Thailand without any fuzz, just as expected. Now in no man’s land, I walked the bridge leading into Malaysia where I received a 90 days allowance in the country. Once passed the immigration post, I literally crossed the road and got out of Malaysia, effectively staying about 2 minutes in the country. Back on the bridge again, this time towards Thailand, I stopped at the duty free shop and purchased a bottle of Australian red wine (Wyndham Merlot 2011 for $9 – How much is it in Australia?) and a pair of underwear (those I have starts to worn out) and went back to the Thai immigration. That’s where things can get complicated. I chose the cutest immigration female agent and handed my passport with a smile and jovial attitude. “How long you stay in Thailand?” she asked me without saying hello or even look at me. I told her that I planned to stay 2 weeks and exit from Cambodia. She started flicking me passport’s pages. Since I left all my gear at the hotel in Surat, she urged “Only 1 bag?”. While explaining that I left my cycling stuff in Surat, I saw on her computer screen the image of me when I crossed the border 15 days earlier with my cycling hat and dirty clothes. I pointed at the image and showed her my bicycle in the background. Surprised, she smiled and asked “You cycling to Cambodia?” . Confidently, I said that I planned to do so and asked her to join me. She smiled, stamped my passport and handed it back while saying “Nooooooooo! Too hard! Impossible for me!”. Happily saying thank you, I picked up my stuff, walk back in Thailand and found the minivan back to Hat Yai. Visa run done. Now, let’s get up the coast towards Bangkok before doing another visa run, this time in Cambodia where I’ll probably stay for 3 weeks.
It eventually happened just outside of Taiping, my last stop before reaching the ferry terminal for Penang the next day. I took the plunge on the bitumen on a busy road. Luckily I wasn’t going full speed, only about 15km/h so the only damage that came out of this crash was mental. And a little scratch on my right knee.
Bleeding knee after my crash
The road was fun to ride despite the very limited to non-existent shoulder; snaky, undulating, small villages dotting the road. Loads of traffic though. Road 60 on the west coast of the Malaysian Peninsula is popular with locals and loris (small size merchandise trucks) so a cyclist needs to focus all the time. For a fraction of a second, I looked my map and when I looked back up, my front tire was half on the bitumen while the other half wasn’t in contact with anything. There was a gap of about 5 inches with the grass on the side of the road. This section of the road has just been resurfaced and the heat (it reached 40 degrees that day) made the bitumen very soft. The next second, my front wheel left the bitumen and went straight down the grassy-muddy “shoulder”. I went right down my right side. Luckily, there weren’t any cars coming from behind. There was coming from the other side though and those 2 young man stop to help me put my bike and my stuff back in place. The back pannier on the right came off, my backpack taking its place. My right knee bleeding, I put back in place my gear in no time and took off again. After making it to Taiping I could have a better look at my gear to make sure everything was in order. I was glad to find out nothing was broken and the only souvenirs I’ll have from this crash is mental.
Fruit stall on the road to Taiping
Prior to this misadventure, I spent 2 days on the beautiful island of Kuala Pangkor. The island is about a 15 minutes ferry ride from Lumut and cost RM10, return. Plus RM3 for my bike on each way, that’s a grand total of RM16, or about $5 Ozzie dollars. The west side of the island is dominated by the fish industry. There are numerous pontoons covered by small fish or squids being dried up during the heat of the day. The western side is more expensive to stay; this is where the beaches are. Most travelers or holidayers are going to this side of the island to enjoy some sun and the occasional ocean dip. Upon arrival and looking at my map to decide where I’d stay, a Caucasian man approached me and started asking me about the trip I was doing. He finally showed me the budget hotel where we was staying and I decided to take a room there too. The view was over the ocean and a couple of fishery pontoons leading to a wooden shack. After a few beers with my new mate, I retreated to my room, exhausted.
Palau Pangkor taxi
Beach on Palau Pangkor
It rained most of the following day so I decided to update my photos, get a bit of journal/web article work and catch up with NHL highlights. Once the rain stopped around 2PM, I went for a wander around the area where I was and took a few photos. The island is still a very quiet place with lots of interesting fishing villages and friendly locals. The next day, I took my bike and went around the island. The whitish sand of the western beaches with the crystal blue water and beautiful surroundings of limestone rocks and lush jungle were a very nice place to hang out. Numerous food stalls were along the main road, a short 20-30 meters walk from the beach. The traverse back to the east side of the island was hilly; I recorded gradients of 22%. Lucky I didn’t carry any luggage! The next day, I went back on the main land and rode towards Taiping crashing on the way…
Western side of Palau Pangkor
Taiping was a lovely town to stay. The Chinese heavily occupied this section of Malaysia in the 19th century to take advantage of the tin industry. Like a lot of cities on the Malaysian western peninsula, reminiscence of the Chinese building still stands today. The mountains surrounding the city give an additional charm to the city. To settle tension between different Chinese groups, the British were called in to assume control which explains the colonial buildings around the city. The lake gardens the British established is also a lovely place to kill some time.
Road in Taiping
Street in Georgetown
After Taiping the next destination was Georgetown on the island of the state of Penang. Historically rich and one of the most popular stop in Malaysia, the island is well known amongst both tourists and locals. The island is predominantly Chinese dating back to the 15th century and the Ming dynasty before the Brits came along with the Indians. Penang was a popular trading center for many years. Today, this reflects in the mix of pagodas, mosques and Hindu temples but more importantly in the AMAZING food options available. I’ve tasted some of the best curries I’ve had in my life here. Penang is a food paradise and is extremely cheap. Line clear, a small alleyway where a restaurant have been operating since 1930, serves on of the best Nasi Kandar – steamed rice – plain or mildly flavoured – served with a variety of curries and side dishes. Walking on the streets in Chinatown, there are many tiny restaurants serving a wide range of traditional Chinese dishes. Throw little India in the mix. It’s absolutely phenomenal.
From Johor Bahru, I mainly stayed on highway 5 all the way to Klang passing through World Heritage town of Melaka (or Malacca) on the way. Melaka was one of the largest ports in the world back in the 15th century. It was occupied by the Dutch, English and Portugese giving this city a unique mix of culture and architecture. Chinatown was a great place to hang out.
Road to Klang
The road was busy during the afternoon and quiet in the mornings. There was often a wide enough shoulder for bikes and cycles which made my life easy for most of the way. Drivers were behaving very well too, leaving me enough space when passing or simply waiting for the car coming from the opposite direction to pass.
Church in Melaka
Chinatown building in Melaka
Scenery wasn’t particularly impressive; there were a lot of small towns along the way so the road was dotted with food stalls, residential and commercial buildings. The funniest section to ride was through the palm plantation towards Klang. The undulating road, the green grass and the palm trees everywhere was a good change.
Resting for a coconut drink
The weather is very humid – up to 95% humidity – and it’s around 30 degrees Celsius. This often means short showers of heavy rain towards the end of the day. Luckily, I wasn’t caught in one yet!
The food is great. For about $3 Australian dollar I have a huge portion of rice with 3-4 choices of curries (with or without meat or fish), veggies, eggs and a drink. Plenty of carbs and protein to choose from!
Lunch – rice, veggies, chicken and coca-cola
I haven’t ridden for the last 2 weeks as I attended my friend’s wedding in India. It was an absolutely incredible experience which I’ll remember all my life. I’m so glad I went and caught up with friends over there. But now, it’s time to get back on the bike. I’m getting ready to leave Kuala Lumpur on the 17th, direction Penang then ultimately reaching Thailand in before NYE.