A Travellerspoint blog

Le Crock Monsieur: trekking round Mont Blanc on one leg

rain

My recent trip to the Alps is best summed up by a quote from Woody Allen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

It began with what should have been a quick, painless trip to Chamonix, the base for our alpine adventure. Unfortunately for me, easyJet had other ideas. My flight was delayed by some Belgian fog. I missed my transfer at Geneva Airport and was bumped onto the last bus. The bus was delayed. I finally arrived at my destination at 1:30am, only to find my hotel room locked and no sign of the promised key. So the following morning I was not in the best frame of mind to start trekking round Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. The rain hammering down in Les Houches, our starting point, wasn't helping either.

On the other hand, I was in the Alps again, after a regrettably long absence, and the Tour du Mont Blanc (the official grande randonnée around the mountain) had been on my bucket list for a while. The trip had come together at the last minute. I should have been surveying garment factories in Bangladesh, but an eleventh-hour cancellation left me at a loose end, so I hurriedly made fresh arrangements to join Jen in France.

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We couldn't hang around in Les Houches either, as Jen had decided that it was not enough to merely complete the trek in the normal fashion. Carrying only a tiny pack and aiming to run the downhill sections, she had compressed the standard 12-day itinerary into eight and had warmed up for the challenge with a week of skyrunning in (or rather above) the Chamonix valley. This caused me some concern. Number one, I run for trains, not for pleasure, and number two, I was carrying three times as much gear. "Hang on", you're thinking. "Hasn't this guy heard of alpine-style climbing? Did he pack a hairdryer? Was he planning on a spot of extreme ironing?" The unfortunate truth is that I was a victim of timing. My last-minute phone calls and emails to the mountain refuges confirmed my fears. Some were fully booked, and I would need to carry a tent and a sleeping bag as there was no guarantee of a bed. My holiday was going to be more like a Royal Marines boot camp, except that I don't possess a firearm.

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Things started promisingly. The rain died off and thanks to an indulgent breakfast, I was powered up the first climb to Col de Voza by four kinds of cheese. Our aim was to skirt round the southern tip of the massif via a high trail over the Col de Tricot (a variante to the standard TMB route), finishing at the Auberge du Truc. This we managed to do, arriving in beautiful late afternoon sunshine, but a painful left knee left me limping the last few kilometres like a peg-legged pirate. It was a recurrence of an old football injury, which has a habit of flaring up when I ask a few questions of the knee. (At the end of the day, I suppose it was my body's way of telling me I was never going to be a footballer, at the end of the day.) The fabulous setting and clement weather helped to take my mind off the problem, but I already knew my TMB was in jeopardy.

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Leaving Truc the next morning, we had a long walk ahead of us. Our destination was Refuge des Mottets, the final accommodation before the Italian border, crossing no less than three passes en route. We built in two variantes; a climb to Tré la Tête at the beginning of the day and a crossing of the Col des Fours at the end. (The latter is the highest point on the TMB at 2,665m.) This was a day my knee will remember for years to come. That's just a figure of speech: my knee can't actually remember things.

Tré la Tête allowed us to bypass the descent to Les Contamines, and it proved to be a worthwhile detour. We were treated to fine weather, fine views and a photogenic cat.

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It was followed by a steep but lovely descent through shady, spring-fresh pine forests. I had every opportunity to enjoy it because my progress was painfully slow, in every sense. Clouds were building as we climbed to the Col de Bonhomme, and a sudden storm at the top sent most other walkers scampering for the nearby refuge. It was by now late afternoon, but we had to carry on.

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At the Col des Fours the sun reappeared, transforming the landscape from threatening to majestic in an instant. We lingered on the summit snowfield, enjoying the grand vista. But time waits for no man, and nor would the gardien at Refuge des Mottets. Jen took my heavy pack and bounded off ahead to make sure we got a bed and a meal at the refuge. I inched, winced and grimaced my way down cursing whoever was responsible for designing the human knee. It rained, it poured, dinner time came and went and I was still on the damned hill. As night fell, the refuge finally came into sight.

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Inside, the dining room was full of well-fed trekkers. A girl was attempting to play the accordion, but every few bars she lost the tune and started playing random notes. It was a bit too avant-garde for the French guests, who drowned her out with sympathetic applause. Jen had ordered our food, but it took a long time to arrive. The staff ate their dinner, people started drifting off to bed and still we waited. Eventually, a family-size pot of stew landed on the table, and we attacked it like ravenous wolves. After four bowlfuls I was starting to feel pleasantly full. Then it was replaced by an equally large pot of boeuf bourgignon, accompanied by a platter of rice and vegetables. We had made a tactical blunder – it was a three course dinner and the stew was the starter!

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The next day I soldiered on through the pain. I gritted my teeth, kept a stiff upper lip and did all the other things my British upbringing had taught me to do in adversity. But I knew deep down that my knee needed R&R, and the hardest day was still to come. I tried to think positive thoughts. “Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top.” Wise words, S Club 7, but you forgot about the bloody downhills. It was time for a plan B.

My mind was made up by the long-term weather forecast we picked up at the Casermetta information centre of the Italian side of the Col de la Seigne. Rain, rain and more rain. No thanks! I would walk as far as Courmayeur, then take a bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Chamonix and rest up for a couple of days. Continuing our descent down Val Veni, we stopped at the impressively-situated Rifugio Elisabetta and ate chocolate cake on the terrace. Moments later the sun withdrew, and that was the last time we saw it.

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It was still raining in Courmayeur the next morning as I boarded the bus. Jen was bravely carrying on, climbing the Val Ferret to Rifugio Elena, then crossing the Grand Col Ferret into Switzerland on Day 5. Back in Chamonix, I set myself up in a hostel near the Brevent cable car station and planned some knee-friendly activities for the next two days. That afternoon I grockled in town, where gear shops outnumber cafés with free Wi-Fi by at least ten to one. In the time-honoured fashion of trekkers returning to civilization, I ate pizza and crêpes. That evening I went to the Chamonix Adventure Festival’s film night and marvelled at the likes of “Touch”, “Spice Girl” and others. On my second rest day, I swam in the local pool and tested the knee with a wet walk in the beautiful Gorge de la Diosaz.

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Having declared myself fully fit, I decided it was time to get back on the trail. A short train ride and a two-hour hike brought me to the Col de Balme on the French-Swiss border where I had arranged to meet Jen. The pass was snowbound and there was no sign of her, so I retired to the nearby refuge for a hot chocolate and an omelette. Entertainment was provided by the gardienne, for whom the phrase “hell hath no fury...” might have been written. Woe betides any poor sod that breaks the house rules. It seems she has quite the reputation: the Chamonet website has this to say: “Known to locals as the "dragon lady refuge" due to the charming disposition of the proprietress, worth a visit just to see how much wrath you can incur.” It certainly was!

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The usual descent from Col de Balme to Tre-le-Champ is direct and easy, so I decided to try the obvious variante over the Aiguillette des Posettes. Jen couldn’t be persuaded but let me off the leash to try it alone. Despite the wind and rain it was a lovely walk, glorified by a standoff with a brave marmot.

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That night we slept at the rustic Auberge La Boerne, which somehow manages to be full of charm and a complete death trap. How we would have extricated ourselves from our cubby hole of a bedroom in the event of a fire, I don’t know.

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The final stretch of the TMB involved a sustained climb (with a few ladders thrown in) to the Grand Balcon Sud, and then a high-level walk with stupendous views of rainclouds. Lac Blanc, picture-postcard perfect when Jen had run up here the previous week, was now framed by snow and rock and looked distinctly uninviting. On the Brevent, cable cars emerged from the mist, depositing another batch of disappointed tourists on the summit. That evening at Refuge de Bellachat, the clouds teasingly parted, but never quite lifted, as Mont Blanc stubbornly refused to reveal her full glory. So we were more than ready for the descent to Les Houches the next morning. We arrived at the train station only to find a replacement bus service was operating, which just about summed up our week.

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The TMB may have disappointed us weather-wise but the mountains have a habit of drawing us back, whatever hand they may have dealt us in the past. So don’t be surprised if we’re back with another blog from Chamonix next year...

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Posted by Chris Parsons 17.08.2014 11:40 Archived in France Tagged mountains rain france trekking chamonix alps passes tmb Comments (0)

The F1 experience: a weekend at the Hungarian Grand Prix

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View Budapest 2014 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

I've been following Formula 1 since the heyday of Senna and Prost in the late 1980s. I've grown up with sounds of the sport: screaming engines, Fleetwood Mac's The Chain and the hyper-enthusiastic commentary of Murray Walker. I've cheered to "Our Nige" winning in '92, cried at the horror of Senna's death, endured the never-ending era of Schumacher-Ferrari dominance and cheered once again as first Lewis Hamilton and then Jenson Button scored back-to-back championships for British drivers. But I'd never been to a race - until this year!

The Hungarian Grand Prix is a somewhat unlikely event for this most glamorous of sports. The inaugural race at the Hungaroring in 1986 was the first to be held behind the Iron Curtain, and the place hasn't changed much since then. It's a tight and twisty circuit with a reputation for processional races because of the lack of overtaking opportunities. It's also the slowest track on the calendar after Monaco. Despite this, there have been a few classic races, including Mansell's charge through the field in 1989 and Button's maiden victory in the wet in 2006, and it remains popular with the drivers.

My home grand prix in Britain was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014. But a weekend ticket to Silverstone in a decent seat would have cost me a minor fortune, and Hungary was half the price. Then there's the location: the Hungaroring is only 20km north west of Budapest, meaning I could combine my F1 experience with a weekend break in a city I know and love. It was an easy decision.

I based myself at a hotel close on the Buda side of the Danube, where the main attraction was an open-air 50m pool. It was handy for the Castle District and trams to the sights in Pest. Budapest deserves more than a brief aside in a motor racing article, so I'll return to it in a future blog post.

Lengths in the pool and laps of the track: the story of my F1 weekend

Lengths in the pool and laps of the track: the story of my F1 weekend

My first stop was Bikebase (near Nyugati Station) for a hire bike to get to and from the track. Why cycle? Well, the Hungaroring is not the easiest place to get to by public transport and I didn't fancy the idea of standing in a long queue for a shuttle bus. With pre-loaded maps on my iPhone I managed to navigate my way out of the city, following the busy Kerespeci Road. It wasn't the most scenic of routes but it got me to the circuit in an hour and a half, where the stewards let me lock the bike to a fence just inside the gate.

The hybrid bike was heavy and unable to carry luggage, but reliable and coped with the variable quality of Hungarian road surfaces. On the return to Budapest I discovered a more scenic route by following a cycle trail on my map (I used the Gaia GPS app for IOS with preloaded maps from OpenHikingMap). This included a short but unavoidable off-road section across farmland near the village of Csömör, followed by a pleasant ride through the leafy suburbs and the City Park.

Just how many times can a road be repaired?

Just how many times can a road be repaired?

The Hungaroring lies in a wide, shallow bowl ringed by low hills. The main straight is at a slightly higher elevation than the infield section, giving spectators in the big grandstands views across to the far side of the circuit. My seat in the Red Bull stand was opposite Turn 13 and the pit lane entry. After settling in for Saturday morning's final practice session, I used the opportunity to observe the drivers in action and for some practice of my own, learning how to focus my camera on a 200mph machine – which takes some doing!

A panoramic view of the Hungaroring from my seat

A panoramic view of the Hungaroring from my seat

Prospects for an exciting race were enhanced by some unexpected events in Saturday afternoon’s qualifying session. Lewis Hamilton, who had topped the standings in each of the practice sessions, retired with a spectacular engine failure without setting a time. With Maldonado’s Lotus also exiting the session early, the rest of the teams gambled that the remaining four to be knocked out in Q1 would be the Marussias and Caterhams. The gamble backfired for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, as Jules Bianchi pipped him to the final place with a late flying lap.

Lewis Hamilton suffered a dramatic engine failure in Q1

Lewis Hamilton suffered a dramatic engine failure in Q1

At the start of Q3 a short rain shower nearly claimed pole position favourite Nico Rosberg, who just managed to avoid the tyre wall after running wide at Turn 1. Kevin Magnussen, next on track in the McLaren, was not so lucky, and crashed. He would join Hamilton in starting the race from the pit lane. With 3 fast cars at the back of the field, we were guaranteed some action! Rosberg’s Mercedes claimed an easy pole position, ahead of current world champion Sebastian Vettel and the two rising stars of Formula 1, Valteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo.

On race day, a heavy thunderstorm at noon turned the track into a skidpan and meant a hurried change to wet weather tyres for all the teams. From a spectator’s point of view, the timing couldn’t have been better, for these "wet to dry" races often turn out to be thrillers. After taking refuge in a barbecue and beer marquee, I headed back to my seat. Formula 1 has always attracted the rich and famous, and Hungary was no different, with Santa Claus, two Smurfs and a Viking all taking their seats in the stand. This race also attracts lots of Germans and Austrians, showing plenty of support for Michael Schumacher, and legions of Finnish fans (hence the appearance of Santa).

Storm clouds over the starting grid

Storm clouds over the starting grid


An off-duty Santa

An off-duty Santa


Support in the stands for the F1 legend Michael Schumacher

Support in the stands for the F1 legend Michael Schumacher

The crowd rose to their feet as the red lights lit up on the gantry, and at lights out the race was underway. We were able to follow the action on a giant screen on the opposite side of the track, with accompanying commentary in English, German and Hungarian (not all at the same time, I should clarify). And there was no shortage of action!

On the first lap Hamilton span and kissed the barrier, but was able to continue. A few laps later a more spectacular crash for Marcus Ericsson left debris from his mangled Caterham strewn across the track, and the safety car was deployed. Some cars took the opportunity to dive into pits for slick tyres, but the front runners missed their chance. This shook up the running order leaving Ricciardo and Button to duel for the lead. Unfortunately McLaren had already sabotaged Button’s race by putting him on another set of wet weather tyres, thinking more rain was coming. It didn’t, and Button was back in the pits a few minutes later.

Fernando Alonso in action during the early, wet phase of the race

Fernando Alonso in action during the early, wet phase of the race


The view from the grandstand

The view from the grandstand

Lap 23, and just as things were settling down Sergio Perez ran fractionally wide out of Turn 13 and put a tyre on the grass, sending him careering across the track into the pit wall. Perez walked away unharmed, the safety car was back out and the field bunched together again. Ricciardo sacrificed his lead to Fernando Alonso and pitted for fresh rubber, a decision that was to prove crucial to the outcome of the race. Another driver who profited from the safety cars was Jean-Eric Vergne, running in second behind Alonso. Behind him, a queue of faster cars was starting to build, led by Rosberg, Vettel and – incredibly – Lewis Hamilton, who had brought himself right back into contention after a surge through the field. Rosberg should have been able to pick off Vergne quickly, but the Toro Rosso held its position for lap after lap. Meanwhile Hamilton was harrying Vettel, and eventually the German made a mistake, spinning after running wide out of Turn 13. He was very lucky not to end up in the wall like Perez.

After the second round of pit stops, there were four cars in with a chance of victory, but they were running different strategies. Alonso and Hamilton were trying to get to the end of the race on two stops by eking out the maximum life from their tyres. Ricciardo and Rosberg were going to pit a third time, but could lap at a quicker pace because of the shorter stints. The stage was set for a nail-biting conclusion as first Hamilton caught Alonso, then Ricciardo caught them both. The Red Bull fought past to take the lead right at the death, and the chequered flag. It was Ricciardo’s second victory of the season. Alonso clung on for second after a remarkable 31-lap stint on the soft tyres, and Hamilton blocked an attempted pass on the last lap from the charging Rosberg to snatch third, which could be crucial for his world championship prospects.

Ricciardo chasing down Alonso and Hamilton in the closing stages...

Ricciardo chasing down Alonso and Hamilton in the closing stages...


...and enjoying the taste of victory!

...and enjoying the taste of victory!

Hamilton was strangely subdued on the podium, and I couldn’t understand why after a stunning recovery drive. It was only later that I read about the controversial radio messages, which explained his reaction. Mercedes had asked him to move aside to let Rosberg through. It was a poor call, as even they admitted afterwards, and Hamilton was entitled to ignore it.

The podium ceremony (from a distance!)

The podium ceremony (from a distance!)

Formula 1 is doing a lot of soul-searching in 2014, after criticism from several leading figures in the sport. The new formula, with quieter V6 turbo engines and hybrid technology, has inevitably resulted in winners and losers up and down the paddock, and it’s no surprise that the strongest critics are from those teams who are struggling. Some fans lament the end of the ear-splitting V8 era and the perception that the sport is more about tyre and fuel management than out-and-out racing. Add to this the unpredictable stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone, whose latest bright ideas include the controversial staging of a Russian Grand Prix and the gimmick of double points at the final race of the season, and there are surely grounds to complain. The best answer to this is for Formula 1 to do its talking on the track, and those of us at the Hungaroring on 27 July 2014 certainly could not complain!

F1 fans on track after the race

F1 fans on track after the race

Posted by Chris Parsons 11.08.2014 13:57 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest f1 Comments (0)

Tibet: Getting there is half the fun


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last summer, we fulfilled a long-held ambition to travel to Tibet. In our case, it was third time lucky. We had come close to booking a trip there in 2011, but decided it was too extreme for our first overseas cycle tour. The following year, our plans were thwarted by David Cameron's handshake with the Dalai Lama, which didn't go down well in Beijing's corridors of power. Travel restrictions were imposed making it all but impossible for British nationals to enter Tibet. The rules were officially relaxed in April 2013, and four months later we were on a plane to Lhasa.

Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Even before setting foot on Tibetan soil, it had lived up to its reputation as a difficult place for travellers. The Chinese government may have eased the visa restrictions, but entry requirements for foreigners can change on a whim and tight controls are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Over the years, many intrepid travellers have tried to bend or break the rules to enter Tibet. Most fail, but those who succeed usually have a good story to tell afterwards. As this blog will hopefully demonstrate, you can even spin a decent yarn if you follow the official procedures.

Our Tibetan tour was the first leg of a month-long trip to China, the second leg being a cycle tour in Yunnan province. With 10 days set aside, we had time enough to venture beyond Lhasa to other parts of Tibet. (The photographs that accompany the blog are from in and around Lhasa). This would seem entirely natural to you and me, but Chinese bureaucrats are sensitive to strange folk wandering around their far-flung provinces and impose a whole series of tiresome rules and conditions.

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

Firstly, we would need to secure the services of a licensed guide, who would accompany us every step of the way. The guide would also help to arrange our travel documents with the Tibet Tourism Bureau. The Bureau issue a Tibet Permit to all travellers and an Alien Permit to those travelling beyond Lhasa. (Being labelled an alien in Tibet makes UKIP's immigration policy look broad-minded.) On top of this, we were responsible for obtaining our Chinese visas.

The visa application system involved a certain degree of subterfuge, because we had been advised not to mention Tibet on the visa form. So for the purposes of obtaining the visa we devised an alternative itinerary, listing every night's accommodation, which sounded wonderful but was complete fantasy. Rumours vary as to how thoroughly this would be checked. Some people even go as far as booking the first few hotels only to cancel them once they receive their visas, but we decided to chance our luck, and it worked.

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

With guide, visas and permits all arranged, the final hurdle was getting in. Tibet's land borders, both domestic and international, are typically closed to foreigners, so most people circumvent this problem by flying in. With the exception of a seasonal service from Nepal, there are no international flights to Tibet, so flying from anywhere outside China involves a transfer at a Chinese airport and a domestic flight. We chose Chongqing, not for its beauty as a stopover destination, but because it's a relatively central hub with good value international flights and good connections to both Tibet and Yunnan.
Chongqing, with a population of 30 million, has been christened the biggest city you've never heard of. Its heavy industry and coal-fired power plants also make it one of the most polluted cities in the world. When the writer Simon Winchester reached Chongqing on his journey up the Yangtze, he described the air as "usually like that of Leeds or Dundee in Victorian times, with a sharp smell of half-burned coal gas, rust, scorched tin and dirt." In other words, not somewhere you would wish to spend any longer than necessary. With that in mind, we arranged our onward travel to Tibet the same day our international flight arrived, a decision which almost came back to haunt us.

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

The system seems to rely on foreigners spending at least one night somewhere else in China before entering Tibet. This allows the necessary permits, which must be produced at the point of entry, to be forwarded to your Chinese hotel ready for you to collect on arrival. Furthermore, if you are flying into Tibet, you need to present the original permit at check-in – a copy will not suffice. After a series of protracted email exchanges in broken English with various Tibetan tour agencies, we found one that assured us they could take the highly unusual step of arranging for a courier to deliver the permits into our hands at Chongqing airport's domestic terminal, in the six-hour window between flights. Our entire holiday hinged on us trusting that this one individual, who we had never dealt with before, would present him- or herself at the right place and the right time with the right documents. What could possibly go wrong?

The prearranged time of 11 o'clock came and went. My palms were going sweaty, and I had visions of our Tibetan dream slowly evaporating, to be replaced by a Chongqing nightmare. I made eye contact with a woman as she entered the building. She approached me directly and we exchanged greetings. I couldn't tell you what she looked like or what she was wearing, because I was completely focussed on the big envelope tucked under her arm. Our permits had arrived! Wide-eyed and trembling, I snatched them uncontrollably from her hands and cried "Myyy preccciiiouussss!" in a creepy, lustful voice. Or something like that.

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

We brandished the permits at check in, and were waved through to departures. At security, there was a problem. Uniformed officials gathered, frowning. We showed the permits again, and the officials immediately relaxed and ushered us through. After repeating this ritual several more times - there is definitely no way of boarding a plane without the Tibet Permit - we finally made it onto the aircraft, much to our relief.

The Chongqing to Lhasa leg takes just under three hours. Somewhere below us was the middle of nowhere. Thick cloud cover obscured most of the views, but occasionally we were granted glimpses of towering peaks, awesome glaciers and long valleys that disappeared into the distance. These were the Hengduan Mountains of western China, which eventually gave way to the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. The final descent into Lhasa airport was memorable, the plane sweeping low into the wide Yarlung Tsangpo valley, turning sharply over a pinnacled ridge and aiming for the runway, dwarfed by the mighty river alongside.

It had been a day of drama, and now our Tibetan adventure could finally begin!

The Hengduan Mountains from the air

The Hengduan Mountains from the air


The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

Posted by Chris Parsons 17.01.2014 16:01 Archived in China Tagged planes tibet visas Comments (0)

A fitting finale to a tour of the Jinsha Jiang

On the road in Yunnan

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After nine days of cycling with Painted Roads from Shangri-La to Dali, the legs weren't quite finished. We had completed 720km on our bicycles, winding through the valleys and gorges of the Jinsha Jiang (Yangtze to you and I) and thought that perhaps our legs and our livers had had enough. But it only took a day's rest and revival, including sustenance from Cafe 88, a few light Dali's and a squint at Google Maps to realise how wrong we were. And so it was on a grey drizzly morning, strangely reminiscent of The Peak, that our panniers were packed with Chinese Army biscuits, bread and cheese, spare innertubes and a change of clothes, and we were off down the main road out of Dali old town. After a send-off breakfast at Cafe 88, we had said goodbye to our friends David and Echo, and crucially the Painted Roads back up bus....we were now on our own.

Our destination was Lijiang: the missing link in our Yunnan tour. Our plan was to reach Lijiang, unscathed, in three days. Our route would wind its way north, crossing the Yangtze river a further two times (we had previously crossed the river after Tiger Leaping Gorge near Shigu). After 80km our first night would be in the sprawling town of Binchuan, followed by a further 90km to Chenghai Lake the following day, finishing up with a rather challenging 120km stretch to Lijiang, including a 30km, 1600m climb.

It was an inauspicious start. A drizzly cycle lane took us along the main highway out of Dali. The occasional veg van had been skillfully parked for maximum inconvenience and the puddles were making mincemeat of my freshly and expensively laundered cycling gear. As we made our way down the road, I wondered if all recces of Painted Roads tours at some point started out like this? After 10km, Chris made the executive decision to turn off. A more scenic route was required. A swift left turn led us down a wide avenue towards Erhai Lake and straight into the howls, yelps, and barks of 100s of puppies: we had happened upon the Sunday Dali Dog Market. Fortunately this wasn't the sort of market to be found in Vietnam. These perfectly groomed puppies weren't for the pot, but came in all shapes and sizes: old English Sheep Dogs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Labradors. These lucky creatures, as we routinely observed, were destined for the Chinese household; that's to say, on guard in the front yard, snoozing outside the odd hotel, and, depending on size, decorating the odd handbag. This was to be an entertaining diversion from what turned out to be a pretty hideous exit from the 'arse-end' of Dali. The one scenic spot of the day was to be found outside the main Cement Works to the south east of the city, the scale of which was in proportion to the rate of construction in (destruction of?) China i.e. massive. Our arrival was predicated on the in-hailing of dust, diesel fumes, dirt and God-knows-what-else from a heavily truck-laden road which we thought would be a handy short cut around the Airport...No amount of altitude training can prepare the lungs for this kind of enslaught.

A fluffy friend: not destined for the pot

A fluffy friend: not destined for the pot

A scenic stop at the Cement Works

A scenic stop at the Cement Works

Happily, after crossing a small pass, the cycling was easy going, and eased our legs into what was a greater physical challenge on the bikes with the extra gear we were carrying. The town of Binchuan turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and gave us a very real, bustling insight into China. We eventually managed to locate a hotel, and a fantastic street restaurant for dinner which served us dumplings, eggs and tomato, fried beans and cold beer. Our air-conditioned room (a first for the trip) was located opposite a busy street market selling the unlikely combination of fresh fruit and veg, and underwear. We stuck to the fruit.

The fruit section, Binchuan Market

The fruit section, Binchuan Market

Day Two saw us undulate out of Binchuan on the 220 towards our first crossing of the Yangtze since Tiger Leaping Gorge. As it happened, we weren't too sure exactly what we were crossing at the time...we were cycling on a newly constructed bridge for a newly constructed road which skirted a recently flooded valley for yet another hydro-electric scheme. As we cycled along the water, it was apparent that the valley was still in the process of flooding, and the houses were still taking the shape of the new town on the far side of the water. It was probably the Yangtze.

Probably crossing the Yangtze

Probably crossing the Yangtze

Our second day in the saddle was turning into an increasingly impressive ride, on a non-too-busy road which ended in us turning off to cycle up the left-hand side of Chenghai Lake. The lake, which is famous for being one of the few places in the world where Spirulina can be grown, was glimmering beautifully in the evening light. A large sign which read "Chenghai Lake Village Holiday Resort: 14km" promised a welcoming end to a scenic day. Instructions from David and Joss 'It's the tallest building in town, you can't miss it" proved worthy, and while the hotel was clearly being refurbished on the ground floor, the lakeside restaurant ensured sufficient distance was put between us and the drilling and sawdust, and ran a reliable line in cold beer.

Brooding skies over Chenghai Lake

Brooding skies over Chenghai Lake

Evening light on Chenghai Lake

Evening light on Chenghai Lake

Rain on the far side of the lake delivers

Rain on the far side of the lake delivers

Cold beer: a must after a hot day on the bike

Cold beer: a must after a hot day on the bike

It turned out that my celebrity status had also reached these parts from Lhasa as my beer was unceremoniously interrupted once more for another photograph with some Chinese tourists. Sadly my Mandarin wasn't up to the task of pointing out that blonde hair and blue eyes can be easily obtained over the counter these days.

Day Three: the big one. With 120kms including a 30km / 1,600m climb we thought it wise to get on the bikes early. At not quite the crack of 8am we donned our helmets and set off down the lake on empty stomachs in search of breakfast. We were soon rewarded in the local market at the end of the lake with some noodle soup and steamed bread; but not before consuming all of our early start in photo stops. The morning light was exceptional, the views stunning. A stiff climb out of the bowl of the lake brought us to a fabulous downhill, interrupted only by some chilli plantations and some serious landscape gardening. An enormous tree being manoevered onto a truck which straddled the road stopped us neatly in our tracks. Fortunately we quickly realised we could scoot underneath the branches and past the developing queue of cars and tractors, without waiting for Christmas. We were subsequently passed by the very same tree, hurtling up the switchbacks at around 30km/h on the major climb out of the Yangtze Valley while we had stopped to inhale some Army biscuits. The ride continued in glorious fashion, undulating through rice paddies until we entered a narrow and spectacular gorge which eventually lead us to our third crossing of the Yangtze River.

Back on the road in beautiful light

Back on the road in beautiful light

Locals at the morning market

Locals at the morning market

Morning sunshine on Chenghai Lake

Morning sunshine on Chenghai Lake

A dramatic gorge leads us down to the Yangtze River

A dramatic gorge leads us down to the Yangtze River

At 1pm we stopped our bikes before the bridge and contemplated the view: the blue waters of the Yangtze merging with its brown tributary; the mouth watering line up of Pepsi, Fanta and mineral water at a roadside stall; and a towering wall of switchbacks marking the start of a very long afternoon. We delayed the inevitable for a few more minutes. Our 30km of up would be in the heat of the day starting at around 1,300m, and finishing at 2,700m. The data from our cycle computers at the end of the day showed us averaging about 11km/h on the climb, but we had to stop every 10kms to scrape off the salt, reapply sunscreen, take photos, drink and refuel.

Delaying tactics

Delaying tactics

It was an absolutely spectacular climb: one of the toughest, but most scenic of the tour. The road took us along the edge of a precipitous valley and up onto an intermediate plateau. As we gained height, we passed villages hidden from view in the sky, we then rounded a large bend into a second valley, more Alpine in feel. Down in the valley floor appeared to be another section of the Yangtze River, with a dam at one end. The road wound its way up through Eucalyptus trees sprouting from the red earth, vegetation we had encountered previously on the approach to Shaxi. We then entered one last gorge, the final approach to Kilometre 22, the "top" of the pass.

The start of the 30km climb up from the Yangtze

The start of the 30km climb up from the Yangtze

A snack stop with a view

A snack stop with a view

Precipitous hills along the Yangtze River Valley

Precipitous hills along the Yangtze River Valley

A safety feature provides a good photographic standpoint

A safety feature provides a good photographic standpoint

Reaching the "top" of pass #1

Reaching the "top" of pass #1

Kilometre 22 turned out to be the top of pass number 1. The road then lead out onto a green and mountainous plateau at 2,600m. Freewheeling down the "other side" at this stage did not appear to be a plausible option for forward movement. After several kilometres, a minor undulation of 2-3km loomed ahead, and finally brought us to the top of the hill. We only had a further 16km to cycle to reach Lijiang, but they were 16 beautiful and "free" kilometres: the reward for four hours of climbing, two army biscuits, two litres of Pepsi, two Fantas, several litres of water, and innumerable photo stops. It had been an epic day already, but it wasn't to be complete without a minor detour around Lijiang's newly constructed outer ring road courtesy of IPhone battery failure at the crucial moment. Some slightly desperate but successful deciphering of our Yunnan map, and correlation with Chinese signage by Chris brought us to Lijiang Old Town. A final test of character took us through the evening maze of alleyways to find Mama Naxi's guesthouse at the heart of the Old Town.

Our first glimpse of Lijiang

Our first glimpse of Lijiang

Trying to locate the map on Lijiang's outer ring road

Trying to locate the map on Lijiang's outer ring road

Lijiang rooftops

Lijiang rooftops

It was a beautiful place to finish, and a perfect end to a fabulous tour. Mama Naxi's guesthouse welcomed us from our hot and sticky selves with a cold and sticky bun each and some deep fried beans. We'd found our way to a guest house where friendship was dealt out in a peaceful setting, with the most comfortable bed I had slept on in a month, a hot shower and a heafty portion of free food. Apart from a cold beer, what more could two hungry cyclists wish for?

As a footnote to this, we celebrated having survived our adventure by grockling Lijiang's shops, and sinking a few glasses of red, and two towers of pasta. We later stopped for a few beers at The Forgotten Corner where live music had enticed a few discerning souls into a cozy bar where the drink, sunflower seeds and atmosphere flowed. Lijiang had offered us the perfect balance of old streets and western comforts required to recover from a tough few days on the bike. The following day we took the bus back to Dali and were welcomed back by David and Echo in traditional Walker style, with a fabulous meal, a beer or three, a Paojio or two, which resulted in a rather splendid but squiffy night out: none of us could pursue a forward direction in a straight line afterwards!

What a fitting toast to a tour of the undulations of Yunnan and the meanders of the Jinsha Jiang.

The Forgotten Corner

The Forgotten Corner

Lijiang Old Town at night

Lijiang Old Town at night

Posted by jparsons 01.09.2013 09:05 Archived in China Tagged landscapes china cycling Comments (0)

In pursuit of the perfect Potala Palace picture


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Lhasa takes your breath away, quite literally as we discovered when we stepped off the plane at 3,700m. Canisters of oxygen were provided in our airport transfer car and next to the minibar in the hotel room, but being experienced in the acclimatization business we refused to succumb to their temptations. After 24 hours of suffering we were ready for Lhasa, and Lhasa was ready for us.

The Potala Palace also takes your breath away: not only for its scale (1,000 rooms, 113m high and 2m thick walls), but also for its dramatic setting and dizzying construction which make it quite unlike any other building in the world. Even seeing it for what felt like the hundredth time, our eyes were still drawn magnetically to it; such is its captivating power. Capturing this emotional response in a photograph is impossible, of course, but that didn’t stop us from trying. And so we embarked on a quest for the perfect Potala picture.

We used an early drive-by as a reconnaissance, checking out the light and shade on the Palace walls, imagining the trajectory of the sun and assessing the promising backdrop of mountain peaks. An elevated viewpoint to the south west of the Potala seemed promising, and a quick non-Google search (this is China, remember) revealed this to be King Medicine Hill. We hatched a plan to return early the following morning armed with bagfuls of camera gear.

The following morning was overcast, but undeterred, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to the viewpoint. We were dropped off some distance short – at first I thought we were about to be victims of a scam, but in fact this was as close as our rickshaw could get. Security around the Potala was tight, for this happened to be the first day of the Shoton Festival and a big show was taking place that evening in the square in front of the Palace, featuring live performances and a fireworks display. We paid 2 yuan each to climb the steps to King Medicine Hill and reeled off a few photos of the Potala under brooding skies. We knew the photos were nothing spectacular, but they were 'bankers' and might look quite effective in black and white.

Potala Palace in monochrome

Potala Palace in monochrome

The same website that had given us the name of the viewpoint also mentioned a small temple nearby which afforded another view of the Potala from a slightly different angle, so we headed there next. Events took a turn for the bizarre at this point. The temple kept two tame blue sheep (a wild species normally found at high altitudes in the Himalayas). Here was an animal I had spent many hours tracking across remote mountain slopes in India and Nepal in a vain attempt to photograph, now practically tame enough to eat out of my hand. I knelt down for an eye-level photo (at this point a pet rabbit had taken shelter under the sheep’s body, adding an even more surreal aspect to the scene). The blue sheep faced down my camera lens and charged – I had to take evasive action to avoid a head butt. Round one to the sheep, but it wasn’t finished there. Clearly thinking I was a rival worth seeing off, the sheep made repeated attacks on both me and Jen, and only by grabbing its horns could I stop it. Salvation came in the form of a friendly local, clearly highly amused by proceedings, who managed to distract the sheep with some food, allowing us to dodge into the temple. The photos of the Potala from here, it has to be said, were not really worth the effort.

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Early afternoon saw us back at King Medicine Hill with our fingers on the shutters again, this time with the Potala looking resplendent in the sunshine. We had just finished our guided tour of the Palace: all tourists are allotted a one-hour time slot, such is the popularity of the tour. It’s forbidden to take photos inside the Palace, but there are plenty of interesting angles as you climb the switchback stairs to the main entrance, and we covered them all. Now we had a set of classic Potala images, and we thought that was that.

Potala Palace in the sunshine

Potala Palace in the sunshine


Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

But the quest was not over. Our Tibetan guide Phurpu mentioned how impressive the Potala looked at night, when the whole building is floodlit. Suddenly our mission seemed unfulfilled without that night-time shot. Musing over this problem at a local café later, it struck me that if I could get on to the roof of the hotel, I would have an unrivaled view of the Palace from another angle. I’m not sure guests are supposed to go on the roof, given that it involved crawling through an access hatch at the top of the stairs, but I was proved right. Now all was set!

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Dinner came and went and night began to fall. Over in the Potala Square, the various dignitaries, officials and army officers were assembling for the Shoton Festival show. Just when it seemed our quest would be fulfilled, the weather decided to intervene. Rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning signalled a major storm was about to hit the city. I fired off some shots of the Potala before the rain arrived, beautifully floodlit and looking magnificent. Yes!

Potala Palace illuminated at night

Potala Palace illuminated at night

But my ultimate Potala Palace photo is none of the above. In fact, it’s an image I hadn’t conceived and didn’t even realise I had taken. As the storm raged outside I caught another sound in between the thunderclaps: the fireworks had begun. Wouldn’t it be cool to capture the Palace and the fireworks in the same photo, I thought. With the rain now pelting down (those poor Chinese dignitaries), I found a window at the end of the corridor outside our hotel room which afforded a good enough view of events, braced myself against the window frame and began to reel off some continuous shots of the fireworks exploding, hoping to capture the perfect moment. Well I got it, and then some: it seems God himself decided to partake in the display. It’s not sharp, but it’s a one-off!

Potala Palace lightning strike

Potala Palace lightning strike

Posted by Chris Parsons 12.08.2013 06:19 Archived in China Tagged photography tibet lhasa potala Comments (2)

Picture This...

...a small cycle ride through Southern Thailand

35 °C

Exploring the lanes around Ban Bang Burd

Exploring the lanes around Ban Bang Burd


The world at work, Samsen District, Bangkok

The world at work, Samsen District, Bangkok

Typing into Google “map of Bangkok to Phuket” brought back a somewhat flippant repsonse from the well known search engine: 825km in 10 hours and 21 minutes! Really? Actually it was more like 600k, and 10 days but then again it’s only me who’s quibbling.

Cycling from Bangkok to Phuket, was rather an indulgent afterthought on my list of 2013 travel destinations. But a long-ish spell of horrible cold wet and snowy weather in the North of England, combined with one bug after another, convinced me to book some time with the sunshine, and what is rapidly becoming, my Painted Roads extended family. Arriving in Bangkok on the 27 January, to be greeted warmly by friends and a cold bottle of Singha I could scarcely believe it. Three weeks previously it wasn’t even a figment of my imagination.

David Walker (Painted Roads) knows how to keep his customers happy!

David Walker (Painted Roads) knows how to keep his customers happy!

Having been in Thailand only 12 months ago, this promised to be what I would actually call a ‘holiday’ , something with an emphasis on the R&R rather than my usual adventurous line up of ‘epics’. Having said that, I was admittedly most excited about what I generally refer to as “the bits in between”.
The Thailand most tourists are familiar with probably looks something like this...

Destination Thailand: A longtail boat in the Malacca Strait

Destination Thailand: A longtail boat in the Malacca Strait

...and while we did indulge ourselves at the end of the tour, I was more keen on discovering what I would find on the way there, behind the scenes, as it were.

What you don't find in the brochure - cows come for me outside the military base in Pretchuap Khiri Khan

What you don't find in the brochure - cows come for me outside the military base in Pretchuap Khiri Khan

It would also probably be an underestimate to say I was quite excited to take my new OMD-EM5 for a proper road test, complete with two new lenses – the Olympus 17mm f1.8 and 45mm f1.8. Having been cooped up at home by the properly dreich blizzard, sleet and drizzle for the better part three weeks, with only one dog photo to show for my efforts, I couldn’t make it to the Airport check-in fast enough. In Thailand those without OMD’s were a borderline minority group, as both our tour leader David, and JP both had their’s with them. This inevitably lead to a number of very satisfying ‘total geek-out’ sessions, washed down with a Singha or two. Naturally.

OMD photo-geekery in Bangkok

OMD photo-geekery in Bangkok

Thailand is noticeably the most developed nation in South East Asia, so the opportunities for street photography of the style I’ve been used to in Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and India were less obvious. But interesting landscapes, sunrises and sunsets were fortunately plentiful, despite some initial weather challenges.

I have one abiding memory from the trip, of getting caught in a thunderstorm (possibly power shower?), with two hours of cycling left to do on our first day. After avoiding making a decision for about 20 minutes, we eventually departed from our huddle in a nearby shelter to hammer through the pelting rain. I wore no more than shorts and a t-shirt, having abandoned the idea that waterproofs could keep out such a sustained attack. But instead found something very liberating about cycling into the storm, no hands, soaked to the skin, and yet warm enough to confidently invite as much rain as the heavens could possibly throw at me. I did so with a large smile on my face - there was certainly not a hope in hell of achieving this in the UK with out initiating the onset of hypothermia, which just served to remind me I was on holiday. In Thailand! As a fitting end to the afternoon therefore, I thought it best to jump fully clothed straight into the surf at Ban Krut, much to the amusement of the locals (#mad Englishwoman). Well why on earth not?
The following dawn, I was suitably rewarded for my efforts. The photography gods were smiling and the sun had got its hat on.

Threatening weather on the East Coast

Threatening weather on the East Coast


The morning after on the coast road at Ban Krut

The morning after on the coast road at Ban Krut

Dawn surf at Ban Krut

Dawn surf at Ban Krut

I must confess, after initially reviewing my photographs on the back of the camera, (admitedly in the blazing sunshine) I wasn’t overwhelmed by my efforts. But now, having gone through all of the files, I have been struck by just how many photographs actually turned out better than I had thought. Some even make quite striking images once “developed”, though they look dull in RAW format. This is the first time I have really photographed entirely in RAW, and I can say unequivocally that I will not be returning to JPEGs in-camera. I’ve also been utterly astonished at the quality of the 45mm Olympus lens. Images from this amazing construction seem to have a luminous quality that I can’t really put into words.. .other than to say that it takes me back to photos taken by my Dad with his old Leica. The 17mm seems to have done the job for now, but I don’t yet feel I’ve given it enough of a test, or sufficiently mastered the controls of the OMD to understand whether I’ve seen the best it can do. All I can say, is “it’s not the 45”, which goes some way to explain why it hasn’t spent sufficient time yet on the frontend of the OMD.

Karst Limestone scenery captured with the Olympus 45mm at f2.5

Karst Limestone scenery captured with the Olympus 45mm at f2.5


Undulations, captured with the Olympus 45mm at f1.8

Undulations, captured with the Olympus 45mm at f1.8



Some cat action on Koh Yao Noi, captured with the Olympus 45mm at f1.8

Some cat action on Koh Yao Noi, captured with the Olympus 45mm at f1.8

Our cycling route took us from Prachuap Khiri Khan on the East Coast (Gulf of Thailand) down to Pak Nam Tako (just beyond Chumphon). From here we then began to turn inland towards our destination on the West Coast: Ao Luek and Koh Yao Noi in the Malacca Strait. This took us through fishing villages, past wind-swept surfing beaches, through coconut groves, along Highway 4 – the main arterial route North-South through Thailand, and finally through beautiful Karst Limestone scenery to the Ratchaprapha Dam, Ao Luek and the picture perfect East Coast.

Cycling through Ao Luek

Cycling through Ao Luek

A short long-tail boat trip delivered us to the quiet island of Koh Yao Noi, perfectly set up for the chillout backpacking crowd. By the time we reached the island, we were ready to fit right in. Hammock. Check. Singha. Check. Sunset. Check. Bob Marley on speed dial...hmmm. Ok so we swapped the reggae for Blondie, but everything else was definitely in order. We were almost in a fit state to cope with Phuket, and the perks of being a tourist!
I would like to extend a huge thank you to David for lending me various bits and pieces of lenses filters and tripods, for photographic inspriation, and to both him and his team, Ar and Gor for such a fabulous trip. (Again).

David Walker in evening photography-mode

David Walker in evening photography-mode


Squid Boats on the East Coast

Squid Boats on the East Coast


Sunset in Koh Yao Noi

Sunset in Koh Yao Noi

Sunset in Phuket

Sunset in Phuket

Posted by jparsons 14.02.2013 16:55 Tagged thailand photography cycling Comments (3)

Crocodiles on mopeds and other tales from Hanoi

The crazy street life of Vietnam's second city


View North East Vietnam 2012 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last year's brief visit to Hanoi left a strong impression, even though Jen and I weren't able to make the most of our time there. Arriving straight from the Himalayas, we were tired and preoccupied by lists of errands. We arranged excursions to take us out of the city, thinking we would prefer the tranquillity of the coast and countryside to rubbing shoulders with millions of Vietnamese. It was probably the right decision at the time but it left me feeling short-changed by Hanoi. So we did the obvious thing - we went back.

Returning less than a year later felt like a homecoming rather than a holiday. Not only were we reunited with our cycling chums, David (Painted Roads tour leader), Phong (local guide) and Eddie (impossible to categorize), but we instantly fell in love with the city all over again. Hanoi casts its spell in unexpected ways. The guidebooks may try to talk up its tourist sites, but it's not the prospect of puppets, pagodas or pickled propagandists that excites me. Instead, it's the pulsating bustle of Hanoians going about their daily business in the enchanting Old Quarter. This is the beating heart of the city, an inside-out place where everything happens on the street. Ladies in shimmering blouses and stilettos revving their mopeds; pensive groups of men hunched over their cờ tướng boards on street corners; flower sellers weaving their bicycles between uniformed schoolchildren; street food vendors stirring, frying, serving and smiling. With so much life on show, we were keen to brush up on our street photography.

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side


Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

The Old Quarter was our base for the few days we spent in the city. Here, we watched Hanoi wake up, go to work, take coffee, exercise and go to sleep. A great many hours were spent at the street café opposite our hotel, sipping glasses of bia hơi and watching the city pass us by. At other times I would go off to explore, walking the streets morning, noon and night in search of the unexpected. Despite venturing no more than a mile from the hotel, my senses were thoroughly overwhelmed.

At first light, the street vendors begin to appear. Every morning, an estimated 10,000 of them - mostly women - converge on Hanoi from the surrounding rural provinces, as they have done for centuries. They bring fresh produce from their farms, but it’s not just fruit and vegetables they sell. I passed one lady whose bamboo baskets had been transformed into mobile ponds full of splashing turtles. Fresh ingredients are very important in Vietnamese cuisine, so the street vendors fulfil the same role as a Tesco Express would in the UK.

These women are amongst the poorest people in the city, earning around US$2 a day. Worse still, their earnings can be confiscated by the overzealous police, who increasingly enforce local laws which place restrictions or even outright bans on street selling. I have since discovered that the British government has recently provided funding for a project to improve the lives of Hanoi's street vendors.

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark


One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader

One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader


A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

Hanoi’s street cafés are a local institution enjoyed by city folk and foreigners alike. Space is at a premium in the Old Quarter, so the clientele sit on child-sized plastic chairs out in the street and conduct high-volume conversation over the noise of passing mopeds. Many cafés serve the aforementioned bia hơi, a weak home brew costing around 8,000 dong (25p) a glass. The quality can vary but at that price, who's complaining?

Others are purveyors of Vietnamese-branded coffee, a distinctive beverage filtered slowly into the cup and mixed with condensed milk. The connoisseur’s choice is cà phê Chồn or “weasel coffee”, the world’s most expensive variety. The coffee beans have passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (a weasel-like animal) which supposedly takes the bitter edge off the taste. A rather bizarre fact which begs the obvious question: who discovered it?

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi


A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

To the south of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of the city. I wrote a blog article last year which discussed the famous giant turtle which inhabits the lake, a creature so rare it seems destined to join the dodo on the path to extinction. There were no turtle sightings on this occasion, but our lakeside walks offered up a number of equally extraordinary visions.

Dragging ourselves down to Hoan Kiem at dawn, we found the paths and parks had been taken over by a small army of exercising Hanoians, all stretching, pumping and burning. Around the lake swarmed an anticlockwise wave of joggers and power-walkers, whilst in a public square nearby, impromptu classes were being held for aerobics, salsa, ballroom, tai chi and, my favourite of all, laughter yoga. Perhaps they were laughing at the committed fitness fanatic who was attempting to target all his major muscle groups whilst sat on a park bench.

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

In the evening, another swathe of the population descends on the lake’s leafy promenades. The exercisers are now a minority, but this only seems to encourage exhibitionist tendencies, judging from the shirtless men performing chin-ups on lampposts and five-minute headstands at the very edge of the water. Meanwhile, young lovers stroll hand in hand and wedding photographers fuss over their subjects as they contrive to maximise the romantic potential of the scene. Quite what the turtle makes of it all, I can only wonder.

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers


Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

The action has spread to the nearby square, where the painted lines of badminton courts are being put to good use. There are no racquets to be seen, however, for the game of choice is played with the feet. The Vietnamese call it đá cầu and have made it their national sport, but it originated as jianzi in China. The standard is (literally) very high, with some unbelievable agility on show as the players leap at the net to smash the shuttlecock down into the opponent’s forecourt with their feet.

Despite all the activity on show, the Vietnamese revert to type when it comes to road transport: everyone and everything travels by motorbike. In Bangkok airport’s duty free zone I came across a neat little book called Bikes of Burden, a photo journal from across Vietnam showing an amazing variety of cargo being transported on bikes, from furniture to scaffold frames, carpets to water tanks and livestock to ornamental goldfish. We kept an eye out for unusual bikes of burden ourselves and found the Hanoians more than lived up to expectations. My favourite was a giant cuddly crocodile toy about the same size as the rider. Sadly there’s no photo to prove this – I obviously wasn’t snappy enough.

Crocodile! Snappy! Ok, I’ll get my coat.

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike


A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

Posted by Chris Parsons 20.11.2012 13:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food markets bikes vietnam hanoi photography Comments (3)

Snapshots from the back of beyond

The title says it all really. These are some of the most memorable moments from our travels to Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam in last few months. Enjoy...

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

Big weather approaches a remote lake in Kyrgyzstan, 14 August 2012

As I cycled over the brow of the hill, and saw this lake, it took my breath away. Instead of enjoying the downhill, I stopped every 10 metres to take photo after photo as the scene unravelled. In the end I took this shot while eating my lunch with my cycling buddies under a tarpaulin in the scorching sunshine. While eating our bread and cheese (which had become cheese on toast), a storm was slowly approaching. Part of me wanted the deluge, but the photographer in me just wanted to freeze the moment...

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

The open road, takes us high into the Tien Shan Mountains, 15 August 2012

Kyrgyzstan was full of epic vistas. This was one of my favourites, and the road surface wasn't too bad at this point either!

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

Horses graze above our Yurts at Son Kul Lake, 20 August 2012

When we went to sleep the night before, Son Kul Lake was enveloped in Scottish weather, just clearing with the sunset. It reminded me of the Western Isles. Fortunately the following morning dawned clear, so I set off up the hill behind our camp to capture some of the beautiful morning light.

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

Vast mountainous plains put a perspective on things, 20 August 2012

If there's one thing that can be said of Kyrgyzstan, it's that it is unquestionably vast. This photo gives some sense of the scale of the place. It made me feel small.

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Cycling down the Nho Que Valley, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

The scenery of North East Vietnam is quite different to Kyrgyzstan. We often found ourselves dwarfed by the crops growing by the side of the road. This was a stunning valley, on a rare day when the atmosphere was beautifully clear, and around every corner was another bike stopping view.

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

Young children peel nuts beside the road above Yen Minh, North East Vietnam, 30 September 2012

On the same day, we rounded a corner by a forest clearing to find these children peeling nuts. Our guide, Phong didn't know why they were peeling nuts, and nor did the children, but they determinedly continued despite the obvious distraction of a group of westerners on mountain bikes. They deftly peeled the nuts with scary-looking knives, and oddly, the only injury sustained was a cut to my leg from a sharp stick poking out the ground, while I tried to capture this photo.

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Dramatic views on the Chinese Vietnam border, 1 October 2012

Cycling across the Rocky Plateau from Yen Minh to Meo Vac, I was left speechless on numerous occasions. This was one such. We thought we'd seen it all that day. Then we rounded another corner to find this! Chris helpfully provided the splash of colour in the distance.

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

School girls crowd round us on the road in North East Vietnam, 3 October 2012

These girls were probably the eldest in a group of about 30 children who were curious to see what a group of cyclists were doing sitting on plastic chairs drinking tea at the side of the road. When they eventually plucked up the courage to come close, we entertained them by reading their school books. They're probably laughing at this point because David Walker (our tour leader) was entertaining a group of younger children with his impression of the Nieeeeeyep man (a Nepalese phenomenon). Most of the children appeared confused with a few breaking out into smiles. But then again, as I commented in my previous blog When the wanderlust strikes again..., we probably seemed quite strange...

Posted by jparsons 03.11.2012 11:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

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