...there is no cure
18.08.2012 - 08.10.2012 35 °C
So it turns out that four months travelling around the Himalayas and South East Asia is not a good cure for the wanderlust. No sooner had we touched down in the chilly North of England on January 16 2012, and we had already targeted our next big trip back to the Himalayas. They say "every cloud has a silver lining" and so when it emerged that Tibet would be off the cards this year, plan B swung into action, which is how come I’m writing this blog post only 24 hours after landing back in the UK from our second trip to Asia in six weeks (two for the price of one in the end. Just).
24,700 miles may not be brilliant for the old carbon footprint, but with the "roads" in Kyrgyzstan not boasting even a hint of tarmac, we more than made up for this in endurance on the bike: powered by plov, and the occasional bowl of fermented mare’s milk (yes you did read correctly). In North East Vietnam the scenery may look fairytale, but the absence of a magic carpet meant we had some pretty hefty undulations to cross: this time powered by morning glory, rice and deep-fried bees…
There is something deeply compelling about visiting the hard to reach corners of the globe, and then climbing on two wheels to explore them even further. When you have a passion for photography, the big landscapes of the Central Tien Shan, the street scenes of Hanoi old town, and the rural communities living in the remote mountainous regions of Asia simply capture the imagination. This, and a love of cycling in remote places is why I cannot stay away...
Both Kyrgyzstan and North East Vietnam share borders with China, and have a tourist industry that is still only embryonic, meaning that the opportunity to meet local people is still refreshingly absent of any transaction, and the welcome genuinely meant. However, this is where the similarity between the two countries ends. Kyrgyzstan is scarcely populated (5.5 million), whereas Vietnam is positively bustling (87.8 million). The Kyrgyz people are traditionally nomadic, moving their temporary yurt camps up into the mountains in summer and down to warmer climes in winter. Whereas Vietnamese life in the remote North East centres around village communities. Cycling in Kyrgyzstan was akin to being dry roasted, alive. In Vietnam, it was rather more akin to cycling in a giant steamer, and on occasions, the shower. We exchanged the vast plains and desert-scapes in August for the rice paddies and jungle last week. Kyrgyzstan was most definitely horse-based. Vietnam, buffalo-based. And yet, the experience of travelling in both countries was in some respects remarkably similar: astoundingly beautiful scenery; the priceless look on the faces of the local men, women, and children when they saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman on a mountain bike; the tendency for children under the age of 3 to spontaneously burst into tears, and those over 3 to race you down the road; and the enthusiasm of the local children to borrow my bicycle for a test ride in exchange for a horse ride / donkey ride / photo / a bucket of fermented mare’s milk.
The only thing which was saddening, in both countries, was the reality of some aspects of life in such remote areas. In NE Vietnam we cycled through the district of Bao Lac, where we ate lunch by the side of the road close to a small village. By the time we had finished our sandwiches a group of about 30 children aged between 3 and 11 had gathered around 100m from our lunch spot. Chris and I went to investigate, and like the Pied Piper, ended up leading the children back to our seats. We then pursued an enterprise in raising smiles as we captured the scene on camera. What was striking for me was the low energy level of so many of the children we met that day. In stark contrast to North West Vietnam the previous November, where we had been chased vigorously down the road, and received high-fives that left red marks on my hands, we were now met with many expressionless faces. Children who should have been curious, smiling, and playing, would stand around staring through us in the middle of the road. Either we were just too strange, or life for them was just too hard.
In Kyrgyzstan, the poverty surfaced in rural alcoholism. In Naryn province, we stopped for a morning water refill in the centre of a dusty village in the valley, only to quickly attract the attention of the local men. They were obviously curious to meet westerners but their intentions were hazy in their inebriated state. Our local guides were keen to make sure they stayed well out of our way, and this was not the only occasion where somebody needed to come to our rescue and physically remove the local welcoming party.
By far the best encounters were those where I got off my bike, put it on its stand and waited. Within a couple of minutes, I would either be surrounded by kids, horses or donkeys, or all three. The offer of a turn on my bike, testing of sunglasses, or helmet would be reciprocated with the offer of a free horse or donkey ride. And while I'd like to say I made good use of these offers, my questionable horse riding skills meant I more often than not made a beeline for the donkey in a bid to relieve my saddle soreness for a few minutes with a warm comfortable seat. In Vietnam, the only real alternative mode of transport to a bike or bicycle was a buffalo, and this wasn't something I considered a fair exchange (have you tried riding one?). But I was simply happy to offer the bike to those who wanted to test out Western wheels in exchange for the odd photo instead. Conversation was usually limited to “hello, I’m Jen from Manchester, UK, England”, but the smiles were wide, and the curiosity mutual.
My inspiration for writing this most recent blog post was actually to acknowledge the brilliant team leading our trip through NE Vietnam over the last two weeks. But my train of thought has in the meantime taken me off down a minor a rabbit hole from which I shall attempt to recover...When Chris and I were considering destinations for our Tibet “plan B”, Vietnam was not first on our list. The North West is industrialising at an impressive rate, and the scenery we encountered there not as beautiful as we experienced in neighbouring Laos. However, we were easily persuaded to join a group of friends for some cycling and photography, with the selling point being a guaranteed good time: we knew the score, because we were returning with our tour leaders and friends David and Phong from our previous tour to Vietnam and Laos. Only since then David has set up Painted Roads, and this was his inaugural tour, the first of its kind through this region of Vietnam.
North East Vietnam is a stunning place to visit, astonishingly beautiful, and with some of the best cycling I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. The itinerary was faultless: quiet roads, spectacular scenery and culturally fascinating. Despite the region’s remoteness, and the absence of tourist infrastructure, the roads were relatively good (there was tarmac, and potholes no bigger than Stockport’s) and the hospitality we received was excellent. David and Phong were also reassuringly on form. David was still peddling as though surgically attached to his bike from birth, and Phong had taken up hills in the intervening months, which destroyed our infallible undulation predictor: the bike coming out of the van was no longer a useful forecast for downhills. Some new developments also emerged on this trip. David’s recital of Monty Python put downs in his banter with Phong kept us endlessly amused…”your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries...”, and the daily entertaining of crowds of children with “Nieeeeyeps” in a bid to capture their smiles on camera is undoubtedly responsible for some of our best photos.
We didn’t get quite as sunburnt as last time but made up for this in spades with our squiffyness. Picking up neatly where we left off in Laos, we quickly accustomed ourselves (and the others) to finishing the ride with a few pints of Beer Hanoi, and rounding off the evening with the local fire water. Not quite as hangover free as I recall from last time, but I may have accidentally upped the quantities somewhat! We also made new friends, as we were joined by Priyen, Claire, Jim and Ros. This brought some interesting dietary challenges to the tour with the need for gluten, wheat and meat free dishes to be found in a country that wouldn’t baulk at eating your cat. It also brought good banter, some interesting Karaoke, an extremely bad Freddy Mercury impression, and many, many more good times.
If you’re interested in travel and photography, David’s blog is a great place to start, with some inspirational photographs, and entertaining stories: The Painted Roads Blog. In the meantime I'll leave you with some final photos...