A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: jparsons

A fitting finale to a tour of the Jinsha Jiang

On the road in Yunnan

sunny 30 °C

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 09:05 Archived in China Tagged landscapes china cycling Comments (0)

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 16:55 Tagged thailand photography cycling 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 11:42 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes people vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

The wild, wild east

37 °C

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

One-horse village en route to Ak Tash

This being my first visit to Central Asia, I was not really sure what to expect on landing in Kyrgyzstan. Emerging from the plane in the dark I was reassured to find that I wasn’t immediately cloaked in the usual humid fug, which I’ve experienced in so many Asian airports. Instead I looked up to be greeted with a beautiful view of the Milky Way: a small element of familiarity, in what would be an otherwise unfamiliar world. I had thought that I would find a few more signs of being in Asia than I initially recognised: where was the chaotic traffic, street vendors, and odd jumbled buildings? Who had rounded up the meandering animals from the middle of the road and marshaled the locals down from the roofs of the buses? Where were the half-finished houses, and half-crumbling government buildings? Instead, Bishkek’s grand, austere architecture and large solid-looking concrete edifices served to remind me that until the 31st August 1991 Kyrgyzstan was under the rule of the Soviet Union, only gaining independence following its collapse. Wandering around Bishkek, I got a sense that this was a place where North meets South and East meets West. Once we had cycled into the mountains (90% of Kyrgyzstan is above 1,500m in elevation) I revised my judgement to just "East meets the Wild West".

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

Soviet architecture dominates the view in an isolated spot on our first days's cycling

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

A rare example of cattle on the loose...in a deserted part of town

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

An electricity junction box is a small reminder that the basics were established under Soviet rule

In GDP terms, Kyrgyzstan is ranked just 143rd out of 228 countries, and surprisingly, even smaller than countries such as Rwanda, and Laos. Kyrgyzstan has visibly suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90's and the political turmoil of 2010 in Osh and Jalal-Abad which left nearly 2000 dead, and lead thousands more to flee to Uzbekistan. In the rural mountain areas we traveled to, there was little evidence of political upheaval, but it was clear that wealth was difficult to come by, and subsistence the norm. The obvious signs of wealth that I did see, in the form of cars, trucks, and interior decoration tended to herald a previous era (mainly the 1980's), with the odd exception.

They say "necessity is the mother of invention", and cycling along the dirt roads through sparsely populated towns and villages, there were constant examples of imaginative recycling: oil tankers converted into cafes and basic accommodation; ex-Soviet railway carriages forming a row of terraces. In one particularly remote area on the North side of Son Kul Lake, we found a family that had adopted a railway carriage, rather than the traditional yurt as their summer residence. It looked as though someone had dropped it from the sky, and appeared so utterly incongruous with its surroundings that I failed to notice a goat being castrated about two metres away. It did rather beg the question as to how it actually got there, and why only the one carriage....?

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Nothing goes to waste, especially not an old oil tanker

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

Ex-Soviet railway carriages make for modern terracing

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies,  at the remote Son Kul Lake

A yurt-alternative, seemingly dropped from the skies, at the remote Son Kul Lake

The other striking observation from cycling the back roads of this mountainous country, was the abundance of only two types of vehicle: clapped out Ladas, and Audi-80s hailing from the late 1980’s / early 90’s. As they shuddered or bombed past us on the barely surfaced roads, this confirmed Kyrgyzstan as one of those places (together with Morocco, Nepal and India) where the locals have an exceptional ability to adopt relics of a bygone era and maintain them to a standard of “barely functional” for decades to come.

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

The town of Kyzyl Jyldyz: a clapped-out Lada zone

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

An odd, but common juxtaposition at Son Kul Lake

Plenty of examples in the “no longer functional” category were also to be found in odd places. Fortunately the same principle didn’t seem to apply to the traditional mode of transport in these parts: horseback. The horses we encountered appeared well looked after and were vigorously ridden. It was quite common for us to be overtaken by galloping Kyrgyz children, teenagers and adults alike, clearly getting a thrill from riding bareback at speed, and surprising unsuspecting foreigners. When they turned and galloped off again in a cloud of dust, or I awoke to the vibration of cantering hooves on the remote ground near our campsite, it was these times that I felt I was truly in the wild, wild east.

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Clapped out Lada in its alpine resting place

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

Our abandoned bicycles fit right in

The locals call it a night

The locals call it a night

Posted by jparsons 14:19 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged landscapes cycling Comments (0)

When the wanderlust strikes again…

...there is no cure

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…

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

Not a hint of tarmac in sight!

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...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Kyrgyzstan paradise: Son Kul Lake...

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

Children on the road to Meo Vac in NE Vietnam

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.

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Yurt camps at Son Kul Lake

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Rice terraces in NE Vietnam

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

Anyone for Kumis (fermented mare's milk - think cheesy wine...)??

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.

We were a strange sight...

We were a strange sight...

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.

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

I'm watched as I attempt to wash the dust off

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.

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Local Kyrgyz children with my bicycle

Vietnam is buffalo country

Vietnam is buffalo country

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.

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Fairytale landscapes abound in NE Vietnam

Beautiful tarmac as well!

Beautiful tarmac as well!

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.

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

The Nieeeeyeps are a success with the kids

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

David Walker shares his photos with the locals

Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen

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...

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

Children gather to watch us from a safe distance

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A typical scene in NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

A girl clearly finds us funny, near Yen Minh, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

I meet a younger cyclist on the road to Bac Ha, NE Vietnam

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Kyrgyz children approach us near our campsite

Posted by jparsons 15:08 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged vietnam cycling kyrgyzstan Comments (4)

The Eliminator Route

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Although this is somewhat belated (we've been busy finding the middle of nowhere), I thought I should bring you right up to date on our most recent cycling endeavours.

We spent the festive period in Chiang Mai province in the cooler North West of Thailand, and after Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and three days of non-stop eating, I was itching to get back in the saddle. So, on the 22nd December, while Chris went to talk to the animals [see blog Chris goes to the zoo (again)] I booked myself onto Route 6X: The Eliminator Route. This was described by Chiang Mai Mountain Biking as

The ultimate cross country challenge, for only the strongest and most fit XC riders.*

At 40km long, the route promised to circumnavigate the entire Doi Suthep National Park along the mountain range crest, and crucially, included uphills. Perfect, I thought. What better way to work off the countless thai green curries? The following day at the morning briefing, I was instructed to don elbow pads, knee pads, cycling gloves, a helmet, and carry at least three litres of water and a couple of cereal bars...an ominous sign? At this juncture, I should point out that I was now slightly anxious about my choice of route, but still hopeful that many a weekend spent attempting to stay on down "technical" descents in the Peak District would work in my favour. I figured that the absence of beach material on the single track would also be an enormous advantage. I then prayed to Buddha that I wouldn't be found out.

We, and several other groups on the intermediate and beginner rides, were deposted at the top of the Doi Suthep mountain by jeeps. I was joined in the hard core group by three other victims: Laurent, Steve and John as well as our guide for the day: Jay. Now Jay was something else entirely. Jay was pint-sized, but on a bike, larger than life. It woudn't have surprised me to learn that he also slept on his bicycle from the way he rode. He disappeared off down the track into the jungle on one wheel (his front wheel being surplus to requirements of course). He reminded me of our ski instructor, Remy, in La Plagne: every fallen tree / mound of earth / major drop / boulder was seen as an opportunity to gain air time. Fortunately, the same wasn't expected of us.

  • *They may as well have called it The Yorkie Route (It's not for girls)

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The select few - hot but not yet eliminated!

The riding was fabulous. We rode straight through the jungle on single track, and the descents were not so technical as to find me out. It turned out that the knee pads were also useful for bushwhacking, so overgrown were some of the sections of track we "cycled". The tough part of the route was a half hour ascent, which included walking (Jay even got off his bike here) and a poisonous snake spotting, and landed us right at the top of the mountain ridge from where we had magnificent views. These were masked only by the sweat pouring into my eyes!

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

The hard work is over as I relax on the Doi Suthep ridge

Banana trees and jungle

Banana trees and jungle

The jungle

The jungle

The rest of the ride was predominantly downhill through jungle, past plantations of tomatoes along tracks lined with banana trees. We cycled well through lunchtime and out the other side, eventually stopping at a farm, where a toddler handed us some much needed local sustenance: bananas. Her father watched on in sandles fashioned from tree trunks. We were well off the beaten track.

Lunch...

Lunch...

Our day ended at Huay Jung Thao Lake with beers and curry. All four of us arrived, fortunately uneliminated and unscathed, about an hour behind all of the other groups. They were suspiciously clean. We were caked in mud, sweat, and dust with the odd tree branch here and there: a fine day out!

A route perhaps better described as The Eliminator Route is the Samoeng Loop. This 100km loop to the west of Chiang Mai up the Mae Sa Valley to Samoeng is usually aimed at "bikers" rather than "cyclists", however, Chris and I were not to be deterred. We hired two Trek mountain bikes from an affable Aussie called Damien (and his slobbery golden retriever Lucy) at Spice Roads in Chiang Mai, and packed our bags for a two-day adventure.

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

Me and bike number 7 from Spice Roads

We must have been suffering some kind of withdrawal symptoms from "undulations" (there weren't any in Cambodia) for the mere words "Coffee House" and "Hmong Lodge" enticed us off into the Mae Raem Valley around a 38km extension to the usual route. The coffee house and Hmong Lodge turned out to be a wild goose chase (closed in high season), but we were rewarded with a 1,000 metre "climb"** up to Hmong Nong Hoi village at 1,400m. We soon realised the pitfalls of Thailand, an infinitely more developed nation than our previous destinations: the roads were so steep that we spent most of the day in granny gear, unlike in Vietnam and Laos where the local vehicles simply woudn't have made it. The wild goose chase made lunch finding difficult. However, our stomachs were unconcerned - we were powered by cheese cake and tiramisu from Wawee Coffee in Mae Sa (yum).

  • **A "climb" (as distinct from an "undulation") was variously defined by our Redspokes group as an undulation of 4km or more; any hill that required the use of granny gear; any hill that Phong was not cycling - see blog Sunburnt, squiffy and saddlesore

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

Fuel for the Samoeng Loop

We ended the day sipping beers and noshing on an excellent thai take out at the Forest Guest House, taking in a fabulous view across the Samoeng Valley, and a less fabulous serenade by some particularly bad karioke wafting up from a nearby thai wedding party.

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

Chains of mountains behind the Samoeng Valley

The only way to finish the day

The only way to finish the day

The following day was a comparatively lazy day. Abandoned were the plans for 60km off-road before lunch: our legs had had enough and our stomachs hadn't. We breakfasted slowly on eggs, and put off the ascent out of Samoeng (500 metres up in 6km) a little longer by testing out the local strawberry juice (much sweeter than the strawberries were). We still had some serious work to do to get ourselves out of the mountains and back to Chiang Mai, including two major climbs totalling another 800 metres. Only another cake stop at Bon Banana would see us through! In a continuing theme we ended the day with the spare Chang beer from the night before, which tasted all the better for having been carried all the way from Samoeng. The only minor improvement would have been a trade-up to Beer Lao.

The only way forward

The only way forward

As I write this, we have now finally tested out the local "bikes". Apparently they haven't heard of bicycles in Koh Lanta, so we hired a moped and sped off round the island for a day. Fortunately I didn't have to ride up the 1 in 2 out of our hotel on my first ever moped outing. This was not a suitable challenge for a novice rider, and one of the hotel staff took pity on us. Mopeds don't inspire quite the same thirst as a bicycle, but they do make you lazy, especially when the sun is ablaze. You can tell by the well-fed look of the locals here (by comparison with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) that this is a place powered on petrol and curry.

Betrayal by "bike"!

Betrayal by "bike"!

Posted by jparsons 05:49 Archived in Thailand Tagged people food thailand cycling Comments (0)

Why I'm a crap tourist...

1) Two temples in, and I'm in need of one or all of the following: 1) a cup of tea; 2) a chocolate brownie; 3) a Beer Lao; 4) a lie down.

2) [Anyone who knows me will confirm this] I don't respond well to being told what to do, least of all what I should like or be wowed by. The carvings at Angkor Wat were undoubtedly stunning, but the havoc wreaked by nature on a nearby nameless temple was something else...

3) A balding, overweight westerner, sweating profusely in the midday sun, obliterates the seventh wonder of the world in a bid to offer photographic evidence to long-suffering relatives back home that he "was 'ere". Can someone please explain, because I really don't understand...

4) At major tourist attractions, I become easily distracted by people watching. I find myself absorbed by a bus-load of Koreans, who are filing past some ancient carving in a zombie-like state, wondering if they read the holiday brochure correctly, and thinking up nifty ways to out-manoeuvre them round the next section.

5) "You buy from meeee, only four dollaarr; you buy from meeee". "I'd love to, but unfortunately I left my purse at home. If you could just wait while I swim ashore..."

6) Tick lists are the root of all evil: e.g.101 things to do before you die. Is anything more crushing to the spirit of adventure than this?

Rant over. Now get back to the turkey sandwiches, or something.

Posted by jparsons 02:27 Tagged tourism Comments (0)

Step away from the turkey...

...and feast your eyes on this!

In case you were wondering what Vietnam and Laos were like to travel through, here are some photos of the beautiful scenery. Enjoy.

Vietnam

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

We visited Van Long National Park on a three day tour from Hanoi before meeting up with the Redspokes group

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A beautiful sunset in Van Long National Park

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A morning waddle in Ninm Binh province

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

A misty morning in North West Vietnam

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

Our first day of sunshine on the bikes? Sunrise over Tu Le

The hills around Sapa

The hills around Sapa

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

The new road over-caters for its users in North West Vietnam

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

A girl cycles the 10 kilometre hill that should have been 5!

Rice fields near Lai Chau

Rice fields near Lai Chau

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

The peaceful river valley approaching Muong Lai

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

All change: a brand new bridge to go with a rebuilt town (Muong Lai) following flooding for a hydro-electric scheme

A buffalo marks the route!

A buffalo marks the route!

Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

Laotian mountains from the Nam Ou river - our first taste of Laos

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Nam Ou river, which later joins the Mekong

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The Mekong winds through the mountains

The back up bus catches us up...

The back up bus catches us up...

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

Dusk in the mountains after an afternoon lounging in the hot springs

December haymaking

December haymaking

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Sunset in Vang Vieng

Locals at a fishing village

Locals at a fishing village

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Flatter lands approaching Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Big skys on the road to Vientiane

Posted by jparsons 09:50 Archived in Vietnam Tagged landscapes vietnam laos Comments (2)

(Entries 1 - 8 of 15) Page [1] 2 »