...or is this paradise?
Jennifer and Chris's tales from the road
19.11.2011 - 09.12.2011
One of the highlights of our trip so far has been the things we have "consumed" en route. Our journey into Vietnam and Laos, with a cycling appetite to boot, only served to increase the appeal of the local delicacies on offer. To whet your appetite, here is our top 10 of some of the food items we mostly dared to try...
#10 Morning Glory
What is the story, I hear you ask...? Well this green vegetable, best described as a cross between spinach, broccoli and cabbage, turned up consistently on our plates throughout Vietnam and Laos. It was fried. It was in soup. It was in curry. It may even have made it into the spring rolls. After about a week of consistently appearing on our dinner table, it began to yield a morning glory groan from the group. It's not that we don't like it. But it's Morning Glory! Chris and I thought that we'd made our escape on a desert island off the coast of Cambodia, but what should we find at the one and only restaurant: a new combination: Morning Glory in Oyster Sauce!
#9 Peanuts, unripened
It sounds unlikely, but in a small village near Tu Le, some local women offered us unripe monkey nuts, in the shell. Curious, we acceped the kind offer...They are eaten whole, shell included, dipped in a sauce made from salt, lime, garlic and fresh corriander. They certainly made my taste buds zing, but had to be washed down abruptly with some local sweets!
#8 Cobra Wine (with full length cobra)
We happened upon this interesting tipple in Muong Lai: a large glass flagon of the strong stuff, complete with coiled cobra inside. According to Phong, our Vietnamese guide, this drink "makes you strong". He wasn't referring to cycling. At $500 for the whole flagon (including cobra) we could all think of cheaper ways to achieve the same effect... At Tu Le, we tried a less venomous alternative: Bee Wine. This was exactly as described above, except there was an entire graveyard of bees nestling at the bottom of this flagon. Oh, and you could purchase by the glass, mouthful of bees excluded.
#7 Roast Dog
So I was quietly ambling through a village south of Hanoi when I had my first encounter with dog (the kind which didn't involve being chased). Two of the said woofters were being roasted on an open fire at the side of the road. One of my cycling buddies (who shall remain nameless) later asked me how I knew it was dog. The only honest answer I could give was that it basically looked like one, with the fur singed off and a spit stuck up its arse. It was clearly a dog. Or should I say an 'ex-dog'. I later learned from David, our tour leader, that this must have meant that it was "dog time of the month". What he really meant to say was that for two weeks in the month the Vietnamese consider it bad luck to eat it, for the other two weeks it is good luck (this works the other way around for the dog of course). In Sapa, two of our group, David and John, joined Phong on an excursion to sample dog "five ways", or so it sounded from their descriptions of the feast. Fortunately I was held up in a pizza restaurant at the time, otherwise I would have taken my turn at exacting revenge! In case you're wondering, it tastes like chicken.
#6 Mekong Riverweed
This is a must for anyone travelling near the Mekong. I know it sounds unappetizing, but this is a genuinely tasty snack. Sold like paper, in A4 sheets in the local markets, it is then fried and sprinkled with sesame seeds. I got my first tasting courtesy of Chris Morfas' laotian pizza on our first night in Luang Prabang - thanks buddy! Yum!
#5 Tarte au chocolat
One of the advantages of travelling through countries the French invaded, is the quality of baked goods on offer, and the Baguette au Chocolate cafe in Sapa did a wicked line in patisserie. Our rest days from the bike were generally characterised by a need to forage for cake, and it didn't take Chris and I long to bring home one of these tarts! Delicious crispy pastry, with a goey chocolatey filling: so good it had the rest of the group drooling when I stopped to savour my purchase at one of our tea stops. I was guilt free though - those without cake had ridden straight past the shop that morning on a steep incline out of Sapa. The bike had wanted to stop, I had wanted to stop, and the tart was shouting my name!
Now we're getting to the business end of this blog entry. Phong introduced us to this local snack in Tu Le. Phong seemed to operate on a principle of "if it flies, it fries", and so I was somewhat surprised to find only grasshoppers on my plate that evening. One hopper would have been sufficient. But with a wry smile, Phong enthusiastically uptipped the bowl into mine, adding some serious crunch to my noodles. The only way I can describe the taste of a grasshopper is that there were notable overtones of the farmyard (thank you Oz Clarke). I passed on the opportunity for seconds.
Of the weird things I've eaten, this comes pretty far up the list. As Phong waggled one of these in front of my nose in Tu Le, I recoiled in horror: this was becoming a bush tucker trial for only the hardiest of the group, would I survive? Silkworms look like witchetty grubs, and in my imagination this one was already crawling down my throat. After a moment to let my stomach settle, and make an objective decision, I thought 'what the hell' and gave one a try. Fried silkworm tastes a lot better than it looks. It is the texture of a soft-ish jelly bean, and is a lot less "farmyard" than the hoppers.
#2 Beer Lao
No blog of mine on conspicuous consumption could be complete without mentioning this old favourite. Beer Lao was the perfect way to quench a cyclist's thirst on a hot day, and also one of the few straightforward ways I found to understand the relative spending power of Dong and Kips (beer has its uses...) It was great for group bonding, and is now being sorely missed in Cambodia! However, when combined with a bicycle and the merest of "undulations" Beer Lao also had a tendancy to lead to the debilitating condition known as "beer legs", reducing performance (on the bike) by upwards of 50%... As a footnote to this particular entry, I have just spent the evening with Chris Morfas in Siem Reap where we managed to find genuine bottles of Beer Lao. Never has a beer tasted so good, and the reminiscing gone on so long (apologies to the restaurant staff at the Khmer Kitchen).
#1 Lao Lao
So good they named it twice! Those on our trip will know why this is number 1...It looks like water, tastes like water, comes in a water bottle, and like water comes hangover free (Dominique and I tested this theory on an entire bottle of the stuff one night, and woke up the following morning unscathed. We think). But this where the resemblance ends. At anywhere between 5 and 10 times the strength of a Beer Lao, Lao Lao is efficient stuff, leading one to become swiftly and seriously squiffy. It was the forger of some great friendships, and comedy moments, but drinker beware: it can lead to "crambling". Let the good times roll!
What happened today Dominique?
This morning you hardly did speak
Perhaps you should vow
To stay off the Lao Lao
And no crambling for the rest of the week
A mountain biking adventure through Vietnam and Laos
19.11.2011 - 09.12.2011
Friday 9th December
I have just sat down at a PC after aching, yawning and noshing my way round Phnom Penh for most of the afternoon. (Phnom Penh vies for the title of most unpronouncable capital city with Antananarivo). Yes, I'm in Cambodia, and the title of this blog entry is a clue as to how we got here. We've been in the saddle for the past three weeks, cycling 1250km (hence the aches and yawns) through northern Vietnam and Laos with a Redspokes tour group. The tour finished yesterday in Vientiane, and we parted company with our cycling buddies this morning. It's been the undoubted highlight of our trip so far and it's going to be a struggle to do it justice in a blog. This won't be a blow-by-blow account, but a selection of the choiciest nuggets that spring to mind as I sit and digest my wagyu burger and creme brulee.
Let's start with David, our livewire tour leader, also known as "Walks". An interesting nickname for a cyclist, I'm sure you'd agree, but David had no choice in the matter. Nor does it refer to any reluctance on his part to cycle the hard miles, for David pedals as though he was born with a saddle glued to his arse. It would have been a more fitting moniker for Phong, our local guide in Vietnam. Phong's cycling habits were a useful guide to the terrain ahead. If he and his bike stayed in the support vehicles, we knew a big climb lay in wait. At the top of the climb, Phong's bike would be retrieved from the truck and he would emerge from the minibus in suspiciously clean cycling gear. This ritual marked the start of a long downhill ride.
David and Phong were a fantastic double act in Vietnam, and we punters were all very well cared for. In Laos, Daolit took over Phong's role. A former Buddhist monk, Daolit was a daydreamer and a ditherer, and David played up to this image by jokingly referring to him as Manuel to his Basil Fawlty. David and the local guides were ably supported by a team of support staff who drove the vehicles, cleaned and maintained the bikes, and kept us fed and hydrated during the rides. I was genuinely impressed with the dedication and attention to detail shown by all the Vietnamese and Lao staff.
The cycling was tough. I don't have an exact figure for the total ascent, but we were climbing between 500m and 2000m each day, and cycling about 80km on average (110km on the longest days). There were small hills, big hills and small hills which turned out to be big hills thanks to David's looseness with the term "undulations" and an occasional tendency to mix up his daily briefings.
We started in the damp and the drizzle in Vietnam and finished with an absolute scorcher on the final day into Vientiane, but on the whole the weather was very good. The sunshine showed off the beautiful landscapes of both countries to great effect, was strong enough to burn us through sunscreen and created problems for whichever of us was carrying the heavy SLR. I will let our photographs speak for themselves in some future blog entries, but I just hope they were worth all the extra legwork we both had to put in to re-catch the group each time we stopped for a snap!
Saturday 10 December
It's now our second day in Phnom Penh. (Writer's block set in last night.) According to the Lonely Planet Cambodia guide, yesterday we should have visited the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum and Khmer Rouge Killing Fields before rounding off the day with a sunset cruise on the Mekong. This morning we should be shopping in the Central and Russian Markets. We must be really crap travellers because we have done none of these things. Instead, we've had a lie in, made use of the hotel pool, handed some seriously sweaty cycling clothes to the laundry service, booked a full body massage and looked through some of our photos.
Back to the cycle tour. We started as a group of 16 in Hanoi, dominated by Brits but with a healthy smattering of other nationalities also represented: the USA, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Croatia and Ireland. With damp conditions, tummy troubles and big hill climbs striking at various points during the first week, the group dynamic took a while to establish, but on recaching Sapa for a well-earned rest day, reputations were being forged. JP's repertoire of one-liners kept us entertained, John and David sought out the kind of delicacies which are normally only seen entering the mouths of C-list celebs during a Bushtucker Trial, Ivan delighted in sharing his brilliant photos and Edwina showed a penchant for the odd bottle of plonk.
The social side of the trip was a welcome change for us after the relative solitude of Himalayan trekking, and things got more interesting after we crossed the border into Laos. At Dien Bien Phu, our final night in Vietnam, we said goodbye to three of our number who had only come for the Vietnam section of the ride. Over the border we swapped Bia Ha Noi for Beerlao and the nameless Vietnamese firewater for lao lao, a spirit made from fermented rice and sold in recycled mineral water bottles. Our daily consumption of these beverages increased substantially, as did the resulting silliness and squiffiness each night.
The day of the border crossing was an experience in itself. To save time, we were bussed up to the Vietnam border checkpost where getting the required exit stamp was a formality. Beyond this we met our luxury Lao transportation, a flatbed truck with wooden benches, a roof and open sides. The bumpy journey to the Lao immigration post was good fun, but things took a turn for the worst when we arrived. The border officials closed the office and went to eat their lunch. We thought this was a ruse to get us to spend our money in the nearby cafe, coincidentally owned by one of the officials. David has experienced problems at this border crossing before, and the usual solution is to offer a few greenbacks as a sweetener. But the guards would not accept a bribe and would not re-open the office. Pete, one of our group, wryly observed that corruption can sometimes be a very useful thing (if you've got money). It was only later on that the real reason for the delay became clear. A Singapoean cycling group had arrived at the border just before us, and amongst their number was a Swiss lady with a diplomatic passport. This freaked out the border guards to such an extent that they refused to accept our money in case we were connected to the Singaporeans. They eventually processed our visas after a two hour delay, and we did have to bribe them after all.
The plan had been to cycle from the border down to Muang Khua, the nearest village. But we had been so heavily delayed that we had to do the whole trip by bus. For some, this meant the relative luxury of the air-conditioned minibus which had accompanied us all the way from Hanoi. For the rest, the open-sided Lao truck awaited. What they hadn't counted on was the sudden deterioration in the road conditions. Great plumes of dust billowed up under the wheels of passing construction traffic, coating our brave adventurers with fine sediment which blackened their skin and clogged their hair. Being an asthmatic and a contact lens wearer, I had taken the wise precaution of travelling in the minibus. We pitied the truck travellers as we watched them disappear again and again into each cloud of dust - it looked like some grim form of torture that might have been dreamt up by the Vietnamese communists. But they were a resilient lot, and not only did the whole adventure prove to be a bonding experience, but they even seemed to get some bizarre masochistic enjoyment from it. Perhaps an enterprising Lao tour company could even start marketing this as the latest extreme sport for falangs?
One of the recurring jokes of the trip involved the facilities at the guesthouses. Now I don't want to disparage Red Spokes here, because in most cases they had to work with whatever was available. But in the more remote places, breakfast time became a chance to compare the range of wildlife which had been found in the bedrooms - cockroaches, lizards and mice to name some examples. Another facility which caused great aniticipation in the group was the inifinity pool, a luxury which Redspokes make sure is provided each night. The definition has been somewhat stretched and in most cases the pool would be more accurately described as an infinity bucket in the corner of the bathroom. On the penultimate day, David received news from Daolit that the hotel at Na Ngum did indeed have a pool. Strangely enough this is one joke which never seemed to wear thin, and sure enough we arrived to find a banner which announced "swimming pool will open soon". Imagine our surprise as we climbed the steps to our room to find a brand new, fully-functioning pool - and not just any old pool, but an infinity pool with a superb view over Lake Na Ngum. Even David could not quite believe this!
For the sake of brevity I've had to gloss over lots of highlights from the tour, but the one abiding memory I will carry with me is of laughing, smiling Lao children running excitedly out of their school gates to greet us, giving us high fives, shouting "Sabaidee!" from their houses and chasing us on their bikes. The sound of happy children is the sound of the Laos countryside, cheering us on the tough climbs and notable by its absence on the quiet stretches. What a terrific country in which to be a traveller, and what a terrific way in which to experience it. Thanks Redspokes!
23.09.2011 - 11.11.2011
We managed to get through both our treks relatively unscathed but the same cannot be said for some of our gear. Here's a list of kit that we lost, broke, or managed to wear out!
30.10.2011 - 11.11.2011
Here are some of our best photos from our trek in Sikkim, to go with the recently-uploaded blog entries.
09.11.2011 - 11.11.2011
Day 11 – The Goecha La and the trek to Kokrochung (9 November 2011)
At 4am porridge and tea is served at the tent door, fuel for our big walk. But there’s an immediate problem; Jen has come down with a bout of D&V in the night. She’s not well enough to walk, so it’s just me, Pushpa and Abi, our senior porter, who set of at 4:30am. The moon is so bright that we switch our headtorches of after about half an hour. Our first goal is a viewpoint at the top of the valley behind Sameti Pokhari. We reach it just after sunrise. A smattering of trekkers are already here, firing off shots of the golden mountains, but nothing like the numbers at Dzongri. The viewpoint is actually the top of a moraine ridge. There’s a second viewpoint an hour and a half further up the path, then the Goecha La itself beyond that. To get to them, we must descend a steep, ice-covered path into the ablation valley of the Oklatang Glacier. Three guys standing at the top of the steep section have serious expressions. “Problem!” one of them says to me, pointing at the ice, but Abi is already halfway down in his wellies. I set off, carefully following his every move, while the dithering trekkers eventually decide to turn back. We reach the second viewpoint just as the sun hits us, warming our frozen toes and faces. Now, we are standing on top of another moraine ridge, directly opposite Goecha Peak and its eponymous glacier. Below us lies a large, frozen glacial lake – it’s awe-inspiring scenery and seems as though we’re in touching distance of the Goecha La. All we have to do is cross a snowy bowl, but it takes a further hour to get there. No-one else has come this far today, and the snow is fresh and deep. There’s a lot of clambering and comedy falling over as legs disappear into deep pockets of snow between the hidden rocks. Pushpa, a few paces ahead of me, points his trekking pole at some tracks in the snow and announces "Snow leopard." This is an elusive prize indeed! The tracks must have been laid since the last snowfall, which means they are less than three days old. An actual sighting of a snow leopard is ridiculously unlikely (Pushpa has done this trek more than 50 times and has only had one fleeting glimpse of a leopard) but to find fresh tracks is still a rare privilege. We struggle on to the pass itself, the sun now beating down on us and reflecting an unbelievable amount of heat from the snow, causing us to perspire heavily. At the pass we celebrate with hugs and high-fives (it’s also Abi’s first time here), and take in our surroundings. Kangchenjunga’s east face is massive and lofty. The mountain is sacred (and it’s forbidden to climb it from the Indian side) and Pushpa and Abi say prayers and burn incense. We look back on our route, a wild, unspoilt valley leading all the way out of the Himalayas. I also look back to our arrival in Dzongri three days ago, depressed after a week of terrible weather and on the point of giving up and going down. How things have changed! It’s rotten luck that Jen is not here to see this, but she gave me instructions to take lots of photos – easy for me to obey! At the pass we pick up the snow leopard tracks again, and follow them on a different route back to the second viewpoint, because as Pushpa says "the leopard always knows the way." Here, we strip off excess layers of clothing and eat our lunch. We retrace our steps to camp, arriving at 12:30pm. After a second lunch, Pushpa is keen that we descend more. Jen still feels rotten, but is just about well enough to walk on at a slow pace. She knows that 4,100m is not a good place to be ill! We walk yesterday’s route in reverse to Kokrochung, a campsite surrounded by rivers. We both rest in the tent until dinner. Mingma has rustled up another pizza but Jen can only manage a small bowl of cornflakes. By seven o’clock we’re both in bed.
Day 12 – The trek to Sachen (10 November 2011)
It’s time to go down. Once the main goal of a trek has been achieved, it’s always something of an anti-climax on the walk out, and that’s how I feel as we set off this morning. Jen has made a rapid recovery and almost matches me in terms of porridge, eggs, chapati and pizza (reheated) consumption at breakfast. We’re now below the treeline and are walking in forests all day. But what beautiful forests – towering pines decked in mosses and ferns, rhododendron trees with leaf clusters the size of small umbrellas, golden birches and magnolias. No villages, no fields, just a wild forest. It’s a different experience to the treks we have done in Nepal. As you descend from the heights, you can almost feel the warmth returning to your blood. There’s a gradual re-connection with civilization: mobile phones spring into life, a distant road is spotted, and then the first settlement. In our case, it’s the small hamlet of Tshokha where we stop for lunch. We then continue to descend, passing another hamlet called Bakhim. Pushpa introduces us to his Aunty Gita, who has a small shop-cum-restaurant stall here. She also has some unusual produce in her vegetable garden:
How does your garden grow?
With cauliflowers, beans,
An assortment of greens
And marijuana plants in a row
Jen’s remarkable recovery is complete, and she’s now striding along with chef Mingma. I’ve always known that the way to Jen’s heart is via her stomach (which is why I made sure there was a large slab of chocolate cake in front of her when I first asked her out). Mingma is a demon in the kitchen, so perhaps I should keep a closer eye on him… At Sachen, the porters have pitched our tent on a small plateau above the trail surrounded by wild forest. It’s a beautiful location for our final night. We get a special dinner, featuring a salad that looks like a piece of modern art and a cake decorated with the words "Happy Trake" (sic). We both eat too much and there slope off to bed feeling the usual weariness. Some of our porters are sleeping under a hollowed-out tree nearby.
Day 13 – The trek to Yuksam (11 November 2011)
It’s a two-hour walk through the shady forest to our final destination, Pushpa’s home village of Yuksam. Before we leave we say some words of thanks and tip the staff. The walk is uneventful and our minds are already thinking about the coming days and weeks. We pass a group heading up who warn of monkeys throwing rocks down a landslide, but when we get there they have gone. I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved. We reach Yuksam, by far the prettiest village I have ever seen at a trailhead (most are complete dumps). Our transport is waiting – the usual pimped-up Mahindra jeep. With the trekking over, it’s time to reflect on what has been a tough but ultimately rewarding couple of weeks.
Sikkim has given us a taste of the wild Himalayan winter. The blizzards and fog persisted for seven days, making the trek physically punishing, mentally tiring and a challenge for Pushpa faced with keeping 16 people safe and in good spirits. Then the sun came out and transformed our experience entirely. Just as we had reached the point of despair, we had five days of the most incredible scenery. This trek has been like a metaphor for India: exasperation and exaltation in equal measure.