Sunday, 14 March 2010

Viva Mexico!

As our boat pulled into Manzanillo on the Pacific coast I was just thrilled to be back in the tropics. Such a contrast to the autumn and winter of Asia both weather wise and culturally. We were back to the sunshine, palm trees dotting the skyline, people ambling around in skimpy vests and suntanned complexions... no one was going to be pinching my brown arms in horror here. Woo hoo! Also notable was the high percentage of men sporting moustaches c.1970 and a marked increase in body mass which shocked us to the point of gawping*. Not cool I know but coming from asia where for months we've been surrounded by people of slight stature (I was in the XL category) to see Mexicans is a real sight to behold... they are L>A>R>G>E.

*I also think I caught a bad case of the 'gawp' in India and haven't quite managed to shake it yet.

Leaving Manzanillo port took us a while longer than anticipated as the customs guys held our bikes and gear hostage for a day under the pretence of 'It's Sunday, there's no one to search them', despite the fact that they managed to search 2 of the ships departing crew members bags who were with us. Customs then proceeded to charge us handsomely for their release (storage and taxi costs). I'm not sure wether I felt more aggrieved to discover that they didn't rummage through all our gear, if you're going to charge us for a search at least have the courtesy to do the damned search. As it was the delay didn't matter as it was my birthday and we decided to stay put rather than riding into the hills and spent the day on a boat trip round the holiday area of the bay, snorkelling and drinking tequilla.

Lovely pelicano
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
Beyond being thrilled by the warmth, palm trees and tequila (I've actually developed a taste for it, would even go as far as to say I enjoy it), I was also smiling at the sight of the odd pelican bobbing in the bay. Pelican translates to pelicano in Spanish. Childishly, I am pleased no end by the words which are the same as ours but with an -o added on the end. Talco for example (excellent for prickly heat and rhino bum prevention) being a particular favourite. But back to the pelicans. Over time I just fell in love with them. They are such languid, graceful fliers for what looks like should be a clumsy bird, skimming and fishing the seashore in elegant line formation. They're rather soft and cuddly looking too, just lovely they are, lovely, and as we spent our last month in Mexico migrating north with them, we cycle at the speed of a migrating pelican - though they take less breaks, I just grew to love them more. I felt we bonded. (Though by now they're probably all washing up on the Louisiana coastline caked in oil, bloody BP).

But on to the ride. Mexico turned out to be an excellent country for cycling. Ultimately this is because Mexico is blessed with pretty coastlines, awe inspiring desert scape's, forests, wildlife, ancient blood thirsty Aztec civilisations (an oxymoron surely), great beer, chili's at every meal and tequila. We also happily rode around on highways and deserted byways without being robbed (customs excluded), shot or kidnapped by drugs cartels. What more could you ask for? Admittedly you've got to have a fearless attitude toward 'taking the lane', the legs for ascending mountains and an ability to block out the odd cry of 'Gringo!' but on the whole it was very good indeed. In fact the people of Mexico treated us with at times unrivalled kindness. Even the drivers didn't try to run us over much.

Whilst in Mexico the one attraction I really wanted to see was the Monarch butterfly reserve. Every year millions of monarch butterflies migrate south to overwinter in the forests of Michoacan and around Mexico City where they hang around in the fir trees, wait for it to heat up, have a huge mating frenzy, apparently a bit of a spectacle, and then they migrate back north to Canada again. It takes about 4 generations for the population to the complete trip in one direction, scientists are baffled as to how they manage it, how do they know where to go?! With this goal in mind we left Manzanillo and headed in land with the aim of making it to the old colonial city of Morelia which is just a day or so's ride from the Monarch butterfly reserve.

Lovely. All good in theory. But what I wasn't prepared for were the hills along the way. Armed with the best map we could find, which lacked relief (in more ways than one), we selected possibly the hilliest route we could across Mexico. There are two very good reasons that most people cycle north to south in Mexico, the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental, beasts of mountain ranges running down the middle. Having been effectively off the bikes for over a month, subsisting on a diet of cheese and bread on the cargo boat, moving onto a diet of queso and tortilla's (cheese and bread) in Mexico and being an off the wagon vegan straight out of asia (where cheese is not a highly featured ingredient) it would be fair to say that I probably wasn't functioning at my best. That, the heat and the crippling hills made my first few days riding in Mexico a bit of a struggle. Don't get me wrong the canyons we rode up and down were stunningly beautiful but it is arguable how much you can enjoy the view whilst feeling like you want to puke up your latest quesadilla at the side of the road from heat and heart strain. The Mexican's also seem to plan roads in a 3 step process:
STEP 1. locate where the road should go to link up towns
STEP 2. find the highest hill (preferably a series of hills) in the vicinity
STEP 3. reroute the road to take in all potential views from the top whilst checking out wildlife in low lying areas
If I had a pound for every time James ranted 'For god's sake why couldn't they just build it up the valley, it's so stupid!' I could probably fund another year of bike travel.

However the views were stunning. Mexico is truly a spectacularly beautiful country (the ranches less so but if you like cows and can blank out the loss of rainforest that came with them even they can be pretty too). Much of Mexico is volcanic, the beaches are volcanic, the soil is volcanic, and the volcanoes are well and truly smokin'. Riding to Morelia we were accompanied by views of the volcanoes around Colima which accompanied us for days. I felt dwarfed by the landscape which we seemed to inch our way along but it was also widely varied. Mexico is home to beaches, desert, rainforest, scrub, mountains, lakes, sprawling cities and tiny villages, its all there and at times you can ride through 3 vastly different habitats in a day. Most exceptionally we managed to set off one morning from volcanic/tropical Mexico, up, up, up, through beautiful temperate pine forest in dappled shade. We paused for lunch at a great little shop where I've ever regretted not buying a bottle of the owners brilliant scarlet home brewed liquor, and afterwards continued upwards through the by now pleasant temperatures caused by altitude and shady pine to crest the mountain, turn the corner and find ourselves in real cowboy country. All around a landscape of dust and scrub, vultures and cacti and multitudes of squashed skunks on the road. They don't smell any better dead. We had made it to the Sierra Madre plains proper and the transition was almost instantaneous.

Along the way to Morelia we paused in old towns for the night or sometimes just for palletas (whilst my favourite ice lolly turned out to be tamarind, my least favourite was tamarind and chili, there is absolutely nothing refreshing about a chili ice lolly no matter what the friendly man might say). The towns themselves were almost without fail pleasant places to stop with lovely shady benches in pretty public squares at their hearts, often with old bandstands in the centre, all left over from colonial times but still the heart of the community, even newer towns where built to this model. In bigger towns and cities these little squares would come to life on evenings and weekends with bands playing (you can't beat a good brass band) and clowns entertaining young and old alike, though how these squares could support so many balloon sellers I'll never know. The only downside of rolling into town is that most of the roads where cobbled (or just wrecked). At home we have 'twenty's plenty' signs and speed bumps, in Mexico they have cobbles... it does explain why you don't see too many people riding bikes in Mexican towns though, a donkey is much more practical (though mostly what you see is beat up pick up trucks and ancient VW beetles).

Arriving in Morelia I had a real buzz of excitement. Morelia is a stunningly beautiful and vibrant city. It's teeming with beautiful old spanish buildings, Mexican murals, street cafes, and a sizable sweet market (there are other markets too but the sweet market made me smile, it probably didn't do much for my smile, as I will explain later, but it did make me smile). We also happened to time our visit with a special celebration involving fireworks over the catherdral. Many of the cities catholic churches were so ornate they looked as if they had been iced rather than built, we even had the surreal experience of visiting one particularly over the top pink and gold confection during mass to then have it descend into some kind of mariachi party. The plaza was filled nightly with street entertainers and balloon sellers. And we went for cocktails in possibly the most beautiful bar I have ever been in. Balcony of Angels was situtated on the top floor of a huge old building open to the night sky and views of the cathedral roof, with cocktails we could actually afford to drink and lovely company. All in all it was so perfect we stayed an extra day.

Riding a bike long term can really cut you off from the world beyond your field of vision. We rarely hear news or speak to other travellers (we just don't end up in the same places). Its probably for the best in many respects as we have a tendancy to ride right through trouble blissfully unaware with no ill effects. In Morelia we had a bit of a 'will we, wont we make it' situation due to reports from fellow travellers that the road we needed to take (and the entire village of Angangueo we planned to ride through) had been wiped out in a devastating flood. There were also rumous that it had potentially devastated the butterfly population. We had heard nothing about it beyond a snowbird commenting on how it had been unseasonably rainy. Whilst we had experienced some of this, being trapped in the tent in an unglamorous field for 36 hours by torrential rain, being saved from hunger by a kilo of strawberries I bought from a roadside vendor (which at the time J had been laughing about how we'd never be able to eat them), we'd had no idea there were landslides and evacuations afoot. However the tourist office reckoned that whilst there had been damage the road was passable. So we headed off hoping for both roads and butterflies.

As it was, when we reached Angangueo we could see why there was a problem. The entire town is built in the narrow gorge forged by a swift flowing river. Over time people had built further and further up the banks and towards the source, removing stabilising vegetation and building in ever more precarious places. As rivers naturally erode, its what they do best, it was just a terrible accident waiting to happen. As we started to ride up we had no idea (not for the first time) just how steep and high the road was going to go. Near the town centre (a third of the way up the mountain) we decided to call it a day. The village was such a mess with streets washed away leaving huge holes and trenches where the road should have been, walls and pavements where caked in white lime (to prevent disease) and most homes without water and power. We found a discounted room in a flood damaged hotel and an intrepid cafe owner who had supplies to make us supper. It was scary to think how the people of the village would manage as this was the peak season when everyone would normally make a living from the butterfly tourists but without them how they would ever recover I couldn't imagine. The next day we continued on and up only to discover the higher we went the worse the damage was, houses where completely demolished, trucks battered and overturned in the river, with the army shuttling recovery teams around. We wheeled our bikes through the disaster area for a couple of hours before continuing to push up the otherwise deserted road. It was a shocking sight.

After many highs and lows (mostly altitude induced) we finally made it to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve and we really couldn't have timed it more perfectly. The weather had just started to heat up which meant that the butterflies were getting frisky and warming up for moving out. Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer mass of butterflies in the forest. The branches of the trees where coated orange and bent with their collective weight... imagine how much a butterfly weighs and then how many it would take to make a branch bend, then imagine that on all the branches on the tops of all the trees... truly awesome (in the old fashioned sense of the word) and as if that wasn't enough the air was filled with clouds of flitting and mating butterflies (and the ground carpeted in spent males, the females do the migrating bit laying eggs along the way). To see it was to make the whole journey worthwhile, an epic sight.

From Morelia we made our way to Mexico city where we were hosted by the lovely Kodiak and Caty. Mexico City is ringed by mountains on all sides with the poorer homes knocked up on the hillsides and the older heart of the city at the centre. Whilst there we visited the Museum of Anthropology which nearly made my head burst, took a trip round the Xochimilco Floating Gardens and the stunning Frida Kahlo Museum. Located in the blue house where Frida grew up and lived with Diego Riviera, the museum showcased not only her work, but photographs and letters relating to her life and times to create a powerful insight into her artwork and the world she lived in, both tragic and inspiring.

We also made the trip out to the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Its not really known who founded it as it has traces of the Zapotec, Mixtec and Maya cultures but eventually the Aztecs took it over for mostly ceremonial purposes. Whilst the plaster which would have originally covered the walls and pyramids are long gone the well built stone and mortar city was mind blowing to behold, as were the numbers of tenacious vendors in the midday sun!

Whilst in Mexico city I managed to meet up with my old Stokie flat mate who was teaching out there for a drink which was a very nice surprise indeed. We aslo went to a pulque bar. Where cantinas can be slightly seedy mexican men only bars the pulque bar was like a student piss up. Pulque has been around since pre hispanic times, was drunk by the Aztecs who limited its consumption as it made people act a bit crazy, from a people who commited human sacrifice on a massive scale to keep the sun rising daily, I had to wonder - just how crazy can it make you?! We thought we'd give it a try. As it turned out I rather liked it (surprise, surprise) it tasted very much like the magoli of South Korea but james wasn't so keen, he said it reminded him of a brew he used to drink when he was living in the jungles of Peru that was fermented with the spit of toothless old ladies... it seemed to affect his enjoyment, god knows why, he can be so bloody fussy some times.

The day we were due to leave Mexico City we got up, ate breakfast and I cracked a tooth. Ismael and Caty had arranged for a group of friends to ride out the city with us, as it was Caty had to take me to the dentist, interpret for me, arrange a discount and wait with me while I actually had my wisdom tooth extracted. They both then insisted we stay an extra couple of days. I will be eternally grateful for their kindness and patience. sometimes there for the nasty things in life.

In the end, despite the tooth finale, we just loved it.

At around this time we were due to head to Oaxaca, but James hit the travel wall. Both homesick and hillsick he no longer wanted to keep heading south but to turn east and north and start back home so we headed east to Veracruz and the coast. On the way we passed through some remarkable cloud forest where indigenous populations hang on to traditional ways of life. We were aslo interviewed by a real character for a documentary he was doing about a village we randomly ended up in where apparently the Beatles had gone to take magic mushrooms and so triggered an unstoppable influx of hippies on a long trip. You'd never have guessed to look at it today... though come to think of it, there was that little hut with a mushroom painted on the side. Anyway, it was a great story (all true) and we had a laugh.

Originally we were headed to a patch of rainforest which turned out to be so tiny we didn't bother going after all but headed straight down to Veracruz, which turned out not to be that great for a holiday, so we headed north to Papa Tortuga's place (Papa Turtle) with the aim of helping some of the rare Kemp's Ridley turtles in their nesting activities (or rather saving the eggs by relocating them up beach so they didn't get eaten by dogs or people). Papa Tortuga was a super sweet man who posted us 6 miles up the beach to watch for turtles and help save eggs. As it turned out this was a great place for a holiday, especially as no turtles came ashore when I was there so the most I did was tidy around the hurricane damaged house we were camping inside, pick litter off the beach (please, please, when will we ban plastic bloody bottles?) and drink coconuts, eat coconuts and make coconut and tequila cocktails. Despite the disappointment of not seeing a turtle (James randomly had one lay an egg in his hand when he went back down to the really busy part of the beach to buy supplies, no wonder they're endangered) it was a great spot of deserted beach, to get there we had to wade through the sea with our bikes over heads and ride down the sand for 6 miles so it was wonderfully tranquil (until the day the family next door decided to kill a pig that is, if you'd heard it you'd never eat pigs again). In the end though it was time to move on, so having helped save exactly zero turtle eggs we left a donation and headed up the Gulf Coast to the U.S. border with the wind in our face (it was as tough as riding up a mountain without the views) but with the migrating pelicans, raptors and occasional monarch butterfly by our side.

The closer we came to the border the stranger Mexico became, interesting landscapes were replaced with ranches, population was sparse and the towns became more spaced out (distance I mean) and shadier to be in. We felt ourself in the presence of the U.S. border long before we got there (Mexico's border zone seems to be about as wide as the length of Britain). But we knew we were in the zone when the sights of armoured tanks and military convoys were commonplace. Its a curious feeling to have a man with a massive machine gun in one hand waving at you from the back of a tank, you feel kind of obliged to smile back. In towns we'd often see teams of Mexican troops, armed to the teeth in pairs sneaking through alleys as though they were on a raid. We never saw one thankfully but it was disconcerting none the less, but like most social problems you're unlikely to come to harm except by accident in crossfire or by venturing out after dark. As it was we just rode and rode, trying to get the miles over with and beyond being tucked up after dark it was all fine.

Reaching the border I had real mixed feelings. All the way up the Gulf Coast I had been developing a real sense of going home. We were out of the tropics and about to head into a land where we could, for the first time since leaving home, communicate with ease. I was sad to leave Mexico and its beauty. I was also sad to leave behind me all the exoticness of our travels so far (the warmth, the landscapes, the languages, the food, the wildlife, the people). In so many ways I was all up for staying in the tropics and on the road forever, but then again, I miss my family and having friends who know you and love you is a thing of value beyond measure, I was also becoming blasse to experiences which would have blown my mind when we set off, so it was probably time to come home. And so with an equal mix sadness and excitement we crossed our final border to the U.S.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Crossing Korea and the Pacific - Bikes not advised

Chances are, had James not wanted to visit his old school friend Mike and his wife Hayon, its unlikely we would have gone as far north as South Korea, but only because cycling in foot deep snow and below freezing temperatures is for hardcore crazed types who equate falling off, trudging through slush and not being able to have a drink because their water has been frozen solid with a good time. But as we were in the neighbourhood (well Japan's quite close) we thought, let's go anyway! Especially as Mike and Hayon kindly took us into their lovely flat in Seoul for a month whilst we rested, healed ourselves, washed our clothes in a machine, tended to our trusty steads, defrosted on their underfloor heating, developed a taste for magoli and generally took the festive period as a much needed break from cycling.

Our boat from Japan docked in the busy port city of Busan, where international ferries come in and our cargo boat would later depart. We decided to take the bikes on the train directly to Seoul to get to Mike and Hayon's for a much needed rest with the idea of riding back south. Although unbagged bikes are technically not allowed on the trains, the guys behind the counter ran around in a typically helpful Korean fashion and sorted it out so we could take them on.

As for cycling back down, it was a nice thought. If we thought that it was cold in Japan, it was nothing compared to what faced us in South Korea. Like the rest of the Northern hemisphere South Korea was facing an exceptionally cold winter and since we have just spent the past year in tropical conditions (with tropical clothing to match) it came as a bit of a shock. Temperatures rarely got above freezing, were averaging -7 in the heat of the day, dipping much lower at night. Its not that I didn´t think Korea would be cold, its pretty close to Siberia, but on the ferry people were laughing at my anticipation of a white Christmas whilst declaring 'No no no, not in never snows in Seoul'. Mmmm, right then. Within days of arriving the snow fell, and fell, and fell. Whilst it made everything intensley beautiful it also meant that we could only be out in it for an hour or so before hypothermia began to set in and we had to dash for the nearest doughnut shop to thaw.

You'd be surprised how many doughnut shops there are. The Korean's aren't big on sweet desserts (they're mostly made of rice in various guises) but there are doughnut shops everywhere. As it was had I not been otherwise subsiting on a diet of Bibimbap* (steamed rice, veg and chilli sauce) accompanied by the phrase 'Goggi NO!' and side orders of kimchii (pickled/fermented cabbage) at every meal the doughnuts may have led to me snapping my bike when I got back on.

*I say I mostly ate bibimbap except for an accidental order of fish offal soup, possibly the worst thing I have ever attempted to eat, I couldn't, if we want to save the world's fish stocks we should feed this to people until they´re cured of the desire to consume sea life, 3 bowls each should sort it out.

Food update over, Seoul is a thriving modern city and makes an excellent base with its beautiful old temples and palace complexes sitting happily alongside modern art galleries and excellent museums as well as its proximity to the DMZ. They were also really going for it in the festive lights department (Korea is, surprisingly, predominantly Christian). The main thing I was surprised by was the huge American military presence there. The north-south war is officially ongoing, they're just having a long cease fire and the bases are overflowing with American soldiers, to the point where they have their own part of town, their own bars, shops and everything else a westerner may need to feel at home, its pretty bizarre in an otherwise very Asian country.

We took a trip to the DMZ where we wandered down huge tunnels running deep underneath the 4km exclusion zone, which the North Koreans dug to try to infiltrate Seoul. Fortuntely they were discovered just shy of their mark, apparently the North Koreans tried to pass them off as coal mines by rubbing coal dust on the walls, hmmm.

Korea´s traditional temple and palace buildings, whilst similar in style to those found in Japan and China (timber built with beautiful curved roof gables and yin yang tiling) also have unique paintwork on the undersides of the roofs, ceilings and supporting beams, making them bright, beautiful and very distinctly Korean.

After resting, repairing, eating, drinking, visiting beautiful temples & museums, banging drums and setting my panniers on fire on a ventilation pipe (now euphemistically referred to as the great fire, all hail gaffa tape), and generally vegging out we were ready to get riding again. However the weather had other ideas. By mid January the snow was still a foot deep on the sides of the roads, which had you seen the average Korean drive you'd know this was where you'd want to be. So we had to bundle our bikes on a bus (after a mad 8km dash, skidding through the snow, to the other side of Seoul) and head south to Andong in the hope of a thaw.

Hahoe village - S. Korea
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
After spending a night in Andong sampling the local speciality of salted mackerel we biked along clearer roads to the historic village of Hahoe. Hahoe village has remained untouched since the Joseon dynasty and houses are preserved and lived in as they always have been. These are beautiful adobe buildings with gabled or thatched roofs (depending on how rich you were) and the village itself was serenely tranquil (possibly because we were the only tourists mad enough to go there in the snow). After spending a day wandering the quiet lanes and poking around in courtyards, we spent the night curled up in a tiny room in a homestay praising the ingenuity of the ondol and our was bloody freezing.

From Andong we biked through the freezing temperatures (where by lunchtime we couldn't get a drink as our water had frozen in our bottles) heading south to Gyeongju, centre of the Shilla Kingdom and a beautiful city too, teeming with ancient Royal tombs, palaces and temples and one of the loveliest hostels we've stayed in yet.

From there we made a slightly less chilly route south along the industrial hell that was the coastline complete with nuclear power stations to Busan where we continued to check out temples, eat bibimbap and kimchii, get James innoculated for yellow fever (which no one beyond the Captain of the boat checked), and were thoroughly cared for by couchsurfers and climbers Alan, Nikki and their ex-street dog the lovely Mitzy, as well as meeting their many varied friends for burritos, to get us in the mood and remind them of home.

Busan - S. Korea
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
By the end of our time in Korea, although I was glad I had been and had met with amazing hospitality from the biking community and well beyond, I was ready to move back into the warmth, in fact it was the cold that made us alter our plans from cycling across the states to heading further south to Mexico in the first place, its all good but I just couldn't take the cold anymore!

Catching a cargo boat across the Pacific is not something I would normally choose to do, it just happened to be the cheapest (though still scarily expensive, you´re looking at approx 90 euro's per day) way to cross to the New World without flying.

However I have to admit that it was just great, seriously, I loved it. I've worked on boats in a few previous trial careers so I wasn't expecting to be thrilled by a trip on a container ship, its not exactly what you'd call glamorous. But actually it was a top quality experience. A cruise it wasn't, there were no bouncy hostess types around to try to make my day great, you are left to yourself to make your own entertainment. However the crew were really lovely, genuine people, up for sharing a beer and a chat in the evening when they weren't working just because it was good for them to have new people to talk to and swap travel tales with.

Once we left dock we were basically allowed access to wherever we wanted to go, from the bridge where we discovered that the earth is not round and hence we would be sailing not in a straight line via Hawaii but more in a giant circle close to the arctic, gone were our romantic notions of lazing around on deck, too much snow; James was often to be found loitering around at the very tip of the ship, in front of the containers (aka the titanic bit) for top quality dolphin spotting away from the noise of the propellor at full speed, I joined him when I could finally brave the cold and my sea sickness/sleeping pills wore off; we were even free to go down to the engine room if that's what did it for us but to be honest, enthusiastic though the apprentices where, engineering is not much of a spectator sport.

Whilst on the boat we saw pilot whales, lots of dolphins frolicking around, the odd turtle and sealion sleeping on the surface, curiously they sleep on their keep one eye out for the great white scary ones below we reckon, and numerous sea birds when we were closer to shore.

Our cabin was possibly the nicest room we'd stayed in for a very long time and as my sea sickness pills seemed to turn on my inner doormouse I made full use of the bed sleeping around 12 hours a day until I gained my sea legs (10 days in). We were well fed and James was beside himself with the range of cheeses available and bacon for breakfast, I was happiest to welcome the return of toast, muesli, salad and chip butties. There was only one other passenger on board and just to blast my preconceptions of the average cargo boat cruiser Emiko was not over 70 and a boat nerd, she was 25, from the States, very lovely, had been travelling around and was on her way to meet her mum in Ecuador and just fancied the idea of not flying and having a good look at the pacific along the way, so perhaps WE are the average cargo boat cruisers after all.

We also had a party/BBQ on board a couple of days out from Mexico (complete with a whole roast pig). Having not danced for a while I took full advantage, drank a few beers, danced til dawn (had most of the crew up at one point or another). James also took full advantage of the moment and at the front of the boat and under a beautiful moonlit sky lighting up the ocean he asked me to marry him.

So there you have it, we arrived in Mexico, we did not sink, did not get eaten by sharks, did not get hi-jacked by pirates, we both enjoyed it loads more than we would have imagined, the crew were lovely, we ate well, slept well, wildlife watched, talked, danced, got engaged and drew a little closer to home. All in all twas more than I ever would have expected from a trip with a heap of cargo. I highly recommended it, you never know what might happen.


Saturday, 23 January 2010

Konichiwa! Horsemeat sashimi anyone?

Mt Fuji - Honshu - Japan
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
Ah, Japan.

I loved it, loved it, really really loved it.

When I first dreamed this trip, before I decided I wanted to loop the globe my destination was Japan (I had vague notions about heading back on the Trans Siberian Express or something). I wanted to go to a country where everything was just so alien to me that I would be completely thrown and could revel in the other worldliness of it all, where the language was so different I would never be able to even begin to guess what was meant by anything that was written or said. I looked forward to the challenge of the supermarket, the home of manga, a land where even the toilets are hi tech, where small is beautiful and everything works on the basis of hyper politeness and following the rules, where adult manga happily coexists with hello kitty and where the kids dress up as cartoon characters and amazingly don't get their heads kicked in.

But ultimately the reason that I loved Japan was not because it was so alien but because it felt so much like coming home. A hyper clean, ultra polite, super colourful, techno logic home maybe, but still very much home.

Originally uploaded by
After the tumult of India, the humidity of SE Asia and the arse breaking construction and tough riding of China, Japan was just a blessed relief. You can indeed see all the crazy stuff you've heard of in Japan, but ultimately I've seen so many bizarre things by now I think I'd be hard pressed to find anything that humanity did that could stun me. Admittedly we couldn't understand the language but we've been miming our way round the globe in some fashion since Calais and finding what you want in the supermarket is tricky but in places like Bulgaria just finding a shop is an adventure so finding stuff in a shop is nowt. In the end Japan was just not that strange to me but then again I do love a good bit of quirk and frivolity, and so I loved Japan.

Arriving in Japan felt like coming home because of the little things: people queue, everyone drives on the left and actually follows the rules of the road, no one tries to push you out the way or run you over, drivers allow each other to pull out, no one stares at you cos you're weird... how rude, there's no smog, the rivers are clean, the roads are good and despite people telling us otherwise people DO speak English (though you might need to initiate the conversation). Its easy. Things work. People are polite... really polite and generous too. Obviously it helps if you are polite and kind in return but I like it, I like manners, they're underrated. I think its nice to be nice. I can see how for some people it could get overly fluffy at times which is why Japan is the home of kawaii = cute but hell, give me fluffy cute ;-D over pushy, rude }-( any day, at least you can have a laugh at it if it all gets too much, there's always something to make you smile even if its just the best sushi you've ever eaten or a trip to the toilet.

Japan is the most westernised country we have been to since leaving Europe but in many ways nicer...surface nice maybe but as a tourist that's what you see. Its the cleanest country in the world (because no one ever drops any litter), the roads are safe, people are helpful, when I was lost or trying to find something I would just look around for the nearest young person who would find what I was looking for on their phone's gps and align me with the map (an essential piece of gadgetry for all residents, I'm stunned by how such an orderly country can have such total anarchy in street numbering). I am aware that no country is perfect, I am aware of its flaws with regards to marine life, dog fights and fellow citizens of the world. But as a guest and on a bike, you get to see the best the country and its people have to offer, which is substantial.

When going to Japan we were a little worried about costs (to put this in perspective we have a daily budget of £9 per day... a melon in a supermarket can cost £20, the cheapest rooms in hostels about £30 per person). So before we went we stocked up on basic foodstuffs in China so we could cook for ourselves, we needn't have as food is not actually that expensive at all and you can get great sushi for less than it costs in London (or really cheap if you go to the supermarket at the end of the day). We were also not too worried about accommodation whilst we were riding in the countryside as we live in a tent, but maybe not so good in the cities. And so we got into warm showers and couch surfing, this was a turning point. Through people we met on both these sites we learned and accessed a lot more than we ever would have done on our own. Japan is a country which could be quite difficult to fully appreciate if you didn't know someone who lived there. Signs are rarely in English so its hard to tell from the outside the difference between a restaurant/bar/strip joint (they're fond of curtains over windows and doors regardless of how innocent the proceedings going on behind).

It was also heartwarming to meet people who not only let us into their homes but frequently left them open for us to wander into, total strangers, all their gear there, without even meeting us (the kind of thing your mother would warn you not to do). Admittedly there's no one safer to let into you home than a cycle tourist, they're never going to nick your stuff, they don't want the extra weight.

So here the list of honour begins...
Here's to K who we barely even saw who just leaves his door open to anyone whilst running around helping the homeless of Osaka in his spare time; to Jun who took us in in Nara, awed us with his epic 4 year Alaska to Tierra del Fuego bike ride, showed us round the primeval forest and politely ate the driest fried egg sandwich in the world cos I made it for him, what a gent; Will and Chrissie in Numazu at the foot of Fuji, who helped us devise routes, took us for filthy ramen/tasty sushi, introduced us to the pleasures of sumo and plum wine and took us for our first great pint of ale since leaving home, may all your dreams come true; and a final hip hip to Fuminori in Tokyo, who's not even on warmshowers or couchsurfing but who still left us the keys to his apartment in his mailbox without even meeting us, took us sake and shōchū sampling, had James eating raw horse and squid guts (the man's one step away from roadkill I tell you); we are humbled and thank you all, our door is open... when we get around to having one over a tent flap.

I had always wanted to visit Japan in the spring for the cherry blossom (sakura - Japans national flower, its everywhere). Alas we were 6 months out of sync. This was a deep disappointment until we met Mr Watanabe on the ferry (a lovely character, who had just done a trip to London and back, over land and sea, so he could ride on a canal boat). Mr Watanabe was thrilled that we'd be in Japan for the autumn colours, which is just as big a deal in Japan as the sakura season. Get in! So we stumbled in on one of natures most beautiful fleeting shows and if you think there are lots of pictures of red leaves on my flickr site you should have seen the number I deleted. This was just spectacular spectacular. Also we were in camellia season (which must surely be Japan's 2nd national flower), its happy pink bloom was present at every turn and so the missed sakura was compensated for by a spectacle I hadn't even known about.

Osaka was a fine start to our trip in Japan. Its bladerunner neon streets throng with crowds of coiffed and primped youth, their efforts in grooming would make most gay men look slovenly, the salary men moving purposefully through the crowds are easily identified by their signature slick suits and the schoolgirls in their sailor suit uniforms are unnerving as a result of kill bill flashbacks.

There are also cyclists moving easily through the streets on such a huge scale that it gives me hope for the future. Osaka had an instant positive effect on me. Though there are no major sights here its a great place to find your feet.

Nara the forerunner of Kyoto as the capital of Japan of old, has you tripping over jaw dropping shrine complexes which we spent days happily exploring, as well as beautiful parks complete with deer which are protected as National Treasures. The deer, used to being fed deer biscuits, generally maul around the park terrorising children. It regularly makes the children cry, which made me laugh cos there's nothing less frightening than a deer (except when you're 2ft tall). Nara is also blessed with a stunning primeval forest where the trees were frankly showing off in reds and golds.

Kyoto is just rammed full of beautiful old buildings, temples, shrines, torii gates, shinto priests and women wandering round in Kimono's often carrying ultra cute little girls in pink kimono's in their arms, their hair in spiky gravity defying bunches, you'll be hard pressed to find anything cuter than a little Japanese girl in a pink kimono.

Kyoto is also where most of the Geisha in Japan live but because they live very secluded lives its pretty uncommon to see one. Wandering down to the Gion district we happened to wander into a quiet street, just admiring the houses when not one but about half a dozen Geisha emerged from doorways on their way to their evenings appointments. Spotted, I felt like a twitcher of humanity.

Before reaching the foothills of the lovely Japanese alps, we had to cross from Lake Biwa to Nagoya, a trip we wanted to complete as quickly as possible to reach the main alpine attraction. To get there we had to ride over a pass where the problem of not being able to read Japanese became apparent. As we made our ascent along the 'scenic' route we could see lots of signs which meant nothing to us but as everyone was overtaking us up the road and no one said anything we pressed on. Only as we were approaching the peak, having ridden uphill for a few hours, did a lady stop us to tell us that on the other side the road was "not there" and "washed away". To which we thought... "pants".

It was getting late, we had a dilemma, to go back around would put 2 days on our journey AND where the hell would we camp... so we pressed on. The roadblock was substantial but we managed to get our bikes round the side and gingerly made our way upwards on the hillside road being careful at every bend. There wasn't a landslide... there were several landslides.

As it got dark we pitched our tent to the edge of the deserted road, made dinner, giving some to the ancestors just in case. After dark a couple of motorcyclists came through from the direction we had come attempting the same thing. After much toing and froing their friends joined them, 2 got through 2 turned back, we felt encouraged by the fact that they hadn't all returned, they must have gotten through (or dropped off the edge!). As it happens they had not only made it but had built a small bridge over the most precarious bit making it safer for us, I was never so grateful.

Tea in alps - Japan
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
But aside from the occassional blip and not so great industrial city sprawl concentrated on the flat bits Japan is just an amazingly picturesque country. Although a lot of the countryside is over engineered with unnecessary civic works projects it is still stunning and well covered with forest, rivers and flowers. We spent our time crossing from Kyoto to Fuji by skimming through the foothills of the beautiful Japanese alps, which look a lot like the Alps closer to home except the farmed bits are trimmed with the neatest tea bushes I have ever seen and we had an encounter with a serrow which left me squeaking 'wtf was that!' (google it, tis a very cool goat). I also spotted a Japanese weasel which pleased me no end, but sadly the only tanuki (japanese racoon dog - actually a fox) we saw was squashed flat on the road, one for j's list of the dead.

Dropping down from the alps towards Numazu we got our first glimpse of Fuji. I was thrilled to be getting so close to the dormant (but not dead) volcano as it was one of my dreams to see it. However despite spending a few days in Numazu, at the foot of Fuji, we were not to see it again properly as it was all but permanently shrouded in mist rising from its snow capped peak. We had no idea about it being notoriously difficult to see. As we left to skim around the edge of the mountain in a fine drizzle I was gutted to not have taken a picture of it when I'd had the chance at a clear shot. The road we took was hard, wet and grey and we were forced to camp short of our planned camp spot over the pass, past Fuji, as the gloom deepened towards sunset. For once I was pleased about the rain which delayed us as the next day turned into fine Fuji viewing weather and as we descended from the pass and rounded the curve of the hills the shy Mount Fuji was in full glorious view.

From Fuji we hoofed our way to Tokyo, the city to top all cities, where we ambled around checking out the kids in costume, rockabilies in the park and performance atristes generally bobbing around, doing bizarre stuff, and being artistes. We also took the time to fully verse ourselves on the latest Japanese fashion on the street...we just didn't expect the dogs to be wearing so much of it.

Japan is teeming with, for me, the most beautiful temples in the world. I love wood, its a well known fact, I love it when its trees, I love it when its furniture, I love it new, I love it old, and I love it when is Japanese temples and shrines.

Beyond the splendid painted wooden temples of Kyoto and Nara many of the temples of Japan are natural beauties. They are built with a lightness and warmth of sun bleached pale wood and light paper frame windows, the shinto shrines equipped with bells for calling the gods and torii gates to signify you are entering a sacred space (sometimes its just the torii gate). The lovely Fuki ji on the equally lovely Shikoku Island was built in 718, still stands, is still used and makes me want to run around naked in it but fear not I reigned the impulse in.

Shikoku will also be memorable to me not only for the temples for which it is famed but also for its amazing coastal riding and the endless orange groves which scent the air.

Its also unforgetable for Uwajima's infamous sex shrine and sex museum. The sex shrine itself has been around for some time and is a working temple. The museum ajoining it though is three floors of floor to ceiling (and I include the ceiling) of sex related paraphenalia from around the world. When you see this stuff you've got to wonder about the guy who was collecting it, like how many examples of sexually explicit saucers featuring Geisha do you need man?! I have to admit Europe's representation makes us look a bit on the severe side, it was all s&m circa 1970's. At the end of our perusal it had James crying 'no more penis's'!

Uwajima Castle - Shikoku
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
Moving on... Japan also has some of the prettiest castles in the world. The Japanese with at times a penchant for form over function had a tendancy to build their castles from wood. Clearly in times of peril or natural disaster this was not the best move and most of Japans once plentiful castles have since been razed to the ground falling victim to bombs, fire and lightning, but a few hang on in there and are so beautiful you can forgive the folly of the architecture.

But in the end despite the deer, temples, castles, and shrines; the crazed kids and rockabillies in Tokyo's parks; the fashionable friendly people in the cities of cute and lovely; the nice roads and nicer drivers; the wildlife and mountians; my all time ultimate favourite thing about Japan has to be...

...the onsen. We loved the onsen so much that towards the end of our trip we were planning our route around where we could find an onsen rather than things to see.

Onsen are natural hot spring spas and to be riding through Japan in a chilly, wet autumn, soaked through and muddy and come across a roadside onsen makes you believe in a god of cyclists.

Onsens have a space for showering and a communal bath for genrally soaking in, some are fancy, some are basic but all are perfect when you have been chilled to the bone, are caked in mud and are unconcerned about total nudity.

Some onsen have a 'no tatoos' rule to keep out tattoo'd gangster types apparently. This was a bit of a blow as I have 2 on opposite sides of my body which are fairly difficult to hide without looking shifty, but I was so cold I just brazened it and went in anyway, when I was finally rumbled I was just given a plaster to cover them... bit of a pointless exercise when sitting in steaming hot water but hey ho, I was just glad not to get turfed out before I was clean. As a special treat towards the end of our trip James booked us into a Ryokan which had private onsens. So we basically spent our time steaming ourselves to the cleanest we've been since leaving home and sitting around drinking tea on tatami mats.

In the end I was so thrilled with Japan that I was gutted to be leaving, it was just such a great place for cycling and a great place to be. But Korea beckoned and the trans siberian express remains an option, maybe next time there'll even be cherry blossom viewing over a nice spot of plum shochu.


Monday, 9 November 2009

China is under construction...

Nihao! (pronounced nee-how! right up there as one of the worlds perkiest hello's).

China is indeed under construction at a level that would be difficult to comprehend had we not just ridden through it, over it and under it for months. I've had it in my eye's, my nose, my mouth, my lungs and (at the risk of sounding like a school teacher on the edge) up-to-here!

After what was probably the swiftest, most orderly entry to a country ever (no one else was trying to get in) through China's pristine, quiet border and riding along a lovely quiet road devoid of traffic the reality of riding in China took a few days to hit us. China is truly a country of yin and yang, one day it can be all great and lovely, all smooth roads, buffalo and rice paddies, next day you're having you bum spanked on shattered concrete highways (not aided by trying to break in new brooks saddles), choking on black exhaust fumes with the only view through the smog of smoke belching factories and machinery grinding the limestone hills to rubble and cement dust...

... and as if that wasn't bad enough the ice lollies tasted like wood chip. For me if there is a hell, this is it.

On dusty, crusty days riding I sometimes thought China would like to be colourful... that colour would mostly be red, the rich red of the earth which formed the terracotta warriors; the auspicious red of ribbons fluttering from wing mirrors; the red of the ever present lanterns adorning houses and businesses; the red of the neckerchiefs on school children, not to forget the red of the flag of the communist, socialist, capitalist, not-quite-sure-what-it-is republic of China.

However, the colour of lowland China is mostly, sadly, grey...

...cement grey.

The trees are grey, the grass is grey, even the rice is grey.

The sky is grey with thick smog and the red lanterns are dimmed to slate with a veiling of coal dust. Freshly washed laundry which hangs out to dry on hangers and railings is coated in a steady mix of vehicle exhaust particulates and grime until it looks more like the rags you see hanging from the back pocket of a mechanic than clothing.

And by mid morning we too are coated in a layer of coal dust, cement dust and grit. Its been a grimy ride.

The China we passed through (a small section in the south east running from the Vietnam border to Shanghai in a straightish line, huge country for a bike and 30 day visa) was regularly dotted with open cast coal mines. Coal provides much of the countries power and small independent coal merchants set up depots for delivery and collection along the roadside. Much of the street food stalls also use coal briquette's for cooking. This means that for us, and the rest of the population whose homes line the roadside, regular visits by coal carting trucks with no tarp in use, blast through with coal dust blowing off in the breeze or with every pothole in the road (of which there are many). The homes are so caked in soot they made me think of Dickensian London, the villages could have been sets for an Oriental Oliver Twist.

The construction of China is on overdrive. The news in China is filled with positive finance stories, how much money is held in reserve, how China has been prudent when the western world was living it up and how they now will stave off unemployment by initiating home grown, government paid, civic improvement projects, so that when the world gets out of its recession, China will be not only insulated from the worst of the effects but will be bigger and better than ever... Cool.

But there seems to be little coordination for these improvements, the roads being resurfaced are already good roads (you can tell because the construction workers leave random gaps where you drop down from the lofty 6 inch thick layer of new tarmac to ride on sections of old, perfectly smooth, unblemished tarmac for a few hundred metres before bumping back up to the (not really) improved section). The beautiful trees which line the old road edges providing shade from the intense heat of the sun are being felled to widen the roads a couple of feet which seems nuts when the only traffic using them are the trucks hauling aggregates for the construction of the road.

Meanwhile college education remains accessible only to those who can afford the fees, much of the population remains illiterate and the housing being erected is the same communist block reinforced concrete styling that in 2 years time will be damp and mouldy from exposure to the elements and have red rusty stains dribbling down the front from the corroding security bars on the windows; and all those new concrete roads being laid will be cracking under the weight of the aggregate hauling HGV's they were never designed to support.

Typical town - China
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
In China I hoped to discover a land of antiquity but the cultural revolution saw off much of that and subsequent modernisation and development has finished off nearly everything else. In its place is a land of harsh sprawling concrete and ugliness... I have never seen such a lack of beauty on such a large scale. Whether people are too scared to create anything of ascetic value for fear of any bourgeois backlash in the future (Mao even banned flowers in his day for being too bourgeois) or whether having been surrounded by such harshness people have lost their eye for beauty I don't know. The buildings being thrown up faster than you can blink are all of the same mould, reinforced concrete, cheap metal framed school type windows, maybe a bit of grey or brown zigzag tiling for decoration on the front, and in cities and suburbs ubiquitous bars on the windows. Nothing is built to last, what will they do when they run out of mountains for materials.

OK. So that was the bad bit, the good news is that despite this you can find beautiful things in China and for much of our time we did just that. If you were on tourist coaches you could zip around from the great wall to historic villages and possibly even be able to say, as one traveller did to me 'Well, I thought there'd be a lot more factories!' (stunned I tell you, stunned I was).

There are little pockets of old China hanging on in the countryside though you do need a bike to see them without embellishment, or your own wheels at any rate.

Rural Anhui - China
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
Amidst the concrete block housing, old horsehead gabled houses remain standing, ignored by peasants, who, during the cultural revolution engineered to do away with anything 'old', had more important things to do like growing food and keeping a roof over their heads. At times these pockets are a solitary home at others they are fairly substantial clusters, however, because they are not on the tourist circuit the homes are often dilapidated and crumbling with age.

Beyond these properties there are entire villages, including Little Likeng where we spent a lovely couple of days, which somehow remained relatively/miraculously unscathed. As a result rather than letting them crumble they have been saved as tourist destinations...'Visit Bygone China'.

Regardless of the motives in saving these villages (entrance fees are pretty hefty, as are the entrance fees to visit most things worth looking at in China, from villages to mountains) they are very lovely. Here you can see old buildings preserved and new buildings in keeping with traditional architecture, complete with paint jobs to make them look ancient, 'New - Old'. These villages are teaming with domestic tourists in tour groups which handily stick together in matching hats, so if it gets too much just step back from the main drag and you can experience quiet moments in old lanes with fluffy chickens pecking at the ground, and admire the golden carp we would pay a small fortune for back home to put in ornamental ponds in nets awaiting dinner time... goldfish for supper anyone?! James did, but he didn't realise til he saw them in their nets the next day, he looked sorry.

There are also arts and traditions which have survived modernisation. On the road we witnessed traditional fishing going on including the bizarre cormorant fishing though this has all but died out (probably a blessing for the cormorants). For those who don't know the cormorants are raised by the fishermen as little chicks and are trained to hunt for fish which is what a cormorant does best, however the fisherman do this by tying a piece of string around the cormorants neck so it can't physically swallow the fish, so once the bird has caught a fish both are reeled back to the boat, the fish retrieved from the cormorants beak and the cormorant heads back out again to fish some more...I assume the birds get fed well at the end of the day.

We were also surprised when riding along a quiet country road one day to come across a drive through open air theatre with a full blown opera in progress. Seriously this place was in the middle of nowhere, not even a tiny village nearby, the middle of the harvest and the place was packed with people on motorbikes, chatting and watching and happily munching on things on sticks. No one was taking money for the performance but the building was a permanent, specific structure, so I don't know how it was working but I'm glad it was. Chinese Opera is a pretty distinctive art form, the actors convey most of their intentions not only by talking and singing but through exaggerated facial expressions and the singing is, erm, very Chinese Opera. Its a great sight but can be a bit piercing on the ears!

A highlight of our trip (and a turning point as the landscape improved at this point) was a trip to Yangshuo. Yangshuo is karst limestone land (similar to that found in Thailand and Halong Bay, Vietnam). Although this scenery was nothing new to us as we have been riding through it on and off for months it was still stunningly beautiful and all the more so for coming in from the industrial landscape which precedes it. It was so lovely here I didn't want to leave, aided by the fact that we ate some of the best food we'd had on the trip and that we found a little restaurant where they would let us eat up on the roof top alone, overlooking the towns lights AND they had apple crumble on the menu, the memory brings a tear to my eye.

In Yangshuo we hired a tandem to pootle round the countryside for a day. I had a romantic notion of the two of us working together, bonding, chatting happily as the birds flitted through the fields and the rivers meandered through the rice paddies. It is actually a testament to James's overall easy going nature that we are still together today. If you love someone and you both ride a bike DON'T get a tandem. We discovered that we both have completely different riding styles, which is a shame because on a tandem you have to do exactly the same thing and obviously we both wanted to do the same thing, just as long as it was OUR thing. The tandem was also designed for really just ticking along on tarmac, however a slight miscalculation on the map had us off roading on the tandem equivalent of a gearless shopper bike down trails that everyone else was taking mountain bikes over. It was a treat. Lovely. I'll leave it at that.

Whilst in Yangshuo we splashed out to see Impressions, a sound and light show by Liu Sanjie, who did the opening for the Beijing Olympics. Truly amazing, fairy lights on an epic scale, the show is performed over a massive area, most of it on water so every little light (of which there were millions) was reflected and sparkling on the lake, with the karst peaks illuminated, there must have been hundreds of performers including very calm buffalo on floating piers. It made my face hurt from smiling.

From Yangshuo we hoofed our way to Ji'an so that we could catch a train to Hong Kong to extend our visas. A word on Chinese cities...they're all the same, you know where the centre is as they all have ornate lampposts lining the main strip which is great if you're new in town. Chinese towns and cities have all been swiftly modernised, they tend to have really wide boulevards with trees, shops to satisfy every need and cycle lanes (teeming with electric bikes...they're great but a bloody hazard, a granny nearly took me out on one as she was doing about 30km/h but riding like she was doing 2.5), there are central parks and squares where everyone congregates in the evening to dance and chat, sounding good? Considering most people in the countryside are still dragging around handcarts and threshing rice by hand you can see why everyone's moving in. However whilst it all looks nice and shiny, if you take a look at whats going on higher up you can see its still the same rag tag mix of concrete its just that a new facade has been put over the front of the old buildings to make it all new and shiny!

Hong Kong
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
I loved Hong Kong. I'm a sucker for cities, I can feel the excitement build as I enter, I love the press of people, the lights, the possibilites. Hong Kong is where you get to experience the thrills of being in a really hot exotic country/vibrant city but still have the pleasures of home.

Hong Kong is a city designed to never let your feet touch the ground...literally.

At first we just thought it was hell to walk around but that's because we were trying to do it at street level, but the street is for smelly cars. The people ambol along on flower trimmed covered walkways above the traffic and noise, protected from the glare of the sun and monsoon rains. Admittedly much of the walkway system cuts through malls so its a shopahlics nightmare/paradise. But effectively you can cross from one side of the city to the other without ever touching the ground. Whilst in Hong Kong we were graciously looked after by Jo, a friend of 2 cyclists we met in Pakistan. Jo was just lovely, inviting us into her home and colourful life, making our stay on Lamma and Hong Kong both pleasurable and painful (oh lord the hangover). We also got to witness the fireworks to celebrate 60 years of the people's republic. Watching from the avenue of stars we got to view the huge display reflecting off the glassy surfaces of the skyscrapers making them shimmer like a hollywood A listers dress. But its not just the sparkle which makes Hong Kong, it also has some of the most beautiful, compact parks I've seen and, because its so hilly, stunning forests and beaches cover much of the land so there's no forgetting you're still somewhere truly exotic.

After Hong Kong our China trip seemed to feel better than it had initially. Admittedly we still passed through some mad max style landscapes and at one point we actually went right through an otherwise closed off expressway construction site which lasted for about 6km and at the end we had the motorway to ourselves, its a surreal experience to ride down the middle lane of a deserted motorway, the occasional bit of litter blowing through, all we needed was some zombies to complete the scene.

We road on quiet rods through patchwork paddy fields and villages time forgot. We visited the impressive Tengwang Ge Pavillion, one of those rarities that is in fact origional, surrounded by beautiful gardens in Nanchang. We also experienced a great afternoon drinking tea at a traditional tea ceremony. Making tea is more complicated than you could ever imagine.

West Lake - Hangzhou
Originally uploaded by
t wi an e
Talking of tea, we cycled over a stunning mountain pass through lush tea plantations and old forgotten villages to visit the home of the most famous tea in China - Dragons well. It's named for the spring which waters the bushes which resembles a dragon. Dragons well grows on the slopes of the mountains rising from the stunning West Lake in Hangzhou and a happy day was spent wandering in the tea museum, sipping more tea, admiring the flowers and generally wiping out any further plans we had for the day. Its not a bad way to spend time. Hangzhou itself is a lovely city and has been a spot for Chinese contemplaters and holiday makers for centuries with good reason. It is also home of the silk museum, a visit to which had me knowing more about silk that I'd even considered though I had to actually enquire of the staff if silk worms survive the proccess of silk production...they don't, to get the silk of the cocoon the worms inside are either boiled or baked otherwise the silk would dissolve as the pupae metamorphosed... feel terrible about the silk I bought in Vietnam.

One of our last stops before leaving China was to visit the famed gardens of Suzhou. The gardens are impressive from their use of tiny spaces, constructed around properties, the gardens are interconnected with hallways which, along with the rooms of the houses, are fitted with windows which not only allow you to glance through to the next space but frame the views like classical paintings. The overall effect creates a maze of what feels like endless spaces from what is in fact very little. It was a fine closure to our Chinese expedition before our departure from Shanghai to Japan by ferry.

Overall China was definately an interesting country to visit. The contrasts between the polished to an idea of perfection tourists spots, the enormous cities and the forgotten countryside are extreme and telling. Some things were better than expected, we had thought that the trade in wild birds for cages would mean none in the wild, but we rarley saw a caged bird and the skies were not empty. However China of old is forever changed and you have to take it as it stands, neglected or theme parked as it is. The scale at which change is happening in China is awesome, who know's where it will be in 10 years time. I can only hope for something positive for the planet.


Saturday, 15 August 2009


I write this in a state of excitement and anticipation as I await the arrival of the fabulous Gill landing in Hanoi for a 2 week holiday on saturday night. What a trooper, its the wettest of the wet season, its a 2 plane journey (or 15 months by bike), temperature's averaging 36 degrees, and she's bringing various bike parts, her boyfriend, chocolate and wine, as another long term cyclist said to me the other day 'it'll be nice to have friends', how very true.

But I'll reign it in and get on to Vietnam. In many ways Vietnam is picture postcard... woman abound in conical hats. I had a go at one myself as a girl pursued me on her motorbike to flag me down and give me one so I wouldn't continue to toast myself (oh how they mock me and my suntanned skin). I was both touched and grateful at the time as cycling up hill it keeps the sun out of your eyes/off your shoulders, it allows a bit of air around so you don't get a hot head AND it acts as an umbrella, really, what could be more useful in a country of blistering sun, exhuasting temperatures and torrential downpours? Well as it happens it was a right bloody hazard. It had to go when on one particular, though fairly typical, downhill the wind blew under (as it does) creating enough lift and movement to allow its aerodynamic properties to take over, whereupon it suddenly flipped forwards, fixed firmly in front of my face thus blinding me whilst hurtling downhill at approx. 30km/h...let that be a warning to you. I found this a surprising turn of events as Vietnamese women wear them everywhere including whilst riding bikes and never seem to have a problem...however they are cycling so slowly that I am stunned they don't fall off.

Rice paddies - Vietnam
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
The country is also covered in wonderfully luminescant rice paddies. The beautiful sunlight reflected through golden green paddy fields is a sight I never tire of. I've watched films with paddy fields in the backdrop and wondered how they manged to make it look so intensely green and perfect, but that's just the way they are, rich, vibrant, glowing carpets of lush juicy green as far as the eye can see, dotted with the occassional conical hatted worker planting, thinning or pushing a bicycle along the raised verges that act as little walkways dividing the curved and patchworked fields. Add to this the sound of frogs croaking, the occassional water buffalo grazing or wallowing in rivers and you can* have idyllic riding conditions.

Bach Ma NP - Vietnam
Originally uploaded by t wi an e
We have also spent some time mooching around in the tropical forests protected by national park status. A highlight (high being the operative word) was Bach Ma. Keen environmentally minded citizens of the world that we are we offered to test ride the road up to what was the old French hill station, which at the time of our arrival you could only reach by minibus (cycles 'prohibited'), to see if it was suitable for bikes thus doing our bit for sustainable travel.
WELL F*** ME! This was a mountain, 1256m, starting not much off sea level, over 13km. I really thought we were going to die. J had water running off him like he was standing in a shower. This was possibly the hardest cycling we have ever done, right up there with cycling over mount Nemrut in Turkey. It was so damned steep I had to ride partially hunched over my handlebars just to stop myself from pulling wheelies and keeling over the edge. For those who care to know it was an average climb of 10% though at times steeper. It took about 4.5 torturous hours. But hell the view was amazing. As for our experiment we wrote a report advising against anyone but a hardcore cyclist attempting it again...preferably without their panniers on.

I was surprised to discover though that Vietnam is not as lush and forested as my imagination, and the odd war film, had led me to believe. Pressures of a growing population (there is a 2 child policy in force though what that means in reality I'm not sure), a tradition of slash and burn agriculture still practised by the hill tribes, the unsustainable (and often illegal) exploitation of timber products, combined with the persistant effects of the liberal dosing of Agent Orange the Americans gave the country, has left most of the once lush forested hillsides naked and exposed, its soil eroding and silting up rivers and its wildlife hanging on by a thread, or sometimes not at all. Only by cycling through the mountains can you truly experience how vast this devastation has been, forest only now clings to areas of hillsides given the protection of 'National Park' but even there illegal logging and poaching continues. And I won't get started on the trade in endangered species, but it is a HUGE problem and not all that hidden either, where the average income is $1 a day though its no wonder people trap and trade wildlife valued at hundreds of dollars for food, pets or medicine. Vietnam has hardly any wild bears left at all as the vast majority (at least 2,500) are stuck in cages on bear bile farms the bile being used in Traditional Chinese Medicine despite there being many other ingredients which serve the same purpose.

Ok while I'm on one I'm going to quantify my can* of can have idyllic riding conditions if only you could shrug off the 'We got horns n we're gonna use em' style of reckless, crazy driving which makes the Indians look cautious. Seriously, they drive on the right here...right up until they want to turn left that is (or actually when its just a bit inconvenient to go onto the right), then they move onto the left side of the road and cruise round into the left lane and gradually make their way back over to the right. Imagine 4 lanes of traffic all coming head on and no clear lane to carry on into, everyone just kind of races towards each other blasting their horns, he/she who blasts loudest/longest is coming through so you best GET OUT THE FECKIN WAY LADY!!! Coupled with the ol' give way to the right rule that everyone else in the world abandoned decades ago makes these roads the most unpleasant I've cycled on. J is still on the side of India being worst but for me Vietnam wins hands down. I actually got knocked off by a scooter the other day, fortunately I was going slowly as I'd already been cut up by a lorry veering from the outside lane across 3 lanes of traffic to turn off, I am fine by the way, I'm good at falling, something like a kung fu master.

But ever onwards another beautiful high point to Vietnam happened almost upon entry. We went to Tay Ninh to visit the main temple of the Cao Dai religion. The Cao Dai-ists have taken a little bit of everything, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, chucked in some confuscian philosophy, mixed it up with a dash of the occult and communing with the dead for guidance, and served it up in temples decorated so fantastically you just want to believe. They're all vegetarian, spend ages singing and drumming whilst wearing great outfits and espousing non violence. What more could you want I ask you?!

My favourite town though has been Hoi An, some people aren't too keen as its really touristy but I quite like that as it means the attention we normally get, which at times is fierce, gets divided amongst lots of people and for a little while we become annonymous. It is also touristy for a reason, its incredibly beautiful. The town, once an old trading port has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. Its a laid back mixture of rustic builings and narrow alleys, with a lovely river front lined with food stalls and small restarauts. At night the streets are alight with the soft glow of oriental lanterns for sale, as well as sumptuous silks glittering from the multitude of tailors shop fronts (there's also an abundance of lovely shoes). Yep its all for the tourists but I loved it.

I also did my advanced diving not far from Hoi An on Cham Island, keen as I was after my Koh Tao experience. As part of this I dived to 36m (where things start to get a bit dark) and did a night dive...I thought this would absolutely freak me right out, as I'm none too keen on the dark on land, but I just loved it, loved it, loved it AND i saw sea horses! They had their little tails curled around whip coral like they were holding on in the breeze, shrimps and eels look pretty darned cool at night too but sea horses...happy, happy, happy.

So basically apart from the above we have spent time riding and trekking through hill tribe areas, spotting widlife including outrageous caterpillars, crazy stick insects and rarer than rare langurs (though try as I might I am yet to spot a slow loris). We have cycled most of the Ho Chi Minh highway marvelling at the Rong houses, pot bellied pigs and propoganda along the way. We have sampled rice wine at a wedding, 'it'll put hairs on your chest' springs to mind, eaten festive foods which made James ill for 3 days and trapped us in a town the like of which I believe the phrase 'middle of nowhere' was made for. I have subsisted on a diet of bindweed and noodles for longer than I care to think about. I've learned to love vietnamese coffee (possibly the strongest coffee in the world) and didn't take much persuasion to love the bia hoi which is conveniently cheaper than water.

Our next 2 weeks will be spent touring Halong bay, Hanoi and Sapa as proper tourists with friends (yip!). Afterwards I'll be fitting good ol' Trusty with my newly delivered tyres, a brand new saddle and wearing my new padded pants, you have no idea the amount of time I spend thinking about, or trying not to think about, my bum. All being well and newly kitted up we will head north to China, Korea and Japan.

Ever onwards (with a new improved comfortable ride I hope).