Everyone is fine in Nepal.
Pokhara to Lucknow
“HOW ARE YOU I AM FINE”.
Across Asia the little bits of English that people learn are consistent across each country, especially with children. In Nepal all kids know the above phrase, and shout it at you from roadsides, houses or far away football pitches, always raising a smile from me and a guffawing laugh from them.
Leaving Pokhara we had one final night drinking whisky by campfire under the Himalayan stars before climbing back out of the mountains and enjoying a long downhill to cross back into India for our final stretch to Delhi.
Now, some months earlier, in my standard disorganised haste to sort at Indian visa i’d ticked the wrong box on my application which restricted me to two visits to India, both of which i had now used up. With no Plan B i nervously approached the border control, my only hope that they wouldn’t notice my first entry stamp which was on a previous page.
The three of us sat in a sweaty room as they processed our passports and a short while later two passports arrived back. They keep hold of mine, made some phone calls, tapped some computer keys, as this sweaty english cyclist grew quickly sweatier still.
After a further 15 mins i tried to offer my assistance to any concerns they might have but was sharply told to sit down.
And then, without warning i was stamped and through the border.
Although i definitely shouldn’t have been, I was back in.
A good example of the level of expertise we were dealing with was that the border agent then trying to make a profit on both changing our currency and selling us marijuana.
We headed into a deep misty red India sunset towards Nagar. Guy took on the negotiation for a room at a small guest house. He returned having agreed a standard room price but with one with free naan bread each, which Pete and I agreed was a level of negotiation creativity we had yet to explore.
The next days heading towards Lucknow were fast paced as we rocketed along the flats of northern India. Days were, as always, interspersed with beautiful examples of the Indian experience.
We’d live off a dish of super noodles with an egg thrown in as a staple dish that was delicious and easy to find. Talking to cafe owner in Basti we asked ‘do you sell noodles?’, he replied ‘yes sir’. We sat down. ‘Three noodles please’. He replied, ‘I don’t sell noodles’.
Mopeds continue to pull up alongside regularly, chatting away or asking for us to stop for a photo. An off duty policeman stopped us and asked Guy to hold his small baby as we stood and had pictures taken.
Even if they speak no english, it has become very easy to hold a conversation by guesswork alone.
Almost every conversation goes like this:
(Moped pulls up along side)
[Question 1 in Hindi]
Kathmanu to Pokhara
Walking the narrow streets, exploring the temples and squares, climbing the Boudhanath Stupa, getting attacked by monkeys and looking over the huge city sprawl, Kathmandu is an excellent city.
I noticed that the majority of ‘I Love Nepal’ t-shirts seem not to be worn by the usual tourist crowds but Nepalese themselves. Even out in the countryside it wasn’t strange to see young boys with happy patriotism announced across their chests.
On the final evening in the city we visited the Pashupatinath monastery, where bodies are cremated by the river side, the remains being left to sail down the Bagmati river. Under nightfall we wandered the site, with prayers, candlelight and smoke filling the eerie darkness. Approaching the river crematoria you are aware of what to expect, but walking to the edge and seeing it for yourself is a moment uniquely memorable.
There is space for 10 plinths along the river side where the bodies are wrapped in cloth, laid on a carefully arranged pile of wooden beams and burned while the families look on, one after another, 24 hours a day. In earlier days the plinths would be divided by caste system but not so much any more, yet there are still plinths reserved for royalty and the super rich.
Turning back to the river I noticed a women carrying a bundle of cloth and praying with it as she was walked around the wood prepared for the next cremation before it as lit. Asking someone why she was doing this, they replied that the bundle was her baby boy.
I can think of few monuments steeped in such history and still used constantly and solely for their original purpose. It should be somber and melancholic to walk the river banks, almost voyeuristically watching families attend the cremation of their loved ones, but in reality it was a peaceful and thoughtful experience. It also shows the vast chasm in attitudes towards death versus western nations. Life can appear a cheaper currency in this part of the world, maybe because there is just so much of it here.
It’s an extraordinary place to visit.
You can feel the power of history pouring through the walls. It’s difficult to not consider your own mortality in a place such as this. The serenity is enough to make even an atheist whisper in prayer. And yet Nepalese people seem almost immune, so used to the sight of death there are laughing children, dogs barking and screeching of monkeys, as life goes on all around.
We set off on a two-day cycle towards Pokhara with our new recruit. By lunchtime we had lost Pete, who had sailed past in blissful ignorance as we stopped for a rest, whilst we believed him to still be behind he was actually many miles ahead. A few hours of confusion occured before finally normality was restored. The first time we’ve lost each other in 7 months of cycling, so was well overdue.
To add another bout of complication, the following morning my rear derailor sheared off and Eddie (my bike) became unrideable.…
Throwing up and going up.
Siliguri to Kathmandu
I’m ill again. Damn it.
We are cycling along 500 km of Himalayan foothills then turning right and climbing up over to Kathmandu where my mate Guy will be joining us for a few weeks.
An extra sick day has meant we are a bit behind schedule. The days that follow are a bit relentless as we trudge out 150 km days with strong westerly headwinds trying to push us back. The frustration of feeling terrible whilst having mother nature asking for more energy is infuriating.
Into the wind I’m doing a steady 15 Kph, so I know I’ve just got to sit in the saddle for 10 hours and push through. Despite my constant and aggressive orders for it to cease, the wind blows hard and the kilometres slowly pass.
One afternoon I feel dizzy and slump under a tree, trying to hide from people as I throw down water and munch on sweets. Some kids are playing with their parents outside a house, they spot me and begin rushing over. I’m not in the mood, weak and tired just wanting to be alone, so I get up and move before they reach me. A grumpy foreigner pedalling away.
Finding an open field I lady down and close my eyes. When I open them again an hour has passed and it’s dark.
With the other guys now many miles away I cycle silently into the night. Suddenly i’m hit in the stomach by a hard, leathery flappy object. I swipe it away as it darts in front of my torch. My first ever hug from a bat. Hopefully my last for the time being.
The wind dies as the moon rises and the kilometres pass a bit quicker.
The days go by in similar fashion with the wind pressing hard until we finally reach the town of Hetauda at the foot of our route through the opening to the Himalayas.
The planned route Google Maps had provided turned out to use unfeasible roads so our 80km route to Kathmandu was now 160km.
We have no idea of road quality, elevation levels or traffic, and we all seem strangely anxious, more so than any previous mountain passes.
The uncertainty of what tomorrow brings combined with the unbearable volume of traffic, and it’s clear I will not be sleeping tonight. Listening to the others happy slumber only compounds my awakeness. Swallowing a Valium buried deep in my bag I head down stairs to sleep on table in a downstairs restaurant.
Left right left right.
Push after push, switch back after switch back I slowly climb.
When starting climbs like this I’ve learnt to accept that a day of climbing is exactly that. It’s easy to wish a summit with every turn, peering around every corner in absurd hopefulness, but it just makes you mad when it doesn’t appear.
Instead I’ve learned to resign myself to a day of uphill and it’s much easier to enjoy it.…
The goat index.
Hili to Siliguri
Having left Bangladesh, the next week was spent riding north across West Bengal and Bihar towards the Nepalese border.
These are two of the poorest regions in India and feel like forgotten lands. No evidence of investment, of basic infrastructure, of federal care or help. To me this is India at its worst, the country famous for its charm and colour seemingly a world away.
Looking up from the saddle there was very little to see outside of grave poverty and desperation. The poor, the malnourished, disabled, frail, all living by the roadsides. Feral dogs, goats, cows wander the roads feeding off litter, naked children search through rubbish dumps, ladies mould animal dung by hand to use as fuel.
It is difficult to know how to act when passing these scenes, whether to smile, look away or just stare down at the tarmac. We are such a symbol of wealth and privilege you feel ridiculous, cruel, above all helpless.
We get the same shouts, the same attention, but in the towns or cities we pass through the feeling is not was it was previously. The interest remains but the friendliness has withered.
I can’t help feeling a constant and relentless fury at the situation. To my eye, rarely is governmental priority so confused as the $1 billion each year spent on India’s space program, when 2/5ths of its children suffer malnourishment and half the population do not have sanitation. Imagine how quickly those two situations could be improved using that money and expertise. It makes me want to scream.
I celebrated my birthday in the city of Purnea which we hoped might be somewhere to explore, but it was run-down and desperate even by the standards of this region. Finding the only guest house we celebrated with a big veg curry and an ice cream. Before bed i sat on the front step enjoying a secondary ice-cream, the view ahead was a small pile of dead dogs, a cow rummaging through a litter pile and a few families lying underneath buses trying to get some sleep.
Goats have become a daily source of amusement to us, partly because they are usually funny characters behaving curiously. We have also devised the Goat Index. The quality of the goat population surrounding a town seems to tell you much about the quality of the place itself. A high Goat Index (G.I.) with healthy, energetic looking scamps, will mean the town will have decent shops to get supplies, maybe a town square, maybe even somewhere to sleep. Whilst the number of goats around will give you an idea of the size of the town. It isn’t fool proof, but it’s about all the fun there is on offer at the moment.
Reaching the city of Siliguri, both Scotty and i are unwell so take a day’s rest to recuperate and visit Darjeeling. Being off the bike and visiting this more developed and touristy town was a welcome relief to days gone by, and the first opportunity to meet and talk to English speakers for many weeks and enjoy a rest.…
Bangladesh #2: People
Jamalganj to Hili
I’m acutely aware this blog is getting a bit repetitive.
I constantly wax lyrical about how nice the people are or how beautiful scenery is. Unfortunately Bangladesh will be no different.
Although the cycling is relentless and constantly challenging (as expressed plainly in recent posts), when you look up from the tarmac these Asian countries are theme parks of beauty, both the places and the people. But always the people.
The scenic natural beauty is not overtly impressive in north Bangladesh (unless you are a dogged rice fanatic), nor is there much sightseeing.
The beauty here is the people.
The way they accept you and smile at you, or the playful way they interact with each other, the happy children playing on their way to school or old men offering a wave from the plough in a far off field. They are proud to have visitors and that sense comes across in buckets.
We pass by cricket matches frequently, but on the eve of our great nations playing each other in the world cup we thought it appropriate to rest our bikes and ask if we can humiliate ourselves in contest.
And humiliate ourselves we surely did.
It was excellent fun with these talented young fellows chucking smoking deliveries past our ears.
There were close to 40-odd in the field, but the major contest was the fight for who got to bat against these English idiots. Consequently, we threw down some muck that was happily dispatched to the boundary where cows grazed in ignorant bliss.
Pedalling off we chatted about the obvious lack of opportunity for these young energetic and intelligent kids. We all agreed that given the opportunities we’ve had they would far surpass our questionable achievements. And they were better at cricket. Much better.
This country is crammed full of young brains and energy, just not opportunity. The communities seem happy places, but they have nothing, at least not what they deserve.
Not many miles away there is an uprising in one of the poorest regions. Petrol bombs are being thrown at the rich and powerful, and this frustration makes absolute sense.
Today is English vs Bangladesh in the World Cup.
In every town at least one little shop with have a small TV, very easy to spot which as a huge crowd will be gathered. The day was spent dipping in and out of these shops, and when spotted we would be rushed to the front, given a chair and asked our country? ‘We are from England, but for today we support Bangladesh’.
By the end of the second innings we had made our destination for the day and i was crammed into a tiny phone shop to watch the final overs.
Of course Bangladesh won resulting in phone shop, along with town, going crazy, people running through the streets and singing all night. A lonely evening for an Englishman in rural Bangladesh. But great to see.
As our week in Bangladesh came to an end, the final days moving up towards the border were mostly spent waving, chatting and having pictures taken with the beautiful people of this country.…
Bangladesh #1: Density
Sylhet to Jamalganj
We left the crazy and vibrant city of Sylhet heading due west, planing to cut across the top of Bangladesh. Although we couldn’t see many roads that went this way, we were confident that we could find some.
The roads were decent but the new challenge was fighting our way down narrow, busy streets through the centre of each town as we passed by.
Quickly you realise that there are people everywhere in this country.
I mean absolutely everywhere.
Bangladesh has three times the population density of India.
Did you get that? Of India! That really densely populated, infamously crazy country next door.
And most of Bangladesh is paddy fields, so all those people are existing of any scrap of land that is not covered in rice.
The sheer number of people combined with no concern for personal space can make Bangladesh feel intimidating. It can feel like you are being pushed around and elbowed constantly. But you come to accept that this is a culture where because there are so many people you have to fight your way through life. You soon learn to enjoy and then embrace it.
Out on a rural road I wait until there is no-one to be seen, lean my bike against a tree and race down a hill to have a wee. Job done, I turn around and there are 20 people taking in the view.
Finding a quiet river bank we stop for a cake-based lunch (not easy to find a reliable source of calories around here). Within a minute we have an entire village watching us closely. And I mean closely. Some people are standing over us, peering down as we eat.
We have lunch in exhausted silence as 50-odd people look on and whisper in the way you might watch lions feeding on safari.
The level of education system is even poorer than its neighbour so no-one speaks a word of English, whilst our Bengali skills are far less than basic. Neither party can communicate, so Bangladeshi’s just stare blankly in silence not seeming to find the situation at all awkward, whilst we smile politely and gobble down cake.
Way up in the north here it’s unlikely they see westerners other than the odd NGO worker, so it’s quite understandable, just takes a bit of getting used to.
As more gathered it became too much so we abandoned lunch and moved on.
While on the road only bicycles and mopeds can pull alongside to have a look, but when stationary we are prey to all, so when you are tired or cranky the best thing is to keep pedalling.
After lunch things got messy as we tried to cut across the northern states. We ended up crawling along a very old brick road which was in disrepair. The bricks then turned to a narrow mud track, the sort sheep would make in an English meadow.
Not even half way to our target town we were stuck in very rural Bangladesh and quite lost.…
Coming back down.
Jiribam to Sutarkandi
After recent days of climbing dirt roads to traverse the humid Manipur jungle it was a relief descending to the relatively more civilised town of Jiribam, crossing into the Assam region.
Immediately the tone changed.
Up in the mountains i felt we were unwelcome, there was a constant sense of paranoia and uncertainty. But as we descended it returned to the India that is known and loved, the busy, the chaotic, colourful, charming and overtly friendly atmosphere for which this huge country is infamous.
Suddenly any moment we stopped to have a drink, check a map or take a rest, a crowd would gather in a heart-beat. Questions, photograph requests, bike poking, or just big smiles and interested stares from an ocean of faces. When you stop there is no-one around, when you look again you are surrounded.
That night we stopped quickly to enquire at a guest house. Pete runs up the stairs to ask for a price, returning a minute later to find Scotty and i surrounded so densely he can’t see us, he just knows we will be in the middle of that huge throng of people.
It is so much fun.
This quick crossing of the Assam region, on route to Bangladesh, is a taster of things to come in the weeks ahead across India.
We reached the city of Silchar where we planned the route across Bangladesh. Although Manipur is behind us the fun is still yet from over as Bangladesh has seen inter-ethic problems in recent weeks, with petrol bombs and attacks reported in Dhaka and more recently in the north. We were refused Bangladesh visas at first, but a little creative writing from Scotty managed to get access to enter over the land border, an excellent result. Now all we had to do was get across.
We rode towards the north-eastern border of Sutarkandi, unsure whether they would accept foreigners, but the alternative was a 300 km cycle south.
Today is the holiday of Holi or ‘festival of colour’. We bought some powder first thing and before we know it were getting clouted with the stuff. People flagging us down, placing a mark on our foreheads before chucking the rest over us.
We are now constantly get flagged down by people who want our photo, although it disrupts any progress it’s impossible to say no so we stop and suddenly there are 30 camera phones and flashes everywhere.
Every one is so nice and accepts us into their own Holi celebrations. Before long we are covered head to toe in colour. A regional TV/radio team pull over and thrust 8 microphones with big fluffy covers in our faces, ‘what is your motto?’ they ask. ‘What would you like to say to the people of India?’, ‘thank you for having us’, we reply.
As we approach the border the fun festival feeling recedes slightly. There are road barriers and people on loud speakers shouting. These are marches and political agendas we should stay well clear of.…
The Manipur experience.
Moreh to the mountains.
The India admin machine gave an early display of its true colours with a 3 hour wait for immigration to open at 11 am.
We were finally allowed in with a look suggesting we were the last people on earth this man wanted to share the following minutes of his life with.
This border has not been open to tourists for long, thus the process is lacking the usual Indian administrational flair, so it only took an hour.
After watching the officers try to fix a broken passport reader machine they finally gave up, instead entering our details into a huge dusty book which may never be opened again.
We were in.
Entering India at midday was not the best result as between us and Imphal were two mountain passes, it would be a long afternoon.
Leaving the Moreh border the road immediately went into steep incline. In the lowest gears we struggled up the first pass for a few hours before a swift descent. The second pass was steeper, when standing up and forcing all bodyweight through the pedal was just enough to get the wheels moving as I snaked across the road. At times it was too much and i stopped to rest, even tried pushing but that was just as futile.
A bit of screaming and shouting ensued, but a moment of delight came as i thought the top was insight, i’d made it. One and a half hours after this moment, i am still climbing. At long last the air got thinner and steepness less brutal until we reached the military checkpoint that marked the top.
A total of 4,500 metres of climbing in an afternoon.
With the bored checkpoint guards wanting to see passports and ask fairly pointless questions, it was now getting late. We sailed down the mountain pass as darkness began to throw its blanket over eastern India. The steepness of the descent and wet roads made this quite a battle and a few lapses in concentration almost had me in some trouble.
Under darkness we sprinted the final flat 50kms in the dark, with traffic screaming passed in the way only Indian traffic can.
Imphal and the Manipur region are considered dangerous places for tourists, with the insurgent separatist problems and inter-ethnic violence that have spanned many decades since the Raj. There is a great deal of arms moving around the region, so a huge military presence and continuous checkpoints will now be the norm. On the day we arrived in Imphal a roadside arms bust occurred and several people killed.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to this region, so our insurance would now be void. It was somewhere we were determined to cross, but must do sensibly.
Arriving at nightfall on a bike was not a good start to this strategy.
The next morning we rode to the start of a 260 km journey that would take us through mountainous jungle towards Assam region and the border with Bangladesh.…
Kalewa to Tamu
The sand became rocks, rocks became potholes, and then at last road appeared. Approaching Kalewa I sped up to recently unimaginable speeds, enough even for my speedometer to begin working again.
From Kalewa, I took the most magnificent road that followed the river down to the town of Kale. It was winding and undulating high on the mountainside above the river and farmlands below. Hours of pushing this bike through sand seemed a world away.
A truck carrying pigs to the slaughter passes by, about 30 pigs chucked in a tiny truck, piled high with legs and snouts poking out, the ones lower down not surviving the journey. A reminder that despite the beauty, this is still a South East Asian country.
I pass roadside workers that have lined the pavements across Myanmar, predominantly women, often very old. Their job is to break down large piles rocks by hand into small pieces suitable for laying a road. They sit working with small pick axes from dawn till dusk chipping away, raising an interested but solemn glance as i pass by. Each time I’m filled with a helpless guilt as they are forced to watch this privileged man pass by. Normally i don’t look up in embarrassment.
Myanmar is an incredible place to travel, but there is no escaping that this is an extremely poor country with a long way to go.
As often happens, a moped pulled up beside me and started chatting in Burmese. Throughout Asia this happens often as i am a strange sight for people to come across. Often they will hang behind you inspecting the bike and equipment, and sometimes, slightly creepily, will pull up and stare at your bare legs spinning around.
After an explanation of where I had come from and was going this gentlemen wasn’t satisfied and kept following on. He wore a big bright smile and began gesturing that I should sit on his moped instead of cycling, I laughed and explained that I must keep cycling.
A short while later he pulled up beside again and with an even brighter smile used hand movements to suggest that he would like me to stop cycling and have sexual intercourse with him. Undoubtably a kind request, but I was already exhausted, and he hadn’t even offered to buy me a drink. On declining his offer, he finally sped off.
Despite interruptions, It was a truly memorable mornings cycle along the mountainside in the early sunshine before making Kale in the afternoon, and finally meeting up with Pete and Scotty.
The remainder of the day was spent relaxing and re-supplying before we set off the next morning, due north towards the only Indian border at Tamu.
The 250 km border road named the ‘Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road’ is a sealed tarmac masterpiece built by the Indian army in 2001. Speeding north we passed through town after town with families out on the streets, children chasing or shouting ‘bye bye’ from the roadside (for some reason very few know ‘hello’, everyone knows ‘bye bye’), old men waving and mothers hard at work preparing food.…
Screaming at sand.
Within half a kilometre of leaving the village I was back to frolicking in the sand pit. Things got no easier, if anything the sand and rubble got deeper and the undulations steeper.
I was still weak from illness and this was draining my energy reserves. Sometimes I would ride for a few metres just to check I remembered how to do it. But otherwise it was a matter of pushing the bike up steep rubble climbs then pulling it back from equally steep descents. I’d fall fairly often as my weak feet slip from beneath me and lie in the golden sand, taking a second to rest and shout at the sky.
At times I was going so slow my speedometer went to sleep.
Many hours of amateur dramatics followed. Screaming at the ground, at my bike, at bushes, the sky, at the horrible world that surrounded me. For anyone watching it would have been a remarkable sight.
By lunch I’d amassed 23 kilometres in 7 hours. Not enough.
After anger came acceptance, and in the afternoon i’d often get lost in thought and enjoy the solitude.
I knew this was coming so there was no surprise. But the relentlessness starts to eat away, the huge effort for such little reward.
By 5pm I had finally reached 50 km.
Into the evening some small signs of black bitumen appeared intermittently and the sand broke up in places so I could spend longer times actually riding. I knew when i reached Kalewa the road would finally improve, so i just had to stick with it.
The landscape was beautiful in the evening sun. Each line of mountains a different shade of purple, with hay stacks and mud huts sprayed in a deep red as the sun retreats. When you are not staring into the sand pit, this is a truly stunning corner of the world.
As darkness fell I didn’t have enough light to clearly see the breaks in the surface and began hitting huge, sharp potholes all too regularly. But It was cooler and i was starting to speeding up on the improving roads so tried to make hay while the sun hid, with all available lights attached to bike, forehead, and two in my mouth, i pushed on.
As 10pm came I was delighted to find a small food shack for lorry drivers. I flopped onto a seat and enjoyed a warm sprite and some Super Noodles.
The man in charge found out I was English and proudly showed me his Chelsea FC poster, before running through all the players he knew. As if today hadn’t been challenging enough, I now had to pretend to be a Chelsea fan.
Belly full, I found a corner of the room and fell asleep.
Moments before passing out.
Truck stop hotel.…
The village idiot.
I reluctantly trotted off into the unknown.
All I knew was that I had 170km to get Kalewa, and 2.5 days in which to do it or i would not be able to cross the only border into India. The distance was not the concern, the warnings of extremely poor roads and very little in way of civilisation, that was the concern. I was aware of a village on route and potential truck stops, but no idea where or when.
So with trepidation I left Monywa and (remaining true to tradition) stupidly backed myself to find supplies a little further up the road so left with little food or water.
The roads were bearable for the first 30 km but deteriorated heavily as I climbed over the first mountain passes, struggling up the steep ascents in the now midday heat. It was dusty and sweaty work but for the mixture of beautiful views and being away from constant attention for once, it was well worth it. If i’d brought enough water it would of been perfect – but, it seems, that’s not how i roll.
After lunch a moped passed me on a steep incline and the man hopped off and began talking fast in Burmese. I gestured that i didn’t understand, at which point he untied a wooden construction from the back seat and began tying my front wheel to it. His plan was to tow me up the hill on his moped.
When you stop and think about it, cycling long distance is an entirely pointless/idiotic concept. We have planes, trains, buses, cars, mopeds, designed for the very purpose of machine-led travel. Why would someone choose this silly steel contraption with two unreliable spindly human leg ‘motors’? It is not logical.
The gentleman clearly shared this opinion so had fetched his contraption and sped after me. When i declined he simply couldn’t understand it. I’m a slight white man struggling up a hill on bad roads in the boiling sunshine and he had the solution. It did not compute, and why should it?
With an astonished shrug he sped off.
In the afternoon I descended into the valley that I would follow all the way to Kalewa. Huge, lush mountains to the left with river below, and my road which would snake up and down the hills to keep away from the flood-prone valley floor below.
Then as expected the road turned to rocks and deep sand.
And I ran out of water.
With little choice I set about pushing Eddie through the sand with my heavy bike sinking deep into the thick dirt and rocks. It was crawling pace and utterly exhausting. Sometimes the rocks were hard enough to pedal, but the bumps and jarring were painful for me, but more worrying was the effect on my wheels. If a rim buckled, there was no plan B.
I sweated away for an hour before collapsing by the roadside. A lorry passed as i lay beneath a tree and the happy driver stopped to pass two bottles of cold water out of the window.…
Representing your country.
Magway to Monywa.
I’d always dreamed it would be at Twickenham.
Running out to the screams of 80,000 adoring fans, singing the national anthem before taking the kick off against the All Blacks. Of course we win. Of course i score. The number of tries varies, but i score all of them.
Thirty one years on and this dream is starting to look vulnerable.
Today I chatted with a man who had never met anyone from Europe before. At first it was just interesting to hear. Then as we spoke it slowly dawned on me how important this moment was.
All his knowledge and experience of Britain was in this moment. I was to be his sole reference point for my homeland.
I was at last representing my country. This was my Twickenham.
I felt like Johnny Wilkinson.
Surely this man would go on to tell other family, friends, villagers, village elders of his experience of this British cyclist.
What if he didn’t like me? What if I came across too quiet? Or too loud? Or just a bit crazy? This sickness is making me quite delirious after all.
We spoke for 10 minutes and during the time I told him about England and my life. I tried desperately not to sell it, but be measured and polite, and enthusiastic towards Myanmar (which wasn’t hard). I tried to come across confident but sincere, enthusiastic and knowledgeable but controlled and authentic. Is that right?
On reflection, I probably should of been sarcastic, self-deprecating, stiffed my upper lip, before hugging a bulldog and attempting to invade his village. But it didn’t occur to me.
I hope I did well. I don’t think I scored any tries, but at least I got to run out, even if the only crowd was his goat.
Finding a non gov-registered (illegal but cheap) guest house to recover from this sickness i was not alone, but sharing my room with enough creatures to film an episode of Nature Watch. It’s a prison cell of sorts, tiny rectangular room, walls and windows so black its hard to find their original colour, a strip light and a wooden chair my only friends. The town electricity doesn’t start till 7pm, and when the strip light finally came on, such was its impact I didn’t even notice.
I needed to ask the owner if I could have some soap. She didn’t understand so I dived straight for my Charades expertise. In my haste to show scrubbing and with a dose of exhausted delirium I ignored armpits or chest and went straight to an impression of an Englishman cleaning his testicles In the shower. Say what you like, i gained a soap very quickly.
After a days recuperation I was feeling slightly more human but still extremely weak.
The problem I have is that our permit to cross the border into India is in 5 days time, i simply must make that date and meet up with the others or I’m stuck.…
The vicious cycle.
Buckle up. This ride’s about to get emotional.
Put simply, our bodies and brains are not designed to do 8-10 hours of exercise everyday for months and months on end, so there are consequences.
These consequences are just different pains.
Neck pain, shoulder pain, hand pain, knee pain: Expected pains.
Anxiety, sadness, regret, anger, disappointment: Less expected.
Having battled a few scraps of depression in my youth it was likely that it might crop up and hold me back. But it hasn’t really.
I’m often sad, but sadness has come to be a part of the rise and falls of days on end. Not a total collapse of reality and reason, as depression brings.
The peaks and troughs of daily life take on a wild swing, where the highs are no longer hillocks but great mountains, and the lows not valleys but ocean floors. Learning to cope is part of the challenge, but i don’t mean that flippantly, many days it is the biggest part of the challenge. Physical pain is demoted to the cheap seats.
You can see the problems rolling towards you in your mind’s eye, like a huge rock of anxiety gathering size and speed as it canters towards you. There is no escape, but you can prepare yourself for when it hits. Agree positive things to think about, sort a coping strategy, even if that’s just sitting down and having a weep.
And crying does happen. Quite a lot for someone for whom it doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes I come close, then force some water drops out of my eyes in pursuit of the calm that follows.
Although i don’t know exactly why I’m sad, i know that it’s real sadness. I’m not cheating myself or just a bit lonely. You can feel it deep down in your belly, a visceral, sickly, true poison in your stomach. But you don’t know why.
Pain is good.
I’m not brave or courageous, i just find that pain means that you are achieving. When you apply ointment to a wound it stings, so you get a sense that it’s working. When I’m fighting anxiety i know that I’m being challenged, that things are getting to me and i must overcome them. And when i do, the ointment works and the cut starts to heal, and I’ve learned and achieved something.
As we reached the end of Kazakstan Scotty revealed one morning that he wasn’t happy and wanted to leave our group. Soon after (having stayed with a friend in Tashkent) i received an email from Pete explaining that after 9 months together he would join Scotty with immediate effect.
And that was that. I wasn’t to see them again.
In a heartbeat, with a single email, after all this time, all we’d been through, all we’d achieved, i was now completely alone. In a strange country with thousands of miles of desert in front of me.
I’ve never felt so let down by a friend before.…
Yangon to Magway
Sat on a hard bed in the small town of Thayarwaddy 120 kms north of Yangon. I’m covered in sweat, alone and feel rubbish.
I’ve got this weird burning feeling in my stomach which means i don’t feel hungry and do feel nauseous.
At a time like this the ‘food centres’ with huge steel pans of cold food sitting open in the sun and flies, although probably delicious are too high risk. With a bag of tangerines and some biscuits i ploughed on into the wind and sunshine, which is why i now find myself pouring with sweat and feeling ill. The result of demanding exertion without adding fuel.
Today started well as i popped into a national park just north of Yangon and cycled through the beautiful forests terrifying huge families of monkeys as i trundled passed.
Continuing north there was a larger military presence that id seen so far. Vans with well-kitted-out young soldiers in new bullet proof vests and shiny rifles. The sirens were blaring and a number of them flew past me. I worried there was unrest up ahead but later passed the same vans by the road side, with recruits either playing games or fast asleep.
Whilst this stunning route along the river is taking me through more delta country with tree lined avenues and paddy fields, the road conditions are poor with potholes and jarring bumps both trying and relentless.
When feeling ill, tired or just not in the mood, the endless use of horns brings you to the edge. They will beep when there is nothing on the road, or when they have already passed, sometimes you see vehicles miles away of open stretched of nothing just making as much noise as they can. The noise ricochets off the walls of your mind. All i want is peace, cool air and sleep.
The next day was another extraordinary one. Days like this i really feel like I’m fighting for every penny of charity donation for this cycle.
The calorie problem was not solved by the single half slice on bread on offer for breakfast. Setting off into the early day was lovely but It was soon spoilt by nausea.
Passing through lush green desert of paddy fields that stretch to the horizon watching the workers (nearly always female) out in the midday sun. As the afternoon progressed the green turned slowly to browns and reds as the crops turned to wheat, a sign of progress. But the poor roads, steady, slow inclines and headwinds just infuriated this ailing Englishman.
Suddenly I’m feeling dizzy, with fainting on the cards i throw the bike down and grab some shade. Sitting head in hands the trucks whizz passed my nose, honking horns to try and get my attention. It’s a lonely feeling, miles from anywhere, miles from home, feeling rubbish, no communication, no one knows.
Feeling slightly better i spent the afternoon with regular dizzy rests and stopped replying to waves and greetings.…
Hpa An to Yangon.
It’s a bit like I’ve gone on a blind date with a country.
I had no idea what to expect from Burma, apart from the warnings of her strict rules and military presence I knew little more. So we have been sizing each other up these past days, getting to know one another, seeing if we enjoy spending time together.
And i do. I hope she does too.
Because the past days cycling deeper into Myanmar have been extraordinary.
There are few big prizes to find out east so very few foreigners pass through, especially not on a bicycle. So it feels unique and wonderful, and also just plain lucky.
Lush, healthy green mountains rise out of flat Delta country and are topped with strings of gleaming gold Pagodas. I easily slide back into the problem-area where it’s tough to get momentum whilst the temptation to stop and take it in is too great.
The ‘hello’s’ are frequent now, and it seems all kids know ‘bye bye’ no matter the circumstance. I’m probably gloss-eyed by the enjoyment of the past days but I do feel like the rural Burmese people are less ‘playing with the foreigner’ than much of south-east Asia. A wave, greeting or conversation just feels a bit more genuine, proud and excited to have visitors rather than just the fun of talking to a smelly tourist on a bike.
You also don’t feel so much like a rich westerner, vulnerable to being ripped off or endlessly bothered, Myanmar hasn’t yet felt the full toxication of the growing tourist industry (of which I am of course part of).
Myanmar is very poor, in line with Cambodia in many ways where a house made of concrete is a rare sight. Meat is a precious commodity and often served in such small quantities it’s difficult to see evidence of its existence in your meal. I had chicken curry for lunch today and what arrived was rice and sauce with one small piece of chicken. A fork full. It’s the most meat I’ve seen since I arrived.
In fact the rural Myanmar restaurant is a strange world.
For breakfast this morning I sat at a table whilst the small boy piled the table top full of tiny metal plates. Cold sticky sweet rice triangle, cold fried egg. cold fried batter, cold plain rice, with other cold bits and bobs I couldn’t quite make out. You eat what you want then they come and count up and find a price. Burmese tapas.
I nibbled away for a bit but much of it the flies had enjoyed before me. With some energetic morning charades I managed to organise a plate of warm rice with chickpeas and munched it down with impressive speed.
In the afternoons I regularly stop for watermelon by the roadside and often the ladies won’t accept payment, so I smile and say thank you. I normally ask how far it is to the next town, although I know the answer from my maps it’s an easier question to communicate and an opportunity to spark up some conversation.…
From Myawaddy to Hpa An.
The road from the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy is a winding narrow 50 km mountain pass of mud, rocks and the odd gesture of tarmac. The pass has become so dangerous that a one-way rule is enforced that alternates daily, having arrived on the wrong day I was forced to stay a night to wait for the traffic to flow West. A new road has been in construction for years but a completion date seems on endless extension.
The ride was long and bumpy but extremely enjoyable as all traffic has no option but take it slowly and the beautiful views grow in quality with every pedal.
This border is a busy crossing for Thai imports so I was joined by trucks climbing the muddy path at a snail’s pace. I find myself competing with convoys of fruit, bricks, steel, car parts and toilets chugging passed me as the working day begins. Mud houses offer flowing hose pipes from the river to cool engines as the driver takes a nap in the shade of the cab. It’s unclear whether the engine or the human are the original catalyst for each rest.
Not far out of Myawaddy I pass my first military checkpoint. My passport is requested and details taken before a warning that the road is dangerous and I should be careful. Easy.
Myanmar sill exists under military rule and checkpoints are to be frequent. Furthermore tourists can only stay in registered guest houses so each night I’m forced to reach a sizeable town before dark as sleeping elsewhere could get me and the surrounding villagers in trouble. I’m planning on testing this at a later date as it will be an expensive month if I can’t find the odd loophole…
Further along the track the second checkpoint approaches and before it I pass a few truck loads of young soldiers, recently out of their teenage years and armed to the teeth with artillery Rambo would be proud of. I silently cycle past wearing a gleeful smile that is mostly reciprocated. I’m waved over and the passport is checked, this time a photo is taken of me, my passport and visa on the officers new smartphone. I show him a picture of Scotty and Pete to ask if they have recently gone before me. He nods.
The next 15 minutes are taken up with a display of the various functions on the gentleman’s smartphone of which he is extremely proud. After follows a quick slideshow of his family photos before I am released to continue my climb.
Military check points would fast become less an intimidating enforcement and more a welcome break and nice chat. This country was meant to be far more intimidating.
It’s been one of those mornings. I can feel my mind taking the strain after a few bad nights sleep and long, exhausting days which has lead to a bout of sadness I’m struggling to fight off. I continue to smile and wave to those I pass, trying to use other people’s energy to motivate a better mood.…
North West Thailand.
Sit down comedy.
Rural Thai people are excellent. Those protected from the onslaught of the booming tourism machine that pollutes much of this beautiful land are crammed full of warmth
Most Thai people have begun laughing before you have spoken a word, never mind a joke. They are constantly primed, ready to burst into giggles, desperate for you to give them a reason. It doesn’t have to be much, just say ‘hello’ or a wave is normally enough. And they laugh from the belly and with innate joy. What a lovely way to be.
Makes you feel like a stand up comedian, though i am of course mostly sitting down. And quite uncomfortably. I’m shuffling around the saddle so much these days it looks like I’m dancing the twist.
My bottom has been struggling recently.
Theres a sentence I’ve never said before.
My finest and (it seems) funniest charade-based action came into play at the pharmacy today, explaining my problems and how they came to be through the medium of performance art. I will spare any further detail, but i lie in wait with hope in my buttocks for positive results with the new ointment i was given.
Today I rattled past families enjoying their Saturday lunches and old ladies looking up and waving from their work in the fields. I even joined in with a church rave in a small town but quickly moved on when i was asked to perform a solo routine.
In the evening i walked around the Pyay ruins before heading west into the National Parks towards the Myanmar border.
The mountains are rich green and intimidating sights from both the bottom and the top, it’s the in-between bit that’s more challenging. The roads, although good quality, are extremely steep and in the heat of the midday sun i turned to pushing on a few occasions, the first time in 7 months of cycling.
Having been on the road for that long it’s a wonder I haven’t learnt to carry sufficient water and food. An exhausted trot round a strawberry farm providing my evening meal and throwing iodine into some stream water to dilute my (now peculiar tasting) bed-time whisky.
I spent the night perched on a hill-side stretched out on my mat guessing at constellations I have no idea about, so resorting to creating my own shapes. I found loads, but the more elaborate ones probably more whisky-led.
Despite the remaining inclines i was pushed along using the encouragement of lorry drivers who would gesture thumbs up, shout encouragement or motion me to keep going. One even stopped to give me water and oranges, getting me over the final climbs before a long and relieving evening descent into Mae Sot, only 10 kms from Myanmar.
The Myanmar border was the first potential problem as this land crossing hasn’t been open long and there are reports of tourists getting turned away. But with a lot of smiling and a hand from some locals i was over and ready to take on a country I’ve been excited about for a long time.…
Today we continued north-west into Thailand.
Bike now repaired we passed through the ancient town of Sing Buri, and though the ruins are interesting the residing memory will be the ape attack that occurred. As i sat eating cake by a roundabout an invasion of hundreds of apes cantered down the street in front of me. The residents didn’t look twice as apes climbed up buildings, swung along electricity cables, jumped into the back of trucks re-appearing with empty bottles and food scraps. It was extraordinary to see and fascinating to watch. I briefly wondered if this was happening over the world and the human race was being taken over. But alas, no.
From Sing Buri the other guys wanted to press-on, happy taking the dual carriageways north, but i wasn’t content with seeing Thailand from its motorway services so turned left and set off alone into the green wilderness.
The Thai economy is a noticeable improvement on our Asian adventure so far. Much bigger and border-marked farms appear with new equipment and more comfortable dwellings surrounding. The road surfaces are great and even the numerous smaller paths that split off in all directions are rideable and each one a tempting adventure. I rattled along them picking routes at random, following rivers, mountain foothills and vast fields, passing schools and workshops, farms and temple after temple after temple.
Having stayed out a bit late I ended up sleeping on the floor of a temple where the monks had kindly allowed me to rest after a good 15 mins of necessary explanatory charades. Sitting around a fire under the stars reading in silence was quite magical, them with ancient manuscripts, me with a kindle.
The constant fame in Asia is extraordinary already, but about to get a lot worse in the coming weeks as we head west towards India. Sitting having my lunch today I wondered if this is how it feels to be Robbie Williams.
It’s odd being the only non-Thai person in a rural town. Every one wants to look at you. It’s weirdly lonely. People run to windows to get a look, dogs bark (could also be the smell), people wave, or the most enthusiastic will shout ‘hellogoodbye’ and smile and laugh.
I walk around town with a smile. Firstly because that’s nice but also because if you keep smiling at people they will keep smiling back. People generally seem to want to smile, if I kick off the process they quickly follow.
Having negotiated my lunch dish I sit now in anticipation for what I might have ordered. I tried making a pig sound, but she pointed at a squid and we are many miles from the sea so that’s not really what I’m up for.
Robbie Williams wouldn’t have this trouble.
Not long later a delicious plate of chicken noodles arrive. As always It tastes delicious but I can’t fight the deep resentment that my pig impression appears as a chicken.
I vow to practise alone when no-one is looking, but when that will be I know not.…
Cambodia – Thailand
Arriving in the wealthier tourist trap of Siem Reap was a change from the dust and poverty of recent miles. We stayed for a few nights to rest and enjoy a pedal around Ankor Wot, an incredible place, even if the experience is shared with half of Japan. I would like to beat the inventor of the selfie-stick to death with a selfie-stick, but that would require me to own one which is not possible.
It only takes a few too-drunk travellers and overcrowded tourist sites to rush us back onto the bikes and off into the peace of rural unknown. A days cycle north through more barren Cambodia lowlands we reached the north-west border town of Paoy Paet. As with most border towns I’ve ever come across it’s a little strange. The town smelled terrible, wherever we tried to hunt down dinner it seemed impossible to shake the stench of rotting matter. We ended up finding buffet in no-mans-land between the borders, and ensured we left with our moneys worth and a clothes peg.
The next morning we made the crossing into Thailand which was particularly straightforward but the lasting memory will be the smell. Between the border points is a huge waste dump which both countries seem to add to but neither take responsibility. The only positive being that the queues move quickly as people fight to get away. If intentional it’s groundbreaking thinking.
The far wealthier Thailand gave us some lovely flat, well-maintained tarmac to fly off from the border.
As fast-ageing man I’ve got a disc problem in my neck and suffer lower back pain. Based on these ailments cycling would probably be towards the top of things to not do. To help ease the pain i live on a strict diet of painkillers and then dance about on the saddle trying to find a comfortable posture.
In the first few miles of Thailand i began stretching my neck by extending my head over the handlebars and trying to lengthen the back of my spine then springing back up again. I did this about 5 or 6 times over and over. On looking up from my self-physiotherapy i suddenly noticed a large group of women by the roadside and another coming towards me on a moped all bowing repeatedly in response to my unintentional greetings. I replied respectfully before pulling over to crease with laughter.
Spending the night in the small but vibrant market town of Kabin Buri just off the main highway we settled down to huge plates of noodles and some sleep. Rising early we’d decided to head due north into the Khao Yai national park to get us off the motorways, but mostly because we were keen to hunt down some elephants.
After recent weeks of delta country the climbs into the park were an extremely unwelcome result of this decision. But a nice walk to a waterfall and night under the stars soon eased the pain. There was no access to food and the staff were a bunch of monkeys (see below) but it was great to be off the beaten track again and out in the wilderness of the Thai mountains.…