Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Study in Contrasts

Apart from inflated food prices I have no complaints about Laos. I thank the country for making a cyclist out of eager me. On these roads it's just a matter of perseverance. So I cycled more than 1200 kms in Thailand but was still broken by Pai and here I'm over a thousand as well and eager to see how the roads in Vietnam are. Maybe the pictures have a clue on how and why I've toughened up. Plus when you cook yourself over slow smokey camp fires, your tummy's fed enough to start enjoying the wild beauty of the country.

Here's an example of what the Thais call rural road, often a road that doesn't pass through any important economic hub but one that's been built with blessings from the benevolent king and just serves to link small rural hamlets to bigger wider truck pliable roads. This is a road that leads down to Bok Krai waterfalls not far from the Isthmus of Kra. Please note the paint has worn off on most other rural roads so don't expect the same bright lines.

While South Laos certainly boasts better roads and we have travelled along roads with stretches of uninterrupted tar this is an extreme example of what is called a highway here. This is an important link road for traffic plying between the northern provincial town of Phongsali to Oudomxi, an important economic hub of Northern Laos. I must clarify this stretch lasts for only 109 kms starting at Ban Yo till Pak Nam Noi where you will suddenly see the tar from a distance shimmering like a mirage in a desert. From Phongsali to Ban Yo it's a good sealed road and remains so as the road contiues on 20 km to the Chinese border town of Pak Ha (still closed to travellers). But a 90 degree turn southwards to remain in Laos and here's a good ride awaiting. Took us two days and one small fall (me), dust clogged lungs, muck choked chains and rattled bones to finally kiss tar at Pak Nam Noi.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Laos; I meet Muddy Ruts and more

I meet Muddy Ruts
My FabIndia kurta and vegetable dyed cotton pants have become my pedaling uniform and as I type I have 2597.3 kms in my legs. I almost guessed I could now call myself a cyclist though a little embarrassed about my candid confession on my last post but a little prick to my salvaged confidence came from the last mail I got from my Mom, "Okay, darling, take care. I'm too sleepy to write a proper mail. Only - when you write 'Peddle' you mean 'Pedal', don't you?". I have a condition which I can best describe as a speeching defect and this sometimes adversely affects my penning abilities and causes me to often misplace my homonyms. So faithful followers, if any, might note necessary edits to my blog header.

In other news Laos has been a wild adventure right from the start. I wish I could share every day but brevity's been calling for me to exercise it so I'll share some bits as best as I can. But to let you guys know this post was meant to have been keyboarded in China but thanks to a rather unfortunate turn of events with Chinese immigration officials at the Boten-Mohan Laos-China border. We are now back in Luang Prabhang giving the town a second chance of redeeming itself from the initial rather acerbic impression we had of it when we first arrived from the wild western roads of the country only to jostle our way through the tourist multitude (that invades Luang Prabang each season) while trying our best to hang on to our purse strings that everybody seemed out to leach into. But I'll save the narrative for the next post and focus on the roads that intoduced us to Laos and wiped the Pai sniffles out (wrt previous post).

Pulling out of Huay XAi was easy till the tar road ended abruptly less than 2 km from the main town centre. A long dusty strtch awaited us with the only remnants of tar popping up for a couple of 100 m stretches each time the road led through a village. I guess it was blessing for the villages with the amount of dust kicked up each time a vehicle passed which was quite often. The Mekong seemed to taunt us as it placidly flowed beside the pebble and dust road. People in these parts have relied on boats for centuries and there's a reason why. Anyway we stuck to the course counting our blessings in that we were really in touch with the land and meeting the real locals. The road to Pakbeng is quite an ellusive on even on the map and the next few days saw us chasing little faint squiggles on the map with often none too reliable inputs from locals who'd point out small tracks after initial attempts of dissuading us with terse comments of "no road" staring at our bicycles with disbelief. They weren't wrong. There wasn't a real road and we had to connect dots taking boats when a road ended for sure and pushing our bikes through little paths no bigger than a reindeer trail. (Reindeer?) Ok mouse deer trail. Some pictures to illustrate the road.

There was semblance of a proper road for the first 75 km or so until it dissapeared somewhere along a village (who's name we never really got) 5-7km form Hatsa where we had initially planned to cross the Mekong by boat to catch up with a track on our map. The electric poles had dissapeared a long while back and here on there was no electricity to be had till we reached Pak Beng. Being rather late and convinced by villages we might as well take a boat from there we camped in the school grounds of the village. We had a problem with food as there wasn't even a single noodle shop in the whole village but luckily they cooked up 4 packets of Mama (similar to Wai-wai instant noodles) at a local store. We also got a small introduction to what would become norm each time we passed a village; a reception of curious gawkers too shy to initiate conversation with but entranced enough by our bicycles and presence to stare unflinchingly at every move we made. We woke up the next morning to a foggy dawn and a growing mass of school kids around our tent.

The Mekong lay swathed in thick mist and though our boatman ridicolously overcharged us 50000 kip for the short 10 minute ride across the river to the village of Pakso it was the most beautiful boat ride as we cut straight into the enveloping early morning river mist, silent except for the drone of the boat's motor. I could have paid him more to row us across just to preserve the magical stillness around.

Pakso to Pakhop was less than a 10 km stretch but finding the road involved a proper recci and put our communication skills to the test. We pushed our bikes through corn fields, crossed streams, followed cattle tracks, pedaled over bumpy rubber tree roots crossing plantations, waded through knee high wild grass and fell into mesmerised dream state broken only by occasional jolts when our wheels went over hidden ruts.

A road runs through it...or is it a river run through it?
O Laos, Where Art Thou?

Once in Pakhop we spent quite awhile in vain looking for the said to exist trail on the map to Pakpet Neua but after repeated dead ends and unconviced locals we finaly resorted to taking another boat though we were smarter this time about negotiating the price. We paid 60,000 kip for the half hour boat ride. There is a proper jeep road from Pakpet Nuea that connects to the biggest town around these parts, Xiang Hon though it took awhile to figure this out as our map again erroneously listed the town as Xang. Our Rough Guide map won the IMTA prize for best map in 2006 but almost consistantly got the names of towns and villages wrong. It has been the best map around so far for small roads and land relief so you can imagine the state of other maps. Cartography as a career option is being keenly considered. We could at least offer our services to do ground work for cartographers. (Interested folks please read this as a job application)

We had roughly cycled 15 kilometere when we passed through a small Khamu village where when of the villagers who we'd met earlier passing us on his moped, stopped us to tell us not to continue as it was a long climb ahead and no villages for a good while. It was already late evening and so after some hesitation and his insistance for our safety, we decided to accept his offer to spend the night in the village. We didn't quite manage to convey we had a tent and could camp so we gratefully accepted the offer to sleep for the night in the spare room of one of the villagers. I am consistantly overwhealmed with the generosity and kindness of village folk. It hasn't been the first time I have experienced the benevolence of people who have so little themselves but take it on themselves to help as best as they can. I remember the time I was literally rescued and hosted by villagers in a remote corner of Bhutan after getting my purse robbed.

We spent the night in a lovely bamboo hut, bare except for a few pots and bedding for the family and the traditional tiny round stool that serves as dining table. Dinner was a simple affair with boiled mustard leaves, chilli and Khao Niao (sticky rice). Cycling really whets the appetiate and I couldn't help but continue to stuff my mouth long after our hosts were done. Being rather tiny people they seem to eat a lot less. Thankfully they seemed happy to see us throughly enjoying the food and egged us on with encouragements of "Kin Khao! Kin Khao!". (Eat rice!, which we conviniently quickly understood as eat more! eat more!) Here's a picture of Ced stuffing his face the next morning with our indulgant hostess looking on. Breakfast was a repeat of the previous evening's menu and I'm guessing an everyday affair. We were happy to eat all they served as the road ahead was to be a proper test of endurance and especially for me, of my handlebar maneuverability and balance. Our hosts had waved us off with wishes of "Shukdee!" (Good Luck!) and seemed a little perplexed when we shoved an envolope with a few notes into their hands. They clearly weren't excepting anything in return for the hospitality they had offered us.

After the first hours climb we were quicly descending towards Xiang Hon, a dusty town spread across a huge valley. We had a huge lunch here and soon were digesting it clambering up roads and curves of the like I'd never seen let alone cycle on before. Tarred flat roads became a distant memory as I painfully struggled up steep inclines littered with loose rocks and slippery dust only to steel my nerves for painfully bumpy descents with my spirit sinking at the view of the next climb ahead. This went on for three consecutive climbs and descents and with the sun beating down on us through the 40 deg C heat around, it clearly wasn't for the faint hearted. Here's when the cycling taught a thing or two about zen to me. I took my time, refused to be ackowledge the pain building in my muscles and ignored my discomfort except to stop often to sip water and wipe the salt that strayed into my eyes. I marvelled at the scenery around we and reminded myself how fortunate I was to be doing what I was doing. It took a lot of mental persuasion but not once did the sneaky longing to be on fueled machine cross my mind. But after 3 grueling climbs I was more than happy to break for the night by a stream just before the last real climb towards the highway that connect to Pakbeng. By this time we also realised we need to start cooking ourselves as there were no noodle shops or fresh food of any kind to be bought along the villages we passed. We somehow survived dinner and breakfast with cold canned sardines and hard dry khao niao a villager had kindly sold to us from his own dinner leftovers.

Next morning was another tough climb that took us through more villages that never seemed to have seen foreigners ((though the bicycles do magnify their curiosity) and we were soon passing through more densly populated villages before suddenly ahead we saw what was clearly meant to be the highway 2W as marked on our map. It was a bigger wider version of the road we'd been on except the pebbles and dust was replaced by loose grey gravel delibrately laid by machines. Huge machine lay in strategic corners and trucks passed by the score. It was even more tricky pedaling on the loose gravel and with the machines lumbering past and the hills around being pillaged of their trees and earth with not a scrap of shade around, it felt quite close to passing through some Tolkien-esque wasteland.

Hellish highway

The road mercifully wasn't uphill all the way and it soon became a matter of trying not to skid on the loose gravel and stoically pedaling knowing we'd be back to the Mekong for some soul and body cleansing. The road intrestingly was being built by Thais and with the rate of progress should be completely tarred and ready in a matter on months. I had contracted some sort of a urinary infection beacause of the combination of dust, sweat and dehydration by then and nearly wept with relief when the planned highway suddenly ended right at the river. The debris had obscured the view of the river and I had been prepared for a much longer ride. Again there was a problem with the map as Pakbeng was supposed to be right across but turns out the new road and proposed future bridge lies 10-15km before the small town. Unable to consider cycling another km even we spent a good while negotiating with boatmen until one finally agreed to take us for 50,000 kip. Pak Beng exists solely because it's used as a stop over for tourists travelling from Huay Xai to Luang Prabhang. 10 years ago there was virtually nothing in the small village it was but now every second house is a guest house and fairy light decked restaurants and their garish glow light up the street at night while huge speakers blare music in the bid to attract their customers for the night. In the background the town's three generators thud and sputter all night providing power in the absence of electric lines till the last customer leaves to wake up for the early morning's scuttle back to the boats to catch the best seats for the next days cruise to Luang Prabhang.

We caught the boat as well and got to be tourists for the day. It was definitely less dynamic than pedalling and I was happy to cruise down the Mekong in the shade but I couldn't help but be almost bored after the first 5 hours. No wonder the rather constipated looks on the faces of several passengers around. Along the way we saw a rather grisly sight as we pulled up to villagers trying to sell their wildlife catch to the boats that ply this route. Laos supposedly has the best forest cover and wildlife around this part of SE Asia but this is being continously threatened by illegal logging, deforestation and to a lesser but still significant degree by hunting. And Laotians seem efficient hunters by the goods on offer. There was a young girl clutching what looked like a cuddly teddy but turned out to be but a clearly dead pygmy slow loris frozen in rigor mortis. A still bleeding mouse deer hung from another's hands while the slighly less lucky one included a squealing pangolin strung by the tail, squirrels, civets, a few sqawking barbets and mercifully dead kingfishers hung by their claws. I don't like to justify one meat over the other especially when you're travelling through a protein deprived poor nation but the sight was enough to churn my tummy and emotions. Later on I'd try to reason with my prejudices again while travelling through areas brisk with dog meat trade.

Grisly teddy; cuddly till dead

We pulled into Luang Prabhang, got throughly dismayed with the tourist mass that had taken over the town, disgusted with monk hunting camera weilding fellow tourists (when not on our bikes, we scarifice our role of travellers), bitched about unbelievably high prices and stayed comatose in our rooms stupefied by the heat for almost 5 days. It was hard to move and our bodies seemed to protest each time to planned to leave. We finally made the effort to visit some wats and tried our best to try and enjoy the UNESCO Heritage tag bestowed on the city. But when tourists outnumber locals there's clearly something amiss. But move we did and male it we did to the Chinese border taking a long route round via Phongsali but details I think I'll spare till we do enter China. I'm paranoid to the point of being almost superstitious that we'll be denied entry again if I share our story too soon. So till the next post and some pictures beside, to let you all know we'll be pedaling through Vietnam, crossing the famous Tram Ton Pass and hopefully entering China via the Heko border in Lao Cai. And yes Luang Prabhang on second visit with half the tourist population has been good enough for us to joke about coming back during monsoon to really start loving it.

Wlecom to China: A picture taken too soon.