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Mei you and saving face

Getting even the basic stuff done in China can get complicated. A few examples:

  • In one of many anonymous towns, desperate for the toilet. Ask politely in several restaurants, where I’m told “mei you” (literally “not have”) with a dismissive wave of the hand.  Apparently hotels in China don’t have toilets either. Eventually save the local council some money by watering their park for them.
  • In another anonymous hungry town, hungry after a morning on the bike. Walk into a busy restaurant, with a few spare tables, willing to eat pretty much anything. Waitress sees me and starts shaking her head. I speak enough Chinese to say “I am very hungry. I would like this”, pointing at what someone else is eating. Still not happening, and eventually give up and find another restaurant. Waitress takes what I presume are orders from other customers in the meantime, no doubt exchanging gossip about the crazy foreigner who came into her restaurant and wanted to eat something.
  • In the bank, trying to change money on first day in China. The nearest ATM is 200km, or two days riding away. The bank teller says, in flawless English, that today is a national holiday and so they can’t change my $20 note into yuan. There are at least twenty customers in the bank, who are all getting what they want. Ask the lady at the counter next to him, who doesn’t speak English but understands the mime of swapping money, changes it inside 30 seconds.

All of this is either “saving face”, where rather than admit a shortcoming it is completely acceptable to make up a white lie, or just or a bad case of “mei you”- normally accompanied by literally turning their back on you or waving you on. The “mei you” thing is incredibly frustrating, especially to an Englishman raised on understatement, and can take a bit of getting around. Often the obstacle is really minor- you want to go somewhere by bus, and unknown to you this would actually involve changing buses somewhere on the way- but even this can be enough to get turned down. I reckon this is bred by living in a country where challenging any kind of authority, ever, just isn’t done.

All of this has benefits too. If I need to get something done in a place where I know no-one, I really don’t care about losing face. Few if any Chinese (asides from the police I suppose…) will challenge you over something minor. I’ve taken to using my vaccination certificate as a student card, which has worked every time. I’ve camped in some truly ridiculous places, making no effort to hide myself, and no-one bats an eyelid. When I needed to take the bike on the train (a procedure where you’re meant to register it as luggage, pay several times the cost of a ticket and wait up to five days for it to be delivered), I just carried it on, locked it to a handrail and sat at the other end of the train. No one said a thing. Me and a riding companion dealt with a traffic policeman trying to tell us off for riding on the motorway by repeating “We love China!” and asking him to pose for photos.

Water splashing and 11 days to cross half a province… Jinghong to Dali, Yunnan, China. 13th – 23rd April 2011

We had a lazy morning in Jinghong, which was much appreciated after 7 days straight on the bike. Made up some coffee and lazed about in the park, reading in the sunshine. Around midday rode into the city, packing up our stuff on the back of the bikes. Not exactly ideal, but accommodation was mega scarce due to the water splashing festival. Went to the traveller part of town for a bit of cafe time, getting through big hamburgers and overpriced coffee, chatting to other people who were travelling around China. Spent the first part of the afternoon stocking up on kit like cooking stuff, and trying/failing to find anywhere selling outdoor equipment, then went down to the main festival area to take in the atmosphere. This was massive- a huge group of tents on the shore of the Mekong. Kids were running around everywhere with massive water pistols, and adults were all dressed up in traditional costume. Sat on the shore and watched kids climbing on the huge ramparts of the suspension bridge above, almost ruined by a small kid jumping in the Mekong right in front of us and nearly drowning. Went back up to the street overlooking the river for a hotpot, with a gas stove under a big bowl of broth and side plates of whatever you want to cook in there. Riding our bikes out of the festival area got stopped for dozens of photos with Chinese strangers, which I hope are now adorning mantlepieces nationwide. Insisted on getting our own copies of some of these…

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Next day was checking Mary over before leaving (something should really have done before, given trouble on the way in), and found a broken spoke on the back wheel. This meant it was wobbiling around a lot, and when one goes the others aren’t too far behind. Took her to a bike shop in the city, and ended up going to 3 after the first didn’t do repairs and the second had a 12 year old mechanic who did an awful job fixing it before had a chance to say anything. Luckily the third place was decent, and there two guys spent almost an hour “trueing” both wheels- adjusting the tension in each spokes until the wobbling was gone. Still wasn’t perfect, and will look to get a new back wheel when I have the chance, but should get me to Dali. Even better, the cafe next door sold cheeseburgers, so the other guys weren’t too fussed about waiting for the repairs.

Set out for Dali that afternoon, a long ride ahead of us. Rode the 40 odd km to Menghai, stopping at a house for water en route and being plied with several litres of tea instead. Looking for a campsite we met a local who insisted we come to stay at his house. We followed his car on the bikes through the traffic- he was already pretty drunk- and wound our way through the suburbs to a house full of people having a big party. They proceded to ply us with food, nice except a huge bowl of congealed blood, and pour never ending glasses of beer. The only person who could speak both Chinese and English was the guys daughter (and not so much at that), so all conversation went through her. One lad was walking around toasting everyone. I made the massive faux pas of saying “gambei”, which I thought meant “cheers”, and he was apparently compelled to down the massive bottle of beer he was holding. We eventually got back to the guys house, where we slept on the floor of the living room. Next morning he insisted on taking us all out for noodles for breakfast, before waving us off. We never even got his name due to colossal communication problems, but was such a lovely guy, and a great family too.

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This day was the water-splashing part of the water splashing festival. Kids lined the roadsides with buckets of water, the idea being to splash a bit of water on passers by. Older lads were driving around on motorbikes or in trucks, soaking anyone and everyone. Being large and white guy invited special attention, and this was before I decided that using my own rather pathetic water pistol (about 3 inches long, normally filled with water and chilli oil to deal with chasing dogs) was a good idea. Soon I was being pelted with entire buckets by laughing crowds, clearly amused at their one-off joke, whilst I went on to meet the same result in a dozen villages.

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The next six days or so are a bit of a blur. Every day we’d ride around 100km, going pretty slow and taking in the scenery. We camped for most of the time, which was always great as given the rural setting we could always get somewhere good to stay. We followed route 214 all the way, which snakes along south west Yunnan from Jinghong along the Burmese border, and goes right up to the Mongolian border via the outskirts of Tibet. Due to the proximity of Burma we were stopped by the police at one point and had to show our passports.

The road wasn’t flat at any point until Dali, with a constant series of valleys. We were constantly climbing for 20km, descending the same again only to start climbing again. You learn to spot how big the climb will be, looking for signs like river flow (roads normally follow rivers here) and mobile phone masts, which are always at or near the top of a pass. As we went over each pass the scenery would change, getting more dramatic the further north we got. Rice terraces were everywhere. Farmers were using cattle to plough fields, and the contrast between here and the big towns we’d seen was massive.

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Normally the road was excellent, but there was a hundred mile stretch of extensive roadworks in the middle. At best this was a bumpy cobblestone road, but often it descended into riding through thick sand, or having to brake abruptly for huge potholes coming out of nowhere. One place we had to leave what looked like a brand new motorway and take a 40km trip on a dirt track over the top of a mountain, a ride that took several hours. The worst was the several points where we had to wait for hours while workers did whatever they were doing. Here we’d get into the shade and put the stove on for coffee, and just wait it out. One time we saw guys blasting boulders from a cliff way above the road, with huge rocks flying down into the river. Saw a fair few car wrecks as well.

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Two days from Dali the passes got bigger. We stayed in a guesthouse at the top of one, finally relenting to warm showers and cold beer as the weather was closing in at 3000m. On the second last day we crossed the Mekong, which somehow seemed bigger here than in Laos. Saw a lot of Muslims around here, with many towns having mosques and bi-lingual signs in Chinese and Arabic, which I also found surprising.

On the last day we had a late start, thinking we had an easy 80km into Dali, led to believe this by the milestones we’d been seeing for over a week. Annoyingly we’d got the characters wrong, and had been counting down to the wrong place, realising our mistake mid afternoon. Mani’s knee was playing up, so him and Loretta hitched a ride up there. Myself and Tim, more through stubborness, decided to try and ride it. This became my largest day to date, getting to almost 140km, with the late start. We got into Xiaguan, 20km south of Dali, as it was getting dark. Here we each drank a bottle of “Ice Bull”, a Chinese version of Red Bull that I suspect wouldn’t pass EU safety standards, put the lights on the bike and almost flew the last bit into Dali. Saw a hairy Swede in the form of Mani hanging out of the window of a bus and giving us a thumbs up as we went. Took a room at the first place we saw, just inside the city gates, which was luckily both great and affordable, then went straight out for beer and pizza.

Riding into China: Luang Prabang, Laos to Jinghong, Yunnan, China. 6th- 13th April 2011

Got into Luang Prabang in the dark, and by the time I’d ridden into town from the bus station and washed it was pretty late. Had a quick stroll around the night market and some dinner, then went back to bed.

Woke up early the next day, planning to ride north to Pak Mong, about 100km away. Went down to the main street for breakfast of a Lao baguette and coffee, and bumped into four other cyclists. These guys were also heading to China, doing the same trip as me up to Shangri La, but taking the boat for the first day. Shared breakfast and “arranged” to meet on the road at some point further north.

The first day’s ride was great, following the Nam Ou river all the way north. The road never climbed or descended for more than 100m or so, but it was never flat either, so it was hard work as well, but all worth it for views like these:

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Pak Mong had next to nothing going on, except for a few guesthouses/restaurants catering to the buses that stopped there. Had a couple of plates of sticky rice and an early night.

Next day was a bit of a killer, which thanks to my map showing detailed altitude charts I knew before. Pretty sure these make it worse, as starting a climb you don’t really need to know you’re going to be on it for 3 hours. Met a Kiwi cyclist on the way up (his way down) who’d been cycling for over a year. Stopped a few times for coffee and shade, struggling to find decent food in Laos villages. Most of the time theres one shop, which only sells sugary rubbish and out-of-date crisps. Worked out that the sugar just made me feel worse, so had to pass on pretty much everything except bunches of small bananas, which were great. As most Lao never go to restaurants of any kind, there simply aren’t any in most places. Eventually found someone selling noodle soup in the back of a market. Climbed 1000m, dropped 600, climbed another 600m.

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Got into Udomxai mid afternoon, and really seeing the Chinese influence now. The guesthouse owner was surprised that I wanted to pay in kip, and the shops were all full of Chinese stuff for the workers they’ve got over here. God knows what they’re up to, but pretty sure its not road building… Climbed up to see a big Buddha statue overlooking the town, got some dinner and checked internet stuff. Apparently facebook is blocked in China, along with a few other websites I use a bit, which is just annoying.

Woke up the next day facing either a long 120km day to the border, or two easy 60km days. Was tired and late setting off; the heat was very strong over the last couple of days, and after spending most of the morning climbing, it was an easy decision when I saw a guesthouse on the side of the road in mid afternoon. This was in a tiny village that wasn’t even on my map, but they had a bed and a much-needed shower.

Rode the last 40km or so to the border the next day, feeling a lot better for an easy day. With so little ground to cover was able to stop a lot and take it easy. Went through 2000km on the odometer on this leg, which surprised me a bit. Stopped in a cafe for some coffee, and ended up staying for a couple of hours, watching the world go by. Maybe I’ll travel more like this… Rode the last 15km or so to the village of Boten, just south of the border, excited to see the milestones now saying “China border”. Got a room in the village fine, and after trying to do some laundry I accidentally got involved in a drinking session with some Chinese guys on their day off. Drinking with Chinese people is strange. From what I can tell you have to make a toast every few minutes and clink your glasses, and only then can you drink. There was some strange respect thing going on as well, with the older guy having all his drinks poured and cigarettes lit. I sneaked off after a couple of beers, and rode up to the border, keen to see what was going on.

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Someone I’d met in Pak Mong had told me that Boten (the border town) was a strange sight to see, with lots of Chinese folk popping over on one-day passes to buy cheap stuff and go to casinos (or worse). There were a couple of hotel-casino complexes there that were easily the largest buildings I saw in the whole of Laos. They wouldn’t even accept Lao kip here, so I had to find a gold shop and change some money to Yuan. Rode around for a while and saw Chinese guys drinking rice whiskey and play Mah Jong.

Next day I was up early for the border run, feeling pretty excited. Rode out the last few km of Laos, stopping for a final plate of sticky rice. Ramshackle to the very end, the Laos border post looked like it was bought at B&Q. Changed my last kip over with a lady walking around in the strange no-mans land between border posts, swapping them for notes with pictures of Mao on. No idea what the exchange rate should be. Was shouted at to not ride the 1km between the border posts, which seemed a bit silly, but didn’t care as was almost in China. The Chinese border post was some elaborate steelwork that looked a bit like a ski run. The bike made things a bit complicated; had to go through as a foot passenger, stamp in there, then come out and go through the customs section with the vehicles. Was happy to not get searched, as a lot of people get their guidebooks confiscated at the border (for the rebellious act of showing Taiwan as a separate country on the map, and not part of Mother China). Had covered mine in parcel tape and cut out the map just in case. Just as I was leaving, I met three of the cyclists- Tim and Manne from Sweden, and Loretta from Canada- I’d seen in Luang Prabang, which was great timing. We agreed to ride the 40km into Mengla together, and set off.

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Instantly, Laos’ 2 lane superexpressway turned into a 6 lane monster. And this was a minor road by Chinese standards. We stopped in Mohan for noodles and for the others to change money. Probably because it was a border town, the government wanted to impress, so they’ve done up the whole place to look like Disneyland. Its pretty silly, with giant plastic flowers and enormous lampposts straight out of Narnia. The ride into town was a gift, with 40km of 1-2% downhill, so rolled almost the entire way in. Stopped for a meal and decided to stay in town, so checked into a hotel. Every hotel in the country advertises their rates at double what they actually charge, which you get to pay by asking for a discount. Silly system perhaps, but it got us a room for 2 quid each. Went to explore the town with Tim, which was nice enough. Not much going on, but were impressed to see buildings on both sides of the street after Laos. Did a bit of window shopping, and some actual shopping in a supermarket, which also featured dozens of staff stopping what they were doing and performing their loyalty chant. Met Manne and Loretta for beers and chicken burgers.

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Spent the next two days riding north to Jinghong, where we were hoping to catch the water splashing festival, a massive annual party in south Yunnan. Mary was starting to go wrong, with 3 or 4 punctures in two days. Pretty sure the back tyre is knackered, but need to get to Jinghong and find a bike shop to be sure. The riding was ok on this leg, but we were on some very big roads which took a bit away from the countryside. There were some massive tunnels as well, some of which weren’t lit- not fun when you don’t have bike lights. The longest was 4000m long, and as China doesn’t bother with things like ventilation, we had to cover our mouths to avoid being gassed.

On the second night we camped in Mengla, my first night in a tent on the trip. Had been a bit apprehensive about wild camping, especially when you could get a guesthouse for a few quid, but after my first night I was converted. We stayed by a river, in the grounds of a botanic garden on the edge of town. Even got to wash in the river. Met an English lad on the way into town who was also cycling, and he camped with us for the night, as well as a Chinese guy who wanted to join us. Next day we rode into Jinghong, the capital of Banna (the southern part of Yunnan province), just in time for the Water Splashing Festival the next day. Had to hide in a petrol station for an hour due to a massive thunderstorm. We had a long 15km downhill on the way into town, on which my back wheel was doing strange things, wobbling a lot and creaking a bit. Crossing the bridge over the Mekong into town we could see a massive fair set up on the bridge. Next stop was a bank, where I was relieved to have my card work and be able to take money out. Went to a cafe for a late lunch, where the owner told us that we would struggle to find any accomodation due to the festival, so after pottering around town on the bikes for a while and a few drinks, we went to camp in a park on the edge of town, right underneath an enormous statue of Buddha. Thoughtfully the city had provided a sprinkler system, which made for a great impromptu shower.

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The most relaxed capital city in the world… Vientiane, Laos, 3rd- 6th April 2011

Spent a very relaxed (what else?) few days in Vientiane, resting up before a long stint north to China. Am writing this a few weeks late, so a bit forgetful on exact details, but here goes…

First night I walked down to the riverfront and watched the sun set over the Mekong. Thailand is just over the river, reached by the aptly named Friendship bridge. (I’m told on the Thai side they’ve built an 8 lane highway to meet it. Laos has a dirt track). Went to a bar to watch some football, and made friends with a group of Brit travellers, finding out later on we’d all been on the same boat on the Mekong to Luang Prabang.

Next day had a lazy morning, taking full advantage of French colonial heritage and enjoying good coffee for the first time in ages. Even had proper croissants. (Pretty sure this is the only positive thing the French did here). Had to sort out a few bits and pieces before the trip to China, and had some fun trying to get hold of fairly basic things like maps in the shops here.

Walked up to the Vientiane version of the Arc d’Triomphe, built with concrete donated for building a runway. Its not that pretty (they even stuck a plaque up saying so), but you can climb up and see the city from the top. Bumped into different people from the Luang Prabang boat again on top, which was nice.

Tried to buy a guidebook for China, and the only ones could find in the entire country were fake. You can’t buy a Lonely Planet guide to China in China, apparently.  This left me with a guidebook the size and weight of a housebrick, with well over a thousand pages, printed on thick paper. Wasn’t even that much cheaper than the real thing, with the guy making the fully reasonable comment that he’d had to photocopy all that and stitch it together. 

One day I rode a bike out of town to the Buddha Statue park, a weird and wonderful collection of religious themed statues made of concrete, in a little park by the Mekong. You could climb up some of them, and with sights like 30 foot high smiling skulls next to massive long reclining Buddhas it was cool to hang out and take in the strangeness. The ride out went under the “Friendship Bridge” going to Thailand, turning into a dirt track almost as soon as it had gone past the turnoff.

On the last day I woke up early and rode out to where the map said the bus station was, looking to get a ride to Luang Prabang. Wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed to do this, and didn’t really want to ride the 5 days north again. The bus station on the map was a dirty, mudpool-filled field with a collection of rusting buses. Two guys started laughing and pointed saying “this way”. This continued all the way out of town, and eventually found my way to a bus terminal. Got shouted at for wheeling Mary in, so had to leave her outside. Eventually worked out that I had to negotiate with the driver to take the bike as cargo, which wasn’t a problem, and was even able to bargain the price down to a reasonable $5. Then had the whole day on a “VIP” bus, which in these parts means you get your own seat and a small bottle of water. Doesn’t sound like much, but when you see the local buses you aren’t complaining. Was a strange feeling to see all the places I’d come past again, at relatively high speed. Stopped in Vang Vieng to pick up some blurry-eyed folk, then kept on going all the way back to Luang Prabang.

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Vang Vieng to Vientianne, Laos, 2nd- 3rd April 2011

Had a fairly easy two day ride south from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. Was fun, but nothing on the three day trip south from Luang Prabang in terms of scenery. Was planning to do it in one go (was 160km, but mostly flat and downhill), but got up too late, so became a two day trip. Stopped in a village that wasn’t even on my map to sleep, and soon found out why it wasn’t on the map when I tried to find something to do- aside from my guesthouse, the only other source of entertainment I could find was to get a haircut. The locals must have been equally bereft of entertainment, and my trim soon became a spectator sport, with a little crowd watching through the window.

Rolled south to Vientiane the next day, getting there in mid afternoon. Was waved down on the road by a family on the way, who insisted on giving me lunch and beer. Not complaining about this one. Their mate was completely loaded, dancing around like a loon with a bottle in hand at midday, wearing his US Embassy uniform with pride. Was apprehensive about cycling into a capital city, but true to Lao form, nothing was stressed at all. Read in my guidebook that this is the most relaxed capital city in Asia, and can easily believe it.

Vang Vieng, Laos, 29th March – 2nd April 2011

Got to town mid afternoon, after an easy day’s ride. Wasn’t really sure what to expect from this place, with people I’d met ranging from cesspit to a lot of fun, so came with an open mind. Was looking to rest up for at least a day after a pretty tough few days in the mountains. As I was cycling through town I bumped into Joel and Ingo, guys I’d met on the boat. This kept happening all the way through the country. Straight after this a German guy came up, seeing the bike, and turned out he was going the same way up through China as me. Arranged to meet for a drink later on. Sorted a hotel, washed and slept for an hour, then went to walk around town.

Central Vang Vieng is essentially a tribute to idiocy. All the bars sell “happy” pizzas and milkshakes openly, and their clientele then lie around stoned for hours watching episodes of Friends on telly. Had to look pretty hard to find a restaurant that wasn’t playing Friends. Wasn’t really much to do in the centre of town, and was too tired to go exploring, so checked emails and went for another nap. Later on went to meet the German lad from before, and spent some time looking at maps and routes (again reminded just how big China is). Bumped into Johan from the boat, and went for dinner and drinks. The bar asked us several times if we’d like to see the special menu, looking a bit perplexed when we just wanted beer. Luckily Joel and Ingo were there as well, having bought a bottle of laolao (rice whiskey, which for some reason they just named after themselves), which was shared around freely.

Woke up feeling exhausted (and no, not hungover); was still feeling the effects of the ride here. Met some people for breakfast, who were off on a bike ride, but really wasn’t in the mood for this so relaxed and read in a Friends-free cafe for a few hours before going back to sleep for the afternoon. This ended up being a very lazy day, which was needed, and after meeting friends for a drink and a few games of pool I went back to bed again

Next day went down to the river, where the tubing takes place. . The whole thing was a bit surreal: drunk, half naked travellers dancing around by a river in a jungle, then hopping on a giant rubber ring to float 20m downstream to the next bar. Haven’t seen so many idiots in one place in a long, long time, but I have to admit it was fun. I didn’t get a tube as I’d heard you never get back to the centre in time for the 6pm deadline, so got a tuktuk out there with Ingo and walked between each bar. Each place had a giant rope swing of some kind, which although not particularly safe were a lot of fun… Made it to maybe four different bars before having had enough of the idiocy. A lot of the bars are staffed by Brits, working for free in exchange for food, alcohol and accommodation- some have been here far far too long. Got a ride back to town late afternoon, and went back to Jaidee’s bar. Called it a fairly early night as wanted to get back on the road the next day.

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, Laos, 27th – 29th March 2011

Having stupidly decided to go out as late as Luang Prabang allowed, I predictably overslept for what was the biggest day of the trip so far. Eventually got going a bit before ten, after a final baguette. The first 30km or so were ok, just a few undulations. It was nice and cool which made things a lot better. Had a mini reunion running into some of the Israeli guys I was hanging out with in Luang Prabang, who were waiting on the roadside after their minibus had got in an accident, watching the most chilled out argument over damages ever. This was only matched in relaxation by the road”works” just down the way, where I counted 3 vehicles that had just been left in the ditch after accidents. Laos has a very strong claim for being the most laid back country in the world.

Stopped for a coffee after a couple of hours and met some Swiss guys who were driving around the world, which seemed a lot more sensible. Almost straight after this things got a bit tasty. Started on a long, slow uphill that went on for about 2 hours. I’d known this was coming thanks to the map, but having never climbed 600m on a bike I didn’t know what to expect, and wasn’t expecting it to be so tough. Stopped a few times on the way up, generally feeling pretty rubbish. This wasn’t helped by running into two French cyclists who informed me that “of course it is difficult, that is why we are here” without smiling once. Eventually got to the top of this one for a sweet 600m downhill, made all the less sweet by knowing I was about to do almost twice as much again. Still, it was fun to ride for 10km and not touch the pedals once. Got to the base of the big big hill and stopped for supplies at a shop, where the guy offered me dinner, I guess out of pity. Saw a small boy peeling and grilling rats over the street. After a quick plate of sticky rice I spent 3 hours riding uphill again, this time climbing a little over 1000m (thats more than Snowdon). You could see the mountain pass way up in the distance, and weaved your way slowly up to it around a horseshoe shaped road. The MP3 player had long run out of battery by this point, so made my way up on 3 litres of water, 4 bananas and a lot of swearing. The one saving grace was that it was overcast by this point, or things could’ve been a lot tougher. Rolled into Kiu Kacham around 6:30, just as it was getting dark and cold, and keeping everything crossed that there was a guesthouse here as I’d been told, which there was. Collapsed for a couple of hours, had a very cold shower and some dinner. I couldn’t face the Beerlao I’d been dreaming about on the way up, so made do with a couple of pepsis, before collapsing again for a good ten hours, a broken man.

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Woke up to the sound of heavy rain hitting a tin roof. Set my alarm for an hour later and rolled over for more sleep. Got up to find freezing fog everywhere, which ruled out cycling as I was woefully underprepared for cold weather. Luckily two Swiss cyclists were staying in the same place, so we sat there together, drinking coffee and waiting for the fog to clear. After two hours I worked out that I needed to leave by 11, or I wouldn’t have enough time to make it to Kasi, where I was planning to sleep. This would leave me with the choice of a second night in the same place or trying to flag down a bus, neither of which appealed. As if on cue, the mists parted at 10:45, and I was able to set off. Despite being overtaken by the Swiss couple on a comfortable looking bus, with bikes on top, I was in a good mood. The first 40 km or so were undulating, lots of drops and climbs with no flat ground to be seen. Eventually made it to Phou Khoun, where I had a late lunch before a beautiful afternoon, descending or rolling along flat ground for almost 40km. Barely touched the pedals the whole way. Scenery starting to get very special, with lots of karst limestone stuff going on. On the way down I passed 3 Swiss guys, who told me about a hot spring at the bottom of the hill, with a few bungalows on the side. Here I had a couple of hours soaking in a hot spring, followed by a big dinner and long sleep.

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On the last day I had a very easy roll into Vang Vieng, nothing compared to the previous two days. Took it easy and stopped a lot for coffee breaks, and despite a baby climb in the middle got to Vang Vieng by early afternoon. The scenery was stunning the whole day, surrounded on both sides by steep cliffs and forests. As always the locals were shouting out and saying hi; the people were super friendly all the way through Laos. In every village I got to people would call out “sabadee” (hello), and kids would line up to high five you. Sometimes you’d have to pass on this, for example when going downhill at 50km/h and a small child sticks their hand out. My favourite thing was when the people would shout whatever phrases they knew in English. Aside from the obvious “hello”, I got a fair few “thank you”s, “good mornings” (often in the evening), along with a couple of “goodbyes, before I’d even left. I even got one “I love you”. My favourite greeting was about 10km from Vang Vieng, when a group of lads, maybe 8 years old, called out “fuck you” as they smiled and waved. Was debating having a word, but realised this was probably the only English they knew, so put on a big smile and waved back, shouting “fuck you too!” to yet more smiles.

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Luang Prabang, Laos, 23rd – 27th March 2011

Got off the boat in Luang Prabang, very ready for dry land after two days on the boat. Had to wait a long time to get the bike off the roof of the boat, then went to find the youth hostel with some new friends from the boat. Took a bit of finding, including managing to wheel Mary most of the way through a very narrow and busy street market, but got there eventually. Myself and Johan got the last two beds- first time in a dorm room on the whole trip, which surprised me a bit, but the rooms have been so cheap all over Asia that haven’t had to use one. Everyone else got into the guesthouse next door. Went out for dinner and drinks, and caught a bit of the big night market.

Woke up late the next day, surprised to get a good nights sleep in a dorm room. Walked down to the main market for breakfast of a baguette filled with pate, tofu, egg and vegetables (big thanks to colonialism here), and bumped into a dozen people I was on the boat with. Stayed here on a bench by the main drag for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and chatting. Various plans like going to find some waterfalls were mentioned, but the weather wasn’t great so I stayed in town instead. Luang Prabang is pretty small, so was done walking around the main area in an hour or so. Was nice to see, with the combination of Buddhist temples and French buildings, but weren’t really any big stand out sights. Nice place to be lazy though. That afternoon I went for a quick ride around town to find a new music player and a bike shop, as Mary needed a new kickstand, but was nothing but a covered market and motorbike repair shops and dusty streets outside the main tourist street. Did get a new music player though, from the covered market- a fake ipod (can’t buy anything genuine, and this looked the least rubbish), that does everything the normal ones do but has a battery life of two hours. Not bad for a tenner, mind. Went out for beers that night in a bar which overlooked the Mekong and had a volleyball net in the middle. Nightlife here is pretty timid due to an 11:30 curfew, which brought back happy memories of the UK under the old licensing laws.

Next day started as pleasantly as the one before, with a baguette and coffees at the market. Decided to go out to the waterfalls today, which is something everyone here seems to do. You can tell this as every tuktuk driver in town tries to sell you the trip, on a sliding price scale understood only by them. Got a group of people together, then drove the hour or so out of town to the place. Was a bear sanctuary inside the waterfall park, where someone had left the door to the bear enclosure wide open. Luckily these were Lao bears, and so were too busy sleeping to escape and cause trouble. The waterfalls were ok, given that it was coming to the end of dry season, but much more fun was the series of natural swimming pools with platforms to jump off and rope swings. Spent most of our time here, before go

ing back to the tuktuk for a ride home. The driver was lying in a hammock in the back, sound asleep.

On the evening of the last day there I climbed up to Phousi monastery, on a hill overlooking the town. Were 7 Buddhas on the way up, one for each day of the week. Appropriately there was also a gun turret next to these, which some lads were having great fun on, probably in lieu of an actual roundabout.

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Slow boat down the Mekong: Huay Xhai to Luang Prabang, Laos, 22nd- 23rd March 2011

I’d been warned the Thailand-Laos border crossing could take a while, and I wanted to get a boat leaving that day to Luang Prabang, so I got to the Thai customs at opening time. Got a long tailed boat over the Mekong, which was quick and easy, charging for Mary as an extra person (to be fair, she took up 3 seats), then got to Laos immigration. This was my first encounter with Laos, and this set the tone nicely, with an immigration form so misspelt as to be unreadable, and an office with 3 people in, and two of them lazing about whilst one did all the work. Passport is now starting to look nice and full, thanks partly to Laos covering one and a half pages in stamps and stickers.

I was in Huay Xhai, hoping to catch a boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. I could’ve ridden it, but it was a 500km trip going up to the Chinese border that looked insanely hard and remote, so I bought a ticket for the slow boat instead. It takes 2 days, stopping for the night in a town called Pak Beng.

Bought a ticket using a combination of kip (Laos currency) and baht that I didn’t fully understand, and got charged 200 baht extra for Mary, again fair enough, and the lads running the boat strapped her down on top. I reserved a seat inside the boat (a bit like a long canal boat with a better engine and open sides), then went for a late breakfast. The boat left a bit after 12, so I was waiting around a while. A lot of people came on tour packages, and this is how most backpackers get from Thailand to Luang Prabang, so it was very full. A very official-looking Laos guy got on and gave a long lecture about how Pak Beng was some kind of new Babylon, where we’d be robbed or drugged for sure, and accommodation was rare and very expensive. Luckily, he was able to reserve rooms in a guesthouse for us if we paid him now. I can’t believe people fall for this shit, but they did, and he’d sold all his rooms inside a few minutes. And then we were off.

Its called a slow boat for a reason. Without the strong current, it would’ve taken a week to get to Luang Prabang. Still, this makes for sightseeing at a relaxed pace, which is definitely how Laos works. It was fun to watch the scenery roll slowly by, and see people getting on and off in small riverside villages. Boats are the main form of transport around here.

Pak Beng was predictably just a small village with a lot of cheap guesthouses. We docked against a floating platform; I guess the Mekong rises by a few metres in the wet season and so is no point building a permanent one. Was a bit of a pain getting a mountain bike and all my stuff off the top of a boat from a moving, floating platform, but luckily got a few new friends to carry bags. Though I was ok, then was approached by a small boy carrying my spare tyre and demanding $5 for his services, which made me smile. Got a room fine, then rounded off the day with dinner and couple of Beerlaos (the only beer in Laos, it seems) at the only bar in town.

Got to the boat fairly early the next day as didn’t want to be stuck at the back with the engine (and drunk people). The journey was the same as the day before; a lot of reading and chilling out. Scenery got a bit more impressive, with a lot of steep limestone karst stuff going on. Got into Luang Prabang late afternoon, happy to be off the boat.

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Chiang Mai- Chiang Khong, Thailand, 18th- 22nd March 2011

Day one

I left Chiang Mai early in what was threatening to be a nice day, the first after a few days spent watching it tip down through the window of a cafe. (Not massively upset about that one…). Managed to screw up leaving Chiang Mai in a mini repeat of Bangkok, heading 5 km down a motorway before I realised my mistake and found an exit to turn off on. I say motorway, but they have a cycle lane, alongside 4 lanes for other traffic, so not that bad. Had an easy, flat 30 or so km out of town, stopped for a coffee, then some biggish hills started. Although I’d had Mary’s gears retuned in Chiang Mai, I still wasn’t happy with them. I could get onto the lowest set if I was going at a decent speed, but this when you need them you’re going uphill. Was having to keep an eye out for hills in the distance and shift down with plenty of spare time. The scenery was awesome though, rolling hills and forest all the way.

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I rejoined route 1 (the road north from Bangkok), and although this is a monster further south its fine up here, pretty quiet. After a couple of stops for noodles and 7-eleven snack breaks, I got to Wiang Papao, where I was spending the night. The only guesthouse I could find was 3km out of town, but it was great, overlooking a big rice field. Passed out for a couple of hours; came to very hungry, so went out to find dinner. Was nothing in the local area and didn’t fancy going up to town in the dark, so just bought a load of noodles, bread and chicken and ate in the guesthouse.

Day two

Woke up to this view over the fields

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There was a big party in the bungalow next to me, with a big Thai family drinking whiskey. Was worried I’d overslept, but it was only 7:30. One of the guys spoke English, and explained they were all in town for his daughter’s wedding. The wedding wasn’t for a while, so I guess they were taking full advantage of the opportunity. I joined them for a while (subbing a cup noodle for Sansong), then waved goodbye and set off for Chiang Rai.

I wanted to get to Chiang Rai in good time, having met some people in Chiang Mai who were going to be there at the same time. Wasn’t sure if I was going to spend a rest day there, so wanted the afternoon to look around as well. The ride was very flat and fast, if a bit boring (mostly on route 1) so got there in quick time. Sorted accommodation and went to explore the town, which was nice- small enough to learn your way around quickly, and a very relaxed atmosphere. Arranged to meet the guys from Chiang Mai later on, then relaxed  in a cafe a while before looking around, checking out the street market and the world’s weirdest clock tower

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Ate some rice at the night market, then went to meet people from Chiang Mai at a bar. For some reason almost every bar in Chiang Rai is loaded full of prostitutes, and it took a while to find a place that wasn’t.

After staying up far too late and subsequently waking up late morning, I was inevitably going to be taking a day off here. Took things slowly in the morning, riding into town and going for a long lazy breakfast at a cafe. Hung out with two Norwegian girls who were heading to Laos, then went to meet the others. One of them, Maina, was working in an orphange in town, and they were taking the kids out to the Chiang Rai “beach”. Keen to see what a beach looked like in a landlocked town, I went along. It was really just some straw huts by the river, which the kids swam in for the whole afternoon. Were some strong currents about, and laughed when I thought about the logistics of taking a school trip to swim in some river rapids back home.

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Went out for a couple of drinks that night, but called it a night pretty early as wanted to be off the next day

Day 3, Chiang Rai- Chiang Seng

Overslept again today, which is getting silly now. Sleeping minimum of ten hours a night, which I guess is my body catching up, but annoying when you want to do stuff. Like today, when I planned on getting an early start for Chiang Seng, then checking out the Golden Triangle nearby. Luckily it was only 60km or so away, so I was able to cover it pretty quickly- only stopped to get some water out or check the map. Got a hotel sorted in Chiang Seng, on the banks of the Mekong and 15km south of the Golden Triangle, by early afternoon. Didn’t bother changing as was heading out on the bike again, so grabbed some lunch in town and got on the road north.

I was really excited about the Golden Triangle, despite having been warned of its crappiness by several guidebooks. I think I’m too easily impressed by the glamour of crime and illicit behaviour, and so visiting the most famous heroin/opium producing area in the world was the kind of thing that really appealed.

The reality was more like going to Land’s End in Cornwall; a place that is famous for obscure reasons being taken over by tourist crap. There was all kinds of rubbish with the words “Golden Triangle” on, just to remind you where you were. It was cool to be able to see Thailand, Laos and Myanmar from the same place. China is just 20km up the Mekong from here, which I didn’t know before. Found a cafe overlooking Myanmar and watched their tourist activities, which were a bit lower budget and a lot more charming, except for the two large Army types watching to make sure no-one made a run for it. The river was only a few metres wide, and it would be so easy to come across. I guess a lot of people do.

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I checked out the Opium Museum, more to feel like I’d done something useful than anything else, which was a big collection of opium pipes and not much else. Bought a sticker saying “Thailand” on the flag for Mary and stuck it on, as was leaving the country soon, then headed back for Chiang Seng.

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Was literally nothing going on in Chiang Seng, just a one street town. Turned on the TV in the hotel room, and the only English language channel was “Teachers TV”, showing a documentary on behaviour management. Smiled that I didn’t have to manage anyone’s behaviour but my own, then read a while.

Day 4: Chiang Seng- Chiang Khong (55km)

Lots of Chiangs around this neck of the woods. Although today was one of the shortest days of the trip, it was also one of the worst. It all started when I went to the shop to get some breakfast. Left Mary outside, and saw some kids standing around outside, doing something. Hadn’t had any trouble in Thailand so assumed they were just mucking about. Came out again, and after drinking my coffee noticed a big nail sticking out of the back tyre. Pulled it out in bemusement, stupidly, and it started hissing. Little buggers. Seriously considered going around town to look for them (it was a small place), but that wouldn’t have helped anything, so took the back tyre off and started to try to fix things. I’d put supposedly “puncture proofed” inner tubes on (after getting a flat on the second day of the trip), which are full of this gluey goo stuff that comes out and repairs punctures for you. This works fine with normal punctures, but the nail had ripped a big big hole in the inner tube and a lot of the glue had poured out, which meant that I couldn’t get the inner tube out or deflate the tube fully (some glue had got into the valve, so couldn’t take it out from inside the tyre). Really not sure about how to fix this. Eventually tried to pump it up, largely due to having no other options, and it seemed to hold.

Started riding out of town, and it gave a bit, but not completely. The back tyre was rolling round visibly flat, but not deflating any more after a certain point, and so long as I pumped more air into it it seemed to keep going. All this was really bad for the tyre, but was going to be in Luang Prabang (Laos) soon and could get a new one there. It was rubbish going though, having to stop every 20minutes and pump it up some more, and not being able to go fast as wobbling too much. Was a lovely ride otherwise, along the banks of the Mekong beside a mountain range.

Eventually it all got a bit too much, and the wobbling was getting to the stage where I couldn’t control the bike anymore. Realised that some more air must’ve come out and this meant I could get the tyre off, which I did, although had to scrape some of the glue stuff off with a screwdriver. Not fun. Put a new inner tube in, and everything seemed to be fine. By now I’d covered about 25km in 3 hours, so set off with a vengeance, then realised I’d lost my MP3 player. Just in time for some big hills. The climbs weren’t long, but they were very steep. On the way down I was itching to gun it (15% incline at points), but the road had a lot of gravel on so had to hold it back, and took out a pair of brake pads in the process.

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Got into Chiang Khong, and was rewarded for a shitty day by a very good and very very cheap guesthouse. Was very hungry (just wanted to get there so had skipped lunch), and ordered some pancakes, as they only did breakfast food there. Put a new back tyre on Mary, a beast which looks like it belongs on a tractor, and had a lazy afternoon in Chiang Khong. Was my last night in Thailand, which I was sad about. It was an easy, excellent place to start a bike trip, and I’d got to love the laid back attitudes of people here. (Luckily, Laos took the blood pressure down a few more notches). Had a final Singha that evening, then got an early night in before the border crossing the next day.