Thursday, March 29, 2007

Getting ready to leave

Last Friday was my last day of work for several months. It is a feeling of uncertainty, but also great freedom. I choose when I want to get up in the morning and how I would like to spend the day. Bicycling a few hours every other day is the only obligation I have. For the next 100 days I will live to experience other cultures, religions, foods, people, environments, cities, landscapes and more. Everyday will present something new and exciting, and no day will be like the other. This journey will last in my memories as long as I live. Hopefully it will also teach me more about life and help me understand the world we live in.

Ten years ago I did a similar journey in southeast Asia. Back then I was obviously younger and more carefree. I was less organized and pre-planned, carried less equipment or did not even care to bring a camera. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Being young and somewhat irresponsible makes life a bit easier. You worry less and things always work out in the end, or at least you think so and that is what counts. Now, being a full adult (questionable) I approach things differently. I plan, reason and think about every detail of my undertaking. I create lists of equipment alternatives, calculate a budgets, look for alternative routes, and even get my body into better shape. This way is undoubtedly more work, but after all, knowing more is more rewarding in the end.

I have done all that I could to be well-prepared for my 100 days on a bicycle journey. All I can do now is to relax and enjoy the ride. See you in Ho Chi Minh City!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bicycling companion

I have good news. My long-time friend, Daniel, will join me bicycling a few weeks in Vietnam. After three years living in Melbourne, Australia, he is moving back to Sweden. Why not stop by Vietnam on the way and bicycle a few hundred kilometers?

Daniel and I have been good friends for years. He is a well-traveled fellow who is easy to get along with, lives in the moment and is exceptionally open-minded. Thus, he makes a great traveling partner. For apparent reasons we have not spend a whole lot of time together the last three years. Australia and Europe are far apart. We have only had the opportunity to meet once a year whilst spending summer holidays in Sweden. Nevertheless, our past, long friendship makes it easy to reconnect. A few weeks bicycling in Vietnam provides the opportunity to catch up. We surely have a lot to talk about.

I have planned this journey for several months, and Daniel just had the possibility to join a couple weeks ago. As a result, we will not change any major plans in terms of travel schedule, route or destinations. I have the impression that Daniel is somewhat comfortable in this situation, though. As of now, he will join me starting the journey in Ho Chi Minh City all the way up to Hanoi, spend a few days there and then fly to Sweden. That equals about 5 weeks of traveling, 2600 kilometers of transport, 1300 kilometers of that on the bicycle. After Hanoi I will continue my route into the northwest Vietnam highlands, and two weeks later enter China.

My only concern is that I have been training significantly the last few weeks and are physically well prepared for bicycling longer distances. Daniel is by all means not fit, but bicycling a full day, about 70 kilometers, is a tough challenge have you not done any cycling previously. I know how I felt after three hours and 60 kilometers in the saddle with no rest. However, Daniel is the most stubborn human being I will ever know, thus I sense he will withstand the pain the first few days until he has built up enough strength to thoroughly enjoy the ride.

Since Daniel will only travel in Vietnam, mostly along the coast, he needs only the very basic equipment. He will attempt to purchase the bicycle in Ho Chi Minh City. Apparently there is a bicycle store carrying imported bicycles and gear in the back-packer area west of District 1. Panniers and other gear he will try to bring from Melbourne.

100 days of bicycling by myself could have been lonesome. I am happy to get company part of the way. See you on the road, Dan.

Daniel to the left, me on the right side. Summer 2005. The most recent picture I have of us both together.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Training 8

Route: Münster-Everwinkel-Telgte
Time: 2:30
Distance: 50 km
Average km/h: 19,8
Top km/h: appr. 35
Total training: 330 km
Conditions: Sunny, windy

This entire weekend presented beautiful weather, and I had the opportunity to go bicycling both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday I went by myself on a nice ride to Everswinkel, further east of Münster then ever before. By now I barely use the map. I have become familiar with the streets signs and I am good at finding good bicycle roads on my own. Nevertheless, the surroundings are still the same; scattered farms, open plains, occasional clusters of trees, small winding roads of tarmac, and the usual stink of dung. Therefore, by Training 8 I have unfortunately not so much interesting information to share. I can only conclude that I have definitely become stronger and can pedal faster for a longer period of time. In spite of tough winds in the open areas, I still pushed the average speed up to 19,8 km/h for 50 kilometers without any rest but for two short stops to take a picture.

Sunday was not about training, or averaging a high speed. (The above numbers only refer to Saturday’s tour.) It was all about enjoying the ride, cruising down the road, smelling the air of spring and absorbing the sun that has been hiding for the last few months. For the first time my girlfriend, Sandra, and me went out for a long tour together around her hometown, Hessen/Hamm. Sandra enjoys taking a walk once a while and does not share my interest in bicycling. Since I started training I have been pushing her to go with me on a short ride with no success until this day. We did not plan to pedal very far, but eventually we must have covered around 35 km. Sandra impressed me. Not only did she keep a good pace, but not once did she complain about sour muscles or an aching back. On the contrary, I think I was suffering more than she was due to the tough 50 km ride the previous day.

We brought some salad, sandwiches, drinks, coffee and a freshly baked cake. After about 20 km we deserved it all as we settle down next to a field. The sky was bright blue, but for the sun brightly painted over it. Spring had arrived. There is nothing more refreshing like the first feeling of the warmth of the sun on your skin or the first smell of fresh grass. You can only understand this feeling coming from a region where you must withstand more than 6 months of cold and rain, or snow, and spring arrives slowly only with a few days of sun.

After the last zip of coffee we continued on our excursion. Only after a few kilometer, after reaching a castle nearby, we surrendered to the sun once more and laid out flat to soak up the remaining warming rays of the sun. But as time passes, the sun sets and the cold air returns. It is still March and you cannot get too comfortable yet. We decided we have had enough fresh air for one day and pedaled straight home a few more kilometers. It had been a beautiful day. Sandra certainly impressed me with her bicycling skills and endurance. Now she was laying exhausted, motionless on the sofa, unable to speak, only to mumble yes or no to my question.

This could have been the last training before my departure. I am not sure I will be able to make it out on a longer ride before I face the real thing in Vietnam. You can view all Training posts here, and check out the slideshow from the training sessions here.

Monday, March 12, 2007


I am often asked questions starting with the word "why". Why biking? Why Vietnam and China? Why now? Why 100 days? Why this route? The simple and short answer is "because I can". The real, true answers are a bit more complicated, and require a few more words.

Why I have chosen to go bicycling opposed to backpacking or go by motorbike as a way to travel you can read here. I have already covered this basic question, as it is the number one question people tend to ask. I guess that is fair because bicycling is certainly not the fastest or most convenient means to travel.

Why Vietnam and China?
I have wanted to go to Vietnam ever since my last backpacker journey more than 10 years ago. Back then, me and my friend Simon traveled Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia together. We parted in Cambodia when Simon continued to Vietnam and I went back to Thailand and later returned home. I never made it to Vietnam. Since then I have heard and read many inspiring stories and facts about this country. Vietnam also happens to be a common country to bicycle through partly due to its long coast and fairly accessible mountains.

As a result, Vietnam was my number one choice. China came into the picture simply because it is nearby Vietnam. You can cross the Vietnamese border in the north (Lao Cai/Hekou) by foot. Therefore, I began doing research on bicycling in China and I soon discovered that bicycling in this country seems to be an amazing experience. Its ancient culture, alien language, famous foods, exotic nature and the mountains, the rice fields, the huge urban areas, the small villages and its friendly people, are all appealing to me.

However, China is the world’s fifth largest country after Russia, (Antarctica), Canada, Russia and U.S.A, thus pedaling across the entire state would be too difficult and time-consuming this time around. Where should I go? I was recommended to concentrate on south-west China at Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum. After having read a travelogue from an experienced biker, who bicycled from Bangkok into Laos and then up north through south-west China, and additional research at, I decided that China was to be my second destination.

Why now? Why 100 days?
Before I can answer the rest of the questions I have to briefly explain why I go 100 days bicycling just at this time.

I currently live in Germany but shortly I will quit my work here and move back to my motherland, Sweden. You rarely get an opportunity where you can take a longer break from working, and now is the time. When I quit work end of March, that leaves me about 4 months until August, when my mother turns 60 years old, and has planned a nice family trip with me and my sister to Bulgaria. This I cannot and do not want to miss it for the world (or Vietnam and China). Also, in October this year my two-year sublease contract of my apartment in Sweden runs out, which means I need to move back.

When you consider all the dates, and do the math, I roughly have 100 days to travel, starting in April. If I could I would have traveled earlier, but financially and practically I could not leave work sooner than end of March.

Why this route?
I have already answer why Vietnam and China, but why this particular route?

Initially I was looking at starting in China, doing the toughest cycling there, and end in Vietnam, taking it easy, staying close to the beach and relax after my endeavor. However, looking at the seasons I reversed my route. In South Vietnam the south-west monsoon starts in May, beginning the wet season. The dry season starts in December and runs through April. Therefore, it makes sense to start in South Vietnam in April when the conditions normally are better, that is, it rains less. The warmer, dryer weather in the North Vietnam usually arrives in May, when I plan to travel in this region.

In south-west China the summer season has already set in mid-May, and it can get very hot. Strategically, I will at this time pedal on higher altitudes where the temperatures tend to be a few degrees lower than at sea level.

As a result of the weather seasons I finally decided to start in Ho Chi Minh City. I know I will not make it to China in a month and a half, thus parts I must cover by bus or train. It seems logical to skip the distance between Hue and Hanoi, as it is mainly a coastal stretch, and I will experience enough coast and beach environment the first weeks of my journey. I plan to travel to north-west Vietnam opposed north-east partly on recommendations and research, and partly due to the easy border access to China in Lao Cai/Hekou.

Once I cross the border into China, I simply head for the next big city, Kunming, a few hundred kilometers to the north. Research and travelogues tell me that the best biking in China is then to the west, closer to the Tibetan region, around Dali and Lijang. The scenery is stunning, in every corner of this area there is something amazing to observe, it reads, and the mountains climb to over 4000 metres. From Lijiang I could continue north, but the mountains are even steeper and higher in this direction, and this route will not allow me enough time to reach Chengdu to complete my journey in 100 days. Instead, I will pedal north-east, where the landscape is slightly flatter. Nevertheless, this route is also recommended and I believe it will be just as exciting, and offer many attractions and a beautiful landscape.

For a full route description, visit The Route.

If you have more question, feel free to use the comment field.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Training 7

Route: Münster-Handorf-Telgte
Time: 2:20 h
Distance: 39 km
Average km/h: 16,1
Top km/h: 34,5
Conditions: Rainy, windy

Yet another weekend has passed and yet another training session. Proudly I can announce that I have not missed a single weekend of training since I started biking regularly. Despite any weather I have managed to get out there and do the kilometres. This weekend was no exception as me and Mattias pedalled 39 km in rain and strong winds.

I have covered all the directions out of Münster by now, thus picking an interesting route has become more difficult. When biking I spend a great deal of time looking at the map, trying to find the best way to go, which is not necessarily the fastest or easiest. On the contrary, it is more often the tougher one which requires more time, but also then more rewarding. Despite the familiar route, part of our trip was both demanding and scenic. The greatest challenge this day was dodging potholes. We did fairly well, but the mud was impossible to bypass. On one occasion we were forced off the road by an enormous puddle of water, resembling a small lake. I was lucky, but Mattias faced some difficulties as his bicycle sunk down into the mud preventing him from pedalling. I got a good laugh, and we both got very dirty bicycles.

We have seen a lot of rain lately in Münster as well as unusual warm temperatures. This in combination must have made spring arrive early for we saw a large field of Wood Anemone outside of Telgte. This flower is commonly grow in parts of northern Europe in April and May, but was blooming in full in beginning of March to our delight.

There was no point in trying to pedal fast on this day. The wind was simply too strong, and if we ever gained speed, there was potholes or a large puddle of water to slow us down. Instead, we focused on the surroundings and made more stops than usual, trying to capture the landscape and the farmland. This particularly paid off when we passed a large field on our way back to Münster. First not noticeable, a huge herd of sheep was hiding in the tall grass. When we approached most of them retracted quickly, but a proud male with his curled horns stood firm.

Just as we arrived in Münster Mattias unfortunately got a flat tire. The first in many, many kilometres he quickly explained. Luckily we were almost at home so it was a short, but yet frustrating walk home for him. I sought the opportunity and went to clean my bicycle. I treated it a good wash at the Münster train station where they offer a designed bicycle wash which very much resembles a car wash, but in minature style. At 3,50 Euros it was worth the odd experience, although it was not the best wash.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Visa, Vaccinations, Ticket & More

This post is not an interesting read unless you plan to travel to Vietnam or China yourself in the near future. I recommend new and other readers to choose a different post from any of the menus on the left side, if you do not happen to be fascinated by visa applications, vaccination injections and plane tickets. I also will find it useful myself to be able to easily look up what I did and how I did it later on.

My first intention was to apply for visa in Sweden since I am a Swedish citizen, but complications quickly emerged due to the fact that I had to send my passport and cash by valued mail as well as including a valued pre-stamped return envelope. The systems are different from Germany (I live currently in Germany) and Sweden, thus that was not going to work. Second alternative was to apply for visa in Germany, but there are limitations on what type of visa I can apply for in a foreign country.

As a result, I contacted an agency in Vietnam that offers "visa-on-arrival". It works perfectly. The agency sends you a word document by e-mail to fill out. You simply enter your personal data and travel specifications, and send it back electronically. Quickly you get a reply that your invitation letter is in progress. A few days later you receive another e-mail with the invitation letter which you simply print out and bring to the immigration's office at the airport, and they issue your visa on the spot. The cost is about 20 dollars for the invitation letter and maximum 20 dollars for the visa, cheaper, or the same as in Europe, but much more convenient. It is only possible to apply for a 30 days visa this way, but since I will be 45 days in Vietnam I will later get an extension. This can easily be purchased and obtained in any large city in Vietnam. Rumours has it that it costs about 20 dollars.

I have not found a similar service for the Chinese visa. However, I face the same complications applying for a visa in Europe as with the Vietnamese visa. The solution is simply to apply and obtain a visa in Hanoi, Vietnam. This is both faster and cheaper. I could not apply for 3-month visa in Europe even if I wished to do so. The 3-month visa is effective on the day of issuing, thus I misuse 45 days of it travelling Vietnam, not leaving enough days to travel the 55 days I plan to in China.

My first thought was to keep the vaccinations limited, but once I got started and listened too much to the doctors and friends around me, I still ended up taking all the recommended injections. It is, nevertheless, a fairly affordable insurance to getting ill. Some of the deceases are actually also deadly, although the odds are very low. Vaccinations I have received:
Hepatitis A & B
Polio (tablets)
Malarone (Malaria preventive medication, tablets)

It is also recommended that you take Japanese B Encephalitis, but at 300 Euros I set my limit. The chances of getting infected are very, very small, especially if you use mosquito net, spray and lotion regularly. In any case, this will become a habit avoiding contracting Malaria. I have chosen a preventive medication for Malaria due to horrible experiences with Malaria pills in the past. Three hospital visits (two in Malaysia, one in Thailand), I know what I am talking about. Preventive medication means you do not regularly take any pills should you not feel any symptoms. If you develop a fever you take the medication and seek a medical facility.

I did a lot of research here, but already early on I found the cheapest flight from Europe with Cathay Pacific Airways in the beginning of April. It is a Hong Kong based airline offering great deals to China and South East Asia with connecting flights. I decided to only buy a one-way ticket to be as flexible as possible. A round trip with fixed dates would have been slightly cheaper but that offers no opportunity of altering my plans. Two flexible one-way tickets are too expensive, thus not an option.

Cathay Pacific Economy class has a 20 kg luggage check-in limit. This posseses a problem as my bike alone weights around 17 kg, leaving only 3 kg for remaining check-in luggage. Extra kilos are supposedly charged at about 35 Euros per kilo. Thankfully you are allowed 7 kg hand luggage, but it does not solve the entire problem. I guess I just have to put on the happy face that Monday morning, April 2, 2007, and do my best to charm the crew, because I will most definitely have more then 20 kg to check-in.