Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Day 49-56: Entering China

Monday, May 21th, at 6:45 I was at the Chinese embassy for the third time to apply for the Chinese visa. When I parked my bicycle I looked up to see that even though I had arrived one hour and forty-five minutes before the embassy would open, I was still not the first applicant in line. Six other troupers had made it before me. Standing in line ahead of me was two Dutch fellows and one French woman teaching law in Hanoi. I scared them with my stories of previous experiences with the embassy and filled in with other rumours I had picked up speaking to other travellers in the last weeks. Nervous and anxious we filled out our forms in line and waited patiently. Two hours later we all had managed to turn in our applications before closing. Excited we met outside the tall, yellow brick walls of the embassy and agreed to celebrate with a deluxe French breakfast.

Leaving Vietnam I felt relieved. I had spent 50 days in this country and I was ready for something new. The day half my journey was completed, I was on my way to China, feeling excited about what awaited ahead. Many questions lingered in my mind. Would I be greeted in the same friendly manner I had been in Vietnam? Could I easily stop for food and drinks? What would the road conditions be like? What about safety? However, walking with my bicycle across the bridge that connects China with Vietnam, seeing China appearing closer and closer, I realized that this was a new beginning. I had to start over, getting to know the people, the culture, the language, and learning new phrases. It was the same questions I had had when entering Vietnam and it all had worked out perfectly. I was very content with my travels and experiences in Vietnam. Now I was in Hekou, the city that lies on the border to Vietnam, cycling around town, absorbing the new environment. Everywhere were Chinese characters in all shapes and sizes, covering every entrance of every store or restaurant. People stared differently, and I was not receiving the smiles I was used to. I figured the citizens of Hekou were not accustomed to a foreigner cruising around the streets on a fully loaded bicycle. They were probably in chock, unable to display any emotions. It was a very hot day. The locals were hiding under umbrellas, drinking refreshing cocktails and juices. In an attempt to escape the burning mid-day sun I joined them to try out some Chinese refreshing drinks. When my coconut juice was place in front of me two Japanese men sat down at my table, curious about my bicycle and travels. After I had presented my situation and explained my ambitions, I curiously asked what brought them to Hekou, in the very south of China, next to the Vietnamese border. In my mind, the reason for being here was merely for transport purposes. Either you were on your way to Vietnam, crossing over the border, or you just left the country on your way to other destinations in China. It never entirely became clear to me why the Japanese tourists were in Hekou, but they logically explained to me that the Vietnamese girls are very pretty and affordably this close to the border. That clarified the dildos that were being sold at the market among fruits, vegetables and meats.

The night bus to Kunming reminded me of a similar bus me and Daniel had taken going to Hanoi. This time, however, there were no air-conditioning, and it was packed with Chinese people, wondering what I was doing on their bus. When I finally entered a deep sleep the bus arrived, ending a nightmare about Chinese people stealing my bicycle. At 4:30 in the morning I stepped out of the bus, equipped myself with my head-lamp, assembled the bicycle, and venture into the dark city. More than half my journey had passed so I thought it was time for a bit of luxury, checking into a finer hotel at four times the cost I had been paying in my last days in Vietnam. I needed to get prepared for China and get a good night sleep before pedalling west towards Dali, about 420 kilometers away. I had spent the last two nights either on a train or bus, thus I took the opportunity to indulge in a hot bath, buffet breakfast and English TV. Kunming is a modern city with rising skyscrapers, western clothing stores, food chains, structured roads, traffic lights and even bicycle lanes. When I was not at the hotel, appreciating the luxurious comfort, I cycled around Kunming, visiting the main attractions. I also managed to stop by a professional bicycle store to get my bicycle perfectly tuned up for the challenges ahead.

I left Kunming fully dressed in my wind protecting outfit as the temperatures drop down below ten degrees Celsius in the early morning. Kunming is located at an altitude of almost 1900 meters, making it especially chilly in the first hours of the day. From this day on I would not ascend below 1000 meters for a few weeks, so my warmer clothes would soon come handy. I was not only excited to use the gear I had been carrying all the way through Vietnam, I was also pleased with a cooler climate that would prevent me from sweating uncontrollably. Sadly, my first impression of cycling in China was disappointing. Leaving Kunming I travelled through the backside of the city, next to factories and old dump yards. The heavy traffic, with exclusively large, old trucks leaving thick black smoke behind them, did not improve my belief. Not until I arrived in Anning, 30 kilometers south-west of Kunming, did the traffic disperse. Although I was still full from the enormous buffet breakfast I had truly enjoyed a couple of hour ago, I stopped in town for my first Chinese meal on the road. I picked a place full of people eating and having loud conversations, and instantly I was invited to join a table of four. As I thankfully seated myself an English teacher was called over from another table to translate our dialogue. After a good meal and pleasant company, I illustratively displayed my appreciation and asked for the bill, but the English teacher had already cleared the costs and despite my protests, he insisted on paying for my lunch. I left the restaurant with a dramatically changed first impression of cycling in China. My destination this day was Lufeng, a city north-west of Kunming. I was not completely certain of the total distance I had to pedal since my map only display kilometres on the larger Express way where bicycles are not allowed. At 109 kilometers, travelling on the smaller road adjacent to the Express way, I was finally there, surprised of the long distance I had been required to pedal. Finding a hotel proved to be as challenging as the cycling itself. Since all sign are written in Chinese characters, it is naturally difficult for me to make out the hotels. When I ask locals they persistently speak Chinese to me, waving their hands in all direction. Every time I gesture that I do not understand, but they ignore my attempts and continue to chatter in their language. Occasionally when they see that I am not following their dialogue, they write out the Chinese characters in their hand, as if that would help me understand. Very little English is spoken outside the larger cities and apparently simple gesturing is also not practised, making communication a demanding task.

On my way to Chuxiong on my second day towards Dali, I met the second English teacher as I stopped for lunch in a small town, consisting of a dirt road and a tiny market. I was introduced to her mother, who served me a delicious meal from her bicycle. It was a custom made three-wheeler with a kitchen on the back, loaded with several different tasty dishes. This time I paid for the meal myself, but for 3 Yuan (0,30 Euro) I had it covered. After 78 kilometers I arrived in Chuxiong, a large city located roughly half-way between Kunming and Dali, and again I was faced with communication issues as I tried to find a hotel. After my forth attempt I checked in to a hotel on the east side of the city. The odd location forced me to take the bicycle back into town in search for food. Just after I parked the bicycle a man approached me, speaking good English with a hint of a British accent. He, too, was an English teacher and seemed extremely keen on practising his skills. I took the opportunity to ask questions about Chuxiong, and wondered where I could get the best Chinese dumplings in town. He explained that his Chinese name was Ping and his English Pierre, and took me to his favourite restaurant a few minutes away. Ping had spent six month in England which explained his British tone, and was truly a genuine man with the kindest soul in the world. Not only did he treat me to the dumplings and dinner, he also invited me to his home and introduced me to his family. He offered me coffee and presented me with a gift, showed me around town and took me to his school where works. After five hours I was overwhelmed by his hospitality, generosity and kindness. I thanked him and offered the same hospitality if he would ever visit Sweden. We exchanged e-mail addresses and he left me his phone number in case I would get into trouble. I wish this man all the best in the world.

Ping and the two other teachers had left me with a very good feeling about China. Still, I would get very confused and sometimes harsh looks pedalling my way towards Dali. I was not receiving any friendly greetings as I used to in Vietnam, which bothered me. Then there were the dogs. In Vietnam I had a few encounters with chasing dogs but they did not pose a problem other than an annoying constant barking. They were often small and crippled. In China the dogs scared me to death. Luckily most of them were chained to a poled, functioning as a living alarm when intruders would approach. On one occasion, free-wheeling downhill, I was not so lucky. A huge German Shepard saw me approaching his territory, which apparently is the piece of road adjacent to the owner's house, and started to chase me with full force. At first I ignored him after looking down at my speedometer that showed 40 km/h, but when he appeared right behind me in a split second I got worried. The beast was in good condition, his long sharp teeth clearly on display, ready to bite anything that came near. I pushed the pedals with full power accelerating quickly up to 50 km/h, but I was not losing him. I pushed harder and harder and must have exceeded 60 km/h before the maniac animal gave up. I was slightly shaken by the incident but more so over the fact that this dog had chased me for a few hundred meters at 50 km/h. This time I was fortunate that I was on a slope, already travelling at a high speed. What if I was going my steady 20 km/h on a flat surface? He would have eaten me alive.

On the third day towards Dali I had no definite destination. There was no large city within 100 kilometers that made a logical stop. I decided to trust the road signs, and with my experience so far I would find a place to stay before making the last stretch to Dali on the forth and last day. However, following road signs in China is especially challenging due to the Chinese characters. Only close to larger cities are the names spelled out in Latin characters, making it difficult to navigate in the countryside. I would try to memorize the look of the characters to later recognize them on the road signs. Fortunately, I had picked up a map with Chinese characters in Kunming, but still I had difficulties finding my way. When asking locals I would just get instructions explained in Chinese, or at times the wrong directions. At 100 kilometer no larger town had appeared and the smaller towns I had tried to find during the day were too far from the road. I was utterly fatigued moving at creeping speed. I was not sure what slowed me down. Maybe it was the hills, the bumpy roads, the wind, the hot mid-day sun, the melting tarmac sticking to my tires, exhaustion, or a combination of all. I stopped by a small farm on the top of the mountain and asked for food, water or shelter. To my surprise and delight, I was offered all. Relieved I rolled my bicycle up the lawn and agreed to a dirty room that could substitute as a zoo for insects. I brought up my tent, assembled it on the bed, washed off and sat down among the chickens looking out over the mountains, thinking; this is assume. The family treated me like a king, preparing dinner, offering fruits and caring for me as if I was the only foreign guest that they have ever had. I most likely was.

On my last day towards Dali I failed again to accurately estimate the distance, forcing me to break the long distance record, 129 kilometers. This was a long day and I did not find my way to Dali until early evening, having conquered a big mountain pass, bumpy roads, false directions, never ending construction site and the usual heat and sweat. In four days I have pedalled over 400 kilometers, pushing my physics to the limit. Now I am feeling that I am truly becoming stronger, seeing my body taking new shapes. My calves have taken abnormal proportions and despite all the food and snacks I am continuously consuming, I am still losing weight. Dali offers a variety of good foods, so now I am taking the opportunity to indulge in pancakes, fruit shakes, hamburger, cakes, and all the traditional Chinese foods without any guilt at all.


Updated Route Report

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Day 43-48: Eating and drinking

Fortunately I had planned one full day rest in Dien Bien Phu to recover and refuel after three challenging and demanding days cycling the roof of Vietnam. The next morning I woke up early from severe, almost painful hunger. I had been dreaming about pancakes and fruit shakes the entire morning, thus excited I rushed out into town to find myself a restaurant that could fulfill my needs. However, Dien Bien Phu is not a large city and still few western tourists make it all the way west in northern Vietnam, close to the Laos border. As a result, no pancakes or fruit skakes were to be found anywhere. The best I could find was a six-egg-omelet and an ice coffee.

Dien Bien Phu is known for one of the last battles of the French Indochina Empire, ending a long period of colonial suppression. It was here that the French colonial forces met their match in 1954 in an historic 57 day siege by the Viet Minh forces. The battle is well presented at the only museum in town. I spend the morning of my first day off wandering around the site, once again reminded of the horror of wars. The rest of the day I spent eating and drinking, before going out for dinner to indulge in more food and drinks. I could simply not satisfy my hunger. I returned to the restaurant I had visited for lunch when the owner made his local specialty exclusively for me. It was the most delicious fried rice I had ever had, prepared with various vegetables, spices and Vietnamese sausage of some sort. I was hoping for a dinner of the same quality. Indeed the chef and owner delivered as anticipated. He served me three tasty dishes, rice, a couple of beers and countless of rice wine shots. At the point where his wife started yelling at him for drinking heavily, I started turning down his generous offers, but he did not listen to me or his wife. He kept pouring rice wine into my shot glass, even when I covered the glass with my hand he would just keep pouring, laughing and making jokes, soaking my hand over and over. When I finally asked for the bill and gestured that I had to go to bed, get up early the next day and cycle to Tuan Giao, 80 kilometers to the north-east, he nodded understandingly and charged me 30,000 Dong (1,80 Euro) . We had a great time and I thanked him for his superb food, hospitality and generosity.

The road to Tuan Giao was expectedly hilly and I crossed one big mountain pass early in the day. Today the major challenge was not the hills or the passes; it was the condition of the road. The entire stretch was under construction, making it difficult to gain speed even when traveling downhill. By the end of the day my bicycle had become so filthy that as soon as I arrived in Tuan Giao I had it washed and polished for an astonishing 5000 Dong (0,30 Euro). From this day on I had my bicycle washed each night for the same price, and each time it would look like it did the day I rolled it out of the bicycle store in Germany where I bought it eight months ago. I was impressed by the bicycle how well it had been performing on the bumpy roads, and that it still was in one piece. Up until this day I have not had a single flat tire, broken spoke or rattling chain. My gear cables have gotten slightly stretched, making it more difficult to adjust the gears but that it is fairly normal and usually easily fixed.

I left Tuan Giao energized by another great meal the previous evening, heading for Son La 86 kilometers south-east. I deeply regret not getting an updated map over the north-west region in Hanoi with more specific information regarding road conditions and mountain passes. Every day I would venture out into the unknown, only aware of the total distance I would have to pedal. The day I cycle to Son La this became very obvious as I was unexpectedly faced with an extremely steep climb soon after leaving the hotel, lasting 17 kilometers. It was not the highest climb I had tackled, but certainly the steepest of them all. The 12% and 14% percent warning signs confirmed my theory as I was cursing, pushing myself and the bicycle up the road at a constant 7,5 km/h. When I reached the top I was almost expecting a group of cheerleaders ecstatically welcoming me with songs of hurray. Instead, I was met by a totally destroyed road covered with rocks, pieces of old tarmac and huge potholes the size of half my front wheel. The road did not improve and the longer I rolled down the mountain the more frustrated I became. I had fought my way up that damn mountain at creeping speed and now I was forced to go down the other side at almost the same pace. Bloody hell, no. As my underarms were starting to cramp from constantly breaking, I was letting go of the brakes more and more to gain speed and relax my muscles. My bicycle jumped up and down as I was free-wheeling down the shattered road and I was praying that it would handle the brutal beating. When I reached Son La late in the afternoon I had fought my way up two additional passes, but by now it had all become a routine. Pedaling downhill I would conserve my energy for the next pass to come, and when it arrived I was most often ready for another work-out. I would make sure to have enough water (lesson I learned from the first day; see previous post) to last me through the pass, and enough snacks to keep the blood sugar leveled.

Son La appealed to me. I decided to stay here for one more resting day before pushing it to Hanoi, which would take three more days. I was not up for any sights or museums and looked forward to just relaxing and resting my legs. On my way to Son La through the mountains I had been offered some of sort of alcohol numerous times, most often rice wine, and it seemed like wherever I would sit down to eat, drink or simply rest, I would instantly have a beer or a shot glass in front of me. Most often I politely turned down the offers, repeatedly shaking my head and smile. Son La was no different. On the contrary, here people drank throughout the day. After a visit to the local market and stocking up on my favorite snacks, I sat down to enjoy a cool, refreshing sugarcane juice from one of the smaller restaurants in the center of Son La. Quickly I was surrounded by a five men, six large glasses and a few of liters of “bia”. As this was my day off I accepted their company, we raised our glasses, toasted and after an hour all bottles were empty. The men stood up, nodded, gave me a last smile and went about their business, as if this was part of their daily routine. It certainly seemed like the people of Son La had made a habit of drinking regularly. The same day, at lunch time, a group of policemen in their military green outfits with red and gold details sat down at the table next to me after finishing their midday meal. Again, I was offered alcohol with authority, but I respectfully turned down their offer, hoping that they would not arrest me for not drinking. It did not stop them, and they gladly poured down one shot after the other of rice wine, slamming the glasses hard against the table, shouting and laughing. Then, like the incident earlier in the day, they stood up, nodded and went about their business, driving off in their rusty open-air police van. Great police work, I though to myself.

Leaving Son La I had a long and eventful day ahead of me. I had to accomplish 115 kilometers to Moc Chau, pedaling east towards Hanoi. Fortunately I felt well-rested and the first 25 kilometers flew by. I still decided that I could use another early meal, stopping at a small restaurant along the road. As I have done so many times before, I ordered my Pho Bo (Vietnamese noddle soup with beef) and sat down at the table, grabbed the chopsticks waiting for the food to arrive. I looked up to see twenty faces starring in my direction, but this has also become routine, so I did not notice anything out of the ordinary until I looked down again at the food that had been just placed in front of me. What was that? It was rice porridge of some sort, and scattered in the gue were unrecognizable pieces of meat. When I found out with the help of my phrasebook that the meat was pork I started eating, chewing the meat carefully still not entirely convinced of its kind. The crowd continued to follow my every move waiting for a response. Out of pure politeness I gave the thumbs up as I looked over to the kitchen where the chef was lifting up slimy, white pig intestines out of a huge steal bowl. I looked down in my bowl and instantly made the connection. I looked up to see all other guests nod in approval with emerging smiles on their faces. I later found out that what I was eating was rice porridge with blood filled pig intestines. At the time I just knew I could not keep eating, and so did the waitress and kindly brought me the same dish without the meat.

Luckily I had brought enough snacks to last me until lunch. At 90 kilometers and exhausted, I stopped again at a restaurant on the side of the road to witness once more drunk people slamming their shot glasses of rice wine on the table, laughing and making load conversations. My entrance seemed to enlighten the party even more and I was quickly invited to join. Again I had to struggle to turn down shots of liquor. I failed miserable. The women explain that you do not turn down an offer from a woman; the men assured that you do not reject an offer from an older man. I was in trouble. When I lost count of shots I knew I had to take a longer break than usual. When I finally returned to the road I was still extremely full from all the food and tired from all the rice wine. The hill that appeared in front of me just five minutes after leaving the party did not improve my condition. But I had put myself in this situation so I had to get myself out of it. Right before entering Moc Chau it started to rain intensively, fully completing my day.

The rain was not going to stop and the last two days it more of less rained constantly. In Son La I had invested in a new poncho which covers me completely as well as most of my bicycle. It came very handy as I pedaled 117 kilometers to Hoa Binh, breaking the long distant record, and on the last day of the north-west Vietnam tour pushed the last 75 kilometers to Hanoi. It had taken me ten days to reach Hanoi from Sapa, cycling eight days, resting two. With the additional two days in Sapa it added up to twelve days, same as planned. Proud I rolled into Hanoi and the first westerner I noticed crossing the street right in front of my bicycle was the Dutch fellow I met before leaving for Sapa, and then also half way to Hanoi on one of the mountain passes. He had cycled the exact same route in the same number of days, but in the reverse direction. We laughed, shared experiences and decided to meet for a beer later that evening. I had a lot to tell and so did he.


I have received my Chinese visa and leave Hanoi today. I will report more about that next time. See you in China.

Full route report of Vietnam

Monday, May 14, 2007

Day 37-42: On the roof of Vietnam

Saying goodbye to Daniel in Hanoi was quick, nevertheless somewhat sad. The last few weeks on the road had been great fun and we had shared many laughs and extraordinary moments along the way that will never be forgotten. Now I was alone. There was just me and my bicycle. Being on my own gave me plenty of time to contemplate my next move now that I was not going to get a Chinese visa within another week. After just a few minutes the perfect solution appeared to me. Since I would like to continue with my original route when possible, I would simply reverse the route I had planned in north-west Vietnam, starting in Sapa and working my way back to Hanoi instead. Cycling the entire distance from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu to Hanoi would take me approximately twelve days, skipping the bus ride I had originally planned leaving Hanoi. Once I will reach Hanoi, I will apply for an express visa and head back to Sapa the same day with the overnight train. The following day I plan to take an overnight bus to Kunming, China, to arrive according to the initial plan. I regret planning a few occasional bus rides on my journey, thus I will not take another bus or train before ending my trip in Beijing. I still believe I can complete my adventure in 100 days.

As a result, I quickly booked an overnight train to Sapa, leaving the same evening as Daniel on March 8th. Overnight travel is very convenient and the next morning I was in Sapa. Close to the Chinese border, Sapa is set in the a beautiful mountainous, misty landscape with many surrounding hill-tribes. It is the most popular destination of north Vietnam. Actually, I ran into a few tourists who had travel to Vietnam only to visit Sapa and other towns in the area, not traveling along the coast at all. The main reason you stop in Sapa is trekking, thus on my second and last day in town I had booked a full day trekking tour through the mountains and various hill-tribes. The scenery was breathtaking and our humorous guide, a Vietnamese stand-up comedian, made the tour worthwhile. However, when I felt I was in the middle of nowhere, another group of six tourists came up the same path, and then another a few minutes later. Furthermore, for the full six hours we walked up and down the mountains there was a constant melody of "buy for me" as hill-tribe women and children tried to sell us various self-made items. Conclusevily, the experience did not feel completely authentic. At the time I did not know that I was about to travel through many villages and hill-tribes in the mountatins by bicycle, seeing far more genuine places on my own.

I was extremely excited to get back in the saddle after more than a week, heading for my next destination, Tam Duong. My first obstacle to counqer was the famous 1900 meter Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Sapa is located at about 1600 meters meaning I had a relatively easy challange in front of me, a 300 meter climb. However, the road turned out to be anything but gravel, sand, rocks or at best cracked tarmac with enough potholes to send you flying across the road, partly due to road construction. It took me a good two and half hour to reach the top all while stopping to adjust my gears that had worked beautifully all the way up until now when I was crossing the greatest pass of Vietnam. 16 kilometers later all that was quickly forgotten when the road turned downhill. From here the roadwork was completed and all of a sudden I was flying down the mountain at speeds exceeding 50 km/h. The experience took me back to the central highlands and Dalat when Daniel and I left for the coast, freewheeling about twenty kilometers down the mountain. Now I was doing it again, but here the mountains are bigger, taller and stretches way beyond the horizon. More significantly, there is no traffic. The road was mine. I could hint soft layers of clouds below me, reminding me of the high altitude. Above the sun had risen over the mountains and was warming my skin in the cold but pleasant wind. Again a great feeling of happiness came over me, same as it had in Dalat, if not more prominent. Sadly, the happiness was short lived. After 20 kilometers the road turned evil as it started to climb again, and the cool wind had disappeared. This is when I fully realized what it is like pedaling in north-west Vietnam. There are no flat roads. You either fly down a mountain, or you are struggling to climb it. I also realized that it is as hot here as in south Vietnam. Furthermore, I learned that there are no rest stops along the way. Highway 1 had spoiled both me and Daniel with freuqent cafees or restaurants along the road. It was easy to stop at anytime to rehydrate or buy snacks. Here I was stuck up in a mountain with nothing but my water bottles to rely on. However, cycling up the mountain at a ten degree angle in mid-day heat (35 degree Celcius), I quickly ran out of water. Finally I approched a village with a few wooden houses. I desperately peaked in to see nothing but children looking strangely in my direction. Here was no water to be found. When I saw a woman rinsing vegetables in the creek running along the road I knew what I had to do. My water filter came to my rescue. Rehydrated I arrived in Tam Doung already after 40 kilometers, but accroding to my map it should have been at least 70. More confusingly, I saw a road sign for Lai Chau reading 30 kilometers. Lai Chau, according to my map, was more than 120 kilometers a way. What was going on? Excited to reach Lai Chau one day earlier than planned I pushed on the last 30 kilometers. I spent the evening that night repairing my gears, optimizing them for the hills. A young, ambitious man helped me making the final adjustments. He was so excited to be part of the operation that he took our picture, went to the photostore and had two copies made, one for him and one for his sister. Later I recieved a detailed drawing of a rose from him. Not sure what that meant, but he sure helped me get my bicycle ready for the next day.

When I left Lai Chau I realized something was very wrong with the map. I was not in Lai Chau, or was I? Where was I? Extremely confused I stopped a moped coming up the mountain in my direction. In both Vietnamese and little English he explained to me that Lai Chau had switched names with Moung Lay. Appearently, many towns and cities of north-west Vietnam have switched names recently, and few changed names in the last year. My 2005 map was simply outdated. To my relief I knew where I was, but to my disappointment I had not saved a day. It would still take me three days to reach Dien Bien Phu from Sapa. The road was hilly but I had to come to except the fact that I was either traveling at speed around 50 km/h, or 5 km/h. On my way down a mountain pass I stopped by a helpless motorbiker on the side of the road. One of his tires had run out of air. With next to no traffic and very little passing vehicles in the mountains, I was his only hope. He borrowed my bicycle pump and quickly he was on his way. I felt proud of my achievement and hoped that if I would end up in a helpless situation, someone would assist me similarly. On the same downhill I ran into a brave dutch cyclist coming up the mountain. We had met in Hanoi in a bar and he mentioned that he thought about cycling north-west Vietnam, same route I had initially planned. Now we met in the middle of nowhere, going the opposite directions. I explained that I had to change plans due to the Chinese visa, reversing the route, and he presented his situation. It was great to see another person crazy enough to tackle these mountains. He made me feel sane. The 106 kilometers to Moung Lay (previous Lai Chau) was stunningly beautiful and all the cycling up and down the mountain felt easier by the hill. In the early afternoon I arrived in Moung Lay and had an early dinner which never have tasted better.

The final and third day before reaching Dien Bien Phu was going to be the most physically challenging day of my life. The last two days I had cycled 176 kilometers in extremely hilly terrain and spent almost twelwe hours in the saddle. My butt was sour, legs stiff and my body needed rest. I was not yet completely fit to handle three consecutive days in the mountains. However, I needed to reach Dien Bien Phu, 100 kilometers to the south, in order to make it to Hanoi in time. The distance was not the problem, the two mountain passes I had to climb were. I rolled out before breakfast at 5:30, a half an hour earlier than usual, wanting to cover more distance in the morning when it is cooler. The first and greatest pass came soon after I left Moung Lay, and would last much longer than I anticipated. After seven kilometers I started to feel weak (the last moutnain pass to Dalat was seven kilometers). My legs could not handle the weight of my bicycle at a ten degree slope, and were starting to give in. I pushed and pushed but every push only moved me a meter up the mountain. Finally I gave up and stepped off the bicycle. My legs felt like two single bricks attached to my hips, hurting enourmously. That was when I heard a very familiar sound; a slow moving truck traveling up the steep road. Soon I was hanging on to the truck, blessing God for his gift. After an additional seven kilometers I still had a tight grip on the truck but my arm had fallen asleep two kilometers ago. I decided to let go, waved the truck driver goodbye, and thought that this dreadful pass must be over within the next few hundred meters. To my disapointment it would continue for another five kilometers, almost ending my life. I knew I had reached the top when the truck driver awaited me by the roadside with a big, welcoming smile. We sat down on the side of the road, looking out over the mountain peaks. The wind was cool against my sweaty body and I truly felt alive. I looked over to the truck driver and with a big smile, revealing his missing teeth, he reached out a large plastic bottle with a brown, muddy liquid. Stuffed in the bottle were lots of various roots. Without a doubt I accepted his offer and took a zip. It was home-brewed sweet Vietnamese rom. He kept offering me the bottle over and over, flexing his muscles, illustrating strength, and I kept accepting his generous offers. Slightly intoxicated I rolled down on the other side of the mountain feeling like the king of the world. The rom proved to work as I pedaled effortlessly over rolling hills until I reached the second pass of the day. The story repeated itself but this time there was no truck to save me. Completely exhausted, barely alive, I reached Dien Bien Phu in the afternoon. During the entire 96 kilometers there had been only one place to stop for food, thus I had not had any lunch this day. Still I was not hungry and settle with some mangos before falling asleep at eight o'clock.


Please note that there are links to all slideshows on the left hand side. On the left there is also a link to a full Route Report.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Day 28-36: Unexpected

On our first day in Hanoi, after speaking to other travelers and our hotel personnel, I found out that the Chinese Embassy was closed due to Vietnamese bank holiday. A German man and his pregnant girlfriend miserably explained that they had applied for a Chinese visa right before the embassy closed and were now stuck in Hanoi without passports until it would reopen in 10 days. Another group of travelers had planned to leave Vietnam in the next couple of days to go to China as their Vietnam visas were about to expire. Now they were also left here and in need for a Vietnamese visa extension instead. I shared their concerns. I had planned to leave Hanoi after four days, but now I would have to consider other plans since the embassy had decided to take the full week off.

However, there was no reason to rush; I had enough time to think about alternatives. First, me and Daniel wanted to explore Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and a city of many attractions and fascinating history. Like its southern sibling Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is full of vehicles in a world of chaos. Mopeds are crowding the roads in clouds of exhausts, and when not in motion, they are parked on the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk through the vehicles in the streets, making it difficult for cars and taxis to move about. The result is an orchestra of honking vehicles that goes on all day, everyday. Edging the streets are countless of shops offering clothes, shoes, souvenirs, jewelry, exchange services, tours, all forms of transportations, food, drinks and more. In between the shops are restaurants and hotels in great numbers. Surprisingly, we had a tough time finding a decent hotel at a reasonable price in Hanoi. For the first time on our way from Ho Chi Minh City we had severe difficulties finding a room that suited our budget, was available and the hotel accepted our bicycles. Selecting and finding hotels has generally been effortless, as well as bringing our bicycles into the hotel, or in few occasions, our room. We never book any rooms in advance and rarely plan what hotel to pick. At few occasions there are not many options and we must accept any hotel that is available. At these times we often end up in poor rooms with no warm water, air conditioning or TV, just a warm, humid room with hard mattresses and dirty blankets. In larger towns and cities we usually scope out an area at our arrival that seems attractive, start looking at rooms and negotiate prices. Traveling on bicycles we have the luxury of easily moving quickly from one hotel to another. Thus, we take our time evaluating a number of different hotels in order to find the best room at the best price, that is, two large beds, TV with HBO, warm water, fan and air conditioning, balcony with a view, friendly staff and last but not least, good locations to park our bicycles, all under ten U.S. dollars. Being persistent in searching for good hotels and determined price negotiation, astonishingly, we have managed to get all of the above a number of times. In Hanoi history repeated itself, and after a couple of hours and a coffee break, we found a hotel in the Old Quarter area that lived up to all of our requirements, but for the additional two dollars per night. We knew we were going to stay in Hanoi for more than a week, justifying the 12 dollars for the perfect room.

On our second day in the capital we bicycled around the city to visit a number of sights. We explored the Hoan Kiem Lake right in the heart of Hanoi, paid a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum and soaked up the atmosphere in the Old Quarter. When darkness fell we continued to enjoy the area as we raised our glasses of ‘bia hoi’. For 2000 dong (0,10 euro) per glass, this fresh beer is a real treat, and you can easily buy your friends a round or two. Bia hoi is a locally brewed draft beer without any preservatives, which means it is supposed to be enjoyed quickly. Before the night ends, most often the beer runs out, as the travelers as well as locals disapprovingly move on regular beer at four times the cost.

As a result of the Chinese embassy being closed more than a week, we had more time in Hanoi than originally planned. Being in a chaotic, polluted and noisy city for more than a week did not appeal to me or Daniel. Therefore, on our third day we headed for Cat Ba Island located in the magnificent and famous Halong Bay. Getting there was not what we had expected. We were placed on a tour out to Cat Ba Island against our will and our wish for only transportation was completely ignored. Instead, the booking agent had placed us on a tour but excluded the food. We would get to Cat Ba Island but not before cruising around the bay and visiting some tourist sights. A one day tour without food or drink is not an agreement anyone would accept. Any human with a functional brain can figure that out. Very hungry, we still appreciated the massive and beautiful bay and all its islands sited as far as the eye can see. Cat Ba turned out to be a great place to stay. It offers kayaking around the thousands of islands, trekking in the mountains and many secluded, fine, white sand beaches and clear water. We were excited to be here and after dinner we had quickly forgotten the sorrows of the day. Unfortunately, the following day I woke up with stomach pains and the runs. For me, this has almost become a routine, but this time it was different. We had planned to go for a full day of kayaking around the bay, but strategically changed our plans to half a day. Once out on the ocean, my pains were forgotten and the awesome sights we were experiencing cruising around the islands took over. Huge, tall, massive limestone peaks shot through the ocean into the sky, covered in lush, green vegetation. One after the other they appeared as we paddled through the bay. Single, small stretches of sand at the bottom of the peaks made perfect rest stops, and we quickly found our favorite. The small, slim beach, located between two towering limestone peaks, was only a few meters wide, making it a dream spot, and I wondered why this location was not made into a postcard. Unsurprisingly, awed by the environment we got lost in the disarray of islands. When my pains returned the kayaking got less interesting and I just wanted to make it back, if we could just find our way. After two hours we finally found our starting point to be greeted by an old, angry woman accusing us of breaking one of the paddles.

As a result of a long, tedious day and my stomach problems, I was motionless for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The next morning I was extremely weak, pale and had high fever. We agreed to go back to Hanoi and if I was getting worse I would consider seeing a doctor. In these parts of the world a high fever can mean the start of many dangerous diseases, thus you do not want to take your changes if not improving quickly. After a five hour journey by boat and three different buses, I was not exactly feeling better. I tried to rest but felt worse by the minute, and after checking my body temperature (38,8 Celcius) I decided to make a short visit to the doctor. A couple of hours later, 50 dollars poorer, and unfortunately not wiser, I was informed that I had contracted a virus or bacteria that caused the fever and diarrhea. I was prescribed lots of various medicines that could be picked up at any local drugstore. Tired of spending money, I decided to let my body handle the problem. It took me two days to recover and by the time I was feeling fine, Daniel started to complain about stomach pains and before he knew it, he also had fever. There is much more to see in Hanoi so when we both were back on our feet we took the opportunity to stop by a few of Hanoi’s museums, I went to see the famous Hanoi water puppet performance, and Daniel made sure to do some shopping before heading back to Sweden. On our last evening we went out for dinner at a finer restaurant than usual, looking to enjoy our last Vietnamese evening meal. After inspecting the menu, Daniel turned to the waitress to ask if they serve dog, since it rarely appears on the menus. Vietnamese people consider dog to be a very fine, delicious and exclusive meal. Throughout Vietnam we have seen huge packs of dogs living among villagers, and we have suspected that they do not only keep them as pets. Now it was time for Daniel to give it a try. Not only did the restaurant serve dog, they had several alternatives how to prepare it. Daniel chose dog with ginger and garlic. A few minutes later a fur-smelling brown mix of dog flesh, bone, skin and fat was put in front of Daniel’s face. I was about to vomit and expecting Daniel to do the same. Instead, he started taking in the awkward mixture, chewing it slowly. His movements were slow and careful, and his face displayed clear signs of disapproval. A few bites later he gave up, having eaten dog probably for the last time in his life.

After several days in Hanoi I was looking forward to getting my Chinese visa and proceed with my travels. At the day of opening I was there early in the morning to get a good position in line. However, after four hours of queuing, the line had not even moved half a meter. Instead it had grown more than twenty meters behind me, and before I knew it the gates were closed in front of hundreds of queuing travelers. Frustrated I headed back to the hotel to gather my thoughts, and realized that right now it will take at least a week to get a Chinese visa, even with express service.

Many alternatives are currently lingering in my mind, and by the next post they will come together to the perfect solution. Two things are now certain, though; I will leave Hanoi and I must get back in the saddle.