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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by joshuwaa, May 9, 2017.
good to see you got it sorted, but yeah, bastards those VISA people are!
Day 117 to 135 – Sost to Islamabad – Pakistan
An odd start to the day getting accosted and checked over by a plain clothes official in the hotel dining room. We had to make some copies of our Visa pages in our passports before he was satisfied. Today it was just Me, Martin and Xenia Oki having left early in the morning. Karimabad was the goal, only a short ride but we had a few stops planned, lots of photos to take, and easing back in to riding was a good idea after 7 days of almost none.
The roads did not disappoint, incredible scenery all around, some of the tallest mountains in the world are in this region and it shows. We were already at 3,000m and the mountain ranges lining the road were towering over us. The Chinese have put a lot of effort into opening up and maintaining the roads here for trade, so it made for awesome riding. The people were surprising the whole way, always waving from their bikes, 3 grown men on one tiny bike waving away and grinning at us was not expected at all. I nearly fell off the bike laughing as one guy rode passed, dancing from the back of his friends bike.
We made our first stop of the day at Hussaini to see the suspension bridge, it’s incredible, at least 100m long spanning the gap over the fast flowing Hunza River. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t look like it was built by 5 drunk guys who found some wood and steel cable and decided to make a shortcut home. The wooden planks are evenly spaced at “1 Human” width apart and the handrail cable only secured enough to give it a good 2 meters slack. I went out heading for the other side very cautiously but the further out, the more it swayed, I realised even if I did keep my nerve enough to get all the way across, I had to come back again. We ventured far enough on to get some nice pictures then teetered back solid ground again. Mission accomplished.
Back up on the road we got a coffee from our new friend. He really was a friend too, he was so happy to meet people, he serves pretty much everyone coming to the bridge; little stones line his shop with messages written on, and stickers from travellers on his doors.
We got to Karimabad a few hours later after more amazing riding and views. We were aiming for a hotel we’d heard about in the hills above the town, Eagles Nest, though we didn’t realise quite how high it was. The tiny road leading up the hill twisted it’s way around villages for an age, very steep, slippery with gravel and some very sharp hairpins. The rooms were pretty expensive for our normal hotel budget so we grabbed a triple room to share the cost. Connecting back to the internet properly for the first time in over a week was nice, China blocks so much it made it impossible to work properly.
In the morning Martin and Xenia left and headed North to a valley they wanted to explore. I hung around until lunch time making the most of the calm and internet after China, then headed South toward Gilgit. Only a short ride on some more amazing roads, but ended up circling around in the rain for an hour searching for a hotel, not planning ahead wasn’t a great idea. The president was staying in a hotel in town which didn’t help things with police and security everywhere. I tried a bunch of hotels, put off most by the prices, much higher than I’d expected of Pakistan, some of the places the locals pointed me too weren’t even allowed to take foreigners. So I resigned myself to the cheapest I’d come across, still the most expensive I’d used for 3 months.
A little stroll around the town and try and get a SIM card, a very lengthy process in Pakistan, but the guy in the store waived all the formalities and got me one straight away. It meant he put his neck on the line, since if I do anything bad, it’s his name on the paperwork, but he was so happy to help a traveller and have a good chat. We spoke about how Pakistan is portrayed by western media and what my experience was like so far. A lot of people seem painfully aware of what most westerners think of their country, and they’re trying so hard to change it, bit by bit.
I packed up nice and early to get on the road, hoping to make it to Islamabad in 1 day, a long way but I was ready for a nice long ride on some great roads. It didn’t really work out that way though. A few locals had told me to take the shortcut road through Naran instead of the main Karokaram Highway, it was much shorter on the map, and should have less traffic since the trucks take the main road. A few hours later, freezing my ass and hands off on the top of a very high pass and soaking wet in the snow, I regretted listening to them. The pass should have been beautiful and quiet, instead it was foggy so I couldn’t see anything and lots of roadworks diverted me onto long slippery muddy stretches.
I made it to Naran a little pissed off and cold, at least I was dry by then, my gear did a good job of keeping the water on the outside. I found a decently cheap hotel, with a room full of flies and got unpacked to another surprise. My remaining half bottle of emergency whiskey I’d bought in Kyrgyzstan had spilled in my bag, now everything stunk of alcohol, in a country where alcohol is illegal for locals. I spent an hour cleaning everything and left it to dry while I went for some food. The town seemed to be a big destination for Pakistani holiday makers so it was packed with touristy shops, flashing lights and, thankfully, good food. They didn’t seem to quite have the power situation sorted though, one minute the hotel across the road would go dark, then when it came back up, the restaurant next door would go dark, rinse and repeat all evening.
The scenery changed a lot in the next days riding, it started to get very green and very hot, almost tropical trees around the road and covering the hills. I was making good progress toward Islamabad until I made a wrong turn and rode for 30 minutes down a road that was a dead end to me. It entered into part of the Kashmir region that is disputed between India and Pakistan and I would need a permit to enter. I was pretty hot and bothered so the border guard was really getting on my nerves, I was trying to understand why I couldn’t pass and he was being anything but helpful, shouting at one point, ignoring me another. I turned around and had a break to cool down, literally and mentally, chatting to a shop owner and some kids. I figured out a new route and set off on some small village roads, course correcting.
I spotted a little place for lunch on the road and pulled up to see what they had. I’m in the habit now of just walking into the kitchens and asking to see dishes, it’s much easier than trying to ask, the dishes vary so much under the same name. Does the Biryani have chillis in it or not, is the dal a spicy one or not, is the meat on the bone or not. This way, I can just go by what looks good, they’re usually happy to have the weird foreign biker wandering around anyway. I sat down to eat and a guy who just pulled up in a car asked if he could join me with his dad and little brother. We chatted a while about my trip and his life, he had been between jobs for a while and was driving his brother back from Cadet college for a family gathering. When we left he offered to pay for my meal, I refused about 5 times, as you should in this part of the world, to separate genuine offers from politeness but he insisted, so he paid the whole thing, I was honestly humbled, not a lot of money for me on this trip, but significant enough for him with no income.
Somewhere along the main Karakorum Highway I took a wrong turn again, my GPS did it’s derpy best and gave me a more direct route into Islamabad, through the villages and back roads. It turned out to be the right choice anyway. The road was tiny, one car wide in most places, winding through villages and farm land all the way through to Islamabad. I found out later it also let me avoid a bunch of armed escorts that you would usually have to follow on the main road, score!
Riding into Islamabad was beautiful, my accidental road brought me over the hills at the back of the city, so I was winding down the mountain looking out over the city at sunset. I did not expect however, that it would look like Milton Keynes, with more Mosques. It’s a purpose built city so all the roads are straight and wide, the grids and blocks well placed and thought out, and it’s a doddle to navigate. It’s also very modern, and western-isms are creeping in, just down the road from my hotel was a Hardee’s burger place and a Subway. This was not at all the city I was expecting.
I headed over to the Visa agency the next day to get my India Visa application started. It took a lot of running back and forth printing various things out, photocopying this and that and getting enough currency to pay the fees. Once that was in there was nothing else to do, my passport was tied up with them for anything between 5 and 15 days. I could potentially travel on a photocopy of my passport but it wasn’t certain whether it would be a problem or not. I decided to stick around until my passport was ready with the Visa, I needed a break and had plenty to do. My hotel wasn’t as cheap as I’d like but it had air conditioning and internet.
Left alone for too long
Ten days later I had my visa! I had to go for a little interview at the Indian High Commission, they asked about the trip and what I was doing in India. They also wanted to know why I needed “Multiple Entries” and I listed out my 6 entries I would need, they said they would see what they could do as it wasn’t normal at this office. What they could do was ignore me entirely and give me a “Double Entry” instead. Bugger. I spent the afternoon re-planning India to make it work with only two entries, since I’m flying to a few places in Asia in November and December, that will have to happen from Nepal now and a trip to Sri Lanka will be much more difficult.
I intended to do some riding back to the North of Pakistan once I had my visa to see some things I had passed by in my rush to get to Islamabad. Though a combination of small illness, laziness and the promise of very poor roads with armed escorts meant I didn’t leave Islamabad at all in sixteen days! I was sick of sitting still by the end of it though, I’d blogged, planned, watched TV, played games, read a book, eaten at all the local places and basically ruined a hotel room in that time. Time to move on toward India!
24/08/17 to 11/09/17
It's been a while. I've been very busy riding in the north of India, not much internet here either. I'm in Manali now, enjoying beer and good food and laughing at the very over the top hippies that take over this place.
I've been riding with Martin and Xenia for about 3 weeks now. We crossed the Wagha Border to India and stayed in Amrtisar a couple of days in Jugadus hostel, saw the golden temple and tried to get used to speaking to other people again. We hardly met any foreigners or travellers in Pakistan so arriving at a hostel and town full of back packers was very odd.
We set off on our little planned loop up through Jammu to Srinagar and had a day off on a very odd house boat. Then headed toward the more challenging roads on the way to Kargil, no real incidents, just enjoying the scenery getting more beautiful, the traffic less and the road dustier. From Kargil we went for a 2 day jaunt down Zanskar valley, only about half way, going further would have required carrying a lot of fuel unfortunately. We found a nice spot to camp and headed back to Kargil the next day. Very weird for me, I hate doubling back on myself, I'd rather take a longer route if I have to go back somewhere, just so it's different.
Kargil to Leh was some of the best roads I'd ridden, nice clean tarmac almost all day, up and down valleys and small easy passes. A few days off in Leh getting permits for the next set of valleys and stocking up for camping for 2 nights, not being sure what we'd find.
We climbed Khardung La pass supposedly the "highest road in the world", it is not, not even the highest one in Ladakh, it's 5300m but advertised at 5600m, dodgy. It is damn high though, and very very busy, even at the very end of season now. Not many people were going down the other side though so it got very quiet after that. Some very peaceful riding toward the cold desert near Hunder, we failed to camp though, all the flat ground was taken up with villages, we did find a dirt cheap hotel though so not too bad.
We also did a hand over of Bacon at the top of Khardung La, he's travelling with me now for a few months, it was an emotional parting. (For the unaware: http://advrider.com/index.php?threa...r-mascot-relay-bacons-journey.287919/page-116)
Next day we headed to Pangong Lake, some very rough roads to get there, not the typical tourist route going along the back of the mountains instead of coming from Leh. You need to be paying attention all the time though, the roads are just over 1 car wide so anything coming toward you is really coming toward you. A cold but very peaceful evening by the lake after a tough day. We made it back to Leh the following day on some more great roads, since it's the tourist route, and over the actual highest road in the region at ~5370m.
There was a death in the group though. I fucked up the straps holding the guitar and he flew off and dragged behind the bike for a few hundred meters. We held a funeral service and camp fire cremation 2 days later camping at Tso Miriri. He made it all the way from Uralsk, Kazahkstan to here, much further than I thought he ever would, a very well travelled guitar.
From Leh to Tso Miriri took us a very long day on mostly rough roads, a couple of very close crashes and my shitty Shinko front tyre, it has giant blocks but grips better and more consistently on tarmac than it does on loose stuff. No more incidents though and some trekking across sand and down a very unused path to find a nice secluded camp by the shore of the lake. A very very cold night followed, we think it dropped to about -10 and in my 3 season sleeping bag and ventilated tent I was freezing my ass off. Even my remaining whiskey didn't really help.
We took the back route back from Tso Miriri onto the Leh Manali highway, over some very rough roads, rougher than any on the Pamir on I think, a bit of a challenge but easier without a guitar bouncing around on the back
The Leh to Manali highway is a weird one. Some parts of fresh tarmac with very wide roads and open turns to get up to 70mph but then a huge pot hole appears, we think one car managed to puncture his engine on one, smoke was billowing everywhere. Then it suddenly changes into very rough tracks, even up and down mountains, it's like they just forgot to tarmac some parts. It was stunning views all day though, incredible places to ride through, when you could look up from the road anyway.
The Gota Loops were utterly stunning, over 30 sharp twisty turns descending about 600m, there was almost no traffic in the late afternoon so I had a blast flying down them. I'd happily go back just for those.
Another very cold night but we found a little hut hotel behind a restaurant in Sarchu, a town of roadside cafes basically. Us 3 in there warmed it up nicely and had a good nights sleep, though it was -7c when we woke up. The guy who ran the little place was a little eccentric and didn'tspeak English but he managed to get across that he wanted to join us on the bikes for 15km. We tentatively agreed and gave him a lift to what must have been his job at a bridge project, an odd start to the day. We made it to some fuel, after 350 miles, I carried an extra 6 litres with me and was surprised I made it without running out, I think some very economical riding helped, which consisted of just not braking anymore.
What followed was I think the top 3 best roads I've ever ridden on, all in one day. Nothing particularly special about them, just some perfect stretches of road with some amazing scenery, I couldn't capture them in photo or video, but I'm sure riders know what I mean. One was only short stretch down a valley toward an opening at the end that looked completely fake, like a backdrop for a movie. Another led through a long stream of villages, just very wide open road without much traffic, an hours riding passed by in no time on roads like that. Then the last was the best, coming down the Rhotang pass, one of the most stunning sights I've ever seen from the top, looking right down on the town with huge mountains further along and the road winding down the mountain underneath me. It seemed to go on forever, turn after turn, when you thought you were about at the bottom it would twist around the mountain and there be another series of corners. Awesome end to the day.
We've been in Manali a few days now and I'm staying a few more, there's internet and nice food, and the hotel is pretty cheap for what it is. Martin and Xenia head south from here and I think I'll be heading east to Nepal so we'll split after about 5 weeks together, hopefully we'll bump into each other in Australia next year.
Day 136 to 142 – Islamabad to Jammu -India!
Finally the day to leave Islamabad, it didn’t start very well though. I got packed up, gear on and bike loaded, then realised the battery was entirely flat. I suspect some kids turned on the heated grips the night before, they were very interested in the bike and tend to poke around it. Luckily Martin and Xenia were staying right across the road, and Martin has jump leads, so 15 minutes later I was back in action.
I headed off alone to Lahore, Martin and Xenia would catch me up the next day. A long and boring run to the city where the traffic turned to absolute hell. There might be 4 lanes painted on the road, but anything goes; if there’s a 10cm gap, somebody will be in it in seconds. You just have to get super aggressive and don’t let up at all. At one point the traffic stopped for a train crossing and the chaos leveled up to maximum. Everyone just kept pushing forward into every gap, going left around the traffic onto the dirt, if that was blocked they’d just go further left, despite the fact the road was only wide enough for 4 cars at the level crossing. If there was an inch forward to be made, you can be sure they’d fight tooth and nail to get there, even if it meant going 3 inches sideways. In 40 degree heat it was hell, slowly melting into a puddle of sweat and angry. I was utterly spent by the time I made it to the hostel.
I had Déjà vu of the hostel when I got there, it was a very weird feeling, I’d read about it in at least 4 blogs or books of other travellers since it’s the only real hostel in Lahore. It always seemed so far away and adventurous, now I was here I just wanted some water and to cool off, the trip very rarely feels adventurous in the moment.
Unfortunately, because it’s the only hostel in town and because it’s cheap, there’s not a lot to it. I had a horrendous night, melting in the heat and hardly sleeping so decided to move to a cheap hotel in the morning. There wasn’t even any other travellers there to chat to, it may be very cheap, but it comes at the cost of sleep, I’m no hardy traveller.
Lahore is a pretty crazy town, it felt much more like what I expected from a Pakistani city, wandering around and there’s a million things happening all the time. The traffic is insane, people just flying everywhere, animals sauntering through it all. Tiny streets crisscross everywhere with little dark stalls filled with everything you can imagine. Whole streets of metal workers, another street specialising in plastic chairs and nothing else, fabric streets and everything else. The best way to walk around is to just walk blindly, people tend to not want to crash and will just avoid you. It takes some getting used to, just wandering slowly across 8 manic lanes of traffic, but it works. This was more like what I was expecting Islamabad to be like, a crazy mess of people, not the purpose built city.
We headed off in the evening for the famous border ceremony between India and Pakistan. A 30 minute taxi ride to the border area and then a short walk from the car park. It felt something like entering Disney Land, lots of people walking up the fenced road with music playing toward what was essentially a stadium surrounding the border gates. The ceremony happens at every opening and closing of the border, with lots of gesturing, marching and kicking by the guards on each side. It all seems to be in good fun, you can see them occasionally cracking smiles at each other, the crowd of hundreds of people go absolutely nuts though, and the music is turned up to full to drown out the other side. We got very patriotic for Pakistan when the guy behind us bought flags for his family and gave us one too.
The next morning we headed to the border again, with the intention of crossing this time, not spectating. A simple process compared to most border we’d been too, lots of writing, guards copying our details in a million different large books. Then we were in India! A very weird feeling, it hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m riding on that spot on the map, the big triangle that always made me think of dirt and chaos and somewhere I’d never like visiting. Now I’m here I can’t wait to get started.
We tried a couple of places before finding a nice hostel that had parking for the bikes and a reasonable price. It was full of travellers, lots of them coming and going in the 3 days we spent there. It was very odd for us, we’d spent a long time with no other foreigners, let alone travellers. We met a few in Osh and Tajikistan, but they tended to be other overlanders, these guys were backpackers or holiday makers, or just plain hippies. It took a little while to remember how to even talk to people like that, without asking how their car or bike is doing, or what their route is.
We took a some time sight seeing in our few days off, visiting the Golden Temple one evening with some other guys from the hostel. A pretty incredible place, and surprisingly peaceful for a place utterly packed with people. A huge and very golden temple sits at the centre of the lake, where thousands of people constantly walk clockwise around the edge, some taking a dip in the holy water. The temple is also home to the worlds largest free kitchen, feeding anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people per day. It’s an incredible sight to behold, the constant stream of people going in and coming out show how efficient it is. It is almost entirely run by volunteers, preparing the food, dishing it out, cleaning up afterwards and keeping people coming and going smoothly.
On Day 142 we made the run from Amritsar to Jammu, fighting with the traffic and heat to get out of the city. The traffic is so chaotic Xenia ended up being knocked off her bike twice by tuk tuks squeezing into gaps and just pushing her over, not being able to touch the floor from her bike doesn’t help. We made it, sweaty and frustrated onto the highway and had a nice easy run the rest of the way. It took us a long time to find the hostel though, we knew we were in the right spot, there was a German 4×4 on the street but we couldn’t see any signs. We were about to leave for somewhere else when a woman came out and pointed us in the right direction. Up 3 flights of stairs was a little house, with a spare room to sleep in filled with kids toys. We looked at each other skeptically as she told us she had spare mattresses for sleeping and dinner wouldn’t be long. The skepticism vanished though when we asked for the price and she looked at us confused, “free, of course”. Turns out it wasn’t a hostel, just a family offering their home for overlanders. The tone completely changed after that, they were inviting us into their home and giving us dinner, for no more than being overlanders. We had an amazing night laughing with the German owners of the 4×4 and the couple and their daughter.
12/09/17 – 18/09/17
Cool to see another update! Some fantastic locations, Nicely written and photographed, Bacon! Rock n roll burning guitars... Got it all really
Quick update while I'm working on the blog.
Made it to Nepal! Sat in Pokhara now after 10 days almost constant riding, very worn out and this is the perfect place for a rest, nice food, cheap comfy bed perfect weather.
After a 7 day break I rode out from Manali alone, splitting with Martin and Xenia I headed south first on some terrible roads and it got hot, dusty and busy. So I went north again, into the mountains of Uttarakhand. They were absolutely stunning. 4 days of magic, just great winding roads, jungle surroundings, little towns and villages everywhere, easy fuel, cheap food and hotels. I had a blast.
Then back down onto the plains to cross the border to Nepal, completely without incident, very easy process, the border is really busy but almost entirely locals, who don't need any visas or checks so the officials were ready and waiting for me. I headed north again into mountains, hoping for more of the same as Uttarakhand. The roads weren't great though, very rough and dangerous with gravel and holes everywhere. The people were interesting though, I'm sure most of them had never met a foreigner, and certainly not one as tall as me, I got gawked at A LOT. The food and hotels were still cheap though so it was well worth the diversion. What wasn't worth the diversion was the worst road I have ever ridden to date. Hours of mud, sand, bull dust huge holes all with sheer drops off a cliff. Not very fun when you're not looking for it. I came out unscathed, but Donkey took a good beating.
The next morning the battery was flat too, some prick had turned on the heated grips sometime in the morning and flattened it. It took 2 hours wandering town to find a solution, a guy with a truck battery I could hook up to the bike to jump it, while he held the copper down with his fingers...
Very fast roads back on the plains to Butwal for a night, then up to Pokhara and straight for a burger and a beer.
I got a slow puncture too, I didn't notice all day until the tyre was flat on me. Feeling like an idiot I pumped back up and rode the 1 mile left into a town with a hotel. Diwali was the next day so almost everything would be closed. I woke in the morning to find the tyre had only lost 4psi though, and it didn't lose anymore all day! No idea what's going on with it, but it's hardly losing any now. It's been 24 hours since I last checked so I'll see how much it's lost now. I can't find any holes, hear anything or see any bubbles when I covered it in water, though admittedly not well.
A couple of videos from the roads. One great road, one not so great:
Day 143 to 157 – North India loop
19/09/2017 – 03/10/2017
We left the lovely family in Jammu after a nice breakfast and hit the road, still humbled after an unexpected free nights sleep and food. The traffic didn’t treat us as kindly though, slowing us on the thin, bumpy roads. The road into the mountains had two lanes, but one was completely full of trucks, all queuing to get onto the mountain roads, they went on for miles and miles, reminded me of the M20 when the Chunnel gets delayed, they must wait here for days at a time. We started losing patience when the road was entirely blocked with trucks though, the driving stupidity was getting off the scale. The oncoming lane was backed up and moving slowly for a few miles, lots of trucks had decided overtaking the queue was a good idea, which is ridiculous because they can’t get back in lane so the whole road is now blocked. This snowballs, because once the road is blocked, trucks further back decide to make use of the empty lane to overtake, but they can’t get back in either. Nobody seems phased by this chaos and we spent about an hour trying to filter through. We learned that if there’s a gap in the road, an Indian will be in it within seconds, it’s mental, and normal.
Lunch with a view
We arrived in Srinagar in darkness, much later than we’d hoped. Indian driving is dangerous enough to navigate even when you can see them coming, small bikes with no lights, cars pulling out into your lane side on, people overtaking with zero room, all makes for very “pucker’d” riding. We found our self a houseboat out of the hundreds on the lake and settled in for the night.
Day 144 was houseboat day, we only left for a 10 minute walk for lunch, otherwise sitting around using the terrible internet, enjoying the sunset from the boat and building up some energy ready for a few days on crazy roads.
The next day the crazy roads of the Himalayas wasted no time in getting started, with some long stretches of very rough, dusty, thin roads packed with trucks and sheer drops. Very nerve racking to drive on, rocks hidden under the dust bouncing us left and right while you’re trying to squeeze by a truck. We passed without incident though, once you ignore the fact there’s 1000m drop 30cm away you can treat it like any other rough road and we bounced along, uncomfortably, stopping now and then to admire and capture the views.
Don’t look down. No really, you end veering toward the edge when you do
Arriving at Kargil, we didn’t see much reason for concern in the people in this area, it’s the closest town to the line of control between India and Pakistan for the long disputed region of Kashmir. We’d heard from people to be careful and it’s a dangerous area, there was some shooting between forces here not long ago, and the UN is still here observing the ceasefire, but we saw no sign of it, or any animosity. It was very obvious we were back in a Muslim area though and it did feel more Pakistani than Indian at times, especially the lack of easily available alcohol.
A quick start in the morning to head down Zanskar valley, we planned to camp after 150km so we’d have enough fuel to get back again the next day. It feels weird riding down a road, knowing you’re coming back the same way, almost a waste of time, the trip is always moving forward, always to new places, so purposely repeating an area just feels wrong. It was very worth it though, no traffic, just a rough road leading to more and more wilderness. The road was rough in places, but nothing, my bash plate on the bottom of the bike did take a couple of big hits, adding some more bruises to it. It made for good fun though, rough enough for a challenge, but not enough to cause problems, especially when the road becomes a river, not running across it, running along it.
Admiring the Glaciers of Zanskar
We found a nice spot to camp in the late afternoon and set up for cold night. My stove was not happy, the pump refused to be a pump and wouldn’t pressurise the petrol, I spent 20 minutes cleaning and oiling it, without much success, and resorted to using Martin and Xenias stove for dinner. Camping with them made me feel a little inadequate, I don’t carry much stuff for camping but I’m usually pretty comfortable. They are luxury campers. They have chairs and a little table, a wash pot, a box of spices and a bunch of other stuff that means they can happily camp for 3 or 4 days in one place without wanting for anything. I even borrowed their picnic blanket for some extra warmth in the night. What I didn’t need was the spider that crawled inside the tent and down the wall then disappeared. To this day I still do not know where he went, I never found him alive or dead, but he certainly didn’t help me sleep.
The next day was just the reverse, except a small detour to a quite unimpressive monastery, the drizzle didn’t help the mood. We got back to Kargil for another night and got off to Leh in the morning. Almost all day on nice tarmac with incredible sharp mountain ranges getting taller and taller the deeper we got into the Himalayas. The road wound through the mountains with very shallow climbs, always cutting back on itself to give us lots of great panoramas of the road and villages; which themselves changed very fast too, outside of Kargil they turned into typical road side stops with no discernible features. All of a sudden, like we had crossed a border, the Islamic look and feel vanished and Buddhism appeared, prayer flags and wheels in the towns and lots of colour.
The road back down Zanskar
We rolled into a hotel in Leh and I immediately went on a beer hunt, we’d been dry for 4 days in the Islamic towns, too long with such hard work. Walking around town I bumped into “The Shonas”, two girls on bicycles we’d met at the border crossing between Pakistan and India. We knew they were coming this route but the chances were still pretty slim! We met up with them and another cyclist for dinner and chatted away with pizzas and beer, luxury items for us in this region. I always enjoy meeting up with other travellers on the road. People can have such hugely different experiences in the same countries, especially between cyclists and motorcyclists.
Leh high street, very touristy for us
We spent 2 days chilling out in Leh, eating good food again, drinking some beers and catching up on blogs, as well as getting permits for the next few days ride.
Kardung La was the next goal, they call it the “highest road in the world” it’s not, though hardly small at 5300m, but it does bring in the tourists. All the tourists. When we got to the top it was crammed with people, queuing to take photos with the signs there. It must be absolutly rammed here in the height of the season. We took our photos and marvelled at the views, then headed over the pass and down the other side, unlike the tourists who turn around back to Leh.
Not Visible: The queue of people waiting to take photos
We failed at finding somewhere to camp for the night all the land was either mountain, sand or a village, and ended up in a weird half finished empty hotel for dirt cheap. We took the back road to Pangong Lake that someone had told us about to avoid having to go back via Leh. Some very rough sections of no road at all, just bouncing across big rocks in a dry river bed, then we rejoined the main road. Despite the tight turns and pot holes everywhere we saw a handful of Indian guys riding Harley’s of all things. There roads are full of tourists on motorbikes here too, Leh is a perfect spot to fly in, rent a bike and ride around the area, but they’re generally on Royal Enfields, not Harley’s.
It looks empty but it’s not easy to find a camp spot out of sight here. It’s called the Cold Desert
After a bit of searching and scoping out, we found a nice spot to camp right on the shore of the lake, hidden from the road and the wind. Xenia cooked a nice veg curry, determined not to let me eat my instant noodles again, my low food standards offend her. The temperature really dropped in the night though and I was glad for the picnic blanket again. Being at such a high altitude (4300m here) gives you some seriously trippy dreams to, as well as waking you up occasionally when your body forgets to breath faster to compensate for the low oxygen.
Home for the night
Beans on toast for breakfast was amazing, lovely and warm, and I think my first since the UK. I tried to help dig out a car that was stuck in the sand not far away while Martin and Xenia finished packing, but had to leave them to it, they were well and truly buried, they might still be there. Then we hit the road that doubled back on yesterdays ride for a bit before climbing a lot. This was another “Highest road in the world” at 5375m it was certainly the highest I’d ever been, and probably ever will be, though the challenge of them was now wearing off, we’d tackled a lot of “highests” and they started to seem like big hills.
It was more of a challenge for the guitar though, after I stopped to put on a jacket and take a drink, I didn’t tie down the guitar properly. So 10 minutes later I stopped when I heard a noise behind me at 40mph and the guitar wasn’t there, he was swinging along, dragged by the netting that usually hold him on. He’d transformed himself into a folding guitar by repeatedly pounding the road. I also managed to lose a roll of tools, the tool tube that had been missing a lid for 2 months spit it’s contents somewhere along the road, probably up a very bumpy steep section that tipped the end downwards. Luckily there was only really 2 spanners in there that I actually need, the rest was spares and extras.
It’s not supposed to look like that
Another day off in Leh getting some energy back after 3 quite long days, then we were off again heading south to Tso Miriri, a high altitude lake. The roads over these passes are almost always spectacular, they’re carved into the side of the mountains and just take the path of least resistance around them, so you end up climbing back and forth getting panoramas of the the road and towns behind you all the way up, and the road ahead on the way down. There was very little in the way of civilization on this road unlike the others, and we stopped at almost the only place we’d seen with food, a military compound, we asked if we could eat at the cafe at the gates and they waved us in, we’re still not sure if we were meant to be there or not, but they didn’t seem bothered.
Coming down the actual highest road we’d been on
We made it to the lake and took some time finding a spot to camp. Passed the last village the road seemed to just dissolve into the sands, so we figured there wouldn’t be much traffic and pitched up on the lakeside. My stove was working nicely again after some TLC so we cooked dinner and prepared the ceremony. We decided a cremation at 4500m was a perfect way to say goodbye to the guitar, and he kept us warm as the sun went down. I surprised myself how sad I was watching the guitar burn, it’d been a constant source of entertainment for me, amusement for locals and amazement for other travellers for 3 months.
The temperature dropped massively in the night, easily below freezing and none of us slept very well, but we got on the road back the way we came for a little while. Then we turned off to cut back to the Leh-Manali highway and the road got really rough, slowing us a lot. Bouncing along at 20mph gives you a lot of time to appreciate the landscape though, and there really was nothing here, which isn’t as common as you’d think up here. There’s almost always small villages dotted along the road or settlements visible somewhere. We eventually got back to the highway in the afternoon and the almost immaculate wide tarmac. It felt great to open the throttle wide for the first time in weeks, until the hidden dips showed themselves. The road rose up a little now and again for a water tunnel, usually not too much of a problem, but on the other side of one was a huge pothole. I was certain I’d wrecked the wheel when I hit it, and must have been totally airborne for a little while too. Do not recommend. I slowed somewhat after that, not trusting the road at all.
A section of the Gata Loops
The Gata loops were incredible, from the top the road is sprawled out below, dozens of hairpins within about 2 miles of road. Almost totally empty of traffic too, I had great fun, and a nice way to end the day. We found a little shack to stay in on a restaurant strip, and I had a really surreal evening. I found myself reading my book in the lounge/restaurant/shop, lying on the mats lining the shack walls, holding my feet near the stove in the middle of the room, and it felt totally normal, just reading my book waiting for dinner. It wasn’t until I looked around at the situation I realised how odd it was, and actually felt like a traveller. It only happens now and again, doing things everyday I would have considered weird 6 months ago desensitises me a bit, and now and again flashes of realisation make me realise where I am.
Me and Martin warming up waiting for breakfast
An early start in the morning, it dropped to around -10 in the night but our little shack kept us warm enough for a good nights sleep. We bumped into the Swiss truck again on the road, I last saw them in Pakistan about a month ago so it was very odd to bump into them up here, them coming the other way. Most of the morning was spent trying to use the throttle as little as possible, saving fuel. The run from Leh to Tso Miriri and down to the next fuel on the map was about 300 miles. I’d taken some extra fuel but it would still be tight, so I was riding very “economically” which basically means don’t brake, keep any momentum you have, which was actually quite fun on these mountain roads.
Coming down the Rhotang pass
The rest of the day was on some of the best roads I’ve ever ridden, wide open, sweeping corners, very little traffic, usually good surface. Very, very fun after all the rough roads. The Rhotang pass was something else too, getting up it wasn’t pleasant with most of the road still being built, but at the top the view was incredible. Looking down to the valley almost 2000m below, and you can see almost all of the road that would take us there, and see it getting greener and greener as you descend from the very dry altitudes.
Made it! And there’s trees and stuff!
We got into Manali in the evening and found a hotel after a bit of searching. It wasn’t easy even riding around the town, super steep tiny roads take you directly in front of the shops with people everywhere, tuktuks flying around and cows humping in the middle of the road, nearly killing Xenia. The smells took me by surprise too, I didn’t realise the lack of scents at high altitude, but coming down the hill and into town the pine trees smelled amazing, the town did not…
Blog for the jungle mountains in India, some amazing days riding and totally unexpected from this region - 04/10/17 – 18/10/17
Day 158 to 172 – Manali to Champawat, Uttarakhand, India
Rest days in Manali were great, after 2 weeks of very basic living in the mountains. Me, Martin and Xenia spent most days drifting between one cafe or another on the laptops. Almost every day I said “I might leave tomorrow” only to decide not to in the morning, still feeling like I needed rest before I went back to “On The Road” mode. The food was the best “western” food I’d had for a long time, certainly the most choice anyway. I love the food in most countries I’ve been to and I’m happy to change my diet to wherever I am at the time, but having a choice again makes relaxing all the easier. The super friendly stray dogs wandering around the cafes helped too. Come 7pm we’d meet up to go somewhere different for dinner with The Shonas, they’d made it down from Leh to Manali at the same time as us, we’d taken detours and while they’d been working hard cycling over the passes in a straighter route. Everything being so cheap really encouraged me to stick around too, it was only costing about £15 per day for eating 3 meals out and the hotel, not buying fuel everyday really helps.
Eating some bacon for the first time in a long time. With Bacon the pig
Getting back on the road was very odd after riding in such weird conditions for the last 2 weeks, followed by 7 days of not riding at all. Back in traffic, people and humidity I was getting frustrated pretty quick. Tight roads with lots of traffic and potholes makes for no fun at all. A crash also didn’t help my mood, thankfully it was very slow and uneventful, but still a crash. I had cautiously rolled over a thick pile of mud in the road which coated the tyres, so the sharp turn right after it did not go well. The bike wouldn’t stop turning and I ended up skidding, completely sideways, with the bars at full left lock. I shifted my weight to try and bring it around again and it worked, swinging all the way back but then even further out the other way, spinning me 180 and pirouetting to the floor. I ended up sat on the right hand side of the bike in the middle of the road shrugging to myself and realising I’d just had my first ever crash and it was pretty pathetic.
I got the bike back upright easy enough since it was facing downhill, I checked the brakes and pushed it down to the petrol station 50m ahead. I wasn’t hurt at all, maybe tweaked my wrist holding on, but I don’t think I actually even touched the floor, since I ended up sitting on bikes side. I thought I’d better take a break and compose myself before I got on the road again though, and give the bike a good check in the mean time. Turns out the gear lever took the brunt of the weight and, in the small slide against the ground, had been bent upwards. I got the tools out and used the height adjuster to correct for it, that would do for now until I could bend pieces back into shape properly. Other than that nothing was really touched, all the bars and guards did their job perfectly.
A little foggy across the forests
Bumping into The Shonas on the road lifted my spirits, they were having a tough time back in the humidity and traffic too and we had a good laugh at how deaf they were getting from all the car horns. The amazing sunset over the misty hills helped too, all the haze over the jungle made it very mystical and gave everything a very peachy glow. Getting to Shimla wasn’t too hard, but getting around it was crazy, it’s built on such steep hills that the roads make no sense at all, and it was getting dark. Multiple times I ran into pedestrian areas I couldn’t get through and got told “you can’t get there from here”. I gave up on my hostel plans, since they all seemed to be impossible to get to, and found a hotel. I think I circled the entire town 3 times, not a simple thing with all the hills in the way.
As soon as I parked up outside the hotel and got my bags inside I got to work on the gear lever. I knew if I had a break I’d end up leaving it till morning and if there was something seriously wrong I wanted to be able to form a plan to fix it the next day. Changing gear for the rest of the day after the crash had been very difficult, especially shifting down, it would get stuck between gears and I’d have to stamp on the pedal to shift it; I was really worried the shift rod or something else had bent inside the engine. I took the lever apart and checked everything over and nothing was majorly broken except a washer that “technically” holds the lever to the bike, but the tension in the arm means it won’t fall off. I bent a few bits back in to shape using bricks and patience and crossed my fingers, I couldn’t check if it worked until riding in the morning. It was made weirder by being photographed and watched the entire time by 8 people, fascinated by me and the bike but otherwise refusing to interact with me at all. Maybe they could sense my mood and weren’t keen to be in the way of it.
I was a celebrity again while packing the bike in the morning, being filmed on phones, one person actually spoke to me. Though I was sour with them again after someone literally grabbed me by the arm and spun around, then posed for a photo, no asking, not even eye contact, just grab and go. No thanks, screw you guys I’m outta here. A massive sigh of relief as I pulled out of the car park and down the street, the gear changes were smooth as ever and seemed back to normal. Success! Keeping the good mood going I found fuel and a working ATM all withing about 200m of the hotel. Great start to the day, fuel, cash and a working bike. Some more crappy frustrating roads in the morning gave way to an awesome afternoon. The traffic cleared, the road got better and monkeys appeared! Scattering along the road as I came by not knowing what the hell the weird shaped noisy thing was. I literally shouted “MONKEEEEYS!” every single time, even if I was mid-way through singing. Not sure they appreciated my pointing and staring, I knew how they felt…
I got to Nahan and wandered about looking for a hotel, getting stared at just as much, especially as I pulled up and took my helmet off, it wouldn’t take long for a crowd to gather. I was feeling more tired than I should for such a short day and I was really feeling the heat so I paid extra for AC and collapsed on the bed. 2 hours later I woke up wondering what the hell happended and feeling like crap. I don’t ever take naps, let alone accidental ones, I knew something was up so I went down and booked the room for the next day too, giving myself some time to recover a bit.
Tiny town built right up to the river
The morning alarm was interesting, somebody was trying to kick down my door and shouting in Hindi, but with an almost jokey tone. I put some trousers on and hesistate opening the door, I don’t usually open a door for people kicking it but instinct said this guy wasn’t dangerous. Sure enough when I cracked the door open a bit, ready to slam it shut again, the guy saw my face and immedietly said “sorry! sorry!” and ran away. I guess he thought it was his friends room and got a shock when a 2m tall white guy answered. I still felt really rough in the morning and through lunch time so I booked another day in the room. It was cheap enough and there was plenty of shops and food within 2 minutes walk. I spent 2 days off just writing, watching movies and napping during the day. I’ve no idea what was actually wrong, but after that I was feeling fine again.
Wandering around Nahan, a very compact little
I decided to head back north again, into the mountains. They’re a lot slower but my only experience with the plains below them was flat, hot, dusty and busy. The mountain roads should be quieter and smaller, as long as I could find hotels and fuel I’d be fine. There was almost a whole day of dusty flat ground to cover first though, not helped by nearly entering a military area and having to divert an hour around it. I made it up to Barkot and knew I was going to have a good time. The final 2 hours of riding was on small twisting mountain roads, barely one lane wide, but with almost no traffic. There were little cafes every 10 miles or so, and fuel every 50. There were plenty of indian tourists up here rafting and trekking too so hotels were cheap and easy to come by.
Looking out over Barkot from the hotel
Day 170 was an almost perfect “trip day”. It’s a phrase I’ve been using when a day is an almost cliche day I imagined when planning the trip, days in Kazahkstan riding the Steppe for 13 hours for example, or today, riding through thick forests on a tiny road that wasn’t straight for more than 10ft at a time. I passed almost no traffic, through tiny villages mostly consisting of shacks of wood and plastic sheet. Crossing a huge damn, that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to cross, but I distracted the guard with tales of being very lost and where I’d come from and he didn’t protest when I rode off. The guard on the other side of the damn went balistic as I came out though but I just rode on, no harm done, saved me a one hour detour too. No big bad surprises all day, just incredible views over the mountains again and again.
Tight twisty mountain roads
Some of the mountains blow my mind, they’re not really mountains any more, they’ve been tottaly reshaped by the people. They’re stepped into terraces from top to bottom, carved and sculpted to make them farmable, but not just small patches near a house, the entire mountain is carved out, and almost all of them are like that in some areas. I spent a long time staring at one particularly wide one from a good vantage point across the valley. It was huge and I couldn’t make out a sinlge point on it that hadn’t been touched. There were small villages dotted all over it, roads switching back and forth across it and small tracks between them. Any green area on it was terraces and being farmed, even along the top ridge there were buildings poking out everywhere and even a cell tower on the highest point. It was a weird feeling of being very remote in mountain jungle, yet there were people everywhere and signs of them everywhere too.
The hill that kept me interested for so long. Not a spot untouched
That night I spent a long time trying to decide a plan for the next few days. There was the option of going south back onto the plains toward Jim Corbett National Park where there are safaris to see wild tigers, elephants and rhinos. It sounded very romantic spotting Bengal Tigers, and it’s not every day that chance comes around. On the other hand, it was not cheap to do a 2 day safari, the recommended minimum to have even a small chance at spotting a tiger, the hotels in that area would be pricey too and it was back onto dusty busy plains again. The mountains had been so fantastic to ride and travel I wasn’t keen to give them up for a small expensive chance at seeing a tiger. Decided.
I knew I’d made the right call when the awesome roads and scenery continued the next day, though a little busier through some big towns. Rolling through the middle of one town the entire street would stop to stare as I passed, a little intimidating, especially when you then have to stop in the traffic. Only one short section of very deep mud through some construction work, otherwise I spent the day in a trance riding the roads and listening to Harry Potter. I finally finished all the books, I started them in Russia killing time on the very long boring roads. It means I’ve listened to Stephen Fry for a total of 125 hours over 4 months, through 7 countries, only ever when riding the bike; so the two are now pretty linked in my head, I heard each book in a different place and memories of one triggers the other now.
The odd bit of roadworks to slow me down for a few minutes, complete with deep mud for some fun
Arriving in town and finding a hotel cheap took some serious bargaining, going from around £35 to £10 when they realised I really was going to just find somewhere else for way cheaper. I spent a long time in the evening cursing the guy sitting in reception loudly clapping trying kill mosquitos. I eventually got annoyed enough to go out and tell him to just shut the damn door, then realised it wasn’t clapping, it was the bug zapper right outside my door killing them very loudly. Idiot. I went outside to meet the owner when he arrived back, he had asked for the keys to the bike and I assumed it was parked in the way of something, but I found him sitting on my bike with the side stand up. Not a good move, I was instantly ready to rage at him. I tried to be as polite as possible in saying “GET THE FUCK OFF MY BIKE!”. He asked again for the keys and held out his hand. I just said “No” and laughed like he was joking, but he said he was just going to ride around the car park and put it back, “what was the problem?”. He was so brazen I wasn’t sure whether to even be angry and he couldn’t comprehend why I wouldn’t just hand the keys over. We were just at such opposites I eventually just told him to get lost, put the lock on the bike and walked off.
The morning had a nice surprise, the GPS was dead and wouldn’t charge on the bike, something was up. I was at the petrol station when I noticed, with all the gear on and the bike loaded up, not a good time to go delving diagnosing a problem. I decided I didn’t need it for the day anyway, there’s not many roads in the mountains and I just needed to head directly south almost all day. That’s not always easy to do on mountain roads though, sometimes you spend two hours alternating between east and west around valleys to make your way south, never actually pointing south; so it’s just a case of keeping track of the switches. My phone GPS doesn’t work either so without the GPS unit I don’t know where I actually am, I just essentially have a paper map on my phone. I wrote down some towns from the map to keep as markers to know I was going the right way on the road and made it there without any real problem, a 20 minute detour after a mistake led me to a good lunch so it worked out nicely. I got the hotel and set about finding the problem, which took all of 20 seconds. I took the seat off and one of my expert electrical cable connections had come apart breaking the circuit for the GPS charger. One kid watched me, amazed, sealing it back up again with heat shrink and tape.
It’s a little dusty in here these days
I was almost out of the mountains now, heading south to the border with Nepal and this would be the last Indian town for a while until I return. It was bigger than the last few days but the hotels were just as cheap and easy with food everywhere. As I got into town a scooter rode up along side and started trying to pull me over, eventually just pulling in front of me, I was ready for a fight if they were trying anything until I saw they were smiling and waving. They wanted to know if I wanted any help and just rapidly fired questions at me about the trip and where I was staying, but forced to stop on the side of a busy road is not how to put me in a good mood, and my instincts were telling me not to trust a single word. They might be friendly but only because I was interesting and they were bored, not because they cared about travellers. When they invited me to join all their friends at their place for weed I just rode on, instinct said “nope, not a good plan”. Some part of me wondered why I didn’t just accept and have a weird evening, but I trust my instincts too much now, sometimes they’re wrong, but I’ve learned to listen to them.
Just more mountains
A weird evening being driven around town a bit by the hotel owner. With no internet in the hotel we had to go to his cousins cybercafe to do the “foreigner registration” and so I could get online. He was such a nice guy, I could chat to him all day, he seemed to resent being stuck looking after his fathers hotel but he was making the best of it and seemed to be surrounded by family in the whole town, pointing their stores out as we drove passed. In the night the town looked amazing, almost every building draped in lights for Diwali and fireworks going off everywhere, mostly from kids throwing them. Safety just is not a thing here.
A terrible photo but that’s almost every building in town in lights
It had been an awesome few days, it felt like a different world. The time just flowed by, riding the twisty mountains, not much English at all, no internet anywhere, simple food and very simple hotels. It was all just so easy though and so beautiful everywhere, ride all day, take in whatever I was seeing, stop whenever I was hungry, find a cheap hotel almost without trying. I wanted to carry on exploring, do another 4 days the opposite way a different route, but I was excited for a new country, so on to the Nepal border the next day.
Click for bigness. A great Panoramic of one of the better views
Day 173 to 178 – Champawat to Pokhara, Nepal
Leaving India, Champawat by daylight
An easy ride to finsih off my first stint in India, down out of the hills from Champawat and into Nepal. The road wound down steadily along the side of the hills, giving some more incredible views all the way, though a little different this time. The mountains didn’t seem to just lower themselves and flatten out, at some point they just stopped dead and the plains stretched to the horizon. Soon enough I was down there on the plain, back in the heat and thicker air. It didn’t take long to get to the border town, but I had to do some circling around to find the road to actual border. It’s a tiny road lined with markets and shoppers that I wasn’t even sure led anywhere, it took me around the back of the town, over a few bumpy paths and to two small unassuming buildings that were India immigration and customs. I nearly rode straight by them, locals can pass without checks and I nearly followed them. There were a ton of them too, walking, cycling, families piled on small motorbikes, even a few horse and carts.
Simple paperwork for the passport stamp and customs, with some chai and biscuits thrown in while I waited and told my story to all the bored officials. Almost a mile through no mans land to the next town which is technically Nepal, though you wouldn’t know any different. Riding over the bridge/dam that crosses the wide river, the road is anything but wide though. It is exactly 1 van wide, I know because a van decided to come the other way while me and another couple of bikes were crossing and we only fit with some scraping and banging and poking my pannier through the railing to hang over the river.
I nearly rode passed the immigration building in Nepal too. It was just one of the houses like any other on a long street, with a small sign and even had a little front garden. A portly man sat behind a desk in this cramped living room with some chairs set in front of another smaller desk. He reminded me of a teacher, especially when he handed me some paperwork and snorted when I asked for a pen. I paid for the visa in USD, got my stamp and set off down the road to the customs house, which is much easier to spot. I pushed my way through the crowd queuing outside and stepped in the office, this is normal practice now, no matter what everone else is waiting for, my process will be very different, having the Carnet and a bike not from a neighbouring country. It’s easier to just look like you belong, walk into the office and flash the Carnet. I waited a while for someone to become free, and passed the time looking through the Carnet log book. Most countries east of Turkey have had some huge old book to log foreigners and their vehicles, it’s always slapped comically on the table with a puff of dust, the pages are yellowed and it always smells for some reason. I always try and look through for anyone I know, blogs of people I’ve read that I know came this way, or friends that have passed through recently. I found a couple in this one, Oki and Nora (https://youtube.com/adventurism) and it always feels odd, knowing they were sat in the same situation as me, in this strange little office in Nepal, quickly scrawling their details into this big book. It’s huge and only half full, with years and years of details about foreigners who passed this way with their vehicles, and mine will probably be there for years to come too.
The woman in the office had clearly seen a Carnet before but somehow how zero idea how to fill one out. I did my best, copying from what I’d seen other officials do, thankful I’d been watching closely at other borders. She stamped and signed wherever I pointed and that was that. Me and Donkey officially in Nepal. Though I had no idea where to go, I allow a lot of time for borders to go wrong so I never plan anything afterwards, it was only early afternoon but I decided a nice rest was in order. I rode a few miles on to Bhimdatta and circled around looking for a hotel. Feeling like Golidilocks I found a posh place with a pool that would cost me 3 nights budget for their cheapest room. Another hotel that was almost free but was dire even by my very low standards. The 3rd place on the edge of the town was the nice balance. I settled in with the wifi and noisy fan and chilled out all afternoon.
Modern lights and old fashioned candles
I left for a walk around the town in the evening, Diwali celebrations were in full swing and the town was lit up, literally, like christmas. It’s not a very beautiful town but with fairy lights up, candles in all the doorways, the sun setting and people wandering calmly around (a very stark contrast to India) it suited me fine. I walked almost 3 times around the town in different ways and settled on a small restaurant for some food and a celebration beer for making it to Nepal. On the way back to the hotel the town was only getting livelier, fireworks were going off everywhere, nobody else seemed to find it worrying that kids were setting off fireworks and people were throwing catherine wheels into the road so I tried not to either. People shouted as I passed and called out to me, which I’m used to, as the lone foreigner in the more remote towns. But I realised after the first couple they weren’t shouting “Hey, Mister” or “What is your country! Come with me”. They were shouting “Happy Diwali” and “Namaste friend”, with no expectation of me buying something or giving them something. I started returning them feeling much happier and calmer walking around this town at night then I ever did in India.
These were painted everywhere, usually at thresholds by whole families
Back to the hotel room, which was now quite full of life, the light in the bedroom was buzzing with flies and moths covering the wall black, I counted 8 large spiders in the bathroom, and one gecko, hunting them all down. I woke in the morning with someone banging frantically on the door, I opened it expecting a problem and he just wanted to know when I wanted breakfast. I wanted to sleep, not breakfast. He dragged me downstairs to speak to the owner and he explained that they were only waiting for me to leave and then all the staff would go back to their homes in the villages for the last 2 days of Diwali, no pressure then.
The road threw me a few surprises first thing, riding behind a bus getting ready to overtake it when a face appeared out the window and threw up all over the road and the side of the bus, not very encouraging for overtaking. Two minutes down the road from that was a swarm of monkeys covering the road, they started clearing at the last minute, with some of the babies running to the mothers who hugged them and glared at me as I passed, I felt like apologizing. The most surprising though, was a line of kids blocking the mountain road around a corner, holding a sign and some drums. They didn’t move as I rolled up, and I stopped next to another biker wondering what the hell was going on. I realized they were celebrating Diwali, though not sure why they decided to do it by stopping cars in the road. I was just wondering how to get out of it when a bus came up behind and they knew better than to get in the way of a bus. They parted and I shot through. The rest of the day there were countless others, some just a few kids easy to weave through, but others seemed determined to die. After passing a bunch of them I was getting annoyed and started a new tactic for getting through, slow a little so they see me, then accelerate toward them. The worst ones would hang on till the last second, then scatter, playing chicken. I had to brake hard for one suicidal line of kids but kept on at 2mph just pushing them out the way with the bike when they refused to move, I was not in the mood for a 50th singing session.
I stopped for lunch at a little quiet place, important when you get so much attention. They whole family were amazed by the foreigner and his giant bike who nearly had to crawl to fit through the door. They started asking questions but didn’t really speak English, one of the kids, only about eight started translating for them and me, him and his friend were the only ones that spoke English. A very odd lunch being watched by a family of twelve with a child translator.
The Lunch Family
The roads in the afternoon were badly surfaced, with small ruts running inline with the road, it makes the bike feel really unstable, slowly sliding me left and right. It felt like having a puncture, it got a lot worse and I actually checked the bike. Oh, a puncture. Bugger. I checked it over, pumped it up a bit but couldn’t find the hole anywhere, I pumped it up to 30psi, and jumped on, the town I was hoping to find a hotel in was only a couple of miles down the road anyway. I found it easy enough, pumped the tyre up some more and searched every millimeter of rubber and rim but couldn’t see, hear or feel anything. Just have to see how it holds over night. If it’s flat by the morning I might be in trouble, it’s the last day of Diwali and the hotel owner told me there wouldn’t be anywhere open to fix it. Thankfully the hotel was pretty nice and I’d be happy to have a day off there if needed, sitting on the balcony over the river.
Some very old UN vehicles. Guess they’ll just sit here forever more
A quick check in morning showed the tyre had only lost a little pressure overnight, it’s a puncture, but losing 4psi in 14 hours is nothing. The hotel was closed around me in the morning, I had to wake the owner to pay the bill and get out at all, it’s the last day of Diwali so pretty much everything would be closed. Fuel was the main problem, and after 80 miles there hadn’t been an open petrol station and I didn’t want to start the long stretch to the next village not knowing if I’d make it. I’d only seen 2 cars on the road in 4 hours, so there’d be nobody to save me if I did run out. Luckily there was a hotel that was half-open in town, a very drunk guy, 2 inches from my face explained where to go, while telling me I should come hang with them and celebrate. Which for all the young guys apparently means getting shitfaced and high at 2pm.
I went for a wander around the town in the afternoon. What, from the main road, had initially looked like a row of shacks and couple of buildings making the town turned out to just be a rough facade. The main town had some very old looking buildings and cobbled warren streets, everyone was outside in celebration of Diwali, dancing in groups in the street, kids playing all over the place, old guys sat in doorways chatting. Every single person stopped to look at me as I passed, some said “Namaste” and “Happy Dwiali” others were just struck dumb by the giant foreigner walking around. I essentially halted Diwali as I passed and I wasn’t even on Donkey, usually the source of the wonder.
Lovely little town hidden away from the road
The tyre lost no more pressure overnight and with the petrol station back open I got an early start onto what people had told me was a “slightly rough road”. Half the people I spoke to said there was a bridge over the river 100km ahead, others said no bridge, both my maps said no bridge, but somebody told me it was only built 7 months ago. You can only take local advice to a point though and I wasn’t going to ride two days back without seeing the river for myself. The road got a little rough at first, just unpaved packed dirt, some slippery bits and some gargantuan speed bumps I had to stand off the bike to get over without getting stuck on top.
Well. Bugger. Guess I’m going down that.
Eventually I rounded the side of the mountain and got a good view down into the valley and the river, with a glorious concrete bridge spanning it. Then I saw the remainder of the road leading down to it, a steep sandy and rocky path switching back across the side of the mountain. Not so fun. I took it really slow, with the sheer drops on one side and such an uneven surface, then a little fist pump at the bottom riding toward the bridge.
I had an hour of peace on lovely tarmac along the floor of the valley before starting to the climb up again and the road turned to dust and broken concrete. The thick patches of dust could hide holes either by covering them or just casting shadows in the wrong direction so you don’t notice them until the last minute, ending in some stomach churning bangs on the bash plate or front wheel. It kept getting worse to the point I wasn’t sure I could even ride on it anymore. Some of the holes were so deep there was a risk of me actually getting stuck in one, beached on the exit. The whole road was covered width ways so there was no avoiding them and with a big drop on one side and Donkey bucking left and right there was nothing to do but go as slow and steady as possible, crawling for about an hour, continually smacking the bash plate and wincing. I was getting angrier the entire time, at the road, at the dust, at the setting sun putting a timer on me and at myself for choosing a stupid route.
A different kind of road hazard, he’s not dead, just indifferent
By the time the road turned back into just broken tarmac I was in a rush, I hadn’t seen any kind of hotel in hours and still had at least 2 hours ride to the next big town if the road was good with only about an hour of sunlight left. I was riding angry too, back on the tarmac I could give some back, not a good idea at all braking late into corners and accelerating hard out of them on a tight twisty road with a sheer drop one side. It did help me concentrate a lot though in my knackered state, I’d been riding 7 hours with barely any breaks and just needed to get some miles done and find a hotel.
Finding a hotel in the dark proved tricky too when they’re not marked, but with some help from locals I found a dirty musty room for the night. By the time I had a beer with dinner the anger was gone and I was laughing at myself, I had nobody else to blame and if I’d done my research I would have known how bad the road was and probably wouldn’t have even taken it. I was fine and Donkey would get his much needed TLC in Pokhara.
My lovely room for the evening. It was more humid inside than out
The morning was full of fun, checking a couple of things on the bike I noticed the heated grips on, I thought I’d caught it with my arm and thought nothing of it. When I was packed and fully geared up to leave I found the battery totally dead, the grips must have been on much longer. One of the guys stood around the bike most of the night and morning must have turned them on playing with things, a bunch of guys working at the hotel and their friends. Despite me telling them multiple times to please not touch the bike, and don’t sit on it without me there. I nearly lost it at the hotel owner when he said “nobody touched it” I bloody well saw you touch it a few times!
Being watched by a few people…
I started wandering between garages and parts shops in town looking for anyone with jump leads, but people weren’t all that keen to help, some people outright didn’t want to help, others just didn’t really understand what I wanted, even with a picture. After about an hour it became clear that nobody understood what jump starting was, it baffled me. There were bikes everywhere, they knew about battery charging but didn’t understand that you could go battery to battery. It didn’t help that the power was out in the town again like it does every few hours. Any place that did have battery charging was plugged in to the wall and they couldn’t grasp the idea of going battery to battery. It was infuriating after a while all I needed was two lengths of copper, preferably wrapped in rubber and after 4 motorcycle garages I was stumped. Then I finally got the idea through to a Honda mechanic and he took me around the corner to a little shack filled with huge truck batteries. Perfect. I pushed the bike through the middle of the town to it, getting even more stares than usual, and the kid running the place immediately started trying to remove the battery ignoring my protests. I had to literally grab his hands away from the battery before he seemed to even notice me. I tried in best sign language to explain a jump start and he looked confused. We dragged a truck battery outside, grabbed some copper and I motioned for him to connect the terminals. The now quite large crowd around us were shocked when the bike started straight up, as if a jump start was some new magic I’d shown them. That still baffles me.
I got on the road, and thankfully it was a much more chilled day after that, just cruising along on nice fast flat roads for the first time in a long time. A quick stop for lunch and I made it to Butwal just as it was getting dark, stumbled on the hotel area and had a pick of a bunch of them.
Another easy ride to Pokhara the next day, back into the hills and made it into town in time for a late lunch. It was glorious, I found the tourist district and it was packed with nice looking restaurants. A complete change from the last 2 weeks, a little overwhelming to drop in to such a massive amount of westerners, restaurants and coffee shops. Nobody staring either, nobody cared there was a big dirty foreigner walking around, except for quite how filthy I was. I realised after talking to a few people that I’ve now passed some sort of marker, when people see the bike they don’t assume I rode here, they assume I flew it here, or rented it in town and don’t think twice about it. When I tell them I rode here, they’re gobsmacked, most of them aren’t travellers and haven’t ever thought of a trip like it.
Looking over Pokhara
I found an amazing little hostel, out of the way down an alley, I nearly died with how comfy the beds were. Donkey got to park in a neighbours garden nice and safe. The staff were so friendly and welcoming my paranoid mental alarms went off that something must be wrong, but nope. After a few days there I realised they were totally genuine and ran by family and friends that loved what they did.
I went off to the lakeside for a walk around but hadn’t even considered how touristy it was here, so I was surprised to find little bars lining the waterfront. Utter bliss. I had only planned to stay here one night before heading to Kathmandu but with a cosy hostel and a chilled out town with lakeside bars I could stick around a while.
19/10/17 – 24/10/17
So for an up to date...update. I'm actually now in Vietnam!
I met back up with Martin and Xenia for a few days and we rode up Mustang Valley in Nepal. It was insanely challenging for me, and for Donkey. Not sure I would have gone had I known what it would be like. The bash plate took another serious beating and some of the sections were almost like trial biking. Standing up, almost stopped, jumping from rock to rock trying to keep balanced.
and a nice crash in some water:
Then I said goodbye to Nepal and headed back to India and Varanasi for a day and half sightseeing. It's an incredible place, glad I didn't miss it, like my initial plan would have.
I rode over to Kolkata in 2 fast days and stored the bike there with some friendly Indian Bike Club members. Hopefully they're looking after him well. I flew out to Ho Chi Minh city where I am right now.
I've been busy buying 2 motorbikes for me and my cousin to ride north to Hanoi. We only have 11 days which a lot of people have told me is insane, and a lot of riding, where others have told me 400km a day is possible, in about 9 hours. Well we only need to do 200 to easily make it, and I'm used to the long days, we'll be fine I'm sure.
After my cousin leaves and a friend has visited for some sightseeing I'm hoping to do some more riding in the North and maybe in Laos, before I return back to Donkey in maybe 6 weeks, maybe more.
Wow, great story so far. Enjoy India it’s an amusing place to ride & travel.
People & food are tops.
Blog for back in Nepal in early November
Day 179 to 195 – Pokhara to Mustang Valley
Seven days I ended up staying in Pokhara. I had originally planned to spend the night and then head through to Kathmandu, but decided to have a day off, and come the afternoon I wasn’t really feeling up to riding the next day. I had put aside a week to have off in Kathmandu, so I wound up just spending those days in Pokhara instead; the town was lovely, if very touristy and the hostel was super comfy.
This is pretty hard to give up
I was also in a bit of a slump mentally, every few months it comes around, motivation for the road wanes and willingness for adventure seems to vanish. It usually coincides with something else going on, some block in the road or, in this case, lack of a longer term plan and goals. I had 3 weeks until I needed to be in Kolkata, India but no plan of how to get there, which sounds very romantic and free but doesn’t sit well in a slump. I had no motivation to go anywhere and no looming goals to force me out the door. Recognising it for the slump it was I came up with a halfhearted plan heading through East Nepal, on the basis of completing the West to East route and stopping at Kathmandu on the way. I had the option of heading to upper Mustang with Martin and Xenia, but that wouldn’t be for another week and I wasn’t keen on punishing Donkey even more, he was still really hurting after the last load through North India then again in Nepal.
The death of the slump came about after about 4 days. I’d decided to leave for Kathmandu the following day, and headed to get some new oil in Donkey and fix a few little bits. I discovered the belly pan was utterly and completely screwed up, it wasn’t just “a little out of line” anymore, it was so far off it took me an hour of bending, banging and swearing to finally get the damn screws back in, usually a two minute job. The horrendous road through Nepal had really taken it’s toll. I sat that night worrying about it, Mustang was off the cards now and I planned a new route to avoid more bad roads in Nepal and India.
This is not supposed to look like that…
I woke up in a stubborn mood the next day feeling stupid for being so resigned to change my entire plans just because some metal was bent the wrong way. I cancelled the plan to ride to Kathmandu that day and set off around town looking for a garage to try and fix the plate. It was a bit daunting, the thick steel mounting bars themselves had bent and it would be risky, if I screw it up, bend a piece and snap it, or shear a special bolt I’ll be without a plate at all, which leaves the engine super vulnerable on these potholed roads.
This guy was just building and fixing stuff every time I saw him, the ultimate blokes shed
With A-Team music playing in my head and looking more and more like an episode of scrapheap challenge, I set to work. After a couple of hours trying and failing to bend the plate to fit into the bent mountings, I gave up and started just changing the mountings. Taking them all off, I realised just how far buggered they were, the main one being bent by about 40 degrees. The guys in the garage pointed me to someone who might be able to help bend it back, who said “nope too thick” and pointed me to a welder. He looked confused but did his best heating the joint until it was glowing then using a huge pipe and a lot of leverage to get it bent back again. I’ve no idea how much that has weakened the material but it works for now. The plate still needed some work to get back in, but a quick trip to a guy with a metal press and rivets finished it off. A huge sigh of relief when it all finally slotted back together smoothly.
The A-Team. They helped a with a bunch of stuff all day and I had to force cash on them
I was so chuffed it was fixed, and I’d got over my slump by getting down to solving some problems instead of moping around, and it had made my planning much easier. I realised I’d let myself be pushed into a route and plans by avoiding the problems with Donkey and being scared of bad roads, instead of solving the problems and taking on challenges. Now with the engine protected Mustang Valley with Martin and Xenia was back on and India should be much more fun afterwards too.
On the road to Kathmandu
With 4 days to kill until heading off to Mustang I set off for a quick visit to Kathmandu the next morning. A fairly simple ride, a few people trying to kill themselves with their driving, surprise potholes and vomit flying from bus windows, a normal day in Nepal. Getting into centre of the city wasn’t so straightforward, my GPS threw a fit and wouldn’t turn back on, so I had to find my way through the tiny streets and alleyways by guess work. I eventually found the hostel district, and the centre of it, by following the hippies, the trail of many dreadlocks and baggy trousers.
Very busy, very tight
A turbo tour of sightseeing the following day, riding the bike from one sight to the next, seeing temples and pagodas around the city. I attempted to ride up a mountain with a viewing tower but the road was blocked and they wanted about £20 for a return ticket on the cable cars. No thanks. A lovely evening drinking with a bunch of Brits I met in the hostel, telling tales of the trip and getting some good advice from them about places in India.
Bhaktapur, the nicer part of the Kathmandu area, with the oddest looking computer shop I’ve ever seen
I was very glad to return to the comfort of Pokhara, I did not really get along with Kathmandu, glad I didn’t commit myself to a week there, the tourist area was particularly soulless, all the shops were copy and paste of trinket shops, fake brand clothes and unhappy locals running them. The rest of the city just felt like an extra dirty and busy capital city you would see anywhere else in the world. Some of the sights were worth a look but a single day there was more than enough for me. Back to the calm of Pokhara please.
Much quieter here
I arrived back at the same hostel as before, such a lovely bunch running the place, they greeted me like family coming home. Out in the evening to meet up with Martin and Xenia for some food and a good long catch up. We’d only been apart for a month or so but we had plenty of stories to share and planning to do for Mustang Valley and the permits we needed for it.
We set off toward the valley not sure what to expect, but we weren’t expecting anything crazy difficult. If I’d known how hard it was going to be I really don’t think I would have gone. The first 100km was just tarmac roads leading to Beni, after that the surface got progressively worse. Usually when riding on a bad road, you get small patches of really bad stuff, maybe the road washed away, or a bunch of really big potholes, this was a bit different. We’d come up on some comically bad patch of road, like the gravel would become big stones, or the road would get steeper or deep sand, and we’d laugh at how bad it was and make it over it, but it didn’t end; that was the new normal. So every patch we came across leveled up the difficulty without it really ever resetting, it only seemed to get more and more ridiculous, it was funny for a while until we realised how much ground we’d covered: not a lot.
The beginnings of the bad stuff
By the time the sun was going down we were wondering what the hell we’d got ourselves in for and found a place to sleep for the night. Lodgings are few and far between in the valley and we bumped into two cyclists coming the other way who warned us against going further that night so we stopped in the guesthouse we were already at. Weirdly they had stopped us because they followed Martin and Xenias blog and recognised the “XT Adventures” stickers on their bike, small world.
Well this should be fun
We thought we didn’t have much rough stuff left to go the next day, very wrong. The road continued to get worse, it was quite fun having a proper challenge for a while but some parts were legitimately frightening, staring at a bunch of unconnected steep rocks that dropped back down into a deep stream, knowing if I wobbled there’s no way I’d be able to stand properly or hold the bike up. It was made clearer how bad the road had got when Xenia crashed. I noticed they weren’t behind me anymore and after waiting the normal 5 minutes to see if they were just taking photos I doubled back and found Martin bending the handlebars back into alignment using a rock wall. Luckily Xenia had landed well and the gear did it’s job, she was bruised and sore but nothing broken. It was lucky considering she’d been going pretty quick, dislodged a rock with the front wheel which then jumped the back wheel out, sending the bike careering left, and Xenia right.
“Just having a break” she said
On a particularly bad little section of rocks with water running over them we had to help out a car with an incompetent driver, jamming rocks under his wheels so he could get some momentum. Xenia nearly got stuck after starting up a steep section when a herd of sheep penned her in to a dangerous route over the rocks and she had to stop precariously balanced. By lunch we were knackered but the road did start to give way a little, mostly because the terrain flattened so the road was less punished by the weather and vehicles. Sand and mud became a little more common, but they were no problem to deal with now. The next interesting bit was when the road closed and everything was diverted down onto a huge old river bed, filled deeply with very smooth stones and nothing between them to hold them still. A couple of little river crossing on those was weird, it acts like sand sending the bike wiggling around so you need a lot of momentum to not get stuck and dig in, as well as picking a good line through it in the first place.
Thumbs up, give it some gas
On one longer crossing we neither picked a good route or had enough momentum. The river swung around a bit and ran with the “road”, we misjudged the depth of it further along and I followed Martin into the shallow beginnings, as he tried to exit the other side he dug in and dropped the bike at a near stop. When I saw him I hesitated, not wanting to commit to running in to him, I saw there was another route out and gunned it again to get some momentum up, just as Martin was getting up trying to tell me to stop. The river got deeper and my front wheel whacked a big rock and flew left, with me hard on the throttle the rear wheel happily followed sharp left and I carried on straight, superman’ing into the river. Bugger.
I got to the kill switch, not knowing if the bike was submerged and then checked myself over. I got away very luckily, my right foot was jammed under the bike but absolutely fine, the boots had save me any bruises and the pannier & engine guard had given my foot enough room not to spin round. The rest of me had a soft landing in water, just banging my arm and hip on some rocks. My main problem was I was now freezing cold, I have water proof gear but it tends not to work when you go swimming in it, and the water was freezing, coming right out the mountains. We took the obligatory crash photos and got going again.
Just another little rest
The rest of the day was a little more straight forward only a couple more very challenging sections. We did have a long wait at one of the checkpoints because I’d somehow lost my permits for the valley in the day, thankfully they could call down to the office in Pokhara and confirm I had applied for them and let me go. Another couple of hours ride and we made it to Muktinath with 3 miles of perfect smooth black tarmac at to finish it off, for some odd reason they’re tarmacking from the top of the road first. This town is literally the end of the road, from there it’s on foot only, right through the Annapurna mountain range.
Muktinath is like a Frontier town into the mountains
We found a hotel ran by a guy we were convinced was a Russian Pirate who’d got lost in the mountains and decided to open a hotel. We had a day off up there to see some of the sights and chill out, most of it was without internet and with very patchy power all day though, so we mostly sat around playing cards, reading and trying to keep warm. None of us were really looking forward to the descent, now we knew what was ahead, but it should be a little easier going down, not having to fight for traction trying to get the bikes upwards.
Not a bad view from the roof
The bikes were covered in ice come morning and with my still damp clothes it made for a very cold start. The rivers that we’d crossed on the way up had also swelled a little, making them a little more risky this time round, we had to wade in some way to check for a solid path. Somehow there was more traffic too, lots of buses kicking up an insane amount of dust, at some points I couldn’t see more than 5 meters ahead. Xenia managed to prove you can get hurt even in the simplest of accidents, on a steep downhill section that was basically a river bed on the road. We had to go slow and pick our spots carefully with all the big rocks it was hard to even stop, a clever bus driver started to force his way up the hill despite us coming down and we had to stop where we were. Unfortunately for Xenia she was at a spot where she couldn’t reach the ground with nowhere to go, she toppled over slowly but managed to land funny and pretty much broke her finger. Somehow she managed to ride the rest of the day with three fingers on her left hand strapped together and in a lot of pain.
She might have been trying to swear at us for taking a photo, we can’t know for sure
We still made much better time than on the way up though and by the afternoon we were all the way back down in Beni, the start of the tarmac road to Pokhara and we pushed on to get there that night. A couple of hours riding in the dark in Nepal will certainly help keep you alert, buses on the wrong side of the road and invisible pot holes everywhere; my headlights flickering on and off did not help.
The rough road had taken a serious toll on Donkey again, the bash plate was almost as broken as before and various other bits were falling apart. I headed to the garage again the the next day and set to work, but these were all simpler problems than last time. I replaced a missing bolt for the front sub-frame, bent the gear lever back into place after a big rock had managed to hit and bend it upward (it’s about a foot off the ground!), and finally got a new washer on the lever mount that was damaged in the crash back in India, rewired the headlight switches I’d installed which the bumps and dust had buggered up. Good as new, sort of.
Pretty sure it didn’t come like that
One last day in Pokhara, mostly spent sorting things like booking flights and visas for Vietnam in 2 weeks time. Then saying goodbye to Martin and Xenia for a while, I’ll probably see them again in a few months in Australia, that is very weird to think about so far off in time and distance. For now it’s south toward India and leaving Nepal behind.
Tool organisation in Nepal. I nearly cried
25/10/2017 – 10/11/2017
It's been a while again! Very busy time in Vietnam. My cousin arrived on the 26th and I'd managed to acquire and fix up two "Honda Wins" Vietnamese copies. So we set off the next day northward.
It only took until day two for a crash, my cousin has basically zero bike experience so it was bound to happen. When I broke hard at one point he was following too close, couldn't react in time and ended up binning it trying to avoid me. Luckily the it was a nice flat spot with nothing for him to hit and I saw him rolling to a stop over my shoulder. A couple of cuts to clean up and nothing broken. The bike didn't fare too badly either, broken brake lever and a few things bent out of shape, easily fixed.
It was still pretty warm until around Hoi An area but north of there we had 3 days of constant rain, it was pretty miserable, visibility was way down and it's already dangerous enough here never mind adding wet roads and surprise buried potholes. We decided the bikes brakes must be made entirely of fudge, because nothing really happens, even with new pads, it took me a little while to adjust after so long on Donkey.
^ Trying to figure out how his bike died going downhill. Spark plug cover was letting water in, little jiggle and it was happy again
We made it up to Ha Long bay and had a little celebration of way too many cocktails. 9 riding days to get there, one very long day and one quite short day in there. We took a boat tour around the bay, it is an utterly incredible place. I'd seen a lot of photos and read about it and I was still blown away. Cannot recommend it enough.
Then over to Hanoi where Charlee left for home, and my friend Chris arrived the same day. He jumped on a train and I rode to Ninh Binh where we set up in some nice Bamboo Huts in the rice fields in the mountains for a couple of days off. Adjustment time and holiday for him, rest days for me. Then we headed over to Ha Long bay again to Cat Ba island this time and a different boat tour, still incredible.
Back to Hanoi where Chris left and I treated myself an apartment to hibernate in over Christmas. I've been here nearly a week now just enjoying having a nice shower and comfy bed and space to myself after sharing hotel rooms for 3 weeks.
Other important news I am no longer Guitarless! My friend Chris managed to bring my Christmas present from my Mum and Step Dad. They knew how gutted I was about the last one and bought me a Snap Dragon folding guitar! It's fucking amazing, plays really well and folds up to that small backpack in the last photo in the post above. It is a bit like a top gear joke though, trying to carry even more stuff on this comically small bike.
New blog for back in Nepal and India then flying to Ho Chi Minh City - 11/11/2017 – 20/11/2017
Day 196 to 205 – Pokhara to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Finally leaving Pokhara had a little bit of meaning to it, in total I’d been here nearly 2 weeks split over 3 stays. I really liked the place, despite all the tourism and everything that goes with it. I crossed the border back into India the next day, after a night in what was essentially a prison cell hotel room in Butwal. The border was a simple affair on the Nepal side, if still chaotic, the Indian side was more interesting, just finding the government buildings for example was a nightmare, doubling back up the street utterly jammed with traffic somehow going in 17 directions.
I had to make a nuisance of myself for almost an hour to get my Carnet processed at customs, just constantly standing in the way, and asking them how long it would take, seemed to speed it along. It’s usually a 10 minute job and there was no queue, it was just held up by Indian’ness. A backpacker I met at the visa office put me on the course of a bad mood for the rest of the day, he’d obviously had a bad one so far and was just relentlessly negative about the road, the hotels and the people. I knew roughly what to expect heading into India for the second time, but I was ready to blow by the evening after the border farce, and being back in the horrendous traffic again, even compared to Nepal.
Just a bit of maintenance. There was nothing holding it up by the way
Just as it was getting dark I reached a big town and was pretty confident a hotel would be easy to come by, probably even a good cheap one. The first 3 I tried though were “full”, one of them was somehow full with an empty car park on a deserted road. Something fishy was going on and I was getting pretty short with hotel owners snubbing me, the backpacker guy had mentioned hotels were hard to find because they don’t want foreigners and I’d brushed it off as his bad day. Maybe he was right. I asked a traffic cop if he knew of a hotel for foreigners in town and he pointed me in the right direction with a name to go on. Also HAHAHA TRAFFIC COP! A real life traffic cop in India, what a joke of a job.
This felt very Indian, burning fields on huge open plains with someone driving on the wrong side of the road
The ride to Varanasi was finished by lunch time, including navigating some of the most congested and stupid traffic I’ve ever been in. It takes that title because someone actually managed to get their bike TIED to mine, by driving into my pannier and hooking their engine bars through a strap on them. We both nearly fell in thick traffic with nowhere to fall. If I could have reached him I’d have clouted him, he wasn’t wearing a helmet for protection against angry foreigners.
A little hazy but still amazing
I had that afternoon and the following day off in Varanasi and the bad mood melted away. It is a stunning place, I took a walk down the river that evening and it is an amazing place to be. There’s so much calmly happening on the beautiful stretch of river with all the colourful ghats and temples. hundreds of boats up and down the river some with tourists, some fishing or delivering. Lots of people just going about their lives washing pots and pans, kids flying kites or playing cricket, even some guys building a boat. I went for another walk in the morning and it’s the same feeling but with the morning rituals, people just living their lives, washing their clothes and blankets, fishing, kids swimming. Tourists milling around in it all.
A very weird mix of architecture, old and new
The town itself was mental, traffic everywhere and tight, maze-like alleys. A complete contrast to the quiet calm river and ghats only a few hundred meters away. Though a couple of points along the river are spoiled by tourist traps and sellers of “stunning and unique goods”. Lots of people would say hello and try to chat as I walked by, not uncommon at all, I’d be polite and chat if they weren’t obviously selling anything. A couple of guys really pissed me off though, I’d stop to chat and they’d offer to shake my hand, being very British and polite I’d offer my hand which they’d immediately pull in and massage to try and get me to buy one. The first guy caught me off guard and I just wrenched my hand back, the second guy nearly got pulled in to the river. After that I stopped shaking hands. That annoyed me though, when a local guy walked passed, asked how I was doing and I barely responded with a grunt annoyed at people selling me things, he smiled and said “Good” and walked on; he was just being nice and I was too jaded by the sellers to even chat to him, I eased up a bit after that.
The ghats at sunset
I almost didn’t take a boat ride down the river, it looked like a bit of a scam, I’d walked all along the river multiple times already. I much prefer making my own way and deciding what to see, so being stuck on a boat for 3 hours didn’t sound fun. I’m glad I convinced myself to do it though, the river side was stunning from the water, with the sunset and then later in the dark. The Burning Ghat especially, an ancient site for cremations 24 hours a day. It’s strangle peaceful watching open cremations in one of the holiest sites in the world. It’s not regarded as weird by people that there’s a couple of hundred tourists at their loved ones funerals.
Leaving Varanasi felt pretty significant, crossing the Ganges at this holy point on the river, heading east. The goal was to get to Kolkata, I’d be flying from there in 5 days to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, and I had to find a safe place to leave Donkey before then. It was going to be a 2 day ride but sleeping would only be a short break in the middle, I just needed to get there. It was my first time riding on a proper “motorway” in India too, and it was much safer than I expected, there’s still the occasional water buffalo dopily crossing the road but having a central divider keeps most of the stupid at bay.
I made really good progress and started hunting for a hotel at sunset, and stumbled on this incredibly weird place. It looked like it should have been an old but ugly manor, surrounded by its huge grounds, iron gates and fencing, and large doors at either end of a huge entrance hall. I hadn’t seen anything else like it on the road, mostly dirty guesthouses so I knew I’d found the right place and just had to beat them down in price a bit. It looked like it would have been a grand hotel 20 years ago, and now it was just falling apart, very common in India so far, lots of ambition to begin with but no maintenance. So I was still awake at 2am chasing mosquitoes around the room that got in through various holes in the walls and windows and were eating me alive. A very fitting way to celebrate Day 200 of my trip, half naked chasing mosquitoes at 2am in an grand hotel falling down around me.
One of the weirder hotels of the trip
The last 4 hour run to Kolkata was simple enough and I did it one sitting I think, it’s hard to remember, just repeated scenery and road rolling by. Coming in to Kolkata was very memorable though, back to insane Indian traffic but now in with the population one of it’s biggest cities. The poverty too was striking, “stalls” lining the middle of the road for miles, no bigger than 1×3 meters, that served as store front, living room and bedroom for families of 5, the stench was overwhelming. I wondered what I’d got myself in for coming here when the roads narrowed and the buildings were falling apart but the traffic just got crazier. Then it all just seemed to give way to a metropolitan city, wide roads appeared, tram tracks, large beautiful British architecture buildings, even traffic cops actually being useful in large intersections. It seems the poverty just stops and the money begins, the hotel I was aiming for was seemingly in the most wealthy district with jewelry shops, high end tailors and, to my joy, a SubWay (food not trains). The poverty could still be seen in places, a double bed outside a shop with 4 women of 3 generations sleeping on it. It’s a pretty sickening sign of the divide that is just totally normal here.
It also reminded me yet again of why I avoid big cities, the hotel was pretty dire and more expensive than I’d paid anywhere else in the last 2 months. I spent 3 hours riding around and that was the best option, it was only for 3 nights though before I’d be flying off. I had to find somewhere to store Donkey and had been in touch with a guy from the Kolkata bikers club. I messaged him to say was in town and asked if he had managed to find any leads on a storage spot, he had found 4 that he trusted within 24 hours. I rode over the next day to some random GPS coordinates on the other side of the city to leave my bike with someone I’d never met, against every single instinct. There were 3 guys on bikes waiting there for me who greeted me like an old friend, we got Donkey prepared for long term storage and he even took some of my luggae to store in his apartment instead of leaving it strapped to the bike. All seemed well, they were really nice guys, one of them well known in the Kolkata biking scene and they were eager to help a traveller (Though at time of writing I still don’t know if Donkey will be there when I get back…).
Sleep well Donkey
I had a spare day to sort out documents for the flight and visa for Vietnam and see some of Kolkata. Though that plan was foiled because I barely slept that night thanks to a nice new illness. I stumbled around a couple of printing places and got my photo taken then just slept most of the day and hoping it would disappear before the flight the next day. There was a whole day to kill before the midnight flight, I thought this would be easily done in the middle of a big city but I could find nothing but expensive restaurants to sit in, or a chain coffee place with no power or wifi. Sacrilege! I ended up heading to the airport 7 hours early hoping to check in and just sit in departures with wifi, power and some food. Foiled again, check in wouldn’t open until 3 hours before the flight so I was stuck with the single small cafe in the check in hall for 4 hours.
The flight had a 2 hour long stop over in Kuala Lumpur before arriving in Ho Chi Minh which meant a 4 hour flight followed by a 2 hour one, so I got zero sleep and arrived in Vietnam at 7am, very much ready to drop off. There was the visa process in the way first though and another few hours waiting with a hundred other foreigners to obtain that. By the time I was in the cab on the way to the hotel I was nodding off in the back seat and went straight to bed, sleeping for 4 hours. I woke up late in the evening and went out for breakfast (Supper? I don’t know) and only then realised I was actually in Vietnam, country number 24! I hadn’t rode here, but it certainly felt like a new bit of the adventure. I had six days to buy two motorbikes and get everything ready for when my cousin Charlee arrived so we could hit the ground running and start the ride to Hanoi!
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City
The beginning of the Vietnam adventure. Buying some bikes and hitting the road with Charlee.
Day 206 to 217 – Ho Chi Minh to Hue – Charlee’s Adventures Part 1
JANUARY 12, 2018 ~ JOSH ~ EDIT"DAY 206 TO 217 – HO CHI MINH TO HUE – CHARLEE’S ADVENTURES PART 1"
After spending the majority of the previous day sleeping after the flight, I was up and about in Ho Chi Minh at about 5am. I made a start on the “New Country Checklist” of SIM, cash and a guitar shop, all achieved much easier than usual by about 9am. Score! My job for the next few days was to buy and prep 2 motorbikes ready for Charlee arriving. This country is completely powered by motorbikes and scooters, they are used for everything imaginable and they choke the streets and alleyways of the city 24 hours a day. It shouldn’t be too hard to find 2 decent ones to buy.
It turned out to be even easier than I thought and by 3pm on the first day I had a bike, in near perfect condition. The first bike I saw was quite a ways out of town, and it was utterly awful, leaking oil, brakes not working and a clanking engine, listed as “newly rebuilt”; by a monkey I guess, I’ll pass thanks. A bunch of bikes were listed for sale by backpackers so I walked around the tourist district seeing them and realised that chatting to the owner was a much better way of gauging a bikes condition. There was a huge correlation between state of the bike and the amount the owner knew about it. One extreme case was two Polish guys who had absolutely no idea when the last time the battery, chain, tyres, brakes or oil were changed, no surprises both of their bikes were in a terrible state. The one I ended up buying was from a British guy who worked as a mechanic and could tell me every detail of the bike. His bike ran sweet and looked in good shape, he bought it brand new only 1 month previous in Hanoi and with his Mrs they’d ridden around the North and then down to Ho Chi Minh, so they had some great advice about the route for me too.
Fits right in!
After seeing a bunch of bikes I realised going newer with less hassle was much preferred, they were nearly double the price but the quality difference was night and day. $250 seemed to be the minimum and included all manner of shite ready to fall apart at a moments notice, $400 and up was were the nice bikes were and where it was worth bartering for small mechanical blemishes. Me and Charlee could afford a bit of extra cash but not delays, we only had 12 days to get to Hanoi where he was flying home, and I predicted we’d need at least 9 days of riding.
Given my quick progress with purchasing bikes I spent the next couple of days resting, occasionally looking at other bikes and sightseeing. The war museum was eye opening, outside is filled with American military vehicles and planes, bomb casings and bunker weapons. The inside is filled with records and photos of the atrocities of the war, I’m not sure any museum in the US would go into quite as much detail or reveals as much about their acts in it, so much so that I doubt the accuracy of some of it, I learned a lot either way. The history museum was about as exciting as a history museum can be, but more interesting than I was expecting, getting see a summary of history and evolution of a part of the world I don’t know anything about, very different from the European story.
A very grand History Museum
I did eventually decided on another motorbike, this one from a dealer who made a final few tweaks before I bought it. Then it was only one more day until Charlee arrived, time for the final work on the bikes in the garage, putting some chargers on, changing the oil, brake pads and cleaning the carbs. I was all prepared and ready to do the work myself, looking forward to learning on these simple bikes, but the mechanics work for basically free here. I asked how much an oil change was “80,000 Dong” (£3) and what about if you don’t do the change, just the litre of oil “80,000 Dong”… OK, you do it. It’s just too cheap to worry about getting it wrong, especially carbs. About £5 later all work was done and they were ready to roll.
Charlee’s bike, all shiny new, it stayed like there for about 2 minutes
Day 211 had the best alarm clock ever, Charlee calling my phone to say he’d arrived and was outside. Reunited after 7 months, in Vietnam no less and ready for an adventure, we were both pretty happy. We had breakfast and tried to construct something like a plan for getting to Hanoi, some milestones to aim for and sights we wanted to see. Then we had to do Charlee’s “New Country Checklist”, except his didn’t have guitars, it had motorbike practice. We rode out to a big empty estate in the city so he could get to grips with the bike, his only experience so far is the CBT in the UK, a one day “crash” course that allows you to ride tiny bikes legally. Getting there was a laugh in itself, me riding, Charlee on the back. This poor bike is about 3ft off the ground and weighs around 70kg wet. Me and Charlee are both over 6ft5 and combined weigh over 160kg. Safe to say it was a little wobbly, and we got a lot of looks and laughs from the locals. He took to the bike within about 3 seconds and even I had a practice, these tiny bikes are so different from riding a big bike like Donkey that I had to learn some stuff over again. I had planned out some stuff to show Charlee in this practice, like emergency braking without ABS and slow speed control, but when I got on I realised with brakes made of fudge and such a tiny bike, I didn’t really know them any better than he did.
There’s way more person than bike here…
We may have got a little carried away with the drinks that night, being back together finally and laughing our asses off all night, so the morning was pretty groggy. We didn’t get breakfast until near 11 and were trying to pack the bikes up by 12, sweating our asses off in the heat, me particularly, wearing all my normal big travel gear. We finally got on the road and on the way out of the city by 1pm, until I realised the camera was missing off my helmet. SHIT! I spun around to go look for it and it was right where I was hoping, tucked in a corner of the parking garage, in all the faffing packing the bikes it had been knocked off and rolled away. Damn lucky it was still there at all. That made it nearly 2pm by the time we were actually driving away from the city, pretty typical start for my trip, mishaps and messups, nice to see it’s carrying over to Vietnam too. The roads opened up nicely though and we made some good ground in the afternoon, cruising at a monumental top speed of 37mph.
On the road!
We found a decent hotel in a town on the road that night and marvelled at the shear amount of seafood available, most restaurants had more tanks than most pet shops, filled with all sorts of fish, squid and crabs. The next morning was much more efficient and we made good ground before lunch, sitting at max speed for most of the time on nice rolling hill roads.
Contemplating the choices that led him to a dusty petrol station in Vietnam
The afternoon was not so great, when the threatening rain finally gave way into a monsoon I slammed on the brakes to get to some cover at the side of the road, I heard a noise on my right and knew straight away Charlee was way to close to be able to stop and he’d had to swerve around me onto the wet mud on the side of the road. His front tyre gave up what little grip it had and I turned to see him rolling along the road, his bike sliding along on it’s side next to him.
Four Vietnamese guys that had been sat by the side of the road picked Charlee up off the floor before I could even stop my bike. He was all in one piece and walking, just a bad scrape to the elbow and hand. He had some first aid gear with him so I could clean up his arm and wrap it up, while he tried not to laugh at my first aid skills, typical that the one with the first aid training would be the one injured. The bike hadn’t fared too badly either, the front fender had bent into the front wheel and the front brake lever had snapped. We contemplated just not fixing the front brake lever, they’re so completely useless anyway, we’re pretty sure they’re made entirely of fudge. The Vietnamese guys pointed me back up into town and a bike garage that might be able to help. Twenty minuets later the bike was back in working order and we could get on the road again.
Smiling, not knowing I’m about to rub alcohol in that cut
The delay meant we were riding in the sunset which was beautiful for all of 20 minutes, then all light was gone. It got very dodgy very fast, trucks and cars on the wrong side of the road with full beam on, illuminating all the rain on the visor. We somehow didn’t die within that hour of night riding, but we came very close a few times. It was so dangerous that we just stopped in the next town with a hotel, we couldn’t be too picky and this place was creepy, run by an old lady who refused to communicate in any fashion and just kept shouting for help from various people in different shops. It was a bed though and some good food and beer finished off Charlee’s first full day, and very “trip day” it was, one where non of the plans worked and everything is unexpected.
A grim ride until lunch the next day, drizzly rain and not much to see, but a weird lunch pushed that out of our minds. We could only find one place serving food in town and it was a nicely finished restaurant run by a family we’re sure had never seen a foreigner, they loved us. I got handed their toddler for photos and selfies with every member of the family and they cooked us the only thing they had: random processed frozen meat in small balls. They tasted like the old Turkey Twizzlers, the ones that got banned from schools in the UK because they were so unhealthy, we didn’t like to think about what it actually was.
A nice afternoon though!
A very long run in the afternoon left us knackered but in the big town of Kon Tum, the first time since Ho Chi Minh, so we were looking forward to a nice restaurant, everything was dead though, the best we could do was a small cafe that had some ready made stuff. We did get a quick oil change on the bikes though and fixing a few rattles on them. They need pretty constant maintenance, they’re not the most reliable things.
The next day was going to be a very long one, we wanted to reach Hoi An about 300km away, but it was the first properly enjoyable day. The rain held off, the roads were windy and quiet with some amazing views and sights right on the road; a different kind of “trip day” where it doesn’t seem real and just get’s better yet weirder all day.
A couple of huge waterfalls along the road alone with some of the mountain ranges looked like they were straight out of a Jurassic Park movie set. A gigantic dam came out of nowhere, spilling a huge amount of water a couple of hundred feet through its overflow. We also came across what seemed like a weird Vietnamese game of digger wars, trying to get a couple of huge boulders up a dirt hill, one at the top dragging and two at the bottom pushing, this blocked the road for a good 20 minutes while we just gaped in wonder, a health and safety officer may have a heart attack. The day somehow finished riding in the dark again, on tiny paths through rice paddies on the outskirts of Hoi An, with mosquitoes pinging off the helmet like stones and bikes coming at us with full beam on inches away, we may have taken a wrong turn because I don’t think that was the main road into the town.
They’re making a love heart! No. No they’re going to kill someone
We did eventually get in to town, knackered but happy after a very long day of riding. Hoi An is a big tourist town, so we got a nice comfortable hotel, with a bathroom that seemed to be on top of a sewer, and collapsed before heading out for food. Just to round off the weird day the power in the town kept going out, leaving Charlee in darkness in the shower at one point, then left us sitting in the dark in the restaurant for a little while.
Japanese built bridge from the 1700s
A day off the next day with a lie in, a visit to the beach and planning our next few days. There was a few things we wanted to see in this area but with a big storm hanging over the whole of central Vietnam it might be pretty wet for the next few days. Hoi An itself was absolutely beautiful, it’s a very well preserved old port town and it really feels like walking through a pirate paradise. Some very old sites are preserved and just dotted throughout the town ready for exploring, coupled with nice food everywhere and great coffee makes for a perfect rest day.
Beach bitches! First time I’ve seen the sea since Georgia and the Black Sea too
Charlee had a nice surprise the next morning, I finally had time and opportunity to decorate his bike for Christmas on 2nd of December, pink tinsel and decorations on the indicator gave a bit more reason for him to be stared at by locals for the rest of his trip.
We made the most of the relatively dry morning and headed for the Marble Mountains in Da Nang, a limestone karst covered with Buddhist temples, really, really covered. Someone started in 1825 and just went to town on it. We spent over an hour wandering the inside of the cave and climbing some deadly stairs, then exploring the top, yet we still missed a lot. We had to get a move on though, the rain was starting to come down and we wanted to head up the Hai Van pass.
I first heard about this pass like most people, from Top Gear and their Vietnam special in 2008, way before I was even interested in bikes, or even finished with college… They made it sound like an epic stretch of road for miles on end with the best views in the world, so we were going rain or shine. Some of the splendor was probably taken away by the seriously thick fog and rain but it was a pretty short pass. The views we could see through the fog were amazing, down on to the bay below, but Charlee didn’t see much, I doubled back when he disappeared and he had gone full Clarkson: “I AM THE WORLDS WETTEST, ANGRIEST MAN”. His bike decided it didn’t like rain and somehow managed to break down going down hill. The spark plug cover was leaking so adjusting it and getting the water out got him going again. Fighting with buses, up steep hills, in freezing rain without waterproof gear on wasn’t making his day though.
I AM THE WORLDS WETTEST, ANGRIEST MAN!
It was still pretty amazing to make it the spot made famous by Top Gear, looking over the bridge and tunnel that was built to shortcut the pass, onto the little fishing village. A bunch of other people were stopped there too for that same reason.
The Top Gear spot
Getting to Hue was simple enough, a very wet, flat, straight road from the pass in to the middle of town. We emptied the water from our boots into the bath, I drained the water out of my helmet camera (R.I.P) and we hung clothes everywhere. We basically destroyed a hotel room with the manky wet clothes and the stank of them. It was pointless trying to dry anything though, the rain basically didn’t stop for 3 days after that.
21/11/2017 – 02/12/2017
It's been a while since a proper update here, I'm not even in Vietnam anymore! On the second attempt I crossed the border to Laos.
I've done a loop around North Vietnam, it was cold, slippery and foggy, but what an amazing place, feels like a different world. A lot of it is hopping between tourist towns though, it's been done a hundred times and is pretty mapped out, most of the locals know what to expect and how to get the most out of you, but not many by bike so the bits inbetween are well worth it, the roads aren't too bad and unless you're stupid like me and go in the cold foggy season the views are breathtaking. I had some fun sliding around on this little bike too, I've never done any dirt track or motocross but I think I'd enjoy it if I take the bag off the back their's no weight there and it just flaps around when it's slippy, but the bike is so light it doesn't even matter.
Laos steps it up a notch in every way, it's so stunningly beautiful here, lush green jungle and endless hills. It's a poorer place and it really shows, in the cold snap of the last 2 weeks the village road sides are full of families gathered around small fires to keep warm. They're such happy people though they'll stare at you wondering where the fuck the Alien came from and then invite you to join them round the fire to warm up with a laugh.
The bike is holding up nicely, I don't like some of the noises it makes, and it's a bit down on power but I had expected something catastrophic by now on this little thing, it just keeps plodding along bless it. The carb, idle and choke can all be adjusted while riding since I can reach the entire engine block from the seat just keep a screw driver in my pocket.
Here's the route since I left Hanoi after Christmas:
And my office where I'm writing this from in Vang Vieng, Laos
I've managed to get a few blogs behind on here! My bad. I'll post a summary of the last few weeks after the latest blogs
Day 218 to Day 224 – Hue to Hanoi – Charlee’s Adventures Part 2
A soggy morning in Hue meant we weren’t up for sightseeing. It’s a shame to miss the citadel and a few other bits around town but it either means walking around in full waterproof bike gear or getting our normal clothes soaking wet only to have to pack them in our bags for the ride. No thanks. We headed straight north on the fastest road, the storm should end about 2 days north and we’re keen to get there.
The boring and straight roads in the morning were broken up by cattle and insane bus drivers until lunch, which was a weird one. We sat with 2 guys who were travelling on a motorbike, though a much bigger one than ours, the Portuguese guy was a passenger and the Vietnamese guy was driving him all the way to Hanoi. I still can’t figure out why you’d be a passenger and not ride, or take the bus or train, especially in this weather. The Vietnamese bike rider actually cooked our lunch, he told us the owner of the restaurant “Doesn’t know how” It was delicious too, fried noodles and beef with lots of spices.
The afternoon brought some very different scenery, a couple of hours riding dead straight on an undulating road through a very wet desert. It was the bypass around the towns and took us right into a long range of sand dunes with lakes and ponds running through them. There wasn’t much growing, just patches of bushes and trees surrounding any water. It made for a very different view, bright white sand with big patches of dark green compared to the jungle or rice fields.
It all flew by, with small dry spells for a treat, and we made it to Dong Hoi for the night. We found a nice hotel by accident and settled for some pool and a burger in a pub down the road. Simple, but very effective against a long day in the rain.
Trying to dry out anything possible while the rain has abated
It was bucketing with rain come morning, with no signs of stopping but we geared up and headed out. More straight roads, but it should mean we get out from under the clouds today. Lunch was another odd one. I spent half of it trying to fix my broken speedo cable with a Vietnamese lady, Charlee spent his time talking to an old woman who was begging for money. I’m convinced this woman was an Ancient Witch only we could see, and didn’t like us so she cursed him. We moved restaurants for some food and Charlee’s bike keys vanished, we searched for about 15 minutes on the 30m between the two restaurants and all inside. When I went for my 5th look in the first restaurant and found nothing, but on the way back out, there was another old woman, very similar looking to the first, I said hello and she looked at me and walked off. I looked down and Charlee’s keys were 3ft away on the floor in the middle of the street, where the old woman had been, and that we’d walked down 10 times. We were Cursed I tell you!
In this lady’s garage, needs some work…
With the curse broken and the wroth of the old woman quelled, we ate our dinner, which I’m 80% sure was beef, not dog, and left. Some more dry spells kept giving us hope that the underwater part of our trip was coming to end. It did toward the end and we had a glorious hour of riding into Vinh drying out, opening the jackets and trying to get wind blowing through everywhere.
Just for a last burst of excitement my rear sprocket decided it didn’t like the chain anymore and rejected it, just as I was u-turning on a busy street outside the hotel. Luckily it didn’t lock the back wheel up or I might have had a worse day. As it was, I could push it embarrassingly down the pavement passed laughing mechanics gesturing to come inside to fix it. After we’d unpacked everything I took a look at the bike, the sprocket was missing a bunch of teeth, not ideal. I went back down to the garages and the guy worked like a machine, it was 20 minutes till home time and he had the chain and sprockets and even oil changed just in time. It all cost about £10. Score.
Dinner didn’t end the days shenanigans. “Garlic chicken sounds alright”, the waitress looked very confused when we asked for two and just laughed and walked off. Luckily she only bought one, because it was a whole plate, and a whole chicken. Literally an entire chicken, head, feet, ligaments the lot all fried, ripped apart and dumped on a plate. Not to forget the 50 cloves of garlic spread over the whole thing, making some mouthfuls literally unbearably garlicy. We did our best, too stubborn to order anything else.
A dry start to the following day and suddenly everything was more beautiful, either because we were drying out or the changing landscape or both. The mountains were coming closer to the coast now so the green land was just slowly rising to meet it, and we were riding through the middle through some long sections of flooded fields from the constant rains and streams out of the mountains. We even saw the sun peaking through for the first time in around 5 days.
The car crashes however, were not so beautiful. They were getting more and more common as we got further north, we’d seen at least 2 a day for 3 days straight and today was even worse, one scene had at least 6 bikes on the ground, another had a car very much squished by a bus. Charlee was only a few feet away from two mopeds that collided for no reason at all, two young lads on one and a mother with her small daughter on the other, all mostly fine, he stopped to help pick everyone up in the middle of the junction.
Lunch was a weird one again (yes there’s a pattern), a cafe busy with a bunch of teenagers. They were immediately giggling and chatting about us as we walked in. Probably the two tallest people they’d ever seen, with beards and motorbike gear. One kid became obsessed with Charlee and felt it was his duty in life to get him to have some Codeine with him, or cocaine, or anything, he would not drop it. Relentless selfies from the group of lads, and a few of the girls once they’d plucked up courage and were sure we weren’t there to eat them and grind their bones to bread. They didn’t linger long though, after the days of rain and no laundry done for a week we had an quarantine zone around us.
The evening bought us to the town of Ninh Binh, our first tourist town since Hoi An, so we indulged in pizza being available and a nice hotel. By this point we were *almost* dry, a whole day of no rain! A nice breakfast the following morning makes for a nice start to the day too, the first in a while, sitting outside the cafe laughing at the crazy stuff on the roads before we join it. A woman taking her clothes rack for a walk, a guy with a bamboo forest dragging 10ft behind his moped down the 6 lane main road, all of this passed the “traffic police” who stood at the side of the large junction.
When we did get on the road the traffic was worse than ever, it had gotten steadily worse as we’d gone North and seemed to his a new peak of stupid every day. After the kid yesterday and the many sightings of Bamboo Bongs in every cafe (that’s not a joke, it’s a thing) I’m convinced everyone on the roads is high, maybe it helps here. The road was simple enough and the highways led us over across the stretch of land between the Capital and the coast, very industrial, and very flat, but it did make for some great views over the huge bridges spanning the wide rivers.
We were seriously chuffed when we made it to Ha Long bay. We took a small diversion out to the harbour that jutted out into the bay and got an awesome panoramic first view of the karsts in the ocean. It felt like the completion of the trip, after our planning on Day 1 the goal had been Ha Long bay and a boat trip around the Islands. 10 days and 1000 miles later there we were!
Made it! There’s even sunshine
The hangover from the all the celebrating hit me pretty hard in the morning. Luckily we’d planned a day off to try and find a good boat tour and recover after 5 long days of riding. We found our boat tour and decided to see what was at the other end of the huge cable car that was pretty unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the bay. It was attached to a theme park at our end and seemed there seemed to a smaller one at the top. We gave it a go, it wasn’t cheap and our spirits fell when we got the waiting area and it was jammed full of Chinese tourists. We packed in to the cable car with them and their complete lack of awareness of personal space. The views were great over the town and out to the bay, at least out until where the fog covered everything. The top was a weird place, like a tiny theme park but half abandoned or being constructed. We ended up on a slow, short and surreal toboggan ride on the side of the mountain. Not what we had imagined of Ha Long bay when we were in Ho Chi Minh.
I think there’s an end to this
The boat ride the following day was one of the highlights of my entire trip. We wound in and around the limestone karsts of the bay for 6 hours, exploring some caves, climbing TiTop island and doing a little Kayaking around an Oyster farm. I’m not sure how I can explain the area, it’s just stunning, the sheer scale and number of the islands all woven around each other, all beautiful with unique and odd features made by the waters over millions of years. A very special place.
Not a bad view all day
All of a sudden that was it, Charlee’s last day was here. It’s only a few hours ride to Hanoi, a short day for us and his flight wasn’t until after midnight so we hung around a while for breakfast and packing up. More crazy stupid traffic on the roads but we made it alive and in one piece to Hanoi in the afternoon. Coming into the centre of the city we crossed one of the craziest bridges in the world. All the bikes, cows, wagons and pedestrians, and even a few dumb cars, get funneled onto the “sidewalk”. It’s only about 7ft wide but that doesn’t stop everyone trying to overtake, whether or not they can fit or get anywhere afterwards. Trying to get passed a guy pulling a wagon nearly brought the entire bridge to a halt, nobody gives way, you just go, and if you’re about to crash, you try and brake, then you go again. The old quarter we were aiming for had more seriously ridiculous traffic, with the sidewalks taken up by shops or parked scooters everyone is walking in the already narrow old streets. There is a one way system, which I think does more harm than good since nobody follows it. Just stopping at the side of the road to check the map was a challenge in itself. We eventually arrived at a hostel to dump our stuff, then I nearly had a heart attack when I realised I had to pay for parking. You’re not paying for security though, there was just literally no room to leave it outside. I hadn’t had to do that since I worked in Soho in London, bikes are always free in Cities!
The downed B52 in the middle of Hanoi. Incredible to see in a city
We spent Charlee’s last few hours quickly exploring Hanoi on foot and reminiscing about everything that had happened. Time very quickly stretches out when you’re travelling and it was nice he was experiencing it too, thinking back to Ho Chi Minh only 2 weeks before felt like a life time because there’s so much packed in to each day. We said our goodbyes come 9pm and he left for the airport and his night flight home.
No time to rest though, earlier that day my friend Chris had landed in Hanoi ready for our 10 day adventure. I messaged him and we met up for a beer and a catch up, not an hour after Charlee had left, what can I say, I get around.
More Photos Here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/travellingent/p…
03/12/2017 – 09/12/2017
10/12/2017 to 27/12/2017
Day 225 to 241 – Chris’ Adventures in Vietnam
Waking up in Hanoi I was more sure that I didn’t like the place. The six or so hours in the city the day before had given me a bad vibe already, and the night of broken sleep in a dorm room with drunks and stoners sealed it. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I didn’t like the place but, after being in so many cities on this trip, I get a vibe for a city quite quick, riding in on the bike helps see a lot of it too. Hanoi Old Quarter was busy, super busy, and the streets of Old Quarter were tiny, so traffic was constantly grazing pedestrians and getting stuck with cars facing each other. The stores repeated along the streets, bar, club, motorcycle rental, convenience store, trinkets, and the people running them were plain rude, right from the offset. I can see why though, tourists utterly drown this place, some of the worst kinds too, they’re here for cheap drugs, partying late and the “massages”.
Me and Chris met up for Breakfast and started our planning, mostly concerned with how quickly we could get out of the city. Neither of us are party goers, give us a quiet spot in the middle of nowhere over a club any day, with internet of course… We decided to head to Ninh Binh the next morning, so I could spend the rest of the day fixing up and selling Charlee’s motorbike. I was hoping to sell it to some backpackers but it would have to be that very day or it would have to be parked in Hanoi until we were back in town, which would then be Christmas, so it could be another 2 weeks. Luckily after a few fixes and a spit-shine some of the bike garages started making good offers. I rode around them all for a couple of hours slowly getting the price up until they all hit their limit at $350. Sold! A little less than I hoped but it’s one worry off my mind and no reason to come back to Hanoi.
An early start the next day for our first “Top Gear” style race, Chris jumped on the train toward Ninh Binh, just as I was waking up. I got an oil change and set off in chase on the bike, accidentally taking the restricted expressway for a bit and nearly running out of fuel as a result. Chris had to spend an hour waiting for me in a dead part of town being harassed by a Vietnamese guy to buy anything and everything he could think of.
We’d picked out some Bamboo Huts in the middle of nowhere to stay at for a day or two. They really were in the middle of nowhere too, out of the town, through the villages and out the other side and onto the tiny gravel tracks raised up between the rice fields. Chris was bouncing around on the back of the bike wondering what the hell he’d got himself in for as the bike squirmed and creaked on the rough roads.
We settled in to the huts and I got to play with my new toy! With some plotting and scheming Chris had transported my Christmas present from my Mum all the way out here. A new Guitar! It’s made by “Snap Dragon” in the UK, and it’s a pretty special one, this one breaks in the middle on purpose, twisting the neck around making it much easier to store and carry. With a small hollow plastic acoustic section and removable body it’s a pretty perfect travel guitar, and will hopefully last longer than the last one.
We ended up staying in our hut for 3 nights. Our private hut was one of only 5, with 2 huge beds, mosquito nets, decent internet and the hotel restaurant not 100m away. We barely moved from our beds the first day, Chris getting in Holiday mode and me chilling after 2 weeks solid travelling on the bike, it helped that it poured with rain all afternoon. We decided to stick around a second day and maybe actually see something of the area. There was a ton of cave tours, boat rides and mountains to climb, we mostly rode around on the bike checking out the views. We climbed to one of the mountain temples for an amazing view, even with the fog, and quickly descended again when we heard thunder; the top of the mountain would not the best place to be stood when that arrived.
We had another Top Gear race to Ha Long bay the next morning. Chris taking a Taxi then a Coach and me on the bike. I won this one handily since Chris’s Coach never arrived. So I had a good 30 minutes staring out at the bay from the outcrop me and Charlee had ridden too, the view was clearer today and the islands just went on and on. We’d decided to head to Cat Ba island, it looked like a nice quiet place and it would make a change for me, since I’d been on the main land already with Charlee.
There was a lot less fuss in getting to the island than we had expected. We rolled up to the ferry terminal, bought our tickets there and then just rolled the bike on when it turned up. Easy peasy. We spent the hour long crossing chatting to some other guys riding bikes around Vietnam and they gave me some great tips for the North when I head there on my own and even some for New Zealand, if I ever get there. The crossing itself was beautiful, winding between the islands of the bay. It dropped us off at the North end of the island and the only real town was at the southern tip, so Chris jumped on the bus and I set off on the bike. I think that ride is one of the most beautiful of the entire trip so far, it had nothing extra special, no 4000m peaks or river gorges, but it was so peaceful, riding on a little road, mostly alone, through the jungle with sheer limestone mountains rising up now and again. I got a little lost and ended up at the wrong shore, I didn’t even care, I was happy to have to double back a little ways and see more.
We jumped on a boat tour around the bay the next day, the same style as the one me and Charlee had been on, but with a different route and stops, it was definitely worth it. Climbing and scrambling up Monkey Island, unsure how we were even supposed to get down again. One girl being attacked by one of the monkeys, chewing on her hair while she screamed but standing still as stone. Kayaking through some amazing caves into little peaceful lagoons that could have been faked for a movie. Then laughing as some on the boat went for a freezing cold swim.
We did some exploring back on the Island too, around the Cannon Fort used for the defence of the bay, very well preserved and a little creepy with mannequins manning the cannons. The hospital caves were interesting, during wars locals retreated to the caves in the Karsts during bombings for shelter. One large cave near the centre of the island had been used as a makeshift hospital, corridors and rooms were constructed from smooth concrete, making it feel more like a dungeon prison.
Back to Ha Long bay on the ferry, this time full to the brim with Chinese tourists (officially the worlds worst tourists) and their six coaches! There were some more motorbike tourists for us to chat to though and swap advice. An afternoon off in Ha Long to plan the most glamorous of our Top Gear races. Chris was taking a Sea Plane back to Ha Long, leaving from the ferry terminal and flying over Ha Long bay for some stunning views while I slugged it out on the motorway on the bike. The flight was only 45 minutes but with airports and taxi’s included it took about 3 hours and I beat him back to Hanoi by about 10 minutes. I also had a quick scout around different areas of Hanoi, I’m planning on taking a chunk of time off travelling over Christmas, treating myself to a nice apartment. I haven’t had a proper break since Pokhara and travelling over Christmas could be difficult if places are closing. There’s a lovely area North of the lake, filled with nice looking restaurants, super markets and not too much traffic, perfect, just need to find an apartment now.
We had two more days to spare in Hanoi and we were determined to make it fun despite Hanoi’s best efforts. So we made it Nerdy and it worked a charm. We headed out looking for some nice Coffee for Chris to take home, a nerdy venture if you like your coffee. We did 2 different Escape Rooms, which are exactly what they sound like, you get locked in a room and have to solve all the puzzles to get out, they’re awesome. Then went to see the new Star Wars movie, not something I thought I’d get to do while travelling but with the number of tourists and English speakers in Hanoi makes English movie showings quite common.
I’d managed, at the last minute, to bag one of the only AirBnB apartments left in the nice Expat area of Hanoi for 7 days over Christmas. We had our final little Top Gear race moving over there in the morning, Chris in a Taxi me on the Bike, in a big city the bike wins easily. Chris was flying out late that night so we had all day to kill and we’d left a ton sightseeing to do for that reason, we dumped all our stuff and went for a long walk. By the time we’d walked for 4 hours around the city we were knackered. About 9pm Chris jumped in a Taxi for the airport and I was all alone again. Which is not at all as bad as it sounds. Having Charlee and Chris out had been amazing, seeing friends again, travelling with someone, and having a great laugh with them both. But I am definitely a solo traveller, and I was looking forward to getting back on the road.
Before I got back on the road there was 8 days of furiously doing nothing, it was going to be bliss. Nothing on my mind, just organising my stuff, cleaning my gear and cooking my own meals for the first time in 8 months. It’s my first Christmas ever away from home, but I video called around the whole family on Christmas day catching up and showing off the beard and long hair which everyone wasted no time in making fun of. I expected no less.
28/12/2017 – 08/01/2018
Day 242 to 254 – North Vietnam Loop and into Laos
After the 8 days of “normal life” in an apartment in Hanoi, getting back on the road took some getting used to. The plan was to do a loop around the North of Vietnam, quite close to the border with China, there should be plenty of towns, and plenty to see. The first couple of days really bought me back to travelling with a thump in cold, damp weather on pretty dull roads to towns with nothing about them.
A day off in Cao Bang let me sit out the full day of rain that followed with coffee and a heater, so I set off in perfect weather the next day. I headed for a loop around in the hills toward the Chinese border with the promise of a waterfall at the top. The road wound through small villages, dodging between the Karts and passed endless farm land and I was loving it, back to fun riding. I got a little lost trying to find the falls and somehow nearly ended up in the local market but got there in the end.
The falls were beautiful, one tall, one wide that join up to form one huge fall during the wet season. Chinese tourists poured onto the river from the opposite bank in boats, it’s a shared site between China and Vietnam, very odd to see it so lax after all our hassle getting in to China. I met a guy there from East Africa with a thick Texas accent who was travelling solo too, he was hoping to just pitch his hammock down the road for the night. No thanks. I’ll head back to the nice warm hotel room back in Cao Bang. He was going the opposite way to me through Vietnam so we gave each other some good tips for roads, towns and hotels as usual with other travellers. I think we spent more time chatting than we did looking at the falls.
I had a job getting back to Cao Bang though, the second half of my loop was an unpaved road with more holes than flat ground for a couple of hours. If I was on Donkey this would be mildly annoying, but on poor little Deirdre it’s nigh on painful for me and her suspension! Trying to find the best line between the holes avoiding the thicker sand and mud while still gaping around at the scenery and tiny villages.
Another two days of muggy grim riding and I was second guessing myself, why spend time riding in the miserable weather where I can’t see views I came for? Sod it, keep heading North, it would be stupid to miss it now I’m here just because I’m cold. I’m glad I did carry on, climbing further into the mountains the views were outstanding. The fog covered a lot of the view but it was fast moving and let through glimpses of mountains and the valley below. It was like being in a Kong movie.
I made it the most northerly point in Vietnam at the flagpole North of Dong Van, following the muddy mountain road that wound it’s way toward China. I was sliding around like a motocross rider all the way there without the luggage weighing the rear wheel down. It was fun after the first couple of surprise moments, Deirdre is so light and small I can just throw her into corners and not worry about it, if we slide too much just stick my foot out and we’re back upright again.
An evening drinking with the only other 4 foreigners in town in a pub right next to the hotel was a really nice change, everyone was there for different reasons and got there different ways so there were plenty of stories to swap. At least until the very drunken Foreigners vs Locals pool match started and then it was serious business.
With the weather starting to clear up it was a lovely days ride to Ha Giang, the views were incredible. Slowly climbing one side of a mountain (Very slowly, poor Deirdre) getting views back down the valley, cross the top of the pass and get stunning views of the valley I’m about to descend into, run along the valley floor, usually through a village and repeat it all over again with another climb. Other travellers started appearing on the road now that I was on a portion of a popular loop of the area. All in shorts but with jumpers bought locally because they didn’t realise how cold it was, with their theme park style ponchos on to stay dry, on rental scooters they’ve no idea how to ride.
With nothing really to see in Ha Giang itself I set off on a very long boring day to Sapa. Despite what I’d read and been told by some travellers that it was an over-developed bore of a town, I quite liked it and had a day off. It was certainly developed, it seems Chinese tourists flock over the border for a peaceful mountain retreat with all the luxuries. It reminded me a bit of a Swiss resort town, though maybe that was just the cold and fog. Deirdre needed some love, on the steep mountain road to Sapa the chain had started to slip under heavy load, not so fun when you’re leant over in a corner, so I’d had to limp it in to town very carefully. Some very dopey mechanics replaced the chain and sprockets, I tried to stay and help but nearly cried watching them work so just left them to it for a couple of hours, resolved to fix it myself if they messed it up.
I set my sights on Laos after Sapa and headed for the border, hoping to find a hotel near it so I could cross the next morning. I got properly soaked. It was raining when I packed my bags in the morning, raining when I stopped for lunch and still dripping when I pulled into the alley of the hotel. My Klim riding gear is supposed to be waterproof, it doesn’t seem to really work if it’s raining and you’re sitting down though. The main zip and arm zips leaked, and my jumper wicked the water all over itself until my torso was soaked and freezing. The crotch on the trousers leaked and water wicked all down my legs. If it hadn’t been for the unexpectedly nice hotel I would have been fuming and miserable, but a warm shower and a comfy bed does wonders.
Sums up the ride out of Sapa, Grey with lots of water
I contacted Klim about the issues and they just said “The zips aren’t waterproof”. Not sure how it’s ever supposed to keep you dry in that case, but I won’t be buying anything from them again. “Guaranteed to keep you dry” my ass. I may be able to claim the trousers on warranty but I’d have to send them off for testing, so I’d be without them for at least three weeks, not an option.
I woke up in the morning with a man shouting at me, then realised it was probably next doors TV. It was 6am, when I got out of bed to hammer on the wall though I realised it was coming from the window. It was the town PA system, announcing various things 3 times a day. It required more will power than it should have to drag myself out of the comfy bed to put cold, soaking wet clothes on again. When I finally managed it I was off to the border, three hours or so running through farmland and wood shack towns. I stopped for a pee on the side of the road and nearly jumped back into the road when I looked down and I was stood on dead leaves that were teeming with large insects I didn’t even recognize, some crawling there way onto my boots. The good news was I was nearly dry by the time I got to the border post, a bit of sunshine and a breeze had done the job. The bad news was I wouldn’t be crossing to Laos. When I rolled up I said hello to the four border guards stood together chatting, they came over and walked around the bike and just shook their heads apologetically saying “no”. I eventually got it out of them with a map and lots of hand signals that I wasn’t allowed to cross at this border point. Well I was allowed, Deirdre was not. Bugger. They told me the nearest border that would allow me was 2 days ride South.
It was very frustrating not being allowed across, just for some silly rule about local bikes, when most other border points were fine. I tried everything I could to “convince” the guards, but they were friendly and helpful and I could tell by their manner that it really was out of their hands. Oh well, another 3 hour ride back again isn’t the worst thing. The road was gorgeous, I could finish drying out and stay at the same lovely hotel again.
Well, 2 days ride south it is, off to a good start too with a flat tyre at lunch time. It went as well as any flat tyre could have. I looked down at the tyre, sighed, looked up and there was a mechanic right beside me, with a workshop in the front of his house. I helped him get the wheel off, then played his guitar, laughing with his little girl while he changed the tube and even the rear brake. Thirty minutes later I was back on the road.
Another morning requiring all my willpower, the temperature somehow dropped from the lovely 19 degrees to around 5. There was a long way to go to make it over the border and in hindsight it was a mistake to try it all in one day. The road was slower than I had hoped and I finished all the border shenanigans by about 4.30, with 30 minutes daylight left. I had no food or water with me, a tiny amount of local currency and no idea where a hotel was. Such a stupid idea, I may have gotten a little over confident in trying it and I was calling myself names as I was bouncing down the road, squinting in the dusk, sliding on changing surfaces I couldn’t see. I had been hoping to find a hotel along the road, but with mostly farming villages and zero tourists there wasn’t much chance of that. After 2 hours in pitch dark crawling along I made it to a town I knew had at least one hotel and spent 20 minutes circling around until I found it, with the help of some kids, maps are not reliable in Laos. It had a good bed, food and an ATM so it worked out pretty well despite my best
An attempted lunch stop turned weird