The first doorstep challenge

26 04 2011

Seasons; there is nothing quite as luscious, voluptuous or scrumptious as cycling in the Great British springtime. It is a veritable visceral meal that screams to be described in the most verbose terms possible!

Having been back in the UK for all of 5 days we have finally managed to make it out of London and into the Essex countryside. The thin morning sun lay a delicate touch upon us as we pushed out into the crisp morning air. Our route ran a cobweb of threading lanes through slabby great fields of yellow and green. A musty hue of rapeseed pollen dizzied in the air; an air-scape which was already busybusy with determined insectery skipping their heady dance all around us and the morning babble of gossiping birds.

As we travelled past little mushrooming thatched cottages, grand Elizabethan piles and little 19th century bungalows we were reminded of this place England, with its stayed historic certainty and reassuring time-honoured crookedness. In this 4 hour cycle, in this rambling little adventure through hamlets as pleasingly named as Woodham Walter, Curling Tye Green and Bumfords Lane, for which we came armed only with an OS map, some m&m’s, a few sandwiches and a bottle of water, we were duly and robustly reminded of the sheer beauty of the British countryside. In this reminding the dull malaise, which has been wearing us heavy for the past few weeks, eases. As we flopped down on a neat trimmed village green, we exhaled and were glad to be home.





Cycling INDIA – VIDEO!

17 04 2011

Cycling up the west coast of India 🙂





Riding the last day!

23 03 2011
Pattaya

Catherine

We often get asked what we wished we had taken with us. Until Sunday I would have said nothing, but as of Sunday I would now most definitely say a peloton. Nothing quite cuts the wind or motivates the legs like being preceded by a front pack of muscle hardened lycra clad bicyclists! Last Sunday we found ourselves whizzing along the bulk of the final 60kms packaged tight in something akin to the Tour de France. Felling not a tad incongruous in our baggy tops and with our lumbering bicycle-mules we managed to hold our own admirably and I guess after 9 months of training my muscles have finally stepped up to the mark.

We ran with the pack all the way from Pattaya to Ban Chang stopping along the way to be joined by other cyclist groups, to collect money for the Cammillain Center, listen to various local dignitaries give endurance speeches in Thai and to be photographed photographed… and then photographed again.  The cyclists were outstanding; outstanding in their generosity, their support and their really super wonderful camaraderie.

In Ban Chang we were joined for the final 8km run by a heaving jumble of cyclists of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Each one getting on their bikes to cycle through the streets of this town to say that they are not afraid of this disease, nor are they are not afraid of those who have this disease. For this run we were joined by a gang of HIV pos kids from the centre.

I’m afraid I can’t describe how emotional this was and is still for me. I am humbled by this reception. I am humbled by the storming kids we have met and am reminded of all of those we have meet on our journey who are crushed by society’s response to this disease. They are broken by ignorance and fear.  HIV isn’t the disease stigma is.

Liz

The end of the ride… the day began exceptionally early – so that we could get to Pattaya to meet up with a few cyclists who’d pedalled down from Bangkok to accompany us on the final 60k from Pattaya to the Camillian Centre in Ban Chang.  Those motley few, turned out to be around 150 – 200 lycra clad cyclists who were milling around Pattaya town hall waiting for the mayor to ‘officially’ start the ride.  In true cyclists before a race fashion – this lot were stocking up on carbs, there was the most enormous vat of rice porridge for breakfast and mountains of sandwiches and bananas to keep the carb levels up on route.  Rounds and rounds and more rounds of photographs ensued, we were snapped with all the different cycling groups, with local dignitaries, with staff from hotels who were sponsoring who knows what… perhaps the rice porridge…  Anyway the mayor arrived and after a few words of encouragement, and a couple of jokes cracked from Catherine (which didn’t/weren’t translated) we were ready to go.  At this point we had been waiting around at the town hall for about an hour and a half.  So with the mayor ready to blow his hooter to start the ride – Catherine decided to look for her cycling gloves… splendid – 200 cyclists raring to go, waiting for us to set them off, and we are back to our good old ways of life on the road on our own… digging through our bags for bits and pieces of kit at inopportune moments!

 

Anyway finally we were off – with no real idea where we were off to… but there was a police car flashing its lights and wailing its siren… so we decided our best bet was to follow that car.  Which we did, as it turned out – for the next 60km.  We got into a great rhythm with the wonderful peloton of lycra clad thighs giving us a great chance to duck out of the wind for a change.    We’d been on the road for about an hour when a sea of hands shot up in front of us… and we were wheeled off the road to a welcome cold water pit stop.  Speeches, photos, cold water and 20 mins later the pack set off once more.  10k down the road and we were once again wheeled off the road, this time into a park.  Where banana cake, isotonic sports drinks and orange swiss roll awaited our arrival… more and more photos, a quick (ish) speech, another pistol start – and we were off again.  Police car in front, ambulance behind.  To the town of Sattahip, where we all (200 of us) dismounted and walked our bikes slowly through the town as a handful of the group took collection boxes into the market and secured donations from all and sundry.  Once out of Sattahip – we pretty much pedalled the rest of the way to Ban Chang, and the Camel Pub – where we were greeted with a large banner and large crowd of people awaiting our arrival.  There were a line of bikes decked out with union jacks and Thai flags, ready for the kids from the Camillian Centre to ride the last 8k with us.

As 2pm – the appointed hour for our departure for the absolute final leg – drew near, the traffic police lined us up in order ready for the off – with me and Catherine leading the pack followed closely by a gaggle of kids and then taking up the rear were the lycra clad crew who’d supported us throughout the morning plus a whole wonderful array of the anybody and everybody.  Then for the fourth time that day – a hooter signalled the start of another and the final final section of the journey.  We pedalled slowly up the road – in the lead were 4 chopper motorbikes and a couple of pick up trucks complete with TV crews and photographers snapping the scene.

Rounding the bend into the Camillian Centre brought tears to my eyes, as a sea of smiling faces and waving flags welcomed us into the centre – all wearing t-shirts printed especially for the day with both our names on the front.  An amazingly lovely and fitting end to the ride, a really special day all round and truly lovely to be welcomed so warmly.  Thanks to everyone who joined us on the ride, in their cars, waving their flags, with speeches, gifts, certificates and dances.  And thanks to everyone who has followed our journey and supported us throughout. We will remember this day, and this ride forever.





Inconceivably … WE MADE IT!

19 03 2011

Cycling these last few days along the scrummy south coast of Thailand we have been able to enjoy near deserted beaches, an abundance of succulent fresh prawns, and spicy son tam to our hearts content!  The route ran us a roller coaster road from the far south east border crossing of Hat Lek, all the way round to our final destination of Ban Chang. This final 300km section of out 10,000km route saw us secretly cycling into Ban Chang at 5pm yesterday evening. Our ‘official’ arrival is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon where we will be joined by hundreds of other cyclists to ride a 60km section from Pattaya to the Camillian Center here in Ban Chang; though as we cycled past the Camillian center yesterday afternoon a small, hardy group of delightfully enthusiastic well wishers spotted us and rushed out to shake our sweaty hands:-)

We have been asked on a number of occasions how it feels to have finished… It is hard to concede that we have actually done so. And until tomorrow’s final 60km is clocked up it is clear we haven’t 😉





Cycling in Cambodia. A day.

15 03 2011

Today was a perfect cycling day. A day where, by the end, biting red welts were scoring the beat of each revolution, where tears of desperate exertion and  impossibility were shed before 7am, and where utter exhaustion (bordering on heat stroke) whipped its triumphant conclusion into a mild delirium. It was a perfect blend of the seemingly impossible and potentially improbable.

Cycling Andoung Tuek to Ta Tai.

Andoung Tuek is a dusty dull one street town hanging on the edge of the Preak Piphot river. It’s few shacks; homes, eateries and ram-shackled supply stores, peel unevenly out from the town centre piece; a gawking white bridge that straddles the river.

The town’s one guest house was a particularly grubby affair. Unwashed sheets, unswept floors and unhygienic bathrooms are neither a novelty nor a significant cause for complaint; suffice to say that this was certainly a particularly ripe example of the genre.  And as the moist evening air clung to us in stagnant desperation, we retired unwillingly to our concrete box. The one whirling fan valiantly stripping a degree or two off the air, tempering it to the just-about-bearable. Until 11pm, when the electricity cut off, and we were left, two smears of sweat slowly dissolving into the stale mattress. The stodgy weight of the rancid night air rendered us hardly able to breath, let alone move, let alone sleep.

At 5.45am, heads muffled with exhaustion, stale sweat itching the length and breadth of our skin we pushed our bikes out onto the main road, the cool morning breeze bringing some modicum of relief. 6am – too early for food stalls to be open for breakfast so we quickly threw down a packet of biscuits each and set off.

The first 8 kms out of Andoung Tuek were flat and uneventful. Miles of red sandy soil blurred into uninhabited scrubland to either side of the road.  The heat in the air was unusually oppressive for that time in the morning, and ominous thick clouds were hanging low in the sky.

By the 9 km mark we were already drenched with sweat; the salt running pin prinks into our eyes and rimming our lips as we started the assent into the Cardamon mountains.  6.45am and we were slowly grinding our weary, warn bikes up a road gradient that demanded the lowest of low gears and a physical exertion more robust than the sticky inert air, one limp packet of biscuits, and utter exhaustion, allowed for. Slowly, slowly we inched our bikes forward, propelled only by determination and necessity. And as Catherine fell further and further behind tears of desperation began mingling with the streams of sweat that ran persistent tiny slaloms down her face.  Yet by 7.15am, one slightly sooner than the other, we both successfully crested the hill and in silent urgency, with wobbly legs and with shaking hands we devoured 2 litres of water. Only then did we allow ourselves to exhale grins of relief, and wonder at our success.  Only then did we allow ourselves to see the beauty that surrounded us.

The Botum Sukor national park forest rose thick and steep to either side, the stout air quivering with the sounds of the jungle; chirps, cracks, rustles, and whoops, somersaulting through the air at once in unison and in jagged aberration.  All along the tree-line wispy tentacles of mist gently spiralled up to touch the thick grey clouds that were crowding the air. The grey metallic light and the layer upon layer of gigantic cloud mountains made for an intoxicatingly dramatic vista. Which (along with exhaustion and dehydration) made our heads positively spin a jig.

At 7.30am the dark clouds split their mighty watery loads upon us and we were duly soaked; the glory of it! RAIN!! Cold and cold and wonderfully cold! It made the entire rest of the day significantly more bearable, though the extra weight of our now sodden clothes was a tad wearisome, it was a small price to pay in exchange for COLD!

Then, at 9am disaster struck! Well… nearly. As I (Liz) was pushing hard into a particularly aggressive slope my front gear cable slackened but refused to shift to the lowest cog (this is somewhat of a handicap when trying to cycle up a steep hill). Fearing a snapped gear cable I continued as best I could and at the top, pulled off the hill, to where Catherine was already waiting for me. We ineptly poked around for some minutes and concluded that the cable hadn’t actually snapped but the front gear was defiantly stuck good and firm in second; no going up, no going down, and that there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. So, with the bulk of the day left to go, and no flattening out on the horizon I braced myself for a good couple of hours of burning thighs and cramping calves.

And so the pattern of the day was set; the road ran a constant up down up down up down for the entire 80kms with some inclines holding more bite than others. Yet the awesome beauty and isolation of the landscape made gawping fools of us at the crest of many a rise. And though the sun soon resumed its oppressive dominance the rain seemed to have left a decent cooling breeze to see us though.

At 12.30am we duly arrived at Ta Tai exhausted, once again drenched in sweat, and with chaffing issues it might be best not to talk about, after having ridden one of (potentially) the best cycling days of our entire trip!

Ta Tai Rainbow Lodge





Cycling glorious Kampuchea

10 03 2011

There is no greater sign of national insecurity than a country which has its own currency but doesn’t use it. And there is nothing quite as irregular as being dispensed crunchy crisp US dollars from a Cambodian ATM. This quirk raised innumerable questions for us, such as…where are they printed? Do they get shipped over from the US? Are they real US dollars? How does their distribution impact on the US stock market / economy? Are they really printed in China as suggested by one internet cheekster? Questions questions.   Answers on a postcard please?

However using the dollar presents wonderful overcharging opportunities for the canny Khmer. We are in Cambodia after all and as we know (from our Dong Kralor border experience) the Cambodians love a good bit of overcharging. Since that experience we have learnt that this practice is widely engaged in and that it even has its own name; bonjour. As a legacy from the French occupancy, bonjour is the fine art of door opening otherwise known as wide-spread, endemic and institutionalised corruption.   Thus we approached the Prek Chak border with a firmer resolve to not pay bonjour. We simply said we’d actually rather not pay the $2 for a ‘quarantine’ certificate and/or the $2 for the visa stamp, though smiling through gritted teeth we were all set for a confrontation of some sort – but much to our relief and surprise we simply received a shrug instead and were duly sent on our way! We can only assume this has much to do with the other national stricture, the cast-iron necessity to ‘save face’ and avoid conflict at all costs! Which was definitely a super cost saver for us!

Back to the dollar; Cents haven’t been embraced quite as enthusiastically as the dollar thus the minimum charge is generally 1$; Postcards are $1. $1 = 60p. 60p for a postcard in Cambodia!

‘Since the Khmer Rouge rule… then the civil war… and now with the continuing Khmer Rouge influence… no one trusts the Riel… they went to nothing overnight. Your life savings became toilet paper overnight. Now you want to be safe… it’s either gold or dollars… No one trusts the Riel’.  Huoy a 60 year old Khmer woman told us one evening. She was a slight, reserved woman who grew a few fields of lotus flowers and rice, as she and her family had done for generations.  She slowly, thoughtfully, sipped iced coffee as mosquitoes whined hungrily around our ankles and a small   battery of insect life bounced enthusiastically into the naked overhead bulb. ‘In the old days the community would share things, help each other… now everyone looks out for themselves, no one trusts, no one helps, everyone just wants to make money, dollars, keep it safe.’ In the great upheaval of the 1975 – 79 Khmer Rouge agrarian experiment it would seem that a lot more was lost than the inconceivable genocide of a quarter of the population, any industrial or economic advances, and the loss of all land entitlement.  As Huoy sat and gently, quietly, told of children being buried alive in mass graves, just down the road; of the soil that bubbled blue as the gasses of the corpses fought their way to the surface; of the desperate neighbours who scavenged for bounty; and of the long jagged scars of mistrust that fester still, fresh under the surface as Cambodia staggers forward. The young and keen trampling the poor as brutally as ever in this new capitalist democracy. ‘It’s the same the world over’ Heng a 22 year old businessman from Phnom Penh proclaimed cockily while trying to sidle just a little bit closer, his gold rings clinking against his beer glass, ‘that’s Capitalism. If Cambodia wants to grow some people will have to lose’. We made our excuses and left.

‘Development’ Huoy tells us, ‘is a word we fear’. The Cambodian government is selling off great swathes of land to foreign investors and since the Khmer Rouge collectivised all land many of the poorest and most vulnerable have had extreme trouble getting land documentation for farms they may have lived and worked for generations.

The Khmer Rouge national anthem sang its prophecy and legacy of ‘The bright red blood [that was and is] spilled over the towns and over the plain of Kampuchea, our motherland, The blood of our good workers and farmers’. She is a complicated and painful country to cycle through and we can only hope to do her some service by hearing her tales and encouraging others to do the same.





Rough Rice

4 03 2011

By catherine

I pull up hard. Liz thumps into my back panniers rocking us forward. ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ I ask. Stretched out in front of us is a carpet of little yellow brown peeks running the length and width of the road for about 200m. This is not a wide road, with the Mekong to the left and front walls to the right there is no go-round option. ‘Go over it?’ Liz ventures. We hover uncertainly. A creaking clatter of school girls giggle up behind us. They loop past us and career boldly into the rice carpet.  Their bulging bald tyres slip and slide a grove through the shifting surface; the requisite pillion passenger extending their legs to offer stabilising support.  ‘Best do it then’ I sigh as we kick off.

We love a good “industry” road. An area or road dedicated to one particular industrial thing; we loved the banana road in China, the rubber road in India, the tobacco road in Cambodia and now the rice road in Vietnam. Though, to be fair, this whole route, from Northern Vietnam to the Mekong Delta could be called the rice road. Rice is everything and everywhere. Rice is the Mekong region. In the wet north we saw impossibly greener than green rice nurseries where the shoots grow snuggled together in dense protected patches. We cycled days of farmers planting the shoots into the wet paddies; the rhythm of the planting stoop, the labourers back breaking daily grind, threading a beat through our days. We cycled as the shoots grew and we were cooled by the breeze as it skimmed the paddies pulling a welcome chill into the heavy hot air.  We cycled as the crops became full in their pregnancies and began to bend low in the fields. And we cycled as they were harvested; days upon days where the whir of machine threshers trumpeted the farmers success.  And so, today, we cycled into the Mekong Delta proper and on to a 65km stretch of road between Long Xuyen and Rach Gia, and thus it was harvest time.  Long flat bottomed barges course along the river, their hulls pushed precariously low by the weight of sack-full upon sack-full of threshed rice. Hives of men and women methodically unload the sacks and pour them onto huge nets that lie on any open, flat surface, the road being ideal. The rice is then combed into small peaks where upon the sun sets to work drying it out. And so it was on our road and so it must be on any number of winding roads in the Mekong Delta; it is aptly named the rice bowl of Vietnam.

As we pushed off onto the drying rice, we made impossible efforts to cycle as lightly as we could. Only to be over taken by a truck! How strong is unhusked, uncooked rice anyway!!!