Roadside meetings and new tyres

When I was leaving, a friend posted this song on my page. Whenever I think of the road, it often comes to my mind. Where I lay my head is home. Anywhere I roam.

The road is a harsh mistress I said once talking about long hours on the road but it can also give you a lot of pleasant surprises, not

Scary barge
I was amazed it didn’t crumble

only in the form of gorgeous landscapes. I entered Laos through the South from Cambodia and even before I got to the border, I ran into two bikers in disguise. At first they looked like locals, riding smallish bikes very heavy loaded but their luggage didn’t look like the things you usually see on the road (video post to come on that). It was Denis and Hanes, Dutch and Estonian who had bought their bikes in Vietnam and had come riding all the way from there. Even though I was faster, we crossed the border together and they came with me to Don Khong where we crossed the river together in some scary barges.

We stayed there 2 days, minding our own business. I reading my book, them checking for a mechanic for Hanes’ bike and after two nights I was on my way. Ahead of my I had the road to Pakse and Savannakhet where I didn’t expect to do any sightseeing. I was on the road to Vientiane where I had agreed to meet with Julien, a French biker I had met in Ulan Baatar, like 4 countries ago. He was luckier than me with his China crossing and actually crossed China from North to South. In truth, I was also feeling a bit pressed for time since now I have a date to fly out of New Zealand to Chile and have to somehow manage to get to Auckland on February 18th to catch my flight with the bike sorted out.

I didn’t feel like straining myself though so I left not too late and rode only to Pakse, a couple of hours away and checked my self into a guesthouse with wi-fi. Since it was pretty early, I wandered around town and had a late lunch of pizza. Not really good but did the job.

Chiang Mai
Unexpected meeting in Chiang Mai

After wandering around and fiddling with the internet, I decided to share the info on Vietnamese bikes I had got from the other guys with Antoine, a French guy travelling in the region I had met in Bangkok and then randomly run into in Chiang Mai who was interested in maybe buying one. I fired him an email, only to receive a quick response just before going to sleep saying “you are going to laugh but I was just thinking of you, I’m in Pakse tonight too”. Wait, what? Distance from Bangkok to Pakse: 600 km as the crow flies. Time since I had last seen him: around 3 weeks. Emails exchanged in the meantime: zero. And he was in the same town. See, I give all the details and all but these things barely seem strange anymore. We agreed on having breakfast the next day before I left.

And breakfast we had. Soon after I was on my way to Savannakhet. Another short ride and very nice. Here, checking into a guesthouse was a bit more difficult, most of the guesthouses the Lonely Planet mentions had disappeared and the first one I visited had me running away from it for no particular reason but finally I did find a cozy one with wi-fi and a garden to park the bike inside. Again, it was still day and I went for a long walk around town hunting after lunch. On a small side street not far from the Mekong and not far from my guesthouse, I saw a small group of backpackers. Among them, Timo, a Finn I had also met in Bangkok. I remember also saying to him that I was sure we would meet again because the road is just like that.

The road indeed is just like that. You will meet the same people over and over again without even asking for it. Most of the time not even in the same country. I had met these two guys in Thailand. Antoine had come straight to Laos from there, Timo had been in Vietnam in the meantime, I had been to Cambodia. I put Laos in my list of “that sort of places that are just like that”. That list has so far four countries: Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Laos.

The next day I set off for Vientiane and got there. When I was checking myself into the guesthouse, I met with Julien but that meeting was planned. He told me that the next day he was going to work on the bike at Fuark’s bike shop and when we went back to the street to look at my bike and his, we noticed that my rear tyre was completely worn. Looked like I would be taking my bike to Fuark’s too.

At Fuark's
Bike work day

The next day was Thai visa day and Buddha Park day. We also did some pictures together with the bikes. We are in Laos. In the background, the Mekong and beyond, Thailand.

Bikers
Bikers by the Mekong

To be sure, that wasn’t the end of it. In Vang Vieng, some random guy said bonjour, I had seen him in Vientiane so when I saw him again in Luang Namtha we shook hands and introduced ourselves, lest we meet again and still don’t know each other’s names. They are Michael and Sandrine and they are also travelling around the world, only by plane and bus.

Bloodline

I looked in my rear view mirror and his bike was almost on the ground. I ran back to help only to find blood flowing from his leg. Not making ourselves understood by the restaurant personnel, I ran to a table and snatched a bottle of mineral water to clean the wound.

Two days before we were taking train number 13 from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station to Chiang Mai. That train is an experience in itself. Not unlike Chinese trains, in this train the cabins were not cabins but just a space where 4 beds are together. However there are curtains around each bed, which is very much welcome since they have a really strong air con and it’s freezing. I didn’t want to have to put on my winter pyjamas to sleep on the train, mainly because I don’t have winter pyjamas with me! The train ride to Chiang Mai is a worthy experience by itself with  the restaurant coach being a great highlight (other highlights include the amazing landscapes you see in the morning). Cultural shock at the max. I was used to the the French TGV bar coach and didn’t expect anything similar but what I found made me laugh so hard that I ran back to my father’s berth and said to him: “Dad, we HAVE TO go eat there”. Here’s a sample.

The more I poured water on the wound, the more everything became bloodier and bloodier. Now I was really worried and we had to find a pharmacy to dress that wound before it got infected or anything. I jumped on the bike and almost left without paying for the water.

So after a nice Thai dinner and a good sleep, the train made its entry into Chiang Mai 2 hours late. We took a songthaew, which is just a fancy name for a truck with seats at the back, to Tony’s Big Bikes and collected the 2 Honda Phantoms that we were renting for the week, strapped our luggage to the back seat and we were off to the house Pimsai and her family were lending us (Thank you Pimsai!). With the great instructions her and her dad had given me, it wasn’t very hard to find. Aside from riding past the entrance a couple of times of course.

2 Phantoms in the house
2 Phantoms in the house
We couldn’t find the hospital they had indicated so we aimed for a pharmacy and tried to ask for antiseptic (should understand, right?) but as soon as they saw his leg, they refused to help us and the only other word we could get out of the person behind the counter was “hospital”.

After we dropped our things in the house and took a shower, we decided to go for a short ride and aimed for Mae Rim to be on our way to Chiang Dao. We rode for a bit but it was clearly past lunch time so after tentatively stopping at a market where it looked like everything was deep fried, we opted for a small eatery right after where we could get some nice noodle soup. There must be a lot of farang (that seems to be what we are called around here) in this area because they had menus in English even though they couldn’t speak it much. We ate, we drank and we jumped back on the bikes. I started and when he was turning around his bike, it stalled. The bike stopped sharply and the steering was turned. The next thing in order is that the bike is on the ground but he made a rookie mistake: he tried to prevent it from falling. Never do that, you’ll get hurt is the consensus among bikers: the sharp foot peg dug deeply into his leg.

Pharmacy after pharmacy turned us down and their English was always so weak that they couldn’t properly explain where the hospital was. Finally, we ended up in a pharmacy that was close enough to a hospital and the English level of the attendant permitted her to explain it and us to understand it. He got 7 stitches and a little paper in Thai explaining what he should do every day (clean the wound at any other hospital).

During the whole search for the hospital my mind wandered along many different lines, imagining what we could do of our stay in Chiang Mai if he couldn’t/wouldn’t ride anymore. None of that happened and we had an excellent week riding around Chiang Mai taking in the beautiful scenery: the mountains, the jungle, the little roads, the roadside temples, the roadside restaurants and even the elephant camp of Mae Sa where I got to ride an elephant. Yay!

Elephant(s)
I rode an elephant!
PS: I will post the first GoPro videos I made during this week as soon as I get a decent connection. Just a little teaser: since I didn’t have my helmet with me and I didn’t want to waste the sticky mounts that the GoPro comes with, I improvised a wrist mount for the camera using my all-purpose neck roll and a strap. 😀

WristCam
The one accessory GoPro forgot to include

First times

The first time something was stolen from my bike? Kashgar, China. Some fcuker decided he needed my AirHawk more than I needed it and took it from the bike while it was parked at the hotel.

The first time a cop clearly asked for a bribe (and got it)? Bangkok, Thailand. This bastard was standing under the bridge in Phloen Chit, where Rama I becomes Sukhumvit. He took my International Driver’s Licence and wouldn’t give it back until I gave him 300 baht (7.5 euro). That was yesterday. Today, somewhere else, another cop tried it. I put first gear and went away.

Two sad stories that blemish two great countries.

New plan

Since the China part 2 plan has gone down the drain for mysterious reasons, I had to do a bit of brainstorming to get my act together and keep going the way I want and the way that brings me more satisfaction. I don’t want to take a plane during this trip unless I really have to. This is not one of those times.

Today, I went down to the train station and bought myself a train ticket to Beijing. So there is a bonus in all this, I get to travel on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, part of the same network as the Trans-Siberian. Meanwhile, my dear Z will be shipped straight to Bangkok and will be waiting for me there until I arrive. From now on and until I get to Bangkok, I will be on foot. It will be a new experience but I have high hopes for this new part of the trip. It will be something different being back to depending on other people to get from one place to the next one.

Ulan Baatar
The roundabout near the hostel

After I got the train ticket, I went for a walk in the town center, checked rucksacks at the camping store (too expensive) and then at the black market (too cheap). Since I will only need this rucksack for a couple of weeks, I will go for the too cheap one and bring my straps, bungees and cable ties with me into China in case it needs “roadside maintenance”. Finally, I went for lunch inside the black market. I had already had lunch there yesterday with David and really enjoyed it: good cheap food, who could say no to that?

Lunch
Yesterday’s yummy lunch

 

I sat at a random food stall and ordered a random dish from the menu around 4000 tugrugs. I have no idea what I ordered but a couple of minutes later I had in front of me a sort of prison tray with a full meal on it: soup, fried noodles with meat, Russian salad, two other kinds of salad and a strange but not completely disgusting hot white drink.

Menu
I ordered one of those, the third one after the red line

 

After that royal lunch, I was going to check the auto parts market for a couple of tools I am still missing and a 13 spanner for Lorraine who had asked me to kindly buy it for her but a sudden dust storm and the menace of rain convinced me to stick my hand out at the side of the road to go back home. In no time, a random local had lowered his window and was asking me where I wanted to go, I hopped on and went back to the hostel to finish repairing the bike.

Of course you don’t know what was wrong with the bike because I haven’t told that story yet but the rest of the afternoon was very productive: I put a new chain that Richard kindly agreed to sell me, I put the missing bolt in the pannier rack and finally I hammered my panniers back into shape, they are waterproof again. Actually, I didn’t hammer them myself, the hostel’s watchman saw me doing it and obviously thought that I was using the hammer like a little girl because he took the hammer off my hands and did it himself.

When I had finished with all my repairs and maintenance for the day, it was already time to go for dinner with the group. Today is the last night we are all together, from now on we more or less all go our separate ways. Neil is flying to Hong Kong, Iain is flying to Bangkok, Lorraine may be flying to Korea, David is driving back to the UK through Russia (I hope he doesn’t freeze!), Richard still doesn’t know and Chris is taking the same train as I am but will be crossing China a bit faster than what I have planned to. The group was created with the sole purpose of crossing China together on our bikes (+David’s car), now that we are not allowed to do that anymore, it makes no sense to stick together any longer. We all have different plans for the future and have already set them in motion but meanwhile, we absolutely had to find that English pub with the funny name that we had spotted a couple of days ago.

Unfortunately it was closed to the general public tonight (on a Saturday night!)

 

PS: Since my bike and I are going to be parted for some time, I have set up a new wallpaper on my computer, something to remember her by.

My memento of Z until we are back together