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.

Meeting in Tash Rabat

Here I am, on the shores of the Mekong again (I love this river) for what could be the last time I see it on this trip and I bring to you the last tale of Central Asia, that fateful day when we all finally met, then split, then met again and finally rode into China.

The day started peacefully in that ghastly place where we were staying. It didn’t feel like a place to stay in bed long so I woke up not too late and went to the cybercafe. No, there was no internet at the hotel, what did you expect? Also, when I tried to buy a SIM card for the remaining day, I was told there was no 3G today and should come back tomorrow. Most of us had finished the work to do on our bikes the day before except for Richard who needed welding after his ordeal on that mountain road the previous day.

Little by little, most of us set off. Lorraine the first as she allegedly was the slowest, then Neil, Chris and I. David and Lyn had camped somewhere outside the city so we didn’t see them in the morning and Robin and Keely (still hadn’t met them) had already announced in one of their barking emails that they wouldn’t be coming to Naryn. We left in no rush but not so late that we wouldn’t be able to visit Tash Rabat, the famed last supply town in the Silk Road. The last place where travelers could stock up on water and food before the high passes and the fierce Taklamakan desert. The road was beautiful. On a high plain, surrounded by absolutely stunning mountain ranges of beautiful colors.

Golden mountains
Golden mountains on the right
Mining town
Mining towns on the left
 Until we took the little winding road to the left and ended up in another, completely different, beautiful valley and arrived to Tash Rabat where there was a gathering of bikers. Iain was there, Lorraine was there and Robin and Keely. Finally, I had met the last part of the group. It was a weird meeting because for a long time I had really wanted to meet them (Robin had been the one who had steered me away from another group and convinced me to join this merry band of travelers in a very cool email he sent me a long time ago) but for the last month they had been either disappeared or churning out very weird emails bordering on aggressive. While everyone chatted about the next day, Lorraine told me that the little yurt on the prairie behind us made a hell of a soup and so I decided to try it. It was very good.

Meeting in Tash-Rabat
Meeting in Tash Rabat
And then went on to visit that big rock pile that people come to visit here. The caravanserai of old where merchants and other travelers rested before the harsh journey ahead.

Tash Rabat
That big rock pile people come to visit
I should remember that sometimes it is useful to have humans in the picture for comparison. That thing is huge, to get and idea, the small green thingies by the entrance are trash bins.

After a while we had all visited the caravanserai and decided to set off. There was talk of camping but I must have missed a part of the conversation because even before arriving to the main road, Keely, Robin and Iain had left us without me even noticing. Also, on this road was last time I have shown my finger to anyone on the road (and I have vowed not to do it ever again). This local car overtook us all and for some reason was matching our speed whenever we slowed down or accelerated keeping a constant supply of dirt in our eyes and windpipes. I got tired and overtook him, thinking he would surely understand why I had done it but no, he accelerated and overtook me, throwing again all the dust in my face. It was then that I deployed the deadliest weapon I carry on the bike, my left middle finger. Despite all the dirt he must have seen it because he promptly stopped, got off his car and started gesturing for me to stop and fight him, which I didn’t of course but got very scared that he would chase me all the way to the border and shoot me. It was then that I decided that I will keep the finger to myself in the future.

He didn’t chase after me and pretty soon we arrived to the Kyrgyz checkpoint. It’s the start of the border area, you are not allowed in without a Chinese visa but it’s still about 70km from the actual border. The Lonely Planet said there was very basic accommodation at the border but this only looked like barracks so we pressed on. The road was nice but it was getting late and we still hadn’t found the said “hotels” and camping at that altitude was a big no-no. Just when my hope of finding anything was about to die, we spotted Richard on the road, he hadn’t come to Tash Rabat because he had left later than us but he arrived first. The “very basic” accommodation mentioned by the guidebook is the most basic place I have ever stayed so far. It wasn’t a building or a yurt, it was a wagon. Inside, the wagon was split in two “rooms”, each with a sleeping surface. The one on the left could sleep 4 and the one on the right, 6. On the same sleeping surface. I can’t call that a bed, it was simply a hard surface with a bedcover. We piled up our stuff in the 4 people room, decided that Lorraine would sleep on the floor with my Thermarest and left the other room to the 2 truckers of unclear sexual orientation that were already there.

To be sure, it was really cheap compared to what we had been paying in Kyrgyzstan and they provided a very nice dinner in the other wagon.

Dinner at the wagon
Dinner at the wagon
 The next day, while we were waking up and getting ready, the missing ones arrived and David started trying to start the car. David and Lyn had slept in their car as they usually do when they are given the option. The old diesel Range Rover was having trouble with the cold, the altitude, the glow plugs and whatever else can give trouble. It was very unnerving. We were supposed to be at the border at 9 in order to be on the Chinese side early to avoid any problems and by 9:30 the car still wasn’t starting. After many deliberations, we were about to cross the border without them when it finally started and with it our Chinese adventure.

Heating the glow plugs
My bike’s electrical socket being used to heat the glow plugs of David’s car
Biker
Kyrgyz biker

Dolphin spotting

Cruising through Cambodia along my favorite river ever, the Mekong, I stopped for a couple of nights in Kratie. It was going to be only one night but life by the Mekong is so peaceful that you always want to stay one more night. It turns out that in this part of the Mekong river live 75 Irrawady dolphins. Only 75 live between Kratie and the Lao border, it is an endangered species. There are more in other countries but only these in Cambodia.

Fifteen km North of Kratie is where you have to go and everybody tells you so, from to the Lonely Planet to the guesthouse manager. I am always a bit wary of this animal spotting tours/expeditions because either you don’t get to see the beast or it’s crowded with other tourists snapping photos just like you. None of that happened. Since I’m of the late-sleeper chronotype, I didn’t go at sunrise but at around 2PM, when it’s hottest. Best ever, I was almost the only tourist dolphin spotting at the time and I saw loads of them.

At first it’s a bit strange, you don’t know what to look for and the boat driver shoos you to show you where the dolphins are but of course, when you have turned in his direction and then to the direction he’s pointing at, they are gone. But then you start hearing it, when they come out to breath. The sound of them exhaling is what you should be listening for. Looking is almost useless because you don’t know where they are going to surface.

And the water comes alive with dolphins around you everywhere, they are pretty shy and don’t come close to the boat when the engine is on but the boat driver turns it of and goes on with the oar. At some point there was dolphins on either side of the boat and I didn’t know which way to look. I was in awe, it was absolutely beautiful.

Dolphin
Irrawady fresh water dolphin
Irrawady fresh water dolphin
Dolphin
And I will leave you with a book recommendation: Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardines’s Last chance to see.

Oh, and they say also that Kratie has some of the most beautiful Mekong sunsets. I let you be the judge of that.

Mekong sunset
Sunset over the Mekong
Orange boat
Orange boat