Beijing To Baikal

Long before we ventured overseas, Byron and I had often discussed our shared desire to include train travel in our time abroad. Although the leading candidate at the time was India (we were still planning on going to Nepal at this point), the idea was quickly left on the table when our plans left us touring around Southeast Asia instead. While we were enjoying the light and fluffy in Japan though, Powder magazine published a story titled “The Great Siberian Traverse”; a full length feature that follows three prominent skiers as they trained across the vast expanse of Siberia, skiing wherever possible along the way. That was all the incentive we needed; if they could do it, why the heck couldn’t we? The plan was made and visas were secured; our route would take us by train from Beijing to Russia (via Mongolia), where our first stop would be the city of Irkutsk. With ten days in Beijing to kill before our train left for Russia, we had just enough time to explore one last corner of Asia before heading north into Siberia.
Our first day in Beijing was beautiful; the air was crisp and the skies were blue, while a chilly wind kept the skies clear of both cloud and Beijing’s infamous pollution. As the wind died off over the next day or two though and the smog began to settle back into the city, we quickly developed a desire to leave the city. By night cars illuminated the all-encompassing pollution which shone like fog in the headlights, and by day you could count those which had remained parked for the night as they became covered by a distinctive film by the next morning. If inanimate objects bore this coating of pollution on the outside after only a day, what on earth did the inside of our lungs look like after two?
Our escape came on the China Highspeed Railway. After a little research we set our sights on the Huangshan mountains, which sit 1300km south of Beijing, only a mere 6 hours away when transported by one of the country’s newest rail lines traveling at speeds of up to 300km/hr. Onboard the train the next day, we were afforded a unique (albeit quick) view of life in China’s rapidly expanding countryside. Much of it simply resembled one construction site after the other; although there were breaks in between where flocks of sheep and farmers still roamed through their rapidly shrinking pastures, everywhere we looked a new rail line, highway, or high rise was being built. The economic growth the country is experiencing thanks to its adoption of quasi-capitalist principles coupled with a commanding one party government has resulted in rapid expansion with little to no consultation; zipping through rural farming villages cut in half by a high speed rail, it was painfully obvious that this growth has come fast, and the rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats.
We arrived at our destination in time to catch the last bus of the day, and were delivered to our hotel in the small town of Tangkou under the cover of darkness. The next day we woke to clear skies (hooray!), surrounded by towering granite peaks. Excited to explore these peaks, we boarded the bus which would deliver us into the park and the start of the trails. Although still quite commercially developed (think paved stairs and garbage cans all the way up), it was wonderful to be outside experiencing another face of China. Quite similar to the landscape of California’s Yosemite National Park, Byron and I slowly made our way up the mountain where we would spend the night in one of the hotels perched on the side of the jagged peaks.
Due to cultural differences in dormitory and shared bathroom etiquette, what happened that night will unfortunately go down as the worst night in the history of our entire trip. Sleep deprived and disgusted, we threw on our clothes the next morning and set out to explore the remaining trails before making our way back down into the valley. The sun greeted us along with the weekend crowds as we descended the mountain, and I chuckled as Byron was stopped again and again for photos along the way with awe struck Chinese. I don’t know if it was his blue eyes, blonde hair or blue pants that won them over, but either way it was a photo op they weren’t going to miss. After a short tram ride down the mountain we were soon back on the bullet to Beijing, ready for the start of our next adventure. Skis and gear in tow we boarded the train a few days later, ready to see what Siberia had in store for us.

 

The true Trans-Siberian starts in Valadvostock On Russia’s far east coast, traversing 9000km across the word’s largest country to arrive in Moscow one week later. Rated as a more popular option however is the Trans-Mongolian route, which heads north through Mongolia from China before connecting with the Trans-Siberian rail line 50 hours later in Irkutsk, Russia. Once we had firmly wedged our skis and oversized bags into our sleeper berth we excitedly settled in to watch Beijing fade away. As we jostled and bumped through the countryside China soon faded away into the cold wilds of Inner Mongolia. We reached the border late that evening and took the stop as an opportunity to grab a breath of fresh air and stretch our legs. We laughed as a Malaysian couple whom we had made friends with earlier that day experienced their first breaths of cold air; newly married they had chosen the train trip to Russia’s capital for their honeymoon. We repeatedly assured them that even for seasoned Canadians, -20C is cold for anyone. Still sceptical they grabbed a few quick breathless photos and smartly retired to the warmth of the waiting train. The next day was spent comfortably traversing the Gobi desert, still deep in the grasp of winter. That evening we made one last midnight border crossing and sleepily smiled as the border official checked our visas and stamped our passports; we had just entered the Russian Federation.
Our first glimpse of Siberia was exciting; we awoke in the morning to beautiful sunshine and Lake Baikal on one side of the train, and spectacular snow capped mountains on the other. As we pulled into Irkutsk that afternoon and grabbed a taxi to our hostel, all we could think about were the chilly peaks we had passed by that morning and wondering just how the heck we were going to get back there to ski them.


  

  


  
  
  

Huangshan Mountains

  
  
Huangshan Mountains
  Huangshan Mountains 

Huangshan Mountains



Beijing metro on route to Siberia.



  Goodbye China

China Mongolia Border
  

Gobi desert
 Home on the rails

Leg stretch.  Ulaanbaatar, Monoglia

New locomotive. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
  Mongolia

Mongolia
  Mongolia

Mongolia


Lake Baikal

Hokkaido Deep

 

     As we wound our way North from Sapporo on Japan’s largest northern island, Byron and I quickly began to understand what all of the hype was about; Hokkaido meant snow, and a lot of it. Cold dry Siberian air collects moisture as it crosses the Sea of Japan heading south, depositing it in the form of the lightest, driest powder snow on earth. On average Hokkaido and its surrounding mountains receive seven meters of average snowfall, which rarely sees the freeze/thaw cycles we are used to in North America, meaning that that seven meters is there to stay for the winter. We arrived in the small town of Furano mid-February, eager to experience what we would quickly start to term ‘Japow’. 
     Furano is a small town right in the middle of the Hokkaido island; not quite as developed as the Niseko resort area made famous in recent years through various ski movies and magazine articles, it was a great place to get our ski legs back, make some new ski buddies and enjoy our first real taste of winter. After enjoying a couple of rare sunny days exploring the resort area and its backcountry, we had our legs back and were ready for some steep and deep. Our prayers were soon answered, and the snow began to fall. And fall it did. Throughout our stay in Japan, the weather patterns and snowfall would be a constant learning experience. Everything we knew about snowfall and snow conditions changed; snow fell at -5C but also -30C, and it was always dry, always light, and always bonded quickly and well to existing snow to create a stong, stable snowpack (ie a backcountry skiers dream).  

   After our few introductory days at the local resort, we began to explore the surrounding backcountry terrain with new friends we made at the local hostel we were camped out at in town. Seeing our lust for snow and the desire to explore more of the region, they put us onto a backcountry area accessible from a few small onsens (locally developed hot springs with attached accomodations) located only a short bus ride away across the valley in Hokkaido’s largest mountain range, Ishikari. Surrounded by the Daisetsuzan National Park, these onsens were open year round via a narrowly plowed mountain road, and guaranteed fresh tracks for days. If the weather happened to clear while we were there we would also be afforded views of Ishikari’s highest peak, Ashahi-Dake; an active volcano topping out at 2200m.

     With the promise of fresh, deep tracks and hot springs at the end of each day, we bade goodbye to our new friends and the little town of Furano. After many rounds of “sumimasen” (excuse me/sorry in japanese) we wedged our over sized load onto the mini bus loaded with Japanese elders heading for their daily mountain onsen (it’s hard to remember who ‘sumimasen’ed’ more, us or the bus driver. As we quickly learned the Japanese are ten times more polite than your average Canadian, and will apologize for even the slightest inconvenience, even if it’s clearly us that should be apologizing). Our lodge for the next five nights was perfect; a spotlessly clean dorm room (the Japanese are also fastidiously clean, another welcome trait), kitchen for cooking, and an expansive network of hot spring baths to spend hours in after a day out playing in the snow. At the end of each day everyone gathered in the kitchen regardless of language or age and ate, laughed and drank together.

       During our stay at the onsen we met a pair of adventurous and hilarious friends from Colorado also out in search of deep snow in Japan. The four of us hit it off immediately, and after bidding the Ishikari range goodbye we spent the next 5 days together road-tripping through Hokkaido skiing powder, eating sushi and sharing new adventures and a lot of laughs. When me met Phillip and Jeremy we’d been on the road for over 6 months; their energy and enthusiasm for adventure was, for us, a needed recharge. They lived and travelled with an infectiously calm but fierce love for adventure and life; they traveled and started each day with little expectation other than to enjoy and live in the experience, a motto that Byron and I wholeheartedly embraced and still try to carry forward with us each day still. Their thoughtful yet carefree attitude toward adventure made us all fast friends, and we were very sad to say goodbye when it was time for their flight home. 

       To most, Japan seems like a daunting and expensive travel destination, and they’re not wrong; unfortunately, south east Asia this is not. We knew that our time in Japan would quickly deplete our resources the longer we stayed, so we did everything we could to find ways to minimize the blow to our budget.  

       As it turns out (and not surprisingly), this is a common conundrum for travellers everywhere, and several networks have been set up to accommodate those looking for a live/work exchange. After completing our profile we were bonafied jobseekers according to workaway.com, and after a few emails we were set to swing hammers and help out with some renovation work while our host put us up in a shared house with others in the same boat; the deal seemed pretty reasonable, and there was a network of local hills in the area to ski at during our time off. After six months of total freedom this would be the first time we would be required to answer to someone and return to a semblance of responsibilities. All we could think was it was a good thing there was a ski resort in town.

        Our communal house was located in Kutchan, a small town about ten minutes from the resort center of Nesiko. The Aussie whom we were working for had lived in the area for twenty-odd somewhat years, and had grown accustomed to using ‘workaway-ers’ to staff most of his commercial operations, which included a few restaurants, a hotel and a small ski school. Although we didn’t agree with all of his business practices, the situation did allow us to prolong our departure from the endless snowfall of Japan. We committied to a month of hard labour before we moved on; and just as with most of our other experiences in the country thus far, it turned out to be a worthwhile one. For one month we found a place to call home, and were able to share it with others from around the world, adding to a long list of friends whom we’ll forever be grateful to have met. For one month we skied together, “worked” together, cooked together and partied together. It was an awesome family of travellers who for a short time made a home away from home that much better.

      The area around Niseko is blessed with some of the highest snowfall in Hokkaido, and even on this reported ‘low snowfall year’ it didn’t dissapoint. One morning we woke up to almost a meter of fresh snow; it took us nearly fifteen minutes to shovel a short path for the van to the street but everyone knew we weren’t going to work until it was skied; there was so much powder that we enjoyed fresh tracks all day that day and even the next. At one point when we had to do a short boot-pack Byron volunteered to cut the trail; I was shocked into giggles as he plowed into the snow; waist-deep on his 6’5″ figure. The longer we stayed in the region the more secret pockets of fresh snow we found, a few quick minutes from any of the resort trails would often lead to soft, fluffy turns undiscovered by those skiing the groomers only a hundred meters away. 

     Dominating the Niseko area is the dormant volcano Mt Yotei. This massive 1900m beast dominates the local vista on the rare days when the clouds part, and with constant snowfall throughout the winter her flanks are constantly filled with deep snow just waiting to be skied. With a clear day in the forecast coinciding with our day off Byron and I along with two others from our house made plans to get an early start on the next day and summit the volcano. After an early start we were already cutting our track up the side of the mountain when the sun came up, giving light to the birch above us and sparkle to the snow crunching below our skis, promising a day that wouldn’t soon be forgotten. After six hours and 1600 vertical meters of breaking trail we crested the peak and got our first glimpse down into the crater; it was perfect. After a lap down into the belly of the beast we cheered and screamed every exclamation and explicative we knew (at least I did); we had just skied into a volcano! I was beyond giddy to say the least; if the volcano decided that was the moment to come back to life and blow her top I would have died a happy girl. 

     Our luck with the weather held and we descended into the crater one more time before we headed for home, enjoying the vertical mile of powder skiing we had worked so hard to gain that morning down the other side towards home. We owe the weather and volcano gods a huge arigato gozaimos for our day on Yotei, as it will be one that will live in our hearts and memory forever. 

      Unfortunately our love and pursuit of snow in Niseko didn’t always coincide with our work responsibilities and we usually neglected the latter. Our volunteer boss eventually felt that we were no longer holding up our end work/live deal, and so it was on this note that we were unceremoniously fired from our ski bum jobs. This was a first for both of us, and one we did in the end, take very lightly, and with a large dose of humour. We spent a few more nights in our Kutchan house as refugees, and after a large farewell party with our adopted workaway family left the Japow behind and boarded a short flight to Beijing. Little did we know our ski adventures were only getting started.

   

     
   
    
   
   
    
   
   
    
  

   

  

  

  

  

   
    
    
 
   
    
 

Tokyo, Welcome to Japan

  As our flight slowly banked toward the final approach to Haneda we got our first glimpse of the sprawling Megapolis of Tokyo. The forest of high-rises and endless sea of city that spread out beneath us was spectacular. Stepping off the aircraft into the chilly January evening was confirmation that we’d left the tropics behind. After collecting our ski gear which had been shipped from Canada, we marched onto the Tokyo subway skis in tow. This was a fairly awkward affair, public transit and skis don’t mix all that well. We extracted ourselves and our gear from the subway at the correct station, and promptly got lost looking for our AirBNB rental. With our ridiculous amount of gear, and stunned looks, a older Japanese couple noticed our situation and kindly walked us to our house.

  

     I think I’d describe Tokyo not as one large mega city, but as a collection of cities within a city. Take the metro to any of the major stops and when you reach street level you’re in the middle of a new city. We stashed our stuff, grabbed some saké and set out to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s major commercial centers, the municipal government buildings are also located there. It’s a bustling mix of old and new. Gleaming corporate high-rises and the Golden Gai, its narrow streets packed with tiny bars and restraunts, lay side by side. The 47th floor observation deck of municipal building provides a stunning (free) view of Tokyo and its surrounding areas, complete with Mt Fuji in the background. To the south of Shinjuku we explored the shopping streets of Kabukichō and walked into Shibuya crossing. Where every 90 seconds the traffic lights turn red and 100s of people make there way across the intersection, an endless sea of people. And while the traffic flows, the sidewalks fill up anew with people waiting to cross. There is a unique energy to Tokyo, millions of people going about their daily business. But horns don’t honk in frustration, sirens don’t wail in panic, people don’t even walk against the signal. It’s a quiet, dignified order. It’s not Asian, It’s Japanese. The unfaltering politeness of the Japanese, their fastidious attention to cleanliness and order makes Tokyo peaceful yet bustling. 
      With more restaurants than any city on earth, great food was always easy to find. It was always nice to step in from the cold and enjoy a bowl of ramen or pull up to a Sushi bar. Most of the popular ramen spots would have vending machine at the door where you’d select your meal of choice, pay for it, and receive a chit with which you’d then present to the staff. A very efficient procedure, and very Japanese. Vending machines are everywhere, over 5.5 million of them across the country, selling everything. Our favourite choice soon became the “Fire” brand coffee, the cans came adorned with characters from the Star Was rebel alliance. If you found the good machines, there’d be a red button under the can of Fire. Pressing the button would produce a smoking hot can of coffee, perfect for January in Japan. 
    Seafood is a huge part of the Japanese diet, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Tsukiji fish market. The largest seafood market in the world, almost 6 billion USD worth of seafood passes through the market annually. It’s home to the world famous tuna auction which gets underway at 5am. We slept in and showed up for the wholesale market at 9am. You can meander up and down isles stocked with basically everything the ocean holds, for now. It’s a carnival of sights and sounds. Thankfully in the chill of January the smell was absent. It’s really an accidental tourist attraction, we can’t buy anything, we just get in the way and make photos. The merchants tolerate the gaijins getting in the way, but you’re wise to look out for the forklifts buzzing around. This is, afterall, a place of business. Feeding the people is very serious business. The Market is scheduled to be relocated later on this year as Tokyo will be redeveloping the downtown site in preparation for the 2020 summer games. 
   Our Air BNB pad was located in the Akihabara hood, it’s basically a huge arcade. We spent our final Tokyo night drinking saké and playing video games. Byron was pretty good with the claw and scored us some very plush stuffed animals, which soon replaced our less than adequate pillows. Our time in Tokyo had been short, We really only scratched the surface. But it was time to fly north to Hokkaido and see what the snow in Japan is really like.  
 

   
  

Our Tokyo Home

  


  
   
    
    
   
   
    
    
    
    
 
   
    
   

Pedalnam….Biking  Vietnam Part 2

As I sit on the shores of Cambodia’s beaches watching the waves lazily slap the shores, the sweat and fatigue of the last month seem like a distant memory….I almost have to pinch myself to remember what we put ourselves through during our 28 day traverse down the length of Vietnam on two (not entirely trusty) wheels.

But indeed, we did it.  As we turned down the small alley in Vietnam’s southern metropolis that hid our hotel, we dismounted and realized, that was it.  No more early mornings.  No more stinky gear, no more pedalling.  We had set out to get as far down the length of Vietnam as our bikes would allow, and they had indeed taken us the whole way. Twenty eight days and 1800kms after pulling out of Hanoi, we arrived in Saigon.  

While I hope my life will contain many more, this will forever remain on the list of our ‘trips of a lifetime’.  Byron and I both strive for and seek out challenges, enjoying that which pushes us both physically and mentally, and this trip was no exception.  Day in and day out, we got up, put on our often rather repulsive smelling jerseys and shorts, and aimed for a spot on the map a relative good distance south from us.  As we got stronger we found we could average about 100kms a day, but that often varied depending on the terrain and distance to the next town  where we may or may not find a guest house (fortunately we always did).  On our slowest, and probably most difficult day going over the mountain pass to Dak Glei in Vietnam’s central interior, we managed to grind out only 58kms, all of which were uphill.  Other days, when the wind was at our back and the road seemed to always slope away under our tires, we rode as far as 132kms.  It seemed that luck was on our side for much of the way with weather as well; we left Hanoi just as the winter weather was setting in, and were able to keep it behind us for most of the way.  We met a system in Hue that kept us over an extra day as the city was deluged in a continual downpour, but for the most part we rode through only mild showers, which left us no more drenched then we already were in our own sweat.  At the top of the pass on our slowest day we donned our jackets and stopped for a hot coffee; the first time we specifically requested it.  We chuckled about how acclimatized we had become and kept the jackets on until we reached the warm valley bottom below.  

With a hardy constitution, an open mind, and a little bit of spirit I would recommend this trip to anyone.  Vietnam is a beautifully diverse country, both naturally and culturally.  As mentioned in my last post, it’s difficult to go more than a kilometer or two without a joyfully shouted ‘hello!’ from a stranger, or a wave and honk from a passing vehicle.  Vietnam can also break your heart in the same instance it lifts it though; as you pass through a village that consists of nothing more than a few poor farmer’s shacks, or you swerve your bike through the garbage and stray dogs lining the streets you realize culture, education and economics have not yet allowed for the same standards we are so fortunate to enjoy at home. 

But travelling is one of the best reminders that we are all different, and life plays out in many different ways for us all on earth.  It gives one reason to examine and reflect on your own life and habits, and perhaps better understand not only humanity, but your own self as well.  As we continue our travels through South East Asia I can only hope we stumble upon more crazy adventures and experiences like we found in Vietnam, and continue to learn and grow along the way.

xo Alison and Byron

*For those of you who are thinking of embarking on a bike trip through Vietnam, I can only say;  DO IT!  You wont’t regret it, and as Byron and I figured, if the bikes break down beyond repair you can always thrown them in the ditch and catch the next bus to the city.  You never know till you try! 
   

  
  

Breakfast time  

 

  

  The double chair, all day everyday

  

  
  

Coffee time
  
  

  

  

  

  

 

 
  

  
  

   

 
 
  

Four Wheels and a Scheme…Biking Vietnam Part 1

Well, against all odds we found two bicycles and bags that would fit our (excessive) gear, and made it out of the city of Hanoi alive.  Our crazy scheme came to fruition and our legs were only starting to realize what they were in for as we pedalled out of the city at 6am 22 days ago, with little to no idea what was in store for us.  It all started out so simple.. I came across A Cruising Couple’s blog post while we were still finishing up our time in Laos, and it sounded like a great idea; buy some bikes in Hanoi, pedal roughly 1600kms to Ho Chi Minh City, sell the bikes, and call it a day.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think either of us were under any illusion that this was going to be easy; but we figured we’re both pretty fit, we enjoy biking, and we were looking for a new means of travel through Vietnam, so how hard could it be?  As we sit a little under 400kms from Ho Chi Minh City though, I realize this has been the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life.  But it has also been one of the most rewarding.  After we stopped for a water break at the top of a series of never-ending hills the other day, Byron turned to ask me if I would ever consider doing this again, knowing what I know now.  And I said absolutely.  There have been moments where I have cursed myself for coming up with this idea, cursed Byron for being stronger and faster, cursed the wind for blowing in my face and not at my back, and cursed the sun for not spending enough time behind the clouds during the heat of the day.  But each time my mind turned sour, it would only be a matter of minutes before the vista of green jungle would remind me of the beauty surrounding us, or a sharp ‘hello!’ would come crying from the depths of a house we were passing by, as the delighted and humoured Vietnamese would see us and shout out a greeting. I swear if we were counting, there may be a hello for every kilometer we’ve pedalled.

Yesterday we came across the first bikers we’ve crossed paths with so far on our journey; it was like we found the only other fish left in the sea, we were so excited to stop and share our stories with each other.  And they said something interesting that stuck with me; of all of the countries they’ve pedalled through so far (Vietnam is their fifth!), Vietnam has been their favourite for one simple reason: the people.  And it couldn’t be more true; whether they’re laughing at or with us or offering a helping hand, the Vietnamese people have warmed our hearts and given us a boost whenever we’ve needed it most.

So for now I’ll leave our story at that and wait until we’ve pedalled our last kilometer into Ho Chi Minh City to write about this jouney at length.  But I will also recommend that if you’ve got a harebrained idea up your sleeve and you’re not sure if it’s going to work, go for it.  You never know where the road will take you, and you can be sure you’ll at least get a few ‘hellos’! along the way. 🙂

ps – check out Tan and Aleu’s blog and facebook page on their biking journey so far…they make us look like amateurs over here!

xo Alison and Byron

A Little Laos

    From the beauty of Chiang Mai, Thailand, we left heading north then east, bound for a border and river journey into the heart of Laos. With new friends by our side we stocked up on a few essentials and prepared for the cruise that would take two days down the Mekong, stopping only to spend the night in a remote village perched on the edge of the swift moving muddy water. The trip down the river was beautiful; with time on our side we were afforded scenes of towering limestone peaks jutting up out of the landscape like lost teeth, remote villages reached only by boat, and slowly spiralling whirlpools our captain kept only faintly out of reach. After many hands of cards, chapters of our books and stories later, we arrived at Luang Prabang in the heart of Laos. Once under French colonial rule, the heart of this old city still holds on to many architectural pieces influenced by the time, and is now recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. We spent our days touring around the city and then its surrounding countryside, enjoying waterfalls and swimming holes by day and the food, culture and people by night. With hidden bars tucked over the river, colonial architecture, croissants and sprawling night markets, the city offers a beautiful blend of old and new as two cultures mesh into one unique urban atmosphere. It was a warm welcome to the country, and definitely a city we’d return to in a heartbeat.      

    Since we had run out of river boat options, we were left with limited options to head south to Vang Vieng and ended up on one of the more harrowing bus rides of the trip thus far. Unfortunately, as a local later explained, corruption runs rampant in the road building industry in Laos, and more often than not the funds allocated to the winning contractor end up being used for only half of the agreed upon work; the other half is used to pay off those that helped said contractor secure the work in the first place. Unfortunately those that suffer the worst of the consequences of these backdrop deals are the likes of us, and any other motorist on the road. It’s a wonder that the bus had any shocks left in it at all by the time we finally reached our destination. 

  A very touristy town which has built its reputation renting inner tubes and hot air balloon rides, Vang Vieng thrives on churning the tourists through the natural wonders and beauty that surrounds the small town. Unfortunately as the hours creep on into the evening and the drinks keep getting poured, some of the less admirable traits of travellers come out, and at times, you aren’t sure if you’ve been transported to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or an LA nightclub. With a good set of earplugs and a reminder that you can act over the age of 21 however, Vang Vieng is still a glorious spot worth the stop on your travels through Laos. We spent our two days there biking through rice fields to azure blue swimming holes, floating casually down the river, exploring stunning caves with hidden temples and enjoying all of the local treats the street vendors had to offer.

    With a growing idea of what our next adventure might be we made way for Vientiane, Laos’ capital city in the South. Plane tickets in hand for Hanoi two days later, we spent our last days in Laos exploring the city and learning a little more about the country’s history. Although we had read snippets of stories in our travel guide and rumours of the problems the country’s people still face today, we had no idea for what was in store for us when we visited the COPE center, a facility created by a not-for-profit dedicated to the manufacturing, education and distribution of prosthetic limbs for those affected by both the Vietnam and Secret War between 1964 and 1973. During those years, the Americans completed more than 580,000 bombing missions, making Laos the more heavily bombed country in the world per capita. Over 2 million tons of ordinances were dropped on the country, many of them cluster bombs containing dozens of smaller ‘bombies’ inside, set to detonate either upon impact, or through a variety of either trip-wire or time clock mechanisms. With only a 70% detonation success rate, approximately 80 million of these ‘bombies’ remained undetonated throughout the countryside following the war. More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of unexploded ordinances incidences in the post war period between 1974-2011, and today approximately 100 new casualties occur annually. COPE has done an amazing job in the country thus far to help rehabilitate those affected by these ordinances, and to educate the population on proper recognition and reporting of those remaining in the field. While Canada has never used cluster munitions, they are still available and used in war around the globe today. Warfare is a powerful and indiscriminate means to an end, and it was eye opening and powerful to see a country still in the recovery stages of a battle largely unknown to us both.

  We enjoyed our visit in Laos, but if we returned we would do it different. I think this spectacular country has a lot to offer if you wander off the beaten track, which is unfortunately what we failed to do. But with a little bit of luck we’re going to try and avoid making the same mistake again; once we land in Hanoi we’re setting out to find bicycles, and if all goes well we’ll set off what should be the most challenging adventure of our trip so far as we  attempt to bike from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a distance of over 1600kms. With too much gear and not a lot of money to spend on bikes, no matter the outcome I know it will be a journey we’ll never forget. 🙂

Until next time, 

xo Alison and Byron

Our trusty riverboat that guided us down the Mekong

 

Our view over Vang Vieng

  

A sun bear surveys his domain at the bear sanctuary outside of Luang Prabang, where those seized from paochers and illegal traders are brought

  

On the streets of Luang Prabang

A hot air ballon catches the last of the sunset over Vang Vieng

 

Through the rice paddies on our way to the swimming hole outside of Vang Vieng

     
  
 

Kuang Si waterfalls, Luang Prabang

       

Exploring the caves, Vang Vieng

    

Being a tourist and loving every minute of it…

 

Found a rope swing!!


 
   
  
    

But it’s good to know everyone enjoys the water just the same 🙂

  

Prosthetic legs collected and exchanged for newer models hang on display in the COPE education center, Vientiane

  

Mae Hong Son Motorcycle Loop

The easy life in Chiang Mai is hard to leave, but after 6 days in and around the city we figured it was time to strike out and see the countryside, and a motorcycle seemed like the best way to do it. With some self-awareness and assertiveness the roads and traffic are reasonably easy to navigate in Thailand, especially when bikes and scooters flow like pebbles around boulders to the front of the line at a traffic light, assuring a safe start in front of the larger vehicles on the road. Our steed of choice for the trip was a 200cc Honda Phantom, a popular bike styled after the more muscular cruiser bikes of America. A decent bike, it was no problem for getting around the flat city streets, although we did find it to be slightly overloaded and underpowered for the remainder of the trip. But if time is on your side, who cares?

They claim there are 762 curves over the 140km distance from Chaing Mai to Pai, which sounds like a dream on 2 wheels unless those 762 curves are under construction. The road from Dong Palan (where you leave the main road) and Pai was an absolute disaster. Without warning two lanes turn to one, huge potholes appeared, gravel was everywhere, construction occurred without traffic control…you name it and we rode around, or through it. Stopping half way we questioned our sanity and judgment, but kept quiet any suggestion of terminating the trip. Three hours later we pulled into Pai, a small town in the middle of a broad lush green valley with a lazy river snaking its way through town and a large white Buddha statue sitting on the mountain side, presiding over it all. After the ride we’d just been through, it was a very peaceful place to pull into. We found a little guesthouse along the river and sat down to relax with a well earned drink. Pai has become a very popular destination with the backpacker crowd as of recent, and many of those who found it have never left. The town has a developed a very hippy feeling to it, unfortunately it’s a bit of a western one.

We both weren’t ready to get back on the motorbike given the previous day’s experience, so we decided to hang around town and explore. The area around Pai is dotted with farms, rural guesthouses and best of all, waterfalls. We rode the Phantom out to a popular waterfall where the cascading water has smoothed out the rocks, creating a great natural set of waterslides. The cool crisp water was a refreshing break as we splashed with the locals and visitors alike, soaking up the afternoon sun, playing and relaxing all afternoon. 

The next day, relaxed and refreshed, we hit the road. Thankfully we had made it through the majority of construction on the road, and the rest of the trip would see us alone on beautiful smooth blacktop. After some time on the road we stopped to explore a series of caves which have been carved into the limestone mountains, many of them popular tourist destinations, while others lie hidden, yet to be found. The largest and most accessible cave in the region is called Nam Lod, where a river has carved a path straight through the side of the mountain, leaving kilometres of caverns to be explored. A local guide (manditory) and a bamboo raft are the best way to explore this large cave, and for $18 you can spend several hours being guided both on foot and by boat. The main chamber of the cave is an impressive 100 feet high and features numerous stalactites and stalagmites, as well as hundreds of swallows and bats swooping and shrieking their way about the darkness, high above you. The third cavern we were shown by our guide was both fascinating and eerie; the remains of several teak coffins have been discovered and left on display for visitors, thought to be carved by the Lawa tribespeople some two thousand years ago.

After leaving the cave complex we headed south, paralleling the mountain range that makes up the Thai – Burmese border. Two very scenic hours later we reached our destination for the night and the namesake of our loop, Mae Hong Son. A tranquil village centred around a large lake, our guesthouse overlooked a temple and the evening market which surrounded the calm waters. We relaxed in the shade and then headed out for an authentic Thai dining experience, collecting dishes to try by pointing and laughing with the various food cart operators as the rural/tourist language gap was too large to bridge. Bellies full, we fell soundly asleep in the quiet peace of rural Thailand.

Continuing south the following day we bombed down rural roads, flying through shady forests and past endless green rice paddies. There are two different options to complete the loop to Chiang Mai once you leave Mae Hong Son; the longer route continues south until Mae Sarieng before heading east, while the shorter but less travelled route takes you east through Mae Chaem and over Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon. As is our nature, we chose the latter route

Up and down, up and down would be the theme for the days of travel through small farming villages and past fields of banana, rice and corn. Our third day was an amazing one on the bike where we felt entirely alone in the world, only passing the occasional overloaded pickup truck delivering produce to market. After we passed the small village of Mae Na Chon, we stumbled into the Hot Coffee guesthouse, a great little spot which offers quiet private bungalows beside the river. it was only 2pm, but the temptation of a cool swim in the river and a cold beer on the deck was all we need to stop for the night. Our night at Hot Coffee will go down as the most comfortable so far in Thailand; you couldn’t ask for better accommodations or a more welcoming host. As it turns out we weren’t the only ones who thought so, and found ourselves confronted with familiar faces from the downhill mountain bike race we had been at only days before. A father/son duo from the US who now live in Hong Kong were completing the same loop as us only on dirt bikes and the backroads, but after some navigational difficulties with the other members of their group and a flat tire, they found themselves at Hot Coffee for the night. We laughed to think how small this big world truly is, and spent the evening with their group swapping road stories and tales.

Friday morning marked out our last day on the road, and return to the Chiang Mai. Just a easy trip over the highest peak in the land, and hey, we’d be drinking beer by the moat in no time. The day started out cool, and while the bike struggled a bit with the altitude, it was nothing more than we had made it suffer through for the past four days. At the top, we joined the locals in donning our jackets, where 16 degree felt practically chilly after several weeks of much warmer weather. The ride down the other side was a breeze; the road widened out as we rejoined traffic on the freeway and the throttle was opened up, the familiar heat of the valley surrounding us yet again. About 50km out of Chaing Mai we stopped for a cold drink in the shade and a stretch of our legs, the end of our journey in sight.

Now I’ve previously failed to mention in the story so far the issues with the Phantom, our trusty steed that it turned out wasn’t actually all that trusty. We quickly discovered that she refused to start everyday once it got hot; I refused to take issue with it though as there was usually a hill or stretch of road around, and I could pull a fast one on her and get her going every time in second gear, circling back around to pick up Alison after the bike had stubbornly roared to life. So when we mounted the bike for the final ride into town, we were not surprised when it failed to turnover. A push start was initiated with negative results. More push starts were attempted with the same results. The Phantom unfortunately, had appeared to have given up the ghost. We tried and tried to get it going, but to no avail. Our final attempts were made in exasperation in the parking lot of a service station, where a group of employees soon gathered to help us in our quest, pushing me around the parking lot in a futile attempt at motorcycle resuscitation. Now even the Thais were sweating, and Alison and I were a hot mess, our situation beginning to look bad. I rolled the bike into the shade, and we contemplated what to do. While we were cooling down the Thais continued to try and help solve our problem. Soon, some rudimentary tools were located, and every man present to the situation had gathered around, offering advice, already contemplating which piece of the bike to pull apart first. With the group gathered around, the spark plug was checked, the oil was checked, and a few people even scoped out the gas tank situation. All of this still left the phantom spiritless. After a phone call to the rental shop and some use of Google translate, it was settled that we’d take the bike down the road to the local repair shop. After the spark plugs, the oil, and gas were again checked, further discussion with our rental shop decided a truck would take the bike and ourselves to town, where we would be relieved of the beast and their mechanics would be left to solve the riddle of her demise.

As we sat in a shady corner of the shop on some old car seats it became apparent that the truck that would take us to town was currently beside us on the hoist, a Songthaew, which was being frantically repaired before our eyes. A couple hours passed, and after returning from a successful test drive we and the disabled bike were loaded into the freshly repaired truck, heading for town. There are many forms of transport in Thailand, and the Songthaew is one of the many brilliant options of a modern-day vehicle converted for local transportation needs. With two bench seats in the back and a cover for shade, these colourful little trucks rip around town, delivering riders and their loads to and from destinations with enthusiastic efficiency.  

The breeze felt good as we rolled towards town and the driver (and shop mechanic) seemed happy to make an extra buck off of our delivery, in the truck we couldn’t be quite sure was his, or just a customer of his shop’s which he was moonlighting for our purpose. Suddenly the truck slowed, and as it sputtered to a halt on the side of the highway, it became apparent that their quick fix in the shop might not have done the trick. We were now 0 for 2 on transporation. With the hood up, our driver worked to figure and fix. Not surprisingly a crowd gathered, and soon tools were brought out, and everyone went to work. This time however, the result of the communal effort was a success; with a puff of black smoke our truck rumbled to life, and we were off again. We flew into town, and were greeted by a crowd at Mr. Mechanic, our rental agency who through all of this mess had done everything they could to get us back to town at no expense of our own. They were indeed very helpful and apologetic, and after some laughs and reassurance that we weren’t mad, we retired back to the old town of Chiang Mai to sit and laugh over the day, passports and cold beer back in hand.

Our plan for now is to spend the remainder of the weekend relaxing in Chiang Mai, and catch the bus to Laos on Monday. once we arrive in Laos we will take the slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, and from there, who knows!  

Until then

Byron and Alison
Tips for Mae Hong Son Loop by bike:

Rent from Mr Mechanic or a shop with insurance. Although our bike did break down, their response and help was excellent and didn’t cost us extra. They were great to deal with

Get the map ‘The Mae Hong Son Loop’ by Golden Triangle Rider, it’s very helpful and detailed for the journey..

Tour around the towns for guesthouses and shop around for best price; most towns have a lot of options and the prices vary for basically the same thing. 

In Pai we stayed at Golden Hut, in Mae Hong Son we stayed at Johnny guesthouse and outside Mae Na Chon Hot Coffee guesthouse. I recommend all of these places as they are all clean, comfortable and quiet.

Fuel is plentiful along the trip.

The road between Dong Palan and Pai is awful, but when construction is complete it will be an amazing journey. 

There is a cool guest house beside the Nam Lod cave called Cave House, we didn’t stay there because of timing but I would recommend it rather than staying two nights in Pai.

   
  
  

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