Cycling North in Malaysia TrulyAsia

Riding North through Malaysia we didn’t have much of a plan other than to stay near the coast and to go to some islands. Penang and Langkawi are the well known Malaysian islands on this coast but our first island stop was Pulau Pangkor, described as “where Malaysians go on holiday at the weekend”, so on a Wednesday we thought this might be a good bet for some quiet beaches. We got to the ferry port in Lumut at mid afternoon and got the what was to become normal look from boat staff when we turn up with the loaded bikes to take them on a ferry. It’s a look that is a mixture of “what on earth are you crazy white people doing with bikes” and “challenge!” This is a foot passenger ferry, and there is obviously no bike storage area, so a bit of imagination is required for getting the bikes on and stowed. We have since learnt that the key in this situation is not to watch the precarious loading of the bikes. On this occasion they were pretty good as there was also the odd moped to carry.


A short ferry ride later we were on our first South East Asian island. The port town was fairly busy with mopeds buzzing around everywhere but as soon as we got out of there the roads emptied out and there was nobody about. We had to ride up our first serious hills (>10%) which made us nearly melt. We were aiming for a small resort on the west coast with budget accommodation and there were so few people around we could name our price for a room steps from the beach. That evening we had dinner overlooking the sea, watched closely by a hornbill (it felt like being on the Lion King). There was a decent sunset as we were facing west and walking up and down a near empty beach (just us and a few hundred washed up plastic bottles, sadly) we were pretty happy with ourselves. 


Hornbill on Pulau Pangkor. Like having dinner with Zazu

The next morning the place was even quieter. There was nowhere open for breakfast and even the mopeds had thinned out. I sent Debs into a hotel to ask if there was something going on that everyone was at but no, it was just midweek on Pulau Pangkor. An afternoon ferry got us back to the mainland and we spent the evening in the fairly nice “resort town” (but we were still the only white people) of Lumut. From there it was a few days ride inland to Penang. First stop was Taiping, a decent sized city famous for having 61 ‘firsts’ in Malaysia – first newspaper, railway station, prison, museum…. for us it was our first experience of eating at an outdoor market and the food and atmosphere set the bar high. It also had some nice lake gardens, overall a nice stop off and totally off the tourist trail.

Lake gardens, Taiping

Taiping night market

That day was mostly memorable for our closest brush with fame yet. We are getting quite used to people wanting to take selfies with us (we always wonder how these photos are explained to their friends. How we imagine it: “I saw these two amazing women today, they were on bikes carrying all of their stuff, how incredible is that? They had really muscly legs and didn’t even look tired!”. What probably happens: “I saw the weirdest thing today! Two white women riding bikes wearing strange hats, they were so pink and sweaty they looked like they were about to collapse, where on earth were they going? They must be mental! I had to take a photo!”) but this was a new high. We had stopped for cendol (will be explained in a future food-related post) and were about to leave when a bus load of middle aged women and children got off. Pleased we’d timed it to avoid the queue, I went to get my bike and noticed Debs being mobbed/hugged. Not wanting to miss out I went over to see what was happening and all of a sudden we were swamped with selfie requests, the women pushing and shoving to get their turn to take a selfie with the weird (amazing?) cyclists. We rode off smiling and wondering how this interaction would be explained to the husbands later. 

Debs and her fans

Anyway back to the cycling. From Taiping we followed some small roads for a while which was a nice change but soon we were back on busy highways. We stopped for an ice cream at a petrol station (our new favourite air conditioned break) and a pump attendant looked over our bikes for ages, before giving the tyres a squeeze (why does everyone do this?) and insisting we needed them shining. We didn’t. That evening we were staying with a warm showers host and stopped in his town to buy some fruit. I walked back from the fruit shop to find Debs chatting to Wendy, who had good English and insisted we came to her shop to meet her family. Sure we said, they were all so excited to meet us, we ate pomelo for the first time and there was much hilarity over the fact that I couldn’t peel it (being a failure is funny in any language it seems). Wendy was excited to have “real life white people” in her shop, we were excited to be invited in, generally there was much excitement. Wendy said to me “your eyes are so blue”, I hadn’t really thought about how strange blue eyes look here. We were asked to stay for dinner but had a host to get to (bad timing, we never usually do) and we spent the evening with David and his wife who cooked us a great curry (they were Indian-Malay). He had cycled in England and the USA. Our favourite story was how he went into a shop to buy bread, they asked what kind of bread, he said he didn’t know, just bread, they showed him a list of breads, he chose one, then they kept asking what he wanted in it, “there were all these raw vegetables, do you want cheese? I just wanted bread”, and we realised he had walked into a Subway. It must be quite confusing in there when you only want bread.


Fishing boats

A horrible, busy, smoggy, black-bogey-inducing ride and a short ferry the next day got us to Penang, an island just off the Malaysian coast which was colonised first by the English. It was a cool place to hang out and wander around for a few days. The first day we were there was the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations (15 days in total, not counting preceding days, it makes me feel like we are missing out on something only having one day) which is also a kind of Chinese Valentines Day where single women throw mandarins into the sea. I’m not sure why. But this was fun to watch and there was a great firework display at the end. [We were at our hotel earlier and a guy called Tony turned up with a large backpack and checked in. Debs told him there were fireworks down at the fort later to which he curtly replied “oh, I’ve already seen some”. When is this ever a reason to not watch a firework display?! We imagined Tony at home. “Hey Tony, want to come to the pub?” “No, I’ve already been.” Odd.]

Sharing the ferry to Penang

The chucking-a-mandarin-in-a-bucket ceremony. Nearly as many mandarins in the sea as plastic bottles….

There’s some cool street art in Penang and lots of old fancy colonial buildings as well as the usual mix of churches, mosques and temples. It kept us busy but our main reason for staying so long was to get visas for Thailand, as currently 60 day visas are free and we were worried about only getting 15 days at the border. On our way back from the Thai embassy we saw our fourth crash in Malaysia, a motorbike going straight into the back of a car, flipping up and throwing the driver onto the ground on his head. We stopped and helped collect his belongings from the road as he dragged himself to the side. The amount of crashes we are seeing here, either happening in front of us or riding past the aftermath of ambulances and upturned vehicles is quite frightening and a reminder that we are at the mercy of other drivers and anybody can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We just cross our fingers that it won’t be us and keep our wits about us.

Street art in Penang

One day in Penang was filled with risking public transport to visit a hill-top temple with a huge statue and a good view of the city. Despite Chinese New Year finally being over the temple was decorated with more lanterns than I ever thought possible. Just as I was wondering how many lanterns it takes to decorate somewhere like that I saw that some had numbered tags – 19,000 and counting. That’s a lot of lanterns. Someone makes a killing selling these once a year. It was all very colourful. The bus ride back was eventful, our female driver wore a headscarf and aviators and spent the whole time on her two phones. We clung on for dear life and wondered whether it was better to be cycling or on public transport. Not sure.

Chinese lanterns on Penang

Instead of going back to the mainland and riding north we could take a three hour ferry straight to Langkawi, our final stop in Malaysia. This is another popular tourist stop but more for the beaches than the towns. Again we tried not to watch as our bikes were lifted onto the top of the ferry and had a very unpleasant ride as we had to sit downstairs airline-style, could hardly see out of the windows and definitely couldn’t go out on deck for some fresh air or enjoy the scenery. Langkawi was also fairly disappointing at first glance, hotels and tour agencies everywhere, and riding round to Pantai Cenang, the main resort, we were sad to see it look more like Benidorm. The beach was nice but full of bars, sun loungers, jet ski operators, people selling boat tours and backpackers taking selfies. We treated ourselves to a beer on the beach (being a largely Muslim country, alcohol is heavily taxed in Malaysia – it would cost us more to buy one beer than a huge meal for both of us – but Langkawi is duty-free) and found a quiet spot at the end of the beach to watch the sun set but we weren’t tempted to stick around and rode off the next day to find a quieter beach on the north of the island. 

The quest for the perfect selfie

Pantai Cenang sunset

This was achieved successfully, we found a lovely motel right on a quiet beach where you could also camp. After one air-conditioned night we tried out sleeping in the tent for the first time since New Zealand. Despite a cool breeze outside it was like trying to sleep in a sauna and we both laid in a pool of our own sweat trying to sleep. It finally cooled off about 5am and we had a couple of hours until the sun was up. Camping was not something we would be making a habit of. 

Northern Langkawi

We were sad to leave Malaysia. We had enjoyed the food a lot, everybody speaks English well and it’s an easy place to travel around. We had learnt what we needed to get by on a bike – key words for survival (water, danger, ice cream, fried), how to find decent cheap accommodation, what and where to eat, getting drinking water, what to expect from towns, how much things should cost… I always find it quite unnerving to have to enter a new country and start all of this again. 

Even accustomed to following the moped lead in how to get to the front of the traffic
We enjoyed the variety of mosque architecture

Acceptable in the 80s? Cycling (and hairdressing) in Malaysia

After the excitement of the first twenty four hours in Malaysia where we achieved a lot and slept very little, we had a few relaxing days at Pete and Ghill’s place just south of Kuala Lumpur, catching up on sleep, trying different food and getting used to the heat (and sleeping under air con all the time. I find it takes some adjusting). As our passports were with the Chinese embassy for a week (we’d managed to time our visa application with the Chinese New Year holiday, unlucky) we decided to ride to Malacca and back, a popular town south of KL so not on our onward route. As we were returning to KL we could leave everything we didn’t need behind so set off with only two small panniers each and felt like we were riding carbon road bikes.


It was 110km to Malacca and our first test of riding in the heat, and it nearly wiped us out. The sun wasn’t as strong as in New Zealand but the humidity is high and as soon as we carried our bikes out of the house we were dripping with sweat. I didn’t find the riding too bad, as long as you’re not riding uphill there’s the breeze you create for yourself, but as soon as we stopped at traffic lights it really hits you. It’s like standing in front of an open oven door. Standing still, I thought I could feel insects crawling on my stomach but it was just sweat rolling down. And my back. Nice. And at traffic lights there’s the heat of car engines and the exhausts of the hundred mopeds around you to add a few degrees to the temperature. We stopped several times for food or cold drinks. At the 95km point we were particularly weary, after not riding much for the last couple of weeks it was quite a struggle in the heat, so we had a well timed coconut shake stop and mustered up some energy from somewhere for the final push. 


The roads hadn’t been too busy all day, we even rode on a toll road for a bit for the first time ever but nobody batted an eyelid (a police motorbike went past and gave us a friendly toot), the road was smooth with a wide shoulder and low traffic, but the last 15km into Melacca at rush hour were pretty bad. The only bright spot was stopping at Tesco and buying a packet of custard creams for the first time since leaving England. We arrived in Malacca exhausted, soaked in sweat and starving. Luckily an Indian restaurant was two doors down from our hostel and we ordered tandoori chicken, paneer butter curry, nasi lemak (a rice dish), extra veg, extra rice and a couple of naan, and just about squeezed it all in. With drinks this feast came to just under £5. 

Malacca had enough going on to keep our interest for a couple of days, but we didn’t overdo it. A lot of time was spent reading the paper (there is an English version, we haven’t got that good at languages), eating anything we fancied and acquiring an addiction to Malaysian tea (it come with sugar and condensed milk and tastes amazing). The curry served on a banana leaf was a particular highlight. Malacca has experienced British, Dutch and Portuguese occupation and also has lots of Chinese and Indian settlers so there is a real mix of buildings and architecture. 


It’s also on a river, and by the sea, has street art and our favourite thing, decorated trishaws (like rickshaws, but it’s a bicycle with a kind of sidecar). There seemed to be a trishaw driver contest for a) the most cuddly toys and b) the loudest music, complimented at night by c) the most extravagant lighting. Seeing a grown man pedal a bicycle covered in Frozen toys and flowers and blasting out “let it go” is quite the spectacle. Chinese New Year celebrations were in full swing which meant great decorations and an evening of fireworks and dragon dancing. I also had my hair cut. I’ve explained this at the end of the blog post for those who are interested. It’s quite long but I couldn’t leave any detail out…




We didn’t fancy riding back the exact same way and any other route would be more than a day’s ride so we took a train for half of it. KL trains have ladies only carriages, though this rule seems to only be loosely followed. It depends on the presence of a strong willed woman to banish any men who try to enter the ladies carriage (which we have seen on a few occasions). Otherwise men wander on aimlessly, sometimes sitting right under the ladies only sign. It’s a nice idea that worked about 50% of the time from what we saw.


Back at Petes we had another day in the city picking up our passports – and they were handed back to us with Chinese visas inside. Despite not having any tickets booked into or out of the country the visas were granted. Next challenge, Russia. To celebrate we spent yet more time on a train and visited the Batu Caves north of KL, huge limestone caves with Hindu temples and crazy decor inside (and a huge gold statue outside). Climbing over 250 steps was even more sweat inducing than cycling in the heat, but it was worth it.


Passports in hand it was time to finally leave the comfort of friends and hit the road proper, with all of our panniers this time. Luckily it’s pretty flat around the peninsula (we had no intention of going into the hilly interior, riding uphill in this heat would be no fun at all) so the riding was not too taxing. We were heading north for Thailand, via a few west coast island stops. The scenery comprised mostly of palm tree plantations, for palm oil. I do love palm trees, I think there’s something quite exotic about them as a Northern European, they are always associated with holidays, and not just any old holiday to France or wherever but to somewhere considerably warmer and far away. But after a few days of riding alongside them, they lost their novelty a bit. Luckily we passed through towns regularly enough which are interesting. These are not tourist towns, but places where people live and go about their daily activities. The towns that visitors would normally bypass on a bus or a train. We spent our first two nights in the towns of Tanjong Malim and Teluk Intan, not mentioned in any guide books. We were pleased to find cheap hotels with air con in both and the leaning tower of Teluk Intan. 


You learn a lot about a place by riding through on a bike – there’s enough time to take notice of the little things. The moped repair shops, the washing machine repair shops and the sewing machine repair shops. The old men sitting drinking tea, the children playing, the moped riders carrying anything from several children to wheelbarrows to strimmers. The pregnant cats (I have never seen so many). The holes at the side of the road you could just fall down. The fruit stalls selling things we have never seen before. The numerous cafes offering different things at different times involving a lot of guess work and welcome shade. The many mosques, Hindu, Chinese and Buddhist temples. The lizards squashed in the road (and the odd live one crossing in front of us). It’s all new to us and we love it, it’s great fun.


The actual cycling here is pretty good. The scenery hasn’t been spectacular, but the drivers are fairly considerate (there are so many mopeds on the road there seems to be a certain level of tolerance for slow vehicles). Road surfaces are mostly good. On the whole,the road experience is an improvement on New Zealand. But everyone stares at us. Properly stares. This hasn’t really happened since Southern Italy over a year ago. Moped riders in particular slow down and stare, their eyes not leaving us as they ride past. This results in a particularly impressive skill of rotating their heads almost 180 degrees to be able to keep staring when they are in front of us, and somehow maintaining forward control of their vehicle. Most truck drivers that pass hoot their horn and wave at us. Cars with families in the back do the same and there are often several hands hanging out of the back window waving as they pass. Kids by the side of the road stare, we wave, they look even more confused. Who are these people with strange coloured skin, eyes and hair? It’s not surprising really. It would be like someone with green skin, pink eyes and red hair riding an unidentifiable object along Leicestershire roads. Or a driver and his Hello Kitty trishaw cycling in Bradgate Park. People would stare. So it’s ok. It’s strange to think that even in SE Asia, well set up for the tourist, we can ride through towns on our bikes where white people are a rare occurrence. We are getting used to being the only white faces in a restaurant, on a train, in a park. But it’s not a problem – on the whole people are interested, welcoming and want to speak to us (the level of English here is very good which makes life easy). Despite the sweat, it’s all fun so far.
The hairdressing incident

It was time for a hair cut. The New Zealand supercuts job wasn’t so super and I was getting hot and sweaty under the helmet. How bad could an Asian hairdresser be? I’d seen a sign for 20RM (less than £5) ladies cuts at a salon the night before so got Debs settled with the bikes and some tea in a cafe and I went in search of my new stylist. It turned out she had trained in London in the 80s, had good English so could understand my request for ‘short please’ and wanted to charge me 30RM. The sign from the night before had disappeared so I agreed and sat down. Straight away I was brought two satsumas and a bunch of hair magazines. “Find one” my stylist said. I had a flick through. This was super trendy styling, way too trendy for me, and looking around the salon at the rest of the clientele, way too trendy for Malacca. But my stylist came over with great expectations, so I pointed at a style that was relatively short at the back and longer on the top. I explained I didn’t want to be sweaty under a cycle helmet all day. “I know what you want. I know what is good for you. A fresh style” she said. And proceeded to shave the back of my head. Now I don’t care so much about my hair, and it’s under a helmet most of the time, so I wasn’t fazed by this. She spent ages on the back of my hair. “Your hair line is like a fountain” I was told. Followed by “you have a nice shaped head. You should have a style to show it off”. The shaving continued. She didn’t show me what was going on. The top of my hair was cut normally (well normal for me, others might say it’s a bit Backstreet Boys these days, but I’ll repeat, I don’t care), I even asked for it to be a bit shorter around the sides only to be told “I know what is good for you. Fresh style. Very fresh”, so I left it at that. Finally the shaving and chopping was complete, and I was shown the back with a mirror. I didn’t know what to say, she had given me what I can only describe as a wedge cut, that I think was popular in the early 90s (I’m not sure, I had a mullet at the time). Maybe it was just coming in when she did her training in London in the 80s. “Do you like? Very fresh eh?” I agreed. It’s great, thank you. I went back to find Debs who looked like she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. My approach to hairdressers has always been ‘how bad can it be?!’ – as I said, I once had a mullet – but I think I now have the answer. Sorry,no pictures… you’ll have to use your imaginations …
Thanks to Pete and Ghill, and my stylist.

The Longest Day: Arriving in Asia

Good things come in trilogies. From the writers of 36 hours in Spain and 24 extreme hours in New Zealand comes (we’re not sure how many hours in) The Longest Day Ever.
26th January, 2017

00:00 (New Zealand time) Approaching Gold Coast, after a short flight which included a curry and an episode of Silent Witness. Decide Air Asia is a step up from RyanAir.
00:00 (Queensland time) Back in the air, we have just been served another curry. Unsure as to whether this is the first meal of Thursday or the 6th of Wednesday (Breakfast, 2nd Breakfast, Lunch, Airport pack-up, Curry 1. Should I have included the pre airport sushi snack)? Identify this meal as the equivalent of to going to Mughals on the way home from Echos (sic). 
02:30 (Malaysia time) Cabin lights come on after a few hours sleep. We will be landing at 03:40, an hour early. Maybe it is like RyanAir. We feel robbed of an hour’s sleep.
03:45 Start walking. 
04:00 It is an extremely long way to get to passport control. People are irritatingly standing still on the travelators.

This fun wall display broke up the trek to the terminal

04:10 We both have stamps in our passports. Jo also had a green sticker, I do not. Not sure who to ask about this. Carry on to baggage reclaim. 
04:30 Waiting for bags and bikes. Worrying about the bikes as we saw the boxes heading out to the plane in the rain at Auckland airport. Soggy cardboard is not strong.
04:45 Bags and bikes collected, customs completed. The boxes only have a couple of small tears.
05:00 Order breakfast at airport cafe. Enjoy hot drinks. Jo has French toast.

Good morning Kuala Lumpur

05:30 I embark on SIM buying mission. There is a dizzying array of otions. Shop sets phone up for me but I realise afterwards I have no idea which of the numbers on the card is my new phone number. Probably won’t need to give it to anyone anyway.
06:00 Sit quietly, tired. Google the green passport sticker. Seems it varies whether you get one or not.
06:30 Jo buys bus tickets. Lady at counter looks at our bike boxes and says “first you buy tickets, then you ask driver.” Seems the wrong way around…
07:15 Bus is late. We look around at signs to learn some Malaysian words. 
07:30 Bus arrives and clearly does not have big enough luggage areas. After some walking around the bus inspecting them we mime sliding the boxes into the space above the baggage vestibules. This works.
08:30 Wake up to see downtown Kuala Lumpur.
08:45 Bus stops at the main station. We have a ticket to the Hilton. (We are not staying there, but the location helped with our other tasks). It appears that we transfer to a minibus for this journey. The bike boxes are a problem.
09:00 Minibus loaded with us, bike boxes and one other passenger. We let him have the front seat. To fit the bike boxes in we had to push them over the top of the seats from the back of the bus, and then shove them down towards the footwells. Seats taken up by bikes on the bus: 6. Seats available for people inc. driver: 4.


09:15 There is a lot of traffic in Kuala Lumpur.
09:30 We arrive at the Hilton. Jo begins to execute Plan A and makes friends with Vejay, the bellhop. We wanted to leave our boxed bikes and bags in the luggage room whilst we completed our KL tasks. We didn’t have a plan B, so it’s lucky that plan A worked, and within a few minutes our stuff was safely stored. We even had a receipt. I’m not sure whether I should reveal this secret, but should you be in a sticky situation like that it is always best to go to a posh hotel. This might seem like backward logic, but in our experience they are the most likely to help you, smile about it and usually have no process to charge you for simple services that would be free to their guests. Worth considering the individual members of staff though: we tipped Vejay when we collected our belongings later. Paris was not so lucky.
09:45 Bakery donut snack.
10:00 Arrive at a very tall office building. Realise we have no idea what floor the Chinese Visa Centre is on. Gamble and get in a lift with lots of other people. Get out where most of them get out. Wrong floor. Google it. We are two out. Wait ages for lift.
10:05 At the Chinese Visa Center, trying to smile just the right amount on the passport photos. “You can smile, but no teeth.” Jo is told.

Worryingly these are better than our actual passport photos

10:10 Collect number and sit in waiting area. It doesn’t seem that busy, which doesn’t tally with the fact that there were no appointments left to book. Maybe there’s a secret area we can’t see.
10:15 Nope, it’s just quiet today and we get called to a window to discuss our application. We do not have flights book so are very enthusiastic about trains. The interviewer says we may be called for interview. She asks for our Malaysian contact number. Hmmm. I give her the stuff from the phone shop and she identifies the number. If we don’t get a call, we pick our passports up in 8 days time, either with a visa or without. It’ll be a surprise on the day.
10:40 Find a supermarket and get a selection of baked goods and some apples. 
11:00 Arrive at medical centre in mall which also houses Gucci etc. Strange. Request vaccinations. It is busy. Get a number and sit in waiting area.
11:15 Get vaccines and malaria tablet prescriptions. Keep the same number and wait to pay. It is a bargain compared to what we would have paid to have the same in the USA.
11:45 Reclaim our bikes etc from the Hilton. Staff help us to take our stuff to the car park underneath the adjoining mall which we have identified as a good place to build the bikes. 
12:45 Other than being extremely hot, it is a good place. No one even looks twice at the strange sweaty women covered in bike grease with large cardboard boxes. Pumping the tyres up is tiring. Jo hits her head on an AC unit. A few minutes later I cut my shoulder on the same thing. Lack of sleep is making it extremely difficult to get the tiny pannier rack screws in the right place. 

Bike building in the car park

13:00 Jo goes for a walk to find a skip for the boxes etc. We reckon this is likely as there is a supermarket here.
13:05 I wonder where Jo is.
13:10 Consider that she is lost, and hope she has enough sense to go back to the front of the building and retrace our journey from the Hilton foyer. 
13:15 Jo returns. She had gone to exactly where we were, but one floor below. She had found a skip and also walked down enough staircases to find a flooded floor at the bottom with no cars.
13:30 A kind truck driver takes the boxes. We ride out and put the rest of the packaging into the skip. A security guard looks confused. We wave goodbye to Vejay. We ride across the city, past the Petronas Towers. Traffic is quite crazy and there are motorbikes weaving everywhere. Nobody else is cycling around.

Chinese New Year lanterns and the twin towers. No sign of Catherine ZJ or Sean.

14.00 Stop at food stall for some sort of vegetable fritter and another donut. 
14:15 There appears to a bridge between us and the train station we need with a lot of steps. The lift is too small for a bike. We obviously look unsure of what to do. A friendly lady stops to help us and suggests an alternative bridge with fewer steps. From our position it looks to have slopes.
14:20 There are not fewer steps. We are too tired for this. The bikes are heavy.
14:25 Stairs go down, then immediately up again. This is completely unnecessary.
14:30 Around a hidden corner, there’s 20 more upward steps. We are extremely sweaty.

Would we like some fried stuff? Yes please.

14:45 Get train tickets, fortunately there is a lift to the platform.
15:25 Train arrives late, no clear signs about where to put bikes, so we just choose a carriage with a lot of space and stand in the doorway (the only place we will fit).
15:30 The second stop is KL Sentral. People squeeze in around us. Suddenly there is no space. We stand in the way surrounded by surprised looking commuters, totally blocking one of the carriage doors. Imagine two idiots with fully loaded bicycles on a rush hour tube train. Our bikes are going to be a problem if the platform is on the other side to this one.
15:35 The platform is on the other side. People politely squeeze past. A lady gives us an informative leaflet in English about live organ harvesting in China. If true, it is horrifying. She obviously feels very strongly about this as she has literature in another language which she hands out to some young women. They also look horrified. She urges us all to visit a website with a petition. 
15:50 All the platforms are on the side we are pretty much blocking. At one station I have to get off completely to let people off, hoping not to be seen and told to leave the train by staff. Our plan if challenged is to act like dumb foreigners, which won’t involve any acting because that’s what we are right now. We chat to a few people about why we are on the train with ridiculous bikes.
16:15 The train begins to empty out. 
16:30 We disembark. It is raining, so stay undercover at the station. Message from Pete, a university friend we will be staying with, “this is only light rain for Malaysia.”
16:40 Pete is right, suddenly it is much heavier and there’s lightning. Jo lays down and closes her eyes.
16:55 Most of the rain is past, so we start cycling. There is a good shoulder, traffic passes us with space and there are lots of crazy tropical plants around. Lightening strikes in the distance. A mental note is made not to ride at this time of day.
17:20 We reach Pete’s school, and get a motorbike escort to the main school building.
17:25 Our security guard leaves us, and the bursar kindly guides us to the right place on his push bike.

Unescorted; motorcycle; push bike

17:30 We have made it! Two flights, two curries, two buses, one visa application, two vaccinations, several other snacks, one train journey and some cycling. Time for a shower and an evening of lovely company and Chinese food courtesy of Pete and Ghill. 

The 4 rivers cycle route in Korea (we only saw 2…)

As with Japan, we never planned to go to Korea. Until we read that there is an amazing network of mostly off-road, paved cycle routes that cross costs and one of these runs almost the length of the country from Busan in the south, where the ferry from Japan arrives, and Seoul in the north, from where we could fly to New Zealand. Sold. We were going to Korea. The morning we left Japan our AirBnB host had some words of advice. As with most conversations we had in Japan, he talked into his phone in Japanese and showed us the English translation. “Don’t cross the border by mistake”. We laughed. He laughed too. Then he repeated it. Even without his advice, we were pretty sure we’d be staying firmly in South Korea. As soon as we got on the ferry we realised how quiet Japan had been. The ferry, full of Koreans, was loud, and people were shouting and bustling about in a way that was not very Japanese. We found our cabin, which contained 12 cubby holes with futons and a blanket. Half of our roomies were asleep already. We realised Koreans were using plug adaptors for their phones. Hmm so we would have to buy adaptors before we could charge anything in Korea. We realised we didn’t really know much about the country we were about to arrive in. A quick google had search told us that Koreans drive on the right (Japan is left). Good to know.


It was dark when we arrived in Busan. The port area was impressive, and the ferry terminal itself very like Japan, right down to the fancy toilets and the 7/11. As we were foot passengers we had to walk the loaded bikes a long way, and for the first and maybe last time, took them on a moving sidewalk. Stepping outside however was quite the culture shock. We had a 15km ride to our warm showers host, and this was not fun. No bike lanes but only big, fast roads. We stuck to the pavement but it was slow going around all the pedestrians and people selling fruit off the floor. There was a lot of litter and a grubby feel to the city. Korea was different. Our route took us alongside a beach – one thing Busan is famous for is nice beaches – and the waterfront area was full of people having a Saturday evening stroll. It was the 5th November and there were fireworks. We never worked out if this was in honour of Mr Fawkes or just another Saturday night in Busan.


The next nine days were spent cycling the 650 kilometres between Busan and Seoul on the 4 rivers cycle route. It is quite an amazing piece of cycling infrastructure – paved, mostly off-road, mostly well-maintained, loads of facilities on the route (toilets, tool stations, shelters etc). And, as you would imagine when following rivers, mostly flat. Until it isn’t, and then it’s crazy steep. Every now and then the flat path moves away from the river, takes you up a short steep hill (usually 12-20% grade), and then you plummet back down the other side back to the river. There’s a 100km stretch in the middle when you leave one river and climb over a pass to get to the next river but that was nowhere near as strenuous as the short sharp bits.

Mostly great cycling infrastructure….

There are bike bridges, bike tunnels, and even on the road, separate bike lanes. And there are regular ‘certification stations’ in old phone boxes where you can stamp each location on your cycling passport (or if like me you didn’t get a cycling passport, a piece of paper). So all you need to do to get from one end of the country to the other by bike is follow the arrows.

….but not always.

We did wonder if this would get a bit boring, and to be honest the first couple of days were a bit drab – Busan was ugly and went on for ages, and even beyond the city, it was all quite built up. As with Japan, Korea doesn’t seem to do visually appealing cities. So the view was often ugly grey high rise towers and industrial buildings. But this petered out eventually and after those first couple of days the scenery picked up, the sun came out, and life was all good. Riding on a bike route for all that time didn’t lose its novelty at all. Being away from the traffic was great. And autumn was in full swing, so the colours were spectacular.


Autumn also brought us a return to cold camping, last year at this time we were having some chilly nights in the tent in Europe, and Korea beat that. Our third night was the coldest, as we woke up to find everything covered with a thick layer of frost, including the bike computers. After de-icing it we could read that it said -6 (Celsius). Brrr. A great excuse to eat chocolate in your sleeping bag though.



The next couple of nights we escaped into motels. This included a motel with bike lockers on the ground floor, and our first love motel experience. After hearing about these ‘by the hour’ motels in Japan we were expecting seedy and run down, but this was modern, clean and excellent for the cyclist. Loads of space, a big bed, nicely decorated, a desktop computer, a huge bath, free toiletries, a personal garage to store the bikes…. (which was also useful for cooking dinner on the trangia). Everything is a bit secretive in that it is designed for you to drive in, park in a garage, take a private entrance to a room, check in automatically and pay by credit card without being seen by another human being. For us it was a perfect and fairly cheap way to get a good warm sleep.


Camping was easy as there are lots of parks and shelters just off the bike path and nobody seems to care about foreigners just pitching up anywhere. So after two nights of motel luxury we returned to the tent, and a couple of nights later realised that we were not that crazy camping in the cold after all. It was a Saturday night and we came across a camping area on an island in the middle of the river. It was packed. There must have been at least 80 other tents – families, young couples, groups – in November. In Europe you would struggle to find an open campsite, never mind anyone brave enough to camp. There were a few gas heaters visible, but as it was a walk-in campground, not many luxuries. Other than an ability to camp in all weathers, the other thing we learnt about Korean campers was their ability to maximise a weekend away camping. On our first night we pitched our tent at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon at a fairly full campground just outside Busan. An hour later we were cooking dinner and realised a few people were packing up, including our neighbours who were in the middle of a full on BBQ when we arrived. By 6pm it was dark, and more people were packing up. We woke up the next morning to two other tents left. If you go camping for the weekend with some Koreans, don’t expect to be home until late on Sunday night. And take an extra jumper.


We only really left the bike route to find food. This in itself was quite an experience. Somehow we only managed to end up in places where there were no pictures on the menu, just Korean. The first time we managed to order the only thing we knew how to say, bibimbap (fried rice and veg), with success. At the next place, when we were asked what we wanted to order we just shrugged our shoulders and smiled. This didn’t result in an order being taken, so I mimed that I’d like to look in the kitchen, after being shown a couple of huge pots of broth and meat I picked one and pointed at some rice too. We were a bit concerned when the first thing that arrived was a plate with tongs and a pair of scissors on it but luckily this was shortly followed by a bowl of seolleongtang (oxbone soup) and a demonstration of cutting the meat off the bone with the scissors provided. And many other small bowls of food including the tiniest fish I have ever seen and the usual kimchi (fermented cabbage in a spicy sauce). As we were finishing off the soup we were brought a tray of spicy meat. It seemed that the only foreigners in town should also try bulgogi (grilled marinated meat), with more demonstrations of how to eat it (take a lettuce leaf, put in a bit of meat, some sauce and a bit of rice, in the middle, wrap it up and shove it in your mouth). It was a bit spicy for me so I put a bit of extra rice in and was promptly told off with a good strong strike to the arm. It was lots of fun.


Continuing some themes from Japan, we saw more model people and bad English translations. In contrast to Japan, the vast majority of other cyclists we saw were recreational, usually on flashy road or mountain bikes. People didn’t seem to ride functionally (at least not in November, maybe they are all busy camping). We enjoyed that the bike path cycling outfit consists of covering as much skin as possible. As it got colder we realised the sense in this, and adjusted our clothing accordingly.

Cycle trail buddies. The tall guy in the middle is a famous Korean actor. He has 1.8 million instagram followers, so he must be famous.


The bike path was fairly well used, particularly considering the temperatures, and as we approached Seoul on a Sunday afternoon we were weaving in and out of families, racers, and tourists taking selfies or falling off. Before we knew it we were in Seoul. It looked to be a cool city to explore but as we spent our whole day there hunting for bike boxes ready to pack the bikes for the flight, we only explored the bike shop scene. And became well versed in the subway system. This usually simple task was actually very difficult in Seoul as shops have limited space so don’t keep empty boxes longer than a few minutes. We must have visited 20 bike shops, split up at one point to cover different parts of the city, and ended up with 5 boxes, only one of which was full size. Our last night in Korea was spent eating a huge meal at the market for the equivalent of £2.50 and then dismantling our bikes in the narrow hostel corridor. Cycle touring isn’t all glamour.

Korea was fun. Being off the road was great, and the scenery on the whole was pretty nice (if not wow). Ten days was maybe long enough for us on the bike route, but there are attractions you could divert to if you wanted to spend longer in the country. Sticking to a cycle path gave us a certain perspective of Korea – spend more time in towns and cities and I’m sure it would be different. We highly recommend the 4 rivers cycle route, certainly if done in conjunction with a trip to Japan. Though we are not sure where the other two rivers went as we definitely only cycled along two.


Next stop New Zealand!

Thanks to Chris in Busan; and Jess and Tim for the (fake) chocolate digestives.

Cycling Shikoku saved us from scurvy

It was dark by the time the ferry docked at Takamatsu. We had identified a sports centre campground about 10K out of town, so after a supermarket sushi stop we rode south and uphill towards it. Arriving at the sports complex was just that. There were lots of little roads, unhelpful staircases and we couldn’t see the symbols for camping anywhere. Jo went into a building that looked a bit like a conference centre to ask. Weirdly, she could get into the building but not out. I had to get the automatic doors to open from outside. With directions from the staff, we found the camping area – closed due to wild boars. Lots of warning signs. Hmmm. As it was now 9pm we didn’t fancy riding much further, so went back to the facility to ask for more help. Turns out it was an old people’s home. Jo got stuck inside again, this time with no helpful information. We found a bit of grass next to an astroturf pitch and hoped the wild boar didn’t fancy a midnight kick about. This started a Shikoku trend of campsites that were either brilliant or bizarre. Top ones included a beach side spot under a handy shelter, and on the scenic Shimanto riverside. The real low was on some deeply furrowed ground at the side of a forestry building in a small village. Very bumpy.

Route 32. Flat-ish for a while
Route 32. Flat-ish for a while

It was great cycling south along route 32, finally we had found a road that was flat-ish and not super busy. It was along a scenic river gorge, had some fun tunnels and some great fake construction men. We also had our second Japanese Police encounter. A kind man stopped, showed us his badge, gave us a whopping bag of mandarins, told us to call the police if we had any problems (possibly, it was in Japanese but I got the numbers) and drove off. We had just bought a bag of mandarins so the food pannier became a little unwieldy. They had just come into season and had become Japan’s only affordable produce item. There are some seriously pricey nashi pears around should you be considering a fruit based investment any time soon. Even better, next time you are mentally planning what to do with your lottery winnings, buy an orchard in Japan.

Well-looked after fruit in Japan comes with a hefty price tag
Well-looked after fruit in Japan comes with a hefty price tag

The cycling went figuratively downhill but actually uphill when we turned off to visit a bridge made from vines in a neighbouring valley. We saw a little road barrier up above us, virtually in cloud, and thought, ‘wow, you couldn’t get up there in 6km, that can’t be our road.’ Apparently you could, and it was. We cursed our choice, especially knowing that we would have to do the climb in reverse the next day. Even better, the next day it rained like the sky was falling in. Luckily the vine bridge was very cool indeed.

Amazing vine bridge.
Amazing vine bridge.

It was great to see the sea and the sunshine after we left Kochi on the Saturday morning. The road followed the south coast for a good stretch and we passed lots of pilgrims in hats and white shirts walking the 88 temples route. We turned further inland on route 81, followed the Shimanto river and supplemented our mandarin intake with local kaki. Shikoku was definitely the best cycling of our time in Japan, even before we found out about hat cakes. The road along the west coast was right along the sea, great views, occasional beaches and even more mandarins and kakis. This time free from some kind ladies in a bakery that filled our water bottles too. We also had another fun ‘onsen before bed’ camping night. Though I think some of the onsen-induced relaxation may have been lost as we had to put up the tent in rain and high winds in the dark after our soothing soak. Jo was particularly proud of her tarp-windbreak construction.

The 88 temple trail is a popular long distance hiking route
The 88 temple trail is a popular long distance hiking route
Great breakfast spot after an uncomfortable sleep on bumps.
Great breakfast spot after an uncomfortable sleep on bumps.
Lots of little harbours and fishing villages.
Lots of little harbours and fishing villages.
Jo's excellent engineering
Jo’s excellent engineering

Arriving by ferry to Kyushu, we decided to have a rest afternoon and more onsen time in Beppu. It’s possible we didn’t see it’s best areas, as Beppu appeared to be a bit like a Japanese Skegness with more sleaze and hot springs, and less stag dos and candyfloss. It was the ugliest town we had seen (there had been a few unpretty ones) and the only town we visited in Japan where it seemed like there might be somewhere you shouldn’t walk at night. The old onsen building made up for it – a historic wooden and stone building with very hot baths for one US dollar. Brilliant. Beppu really made itself unforgettable when our sushi arrived on a mini bullet train later that evening. I cannot imagine why this travel experience is not listed in any information I have read about Japan.

Loved it.
Loved it.

Running out of time, we took the most direct route to Fukuoka and it wasn’t super fun. If you find yourself cycling in Kyushu, leave more time and go a different way to us. The highlight of the trip was finding egg and rice vending machines with a pleasant rest area at the roadside. As I’ve since learned there’s an egg vending machine in Sileby, Leicestershire, probably go for the mini-train Sushi when you are planning your own trip. When we spoke to locals in the Tokyo and Fuji area at the start of our Japan cycle, their reaction to us cycling to Fukuoka was usually ‘This is not possible,’ accompanied by headshakes, crazy foreigner expressions etc. They were nearly proved right, when on the last day we saw some mile markers counting down to something. It turned out they were counting down to the point the road became a motorway and bikes were not allowed. Cue steep and long detour on much smaller road. As I said, go a different way to us.

Japan is a fantastic country to visit. Cycling on Honshu and along our Kyushu route is not for the faint hearted as the more built up areas can be very busy. Having said that, car drivers were almost always patient and considerate when passing us. Shikoku was by far the most enjoyable cycling of our trip.

Fab cycling on Shikoku
Fab cycling on Shikoku
Riding right along the sea
Riding right along the sea

Navigating Japan wasn’t too tricky – we didn’t buy the maps that most cycling websites recommend and just used our offline map to find ourselves in cities sometimes. There were times when we had to look for the Kanji for a town name as English wasn’t on the signs, this was more tricky. The only symbols I would be confident to recognise only a few weeks later are the five that make up ‘campground’ and the one for ‘western’ toilet (as opposed to squat). I wish we had learned more Japanese to speak to people though we always managed to achieve what we needed with some prepared phrases, gesturing etc. People were friendly and kind, even when they clearly thought we were deranged for cycling so far with loads of stuff. Just like people we have met in Italy, Croatia, USA and everywhere else.

Japan wasn’t part of the original trip plan, but I’m really pleased we took the opportunity to visit this truly unique place. Great scenery, awesome food, and a good sprinkling of crazy stuff.

A fair sprinkling of crazy stuff. More than one gas station had their own T Rex.
A fair sprinkling of crazy stuff. More than one gas station had their own T Rex.