Do you think this has got bugs in?

It was fun arriving back in Thailand from Cambodia. For a start, our border police officer was quite the comedian as she stamped us back in. The next officials we met wanted a photo and by lunchtime we had found a functioning ATM and an appropriate roadside restaurant. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better our motel room had Hello Kitty soft furnishings.

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Welcome to Thailand. Smile.

We were aiming for Vientiane, Laos, but decided to take the scenic route via the Mekong to visit a few tourist sights. The next overnight was Ubon Ratchathani, still a way from the river. UR had a brilliant evening food market area – great meals and possibly the best fruit shakes of Asia. We headed East, to a point where the Mekong and another river confluence and are different colours. The different coloured water was clear to see, but it was possibly not worth the detour, especially when we found another similar confluence a few days later. It was fun cycling though, all small roads, hardly any traffic, and even a few hills. Strangely it also seemed to be Autumn, gold and brown leaves fell around us. Can’t explain that one.

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Night market in Ubon Ratchathani. Loved this lady’s TV. Even better when the soap started and her mates came over from their food cart to watch.

 

This whole area was completely different to beachy tourist Thailand. There wasn’t much English spoken, but there were awesome markets, pleasant towns, good hotels and a lot of monks. Our standard day involved mangoes and bananas for breakfast, eggs or veg and rice for early lunch, then a night market feast in the evening. We tried to squeeze in either a fruit shake or an iced tea too. Life was pretty brilliant, even with some long riding days. The only hazard was that we seemed to have entered a new food region – grubs. We started to approach banana leaf wrapped snacks with more caution…

A real highlight was visiting Wat Phu Tok, a temple built into the cliffside. It was an incredible network of wooden walkways, small shrines and many stairs. If you’re in the area, it’s unmissable. That evening we also had the best Pad Thai of the trip. It was in a town about 40km west of the temple, a total bargain from the smiley lady with the cart opposite the convenience store, (she’ll even do one without the peanuts). If you’re in the area, it’s unmissable.

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Tiny Jo at Wat Phu Tok

Nong Khai was our last stop in Thailand. We spent a few days relaxing, doing some bike maintenance, and treated ourselves to some Cadbury’s chocolate in the last Tesco of the trip. We were ready to cross the river we had followed for a week and start our Laos ride. Thailand is a great place to cycle. I would highly recommend it for any tourers, even for a first time bike tour. The distances between towns aren’t unmanageable, there’s plenty of reasonably priced accommodation and food, and the road surfaces are excellent. What are you waiting for?!

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Evening boat ride on the Mekong in Nakhom Phanom
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Britishcitizens & Bananas: cycling Tokyo to Kyoto

Tokyo was a lot of fun but after 6 nights it was time to get going. The ride out of the city was relatively painless, (See Boston, Zurich; Atonyms Naples, San Francisco) especially once we joined the Tama River cycle route. Uneventful cycling was made up for by other random stuff, including:
-Our first earth tremor in Japan. Let’s not say Earthquake because that’s a bit scary.

-I saw Mt Fuji then clouds hid it. Jo wasn’t sure whether to believe me or not.

-A fab food surprise. Bought a fridge bakery item that looked like chocolate flavour sweet bread with a very generous cream filling. Felt pretty weighty. Turned out it had a whole banana inside. That’s the stuff cyclists’ dreams are made of.

-Pensioners’ baseball training. Lots of old men arriving at riverside ball parks with full kit and bats in their bike baskets.

-Walking group Wednesday. If you don’t play baseball in the Tama river area, you join a walking group. Hundreds of hikers bemused by the British bikers.

-A friendly cyclist stopping us and asking us to wait a moment. He ran off the cycle path and came back with bottles of cold water for us. It was a hot morning and a really lovely gesture.

-A road cyclist passed us wearing a balaclava type garment with no eye or mouth holes. It was black. Creepy.

Ohio! Walking group Wednesday.

We left the river and rode uphill in a narrow valley, getting occasional glimpses of Mt Fuji as clouds moved. There was hardly any traffic and a noticeable drop in temperature as we got higher. We found an actual campground and had a long unproductive discussion in Japanese/English with the owner. After some time we worked out that he was telling us about a big power cut in Tokyo.

We followed a little footpath and found this awesome swing bridge.

Early to bed, early to ride up hill. Apparently we were ascending a 1000m pass. There wasn’t much around in the way of food. Eventually we found an open shop and got bread for jam sandwiches. Then it got even colder and started raining. In the clouds we couldn’t we see far in front of us let alone see Fuji. It wasn’t a great deal of fun, and with a better weather forecast the next day we stopped riding early and enjoyed being indoors and having a Japanese bath at a youth hostel. It was a lot of fun eating at a tiny table in our room and arranging our bedding for comfy seating.

Gourmet noodle and lots of snuggly blankets.

Cycling around Fuji’s five lakes the next day was much more enjoyable. At times there were clear views of the volcano and an amazing descent into a river valley. I was on the lookout for Shinkansen, but we were just by the normal train lines. We camped in an empty plot in a village and felt lucky to have found it. Nearly all the flat empty land here is used for growing rice and veg. Even really small patches have rows of leafy greens or a few fruit trees. We had asked permission from the next door house, and the friendly family later brought us out two homemade onigiri and a beer each. Mt Fuji and a beer in the tent – Happy Friday night!

Fuji-san. Always cool to see things in real life you’ve seen loads of pictures of.

The next morning we were drying the tent outside a Michi-no-Eki (like a service station, but with local veg, nice normal price food and no petrol) when a young man came over to chat. First he handed me a plastic bag from the nearby supermarket as he thought we had a long way to ride. It had 2 onigiri and 4 bananas in. He asked about the trip, and then asked if I thought Japanese people were friendly. He was really surprised when I said yes, and tried to tell me that they weren’t, having just given a total stranger a bag of food. It was like some of the comments we heard in the USA about the world/strangers being scary – from people who had just invited two (slightly grubby) strangers into their homes for the evening. Everyone should remember that the world is mainly full of kind people.
That evening more friendly Japanese people let us share their campsite pitch. We were pleased they did because this was no ordinary campsite. It was in a forest park, and all of these things happened:
-As we approached the campground we could see many coloured lights and lots of cars. It was a special illuminations display. For Christmas. It was busy and strange. There was twinkly music and tannoy announcements.

-We went for our first onsen (hot springs). Jo bought the tickets from a vending machine right next to a desk with a real person behind it. We then gave the tickets to the person, who told us something in Japanese. It was probably about shoes.

-Saturday night at the onsen is busy. You go into separate men’s and women’s ones and get naked. Then you have a really good wash at a little seat with a shower next to it. Only then do you go in the hot springs. Our tan lines looked weird.

-Most people put their pyjamas on after to drive home. We just walked back to our tent. It was lovely to get in sleeping bags fully warm and relaxed. At 8:30pm.

-The illuminations tannoy also had a speaker near our tent. At 9:45pm there was an announcement and Auld Lang Syne started playing in the style of a lullaby. Apparently this is the Japanese equivalent of the last orders bell. It played on repeat until the illuminations closed at 10pm. That’s a lot of Auld Lang Syne. Each time it got to the end of the loop we hoped it would stop – those fifteen minutes seemed very long.

Sunday Funday on the road South West from Nagano.

We crossed a pass via a slightly smoggy 4.7km tunnel from our valley to another one with cool river cliffs and quieter roads. On a sunny Sunday afternoon it was the best cycling so far, but we quickly got into a busier area. Cycling in Japan seems to be either 1. Flat (ish) and along trafficky roads in highly populated areas or 2. Ridiculously hilly. The next day was almost all on a busy road with loads of traffic. To make life more interesting it had started raining heavily at about 2:30am. The tent got soaked, and then so did we packing it up. The trickle of a waterfall we had camped near was now a raging river. The rain bounced off the roads, we were being sprayed by trucks and water ran down inside our clothes. It was the anti-onsen. Slightly scraping the barrel for interesting stuff for that day, but we did enjoy a Japanese breakfast at a restaurant where you press a button to place your order. The staff didn’t even mind that we made a lake around our table.

Hikone Castle. Castles are Jō in Japanese, which Jo liked a lot.

The next couple of days took us to a castle, a lake and excitingly past real bamboo groves. Even better, we finally saw several Shinkansen. They look like Concorde and really are fast. Sadly they are not for bikes, unless you put your bike into a (regulation sized) bag. We pedalled all the way to Kyoto instead. There was time for one more little adventure. A police car pulled up in front of us with lights flashing and a Japanese loudspeaker message. Maybe they had seen us not waiting for the green man at crossings? Or perhaps we were flaunting some other road law? We definitely hadn’t eaten any bananas in parks that morning. A smiley policeman got out and asked (I think) for our Gaijin Cards (foreign residents ID). I offered passports, which he took and spent a long time copying the names and dates from. It was a relatively smooth process, after we established that Jo was Joanna Welford and not Joanna Britishcitizen. We also had fun numbering the months – not sure why UK passports do not have this information. At no point was our Japan entry sticker checked, or our passport numbers noted, but we all had a lovely time thanking each other and went our separate ways.

Thanks to: Nina & her Mum & Dad, the kind man with the tinyhouse, Gilles, Jacqueline & Robert.

#5 & #4 Picnic Spots

This is the online equivalent of forgetting to open your advent calendar for a day. Sadly you don’t get any chocolate, but the first two in our top five of picnic spots. Both of these were on the same day, possibly we remember it so fondly because it was the first day for ages it wasn’t freezing cold back in October. On this day we crossed the Swiss/German border several times, but both of these treats were in Switzerland. Lunch on a bridge over the Rhine, morning tea stop at the Rheinfall…

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#2 Traffic Free Cycle Routes

December 4th – Friday feeling or late night shopping?

#2 on our list is the Saar cycle way in Germany. There’s a great horseshoe bend for river photography and in our experience it is always sunny there. Only go as far as Saarbrucken though, not at all pretty there.

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Willkommen/Bienvenue

imageFrom Luxembourg we rode East into Germany – country number five – following the Moselle River to Trier. On Sunday morning we expected the city to be quiet but the area around the Porta Nigra, a big old Roman building/gateway was busy with American tourists from river cruises who were very excited by our British flags. After a picnic at the Amphitheatre grounds we turned back along the Moselle but this time branched South beside the Saar.

imageThe river wound past several picturesque towns and the sun even stayed out long enough for us to relax with some apple cake. Good job we had fuelled up on cake as a late hostel arrival (and a logic puzzle to fit the bikes in the room) meant that dinner was a little light for the day’s ride. Boiling water in a tea cup from the coffee machine with some cous cous added does not fill a hungry cyclist.

Squeezed bikes into YH room at Driesbach. Ate cous cous in cups.
Squeezed bikes in, ate cous cous.

The Saar did not remain so pretty, the next day we mainly rode past towns, roads and factories of varying sizes. The most interesting was very old and had kind of been reclaimed by the plants. Maybe this is to provide inspiration for future bake off contestants (Tamal, The Final, which we watched in the tent in Luxembourg). We entered France (6) in the early evening and camped in a French man’s garden. For garden read large field backing onto bike path.

We slept well but it was very cold trying to get packed up in the morning – there was frost on the inside and outside of the tent. We learned that late breakfasts are a bad idea in the cold – sunshine and food needed to warm up. We wondered if frost in the tent put us in some kind of elite explorer crew, but eventually decided that at best we were bronze members. For silver, your water bottles have to freeze, and for gold at least one of you has to have frost in their beard.

Germany France Germany France
Germany France Germany France

Although our next destination was in France, we spent almost the whole day riding in Germany through hilly forests and farm land. It was over 100km from Sarreguemines to Wissembourg, mainly on quiet routes and excellent cycle paths. Wissembourg is a pretty city with many old buildings and city walls.  Historically the inhabitants had an unfortunate local nickname. Based on their outside-the-ramparts toilet habits they were referred to as ‘City wall shitters.’  Guess it makes sense not to go inside your lovely city.

Thanks for this part of the trip to: Dominique, Eric, Coralie, enthusiastic Amercian cruisers, the man with the large garden near Sarreguimines, people who stopped us going the wrong way in German.