Monday, December 8, 2008

Getting back into the Cycling in the Cold

It has been just over two weeks since the finish of the Bangkok to Saigon Challenge. Things are back to normal, I have finished taking my anti-malaria medication. (I had to take it for 1 week after returning, the alternative medication would have required me to take it for a month after leaving the malaria risk area). My Longstaff (bicycle) is going in for a new headset on Friday - it was due to go in before the Cycle ride, but I just ran out of time.

On my return memories keep coming back to me - things that I had meant to mention in my Blog but had forgotten. The great thing about cycling through three countries is the contrasts it highlights. Thailand and Cambodia have their own different scripts, whilst in Vietnam they use a Roman script with accents to indicate the pronunciation. Vietnam and Thailand both have tonal languages whilst Cambodian is not. In Vietnam they use chopsticks but in Thailand and Cambodia they do not (or at least we were not offered them). They drive on the left in Thailand and on the right in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Having spent two weeks as one of the lower forms of road user cycling on the right I have only had the occasional moment back in the UK when I have had to think - now which side of the road shall I head for. It normally happens to me in car parks. I find that cycling on the other side of the road resets the brain more than driving on the other side of the road. Probably because when I drive on the right hand side of the road I use a left hand drive car and vice-versa which makes it easier for my brain to process.

Another difference that I have been dealing with is that bikes set up to a US specification have the rear brake on the right hand side whilst in the UK we have the rear brake on the left hand side. The problem occurs when you need to stop in an emergency, after a few skids on the B2S Challenge I got the hang of it - I am now having to unlearn it on my UK specification bikes.

I am finding it very cold though, it is much harder to motivate myself to go out and cycle in the cold weather, especially when I end up cycling in the dark. I have managed just under 200miles/310Km so far since returning, but although I definitely seem to be slower my average speeds are not much different compared to the last week of cycling in Vietnam. When cycling along country lanes I tend to stop and start; for other traffic, for junctions and to take pictures. In Vietnam there were longer runs between stops which helped give an impression of high pace. You do get good sunsets around here though.

One reason it is cold is that the air is so clear. That is the moon on the top left.

So far this year I have cycled around 15,600Km/9,750 miles, my target for the year is to reach 16,000Km/10,000 miles. This will be my highest annual distance so far. Over the last 5 years I have averaged an annual distance of 12,250Km/7,600miles, so this year has seen a reasonable increase. Having had the Challenge as a goal for some time has spurred me on. Although I have previously cycled (2003) from Land's End to John O' Groats over 16 days with an average daily mileage of 109Km, the heat and state of the roads was a bigger uncertainty for me. Actually I quite enjoyed the heat, after a few days acclimatisation, the dirt roads were tricky on some days though - there was one day when it was pretty gruelling. (We averaged 80Km a day over the 15 days cycling not counting the rest day). I signed up in March, but before that my brother was pushing me to commit and so have been putting in hours on the saddle and cycling on the green lanes and tracks around the Fens. Although the tracks round here were nothing like the dirt roads in Cambodia. It is good to have a goal.

One trick I learnt from Jim and Mary is that they always have the next cycle tour lined up ready - that way there is always something to look forward to at the end of a cycle trip. They are veterans of 20+ cycle tours to my two! So I have been checking out the websites they gave me and also looking in the CTC magazine. (UK Cycling and Campaigning organisation). One part of the world that has caught my eye is India - one trip involves sleeping (and of course cycling) at altitude 4000m+. The good thing is I am getting support from my family - it keeps me fit-ish.

The other thing I have been "researching" is what it would specification to choose for a bike that could easily be dismantled whilst also being lively and fun for cycling. I have been looking at titanium frames (Ti) with S&S couplings and a 14-speed Rohloff hub, front suspension and oh yes disk brakes.

I have also had my first puncture, the farm roads are covered in mud and grit here and, of course, I did not have a pump or patches as I have been riding my Marin Hybrid bike and had not moved the stuff over from my Touring bike. Fortunately I did pack that other important cycling tool - a mobile phone and my wife came out and picked me up.

Finally to contrast the B2S cycling with the Fens - here are a couple of bridges.

These two pictures were not taken on the same day, hopefully this bridge will be press-ganged into providing a new cycle path through the Fens.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Home Again

My flight from Hong Kong left around midnight and took about 13 hours, which got me into England at around 5am - I was back home before 7am.

When I was travelling a lot I sometimes used this route when returning from Japan. I found that I could either leave Japan in the morning and get to the UK in the evening or I could leave Japan mid-day fly to Hong Kong and get to the UK early the next morning, then pop home have a shower and be in the office first thing. That way I could get a little extra time in the Japanese office without losing any time back in the UK, apart from "sleeping in a bed time"!

The other great thing about getting to Heathrow early is that it is fairly empty and so baggage comes off more quickly, there are barely queues for passport control and even better the M25 is not the car park it can be. At that time in the morning it is also quicker to go through the manned passport check rather than the automated retina scanner.

Unfortunately my wife thought I was arriving that evening so when I got home I was locked out and had to wake her to open the door. Still it could have been worse it could have been 3am! I had left my brother's apartment at 7am the previous day so allowing for timezone differences the overall journey home had taken 31 hours, door to door, only half was actual flying time and there were no problems, if I had flown through Bangkok - well, I would not have been, flying that is, I would have been stuck in Bangkok.
My first impressions on returning to England were of how wintry it had become. I got onto a plane in Ha Noi in t-shirt and shorts, with temperatures of around 25C having cycled in temperatures of 35C+ Here it was grey and the leaves had blown off the trees, it is surprising how much the seasons change in 3 weeks.

One of the last pictures I took in the UK was of the tree outside my front door - a lovely autumnal (fall) picture. It was now pretty bare.



It was good to be home although having been in a different timezone for 3 weeks and getting up early and exercising outdoors in that timezone I was well and truly time shifted. At around 5pm on the first day back I just had to have a "short" nap. I dreamt that I was back cycling and that we had stopped at a back-packer hotel/hostel somewhere for a rest. When I awoke I was a bit surprised that the rest of the cycling group had gone without me and that it was dark - how was I going to find them, where was I supposed to be staying. I wandered through the hotel (which was really where I had lived for the last 8 years or so) without recognising anything, then my wife called me - that was a bit of a surprise, what was she doing here - had she come out to meet me? She must have thought I was going mad (she knows I am!) I asked her where were the bikes and where are we sleeping? I still did not recognise that I was at home. I then noticed some post-its on a notice board and said what a coincidence we have these at home. Then normality gradually reasserted itself and I realised that I was at home and it was our noticeboard.

Even now I can remember walking through my house as if it were completely new to me. Perhaps the anti-malaria tablets were more potent than I thought.

As I had been cycling and already carrying too much stuff I left my present buying until Hanoi airport, with the exception of some Cambodian scarves (Krama or Kroma) and a piece of handicraft from the Charity - Friends, in Phnom Penh and oh yes a bamboo vase on the way back from Halong Bay. I used all my remaining dong and a few dollars more buying t-shirts and other trinkets. When I got back I brought them all out, unpacked my suitcase, including a mountain of dirty washing, various bicycle bits and various gadgetry (chargers, connecting cables). Here is a present I bought for myself as a souvenir. It seems fitting that I remember my cycling trip with a model of a Vietnamese bicycle. Clearly if the chain I had had on the first bike had been quite as strong it probably would not have broken.

I also gave my Brooks leather saddle a polish before replacing it on my Longstaff bicycle. It has definitely aged a bit during the Challenge, it has also nicely moulded itself to my contours and is remarkably comfortable. I will have to buy a new seat cover though as the old one got torn when the bike was in transit in Cambodia whilst we were taking the easy way on a boat. The picture does not really show the wear but if you look at an earlier picture you will see that it was a honey colour originally.

I am still wearing my shorts - although I do get some strange looks, I have also managed to get out and about on my bicycle. It is much harder to work up the enthusiam when it is cold though. My first longish ride (32Km/20miles) was for a meeting in Cambridge. (Long trousers for that). I made the mistake of wearing too many layers of clothing to combat the cold, of course by the time I got there I was a sweaty mess. During the meeting I also realised that I had not set my watch to the UK timezone.

I also find it harder to pay much attention to the TV, it seems a bit of a distraction. I have downloaded the four weeks of the radio series the Archers that I missed (6 hours 30 minutes) and am catching up on that when I go out on my bike. Speaking of which I have managed to drag myself around the Fens a couple of times, despite the cold there has been some wintry sun.

Judging form the amount of water and how sticky with mud some of the paths are there has also been quite a lot of rain. In this picture the sun is reflecting off water that wasn't there three weeks ago.

I have also reverted to cycling in the afternoon and my goodness it gets dark early. I have had to take my lights with me on my rides and instead of a cold beer I have a hot bath on my return. Having taken a few pictures of bridges on my travels here is one in the Fens that features quite a lot in my pictures.

I have also managed to catch up on my blog - the next one will be my reflections on the trip. For those of you that are interested I have also uploaded some of my pictures onto the web:

I did start sending them out in 6 chunks as email but after exploding a few email inboxes this seems to be easier and less anti-social.

Bangkok to Saigon R&R in Halong Bay, Viet Nam

Bangkok to Saigon R&R in Halong Bay, Viet Nam

My "little" brother works in Viet Nam, based in Ha Noi, so one of the benefits of finishing the cycle ride in Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) was that it was only a short hop to fly up to stay with him for a few days after the ride. However the day started badly.

In Viet Nam it seems that the locals are obsessed with the quality of their bank notes, they hate to accept bank notes that have got any flaws. The night before the restaurant we were in wanted me to swap a 10,000 dong note for another one because it had a small piece of sellotape sticking a small tear on the edge of the note. Since I had only just received the note from the Hotel an hour or so earlier I refused and eventually they accepted it. I took a taxi from the hotel to the airport - it was clear that the car had seen better days, although it made a change to be in a vehicle higher up the pecking order than over the last couple of weeks.

After making our way through the traffic, we got to the airport I climbed out and it turned out the taxi driver had not get enough change for fare The fare was around 70,000dong and I offered two notes of 50,000 dong. Fortunately I had some dollars so paid for the fare with 50,000dong and several dollar notes. However he started quibbling about the condition of one of the $1 bills (notes). It was one that had come from Cambodia where the currency has definitely seen better days. I managed to find an alternate cleaner note.

After that hassle was over I went past the guards at the entrance of the airport building and went to check in. I then realised that my bright blue handlebar bag was missing, with my SLR Camera in it. I asked the check-in girl to wait and ran back round to the entrance, no sign of the taxi nor the bag. To cut a long story short I finished the check in, looked around the taxi park looking for my driver, rang the hotel all to no avail. As a friend said, it had probably already been sold in a market somewhere. It had been a great camera - I'd probably taken over 50,000 pictures with it, it had bounced all around Cambodia (as well as travelled thousands of miles) I just hope it breaks before it gets sold. On the bright side all but 10 pictures had been downloaded onto my laptop (of around 1000). I was not able to report it at the airport, partly because I could not find anyone to report it to and partly because I had to catch my plane.

As bad things go there are much worse things that could have happened on an 1100Km cycle trip across three countries, one with landmines still scattered around. I was still very annoyed - if only... Too late it was gone.

The plane was late taking off because of a sudden torrential downpour, but did not leave too much later than planned. When I got to Ha Noi I got a text from my brother asking me to ring him when I got there. He took my order for a take-away curry and told me that his driver would be waiting for me after baggage reclaim - which he was. After an hour's journey we arrived at my brother's apartment. Shortly after that the curry turned up - it was delicious, I have eaten curries in quite a few countries, although not India - this turned out to be one of the better ones - mottor panneer and goat samosas were two of the highlights.

As his mother-in-law was also staying Neil (bro) and I had one room whilst his wife and mother in law had the other - here I am 40 years later sharing a room with my brother again - how time flies :-) He has been incredibly busy all year and not had any holiday so he had booked a two day cruise for us in Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage a couple of hours drive away. His wife and mother in law were staying in Ha Noi - but being of Scottish descent he had decided that it would be cheaper if we shared a cabin on the boat - twin beds though!

As you might expect being out of the office does not get you away from the work, so once on board the boat he settled down to a 4 hour conference call - 3 hours too long in my book. The boat could take up to 16 passengers, but this cruise had only 7 so it was not crowded and very relaxed. Cold drinks were available from the honour bar. Every time you took a can there was a chart to mark it off on. The crew would also serve the drinks at lunchtime and mark the chart, hopefully correctly. While the rest of us had lunch served to us in the dining room, the boat set off and the busy Ericsson executive was served lunch by his older brother. I must admit I wondered how long he would continue to get coverage - but apparently the line only dropped 5 times. We later found out why it was so good.

Halong Bay was absolutely idyllic, the boat cruised through a scenery that was straight out of a "James Bond" movie. I thought "Dr No" - think girl in white bikini - yes I am showing my age. It turns out that the film was "Tomorrow Never Dies" - so clear evidence that my memory is going.

I was now down to one camera and was starting to feel the cold, it was down to around 25C after all, a good job I had bought a fleece with me. (Ha Noi is further north after all and we were at sea). But none of that stopped me from taking loads of pictures, everywhere I looked the scenery was tremendous. Apparently some of the islands have animals such as monkeys and antelopes on them. There are four fishing villages in the area (where people live on floating houses), nearly two thousand islands and six of the islands have enclosed lakes.

It was really great to be slowly cruising around such a beautiful place, sitting out on deck, chatting and taking pictures. Oh yes and listening to someone on his phone. Did no-one tell him that the whole point of a mobile phone is that it transmits your voice, shouting is not required! :-)

As you can see there was very little wind and the water was delightfully calm.

After a while our boat came to a halt and we were offered the option of riding in the "Bamboo boat" or kayaking. As the kayaks were two-person and the conference call was still on-going Neil and I took the bamboo boat. We were also warned that it would not be wise to take a camera on the kayak, to lose one is really bad, to lose two would have meant that I would have had to jump overboard. Once in the Bamboo boat; a rather noisy, ordinary boat, that required huge amounts of water to be poured into a funnel to keep the engine cool, we headed off to see one of the enclosed "lakes"

It would have been a better bet taking a kayak, they were faster and much less noisy and you could go where you wanted.

We also found other boats doing the same activities. It turns out that the Halong Bay cruises are regulated to minimise the impact of tourism on the area. So from time to time we would find ourselves herded together with other boats. The enclosed lake was quite a sight though.

We were offered the option of swimming in the water. Those that went kayaking commented on how "mucky" the water was and since I did not have any swimming trunks I was not going to swim in my cycling shorts unless it was an absolutely unmissable experience. (Cycling shorts have padding and take on water and then take time to dry.) Every one on our boat gave the swimming a miss, so it was missable.
Afterwards we headed for one of the islands, this one in fact. There was a "Temple" at the top and for those of you not in the Cellular industry it also had a base-station on the top that allowed all of the busy executives to remain connected. (If the truth is to be told I did send some picture texts, but of the scenery!) It turned out to be an Ericsson supplied base-station, so my brother took a picture of it. I think he needs a longer break.

The views from the top were beautiful, don't worry no close-up pictures of base-stations in this blog. There were quite a few dragon flies buzzing around though.

The sea was a lovely green colour and very calm.

After returning to our boat - a two deck affair - sun deck and dining room on the top floor and 8 cabins on the floor below we dressed for dinner. No of course we didn't, we helped ourselves to a cold beer (chilled not just Cambodian cold) and sat in the sun and chatted. I know I wasn't cycling but it was thirsty work climbing the 400 odd steps to the top of the island and back again. As I have just been exercising hard for several hours a day for the last two weeks, the climb was very pleasant. A certain busy executive who has not had time for much exercise recently collapsed in a sweaty heap at the top - well sat down in a sweaty heap anyway.

As the evening sun set the boats all seemed to congregate in one bay. It turns out that they congregate in a small number of bays, but cannot just moor anywhere. This one kept getting in my way when I tried to take a picture of the sunset.

Eventually I managed to get a picture of the sun without a boat in it as well.

Although I was lucky with one picture, because they kept on piling into the bay that was the only boat-free sunset picture, here are two boats more joining us.

When the sun set the boats turned on their generators and lights could be seen around the bay, it was amazing to see so many boats when the place had seemed so secluded earlier, it shows how big Halong Bay is.

Even after sunset more boats chugged in, their lights reflecting on the sea.

After dinner there was yet more chatting, there was not much else do do. Dinner was excellent by the way. Loads of sea food and there was a rumour that we had crab and frog mixed together, whatever, it tasted delicious. Some of our fellow passengers did get a little concerned that the drinks tally was not being correctly filled in by the crew though.

It was really pleasant sleeping on the boat, we had an air-con unit, although I am not sure it was on or not. It was really peaceful and wonderful to wake up on the water. Here is the sun rising. There were quite a few small boats plying their trade and a larger water boat, presumably stocking up the tanks of the cruising boats.

Here is one of the small boats - selling a whole range of things.

Here is one of the floating villages, they rely on the Cruising trade for custom.

After breakfast, we visited a cave. The islands are limestone, which lends itself to cave formation. Neil and I grew up near the Mendips in Somerset and have seen a few limestone caves in our time. I did a bit of pot-holing as well and a common feature was water, dripping water. These caves were bone dry, they were very wet during the rainy season, but at this time of year were quite dry.

They had the usual stalagmites and stalactites.

They also had the somewhat more unusual phallic formations, apparently it was visited by young women wanting to have children, I think the red lighting is a more recent addition though.

Here Neil is asking our Cruise Leader "just exactly how does it work then?"

When we left the cave we could see that we must have been followed - a good job it wasn't a James Bond film then.

Fresh fish or crabs anyone?

Eventually it was time to head back to the port - and so time to take yet more pictures from all angles.

This time we let the other boats get ahead - no point in ending the cruise too early.

One thing that Neil did do was work out how to take videos using his camera -here is one I took.

As you can see the Halong Bay cruises support a very large tourist industry. Talking of supporting the area it was also time for Neil and I to settle our bar bill - 1 million dong.

When we got back to Ha Noi we went out for a curry - I know it was my last night in Viet Nam, but it seemed a good idea and a chance to visit the place that served up the curry I had had on arriving in Ha Noi. It was delicious once again, and the restaurant was by a lake so it was also very scenic
The next day was back to work for Neil and off to the airport for me. I went with Neil and then his driver took me on to the airport. On the way we saw one accident a scooter had been hit broadside by a car. In UK law the car was probably in the wrong- here it was probably the scooter. My impression of Ha Noi was that it was a more industrious and ordered city than Ho Chi Minh city. The streets were tidier and the traffic flow less chaotic, there also seemed to be many more people on scooters, especially during the rush hour.
Here is Ha Noi in the early morning:

Another shot - with the Vietnamese flag flying in the breeze.

At Hanoi airport I had a minor worry, when I went through immigration my extra paperwork was taken away and I had to stand and wait, most people got through in the time it took to stamp their passports, I was there 10minutes, but was not asked anything.

My return route was via Hong Kong. Whilst waiting for my flight in Ha Noi I did hear of a flight to Bangkok getting delayed and then cancelled. I caught my flight to Hong Kong and on checking in for the last leg of my flight discoved they had moved my seat booking, requiring me to be very disappointed, not cross of course, so they offered to ring BA and see what they could do. (It worked I got the seat I wanted back again) I had a nine hour gap between flights and was going to pop into the city. In the end I set up camp in the BA lounge and tried to catch up on my blog which the observant of you will realise has not been running in real time. They had a wireless connection in the airport - but towards the end it started turning to wet string.

I rang home and to my wife's relief she discovered I was returning via Hong Kong, she told me that Bangkok was closed and everyone was stuck (Note I did tell her and printed out my itinerary for her before I left.). During my wait at the airport I met quite a few people who were lucky enough to have been re-routed to Hong Kong. It turns out the Bangkok is a common stoppover for flights between Europe and Australia.

Hong Kong is a great airport though - efficient and spacious.