Cycling in northern India: on daily struggles, finding a quiet oasis and the Golden Temple

April 2017

TRIGGER WARNING: This article mentions a case of rape and goes into the correlation of rape and racism.

After exciting Nepal on the westernmost  border near Bhimdatta we had about 10 days left on our Indian visa. And close to 800k to cycle. Not that much especially given that the territory is mostly flat. We actually wanted to cycle into the mountains – I dreamed of 5000m passes in between Manali and Leh but winter had these roads still firmly in its grips and so it was not to be.

To be honest after cycling in Bengal a month ago our expectations were pretty low and we kind of just wanted to get to Pakistan already. In between the ever busy traffic we did manage to find some quiet roads though.

I loved this big outdoor market which popped out in the middle of nowhere. We stopped to have a drink and soak up the atmosphere and for once it was rather relaxed.

While still in Kolkata our host Pankaj had told us: ” You know, all these stories you heard about Indian men? It’s all true.” So basically he told us to be really careful, as rape is unfortunately not that uncommon, also towards foreigners. This is a difficult topic in my opinion. You might have heard of the gang rape of a 23year old woman in a bus in Delhi who later died from the injuries. The case got a lot of international attention and shocked me to my core as well. On the other hand in her article On Rape and Racism Emily Chappell describes extremely well how racist it is to assume that white women are more likely to be raped in places like India instead of their own home country. She says that most rapes happen with someone the victim knows and about 40% of all cases occur at home (UK numbers).

The thing is I did notice a big difference in how I got treated by a lot of men in the areas of India we cycled through, especially when Torsten was not around. A lot of them seemed to get very excited and thus came way to close to me, wanting to shake my hand (which is not common amongst locals with different sexes who don’t know each other) and tried hugging me whilst taking selfies (also not common between locals who don’t know each other).

So for the first time during these travels I really felt that I had to adjust my behavior a lot. It’s not that I have a problem with shaking someone’s hand or hugging someone I just met but I became aware quickly that these actions were received in a different way than intended by me. So I started ignoring most men around me, stopped shaking hands and if someone stood to close to me I would go away. These modifications became second nature rather quickly and I noticed that it became easier after that.

The thing is of course that everyone is different and as much as these modifications helped me cycling in Northern India, there were also a lot of interactions that went a different way. We had people follow us on motorcycles out of curiosity, got asked questions in many different languages, got asked for oh so many selfies and especially Torsten could get quite overwhelmed with 50 people gathering around us in the matter of seconds once we stopped in a small village. But then we had people follow us on a motorcycle to first get me a bottle of water, then one for Torsten and then a bag of bananas for both of us. We had people stop their car to ask if they could help us and more people offering to translate at food stands or helping us to find accommodation.

So traveling’s a fickle thing you know. There are no exact Dos and Don’ts, you might follow some guidelines but then you need to listen to your gut and common sense.

That all being said, I did not feel comfortable camping in Northern India (in the plains) if alone for the reason that it is so intensely populated and hiding seems to be impossible. So when we found ourselves looking for a place to sleep one evening with no accommodation around, Bachi’s family took us in for the night. We had an amazing stay with them. Our common language was a bit of English which was exhausted soon enough. That’s when I got the most perfect early birthday present: Bachi painted my hand with Henna! Usually cycle touring doesn’t go well with a lot of beauty routines and I’m really fine with that. Maybe this is why this shared experience without words was even more special and incredibly relaxing. Afterwards her grandma showed me how to apply oil so that the painting would keep longer.

On the next day we crossed the Ganges and had breakfast on its shores.

Afterwards we found some quiet roads again but cobble stones make for slow going I tell you. So it was dark when we arrived in Jagadhri.

No matter though, because this is when we met Amardeep and Kamal. And these two absolutely fantastic people would continuously spoil us for two days – my birthday included.

Apart from sharing their wonderful quiet oasis of a house and garden and their food, they also shared a lot of knowledge about their religion: sikhism. We both knew next  to nothing about that before so it was really interesting talking to them and learning that sikhism is based on Christianity, Islam and Judaism but kind of tries working with the best traits from each of the big religions.

Torsten had fun trying on a turban…

…and I got presented this wonderful shawl which is worn in the temple.

As my birthday coincided with the Sikh’s most important holiday we visited a temple and got to know ‘Langar’: The Sikhs think that it is rather hard to focus on praying on an empty stomach and this is why there are big free communal meals in every temple. These are run by volunteers and as a sign that everyone is equal, all the people sit together on the floor.

On the morning of our departure Kamal tought me to make stuffed prata which is a doughy pastry filled with potatoes and herbs. Crazy delicious! These two days with Kamal and Amardeep were just what we needed: lots of fantastic and interesting conversation, a quiet garden oasis, lots of milky tea and a fabulous birthday celebration. Thanks heaps you two!!!

After Jagadhri we kind of had enough of cycling in this region. We considered taking the train to Amritsar but were baffled by their rather laborious requirements of taking bicycles on board. So we cycled to Chandigarh, marveled at the very chic town and took a bus to Amritsar the following day. We rather wanted to spend some time at the Golden Temple instead of enduring more honking, congested roads and inconsiderate drivers.

And we didn’t regret that decision one bit. The Golden Temple is absolutely fantastic. The Langar here serves over 100000 meals every day and between 200000 and 300000 on weekends. Even more on special occasions. There are a few cooks who work there permanently but again most of the kitchen is run by volunteers. Never in my live have I seen such huge pots, so many onions being cut, so many people being fed every ten minutes. And the food was damn tasty on top of that!

As foreigners we were invited to sleep in a separate compartment. Food and accommodation is all free but you are invited to leave a donation and/or volunteer.

We arrived at the accommodation at about 11pm after our bus journey. Unwashed, tired, and a bit overwhelmed by the thousands of people outside. And this is when we hit a streak of luck once more: The only free beds were next to Jen and Lluis, two amazing people who were currently on a walk from Bangkok to Barcelona. A walk! We kind of woke them up when we entered the room and then – as tired as we were – just couldn’t stop talking about everything.

The next day we spent exploring the temple and its surroundings and as a parting gift from India we even got to enjoy some fireworks.

So long, India, so long. We will be back one day fur sure. Probably not on bicycles, but we sure will have to have a look at all those mountains we missed this time…

Through the mountains into tiger territory: Cycling in Nepal 2

March 2017

After descending from Okhaldunga we relished the warmth and set out to ride the middle mountain road towards Kathmandu. Not exactly sure about the road conditions after Gurmi we were thrilled when a guy told us it would be all asphalt after the first 5k.

The road wound along this stunning blue river and was a beauty to cycle. Even when the steep up and downs made for a lohot of cookie breaks…

The earth is always moving…

I especially liked that we were finally getting back into camping. Whereas it was almost always too hot in Southeast Asia and I didn’t feel comfortable camping in India – it was now getting easier finding places to set up our tent. We would still get discovered every night as there are somehow always people around but we felt safe nonetheless.

In Kathmandu we stayed with Madhukar and Lalita through Warmshowers. We had interesting talks with them about the earthquake that destroyed parts of their house, about arranged marriage and relationships in general and about cycling of course.

They took us to their relatives’ house in the city, shared their food and told us all about the festival happening in the streets. Unfortunately I forgot the name but we took part in a ceremony where less fortunate people from the villages around Kathmandu come to get some food and sweets.

As interesting as the festival was, the handing out of the sweets we bought on Madhukar’s recommendation left me a bit uncomfortable. I totally get the idea to provide something for the less fortunate within a society. However handing out things as a white foreigner in a society where charity and volontourism are as common as bread is not something I want to take part in. I had an equally hard time talking about this to our host though as I didn’t want to criticize their tradition.

On other news we found muesli and yoghurt! Yep, simple things make us pretty happy these days :).

Cycling out of Kathmandu made for one of the worst days on our tour. The air was just absolutely horrible. Even with the face mask that I had bought on the first day in Nepal I had serious trouble breathing.

Since the earthquake in 2015 the city is a big construction zone. Add that to the coal powered brick factories and the fact that Kathmandu lies in a valley surrounded by high mountains – the amount of dust is not a pretty sight. Yes sight, because you can literally see it. On your skin and when you try to look at something about a 100m away from you.

Combined with my asthma the ride out of the city was really tough, especially as it went uphill.

It got better though and we got to see some pretty amazing river crossing cable cars.

And we met Shiva… One night when we were looking for a camp site we found a cleared patch in between some farmland. After setting up camp of course someone discovered us, this time the charming little boy from the pictures below.

And that’s how we met Shiva Datta and his family. When he saw our tent he came over with the biggest smile and after some introductions he insisted that we have dinner with them in their house.

Shiva lived with his wife and son, mother and father. He is an English teacher in a nearby school and had the opportunity to go to places like the USA for work but chose to stay with his family instead. The family produces most of their food by themselves and told us about their lives and the village. They forgo alcohol in their village as it makes people fight more.

Thank you so much Shiva for letting us into your lives and sharing everything with us!

It was getting humid!!

After three days we reached Pokhara where we planned on doing another small hike. Our plans changed however once we looked at the weather forecast and at the ever looming clouds and mist. We weren’t really in the mood for a repeat of the previous rainy / snowy / thundery hiking experience and thus Pokhara became a bit of a touristy rest instead. Not bad at all once in a while!

The ride from Pokhara down to the plains was one of the most beautiful ones in Nepal. A nice road and not much traffic, perfect views – what’s more to want?

We did notice an increase in kids asking for money / sweets / pens however. It seems that all the NGOs and charities definitely left their trace.

Once back on the Plains we enjoyed the ride along the relatively quiet main road. There were long stretches of forest, something we hadn’t encountered in a while. For camping we asked to stay with a family as we were… in tiger territory!

We didn’t catch any pictures of the family but it was another awesome experience. They let us set up our tent in peace and later joined us for tea. We shared some food and they proceeded to bring us all the ingredients for tea. Some leaves, fresh milk from their cows and sugar. After tea they gave us more tea leaves and sugar and when we politely declined they just looked for some plastic bags in our food bag and put the sugar and tea inside. It was really exceptionally sweet!

Torsten then got his little harmonica and played something for the 10 kids that had gathered around and then all the kids wanted to try as well. We had fun for about half an hour until the parents told everyone to let us sleep. Also appreciated :).

On the next morning we left all the fruit we had with the family and cycled off towards Bardia National Park.

Planning on maybe doing some hiking in the jungle and eventually even seeing a tiger we learned that the guided tours (obligatory) are rather expensive and start early in the morning.  After a few days of cycling we just couldn’t be bothered and instead cycled around on our own, enjoyed the atmosphere on the river and relaxed in the garden of a beautiful homestay.

And then the Indian border was just a little while away. We enjoyed our month in Nepal and will be back for some more hiking in better weather some day.

One more thought for the end though. Nepal has been the first country where we encountered a lot of children begging for something or trying to get hold of our handlebars to stop us. Or yelling at us for some reason. I’m pretty sure that this is due to many white foreigners coming to Nepal to volunteer in some sort or another or to many NGOs doing something ‘charitable’. Has all that really changed anything in the long term though?

So before you consider donating to a charity or volunteering to build a school or in an orphanage, please consider the bigger picture. You might start by reading this New York Times article:

“Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills. Because the mantra of “good intentions” becomes unworthy when its eventuality can give a South African AIDS orphan an attachment disorder or put a Haitian mason out of work”.

I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of things we should change. Poverty, women’s rights, slavery and so much more. Probably we should consider doing that through other ways though.

On this note and with a picture of my funniest flat tire from the last day in Nepal – see you soon!

Hiking, Holi and the usual vultures: cycling in Nepal

March 2017

Cycling from Siliguri into Nepal’s bordertown Kakarvitta wasn’t a big ordeal and the crossing went smoothly. Except that I somehow managed to get sick just on the day of our departure. On the next morning I felt even worse and so we decided to stay another day.

When we cycled on I still felt pretty crappy but at least it was flat so not too bad overall. In preparation for Holi we saw lots of color powder sold on the streets.

The next day was an exciting one. As we cycled through the Plains we would get stopped all the time for people to paint our faces.

Later we also got to see an amazing natural spectacle: About 50 huge vultures fought over a water buffalo carcass and really went to town. I had never seen them in action before and it was quite a sight.

Over the course of the day more and more people smeared colors in our faces and it landed pretty much everywhere else, too.

When we stopped at a tiny place for tea and a few guys joined us, I asked one of them about the meaning of the colors. Then followed a lengthy explanation of the rise and fall of different gods and in the end (after about 30 minutes) he still had not mentioned the colors. When I asked about that he said: “Oh well, that was just because they were happy and wanted to celebrate.” So there you have it, as simple as it gets :).

The atmosphere changed a bit during the day unfortunately. While it was loads of fun at first, many of the young guys started drinking heavily.

By mid afternoon we only stopped occasionally and had a few situations where people came to close. Usually there were some of their more sober friends around to keep them at bay but I’m still not a fan of drunk out of control groups. We were pretty happy about our quiet spot to set up the tent and relaxed into the evening.

Passing petrol stations we often saw these long lines. Petrol was scarce at the moment and we would also pass a lot of closed stations.

After a night in Mirchaiya we turned north towards the mountains. Happy to leave the busy plains behind we switched into smaller gears and cycled over the foothills. But alas, this is when I got reminded that my body still hadn’t recovered fully. I started coughing and just couldn’t get enough air for the uphills.

After about 40k none of us was very pleased with the slow going and so we decided to take a lift. In my condition it would take us forever to continue and we didn’t really want to stay put either.

Our goal was Okhaldunga where we would leave the bicycles for a few days and take another shared taxi to Salleri. From here we were planning on hiking for a bit, after all that’s what Nepal is so famous for. And when I saw the roads I was pretty happy about our decision to take a lift. We drove over many landslides and steep rocky dirt roads which would have made for pretty arduous cycling.

Coming from the scorching hot plains we got the first shock when exciting the car in Okhaldhunga: it was freezing cold! Suddenly we couldn’t find our sweater and jacket fast enough and were really happy about our first hot shower in months.

On the next morning we left the bicycles in good hands at our guest house and took a shared taxi to Salleri. The most famous track in this north eastern region of Nepal is the Everest Base  Camp track. We didn’t really have the time to hike for several weeks though. This is why we wanted to do a little loop towards Junbesi to Pikey peak and back to Salleri.

 

We walked out of Salleri past an advertisement for a Vasectomy Camp and blooming cherry and apple trees.

The first day to Junbesi was a beautiful walk over trails and small dirt roads without traffic.

A Nepalese woman asked where we were going and then joined us. This is when I first noticed that all these trails with their fancy names are not just for hikers but mainly for people commuting between places. Sure there are some roads through the mountains but also many tracks connecting different villages.

Under dark looming clouds and rain we arrived in Junbesi and found a little homestay. As we really enjoyed the hiking we decided to add another day to do a day walk tomorrow.

After  breakfast we set out towards some nearby mountains and walked by monasteries towards the first snow.

Most of the villages on this side had already been repaired after the big 2015 earthquake.

Going higher into the mountains we didn’t have much luck with the weather unfortunately. Clouds came rolling in and snow started to fall. When we saw lightning in the distance we decided to turn around as we were just about to go to a high ridge.

So instead of our intended day loop we walked back and explored the little monastery village on our way.

Back in Junbesi we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon at our guest house and later had two hearty bowls of bean soup.

The next day woke us with beautiful sunshine early in the morning and we took the trail towards Pikey peak.

As we went on the sun disappeared and made way for some serious clouds. Again. Snow started to fall all around us and we soon walked in snow and over some icy parts.

We met several walkers coming in our direction and after talking to them we questioned more and more if crossing Pikey Peak at over 4000m was a good idea. A few of them had attempted to summit it earlier that day but said it was totally snowed in and deep crevices around the peak made for a rather dangerous climb.

So when we reached Lamjura La Pass at 3600m we had some tea and Dal Bhat and… decided to stay. And instead of doing the loop we intended we got something else again: insight into what it means to live and work in a small hut perched on the mountain side. With mostly hikers as company or the occasional call through the phone with two sim cards and a satellite channel.

We enjoyed talking to father and daughter (unfortunately I forgot their names) and they enjoyed looking at our pictures on camera and phone. One time, two times, three times. That’s when I really understood that there is not a lot to do for leisure around here. Sure, making tea and food for the occasional hiker but apart from that they seemed happy to have some distraction.

When we heard thunder rumbling once again we knew staying here was the right decision even if it got seriously cold at night. The hut was not heated and wind blew through the wooden house. The damp covers barely provided any warmth which made for a bloody freezing night. Where I grew up people build sturdy houses with well insulated walls to keep the cold out. Here where it gets much colder more time out of the year we stayed in a hut made of one layer of wood with a door that stayed open during the day. The only way to stay warm was to cover yourself in all the clothing and sit next to the oven.

Due to the cold getting up early the next morning was not a problem and we climbed up towards Pikey peak as far as it was safe. Breathing heavily we stomped through snow up above the tree line. The mountain range was impressive but of course we couldn’t see the really high mountains behind.

Coming down we had some breakfast, one last visit to the freezing outdoor toilet and then we were off on our way back.

From Salleri we took a shared taxi back to Okhaldunga where we were reunited with our bicycles. Off we go towards Kathmandu!

Into India: On friends, crazy traffic and discoveries by the roadside

February / March 2017

Leaving Myanmar we found ourselves entering Thailand again, for the 4th time on this trip. Not that we were complaining – we both love the ubiquitous and tasty food, the small roads which make cycling so enjoyable and the friendly people.

This time we even managed to see some friends again. Shoot and Pasan had hosted us the last time when we cycled through and we were very happy to have a small break at their oasis like café again.

After that we stayed with our friend Toom in Bangkok for a few days, mostly to get organized and rest for a bit.

And soon we stuffed us and our two giant bike boxes into an oversized taxi on the way to the airport. Arriving in Kolkata two hours later we assembled our bikes and got our first taste of cycling in India. Luckily it was early morning so the traffic wasn’t too bad yet. Still we got the feeling that bicycles are way down on the metaphoric food chain here.

Nevertheless we managed to find a small room to stay in, rested for a bit and ventured out to find some food. Between wandering around, talking to some people on the streets and cycling to a couchsurfing meeting, we both enjoyed being here a lot.

When Pankaj, a fellow couchsurfer, invited us to stay a few days at his place we accepted almost right away and this is when it got really interesting. Having long conversations on his quiet balcony, enjoying one too many drinks, walking around in this colorful neighborhood and cooking together made for a perfect welcome to a new country.

Once more I am convinced that we are able to find friends everywhere. Instead of focusing on our differences we should find the things we do have in common. And we should talk about the things that move us and get inspired. In Pankaj’s case that is movies. His inspiration for them truly impressed us and over six months later we are still in touch, talking about travels and films and such.

This is what matters to us: making connections, finding friends and thus feeling over and over again that the world is a beautiful place indeed.

We also visited the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata, a place long known to be a  meeting point for intellectual discussion. I loved the atmosphere and also the surroundings. Walking around in the neighborhood you can find a million bookstores specializing in everything you could wish for. I was very happy to be back in a culture where books are important.

Tea plays a much bigger role in northern India than coffee though. Everywhere you go you can find a small stall selling sweet milky tea usually in small one time use clay pots.

This would become one of our favorite cycling snacks, especially in combination with a biscuit or two.

Our biggest love affair would soon become the food though. Not only was it especially easy to find vegetarian food, it was also without exception crazy delicious! As we both appreciate spicy food, we were in heaven!

Thank you Pankaj for showing us a slice of your life, for all the long talks, for the tea and food and for the 10 best – erm I mean 80 best – movies! 🙂

After staying in Kolkata for almost a week we cycled out of the huge city towards the border to Nepal. And this was where it got a bit more complicated. You see, Indian traffic was really overwhelming in our experience. In the beginning we stayed on the highway which wasn’t that bad as it usually had two lanes and a shoulder. Apart from that we rode on normal one lane roads and small village roads trying to find something more quiet. Alas, it was not to be.

Apart from very few exceptions the riding was extremely challenging all the time. We navigated broken asphalt, big potholes and bumps on the same time with traffic participants that didn’t give a crap about cyclists. And I really mean that. We were pushed off the road by oncoming overtaking trucks / buses so many times that we lost count. After one and a half year of cycling in many different traffic cultures we are both not easily scared but this was something else. The total disregard for life was new to both of us and kept annoying us more and more.

I could go on and tell more stories about how a driver hit me and made me fall of my bicycle while the traffic was actually at a standstill and I was directly in his field of vision. Or how people on motorcycles rode next to us and made us cycle into potholes all the while trying to talk to us. But to sum it up, it was just not an enjoyable experience. There was just too much traffic, too many inconsiderate drivers and too many things happening all at once.

While many people say that India is an attack on the senses, I did not feel the same in general. I loved getting glimpses of village life, drinking tea in small stalls and wandering around in the busy cities. But I really came to hate the cycling part. I could not deal with having to concentrate 150% for 6 hours daily, it was just too much.

Torsten felt similarly to the point that when we saw these stages of the silk making process lined up next to the road, he didn’t even want to stop. The continuous stream of impressions left us just wanting to continue and get it over with as fast as possible.

But then we did stop and I’m glad about it. This is why we cycle after all. To get insights into peoples lives and what they do from day to day.

These guys were happy to let us watch their work.

We did find some small roads with smooth asphalt, too.

But when we reached Siliguri, just before the border to Nepal, we couldn’t be happier. Especially because Mayank, our couchsurfing host, and his parents lived in a beautiful house with an oasis like garden which gave us some respite after the stressful cycling.

We enjoyed the peace and quiet for a few days, got spoiled with lots of yummy food from Mayank’s mum and marvelled at the family’s gas producing unit! Handy!

Mayank also told us a lot about his business: Together with his French partner they are exporting quality cotton fabrics dyed with natural colors from India to France. You can find them here: FibreBio

On this note we left India for now and cycled to Nepal… More on that next time!

Empty beaches, challenging roads and old and new friends in Myanmar

February 2017

So there we were, at the same point were we had been roughly five weeks earlier. This time with the plan to head south to see some beaches and rarely visited areas. At first we would have to cycle to Kawkareik again though. This time we took the old road over the mountain which was a beauty to cycle.

With a nice and steady gradient of about 6% we climbed to the top easily and even if the road got a lot worse coming down on the other side – the lack of traffic was completely worth it.

In Kawkareik we met up with our friend SuSu, a local warmshowers member, and Kevin from the border crossing group. SuSu showed us a local temple and we were lucky to witness a beautiful sunset.

Later she took us to see two local noodle factories and the ladies absolutely loved Torsten’s longhi.

Apart from that it was fascinating to see how the noodles we eat a lot are made. It is hard labour, believe me!

On the next day we wanted to take a shortcut to Mawlamyine and found a few of the worst roads we have ever cycled on. I was not a happy camper but fortunately it didn’t last too long.

We arrived in Mawlamyine rather late and as the search for a guest house took some time we decided to stay for an extra day. And when we met not two but four other cycle travelers staying in the same guest house we opted to stay one more day. Thus we would be able to cycle together to the south.

When we cycled out of Mawlamyine Torsten went ahead while I chatted to Victor and Heleen, two Belgian cyclists. Suddenly I heard him shouting from a small road side cafe and only then I noticed the other touring bike. And that’s how we reunited with Jan, another member of our border crossing group!

The next two days we cycled to Ye, sometimes in our group of five, sometimes we split up for a short while. I found it really nice to have company while Torsten did have some difficulties adjusting to the slower group pace.

We found beautiful small roads through salt fields and many villages.

We did stop much more frequently than usual in order to satisfy all the different needs of the five of us. Some bicycle problems had to be attended to and of course there was food to be eaten, coffee to be had and fried bananas to be found.

Arriving in Ye we unfortunately didn’t quite see eye to eye on how to haggle for a room which ended on a bit of a sour note. Maybe this as well as Torsten’s growing impatience with the slower pace (we still hadn’t left at 11am on a scorching hot day planning to cycle up a mountain) made our group split up for a while. So Torsten and I cycled on alone again towards Dawei.

The main road was in surprisingly good condition and only in a few places left to be resurfaced. The small amount of traffic left us to enjoy our cycling days and the surrounding scenery helped immensely.

Apart from that we were gifted water that cured Yellow Urine disease – how awesome is that? 🙂

In between we found a small monastery to stay. The head monk invited us without problem and gave us Sprite and canned fruit. We left a donation the next day including some food. With the increasing number of cycle tourists coming to Myanmar I think that’s only fair.

Just before Dawei we had a funny encounter with a person who out of nowhere started to massage Torsten enthusiastically. I must say I did enjoy that a lot :D.

Dawei was a nice place to walk around for a bit especially for the beautiful partly wooden houses. Funnily enough we also managed to run into two friends we had previously met in Laos and shared some beers.

Afterwards we were beach bound again, maybe the last time for a while? The hilly cycle to Maumangan was short but rather exhausting in the heat but when we arrived at the beach we found our friends we had cycled with a few days ago and decided to stay with them at a camp site. We had a very relaxed afternoon and a nice joint dinner in one of the many seaside restaurants.

The following day we continued along the beach towards Panit. Torsten was set on staying on a different, more remote beach. I must say that I had a hard time convincing myself to go there before and during. Before, because it was scorching hot and I actually liked the beach in Maumangan, too. And during, because… look at these roads!! Sandy and incredibly steep – not my favourite combination.

As we only arrived in the evening after an exhausting cycle we decided to stay another day.

And it was perfect. There was no one around except for the occasional locals going somewhere on a motorcycle. But only three girls talked to us for a while. For the rest of the day we indulged in lots of glorious doing nothing, some reading, lots of napping and enjoying the view.

And some shots of Torsten pretending to work :).

From Panit we planned on cycling towards the Htee Kee border and then to Bangkok for our flight to Kolkata.

After we joined a river we enjoyed some beautiful roads and found a place to sleep in school for Buddhism that was still under construction. The person in charge actually went to get the police to ask for permission to let us stay. The police guy was very friendly though and except from jotting down our passport details on a peace of paper also invited us to stay with them at their station.

Unfortunately the road deteriorated a lot the next day: The tarmac vanished and we cycled / pushed up and down on steep gradients. After doing not much more than 15k in one and a half hours we threw in the towel. It was still about 75k to the border and we did not have enough provisions to stay overnight. That would be necessary with our slow pace though. A truck carrying empty fruit and vegetable crates took pity on us and within minutes we bumped along towards Thailand.

I was beyond relief not being forced to cycle that road and thus ended our last two weeks in Myanmar. We had an amazing time getting to know many people but also finding small roads to cycle through different natural environments.

While I am writing this several news stories about the Rohingya people and their militant suppression through the Myanmar army come to my mind. I won’t attempt a summary here but I want to at least invite you to read about that, too. While we met so many friendly and incredibly generous people, the police and army were ever present, too. This was mildly inconvenient for us but imposes a much greater inconvenience and even risk of life to people living in Myanmar.

With that in mind let’s have a look at how we treat refugees all over the world and do better. Everyone has a right to a dignified life after all.

 

The Myanmar – India border crossing permit debacle

February 2016

After exciting Myanmar because of our group permit to cross into India we spent an enjoyable week of rest in Mae Sot, Thailand. The small border town and especially the Green Guest House was a perfect place to be to relax, do some errands and write and work. We met with Susan and Nat, two photographers living in Mae Sot for 6 months a year.

And slowly slowly the guest house filled up with more cyclists as more and more members of our group showed up. We had fun getting to know everyone and exchanging plans and future routes.

That was it for our group though. Early next morning we cycled to the border, ever optimistic if not quite sure what would happen next. Our agency Burma Senses had left us with more than vague instructions what to do at the border. So we were not really sure if we should be upfront about our plans to cross into India as an individual  unaccompanied group or just be vague about it. We were processed quickly and got our entry stamps. As the agency had stated before that our entering as a group with the permit was very important we thought we should at least get the border staff to acknowledge the permit and showed it to them. Long story short – it all went downhill from there. We then spent the whole day at the border, discussing with various officials, talking to our contact at Burma Senses over the phone and later trying to reach said contact who would not pick up the phone any longer.

The border staff was not impressed with our permit and got increasingly angry at the agency for having us set up with the document. In the end they would not even let us enter Myanmar on our still valid tourist visas. After more discussions we could agree on returning to Thailand that evening and coming back to Myanmar the following day as six individuals. We would then be allowed to enter but not to cross into India. I guess this was a case of ‘saving face’ – we were somehow punished for trying to enter with the invalid permit but on the next day we could just be treated as normal tourists and everything would be forgotten.

Burma Senses eventually reacted to our emails complaining about their lack of support, saying that it wasn’t their fault and they did everything they could. They agreed to pay us back our money immediately and did just that. We still weren’t happy with them just stopping to respond to our calls when it got difficult and were left wondering if this happened due to differences in communication. Torsten and I grew up with solving problems directly and talking about them and maybe our contact did not. Talking to many people all over SE Asia we learned that it is not very common to talk openly about problems. Of course this is nothing more than an assumption based on what happened.

(For a longer version of the events see below.)

The upsides to that day was the group of people we shared it with: Our group of 6 was – except for one person – very relaxed and we managed to make that day full of surprises kind of fun.

In any way, some decisions had to be made. We had spent so much time trying to organize the Myanmar – India border crossing and after all of that it still didn’t work out. We talked, decided that we had really enjoyed Myanmar and still wanted to see more of it. Flights out of there to India were really expensive though and that’s why we planned on flying from Bangkok. In regards to that it didn’t really make sense to cycle up north to see all the sights like Bagan and Inle Lake and then take buses back south to make it for our visa deadline. After all the buses to get to Myanmar we really just wanted to  cycle. So we opted to go south straight away and then to exit Myanmar through the Htee Kee border crossing to Thailand. From there we would cycle to Bangkok, see our fantastic friend Toom again and then fly to India. More on that next week!

A change of plans but that just comes with the territory of overland travel, doesn’t it?

 

 

And for those interested – here is the slightly longer version of our permit troubles, first published on the Thorntree Forum:

So, we were going to cross from Thailand (Myawady) to Tamu/Moreh with bicycles. Found one agency (Burma Senses / Asia Senses) who offered to organize the permits without need for a guide. All others we contacted said this was not possible at all. Managed to get a group of 6 cyclists together as was cheaper with more people.

They changed rules/options a few times, apparently both in Tamu and Myawady staff has changed recently and the current ones are extremely diligent/bureaucratic. We were told that Tamu would only let you leave after checking with Myawady that we entered already in a group, with correct permit, on the prescribed date.

So we got the permits from the agency, however when entering in Myawady staff insisted despite what the permit said we could only go with pilot car, guide and officer of Ministry of Hotel and Tourism with us all the time(!!) (ruling out any “cheating”, too). Apparently they called lots of senior Ministry staff and decided that the permit could not be honored any more. Everybody was friendly and we had the impression they really just wanted/had to to follow the rules from high up/not make any mistakes, bribes were never suggested! Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and Immigration are quite separate and we gathered that Ministry staff were the “problem” in our case. Eventually our agency told us they saw no way to make it work and literally abandoned us at the border – not OK! A few more hours of discussion got us to at least keep our visas – we had to return to Thailand for the night, but were allowed in as “regular” tourists only the following day.

The agency did refund all our money right away, so lost quite a bit on this, too. Not sure if they were just too optimistic or naive, had overestimated their contacts, …

I spent a lot of time trying to organize this and am pretty sure for the time being crossing Myanmar to India overland is currently impossible. Have not heard of anyone just showing up at the border and getting through, but did hear of people showing up and not getting through.

Options you have now seem to be Exotic Myanmar – but only if you want to go India to Thailand. They can do individual permits to enter from and leave to India for 2x$80, people can usually leave to Thailand even though they are not supposed to. Must be applied for before entering Myanmar. Thai to India this does not work, they said clients who tried where not allowed to leave at Tamu.

We heard rumors the situation may go back to normal maybe in April ($80 permits, no same border rule), if you have time maybe you get lucky.

Last, you can go on an organized tour. This has always been possible and will set you back about $500/person for 4 days if you are several people. It is not possible to join another group once in the country and say, just go for a day from Mandalay. Four days rushing through the country makes only sense for overlanders by motorbike or car, where flying isn’t really an alternative, in my opinion …

We really enjoyed our almost six weeks in Myanmar nevertheless, don’t let this keep you from going! We have now cycled back to Bangkok via Dawei and are flying to Kolkata on Thursday 🙁

It was still great to meet so many interesting people due thanks this – staying so cool and calm all 10 hours stuck at Myawady it was almost fun!

Currently (August 2017) the border seems to be closed for individual travelers in both directions. Permits cannot be obtained. But as the situation changes rapidly and frequently, check here for updates.

Falling in love with cycling in Myanmar

January 2017

We spent the whole month of January cycling in Myanmar. Our route took us from Ngwe Saung Beach back to Panthein and the hills weren’t even that bad this time.

Monks were a part of daily life here in Myanmar. They would usually get up early and walk around the monastery. The locals would then donate food to them which is seen as a good deed in Buddhism.

On our arrival in Panthein I was once again reminded why vegetarianism is the right choice for me. Mistreatment of animals seems to be common all over the world.

We did find excellent vegetarian food though. It’s almost funny that so many people always question the feasibility of cycle touring without eating meat. Many times we get asked what in the world we eat when everyone around seems to be eating meat only. In over one year of cycle touring we only had very few problems though. On the contrary being a vegetarian makes us learn the language better and discover more food quickly. Of course it doesn’t always work out but mostly it is really not a big deal.

In Myanmar it was exceptionally easy. Once we had gotten the hang of pronouncing a few words we could easily explain what we wanted and mostly we were just offered a myriad of delicious dishes. In this case the owner of a road side restaurant kept bringing us more and more food until we were so stuffed that we could hardly move.

Temples and pagodas were another part of daily life and we saw many golden buildings by the side of the road.

We also saw many people collecting money for temples. Talking to locals it seems that a lot of energy (money and otherwise) goes into monasteries.

On our way north we stopped at road side stalls for sugar cane juice, we found nice and quiet roads and beautiful sunsets.

Locals were always curious to talk to us and occasionally we met someone who spoke really good English. That is always a good opportunity for us to get a deeper insight into a place.

Finding places to sleep along the road was actually much easier than we had thought. Usually we could find accommodation between 5 and 8 Dollars for a room, only sometimes a little more than that. The prices seem to have gone down a lot since 2013. Also it seems that it has gotten easier for guest houses to get a license to host foreigners.

It still happened eventually that a place turned us away but not nearly as often as we had expected.

On the few occasions when we couldn’t find anything we camped or asked to sleep at a monastery which was never a problem.

After a while we crossed the mighty Irrawaddy river into Pyay. After a quick search for a guest house we settled in for a few days of rest. We both enjoyed Pyay a lot. The small town has a lot of charm and the night market offers delicious food once again.

Apart from enjoying city life and meeting other travelers we also spent lots of time with a rather bureaucratic issue. As some of you might know the border crossing between Myanmar and India has been a complicated one for a while. It used to be closed then opened up but you still had to get a permit to cross as an individual traveler. At the time of January 2016 all but one agency had stopped issuing permits though. Thus began our lengthy discussions with Burma Senses, the only agency that was still considering getting a permit for us. It was more expensive than before though and we were therefore trying to find a group of cyclists to share the cost. Not an easy task, bringing 5 and more people together, each with different dates in mind and not so much willingness to compromise on routes and dates.

It was all slowly coming together though and thus we spent some time taking pictures of our bikes for the permit and organizing our future route through Myanmar. For the joint crossing we actually had to exit Myanmar once more and enter together with the group.

So we planned on cycling to Taungoo where our friend Barbara who had previously hosted us in Borneo, Malaysia, was working at the moment. Afterwards we wanted to cycle back through Hpa An and to Mae Sot. On our second time in Myanmar we planned to see some of the big sights like Bagan and Mandalay further north.

From Pyay we headed east on a beautiful small road that went through a few villages and then lots of forest.

This is the place where we camped for the first time.

We absolutely loved this road. It was really exhausting as it went up and down on steep climbs all the time but the lack of traffic and the relatively new asphalt made for three perfect cycling days.

We camped once more before the end and this time we didn’t get much sleep. As we couldn’t find a real hidden area we set up behind some trees next to a pathway when it was already dark. After we were already asleep we suddenly woke up to someone shining a torch on our tent. Shit, we thought, now they are going to get the police and we will have to move during the night.

Our solution to all of this was to keep really quiet and hope for the best. After a while we heard more voices and thought that would be the police now. But… nothing happened. All night. Except for us being awake until 3am and listening to each and every small sound. Of course after a while everything sounds suspicious…

Arriving in Taungoo we met this lovely lady again who seems to attract cats everywhere she goes :). We could sleep in a vacant teacher accommodation and enjoyed a few days off. As always we focused on eating instead of sightseeing but this time we were also invited to give a talk at Barbara’s school.

It was awesome to talk to the teachers about our travels and experiences.

From Taungoo we turned south once again. We actually tried to cycle east towards the border in order to find a quieter road going south. But alas it was not going to be. After about 15k the police found us and without further explanation made us turn back. We tried discussing with them but there was just no point at all.

The police was a bit of a constant in all our time through Myanmar as well. Sometimes when people talked to us we just got a feeling that it wasn’t just out of curiosity. And more often than not we were than asked for our passport. Sometimes they followed us for a bit but never really for long.

Mostly we just met really nice locals though. This guy for example was originally from India and had been transferred here a long time ago. There was a big Indian population in this area which was especially apparent in the food choices.

A few times we slept in monasteries as well. This one was really interesting as it functioned as a social hub for the whole village (in the middle of nowhere). They had a TV and at night everyone (well, the men) gathered around to watch sports and chew Betel.

On the next day we chose an off road route to Hpa An as the Highway riding was getting on our nerves. It started with hard packed dirt which was nice enough. The locals that we asked about the route seemed to be rather concerned and not really sure if it would go through.

The path led through thick forest and bamboo and eventually became more of a single trail.

We met more concerned locals and even someone who – without words – asked for paper and started drawing a map out of this forest for us. We were humbled by this incredible kindness and showed him our map on the phone. Without the GPS we would have been seriously lost though. There were so many turns and not a lot of people to ask where to go.

After a while we came across some rubber plantations…

… and thankfully even here there was fresh water to be found.

Fresh pepper drying:

And then the perfect cycle path to Hpa An:

Once in Hpa An we spent a couple of days to relax and even did some sightseeing. We cycled to the Bat Cave to watch thousands of bats fly out at sunset… together with 30 other tourists all cramped at the viewing point at the top. Somehow I find sightseeing more and more boring the longer I travel. I can’t seem to muster the excitement for something that I already know to much about. I rather have the unknown and am surprised by what I find on the side of the road instead of reading guide books about what I will find.

Still a nice sunset though :).

We also caught up with fellow cycle travelers Guy and Camilla and in this picture Terry. We met her coincidentally for breakfast and in a few weeks would coincidentally see her again further south.

All in all it had been a wonderful month of cycling and relaxing in Myanmar and we were already happy to spend some more time here!

Into Myanmar: a warm welcome and a New Year at the beach

December 2016 / January 2017

Although we wanted to reach the West Coast of Myanmar rather sooner than later we still chose to cycle at least a little bit before taking buses. Cycling just lets you see very different sides of places and get a good feeling for them.

And as soon as we had reached Kawkareik we didn’t regret that one bit. When we were settling into our guest house SuSu found us and gave us a perfect Welcome to Myanmar. SuSu is one of the few members on Warmshowers, the cyclist’s hospitality platform, in Myanmar. The government still doesn’t allow locals to host foreigners though, so we met up, talked over dinner and went to see a big festival for the Karen New Year.

The next morning SuSu invited us for breakfast and told us more about her ideas for the small town she lives in. She wants to educate people about the increasing trash problem, starting with talking about plastic bags.

She is an amazing person and we are so grateful for that perfect introduction to Myanmar.

Not so early the next morning we got on on our bicycles and pedaled towards Hpa An. We took a small road that started out with perfect asphalt and led over rolling hills ever closer to our destination.

On this first full day of cycling we found out that getting water wouldn’t ever be a problem. In more or less regular intervals you can find clay water pots by the side of the road. They get refilled by locals from nearby wells etc. and are an amazing thing for the passing traveler. The water in the pots even stays relatively cold as the clay cools it down.

The road eventually deteriorated into a dirt track of the rather bad kind which I’m still don’t enjoy riding fully loaded. Oh well, at least there was almost no traffic…

When we got to the outskirts of Hpa An we made a rather spontaneous decision of asking for buses to Yangon, found one and took it immediately. Sweaty and dirty we settled into the overnight bus, together with a few other people and lots of wares. Comfortable? Not so much.

When we arrived in Yangon in the middle of the night we – again spontaneously – decided on a night ride to the other side of the city and took another bus to Panthein.

On the breakfast break we had some 3 in 1 coffee and watched locals plant rice in the warm morning light.

Once in Panthein we cycled around for a bit and found one of the nicest accommodations. Simple and affordable, quiet and with this view:

All we were looking for! Panthein also ticked a lot of other boxes. We really liked the lively but relaxed small town and decided to spend a day of rest after our not so relaxed night spent in buses.

Lots of walking around town, a few errands and a bit of doing nothing did wonders for us after the constant moving of the last weeks.

The small night market was a particular enjoyable experience for us: Lots of delicious food to try and many curious locals wanting to talk to us. We met one vendor who told us about the difficulties of earning money here and his work on big freight ships. Not easy on his family but at least a possibility for work in his eyes.

And then the day was here, the 31st of December and the day were we would celebrate New Year’s together with my sister and her husband! We had planned on cycling the last 50k towards Ngwe Saung Beach in a leisurely manner and then relax for a few days together.

Well, as always, you shouldn’t plan too much… The first 20k were really nice, flat enough and we made distance fast.

But then the hills started. Oh well, some hills you might think. Shouldn’t be that hard, right? Well it was the kind of hills that rise up so steep that you almost want to push but somehow you make it standing up in your saddle. To be followed by an equally steep downhill. And then up again. And… You get the picture.

The scenery around us was stunningly beautiful but I reached my limit quite soon. My mental limit actually. Yes it was exhausting but that’s nothing new. But I just wanted to be done with cycling for the day. I wanted to get to the beach already, to be done with the stress of having to be somewhere in time. And most of all to hug my sister and celebrate a New Year together.

Of course we eventually did get there. Not without a little freakout from my side but what can you do.

The sun set was all the more beautiful and the fireworks at the beach really nice as well.

The next week we spent relaxing at the beach. Between the fancy honeymoon resort and our more humble tent, the nice food, the language lessons at our guest house…

… the walks / cycles along the beach and foremost time with Vroni and Alex we couldn’t have had a better start to the New Year. Thanks you two and may this one be a good one!

Racing through Northern Laos and Thailand

December 2016

Coming back to Laos and Thailand was really beautiful. This time around the temperatures were much better than last year in April and May and so we thoroughly enjoyed our cycle through the hills of Northern Laos.

We would have loved to spend more time if only to enjoy nice guest houses like this one. But we had a date for New Year’s with my newly wedded sister and her husband in Myanmar that we didn’t want to miss. So we ate some more noodle soup, enjoyed the night market in Luang Namtha and then hitched a lift for about 200k to the Thai border.

We weren’t allowed to cycle over the friendship bridge and instead had to take a bus. Save for the waste of money it was all easy enough though and we soon cycled into Chiang Khong and the cycling paradise that is Thailand.

I will always cherish Thailand as one of the most convenient places for cycle touring. Everything is just so easy somehow: Nice small roads with not much traffic, the availability of good food almost everywhere, iced coffee stands and for everything else you’ve got your 7-11. Oh and the night markets, what a beautiful thing! After the sun has gone down and the air gets cooler, everyone gathers at the market area and the focus lies on all the delicacies you can imagine.

We soaked all that up once more, especially on Christmas Eve in Chiang Rai where we had one of the most relaxing and beautiful guest houses. Once more we would have loved to stay just a little longer but there was only one week left to get to the beach in Myanmar. Not a bad thing to hurry for.

Cycling Yunnan: a challenging (re)start

December 2016

After that cold spell in Siberia and Mongolia I was pretty happy to arrive in Kunming again. With our planned route through Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and India warmer temperatures awaited us and that seemed pretty damn good at that point.

With our hosts Anne and Olaf we couldn’t have found a better starting point for the second point of our cycling trip. We spent a few days relaxing, eating good food, talking and organizing our gear.  I did even clean my bags which in hindsight didn’t make much sense but more on that later.

And then it was time to get going once more. I was excited to start cycling again – something I hadn’t thought possible just 5 months ago.

We had a beautiful first day with a relaxed cycle out of Kunming.

As the temperatures were moderate we had our hearts set on camping and thus began our search for a piece of uncultivated land. Not an easy task in China I tell you. It seems that on every peace of flatish land there are either houses or agriculture. Even on the few square meters between train tracks. Eventually we did find an abandoned house with a bit of greenery and pitched our tent.

Looking forward to a warm dinner, that’s when we noticed that our stove was leaking petrol. Not exactly something you want, especially not on the first day of touring after a long break. Oh well, cold dinner then.

We stopped early the next day as I wasn’t feeling well and even this amazing spread from a fast food restaurant in Yuxi wouldn’t do anything for me.

It was all better the next day though and we started our way south from Yuxi to the border with Laos.

What we didn’t know at that point was that the bigger part of the secondary road was under construction at the time. It could have been a fantastic road with nice scenery and moderate temperatures perfect for cycling. But back then it was just horrible most of the time.

Loose big gravel interchanged with sandy patches with broken asphalt in between.

As the road went up and down the big construction trucks used water to cool their brakes when going downhill. What would have been fine on asphalt resulted in a big muddy mess more often than not.

Two days after leaving Anne and Olaf’s nice and clean apartment we were already dirty all over. Having spent all that time cleaning my panniers didn’t make a whole lot of sense in hindsight as well.

When it wasn’t muddy any car or truck that passed us created big clouds of dust which stuck to us same as the mud.

Eventually it did get better though. The road construction was finished at some point and we got to enjoy the views from newly laid tarmac. Cycling back down to the Red River felt a bit like coming home as this was almost were we had left off 5 month back.

Even more so with coming back to the Mekong, the mighty river we had first met in Cambodia back in May 2016.

I loved this part of cycling along the river. The temperatures were rising again but still comfortable.

Cycling through small villages we knew that we were back in the tropics again and made the most of it.

Anne and Olaf had told us that in their experience most Chinese didn’t really care about people camping. So as temperatures were favourable this time around we were a lot less careful and mostly camped in plain sight. This worked out well for us and on the last day before crossing into Laos we had an especially nice camping space on a small lake close to a village.

 The border crossing went off without a hitch and we cycled into Laos towards Luang Namtha. Suddenly it was all a bit greener, the forest became denser and we enjoyed all the butterflies around us. There was much more nature and forest left here which made for a few nice cycling days.

… on stories, ideas and inspiration from the world experienced off our bicycles.

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