Thursday, November 15, 2012
Since leaving London, we've ...
- covered 27,100km (14,400km by train, 8,700km by boat and 4,000km by bike)
- taken 14 trains, 2 boats and 1 bike (with only 1 puncture)
- passed through 11 countries (and had our passports checked about 2700 times)
- received 2 certificates from Neptune for 'crossing the line' in the Pacific
- peaked at an altitude of 4481m
- encountered 10 languages (of which we spoke only 3)
- taken 3500 photos (of which 1700 were worth keeping)
- made 1 emergency visit to a doctor
- given a boy his first haircut in a Mongolian ger
- shown off the tandem to admiring crowds in countless Chinese villages
- danced at a floating Filipino BBQ party under the stars
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Today's 13 hour train ride down the east coast to Sydney was the last leg of our trip. We passed through some picturesque rolling countryside, many tiny stations, and we were surprised at how rural it felt, even here on the relatively populous east coast.
It seems we've grown accustomed to these long journeys, as we were 7 hours in before we even looked at our watches, and before we knew it, we'd arrived.
Monday, November 12, 2012
After the shock of paying first world prices for a taxi into town, we spent an afternoon exploring Brisbane. It seems very cosmopolitan and a pleasant place to live, especially compared to many of the cities we've seen recently. The evening rush hour on the riverside walkway was an endless stream of runners, walkers and bikers.
Dinner was an unexpected reunion with Steph's aunt and uncle, who happened also to be 12,000 miles from home.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
We had a few days of sunshine onboard, but is was often much more grey, wet and windy than is normal for this part of the world. The weather for our approach to Australia was also very different from our expectations, with high winds and rough seas. By the time we could first see land, the sky was clearing, though it remained choppy enough to add a little excitement to the harbour pilot's transfer to the ship.
The entrance into port required 4 hours of manoeuvring through Brisbane harbour's narrow channels, and we watched the action unfold from the bridge. Finally the tugs were summoned, they quickly spun us around, and suddenly we were alongside.
Life onboard quickly fell into a predictable routine. There certainly wasn't a whole lot to do, but despite this, time passed quickly and we were never bored. Each day was centred around meals in the officers' mess with our 4 fellow passengers, where the steward treated us all like royalty. We filled the rest of the day with reading, sorting through the mountain of photos we've taken, using the tiny gym and taking in the views on deck. One of the highlights was spending time on the bridge, especially when Dennis, the friendly third mate, would tell us about the workings of the ship and his adventures at sea. It was all a welcome change of pace from being on the road and being constantly on the move.
From time to time, an event would break the routine. Sightings of other ships, whales or flying fish were the subject of much discussion, and close passes of tropical islands and coral reefs were hotly anticipated. The highlight of the social calendar was certainly the 'BBQ party' which took place every three weeks for the entire ship's company. After we'd eaten bratwurst in the howling winds on deck, most of the officers retired and the Filipino crew hit the cramped steel dancefloor. They were a talkative, jovial and incredibly friendly bunch, and we enjoyed their company just as much as they enjoyed having new faces onboard.
Friday, November 2, 2012
Our taxi driver couldn't understand why we wanted to go to the container port and it took plenty of convincing before he gave in and took us there. It was a vast, bustling place, and our minibus ride to the berth, between the legs of the giant gantry cranes, was a surreal one.
Once onboard, we met our friendly German captain and were shown to our room, which far exceeded our expectations and had a great view over the bow of the ship. We were amazed at how the crane drivers flung the huge containers around at a frantic pace, and we spent some time watching them zip past our window.
At 4am, the pilot finally boarded, the tugs pulled us off, and we headed out to sea.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
By the end of the bike ride, we were keen to see something a little different from rural southern China. Hong Kong certainly provided that!
The coast is lined with high-rise towers, with endless posh shopping malls connected by a web of subway passages. Further inland, the maze of tiny streets is crammed with tiny shops and illuminated by bright neon signs. It's a great mix of interesting Asian sights, smells and tastes; but with the cleanliness, infrastructure and familiarity of a Western city. At this stage of the trip, those Western elements are particularly welcome!
Saturday, October 27, 2012
We didn't stick around in Hekou for very long, and after a late night disassembling the tandem into a few holdalls, by 10am the next morning we were on a long distance to bus to Kunming. After 5 weeks watching endless crazy bus drivers squeeze past us in their beat up vehicles on narrow roads, we were a little nervous about what the next 10 hours might have in store. It turned out, however, that our bus was modern and clean, the driver suitably cautious and the whole journey was a remarkably civilised affair.
From Kunming, we took an overnight train to Guangzhou. After our adventures on the bike, the 32 hour train ride was a much less daunting experience than it had seemed on our way to Beijing. It too passed without incident, and after some rather drawn out immigration procedures, we were on the fast train across the border and into the heart of Hong Kong.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
We've made it to the Vietnamese border and the biking is done. On route we've ...
- cycled for 35 days
- covered 4022km
- crossed through 5 provinces
- averaged 8.99km/h on our slowest day
- peaked at an altitude of 4481m
- suffered only 1 puncture
- had our passports checked about 1800 times
- had a maximum of 26 police officers at our hotel room door
- eaten fried egg and tomato for dinner 25 times
- had countless locals wave and shout 'hello'
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Today we finally made it to our objective for the bike leg of the trip: the Vietnamese border at Hekou. To be frank, it's quite a relief! We never really recovered from being ill a week ago, and the heat and terrain have made the final few days quite a struggle. If we had had much further to go, Steve might just have wasted away!
However, our final day was kind to us, with lots of downhill and plenty of shade. All day, the road wound its way through continuous banana plantations and there was activity everywhere. All around us, endless bananas were being picked, washed, transported on donkeys, boxed and loaded onto huge trucks. Everything was done by hand and the manpower involved was remarkable.
Monday, October 22, 2012
Today was the penultimate day of the bike leg and we knew it would be a tough one. We're now officially in the tropics and the heat is intense, so we set off at dawn to get some miles in before the temperature soared. The morning was relatively easy going, but progress was slowed by a two hour wait to get through a construction zone clearing yet another land slip. All day, the final 40km, the last major climb of the trip, loomed large in our minds.
Our strategy was to leave the climb until the last few hours of daylight, so after a siesta in the shade in a hospital car park watching the coming and going, we set off. Unfortunately we wildly under-estimated just how broken the last week has left us, and our pace up the hill fell well short of our usual mark. We eventually crawled into Pingbian an hour and a half after sunset, both completely spent.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
They say that a road map of China is out of date before it leaves the printing press, and given all the road construction we've seen, we can certainly believe it. We have three different sources of map information and they rarely agree. As a consequence, every route plan is a bit of a gamble.
Today, however, we won. What we had expected to be a very minor road had been replaced with a new smooth and well-graded highway, seemingly for our exclusive use!
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Today we continued through the same lush valley, though the road involved plenty of ups and downs considering we're following a river. The vegetation continues to get increasingly tropical, and the temperature peaked at 35 degrees in the blazing afternoon sun. It's hard to believe that we were shivering in the mountains only three weeks ago.
We're back in the kind of tiny settlements where a brief stop in the shade at the side of the road attracts all of the kids in the village.
Friday, October 19, 2012
With our digestive function back to normal, today we finally left the hills we've been in since Dali. A 30km downhill dropped us 1500m to the bottom of a deep valley and the vegetation changed immediately. The road now winds its way through dense, lush forest, that looks almost like jungle and hints that the Vietnamese border is not far away.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
We left Dali under more clear blue skies, and by the time we'd climbed over the first set of hills, the sun was fierce. Steph enjoyed the shade under her new homemade 'peasant helmet'.
Very soon we left the city and its tourists behind us. Our lunchtime noodles were a far cry from Dali's trendy cafes, but it was good to be back in the real countryside.
Monday, October 15, 2012
Dali was another tourist hotspot and has a reputation as a trendy hangout for Westerners. After a month on the road, we took full advantage of the Western comfort food on offer.
Indeed the burgers, salads and pizzas seemed to appeal as much to the Chinese tourists, looking for a taste of the West in rural Yunnan Province, as they did to the homesick German backpackers. We particularly enjoyed the irony of one cafe's advertisement for Twinnings tea, imported directly from London.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Leaving Shaxi saw one of the last big climbs of the trip. We chose the minor road over the hills, and minor it certainly was. The cobblestones soon gave way to a rough dirt road, and it was the first time things felt truly remote since the Tibetan plateau. It was a technical ascent (for the tandem!) and Steve loved it. The descent, however, was less fun, as we bumped our way down at walking pace. We finally got down to the main road at 2pm, with a long way still to go.
Even the main road did its best to slow us down: we certainly never imagined we'd encounter traffic jams on these rural roads. With the usual stream of trucks, plus all manner of farm vehicles, several market towns were almost gridlocked, with queues of traffic stretching for miles.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Friday, October 12, 2012
For the past two nights we were based in Lijiang, a tourist Mecca quite unlike anything we've seen thus far. The old town's narrow streets are crammed with wealthy Goretex-clad, camera-wielding Chinese tourists, browsing artsy shops and drinking in trendy cafes.
To the city-dwelling tourists, Lijiang is the epitome of a traditional town in rural western China. However, to us, the place had a rather Disney World feel to it: conspicuously clean throughout, nobody picking through the litter bins, no filthy truck repair joints and too few aggressive dogs with a leg missing. Perhaps closer to its visitors' romantic notion of what rural China should look like, than to the reality we've seen over the past 3000km.
They say China is a place of extreme contrast, and we see this especially in the cities we visit. It is not uncommon to find ramshackle shanty towns, immaculate government buildings and modern high rise tower block complexes (often still being completed) all within the city limits. The centre of town, where we tend to base ourselves for the night, is typically a chaotic place, where the traffic follows few rules and a walk down the sidewalk is an obstacle course over and around bits under construction and bits needing construction. It is often easy to long to be back in the countryside, but there are gems in the dust... like the ballroom dancing that goes on in public spaces come dark.
When travelling on the tandem, the experience is much more about the journey than any particular destination. Today though, we took a day off riding to be regular tourists for a change, and visited Tiger Leaping Gorge, rated the number four attraction in China by Lonely Planet. It turned out, however, that the day was as dominated by the journey as ever: a slow, bumpy bus ride, vulnerable negotiations with taxi drivers, official entrance fees, unofficial entrance fees and a terrifying minibus ride on a road hugging the sheer gorge walls.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed hiking down into the huge gorge and scrambling above the roaring river.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Monday, October 8, 2012
As we creep southwards, slowly leaving the mountains behind us, we've noticed a few changes.
- The landscape is getting greener. There's more farming, and things look a lot more like the stereotypical Chinese countryside.
- Yesterday we passed a chemical plant, the first sign of industry since the far north. That means the return of trucks and trains too.
- While the small towns remain poor, the larger ones seem to be getting more affluent. They're cleaner, we see the occasional western brand, and today we found ice cream for the first time since Beijing.
- It's getting a lot warmer. Yesterday was the first time for two weeks that we weren't cold at any point during the day, and today we were baking in the sun.
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Today we continued south through hilly Sichuan Province. One problem with negotiating a country of this size (particularly with our rather poor maps) is that what appear to be relatively minor features can turn out to be rather large. We spent much of the day following another river downhill, but a climb over some unnamed hills ended up involving 1750m of ascent.
As ever, our minor road was accompanied by a monstrous shiny new motorway. At times it looked like a huge rollercoaster twisting through the hills, and seemed particularly out of place against the ramshackle buildings and run-down villages on the old road.