The balcony based Ozzies meant that we had not slept very well for some hours before the alarm went off. When it finally did we got ready in double quick time, and (after a slightly spiteful, but ultimately failed, attempt by Jessica to lock them outside, we) said a fond goodbye to the hotelier and got on the road.
We very quickly got back off the road and into a backpacker cafe, to enjoy what we knew would be our last bowl of fruit and muesli for many days, and as we sat there a pair of cycle tourists on a green Dawes tandem came past, appearing not to even notice us and our bikes propped up by the roadside. This obviously put the thrill of the chase into us both (well… Sam) and so we wolfed down the rest of our rabbit food and started the pursuit.
The road out of town was extremely beautiful. The karst mountain ranges grow higher and higher as the valley closed in. After about an hour of peddling we stopped for a quick visit to the “little cycle tourists room” and as Sam waited outside there was another flash of green and the same tamdeming two shot past yet again. Annoyed at having been overtaken not once but twice by the same pair Sam hurried Jess back onto her bike when she reemerged, and (ignoring the demands of his own bladder) restarted the hunt. Then under increasing pressure from both sides, the valley then gave up altogether and we started to climb.
The town and villages of northern Lao are famous amongst culinary circles for their unerring willingness to eat things that most people won’t even go near. This meant that on our first climb we were continually distracted by the interesting wildlife hanging from the roadside markets, a very large bat probably being the most unusual of the recognisable creatures on display.
We stopped near the top of the second big climb of the day, looked back to get a view of how far we had come, and low and behold, we were yet again being pursued by a green tandem This time thankfully they stopped, and were able to get to know this pair that seemed to take such relish in overtaking us. Excitingly they turned out to be the first other British cycle tourists we had met in three months on the road (Paul and Dawn from Hampshire!)!
Giving it our all we managed to get ahead of them on the first climb, however their increased weight (cough) gave them a big advantage on the decent and they were well ahead by lunch, where we caught them up again. They hadn’t done as much research as us (well… Jess (but then who has)) and so weren’t sure about where was a likely sounding place to sleep, and so we were happy to impart some of our encyclopedic knowledge, giving them the location of a very promising sounding hot springs at the top of the next hill.
The next hill was quite a beast, and the climb took the best part of the afternoon as the road wound it’s way through limestone pinnacles and weaved round the mountain side giving amazing views out over the saw-toothed landscape. It seemed to take forever, but the feeling of getting to the top was more than worth it when we rounded the corner and saw the steam rising from the thermal pool.
Paul and Dawn were already recharging their batteries in the thermally energised water, and we quickly joined them and then spent a few hours floating around, discussing the advantages of 1 big bike compared to 2 small ones, watching locals come and bath in the pool, and trying to work out what geological phenomenon it was making the water warm…
The next day started with a lovely, all be in short, stretch of downhill. The mountainsides were covered in tufts of pampas grass, and rolling into the valley, with no sign of human life and a slight mist in the air you could image than any sort enchanted creature lived out there in that alien landscape… (what these creatures might have thought of the poorly installed overhead cables that ran the whole way along the road, I can’t imagine anyone ever thought to ask…)
Sadly, before you can say “where have the over head cables gone”, we started to climb again, a windy road hugging the mountain side like a bit of freshly cooked spaghetti. It was quite a long climb (20km) slowly working our way out of the valley, and at times the hill side would swing round and give us an amazing view of the distance we had already covered, the road disappearing in the distance behind us.
We were climbing for some time. We would work our way round a ledge cut in the mountain, aiming for an outcrop hopeful that that would be the end of the up hill, and each time as we came round the corner we would be presented with yet another sweeping accent, and yet another distant outcrop. Eventually though one outcrop (not as strong as the others) gave up, and the road flattened and headed out across a very narrow ridge, joining this mountain with the next. The ridge was very narrow, not so narrow however as to have prevented someone from building a village on it, with the backs of the houses supported on stilts where they stuck out over the edge of the cliff.
It wasn’t long before we were heading up yet again, now with the mountain on our right and valley on our left. Where as the previous hill had seen fit to hide from us the full extent of it’s hight, this new, more confident peak candidly displayed the route we were going to have to take, and a bloody long way it was to.
Our route stretched out in front, curving round the inside of a huge notched semi circular range, the road visible for some 5km as it determinedly crawled its way up to the top, where we had no option by to the follow it.
The climb was pretty steep. An occasional lorry would hurtle past, and we would get to watch it appear and disappear as then struggled it’s way up round each of the snaking bends. To begin with the end of the climb appeared a very long way away, but slowly the distance between us and it grow smaller. Eventually a building came into view, and much later still it became clear that the building had sun umbrellas outside.
Normally, when you get to a remote mountain top in South East Asia you would justifiably expect to find some sort of wise old hermit, probably sitting under a blossoming fruit tree. He would then probably teach you a mystical karate move, or impart some Confucian wisdom. Sadly however, at this remote mountain top someone had built a cafe, and so as we wandered through the car park all we found were American and Korean tourists, all of whom you got the impression were feeling very smug about the fact that they had got to the same beautiful view point without having to climb the 700m to get here…
Disadvantages aside, the existence of this cafe did mean that were able to re-energise ourselves with a packet of crisps and relatively decent instant espresso, and then went and sat with the tamdemers who had just beaten us here and had bagseed themselves a choice spot on the viewing platform.
They were already pouring over their map and doing the all important terrainal analysis to try and come up with the golden ratio of “climb done:climb yet to do”. Sadly, early indications suggested that we had not yet reached unity. Even so though, we were proud of how far we had come, and were quoting phrases such as “well that’s broken the back of it” and “The worst is certainly behind us”. In fact, even those clichés turned out to the false, although we weren’t to know that for a while yet.
The afternoon started with a decent length of downhill, just long enough to make sure that your legs had properly ceased up by the time they needed to do any more peddling. On the way down we passed a very large number of cycle tourists coming in the other direction. The first pack were led by a man who had come all the way from Iceland, and so for a short while held the title of “person who has cycled the furthest to get here”. After saying goodbye to them we passed others, but didn’t stop and only shouted such choice words of encouragement as “your nearly there” as we whizzed past. This was of course a lie.
The road then bounced along another wider ridge, not being able to make up it’s mind between up and down. Soon however this criss of confidence was over and after another short section of decent, taking us all the way down to lovely a river valley, it settled on what it thought it new best which was of course up.
Until this point we had not been too worried about the passage of time, it was getting to mid afternoon, but we only had 20 km to do before getting to the next likely looking village, and since “we have broken the back of it” we were sure that the rest of our days cycle would fly by and we would be sipping BearLao by tea time. This new climb made us re-evaluate that.
Once again the road ahead was clearly laid out, and again where we were going was considerably higher than where we were now. However we were still feeling fit when we arrived at the bottom, and so up the hill we went, slowing only momentarily as we headed off road to avoid a broken down lorry, currently in the process of having it’s entire engine replaced. This work was of course blocking the entire road, but traffic volumes were so low that this presumably lengthy process had so far only produced a tail back of one car and one van, the drivers of which were making the most of their newly won free time by sitting in the sun and enjoying a cigarette, making a very concerted effort to not help with the repair work, and so potentially risk speeding it up.
There were still 9 km to do when we got to the top of this long climb, and the slow march of time had turned into rather more of swift jog. It was already later than we like to be on the road, and there was strong concern that if this 9k was like the last 9k it was going to be dark by the time we found somewhere to sleep. Fortunately their was about 6k of undulation which we kangarrood our way along relatively quickly, before we rounded a bend and saw far away in the distance (and a long way above our heads) the radio mast that almost certainly signified the location of our village.
The thought of having to do this new final climb was so horrific that neither of us mentioned what we had seen for a few minutes, until it became all too clear that that was where we were going, and then the dread started to set in.
We were now running on Oreo fumes, and so stopped for a few minutes to have one final sugar injection. While we were waiting there an ancient Laotian woman came past, also heading up the hill, and stopped to share a few words of gibberish and stare intently into Jess’s open pannier bag. We gave her a few pieces of chocolate and a wafer, (since in these situations you can never be sure that what looks like a normal old woman isn’t in fact a mountain spirit, tasked with the job of handing out good luck to cycle tourists). She eventually got bored, started to wander off, and as you might expect, when we looked back she’d disappeared.
Finally, and at the very limits of our strength we rolled into the village square and pushed our bikes in the guest house, powered now by a potent cocktail of relief and pride. The Garmin read a total altitude gained of 2300m, the same height of Val Thoren (Europe’s highest ski resort) above sea level.
We arrived just in time to join the party, as the 8 other cycle tourists also staying at that guest house cracked open some beers, and a very enjoyable evening was spent discussing various cycle adventures, until someone saw that the time was approaching 8 o’clock and as one man we all unanimously decided it was time for bed.
Since reading this blog now requires almost as much stamina as the cycling did (and you’ll have noticed that I’ve completely run out of interesting photos), I shall keep my accounts of the final day into Luang Prabang brief. Misty start, followed by some piddly little climbs. The only slight distraction being lunch where we panicked a bit and stopped in a pretty ropey looking road side eatery, and after (we thought) ordering two noodle soups, were presented with an entire and complete chicken, where the only bits missing where those bits that you might actually want to eat…
Along a very pretty (and very flat) river side, and after one final climb (accurately described by the “Travelling Two” as “Short and sharp”) we were rolling down the hill into the beautiful and historic city of Luang Prabang.
N.B. Sadly our one regret from this section (excluding the chicken) is that we never managed to get the contact information for our fellow cyclists, Paul and Dawn (a.k.a. the tandem couple) as they got ahead of us on the downhill. Only one photo exists of Paul, and so if you should ever meat this man, can you please thank him sincerely for looking after us, and wish him and his wife all the best for their future adventure.
Day 1, Vang Vieng to Thermal Springs at the top of the hill.
Day 2, Springs to a different place at the top of a different hill.
Day 3, that place… to Luang Prabang