Bicycle Reborn; Rebound Northward

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The overnight bus from Nong Khai arrived in Bangkok not long after sun-up. I set off pushing my bike and luggage the 12 km or so to the guest house where I'd stayed last time. Despite the recent advent of the SkyTrain, Bangkok remains the domain of the car, and so navigating its massive intersections and intermittent pavements was fun, but a couple of hours later I arrived safely and checked in.

After a day of rest and geeking out, I pushed my bike (this time sans luggage) into the central city Probike store, another good 10 km jaunt. Nipa, who was handling the free warranty replacement of my frame, promptly rolled out my shiny, new, complete Trek 7.5FX bicycle. A few tweaks were in order: the sexy radially-spoked wheels would not last an hour under the weight of me and my gear, and the carbon fork would be liable to sudden catastrophic failure if loaded with my front luggage. Nipa kindly offered me a replacement Trek Cro-Mo fork, as my old one was incompatible, and I swapped over wheels, seat, pedals, racks and other bits from my dearly departed. Nipa was truly wonderful, and let me do all the work right there in the shop, and put a mechanic at my disposal for changing the fork. Soon I had a nippy, shiny, if slightly Frankenstein-ish new steed to see out the remainder of my cycling. In fact, its shininess drew enough attention that I taped the frame with insulation tape that night, both to protect its newness and to make the bike less eye-catching.

I stayed another couple of days in Bangkok, popping in to see my friend Prahpreut at Bok Bok Bike and show him the new wheels. He helped me with some further mods to the bike, and had a friend of his cook me a tasty veg dinner right there in his shop, where we dined together. The next day, everything in order, I took the overnight train to Chiang Mai, my intention being to see this popular destination before riding to the Laotian border and getting back to roughly where I'd been when the older frame broke. Sleeping in the bunk was difficult with the heat; the curtains gave privacy but obstructed the fan, and the best scenery of the journey rolled by in darkness, unseen.

Finding Chiang Mai's accommodation relatively cheap, its people friendly, food good, and in light ot the sporadic, daily, often heavy downpours, I found it hard to feel a sense of urgency to immediately press on.

I began to delve further into practising Mandarin Chinese, and as an aid to getting by in China, spent several days developing an applet for my N900 phone to allow easy switching of input methods between the standard, and one that allows easy input of complex characters, such as those used in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and the languages of southeast Asia. The applet reduces battery usage, whilst allowing users to retain the useful functionality of the standard input method, and was well received by users in this part of the world who had previously had to compromise in one or the other.

Some days later, I was tweaking the bike under the motorbike shelters of Tesco Lotus (Thailand's Wal*Mart), as one does, when I had the good fortune to be approached by a friendly fellow Farang. Etienne, an ex-pat Flemish Belgian runs Click and Travel, a cycle tour company that hires bikes (and guides, if required) for tours around Northern Thailand. He offered for me to come and complete my work in his workshop. I was delighted, and found him to be a meticulous bicycle mechanic with many great ideas and innovations borne from his years of experience. He also furnished a solution to a problem with the newer, smaller bicycle frame, that of the handlebars being relatively low, producing a 'stem extender' from his stock of spares, which he gave to me for a good price. He warned me that my front rim was well-worn, but I didn't give it much thought at the time. Finally, I was starting to feel ready to get underway again

In preparation for departure, I decided to 'stress-test' the bike by cycling the local road up Doi Suthep, the most prominent mountain in the vicinity, and site of a Buddhist temple that is a popular attraction. The gradients were formidable, and I made it about 3/4 of the way up before turning back from exhaustion and the falling darkness.

The next day, I repeated the arduous climb, this time reaching the entrance to the temple. During, however, I noticed my right pedal was grinding. I'd had the same problem on my way back from Berlin to London, in 2007, and then I'd simply tried to ignore it, which had resulted in the pedal spilling its bearings on the road and me shelling out for a new pair of pedals at the Dutch border. This time, with Etienne's help, I stripped the pedal, cleaned, re-greased and re-packed the bearings. All of which was unnecessary, I've since discovered, as the problem was simply that the constant clockwise rotation of the right-hand pedal gradually winds up the tension until the bearings start to rub between the cones and the bearing races. Simply loosening and then re-setting the counter-tensioned nuts to give the ball-bearings room to move freely would have solved it!

I cycled up Doi Suthep one final time, as much for the good of my legs - well out of form after 6 weeks off the road - as to test the pedal. All was well, however Etienne's warning about my front rim nagged me, and having been told that 700C wheels are uncommon in China, I shopped around for a new rim and got my wheel rebuilt overnight. The rebuilt wheel, whilst 'true' (straight, for you non-bike geeks!) was not equi-tensioned, so I went around the spokes one by one, and ended up with a strong and beautiful wheel on which to pin my hopes for a rolling return.

Inter-spersed with all of this 'productivity', I took a little time to see Chiang Mai a little, enjoyed the fantastic (and cheap) vegetarian eateries, and hung out a bit with Toshi, a Japanese friend I'd met soon after arriving.

Feeling about as ready as one ever does for cycling off into the blue horizon, I finally made my way out of Chiang Mai and set off toward Chiang Kong, where I'd cross the Mae Kong river to Laos.

Once again, the heat and humidity were killer, but at least I mostly avoided monsoon drenchings. And I rediscovered my courage to wild camp, something I'd been somewhat hesitant to do since India. Probably the fact that the roads in Northern Thailand were smaller and the surroundings much wilder helped a lot with this. My 3rd night out of CM found me camped in a lychee orchard in the hills, where I made use of a very basic shelter (and my mosquito net) and naughtily ate quite a number of lychees (though of preference I took the fallen ones that were still okay).

A short boat ride the next morning and I was in Laos again, just in time to see a torrential downpour from under shelter in Houayxay.

Nonetheless, I opted to chance the weather, and set off on the highway toward Luang Namtha, which gradually became increasingly hilly, with long sections still unsealed even as the route, an important artery linking northern Thailand to China, neared completion.

Even after Thailand, the friendliness of the Lao people impressed on me immediately, and was a delight to experience again. I ate and lay down under a tree outside a school, and was soon joined by inquisitive children.

The famous Laotian hills and heat were unbearable in places, and several times I found myself feeling faint and pondering Hamlet's "To be or not to be..." with my leaning honestly tending toward the latter several times, when shade was unavailable and the road uplifted inexorably. This kind of existential reflection is probably no stranger to seasoned cycle tourists, but something keeps us grinding away out here...  We be a stubborn lot.

The reception as I passed through the dirt-poor mountain villages of the H'mong (some were possibly other tribes) was somewhat variable. I imagine the advent of the highway, with its heavy freight trucks and the occasional crazy cyclist is something of a mixed blessing for those villages where motorised transport is out of reach and the only possibility of commerce is a small hut selling tobacco and junk food. Finding camping spots in the hills, where the road cutting often left scant level ground alongside for a tent (let alone cover from curious night-time passers-by), necessitated a lot of stealth and patience, but was managed.

And then, on the 3rd day things flattened out, as they always do in the end, and I found myself in one of the small bamboo chalets of a peaceful (and bargain-priced) guest house in Viengphoukha, overlooking a river in which children swam and water buffalo plodded. I delighted in taking a rest day, and re-did (needlessly, I later found out) my left pedal, as I'd done for my right, before making for Luang Namtha, where the Chinese influence really began to show, with greater numbers of signs in Chinese. A few nights in a comfortable guest house with Internet, and all the other comforts that threaten the inertia of a sometime tent-dweller, and I decided to pre-empt the lethargy I felt creeping up and headed for the Chinese border crossing, some 50 km away at Boten.

The highway climbed fairly gradually, and I reached Boten mid-afternoon, and stopped to exchange Lao Kip for Chinese Yuan (I'd been warned of the poor rate at the border itself).

Crossing no man's land, to my surprise, the entrance to China was very impressive indeed: an enormous, high-tech complex; marble stairs; free Internet, and friendly Chinese border staff who spoke English.

Soon I was happily coasting downhill through the border town of Mohan, vaguely conscious of my own misconceptions, as well as the many cliches one hears of China, falling away one by one...
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