I am an Olympian...

Trip Start Nov 02, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  , Lào Cai,
Thursday, November 22, 2012

I couldn’t resist the challenge of cycling to Sa Pa, I’d heard that the views on the way up through the valley were stunning and after arriving across the border from China into Lao Cai, I was only around 40 km away.  The Lonely Planet (LP) made it sound magical (I would love to be able to write like this), and I quote;.

‘The Queen of the Mountains, Sapa sits regally overlooking a beautiful valley, lofty mountains towering over the town on all sides. Welcome to the destination in northwest Vietnam, gateway to another world of mysterious minority cultures and luscious landscapes. The spectacular scenery that surrounds Sapa includes cascading rice terraces that spill down the mountains like a patchwork quilt. The mountains are often shrouded in mist that rolls back and forth along the peaks, offering tantalizing glimpses of what lies in wait on a clear day. The valleys and villages around Sapa are home to a host of hill-tribe people who wander in to town to buy, sell and trade’, to read more click here

I was looking forward to another challenge on my journey and was praying for clear weather, LP said that to get there it was 38 km all uphill and that ‘unless you’ve been training for the Olympics, it’s hell on a bicycle’, and you know what… although I was exhausted, it wasn’t as bad as some of the many climbs I had already achieved in China.  The weather was absolutely beautiful which always helps, the road wound round the many hairpin bends, gradually ascending up through the spectacular scenery of the fore-mentioned rice terraces.  I received the usual shouts of ‘hello’ from everyone passing on their motorcycles, trucks or three wheel machines you name it, and the thumbs up wishing me good luck on my way.

I forget that I’m not in China anymore and the shops are few and far between, the only thing I really need to watch is that I’m carrying enough water.  I stop for lunch at a roadside place (just as well as it was the only place I passed) and have the most amazing experience sitting with men and women from one of the local hill tribe’s.  The men are all smoking their bamboo pipe after finishing their food, while the women do all the work.  As soon as I sit down one of the women in traditional dress calls her daughter on her mobile phone to talk to me, hilarious… I’m given the phone where she passes on her contact details and tells me about a Home stay opportunity when I get into Sa Pa, and to contact her, I find them so open and friendly.  I order lunch and I’m delighted when she picks the veg straight from the field before cooking it up, it’s served up with not only a plate of pork, plate of fried eggs, but a soup dish, noodles plus rice, I can’t believe the amount that is put in front of me and all for 40,000VND (around 1.20).

The trip to Sa Pa was as magical as I suspected it would be, seeing many different hill people on the way, in their traditional outfits which are unique to this area.  Cycling through the valley nicknamed Heaven's Gate which separates the provinces and is said to be a place of enlightenment, in one photo of the road ahead the light through the clouds was, just heavenly.  On reaching the village I was relieved, tired and ecstatic all at the same time, taking the title of ‘Olympian’ to heart.

I stayed for a couple of days in glorious weather visiting the market's and local villages, the church and museum, and generally people watching around the square before the weather changed and the mist and fog came in to stay.  I put my cycle out of Sa Pa off for a day or so, but as the weather wasn’t for clearing I had no option but to brave it, and to complete the challenge up and over the top of the pass and Vietnam's highest road.  

It was freezing cold and visibility was poor, despite having many layers of clothes on I was struggling with the cold and to keep on going, I even ended up putting socks on over my cycle gloves as my fingers were blue!  

Why o’ why do I do this to myself I have to ask, the answer, well to explore and to rise to the challenge, to see what lies on top of the mountain or what you see down in the valley (when the fog clears) and because I have been given the strength of mind and body to keep on going even when I think I’m beat, ‘stubborn’ actually probably describes me best, oh and don’t forget 'I am, an Olympian’.
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