Saturday, 31 July 2010

My new friend - the Tilley TH5

We've been buying some bits and pieces for the Tour du Mont Blanc and I wanted something to protect my head & the back of my neck from the sun & the rain as, from following the weather over the last few months, it seems we'll get both in no small measure in the Alps. I'm not a fan of bandanas, nor those slightly curious baseball caps with flaps over the neck - far too French Foreign Legion for me. No, in fact, I've always been somewhat intrigued by wide-brimmed hats & Tilley make some rather fine examples. I wanted something reasonably breathable and the TH5, made from hemp, just looks great. Hemp is a naturally occurring fabric which appealed to me too. So it was that I came home with one this week (to much raucous laughter and derision from Mrs. M who did not think it went well with a grey, three-piece suit). UPV 50+, water resistant, washable, buoyant - it's an all round gem. Comfy too & it makes me look just enough like Indiana Jones to justify it.

The great story, of a zookeeper whose elephant eats his repeatedly, passes it & then it's washed & re-worn to be eaten another day can be found inside a little pouch hidden in the top of the hat. It makes me smile when I read it as do the stories of what may have been hidden in other hat pouches that can be found on Tilley's website. Oh yes, victim of advertising, me...

Friday, 30 July 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc - August 21st draws closer...

I confess that my recent journeys in Europe has meant that the Tour du Mont Blanc preparation has taken a back seat with the exception of our weekly gym visits to continue our fitness work. We're off to the Carneddau this weekend which will be the last opportunity for a decent long-distance hillwalk with some good ascent, as well as well as few Trail 100 peaks into the bargain. Also, I've a new piece of kit to test, sent to me by Montane, but more on that when I get back. We'll knock off 40-50km and 1000m this weekend I would think, which will be good.

I have managed to, this evening, book our flight tickets to Geneva (flights to Grenoble being very hard to come by out of season) which means, on arrival in Geneva, either a train to Chamonix/Les Houches (which seems problematic and involves a change or two) or a cab from which would set us back about €23.50 each it would appear. Sadly, the flights are with easyJet whom I find uniformly poor but there is not much choice - we'll just have to put up with endless delays, ill-informed staff and hideous orange daubing everywhere. We depart early Saturday morning, arrive in Les Houches, hopefully, mid-afternoon and will then have some time to get last minute bits and pieces and relax before starting early on Sunday morning. I've also booked a hotel for the first night and I'll get to reserving places in dortoirs at mountain refuges for the first few nights this weekend. After that, we'll do it en route as I do not want to be tied to a particular timetable. It all sounds rather civilised according to the various reviews of the accommodation on the internet so even though each day is a fairly vigorous fitness test, recovery will be easier than if wild camping although, secretly, I'd rather be camping it.

The gear list has already been posted and can be found on the "Gear Lists" page at the top of this journal of mine and HERE. The main issue lately has been whether to take a change of clothes and stash it somewhere for 'travelling' in. We're undecided on that, as yet, but the current feeling is that we'll just wear what we're hiking in. My companion thinks it'll be rather amusing to 'mince around Geneva' when we've finished in 11 day beards, sweaty, dirty and causing sightings of Sasquatch to be posted on the internet - should give the Swiss a fright and we'll probably get arrested. That said, my plan is to wash our kit using a tried and tested independent travel method - shove dirty clothes into a drybag, with water and camp soap, close the drybag, shake violently, rinse, shake violently again, rinse and then, when all the soap is gone, hang it all out in a drying room. I think we'll only need to do that twice and the refuges should provide us with drying room facilities. Otherwise, we'll just smell lots (which will guarantee is plenty of space in the dortoirs...)

We'll probably wrap our rucksacks in a bin liner together, packing tape adorning the outside, and that'll be the one piece of 32kg hold luggage I've just reluctantly given easyJet £18 for. Thieves.

I've been reading another blog recently, Traverse Japan, which attracted me initially because of the truly wonderful header image, but the blog is extremely interesting. Hamilton is heading off to do the Coast to Coast of Japan, taking in every 3000m peak en route. His is a very fresh, smooth, honest and self-deprecating prose and I'm really enjoying reading it. His preparations have been rather more herculean than mine - we are not camping, we are staying in refuges; we will not be taking much in the way of long-term food as much of it can be secured en route; we will be treading a well-defined and straightforward path. He seems to have much more of a challenge ahead of him and I am ever so slightly jealous! I wish him the very best of luck and look forward, with almost breathless anticipation, to his report when he gets back.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Anquet for the Mac - now available

I was recently told by Anquet that they would have their full system of maps available for Mac OS shortly. It's now here. The download comes from VP MAPS and I'll be testing it for our upcoming Carneddau trip. The download software, for those that do not know, is free but the maps cost a significant amount. I am not going to discuss the relative merits of whether they should be charged for, or the rate charged, here - that's for the review but the Snowdonia NP OS 1:25,000 maps have just cost me £72.61 (inc VAT).

An update before the main review - the Mac version does not have 3D flyby view (which is a shame as it's a lovely feature of the Windows version) - VP Maps take the view it will be "...some time away." They said, when I asked, that " was not considered a hugely important module for first release, and with this a totally new application, we have a plan to build features in the longer term." Fair enough and very honest of them, we'll await developments, but I would have liked to have seen it straight away. I accept, in the round, there are more important features.

Also, the Snowdonia NP bundle does not seem to have waypoint height data but, if you download the Wales Anquet Free Height data in the My Maps section of the Map Manager it will translate to the waypoints on the Snowdonia NP map. Many thanks to VP Maps for extremely quick and courteous responses.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Trail Running in the Black Forest

I'm no runner. 

Up until February this year, running was not something I did regularly, except for trains. I could appreciate that I'd probably like it - the freedom of it - but I was rubbish at it. However, Christmas and life conspired to make my pants just that little bit tighter than I wanted and I got started. I am lucky and unlucky - I work in London (unlucky) but live sufficiently far out that I am in the Surrey countryside but sufficiently close that the commute is about an hour (lucky) so I have some downland countryside at my back garden gate. Thus, running is actually very pleasant (but uphill, so hard work). I hated it to begin with but persevered - now I can do 5km in 26mins. Yes, yes, I know this is not world-record time, but I'm a beginner so cut me some slack, eh?

So it was, on our European 'van tour this July (posts to come), I got some time in the Black Forest. Didn't know this, but the Black Forest is about 1000m up so there's some good hills there with some good views. It's not hillwalking by any stretch as we were camped in Unterkirnach which is 800m up, but I went for a long walk in the forest anyway. I'd planned on 20km but about 10mins into it, I just started running. It just seemed like a good idea. I had shorts, trail running shoes (Innov8 Terroc 330's, as I used for the Cabane de Moiry) and a t-shirt with a 10 litre Osprey Solo with a windshirt, water and grub in it.

Clearly I did not run all the way - it's just over a half-marathon I think - but I did 20km in less than 2.5hrs. If I'd walked, at my usual pace of 5km/h, it'd have taken me 4hrs. There was about 400m of ascent along the whole trail as well. Navigation is easy as the route is signposted in places and there are trailmarkers on the trees at reasonable intervals so I could run without getting lost. It's an odd feeling, running through a forest on a fresh, sunny day. I confess to being rather taken by it and I did it again in the Eifel region of Germany, again in a forest, about 3 days later.


Saturday, 24 July 2010

Le Cabane de Moiry

Whilst travelling around Europe this year in the ‘van, (separately posted) we stopped for a few days in Grimentz in the Val d’Anniviers in the Swiss Alps. The morning of the 13th July, we rose early in order to pacify my desire to get some hill-time in while in the Alps. My (pregnant) partner wanted to come with me so we chose a quick jaunt up towards Le Lac de Moiry and we parked at the buvette at the foot of the Glacier de Moiry. There is a path that then ascends some 480m to the 2886m Cabane de Moiry. From the Cabane there would be, according to the somewhat basic watercolour cartoon map we had, with a rather comical eyeball symbol to denote the same, a panoramic view of the glacier as well as, among others, Grand Cornier (3964m), Dent Blanche (4356m) and Dent des Rosses (3613m). As it transpires, it is not easy walking, despite the fact that I had only a day pack on - the paths are well marked by yellow or red painted lines, slashes really, and obvious to the naked eye. This is a well-trodden route so the path is well used. What made it difficult was that it required some boulder-hopping in places and was extremely steep. In others, there was deep snow with the path tracked into the snow by earlier hikers as well as ropes tagged into the wall to aid balance (without which any ascent would’ve been impossible without Grade I-II scrambling). 

What really made the whole thing an interesting prospect for me was that I had not planned on any real hillwalking as my partner is both pregnant and not really interested in it. I packed some ‘just in case’ Craghoppers convertible pants (I never hike in them, they are for when we get back to base-camp), some of my old Brasher socks and some running stuff as well. Footwear - I like travelling in Innov-8 Terroc 330’s as they are light and dry quickly and I can walk all day in them, as well as my proper ASICS running shoes. I also keep a 10 litre Osprey Solo pack in the ‘van for mountain biking. Consequently, when I decided to do a bit of Alps hill-walking, I had
some kit in the ‘van. I packed some water, food, my running Gore windshirt, a camera and my Steiner binoculars (Christmas present, tiny and weigh only 220g). Zipping off the bottoms of the Craghoppers (it was quite warm, although, after the thunderstorm we’d had the night before, it was certainly cooler than the 90F we’d had previously), and pulling on a t-shirt and the Terroc’s, I set off. This would be the first time I’d done any real hillwalking in trail-running shoes so I was quite glad of the enforced opportunity. In fact, they were perfectly adequate. Strength in thighs and ankles is crucial but the lightness of foot permits agility that is more difficult in boots. I will seek to evaluate them again on more challenging terrain.

An icy dip beckoned...

The path to the Cabane de Moiry begins relatively benignly, with a comparatively steep climb on a well-trodden trail. The views of the mountains behind the Glacier, and the Glacier itself, are fantastic throughout, but truly, it is not until you reach the Cabane that they become magnificent. The proximity of the Cabane to the glacier confers a mien of genuine fulfillment despite what is a somewhat cursory ascent. However, before that, a traverse of long patches of snow and steep climbs are necessary as well as a couple of sections where chains and ropes are attached to the rock face to facilitate ascent. Following this steep, switchback’d climb, in the company of the League of Nations, there comes a rocky, bouldery summit ‘path’ reminiscent of the Lake District. In fact, much of the Alps, with the exception of the highest peaks above 3,500m, reminds me considerably of Cumbria, yet much bigger of course and, whereas the Lakes are mostly rock and grass, in the Alps there are few vistas, even in the summer, that are not dominated by prodigious, white-garbed massifs. 

The Cabane, visible from the buvette, but disappearing quickly after that, emerges unexpectedly upon cresting the bouldery rise at the top of the false summit - false because, only when you see the Cabane do you realise what lays beyond it - Dent Blanche and its lesser siblings gaze down upon you and, rather than deriding your achievement, invite more. It is a magical, speech-defying moment. There are benches at the Cabane, and I sat, and ate hungrily, whilst staring in wonder at the sierra beyond which felt scant metres away from me and the Glacier which felt close enough to touch.

Yes, this was only 480m or so of ascent and took perhaps 3hrs up and down, but it felt as if it really should have taken more for such a rich reward.

Bananas - the Backpacker's Fruit

I read an article recently about the banana in a local circular. I know we probably all love bananas and, as we observe athletes (at Wimbledon especially) demolishing them between races or sets, we know that they must be good for us and provide energy. What I didn’t know was just how good...

Clearly, for traveller backpackers, a banana is a great source of food. It has it’s own ‘sterile’ wrapping so is good for those of us journeying in somewhat unhygienic locales, and is obscenely readily available almost everywhere. For UL hillwalking backpackers, a breakfast of two bananas before a hillwalk is a superb idea. This is why:

Energy: consuming two bananas provides sufficient energy for up to 90 minutes of strenuous activity. In fact, depending on size, they supply about 300 calories. They are a mixture of the natural sugars of sucrose, fructose and glucose meaning they provide immediate and slow-release energy.

Depression and stress: bananas contain tryptophan which can aid in mood enhancement and relaxation. In short, eating a banana may improve your mood. The vitamin B6 it contains regulates blood glucose levels, also affecting your mood. When we are stressed, our metabolic rate increases, reducing our potassium levels - bananas can help normalise this.

Blood: High in iron, bananas can help increase the production of haemoglobin which, in turn, affects cases of anaemia. Extremely high in potassium and low in salt, it also is great for your blood pressure. The US Food and Drug Administration has recently concurred and agreed to permit banana suppliers make that claim on packaging.

Constipation: high in fibre, bananas help in restoring and maintaining normal bowel action which, if eaten before a hillwalk, can ensure, if you are wild camping that, if you need to dig a hole for relief purposes, at least it will be relatively solid!

Hangover: A banana milkshake with honey will help with a hangover. Bananas settle your stomach, the honey and the banana build up depleted sugar levels and the milk helps to re-hydrate your system. It will also help with heartburn.

Mosquito bites: there have been numerous reports that (erk!) rubbing the banana skin over an insect bite will help soothe the irritation. Not sure about the science behind that one but a quick Google search seems to bear that out...

Thermoregulation: bananas are seen as cooling fruit by many world-wide cultures that can lower physical and emotional temperatures.

They may not be ultra-light, but they’re ultra-useful. Many thanks to CR5 for that article!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

South East Asia - The Mekong Delta - Part III

Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos? Is that in Vietnam? This is a question I was asked at a barbeque recently. I scoffed, of course, but would I have done so some years ago? I really don't know, but this diminutive and unpretentious nation, replete with hill tribes located deep within the mountains to the north and steeped in buddhism, is perhaps one of my favourite places on earth. The people, I would come to realise, were kind and generous, despite having very little themselves, and utterly welcoming of outsiders in a way totally different to much of South East Asia where the primary motive so often seems to be financial - the Lao are simply not built quite that way, especially if you get out of the cities and into the countryside. We arrived on a plane that really ought to have been de-commissioned when Field Marshal Montgomery was commanding the Desert Rats. The in-flight magazine was first published in a year beginning with 19. The food was not much newer and packaged, lovingly, in a garishly painted cardboard box. The cabin crew - unfeasibly proud of their small airline - tended to our every need. It was perhaps the worst and yet most wonderful flight I have taken in years. That was not to be the last time I would say that of Laos.

We arrived into Luang Prabang late and took a taxi to our hostel, the Jaliya Guesthouse on the outskirts of town. Run by an improbably fearsome but kindly woman, who ushered us to our room within the garden area of the hostel, she explained, as clearly as she could, the amenities. Not quite in the heart of Luang Prabang as the brochure claimed but close enough. Clean and with a functioning fan to move the hot air around, we were suitably content. We headed out, even though it was late, and imbibed a Beerlao across the road before climbing into our bed. Styled as a "tonic for the soul" by our guidebook, it was perchance the first time it had come close to be completely accurate. The next morning, we ambled into town to take a look around. 

Luang Prabang is a relaxed kind of place. It feels rather as if an ageing hippy has wafted into town and re-organised the harmony into something completely tranquil. It does not have the same fabricated serenity of Pokhara in Nepal - it is altogether something more natural and special. Almost untouched, in fact, and spotlessly clean. This wonderful small town rests on the confluence of two rivers - the Mekong, of course, and the Nam Khan. Small villages dot the banks of either which can be observed from either side of the town as it rests some 30 or 40m above them. Replete with buddhist wats and stupas, you could explore the town looking only for religious buildings and still have work to do after several weeks. Some of them, clearly home to studying monks, are extremely interesting to give time to - contemplation of the monks' way of life is a worthy way of spending that time. Wat Xieng Tuong is the oldest monastery and one of the most interesting. Some are simple affairs, but most are adorned with ornate roofs and white or golden walls and archways with rich tapestries of carvings and bas-reliefs, delightfully juxtaposing the spiritual with the splendid.

We breakfasted at the rather Starbucks' JoMa Café before heading off down the main thoroughfare, off which almost every street runs, called Xiang Thong which is a delightful mélange of traditional Laos wooden houses and European architecture reminiscent of the time when Laos was a French colony of Indochine. Each side of the street is fairly caressed by tall palm trees providing welcome shade from the heat. Monks in deep, bright orange robes silently walk the streets to their next class of collecting alms for the poor. In the evening, children play in the Nam Khan river and we sat for a while to watch their families gather in the wooden huts beyond, drinking and socialising. We wished we could join them! We ate a simple noodle soup dinner on Xiang Thong, and supped cool Beerlao, as we watched the world pass us by and the sun set. That is the way of Luang Prabang, it is easy for time to simply pass by as you relax and enjoy your surroundings. There are so many things to do - treks to sign up for, tours of the surrounding countryside a villages, adventurous pursuits on water, track and road but we really wanted to get out ourselves so made plans for the next day to do some touring of our own.

Kuang Si Waterfalls 
The next morning, we decided to hire bikes and head out to the Kuang Si waterfalls some 32km from the centre of town. For $8 we could have hired a tuk-tuk. The bikes cost us $5 for the day. We saved $3 and on the basis of that astute, investment erudition, I have drafted a letter of resignation to my employer with a view to taking up investment banking full time. I have every confidence I’ll be tremendously successful and if my blog simply disappears one day, you’ll know why. In truth, we thought it would be more fun to cycle to the waterfalls than to take yet another tuk-tuk. The reality, thanks to the searing mid-morning sun, was somewhat different. We’d shrewdly decided to take water with us in big 2 litre bottles strapped to our bikes so we weren’t de-hydrated and, really, we enjoyed the wind on our faces as we raced down hills and that alone was enough to banish the memory of steep, dusty climbs. 

The countryside around us was wildly beautiful, rolling hillsides garbed in dusty green scrubland or carved into immaculate farmland. As we cycled, we passed small villages and children scrambled out to meet us, running along with the bikes, whooping and laughing with joy, even extending a hand for a 'high-five'. It was a truly life-affirming moment of the type you envisage when poring over maps back home deciding where to spend you hard earned weeks of leave travelling, but rarely encounter. We waved back - cue comic bike almost-crashing moment - and continued on our way. This happen several times and, much as I’d like to be cynical and suggest that the Lao realise tourism is fundamental to their economy and their friendliness has a pecuniary edge to it, I just did not get that feeling, unlike India, Thailand or Cambodia. It is much more like Nepal in this respect - both are impoverished nations with affluent neighbours but who, very often, seem far more charming and welcoming irregardless. 

We arrived at Kuang Si hot, sweaty and somewhat fatigued. Nevertheless, we had enjoyed the ride - well, I had. Whether my partner, dragged on my insane schemes felt exactly the same way, I cannot be sure. She plays her cards close to her chest, both metaphorically and literally. That she was ruddy-faced and “glowing” and not speaking to me could, to a more astute observer, have been evidence of some significance. 

Of course, at a site of touristic interest, the ubiquitous hawkers and stalls peddling food, drink and tourist tat were omnipresent. Unlike many other places in South East Asia, they were, however, not quite so obnoxious. It was here, in fact, that my long-held distaste for the Oreo biscuit (if, indeed it can be called a biscuit rather than a cake as I understand a protracted debate in the US has yet to resolve) was reversed. For some inexplicable reason, the humble Oreo has an all-pervasive presence in South East Asia. It is as if all the intelligence agencies of the region have coalesced to whisper into the ears of government officials that western tourists simply cannot survive without them. However this biscuit epidemic was started, we were starving so grabbed two packs, haggling with the owner of the stall for the right to park our bikes there as well - an extra 2,000 kip was his opening gambit which we bargained down to 1,000 feeling rather pleased with ourselves. Given others were probably doing it for free, we needn’t have, but there you go. I always feel rather guilty bargaining with people so much less affluent that me, but for one thing, the tourist prices in South East Asia are, by locals’ own admission, inflated in expectation of haggling (as well as their innate pecuniary predisposition) and for another, it’s a great deal of fun and a superb way to get chatting to locals. In fact, we often buy things we never would have, were it not for the opportunity to haggle, so I feel somewhat vindicated. 

After some minutes, having parted with 20,000 kip each ($5 in total) we found our way through the forest to the waterfalls and sat. I cannot recall how much it is to gain entrance to the waterfalls but, whatever it was, it was worth it. Niagara Falls they are not (although they certainly don’t have the horrific, garish amusement arcade tourist trap next to them that Niagara does) but attractive, nonetheless. There are pools nearby that many were bathing in, often by means of a rope attached to a tree from which they would then launch themselves into the crystal blue waters. We did the same and very cooling it was too. Nearby is a bear rescue centre. We stayed for some time, observing the bears, before the tourist hordes arrived and we moved off. The ride back, not quite so distinguishable for its horrible climbs, in fact had many long descents but we still got back to the Jaliya tired and drained. We snoozed for an hour before showering and heading back out for dinner. We often cram just about as much as it is possible to sardine into a trip but, sometimes, we both acknowledge that a snooze is necessary and welcome, even if it means forgoing something. There’s little point visiting a site for the sake of it, inevitably despising it because of enforced somnolence, and then not being sufficiently ebullient to continue on to the things you do want to do. We don’t have the energy of these youngsters, what with their “rocking long and hard” inclinations, you know! 

Back in Luang Prabang 
I confess now to having had a hankering for a pizza. It often afflicts me when travelling and, sadly, I capitulated this time. As I wolfed down a rather decent example and quaffed a Diet Coke, I felt supremely gratified. Beyond Kuang Si and the various temples, there are not a whole host of monuments and sites to visit. Much of the attractive stuff is to be done out of town. We took a small trip on the Mekong (as do monks, it would seem) but, otherwise, simply contented ourselves with just being in Luang Prabang - it has that effect on you. Each evening, the main street swells with merchants peddling the usual tourist tat and, although it feels rather like Bangkok, it is far less hectic or swarming with western tourists. I haggled over a couple of t-shirts and my partner found a rather nice bag but we delighted in simply strolling through the market, eating, drinking and taking everything in as night fell and the town glistened. We then headed down to the Mekong to watch the sun dip beneath the horizon. We would be eternally saddened to say goodbye to Luang Prabang.

The Mountain Pass to Huay Xai - 16hrs on a Bus
It was in the Soup Dragon in Siem Reap, Cambodia, that we’d decided to take the 16 hour overnight trip from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai crossing the border (the Mekong River, in fact) into Thailand, rather than any other route. Had we known what state the road was in, my partner, certainly, would have objected. The whole thing cost 340,000kip.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about the road to Huay Xai: "The road from Huay Xai (the Laos town across the river from Chiang Khong) to Luang Prabang is poorly maintained, remote, unlit, unmarked and extremely dangerous for the unfamiliar traveler, particularly in the wet season. Regular buses nonetheless do run, taking 14–16 hours."

We took a tuk-tuk out to the bus station arriving somewhat early in order to procure for ourselves decent seats. When we saw the bus for the first time, even though by now we had got used to the level of technology usual for Laos, we were sceptical. It was a relic, of that we were sure, but the bullet holes in the windows and the dashboard only mildly concerned us. Our seats were at the front of the bus, directly behind the driver’s seat. We were sat across from a window frame that was missing a window. At the time, hot and dry as it was, this seemed a good thing. It was to become really bad later. 

Our rucksacks, as we’d suspected, were placed on the roof but we’d packed a dinner for ourselves that would be relatively easy to eat on a rocky, bumpy journey and also calorie-efficient. We’d discovered, in Luang Prabang, a Scandinavia Bakery (so, of course, we had to buy food from there) and we’d bought whatever they had left before we left for the bus. This amounted to four sugarless donuts and four rolls with cheese. To this we added our, now, faithful friend, the Oreo biscuit (not cake) and plenty of water. We imagined that it might get a little cold overnight, so packed fleeces as well. Were I as knowledgeable then as I am now, I’d have packed an insulating down layer like the Nano Puff, but hindsight is crystal clear vision. 

The driver, reeking of Lao Beer, took his seat and we haltingly moved off. With him were two pre-pubescent lads, of the type you imagine should be in school learning algebra, who chain-smoked through the next few hours. It was after an hour when the traffic cleared and the road became less busy - largely, I suspect, because even the Lao are not lunatic enough to take the road over the mountains that we were about to. As the road cleared, and became ever more pot-holed and narrow, our driver (you might think, controversially) quickened his pace. By this stage, the road was not that high and we were still simply hurtling through villages and forests. It was not until much later that we began to climb. Much of the trip is a blur now - terrifying events often are, I am told - but there certainly came a time when we were climbing so steeply in our archaic vehicle that the engine was gasping stuttered protests and I began to steal glances at my Suunto Vector to ascertain the altitude - we were, at one point, 1800m up. By this time, night had fallen but the forest canopy below us was bathed in a silky, blue moonlight sheen. The mountains ahead of us and across the valley were equally garbed in that ethereal, unearthly light. The stars, unencumbered by unnatural light, stood proud and prominent. The only sound we could hear was the thunderous bellow of the tortured engine. I should point out, at this stage, that the road was unfeasible narrow and bristling with potholes. The drop was of the sheer type that you see explained in news reports accompanied by the headline “Bus crashes in Africa killing 3 Britons”. It was, as is the way of mountain passes, of course, a winding, hairpin-infested death trap. We looked down (always a mistake) mindful of the fact that we had hours numbered in double figures left to drive.

As night fell, the second rather disquieting feature of the trip was brought starkly to our attention. The broken windows were doing little to keep heat in the bus. As I have hitherto remarked, the second law of thermodynamics dictates that heat is passed to cold so ours, having an entire mountain valley to heat up, was leaving us like rats on a sinking ship. We suddenly found the only way to keep warm was to stuff every spare bag and newspaper on the bus down our fleeces. Locals viewed us with a mixture of confusion and wonder. Those peculiar westerners and their eccentric fashions.

We made a pit stop at one point during the journey, stopping at a road-side collection of food places and toilets. Clearly not a “Welcome Break” on the M25, it was certainly welcome. We relieved ourselves, grabbed a few more plastic bags, and ate whatever they had. Chocolate was the order of the day if I recall correctly. As I strolled around, taking in the area, I realised that there was literally nothing around us. If we were the subject of some misadventure, the nearest help would not even be aware of our predicament until 7am the next morning and it would take another 10 hours to reach us. Oddly, this did not concern me greatly as our diver, erratic though he was, seemed confident and knew the road well. Had I realised what was to happen next, I might not have got back on the bus!

As we boarded, our driver lay on the centre console on a blanket a cushions and, within seconds, was snoring away. Installed in the driver’s vacated seat was one of our pre-pubescent young cigarette-puffers. As he manhandled the bus away, nearly extracting a chunk from a nearby truck, I inhaled sharply and involuntarily, and forced a smile to my partner. She had been snoozing (she can sleep anywhere, the lucky woman) and instantly returned to her slumber. The next few hours were hair-raising as our young apprentice tracked his way through the mountains in a manner that seemed far less assured than our dipsomaniac elder driver, who now siesta’ed next to him. I pulled out my BlackBerry and shoved earphones into my ears in an effort to drown out the engine and put on the soundtrack from Lord of the Rings. I often listen to film scores when hillwalking and this was sufficient to permit me some dozing time of my own. As dawn’s early light crept over the mountain horizon, I awoke having slept a few fitful hours. It was 4am and we had 3 hours to go, so I stared out of the window for that time.

Mercifully, those last hours passed quickly as I had settled into the rhythm of the bus by now and our elder driver was at the helm. No one else was awake and I felt comforted by that solitude. With The Return of the King providing a dramatic, vivid musical milieu to the landscape ahead, I found I was relishing the journey and had all along. In fact, whether it was genuine happiness or the relief of having navigated the mountain road safely, I felt utterly at peace. Heinrich Harrer in his book The White Spider, when describing his ascent with three others of the North Face of the Eiger, said “...we humans often experience happiness without recognising it; but here, in that bivouac of ours, I was not only genuinely happy, but I knew I was.” I can understand what Harrer meant - I must’ve looked quite the eccentric Englishman staring out of the window on what, to others, must’ve been just another bus journey, with a huge grin on my face. I cannot deny it was a gruelling journey but that, I feel, is often what travelling is about. 

We pulled into the bus depot and took tuk-tuk’s down to the river whereupon we queued at a small hut to exit Laos and enter Thailand. We ambled down the river, grateful and happy, and got into a boat. We offered the driver one of our Oreos and he munched on it with a smile. We disembarked and, within moments (our passports already stamped with visas) we were in Thailand. We’d located a taxi/bus to Chiang Mai, no small distance away, and, while waiting for that to take us, we booked a hostel to stay in there.

Chiang Mai, Thailand 
The odd thing about Thailand, when you actually get out of Bangkok, is that journeying through much of it is akin to Southern California. Replete with large freeways, huge road-side billboards and big, chunky 4x4 vehicles, you do not feel as if you’re in South East Asia at all but some western parody. We stopped off, en route to Chiang Mai, at a small road-side café which was, fortuitously, a glass sculpting factory with wares galore for us to look at and buy. It was clear that the taxi/bus would be slow to leave without some purchasing so we bought some trinket or other which would eventually become a pleasant Christmas gift at some time in the future. It was something like 5 hours before we arrived at Chiang Mai and, by now, we were shattered.

Our accomodation was a hostel, the Namkhong, that was large and much like Hanoi Backpackers but not quite as noisy. We could not care less, by now, and fairly fell into our room, and showered before collapsing on our beds for the rest of the afternoon to sleep. At 300THB per night, we were more than satisfied. We awoke sometime after nightfall, pulled on some clothes and went out for dinner. 

The first thing you notice about Chiang Mai is that it marries the ancient buddhist stupa with the other major religious monument of the western world - Starbucks. That the two can exist in harmony seemed to me to be in diametric opposition but indeed they do. I could wax lyrical for hours about the damage western tourism has done to the once amazing ancient places in South East Asia but that would be akin to suggesting that third world countries remain third world so that we have something to visit and pretend we are roughing it in before going home to Starbucks, MacDonald’s and delayed railway trains. Progression comes to every nation and travelling is about the moment, not necessarily where you are. Nevertheless, you can wander around Chiang Mai, and be amazed by the way that the city has progressed without prejudicing Buddhism.

The Old Town is really the place to start as the majority of the Wats to visit are located here. Indeed, there is such a proliferation of them that you hardly have the time. Most backpackers come to Chiang Mai to engage in hill tribe treks but there is so much about these treks which tends to suggest that the hill tribes are exploited and children abused and forced into pseudo-tribal practices for the benefit of visitors that we felt utterly iniquitous about undertaking such a trek. Instead, we booked white-water rafting for the next day. The main hub for the backpacker community is the Loi Kroh Soi where the vast majority of bars are located and the vast majority of backpackers seem to congregate. The more affluent, usually older, flashpacking community have a far greater choice across the Old City and there is some rather lovely eating to be had throughout Chiang Mai. We, obviously, had to visit both.

It is a sad feature of South East Asia, with the exception we found, of Laos, that there are so many beggars, scam artists, pushy tuk-tuk drivers and generally hard-nosed individuals out for pecuniary advantage that it can seem like an intimidating place but travellers have made it that way with their dollars. It is a part of the experience now, perhaps as distorted an image of the true Asia as could be seen, and you need to really get out of the major tourists tracks to avoid it. Perhaps that is why we found Laos such a fresh, easy place to be. Not as intense as Bankgok, Chiang Mai is the second most-visited venue in Thailand. That much is clear from a few days in the city - it is not yet Khao San Road, but those days are not far off. That said, Chiang Mai is a chilled place, relaxed and easy in its own skin. We relented and visited a couple of bars in our time - Sister's on Loi Kroh, to engage in some free pool and Singha beer and the rather astounding and atmospheric Pinte's Blues Bar run an aged, elfin character with a pony tail who served only beer and whisky with smoky blues insinuating the background purlieu. Photos, autographs, album covers and other blues memorabilia dotted the walls and we drank cool beer whilst listening to blues. It was magnificent.

The next day we departed early for some grade III whitewater. I had opted for a more sedate trip for the sanity of my partner, but when we arrived, we could see that we would not be in six-man rafts but two-man inflatable kayaks. I am a BCU 2-star whitewater kayaker, not far off 3-star, so I was relishing this opportunity. With a local guide behind each of us, we took to the water. For two hours we rode grade 3 rapids with instructions barked by our lunatic guides. From time to time, they would invert the rafts, dumping us (and them) into the cool water and laughing as we, and our Italian companions, played in the water. It was grin-inducing stuff and, at the end, we packed the rafts on the truck and climbed atop them for the ride back to Chiang Mai in the sun.

Chiang Mai reminds me of a US city. There are US cars everywhere, coffee-shops reminiscent of small-town USA and roads are identical. Yet, it has a quintessential Thai-ness to it too with the proliferation of wats, street markets and tuk-tuks. It is an odd mix that does not seem immediately to be a perfect marriage, but it works rather well. It is a fairly congenial place to be and spend time but it does not introduce the visitor to anything of the real Thailand, yet I have come to the conclusion over the years that cities do nothing to explain to a visitor what it is to be a native of a given country. You need to leave the city in order to understand that.

Back In Bangkok
We arrived in Bangkok and, after a perfunctory disagreement with a cab driver about routes and fares, we found our lodgings for the night. As we made our way down a tiny alleyway canopied by trees, off a busy main road, we reached a door emblazoned with a sign which I will always find so very alarming: "No Thais". The door was opened by a shifty, wizened looking fellow who beckoned us in and took us through a tiny courtyard into a dark, rather dingy-looking hallway. We made our way up some stairs and into a pleasant, largely dark-wood room. When asking for the money up-front, and double what we had agreed when we called two days earlier, the man's face displayed not a flicker of emotion. I disagreed and another argument ensued. Irritated by the second attempt to rip us off by a Thai in less than 15 minutes, we left. A short scouring of the streets led us to several options, two of which we discarded and the third we took. It was a somewhat prison-like place, and the room had no windows, but we needed only somewhere to lay our heads and hand our mossie-net, and this place was cheap and fit those criteria. We dumped our kit, pleased to have walked out of the first place and emboldened by our principled stance we headed off into the night.

As I have said, I have found Bangkok to be too much of a backpacker cliché for me. I would much rather find places that are less-travelled and not dominated by gap-year students. So it was that I felt that, if I were to take that view, I wanted to see Khao San Road again and spend some time there. It has been called a "Backpacker Ghetto" and a "place to disappear" in Susan Orlean's article from the New Yorker in January 2000. It is an area that exists solely to cater to the backpacker community - it is a gateway to the rest of South East Asia and that function is a useful one, but it has no soul beyond that which the backpackers who trawl through it give it. There is an English Boots here, bars replicating Irish Pubs, satellite TV is everywhere and it is impossible to avoid a street hawker trying to sell you some trip or drugs. A ticket to anywhere, or to do anything, is available and the competition is fierce. Backpackers from every corner of the globe fill the bars and stumble out at closing time (not even sure there is one) too sodden to know or care where they are. There is nothing of Thailand in Khao San Road, or many of the roads beyond it, and I could think of nothing more hellish than spending more than a few hours here. I think back to Luang Prabang and to the villages we passed through and I know that it's those I'll remember when I am old and explaining South east Asia to my children rather than this manufactured fabrication.

At the airport he next day, I explained to the lady at the Eva Air desk that I had long legs and would love an aisle seat. She smiled, and obliged. We got the two seats right and the back of the aircraft, one next to the window, the other an aisle, both with room to lean backwards and with no one else near us. 

It's always worth politely asking.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

South East Asia - The Mekong Delta - Part II

Hanoi, Vietnam
We had read all sorts of things about Hanoi. We had read that favoured, popular hostels would be copied and taxi drivers employed to transport backpackers to these imposters, whereupon those weary travellers would be brow-beaten into booking trips in return for their room. We had heard that some of those incidents had become violent. We had heard that passports would be taken and not given back without such bookings being made. So it was, with that in mind, we landed in Hanoi with a sense of some trepidation. We had booked a hostel, reviewed and recommended by fellow travellers on Travelfish. We had contacted them and organised for them to pick us up at the airport and take us through Hanoi to the hostel, rather than relying on a local taxi. We were greeted by a fresh-faced young man with no english and whisked away in a gleaming, black Mercedes, seated on fresh, new leather seats and chilled by air-con. And here was our first surprise - Hanoi is an affluent place. The airport was dominated by Italian-suited businessmen collecting expensive luggage whilst gazing somewhat suspiciously at us, the Great Unwashed. I confess it was a shock to see Hanoi as such a well-heeled place. I don't know what I expected, but it was not this.

We had already secured visas in advance through the offices of my partner's work so quickly exited passport control and customs with only the cursory yet, still, sceptical glances of uniformed soldiers in too-large uniforms. As we sped along the motorway to central Hanoi, it put me in mind of a far more civilised and advanced place than I had given Vietnam credit for - and certainly that is my failing. I was grateful to be corrected. Yet, when one eventually arrives in central Hanoi, having negotiated the brightly-lit billboards and huge hypermarket affairs on the motorway in, the Vietnam I had expected revealed itself. Inescapably frenetic with yet more of those tiny motorbikes, more even than Cambodia (if such a thing were possible), we sped through impossibly narrow side-streets provoking locals in ubiquitous conical straw hats to leap out of the way for what appeared to me to be their very lives. Light from the interior of businesses lining every inch of available space spilled onto the street, misty and ephemeral, silhouetting spindly figures on the pavements beside us. Horns exploded, people shouted and music drifted from everywhere - Hanoi is an intense conurbation.

Finally, after watching the bustling frenzy hasten past us, blurred, we reached the Youth Hotel on Luong Van Can Street. As we disembarked and approached the reception desk, our passports were appropriated for copying (I insisted, politely, that I watch that being done). It was at that inopportune moment that a power cut ensued and the lady behind the desk advised me she would keep the passports until it came back on. I eyed her suspiciously but relented. This, may I be so bold as to suggest, is a major lesson of independent travel - other travellers are a great source of information and news, but their opinions are coloured by their own lives and experiences. They may be more cautious than you, or even racist. Be circumspect about whose advice you accept but be patient with those who supply it - you'll recognise that suggestion. Of course, within moments, as we sipped ice-cold Cokes, the power was restored and we repaired to our rooms.

The Youth Hotel was $15 per night and included free internet, good sized rooms and, because Hanoi was oddly chilly at night, blessed hot water! We luxuriated in a hot shower and handed our clothes in to be laundered before heading out to see what little we could of the local area prior to retiring to bed. We were not out long, but the drama of the journey into Hanoi was visited upon us tenfold at street level. So much was happening, so many people darting in and out of tiny street-side establishments, elderly Hanoi denizens chatting on street corners, eating and drinking, sucking on American cigarettes, that, on occasion, we simply had to stop and watch the melee. We stopped by a small bakery and picked up something to munch on before heading back to our room and grateful slumber.

The next day, we awoke early, breakfasted simply and began our peregrination. Hanoi is even more frantic in the daytime (road crossings are risky events) but the people are startling friendly. A simple smile is all it takes to have locals stopping and chatting in faltering, but competent, english. An elderly gentleman, ostensibly with all the time in the world, sat and spoke with us at length about Vietnam, how it had changed in his lifetime and how much he wished he could travel like us. For an hour we sat and chatted to him and Hanoi sped past us in a blur. It was hugely gratifying. He showed us the best place to have Pho Ba, the Vietnamese staple beef noodle soup, and what to put in it. It was one of those satisfying moments.

We had been advised that the Hanoi Backpackers on Ngo Huyen in Hoan Kiem (near to us) was the place to go to book a Halong Bay Junk trip. This we did. Hanoi Backpackers is a place I would not now ordinarily choose for an overnight stop - it is no doubt noteworthy for what it offers, that is to say complete immersion into the 'backpacker scene', and is therefore tremendously popular among younger backpackers looking for the sort of exploits you'll get involved in on Kiwi Experience Backpacker Buses. That experience I would have sought a decade ago and it is astonishing how perceptions and desires change over time. The staff, that said, are knowledgeable and helpful and it is a superlative place to find tours with large groups. They also offer smaller, less alcohol-infused trips and it was one of those we booked (rather than the "Rock Long, Rock Hard" trip, complete with glossy images of inebriated twenty-somethings flinging themselves into the Bay). It made me feel old.

After this sobering reminder of my age, we continued our amble round Hanoi, stopping at the compact Laos Airlines offices (which you will miss unless you have the exact street address, so unobtrusive is it) to book our onward flight in a propeller aircraft to Laos. If the return from the Halong Bay cruise is delayed, we miss our flight but there is no other so we book it and leave the offices, wondering if we've just wasted our money. Additionally, Laos Airlines do not have an enviable reputation and we were set to be boarding an aircraft not permitted in European airspace. It was going to be interesting.

We adore street level in cities. We try to use public transport below ground as little as possible - it's worth experiencing, but it really cannot substitute walking around and letting a city wash over you. As we walked through the bustling centre of Hanoi, we got the sense of the Vietnam we had dreamed of - a city steeped in history, keeping on finger gently placed on the past, but with every other fibre of its being firmly rooted in the future. A city buzzing with motorbikes and arousing the senses with exotic smells and tastes. We eventually found ourselves in the centre gazing at Huan Kiem Lake and the temple placed in the middle of it. We sat, next to three soldiers sitting proudly in their immaculate uniforms, chatting pleasantly among themselves, and simply stared at the haven ahead of us - a sanctuary of peace and quiet in a relentlessly busy city.

I was somewhat disappointed by the Dong Xuan market, around half a mile to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake, apart of course my the vaguely amusing name. Much of the wares on sale are identical and it is, as might be expected, the usual tourist tat intertwined with genuine products that locals require. It is not bad for food and it is worth a short visit, and perhaps a t-shirt or two, but little more than that.

Perhaps the most incongruous monument of our visit to all of South East Asia was St Joseph cathedral. Turning a corner, buttressed as usual by Vietnamese people and Vietnamese buildings, you would be forgiven for giving St Joseph rather a startled second look and conceivably a comical eye-rub. A European church in every sense, it is singularly absurd that it is here, yet here it sits. We wandered in and looked round, disappointed really that it looked just like any other church, before being startled yet again when we walked out of the door and instead of a village cricket green and a local pub, replete with old man and dog, we found the old city of Hanoi.

We visited the ancient Confucian sanctuary, the Van Mieu Temple of Literature, which was the first University in Hanoi and, again, we fell into conversation with loquacious locals. It was an interesting place, with rather beautiful yet sometimes garishly painted architecture and intriguing stone turtles on which the names of laureates would once have been placed. A tranquil and pleasant place, it is justly famous in Hanoi but consequently, extremely busy. We darted round, nimbly dodging tourists with flailing cameras, before walking along Pho Dien Bien Phu to the Ho-Chi-Minh Mausoleum complex. I must say, this last I found to be rather dull but, in a gift shop, I became engrossed in a book about Agent Orange. Since we'd soon be visiting Laos and that horrific biological "weapon" impacted upon Laos almost as much as Vietnam, it piqued my interest. Used initially as a herbicide to destroy jungle so the enemy forces would have less ability to hide, as well as to destroy crops for food, there has been much controversy surrounding the effect on future generations, many of whom have suffered serious birth defects. People directly affected are reported to have increased incidence of cancer, digestive and respiratory disorders. While much of the Vietnamese research has not been peer-reviewed, the evidence seems persuasive as US Veterans associations also report ill-health due to exposure. As many as 150,000 Vietnamese children are estimated to have been born with birth defects, some horrific, as a result of Agent Orange but there is, to date, no consensus between the US and Vietnam as the causation of these defects. Oddly though, US veterans from the south had higher rates of throat cancer, acute/chronic leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer. Other than liver cancer, these are the same conditions that the US Veteran’s Administration has found to be associated with exposure to Agent Orange and are on the list of conditions eligible for compensation and treatment. No agreement as to the cause, though.

The evening saw us in a lovely small eatery called 69 Restaurant. We had been advised by our somewhat unreliable tome that it was a pick of the places to go for more traditional Vietnamese Food. It was fortuitously correct in this assessment so we ordered much on the menu that was alien to us, which we delight in, before repairing to the frenetic streets of night-time Hanoi for another stroll. Dodging the suicidal motorbikes and popping into each and every small side-street shop we could find to examine the wares, we eventually, somewhat tired, happened upon 'Le Pub', a raucous English sort of place, where we watched the life go by in a gorgeous Hanoi evening kept company by a few local beers and many inebriated backpackers.

The next day, we joined the throng of backpackers waiting for buses to whisk them to various tours across Northern Vietnam. After what seemed an age, our bus arrived and off we went. We were both intoxicated at the prospect of spending the next two days in the majestic and magical natural wonder that was Halong Bay. Sadly, the weather did not oblige and it was, of course, overcast much of the time. However, who cares about that? Not us! Along with several others, we boarded a small boat and headed out to or junk. We had not paid a great deal for this overnight trip, but we'd decided to spend a little bit more to get a nice trip. How nice it was to be was a real surprise. The Junk was a beautiful, elegant vessel and our rooms reminiscent of the Orient Express, resplendent in dark wood and slate stone. Each has it's own bathroom which, had we time, we'd have stripped and taken back home with us. We dumped our gear in our rooms and repaired to the deck as we moved off. 

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay is a 1500 square km area within the Gulf of Tonkin dominated by nearly 2,000 colossal limestone islets of various magnitudes, rising from the water like roughly chiselled stone sculptures robed in forested blankets. There are a number of communities who live in floating villages and have done for generations, never venturing onto the mainland. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, simply put, rather beautiful. Throughout the day, we kayaked through villages, stopping off for something to eat and drink before returning to our kayaks and making our way onwards. We swam in the amazing, pellucid azure waters and then ventured back to the junk before moving off to a set of caverns and grottoes to explore on a large stone obelisk in the Bay. Periodically, small boats laden with western confectionary would drift up to us, paddled by women in broad-rimmed hats, screeching up at us to purchase their wares.

Stopping off at these various grottoes and cave-systems was obviously something everyone visiting Halong Bay did as we were not the only group exploring these amazing caverns and the Vietnamese authorities, bless 'em, had done their best to jazz them up by creative and colourful lighting. They needn't have bothered - the caverns alone were stunning. We ambled along the wooden pathways constructed and enjoyed the ambience of this ancient labyrinth of caves.

We met, over dinner, other couples who seemed to share our desire for adventure - from Buenos Aires and Melbourne. As the only alcohol permitted on board was on offer from the Junk crew, we pooled some funds to see what we could all afford and then swapped anecdotes and tall tales while ordering drink after drink, before moving to the deck and watching the sun set on an amazing day. It is the way of these things that some you'll stay in touch with and others you won't. We have, from time to time, received emails from Buenos Aires and, when we do, we reply at length telling them what we have been doing. It is one of the joys of backpacking. The next day, we would leave Halong Bay, and Vietnam, as we would head for the airport and Laos. Perhaps the saddest thing for us is that we did not have more time in Vietnam. With only 4 weeks, there are sacrifices to be made and we would have taken a train down to Hué, Danang and Hoi An, and perhaps on to Ho-Chi-Minh City (although reports were rather negative of the capital of the South) had we the chance. You'll always leave a region wishing you'd done more and that's certainly one of the advantages of taking a gap year - there is clearly far more time to see so much more but I wonder whether I would have appreciated what I was seeing quite as much had I not the decade or so behind me that I do now.