Thursday, February 18, 2016

Up into the Northwest. . .a ways

Written on 18 February 2016 in Pho Rang, along Highway 70 (QL70) which is now the "old road" from Hanoi to the Chinese border at Lao Cai, another 70 km or so further north, but we didn't get here from Hanoi, this is our last stop on the way home to Hanoi. Quite a different matter. We'll get to that in a bit.  Here's a map to clarify things a little:

If your notions of happiness include narrow mountain roads and a motorbike to ride on them you might have done well to come along the past three days.  It's been a lot of that.  If, on the other hand you wanted to be able to see your narrow mountain road while you rode your motorbike on it, there were parts of the trip (yesterday afternoon actually) you might have wanted to skip.  We had fog.  This wasn't the sort of fog you mush through at 60 mph on the freeway and hope nobody stops too quickly in front of you, this was rather more like a fog where a set of headlights first shows (a little) at perhaps fifty feet.  The attached vehicle doesn't become clear until it's passing alongside, and you can't see any red from the other guy's tail lights when you glance at your mirror.  Red doesn't cut it.  There was very little traffic, but when every headlight causes a heart attack it doesn't take too many to be enough.  The biggest scare though was a large tree clear across the road straight ahead of us, black and thick and low.  There was nowhere at all to go (except way down) to the right, so I cut the bike to the left hard and didn't quite scrape on the. . .guardrail. . .well, it looked like a tree at first and it WAS squarely across the road as I first saw it.  In retrospect I'm quite happy it was there of course, but for a nanosecond or so to start with I was really unsatisfied with its placement.  I didn't look at my watch when we climbed into the cloud base or when we rode down the far side of the pass and out into clear air either one, so I'd be guessing if I tried to tell you how long it was.  Time is pretty slow when you're that worried about your future, so it may have been less than an hour.  Maybe more.   Looking at the map that had to have been Deo Khao Pha. . .Khao Pha Pass on Highway 32 (QL32) north of Nghia Lo a good ways.  I'd like to see it some day.

When we rode down through the cloud base into clear air (it always seems like a miracle just to be able to look around and see something again) there was an incomparable surprise. . .blue sky ahead.  We went rolling down the mountain, the little bike just muttering along quietly, the pavement dry and soon the sky all above us in all directions was crystal clear and there was warmth in that sun that felt so very good.  Mostly it's simply been cloudy and cold since we've been on the road, high 50's to 60 or so in the low valleys, lots colder in the actual mountains.  I've been riding wearing three shirts, a sweater and my rain coat, bluejeans and rain pants, and it's been perfectly dry.  Just been needing the windbreak effect and as many layers as I could get on (and still button the top shirt).

Yesterday at a motorbike parts shop in a small town along the way I broke down and bought another pair of handlebar mittens to replace my leather riding gloves for the time being.  I own a pair of the funny little mittens from last trip.  They're sitting on a book shelf by my desk.  At home.  I looked right at them while I was filling the last corners of the suitcase and said to myself. ..". . .aw, I won't need those this trip".  Sigh.  They're the cutest things and with a couple of caveats they really do work.  They're wind and rain proof, with a plush lining and cuff, and three large holes, one at the back you put your hand in just like any mitten, and two on the side, one for the handle bar and one for the clutch or brake lever.  There are similar things made for big motorcycles in the States, but they swallow the whole end of the handlebar, switches, mirror stem and all.  These little guys leave all that stuff on the outside, all you get in with your hand is the grip and the lever.  And so they also have a little soft appendix to stick your thumb in (or "out" you could say).  That's the caveat. . .finding that danged thumb hole while you're starting off down the road and getting the thumb IN the thing, not hung up on a knuckle.  Occasionally exciting, but usually fine.  Warm though.  Very nicely warm.  Gotta like that a lot!

So, where have we been?  We left Hanoi on Kim Ma street, which gradually morphs into QL 32 and carries on through miles and miles of "it's still city out here!!" before you finally start to feel like you're in the country, maybe 15 or 18 km from the core downtown.  Then you run on along the highway, a nice 2-lane country road roughly parallel to the Red River (Song Hung) which stays strictly out of sight off to the right behind its levees.  Eventually you come to a bridge back to the other side of the river at a complex and very badly (hardly at all) signposted intersection.  So you try the apparently correct one (ask your telephone) and notice shortly that the first kilometer marker you spot says you're on QL32B, which is not QL32 and does not go where you were going. . .so you double back (even though there was no apparent alternate turn) et voila! Mysteriously, off to the right where it wasn't before there is suddenly another choice, the right choice, and it leads right off into the hills.  The hippies used to have a bookstore like that in Berkeley I'm told. . .you had to have the right attitude to find it.  I never did, but I often do all right hunting for roads in Viet Nam, which is more helpful at this point.

We stumbled across two pairs of water-lifting water wheels and got gps coordinates on the second pair, only a couple of kilometers from the first.  They're hand built from hundreds of bamboos and a few big chunks of hardwood. . .quite the marvelous contraptions, with a bamboo "bucket" attached to each "paddle" around the spokes of the wheel, the stream running by turns the wheel, dunks the buckets one at a time and carries them from the river up to the top of he wheel's height where the "buckets" pour out onto a trough. . .and the water runs off in a long half-pipeline on little bamboo legs and gradually fills a rice paddy.  There have to be a lot of conditions just right before all this will happen.  First you have to have somebody who can put the wheel together and get it in place in the river.  I bet I'm not man enough yet.  Then you need the stream running by quickly enough to turn the wheel fast enough to lift enough water to fill the paddy before it all dries up in the sun (if the sun comes out).  Then you need to have a paddy of a size to be worth going to all that trouble for, AND you probably can't have an alternative way to get the water to the paddy (a simple diversion and canal upstream, if feasible, would be a lot simpler way to flood the field).  So I haven't seen a lot of these wheels, and the biggest (and most in one place) don't seem to be where I thought they were before.  Either they've found a better way or the old man who knew how to do it died or.. .maybe I really don't remember where they were??  But really, all it would take would be a convenient electric drop to materialize and all that beautiful bamboo work would be out of a job (until the pump fried).

After you climb up into the hills you can find an excuse to lose the trail a couple more times en route to Nghia Lo.  It's all hills, mostly not very high, but most of them steep enough, and now and then the road takes you up and over a ridge that might almost amount to a pass.  We didn't get away on time, first day out from the City and all, and I really did want to revisit Nghia Lo first night out so we pushed on from 10:00 in the morning straight through to 5:30, seven and a half hours running through the cold (er, well, also I didn't have on the whole mess of clothes) and the bike got the only snack.  When we came rumbling down out of the hills into the wide valley where Nghia Lo lives I was all but frozen, though I didn't quite understand that yet.  It wasn't until I'd parked the bike behind the (lovely) hotel on the edge of town and tried to walk in to the reception desk that figured out my legs weren't working quite right and I was starting to shiver.  By the time I got in to the desk the shivers had gotten pretty spectacular and I was obviously worrying the young man behind the desk, but maybe they're used to frozen old white guys stumbling in. He got my room figured out and me and the bag up to it in no time, and disappeared for a while. . .long enough to go find an electric heater from somewhere, plug it in by the TV stand and steer me in front of it.  By then I had water boiling for tea.  Things got a lot better pretty quickly, and half an hour later I was strolling up the street toward the market, looking for supper.

Day broke ever so slowly next morning.  It wasn't really foggy yet, just low cloud and hazy gray light, or almost light.  You could tell it was morning, there were motorbikes passing, people off to work or market, and an occasional flock of school kids on push bikes.  It just wasn't very bright.  We putzed around, the motorbike got a different front sprocket, she'd seemed pretty short legged on the first serious riding so I moved her up one tooth in front (from 13 to 14 teeth, a substantial gearing change).  The mechanics in Nghia Lo, just incidentally, are by far the finest for working on this particular sort of bike that I've met so far. . .the biggest part of why we had to get to Nghia Lo last night.  We both ate and finally got everything ready to go (including the 3rd shirt) and were on the road just a few minutes after 9:00.  It was really wonderful being out on the road and freezing again after a long season at work at home and no real traveling at all.  The little bike seemed to like he new gearing just fine and is as strong and sweet sounding as her predecessors, these really are good little bikes for touring in this setting, light, inexpensive, economical to run. . .and this one is pretty and blue.

So, we got on the road, climbed back up into the hills, stopped to photograph a lot of overcast gray (but artistic) rice paddy next to mountainsides.  We lived through the foggy mountain pass, came out into sunshine, stopped for more photos of artistic rice paddy, got hungry just about the time a young man with a tray full of lunches whooped at us as we were riding through the sunshine down the only street of a town called Mu Cang Chai.  It's a long skinny town, up to three streets wide in places, but mostly just a wide spot along the highway, mountains on one side and rice paddy on the other, and it has at least one really good cook (and waiter and delivery boy) who has just started his first restaurant and is going to be rich and famous (or at least deserves it).  I voted to get a hotel and explore the countryside around (it was really lovely in the sunshine, and there was this restaurant. . .) but the bike had itchy feet so we went on down the road until late in the afternoon.

We split off from QL 32 onto QL 279, a road I'd never ridden before that runs off to the West to cut both the new expressway from Hanoi to the Chinese border at Lao Cai...and also the old road, QL70.  It does not, however, do so with grace and smooth moves.   It may be passable year around, but in places at least it's probably really marginal.  The road is dry right now so we got through just fine, but it's a very rough old thing, ranging from passable asphalt to wrecked asphalt to plain old rock road.  And that's the good part.  I'd planned to run all the way to Pho Rang in the afternoon, but it took us three hours just to make the first real town along the way, a place that shows as Khanh Yen on the road atlas but is really called Van Ban.  The map admits the possibility and puts "Van Ban" in light print in parentheses, but you won't find anybody on the ground who knows where Khanh Yen is.  Or I didn't at least. The place is pretty small for all that it's the biggest thing for miles around, but it has three perfectly nice little hotels, a few rice and noodle shops. . .and a good bakery.  There's a minor problem with the public loudspeakers playing march music and directing calisthenics at FIVE IN THE MORNING, but they do slow down before Six and you can go back to sleep if you have a second pillow available.  Amazing.

Which brings us to today, the run to Pho Rang and north and further west to Bac Ha way up in the high country and still colder and grayer than we'd seen so far, and a little drippy. . .h'mm.  So I looked up the weather in Hue and Danang and said to heck with this. . .and turned around ran back down the mountain from Bac Ha to the highway (23 km, you could easily coast 20 of it at speed) and down QL 70 to Pho Rang.

So, today is only day three of a six or seven day planned loop through the North and I'll be back in Hanoi tomorrow afternoon (barring major malfunctions) with less than 1000 km on the tripmeter. . .there you have it. . .I'm wimping out of the northern mountains for now.  I've been cold (and even cold and wet) up here in the past and this is enough for now, particularly since the lighting for photography has been mostly hazy soft with little color.  South a day or two will be warm.  Hue is warmer still (call it 4 days south). . .and after Danang (another day past Hue) it starts to get hot.  If we get to the Delta we can broil lunch on the pavement.  Er. . .well, that might be a bit much, it just sounds better than cold and foggy at the moment.

What a difference an hour of sunshine makes!!

Okay, start watching for a guy with a tray full of good looking lunches.

It may be a short commute to the fields, but it could be a wet one.  

The lunch.  Yes indeed. Two dollars.  'Nuff said.

Someday I'll have to ride across one of these bridges.  If I don't have enough nerve to ride back again I'd just have to buy a farm and stay.  H'mm.

There's only one road in this picture, and I'm standing on it.

Cropped way in to show the details of the wheels. . .one "bucket" bamboo joint for each paddle.  The paddles look like a picket fence (not white) and the "pipelines" run way off to the left.