Friday, March 18, 2016

And then there was the long ride through mountains

What it looks like on the map

Written from Hanoi, the morning of March 18th, 2016, where, since I've returned, it has been drizzling since midnight.  Three weeks warm (or hot) and absolutely dry, over four thousand kilometers run. . .and then back to Hanoi to rain.  Oh well, it's been a fabulous ride these past few days and in a funny way it's nice to be back to this horrendously busy, drizzly city.  But the ride home to Hanoi from Oudomxay. . .what a joy!  We've had almost every flavor of mountain road that's available in this part of the world. . .no snow capped peaks or volcanoes, but otherwise. . .we've seen so much. . .low but vertical Karst mountains standing above small river valley floors, and high steep passes to cross between watersheds.  Some of the roads have been narrow and winding, others wide (well, in the context of 2-lane mountain roads. . .) with long sweeping curves you could fly around on the right motorbike (er, that would be something a bit sportier than mine here in the Far East).  The days have generally been dry, hazy bright, pleasantly warm verging on hot by late afternoon,  but always comfortable as long as you keep the bike moving above 40 kmh!  The breeze is lovely at that speed.  In short, except for the haze, it's been a motorbike's paradise.  Here's a quick summary by days:

14 March--Pak Beng to Oudomxay--after the steep climb for a few km out of the Mekong valley (or could you call it a canyon?), you top out onto a wide plateau, rolling hills and enormous upland farms. . .most obviously bananas!  More bananas than you can imagine, all the same size, almost all of them bearing a large stem of fruit and each stem of fruit, wrapped up in (?) paper and bagged in blue plastic!!  Who'd have known?  Okay, this wasn't magnificent mountain scenery, and the hills had been de-forested and farmed as they are so often in Viet Nam, but it was a settled and prosperous upland scene, the road was lovely to ride, with enough variation to keep you awake. . .and anyway, it was only half a day's ride on into Oudomxay.

Oudomxay is a major crossroads town, you can go anywhere from here, north to Louang Namtha (in its wonderful green valley) and thence on to Houayxay, the gateway to Thailand, and thence to Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and the subcontinent. . .but more importantly, it's at the end of the boat ride we didn't finish. . .ergo, that's the road I'd intended to arrive on. . .or you can get to Pak Beng and the slow boat mid-journey point where we actually came from, or south to Louang Prabang, Vientiane and the rest of southern Laos and thence Cambodia. . .or as we would, East, a long long way to the sea and the rest of the world through Viet Nam.  The bus station and airport are busy places and the town is very much alive and well.  Rather than pushing on late into the afternoon we took the chance to look after the bike. . .oil change, chain, that sort of thing, found yet another talented masseuse (who spoke some Vietnamese by golly), bought 3 pairs of socks (nifty low topped thin things that weigh nothing and take up no space in the pack. . .we shall see), bought new batteries for the head lamp which had turned itself on in the luggage and wore itself down to its last electron, then walked 217 stair steps (I stopped often!) to the provincial museum atop the hill behind the hotel that had just closed for the day (the museum, not the hill).  It was a busy afternoon.

15 March--Oudomxay to Muang Khoa--With either a really long day all the way to Viet Nam at Dien Bien Phu, or a short day's ride to the old ferry town of Muang Khoa, still in Laos, we fiddled away the morning in Oudomxay.  I climbed back up the 217 stair steps and had the grand personally escorted tour of the museum by the staff, and I wasn't the only customer.  A bright young Englishman was there as well and we walked around with our guide, providing English and American names for all the artifacts on display.  That was great fun, and by and large the English and American vocabulary was very similar. The displays? Some were ethnological (is that a word?) displays, manikins in various ethnic costume, surrounded by farming or household implements typical to the group.  There were a number of displays regarding the American era war(s) and large panels of photographs of various dignitaries, old and new, at various local functions.  Those were more interesting in how they showed the country to itself. . .modern, democratic, happy (lots of smiling local people and school kids) but serious (stuffed shirts in suits pretty well all look alike).  But enough of the museum. . .I actually bought a new smartphone in town, and then we got away. . .on the road just after 11:00.
The highlight of the wonderful ride through the hills and along the mountain stream to Muang Khoa was meeting a troop of ten Vietnamese (ten sturdy men and one daring young lady) on motorbikes, off on a grand adventure to Louang Prabang from Hanoi.  These were not your typical people on little city bikes. . .they were all mounted on heavy touring bikes (though some were quite low-powered for their size, a result of VN's longstanding limit on motorbike engine sizes), and they were all really well prepared for the risks of riding out on the open road,  They all wore proper armor (shin guards, elbow guards, leathers, armored gloves, reflective vests, proper boots, the whole works).  I felt like a piker in my blue jeans and plaid shirt, with my scabs almost entirely healed and all. . .but I saw them pulled up on the side of the road having a lunch break and quickly did a U turn and came back to visit.  What a wonderful bunch!  I was, by ten years I suspect, the oldster in the crowd and they treated me like visiting royalty, made me a place to sit, plied me with food and cool water, called me "Sir" and thought it was wonderful I was out traveling, even by myself.  I almost turned around and joined their club. . .and perhaps I should have, but the Eastern road was calling, so we parted after half an hour and went our separate ways.
Even with the lazy (? stairs ?) morning and the stop to visit, it wasn't late when we pulled into Muang Khoa, so there was time to look around.   I've been here twice before, once before the new bridge and road to Viet Nam and once after.  The town has done well with the new road to the border.  Before the bridge the daily bus from Viet Nam stayed on the far side of the river, and the passengers and freight, coming and going had to cross either on the now-and-then tug and barge ferry or in a good sized motor-canoe that made a living that way.  The road was 60 km of dust and rocks over ridge and valley.  Every valley held its own water crossing. . .some were fords, some muddy and some with stony beds. . .and others had scary little bamboo bridges.  At the time I thought it was the hardest ride I'd ever made.  I'd never have dreamed of the road today.  The bridges are all concrete and way above high water line, the road is smooth and nicely graded, banked well in the curves, a joy to ride.  The buses and trucks from Viet Nam come and go in a steady stream to all the Laotian cities and Muang Khoa sits there astride the route and does very nicely indeed.  There are new government offices, a real bank as well as a Western Union, a new pagoda with a good sized crowd of young monks and novices and several new wings on old guest houses.  Meanwhile, the scenery is still superb.  In fact, Muang Khoa sits there in the Ou River valley in as pretty a spot as you could wish.  For now at least, the skinny little river boats still make trips up and down river (there are dams and more dams in the future. . .) or you can go off trekking into the hinterlands and spend time among the minority people. Or, and it's not a bad idea, sleep in, eat well, wait for the heat of the afternoon, then go swim in the river with the local kids. At sunset, hike back up the hill, shower, find supper. . .and repeat as needed. Muang Khoa. . .put it on your bucket list I think.  A little before sunset (if you're not swimming) you want to be at the pagoda to hear the monks.  I'm not sure what the tradition is, but it involves the older men beating vigorously (and beautifully) on a huge drum hanging from the rafters of a tower while the youngsters pass around three or four pairs of cymbals they keep clanging steadily away and someone you can't see plays a steady drone on two sonorous gongs. . .tuned half a step apart. . .first one, then the other, on and on as the drum beat comes and goes.  Supper, overlooking the river from a restaurant high on the bank,  becomes supper staring into the utterly dark void of a world without electric light beyond the room behind you.
March 16th, Muang Khoa to Viet Nam--It began with fog hanging low around the hill tops and that was the shape of the early morning as we rode, up into the cloud base and the mist, but it was never so dense as to be a problem for riding, and in any event, became just an ordinary haze as the day went on.  The road was wonderful, the bike enjoying the cool of the morning, purring quietly along except when the hills got a bit steep and she had to settle to the work. . .then she growls and barks when you shift down.  At times the visibility opened up wider views and the forested mountainsides falling away into their valleys were places out of dreams.  The 67 kms to the border went by far too quickly.  It felt so much like squandering the gold you'd been saving for weeks. . .but that's the nature of traveling, always onward, even if you feel you may never see such loveliness again.
The border formalities were simple and pleasant.  There were no bribes asked nor official rudeness or anything but cheerful helpful people doing a tidy job, on both sides of the border.  The Vietnamese gentleman stamping my passport asked if I'd like to trade any Lao Kip for Vietnamese Dong (I had twelve dollars or so of Kip and was glad to be rid of it. doesn't spend well anywhere but Laos!). There was no fuss over the motorbike's pedigree and in half an hour more or less we were loose in Viet Nam again.
I've never seen QL279 from the border crossing down to the outskirts of Dien Bien Phu when it was anything but a mess.  Still the same, though there's a serious effort under way to repair a stretch of it.  Still the same devastation surrounding the big rock quarry halfway down the hill, still the dust behind the endless dump trucks coming and going with their limestone cargoes.  But it's only 37 km and soon over.  You just keep your face plate snugged down tight (your beard serves as an air filter, but has to be well scrubbed at night) and don't try to tailgate the truck, you won't get by him anyway, the road is too narrow.  Slow down and enjoy the curves and the scenery, which is very steep mountainsides gradually giving way after 25 km or so to the flat valley floor filled with rice paddy and long rows of shade trees beside the roadway.  By the time you enter DBP itself, the road is four lanes, and pleasantly busy with people going about their business. . .all very interesting!
And then, since it was still early in the day, we pushed on through DBP on a completely different QL279 to Tuan Giao.  This may be the most nearly perfect road in Viet Nam today.  It's an unbroken ribbon of exquisitely laid asphalt winding through steep curves and splendid small mountain scenery all the way from one town to the next.  There was simply nothing the whole way but an overload of pleasures, weaving the little bike through curves just built for her through scenery that went from one lovely sight to the next.  Traffic was light and well mannered.  Goodness.  I'd thought we might spend the night there, but the day was still fairly young and we carried on, turning onto QL6.  From Tuan Giao to Thuan Chau (you say those "Two-un Zow (rhymes with Pow or Cow) and Two-un Cho (rhymes with Go, sort of) the curves widen out into long fast sweepers and you climb hard a long ways to go over a pass called Deo Meo (Day-oh May-oh), far far above the valley.  With the haze that day the valley simply disappeared and you saw nothing at all in the distance below, as though the road and the nearby mountainsides were all that was left of the world.  The little horse growled steadily all the way up in 3rd gear, holding steady at 50 kmh. . .working really hard but not faltering so much as a heartbeat.  What a splendid use for 120 cc's of engine!
There was only one guest house in Thuan Chau, and I thought hard about stopping. The countryside was completely alive with people transplanting rice from the seed beds into the paddies where it will mature and there was a house lying in a pile, it's newly assembled frames stacked, all ready to erect. . .but that only guest house had a huge KARAOKE sign the full height of its facade.  Besides, stopping there would put Hanoi just on the far side of too far for a one-day ride in the morning, so we carried on along the valley and through more low hills to Son La.  Now there's a shock.  Son La is not just a town, or a large town, it's a regional city!  I wasn't prepared and felt a little intimidated, but really, it's very pleasant, busy of course, especially late in the afternoon, but orderly and full of every service and supply you might need.  We, at that point only needed a meal apiece and a place to sleep, and that was easy.
Which brings us to yesterday, the 17th of March.  I almost regret the day.  It was 307 km, including the approaches to Hanoi, which are always very stressful and slow.  So it was do-able in a single daylight ride, if a little long and hard.  Yet the road and the scenery for the first 250 km at least continued splendid, stunning views at times and enjoyable riding.  I could easily have made two days out of it and probably should have, but I'd let external pressures bear on the journey and was determined to press on to Hanoi in just the one day.  So we pressed on.  I hardly took the camera out of its holster the whole day, though there were scenes and things to see that more than merited the time to stop.  But. . .now we're to be television stars, the little bike and I.  A program called "Talk Viet Nam" will interview us both and make a whole show out of our riding and the boats we came to see (but not the mountains I think), and for that we have much to do in the next few days.  So we're back in Hanoi and short a hundred photos I should have made.  
The morning after. . .starting to load for the next leg, and a nice view of the stairs! 

A hard way to make a living, loading dump trucks by shovel from a boat afloat.  This is the ramp we didn't use.

The fanciest hotel in Pak Beng, $30 usd in the low season, much more in high season!  No, we did not stay here.

Pak Beng, the highway, down to the river.

Limo service in Pak Beng.  Never say "cattle class"...these are backpackers!

Power for China from the Beng River

Blue bags of bananas. . .

A tiny bit of the bananas, they go on forever out of sight in places.

I just can't pass these up.  This one is growing in a large pot, in the yard of a pagoda in Oudomxay

The stupa in the pagoda grounds.  I need to find out what these are for.

About stair step 52 of 217, looking back (and breathing)
The rifles to the left were war souvenirs.  More modern AK-47's are still quite common in the countryside as hunting rifles.  The matchlock fowling pieces are still made and used for small game.  You see them, but not often.

Just a pretty place.  Is it a guest house?  That could be lovely.

Minimal bridge. . .foot traffic only on this I imagine.

Harvesting "sea weed" from the river (nice work on a hot day eh?).  I saw 2 truckloads of this stuff leaving the area.  Don't know what it's good for though.

My Vietnamese motorcycle touring club. . .I really should have joined their troop and ridden back to Louang Prabang.

Good bye and good riding!

Yikes, they're building another one!

View down river from my balcony in Mouang Khoa

The bike at rest, Muang Khoa

The old bridge. . .they take motorbikes across this now.  It sways and twists with just one person walking though.

Muang Khoa

Muang Khoa

Muang Khoa (note drum tower beyond)

They don't need an amplifier

Through the locked grating, Muang Khoa

Me being artistic.  It's just the door of a house, but pretty eh?

The old road down to the ferry landing, which was, at that time, the beginning of a 67 km misery ride over dust and rocks and numerous bad water crossings.  Oh how things have changed.

Ou River boats. . .various sizes.  Their props are only half in the water, half in the air, so they throw big rooster tails at speed, but if they touch bottom with the boat the propeller is still clear!

Just a bit of spray as he gunned the motor a second to turn in to the landing.
And this is the road today. . .no dust, no rocks, and bridges over all the water.  Praise God!

I think I will live until I die and never cross one like this on the bike. . .wimp.  That's all.

They do check to see if anyone else is coming before they start across.  

And we leave Laos.  I failed to park at this sign years ago, just stopped and then pulled up to the offices.  They fined me $5 for the violation, then $5 more for arguing.  No more!  Courteous, friendly, quick. . .somebody put out the word!

And so, down into Viet Nam again.. .

QL 279 being rebuilt a few km into Viet Nam.  It needed it. . .and most of it still does.  This will be a lane and a half when it's finished. . .one vehicle will always squeeze over so the other can pass.

I stopped just for a photo, but got invited up and in for a drink of water and to see the house.  

A clown in every crowd I guess. . .

So lovely upstairs. . .sleeping rooms curtained off and the "living room" with the TV and the formal furniture, all open to the underside of the tile.  

Smoke house.. .without the house!

Miles and miles and miles of this.  Wonderful riding!