So it has been a while since I wrote anything on here. The winter months have been spent in a shameful but wonderful limbo, cycling Southeast Asia off and on, making my way through China, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. I just arrived in China for the second time, at the beginning of the tour around the country I talked about here, though, so it is time to hastily wrap up what happened since I crossed the Kyrgyz-China border in October of last year. I.e. below, in the cold, 6 months ago. Yikes.
The introductory script got more complicated.
Where are you coming from?
By bike? Wow! So you bought the bike here?
Er, no, cycled actually, ahem, er, no, yeah, from the UK. Well.. I cheated in China; I got a train, multiple trains actually, and, er, a plane. And I only cycled 2/3 of the way in Laos, I hitchhiked from the border to Luang Prabang, and then I kind of waited out winter, went home for a bit, met a few mates in Thailand, did a little bike trip to Eastern Thailand, and then cycled here to Myanmar, well actually yesterday I cycled 40km before hitchhiking…
Formerly attentive eyes start to glaze…..
Actually I took a train in France too for 80km, it was a massive gale though, and in Uzbekistan, well that’s a whole other story, but I have an excuse for that time in Turkey – I lost my bicycle pump…….!
Me continuing to mutter…
I’ve come to realize that cycle touring is a great excuse for an extended holiday, labour if not work, and am only slowly getting used to the fact one year on…
I cycled across the Thailand-Myanmar border without an entry stamp and slept in a rebel army camp.
Oops. After seeing an assault rifle propped up next to my proposed bed, a mat on the floor of a wooden outhouse, I started to get a bit worried. I spotted one more, as well as a few ammo belts and grenades, as my self-appointed chaperone gestured that I should take a wash. In the river a hundred metres away, down a hill, I realized, after leaving the dim lights of the distant outpost behind, stumbling down a muddy path. More worried. No phone or camera battery either so no lifeline and no photos…
I waded into the warm water and started to take my top off. After 2 days of climbing dusty tracks in remote territory in 35 degrees, I thought that would be appropriate, and help me achieve the “please don’t kill me I’m not at all irritating (or smelly)” image I was cultivating. Clearly not appropriate, based on the reaction of my chaperone, and the circumstances of my inevitable death again emerged top of mind. With no common language to mitigate leaps of imagination, and a national culture based on assuming strangers are axe murderers or worse, and generally just being in a camp with armed people in the middle of nowhere, I found my mind started to wander.
And then he just made me a huge meal. A saucepan of rice, loads of fish curry, stewed beef, vegetables, and a fresh omelette. I ate almost every morsel in fear of offending their cooking, sucking clean each fish bone and choking down a third bowl of rice. And then the scant remains were placed under a basket for the next visitors to the table; they would be going hungry based on how much I had left. Oops again.
I lay on my bed mat and got my kindle out to try and ease the passage of the evening. My chaperone came and sat about 50cm away from me and proceeded to stare at me in silence. For quite a while. I got very good at this in Central Asia – sitting with someone, saying absolutely nothing, and having no recourse to external stimuli. Safe to say that I have done the hard yards on this cycle tour and I will be able to visit the pub on my own without a mobile phone or newspaper when I return to England.
Other guys arrived and left, nodding their head at the sight of a really dirty foreigner in their camp. And then an older guy, perhaps 40, joined my chaperone and also stared at me in silence. They exchanged a few words. This was the commander of the drug cartel coming to check whether he was happy for me to be there. No doubt. I tried to fill the silence to make sure I didn’t become boring. That was a bit of a challenge, don’t laugh please, and when the older guy left familiar thoughts returned. And then he returned to give me a bedtime malt drink.
That is about the end of the story. I slept well, was treated to a good breakfast, and left, after some selfies with my new mates. I was none the wiser who they were, until learning from a friend that this was territory held by the KNU and these were most likely Karen rebel soldiers. The final words of the one guy that spoke English – “Us ‘Krin’ soldiers”, which I had translated as “us crime soldiers” – began to make more sense, as did the one conclusion of my sign language exchange with my chaperone, that he was a Christian.
I wasn’t actually meant to be cycling through here. After it was pointed out that I hadn’t got an entry stamp, 30km further down the road, and I was told to go back to the border, back over 200km of bone juddering tracks, and get one, that was made abundantly clear.
As ever, people are amazing, and the next guy in line at the checkpoint just put me in the back of his car and drove me the length of the eight hour round trip. When I got to my rebel army camp, the car was stopped and money changed hands; it was basically an outpost to take a road toll from the passing cars and lorries. I exchanged a smile with the guy secreting an extra few dollars from my driver in his pocket. My chaperone was nearby, failing valiantly to learn to ride a motorbike. He made clear he never touched a gun, the night before, and wasn’t what you might imagine for a rebel soldier. As ever, though, preconceptions corrected.
Many hours later I got back to the checkpoint and cycled on, into the night, reaching the coastal town of Ye. I went out for a plate of fried rice and two beers, and charged up my phone for the first time since the border, as ever mistakenly expecting the world to have fundamentally changed while I was momentarily out of contact. That was about all the cycling I did in Myanmar. But I did make full use of the extra 2 days I got on my visa, having finally admitted I was more than happy to be a normal tourist. When I got the stamp I left out the fact that I had actually already been in Myanmar for two days living with the rebel army 🙂
I made a grand plan to write a regular blog about cycling in China.
I wanted the account of the trip around China to stand alone, so that it has a start and an end, and so that people can find it, so I started a new website. More cynically, I decided I needed a project to justify spending another year cycling around. You can find it here. That probably explains why I didn’t write anything on my existing blog, as I was spending days off tinkering with WordPress, sitting next to digital nomads in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
I did put some thought into my route, though, and wrote a few introductory posts. Then I arrived in China, set off, and didn’t write anything. I was tired, but also wanted to write posts about China, rather than its roads, and that is probably going to take more effort than 30 tired minutes at the end of each day. I have been in China for nearly a month now, and have covered about 1300km from Kunming to Litang on the Tibetan Plateau. Time to catch up!
…I shouted hello in Lao – “Sabadiiiiiiiiiiiiiii” – about 10,000 times
…slept on the beach in Thailand
…and went home for Christmas 🙂