Thursday, 27 December 2012

105. Christmas at the Chinese consulate

Bangkok was celebrating its 230th birthday as we pedaled out of the city in the Monday morning steam bath. Traffic wasn't too bad and we were able to get onto the Bangkok-Nonthaburi canal and get beyond the city limits as we rode between the canal and the nearby Chao Phraya river that drains central Thailand before flowing into the Gulf through Bangkok.  We were presented with our first gifts of the stage - two large bottles of water from a concerned looking petrol pump attendant.

Leaving Bangkok, colour coded.

Gradually the city gave way to the rice paddies and months of successful abstinence from meat gave way to noodles with pig innards. We passed through the industrial areas that were inundated during the floods in late 2011. Extensive flood protection works are under way, including raising the walls of the canals and river banks in this terminally flat landscape, where bridges and traffic lights are the only reason to shift gears. Despite the massive economic investment and relative lack of success with such hard engineering approaches in other parts of the world, Thailand seems determined to try and build its way out of the water.

Out on the edge of the six-laned Highway 347, we were soon up in Ayutthaya, the former Siamese capital along with the more northerly Sukhothai. Leaving town the next morning Ellie spotted a large alligator-like animal posed by the roadside. The water monitor is second only in size to the Komodo dragon but just scurries back into the undergrowth as we pass. We saw many over the coming days. Thailand is a lot like tropical cycling for beginners. You have the heat but then there is always something cold to drink or an air-conditioned 7-11 to shelter in for a moment during the middle of the day. The roads, even the backroads, are generally in very good condition and there's always something to eat, generally noodles, along the road-side. Tesco supermarkets are in all the bigger towns and yet lively local markets seem to compete well with them. So the eight day's ride up from Bangkok to Lampang and our time since, is more holiday than rigorous adventure. Still we were able to make some big days and after taking a couple of days to settle back into life on a bicycle we were riding over 100 km on most days. The wind shifted erratically day by day, at times a modest headwind and at others breezing us through countryside that alternated between rice paddies and sugar cane. The temperature too dropped away as we moved inland, northwards towards the mountains, barely noticeable at first but by the time we reached Lampang night-time temperatures were already about 10 degrees less than Bangkok. Within a week a fan went from an essential item to being defunct and outdated. Occasional glimpses of weather reports on Thai channels and online show the route ahead deep in winter. About one thousand kilometres by road to our north, Kunming in Yunnan province is already near zero at night. Urumqi in the far northwest of China, our probable gateway into Kazakhstan and Central Asia is somewhere in the minus 20s.

Uthai Thani Christmas decorations in the main street

Our favourite section was when the hundreds of kilometres of fast but flat land gave way to the gentle rolling and teak-covered hills north of Sukhothai. The waves and hellos multiplied and more gifts - two wonderfully large papayas provided yet more ballast for the upward slopes.

Water makers

Despite the presence of water monitors and aggressive dogs, it was a bee that caused the most excitement during the week when Ellie was stung above the eye one afternoon. The next morning her eye was swollen shut and in search of some antihistamine, we trawled the aisles of the 7-11 and Tescos. Finally we found the only open pharmacy in the town and the friendly lady helped us and refilled our water bottles.

Ants get to my apple before I can 

 Thai boxing champ Ellie after fighting a bee

Our goal was to make Chiang Mai by Christmas but on Christmas eve we decided to stop in Lampang and on Christmas morning at 6 a.m. we took a bus for the two hour journey to Chiang Mai to apply for our Chinese visa. If anyone can rob one of the festive spirit, it is a consular officer. The smiling consular staff said she would need a couple of more pieces of paperwork, so today we returned to the embassy, submitted our applications and fingers crossed will collect our visas in a few days time. Oddly, given its fairly miniscule Christian population, Thailand gets into the holiday spirit with great fervor - not just the shops who are keen for any excuse to make sales, but also the streets fill up with night fairs, concerts and lights adorn the streets. Plastic Christmas trees melt in the broiling temperatures and shop assistants wipe their sweating brows with Santa hats. Yesterday we explored Lampang, found ourselves a bike shop there and arranged for Ellie's bike to get a new bottom bracket. Then we found a cinema screening films in English and we got to see the Hobbit.

One last climb before Lampang

Lampang, Thailand
Pedalled: 65,167 km

Many thanks for a couple of recent and very generous donations that have brought the fundraising up to 792 euro - almost exactly what we've cycled so far from Bangkok! Donations to the Peter McVerry Trust can be made on my webpage at here. Thanks again.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

104. And we're off! Well, almost...

And we're off. Well almost. We were planning for a quick pedaling departure from Bangkok when we arrived back last Sunday but then after spending most of Tuesday at the excellent tropical medical centre at Mahidol University, where we got some tests done and vaccines updated, it was revealed that Ellie had smuggled a couple of different kinds of parasites, including Giardia lambia, back from India and a several days of treatment was prescribed to 'kiw 'em' as the doctor said.

 The offensive screw

With Ellie recovering I set about doing some bicycle chores that I hadn't got around to and envisioned doing on some quiet day in a few weeks. Fortunately, however, I chose Bangkok to change the internal cable on my Rohloff speedhub (my internal gear hub). Untouched since San Francisco, the torx screws that hold the axle ring in place weren't budging and a good effort on one of them only proceeded to strip the nut. An eclectic and heartfelt array of profanities didn't seem to help either. So it was back to the kind masters at Bok Bok bikeshop - Hma and Kop - who have been minding our bikes and gear since we've been away and had them all set to go by Tuesday evening for the voyage home across Eurasia. With visions of another saddlepostgate keeping us in Bangkok for another week or two as our 30 day visa stamp ticks away merrily, I showed them the offending screw. Other customers gathered around the small workshop and threw suggestions in. The gods at the Rohloff factory in Germany, for whom Hma is now a direct disciple, were consulted and came back with a relatively unsophisticated reply that involved weilding a hammer quite forcefully at the hub. Hma disappeared to a nearby car garage, returning 30 minutes later with no success. Finally it was agreed that we should try welding it and so the following morning we drove to the outer edge of the city in an hour's traffic and took a turning that led into a scrap yard with a number of savage canines changed up in the shade of rusting motorcars. We handed the wheel over to the guy running the place and in two minutes he had welded another bolt to the stripped nut and popped it out. Voila. The journey will continue. So with a new internal cable put in and an improving Ellie to cycle with, we're all set to depart for our first destination, Chiang Mai in northern Thailand where we hope Santa will bring us two Chinese visas.

 The offensive parasite

 All set to go (actually this was taken by Hma outside Bok Bok bikeshop back in April when we set off south from Bangkok). Not much has changed though apart from some new hubs and rims (one each), pedals, bottom brackets, and cables.

Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary since Peter McVerry set up the organisation to address the urgent needs of housing and support for young homeless people in Dublin.  So far through the very generous donations of a few friends and well-wishers we've raised almost 600 Euro for the Peter McVerry Trust and I'm hoping to get much more than that between now and when we get home. From Bangkok to Ireland will be somewhere in the region of 20,000 kilometres via China and Central Asia and it would be great if we could raise one euro for every kilometre cycled! Credit card donations can be made on my web page at here, or by clicking the link at the top of my blog 'Donate to the Peter McVerry Trust'. Many thanks also to Hma here at Bok Bok for donating some of the expenses for fixing up the bikes to the Trust.

Bangkok, Thailand

Sunday, 9 December 2012

103. Packing list - what's on the bike and in the panniers

The bike...

Frame - Thorn Raven Tour alloy eccentric MK2 Trad. British Racing Green (steel) size: 537L
Forks - Thorn Twin Plate crown fork
Shimano un54 (110mm English thread/68mm shell) bottom bracket
Headset - FSA Orbit XL II headset 1 1/8” threadless, black
Rohloff Speedhub 500/14, black, 14 speed, 32 hole
Rohloff reversible steel sprocket 16t
Shimano 9-speed chain HG 53
Front hub - Shimano XT M760 32 hole front hub, rear QR skewer for 135mm hub
Rims - Rigida Andra 30 CSS, 32 hole (Rohloff drilling), 26”, black
Chainset (original - thorn alloy 110PCD 170mm - no longer original)
Chainring (original - Thorn alloy single 110PCD reversible, 38t - no longer this make or size)
Stem - Thorn 1 1/8” alloy front-loading threadless stem
Handlebars - Thorn comfort bars MK2, black Ergon grip & bar end grip
Tyres - Schwalbe Marathon Mondial 26” x 2.0
Brakes - Shimano LX v-brakes (front & rear)
Shimano Deore M511 brake levers
Mudguards - SKS (MG65W), black
Saddle - Brookes B17 Imperial, black
Seatpost - Thorn alloy
Pedals with toe-clips & straps
Thorn steel expedition rear rack, black
Thorn steel lo-loader front rack, black
Bottle cages - x2 Profile Cages + x1 Composite MTN bottlecage / bottles
Lights (front and rear LED)
Panniers (Ortlieb back roller classic front and rear)
Handlebar bag – Ortlieb 5 ltr
Waterproof duffel bag – 20 ltr
Bike lock (incl. spare keys)

Repairs and spares...

Puncture repair kit
Tyre levers
Pump – Zefal HPX Size 1
Swiss army knife
Thorn multi-tool incl. chain remover & spoke tool & Torx-20 screwdriver for Rohloff
Adjustable wrench
Hacksaw blade
Toothbrush (to clean chain)
Spare tyre
Inner tubes – Schwalbe SV13 26”x1.5-2.5 presta valve
Brake cables
Gear cables
Rohloff spare cables for internal hub
Spare spokes x6 (x2 front, x4 rear)
Chain links
Brake blocks – ceramic (J) regular (E)
Rohloff cleaning oil (100 ml) – use 25 ml every 5000km
Rohloff speedhub oil (100 ml) – use 20 ml every 5000km
Chain oil
Spare drain screw for Rohloff speedhub
Cable ties
Bungee cords
Loctite 511
Pack of spare nuts/bolts, etc (esp. for racks)

The bedroom...

North Face Flying Frog tent / plastic groundsheet
Spare aluminum sleeves for fixing tent poles
Sleeping bag - Snugpak winter down bag
Sleeping bag liner
Inflatable sleeping mat
Head torch


Cycling shoes
Down jacket
Cycling shorts x 2
Cycling shorts – outer x 1
T-shirts (x2)
Long-sleeved shirt
Light fleece
Waterproof jacket
Cycling gloves
Sun hat
Spare glasses
Foil blanket
Washing powder

The kitchen...

MSR Whisperlite International stove / fuel bottle / maintenance kit
Cooking pot – aluminium 2 litre
MSR Waterworks EX Micro water filter
Nalgene bottle
MSR collapsible water bottle 5 litre
Water purification tablets
Food containers
Spoon, knife, mug

The bathroom...

Razor & spare blades
Sunblock cream
Lipbalm (with suncream added)
Toilet paper
Dental floss

The hospital...

Anti-malarial tablets
Oral rehydration sachets
Mosquito repellent
Assorted bandages
Assorted dressings
Anti-septic cleaning swabs
Zinc oxide tape
Butterfly stitches
Safety pins
Multivitamins & cod liver oil
Charcoal tablets
Zinc oxide cream
Eye drops
Anti-histamine cream
Anti-fungal cream
Needle & thread

The office...

Passport photos
Insurance documents incl. blood group info
Copies of recent bank statements
Bank cards
European health insurance card
Money belt
Driving licence
Hostelling International card
Letter of introduction from Department of Foreign Affairs
Flash drives
WHO vaccination book
Emergency contact numbers and addresses
Envelopes and writing paper
Camera (with 8 GB and 2 GB SD cards)
Spare batteries
IPOD / USB cable / headphones
Kindle (incl. cover and usb cable)

Bangkok, Thailand

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

102. Camels, trains and tuk-tuks: back and forth across northern India

It 's 4 a.m. on our first morning in India. The train stands in the dark station at Gorakhpur with the shrouded corpses of the sleeping lying prone on the platforms. The smell of urine drifts in through the barred window of our second class carriage. As the train moves south towards Varanasi, across green plains, dawn highlights the individuals who come down near the tracks for their morning ablutions, indifferent to the passing audience. A mouse in search of breakfast runs over my bare foot on his way down through the carriage. Our sole companion tries in vain to have an exchange in Hindi before giving up and returning to his paper.

In the clear post-monsoon skies, the Ganges has begun to recede as we roll into the centre of the Hindu universe. Varanasi is busy welcoming the onset of the cool, dry winter months and is in the midst of the Durga Puja festival. Intricate sculptures of voluptuous women, adorned with garlands, are housed at regular intervals along the street before being immersed in the great river. Offered a special lassi by the guesthouse owner on our first night, I don't realise that its curd laced with bhang (cannabis). The lights and music on the street move past in a fascinating and uncomprehending swirl.

We journey west to the erotic temple at Khajuraho and then to the Moghul strongholds at Agra and Delhi - monuments such as the Taj Mahal drowning in the urban onslaught. Air pollution holds back the glow of the rising sun and eats away at the marble edifice.

We try to decide whether to go north or south but end up doing neither. With Diwali approaching and most of India on the move, securing train tickets for longer journeys is problematic so we settle on one region and spend the next three weeks exploring India's arid western province of Rajasthan. Our first port of call is Jaipur, where we are taken in by Hemant and his family - fed wonderful food and given a peaceful place to stay. The last (and first) time we met was along the Oregon coast where Hemant slept on a picnic bench beside our tent as we all pedaled north towards Washington. Hemant was on his annual cycling pilgrimmage to the Lion's International annual conference. We were given an on-the-spot invite to Jaipur, although naturally he had expected us to arrive on our bikes rather than a train.

We had moved from the Moghul remnants to the Rajput kingdoms, where Maharajahs were retained also by the British colonial government and only lost their power at independence in 1947. Jaipur was gearing up for Diwali festival and we retreated from the Pink city to the relative quiet desert scrub of the Shekhawati, where crumbling havelis were raised with money made from trade and taxes on passing caravans. The arrival of the East India Company and the establishment of the railway network meant these routes were eventually bypassed and then crumbled back into the sand.

Jaipur was under siege during Diwali and thousands of fireworks kept the sky ablaze.

Heading south to Bundi we were back in small-town Rajasthan and liking it. A morning's desert cycling on Indian Hero's was followed by an afternoon of magic at a small village where thousands of people came to witness a variety of gravity-defying sculptures. Hand in hand with our chaperones - a Bundi family who had picked us up on the roadside - we were guided through the throngs of villagers, cross-dressers and turbaned men. Thirty restless bulls pulling the boulder representing the god through the dusty street as crowds through money at the rock. We piled back into the family mini-van and were invited home for chapattis and chai. It's our first experience of the host feeding us with his own hands. The women surround Ellie protectively and she emerges with henna paintings on her arms.

After a couple of days in Udaipur, the theme became strictly camel and we walked among the thousands of dromedaries, locals and tourists attending the Pushkar fair.

Jaisalmer lies at the end of the western railway line in Rajasthan. The surrounding area bulges into the Pakistan border like an angry spot before the desert gives way to the Indus river valley. Jaisalmer is another forgotten outpost of Rajputana, with its fort and surrounding Thar desert attracting tourists. In the tranquil desert just one hundred kilometres away, India tested its first nuclear bombs in May 1998, bringing the region one giant step closer to nuclear war with its Islamic neighbour. We opt for a three day camel trek and spend a couple of nights under the full moon. Our time on a bicycle saddle offers little protection for the rigors of three days on a camel.

In Bikaner we have tea with the caretaker of the Jain temple and again we're fed by him. Outside a bicycle mechanic with the longest moustache I've seen welcomes us with a warm smile. Another day we visit the Temple of Rats in nearby Deshnok. We return across northern India via Delhi to Varanasi. The nights on the train are cold now, everyone bundled up in most of the clothes they own. The trains are a sanctuary from hectic urban India. A sense of calm pervades them as people relax, chat and share food.

While we've met a lot of wonderful and warm people, Indians and foreigners alike, urban India has at times been a challenging place to spend a lot of time for us and particularly Ellie. Indian society doesn't always appear kind, particularly to its female members, and the need for safeguards is evident everywhere - from the women-only sections of the Delhi metro to the daily articles concerning gender based inequality and harassment in the Times of India. Constant attention and groping were a reality in some places and became frustrating at times. A more general problem are the extraordinary levels of pollution that pervade the metropolis' and take a toll on the mind and body.

There has been plenty of time for reading and particularly interesting books were Edward Luce's (2007) In Spite of the Gods, Gandhi's early memoirs My Story of Experiments with Truth, and especially Amartya Sen's (2005) The Argumentative Indian.

Our final journey will take us from Varanasi to Calcutta before we return to the bikes and start cycling again next week.

Varanasi, India