Vietnam 04/10/2011Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: dien bien phu, heat, jungle, mountains, sapa, tam tron pass, vietnam
Vietnam is hot as balls. Seriously.
Granted, I don’t have a lot of experience in the tropics. Before this trip the closest I came to a jungle was a palm tree at the Regina mall.
As far as ideal temperatures go, I’m a lot like margarine, and now that the sun is screaming down I’ve nothing to do but melt.
But you’ll never hear me complain. Vietnam is incredible, and even though it’s kicking my butt, I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.
Case in point: the ride from the border to Sapa, a 35 km climb that would make John Wayne tinkle in his chaps. It took me a day and a half, mostly spent doubled over my handle bars, panting and dripping.
But I had every reason to keep going. The higher I rode, the better my view of sweeping rice fields, terraced in a lazy ascent up the same mountains whose peaks disappeared into the clouds. I followed, amazed.
And on that narrow misty road, I fell in love with the hill tribes of the country’s northwest. H’mong, Dao, Tay – all of them in fantastic colours, waving hello, wearing smiles that stretched from their faces to mine.
I haven’t stopped grinning yet. After a full week in Sapa I pedalled over Tram Ton Pass – Vietnam’s highest – and descended into the oven of the lower mountains.
It took me five sweat-soaked days to bike to Dien Bien Phu, and no doubt the ride would have been hell if not for the hospitality along the way. In every town I had invitations for shade and tea. Kids handed me fresh fruit while old ladies fussed over my water bottles.
The only words I know in Vietnamese are “hello” and “thank you”. Sometimes that’s enough.
I’ll spend one more day in Dien Bien Phu before turning west and cycling to the Laos border. My legs can use the rest, and honestly, I’m not ready to leave the country just yet.
Every day I spend in Vietnam, I feel my energy returning, my faith in this trip being restored. They’re easy things to lose, hard to come by when they’re gone.
I’m only thankful that I’m heading in the right direction once more.
Sink into your dreams 08/10/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: caucasus, health, heat, istanbul, trabzon, turkey
Turkey left me ragged. I can’t hide it now – something has fallen away. It trickled off me, turned black under my nails. What’s left looks hard and cold, and I see it in every window I pass. My face is a gravestone.
I’m not sad. I always knew the wide-eyed kid who grinned his way across the Arctic would never make it home. I wanted to feel everything, to swallow whole the sunsets and snowcaps, to touch the road and count the stars. And I did.
But in the past months I’ve begun to understand the rawness, the pain that comes from opening my heart so wide. Now there are times when I need to squeeze it shut, to feel nothing in order to survive.
I guess that means I’m grown up.
In Istanbul I ate a bad meal or shook the wrong hand. My stomach rebelled. For a week I couldn’t eat, and when I forced myself, I couldn’t keep it down.
I didn’t care. I kept cycling, stopping to be sick and then pushing forward again. For 600 km I climbed mountains that dwarfed those in Alaska, and I did it with nothing inside but a few pieces of toast.
I don’t remember much about it, just random moments. An army dog chased me down the highway. Someone gave me corn on the cob through a car window. It was so hot that the road tar stuck to my tires. I didn’t know what day it was.
And then it was over, for no reason at all. The road found a place between the mountains and sea, flat and straight. My strength returned. In the 500 km between Sinop and Trabzon I finally noticed Turkey. I inhaled forests of pine, found a beach and swam, licking the salt from my lips.
I spent afternoons in village squares, mobbed by kids who peered under my bike, poked at my bags . They’d frown, unsatisfied, and sit on their haunches in front of me.
Had I biked all the way from Canada? Was I a Christian? Did I miss my family? Was the trip worth it?
What did it cost?
I’ve traded joy and misery for the quiet confidence in knowing I can conquer both. Take away passion’s extremes and it becomes an arrow, white hot. Now I can go anywhere.
Turkey is behind me. I am in Georgia, preparing for Azerbaijan and then Iran.
I am ragged, new. Smiling just a little bit.
The Balkans 06/24/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: balkans, border, bosnia, heat, repairs, sarajevo, serbia, war
I am ready to hit the road again after spending a full week resting in western Serbia. I needed time to make sense of the things I’ve seen in the Balkans, to line them up in my head before I commit them to words.
I don’t think I’m any closer, but for the sake of folks who read this, I’ll try to say something.
Bosnia was nothing like I expected, though I wonder now what it was I thought I’d find.
In the north I cycled past fields of golden straw, watching hunched farmers shape the land with nothing more than pitchforks and shovels.
At dusk they loaded themselves into horse-drawn wagons and clopped down the highway to old stone houses. They always smiled, always waved, and after they’d gone I wondered just what it is we’re growing in the rows of mechanized perfection back home.
The heat didn’t burn but choke as I approached Sarajevo. In two-street villages I began to find memorials for dozens, all killed the same way, the same day. It was nothing like the markers I saw in Belgium and France. I couldn’t walk away from these. For the first time in my life I shared the dates on the stones, and it hurt to swallow.
Sarajevo. The Bosnian capital lies in a valley, guarded by towering green mountains that seem to keep the outside world at bay. There you find mosques, synagogues and cathedrals erected almost side-by-side, and yet the only tension on the ground is between tourists jostling for a photograph. Sun or stars, the streets were all the same – clean, quiet, safe.
It was inspiring, but I don’t pretend to understand it. How can the best in us survive amid the poison of recent history? Where do people find the will to grow, to rise up and deliver themselves to something better? Maybe there is no answer. That these things are happening is enough for me.
Climbing east to Serbia was brutal under the blazing summer sun. For a week the temperature hovered around 40°C, and I had to drink six or seven litres of water each day just to stay on my feet. Even then it was tough. At the top of one mountain pass I was doubled over my bike, shaking and trying not to retch. From then on I biked only in the morning and evening, letting the heat of the day pass while I lounged in the shade.
After getting my passport stamped at the border, I made for Užice, where I hoped to find a bicycle shop to fix my wobbling rear tire.
In my search I met a teenage boy who asked in broken English where I was going and what I was doing in Serbia. He grinned and disappeared with my answers. Thinking nothing of it, I returned to my bike, stuffing the panniers with supplies.
When I turned to leave, I stopped short and gaped. There, standing before me, was a group of 20 or more kids, all staring at my bike as though it had come from the moon. They wanted to see everything, touch everything, and again and again they asked if I’d really cycled all the way from Canada. We took photographs. One boy proudly wrote “Serbia” in Cyrillic on my waterproof bag. And when I said, after 45 minutes, that I had to leave, a kid reached into his pocket and gave me two bent cigarettes.
I sometimes think it’s stupid when people make a fuss over my trip. Not this time.
Those kids knew, and I soon realized, that they will probably never get a chance to do something like this. Most Serbians don’t have a lot, and they have to work themselves raw to even get that much. The truth is that they can’t see the world.
I don’t pity them. The shame is us. So many Canadians have the freedom to spin the globe, to visit any spot we wish. On a few month’s wages we can see the pyramids, the rain forest, the most modern cities in the world. We have the opportunity, every single day, to meet new people and learn from them as they learn from us. But too often we don’t.
Instead we get diplomas, pay our bills and go to work, nagged by a vague sensation that something is missing from our world. Something is missing.
A few pages from the journal . . . 08/05/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, border, british columbia, camping, canada, cassiar highway, couchsurfing, forest fire, heat, hostel, tok, usa, whitehorse, wind, yukon
It’s been ages since I last updated and so much has happened that I hardly know where to begin. I think a person matures at an accelerated rate on the road, and when I think back at me cursing the sky, shivering in Glenallen, it seems like a different life in someone else’s sweater.
The road from Glenallen to Tok was mostly flat, and since the weather was cool, I covered about 200 miles in only two days. There were some breathtaking spots along the way, though the one that sticks out most in my mind now is an enormous valley near Mentasta that was so wonderfully silent that even my soft whistle rang off the mountain walls. I got lost in the echo, imagining what I’d be doing at that moment if I hadn’t got on a bus back in June, and I felt so very fortunate.
In Tok I again stayed with the Marshall clan at their newly opened campground. This time I slept in a converted military tent that was referred to, rather optimistically, as a hostel. It was $2 cheaper than a camp site and the cot was a nice change after sleeping on rocks and branches for so long.
Joining me in the tent for the evening was a gal named Justy who was on the lam from Californian authorities for, as she said, “every charge they could think of.” I didn’t care much about all of that. Instead, my lasting memory of her is that she snored like a buzz saw and scared the devil out of me when I found her wandering around the Tok city limits sign the next day. I don’t know if she was on drugs or just taking a piss, and I didn’t stop to ask.
Down the highway I went, with thoughts of the Canadian border bouncing around my tiny head. What I didn’t realize was that American and Canadian customs aren’t in the same spot on the Alaska Highway. Exhausted and dizzy, I creaked my way to the border around 9 p.m. and was greeted not by a border guard, but by a big green sign that said, “Canadian Customs – 20 miles.” So I biked 20 more miles in the dark, finally arriving at the guard station at 11.
And there I stood until 11:20 while the mosquitoes sucked every drop of energy from my legs. The guards were busy tearing apart a U-Haul and little biker boy kind of slipped between the cracks. The bugs were so bad that I frenzy-slapped one leg and then the other, back and forth without bothering to look down. For all of that, I was really hoping for some intense light-in-your-eyes interrogation from the guard, like the kind you’d see on a 70′s New York crime show. What I got was:
“Do you have any firearms or explosives?”
“Did you buy anything from the Duty Free store?”
“What’s a Duty Free store?”
“Okay. Have a nice trip, sir.”
After customs, it was only a few kilometres to Beaver Creek, where I found a random picnic table and set about making my supper. As I was boiling my rice, a squeaky shadow emerged from nowhere and my list of wildlife seen increased by one. I was face to face with a four-year-old on training wheels.
He pedalled right up to my toes and asked, as though he had keys for the local jail, “What’s your name?”
I said my name was Mike.
“Did you know my name’s Tucker?”
I said I didn’t know that but I was glad to meet him. I don’t think he heard me, though, because he was busy giving my bike the once-over and climbing on the picnic table, asking what I was making for supper, if I liked rice, what colour of rice I ate, how many times I stirred my rice, etc. etc.
As we discussed the finer points of my diet, Tucker’s father came along with his older son. After I explained my trip to them, he introduced himself as the head chef at the local hotel and gently hinted that the evening’s leftovers might be more appetizing than my boiled rice and lentils. Five minutes later, I was sitting in a staff mess hall, glugging down glasses of milk and eating chicken fingers, breaded fish and vegetable stir fry.
The trio told me I was camping behind the hotel, and since I didn’t have the energy to argue, I fell asleep on a soft field of moss 30 meters from the parking lot. I slept like a rock.
It didn’t matter much, because the next day was simply unkind. It was hot, hilly and there was a gritty headwind knocking me around on every pedal stroke. I went all of 20 km before I realized I was having no fun whatsoever. I slipped into a territorial campground and sat by the lake, picking gunk out of my eyes and banging my socks together like two dusty chalk brushes.
That was the end of the line for me. I took off my helmet, grabbed my cook pot and headed into the bush to pick blueberries. Picking (or perhaps eating) berries always seems to cheer me up, and on that day I was in serious need of some purple on my fingers.
When I returned to the shore, blueberries in tow, I met a German couple – he fishing without success and she hand washing laundry – and also a wiry Irish fellow named Barry. He was cycling from Anchorage to San Francisco before setting off for Australia and southeast Asia.
We talked for awhile and since he had no water filter, I offered him some purifying drops that I’d never used. Barry invited me to share his camp site and a half bladder of red wine that some other campers had given him the night before. The treat was finished in short order and we sat there looking at each other until he, in his one-of-a-kind Irish accent, suggested we go back to Beaver Creek to buy more wine.
So we did. We biked back over the 20 km that had frayed my body earlier that day, and then we made our way back to the campground – two fools with cheap wine in double-bagged white plastic. We stayed up until three in the morning talking about little things, stupid things that only two people living on a bike could really understand. I fell asleep with my shoes as a pillow and a huge grin on my face.
The next morning I left in a great mood, and thank goodness. Any sour thoughts I had would have pickled in the incredible heat that glared over everything for the next several days. The closer I got to Whitehorse, the further the mercury rose, until finally, near Kluane Lake, it inched over 40°C. All I could do was hide in the shadow of a rest stop outhouse and wait for the sun to slide behind the mountains.
The rides to Haines Junction and even Whitehorse were kind of a blur. I was strung out from the heat and the grime of the road, and by the time I arrived in the capital, all I could do was sit on a gas station parking meridian and suck on a Slurpee. Watermelon. Mmm mmm.
In Whitehorse, I stayed with a CouchSurfing host who took me out to catch the final show of a band called The Whiskey Dicks. They blasted Celtic rock in a sticky, seedy bar that was so hot you could barely breathe. Everyone in the place was dancing like mad, covered in sweat and booze and smiles, and if you stopped for a moment to take it all in, you’d swear it was beautiful.
At that same bar, I met a lady from Teslin who asked me to drop in to the town’s Visitor’s Centre when I passed through. It took me two days of cycling through smoke so thick it seemed like a dream, but I made it to the reception building yesterday and met up with Bev. We talked for a bit, but she had to go back to work so she invited to come to her place for dinner later that night.
And what a night! Before I could even sit down I had a bowl of moose stew in one hand and a Budweiser in the other. We sat on her back deck for hours and hours watching the full moon peek over the hills and make its sleepy arc across the waters of Teslin Lake. When I finally closed my eyes, my stomach ached from laughing so much. I fell asleep in love with everything, and nothing in particular.
That brings me here, to this moment. Thanks to Bev and her Tlingit hospitality, I’m stocked with a ton of fruit and dried salmon for my journey. Today I hope to make it to Swift River, then it’s off to the Cassiar Highway Junction and south, to British Columbia . . .
Grumble, grumble, pace, pace 07/13/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, camping, fairbanks, forest fire, heat, insects, mountains, usa, wind
For the worst cycling days, think hot, hilly and headwinds. I had all of that today, along with about a hundred bugs that splunked off my forehead as I made my way to Healy. To say I’m grumbly would be putting it mildly.
Some days go like this. Some don’t. Performance wise, yesterday was the best day I’ve ever had on my bike. I devoured the terrain from Fairbanks to Nenana and only stopped for water twice. I didn’t even eat much – it was just me and the hills, and my legs felt stronger than ever.
But today was just a stinker from top to bottom. I didn’t get much sleep last night because helicopters and planes were constantly flying overhead to fight the huge Minto forest fire to the west. Plus, I camped on a set of abandoned tracks deep in the bushes, and though there was no possible way a train could take the rails, I kept having ugly dreams of a locomotive light screaming through my head. It’s kind of hard to get your 40 winks that way.
About the only thing that went right today was my laundry. With $2.75 in quarters and a single serving of Tide, I managed to wring the sasquatch stink that had been permeating my clothes for nearly two weeks. The only drawback was that the Nenana laundromat had Christian talk radio locked down as their station of choice. I couldn’t even find the cord to disconnect the speaker. God wires in mysterious ways.
Tomorrow I need to make up my mind if I’m going to Denali National Park and then on to Anchorage, or just ducking back east and taking the Denali Highway to Paxson. We’ll see.
Meanderings 07/11/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, camping, fairbanks, forest fire, heat, rain, usa, wind
I didn’t pull out of Delta Junction until after 4 p.m., and though the first 30 km were great fun, the stifling weather finally caught up to me at the halfway point of the day’s trip. I didn’t know it at the time, but regional temperatures soared to 15-year records and the air was so heavy with heat and smoke you could almost choke on it. I could only muster 10 or 15 km at a time before gulping down a half litre of water and panting in the shade. I went through worse on my trip to Montana last summer, but this leg was a far cry from pleasant. I don’t even think it was within earshot.
After 66 km, I dragged my sweaty self to the Birch Lake campground and started my nightly supper ritual. But before I’d taken my food from my panniers, an unbelievable gust of wind whooshed in from the lake, bringing a wall of branches and leaves with it. Thunderstorm. The rain started to fall in huge wink-eye drops, so I quickly set about making a fire for my meal. The rain never cares how hungry I am, so I’ve learned that my hunger can’t care how much it rains.
Plus, I’ve had an ace in the hole since the Taylor Highway. At the West Fork Campground, I met a Georgian couple who gave me a piece of wood from their home state. Apparently it fell out of their camper and hit the husband on the foot, so he decided to give it to me. Good luck, I guess. Anyways, the stuff is chock-full of some sort of resin that can ignite under the wettest conditions imaginable. Even though it was pouring on the windy beachfront, I shaved off a few slices of the wood and had a fire going in just a few minutes. I’ve often felt a bit foolish about lugging the block half way across Alaska, but thankfully everything in my bags has its place.
As I was cooking, I looked up from the fire to see an inordinate number of noses pressed against RV windows, wondering what in the hell the crazy kid on the bike was doing in the rain. I think it’s hard for some people to appreciate that if I don’t stand in a downpour to make supper, then I’m not getting anything to eat. In fact, at the storm’s outset the motorhome crowd scattered as though the whole campground was headed for Oz, and I watched it all with a smile. I’m not cocky by any means – I know nature can knock me on my ass without a moment’s warning, but I’ve seen so much from the sky on this trip that it’ll take a lot more than a dark cloud to send me running.
After a double helping of tomato macaroni I hunkered down under a tree and waited out the storm in my 89-cent rain coat. Some pieces of equipment need to be expensive. Others, not so much. I stayed as dry as a bone can be in bicycle shorts, and fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing over the nearby shore. My first night on a beach.
Now in my experience, most camp hosts in American state campgrounds have a serious grump on their face. I think they’re all retired truant officers and I know they want their $10 camp fees. They’re like lurching zombies on a Main Street food march - there’s just no stopping ‘em. With that in mind, I quickly packed my camp in the morning and pedalled silently away before anyone could throw a tab in my direction. Call it cheap, but it’s money easily saved.
From that point on I had a near perfect cycling day. The temperature was cool and the terrain was interesting without being terribly challenging. I even met two other cyclists – one a German guy who was riding a recumbent bike to South America, and the other a 67-year-old fellow who was just getting into long distance cycling. He was headed for Delta Junction on tires I wouldn’t put on a Radio Flyer, but he also had a wonderful wide-eyed grin, and sometimes I think that’ll get you a lot further than any piece of rubber.
After the bikers disappeared down the road I came upon a tiny sparrow that was injured. Truth be told, I nearly ran over it by accident, and I only stopped because it didn’t make any effort to fly away. I doubled back and gently picked up the little creature, which had a bent but not broken wing. It would have died on the side of the road, so I perched it onto my handlebars and together we cruised down the highway until we came upon a rural elementary school.
Even though my inner eight-year-old wanted to keep the bird (and name it Salcha), I knew there was no way I could take it all the way to Fairbanks. And even if I did, I’d have no way of taking care of it there. So, I poured some water into my bottle’s plastic lid and watched the bird gulp it down. Been there. Then it had a bath in my miniature sauce pan and, after about 20 minutes, the little guy started chirping and making tentative stabs at mosquitoes on the grass. Figuring it might make it alone, I set the bird in the eagle-proof branches of a thick willow and biked away. Weird, but I’ve been thinking of the bird ever since.
I don’t really have much to say about Fairbanks. I’m at a hostel run by cute Swiss girls and I spent the night eating hamburgers, drinking beer and playing volleyball. I’m getting back on the road tomorrow.