As countries go, Laos certainly seems to have more mountains per square mile than any other place I’ve been. The whole country is like a giant version of Tellytubby land, covered with high roads, criss-crossing the ranges. It’s beautiful though.
After our night in the bamboo shelter, we got back on the road and having decided that I felt ok, I wanted to make it to ViengPhoukha that night, where there would be a guesthouse or two and food (of the meat variety)! It was 60km away and we had reason to believe that there were some big mountains in the way:
Map my ride elevation map of the some of the route
However, it started ok and we were on empty gravel roads, mostly heading downhill, including an area with a spectacular view of the valley and paddy fields.
We passed through a small village where there were little kids on oversized bikes by the side of the road. Chris cycled by them on the part tarmac / part gravel road.
The road meandered for a few miles, mostly flat through more villages with waving kids. I was beginning to wonder if we would be more tired from waving and shouting ‘Sabadee’, than cycling, by the time we reached the Chinese border. In one village, huge swathes of kids above us on the hill sides waved and screamed to us, amazing, I was beginning to feel like a celebrity.
The road quality deteriorates quite badly in places and becomes a bumpy, potholed mudfest. I know that hearing cyclists moan about road surfaces is fairly dull, but with no suspension, riding on a rough surface can make for an uncomfortable, slow ride. Chris, however, would argue that it’s good training!
So we finally reach a hill, which looks ok, but steep. The road is curving around the hill, so you can’t see how far the climb is, in some ways this is better as it is less daunting – one step at a time. We agree to meet at the top and set off. At first I keep up with Chris, but it’s not long before the gradient kicks in. Our paces differ greatly on the hills, even though Chris actually cycles at a slower speed with more weight. With shorter, weaker legs, I have to pedal faster to keep the bike moving and me from falling off, so it appears that I am exerting more energy in shorter bursts, meaning I get tired out quicker. I wish I had greater stamina and strength. So I pedal, aiming for a certain tree, post or pothole up ahead. I get there and rest for 30 secs, then continue to the next point. It’s slow going but breaking it down into sections make it achievable. We round a corner and continue up. I can now tell that this is going to be a big climb and there is no obvious ‘top’.
After a while, i stop for a few minute to catch my breath properly. On the hillside I can hear voices and chatter coming form the bushes and trees. I can’t see anyone, but it sounds very close. Finally some shouts of Sabadee arrive and I see 4 young women. They climb down and come over to me. In my best Lao I explain that I am going to Laoung NamTha and say how steep it is. They agree and ask me if I am on my own (Nung?) Meaning: just you? (Shake head, Song!) No two! I say and motion ahead of me to indicate Chris. Ah they nod and look happier. I drink from my water bladder and they are intrigued, as is everyone in Laos, about this contraption. ‘Nam’ I say (water). They are very happy about this. I ask them what they have in their bags, they show me bamboo shoots. I nod and smile, pleased for them. Bamboo shoots are used heavily in cooking. I set off again, but it’s really steep and I keep stopping – the women must wonder what I am doing, or more to the point why I am doing this at all. How strange for them. I wonder if they think all western women ride bikes up big hills in far off lands. I also think that, at this rate, they may catch me up on foot, however I turn around and see that they have disappeared back into the trees, continuing their hunt for food.
As the climb continues I reach a patch where the tarmac has been dug up leaving a very rough surface. Ahead, I see diggers, trucks and roadworks. By the time I reach them, the road is so bad that I have got off to push. Huffing and puffing as the trucks and machines move up and down, covering everything with clouds of dust. Me included. Then one of the workmen says hello, where are you going? I say Hi but continue, am too out of breath for a chat! A minute later he reverses his machine up the hill and stops just ahead of me, getting out the cab. He’s keen to talk so I stop. His English is good and he is from Thailand. I explain what we are doing and how we spent time in Thailand. Turns out we cycled through his home town, which he is delighted about. I guess not many tourists would go there as it’s not really a big tourist destination. I turn to go now as I know Chris will be waiting. The man rushes into his cab and brings down a big bunch of bananas. He gives them to me. I suggest that I just take one or two, but he insists that I take them all. I take them, very gratefully and thank him for his kindness. I wave goodbye and cycle on up the rest of the hill.
It’s boiling hot now and I am still climbing. No sign of Chris yet so I can’t be at the top. As I go round the corner I see it continue to climb and bend, not as steep but still up. Eventually the road surface improves and it levels out. Chris must be near, so I ring my bell a few times to let him know. Finally as I reach a bamboo shelter by the road I see his bike. Turns out he’s also been meeting people. A couple popped up by the shelter, sat with him for a while chattering away and gave him some freshly picked rice to chew on. We are both amazed at how friendly the people are here, so unfazed by our presence. Sure people who speak some English in SE Asia are usually friendly and come and chat to us, but here in Laos they are happy to sit and chat even if they speak no English and we only speak 10 words of Lao. It’s lovely.
We scoff some bananas and look at the road ahead, there’s more to go yet. My ears are blocked up at the moment and when I yawn I hear them crackle. Despite the difficulty of the climb, I’m buzzing. Those endorphins must be working their magic.
We get going and the hill goes up up up some more until we finally level out and cycle for a few kms along a plateau. All we can see for miles around are hills and mountains. It’s spectacular (not that photos do it justice!). I’ve been pouring with sweat for hours and the prospect of a nice long downhill is exciting.
Then we whiz downhill for ages, maybe 10km, finally stopping at the marked boundary for Bokeo/Luang NamTha Province. We are both starving and Chris is particularly low on sugar, I know this as he is pretty grumpy and short tempered, always a sign of hunger. So we pull out the tarp and I order him to sit down and eat the rest of my chocolate crisp things. I set up the stove in record time and boil some water for noodles. We only have one packet left though and a tin of sardines in tomato sauce. It’ll have to do us for now. Whilst all this is happening, a bus stops full of tourists, who proceed to get out the bus, saying hello and then walk off into the bush. We’re in the middle of nowhere, we think, where can they be going, they don’t have backpacks or anything? However after the number of people we’ve met today popping up here there and everywhere i guess we shouldn’t be surprised.
The coach driver comes to talk to us, turns out they’ve just stopped for a lunch break and have gone to eat their packed lunches. He sits with us while I cook and we ask him where the next village or shop is, what the road ahead is like etc. He’s a nice guy. The tourists come back, they are Dutch but speak good English, as most Dutch people do. We chat with them for a while before they climb back aboard and wave goodbye.
We scoff some more bananas, both feeling better for food and look at the road ahead. The driver reckons there is 3km of climbing to do before we reach the real final top. Then downhill for 20+km to Vieng Phoukha. So we continue up. In one place it’s too steep and I push my bike for the best part of a kilometre. Even the trucks coming past are going really slowly. At this point I tend to daydream and no longer focus on the hill or the difficulty. Having got this far, your know your body can do the work, so your mind is free to wander elsewhere. That said, it’s rare that I achieve this, especially on hills!
At the top top, after passing through a village, we find a small shop and stock up on water, which we were very low on by now. We also buy coke, orange juice and 4 packs of biscuits. One of the men form the village asks to have a ride on my bike. I ask him to trying lifting it first just so he has an idea of how heavy it is. Then I agree he can have a go. After a wobbly start ( it’s in the two lowest gears after the hill) he gets the hang and does a small circuit before handing it back. It’s now 4.30pm and we still have about 30km to do. It’s cold up here in the mountains and rain looks possible, so we start our descent. What can I say, we literally go downhill for 20km! We wind through hills and villages, passed rivers and cows. In many ways the Laos landscape reminds me of New Zealand.
The road eventually flattens out into a valley and we are not far from our final destination. A few more ks, but the last 5 are hard, my legs are very tired now and as the sun starts to set, I just want to get there. The town is meant to be a good size, yet out here it is hard to believe that just round the corner is a big town! We cycle along, side by side, taking the mickey out of each other with daft banter, both in high spirits and attempt to race the last bit. A couple more small hills get thrown in just for good measure and as we reach the brow of the last one, we see the town below us. Hurray, high fives all round. We whizz down and stop at the very first guesthouse sign we see. It’s called Mountain View Lodge and guess what, it’s up another flippin’ hill!
We check in to a small bungalow with views over the town. There is no electricity, but the bed is nice. I take a cold shower in the dark bathroom and wash away the layer of sweat, suncream and road dirt. I’m a bit too cold to face getting my head wet, so my hair stays unwashed. After feeling ill and weak the previous day, I was surprised that I was able to do this today and come to the conclusion that I am either not as ill as I thought or am stronger than I knew! Tomorrow will tell.
We head out to get food and order far too much, but are happily full when we return to our bungalow. The generator is on when we get back so we have some electricity (ie lights). We decided to watch a movie on the laptop. A few minutes into it, the electricity cuts off and shortly after that, despite efforts to keep my eyes open, I fall fast asleep, shattered but content after a challenging ride through the mountains.