The Land of John Wayne

The United States has never been on my ‘must visit’ list. The awe and wonder has long since gone with the US continually in the limelight; splashed across the media for this reason or that. The States felt some how over familiar, un-exotic, and ‘the easy way’. Gid had occasionally posed the idea of going east across South America, denying that it would be his first choice for our way home; just waiting for me to bite, I felt.

But an hour or so after we arrived in LA, I was hooked. It didn’t have one or two beach volleyball courts, there were twelve of them lined up waiting for players. Roller blades, bikes, skateboards all zoomed past; the place was alive. As we cycled toward our host’s place in Korea Town, Gid pointed out the Hollywood sign on the hill in the distance. What a perfect start! Hollywood boulevard, Sunset boulevard, Route 66 here we come.

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We were lucky to be staying with an enthusiastic local, Oscar, who was generous enough to take us on a guided tour for a day. Whizzing about on our bikes we visited the Griffiths Observatory, downtown, rode the metro with our bikes (yah boo LT) … and had the best tacos in town.

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Under our own steam we wandered along Hollywood Boulevard, spotting the stars names in the pavement sidewalk. Besides a spattering of tourists like us, there were scores of movie wannabes, in costume, hustling for paid photo shoots. Instead, more economically, Clare opted to lie down with Rod Stewart and Burt Lancaster, and fire off selfies. She passed on Donald Trump though: he used to host a talk show, apparently. What have we missed?

 

  • Wide, long, hot, dusty streets – check
  • Grids, intersections, traffic lights – check
  • Glitzy mall – check
  • Elaborate Christmas decorations – check
  • Spanish spoken maybe more than English – check
  • Stretch limos, Ferraris; and Porsche runabouts – check
  • Movie cameras in use on the street – check
  • Black & white squad cars – check
  • Big red fire engines blasting through intersections – check
  • Palms and bougainvillea – check
  • Huge pickups with nothing in and rumbly engines – check
  • Empty lots and abandoned shops – check
  • Body beautiful workouts on the beach – check
  • Joggers left, right, and centre – check

Gid was struck by the poverty evident amongst the splendour. Street walkers riffled through the bins, make-shift shelters filled hidey holes, and tents appeared along the concrete floodways. Shanty towns, where structures were covered with random sheets of plastic, that could have been straight out of India, filled areas of wasteland. Such ad-hoc homes were especially evident when we followed the cycleway along the enormous culverted drain – and each tent seemed to have a bicycle or several.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’d chosen Cycle Route 90 – the USA Southern Tier coast to coast crossing, because during the fall it’s run as a commercial trip. Local ‘guided trips’ we’ve done before are picked for their scenery, points of interest and traffic free roads so we hoped this would be too. We would be cycling November to February, so we hoped staying well south would avoid frozen toes (and many mountains too).

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To reach Route 90 we rode down the California coast, with eye watering camping costs but beautiful coastal views, to the starting point in San Diego, then turned eastwards and set out through California towards the desert. To our relief, camping costs plummeted, often being free and the occasional motel became affordable.

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This was a different USA entirely. Small towns, widely spaced in the hills and sands. The days are short, so we often cycled through sunset, and occasionally met the dawn when we crawled out of the tent in the morning. Most days we meet at least one other cycle tourist, although most of them seem to be heading for South America rather than California. It’s a playground for the local big cities too. Motor bikes, quad bikes, buggies: big, medium and small career around sending out plumes of sand up behind them. Endlessly, we’re passed by towed buggies and all-terrain vehicles behind monster pickups and huge RVs. Unfortunately, while American freight drivers (“semis” mostly) seem responsible enough in passing or waiting, the RV boys seem unconscious of their width, bow-wave and tail suck; it’s a good job the roads are mostly wide and lightly trafficked.

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With lots of space to leave things where they are, and a climate that’s kind to buildings, metalwork and even mummified roadkill, there’s lots of photogenic old stuff to take pictures of.

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One disappointment so far, is that wildlife seems very timid.¬† We’ve not seen much although, the humming birds were rather special and much too fast for our cameras . On the highway, there’s not even roadkill, until just recently a couple of flat & desiccated coyotes. Maybe morelive beasties will turn up further east.

Writing this, here we are in Wickenburg, AZ, a town of cowboys and rodeos – team roping capital of the world, it claims. But frustratingly, it’s Thanksgiving Day, so no rodeo today. Worse still, the local shops have run out of turkey, except for whole frozen ones. Chicken will have to do, cooked on the camping stove on the veranda of this comfy motel.

Australia – Photos

Wow – what a lot of photos we took in Australia – getting on for a thousand each. Well, here’s a selection. There’s even more wildlife photos a few of which we’ll upload to the Birds and Beasties pages someday.

The Scenic Views, Part 1

The Scenic Views, Part 2

On the Road

Urban

Whale Watching

Hervey Bay, since you ask. Several times we saw whales from the coastal cliffs, down much of the SE coast. The humpbacks migrate that way.

The Best of the Rest of the Wildlife

The Holiday Snaps

End

Bali and the Dragons

We cycled only a couple of days in Bali, to Jimbaran, just south of the airport, for a comfy, cheap, tourist hotel, and especially, just round the corner from a really useful bike shop. That Surly Ogre with that bike packing kit was probably perfect for Sumatra.
From Bali we took a bikeless side trip to Flores and Rinca, where be dragons.

Clare in Bali

Gideon in Bali

Clare in Flores

Clare on the Boat to Rinka

Gideon in Flores

Clare’s Dragons

Gideon’s Dragons

Then we packed up, and probably marking the end of our most adventurous travels, left Asia and its bustle, noise, and low prices, for Australia.

Camera Club Special – Let’s Play ICM in a Cave!

Post dedicated to all our friends at Worthing Camera Club.

The limestone caves near Phetchaburi are lit up with coloured tubes. Beside the cave temples, there’s plenty of interesting drippy rock formations. But how to make a picture of them?

Needs to be a bit more alive, perhaps…

Ok, but only ok. And quite tedious, in a cave, without a tripod or flash gun. Hey, unlike an English cave, tripods aren’t banned ūüôā But I haven’t got one. My camera’s tiny detachable flash is, err, detached. And anyway no help, far too weedy,¬†boringly white, and boringly stuck on top of the camera. So thank you Olympus for making a tiny lens that’s f1.8, that saved those photos. But I still had to get Clare to stand still for way longer than is normal. And can only shoot from an ideally placed stalagmite. And they’re not terribly exciting.

Which got me to remembering some¬†of Worthing Camera Club’s winter lectures a few years back. Intentional Camera Movement is a respectable (ish) discipline that isn’t only “I forgot¬†to bring my tripod¬†to the bluebell wood”. So here are my Thai rocks:

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PS: Most of those are colours as shot. A few are rather mucked about with in Lightroom.

Thanks for looking!

 

Cheap As Chips?

A tiny blog posting – a Micropost!

I thought it would be interesting to see how the countries we pass through compare economically. Thanks to Wikipedia, it’s pretty easy.

Here’s a chart showing the Per Capita Income in each country we’ve passed through, or hope to pass through.

GDPUSD2015.png

And here’s the same chart, adjusted for the cost of living in each country (called Purchasing Power Parity, or ¬†PPP).

PPPUSD2015

PPP seems to have the effect of making the people in middle-income states better off. And Singapore.

We can even divide one by the other, to give us a rough Cost of Living Cycling. However, this is a bit rubbish, as in most of Europe, costs¬†were kept down by camping. From about Bulgaria/Romania onwards, it felt a bit insecure rough camping, and hot – we really appreciated the comfort of a shower, so mostly¬†stayed in guesthouses and cheap hotels. In tourist cities, that was often pretty cheap, but out on the road, I would guess that it very often was close to $20/night for a room for the two of us, irrespective of country. So far the most expensive nights have been¬†Uzbekistan ($70 for a yurt), India (~$70 for a tent, ~$40 for a palace (really it was, gorgeous)), and Myanmar ($50 at two of the hotels, trading on scarcity). Not normally regarded as high-cost locations. The Caspian Sea ferry was also an expensive night, but did cover a fair bit of ground as we slept. The Tajikistan Toyota Tour was by far our most expensive week, but wasn’t exactly integral to the trip. And it didn’t include the (cheap)¬†guesthouses!

CostOfCycling

Turkey, Uzbekistan and India have been most costly for souvenirs, not because of prices, but because of the wonderful handicrafts, and their availability, and perhaps more stop days, and maybe the timing of Christmas.

End of micropost!

(Note to self – master spreadsheet stored on cloud, in case plans change!)

Hiking to Meet the Hill Tribes

Our public transport northwards in Myanmar ended in the town of Tsipaw (Hsipaw), Shan State. It’s a pleasant place, but the attraction there is as a base for hiking into the hills.
Myanmar isn’t exactly a unitary state. It used to be called Burma, reflecting the dominance of the Bamar people. Indeed, they were expanding quite an empire westwards in the early 1800s, until they met the East India Company expanding the other way, attacked, and came off worst. One reason the country’s name changed in 1989, was to be more inclusive of the other people’s the Bamar had (partially) subdued: the Shan, the Palaung, the Mon, and many others. So, hiking in this part of Shan State, we’d meet Shan people, and also Palaung people. Our guide,¬†Aikethein, is a Palaung.
We’d been told our route would be across the fields in the morning heading up into the hills during the afternoon. No such luck. Barely across one field we started on our incline. The broad track occasionally opening out into panoramic views, eventually shrank into a ‘sheep’ trail across the steep edged hills winding it’s way up and down. We didn’t see any sheep, just a few motorbikes.
Forest paths wound over tree roots and rocks as we crunched through the leaf fall, passing cleared areas used for crops, often, at this time of year, burnt to clear them for the next growing season. Towards the end of the day, small plantations of tea bushes ranged up steeper slopes.
A small boy dancing from rock to rock ¬†across the burbling brook, swiftly crouching to take aim, catapult in hand. The bird flew off as junior sprang into action again, for another shot.¬†Aikethein fumbled in his bag seizing his catapult for a more experienced attempt. Peeyaang .. another shot flew out but still the bird fluttered away. We now know why we hear, but don’t see, birds in the forest.
We stopped in a Shan village for lunch, although at the house of a Palaung family. Shan and Palaung have their own languages, and the Palaung generally live higher up in the hills, where they grow tea. I nabbed the only chair, a small plastic garden chair the same as a few others on the veranda that stood next to the bamboo ‘deck chair’, the fomer probably for tourists when they arrived. Our food was on a circular low table in a large sparsely furnished room. Our hostess bustled away at a bit of sweeping keeping the room spotlessly clean once we had eaten. The small pile she had swept with her traditional handmade broom quickly disappeared down a lifted floor board to the ground 8 feet below – how neat was that!
The roomy houses are lovely. There’s stuff lying around showing just how much can be made out of bamboo and twine: hats, walls, plumbing, fences, gates, chairs, bridges, it’s endless. There are now some concrete houses, but most are a traditional chunky wood frame with bamboo mat walls. Sometime in the last 100 years, corrugated iron roofs replaced thatch in most cases. The light woven walls keep out the sun but provide ventilation.
The cuisine is one of the many things that defines each culture. We were first introduced to fermented tea leaf salad on the Myanmar International Airways plane where Gid tried it but declined a second helping. Here in the village, having done a days hike and with no other option, we both tucked in.
Aikethein was telling us that whilst the main ingredients may stay the same across regions of Myanmar the method of cooking them has slight changes from village to village. He pointed out that the food we were eating was less greasy than in Hsipaw which we agreed with. Sourbanyan tree leaves, cabbage soup, a solid  wad of steamed rice were three of the things on our supper table.
Manns Tan, a Palaung village, perched on the edge of the hillside, is a cluster of 15 houses. There are numerous children all keen to smack your hand in a high 5 greeting calling bye- bye, hello, tata. Relatively recently, the trails to it have been dug out to be passable by motorbike as well as horse. A motorbike can carry two 50Kg bags of rice, plus a bit else.
18km (11miles) walked. Mostly up, as we climbed to around 1000m, amongst small tea plantations and wandering water buffalo whose bells clonked musically as they browsed. Fortuitously, the buffalo don’t eat tea bushes. We noticed the Myanmar (SE Asian)¬†water buffalo are indeed different from Indian.
Aikethein Taw was our guide. His¬†village is 50 km away but is not accessible to foreigners because, like many places in Myanmar, there are civil, and not so civil, disputes between tribes fighting over the natural resources in the land. He left his village to move to the ‘city’ as he didn’t want to be a farmer, and has been guiding now for quite a few years. He has¬†big ideas for more work in the growing tourist trade.
Aikethein is one of twelve siblings. Two of his¬†brothers died from cocaine addiction, one from measles which in the last ten years is now immunized against.¬† In families where there are three male children one has to join the “army” (that is, the tribal militia, not the national army, whom they may fight). In villages where there are less than thirty children there is no formal education but children will often be sent to a nunnery or monastery at the age of six or seven and are free to leave when they like.

Alternative transport tried and tested

On leaving Yangon airport, after our flight from India, it was like stepping back into normality albeit with a sauna full on. The taxi had four – count them – wheels, and four – listen – cylinders, real springs, and the driver’s style had only a soothing effect on our blood pressure. Other cars travelled along marked lanes with the occasional brief hoot as we listened to the purr of motor car engines. Motorbikes are banned! Buses cruised along. All very orderly and blissfully peaceful. Melodic bird song returned to our ears.
The city itself was, by comparison, clean, although as we explored further we found many similarities with India: crowds, street vendors, wires draped along the buildings and criss-crossing the streets, surface drainage channels and food stalls filling the pavement. But no cows, no hasslers, and the wares now carried on shoulder poles. And did we mention, no hooting? We visited quietly busy pagodas and restocked on memory cards and a few bike bits.
Our plan for Myanmar was designed to show us some of the country, bearing in mind that we’d flown into almost the “end” of it, near the Thai border. So, we used alternative transports to backtrack about halfway up the country, back towards the border with India. Not that riverboats or Myanmar trains go much faster than a bicycle, but they do keep going for longer and don’t collapse from exhaustion.
Decidedly top heavy, perched on a one metre wide gauge, the sleeper train from Yangon to Bagan lurched and jolted along, frequently caterpillar style whilst wobbling from side to side. Sharing the carriage with Anton from Germany and the many bugs and mosquitoes, left us all with ample space but the mossies seemed rather greedy. Gid resorted to a bug net overnight, carefully tucking me in as well. Lurching along in the train we were submerged in village life: fields being watered or tended to, traffic waiting for us to pass, children, and those young at heart, keen to wave. Vendors tempted us with their wares peering into our gaping windowless chasms, other locals sat just biding their time or peeking from behind their doors but all were near to be seen.
The river boat from Bagan to Mandalay was not as interesting as the train trip from Yangon to Bagan. Bustling along the river that was  a good half mile wide, despite winding our way back and forth avoiding the shallows, we were rarely in touch with the people. Dancing dots on the horizon appeared to be children playing on the bank. Others were attending laundry or fishing nets, just distinguishable in the distance. Photos taken require dramatic cropping to give a feel of the people and scenery around us. River traffic trundled past but was frequently industrialized; clearly not from the villages that periodically line the banks.
On the boat itself there was an on going game of musical chairs as views versus the sun battled for the prized seats first facing one way then the other.  With about 20 tourists aboard (and one local passenger), there was a chance for some chat. Especially as Nicolas and Elise were also cycle touring. Navigating through the sand banks that were intermittently marked, was highly technical.  Two people stood on the bow of the boat elegantly welding depth gauge poles, arm actions directing the helmsman left or right.
Motorbikes are banned only in Yangon, elsewhere in Myanmar¬†they are ubiquitous. Like India, they’re all small, if a little newer in design. Unlike India, there’s an assumption of observation, and a concept of right of way, ¬†so hooters are used sparingly. Sometimes one can hear a motorbike approaching by the voices of the people on it! We’re still trying to take this on, after immersion in India for three months. In Mandalay, it was our voices, as we took motorbike taxis at one point. They also gave us helmets, but had they just got their motorbikes and wanted to practice? The two times we went on the back of Indian’s bikes, helmetless and three up, admittedly in the middle of nowhere, the riders were much smoother and assured, whereas our Mandalay taxis, two times two up, felt a bit wobbly and less secure. Were we paying for their learner petrol?
Our second train trip, Mandalay to Tsipaw, notable for two feats of engineering back in the early 1900s, was also marked by higher levels of sophistication seen in the farming. Although still mainly small scale stuff with every last patch of fertile land cultivated,  the watering cans on shoulders and the ox ploughs had been replaced by rotavators, hose pipes, sprinklers systems and strimmers.
Unbelievably¬†the train jolted to a halt then went backwards. It was plenty slow enough surely it didn’t need to cover some bits twice. It gradually became obvious; as day was breaking we could see the track layers beneath us. We were gaining height up the side of a mountain onto a plateau, the train can’t do hairpin bends, so it had to switch direction for each zig or zag. A panoramic view opened up before us, lined with receding hills.
The second spectacular event was marked by people peering out of the windows and cries of, ‘There it is’. Fleeting glimpses developed into a full view until the train stopped just before we curved round to cross the Goteik Gorge viaduct. Crowds clambered down onto the track for a better view framing the ‘must take’ photographs.
Think that’s about covered it: Plane, taxi (4 wheels), train, riverboat, motorbike, train. Oh and then¬† in Tsipaw, tuk tuk, hiking, and in Lyaung Shwe, long tail boat.