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.

Camel trek – Thar desert

It was with great excitement that I climbed into the jeep to set off on our camel trek. That lasted until I saw the camels and started to wonder what were we doing now. The camels were loaded up, all we had to do was hop on. That was where the trouble started. With no stirrups to help, how was I going to get my leg over that hump. And this camel is¬†as tall as a pony – when it’s still sitting down.
_gro6516-1
The first couple of hours felt rather traumatic. I was so thrilled to be going on a camel trek, I wanted to snap away as we went but was too scared to take my hands off the saddle.  This was compounded by the terrible itch that, it was clear, my camel had.  He regularly half stumbled / lurched into a step, first his front leg kicked back then the back kicked forward but neither could reached this itch.
As time progressed I did get used to it and my camel husbandry improved; we were able to productively assist with managing and loading/ unloading the camels during our lunch break and at the end of the day. The camels wandered off if unhobbled and would have to be rounded up. Gid’s camel, even when hobbled, still made a break for it.¬†The camel¬†was tied into a¬†sitting position,¬†using his rein running down his chest to the hobble rope, only to shuffle along on his haunches. We started using the foot loops, which helped a lot, although¬†locals don’t use them. By day three Gid, who was altogether more confident with the camels, was going solo and I could take photos at a trot.
The trip itself was awesome. We rode the camels, for an hour or two at a time, along tracks through desert scrub, across sandy sections and over dunes, visiting the odd village as we went.
The villagers are used to tourists so we caused some excitement but weren’t mobbed. Rather fabulously we were invited into homes and regularly offered chai which was made on an open hearth in the corner of their courtyard – homes here are designed primarily to keep the sun off and the goats out – any breeze is most welcome. ¬†Most people were happy to pose for photos; some performed a mini concert. Even very old people came out to see us. It was delightful to get a glimpse into village life.¬†A small donation was always exchanged: 50 rupees for chai or photos, or 200 for a mini concert. To put this in context, a¬† labourer might earn 250 rupees a day, that’s about ‚ā¨4, so a couple of tourist visits in a day is a big bonus, especially at present in Mr Modi’s cash crisis.
Children repeatedly asked for ‘school pen, school pen’. One 15 year old lad, able to speak some English, told us there was a village school. The teacher might come on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he said, but then miss Thursday. He also told us he couldn’t read or write. That, it would appear, is not uncommon. Our guide, Harish, who had picked up English from tourists, proclaimed that he could not read or write but his younger brother could because school had opened, in his village, in 2011. Our second guide, Saleem, couldn’t spell his own name for us when he asked us to mention him in our reviews.
The desert camp experience was fantastic.¬† We learnt several desert life ‘tricks of the trade’ such as hollowing out a bed in the sand and,¬†in winter,¬†lining it with covered stones from the fire for extra warmth and how to catch a goat to milk it for fresh milk in the chai (someone else’s goat, that is, so it may be, ahem, not entirely welcome). ‘Washing up’ with sand we’re already familiar with from our background in canoeing and kayaking trips but it was a first for sleeping on dunes under the stars with gerbils scurrying around in the shrubs behind us.
The Thar desert is the most populated desert in the world. The Indira Gandhi canal must have done much to improve the water supply but, when the rains fail, as had been the case this year, the crops don’t grow and we passed a few ploughed fields where nothing was growing. Harish had to reach deep to get water from the storage tank. But it seems to be being managed – people and animals get enough to drink, and some fields are irrigated.
There’s quite a bit of wildlife, too, although apart from birds,¬†we only saw gerbils, chipmunks and beetles, during the actual camel trek. There were several different large birds of prey, and also Egyptian Vultures. The high point was a lunch spot near to an eagle’s nest in a tree, we saw them visiting their chicks from a distance, but when Gid tried hiding behind a tree about 70m away, the parents spotted him, and waited on some rocks a km away before returning. So not much in the way of photos from that encounter.
End.

Dealing with Delhi

Traveling across Europe into central Asia, we thought, would be a gradual adjustment in terms of cultural differences, road traffic conditions, food etc. and I guess that’s been the case. But, arriving in Delhi has been a whole new ball game. From the start, in the shuttle from the airport, we were dicing with death.¬†Our¬†driver must be on a reward for fast delivery, as on the crowded road he weaves for side to side, our battered Suzuki micro van¬†was rolling alarmingly;¬†Clare’s bike box threatening to fly off the roofrack. Vehicles weave across the road trying to fill the smallest of gaps in the blocked solid traffic. Bicycles, scooters and motor bikes (women usually side saddle on the back), a selection of motor vehicles, all palm wedged on the horn, accelerate in every direction regardless of any perceivable¬†traffic regulations such as, travel in the direction of the traffic or pavements for pedestrians. Certainly, the ‘Look left, look right , look left again, use your eyes and ears before you use your feet’ applies on both sides of a dual-carriageway as much as anywhere else.

 

Stark evidence of poverty is very present in the city. There are not only beggars, as in many countries, but also shanty towns along the streets just off main highways together with debris piled high. Loads of people bedding down in the street (where do they go during monsoon?). Dirt and litter is almost everywhere.

There are so many warnings in the media, on tourist/hotel notices,¬†and in guide books about the ingenuity of Indian people to rob, one way or another, unsuspecting tourists that it has made us uncomfortable talking to the locals, especially when we recognize some of the opening gambits or stock phrases such as, ‘I don’t want any money but …’ or ‘I just want to practise my English …’ . After a week we knew the pick up points and phrases but still¬†got gulled a couple of times; not so badly though, as these fellows were just trying to steer us into their favoured establishments. ¬†An auto-rickshaw driver (tally: 3 ok, 1 maniac) told us that some of the big tourist shops reward drivers with a 1L fuel voucher (about $0.70) for each tourist delivered.

The general atmosphere is one of hectic bustle and over crowdedness. If there is a space someone or something will fill it rapidly. Amusingly, dogs have cracked the system. Whilst we’ve already seen a starving horse who had a broken or deformed leg and just enough flesh to¬†stretch over¬†it’s bone structure, the dogs look fine and seem to find a safe place to hangout or kip.¬†Cows roam about, apparently eating garbage. Some folk keep a few goats. In Delhi, ox carts aren’t uncommon; later in more open country, horses were preferred.¬†A few donkeys seem to be used for riding or carrying loads. But small motorbikes and scooters dominate the transport sector, at least, numerically.

This is good fun…

http://m.driving-tests.in/learners-licence-practice-test-3/

I got 26 out of 30, a pass. But some of the questions seem a bit unrelated to real road practices here.

Delhi has been a place of many firsts:

-first time we’ve seen oxen pulling carts in the centre of a city,

-first time we’ve had to call reception to get our water heater turned on for a shower,

-first time I’ve watched people washing their clothes on the ground in the streets (a few had bowls most didn’t),

-first time I’ve seen ladders up to dwellings on the first and second floors above shops,

-first time I’ve watched a man tapping off the drips in one of the many recessed ‘toilets’ along the streets, which leave an ever present stink of urine,

-first time I’ve watched a man spit three metres out onto the street (I wonder what the world record is?),

-first time I’ve seen so many electric cables draped along outside of the buildings and spewing out of a sub station.

Gradually we have got used to the chaotic nature of Delhi. Like chrysalis slowly emerging from our hotel room, we have now been out and about seeing the sights and still have all limbs intact, despite a few close shaves.

Cycling out of Delhi still fills us with fear and trepidation. To conquer this one we took a¬†cycle tour of old Delhi¬†– their bikes, our helmets and gloves. A definite plus was that I lowered the saddle so that I could comfortably touch the ground. A real plus when constantly stopping in the many tight, crowded situations. The tour itself was fantastic. We frequently ‘whizzed’ along streets and passages wiggling in and out of traffic, people and other obstacles, initially waking people from their slumbers. Nerves of steel were required for the ‘Russian roulette’ ¬†or ‘balletic’ interactions between traffic. We soon cracked the rapidly repeating bell manoeuvre to add to the constant cacophony. The main tip, though, was “start at dawn”. And later on, going out of Delhi, it worked well.

At times, modern sky scrapers graced the sky while at ground level they seemed precariously close to the decay, detritus and dirt of the old town, despite, we were told, that the government having cleaned up the area by removing the slums.

Our tour took us round the back streets, starting with a visit to Jama Masjid, on to Delhi’s traditional bread making industry, next to a lofty view of¬†both the¬†Shah Jahan’s wife’s mosque and the spice center of the world, inside a Sis Ganj Sihk Temple, further on to one of the four remaining city gates and a number of other notable land marks and sights. All jigsawed in and around a four kilometre radius.

Deteriorating pockets of ornate architecture amidst the hotch-potch of cables, crumbling brickwork, faded signs, patched repairs, mark, we were told, India’s rich heritage and are left over from the Mugal society, dating back to 1857 or earlier.

Under our own guidance, and mostly in search of cash (India’s government having just invalidated all the currency over about $1 value, causing something of a nationwide crisis), we visited Connaught Place and other parts of New Delhi, built towards the end of the British period, and travelled on the shiny new metro out to some new malls, at Noida, to get some bike parts at the big Decathlon store (note to other cycle-tourists: Don’t expect much in terms of spares, we took the only 9 speed chain).