We did it!
In February 2016 three very nervous, and extremely inexperienced boys set off from Shanghai to cycle 7000km to Kathmandu. There is no doubt at that time we had very little idea of what this ordeal would require and looking back on it now so many of the mistakes that we made along the way definitly highlight this naivety. However despite all odds, a year and a half later our trauma management centre has finally been completed!
Since our last post regarding the build in February it would be fair to say that absolutely everything has changed. The time prior to our previous post was spent undergoing the tedious and frustrating process of attempting to get this project off the ground, however since February the site has seen a whirlwind of activity and we can finally rest easy in the knowledge that our work has been done. This is not to say that since work began officially back in February that we have not had our fair share of ups and downs. In the traditional Nepali way, work has been extremely slow, the original estimation provided by Arati (our contractor) of 8 weeks was blown out of the water as work crawled to a finish nearly 14 weeks after the intial start date. Perhaps the best example of this lackadaisical approach is when, perhaps foolishly, we took a few days off from our duties to visit the Everest region in the north of Nepal safe in the knowledge that work would soon be complete and that our role was almost at an end. Sadly this was not the case as on our return a week later it seemed little if anything had been done, our finish date had been missed and nobody seemed too bothered about trying to rectify the situation. There are countless examples of situations such as this when all of us felt like putting our heads through one of the newly errected wall panels, but the fact of the matter is that life simply moves at a different pace in Nepal. Time is not of such fundamental importance and living in the country makes it abundantly clear that hard work is a relative term. That said, Arati and the team have created a building which, a year and a half ago, we could never have dreamed of and we are extremely grateful for their role in turning this idea into reality.
Due to the specific skills required within our chosen building method our attentions were largely focussed on the area surrounding the shelter. Where there was once nothing but overgrown bushes, we have created a beautiful space in which the girls will be able to find some level of solace for perhaps the first time. Whilst the old boys (those who had been at the shelter for a while) were at school, the new boys were extraordinairily keen to help and even taught us a thing or too from their farming backgrounds. However, more important than their knowledge of how to make the perfect vegetable patch was the improvement in their mental state throughout this period. This drastic improvement is testement to the benefits of their being involved in something and being given responsibility, something which many of the boys may never have had in their life. Working with these boys, particularly two of the older boys Ramesh and Sanu, allowed us all to develop a better understanding of what they have gone through and how much potential they as individuals have. One concern for us has always been who will look after this facility when we have gone, but the love and attention shown to the garden by the boys and staff has made us certain that it will not only be maintained but constantly improved.
A year and a half ago as we stood by the side of the road unboxing our bikes and to be honest feeling more than a little scared it was unfathomable to think that this journey would ever come to an end. Since then it would be safe to say that we have had a truly life changing experience from start to finish. The cycle itself was of course a once in a lifetime opportunity which allowed us to explore some incredible parts of the world as well as providing us with a real insight into what we were like as people, how we deal with adversity and what motivates us to achieve. However, the experience of the cycle pales in comparison to what we have learnt, enjoyed and been a part of in Nepal. Chora Chori is a truly amazing organisation and being able to spend time around such amazing people, both children and adults, has been truly inspiring and something which we will never forget. Perhaps the best example of this was on our last evening at the shelter when we were lucky enough to have a party thrown for us. Whilst there was incredible food and it was amazing to have the opportunity to say goodbye to everyone we had grown so fond of the main highlight was how the kids were. We have seen the development of some of these boys from the first day that they arrived and their improvement has been immesurable. Many who would not even talk when they arrived were taking part in the singing and dancing that was put on for the evenings entertainment, and every child had the confidence to hug us goodbye. To see these children in such a friendly and safe environment, coming out of their shells and enjoying life could not have demonstrated any more clearly why what Chora Chori do is so vital.
Of course, up until now Chora Chori has only been working with boys as they have not had the facilities to take on girls, well now that our Centre is open we are incredibly happy that this is no longer the case and two girls have already been moved in! Having seen the amazing work Chora Chori are doing with boys we are incredibly excited to see them apply their skills to the girls centre. With a rehabilitation program centering around art therapy and meditation, ( a slightly more girly plan than gardening and football) combined with a received pledge for £8500 a year for the running of the facility, we believe that this Centre will have an invaluable effect on the development and recovery of these girls. Upon undertaking this project there were ofcourse several “leaps of faith” if you like. We had to trust that Chora Chori were the perfect charity for us and that we would be able to work with them efficiently and effectivly. Looking back on those uncertainties now it seems absurd because we have grown to love this charity so much and we can think of no organisation better to maintain and to grow this project.
For now this is the end for us here but we are already making plans for the future to continue to support this truly special place. To everyone who donated we simply cannot thank you enough; it is all very well formulating a plan such as this but without the unbelievable support we have received none of this would have been possible. The amount of support that was given to three boys with what was, if we are honest, an ambitious plan to say the least has been overwhelming and extremely humbling, so thank you!
A trip to the border
Chora Chori's biggest rescue to date!
At 5.am last Friday morning we found ourselves sitting on the side of a particularly dusty, loud and frankly quite unpleasant area of Kathmandu. As thrilling as this experience was we were not there for fun. Instead, we were in fact waiting for our colleague Reeti before we made the 7 hour trip to the Nepali border town of Birgunj. Having visited Birgunj only once before ( a time when Rory was forced to bribe a border official and was nearly stranded in India without a rupee to his name) it would be safe to assume that we were not exactly excited about returning to this stereotypically terrible border town, however on this occasion you would be wrong.
The reason we were travelling to Birgunj that day was to create a film of the largest rescue of Nepali children that the charity has ever carried out! A week before that slightly unpleasant dusty morning by the side of the Nepali equivalent to the m25 several members of the Chora Chori rescue team, accompanied by a journalist and members of the CCWB (Central Child welfare board of Nepal) boarded a bus and headed south across the border and into India. Although we were unable to accompany them we can only imagine the amount of work that goes into eventually rescuing 32 children!!
Shailaija the head of the team, who has rescued around 600 children so far in her already incredible life, (and in all honesty is one of the most incredible and devoted people we have come across during our time in Nepal), lead her group from children's home to children's home assessing conditions and locating the Nepali children who, for one reason or another, had ended up in the appalling situation that is an Indian children's home. After several days of searching, the team had located an astonishing number of 32 children!
In light of this vast number of children, extra help was needed and we were sent to the border to greet, film and assist in anyway we could.
After waiting a while Reeti finally arrived and, after a breakfast of tea and pakoras, we were on the road. Usually the drive out of Kathmandu is simply horrendous as you battle with buses and lorries, jostling for a position on the over crowded mountain highway, which serves as the main route (and only Route for large vehicles) out of Kathmandu. However, this time we were in a jeep and to our great surprise we managed to avoid the unmarked and at times untarmacked "highway" and instead were taken a more scenic route through the mountains. This development was most welcome as not only would we avoid what is arguably the worst road we have ever been on(at least for the time being) but we would also be able to re live our last day of cycling as we picked our way along the narrow, winding mountain road that had been our cycling route.
Leaving Kathmandu is always a welcome experience, much as the city has many positives it is incredibly dirty, smelly, loud and polluted and it is rare we do not seize the opportunity to give our lungs and ears a break and head out into the countryside.
The city of Kathmandu is nestled in a large valley, which has made expansion past a certain point almost impossible. Due to this natural blockade there is an incredibly stark contrast between either side of the valley walls, and as soon as you have climbed the hills surrounding the city you are transported into a completely different world. Concrete blocks of flats are replaced by small metal shacks (sadly usually this is due to the destruction of so many houses in Nepal's most recent earthquake), the colour grey is replaced by green, the air is tangibly clearer and the roads significantly more dangerous. This small respite from the hustle and bustle of Nepali city life was on this occasion short lived and after a few hours we were thrown back into the barren dusty state of Terai, a state which in recent weeks has made it into the headlines for violence between Indian border forces and Nepali locals. On top of these rather unpleasant current events Terai is also home to the city of Birgunj, our destination.
Birgunj is representative of many border towns the world over, it is incredibly dirty even by Nepali standards and a constant stream of lorries and buses belch out their toxic fumes as they crawl at a snails pace down the cities main road towards India. In terms of notable sights in the city after two visits we can safely say that there are none and in fact that Birgunj has no real redeeming qualities to speak of, it has one purpose and one purpose only, to act as a gate way to India. Incidentally, this small town is where a lot of nepali children's experience in India begins. An example of this is Bolle, a five year old member of this latest group of rescuees (and self confessed runaway addict!). At only the age of four Bolle was tempted over the border from his family home in Birgunj and into India with the promise of chocolate. What In Fact Bolle received was an unpaid job as a shoe shine where he would receive just a chapati for food. Stories like this are all too common and highlight just how badly these incredibly vulnerable children need the help of NGO's such as Chora Chori.
After a bite to eat, we headed to our meeting point where we were informed that a bus would be waiting for us and the rescue party to take us all back to Kathmandu. As it transpired the bus was in fact parked in the no mans land between India and Nepal which obviously posed a small problem as we had no paperwork to enter India and no visa to return to Nepal should we leave! After much debate with the Nepali border services, Reeti finally managed to persuade the army officer to grant us safe passage out of Nepal! No mans land between the towns of Birgunj and Raxaull (India) is arguably one of the most unpleasant places we have been unfortunate enough to spend time in. Our bus ground to a halt in a small space next to the bridge which acts as the crossing between the two countries. To our left there was a foul smelling river which was full to the brim with rubbish, add the smell of the several dead and decaying ox that lay on to banks - you can begin to comprehend the stench that we were dealing with.
The Chora Chori team where aiming to reach us by five pm so we had a few hours to wait in this dusty hell hole, luckily for us our bus boy kept us fairly entertained! At one stage he lent over to Reeti and asked, looking at us, "have they just finished fighting for their king?" After a brief exchange in Nepali Reeti burst out laughing, it turned out the supposedly 18 year old boy had seen a film about English knights fighting for their king and had presumed that (we were fresh off the battlefield) the way of that life in the west!
Finally at around 6pm we received a call that the team where on the bridge, and would be with us shortly. Suddenly it was all action stations as we rushed to grab our camera equipment and headed out into the fading light. At first glance it was hard to really gauge the condition of the children as they were quickly ushered from one bus to another, however upon entering the bus all became clear. Whilst some children seemed more or less normal some were in a terrible condition. Many were itching themselves constantly due to what would turn out to be several sever cases of scabies and many were dotted with scars and had clearly been badly beaten. Having now spoken to several children properly it is evident that severe beatings are common practice in these Indian children's homes, and that sometimes boys are in fact forced to enforce these acts of violence themselves
The bus back to Kathmandu was in a word "long". Luckily we had a seat each at the front of the bus but many of the others were not so lucky as we managed to fit all 36 children and 8 adults on a bus which had been designed to take a few less. The arrangement was without a doubt less than comfortable, but that is the way in Nepal and very soon we were on our way.
There are several roads that lead into Kathmandu, however only one of them is appropriate for a bus of this size. So with this in mind we began the relatively short journey of 200km in the knowledge it would take at least 12 grueling hours.
When rescuing children such as those that we had joined on the bus there is always a concern that they may attempt to run away in the early stages of their rescue. The reason for this is based in several misconceptions that have been indoctrinated into the children's way of thinking. Firstly (and understandably) they have trust issues and are suspicious of those who claim they are going to help them and take them somewhere better than their current situation. For many of these children their journey to an Indian children's home began with the promise of a better life, what they got in reality was sometimes years of confinement in jail like conditions. Secondly, a common issue for children from very poor families is that they feel that they must provide, either for themselves or for their families. Of course, If a boy is over 16 then perhaps these concerns are well justified but time and time again we see this mentality of boys younger that ten years old.
As darkness began to fall the bus became quiet and many of the boys began to drift off, exhausted from the days ordeal. Of course the obligatory Nepali film blared throughout the night until finally we were both asleep.
After a few hours of sleep, which were abruptly put to an end by some rather tasteless Nepali music pounding through the antiquated stereo at 3 in the morning, we arrived in Kathmandu at 8 am 13 hours after we had left Birgunj. Rather than head straight to the shelter we first had to pay a visit to the CCWB to officially take control of the children in the eyes of the Nepali government. It is probably worth mentioning at this stage that this is the first time We had had any paper work checked with regard to the 36 children that we had on our bus. Although of course we were doing nothing wrong and we're helping these children, it clearly demonstrates the ease at which trafficking can occur. Although trafficking is a serious issue, many of these boys simply walked across the border sometimes in groups as large as 10 or more heading to India to work. It is hard to comprehend how a border team can simply ignore such a clear cut example of vulnerable children heading into such a hazardous environment.
Sadly we were not allowed into the meeting with CCWB but it centered around the aim of establishing what exactly the children had been subjected too during their time in the children's home. The appalling condition of some of the children was certainly cause for alarm and CCWB intend to gather evidence on the homes in question in order to notify the relevant authorities.
So, while we sat and waited with a cup of tea exhausted from the previous nights events the children told their stories and provided their first real account into life in an Indian children's home. Many of the children claim that beatings where a part of daily life and that certain boys where allocated the role of enforcing the rules and giving out beatings to those who broke them. On top of that, scabies and other contagious illnesses ran riot through the homes with all but two of the thirty six children being infected. There is no doubt that the children's account of life in the home is harrowing at best and perfectly clarifies exactly why Chora Chori do what they do, and why it is such important work.
Once the meeting was over, the boys boarded the bus and headed to Godawari where Chora Chori's temporary shelter is based. Of course, the boys already at the shelter welcomed their new housemates with open arms. Every boy understood the harsh environment the new group had come from and therefore quickly formed a bond with one another, and almost instantly the distinction between new and old began to blur.
It would be fair to say that, sitting on the grass outside the Chora Chori refuge, the new boys appeared to have been through a serious ordeal. Exhausted and suspicious expressions, rash covered skin and a complexion that only comes from being kept in doors day after day (many of these children had not been outside for a number of years) made their situation all the more poignant.
However the next day, when we returned to see how they were settling in, we were greeted with a completely different set of boys! Although of course a complete transformation did not occur over night there was a tangible improvement in the boys actions and appearance. In many cases, years of terrible mistreatment has left these children highly doubtful and suspicious of most adults and supposed 'care institutions'. However, over the following days, facial expressions of blank doubt were replaced by smiles, fist bumps and most distinctly eye contact- which before was hard to come by.
This rapid and visible improvement really drives home the incredible work Chora Chori do. Simply the change in environment (which is only a small part of what the charity does) had already made such a massive difference! One boy in his interview said " I like it here, it's not like jail and I can play outside." Chora Chori creates a safe place where children can be children and can develop in a way that a child should and for that they should be commended!!
February 2017 Update
Trials and Tribulations
You could argue that we have barely moved forward with our project since our last post, but we would say that our small measure of progress is just reward for a lot of hard graft over the last few months. The past week has seen our chosen contractor finally make it down to the site to prepare the land for our exciting new building: a girls’ trauma management centre, to be built adjacent to the existing boys’ refuge at the Chora Chori site in Godawari. For us this is a huge step forward and one that we are very pleased to at last be taking!
The past few months have seen us really struggle, at times, to get the project off the ground. We encountered a whole range of problems. There were issues with our funds because of the de-valuation of the Pound; suddenly in October the fruits of our cycling endeavours decreased significantly in value, forcing us to re-evaluate which building methods we could afford. There were tweaks to the building design and difficulties in conveying the specifics of said tweaks to each contractor. There was often a lack of enthusiasm for the project and countless unnecessary delays from prospective contractors. We constantly found ourselves (optimistically) saying, “We’ll be able to start in a couple weeks”, yet the ‘start’ never materialised.
By November we had explored every possible different building method that we thought would be suitable and affordable. The choice had been whittled down to three entirely different building techniques, each with their benefits and disadvantages. There were then, of course, more unexplained waits, to accompany annoyingly infrequent site visits that were helping us to assess each contractor.
By the start of December, we had chosen our contractor but were beginning to wonder whether we’d even start building by Christmas – something that we thought was a foregone conclusion when we first arrived in Nepal. The next week or so saw us ironing-out any flaws in the building design, getting considerably more worked-up and feeling like bashing our heads against a concrete wall. Coincidentally our building design was centred around concrete panels and these were readily available for head-bashing in the contractor’s office, but thankfully we refrained, gritted our teeth and tried to help the process run smoothly.
However, another delay was looming; once the design had been finalised it would need to be sent off for Government approval. This was clearly an unavoidable process, but we met it (perhaps unwisely) with dismay because the setbacks seemed to be gathering more momentum than our project! This matter would push back our start-date by another three weeks. And here was another issue that was creeping up on us: money is finite, especially when you have no income and are generally living abroad as a volunteer, and we were becoming concerned that some or all of us would not be able to see the project through to the end.
Just before Christmas – once Rory had returned briefly to the UK to visit family and Phil and Arthur had embarked on the ‘visa-run’ to India over the festive period – we approved our final design
with the contractor and pressed an imaginary button that said OUR BIT IS DONE, OVER TO YOU. Having spent much of our time in India with our fingers crossed, we returned from our holidays rather confused because despite giving the design the ‘green light’ it became clear that it was still being deliberated over. Next up, despair! “Why is it so difficult for us to get this project moving?” The answer had been given to us on many separate occasions, simply: “this is Nepal.” Our experience thus far has been an extremely steep learning curve, which is all very well, but this sort of response was becoming extremely infuriating!
To three efficient young Brits who wanted the process to flow seamlessly this phase unearthed a bit of an unfortunate truth; we were trying to beat a system that was set up not to be beaten. It’s a fact that things happen at a slow pace around here and the many people who we have spoken to about such things regrettably admit that it can be incredibly frustrating at times. “Nepali time” was getting the better of us, until Bhaskar (CEO Chora Chori Nepal) swooped in and pushed through the design, sorting the paperwork for approval.
So, after months of scratching our heads and rallying around, eventually there was light at the end of the four-month tunnel. On the 29th January 2017, the diggers arrived at the site and work has finally begun!
By this stage the long and arduous process had, most upsettingly, forced Arthur to abandon the metaphorical ship due to a lack of personal funds. Phil and Rory would have to continue as best they could without the added camaraderie that a third person can provide to a group. However, most important of all is that the building project is underway and all these accumulated difficulties can be put behind us, in the interest of our sanity, at last.
A Week in Chapakharka
Painting a School in a Nepali Village
Although it is hard for any of us to believe we have already been in Kathmandu for over a month! A large part of this time has been spent in meetings and on our emails desperately trying to organise the final details of our project. The recent decision to centre the shelter around the rehabilitation/therapy of the girls has meant that the project’s design has had to accommodate various new requirements. Due to these changes, and the fact that Nepal has an outrageous number of public holidays, progress has been slightly slower than we had first anticipated. However, we are very nearly in a position to choose our contractor and begin work on the project that has been so central to our lives for the last year or so!
All this planning is of course fundamental to the success of our project, but it has left us all itching to start something a little bit more hands-on! So when Bhaskar (head of Chora Chori) asked us whether we might be able to help him on one of the charity’s other projects we all jumped at the opportunity. We were sent up to the quiet village of Chapakharka, a two-hour drive away on a beautiful hillside overlooking the capital, to paint a school that Chora Chori had built some six months earlier. So on a sunny Thursday morning, accompanied by AJ (the contractor for the school) and Pratap (who works at Chora Chori) we set off for Chapakharka; Rory and Arthur with the painting equipment in the back of a pick-up truck and Phil following behind on his trusty motorbike.
Driving out of Kathmandu is always a great feeling, your lungs breathe a sigh of relief as you begin to get out into the countryside away from the beeping horns and the never-ending dust and smog. Rory and Arthur had a fairly relaxed time in the pick-up as they wound their way up the mountainside towards the school, but Phil was not quite achieving the same journey satisfaction. He had recently found his prized new motorbike and was keen to try it out, but after an hour of reasonably steep uphill on a zig-zagging dirt track, Phil’s bike was already on the brink. As he toiled on the mountainside he was left behind because neither Rory or Arthur were able to help from their comfy perch in the back of the truck. Eventually, we heard word from the valley that the bike had given in and Phil was forced to hitch a lift the rest of the way on the back of a scooter – pretty amusing stuff. After our arrival at the site there was some confusion about where we would camp. We had intended to do so near the school for obvious reasons, but AJ told us we would be better off camping nearer to the village – the school is a fifteen-minute walk away – as we would be eating our meals and spending our evenings there. By the time this was decided the pick-up had left, so we lugged our heavy bags and equipment up through the village to camp on a towering hillside that revealed views of all of Kathmandu.
Chapakharka itself is fairly typical of most rural villages we have visited around the world. It consists of about 20 houses, which are all dotted along a small dirt track that serves as its access road. Sadly, like in much of Nepal, many of the old traditional houses have now been replaced by small corrugated iron shacks, yet despite the obvious damage caused by the earthquake, the village has managed to retain much of its charm. There is one shop selling basic everyday necessities and a tiny tea room serving the local brew to old men in traditional Nepali dress. Life here is simple, comfortable and on the whole quiet, forgetting the consistent background noise from the animals – bees, chickens, cows, goats and dogs – that comes with the territory. However, it was not the livestock but the people of the village that made our stay so memorable. Our host for the week was Ramesh, a young guy who had recently returned from five years’ work in Qatar (a popular option for young Nepali men). He has been intent on helping his village to recover ever since the earthquake, with his priority being the new school. After speaking with several locals it was clear that everyone in the village had at some stage attended the school before it was destroyed last year. Without it, children as young as three years old would be forced to walk for around two hours down a mountain track to reach the nearest school, in the town of Godavari. Alternatively, parents who are fortunate enough to own a motorbike could conceivably drive their children to school, but this is not much quicker than walking and would take up the vast majority of the parents’ day. Either way it is clear that, if the young people of Chapakharka are to be educated, the school rebuilt by Chora Chori is absolutely essential. It was abundantly clear why Ramesh placed such great importance on the local school, whilst his kindness and generosity towards us clearly demonstrated a great appreciation for the help that Chora Chori had given to his village.
Throughout the week we ate all of our meals at Ramesh’s house and met a few of the people that made up the village’s small population. Perhaps our favourite of these countless visitors was the likeable village drunk, Sante. Every lunch and dinner without fail, Sante would stumble into the small room that acted as our dining room and attempt to teach us Tamang (the local language) whilst simultaneously attempting to get us as drunk as possible on the local liquor. It is hardly surprising then that the only Tamang that any of us learnt was “arak surgo” which literally means “drink more”. Sante constantly demanded this of us and accompanied it with a topping-up of the glass. The alcohol itself is referred to as raksi and is an incredibly strong and clear maize wine. More often than not we were happy to oblige Sante – raksi isn’t too bad! Of course this is not the sort of wine that we know of in England and its presentation in an old bottle of Castrol engine oil confirmed this. Each batch of home brew differed in strength from strong to very strong, so it is safe to say that the end of the evening usually saw us staggering up the hill to our tents, talking about arak and deciding whether we had ‘surgo-ed’ ourselves.
The painting understandably took up the vast majority of our time whilst we were there, only returning briefly at mealtimes for more Daal Bhat (the traditional Nepali meal of rice, lentil curry and some sort of pickle), which is the only thing that they really eat in the village. We certainly ate our fair share. Although it is delicious, after constantly devouring it for five days we were all ready for a little more variety in our diet by the end. Each morning involved us waking up at around 6:30 a.m. and wandering down to Ramesh’s for a breakfast of tea and biscuits, before braving the steep walk to the school. The painting went by pretty uneventfully most days, until the kids arrived! Every day a group of children would come down to the building site seemingly to do nothing else other than to make our lives difficult and annoy us as much as possible. They would push each other around in wheel barrows at full tilt and were constantly on the verge of scraping down a freshly painted wall. However, they were as much of a nuisance as they were cute and friendly, so it was hard not to forgive them! The painting took five days overall and was much harder work than any of us had expected, no thanks to our evenings spent sipping the raksi.
When we agreed to do this job for Chora Chori we all envisaged a quiet week by ourselves: camping, painting and doing not a whole lot else. What transpired was an incredible week in a place that we have all developed a real soft-spot for. As we packed up our stuff to go, Kumar, one of the guys from the village, came up to us and said “my heart is broken because you are leaving”. Although it felt a bit melodramatic we all shared his sentiment to some extent because it was sad to be waving goodbye to such a good week with our new pals. At the same time, our minds were already beginning to formulate plans for showers, meal options and beds, helping to keep any sadness at bay.
We are now back in Kathmandu where meetings and emails must start again, but our time in Chapakharka has left us refreshed and determined to get our own project underway in the coming weeks!
Swyambhu Stupa, Kathmandu
DIY earthquake proofing in Kathmandu
The Remains of a home in Chapakharka
Sunset over Kathmandu
Travelling in style - View from truck en route to Chapakharka
The view from the school
Chapakharka high street
A scholar's paradise
Santé, Kumar & the Boys
Sunset on the way to Darjeeling
Cycling beside the Darjeeling Himalayan railway
We reached Nepal!
Our first mountains of Nepal
The start of the 8 hour climb
Rory taking a moment 5 hours into the climb
The view on the last morning of the cycle
Sam & Rory climbing the last mountain before Kathmandu!
The Nepalese stunning countryside
We made it!
Stage 7 Complete
After leaving Guwahati we were embarking on what we all saw as the last stage of our journey. Technically the final stage would be from Darjeeling to Kathmandu, but we all knew that the end was rapidly approaching.
Leaving Guwahati meant that we would soon leave the hot arid plains of West Bengal behind and head into our final and toughest challenge of our trip to date: the Himalayas!
As we predicted, the first few days out of Guwahati passed by fairly uneventfully. This all ended when we made camp for the night in the driveway of a family at the base of the long climb to Darjeeling. Finding campsites throughout this trip has not always been the easiest task. The sheer number of people and agriculture means eligible plots are scarce and often non-existent and often the only option is to ask a local family to sleep on their land. After setting up our tents and getting to know the hundreds of locals who came over to talk with us, we noticed the phone (our GPS) was missing. When we voiced our concerns to the locals around us they disappeared, returning shortly afterwards with the phone. We assumed the incident had been resolved behind closed doors: however, we were soon proved wrong. After hearing a noise from around the corner of our host’s home, we went to investigate and were shocked to find the thief, (Reuben) tied to a lamppost, blood pouring from his nose. After much debate between us and the evidently excited mob surrounding us, it was decided he would be released and sent home (however clear it seemed this local court of law would continue out of our sight). Many of the locals who spoke English reassured us this was how it was in the village and the thief was aware of the potential consequences: he had in fact suffered this punishment several times before.
This was no doubt one of the more harrowing experiences of the trip. We were disturbed by this medieval form of retribution but the event demonstrated how these small villages have been left to fend for themselves and must therefore enforce their own justice to ensure safety and order within their lives.
Waking up the next day it seemed like the previous night had never happened. Local children milled around our tents and our host brought us tea and breakfast as we packed our things. We were preparing for a day in which we would climb 2500 m in just 90km as we made our way to Darjeeling. We were all in agreement this would be the hardest day of our trip so far and we found ourselves nervous as we mounted the bicycles and set off. One hour down the road we saw what we had been dreading: 60 km of switchbacks looming over us. After 6 hours of struggling up the mountain, through the swarms of tourist vehicles & lorries, the monsoon hit. With all that had been thrown at us, we couldn’t contain ourselves and burst out laughing: surely nothing more could be thrown at us! After 4 hours of climbing, we finally crested the hill and the small village of Ghoom that finally signified the end of the day's climbing. From the top of the mountain we passed through a few quaintly British towns with Victorian-esque railway stations and into the world famous Darjeeling. Following a day spent exploring the region, we can confirm Darjeeling itself does not come close to living up to these expectations. Sadly, excessive tourism and rampant development have displaced any charm this British hill station possessed.
From Darjeeling we went to Kharkabitta, a small town with huge significance as it meant our arrival in Nepal. After enduring a few dull days on a large national highway, we began to approach our final leg of the trip and take us north to Kathmandu. However, due to a (not insignificant) map reading error we missed our turn and were forced to continue along the main highway to the city of Hetauda, which would be our base for our final push to reach Kathmandu.
Hetauda is a large city situated in the mountains south west of Kathmandu, and the first place representing the Nepal we had envisioned prior to this trip. As Kathmandu was 80km away, and we had two days before we were due to arrive, we decided the cycling would be easy and enjoyable for the remainder of our trip… How wrong we were.
Leaving Hetauda, several people told us it would be possible to reach Kathmandu in a day and we were understandably excited. The day began with gradual climb through one of the most beautiful valleys we have come across and, although tiring, the morning was quite enjoyable! After a lunch of chana (a Nepali curried pea dish) we set out for the afternoon’s cycle with high spirits. However, these were soon to be crushed by what lay in store. Shortly after lunch the road peeled out of the valley and began to climb, zigzagging sharply up the steep sided valley and again we found ourselves laughing hysterically. Hours passed, and still we climbed. By this stage we were going as slow as physically possible without falling over and we feared we would not make the top before dark. Eventually, after 8 hours of incessant climbing, we finally made it to a small mountaintop lodge where we spent our last night of the trip. The lodge itself was a small, smoky establishment full of men drinking whisky and eating Nepali curry. We found a spot in the corner and enjoyed a well deserved ice cold beer.
We woke up on the last day assuming the worst of this exhausting final stage was behind us. However, another wrong turn early in the morning left us at the bottom of a valley with our only option being to cycle 5 km back up the hill where we would join the "highway" that would lead us to Kathmandu. Upon arriving at the correct turning it was fairly apparent as to how we had missed it. We had been expecting a smooth tarmacked surface and instead were greeted with a rock-covered dirt track that wound precariously up the mountain. Despite the mantra we kept repeating, road conditions continued in this vein and made that final stretch significantly harder than we expected. The climax of this frustrating, and to be honest pretty terrible, day of cycling was our final climb before reaching the Kathmandu valley. The condition of the road was the worst we had endured the entire trip and it was all we could do not to fall off (something Phil didn't quite manage). Slowly we made our way through the rocks as wheel spin, monsoon and exhaustion constantly tested our fragile temperaments. After a couple of hours we reached the top, and all was forgotten as we looked out over the spectacle of Kathmandu Valley, speechless. We had made it, and our goal for the last 4 months of cycling (and dream for the last year) had become a reality.
We all worried at times our arrival in Kathmandu would not live up to the image we had in our heads. However, I think we are in agreement that it far exceeded our expectations.
Our point of arrival was the Nepali National Investment Bank, situated in central Kathmandu. Our destination may have been a difficult one to find had we not been escorted on our way by 20 or so members of the Nepalese Cycling Club! As we arrived through the gates we were greeted by local news teams and featured in more photographs than any of us ever had in our life. We set down our bikes and were presented with flowers and scarves by none other that the (former) Princess of Nepal! The fact our journey had this amazing and definitive ending helped us appreciate the magnitude of the moment and we could not have been happier!
Since finishing, we have been putting our pedal weary feet up whenever we can. Our time has been dominated by the next stage of our journey, the construction of the children's shelter. We‘ve met with Chora Chori several times and are moving ever closer to finalising the design and beginning the building at the end of the monsoon season in September. On top of this, we had the opportunity to visit their existing shelter for rescued boys and finally visit our future site! Meeting the boys hit home how worthwhile the work of charity is and how valuable our decision was to support them over the other charities we considered. It’s clear the staff of Chora Chori are extraordinarily passionate about their cause and there is no doubt our fundraising has been for a great cause!
Thanks for all the support!
Rory, Phil and Sam
Cycle, Samosa, Sleep Repeat
A lot has happened since our last blog post, however there has not been a huge amount of cycling. After a weeks rest in Imphal Rory tried, and failed, to cycle even 20km out of the city. This left him with a difficult decision. It was becoming increasingly clear that, after several visits to Imphal's "finest" hospital, his knee was not going to get better on its own. In fact on his final visit, almost 4 weeks ago, he was told that there was no possibility of him cycling within two months....
Having accepted that he would not be able to continue, he made one last phone call to a doctor in England who told him that with a cortisone injection, he might be able to cycle. Early the next morning he was on a plane home where he would spend a few days undergoing the treatment before returning to Imphal.
Obviously, despite the doctors’ assurance that Rory's knee was likely to recover, the first day leaving Imphal was nerve racking to say the least. However after our shortest day of the trip (to ease Rory's leg back into life on the bike) we found ourselves in our first Typically Indian "fooding & lodging". After being informed by a number of very "helpful" locals that there was nowhere to stay in town, we eventually stumbled upon our room for the night. Our bedrooms appeared to have been built on to the side of the owners’ house as some sort of after thought! Whilst Rory and Phil's room sat precariously over hanging the street below, Sam's wooden coffin only just squeezed in a small single bed! However, after a swim in the local river, and a delicious meal served up in the owners’ living room, we did manage to sleep pretty well given the circumstances.
The next day the theme of exotic accommodation continued and, after a long and testing hill climb we arrived in the sleepy mountain town of Maram. After searching a while for anywhere to sleep, including trying all of the local churches, we were eventually shown to what can only be described as a cow shed with three beds in, sandwiched between two incredibly loud and busy tea rooms. After having dinner in town we were invited to have tea at the house of a local man and his wife. He was a little drunk and very excited to have us, so excited in fact that he said, if we did not return tomorrow, God would punish us. Needless to say we dropped in early in the morning, just to be safe!
During the next few days we said goodbye to Manipur, which had been our home for almost a month, and headed into Nagaland, our second (and the coolest sounding) Indian state. The highlight of this section of the trip was a rest day in the mountain town of Kohima. Set across several mountain peaks, Kohima has some of the most spectacular views that we have experienced. Obviously this mountain setting gives Kohima an unusually cool climate, something any local will be very proud to tell you. To be honest constant questions like "and how are you enjoying our climate" became pretty annoying. However, it is currently nearly 50 degrees in Assam and our hands are burnt to a crisp, and we are all longing for the cool mountain weather!
After exploring the town, we found ourselves in a dingy local "bar" serving the local favourite, rice beer, which is a white warm liquid with small bits of rice floating in it. As you can imagine from this appetising description, we are all agreed that it was not our favourite local delicacy of the trip. Despite the revolting drinks, the small room was filled with locals and it was a great place to spend an hour or so. Given the looks on many of the old men's faces, three large white boys was definitely not a normal thing to see down the local on a Wednesday night!
The rest of Nagaland passed by without incident, and Rory's knee continued to improve. After a few days cycling we entered Assam, our third Indian state. Assam could not be more different to the parts of India we have seen so far. Whilst the area we had come from was mountainous, mild and heavily influenced by Burmese culture, Assam seems to be completely the opposite, it is incredibly flat, oppressively hot and culturally very Indian. Noodles have been replaced by daal and chapati and Christianity has given way to Hinduism.
Amongst the many experiences we have already encountered In Assam, there are two things that will always stick in our minds. On our second evening in the state, we began to think about where we might be able to camp, the dense jungle in the area made camping spots limited and we were not hopeful for anything other than a road side campsite. However, in the middle of nowhere we came across a very out of place "picnic and scenic spot" and after several minutes attempting to ask the owner to allow us to sleep inside, we eventually managed to persuade him!
We set up our camp inside a small, open wooden hut overlooking a truly amazing stretch of river. As we began to cook dinner, and the sun was setting, we saw a movement in the trees on the far side of the river, and two Gibbons emerged jumping between the trees. We had been told that they were in the area but that seeing them was extraordinarily rare, not expecting to see one made this experience even more special. After the gibbons had disappeared and the sun began to set, fireflies began to appear from the long grass surrounding our hut, although they were incredibly beautiful they were not the only bugs and we were forced to retreat to our mosquito nets!
A few days past by until, after a hard days cycling yesterday, we arrived in a small town in the middle of Assam. We were all keen to sleep inside due to the dark storm clouds lurking overhead, and hoped that we would be able to find somewhere to sleep with either a local, or in some sort of religious building (church temple etc). The second option has worked countless times for us this trip and we were hopeful that we would have a roof over our heads, however it was not to be! After an extraordinarily stressful hour attempting to buy rice and water (yep an hour to buy rice and water), we headed out along the road that ran adjacent to the local wildlife park. After much deliberation, and attention from locals, we found ourselves on a little grassy knoll tucked away underneath a bridge. Although it was certainly not our most glamorous campsite it definitely more than made up for it with its wildlife. As we sat cooking our dinner we watched two Single horned rhino (only found in Assam) amble along in front of us. Seeing a Rhino in the wild was an incredible experience, and made up for a sleepless night in the worst thunderstorm any of us have ever experienced. Luckily for Rory and Phil they opted to sleep in their tents with the waterproof cover attached, Sam however was not so lucky. In the middle of the night while the others lay dry in their tents, Sam was outside attaching the waterproof cover to his tent as it quickly flooded!
The last few weeks have been extremely stressful and filled with worry as the uncertainty surrounding Rory's knee has been on all our minds. But it seems to be holding up and we have arrived in Guwahati, with under 1000km to go. We are all so happy to be back as a team and on the road! We can't really believe that we only have one more border between us and the finish.
Next stop Nepal
Bed & Byriani
Last head hunter spotted: 1920
Kohima city stretched over four mountains
We've made it to Assam
The view from one of the best campsites of the trip so far
Sunrise over Bagan
Crossing the Irrawaddy
Sunset from Mt.Popa
The jury's out on Sam's cycling shorts
Sunrise in the pagoda
Jungle is massive
King of the swingers
Sam winding his way along the Monywa - Kalewa 'highway'
Northern Myanmar at its finest
Can't believe we've made it to India it seemed impossibly far when we started!
Stage 5 Complete
Bagan, Bhajees & Broken Buckworth
After our rest day in Pyay, where we certainly enjoyed water festival, we headed north all feeling a little jaded to say the least! To make matters worse half way through the day an overly exuberant local man jumped out in front of Rory, causing him to fall for the second time in as many weeks! After just getting his bike fixed we feared the worst but fortunately it came away unscathed. Despite our hangovers and Rory's bruises, we were cheered up by the news that our official budget has been agreed for the build and that we have welcomed on board Good Earth Nepal, who specialise in earth bag building!
The next few days passed by uneventfully and we made great progress north towards Bagan. While cycling in arguably the most remote area we have seen in Myanmar, a policeman appeared out of nowhere, pulled up along side and waved us off the road. Given our track record with the authorities in this country we feared the worst. However, all he wanted to do was check we were ok, talk about football, and advise us against cycling in the 45 degree heat, which we all agreed was sound advice!
Our original plan was to cycle north from Pyay to Bagan where we would collect our border permit and continue towards India. However, further delays in the application process (which had at that stage been going on for well over a month!!) resulted in us having a week or so to kill in Bagan. In light of this we stopped for a night in Popa, a small town situated 50km East of Bagan. Popa village itself is a very ordinary place but it possesses one of the most extraordinary monastery’s in the country, situated on top of a mountain it is no doubt one of the most incredible man made structures we have ever seen. Feeling a little guilty for stopping again, we woke up at 3:45am (in the pitch black!) to climb Mt.Popa (a neighbouring volcano) for a sunrise view of the monastery, which, despite getting severely lost on our way up was well worth it. We also climbed up to the monastery itself which has sadly been somewhat ruined by tourism and in our opinion was not worth the 1000 steps! Better to view this incredibly beautiful building from a distance!
Bagan itself is a truly an amazing place, pagodas stretch as far as the eye can see and we enjoyed a few days exploring the area by bike. Our first outing on the bikes didn't quite go to plan and within half an hour both Rory and Phil managed to get punctures and had to carry their bikes back to the hotel.... (some explorers we are!)
Once we finally managed to leave Bagan, our permits safely stashed away in our bags, we knew that we were heading into the most remote area that we would have experienced so far. Villages became increasingly scarce, the landscape increasingly dry and the heat almost unbearable at times. As camping is illegal in Myanmar, and hotels were seemingly non existent throughout this stretch, our fist two nights were spent sleeping outdoors in the grounds of two monasteries! The monks at both were extremely friendly and welcomed us to stay as long as we wanted. Before this we were under the impression that training to be a monk was a life path chosen at an early age. However, after meeting Li (a former taxi driver in Mandalay) we realised people from all walks of life find themselves in these monasteries.
Sadly, shortly after leaving Bagan Rory picked up a knee injury which has forced him to stop cycling... Due to the short time frame we had remaining on our visas (three days), Rory had to go ahead to the Indian border to wait for Phil and Sam to arrive. Whilst we were trying to organise rory a lift, we stopped in a small tea room. After seeing we were not his usual customers the owner ran inside, when he reappeared he was clutching an old laminated photo of him in Mandalay with the only other white person he’d ever met! (it would appear he thought we may know each other!)
Leaving the others was an incredibly depressing experience. Not only was I going to have to spend a few days alone in a Myanmar border town, but a big part of me felt like I was failing to Complete our journey! This is something which after a few days I have managed to convince myself is not entirely true. After strapping my bike to the roof of the van, I endured one of the most uncomfortable car journeys of my life. My sore knee bent double as I squeezed in next to an entire Burmese family!
Sadly, once the others arrived at the Myanmar border my knee had still not recovered and after cycling the few kilometres to cross into India, it was clear I would have to go on to Imphal (the next major city). After visiting a doctor, I have been given some medication and I am hoping to be back on the road soon!
Phil and Sam:
Leaving Rory felt very strange but we had little time to focus on it as we were immediately greeted with a mountain range in the brutal midday heat. It would appear following valleys is a foreign concept to the road designers of Myanmar, it seemed like we climbed to the peak of every mountain visible. To their credit the road took us through a stunning jungle teeming with monkeys, parrots and birds of paradise. By the time we reached the other side the sun was starting to set, so it was a welcome relief to see a town poking over the horizon, especially as it didn’t exist on any of our maps! Exhausted we rolled into town and asked if there was a monastery we could sleep in. It’s safe to say this town doesn’t feature on the governments list of approved ‘foreigner towns’ but after spending the previous night in a hut in another town which wasn’t on the map we were hopeful. A group of locals pointed us in the direction of a pagoda overlooking the town so we headed up the hill. On reaching the pagoda we realised there was no monastery attached but they lead us in and pointed at the floor inside the pagoda. By the time we had laid down our roll mats, half the town had appeared to welcome us, some bringing blankets, others tea and peanuts. Sitting and sipping tea with a crowd of 30 people watching was a surreal experience, little did we know the strangeness was far from over. At 10 o’clock we were woken by a policeman accompanied by 5 locals, he asked us for our passports as the men sat down beside us in the pagoda. As they sat down they each fired up a cheroot (cigar), stuck a pouch of Betel nut in their cheeks, switched on their ultra powerful lanterns and started jabbering to one another. They didn’t stop talking until 5am the next day which, accompanied by the 4 other visits we had throughout the night (the final of which was an immigration officer at 3.45am), lead to a night that won’t easily be forgotten.
The next morning we set off on what we thought was going to be an easy 85km to meet Rory in Kalewa, how wrong we were. About 2km out of town the road disintegrated and was soon nothing more than a line of rocks jutting out of the dust (one blog we read said it was the worst road they had encountered in 34,000km!). A combination of sweltering heat, terrible road conditions and relentless uphill, meant we only managed to average 5kmh over the first four hours! (to put this into perspective, on a good day we average 20kmh). At lunch we hesitantly checked our map to see how far we’d gone…35km! this was the slowest morning we’ve had on the whole trip. Unfortunately, this meant we had a gruelling 50km to do in the afternoon with no sign of the road conditions improving. Occasionally between the “this is absolutely terrible” thoughts we would take a look around and appreciate the unbelievable countryside we were cycling through, before quickly changing back to “this is absolutely terrible” when our wheels dropped into the 1000th pothole of the day. After 12 bumpy hours in the saddle we finally reached Kalewa! Broken, but not defeated, we met Rory at the hotel and enjoyed a few cold ones.
The stretch from Kalewa to Tamu took us through one of the strangest places we’ve been all trip. The closest comparison would be to imagine Louisiana 100 years ago, but in Myanmar. Every town is filled with churches: Catholic, Baptist, Calvinist, Adventist, you name it they’ve got it. In one town there were 15 churches to only 100 houses! To add to the weirdness all the signs are in English yet no foreigners are allowed to stay in any of them.
We reached the town of Kamphat at 4pm and decided to rest there for the night as the next town wasn’t for another 30 miles. A storm was rolling in which only added to the eerie vibe of the place. We asked around and, at no shock to us, it was yet another “no foreigner” town. We looked around and after being rejected a few times, we luckily found a monastery that would house us for the evening as the downpour started (the first rain we’d seen in the last 3 countries!). After setting up our beds we headed out for supper. We sat down and within minutes a local man (Gerome) pulled up a chair to join us - eager to practice his English. After chatting a while he asked us what religion we believed in, when Phil replied “Catholic” Gerome’s eyes lit up. After supper he insisted we came and visited his church. We pulled up to the creepiest church I’ve ever seen! After having a look around he invited us into his house to meet Father Andrew (coincidently his actual father). We were warmly welcomed with a glass of whiskey and stories of father Andrew’s recent trip to Israel. After another strange, but interesting evening we headed back to the monastery to get some sleep.
The next day we met up with Rory and crossed safely into India, despite somehow missing Burmese immigration and receiving a very surprised look when we arrived at the Indian side without an exit stamp from Myanmar! After a lot of confusion, we returned to Myanmar, received the correct paperwork and were on our way once again.
Next stop Kathmandu!
Happy 1377 from Myanmar!
A lot has happened since we posted our last blog nearly 3 weeks ago. Sadly we have not been able to post anything as our trusty laptop seems to have finally given up on us. We hope to get it fixed but at the moment we will be relying on Internet cafe's which have been nonexistent until our arrival in Pyay (Myanmar) earlier today! This landmark means that we are rapidly approaching India, the last big leg of our journey.
The remainder of our route through Laos passed by without any issue at all. Having only spent a week or so in the country I think we have all been left with an urge to return and properly explore what we believe to be the most beautiful country In Southeast Asia. On top of that, the people are some of the most relaxed and friendly we have ever encountered, even if their relaxed nature does sometimes verge on lazy (often restaurants will say no to you seemingly because they cannot be bothered to cook).
The end of our time in Laos saw us arrive in the quiet border town of Huey Xay, on the banks of the Mekong river overlooking Thailand. Sadly we had little time to enjoy the town as we were preoccupied by trying to acquire the border permit we would need to cross into India from Myanmar. As Burmese New Year was rapidly approaching, the woman who was going to help us organise the permit had gone on holiday, leaving us in a difficult position. As our Burmese visa would only last 28 days it was essential that we set our application process in motion before we arrived, given that our Thailand stretch would only be a day, we hoped to do this from Laos. After two days of phone calls and a lot of stress we finally managed to do just that and we were free to go on our way.
Entering into Thailand, like a lot of things on this trip, was not as simple as it should have been. We arrived at the "friendship bridge" between Laos and Thailand only to be informed that bikes where forbidden on the bridge, and we would instead have to travel by bus. As we were keen to cycle the entirety of the route (something that would later turn out to be impossible) we spent an hour or two begging the border police to allow us to cycle across. Eventually, after showing them our website and fundraising page, they agreed that we could cycle across but only with a police escort. Cycling into Thailand behind a police car was certainly an experience none of us will forget and despite all their warnings we made it to the other side unscathed!
Our day in Thailand was really nothing more than a formality as no border crossing between Laos and Myanmar exists for tourists. However the cycling was far from it, and one hill was so steep and hot that Rory had to get off the bike and sit down for a while after everything became a bit much!
After a day in Thailand it was time for us to enter into Myanmar at the newly opened border crossing of Tachilek. Arriving in Myanmar was a massive milestone for us as it saw us enter our fifth county of seven and be well and truly on the "home straight" all be it a 3000km one. However, the high of entering Myanmar was a short lived one. Cycling out of Tachilek we felt confident that Myanmar would run smoothly without any issues, how wrong we where! About 30 km out of Tachilek we reached our first army checkpoint in Myanmar (there are lots of these) and a gruff Burmese man bluntly informed us that our route was currently closed to tourists due to unrest in the area. Although their English was not quite good enough to convey why this was the case, the gist of it was that there was violence throughout Shan state and due to this we could not even take a bus through the area let alone cycle.
After hours in the immigration office attempting to work around this issue, it seemed our only option was to fly out of the area. Sadly this has meant we have had to adapt our route slightly and fly to Yangon in the south or Myanmar, don't worry we have actually added on 100km just to make up for it!
Leaving Yangon was a terrifying experience. The government here recently decided that they would change the side of the road people drive on from the left to the right, meaning everyone’s steering wheel is now on the wrong side. This makes overtaking nothing short of reckless, though it is safe to say everyone does it anyway. This accompanied with the heavy traffic of New Year meant we spent the first 50km weaving our way through buses that don't seem to abide by the rules of the road. Arriving in town after our first day we were exhausted both mentally and physically and ready to find a hotel (Camping in Myanmar is illegal). However things in Myanmar are never simple, and it turned out our destination did not have a "foreigner" guesthouse. After being escorted out of the town by the police (Who we seem to be getting to know pretty well) we were forced to cycle another 35km at dusk to a town where we were allowed to sleep. Certainly a tough introduction to the country.
The next few days passed by issue free as we followed the Irrawaddy river north toward Bagan. Luckily the river meant that the surrounding area was flat and despite the 40+ degree heat, we made great progress as we constantly passed groups of singing locals and whole villages out on the road celebrating the festival. Despite water festival in Myanmar being one of the highlights of our trip, it is not without its issues. Children line the roads with buckets and water pistols seemingly with the sole intention of making sure we cycle in soaking wet uncomfortable shorts all day.
A few days from Yangon we had a slight issue when Rory's front wheel fell inbetween two railway sleepers whilst cycling across a 120 year old bridge (we’re talking bridge over the river Kwai). The result of this was that he bent his wheel quite badly; luckily a local man took us to a mechanic who managed to straighten Rory’s wheel enough to make it to our next major city Pyay.
Arriving in Pyay we got our first true experience of water festival. What started as a cleansing ritual to enter into the New Year has turned into a street party with stages, music and lots of dancing. We were lucky enough to be invited by a family to drive around Pyay for the day to see what the festival had to offer, which meant buying them lots of beer and getting very wet.
Despite getting soaked in the process we also managed to find a mechanic who has fixed Rory's wheel making it probably the straightest wheel we have! Despite the last few weeks causing us a number of issues, the cycling has been amazing (despite the melted Tarmac) and Myanmar has exceeded all of our expectations!
Next stop India!!
Thailand behind us on the Laos bank of the Mekong
The Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Pulling Rory's wheel out of the bridge
Even the cows get involved in water festival
Rule No.1 of water festival: Keep your windows closed
Cycling through the countryside
This is how we like our lorries in Myanmar
Nice day for a walk in the desert
Shaded spots are few and far between
Light fading with 30km to go
Water festival on the streets of Pyay
Phil's snapped carbon belt
Vietnamese house by rice paddies
Tay Trang mountain top border station
Having some troubles with customs...
Welcome to Laos
One Laos' many mountain roads
Having spent a total of 5 days in Hanoi waiting for our Indian visas ( admittedly with a small trip to the beach in the middle), we saddled up the bikes and began our trip west through Vietnam and towards Laos. Much as Hanoi is a lovely place, being stuck there for an extra five days was more than any of us could bare, and we were all incredibly glad to get going! The couple of days after Hanoi saw us cycle through some amazing scenery as well as, on a less pleasant note, the area of Hanoi that it would appear you should visit if eating dog is your thing! (We have all made a note to avoid non descript meats from now on!!)
However the progress that we had finally started to make again was short lived, and two days out of Hanoi we had what might be described as a major issue!! After a nights camping by an incredible mountain lake we started the day like any other, we packed our tents, ate our rice and soy sauce and hit the road. However, as we cycled back up the path to the road Phil somehow managed to snap his carbon belt drive, ( this is our version of a bike chain)! We are not quite sure how this happened, we think Phil's legs have grown a bit more than we anticipated!!
This left us in a difficult situation, due to several factors our spare belts had not arrived in time in England and we were forced to leave without one, which meant only one thing..... Back to Hanoi!
As we were in the middle of nowhere, getting back to Hanoi was not easy, but after a ride in the back of a Lorry, a cramped bus with all our bikes and gear, and towing Phil the 14 km from the bus station to central Hanoi, we finally made it! Our spare part was due to arrive in a few days and we would be on the road again as soon as it did.
After receiving a new part we were careful to return to the exact same spot which the incident occurred. After attempting to hitchike from the nearest town, we eventually gave up and cycled the 50km again, it was much easier the second time and was such a good feeling to be back on the road again we didn't mind that we were cycling what we had already done!
From this point in we headed into the mountains of Vietnam and the heat became real! The roads in Vietnam are unlike any I have seen before, the surface is good, but they were not made with cyclists in mind and they are extraordinarily steep. Caution signs warning Lorrys of the gradient are very common and rightly so. The first night after Hanoi saw us drastically underestimate one of these hills and resulted in us having to pitch our tents on a very windy spot next to the road on the top of a mountain. Despite being a bit cold and wet a local farmer took pity on us and gave us a big bag of rice so it wasn't all bad!
Although the nights sleep on the top of the mountain was not the best, our sleeping arrangements the night after more than made up for it. After a long but enjoyable days cycling through the area surrounding Son La, in north west Vietnam, it came to the time to start looking for a spot to pitch our tents. We cycled into a small village in the hope that we could camp in one of their fields when we met Hon. Hon was a 20 something Vietnamese guy who staggered out of his house and insisted that we stay with him. He stank of rice wine but was really friendly and we agreed to stay. Almost as soon as we were through the door we were handed a shot of rice wine and the night continued in a similar way.
We actually ended up drinking Hon under the table and he had to be taken to bed, luckily every guy in the village was there so we had plenty of people to drink with. After eating one of the best meals we have had, (apart from one dish which we think was intentionally cold piglet!) we slept on their floor, basically at the foot of the two couples beds, very close quarters! Cycling 100km with a hangover the next day is not something any of us will be doing again, but it was definitely an experience.
The remainder of Vietnam passed by without any issues. We made an attempt to have another nights like Hon's house but ended up in the house of Vietnam's only tee totaler (probably a blessing in disguise!).
Crossing the border into Laos was a massive thing for us. Vietnam had thrown lots of problems at us and it feels really good to be making progress again. We did however almost not make it into Laos as we arrived at the border with only $1 above the required visa fees! (We incurred many unforeseen "additional charges")
Laos itself is by far our favourite country so far, despite being one big hill. The landscape has completely changed from rice paddies to dense jungle, and people are pretty scarce which is a novelty for us after Vietnam and China! Having covered just under a thousand kilometres since Hanoi, We are now in Luang Namtha in North west Laos for a much needed rest day. Only 3000km or so to go!
Stage 3 Complete
Welcome to Vietnam
After 2500km cycling across China in weather ranging from freezing rain to 30 degree heat, we have finally made it to Vietnam! This is a massive milestone for our expedition and sees us begin our trip through South East Asia.
It has been two long weeks between our last blog post and arriving in Hanoi and a lot has happened!
After leaving Guilin we headed out into some of the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. It is hard to explain the landscape around Guilin, so we won't attempt it and instead have given you a picture, but it really is incredible.
Throughout the week between Guilin and our destination (Nanning) there was, amongst this amazing scenery, both some extremely testing and enjoyable moments.
Many of the highlights have revolved around the scenery and the abundance of camping spots, the best of which was set on the edge of a mountain reservoir which provided us with one of the most amazing sun rises we have ever seen (see picture). However as seems to be the case with this trip where there are ups there usually seem to be downs and we did also spend the night under a motorway bridge, giving Sam a sleepless night! So trust us when we say it is not all beautiful campsites and sunsets!
The cycling itself throughout the week was also incredibly tough. Although the majority of the days passed by fairly incident free we had two challenging days which really tested us. The first of which started normally and we began to climb up into more mountains, as we climbed the paths began to shrink in size until they were no more than a goat track. If it hadn't been for the locals assuring us it was the correct way, we would have turned back hours before. The track eventually dwindled to nothing but a steep walking path straight over the mountain. After a few hours of pushing/cycling/dragging our bikes in the sweltering heat we made it to the top. Just as we began to pick our way down along one of the many tracks down the mountain feeling luck was not on our side, a local farmer spotted us and kindly lead us down the other side on his motorbike!
The second tough day came much in the same way, but this time our road merged with a large, stoney dried up river bed. Not being on the map ( as seems to be the case with many roads in China) we pushed on hoping to join up with the road further up the river. After pushing up for a few hours, and passing through a number of eerie abandoned mines we were forced to turn around and push back down to where we had started. An incredibly testing couple of days which left us arriving in Nanning physically exhausted!
Leaving Nanning with Hanoi in our sights we all hoped we wouldn't have to endure the same appalling road conditions that we had the week before and thankfully our prayers were answered and the roads have been, although hilly, paved!
Cycling to the border was a really strange feeling after so long in China, having no borders as reference for progress can be quite disheartening and to reach Vietnam has been a real boost for us.
The change between the two countries is already apparent. Food has changed dramatically (thankfully for the better), towns and villages have transformed as have the people. Above all however the scenery has changed, there are no longer the regimented towns that it seems are never far away in the Chinese countryside and it feels like we are really entering into a much more rural environment!
Despite Sam becoming ill and having a slight incident on the bike, we still managed to arrive in Hanoi in good time to begin the no doubt lengthy process of applying for our Indian visas! It feels very strange to be in Hanoi with so many backpackers and we are all itching to get back on our bikes and out of the city!
Last bit of Chinese countryside
South Guilin sunrise
A dog with shoes, because why not
They let us through!
A pretty typical example of our view this week
Our Campsite the one night the rain stayed away
End of Stage Two
Gweilos in Guilin
This last week has taken us from Yangxizhen to the ancient city of Guilin and seen us finish the second stage of our trip. It has been a week of several lows and perhaps only one high, that we finished stage 2 ahead of time. Having spent the first two weeks of our trip cycling in some unusually warm weather the reality of February in China has well and truly hit us. The last five days have been spent cycling over a hundred kilometres a day in torrential rain and freezing temperatures. As has been the case with so much of China, there is evidently so much incredible countryside around, but finding a route through it has proved very difficult forcing us onto yet more main roads only to be soaked by passing lorries and buses.
Amongst the monotony of this weeks cycling there have been a few moments which have kept our spirits high. Whilst cycling through an incredibly remote mountain village, extremely cold and tired, we stopped at what we thought was a noodle restaurant but turned out to be a garage. As we begrudgingly mounted our bikes to head off into the rain, the owner of the garage ran outside and gestured for us to come in. Inside he cleared the chains and gears off a work bench, and served us a five course meal better than we have found in most restaurants. Although it wasn’t particularly conducive with afternoon cycling, it was certainly quite an experience and exemplifies the kindness that has been shown to us across the board here.
A few days later, having accepted that this stage would be nothing more than getting from A to B as quickly as possible, we realised that we had the opportunity to leave the main road and wind our way through what was arguably the most rural part of china we have seen. The modern houses which seem to have sprung up everywhere in China in the last 20 or so years disappeared and even the sun came out! After an afternoon cycling through rice paddies and mountains we started to look for a place to camp. Usually, the most effective way of finding a spot has been to ask someone to sleep on there land however the locals in the area seemed quite suspicious of us, one child even counted Rory’s fingers to check he was human. We moved on accepting that we might have to spend a night in yet another guesthouse and as we cycled towards the town we stumbled across a small reservoir with a perfect patch of grass on the edge of it. Setting up camp here with the rain still holding off was definitely the pick me up we all needed!
Despite the few times this week where we found respite from the terrible weather and road conditions there is no doubt that this week has been tough. We have cycled 783 Km in six days, Rory got a puncture on the side of a motorway which, due to the pump breaking, took about three hours to fix in the pouring rain. After days on end spent cycling in sodden shoes that haven’t had a chance to dry all week and gloves that made our hands colder when they were on, we should all be miserable, but we aren’t! Spirits are high, our legs are growing at an alarming rate and we have Hanoi in our sights!
The team with Hongtao
Mountains and Motorways
As I write this, a week has past since we last spoke to anyone who had seen a foreign person in their town. Given that the favourite past time in this country seems to be playing cards on the side of the road, we think this information is fairly reliable. Since our last blog post we have cycled 800 km in 10 days and completed the first of seven stages of our journey (all be it the shortest) and this achievement has certainly lifted our moral. The early part of this section was spent cycling through the Mogashanzhen National Park which, although steep and tiring, provided us with some of the most incredible scenery that any if us have ever seen. As we started to pick up some momentum we had almost forgotten about industrial China when we were greeted with a 6 lane motorway lined on both sides by quarries, factories & rubbish dumps. Having spent a few days navigating yet more busy industrial Chinese towns we seem to finally have made it back out into the countryside!
Amongst the long days of cycling one thing that has really stood out in China is how unbelievably kind and generous people have been. Halfway through this stage we stopped for a rest day in a quiet lake side town called Jiangjiazhen, the owner of our hotel (Hongtao) invited us to dinner with his family and took us fishing on Chandong lake, despite not catching anything and Rory breaking the rod it was a great day! Sadly, this hospitality did not mix well with Rory who, after accidently eating turtle, spent the following day on the verge of death in bed!
Camping throughout this section of China has certainly not been easy! This is due to the fact that every inch of ground is either cultivated or developed (even the verge of the roads have some variety of crop growing). When struggling to find a campsite late one evening we decided to ask a local if they knew any suitable places we could camp. Fortunately, the first person we asked (Ling) invited us to set up camp on his driveway. He seemed very excited at the prospect of us staying at his house and couldn’t have been more hospitable. He cleared a space for the tents, gave us food, drink and hot water to clean ourselves. Even when we set up camp in a bamboo forest the next evening, the owner felt obliged to come out to find us to bring us oranges and chocolate as a welcoming gift.
Overall the last ten days have certainly been a success, despite a bit of illness and some tired legs everything is starting to fall in to place and we can’t wait to see what the rest of China has in store for us.
Chickens feet & Garmin troubles
After arriving in shanghai on the 4th of February and spending a few days exploring the city and seeing what it had to offer, amongst other things we realised we couldn’t accesses either Facebook or Gmail so it has been hard to keep in touch with everyone! As I write this we have completed our first three days of cycling and the theme has been problems with our Garmin (sat Nav). Our first two days were spent following large main roads (think hard shoulder of M25) through the Industrial Outskirts of Shanghai, which is definitely not somewhere that you want to be. At the time we thought that this was simply because of the sheer scale of the industry surrounding the city, however last night we realised that this was not the case. Our Sat Nav, although claiming to cover the whole of china, did not have the correct maps to take us on anything other than motorways! After hours trying to fix this last night we have had to settle for a Chinese Sim card in Phil's Iphone to use maps, and of course our own real paper map. Heading off this morning was nerve racking without our Sat Nav however soon enough the skyscrapers rolled back to reveal mountains, bamboo forests, lakes and tea plantations so the nerves took a back seat and the excitement has well and truly set in. The reality of just how far we have to cycle is starting to sink in, but moral is very high (despite the abundance of chicken feet in our food and our already incredibly sore arses) and we're looking forward to seeing what the rest of china has to offer on our way southwest towards Vietnam.
Finally made it to the mountains
Three Days to go! 31/01/16
“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.”
Sir Richard Burton
As the 3rd of February rapidly approaches, we felt it was time to write our first serious post about the trip. This project originated as a 2 week cycle in an attempt to stave of the dreaded desk for a that bit longer, things escalated slightly! Since this idea's inception we have put forward 3 different shelter designs and have planned no less than 6 different routes which, for one reason or another, did not work. There is no doubt that this process has certainly been a long and at times frustrating one, but when I look at the result of all that work I couldn't be more certain that it was all worth it. As I am writing this we have just reached out initial target of £30,000, to do this before we have even left is testament to the amazing support that we have received from so many people. Our aim with this project was to involve as many people as possible,
and convince people to donate, not because they felt they ought to, but because they believed in the project and what we were trying to achieve, and the response that we have had has been incredible!
As I sit writing this I can honestly say it is the most excited I have ever been about anything in my life, in just a few days time we will be embarking on what is, without question, the biggest challenge of our lives so far. Our route will take us through some of the harshest environments in the world, from below freezing temperatures in China, to searing 40 degree heat in Burma, many people I am sure would not see this as a cause to be excited, but I would have to disagree. My excitement lies in these extremes, in the highs and lows that we will experience on our trip,
because it is these extremes which are so often lacking from my own day to day life. There is no doubt that we will be tested more than any of us could ever imagine, but I speak for all our team in saying that we all relish the challenge of what lies ahead!
Next time I write in here we will probably be somewhere wet and cold in China, which is definitely more exciting than what I have done today, which is spend 5 hours trying to find a Chinese map for our navigation system, which I still haven't found! Looks like we will be using normal maps!
I will try and update the blog every week so if you do want to follow our progress make sure you come back soon!
Happy New Year everyone!
Its now only one month till we leave and we are getting pretty excited so thought we would give a little update about how its all going. We have finally got our flights booked for February 3rd and our Chinese Visas have been approved. We have now secured a site in Kathmandu and the shelter design is coming along nicely, we think the girls will be very happy with the result! Thank you to wonderful people who have already donated, every donation takes us that much closer to making this a reality.
Phil and I hit the road for our first outdoor ride last weekend, and ive got to say it made me realise just how tough a challenge this ride is going to be. Despite the fact that I (Rory) was on a light road bike with no gear I was still knackered at the end and was the most stiff i've been in years the day after. Phil on the other hand suffered a lot worse, and was forced to go to the doctor the next day, after he came of second best to his brand new, unworn in, leather saddle. Was awesome to get started and to be out on the bike finally, Really excited about the upcoming months and the trip itself. Only a few months to go now and we will be in shanghai and I personally Cannot wait!