Killing Fields

As I’ve travelled I have, much to my embarassment, been constantly surprised by my own lack of knowledge. We were already in Japan when I registered the land was 90 percent hills; in Africa I would realise it was not all a dustbowl and could be pretty chilly; in Cambodia I would learn more of the extent of the misery, torture and power of the Khmer Rouge. Nothing will ever prepare you for visiting The Killing Fields.

Just outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is an area called Choeung Ek. Nestled in among paddy fields, we rode down a bumpy, muddy track, passing children cycling to school and the usual hustle and bustle of village life. Our driver pulled in, under some trees and arranged to meet us there in two hours time. We had decided to visit what in essence was a scene of  great brutality. Around 17, 000 people (men, women and children) were brought to this extermination camp from a prison, known as S-21, where they had already been held and tortured.

While much of the site infrastructure (waiting rooms, tool stores etc) have long since gone, mass graves are clearly marked and a chilling audio guide leads you around. Steadfast on a communist ideal whereby cities were destroyed and peasant farming and manual labour were the standards being set to bring equality to all the Khmer Rouge led a war of unimaginable proportions. Teachers, foreigners, anyone who spoke more than one language , those who spoke up against them, took rice or belongings from the collective pool or it seemed anyone even with a vague association to any of the former were simply removed. While the exact figure is unknown estimates are as high as 3.5 million deaths (half the population).

8595 bodies were exhumed  at Choeung Ek in 1980 and as you wonder through what is now a quiet memorial site, clothing remnants, bones and teeth that continue to rise to the surface each year as rain disturbs the ground are displayed.

Thankfully  those arriving at the site were unaware of their fate.  They didn’t use bullets here but bludgeoned people to death and the audio guide played loud vitriolic songs that were blasted out alongside the noise of the generator to cover up the sounds of people screaming as they were killed.  I couldn’t listen to the audio. They had done too good a job of stimulating the noise of the environment. One grave housed many bodies that had been beheaded – thought to be soildiers who had raised objections- and the site marked a tree where babies heads were thrashed before being discarded. Again, the audio was turned off. It was too much for me.

In 1988 the Memorial Stupa was built on the site. In essence, a narrow tower, ten stories high displaying the skulls and bones of some 8000 people.

I had not been sure whether to visit The Killing Fields. The War Museum in Saigon had also been vivid in it’s portrayal of the Vietnam War and I saw only enough there to understand. Nothing is masked here. I had been ignorant of the full extent of the torture Pol Pott had inflicted and while The Killing Fields was far from being a pleasant experience this is history I am now much more aware of.

Lest we forget.

Cycling South East Asia

Despite the fact that my panniers contain guidebooks, each of a few hundred pages, for Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this blog acts as my overall write-up and guide to cycling in south east Asia.

When planning bike routes, given I am of course also a tourist, one of the first places I often start is by looking at the routes chosen by cycle tour operators in the region. I won’t know exact routes and don’t have access to support vehicles for bus transfers between areas where there may be little to see but the itineraries will give a sense of key places to visit, an idea of where there are places to stay and an indication of what’s possible in a given time period. Having been on one of these trips to Vietnam around ten years ago for a three week holiday I was also aware that just over three months to tour all of south east Asia would be a significant challenge. It would require  careful reading and selection, a good understanding of border crossing points  and possibly a train or two. As ever, I started off with a very optimistic plan and one that has been constantly adapted throughout this tour.

The original intention had been to cycle all the way from Singapore to Bangkok – it always felt like quite an iconic journey. We knew to avoid the border between Malaysia and South West Thailand though had no exact plan for this when we started and from Bangkok to Vientiane, in Laos we had always planned to take a train before riding to Vinh and up to Hanoi, in Vietnam, crossing the border at Lak Sao. As things turned out, some of this worked out as planned and some of it…well, it was changed either following further research, talking to other travellers or, in the case of one border crossing was a force majore.

So, as outlined in a previous  blog we left Singapore in a thunder storm, rode up through a very generous Malaysia and then made our way to Thailand. Given border complications we decided to take the boat option using a ferry from Langkawi to Saturn. However, given we arrived at a land border we had a visa in Thailand for only fifteen days. We didn’t want to detour to get this lengthened and so we would use public transport between Krabi and Hua Hin and then again, this time as planned, from Bangkok to Nong Khai. As it turned out this worked out for the better or we really would have run out of time here.

We were only due to be in Laos for a very short time but as soon as we arrived it felt so calm, comfortable and welcoming we wanted to stay longer. I love being in the hills and we decided to go to Luang Prabang and Vang Vien though yet again we had time for this only if we left the bikes behind. We would have to cheat. This was our trip after all.

One week later and we were back on the bikes making our way towards Hanoi. Some of my favourite days riding came as we pedaled our way to the border near Lak Sao. We were climbing and our route took us through beautiful paddy fields, past limestone crags and friendly villages. Just glorious. We also hit more rain and as we passed through muddy roads and landslides up to the border we had no idea that we would soon be riding back the same way. Vietnamese soldiers would not let us continue and border control showed us photographs on a mobile phone to explain why. The road ahead had actually slipped away in the rain leaving a gap of around two hundred metres. While a detour was possible by foot – a bamboo ladder and forest trek we later found out- they would not let us through with The Captain and Kylie. Back to Lak Sao; back to the drawing board; back on the bus!

Thirty six hours later and we were in Hanoi. More sightseeing, a trip out to Halong Bay and then another bus down to Dong Hoi. Well, we are tourists as well as cyclists and we were now really running out of time.

Our detour here came as we decided to visit Paradise Caves following a glowing recommendation from another traveller. The walk through the cave would go beyond the standard visitor route, following guides and headtorches through rivers in the cave, clamouring over rocks and getting wet. The cave was vast and it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t long been discovered with no previous signs of human visitors.

It was another fabulous tourist day though we were both very much looking forward to riding. We would follow the coast and highway one for a few days visiting Hue and Hoi An from where we hoped to cross back into Laos. It quickly became apparent that if we did this we would see nothing of Cambodia and so we changed plans again….

To make up time we would need to catch the train again and so after riding to Quang Ngai we caught the sleeper to Ho Chi Min City, still more commonly known as Saigon. Pedalling in from the station to find a hotel was such fun. There were so many scooters it seemed like chaos though actually traffic flowed very well. The only rule….”never don’t stop”.  Here, like in India, the horn is a must, the  only difference being the biggest vehicle is not automatically the one with right of way.  The little guy wins as bikes and scooters weave their way forwards advancing much more quickly than their larger counterparts.

Arriving on a high it would not be long before we would ride again in the mayhem on our way to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. While our time in Saigon had been slightly marred by a passing scooter rider trying to grab John’s camera we’d enjoyed the change of itinerary and, after two days riding we would be in the capital of Cambodia. Described as pancake flat I was surprised to be finding it so hard and on that second day was struggling badly in the first 10km. My legs wouldn’t work, I averaged only around 17km pr hr and it was only the fact that we had a hotel booked that meant I was determined to continue eventually making 120km. The next day I was reminded of the fact that I’m a girl on a bicycle though at least that served as explanation for the achy legs the day before. I had been worried this was a more serious lurgy.

We’re in Siem Reap as I write this having followed route six north and with sightseeing here now over we will head out by the border west of Battambang back into Thailand. Our south east Asia trip is drawing to a close. We’ve taken the train much more than expected, changed routes and plans on numerous occasions,  seen far less than we would have liked and despite being perhaps a little tired of rice and noodles would certainly love to return. Cycling in this part of the world is a real pleasure – you just need more than three months.

Five favourite climbs

It’s been around ten years since I last came to Vietnam, on a trip in fact that would ignite my interest in longer distance cycling. I was in my late twenties then and it’s fair to say my body was not a temple at the time…….unless Dionysus was involved that is. I still remember riding over the Hai Van Pass on that tour. It was baking hot, sweat bubbles collected between my skin and sun cream and on arrival at the top I was ready to collapse. Two cycle tourists past us that day and I remember commenting that they were absolutely mad. Today I rode the pass again and this time I too was a cycle tourist. While riding up, what for me would be a real pinnacle of our South East Asia tour got me thinking about my favourite climbs of the trip so far. While there were other notable climbs, including riding in Japan and the 36 hairpins up to Ooty, here then is my top five, in reverse order of course.

5. Hai Van Pass. Central coast, Vietnam

It was fifteen kilometres from our hotel in Lang Co to the peak of our climb today though we would be almost 5km in before the hill really started.  The road is itself a continuation of Highway 1 and the key road link from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Since my last Hai Van cycle attempt a new tunnel has been built (2005) and so while ten years ago the route was busy with scooters, coaches, lorries and cars today it is only scooters, oil tankers and bicycles that have to go over the top.  There are also still some tourist buses choosing this route though at least a warm welcome and cold drinks at the top are then guaranteed.

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With a gradient of up to 8% this was actually okay and as we passed the 10k mark I called to John that we were a third of the way – not bad maths – I thought it was a 15 km climb! In the end it took 1 hour 37 minutes riding time from hotel to peak though there were also a number of photo stops. By 21km we were at the bottom and the route down the other side was even more picturesque. Beachy enclaves, winding roads and the city of Danang far into the distance.

My altimeter showed a total ascent of just 476 metres so it was certainly not one of our longer hill rides. The ride will however always be remembered with a sense of progression, of improvement and therefore with a particular fondness. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again ….but I have said that before.

4.      USA

I will always remember this as one of my favourite ride days on a trip down from Seattle to San Francisco. Following the rugged, rocky outcrops along the Western coastline this day saw us climb        . While we had seen other long climbs on our tour south the roads were often penned in by trees. One of our biggest ascents – thd climb up from Standish Hickey- had no views at the top though there was a fabulous downhill. This road however hugged the ocean. Despite being narrow  and at times without a barrier between us and the long drop down the cliffs to the choppy waves below I loved this ride. The clouds below us creating a dreamy landscape and a real sense of being on top of the world. Despite obscuring the view at times it was amazing to ride high above the white mist, glimpses of the water poking through. Simply glorious.

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3. Alpe d’huez, riding to watch the Tour de France

We had some tough, long days as we cycled down from Epernay on our tour down to Southern Italy but we were determined to make it to watch the tdf. Having calculated distances and matched routes and dates of perhaps the world’s most famous bike races I wanted to soak up the atmosphere for real and we had decided that Alps d’huez was the best location to do this from. We would just have time to ride there and this year, for the tdf centenary racers would pass twice over this famous cycle challenge.

It’s around 18km to the top and my Garmin recorded an ascent of 1123m, average speed 5.8m km pr hour. While the route through France had seen a lot of undulating ( ie it was hilly) we had stayed to the West of the real mountainous area. While it would have been beautiful we would certainly have arrived too late to watch the pros. Our climb would start from Grenoble, staying first in Bourg d’Osian before heading off for Alps d’huez the following morning.

The town was packed. There were bikes everywhere. Most people were in lycra. I had never seen anything like it. The buzz was incredible and this is the reason this day makes it into my top five. The reality of this from a riding perspective was that it was incredibly busy, tough to restart riding on a steep part given finding a gap to traverse across the road to get going was nigh on impossible and, on heading downhill the following morning you could not let go off the brakes enough to enjoy any speed or ride wide enough to sweep the corners. However, who cares. I will always remember the shouts of ” chapeau”, “respect” and “I’m not sure I could do that” as I climbed, very slowly, with full pannier’s and camping gear to the top. Great memories.

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2. The Blue Nile Gorge

Unlike other rides this journey started with the downhill. After around 50km of steep undulations we would finally descend into the Blue Nile Gorge. This was the biggest climb day in a trip from Cairo to Capetown. By the time I left lunch to head into the gorge it was blistering hot. I set off with Irin but she was quicker uphill than me and while we would stop together for a cold drink on the ride up she was always just ahead.

I huffed, puffed, splashed my face with cold water from a little stream and genuinely, at times was not sure I would make it. While part of a supported trip so this was the only climb listed here where I had no bags to carry it was steep, scorching and followed an already hilly 50km ride. The heat had, early on, already meant other riders had decided this was a challenge too far. I have always been a bit strong willed though. I did not want to be defeated.

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The winning time from one of the Tour D’Afrique riders on this climb was 1 hour 23 minutes. I took 4 hours 7 minutes but at least I made it!

1. Throng-la, Annapurna circuit, Nepal

Where all the climbs listed above were completed in just a few hours this pass at 5416m was the epic ride of our tour. This climb would take days.

I’m not sure, in fact, I know, we had no idea what we were really letting ourselves in for. Crossing rivers, landslides, wobbly bridges, tree trunk bridges, waterfalls and cliff edges this was the toughest physical challenge we had both ever undertaken. They say ignorance is bliss – it certainly means you start and then want to complete something you may never have begun had you known what was coming.

The route followed a well known trekking route and after 5 days in was inaccessible by vehicle. It was very steep, muddy and rocky. Towards the end we would travel just 10km in a day, rising 800/900 metres. Pushing, carrying and riding our bikes. Determined to reach the top by all means necessary. For the eqivalent of two days this meant using porters due to illness (dodgy tum), difficulty (narrow, steep and carrying only) or altitude (the final day when breathing was a struggle).

I wI’ll probably never do this ride again, at least not on a touring bike with panniers but it will remain my proudest moment and my most favourite climb. I doubt this position in my favourite climbs will ever be topped…… but you never know.

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Usually the reward of a big climb is the long descent. Rolling round bends, hands ready on the brakes and feet resting on the pedals. However, despite my best climbs listed above only the USA ride and the Hai Van pass offered this reward. Alpe d’huez was too busy, the gorge downhill was on a very poor road preceeding the climb and the descent from Thorong-la was almost as tough as going up.

The top position for best downhill then so far has to be the hairpins we hit after our climb through the Alps as we crossed the border into Italy.

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Whoosh.

Crossing borders

So, here we are in Lak Sao, 32km from the Laos/Vietnam border. Better still, we have also found WiFi and in looking to write a new update I thought I may reflect for a moment. Border crossing days always set the mind thinking of what has passed and  what will lay ahead.  While never really needing to worry, a sense of trepedation at the form filling and acceptance required to push ahead there are, nevertheless, always slight fears of being stuck in no mans land. Despite this we have never yet had a problem.

I get excited every time we are set to enter a new country. I enjoy noting the differences in buildings and landscape, tasting different food and saying hello in another language. We are fortunate of course to have this ability to travel. For many people borders may mark a sense of what is not available, both flippantly in terms of say alcohol given a difference in law and maybe much more in terms of lifestyle and opportunity.

Border crossings are often hectic places….a real mix of paperwork and efficiency with the hustle and bustle of money changers, queues of lorries transporting various goods, bus and taxi drivers getting people to their destinations and shopkeepers selling all manner of goods and services. As we crossed from alcohol free Sudan into Ethiopia we were soon grabbing a cold beer and it seems with the numerous brothels also in that particular Ethiopian border town alcohol was not the only prohibition. Leaving Nepal quickly moved from well, relatively calm to the mayhem that is India and as we travelled through from France to Italy the long tough climb changed to the most fabulous downhill hairpin bends instead. I sense tomorrow will be much the same…..mountains do tend to form quite a good natural border!

Water is of course another of those natural boundaries and very sadly, while we’ve been away we have also seen many people die in a desperate bid to leave their own place of birth. Running from war, persecution and poverty the chance for a better life far outweighing the risks that lay ahead. I read stories of tunnels built in a bid to reach supplies, again past borders they are not allowed to cross and, in what is perhaps a reversal of not been allowed to travel far or at all, recently read a blog through facebook telling the story of a man it seemed who had been to too many different places, too many times and was now deemed with suspicion when crossing the USA. He was “returned” to Canadian soil.

For now it seems our only concern is the occasional bribe request and the need to find a pen that works as we trot out passport details, destination information and the inevitable dollars required. As we tour we often note that trips like this act as very valuable reminders of our relative fortune. Access to water and electricity while often the most critical we should also be reminded that travel itself is a huge privilege and despite the occasional moan about form filling we must not forget that many people cannot cross borders quite so easily.

Flexibility and freedom

One of the things I have always said I love about riding is the flexibility and freedom of being on a bike, with all you need to hand. Sadly, the news of being granted just a 15 day visa for Thailand would scupper this somewhat and as we set off from the ferry port at Satun, Southern Thailand. We knew we would have to cut short our time or aim for a Visa extension. Having just ridden through Malaysia were looking forward to completing the full ride from Singapore to Bangkok. Despite the other backpackers coming in from Langkawi thinking we were slightly nuts we were excited. There’s something about riding into a really big city I rather like – though we now needed to make some decisions on priorities given we still had the rest of South East Asia to discover and a flight booked from Bangkok on December 7th.

After much congitation and deliberation we made the decision that given we would be returning to Thailand before heading home for now we were going to leg it. We would ride to Krabi and then look at all means possible to enable us to arrive in Vientiane, Laos, from there. Riding into Bangkok was still something we wanted to attempt so how our journey would commence was now down to careful logistics. Time for me to pour over maps, investigate public transport and read about what we still may not want to miss despite having to leave Thailand sooner than originally anticipated. Eventually we decided to get the bus to Surathani and from there we would get the train to  Hua Hin, a couple of days ride South of Bangkok, before a final overnight train to Laos.

It’s funny how quickly freedom and flexibility turn into nooses and complications. Pedals and handlebars turned, wheels removed and we were soon loaded into a 4 x 4, heading for the bus. The coach would then take us, bikes and luggage to the train station where we would learn quickly how bikes and trains work in Thailand – web research seemed ok, we just needed it to be reality.

The coach left an hour late only to soon break down. We were sitting at the front watching the driver get more agitated as things didn’t quite work as they should. While anxious regarding delays and missing our train, I was pleased we would not do the whole journey behind an uptight guy with phone in one hand and a fag in the other! At least on my bike I’m a bit more in control. Eventually we swapped coaches, once more moving bikes, wheels and luggage from one vehicle to another. We were dropped off around 100 metres from the station entrance with an hour or so before our departure. Wheels re-attached, pedals and handlebars turned… it was time to find the luggage office. Right now the bikes were definitely nooses.

Fortunately it would not be this way for long. Loading a bike is as simple as completing a form and paying a small cargo fee  – if only we had proper luggage carriages like this back home. We arrived in Hua Hin, rested and did the tourist thing and then set off for Bangkok. It was great to be back on the bike though we would be in Laos when we finally found that sense of freedom again. The ride into Bangkok was amazingly straightforward and we would have just one night there before we would leave for Laos.

A new sense of calm actually started in Nong Khai. We stayed at a relaxed small guest house, the Mut Mee where we met two other cyclists. They talked highly of Laos, as had friends back home….there was now just the Mekong between us and..well, it. And  “it ” would not disappoint.

In our original route plan we would spend just a week or so there. Following a few days in Vientiane we would ride to Vinh, just over the border in Vietnam. However, freedom and flexibility were back and this time I would be pouring over maps and itineraries to see how we could spend more time here rather than less. So, we’re in Luang Prabang right now ( temporarily minus the bikes) and will call into Vang Vien before returning and continuing our original route. We will still ride parts of Vietnam but instead will return to Southern Laos, entering Cambodia from there before our final entry into Thailand.

At least that’s the plan for now -
and that’s what I love about this flexibility and freedom.

Selamat Datang Malaysia

“Welcome”, that’s what it means. You see it everywhere here….shops, hotels, restaurants and on entering new towns. For me it will really sum up my experience of Malaysia. This had been the most hospitable country we have travelled in so far.  Amazing.

It was on our second hotel check in, The Silver Inn at Batu Phahat,  that an old guy, struggling with his mobility, first approached us. “Welcome to Malaysia”. That was it. No long chat, Just a quick question to ask where we were from and he was off again. It had been an experience that has continued throughout Malaysia. Cars and trucks beep. Children wave and shout hello. Scooter riders chat at traffic lights. Random strangers show real acts of kindness and generosity.

We were on our way to Melaka where a local restaurant owner refused to charge us for breakfast. We had chatted to him as we tucked in to a typical Malay plate of rice, spicy sambhal and side dishes of fresh greens, peanuts and dried anchovies….toast here was rare!  Having studied himself  Glasgow and with a son also now in the UK there was plenty to talk about. On leaving he even supplied us with a selection of Malay sweets, flavoured with Rose essence and full of sugar…..perfect for a quick energy boost.

In addition to this we would continue to find that on two more occasions our breakfast needs were fully catered for. Another small family run, road side cafe refused payment and a second stranger, Hacheram,  bought us dosa and coffee at Batu caves. We were taken to dinner in Kuala Lumpur by Alexander, a facebook friend from the early days of the World Cycle Challenge and an old guy, who spoke no English and didn’t announce he was about to treat us, got us cold drinks on another refreshment stop.

People often ask us whether we feel safe as we make our journey. Do we not worry about robbers, of other vehicles etc etc. Of course, we are reasonably sensible….we avoid cycling in the dark, we are far from flashy and despite no wing mirrors I am pretty aware of what may be going on around me. While often warned to look our for the baddies it’s the goodies out there can really take you by surprise.It is so humbling to see such warmth and kindness being given to a complete stranger.

I am very much of the opinion that in embarking on any trip such as this, you have to take the view that most people in the world are good people. Regardless of money and personal circumstance the human race is generally kind and most individuals are proud of their country, their heritage and their people.

No one ever warned me to look out for the good guys but trust me, that can be just as scary.

Such kindness will never be forgotten.

20, 000km.

Wowsers. For the girl that hated sport at school this is a major miracle.

I was excited last night as I headed to bed. We were staying in a pretty rough and ready hotel, in a pretty general town with a pretty exciting day ahead. Give or take a few km and a bit of estimation here and there, this was the day I had calculated we would reach our 20, 000km target. We would be on route to Kuala Lumpur and somewhere around Klang, on the Western coast, we would reach what was our km marker.

I’d tried to get a banner printed -a souvenir to mark this sense of occasion. However, with just overnight stop overs in previous days this had not been possible. At least we’d get a glass of wine tonight.

The route into Kuala Lumpur would never be easy. Heading into a big city never is. In this case Google maps only saw toll roads and we only saw routes that looked like highways and out of bounds to us. We would just have to wing it.

We set off leaving Banting at around 730am. After 10km we spotted a convenient Indian coffee stop…sweet coffee, paratha and Dahl called. Breakfast. Ah.

Relaxed we were ready to continue our journey but as we looked outside to the never altering grey sky and felt the change in the air from our food stop seats we knew we would be in for an interesting journey.

While intellectually aware we were arriving at the end of the wet season, psychologically, we had not expected rain with such a regular occurrence. We were about to be drenched again. Seriously, there was more rain coming from the sky than we had seen fall from many a shower in our cheap hotel rooms. This was not just the end of the monsoon season. This was the monsoon season.

As water built up in our shoes, swooshing around our toes with each pedal stroke and levels rose as we splashed through hot water puddles, we smiled. We were about to say we had cycled 20, 000km. Who cares if our clothes had seen more water from passing trucks so far than they ever had in a laundromat. We were living the dream. Honest.

On approaching Klang it was obvious we were going to need to ask directions. The highway really did look out of bounds and we were stuck. Pulling in to a nearby garage we not only found hot coffee but also WiFi and a guy willing to help us plan a route. Out with the iPad and we soon had a plan. The highway it seemed had a separate motorbike/scooter lane we could use and while closed in parts this certainly made our ride much easier.

Despite a few 6 lane sections where we had to pray, join the traffic and ride for our lives the journey was relatively easy. With no  traffic-lights, no pedestrians and little else to concern us we really could up the tempo. I was still smiling. 20, 000km. Amazing.

After numerous stops to navigate and find our accomodation we eventually arrived at the Swiss Hotel…..not the posh one! We checked in, then moved rooms then returned this evening to find our power gone. (though quickly retrieved). Oh, the glamour of it all.  We did celebrate briefly with a beer from the 7-11 and a glass of wine for dinner. All in all….not bad.

It’s interesting reflecting back. Who would have ever thought a journey with a bloke you’ve only met three times would go on so long? Crazier still, we still have many more km planned. Who knows maybe we”ll celebrate another 20, 000km yet.

Just the two of us

With the exception of ten days in South Africa and three days in Italy, John and I had not ridden just the two of us since December 2012. Most of our trip in Africa had been with anywhere between 60 and 90 other folk. Through Italy and France we had been joined by Thijs, a Dutch rider we had met on that Africa trip. While meeting new people is a real joy of travel the addition of new folk to what has, over time, become quite a set dynamic can also be difficult.

In Africa it took me a while to adjust, slowly finding new people to ride with so John could go at his more natural pace, rather than having to wait for me. On our European leg it was noticeable that increasing our group size by 50 percent led to subsequent compromise and adaptation. While there are of course also many bonuses to being joined by others it’s also good to be back to our “routine”.

As Director of Strategy it’s my job to plan overall directions, assess risks and opportunities and propose outline ideas. For example, on our current trip I outlined a general route from Singapore to Bangkok, determine how best to cross through into Thailand (parts of the border are deemed unsafe by the Foreign office and Lonely planet) and read the guidebook to collect suggestions on places to visit along the way. I usually follow this up with plane and hotel bookings, getting insurance cover and acting as tour guide. While travelling I take on the role of accountant – keeping hold of kitty money and a financial tally if needed.

John is much more the do-er… Director of Operations. An expert at bike assembly and dismantling, trained chef, chief maintenance engineer and detailed route planner. Rarely have I needed to put air in my tyres and on arriving and leaving our destinations John will help with luggage as needed. Trust me, while I can be a stubborn and independent soul, this is much appreciated after a long day in the saddle. While travelling John will keep detailed records of distance, locations and places visited. In Africa he was renowned for being up to date in his little black book and I would often need to borrow it, collecting information in a more retrospective fashion.

When it comes to PR we share responsibility. I keep business cards and look after external promotion – John is the photographer. We both keep blogs but while I may look at a press release John is busy sharing photographs and experiences with friends back home.

Other than the fact that I’m a little slower we seem to have made great travel partners despite having met only three times before our journey began. We couldn’t do the trip without each other…or finding someone else and then hoping we both fall into complimentary roles, working to our strengths and doing what we enjoy. Sometimes we have tough days but for now I’m just chuffed that we’re still going and plan to do more.

Reaching the 20,000km target.

Most people reading this will know the story of this adventure. In summary, I was finishing work, had signed up for the World Cycle Challenge (later cancelled), then planned a 12 month trip with complete stranger. We were aiming to ride 20,000 km over 5 continents in 12 months and I would be raising money forThe Homeless World Cup.  Unfortunately, my mom then got ill so, following a second initial cancellation,  the trip then changed to various five month journeys heading home between. The target to cycle 20,000km of course over 12 months remained.

John and I eventually started our ride in July 2012 and one year later we’re still going and 19, 178 km later we arrived in San Foca, Southern Italy.Our final destination in this part of our trip. We will be in South East Asia when we hit 20,000km.

I first learnt that John had never pitched a tent as we started our journey in Seattle. However, despite this minor lack of experience we were both soon experts at our daily camp routine and after 1812 km we arrived at San Francisco. This part of our trip was always intended as the easy intro as John and I got used to travelling, riding and each other. We had met only three times before that.

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Despite some hot climbs we would be in Japan when the first tests really started. It was sticky, sweaty and very hilly. It took a few days before we would recognise the Japanese characters for hotel and consequently ended up stuck for accommodation on a few occasions. Food was expensive and while we did indulge we eventually become familiar with the full range of pot noodles on offer.

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Following a stop over in Hong Kong we would soon be signing up for what we both would find the most physical challenge we had ever undertaken, despite running marathons and of course the miles on the bike. While Japan was hot and hilly, Nepal was mountainous and wet. Only as we ended our tour did our guide say that we were the only people he had known or known of to take touring bikes and panniers over the Thorong-la pass. Rain, cold showers, diarrhoea, painfully sore feet,precarious bridges and altitude being just some of the regular challenges we would face to this mountain pass standing at 5416m. While the usual reward for a climb is a fabulous downhill in this case it would prove even harder as we held firmly onto our bikes that were determined to reach the bottom before we would!

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Two months around India followed. This was my third trip to a country that I love and that has been a big influence to me. It was great to be back and even better to be there on my bike. The opportunity to explore and travel outside key tourist areas, eat local food and really experience Indian hospitality and kindness leaving me once again with a desire to return. That was then the end to our first “stage”.

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It was good to be home yet also strange to be without my cycle buddy. Soon we would join a further fifty riders as we began our journey from Cairo to Capetown. I found it very hard at times to make the adjustment from independent riding to a supported tour. Despite this we arrived in Capetown and while  I enjoyed feeling free again as we headed off around the Western Cape on our own I had appreciated the support of our group and the new friends we had made. An amazing experience.

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We’re in Italy as I write this. Full of reflection on the year that has been. Full still of excitement of the year that is to come. Putting off being full of nerves of what will come next.

I noted in my last blog that while this was primarily a personal journey I was also raising money for The Homeless World Cup. I hope if this journey has been inspiring or if you recognise that riding Thorong-la, the length of Africa or Alps d’huez with panniers has made you think “woah” that this may transpire into a small donation. The Homeless World Cup 2013 has just taken place in Poland. While not a big football lover myself I do love to see the difference this tournament makes. I like that it’s real. Simple ideas making a massive difference.

www.bikemind.co.uk/fundraising

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Surely riding 45km naked through Namibia deserves some sponsorship!!

The road to recovery…tarmac and the economy.

The roads changed dramatically and with immediate effect as soon as we passed over the border into Italy. While a continuation of the same piece of tarmac it was hard now to avoid a variety of potholes, sunken drains and bumpy repairs. Given the thinking time a bike ride then allows you it made me start thinking about the places we have travelled and what the roadside view can tell us of the local economy.

In terms of GDP listings for 2013 it is the USA that comes out on top; Japan is third and they would both certainly fair well in the tarmac states too. Nepal (105) had fallen down bridges, often based on bribes for poor workmanship. India (10th) faired well unless taking local shortcuts and roads were great through France (5th) and then we crossed the border( Italy, 9th)

It is of course not so simple to say a good road equals a good economy but we know and can see from Africa that a lack of basic infrastructure means an economy that is very slow to grow. While the big multi nationals can find a away to make this work if it’s worthwhile ( I think particularly here of Coca-Cola and their ability to get soft drinks/water to the most remote villages) it is this lack of transport links that is one reason why product all stays local and export/import is much more difficult.

Without doubt our worst roads to date have been around Napoli. In addition to the many potholes and drains we have also been dodging litter from uncollected waste. We have seen more broken glass in this short section of our ride than the rest of our trip put together. Lawlessness and a real attitude of not caring or being unable to do anything to fix problems in this area only adds to a country struggling economically. As we made our way on the cobbled streets towards Pompeii I couldn’t help but think of the great Roman roads of time gone by.

Ironically our best road to date was in Sudan (71). Mile after mile of fresh, smooth tarmac. It was of course also one of the poorer areas we travelled through yet here comes China, 2nd on the gdp list…for it is they who made this investment.

Aside from potholes I am also interested in entrepreneurialism given my previous work in this field. We don’t see many street stalls randomly placed in the UK. Inevitably you would need permission, a license and entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of get up and go. To some degree we have made it both too easy and too hard for people. In India, Africa and Italy we cycled past numerous stalls selling fruit and vegetables, see pop up stalls of souvenirs, cleaning products, sunglasses etc. In Africa supplies even came to us on local scooters or donkey carts. In the UK this is harder to find. It’s also why things like The Big Issue are great ideas. Entrepreneurial activity isn’t just about money. It says much more than that.

Of course this is all just a way of words to some degree – you can find correlation if you’re looking for it. that said, given we still have countries to ride through that fall much further down the list I rather selfishly hope they too may have had a little tarmac investment. Cambodia is at 119…..

…… suspension please!