Biking 12 000km from Singapore to Hong Kong in 180 days

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Vietnamese women
Beautiful, but tougher than tough and the real workers of the country – it appeared that the men spend their days mostly gambling or sipping super-strong Vietnamese coffee or rice wine.

Two girls in flowing and flattering silk Au Di - we gape as they cycle past, cool and beautiful – Gill and I sweating and full of dirt and grime and grease

An industrious tour guide working the canals of Hoi Ann

An old lady hawking her wares on the beach from dusk to dawn in 40-degree heat

A woman drawing her nets before sunrise – hoping for a good catch

A fisher-woman waterproofing her basket-boat

A sea-gypsy pedalling her wares

When their hands grow tired, the women row their skiffs by foot

The cities and towns
In some towns the buildings are curiously tall and narrow to evade property tax

A real Rocky Horror hotel on the coast

Hoi Ann, the town of a thousand tailors and of old-world charm – like photographs should be shot in black-and-white and sepia

In Saigon and Hanoi the pavements and streets are packed - the roar of hundreds of thousands of motorbikes a inescapable

In coastal towns fleets of thousands of fisher boats crowd the harbours

And in some rural towns the only sound is the wind in the trees

The landscape
Vietnam’s natural beauty is breathtaking – not grand and vast like Laos or lush and picturesque like Thailand, but rather bizarre and haunting …
Hiking the The Red River Valley in the south

Finding peace and quiet in the early-morning dunes outside Mui Ne

Boating the underground rivers and majestic cave systems of Phong Nha

These limestone caves are considered to house the world’s longest subterranean rivers

Biking along 3000km of pristine coastline – Chapman’s Peak on steroids

Paddling among Karst formations on inland lakes

...And most spectacular of all, sailing on a scooner among the thousands of bizarre rock formations dotting Halong Bay

The food

The surest way to die in Vietnam is to be a vegetarian… The menu spanned the full range of God’s creatures – ducks and eels and pork and crabs and tortoises and chickens and cats and camels and dogs and slugs and snakes.

The Vietnamese are renowned for their coffee – a super-strong, thick, black brew served on a bed of thick, sweet condensed milk and chased down with a pot of green tea – yummy stuff…

Hot baguettes form the basis of a good Vietnamese breakfast – often stuffed with pig lard and chillies and minty greens.
Hot Dog – a restaurant advertising its speciality

Refrigeration is an early-morning business – at dawn hawkers buy big slabs of ice to keep their produce from spoiling in the brutal heat.

The motorised scooter is king in Vietnam, but followed closely by the time-honoured bicycle.

There is no limit to what the Vietnamese will load on the back of a bike…a young man transporting his lounge suite
Scooters for rent for less than R20 a day provided an ideal way for us to see sights far off our main route

Friday, March 30, 2007

What an eye-opener – austere, old and guarded, yet bustling with new energy, stirring like a giant from its long slumber, agnostic of the West and of English, driving remorselessly forward towards the promise and power of wealth.
“China eats at 6,” they say of the daunting collective mindset – the entire nation moving and working as one – like an army of ants on the march – unstoppable.

It got cold – really cold
The icy Himalayan winds intensified – the days were suddenly short, offering no more than 8 hours of daylight, the morning temperatures plummeted to sub-zero – Gill hovered on the brink of pneumonia.
We were tired – our eyes sore from the howling wind and from seeing so much. We craved rest – repose – to be still.

The endless road
After Vietnam’s noise and chaotic traffic the Chinese roads felt ominously quiet – except for the ever-present wind.
Lunch on a deserted highway
Relishing the winter sun
Taking shelter from the wind in an abandoned old warehouse

Late on a chilly winters afternoon – still far to go to the nearest town and no guarantee that we would find a room or bed there for the night.

The Language-barrier
In rural China nobody, but nobody seemed to understand a single word of English. And soon we realised how very presumptuous our expectation that they would. To the Chinese, China is the centre of the Universe – English and the West simply do not exist or at best are vague notions easily ignored. It was quite refreshing actually…tough, but refreshing.

Navigation was tricky for the route markers were in all written in Mandarin
Since we couldn’t read the route markers we bought a Mandarin map and simply pointed to our destination when asking for directions

The food
And because of the language-barrier we rarely knew what we were eating – we pointed at unidentified slabs of meat, watched as the chefs flamed their woks, said grace and gratefully loaded our bodies with bowls of oil-drenched stirfry, steaming rice and warm, thick, oily soups.

Below a typical stir-fry-pick-a-mix, including fresh, splayed cat.

A A mobile Hot-Dog stand along the way – offering golden, crispy, barbequed mongrels

A live menu – Gill harbouring thoughts of rescue as so many times on our journey

We consumed on average two to four kilograms of fruit a day

Bananas and condensed milk - a firm favourite

In the late fifties Mao Tse Tung embarked on an industrial revolution to boost China’s progress. He ordered ridiculous quotas of steel to be produced by every little village, town, school and community. In desperation to meet the quotas the Chinese melted everything they could lay their hands on - farm implements, hospital beds, pots and pans – farmers stopped planting to hunt for scraps of iron. Two years later 30 million Chinese starved to death.

Below a picture of the thousands of disused furnaces for melting steel – an ominous reminder on the outskirts of every small town, village and city.

The impact of the communist regime is still palpable everywhere. The older people stared at us with open suspicion, or sometimes even contempt. Some motels were reluctant to take us in for the night, as foreigners were until recently not allowed to stay anywhere but in designated (over-priced) hotels. Internet cafes are desperately scarce and access is restricted to sites approved by the State. And finally square, regimented apartments provide State-approved accommodation, while ugly, grey factories still provide employment to thousands.

The People of China
The youngsters are full of hope and ambition, eager to exchange ideas and practice their English – many a night barging into our hotel room to chat, ignoring our very evident fatigue. See pic: Every night we abandoned our filthy shoes for the dubious footwear supplied by even the dodgiest hotels.
In stark contrast to the youth the older generations carry the scars of their great suffering and kept us at a safe distance.

But the Chinese people are rising again. They labour tirelessly – chasing after wealth and the hope of better times. When it comes to hard manual labour there is no distinction between men and women

In rural China entire families are out on the fields, planting, pruning, plucking, watering…you are never too young or too old to do your share.