Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mingalaba, so very far

12-17 Jan, Myanmar, 641 km

This ride is the most memorable in more ways than one:
  • My 20th expedition
  • 10th and final country I cycle in Asean
  • Get in trouble not once, but twice. The marvellous people of Myanmar offer help even before I ask them for it
  • Longest fully-loaded distance cycled on this trip: 203 km, on fat tyres
  • More than a year in the making. I’d planned to go in end 2015; my friends requested I postpone it to 2016, which came and went. So I go solo instead.
Day 1, 12 Jan 56 km, Mandalay. A nightmare would be to ride into a horse at night. Or is it a cow? Dogs, pedestrians, cyclists, even some trucks, are on the road without lights. Did I say "road"? Sometimes I can't tell where the road ends and roadside begins. I emergency brake twice, once to avoid two people walking side by side with one of them pushing a bicycle).

It's supposed to be a simple recce. Things get complicated when motorcyclists go against traffic flow. In the dark, I must have taken a slip road instead of the main road and end up on backroads. "Mandalay?" I point and repeat at every junction to get back on track. 

How did I end up cycling at night? Partly because I was umable to arrange a van to the hotel. First I buy a bus ticket but the driver refuses to move until more people board. One passemger refuses to wait any longer. I leave too, get a refund and the bus crew carry my bike box to a taxi: a hatchback. Yay! 

Nightstop: Win Star Hotel. Not bicycle friendly: no bike allowed in room. But I have a bike box, so that's fine.

Blinded by the light
Day 2, 13 Jan 163 km, to Nyaung U. Last night's night ride was useful. Having gotten lost on backroads in the dark last night, I'd be confident to ride in the dark today, right? Wrong.
I end up riding at night not just because the road is long.
There are climbs too.
Note absence of reflective white line beside the road,

Last night, I never got blinded by lights from oncoming traffic as the roads I was on were wide enough (dual carriageway) or were narrow with little traffic (backroads). Tonight, on a narrow road, lights from oncoming traffic are so blinding, I can't see where I'm going.  I can’t see the roadside; there might be debris, holes, pedestrians and/or animals there. But traffic behind me wants to pass so I've to go near the edge.

I stop to eat sweets for dinner so I can keep going. A local comes to talk to me.

This is the first time in my life I quit a ride because I'm scared. I figure I'd 60 mins or 17 km more to go. It is dark, so I can't go fast. In any case, it’s too risky, too scary. All tragedy needs is split second, and there are countless split seconds in 60 minutes.

A loser's prize: sunset on the road
I blurt out "taxi". The local calls one. While waiting, he offers me chair, coffee and cigarette. I accept
the chair. He helps me dismantle my bike, even holding it up so the fork drop outs don’t touch the dirt. When the taxi comes, he helps me load it onboard. He isn't the only kind soul today.

Earlier today, at a petrol kiosk, I buy a lukewarm Coke then a cold bottle of water. The cashier waves it away, and waives payment for the water.

Nightstop: Royal Diamond Motel for three nights. It’s not cycling friendly: no bikes allowed in my room. At first, I'm told to put my bike outside the lobby. I ask a hotel official to let me put it indoors below the stairs. He smiles and agrees. 

Low battery, high mountain
Day 3, 14 Jan, 102 km. Old and New Bagan, Mount Popa. If my bicycle was in my room, I might have noticed it and fixed it sooner rather than in the morning when I went to my bike outside the room.

Old Bagan
When I push my bike into the morning light, I see a low battery indicator on my cyclometer. I replace the battery. The gadget resets. I lose my data and settings. After fiddling unsuccessfully, I decide to ride. Daylight is precious.

Old and New Bagan are fairly straightforward. The challenge is approaching Mount Popa, all 1,500m of it. The slopes around it wear out visitors before the final assault. I draft a man and kid on an e-bike. It is quiet and the rider friendly. He tells me the way to Popa.

Along part of the hot dusty road, some people, young and, male and female, squat in the shade. Why? As I climb past, some say hello. With perhaps 10 km to go, I turn back so as to leave ample daylight hours to return to base. When I speed downhill, I see and understand what's going on. Sometimes, passengers at rear of passing pickup trucks throw money at them. Paper money scatters over the road and people run to gather them, oblivious to a certain cyclist who might have rolled downhill in another sense.

I take time to rest. At a petrol kiosk, the attendant offers water, then pulls out a stool for me. The journey has one more surprise. A motorcyclist ahead stops, then U turns in my direction to go against the flow of traffic ie against me. We almost crash into each other.

At the hotel, a girl is alarmed when I attempt to use tissue paper to clean my drivetrain. She produces an old towel and asks me to use it instead.

Honourable surrender
Day 4, 15 Jan, 93 km, Pakokku. The best roads I've cycled on so far are here. Smooth asphalt is balm for the butt, as jolts from rough roads are a literal pain in tbe ass.

I marvel at the bridge over 4 km long across the Irrawaddy River.

On the way back to base, I pass where I bailed out on Fri the 13th. I couldn't have chosen a better place to quit, not that this crossed my mind when I stopped. A kind soul and a bamboo platform to keep the fork dropouts off the dirt when I removed my front wheel to fit into a taxi coming to my rescue. Looking at the route in daylight, it’s a honourable surrender. There are climbs, and the road twists and turns. This is not confirmation bias, it's confirmation. Physically and mentally tired, I’m likely to have become hopelessly lost.
Cyclist loves calories. All
this for less than USD1

Dogs are everywhere but they are a benign presence. Most don't even bark, much less chase hapless cyclists.

More chilling than dogs is wearing damp clothes in the 15-degree morning. I wash my clothes in a pail and soap from the hotel, then hang them in the sun on the hotel clothesline. Will tomorrow give me the Monday blues? I've so much on my mind, I forget to pay for dinner until I'm called back.

To help the hotel staff, I suggest I "check out" tonight instead of at 6 am tomorrow. The hotel staff are nice enough to pass me breakfast in advance.

Monday blues
Day 5, 16 Jan, to Mandalay, 203 km. The morning is cold. So cold, people bundle up in layers of clothing and light fires by the roadside to keep warm. Me, I’m in tropical cycling gear. The cold drives me to ride hard not just to keep warm but to cover distance. In the dark, I make the correct turns, thanks to my recce yesterday. I even avoid the unlighted barrier at a toll road (about 10 km out, past the petrol station uphill).

Sometimes, the road is straight like an arrow but not here
But then things go south (metaphorically and literally). I miss a turn. Possible reasons: the turn looks like a dirt road not a main road, and I’m happy to draft a truck for 18 km (10% of the supposed distance). A few km after I’m supposed to have passed a certain major junction, the road goes on and on, straight like an arrow. I play Status Quo in my head.

I stop at a shop in Myittha to refuel. The shopkeeper shows me Google map to show me where I am. I slap my head: the place I’m headed for, Tada U, has an identical twin. When I stop to check directions and people nod, I’m going to the wrong Tada U about 45 km in the south.

Rather than backtrack, I head for the road that takes me to Mandalay. The road is long. I stop to eat. Kids gather. I pull out my phone to confirm where I am, then keep riding. By now, it is dark. The road is wide, so I’m not blinded by the lights from oncoming traffic. When traffic overtakes me, I pedal faster to take advantage of their wide beams. At a petrol kiosk, I stop to check my bearings. There’s still a long way to go: perhaps another 1.5 hours. I ask for a taxi. To my dismay, the lady in charge says no taxi will come from Mandalay (is it that far?). But a motorbike taxi is available. Ok, I say. Motorbike lights the way, I’ll draft behind it. It’s quite a wait. The lady pulls out a chair for me, then another chair to serve as a table for bananas and “zee” (a fruit), and a bottle of cold water. She refuses to take payment. “A present,” she says.

Two guys walk over: Emmanuel and John Paul from World Vision. They assure me and keep me company till the motorbike taxi arrives. It has a side car! My bike is tied onto it and off we go. The night air is cold. After what feels like an hour, in which the locals get a little lost, we arrive at my hotel.

Morning mayhem
U Bein Bridge, world's longest teak wood bridge
Day 6, 17 Jan, Mandalay, 25 km. Let's go sightseeing during morning rush hour before departure. I figure the rule of the road is: give way to whoever isn't looking your way. Sometimes that happens as things move from multiple directions. This is, after all, a right hand drive society in a left hand drive place.

I find my way to U Bein Bridge, then gingerly ride back to the hotel. My butt is on its last legs. Saddle sore? Haw haw haw. The real deal is to ride till raw.

At the hotel, I want a quick bite and ask the way to a convenience store. Someone from the hotel gets me there on a motorbike and back. Just like that, all for me. I've not experienced such hospitality before.

I box up my bike and ask for a hatchback taxi. The hotel gets me a van to myself for the same price as a taxi: MMK12,000. At the airport, after x-ray, the security officer grabs a trolley and loads my bike onto it. I've never experienced this in other airports.  

  • Traffic drives on the right hand side but road infrastructure is for left hand drive. So, bus doors may open onto traffic side (left) instead of curb side (right). To make a left turn at a X-junction, traffic cuts onto oncoming traffic twice.
  • Road signs are lacking even for major junctions. Where there are signs, they are mostly in local language. Sometimes, there are milestones on major roads
  • Tissue paper at dining tables is rough and stretches like crepe bandage. Often, there is free flow of tea, free.
Equipment failures
  • Compass points west
  • Cyclocomputer resets, most settings (including wheel size) lost. So distance readings are off
  • Bottle nozzle breaks. It no longer squirts. That really sucks

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