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Greetings from Japan, I left Cairns one day behind schedule, on 4th October and in style, en-route for Japan via Malaysia. I have not had the pleasure (or the resources) to fly first class before, but on our flight to Malaysia yours truly was given VIP treatment of the first class upper section of a Boeing.747. This area is normally reserved for Odyssey staff, but on this flight the extra space was allocated to the select few who have ridden every mile since Jan. In addition, space was allocated for the most senior members of the group, which is where I discovered that there were only 4 folk older than me (is that possible I thought). However we arrived in Japan after two flights and WITHOUT our CYCLES
This section of Odyssey 2000 has been fraught with complications. The transfer of 240 bodies, bikes, plus luggage ran into problems before we left Australia. It is not clear if the complications were logistical, diplomatic, or political. I suspect one of the latter. Changes to the Odyssey Itinerary were given to us at a meeting in Cairns on the 2nd. We were advised that the Malaysian Boeing 747 (charter) that we will be using from now till December was unable to obtain landing clearance in Japan.
Arising from this our Malaysian Boeing 747 took the bikes and us to Kuala Lumpur, where we were split into two schedule Japan Airline flights to Osaka.
Two days later we were informed that the bikes were still in Malaysia. There was also a possibility that if they were brought into Japan there was no guarantee they could be taken out on the date we were due to leave for Hong Kong en-route for China. Having had a few days off the bike in Australia I was looking forward to getting back in the saddle. This was not to be, as our itinerary for Japan has now become a coach tour
The initial reaction of all concerned after 9 months and over 40 countries was that we are about to undergo a major culture shock, not just in Japan but also over the next 5 weeks. It will not now happen in Japan but I do not relish the prospects of cycling 130 odd Kilometres on a bowl of rice and noodles.
For the benefit of those not familiar with this area Japan consists of 4 major Islands, which stretch less than 1000 miles. 80% of the 124 million population (just under half the USA) reside within the central Island of Honshu, which is where our itinerary takes us. There are over 3000 smaller mainly volcanic islands and over 60 active volcanoes. There is a history of major earthquakes occurring around every 60 years. (With one overdue)
At the time of writing this I am still in Japan, where a coach tour with 230 cyclists was something none of us anticipated. As someone said it's all part of the adventure, albeit a very expensive one as we are finding out, the cost of living here is one of the highest (after Norway).
Following our arrival in Japan at Kansai International Airport at Osaka we were
faced with a 2 hour plus coach journey to our Hotel in Kyoto. This was one
stretch of road, which very few cyclists would wish to venture on. The
bulk of this journey covered a densely populated and industrialised area.
We were booked into our Hotel for 2 nights giving us a free day to explore Kyoto, which has the reputation of being the major cultural centre of Japan.
The first impressions of Kyoto as with other major Cities in Japan are the glare of neon by night, and large-scale urban ugliness. However the beauty of this City is there if you have the time to seek it out. As usual our time was limited, to a 4 hour (English) guided walk, which covered one of the largest Buddhist Temples in Japan.
Whilst Kyoto has it's eyes on the future, it's past is very much in evidence. It was the Imperial Capital from 794 to 1868. There are more than 2000 temples and shrines, 3 palaces and dozens of gardens and museums.
There are always aspects of life in a new country which one cannot fail to notice. In my case it was that drivers of one fleet of taxis are very smartly dressed with white gloves and bow ties. The other aspect was that the doors to hotel bedrooms are considerably smaller than those in Western Hotels. Then there are the restaurants, which display the menu and price in the window in the form of a plastic meal. In our case it meant taking the waiter to the window to indicate our choice.
The itinerary from Kyoto took us to coastal Town of Amanohashiddate on the North West of the island. This we were told was a popular tourist attraction; with another rest day ahead and with no bikes it was time for some serious walking. It was at the end of a long and hilly walk that I had the great pleasure of being introduced to a Japanese Bath House. The facility we were advised was part of a large hotel complex where 4 of us presented ourselves at the reception. This will be my last update from Japan, and as promised in the previous one I will now extol the virtues and gory details of a Japanese Bath House.
Having paid our 800-yen entry fee (Approx 5 pounds) we were ushered to the rear of the Hotel and the entrance to the Bath House. At this point we were required to remove our footwear and given a pair of sandals. We then passed into the male changing rooms where ALL of OUR clothes were placed into a basket and exchanged for 2 large and 1 small towel.
At this point I began to feel rather vulnerable but as I was not alone, so I thought 'when in Rome (or Japan)' etc. It was then into a large room with marble tiles to the floor and walls. Around 3 sides of this room were shower fittings 1 metre above floor level, with a mirror above? and below was a low plastic stool together with 2 containers of body soap and shampoo. In the absence of other bathers we would have been dubious as to the next procedure. Luckily for us there were numerous honorable gentlemen of all ages sat at the stools in various stages of soaping and showering their bodies. Some were shaving, hence the mirror. Having cleansed our bodies we then entered a long narrow hot bath filled to a depth of around 4 feet. At the end of this bath was a glass sliding door.
Following a relaxing 15-minute soak, our curiosity got the better of us and we ventured through the sliding door. At this point I did rather feel that one bath indoors was OK, but to go outside for another did seem to be overdoing it. Having said that the surroundings were very relaxing. There were a bench seats scattered around an open courtyard with senior Japanese businessmen deep in conversation with nothing but a very small towel to cover their modesty. The hot bath to one side of the courtyard was oval shaped with fountains and rocks. There was a sloping garden and trees beyond, all of which was floodlight.
We all agreed at the end of our second soak in the open that this was indeed a very civilised and sociable way to spend an hour or two.
There were 2 more days left of our coach tour in Japan with the penultimate night stop at an idyllic island by the name of Miyajima. This island is a very short ferry ride from Hiroshima where we spent 3 hours to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which I found to be a very moving experience.
Anyone under 10 years of age on 6th August 1945 (I was 13 on this date) can be forgiven for not knowing that at 8.15 am on this date Hiroshima fell victim to the world's first atomic bomb. Arising from this tragic event there is today only one building in the center of the city which pre-dates 1945. The building known as the A-Bomb Dome is just across the river from the Memorial Park. It was, prior to 1945 the Industrial Promotion Hall until the bomb exploded directly above. The intense heat rays and blast caused by the bomb crushed and burnt every building within 2 Kilometers of the epicenter. The propped up ruins of the A Bomb Dome have been left as an eternal reminder of the tragedy.
By the end of 1945 when the effects of radiation had subsided it was confirmed that up to 140,000 lives had been lost. It is to be hoped that future generations will be reminded of this tragedy to prevent it ever happening again. On this somber note I take my leave of you at mid-day on 12th October as we leave Japan en-route for China.
What a contrast from Japan, there are major social and economic problems facing both countries which one cannot fail to notice. Japan has an ageing population and a falling birth rate. The high cost of living has put many young people off marriage, buying a house and having children. Experts are advising the government to relax the stringent immigration laws.j
China on the other hand has a population explosion to the extent that family size is restricted to one child. That is difficult to appreciate considering the thousands of young children we encountered in the first few days here.
In Japan there are very few cars on the road more than 3 years old. In China there are very few cars (per head of population). So before commencing my impressions on Asia in general and China in particular I propose to cover our last impressions of Japan with a brief insight into Hong Kong.
It was our final night in Japan that the Odyssey 2000 party went up in the World, LITERALLY. We arrived by coach at our Hotel close to Osaka Airport in the dark around 9 pm. We were allocated 2 or 3 to a room, and having collected our room key, John and myself made our way to the 4 th floor looking for room 561. Strange we thought, as we could only locate conference rooms.
Returning to reception we were told, you are in room 61 on the 45th floor. So it was back to one of the many high speed lifts to one of the best rooms we have had on Odyssey. This must be near the top I thought, but no there was another 11 floors above ours with the restaurant at the top. As you can appreciate the views we had by night and day were stunning to say the least. We were advised that this Hotel was in fact the second tallest building in Japan. So full marks to TK and A for the final night of luxury in Japan.
The following morning it was a schedule flight to Kuala Lumpur, (one of the most modern and sophisticated airports we have passed thru) en route to Hong Kong. We had 36 hours in which to experience the many delights, which Hong Kong has to offer the first time visitor.
Hong Kong must be one of the most dense populated regions in the World, with a total approaching 7 million in the territory and almost 2 million on the island of Hong Kong. The Island itself has some of the most expensive real estate in the World. As most readers are aware it was on 1st July 1997 that Britain handed back to China the lease that we had held for 99 years.
The agreement reached between the UK government and China was that Hong Kong and the New Territories would remain a special administrative zone of China for a period of 50 years. During this period, left hand drive traffic, currency, and the educational system would remain unaffected. Time will tell if the Beijing government will honor the 50-year agreement. Having said that China would be ill advised to interfere too much with the newly acquired golden goose, since the bulk of all investments in China flows through Hong Kong. (The City has the world's largest concentration of banks)
So on Sunday 15th October the Odyssey cavalcade (complete with bicycles) departed from Hong Kong for the 4-hour ferry to Zhaoqing. This was followed by another 4-hour journey by coach to the town of Wuzhou, from where we resume our pedaling after an enforced break.
The guidebooks describe this region as the Sensuous South. We shall see just how sensuous in my next up date. My previous update ended on my impressions on life in China as we are finding it. Life here is so different to anywhere else that we have been in the world. I did also reflect on what life might have been like if Democracy and capitalism had been allowed to flourish.
I have since read that the state has now eased its grip on economic activity to the extent that it now ONLY employs 50% of the working population. It is also encouraging foreign investment. China is huge; likewise it's population, which is industrious and hard working to support their families. We have seen men and women of all ages carrying large loads of goods on their bikes, motorcycles, and weird looking 3 wheel diesel trucks. The roads are congested with bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians. The majority of motor vehicles (and coaches) are commercial, most of which would fail a UK MOT test.
The standard of driving is very poor, and the right of way at a junction appears to go to the largest vehicle. This I had proved to me 2 days ago when I was almost knocked off my cycle by a vehicle coming out of a turning on my right. At home I would have had the right of way, not so in China. The ironic coincidence of this incident, is that the truck had written on it's side door AND IN ENGLISH: "'NEVER LET AN OBSTACLE STAND IN YOUR WAY"
We have witnessed 2 road accidents in 3 days both involving coaches, two Odyssey riders narrowly missed the second in which there were some fatalities including children. Speaking of children, and on a more cheerful note. There has been a universal interest in Odyssey 2000 from children in almost every country we travel. But here in China we have been astounded, almost embarrassed by the interest and reception we are getting from the younger generation.
It has for me been an experience which I will not forget to see these happy cheerful young children who line the road in thousands as we pass through each village and town. The amazing thing is that many of these children, as young as 3 years old can speak English, not very much, I must admit. The first and most common greeting we get is “HELLO,” which is sometimes followed by “HOW ARE YOU “? And if you listen carefully you may hear a GOOD BYE.
Then one evening as we stepped out of our hotel after supper young autograph hunters besieged us. Another aspect of life in China which has made me reconsider my diet, in that until we return to Western culture I have decided to become vegetarian. We were advised while in Hong Kong to avoid eating hot dog in China, some days later I passed a butchers shop and saw a man about to chop up the carcass of a dog. Snakes are a delicacy, likewise numerous other animals we treat as a pet. It was not long before I went right off meat in Asia.
So back to our itinerary which took us to the towns of Yangshuo and Guilin, both of which are in the center of the second most popular tourist region in China which attracts over 3 million visitors a year
On Monday 16th October, Odyssey 2000 caused a minor sensation, when they prepared to depart the town of Wuzhou. This town is not on the regular tourist route so the sight of any Western travelers is unusual to say the least. So, bearing in mind that all Chinese adults wear clothing, which covers most of the body, the sight of over 200 cyclists wearing shorts and brightly coloured jerseys must have made us appear like aliens from outer space.
On the morning of our departure a large crowd gathered outside our hotel as gear trucks were loaded and bikes prepared for the road (after 2 weeks in storage).One female member of the party, who had to replace an inner tube before starting, was assisted (Chinese fashion) by at least 15 local men of all ages. Not quite sure if it was the inner tube being replaced, or the young lady in shorts that was the centre of attraction.
A major addition to the Odyssey staff for the next 2 weeks is the hiring of local drivers for our support vehicles, and gear trucks. Visiting tourists are not allowed to drive on the road in China. Then we also needed the services of an interpreter. Another very welcome addition to the Odyssey staff at this point was a Doctor Peter James (and his wife) from Seattle. There are a number of Odyssey riders who were qualified medical folk who would assist in an emergency.
Concern had been expressed in recent months over the lack of medical staff, particularly as we pass through Asia where local medical aid is very limited. On our second day in Hong Kong John, (my UK companion) happened to get into conversation with Dr Peter James and his wife at breakfast. Arising from this chat it was revealed that Peter and John had attended the same school at Hull in Yorkshire. Peter having emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1958. It is indeed a small world we live in.
So back to our first day on the roads in China, it was (on paper) a modest 95 Kilometers to the town of Xindu with a few rolling hills. At the end of the day we all agreed that it had not been a normal 95 Kilometers. It was at 20 Kilometers into the ride there was a 50 Kilometers stretch of our road, which was under reconstruction. There is a big difference in the way that China repairs it's roads, and the way we are used to having our roads patched up in the West, where one stretch of road is repaired before work starts on the next.
Not sure if this happens nationwide in China but on our 50 Kilometers stretch of road we had small gangs of workers toiling mainly (by hand) on their own little bit of the road. It was a hot, dry day, so not only were we riding on long stretches of unmade road but every vehicle that passed us we would be enveloped in a cloud of red dust. So we were glad to get back on normal roads the following day.
I think we are all well aware in the West that the quality of life in China is way below that found in most of the Western World. We have in our travels this year seen some depressed regions but nothing to compare with what we are now travelling through. Life here is so different to any other country we have so far been to this year. Communism in real time, that is China struggling to integrate into a shrinking world without losing control of the people or allowing Western ideals to influence their citizens I wonder what life would be like here today if democracy and capitalism had been allowed to flourish??
Sat 21st October was a layover day in the featureless City of Guilin, which has a population of 350,000. It is the surrounding area, which attracts over 3 million visitors a year. So to see exactly what it is that attracts those visitors, 50 Odyssey folk including yours truly decided to take a 4-hour river cruise.
The cruise took us along the River Lijiang where we saw at close quarters some strange limestone mountains, which we had seen from a distance for several days. It appears that nature laid the foundations of Guilin's present day attraction over 300 million years ago, when the region was under water. Then the water receded and exposed a limestone plateau, which over the years has been eroded away.
What remains are the strange karst peaks which today rank among one of China's
main tourist attractions. Which all went to make our 4 hour river cruise
to Yangshuo a very memorable experience.
Another 2 days riding took us to the Town of Lonsheng where a rest day enabled us to visit another major attraction in this region.
This time we took a 2-hour coach ride; up into the mountains to view the famous Long Ji Rice area and the Dragon Backbone terraced fields. All of which were developed hundreds of years ago and still in active use.
The final day and two nights in China were spent in luxury, at Nanning, which has a population of 650,000 and is the most southerly town in China. It is in fact just 160 kilometres from the border with Vietnam our next country on the Itinerary. The 5 star Guangxi Nanning International Hotel had originally been booked for the one night only, our last in China. However the previous night at the end of a 170 kilometers ride on day 300 we were due to stay at 4 different hotels in the small town of Binyang. This was normal in most of the smaller towns, which just could not accommodate the whole of Odyssey in one Hotel.
It appeared that the total resources at the town of Binyang were not able to cope with such a large number of visitors in one go. Arising from this after a shower and supper the entire Odyssey cavalcade were taken by coach the 86 kilometers to Nanning where we arrived around 9.30 pm on day 300 (26th October). The reception, which we received at the Gungxia Nanning Hotel, surpassed anything we have had since the start of Odyssey. The main foyer of the hotel was fully decorated with balloons and streamers with a large poster in red and white letters, which said; WE WARMLY WELCOME THE EXCELLENT RIDERS OF ODYSSEY 2000
In addition, on our arrival at the hotel our luggage was taken directly to our rooms whilst we were given a champagne reception. It had been a long day with over a 100-mile ride, followed by a 54-mile coach trip with supper in between so when my head hit the pillow around midnight I was out for the count. As we prepare for our next country, some final thoughts on our 13 days in China. Not long for such a huge country but there are 2 words to describe the down side of my impressions, they are pollution, and poverty.
There is pollution in every possible form, in the air exhaust fumes from every vehicle, coal fires, both domestic and commercial are contributing to the contamination. Rivers are polluted and this gets worse, close to urban areas. Sanitation is very poor in rural areas and not much better in urban locations. In spite of the poverty and pollution I found the Chinese to be friendly and industrious.
Regrettably the system still has both men and women working on the most menial (and to me soul destroying) employment. It is common to see women in the country cutting grass along the roadside, one blade at a time. Many of the road sweepers are female. It was the tremendous reception given to the whole of the Odyssey 2000 party in China, which has left a lasting impression on me.
was not uncommon to see a large group of locals (mainly children), and the center of attraction would be an Odyssey rider changing an inner tube or having a snack. This in fact became embarrassing at times, as I found to my cost one day when I stopped for a call of nature. There was not a soul in sight as yours truly turned off the road into the privacy of a tree-lined lane. I had hardly dismounted my bike when a dozen smiling young children surrounded me. Needless to say I took a banana out of my bag, smiled back at them and remounted my bike, to look for another secluded spot??
We crossed the border into Vietnam at 16.40 on Sunday 29th Oct. It took 4
hours by coach from our hotel in Nanning to reach the border. It was
another 4 hours to process the whole Odyssey party through the Chinese and
Vietnamese immigration and customs.
Two Communist Countries not easy to enter or exit at the best of times, but with 220 odd bicycles, bodies, and luggage, all of which went to make it the longest border crossing this year.
At the Chinese border we had to unload all luggage and cycles, all vehicles that had been with us throughout China could not be taken across the border; so new vehicles were awaiting us in Vietnam. Having been exited by the Chinese authorities we then had to walk with our bikes and luggage through 400 metres of nomans land to the Vietnamese crossing.
Now I had read recently that there have been moves for the restoration of diplomatic relations (severed in 75 by the US) between the USA and Vietnam. So I did not express my private thoughts as to what effect the arrival of over 200 American cyclists might have on the future of those talks. My fears were unfounded, because we were met with a welcome banner and given a label for our coach and luggage, which was taken from us. So having crossed into Vietnam we were then faced with another 5-hour coach journey to the Capital city of Hanoi. When you consider that there have been (until recent times) territorial disputes between China and Vietnam you will appreciate why 90 % of our 5-hour journey to Hanoi was on unmade roads (another reason for not cycling). All of which went for an uncomfortable introduction to Vietnam, in spite of the beautiful scenery. So our arrival at the Hotel in Hanoi at around 10 pm was the welcome completion of a very long day. This left Monday 30th to explore Hanoi.
Now coping with the currency in the 40 plus countries we have visited this year has been a challenge to say the least. Italy and China were two in particular but Vietnam (with the dong) I found to be the greatest challenge. It is not always possible to establish the rate of exchange in advance of my arrival.
So in Hanoi, before I could even locate a bank or find the exchange rate I was informed by reliable source that I would have to pay 14,500 dong for a small bottle of beer. Now if you wish to find out how I became a millionaire in Vietnam look out for update# 41.
As promised at the end of the last update I can now reveal how I walked away from a Bank in Hanoi with a bulging wallet in local currency, (the dong). Yes I was a millionaire, even if it did take 4 attempts. We were informed that there was only one bank in the city with cash dispenser (ATM) and that was 5 Kilometres away. As my stock of US dollars and travellers cheques were getting low, we felt that an early visit to the bank was advisable.
We arrived at the bank by taxi before it was open; this is not a problem I said confidently to John, as I pointed to the 2 outside ATM 's one of which was in use. So John drew his cash with no problem, and said that he would wait for me in the taxi. I then inserted my visa card only to be told that the PIN was incorrect. Having used this card AND NUMBER since Jan I was puzzled. So after two more attempts without success, I rejoined John in the waiting taxi and said I would cash a travellers cheque at the Hotel. Later that day we happened to be passing the same Bank so I thought I would give it (the cash machine) another try. This time I walked away smiling and with a bulging wallet of notes in Vietnamese currency, to the value of 1,500,000 Dong.
So I trust there will be no computer error when the withdrawal hits my account at home, because at 20,000 dong to one-pound sterling I anticipate having drawn a modest 75 pounds. Now where was I before all that money went to my head? ah yes in Vietnam. So for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the geographical and political background to this beautiful country, this is my information.
We entered Vietnam in the extreme north from it's communist neighbour China. On the western border is Laos, and Cambodia. However the major attraction for visitors must be the 3,500 plus Kilometres of the western coastline of the South China Sea.j
Along which the guidebooks say are many beautiful and untouched beaches. This I can confirm as we did travel along this coast by train for several hours on our journey south. In addition there are caves, grottoes, and architecture to explore, if you have the time. (Which we did not)
Regrettably the country and its people have suffered turmoil and conflict from 1894 to 1954 when the French occupied them. Then again (as most will know) from 1963 to 1975 with the unsuccessful attempt by the USA to prevent the Communist North Vietnam from it's take over of the democratic South Vietnam.
Today Vietnam remains a one party state and while there has been some economic reform there is no sign of this spreading to the political scene. However, after many years of stagnation the economy is growing with recent offshore finds of Oil and Gas. Rice production has expanded to the extent that Vietnam, once an importer is now the world's third largest exporter of rice after the U.S.A. and Thailand.
In spite of all that Vietnam is still a poor country. The United Nations estimate that 51 % of the population live below the poverty line. It is hoped that economic development, and foreign investment will continue to eliminate large-scale poverty. Happily I find a similarity between the hardworking and friendly Chinese and Vietnamese. I was also pleasantly surprised with the Capital City of Hanoi.
So look out for update # 42 for my thoughts on Hanoi, Hue, (early capital of
Vietnam) and our 30 hour train journey to south Vietnam where I hope to do
Hanoi is a city where I would like to have spent more than the one day,
which is all our schedule allowed. It is a city surrounded by water with
many fine buildings and ultra modern hotels.
As with any city and country with a history of colonial occupation (100 years ending in 1954 by the French) there are grim reminders of that period. One such reminder is the now restored Hoa Lo Prison, which is considered an historic relic. The prison was built by the French in 1896 and was then the largest in Northern Indo-China.
The official literature on the prison's grim historical record is that it was used by the French to imprison thousands of patriots and revolutionary fighters. Kept in prison cells with chains, this harsh living and draconian custody actually turned the prison into a revolutionary school.
The area was liberated in 1954, and from 1964 to 73 part of the prison was
used to detain American pilots who had been shot down while on bombing
raids over North Vietnam.
It has this week been quoted by one Odyssey wit that there is only one thing to compare with a night at the Hilton or Sheraton Hotel? That is a night of travel on a Vietnamese train with 200 cyclists.
This was an experience not to be missed (or repeated). In fact we had not one but two nights on a Vietnamese train. Fortunately for us (and the tour organiser) they were split up with a layover day at the City of Hue, one time capital of Vietnam.
There are 3 grades of travel on a Vietnamese train. There are wooden seats, there are wooden seats that are padded and if you are lucky they recline as well. (This was our grade) Then there are the sleeping berths. The ultimate luxury is the squat toilet.
So why was our long journey south from Hanoi by train anyway. This was not on the original itinerary but had been introduced partly as a result of the recent widespread flooding and to allow more time for biking in the south. Another problem facing the tour organizers was (and still is) the availability of adequate accommodation for 220 folk in one town. There are no camping facilities on the schedule for the whole itinerary in Asia. So we departed from the central station at Hanoi at 21.50 on 31st Oct with an anticipated arrival at Hue at 14.40 the next day. For those who were awake during the daylight hours it was an opportunity to see the (partly flooded) countryside in a more leisurely fashion than from the saddle of our bikes. The town of Hue, which was the 24-hour break in our 30 hours of train travel, has 5 Universities and a population of 30,000. 49 % of the City’s income is from tourism.
Just one 4 hour tour will confirm why Hue is so popular to travellers with it's Royal Palaces, pagodas, historic building complex, and a tradition of culture and art.
The final leg of our train journey south took us along the rugged coastline of the South China Sea to the resort of Nha Trang, from where we were to commence our Vietnam biking experience.
So look out for update # 43 and our experience on and off the bike in South Vietnam. How I adopt an 8-year-old Vietnamese orphan and our last two days in Vietnam, which are spent in Ho Chi Minh City (ex Saigon).
PS I am concerned to see on the C.N.N. international news how Britain has been hit by storms and floods, I do hope that no one reading this will have been hit by this freak? weather.
I do hope that the UK storms and floods are subsiding and no one on my mailing list has been affected.
This will be my penultimate update on Vietnam, and will be dispatched from Thailand where we arrive by air in Pukhet on Thursday 9th Nov.
Well Odyssey 2000 has now been travelling for over 310 days, through more than 40 countries and cycled 24,540 Kilometres.. During this period we have seen a lot of the human race. However there is no doubt that I have seen more of the human race in the last 4 weeks than all the rest of the year put together.
It is particularly noticeable when passing through, or leaving any large town in the morning. The roads are just one heaving mass of humanity and 90 % of them are travelling on 2 wheels, another 8 % are on foot with the rest on 4 wheels.
So I now have the solution to the UK traffic problems, (and I know I am preaching to the converted here). Yes 90 % of the UK population should commute or travel on 2 wheels.
So getting back to our 2 wheels we set out from Nha Trang for the town of Da Lat another popular tourist area with a perfect climate. It could be that the climate has something to do with the altitude of this region.. Yes there was some serious climbing en-route to Da Lat for approx 50 Kilometres of our route, which took us through spectacular and mountainous terrain very reminiscent of Costa Rica.
After a long and very hot day we were rewarded with another layover day to relax and explore this area. Although there were a number of large hotels in Da Lat the Odyssey party was split into 3 separate hotels.
It was on our departure from Da Lat 2 days later that I first met a very enterprising 8 year old that later turned out to be an orphan. We had an 800 metre walk from our hotel to collect our bikes at the host hotel. must have looked in need of assistance as I left the hotel carrying just my bar bag, rack bag, 3 water bottles, and my helmet. I suddenly realised that someone or something had taken hold of my rack bag, looking down I saw what one could only describe as a cheerful barefoot urchin.
Having been warned about vagrants and begging children I smiled at the lad, but hung on to my bag. After 200 or so metres the lad was still there and insisting that he could manage the bag on his own. So I relented and let him carry the bag, at the same time prepared to retrieve it at short notice.
We arrived at the host hotel intact with all my baggage including our barefoot urchin who I must admit seemed to know his way around. Not sure if it was a wise move but I rewarded the lad with a 5000 dong note (approx 25 p).
Two days and 260 Kilometres later we arrived for 2 very pleasant nights at the coastal resort of Phan Thiet. The following morning a walk to the town was agreed with six of my companions. We had not gone more than 100 metres from our hotel when we passed a small group of children playing. The next thing I knew was that we were being followed and looking round I could not believe my eyes 'John' I said we are being followed, do you recognise who it is?
Yes it was my little assistant bag carrier from Da Lat, having said that I was not really sure now where he was from. Neither was I sure if he had any caring parents as we were now 260 Kilometres from where we had first seen him.
This will be my final report from Vietnam, transmission of which will be delayed. As anticipated communications from Asia is patchy.
You may recall at the end of the last update, my story about the 8-year-old Vietnamese orphan. Lack of space prevented me from finishing that interlude, and our last few days in Vietnam.
Now I am sure that there must be many more sad cases like our youngster whose parents have either died or abandoned them at an early age. His name we managed to establish was Gole, at least this was how he pronounced it, and no doubt the spelling was different.
It was at the Vietnam coastal resort of Phan Thiet that Gole had turned up 260 Kilometres from where we first met. It was a layover day and a walk to the town, market, and harbour had been agreed with 6 of my companions. So our walk was completed with the help of our 8-year-old tour guide who seemed to know his way around this town as well as the previous one.
Whilst it was not easy to communicate with Gole, he appeared to know where we wanted to go, and at one point some of us wanted to purchase a bottle of cold drinking water. So we were taken from one shop to another until cold and bottled water was found.
Later that evening we went for a drink at the local golf club, and who should be there having a drink with some Odyssey folk but our young friend Gole. Three days later we were at the Ho Chi Minh City airport, 200 Kilometres away preparing for our flight to Thailand when along came Gole to wish us all good-bye. The general feeling was that the lad would go a long way; there was more than one Odyssey person who would have been happy to adopt him.
One thing about the Vietnamese folk is that they certainly rise early; during our few days along the coast I took a walk along the beach one morning just after 6 am and was surprised to see the beach literally packed with thousands of locals and Vietnam holiday folk.
Our last 2 days in Vietnam were spent in the countries largest and very historic city of Ho Chi Minh City, originally Saigon. The City has a population of 7 million, 30 % of which is of Chinese origin. There are in fact around 54 minority groups throughout the country.
In spite of the diesel fumes and continual honking of horns, which you seem to get from every vehicle in Vietnam and China, there is an atmosphere, which is different to any other country we have so far visited. It is an experience just to stand on any street corner and watch the mass of vehicles (90 % of which is 2 wheeled) weave in and out with no one giving way but no collisions.
There does not appear to be an upper limit to the number of people that can be carried on 2 wheels. I have seen a whole family, parents and 3 children on one motorcycle. Likewise both live and dead ducks, chickens, even 3 small pigs in a basket are all carried to market on two wheels.
Our final day in Hi Chi Minh City included the usual guided tour, which took in the Independence Palace (where Vietnam was officially reunified). Also the War Remnants Museum, which highlights the tragedy (on both sides) of the war with the U.S.A.
So look out for update # 45 on Thailand. There will be some delay in dispatch of this and future emails.
Where they have a Tesco, a Boots, and we are back to cycling on the right (left) side of the road. Yes we are still very much in Asia but in a country with some western influence.
However Thailand was the next country on the Odyssey 2000 itinerary where we landed in the beautiful island of Phuket, on our 2-hour flight from Vietnam.
Thailand was a new country for me, and my impressions are that Phuket in particular and Thailand in general was a place one could return to. (One day?) As the brochure describes it, the Island of Phuket is for the discerning international traveller, set in the shimmering Andamen Sea it is the perfect year round destination.
It is a place to linger but one day was our limit before getting back on the bikes for the 7 days ride south for Malaysia.
So what is so special about the island of Phuket? Unlike other major tourist attractions it was not discovered as a holiday destination until the late 1960's. Then it was only by a few adventurous back packers.
The choice of things to see and do in Phuket is so wide that it was difficult to decide with just one day at our disposal. So a large number of Odyssey folk selected a whole day tour to Phang Nga.
This required a coach journey to the mainland at the north east of the island. We then took a speedboat tour, which took us through a maze of mangroves, where the driver demonstrated his skills by weaving in and out between the trees.
It was then on to a visit of the 'James Bond Island' which is now a National Park. This is where some scenes from the movie 'The man with the Golden Gun' were filmed. Judging by the number of visitors to this island and subsequent photographs this could be the most famous tiny island around Phuket.
Our lunch destination was a stilted fishing village with numerous eating-houses. Our boat was moored to the wharf and we entered the open seafood restaurant via a rickety gangplank.
Having eaten our lunch of crab, squid, fish, chicken and prawns with generous helpings of rice we departed for the final part of the tour an Elephant trek. It appears that the elephant population in Thailand has dropped from 100,000 to 5000 over the past 100 years. This is partly due to the fact that logging was officially banned in the 80's putting many elephants in the ranks of the unemployed.
Regrettably some elephants still work illegally in the timber industry where they are treated badly, some being fed with amphetamines to increase their workload.
Two years ago in Phuket an organisation was set up called the Elephant Help Project (EHP). The Tourism Authority for Thailand, plus other commercial bodies and banks sponsor this.
Arising from this the 15 elephants on Phuket in 1994 have now increased to 172, with 27 trekking companies. All of which means that the elephants are now employed and well cared for.
So our one-hour elephant trek through the jungle was a pleasant climax to our full day tour. The final treat came from one talented elephant who gave us a tune on a mouth organ, and then gave one brave volunteer who laid on the ground for a back massage from the elephant's front foot.
Look out for update #46, our ride south, and a right royal welcome from Malaysia.
As anticipated communication by email and phone from Asia has not been easy or cheap, hence the delay since update # 45. However there are just 12 days of cycling left in Asia that I have to report on, 6 days in each of Thailand and Malaysia. As indicated in the last report Thailand is a country of discovery. This was obvious from my first brief visit so much that I WILL is back and there is even a danger of falling in love with the country. Historically speaking Thailand is the only country in South East Asia that has not been subjected to any long-term foreign domination.
It also has a constitutional Monarchy, with the present respected Monarch being the longest reigning Monarch in Thai history and the world.
In spite of the few tropical storms and humidity our last 2 weeks in Asia were the most memorable days riding we have had this year. Prior to our arrival in the area there was some feelings of apprehension in the group over accommodation, food, and our itinerary in general.. But as we progressed from China into Vietnam, then into Thailand and Malaysia our fears and concern diminished. The quality of our accommodation improved as we progressed, likewise the food, and more especially the friendly welcome we were given.
So our ride from Phuket went north then south towards the north east coast of Malaysia via Krabi (day 317). Then on to the town of Trang where we were welcomed at our Hotel with an individual garland of flowers and a glass of fruit punch from the hotel staff. Three days later we arrived at our final stop in Thailand at the coastal town of Narathiwat. It was here that the local bicycle club welcomed Odyssey 2000 when jerseys were exchanged.
Later that evening we were treated to local entertainment by Thai dancers and musicians. This was followed by a welcome speech from the town mayor and tourist board.
On day 322 (17th Nov) after just 40 Kilometers we arrived at the short ferry crossing which took us across the border and into Malaysia. This was a short day with a total of 70 Kilometers to the coastal town of Kota Bharu.
What no Odyssey rider was prepared for was the reception we were given on our arrival in Malaysia, and for the remaining 6 days. As we cycled off the ferry, up to the terminal and immigration office a large banner could be seen hung across the road. The wording on the banner read as follows: -
This was something we had not experienced on any other border crossing this year. Now whenever Odyssey enters or exits a country there is always a line (queue) at the immigration and customs. The length of the line and speed it goes down will vary on the country and how we arrive.
In this case there was a ferry every hour through the day, so that our crossing was spread over several hours and there were around 40 riders on our ferry. The wait at the immigration window was not too long, but beyond that was another line? What’s the hold up this time we asked? The answer came back " we can't move till we are all here because we have a Police escort". As we only had 35 Kilometres to ride to our hotel we assumed there was some diversion or road construction.
This was not the case; there were at least 12 motorcycle police who escorted the party of 40 odd riders all the way to our hotel at Kota Bharu. There was no need to refer to our route sheet, there was a motorcycle policeman at every junction holding up the traffic and waving us through. This treatment was special to say the least, and made us feel like royalty or the Tour de France peleton.
One could only assume that the crime rate in the area was very low, or the local tourist office was anxious to make an impression on 200 potential future visitors. The escort took us right to the entrance of the Renaissance Kota Bharu Hotel where the staff was waiting on the steps to greet us. Following our check in each rider was handed a good morning towel with which to clean his or her bike.
On top of all this it appeared that the hotel had been open just 2 weeks and we were the first major booking. The next few days, our route followed the 225 Kilometres coastline south through the state of Terengganu. This is an area endowed with a wealth of natural and charming landscapes. There are miles and miles of white sandy beaches, lush virgin tropical jungle, and quaint fishing villages and offshore (for those who had the time) are several exotic islands. Unfortunately the weather was not so kind as the scenery. We arrived at the height of the rainy season; at least it was warm rain.
So to conclude our final days in Malaysia, a country, which gave us a far greater welcome than any other, we have visited. In fact all on Odyssey 2000 will remember the whole of our itinerary in Asia for a long time to come. In particular the happy cheering children.
It was on our third day in the Malaysian state of Terengganu (population 1 million) that we passed through the state capital of Kuala Terengganu. It was mid morning and just 50 Kilometres into the day, it was also raining hard and we had been warned to expect some delay that morning.
There was no indication of what the delay might be, but as we came into town there was a Police roadblock for all traffic, except Odyssey riders who were waved through. 200 metres on there was a band playing with a large marquee (tent) on either side of the road. In one open tent was a large group of Odyssey riders tucking into a buffet with coconuts and fruit juice.
In the other marquee were a dozen official looking folk, press and TV cameras plus the Odyssey Tour organizer. It soon became evident that this was an official welcome to Terengganu by the State Governor, and the Tourism Board. After several speeches of welcome a presentation was made and the official party crossed the road (complete with umbrellas) to meet individual riders.
Two days later on 24th Nov (day 329) we took the 45 minute ferry into Singapore and the end of stage 12 with fond memories of Asia in general but Malaysia in particular. The DRG (daily route guide) for that day indicated the itinerary statistics to be;
Total Stage in Kilometres 1597.
Total Trip in Kilometres 26,146 (a/f 1st Jan).
There are only 5 folk who have ridden every kilometre; yours truly can claim approx 24,000. The 5 folk who are my senior have ridden less.
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