Sunday, November 24, 2013

Melissa Has Met Her Match up North

What a sense of accomplishment to see where you've come from!

I love to climb, it’s what I do best on the bike.  In fact I feel so comfortable going uphill, I’m usually carrying on a conversation with one of the guys from the club.  Thomspon Bike Tour clients tell me they can hear me coming on the climbs as I chat with the clients I accompany.  I don’t go fast, but I can keep a steady pace going uphill, without too much suffering, especially if I’ve got good company!

When someone warns me that a road goes up, I usually don’t think much of it.  Before this trip, I didn’t own a Garmin and I had no idea how to quantify positive altitude change. Statistics s like 10%, 2,000m elevation gain, don’t really mean much to me.  In my mind, it all goes up, and you have to get to the top- so I just pedal.  I basically have one speed climbing and if I start to get tired, I get out of the saddle to change things up. I’ve climbed in the Pyrenees, Alps, Picos de Europa, and the Dolomites, and I thought I had experienced some of the most brutal climbs, but my last few days in Northern Vietnam give “altitude gain” a whole new meaning.  

Unbelievable views from up top

I’m day 4 into my adventure up north and I’m destroyed…..shattered, beat!  I don’t really know which adjective to use, but I’ve definitely met my match up here.  It takes a lot to tire me out pedaling, but now I surrender, these roads are killer.  And so you might ask, why I keep going?  It’s the scenery, it is stunning.  My pictures don’t to the landscapes justice.  I look around and I’m completely surrounded in a rain forest.  There are peaks so tall and lush, they never make it out of the clouds.  Plants are enormous, and trees shoot up tall, with roots that surface and look like rope wound in knots.  I’m an alpine mountain lover, which is why I’m in shock that I find this type of vegetation appealing.  I’ve gotten completely off the beaten path and I’m loving it!

I hit up Guim at The Hanoi Bike Collective for some route suggestions in Vietnam.  Most tour cyclist enter Laos and head for Laos as soon as possible, where the tarmac is new and the traffic next to null.  Everyone tells you to avoid Vietnam because the dense traffic.  Guim advised me to go up north, not to the toursity areas of Sapa, necessarily, but to the Ha Giang region, a place undiscovered by most tourists and cyclists.  He warned me that the climbs were killer and although the entire circuit might only be 1,200 kilometers, it would take a good 2 to 3 weeks.  I of course overlooked this comment, and wondered just how tough the climbing could really be, and foresaw myself doing the route in about 10 days.

I’ll tell you, as I sit here and write this post, my upper arms ache from all the pulling on my handle bars and the firm grip I have to have on the descents.  Biking has become a full body workout! I’ve run marathons, done half Ironmans and a full, gran fondos, and ultra-marathons, but the riding up here is some of the some of the most difficult I’ve done in my life! Today hit 1,000 meters of positive elevation gain and only done a mere 40 km.  I immediately had to rethink my destination for the day as a result.  The Vietnamese don’t believe in switch backs, the roads go straight up.  I don’t know why they even bother to put up signs showing a 10% grade, because basically every 200 meters, you have one!  A 6% grade starts feeling flat, I see 16% frequently on my Garmin and I’ve made it up to 18%.  I know these numbers probably don’t make any sense to those not in the sport, but have a look at this graph, it says it all! 

My speed says it all

It’s probably the element of surprise that makes it so challenging.  You don’t know how long a climb is going to last, the exact elevation gain or the gradient,… just pedal and pedal and try to keep going.  Luckily the scenery is completely new and always exciting.  The sounds of horns have almost completely dissipated and are replaced by the sounds of kids screaming “Hello” in every direction possible.

One of the three lakes in Ba Be National Park

Day one, leaving Hanoi, I was pretty much on the main thruways all 100 kilometers, nothing different than my others days on the road in Vietnam.  Day two continued on the main thruway with frequent honking, trucks passing, and motor scooters whizzing by.  However, after about 50 kilometers, I was on a road that headed towards the Ba Be National Park and it became very evident it was not a popular destination.  It brought me through towns where once again I had to time my lunch stop, or else the restaurants turned me away.  On the evening of day 2, I rolled into the Ba Be National Park right at dusk, found a small family run Nha Hghi, and got cleaned up for dinner, which they thankfully served right there are the hotel.  I was pleased with the day: I had finally arrived to a more remote area with gorgeous rain forests and the sounds of nature all around.

Flat terrain along the river in Ba Be National Park

On day three I started with a self-guided tour of the National Park, that was luckily flat, because the climbing that awaited me afterwards was unbelievable.  I left the park and headed up north on a road that was maybe about 3 meters wide with huge piles of gravel every 300 meters.  Road work was underway and I don’t know how or why this road even showed up on my GPS! I had no choice other than to climb and head north. Although I wasn’t officially in a National Park, I was in a rain forest for sure, and climbing to what felt like the canopy layer, above the clouds line. Everywhere I look out there are mountains, terraced lands, and jungle vegetation everywhere.  Every inch of land is used thanks to the terracing.  Humidity is so dense; I can’t distinguish it from the sweat dripping of my face.   The few motos that pass me are so surprised to see a cyclist, they always turned their head to look back, probably to see my priceless facial expressions as I was climbing.

I lucked out with this roadside market

Here, most of the roads don’t have restaurants or cafes.  I’m lucky if I find a little house that has a “store” attached with a counter full of snack items. In fact, there aren’t hotels, which make for another great story as to where I ended up the third night into my adventure up north. Let’s just say it was somewhat reminiscent of the hotel in Macedonia that was closed, but my friend, the old man in the blue pajamas, was replaced by an energetic young Vietnamese women who plopped herself down next to me, looking over my shoulder as I did my journaling for the evening.  I didn’t have the energy to try to keep up a conversation with gestures, I was too shattered and in bed by 8pm!

Making friends wherever I go

There are few people in the area, and the ones around make their life alongside the road.  The village people are busy farming, herding their animals, fixing motor bikes, cutting down trees…you name it, there is always something to be done! The only exception is when it rains.  Today, it started to pour and I took cover under a little shack.  A man in the house next door saw me and invited me in, so, of course, I entered.  To my surprise it was filled with about 10 guys who were all sitting around drinking strong liquor and tea, I opted for the tea or else I would have never left!  The first question out of their mouth or should I say with hand gestures, was if I had kids.  This questions makes me laugh because what in the world would I be doing cycling around the world if I had kids at home waiting for me!?!?!   So, yes, I laugh, and shake my finger “No Way!” which is when they ask if I’m married. For this question, I also say, no, and make a pedaling gesture: my faithful and only partner for the next year! I tried to ask them where all the women were, but that turned into a photo session with our mobiles.  I know they were hoping it would continue to rain so I had to stay, but luckily for me, it cleared and I continued to pedal on my way to Bao Lac, where I’m currently staying, my fourth night up north.  This town is so big there were 2 restaurants and an actual hotel, advertised in English.

It pays to climb

At this point, I’ve had to regroup mentally and change the way I plan my daily route.  All the other days, I could ride strong fairly easily and count on pedaling 100 kilometers.  After the last two days, I understood why it just might very well take me 3 weeks to go 1,200 kilometers!  The climbing is tough, the roads aren’t in the best of conditions, and there is the surprise element as well. I don’t really know what is in store for me in order to quantify and compare this terrain.  All I know is that the more I climb the more beautiful the scenery, so it pays off to keep going up!

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