Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One Road You Must Travel

If I die tomorrow, I’m completely satisfied, for I’ve just had the most amazing day of cycling in my entire life!  And if there is one thing you have to do before you die, I insist that you hop on two wheels, (motorized or not) and cycle from Meo Vac to Dang Van, Vietnam, or vice versa! 

I knew I was headed to a remote mountain area, traveled by few tourists.  Everyone said that the stretch of road from Dong Van to Meo Vac was spectacular.  It is only 22 kilometers long, but counting the vertical ascent, it feels like much more!  Last night the guys at my hotel were so shocked I was going to head up there on a bike.  They couldn’t fathom how it was actually possible.  I could have been scared off by their commentary, but if you don’t know exactly what you are in for,….well, it’s a lot easier to just dive head in to a situation, at least for me.  And that is exactly what I did.

Yummy! Soy milk and rice pockets, can't get enough of them!

I woke up early, 6am and not a single motor scooter was to be heard outside.  I quickly packed and went to the market to load up on my new favorite rice pockets filled with sweet red bean and sesame paste, a few banana leaf pouch surprises, and some fruit.  I took plenty with me, not knowing what to find along the route, nor how long I might be out on the road.  I had calculated about 70 kilometers for the day.

I headed out, following the road down into a valley.  I had mountains towering over me on both sides.  Local village people were already out working; women carrying heavy loaded baskets, kids playing by the road, a normal day for these people, completely desensitized to the gorgeous scenery around them.  The day started favorably for me since the road went downhill.  I knew I had 22 kilometers and anything that goes down, just makes them pass by even faster.

The deeper into the valley I cycled, the more remote my surroundings, and soon I was all alone on the road as it started to climb.  There was a river down below, which is normally what a road follows.  However, here in Northern Vietnam, the roads don’t surprise me anymore, they cut right into a mountain and go alongside a chain for kilometers on end.  I know they built a lot of tunnels during the Vietnam War, but there are none to be seen on the roads in this region.  As a result, the roads snake, twist, and turn, and the scenery is amazing! There is always something different to be seen around the corner and between the ups and downs, the temperature ranges between 10 and 26 degrees Celsius. There are green terraced cone shaped mountains with rounded tops all around in the distance, hovering.  There isn’t a single bit of land that isn’t used, regardless it’s steepness, every inch has been farmed.  A few motorcycles and cars passed me, but local village people who have gathered their crop and are heading back home mostly use the roads.  You can see trails in the far off distance going up the sides of mountains, and others headed down to the river.  Houses speckle the land in every direction.  It’s incredible that the local tribes have inhabited this terrain, they don’t seem to be bothered by the steepness, nor does it stop them from their daily lives.

I could get a pretty good feel for what was in store for me on the first section as it was easy to see the road in the far off distance.  Usually this can be pretty demoralizing, seeing where you are going and knowing that it only continues upward.  However, I had an early start, and my legs were fresh (well, sort of) but I was so entertained by the scenery, I hardly knew I was going up!  I also made frequent stops, for pictures of course, and finally started using the tripod on my camera so that I would appear from time to time!  Halfway up there was a viewpoint, guarded by police.  I thought they might ask for the special permit that I was forced to get in the previous town.  This road is so close to China, it is considered to be a special “Frontier Area”.  They didn’t ask for anything and seemed quite entertained to see me and were more than happy to take a few photos for me.  I continued on climbing and in a few kilometers, a mini bus passed me in the opposite direction and honked.  Western tourists inside were cheering me on with lots of thumbs up!  The first tourists I had seen o the road in awhile, although occasionally a motorcycle will pass with a guide and a tourist.

Around the last bend of the ascent, the road separated from the river and the scenery started to change again.  Now I was right in the middle of smaller lush green cones that popped up everywhere. Off to the side of the road, I saw another minibus, parked, and empty, and I suspected these tourists were on a hike.  I love hiking, but legs were plenty satisfied with the climbing I was doing on the bike.  However, 200 meters ahead, a Vietnamese-French tour guide saw me and started shouting out to his clients to look at the cyclist.  It’s like the guy paid me to show up at the very moment, what entertainment! He was guiding 4 French women, and all of a sudden my French came back to me and we were having a great conversation alongside the road.  Their guide was hilarious, as he immediately started patting my legs and arms, ohhing and awing and took pictures like the paparazzi!  He gave me some travel tips for a few road options and once again I was on my way. 

I had reached the top and was headed down to the small village of Dong Van, where I treated myself to a nice warm coffee.  I love my Vietnamese coffee!  The glass is filled with about two or three tablespoons of strong black coffee that drips from a minute filter on top. They put condensed milk in it and it becomes a thick sweetened syrup.  The lady at the café made the mistake of leaving the can of condensed milk with me at the table, and I downed spoonfuls when she wasn’t looking, what a treat!

After my short pit stop I was on my way. I knew I had another 45 kilometers to go before I hit a town with any hotels.  Since I had just been on the most beautiful road of my life, I was on such a high, I forgot that I had more climbing to do.  30 brutal kilometers awaited me, and this time the road didn’t follow a river, it dipped up and down into every little valley and town possible.  Being the optimist that I am, every time it would dip, I would be hopeful and think, “that’s it, done”….but of course then it would start to climb again! The scenery continued to be breathtaking and I took a ton of photos, which gave me some nice little breaks, but my legs weren’t as fresh now and I was starting to feel my arms!  People think I have legs of steel, and maybe I do, but hopefully some will start to transfer to my bum and arms, they are taking a beating!

Cone-shaped mountains with a rounded top, and terraced crops among them

I’ve pretty much figured out the Vietnamese schedule and it just so happened that the 30 kilometer climb was right at the time kids walk home from school for lunch.  They have a long break in the middle of the day it seems, and they are all out on the road come 11:30 to about 12:30 (some have a long walk home).  They were so excited to see me they shouted and cheered as I rode by and in fact, a couple of cluster of kids followed me for a good 2 kilometers uphill.  I was pedaling about 5 kilometers and hour and the kids were walking fast next to me. The sweat on their forehead had dampened their hair, but they were determined to follow along with me until the road started going down.  The kids I see in the villages along the side of the road amaze me.  Kids in western cultures are pampered compared to the kids I see alongside the road here in Northern Vietnam.  They are all helping out their parents or playing with the most ordinary objects: bamboo, leaves, wood, string.  You never hear them cry or throw tantrums, if anything they are giggling with their friends or siblings.  They entertain themselves while mom and dad are working.  They can be covered in dirt, running around with no pants, or helping their parents, and just as happy as can be!

After today, I’m reminded why climbing can be so addicting.  The scenery is such a reward, it makes it all worth it.  There is a lot of suffering along the way and you have to have the right mindset to do them, especially with an extra 30+ kilograms.  Usually I spend a lot of time looking down at the road, when I climb, a natural position for your head, but today, my eyes were set on my surroundings.  I was in total awe on what awaited me on every twist and turn in the road.  Tomorrow I think the road flattens out a bit, so I’m going to try to be my ambitious self again, but I have a feeling I’m going to be up here in the mountains another week or so just trying to make my way to Northern Laos, where similar terrain awaits!  By the time I get to the Mekong River, I’m gonna fly on the flat!

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