It was a shame to have to head down over into France and on a road out of the Pyrenees the other day. I feel like I have unfinished business with these hills, so good have they been.
The highlights have been plentiful, in particular staying in uber friendly refuges or hostels that provide a cold beer, a hot shower and an enormous fill of rustic, home-cooked fare, usually enough to finish you off for the evening after a day on the mountainsides. Unless, of course, you can stay awake for a little shot of a local liqueur.
Villages have often been beautiful, sometimes spectacularly perched on a cliff or rock, so that you have to wind around tiny alleyways on impossible gradients. The number of empty houses is worrying, however, along with the lack of younger generations - I guess the attractions of rural life are not that many, understandably enough. And the economy means that many of those who invested in a holiday cottage can no longer afford the upkeep.
The terrain has meant for some punishing climbs, and, of course, countless thrilling descents along rocky cliffside tracks. My GoPro has seemed to be permanently out of battery as there has been so much to shoot.
Coming down into Baguergue was breathtaking. There was an initial 35km gradual climb up through a lush green valley, the peaks on either side dotted with patches of snow not yet melted, and a crystal clear river making its way down through occasional settlements. At the top was a ski centre, the lifts and white airport-style buildings looking out of place without the white all around.
And then when I made it over the top there was a massive drop into the valley below. A road hairpinned its way to the bottom, but crossing that was one of the most impressive tracks I've ever ridden down, with such amazing views in every direction that you had to keep stopping to take it all in for fear of not looking where you were going and riding straight over the edge, which in many places would surely have been a fatal mistake.
And once at the bottom you find your bearings and start the long slug back up the next pass to repeat the process... Immense fun!
I won't miss the occasional swarms of horse flies tracking me up the hills, impossible to swat as they land on your shoulder and get tucked into some blood while you are trying maintain momentum. But I will miss pretty much everything else to do with this stunning mountain range, and I'm a little apprehensive that the Alps are not going to live up to the Pyrenees, especially as I'm unlikely to have them to myself in the same way as school holidays will mean more holidaymaking families around.
However, I am sure that there is at least one more summer to be had out of a trip to northern Spain, and I will definitely be back at some point... :)
A half-day today as I'm being lazy, but it was sensational! Stunning scenery the whole way, with nobody there at all, and a descent of 1200m of pure fun at the end. To wrap it all up I just finished off arriving at the sign above, eating the mother of all lunches, and am now off for a siesta... When in Rome and all that!?
Well, I'm four days in and it feels like I've been riding for a month already... the saddle sore, the irritating blister on my foot, the unfathomably stinky clothes, the same old inability to get up in the morning, and, of course, the world's achiest ever leg muscles.
And is it worth it? Oh my god yes!! I'm just slightly annoyed with myself for underestimating the might of the Pyrenees, the result of which is that I'm only going to make it across half of them... A good reason to come back, though, I guess.
Many of the climbs have been total brutality, one-in-tens that gain 1000m in altitude without reprieve. On rocks and through pools of mud, very few have been easy.
The summits and descents, however, have been utterly magnificent. It's as if the Great Divide had contained the same hills but the distance had been halved so they were all scrunched up and everything is steepere. Every inch of the way has been dramatic scenery.
Today saw the first 2000m pass, and as I made the descent, coming out of the clouds, it constituted one of the best 20km I've ever ridden. When the cold mist at the summit dispersed, a huge valley opened out below.
It was vast. Such was its size that, even coming down the last few kilometres, your sense of perspective kept on changing as you lost all of that hard fought gain in altitude. It was worth every inch of the hard slog up there, though, and photos won't come close to doing it justice.
Other things to mention: food and wine have been delicious, although I do miss Hunan food after a month away. Language has been interesting - it does feel very much like a border area with the mix of languages and people here. Apart from seedy La Jonquera that has been a positive, however.
Tomorrow looks like it will be even more of a killer than today was, so I'm in need of some kip now.
Back in Europe now following the trip to Uganda (see www.thepeacecentre.org for pics) and about to embark upon an off-road fat bike adventure across the Pyrenees... Woohoooo!!! Not too many fixed plans but have decided to test my language skills by buying a book in Catalan to add an extra dimension to the trip.
The goal is to cross the Pyrenees before the Tour finds its way here, then head towards the Alps. In total one month before I'm back in the metropolis, so very much looking forward to some camping, fire-building, killing my own dinner, etc etc... Should be fun! :)
Also up on Youku if you're in China: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNjYxNzg2MjY4.html :)
Made it into JingHong late this afternoon with 2006km on the clock. Absolutely shattered. Just eaten vast quantities of incredible street food, including a beautiful sickly banana pancake coated in condensed milk, all washed down with some Beer Lao, and am totally and utterly ready for a good sleep now... Happy days!
Distance so far: 1860km
Back over the border today into China and have 140km to go to make it to the 2000km target... I think that is roughly the distance from here to my Jinghong finishing point as well. I knew it was going to be close but if I get there and am a few km short it looks like I'm going to have to cycle round the block a few times to make the distance!! Looking forward to a lie-in on Saturday, all being well!
Distance covered so far: 1488km
Have had three days of great riding, in very different ways. On the way up towards Vangvieng I spent a really nice lunch break with a group of different cyclists, set up in very different ways and on very different journeys. They were all heading south, but looking to avoid the capital.
It's fair to say, I think, that as pleasant as Vientiane is, it is not the most inspiring of capitals. And cycling into it wasn't anything to rave about either: it was a typical 20km of developing country urban sprawl, with hosts of garages, welders, bathroom fitters, you name it, interspersed with restaurants, covenience stores and temples.
But there is something that is always exhilarating about cycling into a capital city that should never be missed, and Vientiane was no different. It is where you get a snapshot of what all the normal Joe Bloggs city dwellers of the country are doing, day in day out, and a space where you can counterbalance all the beautiful tourist spots you are about to see with the real world. It helps you put everything in perspective.
And once you've finished with your home comforts and viewing the country's national treasures, riding out of town helps you reflect upon it all as a whole rather than purely the edited highlights, and on Saturday morning I very much enjoyed that experience while heading back out north onto Route 13 towards the hills again.
The main road that runs through Northern Laos has been dubbed the cycling highway of Southeast Asia, and after a few days on the route it is not hard to see why. I think I have bumped into more bikers on this trip than on any other stretch of a similar duration. Fully laden with a zillion panniers to those carrying but a small backpack, fully suspensionised all-terrain bikes to racers or something in the middle like mine, or reclining bikes or trikes with trailers... They're all out there pedalling. Some do the hardest routes they can find, others, less purist in nature, hop on a bus when they get to the bottom of a long climb.
Of which there are plenty.
Yesterday I covered 135km that didn't include a single stretch of flat, straight road, such are the mountains here. It was some of the most exciting road cycling I've ever done, with wonderful views every way you looked, should you dare to not keep your eyes ahead for a second. Villages sit perched on top of implausible mountain ridges, houses mounted upon stilts so that they hang over the steep drop below. And as you ride through there is a chorus of children inevitably waving and shouting 'sabaidee' in Lao, (as opposed to 'hello' in English), to welcome you. It's a really fun place to be on the road.
Part-time teacher, full-time lover of all things adventurous, some might say even a little crazy...