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.
Distance so far: 1093km
Finally made it down to Vientiane after a few days of serious riding over the Christmas period. I had expected some more hills after Luangprabang, but the climbs were more brutal than even I had dreamed up.
The first day out basically consisted of two 20km climbs that just went up and up and kept on going up further and further with zero respite. By about 4pm I'd reached a town about 80km in, but with the next stop 60km and two more climbs away I called it quits and got stuck into a few Beer Laos looking out over a spectacular drop below.
Christmas Day involved pedalling through an early morning market, then more of the same windy mountain roads, eventually descending into beautiful karst scenery to rival Yangshuo. It was really only the second bit of flat or straight road I've seen in Northern Laos, which says something about the cycling terrain here.
Having enjoyed a scrummy hotpot and a good night's recuperation it was another hundred-miler yesterday into Vientiane, where we have spent the day looking at more temples and enjoying (more of) the world's most amazing pancakes...
Tomorrow sees the beginning of a week-long trek back up north, which should involve burning off one or two of those pancake calories :)
Don't worry, we went for hotpot instead!!
Distance so far: 695km
Heading down the major artery of the country over the last few days has been immense fun. In most other places in the world for such a windy dirt road to be the route through which all must travel would be unthinkable. More remarkable, however, is the lack of traffic seen so far.
China and Thailand use the country as a trade route, and it is surprising that no serious motorway has been built to traverse the dramatic mountain scenery in the way. Perhaps a third of the vehicles we have seen, not counting motorbikes, have been Yunnan or Hunnan registered.
The riding has been tough, and with a few stretches of up to 40km uphill my legs are feeling it. With that come some quite breathtaking views, of course, and pedalling through rustic mountain-top villages looking out over huge drops has been a real highlight.
We are resting for a day in Luangprabang, with a magical hotel room overlooking a beautiful golden temple in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. I suspect I might not feel like moving with the cold mist hanging over the city first thing tomorrow morning. Route to be decided over a couple of Beer Laos this evening, but watch this space...
Distance so far: 478km
Did a 40km climb yesterday morning, the road winding its way up into different ethnic villages in the Luang Nam Tha NPA. Got thoroughly mucky on the way down as well and needed to give the drive chain a good clean up afterward...
And today presented some of the best mountain roads I've ever ridden - truly spectacular riding! I'm yet to be convinced that there are any straight roads in this country as they have all been exceptionally windy so far, making their way through village after village of wooden houses on stilts.