Playing Catchup

The last time I saw Jan was way back in June, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. We took different paths then, and when we later got back on the same road, Jan was a month ahead of me. As he nears the end of his mission, he’s been slowing down, while I’ve been speeding up, thanks to judicious use of ferries. As a result, I’ve finally caught up, and we’ve spent the last couple of days riding together. Just like old times. Except it’s not snowing now. But we are in a Muslim country again.

After Satun, in southern Thailand, Nicola, Dave (her husband) and I got a ferry to Langkawi, Malaysia, where we saw some of the Langkawi Ironman. Dave was riding around on a classic local commuter, which looked rather amusing amongst the titanium-frame, carbon fibre forks, ultra lightweight racing machines the competitors were using. Langkawi didn’t do much for me, and the duty-free prices were a ripoff. Most prices were more expensive than elsewhere in the region. The only cheap thing was beer – 1.50RM for a can, compared to 6RM elsewhere in Malaysia.

From Langkawi we went to Penang for a dose of Somerset Maugham/colonialism/Lord Jim/whatever, along with fantastic food, and some rather annoying ladyboys. Dave had to fly out of there, but we picked up Jan, so it’s almost a fair swap. Well for me anyway, Nicola might have other opinions. Leaving Penang on the ferry was easy – and free, since they only charge people going in the other direction. Score.

We’ve then been riding towards Kuala Lumpur, and I have to say I’m not hugely impressed with cycling in Malaysia, compared to Thailand. The road is too busy, too many trucks. Most shocking of all, the service stations don’t have shaded tables and chairs to sit at. Outrageous that, since all Thai service stations have somewhere to sit down out of the sun. But there’s still some interesting things to see and do, like Kellie’s Castle and getting our photo taken with the first rubber tree in Malaysia. Well I thought it was interesting.

From here I’ll head to Kuala Lumpur, and then it will be a bit of mucking around in Malaysia, possibly a bit of diving, before marking off Asia, and heading to Darwin. Probably 3-4 weeks before I get there. No hurry, eh?

First Anniversary

February 17th marked one year on the road since leaving London on that glorious late winter morning. One year, 24,000km, two passports, seven chains, six sets of tyres, three saddles, four pairs of shorts, I don’t know how many punctures, and somewhere approaching twice my bodyweight in Snickers bars. This was what I looked like back then, all my gear nice and shiny, bags still waterproof, way too much luggage, and not much of a clue. Fitness was only so-so, and I was nice and pasty white from an English winter. At that point I still hadn’t really worked out how I was going to cross France. although I thought I knew what my route across Central Asia would be.

And this is what I look like now. Third from the right, in case you couldn’t work it out. Tanned, fit, carrying far less gear than when I started – but still too much. Surprisingly my bodyweight hasn’t really changed much, only a few kg down. Around about 78-79kg now, I was only a little over 80 when I started. But what has changed? Well, I’m a bit older, and better at reading maps I suppose. I don’t worry too much about exactly where I’m going to end up each day, as I’ve found that things always seem to work out OK.

I still don’t plan too far ahead – I have a rough idea of where I’m going, but I don’t worry too much about the specifics. Just look at the event horizon – worry about the most immediate concerns, if you think too far ahead it all just seems too much. I’ve had a lot of time to think, but that doesn’t make mean I’m any wiser. Maybe I have sorted out a few things in my head, but it doesn’t mean I’m any sort of new age guru, so don’t bother asking for advice. I’ll leave that sort of thing for Jan “Mystic” Slatter. All I’ll say is don’t be afraid of change, accept things, it makes life much easier.

How hard was it? Harder or easier than I thought it would be? Not really sure. At times it was damn hard, especially on long hot dull days in the desert, when you’re trying to eat up the miles. It’s easy to kill time, but only riding kills distance. Or so Al Humphreys says, and he would know. It’s tough when you’re sick, and lying in a scummy hotel room, hoping to get better, so you can get back on the road, and feel the wind in your hair again.

But then at other times it’s all too easy. People are by and large friendly and helpful, and when you’re on a bike, people tend to feel sorry for you, and want to help you, give you directions, food, water, vodka, a bed. You’ll be stuck in some town trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language and getting nowhere – and so they go running off and find the one person in town who does speak your language, or at least another one that you know. How many people in English-speaking countries would go to the effort of trying to find a Chinese speaker? How many people in small-town New Zealand would even speak Hungarian?

I have met many interesting people on this trip, some of them in the real world, others I only know via email. You have all brightened my life in some way, and for that I thank you. Messages from friends and family do make a difference, when you’re feeling a long way from home, and the support means a lot to me. Sometimes it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in this, and forget that everyone out there has their own challenges and difficulties too. I might not always find the time to send messages to people, but trust me, you are in my thoughts frequently.

I’m about to cross into Malaysia, and from there head to Singapore, and the last big leg, Australia. I should make it to NZ in three months or so, insh’allah. Will that be the end? I’m not sure. Perhaps it will be, or maybe it will just be a break, before heading off to do something else. Or will I settle down and do the house/dog/white picket fence thing? We’ll see.

You know tourists aren’t common…

When a bunch of tattooed teenagers wearing “Iron Maiden” T-shirts accost you in a public toilet…and want to get their photo taken with you. To be clear though, all parties were fully dressed at the time, and no-one was taking part in any toilet business. They all wanted to shake hands too, luckily I had observed them just washing their hands.

I’m in Nakhon Si Thammarat, a nice, non-touristy town in southern Thailand. We’re stopping here for a rest day, partly to see some of the touristy things, but partly just to have some kick-back time. With the “Thai Hotel” providing nice twin rooms with satellite TV with English channels, and extras like a wall-mounted bottle opener in the bathroom, all at a good price, I’m happy to just relax. Especially with a huge Carrefour nearby providing all the essentials.

Getting a ferry from Ko Tao to Surat Thani proved a bit trickier than expected. Rather than a direct boat, we had to get two tickets, the first to Ko Samui (another island), and the next from Ko Samui to Surat Thani. Problem was that the piers on Ko Samui were 20km apart, resulting in an unplanned ride in the middle of the day. The ferry companies did provide vans between the piers, but that didn’t help us much. However things turned out well, as the ferry companies go from Ko Samui to Don Sak, then bus passengers to Surat Thani – but just getting off at Don Sak worked out better for us to come down the east coast.

We had two nights of staying at resorts where we were the only guests – one resort set in the bush, another brand new one by the beach. It’s a bit weird when you’re well outnumbered by staff all watching you eat your meal, ready to run across and top up your glass every time you have a mouthful.

My biking shorts are in tatters after being worn every riding day for over six months, and had to get some emergency repairs. Dave is bringing replacements over, from NZO, but the current ones were in danger of falling off. I didn’t think the locals needed to look at my underpants any more, so I found a nice old man to stitch them up – classic Singer treadle table sewing machine, all original stuff. Cheap too, and now they should be able to make it a few more days until Dave gets here.

From here we’re heading over to the west coast, to head south into Malaysia. That should avoid the current troublespots in southeastern Thailand.

Travels with my Sister

Just a short blog entry today, to let you know I’m still alive and well. Nicola joined me at Bangkok airport, and after a few days taking part in the Khao San circus, we moved on south. Traffic in Bangkok is considerate, but heavy, so I thought it better for us to get a train, rather than Nic having to deal with it all first up. Turned out to take all day on the train – I could have ridden to Phetchaburi in 5 hours. But no matter.

After looking at the monkeys in Phetchaburi – and again later in Prachuap Khiri Khan – we headed south. The roads are smooth, the shoulder is wide, and there are great services stops every 10km. Just a bit too much traffic, but it could be a lot worse. We went down via various beach places, with the highlight being Bang Saphan. Archetypal beach bungalows and bars, almost no-one there. Fantastic. The riding highlight was when Nicola rode over a 5 foot snake, gave a big scream, and rode off faster than I thought possible. The snake was already dead, but she wasn’t looking back to see that. I was just too busy laughing.

We then came over to Ko Tao, an island with great diving all around. In a weird moment, I met a Swiss girl whom I last met in Uzbekistan in June, at Bahodir’s in Samarkand. We looked at each other for a minute, then both said “Aren’t you…?” Small world. We had a great day today on a boat cruise around the island, stopping off at various points to go snorkelling. The first stop had a bunch of reef sharks swimming around. Pretty cool. Good thing that none of them were too big though.

We’ll probably head back to the mainland tomorrow, and keep meandering down south, to meet Dave, Nic’s husband, for more riding down into Malaysia. I should get organised and upload some photos, but…I think I’ll head back to the beach bar now.