Bikinis, Tibetan Mountains and Stone Jars

Claire: Nothing makes us more stubborn than being told we can’t accomplish our goal.

Stone Jar and Bomb Crater on Plane of Jars, Laos

Stone Jar and Bomb Crater on Plane of Jars, Laos

The nice German tried to break it to us gently that we would probably have to stay with a Lao family because we would not make the big climbs ahead, 1600 meters for the day and it was already noon. He was almost right, we almost didn’t make it. Though we wouldn’t have minded staying with a family, we pushed on a little longer than usual because of his remark. It was a two Nescafe day.

We took a bus excursion to Phonsavan to save ourselves pedaling two days out and back to see the Plain of Jars. The massive, ancient stone jars are intriguing, but what really struck me with awe was envisioning them bouncing and shattering from the impact of the bombs that left huge, diving pool size craters. Some of the answers to the questions surrounding the 2500 year old relics may have been blown to bits.

Soapy Boy Chasing Zippy

Soapy Boy Chasing Zippy

I never did get credit from Bob for pulling off a perfectly timed one day excursion: We rode 50 kilometers by 12:30, found a guesthouse, unloaded and locked Zippy, showered, packed an overnight bag, found the bus ticket seller in the village and were on a bus to Phonsavan by 2:00. Once in Phonsavan, we teamed with Lorenz and Alex in a tuk-tuk to the Kongkeo Guesthouse where we booked the tour for the next day and even arranged for them to drop us back at the bus station at the end of the tour. We made it back to Zippy by 8:30 that night. Okay, it was all just dumb luck.

Bad luck did find me in the form of some foul lettuce. That took a day and some fat out of me, but I’m sure glad Bob didn’t get sick, he doesn’t have any fat to spare.

Though the karst topography is scenic, we’re looking forward to a few less hills. Once in Vientiane, we’ll be riding along the Mekong; the lower elevation will mean warmer temperatures. Let’s hope the roads are good.

Lao Karst Mountains

Lao Karst Mountains

I thought Lonely Planet was joking when they said Vang Vieng was full of backpackers all watching Friends reruns in the bars, but they’re mostly right. It is a strange scene to come upon overfed, tattooed and bikini-clad western girls when the most flesh we’ve seen lately has been on dark, skinny, naked Lao children bathing at the standpipe.

Bob: Claire is not kidding about the fat girls. A bit of weight that comes naturally with age is fine, but to jiggle like Jello at 23, and flaunt it, is bad form. The boys are just pale and flaccid, and drunk by noon. Bah Humbug. I’m getting old.

Mountains

It does appear we are mostly out of the mountains, finally. I think, but I have been wrong before. I looked at our stats, and we will be a little over 1,500 miles for two months. That is very slow for us on tour, as we usually do more like 1,000 to 1,500 per month. Now we are getting older, we would expect our average to come down a bit, but never have we had so many mountains. Of the 1,500 miles, 1,300 were in mountains with climbs of 2,000 to 7,000 feet per day, and many of those climbs were at very high elevation. Neither of those numbers is too bad, except when they come day after day after day, with no let up. For two weeks in Tibetan Sichuan, we were doing those climbs at elevations of 13,500 to nearly 16,000 feet. That was, to put it nicely, hard.

Mountain Panorama of Laos

Mountain Panorama of Laos

When we got to Northern Yunnan, we thought it would ease off, but it was not to be again. The climbs kept coming, just at a bit lower elevation. After the bus ride to Southern Yunnan the mountains continued into Northern Laos, where we were again sure they would at least become hills. It was not to be. Just three riding days ago, we climbed 1,600 meters, or 5,250 feet. This is not a bad day for us in Tucson, on our old but still fairly light road bikes, but on a loaded tandem, in heat and humidity, with 3300 feet waiting the next day, exhausting.

Karst in Central Laos

Karst in Central Laos

I look back at our first tour of the U.S., and the Rockies were with us for a long time, but the top elevation was just over 12,000 feet, and there were rolling plains between the ranges. The Himalayas of Southwest China gave no breaks, and Northern Laos the same, just lower in elevation. British Columbia and Alberta have a lot of big climbs, but the top elevation was 8,000 feet or so, and most of the climbs under 4,000 feet.

So, who is to blame for all these mountains? Me. I could have researched the route and known how hard it would be. But, my natural optimism led me to believe whatever mountains China and Laos threw at us, we would be able to handle. Well, it was close.

But, Stubbornness is our name, tenacity is our game. Now it gets easy, just heat and humidity, and I think there might be some little hills on the border with Vietnam, and some in Cambodia. Not to worry; can’t be much.

A few pictures from the last few days:

Net Fisherman in Laos

Net Fisherman in Laos

Home for Lunch

Home for Lunch

Laos Mountain Scene

Laos Mountain Scene

Working the Rice

Working the Rice

Monk on a Bicycle in Laos

Monk on a Bicycle in Laos

Helping Dad

Helping Dad

Hey! That's My Frog!

Hey! That’s My Frog!

He Found His Shangri-la

His Shangri-la

His Shangri-la

His Shangri-la is Lao

We stopped in the middle of a four hour mountain climb south of Luang Prabang, for a cold drink and some shade. A man came out of the house next door, and I glanced his way. Nah. He looked farang (Western) but it couldn’t be, this far out of the city, in a tiny village. Something about the way he moved about the house, helped a small boy with his shoes, said he belonged here, lived here.

I saw the beard, the nose, yup, farang. He turned to us and said, “Hello.” We spoke, he in a vaguely European accent with excellent English. He said he was German, and had traveled by bicycle, for five years, around the world. We shared touring stories, favorite places, bicycles. He said we could never make the climb by the end of the day, and the worse one waiting after that. We hoped he was wrong.

I wanted to know how he ended up in Laos, and how long he had been there. I waited. It would come.

He began his story: He got food poisoning in Laos. After five years of bicycle touring around the world, he was stuck in Luang Prabang. Then he met her, and his life changed forever. They married, have two children, and he has been in Laos for seven years. He manages a pig farm for his father-in-law, and the family spends half the week in Luang Prabang, where their children can get an adequate education, and half on the farm.

I asked him if he would ever go back to Germany, take his family. He smiled, “Never.” He is Lao now, family man, farmer, happy, healthy. He found what many would call his Shangri-la. His is real. A beautiful wife, comfortable home, two much loved children. So, for some seekers, Shangri-la becomes more than fantasy, an ideal, but a day to day life, real.

He traveled alone those five years on his bicycle; we know just how many pedal strokes that is. He was searching for something, Shangri-la maybe. He entered Laos from Yunnan China, mythical location of mythical Shangri-la, as we did. He hadn’t found it there, lovely as it is. Food poisoning brought it to him, it brought him love and purpose.

Where he lives is beautiful, very, very beautiful. The people are poor, but they laugh at, and with, we crazy farangs pedaling through their lives. They bathe by the roadside at a cold water stand pipe, and instead of complaining, laugh. They expect little, and appreciate much. Perhaps our German friend, now Lao, saw that, and the light of his love’s eyes, and knew he was home, in Shangri-la.

We didn’t get his name, but he has this site and we hope he will e-mail us. We will publish his name and correct any miss-perceptions. We’d also like him to know we made it to Kiukacham, just before dark. It was our hardest day in Laos.

Christmas? Now in a Lao Shangri-la

Christmas? Now in a Lao Shangri-la