Monday, 3 January 2011

Week 9 - Xieng Kok to Luangnamtha 166kms cycled

Highlights: Hot showers, hot coffee, hot food, steam sauna
Low blows: Bloody cold misty mornings and cold showers
Music of the week: Burning Wheel – Primal Scream

Xieng Kok
Slept well despite bed being not very comfy – hard but uneven. Cold and misty in morning. Headed down to resto and bid farewell to Italian bloke who was skipping down the road after the bus thatd just blared its horn. Ordered an omelet for brekkie but got greasy fried eggs instead. Eventually got it sorted and ate both. Grease tastic.

Wandered down to riverside where a large cargo boat was docked and Akha tribes women were unloading 25kg boxes from the back of a big truck and putting them into the boat. Chatted with the Akha blokes who were just sitting around smoking. Theyd all come down with a boat loaded with the villages rice, so this cargo humping was probably just to make extra money. They unloaded their rice sacks in pairs, laughing and joking and made it look easy. I picked up one end  of a sack - weighed a ton.

Wandered up to the market. Pretty sorry state of affairs, filthy and crap, wouldn’t eat at the noodle stalls here. Lots of Akha women in full regalia shopping and a group haggling over the price of headdress baubles. Some really impressive looking outfits – maybe these are the gentry of their tribe out shopping while the others do the work?? One woman in particular had a lot of jewelry and shiny shiny and was quite striking to look at, the village beauty? Bought some damp washing powder and came back to do my chores and hung them out in the hot sun now mist had cleared. Settled in to read book and drink beer for the day. Left the bin of water from bathroom on verandah all day so the suns hot rays could warm it up. Washed bike off in afternoon after a saga of finding a hose pipe, the Chinese woman who works here doesn’t understand mime. Went to take some photos in late afternoon. Had a spin round village, strange to find an Akha village just 1km west from here across a big girder bridge spanning a river made  gully. Women showering around the standpipe . A small fair going on there with balloons and darts, the big dice gambling game. Nothing happening in the town Xieng Kok. Cool at night.

Akha ladies carrying cargo

Into the boat it goes

Morning view from my balcony

View upriver


Xieng Kok to Muang Long 21km
Misty and cold in morning. Went for a brisk walk to get circulation going before I sat down for breakfast. Lucky this gh has a resto cos there really is bugger all in this town. Had omelet again, getting better by the day mind! Got some air in tyres form a garage, packed and off by 10. Sun just starting to poke through so rode in tshirt. Pleasant scenery along the way, some gentle hills ups and downs, a bit of tarmac in some villages but mainly dirt all the way which wasn’t nice when vehicles went past. Some scruffy looking villages and a huge banana plantation along the way, all the bunches of bananas covered in blue plastic bags for ripening. People friendly enough.
Arrived Ban Muang Long at 12:30. Took longer than I thought. Found a nice room (60000kip) but unfortunately no hot shower, so had a refreshing clean up. Resto around corner overlooking rice paddies. Had lunch and a beer, then popped into tourist info office. Apparantly there is a gh with hot showers in the town! Damn. Got a circular route off the bloke there and had an hours bike ride on a rough road which went over river, alongside farmland – fresh green rice stalks, and something growing out of rows of plastic covers (lots of Akha workers tending it too), beneath a huge karsk outcrop, through a village, over a rattan bridge and back onto main road. Stopped to look at spray paint police markings of what looked to be a horrible traffic incident. Along the way back, lots of houses have got the tops of tall grass stems laid out to dry. Found remains of a curious little wooden hut thing with wooden guns and an rpg nailed to strut and in a basket at the top a load of wooden swords, no idea what its for. Back to gh, ate an ok bowl of Foe in eve and then went in search of snacks, but really crappy selection. Ended up with some sponge cake things. Lay crisps are the same as in Thai but with a 30% mark up which makes the ordinary expensive price outrageous. Went to bed at 8:30, as nowt whatsoever to do in the village and feeling tired too.
Tops of grass drying in the sun - used to make brooms

Remnants of a nasty accident

Toys for boys

Muang Long to Muang Singh 65km
Absolutely freezing morning. Found a foe place, not so delicious. Got em to give me hot water for a 3in1 coffee too. School kids going to school looking half frozen and a strange group of girls all under umberellas even though no sun yet. Sun eventually poked its head through the mist and quickly burnt it off. Riding through farmland, rice, maize, and discovered the plants in plastic are pumpkins, some plants well developed down the valley with yellow flowers, and some are watermelons. Easy enough ride, fairly gentle up and down only pain in arse was the vast amounts of dust kicked up by passing vehicles of which there were a fair few. Stopped off at one small village who were having a delivery of sack fulls of passion fruit from China, they gave me a handful and I chatted for a bit. Kids quickly snapping up any fruit that fell out of the sacks. Very refreshing, forgotten how good they taste. Road followed a river for most of way then rose to cross a small mtn range/hill then gentle downhill for last 10kms into Muang Singh. Got a room in new place HOT SHOWER! and great view over surrounding rice paddies. 60000kip.
Had a wash, then food, then surveyed the town on foot. Since last time (10yrs) the road has been paved and buildings have gone up all along the main street. Lots if funny hybrid motorscooters with pedals almost silently whirring past. Lots of everything Chinese in fact as its only 10kms to border. The old market building with soul is still there albeit deserted (there is a sign saying textiles market but only one sad looking woman with a few bits n bobs for sale – what have they done!) and a new market has been constructed 1km away across town. 3 times the size with one section for clothes, 1 for engines and stuff and the other for veggies and meat. The meat section is still pretty nasty and a dog was stood on the counter eating tit bits left over on a now departed sellars piece of cardboard. It was also eying the bigger cuts of meat on the stall just a meter away but seemed to have the knowledge that taking from there would be a big mistake. Bought some satusumas, ok but bit hard, passionfruit, and a bottle of Lao lao. The town seems to be on a bit of a boom, but the whole magic of that old market has gone. Had beers in afternoon and read up on verandah, chatting with a family, and a kiwi woman who’d just come from Yunnan on a bike.

 Kids make the most of a passion fruit delivery conveniently opposite their school 

Around Muang Singh 20km
Misty cold start to morning, lingered in bed reading, despite being woken by cockerels and the local news blasting out of a loud speaker somewhere. My orange woolly hat made its debut this morning as so cold. Had breakfast, foods not so great around here and water in coffee not hot enough, especially when its this cold (and probably the reason why its not so hot cos they don’t use kettles). Cycled up to new market, busy and a lot of traditionally dressed shoppers although the magic isn’t there with this new building.
Waited for sun to come out at 10 and then went on a circuit of some villages around here as someone had kindly left a map of local area in my room. First few kms were along sealed road, then off onto a bumpy track past a house decorated by rows and rows of brilliant golden corn drying under its rafters. Through a village across 2 streams and soon onto a small track through rice paddies and people putting a layer of plastic over newly planted melons. Track now just going over borders of paddies. Had to carry bike, workers pointed the way and eventually plonked bike onto a dirt track. Followed that and took a right fork which soon petered out into a small valley with dry paddies. Pushed bike following buffalo track and wondering where the hell the village is? After going up to calf in mud and battling through tangly plants I headed for a small hut and sure enough there was a trail leading away from it that lead me onto a large dirt track and soon into the Akha village Id been looking for. Immediately spotted and surrounded by a gang of 7yr old lads demanding money, pens, sweets. Mucked about and nicked one of their hats. They started to push my bike with me on it through the village until I zoomed off, only pausing to give the kids hat back once he’d caught up and confirm directions to next village with a group of blokes.
Easy path to follow this time and through massive platations of sugar cane, some of which had been recently harvested leaving a sea of stalks to cycle through. A big truck stacked up with cane made its way along the narrow track and a few workers walking along munching on the stuff. Soon in next village(Akha) and again kids asking for pens. Bloke chopping wood and an old woman wanting to sell me ganja ganja. Chatted with some blokes who wanted to know English words for married, eat rice, husband – what were they planning?  Very friendly, showed me way to next village and off again on easy track through the fields. Arrived in a Yao village and then through a close succession of them till stopped to ask for directions in largest of them all, immediately sprang upon by an old woman and 2 kids selling cute key chain/dangly things for 5000kip. Politely declined grandma’s sales pitch. Asked where main road was and on my way back to tarmac and the town. Quite a few houses have sprung up along here too. Had lunch and a beer in resto looking over rice fields and watched local women hunker down to a game of cards, lots of gambling and amusing to watch the eyes of one who was always trying to peek at the other players hands.
Dinner a solemn affair, hushed couples. Had a quick reccie in town but couldn’t see anywhere or anyone I fancied getting drunk with so bought some snacks and went back to room with beer and lao lao. Woken in the night around 2ish by what at first sounded to be a gang rape, but turned out to be the Japanese bloke in next doors room throwing up. Happy new year!
Cane sugar coming through

Ladies card school

View from gh balcony

Soon to be replaced by concrete and tiles  (possibly) - a rustic house in Muang Singh

Old French building in Muang Singh

Muang Singh to Luangnamtha 60kms
Very cold again in morning. No news through loudspeakers so must be a holiday? Laos people, despite it being bloody cold, will open wide all doors in the home when they have got up, thus letting in all the cold air and then standing around freezing. Odd. Made a hot tea, closed the door to outside balcony near my room and back into bed reading. Wanted to set off when sun came up. Was ready by 10, but mist didn’t start to go till 11 so that’s when I left and immediately hot enough to ride in tshirt. Flat road to start, then easy gradient uphill. Road went into narrow valley and wound its way through the surrounding hills, the start of NamHa protected area. All hills covered in trees and very scenic.
Reached top of hill after 25kms, then down pretty much for the remainder of ride. More and more villages the nearer I got towards Lunagnamtha and more people had made headway into the forest with recently cleared areas for farming- rubber, corn. Lots of dried grass stalks laying out to dry, kids playing in roadside, some villagers walking up road to/from work in fields, Passed some cyclists coming uphill from LNT and looking tired, maybe over indulged last night.  Arrived LNT at 3pm, had a big bowl of foe then found a gh round corner, 50000kip with free wifi. Spent rest of day on internet and skyped home.

Slash and burn, crop cultivation, and rubber platations put increasing pressure on the remaining forested areas of Laos

Crap nights sleep, due to gh owners yappy dog, plus cockerels, motorbikes, and government speaker blaring news out at day break. Icing on the cake was discovering there is no hot water as promised. Went to eat bf and had a look for a new place to stay. 1st one I looked at seemed good but when I checked for hot shower they had same as my place. Woman said water is solar heated (as are a lot of places here) and that is the problem. Solar is all well and good when you have sun, but this area usually has thick mist in a morning. So the time of day that is the coldest and you need hot water the most, ie morning, you don’t have any. Found a new gh with scalding hot shower, no wifi. Cost a little bit more, but room is bigger, brighter and nicer too, away from road and checked for our feathered friends out of the window. Did some laundry and lazed about for rest of day. Saw a bloke casually walking through town with a huge 10m length of bamboo scaffold pole on his shoulder, In evening had a lemon grass steam sauna, popping out to recover with fresh tea every so often and finally sluicing off with cold water. Felt very refreshed afterwards. Finished the hard day of doing nothing with a delicious Indian for tea. 

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