Shikoku Island

To get over to Shikoku Island from Awaji Island I had to jump back onto the toll highway across another very impressive suspension bridge over the Naruto Strait.  Here water rushes between the Pacific Ocean and the Seto Inland Sea between high to low tide at 11 knots (20 km/h), making it the 4th fastest tide in the world and creates impressive whirlpools.

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The bridge over the Naruto Strait from Awaji to Shikoku

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The 4th fastest tide in the world, creating impressive whirlpools.

Just south of the bridge on the east coast there were some great bridge views and good beaches.  I kept riding south heading for the pronounced Muroto peninsula I’d heard was nice and sparsely populated.  Most of Shikoku’s 4.5 million people live on the north coast, so that was something I was keen to avoid.

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Just south of the bridge on the east coast there are some great bridge views and good beaches

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Naruto Beach

I couldn’t have really asked for much more – the sun was out and it was hot for the first time since I’d arrived in Japan.  The bike was running like a dream and I was really enjoying cruising along the coastal road, stopping off at anything interesting I saw along the way.  It felt great to be truly free; to be able to go anywhere and do anything.  The only thing I had to worry about was what I was going to have for lunch.  I just wasn’t sure!

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Freedom!

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Life’s a beach…

After a couple of hours I reached the small coastal town of Hiwasa and dropped in to see the Yakuoji Temple to ward off all my evil spirits, especially as I’m 41.  In Japan, Yakudoshi (Unlucky Years) are years of misfortune or calamity throughout a persons life, and it is generally agreed that for men the ages of 41, 42 & 61 are the most dangerous.  Interestingly for women it is 32, 33 & 61.  Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over Japan (and me) visit this temple due to its reputation as a good place to pray for protection from these ‘unlucky years’.  I’ll let you know if it works.

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Yakuoji Temple – a place to ward off all your evil spirits

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If this guy didn’t ward off my evil spirits, I don’t know who could!

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The top temple of Yakuoji

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The view from the top of the temple was great

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Blue skies above – the best day so far

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The best things about all these old temples are the roofs.

During my ride south I’d seen many people walking along the road wearing sedge hats (sugegasa), white jackets (hakui) and staffs (kongotsue).  I later found out they were on the ‘Shikoku O-Henro’, or Shikoku Pilgrimage, a religious pilgrimage around the island visiting the 88 temples associated with 8th century Japanese Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi Kukai – ‘The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching’.

The total distance of the pilgrimage is approximately 1,200 km and takes anything from 30 to 60 days to complete – no mean feat.  As many as 500 thousand people from all over the world make this pilgrimage every year, and I saw some of them at Yakuoji Temple, which is temple number 23 on The List.  I imagine after 88 temples one may have seen enough temples for one year.

From Hiwasa I followed the coastal road south again, hitting more beautiful, empty, clean, sandy beaches and scenic views along the way.  The further south I rode, the less traffic there was, until there was hardly any at all.  It was a good choice choosing the south coast I thought, and proved there were still some places in Japan you could ‘get away from it all’ quite quickly and easily.

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Nesting site for Logger Head Turtles

The speed limit in Japan on almost all roads is a slow 50 km/h (70 to 100 km/h on toll expressways), but as no one was around, I was becoming more and more relaxed with the throttle, and really enjoying myself.

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Another lovely, isolated beach

True to my usual ‘loose planning’ strategy, I hadn’t really figured out a route, or where I was actually going, so I thought I’d better sort out somewhere to head for and sleep for the night.

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The southern coastal highway – Great!

Inland Shikoku is basically covered in mountains, and I’d heard that road 193 cut through them from north to south and offered amazing views.  A fancied a bit of mountain riding after my week in Osaka, and I’d found several campsites there online, so sleeping shouldn’t be a problem.  So when I reached the 193 turn-off, I took it without thinking too much, leaving the gorgeous south coast beaches in my rear view mirror.

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As I started climbing the 193 mountain road, the views got better

I targeted a campsite into GPS and started climbing a very steep, twisty mountain road.  It was great!  It was late afternoon, but the campsite didn’t look that far on the map, and the online photos looked awesome.  I was surprised there was absolutely no traffic whatsoever – perhaps that should have told me something.

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The 193 snaking its way up the Shikoku’s mountain ranges

Flying up the mountain side, the road gradually became narrower and narrower until soon it was just one lane, and sometimes half a lane.  The surface condition was still good, but it started to look like no-one had used it for a very long time.  Leaves, pine needles, moss and broken branches lay strewn all over the road, making the surface very slippery and braking too hard dangerous.  As the sides became steeper (with no barriers), I slowed down quite a bit, as I didn’t fancy skidding over the edge, for a change.

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It didn’t look as though this road was used much! Was I on the right one?

Eventually I broke over the summit and descended into a valley to the junction with the east-west 195 road.  Somewhat relieved I’d made it over without incident, I stopped for a breather.  After a few minutes a Japanese biker pulled up on a Yamaha R6, heading the way I’d just come from.  He was about the only biker I’d seen that day, even though it was the weekend.

After a chat I set off again still on the 193, and began a second long climb over another mountain.

High in the mountains it gets dark before sunset, and the light & heat were fading fast.  As I climbed still higher, I began to notice the occasional patch of snow by the side of the road, and slowed down further in case ice was on the road.  Then I came across these cool icicles hanging over the north facing side of a mountain which looked like a stream had frozen on its way down.

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You know it’s cold when you see these…

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Yes, they were real. And it was getting real cold!

The road twisted on and on, and the campsite edged closer at a very slow rate.  I had realised earlier the OSM maps on my Garmin assumed I would be travelling everywhere at 100 km/h, and therefore the arrival times it gave were hugely inaccurate, particularly when crawling up a steep 2,000m (6,500ft) high mountain chain.  At this rate I was going to arrive around sunset, which wasn’t the end of the world.

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The scenery was beautiful though, and well worth the ride

However, it was the end of the world when I reached the campsite turn-off to discover a barrier across the road, with a sign saying what I presumed was ‘Road Closed for the Winter’.  This left me with two choices:  carry on and hope to find another campsite, or go back.  As I hate going back, I voted for number one, and continued climbing.  I was hoping I’d reach the summit soon, and the road would drop into another valley, full of lush, green, flat camping ground.

Riding on higher still, soon there wasn’t just a bit of snow on the road, but lots of it, and ice had started to form as the temperature had dropped below freezing.

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More snow appeared the higher I went; not really surprising is it?

Eventually at the summit, I emerged from a very icy and slippery tunnel to find the road completely snowed in.  Lush, green valley there may be down there somewhere, but there was no way I was going to risk riding my bike down a snowy slope (not even I’m that stupid!) That will teach me for not researching the weather properly at altitude and asking locals what the road conditions are like.

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Time to turn round!

I had no choice but to turn back and find alternative sleeping arrangements.  However, I had to be quick because sunset had passed and it was quickly getting dark, and I didn’t fancy riding back down the freezing, icy slope in the dark.

I made my way back to the first valley at the junction of the 195 and rode west.  It was now dark and cold and camping was becoming less and less appealing the more time went on.  I saw a sign for a country spar and rolled up to take a look.  It looked posh and exclusive – very posh – but they had no rooms anyway, so I didn’t have to bother to ask how much.  No idea who the guests were though – I had hardly seen anyone all day.

So it looked as though I was camping rough again, which I didn’t mind at all; I just had to find somewhere suitable to pitch the tent that wasn’t at a 70 degree (or more) angle.

I found it mildly amusing I was in this situation again for the second night in a row, particularly after promising myself I’d get to a campsite much earlier today.  As I was searching for a pitch, I was trying to work out how I’d gone from sunbathing beach weather on a beautiful coast ideal for camping, to freezing my nuts off in the snow on near vertical slopes.

As with last night, the more time rolled on, the more I didn’t care where I pitched, and soon I pulled off the road and threw the tent up in a small pine forest clearing.

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Somewhere to sleep at last! Right – get the stove on!

It was actually a good spot, and right next to a waterfall that I could wash in, although it was blooming cold!  On the menu again was…. Spag Bol and chunky bread!  However, this time I added a bag of spinach to add a green kick.  It’s amazing how quickly my gas stove cooks when there’s no wind!  It’s also amazing how quickly you eat something when you’re starving.

It was nice crawling into my lovely, warm sleeping bag with a full belly and the sound of the waterfall in the background.

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Awaji Island

Who would have thought a few miles across the water from Japan’s largest and busiest island, Honshu, lays a tiny, flowered island called Awaji with hardly any traffic at all?  Sounds like heaven!

Crossing onto the island from Honshu, just west of Kobe, I rode over the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, which is actually the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,991 metres (6,532 ft).  As you can see from the photos, it is quite an impressive sight.  I couldn’t help but think it would be a lot more famous if they only painted it a striking colour; a pink Golden Gate Bridge, for example (and given a more user friendly name).

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Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,991 metres (6,532 ft).

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Akashi Kaikyō Bridge – beautiful (for a bridge)

According to the Kojiki and Nihonshoki (the two oldest 7th century extant historical records of Japan), Awaji was the first island created by the gods Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto.  Because of this it has traditionally supplied the table of the imperial courts with gourmet food, including huge fruit and vegetables and the Tajima cattle from which Matsuzaka & Kobe steaks are cut. Shame they must export all the good stuff because the Awaji Beefburger I had was mediocre at best; but then again it was from a sloppy joe roadhouse.  Well actually I had two as I was starving.

The toll road runs the length of Awaji (33 miles) onto the island Shikoku.  Staying on it would have been rather boring and expensive, so I hopped off at the first opportunity (paying my £15 fee) and continued along Awaji’s southern coast road which tightly hugs the coast making a very pleasant, relaxing ride, light-years away from the noise, traffic and congestion of Osaka and the southern Honshu coast.  After the last couple of days of rain in Osaka (which is why I decided to stay there so long), it was also a very pleasant experience to be riding in the sun.  It wasn’t exactly warm, but it was dry and mild – almost perfect biking weather in fact.

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Beautiful day, beautiful view

I’d read that Awaji is one of the largest flower production centres in Japan, so I thought I’d better check them out.  Climbing into the hills just a few miles south of the bridge, I eventually found Awaji Hanasajiki, which means ‘Flower Garden’.  Although I was a little early in the season, some of the flowers had already started blooming, including over 1 million purple and yellow ‘Hanana’, or Rapeseed (the third largest source of vegetable oil in the world).

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Awaji Hanasajiki – Over 1 million purple and yellow ‘Hanana’, or Rapeseed

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Awaji Hanasajiki

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From the top of the hill you had a great view of the coast

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I’m not a huge flower fan, but I had to admit these were good

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But then everything looks much better in the sun!

Further south there’s a museum showing the devastation caused by the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake (or Kobe earthquake) which killed over 6,400 people, mostly from Kobe across the water.

Japan lies on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, home to 90% of the world’s earthquakes, and something I’ve been circling around through California, New Zealand, (parts of) Indonesia and now Japan.  Earthquakes around the ring are no surprise, caused by the movement of the Earth’s outer rigid shell (lithospheric plates) floating around on top of a less rigid mantle.  Good job it did, because otherwise there would be no land to live on (all our planet’s land has been created by volcanic eruptions).  This process is called Plate Tectonics, and this quick Geography lesson was brought to you by my old Geography teacher Mr Clifford (he would be pleased I listened to something!)

The Nojima Fault on the Ring of Fire cuts Awaji in two, and it was movement along this fault that caused the 1995 earthquake.  California lies in a similar position to Awaji – cut in half by a moving fault that will continue to cause earthquakes for many years to come.

As the sun was getting low, I started to hurry up a bit and look out for a campsite.  I’d found a website that listed hundreds of free (yes, free) campsites throughout Japan, but only problem was it was in Japanese.  Apparently they want all tourists to pay for camping (and why not, I suppose).

As it was getting later and colder I would have gladly paid to camp somewhere with a hot shower, but unfortunately I couldn’t find anything anywhere.  After a lot of searching on my Japanese Data SIM (which I should have done earlier) I soon discovered there was a distinct lack of affordable accommodation in Awaji, and the cheapest hotel I could find was around £60 (no good on my world traveller’s budget).  Eventually I managed to find one glancing reference to a chargeable campsite on the northwest coast at a place called Taganohama Beach.  Unfortunately nowhere called Taganohama Beach was showing on my SatNav or Google Maps.

It couldn’t be that hard to find, I thought, so I decided I might as well ride round the rest of the island on my way to the west coast and swing by Nadakuroiwa Suisenkyo (‘Home of the Daffodils’ on the SE coast), where 5 million of the flowers were supposed to be in bloom.  I’ve never seen 5 million daffodils before, but I must say I was expecting something a little more spectacular.  Maybe I’m just too hard to please.  Or maybe I was just too early/late again.

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If you like Daffodils, there are lots in Awaji

Back on the hunt for somewhere to sleep, it was now sunset and black clouds were rolling in.  The forecast was rain, and it was right.  Soon it was pelting down cats, dogs and frogs.  Then it got really cold and windy.  Ideal.

As camping is not much fun in the rain, wind and cold (well, I suppose it depends who you have in your tent), I almost decided to part with £60 and retreat to a hotel.  However, the forecast said the rain would stop around 7pm, so I decided to press on with the plan.

I’d read that in Japan you can pretty camp anywhere for free, as long as you’re respectful (of course), discrete and packed away early enough to not be an eyesore in the morning (on the village park).  By now it was dark and very cold, and I was looking out for anywhere suitable to pitch and get the stove on.

Two hours later I was still searching, and it was still raining, very cold and windy.  It was times like this I wished my heated grips worked properly.  Triumph may have made a great bike, but the ‘heated grips’ only reach lukewarm at best, except on boiling hot days, which isn’t very useful.

During my World Tour I have learnt quite a few things, and one of them is: there gets to a point when you stop worrying about whether you can camp somewhere or not.  I had reached that point.

Desperate now, I came across an empty park next to the beach with loos, and took shelter from the rain & wind under a veranda.  It was 8pm.  Looking around I found the loos had showers, but they were locked, and I guessed I’d found the campsite after all, but closed out of season.

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I took this shot in the morning, just after the geriatric golfers woke me up

My iPhone Weather App has served me very well so far on my tour, and sure enough the rain stopped around 8.30pm.  By now I had warmed up a bit, and the full moon had risen to make quite a beautiful evening.  I found what I thought was a good spot, and almost had my £20 Home-Mart special tent up in seconds, when one of the peg loops ripped out from the groundsheet.  Great!  Lesson:  Always pitch a new tent at home first as a test before deployment in the field (I actually knew this lesson as well, but was short of a home to test it out in first).

Another lesson – Adapt and overcome.

I managed to make a little pocket to hold the tent pole in the groundsheet, and made a hole in ground sheet to put the peg through.  It worked, which is all I cared about.

Camping next to the beach may sound romantic, but I’ve discovered west coast Awaji beaches are windy and freeeezing in the winter, as you’d probably expect, and the wind kept blowing out my gas stove.  After quite a lot of perseverance (as I was about to keel over from starvation), I built enough of a shelter around the stove to cook an incredible one-pot meal of Spagetti Bolognaise and eggs.  Like most kinds of food when you’re starving, it tasted AMAZING, and instantly made the world look great again.

There are things I love already about Japan, and one of them is the size of their bread slices.  In a normal loaf you will only get 5 to 6 slices, which make the thickness of each slice really man sized.  Being a huge bread eater (I’m scared to have a gluten sensitivity test in case I’m positive, as I think I really might starve) this gets me really excited, and I love making huge sandwiches from it.  I especially savoured dunking it into my spag bol that evening.

Awaji – Day 2

I was awoken around 6am by a band of geriatric golfers whose practice putting green I was camped on.  I must say they were jolly nice and cheerful about it and even came over to look at my bike.  However, I hope when I retire I at least wait until 9am before venturing outside on such a frosty morning, after a good old fry up.

I was very happy I’d had a great sleep and wasn’t cold at all in my new sleeping bag.  I didn’t have a stiff back either (like I usually get camping), so was also very happy I’d spent the extra for a good quality inflatable mat & pillow (yes – luxury camping on a motorbike – not bad!)

It was a cold morning though, but the best thing about being cold is how good it makes the sun feel when it comes out and starts warming you up; and it looked as though it was going to be a lovely day!  After a hasty tent dismantling and a quick breakfast, I set off back south to head on over the next bridge to Shikoku, Japan’s 4th largest island.

Random question: Why do many Japanese men and women I see shuffle around dragging their feet?  Apparently it has to do with their age old tradition of wearing wooden sandals called geta (particularly with older people) which call for a shuffle to stop them falling off.  After a week in Osaka I too found myself shuffling around the hotel wearing the tiny slippers they provided to stop them falling off.

The ride back down south was much more enjoyable than the same road north the night before in the rain, as the sun was out, and I managed to see some more nice, suitable camping beaches I had missed in the dark.  It was going to be a great day to sample sparsely populated, mountainous Shikoku and her beautiful beaches.

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I missed this beach the night before in the dark, windy rain – but it looked like heaven now!

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I liked Awaji much better when it wasn’t rainy and windy

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All packed away ready for the ride to Shikoku (with my new dry bag holding my new camping camping equipment)

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Osaka, Japan

Everyone in China seems to be coughing their guts up in a not so discrete manner.  Luckily I implanted my secret weapons (earplugs) and tried to sleep through most of the flights from Bangkok to Osaka on China Eastern Airlines.  After a full 24 hours travelling and an overnight at Kunming airport (China), I was no longer sure my policy of picking the cheapest flight was one I’d recommend to myself in the future.

I arrived at a very new looking Kansai International Airport in Osaka at 15:40 on 6th March and intended to rush immediately down to Osaka Port Customs to rescue my much missed Triumph Tiger motorcycle as soon as possible.  However, first I had to find out several things like: where on earth they lived, where the receiving cargo agent lived (to pay their bill) and where the warehouse was my motorbike was being stored at.  Apparently the agent said I had to arrive at the warehouse with a forklift truck to transport the crated motorbike to customs for checking.  I knew I’d forgotten something!

My endless tasks list didn’t stop there.  I’d read before customs would stamp my carnet de passage (like a passport for the bike to allow temporary import into many countries) I had to get the carnet ‘authenticated’ by the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF).  The cargo agents advised me to employ a local shipping agent to do most of this for me, but that was going to cost me a fortune (Japan is not cheap), so I decided to give it a go myself.  Can’t be that hard, can it??

My plan for a quick airport escape to visit JAF was dashed when I was almost strip searched by a very thorough (but very polite) customs agent.  It was the first time anyone had ever searched me, except for Australia, but it looked as though everybody coming off the plane was being searched.

Once I’d explained away my bag of drugs, antibiotics and talcum powder (which had typically exploded everywhere in my bag), I was eventually let loose in Japan.

I always imagined Japan to be a very clean, super-efficient country colourfully decorated with billions of neon lights and Karaoke bars.  I was spot on.

I was a little worried everything (signs, instructions etc) would be written in Japanese only, but I was somewhat relieved when I saw the train timetable and station names written in English as well at the airport train station.  It was a cool 5 degrees C (41 F) but it felt refreshing – it was nice to be back in the temperate zone after sweating my balls off in SE Asia for the past 6 months.  I was pleased though I still had the coat I’d bought in Burma, and my woolly hat.

Jumping on the express train into central Osaka, I plonked into an empty seat in an almost empty carriage and was then very politely explained each ticket had a seat number, and that I should sit in that seat.  Yes, I was quickly realising Japan was more organised than I gave it credit for.

We set off at the exact second it was scheduled to, and in complete comparison to my last train ride in Burma, this train was smooth as silk.  I could have probably balanced an egg on its end on the window ledge for the whole journey.

The train was incredibly clean and comfortable, and all the seats were tastefully covered in leopard skin material, just like my old Mark II Ford Escort.  For a moment I thought I’d sat in first class by mistake.

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Tasty leopard print seats – just like my old Mark II Escort

Forty minutes later I arrived in downtown Shinsekai, the old town hub of crime and prostitution, and so the cheapest area to sleep, of course.  It was now past 5pm and JAF was shut, so instead I made my way to the cheap hotel I’d booked online for £9 ($15) a night.  It was Thursday, so I had all day tomorrow to get my bike released, with luck.

The receptionist at Hotel Kaga spoke good English and was a fellow biker, and he help me out no end with various matters like getting the local SIM card I’d bought up and running.  Only data SIMs are available for ‘foreigners’ in Japan (no phone calls), but this was all I needed to access Google Maps and web browsing for trip planning.  Garmin maps don’t actually produce navigational maps for Japan, but instead I managed to downloaded free OSM maps I found online onto my Garmin, which worked a treat.

The street outside my classy hotel seemed to be a gathering point for all the city’s homeless people (they need to install more public toilets in the area) but they did seem harmless enough, and my hotel did provide free admission to the local sento (public baths) which seemed fair compensation.  Wasting little time after my long 2 days travelling, I dumped my stuff in my (tiny, tiny) room and headed down the road for my first real taste of Japanese culture.

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My tiny shoebox room with rolled up Japanese bed – but it was all I needed

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Luckily, you can never run out of beer in Japan – even the countless street vending machines sell it!

Walking into the sento it was all rather confusing at first.  An old lady sat at the desk by the front door and took my free admission ticket, and then directed me to take all my clothes off in a large communal changing room.  With no idea where to go from there, I followed another naked man through another door into the bathing area, which consisted of a row of showers (and little stools), a couple of huge hot tubs and lots of naked men.  Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to play rugby, but imaged it must be a rugby team’s heaven, all scrumming together in a luxury huge hot tub with lots of other naked men.

I guessed (correctly) that you must shower before entering the baths, and so I took my seat on a tiny stool, like everybody else, in front of a shower head and bucket and had a good wash.  It really was quite surreal for a first timer-visitor, although once submerged in the beautifully hot baths, it was very relaxing.

A young guy entered the bath and sat next to me and started chatting, although our lack of ability to speak each other’s language hindered any lasting relationship.  In fact I was quite the object of amusement to many, but then again a bald white Brit must have looked quite strange sitting naked in among all the local folk.  I wish I could show you a photo of the place, as it was a great experience, although being a family-friendly blog it would have taken too long to Photoshop out all the little willies (and I haven’t got Photoshop anyway).

Relaxed, refreshed and extremely clean, I said my farewells to the old lady at the desk (who must have seen more willies than a Jewish circumcision surgeon), found the nearest bar and ordered myself a draft Asahi beer and a large serving of the recommended local dish.  The local dish was called Kushikatsu, and was basically a selection of deep fried meat, fruit & veg on kebab sticks.  I ended up with (I think) octopus, steak, prawns, asparagus, onion and even a hotdog.  It probably wasn’t the best choice considering my delicate stomach (recovering from Chinese plane food), or healthiest, but was actually pretty tasty.

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Kushikatsu – whatever you want, only deep fried

Wondering around the streets of Shinsekai I started to feel like I was really in Japan.  The streets were full of colourful neon street signs, lights, lanterns and everything else you’d expect.  It was great!

Smack bang in the middle of Shinsekai is the 103m (338ft) high Tsutenkaku tower, which offered great views of Osaka from the top, and definitely worth a climb.

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The Tsutenkaku tower, Shinsekai

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View of Osaka from the top of the 103m Tsutenkaku Tower

The next day I was up with the Japanese sparrows (which get up slightly later than the British ones) and set off to find the mythical JAF office to get my carnet ‘authenticated’.  Luckily JAF have a website, thank goodness (as did customs and the cargo agent) so finding them was actually pretty easy with my good old Google Maps.  The Osaka metro system took a bit of working out as not all the stations are written in English, but a logical station numbering system makes it easy when you get the idea.

By mid-morning I was sitting in the JAF office receiving my paperwork for customs; pretty painless so far.  When I asked them about the compulsory basic insurance I needed to ride my bike, they looked rather confused, and after a quick search the web produced the address of the Japanese Insurance Association.  Unfortunately, after a couple of hours of travelling and looking for it, the Japanese Insurance Association was not where it should be.  I sacked it and had lunch instead in the middle of Osaka city centre, where I had ended up.

I decided to try and release my bike without insurance and deal with that later, so made my way to customs down by the port.  I’m glad I did, because after a couple of hours dealing with very nice customs officials, running 2 miles to the cargo agent office before they closed (to pay the bill), running back to customs before they closed (with the cargo receipt), and travelling in a taxi to arrive at the warehouse just before they closed, I managed to get my hands on my beautiful bike.  YIPPEE!!!!

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The first view of my Tiger as she’s unboxed at the warehouse

It was now past 6pm and I was over the moon my busy Friday had paid off and I was now back on the road (albeit not quite legally).  It had become quite chilly as the day had wore on, and typically the one day I really needed my lip balm was the one day I’d forgotten it, as the wind chill factor decreased into minus figures.  Coming straight from the warm, humid tropics, my lips started to feel like I had just done 2 seasons with Scott in the Antarctic.  Riding back to the hotel with no gloves, I’d also forgotten both my middle fingers turn blue when they get really cold (after various breaks in both).  At least they were colourful.

Even though I was probably in the cheapest hotel in Osaka (even cheaper than shared dormitory hostel rooms there), I was pleased to see no expense has been spared on the toilet seats.  I got quite a shock during my first sitting when the seat gradually grew hotter and hotter – yes, it was my fist heated toilet seat!  I sat on there for quite a while enjoying the new sensation as my bottom thawed out.  These ‘hi-tech’ loo seats are actually all over Japan, and also include a variety of jets and sprays for celebratory fountain displays after a job well done.  Why don’t we have these in the UK?  I think I’ve found a gap in the market!

Anyway, a celebration was in order indeed, and I had just the ticket.  I’d never really used the Couch Surfing website, where people volunteer free beds for the night for travellers, but a couple of days earlier I had decided to give it a go.  I didn’t find a free couch to sleep on, but I did find out there was a Couch Surfing get-together in Osaka Fri night, with ‘all you could drink’ for 3 hours for 12 quid ($20).  Luckily that night happened to be Friday, so of course I couldn’t afford not to go.

It turned out to be a great night, and helped form my opinion that Japanese are among the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels.  But they can’t sing for toffee (and all the girls really do sing like Yoko Uno, which is not a compliment by the way).

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My first ever Couch-Surfing Party – fully recommended!

Japan is the 10th most populous country in the world with 127 million people, and it must have about 127 million Karaoke bars as well.  Amazingly, all these people and bars live on only 4% on the land surface, the rest being covered in mountains, forest, agriculture and water.  No wonder everyone is packed together so tightly in tiny shoebox rooms.  Despite this, it doesn’t seem that crowded because the public transport system is superb and runs like clockwork.

Everybody seems to smoke in Japan.  Everywhere.  There are even ashtrays in individual public toilet cubicles.  Personally I find there’s hardly enough room to sit down in one, let alone do anything like smoking (OK, it doesn’t take up that much room).  For a non-smoker I hate being next to someone smoking, and I find it really strange all the bars and restaurants I’ve been to allow it inside.  However, it hasn’t stopped me using them, because I have to eat of course, and drink beer, naturally.

A couple of days later on Sunday morning I woke up in the afternoon feeling like my head had been run over 3 times by an articulated lorry (or big truck for our American readers).  I also could not speak.  Then I started to remember the evening’s festivities the night before.  It really isn’t fair alcohol gives you (me) such a terrible hangover when it’s so much fun to consume.

The night after the ‘Couch-Surfing’ get-together, I’d arranged to meet cool couple Meray (Syrian) and Sven (German) in the most civilised of manners to dine upon traditional Japanese pizza.  We were also joined by Khalid who had contacted me via Couch Surfing website a couple of days before.  Khalid had just arrived in Osaka earlier that day to ride his bicycle around Japan; kind of the same I was doing, only much, much slower.  An interesting guy, he was half Irish and half Iraqi, so one half was an alcoholic and the other half a teetotaller (didn’t see much of the latter half).  He had been living in China for several years teaching English and fancied a break.

Despite the large numbers of Karaoke bars in Osaka, we had had trouble finding one with an ‘open house’ the night before, where everyone sings together at the bar; most of them had private cubicles you had to hire with a group of friends.  Eventually we found what must be the best little Karaoke bar in the world – The Kama Sutra Karaoke Bar – located in nightlife central’s Shinsaibashi; a maze of bars, restaurants and shops.

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The Kama Sutra Karaoke Bar – just before things got messy

What followed was an extremely fun night of song and laughter that somehow led onto more bars and more drinks with beer-monster Khalid, until we stumbled outside around 7am the next morning.  It’s always a bit strange when you walk out of a bar and see people heading off to work in their suits when you look like an extra from Beerfest.  I decided that walking back to my hotel would be the most sensible course of action, via McDonalds (God bless their 24 hour opening times!).

Notwithstanding my 2 day hangover (which I realised I was getting to old to repeat) (again), for the next week I allowed myself to get sucked into Osaka city life, visiting tourist hot-spots, sampling the amazing food and partaking in the occasional bout of duelling Karaoke.

I had a good little routine going; a cheap place to sleep, a good breakfast round the corner for a couple of quid (have you ever tried eating fried eggs with chop sticks?) and time to relax and explore at will.  Japan is one of the most expensive countries in the world, but it doesn’t have to be if you’re careful (and don’t drink too much).  I also had a lot of time to write inspired, humourous and meaningful prose into this blog, but somehow never got round to it (hence I’m frantically trying to catch up now, 2 weeks later).

One of the highlights of my week included a visit to Osaka Castle, an impressive reconstruction of a 5 story 16th century castle, after 90% of the original was bombed in WWII.

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Osaka Castle

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An impressive reconstruction of a 5 story 16th century castle, after 90% of the original was bombed in WWII

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Osaka Castle Park

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Osaka Castle Park

Osaka is a huge city in its own right – the 13th biggest in the world in fact, with a population of around 19 million.  To cater for this vast market there are many shopping areas including the impressive and entertaining lights of Dotonburi.

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The impressive and entertaining lights of Dotonburi

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Giant crab anyone?

While I was happily wondering around taking snaps, a smartly dressed middle-aged businessman stopped me on the street to chat and ask what I thought of Japan (a common question I get asked).  Half an hour later he was still asking me questions, but we had progressed onto such topics as what I thought of Japan’s financial outlook,  and what sectors of the world’s economy would be wise to invest in.  I’m not sure how we got to that point, but I did know I was completely lost and tried to re-route the conversation back onto motorbikes and beer.

I find this a lot in Japan – people seem genuinely interested in what foreigners think of them and their country.  The businessman above even wanted to know what I thought about Japan’s role in WWII.

Osaka is the proud owner of The World Spar – a Disneyland for bathers who can wonder gaily nude around a labyrinth of ornamental baths, hot tubs, pools and massage parlours all day for about 6 British pounds.  Except for the hundreds of willies hanging out in every eye direction, I spent a great couple of hours pampering myself, and even had a (clothed) work-out at their gym.  That reminds me – I really need to start that up again.  My favourite section was a serious of hot springs situated outside.  I had chosen a cold, rainy day to go (of course) and it felt great to sit outside submerged in a 43.5 degree C (110F) spar with the cold, icy rain pelting down all around.

The last great Osaka attraction I visited was the Osaka Aquarium, one of the largest in the world.  In the largest tank swims a very sad looking whale shark with its dorsal fin bent over at an unhealthy looking angle.  If you’re ever in Atlanta, USA, they have a much better aquarium with healthier looking whale sharks that I’d recommend going to.

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Osaka Aquarium

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The rather sad looking Whale Shark with a floppy dorsal fin

However, it did have some interesting and fun King Penguins and 2 Pacific Whitesided Dolphins.

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King Penguins through a wet window

In the evenings I sought out interesting new bars, like the Space Station bar, which was full of old computer games at every table, free for drinkers to enjoy.  Most of the bars here are tiny, and seating for 8-20 is average, but they create a cosy, friendly atmosphere to drink good beer (asahi) and meet interesting new people.

Finally, I used the time to prepare for my next month exploring Japan, and complete the most important of tasks which was to buy a new set of camping equipment.  When I arrived in SE Asia from Australia 6 months ago, hotels were so cheap (the average I paid was 10-15 USD a night) that I took all my camping equipment back to the UK with me when I returned briefly for my brother’s wedding last August.  However, I would certainly need it again for the rest of my trip back home through Japan, Russia, Mongolia and Europe.

I thought for the price of posting all mine back out, it would be much cheaper and quicker to buy a new set from a ‘Home-Mart’ type store I found close to my hotel.  I got a decent looking tent for 36 USD and a whole host of other exciting camping vitals for a few dollars more, including a good gas stove – I love camp shopping!  The only things I didn’t want to save money on were a good quality, warm sleeping bag and a comfortable roll mat (a good night’s sleep is priceless when you’re completely knackered).  For these I found a MontBell store and in the end I was all set for a couple of hundred pounds.  I was excited to test it all out!

Oh, I also managed to get fully legal on my bike with basic compulsory insurance kindly arranged by the local Triumph dealer.  It felt good to ride legal at last, and now I was really all set to escape the trappings of Osaka and start exploring the countryside.

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The nice person at the local Triumph dealer who helped me get legal

So, on the morning of the 7th day, instead of resting and enjoying the new world I’d created, I donned my helmet and jacket and rode off into the sunrise at full speed.  I didn’t get far at that speed because unless you’re on a very expensive toll road in Japan, you are more often than not stuck in a queue of traffic crawling though the huge metropolis.  In the end I gave up and jumped on the toll road (expressway) past Kobe, and then across the world’s longest suspension bridge into the countryside onto the small island of Awaji – my next stop.

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Outside my hotel ready for the road, at last!

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Exploring Burma on a Chinese Moped

Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo)

An early night in Mandalay and I was up at the crack of dawn to pack and get ready to take my mean 125cc rental ‘Newanbo’ moped further afield to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Hsipaw and the Shan Highlands beyond; the foothills of the Himalayas.

Zach (Mandalay Motorcycles) was a great help giving me a map and explaining the areas I could and couldn’t ride to.  However, the restricted areas were small and sparse (mainly conflict zones, military zones or precious stone mining areas), allowing plenty of free exploring to be had.

Amazingly my amazing Newanbo managed to fit both me and my luggage on the back, although I had left a bag of non-essentials with Zach.  Filling her up from plastic bottles of fuel via a nice old lady by the side of the road, I set out on my quest for rubies in the alluvial bedding plains of Mogoke.

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Nice lady filling me up at the Shell Garage

Interesting fact of the day:  90% of the world’s rubies come from Myanmar, and the red stones are prized for their purity and hue.  A large ruby mine is in Mogoke, 200km NE of Mandalay, and foreigners need a special permit to visit the town.

But unfortunately I didn’t have a permit for Mogoke, and so the rubies would have to wait.  Instead I set off for former colonial British Burma’s mountain summer retreat of Pyin Oo Lwin (also called Maymyo, or May Town) set high in the cool Sham Highlands two hours east of Mandalay.  Mind you, I almost didn’t make it as a car swerved violently out of its lane as I was overtaking it, missing me by inches.  Drivers obviously aren’t used to being overtaken by 125cc Chinese copy mopeds, so I’d have to be much more careful from now on.

The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is a wonderfully twisty mountain road and dual carriageway in many places, although that still doesn’t stop some traffic coming towards you on your side of the road (in typical SE Asian style)!  The road quickly gains a height of over 1,000m (3,500ft) from the plains and stuffy heat of Mandalay, bringing the cooler weather so valued in the heat of the summer.  By the time I arrived in the early afternoon it was getting quite cold, and so I looked for the hotel I had seen recommended on the web to warm up with a nice cup of hot tea.  Foolishly I had only brought T-shirts and shorts with me, which may not prove wholly suitable for the higher altitudes.  It’s amazing to feel the difference in temperature only 1,000 m in altitude makes.

I eventually found The Royal Flower Guesthouse tucked away down a side street, and am I glad I did.  The private owners here have got to be among the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met.  They couldn’t do enough for me, and the owner, a young father called Koko, sat me down with a cuppa for a good 30 minutes to explain all about the village and things I should see.  Koko and his family had only received their permit from the Government to operate as a ‘foreigner’ guesthouse last month, and they were all over the moon.

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Pyin Oo Lwin Botanical Garden Lakes

After our chat I sped off to explore the famous Botanical Gardens down the road and had a great lunch by the lake.  Even better that it stayed within me this time.  I am enjoying the Burmese food – cheap and spicy, they make good curries as well as the usual fried rice and noodles, and have lots of great puffy, doughy bread, like deep fried naan bread (tasty, if not completely healthy).

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Another lovely lunch of something spicey and deep fried

Then I found Crandacraig Hotel, the oldest hotel in Myanmar built in 1904 by the British Bombay Burma Timber Company for their expatriates.  Pyin Oo Lwin has many examples of old red brick British colonial buildings, and it was a surprise to find this fine example completely empty.  Perhaps a good investment for some enterprising soul?

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Candacraig Hotel – Myanmar’s oldest, built back in 1904

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It was a beautiful building, but shame it was completely empty

Next I rode up ‘Governor’s Hill’ where the summer British Government House stood until it was destroyed in WWII by Japanese bombs.  The existing ‘Governor’s House’ is a faithful replica and set in lovely Botanical Gardens and a vineyard.  I tried to find some of the wine, but no-one seemed to be around.

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Governor’s House and Vineyard – nice, but empty

At the bottom of the hill stood an old Christian Church called ‘All Saints Church’.  Founded in 1912 it was, in colonial times, the Church of the then British Government.

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All Saints Church

Another good day was ended with a good ‘Myanmar’ beer and free peanuts.  Again, I was surprised by the friendliness of the bar owners, particularly when they wondered out with a free bowl of soup for me.  It was delicious, although I wasn’t quite sure what animal the sponge-like lump of intestine lying at the bottom was from.

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Beer and peanuts – a real man’s meal

Train journey from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw

In the morning I woke up early to catch the 8:20 am train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw.  I had popped into the train station the previous day to check the times, and whether my moped could come along for the ride.  It could, and so I decided on a little train journey across the famous Goteik viaduct.

Riding to the station I was freezing in the cold early morning mountain air and reminded myself to buy some warm clothes as soon as I could.  I’d been told to arrive by 7:30 am, which I did, because all the tickets were hand written, which took a while as you can imagine.  Even with this manual method, there still appeared to be less paper used than in the so-called paperless age of western world technology.

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Pyin Oo Lwin Train Station

It is easy to notice the reliance on manual labour in Burma rather than computerised or mechanised methods.  Out of necessity, many people still work by hand in the fields, on the construction sites and in the offices.  Pack-horses and water buffalo are used to help transport goods and plough the fields, and I almost expected the train to be an old steam train.  It was like going back in time 100 years, before the Industrial Revolution.  And they all looked happy.  It was refreshing to see people going about their daily business not in a blind rush to be somewhere 5 minutes ago.  No-one seemed to be suffering from the disease of the (so called) ‘developed world’, where many people are overworked, stressed and have no time to really enjoy life.

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Don’t stand here in stations (see bit about the toilets on the trains later)

After a sociable while in the ticket queue talking to fellow passengers, 6 US dollars bought me a ticket in the ‘Upper First Class’ carriage (yes, I thought I’d splash out and treat myself) and another 6 US dollars bought my moped a not so glamorous ride in the cargo carriage at the rear of the train.  Funnily enough, while we were all waiting in the queue a western tourist did push to the front to ask what the hold-up was.  It was funny to see the looks of amused tolerance & well-natured patience from the ticket writers.  ‘Don’t worry, there is only one train today, and you will all get on it!’

I watched the storesmen load up the cargo carriage, each carrying huge sacks of fruit and vegetables on their backs up a tiny, skinny wooden ramp into the train.  Finally, 4 of them wheeled my moped up the ramp and she disappeared inside until Hsipaw, a 7 hour train ride away.

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The station storemen hard at work loading supplies

Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw Train

And there goes my moped!

Before the train set off I took the chance to explore the train to see what the ‘Ordinary Class’ carriages were like.  In fact, they were pretty much the same, except with wooden seats (as opposed to cushioned seats in upper class).  They were clean and tidy and there were not many passengers.  I don’t know why, but I was expecting something like I’d witnessed in Sri Lanka, with hundreds of people hanging out of the doors and windows.  The passengers were the usual Burmese happy and friendly, and more than pleased to have their photos taken.

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Friendly passengers in clean, uncrowded carriages

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A couple of handsome young men ;)

The train actually set off pretty much on time around 8.20 am and soon we were bouncing along the tracks like a slow roller coaster.  I must admit I was pleased I’d treated myself to the cushioned seats!  Along the way we passed through the green hills of the Shan Lowlands, farmland and small villages, frequently stopping at small stations for passengers and refreshments.

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Beautiful views along the way of the Myanmar countryside

Each stop was around 15 minutes, which was great as it allowed a little time to look around the often beautifully flowered stations, meet local people and buy some of the delicious food on offer, including fresh grown strawberries and traditional Burmese hot snacks.

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Stops at quaint little country stations were frequent for refreshments

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Delicious hot snacks

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And just in case you wanted your hair cut, alfresco style

After around 2.5 hours the train slowed down to cross the famous Goteik viaduct at a crawl so all the tourists could hang out of the window and take photos (well, I was hanging out of the door).  Quite an amazing experience!

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Approaching the Goteik viaduct

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No Health and Safety in Burma – I love it!

The viaduct is the highest bridge in Myanmar at almost 100 m, and when it was completed over 100 years ago it was the largest railway trestle bridge in the world.  It was designed and fabricated by the Pennsylvania and Maryland Bridge Construction company and finished in 1900 as a way for the British Empire to expand their influence in the region; it really is still an impressive sight.

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At 100m high, the viaduct is the tallest bridge in Myanmar – pretty impressive

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The gorge the viaduct crosses, 100m below

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The viaduct from a distance

True to Burma’s manual workforce, even the railway crossing signals were operated by hand.  Some of them looked a little young, but I’m sure they were very experienced!

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The Burmese Signallers looked rather young, but I’m sure were very experienced

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More signallers on their tea break. The real Railway Children?

Going to the toilet was an interesting experience, as they were basically just a hole directly over the tracks.  I actually remember trains being like this in the UK when I was a kid (not quite 100 years ago), but at least most people there had the good sense not to use them when the train was stopped at stations; something some Burmese haven’t quite caught on to, unfortunately (a great reason not to play on the tracks!).  It was also disappointing to see some people throwing litter out of the windows into the beautiful countryside – do some people really need educating about this, or shouldn’t it be an innate intelligence?

The whole 7 hour train journey went very quickly, and it made a nice change to travelling by motorcycle.  I’m not sure why, but for some reason everybody waves to other people on trains as they pass, and it never grows old.  It is a very social experience with many other interesting passengers to meet, affords beautiful views of the countryside and I highly recommend the journey if you’re ever in the area.

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The scenery got better as we approached Hsipaw

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Typical Burmese view of a hill with golden Pagoda on top

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I’m glad I wasn’t in the ‘Economy Class Carriage’

Hsipaw

The train rolled into Hsipaw station about 3.30 pm, a small town in Shan State on a bend in the Duthawadi River.  My moped was manhandled out of the carriage, I thanked them, and sped off to look for Lily House, a small guesthouse Koko in Pyin Oo Lwin had recommended.

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Seven hours later we rolled into Hsipaw and I reclaimed my moped

Although Hsipaw is a small town frequently visited by tourists via the railway, its maze of small streets and unnamed roads made it quite difficult for me to find my accommodation (added to my lack of navigation system and no clue as to what road it was on anyway).  Eventually I was pointed in the right direction by a kind local, and dropped my bags off ready to explore.

I decided to ride up to see some old ruined pagodas to the north coined as ‘Little Bagan’, explained the helpful lady at guesthouse.  It turned out they were little indeed, and old, and stood next to a wooden monastery surrounded by fields, like a mini Burmese Giza.

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Who needs to see big Bagan when you can see this Little Bagan much quicker?

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Eventually nature always wins – this tree looked really weird sprouting from the top of the temple

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Wooden monastery next to Little Bagan. Good job monks don’t smoke

Don’t worry about getting confused wondering who to see for what in Hsipaw.  In the guidebooks I had found Mr Food, Mr Book and Mr Bike. I was looking for Mr Beer, but the only one I know is in Manchester (hi Dave!).  Instead I settled for Mrs Popcorn who had a place just around the corner from Little Bagan.  However, on arrival I discovered I was slightly late, as Mrs Popcorn had stopped serving it 10 yrs ago.  Fortunately she had started a new sideline in exotic fruit juices, but decided to keep her old name as many Burmese couldn’t pronounce Mrs Rambutan Apple Mangosteen; in fact even I found it quite a mouthful – but a very tasty one.

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Always give way to cows (and anything else bigger than you, which on a Newanbo 125 is everything)

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After my trip to Mrs Popcorn’s the sun was getting ready for bed

Happily satisfied with my healthy shake, I sauntered back down the bumpy road (as much as a Chinese moped can saunter) and stopped to offer a seater to Ronaye, who was a fellow traveller I’d met at Little Bagan, and who had kindly pointed me in the direction of Mrs Popcorn.  She accepted, and we sauntered & bumped together back down to the guesthouse (where she also happened to be staying) in Chinese moped style.

As sunset was approaching, we decided to alter course at the last minute and continued onto Sunset Hill, which housed a pagoda and gong on the south side of town.  Unable to ride all the way up, we climbed the last few meters and arrived just in time to see the sun set (well, we would have done had Sunset Hill rotated round 10 degrees to the west).  Then we were joined by another Lily House guest at the top who’d arrived on her cycle – I’d obviously chosen a popular guesthouse!

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Sunset Hill in Hsipaw (although not very sunsetty)

On the way down it only seemed right to try and find a substitute for Mr Beer down by the river, which we did in the form of an Australian bar, although the Australian part had moved home 6 years previously.  That didn’t matter though, because they still sold cold beer with a beautifully relaxing view across the river, and homemade rice wine (in a whiskey bottle, as all the best ones should be, apparently).

Evening soon turned into dinner next door (which happened to be a great local restaurant) with excellent company and interesting conversation, as serendipity often orders for you on days such as these.  On completion it seemed only right to offer both ladies a lift home on my ‘Newanbo 125’, and recognising class when they saw it, they accepted in a heartbeat.  Actually, they accepted with great reservation, but it was better than walking (although only marginally quicker).  I don’t think the local’s we passed had ever seen a ‘Newanbo 125’ carry 3 grown adults before and still move, but we were moving, largely because it was downhill all the way.  Had we been in Sri Lanka we could have easily also squeezed on 2 children and a goat.

Hsipaw to Mogoke

In the morning I tried to get up as early as I could to start my ride up into the Sham Highlands to the north towards Mogoke, but I’d be lying if I said the previous evening’s entertainment hadn’t taken a tiny toll.

After a good breakfast with Winford, a friendly American who’d travelled up on the train with me, I said my farewells and kick started the Newanbo into action.  I planned to ride a few km down the road to Kyaukme and then take the road northwest towards Mogoke.  Just before Mogoke (as I didn’t have a permit to go there) there was a small village called Mong Long where I’d take a new road (recently opened) back south to Pyin Oo Lwin.  Not having looked at the distances very closely, I thought that looked doable in one day.

A few miles down the road I came across this beautiful pagoda sitting on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, with a huge planet Earth on display outside.  It was pretty surreal, especially as there wasn’t another soul around anywhere.  I wondered around for a while, took a few snaps, and wondered if anyone actually used it anymore.

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Strange huge pagoda in the middle of nowhere with a huge planet Earth outside

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Completely empty – except for me

Further down the road the countryside started opening up with green fields and local women doing their washing in the river.

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Sunday Funday Washday

After an hour I arrived in Kyaukme, a busy local town with not many English speakers, as I soon found out.  I was trying to change some more dollars into local money as I needed fuel and the small petrol stations didn’t accept dollars.  Being a Sunday, the banks were shut, and I wasn’t having much luck until I asked a group of young students if they knew anywhere that might change them.  The students turned out to be medical students on a weekend break from Yangon, and extremely friendly as all Burmese have been so far.  They made a few phone calls for me, but not being able to find anywhere, they changed 60 dollars themselves for me.  Wow!  That really got me out of some trouble and once again proved how helpful many Burmese people have been to me.  Would they get the same helpful welcome in the UK?

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Trying to change money in Kyaukme on a Sunday is not fun

With a full tank of fuel once more, I started the ascent into the mountains, through yet more small villages and paddy fields.  However, I had wasted a lot of time trying to change money and it was approaching 11 am.  Pressing on, it wasn’t long before the road turned from solid tarmac to broken, pot-holed tarmac.  Shortly after that, even the broken tarmac disappeared and all that remained were pot-holes.

As I rose higher the scenery became more and more beautiful as green paddy fields stretched before me under a backdrop of rolling hills.

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Poor roads, great views

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It’s great having your own 2 wheels!

Occasionally I’d pass waving local villagers on mopeds or even weird antique trucks with barely enough parts left to function.

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Met the Flintstone’s coming the other way

Around lunchtime I conveniently came across a ‘truck-stop’ and stopped for a delicious bowl of Shan Noodle Soup.  Everyone inside was engrossed watching a TV programme showing Myanmar soldiers demonstrating how to fire mortars.  I hoped I wouldn’t need to remember that lesson in a hurry.

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Noodle soup and mortar lessons at the village truck-stop

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The motorway service station had run out of McDonalds

With an almost full fuel tank and a full belly, I was still confident I could still make the long ride ahead and sped off in the dust.

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Everything was going well…

Unfortunately soon after that, the road almost disappeared altogether and I was left riding over a bumpy track strewn with sharp rocks.  I slowed to a snail’s pace, worried the Newanbo’s tyres would explode upon first contact.  I wished I had my Tiger, as it would fly over such a surface.

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Until someone replaced the road with sharp rocks

Then the road turned to sand, and then back to rocks.  It was certainly an interestingly bumpy ride on the bike’s state of the art suspension.

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And then covered it with sand

After an hour or so I released the Newanbo was made from sterner stuff than I imagined, and started to speed up.  Soon I was having a lot of fun working through the gears, navigating my way through the rocks and picking out smoother tracks that had already been made by previous convoys of mopeds.  The 4 gears on the bike were enough in these conditions, and I was pleased it was a manual gear shift; an automatic would have struggled and not been nearly as much fun.

It’s hard to believe, but as I climbed higher into the hills the scenery just kept getting better, and I seemed to be spending more time stopping to take pictures than riding.  It was a beautifully sunny day, and the green rolling Shan Highlands stretched out to the north as far as the eye could see.

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The scenery was like something from a fairytale – the twisty, winding mountain road stretched out into the yonder

All along the way villages lined the hill summits and clung to the valley walls.  Most of them were suspiciously empty though, I assumed because the occupants were busy working in the fields or taking shelter from the midday sun.

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The higher I went, the better the views became

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The Shan Highlands

The occasional signal I received on my local data SIM card told me I was making much slower progress than I thought, and at this rate I would be sleeping on the mountain.  So, I piled on the gas and started having much more fun as I got more used to the bike’s handling.  In the beginning I’d wished I had gone for one of Zach’s new Honda CRF 250s, but now I was having so much fun bouncing along on the Newanbo, I really didn’t mind it.

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The villages clung to the hillsides

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The little Newanbo just kept on going!

Eventually I fell off with too much front brake on a sandy bend, and then re-evaluated my limits – Ooops!  (sorry Zack!).  However, it was a soft landing and no damage was done to the bike or me.

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Until I fell off !

Back on the move I passed a stricken fellow moped rider and stopped to see if I could help.  The local lad had run out of fuel (happens to us all at some point), so I offered him some of mine and soon he was disconnecting my fuel hose and filling up a small plastic bottle he had.  Once he was back on the road, I followed him at a respectable distance (to stop dust flying into my eyes) to make sure he got home OK.

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At the Bowen Petrol Station

Turned out it was a good job I did follow him, as he lived miles away, and ran out of fuel again before he got there.  No worries – up we filled her again.  As luck would have it, he actually lived in Mong Long, and we rolled into the small village together with just enough fuel each.  We went to his friend’s shop, had a drink and then I filled my tank back up ready for the long ride back to Pyin Oo Lwin.

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Finally made it to Mong Long after 6 long hours and filled up me and the bike with liquid

It was now 4pm and I hoped the new road was nearby so I could get back before sunset.  I eventually found it 15 minutes out of town further on towards Mogoke.  And it really was a brand new road, cut right through the mountains, with hardly any traffic on it.  After the poor roads I had been on for the past 6 hours, it was like riding in heaven.

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I suspected this may not be the new road to Pyin Oo Lwin

The Newanbo seemed to be running better and better, and we flew through the gorgeous new mountain passes with little effort (except for a few crawls up a couple of really steep bits!).  The lack of traffic meant I could take racing line (if there is one on a 125cc moped) and not worry about meeting a bus head on around the corner.

The road seemed to keep ascended forever, and the temperature dropped rapidly.  Soon I was freezing as the sun dropped lower, so I stopped and put on all 3 layers of T-shirts I had with me.  However, I was in awe of the road and the view of the Shan Highlands it presented.  It was clear to see why they called them the foothills of the Himalayas.

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This road is one of the best I have ever ridden

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The foothills of the Himalayas

Two hours later I rode into Pyin Oo Lwin just after sunset, and went directly to the local market to buy some gloves and a jacket.  I was pretty cold, and didn’t fancy freezing again on tomorrow morning’s ride.  I was also starving.

The sight of a local restaurant displaying piles of local food in huge metal trays on a self-service counter was too much for me, and I entered to take a closer look and dribble.  As I entered, a very friendly, and very drunk, customer invited me to join him at his table.  Not wanting to offend anyone, particularly as everyone had been so nice to me, I took a seat next to him and he proceeded to tell me what I assumed to be his life story in Burmese.  However, I didn’t care, as soon I had a huge plate of 5 delicious different dishes (that he had kindly recommended for me), and neither did he, because he had the company he wanted and a bottle of local whiskey.  In fact, it was quite the perfect relationship for the occasion, as I just stuffed my face, laughing at what seemed to be appropriate moments, and he drank, slurred on and looked very amused with his new dinner date.

Back at Royal Flower Guesthouse, Koko and his lovely family were very pleased to see me, treating me like a long lost family member, even though I’d only been gone 2 days.  They all wanted to hear about my travels and sat round eagerly to listen.  How nice Pyin Oo Lwin is!

The Road to Mandalay

All too quickly my week in Burma was over and I found myself back at Zack’s shop dropping the Newanbo off.  It was funny, but I was kind of sad to see her go.

I had had a fabulous time and I hope it will not be long before I get the chance to return again to this tremendous country.

Flying back to Bangkok from Mandalay (before flying on to meet my Tiger in Japan), Mandalay International airport was spookily empty.  The departures hall was empty and ours was the only plane on the runway.  I’m sure in a few years this place will be flooded with tourists, so now’s certainly the time to go!

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Mandalay International Airport Departures Lounge – or Ghost Town

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The only plane on the runway

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Mandalay

As soon as I had my freedom (my funky moped) I wasted no time jetting off to explore Mandalay and the surrounding area.  After all, what else does a man need other than a pair of wheels and a toothbrush?  Quite a lot actually, but we won’t get into that here…

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My Mandalay bed – Fortune Hotel

Mandalay is the second-largest city in Burma after Yangon, considered the centre of Burmese culture and the last royal capital (the last King of Burma died in exile in India in 1916).  As a Royalist, I thought it would be fitting to start my tour at his old Royal Palace, which was actually just around the corner from my hotel.

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The Mandalay Royal Palace is impressive – here’s part of the moat that boxes it in 2km square, right in the middle of the city (you can see Mandalay Hill in the background – a great sunset spot)

Completed in 1859 the Royal Mandalay Palace makes quite an impression.  Sat in the middle of the city, it is surrounded by a huge wall and moat 2km by 2km square, and is now home to 5,000 Myanmar soldiers.  Although Mandalay is a busy, noisy city of 1.5 million people, sat in the middle of the palace grounds, all you can hear are the birds as they fly around a pretty, flowered oasis.

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Welcome peace and tranquility in the centre of Mandalay

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Palace cannons made by Woolwich Royal Arsenal, UK

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Although most of the Royal Palace is a reconstruction (it was mostly destroyed by allied bombing in WWII), it is still an impressive place to visit

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The Royal Palace

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The original Palace Walls (2km square)

It is certainly a nice escape (if only to get away from the incessant beeping of horns in Mandalay that drive me crazy!) even if most of the buildings are modern reconstructions (the original was unfortunately bombed by us – the Allies – during WWII).

Next it was off to U Bein Bridge, the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world, near Amarapura (once a previous capital of Burma) about 30 minutes south of the city.

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The U Bein Bridge – the oldest and longest teak bridge in The World

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The Mean Machine and U Bein Bridge

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Lake Taungthaman

The bridge was named after the major who had it built in 1850 using wood from a previous royal palace, and spans 1.2km across Lake Taungthaman.  This seemed like quite a good spot to have lunch, so I did.  And it was a delicious multi-plated meal of noodles, soup, salad and spices.

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My delicious lunch (at the time)

Unfortunately, delicious as it was, it only took about 2 hours to go right through me, which almost caused major embarrassment in a temple I was visiting (that was the best 30 cents for a WC I have ever spent; I would have paid $300).  As I rode south west I found myself riding through quiet, wooded paddy fields, which were a welcome change to the city concrete.

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It’s always nice to get on the uncongested country roads :)

Soon I was riding over the Irrawaddy River across an old iron bridge on my way to Sagaing, an important religious, monastic and meditation centre with hundreds of pagodas regularly punctuating the skyline.  The Irrawaddy, or ‘The Road to Mandalay’ as described in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, is still an important source of commerce and Burma’s largest river, running the length of the country from north to the south.  It looked pretty murky, but somewhere below the surface the vulnerable Irrawaddy Dolphin lurked (which looks like a Beluga Whale and is closely related to the Killer Whale), as well as the even rarer Irrawaddy River Shark, of which only 1 specimen has ever been found.

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Sagaing Hill across the Irrawaddy River with its hundreds of pagodas shining in the sun

Across the river I rode up Sagaing Hill, where many international students come to study Buddhism.  At the top is Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda, built in 1312, from which the view of the Irrawaddy and Mandalay is amazing.

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View from Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda, atop Sagaing Hill

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A lion-like Chinthe – guardians of the temples

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Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda

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A Buddhist school on the way back down

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Arty attempt

Riding back to my hotel in Mandalay I stopped at a couple more pagodas on the river’s edge for some nice views across the water.  Like all rivers in Burma, the Irrawaddy is used daily as an important source of water for irrigation, cooking and washing people and clothes all along the banks.

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Daily washing routines in the Irrawaddy

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View across the Irrawaddy

I wanted to try and get to Mandalay Hill to watch the sun set, as I’d heard the views were the best in the area.  Arriving late, I decided against climbing the 240m hill with my dodgy ankle and ragged it up on my moped instead.  I was glad I did, because I just made it in time to watch another perfectly clear, red, round sun drop behind the mountains to the west, reflecting on the Irrawaddy as it went.

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Lots of other people obviously had the same idea as me

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Sunset over Mandalay

Few things are better than a good sunset, except maybe a good Beef Wellington.  And a pint of Directors.

I was very pleased with my first fun packed day in Mandalay, and I was very happy with my Chinese moped, which was doing everything I asked it to do.  It was basically a cheap Chinese copy of a Japanese Honda, but it worked.  Thousands were thrown together daily and knocked out to Asian markets with whatever name you wanted on it.  Mine was a ‘Newanbo’, but Zach had joked he could have a ‘Zachbo’ if he wanted.  Hmm, a ‘Bowenbo’ has a nice ring to it – I wonder if it will sell back home in Norwich?

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Mandalay at night

A great day was well ended by a good dinner and a few beers at Hunters Bar & Cafe (about the best Mandalay can do for nightlife) with fellow traveller Anna I’d met on the plane over, although I was so tired I almost fell asleep in my food.  A full day on a bike really does wear you out.  Goodness knows how tired I would have been had I been cycling 100km a day!  I was more and more pleased the way Madam Fate had dealt my Myanmar cards to me this trip, although I wished she would throw me a few a lottery wins every now and then.

One of the good things about Burma is it’s cheap.  Well at least food and drink are cheap, at around 3 USD for a good meal and 2 USD a beer.  Accommodation is the only thing relatively expensive, maintained artificially high because only certain hotels are permitted by the government to receive ‘foreigners’.  But at least you no longer have to stay in a Government owned ‘hotel’ (as you did until quite recently) and tourists can be sure their money goes directly to the many extremely nice private guesthouse owners.  Having said all that, 20 USD is the going average, so even that isn’t too bad.

Like all new tourist destinations, prices and experiences are likely to change pretty quickly, and so if you’re thinking of going, there’s no time like the present!

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Yangon, Myanmar

Having got so far behind writing my blog, I thought it may be a good idea to jump forward in time to the present and talk about my travels to Burma, before I forget it all, and fill in the gaps later when I discipline myself with the iron rod that’s required (or lock myself in a dark room with no distractions for a month).  This sentence will not make sense in later years when I finally get it up-to-date and magically backdate the missing posts!

To bring us all up to date in a quick travel précis, since I wrote my last post about Kuta (Indonesia) back in September, I continued island-hopping west along Indonesia to Bali, Java (worst traffic in the world) and Sumatra, and then jumped across to Malaysia (shipped the Tiger on a real-life banana boat) and rode through into Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

My original plan was to ride through Burma (Myanmar) into India, and work out the rest of my route back to the UK from there, but my plans were scuppered by the still very restrictive regulations that exist for independent travellers in Burma.  I did manage to find a guy called Mr Tin who used to work for the Myanmar Ministry of Tourism, who said he could get me permission to ride through as long as I found 5 or 6 people willing to pay 1,680 USD each for the privilege.  For about a month I did try to find them, advertising on every motorcycle, 4WD and backpacker website I could find, but only managed to find 2 more people that were interested.  Unfortunately Mr Tin was not willing to arrange the trip for just the 3 of us, and so after a night of consideration, I made a bold alteration of course and decided to ship my bike to Japan and ride back to the UK across Siberia, Mongolia and ‘The Stans’.  Quite a change, yes, and much colder, but the more I thought about it, the more I actually preferred it – everything happens for a reason (I hope!)

For anyone interested in arranging an organised ride through Burma, Mr Tin may be able to do it for you (if you pay him enough money and find enough people!) – tin.apex@gmail.com

After finding an extremely efficient and helpful shipper in Bangkok (Nisarat at KPS INTERNATIONAL TRADE – mbl: (+66) 86-5752995 – nisarat@kpsthailand.com ), I dropped the bike off at the warehouse and started planning my next move.  It was going to take 12 days for my bike to get to Osaka, Japan, which meant I had 12 days to put my Myanmar visa to good use and do a bit of exploring.  Well, it would have been 12 days had I not decided to fly to Hawaii for one week on the spur of the moment (well, I couldn’t miss that off my World Tour, could I?).  In the end I was left with one week before Japanese customs started charging me lots of money for storing my bike.

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The Tiger being crated up for her 12 day cruise from Bangkok to Osaka, Japan. Thanks Nisarat!

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Now you see her…

 

I had had this (not very) bright idea of buying a bicycle and cycling from Yangon (the old British colonial capital Rangoon) to Mandalay, mainly because they were the only 2 places I’d heard of in Burma, which seemed a good enough reason at the time.  Along my travels I have often bumped into cyclists (not literally, fortunately) and they all seem to be enjoying themselves (if very tired), so I thought it would be a good experience to see some of the world through their eyes.

After a bit of investigation I worked out I would need about 8 days minimum assuming I cycled 100km a day.  With rest and sightseeing days, this could easily double, but I had already set myself a challenge – after all, it couldn’t be that hard, could it?  This was despite the fact I only had 7 days (including arrival and departure days).

So, I booked a flight to Yangon on Bangkok air.

When I arrived at Bangkok airport the check-in queue was miles long, so I took a seat, checked in online with my Thai iPhone (which I do normally do before), moved to the empty ‘bag drop’ line and bagged myself seat 1F right on the front row.  Much easier!

Off the plane first, I was through immigration in 30 seconds and headed straight for an ATM to get some local Kyats.  Unfortunately none of my 3 bank cards worked, and so it was lucky I’d read beforehand that only pristine, un-creased USD would be accepted and changed at banks.  Anything less than brand spanking new, you may as well be carrying monopoly money.  I imagine some people find themselves in real financial difficulty if unaware of this.

So, off to the currency exchange counter next to the ATM and I had no trouble changing 300 clean, crisp USD into local 300,000 Kyats.  Strangely you get a better rate for 100 USD bills, so I wished I hadn’t changed them all into 20 USD bills before I arrived, thinking they would be more practical.  Even a mathematically challenged brain like mine could work out it was roughly 1000 Kyats to 1 USD, so that made things much easier.

I also managed to buy a local SIM at the airport which cost around 20 USD – worth it if only to access my primary navigation system, G Maps.  Then I jumped into a pre-paid taxi (6 USD) and sped 30 mins through light traffic to my home for the night – World Bike Tours B&B in the north of Yangon, owned by Aussie Jeff Parry and his local wife, which I’d found on a Google search.

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Welcome to Yangon! Taken later from my bike which I rented from Jeff at World Bike Tours

Arriving late afternoon, Jeff was extremely helpful and suggested I hire one of his new bicycles at 15 USD per day rather than buy one, and drop it off at his shop in Mandalay before I flew to Japan.  I could tell, however, that he thought I was slightly mad thinking I could complete the ride in one week.  But should timings get tight, I assumed I could always throw the bike on a bus or train to get there quicker (although that would be somewhat cheating).

We spent an hour or so fixing up one of Jeff’s bikes with a luggage rack (I didn’t have a clue how I was going to fit all my motorcycle luggage on it!), spare tubes, lights, locks and bungees, and soon I was ready to rock’n’roll.  It was now around 4pm, so rather than waste anymore time, I jumped in the saddle and sped off under leg power (for the first time in about 14 years) to try and find the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

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My newly rented cycle outside the entrance to Shwedagan Pagoda, Yangon

I am not often impressed by religious buildings, but this 99m (325ft) high pagoda and stupa (why didn’t they go the extra meter?) dominates the whole of Yangon and it literally sparkles like the sun in its covering of real gold plates.  It is Burma’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda with (it is said) relics of the past four Buddha enshrined within.  At 2,600 years old, it is the oldest pagoda in the world and suitably topped with a crown of 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.  The one at the very top is a single 76 carat (15 g) diamond.

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The very impressive 99m tall (real) golden Shwedagan Pagoda – the oldest pagoda in the world at 2,600 years

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The place was huge – a maze of dozens of temples you could wonder around for hours

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Burmese Buddhists ritually bathing Buddha

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Among the hundreds of tourists, many Buddhist Monks sat quietly in prayer on their path to enlightenment

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Burning candles represent the light of the Buddha’s teachings

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Another beautiful pagoda and thoughtful monk

I arrived there a couple of hours before sunset, and easily whiled away those hours looking around the numerous other pagodas and stupas in the surrounding grounds.  I’m glad I lingered, because the sunset was incredible – a perfectly round, red sun slowly sinking over the hazy mist of a cooling Yangon City.

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Sunset over Yangon

As the sun went down, on came the lights, and suddenly the temples were transformed into dazzling golden beacons visible against the night sky for miles around.  It really was a spectacular sight.

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As the sun went down, the lights came on…

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Everything was gold before now looked even more golden

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Some estimate Shwedagan Pagoda is covered in 60 tons of real gold, and it’s still being added in continuous upkeep programmes

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It’s spectacular during the day, but more so at night

Back on my bike (people have been telling me to do that for years) I cycled south into Yangon centre, but first stopped to take a snap of Shwedagan from across the lake.

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Shwedagan Pagoda from across the lake

Although there was a fair amount of traffic, there was nowhere near the amount I’d expected, particularly as there no 2 wheeled vehicles allowed of any kind.  Yes strangely, by law, Yangon is a 2 wheeled free city.  Even stranger is that no-one seems to know why this is.  Several rumours exist, including a General’s son was killed while riding a motorbike, and hence they were banned forthwith.  This is certainly not the most environmentally friendly policy in a city with 9 million people.  So this may have meant, technically, I was breaking the law, but no-one seemed to mind (as far as I could tell), and it wasn’t long before I was almost getting squashed after taking a short cut in between 2 buses.  Can’t blame them for not looking out for cyclists, as there weren’t supposed to be any!

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Exploring the city on my new bike

I soon came across another brilliantly dazzling stupa lit up like a golden candle.  They were, in fact, everywhere.  Burma must have more pagodas and stupas than any other country in the world.  So many, in fact, that it wasn’t long before I stopped looking at them, or else I’d never make it anywhere.

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There must be more golden pagodas in Burma than anywhere else in the world

In the city centre I found a sports shop and bought a pair of cycling shorts.  I thought my bottom would appreciate them, considering it goes numb after only 10 minutes on an exercise bike at the gym (not that I’ve done that for a while).  Then I rode down to the port and the Yangon River, and back up north to try and find the hotel again.

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Anyone fancy a beer in Yangon? The PM3 Beer and Music Pub looks good!

On the way back I stopped suddenly and turned around to take a photo of something interesting I’d seen.  I was on the path at the time and as I rode off the kerb onto the road to turn, the front wheel fell into an abyss and I toppled over head over heels.  In the dark I hadn’t seen the kerb was so high (Yangon must have the highest kerbs in the world at over a foot high!) and I landed awkwardly and badly twisted my ankle.  I tried to jump up quickly before anyone laughed at me, but it was too late – my ankle gave way and an old man rushed up to help me up – good old boy!  Then, of course, a small crowd gathered around for the excitement.  I could imagine them thinking ‘stupid foreigner riding a cycle illegally – that’s why they’re outlawed!’, but instead they were all really friendly and helpful, and helped me hobble back on my way.

So, while not quite as bad as cliff diving (in a previous life), my ankle was swelling quickly and I couldn’t put much weight on it.  I cycled back to the hotel at a slow crawl using mostly one leg.

When I got back it was past 10pm and everyone had gone to bed.  I did manage to get a bag of ice from the caretaker and iced my ankle up in bed.  I thought, if I was very lucky, it might not be so bad in the morning.

In the morning, it was worse.  I looked like one half Elephant Man, and had to resign myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be biking 1 km that day, let alone the over 100 km I needed to do to get to Mandalay in 6 days.  Luckily, being a flexible kind of guy, I had a frank discussion with myself and quickly settled on a new (much better) plan.  I would fly to Mandalay instead and hire a motorbike to explore the Shan Highlands of East Burma (motorbikes were allowed in most other places outside Yangon).  Yes, my little dabble into the world of cycling may not have turned out perfectly, but it did make me realise I’m much more of a motorcyclist at heart, and I felt kind of naked without one.  And my plan to cycle over 800km in one week was kind of crazy anyway.

Within 2 hours I was sitting in Yangon airport with a 70 USD one way ticket to Mandalay on Asia Wings Airways – the finest Myanmar has to offer.  Typically the taxi driver had dropped me off at the International Terminal and I had to hobble half a kilometre to the Domestic Terminal with my bags on my dodgy ankle (my fault for not speaking Burmese, of course).  But I made it, and a couple of hours later I was in Mandalay, first stop Mandalay Motorcycles (www.mandalaymotorbike.com) run by top guy Zach from the US, who’d settled down with a local several years ago.

It wasn’t long before I was united with my ride for the next few days – a classy Chinese 125cc Royal Newanbo, ‘The Spirit of Riding Performance’.

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Zach’s motorcycle hire shop in Yangon, and my new ride for the next few days – a classy Chinese 125cc Royal Newanbo

And it felt great to be back in a motorised saddle, even if it was only a moped :)

To be continued shortly…

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Kuta – Lombok

Having climbed up & down Rinjani in 2 days, my legs, at least, were ready for a few days of doing nothing.  Relaxing on a beach seemed like a good idea.

My first thought was the famous Gili Islands, but I’d heard they had become a bit spoilt by heavy tourism and decided to try the supposedly quieter, beautiful beaches on the southern coast of Lombok instead.

Leaving Senaru in the north after a good breakfast with Marc, we said our farewells (he was heading back to Bali and the end of his autumn vacation), I decided to ride around the island clockwise, down the east coast, in order to avoid the mayhem of Mataram I experienced a couple of days ago.  The choice was a good one, and I flew down a beautifully clear coastal road all the way to Tajung Luar, the largest fishing village on the island.  From there the road headed inland, and without a decent map to follow, I followed my nose, which always appeared to be in front of me, except when I turned to look behind me (whereupon I stopped following it).

The road inland took me through some busy but mainly small villages, with the usual ‘suicide’ wheel barrows and a variety of animals wondering aimlessly across the road at random intervals.  I really didn’t fancy adding a cow to my wildlife count, not least because that would hurt.

Eventually the road joined the new highway linking the airport to the south coast, which was bit of a relief, as winding your way through parades of crazy domestic animals becomes a little tedious after a while.

Winding on the throttle, it was an easy and enjoyable blast to Kuta, and as I rounded the brow of a hill I caught the most magnificent view of what lay ahead of me – paradise!

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Beautiful, peaceful, relaxing Kuta, Lombok

Cruising into Kuta I did my usual thing – slow down to a crawl and take a good look around the place.  It looked small, and that’s because Kuta village is small.  But I liked it.  It felt like a small, hippy enclave, wonderfully relaxed and not too busy.  There was really only one main street that ran along parallel with the beach, lined with a few stalls selling home-made nick-nacks and refreshments.   Further down at the eastern end of town there was a line of bars and restaurants along the beach.  As it would have been very rude not to drop anchor and sample a few of the local delicacies (which turned out to be, not surprisingly, nasi goring and bintang lager), I installed myself in a beachside bar and put my feet up.

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Kuta Beach

An interesting group of Malaysians wondered up to admire my bike.  They were on a package holiday and being ferried around in a coach.  They were all really friendly and spoke English very well; I think I’m going to like Malaysia when I eventually get there.

By now it was late afternoon and so I thought I’d better find somewhere to sleep for a couple of days.  Riding back west down the ‘high street’ it wasn’t long before the village disappeared and I was on my way to nowhere I wanted to be.  Turning round, I went back and rode into the first hotel I came to, which happened to be quite a large hotel with a posh swimming pool surrounded by posh cabins.  It looked too expensive for my world traveller budget, but I thought I’d ask anyway.

The savvy guy at the desk asked me how many nights I wanted and then cut me a deal for $20 a night after I told him it was too expensive.  I hesitated, and then thought ‘sod it’.  I really couldn’t be bothered to trawl up and down the road looking for something a few dollars cheaper, and this place was really nice.  It had a decent restaurant, pool , nice cabins and good wifi, and I needed a place to relax for a few days and catch up on my blog (which I was and still am miles behind in).

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Kuta Indah Hotel

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The pool (always my first stop)

And there I remained for the next few days, exploring up and down the scenic coast, taking in the beautiful views of the surrounding hills and visiting the almost deserted beaches hiding between the frequent headlands.

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First I rode west and came to Selong Belanak beach. It was a cloudy morning, but still beautiful

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After a nice long walk it started to clear up – it’s amazing how much better a place looks in the sun!

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Kuta is popular with local surfers, although the waves were pretty small when I was there

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Further west I came across Mawun Beach – probably the nicest beach I found on the south coast, and in Lombok

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Want you own private beach in paradise? Come to Mawun Beach in Lombok

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Air Gulling isn’t as popular as the other beaches due to it being shallow, windier and not as scenic

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Although I heard the water buffalo really like it

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Heading back over to the coast east of Kuta, I came across this stunning view of Kuta Bay and its surroundings

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Here at Seger Beach, just past the Novotel, it was really shallow, but protected and warm – ideal for kiddies (maybe I’d better get me some of those one of these days)

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Seger Beach

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About the furthest east you can go is Tunjung Aan Beach

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Here a huge bay is beautifully protected by protruding headlands

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If you want somewhere even quieter to stay than Kuta, then here’s your place

Maybe I have permanent ants in my pants, but after a couple of days I was rested enough and itching to ride on to Bali.  Kuta was nice, but there are just some things a man on a Tiger has to do (when I find out what, I’ll let you know).

Riding up to Port Lembar, 20km south of Mataram, was a piece of cake on the new road, and soon I was being waved through onto the hourly ferry to Padang Bai in Bali.  These ferry crossings have got so quick and easy since my Timor-Flores-Sumbawa days, it is almost like being in transport heaven.

I parked my bike on the lower ferry deck at 10:00 and 10 minutes later we were on our way.  The 4 hour passage was nice and relaxing on calm waters with great views of the towering volcanoes of Rinjani on Lombok, and Aguna on Bali.  I bought some noodles (for a change) and sat outside on the upper deck, lovely cool wind in my hair (both of them), away from the crowds who always tend to conglomerate inside, for some reason.  Weird.

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Goodbye Lombok, hello Bali!

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Lombok – Indonesia

I liked Lombok, and I think Lombok liked me.

From the moment I rode off the ferry at Labuhan Lombok, on the east side of the island, it presented before me an almost perfectly constructed and empty road that twisted north around the base of the massive Mount Rinjani volcano (and when I say massive, I mean covering over half of the entire island).

I was happy to once again be on a new island; a new place to roam free and explore to my heart’s content, with no schedule to keep to or promises to keep.  How lucky can a man be?

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Lombok – empty and perfect for a lazy afternoon’s ride

Well, no schedules and promises to keep except for the one I made to meet up with Marc and climb 3,726 m (12,224 ft) up Mount Rinjani, the second highest volcano in Indonesia.  DOH!  While I was trying to remember how I ended up making such a promise, I caught a glimpse of her through the afternoon clouds, and knew it just had to be done.

But first I had one afternoon and night of freedom, so I enjoyed a leisurely ride round the top of the island to the west coast, and Lombok’s closest thing to a commercial tourist centre, Senggigi.  Yes, I’m sorry, but I really fancied a beer.

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Black volcanic sands of Lombok

It took around 4 hours to reach Senggigi by which time it was getting dark.  It didn’t help that I went the wrong way and ended up stuck on a crazy busy road heading into Lombok’s biggest city, Mataram.  With my Sat Nav still not showing any roads (thanks Garmin) and no map (thanks me) I took a guess and ended up even more lost in even busier crazy traffic.  After months of isolation I didn’t welcome my return to the over populated world, and couldn’t wait to get out of it all.

Studying a highly detailed map I’d had the sense to photograph from a child’s primary school book, I could see Senggigi was north of Mataram, and I assumed on the coast (considering it had a beach), so I turned the beast north and then west and eventually we escaped the madness.

I rode up and down Senggigi a couple of times because I couldn’t work out if it was really there or not.  I’d read it was a ‘happening party town’, but all I could see were a couple of bars full of old people and touts trying to sell me baseball hats and (strangely) crossbows.  Did I look like I needed a crossbow?  Maybe; sometimes I think I just have that kind of ‘I need a crossbow now’ face.

After the third slow ride along the ‘high street’ women started appearing on corners in satin bikinis & stilettos, waving at me, so I thought I’d better look a little less suspicious and find somewhere to stay.

Calling into one large hotel, I left soon after when they wanted to charge me $150 a night, and rode further out of town to look for a cheaper place.  My dreams were answered when I came across the ‘Green Asri Hotel’ which had just opened a couple of days before.  The place was luxurious and expensive, but they had an opening offer of only $45 a room; still out of my $10 price range, but I thought ‘what the heck’ – it was Monday after all.

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The luxurious Green Asri Hotel (well, compared to my usual standards)

Making the beautiful room a mess in about 3 seconds by throwing my dirty biker clothes on the floor, I jumped into the gorgeous shower and washed my hair (which didn’t take long).  I must admit I do love the open bathrooms of many Asian countries, and find it very refreshing.  It certainly speeds things up in the morning when you can take a sh*t, shower and shave all at the same time.

Twenty minutes later I had also washed my merino wool underwear (fab stuff) and was ready for a night on the town, with all the other old people.  However, I couldn’t stay out for long because I needed my beauty sleep to prepare for my hike up an active volcano which last erupted on 22 May 2010.  How did I promise that again??

But first I had to take my ‘complimentary opening massage’ at the parlour next door.  I must admit I did feel like I needed a good massage, as the tension that develops in my back and shoulders after a long day in the saddle is substantial.

Walking into the (empty) parlour I was greeted in the usual very friendly Indonesian way, and handed a drink and a see-through black lace G-String.  It was at that stage I began to wonder if I’d accidentally walked through the wrong door.  Shy guy that I am, in the end I opted to keep my jeans on and just go for the back and shoulder massage.  It was good, but she wasn’t quite strong enough to undo all my knots; perhaps I need a man?

In the morning I tried to get up early (I really did) but something just wasn’t working; I think it was my legs.  After a while I could feel them again, and managed to coax them out of bed with the promise of a bacon and egg breakfast.

The Green Asri Hotel was even better in the daylight, and I was glad I’d splashed out on such a lovely place.  Despite their lovely infinity pool and bamboo bar, they didn’t have bacon & eggs anywhere on the menu, so my legs had to settle for the usual Indonesian staple of rice, with more rice (and a bit of chicken feet).

I’d arranged to meet Marc in Senaru later that day, a village close to the start of the hike up Rinjani, so thought I’d better get my skates on.  The night before I had missed most of the beautiful coastline after going the wrong way and taking the inland route over a huge twisty mountain covered in monkeys.  This time I followed the coast and was greeted with some of the most beautiful beaches and views I have seen to date.

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West coast Lombok, just north of Senggigi

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Just north of Senggigi the beaches were deserted, big and beautiful

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One huge beach, and one towel belonging to some lucky sunbather…

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Every corner brought another idyllic view

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:)

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The whole West Coast of Lombok is a great place to explore and relax on beautiful beaches

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For some reason monkeys always seem to be attracted to me (I keep meaning to change my aftershave, but I kind of like the attention)

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One more for luck

I also caught occasional glimpses of the three tiny Gili Islands, just off the NW coast, famed for their idyllic remoteness, but they would have to wait for me to climb a volcano first.

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The tiny idyllic Gili Islands, NW Lombok

Further to the north I rode through lush green paddy fields which kept forcing me to stop and take pictures.  Each one I saw seemed to be more green & lush than the previous one, which meant I stopped quite a bit.

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Lush, green paddy fields further north

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Every 10 minutes down the road the photos seemed to get better…

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And greener…

After a few hours I reached the north of the island and the road turned south towards Senaru.  I actually made it there before Marc late afternoon, and after finding the guesthouse he’d arranged (good job one of us was organised!), I paid the owner’s young nephew a few dollars to take me to see a couple of nearby waterfalls.

Sendang Gila Waterfall is a short walk from Senaru and is a MUST see.  Here water plummets 50m (160ft) into a small plunge pool and it gave me the one heck of a back massage I needed yesterday.

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Sendang Gila 50m Waterfall – One heck of a back massage!

Tiu Kelep Waterfall is a bit further on, and just as beautiful, after a great little hike through the rainforest.  Here spectacular falls cascade into a larger pool ideal for a swim up to the base.  I was surprised there weren’t many tourists here – only me and a couple of others – but it saved me (or them) a slight embarrassment as I’d forgotten my swimming shorts and had to strip down to my underwear for a swim.  Good job I’d decided to wear some!  After my hot & sticky bike ride and hike, the water fresh from the volcano was invigoratingly cold and just what the doctor ordered.

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Lombok rainforest

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Tiu Kelep Waterfall

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Time for a swim!

When the sun started to set, the swim went from being invigorating to being just cold, and so I got out, drip-dried as best I could, and made my back to Senaru, young guide in tow.

When we got back Marc had arrived fresh from his comfortable 150cc Yamaha Byson ride, so we set off for dinner to plan our attack on Mt Rinjani the next morning.  After a couple of beers we decided this grand mountaineering feat would, in fact, be easy peasy, and the various reports we’d read about people finding it difficult must have been written by girly boy scouts (no offense to any girly boy scouts reading).

Yes, being two fit and strong Alpha Males, we would run and skip up the volcano like mountain gazelles, singing ‘The Sound of Music’ whilst smoking a pipe and completing The Times Crossword.

The fact that most tours to the summit take 3 days & 2 nights (or even longer) should have told us something, but in order to save money, and in our optimistic wisdom, we decided to find a guide to take us up in 2 days & 1 night.  The guide Marc eventually found was very keen to do this for us, and later we found out why – because HE wasn’t actually going with us.  Instead he paid 2 of his porters (peanuts) to run up after us, carrying two bamboo poles laden with all our camping gear, food and water.

Anyway, it all seemed a great idea at the time, so after a hearty ‘one choice breakfast’ of banana pancakes (I hate pancakes) we set off in a car early next morning to a village called Sembalun, where the trail head began.

I was well equipped, as usual, in my Merrell trainers & jeans; not the ideal ‘hiking up a volcano’ attire, but it’s pretty hard to carry enough clothing for all occasions on a motorbike.  On my jean’s belt I strapped my leatherman, med kit, GPS (and spare battery), sun cream, mobile, camera, torch, rain coat, spare socks & talc (great moral boost on the 2nd day), bandana and wet wipes (great for washing when you have no water).  See – I can be organised when I want to be!  Good job I had a big belt.  Over all this I wrapped my fleece jacket around my waist, and was then all set for a journey to the centre of the Earth.  Marc, on the other hand, gave all his spare clothes to the porters to carry, on top of their already back breaking loads – perhaps he was a girly boy scout after all?  Or maybe he was just Captain Sensible, and I was the wally.

One point of note here is that both our porters were sporting the very latest volcano-hiking FLIP FLOPS.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, all guides & porters we met along the trail did not only carry their own bodyweight in provisions up a very high, steep volcano, they did it in FLIP FLOPS!  When I saw this I instantly felt guilty worrying about the suitability of my Merrell trainers; it was very funny to see these small Indonesians in shorts and flip flops running up much faster than squadrons of ‘professional’ hikers dressed to the nines in walking boots, gaiters, hiking poles and Gortex clothing.

Setting off fast as we intended, Marc and I almost sprinted along the trail leaving our 2 poor old porters miles behind in our dust.  After a while we realised perhaps this was not such a great idea, as we ended up going the wrong way and had to backtrack to the correct path.  In the distance the mighty volcano loomed huge in front of us, and I couldn’t wait to get closer and get stuck into the real slopes.  It sure was a beautiful sight.

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The awesome Mt Rinjani active volcano. 2 days to climb should be easy!

After only what seemed like a few minutes, we reached the first resting point, Stage 1.  Here we rested and waited for the porters to catch up under their donkey loads.  The journey so far had been easy – a nice gentle elevation rise of only 150m (500ft) through scenic woodland and green meadows.

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I had the strangest feeling I was being followed…

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Easy Peasy!

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Our poor old porters carrying up all our food & camping equipment – in FLIP FLOPS!!! They really were incredibly strong, fit guys.

Eager to crack on, when the porters arrived we quickly drank, ate biscuits, and chased off for the next Stage.  Stage 2 is only another 200m (650ft) in elevation, and again we got there early waited for the gang.  Progress was very quick, and we joked, half serious, about making it all the way to the summit before midnight.  At Stage 2 our porters wanted to stop and make us lunch, but we said it was much too early and we’d rather crack on to get a bit further.  I could tell in their eyes they thought we were mad.

They were probably right.

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Stage 2 – only 200m (650ft) so far… I joked I would carry up the porters load for them. I’m glad they didn’t let me – I could hardly get myself up later!

The trail to Stage 3 is again pretty straight forward, rising only another 300m (1000ft).  In the distance we soon became aware of a fire, but thought little of it.  However, as we got closer it became apparent it was quite a large bush fire and looked out of control.  It was also heading directly for our trail and was close to cutting us off up ahead.  We sped up to outrun it.

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Out-running the bush fire before it cut us off!

Thankfully we just managed to get ahead of it before it reached the trail, as otherwise it would have stopped our climb for sure.  Up close the noise was almost deafening, and as I stopped to take a photo I became aware of really how fast it was moving up hill towards us.

We hastened our stride for a while and were soon well ahead of the fire, but several unlucky people we passed heading down would surely be stuck for several hours or more until it burnt out or passed through.  Just what they wanted when they were tired, hungry and thirsty.  In fact all of them looked exhausted; some of them dead.  Many had huge blisters on their feet and told us horror stories of how difficult the climb to the summit was, and how they were never going to hike anywhere ever again.  One girl was even walking down in bare feet, as her blisters were too painful in boots.

By now we had heard several times that the final 3 hour climb to the summit was the stuff nightmares are made of.  The upper cone was covered in loose, deep scree and ash, sending you sliding one step back for every two steps you took.  This hardly seemed believable looking at the idyllic conditions that surrounded us now, so we gave it all a stiff ignoring and continued on like lambs to the slaughter.

Upon reaching Stage 3 we were both still feeling great, and ‘Base Camp’ (Plawangan Sembalun) was only one more stop away at the foot of the summit.

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This time we didn’t bother waiting for our porters, and continued on to victory, guessing they’d guess we had carried on – crazy men as we were.  We were now starting to climb the base of the classic, steep cone section, and it suddenly became much harder.

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Past Stage 3 the scenery changed dramatically. We climbed through the clouds and towards the crater rim

It was while bounding up this rapidly steepening trail that I begun to realise it wasn’t going to be as easy as we imagined, and perhaps every single person we had met before could have been telling the truth; it was going to be bloomin’ difficult!

The terrain had turned to an unfriendly mix of loose soil, sand, gravel and ash, and I really started to wish I had hiking poles.  It also rapidly climbed 840m (2,800ft), and soon my legs were burning, unaccustomed as they were to doing anything except dangle by the side of my Tiger.

To get to the crater rim ‘Base Camp’, people usually take 8 hours or more, and there’s a reason why; slow and steady wins the race every time.  Marc and I had shot off like mad Whirling Dervishes from a cannon and covered the distance in half the time, but now I was paying for it.

I think Marc must have some kind of mountain goat blood in him, because although he had slowed down too, he was still climbing up in leaps and bounds ahead of me.  I felt really sorry for him when he realised he’d dropped his sunglasses and went back down a few hundred meters to look for them.  I would have gone to help him look, but to be honest I was so tired I would have rather bought him a new $200 pair just so I didn’t have to go down and climb back up.  Luckily he found them anyway, so I didn’t feel so bad.

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Marc – half man, half levitating mountain goat

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It was a hard slog to base camp, but the view above the clouds was worth it

Eventually the ground started to harden again, and the going got easier for a while.  It was now about 2pm and I was starving, and thoroughly regretted not taking our porter’s advice to have lunch way back at Stage 2.  There’s a reason why they know best; they’ve done this trip once or twice before! (Big note to self – always listen to porters taking you up volcanoes, and don’t be such an idiot).

Eventually we made it to Base Camp and the first thing we did when the porters finally showed up was stuff down a whole packet of biscuits and build a fire for the best cuppa hot tea I’ve ever had.

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Base Camp – at last! Get that kettle on, I’m dying for a cuppa!

The view from the crater rim was incredible, and we wondered if it could ever be much better from the summit.  We were the first ones there, by quite some way, and it was lovely enjoying the views before the crowds started to arrive.

We had found a good spot to pitch the tent, and soon the fire was burning and our dinner (late lunch) was cooking as the other hikers/campers started to arrive.

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We found a good spot before the other hikers started to arrive

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Base Camp

I may have mentioned this before, but the one major thing that lets Indonesia down (for me) is the amount of rubbish that is strewn about EVERYWHERE.  Indeed, even sat on the edge of this incredibly picturesque volcano in a National Park, I was surrounded by rubbish.  It is sickening (for me) to see people throwing garbage away over their shoulder without a care in the world.  Throughout my stay in Indonesia I don’t remember seeing any litter bins anywhere.  It feels strange to return my empty drink bottles to the shopkeeper when I can’t find a garbage bin, to have him look at me as though I were mad, and throw them on the pile of rubbish out the back of his shop.

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The only let-down for me – the tons of rubbish left behind by other climbers

At least the tide may be starting to turn, as our porters packed all our rubbish to take back down, and I even saw 2 fine gentlemen collecting rubbish on their way down in huge garbage bags.  Despite this, there is still a sickening amount of litter on Rinjani, and this has attracted hundreds of scavenging long-tailed macaque monkeys which are a right pain in the bottom, stealing all kinds of things (including hats, food, and crossbows) when your back is turned.

Our 2 porters were not only incredibly fit and strong, they were also very good cooks (isn’t everyone a good cook when you’re starving?).  Over a small wood fire they managed to knock up a delicious meal of fried chicken, rice, veg and omelette, just in time to see the sunset over Bali.

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Our amazing porter/guides whipping up a delicious hot meal for dinner

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Trust me – Fried Chicken never tasted so good!

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Yum Yum!

There’s something incredibly relaxing watching the sunset at high altitudes.  It was so still & peaceful, and we felt like we were on top of the world.

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On top of the World! (well, nearly)

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Two handsome devils (although the one on the right is slightly more handsome ;) )

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At some stage Marc’s head had grown larger than the mountain behind us!

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Sunset over Bali

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There she goes….

We were lucky – the sky was beautifully clear and the orange sun winked its last goodbye as it disappeared behind the mountains.  Then we watched the sky darken until the first star popped out to say hello.  It was going to be a great climb to the summit, but with no cloud cover, a cold night!

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The sky darkened, and Marc did his famous Penguin impression

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And then the first star came out. Beautiful.

And cold it was.  I don’t know about Mark, but I almost hugged him in our small 2 man tent in an attempt to keep warm.  We turned in pretty early because we were up at 2 am to have a quick breakfast and start our ascent, but I’ll be darned if I could sleep!  The cold was the main reason for this, although Marc’s snoring added a little spice to the recipe.  The sleeping bags that were included in our guide fee were, to be fair, not the best quality in the world.  My feet were like ice because the zip at the bottom of my sleeping bag had broken; I’m sure that wasn’t listed as one of the attributes we should possess when attempting the 3,726 m (12,224 ft) summit.

After what seemed like forever it was 2am and, wide awake, I jumped out of the tent and started my pre-climb routine, which consisted mainly of defrosting my joints and having a cup of tea.  I saved time getting dressed because I was already wearing all the clothes I had in bed – it was that cold.

Now I am definitely NOT a morning person, and I hate getting up early.  I also hate being cold, and the two together put me in a mood resembling a grumpy grizzly bear rudely awaken from his hibernation 3 months early.  Once I was up and moving though, I felt better and just wanted to start climbing.  Like anything, the waiting is always the worst part, and we both wanted to start before the masses to avoid getting penned in.

After a quick brew and biscuits one of the porters turned into our guide and took off with us.  The other porter remained behind to tend the camp & (I hope) cook us a massive British Fry-Up when we returned (Marc was hoping for cheese and red wine, being French).  The idea of starting the climb at the ungodly hour of 3am is so you can reach the summit at sunrise, around 3 hours later.

If I said this final part of the climb was difficult, I would be understating its degree of difficulty by 10.  Or maybe even 20.  The going was very hard indeed, made even harder by the fact my head-torch was next to useless and didn’t even illuminate my chin, let alone the ground ahead of me.  I might just as well have strapped a glowworm to my head.  I took this to be my Karma for earlier laughing at Marc’s huge ‘miners’ head-lamp which looked like it had been nicked from the front of a VW Beetle .  Well, Marc was the one laughing now as his lamp lit up everything in his path, including the nearest star 4.5 light years away.

Our guide had shot off like a bullet, obviously getting his own back on us, and no-doubt overjoyed at losing his heavy load.

Not being able to see where I was putting my feet, it felt like I was walking up a massive sand dune, and every step I took I slid back down to within an inch of where I’d started; just like all the stories we’d been hearing.  To say it was demoralising would be a vast understatement.

It was dark, cold and windy.  Marc and our guide moved slowly ahead of me as my misplaced ‘blind’ footsteps slowed me down tremendously.  It felt very lonely at times, and knowing I wouldn’t survive long in the low temperatures if I fell off the edge or got stuck somewhere was quite sobering (I’m good at falling off the edges of things).

We trudged on up the very steep volcanic cone, through loose gravel and ash, sliding backwards and slipping over, for what seemed like forever until I felt like my legs were made of jelly.  I gave them orders to continue or else standby for a thorough whipping, but they collapsed underneath me, exhausted, and there I lay on the side of a volcano, looking up at the peaceful night sky above.  I’d been so focused on hauling my fat ass up to the summit that I hadn’t noticed what a beautiful night it was.  As I lay there, Marc and the guide well ahead, I had a rare moment of absolute serenity in the absolute silence of the night, under the light of a billion stars.  Life is good, I thought.  But cold.

I probably could have laid there for hours, but Marc and Bob (darn I wish I could remember the guide’s name!) must have thought I’d fallen off the edge.  By the way, falling off the edge was very possible, and I came close a couple of times when the narrow path edged up along a knife blade with sheer drops either side.  This is probably the real reason they make people climb up at night – so you can’t see you’re literally inches from certain death!

At one point I did actually feel like giving up and dying; my legs jellified, hands freezing and moral dashed upon the rocks of despair, but thankfully I managed to pull myself together and soldier on, albeit at the pace of a geriatric snail.

For much of the way Marc kindly waited for me to catch up, blinded me with his lighthouse beacon, and then bouncing away again like Tigger.  Was I really that unfit?  It appeared so.  However, along the way we did pass dozens of other hikers that had started before us, so I couldn’t have been that bad.

In places the ground hardened and I gained a new lease of life, sprinting ahead in ecstasy like a shipwrecked sailor landing upon dry land.  When it turned to slush again, my heart sank.  At one point my legs were burning so much I was forced to start crawling on all fours.  Marc, of course, found this highly amusing, and started calling me ‘Volcano Monkey’.  For all I cared he could have called me anything; all I wanted was to get to the bl**dy summit so I could collapse again in peace.

I began to have flashbacks to when I climbed Cotopaxi in Ecuador, the highest active volcano in the world at 5,897 m (19,347 ft), 2 meters higher than Kilimanjaro.  Here it is usual for climbers to spend at least 3 or 4 days acclimatising to the depleted oxygen at this altitude, but I thought (very naively) that I could climb straight to the summit in 2 days.  I did it, but it almost killed me.  A big factor in the ‘almost killed me’ bit was the fact that I didn’t have any water for the 7 hour climb to the summit from base camp.  Long story, but that was a lesson I was not going to repeat.  The other factor was that it’s just so darn hard, and the lack of oxygen made me feel like every step was the hardest step I had ever taken in my life.  The 50 degree slopes of sheer ice didn’t help either, nor the fact that I lost one of my gloves down a crevasse.

After what seemed like an eternity of damnation, at last we caught a glimpse of the summit only 200 yards away.  It’s interesting the reserves of strength your body will hide from you in your time of need, as at that point I literally sprinted to the finish faster than a fly’s bottom hits his head in a car crash.

We’d made it up in 2.5 hours, and there were only 2 other guys up there before us (pumpkin eaters).  We grabbed my camera and our guide, Bob, and snapped a few photos for our memoirs.  It was indeed a joyous occasion, but Marc had forgotten the champagne.

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Marc and I were very happy to have made it to the summit, but not as happy as our guide (as you can plainly see!)

We were about an hour early for the sunrise, so we sheltered out of the wind best we could and asked the sun politely to hurry up before our nuts froze to our jeans.  Now we had stopped moving it felt much colder, and lucky I had my emergency extra layer Gortex jacket to keep me warm(er), even if it was green.

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This time we really were on top of the World!

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As sunrise approached the view began to reveal itself

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The A Team!

Finally the sun came up over Sumbawa, we all clapped, and then headed back down for tea and medals.  Sorry, that was what I wanted to do, but Marc was intent on taking hundreds more photos, and so we stayed up there for a bit longer.

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Sunrise!

Now it was light, our friend the volcano looked a lot different.  For a start, she was even more beautiful than I imagined, and the views did not fail to take our breaths away.  It was incredible  to see a perfect triangular shadow cast by the huge volcano as the sun rose higher.

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View of Rinjani’s Crater Lake and the perfect triangular shadow cast by Rinjani.

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It doesn’t get much better than this

As I sat waiting for Marc to run out of batteries, it was interesting looking at the faces of the hikers still making their way up the torturous slope.  They were looks of pure pain and exhaustion, just as mine had been an hour earlier.  One elder woman (in her 50’s?) arrived under the arm of a man, tears pouring down her face, utterly frazzled.  Good for you old girl – you made it!  I very much doubt I’ll still have the faculties to be doing it again at her age.

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Watching the faces of people still on their way up was interesting – pure exhaustion and pain, as mine had been 1 hour earlier.

Going down was fun.  A lot of fun!  Zigzagging at warp speeds like confused wefts on a loom of LSD, we belted down the volcanic scree slope, undoubtedly annoying everyone we passed with flying debris in our wake.  But it was fast and worth it, and I needed a hot bath and a cuppa tea.

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Going down was a lot of fun, and much easier than going up!

Back at Base Camp, Bill (the other porter) had the fire roaring and cuppas ready, but he had forgotten to fill the bath.  Never mind.  That was REALLY one of the best cuppas I’d ever had.  Banana pancakes were then served, and this time I was so hungry, I almost liked them.  We had been the first ones back down to camp, and now as the crowds rolled back down we decided to get a head start, quickly packed up the tent, and set off for home.

If we thought we’d gone up quickly, it was nothing compared to the way we screamed down at Mach 1.  Our guides/porters were also much faster, with most of the weight eaten from their baskets.  On the way we stopped for various great shots, including great views of the crater lake and surrounding countryside.

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Leaving base Camp for home

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I was sporting the very latest in volcano climber fashion, and I could see the look of envy on many faces as I passed

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Beautiful surrounding views

Then I fell down and twisted my ankle.  Bugger!  Fighting on, my pace slowed, but I wanted to get down before my ankle swelled up and slowed me further.  To do this I modified my gait into what I can only describe as a half-gay, half-skipping hobbled canter, but it seemed to work.

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Our porters were very pleased we’d eaten all the food up, as it made their loads much lighter on the way down. I’ll do anything to please people

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Almost home, with bush fire still burning, we said our farewells to Rinjani

Within a couple of hours we were almost home and dry, and then we started meeting hordes of trekkers at the start of their trek climbing their way up.  We wished them good luck, told them a few horror stories ;) and then got ourselves an energy drink and whatever food we could buy at the local shop in Sembalun (more biscuits, surprisingly).

Sitting under a shelter waiting for our transport home, we both felt as though we’d achieved something pretty awesome, and witnessed one of the amazing sights this world has to offer.  But it had taken its toll.  Within minutes of stopping, my ankle swelled, my legs stiffened, and soon I was hobbling around like an old woman.  I couldn’t wait to book into a flash ($50) hotel and spoil myself, doing nothing but lie on a hot beach and bathe in crystal blue waters for eternity.

Strange then, because the next morning I wanted to do it all again.

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Cream crackered, but happy :)

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Sumbawa

So what can I tell you about Sumbawa, one of Indonesia’s least known & travelled islands?  Before I arrived I had been warned by a couple of people, and read on several traveller’s blogs, that Sumbawa was a very poor island with people so desperate I was liable to be robbed as soon as I dismounted my  motorbike.  Added to this, the roads were supposed to be terrible, weather hot and dry and food horrible. One blogger even quoted a journey across Sumbawa as the worst she’d ever done, and that there was nothing worth stopping for.

What I actually found when I arrived was extremely friendly people (many of whom spoke English fairly well), the best roads I’ve ridden on since leaving Australia (and some even better than Australian roads), a bit of rain (in dry season), great food and countless beautiful vistas well worth stopping for.  Just goes to show never believe what you read or hear 100%, although I’m sure the roads used to be bad as they all looked pretty new.

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Beautiful views of Sumbawa, just outside Sape

True to its word, the ferry from Labuan Bajo (Flores) to Sape (Sumbawa) took less than 6 hours and we arrived before midnight.  As Marc had been here before riding his funky little 150cc Yamaha Byson across from Bali, he recommended a couple of hotels he’d seen on the way close to the ferry.  The first one we came across was cheap, looked OK and had a bed, which were my only criteria, and so it was settled.

On the ferry we had met an Aussie backpacker, Dan, who had also booked into the same hotel we were in.  He had to be at Sumbawa Airport by 10am the next morning, which was 1.5 hours away in the town of Bima.  Having not found a bus or any other way of getting there in time, I offered him a lift.  I would have to re-arrange my luggage a little bit, but the Tiger could do it easily, and it would be a good reason to haul my ass out of bed early.

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My pillion passenger to Bima Airport

As it happens, Bima was only a short detour from where I was headed, mainly because there’s only one road that goes from east to west Sumbawa.

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Sumbawa – As Garmin hadn’t bother to include Sumbawa in their Indonesia maps, this was my only reference! (but good enough)

After dropping Dan off I planned to head directly to the west coast where I’d heard there were remote untouched beaches, and the port of Poto Tano where I was to catch the ferry to the next island in the chain, Lombok.

So up I got at the agreed 6am (well, 6.30), and by 7am we were on our way.  Marc, who’s one of these weird early-bird people who never seem to sleep much (I’m envious really!) had already got up and left at 5, so we had said our farewells the night before.

Dan and I took our time cruising to Bima, enjoying every second.  The roads were great, empty and all looked brand new, as they twisted up and down mountains and extinct volcanoes covered in green jungle.

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Great views, great roads, and no one on them – bikers heaven!

Sumbawa actually has one of the highest GDP rates per capita in Indonesia because large parts of the SW have been monopolized by American firm Newmont Mining Corporation to mine gold and copper.  I’m guessing the new roads are a result of this golden egg.  The copper reserves are expected to last until 2034, making the area one of the largest copper mines in the world.  However, Newmont’s operation has not been without scandals and police have fired upon local protesters in the past.  I rode past this mine later on and it is indeed huge.  Unfortunately, as is all too common in the developing world, the general population do not see most of this money and some still struggle with extreme poverty, starvation and severe malnutrition in children, particularly when the drought hits.

I’ve always seemed quite popular on the bike wherever I stopped, but here we seemed to generate an extraordinary amount of attention.  Either it was my new side-kick Dan’s girly blonde hair, or people here really were much more interested in us.  Whenever we stopped for a photo, people would suddenly appear from the bushes and ask for photos to be taken with me, the bike, and even (strangely) just of themselves.  At one point I was surrounded by a small army of Oompa Loompas dressed in different colour dresses, but on each occasion they were happy and friendly so I was always pleased to abide.

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More of my Indonesia Fan Club. I wonder if I can bring them all back to the UK?

Down in the valleys closer to Bima we came across the usual expanse of gorgeous green paddy fields, rice being the most widely consumed staple crop in Asia.  Sumbawa appeared very fertile as other crops were also being grown extensively, and the brilliant greenness of these fields meant there were lots of photo stops.  In fact, the volcanic soil does make Sumbawa very fertile, but is unfortunately subject to the occasional devastating drought.

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Sumbawa – fertile volcanic soils make it an important agricultural island, when the drought doesn’t hit

As we approached Bima, and the time dragged on, we hit the morning rush-hour of a larger than expected city, and I began to wonder if we had made too many photo stops.  The truth was, we had, but I didn’t want to let Dan down, so with a flex of the wrist I told him to hang on, and accelerated to warp speed 8.  The good news about being on a motorbike in Indonesia is that you really can ride anywhere, including up the pavements when traffic is heavy, which we did.

Another good thing about Indonesia is that you can check in for a flight 50 minutes before it takes off.  Well, it was certainly good for Dan at least, because he just made his flight.

After dropping Dan off at the airport I was again surrounded by curious and some bold spectators.  I was happy for some of them to sit on the old girl, but stopped short of letting some random guy stick my helmet on his head as he picked it up; some things are just too personal!

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You can touch most things – but never touch a man’s helmet!

Riding on west the road hugged the north coast of the huge Saleh Bay, producing some spectacular vistas I just had to stop and awe at.  The roads continued to be superb, and better still – there was no one on them.

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Views across Saleh Bay

Now prepare for another informative Indonesia fact:>> Sumbawa’s most dominant volcano, Mount Tambora, exploded in 1815, and was the most destructive volcanic eruption in modern history.  The eruption killed 100,000 people (directly & indirectly) and launched 100 cubic kilometres of ash into the upper atmosphere.  This reflected significant amounts of solar radiation and lowered global temperatures by around 0.4-0.7 °C for the next 3 years.  1816 was known as the ‘year without a summer’, and in 1817 winter temperatures dropped to -30 °F in New York, freezing lakes and rivers, and 32 cm of snow accumulated in Europe and N America in August, killing recently planted crops and crippling the food industry.  Although losing 33% of its height in the eruption, Mt Tambora is still huge and forms the entire 60 km wide Sanggar Peninsula on north Sumbawa.

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The great empty roads of Sumbawa

Riding past the island capital of Sumbawa Besar, where most of the island’s 1.3 million people live (which I was glad to bypass), and the ferry port of Poto Tano, I rolled into Sekongkang 500km and 9 hours after setting off.  Sekongkang is a good base to explore the secluded beaches up and down the SW coast only really known to a few surfers for some of the best waves eastern Indonesia has to offer, such as Yoyo’s, Supersuck and Scar Reef.

Before I found a room I cruised down to take a look at the beach just past Yoyo’s and, low and behold, I bumped into Mr Marc again who was already there taking photographs.  It was quite funny seeing him there, considering we hadn’t planned to meet up, particularly down that small, sandy track leading to the remote beach.

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I had a feeling Marc was following me… (or me him!)

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Beautiful Yoyo Beach

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Nothing better after a long, hot ride (except a beer)

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Marc’s funky 150cc Yamaha Byson – a big girl’s bike :)

Marc had already found a room in Sekongkand town, but I preferred to take somewhere on the beach and booked into Yoyo’s Surf Camp for only a couple of quid per night.  This is how un-commercial and little known Sumbawa is – I was the only guest in the whole beautiful beach-side resort!  In fact it was so good, Marc decided to jump ship and joined me there on the second day.

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Yoyo’s Beach Resort – all to myself!

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Yoyo’s Resort Beach – great for a sunset jog, although really hard as the sand was very soft!

The next day Marc and I set off exploring the SW coast.  Just south of Yoyo’s Beach the road turned to rock and rubble, and apart from the occasional small village, the only other people we saw were a couple of workers from the gold & copper mine driving 4WD trucks.

Past the mine the beaches were empty, secluded and beautiful; to some they could be Paradise.

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Each sandy track we rode down let to another gorgeous, unspiolt beach

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Exploring the SW Coast

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Your own personal beach – Sumbawa is the ideal getaway, if you like being on your own

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It has rock climbing too!

Each little sandy track leading off from the rocky road led to yet another beautiful beach, with no-one else for miles around.  When we were there the waves were small, but with a consistent south to southwest swell all year the whole area is an ideal surfing ground for surfers who like to get off the beaten track.

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I love being able to ride anywhere in Indonesia

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Peace and solitude (except for Marc!)

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Marc lost his surfboard, but hasn’t noticed yet

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It’s a hard life!

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Marc liked to show his Primark pants off

After a couple of days exploring it was time to move on to the next island – Lombok.  Again, Marc rose early and jetted off before I had even crawled into the shower, but this time we had agreed to meet up in 2 days to climb Lombok’s dominating active volcano Mount Rinjani.

It was another beautifully sunny day, so I took my time riding the 100km back up north to Poto Tano where the ferry departed, and enjoyed the amazing views on the way.  Marc said the ferry departed every hour, but I was sceptical considering both Indonesia ferries I’d caught up until now (from West Timor to Flores, and Flores to Sumbawa) departed more infrequently than Halley’s Comet.

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On the way to Poto Tano

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Sumbawa west coast

When I arrived at the port I had a great shock; the process was almost ORGANISED!  I rode up to a man sitting in a kiosk by the gated port entrance, bought a ticket for me and the bike, and parked in kind of ‘a line’ to await the next ferry that left hourly.  The hour I waited was nothing compared to the days I’d waited for previous ferries, and when the ferry was only 30 mins late I was still very happy to be onboard and heading towards Lombok by lunchtime.

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Just squeezed the Tiger in for the short passage to Lombok

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Indonesia is the only place I’ve been so far where people actually beg you to take their photographs

As we approached Lombok the skyline was dominated by the silhouetted huge Mt Rinjani which practically constitutes the whole island.  And to think in 2 days I would be at the top.  Looked easy to me!

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The view of Mt Rinjani as we approached Lombok – and to think I’d be at the top in 2 days (hopefully!)

Categories: Sumbawa | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Komodo National Park, Indonesia – Diving and Dragons

 

With my 2 day dive trips and dragon excursion booked I was a happy camper.

The dives were taking me to Castle Rock, Crystal Rock, Tatawa Besar (3 of the supposed best) and another ‘fill in dive’ on the way to see the Komodo Dragons on the island of Rinca, Komodo National Park on day 2.

On day 1, forced to get up early (I still love early mornings! :/ ) I rode down to the dive shop on my Tiger after missing breakfast, collected my rental dive gear and wondered down the short walk to the harbour.  Here I found the usual ‘organised chaos’ as dozens of dive boats tried to embark all their divers at once and leave all at the same time.  Our group hung back a bit and let everyone else leave before setting off on the 2 hour ride to the first dive site.  We were on the ‘slow boat to China’ so no point in racing.

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Embarking the dive boat for Komodo National Park

I took my time and set up my own dive gear, even though the trainee Divemaster onboard offered to do it.  A good service for some maybe, but I personally think all divers should set up and check their own dive gear before a dive – after all, their life may depend on it (this is what I used to teach anyway).

The rental dive equipment was in the standard state of repair I usually find it in at many ‘bulk-tourist dive operators’, and I’m glad I checked it.  The tank O-ring had a small leak and the octopus demand valve mouthpiece was almost bitten through (some poor soul had been chewing on it!).  Luckily they had spares at least.

I always bring my own mask and roll-up snorkel with me, as nothing spoils a dive more than a leaky, poor fitting and foggy mask.  I also always bring and use my own dive computer so I can look after myself, as too many times I have seen bad instructors or guides run divers into unplanned decompression (Egypt is a prime example).  But don’t let this put you off – do the correct course (such as PADI Open Water) and it’s easy to dive safely; with a trustworthy buddy of course!

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Getting ready for the first dive – Castle Rock

On the boat there was the usual eclectic mix of divers; a long haired fellow from Istanbul, a Swiss backpacker, a Chinese tourist and a French dude.  Our guides were local but our trainee Divemaster was a Czech who was escaping the ‘rat race’ for a life under the waves – good for him!

In any group of divers there is always one ‘wally’ who doesn’t listen to the guide, dives too deep and lays on all the coral (which may kill it).  In our group it was the long haired fellow from Istanbul.  He made me realise I don’t really miss teaching diving at all.  I got well with the French dude, Marc, who was on a few weeks’ holiday and touring around Indonesia on a 150cc Yamaha he’d rented from Bali.

In summary, the diving was pretty good.  Currents were strong, but that’s fine if you don’t fight them and drift, and the coral and sea life was pretty in places.   The surrounding islands were also beautiful – if a little baron.  Komodo National Park is actually a collection of 29 volcanic islands in between Indonesian islands Flores and Sumbawa.

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Komodo National Park – a collection of 29 islands in between Indonesian islands Flores and Sumbawa

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At anchor for the first dive

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Here we go!

I have a pretty good underwater camera at home but as it’s too bulky to travel with me on my bike, so I instead travel with my GoPro Hero 2 (with underwater case and red filter).  However, I’m never really too happy with the still photos it takes, and so here are a few screen shots I’ve cut’n’pasted from the video I took, which although not great in resolution or quality, I think give a better representation of the dive.

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All down for the first dive!

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Some nice colourful coral and sea anemones

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Squirrelfish – their big eyes are for night time hunting

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Hello Mr Moray!

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Bad photo – but can you spot the Stonefish looking at you? Don’t put your hand on him, as it will hurt a lot!

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Staghorn Coral – one of the most important corals in terms of contribution to reef growth and fishery habitat, growing 10-20 cm (4-8 inches) per year (quick for a coral)

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End of dive one!

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Where’s the dive boat?!

Highlights included a couple of reef sharks (always good), including a group of 4 baby white tip reef sharks hiding under a ledge.

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Whitetip Reef Sharks spend much of the day resting in caves or holes (pumping their own water over their gills to breathe) before emerging to hunt at night

Turtle are also always good to see, and I got pretty close and personal with one for a while, until it tried to eat my camera.  Turtles – you can’t take them anywhere!

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My playful buddy turtle

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He’s taken a liking to me (is it a ladyboy turtle?)

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Yes, I think you’re rather nice too…

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Steady on old boy! No tongues on the first date please!

Ever since I was lucky enough to dive The Galapagos Islands, I always feel I’ve been spoilt with diving, and although Komodo was good, it didn’t really get me that excited, and didn’t live up to the hype I’d heard previously.  How spoilt is that!  So, here’s a quick advert for you:  dive The Galapagos if you ever get the chance! – Best diving in the world (so far, for me anyway).

On day 2 after the 2nd dive we landed on Rinca Island, Komodo National Park, where there be Dragons.

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Rinca Island, Komodo National Park

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I want this gate outside my house: Enter at Your Own Risk – Dragons!

I must admit I was expecting something HUGE, and when I saw them I was a little disappointed.  Having said that, they were big enough to do damage had they wanted to.

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Komodo Dragons – big enough

With an average length of about 8 feet (2.5m) and weighing 200 pounds (91kg), Komodo Dragons are the only lizards that will attack & eat something bigger than they are (including humans and buffalo), and can consume 80% of their body weight in 20 minutes.  That would be like an average human man eating a 140lb (64kg) steak in 20 minutes – Man vs Food eat your heart out!

Most of the Dragons were hanging underneath the kitchen as I think they must be fed by the locals (although they said they didn’t, as that would mean food association with humans).  Except for this one that headed straight for us on the path, meaning we had to climb up an embankment to keep out of its way!:

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Rule No.1 on Komodo – always give way to Dragons!

As well as a ferocious, bacteria infested bite, the Komodo dragon has recently be found to be venomous (like other monitor lizards), causing rapid blood loss, inhibition of clotting, paralysis, and extreme pain.  This is a good reason to listen to the guides (armed with forked sticks) to keep out of their way, and not to sit down in front of them so as to tempt them (well, except for the quick photo of cause!)

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Don’t do this at home…

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Our protector and guide with his forked stick (when he wasn’t catching up on facebook)

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View of Rinca bay & Komodo National Park after a short hike

With my duty in Flores and Komodo National Park complete it was time to up sticks and jump on the ferry to the nest island in the Indonesia chain – little known Sumbawa.  As Marc was also heading back that way to return his rented motorbike to Bali, we tagged along together.  This was good for me because he had a map – I didn’t!

You may think catching a ferry from Labuan Bajo to Sumbawa is fairly simple, but fate would have it we had come at the busiest time ever known to the city – the opening of ‘Sail Komodo 2013’.  In a few days Labuan Bajo was to be the final destination of a yacht race from Darwin that started back in July, and the Indonesian President was inbound.  This was great for tourism, but not so great for catching a ferry to leave the island because the ferries were planned to be used as floating accommodation for the thousands of visitors flooding in.  They even enlisted their military hospital ship as a floating hotel.

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Preparing for the Indonesian President’s visit for Sail Komodo 2013. They even enlisted their military hospital ship as a floating hotel

After a couple of false attempts where departing ferries mysteriously departed early, or not at all, Marc and I had to stay another night until we eventually heard on the ‘local grapevine’ that a ferry was departing at 4pm (after the 8am one didn’t).  Relieved to finally be onboard and about to set sail to a new destination, I suddenly felt great – how lucky was I to be travelling the world and island hopping across Indonesia on my Tiger?  I celebrated with an iced tea and biscuits, because that’s all they had onboard, but I didn’t really care.

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We finally got the ferry to Sumbawa – no mean feat!

Marc and I relaxed on the stern, watching the ferry load up.  It was surprisingly empty.  The journey to Sumbawa was only around 6 hours, which meant we’d arrive before midnight – perfect.  A bit worried about the stability of my bike (with no tie-downs), I went back down to check on it before sailing and found some helpful soul had spider-webbed a couple of ropes across her to steady her.  Nice they didn’t bother to protect the seat, but I guess she’s had worse (my bum, for example).  At least she wasn’t going to fall over.  Sumbawa here we come!

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Tied down for sea – Indonesian Style – but it worked!

Categories: Flores | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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