The few weeks before this trip I was so busy with
work that I could not maintain my promised training routine. The concept was
simple: to head out into the countryside around Vientiane every Monday to get
my legs and knees working again and to test Charlene, oil her and change her
gears. In the end, I was only able to go out one Monday and parking the truck
in a monastery, set out for about 30 km. Very few hills, easy going, but I
could tell I was hopelessly unprepared for the kind of tribulations the mountains
of Houaphan were going to offer me.
Also, Charlene’s brakes seemed to work just fine.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
One of the miracles of living in Vientiane is the
ease with which you can leave the city and quickly be in another world.
When I got back to the capital I went to change
Charlene’s tires so as to avoid a slipping mishap like I had on my last trip.
Unfortunately, the famous Willy had changed locations and I could not find him
and had to thus entrust Charlene to another’s care, which she did not
The nitty gritty of it is that this trip was as
tough as nails.
Based on the experiences of my previous trips there
were certain things I thought I could count on that simply were not there.
First of all, in every other trip and in every other part of the country, there
was either an agricultural vehicle or a truck passing me every half hour or so.
On this road, there were no agricultural vehicles and only one truck a day.
When the road was too difficult, and it was, all I could do was sit and wait
Of course, Lao hospitality was always at its finest
and that one single truck never failed to stop and take me as far as it was
Another thing I was not counting on was the fabulous
internet connection I had with Unitel every step of the way. The temptation to
post photos to Facebook and reply to comments was so great that I felt I had
lost the soul of the trip and so on the day after leaving Xam Tai I simply
turned it off.
And then there were the mountains. Funny thing about
mountains is that even when you have climbed above 1,100 meters and you are at
the top of the mountain with an everlasting vista all around you, the road
still seems to climb. Where the fuck was it going? I asked myself, buckling
down and clenching my teeth for yet another vertical climb. The road was rough.
Going up was murder and going down was murder, since the path was no more than
a series of gullies and my brakes were pulled to the maximum.
My brakes. Absolutely fabulous Magura hydraulic pads
that I had tested before leaving. They were worn, yes, and down to the their
almost last but I thought I still had enough rubber on them to get me through
Wrong. The crunch came after 250 km of this, on the
road that leaves the asphalt just north of Xam Tai to carry west over the
mountains back to the National 6 south of Xam Neua. This road was of such
breathtaking beauty that I sometimes had to stop and stare, catching my poor
breath at the same time.
The poetry will come later, in the meantime, I had
found myself on the very top of a mountain – the very top – and ready to go
down after a few seconds of descent I applied the brakes to discover that their
skin had grown very thin indeed. I was braking not at all and barely slowing
My choices were few and far between. Either I hung
on for dear life and hoped against all semblance of reality to have a gentle
stop at the end of this valley, although in all probability pitching my skull
against gravity… or I could simply jump from Charlene and hurt myself. It
didn’t take me long to measure the lesser of two evils and like so many American
voters I did what I could (since Bernie was out of the race…) and jumped.
I landed on my left hip with one very painful flesh
wound but no structural damage.
But the trip was over. I made it to the next village
and had something to eat while waiting for the truck that eventually came and
took me miraculously to the main road, National Road 6, where I found a
whore-infested guest house in which to sleep. I hitchhiked back to Xam Neua the
next day and got the first flight out.
Every mountain top photo here represents a world of
Also, people ask me where I eat and sleep. In every
village there is a Village Chief, or nai
ban. It is his (for I have yet to meet a female Village Chief)
responsibility to make sure that all citizens are tucked in safely for the
night. At other times, I will just walk up to a house where the people look
nice and ask to sleep there. I have been turned away only from homes make of
cement, never simple peasant wood homes. These people feed me, show me where
the communal bathing spot is, give me a mattress and comforters and a mosquito
net if need be. In the morning I give the lady of the house 50,000 kip.
The lady of the house. So much to say about this
heroine who lugs the water, cuts the wood, makes the fire, cooks the food, takes
care of the small children and serves the men of the house who come to the
table after a pleasant afternoon spent standing around doing piss all. In some
of the villages I entered the men were simply drunk and the women were simply
That’s the nitty gritty.
But these cycling trips are also quests into myself;
spiritual voyages that impact my life permanently.
She is beautiful and round, succulent as a plum and
as light as feathers. Down a road, through a patch of overhead hanging jungle,
the silvery green bamboo leaves turn in the crisp wind. They turn in oblong,
attached at the stem, fluttering.
On a dusty trail I looked up to find a stream, a
bridge and a tree. A valley vista in harmonious longing.
Every second a grain of sand through the hourglass.
Falling. Never to return.
One night in the H’mong village of Ban Houey Sala after
dinner the smoke from the cooking fire died down. It’s been ten thousand years
since the Agricultural Revolution and sedentary settlement and yet no-one in
these parts has figured out that there is a relationship between intense wood
smoke inhalation and respiratory disease. No one has, therefore, decided to
build a chimney to evacuate the smoke. And so families sit around the fire
soaking up heat, coughing and spitting their lungs out onto the beaten earth.
High on that mountain top, in a place with a superb
3G Internet connection, I decided to go for a walk in the darkness. It is not
often that we get the chance to admire the stars on a cloudless night far from
urban light pollution. It kind of freaked my guests out that I wanted to walk
outside at night, although I don’t know why. They seem to have a fear of the
outdoors; their rooms have no windows and only one door to the outside world.
During the day, while the mountains are glowing their scintillating green and
the sky is as clear as a virgin’s teardrop, their interiors are as dark as a
The sky was full of a million necklaces. Was that
the North Star I saw as bright and as steady as a torch up there? I am not the
first human to stare up into the frozen expanse to marvel at the creation of
it, but this time I was struck by the roundness of it, the sheer colossal
inclusiveness of it.
I am not the first to stare off and marvel at the
size of us, and that night I was stunned to silence by the power our own earth
exhilarates in the midst of all this vast loneliness. Here we spin, all green
and blue, teeming with life and passion, love and drama. Here we sit where
birds devour insects and mosquitoes sting men; all of us chomping away on this
great default ride of a sphere and for no other foreseeable reason than to exist.
For the life of me, as deeply as I reach into my
intuition, as silently as I sit in the midst of this great tumbledown of
incidence and circumstance, I cannot find in any of it one single reason, one
single sound or echo that could even remotely bring sense or meaning to the
whole show other than to say, “life will find a way”.
The beginning of wisdom may not be the fear of God,
as it says in the Good Book, but rather accepting that there is no more to be
frightened of than there is to find solace in.
The mountain wore a mantle of fog the next morning.
By the time I had my coffee (packed with milk in my saddle bags…) enough mist
had cleared in the middle distance to trace the outlines of the winter trees, fog coiling around their branches and leaves like algae in a lake slithering around lotus roots.
All of creation is there, then, to be beautiful and
savage, fleeting and persistent.
The bare bones of the day were that I woke up early in
Sanakham and had my breakfast, an omelette
mixed with green herbs and served on a small mountain of steamed rice with a
bowl of soup. I always find the people in this part of the counry so amicable!
It is the same in France where people from the West, locked to the sunset, are
nicer than anywhere else.
So, the bare bones of the day were that I covered 65.25 km
and cycled for a total of 6 hours, 2 minutes and 33 seconds.
As soon as I left the Mekong to hug the Thai border on the
Nam Heung River the road became very difficult. Before that, though, I had to
cross the Mekong by river craft; two canoes planked together and an out-board
motor. I loved the crossing and standing there on the plywood plank that was
the deck, I felt all at once the exhilirating beauty contained in the
possibility that one can decide to change one's life from one moment to the
next. How simple and how horribly complex
are homo sapiens! Standing there, jostling for balance amid the tame Mekong
waves, I looked to the left and the right. It was an overcast day, one of those
days when a mist of delicate white hugs the earth until the tree-tops, leaving
the entire spectacle of mountains and fields in a lightish blue haze. Distances
were cut off from my view by this haze which had settled deeply on the Mekong
herself. Mountains rose, large hills rather, as round and full as pregnancy and
there I stood playing with the changing perspectives of the Great River east and
Yes! Surely the was a good day to change a life! Certainly
these two changing perspectives were the ones telling me to get out of the haze
of illusion and see desperately flitting reality for
what it was; the time had come to cancel the debt on the past and embrace
As easy as that sounds, the river crossing was the
beginning of the second half of the journey. The roads, less used, were in
hideous disrepair and crevices had been allowed to form, crevices the size of
minor valley systems. The road on the Thai side was paved, and a marvel of
modern surveying techniques: where I had to climb ungrateful hills and clumber
down unstable descents the road on the other side rose and fell gently, coaxed
as it were by soft asphalt. Still, I would have it no other way.
Leaving Sanakham I was delighted to smell the air. After
living in Vientiane, the air around the fields, with the river just off to my
left, smelt like honey.
Like honey, which is to say that it was rich and deep, of a
cleanliness perfumed by orchards and
fields. The early morning fires had died down and the brisk ash lingering in
the air gave all of space the delicious humect of fresh tea.
It was not always so. In the land by the river, between where the Mekong drops off like a muscle
deep into Lao territory and the Nam Heung, sits an expanse of land where
bananas are grown in groves along with man
The whole place, this entire arm of the country, is a large
thick band of fertility. The soil is dark and the river
runs red like the Mississippi, although surrounded by hills on either side.
Unlike other places in Laos, there are no steps down to this river. It is not
wide and it is a border. From the Lao side, at least, no life emerges from it. No steps, no paths, just great forbidding
jungle; no vegetable gardens flatter her banks.
The agriculture in ths place is also very thick and
intensive. Many of the surrounding hills have been burnt bare by the peasants
with man ton planted row by row like
Flanders Field. All throughout the fields of them men and women were hard at
work clearing. Their features were covered against the dust and soot by knitted face masks and they wore heavy
clothing despite the heat. Machetes, axes
and hoes went up and down battering the soil and remaining tree trunks as
though the earth were something to be punished. When I cycle by, the workers
stop and shout, cheering. In fields where this work had already been completed,
I could see a solitary worker – also heavily dressed – and carrying a yellow
tank on this back, spraying. All over this pastoral setting seeped the
unpleasant chemical smell of diffused poison.
At one point I had to clear over an expanse of road under
construction made muddy by watering. The mud of it got into every pore of
Charlene and ripped the lubrication off her chain and gears. I stopped at a
halted lut tai(http://mair-hyman.blogspot.com/2013/10/your-cheatin-heart.html)
that had a bottle of motor oil in the
carriage and waited for the owner to descend from the hill to ask him if I coul
take some oil for my gears. "Is this motor oil (nam man)?" I
"No", he answered and used a word I did not know.
So I took up the bottle to look inside and there I saw the milky liquid and
could smell all the horrifying ramifications.
Inside was the sticky white water, the poison male gift
unforgivingly given to a forgiving Earth. Deep in
the horrifying bowels of a factory somewhere, a human masticating machine with
tubes and pipes and clock-ins, in a place designed to pervert the dreams and
lives of its workers, deep in such a place this deadly sperm was being enacted.
Man had found another way to rape the land; it was no longer enough, no longer
economically satisfying, to abuse nature on a small scale. Now an entire system
had to be implemented so that some people could have their daily orgasm, their
exploiting discharge as money clattered into the bank.
I never thought cycling would turn me into a feminist.
To make a long story short, the air stank with it.
The rest of the way to Kenthao was rough, especially when I
passed kilometre 50 on the speedometer. I
had calculated with Google Earth that this was a distance I would do that day
but of course I cannot take every gully and tire distraction into account. The
bottom line is that km. 50 is some sort of psychological barrier for me.
There were no places to eat along the way, either, so I had
to make do with industrial noodle soup in a shop. All this meant that I was
weak and stretched. Every inch forward was like climbing the Everest. I was
losing control of my body.
In mid-afternoon the blanket haze had given way to a dull
warm sunshine, but as I climbed the last painful crest to Kenthao thunder clouds
began to gather and threaten over Thailand. The river below rushed red and
furious in its shortened banks and tiny rain drops began to hit the fine yellow
sand of the road, creating miniscle moon craters on its surface. The rain at
that point was not heavy enough to turn the track to mud and just light enough
to flatter the air with freshness.
When I entered the town and the road became asphalt the
rain began in earnest and drenched me.
It was all delight, a joyeous undertaking, a limpid
exhilaration: I was wiped of the day's dust by that one act of grace.