Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ten Days in Huaphan Province

I took off for ten days on Charlene in Huaphan Province.

This post has four sections:

Never Ready

The Nitty Gritty

Hourglass, and



Never Ready

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 appreciate.

The Nitty Gritty

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 and hope.

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 going.

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 this trip.

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 down.
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 pain.

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 working.

That’s the nitty gritty.

But these cycling trips are also quests into myself; spiritual voyages that impact my life permanently. 

It is to this I now turn.


Life has an hourglass figure.

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 prison.

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.


No legends or explanations.

This is what life looks like out there.