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.