Day 36:  9th February: Vieng Kham to Chong Tai:  50km and 1280m climbing.

There are days when the mileage and climbing figures for a bike tour tell a large part of the story of the day and days when they obscure the real events to the point of being nearly irrelevant.  Today was one of the latter days when the stats tell only part of the story.  50km and we feel exhausted.

We woke early and were on the road by just after 7 because we knew we had a big climb to begin with and wanted to do it in the cool of the early morning.  When we first started in Bangkok, a climb of 800m would have freaked us out but now it is pretty standard – it’s a mind game this cycling lark and our minds are moving towards accepting nearly anything the road throws at us.

It was misty, cool and not too steep as we climbed out of the valley. We managed 250m climbing in our first hour and felt pretty good (and would pay for our recklessness later).  The sun emerged from the mist and the views were spectacular.  We plodded on upwards, passing through villages of hill tribe folk – some greeted us with familiar Lao greetings or even saying “hello” or (more often) “goodbye”, and others used languages that we did not understand at all.  

We reached the top of the climb about 10.30am, over 3 hours up and the time had flown by.  We felt that the day was going OK, but we knew our main challenge was ahead of us – the sections of the road ahead which had no tarmac.  Kamoot had advised us that there was a section of 10km without tarmac but Tino and Alice (who had cycled this in reverse) told that they were not counting but it felt more like 15km to them.  They were being too kind as the section of road that substantially omitted tarmac was nearer to 20km.  

Riding trikes on a track without tarmac is difficult to describe but is an acquired skill – like enjoying hot curries or understanding compassionate conservatism (we are still working on that one).  The surface ranges from hard sand (good), soft sand (bad) or soft sand and lots of rocks (bl***dy awful).  I was super-mindful that my derailleur was at risk in this type of terrain and so we were ultra cautious with the trikes and we crept down the descent little faster than going up.  It was slow, a bit tedious and scary.  There were uphill sections where we got off and pushed as this saved the gear systems, but the sweat fell off us as we pushed loaded trikes uphill.

Fortunately, the route was more down than up which means we award mega brownie points to Tino and Alice who cycled this the other way, and so climbed on soft sand.  We kept thinking that the non-paved section was coming to an end as we were seduced by a few hundred metres of tarmac, but then we went round a corner and hit long sections of sand and rocks again.  The level of concentration that was required to navigate through the uneven ground, avoiding falling off or tipping the trike and yet continuing some form of momentum was considerable.

Pushing uphill to protect the derailleur

Eventually, after 20km of this hateful road, we reached a village which largely marked the end of the section where there was no proper road.  I do not wish to speculate on why the local authority (assuming there are such bodies in Laos) responsible for this bit of road has so failed in its duties in preparing a road surface for everyone (including passing foreign touring cyclists but also cars and Chinese lorries)! The one advantage is that there were limited numbers of vehicles – the lorries teamed up in convoys and so we would be passed by 6 or 7 at once and then have an hour without them.  It was just as well there were few vehicles as each one threw up vast amounts of dust. By the time we got to the bottom the trikes, panniers and both of us were caked in dust – but we were sort of proud of the fact we got through with few breakages (apart from the welded mudguard holder which did not quite make it through – another “Heath-Robinson” repair was needed.

The village at the end of the non-tarmac section had no functioning lunch outlet – we could have got beer and loud music, but not food (or so it seemed).  So we pressed on and eventually cooked up noodles and eggs for ourselves.  Bernie commented that, with all the eggs she is eating, she might look like an egg but that seems unlikely as days like this are thinning and  transforming our bodies into something like 60 year old Love Island contestants – forgetting that that is a contradiction in terms (which brings us back to compassionate conservatism).  

We looked at the maps online and expected a 10km stretch along the valley whilst the road followed the river to the next town which might have had a guest house or 16km to one on googlemaps.  So we set off at about 3pm feeling that our tired limbs would soon be relaxing.

But – and there is always a “but” with this type of travelling – the map did not quite do the terrain justice.  Instead of following the river, the road undulated up and down with a series of 50m climbs and descents that sapped our energy and challenged tired limbs (we should have set off less quickly and saved ourselves for later in the day).  

There was no guest house in the village after 10km  – so just an extra 6km but the final kick was that this section involved an unexpected 180m climb.  So we struggled up watching the metres accumulate, thinking that we had a lot to do tomorrow and it was probably better to do this now than in the morning.  Finally we arrived at the guest house and collapsed – no wifi but £4 for the night so who can complain. The room is just about wide enough to fit in a double bed but everything is very clean and the shower hot so we could finally get rid of the dust and dirt. 

Overall a “memorable” day with fantastic views but maybe one we will not seek to repeat in a hurry.

1 thought on “Day 36:  9th February: Vieng Kham to Chong Tai:  50km and 1280m climbing.

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