By the time we were about halfway up the length of Vietnam, Steve and I overwhelmingly felt the need for a proper break from cycling. As such, it turned out quite well that we would be meeting some special visitors within the next few days. Leaving Hooch in Hue without so much as a second glance, we took a 16-hour overnight sleeper train to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, to be reunited with Steve’s parents, Ian and Sue.
With them they also brought a bounty of gifts from home and a lot of new equipment. Thank you to Sue and Ian for only packing your swimmers to make room for all our gear; to Col and Cherie for the handy rain poncho which we’ll have plenty of opportunities to use but which you might need more than us back at home; to Christine and Michael, and Anna, Tom and Harry for the mega supply of chocolate bars (Ian and Sue did wonder how we would get through it all to which Steve whispered to me that they really must have underestimated our capacity to consume chocolate); to Grandad and Granny for the delicious cake from Grandad’s 80th birthday party and the new bike bell (much needed and much used!); and to Mum for all the new underwear, tops and eye cream (much needed and much used too!).
We spent a wonderful ten days with Ian and Sue – being treated to luxury accommodation, tasty food, amazing sights but more importantly just being able to spend time with them, watching the Vietnamese world go by. For the first few days we spent our time exploring all the exciting sights and sounds of Hanoi, walking down tiny alleys, seeing the sellers peddling their wares, visiting pet shops…oh sorry, I mean food markets, visiting museums and catching up on all the news from home.
We then went on the most luxurious cruise of Ha Long Bay, an enormous bay dotted with thousands of limestone karsts and isles. Steve and I couldn’t believe how breathtaking everything was – the posh cabin, the posh shower, the posh toiletries, the delicious five-course meals, the friendly staff, all with the backdrop and ever-changing spectacular karsts. Initially Steve and I felt that maybe we weren’t ready for polite society but we soon got into the swing of things. There was never a dull moment with the constant change in scenery and all the activities we did – a visit to a floating village, kayaking to a deserted beach, swimming, lessons in how to make spring rolls and the art of Vietnamese tea drinking, and spending the evenings squid fishing (I caught a whopper – my first ever catch!).
Vietnam had one last surprise for us as we rose above the flatness of the emerald green paddy fields into the hills of north-west Vietnam, where nestled between the folds lay villages of many different minority ethnic groups.
When I was at school I never knew what I wanted to do as a career, all I knew was that I wanted to study anthropology at university. I would dream of far away lands, hacking my way through jungles, meeting and living with people who thought and lived in ways so differently from my city perspective. I would read books of those adventurous types, picturing their tales of weird and wonderful cultures, knowing that I would never undertake such brave escapades as I was too shy, too scared, too unconfident.
Cycling through village after village, buying fruit from, and waving and smiling to women wearing intricately woven traditional costume and headress, completely distinct from the previous village, with teeth blackened or shaved hairlines to heighten their beauty, it was quite a moment for me to be experiencing cultures, however briefly, that I had only ever imagined I would read about in books.
But that is not to say I feel any more confident, less scared or shy. In fact, as cycle tourers go I am a complete fraudster! Sometimes I read the blogs of other people who have cycled similar routes to us and they seem to relish challenge and take everything easily in their stride. I cannot express how difficult I find this trip with seemingly at least one ‘challenge’ a day. I never stop ranting on/crying about how I can’t wait for my own bathroom again where I know that hair in the drain is mine, it is always a western toilet and where I am allowed to flush the toilet paper; or how much I hate cycling up endless hills; or why do we always have to cycle, getting nowhere slowly, into energy-draining headwinds; or how distraught and self-conscious I was at the loss of my leggings worn over my cycling shorts from my already limited clothes supply, knowing by the size of the South-East Asian ladies there was no way I would be able to easily replace them; or how disgusting I feel wearing sweaty, dirty cycling clothes for days on end; or how I can’t wait to open my fridge and make whatever meal takes my fancy; or my anxiety about where we will end up at the end of each day; or how fed up I get at people gesturing how big I am when after a day’s cycling, finding somewhere to sleep and eat I somehow just can’t find the time to exercise; or how hot/humid/cold/wet it is; or how I can’t wait to wear some flattering clothes for a night out with friends; or the utter horror that fills me when I know that any minute I may have to dash into the bushes again due to the sudden onset of a dodgy stomach; or how embarrassed I get when people constantly stare, especially when I am eating; or waking up with bites from bed bugs when staying in grubby hotels; or how painfully I miss people back at home (oh gosh, how I miss you!).
The time we shared with Ian and Sue was wonderful but it had left me wanting to so much more of my life at home. My constant homesickness that quietly bubbles away was finally coming to a fierce boil. I lost my sense of humour and despite smiling for Steve’s photos, I felt sad all the time. I spent so many sleepless nights squashed between the decision to continue the trip or go home. Would I be going home as a failure when so many other people have been able to complete similar trips? Hadn’t I already achieved so much when I have never done anything like this before? Would I go home early and be sat on a bus one day regretting the things that I had missed out on? Wasn’t it terribly selfish to be missing all the once in a lifetime celebrations friends were having when they had been there for mine? Would the lives of those who I think of to keep me going have moved on so much that I would no longer be a part of their lives? Would I be reignited about what was around the next corner? Maybe I was just going through a rough patch? Wasn’t this trip now getting in the way of all the ideas and plans that I have for when I get home? Who do I have to prove anything to? And if I do, haven’t I already done so by cycling thousands of kilometres for over a year? Was I just scared about what lay ahead as we approached the end of South-East Asia and headed for countries that I knew little of but knew would be so very different and without a doubt more challenging? Maybe I should stop self-indulging myself as a spoilt little brat when my problems really are nothing compared to those of others? And on and on these questions and many more churned through my head, never reaching a satisfactory answer. I had no one to talk to as no one apart from Steve knows the stresses we experience daily and he said that if I wanted to go home he was perfectly happy with that. But I knew that he wanted to continue, and unlike me, believed that we both could do it. So in the end it would still be my call to make and it made me feel so alone.
But despite my inner turmoil, day after day I would put on my sweaty, dirty cycling clothes and head off into the unknown. Before we knew it, we had reached the border of China, a country that gave me butterflies at the thought of how different it would be but I just thought, ‘Well, now that we are here, why not just see how it goes?’.
Oh, and how different it was! That first day we realised we were more remote than we had been for a long time as there were no little stalls regularly dotted along the road selling refreshing drinks. Unlike the raucous greetings that we had become accustomed to throughout South-East Asia, people we passed stared at us stony faced despite my best attempts at saying hello in Mandarin. Our decent map didn’t seem to match up with the roads we saw. Everything was written in Chinese symbols, completely indecipherable to us. Hand gestures we thought universal such as counting to ten on your fingers were completely different. Yes, China was going to be different. We felt we had landed on a different planet and the locals looked at us with such fear as if we were alien invaders.
Heading along a road that we hoped we would take us in the right direction, we eventually popped out into a small town where we found a pleasant enough hotel, created a stir of excitement and enjoyed some really rather excellent food after pointing out a few vegetables and what we hoped was pork. Day one in China was under our belt.
I knew we would have some climbing to do to reach Kunming, our first goal in China, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon on our second day. A road sign, thankfully written in Roman script, directed us to a town we were heading for which took us off the perfectly tarmaced road onto a cobbled road. It was several hours of climbing switchback roads before we could no longer see the town which we had seemingly risen vertically above. We must be near the top now we thought. No, this climb went up through some substantial mountains all day, with only a few water buffalo and completely bewildered goat herders for company. Anxious at the prospect of where we would sleep that night as every available space was used to grow crops and with not enough water to camp, I had a complete meltdown, bursting into tears on a mountainside and realising that I really wasn’t cut out for this when I knew I had a lovely home in the UK and could have been attending a wedding today. But what could I do stuck here but to pull myself together and carry on cycling uphill? No sooner had my tears dried to a salty stain on my cheeks, we had a small descent and out of nowhere appeared a small town.
Steve hoped by finding a nice little hotel, this would be the happy ending at the end of a hard day but judging by his face as he led me into our digs and knowing that what I could smell and knew Steve would soon be confirming were the communal toilets (a gutter spanning the ‘cubicles’ separated by a three foot high wall with no door and certainly no privacy) it wasn’t to be. We were led to a dormitory where thankfully there were no other guests and all I wanted to do was get into the wooden crib with the thin piece of foam acting as a mattress and sleep and dream of home. But before I did, Steve ran to the shop next door to get a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke to cheer me up. He did manage to muster a little smile!
We awoke early the next day and continued to climb up. Although it was still hard going, even I had to admit we were seeing some spectacular views.
The next few days we left the serious big climbs behind and began to pass through the expansion of huge towns where the outskirts were spookily empty with endless construction of massive high rise apartments with wide tree-lined boulevards. Next we were cycling past imposing industrial factories that reminded me of what England must have looked like during the Industrial Revolution, being coated with the black fumes spewing from the lorries that served them and along with a turn in the weather to wet and cold, it all made for rather bleak scenery. With the weather turning cold, I had to pee all the time and so after my initial despair at the toilets on that second day, I soon had to get over it and learn some tactics on how to deal with them. That was to always carry some pocket tissues, hold my nose, carefully watch where I was walking and then once in a stable position shut my eyes to pretend I was in my own bathroom.
Cycling towards Kunming we met Frank, a Chinese cycle tourer at the end of a month’s tour of Yunnan province, and we enjoyed riding with him until 20kms outside of Kunming where he was packing his bike up and sending it home before heading into the city by bus. As it was still early giving us plenty of time to get into the city and find a hostel we made plans to meet up with him later that evening and waved him goodbye. No sooner had we left him than the road disintegrated into mud. The cycling was hard going but the navigation even harder. We didn’t have a map of Kunming and all we were relying on was the hope that we could find an English speaker to send us in the right direction. But it was pretty much like arriving in Penge and asking where London is – well you are in it – yes, but where’s the centre? – how can you possibly give directions to that! Before Frank left us, he wrote down in Chinese the area where we would find the hostels so that we could show people for directions, which we did, but instead of pointing us in a direction, people would write down the instructions but in CHINESE thinking that whilst we couldn’t speak Chinese, we surely could read it. We had no hope and we were going one way, then the other, then back again. We finally found the street with a hostel from our guidebook and when we got to the right place found that it had been knocked down. Right, back on the bike and try again. With even more cycling round in circles, being sent one way and another, we found a lake and I literally jumped on the first Westerner we had seen since leaving Hanoi to ask directions to the nearest hostel. Speaking English with this American guy was like music to my ears as he confirmed there were at least two nearby and gave wonderfully clear instructions. At 8.45pm we finally found a place to rest our weary bodies.
We spent three days off in Kunming and it gave us the opportunity to prepare ourselves better for the next leg such as unlocking our smartphone so that we could use google maps and getting a Mandarin phrasebook. But more importantly it gave me the opportunity to reflect on our trip as we walked round the lake watching the wondrous activities of the local people – karaoke in the park, groups of elderly ladies dancing gracefully with fans, young guys playing drums, wise-looking elderly gents painting beautiful Chinese symbols on the ground with four-feet long paintbrushes dipped in water, strange group exercises, men beating spinning tops with cracking whips as their mates looked on with proud approval – and it made me realise that for all the things I find difficult, the things I am getting to see are truly amazing and will be memories that I will surely treasure for the rest of my life. Nobody said this trip was going to be easy and for me it isn’t but maybe it is only with these trials and tribulations that I can truly appreciate the good, weird and wonderful. As I had battled with my homesickness, I had lost sight of that as I was too caught up with the negative, too close to the day to day challenges that I did not have the time to breathe and reflect on all that we had achieved, even me who is scared, unconfident and shy, and to just laugh at some of the ridiculously hard things we have had to overcome. If I have got this far, surely I can go further still. So dusting myself off, smiling and laughing again, I was ready to do battle with the next set of challenges, realistic enough to know there will probably be more tears but even more fascinating sights and experiences to relish.