From the frying pan into the fire

This is now an old story. But it’s still a story worth telling.

Much has happened since we left Vietnam on Tuesday March 10th. The coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world with many countries in lockdown. At the time of writing, the UK has sadly suffered more deaths from Covid-19 than any other European country. The government estimates that around 7% of the population or 4.7 million people have caught the virus with over 300,000 confirmed by a positive test.

In contrast, Vietnam has had 355 official cases, Cambodia 141 and Laos just 19. So far, none of these countries have recorded a single death linked to Covid-19. Indeed, Vietnam is now cited by many experts as having one of the best epidemic control programs in the world, alongside Taiwan and South Korea.

It seems that the Vietnamese authorities learnt a lot from previous viral outbreaks, including Sars in 2003 and Avian Flu in 2010. They took fast, decisive action as soon as the first case arrived from Wuhan on January 23rd.

The border with China was immediately closed, schools remained shut after the New Year Tet holiday and strict quarantines were placed around any local outbreaks. Most impressively, every single case was individually recorded and all the people they’d been in contact with were traced, tested and isolated. Then they traced the contacts of the contacts … and so on.

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Dalat

On Sunday March 8th we were enjoying a pizza in the old French hill station of Dalat, excited about our final 4-day bike ride back to Saigon and completing a round trip of over 2000km.

Another long cruise downhill would take us through some beautiful but remote mountain countryside, before reaching the outskirts of the city. Accommodation for the first two nights had been difficult to find, but eventually we’d managed to book a small guesthouse by a pretty lake about 10km off our route.

We were really looking forward to the ride. Until that is, we received this message from the guesthouse …

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We’d noticed that concern about Covid-19 had grown significantly in Vietnam over the previous few days. Most people were now wearing masks and our temperature was taken at every hotel, restaurant and museum. This had surprised us a little, as the country only had 16 cases at that time and were proud to have gone 22 days without anyone testing positive.

After a little googling, we soon found out why visitors from the UK were suddenly less welcome. A Vietnamese ‘socialite’ had flown back to Hanoi from London, after visiting the Milan Fashion Show. She turned out to be a super-spreader, infecting all the people around her on the plane. Most of them were British tourists heading to Vietnam for a special holiday.

This meant that the headlines in the local news were full of the danger of any contact with Brits. And any other Europeans for that matter. On Instagram we learnt that other bicycle tourists were suddenly being turned away from guesthouses, restaurants and even shops.

We could see that people were becoming a bit wary of us. Smiles were replaced with nervous glances. Perhaps we were not quite as welcome as we had been? Maybe it was time to leave?

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Instead of cycling back to Saigon, we jumped on a bus. Once there, we rode through the busy traffic in the dark to find a travel agent and change our flights. 48 hours after finishing that pizza in Dalat, we were on the plane home … a week ahead of schedule but pleased to be getting back to our families.

As things turned out we were leaping from the frying pan into the fire, leaving a safe country behind us and returning to a country where the number of coronavirus infections were accelerating quickly.

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It was disappointing to leave Dalat by bus as we’d also arrived by car … not really the point of a bicycle tour!

The bike ride up to Dalat from the coast is beautiful but brutal. 150km and over 3500m of climbing with little along the way to break the journey. No lodgings, no restaurants, not even any small shops selling water. Many young adventurous bicycle tourists have had great fun going down … very few have tried to cycle up.

It was clearly beyond our capabilities!

Dalat itself is the cheesy-music love-capital of Vietnam, hugely popular with honeymooners and hen parties. A few dollars to one of the many street karaoke busking groups buys you a great night out. You get a backing band and an appreciative audience of several hundred like-minded romantics as you belt out “Killing me softly with his song … ” or “I-e-ii-ee-iiiii will always love yooouuuu … “

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Snacks in Dalat

Our journey from Hoi An to Dalat had begun with yet another bus (we know … this is turning into a troubling theme). There was not enough time to cycle the rest of the way down the coast, so we picked a section that promised ‘a spectacular mix of craggy wind-lashed capes, fishing villages and pretty coves.’ Just as importantly, it also promised plenty of backroads away from the trucks rumbling down Highway 1.

This time it was one of the dreaded night buses, infamous with young backpackers. Built for small Vietnamese people, not for tall foreigners, Andy had to squeeze so tightly into his seat that he appeared to be trapped in an old-fashioned fairground ride!

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After eight sleepless hours, the bus dropped us off at 3am on the outskirts of a sprawling and rather soulless city called Tuy Hoa. We didn’t particularly fancy cycling in the dark so looked around for a hotel to hang out in for a couple of hours. They all looked a bit seedy, with big neon signs advertising 24-hour massages. Sure enough, as we locked up our bikes, a lady-of-the-night tottered out, presumably on her way home.

The night manager then followed her out to find out what we were up to.  Once he understood our situation, he couldn’t have been any nicer, offering drinks, power for our phones and a quiet lie down on the lobby sofa.

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Just before dawn we waved him goodbye and headed off in search of the coast road, some strong coffee and breakfast. Everything was closed but eventually we came across a street stall offering delicious Bánh Mì (Omelette Baguettes), just the right energy boost for the 75km ahead of us.

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This part of the Vietnamese coast is a land of contrasts.

Some parts of it are indeed very pretty … craggy capes, secluded coves, chalk-white beaches and small islands nestled in a turquoise sea. But there’s also a lot of industry here with oil refineries and giant ports dotting the horizon.

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Most striking are the multitude of fish farms which stretch out across the bays as far as the eye can see. Farmers and their families live on the floating houses, growing fish, shrimp and crab to serve the incessant demand from city markets with their ever-expanding population.

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Fish farms

Traditional fishing boats, each painted blue with a red trim, potter between the farms and head out at night in search of the wild tuna and bream.

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The fish farms are an arresting site. Less attractive are the piles of rubbish that build up by the side of the road. Managing single-use plastic waste is global issue that is brought into sharp focus in this part of the world.  People simply discard their leftovers on the ground as their forefathers have done for centuries. Unfortunately, unlike the waste of previous generations, plastic doesn’t degrade … so it just sits there waiting to be burnt every few months.

Occasionally as we cycled along a quiet road a bus would drive past us with empty bottles and cans literally raining out of the windows. It would be comical, if it wasn’t so sad.

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Beauty spoiled

This is a representative of a wider problem that applies to all three countries but especially to Vietnam, with its higher population density and rapid economic development.

Vietnamese people are rightly optimistic about the future. But many are also worried that their natural resources are being quickly exhausted to fuel the economic growth. Forests are being burnt down, cities rapidly enlarged, waterways polluted. They know that their country will need to nurture its natural resources much better in future for the good times to be sustainable.

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Trying not to notice the piles of rubbish, we meandered down the coast at a gentle pace, pausing for a couple of nights on Whale Island and at a quiet beachside retreat called ‘Some Days of Silence.’ There was no need to hurry.

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Whale Island

For our last night on the coast, we treated ourselves to a taste of luxury at one of the upmarket resorts that grace Ninh Van Bay and can only be reached by speedboat. Described in the guidebook as an ‘alternative reality populated by European royalty, film stars and the otherwise rich and secretive’, we were not sure what they would make of two sweaty cyclists.

Here we’d arranged to meet up with Richard and Sue, the friends from home that we’d bumped into by surprise back in Champasak. As the sun set over the hills that lead up to Dalat, we toasted both our trips with some very welcome crisp white wine.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be the end of this particular cycling adventure. A perfect celebration!

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Here’s the map of our whole trip around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos:

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We have to admit that there are a lot more red lines (for buses), green lines (for cars) and pink lines (for boats) on this map than usual.

But we still pedalled 1712km, climbed 18,629m and spent 126 hours in our saddles. That’s slightly more kilometres than our trips to Chile or to Australia.

And we only had two mechanical problems, both punctures to Andy’s rear wheel.

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Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are three very different countries, but they’re all great places to tour around by bicycle.

The scenery is spectacular … from the green rice carpets of the Mekong Delta to the rough red clay roads of Northeast Cambodia … from the temples of Angkor to the tranquillity of the Four Thousand Islands in landlocked Laos … from the cassava and coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau to the thick, high jungle of the Ho Chi Minh highway.

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As you set out at sunrise in the cool morning air there are endless scenes of everyday life to entertain you … families cooking noodles for breakfast under their house, hawkers selling dried fish, women slowly pedalling back from the market in brightly coloured pyjamas topped with conical leaf hats.

Once you get used to the rules of the road it’s even fun to cruise through town, scooters buzzing past in every direction.

But four months after coming home, it’s still the sound of children’s voices that we remember most …  “Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”

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Whilst the world fights back against this terrible virus, we can conjure up this soundtrack to lull us off to sleep … and start dreaming about where to go next.

Until then …

Clare and Andy

From Hamburgers to Noodle Soup

 

Dong Ap Bia (the Mountain of the Crouching Beast) stands 14 kilometres west of A-Luoi, a small town nestled in the central highlands of Vietnam. Officially called Hill 937 by the US army, it was the site of one the most famous battles of the Vietnam War in May 1969 … known thereafter as ‘Hamburger Hill’.

“Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? Well we just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine-gun fire.”

Sergeant James Spears, 19 years old

For some people, Hamburger Hill became a symbol of the bravery of both the attacking American infantry and the North Vietnamese defenders.

For others it epitomised the futility and waste of this long war.

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On the day we crossed back into Vietnam from Laos we stayed overnight in A-Luoi.

Waving goodbye to Mr Poh and his school bus we had spent the afternoon cycling down through high jungle to join the Ho Chi Minh Highway. This road follows the route of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of mountain footpaths that were used to supply and reinforce Vietcong fighters in the south. The attack on Hamburger Hill was part of a campaign to stop this supply.

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Just over the border from Laos

The ‘Rakkasans’ from the 101st Airborne (one of the US Army’s most decorated units) fought their way up the steep slopes battling with triple canopy jungle and waist high elephant grass as well as the machine gun fire. They were repelled again and again by the ‘Pride of Ho Chi Minh’, the elite North Vietnamese 29th regiment.

After dropping more than 1000 tonnes of bombs, 140 tonnes of napalm, 31000 rounds of 20mm shells and 500 tonnes of teargas, the Americans eventually prevailed and took control of the ‘moonscape’ that was left of the summit. 72 Americans lay dead with 370 wounded. Estimates of North Vietnamese losses vary, but at least 600 were killed.

The Americans only stayed for a couple of days before they abandoned Hamburger Hill. A few months later the North Vietnamese were back in their original positions.

It was the apparent futility of this battle that whipped up the anti-war sentiment that was then building a strong head of steam in America. Senator Edward Kennedy reflected the view of many people when he called the battle “senseless and irresponsible”.

At the time of Hamburger Hill, America had over 500,000 troops in Vietnam but this turned out to be the high water mark of their involvement. By the end of 1969 US troops had begun to withdraw and their focus had switched to training the South Vietnamese army to bear the brunt of the fighting. This eventually led to the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.

Today both the hill and the whole area is very peaceful, mountain rice growing in the valleys and birdsong replacing the sound of gunfire in the hills.

It’s difficult to imagine the horror that both sides endured. Except that the landscape is very familiar to anyone who has watched a few Vietnam War films. So familiar that you almost expect to see an Apache attack helicopter appearing over the next ridge.

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The tank that marked the end of the war

As we cycled around the country, we enjoyed learning a little about the ‘American War’ (as it’s known in Vietnam) from their perspective. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a stark reminder of the hardships and atrocities faced by ordinary people. The tours to the complex multi-level network of tunnels at Cu Chi show off the ingenuity of the Vietcong and the difficulty the Americans had in facing an enemy that kept melting away. And Tank 390 still guards the grounds of the presidential palace, having crashed through the gates on April 30th 1975 to end the war.

Ultimately though, we have been left with a feeling that this war of attrition became senseless. For everyone involved.

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Emerging from the Cu Chi tunnels

A-Luoi was the most undiluted Vietnamese town we visited. We stayed in a motel style guesthouse, no-one we met spoke English and it was tricky to find somewhere to eat. We walked past lots of beer gardens and coffee shops but no restaurants.

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At the guesthouse in A-Luoi

Eventually we managed to find a large bag of pistachio nuts and headed into a family run café to enjoy them with a beer. The family had just finished their own dinner so, more in hope than expectation, we made eating signs to the lady. She must have seen our faces drop as she shook her head because she disappeared, returning fifteen minutes later with a big smile and two steaming bowls of noodles, packed with chicken, vegetables and fresh salad.

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Noodle Soup

It was one of the most delicious meals we had in Vietnam. Much better than the hamburgers we’d been hoping to find … in tribute to the nearby hill!

To her obvious delight we gave her half our remaining pistachios. It seemed only right. The bag had cost us more than she insisted on charging for the meal.

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The next day’s ride down to Hue was one of best days we’ve ever had on a bicycle. Under a cloudless sky we wound our way down through stunning jungle canopy, up over a pass then down again into the wide fertile valley of the Perfume River (named for the flowers that drop into its clear waters).

It was the kind of day that reminds you that the simplicity of bicycle touring is one of the best experiences in the world.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

Ernest Hemingway

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Coffee break on one of our best ever biking days

People we’d met on our travels had told us that Hue was a bit of a disappointment. Well we beg to differ, we loved it.

It was the imperial capital of the last emperors of Vietnam, the Nguyen dynasty that ruled from 1802 to 1945. Today it is a vibrant, bustling city that blends old and new, wide embankments on both sides of the river giving it an air of calm.

The main attraction is the citadel, home to the Nguyen emperors and their seat of government. Several walls are pockmarked with bullet holes as an evocative reminder of the major battle that raged here in 1968 during the Tet offensive.  Most of the buildings were destroyed but they are now being lovingly restored to their former glory. It’s a huge site and a wonderful place to get a little lost in, roaming through tree-lined boulevards, ceremonial reception rooms and ornate gardens.

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The Citadel at Hue

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A few kilometres upriver from the Citadel is another poignant reminder of the conflict. Tucked away in a corner of the Thien Mu Pagoda complex is an old 1956 Austin saloon car that transported a monk called Thich Quang Duc to Saigon, where he calmly set himself on fire as a protest against the policies of the South Vietnamese regime. Captured by an American film crew it became one of the most emotive images of the war.

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We also enjoyed the tomb of Tu Duc, emperor at the time of the French invasion in 1883 and a man who lived a life of imperial luxury and carnal excess (104 wives, countless concubines but no offspring). Just 5 foot small he decreed that the statues of the mandarins guarding his tomb had to be even smaller than he was.

But he wasn’t buried here. Instead he was interned at a secret location where the 200 servants who helped with the burial were beheaded to stop the location and its treasures being discovered. It worked … the site has never been found.

One entertainment enjoyed by Tu Duc were the fights between tigers and elephants at Ho Quyen, a mini Romanesque amphitheatre that now sits in the middle of a quiet suburb. The tigers had their claws and teeth removed so that the elephants, a symbol of the emperor’s power, could triumph every time!

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Elephants, horses and mini-mandarins guarding the tomb for Tu Duc

From Hue, we cycled 160km down the coast to the graceful and historic town of Hoi An, full of preserved merchant houses, ancient tea warehouses and Chinese temples.

At first, the road took us past miles and miles of sand dunes all filled with thousands of graves and elaborate private family mausoleums. These are the final resting places of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), all seeking to be buried in their homeland.

Ancestors are worshipped in Vietnam and the majority of people are buried, often in large tombs on the family small holding. Given that the population has doubled to 99 million since the end of the war in 1975 (it’s now the world’s 15th most populated country), the density of tombs of this ‘road of death’ did make us wonder whether the rest of the country would look the same in future, such will be the demand for graves.

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Graves in the dunes on the ‘road of death’
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Some very elaborate

Just north of the large coastal city of Danang is the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) pass, a mountain spur than runs down to the sea and a sizeable cycling challenge at 496m high. It’s an important North-South divide both strategically and geographically, protecting Danang from the fierce ‘Chinese’ winds that sweep in from the north east.

The main artery of Vietnam, Highway 1, used to run over this pass but today there is a 6.3km long tunnel. Unfortunately, neither livestock nor fuel are allowed through the tunnel so we had to stop frequently to avoid the trucks full of pigs and petrol, recklessly overtaking each other on the hairpin bends.

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Looking back from the lower slopes of the Hai Van pass
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A pig truck on a hairpin bend
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A narrow escape for this motorbike (and us!)

Further entertainment was to be found at the Marble Mountains south of Danang, five craggy marble outcrops named for the five natural elements (water, wood, fire, metal and earth). Each one has an army of statues for sale at their base – from the ever-popular Laughing Fat Buddha to replicas of the Venus de Milo. The actual marble in the mountains is now exhausted … so it’s imported from China instead.

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Anyone fancy a fat buddha for their garden?

In Hoi An we were suddenly surrounded by tourists. Not surprising as it’s a delightful place, especially at night when the roads are closed to traffic and the town is lit up by thousands of lanterns. This makes it feel slightly like a Disneyland version of itself … but creates a fun atmosphere.

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The old buildings of Hoi An
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Traditional Vietnamese Nón Lá’ … Leaf Hats

As well as a few of the 800 historic buildings we enjoyed traditional Vietnamese food, traditional music and dance and traditional water puppets. Much to our amusement each show was wrapped up by a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, sung in English. And no, they didn’t know the words either!

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Our favourite: Bánh Xèo … crispy pancakes filled with shrimps and fresh vegetables

Perhaps our most magical moment in Hoi An came early one evening as we cycled around the paddy fields that encircle the town. A light sea breeze had blown up and several groups of grandparents (who would have known the horrors of the war) emerged onto the pathways that criss-cross the fields to enjoy flying kites with their grandchildren.

The air was filled with colour and laughter. It was a bewitching scene and one that made the American War seem like a very long time ago.

Clare and Andy

 

Apologies – we’re a little bit behind with this blog. 

We cycled from the Laos border to Hoi An between 23rd and 27th February. We’re now safely back home, having left Vietnam a few days earlier than planned when the Covid-19 virus made cycle touring a little complicated. We’ll tell that story in the next post.

Laid back in Laos

We only started to get worried when the border guards summoned the bossman to examine our passports for a third time, all stern and officious in his crisp green Vietnamese army uniform.

Quite reasonably, they were on high alert for the coronavirus.

Our temperatures had already been checked and two masked officers had carefully scrutinised our passports, checking and double checking each stamp to make 100% sure we hadn’t recently been to China.

A few days before, we’d read that some travellers had been turned away from remote borders (such as this one at Lalay) if they had a Chinese visa in their passport, no matter how out of date it was. Andy has three Chinese visas (a legacy from his old job), the most recent of which expired in 2015.

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Part of the Lalay Border Post

First the bossman studied the front of Andy’s passport to make sure of his nationality. This was quite amusing as most of the lettering had worn away and become impossible to read. He was only satisfied when we persuaded him that, honestly, it was the same type of passport as Clare’s and therefore came from the same country.

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You can see his problem

Then he painstakingly examined every single entry and exit stamp whilst his junior colleagues gathered around pointing and shaking their heads. Andy has 94 stamps in his passport, so this took quite a while.

Eventually and with enormous relief, as much for him as for us, he looked up and smiled … “Welcome to Vietnam!”

It’s not that we wanted to leave Laos. It’s that we’d like to head home in a few weeks time and crossing back into Vietnam makes that a whole lot easier. Plus … we really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere!

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On the way up to the border

The people of southern Laos are amongst the most laid back individuals we have ever met.  Guided by Theravada Buddhism which emphasises ‘the cooling of human passions’, they don’t get too worked up about the future, considering it to be determined by karma rather than by devotion or hard work. They also believe that ‘too much work is bad for your brain’ and feel sorry for people who ‘think too much’.

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The people we’ve met in Vietnam and Cambodia appear to be quite driven by comparison. It’s neatly summed up by a French saying:

‘The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice and the Lao listen to it grow.’

But they also come across as a happy bunch. Unless any activity, work or leisure, contains an element of fun, it’s not worth pursuing.

img_1133It was very easy to be seduced into the laid back life of Si Phan Don, literally meaning ‘Four Thousand Islands’. Here the Mekong bulges to a breadth of 14km, slowly easing it’s way past a few large inhabited islands and many islets and sandbars, then rushing down a series of rapids and waterfalls.

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This natural barrier gives the Mekong it’s special charm – it’s one of the world’s great rivers meandering 4350km from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, but it can never become a shipping super-highway.

img_1149We enjoyed some gentle days pottering around the three main islands of Si Phan Don (Don Det, Don Khon and Don Khong), gradually becoming more proficient at manoeuvring our bikes on and off the small longtail boats and more chilled about doing so.

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We came to love the Mekong so much we even made our own tribute to it. Late one afternoon, Andy dived into the refreshing cool water without realising he had some cash tucked in the pocket of his swimming shorts, never to be seen again.

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From Don Khong it was a sweaty and dusty ride 110km up river to Champasak where we enjoyed two lovely surprises.

The first surprise was Wat Pho (meaning Mountain Temple), a contemporary of Angkor which stretches up the slopes of Phu Pasak, a sacred mountain known locally as Mount Penis. It’s a quirky, tumbledown place with attractions that include a crocodile stone carving allegedly used for human sacrifice and a sacred spring that cows now clamber up to for a holy drink.

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Looking down on Wat Pho

The second surprise was to hear our names being bellowed out as we cycled back to Champasak. Unbelievably it was Richard and Sue, good friends from home. We’d planned to meet up in Vietnam in a few weeks time but neither of us had any idea that we’d both be in this part of Laos at the same time. It was really good to see them and to spend an evening of easy conversation over beer and pizza.

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From Champasak, we changed plans and decided to cycle up to Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau, 1300m above sea level and famous for it’s waterfalls and it’s coffee plantations.

Why did we do it? Well, it wasn’t for the coffee. It wasn’t for the waterfalls. It wasn’t even to experience some cooler temperatures. No … the attraction was the promise of a whole day of descending, a whole day of cruising gently downhill.

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Cycling up to the Bolaven Plateau

In the event, Andy very nearly messed it up!

The road he’d planned to go down was the wrong road. Very wrong indeed. It quickly disintegrated into a very rough, very dusty stone track.

For about an hour, we bumped and banged our way down it almost killing our bikes and ourselves in the process. Andy was ever hopeful it would improve on the other side of the next ridge despite Clare’s increasingly frantic protestations. Eventually he had to admit that it was physically impossible for us to go any further.

We turned around and slowly climbed back up.

By the time we got back to the top, we’d run out of time and daylight so were forced to find some emergency accommodation and try again the next morning.

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The Bolaven Plateau is a market garden

This time we found the right road … and it was glorious! Just what we’d dreamed of. Even when crossing the Pyrenees or the Andes we have never cruised down such a long descent, the gradient gently taking us through coffee plantations, past mango groves and fields of cassava. For 50km!!

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Cruising down … all day long!

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It ended in a serene little village called Tat Lo. In recent years, this has become a quiet retreat on the backpacker trail, nestled in a river valley full of forest trails, small waterfalls and swimming holes. It’s location is remote enough for the small guesthouses and cafes selling banana pancakes to sit alongside normal village life, not to overwhelm it.

We stayed in a simple, stilted room in a lovely guesthouse called Palamei, owned by Poh and Tim and named for their daughter.

We’ve enjoyed a wide range of accommodation on this trip, including a couple of luxury hotels as the coronavirus scare has made everything so cheap … but this was one of our favourites.

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Tat Lo Village

We always knew that getting back into Vietnam from this part of Laos was going to be the greatest challenge of our trip.

We looked at various options, including cycling back to Pakse and taking a long sleeper bus ride north to Savannakhet and onto Hue in Vietnam via the main border crossing at Lao Bao. A journey of over 700km this was not a fun prospect for two aging touring cyclists.

We also knew that cycling up to the remote border at Lalay (only 170km away) was beyond our cycling capabilities. It would mean three days of riding over some very steep hills with few towns or villages along the way. A great ride for proper (young) adventure touring cyclists … but not for us!

Poh asked which day we planned to leave. When we told him it was Sunday his face lit up. His van normally serves as the local school bus but Sunday meant no school.

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So that’s what happened. It turned out to be a fascinating journey through a dramatic mountain landscape, the school bus struggling to make it up some of the steeper inclines as we gave grateful thanks to the cycling gods that we weren’t pushing our bikes up instead.

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During the drive up to the border and over a bowl of noodle soup, Poh shared some stories of his life. Born into desperately poor circumstances, he spent several years as a child living in the village temple as his mother had died when he was just two years old. With only rudimentary schooling, he recognised his one good fortune was to be born in a village that was starting to attract tourists, so he worked 16 hour days in a nearby lodge to learn both the business and how to speak English. Eventually he was able to set up his own guesthouse.

Poh and Tim, his wife, have three children but they have also adopted five more, all from the same tough circumstances he knew as a child. Now he is giving back to his community, one small part of which is providing the local school bus.

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Clare and Poh

The journey passed quickly and before long, we found ourselves at the border to be greeted by the smart Vietnamese guards and the medical team.

It’s just as well we didn’t cycle … we’d have been so hot and bothered we’d have failed the temperature test. Then they’d never have let us back into Vietnam!

Clare and Andy

Cycling with your husband

A few people have asked me for some tips on how to stay safe, healthy and happy while cycling with your husband in a place like South East Asia.

I’ve had plenty of time to think about this whilst peddling across rural NE Cambodia and, in the last few days, pushing my bike up a seemingly endless 1200m climb in Laos (we’ll tell this story in our next blog post).

So here are my tips:

Tips to say safe

Follow Andy’s rules of the roads. This has surprised me as my natural instinct is to stop whenever I sense danger. Here, I’ve become a road warrior, maintaining speed and direction … and never ever stopping.

Don’t let him take side roads unless you can see tarmac. They’ll either be rocky and bottom-pummelling or sandy and dusty. A passing truck will inevitably cover you in a gritty cloud of red dust.

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Start cycling at sunrise to avoid the midday sun. So far, the intense heat has curdled my shampoo and heated my water bottle enough to brew a decent cup of tea. It’s also a beautiful time of day and there’s usually far less traffic on the road.

Use suntan lotion sparingly. It was impossible to buy more in rural Cambodia as the locals don’t use it. I’m not even sure they know what it is as people found it very funny when we put some on.

Respect local customs. Covering up your shoulders and knees in rural areas and at temples is polite, even when it’s 33 degrees.

Make him ride in-between you and any dogs. I was chased 3 times before he realised it was his manly duty to protect me.

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Or just get some new wheels …

Tips to stay healthy

Persuade him to take a rest. A few days pottering around the 4000 Islands in southern Laos on the mighty Mekong was restful, replenishing and reflective.

Don’t expect to always get a perfect coffee. Sometimes it comes with condensed milk that sits at the bottom of the cup. Just be grateful you’re having a coffee break at all.

Drink lots of water. Tap water is not safe and whilst refillable water stations are becoming more popular, they’re not yet freely available. Sadly, plastic waste is a real and obvious problem. It feels weird buying a big bottle of water and immediately pouring it into our cycling bidons.

Drink fresh coconut water whenever it’s available … it’s delicious and refreshing! Bottled fruit drinks are usually sticky and very sweet but Japanese green tea flavoured with honey & lemon has become another favourite.

Eat bananas. They’ve become our staple cycling snack. You can only buy them in big bunches … but he can manage the extra weight in his panniers.

Eat well … today’s food is tomorrow’s fuel. We’ve found the food in all three countries to be really good. Local family-run places offering home cooked meals are often better than bigger (more expensive) restaurants.

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50 cents a bunch

Tips to stay happy

Mentally add at least 20% extra to the distance and elevation he’s suggesting for the days ride. That way you won’t have a meltdown when there’s still 10km uphill or off-road to go.

Take public transport if the distance and elevation he’s suggesting is too much.

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Sadly there was no room on this one

Get to know the currency. There are no coins in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and the notes look very similar especially when they’re well worn. The 50,000 Laos Kip note (about £4.50) looks almost the same as the 5000 Kip note (45p). Andy has got it embarrassingly wrong a few times!

Stick on your headphones when the going gets tough. Gazing out at beautiful scenery is wonderful, but it’s not beautiful all the time. When it becomes less interesting or your backside starts aching, you need a distraction. A podcast or talking book works for me.

Make sure there’s a decent shower to get rid of the dust wherever you stay. We’ve slept in a wide variety of places from homestays to luxurious hotels (very good value at the moment because of the coronavirus). Often the cheapest is the best … right now we’re in a typical Laos room on stilts in a lovely guesthouse for £7/night.

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Our room at Palamei Guesthouse, Tad Lo

Travel light. A good thing about travelling in warm climates is that your clothes dry really quickly. I’m getting used to wearing the same things again and again so next time I’ll try to bring even less. A hotel hairdryer remains a nice surprise but is no longer a necessity – my pink hair roller still does the job well!

And finally … join your husband for a cold beer at the end of the day. It’s tastes great here and is usually the cheapest drink on the menu!

After all … there’s no gain without pain. And he’s still the best cycling buddy a wife could want!

Clare

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Strangers from another world

“Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”

Little people running out to us, waving, jumping up and down, huge smiles lighting up the dusty, parched landscape.

“Byeeeeeeee!!”

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Followed by noisy, excited laughter, gossip of what they’d said and how they’d waved to these two strangers from another world.

This was our soundtrack from thousands of children as we slowly pedalled by.

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We were cycling along Route 64, a recently paved road that winds it’s way 300km across the remote north east of Cambodia from Siem Reap (home of the famous Angkor temples) to Stung Treng … our gateway to Laos.

It’s a rough, rural landscape that mixes open scrubland with smallholdings growing crops – cassava, peppers, bananas, sugar cane, mangoes, coconuts.

We were rarely alone. Houses are strung out on both sides of this dusty road. As well as the children, we were greeted by women chopping cassava to dry on the roadside or by young men passing by in two-wheeled tractors.

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Cassava is an important cash crop
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Two-wheeled tractor

Best of all was a father bringing a tiny child out to wave back at us and join in the fun. Or four children passing by on a motor scooter (the oldest driving but not yet a teenager) giggling “heyoooooo” in unison.

Cycling is the only way to have this kind of experience … walking is too slow, a motorbike is too fast, a car too enclosed and a bus is too busy.

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There is relatively little fast moving traffic on Route 64, especially east of the Mayan looking 10th century temples at Koh Ker. Most common are hawkers on scooters pedalling vegetables, eggs, salted fish, household items, ice-cream or huge blocks of ice … each with their distinctive call sign.

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Vegetable seller

Sounds like cycling heaven? Nearly, but not quite. It’s hot and dusty at this time of year and small towns that might have places to stay are spaced further apart than we would ideally like.

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This meant we needed to cycle just over 100km from Siem Reap to reach Koh Ker, our first destination. Most of it was slightly uphill, which would have been fine had we not been surprised by a persistent headwind.

This wasn’t an Irish gale. It wasn’t even a stiff breeze. But it was the kind of wind that makes smoke lean sideways. Enough to make you feel that you’re pushing the air aside as you ride through it. And it never stopped!

Luckily, there were lots of places to pause and rest. Nearly every house is a shop of sorts, selling petrol in old water bottles, strange snacks and best of all … fresh coconut water. Delicious and cool, it slipped down like a reviving nectar.

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Petrol station

Much to the locals surprise, we drank a whole coconut each, about half a litre. They had no idea how dehydrating it is to cycle into a warm wind all day. As the day wore on, our stops became more frequent … every 25km, then 15km, then struggling to make 10km.

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The following day was a manageable 65km from Koh Ker to the county town of Preah Vihear. Then we faced a choice … cycle 140km to Stung Treng in one day, stay overnight at the only guesthouse in a small town called Chhaeb (Google review – “only stay there if you have to”) … or find alternative transport.

The minivans that serve as buses couldn’t squeeze us in. So without any expectations, we wandered down to the local taxi rank to see what we could find.

Leaving the next morning at sunrise in Atith’s taxi was possibly the best $30 we’d ever spent. He dropped us off a few kilometres beyond Chhaeb with a pleasant 70km still to cycle. As we put the front wheels back on our bikes in the middle of nowhere, Atith could not hide his amusement at these strangers from another world. He found the whole thing hilarious!

But it turned a tough day into a really enjoyable day.

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Thanks Atith

It also shows how much we’ve changed over the years, especially Andy. We’re now more interested in the experience than the journey. And as longtime readers will know, we’ve never claimed to be real touring cyclists!

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What’s in a letter?

Angkor with an ‘o’ means ‘city’ and is the name of the great civilization of the Khmer kings who ruled Cambodia from the 802 to 1432.

Angkar with an ‘a’ means ‘the organisation’ and is the name the Khmer Rouge used for its own leadership.

Angkor is the country’s national pride and celebrated everywhere, on the national flag, on money, as the leading brand of beer.

Angkar is Cambodia’s deep trauma.

Back in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city and in Siem Reap, it’s major tourist attraction we were able to learn a little of both Angkar and Angkor.

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Of course, we’re not qualified to comment on the terrible atrocities the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted on the Cambodian people from 1975-79, except to say that it still feels recent and raw.

The two sites we visited in Phnom Penh were simply and sympathetically presented. Much is left as it was found and visitors are guided by an excellent audio system that tells the story and creates an atmosphere of quiet reflection.

No-one was taking lots of photographs on the days we were there.

First to the notorious S-21 security prison. Housed in an old school in a quiet suburb, an estimated 20,000 victims were incarcerated and brutally tortured there until they made false confessions. There were only 12 known survivors, each because they had a skill that was useful to their captors.

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The rules at S-21

Then to Choeung Ek, one of 300 ‘Killing Fields’ spread across the country. The people in S-21 were taken here in the middle of the night for execution, made to kneel down beside an open grave and killed with a rough agricultural tool as bullets were too noisy and too precious.

Estimates vary but roughly 2 million people died, a quarter of the population.

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The Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek, with more than 8000 skulls inside

We had travelled the 320km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus to avoid several days of cycling on a busy, featureless main road. This was by far the most hassle free bus journey we’ve ever made with our bikes, which were safely stowed in the hold without the need for packaging or removal of wheels.

Cycling around the Angkor complex of temples was pure delight.

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Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple

It’s a vast area, a city that boasted a population of around 1 million people at a time when London was a small town of 50,000. Most of them were engaged in building ever grander temples for each successive Khmer God King as they switched from Hinduism to Buddhism and back again.

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Apsaras, female dancing spirits

The gateway to Angkor is 8km outside Siem Reap so a tour of a few temples adds up to a proper bike ride of around 50km each day.

We saved the best until last. Angkor Wat at dawn. It was genuinely a spine-tingling moment to emerge through the outer gates and see the lotus-bud towers lit from behind by the sun of a new day.

As was ascending the precipitous steps to reach the kingdom of the gods.

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After 600 years, the empire of Angkar fell into decline partly as a result of over-population and deforestation. A lesson for us all today perhaps?

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As we cycled away from Angkor Wat towards Stung Treng, there were many quirky things we enjoyed about rural Cambodia … such as the hawkers on motor scooters and the petrol in plastic bottles,

Here are a few more:

Every house is a shop but it’s not a shop as you know it. Customers pull up outside on their motor scooters and shout their demands to the shopkeeper. There’s no browsing and you get a very odd look if you try to go inside!

Bright coloured pyjamas are all day wear for many rural Cambodian women.

Wooden houses are built on stilts, not so much for risk of flooding but to provide a nice shady area to swing in a hammock in the heat of the day.

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Baguettes are everywhere … a legacy from the French colonialists.

Instant coffee is only available as pre-mixed ‘3 in 1’ with milk powder and sugar. Yuk!

It’s another world … isn’t it!

Clare and Andy

Goodbye Galway Girls & Danny Boys

The Irish have a great talent for making a lot out of a little.

As we drove to Rosslare to catch our ferry back home, we couldn’t help but smile at a sign announcing ‘President Obama’s Ancestral Village’. This is Moneygall where a young man called Falmouth Kearney lived before he emigrated to the United States in 1850. He was Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather.

Now this might seem like a distant connection to you and me but for Moneygall it’s enough for a visitor centre called the Barack Obama Plaza and the preservation of a terraced house as his ancestral home.

We found a similar story when we stayed in New Ross on our first night in Ireland. Birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather, it now boasts a Kennedy homestead, Kennedy museum, Kennedy arboretum, Kennedy summer school and Kennedy hotel.

As far as we know, there isn’t a Trump visitor centre in Ireland yet … just an ostentatious golf course and luxury hotel that took us a long time to cycle past.

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Kinvara

During our last two days on the Wild Atlantic Way, we cycled from Doolin to Galway, staying overnight in the lovely small town of Kinvara.

This took us through the Burren, one of the finest examples of a glacio-karst landscape in the world. Huge limestone sheets have been eroded by glaciers and then by rainwater which gets into any cracks and crevices.

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Limestone pavements

The effect is dramatic. Limestone pavements with perfect parallel lines sit beneath smooth hills that are strewn with so many rocks that they appear from a distance to be sugar coated with snow.

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A light covering of snow in August? 

The name Burren comes from the Gaelic Boíreann which simply means a rocky place. Many years ago, farmers cleared all the rocks from the fields, piling them into a striking mosaic of dry stone walls.

The walls go right down to sea, sometimes running across vast limestone pavements. Cattle were brought down onto the flat rocks for winterage, as they held onto the summer heat for longer encouraging the grass in the crevices to keep growing.

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Galway turned out to be a vibrant city with a lively centre full of small shops, restaurants and music bars, all buzzing with people chatting away in Gaelic. So much so that it’s often referred to as the bilingual capital of Ireland.

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There were lots of amusing shop signs, including a trading notice outside this jewellers…

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And a special offer from this café…

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To our surprise, the highlight of our visit to Galway was an extraordinary show that’s been entertaining tourists for the last fourteen summers.

Trad on the Prom is an evening of traditional Gaellic music and dance presented by some of the creators of big, famous shows such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. Despite taking place in the unlikely surroundings of a leisure centre sports hall, it was magical and captivating as the quality of the musicians and dancers was so high. Indeed, many of them were world champions.

Trad on the Prom
Credit: Trad on the Prom

As we caught the train back to Ennis to pick up our car, we added up the distance we’d cycled on the Wild Atlantic Way.

It came to 961km cycling and 438km driving*.

This means we did fulfil our carbiking promise to cycle more than we drove. But we missed our 1000km target … defeated by the weather on the Dingle.

Southern Route Full

So how was our first experience of carbiking?

There are lots of good things:

  • It’s really easy to get to the place you plan to cycle from. You don’t have cram your bikes onto public transport.
  • It’s more versatile. You can take a detour, stay in different places or get to a remote restaurant.
  • You can miss out those parts of the route with lots of main roads or boring scenery.
  • If you need to, you can check out a mountain pass in the car before you ride over it.
  • You can drive on rainy days.
  • For day rides, the panniers can stay in the car.
  • It means you can bring loads more stuff such as heavy camping gear, a box of food or even that all important hairdryer!

And a few less good things:

  • You always have to get back to your car, which can mean cycling in a circle.
  • The comfort of the car makes it feel less adventurous, less of a journey.
  • It makes it too easy to bring loads more stuff!

We thought it worked out surprisingly well especially as there were so many peninsulas to loop round on this trip. We’d definitely recommend it.

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Now … we’ve heard some people say that the Wild Atlantic Way is one example of the Irish making-a-lot-out-of-a-little.

It is a clever way of joining all the small roads together and claiming that it’s the longest coastal touring route in the world’.

But … the southern half is so beautiful, so varied and, yes, so wild that we think it’s actually making-a-lot-out-of-a-lot!

Now we can’t wait to return and explore the northern half from Galway to Malin Head.

Clare and Andy


Southern Half of the Wild Atlantic Way: Kinsale to Galway
By bike: 961km, 11825m climbed
By car: 438km*

* If we cycled and drove along the same roads, we only counted the cycling distance.
* We didn’t include driving to Ireland and back.
* Which is not cheating!

To arrive where we started

It felt like the only thing to do. The right thing to do. Waking up on our last day in Barcelona we cancelled plans for more museum tours, dug the bikes out of the hotel basement and took them on one final ride around the city. They were delighted to be out in the fresh air … and so were we.

We showed them all the city sights including the Olympic Stadium, Las Ramblas and the Mediterranean beaches where we all gazed out to sea dreaming of future adventures together.

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Olympic Park
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Barceloneta

It turned out to be our favourite day in this magical city – better than the Gaudi, better than the old city, better even than the great restaurants. Perhaps this means all four of us (two bikes & two people) have now officially caught that notoriously infectious bicycle-touring-bug.

Then we collected some large cardboard boxes from a local bike shop (ones that new bikes come in) and carefully packed them up. A daunting prospect beforehand, this ended up much easier than we had expected.

Here’s all we did:

  • Removed anything that stuck out (like the top box mounts)
  • Removed the pedals and front wheel
  • Twisted the handlebars, parallel with the frame
  • Put the saddles down
  • Took some air out of the tyres
  • Protected anything delicate with cardboard (like derailleurs)
  • Wrapped them up in lots of bubble wrap and tape.

The main problem was filling the space around the bikes so they didn’t rattle around. Stuffing our clothes and panniers down the side wasn’t enough until Clare came up with an inspired idea to pad the space with lots (yes, lots) of kitchen roll, which was light and exactly the right length.

The bike boxes just fitted into a large taxi to the airport and Easy Jet looked after them nicely on the flight to Bristol. We were rescued from an airport rebuild by Andy’s parents who squeezed us into their small campervan for the journey back to Bath.

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A tight fit in the campervan

Frank Sinatra once sang
“… it’s oh so nice to go trav’ling, but it’s so much nicer to come home …”

And it was … home cooked food, a familiar bed, even catching up on 8 weeks of Strictly Come Dancing!

Having never been away for so long before, we were surprised that some appliances had stopped working in our absence. A flat car battery was predictable but the washing machine had also gone on strike as the pump was jammed by sediment that had slowly settled during the last two months.

Encouraged by his new bike maintenance skills, Andy decided to fix it himself but only managed to flood the kitchen twice before giving up and calling a plumber. A reminder of those early puncture repairs but at least all that Spanish kitchen roll came in handy!

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As we arrived home, Bob T sent us this lovely phrase from Little Gidding by TS Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

After living for so long in our bicycle bubble, coming home did feel a little like that. We briefly looked at Bath through the eyes of a visitor – as a beautiful and distinctive Georgian city that’s feels like a great place to live. It was good to be back.

As I’m sure you can tell, we’ve both loved our first bicycle tour and would recommend the sense of freedom it gave us to anyone.

Talking to many of our friends it seems that men are often (not always) a bit keener to go on a bike tour than women are. So for couples like us, no longer in the first flush of youth and who haven’t done lots of cycling before, here are Clare’s ’12 top tips’ to help other women enjoy it as much as she did:

  1. You don’t have to be super fit – fitness develops as you cycle.
  2. Buy decent equipment – a good bike and saddle become your friends.
  3. Cycling shorts with padded underwear are surprisingly comfortable – wear Lycra when you want to feel more sporty.
  4. You can happily exist without many clothes – as women’s clothes are lighter than men’s, it’s OK to include a few extras.

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  1. Take a luxury item – not necessarily a hair dryer (though I’d take it again!)
  2. Make him carry more weight – it will help him feel manly.
  3. Don’t let him be too ambitious with the daily distance – a few hours quality cycling is much better than hours on end.
  4. Make time to see the sights – have rest days in interesting places.
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Moissac Abbey
  1. Make sure you know where you’re going – don’t let him take you on too many ‘dreadful detours’.
  2. Don’t go over any mountains unless you’re sure – I wouldn’t have gone over the Pyrenees if I’d known what it would be like!
  3. Learn a bit about bike maintenance – at least you can give him some advice when he has to mend a puncture.
  4. Always stop for coffee and enjoy all the eating and drinking – you deserve it!

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Thank you for following this blog over the last two months and for all your encouraging comments. Here are just a few of many that made us laugh:

“Cycling is life with the volume turned up.”
Dave H

“Fab inspirational effort. I am planning to cycle into town tomorrow… and back …”
Jonathan S

“What with beard and fishnets, I think Andy is having a retro Kenny Everett moment … and it’s all in the best possible taste!”
Maggie C

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“Canal paths are like fish and chips, nice to start with but then too much and rather boring.”
Judith D

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“Go over the mountains or you will regret it forever. However you will probably curse me all the way up the first 3 hour climb!”
Mark F
(He was right on both counts.)

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There have been a few unintended consequences from our trip:

  • Andy (who was overweight) has lost 12lbs, Clare (who wasn’t) has lost 3lbs despite eating more than she has ever eaten before.
  • Andy is keeping his first beard (for the time being).
  • Most surprisingly, since we got home Clare has been cycling up every Bath hill she can find, knocking minutes off her old times. (Perhaps she does want to go back to the mountains after all?)

So what’s next for us? Now that we have caught the bicycle-touring-bug we plan to do lots more in future. Our bikes are keen too – here they are dreaming of those future adventures on the beach in Barcelona.

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We’ll let you know when the four of us are ready for the next one. Until then … happy pedalling!

Clare and Andy

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The End of the Road

It was with a mixed emotions that we joined the Friday night commuters cycling 8km down the Avinguda Diagonal to the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s iconic heart. We pedalled slowly, taking in the moment, reluctant to leave our saddles as we came to the end of our journey.

“Though the roads been rocky, it sure feels good to me.”
Bob Marley

After descending from the Pyrenees earlier in the week, we enjoyed three interesting days in small, historic Catalan towns – Solsano, Cardona and Montserrat. Firmly part of Catalonia, signs of the independence movement are everywhere – from the many yellow and red striped flags hanging from balconies to the extensive use of Catalan as the main (and often only) language in hotels and restaurants. A referendum is muted for September 2017 and it seems, from our brief visit, that the independent spirit is even greater here than it is in Scotland. Interesting times!

We joined the All Saints Day celebrations in Solsano on November 1st by tasting the macaroon pastries and sweet wine that families traditionally share that day to honour their ancestors.

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Another Catalan food that Andy really liked was a breakfast of pa amb tormaquet. This is lightly toasted bread rubbed with lots of garlic, squashed tomatoes, olive oil and salt, eaten with Iberian ham and cheese. Delicious! Clare would really have preferred a big bowl of muesli.

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Cardona is famous for its salt mountain and the impregnable hill top castle built to protect it.

Mined since Roman times, there are 300km of tunnels and galleries running through the salt mountain with tours, of course, conducted exclusively in Catalonian. The castle is now a Parador – a chain of state run hotels that both protect historic buildings across the country and make interesting, unusual places to stay.

Even more spectacular is the monastery at Monserrat, perched precariously 740m up jagged limestone cliffs. Now served by a road, a railway and a cable car it has become one of the biggest tourist destinations in the region with beautiful walks, hotels, restaurants etc. There’s an iconic bike ride up the hill, climbing 600m from the valley below but we quickly agreed to take the funicular railway this time, with all the other sensible people.

In the mountains we had always worn our most serious cycling gear, including the proper padded lycra shorts and tops we had carried through France. It seemed necessary somehow! Now it was back to the favourite old shorts (still held up by safety pins) for the final ride down to Barcelona.

We always thought that last day of cycling from Monserrat to Barcelona would be the most dangerous and so it proved to be, dodging large trucks and speeding cars much of the way. Barcelona is bordered to the north west by a steep, rocky range of hills so all the main roads, rail links and industry are concentrated into two narrow valleys, one to the north and one to the south.

We chose the slightly easier southern route but tried to get off the highways and onto minor roads as much as we could. Unfortunately, the geography often made this impossible so for much of the time we were squeezed into a narrow space between the crash barrier and the trucks. It’s not much fun (especially in tunnels) and needs a lot of concentration. We slotted into our preferred formation of Clare in front and Andy protecting her rear, put our heads down and pedalled furiously. We’d have been a lot less comfortable on roads like this earlier in the trip.

Our attempts to get onto the minor roads meant several more ‘dreadful detours’ as they sometimes morphed unexpectedly into rough tracks. A white line on our map could be a busy dual carriageway through an industrial estate or it could be a winding narrow track that disappears into a footpath. From the map, it’s impossible to tell which is which so it becomes a game of chance.

Our mountain bike practise in the Pyrenees proved invaluable as we negotiated dried river beds and camino (pilgrim) paths. It meant walking a few sections but by this time we were well past caring as we felt safe and anyway, the end was now in sight.

Cycling in Spain has been a bit more challenging than cycling in France as there are a lot less cycle paths, the roads are busier and the highways can be quite narrow. However, most drivers are courteous and the road surface is smooth with very few potholes (helped I suspect by lots of EU money).

So we were relieved to reach the suburbs of Barcelona and the dedicated cycle track down the Avinguda Diagonal was a lovely way to arrive.

We’ve pedalled 2200 km (1375 miles) from Bath to Barcelona, climbed 17,800m and spent 143 hours in our saddles. All with the hairdryer, pillow, pilates balls, beard trimmer, colouring pencils, keyboard and other bits of excess luggage.

After taking some celebration snaps at the Sagreda Familia, we hit the Barca bars to celebrate with our friends, Mark and Susie, who were in town for a conference. They’ve been on biking holidays to Nepal and South America so we happily swapped cycling tales until the restaurant kicked us out in the early hours.

We fly back to Bristol on Wednesday which means that our last task is to pack the bikes (and everything else) in cardboard boxes so they survive the relatively quick journey home.

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When we got to La Rochelle a month ago, we said there were 3 reasons we couldn’t yet call ourselves real cyclists:

  • We like long coffee stops
  • We don’t have a clue how to fix the strange squeaks on our bikes
  • We haven’t been up a real mountain yet

Well, we still like long coffee stops and the squeaks have got louder. But we’ve now been up four mountains (three more than we expected to!) So after several glasses of wine, we agreed that we might just start to begin to think of ourselves as real cyclists – so long as Andy doesn’t always have to wear lycra shorts and Clare doesn’t always have to clip in on both sides!

Clare and Andy

Note: Our final post will include some general reflections about our journey plus a few tips for people who, like us, are new to cycle touring but might be thinking of giving it a go.

Please let us know if there’s anything you’re curious about.

Beauty and the Boy Racer

It turned out our first two days in the Pyrenees were just a warm up for days 3 and 4. Mainly for the scenery but also for the things that happened to us along the way.

On a cloudless Sunday morning we were ready to tackle our third climb, the Port del Canto (part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour de France). For those that don’t know, the Tour has 5 climbing categories defined by their steepness and length. Toughest are ‘hors categorie’ – literally meaning ‘beyond categorisation’ but really meaning climbs for riders that are properly mad. Category 1 climbs are the next most demanding, then 2, 3 and 4.

The Port del Canto is a Category 1 so this meant it was our third such climb in as many days. I must admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known that beforehand (especially with panniers). It climbs more than 1000m over 19km (12 miles) at an average gradient of 5.4% but with several steeper sections. For our Bath readers, that’s the same as 12 Prior Park Hills in a row.

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Clare listened to an audio book (The Miniaturist) to help her through the 2 hour climb whilst also enjoying the spectacular views. For the first time I discovered the power of music, pedalling to the rhythms of Coldplay and the Two Door Cinema Club. I began to understand why people actually enjoy cycling up mountains – I felt stronger, able to increase the pace a little and to last a bit longer.

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We were refuelling ahead of some steep switchbacks near the top when a club cyclist in full lycra kit came past. Perhaps that unexpected feeling of strength caused my inner boy racer to spring into life as my only thought was ‘I can take him!’

It took a while to choose the perfect music track, which gave him a start of about 400m. The commentary in my head was clear and loud:

“Maintain an even pace. Reel him in slowly. Don’t burn yourself out.”

Bit by bit I got closer and closer:

“Once you catch him, stay on his wheel to recover. Then quickly change gear and accelerate. Keep the pace high so he has no chance to react.”

I passed him near the end of the second switchback:

“Don’t look back. Don’t call out “Ola” as he might think it’s condescending.”

Yessssss! That’s why we Brits are cycling world champions! Hah!

Was it a bit uncool to take a selfie of triumph at the top?

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Hopefully he thought I was taking pictures of the magnificent views instead!

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The afternoon didn’t go quite as well with our worst ever ‘dreadful detour’. Coming off the top, our planned route didn’t look that inviting as it wound down a steep, gravel track. The only alternative was fat red line on our map called the ‘Trans-Pyrenees Cycle Route’. It was a 15km detour but it still felt like the right way to go.

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Wrong! It turned out to be a mountain bike trail, little more than a rutted path winding through the woods. Again, I have to admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known THAT beforehand – it was muddy, steep and quite scary!

“Get me out of here!”

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Eventually emerging back onto the road in the dark, we were surprised by the volume of traffic coming down from Andorra on a Sunday night. This was actually the first time we’ve had to cycle on a major highway and Clare was superb, riding smoothly and quickly in front for an hour. I tucked in behind, slightly on her outside to encourage cars to leave a wider berth. Helped by our drafting practise along the canals, we safely reached the hotel in this formation – tired, hungry but unscathed.

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On Monday morning we were sufficiently revived for a fourth and LAST big climb in the Pyrenees. Despite being exhausted, we knew that this one (from Coll de Nargo to Solsona) would be worth it as it has an understated reputation as one of the most breathtaking bike rides in the world. It winds up a spectacular gorge, through hanging valleys and then traverses across the rugged tops. We have genuinely never seen mountain scenery quite like it.

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Another spectacular sunny morning
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A quiet road with lots of tunnels
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Autumn highlights
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A welcome coffee stop
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Looking back to the road we climbed
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Spectacular rock formations

Amazingly, this was the day that Clare had her strongest legs and despite insisting on still clipping in on one side only, she powered up the climbs.

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Not feeling anywhere near as good as the day before, I decided that cycling up hills must be a bit like golf. The moment you think you’ve cracked it you have a run of bad holes.

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I had a VERY bad hole on a steep section near the top. Messing about and not concentrating I came to a complete standstill whilst clipped in on both sides. The inevitable outcome was a serious tumble off the side of the road!

My first thought was to take a photo so I have obviously been treating this blog too seriously. In truth, I was lucky to escape with just a few cuts and bruises.

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For those of you who like stats, here’s a summary of our time in the Pyrenees:

Thursday – 43km, 1485m climbed
Friday – 67km, 1810m climbed
Sunday – 66km, 2034m climbed
Monday – 54km, 1860m climbed

Over the 4 days, we have pedalled 230 kilometres and climbed 7,189 metres. It’s fair to say we don’t feel we’re the same cyclists that naively cycled towards the mountains from Toulouse last week.

Now safely down in the foothills we have less than 100km left to reach Barcelona.
Nearly there!

Andy

Pyrenean Perspectives

As we have different perspectives about going over the Pyrenees, we thought you might like to hear from both of us:

Andy
Cycling south from Toulouse in pouring rain, I was praying that the weather forecast I’d used to persuade Clare to go over the mountains would turn out to be true.

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This is the forecast that I’d shown her for the week ahead together with words of encouragement like … “Perfect conditions for a mountain adventure. How hard can it be? We’ll always regret it if we don’t.”

To be honest, I didn’t really have any idea how hard it might be.

Clare
Secretly I was hoping that bad weather would mean we had to take the coast road around the Pyrenees and along the Spanish coast to Barcelona. However, as this window of opportunity opened up and I realised the sense of achievement we’d get by going over the top, I began to prepare myself for a mountain crossing.

Andy
I googled potential routes and found one on the website of a cycling holiday company that we could join at Bagneres-de-Luchon. OK, it meant riding further away from Barcelona through the middle of the Pyrenees and it included four mountain climbs (rather than one) but they didn’t appear to be quite as steep. Plus we would cycle on quiet roads through lovely countryside – perfect!

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I carefully plotted the routes and did all the calcs declaring these climbs not as steep as Prior Park (one of our local hills in Bath) but just a bit longer! They averaged ‘only’ 6-7% gradients with the first one being the steepest.

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Thursday – Luchon to Arties over Col du Portillon

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Friday – Arties to Sort over Port de la Bonaigua

Clare
By this time I’d convinced myself that it was the right decision to follow Andy’s new route but only had the first mountain climb in mind (as he had said the others were easier). Despite his detailed analysis of elevation, incline and stats, I prefer to not look too far ahead and just tackle what’s in front of me. One day at a time! I did, however, point out that this first climb was going to be six times longer than Prior Park Hill!

As we pedalled up the valley towards Luchon on our last day in France, the mountains grew bigger and the river flowed stronger. The sun was shining, my legs felt good and we were on cycle paths for most of the way.

Andy
The closer we got to the mountains, the higher they looked and the more nervous I became. I had a sleepless night wondering if we’d done the right thing.

By Thursday morning (Day 38) we were heading up the Col du Portillon on that first climb. This pass has featured in the Tour de France several times and winds it’s way 700m up through 10km of pine forests to a height of 1292m. I must admit it was a bit steep at times (13.9%) but it was incredibly beautiful.

As we whooped with delight at the top, Clare confessed that she’d enjoyed it more than she’d expected to. Phew!

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Clare
The moment I had anxiously waited for had arrived. It was freezing cold as we set off from Luchon and the incline graph Andy had showed me the previous evening kept racing through my mind. Had I reached the red, orange, blue or green phase? Not knowing what these really meant was probably a blessing in disguise as I arrived at alpine pastures and the sound of cow bells more quickly than expected. A long climb punctuated with steeper ascents then took us to the top.

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Much to my surprise I had made it with some energy to spare. A moment to savour. As we cruised down the winding road into Spain, the Aran valley opened up and we were soon enjoying our first Spanish tapas.

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Andy
After lunch we faced a long slow climb back up to 1100m which I found a lot harder than Clare. As she ate the miles up I rather limped into the delightful village of Arties.

On Friday morning (Day 39) the mountain road led us up through Baquiera ski resort to the mountain pass of Port de la Bonaigua at 2072m. This is a climb of 1000m over 16km and was part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour.

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Not quite as steep as they day before but it did go on and on and on. The last 5km were dominated by switchbacks which I rode up as fast as I could to the summit. It was only when I looked down at Clare emerging from the tree line that I realised just how high we were.

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Clare
Have you ever felt delirious with exhaustion? Well I did today. Throughout the climb I could hear my daughters voice repeating in my head “Jeez, why put yourself through this?” As I looked up, all I could see were yet more hairpin bends above.

Two hours of leg throbbing and brittle determination got me to the top – I was almost too exhausted to enjoy the moment and the beautiful scenery around. No whooping this time!

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Andy
Predictably Strava recorded us as amongst the slowest cyclists on these climbs. Was it the stops to admire the view? Or to munch a banana and recover? Or was it the extra weight we were carrying including such essential kit as a new beard trimmer, a keyboard, 2 iPads, a sketchbook and pencils along with the hairdryer, the pillow and the Pilates balls.

Nurdishly, I worked out on bikecalculator.com that the panniers equate to an extra 1% apparent gradient. This climb was an average 6% gradient, with our panniers it felt like 7%.

Clare
Who cares about Strava? We’re touring cyclists.

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Snaking down hairpin bends on our descent was incredible. A sense of freedom to both legs and mind. It was surprisingly cold as the alpine air whipped past. Cruising at a speed of up to 50km/hour we descended into the magnificent Aran valley, stopping occasionally to take in the breathtaking view.

Andy
On the steeper sections we practised descending techniques we’d been told about – inside leg up and braking alternately front and back to stop the brakes heating up too much. Occasionally I had to pull both of them hard at the same time. The sudden smell of burning rubber and the realisation that it can only be coming from your own brakes is not a great feeling!

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Once again, Clare was stronger in the afternoon. Perhaps I pedalled too hard at the top of the mountain and burnt myself out? Perhaps I’m just not as strong as she is?

We now have two choices. Go over the mountains for the next two days or head down the valley towards Portugal. No choice really – I’ll just have to pace the climb better to keep up with my wife in the afternoon. Here’s the profile for the next two days:

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Sunday Plan – Sort to Coll de Nargo

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Monday Plan – Coll de Nargo to Solsona

Clare
Now feeling re-energised after a rest and three huge meals yesterday, the thought of another 1000m of mountain climbing doesn’t fill me with quite such dread. I’m so amazed how much I’m eating!

But I have come to a realisation:

Some people are made for cycling in the mountains, others are made for pedalling along canal paths.

I like canal paths!

Andy
I think she secretly likes cycling in mountains …

Clare
No I don’t …

Andy
At least the weather forecast came true!