Digger Pete all ready for the slog, with twin long range fuel tanks.
This is for real, no camera tricks used CW.
Private-lee saluting and paying respects to a most beautiful country.
Look carefully and you can see smoke coming out of the bike shorts aka Nappies... Pic KC
Do you guys have to leave so soon?
The secret to climbing walls - drink this magic potion from Little Eden Guesthouse! Pic KC
It was still dark when we gathered at the lobby of Gims Resort at 0645am reluctantly, at least for me. The room was so warm and comfortable that it was really tough to get up and leave such a beautiful place. At 12c, there better be a good reason to give up a toasty bed! But we had a tough 70km in front of us to Soppong and we needed an early start. With our bikes fully loaded, we rode through the morning mist just as the sun was breaking out. The chilly breeze on our faces woke us up like a wet frozen towel.
Our most important task was to fuel up and we were delighted that the Hongkong Congee shop in town was ready for her first customers. It was a real treat to down piping hot rice porridge (with egg) in the cold morning and all our bellies felt happy and satisfied.
At 0745, we accompanied Mike to the Bus Terminal. The plan was for him to bus over the steepest sections and meet us at Ban Mae Suya at approximately 35km mark. Better to preserve his knee for the 2nd half of the trip than bust it now. How bad exactly are the climbs? Louise Henric Meldgard, a seasoned tourer who has done the Pyrenees and the Alps, wrote in CGOAB the climbs as being steep as a wall, 20% gradients causing him to be dripping in sweat and leg muscles all done in!
So with that before us, we bade Mike farewell and the 7 of us rode bravely down Highway 1095 to meet our fate. The first 8km out of Mae Hong Son was easy enough with rolling hills and when we regrouped before the climbs, there on the parking area was a dead owl that laid pitifully in front of us. Was that a prophetic sign of what laid ahead? I wondered quietly to myself.
I exchanged my helmet for my climbing cap and led the Iron Calvary for the charge upwards, feeling rather excited with more than a few butterflies in my stomach. It was good that everyone seem to be in the highest spirits and all gung ho. Perhaps a bit of ignorance is bliss...
The trick to climbs is to find one's own pace, and not to take the easy way out and change down to granny immediately. Climbs are very manageable so long as its done without rushing and without over exerting. Breathing deeply and monitoring your heart rate are keys to successful climbing. The aim is to settle to a nice rhythm and hopefully find bike Nirvana - best described by the Pink Floyd song, "Comfortably Numb."
As we tackled one climb after another with initial gusto, it was obvious that our batteries were slowly depleting. We measured our progress not by how many km but at some stages, it was by one meter at a time. It was to be a mental game and there was no shame in pushing, especially when we see KC, our strongest, fastest and fittest, on foot too. At 0930, a bright orange bus passed us with a rather familiar face, hands waving frantically and the thought why I was not inside, did cross my mind. Several times!
The team soon sorted itself out into its natural groupings. KC, Cil and I in one followed by the Howards and the Roscoes. We waited for each other at regular intervals just to make sure everyone was ok. We enjoyed our chats and sharing of our goodies, with lots of laughter despite our aching legs. Celia the resident Physio swore by Skin Compression Leggings and it seem to work for us.
Bye Bye camera if a car whooshes down. Pic KC
With climbs like these, we get to appreciate our bicycles and its performance. My Speed Pro is blessed with a super wide gear range of 26" - 125" with its SRAM Dual Drive system but I reckon something closer to 20" would be better for such climbs. I also learn how important encouragement and support for one another is. I'm grateful that everyone cheered each other on and tough times do have a special way of forging friendships.
Here, Ian started to hallucinate and spoke to an imaginary friend while Pete and Celia tried to comfort Jan. She was upset she didn't opt for the E-bike. Pic KC
It was helpful to be in communications with Mike who was waiting somewhere along the journey in front of us so we sort of know when the agony will end. And eventually, all bad things do come to an end. Our oasis appeared at about the 34km mark in the form of a restaurant promising clean toilets. This small village actually have a few eateries but we were happy to stop at the very first one for we were famished and truly spent for as it was already past noon. We ordered fried rice, minced pork with basil and lots of drinks and enjoyed every grain. Cil and Pete wasted no time to steal a snooze on the hard benches and we felt very grateful for this place of rest.
Follow the Prof. Can't go wrong!
Little did we know that poor Mike was waiting for us just 2km down the road all alone in a hut. He has been unceremoniously dropped off there 2 hours plus ago and we did not know this until we rode pass him after our lunch break. It must have been such a long wait and we were so pleased to see him. Mike was even more pleased when I presented him with a piping hot freshly cooked Khao Pad which he wolved down in almost one mouthful.
Dr Mike's lonely abode on the morning of 10 Jan. Pic KC
The next stage of climbs were a relentless 9 to 10km and Ian, the Engineer, had downloaded a map showing all the elevations as proof. Anne by this stage had had enough. To prevent a divorce, the ever prudent husband hitched a ride from a kind pick up who took them all the way up, for free! I had just managed to catch up with them only to see the Howards jumping up the vehicle and whizzing away with the brightest of smiles! In that moment, I could identify with how the GIs felt when the Huey Helicopters took off without them in the middle of the Vietnamese battlefield... abandoned and doomed to be slaughtered!
I hate you, I really really do! :)
At this stage Mike probably wished he did not get off the bus as the steepest of the climbs meant it was a painful and arduous push/cycle routine. Despite our refreshments and rest, it did not seem to make any difference to our energy level. In times like this, we just had to bite our lips and press on. We took plenty of rest stops and the team was spread out even more as the day wore on.
We were all getting dangerously low on water by now despite having carried two water bottles and a bit more. Our energy rations too were largely consumed. What kept us going was each other and simply the desire to finish well. KC had gone way ahead of us and was nowhere to be seen. My usually seasoned butt was starting to whinge every now and then... But then, I enjoyed pure solitude being high up on the mountains, with only the sounds of silence before me and that was truly spiritual.
Every crank and every step was getting more and more difficult until a big blue sign promising a toilet stop appeared. This usually meant great scenery and also food and drink. We were not disappointed! Reaching the top, we were welcomed by the most spectacular views of the mountain ranges. It was great to see KC there cheering us on and bringing much needed ice cold drinks for us. I collapsed on a bench for a while and just laid dead for 10 mins before I felt some life coming back to me.
This beautiful view point was more than a toilet stop and was teeming with touristy shops selling all types of souvenirs manned by Hill Tribe people. We were particularly amused by one elderly lady who could only play 2 notes on her flute and repeated her melody over and over again until she got a donation. We gladly paid! For some reason, she had an uncanny resemblance to KC, who was attracted to the potent weeds she kept in her pouch.
KC's long lost cousin. Pic KC
Despite the amazing beauty that surrounded us, the stray dogs who came in hope of a tid-bit looked really woeful. We gave them some of our delicious grilled sweet potatoes and wished we had a bone or two in our panniers. Meanwhile, our foldies became one of the de facto tourists attraction and they had a constant stream of attention.
That will be 10B each, thank you. Pic BF
We learned too that riding Bike Fridays seem to give us some measure of respect especially from the Europeans and its good to know that. But we wondered if we were "good" enough to represent the brand. It was also appropriate here for Sol, Hana, Ollie and his mate to take a group pic to commemorate this special achievement! They were our VIP guests throughout the trip.
Hana really needs a bike. Pic KC
A tourist from India who made his way from Soppong on a motorbike told us the good news! It was largely downhill from here and only 20km or so. As it was nearly 5pm, we got cracking and like Alpine skiers, we launched ourselves and enjoyed the speedy reward for our hard work.
We made sure our lights were switched on and took it easy on some of the very steep descends and hairpins. Our brakes worked overtime until the rims were sizzling hot. This was when I realized the advantage of having disk brakes especially on a fully loaded bike and it was no wonder KC just flew down so confidently.
Better this than the other way UP. Pic KC
As we lost altitude quickly, there were still some climbs that awaited us and some required us to dismount and push. It's amazing what we see when we are plodding at 5km/h. KC first stumbled upon a toy rabbit left in the middle of the road and he kindly placed it on the side, and photographed it. I too passed it and remarked to Celia how cute it was and took a pic as well. The Howards noticed it too but continued on. However, it was Jan Roscoe who picked it up and carried it along with her. When we gathered later to talk about it, we all had a big laugh as it reminded us so much of the parable of The Good Samaritan. This is a story told by Jesus about who is our neighbor and what it means to love them.
One lucky rabbit. Pic KC
The exhilarating descends ended all too quickly as we entered the beautiful valley leading to Soppong village. Dusk was approaching and we were glad we had less than 10km to go. The Howards who got a free ride up killer mountain #2 earlier was already at The Little Eden Hotel and had enjoyed their afternoon Cappuccino and cake. I rang Ian to find out how much further was the hotel and was pleasantly surprised to learn that we were only 5 mins away. It is so important to get local SIM cards for everyone so there is vital communications as there will be times when the team gets separated.
Little Eden Guesthouse turned out to be one green and lush oasis of a hotel. The owner Khun Phen welcomed us warmly and was visibly proud of the great work she has done to truly make her hotel like the Garden of Eden. Definitely a place to recommend.
What excited me was the bamboo bridge across the river that connected Little Eden to the woods and we were going to explore that the next morning. The rooms too were comfortable and spacious and I took the liberty of soaking my tired legs into the ice cold pool. After a lovely hot shower, we gathered around the cosy restaurant for our evening meal. The warmth of the fireplace made for a very special time together as we tucked in heartily on delicious spicy Thai curries, veggies and rice.
The Fellowship of the (Suffer) Ring. Pic KC
It had been a very long and tiring day and we could not believe that we were all here together in one piece. We had successfully ridden (and walked) over and on the walls of Mae Hong Son and we look forward to the coming walls with confidence. All the pain and suffering were quickly forgotten as we laughed and reflected upon our adventure. Tomorrow was to be a short ride to Pai - just a tad over 40km so we could start a bit later, and that only added to the sweet sleep that awaited us...
This song by Philip Bailey perhaps best captured the satisfaction and joy we felt that day. Not quite the Chinese Wall but we were geographically very close to the Chinese border.