Tuesday, January 28, 2014

1000 Hills - Day One. Cranking up the Wall

Pic KC

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.

Pic KC

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!

Pic KC

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.

Pic KC

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...

Pic KC

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.

Pic KC

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.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

1000 Hills - Day Zero. Twin Propellors to Mae Hong Son

NOK Mini alright! It has a very limited and mini cargo capacity. Pic KC

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It took about 6 months to plan for our 1000 Hills Adventure and seeing how 8 folks on 4 different flights from 2 countries came together at Chiang Mai brought immense joy to my heart. I was the last to arrive at Na Inn on Wed Jan 8 at 3pm and was greeted by the sight of packed and to be packed bicycles in full size boxes in the spacious store room. I had pre-ordered the boxes through Chaitawat Bikeshop, which was located just 300m from our hotel. The "brilliant" plan was to dispose of them after our flight to Mae Hong Son, keeping our original packing, be it Samsonites or boxes at Na Inn. We enjoyed an evening ride around Chiang Mai town and the Aussies had their first taste of "freedom" cycling - where road rules were largely optional, Thai style.

We celebrated our get together at Jia Tong Heng Chinese Restaurant and had the privilege of Amy and her friend, Kitty - a very chatty tour guide who spoke Japanese and Mandarin, join us for dinner. There, we defined our roles - Ian kindly volunteered to be our Chief Financial Officer, Mike and Celia - medical support, Pete and KC - technical and mechanical support, Anne and Jan - daring adventurettes! It was to be an early night as we had to leave for our 940am flight to Mae Hong Son the next day and everyone was too excited.

It took 2 Songtheows to transport our 8 bike boxes to CM International Airport and it felt like a precise military operation. But little did I know that Nok Air's SAAB 340 33 seater aircraft was officially capable of taking only *one folded bike in a box! No wonder it was called Nok Mini. The check-in staff were at a loss seeing our boxes and rejected them! This was a most disappointing start to our trip and demanded a real test of quick thinking on our feet. Time was ticking away as we tried to work out a solution literally on a wing and lots of prayer.

Pic KC

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One plan was to hire a Songtheow to transport the bikes by road 235km through mountain passes and that sounded like the only way out. Thus, I went out to seek a Songtheow and the asking price was around 4000B or US$130. I was touched that Mike volunteered to accompany the bikes through the arduous journey however as it turned out, a divine hand was blocking this option. There were many talkers but strangely, no takers! It was rather frustrating and a real test of faith.

While I was busy Songtheow hunting and getting desperate, Celia tenatiously managed to chisel out a whacky but workable solution with Nok Air. This was to repack the bicycles - fold them and just cover up with cardboard and tape! I felt sorry for the poor staff particularly this nice lady who probably had 1 year's worth of stress compressed into 30 mins. Her dazed face said it all.

Time check - 40 mins to take off. So we got cracking, repacking our bikes in record time, and the Nok Air staff provided us with plenty of small boxes and tape. In addition, they lent their hands to do this record speed packing and we appreciated it very much.

Because they were foldies, the package turned out to be surprisingly compact and with smiles breaking out everywhere, our bikes were accepted for check-in and the 8 of us scuttled our way to the boarding gate. This was truly a miracle that not one, but 7 more foldies were unofficially and miraculously allowed for the flight.

As we settled into our comfortable seats in the Blue Woody Woodpacker twin prop Bird, I breathe a big sigh of relief and thanksgiving. We were all in the highest spirits!

The take-off was smooth as silk and soon, we were enthralled by what we saw on the 35 min flight. Majestic mountain ranges, shrouded with white mists, bathe in golden morning sun and that took our breath away.

It was hard to imagine that in the following days, we had to cross those ranges on our own strength powering small wheels but for now, we were not going to think about that. Life is best lived one day at a time, and for this adventure, one crank at a time. The words of our Lord in Matt 6:34 ring so true. "So don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today's trouble is enough for today!"

It was a nice surprise that we were given tasty in-flight refreshments and the morning's excitement really got me famished. Touching down at Mae Hong Son airport, Gims Hotel had arranged for us to be picked up. It turned out to be by one 3 wheeled Tuk Tuk and a funky looking yellow 4WD. It was another high adventure loading our 8 parcels and 16 panniers onto these but 2 trips soon saw all of us at the beautiful and cosy grounds of our hotel.

Pic KC

As we settled into our warm and inviting villas, it was hard to imagine that just a few hours ago things could turn out very differently. Gims Resort happens to be a most impressive place with lovely greenery and certainly deserves a few nights to be fully savored.

It didn't take long to assemble our foldies and I appreciated Pete's Tern P24 seat post pump which could do 100psi effortlessly. A quick wash up and it was time for a short ride to town to test our bikes and make any needed adjustments.

Lunch was at the Salween River Restaurant and Bar, which was rated by Tripadvisor as one of the top eateries in MHS. It didn't disappoint and we fed heartily, and so did the mozzies under our tables. I was grateful for the warmth and camaraderie that we enjoyed. A spirit of teamwork and looking after each another are really important for what we are about to embark.

Mae Hong Son is famous for its temple on the hill - Wat Phra That Mae Yen and we had our first taste of steep climbs. It didn't help that we had full stomachs and our legs were not warmed up. There was no shame to push, something we learned in the days to come.

Pic KC

Our reward was a commanding view of the town and the runway and the temple itself is quite spectacular.

We had fun just soaking in the scenery and beating the gongs to drum up enough courage for our upcoming battle with the mountainous terrain.

Pic KC

Our next task was to find the bus station. Mike was under strict orders by his Orthopedic Surgeon NOT to cycle due to a worn out right knee so as far as I was concern, it was prudent for him to be on the bus part-way for our leg to Soppong - 70km away. This was after all where the worse climbs were and a rider from Crazyguyonabike described them as The Wall. 830am was when Mike had to check in and the cost was an unbelievable 45B or US$1.50.

Wandering around town, I was glad to chance upon a lovely upmarket Huai Hom coffee cafe (300m before the Toyota dealership) that looked out of place in this "boondockish" country town. They served lovely Cappucinos, Lattes and ice teas and with free WIFI in lush green setting, it was the best way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Dinner was at Fern Restaurant and riding there from our hotel, it was obvious that the cold had descended upon us. 15c and falling. We fed well and carbo-loaded in anticipation of the Wall that awaited us tomorrow.

Pic KC

Reflecting back upon the day,  I realized it had more excitement that I had bargained for and I knew in my heart, we were in for a real treat on this 1000 Hills Adventure. It helped that someone up there is definitely watching over us!

Pic KC


From Nok Air's email to us dated 21st Jan - For the flight which operated by SAAB-340, a folded bicycle is allowed to load but not much more than one piece per flight. 

As our investigation, your flight of DD8200 CNX-HGN 9 JAN 14 was operated byNok Mini (SAAB-340), so that is the reason why our staff denied your bicycles for the checking in.