The Zen Mid-Life Crisis

Featured

Tibet to Wales by Motorbike

A Badly Organised Odyssey

Ace Cafe

 

“Inspirational”

“Fearless”

“Courageous”

“Moving”

“Dedicated”

 

 

 

Just a few of the adjectives that have not been used to describe this trip.

 

“Half-arsed”

“Delusional”

“It’ll all end in tears”

“Silly Men”

 

These are a few of the expressions that have. Others were less encouraging.

Departing 21st April 2012

Raising money for Motorcycle Outreach:

www.motorcycleoutreach.org

Three brothers
Two
bikes
One
half-baked plan

To Leigh Delamere and beyond!!

China, Nepal, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, England, Wales

Recent Blogs:

..…. a little philosophy …… very little wisdom ……
…… possibly a few too many nob gags ……

Share

Kochi – The Arrival

Kochi

The Arrival

 

Arriving in Kochi, was traumatic. Ok, it was far from traumatic. That's a bit of an exaggeration but it was fraught. My sleep deprived, jet lagged brain failed to process the assault of incoming information. Heat; noise; dust; a Visa card that refused to work in any of the ATMs that we tried, and we tried every one we could find; a taxi ride in a Tata oven, actually it was a Tata car, but as far as my brain was concerned it was unable to detect any discernible difference.

We crashed, banged and swerved our way through the cacophony of horn blaring rush hour traffic as we made our way from the airport. At least we did for some of the time, for most of the time we were stationary while the two wheeled section of the traffic swarmed around us in a noisy, terrifying berserker of a dance. All the while the Tata thermostat was set to roast as my brain froze from the information overload – it locked up as tightly and immutably as a website offering free FA Cup Final tickets would if plugged into a dial up connection.

 

My first impressions of Kochi, as you may have gathered, were not favourable. Things marginally improved when we arrive at our guesthouse, although most of this improvement came about simply because we were able to get out. And that was about all we could do.

 

The guesthouse was locked and there was nobody to be seen anywhere. Knocking on the door produced little result apart from bruised knuckles. Luckily, the proprietors mobile number was on the sign outside, not that this stroke of luck was of any us to us at the present as it couldn't be reached from our UK mobiles, as my brain was still refusing to cooperate and provide me with the international dialling code for India.

The taxi driver, who was still hanging around in the hope of a tip and, I'd like to think, beginning to feels a bit sorry for these brain addled idiots that it was his misfortune to pick up at the airport, didn't know the code either. By now a few people had began to assemble to view this strange spectacle of a small group standing in a circle around a couple of suitcases all looking at each other and all scratching their heads. All this as the tropical midday sun beat down on us at the height of the dry season.

At this point out luck took a turn for the better, a passing tuk tuk driver, always on the alert for a fare, spotted this small gathering and came over to see what's going on. Our taxi driver said something to him and although I don't speak a word of the local language I'm willing to bet that it was “I've been landed with two idiots, they booked into a guesthouse that's closed, they've mobile phones that don't work and they're gibbering incoherently in the heat”. Fortunately, Peter the tuk tuk driver, for that was his name as we were later to discover, took out his phone and rang the number on the sign. From this point onward things took a considerable turn for the better. The owner turned up, he lent us the money to tip the taxi driver and the crowd dispersed after many heart felt thanks, shaking of hands and general agreement that this was almost certainly the best possible outcome.

Share

Backpackers

Backpackers

 

I have no way of knowing this but I suspect that Hoi An's laid back feel makes it an inevitable destination for backpackers. I have no way of knowing this but judging from the numbers of backpackers that I saw in Hoi An, I'd say that that was very much the case.

I have a mixture of respect and wonderment for backpackers; respect for the fact that at such a tender age they set off to explore the world. Lets remember that these are not the hippy backpackers of the sixties and seventies that set out with such high ideals and optimism for the future of mankind. Those brought up during the era of 'Peace and Love', a time when the world was considered a much more benign, beautiful and wondrous place than it is today.

 

Of course the world is still this wonderful, beautiful and mostly benign place that it ever was. We just don't think it is. And that's the point, today's backpackers have been raised on a diet of wall-to-wall media coverage of all the dangers present in the world; terrorism, Islamism, shootings, bombings and generally overly played out coverage of every bit of gratuitous violence the world has to offer. Yet still they go.

 

Now of course the world is still no more and no less dangerous than it was in the seventies and sixties. I appreciate that of course some countries have got more dangerous, but many more have become safer – much safer. The backpackers of today, set off with the medias' dire pronouncements about the state of the world ringing in their ears. They may not have been the pioneers but they set off with equal, if not greater, confidence in their beliefs that the media is not an accurate reflection of the world, but a view of the world that our ruling elite likes to project.

 

As for the wonderment; seeing small young women teetering under enormous rucksacks which tower above them. Young men, with packs at least as large as their girlfriend, that's their Girlfriend not their girlfriend's packs and with a smaller rucksacks strapped to their fronts. What on earth can they be carting in there?

 

Respect and wonderment. Did I mention jealousy? Yes of course jealously! Who wouldn't want to be young enough and free enough to be doing it with them?

Share

Wat Thmey

Wat Thmey

A Reminder of Monumental Stupidity.

 

The tuk tuk ride back from Angor Wat is pretty much like any other tuk tuk ride in Siem Reap, it's a little noisy; somewhat hot; dust blown; and as always, hugely, entertaining. Around half distance you pass a fairly modest Buddhist temple called Wat Thmey. Normally such temples are ten-a-penny in Cambodia, and are hardly given a second glance. However this one is different, it's well worth stopping at. The interior of the temple is light, airy and spacious, nowhere near as stiflingly claustrophobic as some of the Buddhist temples that you'll find in Tibet, and certainly far less gaudy. They're still gaudy of course, certainly to the western eye, just less so than those in Tibet.

 

However it's not the temple that holds your interest here. As you walk up to the temple steps, you pass a monument – a large concrete and glass cuboid with a Khmer style roof. The full grizzly horror of the monument is revealed as you walk up to it. On one of its four glass sides it contains human skulls. Human skulls stacked one on top of the other, row upon row of them. One of the other glass sides contains femurs, the other two contain other human bones, matched together by anatomical type and packed in so tightly as to leave barely a space between any of them. This was Siem Reap's killing field. The site of the executions during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. It's here where tens of thousands were murdered. It may have lacked the notoriety of Tuol Sleng or S21 prison but it's no less hard to comprehend.

 

For most of us violence on this scale is unimaginable, it certainly is to me, it may, quite possibly, be beyond human comprehension. Fortunately, the effort is spared you. For just a little further on there's an arrow painted onto a wall suggesting that you walk 50 metres to your left.

The first sight that you then see is a row of rather pleasant looking monks' houses, but that's not what we've been urged here to gaze upon. For in front of the monks' houses is a small concrete building without windows. Its single door is reached by climbing two steps. A sign on the door requests that you remove your shoes before entering.

Here the story of the Khmer Rouge is told through the eyes of one man, a survivor, in a series of acrylic paintings. Around thirty of these paintings line the walls of the building. The bright, colourful and slightly stylised paintings are numbered chronologically, with a short paragraph of explanation under each. Every painting captures a scene from the man's struggle for survival under the Khmer Rouge. And survive he did, although after studying the paintings and reading the captions you can scarcely credit it.

 

Reduced to the suffering of one man You can possibly begin to get a sense, just an inkling, of the extent of the genocide. Although extrapolating up from just one man's suffering, to a nation's was, mercifully, beyond me.

There are various charity boxes and stalls selling tourist tat on the one side of the temple which collect funds for educational establishments in Cambodia. In front of such a graphic reminder of monumental stupidity it's hard to think of any reasons why one shouldn't contribute.

Share

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

It's not about understanding.

 

There's actually very little I can say about Angkor Wat. Just one sentence springs to mind; Angkor Wat is one of the most remarkable Human constructions on Earth. Which is the most accurate and truthful description that I can think of. I could describe the architecture (it's magnificent), I could give a list of dimensional statistics (it's enormous) or I could describe it's religious and cultural importance (it's very important). However there's no point in doing this as there's plenty of very scholarly information on both the internet and in just about every single guide book on Cambodia, rehashing it here would serve no purpose.

 

I've wanted to visit Angkor Wat for a very long time now, and in a way, this longing and desire to visit a site, any site, be it the great pyramids at Cheops, the Great Wall of China or, as in this case Angkor Wat, is also a cause of great confusion. These sites that we've all known about from childhood have passed into our psyche – almost osmotically, they've become so much a part of us. That we don't know how to feel about them when we actually get there. It's a bit like visiting a childhood hero, you have to align the fantasy, with the physical reality.

 

As I walked around Angkor Wat my first impression was just the scale of the place, it is simply vast. It's far too big to be taken in at one visit or even two visits. I wandered around the monument almost trance like, the sheer scale of the place was intimidating. There was far more here than you could ever see or indeed understand in a lifetime. So I stopped walking and just examined one piece of the bas relief, just one figure. I admired the craftsmanship, the skill and the endless patience to create just one beautiful figure, then you need to multiple that by ten thousand.

 

These figures are on every facade that you looked at, around every corner that you turned, everywhere your gaze fell. And it's not just the figures, there's also exquisite carvings on every structural item. On the beams, on the lintels, on corbels, on the columns, everywhere you looked there was extraordinary beauty. To step back a little from the minutiae of the detailing, I was then overwhelmed by a second wave of wonderment as I considered the engineering excellence that went into creating this structure, men without any mechanical assistance whatsoever created this in the twelfth century, by their muscles, their skill, their knowledge and of course their intelligence.

 

It was now early evening, the sun was starting to set but the temperature was still high, maybe high thirties, maybe low forties and my brain began to pound, not just from the exertion of walking around but from the mental effort of trying to comprehend what I was seeing. The five kilometre tuk tuk ride back to the hotel and a few cold beers helped restore brain function.

 

We had arranged our second visit to Angkor Wat for sunrise the next day. I had doubted the wisdom of five o'clock starts, but this possibly seemed justified, possibly.

 

Seeing Angkor Wat in the dark and to watch as the sky lightens revealing Angkor Wat in the pale pink light of dawn was, well I would certainly hesitate to use the word spiritual, especially in a 'religious' place, but there was a special connection. I no longer felt that I had to try to comprehend the monument, I simply felt that all I had to do was just stroll around the building in the cooler morning air and let the place wash over me. We walked further that morning than we did on the previous day. We walked further and I thought less. Angkor Wat is not a intellectual exercise, it can be of course, but for the few hours Angkor Wat gives to a tourist, it can never be that, nor should you try to make it that. Just walk around and let Angkor Wat make that emotional connection with you.

Share

Hoi An

Hoi An

Where to begin with Hoi An? Well it's about 800 km south of Hanoi but it feels a world away. Smaller, much smaller, than Hanoi and I have to say, that after a few days in Hanoi, all the better for that. Hoi An's main street carries far less traffic than any street in Hanoi, but still enough to allow it to be a busy, bustling place. Despite its bustle. Hoi An has a relaxed, rather laid-back air. The same air that it must have once had before it grew into a far from 'touristy', tourist destination.

 

The hotels, shops, spas, restaurants and a thousand other small business that have grown up to feed it's new tourist industry are still locally owned. The money generated by these small businesses stays within Hoi An. And very efficient they are too. Despite it's tourism, Hoi An still has it's 'real place' feel. People still farm rice in and around the town. Water buffalo still provide the muscle for this work and appear to enjoy their right to roam amongst the traffic and tourists of Hoi An.

I'm feeling decidedly chilled. Hoi An is to be enjoyed for its own sake, enjoyed without the trappings of 'touristy' things to do. We rent a bike, that marvellous workhorse of South East Asia, the Honda 50 step-through. Not for something to do, but to provide assistance in doing very little; drinking coffee on the pavement, a light lunch on a side-of-the-road restaurant and calling in to do a little shopping, are all so much better when you've got a bike. I had of course brought my licence with me, not only that I also brought my international driving licence as well, as I had somehow thought that these may be needed when I was planning this trip back in Wales.

 

“300 000 Dong! Here key!” said the lady renting bikes.

 

And the bike was mine for twenty four hours.

 

For all the apparent chaos, the people who run the myriad of local business are remarkably efficient and competent; the young lady who owned one of the many spas, typified the entrepreneurial spirit. Her spa, that's a 3 x 3 metre shop with some comfy chairs and a table for massages was set back off the main street on one of the side roads. The slight lack of passing trade was more than made up for by her utterly charming, polite and ruthlessly effective marketing approach. She was also extremely good at what she did.

 

“Hello! You want massage lady?” She said to Alison in her bright cheery

way.

 

“No thanks.” replied Alison.

 

“Ok, so maybe you want pedicure?”

 

This line was delivered in such a beguiling way that it was hard to refuse. The subtle little glance down at Alison's feet which implied that to walk even walk one more step without such a treatment would be unthinkable.

 

“30% off all price today!”

 

That was the clincher. We were lead into her shop, the full width glass doors were opened and we sat there on very comfortable chairs, with a cool, if somewhat noisy, breeze wafting in from the street. And here we sat while she, and a friend squatted down in front of Alison's feet to commence work. The two of them when hunched up and squatting in the Asian manner, appeared to occupy the smallest possible volume that two human beings can possibly occupy and here they remained for thirty minutes intense work. Ten beautifully pedicured and painted toe nails were the result. All for less than £3.

 

How long Hoi An can retain its charm is hard to say. How long before big business moves in with the explicit intention of shipping money out of a developing country? Building 'palace' hotels, those dreadful all-in, providers of the Standardised Holiday Experience, an experience so awful that parachuted into any one of them, you'd be hard pressed to tell if you were in Vietnam, Thailand or Timbuktu; employing a few local people at minimal wages whilst simultaneously removing any sense of ownership or control from the people who most need it.

 

That maybe is in the future, a long way in the future I hope, for now it feels that you're in Vietnam, vibrant, buzzing and utterly delightful Vietnam.

 

 

Share

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

 

“You have to see Halong Bay”.

I was told this when I mentioned that I was going to Vietnam. And I suppose that's true, you have to visit Halong Bay. There are, however numerous obstacles that you will need to overcome before you can get to visit Halong Bay. Firstly, there is the problem of being organised. Organised in the get yourself onto one of the many arranged trips. That in itself isn't of course a problem, from Hanoi, there's so many people trying to sell you a trip to just about everywhere else in Vietnam it's actually quite hard not to. The problem is that you have to be Organised. Organised in the rigidly arranged and microscopically scheduled kind of way – hardly ideal.

 

Our guide told us he was called Mr. T and that he was twenty six. I have no reason to doubt him, except he looked a lot younger than twenty six………

 

As a travel guide Mr. T was entertaining, very interesting and ruthless organised. The bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay passed uneventfully, apart from me loosing my iPhone that is, and we arrived at Halong Bay to the exact minute, no doubt.

 

The Halong Bay waterfront is now packed with tourist boats, largish wooden built boats around 30m long and very well equipped they are too. Our cabin was beautifully appointed and very comfortable it even had air conditioning. The boats that ply Halong Bay today still carry a slight resemblance to the fishing junks that once fished here. Their high bows, which look elegant and entirely practical on a working junk, looking a little out of proportion with the rather bulbous midships designed for a cargo of tourists, Some of these tourist boats even sported vestigial sails as if to claim a working heritage. Much as an Eton educated elite politician might slip a few working class expressions into speech to establish some 'working class' credibility – it also feels equally as phoney.

 

Halong Bay is extraordinarily beautiful. Our vessel slipped through the water and the stark shapes of the very steep sided islands, laden with vegetation slowly revealed themselves as they materialised out of the haze. Boats on benign calm waters are always delightful and here in the Asian heat, amongst these ethereal islands which float in an almost Tolkienesque haze it completely seduces you. With its gently understated haunting beauty. It's very easy to imagine yourself being carried over the waters to Lorthlorien, or somewhere similar.

 

It is just as well that you can imagine this so easily, because your boat is amongst a hundred others. A hundred other boats all heading for that same deserted magical anchorage for the night, where you will all be peacefully rocked to sleep by gentle waves caressing your ship, and all hoping that the karaoke on the other boats isn't too loud.

 

We're none of us nineteenth century travellers. We're not plying the waters of Halong Bay on a fisherman's junk and seeing the beauty through western eyes for the first time. Being born in the nineteenth century, very few of us would have had the means or the fortitude to have embarked on such a journey. Nor indeed the luck to survive the privations. We are all now twenty first century travellers – and there's many of us.

Halong Bay is a beautiful resource to be exploited, and that is indeed what's happening. The tourism is controlled – to a certain extent. The boats numbers are controlled, although you wouldn't immediately think so. The crowded anchorages are an inevitable consequence of restricting where tourist boats can go. Halong Bay is still beautiful, sitting on deck as the sun sets as the tropical darkness quickly envelopes the scene is wonderful. Even the other boats add to the magic as their lights reflect and twinkle across the black waters. Mercifully the karaoke held off.

 

Of course, Halong Bay is to be enjoyed and why not? It is a resource for a developing nation to use to generate foreign exchange and that should be done, but done wisely. Everywhere you look in Halong bay you will find floating plastic debris, a sight made worse by the apparent indifference to this pollution. In many places the iridescent mauves and cyans from a film of light oil can be seen glistening on the surface. There's not enough there to detract from the natural beauty of the place, not yet at any rate. It does, however leave an uneasy feeling, like you're contributing to the destruction of a beautiful place.

 

I have high hopes for Vietnam, I'm sure that this is a problem that will be tackled. Halong Bay is a magical place; Alison and I, kayaking between two islands as the sun was setting was sublime. For it to remain so in the future will require tighter controls, more stringent enforcing of the current ones and, let's be honest here, higher standards of organisation………

 

Halong Bay is still a special place, for now at least.

Share

Why Hanoi Does not Annoy

Why Hanoi does not Annoy

 

Let me think of all the ways that Hanoi should really annoy me. There's the traffic; it's constant, noisy and gives the impression of being completely un-disciplined. Then there's the pavements, or rather there's not. There's pavements alright, but not ones that you can actually walk down for more than thirty metres or so without having to step out into the road to avoid a parked motorcycle, a hastily set up cafe, a man repairing domestic fans or a motorcycle repair business that spread out of its three metre by three metre concrete shop and has flowed organically across the pavement and is starting to colonise the kerb and gutter.

 

Then theres the heat. And the dust. And the Asian high pressure system which traps and collects the fumes from the city, holding it all in, trapping it in the form of an almost tangible haze, exactly

at head night. The motorcycle exhaust fumes, the cooking smells, the welding fumes coming from the blacksmiths' sheds, which are also about to flow out their business premises and begin to colonise the pavement.

The thousand and one laundries, carpenters' shops, restaurants, all the wafts, smells and fumes from seven million people living and working in such close, if not to say, intimate, proximity to each other all contribute to Hanoi's ambience.

 

The French colonial architecture, which in the late 19th century, may have been a jewel in the crown of Indochina has fallen from grace. It's crumbling and decomposing almost to a point where in scarcely recognisable for what it once was, and all around it's being colonised, a form of reverse colonisation as the Asian temporary architectural style of galvanised iron sheeting, scaffolding poles and blue tarpaulin sheets replace the crumbling parts of the French buildings with a ramshackle urgency.

 

All this should give plenty of reasons to absolutely detest Hanoi. But of course I don't. A physical description goes little way to describe what Hanoi is like. Of course it's a bit tatty, a bit run down and a bit chaotic, but there's real vibrancy here. A real sense of a people hauling themselves up. It might not be ideal, but if you haven't got a premises to open an electric fan repair business then the pavement will just have to do.

The pavements are packed with cafés, all of them with people sitting outside eating, drinking coffee and chatting. Some of these pavement cafés have conventional indoor cafés attached, some do not. While some have just a few plastic tables chairs and a disposable barbecue on which corn on the cob is roasted to serve to their customers, that and small glasses of insanely strong and delicious Vietnamese coffee.

Women carrying improbably large pans of mangos and pineapples – peeled and cut into attractive spiral shapes, passion fruits and a thousand other instant snacks to sell to hungry workers. I love the Asian vibrancy, a million micro business occupying just a few square metres each. These are the clever, resourceful and hard working people that are propelling Vietnam's ferociously emerging economy.

 

Share

Hanoi Traffic

Hanoi Traffic

Or, If This Is Anarchy Then I Broadly Approve

 

Hanoi arrived in the way that Asia usually does. Stepping through the airport doors and it's instant Asia! The noise, the dust, the busy frenetic activity of taxi drivers, bus drivers, fellow passengers, various scooter riders racing everywhere and the uniformed airport staff going about their work day activities. There's a definite smell to Asia, a delightful earthy musk, a welcoming warmth with a hint of the exotic all wrapped up in a hot, humid, dense, fuggy comfort blanket. Hanoi did not disappoint.

 

The taxi driver continued the acclimatisation process. The journey from Hanoi airport to the old quarter of Hanoi passed uneventfully. Uneventfully for Asia that is. Should a London taxi driver swerve across several lanes of traffic on a frequent basis, sound his horn at every opportunity, answer his mobile phone whilst driving, then answer his other mobile phone when still talking on the first and you'd be dining off the stories for months to come. However this is Asia and it appears that every other driver on the same piece of road is doing pretty much the same thing. And then there's the scooter riders. Mopeds, scooters, small capacity motorcycles of every description are everywhere. Zooming in and around us, swarming and darting like insects around this slow ponderous water buffalo of a taxi.

 

After my first taxi ride in Asia many years ago, it came as a great surprise that we arrived at out destination intact. In fact it came as a great surprise that anyone arrived at their destinations intact. But of course we did, as indeed did everyone else, the first five minutes or so in the taxi provide an acclimatisation period, the rest of the journey is simply accepted that this is the way it is.

 

Breakfast the first morning provided an opportunity for further study. The hotel's dining room was on the second floor and our breakfast table was by a window. Hang Bong street, the one on which our hotel stood, is a main Hanoi thoroughfare, it's narrow with tall buildings on both sides. Several roads cross it at right angles and also carry similar levels of traffic. Bikes, by that I mean small capacity motorcycles, scooters and mopeds are everywhere. They flow like blood cells through an artery, filling every available space with a dizzying blur of motion. Except of course blood cells flow in only one direction, here they flow both ways. There appeared to be a broad consensus that riding on the right was the preferred option, but it was by no means universal.

 

The road was not divided half and half as one might expect; half for bikes going in one direction and the other 50% for traffic going in the other. Here, should there be a greater volume of bikes going in one direction over the other, then that lane would automatically grows, occupying a correspondingly larger percentage of the road. Sensible? Certainly. But how this was achieved unbidden, like a massive flock of starlings wheeling and darting in flight remains a mystery.

 

Across Hang Bong, many other roads crossing at right angles. Theses roads carried similar volumes of traffic to Hang Bong yet they merged like tributaries flowing into a river; neither stream of traffic yielding to allow the other progress. They didn't need to, they melded together like streams of molten metal flowing to fill a mould. The traffic may have been mostly bikes, but that was certainly not a guarantee of uniformity. Some were solo riders, some carried a pillion. Several carried more than one pillion, up to a maximum of three. It's not just people that get transported by these marvellous little bikes, but goods also. Tiny motorcycles carting improbable loads stacked well above the rider and adding at least a metre and a half to the overall width of the bike, teetered and staggered through this corpuscular flow as the height and weight of their loads created instabilities as the bike lurched over the pot holed road.

 

Some of the bikes carried goods too large to be strapped directly to the bike; ladders, chairs, a coffee table and on one occasion a large oil painting. Here the rider held the item in his left hand leaving the other hand in solo control of the motorcycle.

 

A westerner, upon seeing this scene for the first time would recoil in horror at the scant regard for the rules of the road. His second thought might be how can anyone ride these roads or worse be so irresponsible to take their children onto these roads! Even if they were securely strapped into their CE approved car seat and sitting in a 4×4, surely that would be tantamount to child abuse? And yet here are mothers taking their children on the back of these bikes. Not just the back, but standing on the foot plates of scooters or squeezed in-between two adults or both. Let's put away our thoughts of disbelief, utter disbelief, that any, let alone the vast majority would survive this anarchy and wonder why they do.

 

Vietnamese riders appear to operate without any recourse to the rules of the road. They will occasionally stop at red lights if the situation utterly demands it, but that's about the only rule they do follow. Priority to traffic from the left (they drive on the right remember) doesn't apply. Pedestrians giving way to motorist is unheard of and just having one side for overtaking would be considered absurd.

 

In the UK we have rules! Rules to keep us safe from each other. Rules that are strictly applied and rigidly followed. Woe betide anyone who transgresses! Even inadvertently. Any motorist who even just witnesses, let alone become mildly inconvenienced, by another motorist is felt fully justified in unleashing a whole salvo of insults, from angrily honking the horn to flashing the lights or even unleashing tirade of verbal abuse!

 

The riders of Hanoi without the rules of the road have to make do with common sense, good humour and civility. If a fellow rider wobbles a little in front of you because he's carrying a coffee table in his left hand, then give him space to do so. It is consider that he has a much right to be doing what he's doing as you have to be on your journey. This level of non aggressive riding makes the basic and fairly obvious assumption, given a moments thought, that nobody would be carting a coffee table on a Honda 50 unless they have a very good reason for doing so. The mother riding with three small children on her bike knows that the safety of her children is in her hands she also knows that it's in the hands of her fellow riders. A fact fully known and accepted by all her fellow riders. She is not derided for taking her children on a bike, but afforded the opportunity to do it safely. If this is anarchy, then I broadly approve.

Share

A Time-warp Before Vietnam

A Time Warp Before Vietnam

We live in changing times.

About as uncontroversial a sentences as I can write. I can say that with absolute certainty because not only is it true, it has always been so. We have always lived in changing times. Queen Elizabeth 1st said as much, as did William the Conqueror before her. King Alfred the Great, Marcus Aurelius and for all I know the first Cro-Magnon leader who lead his people into the virgin territory of Western Europe around 30 000 years ago also said as much.

 

The point of all this preamble is that with such a constant state of flux and uncertainty it's hardly surprising when we find things that are new, novel or exciting. What is fascinating however, is finding something that's unchanged. Something that has passed through the generations largely unaltered for so long as it passes into folklore, and into our collective tribal memory. One such discovery befell me yesterday.

 

The Great British Guest House! As if plucked from a museum, or perhaps assembled from the collective memory of countless generations of holidaymakers, I found one that matched every preconceived idea and stereotype I could imagine. In Surrey, not too far from Gatwick Airport, I entered a time warp. Driving through the gate onto what was once the front garden, but now concreted over to comply with modern planning regulations, could not have been more auspicious if I'd driven through Alice's looking glass.

 

The red brick, late Victorian era property was as large and imposing as an elderly dowager, and who was clearly made for better things than an overnight stay and cheap parking for holidaymakers eager to jet off to Florida or Cancun. The large heavy wooden front door looked a little dull and lack lustre as if she had now accepted her fate and has ever so slightly slightly let itself go.

It mysteriously opened with a slight groan as we stepped up to it. Actually, no mystery, merely coincidence. A fellow guest was leaving just as we arrived. Convenient maybe, but just a little disappointing as I was quite looking forward to locating the red flower pot under which we were promised the key would be hidden.

Once inside, the quiet, an almost anacoic quiet, descended. The dark sober tones of the heavy carpet, flock wall paper and velvet curtains added to the almost claustrophobic sense of security. There was no one there to meet us just a room key left on a hall table with a hand written note saying “Mr. Crew Room 7. Up the stairs.”

This was not the only note to read, the two short paces from the front door to the hall table revealed many others; “Breakfast is from 7:15 to 8:30.” It didn't say as much, but the tone implied that that there could be no exceptions.

I was made aware of the fire procedure; “…call the fire brigade or ensure that someone else has done so”. The TV operation procedure was also made abundantly clear “use the grey remote control to switch the TV on and the black remote to change channels”.

My favourite, and it's only concession to modernity was “please don't ask for the WiFi password as it's written in your handbook on your bedside cabinet”. It was too, along with three pages of instruction. And a fourth containing an explanation of the typing error in the password on the previous three.

 

The room was small. Smaller that the wide, heavily carpeted and massively newel posted stairway led me to expect. The plasterboard walls revealed much about the building's fall from grace. Her large bedrooms had been divided and then further subdivided into smaller more economic units to cope with a more challenging economic climate. It was well equipped for all that and comfortable in the way you'd imagine it to be. I slept well, if briefly. The early morning breakfast and a desire to use to the communal bathroom before my fellow guests ensured this.

 

 

The dining room was a magnificent a piece of 1960's reproduction as you could wish for, except, of course, it wasn't reproduction. It was un-changed. The heavily patterned carpet, an excellent choice as far as longevity is concerned, but now looking rather too garish and fussy for modern tastes. The tongue and groove pine clad walls had darkened considerably with age whilst the ornaments and trinkets collected form every cheap and exciting package holiday destination the 1960's had to offer, had faded to a uniform gentile grey; the bull from Toromalenos, still with pics in his poor back, the single clog from Amsterdam with a tulip painted on the instep, various barometers and thermometers from locations so far flung and exotic that only a meteorological instrument would serve as a reminder of the holiday.

 

Breakfast fulfilled every expectation. Not that it was particularly good but it exactly fulfilled every expectation that I had of it. Don't think that I didn't enjoy it. I did! It was, well, a nostalgic meal. A breakfast from the days when bacon was pale pink and more chewy than flavoursome. When toast was thin, sliced and cold, and when coffee was a light brown colour, which was about the only indicator you had that it was really coffee. My delight was complete when I retrieved a pot of jam from a shelf set into one of the ornament adorned walls and opening it to find mould!

It was a meal from a time that I thought had passed or maybe had started to believed, had never really existed.

 

Share

World’s Greatest Biking Country

 

What is the worlds greatest biking country? Is a question, to be honest, that I've never been asked, but nevertheless deserves to be answered. I've asked the question many times and of many bikers usually in the form of 'where would you like to ride?'. A very similar question really just phrased differently. The answers tend to range from the cliched Route 66 through the various alpine passes – something that should be on every bikers to do list – to the extreme and slightly masochist Kadong La, nestling in in the high Himalayas of northern India and reputedly the highest metalled road in the world. All worthy motorcycling goals but does that make the countries that contain these roads the greatest motorcycling country? Probably not.

 

Route 66 has a certain certain cache after being popularised in the 1946 Bobby Troup song of the same name. And, like the writer of the song, could be something of a surprise. Yes, I thought it was Chuck Berry as well. Route 66, apart from being mostly missing these days, is largely straight, flat for a great deal of it's length, passing through unvarying scenery and has a blanket speed limit of 55 mph. Hardly the stuff of bikers' dreams. I'm not suggesting that it follows that all of the USA would also be dull biking country, not at all, these's no doubt plenty of excellent bikers' roads to be found there, but with such a vast country they must be sparsely distributed. The USA must therefore be ruled out as the world's greatest biking country on this basis alone. The same goes for Australia.

Rather than go through the world's countries one by one and finding fault as to why they can't be the World's greatest biking country, it's probably more productive to list the qualities that must be satisfied in order to fulfil the requirements for the accolade of the World's Greatest.

 

The weather. An obvious place to start, It must be pleasantly warm, sunny and dry, mid twenties Celsius with blue skies and the occasional fluffy white cumulus to give a contrast to the expanse of blue. The scenery must be beautiful, the roads all made from a smooth tarmac flowing with twists and turns, climbs and descents, every bend in the road offering both a interesting riding challenge and offering a new vista on the unfolding countryside. High craggy mountains, green rolling hills and lush verdant valleys must all fall within a couple of hours riding to ensure that the palette is constantly refreshed and never jaded. A coastline of spectacular cliffs and towering headlands also needs to be added to the mix. This motoring paradise must also, paradoxically, be largely free of traffic.

 

This perfect bikers country also needs a well established and fully functioning infrastructure. Petrol and coffee stops should be so plentiful as to require no advanced planning. As soon as the fuel light blinks, or a craving for caffeine surfaces, theses requirements should be sated just a few minutes after either the rider or bike has made the demand. Similarly pubs, restaurants, hotels and guest houses should all be readily available the moment the desire to stop for the night has become apparent.

 

Finally, and here's where we come to the nub of the matter. The should be a high density of these exceptional roads, a high ratio of the great to the boring. In a great biking country there would never be the need to travel to find great roads, all journeys would be great. Hours spent on a motorway to find that one gem of a great biking road would, if not exactly negate the thrill of riding that road, then it would certainly detracf from that countrie's claim to being a great biking country. This latter consideration obviously rules out virtually all of the larger countries. Tavel, involving vast distances becomes a very pragmatic affair motorways, autobahns, interstates and autostradas will always rule.

 

Then there are days which turn out to be perfect. Sometimes the sun shines and the sky is blue. The wind as you ride along is warm and pleasant, not too cold – when your shoulders hunch and your neck squats down into your jacket to keep out the chill. Nor too hot when you sweat under your leathers and your breathing becomes laboured inside your helmet. These are the days when the clear sunlight falls on the countryside giving it a clarity and a depth you've not noticed before, or at least not for a while. The roads are smooth, twisty and largely traffic free, the cars that are encountered are efficiently dispatched and merely add extra interest to the journey. Sometimes the journey begins immediately, as soon as you leave your driveway. This was the case in the late spring of 2013, the ride from Cwmbran to Abergavenny, on to Buith, then Brecon. Followed by a swift dalliance along the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons before delving deeper into the heart of the National Park and then, finally, home as the shadows lengthened and the world turned orange. On such a day I can report that there is no doubt, Wales is the greatest biking country in the world.

Share