There and back again – Yangon to Yangon

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August 18, 2014 by melcogger

Jonty forgot to mention in our last post (perhaps fearful for all the moms, dads, aunties, uncles and friends who constantly stress about our safety) that I (Mel) had almost got hit by a speeding, screeching car on our way to Yangon. A melting pot of bad roads, together with a lack of signs and some really rough drivers, an accident is bound to happen soon enough. While turning a corner, the road was closed for an oncoming train, no signs of course or flashing lights or horns, just a blind corner, a closed road and a train. I pulled off the road onto the dirt to take a photo of the oncoming train – had I not done so I guess that I would not have been writing this post and Jonty would be needing to figure out our our life insurance details. As I took the photo I heard a speeding car screeching around the bend, slam on the brakes and veer off the road in my direction. It happened so fast, but with one camera in hand and my bike beneath me I shuffled as fast as I could to miss the car out of hand. Without any exaggeration, the car missed me by about 15cm. It managed to stop before hitting another car in front of the que. During that time Jonty watched the whole ordeal in disbelief and when awakened from the slow motion picture of his wife nearly being killed, rage overtook him and he went bezerk on the driver. He screamed in the driver’s face that he would “$)”%#^*|ing kill him and that he was this close (indicating a small space between his thumb and forefinger). I didn’t know what to do, but with the camera still in hand I filmed Jonty for a brief time to make sure the man didn’t get out and kill Jonty instead. At least I would have proof. It was a frightening reminder of how vulnerable we really are, not only on the bikes, but off them too, as well as off and on the roads.

Anyway, back to our journey. After a somewhat restful night at the temple (where we left you last), we were half tempted to ask the monks to stay another night, but not wanting to overstay an illegal welcome, we went off. Another bad decision as we only got 10km down the road before I couldn’t carry on. I was still sick from the day before and we were left with no option but to load our bikes onto a bus to Pyay. Guesthouses were hard to come by and we couldn’t exactly get away with a wild camp at 10am. We had some difficulty finding out from the locals where to catch a bus, but as usual, when in need, a local who spoke about seven words English attached himself to us and said “I help you, no pay me ok”. He did help us, and we were on our way, trying to give him a pack of biscuits we had bought as a thank you gift, but as always, our gifts are refused. It’s often difficult to accept the kindness of others when we come from a society that is based on give and take, always indebted to another for any act.

We stayed in Pyay to give myself time to recover. Since arriving in Myanmar its rained everyday, non stop. At first we welcomed Monsoon season after the hottest months cycling in April and May. But Monsoon season in Myanmar is no joke. Tumble dryers are a thing of the future, and when we handed our clothes into a laundromat, they returned 3 days later, still damp, frustrating, as we cannot dry anything on our bikes as we cycled through storm after storm. Eventually we put wet clothes on our bikes and covered them in plastic, in the hopes that the breeze would miraculously dry our essentials. Everything remained damp, soggy and mouldy.

We often spent time on our bikes peddling through nondescript rural villages trying to guess how far Myanmar is behind in the world based on the technological evidence we see. Without electricity and running water being a luxury, locals traveling by horse and carriage, big cell phones with long aerials and agriculture being the main form of sustenance, we guess that it is probably 60 years behind the rest of the world. We had to stop ourselves laughing out loud when watching locals talk into a cellphone, first speaking into the mouth piece like a walkie talkie and putting the speaker by their ear waiting for a response. Myanmar is truly unplugged in so many senses of the word, and for the first time we had beautiful, unpolluted scenery without power cables in our way. We had no internet during our time there and could seldom find an Internet cafe to check emails. When we did the first problem was the assistant not knowing how to use the dial up connection, and second problem not being able to read the English messages on the computer saying that there was already a connection, clicking furiously away, they were sure that this method would connect us to the elusive World Wide Web faster.

When we set off again, we cycled 105km northwards where there was a vast change in the landscape. The weather changed and the landscape dried. At times we felt like we were somewhere in the South African highveld with rolling hills and low lying trees. Looking out over the horizon, we saw nothing for hundreds of kilometers, not a soul, and not a building. Towards the end of the day we happened upon a village, not exactly ideal when looking for a nice camping spot in Myanmar away from prying eyes, but being exhausted we pulled into the only temple we had seen all day. This temple was different to the others we had visited, it had only 1 monk and a family lived on the property, we assumed to take care of the land and the monk. The family took care of us as well. A young girl, named Moetie took special care of me and helped me into a traditional Longyi (a tube-like sarong) to bath in out in the open. After seeing my tangled mess of hair after riding in the rain all day, she gave me two packets of shampoo. When we were washed she ushered us into her sleeping quarters quickly when a local truck arrived to hide us. But we were seen. She then combed my hair and slicked it thick with fragrant Jasmine oil. She absolutely insisted that I could not carry on the evening without first smearing thanaka, a thick creamy paste all over my face. Quite a nice feeling really, like wearing a face mask. Jonty had a second dinner and two beers which were bought especially for him at the local kiosk. They must think that that’s what white people like to do. When we settled for the night, we were disturbed by an unexpected visit from two men. With only a few English words, the family indicated that it was the police. We had been found. Feeling the dread of having to pack up all our belongings and take down our tent we kept quiet. Eventually, after a debate with the monk and the exchange of details, the police let us stay. Our only guess was that we were not in a 100km radius of any accommodation so they really had no other choice. Another battle won, but just barely.

After another 105km cycle, we slept at a guesthouse in Magwe. We thought this strategy as wise to get the “scent” off us after being caught the night before. The fun was not over yet when 10km out of town the next day Jonty complained of his peddles being stiff. After a brief inspection of the bike Jonty used his ever growing bicycle knowledge to decipher that something was amiss with the bottom bracket. As usual, we began pushing our bikes back to town, thankful that we were not completely in the middle of nowhere. After a few kilometers a lady instructed us to a Honda motorbike shop and insisted that we let a strapping young lad fix the bike. He eagerly rushed up the the bike with a pair of pliers in hand ready to do some damage. Just before he could fix his pliers onto Jonty’s derailler (a complete misdiagnosis of the problem and certainly not the tool to use on a derailer) we both shouted for him to stop and moved our bikes hurriedly along before the bicycle assault could commence. Clearly nobody had any knowledge of mountain bikes, gears or any bottom brackets of sorts in this neck of the woods.

We managed to hitch a ride back to the main town and were dropped off at a bicycle shop. Not exactly Linden cycles, but a shop with Chinese bikes and a few tools. What could be the harm we thought? Again, two eager mechanics (if u can call them that) hastily began banging at the crank arms to loosen the peddle. Again we shout “no no no no no”. In Asia, we have learnt that when something is broken, the first port of call for locals is to bang, prod, bend and poke until it all falls apart and cannot be put back together. We searched our tool bag to bring out a technologically advanced “crank puller”, a tool we have carried 6000km without really any idea how to use it. The locals nod very disapprovingly at our alien contraption and again point at hammer, chisel and bike while nodding approvingly. This was going to be a case of east meets west. Jonty guarded the bikes while locals surrounded him, each giving their two cents worth on how to get the crank arm off, laughing and repeating our “no no no no no”. I walked a kilometer down the road to an Internet cafe, watched a youtube video on how to use a crank puller, wrote the instructions down on piece of paper and returned. While reading out the instructions to Jonty the locals’ jaws dropped as they watched as a few simple turns easily took off the crank. Ha! Sometimes banging is not the way to do it folks we wanted to say, but the locals soon lost interest and dispersed. Next step was to get the bottom bracket out.

Let us now rewind to January 2014, Johannesburg South Africa, Craighall park. There we were, sitting in the living room with our accumulated bicycle tool bounty laid out before us. The time we decide to get rid of any “unnecessary weight”.

Me: “what’s this darling, it’s very heavy and big”
Jonty: “ag, it’s a tool for the bottom bracket”
Me: “what’s the bottom bracket anyway, do we seriously need it?”
Jonty: “Ja, it’s possible we might need it”
Me: “we should only take the essentials, I doubt we will have any serious problems anyway”

Fast forward to present time, Magwe, Myanmar, with some very serious bike problems to solve. Without the proper tools we loaded our bikes again and walked for 7km to the bus station. Remember there’s only two bicycle shops in the entire country, neither where we actually need them. We were only 200km from Bagan, the northernmost point of our intended trip and we didn’t feel like turning back now. Again, dismayed, on a bus in Myanmar for the second time. We’ve mentioned it before, and I will mention it again, we wholeheartedly hate putting our bicycles on buses. More especially so when the bus dumped us at 8pm at night, 10km outside of Bagan. Left at the mercy of opportunistic taxi drivers, we sat on the pavement deciding what to do. Should we just save a buck or two by walking 10km? We eventually gave in and paid to get a ride into town and checked into the first decent guesthouse we saw.

We hired a second bicycle and spent two days cycling around the ancient city of Bagan discovering old temples and climbing up any viewpoints we could find to get a good vantage point of the thousands of ancient temples scattered along the plain. During the 11th and 13th centuries, Bagan’s kings commissioned over 4000 temples in 104 square kilometers, leaving us with unforgettable views of temples’ peaks stretching on and on into the distance. The effort to get this far north was worth it, but we still had one broken bicyle. While cycling around the temple grounds we caught a glimpse of a cycle tour group and called out to chat to the guide. It was Grasshopper Adventures, our saviours in Cambodia who fixed my bicycle. We got the phone number of the manager in Mandalay and called the next day. Would you believe that out in the middle of nowhere in an ancient city of Myanmar, hundreds of kilometers from any bicycle shop, within 20 minutes of calling, we get help. Grasshopper Adventures sent out a mechanic to our guesthouse, with a new bottom bracket and the correct tools, fixes it, re-tuned and cleaned both our bicycles – for R150. We could not believe our luck, after our ordeal with the bicycle shops in Magwe, it was a blessing from heaven.

But having travelled the route north for two weeks and only two weeks left on our visas, we decided not to cycle back the same way we came and hopped on a bus towards the south to carry on our cycling adventure in unchartered territory. This bus trip was planned at least. After 12 hours of bus riding we hopped off the first bus in Yangon and onto a second bus an hour later to head to Mawlamyine, our fourth bus ride of the Myanmar season. Tired and deranged we were dumped of course, at 2am in the middle of nowhere after 19 hours on the road, and in true Myanmar fashion, in the pouring rain. Drenched and shivering, we put our headlights on and cycled into the darkness for 10km looking for accommodation. We eventually found a guest house and were livid to find that at 3am and only 3 hours before official check in time, we were going to be charged the full $15 for 3 hours of sleep. We were too tired to argue, paid and went to bed.

The southern and perhaps most challenging part of our journey continues in the next post.



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