Dams at the Nam Ou

Posted By : Karl/ 234 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Days 11 and 12:

Boat trip on the Nam Ou and 40 km cycling from Nong Khiao to Nam Thouam.

 

Yesterday, we spent the day steering down the Ou river from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi. It was raining a bit, but shielded by the roof of the slim boat we were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river banks. Even though the forest we see is by no means primary forest, there are beautiful and tall trees towering above karst hills, tiny villages that can only be reached by boat and water buffalos roaming the sandy riverbanks.

 

Laos, as a developing country, is facing the same dilemma most underdeveloped places do: There is no developed infrastructure, no industry. In order to participate in the economic upswing of South East Asia, the people in power take the easiest and quickest way by selling the country’s natural resources. Lao’s two big sources of income are wood and electricity from hydropower projects. Here at the Nam Ou, both of these are visible. Big trees and primary forest has been logged some time ago – but what’s really striking now is the massive scale of hydropower projects. Here at the Nam Ou, the Chinese are building seven (!) dams along the river. Usually these deals work like this: The investing country or company gets the right to harvest all the initial profits of the power station, but after a set amount of time, the dams and their revenue will be handed over to the Lao government. Those deals are usually closed between the Lao government officials and foreign investors (many of the power projects are financed by China, but also South Korea, Japan and Thailand are heavily involved) – without taking the opinion of the people into account.

On the boat, we pass the construction sites of two dams, meaning that in three years, we will no longer be able to visit this spectacular section because of the new dams blocking our way. But not us but the people living along the Nam Ou will be most affected by the dams: Now, only two dams have been finished further downstream (between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiao), but the life of the villagers has already changed. The river, which used to be full of fish now no longer provides food for the people living along its shores and the fishermen of the Ou have lost their jobs. With even more dams being built, things are unlikely to change in the future. The next problem will be the rising water levels close to the new dams. Many villages we pass on our way will have to be resettled very soon. On our way, we visit one of those dwellings. This village has its own little school, some shops, and people live in solid, even some two-storey houses. China by Bikes groups have stopped here many times and our groups have always liked the tranquil and very welcoming atmosphere of the place. This time, however, already feels like a good-bye: The houses have been marked with spray paint, indicating that they will have to be torn down soon. We are told that the village will be resettled to a nearby village which lies a little further up the hills. The people here don’t complain to us and it seems like they have already accepted their fate. But then again: what options do they have?

 

We steer further downstream and spend the night in the backpacker village Muang Ngoi. In the morning, we once again get on the boats and ride for two more hours through picturesque karst mountains to Nong Khiaw. Time to hop on our bikes again! We cycle around fourty km on easy terrain to reach our simple accommodation at Nam Thouam. Apart from a market, this place does not have much to offer, but we manage to find a nice new restaurant to have a great dinner, ending the day in style.

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In the Lao heat!

Posted By : Karl/ 84 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Day 10:

Cycling 100 km from Oudomxai to Muang Khua, along River Phak.

 

After spending a night in the very pleasant “Charming Lao Hotel”, our next stage took us along the river Phak to Muang Khua. We had a good ride, again – only this time, it was really hot. During the breaks we took, everyone tried to move as little as possible while drinking ice cooled water from the van or eating some fresh lychees and sugar cane to work against dehydration. As all experienced cyclists will know, on a day like this it is surely more pleasant to cycle – feeling the air stream around your body – than to stand still, even at a shady spot.

 

Consequently we kept our recreational breaks short and reached our Hotel rather early in the afternoon. A few kilometres before arriving in Muang Khua we had a chance to witness a big Khmer wedding party. Some of our group stopped to have a closer look at the lively scenery – there were at least 200 people having a big banquet – singing, dancing and drinking. Quickly we were spotted by the bride and groom and the bride’s father and invited to join the festivities. This, of course, included having glasses of beer and Lao Lao (the vicious local rice schnaps) in honour of the bride and groom. As foreigners, it was a little easier for us to talk ourselves out of this duty, but our dear guide Tho had to drink 3 glasses of Lao Lao and consequently struggled a bit to cycle the remaining kilometres to Muang Khua.

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Rain and Rainbow for slow riders

Posted By : Karl/ 512 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Day 8:

Riding 112 km from Luang Namtha to Oudomxai. Great landscape and some unpredictable weather.

 

After our day of rest in Luang Namtha we had a long stage coming up. On our 112 km ride to Oudomxai, the weather was again on our side: As opposed to the day before when the heat had been hard to bear around lunchtime, the sky was overcast with clouds and temperatures stayed at a moderate 20 to 24 degrees Celsius throughout the whole day. Everyone managed to do the long ascend in the afternoon and we all were rewarded with stunning views on the way.

 

On our way down to Oudomxai there was a remarkable incident: Going downhill, the group had split up a little bit with a couple of people having left three minutes earlier and riding a bit faster than those behind. As the tour leader I always stay at the back so that I can help out if something unexpected happens on the way (usually flat tires). About 10 minutes in the descent it suddenly started to rain very hard – so hard that me and Rolf who were the last two people going down were forced to find shelter under the roof of one of the houses in a village we were just passing. It poured down heavily, lots of water came down and came flowing down the slope of the hill in a temporary stream around the house we waited at. After 20 minutes the rain got less and we decided to cycle on to catch the rest of the group. We saw the prettiest rainbow on our way down, arching over the green and beautifully illuminated landscape. When we got to the foot of the of the mountain they asked us: “What on earth had took you so long, was it a flat tire or even something worse?” “No”, we replied, “Of Course we had to wait for the rain to stop!” “What rain?” They answered.

 

To our big surprise, riding two minutes ahead of us, the rest of the group had had managed to completely escape the rain! After the downpour we had experienced up there, this was hard to believe for us, but their dry clothes proved them right.

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Exploring the Luang Namtha valley

Posted By : Karl/ 102 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Day 7:

An easy 18 km day trip in the Luang Namtha valley.

 

Today, we stayed in Luang Namtha and cycled around the beautiful valley. Under the hot Lao sun we visited the new Stupa of Luang Namtha as well as an old one which had been destroyed by American bombs during the war in the 70ies.

 

Northern Laos is populated by a variety of peoples who like to dwell in hilly terrain. The villages we ride through on our stages in laos are mostly populated by Hmong and Khmer people. However, the villages we visit on our day trip in the Luang Namtha Valley are populated by the Black Thai (or Thai Dam), a minority living scattered all around Vietnam, China and Laos and that is known for their handicraft skills. During the dry season (usually from November to March) when the fields have been harvested and nothing can be grown, the people spend time at home braiding baskets or weaving.

 

In the villages we see many looms standing under the stilts of the typical stilt houses built in this region. In the shade of the house, the Black Thai women sit and weave beautifully patterned scarves and wrap skirts. We are lucky to find an elderly lady who is willing to show us some of her weaving skills. Even for a very simple pattern, a complicated network of threads and wooden pieces has to be installed on the loom and the lady tells us that weaving one scarf requires two days of work!

 

As it got very hot around noon we cycled through the rice paddies back into Luang Namtha town and spent the rest of the day in the shade – reading, writing, chatting with our guide Tho and sipping Café Lao.

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Crossing over from China to Laos

Posted By : Karl/ 101 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Days 5 and 6:

Two days of cycling: 55 km from Mengla to the Chinese Border town Mohan, and 57 km to beautiful Luang Namtha in Northern Laos.

 

On our last stage in China we rode 55 easy kilometers from Mengla to the Chinese-Laotian border at Mohan. As most border towns, Mohan is not particularly pretty and has a little dodgy feel. People looking to do business in the neighbouring countries stay here for one or two nights, smuggled goods are traded on the black market and peddlers roam the streets looking for someone willing to exchange cash money.

 

After walking up and down the one big main street which makes up about 90% of the town, we have dinner at the Tonghai Fandian 通海饭店. The restaurant proves to be the best choice in Mohan, giving us a yummy and worthy farewell to China and its kitchen! Who knew that mashed potatoes were a part of the local cuisine, too?

 

The next morning we cross the border to Laos, finding a gigantic construction site just a few kilometers into Laos. Tho, our Lao guide, explains that the Chinese are about to build an entertainment district here, with a big Casino as its core element. As gambling is prohibited in China, Casinos can be found in many border towns around the Middle Kingdom (Macao being the most prominent example).

 

Cycling into Laos, we are immediately struck by the big difference between the two neighbours! While the Chinese towns are full of cellphone shops and neon light advertisement, many people here in Northern Laos live in small huts made of wood and straw. Another obvious difference is the presence of countless children in Laos. In contrast to China, where Birth Control until recently allowed only one child per family, in Laos it seems like each of the little huts at the side of the road is home for at least four or five siblings. When we ride by, they wave enthusiastically and shout a welcoming “Saibaidee!” (Hello!).
In the late afternoon we arrive in Luang Namtha, which lies beautifully in a vast and fertile plain full of rice paddies. We arrive in Luang Namtha in the afternoon. Good news! Directly beside our guest house are a number of nice cafés, serving Café Lao, a brew made from coffee grown in the South of Laos and typically served with sweetened condensed milk.

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A day of cycling and singing

Posted By : Karl/ 87 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Day 4:

Cycling 96 km and 1800 m in altitude from Menglun to Mengla on quiet and newly built roads.

 

We got up before sunrise this morning in order to master the distance of 96 km and 1800 m total climbs in an unhurried way. The weather was perfect for the long and strenuous ride: Cloudy and temperatures around 18 degrees celsius. When I had cycled the same stage with a different group two years ago, we had arrived in Mengla after sunset. To avoid a late arrival this year I decided to start the day as early as possible. We got up just before sunrise and started our day with a nice big bowl of rice noodles right on the main street of Menglun.

 

The stage has three longer climbs of about 500, 600 and 300 m altitude, but the gradient is never too hard. Thanks to the fact that during the last 15 years the Chinese have built a huge amount of new roads everywhere in the country, there is now a highway running parallel to the road we cycle which cuts through the mountains by means of bridges and tunnels. Of course, everyone owning a car now uses the new highway so the old one (which has recently been renewed, too) is now very quiet and great to cycle on. The couple Mrs Luo and Mr. Ding, our lovely and caring support team, provided us with the needed fruit and snacks on the way, and we mastered all three ascends without any incidents.

 

To my relief, this year everyone had enough time to climb at their preferred pace and take pictures of the beautiful scenery on the way – and we still reached our destination one hour before sunset. Tired but happy, we granted ourselves a nice dinner in a Thai-Style restaurant next to the hotel. The place had good food and was very lively: As we were about to leave, the Dai Minority people on the table beside us started singing some folk tunes and even came over to our table, welcomed us to China and Mengla and sang two of their traditional songs for us. To return the kindness, we then sang a German song and thanked them for their warm welcome. In a singing contest, we would have clearly lost against the local team and we made a decision to keep practising some tunes on our way to be able to give a better performance on the next occasion!

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Everything you ever wanted to know about… pineapples!

Posted By : Karl/ 85 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Day 3:

Riding 43 km from Ganlanba to Menglun and learning about the peculiarities of the Southern Yunnan flora.

 

After cycling for quite a while through a muddy construction site we had a sweet encounter with a lady selling pineapples at the side of the road, right next to her family‘s plantation. Those were the tastiest and freshest pineapples we had ever tried, no doubt about that.

 

Chatting with the lady we found out the following about the cultivation of the fruit: Plants will grow for three years, before they have to be removed and will be replaced by a new plant. In the first year, the plant will produce one pineapple but can be manipulated to produce up to two pineapples in the second and third year. The harvest season lasts six months (September – March), and – to our luck!! – the best and sweetest fruit can be picked in October and November. If you want to produce new plants from an old one, you can take the top of the fruit and simply put it into the ground! However the more effective way is to use shoots of the plant, so-called „slips“ and „suckers“ for reproduction. Although the plantation was very large, the lady told us that her family only possesses a small fraction of it which she and her husband cultivate and harvest in order to feed the family. We went into the plantation to see some of the ripe fruit on the plants and found some very nice looking ones! We ate some more of the delicious pineapple, then swung on our bikes and waved good-bye to the friendly lady.

 

After one more climb and a descent we arrived in Menglun in the early afternoon and continued our excursion into the flora of Southern China by exploring the huge and pretty botanical garden of Menglun.

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Cycling through Thai-na

Posted By : Karl/ 110 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Day 2:

Cycling 49 km from Jinghong to Ganlanba. Rather flat stage with lost of sun and a Mekong crossing by ferry at the end.

Today, we went on our first cycling stage, riding about 50 km South of Jinghong to the beautiful Thai minority village Ganlanba.

Cycling out of the 200.000 people city, we stopped by at a redwood furniture factory and store. Hugely impressed by the big wooden tiger standing at the entrance of the store we went inside to have a look at the exhibition. We found long desks, benches, tea tables and a lot of fancy decoration made from tropical forest wood. The most expensive set of benches and chairs was to be sold for a price of around half a million Dollars. All looked pretty and is skillfully carved – but we know that those trees are all taken from the Monsoon forests of Burma and Laos and have left gaps in the once so beautiful landscape, which leaves a little bitter taste.

With the great weather (sun all day!) came the heat, but we were lucky to be cycling on a shaded road, running through rubber wood plantations and along the Mekong for the last couple of kilometers.

After crossing the Mekong on a ferry, we arrived at Ganlanba, a museum village of the Dai (Thai) minority. In the afternoon we had plenty of time left to explore the old buddhist temples and Thai style buildings of the place. The people here speak a Thai language, celebrate the water splashing festival at the Thai New Year and have many customs with the Thai people of laos and Thailand in common.

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Cycling the Golden Triangle – Arrival in China

Posted By : Karl/ 91 0

23-Day Cycle Tour through China, Laos and Thailand, Day 1:

We arrive in Jinghong, Southern Yunnan, prepare our bikes and go for a first 20 km ride around the city.

 

Yesterday all of our group have arrived well in Jinghong, Southern Yunnan. The city, also called Xishuangbanna – remeniscent of the historic Thai kingdom of Sipsongpanna – is often referred to as „China‘s Gate to South East Asia“. While the city with its Dai (Chinese term for the Thai people) architecture and subtropic plants certainly reminds us of Thailand, we still get a real Chinese experience on the first day of our journey through the Golden Triangle!

 

On our bikes, we discover the outskirts and inner city of Jinghong and we are simply stunned by the development taking place here. As the domestic Chinese tourism booms, the development of tourist destinations happens at a breathtaking pace. Our hotel is located right next to a new quarter of the city designed in a mixture of traditional Thai architecture and modern luxury.

 

On our way through the area we learn that the whole complex was financed and built by a single private company and built within the last 5 years. Strolling through the lively bustling illuminated streets at night-time; climbing the stairs of a huge fake Thai temple in the company of many fashionable young Chinese tourists we get the impression of being in a big theme park. Even though things look a bit like Laos and Thailand, we feel the vibe of modern China. Knowing that we will be spared from all the noise and commerce on the days to come, we let ourselves drift through the crowd and enjoy the scenery.

 

How different was our visit to the big market in the old downtown of Jinghong earlier that day!

We spent more than one hour exploring the market, trying some of the delicious local fruit, chatting up with some of the market ladies and figuring out what all the things we saw actually were: We found banana buds for cooking, 1000 year old eggs, many different kinds of tofu, gelly made of potato starch and live frogs, toads and hornet larves. Even though the bustle in both places is similar, they clearly contrast each other: One place representing traditional rural China and one representing the new rich luxury and crazy pace of development of this country. This was certainly an impressive beginning of our trip, which gave us a glimpse of urban China before we head south towards tranquil and still largely undeveloped Laos.

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Roadside Encounters (2)

Posted By : Karl/ 110 0

What makes your holiday an unforgettable experience?

Sure enough: Beautiful landscapes, nice roads to cycle on, great weather conditions and stunning cultural heritage sights to explore are important factors.

But what will really stick in your mind? Yes! It’s the encounters with people you meet during your journey. The situations which you experience together with your guide and your fellow travellers or the spontaneous interactions with the locals. The feeling of mutual astonishment or the shared laugh with a strange person will remain as precious memories once you are back home.

In this new series of blog posts, we will share some of our favourite roadside encounters with you.

Today: “Exercise in Tiantan Park”

 

Both our tours “All Around China” and “The Three Gorges of the Yangzi“, start with a visit to Beijing, the big old capital of China. Beijing is world famous for its imperial and architechture such as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Ming And Qing Tombs and the Great Wall. Of course, we will go and see all of these interesting places during our stay in Beijing. One more place which we always include on our list of things to see in Beijing is the Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven. Here, the Emperor used to pray for a good harvest every year. Most outstanding in this complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a round and colorful Temple built in the traditional chinese carpentry style without using a single nail. But these fascinating buildings are not the only reason for us to visit the temple of heaven.

 

We are here to stroll through the spacious park around the temple, where hundreds of Beijing’s retirees spend their morning. In China, one can get the impressions that the people relive their youth once they have retired from work. They love to hang out in the streets and parks, do all kinds of sports and excercises, play cards or chess, play in bands or little orchestras, smoke and chat, dance to loud music in public and even organise their own live dating portals to find new partners. It’s a lively scene, and most lively it is in the park around the Temple of Heaven.

 

One of our favourite spots to spend some time there is the sports gymnastics area. The government has built an outside fitness and gymnastics studio here. There are parrallel bars, horizontal bars and many more devices for stretching and exercise. Most astonishing is that all of these devices are in use! There is a big hustle and bustle, noise and people everywhere. Men and women, athletes and spectators and even a queue at the two high horizontal bars which attract the most attention from the spectators. We join the fun, try out some of the devices and walk over to watch the show at the horizontal bars. There is a man with long white hair swinging skillfully around the bar. His routine is filmed by many pensioneers withe their smart phones and awarded with cheers and generous applause.

 

We engage in a little conversation with the people around and are told that the man is in his late 70s and had only started to do gymnastics after suffering from a stroke at the age of 66. We are impressed! The old guy, after finishing his exercise, comes over and tells us his story a second time. He seems to enjoy being the center of attention and is very proud of his achievements. In a hearty way, he welcomes us and we start the inavitable picture taking ceremony. We all pose with the white haired local celebrity who smiles and wishes us a safe journey as we trod on towards the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the center of the park.