Ain’t No Mountain: Phrae to Lampang, 6 July 2013

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I have to pause before I write this to consider how to introduce and set up what was one of the hardest days of my life. I have to do it justice, I must convey eloquently the struggle…

Until that point, each day had been a struggle; two people in a country they did not know, in physical conditions they were not used to, cycling for long periods and with a significant load. Even when it was flat, it was never easy but we could meet the challenge without too much hardship. And we knew the hills were coming. We knew this day would be the hardest we would face.

I’d studied Google Map repeatedly, done the same with the paper map we carried and trawled the blogs of those who had gone before us. I wanted to know how bad these hills were and I also wanted to know which way to go. It was hard to know exactly what to expect from the sparse information available and I am no pioneer. From Phrae there were two options; the 1023, which wound through a forested national park, or Route 11 which took us past a huge reclining Buddha and then on into the hills. It was not clear from the blogs if anyone had used the 1023 but several bloggers mentioned Route 11, remarking on the length and intensity of one particular hill.

The staff of the Thai Phoom Garden solved the problem. We began talking to the breakfast chef – a man of great curry making skill – and told him our plan for the day. His mouth opened and did not shut, instead he gestured by flapping his hand for one of the girls serving to come over. She had done the journey a lot, he said. Her face, customarily wearing a mask of hospitality, softened when we explained what we were doing. No, don’t take the 1023, she said, too bendy, too fast, she gestured as though her hand was a car. I looked at Nick, the decision was made.

Next the chef wanted to see what kind of bike we would be doing this journey on, laughing to himself, he asked if we would be riding the pink ones…

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The morning passed as our mornings usually did, some hard riding, some photograph taking…

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Along the road were several places where a whole ark of wooden animals frolicked…

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Just chilling…

…and indulgent consumption of sugary drinks. At about 13:00 we reclined beneath the blast of a restaurant fan, the remains of iced coffees, iced lollies, water bottles, red Fanta and crisps strewn before us. This was a rest stop, but also a celebration. We thought we had broken some tough hills and believed the worst was behind us.

The sun was blazing when we got back on the road and I felt in less than good shape. My body does not seem to like coffee mid-journey, so I was only just coping with the heat and the undulating terrain when we descended into a dip, out of which Route 11 crosses the 1023. And, if I had read more carefully, I would have known that this was where it got tough.

Rising from the dip, I stopped to breathe. Nick was keen to go on, at the forefront of his mind was his mantra ‘stopping was failing’ and he did not want to fail. Neither did I, but the idea burned a hole in my motivation and I stopped anyway, with a feeling of having given up; my lungs weren’t working and neither was my brain, defeated as it was by the sight of the ribbon of concrete going up and wrapping the hillside.

It is a fact that I carry a child inside me (I think we all do to some degree). She wants to be approved of, she wants to feel safe and be consoled when she is hurt, she wants adventure and she also wants to be rescued from the jaws of reality. By deciding that it was a good idea to try to cycle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with all my luggage, I had made that steep, never ending mountainside, the sparse tree covering and the ferocious sun a reality. And she wanted out. I watched as Nick pushed on ahead of me. But the energy that I could force into those pedals diminished and as she made her demands – how much further? when would this be over? – I became weaker still, stopping for what could have been the tenth time, I broke down.

She was terrified. Who would save her? she wanted to know. I was scared, because I knew it was my job and I did not think I could do it. I had no idea how much further we had to climb; there could have been 10km more and all I could manage was 100m at a time. Each time I cycled into the sun it seared every bit of exposed flesh and robbed me of the energy and determination I had left. All the time the road kept on rising and the traffic kept on roaring.

I cried, I paced, I buried my head in my hands and muttered words about giving up. Nick stood patiently. All the while I knew I had to get back on that bike, I was just failing to accept it. I did not believe I could do it. Eventually I did, wobbling from the sparse shade towards the next corner, eyes fixed on the next patch of coverage. It was then that I looked down at my tyres, feeling the spongy lilt to my momentum; sure enough I had a flat again.

Strangely, it offered me respite. I suppose because it was an opportunity to think of something other than that hill, and when it was fixed, I was too – as much as I could be. A little determination had returned and somehow I made it; pedalling at times, pushing at others, I willed that bike and myself to the summit. I have no idea how long it took, how many corners I turned. At the summit I stood there shaking, cold even in the terrible heat. The relief was immense, but I had no idea how I would find the energy for the final 35km of ride. I prayed to somebody right then that there would be no more hills, knowing at the same moment that there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it, I must deal with what was to come.

Shortly after the summit we found a lovely cafe. I ordered melon juice, shivered beneath the fan and marvelled at the ghostly bicycles that cycled endlessly around the boundary of the perfectly manicured garden. And there was only one thing on my mind; I could balance, I could brake, but I could not pedal up any more hills, I simply couldn’t.

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In my semi-stupor I did wonder where they got all these bikes from, and furthermore, how the idea came about…

But geography could not give a crap what I felt I could or could not do. There were several more climbs (although none as punishing) and some cruel ones that could be seen from miles away so you knew they were coming.

But I could do it. I did do it. Not gracefully – when Nick decided to act out the finishing line moment a mountain stage of ‘the tour’ as we approached a summit I told him exactly what he could do with himself – but I scraped through and eventually we were rolling downhill into Lamphang and the sunset.

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Nearly home…

By then I had already told Nick that I had decided I could not go any further, I would be catching the train to Chiang Mai.

The details:
Stayed at Auangkham Lampang – highly recommended.
Cycled x km, check out what Strava says. http://www.strava.com/activities/65102900
Yes, another puncture, the rear.
No rain, only blazing, soul-sapping sunshine.

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A Taste of Things to Come: Uttaradit to Phrae, 4 July 2013

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The impending hills…

It was becoming a habit; leaving late, slow, sated on the hotel buffet breakfast. This day, we were also late because we mended yet another puncture; my front tyre this time, for a touch of variety.

And for a final bout of fussing we had to move our saddles. Google diagnosed that we were both suffering from Handlebar Palsy; a common cycling condition where the ulnar nerve becomes compressed due to constant pressure on the heel of the hands, causing numbness and pain. The advice suggested was as follows:

Overall, the cyclist should not be leaning and resting on the bars, the grip should be light;
The seat may need to be moved further back;
The handlebars may be at the incorrect height;
Core muscles should ensure a good position on the bike, rather than leaning.

Eventually, we left, seated a little further from our handlebars, crunching our stomach muscles and crossing our numb fingers in the hope that this would lessen the pain.

Thereafter, the ride to Uttaradit can be categorised by two things; the first of the hill stages and highways lined with durian fruit vendors. The durian is part of the Thailand right of passage due to being an indigenous fruit and for its disgusting odour. Inside the hard, spiked jacket, the fruit is akin to a sulphurous custard. Uttaradit is the principle producer in Thailand. And believe it or not, these fruits are pretty popular. Allegedly, once you get over the smell, you’ll love it. I did not.

I already knew I did not like the stuff when we pulled up at the side of the road to get sugary drinks. When a pleasant woman, one of the stall holders, held out portions for Nick and I on a plate I tried to decline, that is until it began to seem rude to do so. When all I needed was water, I was left smacking my tongue against my cheeks, trying not to gag, trying to push the yellow goo down my throat. All the time smiling, because don’t get me wrong, I was grateful.

The hill came shortly after, first of many on Route 11, as it turned out. It undulated to begin with, small climbs followed by rushing descents, lulling me into a sense that it was actually quite fun. Then someone forgot the drop. The carriageway split into two, leaving a crawler lane for trucks, and soon we were grinding upwards, HGVs chugging and wheezing past us. The road wrapped around the mountain and it was hard to see for more than a few hundred metres. Each corner bore hope that the summit was around it, but yielded only despair when it finally revealed another section of unrelenting climb. Nick was much stronger than me (and he told me later he attacked that hill as much for his Dad as anything, as it would have been his birthday that day) and I watched him push further up the mountain. I hated my body for how tired it was, how it could barely balance at those painful, slow speeds, how it let the front wheel to weave, using up vital energy, while my lungs felt like brittle shrink wrap.

I was later to realise that this hill was actually short. But at the time I was elated when I got to the top – elated, red and drenched in sweat. And then it was all downhill to Den Chai, the outpost some 20km west of Phrae (pronounced ‘prayer’).

We stopped halfway at a small coffee shop, drawn by the regular signposts and the promise of caffeine. Its young female proprietor welcomed us with a huge smile. It turned out she’d been ‘on the ships’ (this means working on a cruise liner, as Nick did for a number of years) before she came back to Thailand with enough money to begin her business, so Nick chatted to her while I thought about how inspiring that was. A cozy wooden cottage, flowered garden, a mural of the mountains painted by her brother and those ubiquitous emblems of travel (frogs on bikes and campervans) displayed on the counter, I felt a warmth from the coffee shop that didn’t come from my mug.

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Coffee Heaven

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It says it all, frog on a bike

The coffee was great and we left there with new hope (not least because the young owner had confirmed there were no more hills!).

Technical Stuff:

Stayed at Thai Phoom Garden, Phrae.
Cycled 74.4km, check out what Strava says.
No rain, no punctures, balanced by smelly fruit and upward cycling.