Europe and home


DSC04322We flew back to Germany to catch up with my son who lives in Berlin and to look into buying a motor home in Germany. We had no house to come back to, so a motor home would be a step up from a tent, yet we would still be mobile using our bikes as everyday transport.

We haven’t cycled much of Germany but we had plenty of time to explore the Hessen region whilst we dealt with second hand motor home salesman. The area is famous for being the inspiration for Grimm’s fairy tales. It is a beautiful region of rolling hills and forests cut through with rivers.Medieval towns with half timbered houses on narrow streets. It has some excellent cycle routes which mostly stay off roads and take you through the forests.

There are plenty of campsites around mainly set up for motor homes. The German’s love their motor homes with the more popular sites crammed full of them. We spent about 3 weeks touring around the area. Beautiful towns like Han Munden which were surrounded by forests with good walking routes.
DSC04320
On the more popular routes we came across a new phenomena to us. The elderly cyclist on an electric bike. They would delight in overtaking our fully laden tourers. The electric bike has really taken off in Germany. Renewable energy is also huge with forests of wind generators everywhere and solar panels covering any south facing roof. Even 17th century half timbered houses had their roofs covered.

DSC04327DSC04326DSC04324We enjoyed the late European spring with blossom out everywhere. Trees in their green finery and the smell of spring. We had missed Europe.

not an electric bike.

not an electric bike.

DSC04330We eventually managed to buy a motor home from one of the most incompetent dealers in Germany and set off home.

Netherlands

DSC04328We visited Douwe and Blanche, a couple of dutch cyclists we had met a year earlier in Tashkent. They had finished their year long tour about 8 months earlier and were back home near the Hague. It was great to catch up with them and they were already planning their next trip

Belgium and France.

DSC04333We stopped off at Ghent and enjoyed exploring the city on bikes. It highlighted the differences between Asia and Europe. A city with a rich past as shown by the houses rich merchants had built with cycle friendly routes, Belgian beer, coffee and chocolate shops.

After 2 years of traveling, we caught the Dunkirk ferry back to the UK with our bikes on the back of our motor home. It all felt very familiar.

Australia

DSC04199Australia is a hostile environment for many things including cycle touring. We arrived in Perth in early autumn with temperatures hitting 41 degrees Celsius. It feels like a mirror world to the UK, with many similarities, but hotter, cleaner and more affluent.

We un-boxed the bikes at the airport and headed to meet our warm showers hosts in South Perth. Bill and Rosemary had a self contained flat at the back of their house that turned out to be huge and very well appointed. They were the most generous of hosts. We stayed with them for a few days before moving on to stay with my daughter. They showed us some of the excellent cycle routes around Perth. Most were on purpose built cycle tracks or quiet roads and were well sign posted.

Rottnest island

Rottnest island

Pip and a baby quokka

Pip and a baby quokka

Any plans we had of cycle touring were thwarted by the heat and towards the south, bush fires. So we enjoyed Perth and the beaches, Rottnest island, King’s Park ,getting back into western food and acclimatising ourselves to Australian prices!

2015-04-21 13.08.36We discovered Australian birds, a huge range of colorful and noisy parrots, whistling magpies and willy wagtails. Colorful wrens, massive wedge tailed eagles, ospreys and emu.

DSC04165

We borrowed a four wheel drive and headed north through the outback and mining towns to Newman then we visited the Karajini national park before heading on towards the coast and Exmouth. The countryside around Perth was beautiful, with rolling hills cut through by rivers. As we headed north into flatter plains of mainly wheat before turning into scrub and desert. The towns were small, some with populations of a few hundred only, the only sources of income coming from mining.

DSC04175Unfortunately the recent storms had blown the flies in and soon as you got out of the car you had your very own cloud. They disappeared at nightfall to be replaced by mosquitoes.The outback had it’s own beauty with red earth and green shrubs and a slowly changing landscape of rocks and hills.

DSC04214 (2)There were plenty of campsites, most towns having at least one with good camp kitchens and they were  good value.

We were looking forward to getting to the coast and exploring the Ningaloo reef, hopefully with fewer flies. The beaches looked amazing but the flies were even worse, getting into the water to escape the flies was only short lived as it was full of jellyfish!

We did find some beaches that were free of jellyfish and the reef was amazing. We swam with all sorts of fish and saw turtles, sting rays, and beautiful hard and soft corals. We joined a tour and went swimming with whale sharks which was the highlight of our trip north. In the afternoon the Kangaroos and wallabies came out so you had to be careful on the roads.

Pip and a wombat.

Pip and a wombat.

We loved our stay in Perth and I can see why my daughter loves it here. We have been traveling for nearly two years and were missing seeing the rest of our family and friends. We needed some down time to assimilate all we had experienced and seen so we decided to head back to Europe.

 

 

Thailand

DSC04020Wonderful beaches, friendly people, quiet roads, excellent food, cheap accommodation and supertarmac Thailand has it all. It is a very different country to Laos, even the cars drive on the other side of the road. We crossed the friendship bridge across the Mekong into Nong Khia. Unfortunately we were still recovering from the flu we caught in Vientiane and were not fit enough to cycle very far. We decided to head for a beach and take some time to recuperate.

We caught the excellent sleeper from Nong Khai to Bangkok 1st class for £20 then cycled across the city to the bus station and a bus to Trat on the far Eastern coast of Thailand. We were heading for the island of Koh Kood . Still relatively unspoilt and rather hilly, we spent a week recuperating on a beautiful beach.

The nights in our little cabin were somewhat disturbed by a noisy house lizard who lived in a hole in the wall coming out at night and “singing” very loudly. The beaches were superb and the water clear with plenty of fish to see amongst the rocks.

DSC04079After a week we started heading west along the coast mainly on quiet roads. Some with bike lanes and along designated scenic roads. The coast was quiet and the resorts low key until we reached Rayong where things started getting busy. It was getting hotter with temperatures in the mid 30s by midday. So we started hitting the road by 6 to try and avoid the worst of the heat. There are plenty of 7 elevens in the towns and so it was easy to fuel up en route.

Sunrise on the road.

Sunrise on the road.

From Rayong we caught a minibus the 200km into Bangkok and headed across the city again to the train station. Cycling across Bangkok was not too bad as there is so much traffic it moves slowly and there are plenty of mopeds around that the cars have to watch out for. We caught the train to Petchaburi about 170km south west of Bangkok. We planned to head down the coast towards Phuket.

DSC04046We visited a village school just outside the national park of Kaeng Krachan after we got chatting to one of the school teachers. She invited us in to help her teach English.

 

camping in Kaeng Krachan national park.

camping in Kaeng Krachan national park.

deserted gulf coast

deserted gulf coast

The eastern gulf coast south of Hua Hin was very quiet. There was a scattering of resorts but most appeared empty. The beaches were deserted and the roads still excellent. The towns became less touristy with few expats around. We had to do a few stretches on Phetkasem road route 4 the major highway heading south from Bangkok. We were surprised at how quiet it was, it had a broad shoulder and good surface.

On the pier at Kraburi with George, Aungkana Chris and Maggie and 3 local cyclists, one with a coconut helmet. Myanamar in the background.

On the pier at Kraburi with Gerko, Aungkana Chris and Maggie and 2 local cyclists. Myanamar in the background.

We were staying in the occasional resort after  a bit of negotiation on prices and cheap hotels in the towns.  We stopped off at Kra Buri to stay at the Panneka resort run by the super enthusiastic Aungkana already a legend for touring cyclists in Thailand.

Excellent thai masseurs in Ranong

Excellent thai masseurs in Ranong

deserted beaches

deserted beaches

DSC04120The Andaman coast of Thailand was hillier and bordered by mangroves. It had been hit hardest by the Tsunami and there were areas that still hadn’t recovered, with deserted beaches and very quiet coastal villages. The roads only became busy 50km north of Khao Lak.

The islands in the Andaman sea are one of the best places in Thailand to go diving. So I left Pip on the mainland and did a couple of courses exploring Koh Ha Ha, Pi Pi and the Similan islands. The pictures are courtesy of James Hoyland Blue Planet Diving Koh Lanta.

Northern Laos was not kind to us.

DSC03962Northern Laos is stunningly beautiful and mountainous, and great for cycling if you are feeling fit. We weren’t. Unfortunately we both picked up a succession of bugs that sapped our strength. We decided to catch a bus after spending a few days in bed. Mr Ping was our cheerful driver with an unblemished record of 15 years of driving only for his steering to fail and the bus going straight on at a bend and hitting a bank and turning on it’s side. Miraculously none of the 7 passengers including a baby or Mr Ping were hurt. We were very lucky not to have gone off the side of the mountain.


Sebastian and Barbara another couple of touring cyclists were also taking the bus to give Barbara’s bad knee a rest. All 4 of our bikes were stowed on top and were unscathed apart from all breaking rear lights. We unloaded the bikes and then dropped down fourteen km to the next town. The others managed to hitch a ride on the back of a pig lorry and shortly joined us. We were resigned to staying a night at one of the local guest houses but Victoria www.TribalMusicAsia.com an American researcher into Mong tribes was desperate to get back home to Thailand and managed to badger a local tuk tuk driver into taking us onwards. We arrived in Nong Khiaw just in time for an Indian meal and we even managed to find a floor to sleep on.

The roads in Laos were mostly OK the problems came when you hit a bit of road that had been partly resurfaced. Passing cars and lorries enveloped everything in a choking dust. We passed through lots of small villages and it was easy to stock up on water. The temperatures were in the the mid 20s.

DSC03980 DSC03982We rested a few days in Luang Prabang a pretty town with French colonial buildings on the edge of the Mekong.

DSC03986We visited the UXO museum there. During the unofficial war on Laos America had dropped the equivalent of 2 tonnes of bombs for every person in Laos. More than 300 people a year were still being killed by UXO, many were children. We had visited the caves in Vieng Xai where the Pathet Laos had sheltered from the bombing.

 

Vietnam

DSC03841Hanoi is the first city on our trip that is not ruled by the car. Instead it is ruled by the moped. They are everywhere carrying anything possible from families with 3 children to a couple of sizeable trees. They constantly beep their horns and pay no attention to traffic lights or one way systems. To cross a road you just walk slowly keeping eyes in both directions. The few cars around seem cowed into submission. The big problem is the fumes and particulates they produce making for very poor air quality.

DSC03844We left our bikes boxed up for a couple of weeks and headed off to Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay by bus. Relaxing in a couple of nice homestays, kayaking and swimming . Halong bay was a lot busier but still very enjoyable and beautiful.  DSC03848

Cycling out of Hanoi was pretty easy. The roads are so congested that everything moves very slowly. We had bought a couple of masks with filters in and we needed them. We were heading for Mai Chau and on to the Vietnamese border. The road was flat to Hoa Binh then the hills started. The roads were OK, you get  used to the constant beeping from the traffic and when we hit the main roads there was plenty of room. The hills were long and it was hot, despite this we were faster up some of the hills than some of the big lorries.

DSC03881

We stayed in a stilted house homestay in Mai Chau for a couple of relaxing days.

DSC03912The road to the border ( the 15 and then the 217 ) were being “improved”. This seemed to consist of digging up a lot of the old road and knocking down cliffs to widen it. This made it very dusty and dangerous in places cycling under unstable looking boulders and bad surfaces.

DSC03901Things got worse after a night of heavy rain which turned everything into thick red mud making even the downhills very slow.

We stayed in a friendly small family run guest house

We stayed in a friendly small family run guest house

DSC03920People were noticeably more friendly away from the tourist areas, with  children shouting their hellos and waving. The food was a lot more basic as well with Pho (noodle soup) and rice being the staples with small amounts of very tough meat and a bit of cabbage. Guest houses were cheap though.

DSC03904DSC03902The scenery was beautiful with Karst mountains, tiered paddy fields and bamboo forests. The road was up and down but fortunately it was getting cooler which made climbing a lot easier.

South Korea: the Four rivers route

DSC03722You can’t cycle to Haeundae Beach from here said the lady in the tourist office at Busan port. You are not allowed through the tunnels or over the bridges. We asked about buses and the subway. No we were not allowed to take our bikes on those either. A great start to our Korean trip, we had booked an Airbnb with Tim on the other side of Busan to rest up after Japan. What to do? We plotted a route on the GPS and pedalled out of the port onto a 6 lane highway.

Cycling across Busan wasn’t bad at all apart from the usual suspects taxis and buses who were determined to cut you up. After 18km of urban warfare we made it to Haeundae beach and a week off the bikes. We found that Busan has some pretty good cycle routes unfortunately not in the direction we wanted.


We had come to Busan to cycle up the 4 rivers route to Seoul. The South Koreans had put a huge amount of effort into creating a safe route, mainly on purpose built cycle tracks that crossed the country. They  had produced some excellent route maps showing everything from bike repair shops to hotels which were free from tourist information. The only downside was the start of the route was back on the otherside of Busan.

DSC03714

The route was easy to find and very well signposted along mainly paved paths usually away from roads. There were plenty of parks and stopping places along the route. It bypassed most towns so that if you wanted to buy food etc you just had to get off the route. It was busy leaving Busan with plenty of cyclists but thinned out after the first 50km. In total it was 600km from Busan to Seoul. Most of the Korean cyclists doing the route just carried a small rucksack and were on a lightweight mountain bike doing the trip in 4 or 5 days. We did it more slowly taking 7 days.

DSC03753We camped for the first half staying in the small parks just on the route. It was getting cold with temperatures down to 4 degrees celcius at night. We did pass through a couple of open campsites with free showers but didn’t stop apart from taking a shower. The highest point of the route is at 530 metres which was a gentle climb from the south but a steep descent. Most of the route was pretty flat with an occasional stupidly steep bit sometimes as much as 20% but only for relatively short distances.

When the temperatures started dropping below freezing we stayed in the excellent cheap Motels 40-50 thousand won about £25. This bought you a large well equipped room often with interesting beds that you could programme to vibrate!! We even passed a bicycle museum which unfortunately was closed. We were very impressed by the route , the Koreans have invested heavily creating a safe, enjoyable route. Nearing Seoul it even goes through old railway tunnels, nicely lit with music and art light shows.Reaching Seoul the route remained traffic free along the river under bridges choked with traffic.

DSC03767

We stayed in Seoul for a few days sorting out flights and bike boxes. It is an interesting city with an excellent subway system for getting around. It was very cold with temperatures of 4 degrees with a strong wind. We were looking forward to the warmer temperatures of Hanoi.

Japan is number one!!!

DSC03516We spent two months cycling through Japan, from Hokkaido to the western tip of Honshu and loved it. It is a fantastic country and great for cycle touring. It ranks as the number one country (so far) of the 21 countries we have toured on this trip. We started in Hokkaido at the end of August and the weather throughout the trip was good apart from having to shelter from two typhoons. It is a mountainous country and very beautiful, we watched the autumn colours appear as we headed south. We caught 2 ferries, from Hokkaido to Akita and from Kobe to Shikoka.

We Cycled 3,115km
climbing 41,135 metres

Why is it so good? There is no one reason but a combination of many;

1. The countryside, beautiful scenery, from neat rice fields to groves of Japanese cedar and bamboo. Good roads generally quiet. In most cases if there was a busy road you could find a quieter road that was heading the same way or follow a cycle track by the road. The north in particular was quieter.

3 generations ran this traditional Ryokan.

3 generations ran this traditional Ryokan.

2. The people, we found most people to be very friendly and helpful. More reserved than in some countries but if you asked for help they would go out of their way to try and aid you. We were given food in parks when people had barbecues and the stall holders in the country were keen for us to try their fruit and veg. Few people spoke much English until you reached any main tourist area. DSC03673As with every other country the Japanese were less amiable in busy tourist areas.

3. The Japanese eye for detail. Everything works from vending machines always being full and giving change to free public toilets everywhere that were always clean and had toilet paper. There was rarely any litter anywhere and recycling is an art form. The towns and cities were always neat and tidy and well cared for.

another free campsite

another free campsite

4.The camping, the Japanese like to camp so there are plenty of campsites around. Many are free and the average we paid was about 1000 yen a night about £6. The camp sites are all basic with rarely any showers or wi-fi. There are no caravans and not many motorhomes around. Apart from camp sites we camped in parks and roadside rest stops with no problem.DSC03333

5. The food, Japan has an a amazing range of food with thousands of regional specialties. It is generally fairly cheap to eat out. A bowl of ramen costs around 800 yen less than £5. Most of the places we ate didn’t have an English menu but many had pictures or plastic models of food in the window. The nicest meals we had were usually in small places in quiet towns. The fruit and veg are very fresh. The fruits are huge, with big apples and peaches which taste delicious. Usually from small producers who will have their name and often a picture of them, if the fruit comes in a bag.

View from our airbnb

View from our airbnb

6. Tokyo is an incredible city with no real centre but made up of 23 wards all with their own different characters. You can spend weeks exploring it and it is fun to cycle around. We liked all the modern architecture, and they are all built to a very high standard.

 

7. Convenience stores and vending machines. Most towns had a convenience store which sold all essentials including cakes and coffee and snacks. They also had toilets often the high-tec ones with mini showers. A great place for a break and refuel. If there weren’t any convenience stores around you could usually find a vending machine dispensing cans of cold coffee, sports drinks or juice. This is great as you rarely need to carry much food on your bike.

Matsumoto a nice city nestling in the Japanese alps.

Matsumoto a nice city nestling in the Japanese alps.

8. The cities and towns. Apart from Tokyo there were plenty of other beautiful cities with interesting buildings and architecture. There were a few areas with traditional wooden housing but most had been lost in the rush to modernise.

9.Kawaii (cute) The Japanese are into cute in a big way from cars to road signs, from clothes to furniture. Hello Kitty is just a fraction of what is on offer..

A bit too hot.

A bit too hot.

10.Onsens. Hot springs and public baths are everywhere and after a hot or cold day on the bike they are a great way to revive and freshen up. Again most regions have their own special water with “health giving properties”.

And then there is the snow in winter, the cherry blossoms of spring, the autumnal colours………

Western Honshu and Shikoku

DSC03624

The Shimanami Kaido is a great 70km  cycling route between Imabari on Shikoku island and Onomichi on Honshu. Joining 6 islands by bridges with dedicated cycle routes either on or under the bridges. It is a relaxing way to ride with easy gradients and most of the way on dedicated cycle routes or quiet roads. We even managed a swim off one of the islands, the water was a really nice temperature.We enjoyed the contrast of island cycling after the busy roads through the  metropolis that covers most of flatter southern Japan. From Kyoto it had been a stream of seemingly endless traffic lights and heavy traffic.

We stayed a couple of days in Onomichi a small town surrounded by docks and shipbuilding. We discovered a newly opened high end bike hotel ,U2 which had opened in a converted warehouse. We had already booked in elsewhere and it looked great but pricey. All the rooms had a rack to hang your bike and there was a bike shop, coffee shop, restaurant and bakery all on site.

DSC03654

The A Dome at Hiroshima. One of the few buildings to survive at the epicentre of the blast.

From Onomichi we were back into the mountains heading to Hiroshima and then on to Shimonoseki and a boat to Korea. The Peace Park at Hiroshima was very sad with a memorial with stories from children who had survived the first A bomb on the 6th August 1945 which killed 290,000 people. Hiroshima is a thriving modern city now set on a delta surrounded by mountains.

There was no easy way through the mountains which were cut through by rivers producing deep gorges. It was a question of zigzagging up and down valleys to work your way across. Once again the roads were quiet and on our last full day in Japan we cycled through a limestone area with grasses and rocks, not unlike  parts of  England.

DSC03678

We managed to find an open campsite to celebrate our last night in Japan. Unsurprisingly we were the only people camping there. We sat and watched the millions stars on a beautiful clear night.

Leaving Shimonoseki

Leaving Shimonoseki

We took the Kampu ferry from Shimonoseki to Busan the next day. We managed to get 50% off the tickets as there is a cycling promotion encouraging cyclists to come to Korea. It was a lovely way to say sayonara to Japan and hello South Korea.

Central and Southern Honshu

From Nikko we headed up into the mountains, slogging up the Irohazaka Climb, the Japanese version of the Alp d’Huez but with only 20 hairpin bends. This got us up to lake Chuzenji a beautiful lake with autumn colours appearing on the hill sides and waterfalls tumbling down. Then another climb up to the Akechidaira plateau which is a stunning marshland. Then more waterfalls, more climbing, reds, orange and greens. We finally made it through a tunnel at the top of the col, dropping down to find a place to camp on a ski slope.

 

We loved the japanese mountains. The roads are good and mostly quiet and the scenery is jaw dropping. It was getting colder at night but the days were still warm. We cycled down to Matsumoto a beautiful city nestling amongst the Japanese alps and stayed for a few days sheltering from a Typhoon.

Then up through the Alps heading down towards Kyoto. We followed route 158 which unfortunately turned out to be a busy road with coachloads of tourists heading up to see the autumn colours through some long tunnels. You get to appreciate clean air when you share a tunnel over 1km long with some heavy traffic ! Rather than face the three and a half kilometre tunnel through the mountain top we took the old pass over the top. This was quiet, the only slight worry was to see one of the volcanoes smoking from the top. We were about 50km away from Mt Ontake.

 

We were lucky enough to see a total eclipse of the moon whilst staying in the old city of Takayama. It is one of the few Japanese cities which managed to avoid the relentless modernising of the 1970s.

From Takayama we followed the Hida river as it carved it’s way out of the alps towards the sea. Leaving behind quiet roads for a metropolis of  cities which stretch all the way across the plain. We managed to find cycle tracks along the river. We headed past Lake Biwa into Kyoto a day earlier than planned to take cover from another approaching Typhoon.


Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and has 17 world heritage sights 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines not to mention a fantastic modern station. A great place to shelter from a typhoon. It is popular for cycling. The only problem is where to park your bike. There are bicycle traffic wardens who will sticker your bike and remove it if you leave it in the wrong place. We did manage to find an underground bike park where you can safely leave your bike complete with a special conveyor belt to get it back up again.

We spent 3 days exploring Kyoto but were lightweights on the temple and shrine count only managing a few. The first we saw was the most impressive the Sanjusangendo Temple built in the 1200’s with statues of 1001 Kannon-Bosatsu each five and a half feet tall, carved out of wood and covered in gold leaf.1001 buddhas
It is a great place to wander around with lots of different neighbourhoods. We loved the ultramodern station complete with 15 floors of open spaces malls and hotels.

Northern Honshu

DSC03319Northern Honshu is Hokkaido’s bigger brother, the mountains are higher with a myriad of rivers carving deep valleys and gorges down to the sea. The roads are steeper and as long as you avoid the main ones very quiet. They take you through neat villages where all sorts of fruits are grown. From persimmons to huge apples and pears to vines and peaches. Rice fields are tucked into the smallest of spaces with vegetable gardens next to every house. Bamboo and cedar groves cover the mountains with their lush green foliage.

DSC03260DSC03338The leaves were just starting to turn autumnal as we started heading south. We caught a ferry from Tomakomai,  Hokkaido to Akita on the north west coast of Honshu. This was quite an achievement considering nobody at the ferry terminal spoke english and everything was written in japanese. We slept on the floor in one of the dormotories. Fortunately we had time to get our mattresses, not being quite as stoical as the japanese.


Akita is a modern city with a compact centre with some older housing, home to most of the restaurants just off the main drag. There is a great range of eateries in Japan but it can be difficult to tell what they are from outside. The ones in malls are generally easy to decipher as they have an array of plastic food on show in the window. Some have photographs on their menus but most just have japanese script. We ventured into one of these one evening forgetting our japanese phrasebook. They were very helpful and we managed to get something to eat!

Temple in the evening

Temple in the evening

From Akita we headed down the coast a bit before cutting inland along the beautiful Mogami river picking up route 9, a small road that wound around cliff edges giving fantastic views of the countryside. The farms were all small scale and the farmers were busy either with their mini combine harvesters or even manually harvesting the rice.

We again were lucky with the weather climbing the Shirabu pass and then the Funaka pass over into lake Onagawa in clear weather. We still are managing to stay in campsites. Some have been closed, but all have been very quiet and set in beautiful landscapes. Most seemed to be set on the side of a mountain which usually meant climbing a few more kilometres after a long day in the saddle.

Cycling on route 9 next to the Mogami river

Cycling on route 9 next to the Mogami river

We have found the Japanese to be very friendly and although they don’t speak much english very generous. Offering us food from their barbecues and an old lady selling fruit by the side of the road kept on giving us peaches. The roads got a bit busier with more high end cars and motorbikes as we made our way through the ski areas of Nasu on to Nikko. For some reason the Japanese bikers are into Harleys and some pretty weird choppers despite having a huge motorcycle industry of their own.