Monday, 4 August 2008

Friday 13th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Seven

After a half decent nights sleep I awoke to the sound of rain on sheet metal. Outside the rain was pouring down, a constant 'going nowhere' sort of rain with plenty more on the way. At this stage I calculated how far I had to go and how much money that would cost me in petrol. After spending liberally on the first half of my journey thinking 2.1million kip was more than I could spend before I left Laos, it dawned on me that on this trip alone the fuel would cost me 3/4 of my budget. I woke up thirsty and hungry but could only afford one mouthful of water with which to swallow my anti malarial pill. After that it was a 9am start heading towards Thathom where I had intended to spend the night. I estimated it was 30kms away. Last night I had contemplated riding this section in the dark. Given what I now saw infront of me I am glad I retired for the night in Tha Viang, spiders or no spiders. A steady downpour of rain accompanied me out of town and I encountered without a doubt the worst road conditions I've ever seen. The tracks were not sealed, that goes without saying in deepest darket NE Laos. Last night I thought I'd hit upon some pretty ugly riding conditions that would test any rider but today was a whole other story. Never have I seen anything like this. Such were the road conditions that even the high-clearance 4x4's and Russian military perosonel carriers ceased to travel here. I think even dad's Landy would have struggled. There was the odd intrepid local making his way maybe three or four kilometers to his or her next village on a step-through scooter but no one was seriously trying to travel any distance. At times I was confronted with river crossings that looked nigh on impossible, I'd jump off the bike, assess the height by wading accross, find the shallowest way through then hoped for the best as the semi-submerged Baja ploughed its way accross the river, sometimes to the lone inner-cheer (and no small amount of relief) of myself, admiring the way the Baja would deal with being almost fully immersed in water and not cut out, and sometimes to the whoop of local villagers who deemed such a stunt as one only a stupid falang would risk. The bottom line is I had no choice. I had come too far to go back. I had passed the point of no return, I did not have enough money to turn around and go back the 'easy' way. By now I was hungry, thirsty and feeling fatigued and it was only around midday. The track, which is essentially churned up red clay, had itself turned into a fast flowing stream. Any uphill gradients became major challenges, which on a dirt bike you would think are easily dealt with, but believe me they were not. There was absolutely zero traction delivered from the rear tyre. I stalled on many ascents only to skid downwards trying to preserve the bike - the only thing that would get me out of here. From a stalled position it was just about impossible to clamber back on and restart, there was nothing for the bike tyres to bite on. My energy levels were dropping and my sense of humour failing I had to keep reminding myself that there was nothing for it but to press on. I'd been here before on a mountain bike, probably hungrier, probably thirstier, definately more tired and certainly much colder. So be a big boy and crack on. The problem is that a 250cc bike is a heavy old beast, and the standover height on the Baja doesn't lend itself to constant stop-starting. Whilst I admit I am a relative novice at motorbike dirt riding, I would consider these conditions challenging even for an expert. I would have liked to have had a rider with me who was more experienced to show me a few short-cuts but as it was I was alone, with no food, no spare cash, no water (well, I did have half a bottle but it fell off the back of the bike last night), no energy, no phone (and ofcourse like anywhere remote, no reception). Out of one's comfort zone I would say.

I still hadn't reached Thathom an estimated 30k up the road and I was physically exhausted. The weather gods upped the ante and switched from pouring to a full on downpour. I rode through literally hundreds of sections of track that looked impassable. On a mountain bike you'd get off and simply trudge through upto your waist or shoulders, here you have to pick a line and try and power through, but occasionally you'd stall in the middle of a clay bog and then have to jump off the bike and somewhow use the engine, downward pressure on the back wheel and lots of energy to thrash the bike out of the gloop. As you can imagine this took a toll on my energy levels and with it my spirit began to become troubled. Quite often there was a sheer drop on one side so powering through was also quite hazardous as you could blast yourself straight over a precipice and into the sodden jungle many meters below and ofcourse there was no one around to help. Would I ever get to Pakxan? I reckon I'd done 30kms in three hours. Some people can walk faster than that, but with the river crossings and bog snorkelling I think this was fair going. Little did I know that worse was yet to come.

After three hours and just 32km up the road I finally reached what I hoped was Thathom. Rather worryingly the village sign didn't say Thathom but rather Nam Phaung which sounded rather similar to Nam Pheung which was 60km off my intended target and deep into 'Non Farang' territory (in the Xaysomboune region which is a strict 'no foreigners allowed' region). In other words I'll run out of petrol, then get imprisoned and not be able to pay a fine for trespassing, which some fellow GT riders can testify to. My heart sank. Could today get any worse? It didn't matter where I was, there was no turning around so legally or illegally I had to press on. Sure enough, half a mile further up the road a sign read 'Welcome to Thathom Area', thank goodness for that! It had taken me more than three hours to travel 32kms, I have at least four times that distance to go, it's gone midday, the weather was getting progressively worse as the hours ticked by. I had to press on. I refueled at Thathom, spending 74,000kip of my last 100,000. I desperately wanted water above anything else but not knowing if there was an ATM in Pakxan had to conserve every single kip. By now I had forgotten about being hungry, it passed me by and other things, like not killing myself and getting to civilisation took precidence. I remember thinking 'Well, I've been in some scrapes in my time but this one is certainly up there'. Let's think about this:
  • foreign country
  • can't speak a word other than 'Hello' and 'Thankyou'
  • no money
  • no tools except for The Rear's over-sized spanner
  • spare oil has fallen off the bike so chain is permanently giving the death rattle at every revolution
  • spare water has departed in a similar fashion
  • haven't eaten for 36 hours
  • no one speaks English
  • no phone
  • no one knows where I am
  • the military police are known to impound foreigners for fun in this area
  • I'm all on my own
Above all these things, in reflection, I think it was the being on my own that made things really difficult. Where there are two of you, one can go for help, when you are on your own out here you are genuinely on your own.

Finally - A Real Crash
So far on the bike, in Chiang Mai provice, N. Thailand and here in Laos I had managed to avoid falling off at any great speed. Today was to be an exception. As the rains swept down, turning the red clay into a river bed I had my first major accident. Perhaps it was attributable to fatigue, perhaps inexperience, perhaps conditions, perhaps the bike, no matter I stacked it and that was that. As I sped past a village of perhaps four bamboo huts I clattered up a steep red-clay track (which was now a torrent of water) and onto the summit. I could see that there was an equally steep descent into a right hand turn. I stamped on the gear shifter with my left foot and released the clutch expecting a sideways squirm as the rear tyre bit into the slimey clay and granite surface. Nothing. Infact I seemed to speed up. This was not good, I couldn't brake or I'd be a gonner for sure. The dashboard had a green light on it meaning the Baja had chosed this inopportune moment to shift into neutral on a downshift which it isn't supposed to do. It had performed this same stunt a few times before on the sealed road sections which had resulted in me not being able to use the engine to slow down and therefore I'd overshoot a tight bend ending up on the wrong side of the road. Disasterous if there was a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, lucky for me each time there wasn't. This time though was different. As I stomped on the gear shifter a second time I knew the game was up. If I shifted down a gear I'd crash, if I didn't I'd crash. As it turns out the Baja responed in the positive to a second stomp and sure enough dropped into first gear, but the speed differential (between the speed I was currently doing and the speed the first gear would permit) was too great. The rear tyre dug in and no amount of handlebar wrestling could prevent the rear wheel from squirming sideways and eventually passing the front wheel. Twas damage limitation time as myself and the bike skidded down the slope and into the bend at the bottom. The foot rests cut deep into the red clay and I overtook the bike, wondering how much damage I'd done to my bike and to myself. During such brief flashes of excitement time seems to stand still. There appears to be an age in which to watch the incident from many angles. To consider the consequences and outcomes, to fear for the worst, to hope the for best and to expect to be given somewhere inbetween. As grey sky turned into metal bike turned into red clay turned into human flesh turned into granite rock I had time to think about all these things. I had gone from having no time to save myself to aeons of time to contemplate my fate, all the while my bike, rucksac and my body were interfacing seamlessly with the granite. I came to a stop a few seconds later and looked for signs of damage. My already injured right shin was stinging and my right knee had taken a hit. My right elbow felt sore, my right palm was a bit slashed up and the bike didn't look too happy. As it turns out the bike was fine save for ripping off the brake lever protector and my body had sustained nothing more than a few grazes and maybe some subcutaneous bruising that wouldn't show itself for days so didn't count. I picked myself up and noted the red ribboned scars in the hillside that myself and the bike had left. The Baja had stalled of course. Would she start up? Had I ruptured the fuel tank, a hose, snapped a lever? If so it was game over as I had no money left. I picked up the bike and she roared into life at the first time of asking. Get in! Feeling somewhat chastened by the crash I rode on for a couple of minutes before reaching an unmapped fork where I took shelter in an abandoned hut and considered what had just happened. I was a mere 35km into a 150km+ (at a guess) journey and it had already taken me 4 hours. Would these miserable conditions ever end?

Bog Biking and Bamboo Rafting
The road from Thathom I hoped would be better than the road to it. Hardly. It took another 3 hours to crawl my way to Hatdiat village about 20kms east of Thathom. The conditions did not improve and after several more river crossings I reached a point where no amount of optimistic riding would see through this particular crossing. Now bearing in mind I haven't met a soul for several hours (why would I? No one wants to travel here in the rainy season) I figure I need to make a double river crossing but at this stage didn't know if I was on the right track. Each time I'd ask a farmer if Pakxan was this way (pointing furiously) they'd smile, nod, point back and say 'Pakxan'. At Hatdiat village the Nam Xan ('nam' meaning river) crosses the dirt track and makes progress on any land-based vehicle impossible. The river splits in two at the crossing providing a shallow island in the middle, well it does at this time of year at any rate. I could see three local boys playing together on the banks of the river at the far side. I parked my bike up and took a photo of the ridiculous nature of biking through this part of the world at this time of year. The little boys waved and cried 'Sabaideeee'. I motioned them to row the first bamboo raft to the island, then the second bambo raft to my side of the river bank. They clearly thought this a game and bagan copying me, motioning the falang to come and join them for a splash in the river. I drove my bike onto a hill where they could see it, hopefully they would twig that I needed a river crossing. No such luck. After five minutes of entertainment they want back to splashing around in the river out of sight. I unpacked my bag and in a last ditch attempt at communication I found my Lonely Planet and shouted out the Lao for 'Help me please'. The little boys seemed to semi-understand and shouted something back. I yelled out 'I don't understand', they jumped up and down with glee and motioned me over once again. There was nothing for it but to take most of my clothes off and swim across the river to get help. I swam across the first part of the river and onto the island, at which point the little boys began to take note of the falang they had been giggling at earlier. I was conscious that given my current rate of progress (or lack of) time was not on my side whereas these kids showed no signs of helping the stranded farang, it was all a big game. On reaching the otherside of the bank I made my way up to a hut and rose a slumbering teenage boy. He didn't seem to understand a word of my Lao-Glish and so I recruited the three little lads to help me row across the two rivers and safely carry my bike Pakxan-ward, if indeed Pakxan was in this direction. I managed to confirm with the teenager that Pakxan was across the river (or was he just saying that so he could help me with the river crossing then charge me?), then me and the little boys began untying the first bamboo raft. Twenty minutes later my bike was miraculously safe and sound on the other side of the river and my wallet was another 10,000kip lighter.

Progress At Last
In the first few kilometers after Hatdiat I encountered yet more impassable terrain, the bike juts ploughing itself deep into the mud and eventually I'd either stall it or hop of and force it out of the hole all guns blazing. It was energy sapping work. I felt colder now and my legs began shaking meaning that I needed some sugar. Mercifully just a few kms past Hatdiat the track became a little more consistent allowing me make reasonable progress at perhaps 30kph to Thasi, then 40kph to Muanghuang The Bolikhamxai province proved much kinder to me than torturous Xieng Khouang province. At Mouanghouang there was a large depot in place that looked new. It contained road building machines and thousands of tonnes of road building material. About time too I thought! From here on in I found myself driving along much wider sections of track that had had a foundation layer of red shale-like stones laid down. It still made for cautious riding but I could now crack along at 60kph and above. There was a lot of road building going on here inccluding the constrution of much stronger bridges, I'd venture to say that in future this will be a good shortcut from Phonsavan to Vientiane for vehicles larger than motorbikes. Rather amusingly one of the locals had driven his fully laiden van off the edge of the new surface, quite how I don't know as he was on the wrong wide of the road. There was a small army of little people trying to push him out. Depsite being whacked-out my sudden and rapid progress had given me renewed optimism so I jumped off my bike and introduced them to some basic physics that meant we got the van out on the first shove. They'd been struggling along for ages by the looks of it. Sometimes the Laotians can prove incredibly resourceful and canny, here was an example where you can't help but think 'are these people really that smart?! Who knows, but I cracked on into Pakxan in no time and took in the majestsic sight of the Nam Xam in full flow.

Pakxan to Vientiane
After a couple of shots of me and the bike looking like we'd been to World War III and back I failed to locate a cash machine in Pakxan so it was time to spend my last few kip on more fuel before heading 140kms to Vientiane, the capital of Laos and the end of this little trip. Ofcourse, mother nature had one more neat trick up her sleeve for me and proceeded to bless me by dumping an almighty downpour on me for the whole of the final leg. I had no thoughts of taking in the sights enroute, there are a couple of hot springs and waterfalls but right now they weren't at the top of my list of things to do. The rain came down so hard that again it was hard to see the road. I just kept my right hand locked on the throttle and let the stinging commence for a good hour and a half. The road between Pakxan and Vientiane is a belter in Laotian terms and so it was 100kph's+ all the way. I remember singing, nay screaming 'Easy Rider' by Jimi Hendrix as loudly I could all the way home. It all felt a bit surreal. The weather should have made me feel awful, infact on any other day it would, but the light at the end of the tunnel was shining so brightly I hardly noticed the rain, infact it felt good. I rode into the outskirts of Vientiane hoping I had enough fuel left to get me to an ATM. I found one at the Loatian version of the Arc De Triumph (Patu Xay) and then rode around town on my own lap of triumph enjoying the views now the rain had relented. Quite amazingly (given the state of my appearance (spattered from head to toe with red clay and ribbons of blood flowing gently from my knees and hands) and the fact I was clearly the owner of the clay encrusted motorbike parked up next to me) a tuk tuk driver asked me if I wanted a lift somewhere. I just smiled back the biggest smile and said nothing.

Back in One Piece, ish
After fortuitously locating the bike rental firm I dropped off the Baja. The bloke who took it off me seemed pretty impressed with my trip as he is the fella who'se itinery I 'borrowed'. He asked me where I stayed and what the conditions were like and so on. He nodded knowingly when I described the Thathom section. Fortunately I think the state of myself and the bike and the respect I'd just earned from the dude meant that he only gave the bike a cursory glance when checking it for damage. He noted the left hand front indicator which I had tied back on some sort of woody vine, I told him it was already like that, which it was, more or less. He completely missed the fact that the brake lever protector had been ripped off and only temporarily bodged back into place, perhaps this was because large parts of the bike were concealed by several inches of red clay. Whatever, I made myself scarce rather quickly and checked into a nearby guesthouse. A hot shower was followed by a trip to a chinese eatery where I ate three main courses and drank a whole shipment of free green tea before going for a stroll along the banks of the Mekong and meeting the two Canadians (Brian and Dion) who had helped me orchestrate the Mutiny on the Mekong at Pak Beng a couple of weeks before We shared tales of travel in Laos before I collapsed in bed.

No comments: