Today has been exhausting.
I woke at 6.30 to the sound of firecrackers marking the last day of the Chineese year, to the sound of cockerels crowing, and the guesthouse owner singing and playing his guitar. I ignored these sounds and tried to sleep longer. It had been a rather cold night.
I enquired about breakfast and he pu tme on the back of his bike again and drove me down the river road to a wee cafe where we drank coffee sweetened with condensed milk and eat deep fried dough, then drank endless cups of delicious green tea, while he told me about the political situation in Burma (like most people in this area he is Karen). He's got a green card because he's been here a long time. He says there's been a ceasefire for two years, but did not seem particularly positive about the military democracy. He then drove me to a little shop where I bought a 5 baht packet of biscuits for the road - six very tasty custard-cream style biscuits. The cream was flavoured with the bizarre Thai fruit (I think it's called Rambutan) - I quite like it.
The first 15 miles was fairly flat along the river, and pleasantly cool in the morning's mysterious mist. With the big river and the jungle and mountains it felt like something from Apocalypse Now. And there's something about being on the border that reminds me of last year in the south of the USA.
I stopped after the first 15 miles for breakfast in a confusing Karen village. But for some stupid reason I forgot to buy water or replace the junk/emergency food I eat last night when all the cafes were closed... And over the following hours I realised how badly I'd underestimated the day's ride.
There was a really gruelling unrelenting climb to a high pass, I'm sure it must have been 1000m or so. It was 4 - 5 mph in 1st gear most of the way, with the occasional super-steep bits - sometimes I powered up them - feeling every muscle in my legs, arms and back. And sometimes I just gave in and pushed, especially in the patches where the road surface deteriorated. And all the while my small stash of food was running lower and lower. By the time I reached a shop at 1.30 I had one biscuit, a few sweets and a chocolate bar from the plane left, and I had started on my emergency half litre bottle of green tea from Hong Kong airport.
I had a junkfood lunch at the shop, of coke, biscuits and one of the foul tasteless white long-life rolls filled with fluorescent goo that seem to be so popular here.
The shop was pretty much at the top of the pass, but it didn't stop being demanding. If anything it was worse. From there it was 20 or 30 miles of steep up and down, with very little flat ground. And it wasn't even as if I could rest on the downhill - it was so steep and windy, and most of the time the road surface was dodgy. On the first descent soon after my lunchbreak I relaxed and went too fast and hit a pebble - immediate snakebite (double puncture). So I had to spend half an hour fixing that and putting on my one spare tube.
So after that, on every descent I was raised up out of the saddle so my legs could absorb the shock of any impact over pebbles or potholes, concentrating really hard trying to spot the loose stones and potholes amongst the dappled shadows of the jungle, and also trying to read the road ahead for bends, super-steep descents, oncoming traffic (rare) and animals, all the time feathering the brakes so I didn't go too fast, but trying not to overheat the brakes or rims and putting myself at risk of another puncture, or crashing and damaging my bike or my self.
While fixing my puncture I got pretty worried that I wasn't going to make it. It had taken six hours from 8am to do just 35 of the 75 miles! Although my legs were coping with the mountains it was very slow going.
I stopped briefly at a few small Karen villages for a bag of delicious tangerines, or water, smiling to the old ladies with red saliva running down their chin from chewing something (Khat?) and waving to the kids.
Despite the difficulty it was actually a great day - so beautiful up high in the mountains, so little traffic, so many friendly people smiling and waving at the roadside or on passing mopeds or sawngthaew. And although most of the descents were slow and tough, there were a few where the roa surface was good, and they were magical - finally I could let go and fly. Swooping down through the jungle around the soaring bends - I felt amazing.
And finally I reached the flat valley, and after 15 miles I pulled into town as the sun was setting and after some confusion with the Lonely Planet's dreadful map I found a nice guesthouse with a hot shower. I showered then had a rather unpleasant meal of soya meat substitute and 'holy' basil. I found a wee bike shop and bought a spare 700 Presta bike tube! That made me happy. I went to an internet cafe where I blogged 'til it closed. I got hungry again, but everything was closed, but I managed to get a big bag of crisps and a small bag of nuts.
I saw a few farang (foriegners) in the town - the first I'd seen for over 3 days - but none were at all chatty. There's a Japanese guy staying in the same hotel, but he didn't say much. I guess his English probably isn't that great. He's got a Trek trials bike with him. The owner of the guesthouse seems to think that he's touring, but it seems unlikely on a bike like that (small frame for doing stunts and huge fat chunky tyres, and no racks to put panniers on).
I've changed my plans for the next few days. I'd planned to go east from here to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. And although the road sounds great, I can't be bothered coming back the same way, and the one alternative road looks too difficult. So I'm just going to carry on North along this beautiful road, and hopefully do Doi Inthanon from Chiang Mai.
Today's been the toughest day's cycling of my life, except perhaps the first long ride I ever did, which was with Mum aged 6 or 7 cycling the 12 mile round trip to Sanquahar (the village near where I grew up). For some reason I'd only had one weetabix that morning instead of my usual two. So on the way home, never having cycled beyond the end of my drive before, and completely out of energy I flaked out. I don't know how mum managed to get me home. Thankfully that didn't happen today...