Blown away by Washington State

June 7th, 2011

(James) We rode out through the centre of town so we could make a quick petrol stop before leaving Anacortes. Whilst filling the bikes up, we heard a pop and then the horrible (for ‘horrible’ read expensive) sound of my tankbag landing on the station forecourt. Some of the teeth on the zip that holds the bag onto the bike had exploded, ejecting the tank bag on to the ground. Not ideal, especially as my camera and lenses were in it. Fortunately nothing inside was damaged, which was more than could be said for the zip which was beyond our ability to repair. Had this happened just a few hundred kilometres sooner (in Asia), we would have been able to replace the zip for pennies but, typically, it had managed to hold on until we had arrived in the ‘West’  where the combination of higher costs, limited time and our rapidly shrinking budget meant repair was out of the question. However, ignoring my curses as I worriedly inspected the contents for damage, Em rigged an ingenious quick release system for the tankbag with straps and a bungee and we headed off.

Having crossed Interstate 5 (I-5), we continued east along Highway 20 towards the snow capped peaks that make up the Cascade Mountains. We’d originally planned to head due south towards Seattle but so many people, including Yves and Mike on our boat tour in Vancouver, had recommended the Cascade Highway, and with the weather clearing for us we realised it was too good an opportunity to waste. We were sad to be missing Seattle as we’d heard great things about the city and we’d already received several friendly offers of places to stay from locals. Next time!

We were soon starting to gain altitude, and the combination of twisty roads, perfect weather, crystal clear air and increasingly spectacular scenery made for fantastic riding; all too often we were pulling over to admire the views of mountains and alpine lakes. The roads themselves seemed really empty, but we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of such ideal conditions, and at every viewpoint there were dozens of other bikers parked up – it was, it turned out, the first really decent weekend of the summer. However, as we headed further into the cascades and towards the higher passes, things started to become more quiet and the lush greenery was  joined by patches of snow at the side of the road. These patches quickly turned into piles, which were in turn replaced by banks that continued to grow in size until they were several feet high at  the summit. We stopped for a few photos but didn’t hang about as it was pretty chilly – and as I may have already mentioned, we were now pathetically sensitive to the cold.

Our spectacular route continued, down the warmer eastern  slopes towards the small town of Winthrop. What we found as we rode in on the main high street was worth the ride alone. Winthrop really does have the feel of a frontier town and with good reason: conscious effort has been made to recreate the look of every building to attract tourists. Although this might seem odd to some, the reason is simple enough – survival. Winthrop owed its existence to gold but like so many towns it fell on hard times, until the Cascade Highway was built. Needing a way to make passing traffic stop, the town decided to emphasise its old world charms. The shops that make up the small main street are all one and two storey wooden clapboard buildings that house coffee shops, bars, ice cream parlours and shops selling curiosities. The sidewalks are all raised wooden walkways, and the local gas station and auto repair shop look like something straight out of a western –  in fact, so much so that you wouldn’t surprised if the pony express or a couple of cowboys were to pull up outside. On a bench in the street, a couple of old boys were sat just watching the world go by, and were no doubt putting the world to rights. It really is a picture perfect little town and one we weren’t going to pass through without stopping.

The town is obviously popular as part of a route for local bikers as dozens of leather-clad riders were constantly rumbling through on their Harleys. We sat and had an ice cream and chatted with a few friendly  bikers who had noticed our XTs (not hard as they’re fairly distinctive and packed in such a ramshackle way when compared to the locals’ bikes). They were pretty impressed that Em had ridden so far and thought we were completely nuts to have gone through Pakistan (it’s a common enough reaction). They swore to us that they wouldn’t cross the border without their ‘glocks’  (that’s a type of handgun by the way!) which made us laugh – firstly, because it reminded us that we were in a country where so many people have guns, and secondly, because, as we were quick to point out, they’d still have been seriously outgunned! We said our goodbyes, but not before they proudly recommended some must-see places along our route.

We continued on along Highway 20, turning south towards the small town of Twisp, and soon found ourselves riding though the rolling scrubland of inner Washington’s high desert . Our target for the evening had been the town of Leavenworth. Several  bikers had recommended it to us but in all honesty, we didn’t think we’d make it that far. However, after leaving the twisty roads of the mountains, our progress was now much quicker and with evening approaching, we arrived on the outskirts of the town to be greeted by a sign for a campsite. Perfect! We checked in and found our designated pitch up amongst some tall trees. It was absolutely enormous and was clearly meant for some sort of RV, of which there were many… in fact, looking around us, it was clear that we were the only tent.

While Em got on with setting up camp, I popped back down to the office to ask them if they could charge our intercom and phone (the site’s pitches came complete with electricity, gas, water and even cable tv… but you needed an RV to hook everything up to). Upon my return, I found Em standing by our tent, looking very pleased with herself and holding a couple of beers: we must have looked a pretty pathetic sight in the eyes of our neighbours across from us (our tent did look ridiculously small, dwarfed as it was by our pitch) as they had come straight across to Em and just handed the bottles over! We walked over  to the vast RV to say hello and thank them for their generosity and within seconds were being shown a seat. Our new friends were actually two couples, Rick and Pam and Julie and Joel who, it turned out, were vacationing in not one, but two enormous RVs!

New acquaintances we may have been but we were instantly made to feel  like old friends. We ended up spending the whole evening chatting with them; talking about our trip, our plans in the US, their own lives, America and generally putting the world to rights. It was a real eye opener to chat with Americans about social issues, both domestic and international. The last time I’d spent any time in the USA had been more than 10 years before, and much of my opinion about Americans’ views (or non-views) on issues had been based on these experiences. Maybe I’m just older (well I know I am, but you know what I mean) or maybe there’s been a change, but these guys just seemed more, well, worldly. We were able to talk about all sorts of issues from the frivolous to the more serious – issues that I might have expected to have been taboo. But nothing was off limits, and it was fascinating to talk with them as we each gave our thoughts on subjects that varied from gun control and foreign policy to universal healthcare and education.

It wasn’t all serious though, in fact we had a great laugh and the joviality was only heightened by the free-flowing ‘Moose Drool’ (Em: or ‘Mule Drool’ as I kept calling it) and Fire Whiskey (Em: mmmm, cinnamony!). And of course, we also got to have a tour of one of the RVs. They really are huge and come with every luxury you could ever ask for (and quite possibly a few it would never even cross your mind to request…) Toilets and showers? They’ll be in the bathroom. Sleeping arrangements? Two luxury cabins. TV? Yes, four of them actually. It even had a garage at the rear that was big enough to store a sizeable tool set and work bench… plus two Harley-Davidsons!

In the morning, we slowly started packing up our gear (for some unknown reason we were both a little groggy) but before long were greeted by a grinning Joel who handed over a strong coffee – complete with some sort of equally strong liquor! Not long afterwards we were called back over to the RV for an American breakfast of chorizo-scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy (Em: sounds gross but seriously moreish) which we devoured in seconds – it was delicious! Over breakfast, we talked about our plans to explore in the coming days and as others had done already, we were told that whilst the Pacific North West is known for its quietly cool cities like Seattle, and for its rain, it is actually one of America’s best kept secrets – a secret those who live there are keen to keep quiet. It was an argument we were finding increasingly hard to find fault with.

All too soon it was time to hit the road so we said our goodbyes and headed down to have a look around the small quirky town of Leavenworth. I say quirky because the town is known for being a ‘German’ town. We’d assumed that this was because it had been settled by German migrants but that’s not the case. In reality it’s German character is, just as in Winthrop, the result of a deliberate plan to ‘remarket’ itself following the death of its timber industry. Today every home, business, building, and even every signpost is, well, Bavarian; even McDonalds has had a Teutonic wand waved at it. The town’s population have leant to produce and sell traditional goods so kaffee und kuchen (that’s coffee and cake) or a bratwurst are available should you fancy it. Of course, the town wasn’t going to miss out on that most potentially lucrative of German events, so the highlight of every year is Oktoberfest. The change has certainly turned round the town’s fortunes – not quite to the point that the locals now drive round in BMW’s and Porsches but certainly better than it would have been. As quirky as it was, we were both quietly impressed by that altogether American sense of doing whatever it took, no matter how radical or bizarre, to keep these towns alive.

With a fair distance still to cover we set off and were quickly riding, once more, through beautiful and deserted countryside. Initially we rode along the bottom of lush green canyons but soon we were climbing once again, passing high above a beautiful alpine lake on a road littered with waterfalls. Once again the temperature dropped as our altitude increased and by early afternoon we were forced to stop at the top of a pass that was home to a small ski resort. The season had obviously just finished (certainly not due to a lack of snow as far we could tell) but fortunately the café was still open and so we took advantage of a hot chocolate and something from our still untouched packed lunch (Em: Michelle, you made the mother of all tuck boxes there!). The ride down the other side of the range that afternoon was no less spectacular, passing between Mount Rainier and Mount St Helens, but we were soon out of the high hills.

Our target for the evening was still a long way off but now that we were out of the mountains, the roads were less twisty and our average speed could increase. We were heading for the small town of Canby, across the border in Oregon, where we would be staying with a stranger who had generously offered us a warm bed for the night. (Em: Not quite as dodgy as it sounds!) Whilst in Vancouver, we had taken advantage of a great US-based website called (adventure rider) which has a fantastic section called ‘tent-space’. A quick click onto any of the US states and Canadian provinces listed reveals the names and locations of bikers (former and current) who are happy to offer a bed or garden to other wandering bikers. It’s a system that replies purely on the generosity and good will of the website’s members. We’d tentatively got in touch with a few of those people along a very rough route down the western coast and mentioned the fact that we might be passing through. Given that we were completely random strangers and that we couldn’t say for definite when or if we’d be passing by, we didn’t have particularly high hopes, reckoning on a one in ten hit rate. So as you can imagine, we were shocked to find that almost every single person got back to us, offering us not just a bed but a very warm welcome to boot, and many promised mechanical facilities, barbecues, beers and even asked us to stay longer than we intended so they could get more friends together for a ride out! (Em: This prompted yet another ‘America is awesome!’ comment – these were spouting forth on a regular basis).

To say we’d been stunned by the response would be an understatement; we were completely humbled by it. Reading the countless emails from friendly fellow bikers, we chastised ourselves for once again having preconceptions about people (when will we ever learn?!) Our trip had taught us over and over again not to judge people by what we ‘thought’ we knew to be true but to wait and see, but I guess we’re all conditioned to do it to some level. We had been sad to leave the incredible warmth of Asia, and although we had been looking forward to the USA and the diversity of its landscape, we had both felt that we knew what to expect. After all, we’d both spent time in the country before at various points. We had assumed that it would be a sort of ‘soft landing’ for a Europe that would lack the open friendliness of Asia. The US, so our reasoning had gone, would be a bit more friendly than home, but it was after all ‘the West’ so ultimately, the people, the towns and the culture would be high familiar to us. How wrong we’d been. Already we’d been utterly blown away by the unexpected beauty of the Pacific North West, and the quaintness of the pretty, small towns we’d passed through, but it was the people, both in Washington and Vancouver, that had shocked us most of all. With our time in the state quickly drawing to an end, we had the overwhelming feeling  that we could have happily spent our entire remaining two months in this area alone. Surely America couldn’t keep surprising us like this?…

Click for photos.

Coming to America: Washington State

June 4th, 2011

(James) It was a strange sensation to be arriving at the US border. It certainly hadn’t been part of our original plan and had only been mentioned when, having made it to where the land ended in southeast Asia, we were suddenly faced with the prospect of ‘what next?’ We didn’t have the funds to do the length of the Americas or Africa, and Australia, in the current economic climate, wasn’t letting in as many foreigners to work so that was out. Just shipping the bikes home and flying ourselves back didn’t quite seem a fitting end to such a trip. My attitude was very much that we’d left on the bikes, so we were damned well riding home on the bikes! That left North America, which, rather conveniently, would turn our trip into a ‘round the world’.

As we rode towards the border, we were both excited and yet a little nervous, which was surprising given some of the more dodgy borders we’d crossed to date. We had our visas, and we’d got the required paperwork from the US Department of Transport (DoT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and yet we were still a tad apprehensive. The reason was simple enough – we’d been warned dozens of times , by both Americans and Canadians, about the Homeland Security border guards. Back in the days before 9/11, crossing between the USA and Canada had been a simple enough procedure but no more. Customs and immigration specialists had been replaced by general Homeland Security teams who, we’d been informed, had serious attitude problems. Armed with new draconian rules, laws and powers, and attitudes to match, things had apparently changed for the worse. We’d even heard about a local Canadian who, under the new system, was denied entry to the US on the grounds that he’d been arrested for smoking cannabis as a teenager in the mid-sixties. The fact that he’d since crossed the border hundreds of times as an adult for work, riding or shopping  mattered not a jot. He was persona non grata. Now, we’ve got nothing on our records to cause us a problem, but experience has taught us that whenever we relax and assume something’s going to be easy, there’s always a problem.

A long column of cars signalled that the border was somewhere up ahead so having pulled up at the back of the line (no filtering past traffic allowed here!), we turned off the engines and sat and ate our lunch (just as well as we weren’t allowed to take food across the border). Every ten minutes or so the queue would move forward a couple of hundred metres or so and then come, once again, to a halt. We didn’t mind this too much, as it gave us a chance to warm up in the sun – we really had become quite pathetic after so many months in the Asian heat. After about 40 minutes or so we found ourselves down at a set of traffic lights that sat in front of 30 or so booths. When the lights eventually turned green, an unsmiling Homeland Security guard wearing dark shades, dressed entirely in black and clad in enough body armour and weaponry to single-handedly deter Canada from ever considering invading (not likely , I know) directed us a particular line and, having tried and failed to get a smile out of him, we duly obeyed. (Em: It seemed our usual charm offensive wasn’t going to wash here!)

At around 1pm, we finally got to the front and were ushered forward to the booth. The next twenty minutes were, quite simply, awkward, as our utterly unsmiling guard/automaton refused not only to speak to us, but completely refused to answer or acknowledge us in way. There wasn’t even eye contact! For 10 minutes he filled in forms, ignored our efforts to show him our papers and spoke into his radio asking for the code for foreign plates. In the end he gave up trying to enter our details into the computer and ordered us to proceed to building off to the side for a ‘secondary inspection’. Having parked outside the building, we went inside and were ordered by a female automaton to proceed to a specific line where we joined fifty or so others. Every few minutes another person came in  and was shouted at by what we decided was the most horrible woman we’d come across to date. At the head of the queue were about 40 desks with computers and finger print scanners. There were also about a dozen or so members of staff all equipped like their colleagues outside, but only a couple at most were ever at a desk dealing with the ever lengthening line of people. The rest just stood about chatting and occasionally would stop so the woman, who it appeared was a line manager, could shout (in a manner comparable to Frau Bischner, for those who’ve seen any Austin Powers films) and scowl at all of us. Some would make the mistake of trying to mention some mitigating fact to her but would only be cut off and met with another order to proceed as directed, and then twenty minutes later she would shout at that person again for not being in the correct line despite being exactly where they had been told to be. People would also be shouted at by Frau Bischner for asking for a toilet (there wasn’t one) or trying to leave the queue to sit down (there weren’t any chairs) for a rest or go outside for a smoke (no smoking or loitering allowed).

It was 1:30pm when we’d joined the queue, and assuming we got through we had an easy ride down to meet an old friend who we were planning to stay with that night. But as the minutes ticked by, it became increasingly likely that we wouldn’t make it to our agreed rendez-vous  – his place of work. The whole thing was a bit of a farce, and as we edged at a glacial speed towards the front and got to know our fellow line-mates, it became clear that most were Canadians or Americans just trying to visit a friend or go shopping for the afternoon – a hell of a way to treat your own people! Finally after more than two hours,  we got to the front and were ushered  to a more friendly older member of staff who having seen that we already had visas, questioned why we were even in the queue at all. He looked at our form and saw that the reason marked was that they didn’t know what code was to enter into the system for ‘foreign plates’. He looked at us with a smile and some sympathy and said “That’s easy – it’s FP. They could have just asked that over the radio and saved you the wait”. (Em: Tongues had to be thoroughly bitten at this point…) With that, we were through – they didn’t even want the EPA and DoT papers we been told were so essential for entry! We were in America!

Our plan, such as it was, was fairly simple. We now had two months to cross the country and to get to the south of France where we would hopefully be going to meet up with Em’s family for a holiday (because we really need it!….) We had a very rough idea of a route and a few places we wanted to visit  in the very limited time we had left but other than that we were open to chance, wanting merely to stay off the interstates and highways and just stick, as much as possible, to the smaller, more interesting roads. But right now, we just needed to get to our rendezvous as soon as possible! With that in mind we set off south down the highway way towards the small coastal town of Anacortes and our friends Mat and Michelle. After a windy hour or so we finally reached the exit for Anacortes and headed west towards the coast, then once onto Fildalgo Island we made the turn towards Mat’s workplace at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Ordinarily, Mat is a navigator flying Tornado fighter bombers for the Royal Air Force – nice work if you can get it –  but he’s currently on an exchange program with the US Navy serving as an instructor for aircrews flying the electronic warfare variants of the F-18 Hornet, the EA-18 Growler (Em: James, aka Dork Boy, was very excited about this…) This makes Mat a particularly lucky sod, not just because he now gets to fly in an even better jet than normal but he also gets to live in what we were quickly discovering, as we rode along small tree lined roads, past crystal clear lakes, and across fantastic old bridges that spanned stunning inlets and gave us a glimpse of hidden coves and beaches, is an astonishingly beautiful part of the world. And as if that’s not enough, he’s even done the low fly-bys at NFL games. All in a day’s work apparently.

We duly arrived at the base to find Mat waiting for us and within minutes were being taken on a tour to see his plane. Sadly, our late arrival meant the guard room was closed for the day so gone was the chance to get a photo of the bikes on the airfield. Still, it’s not every day you get to get up close to state of the art jets. I was, I’m not ashamed to admit, a little bit excited! I’d better be brief about the tour itself as that’s probably not what people are interested in (Em: Only dorks like you, James…)  So, we were taken into the hangar where several EA-18 Growlers, Mat’s company cars, were sitting before heading out on to the paddock where others were parked up including two in 1940’s colours to commemorate an anniversary of naval aviation. We had the chance to take a few photos but had to be careful about what exactly we photographed as parts of the aircraft are classified. All in all, very cool!

With our tour complete, it was time to head ‘home’  and we followed Mat along yet more stunning coastal roads, passing pretty clapboarded homes and beautiful views. As Matt turned off into side streets, we began giving each other looks that could only mean “He lives here?!” We’d entered what could only be described as as close to Pleasantville as it was possible to get. We rode up beautiful and quiet streets, lined with immaculate large white or pastel clapboarded homes with children playing outside. Men mowed their already immaculate front lawns whilst their wives were, presumably baking,  knitting a quilt or something else equally wholesome, and almost inevitably Mat pulled into one of them, and upon getting out of his car was politely greeted by angelic neighbourhood children. We were, to put it mildly, astounded.

Most of our bags would remain on the bikes outside the front of the house (it really was that safe) and so we were ushered inside by Mat’s wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Sophie, and before we knew it were being plied with the most British of drinks (Gin & tonic for me, Pimms for Em) because apparently we poor things must have been having such a rough time on the road! All I can do is promise you that in no way did we try to make out that life had been tough for us. We spent the entire time that it took us to polish off our drinks, oh, and the time it took to finish off the inevitable refills, trying to convince them that we’d been enjoying relative luxury at Laura’s in Vancouver, but Michelle was having none of it. As if to demonstrate that fact, she then insisted that Em go for a relaxing Jacuzzi bath and gave her a glass of champagne to go with it. Em didn’t need much persuading, so I went out in the garden with Mat to do ‘man stuff’, which in this case involved putting an entire half of a cow on his industrial sized barbeque. We were definitely in America!

Dinner that evening was, needless to say both amazing and enormous, and our poor stomachs, used to southeast Asian sized portions, were stuffed to a point way beyond sensible. Our plan had been  to just stay the night and head south towards Seattle in the morning but over the course of the evening , in between drinks, we’d somehow agreed to stay an extra day (Em: it wasn’t the toughest decision we’ve ever had to make!…) We loved the idea as life here seemed ideal, but as we staggered up to bed, we weren’t so sure our stomachs would cope.

We were glad we did stay on though as the next 36 hours were spent discovering the incredible  natural beauty of Anacortes, visiting view points over deserted coastal inlets, white topped mountains, pretty lakes and chatting with random, but incredibly friendly locals. The weather, despite Washington’s rainy reputation, was incredible with pure blue skies, and with the forecast set to remain that way, we gave into repeated pleas from locals to not head south towards Seattle immediately, but to head inland onto the ‘Cascade Loop’, something that Yves back in Vancouver had also recommended.  Apparently the road had only just been cleared of snow (remember this was June!), and that fact, combined with the break in the weather made the decision for us.

All too quickly, our time in Anacortes came to an end, and we had to say a very sad goodbye to our amazing hosts, but not before they plied us with a vast American-style breakfast of pancakes and bacon because “who knows when you’ll next eat”. It turned out the Michelle knew full well, as just as we’d finished loading the bikes she came out with a packed lunch big enough for a family of six! Having strapped it on top of our gear, we hit the road for the start of our American adventure…

For pics, click here.

Remember us?!….

June 3rd, 2011

Hi all,

Sorry it’s been a while! We haven’t abandoned the website, honest, we just haven’t had much time to write recently due to a hectic schedule over the last couple of months, spectacular hospitality in North America and, of course, arranging the shipping of our bikes back to Europe. 

Rest assured, we’re on the case and have entries in the pipeline which will start appearing in the coming days. North America was a revelation so we promise it will be worth the wait!…

Emily & James (22nd August)

Viva Vancouver!

June 2nd, 2011

(Em) We were mildly nervous as we waited in the long line for immigration at Vancouver airport – such a fuss had been made about us not having proof of onward travel when we’d departed Singapore that we were fully expecting to be given the third degree, or even to have to buy an onward flight just for the sake of appearances. Halfway up the queue, James cursed the fact that our immigration officer looked the least likely to own a bike and thus the least likely to be sympathetic and we pretty much resigned ourselves to being in the for the long haul… However, all went smoothly and we were waved through with, not a smile exactly, but at least a courteous nod. It wasn’t quite the laid back atmosphere that had greeted us in Australia though, and we had to laugh at the increasingly irate security guard who was insisting that passengers must come through to the baggage reclaim with the rest of their travel party – woe betide if you got split up from the family member carrying the immigration card. Marvelling at yet another cultural change, we made our way through amid much tutting and head shaking to find our friend Laura waiting in the arrivals lounge. It was an excitable reunion – after several years in London, Laura moved back to Vancouver a few of years ago and we’ve only seen her a couple of times since – so there was a lot of hugging to be done before we were ready to head off towards her car and get our first glimpse of the city.

What can I say?! We pretty much fell in love with Vancouver from the moment we entered Kitsilano, the suburban district that Laura call home and which simply exudes understated cool with its quirky cafes, Mediterranean style delis and yoga aficionados. Laura showed us into her pretty, airy apartment and we had a good old cup of tea (the first of many) before heading out for a stroll. Walking around the local neighbourhood, we were further charmed by the tree-lined streets  and pretty clapboard houses, not to mention the fact that the sea is right there on the doorstep, accessed via rugged, drift-wood strewn beaches. And the best part is, no one seems to be trying too hard to be ‘cool’; Vancouver is, for the most part, a ponce-free zone, and all the cooler for it! Without exception, everyone we met was friendly and down-to-earth, chatting to us with genuine interest or just going about their day to day business in their own ultra-healthy, happy way! It’s like the perfect town! (Aside from the weather, I guess; it was a little on the chilly side!)

We knew by now that our bikes had survived the crossing from Kuala Lumpur and had already been delivered to the port in Vancouver, but our arrival coincided with a bank holiday weekend so we had a few days to chill out before getting the ball rolling. That evening, encouraged in no small part by Laura who had slipped effortlessly back into English pub-going mode, we valiantly fought off the various stages of jet lag and chatted our way through one beer after another (not forgetting the whiskeys!) before stumbling home to her apartment in the early hours of the morning… Needless to say, plans to go into town the next day to watch the ice hockey on the big screen (James: the Vancouver Cannucks had made it the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in their history – this was the first of a best of seven game series. For those who don’t know, ice hockey in Canada is something of national obsession!) were somewhat thwarted when we woke up to discover it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon – the game had started at 1pm!! Whoops! We spent the rest of the long weekend falling yet further under the enchantment of the city as Laura and her boyfriend Tony gave us a tour of the town, and nearby Stanley Park, and took us for a small hike through lush green forest where we enjoyed a packed lunch on a rocky outcrop overlooking an inlet in a deep part of the bay – perfect! Vancouverites really do have an idyllic lifestyle with their picturesque location and access to the great outdoors and, more importantly, they seem to have an appreciation for what they have and the lifestyle afforded to them. We really felt at home and, unlike other places we’ve loved on the trip where we’ve imagined we could live for just a few years, Vancouver had us wondering how we could wangle permanent residency! We’re still thinking on that one…

While we were in Australia, we’d contacted Yamaha Canada on the off chance that they might be able to provide some advice to help us clear our bikes at this end: we’d elected not to pay for freight forwarding with Crown Relo (thinking that surely if we’d managed on our own in Bangkok, Canada would be easy in comparison) but we did have the problem of getting our crates from the warehouse to a location where they could be dismantled and the bikes put back together (unlike in Bangkok, health and safety laws made it impossible to do this on site at the storage warehouse). Well, you can imagine how chuffed we were to get an email back from Yamaha saying that they’d not only get their logistics people to deal with our cargo but they’d also arrange the delivery of our bikes to a local Yamaha dealer for us once the bikes had cleared customs (James: It’s fair to say we were pretty shocked at such generosity. We asked if there was anything we could do to repay them and were told ‘You’ve already done it, you bought a Yamaha’… What can you say to that?!) All we can do is say a big thank you to Bryan at Yamaha Canada!  Customs itself did actually take a few days in the end, not that it was a particular palaver but we needed to arrange a soil inspection which put everything back a bit, and it wasn’t until early the following week that Laura gave us a lift down to a local Yamaha dealer where our crates were waiting for us. The guys down there were really friendly and happy to offer assistance (thanks Brendan and Huey!) but all we really required was space so, in a sunny spot out the back, we set to dismantling the crates and getting the wheels back on. Laura was amused by how excited I was to be getting our babies back on the road; (wo)man and machine have clearly bonded for life! It had been nearly six weeks since we’d boxed them up, after all! It was great to get back in the saddle, and we immediately felt like we were on our adventures again – straight away people were waving as we passed, taking photos, or pulling up next to us at the lights to ask where we were from (we’ll be gutted when we’re riding around at home again and don’t get this sort of celebrity treatment!!)

It’s a testament to how much we were loving Vancouver that, despite our eagerness to get back on the road, we couldn’t quite tear ourselves away for another few days. Our affinity for the city only developed further as we visited trendy, historic Gastown (so named after Geordie Jack ‘Gassy’ Deighton who opened the first saloon there back in 1867) and Granville Island with its vibrant farmers market and traditional handicrafts. We were also incredibly lucky to have a boat tour of the harbour organised for us by Laura’s sister Monica through some friends of hers. It was a fantastic opportunity to see Vancouver from an off-shore perspective and once more we were struck by the city’s unique position: a neatly contained urban pocket amid an abundance of green, which seems  protected somehow by the mountains to the north and east, whilst its peninsula shape provides miles of picturesque coastline. Our little trip took us further up into the bay, past the bustling port with its huge tankers and cargo ships, and round to quieter, more residential inlets with gorgeous but isolated houses perched on the rocks and where all sorts of healthy, out-doorsy activities could be observed – kayaking, windsurfing, rock climbing, cliff jumping etc. To live in Vancouver, you basically have an ideal holiday destination right on your doorstep which means that weekends can easily be spent on these sorts of pursuits without having to go too far afield. Did we mention that we’d love to live there?!……

Another thing we were enjoying about our time in Vancouver was meeting so many lovely people. Yves and Mike who took us on the boat tour were great company and their sense of humour just cracked us up, plus Yves is a biker too so had lots of tips for us on potential routes in the Vancouver/Washington area. Laura’s family and friends were equally warm and welcoming and many a late night was spent discussing anything and everything under the sun over a glass of wine or cup of tea; to me, it felt a bit like being back at uni again when you stay up all night having in-depth chats and gaining new perspectives from being thrown together with a new bunch of people who aren’t yet bogged down with the practicalities of life. The difference here is that the practical issues– jobs, children, finance etc – are now a part of people’s lives, but don’t become the ‘raison d’etre’, there is still room for dreaming, speculating and, essentially, living. I hope this doesn’t come across as a load of airy-fairy claptrap. We just really did get this amazing vibe during our time in Vancouver and felt that people, or at least the ones we met, really had a good handle on what’s important in life. And it was so refreshing to have real conversations about politics, science, religion etc – we’d met so many amazing, wonderful people on our travels through central and southeast Asia but obviously, with the language barrier, conversations were often limited to what could be conveyed with the help of hand gestures! Needless to say, we were certainly given food for thought and our determination to achieve balance in life in whatever we end up doing after the trip was reiterated by spending time with Laura, Tony and numerous other Vancouverites.

Our time in Vancouver was touched by sadness when we got the news that Pop, James’ beloved grandfather, had passed away. We’d been worrying about him since he had a stroke several weeks earlier, and James had been particularly preoccupied thinking about his family back home and whether he should return to the UK to be with them (you may have noticed, he hadn’t written so many diary entries over the last few months). Getting the news of Pop’s passing when we were so far away was really tough, and in many ways felt, and still does feel, unreal. Riding all day gives you a lot of thinking time and it’s fair to say that Pop enters our thoughts on a regular basis; an avid history buff, it was often with Pop in mind that James would go into historical detail about the places we’ve been when writing for the website, and we had been looking forward to discussing Singapore with him (Pop had served there over a period of several years in the Navy during WW2 so would have been amazed at the change). It’s going to be hard adjusting to a world without him.

Eventually, we had to make a move from our new favourite city – we were already a bit short on time for the US leg of the trip and there were a hell of a lot of miles to cover in the next eight weeks! We sorry to leave, and were hugely appreciative of everything Laura had done for us: we pretty much took over her apartment for a fortnight, ate all her food and drank all her tea… and she seemed entirely happy with the arrangement! It was such a shame that we couldn’t take her out for a ride in the end – the Yamaha dealership had lent a spare helmet and the plan had been to do the much recommended ‘Sea to Sky’ highway that runs north up to Whistler. Unfortunately though, the weather just wasn’t playing ball and we had a couple of days of rain once we’d picked the bikes up (just typical; it brightened up the day after we left!)  So, after a sad goodbye to our roomie, and Vancouver itself  (it just remains for us to wangle a way to live out there…), we hit the road and began the windy and chilly, but thankfully relatively short, ride to the USA border.  America here we come!….

(More photos of Vancouver in our Canada gallery.)

Singapore – the end of Asia

May 21st, 2011

(James) All too quickly our time in Australia had come to an end. We’d been busy throughout our stay but our list of jobs – top of which had been to get the blog up to date – was now even longer than before. We said a sad goodbye to Sal and Meg and then drove down to Melbourne airport with my dad. It’s always hard to say goodbye to family when you live so far apart as you all know that the distance is so great, and the cost of flights so prohibitive, that in all likelihood you won’t see them for another couple of years. We dealt with this as men normally do, by just giving a firm handshake and maybe and ‘man hug’ (complete with clenched fist for the obligatory punch to the shoulder) and parted with a ‘look after yourself’. All a bit stiff upper lip, but then, hey we’re British!

As sad as it was to leave, we were both excited as we knew that we were heading, in a roundabout way, towards our bikes and the next part of our trip. At least we hoped that was what was happening; our attempts to use the tracking tool on the website of the company that owned the ship our bikes were on had proved futile as the system hadn’t been working. Still, we were slightly nervous verging on optimistic, but we didn’t want to tempt fate so wouldn’t dare say anything too positive or hopeful to each other.

Our flight was fairly uneventful (there are only so many ‘events’ that can happen on a flight and none of them are good, so I’m not entirely sure why I said that) – so, nothing of note happened and we landed at a lovely, steamy Singapore airport at around 5pm. We were staying with an old teaching friend of Em’s called Laura, who had been working at an international school for the previous four years and had a nice two bedroom apartment in the city as part of her contract. We’d told her to expect us at 6pm but by the time we’d got through the airport, made our way to the area she lived in and then found her apartment block amongst the thousands of other identical blocks, it was gone 8pm. (Em: we didn’t have a phone so poor Laura was starting to worry that something had happened to us!) We popped out for a bite to eat at the local Indian and Laura bought us a couple of beers (just as well as Singapore, it turned out, was bloody expensive!) before we called it a day – it was still a school night after all.

Given that we only had one day in Singapore, we weren’t exactly up at first light to see the sights. In fact it was gone 11am and a very humid 100 degrees by the time we emerged out into the street. We took a bus down into the city which, as one might expect in Singapore, was simple, clean and efficient. The demographic of our fellow passengers was just what we’d expected of the city too – a healthy mix of Indians, Chinese, Malays and, of course, western ex-pats. The bus took us down immaculate tree lined avenues, all perfectly manicured and with old English names. In many ways it was as if nothing had changed since the days of Empire, except that in Singapore, such is the rate of change that virtually any building over twenty years old seems to get demolished and replaced with a new one – which means the city’s skyline is in a constant state of flux. Some buildings don’t change, however, and one of these was the first stop on our little tour.

The Raffles Hotel is without doubt the most famous building in Singapore and one of the most famous hotels in the world. Famed not just for its colonial era opulence but for its Long Bar where, in 1910, the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented. It’s still possible for non-guests to go to the bar and order the famous cocktail but at $20 a pop it was a little out of our budget, and frankly had we had one, given the combination of the hour, the temperature and our now pathetic tolerance for alcohol, we’d have spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping on a bench somewhere. Instead we wandered around the bits that non-guests could access and imagined what stories those walls could tell. Apparently the hotel had been in danger of being closed down in recent years but such is the affection the locals seem to have for it that funding was found to renovate the building, restoring it to its former glory. It’s a funny thing, as there are now plenty more expensive flashy hotels in Singapore, and every building around absolutely towers over it, but somehow Raffles seems classier for it. No 80 floor glass tower with roof top infinity pool here, just a nice old white stone building with grand but modestly tasteful lush gardens and shaded sitting areas. It’s just cooler – James Bond would stay here (in his usual suite of course).

Having survived the temptation of an early (expensive) cocktail we popped over the road to the Swiss Hotel, from which, we’d been assured by Laura, we could get a great view of the city for free. All we had to do was take the lift to the 69th floor. We wandered in, trying and failing to look like we belonged, and made it to the elevator. Arriving on the 69th floor we stepped out to find a function taking place (and one we couldn’t have less appropriately dressed to blend into) so we dived back in before the doors shut on us and continued up to the restaurant above. In the end we decided we might as well be honest about our intentions (there was no way we looked like we were here to dine!) and asked the maitre de if we could take a few photos of the view, which of course, they were only too happy for us to do! It gave us a great view of the city and the surrounding waters which were full of thousands of container ships and oil tankers as far as the eye could see (Singapore is the world’s busiest port). As we looked down on the city, we were still able to pick out the odd building that had somehow defied the wrecking balls – St Andrews, the city’s cathedral, amongst them. Seeing the streets from such a height also allowed us to plan our next move as our view was effectively the same as looking at a map – although any map here that’s more than a year or so old can be utterly out of date, and so it proved for us. Land reclamation and new buildings meant that the road we wanted didn’t technically exist and should have been in the harbour!

We continued our tour through downtown Singapore and couldn’t help but feel a bit scruffy. Whilst we’re quite used to feeling ‘under dressed’ in our travel clothes, we felt more conspicuous than usual as people in Singapore dress incredibly formally. Whilst the men wear the usual shirt and tie, the women wear really flash outfits. Standard dress seems to include high heels and the kind of outfit one might expect at Ascot, a cocktail party or a movie premiere! It just seems to be expected here – part of a culture that ‘wants’ everything smart and immaculately clean. (Em: as you can imagine, I looked really classy in my ripped cut off shorts, adapted from the trousers I’d been wearing when I’d had my accident in Istanbul!) We continued our little tour round town, walking through the slightly touristy but undeniably cute Boat Quay, a collection of old colourful two-storey wooden shuttered buildings, all restaurants, that sit beneath the towering glass and steel skyscrapers of the financial district – another example of old and new existing in perfect harmony. We also had a walk around Little India which, like Boat Quay, was charming and colourful (Em: and immaculately clean… so not really like India then!!)

We had agreed to meet Laura and Caitlin, an old friend and workmate of mine from back in London who was now living and working in town, later that evening. We still had time to kill before our rendezvous so spent the rest of the day wandering around and reading about our surroundings. Singapore, despite its small size (its population is just over 5 million) is the world’s fourth leading financial centre. Although officially a democracy and with a good reputation, it not quite as open and free as one might expect. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in government since independence in 1959 and although there are democratic elections every four years, there are very strict controls over what any opposition can say or do. When elections do come about, every four or five years, PAP offers ‘rewards’ for those who vote for them (such as shares that can be converted into cash) or threats (i.e. their buildings won’t be maintained therefore turning them into slums). There is no electoral commission to oversee events, only nine days are allowed for campaigning and the (re-drawn) constituent boundaries are only announced the day before the election. Critics and opposition leaders are often taken to court to face a variety of charges in financially debilitating cases – the government has never lost a case. There is strict censorship of media, all of which are government owned (the foreign press is controlled by either being continually sued or having its circulation curtailed).

Singapore is famed for its criminal system under which extremely tough sentences are applied to even minor crimes (the death penalty, caning and public humiliation are all used). Certainly the system acts as great deterrent (which, I guess, is the point of any crime prevention scheme) and as a result Singapore has an incredibly low crime rate – lone women can pretty much walk the streets at night without any fear. More disturbing, Singapore has the ‘Internal Security Act’ (ISA) to fall back on which allows the government to arrest anyone without trial – 23 years is the longest I’m aware of (trial by jury has long since been abolished)! There’s no sign that things will change soon in Singapore. Western countries turn a blind eye to it as always because Singapore is good to do business with and it doesn’t rock the boat. The Prime Minister is Lee Hsien Loong (his father was previously PM ruling from 1959 until 1990),meanwhile Loong’s wife controls one of the biggest Government owned companies, and his brother controls the government-run Singapore Telecom. Nepotism at its finest!

Singapore still has many old British traits from colonial days including a speaker’s corner. For those who don’t know, Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde park is famous for people going there to stand on a box and speak on any issue of their choosing. People go down to listen, heckle and argue and it all makes for good viewing. Censorship in Singapore, however, means that its own Speakers Corner has certain limitations. Religion, politics and government cannot be discussed – I can’t help but think that having banned the juiciest subjects from the soap box must make it all a bit less interesting! Things aren’t helped by the fact that gatherings of five or more people for ‘political purposes’ counts as illegal assembly. Unsurprisingly, Singapore’s system of ‘democracy’ – a capitalist system with strict controls but the façade of openness and freedom – is attracting admirers; both China and Thailand are amongst those are looking at it as a potential model to base their own systems on. So, things aren’t always as great as they seem.

As the working day came to end we made our way to Robinson Quay to meet Caitlin (Em: unfortunately Laura had to pass; she’d lost her voice – a common teacher’s affliction – and needed an early night). It was great to see Caitlin again and a surprise to see her so formally dressed (apparently it was ‘dress-down Friday’ so god knows what she normally has to wear! ) Unlike most people, Caitlin doesn’t require a couple of glasses of wine to be excitable and bubbly – she’s from Vancouver so it just comes naturally! And like everyone else we know from Vancouver, she’s also incredibly outgoing and has a positive view on things. We had a great evening catching up over a few glasses of wine but all too soon our evening came to an end and we had to say goodbye, but not before Caitlin had decided she was going to take her motorcycle test (Em: awesome, there aren’t enough female bikers out there!) Caitlin? This is your official reminder to get on the case! We walked back along the old canal past the hundreds of bars and restaurants, now packed with those welcoming in the weekend, and a group of people flying silent remote controlled kites (no strings!) fitted with LED lights and lasers and looking like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind! Awesome! (Em: Gadget Geek Boy was in his element!)

The following morning we were up early for our flight to Vancouver via Manila. Laura was still feeling rough but got up to give us a lift to the airport, bless her (Em: thanks so much for everything, Laura, good luck with the move back to London and we’ll see you there soon!) It was a genuinely sad moment for us. We’d spent the last twelve months in Asia and had ridden from one side to the other. It really felt like the end of an era for us, as if the ‘adventure’ part of our trip was over. North America would surely be routine, after all as Brits we’d be totally familiar with everything, right? We spent the next few hours reminiscing about Asia and recalling some of the incredible places, people and experiences we’d been so lucky to encounter. We had one final hitch at the check-in desk when we were told we wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane as we didn’t have an onward ticket from Canada. We tried to explain that we were exiting Canada overland into the USA, showed them our US visas and told them our bikes were already in Canada but, of course, the rule book didn’t mention anything about land crossings, only onward flights. A few phone calls were made and still nothing. We explained that Vancouver was right next to the US border so many people crossed overland but the computer just wouldn’t except that as an option. Eventually we had our problem sent upstairs to the management (along with one of our business cards so they could go online to our website to verify that we would actually be moving on from Canada overland). After a slightly nervous 15 minutes they came back saying they’d let us through but we might get the same treatment when we transferred in the Philippines and that Canadian immigration might require us to buy an onward ticket on arrival! (Em: And we’d thought our border crossings would be easier in the west without the bikes!)

As our plane took off, we watched Asia recede beneath us and spoke about our crossing of the Khunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan which, at 4750 metres (approximately 15,000 feet) had been our highest point. We watched the in-flight monitors as they displayed our speed and altitude and at the right moment looked out of the window at the sea, coral atolls and clouds below. It was quite a shock; next time you’re on a flight, look out the window as the plane passes through 15,000 feet – it’s hard to believe that there are roads at that altitude! With that, we sat back with a smile and a small sense of satisfaction at what we achieved, and a growing sense of excitement at what lay ahead of us….

Downtime Down Under

May 19th, 2011

(Em) I think I mentioned in the last entry that the budget Air Asia flight from KL to Melbourne was surprisingly good. We both remarked that it was one of the quietest flights we’d ever been on, both in terms of general engine noise and fellow passengers (well, you never know who you’ll end up sitting next to and in our case, we had three seats between the two of us!) I did get slightly unnerved when, whilst flying over Indonesia, we noticed a spectacular lightening storm lighting up the night sky outside our window – I’ve never seen so many forks striking all at once, and they seemed to be so close! James, of course, wasn’t worried in the slightest and sat with his face to the glass, absolutely riveted. (James: It was incredible, with quite literally, dozens of strikes every second. Almost as if someone was fast forwarding  through footage of a storm! And after all planes can handle lightning. Right?….)

We arrived in Melbourne early the following morning. We had a few hours while we waited for Dan (James’s younger brother, who you may recall came out to see us in Istanbul ) to come and meet us after he’d finished his lectures at nearby Monash (one of Melbourne’s two universities, where he is currently half way through his first year) so we had a bit of a wander around town. It was great to be back in Melbourne, one of our all time favourite cities, and at the same time very surreal. Just hearing the Aussie-accented but undoubtedly English language all about us in the airport had seemed strange after so many months in foreign language-speaking countries, and it was equally odd to be met with a sea of white faces, not Asian ones! Then, when we got into the centre of town (via the airport shuttle bus which, convenient and friendly as it was, shocked us a bit by the price – we hadn’t quite adjusted back to the Western cost of living!), we were struck by how calm and quiet everything was: Melbourne may be a busy, cosmopolitan city, but in comparison with Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur it seemed like a ghost town!! The roads were quiet and orderly, and people gave each other space, real space, as they went about their business. Amazing the things you notice when you’ve been living somewhere else for a while! We were also loving the laid back, friendly attitude of everyone around us. On the bikes, we’re used to constant attention and questions but as ‘normal tourists’ you usually blend in a bit more. This was still the case in Melbourne, but it seems that local or tourist, you’re greeted warmly and end up having a chat when you go into a shop or café. And why not? Unfortunately in London, this seems to be a bit of a lost art.

Once with Dan, we got the train back to James’ family’s house in Avenel, about 100km (60 miles) north of Melbourne. Sal (James’ step-mum) picked us up at the nearest station and when we got to the house, we were immediately leaped on by Teva, their young boxer puppy and possibly the most excitable and insane dog ever!! I’m a cat person myself (you might have gleaned that from the numerous feline photos in our gallery) but luckily I’ve warmed to dogs in recent years – and it’s hard not to love Teva, for all her madness she’s pretty adorable. It was great to see David, James’ dad, not least because he was looking so fit and well; back when we were in Pakistan, he’d been taken seriously ill and it just so happened to be the one time on the trip when we couldn’t have gotten to an airport for a flight to see him. This was partly why it was so important to us to get over to Oz now while we were ‘in the neighbourhood’. Pretty soon, the kettle was brewing, the laundry was on, and Meg (James’ sister) was back from school – all of a sudden we were in an environment with familiarity, routine and home comforts… and it’s amazing how quickly we adapted right back into it! (Hopefully this bodes well for our return home – one of our most frequent questions is ‘How are you going to adjust to living a ‘normal’ life again?’!) I think it’s the cold that we had the hardest time getting used to – we constantly felt freezing!! I borrowed extra layers from Sal and Meg, and David took to lighting the fire for us even during the day, but it was no good: we’ve turned into complete wimps and anything below 90 degrees has us shivering!

Aside from being a good chance to catch up with the family, our fortnight in Australia afforded us some welcome downtime. We slept in, went for walks with the dog, made ourselves a cup of tea whenever we felt like it (I’ve never consumed so much tea in my life – I think we were missing it!) We enjoyed some lovely home-cooked meals (and accompanying wine…) from Sal and David (that really was the best shepherd’s pie I’ve ever had; sorry, mum!) and James  had the opportunity to get back in the kitchen too, which in turn meant that I got to have my first ‘James risotto’ in over a year, yes! We went to watch Megan play netball a couple of times, and if it’s not netball, it’s horse riding or tennis. Growing up in Australia promotes such a healthy, outdoors lifestyle –we were hoping it might rub off on us a little bit but a couple of cycle rides with Sally (aka fittest, healthiest woman in the world) and we were done for! (James: 20km into a bitterly cold headwind was the end of us!)

The next weekend saw us meeting up with Dan again in Melbourne where we ended up going to see at AFL game (Aussie Rules), the Richmond Tigers v the Western Bulldogs. Neither of us had much of a clue about the sport but Dan did his best to explain the rules and it was a fun experience for the lively atmosphere and good natured joshing from the crowds alone. (James: Bizarrely the sport isn’t actually played across Australia, but is more a game played in the state of Victoria. It started out as a warm up game for cricketers, but has evolved into a contact sport, with plenty of room for a bit of good old fashioned confrontations. Phrases being yelled  around us during random breakdowns in discipline like ‘let him stand up for a fair fight you dog!’ sound a bit pathetic and old fashioned in ‘english’ English – more something you’d expect to hear at a duel – but the phrase takes on a much more earthy quality when coming from the mouth of  the extremely large Aussie sitting next to you!) That night, I steered the boys in the direction of Lygon Street – they’d had their sport, now I needed my Italian food! The Lygon and Brunswick areas of Melbourne are home to lots of different immigrant communities – Greek, Italian, Lebanese etc – and, as a result, are well known to foodies. We stuffed ourselves stupid then made our way back to Dan’s halls of residence where we crashed for the night!

All too soon, the day of our flight back to Asia approached. We didn’t know where the time had gone! We’d been sure that we would be up-to-date with the diary by this point (the fact we’re only just posting up Australia shows you how wrong we were on that front!) and there were some jobs we’d wanted to do for Sally and David that we’d never got round to (sorry guys!) Nevertheless, we had been fairly productive – James had helped David get his MG up and running again, we’d installed a wi-fi modem to the computer, James had been in touch with Yamaha Canada about possible help with our crates at port in Vancouver and I’d managed to sort out a teaching job for September! One task that had thwarted us completely was trying to clear the tumbleweed from the garden – following an incredibly wet summer, the first after several years of drought, the stuff had grown at an unstoppable rate and now the area was experiencing an influx of dried tumble weed that was blowing in over garden fences at a far quicker rate than it was possible to gather it up. We spent several hours clearing the stuff and filled about ten big garden sacks, but by the time we’d finished, the first area we’d cleared was already full again! Oh well, at least Teva enjoyed herself trying to catch the rake and dragging sacks all around the garden!

David took us to the airport and we lucked out with a short check-in queue. It’s always sad saying goodbye to David and the family – with the massive distance between them in Australia and us in the UK, we never know when we’ll next get together. Our wedding, just before the trip, was the last time and Ben’s wedding (James’ brother in the UK) a couple of years before that… I guess next time will be for a birth (?!!…) or perhaps when Megan or Dan go travelling or even get married themselves…  (that’s a scary prospect, eh guys?!!) This time we were flying with Jet Star (another budget airline) – they’d been pretty rubbish when we’d used them for an internal flight in Vietnam so we didn’t have high hopes but at least the journey to Singapore is only about nine hours (a trifle compared with the usual trip home from Oz). This would be our last destination in Asia after over a year on the road and it’s fair to say, we were excited to finally be making to ‘land’s end’ so to speak!…

See Australia gallery for photos.

Swapping bikes for beaches

May 5th, 2011

(Em) At the end of our little road trip from Kuala Lumpur across the Malaysian Peninsula with Henry, we arrived in Kuantan on the east coast at lunchtime. Henry had parked up at the Hyatt (very flash) where he was having an afternoon meeting but his appointment wasn’t until 2pm so we sat down for cup of tea at the beachside veranda café (trying, but in all probability, failing to blend in!) It was exciting to see the sea and know that the next day we’d be sailing out to a tropical island for a few days… However, Henry then received a call that threatened to put a big spanner in the works – it was his colleague from Crown Relo who was currently being told by customs at Port Klang that the crates with our bikes in wouldn’t be permitted on the ship because our carnets weren’t valid. What?! There must be some sort of mistake: the carnet is an all important document that acts as a temporary import/export for the bikes in each country and we knew for sure that they didn’t expire for at least a month. As it transpired, it was the entry stamp to Malaysia that customs had a problem with; apparently the counterfoils in each of our carnets hadn’t been signed and stamped correctly by the overseeing official when we’d entered the country two weeks previously. Again, what?! We really couldn’t believe it. The irony was that the Thai-Malaysia crossing had been our most straightforward and simple yet and, unlike most countries, customs had asked for the carnets themselves, seemingly 100% familiar with the procedure – at some borders James has to help border officials fill them in because they’re not sure what they are! (James: although this was clearly a customs mistake I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was something I should have picked up on – maybe we’re getting a bit blasé?!) From the sound of Henry’s conversation on the phone, things were not looking good – customs wouldn’t budge and were saying that we’d have to get the slips signed before they would release the bikes from the country.

We were stunned. After all the stress of sorting out the shipping over the previous ten days, we felt that our elation at having found the right agent at the last minute and just getting our bikes booked on the next sailing was now being mocked by the fates. The ramifications of this small oversight were pretty far-reaching: it would mean making our way back up to the border post where we’d entered Malaysia, a real pain, especially without the bikes to ride, and in doing so we would wave goodbye to our island getaway. (James: it wasn’t guaranteed that we wouldn’t have to un-crate our bikes and ride back up to the border!) Worse, the bikes would have to wait until the next sailing a week later when already we were really cutting it fine with the short period of time we’d given ourselves to do North America. The lack of cooperation by customs at the port was exasperating – all they had to do was ring up the border post where we’d come through and they’d be able to confirm we were legit as they would have the counterpart half of the form which is always retained by the border when you enter – but they refused. Henry’s colleague, Rudi, was doing everything he could to sort the situation out but we knew only too well how officious officials can be. By this time, Henry needed to go for his meeting so we gave Rudi our number and stayed put at the hotel, crossing fingers (and everything else!) that somehow the situation could be resolved. 

Several nerve-wracking hours and many phone calls later, Rudi – hero of the hour – rang once more, and this time with good news! We were on! With customs at the port still refusing to be proactive, Rudi had taken it upon himself to contact customs at the northern border who had agreed to fax a copy of the counterpart form down to Port Klang and luckily, the customs chief had finally accepted this as proof we weren’t faking. Phew! With that all sorted we were back on for a few days of island living, so we parted ways with Henry (who ended up having serious car problems on the way back to across to KL, poor thing!) and went to find a place to stay in Kuantan, ready to take a bus further down the coast to Mersing for the ferry across to Tioman Island the next morning. It wasn’t exactly ripe pickings, and I was pretty appalled by the state of the some of the places on offer at the cheaper end of the scale – stale, cobwebby rooms with dirty linen that the owners (in a similar state to the rooms) seemed to have no shame about as they happily showed me what was on offer. Perhaps our standards had risen again after staying at Andrew and Henry’s lovely homes! In the end, we got somewhere that, while still pretty grotty, at least had clean sheets and had seen the business end of a vacuum cleaner in the last decade. We went out for tom yam (fast becoming the new ‘noodle soup’ ) and when we checked our emails that evening, we were surprised and chuffed to discover that we’d won a travel photography competition we’d entered (and had forgotten about) with Nomad Tents – so thanks to Harry W. for putting us onto that one!!

Making our way to Tioman the next day was a simple affair – a three hour bus ride down to Mersing, a couple of hours wait, then the ferry over to the island. It was all a bit vague as to where we should disembark – despite having an open air deck, passengers were not permitted outside and were instead stuffed into the hold, making it impossible to know which beach we had arrived at. James and I elected to jump off at Salang beach at the top end of the island (our arrival only made obvious by a deck hand yelling the destination down the stairs) as from what we’d read, it seemed to have a good combination of amenities and solitude. We made our way down the pier with a handful of other backpackers and started to systematically work our way down the beach to check out accommodation options at the various chalet clusters. We’d taken a relaxed attitude towards booking – i.e. we hadn’t – but it soon became apparent that this could have been a major error. Everywhere was fully booked! Unbeknownst to us, we had arrived at a peak bank holiday weekend so all the world and his wife had pretty much reserved the whole island! Ah. Feeling a bit foolish, we continued in our quest, hopeful that there might be somewhere for that evening at least (it was Thursday), and were rewarded (sort of) at the penultimate resort on the beach: all their cheap end, basic chalets were full (40 ringits, or about £8) but they did have an air con chalet on the beach for 120 ringits! Oh well, there wasn’t much we could do and it was my birthday weekend (James: Emily doesn’t have birthdays anymore, she has birthday weekends! This could be a slippery slope….) so it gave us an excuse to splash out a bit!

The four days we spent on Tioman were great; very chilled and luckily, despite the ‘full to the brim’ accommodation, there really didn’t seem to be many people around. Tioman is a picture-perfect beach destination: hammocks swinging under the palms, soft pale sand, and the clearest, bluest water. The only problem was the damn sand flies. Pesky little buggers, they’re small and hard to spot so I was only made aware of their existence by the small red bites I noticed on my legs the first evening. Seasonal sandflies are well known in the area so I knew immediately was the tiny dots were from and was relieved that they appeared to be fairly innocuous. Oh how wrong I was – they worsened considerably over the following days and became an itchy, unsightly nightmare!! (James: they’re way worse than mosquitoes and last for several days! Not ideal.)Thank goodness after that first day on the beach, I elected to stay on the chalet deck, a hammock or in the water which served as sufficient damage limitation (I cannot say enough how horrible the bites are, and how plentiful when you don’t take precautions – back in KL the next week, we kept spotting sandfly victims with tens, almost hundreds, of weeping angry bites all over their legs!) Anyway, bites aside, it was a lovely break and a fantastic setting in which to celebrate my big three-oh. James surprised me with a bottle of white from the duty free shack and we supped it out of plastic cups whilst sitting on a rock watching the sunset. What more could a girl ask for?! (James:  I’m all class as you know –  the wine also served to soften the blow of moving out of nice chalet, and into a more shabby little hovel which had become available at the end of the beach to save some much needed money!)

Once back in KL, we were all set for our US visa interview at the American embassy, thoughtfully scheduled for 7.20 am on the Tuesday morning: we’d filled in the online applications, which had frustratingly kept freezing so had taken hours, and which asked all kinds of bizarre questions like ‘What tribe or clan do you belong to?’, ‘Have you ever committed genocide?’, and ‘Are you a spy?’ (well, let’s see, now you mention it…); obtained some over-priced ‘special US size’ passport pictures (we always carry a stash of standard ones with us but, oh no, if you’re coming to America you need to be on a 2 inch x 2 inch square or computer says no); gone to a Standard Chartered bank to pay $140 each (ouchio, especially when most Brits get in on a free visa-waiver); and booked our interview online using the code from our bank receipt. We also made sure we had all sorts of other documentation with us – bank statements, letters from employers, our carnets etc – as recommended on the website. Our booking form outlined the process step-by-step (30 minutes for security clearance, 45 minutes for finger printing…and so on) to an expected total of 2.5 hours – blimey, we thought, we are in for a real grilling!! As it turned out, it was indeed a long old stint at the embassy but most of it was spent waiting around. When we were finally called up to a booth for our ‘interview’, the guy simply said something along the lines of ‘What a cool trip! I have no problem granting you visas, enjoy the US’! (James:  After having spent so long giving my work and education history as well as listing the countries we’d been through I almost wanted more of a grilling – at least enough to make this all worthwhile!) And just as one final act of madness, rather than be asked to return to the embassy a few days later to pick up our passports complete with visa, we instead had to get them returned by courier and pick them up from the ‘depot’. Hence, two days later we could be found out in the middle of nowhere on an industrial estate 20 miles out of the city centre wandering around trying to find ‘Unit 8B’ or whatever it was! Still, we had our visas so a big weight had been lifted, that’s for sure (not much point our bikes currently being on a ship to Vancouver if we wouldn’t be allowed to use them!….)

After all that palaver, we were ready for a another break! Well, not really, we’re not quite that pathetic but we did have almost a week before our flight to Melbourne (we were making the most of the time the bikes were spending ‘transpacific’ by visiting James’ family in Australia – it was after all, just round the corner…) and we knew that sticking around in Kuala Lumpur would no doubt prove expensive. There were  a few options: we could go back to Tioman (not an unappealing choice, and budget friendly if we went back to the cheap huts at the end of the beach), try another island (perhaps the Perhentians, further north of the east coast and somewhere I’d been before) or simply go across to the east coast but stay on the mainland. In the end, we went for the third option as it saved the cost of a ferry, and we found ourselves in Cherating, a beach resort town popular with the locals, but overlooked by international visitors. It turned out to be a great choice, not least because the accommodation (which I’d found recommended on the internet) was absolutely beautiful; raised wooden chalets set around a lake amidst lush green lawns and just a minute from the beach. There was a great little bar just up the beach (called ‘Don’t tell Mamma’ – love it!) where the super chilled barman served up freshly squeezed orange juice in big jars and, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, there was a little black kitten that liked to go swimming in the sea!! We couldn’t believe our eyes! And that wasn’t the only cool creature around  – the area is famed for its large monitor lizards. We saw quite a few of them wandering about the grounds of our chalet and James caught some great shots by following the biggest into the undergrowth! We also had a troop of cheeky monkeys living in the trees above our chalet who seemed to revel in chucking fruit on to our roof – which had a tendency to scare the life out of me in the middle of the night!

Eventually, our time in Cherating drew to a close and we headed back to KL for the last time. We had a day to wander round (for James this meant one last visit to the huge Nikon shop in one of the many mega-malls for some obligatory drooling and sighing!…) before heading off to the airport  for the budget flight to Oz. We knew we hadn’t really done justice to Malaysia – it would have been great to have spent more time exploring the country on our bikes – but at least we’d sampled (a lot) of food and made some new friends! (And evolved from the cricketers tan to a more even spread!…) The journey to Australia was remarkably comfortable – maybe our standards have dropped, or maybe it was the difference from the usual mammoth flight time from the UK?! We were excited about the prospect of being ‘at home’ for a while after so long on the road but weren’t exactly looking forward to the weather – our warm tops were in our hand luggage for easy access as after thirteen months of almost constant heat, we knew we’d be in for a bit of shocker arriving in Melbourne in winter time!….

Photos here (a bike-free zone this time, sorry!)

All go in Kuala Lumpur!

April 19th, 2011

(Em) Kuala Lumpur – what a cool city! And so bike friendly; no sooner had we hit the outskirts than we were getting waves and thumbs up from every man and his dog! Our first encounter with a super-friendly local occurred when we first arrived; we took an exit off the highway in what looked to be the direction of the Petronas Towers (without GPS or any pre-booked accommodation to head for, they seemed to be a good landmark) and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a housing estate full of dead ends! We flagged down a passing people-carrier to ask for directions and the guy – wife and kids in tow – just told us to follow him, heading back into the centre of town (he no doubt lived on the estate and was almost home) and a good 20 minutes out of his way just to put us on the right track! The spirit of helping strangers is alive and well in KL. Of course, we stopped for some photos by the Petronas Towers (James geek fact: until 2004, they were the tallest buildings in the world, and still the tallest twin building at a tad under 452m or 1483ft but are not actually as tall as the Willis Tower, formally the Sears Tower, in Chicago as the Petronas Towers’ masts were considered design features and not just an ‘antenna on the roof’) and amused passers-by with our attempts to get the shot of the towers with the bikes by lying in the middle of the road! (James: one more reason why I need a wide-angle lens, damnit!…)

It took a while to locate somewhere to stay – the budget hotels were way out of our price range and even the hostels seemed extortionate in comparison with Thailand (plus we were a bit concerned about leaving the bikes out in the street). In the end, we found a pokey little room – no windows, paper thin walls, smelled of mothballs (James: to the point that we were getting headaches within minutes!) – in an Indian run hostel and charmed the flash hotel opposite into letting us put the bikes in their underground carpark. Result! We couldn’t take our bikes over to the shipping agent until Monday so our first day in town (Sunday) was used for admin and wandering about. Kuala Lumpur is a really happening city, modern like Bangkok but somehow a lot more European; I guess we got that sense from all the English language signs and trendy pubs, bars and shops. It’s busy but immaculately clean so quite a pleasure to explore on foot (although there aren’t many sidewalks –public transport is great but it’s not set up for the pedestrian!) In the evening, we managed to avoid the temptation of euro-food in the many cool looking bistros (there were Spanish tapas bars like you might see in London’s Spitalfields market, i.e. very trendy) and went for some good ole tom yam soup. Can’t go wrong!

Our shipping agent was located quite a way out of the centre of town but we’d printed off a map of the location so it was all good. Or not. What we hadn’t prepared for is the complete lack of any logic whatsoever when it came to signage on the city’s main road network. (James: It’s not only the signs, if you miss a junction you can’t just ride down to the next one and turn around – the next one simply turns off and sends you miles further out of your way with NO option to EVER turn round!) I don’t think we’ve had a more frustrating navigational experience on the whole trip than the complete nightmare that was finding the right road out of the city that morning!… And as the projected forty-five minute journey got closer to two hours, we really started to panic: in order to get our crates on the end of week sailing, Henry at Crown Relo had really wanted the bikes in on Friday but had extended the deadline so long as we got to the warehouse first thing Monday morning… it was now fast approaching Monday lunchtime! Eventually, having been helped by two taxi drivers and an ever-patient Henry on the phone (he confirmed that the road system was almost legendary for its crapness of design!), we made it to the industrial estate that housed Crown Relo’s office and warehouse. It was quite different from Suraj’s little shipping company office in Kathmandu, that’s for sure! We rode the bikes up into the huge warehouse space, which was chock full of crates but extremely organised and utterly spic and span, and set about taking the front wheels off so the bikes could be measured up for crating. It would take a while for the carpenters to make up the crates and we were quite happy to sit on the grass in the sunshine but Henry had other plans and took us out for lunch! An unexpected treat, not least because it meant we got to try Chinese marmite chicken for the first time!

The crates turned up around four and it was nearly 8pm by the time our bikes were all packed up – these things always take longer that you imagine, even with a team of six (yes, six!) guys helping us. We felt bad to have kept everyone late as a result of our cock up trying to find the place that morning but far from being resentful, Henry (James: who as management had had no reason to stay at work beyond 6pm and even less to stick around for us!) then gave us a lift to the station (we were now bike-less of course) and even offered for us to stay at his house the following evening! What a legend! Our plan had been to head to the east coast the following day for some beach action on Tioman Island (our US visa interview appointment – yes, really – wasn’t scheduled until the beginning of the following week) but Henry was offering up an even better plan; to stay and his and then get a lift across the country with him the next day as he was driving over for a meeting anyway. Perfect! So the next evening found we found ourselves in the surreal, but wonderful, scenario of sitting down with Henry, his delightful wife Maz and entertaining son Jake to a slap up meal complete with steak and fantastic red wine at their local – which happened to be an ex-pat bar/club run by a South African fellow cricketer (James: Henry is a cricket nut so most things for him seem to involve cricket to one degree or another!) and came complete with Olympic sized pool – before scoffing blue cheese and port in front of a movie at their home! We felt thoroughly spoiled, which indeed we were, and were really pleased to have made such lovely friends; not something either of us had expected to come out of our shipping experience! (James: All we can say is if you’re looking to ship ANYTHING out of Malaysia, Crown Relo are where you want to be, although we should add, that dinner and hospitality are very much NOT part of the ‘standard’ service! We were just incredibly lucky! Thanks once again Henry and family!) Needless to say, we slept (er, passed out?) like logs that night – we’ve become complete lightweights on the trip so beer, wine and port pretty much finished us off! We were also relieved to have the bike shipment sorted and, with our US visa interviews not until the following week, we were looking forward to some beach time for the next few days….

Click here for photos.

Living it up in Penang!

April 17th, 2011

(Emily) ‘Welcome to Malaysia’ was emblazoned in big bold letters as we crossed the border, and welcome is certainly what we felt! Customs was a breeze and while James was inside getting the carnets done, I chatted with one of the border guards who taught us a few useful phrases – this is how we usually get some initial familiarity with a few key words in the language of a new country, there never seems to be time beforehand (James: it also helps to ‘warm up’ moody officials – all part of our cross-border charm offensive)!  The border post deposited us straight out onto the highway and immediately it was clear that Malaysia is significantly more developed than rural Thailand; big cars and sports bikes flashed past us and things just looked more streamlined and planned out. Also, being a former British colony, we could quickly identify elements of this heritage in the propensity of English language signs and road names. The sky had been looking pretty thunderous all morning and on the way down to Penang, we got hit by a few very heavy showers – it comes straight down in this part of the world, no messing about (James: quite literally, it’s like something out of film. You can ride along in clear dry air, and up ahead you’ll see a wall of water through which you can nothing. You get closer and closer to it and because there is not a breath of air, you can pretty much ride right up to it, stop, get off and stand and wait twenty metres away without feeling a drop!) But the Malays have a great system to help bikers caught in wet weather; under each bridge, of which there are many, there are special sections marked out where mopeds and motorcycles can pull into gaps in the barriers to seek refuge from downpours. We were extremely grateful for this facility, especially after the third or fourth shower! We also loved the fact that at each toll station, motorcycles (who don’t have to pay) are diverted round on their own little narrow route through the undergrowth at the side of the highway. It didn’t seem entirely necessary – there’s always room past one of the end toll booths – but we enjoyed the novelty factor!

In Penang, we were very lucky to have been offered a place to stay with James’s brother Ben’s wife Jo’s (got that?!) cousin (James: our cousin-in-law?). Andrew lives in Bukit Mertajam in mainland Penang and we were surprised and extremely gratified to be given exclusive use of his flash bachelor pad while he went and stayed with family down the road! And Andrew’s generosity didn’t end there… He’s a self-confessed car nut and has a whole network of like-minded auto enthusiasts all over the city. The very next day, he led us down to a local garage where his friends gave the bikes a thorough going over (this was after we’d come out of the house to find Andrew hosing our grubby motos down on the forecourt!) This mini-service turned out to be just as well as we knew that James’s rear brake pads were on their last legs, but more fortuitously, one of the bolts that hold his exhaust on was apparently about to fall off! The guys at the garage sorted these issues (btw thanks Dad for bringing the spare brake pads when you came out to Thailand) and gave the bikes a general sprottle. They even wrapped some heatproof bandage around our exhausts (Andrew insisted on this after seeing James’s pink right leg from riding the sort distance to the garage in shorts!) And for all this we were charged the ridonkulous fee of just 30 ringits, which equates to about £6!

Our ever-obliging host also made it his personal business to drive us around to see various sights in Penang while we were there.  Near Georgetown, we visited the Penang Clan jetties (a UNESCO world heritage site),which is a cluster of residential  piers on stilts that extend up to 80 metres out into the sea and are remnants of what was once a larger network of villages. Originally, each jetty was associated with a particular Chinese clan and those who shared the surname settled as neighbours; today the precariously appointed homes (some of which are surprisingly spacious) along each particular pier still house residents with a common surname. (Apart from ‘Mixed Surname Jetty’ – for all the odd stragglers, perhaps?!) While we were in the area, we also had a stroll around the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis – located on the point where Sir Francis Light first landed on Penang and thus began the colonisation of the island. There isn’t a whole lot to see nowadays but James and Andrew liked the cannons (boys, eh!) Later in the week, we visited the ‘military museum’, formerly a British forces training camp but used during the occupation by the Japanese in the WW2 as a prisoner of war camp (James: and one in which we believe my grandfather was held after being captured). There wasn’t much to see, as slightly bizarrely, those who run the camp have decided to make it dual purpose so it remains part museum and historical record, and part paintball centre! There were just old building left without much in the way of  any information to speak of so we left remembering it mostly for being perhaps the most mosquito ridden place we’d yet been to! Definitely not a place to spend years as a prisoner! We also took a gentle climb up a forest trail (lush rainforest is literally right on your doorstep even though Penang is a major city) replete with cooling fresh water pools and some very cheeky monkeys. (James: Although there’s only so far you can walk up hill when it’s 40 degrees and about 90% humidity!)

So, as you can see, Andrew was more than a bit of a star. And I haven’t even got to the best bit yet: during our ten days in Penang, he ensured that we sampled a whole smorgasbord of tasty local cuisine (James: and you know how we like our food!)which, due to the melting pot of cultures in Malaysia, comprised of Chinese, Thai, Indian, Indonesia, Malaysian or a fusion of food from different nationalities (even the British Isles gets a look in – chicken in Guinness anyone?! It was delicious, as was marmite chicken!) Finding places to try all these dishes with a local’s insight was just awesome – thanks Andrew! A particular favourite was guay chap (James: the spelling might be a little off…),  a rich duck soup just bursting with flavour,  plus James was rather taken with asam laksa, a sour but spicy little soup number. And let’s not forget the little breakfast parcels of rice with sambal that Andrew would bring over for us in the morning. It’s fair to say we were well and truly spoilt! Our time in Penang coincided with our first wedding anniversary (always good to still be on your honeymoon when that comes around!) and we somewhat lowered the gastronomic tone by consuming a bottle of wine and a bar of Dairy Milk in front of a movie that night – ah, the romance!

So, you may be wondering why we hung around Penang for so long. Well aside from the great time we were having with Andrew, really it was because our goal was to arrange the shipping of our bikes from Malaysia over to Canada while we were somewhere cheap (free – even better!) with decent internet access. We just didn’t bank on it taking over a week! I must have sent out quote requests to at least forty shipping agents and slowly but surely, they started to trickle back but there were days of endless dialogue back and forth about crate dimensions and optional services  and so on and so forth. What did become clear within a few days was that shipping by air was pretty much out of the question; as much as we wanted to get the bikes across the Pacific in the shortest possible time in order to get maximum touring time in the states, £4000+ (yes, really!) just wasn’t viable (and that wasn’t including our own tickets). So, half way through the week we did a bit of an about turn and started looking into sea freighting instead. To us, this was a far less desirable option: aside from the time issue, we’d just heard so many horror stories about horrendous delays or bribery at the port of destination. Still, it didn’t look like we had much choice, and at least we were shipping to Canada, more of a known entity. When we started getting yet more extortionate quotes and, worse, projections of  35 day sailing times that wouldn’t even be leaving port for several weeks, I began to get rather concerned. Maybe America was going to have to be ‘another trip for another day’ – at this rate we’d barely have time to cross the states and, more importantly, only a fistful of dollars left with which to do it.

Eventually though, we struck lucky and were in a position where we had three viable options: Andrew’s friend who works in shipping (James: Andrew, seemed to know everybody in Penang!), a freight forwarder who two fellow bikers had recently used out of Kuala Lumpur, and an agent with a company called Crown Relo (much more big scale) who seemed to know what he was talking about, gave prompt replies to my queries and had some flexibility on rates depending on what we required. Naturally, it was a Friday afternoon near the close of business when things really came to a head and we were making frantic calls to all three parties trying to get a final quote so we could make our decision. Our bikes are our babies, remember  – putting them on a random ship and hoping they turn up where you want them to is not something to be taken lightly! (James: shipping by sea can also be a pretty torrid affair. Unlike air freight where the bike goes on a set flight and arrives hours later, the shipping world is far murkier. You’re never sure if your ‘low priority’ crate is onboard, whether it was unloaded at another port en route etc, so the estimated sailing and arrival times tend to be best case scenario. A good example is Fabian, who you’ll hopefully remember from China and Pakistan. He shipped his bike from the same port at new year. His projected sailing time to South America was 4 weeks so he spent them backpacking in Indonesia. Upon his arrival he went to get hid bikes but they weren’t there. In the end, he waiting 2 months in Argentina before he got his beloved bike back!) In the end, with the other two faffing about a bit and time running out (it was minutes before 5pm when they’d all be going home for the weekend), we went with Henry at Crown Relo. Henry, who it turned out was a Brit, (no bad thing as it means less room for losses in translation when agreeing details and fees!) was confident that as long as we got down to Kuala Lumpur by Monday to do the paperwork and crate up the bikes in good time, the bikes could sail on the Friday. Suddenly, it all seemed very real!

So, after abusing Andrew’s hospitality for well over one week, we prepared to leave for Kuala Lumpur. Andrew was gracious to the last, welcoming us back should we need a cheap place to kill some time once the bikes had gone, and as we rode off, we felt very lucky to have received such generous hospitality. Thanks Andrew! Our plan for the day was to head into the Cameron Highlands, an area of outstanding natural beauty famous for its old British colonial tea plantations, and stay there for one night en route to KL. However, those pesky storm clouds were at it again. We had to pull in at service stations and moto-shelters several times along the way to avoid heavy rain (at one point pulling in a tad late and getting absolutely drenched), and as we neared the turn of for the Highlands, it was clear that the miserable weather would pretty much render this scenic route pointless if we were cold and wet and not even able to see our surroundings! It was a shame to pass by – we were all too aware that we’d hardly ridden in Malaysia at all yet and the bikes would soon be nested in their crates, not to see the light of day again until they reached Vancouver – but we’re not gluttons for punishment! So we pressed on towards the capital and, typically, the sun came out in full force by early afternoon. We knew that KL was going to be busy and manic but once we saw the glimmer of skyscrapers in the distance and caught our first glimpse of the enormous Petronas Towers, we couldn’t help but feel rather excited!….

For photos click here.

Leaving Thailand – it had to happen eventually!

April 6th, 2011

(Emily) All things considered, our night camping out on the floor of the service station really wasn’t too bad (that said, our standards have dropped significantly on this trip, a fact normally made apparent when we bump into other westerners!) As I mentioned in our last entry, the locals were remarkably relaxed about this unscheduled and unwanted event and were proceeding with the usual Thai spirit – remaining cheerful and helping each other out despite the fact that they may have just lost everything.  Many had either elderly relatives or babies and young children with them, all of whom were frankly astonishing in the manner they were dealing with the situation even though most had already been at the station for several days . As we looked for a spot to bed down, the family groups who had already set themselves up on the floor of the disused shop front voluntarily shared out the cardboard boxes they’d found and we were even given free ‘rations’ of rice and meat by the food stall owners! We tried to say we didn’t need it but they insisted (James: Can you imagine this happening at home? If anything the price of food would go up!) I think it was quite a novelty to have three’ farang’ bikers camping out with them! For us it was all very humbling. The night air was warm enough that we didn’t need to get our sleeping bags out so we just slept in our clothes, occasionally woken by the chatter of a new coach load of people turning up to wait it out for the night. The only problem, as ever, was the mosquitoes and cockroaches (an inevitable part of life in the tropics) but once we’d moved further away from the electrical lighting, we were only bothered by the occasional winged assailant.

We were up early in the morning and noticed immediately that some of the cars were starting to leave – perhaps we’d missed an announcement that the road was open? Sadly not, it was people who’d given up and were heading back north. In the end, we decided we’d probably have to do the same after a stroll back down to the flooded road showed no change, in fact it was possibly worse after some more heavy rain in the night. Aid lorries loaded up with small plastic boats lined the road at the edge of the flooding and occasionally a huge truck, complete with snorkel, made it through from the other side, laden with cheering passengers elated to have gotten across (only the vehicles with an elevated exhaust – the aforementioned snorkel – and high road clearance could make it through the neck-high water). It would have been great if we could have got our bikes onto one of these trucks – by all the accounts the impassable stretch was several kilometres long – but aside from the fact that there was no way to mount them, there were other people who needed the transport far more than we did. So we left, having said goodbye and good luck to German Harley guy (he was on the phone to his ‘contacts’ – other Hell’s Angels -  to find somewhere to stay and was getting worried about his dog – a pit-bull naturally – who was alone at his house on Koh Phi Phi, a house which may or may not still be standing…) Our vague plan was to head back in the direction of Chumphon and hopefully find a guesthouse along the way to wait it out for a few days. To say the plan was vague was an understatement – how would we know that the road had become clear when even down here at the floodzone, there was little communication about the state of it? Still, doing something was better than doing nothing, even if that something was riding in the opposite direction of Malaysia and it was now only four days before our visas were due to expire…

Just as we were getting to the tail end of the queue of traffic (which had built up considerably since yesterday when we’d arrived), James noticed an impromptu police shack that had been set up at the side of the road, all but hidden behind parked trucks, and suggested we stop to ask for an update. There didn’t seem much point to me – surely alternative routes would have been communicated to the thousands of stranded motorists  – but as we pulled in, they did seem to be pinning up a makeshift map. No one spoke much English but from what we could tell, this was indeed a diversion route up through the mountains  (now draining of flood waters) that 4x4s were being advised they could take in order to continue further south. One of the police officers gestured that we follow a family in their car who were just about to set off – it was all a bit of a rush, and I was still dubious as to whether we’d got the right end of the stick but James convinced me we should give it a go so off we went!

All too soon, we turned off the main highway and onto a much narrower road, overhung with trees and riddled with potholes. Convinced that we would soon be riding through mud and all sorts (after all, this route had only just reopened after being flooded itself), I turned each corner with a sense of trepidation. However, fortune was smiling on us and apart from the potholes, occasional broken surface and the odd very temporarily repaired bridge, it was a lovely route that climbed up through the green hills. The traffic was all 4x4s and occasionally it ground to a halt convincing me that there must be a really bad bit ahead, but each time we’d simply ride down to the front and find it was something we could get through. Eventually James indicated that he could see roughly where we must be on the map (up until this point, he’d been using geographical features such as hills and rivers to gauge where we were in the absence of any road signs)and we were able to find our way to a marked road running along the hills in the direction of Krabi. The road was made even lovelier by the lack of traffic; clearly not many people had either found out about this route yet or simply hadn’t made it. Slightly more painful was admitting to James that he had been right!! (James: Given the regular practice you have, I’d have thought you’d be used to it by now…..)

At one point, we’d stopped to photograph some spectacular thunder clouds that were gathering rather too close for comfort when a motorist pulled in ahead of us and he and his wife came over to say hi. Tim’s a Yorkshire man but was over in Thailand to visit his wife Lek’s family, and had spotted the foreign plates on the bikes. A biker himself, he’d done his fair share of overlanding so we had a good chat and swapped details before continuing on our respective journeys – so, Hi Tim, hope to catch up with you in Richmond at some point! It wasn’t much later that we were rather surprised to find ourselves in Krabi, a popular beach resort and gateway to many of Thailand’s island getaways; just that morning we’d expected to be spending the evening back in Chumphon waiting anxiously for the flooding to relent and possibly facing the headache of getting a new visa whereas now, here we were, under 400km from the Malaysian border  with four days to spare! And, perhaps most miraculously of all, the sun was actually shining! Staff at our guesthouse confirmed that Krabi too had suffered the unseasonable rains and cold weather experienced by most of the south in recent weeks but that the forecast was set to improve… this might finally be our chance to hit the beach! It was bliss to get a shower and clean away the grime of a night on tiles (literally rather than in the fun way!) and we spent the evening relaxing (after an obligatory pad thai), enjoying a fantastic sunset from the roof of the hotel, happy hour G’n’T in hand!!

The following afternoon, after a long lie in and a sublime banana/coffee shake, we rode two up to the beach at Noppharathara (just 15km away). The tide was way out and we took our time strolling along the deserted sands,  then indulged in a bit of sunbathing before,  once again, watching a glorious sunset. Perfect! So perfect in fact, that we decided to stick around for one more day and this time actually moved from the guesthouse in Krabi town to some accommodation on the beach front – and why not, eh?! The ‘Blue Banyan Bungalows’ seemed suitably fitting. We were a bit on the pink side by the end of our second day on the beach (we may have been away for a year and look all ‘weathered’ but from the neck down we’re still pretty much whiter than white!) so it was just as well that our time as sun-seekers was short lived. That evening, outraged by the prices at the local bar, we bought some beers at a convenience store and sat on the beach to watch yet another stunning sunset. We both agreed it was a great way to spend our last few days in Thailand.

With our visa entering its last 24 hours, we aimed to ride to the city of Hat Yai which, at just over 300km away, would leave just a short hop to the border the following day. Unfortunately, I’d slept terribly and felt decidedly dodgy for the majority of the journey – it was a case of enduring rather than enjoying the ride. But at least the weather was great and we rode through some spectacular scenery. Hat Yai itself is a big, rather ‘grey’ town and decidedly un-Thai, with a large Chinese and Muslim population; it felt rather like we’d left the country already. It took us a while to find a hotel with secure parking and we rejected several places when confronted with rather rude proprietors (which often seems to be the way with Chinese-run businesses here) but we did have a great meal that evening which was a relief: our last repast in Thailand was a sad event indeed and it would have been gutting not to get a good farewell dinner! We were up bright and early on D-Day; we were already cutting it fine to be leaving it until the last day of our visa so didn’t want to push our luck and invite any unforeseen delays by being too cavalier. That said, I’m sure a visa-overstay wouldn’t be quite the same disaster it had been in Uzbekistan (when, you might recall, we were put under house arrest…) We road south west towards the border  under a really hot sun, but were periodically cooled by an incredibly black storm cloud that sat above us almost perfectly dissecting our route, allowing the sun to shine on one side of the road whilst drenching the other! All too soon we were at the border post and having to say good bye to Thailand for good. It’s fair to say, we were really sad to be leaving after all this time (surely we qualify for residency by now?!) but knew we’d be back some day…

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