Ultra Across Myanmar…?

If there’s something I’ve learnt on this trip, it’s that time is an undervalued commodity. One of the real virtues of travelling by bike is the sheer amount of it you have to yourself. For some I’m sure that screams solitary torture, but if you’re the kind of person that fancies cycling around the world, chances are you’ll begin to really value this time. All that being said, spending up to 14 hours in the saddle is usually far from the deep thought-provoking mental odyssey you may first imagine. Thoughts of home comforts, favourite foods and early episodes of the trip seen through rose-tinted spectacles frequent the mind on particularly monotonous stretches. Looking ahead, I knew a fair share of these moments would all to soon be coming my way. It was the 16thof November, I was on the Indo-Nepalese border and had promised to see my auntie whilst she was visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand on the 8thof December.

3000km in three weeks, three countries, two border crossings and plenty of mountains separated me from my destination. It was going to be brutal. Knowing I had to make up such vast distances for days on end, I was going to need a helping hand for when times got tough. To keep my mind from turning to mush, I dived back into the wonderful world of podcasts and audiobooks. Immersing myself in these productions has genuinely helped me out so much on this trip. I listen to everything from science to cycling, cricket to comedy, for hours and hours on end. 

Recently, one of the audio rabbit holes I’ve found myself falling into is the world of ultra-endurance racing. Ultra is a general sporting term referring to any long-distance race. It’s particularly prevalent in both the cycling and running sphere’s, with a surge of interest in recent events meaning these races are now receiving coverage from major magazine podcasts. The mentality of these races harks back to the early days of the Tour de France, brutally tough, self-sufficient voyages that see riders cover huge distances, often crossing continents in one hit. 

One of the big races I’d been keenly following for some time was the Transcontinental. Starting in Belgium and finishing in Greece, the riders cycle continuously day and night on a route of their choice until they reach the finish – 3500km away. You plan your route, you ride solo, you discover both the land and yourself from the saddle through those days on the road. The quickest riders manage the race in just 8 days, often managing to top ridiculous 600km per day during the early stages. The whole thing is madness. Consequently, I’ve fallen in love with this type of racing, it’s amateur ideology and plain simplicity. Hence, I’ve decided I would like to roll the dice and try to complete one of these events when I return back home.

These events are more than just a race, in riding as fast you can, day and night for between 8-20 days, you will inevitably push yourself into realms of discomfort previously unknown. What comes with that is a bleak headspace during those deepest moments of darkness. Those moments when you are stripped bare from anything else that may be going on in your head. You are truly present, focussed on getting through the next climb, 10 minutes, two hours… For some these times prove too much, causing a large number of riders to drop out or ‘scratch’ as it’s known. Those who make it through talk about the ride as some life-changing experience, boosting their mental resilience and yearning to do it again. I know on this trip I’ve had a few moments which I would place in this category. Hearing the riders talk about their experiences, I feel a strong resonance with their words that definitely apply to certain feelings of mine faced on particularly tough sections of this trip. 

When touring I do enjoy putting in the odd long ride to challenge myself in reaching an interesting destination on what may be a better day i.e. arriving on a Friday night to visit the bars in full swing! I’ve done a 205mile (328km) ride before this trip, but never a long back to back rides. The more I thought about it, the more this crazy deadline to reach Chiang Mai suddenly seemed like a perfect time more me to dip my toe in the ‘ultra-pond’ so to speak. 200km days certainly aren’t the daily 250 required to finish in the transcontinental time limit or the 400 that the quick guys average, but on a 60kg bike over almost race distance, I thought it would be a suitable first foray. Plus, I didn’t have much choice if I was to cycle the whole way on time!

The following day after Katy had flown back to the UK, I embarked on this crazy three-week cycling marathon. Leaving Siliguri in the pitch-black morning mist I eagerly followed the beam of my headtorch eastwards – this was to become a morning ritual for the days to come. Ride for two hours from 4am until the morning sun rise show was in full swing – always a highlight of my day – then ride almost solidly until around 11am, snacking on biscuits and bananas as I cycled. I’d rest up for 20 minutes or so before putting in another two hours until lunch and then riding until the end of the day. I know it sounds horrific, but there was something I grew to love about the whole process. It most definitely isn’t how I want to ride the rest of the tour – I think I would die of exhaustion – but I was glad have the goal to spur me on and see if I could do this.

Quiet misty mornings, climbing up 2000m mountains, out of the clouds in search of the mornings sun and a place to sleep that bit further east. I cycled before any soul had stirred, the roads were mine, darkness became somewhat dreamy not daunting. I was experiencing a whole new type of riding. During the first 10 days I cycled from the Nepalese border to Myanmar’s Mandalay – much further than I expected. During that time I was treated to some of the most interesting cycling of the trip over in north-east India. Entering the mountains around Shillong, I passed through the stunning so-called ‘Scotland of the east’. Obviously coined by British colonialists, looking over at the jaw dropping mountains and lakes got me thinking, if Scotland is half as nice as this I really ought to spend some time there exploring. Rolling hills, some steep climbs and incredible roadside curries made these tough days a little more enjoyable . 

Leaving Shillong, I closed out a particularly tough 210km to Silchar, complete with 2000m+ of climbing and a few hours navigating dirt-road potholes under torch light. Towards the end of the day my body was feeling more than an little spent, but through the mad cycling delirium, riding through a lush jungle directly on the Bangladesh border, I looked down at this new country’s seemingly endless green plains from a snaking mountain road. A blood-red sun set warmed both colours and temperament, providing a truly unforgettable section of cycling. Speeding downhill, music blasting out whilst I weaved through a stunning area that few tourists will ever see, these moments are what I live for. That is why I left home. I felt present. Luckily for me, these moments started to come my way frequently on route to Mandalay, making this pure cycling section start to feel a little more ‘transcontinental’.

Of course, it wasn’t always plain sailing, hiccups are inevitable on these journeys. After spending a night in an abandoned bamboo hut where two truckers decided to shine torches in my face whilst screaming to scare me for a laugh in the dead of night, my entire rear pannier rack decided to airmail itself from my bike to the tarmac whilst going over a speed bump. Cue a lot of swearing, a lot of young children crowding around and a lot of small fingers wanting to touch all bike related parts in sight. Thankfully it was just a case of a few screws coming loose, which in turn loosened a few more screws until the inevitable happened. It looked like a calamity with huge bits of detached bike strewn across the road, but all was thankfully fixed up with relative ease. In time like these, I’m always happy to be carrying half of B&Q’s small nuts and bolts catalogue.

Another amusing escapade was crossing the border into Myanmar. The thought of this was something that had unnerved me for a while now. Until just 3 months ago the border was completely closed to foreigners and before that you had to apply to an agency, paying an extortionate fee for a certified official to take you across. To make matters worse, you had to pay for a return ticket because you wouldn’t be allowed to cross out of any border other than the one you had come from. I had heard this route was now open to foreigners but still had no idea whether I would be allowed to cross into Thailand on my way out of the country. 

It seemed my fears were unfounded however, the Indian security staff seemed content that my e-visa was all they needed to send me across the river to Myanmar. First however, I had to wait about for them to complete some paperwork. I was ushered into an armed security post constructed from sandbags that seem to be a staple of all military checkpoints. The atmosphere in the place felt a little strange and when they offered me a seat next to these two Asian men sitting on the floor, I just felt I’d rather stand. Lots of phone calls were being made in rushed Indian – something was clearly going on. I looked down at the two men sitting cross-legged on the floor, both were almost on the verge of tears. There was a pure desperation in their eyes, fear emanated from their faces. My friendly English-speaking guard sensed I was slightly uncomfortable, suggesting we convened outside to wait for my papers to be checked.

It wasn’t long before a military pickup pulled up outside the check post and the two men had their arms and legs shackled before being put in the back with a number of armed personnel. I asked my guard if they’d been caught smuggling something across the border to which he replied, “oh no, much, much worse”. A wave of possible heinous crimes flooded my mind, murderers, paedophiles? I just had to ask. This time he turned his head slowly, looking me dead in the eyes before saying with a completely straight face, “they killed fish with explosive”. I struggled not to burst out laughing on the spot. There I was imagining my life was somewhat in danger with these two blokes who lobbed a stick of dynamite into a lake to make a few tuna sweetcorn paninis …! 

With that funny thought in my mind, I crossed the bridge over to Myanmar. Immediately the place felt very different, it took a minute before I could put my finger on what it was. It was quiet, there were no horns! No traffic, no people pushing past you, no noise. I felt a palpable tension drain from my body, a tension I didn’t realise was actually there until this point. I never thought I’d be saying this, I was so glad to be in Myanmar!

The Burmese roads started off well before the game of pothole roulette truly got underway. It didn’t help that I’d ambitiously decided to try cycle 240km’s that day to a town just one day’s ride from Mandalay. The road quickly turned to dirt with huge bulldozers churning up the ground as they worked on building a new road whilst vehicles still had to use the same road. As you can imagine, hours of cycling around heavy machinery on soft dirt did little to make a dent in those kilometers. I was becoming increasingly frustrated when after this, the dirt became too loose to cycle on, forcing me to spend the next few hours pushing the bike up a series of steep hills. Annoyingly the hills were too steep and rocky for me to enjoy the downhill sections.

This road clearly had been the original road through the region in decades gone by before a larger, longer one had been built nearby. Consequently, I hadn’t come across any marked towns or food shops all morning which started to become a worry as my water began running low in the afternoon heat. Thankfully I met a local lad on a motorbike who told me there was a village ahead and that his friend had small café there. At that point in time, that l man was a saviour! After 12 hours of hellish riding/pushing I was really beginning to struggle. He was as good as his word, waking up his sleeping shopkeeper of a friend who sorted me right out with some warm instant noodles and chicken. 

Now feeling marginally better, I started what I originally thought was the only climb of the day (those small sandy hills had already laid bare to this claim). 600m isn’t much compared to some of the previous mountains but this road was something else. Averaging over 20% on rough dirt and tarmac, it was a killer. To make things a little more interesting, I managed to smash my sunglasses and snap my chain on the way up this beast. After fixing the chain I could feel the bike still wasn’t right, my rear derailleur was making a horrible noise and I knew it wouldn’t long before the chain snapped again. If this happened I would be stuck, I was out of quick-links to repair it and wasn’t confident in my chances finding any lurking about in this jungle. After a tired half hour of frustrated tinkering, I’d fixed the problem for the most part. Two days previous, my wheels had slipped between planks of a wooden bridge, falling through the gap and giving my front rack and rear derailleur a good whack in the process – now I was feeling the effects. 

All of the days shenanigans meant it was now almost dark. Having just reached the summit of the climb, I weighed up trying to ride the next 50 miles to the originally planned town or camping in the forest. Looking back the solution seems blindingly obvious but it took me a while before deciding another 6 hours of cycling through a remote jungle in the dark probably wasn’t the best option. I pitched up away from the road, eating all the food I had, a single banana, before falling instantly asleep. 

That day was one of the toughest I’d had on the whole trip; as I dismounted the bike to put the tent up, my whole body was a shaking with exhaustion. I posted on Instagram about it saying, ‘there’s nothing like a day of hell on the bike to lower your threshold of heaven to a partially tarmacked road and a warm coke’. I think that’s a pretty accurate summary of the day’s events. One I won’t be forgetting for some time.

Maybe this tough day was what made me enjoy my time in Mandalay afterwards that much more. I ended up spending 3 days there getting the bike fixed up, exploring the city and its surrounding temples. The people from BBC Berkshire got back in touch and we did a late-night live interview from the hostel. Thankfully the WiFi held up for the whole thing, which was more than can be said for my tired brain! 

One amusing afternoon was spent being challenged to a hill climb to the cities hillside viewpoint. I was carrying a bag of shopping back to the hostel when a roadie cycled by in his lycra and asked if I fancied a climb with him. He looked shocked when I agreed and even more so when I quickly pulled away from him up the switchbacks with my little plastic bag ferociously swaying side-to-side as I rode. I don’t think he expecting to have picked a round the world cyclist in the mood for attacking the ride whilst wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jean shorts! The whole thing was a good laugh, I managed to overtake three cyclists ahead of us on this short climb and they all had a good giggle at the top when they realised that I had done a little bit of riding before. 

It was soon time to leave Mandalay and I became very aware that I had done little or no planning for the rest of the route. Originally I had just chosen the shortest route from Mandalay to Chiang Mai. This followed a directly east mountain road from the city to the Thai border which I knew tourists could cross. Unfortunately, I was quickly warned that the road to the border was unsafe for foreigners and I would be prevented from even attempting to cycle along it. The downside of this meant I would have to ride an extra few hundred kilometers. 

The upshot of the new route however was that it took me close to the ancient city of Bagan. Travellers in Mandalay had been raving about the place, so it seemed worthwhile to take a little detour to see what all the fuss was about. Adding extra miles to the even longer route didn’t really matter, I knew I was to be cycling almost all day a night either way. After a quick google it seemed obvious that I had made the right decision though. Built in the 11thcentury, there are over 1300 Buddhist temples in Bagan ranging in size from a small shed to towering pyramids. All the temples have been constructed very close to each other, allowing you to cycle around as you please and explore them all. You don’t need tickets, there aren’t gates, you just pass about as you please. As Myanmar’s tourism is still in its early stages of development, especially after the Rokhing incident that was picked up by the western media, everything still feels unspoilt, free and fun.

In the early hours of the morning everyone in the hostel gets up before jumping on motorbikes to ride in the dark to their temple of choice. Groups of bikes weave through the bush land, lighting up the dirt tracks all around with their headlights. People then climb the temples to get the best vantage point of the sun rising with these huge pyramids being illuminated by the morning light. Each morning hot air balloons take paying tourists over the area making for this unbelievably beautiful scene. I was lucky enough to get a tip off location for a good temple and led a small group there on my bike (Tina). A little climb over a gate later and we had front row seats to one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. Usually tourist destinations don’t live up to the hype, but I can safely say this was something different. Despite its increasing popularity, I hope they manage to maintain the ‘rough around the edges’ feel which makes the area so special. That evening we all rode to a different temple for a new climbing adventure and sunset. Despite only spending one whole day in Bagan, it was such a unique place that it will always stick out in my mind forever when I think about Myanmar.

Unfortunately for me, the rest of the country was to be a real blur. An ultra-blur. Having taken four days off to see more of Myanmar, I now had to really turn the screw to make Chiang Mia in time. Out of seven days cycling, five averaged out over 200km per day and the others involved some good climbing. As you can imagine, I was looking pretty ragged at this point, not least my white t-shirt that I had remained unwashed since Mandalay. Having spent a few nights sleeping in forests, the shed of two lads illegally selling petrol, and just generally lying down on the floor for the odd afternoon nap, it was now completely brown with dust. Upon entering Thailand, my 28thcountry, I realised I just had to bin the thing. Going into my first plush shopping mall since Baku 8 months ago, I went into the first shop selling t-shirts and threw mine directly in their bin.

Whilst donning my newly fresh t-shirt and trying to get over the culture shock of just how developed Thailand was, I got completely mixed up with the currency. Still thinking in terms of Myanmars Kyat, (clearly I was delirious at this point) I withdrew 20 000 baht or £500 in cash! In Myanmar that would have been a tenner! Realising I had been an idiot, I split the cash up, vowing to be extra careful before I could find somewhere to safely put it back into my account.

The following two days now involved a lot of motorway cycling. It wasn’t particularly fun or adventurous but I knew it would now mean I could now make Chiang Mai. Get those podcasts going, listen to those crazy adventurers riding those ultras, just keep cycling Ped! I cycled for two more days, tired legs slowly lapping up the miles on Thailand’s smooth roads. I’d breached the city limits, the tourist center, I found the hotel, I could see my aunt and uncle by the pool, I’d made it! My first ‘mini ultra’ and I’d arrived on time and in time for lunch – perfect.

2 thoughts on “Ultra Across Myanmar…?

  1. It’s really lovely to read your blog and very interesting. I felt that I was there with you on the bike ride. Keep on blogging.

    Like

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