The majority of days when I'm cycling I would imagine that most people would rather not be sat where I am as they are slightly uncomfortable and fairly unspectacular and if you do not really enjoy cycling, they might even be considered as just unnecessary, hard work. However there are some days which would leave me jumping up and down uncontrollably with arms flailing all over the place with excitement if I was still a toddler. I've had more than my fair share of these days over the past couple of weeks. The scenery from Guilin right through into Vietnam has been spectacular. It looks like a group of rather large giants made hundreds of limestone sandcastles across this part of the world. The most spectacular day was along a small, hilly and largely unpaved country road from Guilin to Yangshuo over one of the larger of these sandcastles. My enjoyment soon faded that night though as I stayed in a hostel in a room with a baby who didn't stop crying and an old Chinese lady who spent all night either snoring or hacking up flem and spitting it on the floor.
I met up with Chris and Lucy, the cycling couple from Bristol who I sang and drank hobo sake with on the ferry from Japan to China, just a few hundred kilometers from Vietnam and rode with them through to Hanoi. I seem to have finally learnt how to cope with riding with others since leaving Shanghai as I have successfully ridden with 17 people in total for lengths varying between a couple hours and a couple of weeks. I am no longer so concerned about getting in miles each day and have been able to just enjoy the company. On our way to the border we eventually found a nature reserve which is home to the critically endangered white headed langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus). After clambering up an observation tower we stood and watched some of these wild monkeys as they descended down the giant limestone sandcastle in front of us. Just incredible. On our way out of the reserve we managed to avoid the cobras which lurk in the undergrowth but did encounter an unidentified stripy snake and a rather big toad both of which thankfully refrained from trying to eat us.
I have been looking forward to cycling in Vietnam more than any other country on my trip. The crazy motorbike filled roads, the stunning hills and coasts, the effects of the history throughout the past couple of centuries on the country, and the availability of good bread again (one of the best things that the French left behind), all of which I have loved since getting here. The majority of people are exceptionally friendly and on the second day we must have had close to a hundred 'hello's, waves, big smiles and/or salutes from people of all ages as we made our way to the coast. I was slightly worried that people might mistake us for Americans (surely impossible though given my reserved nature, queuing abilities and under use of the word 'awesome'), but even if they do, there seems to be no problem. Some locals even walk around with US Army written on their clothing. There are some however, namely the crew on a tour boat we took through Ha Long Bay, who are less pleasant. Up until this point, I have not embarked on an organised tour. We thought it would be a good way to relax and see the bay as there are not too many options for doing so. After being collected nearly an hour and a half late from our hotel, I soon started to feel claustrophobic and stressed as we were told where to go and what to do. To break the ice between all of the tourists on board they sat us down for lunch and placed not enough food for all of us in the middle of the table for everyone to scramble for. As soon as we started to complain about anything the tour guide became very aggressive. Chris even ended up getting pushed by one of the crew as he was trying to order some rather overpriced beer. Still, the scenery was incredible and I even had time to discover the black and white function on my camera.
People often say that trips like this really change a person so I thought I would share a short analysis of how the start of the lycra years have affected me thus far:
Physical appearance: Advancing towards a Groundskeeper-Willie-with-glasses-like state without the skirt (as I've obviously opted for something much more manly). Just waiting for the hair on the back and sides of my head to turn ginger to match my beard.
Aroma: Steadily becoming more potent as I develop a tendency to wash clothes less and gain the ability to endure the consequences of this more.
Understanding of the important things in life: One doesn't realise how special something is until it is gone. After extensive research, a Chocolate HobNob truely is the best biscuit in the world but sadly it seems the world doesn't know it yet.
Outlook on life: Becoming increasingly fickle and undefined. One sometimes has far to long to ponder the world when sat on a bike all day and when particularly tired, the inability of the Chinese to tell you which way to the road you want to cycle on can drive you to the cusp of despair, insanity and a longing for eternal relief as they try to find out your ultimate destination and refuse to tell you anything but the alternative route they think you should take. Yet the smallest act of kindness at the end of a long day or the taste of a Chinese custard pie can leave you reaching towards a state of ecstasy, ready to re-embrace the world and the life that lies before you.
Ability to waffle on: Evidently increasing.