Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson: GR70 “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes” (1879), Robert Louis Stevenson

Day 1: 11th May, Le Puy-en-Velay to Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille 19 kms
Our first day of walking. We bought our lunch at the local supermarket next to the hotel, and started our walk up the hill. It was all really exciting to be on our way. We climbed quickly and soon had magnificent views of Puy-en-Velay and the ancient volcanic countryside. We stopped for lunch on the side of the road with a lovely view of the rolling, green countryside. The day was clear and sunny in the morning but early in the afternoon, we got caught in a hail shower that lasted for about 5 minutes. With the hail, the sky became overcast and it was colder. The villages along the way are constructed of stones and rock. The masonry is impressive.

After 19kms of walking, we arrived at our hotel, Le Provence, on the other side of the village of Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille. The village itself has an old monastery and two museums, and once again with impressive stonework. We went for a walk in the village but it started to rain what felt like ice. The hotel itself was cold and the heaters didn’t come on until about 8pm. Dinner was copious and quite rich – salad chevre chaud for entrée, omelette for main course with potato gratin and a souffle of vegetables, cheese and then dessert. Salva had pate for an entrée and casserole for the main course.

Day 2: 12th May, Le Monastier- sur-Gazeille to Le Bouchet St Nicolas 24kms
We picked up our lunch (panier/picnic) from the hotel and headed off into the rain after breakfast. It was much colder than the previous day. In the village, we passed the impressive Chapel of Saint -Jean and a lavoir. Old lavoirs, abreuvoirs (troughs) and wrought iron crosses are a constant feature of the first half of the GR70. In the fields, we noticed early plantings of lentils and barley for animal feed. We walked down the hill from the village then climbed quite steeply up a hill through the forest. At the village of Cluzel, we were accompanied by a friendly local dog who then continued to walk with us for about 6 kms. We became concerned that it was never going to leave us so we stopped at a café in Saint-Martin-de-Fugères. The woman in the café phoned the farmer who owned the dog. It was a young dog and well-known locally for following walkers. While we were in the café, it hailed heavily outside (thanks to the dog, we were sheltered). When we arrived at the village of Goudet, I put my feet in the icy water for five minutes as I was already experiencing swelling and sore feet. The village is situated on the Loire, and this was the first of the many major rivers which we crossed on the chemin.

After lunch in a semi-sheltered corner of a field, we continued our long walk of ups and downs. It was getting colder as the day passed. By the time, we got to the village of Ussel, we still had 8 kms to go to our hotel. These last kms were long, relatively flat but the cross wind from the north was strong and glacial. We arrived at the Auberge Le Couvige in Le Bouchet St Nicolas. The Auberge was a delight – charming hosts, warm and a lovely spacious room with a big shower. We ate at a communal table with 3 other walkers – Viviane and a German couple. We had an entrée of lentil salad. I had lasagne au chevre. It was delicious. Salva had veal with potato gratin and a vegetable souffle. The wine was complimentary.

Day 3: 13th May, Le Bouchet St Nicolas to Pradelles 21 kms
We left our comfortable auberge and into an icy wind and cloudy sky. We stopped and took a photo on the way out of town of RLS carved in wood. The path in front of us was across flat fields with little shelter from the wind.

At the first village we came to, Landos, we stopped at the pharmacy and bought special bandaids for blisters (called “Urgo”). These bandaids like a second skin turned out to be highly effective. What a blessing! We stopped under an old railway viaduct near Arquejol and beside a creek for lunch. I put my poor swollen feet in the icy water while we ate leftover picnic food from the two previous days.

We arrived in Pradelles after a long walk around a pine forest with the village so temptingly in view. It was a long and cold day of walking and my feet were in their worst state. At our hotel, when Salva pulled off the bandaid, my toe nail came off too.
Our hotel, Hotel du Ponant was in the main street. It was a relatively busy street with lots of trucks. The hotel was old and basic, and our two storeys walk upstairs was painful. The room was also basic but had a lovely view. The village itself is old and run down, but is one of the “100 plus beaux villages de France”. There are parts the old village walls, churches and a lavoir.

We ate in a restaurant next to the hotel. The service was lovely and the food was quite good. We had lentil salad again. I had fish cooked in aluminium foil and vegetables. Salva had daube de boeuf and vegetables. We finished our meal with the local eau de vie, “Verveine du velay” (Verveine or verbena is a wildflower used as a flavour for alcohol, medicine and herbal tea). It’s the local ‘eau de vie’ – bright green in colour with a medicinal! Not for me…

Day 4: 14th May, Pradelles to Cheylard L’Évêque 22 kms
We ate breakfast in the same restaurant as dinner the night before. We started our long walk down the hill towards the big village of Langogne. We crossed the L’Allier river and then bypassed the scenic GR70 route through Langogne by walking directly thought the town. We stopped at a boulangerie and bought two sandwiches, two apple tarts and drinks for our lunch. Another day, and another stop at a creek under a bridge. We ate our sandwiches (very fresh after yesterday’s left-overs) while I soaked my feet. We started to know and recognise people on the chemin – a French couple with a special walking trailer, Viviane, la Parisienne, a couple from Bordeaux and a German couple. After lunch we climbed the hill towards the village of Saint Flour de Mercoire, notable for a house with a sign supporting retention of railways and stations in the area and a small local theatre to support and encourage dramatic arts. We passed by a forested area with huge granite boulders. After the next small village of Fouzia, we turned right to walk through a pretty forest to our next stop at Cheylard L’Évêque. The landscape was changing. It is hillier and less undulating, more forested and less cultivated.

Our accommodation for the night was in a chamber d’hote “Le Refuge du Moure”. The village itself is tiny and pretty, and in the bottom of a scenic valley. The Refuge is huge – for the first time we were in accommodation for the real randonneurs. There are many bunk rooms, though we had our own room with an ensuite. At dinner, there were 32 people – all at big tables with the food placed in the middle for serving. The food was excellent. We started with a salad with charcouterie, followed by pot au feu, cheese and dessert of chocolate gateau with a strawberry coulis. I had the same food but with no charcouterie and fish instead of the meat. The vegetables were very good. We sat with Yves and Edith, both from Alsace, and an American couple.

Day 5: 15th May, Cheylard L’Évêque to La Bastide-Puylaurent 26.5 kms
We set off with our picnic/panier as we had been told that there were neither cafes, nor shops on the chemin to La Bastide. It was cold again but we started to climb immediately and soon warmed up. We passed a little lake – more like a big swamp but a nice place for a picnic, although we didn’t stop. By late morning, and after 11 kms of walking, we arrived at the village of Luc with its ruined chateau and an imposing statue of Notre Dame on the top of the ruin. It had been placed there in 1878, weeks after RLS passed by.

 

At Luc, we decided to not follow the GR 70 but cut off some kilometres by following the village road that continued by the Allier river. We had already decided not to go to Notre-Dame des Neiges – a monastery which RLS visited and is still open today for limited accommodation. The walk to the monastery would have meant an extra 5 kms. We had a lunch beside a small creek in the village of Laveyrune. I soaked my feet for the second time this day, as we ate our delicious lunch of salad, an egg, an orange and some bread.
We stayed the night in the Hotel La Grande Halte – an impressive name for a very ordinary hotel – in the village of La Bastide-Puylaurent. The room was basic – a pull across plastic door for the bathroom and the Wi-Fi didn’t work, but dinner was delicious. I had a battered piece of fish and frites. Salva had roast chicken with frites.

Day 6: 16th May, La Bastide Puylaurent to Chasseradès 12 kms
We were so delighted to have a short day. At breakfast, we saw La Parisienne and the German couple for the last time as they were traveling many more kms than us that day. Also, we met for the first time, two old French blokes who were travelling with a donkey. They dressed like the real thing i.e. RLS, and one of them walked in front, singing while the other lead the donkey.

We walked up the hill – up and up to 1300 metres – through a beautiful forest. At the top of the hill, there are wind turbines and many more being constructed. After a long walk downhill, we passed through the settlement around the Gare de Chasseradès and on the outskirts of the village of Chasseradès, got to our hotel, Hotel des Sources. Near the hotel, we saw the trailer couple for the last time. They were having lunch under a tree in a field.

It was lunchtime, when we arrived so we had lunch in the restaurant – we both had delicious salads. The hotel was good, warm and welcoming but still no Wi-Fi. After lunch, we had a walk around the little village. It is cute with a really old church with houses adjoining. Opposite the hotel, there is a railway line with a roof over it to prevent snow falling onto the tracks.

For dinner, we had a vegetable soup (potage), vegetables for me (no more omelettes please) and caille (quail) for Salva. We had a nice dessert of red berries in a syrup with ice cream on top.

Day 7: 17th May, Chasseradès to Le Bleymard 17 kms
We woke to, as forecast, an overcast day with rain. My feet were still swollen and sore. So, we decided to organise a transfer for the day instead of walking. La Malle Postale picked us up with our luggage about 9 am. We got to our next stop, Le Bleymard and the hotel La Remise about 10am and waited in the lounge with really good Wi-Fi until our room was ready. The hotel is super – nice bar, a café for breakfast, a restaurant and a great bedroom with an automatic light in the bathroom, big shower, big comfortable bed and a TV.

There is a supermarket across the road from the hotel so we went there and bought some chocolate, wine and some ponchos as the rain was forecast to continue for several days. We had a walk around the little village – a bridge across the Lot river, abreuvoir, church, mairie and an unusual old machine for constraining horses while their shoes were fitted.

Day 8: 18th May, Le Bleymard to Pont de Montvert 19kms

Saturday, day of the election in Australia and we had a big walk over Mont-Lozère ahead of us. We started off in the cold and wet, and after stopping off at the supermarket to buy some lunch – sandwich for Salva, a banana, a container of quinoa and lentil salad for me. It was raining intermittently.

At the ski station of Mont-Lozère, we were quite bizarrely in the middle of a moto-cross event, which included the fire brigade, first aid, a café in a tent and people dressed in fancy dress. It was very cold at an altitude of 1421 metres. We continued to walk even higher (and colder). It was quite foggy, and the impressive stone plinths (menhir) along the route disappeared into the fog.

Towards the top, there is a sign that says if it is foggy or snowy don’t go to the sommet de Finiels (1699 metres). We took the alternative route to the bottom which was easy to follow, but it was like a creek bed so difficult to walk down. On the way down, we saw some snow. After the end of the creek walk, we arrived on a departmental road and walked down to the commune of Finiels. In the village, we saw Protestant graves alongside houses, as they were forbidden from using the Roman Catholic cemeteries. We were in Camisard country, and henceforth we would see lots of temples or protestant churches. The Camisards are French protestants living in the Cevennes who organised an armed insurrection against persecution in the early 1700s, after Louis XIV had revoked a law-making Protestantism legal. The spirit of the Camisard still survives in the local population. They have a reputation of being fiercely independent. During the second world war, they defied the Nazis by protecting many Jews.

The walk from Finiels to Pont de Montvert is beautiful with stunning rock formations and trees. As we got the closer to the village, the track become like a goat track – steep, narrow and rocky. We realised later that many people walked down the road.
We had arrived in Pont de Montvert – a village at the confluence of 3 rivers – the Tarn, Rieumallet and the Martinet. The village is built along the rivers in a very narrow gorge. Our hotel – Auberge de Cevennes – was very basic and no Wi-Fi. We unpacked, showered, did some washing and then went to the Bar du Commerce on the other side of the river. They had really good Wi-Fi. By now, we knew who had won the Australian election and I was shocked and sad. Wine was good and we were joined by Yves, Edith and their friend Thomas. It was a good convivial environment.

Dinner was not so good. Viviane sat with us. We had a potage de legumes. I had an omelette and Viviane and Salva had a slice of roast beef each and overcooked cauliflower with a sauce. The bread was hard and stale. This was definitely the worst meal.

Day 9: 19th May, Pont de Montvert to Florac 28.5kms
In the morning, at breakfast our host almost made up for the meal deficiencies by telling us of an easier route for the day’s walk. We had a long walk ahead and the weather wasn’t looking good. In fact, it turned out to be the wettest day of our walk. The night before, we had bought some cheeses and meat at the local supermarket. Before leaving the village, we bought a fresh baguette and a flan aux prunes at the boulangerie next to the hotel. Amusingly, the baguette was so hot that it made hole in my new poncho. I still wore it though.

We left the village and climbed steeply and quickly. Like the day before, the scenery is beautiful – lots of rocks, hills and villages mostly in the bottom of valleys. After we got to plateau on the top of hill, we took our different route as advised by our host. It enabled us to avoid the next hill, cut off a few kms and as he said due to the weather, we would not see anything from the top. It was raining and as we went further it became steadier and we got colder. After our steep walk uphill, our long walk on a plateau including on a road, we walked downhill from the Col de Sapet (1080 metres) for about 11 kms. It rained constantly but not heavily. Fortunately, the path is good – a forestry road which is wide and smooth. At the bottom of the hill, we walked alongside the Tarn River.


We stopped in Bédouès to look at the Chapel Saint-Saturin, important in the life and story of Pope Urbain V, as he endowed it. He was born in a village close to Pont de Montvert. We then stopped at the café across the road for a chocolate chaud and glass of red wine for Salva before continuing for Florac, 5 kms away. It was still raining when we got to our hotel in Florac – the Grand Hotel du Parc. It was quite grand – lovely garden and park but also quite empty. We think that there was one other couple in the hotel of about 30 rooms. But our room was warm and spacious. The hotel restaurant was closed – it was Sunday night – so we walked into the centre of the village and bought two pizzas. We had this on our bed with a half bottle of wine that we bought in the hotel. The village like the hotel, was dead.

Day 10: 20th May, Florac to Cassagnas 17.5kms
After breakfast, we headed to the village centre to a boulangerie to buy lunch – a sandwich each and a Florentine biscuit. We walked out of the village and started to climb gently alongside the river Mimente. We were now truly in the Cevennes. It is a nice track and a pleasant walk. The trees were beautiful – lots of hêtre or beech. The weather was much better than the day before – no rain but still a bit cloudy.

We arrived at the little village of Saint-Julien d’Arpaon. This is the only commune in France with a temple but no eglise. Past the village on the side of the river, we came to a pop-up café (cabane) with a wooden hut, shelter, chairs and tables and a chaise lounge for me. We had a chocolat chaud and a rosé, and ate our lunch while reclining. The cabane is situated on the site of the ancienne gare and when we started walking again, we followed the line of the former railway. It is impressive with many bridges constructed in stone to pass over the creeks that join the Mimente river below, and many tunnels. The railway was built to carry coal from Ales to Florac and used for relatively few years. It was a lovely walk and the weather got better – warmer and sunnier. The water looked beautiful – a green-blue colour, and very inviting. The river bed is rocky and there were many beautiful water holes. After passing by another ancienne gare at Pont des Crozes, and crossing to the other side of the departmental road, we were closer to the river. I had to try the water, so we found a quiet corner and I stripped off and jumped in. It was cold and refreshing.

We arrived at the Ancienne Gare de Cassagnas, hoping that our chambre d’hote or at least the pick-up point for our chambre d’hote high in the village of Les Hermes was close. But it wasn’t. We had about another 2.5 kms to walk uphill to get to the chambre d’hote le Mimentois. We were picked up there by our host of the chambres d’hote “Pelous”, Joel. We had a room and an ensuite downstairs. It was comfortable but a bit cold. We went upstairs to use the Wi-Fi (it worked), we met Martine and to our surprise the other guest in the chamber d’hote was Viviane. It was nice to see her again. For dinner, we had a lovely salad (great dressing), I had an omelette and rice and the others had osso bucco and rice. This was followed by cheese and a lovely strawberry parfait with mousse, strawberries (from Carpentras) and ice-cream. It was nice to sit and chat to our hosts and Viviane but it was a much later night that we were used to. It was almost dark by the time we got to bed!

Day 11: 21st May, Cassagnas to Saint-Étienne-Vallée-Française 23.9kms
After breakfast, our host dropped us near the passerelle (foot bridge). We thought about taking an alternative route to get to the top of hill but decided against it as even though it is about 2 kms shorter, it is also steeper. By chance, we met Edith and Yves at the point where we re-joined the GR70. We walked up the hill with them – they walk quickly. My feet felt good for the first time since the first day and my blisters miraculously had all healed. There seems to be no end to the hills on the Chemin Stevenson. We climbed up and down quite significant hills most days. We reached the col de la Pierre-Plantée at about 900 metres after our uphill slog and visiting a prehistoric sight of a sépulture (stone tomb). We had lunch with a beautiful view of the valley. We could sense more and more that we were in the south – different vegetation, including irises and genet (broom), and different architecture and brighter colours in the houses. There are lots of terrace of impressive stonework, which are a testament to long gone agricultural practices and hard work.


We were also in the area where châtaigniers or chestnut trees are and have been an important part of agriculture and food. Their fruit, châtaignes, are an emblematic flavour of the Cevennes. We had châtaigne syrup with champagne, châtaigne eau de vie, châtaigne jam, and roasted châtaigne in a salad. In days gone by, they were used to make flour.

We reached the village of Saint-Germain de Calberte about 2pm where most of our co-randonneurs were staying for the night. We still had another 9 kms to go and were tired. But we struggled along and got there (one foot in front of the other). We saw our accommodation in the Chateau de Cambiaire on the hill behind the village of Saint-Étienne-Vallée-Française about 2 kms before the village. We climbed up the long driveway and were greeted by our host. The chateau is in a beautiful verdant setting – the trees are huge and varied. The chateau has a lovely internal courtyard and a ruined chapel. And it is for sale! What a dream. The proprietor showed us to our apartment – kitchen, bathroom in the tower, 2 bedrooms and a massive terrace. We were in love.

We had dinner in a café in the village “Un Dimanche à la campagne”. It was excellent and copious. I had trout instead of the suggested omelette and Salva had a huge entrée with meat and prawns and a main of chicken. This was followed by ice cream and a chocolate cake. We walked up to our chateau and slept well.


Day 12: 22st May, Saint-Étienne-Vallée-Française to St Jean du Gard 12.7kms
We had breakfast in the first floor of the chateau and had a little tour of the rooms downstairs. They are enormous. Our last day, and our first and only warm and windless day. There were no surprises on the chemin. We were climbing as usual, to the Col Saint Pierre where we passed the boundary into the Gard. We felt like we were almost home.

After that it was mostly downhill to St Jean du Gard. We walked by le Gardon for the last 3kms and reached the centre about 1.30pm. We had lunch a celebratory restaurant in a restaurant next to the Gare. We were both very happy to have finished and exhausted, and proud of ourselves. About 4 pm, we met up with Yves, Edith, Thomas and Viviane for a celebratory drink. Dinner that night was in the hotel but in a separately managed restaurant – silver service and very good. I had noir de lieu (fish) and Salva had chicken.

It was an amazing adventure. We passed through beautiful forests, climbed many hills, crossed many of France’s great rivers, and met interesting people. The chemin itself is well marked, and mostly a very good track. There is a lot of variation in the landscape. It was fascinating to go from the agricultural and ancient volcanic area in the north of the chemin to the Cévennes, south of Mont-Lozère with its beautiful trees and rock formations.
For more information: https://chemin-stevenson.org

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Hanoi to Luang Prabang by bike

Day 1: 18th December: Hanoi
After a short briefing, with our World Expeditions tour guide, Hang, we left for dinner in the home of a local family. The local family live near the central rail station in an area heavily bombed with many civilian deaths and destruction during the war. The food was excellent and copious – spring rolls, cha ca fish (a Hanoi speciality), tofu, fried chicken, and something a bit like dolmades. Our host clearly loved entertaining visitors- our guides translated. His wife and daughter cooked. After dinner and some home brewed rice spirit, we went upstairs to listen to our host play home made instruments and sing. It was a great night – a real treat – and a taste of things to come.

2nd day, 19th December: Hanoi to Ba Vi National Park
After our bike fitting – mountain bikes with 27 gears – we set off at a fast pace, following Hang along the dyke road through a populated area of Hanoi. Not surprisingly, we had two close calls – one where we were almost side swiped by a motorbike coming from a side street, and another where one of the cyclists knocked a bamboo tray of food out of the hands of a woman walking out of a doorway without looking. In no time at all, we left the busy part of the city behind and continued towards the west on the main road. We passed through a village known as a carpenters’ village. It seemed quite flat, but as we were going mostly along the banks of the Red River, it was a continuous and gentle incline. It was so nice to be outside Hanoi but the landscape was flat and not very inspiring. The villages were interesting though. We stopped for lunch of noodles and vegetables in a village cafe. Kristen demonstrated her adeptness at communicating with locals and very soon had the owner of the restaurant ready to marry her off to a local. The owner’s late husband had served during the war and had been absent for 10 years in total. He was exposed to agent Orange, the after effects of which were evident in one of her four sons. We continued on the almost flat road for approx. 55 kms in total until we reached a national park. Our accommodation was in the national park, 5 kms up a steep climb, part of it at 10%. We managed about 1.5 kms before putting our bikes on the truck. The accommodation was in a popular resort for the locals in the wet season. There were beautiful trees but the resort in French/Soviet style was dated.

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Day 3 20th December: Ba Vi To Da Via
Breakfast was memorable- 3 deep fried eggs, slices of white bread but no butter, and no coffee or tea. We drove down the hill and along a busy road to the river. The truck and van left us here and we biked fast along the river for about 20 kms. There was a strong headwind. We got on a little long boat to cross the river. We climbed from the boat landing up to a village and then continued on our way – mostly uphill. This was a very hard day with lots of hill climbs and we were not well prepared for them. But the truck and van were there to support us and we took advantage. The biking was hard but scenic, especially when we biked around the reservoir- it reminded us of Marlborough Sounds NZ but with no tourists or tourist facilities. Now we were truly isolated and remote. It was lovely to pass friendly villagers with young ones saying “hellooo”. After about 60kms of hard biking in total, everyone got in the van as we still had at least 20kms to drive to get to our night’s accommodation in a home stay next to a huge reservoir. Here we were amongst the Muang people and stayed in a typical Muang house – wooden, very open, on stilts with living downstairs and sleeping upstairs. Dinner was cooked by the family and consisted of a variety of dishes – fish (deep fried and overcooked), tofu, chicken pieces, vegetables, French fries, squash and rice. The home stay was in a lovely location but the sleeping floor upstairs was a little cramped. With another tour group, approx. 13 slept in one room, all on mattresses on the floor, under mosquito nets. Roosters seemed to crow all night, and of course there were snorers.

Day 4 21st December: Da Via to Pu Luong
We started the day with an hour’s transfer in a long boat to the other side of the reservoir. It was such beautiful scenery – there were layers of hills which looked blue in the hazy light. We passed an island, where locals were harvesting tapioca. After the boat ride, we climbed up and up as we left the reservoir behind. We reached the top of the hill near a busy town and intersection. From there, we headed downhill for about 4 kms along a busy road before turning off into a paradise of limestone karsts, rice paddies, and tidy villages of wooden houses on stilts. We were led by Hang along small country roads, through villages, and rice paddy borders. We passed communal clothes washing and bathing areas. We stopped at a wooden house and Hang organised for us to be invited in. Our host was a 91-year-old woman who sat ably on the floor. Her teeth were lacquered i.e. black, but her eyes were bright and she seemed alert. Her home where she lives with her husband, daughter and grandchildren had a big room upstairs for sleeping and a kitchen area to the side with an open fire place for cooking but no running water inside nor a fridge. There were 2 TVs in the big living/sleeping area though. After our village and rice paddy detour, we got to the tourist area of Mai Chau. Here there are cottages on the hillsides, restaurants and many shops selling souvenirs. And tourists. We stopped at a bar with a lookout over the karsts and rice paddies and had drinks – a beer and a mango and papaya smoothie (with a taste of condensed milk). We headed off again. Initially we went on a cross country track – past some cows, hotels under construction and a cement works. We then got back onto a very muddy country road where there was some road repairs and trucks. We knew the last part of the day was a long climb, so as soon as an ascent started, we decided to stop biking and take the van. It was indeed a long climb and very high. At the top, we got on our bikes again for a great descent through villages to our accommodation for the night, part way down the mountain. Our accommodation was a remote resort. It had a dining area- all open, a swimming pool and numerous cabins for sleeping. It also had an extraordinary view of the layers of mountains. Our cabin was like the home stay – upstairs in a wooden house on stilts and a common sleeping room. But it was much more spacious, with curtain dividers and the toilets and showers were closer to our accommodation and more numerous (4 toilets and 4 showers). The design of the bathrooms and the cleanliness was impressive. After showering and washing some clothes, we had a drink with Hang. It seemed strange and was sad that our Vietnam leg of the tour was almost finished.

Day 5 22nd December: Pu Luong to Vieng Xai Laos
After a reasonable night’s sleep – no roosters but a bit of snoring – we got up for our last day of cycling in Vietnam. We took off with speed. We had 20 kms to do for the day and Hang was under pressure to get us to the border by midday. The first part of about 7 kms, was downhill through magical scenery of villages and layers of karsts above a mist. Such a pity to go so fast. The remainder of the 20kms was relatively flat but fast – we must have been doing about 25kms per hour. We reached the end of our bike ride for the day near a major intersection and said goodbye to our truck driver. He had been super – helpful and cheerful. We left in the van for the border – a drive of about 2 hours. It took longer than this as we stopped twice for substantial roadworks. We reached the border without additional stops just before midday. Hang took us directly to the Vietnamese immigration where a stern man took some time to check and stamp our passports. Then it was time to say goodbye to Hang and our van driver. Hang is a terrific guide and it was sad to say thanks and goodbye. We crossed no man’s land – a long walk over a bridge with about 200 metres on each side. I was worried that the Laotian immigration would not be open and we would be stuck in no man’s land but an official came running across to the office when we appeared and started the process of organising our visas on arrival. This took about 15-20 minutes, after the payment of $USD 36 each – one dollar more than anticipated as it was the weekend. While we were waiting, our guide, Lee and driver Mr Sit arrived. Lee looked like a very slim, young boy but is 27. Our trip to Vieng Xai was on the worst road I’ve ever experienced. We were remote – almost no villages but the road was so rough with lots of land slides. One piece of road reconstruction took us about 30 minutes to negotiate and I really thought we may not make it as we were not travelling in a 4WD. But we did, and got to Vieng Xai about 4pm. The 50 kms took about 3 hours. We went to dinner to the local Indian restaurant run by a Bengali man and his wife. The food was excellent and such a nice change from noodles, eggs and fried rice. We had aubergine curry, fish curry and dahl. For dessert, we shared a rice pudding which had lots of cardamom. Excellent. The couple had been in Laos for 10 years, running the restaurant in an old wooden shack. He stayed behind when his mining job finished. His eyes lit up when I asked about the Indian cricket team currently playing in Australia. I was overwhelmed at their bravery and persistence. It was sad to leave Vietnam and the Vietnamese team, but we were ready for our Laotian adventure.

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Day 6 23rd December: Vieng Xai to Xam Nuea
We all slept well: no roosters or strangers snoring. After breakfast, we went to the visitors’ centre, just across the road, from the accommodation to meet our guide for our tour of the caves used by the Pathet Lao (The red army of Laos) during the bombing by the Americans. It was a great tour, highly informative and distressing at the same time. More bombs were dropped on Laos by the Americans than were dropped during the second world war. The Laotians called it the secret war. Today still, one Laotian dies per day from unexploded ordnances. We went to three caves: that of the Red Prince, that of the army commander and future prime minister, and the infantry cave. The last one was enormous. There were 3 big bomb craters outside. The first two had lovely gardens with lots of begonias, frangipanis and fig trees. After our tour, we got fitted for our bikes and took off. Our first day of biking in Laos was a ‘rest day’ so we had only 35 kms to do. It was hard biking too. We got to our destination early afternoon and had lunch in a cafe near the bridge. The hotel was nice – quite new, lots of shiny tiles and interesting decor. Later in the afternoon, we went walking. We looked through the market, walked across a rickety pedestrian bridge, found an ATM and the Vietnamese restaurant which had been recommended. More fried rice, and two big bottles of beer came to approx. $10.

Day 7: 24th December: Xam Nuea to Muang Hiem
We had breakfast in the hotel – eggs (oh yes, more eggs), a bit of cheese, 3 in 1 coffee, bread rolls and bananas. We had a quick tour of the market – dead rats and squirrels for sale. We left in the van to transfer to the top of a hill. We had a huge distance to cover this day – mostly by driving. The biking was challenging – very mountainous, but beautiful. The best part was passing through villages and all the children waving and saying ‘sabadee’. We stopped for lunch on the side of the road at the top of a pass. We sat on the ground and ate noodles, salad with a coconut milk sauce, and BBQed eggplants – big and small. The team ate buffalo bits e.g. tripe and bones bits. They travelled with their own rice cooker, and like all Laotians loved sticky rice. We arrived in our guest house about 5pm. The guest house was away from the main street and over looking some fields. It was ok but had the usual dodgy plumbing where the waste from the sink went onto the floor. We had dinner at a restaurant across the road – more fried rice, eggs and beer. The owner’s children were in a corner watching nursery rhymes in English including “Jingle Bells”. We sang along and it was a nice reminder of Christmas back home.

Day 8: 25th December: Muang Hiem to Muang Viengkham
Beside the guest house, a woman sat at her loom when we arrived, when we came back from dinner and it was dark, and in the morning. Such hard work. I went and looked at her work and bought a piece for 100,000 kips (about $16). We had breakfast in the same restaurant as the night before – more fried rice, eggs and 3 in 1 coffee. When we got back to the guesthouse, our crew was eating frogs (whole ones), and buffalo in a sauce, and more rice from their rice cooker. This was another long day of biking and long distances driving as well. We passed more mountains, villagers, buffalo, cows and villages. We were getting tired. The scenery was still special though and the villages remote and poor. We had lunch in a village cafe along the way. The villagers were fascinated by our bikes, especially Kristen’s as she uses cleats. After a lot of hard biking, we got in the van to finish the distance to the night’s accommodation. The road was rough. We got to the guesthouse about 5pm, it was towards the end of a long drawn out village. It was a nice clean guesthouse with a decent bathroom. We had dinner cooked by the guesthouse owner – a very elegant Laotian woman. The food was good but basically more noodles and eggs, and Laotian beer.

 

Day 9 26th December: Muang Viengkham to Nong Khiaw, second last day.
We had breakfast on the terrace outside our rooms. It was lovely: fruit, some green soybean cakes, rice flour omelette with a sweet sauce.
This day is described as being the best scenery and also has the longest climb of about 30 kms. We set out thinking that we would do as much as possible after all we had done well in the hill climbs the previous day. We managed 25 km. So pleased and wish I’d persisted and finished it. Just before, we finished I had two little boys on their way home from school at lunchtime running up the hill beside me and at one stage pushing me by hitting my back wheel. At one stop, we joined a local family around the fire. They were very welcoming. Lower on the mountains, we were among the Kmeu tribe. Higher up, we were back among Hmong people. Both tribal groups live in wooden houses on stilts. Hmong people as they live at higher altitude do not have windows in their houses.

We stopped for lunch at a Hmong village on the top of the mountain. The children were just leaving school to go home for lunch. One girl was carrying a few dead rats on a string. There were some for sale in the shops too. After lunch, we took off downhill. We stopped at a spectacular lookout over the surrounding mountains. As we got closer to our final destination for the night, the environment changed – more traffic, better houses, and some swimming pools for tourists. We arrived at Nong Khiaw a popular tourist destination, and drove up to our accommodation for the night at the Viewpoint Hotel. They saved the best for last – we were in luxury. It was a new hotel with a spectacular view of the river, town and surrounding mountains. In the town, there are restaurants, bars, ATMs, souvenir shops and massage parlours. We drank Lao Lao whiskey at a bar during happy hour and then went to an Indian restaurant, the Chennai, for thali. The local whiskey helped us walk easily up the hill to get to our hotel (or maybe we were just really fit after all the biking).

 

 

Day 10 27th December: Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang
After a great night’s sleep, we had breakfast downstairs – crepes, pancakes, but no 3 in 1 coffee, and drove down the hill to collect our bikes. We headed off for a 60km ride before lunch. My bum and hips hurt after the exertion of the previous day. The ride was simple though – down a valley, close to the river and undulating. We had coffee in a café near the turn-off to the main road that goes between Laos and Vietnam. We were back in civilisation – there were enormous trucks on the road. After our 60kms, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and had some really good noodles – two types- that the team had bought at a market and some really spicy pho that the woman made. The pho was enormous and too spicy, so we didn’t eat much. She had a mole in the cage, presumably there for some-one’s lunch. We said goodbye to our truck driver and our bikes. With Mr Sit and Lee, we continued to drive by the river, Nam Om towards the Mekong. The road was a mess as the Chinese are building dams along the river, including near Mr Sit’s childhood home. Many houses and villages will be lost to the flooding. We arrived at a weaving village, Ban Nayang, and went straight to our long boat to cross the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou cave (means mouth of Ou, i.e. river). The caves are interesting but the boat ride on the Mekong is magnificent. It was almost sunset. At Luang Prabang, we were driven to our accommodation and said our sad goodbyes to Mr Sit and Lee. What a magical journey and what a privilege to access villages and villagers in remote Laos!