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Getting our Myanmar visa from Bangkok – a how-to

Hearing that hermetic, secretive Myanmar would possibly reject tourist visas without much explanation given, we wanted to be sure we did everything ‘right’ when we applied for our visas at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. We had already booked our plane tickets, after all.

Our flight was at 4:30pm on Monday, September 26, and the Myanmar embassy opens Monday through Friday. I highly recommend the WE Bangkok, a brand new hostel about 3 blocks away from the embassy. It was quiet, reasoanbly priced (as reasonable as Bangkok gets, anyway), clean, and friendly. We were able to wake up around 7:45am, brush our teeth and head straight over – there was even a coffee vendor along the way. It was 8am by the time we arrived at the embassy. Others behind us in line had woken up as early as 6am.

I was carrying some passport/visa sized photos, but Kimberly needed some made, so we headed up Pan Road, the side street from Sathorn Road, where the embassy is located. About 30-50 meters up, you can see a bright yellow sign advertising PHOTO COPY services. Turn into the alley and you’ll find the copy shop. The shop seems to get a lot of their business being a go-to place to get Myanmar visa forms filled out, including printing the appropriate photos. They had many copies of the forms on hand and helped us fill them out. They weren’t difficult forms to fill out, but I just wanted some hand-holding since we were going to Myanmar, after all. The prices were quite reasonable.

Around 8:20am, we arrived back at the visa door of the embassy, on the Pan Road side of the compound. Only one person was ahead of us in line and he had gotten there at 6am. As a few people got in line, we chatted about our trips. A young Australian man was visiting Myanmar as part of his long Southeast Asian trip. An Englishman worked in Bangkok at a British school and was taking a holiday cum visa run. A German woman was applying for a business visa to work as a midwife. They all asked where we had gotten our forms. We told them, and they all scurried out to get their forms done, too.

One Southeast Asian man stood behind me and the white folk in line and chatted us up. He said he had been to Myanmar many times and that he got into all the attractions for local prices by charging in pretending to be from Myanmar. His questions became oddly specific in its wording – what is the purpose of your visit to Myanmar, how long will you stay in Myanmar, etc. When we told him about the copy shop to get the forms done, he thanked us for the information and walked towards the shop. We never saw him again.

By around 9am, there were still only a handful of people, which surprised me, as some of the information I had seen online made it seem like it would be a frenzy to grab up the tourist visas – the embassy only issues a specific number every day. By around 9:30am, though, the line was plenty long.

We received numbers once we entered the building, and we were served in order of our numbers. Kimberly and I requested same-day service (a little over 1200 baht per person instead of about 800), which the officer allowed because we were flying the next business day.

We checked out of our hostel but left our bags there, and then toured around the area all day, nervous about our visas. We were nearly sure we should get the visas, but I had heard somewhere that visas can be rejected for not only journalists, but also for lawyers. I had put down “insurance – claims adjuster” on my form. I was worried that they’d call my “current” employer and find out that I had been a “claims attorney” and that I was no longer employed there (when I asked the copy shop owner whether I could say I was unemployed, he suggested “you should… have a job”). I realized that, with same day service, they wouldn’t get any answer at my old job – that was a bit of relief. I then worried about the fact that my father is a law professor.

My neurosis lasted nearly all day, until we arrived back at the embassy for passport pick-up at 3:30pm. The visas had been granted. We left immediately for our weekend trip through a couple of former Thai capitals.

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

I Biked in Dubai in July

It’s been a while since my last update.  After I finished my EuroBikeTour, I traveled around the Wiesen area a little, visiting Maria in Darmstadt, and then going on an overnight bike tour to Heidelberg.  After that, I left my bike behind and visited Tien Yin in Vienna, before returning to Frankfurt to meet up with Renbo to go to Rome and Berlin.  I then picked up my big bag – full of bike touring stuff like panniers, racks, Brooks saddle, and an assortment of other stuff – from Maria, and headed to Dubai to meet up with Renbo again.

For some reason, I had the bright idea that it would be fun to bike in Dubai.  So here’s how it went.

I had emailed King at wolfi’s Bike Shop weeks ago to arrange this.  I wanted to ride the Sunday night ride tonight, July 24, organized by the Dubai Roadsters, and I would be renting a bike at Wolfi’s to do so.

The weather was nearly the same today as it had been since I arrived, and as it would be for well past the rest of my stay.  Sunny with a high of 43C (109F).  The heat would peak around 2 or 3pm and linger till about 6pm,  dropping down as low as 33C (91F) at the dead of night.  It’s also a very humid, sticky, muggy heat, as Dubai is a coastal city.  The Emirati traditionally leave the coastal area in the summer in favor of the dry heat of the desert and mountains to the east.

Wolfi's Bike Shop, where I rented my bike. Very nice folks, very nice shop!

I packed my under-saddle bag with a patch kit, tire levers, front and rear lights, and a multitool.  I also brought my sunglasses, camera, phone, mini-wallet, and two water bottles.  Although the weather called for the shortest bike shorts possible, I wore my Chrome knickers, as I didn’t know what biking attire would be culturally acceptable in Dubai.
I took the Metro to the Noor Islamic Bank Metro Station.  It was a 20 minute walk from there to Wolfi’s Bike Shop.  At nearly 5pm, it was still so unbearably hot that I took refuge in the two air-conditioned bus stops along the way.  I had a sheen of sunscreen and sweat by the time I arrived at the bike shop.

The staff at Wolfi’s helped me get fitted on the bike and to put my lights on.  Koos, one of the staff members, drew a very detailed map to direct me to the ride location.  He also told me that there would be a water cooler not too far from the ride area and that at the end of the ride I could hail a cab to take my bike back to the hotel – he assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem.

After browsing the shop a bit and refilling my water bottles, in part to cool down and in part to muster up the courage to get back out in the heat, I set on my way.  The directions were easy to follow, although that didn’t stop me from getting slightly lost.

The lonely desert highway where I managed to get stuck with a flat.

About 5 or 6 km into my ride, I hit a hard gutter on the side of the road and got a flat on my front tire.  I realized then that there was no pump in the pump slot on the frame.  I started walking toward the ride start, hoping that maybe someone there would have a pump.  At worst, I could catch a taxi back to the hotel, I hoped.

A few minutes later, I saw a cyclist, and I hailed him.  He first tried a foam inflation product, but it didn’t work.  He then called someone, identifying himself as Wolfi – he was the owner of the shop!  He had the shop staff send someone in a bus with a spare front wheel, and a pump and extra tube.

I waited a half hour on the side of the busy desert highway, to no avail.  One of my bottles was empty already.  I started to trudge toward the ride start again – I couldn’t afford to let myself be stuck there with no water left.

Here's the bike I rented - a pretty nice entry level Scott. At the time of this photo, I was waiting for my rescue.

In a few minutes, my savior pulled up to the shoulder and greeted me.  He apologized for taking so long, saying he had encountered some bad traffic.  He popped in a new front wheel and I was ready to go.  He also handed me an extra tube and a pump, just in case.  He grinned, “You’re good to go!  No excuses now, get back to the ride and have fun!”

Just as the bike shop bus pulled out, another rider going to the Sunday night ride biked past.  I joined up with him and we rode the desert highways to the ride start, which was out near the camel race course, many kilometers from the edge of Dubai.

When we got there around 6:30pm, there were about a dozen people biking up and down the strip in a few scattered groups.  The meet-up time was 7:30pm, so I rode the ~6 km stretch about ten times or so, trying to catch the groups, but I had trouble keeping up.  It was a nice area – there were 4 lanes on the road but very little traffic, and there were nice palm trees and manicured lawns.  At the end of the strip was a guarded checkpoint and signs indicating no entry and no photography.

The mosque where the Sunday night ride met.

As the sun set around 7:15pm, I asked a couple of riders if there was any water nearby – they told me no.  I was down to my last half bottle, and it appeared as though riders were leaving (in hindsight, I realized they were all going to the meet-up point, but the lack of water alone would’ve made me leave anyway.)

I had some trouble finding my way back in the dark, but I eventually figured it out.  At times, I regretted coming out for the ride, wasting an entire afternoon/evening under the harsh Arabian summer heat.  Eventually, I found my way back to the city along the highways.  By then, the traffic had picked up considerably (most people go out an hour or two after sunset, due to the intense heat.)

I got up to the interchange that crosses Shiek Zayed Road, the main thoroughfare through Dubai, but I didn’t trust the traffic, nor myself biking through it.  Even if I had made it to the other side of the interchange, I wouldn’t know how to get back to the hotel – I was only hoping to catch a taxi on the other side, as it would be in a slightly busier area.

I saw a gas station just before the interchange, so I dipped in there and got myself some water and juice – I had just run out of water.  Having gotten a few calories from the juice, and having filled my water bottles full of ice cold water, I walked out to plan my next course of action.  I walked over to a taxi which was getting filled up and tapped on the window.  I asked if he would be able to take my bike and me, and he said no.

Disappointed, I walked back to the road and hoped to flag down an SUV taxi.  I didn’t see any for a while, but I did see a group of four cyclists – it looked like they had come from the Sunday night ride!  I hopped in line with them and, as a group, I felt the courage to ride over the busy interchange.  One of the riders started talking to me, and he was able to give me very easy directions to get back to the Mall of the Emirates.  After a kilometer or two of riding together, they peeled off and I thanked them again and again for the directions.

The Burj Al Arab at night on my way home from my bike ride

I rode the rest of the way along a busy but relatively low speed major road.  A mosque and the Burj Al Arab loomed on my right as I biked past.  I was able to gauge my progress by checking the bus stops, which indicated how many more stops it was until the Mall of the Emirates (among other stops.)  I pulled up to my hotel, then walked my bike into the elevator and to my room.  I was almost as wet when I stepped into my room as I was a few minutes later while I showered.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Journal notes: Amiens to London to Wiesen

Here’s the final part of my journal notes for my EuroBikeTour!  Enjoy.

6/11 – Amiens

We set off for the train station in the morning. Instead of trying to navigate our way through Paris or biking back out of town via the canal path, we decided to take the train out to near Charles de Gaulle airport and to bike north from there. Putting our bikes on the suburban train was no problem at all, and we biked out to Amiens from there.

When we arrived in Amiens, we asked a bus driver who was on standby where the campground was, but he spoke no English and we spoke nearly no French. After a while, he did understand us, but we couldn’t understand his directions, so he drove his bus ahead of us and then stopped to point where we should go. We were grateful, and from there we managed to follow the signs to get to the campground. When we arrived at the campground, the campground manager and clerk were sitting outside drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. They were so friendly to us that at first I thought they were being sarcastic. They said they would keep the restaurant open a while longer while we went and settled in, so we went to set up camp and came back for our dinner. We had coq au vin with frites, which tasted great at the end of our long day.

As we were eating, a Dutch bike tourist came in.  He had been staying at hotels but there were no rooms in Amiens (apparently there was a big judo tournament in town) – this was his last hope.  The clerk – again, very apologetically – told him that there were no chalets left.  The clerk and the Dutch tourist frantically tried to brainstorm any possibilities, but at that late hour, it seemed hopeless.  Chris and I offered the Dutch tourist use of my bivouac sack and I would stay with Chris in his two-man tent.  The clerk had a sleeping bag, so we were able to help this bike tourist out.

6/12 – Dover

The Dutch bike tourist left before us in the morning, thanking us again and again. I woke up with a bit of a sore throat. We made our way out of Amiens and got to Calais, a dirty little port town. As we walked up to the ticket office for the ferry, another bike tourist pulled up as well. The bike tourist named Roger and was a Brit, although he had lived in France for six years and therefore spoke excellent French. He was on his way home, two hard days’ bike ride from Dover, a little west of London, and he had planned on catching the next morning’s ferry, but instead, he came along with us on the evening ferry and we would camp together if the weather permitted, or get a hotel room together.

We arrived in Dover to very English weather. The rain came down in sheets at about a 45 degree angle, and it was cold. We hopped over to the first hotel we saw, but they would only allow 2 persons to a room and it was 78 pounds per night per room. It was very late, and Roger and I were almost resigned to staying there, but Chris convinced us to push on to check out the other hotels.

The next hotel was the County Hotel – slightly run down but at its prime must have been a fairly nice place. Their kitchen was still open (as was their bar), they could accommodate our bicycles in their meeting room which was only accessible to staff, and they had a room with a queen bed and a set of bunkbeds for 62 pounds a night. We jumped on the opportunity and settled in for the night and dined and drank to new friendship.

6/13 – Canterbury

Roger had never been to eastern Kent, nor to Canterbury, so he decided to join us. We climbed the white cliffs of Dover, then made our way to Sandwich where we each had a sandwich, then we biked to Canterbury and looked at the cathedral there. I also had a bent spoke which I got replaced, and we rigged up a fix for Chris’s front rack, whose fastening mechanism had broken. Roger had intended to take the train to past London to bike home, but he stayed with us to camp near Canterbury. At the campsite, we met a young Frenchman named Cyril who was on his way to WWOOF in the U.K. but had injured his knee going too fast – he made over 100km in about 3.5 hours, which, in touring terms, is a breakneck speed. After dinner at a nearby town, we brought him some ice to put on his knee. He had planned on biking to London the next day – we hoped he would be able to.

6/14 – London

Cyril wasn’t able to join us – he would stay in Canterbury another day, hoping that his knee healed up. We wished him well and shoved off. I was really feeling that sore throat now – it was a full on cold. Luckily, it didn’t seem to impede my riding much. It wasn’t long before Chris had another mechanical issue with his front rack – a different fastening clasp had broken. Luckily, we had made a spare when we made a replacement back in Canterbury, but it was still time consuming and frustrating. We decided to abandon the National Cycle Network (NCN) routing, which was taking us through rough dirty and gravel paths. Instead, we followed Roger’s pathfinding through England’s tangled highways.

Under Roger’s wise guidance, we made it to Greenwich, where we went up to the Royal Observatory and stood on both sides of the meridian. We followed the Thames somewhat, but, again, abandoned that route as well, as the signage was impossible to follow. Being the “A” riders we were, we fought through heavy traffic to go a more direct route – everyone was happier to ride that way, and we got to London much more quickly.

Once we got to London, Chris and I signed in at the hostel. We had a drink with Roger before he bid farewell – he would go to a train station to catch a train home. He made it home late that night, safe and sound.

Our hostel in London had a fantastic location – right by St. Paul’s Cathedral – but, again, there was no bicycle parking. Luckily, there was a little dead-end nook in front of our room, and the hostel manager reluctantly allowed us to park our bikes there. Not ideal, but it was good enough.

We tried to find some food around, but apparently we were in the business district where everything closed early. We found a mediocre high-end Italian place – it was okay, but we were certainly hoping for larger portions and lower prices.

6/15 – London

In the morning, we headed over to Look Mum No Hands, a nearby bicycle store and coffee shop (similar to One on One in Minneapolis, but much larger) and presented the mechanics there with Chris’s problem. They hemmed and hawed and finally came up with a solution which ended up holding just fine for the rest of our tour.

We started the touristy stuff that day with a visit to the London Transport Museum, which showcased transportation throughout the centuries in London, mostly focusing on trains and subways. We walked over to a huge map shop in Covent Garden, where I became even more determined to travel to Southeast Asia.

We then headed out to Buckingham Palace, then to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben and the Parliament building. We went into a public session of the House of Commons where they were debating a bill to reform the unemployment benefits system. Interesting stuff!

We headed over to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, but – alas – there was no one there to preach to us about the end of days or the evils of illegal immigrations or the plight of the common man in times of high petrol prices. We made our way back to the hostel and had a couple of pints at the Rising Sun, a nearby pub frequented by the business types who work nearby, before we hit the hay.

6/16 – London

Chris had met a cyclist at the hostel the night before, and he went out for a bike ride with her in the morning. I went over to the British Museum instead.

I went back to the hostel to meet up with Chris, but he was a no show ( his cycling buddy had gotten a flat, so they had been delayed). I headed over to the Tate Modern, which we had planned to visit together. I took one of the guided tours and I wished I had been there all day to take the other guided tours. It was an amazing collection in an amazing building. I ran into Chris eventually, and we headed back tostle of last London pints at the Rising Sun before calling it an early night.

6/17 – Chelmsford

The way out of London was horrendously difficult to manage. It rained on us most of the afternoon, too. Even the GPS led us astray – it had taken us in a spiraling circle. By the time we got to Chelmsford, neither of us spoke of trying to go to a campground – we went straight for a hotel room. The Atlantic, a Best Western hotel, had a room for 73 pounds. We hemmed and hawed and the clerk called around to other hotels, and finally said he would be able to do 65 pounds. We capitulated. It was nice to have warm, dry beds after a frustrating afternoon. We had come about 60 km’s distance from central London, but it had taken us well over 100 km to get there. We got some bad Chinese food (it turns out that bad Chinese food in Britain is about the same as bad Chinese food in the U.S.), some overpriced beer at the hotel bar, and called it a night.

6/18 – Harwich (overnight ferry)

The next day, we started fairly early to Harwich, even though we were supposedly under 100 km from Harwich – after yesterday’s disasterous pathfinding, we wanted to make sure we got to our destination during daylight. We did again get lost a few times, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the day before. It was telling that when we asked Brits for direction, even they couldn’t make much sense of the map. I thought it was a fun adventure but there was no end to the cursing from Chris’s mouth. I suppose it didn’t help our mood that it was raining again.

We finally made it to Harwich. The town itself was a regular town, but as we went over to the ferry, there was a little mini-town there. We had fish & chips at a tiny fish & chips shop there, and then went up the street to a rather divy bar for our last English pints. The bar played Eminem the whole time we were there.

At the ferry terminal, we met two Dutch bicycle tourists. Both were women, one was 49 and the other 52, and they were on classic Dutch bikes. Neither wore a helmet – one of them said she would quit biking if she had to wear a helmet. They used a bike touring map of England made by a Dutchman who had done it. All the directions were by landmark – e.g. turn right at the Red Cherry Pub. It made a lot more sense than trying to use street names.

The ferry was a 12 deck behemoth. As it was to be an almost eight hour overnight journey, we were required to get a sleeping berth. It was quite large and roomy – much bigger than the sleeping car on Amtrak. On Deck 9, there was a restaurant, bar, shopping, information, currency exchange, arcade, and even a gambling area. I played a game called “Natural 21”. I asked the dealer if it was blackjack – she said it was like blackjack, but she explained the big differences, and asked if I agreed. The rules were horrendous – bank wins on tie, no insurance, no surrender, blackjack pays 1:1. I played for a while, and some other players joined in. I left with even money – it was too scary to play longer with those odds.

We had a few more drinks and then checked the weather before we went to bed. It would be raining from Hoek van Holland all the way down the Rhine river until we got back to Wiesen. We had planned on taking the train back in a couple days anyway – Chris had business to take care of in Wiesen. Plus, Chris had gotten a chest cold, and I was still nursing my cold a little bit. We decided to take the train back in the morning, skipping Holland entirely. The train schedule indicated we could be back in Wiesen in about 6 to 8 hours, depending on connections.

6/19 – Wiesen

Chris needed some time to get ready in the morning, so I went and tried to stuff as much food into my mouth as possible from the overpriced breakfast buffet. We took the train to Rotterdam, where we spoke to the ticketing agent. It would be no problem for us to travel to Wiesen by ourselves, but making the reservations for the bike spots was more difficult. The ticketing agent finally managed to route us through, but we wouldn’t get to Heigenbruken until 11:38pm.

The routing had us take six trains, with long breaks in two towns – Venlo and Woppertul. It was a pleasant enough way to travel, if a bit boring. Venlo was a small clean Dutch town where absolutely everyone was riding bicycles. It was wonderful to see. At the train station was a bicycle storage place with an attendant. The place doubled as a small bike shop as well. Woppertul was a medium sized town in an industrial part of Germany. It had the kind of heavy and industrial and dirty look that I hadn’t seen elsewhere on our trip. I ordered a random beer at a bar, and got a beer full of strawberries – it was rather strange. For dinner, we got some bratwursts from a street vendor.

We finally arrived in Heigenbrucken at about 11:45pm. The dark country highways were lonely and cold. We climbed a few hills to get back to Wiesen, about 15 km away frmo the Heigenbrucken bahnhof. I didn’t get up till about noon the next morning.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Journal notes: Paris

Part 2 of my EuroBikeTrip journal notes: Paris.  I’ll post Amiens to London sometime soonish.

6/8 – Paris

In the morning, we had breakfast with the rest of the folks staying at the B&B – the couple from Idaho and the eight British motorcycle tourists. We talked to Bill and Meredith, too, and after thanking them heartily and promising to pay their kindness forward, we set off into a cold and cloudy day. We stopped at a small grocery store and had lunch sitting on the sidewalk in front the store – I had a rabbit sandwich and a bottle of water. We took the country highways until we managed to get to the Orque Canal. From there, it was more or less smooth biking into the heart of Paris although we went through some of the very poor outer suburbs of Paris. We passed by a rickety trailer/squatter camp. A man was hunched over a bucket full of water – although it didn’t seem like the filthy water in the bucket was getting the laundry cleaner – in a field of debris underneath a highway bridge.

Once we were off the Canal path, the city traffic was hectic and fast. Scooters buzzed in and out of car traffic. Bike lanes were taken up by parked cars. The bike lanes that were still open for use were being bike salmoned, or even scooter salmoned.

When we arrived at the Hosteling International hostel, they said they had no record of our reservation, although Chris had talked to them just a week ago and was assured that our reservation was made. They did find room for us (as it turned out, there was plenty of room), but we would have to switch rooms the last day. The facilities were rather lacking – the luggage lockers cost money and were prone to breakdown, there was no bicycle parking (we locked our two bikes to each other with four locks, under the main stairway), and the showers were moldy. A throng of preteens crashed through the lobby after we checked in – not a good sign. After settling in, we got some dinner nearby at a nice little streetside restaurant. Back at the hostel, I had sweet, glorious internet access for the first time in a week.

6/9 – Paris

After free breakfast at the hostel, we headed over to the catacombs, where we waited in line for about a half hour, as they only allowed two hundred people in at a time. Originally built as quarries deep under the city, the catacombs were consecrated and repurposed to house the remains of thousands of Parisians as a plague swept through the area. Bones dug up from cemetaries all over Paris were stacked in neat, tight walls.

Next, we headed to Notre Dame for a free tour through DiscoverWalks. The building was enormous – one could imagine how a medieval Frenchman would’ve felt looking at the awesome structure. The magnificent facade, the frightening gargoyles on the side, the majestic flying buttresses on the back, the enchanting stained glass windows – it was amazing to think that this had been built hundreds of years ago. In the front courtyard was the “center of the world”, a marking on the ground which marked the center of Paris.

After the tour, we walked along the Siens river [??] to the Eiffel Tower. Along our walk were vendors of kitschy memorabilia but also old books and posters and artwork. I would’ve given into the temptation to buy, but I didn’t have much room to spare in my panniers. The walk also featured magnificent old buildings, but they were so numerous that we couldn’t keep track of what they were, even. Any one of them could’ve been the centerpiece of a major city, I thought.

We finally arrived at the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t as tall as I imagined and not very beautiful at first glance. After about an hour and a half wait, we took the elevator all the way to the top and looked around in all directions. The sweeping views of the city were amazing! We took the elevator partway down and then walked the rest of the way down, which gave more emphasis in our minds as to how tall the structure was. The police were all around, some with big, imposing looking guns. As we walked down to the metro station, we were greeted by the “unofficial” vendors who had been scattered from the immediate vicinity of the Eiffel Tower by the police presence.

We got some drinks before we headed to bed, tired from all the touristing around.

6/10 – Paris

In our last day in Paris, I got up early and tried to wake up Chris but he was sound asleep (I had told him the night before that if I couldn’t wake him, I’d be leaving early without him). I took the train out to Versailles. I know I’m reusing the same adjectives, but it truly was a majestic palace. The royalty that lived there lived such public lives (they often dined in front of an audience of noblemen), but they probably didn’t imagine their palace turning into a spectacle for the masses. After seeing the king’s and queen’s rooms, the dauphin’s and dauphine’s rooms seemed mild and subdued in comparison.

After Versailles, I took the train back to Paris to the Arc de Triomphe. From there, I walked down the Champs Elyssee and saw much by way of haute couture, but also mass market shops like Gap and H&M. I then arrived at the Louvre. After four hours mostly spent mostly looking at major French paintings, I gave up trying to soak everything in and went back to the hostel to pack. I had gotten quite greedy in my touristing and my right knee was pained – I hoped it would be better by the next day. Chris and I had some drinks at the hostel bar, and I chatted up a man from Montreal – a fellow Canadian! – and learned that the Bloc Quebecois’s hold on Quebec was broken! The NDP (or the NPD, as he called it) was now the ruling party. Amazing stuff!

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

What I’ve Learned While Biking Through Germany, France and England

Oops, I left my day-to-day notes back at home, so my Paris post will have to wait.  In the meanwhile, here’s some stuff I’ve learned while biking in Germany, France and England.

– English IPAs are way less hoppy and way weaker than American IPAs.  In fact, I haven’t found any hoppy beer since I’ve left the U.S.

– Driving on the left is an interesting mindfuck. Turning right is like turning left (and vice versa). As a pedestrian, you have to check the ‘other’ direction first. Lefthanded roundabouts!

– England seems to have way more towns but way fewer grocery stores than France. Germany has towns that start as soon as one ends, and has a lot of grocery stores and amenities.

– England loves free wifi! Oh what a joy it was to find free wifi at every other pub and cafe around town. France and Germany love to charge you for wifi, and access is not reliable.

– On the continent, the “A” roads are the mega-freeways – bikes prohibited!  In England, the equivalent are the “M” roads.

– The Dutch almost always speak English and are almost always awesome.

– The toilet on the trains (at least the Dutch and German ones) empty out onto the tracks immediately when you flush. No kidding! They have signs that say that you must not flush the toilets while the train is stopped at a station.

– When I first arrived and would ask people “Sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte?”, almost everyone here in small town Germany would shake their heads sheepishly or slowly say “Nein”. But I soon learned to add “Ein bissel?” (“a little bit?”) – they would almost all say “Ja” to that.  Almost everyone here speaks enough English to communicate everything needed in a shop transaction, or to ask direction, or even have a good time over a brew – but they’re too shy to answer yes when you ask if they speak English.

– In Germany, roadies – in full kits with bicycles worth as much as a used car – are actually quite fast. In fact, everyone else is fast, too. I got outpaced going up a hill by a grandpa in a squeaky town bike with a six pack in his back basket.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Journal notes: Wiesen to (just before) Paris

Someone had asked that I write some posts journal-style, with day-by-day ride notes, so here it is.  Part 1 is Wiesen to Paris.  I have a few blanks to fill in later, which I’ll hopefully get around to, including kilometer counts.

6/4 – Ochsenbuch 159.02

We had visited a bike shop in a nearby town the day before to get my bike in touring shape. The front rotor and brake mechanism were replaced with Shinamo, as they had no Avid rotors. We loaded up our panniers the night before as well, mostly, and we were off bright and early. Unfortunately, we had intended on staying at a hostel, but they were booked up. We called another place, but on the night watchman was on duty, and he spoke no English.

Chris’s “breadcrumb” navigation on his Garmin worked well. He had placed little waypoints that we were to navigate through as we went. As the afternoon wore on, we called both the booked-up hostel (in case of cancellations) and the other place, to no avail. Afternoon became evening, and we started asking people if there was a campground nearby. We got the tip around 6 or 7pm that there was a place not too far, and it was on our breadcrumbed route, so we headed over. An old rusty sign pointed the way in.

When we arrived at the gatehouse, the employees were just leaving. They said there was indeed a campground and that there would still be time for us to get beer and food at the chalet. We biked down and were greeted warmly by one of the owners, a Dutchman who spoke English fluently. He and another Dutchman had purchased the campground (it had been in bankruptcy) and reopened it only two weeks ago.

We set up camp and showered, then went to the chalet for some Grolsch and cheese toasties (grilled cheese). We talked to a group of German recumbant bike tourists as well. They were quite impressed with the distance we were covering – they were doing 80-90 km per day, and they had only arrived at the campground an hour or before we had. We talked about biking on the roads and on paths in Germany (we told them we had given up on paths after one path took us up and down very steep hills before deviating us from the road we needed to get onto – we had to drag our bikes across a ditch and road barrier to get back). It was a good night, and we very much enjoyed our stay at the campground.

6/5 – ? france 166.5

Our second day was warm and partly cloudy. Again, we made good distance despite the hills. Crossing over into France, the sign indicating a different country was less impressive than the signs in the U.S. indicating a different state – it was a very plain highway sign marked “FRANCE” with default speed limits for various road types listed.

Again, we weren’t quite going to make it to the campground we had wanted to get to, so as it became later in the day, we started asking people for campgrounds. Neither Chris nor I spoke French, however, and no one seemed to speak German, let alone English. We finally found a man working in his backyard who spoke English. We got directions from him for a campground not too far away, so we headed there. We made a pit stop to get dinner, but no one there spoke German or English, so it was a lot of guesswork and pointing to get what we wanted.

When we arrived at the campground, there was a wall and a sealed gate, along with a “no trespassing” warning in four languages. It was getting dark now, too, so it wasn’t feasible to go out into the French countryside looking for another campground. We were almost ready to stealthcamp in a field across the way, but, luckily, Chris found an unlocked pedestrian gate. We walked our bikes in and made our way to the campground.

It was mostly a campground for caravans (RVs), and it looked like most everyone was asleep. We found a couple of youngsters hanging out and tried to ask them if it would be okay if we set up camp, but they had no idea. We eventually found a Dutchman who was camping there, who thought it’d be no problem. We picked an empty spot close to the showers and made camp for the night.

Notably, the toilets had no seats (bare porcelain) and no toilet paper. The lights were activated by motion sensor, so if you were sitting still for too long, you’d be in darkness before too long. Good times!

6/6 – Ste Menehoulde 123.4

We woke up in the morning and went to the campground office. It was no problem at all. There were two goats at the side of the office. The brown one only wanted to sit in his chair, while the black one wanted nothing in the world but to get petted by me. He followed me as I walked to the office door, and then watched sadly as I rode off.

We rode against headwind through lots of hilly country (not to mention some rain, but it wasn’t quite so bad), so we didn’t make it to Ste Menehoulde until just before 9pm – we got there as the campground keeper was leaving. I learned later that Ste Menehoulde is significant in French history. When King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fled Paris after the revolution began, Ste Menehoulde was where they were recognized – they were later captured and brought back to Paris.

As we were riding through the main drag to get dinner, some jackasses dumped a bucket of (what I will continue to assume was) water on us from their 2nd story apartment. Oh well.

Chris told me that Ste Menehoulde was famous for le pied de cochon, where you eat the whole thing – including bones, so I went to the Cheval Rouge [check] to check it out. The locally made pied de cochon was 9.50, whereas the imported stuff was 5.50. Like as sucker, I got the local stuff. It was good, but I couldn’t quite choke down all of the bones.

6/7 – Reuilly-Savignon 112

Our last day before Paris went through beautiful Champagne country. We passed by many vineyards, including Moet & Chandon. Unfortunately, not only the terrain against us, it rained on us all day. This was the day we stayed at Bill & Meredith’s B&B – take a look at Paying It Forward for the rest.

Okay!  That’s all I got for today.  Next time (whenever I get to internet again), I’ll post my notes for Paris.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Paying it forward

The day before we arrived in Paris, we rode through Champagne.  We saw fields and fields of grapes for wineries such as Moët & Chandon.  It had been a pleasant sunny day when we started the day in Sainte-Menehould, but quickly turned sour.  It rained nearly all day with a stiff headwind as well.  We had planned on camping in Château-Thierry, but halfway through our day of getting drenched with no end in sight for the rain, we called an American-run bed and breakfast in Reuilly-Sauvigny that Chris had stayed at in years past.

Bill, the owner, was very apologetic, but the place was full – there was a large group of British motorcycle tourists coming in.  He told us he’d try calling around to nearby B&Bs and hotels; we told him we’d call back in a bit.  On a particularly laborious uphill, Chris got a call.  He grumblingly answered, and it was Bill.  He said we could come by and use his barn for shelter, and we could also use his bathroom and shower.

We arrived at the B&B and was greeted warmly by Meredith, Bill’s wife and co-owner of the B&B. She allowed us to use the shower in their private apartment, did our laundry for us (the clothes we were wearing and also the laundry we had done the night before, which we had hung out to dry on our rear racks but which were soaked by now), and put us up in an adjacent building which was being renovated – very much nicer than what I thought we’d get when I heard “barn”.  They also invited us to join them for breakfast, which we gladly accepted.  They apologized that they had no food for dinner, but offered to let us borrow their car so we could go a few kilometers away to the nearest restaurant – we declined their generosity here, opting to eat our emergency rations instead.

As we left the next morning, Meredith and I talked a bit about her own trips.  She was a hiker – she was soon to go on a 1000 km hike in northern Spain which she had done several times before.  She told us how she was helped along the way on her long hikes by strangers, and that she likes to be helpful to other travelers in need.  She asked that we help other travelers when we can.

It didn’t take long before we got a chance to help another traveler out.  Our first day out of Paris, in Amiens, as we were eating our dinner around 9pm at the campground and caravanning/RV/chalet site, a Dutch bike tourist came in.  He had been staying at hotels but there were no rooms in Amiens (apparently there was a big judo tournament in town) – this was his last hope.  The clerk – again, very apologetically – told him that there were no chalets left.  The clerk and the Dutch tourist frantically tried to brainstorm any possibilities, but at that late hour, it seemed hopeless.  Chris and I offered the Dutch tourist use of my bivouac sack and I would stay with Chris in his two-man tent.  The clerk had a sleeping bag, so we were able to help this bike tourist out.
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On the road, plans go awry and conditions change in unpredictable ways.  A bike tourist is especially at the mercy of what happens around him.  It’s nice to know that there are people out there who will help, and it very much made our day to be able to help a fellow traveler out.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2011 in Uncategorized