After the eighth rest day on the 15th floor of a luxurious building in Bangkok (thanks again to Reece, our Warmshowers host), we had taken the train North. It wasn’t Chiang Mai and its tourist attractions that attracted us but a cliff by the name of Crazy Horse Buttress. At the end of a forest path, overlooking the Mae On valley, a rocky outcrop has been carefully cleaned, equipped with bolts, trails laid out without overly impacting the jungle surroundings. A climber’s paradise. Here there are routes for all levels and styles, in the shade, in the sun and even in caves. While crossing Central Asia by bike had deprived us of climbing for more than six months, Crazy Horse quickly won us over.
Usually, neither of us is enough of a fan of single pitch sport climbing to justify spending more than a few days in such a site. On Kalymnos last March we struggled to get motivated for short routes not leading to a real summit. We were still looking for full days of great vertical adventures, certainly drawn on by the nostalgia of Chamonix. At Crazy Horse, we arrived in a completely different mind set. We were deeply missing climbing as a sport. Alone on the wall. Overcoming your fears. Managing your energy. Searching for solutions. Balance, self-control, aesthetic movements, contact with the rock.
We also had a goal in mind. Next summer, we will return to Kyrgyzstan. The idea is to climb in the Karavshin valley before setting out once again to pedal what China has forced us to fly over by not getting the visa.
The Karavshin valley is a Kyrgyz Yosemite with a number of major routes, some of which require several days on the wall, all this with the addition of high altitude. The logistical aspect is not something to be overlooked either, permits, donkeys, specialised equipment and a month of food. These remote cliffs have a number of “easier” routes that are, so to speak, already within our reach. Of course, since we like a challenge, we are seeing how far we can push ourselves to reach a level that would allow us to climb “Perestroika Crack”. The summit of Mount Slesov, 4240m was reached for the first time by this line in the 90’s. At that time, the most difficult sections were climbed artificially (with the help of pitons and ladders to climb the rock). Later, an American team (Lynne Hill and Greg Child) was decorated with the Piolet d’Or for climbing it free in a single 28 hour push (using only their hands and feet with a rope only to safeguard a fall, not to be confused with free-solo climbing which is without a rope). 800m, 24 rope lengths with two crux 7a/7b cracks, certainly a formidable challenge!
Crazy Horse was the beginning of our training for this rather ambitious goal. All conditions were there to reach and even overcome our level of climbing on Kalymnos. We stayed at Jira Homestay, a “luxury” campsite that provided us with running water, electricity, light, a hot shower, table and bench a mere leap from the tent. A quiet and wild environment with all the amenities we needed within 10 minutes of cycling: the market for fresh produce, 300 climbing routes, one hour Thai massage for €4 each.
Beyond this material comfort, our many encounters greatly enriched these 40 days and made us feel at home. Arne had started cycling in Germany in April 2017. We met him in Tajikistan, saw him again in Kyrgyzstan and he was now in Chiangmai for a month. Perfect to meet regularly and share days off putting the world to rights, sipping smoothies and supping beers. We spent a lot of time climbing with Roger. After working for a year in Australia, he was now on an epic climbing adventure in Southeast Asia carrying his guitar, his flower sticks, his hoops, his smile and his reassuring benevolence.
We also met Gary, always with a joke in hand and much more of a morning person than us. He was on a climbing trip for 3 months and managed to get us out of bed earlier than usual for some intense days at the cliff. In other words, time flied. The end of our visa approaching, we had yet to hit the road again. Our climbing goals well in our mind, we had given ourselves ten days to pedal the 920 kilometres between Crazy Horse and Thakhek in Laos.
From Mae On to Thakhek : the race against the clock
Most of the time on the bike we prefer not to plan, to pedal at our pace and to take a rest day at least twice a week. Starting from Jira, we had exactly 10 days to cover the 900 kilometres that separated us from Laos. Exceeding our visa would have resulted in a hefty fine and the risk of not being allowed back in Thailand, even a ‘bad guy’ stamp! Our itinerary left no room for improvisation nor detours. To leave the country on time, we had a target of 90 kilometres daily.
To reduce the distance whilst avoiding main roads as much as possible, we chose to take a shortcut through a national park. A very quiet and picturesque road alternating between hills and remote valleys. The bucolic ride unfortunately turned quickly into a nightmare. The hills here are not funny. Too steep to pedal, too steep to push the bikes. That day, our bike computers showed 4h45 of pedaling. In fact, this only represents the travel time of each bike. Our legs undertook some sections three times. It was so steep that we pushed the bikes together for at least 5 kilometres. Push a bike, leaving it at the top, go back down to get the second one, take off the elastic band off the brake lever that prevents it from sliding down the slope, push it up to the next bike. Repeat. This difficult first stage reminded us that even bad days are full of good surprises. We discovered that in remote villages of Thailand, there are no gas stations but vending machines. Put a coin in, listen to the instructions (in Thai) and fill up your petrol bottle. The experience was so unusual we were pressing the button for 10 minutes laughing like kids in front of a video game.
The next morning we were hoping to make good progress. Instead, we spent another hour and a half pushing our bikes together. Distances measured in hundreds of meters. The frustration at its maximum, the tension palpable. In this kind of situation, conflicts arrive without warning. When pushing a 50 kilo bike as a two, it’s easy to accuse the other of changing direction or to get upset when one mumbles “we’ll never get there”. Fortunately today we guarded our solidarity and ended up reaching the descent in a good mood. On one of the roads we took that day, we met Alain. A Frenchman on a recumbent bike, he managed to cover 9000 kilometres between Saint Petersburg and Vladivostok in 3 months.
December 31st. 2017 ends pretty well. We got used to not carrying provisions for lunch and settled for roadside restaurants. For 2 euros, we enjoyed a hearty and delicious lunch. We had a great afternoon cycling through charming villages and found a “resort” that allowed us to camp. The shower was a bucket of cold water. The camp was a meadow infested with ants. As a countdown to midnight, a tone deaf karaoke. Living the dream.
January 1st 2018 starts rather badly. After a sleepless night fighting the ants, we discover that they have also sneaked into our bags. Three hours. It took us that long to get rid of the stowaways. When paying, the owners refuse our money. Too much noise and too many insects, they are sorry. It’s 1130. We have 7 days left for 700 kilometres, which means 100 kilometres a day. Starting so late and so tired, there is little chance we’ll pedal enough today. 17:30. The sun disappears behind the horizon as the full moon appears. In this very special light, the landscape reveals all its contrasts. Beautiful end of the day. We managed to do 70 kilometres and despite our delay we are now optimistic. With the largest hills behind us, we only have one hilly stage left. If we sleep well and leave early in the morning, we should be able to do 110 kilometres a day.
The next morning is the beginning of the routine. Get up early. Pedal two hours. Have a coffee break, smoothie and cookies. Ride an hour. Find a place to eat. Cycle another two hours. Stop for water and food. Go back to the road with our eyes open wide in search of a nice place to camp. The days following are similar. Time passes and everything mixes up. A fire truck is busy watering the flowers. Arriving in a village, we look for the wallet to buy food. Panic. It is nowhere. Or at least not where it should be. We empty our panniers. Accuse each other. Unfold the tent. Here it is, in the pocket. Around the corner, a giant buddha looks down at us with kindness. The night has now set in. A ’24’ sign catches our attention. It’s got to be a bungalow resort open 24 hours a day. We cross the gate. It is dark and creepy but we are quickly allowed to put the tent in the corner of the parking lot. The owner gives us fresh water and opens a bungalow for the toilet. The huge spider in the shower and the drawer full of condoms makes us quickly understand that the usual customers are certainly not families on vacation. Further along the way, rubber tree plantations as far as the eye can see. That night, we set up the tent on a raised platform to avoid another ant invasion.The landscape is so special, the light perfect for photos, I pedal with camera in hand. It’s night again. We stop to look at the map on the phone. Panic. It’s nowhere. It stayed where we left it, 30 kilometres away. After the panic, the resignation. It’s lost. That’s life on the road. We lose things, we lose our way, we find treasures, we find ourselves. I find a license plate. Whatever, we aren’t lost. From now on we follow the road 22 to the border.
January the 7th. 0830. We finish putting the tent down beneath a heavy sky. Laos is only 90 kilometres away. We heard that the border closes at 1600. There is no reason for us not to be there in time. While we maintain a cruising speed of 20km/h, we are jubilant. The excitement inherent to the realisation of a challenge invades us. We doubted a lot. We got delayed but we caught up. We are exhausted but so excited. We will get there. It’s now a certainty.
However. There is always a but. The excitement is short-lived. Thailand does not want to let us go so easily. The big black clouds tear apart suddenly and we become soaked in an instant. Impossible to stop. Luckily, it’s not cold. After all, pedalling wet is not that complicated. 1530. The rain has stopped. The Mekong, the natural border between the two countries, is in front of us. We have only to cross the Friendship bridge. Victory! Well, almost. An agent in his uniform approaches. Pointing at the bikes “Are you going to Laos?” Yes. “It is forbidden to pedal on the bridge.” We try joking, being friendly, showing the map of the world and what we cycled. Nothing works. He advises us to hitchhike. Offers to help us. He asks a pick-up of nuns if they would agree to drive us to the other side. “Of course”. We are sitting in the back of the vehicle in the middle of a chaos of panniers and bicycles. The car starts. At the moment we leave Thailand and it’s protective border station roof, torrents of water engulf us and a rainbow rears up over the bridge. This is what’s called not doing things halfway. The official in charge of Laotian visas is dying of laughter. Alongside the pens for filling out the forms, he hands us some tissues. We are officially allowed in Laos, the twentieth country since our departure from the UK.
The day’s destination, Green Climbers Home, just 30 kilometres away. Yet another 30 kilometres. In Thakhek, we decide that we need a new phone. We choose one in 15 minutes. Once at the campsite, there will be nowhere to go shopping. In 30 minutes, we have enough food supplies to last five days. Night falls. We hurry, tired of cycling in darkness and feeling the draw of the finish line. The bags of fruit are attached with bungee cords. In the darkness we can guess at huge silhouetted rock formations but the potholes take us by surprise. These twelve kilometres are certainly the longest of these 10 days. The last five hundred meters on a muddy road forces us to finish by pushing. Once there, we realised we’ve lost all our fruit somewhere on the road. Music. Light. Crowded restaurant. And surprise! Arne is here. We said goodbye to him in Chiangmai. He had gone to northern Laos, he made a detour to the South to come see us here. Roger is here too. Nothing better than an evening with friends to share anecdotes still fresh in our minds from the epic last 10 days.