November 07, 2004 GMT
Handlebar Muffs and Jobsworths

My next-door-neighbour-from-hell has resubmitted the appalling planning application to which I objected 6 months ago and which was rejected out of hand by the planning officer without it even going to the committee. He probably thinks that I can't object from here. Ha!

Jobsworth: had to laugh when I turned up at the Nippon Express warehouse at Tokyo docks. There was the usual uniformed jobsworth waving a magic wand, who was positively shrilling incomprehensibly at me to park over there and no way was I riding the bike into his warehouse. Sorry, pal, and I'm bigger than you. He was positively incandescent.

Left turns: big intersections are generally no left turn (driving is allegedly on the right here), but there's a neat exception for the hundreds of thousands of scooters. They sit at the lights well to the right, and when they (the lights, that is) go green they veer to the right and turn so they're at the front of the traffic waiting in the other direction; there's even a painted box on the road for them. Both sides of absolutely every street are lined with scooters, all parked on the pavement in neat rows.

Handlebar muffs: OK, it's November, but the temperature is in the high 80s and 90s, and the humdity's pretty high too. I can't believe the number of scooters wearing handlebar muffs, never mind people walking around in woollies. How on earth do they manage if the temperature gets as low as, say 70?

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:20 PM GMT
November 09, 2004 GMT
Ham and Eggs

There I was just before midnight, minding my own business, in bed, watching Beetlejuice (subtitled thank heavens) and the earth moved yet again.

Now, I'm in a cheap hotel, on the 4th floor, and the Taiwanese don't seem to be as organised as the Japanese on earthquakes. As plaster from the ceiling fell onto the bed I scuttled, starkers, under the desk. I have to say it was pretty scary. It probably didn't last more than a few seconds but it seemed like forever and I'm not used to this sort of thing (yet). It was a magnitude 6.3 just off the coast near where I am (Hualien, halfway down the east coast of Taiwan).

On a brighter note, I managed ham and eggs this morning with chopsticks. The toast was probably cheating, though.

Had a lovely day out to Taroko Gorge, which you've probably never heard of but which is Taiwan's No.1 tourist attraction. It's a 500m-deep marble gorge through the mountains in the centre of the island, and absolutely spectacular. My day-trip companions in the minibus were two Taiwanese girls and Jurgen the German, who works in Hiroshima, with his Japanese girlfriend Miro. Now, Japanese and Mandarin (which is spoken in Taiwan) use more or less the same character set, but the words are completely different (if you follow me), so Miro and the Taiwanese were conversing in English as their only common language. Not only that, but had to ask if they were Japanese or Chinese - if they can't tell the difference between themselves, what chance do we have?

So, back to Taipei tomorrow, then off to Bangkok on Thursday.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:18 PM GMT
November 13, 2004 GMT
Stuff and Nonsense

Went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 last night. The audience included (but was probably not limited to) Thais, Americans, Germans, Chinese and British. It was subtitled in Thai, which meant the Thais got to understand what the Iraqis were saying as well.

Interestingly (or, perhaps, unsurprisingly) everyone laughed in the same places, and when one American muttered loudly "Asshole" at one of Dubya's solecisms the whole place fell around. Then I went back to the hotel and watched the Bush/Blair double act and footage of the Falluja battle.

The temperature here is in the high 20s/low 30s, which would be OK but for the fact that the humidity is appalling. Unless you move very slowly indeed you are drenched with sweat within five minutes of going outside.

It looks as though I'll have no trouble buying engine oil here in the normal way. It was a bit tricky in Japan - they didn't seem to have the concept of "oil to go". When I filled up at a petrol station I asked for a litre of oil. Blank looks. I pointed at a large drum of Shell Helix. "Ah". An oil can was produced. "No, I want to take some away with me". More blank looks. A small container of two-stroke oil was produced. "Er, not exactly, but we'e getting there". Eventually the Yen dropped and I was given a choice of oils so I went for the 10-40. It came in a cardboard carton, like milk or orange juice. And there's absolutely nowhere to jettison unused/used oil or the containers. Japan is very hot on recycling and that sort of stuff, but if there's no facility even at a petrol station to dump things like that the system will be abused (and is, no doubt). I eventually persuaded a local
mechanicky sort of place to dispose of the taped-up carton containing the unused oil for me.

Internet cafes in Taiwan aren't. That is to say, they are places where kids can go to play internet (I assume) games. If you want to do anything remotely sensible, like print something or retrieve pix from a camera, you're stuffed.

Anyway, my cousins will be arriving here on Monday, and as luck would have it I'm in a hotel about 50 yards from theirs (picked it out of the hat at the airport when I arrived). Not only that, but there's secure parking for when I get the bike back. Talking of which, the latest information is that I can go and get it on Thursday.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:23 PM GMT
November 16, 2004 GMT
50 Today

The temperature was 37C here on Sunday, which wouldn't have been so bad had not the humidity been 80%. It's cooled down a bit now, but I think it's going to be pretty horrible riding in bike kit.

Talking of which, I went out to the warehouse at Lat Krabang this morning to sort out what happens on Thursday/Friday and what paperwork the Customs people need. Nightmare. And I managed to hail The Taxi Driver Who Can't Read A Map. Found the warehouse in the end after a magical mystery tour involving a bit of off-roading, canals, cart tracks and so on.

You know how the temperature control in cars starts with a blue bit and ends with a red bit? They don't here. Blue all the way.

Having observed Bangkok traffic from taxis and as a pedestrian, I think there'll be no problem. The traffic's mad, certainly, but there are so many bikes that other vehicles are very bike-aware and use their mirrors all the time (shock, horror). They positively expect bikes to be filtering down all sides of the traffic and act accordingly. I'll find out for real on Friday whether this is actually true or not.

There are motorcycle taxis - mainly rather pretty little Jap bikes which look like pared-down and very modernised scooters/step-thrus; I'll upload pix in a day or so. The riders wear orange dayglo vests and carry a spare helmet for the passenger (who usually doesn't bother, and anyway rides sidesaddle). It's easy to spot the good m/c taxi riders - they're the ones who are still alive.

Car taxis are very cheap - 30km back from the warehouse this morning was less than 3 quid; and we're not talking decrepit here either. Most cabs are newish Toyotas and the like, with a meter (optional), aircon, no problems. And extremely plentiful.

At the warehouse, Mrs Jundi told me what's required (another 30 quid for various charges like warehousing, weighing (astonishingly, it weighs 370kg) and so on) and then enquired as to what arrangements I'd made to transport the bike away.
"I'm going to ride it".
"Eh? Do you have a licence?"
"Er, yes, I mean, I've more or less ridden the thing here from England".
"But, but, but, are you used to riding a bike?".
"Um, well, yes, I think so; I've been doing it for over 30 years."

I'm sure she won't believe it till she sees it.

And then, when I arrived back at the hotel at lunchtime, the reception staff broke into 'Happy Birthday' cos they'd seen my registration form. It was lovely.
So tonight I'm going out for dinner with my cousins Julia and Jonathan
and Julia's husband Alex (who'd better not wear a kilt this time).
Raise a glass to me at 2pm UK time which will be 9pm Bangkok time.

My cousins Julia, Jon and Alex with me (right, and yes, I have legs - they stop the bike falling over when I stop) on my 50th Birthday Bash

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:25 PM GMT
November 18, 2004 GMT
No Flies on Me

Any entomologists out there? Why are there no flies here? There's food being cooked absolutely everywhere at all times down every street and alleyway, and I swear I've not seen one single fly since I've been here. Come to think of it, there were none in Japan or Taiwan either.

I have Vietnamese and Lao visas - very easy compared with getting them in the UK. This is my first experience of getting visas outside the UK; on previous trips I've bought them in London before leaving as the trips were temporally circumscribed. Nothing much in the way of queues (which surprised me rather) and they're much cheaper and very easy. The Cambodia one is a bit more complicated and I won't get that until Wednesday. The Lao one came with a warning that tourists are not allowed in Vientiane between Nov 22 and Dec 1 because of the Asean summit (shortage of beds, apparently) so I've modified my itinerary accordingly. There's also the issue of which border crossings are possible between Laos and Vietnam; two, maybe, which difficulty is compounded by the almost complete lack of paved roads in Laos.

I'm being entertained to dinner tonight by the BMW Club of Thailand in the person of Tan and couple of his chums. They're being really helpful. As of this morning I have (I believe) all the paperwork to retrieve the bike and get it through Customs tomorrow morning. Tan and Peera have volunteered to help me with the Customs thing (me having no Thai except please and both genders of thank you) which is jolly decent of them, and not only that but they have a Club bash on Saturday night to which I'm invited; so I think the rest of my time in Thailand will be more than a little interesting. There's a big bike rally in Chiang Mai on Dec 10/11 but due to visa/border/Vientiane restrictions I probably can't make it. I'm sure there'll be others.

The phone thing gets a bit scary. You know how your phone tells you the local dialling code as you move around the UK, and gives you a reasonable idea of where you are in other countries? When I was at the Nippon Express offices this morning the phone actually told me which building I was in. Most of the time it just says the street.

So, big smiles tomorrow when I get the bike back (I hope) and I'll let you know what the riding's like.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:30 PM GMT
November 19, 2004 GMT
Its back

Ive had a wonderful wlecome from the BMW Club of Thailand. They took me out for dinner last night, and tomorrow is their annual bash to which Im invited. Not only that, but theyre having a Club outing to Laos next weekend for a few days and have insisted I join them, which fits in brilliantly with my plans.

Got the bike back this afternoon - five hours of paperwork then frenetic crate destruction and bike reassembly with the help of a forklift truck. Everyone was very helpful; the Customs lady, once convinced this was a temporary import, produced a complete set of copies of Simon McCarthy's paperwork from which to crib, and very impressed when I exclaimed "he's a friend" (bit of an exaggeration - I've met him twice). And the other Customs officers wanted to see my website, and gave me a cribsheet for he difference between Bangkok Thai and Chiang Mai Thai. I had to reciprocate by explaining how to pronounce various English words.

So, back on the road.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:33 PM GMT
November 29, 2004 GMT
Bridge on the River Kwai

Riding in Bangkok traffic is more or less as I'd surmised - no problem at all. It looks chaotic but as almost all the car/van drivers use mirrors and indicators, and positively expect bikes to filtering both sides of them, it's a doddle.

I went to Kanchanaburi, which is the town on the river Khwae near the famous bridge. Stayed in a stunning hotel called Bamboo House; it's right by the river, and the rooms are bamboo rafts floating on the river or en-suite bamboo huts on stilts on the lawn beside the river, about 200 yds from the bridge. Totally idyllic (there was cold beer as well), and all for 200 baht a night (that's less than 3 quid).

The bridge itself has been turned into a theme park; tacky isn't the word. And I had another scary mobile phone moment as it announced 'River Kwai Bridge' at me. Is nowhere safe?

On Thursday I rode nearly 500 miles up to Chiang Mai. At one of my stops I was engaged in conversation by a lady Scout (I nearly put lady Boy Scout, but given where I am you might have got the wrong idea) who was terribly excited about me riding a bike from England and demanding the name of the website so she could show it to her boys.

It was the weekend where the Thais celebrate the November full moon by floating lotus-shaped lights on the river, setting off fireworks and releasing thousands of home-made miniature hot-air balloons - a stunning sight at night.

Then on to Phitsanulok where I'm staying in the Youth Hostel. They've certainly changed a bit since I were a lad; lounging in a hammock in a teak house roofed with banana leaves, surrounded by lush vegetation and downing at least one cold beer.

A little light bike maintenance at Phitsanulok

Paradise, for 200 baht a night. I could stand a lot of this. On the way here I rode what must qualify as one of the World's Great Biking Roads - 100 miles of highway 11 from Lampang southwards through the mountains. Brilliant benderies, stunning scenery, superb surface; the sort of road that makes you want to turn
round and ride it all over again.

I'm slowly wending my way south-east towards Ubon, near where I'll be meeting the chaps from the BMW Club of Thailand on Saturday before setting off on our tour of Laos.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 05:35 PM GMT
 
 

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