10 Years Ago

August 29th, 2017 by David

Ten years ago this month, Bill and I were on our way to completing Ride for Climate USA, a bicycle journey we undertook across the country to raise awareness of climate change and promote solutions. On this journey, we talked to thousands of people and gave over 45 presentations on global warming at schools and community centers. Bill wrote some closing thoughts on the ride in this blog post in September of 2007.

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The best part of our bicycle journey across the country was meeting people, and staying at the homes of the numerous people who hosted us. We still (hopefully) have the contact information for many of these individuals, and over the next few weeks we’re going to reach out to people to ask them what has changed in the past decade for them with regards to how they see climate change. Do they feel like we’re making progress? Is there anything they have done to fight climate change that they want to share? If you’re reading this and met us on our bike trip — let us know.


 

Biking with a Toddler

July 29th, 2017 by David

It has been two years now since Lindsey and I finished biking across Asia. Much has changed. The most notable is an addition to the family: Damian was born in January of 2016.

Using our two weeks of summer vacation, we traveled to Europe and pedaled from France to Italy, across the Alps. I towed Damian while Lindsey carried all the gear. You can see an interactive map of our route here, and our best pictures here.

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Awards for The Bicycle Diaries

June 4th, 2015 by David

When you publish a book, you don’t know how it is going to be received. Will anybody read it? And if they do, will they like it? I’d like to say that I don’t care much about the response — that I’m content to have published a book that I’m proud of — but let’s be honest. It makes a huge difference what readers say.

I’m extremely honored to have 50 positive reviews on Amazon. It was even encouraging that some ‘climate skeptics’ read the book and enjoyed it.

Also, at the recommendation of my editor, I submitted The Bicycle Diaries for a number of awards. The book has been honored with the following:

  • Shelf Unbound Notable Book of 2014
  • Finalist for the 2015 Montaigne Medal
  • Finalist for Forward Review’s IndieFab Book of the Year
  • Finalist for the 2015 Eric Hoffer Award
  • Runner up in the General Non-Fiction category at the 2015 San Francisco Book Festival
  • Bronze Medal for Travel Essay, 2015 Independent Publisher Book
  • Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 9.29.25 AM


     

    The Man Who Made My Bicycle: Bruce Gordon

    June 3rd, 2015 by David

    This past weekend Lindsey and I took a bus to Petaluma and then biked back to San Francisco over the next two days, enjoying a lazy 40-mile-per-day bike tour.

    In Petaluma, before we started our ride, we stopped by Bruce Gordon Cycles. A little over twelve years ago, Bruce welded together del Fuego, a bike that I have since ridden from California to Argentina, Turkey to Myanmar, and across the U.S. twice. All told, I’ve traversed more than 32,000 miles on the frame (every other part of the bike, except the racks, has been replaced).

    Bruce makes very nice bicycles (del Fuego was a graduation gift from my Dad — I wouldn’t have gotten such a nice bike otherwise). At Bruce’s store, he showed me a number of show bikes that he’s made over the years.

    You can also see pictures from Lindsey’s and my weekend tour here.


     

    Help for the Nepal Earthquake

    May 22nd, 2015 by David

    Like everyone else, we were shocked and saddened by the news from Nepal. Lindsey spent most of the day after the quake reading news sites online. Fortunately, the people who we spent time with all appeared to be okay. Obviously, though, many others were not.

    We made friends in Nepal, and now these people are involved in relief efforts. We have given money directly to two of these friends’ efforts, and you can do the same for one of them via the link below.

    Amrit Ale, from Nepal, works for NOLS and the experiential learning program Where There Be Dragons. He also runs his own trekking company, Himalayan Quests, which, in addition to taking tourists to beautiful corners of Nepal, also runs ‘health camps’ in remote villages every year. We had a great time grabbing a beer with Amrit in Kathmandu, and then we hired a guide from Himalayan Quests for what might have been the most visually stunning part of our 10-month journey in Asia.

    Amrit is now raising money to do direct work in some of the communities that are not being helped by the international aid agencies. He knows the mountains well, and I trust that he will use our money as well as if not better than any other group we could contribute to. Right now he is in the mountains building sanitation facilities for communities that had theirs destroyed in the quake. You can donate below:

    Also, back here in the Bay Area, I recently attended a talk by Sandeep Giri, the founder of Gham Power, a solar company that works in Nepal. Following the quake, Sandeep started giving solar panels to communities that had lost electricity, helping people light their homes at night and charge their cell phones so that they can communicate with friends and family. He showed us pictures of people of people waiting for hours to get their phones charged, and told us about how terrified people were at night because they had no lights and were living in makeshift shelters anticipating aftershocks. Images of Gham Power’s work are on their Facebook page.

    They are doing their best to respond to requests for energy, which are on this map. However, they need your help. Click on the image below to go to their IndieGoGo campaign.

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    It’s strange to think that the temples we visited in Kathmandu and Bakhtapur just a few months ago are in ruins, or to see pictures of the tents in Nepal and think about how many people are now forced to live in them. From Kathmandu, one of my strongest memories is going up in one of the city’s tallest buildings, a tower built in the 1830s. We gained a beautiful view from the top, and as you can see, we were laughing and enjoying ourselves.

    Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

    Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

    Nepal - Cycling and Kathamndu

    The tower is no more, destroyed by the quake, and about 180 bodies were found among the rubble. It is scary to think that we could have been among those. We’re lucky to still be here. Nepal was one of our favorite countries, largely because the people were so friendly. Now they need our help.


     

    East Coast Tour Pictures

    April 24th, 2015 by David

    My book and slideshow tour was more or less an extension of our past 10 months of travel—every day I had to figure out how to get to the next venue, where I’d be spending the night, and pack and unpack my panniers.

    I flew to DC on a Wednesday (Lindsey joined later, in New York). I assembled del Fuego at the airport (thank you S&S couplers), rolled up the soft-case bicycle bag, and started biking toward the city.

    East Coast Book Tour

    East Coast Book Tour

    Through a combination of cycling, trains, buses, and car rides, I made it from DC to my hometown of Amherst, giving 10 presentations in under two weeks. It was a great way to share the stories from my journeys; I’m also glad now to be taking some time off!

    Below are some of the best pictures from this trip. An album of the best pictures is here on flickr.

    East Coast Book Tour

    East Coast Book Tour

    East Coast Book Tour

    East Coast Book Tour

    East Coast Book Tour

    East Coast Book Tour


     

    East Coast Book and Slideshow Tour – March 26th to April 7th

    March 11th, 2015 by David

    I will be doing a short tour through cities in the Northeast to share stories from this journey and also my book, The Bicycle Diaries, a Shelf Unbound Notable Book of 2014. The slideshow will include the best pictures and videos from 30,000 miles of bicycle touring across three continents and 28 countries — and it will also share the on-the-ground observations of the challenge of climate change. Copies of The Bicycle Diaries will be available for sale.

    Click on the links for the location of each event.

    Washington DC – Thursday, March 26th, 8:00pm – Bicycle Space (Facebook)
    Baltimore – Friday, March 27th, 8:30pm – Red Emma’s Bookstore
    Philadelphia – Saturday, March 28th, 6:30pm – Conshohocken REI (Facebook)
    Philadelphia – Sunday, March 29th, 2pm – Marlton REI (Facebook)
    New York City – Monday, March 30th, 7pm – NYC Velo at Hell’s Kitchen Location (Facebook)
    Brooklyn – Tuesday, March 31st, 7pm – Red Lantern Bicycles (Facebook)
    New Haven – Wednesday, April 1, 6pm – The Grove (hosted by Elm City Cycling)
    Boston – Thursday, April 2, 7pm – Trident Booksellers and Cafe (Facebook)
    Amherst, MA – Tuesday, April 7, 7pm – First Congregational Church of Amherst


     

    Asia: Crossed

    March 4th, 2015 by David

    I’m writing this from a plane, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Two days ago we flew from Yangon to Bangkok and spent 36 hours in the capital of Thailand, where we ate sticky rice, visited temples, and enjoyed a 90-minute massage. Then we flew overnight from Bangkok to Seoul, where we used a 12-hour layover to explore the cleanest and wealthiest city we’ve seen since Hong Kong. Now we are flying to Seattle, where Lindsey’s mother will meet us at the airport.

    Myanmar 5 - Yangon

    Over the past 10 months we’ve cycled 8,000 miles across Asia, visiting 12 different countries. We started in Istanbul and traveled east until we reached the East China Sea. We then looped southwest before riding east again, passing through South Asia and finishing along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

    Myanmar 4 - Rakhine State

    I’m trying to reflect on this journey and finding it difficult to do so. Asia is so big, so diverse, so much more than I anticipated. It feels impossible to summarize.

    This journey was shorter in time and distance than my ride across the Americas, but it was more challenging, largely due to visa requirements, travel restrictions, and changing languages. Because of government rules, we couldn’t bike across Iran (Americans are required to have a guide) or the parts of Tibet that border Nepal and India (independent travel for foreigners is illegal), meaning that the only way to arrive in South Asia by bicycle, overland, and independently, would be to travel through Pakistan—but although that route is possible, large parts of Pakistan are not safe for American tourists on bicycles. So we gave up on trying to pedal every mile and helped connect parts of our route through trains, buses, and (my favorite) hitchhiking. Freed from feeling like we had to bike every mile, we used the extra speed of these non-cycling transit options to explore eastern China before continuing to South Asia (which is why our travel map looks a bit circuitous).

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    The journey felt more disjointed than my ride across Latin America, partially because of the non-bicycle travel, but largely because each country in Asia was so different from the previous country—and sometimes within-country differences were greater than cross-country differences in the Americas. In Latin America I was able to travel for 16 months speaking Spanish or, in Brazil, a hybrid of Spanish and Portuguese. The countries of the region share a history of colonization by the Catholic Iberian nations of Spain and Portugal, and many have similar challenges and levels of development. They are culturally more similar to each other and the United States than the nations we crossed in Asia are to each other. The Latin America journey was a ride across a landscape with a common history and relatively unified identity.

    In Asia, I was mentally unprepared for the diversity of language, religion, culture, and government. We tried to learn bits of Turkish, Russian, and Chinese as we traveled. But it was extremely challenging, and I found it exhausting to have studied so much and learned so little. When we reached South Asia, I had no energy left to learn more languages. In Nepali, Hindi, Bengali, and Myanmar, I learned nothing more than the basic “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye” (fortunately, English is relatively common in South Asia, so we were able to get by).

    India 1 - Bihar

    We were constantly reminded of the ever-present influence of religion in people’s lives. In Turkey, it was the five-times daily call to prayer, the difficulty entailed in purchasing a beer, the pictures of imams on our hosts’ walls, and the very different social norms for men and women than what we experience in the U.S. In Tibet, we witnessed people in endless processions around temples. The holy region’s capital, Lhasa, was filled with Tibetan pilgrims with wrinkled faces and long braids who elbowed their way around us to prostrate themselves before shrines. In Nepal and India, we grappled with and mostly failed to understand the caste system and what it means for some people to be Brahmins and some Shudras. And we learned that we would have to swerve around cows in the street, as they are holy and treated with such reverence that all Indian and Nepalese cattle know they can walk placidly across a road and all traffic will automatically and patiently stop for them. In China, we tried to understand how Confucianism, which is more of a philosophy than a religion, shapes the society, and how “eastern thinking” creates a very different relationship between the individual and society than “western thinking” does (reading this book helped us).

    Tibet Autonomous Region

    We were especially struck by how women are treated in different societies. Outside the major cities, in Hindu and Muslim regions, we rarely saw women out in the streets. A number of times, Lindsey would point out to me that she was the only woman at a restaurant, or on a crowded street. Reading some recent articles makes me wonder what the men who were staring at us every time we stopped in India were thinking, and makes me glad that we took people’s advice to not be out after dark in Bihar. We loved the hospitality of Muslim culture, and we made many friends who we hope to stay in touch with. But in many places it was the man who invited us in, and then his wife or daughters-in-law (in many places the sons stay and live with their parents and their wives move in) who do the cooking and work—and then sometimes don’t join because it’s not considered appropriate for women to mingle with men outside their immediate family (interestingly, Lindsey was always included with the men, and we joked that people saw her as a third gender: “foreign lady”). It’s hard to feel good about a culture, however hospitable, that prevents women from interacting in public and hides them in the home.

    Tajikistan - The Border to Dushanbe

    We were also constantly reminded of how corrupt, restrictive, or ineffective governments in many parts of Asia are. It started in our first week in Turkey, when the government—probably the best-functioning democracy we visited—sprayed tear gas to disperse protesters who were complaining that the president had been acting increasingly autocratic. In the former Soviet republics, we encountered states that plastered pictures of their leaders on billboards across the countryside. In most of these countries (with the exception of Georgia), the autocratic leaders from the Soviet era had more or less continued in power. China was the most fascinating. It was both the most effective government and the one that most restricted personal freedoms. We marveled at their new highways and buildings, and how people seemed happy about the recent economic growth, but we were disappointed to see the country’s response to the protests in Hong Kong, where a student movement led a call for greater self-government. It was also sad to travel through Tibet and see colonization in progress. Nepal, India, and Bangladesh had the opposite problem of China: instead of being too strong, the governments in these countries are too weak, and they are unable to provide basic services like electricity, water, and good roads. And in Myanmar, we saw a country that was poor largely because an oppressive military government had nationalized businesses overnight, closed the country to the outside world, and mismanaged almost every aspect of the economy.

    China 9 - Beijing

    Government restrictions strongly affected the course of our trip. Many border crossings are off limits to ‘third country nationals,’ and we needed to get visas for almost every country well in advance of reaching them. For the ‘stans, we had to specify the time period of our travel and make sure to arrive and depart within the visa period (usually one month). This is particularly difficult when you are traveling by bicycle and aren’t sure how long it will take to get to each country, let alone bike across it. By comparison, in Latin America—a much freer region of the world—I could simply show up at the border of almost every country with my American passport and get a visa-on-arrival good for 90 days.

    In Uzbekistan and China, we found that we couldn’t send a hard drive of our pictures home to the U.S. through the mail because the government didn’t allow such data to be freely sent out of the nation. In China, we were reminded daily about the government’s desire to control information because we had to use a VPN to get around the Internet censorship simply to check gmail. In addition, China prohibits independent travel in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which basically meant that we could not reach Nepal and India overland on a bicycle without paying many thousands of dollars for a tourist-approved jeep with driver and guide to literally follow us every day as we cycled across the plateau (which is why we went for a cheaper but still very expensive group tour bus ride to the border with Nepal). When we tried to enter India, we were held up for five hours because the Indian embassy that had issued my visa had printed my passport number incorrectly (they eventually let us through). Finally, in Myanmar, we were told by other travelers that it was illegal to sleep anywhere other than a hotel that was authorized to host foreigners, and because such hotels are relatively infrequent, we more or less had to break the law (we think) to cycle across the country.

    Myanmar 4 - Rakhine State

    With regard to climate change—the theme of our trip—I end the journey feeling both more and less hopeful than when I began. We interviewed people across the continent, asking them if they think the weather is different now than it was decades ago. We were surprised by how consistent people’s answers were. Whether it was a wheat farmer in Turkey, a yak herder in Tajikistan, or a Tibetan shop owner in Lhasa, people have noticed that the weather is warmer than it was during their childhoods. In South Asia and Myanmar, most people said they noticed changes in the monsoon as well. Climate change is real, and people are noticing.

    India 1 - Bihar

    That said, a number of observations made me feel more hopeful. Bangladesh, which I’ve heard is going to be largely underwater in a few decades, is preparing for rising sea levels by building their existing seawalls a meter and a half taller, and bracing for increased natural disasters by dotting coastal areas with cyclone shelters. In the long run, large sections of the country will probably in fact be underwater, but the work underway now means that the tens of millions of people will probably be able to avoid flooding from sea level rise for much of this century. More interestingly, we have seen that economic development is making people less likely to be subsistence farmers, and thus less vulnerable to the whims of climate change. In the mountains of Tajikistan, families said that in recent years there has been less snow than usual in the winter, making it harder to grow food because there isn’t enough water in the summer. But they also said that at least one person from every family was working abroad (mostly in Russia), sending money home, and that families could use these remittances to buy food and other goods instead of relying on subsistence farming.

    Wakhan Valley

    Of course, the climate change that people have witnessed so far is relatively mild compared to what they will likely see in the coming decades. People don’t list the changes in the weather as their biggest concern when we talk to them. But that might change in a few decades, when extreme drought in some places becomes the norm, making some parts of Turkey and Central Asia much drier than they are today, or when sea levels rise by another three feet in Bangladesh.

    Bangladesh 4 - Dhaka to Agartala

    I am drawn to bike touring across continents because I’m fascinated by our world. Bike touring is a way to take an on-the-ground survey, to ground-truth the satellite images on Google Maps, and to get a gut-sense, a tactile feel, of what it is like for a country to be Muslim or Buddhist, rich or poor, autocratic or democratic. I know so much more now than I did 10 months ago. But what I have learned is dwarfed by what we didn’t learn about the nations we cycled through. When you bike across a country, you don’t see the entire country—you see just a thin sliver, the roads and cities along your path. Most of the country remains unvisited. And that is now how I feel about the continent of Asia. Crossing it has made me realize how little I know.

    The Pamirs, Part 1: To Zorkul Nature Reserve

    When we think back over our journey, our strongest memory, though, is the same as that of my ride across Latin America: People were incredibly generous everywhere we traveled. Whether it was Bihar India, central Uzbekistan, or Azerbaijan, almost every day we found someone who wanted to help us on our journey across Asia. And what is perhaps most surprising is that I didn’t find this surprising at all. After crossing Latin America, I thought people would be helpful to cyclists everywhere I went. And they were.

    Gaziantep to Diyarbakir

    We spent much time in Asia thinking about what sets us apart from the people we met—different education, income, religion, views on equality of women. The life of a Tibetan yak herder in Qinghai Province, a rice farmer in southern Bangladesh, or a businessman in Tajikistan’s capital are all vastly different from our lives in the U.S. But while we were noticing the differences, it felt as if the local people were making a counter argument: we are all the same. They saw that we were on bicycles, and that we were sometimes tired, hungry, and uncomfortable. They shared a meal and a roof with us. In Muslim culture, we were told that “guests are gifts.” In Hindu Bihar, we were told by a host that “guests are gods”—which might be extreme, but I also like the idea that hosting another person is a holy act, as it is something that is understood and practiced across the globe. And we feel lucky to have partaken in this act with countless people across the continent.

    The Pamirs, Part 1: To Zorkul Nature Reserve


     

    Photos from Myanmar

    March 3rd, 2015 by David

    Below are our best pictures from 35 days of riding in Myanmar. You can also look through our Flickr albums from different parts of the state: three days in Sagaing Region, two weeks on the mountain roads of Chin State, central Myanmar and Bagan, the coast (and more mountains) in Rakhine State, and finally, the country’s largest city, Yangon.


     

    Myanmar II – Hakha to Bagan

    February 10th, 2015 by David

    We left Hakha around sunrise to get an early start to what would end up being nine days without a shower, bed, or internet, and a diet that consisted primarily of ramen noodles. Shortly after Hakha, the beautiful pavement ended and we spent the rest of the week on dirt. We found few proper restaurants on this stretch, but on our first day we found a nice place called ‘Heaven Cafe’ in the village of Satka. The woman running it spoke some English and went off on her motorbike to get eggs when we asked to have some in our noodles, which was the only thing they sold other than coffee. Like all of the Chin villages we encountered, Satka was strung out along the road, which was following a ridge, so we enjoyed the view and the ambience of the little roadside cafe, where we were the only customers. We camped for several nights in a row, sometimes with beautiful views into the valleys below, and sometimes hidden in thick secondary forest. One night we were close to a stretch of road construction, and the bulldozers seemed to go all night. By this time, we no longer had a full moon so we had to use our headlamps, but we were careful not to shine them towards the road and went undetected every night.

    Myanmar 2 - Chin State

    One day, we were invited to stay in a village celebrating its Golden Jubilee, or 50-year anniversary. We had stopped to find lunch, and as there was no restaurant we were taken to the pastor’s house and fed there. A young woman who worked at the church happened to speak English and played tour guide. She explained what was happening for the Jubilee and invited us to attend the celebration and spend the night. She also took us to a funeral service for a young woman who had died the night before. We were still in our bike clothes and she marched us right up and into the house where the woman had been laid out in a tiny room, all her relatives around her. I felt so out of place and inadvertently disrespectful until the first person reached out to shake my hand. Then the next, and the next, and I found myself kneeling on the wooden floor, having just caught my first glimpse close-up of a dead person, a total stranger who had died after a long illness, leaving her 3-year-old daughter behind, while her loved ones welcomed us. I shook every hand that came toward me, hoping something in my posture, my murmured attempt at ‘hello’ in the local dialect of the Chin language, would show them my sympathy, my condolences.

    Later our friend took us to the big tent where the Jubilee events were set to happen later that day, but we had barely come in when she and another young man told us we’d have to go – the headman of the village was worried that police might come out to the Jubilee from the closest town, Rezua, and that he might get in trouble if we were found there. They could call and ask, she said, and there was a chance they might say yes, but the village authorities were afraid. That was enough for us, and soon we were on our way, although we were sad to miss the celebration. When we got to Rezua we stopped to buy the basics, but nobody wanted to sell us anything. Instead, they wanted to give us things. We managed to pay for some eggs and condensed milk, but the rice and rum we hoped to buy were given to us by smiling women more excited to greet foreigners than to make a buck.

    Myanmar 2 - Chin State

    We were prepared to camp, but again it was very hilly, with every flat space occupied by a village. We asked a couple outside of their house for water, and then we asked if there was anywhere we could sleep. They smiled and gestured up the hill, and we rode on, uncertain of what they’d meant. When we got to the top of the hill, we found ourselves in the main village, and an old woman greeted us as if she’d been waiting for us. I joked that the couple must have called ahead, but there was no cell reception there. The woman led us to the house of a young woman who spoke English, who then brought us to a large house where an older couple lived. We would stay there, she said, and also pointed to a cistern out back, indicating that we should wash up. After so many days on a dirt road, she had a point. We cleaned up as best we could while remaining fully clothed, and also washed our bike clothes as we were now down to one outfit each. We made our ramen, then hung out briefly with the couple. They made no effort to communicate, but our beds were laid out in their living room so perhaps they were just going about their normal routine. We shared some chocolate and looked at family pictures, and then everybody went to bed.

    The next night we stayed in another village just past Matupi, one of the larger towns in the area. Although there were police in this town, and a military camp nearby, Chin State overall felt so remote that I had lost my fear of the police, as long as we weren’t in big towns that had police stations. The headman of the village waved us down as we went through his village near sunset. Again, it was like they were waiting for us. He invited us to stay in another family’s house where we were served dinner. They ate after us, which made us sad as we would have liked to eat with them. (It also would have given us a better idea of how much food they had, so we wouldn’t overeat and inadvertently leave them with too little, which was something we worried about.) However, we weren’t lonely – the headman and two teachers, all of whom spoke fairly decent English, talked with us all evening. The headman told us his brother was a refugee living in New York – apparently he had angered the soldiers from a nearby military camp for protesting their destruction of a cross, and had to leave.

    Before leaving us for the night, the headman brought out a big register book and asked us to write down our names and the date. He told us he would let the authorities in Matupi know that we had stayed there, and suddenly I was afraid again. “Are you sure that’s OK?” we asked. We had heard that local people often don’t know the rules related to foreigners, and we were worried he and the family who hosted us would get in trouble. We also preferred to stay off the authorities’ radar, just in case we weren’t supposed to be there. He said it was fine, though, and we didn’t really have other options. So we registered ourselves and hoped everything would be fine. With respect to the authorities in Chin State, everything was fine; with respect to my belly… not so much. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling feverish and sick to my stomach, and only felt slightly better in the morning. Fortunately the family had one of the nicest outhouses I’d seen in Myanmar, and with the help of some Cipro we were on our way.

    Myanmar 2 - Chin State

    We camped the next night with a few construction workers, and the following night we found a beautiful spot just past a small village where we’d stopped to refill our water bladder, fuel bottle, and flask. The woman running the ‘store’ didn’t seem to have a firm grasp of mathematics or business, so I tallied up the bill after coaxing the price of each item from her. David spent that stop trying his hand at the stick-and-wheel game that I believe was popular in the US in our grandparents’ generation, and is still ubiquitous in developing countries. It’s harder than it looks, but he provided great entertainment. We enjoyed more beautiful views on what turned out to be our last night camped up high.

    Myanmar 2 - Chin State

    Myanmar 2 - Chin State

    The following day we passed through the large town of Mindat and saw our first tourist since Hakha. We also saw women with tattooed faces, an old practice – perhaps to identify them as members of the Chin tribe in case of kidnapping by other tribes – that seems to be dying out, as only older women had the tattoos. The night before we had climbed up to the highest point of our route through Myanmar, 2700 meters, and now we were on our way down. Unfortunately it was now David’s turn to feel sick and he couldn’t really enjoy the looping, paved descent. We cycled out of Chin State and soon started seeing Buddhist stupas again instead of churches. We stopped in a valley village to get water and camped off the road not far from some sort of temple blasting wailing tinky-tonky chanting music until past our bedtime, then starting up again before sunrise.

    The next day we biked to Myit Chay, across the Irrawaddy River from Bagan, an area full of ancient temples and one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations. A bridge crosses the river a bit to the east of Bagan, but crossing it would have added over 20 kilometers to an already long day. Plus, Bangladesh had taught us that where there are towns on two sides of a river, there is usually a boat. We started asking around, and sure enough we were told that we could get a boat in Myit Chay. When we got to the town, we asked some friendly men where we could find a boat, and they said to turn left, go for one or two miles, then turn right again and go for another one or two miles. Simple enough, we thought.

    On our way to the river, we encountered a group of people wearing Bogyoke (“General”) Aung San shirts, and a big truck all bedecked with posters. General Aung San is considered to be the father of modern, independent Burma, and is well-loved by most of the population. Internationally, he is perhaps better known as the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of Myanmar’s democratic movement who was famously kept under house arrest by the military junta that ruled Myanmar from the 1960s until very recently. It turned out that the following day would have been General Aung San’s 100th birthday, and his hometown was nearby so they were preparing for a big celebration.

    Next, we came across a parade of little girls on dressed up horses, young women carrying platters of fruit, and men driving oxcarts festooned with flowers. It was a procession to a Buddhist site – we’re not sure exactly what for, but we were the only foreigners – and the only spectators – so people stopped and posed for photos and waved and smiled. It was a couple of hours before sunset and the light was just right – I felt like we had stumbled onto our own private parade, done solely for the participants and just happening to have an audience of two, us.

    Myanmar 3 - Bagan and Central Myanmar

    After a mile or so, we asked a street vendor how to get to the river. The man gestured vaguely onward so we proceeded, but within a few minutes a man rode up to us on his motorbike and indicated that he would show us the way. Thank goodness for him, or we never would have found the river. For about 20 minutes we wound down tiny dirt paths through fields where women were harvesting crops, waving at us as we rode by. Eventually he turned off and pointed us to the last bit towards the river. We’d thought he happened to be going that way, or had a boat, but no, he was just taking time out of his day to show two strangers the way. We thanked him and continued on, and soon found ourselves at the shore of the Irrawaddy River.

    A group of intoxicated young men were sprawled around a volleyball net, and when we asked about a boat they enthusiastically indicated that yes, they could take us. Nyaung-U, the main town near the temples, was directly across the river, and they offered to take us there for 5,000 kyat (~$5). But we wanted to go to Old Bagan – the main temple area, and a bit farther downstream – so we could see the temples from the water at sunset, and this seemed to confuse them tremendously in their drunken state. I thought it was a language thing, but soon a man arrived on a motorbike who spoke good English. He translated, and it seemed that they understood, but would charge 15,000 kyat to go all the way to Old Bagan. No problem, we said, let’s go. But then they put us on the boat going to Nyaung-U. Confusion reigned, and we weren’t sure we wanted one of these wasted men to pilot us and our bikes across the river. Then another boat arrived, and the boatman seemed sober.

    He seemed to understand our request, so we pulled our bikes out of the first boat and walked to his. All seemed to be going well until one of the drunk men, who we nicknamed ‘White Skull’ for the logo on his t-shirt, hopped in. No, we said, we want to go with the other man, the one who is sober. So sober guy hopped in, and nodded solemnly when we indicated that he was to drive. White Skull fired up the engine, and again we pointed to sober man. Again he nodded, and moved towards the back of the boat, but when I looked back, White Skull was driving, grinning away. We figured he couldn’t do too much damage, and if he started to steer us astray we’d have sober guy take over. White Skull got us safely to shore, and we got our first glimpse of the temples as the sun set over the river. Then we biked to Nyaung-U – where we actually planned to stay – and found a nice hotel, one of the most expensive of the trip, but we didn’t care. Unbeknownst to us, another bout of GI problems was settling in, and we needed to rest.

    Myanmar 3 - Bagan and Central Myanmar

    Bagan was an interesting place, but due to being sick and exhausted from our crazy ride through Chin State, we spent most of our time there relaxing at the hotel. We got out to see the temples a few times, always on our bikes, and we joined all the other tourists for sunset at Shwesandaw Pagoda. Bagan is probably the most visited place in Myanmar, and we certainly saw more foreigners there than anywhere else in the country, but somehow it didn’t feel overrun. There were still monks strolling around, and local people seemed happy to talk to us. There was western food, which we appreciated with our weakened stomachs, and decent ice cream if you looked hard enough, and people hawking art and trinkets at the major temples. Still, Nyaung-U felt like a sleepy town that just happened to have a thousand or so temples scattered around it. There was an entrance fee of $20 for the whole site, but they only checked tickets at the major temples. At smaller ones we were usually the only tourists there, and gatekeepers would let us in to roam around while kids played soccer outside. We stayed one night longer than intended, waiting for our stomachs to recover, then rode out of Bagan, aiming for the coast.

    Myanmar 3 - Bagan and Central Myanmar