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Sumatra- The Wild West of Indonesia

Sometimes life’s best adventures come out of nowhere.

Two days after racing in the week long Langkawi International MTB Challenge in Malaysia, my Kona teammate Kris Sneddon and I were shaking hands at the Kuala Lumpur International airport. We had just wrapped up battling some of the Worlds top mountain bikers across the jungles of Langkawi Island, we fought for top 10’s amongst enjoying the life that coconut racing comes with. Now he was headed back to Canada to go hunting with some buddies, while I changed my flight to an unknown date.  It was October and the race season was finally over, but I wanted to enjoy a few more days of adventuring before returning to Canadian soil for a frigid winter of working up North as a tree faller.

Leaving excess gear at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur, I set out with a small North Face pack full of a supplies and headed off towards Singapore. The plan was to ride 400 km down the West coast, hang out a few days in Asia’s cleanest city, then ride back up the east coast of Malaysia to KL.  After a scorching 120 km ride full of torrential downpours and getting lost in Palm plantations, I came to the historic coastal town of Malacca.  This was a touristy city focused around its famous Chinatown which was full of random unidentifiable food. Here I ran into a girl from Switzerland who had just returned from an adventurous journey through Sulawesi. She had somegood tales to tell about the trip which inspired me.  This reminded me, that during the Langkawi race, my buddy Jack Funk had brought up the idea of doing a bike tour over in neighbouring Sumatra.  The tourist proclaimed “Wild West of Indonesia.” I often call up Jack for insight on the World as he has been on adventures all over. I had never heard of Sumatra before he mentioned it to me, so I gave him a call for a bit of beta, looked for options to get over there then decided to sleep on it.  

In the morning the Singapore plans were abandoned and soon I was floating on a dodgy boat heading over the Strait of Malaca to the port town of Dumai in Sumatra.  Watching 1970’s punk rock on the in boat TV added to the unsettling feeling of this  journey as I was headed somewhere I knew absolutely nothing about.  Unloading the ferry onto the raggedy old dock of Dumai was a shock to my green Canadian eyes as the place was strikingly poor and untamed.  Heading towards immigration I met another Canadian, a 65 yr old man of Chinese decent, the only other tourist in sight.  He was a nomad and fit in a lot better with the locals then my pale white skin. Filling out the border declaration card it was highlighted on the wall that any infraction with drugs in the country would lead to immediate jail time and possible death.  When the guard opened my backpack and pulled out zip lock bags full of white and green powders there was an odd silence.  Giving me a stone cold look, he went to get his senior officer for further investigation.  They returned, pulling out my bag of hemp seeds and then one full of chia powder.  Trying to explain these powders and seeds were super foods to charge my body and not drugs to destroy it, wasn’t so easy, as there was a substantial language barrier.  After smelling the vanilla whey protein powder and the watermelon flavoured spirulina mix, the officers dead stern looks turned into laughs as they sent me on the way.  I was sweating bullets but managed a smile as I exited the boarder patrol and headed into the wild lands of Sumatra.

Riding through the streets of Dumai was pure chaos. Everywhere I went girls were staring and middle aged men were yelling foreign words. I couldn’t tell if this was friendly or a wtf are you doing in my country.  My nerves were rattled but I knew I had to keep going so stopped by a bank, withdrew some money, grabbed food from a street stand, and then tried to get out of dodge.  All I had for directions was the name of a place, Lake Toba, which I heard was beautiful, and a good place for tourists.  It was over 400 km away.  I had looked at a map on Google before I left Malaysia but it was fading in my memory.  Without a smartphone it was really cave man like back in these days.

 After a few wrong turns I found my way out of town and was soon on a rough highway, crossing my fingers it would lead to Lake Toba.  The highway was more chaotic then town with cars driving both ways on the pothole-ridden road and drivers passing each other in the ditches.  It was the definition of a gong show.   30 minutes into my ride I came across a police checkpoint in which 7 guys all yelled at me at once.  My hair was standing straight up on my neck as intuition kicked in, opting to go confront the yellers to see what all the fuss was about.

Heading over to the police stand some of the policeman looked worried, while others were laughing. 1 fellow came straight towards me with a hand out as a welcome sign.  “Where the hell are you going son?” he asked in broken English.  “Lake Toba” I replied.  They all looked at each other and began shaking their heads.  The one guy who spoke a bit of English explained the highway was: A) way too dangerous for a bike rider, B) the path to Lake Toba would take me through some giant palm plantations which was home to drug bandits, and C) there were no hotels for long stretches and I would have to camp out.  It became pretty clear my plan was a dud. Sumatra was living up to its name as the Wild West of Indonesia!  After some more advice I found myself riding back too catch a night bus to Medan, where I would be more properly situated to launch a bike tour around Sumatra.

Getting on the night bus, I met up with my 65 yr old Canadian friend from earlier, and we received front row seats to one of the scariest nights of our lives.  He seemed experienced and took some sort of drug to fall asleep for the 10 hour bus ride, while I gave my heart and nerves a workout to last a life time.  Spending the night watching our bus driver swerve in an out of traffic, forcing smaller cars off the road and narrowly missing countless head-on collisions was something to remember.   To make the trip a little more discomforting was the fact nearly everyone on the bus was a chain smoker.  They had the bus hot boxed pretty damn good as everyone puffed and coughed the trip away. 

 

Midway we stopped at a small restaurant for a midnight snack.  I took everything off the bus and unsuccessfully searched around for a hotel as I was done with the kamikaze bus trip.  There was nothing around though and I ended up with the option of either spending the night out in the open with apparently a bunch of drug bandits, or to hop back on the bus ride to hell.   I reluctantly chose the bus ride to hell.  It didn’t get any prettier but we did make it to Medan 1.5 hours ahead of schedule.  My Canadian comrade immediately found another bus, an 8-hour ride up to lake Toba.  I curled up in the bus stop and waited for daylight before trying to find a way out of the city of 2 million inhabitants.  As the sun rose I hopped on my bike to start the journey up to the touristy town of Kabanjahe, 1300 vertical m and 90 km away.

Getting out of Medan turned into one big game of lost and found; unfortunately I was always lost.  The language barrier was a problem, but even worse were the different set of directions from everyone I talked too.  Go west, go east, go south, no north. WTF?  Apparently the term “I don’t know the way” doesn’t exist in Medan; instead they just give random directions to act as if they know something.

After 1.5 hours of pulling U-turns and dodging traffic I stopped in at a police checkpoint and was given some proper directions, soon finding myself cycling away into the countryside.  The ride into the mountains was sweet as the road weaved upwards into a fresher more pleasant temperature with coconut and fruit stands all over the place.  This was the perfect supply of cheap fuel to keep my tired body going.  About 20 km from my destination I came across a posse of Monkeys on the road, they all turned around to stare with 3 coming straight towards me.  Was I going to get mugged by these guys? Luckily no, they turned away last second and loped beside me as I slowly peddled up the road.  A little further up one of these mischief-makers would steel a bag of chips from a roadside stand with the owner swinging a broom at him as he hopped off into the jungle with his snack.  It made me crack a smile for the first time since touching down in Sumatra.

Hitting Kabanjahe I snagged a bite to eat, a tasty avocado smoothie with chocolate in it. Next up I grabbed a room in a hostel and fell asleep at 6pm.  I hadn’t slept in 2 days and was completely exhausted.  Waking up 13 hours later felt like heaven on earth.  From here I gathered up some proper info, drew myself a map, and headed out the door towards Lake Toba.  The ride for the first 30 km was through more chaos and heavy traffic, but soon I was off the mainline, rolling along a nice road through the countryside .  My rock star status was right where it left off with everyone and their dogs giving me their attention.  2 hours into the ride I hit a nice detour down to a huge set of Falls.  It was great to get to the waterfalls and see the beautiful lake Toba for the first time. From here I rode for a few hours on a spectacular route overlooking the lake with next to no traffic.   Lake Toba is a great wonder of this World as it was formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption over 70 000 years ago.  At around 1200 square km, and 450 m deep, it is of a very large scale.  Today it is a peaceful tourist attraction which blows away peoples minds when they first see it.  

 Nearing the town of Parapat the traffic was crazy busy again and my nerves got a shock as I hit the ditch to avoid a car driving towards me on my side of the road. From what I learned on the bus ride, in Sumatra the traffic laws depend on your size.  If you’re a small biker you are at the bottom of the pecking order and you better be ready to dodge everyone else. Eventually reaching a dock, I snagged a sketchy boat for a lift over to Samosir Island, and the town of Ambarita.  It was  a tourist ghost town with the hostel capacity to host 1000’s of tourists, yet there were only about 15 of us in the whole town.  Samosir  Island is famous  for its indigenous culture one that has a deep history involving stories of primitive actions such as  cannibalism.

Once settled into a nice lake front hostel for the night I set out for a lap of town to find a place to eat.  There were dozens of options, and all cheap as supply was way over demand.  Apparently this place use to be the party hotspot in Asia until Thailand took over in the late 80’s.  After finding another Avocado smoothie and some dodgy rice/veggie mix it was back to the hostel for the night.

Needing a rest from the high energy of bike touring I opted to spend two days exploring the island.  Looking for an adventure the next morning I set out on my bike to go exploring. There was a road circumnavigating the Island but I chose a seldom used one in the middle of the island instead.  I followed this through the jungle for over an hour, hitting various intersections, descending a fair bit and then hitting an apparent dead end.  Finding a small piece of trail I followed this down to someone’s little hut, got chased by a dog, escaped on another trail and eventually back onto a dirt 

road. It was cool touring around seeing some beautiful traditional Batak culture houses which are very unique looking.  5 hours into the ride I was starting to get hungry and a little nervous of my surroundings.  Eventually I found another trail, hopped a fence, and then found a road leading through someone’s farm.  Unsure how they would greet me I decided to keep going as I was getting tired and still needed some food. Riding up to the house 4 kids came out and stared at me like I was a ghost.  Their dog was going nuts but luckily this one was tied to a chain.  Once past this house I hit a small gravel road descending back down to the Lake through a bunch of little huts.  I was ripping down there as locals gave me stunned looks and yelled various words.  Eventually I found a handful of bananas to fill the stomach, just enough fuel to keep the journey going. 10 hrs after leaving I was riding back to the hostel exhausted and clueless where I had just gone! 

The next morning I rode up to the top of the island, taking a different dirt road.  This one better used, eventually leading towards some very loud music.  Coming around a corner to see hundreds of people gathered for a wedding was an eye opener.   Pulling a U turn and peacefully retreating to my hostel would’ve been the responsible decision, but something lured me to keep biking down towards the throngs of Sumatrans.  Nearing the party, people started glancing over and pretty soon the wedding was on hold for the gringo biker.   I wasn’t sure if I was a welcome addition to the wedding or a real disturbance.  Pretty soon one man stepped forward to welcome me to the party, offering a coffee and waving at me to join his friends for a game of cards.  The wedding started up again and we played cards for an hour before one man started talking to me about his daughter.   I was confused and was anxious to get riding again so I waved goodbye to the party and continued onwards.

It would’ve been great to spend a 3rd day exploring the island, but I opted to keep going as my end destination of seeing Orangutang’s in Bukit Lawang was still a long ways away in North Sumatra.  Heading over the island towards Sidikalang I was waved down by 4 men to join them for coffee.  Starting to feel more comfortable in Sumatra I began taking up a few of these offers for food and beverages with the locals.  This coffee date was one to remember.  After exchanging laughs and looking at maps, one of the more talkative men took my hand and said he had a question for me.  “Would you consider taking my daughter to be your wife?” What?  Was he serious?  Yep, he was dead serious.   This was slightly awkward.  I quickly told him I had a girlfriend back in Canada waiting for me.  He wouldn’t take this as an answer and kept trying to persuade me into taking his daughter.  I was over it, ready to lie to them that I was gay, but instead thanked them for the coffee and continued on my voyage.

Once exiting Samosir Island through the town of Singkam I began a long gravel climb in the rain out of the crater that formed Lake Toba.  It was a perfect road for climbing with little traffic and great scenery as I headed skyward towards the plateau above.  From here it was a smooth journey down abandoned highways towards Sidikalang. After 110 km I reached the north Sumatran town and found a small homestay for the night.  After a shower I headed out on the town to find some food and quickly noticed this wasn’t a very touristy place as everyone was staring at me like a rock star again.   I was adapting to being a white gringo rock star over here and began embracing the attention with offering a warm smile to those around me.  This seemed to please the Sumatrans yet still allowed me to concentrate on getting on with whatever life adventure I was on. On this night the adventure was to find a carb heavy dinner as I had 200 km on deck the next morning to Bukit Lawang. 

The next morning I slept in and left a little late on what was going to be a testing day.  The route proved hillier then expected and getting proper directions to Bukit Lawang was a challenge.  The distances to go after 8 hours of riding was hovering between 20 and 80 kilometres.  I was hoping 20 was more accurate and opted to take a shortcut through a jungle road to save some time.  

This route was given with warnings which I began to understand when I came around a corner to face a lone Sumatran glaring straight at me with a rifle in hand.  Giving him the standard warm smile and wave, he just returned with a stone cold look.  Getting closer I had no option but to silently pass by him by going in

the ditch.  This character acted like a bandit out of a movie as I slowly rode by, crossing my fingers for no gunshot sounds.  Going around a corner I was now out of immediate danger,  standing up and sprinting into a rough descent down through the jungle towards Tanjunglankat.  From here another rainstorm rolled in and daylight faded into the darkness of night.  Apparently still nowhere near Bukit Lawang, I pulled over popped on a dim headlamp and continued on into the abyss. 

Starting to look for hotel options, there was unfortunately nothing around for kilometres, so I kept peddling down the lonely road.  Now pitch dark I came upon a traffic circle in a small town with a couple young Islamic college girls selling some greasy food at their road stand.  Famished I stopped in and started inhaling the deep fried goodness.  The girls were shocked at the rate of consumption, I was surely their best customer all day and was soon welcomed under their food umbrella stand where they started talking to me in English.  This was a relief to hear some English, although they soon started laughing when they heard my story and what I was trying to do.  “No sir, there’s no hotels for a long ways.  You must stay with us tonight!”  Really? Sounds good!  Their parents were at another food stand close by and decided the girls should take me home alone to their house in the country.  Meanwhile the parents stayed at the stand cooking food and would eventually head to their small house in town for the night.  I was pretty stoked how things worked out!

Next up was a 20-minute motor pacing session behind the girl’s scooter as we headed over some high bridges and through a farmer’s fields before reaching their place.  It was a great turn of events, and a good reminder just how quickly life can turn around sometimes if you keep moving forwards!  In the morning we went back into town to help their parents for 4 hours preparing the street food for the day.  They were cooking everything they could possibly deep fry, including veggies, samosas and tacos.  Part of the bonus was filling my stomach while working with the tasty goodness.  After my workday I washed the grease off my hands and hopped on my bike, cruising the final 40 km to Bukit Lawang. It was a relaxing day, pit stopping for many coconut waters, and more greasy food as I was starting to form an addiction to it.  Reaching Bukit Lawang I found a little tourist haven which was an island of tranquility amongst the chaos of Sumatra. Bukit Lawang is as beautiful riverside village serving as the gateway to the World heritage Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the richest tropical rainforests in the World.  The sleepy village had a perfect mix of being traditional yet touristy, a combination I could appreciate for a few nights.

I had a great couple days being a tourist. Seeing Orangutang’s, getting an authentic Orangutang shower in the jungle, and finally a party night with 35 Sumatran boys and 3 white girls.  It was a weird party with the local boys acting like they’d never scene a girl before.  The girls were getting the attention of their lives and were happy to stay and play the game with the boys while I opted to vacate the premises to a more relaxed setting.  It was nice to get out of there and back to the hostel where I prepped for the next part of my journey over to the new tourist destination of Tangkahan.  This small town is a peaceful retreat on the edge of the jungle.  The nearby jungle had been getting deforested by locals as fast as anywhere in Sumatra. Luckily an environmentalist came in and shifted the mindset of the locals, convincing them they had the perfect location for ecotourism, which would be a more sustainable way to keep the economy going, then by destroying the rainforest. From here the small tourist village was formed. 

 Getting there was another maze, so I paid a young man on a scooter $10 to lead the way through the endless dirt roads.  It was a sweet 4-hour ride through rural Sumatra, ending with a boat ride across the Kualsa Buluh river, and a hike up some steps into the jungle.  Once in the village I found a tree house styled hostel which would make for a perfect place to relax and spend my final 2 days in Sumatra.  An elephant tour, tubing expedition and a trip to the local hot springs filled my days before I started the long 1 day bike ride back to Medan to fly home.

Midway I stopped in to see the girls at their lunch stand in Tanjunglankat.  They were getting ready for an Islamic party.  They invited me to stay, being a sucker for the unknown I put my trip to Medan on intermission and joined the girls for a few hours.  It was an great experience, one which was hard to leave, but I had a flight booked so pried myself away and continued on to Medan.  I was now late and only made it to the outskirts of Medan before night fell.  Here I found a dodgy hostel for the final night.  In the morning I woke up at 4 am to ride the rest of the way into Medan, allowing some time to get lost.  I had a 10 am flight to catch back to Malaysia, before an onwards flight in the evening from there to Canada, so I didn’t want to mess things up.  It was pretty cool at this time of morning passing a big night market and some random characters heading home after obviously a long night on the town.  One sight I won’t forget is a man riding with probably over 300 bananas attached to his bike. It made me feel pretty weak for just having a small 30 L backpack. Eventually getting to the airport I was behind the eight ball still having to pack my bike for the trip. I didn’t have a bike box so ended up using the saran wrap machine in the airport to make my bike flight worthy.  This was  a life saver as I had no other plan on how to make my Kona Kula flight worthy!

Getting on the Air Asia flight out of Sumatra closed this chapter on what was one of the wildest rides of my life.  Sumatra had drained my energy and I was ready for a long peaceful sleep on my flight back to Canada.  It’s always nice to end the season on a high note, trying to drain the system, before heading off to the frozen North of Canada for a couple months of hibernation and Work.   The memories of this journey to Sumatra seem like a dream from a past life. The large Island in the Indian Ocean sure lived up to its hype as being the “Wild West of Indonesia”!

Update from Nepal #2

We are on day 48 of a Nation wide lockdown in Nepal as the Corona Virus cases have slowly crept up over 100, with 0 deaths. These numbers are stillshockingly low.  It’s a  mystery why, but it has everyone pretty relaxed, especially where we are up in the Solukhumbu region near Everest. This is my 1st experience of a lockdown and it has been a good rest period for myself and my Kona Hei Hei.  The Nepali government seems to be following a similar Covid-19 strategy to whatever India does, so even with one of the Worlds lowest case loads, this lockdown will likely not end anytime soon. Apparently 80% of those testing positive, aren’t even showing many symptoms which is quite odd but.

Part of the reason for the low Covid-19 cases in Nepal may be due to the pretty healthy diet of the locals.  They generally eat a natural diet which includes the heavy usage of the superfoods turmeric, garlic and ginger. I’ve made a career pushing myself and my immune system to the limits, often in unhygienic countries. Having good luck relying on these, and other natural remedies to stay healthy. I’m a big believer of the powers of the food we eat.  I know in the time periods of my life when I was eating a more unhealthy western style diet full of processed foods, heavy meat consumption, sugars, bad fats and fried foods my health was drastically weaker.  It will be interesting to see how this Pandemic plays out over here in the coming months but knock on wood, things seem pointed in the right direction.  If it does go sideways we have two escapes deeper into the Himalayas but currently it looks like those cards won’t need to be played.  Worst case scenario there is an old Pilgrim route into Tibet which goes over the 5800 M Nangpa La Pass, just about 50 km North of our current location.  I’ll touch on this a lille later on as this route has some interesting history and is one of the few passages through the Himalayas.  

Right now I’m officially stuck here in Nepal for the foreseeable future.  How does that happen? It didn’t come without warnings as things were starting to slow down here in mid March when the government closed Mount Everest to climbers for the season.  I checked a few flights out and had my chances, but opted to sit pat as with just 1 case Nepal still seemed like safe place to be.  March 23rd the government stopped long distance travel in the country and on March 24th they imposed a 1 week lockdown, also sealing its borders and grounding flights.  This was a bit out of the blue, and left thousands of trekkers stranded up in the mountains.  It was odd after 1 case of corona virus nothing happened here, but after the 2nd one the whole country shut down overnight. This also coincided with the start of India’s lockdown. The Nepal Tourism board did a good job at rescuing the stranded hikers, bringing them back to Kathmandu, although a few opted to stay up high, which seemed more logical then going back to a city of 4 million people!   

Tomorrow we are currently in the 4th lockdown extension and flights are grounded till at least the end of May,  likely longer.  Depending on what media sources you follow, there are at least 500 000 Nepali Migrant workers overseas, possibly 4 million. They will need to fly home at some point, but the government doesn’t have a solution to quarantine or isolate them so have opted to lock them out for now.  It almost seems they’ll have to go with the “herd” mentality to get out of this problem as social distancing doesn’t seem to be an option here.  Over 25% of Nepal’s GDP comes from remittance of these workers, 8 billion dollars, while another big chunk comes from tourism which is currently shutdown.  Nepal may escape the Covid-19 virus in regards to deaths but economically it is going to be very hard on this small Himalayan country moving forwards. Once Covid-19 passes, tourism will be one of the solutions to getting this country back on track.  If you want to see your tourism dollars go to a good cause a trip to Nepal in the future could be a good option.

The first 3 weeks of the lockdown were interesting as no-one had any clue what was going to transpire here.  One day tourists were being told to stay where they were, the next day there would be rumours we’d all be getting sent back to our home countries.   Some days all vehicles were stopped and we’d be stranded, the next day vehicles would start again.  On and on it went, there were about 4-5 “last chances”, to  get back to Kathmandu, which only seemed smart if a person was going to be catching a flight out.  Being in a hotel room, locked down in one of the Worlds most polluted cities wouldn’t have been so cool, luckily I’ve avoided that thus far.  The Nepali governments decisions have been pretty sporadic and random on this one so my tactic has been to wait it out as jumping every time things changed would get quite tiring after a while.  One of the benefits that has come with all the confusions is the closure of the Immigration office which means free tourist visas as long as long as the lockdown lasts.   

Canada did have a rescue flight with Qatar Airways leave Nepal mid April which was a bridge home. With no bike racing on the radar, a sketchy flight itinerary, and a good setup here in the mountains I chose to stay.  The fact someone was trying to profit on the flight by charging over $3200 CAD, made it an easy call.  Toss in a 16hr overnight layover in Qatar, a necessary overnight in Montreal, Canada’s epicentre of the Virus, before paying another $700-800 for a domestic flight to western Canada, it didn’t make much sense.  Apparently only 140 of the 1100+ Canadians left in Nepal took the flight.   For the total price tag of around $4000, a person could live well up in the Himalayas for a year if need be. 

Bike racing is now cancelled until at least mid summer, so their’s no real rush to head home. I currently live to race so am quite disappointed but also content to make the most of summer in other ways.  If this lockdown eases in Nepal I have a couple solid high mountain adventures in store.  Having lived and at high altitude (2400 M- 4800 M) the past 9.5 weeks the body is showing some interesting positive changes.  Focusing on some select workouts, and a proper diet, to enhance the effects of the altitude, it is a science project in progress. This should have the system primed for some  adventurous ideas on the bike in Canada this summer.  With any luck we could have an epic fall season of racing and I’ll be frothing at the mouth when the puck drops!

 The Wembo World Solo 24HR Championships are set for early November in Australia. This is a good long term goal at the moment, and maybe we could convince some of the top World Cup XCO and Marathon riders into joining us if this is one of the few races on the Calendar this year. I would love nothing more then to have a 24hr battle royal with these guys, especially after getting smoked at the World XCO Champs in Quebec last year.

Until then I’ll continue enjoying this extended trip in Nepal, being immersed in the mountain culture up here in the Himalayas.  It’s interesting to see how relaxed the locals have been throughout this. Over the years the Nepalese have been through more then their share of bad luck with earthquakes, political turmoil, blockades and overall tough living conditions living day to day in poverty.  They are really like chameleons, readily adaptable to whatever comes their way.  Sometimes they seem a little too relaxed, especially in the regards to social distancing.  This is tough for the locals as they are a really tight knit society, with often 10 + people living in a house and on the street every one holding hands or crowds gathering whenever anything at all is happening.  If a backhoe is working on the road, 10-15 Nepalis will be right there supervising.  For this reason it’s a bit shocking this Virus hasn’t exploded here because if it did everyone would be exposed to it.  

As one of probably only 2-3 foreigners left in this region of Nepal, it has been interesting to see how the usually super friendly locals would react.  At the start of the pandemic some local kids would hold their hands over their mouths if they saw me, seeming to think us foreigners were all infected. Little do they know not one case in Nepal has been brought from a Westerner, as all of them have been imported from Nepalis or Indians from abroad.  Some suspicious locals would ask where I was coming from and how long I had been around.  My girlfriend taught me some Nepali words so I could tell them I had lived in Solukhumbu for 2 months, had been in country for 5 months, and had a Nepali wife.  This would immediately put their minds at rest and lead to another series of questions from their always curious minds.  Some of the older woman still act weird, staring at me like I’m from another planet.   I’ll give them a friendly Namaste, or hello, but will sometimes get nothing in return, just some long deep stares and whispering amongst themselves. What to do..  The locals around my age are mostly pretty cool.  The toughest part has been keeping 2 meters away from all the locals when I do head out as they are so friendly, but until this thing passes it is better to be safe then sorry.

Food is still plentiful up in this region with the majority of it locally grown.  Transport trucks have been limited so food stocks are going down in the small shops, especially  in Kathmandu. Up here there seems to be an unlimited supply of vegetables, potatoes, beans, milk, eggs, cheese, buckwheat flour and rice.   The stores are running low on some packaged snacks but this is just leading to a more natural and healthy diet for the time being.  As long as we can keep walking down the mountain to the farmer below for fresh spinach, spring onions, potatoes and milk I’m sure we’ll survive just fine.  His garden is overflowing with Spinach, he will let us grab all we can, likely over 1 kg, for just 40 cents.  We often give him a tip as this sort of thing back home would be labeled “Organic” and likely cost $10-15!  The fresh milk comes in at around 80 cents per litre, and the potatoes at 50 cents per 1 kg, spring onions are free.  Imported eggs are 12 cents, while local eggs are shockingly the same price as Canada at around 50 cents each. Other than that Usha will head into the closest village, Phaplu, once a week to grab whatever we can’t find from the local farmers.

This intermission from normal life has been a great time to lick the wounds from years of self inflicted physical abuse.  Not knowing when things will get back to normal is challenging but I’ll be doing my best to continue to take advantage of this break to reset the system.  The motivation is starting to lag a bit the longer this goes on but it just means using a bit more mental toughness right now, remembering brighter days will be ahead.    I’ve likely raced more mountain bike races in more corners of the globe, then anyone else this past decade, so their are no regrets coming from this end, just a very long movie reel of great memories.  I love the career I’ve been able to live and have my fingers crossed for some more good years ahead!

One positive of this whole thing has been the healing of our planet as pollution levels are down all over the World.  Some parts of India apparently haven’t seen pollution this low in over 20 years.  At the current rate, more lives are being saved from the lack of pollution, then lost to the virus in places like Nepal and India. In these two countries pollution is said to kill between 1.2-1.5 million people a year.  Governments seldom talk about that issue, but hopefully once this Pandemic passes there will be a big focus on it. Pollution, the “silent killer”, is a Pandemic that we have 100% control over.  Riding a bike is truly one of the best solutions for the planet and our own health.     Onwards we go to lockdown day 49 tomorrow.  Stay safe, stay healthy and keep on dreaming of better days ahead!

For further updates from Nepal, a few stories, and a look into the future, check out this recent Podcast with Kona:

https://cog.konaworld.com/kona-cog-cast-ep-3-cory-wallace/

Picture credits to Patrick Means @ TrailhousePhoto.com

Vacationing and Training in Thailand

Thailand: Travelling South to North

Thailand is known for its beaches, tasty food and lady boys but it also has some descent riding as recently discovered.  After spending two weeks in January winter hiking in the Everest Region, Usha and I headed over to Thailand for 4 weeks of vacationing and riding to kick off 2020 .  We figured the boost from 17 days of trekking at altitude would translate into some good training in the tropical heat down at sea level. Originally the plan was for Usha to use this trip as preparations for the Asian MTB Championships, being hosted in North Thailand in early February, but a broken hand meant she was now in recovery mode.  Unable to postpone our cancel tickets with Thai Lion, we opted to go ahead with the trip and make the most of it. 

First off was the tourist meca and flat lands of South Thailand. Landing in Phuket we spent the first 3 days at Pattong beach.  This place has some ok beaches, is party central, full of chaos, girls doing weird things with ping pong balls and some delicious Thai food. The riding was alright with some descent highways along the ocean and some dirt tracks throughout the jungle in the middle of the Island.  The challenge was the heat which would reach low to mid thirties by 10 am, thus requiring early morning departures.  The roads were busy with traffic so I would explore new tracks through the jungles, and surprisingly found some good options. The routes were rough, but coming across some local Thai homesteads in the middle of no where was a real cultural experience.   

Next up was riding 150 km around to Krabi while Usha took a boat across with all our luggage.  The first 100 km was on a busy highway before hitting some quieter back roads which meandered between stunning rock outcrops which this area is famous for.  Having left a bit late, I hit the mid day heat at 2 pm, with still 30 km to go.  It was scorching my white Canadian skin as I pulled over at  7 eleven to reload on water and grab some Coconut Ice Cream.  With the air conditioner

 blasting inside, I soon discovered these 7 Elevens were going to make the perfect oasis’s from the heat waves outside.  It was tough, but I eventually built the courage to go back into the sun after a 20 minute brake, to finish off the ride to Krabi.  Overall the riding in this area was pretty good with a mixture of dirt and paved roads with generally little traffic, except for the main arteries.  Heat was again the enemy which I tried to turn into a positive, thinking it would come with the same benefits as sauna training.  The real highlight was the food which included limitless fresh fruits, seafood, coconuts, pad thais and curries.  The fresh fruit smoothie bowls were amazing, and so were the fresh Coconut Ice creams served in coconut shells. Their were some cool beaches in this area as well such as Tonsai and Raily which required boats to access, but their was no riding to be had in theses areas. This was vacation training, so I left the bike behind for a few days as we headed over to Tonsai beach to hang out with the hippy climbers and enjoy some ciders and sunsets on the beach.

The final area in South Thailand we explored was Ko Lanta.  The 150 km ride there was pretty nice with lots of quiet backroads and one ferry to finally reach the Islands.  Ko Lanta North is less touristy and has some good loops, mostly paved but with some dirt roads, and generally no traffic.  Ko Lanta South, has paved roads down both flanks.  The east side is quiet, especially the further south you get. The West side is flat and busy up north with flocks of tourists and scooters, but further south the road gets calmer, twistier and hillier with some real step pitches towards the south end. Down on this end are some great hidden beaches as well away from the throngs of tourists.

  Up the middle of the Island are a couple of dirt roads through the forest which makes for some good riding but unfortunalty they are a combined under 10 km in length.  

We set up in a small hotel just off the beach on the west coast of the south island.  I’d head out early in the mornings for training rides then we would spend the afternoons scootering around checking out the local beaches.  The most dangerous part of this trip was definitely the scootering as they give scooters to anyone that can afford $4 a day.  When you get the street full of vacationing foreigners from all over the World, zipping around on scooters, many with there turning lights accidentally left on, it makes for some good practice at defensive driving!  Too cap the trip we headed back to Phuket, catching a boat through Phi Phi Island.  This place is a gongshow, better left for the partiers, with no riding available. 

Overall South Thailand would be best with a road or cross bike, with some good back roads to be explored.   It is flat and hot which makes for some good conditions to lay down base miles.  Best of all the air quality is fairly good the people are friendly and you’ll never have trouble finding some tasty food! Next time I come I’ll be bringing the Kona Libre with 40 c tires, good for both the pavement and offroad. 

Next up was a 2 hour, 60$ USD flight to Chiang Mai in North Thailand.   If ever flying in Thailand I highly recommend Thai Smile as they give free 20 kg luggage (which includes bikes), lunch, and have friendly staff.  Chiang Mai is a bigger city built next to some rolling mountains.  It is well known for its 

enduro riding but also has some solid xc loops, and a plethora of roads snaking through the hills.  The temperature is also much nicer with cool mornings and a manageable 30 

degrees mid day, that is for the cool season December-February.  The real highlight of this area is the food with street markets everywhere and restaurants from all over the World.  We relied on the street food, a couple smoothie bowl places, and two authentic Thai restaurants serving dishes at $1-2 a piece.  From all my travels over the World I can’t think of a better place for food lovers!

 Not impressed with the over use of plastic at all the food stands, we bought reusable straws, cutlery, and two coconut shells to use as bowls. The over use of plastic in Thailand is appalling.  At the food stands, at the convienence stories, it’s everywhere and it seems that most tourists didn’t give a damn about the mess of plastic they are leaving in their wakes.  Thailand has no way of dealing with the garbage and it ends up in the ditches, rivers and throughout the countryside. This is something we all need to take responsibly for as our mother earth cannnot continue to take this abuse!      

From Chiang Mai we made our way further North into the hill town of Pai.  Usha took a 3 hour van ride with the luggage while I road around the back way, 200 km of roads snaking through the rolling hills.  It was a great ride with little traffic although the hills never stopped with the total elevation gain of the day being over 4000 M.  It was one of the tougher 200 km I had ever done on my mountain bike.  Having underestimated the ride, I lost daylight about 20 km from town.  Luckily Usha came out with a rented scooter to guide me in the rest of the way.  Pai itself is a tourist heaven with backpackers from around
the World 

coming in to enjoy the hippy lifestyle of hanging out in the hills, visiting waterfalls, eating street food and practicing yoga.  Every night the main street in town closes down and the street food comes out.  It is heaven to head here after a long day of riding around the hills 🙂 

Leaving Pai we had a 130 km ride back to Chiang Mai before catching a 3 hour bus to Chiang Rai, the sight of the Asian MTB Championships.   We sent the luggage ahead to Chiang Mai, Usha rented a one way scooter, I hopped on my mountain bike and away we went.  This road is great as it travels over the jungly hills with exactly 762 curves!  For riding it’s amazing, if in a vehicle I imagine the car sickness would be epic.  Just before hitting the final 50 km straight highway to Chiang Mai, we turned off on a side road to visit a waterfall. Instead of heading back to the highway afterwards, we kept on the 

backroad, which soon turned to dirt as it snaked through rural Thailand.  This part of Thailand is amazing to explore on a bike, a mountain bike is good for this although a gravel bike with 40 c tires would also do just fine.  The options looked endless out here in the hills but we were on a schedule so left the exploring for another date.  It took a bit longer then expected to get back to Chiang Mai, putting some pressure on us time wise to catch our bus to Chiang Rai.

 Reaching Chaing Mai starved, we quickly grabbed smoothie bowls, then split ways as Usha went to return the Scooter and grab our luggage which was sent from Pai, while I went to our old hotel on the other end of the city to grab my bike box and the luggage we had left there. Quickly packing the bike, I 

ordered a taxi, and was soon on the 7 km, 40 minute journey to the bus stop.  Chiang Mai is a crazy city to get around as it’s full of tiny one way streets 

which makes it necessary to zig zag around to get anywhere.  Arriving at the bus stop 7 minutes before departure, Usha was hopping out of another taxi from her mission, as we scambled onto the bus just as it was taking off.  Chiang Mai, and Pai were solid places to ride a bike, although the air quality in North Thailand was very hazy from all the burning of crops combined with traffic pollution.  This put the air quality in the 140-180 range most days, which isn’t good for long term training.

Last up on our trip was a week in Chiang Rai.  This is another large city in North Thailand which is less touristy then Chiang Mai but still attracts a large crowd who come out on day trips to check out the Temples.  The first few days were spent road riding North of town to watch the Asian XCO Mountain bike Championships.  I quickly learnt it was a road riders paradise up here, although the smoky air was tough on the lungs.     After the games were done I spent the days riding west into the jungly hills.  It was great to explore back here on a mountain bike with endless loops to be had on the dirt roads and 

connecting trails.  The climbing was steep, with much of it requiring the full 32T-51 set up I have on my Kona Hei Hei. There was also one mountain bike park called the Singha park.  It had some good little loops 

and combined with some sightseeing of the local Temples, the training days were quickly filled with entertainment. Overall Chiang Rai is better known for

 its road riding but if you have an adventurous spirit the west hills would make for a good 7-10 days of exploring.

My old tree planting friend Darren, from Canada, was around town so we hung out with him and his girlfriend in the evenings. It’s great to catch up with long lost friends in random spots around the globe.  We went to a huge night market one night that took up the whole runway of the old Chiang Rai airport.  It’s amazing how much good cheap food they have in these markets, although again the binge use of plastic is tough to see. 

So North or South, which is better for riding?  Overall the riding is better up North, the temperatures are a bit cooler, and there are more interesting options.  The problem is the poor air quality.  Down South the air is fresher, there are beaches and an ocean for post ride chilling, and the riding is great for the fitness if you don’t mind peddling flat roads all day in excessive heat. 

With our time running out in Thailand we boarded a domestic flight back to Bangkok before catching our international flight to Kathmandu.  Their was a new virus coming out of China called the Corona Virus.  Almost everyone at the airport was wearing a mask, most the flights to China had been cancelled and there was a creepy feeling around the airport.  Little did we know but this was the beginning of a global pandemic that would essentially shut down our World in the coming months…  

As we are in lockdown in Nepal, their’s time to catch up on long lost travel stories.  Check back next week for the adventures of travelling through the Wild West of Indonesia, Sumatra, quite some years back!  

Lockdown in Nepal

After a winter of solid training across Thailand and Nepal, I was excited to head over to Spain to kick off the race year at the Andalucia Bike race in late February. Unfortunately a crash on the eve of my flight derailed that plan and left me with a couple weeks of recovery before getting back on the bike.  It was a blessing in disguise as instead of kicking off a month of Worldly travels in what turned into a ticking Corona Virus time bomb, I set off on a solo hike deep into the Himalayas.

Over a month has passed since then and I’m still up in the Himalayas as the World has been turned upside down by the Corona Virus.  I’ve felt little motivation to immerse myself into the chaos and the risks of contracting the virus myself so have been hiding out in the Himalayas for the time being.  At home in Canada would also be a great place to be but the thought of 4 days of international travel through airports and planes seems risky. Right now the last thing I want to do is risk getting this damn thing and passing it on to anyone, especially my Parents who are at a higher risk level.

On March 21st we were enjoying day 10 of a high altitude training camp here in the Solukhumbu, the region where Sir Edmund Hillary called home for many years. We opted to end the camp a day short as the Corona Virus was starting to heat up and we wanted the riders to get back home before anything broke out.  My girlfriend Usha and I stayed behind figuring it would be best to avoid densely populated areas at this time especially since we were already in a remote valley in the Himalayas.  Two days later Nepal would get its 2nd case of Corona virus and immediately locked down the whole country. This was a shock and ended our plans of some adventures in the mountains.   Instead we found a hideout in the Solukhmubu, perched at 2400 M on the side of a mountain, watching the World go by one day at a time.  

How does one keep their spirits high when their’s a deadly pandemic sweeping across the World?  For starters it has been important to try and stay in the present moment without getting carried away with what the future might hold. Social media is going rampant with people thinking they know what’s going on, dooms day sayers and conflicting news on the Virus. None of us know what the future has in store, but we can make the most of each day and try to get some good routines going until things calm down. One of the best things I’ve done has been limiting the social media and instead focusing on a couple more reliable news sources such as CBC.

Racing is gone for the foreseeable future which for a pro bike racer has a substantial impact. In a normal year we are travelling all over World, meeting hundreds of racers, and training when we can in between. Our lives revolve around the next race on the calendar and there’s rarely a moment to sit still.  With an open schedule now, I’ve put the bike racing on the back burner. Instead of putting in the normal 25-30 hour early season training weeks, I’ve lowered expectations and have gone into a holding pattern. Focusing on some solid recovery, working on weakness’s and spending time on other aspects of life. Until this Pandemic calms down and races come back on the calendar I figure it’s best to not burn any matches, rather recharge the batteries, keep the immune system firing and do my best to maintain some of the fitness built over the winter. 

This lockdown in Nepal has really restricted what we can do but it has been important to still find a way get in some exercise to keep the balance during the day.  Even just 20 minutes of getting the heart rate elevated can make a world of a difference, helping keep the endorphin levels up and the mind clear.   I’ve taken up meditation, trying to build a stronger mind, doing a daily stretching/core routine to work on some muscles I usually neglect, and eating well to keep a healthy flow of nutrients coming into the body, focusing on some anti viral foods such as garlic, and colloidal silver.   

In the World we use to live in it was tough for me to sit still, always chasing the next race or next adventure.  After chasing the 24 HR World Title for nearly a decade I figured I’d be content after finally winning it in 2017.  I was content for a while but then the mind was thinking, lets go for the repeat, then we’ll be content.  Ok that’s in the bag, now lets go for the three peat then we’ll be content.  In reality we can keep chasing these dreams and goals our whole lives, but it seems that true happiness lies within our own heads, not with achievements, not with material goods, not with fame or fortune. Don’t be fooled, I will be chasing a 4th World 24HR title when the opportunity arises, but that’s because I love racing, the people, and the challenges it brings with it, not because I think it will make me more complete in any way.

Some of the happiest people I’ve ever met are the Monks and other mountain dwellers in Nepal which live in economic poverty, often on the same mountainside their whole lives.  They’ve never scene the ocean, travelled to foreign lands, won any World championships or gained much fame or fortune. Something which the 1st World countries seem to be highly fuelled on.  Having spent some time with these Monks and getting a glimpse of there lifestyles it seems apparent a simple life style can provide all the happiness any of us could ever want. 

The Monks live in isolation, filling their days with simple tasks, meditating, eating basic food, laughing, and showing great compassion to other living things.  More then once I’ve had to seek refuge in a Monastery during a storm and was overwhelmed by the generosity of these guys, offering tea, food, and shelter until I could continue on my journey.  They would never accept any sort of payment, so I learned to hide money under the dishes before I left and would try to escape before they found it and chased me down to return it.  It seems these Monks have alot to teach us, especially in these tough times when many of us are in isolation and our movements are restricted.  I’ll be searching to find my inner Monk as I adjust to this more sedimentary lifestyle, and who knows it may just be another blessing in disguise to slow down this whole rat race for a while.

With 14 days of lockdown behind us, I’ve actually become quite content living on my a little piece of the mountainside.  The day will start with a cup of green tea, then a small meditation, some reading and then I’ll try to update on the World news.  Living in lockdown in the Nepali mountains means the diet is getting limited each day.  We found a source of freshly ground buckwheat flour, local eggs and spinach. Generally we’ll have buckwheat pancakes for breakfast then aim to get some form of exercise while maintaining all the precautions to prevent getting or passing on the Corona Virus.    A healthy lunch of rice, eggs and spinach is followed, then a short 20 minute nap, and either some reading or a 30-45 minute stretching/core exercises.  I’ll also try to squeeze in 1-2 hours of computer work at some point.  The day gets eaten up pretty fast, then it’s time to grab a drink to catch the sunset, make some dinner, then chill out near the fire before settling in for the night.  

Sleep has been a big focus as it boosts the immune system more then anything, often lights out around 9:30, up at 6.  There’s small variations to keep the days interesting but right now this simple life, with little expectations is working quite well.  In fact I haven’t felt this rested in years and am finally having time to reflect on past adventures instead of always draining the tank chasing the next one.

What is this World going to look like after the Corona Pandemic passes through?  The Corona Virus has brought people together from around the World as we all battle a common enemy.  Overall I feel we have been lucky this pandemic has a pretty low mortality rate, somewhere around 1% I’ve heard.  It is a lesson for the World to learn from and to be better prepared for the potential of future outbreaks.  We are currently also facing another major pandemic called global warming which is going to need the same sort of united fight from around the World if we are going to manage it.  It seems the Corona Virus has kickstarted this World unity and hopefully it will continue to grow well after the virus is gone.

At a personal level these times have been an eye opener, a reminder the freedom to hop on a plane and travel wherever I wanted in the World was a real luxury.  After being stuck here in Nepal this spring, flights will no longer be taken for granted anymore!  The Virus has also brought together families and made them spend time together via quarantines and lockdowns.  It’s likely most parents have never seen so much of there kids.  The tighter families are, the better the communities they live in will be, so on with their countries and ultimately the World.  If after this Corona Virus passes we can keep some of this closeness it will be a win for everyone. Here in Nepal the locals are very poor but they are also very tightly tied to their families, something which is shown in the richness of their culture and communities.

Sitting in Nepal here on day 15 of lockdown their is a lot of uncertainty in the air.  Nepal still has just 9 confirmed cases and neighbouring Bhutan at 4. Some are saying its due to a lack of testing which is partly true, but there hasn’t been any news of mysterious deaths either.  With the proximity to China, the lack of social distancing, sub par living conditions, and the number of travellers coming through here, it’s shocking things haven’t exploded.  It leaves me wondering if the Corona is having a hard time getting established.  From a young age the locals immune systems are being attacked by viruses, bad food and water and other obstacles involved with living in such a rough and unforgiving environment.  Over the years I’ve also noticed the locals constantly fighting off respiratory coughs.  Maybe, this has toughened up their immune systems and has built up some immunity too this Virus. During the Spanish Flu in the early 1900’s the Chinese weren’t hit nearly as hard as some other nations, thanks to the immunity they had required from a similar flu the year before. Is something similar happening in Nepal or is it just delayed setting in here?  Only time will tell but for now I’ll stay up on this mountainside, drinking my tea, isolated, keeping the risk of transmitting anything to anyone back home at zero.  

Namaste from Nepal.    

2020 Race Schedule

It’s always a fun task planning out the race schedule each season with so many great events out there across a variety of disciplines!  In 2020 the focus will be around going for a 4th straight World 24 HR Title in Australia, regaining the Canadian Marathon Title, and challenging other exciting endurance events such as the Dirty Kanza, World Marathon Champs, and a variety of Gravel races and Stage races around the World.  

With the Kona Libre for gravel racing and the Kona Hei Hei  and Honzo for the off road events, the barn is stocked with some of the fastest most durable two wheeled horses out their!     An increasing number of adventures will also be laced into the schedule this year to keep things interesting.  For now the tentative schedule looks like this…

March 12-23: Himalaya High Altitude Camp (Nepal, Solukhumbu)

April 10- April 16:  MTB Uttarakahand (India)

May 3: Belgian Waffle Ride (USA)

May 9: Vedder Mountain Classic (BC)

May 10: Salty Dog 6hr (BC)

May 14-17:  Trans Costa Rica (UCI S2)?

May 30: Dirty Kanza (USA)

June 6-7: Lost and Found Gravel Race (USA)

June 12-14: Canmore Canada Cup & Alberta Road Provincials (Alberta)

or

June 8-13:  Singletrack 6 (BC) 

June 21: Ghost of the Gravel, (Alberta)

June 27-29:  BC Epic 1000 Bike Packing Race (Merritt to Fernie)?

July 2- 10: BC Bike Race (BC)?

July 25-26: Okanagan 24 (Silver Star Mtn BC)

Aug 2-8:  La Leyenda Del Dorado (Colombia)

Aug 15: Leadville 100 (Colorado) ?

Aug 16: Steamboat Gravel (Colorado)  or Breck Epic (Colorado)

Aug 22:  Climb Duro (Alberta)

Sept 5: Canadian Marathon Championships (Quebec)

Sept 26-27:  World Marathon Championships (Turkey)

October/November:  24 HR Fundraiser for Nepalese Racers

Nov 7-8:  World 24HR Champs (Australia)

 

Stay tuned for the next blog about what 1 month of training and traveling  across Thailand was like this past January!  ETA March 15th.

Photo credits to: Gauravman Sherchan