Baxter State Park Nordic Backcountry Tour (2018) Part 1 — The Calm Before the Storm

Hey all! It’s not bike touring, but we took our first ever multi-day backcountry ski tour in March, and we wanted to preserve it here on the blog. Enjoy!

Day 0, March 10: Brooklyn to Mt. Chase Lodge

Today was a driving day. I walked Ellie over to K&B’s, who had graciously offered to watch her for the week. When I got back home, I decided it was smart to move our car to the street directly in front of the apartment so we could pack more easily. Fifteen minutes later, we stumble downstairs carrying our backpacks, skis, and the rest of our gear and find a traffic cop looking curiously into our window. It was street sweeping day! Luckily, we got there just in time, and we didn’t get a ticket.

We were on the road by 7:45 or so, and the drive out of the city was blessedly uneventful. We stopped in Portland to grab some lunch around 1:30, and ate at a place called Sillys, which had tasty, but rich and heavy, meal options. However, fatty carbs are just the thing to eat for lots of energy!

Back on the road, we made good time (in next to zero traffic) to our jumping off point: Mt. Chase Lodge, a delightful little guesthouse run by husband and wife team Lindsey and Mike. The lodge had a cozy fireplace in the lower level and the rooms, while not fancy, were everything we needed. There were several other guests there—all snowmobilers. We ate a family style meal cooked by Mike, who is a truly wonderful chef, and who made us a vegan pesto pasta and AMAZING peanut butter chocolate mini lava cakes. Holy moly.

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After dinner we went back up to the room, waxed the skis, organized our bags, and filled up our water. Then we boned up on our orienteering skills. This ended up being unnecessary because I had a map downloaded and we always had GPS, but better safe than sorry.

Day 1, March 11: Parking lot to South Branch Pond Bunkhouse (11.27 miles)

We woke up a little before 7 and headed for the shower before other the other guests got in our way. Dani made it. But since we only brought one small bottle of soap, I had to wait and I missed my shot.

When Dani finished showering, she pointed out that I was already in the camping mindset: of course guest house showers have soap in them.

We went down to breakfast, and Mike had made some delightful oatmeal that was vegan friendly, along with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and blueberry pancakes. I asked if the pancakes were vegan, and he did that they were not, but that he was happy to whip some vegan pancakes up for us.

So we ate oatmeal and drank coffee with the leftover almond milk we brought from home, and ten minutes later we were each presented with a stack of 3 banana almond flax pancakes. Holy mother of delicious. Judging purely on looks, they were better than the non-vegan pancakes. Judging from the jealous glances of the other guests, I’m not the only one who thought so.

After some more lovely conversation with two ladies from Bar Harbor that we met last night (they told us to avoid Acadia in August and taught us about harvesting and using chaga), we whipped together our things and headed out. It was a half hour drive to the parking lot, and the entire time we were consumed with nerves. What if we got lost? What if our packs were too heavy? What if we made it 9 miles in and just couldn’t go any farther?

We made it to the parking area, put all of our stuff on and in our bags, and set out. And all of our nerves were for nothing. We DO love cross country skiing and we ARE in decent physical shape and while our bags were heavy, we COULD do this.

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IMG_20180311_095054.jpgAnd man oh man. What a winter wonderland. Snow laden pines, frozen lakes and babbling streams. And complete solitude. Heaven.

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MVIMG_20180311_105733.jpgIMG_20180311_122522.jpgThe BSP website warns people that snow travel is slower than summer travel, and advised us to plan for 1.5-2 mph. But we found ourselves making excellent time, moving at a 2.5-3 mph clip. The first 9 miles or so were on the tote road, which is the only path in the park that snowmobiles may use. This made for some bumpy, skiddy skiing, but because we didn’t know any better, we didn’t mind at all.

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We stopped at Trout Brook farm bunkhouse about 4 miles in to have a snack (we each saved a pancake), and I had to use the restroom. While here, I lived up to my reputation I built on our bike tour and fell over when I stopped moving. Then I got lost skiing around the bunkhouse looking for the toilet. Anyways, I got myself sorted out and we set out on the road again.

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After 5 more miles (and 3.5 total skiing hours) we came to Trout Brook Crossing, which was our turnoff from the tote road. We stopped for lunch, and Dani’s idea to put hot water in a thermos full of dehydrated rice, beans, tomatoes, and spices turned out splendidly. It was so nice to have a warm meal in the middle of the day. And a cookie. The cookie was nice too.

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IMG_20180311_133410.jpgAfter lunch, we headed out toward South Branch Pond, and off the snowmobile path. This was EVEN MORE BEAUTIFUL! But it was also a climb. And the wet snow was really sticking to our skis. I had heard about how miserable this makes skiing, but I hadn’t experienced it for myself yet. And I was muttering to myself because I had noticed it before lunch and I could have applied a new layer of wax each to our skis, but I didn’t. Oh well.

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Even with the sticky snow, it was a delight of a ski, even if the first mile and change was the steepest climb of the day. At that point we came to a trail crossing that -when we looked at our map- seemed halfway between the tote road and our campsite. This was strange because we thought we to ski over 5 miles on this leg, and it didn’t make sense. that we were already at the halfway point.  But turned out we only had a little over 2 miles to ski! Bonus happy surprise!

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We came down a big hill to the campsite and our bunkhouse, which we were sharing with a group of five Mainers. Tom, Brent, Jeff, Bob, and Sherry. They were all friendly and delightful, and we passed the next five hours melting snow for water on the woodstove, playing cards, looking out over the pond (which is a lake to my eye), and just enjoying company.

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Dinner tonight was chili, which we forgot to photograph, but it was delicious and spicy. People went to bed early, around 8:30, and before we hit the hay, we went outside one last time to marvel at the sparkling Maine night sky. (And poop. I also went outside to visit the outhouse.) But those stars, friends, those stars…

Day 2, March 12:  South Branch Pond Bunkhouse to Russell Pond Bunkhouse (9.62 miles)

We woke up around 7—well, our bunkmates woke up at 7 and started packing and getting ready to go. The bunkhouse is wonderful, but sounds are amplified throughout the place. There is no sleeping in when sharing such a place.

We took our time this morning. It was a little frantic while our bunkmates were packing to leave, but then when they did it was calm and peaceful. We played an Ella and Louis album on a phone and made apple cinnamon oatmeal. After oatmeal we cleaned out our thermoses and made some coffee.  After coffee, we filled up the thermoses with our dehydrated rice and beans mix for lunch and added some hot water. It deserves mentioning again and again: Dani’s idea to buy these food thermoses and pack premade dehydrated meals in parchment bags was brilliant and, at a small risk of hyperbole, the most important (controllable) factor in us having a good trip.

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We got on the path at about 9:45. Our shoulders were sore, but we otherwise felt pretty good. The day started by skiing across Upper- and Lower- South Branch ponds. It’s a weird feeling to be skiing across a lake, but we had heard at Mt. Chase Lodge that the lakes had 24 inches of ice, so we were pretty safe. It’s also a fun perspective to see the mountains circling the lake from the middle of the lake. We were lucky to be following other people’s tracks, because it otherwise might have been a challenge to find the trail at the other side. There is a tree wrapped in some orange tape that makes the correct exit, but I’m not entirely sure we would have seen it on our own.

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On the other side of the lake, the trail became even more beautiful, because instead of following a broader road (even the path after the snowmobile trail yesterday is a road during the summer), we were on a singletrack trail winding through an evergreen and birch forest.

This is also where we learned that backing up on skis with a heavy backpack generally leads to falling. Although, perhaps I give at least me too much credit when I say I “learned” this, because I had to learn a few more times before I really believed it.

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We skied for a few miles along beautiful creek. We crossed a lot of small streams, but they all had packed snow bridges that, with one exception, were no problem at all. At one point, some unfortunately-timed wind blew a branchful of snow off of it’s branch and down the back of Danielle’s shirt. Oopsie.

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We crossed Pogy pond and stopped for lunch on the other side (about 6 miles in). We packed down some snow, and sat on our bags and ate our rice and beans while looking at Traveler Mountain. This was where our bunkmates from the night before turned around on the day prior, so the only trail we had from this point on was from two people who had done it two days before. We could still see their tracks and still benefited from the trail being broken, but there was a substantial difference in ease of skiing.

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Oh, and there was also a substantial difference in elevation after Pogy, too. We climbed 300 or so feet over a little less than 2 miles. As we entered higher elevation, the snow was deeper and fluffier.  The blazes on some of the trees were barely above the snowpack. We saw some moose tracks that followed the trail up the hill. Danielle spent much of this part of the trail singing “A Marshmallow World.”

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After we got to high point, the snow really started sticking to our skis. At times we’d fall or almost fall because there were clumps of sticky snow essentially serving as brakes on the skis when we tried to push forward. We kept wavering between feeling frustrated because we were getting tired and unhappy and feeling annoyed at ourselves for feeling frustrated while we were in paradise.

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9.2 miles in, we saw some buildings of the Russell Pond campsite and we got really excited because we thought we were done. Turns out, though, that the bunkhouse was on the other side of the pond, another half mile away. We got to the bunkhouse at 3:30, and immediately started a fire, but it took the bunkhouse a while to warm up.

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The snow at Russell was much deeper, and we had to put on skis any time we wanted to go to the outhouse. We made ourselves a second cup of coffee, and ate two dinners–ramen and a pasta primavera–and played card games. The best part of Russell Bunkhouse was that it had two nice wooden chairs (South Branch only had one), so we pulled them both up to the wood burning stove and had a cozy little heaven all to ourselves.

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Day 3, March 13: Exploring around Russell, out to Ledge Falls and back (5.04 miles)

Last night I woke up around 1 am (after going to bed around 10 or so). After peeing, I checked the woodstove and saw that the big log I put in there to last us the night had gone out.  In my sleepy haze I decided that it was critical to have a fire going to keep the cabin warm, so I pulled a bunch of bark off another log, tried to start it from the few remaining coals, and when that didn’t work, I got out the firestarter and built a whole new fire.

Then I panicked about cabin monoxide (like we didn’t have the stove going all day) and opened the window in our bedroom. In the morning, the wood had all burned up and the cold air coming in the window had chilled the entire cabin. So… Good call, Ted.

I started another fire in the stove, and started to get breakfast ready (peanut butter and banana oatmeal today). When the fire was going and the oatmeal was ready, I woke up Dani and we ate by the stove — with a quick break to ski to the toilet — and savored the feeling of the cabin warning around us.

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Finishing the oatmeal opened up our coffee cups, so Dani made us coffee and cleaned up after breakfast while I started melting snow for water.

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Shortly after finishing coffee, we stoked the stove to keep the cabin cozy and headed out for another day of magic. We thought we were going to Wassataquoik Lake, but I took us down the Wassataquoik Stream Trail in the other direction, and we ended up skiing to Ledge Falls. It was a lovely, happy accident.

Today we had to break our own trail for the first time, and it was both difficult and amazing. We averaged about 1 mph the first two miles, but it feels more wild—even though we were still following clear blazes the entire way.

But because we had to find the next blaze and figure out how to get there, we seemed to pay more attention to the wilderness around us. And it felt like we were all alone out in the forest. Gorgeous snow laden trees, elk and moose tracks, partly frozen streams, mountains lost in clouds, and us picking our way through it all. We were higher today, so the snow base was fairly deep even before the 14+ inches of snow that came last week.

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At times, we were ducking under pine boughs that I bet are a good 7 feet or more off the trail in the summer. At others we were getting weirded out by skiing through a glen where a family of elk had obviously spent the night and we were worried they’re come back and get annoyed at us for crashing.

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After about two miles, we came to a trail junction near the Wassataquoik Stream lean to with an amazing vista of the stream and the North, South and East Turner, and Russell mountains. We saw a sign declaring it was a half mile to Ledge Falls. This gave us a turnaround point at about the right distance, so we decided to go for it. The falls are more impressive when its not winter, I think, but the ski up to the falls traced the bank of the stream and treated us to more mind bending beauty and solitude.

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We turned around at the falls and headed home, trying to fix the scene in our heads, or at least the way it made us feel. Because we weren’t breaking trail anymore, we made it home in about half the time. We stopped at the bathroom since we already had our skis on, then returned to our extra cozy and toasty cabin, made coffee and ramen for lunch, mushroom vegetable stew with couscous for dinner, played games, and loved life.

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It started snowing soon after we got back. At the time, we had no idea that this was the beginning of a 48-hour winter storm and two days of trail breaking that made the trailbreaking today seem like we were getting towed by a snowmobile.

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SE Asia Days 13-14: Luang Prabang to Tad Kuang Si 

Jan. 7, 2017

Ride map.

We woke up relatively early this morning; we had a date with some waterfalls 30km outside of town today, so we had to pack up all of our stuff. This posed just a bit of problem, because the clothes we washed two nights ago when we arrived were still damp. Humidity. It’s a kick in the hotel-bathroom-sink-laundry pants.

So we decided to wrap up the damp clothes and hope for the best. We left our bags and bikes with Eric, the delightful owner of our guesthouse. Since the ride was only 30k, we decided to take off in the afternoon, and first thing in the morning was a slow boat up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves.

We thought about getting coffee at the shop right across from the dock, but there were no chocolate croissants there, so…yeah. After a quick jog we were back at the pier on time and ready to get on the boat.

It was really a fleet of small boats with six passengers on each. The boats had what seemed to be minivan-style bucket seats, and they were comfy and roomy.

  
Travelling upriver, we were treated to wonderful greenery on either side of the river (which, by the way, is enormous). Rolling hillsides, small villages, buffalo that somehow ended up on an island in the middle of the river. All of the sights.

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   After an hour or so, we stopped for fifteen minutes at “whiskey village,” a little market aimed solely at tourists on these boats. We tried a few types of locally made rice whiskey, marveled at the “medicine” whiskey (which was infused with snakes, scorpions, and all matter of yuck), and passed judgment on the tourist who threw a small fit about having to pay a quarter to use the restroom. Entitled jerk.

   
    Back in the boats, we made it up to Pak Ou. There were two caves completely full of little Buddha statues. Back when the main Laos religion was a form of nature worship, the caves were thought to house a river spirit. After converting to Buddhism centuries and centuries ago, the caves became part of the royal family’s new year ceremonies. And people still visit the caves to place new Buddha statues.

   
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After exploring the caves, we got back on the boat and headed back to town. As soon as we got to town, we walked to our new favorite noodle soup place for lunch. The proprietor recognized us gave us a big smile for being repeat customers.

Then after lunch we suited up and got back on the bikes to ride out to Tad Kuang Si. It was a beautiful ride; I might even go as far as to say it was the prettiest ride of our trip. Verdant mountains and lovely quaint villages.

   
 It’s true that there was a significant amount of traffic (renting a motorbike or booking a van are the most popular ways to visit the falls), but it came in waves and we had stretches of time to relax and enjoy the road.

The ride had two main climbs, one in the middle and one to get up to the falls, but they weren’t too bad. It was in many ways the perfect type of ride: rolling hills with slightly more up than down every time the hills rolled (can I use the expression like that?) so we were steadily climbing but it felt like we were going as much or more down than up.

I’m not sure that made any sense at all, but if not, the main take away is that it was a pleasant ride. Except for the fact that Dani’s bike was having shifting problems and she was forced to ride up some of those hills in a harder gear than she would have liked.

We made it to the town just before the waterfall and after some confusion stemming from a complete lack of signage, we found our home for the next two nights: Vanvisa at the Falls.

   
 Vanvisa was . . . mixed. The grounds were absolutely beautiful; it sat right on a miniature version of the gorgeous waterfall we came to see. The owner was an adorably gregarious Lao woman who was friendly and charming and cooked traditional Lao family meals for all of the guests every night.

The downsides were that it was by far the most expensive guesthouse of the trip and the room was not wonderful. The whole room was damp and mildewy, there were bloodstains on the sheets, no wifi, dirt and the poop of some small animal (?) falling from the ceiling, and the temperamental shower liked to switch from freezing to scalding without any notice.

We immediately changed to go swimming, but by the time we made it down to the falls there were: (1) a family having a picnic playing loud, bad music and throwing trash into the river, and (2) four small naked Lao boys running around and jumping into the water.

I like swimming though. So I jumped in and swam around for a bit before we headed back to the room.

We had family dinner (which we found out later was also absurdly expensive), and it was decent. There wasn’t a lot of food to go around. Some so so chicken wings, beans with an egg topping, soup, and sticky rice.

After dinner, we went to bed.

Jan. 8, 2017

Today was waterfall day!

We woke up and ate a pretty good breakfast (homemade passion fruit jam!) and then we walked to the waterfall.

Kuang Si is a series of falls over limestone rocks. The water picks up calcium carbonate from the limestone, which gives the water a stunning blue color. The local story of the falls is that a wise old man dug a cave and beckoned the Earth’s water to come forth. When the water started to flow, a golden deer came and took up residence under the falls, giving the water it’s color.  Kuang Si means “deer dig.”

On the walk to the falls we went through a moon bear sanctuary. Moon bears are endangered because Chinese traditional medicine thinks that bear bile gives strength. There were some pretty terrible pictures of bile farms where bears are keep in tiny cages for years and years and harvested for bile every day.

People can be terrible.

Anyway, the falls were beautiful. A series of smaller cascades leading up to the main falls.

         Then we climbed up the top of the falls (a steep, slippery trail) and saw an amazing view of the surrounding area.

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We continued about 3km uphill to the source of the falls and the fabled deer cave. The cave was enormous, and we were the only two people to go in so early. The man gave us a flashlights to help explore. There were beautiful sparkly stalactites and more buddhas sprinkled throughout. We went in bit by bit, but we didn’t make it the whole 100m to the back because I got claustrophobic and begged Dani to leave. I just can’t think of something more terrifying than somehow getting trapped in a cave forever.

  
Then we visited the source of the spring, which conveniently had a restaurant right next to it. The guy running the restaurant had a challenge for me: walk across the river on a log without falling in (I got two tries) and he would buy me a beer. If I fell in, I owed him a beer. I didn’t even WANT a beer, but I couldn’t turn down the challenge. He showed me how it was done and made it look so so easy. I took my turn, and it didn’t go as well.

  
Since I was already in the river, Dani joined me (she was smart enough to have her swimsuit on before she got in though) we swam for a bit. We had the whole place to ourselves and it was lovely. They even had a rope swing into the river that I used again and again and again.

   
 Then other people started showing up (I’m glad we got such an early start!), so we got out of the water, shared a plate of fried rice, and started back down.

We took a wrong turn on the way back and ended up walking to the village and not to the falls. On the way, we heard a loud, close gunshot. Dani squealed, ducked, and covered; I looked around confused. Then I almost got hit in the head by a couple of dead birds falling from the sky. A few seconds later, a smiling Lao man walked out of the woods with a shotgun and picked up his kill. So that happened.

After we got back to town, we relaxed at the hotel for a bit and then went to town where we got barbequed chicken, spicy papaya salad, and some fresh coconut juice.

Then we walked back into the park to sit and gaze at the beautiful waterfalls, which were a deeper shade of aqua in the late afternoon. 

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 Later we ate another family dinner, with salad (with an amazing dressing), soup, and fried noodles. They brought out some offals, too, and we each took a bite expecting meat and Dani almost vomited because of the surprise of chomping into a chalky, gamey organ. Again, our most expensive dinner of the trip, and half as filling and delicious and four times the price of our favorite noodle place back in Luang Prabang. Now we know to always ask the price (and not to eat unidentified meat products)!

Tomorrow we bike back to Luang Prabang for another day before we head off to Thailand!

SE Asia Day 10: Tad Lo to Pakse

Jan. 4, 2017.

Ride map.

 Oof. That’s about what I have to say about today.

But I guess I can throw a little more detail in here, just to keep the pictures company.

We woke up bright and early, hoping to get a quick breakfast and an early start, since we had to ride 88k, or 55 miles into Pakse. We packed our things, checked out of our guesthouse, and wandered over to the place where we stopped for dinner last night. Danielle loved her vegetable omelet sandwich, so we thought we’d give it another go.

Turns out the women who runs the Fandee Guesthouse is not a morning person, so she was still in bed. We sat at the big table on the porch with Thomas, a freelance designer (originally from France, but has been in Germany for several years) who is in Laos as he waits for an order of his new design of lamps to be produced in Thailand, after which he will take them to a festival in Australia.

We told him that we were biking to Pakse today, and he told us that aside from a hill climbing out of town, it was mostly downhill the entire way.

I’m going to interrupt this narrative with a quick PSA. NEVER say something like this to a cyclist (especially if they’re touring) unless you KNOW for SURE that it’s true.

On with the program: we were shortly joined by another German traveler named Merle (which, as it turns out, is pronounced nothing like it is spelled), and since our prospective breakfast cook was still sleeping, we decided to walk back to our guesthouse and eat there. We both had omelet sandwiches, which were pretty decent, and I had a smoothie, since that seemed to be the one thing that I could eat without making myself feel ill.

Then we said goodbye to our new friends, saddled up, and hit the road around 8:45a.
Remember that “hill out of town”? Well that hill was a hot, steep, heck-of-a-climb, six-mile, thousand feet of elevation hill. Goodness gracious. About a third of the way up, I started feeling ill again. I felt like I had to vomit and like my legs had no power. I thought about just vomiting and getting it over with, but I had barely eaten anything the day before and I knew I still had over 50 miles left, and I thought that it was a better idea to try to keep the food down so my body could have a little fuel for the ride.


After the climb, we were expecting lots and lots of downhill. And we had a nice descent, which was wonderful for me, before entering into some flats/rolling hills. After about 12 miles, I was feeling absolutely miserable, so we pulled over at a gas station and sat on a bench in the shade, drank a bit of water, and tried to cool off (did I mention that this was by far the hottest riding day we’ve had so far?). I also chewed on some Tums, hoping it would quell my tummy.

While we were sitting there, the guys working the pumps at the station brought us over a big ol’ papaya and gave it to us. How nice! I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but Dani ate half of it before wrapping up the other half for later.

      The next 12 km were pretty much straight downhill (yay!) but they also gave us one of the highlights of the trip: Katu textiles.

We were cruising down the hill when we passed a sign telling us that there was a place to buy handmade textiles straight from the artisans, and we had to stop. Dani had been noticing the beautiful fabrics used by many of the restaurants on the plateau AND she loves textiles in general, so this was her dream come true. There were maybe half a dozen teenage to elderly women sitting in a hut FULL of the fabrics they were making by hand. We didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures inside, but they were using what I believe is called a “backstrap” loom, which sat on top of their legs (and around their back) as they sat on the floor.

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Dani was in heaven, quickly compiling a significant pile of “favorites,” but the truth is that they were all beautiful. And we felt good buying them straight from the source. We probably could have haggled the prices a little bit lower, but these ladies were artists and their art was amazing, and it just felt wrong to trivialize it by trying to bargain down the price.

We rode out of there happy, and glided through the rest of the downhill. But then the downhill ended.

At this point we had ridden a little over 30 miles, and looking at our map app we had 10 miles of uphill and then 14 miles of down to finish the day. That’s right, another 10 miles of uphill during the hottest part of the day. Let’s just revisit that PSA above for a moment. We thought we were going to have a nice mostly downhill day, but we were misled (out of no animosity I’m sure, of course, but it still was pretty sad when we realized it).

So we started climbing. Slowly by slowely, stopping frequently when we found a spot of shade on the road. The miles gradually fell away until we had just 4 left, going up a steeper hill. We stopped pretty much every mile of these last four. Like I said: oof.

But then we made it to the top. We reached the intersection with Rt. 16, which would take us to Pakse, and we turned right and downhill and oh how we flew! What joy and relief! After taking an hour to ride 4 miles, we rode the next three in roughly 10 minutes, which brought us to Bachieng Café and Restaurant (the place we loved so much on the way up).

We had water and two more bowls of beef noodle stew. I was able to eat the whole bowl and I didn’t feel too shabby afterward, which was a great sign that I was on the mend. After about a half hour we sped the last 10 miles or so into town.


We struggled to find our guesthouse for a bit, but find it we did, and we were soon checked in, showered, and happy.

And hungry. I was apparently fully recovered, and my body seemed to suddenly realize that it hadn’t been eating much over the previous two days. So even though we had that bowl of stew just a couple of hours earlier, I was ravenous.

I hopped on Tripadvisor to see if I could find a good place, and strangest thing, apparently an Italian man had settled in Pakse some years ago and opened an Italian restaurant that rivaled those of his home in Tuscany.

Danielle typically does not like doing things like eating Italian food while in Laos (she once called me a traitor for suggesting something like this), but I whined and wheedled and eventually wore her down. We starting walking the 4km to the restaurant, but soon caught a tuk tuk to take us the rest of the way.

Oh my sweet delight, the bolognese was freaking amazing. Out of this world. It was $8.50, which was at least double the price of a Laos meal, but less than half of what I would pay in New York for something that would probably be less good. It was rich and flavorful… and it was generously covered with melty parmesan cheese.  Cheese. I haven’t had cheese since December 23rd. It’s still delicious.

Dani had a lovely tuna pasta and we had some homemade ice cream(!) for dessert, but—as has been the case—she seemed to be about 12-24 hours behind me in the food-poisoning progression. I was feeling completely recovered, but she was starting to feel off.

So we got the tuk tuk back to the hotel and fell asleep, hoping that Dani would feel better in the morning. We fly to Luang Prabang tomorrow.

 

(ps. Sorry for the long delay between posts. We got distracted by being in Luang Prabang, and then we spent the weekend in a place without wifi, we’ll try to catch up in the next few days.)

SE Asia Day 9: Thateng to Tad Lo

January 3rd, 2017

Ride map.

If there was ever a time we needed a short, no-wind, downhill day, today was that time. Dani ended up following me down the food-poisoning path last night, so we weren’t in the best of moods when we woke up.

We started very slowly. We didn’t seem to be actively suffering as much this morning (i.e., we weren’t making frequent trips to the restroom), but our bodies seriously ached. We both felt lethargic and struggled to get moving.  Doing small tasks to prepare to go was exhausting and required many breaks of lying down completely still. We had also completely lost our appetites, something that anyone who knows us knows is as common as Halley’s Comet, but forced ourselves to eat a tiny banana to have some small amount of energy for the ride.

Eventually we got ourselves out of bed and packed our things. We left around 11am, or about 3 hours later than normal.

But we were fortunate. Today was always going to be a short day, just 20 miles, and knowing that was a big reason we were able to convince ourselves to get on our bikes. But what we didn’t know is that pretty much the entire ride was downhill. Good steep downhill too. We covered the first fifteen miles in about 50 minutes, and for long stretches, we didn’t even have to pedal.

Which was a good thing, because when we DID have to pedal, my legs felt like they were about to fall off. Maybe that had something to do with throwing up (or otherwise expelling) everything I had eaten in the previous 24-48 hours.

   In any case, we made great time to Tad Lo, getting here around 12:20p. We had to find a place to sleep, and we were quickly sold on a guesthouse with cute rooms and a PORCH with HAMMOCKS for $8.50.

Then we lay in the hammocks for an hour or so.

  

At this point we felt like we had to go exploring, both because we came here to check out the waterfalls in town and because no matter how we were feeling, we really had to eat something.

So we decided that if we were leaving our happy place, we might as well see some of the waterfalls the town is named for (I might be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure “Tad” means waterfall Lao). We crawled out of the hammocks, got ourselves together, and walked for about twenty minutes to the southern Tad Lo falls. Longest twenty minutes ever. They were nice, and to our chagrin, they were swimmable. It looked like nice swimming too. But neither of us had our suits (Dani asked if we should wear them, and I confidently said no), and even if we did, I don’t think we would have felt up for swimming anyway.

 So we walked down a little path from the falls that let us out at Tad Lo Lodge, the swankiest place in town. We didn’t really enjoy the milieu, but we liked the deck overlooking the river, and we were wary of food in general, so we thought swanky was a safe bet. Also, pro tip: we saw this in Costa Rica too, but if you go to a touristy-type swanky place in foreign country and then order traditional food of said country, the price is actually pretty reasonable. So our meals were about a third as expensive as the western food on the menu.

But, we were both feeling so queasy that, for the first time in my memory, neither of us finished our food. Dani has instilled in me a strong “clean plate club” ethic. But today we just couldn’t. Ugh.

After lunch, we walked back to our hotel and got back into the hammocks, lazily looking out on a field where a family herded their cattle.

After a few more hours, we felt a little better, so we decide to venture out once again. We walked across the river, checked out the northern falls, and stopped in at a cute little guesthouse for a fruit smoothie and an vegetable omelet sandwich.

 Then we made it back to the hotel for the night, watched a movie on our laptop (sick day! And Dani let me choose, so obviously it was a Disney movie), and hunkered down for bed just before 9p.

Tomorrow is a long day for us. 55 miles, and I don’t think we’ll have the same downhill luck.  But we have a plane to catch the next day, so we don’t really have any option except to make it. So hopefully a few meals and another good night of sleep will carry us through.

SE Asia Day 4: Don Khong to Champasak

December 29th, 2016

Ride Map

Danielle woke me up this morning at 5:45 to watch the sun rise over the Mekong.

How beautiful.

We watched at first from the large terrace on the second floor of the guesthouse and then moved to Mali’s patio across the street, right on the river.

It felt like our vacation was just then starting. Siem Reap had its ups and downs, but we came to explore Laos, and now we were just getting started.

After the sunrise, we packed up our things and then rushed downstairs to have one more amazing meal with Mali. This morning it was an omelet with fresh vegetables and mushrooms grown by Athalo and Mali themselves (“I come here to detox, I want to know what is going into the food I eat”), a fresh baguette, and local Laos coffee. Also, Mali brought out her personal stash of Nutella to share with us. So kind!

After breakfast, we filled up all of our water bottles from the water cooler in the kitchen. This wasn’t insignificant, because tap water isn’t always safe to drink, so filling up 5+ liters of water saved us from buying 5+ liters of water on the road.  This was yet another act of kindness from Mali (“Don’t thank me, thank your personality”).

And then, in the biggest, MOST AMAZING act of kindness yet, Mali and Athalo offered to drive us from their guesthouse to the main road on the mainland, saving us from the choice of either spending money and dealing with the hassle and delay of finding a boat to take us across the river or adding an additional 15k to what was already the longest ride of the trip.

We gratefully accepted, and at the end of the ride they gave us big hugs and watched us ride away, waving at us and smiling like they were our adopted parents.

Ok. Enough about Mali. We’re finally riding! This was supposed to be a bike tour after all!

Like I said, this was the biggest ride of the trip. We were hoping to ride 106k, or about 66 miles. That would have been nothing at the end of our last tour, but neither of us have been riding a lot lately.

The beginning of the day was just lovely. We lucked out and had a relatively cool day (in the mid seventies instead of the upper eighties), so we weren’t suffering too much… at least not from heat. We were facing a consistent headwind all day, but it was pretty gentle; it was nothing at all like those headwinds in eastern Montana.

The road (Route 13, the main/only north/south road in southern Laos) is in great condition, and traffic was incredibly light. We probably had to deal with more cows than cars in the road for the first 20k or so.

The countryside reminded us a lot of Zambia. There were fields and rice paddies, and a few fish ponds too. There were very few large trees, and large numbers of roadside shops all selling the same things.

  

We also saw an interesting mix of housing. Often more run down houses were side by side with newer, beautiful french colonial houses. The traditional style of house here is built on stilts, and often families were gathered in the shade underneath their houses, processing their crops and sometimes just hanging out.

    

Every time we passed a group of people they would smile and wave. Children would run after us, waving and yelling “sabaideeeee”, which means both hello and goodbye (noteworthy because the kids who chose to greet us in English often went with”goodbye,” and watching a kid run out to greet you yelling “goodbye, Goodbye, GOODBYE!!!” was pretty entertaining).

I love riding my bike through a new area!

After we rode about 40 miles, we decided to stop for lunch in a small town named Huay Keua. We pulled over at a restaurant looking place (although they also sold clothes and cut hair), and when the proprietor spoke to us in Lao, Dani greeted her and then mimed eating out of a bowl. The lady smiled broadly, and a few short minutes later we had a couple of big, steaming bowls of delicious chicken pho.

  

As we chowed down, the owner came out of the back with her toddler son, who had apparently just been given a bath by his grandmother. He was our entertainment for the rest of the meal. He was very interested in us, running up to touch us on the leg and then running away as if on a dare. He also tried to take a swig from a bottle he filled with rocks and spent a while playing with a stool and pushing it around the patio. Who needs toys when you have all these random objects to play with?

*****

After lunch, we had about 23 miles to get to our ferry across the Mekong, and like they always say, the last 23 miles are the hardest miles.

It was hotter, the road started going uphill, we were more tired, and traffic had picked up (although most drivers were incredibly considerate, at times following us at 10 mph for minutes until it was safe to pass). And our butts hurt.

So we rode slower, complained more, and took more breaks. But eventually we made it to our turn off to go down to Ban Muang, where we could catch our ferry. What sweet relief this side road was. No headwind, no traffic, and downhill to the Mekong.

We rode into town and straight past our turnoff, but some kind townies shouted at us and let us know where to go. We went down to the edge of the Mekong, where the people shocked us by telling us that the ferry crossing was 70,000 kip (~$9) each.

Or so we thought. Turns out the Lao word for twenty sounds a lot like the English word seventy. So the ride cost $2.50 each. Much better.

The ferry ride was an old rickety boat with the operator, us, our bikes, and one other passenger.

It only took us about 7 minutes to get across, and then, after pushing or bikes up the hill, we set off find our guesthouse. Turns out it was in the wrong location on the map we had, but a kind lady selling street food stopped me before I tried to enter what was–in retrospect–obviously a private residence.

A mile or so later, and 67.5 miles in total (kinda, that counts the ferry), we found our actual guesthouse, Khamphouy, where we paid $10 for a basic room that had everything we needed, but not much more.

We showered (hot showers was one of the things we decided we needed), and then headed out to find food before collapsing in bed around 9pm.

Tomorrow we explore Vat Phou, a thousand-year-old temple built at the base of a mountain just off the Mekong.

ps. Dani made a video! Check it out for a taste of our trip so far. It has a few clips from today. . . and from tomorrow – time travel!

SE Asia Day 2: Angkor Wat by bike

December 27th, 2016

Well, it turns out that jet lag is a real thing.

Danielle had heard that the way to avoid jet lag is to survive the first day and go to sleep at a normal time the first night. We did that (we went to bed at 9:45p), so I thought I was fine. But then I woke up at 2:45a clear eyed and wide awake.

So that was a bummer.

It wasn’t actually all that bad though, because our alarm was set for 4:45a; we were waking up early so we could watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

Many (most?) people pay someone to take them around the various temples, either in a tuk tuk or in a van, but we’re here on a bike tour, so we rode our bikes!

We were on our way by about 5a, and we joined the stream of traffic heading north out of Siem Reap. And I mean it was a stream. Lots and lots of people.

The ticket office for Angkor Wat used to be right off the main road, but apparently it was recently moved to a new location 3K east of said road. In a fit of logic and common sense, we decided to listen to the giant sign on the side of the road and not what we read on the internet. We (mostly I) don’t always make smart decisions, but we got this one right.

After the 6K detour to buy tickets, we rode the rest of the way up to Angkor Wat, arriving right as the sky was starting to lighten. We walked into the temple complex and found a place to stand among the hundreds of other people.

This paragraph might overstate things a bit. I think that sunrise at Angkor Wat used to be a peaceful, spiritual experience. It wasn’t very crowded (it became a national monument relatively recently; it was for quite some time just sitting, ignored, in the Cambodian countryside), and I can see how watching a sunrise here could be magical. I mean, there wasn’t even a spectacular multicolored sunrise on the day we were there, but the sillouette of the temple and palm trees against the rising sun was stunning.

But it is hard to find the magic in the midst of all of this:

It was still beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but I’m getting old and grumpy, and I don’t like being around this many people.

This was a theme for much of the day: too many stinking people. But here are a few pictures of Angkor Wat without people in them.

 

  

 

After exploring the Angkor Wat temple for a bit and choking down some horrid, overpriced egg sandwiches, we set off to the next big temple area: Angkor Thom. Here’s Dani about to enter the city (you can see the gates ahead) alongside an elephant.

Bayon Temple was originally built as a Buddhist temple, but was used by later kings to suit their own religious preferences. It is known for the many large, smiling faces looking out in all directions from the temple towers.


Baphoun might have been my favorite temple, and maybe that was because it was so much less crowded. It is currently being restored, but we were able to climb all the way up to the top and were rewarded with some amazing views.

  

After climbing back down, we walked through the woods to see a few other ruins, and then came upon the elephant terrace. This was where the great Khmer kings received important visitors to the capitol city.

Then we got back on our bikes and rode east. By this time, it was getting very hot, and since I hadn’t slept a lot the night before, I was starting to struggle.


We stopped on the way and has passion fruit smoothies and a fresh pineapple. I love passion fruit. Love it enough to occasionally spend $3 on one tiny little guy at our co-op. So you can imagine my delight at getting a large cup of essentially passion fruit juice blended with ice for fifty cents.


As we sipped this sweet nectar of the gods, we decided to go to one last temple before heading home: Ta Phrom of Tombraider fame (full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen Tombraider. But the temple is referred to as the Tombraider temple, so I guess it was a location in that movie).

This temple was REALLY cool but oh my goodness was it crowded. Walls of people being directed along tight temple corridors like cows headed to the slaughter. When we found a spare moment with a little breathing room, we were able to appreciate the awesomeness of an ancient temple being slowly taken over by nature, with silk-cotton and strangler-fig trees growing over the walls and around the buildings. But then the moment passed, and we were surrounded once again. (Although you’ll notice that Danielle did a fabulous job of finding ways to take pictures that made it look like were alone. Looking at these pictures, I’m starting to second guess my own memory.)

    
After Ta Phrom, we headed back toward our hotel. The ride could have been very pleasant, but the traffic was insane. Motorbikes, tuk tuk, vans, buses…. We were always being passed by something, and ended up spending almost the entire ride home sucking down exhaust fumes.

We made it back to the hotel around 1p and decided that we were done with the traffic, the noise, and the exhaust-and-burning-plastic smell of Siem Reap. So we spent the rest of our last day at the hotel. We swam, ate some delicious red curry by the pool for lunch, enjoyed some out of this world passion fruit smoothies (we each ended up having two and a half smoothies today; the ones at the hotel were so delicious!), took a little nap, prepared for our trip out of Cambodia, and went to bed early. It was a lovely, relaxing way to spend the second half of the day.

Next up: Laos!

We bought tickets!

Hi all!

It’s been almost a year since we finished our coast-to-coast tour. I can’t say that we woke up the next morning wanting to get back on our bikes, but at some point in the last year, we got the itch to get out and go exploring again.

And we’re happy to report that we bought our tickets for our next adventure!

Laos, here we come!  (Well not RIGHT now, but soon!)

We’re going to start here:

angkor_wat

(that’s in Cambodia, but we felt like we couldn’t go to Southeast Asia without visiting Angor Wat)

We’ll hop on a bus to the Laotian border, and explore here and there and over there:

mount-phou-asa-pakse

tad-fan-waterfalls

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tr-luang22031_2859706a-large

Then, because we’ll have earned it, we’re going to finish up with a few days here:

world___thailand_sandy_beach_in_the_resort_of_hua_hin__thailand_061796_

Here are the screen shots of the two legs we expect to bike, from the boarder to Savannakhet, and from Vientiane to Luang Prabang:

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 5.58.50 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-13 at 6.00.27 PM

We’re going to be doing this trip on our Bromptons, so we’ll keep everyone posted about the process of traveling with and touring on our folding bikes.

We hope those of you that enjoyed reading about our cross-country trip will follow along as we take on our first international bike tour. Stay tuned for planning posts, packing lists, and other updates! We’re so excited!