Cycling the Death Road, Bolivia

I should start by saying I’m not really a cycling and have never mountain biked before. I own a bike which gets used once in a blue moon in the summer but is currently unloved in the shed collecting spiders.

But since I was in Bolivia it seemed like a good idea to take up the chance to mountain bike the famous Death road. How hard can it be? Its all downhill after all.

If you’re a strong cyclist or experienced at mountain biking, the Yungas road, or Death road isn’t that hard at all. But if like me, you’re a bit shaky on anything with front suspension, its a bit hair raising!

The Yungas road or Death road as its otherwise called, runs from the top of the pass from La Paz at 4600m high down to Coroico at only 1,200m (the lowest I ever made it in Bolivia!)

The 64 km route actually starts at the top of the hill with a long section on the road. I was quite scared of flying over the handlebars with the power of the brakes so I avoided hurtling down the hill at lightning speed.

The top part of the route is actually very impressive, as you wind through the mountains, and despite being on the main road its not too busy that you feel threatened by traffic.

Looking back up the valley you can just make out the route of the road.

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We jumped in the support van to avoid an uphill section before we reached the famous Death Road. While it is still used by some vehicles, a new road was built in 2006 which diverts most of the traffic and provides a quicker and safer route between La Paz and Coroico. This makes the Death Road perfect for mountain bikers as very few vehicles now use the route.

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As you can see I was hardly hurtling down the hill as I entered Coroico!

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After a beer at the bottom of the road we drove to La Sena Verde, an animal sanctuary providing rehabilitation and release for monkeys from the pet trade.

Its a great place to stop for lunch before the long drive back to La Paz.

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The trouble with peak bagging…. part 1

Peak bagging is great. It gets me to places I wouldn’t ordinarily visit – sometimes away from the crowds of the popular mountains. That’s not to say I only climb mountains once – but peak bagging is a great way to quickly think of somewhere to go when I have the urge to be somewhere new.

However, peak bagging has frequently found me in vast expanses of moorland staring at a plateau trying to identify the summit. Or wandering through peat bogs with wet feet and wondering why I’m there and not at the seaside. Or on a proper mountain.

Having ‘bagged’ the Berwyns the day before, that left me with the plan to get the range of summits between there and the Arans. But I woke to cloud and a lack of motivation to head over miles of moors for the sake of it. So plan B.

Having never visited Lake Vyrnwy and spotting a visitors centre on the map it seemed like a good excuse to not bog trot.

Lake Vyrnwy and the surrounding landscape is a Special Conservation Area, part managed by the RSPB and is therefore a good place for bird watching – I’d certainly seen Red Kites around the Berywns. You can also hire a bike, which is exactly what I did.

Created in 1880 the Lake is actually a reservoir built to take water to Liverpool. It only takes an hour or so to cycle around the Lake but is a great way to see the area, and the roads are very quiet with traffic.

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Calder Valley Greenway – Huddersfield to Sowerby Bridge

Despite the grey skies I headed out on my trusty/rusty bike on Sunday. Having cycled the Huddersfield Narrow Canal a few times I decided in the drizzle it would be quicker and nicer to stick to the A62, so I made good time into Huddersfield as I bombed down the main road.

Knowing full well I was going to have to cycle around the backstreets of Huddersfield anyway as the Narrow Canal disappears around the university at street level, I decided against jumping on the Broad Canal and opted for the A62 right out of town, until I got near to Deighton train station, where I then joined the canal to cycle to Cooper Bridge. (Following the green line that follows the canal on Sustrans map below.) I’d not previously cycled this section of the canal network so I wanted to check it out.

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The route is a bit rough but otherwise a nice alternative to the main A62 road, which at this point can start to get a bit congested with traffic, even on Sunday morning it isn’t much fun. The Huddersfield Broad Canal along the section from Deighton to Cooper Bridge is a great and quiet alternative; bumpy to cycle and the path is narrow in places, but it looks like the towpath is undergoing improvements.

IMG_3397 IMG_3404Once you reach this final lock you join back with the A62 and are faced with 2 choices in order to get to Brighouse and onto Sowerby Bridge (my intended destination) on the Calder Valley Greenway – 1) the A644 which takes you direct to Brighouse but across Junction 25 of the M62 (no thank you!) or to continue along the Canal, following the Calder Hebble Navigation. No contest in my opinion, traffic free canal wins hands down. Or so I thought.

I quickly realised why this section isn’t marked as a cycle route on Sustrans website.

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To start with the route is a nice amble along a rough road across fields away from the canal, that is until you reach the road end at Brearley Bridge. Here your first challenge is to get onto the canal. With a bike this involves wheeling across the adjacent muddy field – the lovely steps next to the bridge for access to the towpath are no good for getting a bike down.

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From here the towpath slowly disintegrates into what I could only describe as a quagmire. Had it been raining heavily I would have struggled to make it at all on a bike. I’m a bit disappointed with myself for not stopping and taking a picture of how horrendous the route becomes as it gets closer to and goes under the M62.

Frankly it was so muddy that despite a tow path nearly 2 metres wide I was hugging the tree line to stay out of the super deep sections – its beyond ruts and puddles. Even peddling slowly with feet out I nearly slid off a few times in the stretch of mud 1 foot deep that lasted for about half a mile. I needed a mountain bike to make it through.

I was surprised to see two dog walkers out, as even for walkers this section of towpath isn’t much fun. Which is a massive shame as its the only alternative to dicing with death at the M62 roundabout and is actually a pleasant section of canal. I’ve read somewhere that this is in a section of planned improvements to ensure a connected cycleway in the region – so fingers crossed!

Here’s a snap from the Pennine Waterways website of this section taken from the water.

Thankfully, as you near Brighouse its easy to hop on to the road to cycle into town and then pick up the very lovely tarmac Calder Valley Greenway which takes you into Sowerby Bridge.

The Greenway along this stretch of the Calder Hebble Navigation is fantastic as its mostly off the roads and very well surfaced. But in between dodging the hoard of Sunday morning dog walkers and peddling fast to get to Sowerby Bridge before I was totally soaked and starved, I didn’t take photos. I was pleased to have got there in 2 hours despite the slower speed along the muddy section.

Had it not been raining hard as I got into Sowerby I might have cycled on to Hebden Bridge, but it was lunchtime so food was calling.

Battambang – temples and markets or guns and grenades

Having spent an amazing week in Siem Reap it was sad to leave the friendly buzz of the town behind and head off towards Battambang. The 3 hour drive took us past mile after mile of rice fields, making it clear why this part of Cambodia is the main area for rice production in the country.

It was also clear that local ‘delicacies’ were going to be more common; we stopped by the roadside to buy bamboo-sticky rice and also found these dishes. Being a vegetarian provided a great excuse to avoid trying them!

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Before we arrived in Battambang we visited Wat Banan temple. To reach the temple you have to climb 300 or so steps up the hillside. Arriving at the height of the midday sunshine it was a slow walk.

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Wat Banan is still used as a Buddhist temple but I did feel a bit disappointed as the quiet temple is quite dilapidated.

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We then headed to Wat Sampeau, a beautiful golden modern temple on the top of Phnom Sampeau – a limestone mountain which is considered sacred by Buddhists locally. Being the only high point in the vast plains of rice fields there are fantastic views and really cute Macac monkeys. The beauty of the temple, with its mixed history of Cambodian and Chinese Buddhism, hides the horrific past during the Khmer Rouge where the hillside’s caves were used as ‘killing caves’.

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When we finally arrived in Battambang it seemed less of a cosmopolitan town than Siem Reap, and the Khamara hotel reminded me of Soviet buildings, in its style and imposing size. It didn’t help that it had eight huge, shiny and expensive Range Rovers parked outside, and this sign on the back of my bathroom door only added to the feeling that I was staying in a border town frequented by Thai drug barons.

10676192_10152951478598854_5109201430362321258_n IMG_1933My impression changed the following day, when we cycled through the town centre, along the river with its old French colonial buildings and then on the back roads of town passed small markets and homes. (The oranges – or greens! – were amazingly sweet).

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We arrived at the oldest home in the town to see traditional Khmer architecture. The house we visited was 90 years old and had been owned by the same family since it was built. However, its history was incredibly sad, and I found it hard not to cry as the old lady told us her tale with tears in her eyes and her niece translated.

During the Khmer Rouge  all homes were taken by the regime and this one was used as a communal kitchen. The old lady’s children left for Phnom Penh with her husband and she fled with other family members to the countryside. After the war she was able to get her home back and her husband returned but without the children; she waited for years for them to come home. Eventually her husband left her to start a new family with her friend.

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As I cycled on, thinking about the horrors of the past that people have had to live through, we arrived at the fish market where the overwhelming smell brought me to the present.

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As a vegetarian I was immensely grateful for not having to worry about hygiene in the market. Though I have to concede there is very little waste in the process; the leftovers are left to ferment in large barrels to make the famous Khmer fish paste that is added to curries. I can’t describe the smell, only to say that even now just thinking about it I can smell the overwhelming stench. A word of caution that despite it being easy to eat in Cambodia as a vegetarian, you need to check curries don’t have the fish paste still added to them.

Thankfully, the final stop on the bicycles was a small home where we saw a lady making rice paper.

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Cycling and Kayaking Tonle Sap

Yet another scorching hot morning to cycle out of Siem Reap and traffic dodge – this time heading 18km away to Tonle Sap Lake for a day of kayaking and seeing the floating villages. If the cycling in the crazy traffic hadn’t been daunting enough my kayaking skills were non-existent so the day was always going to be an interesting one.

Heading south out of Siem Reap we took highway 6. I tried to get a photo as it was actually fun and surreal to be on a mountain bike cycling up a 6 lane highway out of town but I was also trying to concentrate on not hitting anyone – or anything – so its a bit wonky. The traffic system is confusing to say the least; there is a dual carriage way in the centre apparently for faster vehicles, with two lanes either side of it intended for slower vehicles travelling both directions. The rules are quite flexible I discovered when we pulled out on to the centre dual carriageway alongside a wagon.

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Eventually we turned off and headed South taking a more typical red dusty road out of town towards the lake. It soon became apparent why we had mountain bikes as the roads are uneven and stony; this is one of the better ones.

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As we headed down through the rice fields down past farms and homes, the heat and taste of dust became more overwhelming, but at least the smells of car exhaust and waste rotting by the side of the street had been replaced with the aroma of spices and fresh air.

The route to Tonle Sap Lake takes you past mile after mile of rice fields and cattle grazing; past small markets and homes, with children waving and shouting hello as their parent cook and clean, and dogs are sleeping or scratching fleas by the side of the road. Best of all there is little traffic so the cycling is great, allowing us to stop to take photos.

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Arriving at a small village at the edge of Tonle Sap lake we left our bikes and headed out on the lake on a small boat, towards Mechrey, a small floating village, out in the lake. Its much smaller than the popular Chong Khneas, but our guide favoured this village for it not being over developed or commercial and much cleaner.

Tonle Sap Lake is a fascinating place. The lake is unmissable on the map of Cambodia and is the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Our guide explained that it also has a unique phenomenon as during the wet season the heavy monsoon rains flowing down the Mekong River near Phnom Penh forces the flow from the Tonle Sap river to change direction and to flow back into the lake, increasing its size from 2,500km2 to 12,000km2. This creates important habitats for both birds, mammals and fish around the mangrove forests, making it a UNESCO biosphere.

Once we arrived at Mechrey Village we swapped the power boat for kayaks and headed out around the mangroves.

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Paddling around the village felt a bit voyeuristic, watching people go about their daily lives, but it was interesting to see the village and how people live and was certainly an antidote to temples. Children laugh and play in the water and families cook and clean, all waving at us as we passed. I really recommend you get out on to the Lake and visit one of the smaller floating villages to see a different way of life in the Cambodian countryside, not yet spoilt by tourism.

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Once back on dry land we cycled back via the back roads and lanes, to Wat Athvea temple just on the outskirts of town.

The cycling in the afternoon heat was scorching and incredibly dusty. Despite its lack of carvings and half finished apsaras, Wat Athvea temple is still worth seeing due to its distance from the Angkor site it is almost unvisited by tourists. However, this does mean it lacks the maintenance and restoration that Angkor has benefited from.

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Cycling Angkor’s Temples

Having spent a few days wandering around Siem Reap and dodging the traffic, I have to admit I was a bit wary about the idea of jumping on a bicycle to head around the Angkor temple complex. In the end it was the best way of travelling; weaving through the traffic, learning to adopt a ‘blinker approach’ and just riding and letting the traffic go around me. Its loads of fun when you get over the initial fear of being run over by a tuk tuk or a huge truck.

The UNESCO protected Angkor site stretches over 400 km2 in total and reflect the different capitals of the Khmer Empire during the 9th to 15th Century and is one of the finest archaeological sites in South East Asia. However the chances are you’re probably going to head for the main temples of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its fantastic sculptural decorations.

The traffic significantly reduced as we passed through the checkpoint and onwards around the outside of Angkor Wat. We purchased a 3-day temple pass for $40 allowing us time to properly visit the temples and not rush around too much. I highly recommend this as the temples are too extensive, varied and vast to be able to see the best in one day.

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We started our tour of the temples for the day at Angkor Wat’s west entrance. Created in the 12th Century by Suryavarman II it is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Heading across the causeway over the moat we passed the huge ‘Nagas’, or guardian snakes on the end of the balustrades on the causeway. Wherever you see nagas in Cambodia they will always face east-west representing the passage of day into night and life into death.

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Crossing the causeway it was already busy with other tourists, but thankfully not too crowded and once inside the main complex we finally got a sense of the vastness of the site. Inside the entrance to the temple is a statue of Vishnu.

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As we continued through the west entrance the path continued to the inner temple which is guarded by huge lions.

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Make sure you see the amazing array of carvings of the Asparas, the mythical dancers.DSCF7174

The temple is still a religious site, now used for Buddhism since it became the main religion in the 14th Century, but you will find it happily co-exists with Hinduism in many of the historic temples. So if you with to ascend the steep staircase to very highest of the three upper levels in the centre of the temple, consider that you will have to be respectfully dressed.

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We left the temple by the East entrance which is considerably quieter and gives a sense of how the temple might have been prior to extensive archaeological work and tourism developed.

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From here we headed to Kabal Spean, which is on the Kulen hills just outside of the main Angkor site. It was a 20 minute walk through the woodland to the hill top river site where we could see the site of the 1000 carvings of lingas, or phallic symbols of the Hindu god Shiva, in the river and the square female symbols which all point north in order to provide luck.

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Last stop of the day was possibly the best temple in my opinion and one I definitely recommend you make time to visit; Banteay Srei. Its not a sprawling temple as it wasn’t built by a monarch and as it is a bit off the beaten track it is also much quieter. However, it is the most outstanding for its Hindu carvings, which are extensive, deep and intricate.

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We finished the day seeing the sunset at Pre Rup temple, which was nice but after the amazing carvings at Banteay Srei it was less impressive but a nice spot for sunset.DSCF7312 DSCF7318

It was fantastic to stop at Bayon temple on the way back to town and see it at sunset, particularly as Japanese archaeologists had lit part of the temple to work, which created an amazing atmosphere. However, it was also disappointing to have to rush and not see this majestic temple in the day time, knowing we wouldn’t have time to return again. Bayon temple, in the centre of Angkor Thom, is the only temple to be primarily constructed for Buddhism and its 216 carved faces represent Jayavarman VII who constructed the temple but also representing the Buddhist bodhisattva or enlightened one.

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Sunshine cycling around Lough Furnace

We’d intended to pick up the bikes in Newport for our day’s cycling, but we’d left it too late to book them. In autumn the bike shop in Newport isn’t open all day, just first thing in the morning or for repairs at request during the day. This meant having to get them in Westport and cycle back along the Greenway (and back).

I wasn’t really put off by the additional distance (22km for the round trip), but I’m not one for doing something more than once so having done the full Greenway two days before I wasn’t that thrilled by the idea of doing part of it again. There’s so many other things to do! Its finally sunny outside we could go hiking!

I was in the minority, so we headed out cycling, and to be fair it was a great day to be out on bikes again.

So here’s some views of the Greenway from Westport to Newport which I didn’t take a few days earlier due to dusk setting in and the race back to Westport being a priority. I even managed to get a clear summit picture of Croagh Patrick!

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Once on the other side of Newport we took a small country lane to cycle around Lough Furnace. The route is ideal for cycling as there is very little traffic and beautiful views over the lake and over the Nephin Mountains in the distance, and back to Croagh Patrick.

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Once back on the Greenway we cycled into Newport for food and a coffee before heading back to Westport. We guestimated that the whole route is about 30-35km.

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