To spend your life living in fear, never exploring your dreams, is cruel.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Melbourne 2012 Runs

I've done a couple of runs in the last month or so. The first was the 21km Melbourne half marathon, part of the Melbourne running festival. The second was the 14km city-to-sea, which is the Melbourne version of the more famous city-to-surf run in Sydney. The half marathon started outside the MCG, headed South for a loop around Albert Park, and returned North again to finish inside the MCG. The city-to-sea started just South of Flinders Street station, taking a similar route, but headed West to the coast at St Kilda following the Albert Park loop. Both runs were fairly flat with no hills to speak of, and unusually for Melbourne, the weather was perfect.

Both days started with a taxi ride to the city, due to the complete lack of public transport early on a Sunday. I didn't train as well I should've, but went out fairly hard in the half marathon, basically just holding out until the end. I was still way off two hours, finishing in 2:05:55. I took the city-to-sea a bit easier, finishing the 14km run in 1:22:55. Unfortunately I haven't got around to doing much running since then, but I hope to get back to it following my not so well deserved vacation in Vietnam.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Day 4/4: Mae Hong Son Loop, Thailand

Salty toothpaste. Toothpaste with salt in it. I may not have been keeping up with toothpaste technology, but the tube I bought has added salt. And it tastes salty too. Is this normal? I prefer minty freshness myself. Anyhow, I got up early for once and had brekkie by the river, as I anticipated a long day of riding. It was long, and it was great.

The road to the town of Hot (seriously) back over the mountains must lie in a natural trough as the gradients were nowhere near as severe as on the way out, so progress was fast. My thin fleece was insufficient for the morning chill though, so I took a promising 10 km side road down to Mae Unlong Luang hot spring, which of course got progressively worse and ended up as a dirt track populated by cows. The spring was a small local village-like resort; I decided against a dip and instead shared a hill tribe style cigar with a couple of local villagers.

Back on the road to Hot I went, but I never made it to the oddly named town. I was feeling adventurous so I planned a longer detour inside the main loop and back into the mountains on smaller roads; North to Mae Chaem and then East to Chom Thong, bypassing Hot. After lunch and much needed fuel at Mae Chaem, I had only one aim - to attempt to take my little bike to 2565.33 meters above sea-level, the highest point in Thailand.

The first half of the narrow road from Mae Chaem to Chom Thong climbs. And then it climbs some more. And after about 20 kms of steep climbing and when a cold chill hits the air, you reach the turn-off for the wide, well maintained, but very steep road to Doi Inthanon, the highest point in the country. The road is well maintained as it takes the traffic of tourists coming from Chiang Mai via Chom Thong. I couldn't resist taking it - another 10 kms of steep climbing, some of which had to be made slowly in first gear. But amazingly, with the help of the Dream, I made it.

The summit of Doi Inthanon has the usual souvenier stuff and some kind of astronomical station that is closed to the public. The better views are to be had a bit further down, but with the mist today they weren't in their full glory. There were one or two Western tourists, but the main visitors were local Thais. With the peak achieved, I rode back on the crazy descent to the warmer climate of Chom Thong. From there it was another 90 kms or so on the fast motorway, completing the loop back at Chiang Mai just before the bike hire shop closed for the night.

The Mae Hong Son Loop a well-known route for motorcyclists. Which isn't surprising, as it's incredible on any bike. Nearly 700 kms, about 600 of which are gorgeous twisting scenic roads. The towns are great from a tourist's perspective, and the roads are great from a motorcycling perspective. The opportunities for detours inside the loop are numerous. I did the loop in four days, riding only in the mornings for all but the last. So you can easily do it in three, but with relaxing towns to visit, fried insects to eat, and hill tribe villagers to smoke with: why would you?

Riding Distance: 300 kms
Total Distance: 140 + 120 + 190 + 300 = 750 kms

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Day 3/4 Mae Hong Son Loop, Thailand

Fortunately, the 180 kms or so to Mae Sariang was certainly not straight. The North to South road was in the foothills of the mountain range, and much fun was to be had on the numerous sweeping turns. It was faster progress than before, with the road fairly open and wide, and in excellent condition: surprising given the extremes of temperature and the almost complete lack of traffic now that the tourists had disappeared.

At about the half-way point is the relatively large town Khun Yuam, which is a good place to stay overnight if need be. I stopped off there to look at the small museum about the retreat of the Japenese through Khun Yam on their way to Burma in WWII. Most of the exhibits were donated by the local residents, but the lack of signage meant that the museum seemed to be more for cataloguing and preservation than for display.

You know that you're off the tourist trail when you don't see any foreigners, internet cafes are hard to come by, and the little Thai kids point at you and scream 'farang'. And so it is with Mae Sariang, which lies just off the main road. I know this because I initially went straight past it. After the necessary U-turn, I checked in the the Garden Resort Hotel, which is not a resort and has no garden. Oh well.

Ride Distance: 190 kms

Friday, January 14, 2011

Day 2/4: Mae Hong Son Loop, Thailand

My little bike is old; 50000 kms on the clock and unlike the modern versions it has no electric starter. I've decided that kick starters and me don't mix. Even ones designed for use by Thai schoolgirls. My ability with a kick start is far less than a Thai schoolgirl, but I eventually got going towards Mae Hong Son City, the remote provincial capital.

The 110 kilometre trip from Pai to Mae Hong Son City is wonderful. It's like doing a stage of the Tour De France with an engine. Two big climbs and descents across a couple of mountain ridges and the stunning scenery are the highlights. The Honda Dream just about managed to chug up the steep gradients. It is twisty, but not quite as twisty as the road to Pai, with more sweepers and less hairpins. And the best thing is that the tourists tend to stop at Pai, so the marauding minibuses of yesterday are no longer an issue. At the top of one of the ascents was a tour group of sensibly geared up riders on their dual-sports, and a New Zealand rider with a nearly new fuel injected Honda Wave 125cc with a front disk brake. I was jealous.

Top tip: if you see a temporary road sign in the Thai language, assume roadworks are ahead and slow right down. I didn't, and hit some large bumps at a speed that made my backside lift of the seat several times. But I stayed upright and no damage to the Dream, so all was well. A fairly uneventful ride otherwise, just the usual Thai stuff: dogs on the road, bundles of hay scattered across a sharp bend, crazy overtaking drivers etc.

I checked into the inaptly named Panorama Hotel at lunch and had a wander around. Mae Hong Son City is actually quite pretty away from the main road, with a picturesque lake (pictured above) to the East. Just to prove how remote it is, it has ... wait for it ... only one 7Eleven! Amazing. This area is close to the Burmese border, and so the inhabitants are mainly Shan. Mae Hong Son City is like a Burmese town but without the widespread poverty.

I met up agian with the New Zealand rider and went to visit a local Thai fair, which lasts for 10 days as a celebration of something or other. We watched some Thai boxing, shot some pellets, threw balls at cans, but ultimately failed to win a large cuddly toy. Against better judgement, we then ate some fried insects washed down with beer. The large crickets were the worst, but they all tasted basically the same to my palette: they were all disgusting.

Tomorrow I'll head well off the tourist trail, South to Mae Sariang. The road appears to run along the plains to the West of the mountain range (Tanen Taunggyi) that I traversed today, so it should be faster riding. We shall see.

Ride Distance: 120 kms

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Day 1/4: Mae Hong Son Loop, Thailand

Chiang Mai is effectively Thailand's capital of the North. I've been here once before when I travelled to Chang Rai and The Golden Triangle to the East. Now I'm going to explore the mountainous region of the extreme North West by doing the Mae Hong Son loop, which is the best known bike ride in South-East Asia. And I'm doing it as the locals might: on a little bike.

Small bikes common in Thailand (100-125cc) are easy to hire in Chiang Mai at around B200 per day. There are a few places that also hire so-called 'big bikes', mid-sized bikes such as a CB400 or ER6, for around B1000 per day. Such bikes are not common in Thailand and if you see one, the chances are a tourist or expat is riding it. Small cruisers (Honda Phantoms) are also popular for around the same price. If you want some protective gear other than a helmet, throw in a fixed fee of about B1000 for hire.

Possibly due me to being cheap, or maybe due to a warped sense of adventure, I hired the ubiquitous 125cc Honda Dream (almost identical to the Honda Wave, also know as the Honda Innova in Europe). After signing a contract stating that I was to be stoned to death if I dropped it, and then handing my passport over to some well-dodgy expat for supposedly safe keeping, I was away.

The 125cc Honda Dream/Wave has four gears in a N-1-2-3-4 pattern, clicking down to go up a gear and clicking up to go down. Which takes some getting used to. It's a semi-automatic so there is no clutch lever. First gear is for steep hills only. For riding around town, stick it in second and forget about it; use all your concentration for the crazy traffic. Third and forth come into play on the faster roads between towns. You can cruise comfortably at about 80 or 90 km/h. To reach 110 km/h you'll need a steep downhill and a tail wind. But as the drum brakes take ages to stop the thing, you probably don't want to be going that fast anyway.

I've ridden in Thailand before, and it pays to be cautious. The center line of the road appears to be treated with contempt by some drivers, so best not to get right up close to it. Also beware of animals on the road, especially stray dogs; it's a serious hazard, and there might always be one around the corner. Riding in dark is best avoided; I got caught out in Southern Laos once and nearly crashed into a cow. With my boundaries set, I headed off on the notoriously winding and hilly road to Pai.

Pai is known for being a great place in the mountains for young backpackers to chillax. The same backpackers are known for throwing up the contents of their latest meal in the minibus on its way to Pai. The last two thirds of the road to Pai is indeed very twisty and fairly hilly (762 turns in 136 kms according to the t-shirts). In other words, it is great fun, even on my little Honda Dream. After stopping off at the Mork-Fa Waterfall in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park (a steep 2km side road leads to it) and sampling the culinary delights of several Thai roadside stalls, I was almost at Pai by lunchtime.

Two main tourist sites are just before Pai. The memorial bridge is a wooden bridge that local workers were forced to build by the Japanese army in WWII. It isn't the original, but like the bridge over the river kwai in Kan, it stands as a testament to the history of the event rather than as a direct artifact from it. The second is the Tha Pai hotspring. It's very natural and basic; just the park with the outdoor spring. Thai visitors were boiling eggs in the hottest pools using a bag attached to the end of a bamboo stick. I stripped to my not-so-hotpants and sweltered for an hour or so, relaxed and apparently healthier for the final few clicks to Pai.

I can see why Pai is popular; a large part of the center is closed to cars (but not bikes) giving it a relaxed pedestrian feel. It is touristy, but not in-your-face touristy like some other towns. This area of Thailand is the Mae Hong Son Province, and tomorrow I'll be heading to its capital.

Riding Distance: 140 kms

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Chocolate Mill

A group ride for me today, with a run up to the Chocolate Mill just north of Daylesford. The chocolate mill is a shop that makes its own chocolate on site, and as a result it is so much nicer than the horrible chocolate you typically get in Australia. As a motorbiking destination rides to the mill usually go well since it's an enjoyable ride with no particularly dangerous roads. This one was no exception.

The basic route took us to Woodend via Whittlesea, Wallan and some roads around Mt Macedon. Then to the Chocolate Mill, stopping off to see Trentham Falls (pictured), with an unusually high volume of water given the recent rains and flooding in the region. Then back to Melbourne on the Western Freeway, but not before enjoying part of the well-known biking route between Kyneton and Mymiong.

Something I must focus on is not looking at unusual hazards. A bike goes where you look, so looking at hazards is a bad thing. In the first leg of the ride another rider ran wide ahead of me and as you can see from the video I left it unnecessarily late to countersteer around him. The video was taken from a new helmet mounted camera. Click here for some edited footage of the ride.

Riding Distance: 360 kms

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Red Chapel

I watched my last film at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) on Thursday: The Red Chapel. It's a documentary about North Korea - the Danish director and two Danish comedians born in South Korea (presumably without South Korean passports) visit the country on the pretext of doing a comedic theatrical performance. The film won Best Foreign Documentary at Sundance, and there was a full house of about 300 (mainly Australian) people to see it.

The monuments and places visited didn't interest me so much; I have been to North Korea and everyone who goes there, whether tourist, journalist or diplomat, sees the same things. What was great about the film was that the younger comedian Jacob showed so perfectly the contrast of emotion in any North Korean visit. Your North Korean hosts are so unbelievably kind and generous to you, it is hard to remind yourself of what actually goes on there, and even harder to bring it up in conversation.

There was a great moment at the end where the director gets Jacob, who has cerebral palsy, to ask his female host why he hasn't seen any other disabled people in Pyongyang. But before she thinks of an answer, Jacob rescues her by saying that he should meet some on his 'next visit'. I know exactly that feeling. It was very difficult for me to ask the hard questions, particularly when you are being filmed all the time (as all tourists are) and when there is a more senior onlooker in attendance. There is no danger to you, but the consequences for your host is one of the many unknowns.

There was nothing of interest to me at MIFF on its final weekend, so instead I took a cycle ride from the hills of Belgrave, on the Eastern end of the metropolitan train line, South West to the beach at Carrum. The first section of the ride links Belgrave to the pretty Lysterfield Lake area via some rather muddy tracks through Birds Land Reserve. It was heavier going than I expected, and at one brief point I had to get off the bike a walk it through the mud. A commuting bike was not the ideal piece of equipment for this section of the ride. Rough tracks comprised the remainder of the route from Monbulk Retarding Basin to Lysterfield Lake. Around Lysterfield Lake is the State Mountain Bike Course; a large network of mountain bike trails that were built a few years ago for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. The local cafe doubles as a bike shop where you can rent or buy mountain bikes, some with price tags of over 6,000 AUD.

It's a faster run from now onwards, cycling through some country roads and linking up with the asphalt bicycle track alongside the Monash Freeway. On this section, just South of Lysterfield Lake is Yun Yang Temple: a large Chinese temple complex (pictured below) which was well worth a look around. The residential roads of Wattle Drive and Box Street allow you to link up with the Dandenong Creek Trail and from there is the direct run, mainly on wide bicycle tracks, to Carrum. The Dandenong to Carrum run is a well known route for Melbourne cyclists; a good fast route away from traffic, and a nice energetic way to end a ride. After a quick stroll on the beach, a coffee was the order of the day before catching the train home.

Cycling Distance: 48 kms