I've got a broken wheel. It must be Christmas time.
Yep, bang on 365 days ago, not counting time zone differences or this year's forthcoming leap-second (not sure that would have any retrospective effect, particularly since it hasn't happened yet), my rear wheel broke in the outskirts of the lovely Hunanese town of LiLing in central China. It was snowing.
This year, the Christmas wheelcurse has struck in Chiang Mai, up in the tourist-infested badlands of northern Thailand. But a Canadian bloke called Tom has sold me, at a vast price, a new set of rotational translocation devices, and it isn't snowing, so I don't really have too much to complain about.
Those of you who spend your days jabbing at your "Check Mail" button, waiting for news from The Man Who Cycled Half Way Around The World, Didn't Much Like What He Found, So Turned Around And Headed BackAgain, will have had a pretty quiet couple of months, and for that I apologise.
I will try to make amends below.
Last time I wrote (here), it was to say that I was stuck in a town whose name I now forget, unable to find my hotel, or for that matter, my bicycle.
Since then, much has happened.
First, I found the hotel, and the bicycle, using a sophisticated hotel-and-bicycle-finding technique, details of which I will send youfor only $59.99 including postage and packing.
Second, I went to Vietnam, but I can't tell you much about what happened there because it's all in my old diary which I have just sent home. I do remember having a hard time finding my way around, though,because the only map I had was (a) in Chinese, and (b) wrong.
When cycling in China, I can gabble in toddler-Chinese, at a level which might not get me a job interpreting at the United Nations, butis just about good enough to buy a loaf of bread. If only you could get bread in China.
But across the border in Vietnam, I was utterly helpless. Lacking a phrasebook of any kind, all I had was the word for 'hello', which I had taken the precaution of looking up on the internet before I arrived.
This was a problem. What kind of 'ch' is that?
A soft one as in "Chinese"? But that would make it sound like anItalian 'ciao', and it seemed unlikely that the Vietnamese and the Italians would use the same greeting, even though they both come from long, thin countries.
A hard one as in "loch"? But that would make it 'kau'. Too bovine.
You can't go about cheerily saying something that might or might not mean 'hello' to everyone you meet. Both variants earned me nothing but blank looks, in any case, so I resorted to a kind of mumbled sneeze (try it), which worked much better.
Of course, when language fails, we always have mime to fall back on.
Note to travellers visiting restaurants in Vietnam: attempts to order meat by means of audio-visual representations of the animal inquestion are generally not successful.
Leaping around, squawking, mooing, waggling your fingers for horns, flapping your wings, all these are met with bemused astonishment or, on a good day, astonished bemusement; go in and imitate a dog and people will think you are barking mad.
Try to convey your vegetarian status by performing a number of these tricks, followed by waving of the hands, shaking of the head, and a frown, and you will leave the chef with, at best, the notion of: "I am not a hippopotamus".
Just when I had got to grips with counting from one to ten inVietnamese (which is frankly not a lot of use in a country where 100 dongs won't even buy you a peanut), it was time to be in Laos.
Laos has rubber borders; I kept bouncing off them. The first time I tried to get in, I cycled a very long way up a very steep hill to the crossing-point, only to be turned back because Foreigners Aren't Allowed.
Three days later I tried again at another checkpoint, at the end of an even longer and steeper mountain road, and this time Foreigners Are Allowed, But Only If They Have A Visa In Advance.
But the Lao National Tourism Administration says clearly on its website that visas are issued at the border, I squeaked.
The Lao National Tourism Administration is wrong, they apologised. You will have to go to Hanoi to get a visa.
But my Vietnamese visa expires today, I protested.
OK, now here are two sets of adjectives:
A. Corrupt, mean, unpleasant, grasping, petty, thieving, officious.
B. Helpful, courteous, understanding, upright, honest.
Question: Which set, A or B, would you normally associate with customsand immigration officials at remote border crossings in poor countries (and in England, for that matter)?
What better candidate for a shake-down than a foreigner on a bicycle with an about-to-expire visa?
I would like to put it on the record that the officials on theVietnamese side of the border at Na Meo fall squarely into category B.
"Don't worry about that," they said. "Go to Hanoi and get your visafor Laos, and come back here as soon as you can. We will overlook the matter of your expired visa. And you can leave your bicycle here with us, if you like."
And so I parked my dear beloved bicycle in the little bamboo and rattan hut that is the Office of the Customs Officer at Nameo Border Checkpoint, and went to Hanoi.
And the bicycle was still there when I got back three days later. But I arrived late, and the border had closed down for the day. I had to stay the night in the nice little guest-house down the road.
As I lay in bed writing my diary in the nice little guest-house down the road, a large mouse (or it may have been a small rat, but let's not split hares, it's not worth rabbiting on about in any case)dropped from the ceiling and landed, with a medium-sized thud, fourand a half inches from my head.
I had often wondered what I would do if a large mouse or small rat were to fall unexpectedly from the ceiling and land within, say, 6 inches from my head, and fondly imagined that I would do some thing very brave and masculine like, for example, grunt "Ugh" in a gravelly baritone, pick the creature up by the tail and eat it.
In the heat of the moment, though, this was not what happened.
Ladies and gentlemen, I screamed. Like a woman.
"Yaaaeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah," I said, only louder.
The next day, I went to Laos, where I very nearly tripped over an unexploded bomb. I had walked down to a river for a wash, and there onthe riverbank, half submerged in the mud, was a rocket-propelled grenade.
I said "Ugh" in a gravelly baritone, picked it up by the tail and ate it.
Further down the road, I was looking for a place to stop for the night. As dusk turned to darkness, I followed a track off to the left,and thought I had found a peaceful camp-spot when I heard, and then saw, three very loud motorbikes with very bright headlights coming down the track towards me. On each of the motorbikes was a man with anAK-47 assault rifle slung across his chest.
Kamikaze mouse eat your heart out. This was scary. I repressed a strong urge to say "Yaaaeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah"; somewhere in a travellers' handbook I had read that when confronted by a gang of armed men, it is best to cooperate, and not to say "yaaaeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaah" unless strictly necessary because in some cultures it is a provocation to shoot.
"Follow us," gestured Man With Kalashnikov #1.
I didn't feel particularly comfortable about the idea, but then saying"I'm frightfully sorry old chap but it is rather late in the day, could it wait until tomorrow?" didn't really seem an option.
I followed them.
Shall I leave you on a cliff-hanger?
Yes, perhaps I will.
Meanwhile, Happy Christmas to you all. Thank you for all your messages over the past month or two. Keep them coming - they keep me going.
Oh, and if you have any pennies left over after all the fun and festivities, please consider making a sponsorship-donation to FORCECancer Charity at http://www.justgiving.com/2wheels4force
or to Sustrans at http://www.justgiving.com/wheels2
All donations go 100% to the charities, not to my banana-porridge slush-fund.
Thanks for reading.
And many thanks, as always, to my sponsors:
* Decathlon China www.decathlon.com.cn
* Drennan Co., Ltd., Shanghai www.drennanco.com
* Eclipse Internet www.eclipse.net.uk
* P&O Ferries www.poferries.com
And especially this month to Carl Wackan at UK Production Services Ltd for his much-appreciated Christmas Care Package - see