As we exuberantly freewheel down the mountain we've spent the last two days climbing, we spot a cyclist on the other side of the road, huffing and puffing his way up in the opposite direction. As always, we stop to chat, sharing information about what to expect on the roads ahead. He tells us we'll have another hundred meter climb, but after that, we're home free—it'll be downhill all the way to Vang Vieng!
Sure enough, a few kilometers down the road, we spot the climb, and boy does it look steep! We've just started our snail-like ascent when three of the cycle tourists from the guest-house in stayed in last night catch up with us, rolling around the bend at twice our speed. We've now spoken to them three or four times, but for some reason we've never properly introduced ourselves (we still don't know your names!).
The French guy offers to take our picture and we happily oblige, as Tara and I have very few pictures ourselves riding together. It never occurs to me how much black clothing and accessories we have until I see us in a picture with all of our kit. Here we are, looking like a pair of (slow, non-threatening, happy) Nazgûl.
After our brief photo shoot, we all charge up the rest of the incline. The (mostly) unloaded French Canadian women sprint up the steep grade, followed closely by a clearly smitten French guy, who seems to be tagging along with them everywhere they go. They are much faster than us, but I sprint up to take a riding picture before dropping back, winded, to wait for Tara.
Our hundred meter ascent winds up being more like three hundred, and it starts pouring rain right in the middle. Both the misty scenery and the climbing are breathtaking. Helmets dripping water into our faces, growing weary of pedaling, we still remain hopeful. Around every bend, we yell to one another, "okay, this is the LAST incline for the rest of our adventure!" Of course it isn't, and won't be, but it is fun to imagine.
When we reach the top we're ecstatic, relieved to see a road stretching off into the distance—a straight, flat line leading us towards the plains of southern Laos. We made it! As we zip carefully down a series of wet switchbacks, our heads are on a swivel gawking left and right, marveling at the limestone karsts surrounding us.
Rolling into the town of Kasi, the only major settlement between Phou Koun and Vang Vieng, we're considering making it a very short day at 40km. However, when Tara goes to investigate the guest-houses, she returns with a weird look on her face. She reports that they were nice enough, but nobody was around, and they had an eerie, ominous feeling, like an unloved nursing home or 1950s insane asylum. So, we decide we'll carry on to Vang Vieng, another sixty kilometers down the road.
Leaving Kasi behind, we're overjoyed as our wheels kiss smooth, flat pavement, I am so happy and relieved to think that we've done it, we've really done it! We've just conquered the LAST MOUNTAINS OF OUR TRIP! I feel free, I feel like I finally can move again, no longer encumbered by the molassesy mire of mountain climbing.
Even though a headwind has kicked in, and it is now pouring rain, I'm not bothered a bit; cycling on level ground makes me feel superhuman! We both have our mp3 players going for the first time in ages—I'm listening to Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, overcome by a profound sense that we're pedaling home.
The tide is running out to sea
Under a darkening sky
The night is falling down on me
And I'm thinking that I
Should head on home
Been gone too long…
I am lost in my reverie until I turn around to check on Tyler, and see that he's fallen behind. I slow down a bit so he can catch up, and then he motions for us to stop. Apparently he's not as full of energy as I am, he's feeling uncharacteristically exhausted, drained from the brutal headwinds, and he thinks he's getting sick.
Tyler doesn't want to go back to Kasi, so I fish out some snacks from a pannier and we take a rest break to eat them. When we take to the road once more, we go a little slower, and eschew the music so we can communicate. The mist has cleared significantly now, and we're treated to insane, jaw-dropping views on all sides.
Dark, craggy limestone karsts tower on either side of us, popping up from nowhere, seemingly disconnected from the land they occupy. It looks just like those crappy back-lit paintings in Chinese restaurants! After much joking deliberation, we decide that Laos' Royal Road deserves a spot on our "top five most beautiful scenery" list, tough we can't figure out which should be booted off to make room.
As we ride, a creeping fear is gripping my mind. Not only is it chilly and rainy today, but this road isn't flat; we're actually climbing again. At our current pace, we'll arrive well after nightfall. I'm worried about how Tyler is faring, but, there's nothing to be done except pedal.
We are doing just that, when we happen upon a carnival in the middle of a tiny village on this grey, drizzly day. Many kids are running around with their toy-but-still-dangerous guns, while others ride listlessly on squeaky, rusted carousel.
We stop for a few minutes to buy snacks (kettle corn and hotdogs!), and Tyler takes off with our camera to snap a few photos. I'm waiting with the bikes when a creepy old drunk guy sidles up to me, leering. He hovers in my personal space, muttering at me with words I don't understand.
This is the first time I've ever felt ill at ease in Laos, and I really wish Tyler would return soon so we can get out of this village before all the little kids turn on us with their guns. A few minutes later, he does, and together we cycle off, out of the weird carnival village.
What follows are many more false downhills, and much, much more climbing. Some of it looks just flat enough to make us wonder why we're having such trouble making progress, and some of it is so steep we have to get off and push.
After the umpteenth "This is it! This is the last time we'll use our granny gears on this entire trip!" we resign ourselves to our fate. We'll be climbing, stuck in the mountains of Laos forever and ever until the day we die. It's past 4:30 PM now, and we still have 45 kilometers to go. At this rate, it will take us all night to get there.
After what feels like a lifetime, we reach the real top, marked by a cluster of market stalls selling oranges in the middle of nowhere. We buy a few of the sweet citrus fruits, and then, heaven on a bicycle seat, down we go, coasting through the mountains for ages and ages and ages.
It's dusk now, and we have thirty kilometers left until we reach Vang Vieng. I'm in front, leading the way, setting the pace for Tyler who is now officially sick as a dog. Fast, fast, fast we go, hauling ass; I have my speedometer pegged at 25kph, and I'm on a mission to get us there as safely and quickly as possible.
I look often to make sure Tyler is still with me, and sure enough, there he is, drafting in his aero bars, head down, pedaling his heart out. Some smallish hills tower in our way, but I refuse to change gears or slow down, instead standing up in my pedals to pound out the revolutions. Our sprint begins anew as soon as we reach the top of each climb, pedaling furiously onwards. Darkness is falling fast.
It's nearly 7PM when we arrive in Vang Vieng, the seediest city in Laos. We've come in on a dark street, away from the city center, and looking on our map, we realize the main road is located on the other side of an enormous rocky pit. In our guidebook, the strip is listed as "Gravel Field" with no explanation as to it's purpose. Tyler thinks it might be an airstrip that never got built?
The main road of Vang Vieng is full of shirtless tourists, either staggering along, drunk out of their minds, or sprawled out on day beds and lounge chairs (I don't even want to know about the cleanliness of the sheets and cushions) in one of the many restaurants where you can drink opium shakes and watch reruns of Friends.
Needless to say, we're not fans of this town. But, we do appreciate that we'll be able to get a nice hotel room and a bit of western food. After wandering around, we manage to find a lovely bungalow off the main drag, sheltered on a miraculously quiet back street. Once we've gotten settled and showered, we head out for a feast of garlic bread, salad, pasta and steak.
Having just ridden one hundred and six intense, hilly kilometers, we're exhausted and famished, barely able to keep ourselves awake as we wait for our food to arrive.
Our meal hits the spot, but only further exacerbates our exhaustion. It's time to head to bed. So, past "bucket bars" we go, walking by many blackout drunk tourists on our way home. When we reach our bungalow, Tyler immediately crawls into bed, closes his eyes, and whimpers about being freezing to death. I get him all nice and warm in my hat and scarf, and then it's time to rest.
Goodnight, Tyler! I hope you feel better in the morning.