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Through Finland to Lapland and North Cape, Norway

A few years ago we left home for a short overnight ride (hence the open face helmet and sunglasses in the picture) with my wife and a few friends. Only to end up leaving our friends behind and touring Lapland and visiting Nordkapp in Norway by the Barents see, altogether some 4500km. The picture has a glue of where it was taken😀.

Now that covid-19 has seriously fu**ed up everyone’s riding plans for the summer, it is time to visit Lapland and the north again.

Well, Lapland is no second prize, it is a great destination on its own and well worth visiting even several times.

The fells of the Finnish lapland may best be described, scenery-wise and from a distance, as teletubbyland. No Alp-like mountains in Finland, whereas the Norwegian side is more mountainous. The change of scenery is actually quite remarkable first when you ride above the tree lines and quite sudden when crossing from Finland to Norway in the north.

The Norwegian mountains  are part of the Scandinavian mountains (Scandes) and resemble loose flint or karst mountains to my non-geologist eye. The mountains may not be very high, but the roadsides are very steep indeed and often lead to the see. Narrow, paved roads are fun to ride – unless you are afraid of heights.

On the Finnish side you WILL see reindeer. In the north, they roam free, so you do not necessary see any warning before they appear!! What comes to avoiding traffic, reindeer are dumb! No  matter how loud your bike is, they will run in front of you. Loud pipes may help a bit when you need to move a heard that is blocking the road. Pass them slowly, they  may just turn in front of you! On the Norwegian side you will see sheep, sometimes lying on the warm tarmac in the evening!

Riding through the length of Finland will be a treat in itself. As the crow flies 1200km. (Same distance as from London or Copenhagen to Venice). The plan is to ride a “round trip” – up one side, down the other.

Across the length of Finland to Norway. A great trip coming up!

 

Ho Chi Minh Jungle Trails

Riding in the Ho Chi Minh Trail Jungle

Jungle trails on Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos vary between barely a single track in the bamboo forest to a newly built logging or mining road for trucks. This time of the year however, after the rainy season, most of the jungle roads have been washed away and only some main national roads can be driven by cars. So we spent days without seeing a single car on the road!

Where the jungle trail did exist, if was often carved away by the water or had deep meandering canyons to be mindful of.

Mostly the trail was dry and hard – this was literally vital as any unexploded bombs would not be disturbed when riding over them. The wet places were like riding on soap! Very, very slippery!

The main excitement was obviously finding the old Ho Chi Minh Trail tracks, the cobblestone trail in the jungle, mostly reclaimed by the growth but still visible. Sometimes surrounded by bomb craters, sometimes next to cliffs and sometimes in the cover of the jungle. Sometimes even still used as a cobblestone road. Obviously parts were rebuilt into national road system as well.

The jungle was an experience. Hot and humid, and with varying terrain – jungle, river beds, cliffs, rice pads and remote villages with literally only a single narrow track leading tot hem, only passable on foot or on a motorcycle.

Track reclaimed by growth

It is truly a shame that so much of the jungle has been cleared by (il)legal logging. Mining is also a big industry destroying the nature without any protective legislation in place. Here, like in most countries in the South East Asia, the Chinese play a major role in the economy.

Water Features on Ho Chi Minh Trail

Road carved away

Bound to get your boots full

Our ride in November took place after the rainy season and roads and paths had deep meandering grooves carved by the water to make the ride more interesting.

Road washed away

In some occasions the road was completely washed away and just big canyons were left, making crossing even more interesting.

There used to be a bridge

The power of water is incredible and even large concrete bridges were washed away and only pillars were left standing askew. The only bridges that were left almost unscathed were the concrete slabs on the bottom of the river, so called bottom bridges. They are designed to allow the water to flow over them, making the bottom more even and safer to ride. Still some of those were moved by the force of the water.

Great bamboo bridge

In the beginning of the dry season, many villages build temporary bridges across streams. The most spectacular are the bamboo bridges, some of which can be more than a hundred meters long.  Villages make income by charging a fee from anyone using the bridge.

Also different kind of boats are used to take people and scooters across.

Youngster with a boat looking for customers
Help is always at hand

Even bigger vehicles can be transported when two or three long boats are held together and a platform is installed for ferrying larger vehicles.

Larger ferry across the river

Still there are places where no bridge or boat exist and one just has to ride in the water to cross the stream.  As we were exploring the old Ho Chi Minh trail, getting boots full was inevitable.

Crossing the river on the slabs of stones

Video compilation from Ho Chi Minh Trail Water crossings

The Konglor Cave

The Longest Underground River in Asia

One of the Laos tourist highlights is the longest underground river in Asia, the 7.5 km long Konglor Cave,  where the Hinboun river flows through the karst mountains.

The cave is in places 100 meters wide and 100 meters high! The river flows through the mountain up to 30 meters wide.

At low water, the river is very shallow and boat will need to be pushed / towed over the sand and pebbles. For you as a tourist, this is not a problem and all the hard work is done by the boatmen who take you through the cave.

There is however, a section where you can walk and explore the cave on a marked trail using your headlamp and making use of some of the decorative / dramatic lighting in the cave.

The men running the boats also take your bike to the cave and load it onto the boat. Have a look at the video!!

The boats and services are run by The Ecotourism Association Konglor-Natane (AEKN).

The Beautiful People on Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos

Family on a bike – 5 up

Meeting the people

Friendly greeting

Many of the villages we visited on the trail were very small and very remote with only a footpath leading to them. Life must be very hard and simple, though people were usually friendly and generally looked happy.

Different villages had their distinct feel about them, which was easily felt. Some were very welcoming and eager to meet and chat, some more reserved, even fearful.

I should think there is a reason behind this. Either past experience or simply a way of keeping safe. Might be religious. After all, it certainly is not an everyday occurrence that two white guys in their motorbike gear turn up from the woods.

Criminal free village

I did not feet threatened at any time. Naturally however, on a few occasion, if we did not feel welcome or it seemed that the people had some reservations meeting us, we continued our way.

Naturally some places are more urban commercial markets and traveling salespeople on their scooters are usual sight on the roads and trails.

Banana load – This is HEAVY!

Regardless of how urban or how remote the village is, modern world is slowly creeping in. Sanitation and schools are a good example.

In the following film, I tried to collect faces from the trail. Nothing I can do makes justice to these people, but I tried to capture the faces on the real Ho Chi Minh Trail.

 

Metal from the sky!

How America provided material for Lao houses

The original cobblestone trail is still visible in places

The original trail is still visible in places. As a network of paths, some have continued to be in use and some have been reclaimed by the jungle. As the trail generally was made from cobblestone, it is easily identifiable.

For nine years (1964 to 1973), every eight minutes a full B52 load of bombs were dropped during the Vietnam war – 24 hours a day. Per Wikipedia: The American air campaign during the Vietnam War was the largest in military history. The US contribution to this air-war was the largest. Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force Curtis LeMay stated that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese / Lao people directed bombings to the karst mountains and used the stone rubble to build the trail.

Village surrounded by Bomb Craters

A total of 7.6 million tonnes of bombs were dropped during the Vietnam war. Some 2,5 million tonnes were dropped on Laos and Ho Chi Minh Trail. Compared to 2nd World War, where”only” 2 million tonnes in total was dropped, this is a huge amount.

Most of the metal from the war: bombs, tanks, trucks, barrels, fuel pipeline, etc on the ground has been since collected by scrap metal hunters over the years.

After all the atrocities in the war, this metal has been an important source of income after the war. Bombs, cluster bomb cases, airplane fuel tanks and barrels in particular have also been used as building material for boats, houses and household objects such as buckets, farming tools and machetes. Even saw a school bell made from bomb metal.

House almost entirely made from bombs and war material

Most striking use of bombs are houses for which the building material has fallen from the sky! Houses completely built from bomb metal and even have the original instructions still attached to the side“To set fuses” and “To Safe Fuses” – How to make the bomb safe or how to arm them!

How to set a fuse and how to safe the fuse still on the outer wall of a house
Igloo white – bomb. A “bomb” with sensors and an antenna to communicate with airplanes above directing bomber flights to their targets.
Another house built from scrap metal from the sky.

A prime example of the resilience of the Lao people.

 

… that elusive day we keep putting good things off to…