Art and island life

Cycling Shikoku’s coast

Shikoku is the smallest of Japans four main islands, and mostly known for its 88 temple pilgrimage route. After taking a morning ferry from Beppu we arrive in Yawatahama on Shikoku in the afternoon and start cycling North. We follow a blue line on the tarmac that leads us to the famous Shimanamikaido. This is a bike route that hops with some long suspension bridges across several islands, from Shikoku to the main island Honshu.

Shikoku coastal cruising
Shikoku coastal cruising

The weather for the next fews days is quite bad, but on our first night it is still dry. After a glorious day along a beautiful sunny coastal road we set up camp at yet another peaceful shinto shrine, in the densely populated area of Matsuyama. Where we are it is quiet, and we are surrounded by orange groves. In the evening a sudden storm shakes our tent. After putting in all the pegs we feel safe and secure and sleep right through the rest of the storm.

Another day of cycling along a busy road in quite heavy rain brings us to Imabari. This a small harbour town and the start of the Shimanamikaido. After missing out on seeing the Aso volcano because of rain and mist we decide to wait out the bad weather in lovely bicycle traveler hostel in Imabari, so we can enjoy the islands in better weather. Cyclo No Ie has typical Japanese capsule rooms that feel more like a kids favourite hiding space than an actual room. It is a very cozy and warm place and we love the bicycle vibe throughout. This is also our first actual rest day since we landed so there is no shame in being lazy while it pours outside. We enjoy an evening of conversation with some really nice fellow travellers. We even celebrate Pesach together, drinking wine with an Israeli couple. Lechaim!

Island hopping along the Shimanamikaido

We are glad we waited for the rain to pass, as the day after is gloriously sunny and we set off in an excellent mood. The Shimanamikaido route from Imabari on Shikoku to Onomichi on Honshu is only about 75km, so we decide to take some detours and savour the islands for a day or two. After this we will get to more densely populated urban areas so we want to enjoy the peace and quiet as long as possible. The suspension bridges are spectacular, offering stunning views on the sea and the islands below. On Oshima island we follow the Northern “island explorer” loop and find some sleepy little fisherman villages along a road with almost zero traffic. Bliss! It is nice to see many other cyclists out and about. We see young people racing, old people doing a gentle exercise round, lots of Japanese tourists and families with kids. No other bike tourers unfortunately but still, we love seeing this amazing bicycle infrastructure being used so enthusiastically.

 

Skipping across to Hakatajima and another bridge takes us to Onoshima. Here we visit a small museum designed by Toyo Ito, with a great exhibition about his involvement in regenerating the island. As is the case in most of rural Japan the islands population was shrinking. Most young people head to the cities and only elderly residents and fishermen stay behind. On Onoshima however efforts are made to turn the tide. Architects and islanders are starting projects that will attract more visitors while respecting and preserving the traditional ways of life on the island. We read stories from the original islanders about life in the last century, telling tales of swimming in the strong currents between the islands and underwater fighting with an octopus. When we have a chat with a man who offers us a drink from one of the many roadside vending machines we get the impression that people are happy and proud to be from this beautiful and special corner of Japan. When the sun starts to set we find another serene hilltop shrine to camp for the night.

On our second shimanamikaido day we cross to Ikuchijima island and visit the Ikuo Hirayama museum. Hirayama was a Hiroshima nuclear bomb survivor and a master of the traditional Japanese Nihonga school of drawing and painting. He expresses himself in clear pen strokes and water colours. His work focuses on promoting peace and tracing the origins of Buddhism, and to that end he traveled along the silk road. We are happy to discover paintings of places that we have also visited in Iran, China and Thailand. One of the great joys of this trip has been about how cultures, ideas and people freely cross borders and exchange inspiration, often resulting in beautiful artefacts. These sublime drawings are just one example.

Two more islands and we are on mainland Honshu. We don’t stop in Onomichi which is a shame because it seems a really lovely little town, with lots of little cafe’s, galleries and restaurants. Instead we barrel along a busy highway, trying to make as many kilometres as possible. It is still sunny and we have the wind in our back and music in our ears, so we do more than 100km before we set up camp next to a small graveyard in a hilltop village, just off the highway but a world away from the chain restaurants, gas stations and endless stream of cars.

We loved every kilometre of the Shimanamikaido. The whole route we had separate bike lines, bike minded people and places, beautiful scenery and interesting places to visit. We can’t recommend it highly enough for every cyclist who plans to visit Japan.

Naoshima: art and island life

Since we covered so much distance we only have to cycle 40km more the day after. From the port of Uno we hop across to Naoshima, an island famous for its many modern art installations and museums. On the ferry we are all of a sudden surrounded by pasty white artsy hipsters, and we feel once again like scruffy outsiders, even though this was my peer group back home in Amsterdam. Naoshima is a small island, only about 2km by 4km, and half of it is designated to the art and museums. There are some guest houses and a couple of restaurants but the two small villages on the island are still very much like traditional fishing villages, which makes for a nice vibe.

Since we arrive quite early we have a good half day of exploring the land art and installations. We visit six renovated traditional village houses with art installations and a museum dedicated to the work of Lee Ufan. All the museums on the island are designed by Tadao Ando, meaning the buildings (often half underground) subtly blend with the landscape and provide a tailored setting for the exhibited art works. There is a small Tadao Ando museum as well, with a gorgeous concrete model of his famous Osaka church. The unofficial symbol of the island is one of Yayoi Kusama‘s dotted pumpkins, placed on a small jetty. The Benesse corporation is the initiator of the art boom on Naoshima, by opening a hotel/gallery in the late eighties. Over the years other museums and art sites opened and Naoshima became some sort of pilgrimage site for modern art lovers.

As we spend the afternoon cycling around the art works we have a hard time deciding on where to camp, as there are so many beautiful beaches. We even consider another one of Kusama’s pumpkins as a possible sleeping place, until we decide on the site of the former Naoshima castle. On the top of a hill overlooking the sea we set up our tent under billowing and gently snowing clouds of sakura. 

We cycle around one more day and wind down in the afternoon. There is a bath house that has been designed by an artist and I soak in the extravagantly and erotically tiled hot tub, being supervised by an elephant and dreaming away with Brian Eno soundscapes. We have dinner in a sweet little restaurant with a Dutch couple who travel around Japan in the tiniest camper we have ever seen. When the restaurant owners hear about our year long cycling adventure they give us two beautiful handmade coasters. They are decorated with their signature dish: a strange little sea creature that looks and tastes like a cross between a turtle’s paw and a sea anemone.

Today we cross the Seto inland sea with two ferry rides, from Naoshima via Takamatsu at Shikoku back to mainland Honshu. As we get closer to Tokyo we will enter our first big Japanese cities: Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. Right now we are still relaxed and dreamy, having spent a couple of lovely days on a very special art island.

 

Cherry blossoms and earthquakes

After a little over a week in Japan it is high time to share our first impressions. In this short time Japan has thrown some extremes at us and we haven’t yet had a moment to sit down and process everything. Today however we have some downtime. We are waiting for the rain to stop in a guesthouse in Imabari, the starting point of the famous Shimanami bike route across several bridges and islands from Shikoku to Honshu. Following is the first part of our Japan adventure, cycling around the Kyushu island.

Ohayu gozaimasu Nihon!

Good morning Japan! Our 8am landing in Japan is much softer than expected, with less of a culture shock than anticipated. Maybe this is because Fukuoka is on the rural island of Kyushu and a pretty relaxed city, or maybe it is because many things feel familiar. The fresh air from the sea, the small houses and narrow roads, the cycling people who just like in Amsterdam use the bike to bring kids to school and go to work. Everything is clean and tidy, if a bit drab: beige is the go-to colour for houses and clothing. But the weird Japan from fiction and news presents itself quick enough: as soon as we roll out of the airport we bump into two girls, dressed to the nines in sweet Lolita fashion, a particular Japanese subculture. They wear frilly pink dresses, lace stockings, accessorized with cutesy umbrellas and suitcases. Kawaiii!

Sweet lolita ladies
Sweet lolita ladies

We head straight for the harbor to sample our first plate of rice and sashimi for breakfast. We have landed in Japan! We will repeat this to each other over the next few days. Japan! We have traveled for eleven months and now we are here, our last destination. It is hard to believe we have finally made it. JAPAN!

Fukuoka Zen garden
Fukuoka Zen garden

We spend a couple of days in Fukuoka to find our feet. Our first Japanese city is really nice, almost too nice. Where is the colourful market, where are the waving and shouting kids, where is the wild side? Everything and everybody is contained and courteous and no one (openly) pays attention to us. Our apartment is small and has plenty of rules. The overall effect is a little bit claustrophobic after free and easy South East Asia. Are we doing everything right? Are we not offending anyone? We stop at every single traffic light even if we could easily have crossed. The upside of this strict adherence to the rules is that we can relax in the traffic, as there are no overtaking cars, no swerving and certainly no honking. Everything is clean and the food is delicious, even the cheapest take-away from the convenience stores is healthy and tasty.

There is no charming way to slurp that Ramen
There is no charming way to slurp that Ramen

Fukuoka is quite large, even if it doesn’t feel that way, and one the many harbor cities of Japan. It is on Kyushu, a Southern island blessed with an early spring. It’s a beautiful sunny day when we arrive and we have hours to kill before we can check into our room.

Stop and smell the cherry blossom
Stop and smell the cherry blossom

We visit the parks where people are enjoying the sakura blossoms. Newly married couples in traditional kimono and geta take their wedding pictures under the cherry blossom trees and in the nearby Zen garden.

Love under the sakura
Love under the sakura

Fukuoka boasts a very good museum that focuses on modern Asian art. It is great to see contemporary art by emerging artists from Mongolia, Bangladesh and other developing countries. The below work is by Kim Tschang-yeul from Korea.

Work by Korean artist Kim Tschang-yeul
Work by Korean artist Kim Tschang-yeul

We also visit our first Shinto shrine, with a huge tori gate made out of massive tree trunks. Our stay coincides with the arrival of two cycling friends from Tajikistan, and together with Kathi and Flo we enjoy a meal and a couple of beers out in a typical hole-in-the-wall eatery.

#cycledrinking
#cycledrinking

You enter these places through a curtain that shields the inside from outside looks, so it’s always a surprise what you find. Inside is usually very small, with only enough space for the kitchen area and a row of stools facing the kitchen. The chefs shout greetings in unison when someone enters or leaves. Plates are served, beer is drunk and curious patrons talk to us. It’s a great night out.

Kyushu’s coastline

From Fukuoka we head South, towards Nagasaki. We take three days of cycling and one ferry, mostly hugging the spectacular coast line.

Kyushu coast
Kyushu coast

The weather stays mostly fine and we find some great wild camping spots. The first one is at an old mossy Shinto shrine in a small copse, where we are discovered by elderly village people who gather in the morning for a day of work around the shrine. They are super sweet, and one lady even indicates that she would have hosted us if she had known that we were there. We give them a deep bow when we leave and they give us a round of applause when we get on the bicycles.

Camping at a Shinto shrine
Camping at a Shinto shrine

Shrines are good places to camp since they usually have running water and a toilet. We treat them with respect, not staying near the actual sanctuary and as always taking our rubbish with us when we leave. Since Shinto worships the kami or spirits of places that are of particular natural beauty they are usually beautiful spots. The tori gates indicate where you enter the holy area of the shrine, away from the ordinary world.

Lonely tori
Lonely tori

Our next camping spot is on a small island where we get to by taking a ferry, thus avoiding the bottleneck of a busy highway. We jump from one island to the next by a series of bridges and end up on the Westernmost tip, looking at a last uninhabited island that is only sometimes connected by a land bridge at low tide. We clamber over the rocks to the sea. The water is so crystal clear here, and we see anemones in the rock pools. The sun sinks behind the islet, and after a last sip of sake we are in bed by 7pm.

Staring at the sea
Staring at the sea

The coastal road to Nagasaki is spectacularly beautiful and with little traffic. The only nuisance is the big fish eagles. They circle closely overhead when we are having lunch outside and we can only scare them away by jumping up and down and waving our arms. Later on we hear that they do attack people, and that we should never turn our back to an eagle. Scary!

Nagasaki

Near Nagasaki we stay two nights with Yukiko and Soichio, our first Japanese warmshowers hosts. They live in a beautiful cedar wood house, with the lovely perfume of untreated cedar wood permeating the atmosphere. We sleep in the attic room where a big window overlooks the harbor. Soichio works as a ship building engineer, Yukiko used to be a bike mechanic. They give us some insights into Japanese culture and we spend a day sightseeing in Nagasaki.

With our host Yukiko
With our host Yukiko

The first thing that everybody associates with Nagasaki is of course the nuclear war crime that destroyed the city on August 1945, when the USA dropped the nuclear bomb Fat Man on a residential neighbourhood, 3 days after wiping out Hiroshima with Little Boy. When I was little I walked in anti-nuclear protest marches with my parents so I knew about these cities from a young age. The fear of nuclear war was very real and ever present, before the fall of The Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1991. We spend the afternoon visiting the memorials and marveling at how this city has bounced back from the worst imaginable disaster. Today it is a lively and friendly place. The most poignant reminders are not the grand monuments but the garlands of paper origami cranes in all colours of the rainbow, imploring all the people of the world and its leaders to practice peace.

Origami garlands for peace
Origami garlands for peace

Nagasaki has a lot more to see than the memorials however. We visit Dejima, an artificial fan-shaped island in the harbour. It is now completely enclosed by the city but when it was still an actual island it was the only place where foreigners were allowed to live and trade with Japan between 1641 and 1853 . During this period of extreme isolationism only the Dutch were allowed to live here. David Mitchell has written a great book about it, the thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Dejima
Dejima

We wander around and because of the book, the restoration work and clear explanations it’s easy to conjure up the kind of lives the people must have led on this tiny parcel of land in a culture that was so alien to theirs. One historical figure in particular stands out. Doctor Von Siebold can be credited with bringing Western medicine to Japan, healing many people and teaching many Japanese students. Overall the exchange has benefited the Japanese as the exchange was conducted strictly on their terms of agreement and they were keen to learn the new technologies that came with the trading ships.

Natural disasters

After enjoying the friendly face of sunny Japan for a few days we encounter a cloudier side of this island nation. Because Japan is a highly geologically active series of islands earthquakes, volcano eruptions, typhoons and tsunamis are fairly common. On top of this the weather is volatile as well, with extremes in climate from South to North and sudden changes in the weather because of the influence of the sea and mountains. Our sunny days are over, and from now it is mostly rain. After Nagasaki we head inland towards the Unzen and Aso volcanoes, stopping over at the Shimabara castle and historical samurai neighbourhood before we take a ferry across to Kumamoto.

Shimabara castle
Shimabara castle

Aso San is with 1592m altitude Japans largest active volcano and of the largest in the world. It has a caldera that is large enough to accommodate a couple of towns and lots of farmland.

Image by Batholith (Wikimedia Commons)- NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22579331
Image of Aso San by Batholith (Wikimedia Commons)- NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22579331

We approach the volcano from the West side, hoping to enter through the large gash in the outer crater wall and circle North around the central cone, exiting on the Northeastern side. The weather is shit but at least there is no traffic on the highway that leads into the crater. This should have given us an inclination of what was coming.. After climbing 300m in a steady cold drizzle we get to some road workers who tell us that the road ahead is damaged by an earthquake. There is no way around it, we have to turn, cycle 15km back and approach the crater via another road. This much smaller road is of course chockfull of traffic, and next to a crawling traffic jam we climb to the rim of the crater. It is still raining, and the visibility is down to about 10 meters. We descend into the flatlands surrounding the central cone of the volcano. Because of the thick mist we see nothing of the central cone, but google says that on a good day it looks like this:

Aso San on a good day
Aso San on a good day

Our view is more like this:

Mist and rain
Mist and rain

The road through the caldera is a straight flat ribbon of tarmac through almost Dutch-looking flat farmland. We see signs of the earthquake in metal grilles and concrete drain covers that have been flipped up and tossed aside like playing cards. The tarmac is mostly intact since it’s quite elastic and very flat, it looks like it just lifted of the ground and landed again. Occasionally the painted lines on the tarmac are interrupted or there is a drop of a few centimeters so we roll over with a sudden bump. The quake happened in late 2016 and many people are working at repairing the damage. The epicentre was right here but there was considerable damage in the nearby city of Kumamoto as well, destroying parts of the beautiful historical castle. The volcano is active and closely monitored which is an awe inspiring fact of nature but a dangerous reality for the many communities who live in the caldera and around the volcano.

Our first onsen

After this long day of struggling in the rain we are soaked through and through, and chilled to the bone. There are many onsen or natural hot springs on Kyushu, and we follow on of the signs pointing us towards an onsen near Ubuyama village. I have an image in my head of a traditional wooden Japanese house with sliding paper doors and a tranquil zen garden and I can’t wait to slide into a hot pool, afterwards retiring to a room dressed in a beautiful cotton yukata. This place however is more like an old people’s home, full of ancient ladies who’s backs are bent in all kinds of shapes like the gnarly trees along the coast line. If they are surprised at the appearance of two bedraggled gaijin on jitensha they never let it on, and we are welcomed to a tatami room with electrical blanket and the use of a private onsen room with 42 degree water. Luckily the bath is private, since tattoos are a big no-no in Japanese bath houses because of their link to Yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Our host in Nagasaki wrote a Japanese note for me in case we try to enter a public bath house: “I have tattoos, but I am a good person, I won’t do Bad Things”. Here it is no issue, and we quickly get warm and comfortable. I cook in the communal kitchen with the old ladies who are very sweet. This is our first traditional room: a simple space, the floor covered with tatami mats and wall-cupboards with sliding doors where the futons are kept during the day. We make our own futon beds on the floor and sleep a deep long sleep.

Ferry nice
Ferry nice

The day after we continue to our next ferry port from where we will leave Kyushu for the island of Shikoku, the town of Beppu. Beppu is famous for having the highest density of hot springs in the world, 2849 in total. Here we find a backpackers place to stay with it’s own onsen in the basement, this time with tattoos allowed.

To paraphrase Billy Holiday:

“The snow is snowing and the wind it is blowing
But I can weather the storm
What do I care how much it may storm
I’ve got my onsen to keep me warm”

Mingalaba Myanmar!

Right in the middle of the Moei river, the border between Thailand and Myanmar, the traffic has to switch sides. We swerve across and ride into Myanmar on the right hand side of the road. Entering Myanmar is a blast, a real rollercoaster ride. Switching the side of the road we ride on is only the start, as everything is radically different from Thailand. We experience one of our biggest culture shocks to date, in the best possible way I must add. From the very moment we cross the border I have a crush, and immediately fall in love with this country.

First Myanmar impressions

The process of leaving Thailand and entering Myanmar is fast enough. The Burmese official who stamps our passport constantly and confusingly telling the ingele in his office to change seats. It is musical chairs, with a Burmese music video providing the tune. He is patting the sweat from his face. Still, he is courteous and within minutes we are on our way into Myanmar. This is the first visit for both of us. A whole new country! This has us very excited and we jump right in. Traffic is mayhem. A hot and honking, smoking, swerving tide of tuk-tuks, taxis, bicycles, colourful trucks and mopeds rolls off the Myanmar side of the bridge, squeezes onto a pockmarked two-lane ‘highway’ and through the small border town of Myawaddy.

Mingling with the locals

The Myanmar people are very different from the Thai. We see many dark faces, closer to Indian or Bangladeshi looking than the light skinned Thai. People here look taller and sturdier than their Thai neighbours and they carry themselves beautifully, upright and elegant. They are cheerful and inquisitive, shouting and smiling and honking at us. The exuberant vibe is infectious and we cycle on with a big happy grin on our face. Some people wear the conical Tai Yai hat. Everybody, men and women alike wear the longyi. Women wear their colourfully patterned ankle-length wrap with a discrete tuck on the side and the men wear theirs, dark coloured and minimally checkered, with a big knot in the middle. Many people are chewing betel and the man who guards the cash machine grins at me with bright red betel teeth.

All women have adorned their face with thanaka, a traditional Burmese beauty product that protects the skin against the sun. The women make different patterns on their face with the yellowish paste made from ground tree bark. I try it too over the next few days and I really like it, it is cooling, non-greasy and indeed very effective against the sun.

I also try chewing betel but I’m not a big fan of the bitter astringent taste and the rivers of red saliva it produces. The effect is mild and pleasant, but the prospect of red and decaying teeth and gums puts me off for life. For a lot of people this is no deterrent though, and betel is after alchohol, coffee and tobacco the world’s most popular stimulant. It has been used for thousands of years, from India to China, by emperors and peasants alike.

All these different looks and sounds and smells make Myanmar exotic and exhilarating. Every sensation here seems amplified. Some people say that Myanmar is a ‘light’ version of India, or India for beginners. Strangely enough even the weather is different across the border, and over the next few days we experience our hottest cycling days yet.

Big friendly brother

We get a wad of kyat out of the cash machine of Myawaddy and start cycling on the main road towards Kawkareik, a small town 50km away. Myanmars army tightly controls the country, and we cross quite a few army check-points. The guards are very friendly and polite, and the only nuisance so far is the fact that we are only allowed to stay in designated and overpriced hotels for foreigners. These hotels have to pay a hefty tax for their foreign guests which goes straight to the army. It is strictly prohibited to stealth camp or stay with locals so we don’t even try this, although we have heard from other cyclists it is possible to do this if you keep well out of sight and away from the main road.

Meeting like-minded people

Kawkareik is a small town with a fabulous warmshowers host. Susu is not allowed to host cyclists in her own house but loves to meet up with everybody cycling through. She helps out with info about guesthouses along the way, explains Myanmar culture and teaches us our first Burmese words. We enjoy dinner together at her place and team up with Janneke Verhagen, another cyclist who has just arrived in Myanmar.

On the beaten track

After Kawkareik we venture off the busy main road and onto a small road. This much quieter road quickly turns into a rutted dirt track, traversing rubber plantations and later on dry fields and marshy patches. Every now and again we see a limestone cliff rise up over the shimmering plains, usually topped with one or more golden stupas. It looks magical. Along the way are tiny villages full of friendly faces but not many restaurants or shops. It is great to be able to get off the highway and (in this case quite literally) on to the beaten track so quickly and we enjoy the silence and emptiness. A wooden cart pulled by two oxen passes us when we are enjoying a short break in the shade. It is traveling at about 3kmph, with three smiling ladies in the back. Life is slow here and nothing much happens.

Yet even without the busy traffic and no climbing the heat and the bad road surface make it a hard slog. By the time we roll into Hpa An it is getting dark and we are covered in a rusty red cake of sweat, sunscreen, insect repellent and dust. We need two rounds of scrubbing under the shower to get completely clean. From Hpa An we make it to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Kyaiktiyo in two days. After our overnight stop in the small and friendly town of Thaton a perfectly paved and gently rolling secondary road with zero traffic takes us all the way to Kyaiktiyo where we spend two days. This road is lined by palm forests and cute little villages.

A pilgrimage to the golden rock

There are a lot of tourists in Kyaiktiyo, and most of them are Burmese pilgrims. If there is one similarity between Myanmar and Thailand it would have to be religion. Myanmar has a very diverse population but the majority is devoutly Theravada Buddhist, although we have already seen Hindu temples, churches and a mosque as well. The big draw of Kyaiktiyo is a big boulder, precariously perched on the edge of a cliff face. Lore has it that two hairs of the Buddha balance the rock and keep it from falling down (although last year it was surrounded by scaffolding so there is some human help in maintaining the balance). The rock is covered in gold leaf, which is applied daily by the visiting (male only!) pilgrims.

It is prohibited to cycle so we join the other pilgrims for a breathtaking ride up to the rock. Sturdy little trucks are converted into people carriers with little benches and once they are crammed to the brim they race the 12 kilometer up the super steep single road. The ride is a rollercoaster, including enthusiastically puking and cheering people. We arrive at the top just before sunset and we have a quick look around before we catch the last truck down. The rock is indeed impressive, and the religious fairground around it is quite entertaining. Men carry rich and lazy or infirm people up in sedan chairs, porters run by with an impossibly huge stack of suitcases on their back. Families and monks peruse the shops that sell anything from mini golden rock replicas to food. The atmosphere is more village fest than religious solemnity but this is one of the most holy places in Myanmar. It is possible to stay up at Kyaiktiyo and spend the night outside, to picnic and snooze together with the Burmese families. We would definitely have done this if we had known before.

Religion in Myanmar is fully intertwined with the everyday life of almost everybody, something that no longer exists in Europe. We see this every morning when monks walk in line along the road through the villages, collecting alms from the people. It can also be witnessed in the little Buddhist altars in houses and shops and in big new golden stupas being erected all over the country. One day we witness a procession with horses, flower offerings and a long line of beautifully dressed people going through town, celebrating little boys who are entering the monastery as novices. Many monasteries that we pass by on the bicycles have a speech or mantras or music blaring from their sound systems.

Bago

In the morning we say goodbye to Janneke who is heroic enough to tackle the small roads up North. She later tells us her stories of wild camping and even staying with a family, which is definitely possible if you keep away from the main roads.

We do a long day along ever smaller tracks through small villages full of surprised people. At one point we have wandered so far off the main road that the villages can only be reached by moped or ox cart. We reach the point where the river delta melts into the Andaman sea. This is the first time we see the sea since Turkey! The land here is flat as a pancake and hot as hell. The tracks we follow are so rocky or sandy it is hard to make good progress. After 110km we make it to our hotel, just before it is fully dark.

Bago is pretty mental traffic-wise. The main road to Yangon runs right through the city centre and is used by trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, bicycle taxis, cows and pedestrians alike. There is not much to see. A reconstruction of a historical royal palace, a gigantic reclining Buddha and Myanmars biggest stupa. Officially the Shwedagon stupa in Yangon is the biggest one, but in reality the stupa of Bago can claim this nr. 1 spot. We are daunted by the busy traffic on the highway that intersects this city and a bit depressed by the living standards of the people here. The city appears quite poor, with bad roads, plastic rubbish in the rivers and simple shacks or ruinous colonial buildings for houses, more so than any other place we have seen so far. The poverty is in stark contrast with the standard of living enjoyed by the tourists, who can stay at swish resorts, eat lavish breakfast buffest and get carted around by airco minivan. We indulge in this as well as there is little alternative but we don’t really enjoy it. Staying in Bago is almost unavoidable as it is an important connection for trains and roads.

Midnight not-so-express

We decide to leave the bicycles in Bago to avoid the hassle of train and bus travel with all of our gear. Then we set off on an epic 24 hour train journey to Nyaungshwe by Inle lake. Buying the tickets is an adventure in itself and involves showing up in the early morning and hanging around in the ancient ticket office with a few friendly betel-chewing railway employees and a lot of mice. A couple of frantic phone calls are made to Yangon to find out if there is a sleeper car. Eventually a handwritten ticket materializes. Alas, there is no sleeper car, so we opt for the upper class seat instead, with enough legroom to accommodate a three meter tall Ingele.

The journey is split in two parts: a pretty comfortable flat track to Thazi, in a new-ish Chinese train with air suspension. We witness a stunning sunset over the hazy flatlands while eating our take-away dinner. After another few hours of fitful sleep we arrive at 2am in Thazi to find out our connection to Shwenyaung doesn’t leave until 7am. There is nothing to do but lie down amongst the other waiting people and make ourselves comfortable on the platform, to get some sleep in before the most spectacular part of the journey starts.

An old train rocks and sways over a 1300m mountain pass, covering the steep inclines by making a few ingenious switchbacks up the mountain flank. Our train neighbours are a Buddhist nun and her two grandchildren. One is a mini monk, the other one a little rockstar with a tasseled leather jacket. When we make a stop little shops with fruit and snacks float by our windows, carried along on big dishes on the head of village women. The views are wide and mostly forested once we start climbing. The scenery is not very green however as everything is very dry and dusty in this season. We pass by the highest point Kalaw, a former colonial hill station and tea plantation.

Getting close to home

After months of continuous travel we are immensely looking forward to settling into a real home for a week. Our friend Patrick has generously offered us the use of his house, and as we are slowly trundling towards Nyaungshwe we are excited to get to his place. It is the first time since our forced two-week stop in Chengdu that we have the opportunity to unpack and relax for a while. I’m most excited about the kitchen. We will be able to make our own breakfast, at home! As we are getting closer to the end date of the trip we are both quite happily anticipating settling down in one place again. Our stay in Nyaungshwe will be a sweet little taste of this luxury: having a place to call home.

(sorry, no pictures. Internet says no)