Sapa village

The Vietnam Adventure (Sa Pa / Cat Ba / Ha Long Bay) – December 2015

Photos are here.


2015-11-29 (Sunday)

  • took a plane to Hanoi which landed around 2000 HKT. Vietnam is one hour behind Hong Kong
  • took a USD 5 cab ride to the train station. Met lady from the travel agency who had our tickets to Lao Cai. After our struggle to find veggie food, I got her to say veggie food in Vietnamese and recorded it on my iphone for future use
  • took the train (Orient Express) headed for Lao Cai (50km from Sapa)
  • got ourselves into what looked like a fancy compartment. Very comfy. USD 80 for 2 people. Private cabin. We expected two more but that wasn’t the case
This is how you say “No Meat” in Vietnamese
Very comfy train

Very comfy train

2015-11-30 (Monday)
  • I learnt that Cai in Vietnamese is pronounced “Kai” and not “Chai” like Chinese
  • I learnt that Vietnamese doesn’t have any pictorial representation of the language. It’s pretty much like English with fancy up/down intonations. Kind of like the German Uberlong
  • got off the train nice and early at 0540, took a ripoff 200,000 Duong minivan ride to Sapa (only 50km away). Almost dozed off most of the way. Sapa struck me as one of the classic Indian hill-stations. Pretty, pristine yet chaotic because of traffic
  • soon after exiting the minivan, got accosted by countless locals who were getting us to buy homemade purses, bracelets, and so on. They also wanted us to go hiking in their respective villages. “Come to my village, most beautiful” was the broken record for the day
  • checked in into Phuong Nam hotel and went for a walk to nearby village called Cat Cat
  • Cat Cat was quite scenic and serene. Except for the constant “come to my village” and “please shop” sales pitches which just wouldn’t stop. One even waited for us to have lunch and almost twisted my arm into buying something. I refused but felt quite guilty after a while. (I still feel guilty as a matter of fact!) Should have simply made her day. Only a matter of HKD 20 or so after all! There was no need for a hard “I cannot be moved” stance
  • took a scooter (USD 5) and rode around. Saw clouds dangling above a valley. Looked spectacular

Check out this Hydro Grinder

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Who is this handsome guy?

Who is this handsome guy?

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

2015-12-01 (Tuesday)
  • got up at 0700, went down to the reception and booked tickets to Ha Long Bay for Thursday evening on a sleeper bus. Also, booked our guide for the hike up to Fancipan (3100m) for Wednesday
  • had a sumptuous breakfast (again) and hired two scooters (again!)
  • first stop: Ta Phin. Very scenic and harmonious BUT (as usual) we got frequently accosted by local villagers who wanted to us to buy various things from them. To avoid them and to enjoy some peace and tranquility, we stopped at various lookout points on the meandering road where there was no one
  • After a pretty heavy lunch, we headed towards the next village for the day called Su Pan. More villages, more serenity, more picturesque landscapes. Ride was awesome
  • after Su Pan, we headed for our final village of the day called Topas. A gang of villagers tried to get us to buy something. We somehow escaped without departing with money
  • stopped at a Vietnamese style rural “cafe” and ordered some Chinese style tea. Some old looking guy invited himself over to our table and helped himself to some tea. I replenished his cup, Dom’s cup and my cup. Drank plenty of tea and left after an hour. Tea lady didn’t want money for tea (people are good and not everyone is greedy!) but to reciprocate I insisted on giving her something and gave her 20k Duong
  • my scooter then stopped because of mechanical problems. The old guy I had been serving tea happened to be riding his scooter and saw me. I gave him a “I-am-in-trouble-please-help” look and he immediately stopped, took a look at my scooter and discovered the broken spark plug. He removed his own scooter’s spark plug, made my scooter work and only asked us for HKD 20 for a new spark plug for his scooter. I was thinking to myself how goodness exists in the world when we look for it. Amidst all this news of terrorism, people killing people, etc, there is a lot of goodness that still embraces the society!
  • learnt that “Pho” is noodles in Vietnamese and “Bho” is beef. Had another great dinner and hit the sack for the relatively early start on Wednesday (7am Facipan trek)
Handsome guy...

Handsome guy…

Sapa village

Sapa village

Sapa village

Sapa village

Tea guy comes to the rescue to fix my busted bike

Tea guy comes to the rescue to fix my busted bike

Above the clouds

Above the clouds

2015-12-02 (Wednesday)
  • had a quick breakfast and met our guide Sam at 7am. Took a cab up to the starting point of the Fancipan Trail (pronounced the same way you’d pronounce “Fancy Pants” minus the “ts” at the end)
  • our guide Sam turned out to be the Vietnamese equivalent of a Nepali Gurkha. Went up and down slippery slopes like a friggin’ mountain goat. I had no hopes in hell of catching up to him. He was amazing!
  • met some tourists along the way who were going to do the hike in 2/3 days!!! It’s about five times as hard as Sharp Peak but anyone with a resonable level of fitness can do it within 10 hours!
  • took us a total of 3.15 hours to get to the top. It was a cloudy experience but we did have a trigonometric station to tell us where we were! One item checked off the list!
  • On the way back down, saw a couple of guys of guys from Australia who had just summited. “Beautiful view” the guy said to me referring to his summit views. I drilled further into his comment and figured out that all he saw was what we also saw – a blanket of whiteness!! But having come all the way from Syndey for this, it HAD to be beautiful!
  • took about 2.30 hours to come back down and we finished the whole thing in 6.42 hours. Got a medal and a certificate at the end!!
Met. Mr. Goat on the way to Facipan

Met. Mr. Goat on the way to Facipan

Dom and Sam (guide)

Dom and Sam (guide)

Dom and I

Dom and I

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

We got a cert plus medal for going up 3130m to Fancipan

We got a cert plus medal for going up 3130m to Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

What a great looking guy

What a great looking guy

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 1: 2300m (on the way to Fancipan)

Hut 1: 2300m (on the way to Fancipan)

2015-12-03 (Thursday)
  • chilled out the first half of the day and took a sleeper bus to Ha Long bay in the evening. Destination: Cat Ba island which is off the coast of Ha Long Bay
Chilling out

Chilling out

View of Sapa town

View of Sapa town

Yes, the Amazing Hotel

Yes, the Amazing Hotel

Our hotel Phnom Penh

Our hotel Phnom Penh

2015-12-04 (Friday)
  • the sleeper bus to Ha Long Bay was a nightmare! Well, comfy sleeping berth but we had a noisy crowd with phones going off all the time. I could even smell cigarette smoke
  • the bus dropped us off in Ha Long Bay at 0330 whereas we were told it would take until 0500 for us to reach Ha Long Bay. Well, early to bed, early to rise I guess. We took a cab at some ungodly hour and reached the ferry pier to Cat Ba island at 0400. Next couple of hours were spent in the pier staring into the darkness and feeling the cold wind brush against our body. We could also hear the rain hammering the roof above us in steady intervals
  • I learnt that the town of Mong Cai was nearby and it bordered China’s Guang Xi province. Technically, I think we were just one hour away from China!
  • by 0600, darkness turned into daylight and it stopped raining which gave us our first views of Ha Long Bay
  • the “cruise” to Cat Ba island from Hang Long Bay was scenic – reminded me a lot of the jagged peaks of Guang Xi (like what you see on the RMB 20 note’s backdrop)
  • Cat Ba island by itself was serene, pristine, lush and soothing. Probably the highlight of the trip for me thus far. The air was refreshingly fresh and crisp and the landscape was invitingly spectacular. Jagged peaks surrounded the distant backdrop and mangrove trees occupying the foreground were resting beautifully in whitish-blue colored waters
  • the island was relatively big and the small town centre looked quite fancy with many 3-storey buildings and hotels
  • we checked into Bayview hotel by the seafront and rented scooters to ride around the island. It was drizzling rather heavily at times but still, this scooter ride was one of the best rides I’ve done. There’s no greater source of rejuvenation than to smell the fresh scent of air after rains have blessed the lush greenery. It took in as many deep breaths as I could
  • we stopped by a cave which doubled as a rather large hospital for wounded Vietnam soldiers who served during the war with America. According to an ex army guy who now runs a restaurant by the side of this cave, many bombs were dropped on Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay during that war. He also told us that many more such secret caves still exist all over Vietnam but the government won’t reveal their locations as that information is classified
  • day ended with some sumptuous dinner (as usual)
Arriving at Halong Bay at 0330

Arriving at Halong Bay at 0330

Welcome to Cat Ba

Welcome to Cat Ba

From Halong Bay to Cat Ba

From Halong Bay to Cat Ba

Cat Ba's greenery

Cat Ba’s greenery

Entrance to the hospital cave

Entrance to the hospital cave

I used to train with John Rambo back in the day

I used to train with John Rambo back in the day

Long entrance in the war museum cave

Long entrance in the war museum cave

War museum in cave. Wounded soldiers were brought in here during the Vietnam war

War museum in cave. Wounded soldiers were brought in here during the Vietnam war

Cat Ba's greenery

Cat Ba’s greenery

This guy served back in the day during the war but left soon after he found himself a chick (behind every man's success...)

This guy served back in the day during the war but left soon after he found himself a chick (behind every man’s success…)

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Riding scooters through beautiful Cat Ba

Riding scooters through beautiful Cat Ba

Life is good

Life is good

2015-12-04 (Saturday)
  • today was the kayaking day. Checked into Outdoor Adventures at 0800 and got on kayaks at 0900
  • the scenery was amazing. A combination of Milford Sound views plus Guilin views. Spent quite sometime admiring the views and exploring secret lagoons. Kites were flying overhead and adding to the feel of the place. Loved it
  • after a day of kayaking, it was time for another sumptuous dinner plus a Vietnam adventure closing beer
Goin' kayaking

Goin’ kayaking

Where are my Hollywood offers

Where are my Hollywood offers

Dom enjoying his kayaking

Dom enjoying his kayaking

More kayaking

More kayaking

Another secret lagoon

Another secret lagoon

View of the bay

View of the bay

View of the bay

View of the bay

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Floating village

Floating village



Floating village

Floating village

Loved the kayaking

Loved the kayaking

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

2015-12-05 (Sunday)
  • it was time to bring the Vietnam vacation to a close. Boarded a bus at 9am which took us to the pier. From Hai Phong Bay, we took another bus to Hanoi. We then cabbed it to the airport
  • a plane back to Hong Kong concluded our little jaunt in Vietnam
Sunny day photo of Cat Ba

Sunny day photo of Cat Ba

What a great looking guy

What a great looking guy

Bye Bye Hanoi

Bye Bye Hanoi

  • stunning rice terrace, beautiful villages, serene islands and spectacular scenery. If this isn’t reason enough to visit Vietnam I am not sure what is!
  • my suggestion to fellow travelers would be to avoid the night buses if you don’t like cigarette smoke!

Kick Ass Motorbiking Adventure in Ladakh (July 2015)

After eight long years, the mountains of Ladakh, India beckoned again. The motorbikes were calling out our names. High altitude passes, river streams and meandering roads were waiting to be crossed yet another time on a motorbike — this time on Royal Enfields. And so began the planning of our motorbike trip to Ladakh from Manali. Prashant, my friend and travel mate on our two previous motorbike rides in Ladakh organized this one too. Bold Swiss motorbike rider and fellow Hong Konger, Hannes also joined us for our kick ass motorbiking adventure in Ladakh during July 2015.

Photo courtesy: Hannes (he’s a better photographer than I am). All photos are here.

Hannes’ PowerPoint collage

2015-07-13, Chennai to Manali

  1. I took a flight into Delhi from Chennai. Flight landed 5 minutes early (Go IndiGo Air!) and met Prashant and Hannes at about 1945 outside the airport
  2. Took a pretty long taxi ride (saw India Gate, Red Fort on the way) and reached a super crowded ISBT (big intercity Delhi bus stand) at about 2100. Bus stand was a cacophony of activity
  3. Took a bus to Manali. Had front row seats. Hannes even helped fix a puncture en route at 3am while Prashant and I were asleep despite the rather uncomfortable seats
At ISBT bus stand

At ISBT bus stand

15-hour bus ride. Fixing a puncture at 3am

15-hour bus ride. Fixing a puncture at 3am

2015-07-14, Getting bikes plus permits in Manali

  1. reached Manali at 1.15pm (left at 2200 the previous day) making this the longest bus ride of my lifetime. 15 hours on a bus that stopped almost everywhere and even had puncture problems
  2. got the motorbikes from the Trip Advisor rated Their shop was in a place called Vashisht in Manali. Luckily, the gears on the Enfield were on the left side. I got the new Thunderbird 350cc which was only a month old. Prashant and Hannes had classic Enfield 350cc bikes. Bike guy whose name was Abhinav Sood, seemed to be running a pretty lucrative business. Reliable guy but made us sign a million forms to indemnify his company against this, that, etc (guess he needs to). Bikes were in great condition
  3. got the permits done to cross Rohtang Pass at the SDM (not sure what that stands for) but it’s a pretty dull looking bureaucratic office in Manali City by the bus stand. We then tested the bikes out and slept like a log for 8 hours to recover from the 15-hour bus ride
Room in Manali

Room in Manali

Hannes with his "Black Beauty"

Hannes with his “Black Beauty”

Prashant and his Enfield

Prashant and his Enfield

Suited and booted and ready to go

Suited and booted and ready to go

Loading up on gas

Loading up on gas

2015-07-15, Manali to Jispa

  1. set off on our kick ass bike journey at 7am in the morning. Meandering roads, slushy terrain and dust-filled air greeted us on the first half of our ride. That and plenty of careful overtaking of heavy tucks that stirred up dust straight into our faces. The challenge of riding on slushy mountainous roads blended with the magnificence of the mountain itself
  2. the new Thunderbird 350cc I was riding definitely looked old after I crossed the muddy roads of Rohtang pass (about 3800m). The shock absorbers were put to good test during and after crossing Rohtang. We averaged around 16km per hour until Sissu (after Rohtang). It was rather an amusing sight to watch tourists dressed up in full blown snow suits when there was very little snow to see! It was like wearing a raincoat for protection from a small puddle of water in the remote distance
  3. we continued on after Rohtang and eventually reached Jispa at around 4pm (9 hours later) covering about 110km on Day 1 of our kick ass riding
  4. Jispa was quite beautiful. We found tent like accommodation with a proper toilet. It started to rain as soon as we were parked and settled! I even caught a rainbow from the toilet window
On the way to Rohtang Pass

On the way to Rohtang Pass

Little but of snow en route. Tourists wore a full snow suit for this!

Little but of snow en route. Tourists wore a full snow suit for this!

Hannes enjoying a Kingfisher in Jispa

Hannes enjoying a Kingfisher in Jispa

This is Jispa

This is Jispa

2015-07-16, Jispa to Pang

  1. Quite a hard day! We left Jispa early but got stuck at Baralacha La Pass. Two vehicles got stuck in a rather ominous looking river crossing. We waited for two hours for the army to clear the road using something called a JCB (some big crane). Later, Hannes was the first one among us to attempt to cross that stream. He rode through the bouldery stream crossing like a daredevil punk and succeeded in his first attempt! I needed help and almost fell. Prashant followed suit and made a successful attempt. More such stream crossings appeared and demanded some heavy motorbiking skills
  2. The lake at Baralacha La pass at 4927 meters was dazzling. Serene and picturesque. I remembered seeing this lake 8 years back in June when it was frozen. Now it appeared vast and was quite a sight. After the lake, came two very beautiful high altitude passes. Nakeela La at 4961m and Lachung La at 5097m. I almost lost control of the bike while negotiating a slope after Lachung La. Prashant had his first fall which resulted in a minor knee injury
  3. We finally ended up at a place called Pang at 4.30pm, which was at about 4500m above sea level. Although we did not want to stay at such an altitude, we were out of time and could not continue riding. Staying at Pang was a nightmare. We had basic tent like accommodation with many others. It was super cold and noisy (I also contributed to it through my occasional snoring). All the three of us had an altitude headache. Hannes didn’t sleep a wink. The previous two times I had stayed at Pang was in 2008/2009. Both times, I vomited and felt like someone had beaten me up. This time, the lady at the place gave me some ginger tea which really helped. I managed to spend the night at Pang without puking. I even ventured out quickly during the night to look at the stars. It was quite a sight! But, my visual treat was interrupted by my olfactory senses which detected the pungent smell of human excreta nearby! I gave the stargazing a rest and went back into the tent to try and resume my sleep despite the sharp high altitude headache
Truck stuck in Barlacha La pass

Truck stuck in Barlacha La pass

We had to wait for the army JCB to clear this mess

We had to wait for the army JCB to clear this mess

Prashant and Hannes wondering what to do next

Prashant and Hannes wondering what to do next

JCB tows away the van

JCB tows away the van

Hannes readies to cross

Hannes readies to cross

Finally made it through

Finally made it through

Barlacha La pass

Barlacha La pass

This is Barlilacha Lake. Usually frozen in winter

This is Barlilacha Lake. Usually frozen in winter

Nakeela Pass

Nakeela Pass

Pang - our resting abode for the night

Pang – our resting abode for the night

2015-07-17, Pang to Leh

  1. with much difficulty, we got out of our horrible tented accommodation in Pang. I got out to look at the toilets and immediately averted my eyes! First of all, I had trouble deciding where exactly the toilet was. The pungent smell my nose detected seemed to come from pretty much everywhere! Pieces of feces lay strewn around like landmines beyond a distance which was hardly a stone’s throw away. I decided that my own excreta was best contained within the confines of my intestines. Hannes proudly announced that he had gotten a nice one out the previous day on the mountains just before we got into Pang. Anyway, we got back on the bikes, happily left Pang, and it was then one relatively fast ride into More Plains, a 50km stretch of flat roads in the high altitude plains. We then hit another high altitude pass called Tanglang La pass at 5353m. Stunning. There was a temple there but I didn’t have enough energy to remove my shoes and go in, so I skipped going inside
  2. after Tanglang La pass, there was a meandering road that took us to Rumtse (4300m). Then we hit Upshi after another 50km of riding. The roads all the way from Pang were very good
  3. riding into Leh from Upshi was such a pleasure! There was a river hugging the winding road and I managed to hit 90kmh on the Enfield on many occasions
  4. upon reaching Leh, we found good accommodation in a hotel called Grand Willow (finally had access to a good toilet again!) After checking in, showering and getting rid of intestinal waste, we walked around to try and get permits done to visit Nubra Valley and Panagong Lake. (Since these places are close to border regions, one needs to get permits). Getting permits for Hannes seemed like a struggle initially. Apparently, non Indians can only get permits if there is at least two of them traveling together! I am not sure what a solo non Indian traveler would do! Anyway, some money and a travel agent up the road solved this problem for us by combining Hannes’ permit with some other non Indians. It was funny to see that they wrote down that Hannes was from “Swaziland” and not Switzerland in the permit!
The Moray plains

The Moray plains

Tanglang La pass (5300m). Couldn't go into the temple here

Tanglang La pass (5300m). Couldn’t go into the temple here

On the way to Leh

On the way to Leh

This is in the outskirts of Leh

This is in the outskirts of Leh

Our hotel put on a cultural show in Leh

Our hotel put on a cultural show in Leh

Not sure what these two gentlemen are laughing at

Not sure what these two gentlemen are laughing at

2015-07-18, Leh to Pangong Lake (aborted Nubra Valley attempt)

  1. armed with permits, we set off for Nubra Valley at 7am. However, around 10km into the journey, we were stopped by some local punks who insisted that we could only go to Kardung La (we had to cross this 5400m pass to get to Nubra Valkey) on Jammu and Kashmir rented bikes, not Manali rented bikes. Hannes unleashed a slew of verbal abuse at the guy which made him get on the phone to his boss. (For a couple of minutes, I thought Hannes was going to get himself killed!) However, the punks won and although illegal, they managed to turn us around
  2. after having been turned around, we decided to attempt Pangong Lake, although we felt we would be turned around there too by the punks there. As we were riding, at some point during the initial ride to Pangong lake, some local punks shouted at us and asked us to stop but we continued on regardless. After several hours of hardcore biking and several stream crossings which rendered by feet numb, we reached Chang La (5378m). As usual, there was a temple there but I couldn’t summon the energy to take my shoes off in that altitude for a quick note of thanks to God!
  3. the ride into Pangong Lake wasn’t easy. Although it was only around 50km from Chang La pass, the road was super busy and we had to cross many more mini streams. There was also some occasional desert like surface, and a lot of bouldery bits which proved to be a bit of a challenge for me on the bike. Hannes seemed to have no problems and even gave his beloved Enfield a pet name, “Black Beauty”. The desert like surface sent my bike and I dancing dangerously on many occasions
  4. eventually, we reached the beautiful Pangong lake after several hours of riding and found ourselves a nice warm Swiss style hut with a proper toilet. Upon Hannes’ insistence, we took a cold shower (my butt froze)
  5. it took me a while to get myself warmed up again as I had wet feet from not wearing proper biking boots. I was wearing Gorerex running shoes and all the streams en route were no match for these shoes. I was thinking of ways to make some makeshift poncho-boots for the next day’s ride to avoid getting frozen feet again!

PS. The irony of the day was that no one had asked us for our permits! All that time we spent getting a Swaziland permit for Hannes was unnecessary!

Chang La pass - on the way to Pangong Lake

Chang La pass – on the way to Pangong Lake

On the way to Pangong Lake - a wild yak

On the way to Pangong Lake – a wild yak

Pangong Lake - where 3 Idiots was shot. There is a Rancho Cafe there

Pangong Lake – where 3 Idiots was shot. There is a Rancho Cafe there

Our Swiss style hut in Pangong Lake

Our Swiss style hut in Pangong Lake

The hut even had a couch

The hut even had a couch

Three quarters of this lake is in Tibet and 1 quarter in India

Three quarters of this lake is in Tibet and 1 quarter in India


2015-07-19, Pangong Lake to Nubra Valley via a challenging shortcut!

  1. we decided to take a shortcut to Nubra Valley from Pangong Lake. The shortcut was questionable as the road conditions were unknown but it promised to save us around 50km of riding as we would directly end up at Nubra Valley instead of going through Leh again
  2. the “shortcut” started off with a stream though which half the bike got submerged. Again, hero Hannes somehow managed to cross the stream without killing his engine. My bike stalled. I waited for Prashant and Hannes to rescue me. My feet got totally wet. It took me a while to get the engine going again. Then I met two army guys who told me that the road ahead was extremely bad and that it would be wise to turn back to avoid punctures. We dismissed his suggestion and rode on
  3. at some point, the “road” was non existent. Each boulder I guided the bike over felt like the next sureshot setting for a fall. And, fall I did. Two times. First one was in a stream where I misjudged the size of the boulder. Luckily, it was a minor fall. The bike was still standing although my right mirror broke. What I found harder was to gather myself and recover in the high altitude conditions after each fall!
  4. I have to say – the shortcut was beautiful no doubt but to admire the beauty was a challenge, especially when I felt like I was losing control of the bike. On serval occasions, it felt like I was on a camel, not an Enfield. Fortunately, the bike behaved and it seemed like we were somehow going to make it to Nubra Valley but just a mere 5km from Nubra, we had our first major unstoppable force of nature greeting us. A part of the road was blown away by a recent Made by Nature stream and the resulting deluge meant only two things (1) stay there and wait for the army guys to clear the stream (2) ride back!!! I definitely didn’t want to go back. No way in hell was I going to go through those boulder roads again (I had just narrowly escaped falling down more times than I could recall!) Staying there was a questionable idea as well as there was no guarantee of a foreseeable fix. The army guys couldn’t divert the stream channel as some sacred tree was in the way. So, we improvised on (2) and decided to get to Leh via a “Wari La” pass. Some random truck driver told us that the road condition to Wari La pass was “ok”
  5. I was expecting a puny 4300m pass but Wari La turned out to be the mother of all passes. At 5300m in altitude, it was snowing on top, there was ice on the road and quite some streams were pretty hard to negotiate. My hands were frozen. The views were simply superb but only when admired in hindsight! I saw two gigantic vultures but didn’t have the energy to get my camera out! Hannes managed to get some pictures of them
  6. we lost daylight and had to ride back into Leh in the dark. I was blinded by the powerful headlights of oncoming traffic in the night but it was manageable
  7. we reached Leh at 9pm and covered roughly 254km in one day and went over a 5300m pass where it was snowing! Quite a “shortcut”. We were finally back in Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel in Leh
On the way to Nubra Valley

On the way to Nubra Valley

Some of the road junctions were impossible to cross

Some of the road junctions were impossible to cross

We were stuck here! No way we could cross this stream

We were stuck here! No way we could cross this stream

Deciding on Wari La Pass while perched on this log

Deciding on Wari La Pass while perched on this log

More streams to cross

More streams to cross

A marmut

A marmut


Vulture on the way to Wari La Pass

Vulture on the way to Wari La Pass

It was snowing on Wari La

It was snowing on Wari La

My hands were frozen. Wari La was at 5300m above sea level

My hands were frozen. Wari La was at 5300m above sea level

2015-07-20, Leh (rest day)

  1. today being our well deserved rest day, we got up late and went on a leisurely walk to a donkey sanctuary. Some kind person set up a place for old and injured donkeys where they could spend the last few years of their lives in comfort instead of letting them die a painful death outside
  2. we then visited a rock museum which was quite impressive. I had no idea that Ladhakh was home to so many precious minerals
  3. the evening was spent watching a movie about Ladhakh. Quite a good introduction to Buddhism and the beauty of Ladhakh. Did you know that Ladakh comes from the Tibetan word “La Dags” which means Land of Passes? After the movie, I went to the market to buy rubber boots. My goretex running shoes were no match for the intense stream crossings!


Leh Market place

Leh Market place

Downtown Leh

Downtown Leh

Leh Marathon! Will do this someday!

Leh Marathon! Will do this someday!

2015-07-21, Leh to Manali (first attempt)
1) the plan was to get up at 6am and head back towards Manali. We did that and left at 7am. I learned that the trouser goes over my newly purchased rubber boots, not under. My boots got wet as I rode the bike through a deep puddle of water. We reached Upshi (50km from Leh) at around 9am when Murphy’s law (what can go wrong will go wrong) greeted us

2) the guy at the checkpoint told us that “Brandy” bridge near Sarchu has been washed away by the torrential downpours the day before. Hence the road was closed. We needed to turn back. We still waited. And waited. Many other bikers and cars were stopped and given similar news. What followed then was a melee of mixed messages. Some guy said that the road would open at 1pm and another guy insisted it would take three days for a new bridge to be put in place. Messages were as confusing as they were ample. Everyone had supposedly heard something. We turned back towards Leh at 1pm after being told by the police guy at the checkpoint that “there was absolutely no point in waiting”

3) having lost our backup day and without any signs of anything improving, we decided to explore buying our way out of the situation. Meaning, we had to book expensive flights out of Leh and pay our bike rental guy many more thousands to get the bikes back to Manali on trucks. We reached the airport at 3pm or so to explore buying tickets but only to discover that it was closed (all planes fly in the morning only). Murphy’s law struck again as Prashant’s bike stopped working. We then split up. We used the remaining two bikes to get to the local mechanic. The mechanic went back with Prashant to the airport to fix his bike while Hannes and I went to the sole travel agent in Leh with a working internet connection to inquire about flight prices. It was INR 25k for a fight to Delhi!

4) after lunch, we asked several more people (police headquarters, Manali taxi stand) about the road condition and eventually, there seemed to be some sort of consensus on the latest news, which was that small vehicles were now being allowed to go through!

5) with this newfound information, we decided to leave at 5.30am the next day to attempt to get to Manali one last time before considering the expensive flying option. To add to the confusion of the route being open, we had another fresh problem to deal with. Apparently, Leh was going to be on strike the next day from 6am to 8pm. No vehicles were to be allowed on the road during this time. To tiptoe around the Leh lockdown, our plan was this: we would leave at 5.30am the following day and reach Upshi by 6.30am. If the road to Manali would be open, we’d take it. If not, we would hang out outside Leh, wait for the lockdown to end, somehow book flight tickets in the interim and come back into Leh after 8pm to try and make a Thursday/Friday morning flight!

6) nature, strikes, breakdowns… We had seen it all in one day! Getting out of our room 403 at Grand Willow hotel was a challenge!

We had a hard time leaving this place

We had a hard time leaving this place

We visited the Leh Palace in the afternoon

We visited the Leh Palace in the afternoon

The old Leh palace

The old Leh palace

The Gongpa

The Gongpa

2015-07-22, Leh to Manali (second attempt)

  1. We got up not at 5.30am but even sooner, at 4.30am ready to take on the 450km ride to Manali. We said another sly goodbye to the hotel room and hoped we wouldn’t see it again anytime soon
  2. Less than 25 minutes into the ride which started at 5.20am, we saw many bikers signaling us to turn around. We eventually figured out that the guys who were striking had created a road block up ahead. No vehicle could leave Leh! It was not even 6am (the supposed beginning of the lockdown) but the striking hooligans seemed to have gotten themselves an unfair early start. About turn. Hello again Room Number 403 in Grand Willow Hotel. Looks like we’ve met before! Time: 6.15am.
  3. We had lost our contingency day and one day of our actual journey to Manali! Now, we had to do the ride to Manali in a mere two days to make our Hong Kong flight in time. And, that didn’t allow any room for error at all. A breakdown, a fall, more road blocks and we would get stuck in India! Our flight out to HK was on Saturday night and we still had to get to Delhi from Manali
  4. we thought up a series of plans. Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, etc, etc. We again opted to buy our way out of the problem by purchasing air tickets to Delhi and paying the bike guy to send someone to Leh who could take the bikes back. New challenge: there were no flights available until the week after! Our only other solution was to ride back to Manali in two days. No room for error
  5. In order to while away time, we visited Leh Palace in the afternoon
  6. Thanks to the strike, we had one less day to return to Manali

Target: Time: Two days. Distance to cover: 450km

2015-07-23, Leh to Manali (third attempt)

  1. Get up time was 0330. Departure time 0400. We were ready to kick some serious butt today. Two days of intense riding through to Manali to get us the heck out of Leh! Thirty minutes into our cold and damp morning ride, I almost got caught in a muddy section of the road and my front wheel got ensnared. I was revving my engine real hard and real loud at 0430 to extricate myself and my bike from this newly formed slush. Prashant did a dance tune on the slush while Hannes almost ran into a cow!
  2. the day seemed fine and we were all ready to do around 200-something km on the bike. We reached Upshi with bated breath and were quite surprised to see a bunch of Enfields waiting before us! They managed to get up even before 3.30! One of them told us that she had gotten up at 2am in the anticipation of a long day ahead! BUT… Nature had its final say! There are two ways out of Leh. One of them got hit by a landslide (road via Tso Moriri) and the other one had a section of the road swept away! (Road via Rumtse – the way we came). Meaning, we were once again (for the third time) stuck in Leh! The Tso Moriri route might have not been an option to begin with as it was 170km longer. Not something we could do in two days anyway!
  3. three days, three attempts. Three failures. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. We had to come up with a Plan D to get us out of Leh and in time for our Hong Kong flights. We didn’t sit at Umshi waiting for the roads to get fixed (as we did two days back!) Instead, we rode to the airport to check for available flight tickets out of Leh. None was available. We then went back to our usual hotel where the staff once again greeted us with a smirk on their faces. “Never has someone been unsuccessful so many times”, said the hotel guy. It didn’t make us feel better. What did make us feel better was the news that Ladakh was experiencing a “cloud burst” which only happens once in about 5 years. At least, we weren’t carrying any jinx. It was not our rotten luck but it was Leh and the unique weather that was to blame for our inability to escape from our beloved hotel room!
  4. after showering and “downloading” at Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel, we went to a travel agent hoping for last minute cancelations. Finally, Lady Luck smiled at us and we got three tickets out of Leh for the next day at an exorbitant price of INR 24,000 each ticket. The price of freedom!
  5. we negotiated with our bike rental guy to send someone over to our hotel to pick up the bikes. Then we went for our final joy ride on the bike to a place called Nimmu on the national highway #1. We saw the Indus Valley river and a hill called Magnetic Hill which is somehow supposed to pull vehicles upwards against gravity, towards its peak. It seemed like a bunch of baloney
  6. we came to know later on that the landslide on the Tso Moriri route wasn’t fixed until about the evening. So, waiting at Rumtse would have been a waste of time as we would have been out of time anyway. We had made a good decision by choosing to return quickly upon discovering that the roads were closed. That way, we at least got the last few seats on the plane to Delhi the following day
  7.  we concluded what seemed like our final day in Leh (this time for real) with some sumptuous dinner in celebration of our bike ride into Leh and our three attempted rides back! Hannes added that “if I come back to this hotel room tomorrow, I will hang myself”
On the way to Village Nimmu

On the way to Village Nimmu

Indus Ruver

The Indus River

The Indus River

This river runs from Tibet to Pakistan via India

This river runs from Tibet to Pakistan via India

2015-07-24, Leh to Hong Kong, via Delhi

  1. we got up at 4.30am to catch our 7am fight out to Delhi. Hannes asked if he should leave some luggage behind just in case. We had come back 3 times in the past 3 days anyway. Would we really be able to leave Leh?
  2. I wanted to get the pilot to do a low flying pass over Upshi. If we could see both roads to Manali open, we could always parachute down to ride the bikes back to Manali
  3. all the three of us said goodbye to Room 403 at Grand Willow hotel and hoped that the plane wouldn’t get canceled! If the roads can shut two times in two days and if a strike can stop us on the third day, then a plane cancelation isn’t really far off the realm of imagination
  4. the sky was clear blue outside and the day was perfect! It probably was a good day for riding but … it was also one for flying! We were ready to fly home!
  5. we reached Delhi without incident at 8am and said bye to Prashant. Hannes and I flew out to Hong Kong in the night
Goodbye Leh, for real!

Goodbye Leh, for real!

I almost thought we wouldn't be able to leave Leh

I almost thought we wouldn’t be able to leave Leh

A nice statue of the sun in Delhi airport

A nice statue of the sun in Delhi airport


Snow capped mountains, lakes, desert like landscape, ice, snow, high altitude passes… we had seen it all by riding 1255km around Ladakh on Royal Enfields. We’d also seen man made pollution, landslides, experienced plans being forced to change due to nature’s intervention and plans being disrupted due to man made strikes.

This trip has definitely had the hallmark of yet another kick ass adventure in our beautiful Planet Earth. The more I travel and immerse myself in the beauty of nature, the more captivated I become with what our planet has to offer! I will miss my Royal Enfield. And, next time, I think we should avoid biking in Ladakh during the July monsoons!

Thanks to Hannes for the photographs.

Julley. (That’s some kind of greeting in Ladakhi).


Motorbiking in Chiangmai (and drinking plenty of coconut water) – April 2015

Photos are here.

A 4-day window of public holidays in April could mean only one thing. Actually, wait. It could mean two things: (1) Run around in the hills of Hong Kong (2) Take a plane to wherever and explore the beauty of this “wherever” place.

Well, that “wherever” place in April 2015 happened to be Chiangmai, in Northern Thailand.

My Kiwi travel companion Brendan, thanks to the perks of being a teacher, was already in Thailand about a week ahead of me. Given both of us are rather easy going and couldn’t be bothered to do much of research, we had originally settled on a touristy style 4-day itinerary with a tour group. Something like spend-the-evening-in-an-exotic-village on the first day, visit-an-elephant-camp the next day, and so on – you get the picture. Of course, an obligatory elephant ride was also very much on the cards. These activities all sounded good but the “tour group” part was a bit of a dampener, because deep down inside, neither Brendan nor I, is a big fan of something that is too touristy. So, given Brendan’s teaching perks and the extra week he was spending in Thailand, he decided to do a bit of research on motorbiking around Chiangmai, all the way to the border of Burma. Now, that got me excited. As much as I love elephants and “an exotic village”, some boilerplate Tour #1 isn’t as fulfilling as a motorbike ride around Thailand, soaking in the scenic beauty of the picturesque landscape and feeling the gush of the mountain air.

Brendan’s research revealed this:

“The roads around Chiang Mai are some of the most scenic in the country.

One of the best known is the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 600-kilometer journey that starts from Chiang Mai, and, traveling counterclockwise, passes through Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang before returning to the starting point.

Driving yourself is the best way to do this multiday excursion — car and motorbike rental shops are found all over the city — allowing you to stop to admire the mountainous landscape, visit small villages and swim beneath waterfalls.”

Now, we’re talkin’.

April 2nd, 2015
I landed at Chiangmai airport and quickly zipped through the immigration queue (thanks to the APEC card). I grabbed a shared taxi from the airport to Spicy Thai backpackers (my intended humble abode for the night).

I met Brendan there who looked a tad tired but was still in high spirits. He was talking to a tall tourist. Judging by the length of that guy’s beard, it looked to me like he must have been spending quite some time on the move.

Air Asia doesn’t lose an opportunity to make money – advertisements on the overhead compartment

Our first stop was Tony’s Big Bike shop and Brendan revealed his true personality by showing off the girly bicycle he had rented. (It even had a little flower basket). I naturally made fun of him and told him that I didn’t buy his “this was the only bike available” excuse. The joke was on me though because after lunch at the equivalent of a Thai Cha Changeng, I had to sit behind that girly bike and ride with Brendan all the way to Tony’s Big Bike shop. What a debut! Two dudes on a girly bicycle setting off to rent big motorbikes from a Big Bike shop!

Brendan and his girly bike

Lunch at Thai Cha Chanteng

The owner was too busy smoking his cigarette so luckily, he didn’t notice our grand not-so-macho entry.

After some negotiation, we were the proud renters of two motorbikes. A Honda 250cc for me and (the next morning) a semi-automatic bike for Brendan who was making his debut on his first road trip.

We then headed for a monastery on top of a hill. I called the place “The Stoop” but it was really called Doi Suthep. It was a Buddhist monastery which had this calming and serene feeling to it. Feeling there and listening to the chants felt as though time was slowing down.

Doi Suthep monastery – a very serene atmosphere

The Buddhist temples are remarkably similar to Indian temples

You can donate to any cause you choose — quote innovative instead of having a one-size-fits-all donation box

There was a “Phuping place” sign everywhere. Wonder what that means. Place to poop?

I also started my coconut drinking spree after our visit to Dui Suthep. As legend would have it, by the end of our little adventure in Chiangmai, I would have gone through around 20 coconuts in 4 days! And, not to forget Thai street food. Very cheap. I ate so much that for the first time among all of my little getaways, my eating expenses exceeded my accommodation expenses!

To conclude the day’s affairs, Brendan went for a little test ride on the 250cc Honda and had his very first minor accident as he fell off the bike while trying to turn without putting his foot down.

Our guesthouse – Khaosung in Chiangmai

April 3rd, 2015
It was time to begin the 600km Mae Hong Song loop under scorching weather.

Riding around 40kms away from Chiangmai, we took a little detour from the Mae Hong Song loop and reached Mae Tang National Park. I thought one could enter these parks for free but being “foreigners”, we were charged 300 bucks each. (Had I learnt the two Thai words that I know now, we may have passed off as locals.)

Getting ready to ride 600kms

Our loyal vehicles

Mae Tang National Park

The first stop within Mae Tang National Park was a very interesting geographical formation called “Pha Chor”. I found it rather hard to believe that it was all natural formed. The symmetry was stunning. Brendan put his photography skills to good use by looking for “a natural frame”. He used other cool phrases which I don’t remember now. But, I blame any rubbish pictures that I’ve taken on my camera, not my knowledge of photography or lack of thereof.

Pha Chor — These are natural geographical formations, not an old construction

Brendan admiring the formation

Anyway, after Pha Chor-ing, we headed for yet another National Park called Doi Inthanon National Park. We were greeted with the usual “300 bucks foreigner fee” but two magic words meant we could go in for free. No, not “pretty please” or “thank you” but “Mae Chaem”. Allow me to explain. Doi Inthanon has two entry points and two exit points. One is near Chiangmai and the other is near a place called Mae Chaem. So, for some reason, if one were to enter at Chiangmai and exit at Mae Charm, it’s free! All you have to tell the lady at the check point is that you are headed towards Mae Chaem. There’s a 300 buck saving tip.

10 coconuts a day, keeps the doctor away

So, what’s in Doi Inthanon National Park? Three things mainly: waterfalls, the highest point in Thailand (the Doi Inthanon summit at 25xx meters) and some cool treks. By the way, on the subject of treks and air quality, I have to mention this – around Easter, the farmers burn a lot of rice fields so there is this prevailing smog in the air in Chiangmai. The air tends to clear up following rains in late April. So, if you’re traveling to Chiagmai in the first week of April to benefit from the public Easter holidays, don’t expect sunshine and crystal clear skies. Well, you will get sunshine but not crystal clear skies!

Doi Inthanon National Park

Wachirathan Waterfalls

You can feel the water splashing past you!

We went for a little trail run by the summit when all of a sudden a lady appeared and pointed towards a document that read “going without a guide is dangerous”. She, of course, wanted 200 bucks to escort us to safety. Given we had saved 300 bucks in entrance fees, we paid this 200 but disappeared into the wilderness before she could catch up with us.

Going on a trail run

The sub-alpine meadow starts at a much higher elevation here

There were many zen moments on this little trail run.

Words of wisdom: The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even heard. They must be felt from the heart

This tree has to learnt to survive without leaves as it very windy up here

The trail

Listen to nature’s voice.

Be still, be quiet, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the forest. Listen to the sounds of the falling leaves, the restless wind, the swaying branches, the trickling stream, sweet chirping of birds, humming of insects’ delicate wings. Not the variety, subtlety and complexity of the forest symphony. Immerse, absorb and enjoy.

Brendan experiencing a moment of serenity

There was a guest book at the end of the trail and I wrote “Thailand Rocks!” and drew a nice smiley face next to it. I then passed the pen to Brendan who was beside me. Enlightened by the newfound serenity in the forest, Brendan added his little poetic touch to their guest book.

“The restless mind is harnessed in the symphony of the forest. Lonely, wandering, tortured souls are brought peace” – Brendan Lee

(I would have written something more deep than “Thailand Rocks” had I known he was going to write something as beautiful as that!)

After the trail run, we headed towards the summit Doi Inthanon.

The highest spot in Thailand – it was about 15 degrees over here and 33 degrees centigrade at ground level

After our adventure in Doi Inthanon National Park, we descended down scenic, windy roads into Mae Chaem.

We searched for a guesthouse and a very friendly lady pointed us in the right direction. She also invited us to her coffee shop. We politely declined and continued to search for the guesthouse.

Eventually, we found one by the back alley of the town. We had one big bed in a super hot room with one rather noisy fan. Hmm… “could have been worse” is what I was thinking, but then it did get worse! (Murphy’s law!) The toilet was located in mosquito land and had lizards and cockroaches for guests! Well, not a deal breaker. I knew I could “hold it in”. (After all, I did survive almost a week in Xin Jiang simply by “holding it in”). The “shower area” was also… let’s say “interesting”. It was essentially a shower (which I was grateful for) in an outdoor area. In place of a tiled or a concrete floor, there were rubbles. Anyway, no biggie.

Mosquitoes and lizards were omnipresent and occasionally a leaf would fall from high above, giving this bathroom setting a sort of eerie feel to it. And, taking a few more steps from the designated shower area would mean that you would come under plain view of the residents in the upper storey. So, before I could go in for a shower, I carefully admired the lizards in the backdrop and switched the light off. My thinking was that in case a lizard were to jump on me, I would leapfrog to my right but would still maintain my manly dignity as the residents upstairs wouldn’t be able to see me in the dark. Thankfully, I did survive my shower and happily reatined my dignity, although a falling leaf from up above in the darkness got me a little uneasy. Bold Brendan claimed that he had “nothing to hide” and went for his “shower” but he almost banged his head against the thatched roof above as he couldn’t quite see in the dark! (I didn’t tell him that I had switched off the light and given the primitive state of the “shower”, I don’t think he was expecting a light there).

A nice drawing welcomes us to the guesthouse at Mae Chaem

Interesting washbasin

This is the shower area. Home to the person taking the shower and also home to cockroaches, mossies and lizards. In plain view of the residents above

The toilet. The washbasin was home to several dozen red ants. The toilet was home to mossies and cousins (flies/lizards/roaches)

April 4th, 2015

Motorbike loses “motor”
In my growing enthusiasm to say goodbye to that questionable shower and toilet, I got up early, took my “goodbye” photos of the shower and toilet and waved a bigger goodbye to the guesthouse as I sat on the motorbike. And then, Murphy’s law struck like a hardened hammer on a fragile nail.

I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, turned it to ‘On’ position and nothing. Nada. Zilch. The motorbike seemed as dead as a fish out of water. This situation called for superb mental state management, not just because I had no idea how to fix the bike, but because I also had to get back into the very guesthouse that I had so enthusiastically just said goodbye to!

Biting the bullet, I had a déjà vu as I went back into the guesthouse to deposit my rucksack, then Brendan and I got on his bike to see if we could find someone in town to come and fix mine. That didn’t go so well. One guy we met who looked like he could fix stuff couldn’t understand a word of English. Sign language – too complicated. Time – 6.45am when everything was mostly shut.

As the odds were against us, the lady who invited us for coffee the previous day suddenly showed up. She spoke good English and suggested that we go to her brother’s house – her brother was a mechanic of sorts. She came with us on her bike, introduced us to her brother, who in turn, came with us to inspect my broken down bike. He then announced that he had to take my bike to his home garage to take a closer look. How would you move a broken down bike? Perhaps in Hong Kong on a truck, but in Chiangmai, Chaem’s brother pulled a little James Bond style trick. He asked me to sit on my bike, he then briefly disappeared and then reappeared on my rear view mirror. He was riding his scooter using his left hand and his right hand pushed against the back of my bike and all of a sudden, I was “riding” my bike. Defunct engine, but mobile! It worked like a charm. At one point, it seemed like we could do the entire Mae Hong Song loop that way!

As Chaem’s talented brother got to work on my broken down bike, Brendan and I started talking to Chaem to learn more about her. What a kind person she was! Not only did she come in at the right time to find a solution to my broken down bike, she also invited us to have a free coffee tasting session at her shop once the bike was fixed. She was one of those inviduals who you meet and never forget. Kind, selfless and giving. Our conversation with Chaem was interrupted as my bike suddenly sputtered to life in the background. Chaem’s brother had somehow fixed it! What a relief that was.

We went back to our guesthouse to pick up my rucksack but this time, I refrained from expressing enthusiastic goodbyes to ward off any more surprises or unintended manifestations of Murphy’s law. I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, switched it to ‘On’ position and heaved another big sigh of relief to see the LCD dashboard spring to life. We then took up Chaem on her coffee offer. I’ve never felt so welcome in a shop before! Her caring attitude towards people and life was enlightening.

Chaem’s brother fixes my motorbike

Chaem’s coffee shop

Our group photo

Brendan comes of “biking” age
We exchanged goodbyes with Chaem and set off on our way from Mae Chaem to Mae Hong Song.

Makeshift petrol station

We asked a couple of people here and there for directions and eventually hit a dirt road. The road had many steep turns and there was a lot of lose gravel on it. During one such sharp bend on the road, I saw Brendan making the sharp left turn, then came a loud noise of chassis hitting hard ground and the engine sputtering to a stop.

Panic surged through me. My mind was racing with thoughts like the traffic on a busy highway. I quickly parked my bike and ran up to Brendan and saw him groaning with pain, trapped under his bike. His leg was stuck under the weight of the chassis. I feared the worst and tried to calm my mind down before considering my next moves. I lifted his bike freeing his leg from underneath the chassis, then I pushed the bike to the side of the road, parked it there and went back to Brendan to see him still lying down on the road in agony. I helped him get up, made him sit by the side of the road and did a quick check on him. He was bleeding but, fortunately, all his wounds were superficial. Phew! I can’t even recall the last time I felt that relieved. The motorbike fix in the morning didn’t even come close.

Knowing that Brendan was fine, I forced him to smile and declared that he had finally come of “biking” age. I told him that every biker at some stage of his life, has probably fallen of the bike and learnt a lesson. This first fall is crucial to becoming a pro biker. And, what was Brendan’s lesson? Never take a sharp bend on the road on the third gear. Important lesson.

Bleeding but smiling Brendan. It was very scary to see him lying down in pain!

An off-road adventure leads to more falls
Falling of the bike became the norm as we somehow ended up motorbiking on a never-ending off-road trail which really isn’t meant for motorbiking. It all started when we asked two kids for directions to Mae Hong Song. They accompanied us on their own bikes for about a kilometer and then disappeared. I was pretty sure that they had sent the two of us into unchartered territory on a wild goose chase because the “road” didn’t quite exist. Imagine riding a motorbike on Plover Cove trail in Hong Kong. This was pretty much like that! Brendan came of biking age many times! And, as for yours truly, sometimes even experienced monkeys fall from trees, or as in this case, fall from bikes. (I’m not a monkey though). We rode up what looked like steep scree slopes as our engines whined and cried. Then we held our nerves with bated breath and prepared ourselves for the dangerous ride down the other side of the slope. We were on first gear trying to delicately balance the bike by avoiding the lose gravel and large stones on the slippery surface made of loose rocks. Tightrope walking must have been easier. In fact, I can sum up our experience in this tailor-made version of Police’s song.

Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…

At one point, I decided to turn data roaming on on my phone to figure out where we were on the map. Alas! Despite my rare and desperate move to pay ridiculous roaming charges, there was no signal. And then, history repeated itself. Brendan fell. I fell. And our version of the song from Police.

Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…

I’ve got to say this though – neither Brendan nor I complained despite the predicament we found ourselves in. We were both looking for a solution to the problem and willing to weather any storm, or in this case, any slope. Ok, fine. You got me. Maybe I complained a little bit. But, Brendan didn’t!

These slopes got harder and harder and never seemed to end

Brendan trying to calm himself down following more falls

The Gods of mercy finally smiled upon us after we had just barely survived yet another grueling rubble slope. We saw a village and more importantly, the dirt road that lead us out of there. After what we had been through, looking at dirt road instead of something like a scree slope felt like a big treat to the eyes. That dirt road eventually lead us to a proper Tarmac road. I would have almost kissed it.

We finally extricated ourselves out of the off-road mess!

We then rode up to the first store we could find to fix Brendan’s injuries. As we applied Hydrogen Peroxide on his leg injuries, he let out a shriek much to the amusement of the two kids in the store who lovingly fanned some air onto his legs to alleviate his pain.

Brendan gets his leg injuries fixed

The day’s adventure finally ended once we reached Mae Hong Song. And, as always, I went on my coconut water drinking spree. The day’s affairs meant at least 5 coconuts to recover.

And, by the way, I asked Brendan if he’d do by himself what we did on the bike today if someone were to give him USD 10M for it. “No”, came the unequivocal response but being the kind guy he is, he did say that he’d give it a go if doing it would mean that he could solve one of the world’s biggest problems.

By the lake in Mae Hong Song

April 5th, 2015
Thanks to the intense off-road adventure from the day before, I made sure that we knew exactly where we were going today. No scree slopes. No off-road adventure. Just road biking!

The day naturally started with coconut water plus street food

We rode all the way to a Chinese-style village by the border between Thailand and Burma, while temporarily joining a parade en route.

We participated in this parade briefly

Ban Rak Tai – A Chinese village by the border of Thailand and Burma

The border between Thailand and Burma

Brendan is in Thailand and I am in Burma

Brendan is in Burma and I am in Thailand

Apparently, there were trenches on both sides and quite of lot of soldiers had died there during the wars from the past. We asked the soldier on the Thai side if we could take a couple of pictures in the No Man’s land between Thailand and Burma. He let us. I was extra polite with him as has had a huge M16 by his side!

The soldier guarding the border

After bidding goodbye to Burma, we rode to a “Fish Cave” on the way to our destination for the day, Pai.

The Fish Cave – hmm, Brendan seemed to enjoy feeding the fish some insects! Basically, it was a puddle of water with some large fish in it! The glorified title “Fish Cave” is a bit of an exaggeration. The only eventful thing happened here when I accidentally dropped my motorbike keys into a large pond with several hundred fish in it. Luckily, the fish didn’t eat my key and even more luckily, a kind lady picked up the key for me! Had a fish eaten my key, that would have been tragic for both the fish and I!

The Fish Cave

We came all the way here to this “Fish Cave” to feed some fish in a puddle of water?

Pai seemed pretty westernized compared to the other places we had been to on the loop thus far. There was plenty of street food and the contents of a couple of more coconuts found their way to my stomach, along with some grilled corn and yam.

Welcome to the Hotel Pailifornia….

Aiya! No Hong Konger will rent a motorbike from this place!

PaiHollwood – this is where the Hollywood actors train

April 6th, 2015
No trip to Thailand can be complete without an elephant ride. These mammoth creatures are vegetarian and need to eat 250kgs a day!

We rode to Noy’s Elephant Camp for a ride on the back of a very docile elephant called Mai. Brendan helped out the elephant by swatting a mosquito on its back.

our elephant Mai

This is how you board an elephant

Feeling quite powerless on top of an elephant

This is what the elephant would see had it had a rear view mirror

To say “thank you” to the elephant, we gave him several dozen bananas. He gobbled them up almost as fast as I’d swallow coconut water on a hot day.

A dozen bananas gets eaten in 10 seconds!

The other thing to do in Thailand is of course, to swim in natural waterfalls. This was next on the agenda to conclude this 5-day adventure.

Mork-Fa Waterfalls – on the way from Pai to Chiangmai

And, once we reached Chianmai, the final onslaught of eating came in the form of noodles, veggie rice, ice creams, veggie snacks, coconut water and more coconut water. In fact, we had worked out that we could drink 17 coconuts on the 500 Bahts that I had remaining.

No trip to Thailand is complete without a tuk tuk ride

To justify this much eating, Brendan suggested that we do some exercise in the park to get rid of all the accumulating fat. And, that’s exactly what we did. About 5km of running interspersed with exercises in between. I thought I’d have the Strava record for this run but I could only manage the second fastest time!

Anyway, that run (plus more coconut water) concluded a truly awesome, kick ass 5-day motorbiking road trip around Northern Thailand.

I will finish with a quote:

“There is a sunrise and a sunset everyday. You can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty” – From the movie Wild


Hiking, kayaking and biking in South Island, New Zealand

Hiking, kayaking and biking in South Island, New Zealand

All photos are here.

Traveling and getting away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong is always a relaxing experience. The small things are priceless. Things like letting random thoughts float around in the mind, observing tourists in the airports and trying to guess where they’re from and what they’ve been doing, drinking hot chocolate at every available opportunity whilst reading an insightful book and so on. All this while getting to remote places to do a lot of outdoorsy things — that’s the best part.

My choice of book for this adventure trip was “The Alchemist”. A short and insightful book that I finished reading during my layover in Kuala Lumpur. This travel blog is going to be interspersed with meaningful quotes from the book! I am going to start with this one:

“It is the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”.

Now, over to the dream of hiking and kayaking in North Island.

13th February 2015

I boarded a plane from Melbourne to Queenstown to rendezvous with my travel crew for this NZ adventure, Dom, Adrian and Tilly. As passengers boarded the plane with a lot of carry on baggage, the overhead compartment in the plane was quite full. I was in an aisle seat and suddenly I saw a flight attendant’s foot right next to my bum. She stood on top of this little footrest beside my seat and gave the baggages in overhead compartment a big shove, so she could squeeze another bag in.

“Sorry I am getting close to you”, she said with a broad smile on her face, and continued, “making room for one more bag in the overhead compartment is the best part of my job”.

“Definitely, sounds exciting”, I replied.

On that note, here’s another quote from the book The Alchemist.

“Your eyes show the strength of your soul”.

What that has to do with the flight attendant and the overhead compartment, I don’t know. But, you’ve got to admit – it’s a pretty neat quote so I thought I’d stick it in anyway.

Reaching Queenstown immediately put me in the “I love nature” mode. Getting off the plane, breathing in the fresh mountain air, and looking at all the beautiful mountains that surrounded the runway — it was a wow moment.

Also, very cool was the fact that I got picked up by Dom at the airport in our rental car! Beats queuing up for some bus! (He got in a day before me and had picked up the car just in time to pick me up).

After checking in to Bungi Backpackers, we set off to do a short hike called the Mount Chrichton loop which took about 2 hours.

This is Dom by Lake Wakipitu

Old hut in the Mt. Chrichton Loop

Trail with full of tall trees

The day was concluded in fashionable style with a massive 20″ pizza. We couldn’t finish it so the last two slices became my breakfast for the next day.

By the way, on the subject of food, I do have to mention the name of a certain burger joint called “Fergburger” (or something similar). The queues for a mere burger seemed over an hour long! I just couldn’t believe that anyone would bother queuing up that long for a burger when there were so many other nearby places. Their marketing must be truly kick ass.

Speaking of which, this may be the right time for another The Alchemist quote.

“When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision”.

So, if you truly decide to have a Ferg Burger, you will find yourself in that strong current (read: queue) that will carry you to places you’ve never dreamed of when you first made the decision (read: to the front of the queue in about an hour).

14th Feb 2015

The last two pizza slices for breakfast meant one more hike before Dom and I drove down to the airport again to pick up Tilly and Adrian.

The choice of hike was Lake Dispute. Why it’s called that, ich weis nicht (that’s “I don’t know” in German — just showing off the few words of German that I know).

Lake Dispute – check out my pro camera angle with the beautiful flowers in the foreground

Super big mushroom – you find them in the Alps too

Super thick spider web. I hear you can use them to make bullet proof vests

After Lake Dispute, we greeted Tilly at the Airport Arrivals. Tilly looked tired and seemed to have several bite marks on her hands and legs. (The culprit was something called a sandfly – more on that evil creature later). She had done a 100km race the week before and spent about two days in the North Island wilderness which was the reason for her sandfly decorated hands and legs. Adrian came in after Tilly, looking fresh and animated, all set for a kick ass adventure in South Island, New Zealand.

Embarking on a South Island adventure

The kick ass plan

It was simple, at least in theory. We’d route march the whole of the Milford Track the following day (15th). The thing is that, conventionally, the Milford Track needs to be done in 4 days and huts need to be booked well in advance (something like 6 months in advance). We definitely didn’t do that, and, well, we felt that 4 days was really a bit of an overkill for a 53.8km track (including soaking in the nature, taking photos, etc). The track can really be run in around 7-8 hours or so on a clear summer day. Route marching it would mean 12 hours at most. During summers, the sun sets at 9pm or so which meant we had plenty of time on our hands. But there was a catch – we had to arrange transportation to and from the track. Being zillionaires in our own right, we thought we’d charter a plane from Te Anau to Glade Wharf (where the track begins) and have a boat pick us up at Sandfly Point (where the track ends). The boat would then drop us off at Milford Sound where we’d have our car parked. So, we’d leave all our unnecessary items in the car and only carry our day packs on the track. This meant that we had to drive all the way to Milford Sound (which is after Te Anau) on this day, leave the car there and hitch a ride back to Te Anau. Foolproof plan.

Which brings me to another quote from The Alchemist.

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream”.

What we desired was simple: we’d drive to Te Anau, drop the newly arrived Tilly and Adrian there so they could get some rest, then Dom and I would drive all the way to Milford Sound with all the unnecessary items in our heavy backpacks, leave the car there and hitch a ride back. The “conspiring universe” (read: Firendly Car Guy) would help us hitch a ride back to Te Anau. Simple.

On the way to Te Anau from Queenstown

Our rental car

Dom goes dolly

In order to help the conspiring universe though, Dom and I had to look attractive enough for Mr. Friendly Car Guy to give us a lift at Milford Sound. Needless to say, I look quite handsome, in fact, very handsome. The problem, of course, was Dom. So, it was decided through an important team vote that he’d dress up like a girl (which would naturally suit him better). He’d put on a Hello Kitty tee shirt, some makeup (for what it’s worth, not that it would make him look that much better), wear a skirt and some pink lipstick. I will have to admit that it wasn’t the best solution but Dolly Dom was our best bet.

Dom himself (or should I say “herself”) wasn’t fancying his/her chances of being attractive enough to hitch a ride back. When we reached Te Anau and dropped off Ad and Tilly, he went up to the Reception of our hostel and asked them what our chances were of hitching a ride back from Milford Sound. “Not impossible”, was the very diplomatic and noncommittal answer. Perhaps the receptionist didn’t believe that the Dolly Dom idea would work.

In any case, Dom and I set off for Milford Sound after dropping off Tilly and Adrian at Te Anau. It took us about 2 hours to get to Te Anau from Queenstown and the time was already 5pm. We had another 1.5 hours to get to Milford Sound and hitch a ride back.

As we were driving to Milford Sound, we saw this one lone guy on our side of the road trying to hitch a ride. Judging by his beard, it looked like he had spent quite some time in the wilderness. Dom asked me if we should stop for him. I said “yes” to boost our karma balance. After all, I read in The Alchemist that “every blessing ignored becomes a curse”. This was the Law of Karma telling us that “thou who shall give lifts, shall get them”. We picked up that bearded chap and reached Milford Sound at around 6.45pm. The drive was picturesque and the scenery was stunning. We parked the car as per plan at the Milford Sound Lodge and went back to the road to try and hitch a ride back to Te Anau.

This is the stunning Milford Sound

It was 6.53pm and Dom went into his Dolly Dom mode and lifted his tee shirt up a bit for some spicy effect. Unfortunately, the only living creature that was interested in Dom was a sandfly. Later on, one car passed by without stopping.

When hitching ride back into town, you need an attractive girl by your side. Not this guy

Another one came and the driver told us that he wasn’t going to Te Anau. Then another. Same story. Which reminded me of another quote from The Alchemist.

“Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time”.

Our third driver who stopped wasn’t going to Te Anau either. Given it was close to 7.45pm, the roads were empty and all we were attracting was a large congregation of hungry sandflies. It was time to beat it or get bitten. We went back to our parked car and decided to drive back to Te Anau! So much for the conspiring world and Dolly Dom.

On our way back to Te Anau, just near the spot where we had been waiting for the longest time for a ride, there stood a guy trying to hitch a ride! We offered him one. Our karma balance was high for the day and it looked like we had driven to Milford Sound and back from Te Anau just to give two guys a lift! Such is the world of karma!

Meanwhile back at the hostel in Te Anau, we had a worried Tilly and Adrian wondering why we were so late.

A concerned Adrian had in fact tried messaging us: “We are starting to get worried about you guys, is Dom’s dress not working?! Try showing more leg?”

More leg, very much like Dom’s hip region, would have just attracted even more sandflies.

After close to two hours more of driving, we were back in Te Anau and it was time to sleep!

Very useful advice in our hostel in in Te Anau

15th Feb 2015

Our brilliant Milford Sound plan was put into motion as early as 6.30am. The four of us got up and walked towards our private chartered airplane. It’s not often I get to say this so I will say it again. The four of us got up and walked towards our PRIVATE CHARTERED AIRPLANE. Ok, I am done bragging. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an Airforce One or a Gulfstream Jet where the pilot gives you a pizza and a beer as you board the plane. This was a water plane which seats only 4 and costs about NZD 140 per person for a 15-minute fight to Glade Wharf from Te Anau.

Our “Gulfstream Jet”

This is where the first class passengers sit

The flight was incredible. There’s something about taking off from water, flying over coves, lakes and trees and landing in a remote destination, again on water. It was a short flight but an exhilerating experience.

The flight

Upon reaching Glade Wharf, Adrian met what would become his best pal for the remainder of our adventure in New Zealand — sandflies. They seemed to like him so much that the fact that he had put on a generous amount of Deet (a hardcore repellent that repels pretty much any insect) was good, but still not enough. Tilly, who already looked beaten up by sandflies, was getting even more bites. So were Dom and I. We were largely bathing in Deet yet being bitten by adamant sandflies that somehow always seemed to find chinks in our Deet armour.

While Adrian was spraying himself with Deet, Tilly was brushing her teeth!

The track in itself was like a dense forest track for the first 10-15km. Mosses, ferns and lichens were omnipresent. The floor of the forest felt like a carpet of foliage. We crossed several suspension bridges and soaked in the beauty of the wilderness (minus the sandflies).

You get these amazing reflection shots in many places on the track

There are many such suspension bridges on the track

A typical forest track

We had lunch at a place called Mackennon Pass (around 1300m high and at the 30km mark) which presented beautiful views of the valley. Those scenic views from the track that you find in the Lord of the Rings movie were probably shot from here.

Near Mckennon pass

This bird is not a kia or a kiwi. It’s called a Wahi (or something like that!)

Mckennon pass

A group selfie

The four of us are also known to come up with very clever questions during a long hike, especially when we run out of food during the hike (which happened on Milford Track). Dom and I only had carrots and cheese (and some nuts) but there’s only so much cheese one can eat during a day! Adrian carried some yucky stuff he didn’t even want to eat (despite being hungry) and healthy Tilly seemed to have also run out of her healthy food too! Anyway, back to our insightful trail questions, they were:

1) if dolphins and whales are mammals, do they also produce milk? (Can you produce milk under water?)

2) is the southern most part of New Zealand still further south of Capetown?

3) the shiny minerals we saw on the stones of the track which gave it a glittering look, what were they? Quartz or granite?

The track seemed more and more similar during the last 10km and we were growing more and more hungry from lack of food. So, the topic of conversation gradually gravitated towards food, the different kinds of food, and what a hungry man would want to eat. (Anything but cheese!)

Dom’s hungry

Waterfalls near the end of the Milford Track

When we finally reached Sandfly Point, a sense of relief grew over us. I was also a bit worried (ok, very worried) about the boat guy not picking us up at Sandfly Point. That area “sandfly point” is aptly named. The sandflies are a royal pain in the bum. They bite you and make you itch so much that only the very determined can refrain themselves from scratching. Tilly wasn’t one of them. She had sandfly marks all over her arms and legs. Adrian switched to his ninja warrior clothes in an attempt to avoid them but he wasn’t the least bit spared.

As we approached the hut, Tilly was the first to spot a radio in the hut which was tuned to channel 10. Like in the movies, I picked it up and tried a “hello, hello, do you copy?” There was radio silence. I flicked through to different frequencies in an attempt to get some sort of a response. Zilch. I started scanning for other frequencies. Zilch. Then Tilly switched it back to channel 10. Adrian suggested walking outside the hut into prime sandfly territory to try and get reception. He figured that moving closer to the pier might help. I walked with the radio into sandfly territory and tried my usual “hello, hello, do you read?”

All of a sudden, like in the climax of a movie, the radio sprung to life and a voice on the other side inquired “are you the 4 runners? We will come there and pick you up”. The rest is history.

Dom and Adrian showing off our life saving radio

Tilly in the hut by Sandfly Point – all covered up and for good reason

After we got picked up by the boat and checked in into our hostel in Milford Sound, we each found that we would have liked something from our bigger rucksack which was in the car back in Te Anau. Tilly looked at my towel and flip flops with green eyes. I wanted new clothes. Dom wanted his lipstick and girly stuff while Adrian missed his electric toothbrush (?!) Which is when Tilly asked why we didn’t just drive the car back to Te Anau the day before AFTER storing our luggage in the Milford Sound hostel instead of the boot of the car. Doh! You live and you learn!

The godsend boat!

And in the evening, there was a vote for the “best part of the day”. Dom won the vote, his “best part of the day” was when the boat guy came for real to pick us up! Yup, had he not come, we would have been food for the sandflies.

Now, it’s time for a quote from The Alchemist.

“People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.”

I still think one has to fear sandflies. Those menacing creatures are probably the devil’s creation! Had we had a full blown sandfly attack though, we’d probably have let Adrian go first as he is the most expendable out of all of us.

Speaking of which, during the night, we constantly heard the sound of a gaslighter going “click”, “click”, “click”. It turned out that Adrian had brought with him this tiny gaslighter like gizmo which sends a spark down the skin when you push the lever, temporarily shocking the nerves under the skin where the insect has bitten. It’s supposed to alleviate that itchy feeling, at least for an hour or so.

That night in the lodge, I must have heard at least a 100 clicks!

16 Feb 2015

“Sweet ass” kayaking

We got up at 6.15am for a 20km kayaking trip down to the Tasman Sea. Our guide was someone called Ricky – a very cool guide who seemed to have key expertise in geology and in using the word “sweet” every other sentence.

“You ready team?” he’d ask.

“Yes”, we answered.

“Sweet!” came the response, invariably.

And, when we said something that seemed just a touch more exciting than the standard stuff, he’d have a whole new improvised term to express his awe.

“Sweet as!”

For example:

Ricky to us: “you guys are from Hong Kong?”

Our response: “Yes, we’re marathon runners there. “

“Sweet as!”

Tilly was particularly confused with his new phrase. “Sweet as what?” she’d ask.

The kayaking itself was, well, “sweet as!” We got suited and booted with thermal tops, Goretex jackets and something called a “water skirt” which is supposed to prevent water from entering the Amaruk kayaks. The guys could, of course, give the water skirts a more masculine name, something like “water trousers”. So, Dom put on the “water skirt” while Adrian and I put on our “water trousers”.

Getting suited and booted for kayaking

Armed with skirt/trousers and heavy cold weather gear, we set off into the Milford Sound waters.

Getting set to kayak!

Tilly in the front seat of the kayak

First stop was a gigantic 300m waterfalls called Sterling waterfalls. But, before that, we crossed a relatively junior waterfalls called “Lady Bowen” falls. Mr. “Sweet as” Ricky explained the history of the two falls to us. Apparently, there were two gentlemen (Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bowen) who first discovered the two waterfalls. After that, they had a dispute among themselves to see who would name which one. It so transpired that Mr. Sterling got to name the bigger waterfalls. Mr. Bowen, who at the time had marital troubles, had the intuition to name the slightly shorter waterfalls after his wife, hence the name “Lady Bowen falls”. Ricky surmised that naming the falls after the wife put him in good stead again.

Sterling Falls

And, speaking of intuition, here’s another quote from The Alchemist.

“Intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there”.

Hmm, deep.

Anyway, going back to the kayaking, we then passed by Seal Rock where we saw, you guessed it, many seals, and what you probably did not guess is that we also saw a chamois trying to run up a mountain. Now, chamois is not pronounced “sham-o-is”, the very sophisticated French name demands that it be pronounced “sham-wah”. Why? That’s French 101 for you. The language where the way you write is most definitely not the way you read! This animal, unlike the seals, was shy and scared. It quickly disappeared into the forests.

Seal Rock

The elusive chamois

We then saw two rocks that looked like turtles that were about to kiss each other but not quite. “Their relationship is on the rocks”, said Ricky, which I am sure was followed by “sweet” somewhere in the next sentence.

After 20km of kayaking, we were in the open Tasman Sea. Looking back on Milford was spectacular.

The Tasman Sea

A boat picked us up from there (the same one that picked us up from Sandfly point) and we had a thrilling ride back to Milford Sound.

We still had to go get our car back from Te Anau, so this time, it was decided that Tilly and Dom would go while Adrian and I would stay behind. (The argument was that given Dolly Dom’s unfortunate luck with hitching rides, with Tilly by his side, they may just be able to hitch one). Adrian and I, meanwhile, enjoyed a two course meal and went plane spotting at the Milford Sound airport.

Adrian and I went plane spotting in Milford Sound

In the evening, we saw a successful Dom and Tilly who had managed to hitch a ride from an Australian couple (thanks to Tilly I am sure) and we finally had our car back with all our stuff in it, which meant we could happily shower!

And, history repeated itself during the night in the lodge. Adrian woke up several times and went “click”, “click”, “click” with his tiny mosquito-bite-numbing gaslighter machine while the rest of us used our fingernails to scratch our itchy skin which by then boasted several red spots due to sandfly bites.

More pictures of the beautiful Milford Sound

17 Feb 2015

Another “sweet as” plan

Milford track taught us two things. (1) carry enough food for the long route matches (2) taking a small plane to or from a walk is very cool. So much so that it can be categorized as a “sweet as” experience.

The plan was to do the 72km Hollyford Track in two days. We’d get to the start of Hollyford road by taking a bus from Milford Sound, walk 18km to the road end to where the track begins, start route marching until we’d reach Lake Mackerow hut, spend the night there, finish the track the next day at Martin’s Bay and take a plane back to Milford Sound. Potential hitch in the plan was a very obvious one: our pilot could be a no show if the weather turned bad. (We were having clear blue skies for the past couple of days and the forecast predicted storms). In which case, we’d be stranded in Martin’s Bay with sandflies for company!

But, as it says in The Alchemist, “Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure”.

Alright, so we spoke to our hearts and it strongly suggested calling up our pilot to ensure that he’d definitely fly over to Martin’s Bay to pick us up.

“Hi, is this Shaun?” I asked after dialing his number from our hostel in Milford Sound (I could only use the phone in the hostel. Milford Sound has no mobile reception.)

“Yes”, he said in his Kiwi accent.

“My name is Vince. We exchanged emails a couple of days back. Four of us are going to be doing the Hollyford Track in two days and just wanted to let you know that we are confirmed to be there at 3pm tomorrow. If the weather turns bad would you still be able to pick us up?”

“Two days? The second half is much worse and that’s a lot of walking.”

“Yes, but don’t worry. We’re trained marathon runners. If the weather changes, would it still be alright for you to come pick us up?”

“I don’t see a problem there but two days for the walk is going to be tough.”

“Oh, please don’t worry about that. We will see you at 3pm tomorrow.”

Hmm, that left me wondering if we were taking on too much in two days. Our pilot, Shaun, seemed more concerned about doing the track in two days than he was about being able to pick us up in bad weather.

Anyway, as the famous Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step”, our journey of 56km began with a bus ride to the start of the Hollyford road.

Group picture at the beginning of lower Hollyford Road

We started walking on dirt road while discussing the meaning of life and other philosophical matters en route, which is when we suddenly got a lift for 5km from a nice lady driving a van with many tourists in it. That shaved off about 5km from our first 17km walk to the road end, which is where the Hollyford Track begins.

The road was ominously punctuated with many signs depicting death. “Deadman creek”, “dead horse creek”, “dead valley”, etc. Reminded me of Coolio’s song, Gangster’s paradise. “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

And, it reminded Adrian of, well, death. He was apprehensive about our route.

There were many such ominous signs en route

We did however manage to eventually reach the beginning of the track alive and there began our long route marching through beautiful forests and windy tracks.

The plan called for us to reach Mckerrow Hut (which is a standard hut) but we wanted to get to Demon Hut (a serviced hut). Reason was simple yet powerful. Adrian, who now viewed sandflies as his only and most powerful enemy on the planet, thought that a serviced hut would somehow not have any sandflies. Dom had a better reason. He was cognizant of what the pilot had said about the second half of the trail and figured that the more distance we could cover the first day, the better.

There were many such suspension bridges in the first 15km

And many beautiful streams

And waterfalls

And gigantic trees and ferns

There were also many such wire bridges!

Adrian did have a concern about Demon Hut though. “The name is a concern”, he said in a worrying tone. “It should be called that for a reason”.

But, we never got there. We somehow got a little lost and had to cross a technical path when the time was around 8.30pm. We decided that it would be best to spend the night at Mckerrow hut.

We missed a sign somewhere near here and got lost

We saw an Irish an American couple in the hut. The hut was basic but sandfly free. After introductions, we played monopoly with everyone there and eventually tried going to sleep.

Our home for the night — Lake Mckerrow Hut

We exchanged stories and played monopoly which Adrian won

Adrian’s miniature gaslighter went “click”, “click”, “click”, as he continued his war with sandfly bites while I quickly stepped outside to look at the stars on a clear blue sky night. It was, to say the least, absolutely spectacular. The sky glittered with millions of stars which made everything and every problem of life feel distant.

Which takes me to another quote from The Alchmist.

“The darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn”.

When it comes to star gazing, the darkest hour is the best! And, come dawn, we’d be shuffling through our backpacks, dumping all our stuff including our precious sleeping bags back in there in order to begin our route march through the supposedly difficult second half of Hollyford Track.

18th Feb 2015

0530. That was the wake up time. I felt sorry for the friendly Irish couple who were still sleeping (or trying to). The hut was a giant exercise in repacking. The plastic bags were making ruffling noises and the bunk beds were creaking with the slightest movement. By 6.15am, we were out the door.

We somehow missed this sign the previous day

Then came a trail, aptly named “Demon Trail”. Slippery, technical and mossy. Those three words should conjure up your imagination. The undulating trail was filled with creaks, wire bridges, stream crossings and huge boulders. It was a true forest track. Again, we got lucky with the weather. The supposedly impending storm never came. Otherwise, I can see how much of a nightmare it could have been to try and cross those overflowing streams.

Our friend Keith in Hong Kong, did warn us about this. “What will you do if Vince twists an ankle and can’t cross the streams?” he inquired, preparing us for contingencies. Unfortunately, Dom’s contingency plan, in case of such an event manifesting itself, didn’t bode well for me. “Simple. We’ll just leave him behind”, was his solution. Reminded me of an old proverb, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer!”

Two hours and several wire bridge crossings later, we found ourself at Demon hut. The hard technical bits were now behind us. Our new challenge was then to find a way to cross a large stream which had a pretty strong water current. I read in the guestbook back at Mckerrow hut about how trampers had to call in search and rescue after being stuck on the trail under heavy thunder and lightning. Today, we luckily had another clear day but, still, this crossing wasn’t all that easy to negotiate. The wire bridge had been swept away and we had to find the correct route after crossing the stream with wet feet. Had the impeding storm really arrived, we would have probably been in trouble. That stream crossing would have been very challenging to cross. Apparently, there was an Indonesian girl who tried crossing the stream after it had rained and got swept away.

More wire bridges

We managed to find the right route (thanks to my clever navigation abilities) and were on an easier track again which took us to the “airport” at Martin’s Bay.

The final stream crossing — looks easy, but the current was strong

Group picture at Martin’s Bay

We stopped for a minute to check out the dirt road which doubled as the runway but a new delegation of highly biteworthy sandflies got us moving to a luxurious hut at the far corner of the runway. A guy at the hut came out in an attempt that made it seem as though he was trying to prevent us from entering his classy hut (perhaps we stank too much, or maybe it was Dom). He told us that we were at the right spot for an airplane pick up but asked us to seek shelter at another tent which was on the other end of the runway.

We are walking on the runway

However, in the short conversation we had on the doorsteps of the luxurious hut, the sandflies had declared a full blown war on us. Adrian’s miniature gaslighter had no effect. We were thinking about packaging a sandfly and gifting it to our enemies (worse than killing them).

The luxurious hut which were not exactly welcome to enter

The not-so-luxurious hut where we waited until our plane arrived

We spent about an hour at the hut, took our final group photos in Martin’s Bay and emptied out all our last stash of food. A plane then swooped above us and landed at the airstrip in front of us. Excitedly, I ran out and had a déjà vu from two days back — the time I saw the small water plane that took us to Glade Wharf on the Milford Track.

Our group picture inside the hut

“I am more excited to see you than you are to see me!” exclaimed Shaun, our pilot.

He added that a lot of walkers underestimate the difficulty of Demon Trail and end up making him wait much longer than originally planned! (We didn’t dare to be late! The last thing we wanted was to get stuck in prime sandfly territory without a way out!)

A 15-minute plane ride took us back to Milford Sound. We then took much needed showers and drove straight to Wanaka (4-5 hours). As we were leaving, it started to drizzle and we heard that a thunderstorm was imminent! We got lucky with the weather!

It was a great relief to see this plane!

The first class passengers

Flying into Milford Sound was such a thrilling experience with the small plane banking hard on occasions!

And, back at Milford Sound!

I need to insert two meaningful quotes at this point. The first one is something you have heard before from The Alchemist but it’s worth repeating for two reasons (1) it’s deep and has some good meaning to it (2) I am running out of quotes.

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream” – The Alchemist.

“Wherever you go, bring your own sunshine” – not sure who said this! But, in the context of Milford Sound, it means carry your rain gear because that’s the norm in this part of the world. We somehow lucked out! The stream crossings on Hollyford would have proven too big a challenge otherwise.

We slept well in Wanaka, at least mostly well, and we could still hear Adrian and his portable gaslighter clicking every now and then!

Wanaka Time: 19th/20th Feb 2015

Wanaka – what a beautiful place! Doesn’t have the “in your face” like hustle and bustle of Queesntown and is not as deserted as Te Anau either. It’s somewhere in between. It has ample running and biking tracks and the sunrises and sunsets behind Lake Wanaka are absolutely stunning. I could see myself retiring there — except for the fact that winters will probably be too cold for my tropical blood.

Wanaka — the perfect place for retirement

There is a Roy’s Peak and a Rob Roy’s Peak which is above Rob Roy Glacier. The two peaks are in different locations, although they carry similar names. And, btw, it’s probably not possible to ever reach Rob Roy’s Peak. The glacier and the avalanches en route are probably going to be a show stopper!

Kiwi traffic — plenty of sheep blocked our way when we where driving to the start of Rob Roy’s Peak

Good advice – “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine!”

I am trend setter when it comes to trail fashion

We went up to a look out point below Rob Roy’s glacier on the 19th. The vast expanse of the receding glacier was quite incredible to watch.

As we stood there gazing at the glacier, we also finalized our Photo Competition rules for the trip. Each of us would have to send our best photo to master photographer Claus by March 2nd. Claus would then pick the winner and the rest of us would have to buy the winner a beer (or another drink of choice). Naturally, having been trained by Claus himself, I had an unfair advantage. Especially in the art of taking selfies. Once upon a time, back in the great Swiss Alps, Claus had entrusted me with his smaller camera and instructed me to take several photos of runners near Chompex and Trient in the French speaking part of Switzerland. What he got in return for his trust in me was a truck load of selfies. There was me doing a smiley face, me sporting a serious look and a variety of other mes. Since then, Claus hasn’t contacted me for a second gig. I wonder why.

Rob Roy Glacier — looks much more spectacular in reality. My photo taking skills don’t justify its beauty

Probably my entry for our Photo Competition. Look how cleverly I’ve captured the lone tree and the waves. It’s called “The Art of Photography”

Dom tried to ruin my photo when I trusted him with my camera. He only got a photo of my bum instead of me posing like a model in front of that lone tree

On the evening of the 19th, wine connoisseur Adrian wanted to make a little trip to Chard valley but we settled for the local winery in Wanaka. He used words like “Pinot” and “Ortago” which sounded like Latin and Greek to me. My theory on wine is simple. If the wine is hard to pronounce and has a long name, it’s supposed to be expensive, and sadly, by virtue of being expensive, it is also supposed to taste good. If it’s easy to pronounce and has a short name, don’t pay the top dollar for it. And, if the name is neither long nor short, then it’s probably “old wine in new bottle”.

Beautiful tall coniferous trees flank Lake Wanaka

Our local vineyard in Wanaka

The boys copied my photo taking style on this one. The vineyard in the foreground and the lake in the backdrop

Dinner in an Italiano restaurant on the 19th

On the 20th, we went mountain biking on a fantastic track by Lake Wanaka. We rode our bikes all the way to a place which had a name that rhymed with Hawaii, I think it’s called Hawae. We went with the aim of creating a ruckus in Keith’s house there but were distracted by a plum tree that stood outside his house. Hundreds of plums were hanging on the tree waiting to be eaten. Adrian warned us about excessive plum gorging, “if you eat too much, you’ll get diarrhea”, he said. Those warnings didn’t stop Tillly and I from going on a plum eating spree. The outer soles of my shoes were dark red in color from stepping on plums.

Lavender trees — what a beautiful smell

Our friend Alice from Hong Kong probably has a shop in Wanaka

Awesome biking day — the tracks were such a pleasure to ride on

Crossing a suspension bridge on the bike

Tilly by Lake Hawae

A selfie – my specialty. Given my handsome looks, selfies automatically turn out well

They built this artificial “rafting thing” (not sure what it’s called) on Lake Hawaii for river rafting and surfing practice

Gorging on plums

After all the eating, we finally concluded the day by sitting on a bench outside our hostel, reminiscing about the events and the adventure of the past week. All the walking, kayaking and plane rides were now memories. But, we still had tangible evidence of our outdoorsy experience in the form of sandfly bite marks which were now all over our itchy legs and arms.

Wanakabakpaka — our cleverly named hostel

Concluding our week long trip with a group photo

21st Feb 2015

It was time to part ways after a week long adventure in South Island.

Adrian and I were the last to leave. We had a sumptuous lunch by the pier in Queenstown and then decided to go to a shopping centre by the airport called The Remarkables.

The strange thing was that it cost $6.50 to go to The Remarkables by bus which was one stop AFTER the Airport and $7.50 to go to the airport. When Adrian boarded the bus with his heavy backpack (much bigger than mine) and told the driver that we were headed for The Remarkables, the driver looked stunned. “Not the airport, are you sure?” he asked with the look of disbelief in his eyes. “Yes”, Adrian replied. At that point, the smirk on the driver’s face was priceless. He thought Adrian was trying to save a dollar by getting off at the next stop! The driver made sure neither of us got off at the airport and when Adrian disembarked from the bus with his heavy backpack at The Remarkables, he let out another priceless smirk which read “what a cheap guy!”

And so ended a week long adventure of hiking, biking and kayaking in South Island, New Zealand. There’s only one more thing that I would have liked to do in this part of the world which is to have climbed Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. But, on my next trip to New Zealand, I think North Island is on the cards.

Goodbye South Island

And, one final quote from The Alchemist to conclude this blog post.

To put this in the right context, in the story, an English man tries desperately to convert the metal lead into gold through purification. He somehow crosses paths with this boy who is himself on a destiny fueled odyssey in search of treasure. (I won’t tell you the rest of the story, you should read the book).

“This is why alchemy exists. So that everyone will search for his treasure, find it, and then want to be better than he was in his former life. Lead will play its role until the world has no further need for lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold. That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too” – The Alchemist

Read the book and make your own interpretation of the philosophical quotes in the book! And, of course, go to South Island, New Zealand for what I am sure will be, a “sweet as” experience!


Trail running in the Swiss, Italian and French Alps (UTMB/CCC) and learning French in the process

Trail running in the Swiss, Italian and French Alps (UTMB/CCC) and learning French in the process

All photos are here.

The only “CCC” I had heard of before was “Credit Card Company”. My hardcore trail running friends redefined that acronym for me. Unfortunately, I can only remember the expansion of the first ‘C’ now — “Courmayeur” which happens to be in Italy. And, that took me ages to memorize.

They say learning Chinese is difficult. I have a good counter argument to that. “Try French!” I don’t know why Benoit needs to be pronounced “Ben Wah” and Francois… how in the name of Zeus does that become “Fun Swa”? I will never know.

Anyway, before I digress too much, this travel story begins on a hike I did on Lantau Island. My friends were all going to go to Chamonix (btw, for several years, my crude self didn’t know that ‘x’ in Chamonix was silent. I thought it was pronounced “Sha-mo-nix”). Anyway, I decided to join them. They were going there either to run the UTMB race (one of the most famous 100 miler trail running races in Europe) or its less strenuous sissy version called “CCC” (after all, only a 101km). I was going to join them to simply hike, support and explore the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.

My hidden secret mission though was to stand on the Italian side of the Alps and pee into the Swiss side to please my highly Swiss friend Hannes. I decided to keep that part of my mission private in case Hannes was going to tip off the Swiss military. (He will go to any extreme to glorify the name of Switzerland).

In this report of my hiking adventure in the Alps, in addition to providing the reader ample photos of the Alps, I also aim to teach the average unsophisticated reader the subtleties of the French language. My hope is that after reading this report, one will begin to command more self-respect by using the power of the French language in day-to-day communication.

The preparation
I took the last seat on an Air China flight from Hong Kong to Beijing and Beijing to Geneva on 16th August 2014. My friend Adrian pointed out to me that, “despite not being all that great at navigation”, he had a strong feeling that this Air China flight would fly directly above Ukraine. (He was insinuating that my plane might get shot down similar to the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines plane). He suggested that I carry a parachute with me “just in case”, but, “before jumping out of the plane”, he caringly warned, that I make sure “I would not get sucked into the massive blades of the engine”. As always, his advice was gold. Anyway, the all inclusive HKD 6,500 price tag I paid for the round trip ticket made it worth the punt.

Then I had to go get a visa from the French consulate. A “Schengen” visa is what it was called. All the while, I thought it was called the “Shenzhen” visa and wondered what Europe had to do with China. The lady at the consulate wanted all my details. Where I was going to go on each of the days, why and when. I thought to myself that she should have been working for the CIA instead. After much effort, I finally got my visa. A friend of mine told me that I should have applied for the visa via the Greek consulate. Apparently, those guys in Greece are prety desperate for tourists.

Anyway, all prepared and excited, I set off for Geneva on the 16th of August. Oh, before I forget, the lady at the check in counter in Hong Kong asked me whether “Geneva” was “domestic” or “international” from Beijing. In other words, she wanted to know if Geneva was in China or not. I gave her a mini geography lesson and asked for a free upgrade to business class. She dismissed my request with a smirk, refusing to see the value I just added to her geographical knowledge.

My Air China flight — I got the entire wing row seat as someone didn’t show up!

16th August 2014
On the long 11-hour flight from Beijing to Geneva, between naps, I glanced at the Flight Information screen a few times and remembered what Adrian had said. Several impossible-to-pronounce places ending with a “rsk” showed on the screen. Then it hit me — I did not even know where Ukraine was on the map. Ignorance is bliss.

Anyway, the plane landed safely in Geneva and I walked out of the Swiss exit (you can actually exit to two different countries -France or Switzerland- from the Geneva airport). Then I caught Alpybus to Chamonix. The ride from Geneva to Chamonix instantly put a relaxed smile on my face. Plenty of vast meadows and greenery filled both sides of the bus window, and looking out further into the distance, I saw snowcapped mountains rising spectacularly at the far end. The jagged summits looked both mighty and majestic. As if to complete the picturesque scenery, a beautiful rainbow arched across the sky demanding to be photographed.

Landing in Geneva

Rainbow welcomes me to Geneva

I rendezvoused with my friend Keith at “Valle Blanche” at about 8.30pm. The excitement of being in this part of the world for the first time kept me fueled and awake on adrenaline, making me forget about my jetlag.

French lesson learnt today:
“Blanche” rhymes with “avalanche” and is not pronounced “blankee” (thanks to my bus driver for the education)

17th August 2014
It was a cold morning and I woke up early, still jetlagged, after all the adrenaline from the excitement wore off. I went into the cold balcony to get my first morning glimpse of the 4808m Mont Blanc. Looking up, I saw many mighty looking snowcapped peaks and I didn’t know which one Mont Blanc was. This became a recurring theme (my less-than-strong navigation skills didn’t exactly help). I asked Keith, who woke up about ten minutes later, to point out Mont Blanc for me. He patiently pointed at one of the summits and gave me a mini-geography lesson, about a quarter of which I retained. As I sat in the balcony, freezing and admiring all those jagged mountain summits from a very safe and comfortable distance, I thought to myself how uninhabitable the summits must be. You can admire them from a safe distance but you don’t want to be at any one of the summits on a cold morning!

Mont Blanc and the moon — to climb Mont Blanc, one has to summit two intermediary mountains. Mount blah-blah (sorry, complex French name) and Mount Maudit meaning “Mountain of Death” in French

Later on, Keith, Charlotte, Jina and I took a cable car up from “Brevent station” to a place called “insert-complex-French-name here”. (Sorry, I forgot the name of the place but, rest assured, it’s some complex French name). We hiked around there and what can I say! It was stunning. All the money I spent on this trip became well worth it already!

Chamonix town

Later on in the afternoon, we rendezvoused with my friend Dom who flew in from London. We had lunch in a nearby restaurant and after gulping down a big pizza, we returned to Vallee Blanche where Keith, Jina and Charlotte showed off their rope tying skills. (They were going to attempt a Mont Blanc climb in the next couple of days and needed to master the art of knots and ropes.)

Our group in the cable car in Brevent Station (pardon my French — I mean Brevont Station)

Quiz: Which summit are we pointing towards?

Group Photos!

And, here’s the beauty of the Alps

Dom and I bid goodbye to them and left for Courmayeur in Itay on the 6pm bus from Chamonix. We had a pizza as one is supposed to in Italy and checked in to our hotel.

Pizza in Italy… very authentic

French lesson learnt:
“Brevent” does NOT rhyme with “prevent”. It is pronounced “Brevont”, i.e., “von”, in a nasal tone. For that matter, an authentic French accent is one where you learn to harness the power of the nasal tone of your voice. Even “Bonjour” can sound more authentic if you say the “n” using a nasal tone.

18th August 2014
From “Bonjour” to “Bonjourno”
The first thing I learnt in Italy was that you can get away pretending to know Italian by adding an “io” or a “no” to all the English/French words. For example, “Bonjour”, in Italian, is “Bonjourno”. “Refugee” is “Refugio”. And, much like the French nasal tone, if you can sing the words, even better. Eg., Boooonjoooourno. And, say it with a smile!

First impressions of Italy — very beautiful. Every house was decorated so as to please the eye. Colorful flowers rose from pots dangling out of the windows of pretty much every house I saw. The entire neighborhood looked scenic. In the backdrop, the needle-like sharp summits of the Italian alps towered above everything else. Our hotel which had this view was called “Aguille de Noire”. In fact, almost every hotel or shop in the town where we stayed in had a name beginning with “Aguille”. (Warning: the “Noire” in “Aguille de Noire” is not the French “Noire”, meaning, it’s not pronounced “No-ah” unlike, for instance, “Ter-wah” for Teroir. You can simply say “No-are”. That’s what I learnt in Italy. That and, you get great pizzas there.

Beautiful Italy — almost every house has flowers dangling from the windows

Our hotel — Hotel Aguille De Noir

Dom taking a photo of Mont Blanc from our hotel room

After admiring the scenic beauty of Courmayeur, we started on the CCC route which began on a steep road flanked by tall coniferous trees on either side. Once we were on a valley at a higher altitude, the beauty of the Alps beckoned. It felt as though I was standing on the corridor of heaven. A range of snowcapped mountains appeared before us. It felt like I was watching a documentary on mighty mountains on a gigantic and extra-wide iMax screen. The mountains seemed so near yet so far — so mighty and majestic, yet so uninhabitable.

Getting ready to recci the CCC route

Warning: Frizzante in Italian means “sparkling”. Don’t buy water if it’s got “Frizzante” on it

We soaked in the beauty for a while and then proceeded to climb a pretty tough 500m hill called “Tete De La Treonch” (meaning head of the snake or some other animal in French). After taming this snake, we ran along a contour trail and eventually reached a Refugee Hut called Refuge Bertone.

Rejuvenating on top of “Tete De La Treonch” (complex French name as usual)

Dom zenning himself up

The Alps — beauty beckons

What a smart looking guy

Mountain horses

We then passed Refuge Bonatti (probably named after some confectionary), then we passed a valley called “Val Ferret”. We ran about 10km more and finished at a Refugee Hut called “Elena”. I’ve got to say — Italy has redefined the meaning of the word “hut”. Hut, according the definition I was taught back in the day, is a small, basic place of accommodation with a thatched roof. This “hut” which was 2000m above sea-level offered hot showers, a bar/lounge area, a clean dormitory and a 3-course meal! The only thing it did not offer was a Western Style toilet. It only featured a squat toilet. So, allow me to summarize the Italian surprises for you.

Italian surprises
1. Add an “O” to everything and sing it, you will sound Italian (thanks, Dom, for the tip)
2. Every meal is filling, you get a minimum of two courses wherever you go. Even Refugee Elena offered us a two-course meal and a dessert. Italian food is awesome
3. In Italy, squat toilets are the norm, not Western toilets. So, prepare to exercise after you empty your bowels

Refugio Bonati (sounds like the name of some Italiano sweet)

Refugio Elena — this is not a “hut”. It’s a friggin’ hotel!

You get a 2-course meal + dessert and hot showers in this “hut”. All good except one thing — only squat toilets available

French lesson for the day
When you want a longer and cooler sounding name, feel free to generously add syllables like “De” or “La”, Eg., “De La Treonch”.

19th August 2014
No adventure hiking trip can be complete without experiencing a bit of rain. As we looked out of Hut Elena at 8am in the morning, we saw what we did not want to see — rain pouring down from the sky. Luckily, though, it was not all that cold.

Rain makes you wet and cold but once you start walking, the scent in the air is intoxicating! And, the beauty of the trails is amplified

After another sumptuous breakfast in the “hut”, we left at around 8.30am and climbed 500m to the highest point for the day, a place at 2500m called “Grand Col Ferret”, pronounced “Gr-ond Col Fer-rey” to make it sound more grand). The weather, although slightly raining, was perfect. The freshness of Swiss Alps air seemed even more fresh. I probably gained a few more years in my life just breathing that air. Once on top of that one, I decided to execute my secret mission for my friend Hannes, who, I’m sure will be proud of me. I stood on the Italian side of the Alps and peed into the Swiss side.

Executing my secret mission for my friend Hannes — looking into Switzerland from Italy

Hut Elena from the top of “Grand Col Ferret”, complex French name pronounced “Gron Col Faray”

We preserved the golden moment for future generations in the form of a photograph and after that, we carried on heading downhill all the way to “La Puele”. What a fulfilling experience that was! The trail was almost carpet-like and it felt like a gift to be running down on it. The air was so pure and pristine that it almost demanded to be bottled up and taken back to Hong Kong!

Running down on a gorgeous trail from Grand Col Ferret to La Fuele

A little electrical fence to keep the cows at bay

We then ran to our next destination called “La Fuele” (pronounced “La Foo-le”). We reached this place around 12.30pm and took a couple of wrong turns which added another 150m climb to our hiking route. Then we passed a place called “Praz De Fort” (no idea how to pronounce that) and then we ended up at our destination for the day which was called “Chompex”. For some mysterious reason, Chompex is pronounced “Shom-pex” and not “Shom Pe”. Why? Like, I said, don’t ask. It could be a French thing, or a Swiss thing. What I can tell you though is that Chompex is an attractive little town which has a beautiful lake by the town centre. Hence, the name “Chompex Lac” (“Lac” meaning “lake” in French).

La Fuele — You’ll find that the Swiss are quite patriotic. You find Swiss flags everywhere. No wonder my friend Hannes has a Swiss flag on his bike

Don’t be surprised if Rammstein, AC/DC and Kiss show up in La Fuele

La Fuele to Praz De Fort

La Fuele to Praz De Fort — here’s some Champiogne, i.e. mushroom (isn’t my French great?)

For lunch, I had an authentic Swiss dish called “Rosti”. Essentially, mashed potato as far as I can tell. We then checked into our little hotel called “En Plain Air” (pronounced “On Pen Air” — I know, complicated) and I was happy to find Western toilets again instead of squat toilets!

Chompex Lac (Lac meaning lake in French. (I’m proud to say, I worked that one out myself!)

In Switzerland, you get water in fountains like this one everywhere

After hot showers and a delicious Swiss dinner, we hit the sack at about 10pm.

French lesson learnt:
When in doubt, simply say only the first two letters of a word and mumble something in a nasal tone after that. Oh, that and, all “en”s become “on”s. Hence, “En Plain Air” is pronounced “On Pl ooo Ai”. Same applies to words like “Grand”. Grand will change to “Gr-on-d” in French.

20th August 2014
Today was our “rest” day. We took a “Chair Lift” to a 2200m peak called La Breya. It was the first time I took a Chair Lift. Felt very weird. You stand in position on a pavement with a red footmark painted on it. Then you look forward, remove your backpack and wait to be rammed in your rear end by what looks like a cheap sofa dangling from a moving cable. Once your rear end is firmly planted on the sofa, you pull down the safety handle and enjoy the ride. Getting off is fun too. There’s a net just before the pavement which looks like it is in place for passengers who decide to jump off the Chair Lift. While that may be one option, the more safe option is to wait for the red line by the pavement and then attempt to disembark from the lift. Dom tried to get me to jump into the net by preying on my ignorance but, fortunately, I was too scared to jump into the net!

The “Chair Lift”. Stand in position to board and get rammed in the rear

Best not to jump into the net

Once we reached the top, we walked down a valley called Val D’Arpette and climbed up a further 500m to “Col Des Escandies” (pronounced “Col Dee Candies”). We had lunch there and from the safety of our lunch spot, we heard and watched big boulders rolling off glaciers about 300m above us. One big rolling boulder created a dustbowl of snow in its path as it came crashing down with great vigor into the barren valley above us.

Small patch of snow on our way up Val D’Arpette

I wrote “DUDE” on the snow

After munching on our Swiss bread, Swiss cheese and a pear, we headed back down into Chimpex via “Val D’Arpette” (pronounced Val Dee Apit) to call it a day.

Our lunch spot — Dom cutting his pear

Looking at boulders rolling down and crashing below

French Lesson Learned:
If you want to give a French name a false sense of importance, simply throw in an apostrophe into it. Eg., D’Arpette instead of De Arpette. It makes the name sound more important than it really is. Think D’Aguillar street in Lan Kwai Fong. The same sort of false importance applies.

21st August 2014
Today was a big “Learn French Day”. You will know why in a minute. Feel free to take a break and read this report later if you fear OD-ing on French words.

We were again the last ones to get up and leave our “Dortoir” (pronounced “Dot-wah”), meaning dormitory. (Isn’t my French great?) It was a supposed to be a big day. We climbed up to 1900m to a valley called Bovine and were greeted by plenty of Swiss cows. Each cow had a massive Swiss bell around its neck to reveal its location to the herdsman. I tried greeting a few cows with my usual “Yo, wassup” but got no response. Later, I realized I should have instead been trying my newfound and quickly developing skill-set in Francais but it was too late for that. We already started going down a beautiful 700m downhill trail to “Col De Forclaz”. (I will leave this pronounciation to the reader as exercise).

Bovine — partying with the Swiss cows

This cow didn’t let us cross!

The grassy trail leading up to Bovine

From Bovine to Trient through a beautiful wooded trail

Running a few more kilometers took us down a pretty steep path to a sleepy Swiss town called “Trient” (pronounced “Tri-ont”), not “Trent” [See why in footnote below]. We tried getting lunch in Trient but that was like extracting blood from a stone. The town was too sleepy and shut for anything.

The sleepy town of Trient

A beautiful Church in “Trient” (pronounced “Tri-ont”, not “Trent”)

There was an underground bunker for some reason. Who the heck would attack this sleepy place?

From Trient, we climbed another steep 700m hill to a placed called “Les Tseppes” (pronounced “Les Seps”, according to my best French knowledge). The climb was steep but very doable thanks to the pure Alpine air and the tall, beautiful trees by the side of the trail. The border town between France and Switzerland was demarked at a small junction called “Catogne” (pronounced “Cat-on-ye” [again, you will know why in the footnote] ). We saw plenty of sheep in this place grazing on some fine French/Swiss grass. Btw, whether they were Swiss sheep or French sheep, I don’t know. That would probably depend on their exact location. Couple of meters left of Catogne and they’d be Swiss, otherwise French.

Hydroelectric power station on the way to Les Steppes from Trient

Sheep butt

More sheep on the way to Vallorcine

We then descended down a gravel path to a small but very beautiful French town called Vallorcine where we had lunch. And, after that much deserved lunch, we concluded our 32km run for the day by walking over to “Tres Le Champs” to our “dortoir” which was called “Auberge La Boerne” [see exercise below in footnote].

The town of Vallorcine

Our “Dortoire” in “Tres Le Chanps” called “Auberge La Boerne”

Dom showing off his world-class towel

French lessons learned:

Couple of lessons today. Let me list them.

1. “oir” somehow becomes “wah” in French. So, if you want to say “Shamwat road” in French, you’d say “Shamoir road”
2. “ien” somehow becomes “on” in French. So, if you want to say “almond” in French, you’d say “Almiend”
3. “tse” somehow loses its “t” in French. So, if you want to say “moose” in French, you’d say “mootse”
4. “gne” somehow becomes “onye” in French. So, if you want to say “good on you” in French, try “goodogne”
5. Exercise for the reader: based on everything you have learnt on this report so far, how would you pronounce “Auberge La Boerne”, “Trelechamps” and “Col De Forclaz) in French? (Tip: French is not as easy as you think. There are some deceptive grammar rules)

22nd August 2014
We left Tres Le Champs at around 8.30am and walked over to Col De Montet to begin our 800m climb up to “Tete Aux Ventes” (meaning “Head of the Wind” in French and pronounced God-knows-how). It was a steep climb! After having done 90km of running during the CCC race, this last 900m must be “enjoyable” I’m sure. Once on top, we took a little detour to “Lac Blanc” (pronounced “Lak Blonk”). This lake was stunning! Turquoise waters in an oval shape, glimmering under the rays of the sun and surrounded by tall snowcapped mountains with jagged summits. There wasn’t any other place I would have rather been!

On top of Col De Montet

From Col De Montet to Lac Blanc

A lake with no name before Lac Blanc

Ladders on the way up Lac Blanc

Selfie just before the lake

Lac Blanc!

The mountains never cease to mesmerize

Bonjour-ing our way back to Chamonix

Conclusion of a 130km recci across the CCC route!

After admiring Lake Blanc and her beauty, we “bonjoured” our way down to “Les Flegere” (pronounced “Less Flej”). There was a cable car station on top of Les Flegere which meant Lac Blanc got many visitors from day hikers. That in turn meant only one thing — plenty of “bonjours”. We wished we had carried tape recorders that could keep playing “bonjour” on continuous playback. There were so many “bonjours” that I started making distinctions between different kinds of “bonjours”. You’ve got the lively girlie kind which would go “bonjoooor” (in a high pitch tone) whereas an exhausted hiker would say “bonjur” (in a little shortened manner, possibly because of exhaustion from hiking).

A rubble path took us down a further 300m and then a beautiful mountain trail took us down the rest of the way to Chamonix.

This concluded our recci of the CCC course. We did 130km and 7,700m in total elevation over 5 days. And, what a beautiful course this was. The Alps are a real treat to the senses! And, as an added bonus, my Fracais is quite kick ass now, even if I say so myself.

French Lesson Learned:
As mentioned remember, remember how I said “en” becomes “on”? Well, “an” becomes “on” too. i.e. “Blanc” becomes “Blonk”. So, if you want to say “monkey” in French, try “Manckey”. Given all the education I have received in French during this trip, I have a strong gut feeling that “Tete Aux Ventes” is pronounced “Tet Ou Vints”.

23rd August 2014
Our running friends showed up the day before after close to a 22 hour flight from Hong Kong and the first thing they wanted to do was to go for a 45 minute run. (I know, crazy).

Hiking friends fly in to Chamonix in style

They always sport the latest fashion gear

Our “humble” abode — 8 bedroom chalet with a jacuzzi and sauna

After checking into our 8-bedroom luxury “humble abode” for the week, we climbed “D’Aguille” (pronounced “Dagle”) which was a good 900m climb to 2200m above sea-level. Then we ran around a technical trail to a place known as “De Montenvers” (pronounced “Mountain Verse”). Apparently, Monsiuer Montenvers is the person who theorized that the environment could have something to do with the growth of microorganisms. This place was next to a restaurant that does authentic French blueberry pies, a place called “Mer De Glas” pronounced “Mer Di Glass”. Unfortunately, we could not stop for dessert as we were out of time.

Our group photo on the way to “De Montenvers”

This is a “cog” train — the cog pulls up the chain

View of Chamonix valley

Back to Chamonix Mont Blanc

Resting in style after our 20km run in the jacuzzi — hard life I tell ya

Our luxury chalet group kept getting bigger! Our group heading to town for pizzas

French Lesson Learned:
1. Stop trying to learn French and just speak in English with an accent

24th August 2014
Running started early in the morning today! Rom and I went out for a bakery run in the morning at 6.30am. The morning alpine air probably added a few more years to my life expectancy. I’ve got to say — French bakery shops are probably the best in the world!

Our 6.30am early morning run to the bakery, and a pit stop to the UTMB/CCC finish line

Back at our luxury chalet, us boys didn’t know how to operate the stove to make our hot chocolate

Later on, we went for a 20km, 1600m ascent, Chalet-> Ballachat (2400m) -> Brenvont (2200m) -> Chalet run. The trail was such a pleasure to run on. Tall pine trees gave the trail a natural and intoxicating scent. It left me wondering why no one had ever tried to make “Pine Tea”. My thoughts shifted from Pine trees to blueberries as we climbed above 1800m and saw many blueberry plants on the way up to “Ballachat Hut” (pronounced “Bal-a-shat). I was eating away to glory. It got quite cold when we reached the 2400m, but as if to compensate us for braving the cold, Mont Blanc and all the neighbouring summits peeked above the clouds majestically. About an hour later, we had a glorious view of the mountain ranges.

The “window of opportunity” to see the summit

Three handsome gentlemen

I hear snails are a delicacy in France

Martin works as a night club dancer when he’s not running

Picking blueberries for our morning breakfast on the hike up to “Bella Blanchet”

The hut at 2300m — “Bella Blanchet”

Three handsome gentlemen

Rom filming the handsome me and the not-so-handsome Martin using his drone

Martin trying to fly using Rom’s drone

Spelt “Lake Brevent” but pronounced “Lake Bro-vont” for some reason

Paragliding at about 2300m

The cable car up to Brevent station — we ran down and hiked up!

No matter how many pictures you take, the views will never cease to amaze

After admiring the views, we ran down the Brevont trail to conclude our 6-hour, 20km, 1500m run for the day.

French Lesson learnt:
“ch” somehow becomes “sha” in French for some reason. So, if you want to say “I shall not” in French, you write it as “I chall not”. This is why “Ballachat” is pronounced “Bal-asha” not “Bal-a-chat”

25th August 2014
Today was a day full of “wow”s and yet another productive learn-French day. We started at 8.20am to get to a place called “La Tour”. To do this we had to take a bus to a place called “Arjenteire” pronounced “Ah Jont Air”. For a while, I thought it had something to do with Argentina! But, it was just complex French pronunciation of an English name.

Once we climbed up, we were in total “wows” as we saw glacier “Glacier Du Tour”. Yet again, it was one of those occasions where I just kept snapping away on my camera. No matter how many pictures I took of the glacier, it never ceased to mesmerize. There was one catch though — my hands became too cold trying to push the “click” button on the camera after about a minute! We were 2750m above sea level and it started to snow!

The hike up to the 2700m Glacier Du Tour

It was one heck of a steep climb which got us super cold at the top!

Hut “Du Glacier”

On ice! I learnt that ice is essentially compacted snow that forms over several years

Icy group photo

Helicopter air dropping supplies to the hut

After a brief stop in a hut near glacier “Du Tour”, we took a beautiful contour trail to a place called “Col De Balme”. I remembered that name from a few backpackers who told us about it when we were in one of the huts on the CCC course. The name sounded weird to me then. I thought he was talking about some sort of a bomb! Or maybe Tiger Balm!

On the way to “Col De Balme”

What are Dom and Rom pointing at?

Rom is is France while Dom is in Switzerland!

Hut “Col De Balme” — apparently, the lady who runs it is called “Dragon Lady”

We were at the border of France and Switzerland again. I sensed an opportunity to take another photo for my friend Hannes — this is me dumping in the outdoors in Switzerland!

My secret Mission #2 — Dumping in the Swiss outdoors

We then ran to a place called “Col De Possets” and finished our glacier run by descending back down to the 1300m La Tour.

Running back down to La Tour to conclude our 20km, 1500m ascent run

The equivalent of France’s “Wisdom Path”

Another fantastic day full of wow-ing scenery and impossible-to-pronounce French names!

French lesson learned
1. “La” or “Les” in French is probably just the title of something, like “Mr” or “Mrs”. Eg., today’s “La Tour”
2. “Jen” in French becomes “Jon”. I.e. Arjenteir turns into “Ar-jon-taire”

26th August 2014
Woke up to some fresh rain and decided to call it a proper rest day after having done close to 200km of running with some 10,000m of ascent in the past 8 days!

It rained nonstop and we saw some seriously high water levels at the river by the city centre.

Continuous but nonstop rain does this in Chamonix!

Cloudy view of the city and the lurking snowcapped peaks

We checked out a Trail Running Expo in the afternoon

Took a break from learning French today!

27th August 2014
It was a stark contrast compared to yesterday. We woke up to some glorious sunshine and saw the summits make themselves visible again towering above everything else under an azure sky.

The summits made themselves visible again thanks to a clear sky

Us chilling by the jacuzzi — hard life!

In the afternoon, Adrian and I went up to Montenvers again for a quick 15km run.

En route to Montenvers aka Mountain Verse

Views from the top of Montenvers

Selfie to conclude the run

Adrian and I struggled to order our ice cream in French despite all the French lessons I have already had.

French Lesson Learnt:
I have learned that I have not learned much yet!

28th August 2014
Finally paid 55 Euros for a cable car ride up to the 3800m “Aguille Du Midi”, pronounced “Agwile di midi”. It was worth every cent of the money. Another one of those days where armed with a camera in my cold hands, I clicked, clicked and clicked, yet wanted to click some more to capture the endless beauty of what I saw. The cable car ran every 15 minutes and carried 70 people in one go. This was from Chamonix valley which is at about 1000m. In 15 minutes, it climbed all the way to 3800m (with one brief stop en route where we had to change to a different cable car). The temperature change and the altitude change in those 15 minutes were remarkable. We went from hot to freezing cold in 15 minutes!

The cable car gives you a steep and picturesque 15-minute ride

The glaciers appeared before us threateningly. It was like watching a big iMax screen!

Aguille Du Midi at 3800m. Pronounced “Agwile Di Midi” if you want to get the French right

Mont Blanc is the one that has that spherically shaped cloud dangling above it

Our group at 3800m above sea level

Some climbers camp out here by pitching their tents in those snow holes

Crampons and ice axe armed mountain climbers

Beauty at its best

This is where you exit the Aguille Du Midi station and start climbing into the snow armed with all your gear

Helicopter dropping off supplies

Climbers set off from Aguille Du Midi

Ice axe on ice!

My friends describing the effects on pressure on a water bottle on the way back

French Lesson Learned:
1. “Aguille Du Midi” is pronounced “Agwile di midi”, essentially, you have to sat it by accentuating the “u”s and the “i”s. The more you sustain the “wi”, the better. I.e., “Agwile di midi”

29th August 2014
Today was going to be a big day for almost all of friends who were going to participate in the actual 101km CCC race (Courmeyeur / Chompex / Chamonix). I joined forces with Rom, who was filming instead of running, to support my friends and take many photos of them in action. Anyone who asked me what race I was doing (TDS or CCC or UTMB or PTL) received the same response. I made up my own abbreviation. CAR. The CAR race — Chill and Relax race!

UTMB? No. CCC? No. CAR? YES! Our CAR team (Chill and Relax team)

You can almost read nervousness and anxiety on the faces of many runners

Beginning of the race

Sam, Rom and I ran up to Bertoine Hut to see the runners

1st Checkpoint – Bertoine Hut

Dom is first from our chalet group to reach Bertoine Hut

Mr. Tinworth followed suite

Our “1st Lady”, made a flying visit

Mr. M “U Can” do it showed up next

Sabrina looked strong as she yelled out my name

Adrian swung by in style

Ida from HK was also there!

Supporting the crew at different points turned out to be difficult because of logistical reasons. We decided instead to go celebrate their achievement at the finish line.

Rom and I prepare to run the last 200m with Tilly and Dom

Dom arrived first looking fresh! He was 100th overall and in the top 25 in his category. Amazing feat!

We went to sleep at 3am and were supposed to be back up at 6.30am to take photos of some of our guys in the UTMB race.

30th August 2014
I got up at 6.30am after having had about three and a half hours of sleep.

We headed back to Chompex to catch Hong Kong ace runner Stone in action.

Switzerland again! Chompex brought back memories from the past week!

Rom filming Stone using his drone

Stone in action! He looked pretty good for a guy who had already run 120km and was still going

And, that brought this vacation to an end. At 5.20pm, it was time to head back to Hong Kong, back to the hustle and bustle of city life. I said “Au Revoir” to France and the fresh Alpine air. At least for now…