Tag Archives: lehtikuvat

Mountain Gorillas at Mgahinga National Park

Mountain Gorillas, Jungle VIP!

Seeing the endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, was one of the much awaited highlights of our biking tour – although we did not take the bikes into the forest/jungle here!

The Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is part of the Bwindi Mgahinga Conservation Area, bordering Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Mgahinga Gorilla and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks provide a home to half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas in South Western Uganda. Currently the population of the mountain gorillas stands above 300 in Uganda

Farmers right next to the Gorilla forest

There is a fast population growth leading to increase to intense farming around and up to the protected areas edge that leaves no buffer zone at all. The border between the farms and the jungle is like drawn with a ruler – dense forest starts from the side of the crop field. This population sometimes suffer negatively from results of conservation activities like wildlife crop damage which infuriates them and sours relations.

They will also carry you, if needed!

The farmers are also not allowed to enter the jungle and look for the gorillas. This is a job for special rangers, who daily look up the area where the gorillas are and visit them daily regardless of tourists. Just to keep the friendly connection alive.

Gorillas are strictly protected by law. We were told about a man who had shot a gorilla dead in self-defense – being sentenced to 12 years in prison. Continue reading Mountain Gorillas at Mgahinga National Park

There is Snow on them Hills

Großglockner Hochalpenstraße, Austria in July.

Woke up after a good night’s sleep at Edelweißhütte Berggasthof at Grossglockner Edelweißspitze.  Last night we arrived in thick fog and drizzle, when the evening was turning cooler.

At the parking area just below the last ascent to the Edelweißhütte, one could not see the other side of the area and I had to carefully circle the empty car park to find the small cobblestone road leading further up towards the Edelweißhütte gasthof, which I knew was on the top. Just was not sure if this was the right car park in the fog. I remembered the route from memory and just was not sure.

After some circling, I managed to find the cobblestone track. We could only see a few meters, but we took the path. Once you take this narrow track, you commit to it. It is virtually not possible to turn back on the narrow, steep and slippery cobblestone road. Not on our heavy Harleys, nor really on any touring bike.

Upon arrival, I guess we took the host family by surprise as they were not expecting anyone to come through the weather and there were no other guests. Regardless, we got a very warm welcome, beer, good food and garage for our bikes and a room for us to stay.

In the morning looking at the window expecting to see the mountain view, I noticed the window being covered with fog after the night’s heavy sleep. Still tired, I opened the window and to my surprise the view did not change – still foggy. Looking more carefully, it was SNOWING! In JULY!

The drizzle had turned into snow during night and we had about a foot of snow on the ground with more coming. The stay at the Edelweißhütte turned out to be one of the most memorable days of our trip. Lazy morning, snowfights and general amazement about the unexpected turn of the events.

The snow is not uncommon even during July and I have now been stuck at Edelweißspitze twice due to snow in July.

Even though the snow was as thick as 20 – 50 cm, the summer snow only covers the mountain top and as one descents just a few hundred meters, the snow quickly melts away. The key difference to winter is that the ground under the snow is not frozen and once the snow is cleared, the ground is only wet, not icy. Well, the cobblestones still were slippery and the ride down from Edelweißhütte was exiting. The snow was cleared by using a broom sweeping a narrow path down the track for us to ride.

And once at Edelweißhütte, it was 25c warm with the place busy with biker groups and vintage cars, etc. I must say I prefer the snow and the forced lazy mornings in the beauty of the snowy mountains in July.

Stelvio in Italy is no Stranger for Midsummer Snow either

Stelvio, Italy June 30th 2017

Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

Long Neck People

Indigenous Artisans, Floating Gardens, Long Neck People

Lake Inle (or how the Burmese say, Inle Lake) in the Shan state is the second largest lake in Myanmar, largest being Indawgyi Lake in Kachin State.

We started our trip from the town of Nyaungshwe on a  narrow-boat, which is a long-tail-boat, passengers sitting in single file, all facing front. The sound of the old motors on these boats is deafening  even for the loudest biker, with hardly anything to dampen the noise of the engine.

The scenery however is serene as soon as you exit the long canal leading to the lake. The first things you see are the fishermen, who show off their skills in the hope of a tip from the tourists passing.  These fishermen paddle in a unique way, standing on one foot and using the other foot to paddle. They keep one end of the oar under one arm and use one leg to paddle.

Houses are on bamboo stilts

There are some 70.000 Intha-people of different origins and tribes living on the lake. All tribes have different skills – fishermen, blacksmiths, silversmiths, boat makers, silk weavers, cigarrette rollers,…

Hpaung Daw U Pagoda Golden Buddha Statues

Naturally there is a very large Hpaung Daw U Pagoda with golden buddha statues, which today are just lumps of gold as people have for years attached leaf-gold on the statues. These statues a paraded on a special boat each October around the lake in huge festivities. Even boat engines are not allowed to be used that time.

Floating gardens produce 90% tomatoe, the rest being beans, cucumbers, flowers, and gourds. According to our guide, Inle Lake gardens produce some 60% of the tomatoe used in Myanmar.

The sticks in the floating gardens hold tomatoes upright and also keep the gardens from floating away!

It was a busy market day when we visited the lake.

Me and the Long Neck Girls

The Long Neck decoration has also a history from the time when the people were not at Inle Lake – they are not indigenous for the area. The decoration was protection agains tigers! Tigers attack legs and neck – hence protection around the neck and legs/knees!

Inle lake should not be missed if you head this way. A wonderful day out!

Save the beer!

Time for a swim at the end of the day

Belarus Expedition 2018

Coming up! 

Belarus –  A Gem Waiting for Discovery!

I have visited Minsk several times on a motorbike and every time it has been just phenomenal. Minsk is a very modern city with friendly people, excellent food and great nightlife. 

Coming July 2018, it is time to look a bit further afield. Riding with a small group of friends from HOG Capital Chapter Finland, we will be holding Minsk as our base and exploring the countryside and the sights we have missed during our earlier visits. Hopefully we will meet some of our local HOG-friends to give us a steer as well! 

Earlier rides have taken us from Vilnius, Lithuania to Minsk and that is the plan is also now. Road surface is good on both sides of the border. The ride from Vilnius to Kamenny Log border crossing is only some 35 km and from Kamenny Log to Minsk, some 150km, total distance 185km.

Formalities at the border take some time and there is a set procedure to follow. Officials have always been friendly and guided us if there were questions. Formalities run according to their set plan. No ifs, ands or buts!

Border may be busy – Just pass the trucks

The documentation one needs include passport with visa, green card for the bike and health insurance for the rider. Additionally you can download a Passenger Customs Declaration and fill it before leaving for the border. You will be given one at the border, but easier to do in advance. The document is the same for both Belarus and Russian borders.  

At the border you will also be given a Migration Card to fill in and you MUST keep the other half with you for your return journey. This is not downloadable, presumably because it has running numbering.

I got my visa from the Belarus Embassy in Helsinki. Easily done and they must have the friendliest staff of any Visa consulate I have visited. This is also the cheapest way – you really do not need to pay any middleman. This applies to coming on land and there is a visa free scheme if you come by plane.

NOTE! As a tourist without an invitation to visit the country, you will need a stamped booking confirmation from your hotel for obtaining a visa. Confirmation from booking.com, etc. will NOT do. Just email the hotel and they will promptly email you a scanned document. 

I am already really excited about the ride and another blog will follow.

By the way… The bike pictured in the main image at the start of this post belongs to president Alexander Lucashenko – Black Ultra with red flames!

Unique license plate

Reminiscing one of our earlier visits:

Arirang – Olympic Games in Pyongyang?

Arirang

Now that the winter olympic games 2018 are drawing to a close, you may have noticed the beautiful and catchy melody played on the background on TV – The melody is called Arirang. 

This is a traditional Korean melody and also very popular in the North – DPRK. The story behind the melody is  about two lowers, torn apart by an evil landlord – representing North and South Korea! (See video at the end of post)

World’s largest stadium

If Pyongyang were to arrange olympics, one of the venues would certainly be the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium or The May Day Stadium, the BIGGEST STADIUM IN THE WORLD with capacity of some 115.000!

 

Arirang Festival – Arirang Mass Games

I has the privilege to visit the stadium during the 2012 Arirang Festival / Arirang Mass Games, where over 100.000 gymnasts, dancers and artists performed. (Some claim over 200.000 – try counting!)

The 2012 Mass Games was to be the last of its kind but another performance was organized 2013.

One of the most recognized images of the Arirang Festival is the huge human-pixel-image at the stadium, where 30.000 young pupils from 8 different schools perform as pixels with colored boards making up the images.

VIDEO: Arirang Mass Games 2012

Practical Advice for Motorcycling in Vietnam, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh

So, you are planning to ride through Vietnam?

Inspired by Top Gear – OK, Hai Van Pas is just north of Da Nang in the mid part of Vietnam and easy to include in your ride. Right, now that that is settled, we can look at what else to plan for.

Selfie at Hai Van Pas

There are a number of blogs, guides and different articles on riding a motorcycle in Vietnam. I am sure you have seen many and I also did read several before my trip. As a result, I was completely baffled about what to believe.  Some advice seemed sound, while some just bragging and would be simply irresponsible. The comments  below are based on my own experience and I hope you find them useful.

First, you need a Bike. THE Q: Buy or Rent

This one decision will set the tone for the rest of your ride.

Buy: Used bike from a hostel notice board, etc. – When the seller is gone, he’s gone.

Kawasaki or ???

While it is possible to buy a used motorbike with relative ease, think twice before you buy and do not believe all you hear or read. The cheap bikes 200 – 350 USD are usually Chinese made (even if it is a Honda) and you have no idea what you are actually buying or how the bikes have been stitched together. It does not really help that you most likely are somewhat pressed with time and want to get started with your ride.

Electric bikes are popular

It is possible that you get a decent deal but as you browse some of the accounts, you can read between the lines that there has usually been some issues with the bike.

Again, there are mechanics around but how long do you want to spend at the garage and how far are you willing to push the bike (with your luggage) if it happens to stall in a wrong place. I certainly have never had a problem with my bike in the RIGHT place! Plus every visit to the garage adds costs. Some blogs even mention that you should be prepared for repairs costing about the same as you paid for the bike. If you do not speak Vietnamese – good luck negotiating!

When riding through the length of Vietnam, you get all kinds of weather. From extreme heat to cold and wet conditions. I rode through a monsoon rain and flooded roads. Chinese bike’s electronics might not have survived the ride.

These crappy bikes can be fun outside the bar after a few beers when there are loads of bar-goers trying to kick-start it for you. But the laugh may be short lived if the bike stalls in the rain in the middle of nowhere. On the positive side, you will have a good story to tell.

Buyer beware!

Rent: Even when it reads Honda, it can be made in China.

In order to avoid mechanical issues with the bike as far as possible, go for a Japanese made bike from a reputable source. Check the websites and contact the rental company to learn about the company. They usually provide a wealth of advise on touring in Vietnam. You can also request more information using email to see how they respond.

The rental process is slightly different in Vietnam. Technically you buy the bike and you get the documents as well – note the yellow card! You make a contract with the company to look after the bike and to return it when agreed. A refundable deposit is left with the rental company.

Managed to destroy my rear tire! Fixed at the official dealer service.

There are some further requirements for you, such as oil change at required intervals at the official service garage. These are for your benefit as well and the purpose for using the official service is also to avoid mechanics stealing parts from your Japanese bike and replacing them with Chinese parts! You do not want that to happen!

Fixing a flat tire on the road

I took my Honda Winner from Tigit Motorbikes  and can recommend Tigit. Unfortunately they do not pay me for the endorsement, nor have I stupidly even asked!

My bike was relatively new and was in overall good nick. Service at the Hanoi shop was good and we agreed that I would return the bike in Ho Chi Minh City.

Helmet designed for a ponytail!

I even took a free helmet on loan. If you choose to buy a helmet in Vietnam, you can leave it behind for the next rider when you return the bike.

No point in bringing a Vietnamese helmet home with you. Unless you want a souvenir.

Cost for the rental? – My Honda Winner was 350 USD for 35 days. Cost of oil change after each 1000km is single digits USD. A reliable bike is not a cost issue!

Who you’re gonna call? Ghostbusters won’t help!

Damrey aftermath – Typhoon damage in Nha Trang.

I was riding solo for a large part of my trip. Obviously there are pros and cons in riding solo, but one big con is not having a wingman, someone to look after your back when surprising things happen. If you do not have a wingman, you need some contacts to turn to when you need help or advice.

https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/vietnam-cambodia-on-alert-for-new-tropical-threat-in-the-west-pacific/70003149. I was just below Da Nang.

And surprising things do happen! In my case, Vietnam was hit by the strongest typhoon in sixteen years right on my path. I am sure there was information available but I do not speak Vietnamese. My home country foreign office did send me a text message warning and made me aware about the typhoon but obviously the message lacked all the detail.

Flooded road outside Hoi An

Typhoons, etc happen. Leave your travel plans and your contact number with the proper authorities at home, just in case!

The impact of floods and devastation that followed would have been difficult to understand without my contact at Tigit. Obviously I had no idea what damage was ahead of me and how the country would cope with the aftermath. Jon at Tigit had a large number of bikes out and after being in contact with bikers, he had a very good picture of the situation around the country. Jon was very helpful with his advice and responded my emails very quickly.

Tree in the house – Typhoon damage in Nha Trang

Another good feature about Tigit is that they have offices not only in Hanoi and HCMC, but also in Da Nang, half way up the country.

If sh..t really hits the fan, you can return the bike to any of these offices and they will even help you send your bike on a train if needed.

If you buy your bike from a street corner, you will not have the ”base” to contact.

Where to go – I need a map! Except you don’t!

The internet is full of suggested routes across the country and good descriptions about those routes. It really depends on the time you have available. Bike rentals can give you ideas as well.

Bikes can usually pass even when the roads are otherwise closed for building work

The main roads get you relatively quick to the next place and for example Google maps is good for finding your way. I also had maps.me in use. As roads change and infrastructure develops very quickly in Vietnam, a paper map may not be needed. I certainly did not have one. Even Google and maps.me disagreed at times and a simple trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay with a new bridge was a challenge for them both. And 40 km extra ride for me! So speak with the locals if possible and listen carefully.

Practicalities with Motorbiking in Vietnam

Bike parking

Always leave your bike to an attended parking. It costs very little, you get a receipt and eventually you get your bike back! At hotels, they will tell you where to park. They can even take the bike in to the reception for the night, unless there is guarded parking.

You should not use the steering lock on your bike. The bikes will be moved around and should the attendant have a bad day, he may break the lock. At least, he will be pissed off with you.

There are motorbike lanes on main roads leading in and out of cities or towns. Check the rules of the road before you go. The right hand lane is usually for motorbikes and highways are completely off-limits to motorbikes – although Google maps may try to guide you there! 

Should you come across a toll booth, there usually is a small entry way on the side for motorbikes and you will not need to pay.

Riding in the traffic – that you will need to experience. Filtering through the traffic is the norm. Perhaps not for the faint hearted but keeping the pace and being very careful, I enjoyed it. Unexpected things will happen and nothing is like in the West. Nothing can be taken for granted and motorcycle is usually the weaker party. You have been warned!

Before you get used to the traffic and even then, travel times may be twice or triple what Google suggests. Therefore before you make any binding reservations, you may want to make sure you actually can travel the planned distance. In my case there were some mud slides which had blocked the road and I had to take a 200+ km unplanned detour!

You need fuel!

Fuel is available from stations throughout the country and they will pump the fuel for you. Either full tank or more often, to exact change for ease of payment.

If you go to some really remote areas, you may want to check that fuel stations exist. Alternatively take a full canister with you so you do not have to buy bottled fuel from the road side. This is just to be sure the quality is good and the fuel is clean.

Finding a hotel

Simple as booking.com or any similar app. There are many hotels available, unless you are in a very remote area. Even the very cheap hotels are usually good and clean. Toilet hygiene is good and bed linen clean. I usually paid between 6 and 14 USD per night, often including a modest breakfast. It is possible to find more expensive hotels as well, but there was really no need. Or even cheaper – Go to a hostel and get a bed in a dorm. Some hotels offer dorms as well.

Coco House Homestay

Try a Homestay. They are often hotel-like, but sometimes only a few rooms and perhaps no reception. If your host does not live there, someone comes in the morning to cook breakfast and to look after you.

Money!

While prices may be quoted in US Dollars, payment usually happens in Vietnamese Dongs. This applies practically everywhere. Not just hotels but shops, restaurants, fuel stations, parking – virtually everywhere.

ATMs are widely available and also hotels and shops change Euros or Dollars at favourable rates. My experience was that the rate available in Vietnam was much better than what I got from any currency exchange outside Vietnam. So bring Euros or Dollars and change in Vietnam!

Food, glorious food!

Seafood being cooked in the street – Qui Nohn

Food is really good in Vietnam and very affordable. Do sample the street food and eat where the locals eat. They will tell you if you try to do something stupid or if the food is more of the Vietnamese taste and perhaps not for tourists. With a few dollars you get a good meal and a couple of beers.

The People

I found the Vietnamese really friendly and both trusting and trustworthy. I felt safe everywhere I went.

Many thanks to all the Vietnamese people who made my ride so memorable! You made me feel a welcome guest in your country.

Linh and Phin,  Sand Dune Homestay at An Bang Beach.

Are you still wondering?

Just GO! Vietnam is fantastic! You’ll have the time of your life!

Vietnamese coffee alone is worth the ride! Served with ice cubes and green tea!