Archive for February, 2010

15th to 24th February

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

24th February
To do another 100 mile day we thought would be unachievable at the start of this challenge, but with good roads…well! Everything was ok for the first 20 miles, apart from the oily, coal sooted streets made us and the bikes look like a couple of seagulls caught in an oil spillage. The roadside cafe came to the rescue when they understood “omelette”, but when rocks started appearing in the middle of the road, and turning a sharp corner onto mud covering it didn’t look good. This unfinished road surface was like cycling on sticky parcel tape, and where it turned shiny the bikes were sliding like ducks on an iced pond.
I looked up just as Jon’s bike slid from underneath him and he faceplanted the muddy surface. Reggie’s front wheel had as much tread as an Indian truck, and he now had a broken bent handlebar to match. Jon looked like he had been mud wrestling and understandably was a little shaken up. At 4.30pm with just 1½ hours of light left, we still had 38 miles to go – the daily average of 8mph so far meant another 4-5 hours of cycling and nightime riding which I hate, especially with only cookies and sour sweets to keep us going.
Now a two badly tanned cyclists is like a couple of T-bones to the wild dogs and boy did we soon know it. Apart from the traffic danger on the Alex-Cairo desert road, this was the most terrifying cycling of the challenge. Every little bark got louder and louder as dogs raced towards us across the landscape – all we could see was their eyes in the darkness, until they were at our heels barking and foaming like they were possessed. We needed a few selected kicks, but on the whole a good English shout of “F**k Off” seemed to do the trick and we ploughed on.
The city of Mong Cai couldn’t come quick enough, and we located a hotel close to the border control for tomorrow’s crossing into China. I hope the food gets better as we had to make do with another night of fast food chicken!

23rd February
Hurrah – on with the cycling today Turkish! Just a small matter of 100 miles and navigating through a million motorbikes on a gloomy day in Hanoi. Thank you to all the staff at Moevenpick – we were probably their most demanding guests yet, and the cherry on top had to be us making sandwiches at the breakfast buffet alongside posh Americans on their Asia cruises.
We were really noticing the humidity today, so the pollution and dirt from the roads stuck to us like glue, but we made good ground and especially helped by the gaggles of giggling school girls we passed on the way.
The town of Halong looked bleak when we arrived, and didn’t improve after we found our hotel. Searching for food, all we could find was ropey pavement kitchens (stoves, woks and a few dirty chairs) and a fish restaurant which didn’t have a menu, just a few buckets of live fish on the roadside who didn’t look particularly happy about their impending slaughter. I don’t fancy naming my fish before eating it! We didn’t fancy either, so had to make do with the worst fried chicken we’ve ever had, and then supplemented with tuna sandwiches and crisps in the room – basic!

20th – 22nd February
We don’t want to moan – there are definitely worst places we could be waiting for a wheel than at a 5* hotel, and with concierge at the ready, we certainly utilised their services. From sending someone around Hanoi looking for a bike shop who could change the gear cassette onto the new wheel, collecting buckets and sponges to wash the bikes, and helping with directions for the tenth time, we were soon the talk of the hotel staff!
We used Sunday to do a bit of sightseeing – never seen so many motorbikes as we visited the ancient literature museum and Ho Ming’s temple (old ruler), upset some ladies carrying baskets of bananas by getting photos with them, and then sought sanctuary in the only place we could understand what we would be eating (we hope!) – KFC.
We successfully extended our stay by speaking to the manager (we were taking the mick out of his pastel pink golf outfit at breakfast yesterday!), and he arranged a quick photoshoot for us before we leave tomorrow.

18th – 19th February
We were slightly relived when our lift arrived to take us across the border, although we spent the first 3 hours of the journey gazing out of the window at the perfect sweeping cycling roads which followed a windy river through the hills. Passing through the villages we saw crowds of kids knowing that two badly tanned cyclists would certainly brighten their day. We should be cycling – this sucks! No “sabaidees” or warm smiles – instead we were narrowly missing squashing goats, babies, chickens and pigs. I gasped as we actually went over the top of a black puppy, fortunately the high wheel base of our 4×4 meant that the puppy could see another day.
As fate would have it the conditions soon turned nasty, when we arrived to a road submerged in water and we had to cross with the help of a tugboat. From there, the road went from bad to worst, and we were now not only glad we weren’t cycling, but simply wouldn’t have been able to. Thick sand and rocks covered the road for the next 15 miles, and then the road literally ran out! Even the 4×4 was struggling – we were in amongst diggers and labourers, who were still carving the road through the hills.
Lots of lost brain cells later from banging our heads on the rollcage, we made it to the Vietnam border, where we stood shivering while trying to explain why we had two passports each. People travelling by bus, stood by fires made from bits of cardboard lying around, as they tried to keep warm in the damp, cold mountain air, while staring with bemusement at two badly tanned cyclists in shorts and t-shirts! Bonkers conkers!
Our driver took us as far as Dien Bien Phu, the first town inside the border where we could catch a connecting bus to Hanoi. Keen to get the hellish journey done as quickly as possible, we jumped straight on a bus. Unfortunately this meant no time to get food, just enough time to get some cash out and take a quick leek in what was undoubtedly the worst toilet I have ever seen. It looked like a herd of elephants had passed through, following a hearty feast.
The bus journey wasn’t much better – crying babies, old Vietnamese men hocking up greenies and seriously annoying grinding pop music blasting out of the speakers. It was clear any kind of sleep was out of the question. Despite not being entirely sure what the exchange rate was, Dom began arguing (rightly so) with them trying to charge us the same price as a seat for each bicycle, but it turned out to be an hour long, language stalemate over £3.
At least dinner was included – we stopped at a roadside shack, sheltering from the rain with rice and a few other dishes laid out. One of them looked a lot like sliced spring roll, so I tucked in to discover that it was a finally sliced chicken, bones and all! Another dish was some unidentifiable rubbery meat – best avoided. Our luck did change when I received a text confirming that the Tapkens had arranged a room for us at the 5* Hanoi Moevenpick – get in!
We were dumped at Hanoi bus station and not knowing where in the city we were, and how far from the hotel, we found ourselves in our next mission of trying to arrange a large taxi at 4am, and we were pooped! All we could see was pony little Daihatsus which would have struggled with our tent, let alone with two bicycles and 8 items of luggage! Luckily we were helped by a Vietnamese girl who said she was trying to improve her English, but I think that was an excuse as she clearly fancied Dom. And after chasing a 7 seater taxi down the road in our flip flops, we got ourselves to the hotel, and just in time for their international breakfast buffet – fan-kin-tastic.
The only small problem was that the expected wheel hadn’t been delivered yet – at least its Friday, so should turn up this morning. Wrong! We’re still hitting hurdles – because of Chinese New Year, customs weren’t working today, and although we can see that the wheel has arrived in Hanoi (via Manchester, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Bangkok) it can’t be delivered until Monday. This is so frustrating – we just want to get on with the cycling!

17th February
A forced rest day meant we could catch up on some admin (especially route plan Mexico in detail), but what we thought would be an easy solution of getting a bus to Hanoi wasn’t! Struggling through the language barrier at the Tourist Information office, with lots of scribbled maps and pointing, we established that we would need to catch 3 different buses to get to Hanoi and Ronnie and Reggie would be on three different bouncing, banging roofs. This is going to trash them.
So our other option would be to get a taxi – surely we could negotiate a deal with a tutuk or a people carrier! Well they didn’t have a Timbuktu what we were going on about – god this is hard work! Luckily a cycle shop came to the rescue with the owner’s nephew agreeing that he would drive us in a 4×4 jeep to Dien Bien Phu where we could get one direct bus to Hanoi. But not without having to settle on paying $250 – well annoying knowing that the buses are only about $40, but at least the bikes should be in one piece.

16th February
A monster of a day with 4,200ft of assent, so we started early, and we were actually cold for the first time in a couple of months when we noticed a big drop in temperature. Every bump and dip in the road was even more noticeable as I tentatively tried to protect Ronnie’s cracking wheel, but a third of the way when we turned off the asphalt and onto unpaved road, with Ronnie’s spokes creaking up the inclines, our worst fears were realised that this would be our last day of cycling in Laos. Such a shame, especially with all the kids running through their villages smiling and shouting bye bye as we cycle past – really gives us such a lift.
We no longing were hoping to wing it to Hanoi, now we’d be lucky to see it through the day! Another puncture for Ronnie wasn’t helped when a Spanish cyclist stopped at the worst possible time to investigate, but we did take some comfort knowing that he was the guy we’d heard about who couldn’t make it up a hill 2 days earlier (which we nailed) and had to lie down on the pavement waiting for a lift. The last 20km of unpaved rocky road went on and on, and resembled trying to cycle along a train track – not the best place for our touring bikes.
Arriving at the hotel, we needed some quick thinking to arrange for a new wheel to be sent from UK to Hanoi – they are stored at Jeremy’s, but unfortunately it couldn’t be picked up today, so DHL were booked for tomorrow, and we took a gamble on being able to stay at Moevenpick, putting the package for the attention of the general manager! He who dares…

15th February
Today we had a short ride to Luang Martha but not a good start after some puncture mincing and then had to make do with some vegetable noodles for breakfast. Jon was happy though because he got some gold footage of about 100 school children with colourful sun umbrellas and even managed to “lao five” a monk! The comedy moment of the day was when Jon pulled over to speak to a 75 year old Ali G style cyclist with luminous shorts and shades to match with a wheelie suitcase as his rear pannier. Later we were still kicking ourselves for not getting a photo but were too busy laughing.
Shame the luxury guesthouse was full but at least we got them working when they offered to still do our laundry – little did they know, “that is some seriously funky sh*t in there love!” Picking up an email from our bike mechanic, Jeremy after we asked his advice about the buckle, he said “please don’t ride that wheel anymore, it’s definitely been compromised & could totally fail at any moment.” We tried in vain to get a new wheel for Ronnie but it clearly wasn’t happening as the only places available were mountain bike rental shops. We are going to give it another day and assess from there.
As our energy levels were low we headed off for some much needed food – in fact we ordered so much food that chef had to come out for a tea break half way through!

8th to 14th February

Monday, February 15th, 2010

14th February
Valentines Day – no loving today – these hills are going to be right bitches! We left at 6.30am and soon settled into our new surroundings – a big orange sun rising above the wooden houses on stilts – families boiling up their tea kettles on little campfires.
First word – everyone is so smiley. After failing to get our Thai Five, we managed to get a double Lao Five off two kids running out to wave at us (although they did try to nick the crisps). In fact all the kids in the little villages along the way either ran out or just shouted “Bye Bye” at the top of their voices. Well sweet, it’s another good and much needed energy boost for the hills of Laos.
After the first bitch (500m of ascent),  Kat and Laura shouted out as they passed us in the bus on the way to the Gibbon experience. With our heads pounding from the heat and our hearts bursting, I wish I was in an air conditioned bus!

We stopped briefly to chat to two Spanish cyclists (, but then off we went on the final bitch of the day, rising to 1,200m, and the highest point on the TCC Challenge, although the sandpit hill, water-truck and steamroller almost finshed Jon off.
We made it to Vieng Phouka and found a cool guesthouse (huts overlooking river), although I’ve had a warmer wash in plunge pools. We also felt pretty pleased with ourselves as one traveller explained that the last cyclist to make the same journey we had just done, needed a lift over the last hill – what a lightweight!

13th February
Picked Ronnie up from the bike shop, I did try again to ask the twenty something Thai bike mechanic whether it would make it to Hanoi, but couldn’t understand and had the added amusement that he was wearing a kids Liverpool shirt, which looked more like a crop top!
At least we thought that two travelling girls should know where to go for the boat across the river to Laos. Well they didn’t! They were Oz students (Kat and Laura), travelling around Asia – luckily we did find out where to go and packed all our stuff onto a narrow long boat. One passenger (a kind of mix between Hulk and Jaws), had clearly spent the last week at the Hall of Opium, and didn’t know what day of the week it was! Ronnie and Reggie almost had their own joke of tripping him into the river!

We are feeling a bit James Bond as we now have two passports each (the new ones have our Vietnam and Chinese visas in), so we tried using them to get into Laos to make our next border crossing easier. Well we caused a right pickle. Jon told the customs man that we had lost our previous passports (not very clever), and then they thought that we had a set of fake passports. Luckily we quickly changed our story and an hour later we were in Laos (on our old passports – note – we need to explain situation in full at the Vietnam border). Now on our way to spend over a million in our next country – 13,000 Laos Kip to 1 pound!
Felt a bit like two travellers in the afternoon as we hung out with Kat and Laura, and although we were seriously tempted to go on the Gibbon experience they had booked for the following day (zip wire entrance, treehouses and campfires), we had to remind ourselves that we are here to cycle, and have one monstrous day of cycling tomorrow. Ordering food at the restaurant was funny too. We wanted to be prepared, so ordered dinner, breakfast and lunch – they couldn’t believe the amount of food – even granny had to get off her rocking chair in the corner to help, while the 8 year old son jumped on a moped to zip off and get our sandwich fillings!

12th February
Really tough ride to the Thailand/Laos border at Chiang Khong today which easily surpassed Wednesdays day of hillage, we had to tackle these hills in short bursts then had to flop over the handle bars, pant for a few seconds and crack on. We were helped on the sugar levels with some sour sweets sent to us by Cadbury (ok so we didn’t give all of them to the Kolkata orphans) and were given sympathetic waves and often chuckles of ‘rather you than me pal’ of passing Thai moped drivers. To give you an idea of how slow we were going we only just managed to overtake a farmer with his herd of cows. The climbs were on par with the tour de france training climbs we did in the alps- seriously tough work especially each carrying about 30 kilos of luggage on the bike and with the added spanner in the works of the heat too.

The climbs also took their toll on Ronnie whose wheel is getting worse, Dom had to detach his rear brake as the wheel had re-buckled and had a nasty wobble, he limped to Chiang Khong and managed to find a small and rather limited bike shop before it shut. Although they spoke no English Dom managed to get them to look into it and have it back to us for 10am the following day, not looking good for Ronnie to hold out to Hong Kong which is still 3 weeks away, not even Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital) our next big city we’re due to reach on 22nd Feb-this could be a serious problem.

Staying at the same hotel was a group of happy go lucky British motorcross drivers aka The Chiang Mai Road Warriors- annual trips organised by Chris and Steve. Every year they go to the far east for a couple of weeks of motorcycle madness. They were really impressed with route through the hills as well as our challenge and the story behind it- they grouped together and very kindly donated us around ฃ160. Steve gave us some good advice about the roads in Laos and places where we could stay he also very kindly gave us some US dollars which would help us get a visa in Laos much easier. The hotel was right on the Mekhong River which was really scenic- just 300 metres to the other side was Laos and country number 11.

11th February
A short 40 mile ride today to Chiang Rai meant that we could ping out lots of emails and upload a few more photos, it would be nice to get out and explore the cities a bit more but no time for that today. Found a nice little Italian restaurant for dinner where we were served by a way over the top camp Thai waiter which we found rather amusing and continued to impersonate him on the way home.

10th February
So our first days cycling in Thailand and initial impressions are all good- smooth roads, people only too happy to give a smile and a wave, no rubbish or cows wondering in the middle of the road- the main hurdle we’re tackling now is the climate, 36oC and 86% humidity! At least the morning cycle was flat so we had the breeze to cool us down but the afternoon was where the hills came, arguably the steepest climbs of the TCC Challenge so far these were monsters. Not like other mountain roads where they bend and weave working their way up slowly, no, these mothers went straight up. At the top was the highest natural hot spring in Thailand so we parked the bikes up and took a couple of photos, a friendly Thai chap offered us a bottle of water and a banana (we must have looked shagged) stupidly we left the bikes against a wall around the spring and soon realised that poor Ronnie and Reggie were getting soaked- probably not the cleverest place to park but they soon dried out. We clocked 46 mph coming down the hill which was lush but the assents weren’t done with us yet. We were heading for a resort called Suan Thip some 70 miles from Chiang Mei to break down the long journey to Chaing Rai but the last 10 miles was all up hill which nearly killed us. We finally got to and just for a final nail in the coffin the reception was up a final steep hill.

Suan Thip is a stunning mountain retreat, where the bungalows are built sympathetically on steep slopes around a forest, so the balconies are like tree houses. An air of calm and serenity greets you here, which we think sets the tone for Northern Thailand as a whole – a hidden emerald gem and a real treat to find after such a tough cycle. The manager kindly gave us a special TCC charity rate to fit into our budget and even threw in a complimentary authentic Thai a la carte meal which I’d say was the best meal of the TCC Challenge so far.
The problem we had was with our little annoying winged friend. Vijay was still held up at Bangkok airport so he seized his opportunity to continue the mosquito offensive by getting a Thai bride, a quick exchange of vows over the phone and the plan was set, he briefed Ping Pong to launch a full scale attack on us in Thailand and she and her posse caught up with us at Suan Thip. She spent the night munching away at our feet (rather you than me love) although we gave as good as we got and managed to decorate the wall of the room with a few of her friends!

9th February
Today was an internet day, plotting our route through Thailand and up towards the Tropic of Cancer. Dom’s still having issues installing the Garmin World maps program given to us by dad’s partner, Sue frustrating as it’s conflicting with some other free mapping software we tried to install and can’t find the source file. Had a great photo outside the Amari Rincome hotel with some of the staff for their website (and ours- see our gallery).
Nice to have a couple of days away from Vijay the mosquito- he must have got held up at immigration coming into Thailand, hopefully he’s been sent packing.

8th February
We’ve been looking forward to a fairly chilled day, the main thing we had to do was give Ronnie and Reggie some bike love. After somehow using some wizardry to fit them into 3 kids bike boxes we had to reassemble them from scratch and spent the morning doing so in the hotel’s tennis court keeping our fingers and toes crossed that the baggage handlers in Kolkata hadn’t man handled them. After that it was off to a bike shop nearby for some repairs; we needed a replacement wire for my handlebar pannier and the wheels needed some straightening after suffering a hammering on the Indian roads. One nasty buckle on Ronnie didn’t look too great following another prang from a van which also had a hairline crack in it. They managed to straighten out the buckle and reassured us that it would last to Hong Kong (when we can get a spare sent out) so we kept our fingers and toes crossed once more and headed back to the hotel.

We chilled by the pool for a couple of hours in the afternoon (not quite enough to rid ourselves of the two tone tans- we still look like a tub of white & dark chocolate swirl ice cream) before heading out for a bit of Chaing Mei nightlife. Dom had been eager to ride in a Tuk Tuk since we got to India and now was our chance, this wasn’t any Tuk Tuk though we nick named it disco Tuk Tuk, it was like something out of Pimp my Ride- 12 inch alloys, a big bore exhaust, multi coloured flashing lights and even the seat backs were replaced by speakers and subs.

We found a cool little restaurant by the river- great to have free reign on the menu again and not have to dodge salad, meat or fish. I couldn’t help but notice two old boys with a young Thai girl on the table next to us, there is a lot of old white men with a young Thai girlfriends around but it was the first time I’d seen two men and one girl- they must have been using to keep the budget down on their holiday! After dinner we headed over the road and saw a really good band doing loads of awesome covers also took a chance to wash down a couple of vodkas mixed with M150 (the rocket fuel energy mixer banned from most European countries.
The Tuk Tuk we got home wasn’t so racy and struggled over speed bumps and hump back bridges, we thought we might have to get out and push but made it back home, eventually.

30th January to 7th February

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

7th February

Excellent, Chubbs knocked on our door and he was only 45 minutes late. We had packed Ronnie and Reggie into two small boxes, so we needed a third just for the wheels. A bit of jigsaw arranging, and I squeezed in the boot, while Jon was in the front with Chubbs and the driver. Jon had to put up with him mumbling away, trying to talk without the spit dribbling out of his mouth!
Navigating the traffic, the driver tried to squeeze onto a slip road that was already packed. A cracking of bumper plastic followed, as our car’s bull bars rammed into the car in front. The driver was not happy, but Chubbs pretty much told the driver of the other car that it was just a scratch (his bumper was hanging off!), stop making a meal out of it and go on your way with wild hand movements – legend!
A bit of excess luggage blagging was required at the airport, luckily we had a newspaper article with us, as we checked in 3 bike boxes, two rear panniers and three other bags! We then amused ourselves watching an Indian having a proper barny at another check-in desk. He got himself so worked up, that I think his friends had to get him a bottle of water to avoid his head from exploding.

A quick transfer in Bangkok, and it wasn’t looking good with the connection as they had mislaid one of our bags. Some frantic calls later, they had tracked it down and we were on our way to Chiang Mai. We were looking forward to our stay at the Amari Rincome Hotel, which had been arranged through their PR company. 4* deluxe room with wi-fi and a hot power shower, now we are talking!

6th February
Our ongoing Nokia mince is finally over. The impounded Nokia 6710 Navigator by the jobsworth parcel company (an Indian one isn’t pretty) is now safely in our hands. Thank you to Angus at Wunderman, Young and Rubican and Nokia for providing us with a device holding all key city maps, which will certainly help us when we arrive in Hong Kong.
Next stop was a bike shop for some packing for Ronnie and Reggie. It looked like another Egyptian nightmare of cereal box packaging, until we stumbled upon an 80 year old bike shop came to the rescue. Actually the manager had seen us on TV and was pleased to help.

Saying goodbye to Anthony, he was a bit more chilled today, although still insisted walking very slowly all the way round the stadium to get a street tea – our stomachs have just about got used to this drink. We hope he can arrange a big car to the airport tomorrow otherwise we’ll need to go tutuk customising!

5th February
Anthony was running an hour late, not ideal with our schedule today, but explained it was his drivers fault. Not surprising seeing how the traffic is here – it feels like we’ve spent 3½ days of our 4 Kolkata days stuck in a traffic jam!
First stop was Mothers House, Jon upset a nun within about 30 seconds  of arriving by taking her photo, but we felt a huge sense of peace standing next to where this great woman was buried. Next stop was one of her centres for the retarded and mentally handicapped people, who would otherwise be suffering out on the streets. Rows of beds lined up in the large dorms, certainly not the nicest place I’ve visited, but at least it was clean and again very peaceful – in contrast to the mayhem of Kolkata’s streets outside the walls.

Back in the car we realised that we were in the midst of another fully absorbing whirlwind of a day – all traffic jam eyes on our car, I really did feel like a celeb. Rocking up at a children’s orphanage, all the frantic phone calls received by Anthony and his assistant (I’ve named Chubbs, as his cheeks are always packed with tobacco) made sense. We walked into a room packed with about 100 children, patiently sitting on the floor waiting to be given a present from a huge santa style sack at the front. We were honoured with flowers and a Bindi, and then had the privilege of handing out the bags of presents to the kids. Complete bedlam was an understatement, but what an amazing moment.
If that didn’t push the kids hyperactivity into overdrive, we then went outside to hand out bars of Dairy Milk, Wispas and Natural Confectionary sweets to hundreds of outstretched arms, before being quickly ushered back into our car and some relative calm! Thank you to PHD and Cadburys for arranging this (we did stash some bars for us too!)

Back to Chubbs – his cheeks are so full of this mouth tobacco (oral cancer is the biggest cancer problem in India), that he could barely speak in case his red saliva dribbled out of his mouth. Every now and again a bucket full of his red spit was projected out of the car window! We just had enough time to woof down some rice and ropey old goat/ chicken or something else (which we obviously left), before getting back to the stadium to collect our bikes for the press conference. We opted to load up the bikes with our luggage before following our driver into the traffic chaos. He informed us that it was just 2km down the road. Well 3 motorway junctions, two flyovers, 45 potholes, several cows, a two wheeled tutuk (work that one out) and a 10 lane roundabout which the police stopped just for us, we arrived 40 minutes late at the entrance of Kolkata Press club, for our press conference. About 40 photographers and cameramen packed the driveway, and before Jon could make it inside, he had to battle 5 TV mics!

The press conference was arranged by Picasona, a healthcare company responsible for funding new hospitals with cancer wards in Kolkata. This was the best conference yet as we were able to really push home why investment and education into early cancer detection is so important, especially testicular cancer. There were top doctors, a bishops and the former Indian Davis cup player/ coach (not my most intelligent question when I asked if he had ever seen a match at Wimbledon – he probably played in several!)

Hold onto your pants bro – the press conference finished after dark and we had to make the same journey back to the stadium – certainly up there with the scariest cycle on the challenge (although Cairo still tops it!)

3rd and 4th February
Today was my birthday and after completing the huge milestone of cycling across India, we felt worthy of a double celebration courtesy of Mum and Dad. We headed south from Kolkata for one night and two days of safaris by boat in the world famous Sunderbans, a vast network of narrow rivers and mangroves. The land is dead flat so in low tide a muddy forest floor is revealed, home to tigers, monkeys, deer, wild boar, crocodiles and many species of birds. But once high tide reaches, much of the visible land submerges, forcing all the wildlife deep into the forest. The tigers often swim between the islands, but sighting are still rare, they have a taste for the ocassional human when they fancy something different, and the last death was just a week before we arrived – a local fisherman was seen as easy prey.

The camp was all-inclusive, we took that literally and were keen to get our monies worth. So we turned up with a dustbin bag full of our funky washing, which hadn’t been washed properly since Nagpur. You should have seen their faces when they opened the bag to reveal filthy diesel covered cycle jerseys, salty sweaty shorts and crusty socks. As one guy examined the clothes (at full arms length) he said something in Bengali to his colleague, tears rolling down his face from the odour, I think it translated to something along the lines of “Ganesh, get the masks and that industrial strength powder, cancel your plans for tonight this might take a while”.

Dom had already negotiated 20% off the cost of the tour, but we caused further bemusement when we only had half the cash on us, miles from any ATM. We agreed to settle the remainder back in Kolkata where there could be room for further negotiation. The camp was awesome, it had won a number of awards for creating jobs, being eco friendly and preserving the natural habitat.
The local villagers put on a special play for us before dinner, telling us a mythical story about some prince who didn’t wish to share his birthright land, at least I think that was what it was about, as it was all in Bengali.

The bungalows were comfortable, Vijay and his army were kept at bay by the trusty mosquito nets, although there was an annoying 500 decibel frog outside our room, but that didn’t stop the best night sleep we both had in ages. Probably helped by the two large bottles of strong kingfisher to celebrate my birthday!

We did get a great shot of a tiger swimming (ok, so it was a picture hanging on the wall of our bungalow, but it came out really well), saw lizards, crocodiles, kingfishers, hawks, deer and wild boar. An amazing two days, we have to say a big thank you to Help Tourism ( ) for their generous charity discount, and it was great to learn more about their conservation projects across India, when we arrived back at their office in Kolkata.

2nd February
Got up early today, food parcels at the ready, excited at a monumental milestone of reaching Kolkata. Along the way we amused ourselves by shouting “small cock” at any beeping moped driver, but after at least 100 went past, it became a tad boring! 70 miles later and we hit the outskirts – one word – mayhem! We were meeting our contact (Anthony) at 4pm at Salt Lake stadium which was a good spot that all the taxi drivers knew, and arrived early about 2.45pm.

Wembley stadium it wasn’t, although there was almost the same police presence at the main gate. This was one crumbling football stadium (worse than any I had seen in Argentina or Brazil), but we were told the accommodation was good, so we held our breath as Anthony guided us through the damp corridors to the state Youth Hostel. Actually there was a match on (which explains the police presence), but 1,000 rupees a night, you are having a laugh mate!

We bit our lips as we were very appreciative that Anthony had rearranged his work schedule to meet us. And slowly it sunk in how respectful we should be. This very old formal gentleman, worked with/ and was a very good friend with Mother Teresa and is now president of her International Awards Committee. Amazing. An old school Roman Catholic, he said that God’s wish was to clear his diary of appointments today so he could met us – our late Grandfather would have been so proud.

Later that evening, two of our parcels arrived from England. It was the consignment from Cadburys, packed with Dairy Milk, Wispas and Natural Confectionary Sweets, and our visas for the next countries. Thank you to Tommy, Charlotte and the Cadburys client – you made my day and Jon has some chocolate for his birthday tomorrow. We do have to try and save some, as Anthony is arranging for us to see all the areas of Mother Teresa’s work, and two hospitals on 5th Feb when we return from Sunderbans.

1st February
There was another guest who was staying at the resthouse, and he told us that we must inform the local police when entering West Bengal as it is a very dangerous stretch of road. After volunteering Jon to go inside the police station, they were grateful to us for letting them know and off we went. A few kilometres on we could see why. Passing the riot policevans, burnt out lorries and cars littered the road, which was tightly lined by very dense forest, and we put 2 and 2 together. Renaming it “hijack highway”, we were pleased not be cycling this at night.

As it was a shorter ride today to Kharangpur, we got there about lunchtime, and after dismissing one hotel which was like a truckers knocking shop, we found ourselves in a very raw town, with lots of creative descriptions of lodging. Our first hotel mincing in India isn’t bad, and luckily we found a nice garden restaurant and motel shortly after.

31st January
Bit worried about today’s cycle. We need to cover 94 miles to get to a town where we think there might be a hotel. Everyone we’ve asked has said yes, but we now know that the Indians say yes to everything!
We set off early, with the committee of hotel workers asking loads of questions – I think it was about 6 staff to 1 guest. We were also loaded with our veg bryriani food parcels, which we are getting the hang of, but they kicked off about an accidently smashed sprite bottle, and tried to charge a security deposit – jokers – in no uncertain terms we told them no!

Jon’s turn to struggle a bit, especially as we hit the worse type of hills for him – long straight gradual inclines, but after lunch make up for it with great downhill through thick rainforest today. The road opened up into a dry, rugged landscape with jagged rocks lining the road. And perfect perches for the wild monkeys. I was actually quite nervous that one would jump up on the panniers, as a few hissed and made snarling faces as we raced past. A little like our first day of the challenge cycling through areas of Kent, avoiding the chavs and their pushchairs!

When a motorcycle pulled alongside, we thought it was another “heading for Kolkata, from Bombay, with my brother mate”, but actually turned out to be our shinning light. Although my initial impressions were cold after he gobbed out some pan spit (looks like blood) onto the road in front of me, Kumar guided us 1km to a government resthouse and showed us where some restaurants were on his motorbike – legend. At only 150rupees a night (£2.50) it was our best deal yet, although another visit from the cops meant more explanations of exactly what we were thinking to cycle the National Highway 6 across India.

30th January
We braced ourselves for the monster hill climb today, which we had seen on the map three weeks ago. The breathtaking scenery continued, and even when we started climbing up the 1km elevation, and the blue coloured mountains rolled into the distance, our love for India grew even stronger.
A small village didn’t know what had hit them when we stopped to get some well earnt sprite, although I don’t think kiosk man was too happy that I dumped our 8 empty water bottles and lunchtime rubbish on his sprite crates!

Racing down the hills to sea level, we found a government hotel on outskirts, but I don’t think they’ve had any guests before. They didn’t know what to do, 6 people hanging about were trying to help, but being more annoying than anything, I felt sick and faint and just wanted to collapse in the room. And then no power for an hour – brilliant, so we sat in the dark waiting for something to happen. Luckily the one redeeming point of another shabby digs was that they had sat TV, so able to watch the Dark Knight in English!