French roadtrip

October 11 – 14, 2013

Not wanting to leave the farm just yet, we stayed through the morning milking. Once last time with the ladies, Alex and Matilda before it was officially time to be on our way. We didn’t really know what we wanted to do, so we decided to head to Chamonix-Mont Blanc.

Our roadtrip turned out to be a little less exciting than planned. We spent 2 days driving to Chamonix which turned out to be cloudy and snowing. We were unable to get a clear view of the mountain and were not able to camp in the area, because we didn’t have gear for camping in the cold weather. We figured we would keep driving until we found a place to camp and went up and over a mountain, into Switzerland.

Gargoyles

The Aiguille du Midi

Gargoyles

A dam high in the hills

Our first view of Switzerland

Our first view of Switzerland

Gargoyles

The filter brings out the colors

It was raining really hard once we got down out of the mountains in Switzerland, but beautiful. There were absolutely no campgrounds open so, we figured we would just do a little loop around Lake Geneva and head back into France.

On our way towards Paris we headed to Riems. Riems is a historically important city. The unconditional surrender of Germany to General Eisenhower and the Allies occurred in Riems in 1945. We spent an hour or two in a small museum dedicated to the incident. The room that the actual event took place in has been preserved and we were able to get a good look at it.

Gargoyles

The Map Room

Gargoyles

A surrender souvenir

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Airplane remains

Riems is also home to the impressive cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims. The current cathedral was built in 1211 to replace an earlier version. The previous cathedral was built in the 400s. It is crazy to imagine that a cathedral has occupied the same site for almost 2000 years.

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Notre-Dame de Reims

Gargoyles

Gargoyles

Lots of details

Beautiful details

After a lovely afternoon in Riems, we headed in the direction of Paris through the Champagne region to pick up a bottle of bubbly.

Gargoyles

Champagne region

We had a hotel room for our last night in Europe. It was nice to have a dry, large area to make sure our boxes were properly packed and strong enough to handle a few flights.

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Back in Albania

June 24, 2013

 

Distance: 47.3 miles   Climbing: 2877.3 ft

The day started on a bit of a rough note. I had not slept well due to some stomach issues and was not in the best mood when we got up. The bee flies were driving me insane and Chandler, unknowingly, made a comment which set me over the edge. We didn’t get too far before we had to hash things out in the middle of the road. Soon enough, everything was back to normal and we were ready for the day ahead of us.

Lush reservoir

Lush reservoir

We continued along the reservoir which was quite beautiful, but the view was hidden by a number of large trees. We didn’t mind too much, considering we were getting some wonderful shade from the sun. Chandler was excited when we reached a nice dam, which he spent a while looking at. Past the dam, there was a small stream running alongside the road. Gradually, we started gaining elevation and above another reservoir, which led us to another dam. Two dams in one day, Chandler could hardly contain himself with glee. He was especially excited because they had huge “morning glory” spillways, where the excess water that doesn’t pass through the hydroelectric turbines dumps into a giant concrete drain out in the reservoir, then passes through the dam in a pipe before discharging downstream. According to him, they are not an especially common feature on big dams.

Macedonian earth dam

Macedonian earth dam

Morning Glory

Morning Glory

After a few photos, we hustled to get back to Albania. We peddled through the town of Debar, but didn’t bother stopping, especially since we were out of Macedonian Denar. Finally, we made it to the border and back in our new favorite country. Maybe it was just us, but we noticed a change right away. There was a small café right after the border and we opted to stop for coffee. As we were ordering, a man came up and started chatting with Chandler. When Chan brought out money to pay for our drinks, the man waved the money away and added our drinks to his tab. We enjoyed our coffees on the deck and our friend came out as we were finishing up. He tried speaking to us but, either his English wasn’t too good or the beers were starting to get to him. He proceeded to whip out his cellphone, call his friend in Oxford, England and handed the phone to Chandler.

Back in Albania

Back in Albania

Chandler finished the brief phone conversation with the extremely confused man in England, we thanked our new friend and headed off. Neither of us could believe how happy we were to be back in Albania. The drivers were noticeably more courteous, the scenery more beautiful and the people more friendly. I felt like we were back in Cambodia with kids in trees shouting hello, people trying to give us high-fives as we biked pass and everyone honking to get our attention to wave. The most surprising thing is how friendly and encouraging the young men are towards us. We had several cars full of young dudes in Mercedes slow down to shout ‘ciao’, give thumbs up, clap or in my case, blow kisses.

Beautiful Albania

Beautiful Albania

Nothing could ruin our good moods. We went up a number of hills with the sun blazing down upon us, only the find a spring at the top to refill our water bottles. Then, suddenly, we encountered a fierce headwind. Having not stopped for lunch and considering it was near 3pm, we figured we were just bonking hard. We braked for juice and bread, but noticed the going was still really tough. As we were battling to go downhill, Chandler stopped and pointed out the water in the gutter next to the road and asked, “Is the water flowing uphill?” Yes, the wind was blowing so hard it was had changed the direction of flow in the gutter. Unbelievable.

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Luckily, we only had a few miles to go until we got to the town of Bulqize. After one last hill to struggle up, we were ready for showers and dinner. The town was really strange, basically two separate concentrations of huge old concrete apartment complexes cleaved in half by the highway. Whole parts of both of the towns looked abandoned. We consulted the map and discovered there wasn’t going to be anywhere else to stop for a while, so here we were. As we angled into the more lively looking side of town Chandler noticed extensive signs of mining in the hills.

We must have looked a little lost because a man immediately asked if we needed help and pointed out a hotel. The hotel looked more like a bar and as we loitered outside, another man came up to help. Ellet owns a hostel in the capital but was in town as an election observer and spoke wonderful English. He immediately asked if we wanted to camp or find a hotel, then made all arrangements for us and our bikes with the bartender for a room. Bulqize is a town built to support the underground chromium mine honeycombing the mountain above town. We learned that the local favorite party was winning the national election, so the mood in the town was good, and things should be safe.

Our new friend left us to shower and find food. We walked down the main street until we found an Italian restaurant, which luckily had an English menu. Chandler ordered beef with eggplant and I ordered pasta with butter and roasted potatoes. We were a bit surprised to find that we each got a serving of what the other ordered. Good thing Chandler was hungry enough to eat two orders of beef with eggplant. Then we noticed that there were little bit of beef in our buttered pasta. Then the roasted potatoes came out and we discovered there was a slight typo on the English menu, it was actually beef roast with potatoes. So, Chandler ended up eating 6 enormous plates of food, while I had cheese with bread and the uncontaminated potatoes. The bill came and some of the prices were a little inflated from what was on the menu. We didn’t have the heart or the energy to protest over being ripped off a few dollars, especially since the total price was less than a meal for one in most restaurants back home.

We had a few beers in the hotel room while watching an episode of Top Gear where the hosts drove across Albania in a Mercedes, a Rolls Royce and a Yugo. It was pretty entertaining, but we thought they did a poor job of accurately characterizing the country, perpetuating the horror stories about how dangerous things are and the poor condition of the roads.

Sleeping at the gas station

April 7, 2013

Distance:  47.4 miles           Climbing:  2795.3 ft

The morning started on a rough note. Chandler noticed the gas canister for our stove was leaking, when he investigated the problem, he discovered the pressure gasket was torn. Looks like no eggs for breakfast. We had a little disagreement about moving on or staying another night while we fix the problem. In the end Chan didn’t think we could find a replacement part locally so we decided to leave town.

We then had to make a choice between taking the old road to Dali or the new road. While the new road looked appealing with its fresh pavement, we weren’t interested in the traffic that would surely accompany it. The old road was a few miles longer, it promised only one pass to climb instead of two. We decided on the way out of town because it was easier to find the old road than the new one. Our moods weren’t the best as we peddled through the usual gas-smelling outskirts. The pavement was broken up, there was a very small shoulder and lots of traffic.

I was beginning to wonder why we had bothered with the old road, our pace picked up and the traffic thinned out. We cycled along a valley bottom, next to a muddy river for a few miles before we hit a construction site. As we waited in line with a number of cars, an excavator loaded a dump truck up with dirt and rock from the side of the road, sending giant clouds of dust in our direction. Now, I was sure we had made a mistake by not taking the new road.

A little construction

A little construction

When we finally made it past the construction site, the riding conditions improved greatly. After a little while the muddy river joined up with a deep green river. Once again we were riding along the Mekong, this time on the western bank. There were trees lining the road to give us shade the terrain was flat and we were making good time.

Mekong River

Mekong River

After crossing the bridge, the road began to climb. We spotted a large dam on the river, which was the first one built on the Mekong by the Chinese in the 1980s. We started looking for a place to camp, but the terrain was really steep on either side of the road. After the first mile of not finding anywhere that looked suitable for camping, Chandler made a suggestion. He saw a road coming up that led to the reservoir behind the dam. Chandler thought that might be a nice relaxing spot to spend the night. I wasn’t as interested though. The side road climbed up a ridge for a mile or so and if we were going to climb up a mile, I wanted to continue looking on the main road. We got into a big fight, which ended with mutual silent treatments and us continuing up the road.

Big dam

Big dam

We didn’t bother talking to each other for the next two hours as we just climbed up and up and up. We passed through several small villages and farms, but there was nowhere to camp. I was becoming a little desperate when I noticed a family sitting outside their store all waving and smiling at us. Next to their store was an abandoned gas station used to keep a pile of wood dry. I hollered for Chandler to stop and said we should ask if we could camp next to the wood pile.

We turned our bikes around, bought a bottle of water and somehow managed to communicate with hand gestures that we wanted to camp. The man running the store agreed once he understood that we had a tent. We then decided we should have a beer to relax. The family immediately invited us to sit with them and pulled up some stools for us. They offered us tea and Chandler and cigarette. Chandler does not smoke cigarettes and said no, but the man offered again. Chandler said no again but they man became more adamant and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Chan took it to maintain the peace, thinking he could just hold onto it when the man whipped out his lighter and lit it up for Chandler. The situation was so ridiculous that we just laughed and Chandler smoked it like a cigar, not inhaling the smoke.

Finally relaxing

Finally relaxing

Goofing off

Goofing off

We had a pleasant time attempting to chat with the adults and teasing the little boy that was running around. After watching the sun set and finishing our beers, we said good night. The owner then gestured for Chandler to follow him to an unused building next to the gas station. He unlocked one of the rooms and offered it to us for the night. He sweep it clean of bugs and dirt and helped us carry our bikes up the stair to stow them safely inside.

We could not believe our luck. The bikes and tent fit in the room perfectly. We were in such good moods that we weren’t bothered by the stove being broken. We had a dinner of dry ramen, tuna and crackers and Oreos for dessert. Then we watched with a movie on laptop and fell asleep.