Mar 23 2012

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 4: Sigiriya and other animals

Picture - Sigiriya

Sigiriya

What you’ve missed:

We travelled for 6 months without bikes, due to my careless wife injuring her knee. We got the bikes sent to us thanks to the recovery of said knee, and have been touring Sri Lanka by bicycle(and train shhhhh) whilst suffering a comedy of errors regarding various visas. Consider yourself filled in.

Visas eh? Oh yes. Having rushed back to Kandy by train in order to collect our now hopelessly premature Indian visas, I turned up bright and early at the visa centre to submit our passports, to which the visas would hpoefully be affixed for colection later. I was more than a bit miffed to be greeted by a group of disgruntled Sri-Lankans gathered round an A4 notice on the door informing us that the centre was closed for the day ‘due to holidays’. Great. Things like this are why you should always leave a day or two of float between critical activities in Sri Lanka!

With no great expectation of success I headed off on errand number two – trying to get my Sri Lankan sim card to work with data so that I could take advantage of the decent 3G network and cheap data plans to free ourselves from the perpetual hunt for guesthouses with Wi-Fi. Two hours and 3 network employees later, and I am sent to an extremely helpful lady in Kandy’s main Airtel branch, who has me up and running in no time, with 1GB of data plus a load of call credit for a mere £1.50 or so. This is a great thing – the guesthouses that have wi-fi are often those that are geared up for Western tourists, and are therefore poor value and often less friendly than the alternatives. And quite ofen the internet connection is pretty abysmal anyway.

Suitably pleased with myself, I cycled back to the guesthouse and ordered the world’s finest breakfast: dahl (lentil) curry, coconut sambol (fresh minced coconut with onions, lime and chilli) and rotti (flat bread). Tea for two goes without saying round here. Sri Lankan Breakfast and Som Tam from South Thailand are, I assure you, the two best meals available in the world.

Photo - Breakfast in Kandy

It turned out that Lindso was still in bed feeling poorly, but managed to drag herself out onto the balcony overlooking Kandy Lake and The Temple of The Tooth Relic, where we have been having our breakfast. There’s a pretty busy road between the balcony and the Lake, but with the sun shining off the golden roof of the Temple over the lake it’s pretty special, especially when you consider that we’re paying Rs1500 for the room and 300 for the breakfast! That’s a total of less than a tenner. It’s called the Pilgrim’s Rest, and I highly recommend it.

With Linds feeling under the weather we decided to have a lazy day at the guesthouse, and met up later with new Cornish friend Richard for dinner and scrabble. Oh yes, we know how to live. Richard is a demon at quizzes (he’s been on Eggheads and everything) but we are absolutely delighted to find that he is rubbish at scrabble, his game being ruined by the overpowering urge to put down the longest words he can possibly make regardless of whether they are worth any points or not. My uninspiring numbers game wins out tonight; 2-0 to the North.

The next day I made another attempt at the visa centre, and selflessly they had graced us by opening up. Passports delivered and Linds still unwell in the guesthouse, I took it upon myself to do the day’s cycling and cultural activities myself, by riding up to the impressively large Buddha image sat on a hillside gazing out over Kandy. The climb was a first-gear lung buster, which was pretty galling when a bemused local pointed out that Buddha was actually sat on the next hill. When I got there in a right lather (cue more amused locals) it turned out to be part of a temple (Bahirwakunada), which meant shoes off. The painted concrete floor was so hot that I still had sore burned feet that evening. Thankfully the view was impressive, the artwork secreted in the room in the bottom (yup) of the Buddha was surprising, and the ride back down to town was worth at least one of the rides up.

Picture - Big Buddha

Big Buddha, Bahirwakunada Temple, Kandy

Linds by now had decided to try 24 hours off food to sort out her ailng constitution, so I drowned myself in dahl and tea for the team, and then we wandered over to the reet-posh Queen’s Hotel and paid 250 rupees each for the privilege of spending the rest of the day flopping in and out of their small but immaculate and under-used pool. The wife was most pleased, and I got some work done on the laptop… To put the icing on the cake of a very pleasing day, I later realised that I had forgotten to pay the last of our drinks bills. Splendid. Obviously we returned later to settle up in full*.

The swimming-pool / no food combo worked wonders for Linds, so the next morning we set off bright and early for Matale, which was a fairly uneventful 32km apart from the bit where Lindso nearly passed out on a climb (not 100% yet, then) and with not much available in the way of decent budget accommodation ended up treating ourselves to a relatively luxurious wedding hall room for a big Rs2500. We spent the afternoon: 1) enjoying the hilarious wedding band playing at the function downstairs, 2) at the very cool Rock Temples up the road, and 3) at a local centre producing batik textiles, which was an impressively time-consuming process. More impressive was that from a starting price of $50, we ended up paying $13 for a piece! We mainly said the price as a way of stopping them trying to sell to us, and were pretty surprised to walk away with it.

Picture - Rock Temple, Matale

Rock Temple, Matale

We headed for Sigiriya after our wedding hall night, and as a bonus found ourselves passing Dambulla’s Golden Temple, which was built recently with Japanese funding. I liked it a lot. Mainly because it was quite funny to be honest – this plastic lion was a highlight.

Picture - Camp Lion, Dambulla

Lovely Fibreglass Lion, Golden Temple, Dambulla

We found out later that the famous Cave Temples were on the hill behind it, but missed that, having been distracted by the painted fibreglass manequins and rocks of the Golden Temple. Oops. So instead of the fabulous ancient cave temples, here is the magnificent fibreglass Golden Temple in all its glory – Note the line of plastic monks queuing up on the right – they stretch all the way past about a hundred metres of those papier mache rocks to the fibreglass lion:

Picture - Golden Temple Dambulla

Golden Temple, Dambulla. Nice.

After a total of 64km we arrived in the tiny town of Sigiriya, home of the incredible rock fortress and it’s equally incredible entry fee, which if you happen to be foreign is 48 times the local price. A bit harsh, and well outside our daily budget, but we realised some time ago that occasionally we need to stick two fingers up at the budget and just get on with it, because we certainly won’t be able to come back here for a while!

What we have just paid £32 (That’s a lot here!) to see is the magma plug of a volcano, with an ancient settlement on top. The volcano itself has eroded away leaving only the plug, and at some point some fine chappy who was in charge decided to build a fortification and monastery on top, and some tiered gardens on the approach. Very nice job he did of it too, though I believe he had some help. At some point the entrance to the climb up the final near vertical section of rock was through the mouth of a colossal brick lion, but sadly the entire thing apart from the paws has fallen victim to the elements. Shame. Now I’m not great with heights (actually I’m fine with heights, it’s edges that upset me) but Linds is a complete jessie with them. She very bravely started the climb up the walkways pegged to the side of the rock, but ended being dragged up quivering by a Sri Lankan guy who was far more helpful than me, and worth every Rupee of the Rs100 he took for his troubles. Fortunately we weren’t attacked by swarms of furious hornets as all the signs promised we would be, though a monkey did try to steal Linds’ waterbottle from her bag. He got away with it for being small, cute and ginger – a brunette monkey would have got a poke in the eye, I suspect, but Linds has endless patience for her redheaded brethren. She is a very special person.

Picture - View from Sigiriya

View from Sigiriya

After Sigiriya, we enjoyed a lovely quiet ride to the town of Girithale, which we picked for its proximity to Polonnaruwa, which the Lonely Planet informed us was expensive and disappointing to stay in despite its incredible sights. Thinking about it now, we should have tried it to see if The Curse of The Lonely Planet also works inversely. A missed opportunity. Anyway, it’s just as well we didn’t get there, because we ended up staying in a lovely little place overlooking a lake in The National Park, who served fabulous food – the best rice and curry we’ve yet had for lunch, and a dinner of fish and chips (hooray!); the fish was fresh out of the lake and served in small spiced battered pieces. Absolutely delicious. They also provided a small frog in our bathroom sink, which is a touch we haven’t had elsewhere.

 

That evening things went splendidly awry again. Splendidily because the problem was that Linds received an email inviting her to a job interview for a job she really wanted, awry becasue it was 6 days away, in Stockport, which is not famous for its proximity to Girithale. Cue a series of frantic skype messsaging sessions, some hastily booked flights home, and a van ride the next morning from Girithale back to Negombo so that she could catch the flight at 6am the following day. Fingers crossed she gets the job!

So that left me on my own at 6am back in Negombo, with Sir Bob the bicycle and a new toy elephant called Wiggins for company. There are two things that I have previously said I’d like to do in Sri Lanka – a meditation course, and try to learn to surf. Learning to surf is quite expensive, and meditation retreats are seriously cheap, so Wiggins and I mounted Sir Bob and struck out to Kandy again – the home of enough mediation centres to keep the most intent navel-contemplator happy. Did you know that when one reaches the 4th Jhana (trance level) Buddhist meditative practice, there are benfits such as remote viewing and hearing, telepathy and the ability to fly? According to a book I have just read (Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Damien Keown) “There is nothing distinctly Buddhist about these abilities and they are widely acknowleged in Indian thought as attainable by anyone wishing to invest the necessary time and effort”. So there you go. Tune in next time for some seriously enlightened blogging. Or not, as it turned out…

 

*Honest.

Route Maps – MapMyRide
Kandy to Big Buddha
Kandy to Matale
Matale to Sigiriya
Sigiriya to Girithale


Mar 18 2012

iPod Cyclists: Hear this

Buzzing along with the sun on your back and the wind in your hair, favourite tunes blasting out of the headphones? Sounds great doesn’t it? I’m usually a pretty moderate guy, but to be honest I think you’re absolutely nuts if you do this. Here’s why:

Cycling is basically a pretty safe thing to do, but in 2010 2,704 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on British Roads, so it’s not completely safe by a long shot. A huge proportion of these serious accidents occur when cyclists hit or are hit by larger vehicles.

I try very hard not to ride into cars when I’m on my bike, and I suspect you do the same. I’m constantly watching the behaviour of everyone else on the road, looking for cars that might pull out or turn across me (got eye contact yet?), pedestrians that might step out without looking properly, and infinite other varietions of hazard. But at least half of what’s going on at any point in time is totally outside my field of vision, and for that reason I also listen like my life depends on it to what’s going on behind me.

It’s amazing how much you can pick up from the noise of an approaching vehicle – is it accelerating to try and beat you through the next narrow gap, or slowing to allow you to pass through first? Not sure? Well at least you heard it was there so you knew to check! Thinking of swerving round that puddle? Without headphones you already know 9 times out of 10 whether something is coming – obviously you still look to check before moving out, but at least you didn’t wobble in front of the 95 bus because you tried to look over your shoulder when it was almost on top of you. That’s if you were gong to look at all, when you were pre-occupied humming along to Emma Bunton. Squealing brakes heading your way? I’d rather know about it 2 seconds in advance than not at all – you can get a long way out of the way in 2 seconds!

When I ride I want to be as aware as possible about what the well-intentioned but tired / distracted / emotional / rushing / inept (take your pick) people driving the horrendously dangerous vehicles around me are doing. I feel totally vulnerable if I can’t hear what’s happening. I will argue all day that the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks, but no-one’s going to start arguing that cycling around the inner ring road blindfold is a good idea. Cutting off your hearing is almost as bad.

There are other reasons to be listening to what’s going on, but they’re not quite so important – I appreciate that not everyone likes listening to the sounds of the city or coutryside they’re riding through (why not?!), or cares as much as me about knowing that their bike is running beautifully because of the lovely slick quiet hum it’s making as you skim along. But do give a bit of thought to the safety thing – we love repairing bikes, but we have no interest in hearing about any more broken riders.

 

PS. I went through a phase of being thoroughly obsessed with cars and driving between the ages of 18 and about 29, and earnt the Institute of Advanced Motorist’s Advanced Driver’s Certificate (Incredibly worthwhile and cheap – see here). The IAM disapprove of the use of even hands-free mobile phones due to the fact that when you are driving you should damn well be concentrating on driving, not on talking. The same goes for listening to the radio (though they were resigned to the fact that very few people were prepared to forego it completely). That’s not so you can hear what’s coming – it’s just so that you can focus properly on driving well. The same absolutely applies to riding. Immerse yourself in riding well. Apply all your concentration to it. Anticipate and mitigate every hazard, and perform every turn and maneuver with slick competence. It is hugely absorbing and rewarding, and more therapeutic after a long day at work than anything else I know. Brilliant.


Mar 11 2012

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 3: Kandy, Nuwara, Ella and Kandy again!

Picture - A nice cuppa' Sri Lanka tea, Nuwara Eliya

Mmmmmmm Tea

We started the week badly.

When we arrived in Sri Lanka we visited the Indian visa application centre in Colombo, to make sure that we knew exactly what we needed to do when the time came to get our visas for India. The Colombo chaps very helpfully gave us the forms to fill in, told us that the process took three working days and could be completed at their Kandy branch. Perfect.

So, five working days before our flight to India, we turned up with our carefully completed forms (wrong forms) and discovered that our visas would be ready and waiting for us 6 working days later. One day after our flight. Ah. The flight we booked to leave Sri Lanka on the day our Sri Lanka visas expire. Ooh.

We were informed by a slightly amused visa official (better than his previous incarnation of totally disinterested visa official) that there was a 90% chance that they would arrive on the day of our flights at 5pm, which would give us possibly enough time to get from Kandy to Negombo, pack our bikes and get them to the airport for our midnight flight. Hmmm.

So with spirits suitably dampened, we left the visa centre and cycled the 8km to Perediniya Station, where we were to catch the train to Nuwara Eliya, some 80km South and 1.4km vertically up. It always feels like cheating catching a train on a cycling trip, but we’re still nursing Linds’ injured knee and two days of hard climbing seemed to be pushing things, so discretion being the better way to justify avoiding the climbs, we plumped for the railway.

We’d heard stories of the bureaucracy involved in getting bicycles transported by trains in India (“you must write down every component of the bicycle here”), so allowed as much time as possible in case it was the same here in Sri Lanka. Fortunately not – a form was completed declaring the transportation of two bicycles from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in the name of Devit Frainer (?!), we paid the fee which was roughly twice the price of a second class ticket per bike (£1.40!) and that was that.

Kandy has been the worst place we’ve been in Sri Lanka for touts, scammers and other career tourist-botherers, and the railway employee who pushed my bicycle to the platform fancied a piece of the action too. “I help you with bicycle, very heavy bicycle” (this despite the fact that they’ve already made me us take all the luggage off the bikes, which we’re now struggling to carry. Heavy indeed! Sir Bob is just the right weight) “A little support maybe, a little support? You give me 300 rupees” Which is more than it’s costing to get the bike taken the whole way on the train, a decent meal out, or 1/3 of an OK room for the night. I’m aware that wages here are pretty low, and that tipping is the norm, but sometimes the feeling that you’re being taken for a total fool really bites, and this was one of those occasions. He got politely but firmly told where he could put his 300 rupees.

The train journey itself was our first in Sri Lanka, and it was great – all the doors and windows are left wide open for Haputale Train journey ventilation, and food and drink vendors roam up and down shouting, chanting or sometimes singing the names and many virtues of their wares – wade (“wod-ee” – fried, spiced lentil ball snacks) are a personal favourite, both for the mind blowing speed at which the sellers speak (WadeewadeeWadeewadee WadeewadeeWadeewadee WadEEEEEEE!) and the things themselves, which come with or without whole prawns on top (the little girl opposite us took great pleasure in pulling the eyes off hers and offering them to her lucky parents), and are really good when they’re fresh. When the engine ground to a halt and flames were visible underneath, we all hung out of the doors and windows to get a better view – it’s soon sorted, and we continued chugging our way through the lush plantations and spectacular mountain scenery. The only downside was the small child sat facing us who decided that the floor was probably a better place to wee than the toilet was, and his Mother who didn’t seem overly bothered by this controversial decision. Bags on knees for the rest of the journey then.

Nuwara Eliya was built by the British as a mountain retreat from the hot lowlands, and it shows. The post office looks like it was meant to be built in a quaint Cheshire village, and many other buildings – a lot of them now guesthouses – follow suit. There’s even a golf course. Because the climate up here (1889m) is so much cooler than the rest of the country, there is a thriving industry growing UK style veg too – terraced hillsides abound with carrots, leeks, cabbage, beetroot and marrows. We spent two lovely nights staying at the excellent King Fern Bungalow, with the day in between wandering around town and pedalling out to visit Pedro’s Tea Estate and Factory, and then set off to cycle over the Horton ‘Plains’ to Haputale.

Nuwara Eliya Sunrise

Early morning Nuwara - we're heading over that big hill just right of centre!

Our new American friend Lee recommended a route, and having consulted MapMy Ride we knew that it would be 65km, with one horror of a climb up to the ‘Plains’ 12km in and then one much more moderate one for the last 5km up to Haputale. You can see this planned route here. Yet again, that was not exactly how it panned out.

The first flat 12km wasn’t flat. It was rolling. Heavily. The road surface itself though was not conducive to rolling, and cobbles would probably have been better than several sections of it. This doesn’t make for particularly happy sounding panniers and it certainly didn’t make for a happy sounding wife.

Eventually we were within site of the climb we’d actually been aware of, and I noticed a couple of pretty large bees seemed to be swooping past my head a lot. A bit odd I thought, and after they disappeared I looked back to check Linds wasn’t being bothered by them, at almost exactly the same time as she started shrieking as if the very hounds of hell were hanging off her back wheel. We were going slightly downhill at the time, so we sprinted (more like laboured really) until the two bees of the apocolypse had disappeared, and then stopped to inspect the damage – Linds had one sting on the shoulder blade, which she claims (and I believe, considering the shrieking and the look of it) felt like getting stabbed in the back, and another sting which hadn’t properly gone in, but was still stuck in her top. We have no idea why they took exception to us, and can only assume that their ancestors suffered under colonial rule. We’re just glad we were going downhill at the time, so the rest of the posse didn’t have time to arrive.

The climb up to Horton Plains - and the view!

Nuwara Eliya- Horton Plains: Higher than it looks... just ask our legs.

The climb was, as expected, a nightmare. The plains were beautiful, but pretty far from plain as I understand the term (flat, surely?!). We saw Samba Deer, and some purply-grey monkeys with fetching white beards (purple faced langurs, it turns out. White beard purple langurs would be closer to the mark) Sadly we didn’t trek to the famous World’s End viewpoint, because it was too late in the day by then and the fog was coming in. After traversing the top, stopping for a box of ritz-alike biscuits at the visitors’ centre and then descending the other side (do you know what cadence braking is and why to do it?! Link coming soon!) Linds was suffering enough pain in her damaged Illio-Tibial Band that we decided to cut out the final climb by catching a train to take us the final 20km from Ohiya to Haputale. We relaxed laughing at a strange little caterpillar at the station while we waited, until a local trod on it and kicked it onto the tracks, because it was actually a leech. Oops.

Haputale is incredible. The whole town is balanced precariously on a mountain ridge. We found some reasonably priced accommodation on a building site staffed by a borderline-rude manager (see curse of the lonely planet!), ate mountains of rice and curry, ejected the world’s shrillest cricket from under our bed and then slept like logs.

Picture - view form our guesthouse in haputale

View from our otherwise rubbish guesthouse in Haputale

The next morning we set off to Ella, which was thankfully exactly the ride we needed – gorgeous views, lovely smooth road, and almost entirely downhill!

The Lonely Planet Guide (2009) describes the ‘leisurely’ village of Ella as having ‘the Hill country’s best value guest houses’. So, under the rules of The Curse of The Lonely Planet, it was one of the most expensive places we’ve stayed. Eventually we found a room with half a view (if you leaned a bit) which after extensive negotiations cost us Rs1700 (£9.50) per night including Sri Lankan breakfast – not bad.

The next room was soon occupied by an Englishman called Richard,

Picture - Paddy fields over Ella

Paddy fields above Ella

who despite an unhealthy pre-occupation with running and cricket turned out to be a thoroughly decent bloke, at least until he pointed out that the Indian visa system doesn’t allow a tourist to re-enter the country until they 60 days after they have left it. Why a problem? Because Linds has found a job that she really wants for when we get back, and if she’s called to interview she’ll have to go home, and won’t be allowed back into India, which is where we’re due to be in a week’s time. Bums. After careful consideration of the many un-ideal options available to us, we decided that the least expensive and most agreeable is for us to apply to extend our Sri Lanka visas for another 4 weeks, change our flights to suit, and hope that Linds has been home, aced an interview and returned by then! We drank Arrack (local palm based whisky) with Richard to celebrate the fine decision-making, and went for dinner in what appeared to be someone’s garden. Delicious.

We then had four relatively boring days of travelling back to Negombo / Colombo to complete the admin side of sorting the visas / flights, and then returned to Kandy to collect our now ridiculously premature Indian visas. We now have 3 ½ weeks to kill in Sri Lanka. We hope to get to the amazing Siguriya rock and the surrounding ancient monuments, do a few days in a meditation retreat, and possibly try and learn to surf somewhere. Watch this space! I’ll try and keep it shorter next time…


Mar 8 2012

Flying with bicycles: How to box or bag your bike for travelling!

A quick guide to what to expect and how to prepare if you’re thinking of flying your bike somewhere

Linds and I expected to be flying with our bikes, but due to a nasty knee injury (click here for details!) actually ended up having our bikes sent to us in Sri Lanka while we were already travelling; probably a bit of an unusual way of doing it, and one that I would recommend you try to avoid! Whatever your plans, here is what we’ve learnt about flying bikes over the last few months:

Check the terms and the forums before buying the flights

If you’re committed to taking your bike – and let’s face it, hire bikes can be a bit of a gamble – google the airline you’re using (‘bicycles British Airways’ for instance) and see what the latest goss on the forums is regarding their attitude to bikes. Many seem to turn a blind eye to the excess baggage charges if you turn up with a bicycle, but some do not – amongst them is Emirates, who would have charged our friends about £1,000 in excess baggage to bring our bikes from the UK to Sri Lanka. Check their terms and conditions too so that you know what the damage will be if they do charge you. Remember to check in dead early for the best chance of getting away scott-free!

Packing

There are 4 main options here.

  1. Buy a purpose made bicycle case.

    Obviously useless if you’re flying into one airport, cycling cross country and flying our of another. Never used these myself, but it sounds like the sensible way forward if you’re going to use it regularly and you’ve got the cash! These have good reputations:

  2. Use a bicycle box.

    This is what we did. Go to your friendly local bike shop and nab one of the big cardboard boxes that the new bikes come in. Try to get one that’s still intact – ie hasn’t been flattened for disposal. These have big metal staples in, which helps. Also ask them for a plastic fork spacer, and some plastic hub axle protectors. Tell them what it’s for, and they will in all likelihood be more than happy to help. It also helps to tell them what bike and how big it is, so you can get an appropriately sized box.Pack it up like this:

    • Duct tape the ass out of it. All seams should be taped with good tape, inside and out , especially if your box isn’t still stapled. Also put some around the hand hold holes to reinforce them.

    • Prep the bike.

      • Remove the front wheel. Put the plastic fork spacer in to stop the individual fork blades getting bent.

      • Take the quick release skewer out of the front wheel, and pop the plastic hub axle protectors in. If you haven’t got any, place plenty of thick stuff over the axle ends and tape in place to stop the axles punching their way out of your box and getting damaged.

      • Let the tyres down until they have only a little pressure – maybe 10psi – in them. This stops them blowing up at altitude!

      • Remove the pedals. I put the pedals, front wheel QR and other assorted bits and bobs in a bag tied to the frame in case the box broke.

      • Take the handlebars off by removing the stem from the forks. Be careful of kinking your cables!

      • Remove the rear derailleur, wrap it and any spare chain flapping about in newpaper, and wedge between the wheel and the frame or somewhere else out of the way. Tape in place if need be. Again, don’t kink your cables or chain.

    • Pop it in the box. You will probably have to snug the front wheel in front of the cranks and put it in the box at the same time as the bike. You may find you need to remove the seat to close the box.

    • Pad out the rest of the box with your panniers, clothes, children or anything else less precious than your bike that you can think of. If you have lots of spare room in there, consider adding some spacers to hold the sides of the box apart – try polystyrene, bits of plastic drain pipe cut to size etc.

    • Seal it all up with miles of duct tape.

    This method worked great for us.

  3. Buy a padded bicycle bag.

    These are probably the most popular way to go. the bags offer varying degrees of protection; many are very close to the levels offered by the hard cases, but with less weight. the following are highly regarded:

    But if you’re balking at £200+, these two look like conspicuously good value, at under £70 each:

  4. Use a CTC Clear plastic bike bag.This is a relatively new method, and one that intrigues me. It’s very simple, and reportedly very effective. You buy one of these clear plastic bags, which fold down small enough that they’ll fit in the bottom of your pannier, and simply take the pedals off, straighten the bars, wrap up the rear mech and chain, and pop it in the bag. The theory is that if those kind-at-heart baggage handlers can se it’s an unprotected bike, they’re extra careful with it and make sure it’s looked after. Sounds good to me! We haven’t used it because of the huge amount of other stuff we had shoved in the boxes when yours were shipped out to us, but I might be tempted to try it next time!

Getting a bike shipped somewhere

We got this done. It was stressful! The big companies like DHL and FedEx wanted over a grand to ship our two bikes from Manchester to Sri Lanka, which was out of the question. We found a company called Intercargo who offered to fly them for £480. I wouldn’t use them again. The bikes sat in their warehouse for two weeks before they eventually shipped them when I emailed threatening to contact Trading Standards, Advertising Standards, and the big guns – BBC Watchdog! We had no end of bother picking them up too – see here for the story. So check the following:

  1. That the price includes insurance for the full value of the bikes

  2. That the price includes for the bikes clearing customs at the destination

  3. Whether the service is door-to-door, airport-to-airport or something in between.

Finally

Enjoy! You’re off away with your bike – what could be better?! Read about our travels through Sri Lanka, India and Nepal with our bikes here, if you need some inspiration!


Mar 4 2012

DIY Low cost chicken egg incubator (useful!)

Now then. Don’t ever say there’s nothing useful on this site.

As part of our traveling, we spent a week staying with Firdouse and Shihama in their home / English Tuition Cente in Mi-Ella, near Wallesmulla in Southern Sri Lanka.

In return for their hospitality, we helped out with a couple of projects. Linds was clearly going to be better at teaching than me – she’s a teacher – so being the selfless philanthropist I am, I agreed to get busy on google and throw together some wires and assorted oddments to create a Heath Robinson contraption for a fraction of the price of the real thing. OK, so that’s pretty much my hobby anyway, but this time it was for a good cause. So here, for the benefit mainly of Firdouse and the guys in Mi-Ella,  but also for anyone else interested, is how to build an incubator for as little as I could work out how to. Do not, of course, follow these instructions unless you are a fully qualified electrician, and have independent knowledge of how to safely wire up mains electricity. No joke. You can kill people (and chicks) with this.

First of all, read up on it. Useful info is to be found on:

After reading up on hatching eggs on the above sites, I came up with the following as a method for building a really cheap, functional ‘forced air’ (If you’re going to do this and that still means nothing to you, go and read those sites!) incubator:

Ingredients:

  1. Polystyrene coolbox
  2. Three pole adjustable thermostat from a water heater
  3. 40W household lightbulb (NOT energy saving – we’re using it as  heater!) and holder
  4. Some wire mesh
  5. Piece of glass, smaller than the lid of the polystyrene box
  6. Two identical smallish ice cream tubs
  7. PC motherboard cooling fan
  8. Old mobile phone charger
  9. Some wires suitable for 240V,100W
  10. A plug
  11. Some tape
  12. An egg tray
  13. Some tye-wire, or a couple of wire coat hangers will do
  14. Some aluminium foil or thin sheet
  15. digital thermometer with external probe, and preferably a humidity sensor (though I couldn’t find one with a humidity sensor)
  16. Some Chuck Yeager test pilot eggs

Method:

  1. Cut a hole in the side of the polystyrene box so that the ice cream tub sits half way in.

  2. See how much room you need for your bulb and fan, and place the mesh in the box to create a space for the eggs away from them. You don’t want chicks touching hot bulbs or moving fans… The mesh should also hold everything an inch off the bottom of the box, to allow for good air circlation. If you cut it right, it should hold itself in place by the loose ends sticking in to the polystyrene.

  3. Place a water tray in the box on the floor. This is for some water to keep the air humid, not for the chicks to drink.

  4. Sort out your wiring. It should be something like this:

    This is the thermostat and the bulb wired up in series – read up on those sites if you don’t understand this! And don’t whatever you do mess around with mains electric unless you’re 100% confident that you know what you’re doing. Your Mother would be horrified.


  5. Cut the rim off the second ice cream box lid so that it fits inside the first (the one that fits in the side of the polystyrene box. Fit the thermostat into this cut down lid, and run the wires out of the bottom so that there is no way for moisture to run into the ice cream box.

    This allows you to seal the dial away with the second lid, preventing accidental adjustments. Very pleased with this incredible innovation.


  6. Wire up the fan to the mobile phone charger. Wither a 5V or 12V fan is fine running off a mobile phone charger, which invariably will output 5V.

  7. Fit it all in the box. Keep wires exiting downwards, so that any water that collects on them (if things get too humid inside) doesn’t run down into the electrics. No bare wires should be visible anywhere.


  8. Cut four holes in the sides of the box. They should be about 1/2 inch square, about 2 inches above mesh level, and you should keep the bits you cut out to plug them with if need be.

  9. Use the aluminium foil / sheet to shield the eggs from the direct light of the bulb, without blocking the fan. This ensures that the eggs receive a warming breeze, instead of a grilling.

  10. I ran a wire across the middle of the box so that the egg try was supported at a 45 degree angle depending on which send of it was heavier. This provides a very simple mechanism for tilting (“turning”) all the eggs at once –  just tilt the tray the other way!

  11. Cut a hole the shape of your glass but about 1″ smaller in the top of the box. Then cut a bit out of the top so that the glass sits flush. Tape it in good and safe. Come to think of it, perspex or similar is a safer bet.

  12. Seal a sandwich bag or similar with about an egg’s worth of water in it. Wrap this around the sensor for your thermomter. This is now a fake egg, so your thermometer measures roughly what is happening to hte inner temperature of the eggs, instead of just the air temperature. Leave the thermostat sensor unwrapped, but near the eggs.

  13. Fill the dish in the bottom of the box with water to keep things moist. I popped a spare lump of polystyrene in to act as a level gauge! Use the Mississippi guide (link above) to gauge correct moisture level.

  14. Turn it all on and make sure it stabilises at the 39.2 degrees C you no-doubt set it at. Leave it a couple of days, and ensure that the temperature doesn’t fluctuate too much, Make small adjustments to the thermostat if it does.

  15. You’re ready for eggs! Get hold of some fertilised ones (not Morrisons free range), handle them gently, pop em in the holder and turn them regularly. Do all the stuff you;re meant to – candling, throwing out dead ones etc. I can’t really help much here, because we left as soon s the eggs went in the incubator!

  16. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the finished article. I’m still waiting to hear how successful the first hatch will be, but apparently things are looking good with only a few days to go!

    One more thing. Seriously, don’t mess around with mains electric unless you 100% know what you’re doing. Just go to Nando’s instead.

     

Mar 4 2012

Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 2: And they’re off

Rest stop before Kadugawanna

I was worrying in my last post about whether our bikes would have arrived in one piece. They did arrive, thankfully, so I tootled off to Colombo airport to find out if they were in one piece. I expected to be back at Negombo Beach with them in time for a spot of lunch and a lovely afternoon of assembling, test riding and feeling pleased. The Customs Officials had other plans.

It took 7 hours, 3 rides on the back of a motor bike, about 300 forms and 13000 Rupees (about £70) to get our bikes released. This was bad because I didn’t expect to have to pay anything when I set off, and £70 is 3 ½ days budget. It is also fantastic, because they initially wanted to charge me over £1000, mainly in import duty against the insurance value of the bikes!

My argument that it was not an import because we’ll be leaving with them was rejected on the grounds that they didn’t arrive on the plane with us so procedures had to be followed. A helpful chap suggested that used bicycles couldn’t possibly be worth the insurance value on the form. This argument went down much better with everyone involved, with the consensus being that a lightly used Bob Jackson Tourer and Surly Cross Check probably had a combined market value of about 8000 rupees, or £45. My poker face was tested, but held. If only they knew.

Unpacking and building the bikes was bliss. Like the anxiety prior to meeting an old friend after too long replaced with the simple pleasures of sitting down for a pint and remembering why they’re an old friend. Trusty old multi-tool back in hand, and magnificent Sir Bob and Chrissy Cross Check to work on. Not to mention the prospect of spending the next 18 weeks riding, which I’ve missed so much it hurts. Brilliant.

The next day was spent doing a 45km loop up the coast and back with the panniers loaded to check that everything was working right before setting off properly. It was, and after passing through a small village (which seemed to have an economy based entirely on the low volume sale of very small fish in various shapes and moisture levels) we drank ginger beer on a lovely little deserted beach, which managed to get one over us by shooting a surprise wave up our trouser legs while we were paddling. We headed inland a bit and looped back to Negombo.

Katuneriya Beach

Linds’ knee gave no bother all day, so we celebrated with a pancake (having realised we’d missed Shrove Tuesday) and a couple of Lion Lagers, which are surprisingly good. (I do realise that this probably means that I desperately need to re-calibrate with a nice cask ale. Anyone who can bring one here is welcome to my left arm.)

The first day’s proper riding was a mixed bag. We set off at 6.45am to avoid the worst of the traffic and heat, and made a pretty straight line from Negombo to Mirigama on the B324. There was more traffic about than we’d hoped, and even though it was only 40km some smallish hills caused Lindso’s knees a bit of pain. She thinks it’s the pain you’d expect to get trying to hustle a loaded touring bike up some hills after a year of little to no riding rather than injury pain, so we’ll take it easy and give it time to strengthen up, which it will reeeeeeally need to do before we arrive in Nepal, methinks!

Fortunately we stumbled across bargain-guesthouse-of-the-trip just in time to bring Lindso back from near terminal grumpiness brought on by the pain and the repeated hills. Lovely room and as cheap as any we’ve found in Sri Lanka at 1000 rupees (£5.60) a night. Bingo! We were the only guests, as their main business is hosting weddings. Check out the water feature next to the top table. Nice. Isn't she lovely? She's 10 foot tall...The only fly in the ointment came at check out time – seems Rs1000 is the rate for a night from 6pm to 10 am, and you need to pay another Rs1000 for the day! Very odd, and not the impression we got at check-in but we’ve come across it elsewhere in Sri Lanka so we settled on Rs1,500 for the day and night and left it there – still great value.

We ordered a lunch of ‘Rice and Curry’ – the universal term for the universally fantastic assortment of 4 veg curries plus rice at anywhere from £1.10 to £1.50 per person – and then watched the waiter pretend to go back to the kitchen to get it before merrily leaping on his scooter and nipping to the restaurant down the road! Same happened for every drink we ordered – great fun. After a fairly melted ice cream desert (the outsourced kitchen idea had its limits), I set about investigating my totally ineffective rear disk brake. Skip the next paragraph if the tech stuff bores you!

Turns out that the usually awesome German Rohloff internal hub gear has chucked a load of oil out onto the brake, which is a tad concerning. My current theory is that the cargo hold of the flight wasn’t pressurised, so the oil that bathes the internal workings was forced out through the bearings. I cleaned everything with soapy water and a toothbrush, then reassembled and test rode – still not right, but improving after a few stops to lay some brake pad on the newly cleaned rotor (this is the bedding in you need to do with disc brakes – getting a layer of brake pad material on the rotor by performing around 30 stops). Hopefully it will bed in OK, because if the oil has totally contaminated the pads I have none spare – along with padded cycling shorts and spare Rohloff cables they are the only things I so far know I’ve forgotten to pack! Rubbish.

An easy 25km to Kegalla was the plan for Friday, but it didn’t quite pan out like that… After breakfast of a sweet dry shreaded wheat type thing with honey on it, we joined the A1 and headed off.

The A-roads are busier than the Bs, but have the distinct advantage of having a sort of slow traffic / pedestrian lane at the side, so you are at least protected by the traffic thundering past by a white line painted on the floor. Better than nothing. We had originally planned a much less direct route using the B roads, but decided our current course was preferable.

Kegalla came and went, and with Linds’ knees holding up well we kept going; mainly because we couldn’t find a palatable guesthouse that we could afford. To be honest we didn’t look very hard – Kegalla itself wasn’t that appealing, so we pressed on with eyes peeled. We were told that there were a few guesthouses a few km down the road at the top of a hill. Excellent! Turned out the hill was a mountain. False summit begat false summit, thighs turned to lead, and Lindso’s heroic riding turned to equally heroic walking. Eventually we reached the top, featuring a nice restaurant (lime soda and cheese toasties please!) and an impressive monument to the Englishman who built the road around 450BC. We didn’t linger long in reverie, as we’re pretty confident he could have made it much flatter if he’d put his back into it. Later inspection of the stats (see MapMyRide) revealed the climb to be 3.5 miles at an average gradient of 5.2%… Pretty harsh!

The top!

I knew that the rest of the road actually was relatively flat, so we decided to carry on and stay near the botanical gardens 5km short of Kandy. We certainly passed the gardens, complete with 100+ enormous flying foxes (3 foot wingspan bats!) flapping around scaring the fruit, but never spotted the guesthouse that was supposed to be there. Which is why we ended up staying in Kandy, having done a ride that we intended to do in two days in just one. 67km in total, and a superb day for Lindso’s recovering knee considering that 24hrs previously she struggled with a total of 152m of climbing; Kandy is 500m above sea level, and we did a total of 780m of climbing to get there! I suspect she will be beating me up the climbs in about a week, which will be bad for the pride, but a great excuse to take some luggage off my bike and put it on hers. My plan is that she will be carrying everything within a month.

They'd be terrifying if they didn't eat fruit

We spent 3 nights in Kandy, exploring the town (very nice, but quite a lot of tourist-botherers) and the botanical gardens, which were a very pleasant way to spend the day – I particularly liked the Burmese Giant Bamboo, and Linds surprisingly took a shine to those Flying Foxes, of which there were thousands.

Really big bamboo. Maybe I'm easily pleased.Having bikes with us is brilliant – no good for exploring the City Centre because the traffic is chaotic and you miss all the sights for concentrating on not becoming Tuk-Tuk fodder, but the sense of freedom you get from having independent transport to anything within cycling distance is fantastic. We had a hire car in New Zealand, and since then we’ve really begrudged being tied to public transport and worse, taxis and tuk tuks since leaving there – it makes it much harder to get away from the crowds.

Our legs are still pretty sore, and discretion being the better part of valour we’ve decided that we’re definitely not attempting the 80km 1400m climb to Nuwara Eliya (the highest town on Sri Lanka at 1889m) tomorrow, we’re getting the train. This is for two reasons – to protect Lindso’s recovering leg, and also because the road there has a very bad reputation for being narrow, having a sheer drop on one side, and being infested with very naughty buses. I do hope our Mothers are proud of this eminently sensible decision.

Route Maps – MapMyRide
Negombo to Mirigama
Mirigama to Kandy


Mar 3 2012

The curse of The Lonely Planet

If a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?

Being a fairly down to earth, practical type of guy –  yes, of course it bloomin’ does. If I make a pie and no-one eats it, it’s still a pie isn’t it?

If, on the other hand, this ruddy guide book hadn’t told everyone that sunset from this particular viewpoint is fantastic, would it still be fantastic?

Again, yes it probably would. But they did tell everyone. And they’re all here with us. Damn.

We’ve spent a lot of time this year reading Lonely Planet Guides, mainly because they are available on Kindle where their competitors are not. The other major guide books probably suffer from exactly the same problem, but I don’t know because we haven’t been using them!

My theory is this: If a hotel / bar / town / whatever is recommended in a major guide book, they will be swamped with tourists for the entire time that edition of the guide book is in print, whether or not the hotel / restaurant / bar / town carries on being any good. It’s a golden ticket, which enables the hotel or whatever to double their prices, sack the cleaner, and watch the travellers queue up regardless.  The Lonely Planet is a self defeating prophecy. Of course there are exceptions, but at the budget end of things it does seem to hold true a lot of the time. Ah well, trip advisor it is then…

 

PS – If you are gong travelling, buy a Kindle! They’re amazing. I have 16 guidebooks, the complete works of Shakespeare, most of last year’s booker nominees and 70 other books in my bag… and they have the combined size and weight of an A5 exercise book. Brilliant. I love it more than sausages.