All posts by Tim Good

Myanmar by motorcycle

Myanmar or Burma, whichever you please, such a pure country and society. Financial poor yes, but incredibly rich in culture and happiness. There is little wealth divide and families, children and village communities live a quiet and happy life, away from the pressures of the western world.

The trip took us from Mandalay, going West over the dry and sandy plains towards Chin State, Myanmar’s mountain region and predominately Christian.

Approximate route over 3 weeks

Myanmar has been on the radar for a while and I’ve always wanted to do a decent motorcycle trip. My friend had been to check out Myanmar in 2013 and really wanted to return with a couple of like minded adventurers, willing to get well off the main roads and into the real lives of the people and cultures living there.

We  headed west aiming for a rumored train tunnel that short cuts through the mountain and into the foot hills of Chin State. The roads varied from perfect winding tarmac, to dusty trails to steep rugged single-track! [click images below to enlarge]

Eventually, we found the tunnel preceded by abandoned station buildings and sidings. We ventured inside around 5pm hoping to reach the other side and camp before sundown. It was slow going over the wooded sleepers whilst bats flew overhead. Approaching the end of the tunnel it was flooded by hundreds of them as they appeared trapped between the light of dusk and our engines creeping closer.

The following day we worked our way to Kale (pronounced “carl-ay”) encountering many different bridges and river crossings some of which we braved and others sending us with our tails between our legs!

 

Approaching Kale on good roads, we were maybe 2 hours out and should have arrived before dusk. We decided to avoid riding at night as there are a number of trucks that continue to drive into the evening without lights. We passed over a large bridge lined with unused tram lines. Kachina caught her tyre inside one and was immediately catapulted to the floor, directly onto her knee cap. In hindsight and for future trips, I for one, will be wearing knee protection!

In true Myanmar fashion, locals stopped to help immediately and escorted us to a local doctor who cleaned things up. A more worrying injury however was Kachina’s thumb which looked broken and could have spelt the end of the trip. Being a stunt women, starring in many an action film, she is one seriously tough lady and was straight back on the bike making our way, in the dark, towards Kale! The following day a quick X-ray suggested it was either not broken, or if it was, not badly. The trip goes on!

Summit of Mt Kennedy, the huge Pagoda was surrounded by bright red petals!

Kale sits at the foothills of the Chin Mountains and is the gateway to Chin state. We quickly ascended up steep hairpin roads, the temperature nicely dropping with every hour. The riding was world class! Empty roads with challenging sandy corners mixed with sections of fast tarmac. Our aim was to get up Mount Kennedy and still make it to Tedim, a major town of Chin State, by dusk. We did make it to Tedim and we did make it to the summit of Kennedy, but not by dusk! For all our efforts not to ride at night, we were failing badly on that one!

Interestingly, Mt Kennedy has a huge Pagoda on the summit, even though Chin State is almost entirely Christian. Just a few hundred yards from the Pagoda, although not on the summit, is a Christian chapel, clearly showing mutual respect between the beliefs. Summits and mountain tops are important to the Buddhist religion so it is possible that the Christians conceded the summit out of respect.

From Tedim we moved South through the mountains on variable roads and paths with no real itinerary, tents at hand, should we find a suitable spot. Towards the end of the day we passed over a large river and looking upstream could see it curving its way up into the mountains and wilderness. We found our way down to the riverbed and picked our way through boulders to find a glorious little river beach to spend the night by firelight on fine sand.

We were now well on the way to reaching our goal of Mount Victoria. The highest mountain in Chin State at 3053 but a long way short of the highest in Myanmar since the country boarders with the Himalayas in the far North.

This was partly due to some warnings we had about some potential fighting in some regions. The roads again varied enormously and many of the corners were covered in deep sand which made progress slowly and dangerous. A few slips and slides were had!

We were now well on the way to reaching our goal of Mount Victoria. The highest mountain in Chin State at 3053 but a long way short of the highest in Myanmar since the country boarders with the Himalayas in the far North. To reach Mt Victoria we had to drop down to the plains again before working our way back into the mountains.

Sandy corners!

This was, in most part, due to some warnings we had about some potential fighting in some regions. The roads again varied enormously and many of the corners were covered in deep sand which made progress slowly and dangerous. A few slips and slides were had! Moving through the mountain villages we did notice an interesting, but much more skillful, form of volleyball.

One of the most notable things of Chin State is the simple yet delicious food. In fact, food across Myanmar is excellent but especially so in the Chin Mountains. We found repeatedly that we could not get the same type or quality of food in towns. The only way was to eat in small shacks, often an extension of someones home, along with whatever other locals were feeling hungry at the time.

Bagging a harvest of chilli peppers, sold at market and used across the country.

These are reliably dotted along the road side throughout the region but clearly not aimed at travelers. We gestured the international symbol for we’re hungry by bowing your neck, pinching your fingers and putting them to your mouth. You’d pay around 50p – £1 for a meal made up of various soups, vegetables, rice, and if you’re lucky, a little bit of meat. Chillis were often used were used to give it all flavour but in a really simple and healthy way. It is nothing like the food I have tried in other parts of Asia. I have since tried to recreate a Myanmar feast at home in England but failed miserably. Today we are so obsessed with complex cuisine that we fail to use a few core spices and simple ingredients in an effective way.

Moving down onto the lowlands again, we weaved our way through amazingly lush farmland with a variety of crops and remarkably good roads, not even marked on our maps or Google. In  some areas we would wind our way through enormous fields of sunflowers, tended by hand and most likely sold to go to the major cities like Yangon or Mandalay perhaps?

A mechanics son, wearing Thanaka, who helped us fix our foot pegs which we bent the week before in the tunnel shortcut!

Another thing worth mentioning is the use of a type of face paint called Thanaka throughout all 5 regions we visited, regardless of temperature or religion. Thanaka is paste formed from rubbing the bark of the Murraya tree on a rock with some water. The paste is then most commonly applied to the face of women and girls where it then drys and looks vaguely golden. Some apply it in stylish streaks and others just apply it to the whole face. It prevents sunburn and also acts as a moisturiser. Maybe the key to beauty of the Myanmar girls and youthful looks? Whilst taking a short cut we came across a lovely little village, well away from any roads, where a family invited us to have tea with them and also showed us how to use the Thanaka bark!

The whole family!

The following day we began our ascent again into the Southern Chin Mountains towards Mt Victoria. We made good progress climbing steeply to the town of Midat and pushing on up the mountain through dusty trails and river crossings.

Click to enlarge

The Southern Chin mountains are famed for the women with tattooed faces. It is said that Chin girls were the most beautiful in all Asia and the parents of young girls would have their faces tattooed as a way of becoming ‘ugly’ to the neighboring Burmese king and Princes to avoid being kidnapped. Others say they were tattooed to identify their tribes in the event they were kidnapped by rivals. For additional reading there is a good article here and Google Images has plenty of photos!

You would be hard pushed meet one of these women in real life and not part of a tourist show. However, our route by bike took us to villages that were inaccessible to cars and many 4×4 vehicles. One single track took us down to a small community where two families were working hard stripping corn and packing bark. You can clearly see the tattoos on the ladies face. I can’t guess at her age now but you can tell she was a beauty in earlier life. We spent a few hours there helping two families with some of their jobs and shared some laughs and mutual curiosity. The bark in the video below is dried on roof tops and then selected by tapping it and feeling for moisture. If it appears hard enough then it is good to be packed up. I think I understood that it would be made into powder, sent to Yangon, and then sold into the western cosmetics industry.

Looking up into a thick canopy of trees. Click to enlarge.

Continuing up the mountain the trees changed into thick rainforest. We swept along good tracks until a single track extended up towards the summit and the trees gave way to large flowering shrubs with brilliant red flowers. Maybe the same flowers whose petals line the floor of the Pagoda on the summit of My Kennedy the week before!?

We didn’t think it would be possible to reach the summit with our bikes but it turned out to be relatively easy. A camping spot was found and a sheltered place for a fire. We learned it could drop below freezing at this altitude, compared to the 35 degree heat on the plains the day before. The sunset was fantastic but the sunrise was even more spectacular. As the sun rose, it lit it up a Golden Pagoda perfectly, through a gap in the ridge. You could mistake this for coincidence but later in the trip we figured this might be intentional.

We had now achieved what we came to do and ride through Chin State from North to South but we still had about a week left. Going further south was not advised due to conflict in Rakhine State between the Buddhists and Islamic majority.

Temples of Began – Click to enlarge

We descended back to the lowlands and worked our way across to Began through the Magway and Mandalay Division, the two hot dust bowl regions in the center of the country. The low lands are littered with Pagaodas and temples. The majority of travelers head to Bagan but all over these regions are thousands more to see and explore away from tourists.

Interestingly, the local people gain merit for the afterlife by building a temple but no merit is gained from renovating an old one. As such, there are ancient and crumbling temples everywhere you look. Many are accessible only by bike or a long hike so we were in for a real treat to visit many, unlikely to have even been seen or visited by a westerner.

After 2 weeks of not seeing another white person, we were now swamped by the hordes of tourists that come only to see Began and Inle Lake. We quickly passed through the sweltering region to gain altitude and the slightly cooler temperatures of Western Shan State.

We stuck to our trusted strategy of route finding by using Google Satellite images and roughly pick out single track paths through the trees.

Off road Google sat route into the higher plateau of Shan State via the forested mountain passes.

Navigating this way has risks. Mechanical help for a broken bike or medical help in Myanmar is not exactly easy to come by, and going well off road, deep into forests or mountains, exaggerates theses risks significantly.  However, the rewards in the people we met and amazing things we came across, made it entirely worth while.

Looking at the Google sat image above, we saw a community, hidden away in a valley set among the foothills and rain forests, which seemed to be entirely cut off. We figured there must be some interested people living there and some sights to see, so off we went! Below the video shows our varied route and a family we met there who showed us how they light a bulb with a small water generator.

After this nice encounter we continued on our, enjoying some of the sweeping tree line roads of Shane State, in a much cooler climate at around 700m above sea level. The forests now gave way to farmland of olives and vines with the occasional village. It was slightly reminiscent of Southern France or Italy.

Tricky terrain!

It was getting time to head back to Mandalay and we once again decided to ‘bee-line’ it, via a satellite image, back across the Shane State foothills through the rain forest; this time slightly further North, roughly parallel with Mandalay. These proved to be the toughest and most technical terrain we’d encountered, with steep dirt tracks that required a committed entry whilst engine braking was the only way to negotiate the rocks and deep sandy patches.

Click to enlarge

Among the difficulties and route finding we stumbled, by pure chance, across a cave system which, if not for the relief from the 35 degree heat that day, looked particularly intriguing. Entering through a small tunnel, we discovered an enormous network of caverns and passageways, each chamber with a shrine. It was here that we figured that sunlight had a significant part to play in where some Pagodas and shrines we places. In both of the main chambers, light shone through a collapsed roof, perfect clipping the tops of the shrines, just as it did on My Victoria at dawn.

 

Working our way down out of the foothills we’re now not far from Mandalay. The roads become busy with trucks so we turned off and picked our way through the farmland between irrigation channels. It was lovely countryside, with people tending their land and animals. It was all going well until we had to cross the Myitnge River and the boat working its way back to our side, against a strong current, was being bailed out with an old pan en route. “That’s ok” we thought, “We’ll go one at a time”. The boat owner had a different idea which was that he’d shuttle all three bikes, all our gear and ourselves in one go. In grunts, nods and various international gestures, we settled on two bikes max.

Having survived the river crossing, it was a relatively short ride back into Mandalay. We made it back in one piece. What a trip. Only 3 weeks but a years worth of experiences and much learned.  It wasn’t long before plans of a trip into the Northern state of Kachin were being discussed!


Will this country remain as pure and untainted as what we witnessed? Any sign of military oppression is either far exaggerated by the western media or it has dissipated rapidly since the election of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. We encountered no military presence in all four regions we traveled and noone had any issues talking about politics.

Anyhow, regardless of politics, I cannot help feel that now international investment is coming, the way of life will disappear and the wealth divide will grow. As one hotel manger explained, he and many like him are getting into business, but loosing the time to meditate. Meditation is a significant part of the Buddhist faith, building mindfulness, modesty and happiness. He went on to explain that he now can’t achieve even a basic meditative state as his mind is full of distractions, anxieties and deadlines.

Tim Good, Ian Thornton & Kachina Dechert

Skiing from the boat in Norway

Ski touring is a passion for both of us but particularly for Emmie. Combining sailing with skiing was something we really wanted to achieve.


We set off in good time in March, sailing from Liverpool, up through Scotland, through the Great Glen, via the Shetland Islands and on to Alesund, Norway. On arrival a large charter boat was departing into the Sunnmøre Alps with a crew of paying guests set for a week of back country skiing!

With our enthusiasm coming to the surface like bubbles in treacle, we too set off down the Fjords in search of pristine powder! The snow capped peaks ahead promised success and we quickly found a small town with a jetty to moor up against.

Alongside the jetty

There was certainly snow in the hills but it didn’t come down to the sea as we’d hoped. This didn’t dampen our hopes as we stood by the side of the road, in full ski gear… hitch hiking! It wasn’t long before a couple of like minded locals picked us up and took us to the starting point of the tour they has planned that day. A fantastic short tour was had and a brilliant introduction to “ski sailing”!

Emmie tearing down fresh powder on our first day!

Over the following days a good deal of snow fell and we’d heard about a mountain refuge that we could use, providing we could dig down to the the doorway. That day we skied directly from the jetty and headed up into the mountains. Visibility came and went that day, sometimes down to just a few inches in front of our noses. Towards the end of the day we climbed up to a col overlooking the valley where the mountain refuge should be. In this visibility, the likelihood of finding anything was low, never mind something buried in 15ft of snow. Just as our expectations of a warm stove and hot dinner were shattered upon the hard stones of reality, the mist cleared! The valley suddenly came into full view and, from the snow, about 1km away, a flag pole could be seen! We charged down the hill in deep untouched powder! In true Norwegian fashion, the mountain refuge was exceptional… blankets, mattresses, a fully stocked kitchen and a warm stove!

The following day we skied back taking in a small summit that overlooked the Fjord where the boat was moored!

Looking down to where we left the boat the day before.

For some footage of the skiing over the time we spent in the Sunnmøre Alps then check our the video we produced for Bob Shepton, who sailed with us from Inverness over to Alesund!

A Fly through the Isle of Skye

Purposely saving sailing around Skye I waited for dad, Julie, and our friend Ginny to join us for a week-long circumnavigation of the isle. Unfortunately, a week is not long enough to take in the entirety of the vast land and seascape, so we opted for a mixture of culture (i.e. a visit to a whisky distillery), sport (walking + Island Workout Jane-Fonda Style), and cuisine (cooking and eating all the provisions) while sailing to beautiful anchorages.

Much to John and Julie’s dismay (mostly due to the fact that they had driven 9 hours to get to us), we had a set of ‘On Board Rules’ to follow…which ended up becoming a week-long joke, with Julie calling Tim the Rule-Master!

Skye is known for higher rainfall compared to other areas of Scotland, and apparently to live full-time on the isle, you have to be extremely hardy. We started our week from Kyle of Lochalsh, sailed through Kyle Rhea in calm conditions and were surprised at the 2.5 knot* tides swishing us about despite having the motor on to help us out. We would be doing 5 knots through the water* but actually just moving 2.5 knots over ground*! Once we cleared the tides, we raised the sails and set course for the Sleat Peninsula, where we were going to anchor for the first night. The day was hot and the wind blew a steady breeze.

Paddleboarding Skye
Paddleboarding Skye – daring to get out on the board fully clothed!

Our second day was a bit colder, but the sun somewhat stayed out. Everyday seemed to be a guess as to whether the sun will make an appearance! Our day was relatively smooth-sailing, and we managed to pick up a mooring at Carbost. After dinner and a few drinks, Tim and Ginny blasted the tunes and out came the USB-disco ball, probably much to the detriment of our fellow sailing neighbours.

We decided that the rainy Monday should be spent wandering Carbost, where the Talisker Distillery is located. The tour was interesting, although we were not allowed to take any photos of the process. The whisky is still generally made the traditional way, except for a few changes to machinery in 1962, after a large fire struck down much of the original distillery. Talisker whisky started its life in 1830, as the ‘only distillery on the Isle of Skye’ and continues to run through to today. Read more about it here.

copyright Chasing Contours
Whisky Sunset

A Flood in the Aft Cabin

After two nights in Carbost, we sailed towards Duntulm, where we expected to be anchored in a sheltered bay. We were sailing along fine in the morning until Julie came up to deck saying, “Our cabin is flooding!” Tim jumped down the steps to inspect, and sure enough, some of the bilges were filled with not salt – but fresh water! This was somewhat a relief, because it would mean that we were not on the verge of sinking or calling a mayday.

He then checked our water tank, and it was very low at about 25 litres. Julie had left the tap on accidentally! We now had a bit of distance to cover before we could get to a port that offered water. Thankfully, Uig was somewhat on the way and although we were not sure if the pier would have water, we took the chance. Thankfully, the ferry pier staff were happy to lend us a hand and we filled the tank with no dramas!

Duntulm Shore Lines

Our next anchorage was between the mainland and this little island off Duntulm, in between Duntulm Bay and Tulm Bay. We set shore lines because of the high winds we expected overnight. It was probably the worst night’s sleep we have had for a while, because the boat was rocking about with the wind funnelling through the bays. The shorelines held fast. We explored the little island in the morning, peering over some fluffy Cormorant chicks on the cliff.

IMG_2905
Ginny and John mini hike on Island off Duntulm
Walking the uninhabited island, which happened to be full of wild parsley and Cormorant poop!
copyright Chasing Contours
Shore lines to the island kept us safe, but it did not stop the rocking…

The holiday with family and friends flew by too quickly, just as quick as we had circumnavigated Skye; we would have liked to see more, but perhaps we will be back – one day! One thing for sure, it was a nice break from the helm and galley for both of us!

Cheers! Here’s to jolly good nights…

 

*Definitions:

knot – (/nɒt/) is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile (1.852 km) per hour, approximately 1.151 mph (source: Wikipedia). It originated from sailors trailing a line of rope with regular knots tied on, such that as they sailed forward, they would count the knots on the rope as they moved along relative to time.

speed over ground – the boat’s given speed as it is travelling forward. This can differ from the ‘through the water’ reading.

speed through the water – more often than not, tidal streams will have an effect on the boat’s forward speed. It can add to it (yipeee!) or it can work against it (boo).

More explained clearly here.

Diving the Politician

Our first stop after sailing across the Sea of the Hebrides we arrived at Castle Bay in the South of the island cluster and soon overheard a couple talking about a wreck called the Politician. First here is what wiki says:

politician

SS Politician was an 8000-ton cargo ship owned by T & J Harrison of Liverpool. It left Liverpool on 3 February 1941, bound for Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans with a cargo including 28,000 cases of malt whisky. The ship sank off the north coast of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, and much of the wreck’s cargo was salvaged by the island’s inhabitants. The story of the wreck and looting was the basis for the book and film Whisky Galore! (Wikipedia)

It turned out that this couple used to use their boat for diving charters so they knew their stuff! This was perfect since we’re not hugely experienced cold water divers. A few days later we set sail north as a group of four boats and dropped anchor surrounding the wreck. Sadly the wreck was barely distinguishable after being pounded by winter storms for over 50 years. That said, there was a lot of kelp growing from the remains of the ship, providing shelter to lots of fish and other marine life.

When we use our Spinnaker!

Our spinnaker only comes out when we’re on a long passage of over 6 hours and away from land. It is a real beast and so we want to ensure the wind is going to be steady and constant or else the effort in getting it out is not really worth it. Its size means that we can still sail relatively fat even in very low winds. Here it is in action going up the Irish sea.

Living ‘off-grid’ with solar panels

The title of the this post is a little misleading as clearly life on a boat is “off grid” but the system we have on-board is the same as if you wanted to work off-grid in a house. That is, 12V batteries charged by solar or wind. You can then run 12v appliances or 240V ones via an invertor.

Strangely, most appliances in a house are in fact running from 12 volts or less which is why laptops, lights, cameras and other appliances come with bulky adapters to convert them down from 240v to 12v or less. On our boat the only thing that needs 240v is actually our water-maker (desalination unit).

Changing a boat anode whilst still afloat

An anode is a sacrificial piece of metal that corrodes more quickly than the other metal it is attached to. This little piece of chemistry means that we can use Zinc on our propeller shaft to protect our propeller, the shaft itself and the engine from corrosion since the zinc ‘anode’ wastes away first. They are generally replaced once per year but since they are underwater, can be a pain in arse to both check and replace without the boat being lifted out. That is costly and boring so this is how we do it!