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A day in Oaxaca City

 

I love Mexico. There, I’ve said it. I love the people, the landscapes, the food (oh, the food!), the history, the pace of life, the cities… I could go on. One place, in particular, for which I have a special fondness is Oaxaca. One of our fabulous mountain biking adventures explores the state of Oaxaca, taking you high up into the beautiful Sierra Norte mountains, but it’s Oaxaca City itself that I’d like to focus on, to share with you a splendid day I had there, just going with the flow and taking in everything this gorgeous city has to offer.

Oaxaca City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is fantastic because it means that the beautiful, multi-coloured, graceful, Colonial buildings will be preserved for us and future generations to enjoy.

Early morning in the city is a special time. I strolled through the streets at my own pace; admiring, thinking before, as if by the flick of a switch, the city bursts into life, with traffic, people, carts everywhere. On my first morning in Oaxaca City I was intrigued by the elusive little bird that kept tweeting tenaciously on the corner outside our hotel – much to the amusement of my husband, who pointed out that it was the pedestrian crossing signal. I did feel slightly stupid; but how nice to be led safely across the road by the chirps of a [mechanical] bird than the usual non-descript beeping heard in most other cities!

Oaxaca is world-renowned for its fabulous cuisine, and breakfast menus in the city’s many cafés and restaurants are replete with local specialities such as tamal, omelette oaxaqueño and, of course, delicious corn-based hot chocolate.

We chose a café on el Zócalo, one of the main squares in the city, and sat down to enjoy a breakfast of champions, with a side order of people watching. Every time I come to Mexico I’m touched by the care with which even the simplest dishes are prepared. The food doesn’t need to be fancy – although Oaxaca City does do fancy, but we’ll come to that later – because the ingredients are so good and it’s cooked so well, with all the little salsas and garnishes, that it just tastes fantastic and is a joy to eat.

Local men catch up on the news whilst having their shoes polished at El Zócalo

A big part of life in these sorts of squares are the street vendors. Almost every square inch of real estate in the square is taken up by someone selling something: clothes, souvenirs, shoe-shining, and lots and lots of colourful inflatable objects. Inflatable toys on wheels, inflatable cartoon characters, unidentified inflatable objects (UIOs), and the old favourite, the balloon. The Oaxaqueños seem to be crazy about helium-filled toys and balloons, possibly because they are absolutely mad for a good party and love celebrating loudly and wildly, which we were to experience in all its glory that evening!

When we could no longer claim to be ‘finishing our drinks’ we reluctantly left our people-watching post and headed off for a bit of culture and retail therapy. We stopped first at the Mercado Benito Juarez, situated just behind Zócalo, which is largely a food market, but also has local art products and general souvenirs. There’s plenty of fresh fish, fruit and veg, sweets, and poultry which, if you’re not of a strong constitution, might best be avoided. If you’re looking for traditional, high quality arts and crafts, this isn’t the place. There are many other shops in the city that will cater to your tastes, such as an amazing little gallery we stumbled upon, called Javier Servin, where they made the most exquisitely designed and crafted ceramics. Perhaps it’s a good thing that airlines have such stringent baggage allowances.

All that walking and shopping really works up an appetite, so our next goal was to find somewhere for lunch. There’s almost too many choices in Oaxaca, but we opted for a little place near the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, where we had some lovely tacos and salad.

Since we were so close, it seemed rude not to make a visit to the Church of Santo Domingo, perhaps Oaxaca City’s most lavish cathedral, which was once a monastery, but now forms part of the cultural fabric of the city, along with the museum and Ethno-botanic gardens. Run by the Dominicans, you can take a guided tour of the cathedral or simply admire the work that must have gone into creating the grand interior and exterior of the church, and what’s required to maintain it in such a way.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca City at night

Oaxaca is a great city in which to just walk around. You don’t have to have a great purpose, although there are plenty of things to see and do, and there’s always something going on, like the coffee festival or the festival of local Oaxacan arts and crafts.

Festivals and celebrating are a large part of Oaxacan culture and they love any excuse to break out the fireworks!This we discovered during dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Los Danzantes, which specialises in traditional Oaxacan dishes with some modern international twists, and has an open roof so that you can watch the fireworks over your rosemary-scented crème brulée (highly recommended)!

Celebrating a wedding, Oaxacan style!

On stepping out of Loz Danzantes after a fabulous meal and onto the main pedestrian precinct, we were almost blind-sided by an enormous papier mâché bride and groom who were leading a long procession making its way loudly down the street. This was just the first in a conveyor belt of weddings pouring out of the churches and cathedrals, each more elaborate and with more fireworks and musicians than the last. I did say that the people of Oaxaca loved to party, and what better reason for celebration than a wedding?!

After dodging fireworks and brass bands, we eventually followed the last procession towards our hotel, giving silent thanks when they headed off in the opposite direction at the last second (we were pretty tired). It was certainly a very happy way to round off a day in Oaxaca City and served, rather aptly, to reaffirm my love of Mexico.

If you’d like to experience the wonder of Mexico for yourself, join us in October on our magnificent mountain biking adventure in Oaxaca!

Catherine Shearer, co-owner and operations director H&I Adventures. This blog originally appeared on H&I’s blog here.

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Operator profile: Ireland by Bike shows off the Emerald Isle

 

Tour specialist Heather Lee was recently hosted by our operator partner Ireland by Bike, a family-run operation based in County Donegal. Their bike tours in Ireland include Highlights of the Highlands and Treasures of the Donegal Coast. The following is an interview Heather conducted with owner Seamus Gallagher.

 coastal ireland bike tour

 

Why did you decide to start a bike touring company?

ireland by bike family

The Gallaghers on their inspirational 2009 cycling vacation

The idea emerged from a family holiday in 2009. Up until then our children were too young to cycle on holiday and we never thought of using one of the child trailers. We decided to cycle from Bratislava to Prague. It was while researching that holiday that curiosity led me to check out what was available locally.

I discovered that there were only a couple of tour companies offering tours in Donegal, and that both of those were based in other parts of Ireland. I felt that a company based locally would be in a position to offer a much better service than one based somewhere else. I also consider myself very fortunate to live where I do and am anxious to share the area with others.

In what part of Ireland are you located?
We are based in County Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland. It is one of the least visited areas. This is due in part to the legacy of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Because we are so close to the border, people didn’t tend to visit here. The result is that Donegal has avoided the effects of large-scale tourism, so the visitor experience is more genuine than in other areas. We use Donegal Town and Sligo as the starting hubs for our tours. These are easily accessible from Dublin Airport and are ideal starting points for the tours.

irish bike tour mechanic

Dominic, "chief mechanic" and eldest son

It’s a small family business – what does that bring?
The best thing it brings is flexibility. In the busy times we don’t really follow any working hours. We can arrange to meet people, deliver bikes, do luggage transfers etc. at any time. The down side is that at busy times, the lines between work and family life become virtually indistinguishable.

My wife, Nora, is more or less a full-time worker in the summer months. My oldest son, Dominic, who is a student, has become the unofficial “chief mechanic.” He is a real bike fan and is super at keeping the bikes in 100% top condition. My youngest son, Brian, who has just turned 15, has been less involved up until now, but I’m sure that that will change over the coming seasons.

 

 

What type of tours do you offer? How many do you have?
We currently offer four different bike tours, with two available through BikeToursDirect. We also have a leisurely “Yeats Country” tour in the pipeline.

 

family bike tour in ireland

Ireland by Bike's staff - the Gallagher family (Brian, Seamus, Dominic, and Nora)

 

What do you look for when researching and creating tour routes?
I had a pretty clear idea from the start what sights and attractions I wanted to include, so after that the main focus was the safety of the routes. I also wanted to include as many of the historic sites in the area as possible. There is a wealth of stone-age, bronze age, and early-Christian monuments around Donegal and obviously many people would want to visit these. Then of course I had to try to work all this in with a route that balanced the amount of daily cycling and still ended up in a town or village with good accommodation and nightly entertainment.

If you were to go out and do one ride, which route would you choose?
I think it would have to be the cycle along the coast from Killybegs to Glencolmcille. This route is part of every one of our tours. It has just about everything. Amazing scenery, loads of historic sites, and, because the area has a strong tradition of hand weaving, a few very interesting traditional craft studios to visit.

Describe the type of accommodations where your clients can expect to stay when they book one of your tours.
We mostly use family-run bed and breakfasts. Where possible we like to use bed and breakfasts that are located in, or close to, towns or villages.

What kind of feedback do you get on the bed and breakfasts you choose?
The feedback has been excellent. Our customers really appreciate that people are willing to do that little extra. Many of our customers are still in contact with the people they have stayed with. Different people have mentioned a variety of things that the B&B owners have done for them.

A lady who was traveling on her own this summer was delighted when the couple with whom she was staying invited her to join them at their weekly Traditional Irish dancing session. A group of four gentlemen were amazed when their B B owner went out of her way to get much sought-after tickets for a major Gaelic Football match. Others guests have regularly been given lifts to restaurants or places of interest they had missed along the way. We simply cannot put a value on this type of service.

 

 

What about all the rainy days in Ireland? What can you do for your clients on those days?
When it looks like it will be very wet we will ring around the B&B’s in the morning to see how the customers feel. If they would prefer not to cycle we advise them to stay put and we will come and get them. We usually drive the route that they would have cycled. Saying that, this only happens on around 3 or 4 days in a year. For most days light rain-gear is more than enough to allow everyone to get out on the bike and enjoy the amazing landscapes. Rain showers tend to go quickly, we have a saying here — “If you don’t like the weather – wait a minute!”

What do you recommend for travelers who are wary of Ireland’s hilly terrain?
We have just purchased 10 electric bikes. We had already been hiring them from another company in the past. For anyone not familiar with them, you still get the same cycling experience but the assistance makes the hills feel just like you are cycling on the flat.

Ireland by Bike owner Seamus Gallagher

What did you do before you started Ireland by Bike?
For the five years before 2010, I worked as a tiler, before that I was as a teacher for several years. For the first few years, as Ireland by Bike was beginning to grow, I continued to work as a tiler. At the time the bike tour business was costing me money while the tiling work was still putting some food on the table. It was crazy at times, but worth the effort in the end.

Why should someone do a bike tour through Ireland?
Ireland, and especially Donegal, still retains the “off the beaten track” feel. You really won’t see many more beautiful areas or experience better hospitality than along the west coast. The traditional music and culture is also well worth experiencing. I would also say that a bike tour is the best way to see any county. The experience of seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting the country you pass through is so much more complete and fulfilling when done by bicycle.

 

 

“The Dream Maker”: Adventure Cyclist magazine tells the story of BikeToursDirect

 
The article “The Dream Maker,” by Dan D’Ambrosio, was originally published in the February 2014 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine, the member publication of the Adventure Cycling Association. For more information, visit: www.adventurecycling.org
Copyright 2014 by Dan D’Ambrosio

 

Jim Johnson credits his former Fortune 100 employer for two of the best things that ever happened in his life –– moving him to Chattanooga and, in 2002, firing him.

“We can call it a disagreement in management style,” Johnson says of his firing. “The first thing I did after I wiped my tears was take an inventory of my skills. I asked myself, what do I like to do? What am I good at? What I realized was I love to travel, I love cycling, and I love to plan trips. I was planning family trips when I was eight or nine years old.”

Jim with part of Chattanooga office staff (Candice, Richie, Rachel, and Brian)

“As anyone reading Adventure Cyclist knows, the best way to meet people, and feel the undulation of the roads and of the terrain, is not in a car or on a train,” Johnson said.

Johnson is reminded of a description,written by another travel writer, of the difference between riding a bike around Europe and riding a train or bus, or driving a car. Paraphrasing, it’s the difference between watching an incredibly beautiful movie unfold in front of you or being in the movie. 

“Writing for travel magazines, I didn’t always mention I was traveling by bike,but it made more sense to do it that way, and in the process I got to know a lot of the local bike-tour companies in Austria and Germany,” Johnson said.

A friend Johnson had recently taken with him on a “research” trip suggested he organize bicycle tours for a living. But if Johnson knew what he was good at, he also knew what he wasn’t good at — logistics. Getting luggage from one place to another, prepping bikes, and booking hotels. 

“It hit me over the head, I know companies that already do that,” Johnson said. “So I contacted them and asked, ‘How would you like to be represented by me in the North American market?’” 

In 2003, Johnson launched Bike Tours Direct (BTD: biketoursdirect.com), posting 40 or 45 tours from five or six different tour companies based in Germany and Austria. He sold 160 trips. His tour companies in Europe were ecstatic because those were 160 customers they never would have gotten without Johnson.

“I was still skeptical if I could make a go of it, but at the same time I was having a ball,” he said. “So I stuck with it.” 

The following year, he sold more than 600 trips. There was no looking back. 

The business model Johnson set up  in 2003 is the one he still follows today. The tour companies pay him a commission on every customer he brings them. The customer pays the same price for the tour as if they had signed up directly, without Johnson’s help. It works out for everyone. 

Johnson is still working with several of the companies he started with in the beginning. One of them told him before he started working with them, they had five or six riders from North America. Last year Johnson sent them about 350. 

“That’s a dramatic example, but even the ones that are less dramatic, these little companies didn’t have the marketing savvy to reach the North American market,” Johnson said. “They didn’t have the budget, or the staff, to do it. These were little mom-and-pop operations that were just getting by season to season. Now a lot of them have become firmly established and are growing, in part because we’ve been able to send them a constant stream of clients.” 

10 years after starting his company, Johnson, 59, has 10 employees. BTD is now in 72 countries on six continents with about 500 different tours, working with 110 different bike-tour companies, all of them with invaluable local knowledge. This year, BTD booked 3,140 clients, helping most of them find and choose the tours they wanted.

“It is a lot of people,” Johnson says. 

One of those people is former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, and Adventure Cyclist contributor, David Lamb, who has used Johnson’s services for the past five years. 

“I know I have been Jim Johnson’s top client every year,” Lamb said. “Every year I give him 10 to 20 people. I run a bike tour in a different country every year for a group of friends.” 

Lamb has been riding with his friends every year for the past 15 years, and before he found BTD, he did all the work himself, finding tour guides, teasing out routes, and booking rooms. 

“Now I just arrange our tours through Jim,” Lamb said. “I don’t have to do any heavy lifting. I just tell Jim the details of what I want. Lining up 20 people to take a bike tour is not easy. It used to be a big hassle. What used to take months now takes a matter of days. It has made my life much easier and we’ve never had a trip that was a bummer.” 

This year, Lamb and company, including Lamb’s wife, will take a bike and barge-tour in Croatia, beginning and ending in Pula, going from island to island. Lamb, 73, has been bike touring since 1995, when he was in Wisdom, Montana, on assignment for the Times doing a story about the modern cowboy. 

“I was in a little saloon in Wisdom,” Lamb remembered. “A couple of bikes were sitting there, spiffy with saddlebags. It looked so exciting. A man and his wife were sitting at the bar, having coffee. They were riding from Minnesota to Seattle. Wow, I didn’t know anybody could do that on a bike.” 

Lamb went home and told his wife he was going to ride across the U.S. The Times gave him nine months to do it, serializing his stories from the road, which were also excerpted in Adventure Cyclist.

“I hadn’t been riding a bike at all. I hadn’t even owned one in 40 or 50years,” Lamb said. 

Jim and VP Natalie

Ann and Fred Abeles came to bicycle touring in a similarly serendipitous fashion. After retiring in 1998, the couple – Ann is 71 and Fred is 78 – decided they needed to do something to stay active.

“We started out walking, but he got bored with that,” Ann Abeles said of her husband. “People were passing us on bikes — so we bought bikes.”

Ann and Fred starting riding on the C&O Canal Towpath, not far from their home in Frederick, Maryland. 

“The first day nearly killed him,” Ann said. “ We went 10 miles, and he was not sure he would ever walk again. We went back the next day and did 10 miles again.” 

Today, the couple rides about 7,000 miles annually, and they try to ride every day for at least an hour and a half. They’ve done five tours with Johnson, and “every one of them has been exactly what was promised.”

“This September, we booked two tours back to back — the first in the Transylvania region of Romania, the second in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria,” Ann Abeles said. “We like to go different places.” Different places, and a long way from the C&O Canal. Fred Abeles still marvels at the way the whole thing worked out. 

“It’s amazing, the people associated with this activity are nice,” he said. “We got into it because we retired and needed an activity, something that didn’t involve a lot of expense. Deep sea fishing was out. Cycling is really a very low-impact sport. We have no issues with any body parts.” 

By March, after more than 10 years as BikeToursDirect, Johnson will have changed the domain and identity of his company to BikeTours.com. It sharpened his sense of destiny even more.

“When you have that company name, you feel a great sense of responsibility not just to sell bike tours but to promote the concept of bicycle touring,” Johnson said. 

To that end, the new website includes “significant changes” intended to educate as well as sell. Johnson spent several days at Adventure Cycling headquarters in Missoula, forming a partnership that will include putting Adventure Cycling tours on the BTD website. Johnson says he’s not concerned about market share, but market size. He wants to see more folks bike touring. 

“It sounds a little trite, but I really feel that we’re in the business of helping people’s dreams come true,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing more gratifying than when a client returns from a trip and says, ‘This was the trip of a lifetime. This is what we’ll be talking about 30 years from now at the family reunion.’”

 

Dan D’Ambrosio is a staff writer covering business for the Burlington Free Press in Burlington, Vermont.

Client Trip Report: He Said/She Said on Dragon’s Tail Tour, Vietnam (Day 5)

 

This summer Asia Tour Specialist, Lindsay, helped her friends and neighbors Stephen Schuit and Marsha Greenberg find and plan a bike tour in Vietnam. Schuit and Greenberg are American expats living and teaching English in South Korea. They chose to do the guided Dragon’s Tail Tour  starting in Dalat and going north to Hoi-An. Both Schuit and Greenberg have traveled extensively in Asia, but this was their first tour by bike. Both wrote about their experience. Here is a he said/she said travel log of their tour. 

Scenes from Vietnam. Photo credit: Steve Schuit

Day 5-Departing: PleiKan  Destination: Kham Duc

Steve

We were driven about 40 miles or so out of PleiKan on the Ho Chi Minh highway. This took us up and over steep and nearly unbikeable terrain in Vietnam’s mountainous jungle region in the middle of the country. Once on the eastern side, we were able to bike on some of the best built and less frequented roads on the trip. The few villages and remote homesteads we passed were populated by Vietnam’s minority tribal people—dark skinned and speaking distinct dialects. A young boy we passed yelled “awesome” and gave us a “thumbs up.” Wow, I thought, how cool. Seconds later, two teenage girls coming in the opposite direction on a motor scooter yelled a much less friendly English phrase involving a certain four-letter word, but laughing as they passed. We biked part of the day along rapidly flowing red-colored muddy rivers adorned with bridges. An old man walked effortlessly across a rickety wooden foot bridge that had huge gaps in its planking. The bridge looked as if it was built a hundred years ago. The man said it was actually just five-years old. Moments and images from our last full-day on the road. Tomorrow afternoon we arrive in Hoi-An, our final destination. A pool and the honeymoon suite (to celebrate our 30th anniversary) await our sore rear-ends.

Lunch stop.

Marsha 

I awoke ready for a big day of biking on the Ho Chi Minh trail, well more like a major road. I imagine that 45 years ago this road was unpaved and dangerous. Today all the people we passed in every small village greeted us. Children came running out yelling hello and many gave us a thumbs up and shouted “awesome”.  My confidence on the bike and my ability have improved so much in just the passed 4 days. I was riding along like an experienced biker dreaming of where we would bike next.

We biked all day and my body was feeling great as was my spirit. There is no other way to see a country so up close an personal then on a bike. Life is good. Maybe I was dreaming about the 5 star hotel we booked in Hoi An or maybe just the amazing feeling of biking on this open road with very few cars. Whatever it was I loved the moment we were in. We finished our day exhausted and had a wonderful celebratory dinner with Vinh and Minh and reminisced about our time together as if it was weeks not days. I am looking forward to a true anniversary celebration in Hoi An.

Client Trip Report: He Said/She Said on Dragon’s Tail Tour, Vietnam (Day 4)

 

This summer Asia Tour Specialist, Lindsay, helped her friends and neighbors Stephen Schuit and Marsha Greenberg find and plan a bike tour in Vietnam. Schuit and Greenberg are American expats living and teaching English in South Korea. They chose to do the guided Dragon’s Tail Tour  starting in Dalat and going north to Hoi-An. Both Schuit and Greenberg have traveled extensively in Asia, but this was their first tour by bike. Both wrote about their experience. Here is a he said/she said travel log of their tour. 

Steve and Marsha celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary while cycling in Vietnam.

Day 4- Thursday, Departing: Pleiku Destination: PleiKan (near the Laotian border)

Marsha

After a good night’s sleep we got up to overcast skies. My first thought was that the day would be cooler than the previous days and riding would be easy. We got into the van and headed out of town. Just as we were about to mount our bikes the sky opened and the rain came pouring down.  As I watched Steve and Vinh continue to get ready to ride I thought they were crazy and I decided that the new book Steve had given me was calling my name. I told them I wouldn’t be biking just yet, got back in the van and started my new book. Mihn, the driver and I sat in the van with rain beating against the roof and read. After about an hour we headed out to catch up with the brave, or insane, bikers. The rain slowed down and a few hours later I was on my bike joining the ride.

By now, I was used to my bike, the hills and the solitude of biking. My thoughts went to the war and I realized we were biking right through the towns that many of my friends had trudged through during the war. The surreal quality was a little overwhelming and I spent most of the day reminiscing in my head about days and loves gone by. We biked close to Laos and I imagined how easy it was during the war to move across boarders without even knowing it. Life is full of amazing coincidences. This day we biked right through the village where my friend Nick died just 10 days after having arrived in Vietnam in 1968. Here I was 45 years later, smiling and connecting to all the people we met. How had their lives been affected by that useless war? I wished I could have talked for hours to so many of them. Vihn was always ready to answer my questions and to talk about his father’s experience that I assumed was not easy. 

By the time we reached our destination for the day, I was both physically and emotionally spent.  This bike trip has been so much more than just mounting a bike each day and riding 30 miles.  It was filled with wonder, emotions, laughter, food and new friendships.  As Steve and I got into bed that night I was grateful that at 64 I can do this with relative ease and that my frame of reference about Vietnam was greater than I even imagined.

 

Scenes from Vietnam. Photo credit: Steve Schuit

Steve

As we were getting ready to start our day from the Pleiku Reservoir just outside the city, the skies opened and the winds unfurled. Suddenly, the thought of biking was unappealing. But we donned our rain parkas and hit the road undaunted. Surprisingly, the rain had a cleansing effect–washing away all my distractions and concerns. The roads led us though Vietnamese villages carved out of jungle during the last few decades. Rice fields, forests of rubber trees and coffee plantations lay quietly behind the roads and spread to the horizon. We biked in and out of small cities heading north and west, ending our day just miles from the border with Laos.

Client Trip Report: He Said/She Said on Dragon’s Tail Tour, Vietnam (Day 6)

 

This summer Asia Tour Specialist, Lindsay, helped her friends and neighbors Stephen Schuit and Marsha Greenberg find and plan a bike tour in Vietnam. Schuit and Greenberg are American expats living and teaching English in South Korea. They chose to do the guided Dragon’s Tail Tour  starting in Dalat and going north to Hoi-An. Both Schuit and Greenberg have traveled extensively in Asia, but this was their first tour by bike. Both wrote about their experience. Here is a he said/she said travel log of their tour. 

Marsha tries out motorized wheels.

Day 6- Departing: Kham Duc, Destination: Hoi-An

Steve

We biked right from our hotel in Kham Duc. Nearly out of dong (the Vietnamese currency), our first stop was the town’s only ATM. The road was mostly newly built and smooth.  The traffic was sparse. We were still heading north but soon would turn right toward the coast and our final destination, Hoi-An. We saw a huge electricity-generating dam on our right shortly after leaving town, then we followed the riverbed which lay at its feet for many miles. We saw a number of bridges, some vehicular, some rudimentary footbridges. Water buffalo grazed along the river. We stopped for local coffee and pineapple in Thac Nuoc. The town featured a lovely waterfall. The rest of the day’s ride was over gentle hills and descents that ultimately took us to a bridge and a significant intersection on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It proved to be the terminus of our 6-day biking trek. After packing the bikes, Minh drove us the rest of the way to Hoi-An for 2½ days of pure rest and relaxation. Awesome. Trip of a lifetime!

 

Steve stops for a break with a new friend.

Marsha

We started biking right from the hotel. The traffic was light so I was able to let go of any concerns about dealing with city traffic. We rode for hours on rolling hills. By now, I could handle the hills. We rode most of the morning with only a few stops and suddenly we were at the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail and dismounting our bikes. I was a bit sad to have it all end. What a trip!  We got in the van after getting our wet face towels that Vihn provided us with each day. We drove the rest of the way to Hoi An. I knew we were getting close to the downtown as we saw more and more foreigners. That’s when I realized we hadn’t seen any foreigners for almost the entire trip. Back to reality I thought. We had a final lunch and said our farewells as Minh pulled up to our hotel. What luxury, I thought. I wondered for a moment what these two guys might have been thinking at that moment. After 6 days together I realized they knew us enough to appreciate what we were about to do. They drove off and we turned to walk into the lobby of this luxury and I had a sense of accomplishment and gratitude for so many things. This was truly a trip of a lifetime and Vihn and Mihn were so much a part of it. Life is good. We checked in to our room, put on our bathing suits and made our way to the swimming pool where we ordered drinks and a had well-deserved swim.

Tips for Cycling in Asia

 

Lindsay is BTD’s Asia Tour Specialist. E-mail her at lindsay@biketoursdirect.com. 

If you ask me, Asia is the new it destination for cyclists around the world. Beautiful cultures, bucket list destinations, spicy food, ancient histories and friendly people are some of the many reasons cyclists are looking farther East for their next tour destination.

Fall, winter, and spring in North America and Europe also provides the perfect time to explore many parts of Asia with its warmer temperatures and summer-like atmospheres. Asia inquiries and bookings are up to an all-time high at BikeToursDirect, which makes it the perfect time to learn more about traveling East and what to expect on an Asian bike tour.

Here are a few tips to get you started in planning, packing, or cycling through Asia.

    • Consider your group. There are tours available for single travelers who want to join a larger group, as well as tours available for couples and small groups who want their own private departures. Most tours in Asia are guided (for ease of travel in a very foreign country), and it’s good to know what you prefer — large group or private departures. Some operators even offer both options.

 

    • Go guided. As I mentioned above, it’s important to have a guide in Asia. I just returned from two weeks of cycling and traveling around India. It was my second time to the subcontinent. The first time I had no guide or help. I’m still shaking my head at what I missed out on during my first trip there. Guides will help you navigate back roads, point out interesting cultural points, talk with locals, read signs, and help you figure out how to hold chopsticks (if you’re in the far far East).

 

    • Talk with the Asia specialist. That’s me! I live in Asia (working out of BTD’s satellite office in South Korea) and have traveled extensively across Asia. I can help point out destinations you shouldn’t miss, and give you ideas on where to start your planning. Want somewhere beachy? I can recommend Thailand and the Philippines. Looking for remote? That’d be Mongolia. Want somewhere colorful and spicy? India! E-mail or call me any time. (lindsay@biketoursdirect.com/423-402-9532). The only thing I like better than traveling in Asia is helping someone else travel in Asia.

 

    • Pack conservatively. I mean this in two ways. Of course you shouldn’t pack your whole kitchen with you when you travel in Asia, but I also mean pack conservative clothing. Many countries in Asia are more conservative when it comes to clothing. Shorts aren’t that common and shoulders should be covered, especially if you’re planning on going to a temple. This is mostly for women. Women, bring scarves! You can easily wrap these around you if you’re going into a site where you need to be covered. Bike shorts are fine no matter where you are. But you might feel more comfortable if you bring long pants or a skirt to cover up with when you’re not on your bicycle.

 

    • Learn a few words. As one of my favorite Korean teachers says, “A little goes a long way!” Learning just “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” in the local language goes such a long way in Asia. The local people will be truly touched (especially the more rural you get) if you can say hello to someone in their own language.

 

    • Bring anti-diarrhea medicine. It’s smart to avoid any tap water and unwashed fruits, as well as street food in many Asia locations. But, sometimes we just make mistakes (or are more adventurous than our stomachs can handle) so be prepared. I especially recommend this for Southeast Asia and India.

 

    • Pack wet-wipes and antibacterial hand sanitizer. Asia can sometimes be a bit grimy. And bathrooms don’t always involve a toilet.

 

    • Be open-minded. Asia is pretty much the opposite of North American in just about every way. (I use Korea’s emergency phone number as an example. You can’t call 9-1-1 here. You call 1-1-9. I’m not kidding.) From religion to politics to dress to demeanor, people are different all over the world. Respect them, and they’ll respect you.

 

    • Be flexible. This is good for any travel situation–but especially in Asia. Sometimes roads are closed or washed out and not repaired yet. Sometimes your vehicle breaks down. But it’ll all work out. It always does.

 

  • Take lots of photos. This is because you’ll love looking at them for years and years to come. And, we want you to share them with your friends to inspire them to explore the wonders of the East, too! Share the love of cycling, Asia, and a life of adventure. 
There is no better time than now to book your first (or next) tour in Asia!

 

Search 75+ bike tours in Asia >

Or, to get you started, here are a few suggestions for you.

 

For the most adventurous: Land of the Maharajas (India)
For the mountain bike enthusiast: Nepal Mountain Biking 
For the family with children: Family Cycling: Cambodia
For the beach lover: Island Hopping in the Philippines 
For the mountains lover: Ladakh: The Little Tibet
For the solo traveler wanting to join a group: Thailand Heritage by Bicycle
For the leisure cyclist: Mekong Delta (Vietnam)
For the off-the-beaten-path cyclist: Heart of Korea: Seoul to Andong

 

If you have any questions about Asia or any of these tours, e-mail lindsay@biketoursdirect.com.
And what about you? Have you traveled or cycled in Asia before? Any tips and pointers to share with your fellow blog readers? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Dreams of India

 

Lindsay, BTD’s Asia Tour Specialist, just returned from two weeks of cycling and touring India through a partner tour operator, India on Bicycle. Questions about India or other Asia cycling destinations? E-mail her at lindsay@biketoursdirect.com. 

See the video here:

I awoke to birds chirping. Accenting their songs was the blare of traffic outside the residence walls. We were in an oasis. Maybe a mirage. A place so strange and surreal that as I wrote these words, I looked around to make sure it was still there.

We were in Karauli—a small, non-touristy fiefdom in Rajasthan. Camels trotted slowly yet stoically outside my hotel’s walls, men leading them patiently to somewhere else. Children played on rooftops. Cows meandered down the streets.

To say we cycled here also seems surreal. But we did. We started yesterday in Bharatpur and cycled some 60 kilometers, from one royal family’s residence to another.

The roads were wild, a place where sacred cows have the right of way. They often stop in the middle of the crumbling road to take a nap. There are fewer flies here.  It’s their world. We’re just passing through from one life to another.

Women in brilliant hues (oh, the colors!) walked gracefully along the road’s edge. Always smiling and laughing together with saris hiding everything but beautiful deep eyes and large easy grins. They carry silver vessels on their heads. The shinier the vessel, the higher the family’s status in the village.

There was no danger in terms of the occasional large bus or truck. You could hear them coming. Incessant honking is a rule of the road in India. And in rural parts such as these, it’s rare for a truck, jeep, car, or tractor not have a speaker facing outward, blaring Rajasthani folk music, creating a soundtrack to our cycling.

Motorcycles passed on both sides, and swerve to the right and back to the left to follow unbroken ground. Women sit side-saddled on the back, their orange saris trailing behind them like a shooting comet.

It’s chaotic. Hypnotizing, even. And it’s hard to explain, but it works. It’s elastic, like a rubber band, waving in and out and never crashing in the middle. There is order to the madness.

While every sight we saw was strange, we, by far, were the strangest. On a roadside break, our sag wagon set up a table with drinks and snacks. In less than five minutes, more than twenty Indians had stopped or pulled over on the road to just stand next to us, a chorus of an audience not wanting the show to end.

We quickly learned if we wanted a private bathroom break while cycling, we had to hop off our bikes and run into the nearest field to squat before our audience arrived. Because they will arrive.

Cycling through India is indescribable. As the one of our guides said, “Indians don’t hide anything. You’ll see everything.” This is true. Lives were being lived in the open. On sidewalks. On roadsides. In fields. In front of their homes. Every second that passed on our cycles was another colorful snapshot of an Indian life being lived.

Children waved, yelling “Tata!!” or “Namaste!” Some practiced their English with a friendly “Hello!!!”, “Hi!”, “Beautiful!”, and even a “Thank you!”

Smiles abounded from the least suspecting faces. One woman stood by the roadside with a basket of stock on her head for the cattle. Her red sari covered her face completely. But as we cycled by, she lifted the red to reveal a smile that stretched from ear to ear.

Before we knew it, we had travelled 60 km (37 miles) in four hours, not bad, for Indian time (IST stands for Indian Stretchable Time, our guide liked to say).  We had arrived at our next hotel.  

It was yellow and a bit faded, easy to see the decadence it once exuded. Owned by Karauli’s local royal family, it’s a sprawling estate of 50 acres with 50 expansive rooms. It was the family’s castle away from the castle (city palace), which the family had left eerily empty three generations ago. The palace still stands in the center of town, and the family gladly took us on a tour of its beautiful, haunted halls.

The newer residence, now turned into a heritage hotel, made for a very interesting place to stay. Beautiful grounds, wonderful food, and comfortable rooms oozing with history and portraits of the once ruling men make for a delightful foray into the world of Rajasthan’s maharajahs.

I’m very glad to experience this side of India’s history. The descendants of Karauli’s  royal family, who still live on the grounds, are fiercely protective and proud of their heritage and history and actively engage with their guests to share their stories.

But I couldn’t wait to get back on my bicycle and get back into the India on the streets—the real live pulsing heart of this subcontinent. Real life was out there. It was walking to the nearest well, shiny silver vessel on head. It was pulling the majestic camel, full of hay. It was sitting in a yellow sari outside a house, laughing open-mouthed, head back, with neighbors. And it was at the nearby goddess temple, hands together in thankfulness, for all of life’s blessings.

It was this India I saw on my bicycle, and this India that I’ll dream about when I dream about coming back.

 

Learn more about India on Bicycle and their tours here. See all of our India tours here

The Highland Rides: Scottish MTB guide Euan Wilson rides the Southeast U.S.

 

Euan Wilson, owner of our operator partner H&I Adventures, recently came to visit our staff in Chattanooga and take a grand tour of some of the best trail systems in the Southeastern U.S. Euan, our tour specialist Richie, and our marketing coordinator Candice all took to the forests and trails and the highways in between for 10 rides in 9 days, inviting along the locals to show off their home trails. Here’s Euan’s recap of that crazy road trip and some insight into how some of these trail systems compare to riding he’s done elsewhere around the globe. Be sure to check out the video of his reviews at the end, too!


 

It’s late September as I set off from my home town of Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland, the Autumn winds are starting to build, the leaves are being blown from the trees and scattering the streets with their multicolored offering.

I am on my way from the turmoil of changing seasons in Scotland, to the south east of the United States of America.  Tennessee, Alabama, North and South Carolina and Georgia to be exact.  To be honest it’s an area that I have never been to, or know that much about, other than that world famous bourbon that is produced in this area, but I don’t need to explain this to you — I’ll just say JD!

It is late when I arrive at Atlanta airport, it has been a long day since leaving Inverness some 24 hours earlier, but I am here and my luggage has arrived with me, cue the sigh of relief… 

Euan checking out what the Southeast has to offer.

I meet Richie from BikeToursDirect.com at the airport, it’s always good to see a familiar at an airport in an unfamiliar land.  Richie has been busy planning my tour for the past few months and promises me that I am going to cover lots of the highlights of the South East, but sadly in ten days we will not cover them all.  The plan for the trip is to ride ten SORBA rides with local riders that can show me around their local trails and I can talk to them about traveling around the world with their bikes, sounds like hard work..

We set off in the car in darkness, so I am unable to get my bearings or appreciate the land in which I am surrounded by, oh well I will just need to wait until the morning.

On arrival to our hotel we set about building my bike in preparation for our early morning start and first ride at Bull Mountain.  After what was a very welcome sleep, we pack our ride bags and head for Dahlonega where we meet the first group of locals who are going to show me around their trails.  The sun is shining and the air is very humid, my thoughts turn to ‘if I can handle this humidity’, I have ridden in Ecuador a few times and in the cloud forests of Ecuador it can get humid, but this is a different level!

Once our motley crew are assembled and we are sure that we have collected any stragglers we set off into the forest.  Upon climbing the first trails Richie comments that we will interview you later and one of the questions will be ‘What other trails around the world are these trails similar too?’, my mind starts searching for a similar trail of technical ability, trail surface and flora and fauna.  All of a sudden my mind finds it, Mexico, the Sierra Norte mountains in the State of Oaxaca.

The rest of the trip was based around the same blue print, drive to a new location, sleep, ride, eat, chat and move on.  A great way to see a big area in a short time, but sad that I couldn’t stay around getting to know my new friends and riding buddies in each location.

Euan making the decent on Raccoon Mountain's "Livewire" trail.

So to give you a flavor of each day,  

Sunday – First ride at DuPont, we had a big group turnout and we didn’t waste time before hitting some truly awesome fast and super flowing trails.  I left these trails with a few fond memories and some life long friends, a day to remember!

If you like this ride see also: Cairngorms Adventure

Monday – A completely different ride to DuPont, and only 30 mins along the road.  This is a technical ride and not for everyone, but similar in some ways to what we ride at home.   Anyone from the south east that hears that name Pisgah, knows that the trails are technical.

If you like this ride see also: Torridon and Skye Mountain Bike Tour

Tuesday – We set off early so that we can fit in a morning blast around the slick rock of DuPont before heading to Blankets creek, in Woodstock. The Slick rock was great fun and made for a completely different trail from anything that we had ridden so far on this tour, a must if you are in the area.  Upon arriving in Woodstock we met with a great group of riders that had convened to show us all the trails at Blankets creek before the sun went down, a tall order, but we managed it! A great mix of hand cut, machine cut and natural singletrack that made great use of the limited space available in this area, big smiles all around.

If you like this ride see also: The Yukon: Canada’s Wild North.

Wednesday – It was great to visit Mullberry Gap mountain bike retreat and the Pinhoti trails, these are unique and loved by people all over the south east, on the climb there was a stunning view point and the trails did not disappoint. Our time was limited here, so only scratched the surface, but I enjoyed the flowing and technical level of these trails, without frightening myself…

If you like this ride see also: Mountain Biking Ecuador and Oaxaca by Mountain Bike

Thursday – We spent the day around Birmingham and visited the local bike shop Cahaba, they told us how to get to the night ride location of Oak Mountain.  It has been a long time since I last rode my bike at night, and an even longer time since I rode a new trail at night.  One dab on a technical trail is not bad given all of the odds that were stacked against me..

If you like this ride see also: Nepal Mountain Biking

Friday – After arriving in Chattanooga (BikeToursDirect’s hometown) for the first time, we landed at a local bike shop before setting about riding the newly opened Stringers ridge with one of the major driving forces behind the trails, Jim. These are a great resource for the local area, good amount of climbing with great reward of what can only be described as ‘Flow trail’.  And upon arriving back at the bike shop they had pizza and beer waiting on us. Well if you insist! 

If you like this ride see also: The Yukon: Canada’s Wild North.

Saturday – Raccoon Mountain, with a group of around 30 people on the ride, some of the group were on their second and third ride with me this week, and had travelled up to 4 hours to be part of this great ride!  Right from the car park this trail delivered fun, challenge and big smiles.  Would this trail make trail of the week? Watch this space….

If you like this ride see also: Whistler Valley Mountain Bike Adventure and  The Yukon: Canada’s Wild North.

Sunday – 5-Points trail system, we are all riding a little gingerly today due to a great party the night before, but truly unique trails.  These trails are built around an abandoned quarry and you get to ride along the tops of old piles of waste rock from the excavation, this makes for physically demanding trails, but great fun!  What a fantastic trail to finish my riding in the south east.

If you like this ride see also: Cairngorms Adventure and Whistler Valley Mountain Bike Adventure

Monday – Sadly no riding today, just packing the bike and lunch before embarking on my trip home to Scotland and into a full on winter with snow on the hills.

This trip in the south east of USA has opened my eyes to the high quality of riding that exists down here. We all hear about the riding in the north west, but not the south east.  I think the main difference in these trails are the views, and most definitely not the quality of riding and trails that are on offer.

I truly had a fantastic time and rode such a wide variety of trails that my head is still buzzing from my trip.  I would also like to thank everyone who worked on this trip (Richie and Candice), came out to ride and showed me some fantastic southern hospitality. 

Oh, and you may be interested in what trail I liked the most during my time in the south east?! Raccoon Mountain was awesome! It has everything required to make a great day in the mountains, technical sections, flowing trails, challenging climbs followed be a long descent = Bliss! 

I hope you can all join me at some point to ride out bikes in another wonderful location around the world. 

Until next time, adios!

 


 

Namaste, India

 

Lindsay, BTD’s Asia Tour Specialist, just returned from two weeks of cycling and touring India through a partner tour operator, India on Bicycle. Here is the first in her series of blogs, photos and videos about the trip. Questions about India or other Asia cycling destinations? E-mail her at lindsay@biketoursdirect.com. 

See the video here:

 



I immediately wanted to send him back for a more authentic version. He was wearing Levi’s and black sunglasses. A far stretch from the white turbanned, long flowing bearded Sikh driver-guide I had last time I was in Delhi.

His name was Sanjeeb and by the end of the day I knew more about him than I could have ever imagined. I knew his family was Hindu. I knew his mother was a strict vegetarian who was tolerant enough to allow her husband and children to eat animals (of course with the exception of the revered cow) but could not bring herself to actually cook the contraband. (Sanjeeb’s father did this.)

Our guide was quick-witted and eloquent, and had a thoughtful answer to every question we asked. First impressions are never as they seem. And India is certainly no exception.

“What’s required to get a driver’s license in India?” my friend Caroline asked, as we watched a cyclist and tuk-tuk driver collide quickly and laugh before moving on when realizing neither party was hurt.

“A strong instinct of self preservation and a lot of courage,” he said, laughing and wagging his chin.

Sanjeeb stopped in mid-stride along the raucous of Chowak Chandi, the main thoroughfare through Old Delhi. We were a short sidestep away from the incessant horns and blur of green and yellow tuk-tuks and too-lean ragged men pulling ox carts of someone else’s dreams.

“All of India can be explained on this street,” he said, his hand coming out of the pocket of his Levi’s to gesture around. “A Hindu temple right there. Next to it, a Jain Temple. Just down there, a mosque. And there, that’s a Sikh temple. One of the few religious places where you will not be asked for money. They are true servants.”

“If you look there, guess what that is: a baptist church! And look there what’s next to it, a temple of another kind.” We immediately saw America’s ubiquitous, yellow golden arches and laughed.

Maybe this is why India is so special. The hundreds year old red sandstone of the Red Fort and the translucent white pearl of the Taj Mahal are special. Of course. And the white flowing lungis, prayer calls and shadowy minarets at the beautiful Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi sends my soul flying with its birds heavenward toward Allah.

But it is India’s vast diversity that makes her beautiful. A song from a siren that casts a spell on anyone who glances and gets locked in her eyes. For they are bulbs of great happiness and sadness, victory and loss, growth and destruction, wealth and poverty, but most importantly, tolerance and acceptance.

They feel no different toward a strange woman (or two, in our case) riding through the most rural villages on bicycle. They called after us, welcomed us into their homes–”just a run-down old shack,” one villager told us as she giggled and pointed to her simple dwelling. She sent us off with fresh millet for our hotel to make into chapatis, so we could taste the local staple eaten for every meal. They cheered us on. They shouted and jumped from the fields to greet us. They welcomed us time and again.

We have a lot to learn from India. And my voyage on bicycle through her country roads on this tour taught me a lot. It will probably take me years to process the raw beauty and illuminating kindness that was bestowed on me. A place that gets into your system and doesn’t let go. From women balancing large vessels on their heads to the men leading towering camels to the next village, they are a people of great diversity and kindness.

Everywhere we heard shouts of “Namaste!” as we cycled along. I know from my yoga practice that the gesture of Namaste is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another. Literally, it means “I bow to you.”

It allows two individuals to come together to a place of connection and understanding, free from the bonds of ego and background. As one yoga guru says, if it is done with deep feeling in the heart and with the mind surrendered, a deep union of spirits can blossom.

Cycling through India will do just that. If you open your heart to her, she will come in. And your spirits will surely soar together.

Learn more about India on Bicycle and their tours here. See all of our India tours here

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