The ride in the collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was just shy of two hours. As you might expect, the views were fantastic. We were driving across a high plateau of rolling hills, tucked in among the snowcapped peaks of the Andes. It is agricultural land, so there were endless fields of wheat, potatoes, quinoa, and other crops.
The high farmlands
A dusty existence
The road to Ollantaytambo
Peeking down on one of the towns along the way
The van ride had Mila miserable with motion sickness; I know she was greatly relieved when we rolled into the main square of Ollantaytambo and piled out of the van.
Unloading in the main square
The main square in Ollantaytambo
Jette in the main square
A good portion of the town is made of of stone buildings connected by a network of narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. The town and many of the buildings in it date back to Inca times. Over the years, much of it has been reconstructed and reconfigured, but there are many elements that are original. Here’s how wikipedia describes the layout of the town:
The main settlement at Ollantaytambo has an orthogonal layout with four longitudinal streets crossed by seven parallel streets. At the center of this grid, the Incas built a large plaza that may have been up to four blocks large; it was open to the east and surrounded by halls and other town blocks on its other three sides. All blocks on the southern half of the town were built to the same design; each comprised two kancha, walled compounds with four one-room buildings around a central courtyard. Buildings in the northern half are more varied in design; however, most are in such a bad condition that their original plan is hard to establish.
Ollantaytambo dates from the late 15th century and has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America. Its layout and buildings have been altered to different degrees by later constructions, for instance, on the southern edge of the town an Inca esplanade with the original entrance to the town was rebuilt as a Plaza de Armas surrounded by colonial and republican buildings. The plaza at the center of the town also disappeared as several buildings were built over it in colonial times.
Typical buildings and street in Ollantaytambo
The street leading to our guesthouse
From the main square, we started the short walk uphill along the cobblestone streets with our luggage. Mila was moving slowly, a bit wobbly from the residual motion sickness, which a nice local man happened to notice. He offered to carry one of our bags for us, declining to accept payment, but we insisted and he finally accepted a nice tip.
Casa de Wow
View from the kitchen window
The guesthouse was on the edge of the old Inca settlement and faced the Inca terraces and structures carved into the adjacent mountainside. The views were fantastic.
The view from in front of our guesthouse
Mila decided to stay at the hostel to recuperate, while Jette and I went out to find some food.
A nice lunch of soup
One of the really cool things in Ollantaytambo is the elaborate and robust water system that runs through both the town and the ruins on the mountainside above. Even after hundreds of years it is still functional.
You can see much more about the history of Ollantaytambo here. One cool thing that we didn’t know about at the time, and therefore didn’t notice while we were there, is the giant face carved into the mountainside above town:
Mila tried to take it easy by resting and going to bed early. Thankfully, she woke up early the next morning feeling like herself. We were all up early as this was the day we were headed to Machu Picchu.
Boarding the morning train to Aguas Calientes
Most visitors to Machu Picchu take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes there are busses that shuttle people up and down the mountain. The train trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a very short 24 miles. The shuttle busses up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu take about a 35 minutes on slow, winding roads. The transportation is monopolized and very expensive. The short train ride, the shuttle bus, and admission to Machu Picchu cost more than $600 USD for the three of us! Visiting Machu Picchu was by far the most expensive one-day sight we’ve seen in our months of travels.
Many people go to Aguas Calientes the day before they visit Machu Picchu so that they can be at Machu Picchu for sunrise. We opted not to do this for two reasons. First, we figured most people would do this and that morning would be the most crowded time to be there. Second, the mornings had been foggy and we assumed our day at Machu Picchu would be no exception. No point in being there for sunrise if you can’t see anything! Our plan was to leave Ollantaytambo early in the morning, spend the day at Machu Picchu and return to Ollantaytambo that same evening. That’s what we did and it worked out very well.
Morning fog and clouds as we arrive in Aguas Calientes
Statue of Pachacutec in Aguas Calientes
We walked from the train station to the shuttle bus stop
Aguas Calientes is a tourist dive. It is just a bunch of simple hotels, restaurants and shops catering to the 2,500 tourists that visit Machu Picchu each day. We’re really glad we just passed quickly through and didn’t spend the night. From the train station we walked to the shuttle bus stop and got in line. Before long, one of the shuttle busses took us up the mountain and into the clouds.
Foggy, rainy entrance to Machu Picchu
Everything was shrouded in foggy clouds and a misty rain was falling. We entered Machu Picchu and made our way up the foggy paths to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is thought to have been the main entrance to Machu Picchu in Inca times and would have served as a gate and checkpoint. It is a good bit above the main Machu Picchu complex and though some guides suggest that the hike up and back takes 3-4 hours, we did it comfortably in about two.
A foggy path
Cloudy with a chance of llamaballs
Up the Sun Gate trail
Exploring some nooks and crannies along the trail
Pretty flowers at the trail’s edge
At a bend in the trail
At the Sun Gate
Sun Gate – note the classic Inca building techniques of small stones stacked with mortar.
Sun Gate handstand
Clouds obscure Machu Picchu
When we got to the Sun Gate, clouds still obscured everything below and the Machu Picchu complex was not visible. The clouds were moving quickly though, and after only a few minutes there was a brief moment when the clouds broke and we had a good view of the main Machu Picchu complex. The wide angle camera on my phone didn’t capture much. To the eye, we could see the main complex peeking out of the clouds below.
The clouds part long enough for a quick photo
We relaxed at the top for a bit, then headed back down the trail to the main complex. It was a pretty quick hike down the trail, and as we descended, the clouds really began to clear.
Terraces along the trail
As we got down close to the main complex, the fog and clouds had cleared and visibility was good.
Approaching the main complex – again note the classic Inca construction technique of walls built with small stones and filled with mortar.
While there were a only a handful of people who had hiked up to the Sun Gate, the main complex area was full of tourists. As we got closer, we got the classic view of Machu Picchu that gives a sense of how, amazingly, it is perched on a mountain top. To me,this placement is the thing that makes it so incredible.
Carved out of a mountain top
A llama lover at Machu Picchu
Tourists snapping photos with Machu Picchu in the background
Another view as we get closer
A nice man took three photos of us, all of them with his finger over the lens. Maybe we need a selfie-stick!
Making our way down into the main complex
Machu Picchu inspired Jette to do the splits
Must be the thin mountain air
Integrating a massive stone outcropping. Note the mortar filled walls.
Mila and Jette with terraces in the background
Standing in front of the amazing terraces
Jette and me at Machu Picchu
The whole area is full of rock and boulders – lots of building material
As we explored Machu Picchu, one of the most striking things was the different building techniques used. The most common technique used small stones stacked into walls using mortar. Often these walls appear to have been built hollow, and filled with mortar too. A second technique used large stones, roughly cut, and stacked dry, without mortar. Smaller stones were used to fill in gaps, as in the photo above. The most impressive technique used large or very large stones, precisely shaped, and stacked with great precision, using no mortar, as in the photo below.
Look at the size of these stones and the precision of assembly.
Huge, precisely shaped stones, perfectly joined without mortar.
Even the edges are beveled.
Only a few of the structures in Machu Picchu use this technique and show this level of precision. Most of the structures are built with small, roughly shaped stones and mortar:
Typical structures at Machu Picchu, using small stones set with mortar.
The difference in building techniques is striking and incongruent. It seems difficult to imagine that all of these structures were built by the same people, at the same time. As we mentioned in a previous post, one alternative theory is that the large, precise structures were built by an unknown culture long before the Inca arrived on the scene, and that, years later, the Inca discovered these and built around them. I don’t know enough to accept or reject this hypothesis, but I can see how common sense might lead to this conclusion. The construction techniques and craftsmanship are strikingly different, and suggest the use of very different technologies.
Consider the fact that the Inca had only Bronze-Age technology. They had no wheeled vehicles, and had only stone, wood, copper and bronze tools, all of which are softer than the stone used in construction. How in the world could they have quarried these huge stones, moved them to the building sites, cut them so precisely, and lifted them into place? There seems to be much speculation, disagreement, and debate about this.
Above and below. Were these built by the same people at the same time?
Another example of contrasting building techniques.
Here’s a video that gives you a view of the central buildings built with the large, precisely cut and placed stones, as well as the more common buildings built with the small stones and mortar.
National Geographic has a great photo gallery showing Machu Picchu as it looked when Bingham found it and after excavation: Pictures: Machu Picchu, Before and After Excavation. For example:
In 1997 after excavation
Some of the most amazing structures at Machu Picchu are almost invisible. Apparently, the Inca engineered excellent foundations and drainage systems, which are hidden below the ground. NOVA has an interview with an engineer who investigated this.
As in Ollantaytambo, they also had a well engineered system of fresh water delivery that still functions today!
Jette the animal lover had lots of fun with the llamas and alpacas at the site. Most of them were pretty tame and if you held up a tuft of grass, they would eat from your hand. Towards the end of the day we took a break on the porch of one of the reconstructed structures while Jette joined the llama herd.
Llamas (and alpacas?) grazing on the terraces
Hanging out with new friends
After 7 or 8 hours of exploring Machu Picchu, we took the shuttle bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We were hungry, and we had some time to kill before the train back to Ollantaytambo, so we had dinner at one of the many tourist dives in town.
Back in Aguas Calientes
OMG! I love roodles! They’re totally my favorite!
Some interesting choices
I was really tempted by “Guinea Pig the furnace” but in the end settled for some chips and guacamole.
We often try to avoid really touristy places and given the costs and hassles associated with Machu Picchu, we seriously considered skipping it. In the end we were glad that we went. The setting in the mountains is truly spectacular. The ruins are too, but if they were plopped down in the middle of a big, flat field somewhere they would be much less so. As they are, it is a magical place.
06/05/2106 EDIT – Just found these photos and wanted to share them:
Fun with the llamas
Inca style handstand at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu hug
We’re sitting at a little cafe in Chumphon (actually now we’re in Bangkok, but when I started writing this we were in Chumphon) watching the pouring rain outside (and inside too when the wind blows!). It is monsoon season, which means that we’ve had the occasional cooling downpour in the middle of beautiful, sunny days. It has been a great couple of weeks in Southern Thailand. Let me tell you about it…
We left Bangkok on the night train to Chumphon in Southern Thailand.
Another night train
Getting ready to leave the station
Jette enjoying a peanut butter sandwich
When we bought the train tickets the air conditioned second class cars were full, so we ended up in non-AC second class. Same fold-down sleeper seats, but no AC, so the windows were open for most of the trip. It wasn’t too bad, but the open windows made it kind of loud, especially when we passed other trains, and there was a constant stream of little bugs blowing in. In fact when it was time to go to bed we had to brush all the little gnats, beetles, and flies off our beds. Once we were tucked in, we had little bugs hitting us in the face all night long, especially for Mila and me in the lower bunks. I didn’t sleep much, but I got a lot of reading done!
Sticky rice breakfast while we wait for the bus to the ferry
We arrived at Chumphon well before sunrise. We piled off the train with all the other tourists. The ferry company that services the popular islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, et. al. has an office at the train station, so we checked in there and then waited an hour or so for the big bus that would shuttle us all to the ferry pier. our fellow travellers were mostly 20-something backpackers who looked like there were ready for one of the “full-moon” parties Southern Thailand is sadly notorious for. We had chosen Koh Tao precisely because it was known more as a snorkeling and diving destination and less as a wild party scene.
While we were waiting for the bus, it started raining, but we were sheltered under the roof of the train station platform. It rained for half-an-hour or so, then conveniently slowed to a light sprinkle as the double-decker bus pulled up. We piled on the bus and headed to the ferry pier.
Jette at the ferry pier
Mila and Jette checking out the ocean
With the rain came some ocean swells. Nothing big, but just enough to make the ferry trip a puke fest. The ferry was a large catamaran. Compared to single-hulled ships, twin-hulled catamarans are often more stable and have less of a rocking and side-to-side motion in the waves. It didn’t help on this trip. Within 5 minutes of boarding the boat the crew was busy handing out small plastic bags and wads of toilet paper to increasingly sea-sick passengers. It was a puke fest. Mila and Jette both got very, very sea sick and vomited multiple times. I was very nauseated but managed to keep my breakfast down. It was an absolutely miserable two hours that seemed like it would never end. When we finally arrived at Koh Tao it was such a relief! We be landlubbers!
We made it! At the Koh Tao pier.
A “taxi” from our hotel was waiting for us. Like much of SE Asia (and the rest of the world), a “taxi” is a Toyota Hi-Lux 4×4 pickup truck with seats in the back. We were lucky and got to sit in the cab of the truck, while others piled in the back. Off we went to Mango Bay, on the North side of the island. In terms of distance, it was only 6 or 7 km, but the “road” was one of the worst and most hilariously challenging I have ever seen. As we went through town it was a typical paved road, but as we got closer to Mango Bay it was more of a washed out trail.
The route from the pier to Mango Bay in the North of Koh Tao Island.
Road to Mango Bay
The road/trail went up and down through the mountains and was much steeper than you might imagine. Think of the steepest streets in San Francisco and then make them even steeper! Along some of these very steep sections a concrete surface had been laid, about the width of a wide sidewalk. This gave the 4×4 enough traction to make it up the steep grade. In many places there were deep fissures and gullies, carved by rainwater rushing down, and large rocks (or small boulders, depending on your perspective). Some of the gullies were as big as 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, so the driver was constantly weaving slowly to avoid getting stuck. When it is wet, the road is impassable, so people and goods must come and go by boat.
When we arrived at Mango Bay we found ourselves at the top of the mountain looking down at a hillside of giant boulders and tropical vegetation. There was a very long staircase winding down between the boulders, with small bungalows perched between and on top of the giant boulders going all the way down to the sea.
The stairs down
Jette on her way down the mountain to our bungalow.
A bungalow, Jette and the sea
On the walkway at Mango Bay
View of Mango Bay from the water.
We made it down the winding stairs, checked in at the office, and found our bungalow. It was perfectly positioned atop the boulders with unobstructed views of the sea. Beautiful.
View from our bungalow.
Mila in our bungalow.
The walkway down to the restaurant and the water.
View from the restaurant.
Another view of the bay. For scale, note the size of the people on top of the boat.
The bay at Mango Bay is a popular destination for local scuba and snorkeling, so every day there are tour boats that come in for a few hours. The Mango Bay Resort is quite secluded as it is the only active hotel in the area. Other than the occasional scuba boat tour, we have the whole bay and beach to ourselves. It is a really fantastic setup! The hotel also provides free snorkeling gear, so anytime we want we can just jump in. There are large coral formations throughout the bay and thousands of tropical fish. The small beach at the center right of the photo above is easy to swim to, and there is lots to see on the way!
The seclusion gave us lots of time to just relax, read, and do our work. Jette was very busy with her math and we have started experimenting with a new curriculum based on the “great books” or classical tradition (think trivium). I’m pretty excited about it, and will go into more detail in a future post. Of course, when we were tired of working and wanted to play there was great snorkeling just outside our door and a beach to swim to. Town, a bigger beach, shops and restaurants were just a boat ride or 4×4 truck trip away.
More about life in Koh Tao in our next post…
Wow. How time flies… Let’s see if I can fill you in on our time here in Chiang Mai (red pin on the map below).
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but it feels small. There are few high-rises and it lacks the urban edge of cities like Bangkok. On the edge of the mountains of Northern Thailand, it is a very, very popular tourist destination and there are lots of western ex-pats living here. Hundreds of years ago, Chaing Mai was the capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na and it is still at the heart of Norther Thai culture.
As you’ll recall, we took the night train from Bangkok. We booked “air-conditioned 2nd Class” tickets which gave us sleeping berths. There is a first-class option, a 2nd class non-AC option with sleeping berths, as well as regular non-berth seats. We wanted sleeping berths and figured the AC car would be quieter and more comfortable, which I think it probably was.
Excited to be on another night train.
The train was basic but serviceable. The toilets in the car were not the cleanest and were VERY basic by western standards. This is not Switzerland, that’s for sure. Then again, it is not India either, and we don’t really mind. We can deal. They say a picture is worth a thousand words…
Squatty potty with a view of the track through the hole. It’s not a smooth ride, so the grab bar could be very useful. Careful with that spray hose when you wash your bottom.
Toilets aside, it was a fun and fairly comfortable ride. We started with seats and after about an hour or so, the attendant came through our car, converted the seats to beds and put on nice clean linens. There were curtains to close-off each berth.
Getting ready for bed on the top bunk
It was quite a bumpy ride for a train. That, combined with the fact that I was about 6 inches longer than the bunk made it difficult for me to sleep. I was awake when the sun began to rise a few hours before we arrived in Chiang Mai. Here’s what it looked like from my berth:
We rolled into Chaing Mai mid-morning, a couple of hours late. Mila had booked a guesthouse online and when we got of the train there was a guy holding a sign with the guesthouse name on it. He was there to pick us up. A free ride is always a nice thing.
We followed him out to the parking lot and climbed into the back of his songtaew. A songtaew is a pick-up tuck with seats in the back and a roof.
Our ride from the train station
Fasten your seat belts. Oh wait, there aren’t any!
There aren’t many proper taxis in town but there are lots of songtaews and they are one of the most common ways to get around town, and even beyond. The songtaews that operate like taxis are painted red. To catch a ride, you just wave one down and tell him where you want to go. Typical fare is about 20 baht per person (at least that’s the current gringo price, locals probably pay less) for most quick trips around town. In this case, we just got a free ride to the guesthouse, which was in the northern part of the old city, a neighborhood popular with backpackers.
Our first guesthouse
Jette enjoying the pool.
The guesthouse was OK, not great. It had a swimming pool, which was nice, and it was in a good location close to the typical tourist haunts of the old city. It wasn’t the cleanest place, the bathroom in particular (are you sensing a theme here?!), and they only cleaned the rooms once every three days. The bathroom lacked light and ventilation and was a haven for mildew. We spent a couple of nights there out of sheer laziness, then switched hotels.
Chiang Mai, particularly the old city, is FULL of guesthouses and hotels, so there were quite literally thousands of options. Sometimes it seems like every building in town is a guesthouse, backpacker cafe, thai massage shop, motorbike rental place, tour agency, cooking school, or all of the above. That’s pretty close to the truth in the old city and more touristy parts of town.
It would be quite easy to get “tourist overload” in Chaing Mai but somehow the town manages to retain a certain quaintness and charm. Lucky for us it is not yet high season, so while much of the town is touristy, there are not swarms of tourists…yet. The city is also quite spread out and suburban, and since we’ve stuck mostly to the touristy central neighborhoods our view of it has been limited. I think you’d need wheels – a car or motorbike or bicycle – to really explore and get to know the city beyond the typical tourist spots. We’ve been walking and taking songtaews, so our view has been somewhat limited.
There are lots of westerners living in Chiang Mai, and lots of tourists too. The culture here reflects that. For example in the old city, you can see in the graffiti an appropriation of American youth culture, mixed with a local aesthetic.
Graffiti in the old city of Chiang Mai
The neighborhood called the “old city” dates back to the 1200’s and was once a walled city with moats. The moats still exist, as do parts of the walls. The old city is easy to identify on the map. It’s the square in the middle!
Map of Chiang Mai
Much of Chaing Mai follows the pattern typical of Thai towns – streets lined with concrete shophouses a few stories tall. While there are some tall buildings, Chaing Mai is very much a low-rise city. In the old city, there are lots of cute little streets and alleys barely wide enough for one car and full of little shops, restaurants and hotels. In fact almost every home or building has some offering. It is a city full of little family run businesses. I really like this aspect of Chiang Mai and Thailand. People here don’t get jobs, they start businesses. I imagine American cities used to be a bit like this.
Chiang Mai street
Chiang Mai street
Touristy street in the old city
Street scene in the touristy old city
Typical house/shop/cafe in the old city
Sidewalk washing machines and filtered water dispenser
Of course there are lots of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.
Where there are temples there are dogs to pet!
This is Thailand, so of course the food is awesome. We’ve been enjoying the cafes, but especially the street food. There is street food everywhere, and lots of markets where food carts and vendors set up in large groups, especially in the early morning and at night. That’s where you’ll find us!
Curries at the street market
Night market by the South gate of the old city
Passion fruit smoothie
Coconut pudding 10 Baht
Waiting for the pudding
Sweet crispy creamy yummy
Some cafes have furry friends
One of our favorite restaurants is Kanjana – a little place in the old city.
It is a tourist joint, but really, really good. They tone down the “hot” by default, but will kick it back up to normal Thai levels on request (I like Thai hot), and everything is expertly prepared. Everything we’ve had there has been really good.
Thai tea and fresh juice
Stir fried pumpkin with basil and chicken
Tofu and vegetables
These must be silly straws!
OK, enough about food. Typing this is making me hungry!
Our second hotel was on the South edge of the old city, just outside the moat. It is big 8 story building and caters to long-term stays. You can book by the month and year, but they also have some rooms available for nightly rental like a typical hotel. There are so many Westerners living in Chaing Mai, that these sorts of long-stay hotels and serviced apartments are quite common.
There are lots of old western men staying there. Some appear to permanent or semi-permanent residents stretching their retirement dollars, others just in town for a while, perhaps for medical treatment. The owner of the building is a doctor and it seems that many of the residents are likely tapping into his services or referral network for medical care. Of course there are other tourists like us too. It is quite a comfortable spot. The room is big and spotlessly clean, and there is a pool on the roof. The restaurant downstairs serves scrambled eggs on a croissant, which Jette likes and is a nice respite from Thai food overload. It is not really cheap like the backpacker dorms or really budget guesthouses, but it is not too expensive and we find it to be a very good value. A nice, air-conditioned room goes for less than $25USD. That’s easily double what a fan room in a backpacker joint might costs, but it’s worth it to us. The location is great as we are just a block away from a great market with tons of yummy food options, as well as three 7-11’s. Yep, 7-11’s are everywhere in Thailand!
We’ve been having fun exploring Chiang Mai and we spent the first few days doing just that. Although it is a bit cooler here in Northern Thailand, it is still quite hot and the sun is intense so it can be a sweaty enterprise! We’ve been enjoying the cheap and abundant Thai massages. An hour long foot massage is often less than $5 USD. Mila and Jette have stopped for foot massages a few times, and I’ve been on a quest to find the best traditional Thai massage. With my broken back, a good Thai massage can be quite a relief. A bad one could probably be dangerous. Here in Chiang Mai, we’ve been to two places that are very good. Nanthikan Massage gets my vote for the best. The owner, Nantihkan, gave me one of the best Thai massage I’ve ever had. Back in the early 1990’s I took a ten day massage class at the Wat Po medical school in Bangkok and Nantihkan’s massages are as good as the teachers there. The other place that is quite good is Om Healing Hands.
Getting ready for a foot massage
Massages, delicious Thai food, beautiful temples, and lots of dogs to pet. We’ve been living the good life. But there is more!
We went to an elephant sanctuary and learned about elephants and their plight in Thailand.
Time for an elephant bath
We took a fantastic Thai cooking class.
Making Pad Thai
We went off the tourist path to a nearby national park and stayed at a floating hut on a lake.
Cartwheels at Mae Ngat Somboon Chon
But those are stories for our next blog posts…
Today we took a train and rode 6.26 km.
We awoke to rain and wind. We enjoyed a nice buffet breakfast at our over-priced hotel, packed our bags, left them with the front desk, and headed to the Cologne Cathedral for some sightseeing.
Ready to see some sights
At the cathedral there was a service in progress and Mila and I didn’t take many pictures. It is an amazing work of architecture, but some of its impact was dampened by the fact that our experience at the Strasbourg Cathedral was still so fresh in our minds. Also, because there was a service taking place, we could really only “peek” into the interior.
Jette and Waco pretending to be kites in the wind at the Koln Cathedral
In getting to the cathedral, Jette’s purple poncho was almost instantly soaked through. The cool temperature, wind, and rain made it very clear that long days in the saddle were not feasible for us when it was rainy. So, we stood in a sheltered doorway of the cathedral and discussed our next steps. Last night we talked about taking the train to Dusseldorf or Duisburg, but it was quickly dawning on us that we were really running out of time. We decided to skip the industrial part of Germany and take the train to Arnhem, which was about 150 km from our final destination, the North Sea. With the daily distances we were averaging, this would give us a good chance of finishing the route by bike. Anything short of that and we risked not being able to finish by bike in the time we had left. Also, since the weather forecast for the next couple days was rain, we figured it was better to make a “rain day” a “train day” and jump on a train now rather than later.
Looking at the train station from the cathedral
So, Jette and I ran through the rain to the train station and bought tickets to Arnhem.
In the train station with the cathedral in the backbround
We tickets in hand, we rode back to the hotel, picked up our bags, packed the bikes, and rode back to the train station. It was another day of bikes on trains and doing the “train dance.”
At the Koln Station
On the first train of the day
Our bikes and another on the train
My bike and trailer with wheels removed
There were multiple trains and transfers and thankfully in each case we were able to roll the loaded bikes onto the trains instead of having to unload the bike and shuttle bags and bikes separately.
We were on local commuter trains, not regional express trains and we seemed to have hit one of them at the same time that the local high school kids were going home. They pushed onto the train before we could get the bikes on and took up all the space in the designated “bicycle car.” We had to cram ourselves and the bikes into the entry vestibule of the train car, which made it virtually impossible for other people to get in an out. We spent a couple of hours standing crammed in, holding our bikes up in the entry way. Each time the train stopped and the people in the bike area exited the “bike area” of the train others filled in before we could move our bikes. Countless people cursed us for blocking the entry/exit, but ironically, they were the same people who sat in the designated bike area! Culturally, this situation stumped us. Everyone’s lives would have been easier if those knuckleheads would have just let us “park” our bikes properly on the train! We just couldn’t understand it!!!
We made it to Arnhem and with more rain forecast, checked into a hotel near the train station. As it turned out, just like “The Expo” in Cologne there was a big event in town and many of the hotels were booked. Who knew?! Luckily the Best Western adjacent to the train station had one room available…
The Safari Room!
Hilarious, I know. We seem to be a magnet for “themed” hotel rooms. We are animal lovers. Go figure.
The event in town was the 71st Anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem. The town was full of soldiers – young, active duty ones, and old originals.
The hotel let us park our bikes in the basement with the employee bikes. Parked, unpacked and cleaned-up we found a nearby cafe for a nice dinner and called it a day.
Meem – the cute cafe
Today we rode 39.21 km from Koblenz to Koblenz and from Bonn to Bonn and we took a couple trains too! Let’s just say it was kind of a confusing travel day.
We woke up, packed our bags and bikes and headed out of Koblenz. We rode through center city and North across the Moselle.
Leaving Koblenz… the first time!
We wound our way through the northern part of the city and East to a path along the edge of the Rhine. It started sprinkling. I could feel a “bump” in my rear wheel. I was afraid that even with the spoke replacement the wheel was out of true. If the spoke tension was really off, that could be bad with the massive amount of weight I was carrying.
As we crossed into the industrial outskirts of town, a steady rain began. We were wet. We rode for a while and then took shelter under the awning of a nearby building to discuss our options.
Seeking shelter under the tiny awning of a fire station
Wet Jette with shades to keep the rain out of her eyes
Jette’s rain poncho was useless and Jette and Mila were not keen on riding all day in the cold rain. We were also running out of time on our visas, and given our current pace, we would not have time to make it to the North Sea before our visas expired. So we decided to go back to Koblenz and take the train to Bonn, and perhaps further.
I also took a look at my rear wheel. I spun the wheel and looked at the gap between the rim and the frame. I expected to see a “wobble” and a change in the gap, but I didn’t. That meant that the “bump” I was feeling was either my imagination or something else. The tire? I checked the tread and there was nothing stuck in it. Hmm…
We began to retrace our steps in the rain. As we passed through the ugliest, most industrial area we’ve seen we hit 1,000 km on the odometer. That’s not our “mileage” since Lindau, but rather our total kilometers ridden since I installed the odometer on my bike a week or so after we got them. Not bad!
High fives for 1,000 km
We crossed back over the bridge, but before we went to the train station, we stopped by the bike shop again.
I unhooked the trailer and pulled the bags off the bike and rolled it into the shop. I told the mechanic about the “bump” and that it seemed like the wheel was not true. He shook his head “yes” and together we looked at the wheel. He spun the pedals, looked at the gap between the rim and the frame and looked confused. Then he checked the spoke tension with his fingers, squeezing spokes, spinning the wheel and squeezing again.
“It’s not the wheel” he said.
That left the tire. We spun the tire and looked at it. There was the slightest wobble. He took a allen wrench and held it right next to the tire so close it almost touched and spun the pedals. The wheel turned and sure enough, once per revolution the tire just touched the wrench.
He looked really surprised and said, “It’s the tire. But these are good tires!”
“I know,” I said,”they’re Schwalbe.”
“Yes, Schwalbe” he said.
(The tires are Schwalbe Marathons, a German tire known for quality, durability and puncture resistance. The kind of tire you want on a trip like ours and the kind of tire that isn’t supposed to do this).
Back at the bike shop for a new tire
There was no damage visible on the outside of the tire but it was now obvious that there was some kind of internal damage or failure and the tire was forming a sort of bump or bubble in one spot. It would have to be replaced. I think we were both surprised.
On a Dutch style bike with an internally geared hub and full chain case removing the rear wheel to replace a tire or tube is not trivial. It’s not especially difficult, it just takes some time. Removing the wheel requires disconnecting the bellcrank of the shifter, removing the chain case, loosening the two chain tensioners and the two lug nuts of the axel, disconnecting the brake arm for the coaster brake. Reinstalling the wheel is essentially all of that in reverse and adjusting the shifter if necessary. I didn’t want to be the one to do it, so once again we left the bike at the shop for an hour or so.
While my bike was getting a new tire we went for a hot tea to dry off and warm up.
Tea time while my bike gets a new tire
Playing with that long hair
While we were having tea, another group of touring cyclists came in to warm up and escape the rain.
Some other cyclists decide to sit out the rain too
After the tea, we decided that we should grab a quick lunch before we picked up the bike and headed for the train station.
Donner kebab lunch
After lunch we picked up my bike, rode to the train station, and caught the train to Bonn.
Forget the rain, let’s train!
Waiting for the train
On the train to Bonn
It wasn’t long before we arrived in Bonn. The plan was to visit the Haribo gummy bear factory, then catch a later train on to Arnhem, The Netherlands.
Given our slow pace and the limited time before our visas expire, we decided to train through the industrial part of Germany to Arnhem and pick up the trail again from there. At least that way there was a chance of us riding to the end and dipping our toes in the North Sea.
Mila and Jette had been reading about tours of the Haribo factory in Bonn and were exited to visit. We got off the train at the Bonn Central Station and searched Google Maps for the Haribo factory. It turned out that there were no tours of the Haribo factory, but that there was a Haribo factory store. The bummer was that it was in the Southern suburbs, very close to the Bad Godesberg train station we passed before we got off at Bonn Central Station! We decided that we would ride back South about 7 km to the Haribo Factory Store then get on a train to Arnhem at theBad Godesberg station so we wouldn’t have to ride back to Bonn Central Station.
Bonn seemed like a pretty city and felt very different than other German cities we’ve visited. Some of the streets felt like Brooklyn or Washington D.C.
Somehow it looks like it used to be the capitol.
Leafy streets and townhomes in Bonn
Once we navigated through a few city streets there was a long, straight path that paralleled the train tracks all the way South to the Haribo Factory Store.
A long, straight path
A sugary oasis in a the land of carbs:
The Devil’s Workshop
Jette in gummy paradise
There were too many kinds of sugary treats to count and we spent hours, days, maybe even weeks exploring them all.
Mila and Jette with our purchases – a bag of gummies and an advent calendar with Haribo treats behind each door.
Cartwheel in GummyLand
When we were done with Haribo, we rode to the Bad Godesberg train station and bought a ticket to Koln (Cologne) from a grumpy and very unhelpful ticket agent. Tickets in hand we soon discovered that the only way to get to the platform was up and down two giant flights of stairs:
The inaccessable station
There was no way that I was going to unload the bikes and make a hundred trips up and down those stairs with heavy bikes and bags. No way. We thought that there must be another way and asked how people in wheelchairs got to the platforms. We were told that they had to take the stairs. Nice. Still no way, so we decided to ride back to the Bonn Central Station and catch the train to Koln from there.
Apparently we made it back to the Koln station about the time that rush hour started because there were so many people on the platform and the trains were so full and stopped for such short time that it was three trains and about as many hours before we could get our bikes onto one!
When we finally arrived in Koln, the sun was setting and it was raining again. We didn’t have a hotel and my phone suddenly decided to stop working. We had mapped some hotels on the train, so we rode to where we thought we saw a bunch of hotels on the map. Somehow we ended up in the “Bermuda Triangle” surrounded by hotels, but with none nearby and no clue which way to go.
Surrounded but none nearby
After some time I got my phone working again and we found our way to one of the closer hotels. They were full and said that most of the hotels in the city were full because of “The Expo” whatever that is. We rode through the dark, cold and rain to another nearby hotel. Again, sold out. The man behind the desk suggested three more nearby hotels… In the end we found an overpriced hotel with a room available and took it. What is it with German cities and sold out hotels?! We unloaded the bikes, locked them up on the street and carried the bags up to our funky but serviceable 1970’s room. At least it offered an internet connection for one device, and at 1980’s speeds!
Our bags safely stashed in the 70’s, we walked two blocks to an empty but surprisingly good Thai restaurant for a quick dinner.
Pad See Ew
After dinner, it was finally time for bed and some well-earned rest!