Saturday, June 11, 2005

Cycling the East West highway

East West highway

I decided to cycle over the mountains to Penang from Kota Bharu. This path would take me along the east west highway, route 4. Starting off from Kota Bharu I headed to my first stop, Tanah Merah (57km). So far so good, no hills as I first had to head south. There are two road running parallel to Tanah Merah, either side of a river, I never did find out which one I was on, but no matter I arrived. I saw a sign for a lodge which looked newly built on the road out of town towards Jeli but it was full, so I headed back into town. I tried another chalet place but that was also full. I stopped off for an orange juice, and to ask for any other hotels. It was a Friday and the town seemed quiet.
I was given a plate of food. It took me a while to realise the woman was speaking English when she pointed at the food and said "Yams!", also I had a coloured glass of what I assumed was my orange juice, but in fact it was water. Shortly a boy reappeared with a bag of oranges. He had obviously been sent to the shop to replinish their supplies!

After quenching my thirst, I asked for a hotel. They pointed my off to the centre off town and sure enough a hotel was found. A couple of guys were hanging around the entrace. I dithered about as I wanted to leave my bike and run upstairs to check if they had a room, and I wanted to wait till they had gone. However, one came over and advised against leaving my bike about! I didn't exactly point out that was what I was thinking.

I settled in there for the night, and opted for some junk food from KFC. I have to say though, that the chicken you get in the street side restaurants tastes a lot better!

Heading off the next morning to a place called Jeli (49km). On my way out of Tanah Merah it seemed busier than the Friday. On the way I encountered my first hills, takes a bit of getting used to after trundling up the coast, which is rather obviously at sea-level and hence flat. I got to Jeli, scrapping within mere kilometres of the Thai border, and saw a sign for a chalet and followed it, but again the chalet disappeared. Maybe I'm not very good at following signs. I coasted round town and spotted a sign saying "Rumah Rehat", Malaysian for resthouse. Set back for the road was a few rooms on stilts which I would of missed if not for the sign. A very useful piece of Malay to know!

I had planned to head off early the next morning for what I expected to be the toughest stage of the ride, 85km to Banding, involving a lot of climbing. I had found a cycling blog earlier and they had taken a break after the climb and pitched there tents. I had no such luxury and would have to push two of the cycling days together. However that night, heavy rain brought out the noisy frog chorus and insects singing all night, and a few birds chirping not to mention the two 5 foot monitor lizards under the eaves of my roof who were fighting/making baby lizards, whose whipping tails on the tin roof made a fair racket!

After waking up I decided I didn't feel like a punishing day, so I took a rest day in Jeli. I didn't do very much, hey it was a rest day! I found an internet cafe just as they were closing, and I watched some football, the asian qualifiers between South Korea and something-stan. Then read a book called Tramping on Life by Harry Kemp.

The next day I sprang out of bed before dawn (okay, staggered off to the shower with my eyes closed)
I was underway before 07:00. A record early start, but I surmised that my climbing speed is probably around 10km/hr. Well that day I learned that I push my bike uphill at around 6km/hr!

The first 14km was fairly level, no big ups or down. Heading off early gave a spectular views at dawn of the forest-clad mist covered mountains. Soon I passed a curious limestone peak sharply climbing out the ground. After that the climbing started and didn't let up till the top of the peak. At 30km I spotted a sign for chalets, I didn't know about this! I headed down for a look, you can hire a boat to take you across the lake to the chalet(60rm). I considered breaking my journey here, but it wasn't even 10:00am so I headed back up onto the main road with weary legs. A couple more kilometres further on, I saw a sign for a lodge on the right hand side, leading off down a red dirt track. I'm not sure if the guesthouse was still in business, I only had a quick noisy before pushing on to the restaurant. A small plant nursery was being tended to next to the restaurant. Unfortunately somebody had eaten all the chicken when I got there, so I had to settle for Nasi Lemak with a fried egg thrown in, along with a Milo Ais (Hot chocolate with ice, suprisingly good if a bit strange, hot at the bottom cold at the top, requires much stirring)

After lunch I pushed on and came to the peak of the mountain with thick forest stretches endlessly in the distance but another restaurant await. A few tourists in cars, come out and have a nosy about, check out the view. I grabbed a cool can of coke and some chewy sweets. Mmmm sugar! The viewpoint at 1100m (3400ft) is just inside the state of Kelantan. As you head down the other side you slip into Perak. And whoosh a long, long descent. Eventually things level out and then more undulating hills and troughs continue all the way to Banding, although more downhills than uphills. Banding is situated around 400m (1200ft) above sea-level and I was going to stop here, but the rooms are quite pricy (85rm for the cheapest). So if a fit of madness, I decided to push on to Gerik (Grik). As I left Banding I crossed another bridge, I had forget that it is actually an island and thought I had somehow looped round and was crossing the original bridge backwards. With traffic I couldn't turn round until I got to the other side, and then back across to see if the jeti was on the right hand side. Nope, no jeti a different bridge. I was going the right way after all, sigh. Oh well third time lucky, eh?

After that it was back to the climbing, groan. I was wondering about the wiseness of my rather rash decision to head on by this point. But I just pushed on further, I should get there eventually, even if I had to push my bike, which on the steep hills I did. With signs for elepants crossing on the road, I passed by some elephant dung, and later on I thought I saw a trunk between the trees, maybe my overactive imagination, but there was something trampling about for I could hear it. I came across another restaurant about 20km outside Grik and got some more liquid and an ice-cream, aaaaah. And yet more liquid!

I was no hurry to set out again and had a little rest there, the sun was still beating down. It had been a beautiful sunny day, I wanted a cloudy day!

A policeman saw me ask somebody for the time, and came over to enquire what I wanted. I had a chat and asked him what the road into Grik was like, he said it was level. It was better than that, it was downhill for much of the 20km, thankfully. At around 17:30 I rolled into town, I had popped into a few dwellings of civilization before Grik but no places to stay. I spotted a digital thermometer besides the traffic lights, 40C (104F) it read, eek! I wondered what the temperature at 15:00 had been, when I been climbing??

The next day I continued on to perhaps Baling or Pengkalan Hulu, where the road signs pointed, but it wasn't on my map. I had planned an early start but upon waking I kept on thinking, maybe one more hour in bed. I got underway at 11:00. Yesterdays monster ride had deaden my legs though. Not so much sore, as just nothing in them, feeling empty. The first 20km went okay and I stopped off for some lunch. They only had Mee Rebus, so that's what I had, surrounded by lots of flies as well. The next 10km was up and down, and then the worst bit, a steep seemingly never ending hill winding its way continually upwards. I got off and pushed. Then got tired and jumped back on cycling in the lowest gear. And then off again for more pushing, periodically flopping on the grass besides the road. Phew, real tough going. Even the downhills seemed hard! But as they say what goes up must come down, and when I finally reached the top, it was helter-skelter to the bottom! I maxed out an impressive 61km/hr.
Slowly the kilometres passed by and into Pengkalan Hulu I trundled, bereft of energy. Got a hotel at the second time of asking, 20rm vs 65rm. Time for some resting, at dusk a lizard pauses on my hotel window.

So, I had a rest day in Pengakalan Hulu, I heard that you burn up carbohydrates while cycling so to ensure a full supply I had to drink a big bottle of Tiger beer! I had some fish and chips at a Chinese restaurant, not a bad attempt, but not quite the same as from the chippy. So onto the next day, I had planned an early start again, but a bit slow to get underway. I headed off and I was flying downhill for the first 15km to Baling. After that it was undulating up and down, not too many long uphills, but it was getting hot. I stopped off at a cafe, and had some chicken curry for breakfast. A large bit of tasty chicken breast, with lots of rice and another chicken leg with different spices. I was hungry! Mistaken for an American today, I've been variously mistaken as Dutch, English, Arab and Muslim (maybe I should have a shave) and probably a few others I've forgotten. After my breakfast it was hard to get going again, but slowly the kilometres ticked down and into Sungai Petani I rolled. A fairly large town, you can tell it's a bit bigger than other places because it has a mall. Actually most places on this route have been bigger than I imagined, it seems that ATM's have spread everywhere.

The next day is was finally onto Penang. A fairly straightforward route, nothing much to report except for passing a guy with a fridge on the back of his motorbike. When I got to Butterworth I hunted around for the bridge over to Penang, but could only find a bridge with workmen and JCB's not the right route. I ended up getting on to the ferry, and another cyclist told me that you aren't allowed across the bridge on a bike anyway. The other cyclist was living in Penang will being with the military, he led me to the main street with accommodation and saved me some hassle. So I'm now in Penang, I must say that I enjoyed the cycling across the country, but some of it was really hard work. Going to spend a few days (at least) off the bike, and give my tired legs a well-deserved rest.

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