Off-Roading on Burmese Highways

We left Yangon through its industrial zone, on a smoothly paved two lane highway.  We were cycling West, to reach the Southern pass over the Arakan Mountains. Our plan was to meet up with the coast and cycle until we reached Nagpali Beach, a resort area where we intended to lie on some white sand and buy a drink with an umbrella in it.

The net distance was 380 kilometers.  We thought we’d get it done in four days.  It ended up taking us seven, the result of roads so atrocious that we both longed for the mountain bikes we’d left in California.  The coast we found, sheltered from the rest of the country by the rugged mountains, was a world apart from the more developed Irrawaddy Valley we passed to get there.  Making it over the mountains felt like stepping back in time.  The trumpeted change sweeping Burma has come only to those communities with the roads to transport it.

Our journey over the pass made it evident why.  We began this cycling trip a year ago in Paris, and have logged over 13,000 kilometers of riding since.  None have been as challenging as the 58 we rode from one side of the Arrakan mountains to the other, and things did not improve much along the coast.

We started our crossing from where we camped, on a small hill at the base of the range.  The road quality had started to deteriorate about 100km out of Yangon, alternating between roughly paved and an asphalt variety of swiss cheese. The first hills were paved, but steep.  It felt like the engineers had decided switchbacks were too expensive, and so just sent the road barreling up at 8 percent grades.  It was steep enough we couldn’t sit in our saddles, and we had to put our navels on our handlebars and fight for each push on the pedals.

As the road continued, it got more and more worn down.  Often there was almost no asphalt left, just potholes and a layer of huge rocks that had been used to lay the foundations of the road.  It was brutal on our stiff bikes, which had no shocks and weighed 50 kilos with all the baggage on them.  On the downhills, the rocks and potholes got so bad we descended at the same speed we climbed.  Anyone could have beat us at a trot.  At some points, the roads became pure sand, and more than once we dismounted to push our bikes up the grades of silt.

It wasn’t that the roads were neglected.  Anything but.  Road crews were everywhere, working every ten kilometers or so to repave a stretch of road.  Their methods were labor intensive and slow, reflective of a country where manpower is still far cheaper than machines.  Along the sides of the roads were piles of rocks of various sizes.  The youngest and fittest men on the crew broke the big rocks into slightly smaller ones with sledgehammers, and then another group of men and women broke those into even smaller ones with the same instrument.  A bed of large rocks was laid, topped off with layers of progressively smaller ones.  Tar was manufactured on the side of the road in gutted oil barrels, where old motorcycle tires were melted down over wooden fires, and the tar would be hand poured over the rock piles.  Then the steamroller would come over, the only part of the process that was mechanized, and the tar and asphalt would be applied.

The result was roads that were so unevenly paved even the new ones felt bumpy.  More importantly, they were roads that washed away in a few years of rain and abuse by trucks, leaving only the rocky foundation underneath.  By the time the crews had finished a road, they needed to start over again.

The 58 kilometers  over the Arakan mountains took us 8 hours.  The roads shredded a back tire, broke off a rack, and so abused our wheels we had to stop to true them.

In the valley, close to Yangon, we had noodles in stands by paved roads, where the cooks applauded Barack Obama’s recent visit. On the other side, we were brought breakfast by a man who did not know who the Burmese President, Thein Sein, was.

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