Ride: Yenangyaung to Bagan (Nyaung-U)
Terrain: A steep climb out of Yenangyaung, followed by a long, very gradual one makes up the first 30km. After that, a 10km descent lets you get your breath back before another long, steady climb which can be quite hard work at times. It's very hot and dry here and you'll need to ride through the middle of the day to get this done. But oh, the final flying descent into town is worth it. For the last 30km, you drop 400m and that alone will melt away any residual soreness in your legs. What a triumphant ending.
Eat: We basically didn't stop until we absolutely needed to, so the town of Kyaukpadaung was our rest stop for grub, and it's decently endowed with restaurants and cafes. Whilst there are small villages dotted along the route, none of them are sufficiently big enough to offer more than the odd teahouse. Lei Thar Gone was very generous to provide us with sandwiches before we kicked off in the morning.
Sleep: There are essentially three "towns" that make up Bagan - Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung-U. For value of any kind (this is becoming harder and harder to find here as it opens up to tourists), stay in Nyaung-U. We found decent accommodation at Pyinsa Rupa Guest House but there are many others, so shop around until you find something to your liking.
We were never supposed to make it to Bagan today.
Because the last few rides had either been excruciatingly long and/or hilly without any reprieve, and because we also had a bit of time to play with, we had decided to give ourselves two easy days to split the 112km between Yenangyaung and Bagan. We liked the idea of an easy, triumphant trundle into Bagan to wrap it all up, and getting there on the 8th would give us plenty of time to explore this sacred place and reflect on all we'd been through before leaving the country on the 12th.
But nothing on this trip has ever gone to plan, so why start now?
Turns out that between these two cities, there's bugger all in the way of accommodation. We had clocked Kyaukpadaung, 60km away from Yenangyaung, or Chauk, another town nearer to the Ayarwaddy River, as a decent midpoint stops. But the proprietors at Lei Thar Gone told us that there was nowhere in either place for us to stay. They suggested staying overnight at Popa and then riding to Bagan from there, so that's what we decided to do. 73km with a bit of a climb at the end for this first bit.
This would have been no bother if the weather and terrain had cooperated with us. But no.
A couple of hours in, we stopped for our mid-morning break, already feeling the strain after there turned out to be more climbing than we'd bargained for. We sat down to look at what the rest of the day had in store for us.
"So that 'bit of a climb' to Popa is actually a bitch."
"I'm really not in the mood for a slog."
"Well here's our choices. We trundle through the day and save ourselves for a last big effort up to Popa."
"Or we sack that off and just ride on all the way to Bagan."
"How much further is that?"
"50km-ish. It's after 11 now and that would leave us with nearly 90 still to do. We'd be pushing it to get there before dark."
"Better get cracking, then."
Suddenly, our slow and steady day had turned into a rage against the dying of the light. We were in a hurry in a country where this is never a good idea. It felt weird to be rushing instead of savouring every remaining minute, but there'd be time enough for savouring when we got to Bagan.
Looking back, it was one of the more scenic days of the whole adventure, but we were in head-down mode for a lot of it. Some very pleasant stretches of tree-lined road took the sting out of the incessant climbing, and from the heights, you could see forever across the rolling countryside, from the ever-present river on one side to mountains on the other.
By the time we sweated our way along shadeless roads in punishing heat to Kyaukpadaung for lunch, it was after 2 PM and we still had another 50km left to do. But we tried to put that thought aside as we tucked into our lunch at a roadside Chinese restaurant. We were starving.
One of the sad things we noticed whilst sitting there was the orphaned children walking about begging for food and money. There was one wee girl (couldn't have been more than 6 years old) who stood next to our bike with her baby brother and wouldn't leave. Both were crying. It broke our hearts to ride away without giving them something, but as we learned in Yangon and again a year ago in Cambodia, making them dependent on the likes of us for money isn't going to solve their problems. They need proper support, and until the fledgling government gets its act together to provide it, they need an opportunity like what Lei Thar Gone offers.
Once lunch was over, we had about two and a half hours of good daylight left. We knew we had to get a move on, and in this blazing heat it wasn't going to be a leisurely ride. From dawn until dusk, this segment tested our resolve and our sanity. It made us sweat and swear like never before. And then it would demand even more from us after that.
"Darling, I think we've peaked."
Neil checked our Strava coordinates and saw that we had finally crested the gradual climb that had sapped our strength from the first minute we left Yenangyaung. From then on, it was the descent of a lifetime. We covered the next 20 kilometers in 45 minutes, laughing our heads off as we went, pushing our now-so-familiar bike harder and harder. It was as if we were finally being rewarded for our patience and endurance over these last two weeks. The arid climate and eternal hills couldn't touch us now. We were soaring above it all, exhilarated.
In the end, we beat the sunset easily. Even managed to stop and enjoy the beauty of the twilight once or twice.
Although it was a close-run thing at times, we'd made it.
Bagan, not bust.