One final heart-gasping push on my pedal, and I’m there. I’ve reached the top of the New Ava bridge, Sagaing, nearly two kilometres long and flanked either side by the muddy brown of the Irrawaddy River. I gulp down life-invigorating 100 Plus as I try to coax my pulsating protesting legs back to life. I take a look up, to size up the traffic situation ahead of me, and I am knocked back for a moment by the stunning sun-ball of flame in the sky, beaming down long intricate shadows across the bridge floor.
This is my regular journey from Sagaing to Mandalay by bicycle. I am not particularly fit: various minor cardiac abnormalities and a far more debilitating lack of motivation puts paid to any dreams of Olympic stardom I may have, leaving me red-faced during the most innocent hill climb. Despite my general approach to physical exercise being more mooch than marathon, I find this journey utterly addictive and look forward to my weekend jaunt- a captivating 60-90 minute sweat-drenched nerve-rattling death-defying odyssey which takes me to the heart of the reasons that I travel.
Although I have already completed a good twenty minutes of bone-jangling as I juddered my way through rural Sagaing streets seemingly more pothole than road, it is from this point that my heart really begins to soar. I glide down the other side of the bridge, ever-wary of kamikaze motorcyclists who have a penchant for abruptly turning right on an apparent whim, and take a left at the dusty roundabout. It is here that I connect with cyclists all over the globe as I feel my bike and body merge as one as we coast along together down the much smoother tarmac of this beautiful tree-lined road running parallel to the great river. My body begins to relax in the soft green light and I feel myself gently unwinding from the trials and tribulations of international career-hood in a developing country.
The heart of Myanmar is here: small grubby-faced children, naked or semi-clad in fuzzy angry birds pyjamas gape at the weird foreigner on wheels and grin widely ‘hi, hi, hi, hello, hello, hello!’ A simple wave back is rewarded with collapsed giggles and excitement. The community is transient, poverty-struck and struggling in the aftermath of the recent floods to hit the country, but its vibrancy is captivating. Chickens dart nervously into the road, pied-piper-like with their trail of fluffy ball babies behind, before jerking out of the way of a speeding motorbike and clucking back into the safety of the muddy roadside. Spirited dogs eyeball my flying machine and try to nip its tyres whilst I jingle the bell to gently dissuade them, whilst older wizened three-legged and flea-bitten mutts raise shaggy eyebrows in confusion as to why one would bother moving in this heat.
I’m suddenly brought up short. A soft brown-eyed mother cow and her shy calf have elected to graze in the centre of the road, and I am obliged to circle round them with the rest of the traffic as they low softly, with chewing-gum mouths and ears flicking away black flies. I shudder my way over the railway lines and suppress the urge to yell ‘wheeeee’ as I fly down the other side of the hill. Side-saddle girls bedecked in vivid longgyis eye me shyly, a smile breaking across their thanaka’d faces as their boyfriends speed ahead, pulling them away from me. Past the glinting lake, as young boys lazing in plastic chairs yell out ‘hello foreigner’, and lovers hold hands in the soft morning light.
I enter the outskirts of Mandalay, and begin a weaving dance round alternating stationery-moving light-truck taxis and sedately pedalling seventy-year-olds carrying vast piles of wood. Slim youths atop a truck laden with teak furniture grin widely at me and pull out sleek mobile phones to capture this bizarre foreigner who gets around on a non-motorised vehicle. I turn the corner, passing the eerie blank marble slabs of partially-chiselled temple images.
Inching across crossroads fearfully, I try to ascertain the logic of the priority system, caught between asserting my right of way and knowing that to most road-users I may as well be invisible: despite my apparent popularity to pedestrians, I am nothing to the heedless traffic, hell-bent individually on reaching their destination, temporarily distracted by shopping or mobile phones or arguments with girlfriends. At last I see the welcoming arms of my final street, judder over a pothole, swerve out of the way of a sex-mad dog lusting for the pooch across the road, and arrive. Rattled, exhilarated and exhausted, and excited for it to all happen again next weekend.