It was the morning of the 30th December, and we were well on our way out of China and towards Vietnam. Our aim was to cover the remaining 150km in two days to reach Vietnam for the New Year. Optimistic, we rose early from our roadside camp and made a quick breakfast before packing. This particular camp was over the roadside barricade and a short walk across a patch of loose rocks. After breakfast we had to carry everything over the rocks and then lift it over the barricade before we were to carry on our journey to Vietnam. Everything was going smoothly and the final piece of the jigsaw was to carry Finola's bike over the rocks and barricade, put all our bags on and simply cycle as far as we could that day. It was whilst carrying Finola's bike over the rocks that my foot slipped and gave way underneath me. I came crashing down with the bike on top of me and immediately cried out in pain. Something was wrong with my right foot and Fin came rushing over to see what the problem was. I tried to stand but couldn't put any weight on it and then tried to cycle but that was causing even more pain! My right foot had immediately swelled up around the ankle and we feared the worst. What if it is broken? Can we continue? We only have a few days left on our Chinese Visa. Can we get to Vietnam?
The problem with getting injured on the highway is that there is no where to go. The nearest exit was 5km away, so I tried to hobble down the hard shoulder using the barricade for support but after just 100m this was proving too much hard work, so we decided to hitch-hike for help and hopefully find a truck or somebody who could take both bikes and us to the nearest town of Mengzi. Luckily for us, just as we stuck our thumbs out (with me protesting this will never work!) a car pulled over into the slipway ahead of us. Fin rushed down to speak to the drivers and then all I saw was the helpful duo of Rico and Rennie running towards me as I continued to hobble along the barricade. These two were our shining lights, and they helped me along and into their car, before Rico took the responsibility of cycling my heavy bike behind us to meet up at the hospital.
Rico and Rennie were both Chinese from the nearby city, but were headed to Mengzi to help Rico's mum re-decorate her new home. They also both spoke excellent English which was lifesaving as they were able to translate for the doctors and for us as we arrived at the hospital. The hospital itself was tiny compared to the large multi-scale ones we are used to back home. A single X-ray unit, a few treatment rooms, a pharmacy and about six beds on the first floor made up the hospital. The first thing the doctor did upon arrival was to X-Ray my foot, and after two X-rays and the most nervous wait of the whole trip, the doctor gave me the news. Soft tissue damage he said. Rest he said. No breaks or fractures. I was instantly relived, the news meant I would have to stay at the hospital for 3 days of rest, before continuing, but continue we could. I do not know what would have happened had we found it was broken but this has reminded us that we need to be careful, and take care of what we are doing since we do not want to seriously hurt ourselves on this trip.
The Hospital was staffed with the doctor owner and his wife the head of the hospital. below them is a single junior doctor and a team of about six-eight nurses. Once I had been shown to my bed (Finola was allowed to also stay there in the bed next to me for the three days) it was photo time, with everything gathering around me taking photos and with Rico and Rennie translating it made for a really fun medical experience. JiauQuin the junior doctor was the king of the selfie and made it his mission to take as many photos as he could of the crazy English couple in their hospital. The hospitality we received from everyone in the hospital was one of the pinnacle's of the whole trip. On our arrival Rico and Rennie ensured we were all stocked up with coffee and breads from the bakery, before leaving us to rest for the remainder of the day. At around six everyone came to our beds for more photos, followed by news we would now be going to the local restaurant for dinner. So we all went together, the doctor, his wife, JiauQuin, Rico, Rennie, Rico's mum, Rico's Dad and anyone else who wanted to join us. We had a great time getting to know everyone, telling stories about our trip and taking photos with everyone. We found the town was famous for two things, rice noodles and an old station once occupied for the French and were promised that we were to go and sample these two local delights the following day.
The following day we were taken for rice noodles for breakfast which were delicious, with a large potion of noodles and lots of local spices. Following breakfast we were then driven up to the old french train station to look at the old architecture with me hobbling along on my one crutch. It was fun to see a different side of the town, and it was really nice change from the high rise buildings of Chinese progress. Our hosts were so friendly and were very proud to show us off to all their friends, and that evening arranged us our dinner that night in the hospital. We sat around with the nurses, the owners and Rennie joined us again for a hot pot and some sticky rice. It was a really great day and we were so lucky to find this hospital and be treated like royalty rather than patients. I was still feeling weak on my right foot so got some much needed rest that night, we then realized that it was New Year Eve that night and rather than spend it partying in Vietnam we had to laugh as we found ourselves seeing in 2016 in a Chinese hospital.
Our final day in the hospital was a day of rest, making sure my foot was properly healed before tomorrow's cycling. JiauQuan came to see us after lunch and told us there would be a meal that night in the hospital. At 7pm we went downstairs to meet JiauQuin and saw he was preparing a hotpot so we sat around the table joining him as we ate tofu and vegetables. We thought this was the meal he was referring to so ate our fill, only to be surprised by Rennie and Rico and the owners of the hospital with BBQ food and pizza!!! If only we hadn't eaten so much hot pot previously!! Rennie gave us both a present of some shampoo in a bottle like a hospital drip and it was such a nice touch from our new friends and reminds us we don't know what would have happened if we hadn't met them. We awoke the following day with my foot healed, the Chinese medicine and the prefect hospitality had worked and following a final breakfast of Mengzi rice noodles we were again on our way to Vietnam.
If anyone does injure themselves near Mengzi I can recommend the team at Mengzi hospital for their help and kindness. I could not have imagined having a better time in hospital than we did and it has become a real high point of our two months in China.
Tim and Fin
We arrived into Chengdu and things immediately started to change for us. The first big difference was the weather and the vegetation. Spring had sprung and spring in the tropics is a marvelous place to be. The flat plains of the desert gave way to steeped rice fields and people were growing vegetables on every available piece of land. The sun was shining as we arrived into this new side of China and it was almost like the start of a new Chinese adventure. The hardships of the desert were over since the the weather was more stable with tropical winter temperatures standing around ten degrees during both day and night, beer was costing three yuan per bottle (about 30p) and we had a choice of small country roads leading south from Chengdu. We stayed in Chengdu for four days as we organized our documents for our visa extension and more importantly went to visit the Panda Sanctuary!! This was the best value for money excursion of the entire trip. Costing just six pounds entry per person you get to explore the sanctuary for the entire day and we must have seen over 100 different pandas, from babies to fully grown adults. Highly recommend.
As we approached Chengdu, everyone told me to look forward to the food, and the hugely popular Sichuan hot pot. In my opinion I can tell you avoid this at all costs, bubbling chicken stock with a whole chicken in along with lots of tofu and uncooked green vegetables, was not the delicious Chinese delicacy I was looking forward to. The main spice in this reason is called Sichuan pepper and, in my humble opinion is the devil incarnate-it bubbles and pops in your mouth like an unpleasant visitor and should be avoided at all costs. The saving grace of the hot pot however is that it is called the chatting dish and whilst it may not taste amazing, it is a real social dish. Our hostel organized a hot pot night and it was really fun chatting to both the Chinese staff and Western guests about travel experiences and their experiences in China and what to look forward to. Now for some pictures of pandas.
To organize our visa extension we decided to do this in the PSB office in Leshan rather than Chengdu since they can organize this for you in just twenty four hours whereas the office in Chengdu takes seven days. This meant riding out of Chengdu for 100km and spending the night in Leshan. The ride to Leshan is pretty uneventful since the urban sprawl fro Chengdu pretty much fills the entire ride, but the weather was much warmer than what we where used to, and for the first time since Kazakhstan I didn't need to wear all my clothes to bed! The following day we collected our extended visas, giving us another thirty days in China. Our aim was now to cycle south from Leshan to Kunming via the G213 National Road and arrive in Kunming for Christmas, giving us 14 days to make the journey. Easy we thought, although what we were not prepared for was the condition of the G213, which is no national road and really only used by locals to move between villages. There is a large section of this road, about 300km which is more like a steep gravel track, but although this makes for harder cycling you are rewarded for your effort with beautiful views from the top of the climbs, Idyllic mountainside villages and lots and lots of waterfalls. It is great cycling and we loved it. The first section runs from Leshan to Zhongcheng, and then to Pu'er. The towns are pretty uneventful however, giving you lots of cheap accommodation and meal options but like a lot of Chinese cities, the main power is coming from coal and this creates a pretty smoggy outlook over even the smallest city. The beauty of this road is from the road and not the cities and the more difficult the road the more beautiful the scenery becomes.
As you continue along the G213 you reach an area that we affectionately called the cobble mountains. A series of mountain climbs which the are literally lined with cobbles. Cobbles are perhaps the most physically demanding of terrain rattling your bones and everything else imaginable ,you propel your 45kg of touring bicycle climbing to a height of 2700m. We were only able to manage about 40km per day as the terrain was so tough and this runs south from from Yongfeng to Jiachexiang, putting our ambition to reach Kunming by Christmas in jeopardy. Luckily once you reach Jiachexiang, there is access to the paved motorway via a side road and I recommend that anyone following in our footsteps follow this route. The road then becomes a beautiful sweeping descent for over 20km offering some beautiful cycling and a real relief from all the cobbles!
As we continued along the highway, you then are able to rejoin the G213 at the town of Jinsuo. Giving you the best of options since leaving the motorway and heading back alongside the the country road to Kunming. Whilst cycling again we came upon a small village with a small rock band playing music loud, a lead singer and two guitars and even a drum machine! Everyone was wearing white headbands and we did not know if this was a wedding or a live show.We enjoyed the music and as we approached we were asked to come and join the village for their celebrations. We were soon approached by a lady called Jenny who was a very good English speaker who told us this was a funeral for her Nan, and everyone was wearing a headband in mourning and the music was a celebration for her life. It was a real honour to be invited to join the funeral and we joined in with the family for food and music. Jenny explained to us that it was Chinese custom to celebrate the death of a loved one, and they will give offerings for the deceased to carry onto the afterlife. These offerings make the form of lots of crete paper gifts in the form of elephants, lions and houses complete with model kitchens and cars which are then burnt with the funeral pyre. Jenny was the perfect host and explained to us how the local traditions are kept, even in this modern world and we were so fortunate to be guests of the family.
Only three days later we arrived into Kunming on the 23rd of December. We had made it for Christmas and we very happy to arrive and aimed to celebrate Christmas in a Buddhist country! Kunming was our favourite city within China-it is a tropical warm city with lots of vegetation and lakes dotted around a small province. We checked into a hostel called the hump which offers cheap rooms and was organizing a Christmas party on Christmas eve, including Christmas dinner!! Unfortunatly spicy shredded turkey cooked on a BBQ was not quite the meal we were hoping alongside grilled tofu and hot sauce! The downside of the Christmas meal was me getting sick on Christmas day, i'm not sure if it was the BBQ or if it was the road catching up with me. Christmas day was spent opening presents on Christmas morning with Finola before walking to the nearest supermarket to buy ingredients for our Christmas picnic. Brie, bread, wine and chocolate although not a minced pie in sight! We walked to Turtle Lake in the middle of city and the sickness and then started to take root. After the first bottle of wine and numerous runs to the toilet I had to retreat to the hostel where I appropriately had the hump! The remainder of my Christmas day was spent bed bound! Happy Christmas to me!
My sickness heralded the end of Christmas and we left Kunming on the 27th December with the intention of cycling to Vietnam for New Years Eve. The border was just 400km away and we aimed to reach it in just five days covering 80km per day. After saying our goodbyes to everybody we met in the hostel operation reach Vietnam for New Years was on! This unfortunately was met by the sticky end when I fell carrying Finola's bike over a rocky ravine the morning of the 29th following our nights camp. I thought my ankle was broken and we were met by the kindest Chinese hospitality of our two month adventure in China. What happened next will be written about in China Part Three.
Tim & Fin
Adventures on the G30
After seven months of cycling we arrived at the border of Kyrgyzstan and China with huge smiles across both of our faces. We had cycled to China! Over 11000km across sixteen countries carrying everything we owned on just two bicycles we had reached the beginning of Asia major and boy did it feel good. Although these feelings did not last too long as we remembered China is the largest country we will cross on the whole trip and the Chinese only give you two months on your visa. We had to go, go go! The border between China and Kyrgyzstan is the largest we have ever seen, with 120km of no mans land between your exit stamp and your arrival stamp. This would not have provided any problem but since you are not allowed to cycle this distance, you are therefore forced to take a taxi. Your passport is taken until you pay the £15pp taxi cost. This is quite a racket going on and it seems that everyone is in on it. Once you arrive at the Chinese border, the stark contrast between Central Asia and China is apparent as you enter a large airport style lobby before having your bags and bikes scanned. Luckily for us the x-ray machine was broken so the guard, who not wanting to check through everything himself, just had a poke around our front bags and off we went. Riding into China.
The first thing we noticed in China was the pollution, the graying cloud hanging low over everything was like nothing either of us had seen before and especially apparent after cycling over the cool clear mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan. Chinese pollution is caused by the huge amounts of coal they burn alongside emissions from their many cars and trucks. An average 1.6million Chinese citizens per year die as a direct result of air pollution, which is the five times the population of Reading. And their consumption for coal has no sign of stopping, with Beijing hitting red alert for air pollution for the first time whilst we were there. As you cycle along the G30 you can see the first signs of change as wind turbines are everywhere, thousand upon thousand of them across the desert. It is such an impressive sight, and something China needs to continue to do to see improvement in their air pollution rates.
The first town we came across is Kashgur, the capital of the Xinjing province, home to 350,000 people and is a great place to spend two days in preparation for the G30. We stayed in the Old Town Hostel there, a nice open planned hostel right in the heart of the old town. It was in Kashgur we started to enjoy Chinese food, a marked improvement on the cuisine of Central Asia, with a bowl of yummy spicy noodle soup costing 70p, although we did struggle to work out what we were ordering.. Nowhere has communication been so hard as in China, in every other country we were able to make ourselves understood with gestures and mimes but in China we were not to be understood anywhere! The Chinese would prefer to just say no than try to help and it would become highly frustrating, especially when trying to buy fuel for the stove. I would have to ask about five times, waving the bottle around and protesting before I could purchase my one litre of petrol. The best tool to assist us was an app called WayGo, which is something you can hold over a menu and it would de-code the Chinese symbols and let you know what the dish is in English. This was a lifesaver and worked on almost every menu. Although chicken can be mean chicken breast/feet/heads!
We were now ready to depart Kashgur and by looking over the maps we found we would have to average 120km per day to reach Vietnam in the two months allowed. This would mean cycling from morning until night every day, for two months and since it was now the beginning of winter there would be very little daylight. (without lights we do not cycle at night). We decided this would be too difficult and not fun so we decided to board a train from Kashgur to Turpan. This journey is 1300km of dry barren desert and our adventure would be no less complete to take the train, especially as once we reached Turpan we would have another 1500km of dry barren desert. This desert is called the Taklamakan Desert and runs across Xinjing and Gansu province south of Mongolia with only one road across the northern section. This is the G30 road and although a motorway, bicycles are permitted due to it being the only road taking you to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The Taklamakan desert translates literally to 'he who enters will never leave' and shares a similar look to Middle Earth!
Turpan sits in a natural depression 150m below sea level, so upon leaving Turpan you must first climb out of your depression and begin to cycle on the G30. The road starts with beautiful scenery with the flaming mountains rising high either side of you and the excitement of riding though china still beats within you as we were able to take in the scale of this desert and the ride ahead of us. The difficulty of the G30 is since this is a motorway there is a large barbed wire fence running alongside the road making camping a choice of two options. Option 1, find a hole in the wire fence which you are able to crawl through with your bike and make a camp in the desert or option 2, camp underneath the road in one of the many road tunnels. We choose mainly to camp underneath the road due to the cold weather meant our tent and bikes would freeze if out in the desert unprotected. Our first night under road was quite scary since truck's and lorry's rumble over you every few minutes and you lay there hoping the tunnel is stong enough to not collapase on whilst you are sleeping! We soon however got very used to this and we slept under the road almost every night as we pressed on through the desert.
Desert cycling is a thing of beauty since the scale of the desert upon you really reminds you of your place in the world. Cycling on the G30 is in contrast to this since you are cycling toward petrol stations and food stops. The food in the Xinjing province is wonderful, they make it in small roadside huts or shipping containers and always come with either hot water or weak tea and their stirred noodles are beautiful with large truckers portions! Once you cycle into Gansu province the G30 becomes harder food wise since you are limited only to service station stops since the roadside huts do not exsist in Gansu. This means packet noodles and more packet noodles and it is only when you leave the G30 where you are able to sample delicious Chinese food again.
We were cycling hard, and the weather was getting worse, we would often cycle through snow storms and wake up every morning to frozen water bottles and stiff bike chains. Our first 5km every day was accompanied by shouts of pain as our hands and feet took a battering before they warmed up properly. Ensure you get good gloves before you go winter cycling, we didn't and had only thin cotton gloves which were absolutely no good in the cold. We rode the first 600km from Turpan before deciding to take a break in a town called Hami. Hami is a good sized town, although the only hotel which would allow us to stay was a very posh at £15 per night. It was great to have a short break from sleeping under the road and spent two days here, eating food and watching movies. Upon leaving Hami, we were braced with the largest wind storm we have ever experienced. The wind came running straight at us limiting our speed to around 5km/h, in one day we only managed to cycle 20km since we did not have the strength to carry on. On the third day, Finola was struggling with the wind and ice and after leaving the safety of our camp she slipped and was rescued by some of the road workers in their van. They could see we were struggling and offer to take us to their road station 100km away. We were overjoyed as we got out of the wind and shared stories with these young Chinese road workers. They took us to the Xinjing and Gansu border and waved us away following about 10 minutes of photos!
Once we crossed the border we rode about 500km of desert towards our next stop which was a town called Jiuayquan. Famous for being the site of the Overhanging Great Wall, the most Western point of the Wall and something we both wanted to see. I would highly recommend a short stop here, Jiuayquan is a quiet city for China, and we spent two days here in recovery. The Great Wall entrance cost £10pp and gives you access to the old fort and the wall. The scale of the Wall is something to behold and the skill and engineering to complete such a large task 500 years ago is amazing. The wall has been rebuilt in sections and has been done tastefully and lets you see what the Great Wall really looked like in its prime.
Reaching Jiuayquan had taken about 20 days and we were happy and glad to have conquered the desert. The Great Wall was the end point for us of the G30 since whilst we were quite happy to spend another 10 days sleeping under the road, we didn't have enough time so we took another train to Chengdu. I will speak about Chengdu to Vietnam in the next update. The Taklamakan Desert is a tough motorway cycling challenge, and one I am glad we battered though. Looking back there are times in which it was very hard and sometimes it is the hard times you remember best. The joy of reaching a small restaurant or the smiles in the morning when your water is not frozen. These are the best of times and the worse of times forget. It is important to challenge yourself on this trip and desert cycling is just that.
Tim and Fin
Hello, and firstly a big Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone who reads this and follows our bicycle adventure. We both feel so happy to be able to write this from Kunming, China but it also goes out with a pang of homesickness since we are both away from our families and friends at this festive time. I guess we are lucky to have each other, someone to share our time with, and it is poignant to remember there are many people out there with no-one.
We have met so many different people on this 8 month trip so far so we take this opportunity to show you some pictures just a few of the many people we have met. These people have helped us along the way, given us shelter or food or just let us have a quick shower! The Christmas spirit was in each and every one but not just for one week of the year. Sometimes us in the Western World can take other people for granted, we are certainly victims of this affliction. We have however learnt through our travels that there are so many people willing to help out two lost, dirty looking foreigners on bicycles and that the World is a really good place!
Please if you see someone who looks like they need a hand, don't walk on by, it could change your life!
We really can't believe that we have been on the road now for eight months, the time has flown by. From the day we started out I am sure some people never expected us to reach Dover let alone China! We are growing in experience and confidence every day and wanted to end this short Christmas post with a few facts from our first 8 months.
Total Mileage: 12870
Total Hours: 898
Countries Visited: 17
Favourite County: Georgia
Least Favourite Country: Uzbekistan
Cheapest Beer: Georgia (37.5p/pint)
Money Spent: £4600 (£9.5 per day each)
Having spent Christmas in Kunming we are planning to reach Vietnam for New Year's Eve. This will see us cycle over 400km in five days over pretty hilly and windy terrain but we are both looking forward to a new country after being in China for almost two months now. And its sunnier! And cheaper! Once in Vietnam I will be able to post about our adventures in China (since a large amount of the internet is blocked in China) so I look forward to that telling you the two sides of this absolutely massive country!
Tim and Fin
Worldwide touring bikes come in many different guises, from the guys touring on their father's old hybrid to bicycles costing over 2000 pounds and everything in between. When selecting the right bicycle for you it is important to consider what is correct for you. If you have a large budget and want to ride a new, fitted, almost indestructible bicycle then something at the top end of this range will be perfect for you, alternatively if you are looking for an adventure and do not have the money to purchase anything new, it is better to go for a cheaper bicycle and spend your money on your trip of a lifetime. Most people will however fit somewhere in the middle and this is where Finola and I sat, wanting something reliable but not something which did not cost too much money as we needed every penny to be saved towards life on the road. I want you to see that if you want to cycle around the world the set up costs do not need to be expensive and that money should not put you from your dreams. This is a guide for what we did...
Finola's bike was a steal, we found it on Ebay, second hand but in really good condition. The man who listed it described it simply as a woman's touring bike and failed to mention the quality of the bike. XT brakes/gears/hubs, rock shox suspension, steel rack, Thompson stem; the bicycle was perfect for her, and Finola wanted it since it was purple! The night the auction ended we did not go out, instead we were to be found hovering over our computer to ensure we won the auction. We did. Finola's bike was purchased for £120 and she has had no problems with in in the first 7.5 months we have been away. No broken spokes, nothing! There are plenty of bargains to be had on ebay and it is worth checking and rechecking since your patience is going to save you a lot of money which can be spent elsewhere.
My bike was a different matter, after seeing no suitable deal on Ebay or elsewhere I decided to build my own bike. I was volunteering at my local bike kitchen. A bike kitchen is a community interest group, staffed by volunteers which allows local people to repair their own bikes using good quality tools/stands under the help and guidance of a lead mechanic and several volunteers with different skill sets. My local bike kitchen was Reading Bicycle Kitchen (www.readingbicyclekitchen.co.uk) please pop by if your passing through Reading as it really is a great project and only charges about £4/hour to use the facilities.
As a volunteer I was able to attend closed training evenings on Tuesday nights where I learnt the skills to enable me to build my own bike and also repair anything which goes wrong on the road. Invaluable. So first off I needed a frame, after doing my research I knew I wanted a strong steel frame, around 20" in size, with all fittings and brazings for all manner of racks and bottle holders! I came across a guy selling a Dawes Sardar frame, forks and front rack for only £90 on a bicycle forum, and just one week later was taking delivery of everything I needed to start to build my own bike :)
So far I had a frame and forks suitable for touring around the world. The original Dawes Sardar bicycle comes with glowing reviews from many different sources and is tough as an old oak! Bulletproof frames are one of the main staples of a worldwide expedition bike and to get one for £90 proved to be a real bargain. This was however just frame and forks and I needed a headset to join these two parts together. A trip to my local bike shop and I purchased a new headset for £40 including fitting. This was a mid-range cane creek headset and has given me absolutely no problems so far. So now with frame and forks joined together it was time to look at drive chain, brakes, gears and wheels.
New components on a bike can cost as much as new frame, so again it was time to look at second hand options. My old bicycle was a 1992 Specialized Rockhopper, with all Shimano Deore components. It was a 7 speed set with thumb shifters and DX/LX mechs on the front and rear. It has never needed to be replaced since new and everything has worked perfectly for about twenty years. Proven reliability. This bike also cost me just £40 from ebay two years before. So I decided to just transfer these parts from my old bike to my new bike, along with a new chain and bottom bracket. £15 for both. This is the perfect way to get all the components you need without spending a large amount of money. Look at getting a host bicycle, second hand with reliable bits and then strip down the bits you need. Older steel frame mountain bikes from Marin, Specialized or Giant all used reliable 7/8 speed Deore thumbshifters alongside Deore front and rear mechs and these do not break. They will also not be expensive due to their age/condition. Parts on these older bikes are simple to use, and more importantly you will find replacement parts across the world if you needed. Newer gear is more expensive and therefore not available in the more remote regions, also I have spoken to lots of cyclists who do not find the XT (the most expensive of shimano components) any more reliable than my older set-up and is also more expensive to replace. In Bishkek, me and a friend went to buy new chains. My seven speed chain cost me £3 whereas his 10 speed chain was £15, five times more expensive and you don't really need all those extra gears! I spent one Saturday at the bike kitchen stripping all my old components and fitting these to my new bike it was very easy to do with the right tools and guidance. That evening I was able to cycle around Reading on my brand new bicycle having spent just £185!
I now have a working bike which is capable of touring the world. Time for accessories, from Ebay I purchased a new steel rear rack for £15 alongside two new Swalbe Marathon tyres for £30. I think this blog is starting to sound like a Ebay advert, but it really is a great way to purchase bicycle cheap cheaply. The next step is upgrading the wheels, as whilst the current set were great for town riding they would not last off-road or carrying heavy weights, both things I needed my wheels to do. I also wanted a reliable dynamo with the ability to charge our electronic devices as we went, meaning we could contact home wherever we were and also to keep our iPhone charged as we used that for maps & translations. This is where the biggest expense came from since I needed strong wheels, a dynamo and a ac/dc converted for charging. Whilst searching again on my favorite auction site I came across a 36 spoke hand-built front wheel (the strongest combination) with a SON Dynamo hub for £150. I quickly bought this since a new SON Dynamo can cost over £150 and new front wheel £100! The SON Dynamo is a small electromagnet which creates a charge when the wheel is spinning. This charge produces minimal effect on your speed and alongside the fact that they are known to be very reliable it makes it the best hub for your adventure if you want to power your lights/gadgets. I was very happy with this and purchased alongside a new (yes new!!) Ewerk converter. This cost me a further £100 and is required to enable you to covert the current from your dynamo from AC to DC 5v and therefore you can charge anything which works on a USB power supply which these days is almost everything. My rear wheel came from Austria. Finola and I were on a cycle trip two years previously cycling from Munich to Vienna along the River Danube and whilst cycling around the city of Linz, my rim broke on my rear wheel. Luckily I was close to Linz so therefore close to a bike shop where I managed to get new 36 spoke rear wheel for £60. This wheel is the same wheel I have used to this trip and other than a few spokes braking whilst off road it has caused me no problems and is always easy to quickly fix. This was a bit of a gamble since the wheel was not hand built and therefore not as strong as I would have ideally liked but has so far proved a successful one.
Finally I added front bags purchased from Ebay for £40 and I received my rear bags and brooks saddle as Christmas and Birthday presents the year before. This is a valuable tool to remember if you have planned some before you leave, to pick up some supply's from loving friends and family.
So far Finola and I have cycled from our doorsteps in Reading to Mainland China, which is where I am writing this blog entry from. We have covered 11,500km and have cycled for over 800 hours. We have had no mechanical problems on either bike and due to our low costs we have extra money to spend on our adventure and if we did not have, we would not be able to cycle all around the world. You do not need much money to begin with, we both worked low paid jobs in Reading and saved hard to be here and by choosing to ignore new or expensive in favour of our current bikes we can cycle for longer and more importantly we both love our bikes and would change them for anything!
The Total Cost:
Old bicycle with components-£40
Front Wheel with Dynamo-£150
We crossed the Kazakh border and entered Kyrgyzstan, a country which we were really looking forward to visiting due to its reputation for high mountains, free camping and beautiful lakes. This is in great contrast to the flat plains of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and would feature our highest climbs of the whole trip so far with passes as high up as 3600m. This is our first test at this type of altitude since our previous highest was a mere 1800m in Romania. We arrived into Bishkek with high spirits and pulled up at our accommodation. We were staying in a place called 'The AT House' which is a refuge for touring bicyclists in Bishkek. The AT House is ran by Nathan & Angie, a bicycle touring couple who open their house and garden to passing cyclists over the summer months. We camped in their garden for 10 nights whilst we waited for our Chinese visa and were joined by about ten other cyclists hailing from France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy and England. Bicycle touring definitely seems a hobby dominated by western Europeans!
After collecting our Chinese visa we packed up our things, said our goodbyes and headed for Kyrgyzstan's second city, called Osh. Osh is about 600km away from Bishkek and as we left Bishkek it began snowing, pretty flakes which turn everything to ice. A sign that this is going to be a tough road. After cycling about 60km to where the highway joins the Osh mountain road we set up camp beside an old barn and by morning everything was frozen, tent poles, water, gears, brakes even a lock of fins hair! It took everything of our fingers to pack up, but once we had it was time to climb and up we went. The first pass was 3000m and it was a slow gradual climb to begin with as we followed the river, and as the hills gave way to mountains we cycled with smiles as big as the peaks around us. Kyrgyzstan was living up its reputation.
The difficulty we had was with camping at height, since their was no way to prevent everything freezing on us. So often we would stay in small cafes situation along the road. These varied in price and comfort from the home-stay where we slept on a raised platform in the lounge/kitchen to the restaurant where they had rooms with bunk beds in the back and were able to store our bikes in the meat locker! The people of the mountains are very poor but very hospitable, willing to share everything with you, even it is their last. One such occasion we stopped at a cafe for a tea break and to warm up our fingers and toes and the owner made us all tea. We found this tea quite weak but drank together and it was only when the owner asked for the tea bag back from my cup for the second round that we found we had all shared the one teabag!
Once you reach the top of the top of the first pass, you reach a tunnel and you must hitchhike through this since cycling is not permitted. We hitch hiked on an oil tanker where Finola's bike was placed right on top and as I rode in the truck behind I was sure that her bike was to fall at any moment. The tunnel is 2km long and we arrived safely on the other side, although I somehow managed to get a puncture whilst not moving on the back of the truck! Meaning we had a very cold repair job to do before we put on all our cold clothing ready for the descent!
Descending down a mountain makes the whole struggle up worth it, and the harder the struggle the more fun the downhill. There are two main passes between Bishkek and Osh, the second one being the Ala-Bel Pass which is 3125m and the downhill from here lasts for about two days and as you descend down from the mountains, watching the snow slowly melt away from the mountain tops, small villages appear and the rivers now swelling with melted snow roar past beside you. From the Ala-Bel you are descending towards lake Toktogul, following rivers and through giant valleys. This was the fantastic and as the sun was shining and we could camp wherever the view was best, made this the best cycling of the trip so far. Once we reached Toktogul we camped next the lake, were I was able to go swimming in the morning. Finola thought the water would be too cold but it was great to wash off the sweat whilst looking back up at the mountains.
The next stop along the road is Jalal-Abad, and it was cycling toward here were we met with Kazim, a former Turkish diplomat who invited to stay with him. Kazim had a large house just 10km north of Jalal-Abad, so large that whilst his family had the main house Finola and I were invited to stay in the spare house! Kazim also was a true Krgz man due to the fact that he owned two large male horses which he used for the traditional game called uluk. We were both invited to join Kazim and watch the game. Uluk is a horse game where between 200-1000 players take part on horseback. The aim of the game is to take the ball (which is sheep carcass) from the other players and take it out of the center circle. Points are scored by a adjudication panel and there is always a prize, given out by the person hosting the game. In the game in which we watching the first prize was a new Lada car, the second prize a live sheep!!
Uluk is primarily a male sport, there were no women even watching the game let alone take part and Kazim told us that Finola is the first woman to ever watch Uluk in Jalal-Abad. She was certainly getting a large amount of male stares from the players and spectators! It was such an honor to be invited to watch and it was such a spectacle, we saw about 300 riders on horseback all battling for the ball and the game went back and forth for about two hours. Sometimes we had to make way as all the horses came running full pelt towards us!
From Jalal-Abad we rode the 100km towards Osh, skirting the Uzbekistan border the ride flattened out and we covered this 100km in a single day. We arrived into Osh where we were greeted by the great Sulaiman-Too scared mountain and checked into the Osh guest house. A hostel close to the sprawling Osh Bazaar. We took two days off the bikes to recover and spent out time walking through the markets and climbing the mountain, on foot rather than bicycle this time. It was a great two days off and marked the best cycling we have done on our trip so far. We recommend this ride for any cycle tourists, either if you are moving through Kyrgyzstan or as a single cycle holiday. The majestic mountains watching over you at all times as you climb or descend, the lakes and the gorges, the horses and the people make this the most beautiful road we have ever traveled and we look forward to finding more roads like this as we continue our progress and head into China.
Tim & Fin
First and foremost I want to point out that is this clearly my opinion and although Finola didn't fall in love with Uzbekistan she did not hate it as much as me. I should also say that it is cycling within Uzbek that causes me the most unrest, since if you were to go on a coach tour of all the individual cities you would certainly have a great time and a fantastic collection of photos. Uzbek is made up of its capital city, Tashkent and its three feature cities ; Kviva, Bukhara and Samarkand. These three highlight the role Uzbekistan played along the famous silk road, they were indeed three of the most prominent and successful cities.
You have Kviva, the flyweight of the three and my personal favorite. Kviva is a fortified city so you have large city walls which surround the city and four gates at each compass point. It is also the least touristy of the three and people actually live inside the walls and get on with their day to day exsistance rather than trying to selling imported Chinese art prints! The middleweight city is Bukhara, a small city with a large number of hotels. If staying at one of the guesthouses you can walk around Bukhara in a few hours, and the highlight is the large minaret, best viewed at sunset in the overpriced bar opposite. The heavyweight city and the main event is Samarkand, famous for its Registan, its large numbers of mosques and cemetery and probably the one city most people outside of Uzbekistan have heard of!
Each city has its own highlights and low lights and there are better writers than me to tell you what to see. The architecture is simply stunning throughout , the blue and gold mosaics rising high out of the ground tell the story of a country and a time when the caravan trade was at its most successful and people would flock to these places to share, trade and pray.. Today it is a very different story. Each mosque you are now required to pay to get into, and once you have entered you are greeted by stall after stall of Chinese tat, each with a Uzbek style. You will see t-shirts, silk scarves, Uzbek hats, post cards, art prints, and cds. Why you have to have a cover charge and then decorate each wall with a tacky gift shop is beyond me. We did not see anyone buying any of these things and everything be found much cheaper in the bizarre if you really did need that hat!
Uzbekistan law requires each traveler to register with a hotel every third night, meaning if you wanted to spend 30 days within the country you will be required to purchase a minimum of ten hotel nights, thus becoming very expensive. Some of the distances between hotels are huge, between Kviva and Bukhara there is 400km of desert, meaning you will have to average 133km per day to satisfy their registration rules. If you miss one of these precious registration slips, then hotels will not permit you to stay, especially in Tashkent where the rules are the most strict. We were turned away from three places before we found a hostel which would accept us. We had collected seven out of the necessary nine for our 27 day stay, so were a little nervous going over the border to Kazakhstan. As an experiment I removed all my slips from my passport to see what would happen....nothing, no alarms went out, no dogs came charging, the border police just stamped my passport without so much as a question. So if you wish to follow my advice, don't worry about the registration, stay in hotels only if you want to not because you are forced to, they wont check anyway!
Usually if the country has some faults it can be saved by the food, not Uzbekistan. The food is awful-the favourite Uzbek street food is the Samsa, a small pastry usually containing a mix of meat, fat and onion. Normally left on the side of the oven for a good few hours then re-heated this is something which will always make you Ill. I was so sick in Bukhara I had to spend the evening in the bathroom. Not nice! The other speciliatlites include Manti-a dumpling type dish always re-cooked and Corba a meaty soup which is the best of the bunch. We found ourselves cooking our own food a lot in Uzbekistan since we knew we would not then get ill and there were lots of vegetables to be found even within the desert areas.
I am aware this may seem like quite a rant, and I am aware that I am very lucky to be on this two year adventure and that I should not moan about it but Uzbekistan really did get me down and I think it is the distances and oppression of the country that has done this to me. I did not really feel like I was exploring in Uzbek due to their registation rules, bleak featureless desert and countless checks and it just seemed our aims were to reach each tourist destination and take the same photo as everyone else. After speaking to lots of other bicycle tourists this seems to be a common conception of Uzbekistan. I guess I lost my cycling mojo in Uzbek and after pushing for the last 6 months just became a little tired and worn down. To restore ourselves we stayed three nights in a beautiful hostel in Tashkent called Topchan and it was great just to sit down with others and take some time off the bicycles to restore our energy levels. After our three day break we cycled the 30km to Kazakhstan again on route to Kyrgyzstan and cycled the most beautiful 30km of the whole country, rolling hills and little farming villages a plenty as we approached the border post and back into Kazakhstan. Goodbye Uzbekistan..hello again Kazakhstan.
Tim and Fin
There are bad roads and then there are bad roads! Western Kazakhstan had no road, well unless you want to count the sandy desert track on which we were to spend the next 4 days a road!! After sailing/waiting for 36 hours to cross the Caspian we have arrived into Kazakhstan, and the start of Central Asia. We left the boat at around 05:30 in the morning once we had been processed by immigration, and then said our goodbyes to the two Australians and cycled into the main town of Aktau with Cliff & Richard, the two English guys we met onboard. The ride from Aktau port to the main town is only about 7km, along a very industrial road where only gas pipes and a large oil refinery spoil the sunrise. I think Finola was very tired since she managed to cycle into the back wheel of Cliff only about 2km away from the port!!
In Aktau, we had to change money, and since the banks do not open before 9am we went around the town to see if we could find a money change desk or something similar. Here we bumped in Eugenie. Eugenie was a Russian man aged about 55 who asked us if we needed anything, he was also going to change money so we all agreed to go together (plus he would show us the way.) After changing all of our money Eugenie invited us to his house for breakfast, and showers. Perfect!! Kazahstan was extending to us the same hospitality as Turkey and Azerbaijan. Eugenie was a nuclear engineer and he explained his role in the construction of new power station, After lunch he invited us to stay the night, so we enjoyed a further dinner whilst Eugenie was trying to talk us out of cycling and get the train. According to Eugenie we would all die through lack of water, heatstroke or by getting bitten by the snakes or scorpions!! Finola had a small cry in fear but soon after we all left excited and ready to tackle the isolation of the desert!
We left Aktau for the provincial town of Zhetybay, just a short 35km from Aktau. The first 10km was beautiful paved roads and was giving us false hope that the road had been repaired and Eugenie was wrong. The next 25km the road let us know it meant business as very quickly it deteriorated into rubble. This along with the fierce desert wind meant all four of us had to cycle in a straight line, each taking turns at the front as the wind battered us backwards. We must have looked quite the sight struggling along like this, but we reached Zhetybay at around 12:30 and therefore it was time for lunch and a rest. We purchased food from the small shop and ate quickly before all passing out in the shade of the nearest bus stop. 4 adults and 4 bicycles all sleeping off the wind and food, must have put anyone off getting a bus that day! We were soon joined by a man called Bijan, a short Kazakh man who wanted us to sleep in his house rather than the bus stop! Our dreams had come true. Bijan put on the chai, and immediately went about organizing beds for us all, which were immediately taken up on the first offer. We all slept soundly until we were awoken by the smell of freshly cooking soup. As we eat and got to know Bijan, he told us he used to be part of the Russian mafia and was known as a 'kingpin.' He had to leave Russia after being left for dead by other members of gang so he fled to his homeland of Kazakhstan where he know lives a peaceful life in the desert with his wife and child. Bijan shared with us his home and introduced us to each member of his family who live in different parts of the town. He was an inspiration and his hospitality was perfect when we all really needed it! When leaving Richard gave him his banjo which he was carrying, which brought tears to Bijan's eyes, we had made a good friend in the desert.
After leaving Zhetybay it was time to tackle the next 120km to the next main town of Shetpe. The sun was shining straight down upon us as we rode into the desert and the road became an isolated sandy track with only a headwind for company! I had envisioned desert cycling be an emotional journey under stars with just camels for company but really the desert road was taking its toll upon each of us. Although it does make for amazing photographs and the ability to camp anywhere was a perfect, the headwind and the poor roads meant we could not cycle more than about 50km each day and were unable to look and enjoy the scenery due to the sand blowing into our eyes, espically when the overloaded Kazah trucks sped right past. Although part small part of me was enjoying the challenge, Fin was not enjoying herself at all! The decision was taken to cycle only to Shepte where we would carry onto Uzbekistan by train whilst Richard and Cliff would carry on alone through the desert.
After we had reached this decision, we were welcomed by a sign stating this is the start of the dangerous section. (although following this was smooth roads for about 5km!) The road condition became worse as we approached Shepte, passing two stranded familys with car trouble, with which we were unable to help, it was time for us both to leave the this part of the desert and jump onto a train to Kungrad in Uzbekistan. That evening we all shared a beer that night, camping behind a petrol station just east of town. In the morning the lads cycled off their way and we went back into town to join our overnight sleeper train to our next leg of the journey.
Looking back we really enjoyed our four days in the desert. The road and the heat was not easy but the best roads are those which are hard. The struggle led us to reach new adventures on our bicycle and has prepared us for the journey ahead.
Getting the sea ferry from Baku to Aktau, Kazahstan is a really fun experience and certainly beats getting a flight over the Caspian Sea. We choose the ferry since as British cyclists we are unable to head north via Russia or South via Iran due to us being unable to get the correct visas required. (Apparently Britain and Iran are currently in talks to reopen each other's embassy so this may change in the future.)
Please note that this is all correct for he boat BARDU and we crossed on 03 September 2015.
The benefits of getting the ferry are however clear, the beautiful sunsets, the romanticism of sailing aboard a large cargo ship and the people you meet onboard. The down siýdes are that it is quite expensive, costing $110pp, there is no timetable and the port is 70km away from Baku so you will not be able to cycle and therefore hitchhike or pay $50 for a taxi. In light of all the confusion please see our short guide to purchasing a ticket and boarding the sea ferry
I hope this helps to give you an use of how to board the ferry and the headache that it can be to get everything organised. The meals on board were very good and the rooms excellent. There were no working showers but toilets and drinking water was supplied. It did get very hot due to the captain refusing to turn on the air conditioning to save money on board. The journey was a total of 36 hours and this was due to a 10 wait in Aktau for our 'slot.' We were in swimming distance from land but unable to land due to other boats having priority, so we played some more shithead and slept until we were allowed to depart. Once on land we had to scan our bags through the X-ray scanner and push our bikes past and were then stamped and have arrived in Kazahstan!! Woohoo
The next leg will see us travel through the kazah desert towards Uzbekistan with the two English lads we met on the boat. One called Cliff one called Richard!!
Tim n fin
Georgia, oh Georgia! Not since leaving Reading have we found a place we love so much. And a country that has jumped straight into our top three, and is my personal favourite country so far! (Top three countries are Georgia, Romania, Czech Republic) Georgia sits in between Turkey and Azerbaijan and acts like the naughty middle child of the region. This is due to mainly the large cultural difference between found when arriving from Turkey. Since Georgia is not a muslim country beer is back on the menu, and cheap beer, and wine and vodka and more wine! There is nothing better than knocking back a 50p beer after a long day of cycling and it is so much more rewarding than tea!! We arrived into the town of Batumi, which is a large coastal resort on the black sea, a place famous for its casinos and nightlife with modern Las Vegas style themed hotels and a beautiful coastline. Batumi is also the place where we needed to collect our Azerbaijan visa so we knew we had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves.
For those following in our footsteps and wishing to cycle into Batumi please note that camping in the park is not allowed and you will get moved on if you try this. The best place to camp is on the large shrubland nestled between the Radission Blu hotel and the Love Statue. We were joined here by Iranian/Turkish and Estonian travellers so it makes a nice place to camp, although you must pack up and leave during the day. Also Batumi makes a great place to pick up your Azerbaijan Visa, we went to the embassey in the centre of town on Wednesday afternoon and after filling in paperwork and photocoping documents in a nearby newsagent returned later that day to be told our visa should be ready Friday afternoon or Monday Morning. We were told to fill in this visa as a transit visa, since the man said it would be faster but he would then process a 30 day standerd tourist visa. I'm not sure if this is standerd but it seemed to work and we picked up our visa on Friday afternoon after paying $120pp. Expensive but it is because apparently that is the cost for an Azerbaijan person coming to England so I guess its fair! Also please note that the Azerbaijan visa is date specific meaning the date you pick it up is the day it starts, meaning you have 30 days to leave Azerbaijan but you have to cycle across Georgia first so you may want to do your visa in Tbilisi if you want to stay longer in Azerbaijan.
From Batumi we took the low road towards Kutaisi, and we found the roads full of cows, it was like India with cows weaving in and out of the traffic! It was brilliant cycling dodging cows and lorrys as we went towards the highway. From Kutaisi, we took the smaller road towards Zestaponi and small farming town and this is where we discoved Georgian wine. Georgians claim Georgia is the brithplace of wine and we were not to disagree since it was as close to wine perfection as you can get! A large amount of this wine is brewed locally in peoples homes (by large we talking 500l jugs called amphorae) meaning it is organically produced and therefore does not leave you with a hangover! Everyone is also very proud of their home made wine and this means that they are always willing to share it with us!!
From Zestaponi the road follows the Lower Causasus and the scenery and cycling is some of the best we have experieced, the road goes up and down and as the mountains get closer it looks as if they have been painted on. It is so beautiful we are constantly stopping to take pictures and take our time to enjoy this region, since we were slowly getting towards Tbilisi, which is where we would take a two day break and end our Georgian cycling adventure. Tbilisi itself is a mixed bag of reviews but we loved it, we stayed in a guesthouse just 10 minute walk to the old town, we explored the old building and drank lots of wine (cheapest we found was 75p for a litre in a terrace restaurent in the old town!) We even went to the football to watch Dinamo Tbilisi vs. Lokamotive Tbilisi where there must have been about 100 fans in attandance in a stadium built for 10,000! The football wasn't the best but it was just 50p per ticket so makes a fun evening entertainment! There is a old fortress which is best explored in the daytime since you can climb the old walls to the top for fantasitc views over the city and is free to enter. We loved Tbilisi and Georgia and is somewhere we are definatly going to return once we finish this trip since the Higher Causcaus region promises even more...and we love their wine!!
Tim and Fin
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.