Back in February we took the decision that a bike computer would be a useful addition to our set up as we were having a hard time guessing how fast we were going and thus how long it would take to get somewhere. At one point we were pacing ourselves with passing mopeds and asking the drivers what speed they were going. The computer would also allow us to record our distances covered, average speeds etc and Annie took a very diligent record of that.
Here are some of the, we think, interesting results:
(Since we only got the bike computer in February Vietnam and half of Cambodia, about 4 weeks and 1000km, are missing)
First up is our an overall chart showing the distance we cycled every day for the entire year. It varies a lot, but the average is just below 65km. We got our top day in the flat deserts of Turkmenistan when we needed to get across the country in 5 days.
Northern Iran and Armenia were pretty mountainous and we were not in a particular hurry during that leg of the trip so we were taking our time there. The spread of days is interesting and the biggest factor it shows up the terrain and road surface quality of the countries.
Next is the actual time we spent in the saddle each day. This came out surprisingly low, but we had quite a few short days and also we tend to stop and look around a lot…I think other cyclists, particularly solo cyclists, will spend longer in the saddle. But we tend to stop regularly. Lunch can also drag on a bit, sitting in our comfy chairs drinking tea and staring at the ants processing our crumbs.
Towards the end of our trip we had time to kill in Armenia and Turkey so that shows up here.
What I did think was that it is unsustainable to do 5hr + days for more than 3/4 days without one of us running our of steam and needing a long break. It is a lot of energy to burn up and a lot of food and sleep is needed to keep sustaining that level of effort for a longer period. I am sure it is possible, but we were also out to enjoy the scenery! By the end of the trip we used time on the bike to measure the ‘toughness’ of a day.
Everyone always asks how fast we go. Well here is our answer: 16km/hr.
We can tip along at 22/23km/hr on the flat and that is what the tandem is made to do – a slight downhill or flat with a tail wind and we can really get the momentum going. However going up hills at 4km/hr is not unheard of.
The other question we get asked it whether it is easier or harder on the tandem. We don’t know for sure since we haven’t done anything similar on two bikes, but we suspect the tandem is easier.
Top speed of the trip was 69km/hr. Vrooom!
Above is a graph of the distance covered in each country.
The information speaks for itself and is really a factor of how long we spent in each place and how long we could get on our visas. A rule of thumb often used is that to cycle tour 1000km will take approximately one month and that is pretty much true for us. We can do more for example in China we just couldn’t get enough of it and we covered 2600km in two months, but in Iran we spent a lot of time looking at stuff and meeting people so we did just 800km in a month.
The days cycled in each country – this speaks for itself. The only country where we cycled every day on our visa was our mad dash across Turkmenistan. We planned our trip to cycle 4 out of 7 days each week and that roughly worked out to be what we did.
Lastly the ride time in each country. Our wheels saw a lot of China, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan and that was where the big mountains, big scenery and remote cultures were – no coincidence there! We realised early on we loved climbing big mountains and now that is what we go looking for on the map. Roll on the Alps!
Iran is a huge country and there was a lot of ground to cover in just one month. The plan was to concentrate our time in the central and western parts of the country before heading to the north west tip to cross into Armenia.
Iranian customs and border checks were very straightforward – a bit of questioning but nothing out of the ordinary and we found ourselves cycling towards the centre of Saraks town by 2pm. Most of the shops were shut and the streets empty – we could only assume that everyone was taking an afternoon break during the hottest part of the day.
Money exchange, getting a SIM card and finding somewhere to stay were the three priorities.
We stop at a newsagents – the only shop on the street which is open – and Paddy enquires about money exchange. A man in his 30s who had just popped out to buy the paper ends up taking 30 minutes out of his day to guide is to a money exchange. Finding it closed, he calls his brother in law Pedram who speaks English.
Five minutes later we see Pedram running down the street towards us. We explain what we need and he insists on inviting us back to his house. We had been in Iran for less than an hour and already we had been invited back to a family home; Iran was indeed living up to its reputation of being the most friendly and hospitable country on earth!
Iranians take hospitality and looking after their guests very seriously. As tourists in Iran we are considered personal guests to all Iranian people and so they feel bound to ensure that we are assisted in every way possible.
Iranians also show a similar dedication to civility towards one another, and this results in a social etiquette of extreme politeness which is called Taarof. It is not unusual for a shop keeper or taxi driver to initially refuse payment in exchange for their services for example…
We were aware that we would be offered many invitations in Iran but that it was important to remember to refuse (sometimes a number of times) before finally accepting.
The whole system is incredibly alien and difficult to navigate but certainly makes initial conversations very interesting!
Anyway, Pedram offered his invitation a few times so we judge it to be genuine and we were very glad to accept.
We had a really lovely afternoon in his grandmother’s house with his uncles, sisters, parents and their children. Family is very important in Iran and Pedram’s family seemed incredibly close. There was a lot of laughter between them.
We were fed a huge meal and and drank lots of tea. Pedram and his parents were keen to host us that night but decided to call the police to check. The police said it wasn’t possible for us to stay with them but offered to escort us to a shelter where we could stay for free.
We said our goodbyes and we followed the police car across town on the tandem.
The shelter ended up being a community building run by the red crescent (similar to the Red Cross). We were given our own bedroom, a safe place for the bike, use of the washing machine, a hot shower and a free meal… Travellers are allowed to stay in these shelters free of charge all over Iran. Amazing!
Here we are posing for a PR photo with the bike.
The next morning we set ourselves the task of exchanging money and setting up SIM cards. In lots of other countries such as Uzbekistan and China it has been almost impossible to get a SIM card but Iran it’s no problem for foreigners to sign up to the system. BBC and other sites like Facebook are blocked and require our VPN but The Guardian, WhatsApp, Skype etc are all a freely available.
Iran, like Uzbekistan, is currently suffering from high inflation so we’re careful not to change too much.
After a hurried lunch we cycle to the bus station to enquire about a bus to Mashhad. We were incredibly lucky, as the coach was pulling away from the terminal as we arrived but we managed to quickly unpack the bike and fit it underneath before clambering on board. The process would have been quicker but the two bus attendants kept pulling me away because I had managed to get a black smudge on my nose from dismantling the handlebars… They were very insistent that I wipe it off!
We would stop in Mashhad for a couple of nights before heading across the desert to the town of Yadz. Iran here we come!
Most cyclists take a water filter system away with them and the choice of which one to get depends on the kind of cycle tourer you are. Do you want to be completely self sufficient in terms of your water consumption or are you looking for something that you will only use in an absolute emergency? How much bottled water are you willing to buy? How fussy are you drinking straight from mountain springs? How far into secluded areas are you likely to go?
We became a lot less fussy as our trip progressed and with this our ability to fight off some bugs and bacteria has probably increased too. (Although we really probably should purify every time!)
Before we left we decided to buy a LifeStraw Mission ($119.15) which works by filling a 5L dry bag with water, attaching it to a special microfilter (gets rid of all viruses and bacteria) via a long tube, hanging it off a tree and letting gravity do its work.
The idea behind this purchase was that we would be able to filter a large amount of water which we could use for drinking and cooking without having to suck or pump the water clean ourselves (as many other filters require). Simple! Once you get the system going you’re left to get on with other things; no further effort required apart from swapping the bottles every so often.
At first the filter worked really well (it improves after a few uses too) but to be honest, we rarely had to use it in South East Asia as we were always buying bottled water. There were a couple of days in Cambodia and Thailand (where we were getting through 8-9L a day) when we found ourselves off the beaten track and needed to filter from a lake or river.
We used it slightly more in China when we were more adventurous in terms of our route and were making a conscious effort to reduce our plastic consumption. But we were often so high and so remote that we simply collected and drank water straight from the mountain streams.
Most of the time the water we were collecting was either very clear or had gone through some kind of pre filter to at least get rid of debris and dirt (e.g. In village wells and water collection points) but wasn’t necessarily treated against nasty bacteria and other waterborne infections.
With this in mind we bought a handheld UV Sterilisation Pen (SteriPEN Ultra $99.99) and had it shipped to Chengdu.
We’re currently carrying both the LifeStraw and the SteriPEN…
Why did we only give the LifeStraw a 2 star review?
It’s not very robust. One morning I pulled out the filter and found that the dirty water (red) tap was completely twisted until it was torn and thus completely useless. No idea how this happened but it made us realise how fragile the filter is – not ideal for two travellers covering 80km a day…Due to its simple design, the filter still worked without the red tap but only when one of us sat there holding our finger over the hole. A week later Paddy whittled a simple bung from a stick, not ideal but it works ok and we can again leave the system filtering while we set up camp or relax.
The filter is fairly bulky (measuring over a foot in length even when packed) and isn’t necessarily built to be kept in a bulging pannier, however careful you are when packing it.
There isn’t always a suitable place to hang the bag which means one of you needs to hold the bag up on your shoulder – this gets tiring as a 1.5L of water takes around 4-5mins to filter!
It’s hard to rid the filter completely of water even if you hang it out overnight or blow air through the system while the red tap is open; This leads firstly, to water leaking into your pannier and secondly, to limescale building up on the inside of the feed tube. I don’t think this necessarily affects the filter too much but can’t be too good for it either?!
LifeStraw customer service is terrible and it seems it’s impossible to buy more pre-filters. At the bottom of the water bag is a pre-filter which stops all the larger debris before the water feeds through the micro-filter. After a number of uses you must clean and then finally replace your pre-filter. The system comes with a number of spares but it’s common to lose things when travelling, and ours disappeared somewhere near the Tibetan border. After 3 emails (which were ignored) and trawling their website as well as the internet in general we’ve concluded that it is impossible to buy more spare pre-filters…. We even contacted a number of LifeStraw UK distributors none of whom were able to help us.
In conclusion, The LifeStraw Mission would be a good product for people who are camped somewhere fairly permanently, or at least not packing, unpacking and packing again multiple times a day like we are. It would also work better for people who have more storage space such as a camper-van or car.
It really is great to be able to leave the filter working while you set up camp and have something that works without any kind of power supply but you really need to have the time and space to pack the system away properly and unfortunately this means it just isn’t right for cycle tourers. We still use ours and we make it work but we wouldn’t buy it again.
The SteriPEN on the other hand is brilliant and we use it FAR more than we have ever used the LifeStraw. Some cyclists have complained about the pen needing to be re-charged but we’ve always been in a position to be able to re-charge it when needed. It’s probably not completely waterproof no but as with all our other electrical gadgets, we protect it by keeping it a waterproof pannier.
Other cyclists online have complained about their steriPEN braking but ours has been fine.
Of course some would say that the downside of a UV filter is that you can’t be sure you’ve decontaminated the ‘rim’ of the bottle… But if you think that most of the time you’ll be able to get clear water and just need a filter to kill the nasties then consider getting a UV pen instead. They are lightweight, compact, long-lasting and very quick. Just make sure you have a permanent water bottle with a wide enough top to use it correctly.
So we were in the famous ‘Pamirs’ the collection of high mountain (3000-5000m) pasture areas which span across the majority of Tajikistan and northern parts of neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The region attracts swathes of cyclists each year many of whom, it seems, take a 2-3 week holiday to cycle from Dushanbe to Osh/Bishkek.
We would be covering the area from the opposite direction, starting in the sparsely populated Eastern area of the Pamirs.
The snow peaks, high passes and elevated pastures would have to wait though as my achilles wasn’t feeling any better even after a rest day. After managing some very slow google searching via our Tajik SIM card we were able to diagnose the problem – my saddle position being way too high (I had raised it considerably a few days earlier because my knees had been hurting) resulting in me ‘ankling’ repeatedly.
Either way the damage had been done and anyone who’s hurt their achilles knows it can be pretty painful and slow to recover… A combination of ice, gentle stretches and ibuprofen over a further two days thankfully got me back to a point where I could ride again. During this period Paddy and I would intermittedly brake into this song by Toploader.
Murghab wasn’t a bad place to be stuck for a few extra days.
In fact, we both found the desert town quite charming, particularly the shipping container bazaar.
As the main central hub for the Eastern Pamirs, Murghab has been an important base for the region since the late 1890s when it became a military stronghold for the Russian troops who set up the Panirsky Post nearby. This garrison became an important hotspot during the ‘Great Game’ (as did the GBAO region as a whole) between Russia and Great Britain in the years that followed.
The rest days also gave us a chance to plan our route. We were pretty set on cycling the Wakhan corridor and after talking with a British couple who we’d met on the road a few days before, decided we’d cycle there via the Great Pamir which takes you south down and through the protected area of Zorkul Lake. It would be a very tough road but promised to be utterly secluded.
There was one snag, we needed a permit to ride this route and we weren’t sure if we could get one on this side of the M41. Fortunately after some ringing around we manage to get a number for a guy in Murghab who apparently issued permits. Here’s his direct number – 880880655
So with the permit sorted (15s each) and our panniers bulging with 5 days worth of provisions we set off on our Pamiri adventure.
Day 1: Murghab to beginning of the Istyk river
Distance: 83km / Ride Time: 6:39
A small climb of 200m greeted us a few kilometres out of Murghab where we left the river of the same name behind. Soon we found ourselves back in the moonscape scenery which typifies the eastern Pamirs.
We had 25km of excellent asphalt road before taking the left turning off where we left the M41 behind us. This was the start of 4 days of off-roading.
After 5km of washboards the road smoothed out to a great sandy compact track. There is so little traffic here that the road doesn’t have a chance to be churned up.
It really was beautiful and we were the only people for miles.
We saw no vehicles that day except one lonely truck carrying a large harvest of teresken which is collected extensively across the higher Pamirs to be used as fuel. It’s a slow growing (fast burning) plant – a 30cm shrub may be 50-80 years old – with an extensive root system meaning once it’s taken from the soil large sections of the mountainside are left unprotected from erosion. We’ve read it’s becoming a bit of a problem.
We made good headway and reached our first pass just after lunch. The pass although incredibly steep at the end was thankfully short-lived and we only had to push tandem a few metres over the top.
Here we found ourselves in another spectacular valley walled with razor sharp rocks and home to a huge colony of marmots.
Paddy gets obsessed with trying to capture one of these funny creatures on its hind legs for his friend Alan. Anyone who has seen this popular YouTube video will understand why…
It’s much greener here than the previous valley, assumedly due to a seasonal lake which we soon reach.
The lake, now that we’re in late July is completely dry. On the one hand, it’s fun to be able to cycle across it’s cracked surface; on the other hand, we’re running low on water as we were banking that there would be at least one stream still running down to it from the surrounding mountains.
It was already 3pm and we would now need to complete another 30km at least to get to the next reliable water supply – the Istyk river.
After a tough ride of 83km we reached the river and very tired and grumpy we pitch the tent down from a secluded farm where a yurt is also set up.
Day 2: Past Jarty Gumbez to camping spot by Kokjigit Lake
Distance: 40km / Ride Time: 4:39
It’s a beautiful morning and we wake early and eat breakfast by the river.
On our way back to the road we pop our heads into the yurt and ask if we can buy some bread. A Kyrgyz family are living there and so naturally they insist that we come inside for chai.
We get fed delicious warm goats milk, tea and rich airan (yoghurt). They also give us a huge homemade nan and when we try and to offer them some money they adamantly refuse.
We follow the river upstream through another broad based valley, the road getting bumpier as we go.
By 11am we’ve reached the hunting lodge named Jarty Gumbez which sits at the bottom of the next pass.
The wind has picked up by now and it’s not in our favour. We churn out the next 5km, pass a few more yurts on our way up until we reach the top.
Suddenly the Wakhan range of mountains is revealed to us and the Great Pamir, home to Zorkul Lake opens out in front of us. We start to descend into the basin through a magnificent carpet of purple flowers.
The road is very up and down and the gets worse and worse as we progress. There are lots of moments where it doesn’t really resemble a road at all… we camp overlooking the smaller Kokjigit lake.
Day 3: Kokjigit Lake to crossing of the beginning of Pamir River
Distance: 49km / Ride Time: 4:40
The water bottles which we left on the bike that night completely froze and we have to coax each other out of our warm cocoon the next morning. The sun soon reaches us though and we pack up the stuff and continue on our way.
The snow peaked mountains to our left slowly come into view as the morning haze lifts. Our first proper views of Afghanistan!
It’s slightly strange to find yourself a stones throw away from a country which your government has so very recently invaded.
Suddenly I find myself cycling along the country which, along with Iraq, has held such a unique place in our media and dominated our foreign policy for much of my adult life.
The road is TERRIBLE and it’s really slow progress. At 11am we take half an hour to explore an abandoned Russian military camp which sits overlooking Lake Zorkul right where the Tajik/Afghan borders meet.
The post, complete with its huge radio aerial, tank garages, rusting exercise bars and old oil tanks was a cool place to explore for a while.
Probably abandoned after the Soviet breakup in the 1990s we were surprised that not more of it hadn’t been looted.
It takes us the majority of the day to cycle the length of the lake. We keep having to push/lift the tandem through large streams and parts of ‘the road’ are made up of such big stones that it’s impossible for us to cycle. Again, there is very little traffic.
Lake Zorkul is a protected wildlife area although it seems management of the park appears to be pretty lax. We do spot some animals including a very large Tolai hare and lots of species of bird including, we think, some vultures – no snow leopards or Marco Polo sheep unfortunately.
We reach the point where the Pamir river starts to flow away from the lake. We would be following this body of water which acts as the border between the two countries for the next 6 days. The bridge across the river has completely caved in so we have to pull the tandem bare foot through a series of four rivers, me pushing and keeping the bike steady while Paddy pulls and manoeuvres from the front.
We camp just after this major crossing and despite the mozzies we both managed to take a shower in the shallows and have the luxury of washing our cycling clothes.
Day 4: Following the river to Khargush
Distance: 47km / Ride Time: 4:39
Today saw us complete the Zorkul loop and join back onto the main Wakhan corridor road at Khargush.
The mozzies pestered us all day and there were some tricky sections of road including parts where we had to cycle the bike through inches of sand – the tandem’s nemesis!
Actually, we experienced every kind of off road imaginable that day and hands down to Paddy, he steered the bike beautifully through all of it.
Bob Marley and The Wailers keep us chilled throughout this road ordeal that morning…
…and by 4pm we reach the army checkpoint at Khargush which guards over the entrance on this side of the lake. We were glad we had arranged the permit because they did ask to see it.
By a crazy chance, just as we’re approaching the checkpoint, 2 motorcycles buzz up the road behind us. It’s our lovely Dutch friends Peter and Leonie who we last saw in Sary-Tash. It’s a really strange coincidence but nice to catch up with them and hear which routes they have done through The Pamirs – pretty much everywhere – you can go so much faster when you have an engine.
So we had reached the top of the Wakhan corridor, here we would be cycling through the valley towards Khorog.
We don’t do much more that day, just another 10km down to the river which has now form into the mighty Panj. Despite the road being stony, sandy and full of washboards, compared to what we’ve come from, it feels wonderfully smooth and easy!
So we had finally completed all our visa admin and now it was time to get back on the bike.
It felt strange, almost like we were starting a completely new trip. What with us being able to closely follow the political turmoil back home, catching up with lots of friends and family over Skype and not having to pack a pannier or sleep in a tent for two weeks it definitely felt weird to be getting back on the bike.
We desperately needed to drag ourselves back to a travelling mentality again so we said our goodbyes to Andrey and set off.
We were soon back in the cycle touring headspace thanks to our back tire which burst just as we were leaving the city. A very similar thing had happened in northern Myanmar – the tire just wears away at the wheel rim… Maybe not even the ‘bomb proof’ schwalbe tires can cope with our heavily loaded back wheel.
We were extremely fortunate that this happened just outside Bishkek because although we had a foldable spare with us it was now obvious that this was turning into a continuous problem for us.
Bishkek is probably one of the few places in the whole of Central Asia where we could easily get another schwalbe spare, in fact we knew of a guy called Nathan who runs a hostel especially for cycle tourers in the city and he keeps spare schwalbes for tourers in need!
We debate for a long time about how many we should buy from Nathan. We decide it’s a good idea to stock up while we have the chance so we buy two. Nathan only has the Marathon Plus type so we fold away our spare Marathon Mondial, get a new one on the back wheel and manage to strap the second spare to the back.
While fitting the new tire we ask Nathan if he knew of any easy way of helping the tyre ‘fit’ properly around the rim. Schwalbe tires have a useful reflective strip which acts as a parallel spacer and we think one reason for the first set of tyres failing was that the first time we fitted them they weren’t parallel ending up with the rim pinching the tyre in the wrong place.
After much stretching, pumping and deflating Nathan told us to lube the edge of the tire with washing up liquid while fitting it – it really works!
Back on the road out of Bishkek we still find it a little hard to get back into the cycling… It’s hot (very hot), our muscles have lost all their strength, and our bums have relapsed back to a ‘sitting watching football, drinking beer’ state.
From the side of the road a figure runs out from the shade of the trees and hails us down. We stop and shake hands with Ed, another cycle tourer from the UK who’s heading in the same direction as us.
If you think we’re slightly cooky cycling on a tandem, our set up is nothing to Ed’s. He is 18 months into a round the world trip and he’s doing it all on a unicycle.
At the age of 19 he set off from his home in Somerset to embark on this incredible journey. Having seen out the winter in Bishkek he is now back on the road heading towards China. He hopes to complete the journey in 3 years.
What’s most impressive is his average speed and distance covered each day which, are not too far off our own and because he only has one gear he’s much faster than us up the hills. We sped past him on the downs though. 🙂
Ed is a bit of a celebrity in the cycle touring world so it was great to meet him in person; plus watching him take off and speed down the road after a break never gets old.
Ed is a very chilled and unassuming guy and it was great spending time with him.
We made some good camps with him and naturally the three of us were a slightly farcical sight while riding along. There can’t be many times you see three people cycling passed with only three wheels between them.
It’s very funny watching people’s reactions when they spot Ed speeding along on his single wheeled machine!
The three of us worked our way east towards Issyk Kul lake. At Kok-Moynok Bir we parted ways, Paddy and I turning south towards Kochkor while Ed carried east to Karakol where he’ll stop before heading towards the Kazakh border.
The cycle to Kochkor was on a good road but involved a hard climb through some very changeable weather, first baking sunshine and then hailing thunder storms. Near the top, I suddenly come over really feverish. My whole body aches and I can’t stop shaking, it’s a bit weird but we manage to reach the summit and Paddy helps me into my thermals before we freewheel down towards a suitable lunch stop overlooking Orto-Tokoy reservoir.
I collapse into a chair with a terrible headache and wait for the paracetamol and ibuprofen to kick in.
Once I’ve eaten and the drugs have worked some of their magic I feel a bit better and we manage to complete the last 20km to Kochkor where we check-in to the first hostel we find. I sleep for a good 13 hours and by morning feel ok again. Even so, we decide to take a rest day in Kochkor where normally there isn’t much to see, but by chance it was a Saturday which gave us the opportunity to wonder down to the weekly animal market.
It was well worth the visit and it was fun watching the women and men dragging their new purchases across the yard towards their cars.
We met the biggest sheep we’ve ever seen – a woolly grey beast weighing 36kg who towered over the other sheep and liked carrying seven year old children on its back.
On our way out we spotted a group of guys loading three grown, albeit normal sized, sheep into the boot of their Lada car… Here they are closing it up.
I managed to walk away carrying a little creature too, this one was unintentional and even more unwelcome however.
It’s never nice to find a tick clinging tightly onto your right earlobe…
When we get back to the hostel Paddy expertly removes it with tweezers and I watch it crawl around on top of our lunchbox lid for a while before stabbing it. I spend a long time merticulously combing my hair – an activity I haven’t done in about 4 months – and checking my body for any more.
Lucky we decided to have that tick borne encephalitis jab before we left!!
Every cycle tourer needs a decent set of panniers, buy crap ones and you will suffer for the whole of your trip – it’s the one thing you do not want to scrimp on.
The majority of cycle tourers across the globe will opt to buy Ortlieb bags. They are known in the market and on countless cycle forums as the most reliable, durable and, most importantly, waterproof. Pretty much every cycle tourer we have seen on the road has had a set of matching colourful ortlieb panniers. Are they the best though? We’re not convinced…
Because we are on a tandem without a trailer we were forced to make some alternative decisions regarding our panniers.
We needed as much as space as possible in our bags and Ortlieb are limited in this respect (the largest back panniers we could find are 40L). Consequently we ended up buying a mixture of four brands of bag for our bike – Altura Orkney, Ortlieb, Alpkit and Arkel.
After five months on the road and having experienced a range of climates and weather conditions we’re in a good position to compare them side by side.
10L Arkel Handlebar Bag *****
The Canadian Arkel company have a good reputation online for making a high quality product but they are notorious for being one of the most expensive.
We opted for Arkel because their large handlebar bag is the biggest volume waterproof product we could find and at over £120 it was pricey.
It hasn’t disappointed though and you certainly can fit a huge amount of stuff in it. It has a lot of nice small features which we really like too.
There is a large front pocket which although isn’t completely waterproof is great for keeping small things you need to access quickly. There are also two mesh pockets on the side which are super useful for stuffing everything from rubbish packets to keeping gaffer tape.
The bag has zips which we think are far superior to the Ortlieb clip fastening – mainly because it allows the bag to be padlocked shut. This is incredibly useful for when you need to leave the bag containing all your valuable stuff in a shared dorm, sleeper train or left baggage department.
The mounting system for the bag is very effective and strong and it’s easy to clip the bag on and off. The bag comes with a waterproof map case which we never really used and the inside bag is removable so you can wash it.
The bag is roomy! It’s actually crazy how much stuff you can fit in there with plenty of room to spare. See our Fully Loaded page to see what we keep in ours. The top of the bag is domed which means you can stuff it full with your gloves, snood and snacks on top of all your valuables if you need during the day.
It’s 100% waterproof, has kept its shape well and we would buy it again in a second.
Altura Orkney back 56 L panniers ****
We were slightly weary about buying this brand as we hadn’t read much stuff about them online. However, we found these panniers online and their super size (56 L) won us over into buying them.
They are beasts and we can carry a wonderful amount of gear in them but they have impressed us in every other way since too. We are so glad we bought these rather than another set of backroller Ortliebs.
First things first – they are completely watertight. The inside waterproof insert also comes away which is great when you want to clean or empty the inside of your food bag.
They have front pockets (these are not watertight) which have useful mesh and Velcro compartments – something Ortlieb panniers, in our opinion, really lack.
The mounting system is really strong and far superior to the flimsy Ortlieb clips – more complaining about these to come… The bags can tend to slide up and down a bit on our rack if we’re on a bumpy road but they have never broken or come off.
Unlike the triangular shaped Ortlieb panniers these bags are more square which means they are far more effective for storing bulkier items such as your cooking gear and the flip clipped top is adjustable to allow you to really stuff the bags with extra food or clothes if you need.
The bags are incredibly durable and have had a fare number of knocks, scrapes and falls. The only time they have failed us over the Ortlieb was when ants got inside and pincered holes in the inside bag to get to our food. Our Ortliebs have always remained insect free due to their roll down, dry-bag fastenings and thick plastic material.
Overall they have been a great buy for us and if you are in need of a larger set of panniers we would highly recommend them.
Ortlieb 40L Backroller Panniers and 32L rack bag ***
Our Ortlieb panniers are saved to carry our clothes but we use their largest back rollers on our front rack instead of the back.
The Ortlieb panniers are great (completely waterproof, easy to clean and durable) but they fall down on one feature which makes them incredibly frustrating to use.
The mounting system just isn’t up to the job of coping with a heavily weighted pannier on bumpy roads. This problem is probably over emphasised with us because we carry large panniers on our front rack but we’re not the only tourer who has complained about this problem.
Once under enough force the bolts which are made of plastic simply pop out of the plastic bar mounts at the back of the bag. In doing so they ruin the threads which means you can’t easily screw them back in.
We have heard of tourers obsessively checking and screwing back up their bolts after every night to ensure they don’t pop out.
This major cost cutting design flaw has meant two things for us:
We have to reinforce our bags to the rack with rope to minimise them bumping around on the rack. This is time consuming and means we can’t easily clip and un-clip our panniers taking advantage of the ‘user friendly’ Ortlieb mounting system. Even after this both bags have broken.
We met a tourer in China who had simply replaced all her plastic bolts, nuts and washers with metal ones. We ended up doing the same. Here is Paddy in a local garage searching for the right width bolts and super large washers for the insides of the bags.
I wrote to complain to Ortlieb and I was very impressed with their customer service. They got back to us within 24 hours and without question offered to send spare parts to us in China. The package arrived 7 days later but we haven’t used the parts because they sent us the same crappy plastic ones.
The fact is, Ortlieb panniers are fine for those cyclists who are taking short tours on nice smooth roads or commuting to and from work but in our experience they don’t hold up well on long bumpy tours unless you make some of your own adjustments.
If you have bought Ortlieb panniers just make sure you replace all the bolts and nuts with metal ones and buy extra large washers for the insides.
I can’t fault the rack bag. It does everything we need it to.
Alpkit Fule Pod Frame Bags ****
Alpkit are known as a good outdoor gear supplier. They make some good stuff and we’re always happy with the gear we get from them.
Our two frame bags are durable and are great for keeping all those small items that you need to access quickly.
So it’s just under 2 weeks since we crossed the border into country number 6, Kyrgyzstan.
Updating the blog has been tricky as we’ve been doing a lot of cycling and camping.
Neither of us knew much about this country before we arrived. Sandwiched between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China it has a population of just 6 million; a dwarf in comparison to its neighbours.
Our plan was to head up to the capital Bishkek where we would spend a good stretch organising our visas for the next stage and then loop back down towards Tajikistan. All in all, taking around 5 weeks.
Formerly part of the Soviet Union until independance in 1991, little Kyrgyzstan is a relatively new country.
Naturally, almost everyone speaks Russian but the Kyrgyz language remains very strong, particularly in the southern part of the country where the people are more Persian looking and Islam is practiced more widely.
We crossed the border without knowing much of this at the time. We knew no Russian or Kyrgyz words and we even forgot to exchange our Chinese currency for Kyrgysz Som at the border… We were woefully underprepared for our venture into a new country…
It’s 4pm before we reach the first border town. There’s a strong headwind and just passed the town we see our road snaking up a very stiff gradient – neither of us fancy doing much climbing today.
We stop just outside the town and contemplate where we can pitch up. A girl of around 14 rushes out of the first house shakes our hands and beckons us inside. We are fed bread, jam and tea and told we can pitch our tent in the garden. We spend the rest of the afternoon playing with the many local kids who like climbing the bike and using our tent as a den.
Before bed a dinner of fried liver, dill risotto and a kind of homemade fudge is presented to us. This is our first taste of Kyrgyz hospitality and we feel very humbled.
The next morning we rise early and say our goodbyes to our hosts. The daughter requests we pay something towards the food. The small sum of 400 is suggested but we remind ourselves we don’t have any local currency. We readily hand over 5 USD instead which is accepted with thanks.
This first experience of Kyrgyz hospitality was tainted slightly after we reached the next town where we discovered that someone had stolen money from our bag during our stay in the house. It wasn’t a lot (the equivalent of around £40) but we felt sad it had happened after having had such a nice evening.
Something like this was bound to happen at least once and there was no point obsessing over who we thought might have taken it…. It was a good lesson that we should never leave our handlebar bag somewhere, even for 10 minutes in the living room of a friendly local family…
Our next destination was the town of Sary-tash roughly 75km away. From there we would cycle the remaining 175km East to the southern city of Osh where we would enjoy a well deserved rest day.
There would be some big climbs involved and we soon discover the blissfully easy gradients of Chinese roads are a thing of the past.
Russian/Kyrgyz road builders love a good gradient. There are often signs telling you how steep the next section will be, but as Paddy and I soon discovered, these hold little relation to the true gradient. The signs almost always read either 12% or 8% and we’ve now learnt that their purpose is to simply let you know a climb is coming… a REALLY steep climb!
I was convinced that we wouldn’t find scenery and countryside nicer than we saw in China but that was before I cycled in Kyrgyzstan.
The cycle between the border and Osh was spectacular, and for me personally, its some of the most rewarding and nourishing countryside we’ve camped in.
Stunning snowy mountain ranges which give way to the greenest, richest rolling hills you have ever seen. As we lose height, these, in turn, give way to sweeping meadows of long grass and hundreds of species of wild flowers.
Some fields are literally stained bright red with wild poppies while others are home to a thick tapestry of yellow, pink and blue.
We have also seen some stunning bird life including bright blue rollers (thanks D&P!), hunting kestrals, huge eagles, nesting storks, swathes of swallows
and this little lark who sat close, serenading us one evening.
The vast lakes and clear streams have meant we’ve rarely had to buy water and we’ve enjoyed a shower and a sunbathe in the warm evening weather. One morning I wake to find these two toady subjects making their own camp in my shoe! I contemplate keeping them as bicycle pets while one of them permits me to hold him for a while before hopping away.
All in all its perfect camping weather!
Onto this bucolic backdrop you pass collections of traditional yurts and caravans, momentous herds of cattle, groups of men harvesting hay by hand and children racing around on their pet donkeys.
Having travelled to find new pastures for their herds, nomad families sit on large rugs in the shade of trees next to their open backed trucks which they will later unload.
While stopping for our afternoon siesta (it’s too hot to cycle between 2-4.30) this travelling family of three generations invite us over for lentil soup and tea.
Their old-school truck complete with sleeping grandmother in the back, excitable kids and practical mother figure reminded me of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath – the difference here of course is that they choose their travelling lifestyle.
The most important lifeline for these people are of course their horses. The Kyrgyz people are reportedly the best horesemen in the world and they have been breeding and domesticating horses here for well over 4000 years.
Kyrgyz horses are known for their speed and endurance and are also raised for their meat. They are big beasts averaging between 13.2-14.2 hands.
It’s pretty magical seeing a huge herd of these beautiful creatures cantering across a field in front of you as you sit eating your breakfast.
This happend so often, our cycle between the border and Osh began to feel like we were on some fantastical journey across the lands of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings…
Being here in June has meant witnessing the start of the foaling season. Not only is it nice to see these bandy legged arrivals jumping about in the sunshine, it has also meant we have been able to witness the skilful talent that is mare milking.
The people of Kyrgyzstan love drinking mare milk which they ferment to create a tangy, slightly alcoholic drink called Kumis. They also dry it into hard, Bon-Bon like sour snacks called kurut. Makeshift stalls are set up all along the road to sell both throughout the summer.
We were given a 2L bottle of kumis by a friendly lady who was waiting for a bus. Put it this way, it is an acquired taste and I’m not a fan!!
Paddy drank quite a bit that evening but this was after the bottle had been sitting in the sun all day and he had a dodgy tummy the next morning.
So our first week in Kyrgysztan has been a pastoral paradise really!
The people in Kyrgyzstan are amazingly friendly and hospitable but they also respect your personal space and privacy. They are naturally interested in you but after coming to say hello, shaking your hand and asking where you are from they leave you to get sorted, calling their children away too so you are not gawped at while trying to change out of your sweaty cycling shorts or set up camp.
This was a nice change from China, where the people are undoubtedly friendly and generous, but at times, a bit brazen! There was often a lot of staring, fiddling with the bike and routing through our bags without permission in China! You also get photographed A LOT in China (this really started to irritate Paddy after a while) but people here generally ask permission before they snap you which is a nice change.
Many men still wear the traditional Kolpok tall woollen hat which is often decorated with black or brown embroidery. Even this builder was wearing one while laying a wall in the beating sun!
The women here are beautiful and (in the South in any case) wear tied head scarfs and love wearing elaborately embroidered clothes. It’s very common to see both sexes sporting a few gold teeth.
It took us 4 days to cycle to Osh. Here we will have a rest day before cycling north to Bishkek.
Our visa extension for China ended on the 5th June so we planned to leave Kashgar on the 1st giving ourselves a very leisurely cycle to the border with a day or two to spare if we needed it for any reason.
Unfortunately, we had both failed to notice that the 5th was actually a Sunday, and the Irkeshtam border is closed on weekends. Luckily we realised on the eve of leaving following a conversation with Michaelangelo, our Spanish friend. Unlike some other countries, there are heavy fines for overstaying in China so this was not an option.
We were also told that we probably wouldn’t be able to cycle the full distance to the border as China (for some random, unknown reason) built their checkpoint 180km from the actual border line, and they make all travellers take a taxi to the Kyrgyzstan checkpoint.
All this meant that instead of having five days to reach the border we now only had two, leaving a day to get through customs, find a taxi who would carry the tandem, and cross the border before the weekend. All still doable but it wouldn’t be as leisurely as we’d hoped.
We were well stocked up for our cycle through the desert and we still hoped we’d have time to make an afternoon detour up to Shipton’s Arch – reportedly the highest natural arch in the world according to National Geographic who rediscovered its whereabouts in 2007.
So we set off through the hot barren landscape and on the afternoon of the first day we meet Stephen cycling the other way. Stephen is also from Dublin and I could tell that both him and Paddy we’re delighted at meeting a fellow countryman.
Stephen is the first Irish cyclist we have met and him and Paddy looked pretty identical. Weirdly identical actually….
Having met Paddy’s doppelgänger we keep going and set up camp in a village off the road. A nice family lets us camp in their garden.
The strangest thing about this part of the world is the time zone. All of China officially sets its clocks to Beijing time, but as you might have gathered already, China is a big country and Kashgar is actually 2 hours behind Beijing in real time.
Paddy and I were still on Beijing time when we disembarked the train in Kashgar and it was rather weird experiencing a sunset at 10:30pm.!
Kashgar and the surrounding area works on two time zones – government buildings such as banks and the post office work on Beijing time, but local businesses tend to keep to local time. All this can be rather confusing and its important for travellers to clarify which time they mean when booking stuff!
During our ride through the desert Paddy and I kept our body clocks working on Beijing time – this worked well for our final few days cycle as it meant we were packing up the tent and jumping on the bike at 9am but in terms of daylight it was really 7am. This was perfect for the desert conditions as it meant we could afford a siesta during the hottest part of the day and carry on cycling until late into the evening.
The desert has a kind of beauty to it, nothing like the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara we have both visited in Morocco, but there were still camels… We are on the famous old Silk Road after all!
This landscape is much rockier with some impressive mountain ranges and the odd green oasis every 20 kilometres.
Despite the heat we make good progress and do have time to take a detour up towards Shipton’s Arch. It’s a pretty tough 3 hour cycle in the heat with no shade but we’ve filled up on lots of water from a tap in the last town which Paddy sterilises using his new toy – our new UV pen. This, along with our gravity water filter, should mean we shouldn’t need to buy bottled water ever again!
The arch is another 35 minute walk from the road and involves a pretty spectacular trek through this dry gorge and up some rickety metal steps.
When you first catch sight of it you find yourself slightly disappointed because it doesn’t look as tall as you’d expect.
Once up the final set of steps though you realise it arches over a very deep valley which drops directly down on the other side. We spend a fun 10 minutes dropping large stones into the gorge and listening to the echo as they tumble down to the bottom. It’s pretty cool and we contemplate how on earth it’s been formed…. Lindsay Sheen might be able to offer some insights here…
Pictures really don’t do it justice…
Here is Paddy scoffing his face on a refreshing watermelon at the top. Kashgar is famous for its delicious harvest of melons at this time of year.
The ride back down to the road is very quick and great fun.
We camp with the sun setting behind some impressive mountains with a view across this eerie barren landscape.
The next day we completed the 30km to the border town of Ulugqat where we spend an age trying to find the market so we can stock up on food before crossing the border. (For future reference it’s located in an underground car park a few blocks down from the main Central Park.)
It’s 12:30 by the time we reach the border control building which is really poorly signposted. We try our luck with the guards regarding cycling the remainder of the way to the border but they insist that we have to take a taxi. We ask why we can’t cycle but all they can tell us is that it’s the rules.
We’re shocked when the taxi driver tells us it’ll be 400Y to take us and the bike (drivers always try to charge more when they see the tandem!). We plead with the border guard, explaining that this is a real expense for us and he manages to negotiate a 100Y ‘discount’ for us.
Without any other option we load the bike on top of a big stack of suitcases. When I ask what’s in the suitcases the driver tells me they are Gucci hats!
As we sit in the truck on our way to the border the only pragmatic reasoning I can put to this strange border set up is the 2 hour time zone difference. Naturally the border authorities want you to enter and exit the country the same day and near the same time you receive your exit/entry stamp. There is a two hour time difference between the two borders and it’s about a two hour drive… So if you exit China at 2pm and then drive to the Kyrgyz side, by the time you get there you will be stamped in at 2pm.
I suspect that this is just me trying to assign some logic to something that just isn’t logical however… There’s a lot of stuff about China that isn’t logical and we’ve learnt to accept (and to an extent love) the randomness of this crazy country.
The Kyrgyzstan side couldn’t be more different to the Chinese side. We’re greeted by a VERY friendly guard sitting in a tiny wooden hut next to the roadside.
‘Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!’ He cries.
‘Please cycle down the road and report to the border control to receive your stamps.’
At the border control the guards make a joke at our different nationalities and our two country’s history.
‘A girl from United Kingdom and a boy from Ireland, together, on a bicycle?! How can this be!?’ He says, while winking at us.
We receive our stamps with no trouble and we cycle on down to start a new journey in country number 6. We have a pretty good feeling about this one already!
Time to explore the land of the great horsemen. Our Central Asian adventure awaits!