Pamirs 2: Murghab to Khargush via Zorkul Lake

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.

wading through streams and rivers becomes the norm
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.  

Corridor inside the main building
small bunker
Exercise bars
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!

Onwards through the Wakhan!

TAJIKISTAN and the start of The Pamirs!!!

We stayed in Sary-Tash for our final night in Kyrgysztan. To our pleasant surprise Leonie and Peter, a lovely Dutch couple who are traveling by motorbike and who we met briefly on the road from Song-Kol Lake, arrived at our guesthouse late in the afternoon and we spent a pleasant evening with them over dinner in our guesthouse.

Matching jackets!!

The next morning wasn’t a particularly early start, a mistake perhaps in light of what lay ahead – a significant climb up to the Tajik border post. 

From there we would wind our way down to Karakol, climb back up to complete what is the highest peak of the Pamir, before finally reaching Murghab. We were banking on reaching Murghab in 3 days where we would enjoy a rest day before continuing on down towards the Wakhan valley.

It would end up being a gruelling three days….

Day 1: Sary-Tash to Tajik border post

Distance: 56.3km / Ride Time: 5:35

A cruel headwind greeted us as we set out that morning and it got colder as we gradually climbed up.


By lunchtime we had left the asphalt behind us and had already been forced to push the tandem barefoot through a river due to a collapsed bridge.

The prospect of reaching country no.7 that evening was keeping us both happy however and the scenery was pretty nice too. 


We reached the Kyrgyz border post where a nice guard stamps us out, checks we’re OK with the oncoming altitude and reminds us to look out for the famous Marco Polo sheep. We’ll miss this kind of friendliness – bye bye Kyrgyzstan!


A 20km stretch of no mans land was now ahead of us before we would reach Tajikistan. 

Just before the beginning of the pass proper we meet a bunch of cyclists coming the other way who warn us of a muddy and snowy climb.

As it happened, more from luck than good planning, we reach the top late in the afternoon when most of the mud had dried in the sun. Nevertheless it was a hard climb complete with some stiff switchback at the end and we were greeted by a howling wind at the top. A weather front closed in behind us and we wouldn’t be surprised if it had snowed again on that side of the pass that night.


We reach the Tajik post at 6pm (apparently it is open 24 hours) and are away again by 6:15. Not wanting to go much further, we set up camp just a few kilometres down from the border post, managing to hide from most of the wind by pitching our tent in a sheltered dip. It’s pretty desolate and dessert like up here and we huddle together in the tent while a thin layer of sand settles on our sleeping bag. 

Day 2: Tajik border to 20km beyond Karakol

Distance: 79km / Ride Time: 4:57

An early and very cold start – our water bottles were half frozen! We shake the sand out of everything before packing up and we’re soon back on the road which turns back into asphalt. 


A few minor climbs but the overall outlook is downhill. After the last pass we catch our first glimpses of Karakol Lake and can spot the small town perched on the shore on the opposite side. Its very beautiful and we spend some time lapping up the view. 


We meet a friendly Russian cyclist who hands over a sticker of his own design for our bike. He points out Paddy’s Robbie Keene sticker and asks why I don’t have one of Gareth Bale! Wales’ recent success in the football has certainly put my little country on the international map! 


We stop at a friendly homestay for lunch who also exchange the remainder of our Kyrgyz com into Tajik somoni, and then battle with a very strong side wind as we skirt around the lake. 

We reach the valley on the far side and manage a few more kilometres of climbing before finding a suitable spot to shelter from the wind again. It’s a bit early but I’m really not feeling the best and I’m forced to lie in the tent while paddy cooks dinner. The longer I lie there the worse I feel. Paddy also starts to feel pretty rough at this point too. It’s definitely a stomach bug but I also wonder if the altitude is also having an effect. We’re at around 4200, probably the highest we’ve camped…

Day 3: Final stretch to Murghab

Distance: 105km / Ride Time: 6:22

After a frustratingly sleepless night we are both feeling in tatters the next morning. I’m marginally better than Paddy so pack up the tent while he slumps in a chair. It’s incredibly dusty and all our stuff is covered in the same grey filth.

We get on the bike without cooking breakfast, neither of us can stomach eating. 

We’re both desperate to reach Murghab but with 105km and a very tough climb ahead, neither of us could see how we were going to make it. All we wanted was a bed!!


Fortunately as soon as we’re on the bike we both start to feel a little better. It’s a stunning morning, the road is good and we cycle through a vast open valley, the morning sun pouring down on a beautiful mountain range to our left. 

Here we stock up on water and pass some abandoned farm buildings and houses. A short while later the road, to our dismay, turns back into a stony, sandy, washboard mess. It’s very hard going, and slow, and we’re both too tired and washed out to keep up a positive attitude. 

My ankle around my achilles has started to really ache and Paddy’s shoulders are painful too.


By 12:30 we’ve reached the bottom of the pass which starts with a stiff climb which we struggle up at 3km an hour. We’re feeling too rotten to take in much of the view and as we reach the final climb we both end up cursing at this poor German guy who is taking lots of photos of us from his jeep as we struggle pass. 

Despite having only eaten 2 iced buns and a handful of nuts each somehow we manage to reach the top by 2pm.

We still had 80km to Murghab, mostly down and flat, but we were both wrecked. Near the top of the other side we’re greeted by a cheery group of cyclists. With the news that the road would soon turn back into asphalt we spur ourselves on.


At 3pm I decide I can stomach a cheese sandwich so we stop and I convince Paddy to have some too.

We both feel much better for eating and thankfully the remainder of the journey is all paved if a bit bumpy in places. It’s pretty flat with a slight incline in our favour – exactly the kind of road where the tandem can really eat up miles and despite a strong headwind, with great effort, we manage to maintain a steady 25-27km for a good 90 minutes.

By 6pm we’re having to stop every 15 minutes. Our bodies are giving up on us. I pat Paddy’s back and wave the swarms of mosquitos away as he leans over his handlebars with a horrible headache. 

At each stop we lie on the hot Tarmac getting ready for the next leg.


We finally roll into Murghab at 7.30pm and luckily meet two English cyclist who tell us about an affordable homestay. It’s a lovely place and we manage to bag their old room for just 30s each.

After a home cooked meal and a hot shower we’re both feeling very content and are super glad that we were able to make it to a bed! Bring on that lie in!

Hitch Hiking to a festival 

The visa applications and the ride south from Bishkek via Song-Kol lake had both eaten into our schedule more than we expected so we were now planning to cross the Tajik border a week later. 

Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for most countries but Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – our next two destinations – require you to put a specific date of entry and exit on your visa. On top of this, we needed to leave enough time to apply for the dreaded Turkmenistan visa in Dushanbe…
We were still OK on time as we had a 45 day visa for Tajikistan and there was no point stressing. In Osh we met a couple of other cyclists who had completed the Pamir, including the Wakhan valley, in around 22-24 days.

Our route to the border crossing would see us backtrack along the M41 back up to Sary-Tash where we had stopped for a night coming over the Irkeshtam pass from China 40 days previously.

We had heard that an annual horse festival was taking place over the weekend somewhere in the region so we were keen to see if we could fit this in on our way through. After visiting the website we discover it’s directly on our route towards the Tajik border, 5km from Gulcho. 

We leave Osh on the Friday morning having spent Thursday cleaning the bike, stocking up on supplies and catching up with news back home. 

We were keen to get to the horse games site that evening so we didn’t miss any of the festivities the next morning but the ride involved a long gradual incline, plus a hard climb over the Chyrchyk Pass. This meant we needed to hitch a ride. 

We cycle 15km out of Osh and then pull up on a long straight section. Traffic is a bit on the slim side and all the vehicles which could take the tandem seem to be turning off or stopping just beyond where we’re stopped. 

After an hour we admit defeat and get back on the bike and cycle another 10km up the road. We stop and make lunch and then try again. A nice chap and his little boy stop and we lift the tandem fully loaded into the back of his pick-up truck. He’s only going to the next village 13km but it still helps a lot. 

Traffic is even slimmer here but after a few tries we managed to hail down a second ride and luckily this guy is going all the way past the turning to the festival. 

It’s 4pm and we still have 15km to cycle up a steep track to get to the festival site. It’s a very beautiful setting and we pass many yurts on our way as we follow a small river up stream winding our way through the valley. By 5pm we’ve done 4.5km and we’re both starting to feel tired and hungry. Maybe we won’t make it up there before evening after all…

Luckily for us an empty pick-up truck trundles pass and we manage to steal a ride for the next 7km. After this the track gets VERY steep and the last kilometre is impossible for us to ride so we have to push. 

Sweaty and breathless we push the tandem over the last ridge and the valley starts to open out. Paddy climbs up a green slope to check we’re in the right place and comes back accompanied by two adolescent boys. They help us push the bike up the last 500m and we find ourselves on a grassy plain, surrounded by pine wooded hills dotted with clusters of yurts. 


We are greeted by the festival organisers who show us where we can pitch our tent. A number of happy helpers arrive and assist with our set up before getting distracted by the helinox chairs…



Later, some guys from Belgium who have hiked up here come over to say hello and we sit chatting with them while cooking dinner. 

Happy to hear that the festival wouldn’t be kicking off until 10am we snuggle down and look forward to a lie in.

Bumpy bumpy bumpy! Onwards through Kazarman, up to the Kaldama Pass

Day 3: 52km

We leave our amazing mountain top view and complete the final 3km to the top of the pass. 

We’re really running low on water and there is no sign of any streams but thankfully there is a collection of yurts at the top , and this lovely family replenish four of our bottles. 

We spend some time with them before heading over the top and back down to the next valley.



The rest of the day is very up and down and we make slow progress. 

We meet more motorcyclists on the road and stop to chat for a while. 

After 5 and a half hours in the saddle we stop and camp in a meadow just outside the small village of Dodomol.

Day 4: 40km

If possible, the road got worse today. After a short climb we find ourselves losing a lot of height once again until we reach this flat stretch of road leading to the large town of Kazarman. 

The washboards are relentless and we manage an average speed of just 8.6km/h.


We’re both a bit worn out so decide to give ourselves a rest and find a nice home stay for the night. It’s the first shower we’ve had in 7 days! Bliss!

Kazarman’s centre isn’t the most picturesque! The streets are lined with these rather depressing looking soviet apartment blocks. That orange stuff is peeling insulation… Asbestos perhaps?!


The cultural centre with its very Soviet style sculpture

The people are really friendly though and it’s a great place to stock up on food, snacks and water.

Day 5: 44.5km

Day 5 saw us start to tackle the tallest (but final) mountain road – the Kaldama Pass. 

It’s incredibly hot and we spend a long time filtering 9L water from a muddy stream. 

We keep climbing through the green hilly landscape. The traffic isn’t too bad but the road is still frustratingly slow.

We drop down to a big river before camping next to some yurts. We’ll have a hard climb tomorrow morning but should complete the pass before lunch.

Day 6: 79.2km

We manage an early start and The War on Drugs, Radiohead and Paul Simon blast out of our speaker helping us to keep climbing. 

By lunch time we have reached the top!


It’s a bumpy trip down and gets hotter and hotter as we lose height. 

Luckily there are plenty of springs to collect water.

After eight days on the gravel road we’re delighted to find ourselves back on Tarmac!!!


Our seventh and last day would see us cycle the remaining 43km to Jalal-Abad, finally completing our big loop of Kyrgyzstan. 

From there we cheated a bit, hailed down a passing truck and hitched back to Osh. 🙂 

Three cyclists, three wheels

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!!

Bishkek!

We ended up staying in Bishkek for 12 days in total. 

Like the majority of other travellers who find themselves on an extended stay in the city we were there to apply for a number of visas. 

Unlike most of the other countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has a free 60 day visa which you can renew as many times as you like by simply crossing over into neighbouring Kazakhstan – an hours drive from Bishkek. So although the capital doesn’t have much to offer in terms of great sights, plenty of travellers end up here, often seeing out the bitter winter before carrying on their journeys east or west.

The only trouble with staying in a city for so long is that it can easily become expensive. Luckily we were able to organise an extended stay with a lovely guy called Andrey who lives in the southern suburbs of the city.

Andrey is a Warm Showers and Couch Surfing host who only asked for 300 som a night to contribute to electricity and wifi costs. As we were staying for so long we really didn’t mind contributing this and his spacious house with its wild garden of fruit trees and raspberry bushes made a great base. 

We often ended up cooking and eating together and by the end of our stay we were sad to be saying goodbye. 

Between our multiple visits to the Tajik, Uzbek and Iranian embassies we managed to take in a few tourist sites. 

Bishkek has a large concert hall home to the Bishkek Philharmonic so I was keen to see a concert while we were there. It proved incredibly difficult to find out what was going on however as the concert hall was closed the first day we tried to go and when we did manage to get in the building two days later there were no posters, flyers or programmes to tell us what might be happening. 

Knowing a bit about the ins and outs of concert halls came in handy at this point and so I wondered round to the stage door and found myself face to face with a small crowd of people smoking outside, all with instrument cases slung on their backs. Orchestras are the same wherever you are in the world!

I managed to have a garbled conversation with a friendly flautist who told me that a concert was taking place at 5pm in the Opera and Ballet Theatre down the street.

So after lazing around in the nearby park we locked the bike up and at 4:45pm found ourselves seated in the elegant Opera House ready to enjoy a free early evening concert of we didn’t know what!! 

It was very busy, although we were definitely some of the youngest there, and the audience were pretty dressed up for the occasion, many of them carrying huge bunches of flowers which slightly confused us. 

As the lights went down it soon became clear that this was a special celebratory concert for Kyrgyzstan’s great lyric soprano Kaiyrgul Sartbaeva.

After playing an introductory film documenting her life, the curtains went up and there she was, dressed in a glittering white gown sitting on a red and gold throne with the orchestra seated behind.


There were MANY speeches by presidents of various societies, fellow singers and politicians from various government departments. We could tell it was quite a big deal. There was much theatrical embracing and presenting of flowers which were placed ceremoniously around her. Her assistant had to keep running on stage to make a gap so she could disentangle herself from the stems to kiss and thank the next speaker. 

In between the speeches the orchestra and a guest singer would come out to perform something. The first couple of numbers were traditional Kyrgyz songs averagely sung with a microphone but as the evening progressed the singers got better and better and by the end Paddy and I had been treated to a fantastic rendition of L’amour est un oiseau from Carmen, a faultless performance of Una voce poca from The Barber of Saville (one of my favourite pieces of all time, especially when Cecilla Bartoli sings it), the love duet from Puccini’s Turandot and the mass finale from Verdi’s Aida.
All in all it was pretty special and we left feeling very lucky that we’d stumbled across it.


As well as the opera we also made time to visit Lenin… 


…and enjoyed watching the football in the many beer houses.

One night, a young guy approaches Paddy, offers the customary hand shake and asks if he wants a ‘Hookah’. Shocked, Paddy declines, pointing at me to explain he is here on holiday with his girlfriend. Confused and embarrassed the guy leaves but 10 minutes later we see him carrying a shisha pipe out to the group of girls next to us….

We later discover that Hookah is the word for a kind of shisha pipe here in Kyrgyzstan! 

After a week in the city Andy and Claire, another cycling couple (read their blog here) arrive into Bishkek. They have been following our blog and we theirs ever since China so it was great to meet up with them finally. 

Andy and Claire have been living in Japan for the past five years teaching English and decided to cycle home to the UK before deciding what to do next.

Along with them came our South Korean friend JK who we hadn’t seen since Lithang in China!


Saturday night saw us all hit the tiles together with our friend Will who we had met earlier that day while relaxing at one of Bishkek’s many outdoor pools. 


It ended up being a pretty late one and Paddy and I didn’t roll into bed until 10am!!! 

It was a great couple of weeks in Bishkek despite following the political turmoil happening back home! At least Ireland and Wales did/are doing pretty well in the football! 

We got all our visas and now it’s time to get back on the bike and head south east back down to Osh before heading into Tajikistan.

Pannier Brands – Are Ortlieb the best?

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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 

They are showerproof not waterproof. 

An Introduction to Kyrgyzstan!

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.
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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. 
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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. 
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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!!

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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! 
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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.
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It took us 4 days to cycle to Osh. Here we will have a rest day before cycling north to Bishkek.

Kashgar 

Kashgar was a nice place to relax before heading towards the Kyrgyzstan border. 

Much of the historic old town (where many of the buildings were over 500 years old) has been torn down and replaced by new ‘replica’ buildings which although smart feel a bit empty of any character.

All signs are bi-lingual here
Kashgar was a central hub for the famous Silk Road and consequently has a very famous bazaar which we visited and had lunch at – a egg noodle and chickpea spicy salad with fresh bagel and homemade spicy chicken drumsticks.

Despite it being a Tuesday it was still bustling and I even witnessed a raucous fist fight develop between two of the stall owners. 

We also cycled out to the Abakh Hoja 17th century Mausoleum which is an interesting place to wonder about and is considered to be one of the holiest Islamic sites in the province. 

The complex consists of the domed mausoleum which, is decorated with mismatched blue and green tiles, and a number of mosques all built in the typical Uighur pairing, used for summer and winter respectively. 


The whole place is surrounded by nice gardens planted with heavily scented roses, complete with an enormous shaggy camel…



We also took a walk through the graveyard next to the complex.


Our hostel was a great big building with a large courtyard full of other travellers. There were a number of cycle tourers passing through, most of them Chinese, but Henry the Durham cathedral choral boy and music student at Edinburgh University rolled in one evening having just arrived from Kyrgyzstan. It was good to swap stories with him.

There was Connar the Irish man and his wife (both in their late 40s) from Australia who were enjoying a years career break travelling across Asia and finally Michelangelo from Barcelona, who liked to wear a very long black turban just for fun (he’s actually a Christian) and who makes his living by travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan for 3 months of the year to export the blue gem stone Lapis lazuli. 

We spent the rest of the day cleaning the bike and stocking up for our cycle through the desert up towards the Irkeshtam Pass which will see us cross the border into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and eventually see us arrive in Osh.   

Chengdu

We woke to a lovely sunny morning in Chengdu and we set the bike up and spent an enjoyable afternoon getting our bearings and cycling around the city as we started to tick off our very long to do list. 

Chengdu seems like a very pleasant city and we both really enjoyed cycling around its streets. We were lucky with the weather on the first couple of days but the last 2 were characterised by Chengdu’s standard weather – drizzle, smog and a hazy white sky. 

We managed to find a big digital department store which took care of our need for a new camera lens cap and headphone splitter. We also cycled south to visit the big decathlon store and managed to easily spend 350Y buying various bits and pieces.

In the evening of the first day we headed over to meet Lluis our very generous warm showers host. Lluis has lived in Chengdu for six years but is about to leave the city for good to start a PHD in linguistics at Pheonix University. 

His lovely roof top flat would be our home for the next four days. It was such a treat to be in a proper home rather than a hotel room and Lluis couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. He also had some very interesting books, a piano and a great coffee machine. All luxury items for us!

Building light show from Lluis’ roof top garden

Unfortunately he had a really busy week at work so we didn’t spend as much time with him as we’d have liked.

Lluis had very kindly accepted two parcels for us from home which contained a range of stuff from a sterilisation UV pen, a new spare tyre, Paddy’s new bank card and a Goretex jacket and new Helly Hanson thermals for me. We spent an enjoyable evening playing with these new additions to our gear. 

The next four days were spent sorting a lot of stuff out. We rooted out the best bike shop in the city -Natooke – which is run by two American guys who were super friendly and really knew their stuff. They look after pretty much every tourer who passes through the city. 

Tandem was left over night at Natooke and got a couple of small upgrades including a couple of spacers placed on the bottom bracket so the chain will no longer rub in the lowest gear, new bar tape for Paddy’s handlebars, two new seat clamps and most importantly a super duper Hercules-like bike stand which says it will hold up to 75kg. 

Lluis helped us find a good dentist and hairdressers for Paddy as well as replenish our dollar stash by hooking us up with his ‘money dealer’, a middle aged Chinese woman who rides around Chengdu on her moped carrying a sports bag filled with at least £25,000 in various currencies. 

I jealously look on as P enjoys a long head massage in the hairdresser

The third day was dedicated to taking the bike to the train station and sorting out having it shipped on a cargo train – we wanted to get this process started a couple of days before we embarked on the epic four day journey to Kashgar ourselves. 

The whole thing was surprisingly easy and cheap to do. After completing a simple form and handing over 130Y the bike was casually rolled away by a guard – we just hope it will arrive safe and sound. We were told it would take between 5-6 days which means it might even reach Kashgar ahead of us. 

For those who need to go through the same process with their bike at the northern train station make your way to the cargo building which can be found to the right of the main train station entrance. Here is a picture of what you’re looking for:


We also spent a lot of time on the wifi planning our next month which will see us leave China and cycle to Osh and then on to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

Amongst the shopping, travel planning, posting, bike fixing and dentist appointments we did manage to find time to do a few touristy things. 

Funny electric noodle shaver – wish i could bring one of these back for my uncle Jeff…
We took the metro south to visit The New Century Global Centre which is essentially a huge entertainment space complete with hotels, department stores, cinemas, a huge, ice rink and most bizarrely it’s very own ‘beach’ which enjoys artificial sunlight 24/7 surrounded by a blue chloride pool which simulates the tide… 

It wouldn’t normally be our kind of place at all but after the remote weeks away we were both craving a little capitalist indulgence and I have to admit, the garish idea of seeing an indoor beach was slightly attractive, especially as it was teeming with rain outside. The centre also boasts the pretty cool title of ‘largest building (in terms of floor area) in the world’.


We didn’t stay long… A couple of hours were more than enough to take in the golden escalators, marble floors, big LCD screens and fast food joints (we had a McDonalds!) and unremarkably, the whole place was rather a disappointment (apart from the Maccy Ds!).
We instead retired to a bar called The Bookworm which Lluis recommended. Here we had a sublime time consuming red wine and a French cheeseboard (the first taste of both we have had in 5 months) while browsing a number of good books. 


Afterwards we took the metro to Jin Jiang bar street which straddles the river next to a picturesque bridge surrounded on every side by lit up sky scrapers. 

Drinks were expensive but by chance we ended up sitting at a table next to the manager of the bar who plied us with free fruit platters and cans of Weiss beer. 

Consequently we stayed until late and ended up chatting to her lovely English speaking Tibetan friends about the current situation there. It was an interesting evening and we didn’t get home until 3pm.
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We also had time to make a visit to Tianfu Square where there is the customary tribute statue of Mao – I still can’t get over how weird it is that there are statues of him everywhere –
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and wonder around People’s Park where the trees are all on drips…
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It’s a fantastic place to people watch. Here is a man practising his calligraphy using just water on the stone slabs.
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We spent a nice hour sitting by the rowing pond in a traditional tea house where I partook in the ultimate Chinese relaxation treatment – having your ears cleaned. 

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Many Chinese people find having theirs ears cleaned intensely pleasurable but I found it rather uncomfortable, slightly nerve racking and, at points, a bit painful!! Maybe my ears were very, very dirty! I did comment to Paddy that I felt I could hear better after though. 
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Our last night was spent in a small French cafe with Lluis and his friends drinking more red wine and eating even more cheese.

So we’ve nearly completed our two months in China and it is time to sweep our way north west to Kashgar from where we can cross into Kyrgyzstan. The journey will take the best part of four days and three nights and will see us cover a momentous distance. 

We have booked ourselves a hard sleeper seat so will have bunks where we can sleep but nevertheless we expect it to be a cramped few days.