Entering Europe Proper

After more than a year away from Europe, it felt amazing to re-enter, cycling beneath the familiar blue sign with a circle of stars that symbolises the EU, at the border into Finland. 

Our last couple of nights in Russia had been quite exciting. 

The evening after I last wrote this blog we camped in a field full of pale grass tussocks. We had eaten a good dinner (cooked on Arron’s new frying pan) and were winding down for bed. It might only have been 7pm but our body clocks are now well in tune with daylight hours and we tend to sleep long hours during darkness and wake at first light. Arron was boiling the last of our water to refill our flasks in his tent porch as I poured us both a cup of tea inside the tent. 

Suddenly I hear, ‘Shit, the tent’s on fire!!!’ I look over and see yellow flames licking at our bright orange tent. 

‘Get out of the tent!’ I say as I leap out of my side and run round to his. Arron couldn’t leave the tent as it was only because he was holding it away from the fire that it was not catching alight. He had thrown the stove a couple of metres from the tent and it was now just spilt petrol burning on the ground. I grabbed his brand new frying pan and hit the ground, realising too late Arron had had the same thought and had stopped because it seemed to make the flames spread not slow. 

It was at this point that Arron drew my attention back to the burning stove and petrol filled canister behind me. ‘It might explode!’ he yelled. 

Not knowing what else to do I grabbed the stove and hurled it away from us into the middle of the field. 

Then I helped Arron pull up the tent and roll it away from the fire, all the while he was still inside scooping the sleeping bags, clothes and dry bags away from the flames. 

Finally we deemed the tent area safe and somehow managed to blow out the last of the fire beside it. Then Arron’s attention turned to the stove in the middle of the field, still burning bright. 

‘Where are my gloves?!’ he asked. 

‘Why?’ I responded. 

‘I’m going to go and unscrew the canister from the stove to stop it exploding!’

‘What?!?!?!’ 

I watched, horrified, as Arron ran over to the stove in bare feet and untwisted the petrol canister. He dribbled the remaining fuel over the snow covered ground and then ran back to me. 

We were both barefoot and shaking with the exhileration of such a close call. I’m relieved to say that the fire ruined that particular stove, which had been playing up for some time, for good. Of course, we still had to boil water for the following day, so as one fire burnt out, we lit the other stove to boil the water on, thankfully with less drama this time around.

The following night was our final night in Russia. We collected water from a flowing stream before double backing and hunting for a suitable camp spot. We were about 5km from the border with Finland but had decided to tackle the border crossing the following morning, allowing ourselves the full day for it. Of course, being so close to the border, a Russian official had spotted our strange behaviour and came to check us out. 

After a look at our passports and visas (we did not hand them over after so many stories of corrupt officials refusing to return important documents without a bribe) he allowed us to continue our journey. We found a small camp site that evening just out of sight of the border post, but it wasn’t long until an official looking car drove past us on a track just a few metres away. 

We had strung our tent up in the trees to dry and I was certain the official had seen us and would soon come along to move us on. We drank tea and worried a little, but it seemed they either hadn’t noticed us, or didn’t care. We slept in peace that evening. 

It was with relief however that we crossed into Finland. Almost immediately things felt more familiar, and easier somehow. 

We were on a cycle path, an actual cycle path, for the first time since we had set off. It was glorious to cycle side by side without a worry about cars or trucks passing by us with next to no space. (Although this didn’t altogether remove risk – Arron crashed into me spectacularly while on his phone and I went flying to the floor!) 

After the cycle path ran out we cut off onto a small road, with almost no traffic. We cycled through woodland, snow on the ground but grit keeping it off the road, and everything felt great! 

Finishing early, we cleaned the bikes, had a fire and even a shower (if you can call a saucepan-full of tepid-cold water over the head a shower). We cooked on the open fire and made it inside the tent just as the rain came.

Today too, it has been near perfect cycling. Undulating hills and twisting roads through forest and farmland make for interesting, though not easy, cycling. We are keeping an even pace and finally it feels like we are cycle touring as we hoped to do! Three more days and we hope to be in Helsinki! 🙂 

Our last camp in Russia

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The Tortoise and The Hare

The Frozen Sea

We left Saint Petersburg three days ago and suddenly it felt like an entirely new trip! 🙂 

All the hassle of my pannier rack breaking, the lack of fuel and my illness (which we now think was pneumonia) fell away as we entered Europe. It was replaced by sheer excitement at what lay ahead. 

In Saint Petersburg, we made (yet) more adjustments to our bicycles, throwing our hostel room into total chaos in the process. On my last trip I remembered watching as a bike mechanic dismantled my bicycle and left bits strewn everywhere. I had been horrified, and had no idea how he would find all the pieces and restore it to it’s former glory. Yet now here I was, doing that very same thing! 

It was a lot of fun to tinker with our bicycles, tuning up the gears and the brakes, refitting my pannier racks (again) and making mudguards out of old orange juice cartons. However, the biggest change we made was to our tyres. 

We had been having problems matching pace in China and Kazakhstan. Arron had tyres that were narrower and less knobbly than mine and his rolling speed was considerably faster. I was left straggling behind despite trying my hardest to keep up whilst he sailed along with putting in as little effort as he could to try to slow down a bit. We decided that, with the new and improved trip about to take off, the time had come to buy the same tyres in the hope that it would solve our pacing problems. 

It has certainly helped, but i think I have had to accept that Arron is still a hare to my tortoise pace. I set off steady and go steady all day. I don’t really speed up at all, but nor do I slow down either. I just keep the constant pace of a tortoise. In contrast, Arron has bursts of energy after a sugary snack or when a particularly upbeat song comes on through his headphones and he disappears off in front of me….only to slow down to a snails pace a little further on! 

I’m fairly sure his average pace would be faster than mine but we seem to have found a happy medium over the past few days and finally we are able to cycle together. It has made a welcome change to the constant stopping and starting of our previous days’ cycling. 

On top of that, the scenery has been stunning. For the first time in more than a year I have seen, and even camped in, actual forest! The dappled light making it’s way through the trees is something I had forgetten and relished cycling through once more. what a change the spidery birch trees and moss covered trunks make to the dense jungle of Asia.  

Our first day was beautiful blue skies and sunshine. The cycling was near perfect, on reasonably quiet roads and no pollution in the air (also a first for a long time)! Even better, as we joined the coastline north of Saint Petersburg we realised that the sea was frozen solid. Neither of us have ever seen this before and it was absolutely incredible! 

The next day, in contrast, was what most might refer to as utterly grim. Heavy grey clouds hung over us and spat sleet onto the road in front of us. We got completely drenched as every passing car flew past us spraying up all the grit, snow and puddle water into the air, and over us! We donned our goggles and persevered despite the horrible weather, and actually, I had a great time. It might have been hard work, but for a change, I was not freezing cold! This weather was familiar and I could deal with this comfortably, unlike the minus 20 degrees Celsius of China. If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that I can deal with horrible weather as long as it isn’t too cold! 🙂

Unfortunately, my waterproof layers turned out to be less than waterproof, and 4 out of the 5 layers I was wearing (one of which was down) was soaked through by the time we reached camp that evening. Arron had the brainwave to rig up our second tent as a drying room (it’s still not warm enough to have our own tents just yet!), with a stove burning in the middle of it to warm it up. Though my clothes didn’t dry, they were certainly less wet having been hung up in front of a fire for a couple of hours. 

Last night we camped on the edge of Vyborg, our last major town in Russia before we head to Finland in a couple of days time. Our campsite, I think, was the best yet. 

We left the main road and followed a frozen and winding track through the forest. To our surprise, it led us to the shoreline, and we camped on the beach beside the frozen sea! Having already decided that today would be a rest day, we had bought a can of beer to share earlier in the day and we sat, huddled in our tent boiling snow for water and drinking beer from plastic flask mugs. It was a great evening, and for once we remained dry, despite the hailstones falling outside! 

It feels AMAZING to be back on the road, and I can’t wait for the next few months cycling back to the UK through Europe. It might not be the trip I had been dreaming of, but it is an amazing adventure in it’s own right, and I am so happy to be on our way. What’s more, we have decided to raise money for World Bicycle Relief as we cycle. If you would like to donate, please check out our justgiving page at www.justgiving.com/2bikes1trip

Thanks for all your kind words and support guys, as always I am blown away and constantly encouraged by everybody who follows my adventures! 

Camping by the Sea

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A Shortened Tour

Camping on the Edge of Kapchagay Reservoir

After a week in Almaty and a bicycle that finally seemed for for the job, Arron and I set off from Almaty with a plan. It might not have been the dream of cycling through Kazakhstan, but it would get us out of the city and on our bikes again. We decided to go on a five day cycle tour from Almaty, up to Kapchagay Reservoir and back in a loop. 

It felt incredible to be back on the bikes that first day. Cycling out of Almaty with no snow to slow us down and huge smiles on our faces, we both felt invigorated. Nothing could beat being back on our bikes. Even the hacking cough I had developed overnight couldn’t dampen our spirits. In fact, I think Arron probably appreciated my inability to speak and enjoyed the quiet!!!

We camped that first night by a small trickle of water amongst some hillocks. Having followed a random dirt track a few kilometers from the main road meant we had the place to ourselves. Having enjoyed our day so much, we decided to take a 60km detour up to the town of Kapchagay and extend our tour by a few days. 

The following morning we woke up to get skies and by the time we had finished breakfast it was snowing heavily. Undeterred, we packed up or stuff and set off on our new route. 

We made it to the edge of Kapchagay by lunchtime… And we were starving! There hadn’t been a single so on route and when we saw a truckers cafe we rushed to get inside. The food was good and the instant coffee soothed my throat. I was still unable to speak and my cough seemed to be worsening. 

After lunch we cycled out to a peninsular, a few miles out of town and where the photo above was taken. I was suffering so headed straight to bed while Arron prepared our evening meal.

That night I developed a fever on top of my cough. Knowing this was to be our last town until we returned to Almaty in a further for days, we reassessed my condition and agreed to spend an extra night in Kapchagay, but inside a hotel instead of the tent in the hope that by the following day I would’ve recovered and we could resume our mini cycle tour once more. 

Of course, this would be the morning that my tyre was flat! Repairing a punctured inner tube in the sand and snow with a fever might not have helped my recovery and despite spending the entire rest of the day in bed sweating it out, I woke up again the following day with no improvement. 

At that point I decided I would head back to Almaty. Arron and I cycled the first day together and camped close to our first night’s campsite. That night was the worst night I have ever spent in a tent. I woke up in the night in a puddle of sweat, quite literally. My sleeping bag was dripping with water and the roll mat beneath me had a big pool of water where I had been lying. It was disgusting, and I felt disgusting. Thankfully my synthetic sleeping bag kept me warm and I got a little more sleep before dawn broke. 

After packing up camp the next morning, Arron and I parted ways. I took the road toward Almaty and he took the same road in the opposite direction. I was still sweating, despite feeling cold and shivery with a high fever. I’m not quite sure how I managed that 50 km back to Almaty but I have never been so grateful to get inside! 

Arron continued our planned route and came back a few days later in good spirits and I was able to rest. 

Although I am definitely getting better, I am still suffering with a cough two weeks later and am desperate to be well again. It has been frustrating for both Arron and I and has definitely tested our limits of friendship. Having said that, I am incredibly grateful for his patience thus far.

We are now in Moscow despite some shenanigans getting our bicycles on the train. Tonight we board another train to Saint Petersburg and all being well we should be setting off on Thursday to attempt our new adventure; cycling from Saint Petersburg to the UK. 

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New and Improved

Our bikes on the roadside.

Arron and I spent the best part of a week in Almaty, fixing my pannier rack, refixing it and generally tinkering and improving our bikes where we could. 
In the end, I had to buy a second entire rear pannier rack in order to get the two P clips I needed for the pannier rack I already had. This left me with a spare rack which seemed somewhat useless. Detesting wastefulness, this did not sit well with me and I resented that I had been unable to buy just the P clips that I needed and had had to buy an entire new rack. 

However, I needn’t have worried. Arron, full of magic tricks and ideas as always, managed to fashion a front pannier rack out of it, and now, I am the proud owner of not only a fully functioning rear pannier rack, but also, a front one too! 🙂 Thanks Arron!

We have used the quick release on the front wheel to attach it and simply cable tied it onto the bar of my suspension so that it remains stable. I was, and still am, incredibly happy with the new, revamped design and in a short cycle tour this week, it has proved incredibly useful. 

Having never ridden with front panniers before, I hadn’t appreciated just how good they are! The redistribution of weight across the bike makes pedalling so much easier, and the bike handling so much better. If we had been able to get hold of front pannier racks in Hong Kong we would have, but, as with most things on this trip, we had to make do with what we could find, and it wasn’t always what we wanted. 

However, what seemed like disaster just a few weeks ago, has now turned out better than I could have hoped! Although our original dream of cycling back to the UK from China is no longer a reality, I am excited for our new trip from Saint Petersburg to the UK.

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An Emotional Rollercoaster

On the Road once more?

On Sunday morning I woke up, poured a coffee and stretched myself into the day with half an hour of yoga. The night before, Arron had shared his worries about going back to the UK so soon, with no job or plan to jump into. I could totally understand. Just a few weeks ago I had felt the same. Before we had even left Hong Kong I had told him that I didn’t want to rush home for those very reasons. 

I encouraged him to think of other things he could, would or wanted to do. Nevertheless it shocked me when he told me on that quiet Sunday morning that he had decided to cycle home from St Petersburg without me. Of course, this had always been a possibility, but after my bicycle broke, he quickly decided to fly home from Moscow, taking both our bikes back to the UK with him. After that, I decided I would continue my journey overland by foot, perhaps catching the odd ride along the way. 

Suddenly he had not only changed his own plans, but he had, inadvertently changed mine too. My plan to walk home from St Petersburg had only developed when he had offered to take my bike home. Now this was not possible, and posting it would cost significantly more than the bike was worth. 

“Don’t worry though,” he reassured me, “It’s a totally different trip.” 

Of course, he was trying to be kind, as he always is, but I was upset. Not only had he changed my new plans, but he was now talking about the exact route we had planned to cycle together as if it was a journey through a place I had never heard of. It was a hard pill to swallow, and I confess, it didn’t go down well. 

Thankfully, that same day, Harry, an ex-housemate from my days in York, and bicycle expert, messaged me. He suggested P clips – a way to attach pannier racks without bolts. Later, my Dad and sister, Fi, both suggested more alternatives that we hadn’t thought of earlier. Suddenly, the situation that had seemed hopeless when we left Almaty was injected with new vision and new hope. 

After a long chat, some space and some tears, Arron and I decided to return to Almaty together to try once more to fix my bicycle’s pannier rack. If we succeeded, we would get a train to Saint Petersburg together and continue cycling home from there. If we were unable to fix my bike, we would split in Almaty; I would walk and hitchhike home and he would cycle. 

The two day journey back to Almaty was tiresome but undoubtedly beneficial. We had, since Sunday, lost the sense of team that had kept us glued together until then. Our many bus rides allowed us a little bit of time to rebuild this fragile but essential element to the future success of this revised cycling trip together. 

The first bike shop we tried in Almaty was well stocked with almost every bike part and gear we could imagine; except the p clips or a quick release mount pannier racks, the only we were looking for. 

I had a good feeling about the second one, named “Crank Master”, as we cycled across town to find it. On arrival however, I was somewhat disappointed by its back alley location and shabby outward appearance. It looked unlikely that a tiny shop such as this would sell anything we wanted. 

Thankfully, my first impressions were wrong and we left happy customers with a brand new p clip pannier rack. 

This rack mounts onto the frame with two clamps instead of the bolt holes near the rear mech. It still uses the bolt holes behind the seat post, but, thankfully, they remained intact on my bike. 

I spent two hours this morning trying to fix my new pannier rack onto my bicycle as carefully as possible. Knowing that it was probably because the last one had been overloaded that the bolt had sheared, I carefully adjusted and readjusted my new one until it put the least amount of tension onto each connecting point on the bike. Arron watched and helped as I tried to make it perfect. 

I was tightening up the final screw in the bolt behind the seat post, chatting to Arron as he held my bike steady. We were laughing and teasing each other, the team spirit back in full force, both excited that this new rack meant new life for our trip. 

Suddenly, the bolt I was tightening snapped and fell into my hand.

I was gutted.

The shock that the same thing happened again hit me hard and I burst into tears. Arron instead appreciated the irony of the situation and, despite his best efforts to suppress them, burst into giggles. 

Luckily he came and gave me a hug, smiled and just said “At least we know how to fix it this time.” 

So, despite another bolt stuck inside my frame, we have successfully managed to mount a new pannier rack onto my bicycle. It is not yet perfect, but with our new plan we still have time in Almaty to fix it, as well as buy some studded winter tyres and (hopefully) some front panniers.

All being well, we will set off from Saint Petersburg in the middle of March, and cycle home through Scandinavia from there. Wish us luck! 🙂

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Karakol

Yoga Practice!


There are few places that I visit for such a short time that I fall in love with, but it has to be said, this small mountain town in the midst of central Asia is one of them. 

I cannot exactly place my finger on the exact thing that draws me in here. The town itself appears nothing special at first, built in a grid with block after block of single storey houses and straight roads, it almost feels like it lacks imagination; everything is, at first glance at least, somehow standardised. 

And yet, scratch a little deeper and this town cannot help but captivate. The small markets that spill out onto the streets outside, the single coffee shop that boasts the best cake in Karakol (with good reason) and the quirky church built entirely of wood. Everyone here is friendly and, although our foreign faces attract the same old shouts of ‘taxi, taxi?’, people have been consistently helpful even when they won’t make money from us. 

Camping in the Mountains

Most of all though, I think this town appeals to the adventurous side of me. After all, what is not to love about a town on the edge of the mountains from which you can ski, horse ride, hike, mountain bike and swim, followed by a sauna or a dip in the hot springs?! 

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A New Horizon

Karakol Mountains

Karakol is a small town in the east of Kyrgyzstan, most famous for the largest saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea, Lake Issyk-Kul. However, it was not the lake that drew us to Karakol, but the mountains, and in particular the skiing.

After we concluded that our cycle tour had come to a premature end, we spent little time deliberating and headed straight to the hills for something different. What an amazing decision! 

After what felt like a succession of obstacles and difficulties to overcome whilst cycling, skiing today was pure, unadulterated fun! 

There is nothing quite like it; flying down a powdery slope, kicking up snowdust on every turn, the snow dazzling in the sunshine. Although I’ll confess it took me a bit of time to get my ski legs and at first I resembled something more like Bambi on ice than a legitimate skier! Thankfully my muscles soon remembered and I was able to enjoy it once more.

It may be Kyrgyzstan’s biggest and best resort, but it still remains small compared to European standards. Only 3 chairlifts to service the entire area, and a handful of pisted runs. As a result off piste is almost more common here than piste, and we found ourselves weaving through trees, in knee-deep powder and in steep gullies, as well as whizzing down the pistes on offer. It may be small, but it is so much fun, and I cannot stop smiling! 

The chairlifts were once bright yellow, now faded and chipped to reveal the burnished metal underneath. Some have cushions to sit on, others just wooden slats. When we crouched a little to let it pick us up, it does not slow down one bit, and instead crashed into our calves and knees as it hoisted us into the air. I have bruises all over – not from skiing buy from the old French lifts given new life here!

I have only ever skiied in the Alps before, and it is amazing to be skiing somewhere so different.

The ski resort is on the edge of the mountains, not in the heart of them. As a result, the views are different to anything I have seen on skis before. Look one way and mountains, some over 5,000m above sea level, stretch as far as the eye can see. Look the other and there is Lake Issyk-Kul, still liquid blue thanks to its salty water, with another mountain range deep in the distance. A huge expanse of empty brown plains between us seem like a clash of worlds, mountains, desert and a huge body of water. It is quite extraordinary.

It may not have been in our plan, but in light of the unsuccessful attempt at cycling, it couldn’t get much better right now!!! 🙂

More Mountains! 🙂

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