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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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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Learning to Fail

Last week, I started listening to a book about learning to fail well. I confess I didn’t expect to be implementing what I had read quite so quickly.

It never really crossed my mind that I would not manage to cycle back to the UK but it seems I won’t be doing that this time. 

It was not the weather that prevented us, or the slow pace or even the lack of fuel. 

It is a single bolt. 

Probably the only bolt does not inflict damage on the bicycle, only the tour. It is the bolt that holds my pannier rack onto my bicycle. It has sheared off and half of it remains wedged in my frame. 

We took it to a bicycle shop today and tried to drill out the bolt that was stuck. Two snapped drill bits later and a few hefty scars in my frame where the drill had slipped and the bolt still remained stuck. After attempting to file a groove in the other end of the bolt that sticks out of the frame and screwing it out, also with no luck, the man in the bicycle shop asked what we wanted to do. We could continue trying to remove the bolt but risk irreversibly damaging the frame, or we could stop now, save the frame but leave the bolt stuck inside it. 

I chose the latter. At least this way I salvage a great bicycle from this trip, even if we can’t continue. If the frame gets damaged not only do I sacrifice the trip, but also the bicycle.

I was, and still am, gutted. Leaving the bolt in the frame means there is no secure way to attach the pannier rack… Earlier today I would have been tempted to see how far cable ties got me, but they didn’t even last the short 12km  ride into town today. 

Without a secure pannier rack, I cannot carry all of my gear for surviving in winter. Without my gear I cannot cycle tour.

So, it is with sadness and disappointment that I decided to give up on our cycle tour today.

I could risk drilling out the bolt, or even buy a new bike, but the truth is our funds are already dwindling rapidly with the unexpected changes in plans and the plan is already not going to plan! All things considered, I would rather accept failure, learn from it and reattempt this, or possibly another, journey in the future, than continue to try to force something that just doesn’t seem to be working.

It is hard to accept, but in the same breath I feel liberated. The decision has been made. I’m a strong believer that things work out in the end, and though it might not have turned out how I expected, it has already been an adventure. Arron and I have become great friends, we have learnt so much about camping in cold weather and we have laughed so much. 

If there is anything travelling has taught me, it is that things don’t always go to plan. However, there are always alternatives and more adventures to be had. 

Talking of which, we are already planning the next one…!! 🙂

Cycling Up the Hill

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Dealing with Disappointment

​I woke up inside our icy cavern as the sun rose and turned our tent from darkness to an orange glow. I shuffled up into seated position, poured hot coffee from the flask I had stashed inside my sleeping bag overnight and replaced it with the now frozen bread and chocolate spread, which was to be our breakfast when it defrosted.

We had camped in the most beautiful location yet. Perched above the road on a flat ledge in the hillside, we had panoramic views of the stunning mountains all around us. A few small villages clustered in the valleys in between, rooftops laden heavy with snow like model houses on a Christmas cake, dusted with too much icing sugar.

It should have been a perfect way to wake up, in such a phenomenal place with coffee and delicious bread. Instead, I was left with a haunting feeling of disappointment, that I just was not able to shake. 

My vision of this trip had been a journey, from East to West by bicycle. I had been dreaming about it for some time and suddenly I was overwhelmed by how different the reality was. 

So far we have cycled only a little over 200km since we left Hong Kong three weeks ago. This is what I would expect to cover in three or four days usually. Instead of a journey by bicycle, it has felt more like a journey with bicycles, which is a whole lot more hassle and less fun than cycling. The cycling we have done has been fantastic, despite a few sketchy roads and the bad weather, there just hasn’t been enough of it!!

Most of this still comes down to the inability to refuel in Xinjiang. After all, we had never planned to enter Kazakhstan until the end of this week. According to our original plan, we should still be cycling in China. Instead, we have spent a week hanging around a hotel in Urumqi followed by a 26 hour bus journey across the border to Almaty. 

Now, we are in Kazakhstan and it would be great if we could resume our journey. Unfortunately we cannot. Our visa for Russia is date specific, which means that we cannot enter Russia before 9th March. Because we have entered Kazakhstan earlier than planned, we must now do a visa run to Kyrgyzstan so that we do not overstay our free 30 days here in Kazakhstan, waiting for our Russian visa to begin. Making sense so far?! 

This in turn means we have had to come much further south in Kazakhstan, which then means we will need to take (yet) another train or bus journey further north, near to where we would have entered from China had we been able to cycle. All this has cost us significantly more than our budget allows which will implicate the later stages of our journey in Europe although we are both avoiding thinking about this too much at the moment!

Not willing to miss an opportunity, and aware we will blow our budget whatever we do, we decided that we would embrace this change of plan with a spontaneous short cycle tour around Almaty followed by an unplanned ski trip in Kyrgyzstan, so it’s not all bad!! 🙂

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. 

After staying with a lovely family on our first night here (through couch surfing) we set off late on our first day. Unsure of an exact route, but desperate to get back outside and on our bikes we set off toward the mountains. We barely made it 15km before we had to stop for the night as the light was fading fast. 

It felt great to be back in the tent, despite the freezing weather and heaps of snow piled up around us. The following morning we set off, but this time had barely made it 2km before we noticed my pannier rack had come loose. On closer inspection it was apparent that the bolt had completely sheared. Despite our best efforts to get it out, half of it remains inside the bolt hole on my bike and my pannier rack is now cable tied to the frame. Suffice to say this is not a long term solution!

We decided to sacrifice our planned cycle route yesterday and stay in the mountains for another night before heading back to the city to fix my bike today. 

And that is where I woke up this morning. On the edge of beautiful Kazakh mountains with a bicycle that needs a bolt drilling out of it and an overwhelming sense of disappointment. 

Though we have had a lot of fun, learnt a lot and had an amazing adventure so far it is simply not the trip I have been dreaming about, and it doesn’t look likely to become that trip in the near future. 

For now though, we must try to fix my bicycle then find a place to camp tonight. Then we can make yet another plan for the future…

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