How to Plan a Cycling Trip Across Central Asia and the Caucasus

I am moving to Australia! But first, I’m leaving KZ by cycling from Almaty to Istanbul.

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Naramata

I’ve done two cycling trips before, one from Vancouver to San Francisco and one from Vancouver to Naramata. Along the Pacific Coast, all you need is a decent bike and “the purple book“. And cycling to Naramata simply required choosing between the #3 and the #5 highways. Voila!

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Extensive gear shifter bruising on the way to S.F.

As a North American, if something went awry on a cycling trip within the States or Canada (nothing ever did), I knew help was easily there if I needed it. This trip is very different and required planning of epic proportions (a word that I do not use lightly). The librarian in me kind of loved it even though such details as camping alone, researching strategies for scaring away wolves, having to take a cargo ship, and buying a water filter for the first time in my life completely terrify me.

But it will also be awesome and worth the first few sleepless nights.

Here are the fruits of my labours (other than the actual trip itself). And of course, I’ll update once the journey is complete!

Route

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I so wanted to go through Iran but they changed the visa requirements in the last year or two so that Canadians can only enter the country if they have a guided tour for the entire time. My rough route, minus the many small stops on the way:

  • Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
  • Shimkent, Kazakhstan
  • Tashkent, Uzbekistan
  • Samarkand, Uzbekistan
  • Bukhara, Uzbekistan
  • Train/bus from Turkmenabat to Ashgabat, then to Turkmenbashi (it’s really difficult to get anything but a transit visa for Turkmenistan, and that doesn’t give enough time to cycle across the country)
  • Take a cargo ship from Turkmenbashi to Baku
  • Baku, Azerbaijan
  • Sighnagi, Georgia
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Train/bus from Kars to Kayseri, Turkey
  • Ankara, Turkey
  • Istanbul, Turkey

In general, these sites have been so helpful for route planning and more:

Silk Road
A lot of people have asked if I’m cycling the Silk Road but the Silk Road was never one road so the name is annoyingly misleading. It was a network of roads that fluctuated throughout seasons/political happenings/etc. So yes, I am kind of cycling some of the Silk Roads.

What I’m Most Excited to See
Before moving here, my knowledge of this area was very poor and it was overwhelming to research areas outside of Kazakhstan. Though I haven’t travelled in any of these regions yet (save for Turkey), living in KZ has given me a much better gauge on the surrounding area.

Uzbekistan and Georgia are the countries I’m most looking forward to. Uzbekistan has gorgeous, ancient buildings – Google image search Samarkand, Bukhara, or Khiva. And I can’t wait to eat my way through the country’s plov. And dude, Uzbek pottery.

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Georgia (as represented by a restaurant in Astana)

Georgia looks to have beautiful scenery and more importantly, it is KHACHAPURI AND WINE COUNTRY. Georgian food is getting super trendy now and I can totally understand why. It’s been my favourite fare to go out for while living in Astana.

I’m also very excited to go to Cappadocia in Turkey and see all of the hot air balloons and penis rocks.

Maps
I ordered the Reise Know-How general Central Asia, Georgia/AZ, and Turkey maps, which I read were the best in the business. And this Uzbekistan road map. I’ve also downloaded lots of maps from the maps.me app.

Phone
I’m going to continue using my Kazakh phone since roaming is so cheap across Central Asia/Turkey. But I think this only really works if you have a Kazakh bank account with which to top up your Kazakh cell plan.

Tune-Ups

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The most important thing is to make sure you get a tune-up before leaving. If your bike is in tip-top shape, it’s likely the most you’ll have to deal with on the road is the occasional flat. And also, book mark this list of bicycle repair places in Central Asia. 

I didn’t get any bike work done or buy any major gear in Astana because the one real bike shop in Astana (Limpopo) doesn’t like to work on bikes that aren’t from their store and none of the staff are fluent in English (and my Russian isn’t good enough to communicate about mechanical details). I’ve read that there’s a bicycle shop in Almaty (Ekstremal/Extremal) with English-speakers so I’m going to get my tune-up there before leaving and replace my front tire (and maybe wheel) since I think it got bent on one of Astana’s treacherous curbs.

Bike Skills

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Very important! Test out all this repair stuff a week or two before leaving. It took me several tries and I had to ask for help before I could even get my travel pump to work. Better to have mistakes happen 
at home than on the road! These are the things I made sure to know before heading off:

  • Changing a flat/patching a tube
  • Replacing a broken spoke
  • Fixing a broken chain/installing a new one
  • Removing pedals
  • Replacing and adjusting gear/brake cables

Before this trip, I knew how to change/repair flats and some other very basic tasks. But as bike shops are few and far between, I needed to learn much more. This series of videos was SO helpful.

Take a bunch of photos of your bike before leaving. Sometimes I still get tripped up with seemingly simple things like putting my back tire back on my bike and having a photo saves me a lot of grief. This will be especially helpful if you have to pack/unpack your bike to take on a plane too.

Gear and brake cables are still beyond my skill set but I have spare ones at least and a basic idea of how to change them.

I also taught myself how to true a wheel (kind of). This means straightening a wheel by loosening and tightening spokes, which is the first thing you should try when your wheel has a wobble to it. If you can’t true it, it means the rim is probably a bit bent, which is the case with my front wheel. So I think I can true okay – but I doubted my skills to the point that I had to get a very nice physics professor to check and confirm my findings.  It’s not something I should need on the road once I have my wheel fixed/replaced but I’m glad to have the knowledge at least. And if you’re interested in trying it out at any point, this is a good hack.

How to Carry All Your Stuff

I’ve always gone by two panniers on the back, tent/sleeping bag/camping mat bungeed to the rat trap. Just be careful about weight distribution. The only time I got a flat tire from Vancouver – S.F. was right after grocery shopping, the weight on the back of the bike caused the back tube to collapse.

Cycling Gear

  • Extra chain
  • Spokes/Fiber Fix
  • Gear and brake cables
  • 3 tubes
  • Travel pump
  • Bungee cords
  • Distance tracker
  • Casette Remover
  • Multi-tool including chain breaker and spoke wrench
  • Patch kit
  • Zip ties
  • Electrical tape
  • Pedal wrench

All of these items were easy enough to get. For the most part I ordered items from MEC to my friend Megan’s house (thank you!), which she brought to me when we met up in Tokyo. And the few final things, my friend Dave brought to me in Istanbul from Vancouver.

Spokes were by far the most difficult item because they are a real pain to measure yourself (and then you might not even have the correct measurement). I was hoping my bike shop back home would know but they said they’d have to see the actual wheel again. So I ended up buying a Fiber Fix.

A word on cycle clothing: I am not a believer other than bike shorts, cycling gloves, a rain jacket, and a helmet. I used clip-ins for Vancouver to San Francisco but I found them to be a nuisance. Admittedly, I’m not the most graceful of cyclists, and I often fell over when stand-still at stoplights. But I also had a cartoonish vision of myself going up a large hill, getting stuck, and starting to reverse down the hill with my legs spinning. Anyways, I’ve never used them since.

For tops, I use the same tanktops I wear while running or a sports bra and a t-shirt and I just wear Converses and athletic socks on my feet.

Other Gear

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The most important gear is snacks. Sadly, Cliff bars cannot be bought here.

  • Water filter
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Stove
  • Pot/mug/spoon/fork
  • Water bottles/water bladder (I like to be able to hold up to 4 litres total at once)
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Balloons (to blow up and pop to scare away wolves)
  • iPhone
  • Camping mat
  • Solar charger

Apparently there will be parts of my trip where I will need a water filter (southern KZ). This one is the best on the market, I hear, and I also bought the silt stopper since I heard it was very worth it.

I’ll be camping, as much as possible, not just because of budget, but also because in southern Kazakhstan and Uzebkistan in particular, there will likely be no other option.

I found solar charger research to be overwhelming but went with the Waka-Waka mostly because a friend said other friends recommended it and they donate one to people in need for every one that’s sold.

Other Stuff to Bring (Clothing/Hygiene) 

This is all very subjective, but it’s what I’m bringing:

  • Baby wipes (shower substitute)!
  • Sunscreen (one for face, four for body)
  • Eye cream
  • Kobo
  • Razor
  • A dress and a skirt
  • Bathing suit
  • 1 bra
  • Underwear
  • 2 tank tops
  • Elephant pants
  • Shorts
  • Cotton scarf that doubles as a towel
  • Big warm scarf that doubles as a pillow
  • Thick socks (if my feet are cold, I can’t sleep)
  • Lush shampoo bar
  • Clarisonic and face wash (judge all you want!)
  • Makeup (see above – for my off days: eyebrow pencil, blush, concealer, mascara)
  • 20 chapsticks (jk, kind of)
  • Travel pouch
  • Small towel
  • Decoy phone and wallet
  • bug spray
  • Ibuprofen, bandaids, antiseptic, cough drops, vitamin C, immodium (maybe the most important thing of all?)

I know some of these things seem silly to bring but I want to feel like my normal self on my off days. And for me, that includes wearing a dress and some makeup.

Food

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I ate 6 of these. Bulking up.

Real talk: I don’t really know what I’m doing with food other than bringing 25 Mac Coffee packs. I’m bringing a stove, stuff like oatmeal and quinoa (a gift from an American friend). There’s no point bulking myself down with more than a few days’ worth of food at a time so I will just buy what I see on the way!

Safety
I am the most scared of camping alone because I’m a big baby and incredibly easy to startle. I hate getting up to pee in the middle of the night even when I’m on an official campground, sharing a tent with someone else. When cycling to San Francisco, my bf would always get annoyed with me for peeing too close to the tent. Each night is basically going to be the scene in Wild where Cheryl freaks out about a caterpillar in her sleeping bag. Except there will be no caterpillar.

Other than that, I’m not too scared about the trip, just slightly uneasy about so much isolation in unfamiliar territory. I’ve felt safer living in Astana than anywhere else and my hesitations have absolutely nothing to do with the populations I’m passing through.

The bike trip I did alone was very isolated but only for four days. And though there weren’t many towns, there were always lots of cars passing by, and it was still close to home. I’m being as cautiously optimistic as I can be and will simply use common sense.

If anyone asks, I’ll be meeting my husband soon. I’ve learned as much Russian as I can. I have a decoy cheap phone and a wallet with not much money in case I’m robbed, and my actual phone/wallet/passport will be kept in one of those silly-looking waist pocket straps.

And I’m picking up pepper spray from a hunting store in Almaty – though that is more in anticipation of wild dogs.

Visas
This website is very helpful!

If you’re Canadian, for the countries I’m passing through, you’ll need visas for: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Apply for as many visas as possible from home!

Theoretically, you can apply at embassies while travelling for visas without an LOI but the processing time can take weeks, and you don’t want to get in a situation where your visa in one country is running out while you’re waiting for the visa for the next country.

Careful that sometimes there’s a domino effect – for example, you can’t get a transit visa to Turkmenistan before having the visas for the countries before and after.

I have a work visa for Kazakhstan and luckily my workplace didn’t feel the need to issue me an exit visa or that would’ve been all sorts of complicated.

For Turkey, you can just get the visa at the airport when you arrive. If you’re crossing overland, you can apply online. It’s easy peasy. And I’m covered already because the visa lasts 180 days and I just got one when I went to Istanbul last month.

For the Uzbek and Azerbaijan visas, you’ll have to hire an agency for help even though there is no particularly good agency. And you’ll have to hire for Kazakhstan too if you’re not already working here 😉

I used The Visa Machine and I found them stressful to communicate with. They generally don’t respond well to email, and often staved me off on the phone, and my paperwork was all issued WAY after the processing times listed on their site. Consequently, I’ve had to rework my schedule twice. They are helpful with giving out initial advice, though!

Here’s a bit more on visa quirks:

Generally: You do not need to arrive on the exact day that your visa begins (other than perhaps the Turkmenistan transit visa). Of course, if you arrive five days later in Azerbaijan than expected, you will only have 25 days in Azerbaijan instead of 30, but you will still be able to enter. However, you cannot arrive earlier than the date stated on your visa.

Apply for visas for as long a period as possible, especially if there’s not much cost difference.

LOI stands for Letter of Invitation and is a necessity for most visas. The LOI is the reason it is very tricky and in most cases, impossible, to get a visa on your own.

Azerbaijan: For this application, I needed a hotel booking. Azerbaijan is hella expensive but apparently no one actually checks if you stay at the hotel you booked. So you can book and cancel later, which I did via Expedia.

Turkmenistan: It’s easiest to get a 5-day transit visa. Initially, I was going to have The Visa Machine issue me a Letter of Invitation, and I could’ve gotten the visa at the border. But they didn’t process my paperwork on time so that meant I had to plan to apply for the Turkmenistan visa in Almaty and pick it up 10 business days later in Tashkent. But now it looks like the Visa Machine won’t get my Azerbaijan visa to me before I leave Almaty, in which case I’ll have to apply for the visa in Tashkent and pick it up a week later (fingers crossed!).

You’ll have to put a hotel down on your application, which is annoying because it’s difficult to find exact addresses of hotels in the country. I used one found in the Central Asia Lonely Planet guide.

Uzbekistan: You’ll need a letter from your employer, stating your employment, to get the Letter of Invitation. It can be very simple, just a couple of lines saying you work at this place.

Places to Stay
I plan on camping as much of the trip as possible. The most difficult part was planning out bigger city accommodation. For this, I signed up for CouchSurfing, which I’ve never done before. And I made sure to look into hostels/cheap hotels/AirBnB as a back up in case CouchSurfing falls through and also for days when I want to be on my own.

The issue with CouchSurfing and AirBnB is that my internet access will be very limited and my schedule is an estimation. So I’ve tried to find people on CouchSurfing who are okay with me saying I’m going to arrive between x and x day. And then of course the hostels and cheap hotels are on hand for backup.

Best Airlines for Bikes
You’re probably going to have to put your bike on a plane, at some point. Make sure you check fees before you book your ticket. Some airlines don’t charge extra as long as the bike fits within your checked baggage weight allowance (Qantas, Emirates, Qatar, Singapore), other will charge a flat fee (Air Canada, Lufthansa). Some people have tried making charts online but these may not be up to date, so check the airline’s site directly.

PRO-TIP Check which carrier is operating the flight. For example, you may buy a ticket on British Airways’ site, thinking you can use their generous baggage policy. But then realize that the flight is actually operated by Vueling Airlines, which doesn’t allow any free checked baggage for economy seats.

There are lots of good youtube videos about how to pack your bike for a plane ride (I just use cardboard boxes).

Friends
I couldn’t have done all this without so much help from my friends. Everything from getting my bike over here from Vancouver, to letting me order the items I need and bringing them to me, to schlepping my suitcases halfway across the globe, to just generally being very encouraging. I am overwhelmed by all the kindness.

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Agassiz. En route to Naramata.

xoxoxo

Also, if anyone would ever like to contact me about planning a similar trip and needing advice, please do!

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5 thoughts on “How to Plan a Cycling Trip Across Central Asia and the Caucasus

  1. i admire your courage and sense of adventure! i hope you continue your transmissions, both on the road and in australia. i’ve enjoyed reading about life in kazakhstan!

  2. Wow! You’re so brave! I can’t wait to read about your journey….I pray that all goes smoothly and that you’re always safe. God speed.

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