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

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Bicycles, chips, watermelon, dirty roadside stores, and ice cream: what it’s all about.

This is an updated guide, essentially, for those who are curious or looking for information on doing a similar trip. I find it so helpful with any project to know what the plan was, what changes were made, and the end result. I’ve highlighted the big changes and here is also Part I for comparison’s sake.

Route

This was my original route. Over 3000k of cycling. Days not written in on this list mean I took the day off.

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  • June 2 Almaty to nowhere – 115k
  • June 3 Bishkek – 115k
  • June 4 Merke – 119k
  • June 5 Akyrtobe – 90k
  • June 6 Taraz – 66k
  • June 7 Tyrar Ryskulov – 103k
  • June 8 Shimkent – 73k
  • June 9 Tashkent 137k
  • June 12 Chimgan –
  • June 15 Tashkent –
  • June 16 Gulistan – 114k
  • June 17 Jizzakh – 127k
  • June 18 Samarkand – 110k
  • June 20 Kattaburgan – 78k
  • June 21 Navoy – 98k
  • June 22 Bukhara – 122k
  • June 24 Solakaural – 86k
  • June 25 Turkmenabat – 70k
  • June 30 Baku (via trains and cargo ship, since transit visas don’t allow for cyclists to cycle all the way across Turkmenistan)
  • June 30-3 Lagodekhi – 428k
  • July 3 Signaghi – 47k
  • July 5 Tbilisi – 87k
  • July 7-9 Kars 303k
  • July 10 Goreme (via overnight bus from Kars)
  • July 12-14 Ankara – 303k
  • July 15-18 Istanbul – 454k

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Cappadocia

This is the route I ended up taking, mileage per day, and reasons for changes. Just shy of 2000k total.

  • June 2 Almaty to nowhere – 130k
  • June 3 Bishkek – 101k
  • June 4 Nowhere – 110k
  • June 5 Jambyl – 132k
  • June 6 Zhabagly – 141k

IMG_9813Svetlana’s

I don’t burn easily, especially if I’m careful with sunscreen. But I got an insane heat rash the first five days. There was no shade except for the marshutka (small bus) stops. And sometimes I was so desperate, I used the tiny amount of shade I could find by leaning on a dumpster. When I slept at night, my body was like an oven, radiating heat. By the time I arrived at Zhabagly, I was exhausted to a point of delusion in which I felt like some sort of beautiful amazing alien. Endorphin highs combined with mild heat stroke is a weird trip. Needless to say, it was time to take a few days off. It was during this time I also realised I wasn’t going to receive my Azerbaijan visa in time to apply for my Turkmenistan transit visa and I made the decision that I would fly from Tashkent to Baku and skip Turkmenistan altogether.

  • June 9 Shimkent – 95k
  • June 10 Tashkent – 103k
  • June 13 Baht – 93k
  • June 14 Jizzakh – 115k
  • June 15 Samarkand – 101k

Almost everyone I know who’s been to Uzbekistan has gotten food poisoning, myself included. I just thank my lucky stars it occurred when I had a hotel room to myself in Samarkand. So I stayed three extra days and took the train with my bike to Bukhara, instead of cycling the 300k.

  • June 20 train to Bukhara – 15k (managed to cycle to the train station)
  • June 23 train to Tashkent
  • June 25 flight to Baku

See Zhabagly paragraph for why I flew.

  • June 27 Qobustan – 90k
  • June 28 Gebele – 129k
  • June 29 Sheki – 86k
  • June 30 Lagodekhi – 116k
  • July 1 Signaghi 47k
  • July 3 Tbilisi – 103k
  • July 5 Gori – 83k
  • July 6 Nowhere – 70k
  • July 7 hitched to Kutaisi

I met a Russian cyclist, at this point, and he didn’t feel comfortable cycling in the rain. I would’ve gone on cycling, had we not met but perhaps it was for the best as Georgia is full of hairpin curves and doing them on dry pavement would’ve been difficult enough.

  • July 8 cycled to a church, back to Kutaisi then on our way a bit before hitching to Batumi – 65k
  • July 11 Hopa – 31k

Meant to take a bus from Batumi straight to Cappadocia but was totally abandoned at the border by the driver.

  • July 13 cycling around Cappadocia – 25k
  • July 15 Istanbul via bus

Visas

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The photograph was their idea, I swear

Getting my Uzbek visa in Almaty, Kazakhstan was straightforward and only took a few hours.

In retrospect, I would’ve applied for my Azerbaijan visa myself. That’s what another cyclist I met did and he said it went off without a hitch and he received it within 3 weeks. Whereas, I applied for it through the Visa Machine who did an absolute cock up of a job and it took 10 weeks and meant I wasn’t able to go through Turkmenistan. Because to get a transit visa to Turkmenistan, you must have the visas for the countries you’re going to before and after, before you apply. By the time I realised this was a no-go, I was so exhausted from food poisoning and heat rash that I was really relieved to be skipping three days of travel by train and one day by sketchy cargo boat. The plane ticket from Tashkent to Baku also didn’t cost me that much more than travel in Turkmenistan and it meant that my schedule was more flexible, especially since the cargo ship from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan leaves when it pleases and I would’ve had to wait anywhere from a few hours to a week to catch it.

I totally effed up in Turkey and thought my visa was good for 180 days but it was only good for 90, which I didn’t realise until I was at the border. And it was a gong show of going through the border to Turkey to an ATM to get cash out, then back to Georgia to pay for the visa, then back through to Turkey. Waiting for an hour and a half to see if my bus was coming out and then accepting that it had abandoned me there and cycling to the nearest town to catch the next bus. Lesson learned: apply in advance or have enough cash in hand for this one.

Places I Stayed

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Everyone’s favourite photograph

  • June 1 Almaty – Couchsurfing
  • June 2 Middle of nowhere – Camped
  • June 3 Bishkek – AirBnB through my friend Zbig (so no link, sorry!)
  • June 4 Middle of nowhere – Camped
  • June 5 Jambyl – Big pink building with a store, restaurant, and a hotel that wasn’t even ready yet. It probably did not have a name but I managed to get a room. There was another hotel (mentioned on this blog) about 15k further.
  • June 6 Zhabagly – Couchsurfing with this woman. She didn’t officially accept my request online so you can’t see that I stayed with her on my profile but she posts a link on her own website so I don’t feel weird about putting it here too. I can’t recommend going to Zhabagly and staying with Svetlana enough! One of the best times I had on the trip.
  • June 9 Shimkent – CouchSurfing
  • June 10 Tashkent – Topchan Hostel
  • June 13 Baht – Camped
  • June 14 Jizzakh –  It was a real pain in the ass to get a hotel in this town. The first one was ridiculously expensive. The second didn’t have a license for foreigners (this is a thing in UZ, but only an issue in small towns). And luckily a local helped me find a third one that wasn’t too much money, with a license. The name may be buried somewhere in my notes – I’ll update this if I find it!
  • June 15 Samarkand – B&B Bahodir. Breakfast was good, especially the kasha (porridge) but I would go elsewhere for dinner (they were just okay). Really lovely courtyard to hang out in during the days when it’s hot!
  • June 20 Bukhara – Rustam and Zukhra. The dinners here were good, though strangely the breakfasts were awful and always included some sort of plain cooked pasta and a hotdog. I think you could find somewhere nicer to stay for not much more money. A friend recommended the Amelia Hotel.

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  • June 23 Tashkent – Topchan Hostel
  • June 25 Baku – Couchsurfing
  • June 27 Qobustan – Invitation to stay with a local
  • June 28 Gebele – Local somehow found me a free hotel room
  • June 29 Sheki – Sheki Caravanserai

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  • June 30 Lagodekhi – Kiwi Guest House. One of the best dinners I had and the owner will get you a litre of home made wine for something like $2.
  • July 1 Signaghi – Nana’s Guest House. Nana and the owner of Kiwi are friends. Totally loved both of these places!
  • July 3 Tbilisi – Warmshowers
  • July 5 Gori – Nitsa Guest House
  • July 6 Middle of nowhere – my Russian cyclist pal managed to procure an invitation to stay with a local.

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  • July 7 Kutaisi – random hotel I won’t even bother naming because though I love Georgia, this town was a shit hole.
  • July 8 Batumi – tent on the beach. Would not recommend since we were woken up by a police officer telling us to get a move on around 7am.
  • July 9-11 CouchSurfing in Batumi
  • July 11 Overnight bus
  • July 12-15 Avanos, Cappadocia – Warm Showers
  • July 15 Istanbul – Stayed with a friend

About CouchSurfing and Warm Showers, if you’d find it helpful to know whom I specifically stayed with (because that kind of thing is very helpful!), you can check out my references on CS (none for Shimkent, wasn’t super crazy about my host there) and profile on Warm Showers. Also, can I just say that Warm Showers is the worst name ever? I first learned about it from a fellow cyclist I met in Uzbekistan and probably wouldn’t have used it if it hadn’t been vouched for by someone in real life. Warm Showers is CouchSurfing, specifically for cyclists, and very helpful because then your hosts will know such things as where the nearest/best bike shops are in the city, they’ll know that laundry is extra paramount, and they’ll be understanding that you will only have an estimation and not an exact time of arrival.

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I really gave this wild camping thing my best go but honestly, I couldn’t get comfortable with it. I could do it if I was out for a hike in the middle of a mountain or the woods. But trying to find a spot to pitch a tent off the side of the road is fucking scary and tiring and I felt like I never slept any time I did it. That being said, I’m really glad I did it, if only because I feel like much less of a baby. Currently, I’m house sitting a very large house and in the past, I would’ve been freaked out to be in such a large space on my own at night.

As for being invited into people’s homes, other cyclists constantly talked up that when they simply asked locals about where to stay, they were immediately invited to spend the night. But this only happened to me once! I don’t know if it was because I was a young woman alone or what but locals always tried to direct me to the nearest hotel and seemed really concerned about my safety to the point that they didn’t even like the idea of me sleeping in a tent at night. I will say that the one time I was invited to spend the night, nothing bad happened and I was never fearful of my physical safety but it was super awkward and sad and like some sort of dystopian Eat Pray Love as written by Alice Munro or Miranda July.

A tip for staying in hotels. Use booking.com only to find hotels. The site charges a few bucks extra that you can avoid by contacting the owner directly.

Bike Repairs and Dealing With Mansplainers

I gotta give it to men in Central Asia that they always want to help a lady out. To the point that they will insist on helping even when it’s unnecessary or they don’t know what they’re doing, which is almost always the case with a bike repair because cycling isn’t very popular in Central Asia. A man who insisted on pumping my tire for me broke off the valve, rendering the tube useless, when I had no more left. Another insisted on putting my wheel back on for me and screwed it on so tight that my dainty lady wrists couldn’t get it off again and I had to ask another man to unscrew it for me (the horrific irony!). My back wheel was essentially ruined by the countless dudes WHO ACTUALLY WORKED AT BIKE SHOPS taking the cassette apart and putting it back together incorrectly (and I didn’t have the tools to do it myself). And much more.

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Namaste, get out of my way!

Halfway through the trip, any time a man offered to help, and an offer for help was rarely verbal, it was almost always an extension of their hands all over my bike, I firmly told them no and moved my bike away. It’s not worth a show of politeness to have something broken on your mode of transportation when you’re in the middle of nowhere. If you need help, you can ask for it and people will always be there and happy to give you a hand. But closely watch any work that’s done. Often, in bike shops, I was banished to wait outside or in the car and had to walk through their protests to supervise staff. And check over the work that’s done before leaving. I made the mistake of not doing this after a repair in Tbilisi and spent the next few days cycling with a misaligned rear wheel.

Kudos to good intentions and there were lots of times where I accepted help and men really did get me out of a pickle. But dudes, when a lady says she knows what she’s doing, it’s best to leave her be.

Luggage/Gear

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What I planned to bring in normal text. What I actually brought in bold. And what I would bring if I were to do it again in italics.

  • Extra chain
  • Spokes/Fiber Fix
  • Gear and brake cables
  • 3 tubes I would bring even more next time. They didn’t sell my size anywhere in Uzbekistan.
  • Travel pump I bought a better pump halfway through the trip. It was dumb to skimp on this at first.
  • Bungee cords
  • Distance tracker
  • Casette Remover Lockring
  • Multi-tool including chain breaker and spoke wrench
  • Patch kit I would bring like 3 next time, though.
  • Zip ties
  • Electrical tape
  • Pedal wrench It would’ve been silly to cart this around the whole way had I not ended up flying from UZ to AZ, because I could’ve just bought one in Istanbul once I arrived.
  • Water filter
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Stove
  • Bowls that could be used as pots/mug/spoon/fork
  • Water bottles/water bladder Never used it once since I always had to buy bottled water.
  • Swiss Army Knife Even though I lost it on my second day.
  • Balloons To blow up and pop to scare away wolves – which some other cyclists rightfully teased me about and I never ended up using.
  • iPhone
  • Camping mat
  • Solar charger
  • Baby wipes 
  • Sunscreen (one for face, four for body) I only ended up using two bottles.
  • Eye cream
  • Kobo
  • Razor
  • A dress and a skirt
  • Bathing suit
  • 1 bra
  • Underwear
  • 2 tank tops Only brought one.
  • Elephant/fisherman’s pants
  • Shorts Wish I’d brought two pairs of regular shorts instead of just one.
  • 2 pairs of bike shorts Got rid of both because they were both old pairs and my Brooks seat was good enough that the padding wasn’t necessary.
  • 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 but it was NEVER cold.
  • Lush shampoo bar It totally disintegrated in the heat. A bar of soap would’ve sufficed.
  • Clarisonic and face wash. I rightly realised this was as dumb an idea as it sounded. But this is the girl who carted a hair dryer up the biggest climb across Canada.
  • Makeup (eyebrow pencil, mascara, blush, concealer– This whole trip really changed my attitude towards makeup but that’s a story for another time.
  • 20 chapsticks (jk, kind of)
  • Travel pouch I never once worried about theft and I almost ruined my passport with back sweat.
  • Decoy phone and wallet 
  • Bug Spray
  • Ibuprofen, bandaids, antiseptic, cough drops, vitamin C, immodium (maybe the most important thing of all?)

On the second day, I abandoned a bowl, a large scarf, and a pair of cycling shorts. And I would’ve felt absolutely ridiculous if I’d brought my Clarisonic with me. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have bothered bringing a stove. Even when I camped, I only used it to make coffee and oatmeal in the morning, which was nice but not essential. I also wouldn’t have bothered bringing a tent or a sleeping bag, since the only time I truly seemed in the middle of nowhere with no alternative was the first night. It was nice to know the option was there if I got stuck but I’m not sure it was worth all that extra weight. At least I got some killer quads out of it, even if they are now being crushed under the weight of many Tim Tams.

Though I could’ve done the trip without so many items I brought, who was to know at the time!

I must say that the Fiber-Fix spoke was a bit of a pain to use but was a much better alternative to bringing along cassette removal tools (I’m glad I made sure I had the cassette removal lock ring).

Food/Water

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I was always fine with carrying only 2 days worth of food at one time. I most often ate bread, cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Every time I stopped I made sure I had at least 4 litres of water before taking off. I drank an average of 8 litres a day, which sometimes wasn’t even enough. Some days I really had to be proactive about purchasing water whenever I saw a store. But it was easy to anticipate when stores would be scarce. I never had to use my water filter and I only had to veer off course once in Azerbaijan to restock on water (that was a rough afternoon).

Sometimes people would pull over to offer me cold water, which was so lovely. I always felt if I became desperate I could wave someone down for water, though it never came to this.

Top Useful Things

Bungee cords. My bike and I had to travel in so many cars and these were so helpful for packing it properly in the trunk. And of course, I used them every day for packing everything on my rat trap. Also helpful for when I had to cart my bike box around airports.

Camping mat. Essential for essential mid-afternoon naps. Good for any rest break, which 90% of the time took place on the ground.

Cotton scarf. So multifunctional! It’s a pillow/shade from sun/shield from dust/source of warmth/towel/cover for religious sites/etc.

Trains and Planes and Buses

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Surprisingly taking my bike on buses in Turkey was the biggest headache. Maybe because I don’t speak any Turkish and I at least spoke basic Russian. Trains were no issue and the plane was fine too. Uzbekistan Airways only charged me an excess baggage fee based on the weight so I paid $37 USD.

Safety

Even I was surprised that I was never fearful of my safety during the trip. There were lots of times I was scared, such as camping alone. But I never actually thought I would come to any physical harm. Central Asia and the Caucasus are very safe and though there were a shit ton of awkward dude moments, that’s as far as it went.

‘Tudes

The biggest shock on this trip were the attitudes of other travellers and cyclists I encountered. While many were as open-minded and encouraging as I had expected, I found a lot of people were stuck in basing everything on their own experience and any time I did something different from them, they came across as admonishing. I couldn’t have done this trip five years earlier or when I was younger because I think I would’ve been too unsure of myself. If you do this kind of trip, be open to others and flexible in your ideas while also remaining confident that you know what’s best for yourself.

If I Were to Do It Over 

I would have:

  • taken less items, as shown in the above list.
  • not bothered trying to camp at all. And with a few exceptions, from now on, when I travel by bicycle, especially if I’m alone, I’m not going to camp or even bring the gear. It’s so much extra weight and effort when you’re already really pushing yourself. I wasn’t even that keen on the camp/bike thing when I travelled with my then boyfriend from Vancouver to San Francisco. But I’d be up for it if I did something like cycle from Melbourne to Canberra with pals.
  • stood up for myself even more with pushy dudes.
  • learned how to say “I’m full” or “I’m not hungry” in Russian. As it was, I’m very glad I had a basic handle on the knowledge. It helped me feel much more in control – a totally stark contrast to arriving in rural Turkey and only knowing a handful of words.

 

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Thank you for all the kind words and encouragement! There are a lot of doubters out there, especially when it comes to a woman taking a journey alone, and it meant a whole lot. There’s much more I have to say about my trip and I will at some point! Look for my book Eat Cry Diarrhea in stores some time next year.

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