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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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!

How to Go to the Doctor*

Aside from the worst hangovers of my life (my theory is lower quality alcohol + more limited access to drinking water), I have never been sick while living in Astana. My body loves a dry, cool climate. But I knew I’d have to go to a clinic at some point for a tick-borne encephalitis vaccine. This type of tick is not found in North America and so NA travel clinics generally don’t carry the vaccine, though you can have them special order it, with enough notice.

This vaccine is not a requirement for going to Kazakhstan but if you’re going to be traipsing about rural parts of Eastern Europe/Central Asia, as I am, then it’s a good idea.

Today was the day I went to the clinic. It was bright and clean and the staff was friendly.

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So clean!

The doctor told me not to be scared because it was just “a little pain from a big doctor.” He also told me I was beautiful and half muttered/half sang “so beautiful” to himself while preparing the needle.

He said no more on the topic after I had to define what a wart was for him and ask what to do about the one on the bottom of my foot.

But he did write the name of whatever medication I need in Russian to take to a pharmacist.

All of this was a good ratio of delight/horror until I was presented with a $150 bill. “Oh sorry, I made a mistake,” said the receptionist as she handed me an updated $200 bill.

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A $200 receipt

“I’m pretty sure our medical insurance is just for flu shots and having babies,” my expat co-worker sympathized.

*This post has no real practical value about going to the doctor here. Though if you do ever go to the SOS International Clinic, go to the entrance with the most doors with a view of the turnstiles, and enter the farmost left door, or else you’ll end up in the German Embassy.