What made our first cycle trip different?

the turkmen dash, first cycle trip

What made our first cycle trip different? I’ve decided to reflect upon this, while shivering to death in the middle of some Kazakh desert, and this is what I came up with.

Planning

Most people plan their cycle trip over the span of a year, sometimes 2, sometimes even longer. I suggested the trip to Michael while we were working the ski season in France, and within 6 weeks we were on our way to China. I had looked up the route to get us out of France and into Italy, but apart from that our plan was just to head East and take it as it comes.

To be perfectly honest I didn’t think we would make it as far as China. I was happy just to make it across Italy. That’s still an entire country we crossed on a bicycle, and still an awesome feeling. I guess that’s one bonus to lack of planning and the lack of money spent on equipment, we were less likely to be disappointed with the outcome if we didn’t make it the entire way. We had no expectations on our first cycle trip!

Equipment

We were on a very tight budget, which meant we had hardly any money to buy good gear. We were also living in a very small, remote ski station. The closest town was about 20km away. We only had limited access to a car, which made getting all the gear together, within a fews weeks, also a bit of a challenge. The end result was that our gear was complete shit and not really designed for the kind of travel we were planning. To prove this, below is a photo of my pannier, taped together with duct tape.

the turkmen dash
Having breakfast in the truck queue

To give you an idea of the shit gear we got together:

Our Hybrid bikes, were second hand €250 bikes. This versed the touring bikes of every other cycle tourist we’ve met. Most decent touring bikes cost €2000-3000 and even some of the midrange touring bikes are in the thousands.

Shitty ebay panniers (mine started to fall apart on the day we left and weren’t at all water proof. I now have a plastic bag cover on them) $30US for the set vs. waterproof panniers that are anywhere from $100-500US.

Tent €70 Coleman 2 person hiking tent (I actually like our tent, but it’s a bit small for Michael) vs. tents from $300-800 plus.

Overall budget for all our gear €500 vs. the average cycle tourist €3000-5000+.

Pretty much everything we bought was the cheapest piece of shit you could find. If we had the money, resources and ability of going back in time, there are definitely a few things I would have invested a bit more money in. Not the bike (I liked my Trek), but definitely the panniers, good lights, a multi fuel stove and a good pump.

Pannier holes
Pannier holes

Budget

So as you know from the equipment budget, we were going to be doing this trip on a very tight budget. Luckily, as it turns out, bicycle touring is a super budget travel option. Originally we had hoped to do the trip on about €5 ($8) per day, and I don’t think we are far off it, maybe closer to $10-15 per day on average. The cheapest countries were Turkey and Iran where we spent on average $4-5 per day, and luckily this where we also spent the most time. The more expensive countries, unsurprisingly were in Europe about $20 per day.

Of course it would have been amazing to have more money to do the trip with. Things would have been a lot easier and less stressful. What it came down to was; if we don’t do it now, even though we have bugger all money, will we ever do it? Probably not!

Training

Well we had absolutely no training whatsoever! Actually, in my case I was probably at my lowest fitness level of the past few years. About 3 months before we started we set off on our first cycle trip I was in a skiing accident and tore a ligament and my mensicus. This meant I was pretty much doing nada for the months leading up to the trip. Actually, up until 2 weeks before we started the cycle trip, I couldn’t even get on the bike. I think in total we took the bikes out twice for about 20km and that was it. We decided the only way we could do this trip was to ‘train on the go’. So that’s what we did. And though it was not the easiest way at first, it worked.

cycling uzbekistan
The most horrible 60km mountain pass in the world

Experience

Nada! This was our first cycle trip. I didn’t know anything about bicycles, and hadn’t really cycled since I was 13. In fact, up until I started going out with Michael last year, I had never even considered cycling across a country or even part of it. I thought it was just nuts and sounded like hell! It was Michael that had the dream of cycling across a country. So we started talking about one day cycling across Canada. That day still hasn’t come.

Even more surprising, is that the whole cycling to China was actually my suggestion. I was bored at the ski station, feeling sorry for myself as I couldn’t hike, ski, run or do anything fun. I felt a bit trapped and just wanted to get out. We had to be back in Australia for Michael’s brothers wedding in less than a year, which had put Canada on hold. We also didn’t want to do the sensible thing and go back to work in Australia for the year. Originally I was looking at teaching English somewhere, such as Thailand, but Michael wasn’t to keen. Then we got talking about doing a cycle trip.

Originally we were planning to cycle to Croatia… With the time we had, why did we have to stop in Croatia? Let’s just see how far we can go… Maybe all the way to China?

Despite Michael’s dream of wanting to cycle across a country, he also knew nothing about bike mechanics, and we have just been learning as we go. Something that isn’t always very fun, but ‘touch-wood’ we’ve had no major problems so far.

So, why did we set off so unprepared…

Stupidity? Maybe. Did we underestimate the entirety of the trip? Most definitely. But what really made us head off into the unknown, on bicycles, was the fact that we had this crazy opportunity to do it now. Would we get the chance to do it again, who knows, but what mattered was ‘the now’. So we seised the moment, and here we are. I write this as I freeze my butt off in a tent, unable to sleep because our gear isn’t fit for cold weather (one of the downfalls to lack of planning). I’m wondering how we are going to survive the approaching winter, but hey, I’m in Kazakhstan. I’ve made it here from France, on a bicycle. So as far as I’m concerned, I’ve already succeeded, and I’ve had the experience of a lifetime.

So basically, what I’m saying is there are no excuses not to give it a go. Head out on your first cycle trip. You got kids? Take them with you (I’ve seen people cycle touring with kids). A career? Then just go for a couple of weeks. No money (like us)? Work to a budget that suits you. It’s doable, I don’t want to hear the excuses, ‘just do it!’ It’ll be hard work, you’ll hate it at times, but it’ll be one of the best most rewarding experiences of your life. So, what are you waiting for, head off on your first cycle trip.

Chau for now from a frozen cyclist!

I actually wrote this blog post about our first cycle trip one night in Kazakhstan  when I couldn’t sleep because our tent had frozen over. I’ve only just got around to typing it up. I hope you enjoyed it!

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy our 10 secrets to cycle touring.

Cycling Kazakhstan
Still camping in the desert

France to China by toilet: World Toilet Day

france to china by toilet

In honour of World Toilet Day, I’m reposting my ‘France to China by toilet‘ blog post, which I posted on my other site last year during our France to China cycle tour. During the cycle trip I was raising money and awareness about the global sanitation crisis, through the charity, Wateraid.

In 2014, I was cycling to raise money and awareness for the global sanitation crisis, however it never really occurred to me that while cycling I would find myself face to face with some of the issues related to this global crisis, such as open deification, no running water and poor hygiene.

The countries I cycled through aren’t necessarily the world’s poorest countries, however many of the countries (Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and even China), are still developing and though many of the major cities in these countries have incredibly high tech, hygienic toilets with running water and soap available, this contrasted greatly with the more rural communities. The ‘average’ tourist that’s visits these countries are unlikely to see, experience or even be aware of some of the sanitation issues that the country is experiencing. I could even go as far as saying, most locals that live in the developed cities of these countries, in cities such as Almaty or Beijing, are unlikely to even be aware of the sanitation issues in their own countries. The extremes of toilet quality within one country is just unbelievable.

From France to Turkey, Iran, China and Australia, here is France to China by toilet.

EUROPEAN TOILETS:

We started our France to China by toilet journey in the French Alps. The standard Western toilet, clean, hygienic and private – they tick all the boxes on safe sanitation. My only complaint in Europe was, why do men always leave the toilet seat up? We also came across a ‘drop toilet’ on a hike in the French Alps. Though no running water, it still offers privacy and is in a much better condition than most the toilets I have used since.

 

TURKEY:

After Europe our France to China by toilet journey took us through Turkey. This is where we started to notice a difference in toilet quality throughout the country. We also were introduced to the ‘squat toilet’. With sore legs, ‘squats’ aren’t really that great for cycle tourists. Turkey is also a country where you couldn’t always flush your toilet paper. Toilets ranged from ultimate hygienic, with toilet seat covers, soap, air fresheners (this includes public toilets), to absolutely disgusting squat toilets. I even have my suspicions that a lot of the gas stations (that are mostly run by men), only clean the bloke’s toilets. Turkey was also the first country where we would sometimes cycle for an entire day before coming across a toile. So open defication became more frequent (hence the landscape pic).

IRAN:

More ‘squats’! Some people believe it’s healthier to use a squat toilet. There might be some truth in that, but I still prefer the Western. My worse memory of going to the toilet in Iran was using a public toilet in a park. The ground in the toilet block was soaking wet and dirty. Each cubicle has a hose, as people tend to use a hose instead of toilet paper and unfortunately, someone left the hose running.

All toilets are private and most are clean and have soap and running water. The ‘hole in the ground’ toilet photo below, was actually in a house of a family near the Turkmenistan border. It was the first toilet I had ever seen like that (and this one was actually really clean), but it wasn’t the last. I discovered, though they are rare in Iran and Turkey, they were common in Central Asia.

CENTRAL ASIA (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan):

It’s funny that I didn’t actually take any photos of the squat toilets. I feared I was going to accidentally drop my phone into the hole. The Western toilet was in a hotel (yes, most hotels that cater for Westerners), but the majority of toilets are ‘squats’. Similar to the ‘hole in the ground’ photo above, and usually in outhouses like the ones below. They usually don’t have a cubicle doors. I discovered this as I entered the shack below to find a girl staring at me, while squatting and ‘doing her business’. I screamed in shock, then retreated out of the toilet.

The lack of hygiene and privacy in these toilets actually meant I felt more comfortable ‘doing my business’ in the open. Strangely, this is now a issue in many of the slums in India where toilets have been installed. One thing that I always had that some people in these areas didn’t was hand sanitiser and toilet paper!

CHINA:

The country where there was the most extreme and noticeable difference in toilet quality. It was in China where I experienced the best toilet of my life and probably some of the worst. The fancy toilets, with heated toilet seat options and massage facilities, in contrast to the mould covered squat toilets. One thing about China is that there are plenty of public toilets. Probably more so than in any of the Western countries we cycled through. It was just the standard of toilet tended to vary largely. So, we made it from France to China by toilet, as well as by bike.

 

That sums up my toilet experience while cycling from France to China by toilet. One thing that I have gained from this experience is an appreciation of clean, private (and Western) toilets.

Find out how to get involved in World Toilet Day. Without access to a safe toilets, women and children (and even men) are forced to put themselves at risk of sexual abuse, disease and illness each and every day.

Happy World Toilet day!!!

Cycling Kazakhstan! The land of yurts and Borat!

Cycling Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan wasn’t a country we had originally planned to cycle thorough.

With the unpredictable closures of the borders from Kyrgyzstan to China, we decided to play it safe and decided cycling Kazakhstan would be the best option. It’s a country I didn’t know much about. A country I didn’t really give a second thought to, and a country, I admittedly didn’t have high expectations for. All I knew about Kazakhstan, was that it was once apart of the USSR (like most of Central Asia), it was also very flat and empty and some regions were still radioactive from Russian nuclear testing. Other than that, all I knew Kazakhstan to be famous for was “Borat”. I was excited to be cycling Kazakhstan!

No, we didn’t meet Borat.

Admittedly I was too scared to even mention ‘Borat’ to any locals – and honestly, it was a shit movie anyway. To my delight, we did see plenty of yurts. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay in yurt while in cycling Kazakhstan, so I still have that dream to fulfil.

Cycling Kazakhstan
Making friends with stray dogs!

Kazakhstan was a country where I thought things would be easy.

Flat, for easy cycling. Empty, for easy camping. And, well, we left the shit roads behind in Uzbekistan, didn’t we? I wasn’t entirely wrong about that. True, Kazakhstan is largely flat, except for the route we took! It’s also very empty, but also very freezing cold – despite being told October was a good month for hiking. The roads – the roads were terrible! Despite all that, cycling Kazakhstan exceeded my expectations, and is a country I would definitely consider returning to.

The cycle from Bishkek to Almaty, for the most part was quite enjoyable. Relatively good roads, with a stunning backdrop of the snow capped mountains in Kyrgyzstan. The people were also surprisingly friendly, and we had several people stop to give us bread and fruit.

Kazakhstan did however provide us with 2 new challenges.

Frozen tents and bicycles, and shorter days! We experienced the coldest nights of the trip so far, waking up to a frosty tent and frozen bikes. It was not only hard getting out of the sleeping bag in the morning. We also had the challenge of defrosting all our gear. This meant some days we weren’t able to start cycling until 10am, or even later. The morning is generally when we do the most mileage, but with the reduced cycle hours we were struggling to smash out even 30-40km before lunch.

We weren’t really geared up for the cold weather, and spent a fair few nights shivering away in the tent with an emergency blanket draped over us. I guess we never really thought we would make it as far as Kazakhstan, so didn’t even consider that we could end up cycling in such cold weather.

The other challenge was the progressively shorter days. Before we were cycling from 6am until sometime as late as 9pm, now we could only cycle between 9am and 5pm (and that was on a good day).

Cycling Kazakhstan
Camping and waking up to being surrounded by a herd of cows

By the time we made it to Almaty we were very excited for a hot shower and a warm bed to sleep in.

I really liked Almaty, probably my favorite major city in Central Asia. It was very western and modern yet still with a post-soviet feel and lots of history. They even had cycle lanes in the city! It was exactly what we needed. We fulfilled Michael’s desire and went to a lunch buffet (twice in a row). I couldn’t really argue for only $9, including a drink – total bargain! Other than that we explored the city, by foot.

From Almaty we had another 400km of cycling Kazakhstan to reach the Chinese border. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake – so of course, that meant it wasn’t.

Head winds, continuous inclines, crap roads with a gravel hard shoulder (at the best of times) and some real bad drivers. Of course this is also around about the time when my body started falling to pieces – constant aches and pains all over. Our gear was also falling to pieces. Daily we had a new problem or breakage. Note to self: don’t buy the cheapest stuff off Ebay for future travels.

Missing being invisible.

On top of this, I was sick of people staring, grabbing my stuff, taking photos, whether you want them to or not. I constantly felt like an animal in a zoo, and though many people were just curious and meant well, the last thing you want when you’re exhausted and haven’t had a good nights sleep all week, is people poking and staring. This is something we constantly put up with since leaving Turkey, and it’s not something we had much more patience with. It’s like it doesn’t occur to some people that we can see them. That we are people as well, and we don’t like to be poked and prodded constantly. There is such a thing as space and there is such thing as respect, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t seem to understand this.

Honestly, all I could think about was home. I was finding it extremely hard to stay motivated and just wanted the whole trip done and dusty. However, I had signed up to do this for an amazing cause. 2.5 billion people have no access to safe or hygienic sanitation and they have no choice in the matter. They risk abuse and illness daily. I reminded myself that I wasn’t cycling for me, I was cycling for them. So, I pushed on. If they don’t have a choice, then neither did I. My suffering was still only temporary and nothing compared to the risks they endured, each and every day. It also would have been such a shame, and regret if we gave up so close to reaching our goal.

Cycling Kazakhstan
Camping in the desret

The scenery was quite various, though the road remained poo.

We cycled through towns, gullies, deserts, mountains, canyons, forests and more towns before finally arriving at the border crossing. Every night we were cycling Kazakhstan, we wild camped. Finally I felt like I had somewhat overcome my fear of wild camping. It only took 6 months to get there. The best wild camping night was in the desert, about 500m off the main road. It looked like we were camping on the moon, with a strange mist that covered the land. Grey colours dominated everywhere, except for the star-filled sky and desolate environment just added to the eerie out-of-space feel.

Eventually we made it to the Chinese border. Bikes, bags and boyfriend. We all crossed the border intact. It took a few days for it to sink in, but we had made it! We cycled all the way from the French Alps to China!