China Part 1
The wonderful Kyrgyzstan
How to pack your bike for a flight:
1) ask local bike shops for a cardboard bike box. Most will be happy to give you one for free :)
2) try and get some bubble wrap or foam tubing. If you can't find any (like us) choose the clothes you like the least / secretly want to ruin as an excuse to go shopping!
3) try to take off the pedals, go back to the bike shop to ask them to loosen them when it appears you can't get them off yourself, get home and realise that you still can't undo the pedals even though they are loosened, hit them with a hammer til the screw loosens
4) take off the handlebars, front wheel and saddle
5) wrap as much of the bike as possible in clothes, cardboard, padding and more clothes. Pay special attention to the wheels and cassettes
6) grab a friend and try and lift it all into the box and keep your fingers crossed that it fits!
7) pack in the front wheel and all the other bits you took off around the bike
8) add in as many soft clothes and bags as possible to stop it wobbling around
9) hope that it is under 30kg!
After successfully arriving in Baku, Azerbaijan with people and bikes amazingly all in one piece. We settled in to enjoy a few days in Baku whilst waiting for our Kazakhstan visa before getting the infamous Caspian Sea ferry.
After a delay applying for the visa as the embassy had moved locations but not updated any embassy websites, we turned up to find a whole street of kitchen shops! But the next day we had better luck and submitted our applications to be picked up in 3 days time.
Baku is a beautiful city, we were staying in the old town which had gorgeous walls, towers and lots and lots of carpet shop!
When reading the Lonely Planet guide Baku seems like a funny old place, the guide recommended taking the fun train along the prom to see the world's second largest flag pole and the building commonly referred you by locals ad the Death Star (apparently it was supposed to Represent the sun but as it is under construction resembles more the base of the evil Imperial Empire.
We also visited some mud volcanoes (described by Lonely Planet as 'geologically flatulent'), saw some petroglyphs and visited a zoronasian temple - an ancient fire worshipping religion.
Along with the old city and ancient sites Baku has lots of high fashion shops and of course the grand prix, which successfully made me feel like an grubby tourist walking around in the same clothes I've been wearing for nearly 4 months now.
Baku was a really great surprise and I'd love to go back there again and buy a carpet, unfortunately it just wasn't realistic to bungee one to my bike although that would have been awsome!
We met some lovely people in the hostel and had our first taste of the Russian tradition of drinking vodka thanks to a lovely Russian man who was staying there too. We also met three brits who were doing the Mongol Rally, it sounds insane but also hilarious. I have future plans to do the Ramshackle rally to the La Tomatina festival in Spain one day :)
We picked up our Kazakh visas on Friday morning and, with the help of our wonderful hostel owner Michael, headed straight down to the ferry port to buy tickets as we heard there was a boat that very same day.
The whole Caspian Sea experience was one I had read a lot about and was both nervous and excited for. It turns out that overall we were very very lucky, you'll see why.
We arrived at the ticket office and were told to go wait by a scary lady. I spent that time visiting 11 different banks trying to
Find one that sold US Dollars, the only currency accepted for the ticket. After only a 2 hour wait we were called in to buy our tickets. We were then given the wonderful news that the ferry would be leaving from Baku not Alat (70km away)!! We couldn't believe or ears as all passengers board at Alat, that's the way it works. Even Michael, the hostel owner, couldn't believe it and rang them to double check we were right. Apparently it was the first time that had happened this year, super lucky!
So we packed up and headed to the ferry at 6pm, went through passport and custom control and then had a wait while all the lorries were loaded on. We spent a lovely few hours having (awful) coffee and chatting to the customs officer, who turned out to have a whole camping set in the boot of his car which he proudly showed us.
We board first and were shown to a cabin, Then went to watch the other cyclists board, we knew there was a cyclist called Josh and a motorcyclist called Joe as we'd met them at the ticket office earlier, but we were also joined by Chloe and Will a British couple on a tandem bike! So it was a lovely little bunch of us on board and we couldn't have asked for better company.
Boarding over we went to the mess hall for our evening meal of pasta soup (yes we got a ferry which served food, another lucky thing as not all do and our bags were loaded with noodles just in case there was no food on board). We were invited to join the lorry drivers for some vodka later on. After settling into our cabin (and after one crew member gave me a small fish to eat and another crew member took it away!) we headed down to join them in some contraband vodka, the cook Ira snuck two bottles on board in a pile of laundry!
One lorry driver, Wassel, was particularly nice and spoke a few words of English and was our self appointed host for the evening pouring us vodka, toasting and then pouring us all a glass of water each time. We quickly learnt that with the vodka he would keep pouring until we said stop and if you weren't paying attention you'd end up with a glass full!
It was a funny evening getting to know the other cyclists and trying to communicate with the Kazakh and Russian drivers. One, who called himself the Robin Hood of Kazakhstan, played played a couple of tunes on Will and Chloes mini guitar as everyone stood around smoking in deck.
We woke up at 5.30am the next morning, wrapped up as took a blanket to the top deck to watch the sunrise over the Caspian Sea. It was absolutely stunning with nothing but sea all around and gorgeous colours.
The next day was mostly spent napping and reading as there's really not much to do on a boat. We napped in our cabin and on the top deck, the boys risking it even though the drivers claimed it would give them erectile dysfunction!
In the evening we rigged up two laptops to play Thelma and Louise and thanks to Will got the sound to play at the same time. We knew that the ferry would arrive in Aktau at about 1am but had convinced ourselves that they would let us sleep til morning before unloading. Oh how wrong we were!
At 1am we had a banging on the door and a man speaking in Kazakh gesturing to get up. Of course none of us were packed so we set about hurriedly gathering our stuff together. The man came back twice more before bringing someone who spoke English. He told us it was only passport control and we didn't need our bags yet. Do we head up and are met by a whole troop of the Kazakh army on board with sniffer dogs. We head to the passport control building and actually get through pretty quickly, the lorry drivers had a lot more paperwork, and head back to finish packing and unload our bikes. We make it through custom control which consists of the army pointing at our bags and us trying to mime what is in them.
By this point it is 3am and Aktau is 7km away and we don't have hostel booked. We are shattered and make the joint decision to try and get a few hours sleep outside passport control and then cycle into Aktau at a more reasonable hour.
Too tired to get anything comfortable out of my bags I put my head on the tent bag and try to sleep. For once my ability to fall asleep instantly anywhere let me down! But to be fair I was unconfortable, cold and there were people going in and out all night and a train that went by a couple of times. But I convinced myself that rest was just as good as sleep and I'd feel fine in the morning. Not the best nights sleep ever, note to self, it's always worth getting something comfy to lie on before going to sleep.
Morning came and we headed into Aktau after a hold up at the port gate where they refused to raise the barrier for us. Turns out they thought we needed an import tax and forms for our bikes but we got that straightened out.
We also bumped into the Mongol rally guys again! Turns or we definately got the better ferry, theirs left before us and arrived later and it sounded like their cabin was in the middle of the boat, really hot with no windows!
So we are in Kazakhstan and about to head into the steppe for the next stage of our adventure. Central Asia has been really fun so far, looking forward to the next bit!
If ever there was an example of the universe's ability to always balance good and bad it was our journey through Bulgaria.
But first, I'm writing this on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan, the start of our Central Asia leg of the journey and I'm really excited to be here.
Anyway, I'll stick to chronological order and take you through the through the drama of Bulgaria. We crossed the border to the usual warnings of people from the previous country and were sad to leave Serbia. It was late sowe quickly found a wildcamping spot which turned outto be the best one so far with no wild dogs, no people and no mosquitos! Dreamy! We got up early the next morning and had been pedalling for no more than 20 minutes when all of a sudden a guy popped up next to me on a bike with panniers. He had bren chasinh two Austrian men but that's a different story. We chatted over mutual failed wildcamping attempts and the experience of cycling in Eastern Europe. The three of us headed into Vidin and gladly bought a watermelon to share (because 2 people just don't justify a massive watermelon no matter how delicious they look). At a cafe by the Danube I spotted another fully loaded bike and a girl sat next to it on a bench reading. Having had a good nights sleep and enjoying conversation with the frech guy i went over and introduced myself to the girl. Meet Adrien and Nina.
We split the watermelon and chatted about climbing at which point I knew we'd all get on well.
We were all riding to Montana and Nina was even planning to go to Istanbul like us. But the bad came with the good and it came in the form of utterly crap roads for the rest of the day. The narrow tree lined, windingbroads would have been nice but roadworks on a nearby highway was diverting all the long distance freight lorries onto our road. As the hundreth lorry roared past on a blind corner we found a cafe to get some lunch and shelter from the heat. As a result my last view of the mighty Danube which had taken us through 4 European capital cities and made navigation a doddle was in the distance, obscured by lorries in primary colours.
We camped in the garden of a restaurant and quickly got in a round of Bulgarian beer. It turns out Adrien has also brought a slackline with him and so we set both lines up between a tree and a lorry. Dinner was Shopska salad and a shot of something strong. The great nightd camp was only slightly ruined in the morning by a mangy dog painted green with disinfectant which tried to bite our feet as we set off.
Nina's map had a symbol for the gradient of a hill (hill or bigger hill) to let us know what was coming. We soon realised that what the map considered to be a hill was very different to what 4 people on bikes with panniers considered to be a hill! We would reach the top of a hill, sweaty and gasping for breath, and check the map which would utterly deny there was any kind of gradient there at all! It was a race to get to Montana so Adrien could catch a train. We fought over rolling hills which were more pothole than tarmac and made 52km that morning. After bidding him goodbye Charlie, Nina and I bought an icecream and set off for Sofia. It started raining. We pulled into a village and asked around for a place to camp, we were told we could set up the tents in the nearby football field which was currently being used to graze sheep. That evening we spent cooking and playing volleyball and eating a jar of beetroots...but...Bulgaria struck again and that night we heard voices outside the tent, we shouted and heard them run away but they came back three times and in the morning we looked out at our bikes and saw they had ripped anything off they could get! Nina's seat was gone, our tool kits missing, all lights ripped off, bungee cords even the hairbobble charlie kept on her handle bars. My wheels were loose but luckily the pannier racks had stopped them coming off completely. We were in shock. When your whole life is on your bike the loss of parts of it rocks you to your core. We tried in vain to get any answers, but struggled to communicate through a local girls tablet translation app. We even called the police to report it and the guy who turned up promptly informed us that it was illegal to camp in Bulgaria (not true) and to report it we'd first have pay a fine (convenient huh?).
Some people from the village got Nina a seat so we could cycle the 20km to Vratsa, at that point we just wanted to get out of that village as fast as possible. Oh and it was raining too! In Vratsa we had multiple cups of tea and decided that the Bulgarians we had met so far were not a friendly bunch. We missed Serbia. This was the hardest challenge and biggest knock to my confidence so far. At that point I would have thrown my bike and me on a train to Sofia and never looked back. I didn't want to cycle anymore. But we decided to push on regardless. It turns out this was exactly what I needed as the road leaving Vratsa was beautiful and did wonders for restoring my faith in this journey. We wound up quiet mountain roads through small villages and were rewarded with stunning views of the landscape. We whizzed down the other side of the mountain and headed towards a gorge which is one of Bulgarias highlights. I was looking forward to this part and enjoying the cycling...and then it poured! Heavy rain fell from the sky and a grey world descended in which I could only just make out Nina and Charlie behind me as we entered the gorge. We didn't have lights at this point (damnit robbers!) So were extra wary of the cars passing by. I managed to look up a couple of times through the rain and saw glimpses of a very beautiful gorge. I didn't care though, I just wanted to get to our safe, dry hotel for the night. We were only hindered by a crazy guy for a short while before we were curling up in a hotel and fast asleep exhausted and unsettled. The next morning we let out a collective sigh of relief that our bikes were still there. Attachment issues. And set off again. In Sofia we stayed in a beautiful airbnb and the guy who owned it helped us replace everything that was lost. What else could happen, surely it would be plain sailing from here...then we turned on thetv and heard that there had been an attempted military coup in Turkey. A couple of days later Charlie and I decided we would go to Athens rather than Istanbul. The main reason for this was that if we headed south for Greece we would be out of Bulgaria in 3 days!!
Best. Decision. So. Far.
Nina chose to continue on to Istanbul but would join us to the Greek border before going east. I was really glad Nina was coming with us as she was so much fun to have around totally laid back and with great stories from around the world! Heading south from Sofia things became almost immediately better. We headed into the mountains and had two days of great ascents and our highest point so far a ski resort at 1900meters. The people were friendly here and we stayed in the Balkans premier spa town...can you guess it, you know the one....Velingrad! No? Us neither.
Our last night in Bansko was really nice, the views of the mountains were incredibly beautiful and I could almost be convinced to return to Bulgaria...maybe. When we crossed the border into Greece we were elated, thrilled and absoluetly sure that Greece would be infinately better, without a doubt. I reckon the universe balanced itself out in that country, mostly because we had the pleasure of cycling with Nina and we were really sad to part ways....or did we!? Tune in next time folks for our Greek adventure!
August 28th, 2016
Detour to Greece
I never expected to go to Greece, on this trip or in the near future, it had never been high on my list of places to visit. But when we had to choose between another 2 weeks in Bulgaria or 3 days to the Greek boarder it was no contest! And it was one of the best decisions of the trip:)
We crossed into Greece and had an interesting first night, we decided to wildcamp and after searching for a hidden spot found one where we could pitch our tents. On the way we had passed what we thought was a garden centre, at 11.30pm that evening we found we were very wrong. It turned out to be a club which played the loudest music I've ever heard! Despite being nearly a km away it sounded like they had put the speakers right outside the tent! We got up at 6am the next morning (I say got up not woke up as that would imply we got slms sleep) and the music finally stopped at 6.30am. Of all the things to consider when wildcamping pitching up next to a club was not one I'd expected!
That morning we said a sas goodbye to our cycling buddy Nina, where as we were heading to Athens she was going on to Istanbul. It had been as great few weeks cycling with her and we were sad to see her go, but Greece helped by providing us with some beautiful views and mountain passes that morning. Coming down from the mountains was another matter, the road was incredibly steep and one particularly hairy switchback provided my scariest cycling moment of the trip so far! We were quite glad to be on flat ground again that afternoon.
It was a long day and we reached Nigrita quite late. After having no luck asking around about camping spots the owner of the local Tae Kwondo gym said that we could sleep in his gym! We spent the evening chatting to him, his friend Sylvie (who also let us shower in her apartment!) and her daughter Konstantina who wrote out some useful Greek words and the alphabet for us to learn.
Lou had been having trouble with her brakes on the downhill sections and after a scary moment going into Thessaloniki she put her bike in to be fixed, we spent the day relaxing by the beach:)
We also had the wonderful surprise of Nina coming back! She had decided to cycle to Athens instead of Istanbul and had pedalled an extra 140km to catch up with us. So we all left Thessaloniki together and headed south to Athens and the end of our European leg.
Cycling along the Greek coast was pretty awesome and we even passed the foothills of Mount Olympus. It fitted the meg ends perfectly with the top shrouded in cloud and a massive gorge at the entrance to the mountain range. That afternoon we spent at the beach swimming in the bluest sea I've ever seen! Starting to understand why people come to Greece!
The next few days to Athens weren't very interesting cycling wise, we came inland and it was mostly flat with a headwind and not much to look at. Although it was and constant battle with the maps to not end up on a motorway, Greece seems to be made up of motorways and dirt roads with nothing in between.
However we did meet some very kind people, one morning a man stopped his car to give us a bag of pistachios, a restaurant gave us a bottle of water each and a man gave us 3 bunches of grapes when we had a rest outside his house. All this kindness has been really touching and I am going to carry it forward in my life and try to pass it on:)
It was the day before we arrived in Athens that we met Illias and Sofia, a lovely Greek couple who took us in for a night. We had been asking in the village if there was somewhere we could camp when Illias drove up and said we could camp in his garden, we arrived and it was immediately clear they he hadn't told his wife! So we quickly had to explain that hadn't randomly turned up at her door but that her husband had invited us haha. Once that was settled Sofia quickly took care of us giving us coffee and sweet fruit. Before we knew it she was putting us to work in her garden picking beans and watering plants which we were more than happy to do, it was just hilarious how she bossed us about. That evening she cooked us a meal (about 90% of which was kale, more than I've had in life!) and even let us sleep in their spare room instead of the garden.
Nina was woken up in the morning by Sofia tickling her feet! We made our way towards Athens the next morning but only got 2km before Lou's brakes went again, there was no fixing them so, with Illias' help, Lou and her bike hitched a lift to the next town with a bike shop to get new brakes installed while Nina and I cycled to meet her there.
Once all bikes and brakes were in working order we made out way to Athens.
The road into the city wasn't and motorway but very much looked and felt like a motorway but as the only route in we had no choice but to take it. It was all rewarded when we got close to the center and could see the city and the acropolis spread out in front of us. We all put out favourite happy playlists on as we reached the centre of Athens and the end of the continent:)
Going into Athens was when it really hit me how far we had cycled and what we had accomplished, I was so proud of usfor getting this far, dealing with all the problems that come with cycling touring and not giving up. It's a pretty good feeling :)
We spent about a week in Athens being regular tourists and applying for our Chinese visas. And we booked a flight to Baku, Azerbaijan to start the next phase of the journey:)
Coming up: how to pack your bike for a flight, the charming Baku and the notorious Caspian Sea ferry!
Charlie x x
Lous blog: The moment we crossed the border into Greece we gave a whoop of joy and, I'm not kidding you, things were already better! The area around the border has got to be one of the most beautiful we cycled through. The long road sweeps down a hill into a wide valley surrounded by blue mountains on all sides. Rows and rows of sunflowers line the fields and sprinklers shoot out droplets which glisened in the evening sun.
We bravely decided to try wildcamping again and nervously looked around for a spot. We found a good one up a small behind some trees and had fun that evening making photos for our 2000mile/kilometer mark. We had just settled into our sleeping bags ready for bed when some music started nearby. Not to worry, we though, its midnight it won't last long.....it lasted until 6.30am. And got louder at 2am.
After little sleep we packed up and had a last cup of tea with Nina who was heading east to Istanbul while we went south to Thessaloniki. It was sad to see her go and we felt lonely as a 2 for the first time in weeks. We cycled through the beautiful valley and up a mountain beyond to traverse over ridges and mountain tops before coming steeply down the other side. Charlie's brakes have never been good on steep downhills but mine had never had a problem although today i was reluctant to trust them so took it really slowly. We saw a cyclist coming uphill and he stopped to ask us what we were doing, take a photo and give us a hug. I carried on downhill feeling like a celebrity and promptly fell off my bike.
In Serres we stopped for ice cream and to fix my wheel and got a message from Nina who had already reached the sea! It was incredibly hot in Greece and I was dying to jump in the sea!
That evening we reached Nigrita planning to wildcamp again but reluctant to do it after so many bad attempts. We asked in a cafe if there was anywhere safe to camp nearby and a guy overheard who offered us the courtyard of his tai-kwon-do studio! This was perfect, it was secure and convenient, phew! So we moved in and a lovely lady who lived in the flat above let us use her shower. We chatted into the night and had a laugh with het daughter too, I really enjoyed their company and particularly like when Sylvie said "you two are like my daughters, they are..."she thought for a moment, clicked her fingers and said "crazy!"
The next morning we thanked them and left for Thessaloniki. One of the reasons I was so excited about our detour to Greece was that a few friends from Juba were now working there and I was going to meet Joel in Thessaloniki!
The journey into Thessa was traumatic, we tool a cycle path across the mountains which turned out to be less path more muddy rocky track. It took us 4 hours to go 14km before we emerged on the other side and back onto tarmac. We stopped to buy fruit and were invited for watermelon by the stall owner. The rim of my back wheel had cracked and a passer by tool is to a bike shop to get it inspected. Thessaloniki is right by the sea and backs onto a mountain so the road in is quite steep and it was here that my nerves about my brakes came true. On a steep downhill with cars all around i felt a crack and my brakes no longer responded when i pulled the brakes. In the second it took me to realise this i had sped up,wheels spinning freely with no resistance. My stomach lurched and i scanned around for a way to stop. My feet were dragging on the floor and i kept pulling the brakes but to no affect, the weight of the panniers making me go even faster. I swerved to the other side of the road thinking i would have to hit a parked car but then I saw a side road and quickly swerved back across the traffic, no time to indicate, flew into the side road which was uphill and cruised to a halt. I walked my bike 15km from there into the city.
The next day Charlie and I took a boat to a beach for the day and in the evening I caught up with Joel and Paul. It was a great day and so good to see friends and chat about non-bike stuff! Thessaloniki was also the first place I really saw Greek ruins! My 3 years of Ancient History at uni came flooding back and i gawped at columns and engraved lettering on ancient stones around the town.
Earlier that day we had got a message from Nina saying she wanted to ckme to Athens instead and would we wait for her in Thessaloniki....it didn't even take us half a second to decide! YES! Nina was coming back and we were thrilled!
Reunited as a trio we set off the next day (with a new back wheel and repaired brakes) south for Athens doing a surprise 80km in the evening. The next day we found a campsite by the ocean and decided we would only do half a days ride and spend the rest with our toes in the waves. I spent the entire afternoon snoozing.
A Wheely Long Journey Blog
Charlie and Lou are twins from Cheshire, UK on a mission to cycle back to their childhood home in Hong Kong.