The Next Adventure: Cycle Trekkers

Canada was amazing! Vancouver was amazing! But, for now, we are back in Sunny Perth, planning the next adventure.

Since we finished the France to China cycle tour last year, we have been itching to get back on the bikes and hit the road again. We have definitely come to realise that cycle touring is one of the best ways to explore a country. It puts you out there, right in the country, with the locals.

First we had planned to cycle across Canada, then this turned into a cycle trip across Canada and across the USA, which then turned into Canada, the USA and Mexico. Well, we finally decided, ‘screw it’ let’s just cycle around the world. So, next year, we plan to head back to Vancouver in Canada, to start our World cycle tour.

We want to take our time this time, no time restrictions, less restraints. We want to be able to explore the countries we visit, and stop when we feel the need to stop. For this reason we are planning the trip to take at least 5 years, maybe longer. Obviously, this is going to require a lot of money (hence the trip back to Oz). We also expect we will need to work along the way, which isn’t a problem at all. We’ve posted our proposed route on our new website – if you think you might be in an area the same time as us, or that our paths might cross somewhere along the way, then get in touch. You can reach us at info@cycletrekkers.com

While we are cycling, we decided we would also do some research into our future dream, owning a hostel. This has been Michael’s dream for sometime, as for me, I’ve always wanted to own an eco-tourism business. We thought we could combine the two ideas and create a eco-hostel. So along the way, we will be researching different green businesses and hostels, to discover what works and what doesn’t work. We will be sharing this information on our new website, Cycle Trekkers, as well as sharing general cycle touring info, updates and reviews. I will still be posting travel and general stories on this site too (though admittedly I’ve been pretty slack lately)🙂

Anyway, that’s our latest news! If you would like to share any tips, or get in touch then drop us a line, or comment in the comment box below.

Ciao for now xx

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Help exchange in Canada (or as Michael would like to call it “the ramblings of a Shellduck”)

I decided not to blog about Hawaii – it was sunny, it was beautiful, I made a lei, I danced the hulu – it was Hawaii and I did the typical Hawaiian touristy things! That pretty much sums it up. I spent a lovely few days there exploring the island, but I was excited to get to Canada and give this “help exchange” a go.

Making a lei in Hawaii

Making a lei in Hawaii

So, what is help exchange? Basically, you agree to work a few hours each day in exchange for room and board. The terms are usually agreed before you arrive at your hosts place.

Mother and baby relaxing in the sun on the farm in Langley

Mother and baby relaxing in the sun on the farm in Langley

The two main sites that I use are helpx and workaway, both offer a variety of different jobs, from hostel work, to farm work to au pair work. There is also a new site called workingtraveller, (which I have actually started writing for), though I haven’t actually had the chance to use it yet. There is also wwoofing – which is volunteering on organic farms that follow the same principle as the other sites.

Friendly baby goat at the farm in Langley

Friendly baby goat at the farm in Langley

So, I arrived in rainy Vancouver, extremely jetlagged and on a mission to get to Squamish by lunchtime. Surprisingly this was quite straightforward. After spending a few hours soaring down the stunning sea-to-sky highway I finally arrived in Squamish.

Squamish sunset

Squamish sunset

Having never helpx’ed before I had no idea what to expect. I had heard several horror stories about hosts taking advantage of travellers/ helpers, so I was on my guard. Obviously, I’ve taken plenty of assessed risks before, particular during last years cycle trip. I’ve lost count on the number of times I’ve had to rely on the help of strangers, however that doesn’t stop the insecure feelings of doubt develop in the back of your mind. In most situations when these feelings start to develop I start creating an “escape” plan – I do this for practically everything. Currently my escape plans are all bear related – what would I do if I see a bear on my trail runs? I then run through hundreds of different scenarios. Funny enough, I actually started doing this after watching one too many zombie movies – yes, I have about a thousand survival plans for the zombie apocalypse. Anyway, back to farms and stuff.

Squamish

Squamish

I was pleasantly surprised by my helpx hosts. Rolf, host in Squamish, picked me up from the bus terminal and drove us 20 minutes to a rural hobby farm in the Chekamus valley. Squamish area is absolutely beautiful – snowy-capped mountains, bald eagles, rainforests, plenty of hiking trails and alpine lakes. This is also where Twilight was mostly filmed. I was in my element!

The farm I was housesitting/ helpx'ing at in Squamish

The farm I was housesitting/ helpx’ing at in Squamish

The plan was to stay in Squamish for about 3 weeks. I was housesitting for the owners while they went away on holiday. While they were gone I was to look after the house, tend to the farm animals (goats, chickens and rabbits), and clear some wood and rocks in preparation for Spring seeding. The work was relatively easy, and was usually finished by lunchtime, which meant I had the afternoon to explore, cycle and hike. I was even allowed to use the car. The only downside was, after a week or so, I was quite lonely and there is only so much hiking you can do alone. I was quite happy to see some friendly faces by the time the owners returned. I stayed on at the farm for another week after the owners returned, and helped out where and when it was needed. The meals provided were plentiful, organic and fresh. On my last day on the farm a film crew visited the farm to film a GM commercial – a different experience in itself. The directors decided to include the goats in the footage, which meant I was given the job as “goat trainer”. The end result can be found here and here. The commercials were filmed completely at the property, so it gives you an idea of how beautiful the place was.

Cleaning out the goat's pen

Cleaning out the goat’s pen

After helpx’ing in Squamish, I headed down to Langley area, where I had arranged to help out on another hobby farm/ dog kennel. Langley is typical country – wooden barns, fields and small-scale private farms everywhere. The area is flat, but surrounded by the snowy mountains in Washington state in the US, and the mountains north of Vancouver. I soon learnt that the TV show Smallville was filmed there, as well as the new TV series (that I haven’t actually watched), called Bates Motel.

Life on the farm in Langley

Life on the farm in Langley

The set up at Langley was completely different; less strict schedules and planning and definitely more random. The jobs varied – tending to the farm animals (sheep, goats, dogs, chickens), seeding, clearing rocks, cleaning floors or windows, cleaning dog kennels, constructing new kennels, accompanying Kira (my host) on her on shopping trips/ craig’s list trips/ hiking trips/ seed buying trips, the list was endless. The first night I was there, Kira and I discovered that one of the sheep was pregnant… not only pregnant, but due to deliver. So we spent the first night delivering our first baby lamb. Amazing!

After delivering the baby lamb

After delivering the baby lamb

I was at Kira’s place for 2.5 weeks, and the time flew by. I was sad to say goodbye, but also excited to head to Vancouver, see Michael and start actually working (yes, I don’t say that too often – however, when you’ve just scored a job working in a rainforest, there’s something to be a bit excited about). I’m definitely glad I gave help exchange a chance. I met some amazing people, learnt so much and had some great, memorial experiences.

2 of Kira's friendly dogs - I miss their faces already!

2 of Kira’s friendly dogs – I miss their faces already!

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Home Sweet Home! Australia!

It’s been a while since my last post, so I thought it was about time I caught up on some blogging…

After finishing the cycle trip and leaving China it was finally time to return to ‘normality’. No more peeing outside, sleeping on the floor or worrying about where to get drinking water (or even more so, how the hell we were going to fund the rest of the trip) – all the ‘little’, (though important) things that we usually took for granted. It was time to live the ‘spoilt’ life and head back home – literally, back home to my parents’ house in Perth. Finally, I could relax and have someone look after me. Broke and tired, I arrived home… to an empty house! My parents decided to take a 3 week holiday in Vietnam the week of my return – so much for having someone look after me. Instead I spent 3 weeks trying to figure out how things worked in the house (I couldn’t even get the TV or heating working) and trying to find things that had been packed away in boxes (or thrown out).

Hello Burns Beach! How great it is being back and within walking distance to a sandy beach!

Hello Burns Beach! How great it is being back and within walking distance to a sandy beach!

I’ve always found it hard returning to normal life after travelling and this time was no different – well, that’s not entirely true, this time the feeling was magnified x100. I constantly felt like I should be doing something or going somewhere, and felt a bit… well lost!

So much has changed since I've been gone - usually I come back to friend's with more babies, but my mate, Charly, has decided to stop having kids, and start having random animals instead! Here are a few of the alpacas she now owns.

So much has changed since I’ve been gone – usually I come back to friend’s with more babies, but my mate, Charly, has decided to stop having kids, and start having random animals instead! Here are a few of the alpacas she now owns.

It took at least a month before I started to feel myself again… at first everything was just so overwhelming. Life was simple on a bike!

During the cycle trip we were so conscious about waste and keeping things until they literally fell apart and were unable to be fixed – it really shocked me seeing how wasteful people are. In my head Australia has always been mindful in things such as waste, recycling and the environment – which might be true in comparison to countries like China, however I forgot that this only went so far… you might not see someone throwing litter on the floor in Australia (which definitely is something I’m proud of) but people chucking out perfectly good TV’s on the bulk collection, seems to be the norm. It’s a kind of cultural shock I guess, and transition back to what we know as ‘normal life’ and it took some time to readjust.

Enjoying some high-tea in Guildford, after a hot and sweaty hike in the midday sun

Enjoying some high-tea in Guildford, after a hot and sweaty hike in the midday sun

Though completely irrational, it’s hard to not to subconsciously think that nothing has changed since being gone, that things are still going to be just as they were left. When my subconscious is reminded that life goes on, it’s hard to not feel out of place, like you no longer belong there. I’ve come and gone from Australia more times than I can count, so you would presume I wouldn’t feel like this anymore, but I still do.

Quokka - the happiest little creature in the whole of the Southern hemisphere

Quokka – the happiest little creature in the whole of the Southern hemisphere

One thing I was looking forward to was running again. I had been almost a year – and anyone that knows me, would also know, I’m a bit of a running-addict. So, of course the first week being back, I went out for a 10km run, sprained my ankle and couldn’t run for 2 months. Apparently all the cycling had caused my feet to flatten out. I started cycling because I could not run, and now I could not run because I cycled! Eventually my ankle was on the mend, and though I could still not run, I was able to get a job waitressing on Rottnest Island (just on the weekends).

Rottnest Island!

Rottnest Island!

I only had 3 months in Australia before I was due to leave again… 3 months to catch up with people, prepare for the next trip and most importantly rest, oh and earn some money. Time flew by and before I knew it I was on a plane and out of there, though I wasn’t entirely sure that I was ready for the world of travel again so soon. I was sad to leave. If given the choice I would have stayed longer, but my visa entrance cut off date for Canada was growing closer – so the choice was to stay longer and miss out on Canada, or go, and start the next adventure… so, of course I choose to go.

Koala (locally known as a "drop bear")

Koala (locally known as a “drop bear”)

Before heading off to Canada, Michael and I spent a week in Victoria. “The Wedding” that had influenced all our plans for the past 12 months had finally come around. It was because of this wedding that we cycled to China and even decided to work in France. It was hard to believe the day was finally here… and it did not disappoint. The wedding was beautiful! It was also lovely spending time with Michael’s family for a change. After the wedding we drove down the Great Ocean Road with Michael’s parents and some of his family from the UK – my last chance to enjoy some of beautiful Australia for who knows how long.

The Wedding!

The Wedding!

It was then time to say “goodbye”. Not only to Australia, but to Michael. I was leaving him in Australia for another 2 months, while I head off to Hawaii and then Canada. Michael had a difference entrance date for Canada than I, so he decided to stay in Perth and earn some more money before meeting me in Canada in a few months time.

Adios!!

Beers in Melbourne!!

Excited for some solo travel adventures – it’s been a while!

Aloha Hawaii!

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China – the transition from cyclist to backpacker

It all happened so quickly! One second we were cycle tourists, where the most important things in our lives were our bikes, our panniers, our camping stuff… the next second we were just backpackers. We no longer owned bikes and we were throwing out our tattered panniers and old reused ziplock bags, something that once seemed so important to us. It was a strange feeling, like losing a limb… it all just felt so wrong and so surreal.

Goodbye

Goodbye old friends

We reorganised our bags and made our way, via public bus, to the train station, to catch the 2 day train to Chengdu – the one place in China I’ve always wanted to visit. We didn’t have any problems with our bags during the entire cycle trip until we reached the train station at Urumqi. For those of you that don’t know, there was a terrorist attack at the train station in Urumqi about 2 years ago, so security there is quite high.

On the way to Urumqi

On the way to Urumqi

After going through several check points and security screenings we were asked to step aside and have our bags searched… this resulted in them removing our camping knives, my Swiss army knife, our bike multitools and our camp gas. As they tried to explain to us in Chinese that these items could not be taken on the train and there was no check in luggage, I loudly protested in English… obviously drawing the attention of others and soon we had a crowd. Eventually we did come to an agreement. I got to keep the knives, they got to keep our camping gas. A fair, but rather strange agreement, which is just one example of the flexibility of laws and rules in China – rules are just guidelines!

We were in the economy sleeper, which had no door and slept 6 people. Unfortunately for us, (like in the whole of China) smoking was permitted, though admittedly only at the far end of the train, but it didn’t take long for the smoke to whiff down the entire carriage.

After spending 7 months traveling ‘on show’, with limited privacy to people that think you are an ‘exotic species’, you think you would be used to it… however, our patience had worn thin. We seemed to draw the attention of people wherever we went. We assumed this would stop after getting rid of the bikes, but we were wrong… it wasn’t long before we had people taking sneaky, (or not so sneaky) photos and video of us – not something you want when you’re trying to sleep. Overall people seemed quite friendly and attempted to make conversation with us… though, all we really craved with some privacy and some normality.

Feasting on Chinese food (obviously not on the sleeper train)

Feasting on Chinese food (obviously not on the sleeper train)

The 2 days on the sleeper train dragged… we feasted on pot noodles (China knows how to do a really good pot noodle box) and snacks that we picked up from the supermarket before catching the train – a healthy assortment of packaged dry cakes, nuts and freeze wrapped foods, extremely healthy!

Just some of the 'yummy' food available in the Chinese supermarkets

Just some of the ‘yummy’ food available in the Chinese supermarkets

Finally we made it to Chengdu! Stinking like cigarette smoke and feeling more drained than after a week of solid cycling. Chengdu was a paradise compared to the polluted city of Urumqi. It was a modern, pretty and unpolluted (in Chinese standards) city, with lots of parks, Western and even vegetarian restaurants and it was very easy to navigate around without bikes. This was just what we needed.

Panda love in Chengdu

Panda love in Chengdu

A blanket of panda cubs

A blanket of panda cubs

I can honestly say, I loved Chengdu. We visited the pandas, explore the ancient towns, the markets and of course the restaurants. We also decided to visit the nearby Emei Shan National Park – a Buddhist monastery mountain/ jungle national park, which was extremely touristic and quite expensive (as was everything related to tourism in China). Finally, we got to do some hiking – though hiking up ancient stairs for hours on end isn’t quite the same as hiking on a mountain trail. It was still an awesome place, which I definitely recommend.

The summit at Emei Shan

The summit at Emei Shan

Emei Shan National Park

Emei Shan National Park

From Emei Shan we visited Leshan and the giant Buddha, before jumping back on another 2 night sleeper train to Beijing – our final destination.

Leshan and the giant buddha

Leshan and the giant buddha

I was happy to finally arrive in Beijing… We made our way to our hotel, and I couldn’t help but reflect on my life since the last time I was in China – 5 years has passed and a lot had happened since then. I definitely couldn’t have predicted any of it, but that’s life – and wouldn’t it be boring if you could?

The 2 Michaels in Beijing

The 2 Michaels in Beijing

By chance, my brother, Michael (yes, another Michael), just happened to be in Beijing for work at the same time as us… and if you know my brother then it wouldn’t surprise you that he randomly turned up a day early at our hotel, unannounced, with no money to pay for the cab. Luckily for him (and he does tend to be quite lucky) we just happened to be at the hotel when he arrived.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

We had a great few days catching up, eating lots of food and exploring the sites of Beijing and the surroundings. Though, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tired and I wasn’t just looking forward to getting home, to a ‘normal’ life.

Catching up with my brother in Beijing

Catching up with my brother in Beijing

Even after a few weeks of living as normal backpackers, we were still adjusting to the simple things in life, such as having access to toilets, and for that matter, western toilets, as well as having access to water, shops, food, internet, beds… all things that most people take for granted in everyday life. Even meeting people that spoke English seemed strange… and even stranger was seeing other Western tourists. It was hard to believe that just over a week ago we were cycling in the middle of the desert – that life already seemed a million miles away. But, on top of that was returning to a world of materialism… after living with the essentials for so long, the ‘luxury’ items just seemed so pointless. The other thing that got me was the amount of waste – waste itself is a ‘luxury’ item and we had been living in conditions that meant we limited our waste – nothing from food, to plastic bags, to clothes was wasted, we made everything last (though admittedly packaging from food was still waste – except for our recycled bowls that were actually chocolate spread containers). We didn’t so much do this to save money, but because we didn’t know when we could get more or replace the old one, so just made do with what we had.

Even as I try and explain how surreal the entire transition was, I’m a bit lost for words… and the transition isn’t over yet. Returning to ‘normality’ aka Australian life is the next. step.

Even as I try and explain how surreal the entire transition was, I’m lost for words… and the transition isn’t over yet. Return to ‘normality’ aka. Australia is the next step.

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What made our cycle trip different to everyone else’s?

**I actually wrote this blog 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**

So, what made our cycle trip different to everybody else’s? 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, along with the lack of money spent on equipment, you’re less likely to be disappointed with the outcome if you don’t make it the entire way. You have no expectations.

In France before the skiing accident

In France before the skiing accident

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 and 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.

Our awesome bowls (empty chocolate spread containers) and cups (an empty peanut butter jar and nescafe tin)

Our awesome bowls (empty chocolate spread containers) and cups (an empty peanut butter jar and nescafe tin)

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

Our Hybrid bike, second hand €250 vs. touring bikes of every other cycle tourist we’ve met €2000-3000, though even 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. water proof panniers anywhere from $100-500US (per bag)

The hole in my panniers... they actually started to break on day one, before we had even left the chalet... not sure how they made it to China

The hole in my panniers… they actually started to break on day one, before we had even left the chalet… not sure how they made it to China

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+

Our cute little tent

Our cute little tent

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 – and if we had the money and resources, and ability of go back in time, there are definitely a few things I would have invested a bit more money in (not the bike, but definitely the panniers, good lights, a multi fuel stove and a good pump)…

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, with the cheapest countries being 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, but what it came down to – if we don’t do it now, even though we have bugger all money, will we ever do it? Probably not!

Cycling...

Cycling…

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 the 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, I think, 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  2 or 3 times 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.

The first day of our cycle trip... only 15km into the day, and already stopping for a break.

The first day of our cycle trip… only 15km into the day, and already stopping for a break.

Experience

Nada! 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, and 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, and I didn’t want to do the sensible thing and go 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 ‘training’ cycle tour to prepare us for Canada. 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.

Making it across Italy - probably one of the happiest days of the whole cycle trip

Making it across Italy – probably one of the happiest days of the whole cycle trip

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), and 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.

Our camping site, which I wrote this blog from...

Our camping site, which I wrote this blog from…

So basically, what I’m saying… There are no excuses not to give it a go… You got kids, take them with you (I’ve seen people cycle touring with kids)… You got a career job, then only go for a couple of weeks… You got bugger all money like us, you work to a budget that suits… 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.

Chau for now from a frozen cyclist!

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We made it to China, by bicycle, from France… what the?!?

We made it to China!!! We cycled over 8,000km, from France to China!!! WTF?!? It’s been over a week now, and I’m still in shock. It was a rather surreal, but extremely rewarding feeling when we crossed the border into China. We had finally made it… it just didn’t feel real. We had been working towards this goal for over 6 months. The longest marathon of my life, and we finally crossed the finish line.

 

I’d be lying if I said it was easy, or that I enjoyed the cycle tour the entire time, but if I was to go back in time, I would make the same decision again (only maybe with better panniers).

We crossed at the Khorgas border crossing, which is apparently the busiest border crossing between the 2 countries. For once we got lucky, and crossed both borders within 2 hours. We were even allowed to cycle the 5km of no-man’s land, which is not always possible.

Hello China!

Hello China!

The Chinese border town was extremely modern with skyscrapers, shopping centers, wide, flat roads where even bicycle lanes existed. We checked into a hotel, washed then headed to the shop to get some celebration beers!

Celebration beers!

Celebration beers!

After spending a couple of nights recovering at the border town, we headed off on the bikes again. Our aim was to make it to Urumqi (about 750km from the border), then catch the train to Beijing.

The roads in China are amazing and the first couple of days cycle route was through the valley with beautiful scenery, and the occasional yurt. Despite this we just didn’t have the motivation to cycle – we made it to China, why are we still cycling? Our bodies were also objecting to cycling… or so we thought. It actually turned out we were gradually ascending up a mountain pass for the entire day, only we didn’t realize – possibly due to the smooth road that we weren’t used to? We were making rather slow progress, which was slowed down even more when the road was closed for about an hour due to a rock fall. It was starting to get dark, and we were nowhere near the lake that we had planned to camp at – this is where we discovered we had been ascending the entire day (over 1300m ascended and still climbing). We were surrounded by snow and couldn’t find anywhere suitable to set up camp, and were lost for what to do, until we came across an emergency outpost. Luckily the outpost was manned and we were welcomed to stay in one of the spare rooms, and even given tea and breakfast the following morning.

Outside the emergency outpost - somewhere in China's Far East

Outside the emergency outpost – somewhere in China’s Far East

There was a mixture of different people living at the outpost, (Han) Chinese, Uhguir (the Turkic, nomad people that lived in the province), Kazakhs and Mongols. Though we couldn’t speak any Chinese, it turned out we could communicate (with everyone except the Chinese people) using some Turkish – who would have guessed that Turkish would come in handy this far East? In fact, Michael had managed to communicate (somewhat) with Turkish, in every country we had been in, since we left Turkey – crazy ay!

The following morning the weather was terrible – it was freezing, foggy and rainy. We discovered we still had another 40km ascent, to reach the top of the pass at about 2200m, which meant a long, horrible day of cycling, and most likely, an icy night sleep. We were already feeling fluey, so instead of cycling, we did what most sane people would do – we hitchhiked over the pass! After 10 minutes, a truck stopped, we tied the bikes to the top of a truck – Michael lost his helmet, my pannier strap broke, but at least we didn’t have to suffer the cold. We got off the truck after the pass, had lunch and set off on the bikes again. After the pass, the scenery became very bland; it almost looked like we were back in Uzbekistan again, only this time with good roads. The wind picked up, so we made very poor progress (cycling in wind is like cycling up an invisible hill). What little motivation we had left, quickly disappeared. We just wanted to be in Urumqi.

The good roads of China

The good roads of China

After weighing up the pros and cons we decided to not cycle the whole way to Urumqi. The scenery was boring (grey desert, cotton fields, rubbish, power plants), the air was polluted (yes, even this far out in the middle of nowhere) and we weren’t enjoying it anymore. We had reached our goal and now it just felt like we were wasting time – and for what? Just to say we cycled to Urumqi? It made no sense to us to continue when we could use that extra time to actually see some sights in China. So the following day we ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way to Urumqi.

Hitching a lift in China - bikes safely stored on top of the truck - no ropes needed

Hitching a lift in China – bikes safely stored on top of the truck – no ropes needed

We arrived in Urumqi feeling accomplished! 8,500km cycled, through 14 countries, and in only 6.5 months. To celebrate we checked into a 5 star hotel – which turned out to be a great idea, as Urumqi was too polluted to explore by foot or bike, and we ended up spending a lot of time in the hotel room.

Urumqi

Urumqi

Our next mission was to get rid of the bikes, sort through our gear, try and fit everything into one backpack, then decide what we are going to do for the next 3 weeks.

I had spent the past 3 weeks trying to contact charities and orphanages in China to see if they wanted a donation of 2 bicycles, without any success. Who would have guessed it would be so difficult to try and give away a couple of bikes for free? Apparently there is a lot of corruption in government charities, and other NGO’s have lots of red tape, including red tape on receiving donations – so maybe this is the reason I had no responses. We decided we would try and sell the bikes, not thinking we would have much luck, and would end up having to leave them in the hotel lobby. Surprisingly, we actually sold them, one to a hotel guest and the other to the hotel security guard. We only got $80 for them, but hey, we were going to give them away for free anyway, and if we were try and take them on the train with us, it would have cost us $50-100 each.

One of the guys that bought our bikes

One of the guys that bought our bikes

Suddenly we were bikeless! It was a very strange feeling. The bicycles had been with us for so long, they were an extension of ourselves, a friend, a family member, they had been with us through thick and thin… and now they were gone. Just like that, we were normal backpackers again.

Bike money!

Bike money!

We threw away my panniers, bags, ground sheets, extra tubes – items that had seemed so important to us throughout the trip, we discarded as rubbish and it felt so wrong. One of Michael’s bike bags was actually a backpack, so we had to cram most of our remaining gear into the one bag, which was a bit like a puzzle.

Looking back, when I suggested the cycle trip to Michael, I didn’t think we would actually make it this far. No experience. Shit equipment. Extremely tight budget. Buggered knee. People were questioning our sanity, and putting doubts in our heads and it’s true the odds were probably against us, yet we still made it! What did that prove? It proves that you can do anything you set your mind to; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If someone doubts your ability to succeed, prove him or her wrong! You’re the only person preventing yourself from achieving your goals and dreams. We need to accept that there will always be someone questioning your decisions, ‘the haters’ or ‘the worriers’ – use that to fuel your determination to succeed, instead of doubting your decisions. As I mentioned earlier, the odds were against us, and there were many ‘excuses’ not to attempt the cycle trip… but there will always be ‘excuses’ not to do something! I learnt this a few years ago, when I was living and working in the UK, I was constantly making excuses not to leave my job and go traveling, though I knew if I didn’t go, then later in life I would regret it. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and ‘just do it’ – even if it goes against the grain. Yes, it may be scary at first, but one day you will look back and wonder what you were so worried about.

Ok. I’m beginning to sound like some ‘try-hard’ inspirational speaker, so best change the subject – we are still collecting donations for our charities; it’s never too late to donate! Links can be found in the side bar of this blog🙂

France to China by bike

France to China by bike

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Discovering the land of yurts and… Borat! Cycling in Kazakhstan!

Kazakhstan wasn’t a country we had originally planned to cycle through, however with the unpredictable closures of the borders from Kyrgyzstan to China, we decided to play it safe and cycle through Kazakhstan. 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 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 radio active from Russian nuclear testing… other than that, all I knew Kazakhstan to be famous for was “Borat”.

Hello Kazakhstan!!!

Hello Kazakhstan!!!

And 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), but to my delight, we did see plenty of yurts. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay in yurt while in Kazakhstan, so I still have that dream to fulfil.

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. True, Kazakhstan is largely flat, except for the route we took; it’s empty but freezing cold (despite being told October was a good month for hiking) and the roads… the roads were terrible! Despite all that, Kazakhstan exceeded my expectations, and is a country I would definitely consider returning to.

Mountainous Kazahkstan

Mountainous Kazakhstan

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.

Doing some yoga in the desert

Doing some yoga in the desert

Kazakhstan did however provide us with 2 new challenges… Frozen tents/ 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 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.

Camping in the desert

Camping in the desert

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).

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 – western and very modern yet still with a post-soviet feel. They even had cycle lanes! 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, only $9 and including a drink – bargain! Other than that we explored the city, by foot.

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

Head winds, continuous inclines, crap roads with a gravel hard shoulder (at the best of times) and some real dickhead 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/ breakage (note to self: don’t buy the cheapest stuff off Ebay anymore).

Befriending another stray dog

Befriending another stray dog

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 thing as space and there is such thing as respect, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t seem to understand this.

Camping in the desert

Camping in the desert

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.

Waking up to cows surrounding our tent

Waking up to cows surrounding our tent

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.

Toilet in the middle on nowhere in Kazakhstan... I had a fright when I walked in on someone squatting, I didn't realise there wouldn't be any toilet doors

Toilet in the middle on nowhere in Kazakhstan… I had a fright when I walked in on someone squatting, I didn’t realise there wouldn’t be any toilet doors

Every night we were cycling in Kazahkstan, 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.

Michael pretending he's a superhero

Michael pretending he’s a superhero

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’s Far East!

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