Kit review #2

After kit review #1 a few months ago, here’s the second in a series of blogs reviewing some of our best bits of equipment.

1. Hammock

Camping is the norm for touring cyclists around the world, but in Southeast Asia the combination of wet days, hot nights, rice fields covering lots of the flat land, and an abundance of cheap guest houses meant we decided against carrying the weight of a tent, 2 sleeping mats and 2 sleeping bags (probably 7kgs worth and a couple of panniers full). We imagined we’d be finding guesthoues each night, but we also wanted to be able to sleep independently if needed.

So we decided to carry a pair of hammocks (Ultralight Hammocks from Lifeventure). They weight about 600 grams each, pack down very small and can be strung up between two trees in seconds.

Hammocks are commonplace in this part of the world, and we saw them hung up outside most cafes and village homes as we cycled along. The locals seem to agree – there aren’t many better ways to spend a hot afternoon than swinging in a shady hammock!

Most of the local hammocks were of the string net variety, but ours were made from solid black fabric – vital to keep the mosiquitoes out (when combined with a mosi net) whilst sleeping out. They’re also surprisingly long (another advantage over local hammocks) – I’m way over 6 foot tall but still had plenty of room to spare at each end.

Overall, we found the hammocks really comfy and are glad we carried them through Southeast Asia. Although it was almost too tempting to stop cycling and have a sneaky rest break swinging under a tree (or a hut, as pictured below)!  Hammocks are so much smaller and lighter than the traditional tent & mat combination that people that like to travel ultralight really should consider taking one on their next trip.

2. Mosquito net

Mosiquitoes are an annoyance throughout most of Southeast Asia, and if they’re around then it’s guaranteed that at least one of the little buggers will find a way to eat you during the night. Cheap guesthouses rarely provided nets, so we strung our net up every night whilst in Southeast Asia, and now class them as essential kit for this part of the world.

We have one each, in case we’re in our hammocks or a guesthouse gives us two single beds, but one of them can stretch to cover a double bed if needed (Lifesystems BoxNet). The four hanging cords means it’s nice and roomy inside, and although we’ve had to be inventive, we’ve always been able to tie it up.

The other net (Lifesystems UltraNet) is lighter, smaller and simpler, with only one hanging cord. It goes up much quicker, but there’s much less room to manoeuvre inside – fine if you’re travelling light by yourself, but two people won’t fit.

3. Saddle

We both have Brookes B17 saddles, a common choice amongst long-distance cyclists. Everyone who sees our bikes slaps the firm leather surface, wonders why we don’t have a massive soft seat and asks if we’re mad. The theory is that the wide leather part supports your sit bones, thereby keeping weight off other more delicate areas.

The theory seems to work, as we both find them comfortable – I don’t even wear padded shorts and my rear end has been fine all trip. However, Bex has some problems from time to time with the edges of the saddle rubbing as she pedals, causing some chaffing. We think the overall shape of the saddle perhaps doesn’t quite match her bum – everyone’s a different shape, so saddle choice is a very personal thing. Definitely something to test out before you leave on a big trip!

As an aside, leather stretches when wet (clearly bad news for a saddle), so put a cheap plastic seat cover (or shopping bag) over the saddle when it rains.

4. Buffs

Basically a thin cotton tube that fits over your head, Buffs are great as a warm hat/face mask/bandana/neck warmer/balaclava/sweat band etc etc, depending on how you wear it. Back in the Central Asian winter we wore a couple balaclava-style to keep the ice out, but now we’re in hotter climates they’re good when dunked in water and left to drip down our necks as we cycle in the midday sun along with the mad dogs.

5. Silk sleeping bag liner

If you cycle all day and then dive straight into your sleeping bag, they can quicky get dirty and washing sleeping bags whilst on the road can be hard. Using a silk liner inside your bag to collect the dirt is a good idea as these can be washed much more easily. They also add a few degrees of warmth, so are useful when it’s cold. In hot countries they can be warm enough on their own, or if there are a few too many suspicious stains on the sheets in a budget guesthouse. A useful bit of kit at only 130 grams.

Next time in the 3rd and final instalment: tents, tyres and a few other bits

One photo a week for 2011

During 2011 I’ve been continuously updating a Flickr album with my favourite photo each week. Now the year’s over, it’s been fun to have a quick look back over the 52 photos to get a nice random selection of snapshot memories from the last 12 months, from Turkey to Australia.

Which is your favourite photo? Let me know in the comments below!

Photo essay – the contrasting experiences of long distance bike travel

This post originally appeared in the guest photo Friday slot on Alastair Humphreys’ blog.

One of the things I love about travelling by bike is the sheer number of contrasting experiences that are encountered from day-to-day and month-to-month. Here are six different areas that have provided plenty of variety over the 20,000km that we’ve cycled so far:

1. Landscape

A bicycle is possibly the best method of transport to see the changing landscape as you cross the world. Exposed to the sounds and smells, connected to the distance in a way that just isn’t possible from behind a bus window, and yet still fast enough to be able to cross continents. We’ve watched the world morph between flat green European fields, snowy Turkish plains, endless Kazakh steppe, deserts and mountains in Central Asia and lush green paddy fields in Southern China.

2. Religion

Religion is central to life all over the world and the changing influences are unmissable when crossing continents. The dominate religion across the Eurasian landmass changed gradually through varying degrees of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, with plenty of other beliefs mixed in along the way.

3. Emotion

Life on the road produces extreme highs and lows from everyday situations. A relentless headwind and an expiring Turkmen visa combined to produce one of the worst weeks of the journey, whereas conquering the final winter mountain pass in east Turkey resulted in ear-to-ear grins that lasted all the way down the freezing descent.

4. Bread

Usually the cheapest and easiest way to fill a hungry stomach, bread is the staple of choice for many a long distance cyclist. We’ve enjoyed sampling the bread in every country we’ve cycled in: the baguettes of France, the dark and heavy brot of Germany, the flatbread of Iran and the circular loaves of Uighur bread in Xinjiang. My favourite? Without a doubt the simits of Turkey – shaped like a bagel and best served hot, these delicious treats fuelled 2,000km of cycling across Turkey (washed down with the obligatory cups of tea, of course!).

5. People

Most of our fondest memories are of the people we’ve met. Some cities, otherwise anonymous, are remembered with great fondness simply because we had a fun evening with new friends. The incredible hospitality of the Iranians, cups of tea from friendly truck drivers, the vodka loving Uzbeks, the impenetrable language barrier of the Chinese, crowds of kids wanting their photo taken with the weird foreigner – all memories that will remain long after our saddle sores fade.

6. Bed

The need to find a new cheap or free place to sleep every day conjures up plenty of interesting situations. The appreciation of a bed and shower is in direct proportion to the level of discomfort experienced the night before! Swift and unexpected changes in fortune were one of the best things about cycling through Turkey and Iran in winter – one day we’d be sleeping in a sub-zero tent in a tunnel under the road, with hastily cooked camp stove slurry for dinner. The next, we’d find ourselves with a warm bed, hot shower and delicious meal, surrounded by the friendly faces of the family who had invited us into their home for the night.

The end of Asia & the start of Australia

Our last blog finished as we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, and we had an awesome week of fun before we touched the bikes again. First we had a fun few days staying with the Addington family. They’d emailed us after reading about our trip in the Newcastle University Alumni newsletter and invited us to stay. We then met up with Bex’s family (who flew out to meet us for a holiday) and travelled to Tioman Island for some relaxing beach time and seriously good snorkelling. Finally, and in complete contrast to Tioman, we spent a few days in the city centre surrounded shiny new shopping malls and sky scrapers.

The Petronas Towers in particular are stunning – whenever they were within sight I couldn’t help but just stare at them! They’re magnificent iconic buildings, visible from miles around. When it was finally time to leave KL we decided to cycle past to get one final glimpse.

As always, it was a bit of a sluggish start after some time off and it felt like hard work to pedal up any tiny incline. Within in the first hour of cycling after pretty much every break, Bex is convinced she has a double puncture and stops to check…..nope, your tyres are fine, it must be the legs I’m afraid!

The contrast between KL city centre and the villages just 40km either side was fairly striking, as after just a few hours of cycling we were back amongst the tiny roadside cafes, full of men chatting and drinking tea. During the 5 day cycle from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore we tried to make the most of the things we’ve taken for granted recently that won’t be possible when we’re back in a more expensive part of the world – including lunchtime cafe stops, takeaway bags of iced coffee, and daily showers in cheap guesthouses.

Unfortunately as we approached the final land border of our journey (Malaysia to Singapore), a dodgy policeman spotted us cycling up the car lane rather than the motorcycle lane, took us to one side and tried to make us pay a fine/bribe. This was the first time any policeman had been anything other than friendly to us, and we weren’t about to start handing out cash now. In any case, we’d spent the last of our Malaysian money that morning and he eventually gave up.

It took about an hour to go all the way across Singapore to the very tip of the Eurasian landmass that we’ve been cycling across since rolling off the ferry last September. It felt great to be there – Singapore had been our target for so long that it had almost become a mythical place in our mind! It seems ridiculous now that when we left we had no idea which route we would follow, other than we wanted to get to Singapore – we didn’t even know which countries we’d cycle through after leaving Europe!

However we did know that we wanted to lay down continuous tyre tracks all the way from the ferry port in France to Singapore, and that meant that we forced ourselves not to take the easy option on the occasions when it got really tough. In particular, I can remember freezing hands and feet in Turkey, stupidly long days to get across Turkmenistan, and ridiculous winds in the Turpan basin in China. Each time, hitching a lift would’ve meant we could’ve been in a warm bed by the end of the day, and I doubt anyone back home would’ve cared. It certainly wouldn’t have lessened our travelling experience in any way. But we choose to commit to pedalling every kilometre to give ourselves a different kind of test – a mental, logistical and physical test. At the moment it feels more surreal than satisfying, almost as if someone else cycled all those kilometres. But weirdly, I’m already beginning to treasure the memories of the bleakest moments more than most others.

Back to Singapore, and we spent a great few days staying with Damian and Lauren, admiring the spectacular view from their balcony, eating roast dinners and learning how to play squash in the court in their apartment complex. We also borrowed their iMac to knock up our sixth video. Most people we meet assume we’ve become mega-fit athletes over the last year, but those few games of squash confirmed that our muscles are definitely only fit for one thing! We could barely walk the next day…

Our final task in Singapore was to carefully pack our bikes into cardboard boxes, load them onto a plane bound for Australia, and cross our fingers.

It felt odd to be taking a flight. Inevitably any long distance cycle journey will eventually be broken up by an ocean, but it still felt weird waking up in Asia, as we have done for the last 11 months or so, before being transported 2,500 miles south. The weather, culture, continent, language all changed in an instant as we stepped off the plane into a surprisingly cold Australia – such changes usually take place gradually over months when travelling at bike speed.

Temperatures (day or night) in SE Asia rarely drop below the mid-twenties, so the 15 degree evening that greeted us as we stepped off the plane in Perth was a pleasant shock to the system. Neither of us have shoes or jumpers at the moment as they’d have been a waste of weight in recent climates, so we shivered over to collect our bike boxes, which thankfully looked intact.

We’d timed our arrival well as my old housemate from London (having since emigrated to Perth) was due to marry his fiancé  just a few days later. It was great to see Andrew and Dilini again, and they kindly let two smelly cyclists stay in their house for the week despite having friends and family fly in from all over the globe for their big day. We wallowed around in their hot tub and picked up some crucial supplies from the city centre shops, in between about 4 BBQs fired up by Bruce, Andrew’s dad.

We had a great time at the wedding (wearing a borrowed suit/shirt/shoes – cheers Brock!) and partied hard until the early hours.

Now once again it’s time to leave, and this time it’s back to the grindstone. No more hot tubs and fancy apartments for us for a long time! This morning we start the next leg of our trip, 5,000km from Perth to Sydney. The next major city, Adelaide, is 2,800km away and we hope to be there for Christmas. I’ve spent a few hours scribbling distances and details of the small towns and roadhouses that we’ll be relying on for food and water for the next few weeks.

Although we’ve been softened up with all the recent luxuries, I’m actually excited about getting back to it. SE Asia was a great place to travel by bicycle – culturally interesting, warm weather, cheap shops and guest houses everywhere – but now it’s time to get back into adventure mode. Camping is the only option from now on, and we’ll have to carry lots of food & water at times as we cycle through a few thousand kilometres of bush. I can’t imagine we’ll find much internet as we go, but via our new Aussie sim card we can text mini-updates to Twitter if anyone’s interested (they’ll also appear in the side panel on our website).

England to Singapore stats:

Distance cycled: 19,947km
Countries visited: 21
Days on the road: 425
Days cycled: 250
Highest point: 3,150 metres (Gansu, China)
Lowest point:
-155 metres (Turpan, China)
Hottest temperature:
38c, midday in Malaysia
Coldest temperature:
-25c, night time in East Turkey mountains
Punctures: 20+ (Just two for Bex, the rest for the fatty…)
Number of tyres used:
we’re both on our 3rd pair
Number of kilos lost between us: zero
Total raised so far for charity: £4,435

Beaches, mosques and torrential rain – Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur

The road is a blur, my eyes are half-closed and my soaked shirt sticks to my back. Water runs down my nose, stings my bare arms and covers every surface. It’s wet season in this part of the world, and when it rains it really, really hammers down.

Local moped drivers shelter under bus stops, staring in bemusement at the crazy foreigners cycling through the storm, but our clothes will dry out quickly once the sun returns so we see no point in stopping. And anyway, the cool rain is a nice change from sweating in the sun.

We’ve had a few of these downpours since we left Bangkok, heading due south towards various big name tourist destinations and the Malaysian border. Cycling out of Bangkok was predictably bleak, but within 5 days we’d reached the ferry port for Ko Tao, an island off the east coast renowned for diving. We spent an excellent few days relaxing on the beach, snorkelling amongst colourful fish and bursting into laughter whilst trying to remember what it felt like to slog through Chinese deserts for weeks on end. Times have changed!

After catching the ferry back to the mainland we met with Mark & Hana (two Kiwis cycling from China to Indonesia) in the port town of Chumphon. We’d met in Bangkok and were all keen to cycle together for a while, so we joined forces and continued on our way.

To avoid the flat busy highway that runs down the east coast we followed a small road over to the west coast and spent the next 4 days cycling through areas struck by the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. Since then, evacuation routes have been signposted and warning sirens constructed in an attempt to protect people should another tsunami happen in the future.

Those 4 days were the wettest yet – it barely stopped raining! Apparently it was a particularly dodgy weather system, but in any case it was great to have the company of a 4-man peloton for a change to keep morale high.

Mark is a professional photographer and his collection of shots from their cycling trip are superb and well worth a look. I must’ve asked a million questions over the few weeks we spent together trying to garner as many tips as possible – thanks for being so tolerant Mark! Although he’s a few weeks behind in processing his photos, we’ve seen a few sneak previews of the shots from our time together and they look great – hopefully we’ll be able to post links to a few of Mark’s photos in our next blog.

We took a longtail boat to Railay Beach, a peninsula framed by huge limestone cliffs which make it inaccessible by road. It’s a famous spot for rock climbing and the cliffs create an incredible backdrop. Wild monkeys stormed the beach to steal bananas from sunbathing tourists, and bats raced laps around a circuit of trees as night fell.

As we reached the far south of Thailand, mosques started to pop up in amongst the Buddhist temples that have been a daily feature throughout Laos and Thailand. The last day or so in Thailand felt like a completely different country, with most communities being entirely Muslim.

This change was a prelude to the border crossing to Malaysia, where Islam is the dominant religion throughout the country. Like the other Muslim countries we’ve visited, the vast majority of women (in rural areas at least) wear headscarfs, every village has a mosque and our wake up call is the distinctive call to prayer.

Well it would be, but with only minor whimpering from Bex we’ve slipped into Mark & Hana’s cycling regime which involves a pre-dawn alarm with the aim of being cycling before sunrise. This lets Mark get the best light of the day for photography, and also gives us most of the afternoon ‘off’ in whichever town we end up in. In Alor Setar we arrived for a late lunch at one of the ubiquitous large Indian cafes, eating biryani and roti, before an evening photography session at the awesome Zahir Mosque.

The roads in Malaysia are noticeably busier, and it’s become harder to find the quieter back roads that make cycling so much more fun, whilst still heading in roughly the right direction (i.e. south!) On the rare occasions we have found nice quiet roads we’ve been rewarded with road-side stalls selling bananas, wild monkeys jumping from tree to tree and thick jungle scenery, although unfortunately much of the natural wild jungle has been chopped down and replaced by palm oil plantations.

We caught the ferry across to the island of Langkawi and cycled 25km to the far side to spend another few days relaxing in the company of Mark & Hana and enjoying a few killer sunsets. Having travelled in Southeast Asia before, Bex always said she was looking forward to this part of the trip, and now I can see why! The number of spectacular sights and relatively short distance between them makes it perfect for travelling by bike.

What suprised me, however, is that we haven’t seen a single foreigner on any of our cycling days between the well known spots. Even in Thailand & Malaysia, it seems it’s incredibly easy to see local villages and normal rural life from the saddle, just by cycling anywhere.

The last few kilometres into Kuala Lumpur were relatively relaxed, aside from one particular 4km stretch. While Bex hates it, I usually enjoy riding into massive cities as the busy traffic keeps the adrenaline pumping and all senses alert. But when the 4 of us popped out into the middle lane of a 5 lane motorway a bit too much adrenaline was involved even for my liking! It felt like we were lacking a few wheels and a seatbelt to be mixing it with the cars.

We turned onto a smaller road at the first opportunity, before saying goodbye to Mark & Hana. We ended up cycling 1,400km together in total, but they’re now flying to the northern tip of Sumatra for the epic next leg of their adventure. It’s been really great having some fun and interesting company for a few weeks, and having some other people to share experiences. Thanks for an awesome time guys, and see you in NZ!