Category Archives: Preparations

Before and after photos

In Romania there aren’t a lot of people who haven’t heard of Mihai Barbu and of his trip to Mongolia. Before him other travelers did long adventurous journeys but probably he was the first who told a really good story of the trip, and by doing that he managed to inspire a lot of other people to start on intereting journeys. And in a way I hope to do the same with my journey.

At least in my case the travel journals I have been reading the past years played an important role in deciding that I actually want to do this. Now getting back to the photos I’m really glad that Mihai spared some time for a couple of shots, and I cannot help but wonder if I would take the same photos after 9 months how changed would be the person standing in the photo. I’m pretty sure that the clothes and the bike won’t be as new.

I could write a lot of things on the subject but with two days until the departure time is short and the posts will be even shorter.

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Visa

The first visa – Kyrgystan

Probably one of the most daunting problem when trying to plan a trip through Central Asia is the visa problem. And besides the bureaucracy and the costs which pretty high the main issue is that the rules change rather dramatically from one year to the other, and not necessarily for the better. Probably the best example is last year when during the elections in Iran it became a bit more difficult to get the Iranian visa. Perhaps sometimes it’s necessary to to bump into these problems just learn to appreciate the advantages an EU citizen has while travelling through Europe. It’s easy to get accustomed to this fact and to forget that 90% of the world doesn’t have this freedom of movement.

The first and only visa which I got before leaving is exactly the visa of the destination country, Kyrgyzstan. At first I planned to get them along the way but after finding out that the Kazakhstan embassy in Romania also issues Kyrgyzstan visas on a relatively short notice, and that they are considerably cheaper than in other embassies I thought it was worth the effort.

And thus after a couple of visa papers which I managed to fill incorrectly a number of times, after 35 euroes and after 3 days I got my first visa. The consul, a young Kazakh with Asian facial features fortunately spoke some English in order to clear up some details of the Kyrgyz visa (for example you can use it in an interval of 3 months). On the other hand if I would scale things and if this is the English which is spoken by a consul in an European country I think I’d better start learning some Russian, or at least the basic things which are needed for filling up visa forms.

Regarding visas probably the best resource for Central Asia is Caravanistan but also the information provided by Ionut and Ana from Into the World were very useful. The plan with the other visas would be to get the Iran visa in Trabzon or in Erzrum (it’s easier and you don’t need a letter of invitation), then the Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan si Tadjikistan in Iran, filling the papers in Teheran and trying to get the visas in Mashad. The biggest problem will probably be Turkmenistan which only issues a transit visa which is only 5 days long and has fixed dates and thus it’s hard to specify the exact dates until I will get close to the border. The return visas for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia I’ll get either in Almaty or in Bishkek, but that’s at least 6 months away so I can start worrying about them a bit later on.

Ca pe roate

In front of the microphone

In a January month which was incredibly full and in which I split my time between spending time in the mountains and between organizing the trip, I also tried to make the project known to the Romanian media. In the end the only thing which I can offer in return is a story, a story which may seem interesting and which may inspire in turn, a story which I will write for me but which can also be read by others.

And so from the benevolence of several persons which resonated to the idea of a long trip to a mountain at the end of the world in ended up twice in front of a Radio microphone, once at the national Romanian Radio Station (Radio Romania Actualitati) at the “Like on wheels” Radio show and once at Radio France International at an interview with Andreea Orosz. The first one was live during a weekend show while during the second one we had more time to talk about the project in detail.

And now regarding the experience of talking on the Radio, as it was the first time for me, it’s interesting because you don’t realize that there are people listening on the other end and things are more relaxed. At the same time it’s a bit weird when you use the headphones and when you hear yourself and realize that you don’t sound like your normal self. And when time is limited it’s really hard to try to reduce everything to the essential parts, and I feel like given enough time I could go on for hours regarding the adventure which is in front of me.

Unfortunately all the recordings are in Romanian, as the main audience is in Romania.

The live condensed version from Radio Romania Actualitati.

And the long version from Radio France International and a short article can be found over here.

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The Polartec Challenge

First of all maybe I should start a bit by explaining what is the Polartec Challenge. Each year the guys from Polartec decide to support a number of daring projects around the world, with the aim of encouraging exploration challenges around all the corners of the world. When I first found out about it, and when I scrolled the list of adventurers which have been nominated in the past years it was hard not to feel intimidated, with adventures spanning from ascents nominated for the Piolet d’Or to explorations of the most remote places on this planet. And it’s incredible that the Polartec Challenge has been going on for the past 20 years, and quite a number of big names have benefited from them.

As intimidating as it seemed, I also thought that it was worth a try, and from the moment when I decided that I will go on this trip the thought was somewhere in the back of my mind. And even though my expedition surely seems challenging to me(which basically means hard but doable at the same time) I had no idea if others also see it the same way, especially because it combines at the same time a bike touring expedition with alpinism, and taken separately each part isn’t something special in itself. The length of the expedition, the style and the combination is something a bit different though, and it’s not every day that you start a 15.000 kilometre journey on a bike from your doorstep with the goal of reaching a distant 7000 meter peak half way around the world.

The news came right after trying to raise some sponsorship for the expedition (without success up until now) and after trying to obtain some media partnerships (still ongoing and partially successful). And after hearing no for so many times it’s hard not to start doubting the entire adventure, or at least to doubt that it also seems interesting for other people (after working through the organisational details in the past weeks it seems even more interesting and challenging to me). And I still find it hard to believe, but it surely did come like a breath of fresh air in the maze of getting all the needed equipment and I was starting to cut of the list the things which I could do without for the journey.

And so I have one extra reason to write everything also in English besides Romanian, and to tell a good story through photography and through writing. A big thanks once again to Polartec.

As a side-note I find it very interesting that in Romania (just as in other post communist countries) is that lot of pieces of equipment are named after the first large name which became known in those countries. For example every burner is called primus, every running shoe is called adidas and last but not least every fleece jacket is called Polar.

The full press release can be found here.

Cicilovete

Returning home to Romania.

It’s been two weeks since we’ve returned to Romania and after this short period I still have some mixed feelings regarding our decision of leaving Germany.

Probably one of the main benefits of living and working for a longer period of time abroad is that you get to see your own country with different eyes. You get a similar change in perspective with travelling, but the efects are longer and more profound when you actually live in a different country.

We’ve found Romania in the grey colours of a snowless winter, which is somehow the perfect setting for seeing the many faults of Romania. And after a full year probably the first thing which pops into our eyes is the garbage which lays around in almost any place connected with civilisation. It’s the curse of plastic bags, of pet bottles and of a still uneducated population. It’s something which unfortunately you get used to, and right now probably anyone in Romania tolerates it to a certain extend. We’ve grown unused to it though, coming for a really tidy Germany.

One other thing which we’ve noticed is the feeling that almost everything seems rushed. Maybe it’s just us and maybe we’ve grown slower in the past year, but I still sometimes seems that there is no plan but everything needs to be ready. And sometimes it feels that time has stood still and that you haven’t missed anything while instead we’ve gathered a lot of experiences.

On the other hand there are all the friends, the parents and all the family members, and all the social interaction which I find it to be on a completely different level than in Germany. And all the mountains which are dear to us and which with all due respect cannot compare with the plains and the endless forests of Germany.

Either way we managed to get outside more than in the past two months in Berlin, we’ve seen the sun more than in the past winter there, and we’ve spent a lot of time with friends and family. But all in all I can’t help but wonder if we’ve taken the right decision.

In the following period I’ll have to continue preparing the expedition, do a couple of tests with the new pieces of gear and maybe start of a bit earlier if the weather remains so warm, in order to have more time for Iran and for other distant places.

Camping salbatic, pe undeva pe langa Lugoj.

On the way back to Romania, wild camping with almost all our belongings packed in our small car.

Once again back home in our mountains.

Din nou acasa.

Early in the morning.

Matinal.

Desertul de gheata.

The ice desert.

Acasa.

Home.

Malul impadurit.

The misty mountain.

Wakhan

About maps and navigation

A really good question is which would be the best way to navigate 7000 kilometers through unknown countries, which might also use a different alphabet. In today’s world, where you have a million gadgets which get smaller each year and which can do more and more stuff, it doesn’t seem that difficult.

The thing is that usually I hate being guided by a GPS, especially when bike touring or when running or trekking in the mountains. I do find a GPS useful in the cities, as you really can’t carry a map for each city, and sometimes asking locals for addresses inside a city doesn’t really yield good results. After all if I would think about Bucharest where I’ve spent almost ten years if someone would ask me about an obscure street I would have no idea how to guide him.

And I really like maps, I like having a physical piece of paper on which you can have an overview of where you are coming from and where you are heading to. They are somehow reminiscent of a time when I started exploring the mountains of Romania, and when a map could tell you advance which places you’re going to see the following day. With time, and with getting to know the mountains the maps started remaining at home, as sometimes the map which construct in your head throughout the years is generally good enough.

I also think that sometimes with a GPS it’s impossible to get really lost, as you always know have some sort of coordinates and eventually an underlying map. At the same time getting lost isn’t the goal, but sometimes it’s nice to find yourself in the middle of nowhere being forced to figure out things for yourself.

At the same time I realise that there’s no perfect solution, and it’s simply a matter of choosing the advantages which you like and the disadvantages which you can live with. At least in my case it’s going to be combination between real maps, digital maps and a smartphone for getting some GPS coordinates if needed.

Regarding the maps, probably one of the most interesting collection of maps which I’ve found in the past months are these soviet topographic maps,  which include maps in a good scale for almost half of the globe, the half in which the soviets had interests at one point or the other. The only issue is that they are in Russian, but at the same time I plan to learn a minimum of Russian before reaching the stans.

Another site with really useful information regarding the climate in different places on the globe can be found here and I’ll probably use it to get a picture of the average temperatures of the places through which I will travel through.

Last week I got two paper maps for Central Asia, one for Iran and one for the Stan’s but the scale is too large to make them really useful. But at the same time I find it is really interesting to look at these maps, and to dream that in a couple of months I will travel through all these places.

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Maxcycles Townlite

The bike, preparations for the journey ahead

The starting point.

It will be my house on two wheels for about 8 months, so I should prepare it for the road ahead.

My current bike, and at the same time the bike I’m going to use for the trip is a Maxcycles Townlite, probably from 2009. I bought it used 2 years ago before the trip to Mont Blanc, and when I bought it I thought that it’s going to be my next city and touring bike for the next 10 years. This though helped justify the otherwise high price tag (even for an used bike).

It’s my forth bike in 20 years, the first one beeing a Pegas (the comunist ideea of a city bike), the second a Neuzer Matrix, which saw quite a bit if use Bucharest and in the mountains from Romania, and the third was a Kona Fire Mountain which was a bit too big for me. And then came the Maxcycles, which I’ve used for the past 15000 kilometers.

When I think about it all my bikes up until now were second hand bikes, and all are still working and they are used by friends. The Kona Fire Mountain even was used by to friends which learned riding a bike on it. Either way, the purpose of a bike is to be used and to gather as many kilometers as possible, and this I’m really glad that they are still working and that they are fulfilling their scope.

But now getting back to Maxcycles Townlite, the bike itself is an odd build. On one hand it has parts which have endurance bike touring written over them (like the Rohloff, or the SON dynamy, or the Magura HS33 brakes, or the frame), while on the other hand another set of parts was chosen in order to save some weight (for example the carbon fork, some titanium components, the back rack, or the wheels).

The result is a bike which designed for city use and for light touring, and I think it’s more than enough Europe. On the other hand if you think of rougher roads, some things are to be desired. In the past two years I’ve used it for touring in Europe, and we ended up really often on paths which were perhaps better suited for a MTB, and thus I discovered that it can handle quite some rough terrain. You can’t cruise down a rough single train with 40 kilometers per hour, but I’m pretty sour that with loaded panniers I wouldn’t do that.

The heart of the bike is the frame though, and I really enjoy it and the size fits me really well, so I’m not going to change it, even though it’s made from Aluminium. The second heart is the Rohloff hub which without any maintenance just keeps going, and going, and going…. You get the idea, and there are hubs there which reached 100.000 kilometers and which are still going strong.

The wheels

Probably the most important part after the frame, I really think it’s worth investing a bit more in a durable wheel, otherwise you can end up with a lot of problems which aren’t that easy to solve. The rims on my bike are a set of lightweight Alexrims AT400, not exactly suited for heavy duty touring. The one on the back wheel already has cracks on the side and has to be changed, and in the process I’m also going to change the front one.

In order to build a new wheel you need 3 things, a good rim, a good set of spokes, and a good wheel builder. And thus after some research and after some asking around I ended up with the following options:

  • Mavic A719 – relatively light and with good reviews, medium price
  • Rigida Sputnik / Rigida Andra – the cheapest ones, but also the heaviest. The Andra was designed with Rohloff in mind, but at 815gr it’s necessarily light.
  • DT Swiss TK 540 – the lightest and the priciest of the 3, weighing in at 545 grams and it can handle up to 130 kilos. On the other hand the price is also double.

And regarding the good wheel build I’m probably going to do it in Berlin, as there are some bike shops which are well known in Germany for the wheels they build. I’ll also have to exchange the Rohloff sprocket with the largest one, and I lack the tool for that.

The tires

Choosing the tires is a bit easier (I’m on my second set of Schwalbe  Marathon tires), and even though the price seems high just as the Rohloff they keep going, and going, and going. And as the Mondial replaced the last star, and as it has some pretty good reviews, the decision is simple. The only thing is that I’m somewhat limited by the frame, and I’m probably going to get the 42, with some small chances for the 47. A wider tire would translate in better off-road performance, but the 42 might be enough.

The front fork.

I’m not going to leave on such a journey with  a carbon fork, so I’m going to have to replace it with a basic steel fork with holes for the front rack. At the same time the offer out there isn’t that great, and I can’t really think what would make a good steel fork, so I’m probably going to go with the Maxcycles stock fork.

The racks.

Also here the things are pretty simple. I already have a Tubus Airy which is really light at 233gr but which doesn’t have the best durability out there. I can already see where marks in place which had contact with the panniers. And this I’m going to replace it with a Logo on the back and I’m also going to get a Tara for the front wheel. Once again they are guaranteed for 30 years, and if failure occurs (which I doubt), they can be easily fixed.

The panniers.

Once again the things are simple, I already have a  set of backroller classic which is ore than enough for Europe, but this time I will back some additional things and I will get the frontroller classic to match them, and this should provide enough space.

Chainglider.

Probably one of the main advantages of a Rohloff hub is that you can “seal” the transmission with a Chainglider, which limits the amount of dust which reaches the chain and which keeps the oil on the chain in rainy weather, thus reducing the maintenance needed. It may be a bit loud, but I would chose the noise over reduced durability each time.

The handlebar.

Currently the handlebar is a light titanium model, and it’s probably going to be left at home this time. I will have to chose between a classic aluminium handlebar with Ergon grips, or the low cost is to reuse a butterfly handlebar which I already have at home. I would have to test it though in order to see if it’s ok.

The saddle.

Selle SMP TRK. I think that the designer thought of my behind when they designed this saddle. I already used for 3 years, I’m extremely content with it and I can’t imagine another a better saddle. The only issue is that the artificial leather started to crack, and I need to exchange it for a new one.

It might seam like a lot of changes, but the heart (or the hearts) of the bike remain the same, and if when I look at the list I only see things which I would need. If they would be absolutely needed though is another question, and there are a lot if people riding around the world with cheap bikes. In the end the desire to start the journey is probably more important than the bike with which you start it.