Ortlieb Back Roller Plus saddlebags

My mark: 2/10

I’ve used many saddlebags during my travels, and these ones were the most expensive ones I’ve ever had. I guess that’s why I was so dissapointed. Fair enough, they work really well against water and rain, but that’s it. Nothing you can’t achieve with some plastic bags on cheapear bags. Yes, I really regret buying these. Maybe they are good in paved road, but the second you go offroad you’ll have plenty of problems. Anyway, I’ll try to be objective:

Pros:

  1. They’re quite big and they really are waterproof.
  2. They are really light.

Cons:

  1. Installation is supossed to be easy but it’s not:
    1. The hanging points need some adaptors that break and get lost easily. It can happen in the middle of a trip, anytime. Most of cyclists I found complained about this.
    2. The device to stop the bags from moving horizontally is pretty crap. When offroad, it gets loose all the time. You need something to tight it (an elastic band is very helpful). Therefore, it’s not fast to assemble them at all.
  2. There is the risk of falling, due to both previous issues. And even if you try your best (I did!) to solve them, they can fall
  3. They break. The light material is also VERY weak. Mine is broken because it fell in the middle of the road. I wasn’t going very fast, must say. Therefore, no more waterproof for me. I think older models can withstand that impact without a problem.
  4. The bottom is also a problem if you put the saddlebags “standing up” on the floor.
  5. The hanging system bends after a few days using it, and therefore makes it harder to instal.

From what I’ve seen in other travellers, the ones from Vaude are better, especially much harder (but also more expensive).

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Katadyn water filter

My mark: 8/10

I’ve used the Katadyn Combi filter. I don’t think a water filter is necessary in lots of places, but it definitively gives you a great piece of mind and it’s quite environmentally friendly. I found it almost a must in China, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Mongolia (yep, kettle can make water really dirty in lots of places). PerĂº as well, but there are many more places where you can but bottled water – again, not very eco.

Pros of this product:

1. It filters water and eliminates bacteria. You can find this cheaper “bars” or pills you put in water and clear bacterias, but they don’t filter the water. Very useful in areas with minery.

2. It is very robust. Easy to carry in your saddlebag and not worry much about it.

3. The company. We had one strange problem with our unit, and they gave us a new one. On top of that, they keep track of their products and have good policies.

4. It’s almost forever: they guarantee a 50.000 litre life on the ceramic filter (the critical one) which is almost forever…

Cons:

1. The price. Quite expensive. Still, lots of countries try to charge something like 1 euro or 1 USD per bottle of water, so the payback time can be quite short.

2. You need to do the proper maintenance work. Clean the ceramic filter VERY often, and a little bit of oil in the rings sometimes.

3. The bag: the filter itself is very robust and hard to break, but the bag they give you is quite silly and the extras don’t fit in properly. I know, not a big deal really.

Tajikistan and surrounding countries: visa and border issues

We had lots of issues at the borders and with the visas in Tajikistan. We also heard lots of stories from other travelers. So I thought it could be a good idea to collect them.

Open borders.
We entered the country through the border at Kyzyl-Art, south of Sari Tash in Kyrgyzstan (the southern Sari Tash, as there happen to be another one near Osh). Some people mentioned that sometimes they close it on weekends, especially on sundays.
The border west of Sari Tash, Karamik, is closed for foreigners. No matter what they might say in Dushanbe or Bishkek. At least that was the case in summer of 2014.
The Afghan border at Ishkashim is closed on sundays. The one in Khorog os closed for tourists.
All Afghan borders were closed for some weeks in early July due to some shooting from the Afghan side. Looks like some radical talibans tried to take control of 2 big towns in Northern Afghanistan, and that’s why. When we were there, everything was normal. No sign of any hostility whatsoever.
The China – Tajik border at Kulap (or Kulan, depending on where you read this) pass is still closed for foreigners.
The Kyrgyzs border at Isfara was closed for 3 days due to some shooting. They reopened it soon. The area seems to be pretty unstable, just like the area close to Samarkanda in Uzbekistan (which is closed to foreigners as well).
No visa nor GBAO permit was provided for 2 weeks due to some issues in Khorog. Police beat a local guy, and local guys got angry and burned down a gubernamental building (which, by the way, contained some passports from some tourists requesting GBAO permits!). That’s why no visa was issued in the country but they were still being issued at the embassies around the world.
Our recommendation: DO NOT WAIT TO GET YOUR VISA AT THE AIRPORT. We heard some sad stories.
The Isfara area borders with Kyrgyzstan are a mess. No matter what people say, only the one pass the airport at Isfara is open for tourist.
Also, if you want to do the Isfara – Osh bit without entering Uzbekistan, that’s the way: Isfara – Batken – Chon Grass and keep going. Do not take southern route.

Visa extension
They made a mistake in my visa at the embassy in Belgium so I had to apply for an extension. The process:
1. I went there on a tuesday. Filled up a form twice, included two 3×4 cm photos and one photocopy of the passport and the current visa. Also a letter requesting the visa extension, specifying dates (I hand-wrote it). I paid 1 USD.
2. I had to go back next day to know whether the extension had been approved or not. That was not the truth: they only wanted me to pay, and they accepted it the moment I paid (I don’t know why I couldn’t pay on previous day!). 25 USD.
3. I collectes my visa on friday afternoon. If necessary, I had the feeling it could’ve been ready by thursday (3 days to process this).
4. You must do all of this at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Careful if you ask around, most of the people doesn’t know where it is!!

Flights and surrounding countries.
Careful with cheap flights that include stopping at some Russian airport.
If it’s only one single stop in one international airport, you should be ok. Still, if it includes 2 different companies, you might have some troubles: they can ask you to collect your bagagge and do the check-in again. And in order to do that, you need to leave the transfer area… and you need a visa for that! No, they will not provide the visa at that moment.
Most of the times a representative of the company can help you do this so you don’t leave the transfer area. But be careful ok?
If you have 2 stops in 2 Russian airports, YOU NEED A RUSSIAN VISA. They understand you arrive to the international hall, then move to the national one. And national terminal is considered inside the country, therefore you need a visa.
No having a visa in Russia means jail and/or deportation (I’m sure you don’t care much about being deported, but this could affext any visa in any other country in the world. Do you know when they make you this random questions “have you ever been deported?”, “are you a spy?”, and you always reply NO? Not anymore).
And yes, I have friends who have spent a night in jail due to this. No joke.
Careful also in Uzbekistan. Some basic medicaments legal everywhere are not legal there (valium, altitude pills etc). We met a 60-year-old couple who spent 5 days in jail for bringing valium.

@gutxes

Opinion: Tajiks

The way of living is not that different here and in Kyrgyzstan, so many of the things written for the first are valid for the latter. Still, couple of differences I’d like to mention.

Politics.
Tajiks, just like Kyrgyzs, are scattered around different countries. They may not be as obvious to spot as Kyrgyzs but they’re still there. This country, like many others in the area, was “designed” with a pen over a map: it needed to have one million people in order to be considered a country, acording to the beliefs of those times, and that’s how this borders came up. Because of that you may be inside political Tajikistan and still feel as if you were in Kyrgyzstan very often, and viceversa. Almost every Tajik will tell you they’re good friends with Kyrgyzs but not with Uzbeks, by the way!

Still, there are plenty of Tajiks in areas like Samarkanda, in Uzbekistan. The fact that Uzbekistan is a little bit afraid of losing their possesion because of so many foreigners is the reason why the border near Samarkanda is closed even for locals (it always is for tourists).

Actually, since most of the Tajik borders present lots of issues, I’ve written a post only about that matter.

Not only Uzbeks represent problems here: just like in Kyrgyzstan, the presence of Russia is very strong, especially on TV.

People.
Tajiks are on average friendlier than Kyrgyzs. Or maybe just more open. They’ll invite you for tea all the time, to the point where it can be a little bit too much sometimes. Saying “no” when cycling is easy, but otherwise… Lots will offer to take you and your bike on their cars if they find you going uphill. The concept of effor when cycling obviously doesn’t make much sense to them!!

Safety.
The South is a perfect place for cycling; the North is a little bit more dangerous due to traffic (no, the Death Tunnel is NOT a problem; read the post from that day if interested), but overall roads are better. Only one police post gave us real problems because they were asking for money; the rest were ok. Safety is great everywhere, and camping is not a problem at all.

Money.
It’s a cheap country as well, again sleeping being the most expensive part: they never expect less than 6 USD per person without meals, usually around 10. Dushanbe is FAR more expensive than the rest of the country by the way! Sleeping in restaurants is quite common: when you fijd these square wooden platforms where they eat, you can spend the night there as well. They just expect you to have dinner and maybe breakfast there, that’s all. Meals are around 1.5 euros.

Weather.
Just because lots of people asked about this: do not expect rain in summer. The Pamirs have some continental weather, which means that, even if it may rain, it’s not very likely during summertime. Even in winter it doesn’t snow that much: precipitations are not very common. Still, we did found a little bit of rain (actually it was snow) and some people we found told is that couple of days before it had snowed consistently. But, again, this is not very common.

Dushanbe and surroundings (and that includes almost everywhere down from Khorog) are hot in summer, of course, but not as hot as Pakistan was, for example. Still, stopping for a long break at midday was the wise thing to do.

@gutxes

Opinion: Kyrgyzs country

I’m not saying Kyrgyzstan but Kyrgyzs country. I found Kyrgyzs people in China, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and you can find them in some other parts as well, like Uzbekistan. Therefore the political borders do not make much sense here (they don’t make much sense anywhere really). This is a case of people making a country, and not the other way around.

It’s quite easy to distinguish Kyrgyzs people: the long wool white hats will speak for themselves. Older people wear them all the time, but lots of young ones as well (they even adapted them and made them more fashionable). In a way, it looks like they’re showing how proud of their country they are. And they probably are.

Kyrgyzs people are really sociable. They’re friendly and smily (more men than women). Up in the mountains they’re more reserved, the closer you get to cities they come and speak to you more. They are not as open as Tajiks maybe, but that doesn’t mean anything bad; if anything, the other way around, since Tajiks can be too much sometimes. Still, away from the mountains everybody will come and ask you where you’re from, name and few other basic things. Yes, it can be tiring sometimes.

Money.
Though it’s not an expensive country, there’re quite a few things that felt expensive, especially sleeping. Don’t expect to find easily anything below 8 USD (that’d be some 400 som at the moment); most of the time they ask for at least 10, not including food. Food on the other hand is pretty cheap, and it shouldn’t cost more than 100 som per meal.

Politics.
This is a weird subject. Depending on who you speak to and where, the visions vary lots. Near Sari Tash (in the south) it feels as if they don’t really care what country they belong to. They’ve got their animals and their fields and nothing changes there. Further up north you will hear people speaking as if they were still part of Russia.

Most of TV channels are Russians though, there’re only a few Kyrgyzs. And very often they show documentaries about how great life was under the Soviet Union. Yes, they try to control the minds just like they do in the “west”.

There’s just one thing for sure: they don’t like Uzbeks. Every Kyrgyzs who mentioned Uzbeks told us they’re always shooting. Also, expect to find the borders between those two countries closed at anytime (it did happen while we were there). The weird thing is that in border towns or cities there are lots of Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan.

The good thing comes for tourists: on top of needing no visa to enter the country (at least we don’t need it with an European passport), the guys at the borders are pretty nice. You can find a little bit of everything of course, but mostly they are really friendly. No big inspections neither. Nor pointing at you with their guns.

Safety.
Can’t say much on this subject. Our trip was very safe and we never had any issue, but we heard some random stories, specially involving womem camping on their own and militars/police. Also, they’re supposed to be asking for money from tourists they find on the road; we never felt that. Police always treated us perfectly, even invited us for food.

There were suppose to be some problems with kids messing around with bikes. It did happen once in Aluchir, in the Pamirs, when some kids took away a pump from our bikes. But appart from that, no problem at all.

The southern border can be dangerous sometimes, since looks like that route is used to transport drugs from Afghanistan. It can involve some shooting, they told us. We never saw anything: it felt safe as it can be!!

@gutxes

Opinion: Western China

China is a huge country, so whatever I discovered on this small part I visited cannot be extrapolated, I guess. Still, plenty to say about this place!

Stereotypes.
My head was full of stereotypes before visiting China for the first time. Most of them happened to be true in a way, but I also discovered lots of unexpected aspects of this country.
The sky is grey. Yes, their skies never get this deep blue colour. It’s not always grey, but it is very often. Near deserts the usual blue-yellowish appears. That doesn’t mean pollution, though, it’s just the weather in this area.
Megaconstructions. Yes, Chinese do megaconstructions. Both in their own country and in ones nearby. Old ancient small road turned into bright motorways, no matter how many mountains they have to tear down or bridges must be built up, can be seen everywhere. Skyscrappers in ancient cities. Everything you can imagine is there. Still, the country is so huge that it doesn’t feel overused… most of the times.
Everything has been man-touched. Chinese do not seem to worry much about their own environment, and it’s easy to see that almost everything, from rivers to mountains to flatlands to swamps to the smallest stone has been touched or moved. Go try and, if they change their mind, just leave it.
Factories. Yes they do have this huge factories in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lots of houses (they al look the same) for workers. They look really scary sometimes, as if taken from a horror B-movie. Most of the time it’s about mining.
Technology and tradition. Yes we found a huge mixture of them. In small towns you’ll find no technology at all, they still live like some decades ago, honest; it’s very nice there (and people are surprisingly nice as well!). In towns/cities, you can find a mixture of older markets with brand new buildings. There are some “artificial” towns where almost everything is new (like Ulugqal, where whatever is not new feels Russian), or cities like Kashgar that keep a nice balance between the two. Do NOT expect internet and huge screens everywhere in this part of China.

Traffic.
In Western China the traffic is very light. Honest. A massive city like Kashgar is really easy to ride by bike, also getting in and out of the city (also using their motorways). We heard that this is NOT common in Eastern China. Traffic there seems to be pretty heavy and full of trucks. It’s true though that everywhere, east and west and north and south, there’re lots of trucks carrying the extracts of the mines, especially coal. And parts of this coal falls to the road most of the time, not making it very safe. Truck drivers do not drive that nicely…

Electric!
To our surprise, 90% of the vehicles in Kashgar were electric!! So no smoke at all (and no noise neither)!! From what we’ve been told, it’s almost the same all over China. That’s great news for your lungs. But not everything that shines…

China has no petrol, and therefore it has decided to rely on coal to produce electricity and skip the use of oil. That’s why vehicles are electric. But coal-burning electricity-generating centrals are not clean at all. So looks like lots off places in China are highly poluted and breathing is a huge problem. The products of coal-burning are not captured and there’s shit in the air. We heard about cyclist riding with a mask in order to breath normally during their first 2000kms after leaving Shangai. This is not the case of Kashgar, though.

Politics.
Coal is creating the new Chinese Imperium. The huge need of coal (and other minerals) has taken China to construct good roads (to carry thos coal).from neighborhouding countries. Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazajhstan, they all have roads being built up by the Chinese. Sometimes these roads take nowhere: they finish on a factory/mine. But they keep building them up. Every country benefits in a way.

China doesn’t need to invade these countries if it can keep on extracting what it needs. Why take care of the Pamir highlands or the Kazaj deserts if it can take the coal? Better if other countries take care of those inhospid areas and their inhabitants.

Still, sometimes it does invade them: do you know why China will never free Tibet? Because that’s where the largest Lithium mines in the world are located. And with mobile phones like the one I’m using to write ornthe batteries of those forementioned electric cars using Lithium, they sure need them.

Still, we found this army guy in Kyrgyzstan who thought that China was building all those roads to invade their country sometime soon…

Money.
China is not a very expensive country like we expected. A double room is around 70-80 yuan (120 if it’s a proper one with A/C), meals are around 20-30 yuans. We paid a shared taxi for 4 persons 40 euros for 140 kms; a fair price i’d say, even more taking into consideration it carried 2 bikes!

Religion and the Silk Route.
Being.a communist country, there should be no religion in China. But by now we all know the communism applies to real life… Kashgar is an Islamic city, and that’s very nice!! The buildings and the people make you feel that. And maybe because of that, or partly because of that, it gives this feeling of being somewhere historic. I’ve been in a few places where the Silk Route was supossed to pass through; out of all of them, this was the one where I felt the most that something special has happened (even though seeing the route physically in Pakistan was really special as well).

@gutxes

Opinion: Northern Pakistan

We didn’t spend much time in Pakistan, and this was mostly on the north, so again I cannot speak for the whole country. But I had some impressions that I’d like to share, mostly because they don’t come along with the view that we have of this country.

Worth?
Definitively. Pakistan contains some of the most impressive views I have ever seen. The geography is spectacular and wild here. A very rich history decorates. And the people make it a great country (especially if you compare it to the neighbourhooding India!).

Safety
Rawalpindi and northern Pakistan are safe areas. Sure, you may run into some troubles, but just like you might in any “western” city. Forget about a wartime situation. Nothing like that at all. There will be some (armed) military police in couple of places (we found some in Chillas and that’s basically it), but much less than what you can find in, say, the Basque Country.

People are not happy with what happened after 11-S though. Everybody said the area was full of tourists then, and there’s almost none nowadays. We learnt that even Spanish princesses use to spend their holidays there. And that’s why most of them blame the taliban. We heard in couple of places not very nice words towards them, and neither towards the most extreme sides of their religion. I guess that when it affects your wallet, the vision you’ve got of your religion changes.

No hate for the US neither. Yes, we found some graffity against the US and Israel, but we also found lots of people wearing Tshirts with the US flag, the Yankees hats and stuff like that. It could mean that they have no clue what they’re wearing (it happens in lots of countries, especially in Spain), bit I guess the flag would be recognized everywhere…

Money
The country is still cheap, but that much compared to what it used to be (that’s what we heard and read in older guidebooks). The standard sleeping cost is around 500 ruppies (some 4 euros/5 USD), and eating should be half of that maximum (and that’d mean a good lunch!!). A 16-hour bus trip was 1500 ruppies (but they’ll always ask for some more money for uploading your bags or simply because you’ve got bags!).

People
People are increadibly nice. They’ll try to buy you food or a drink most of the time, even invite your for tea to their place, and try to talk to you with the little English they know. It can even be a little bit too much at some points, mainly if you’re tired and/or if there’s a few of them, one after the other, coming to ask you the same questions time and time again.

But not everybody is like that. Police and any official charge can give you trouble. Lots of them are very nice and they treat you like any other citizen would, but you can easily come across some stupid ones who want to show off their authority or just want to steal whatever they can from you. Avoid police; if you need instructions, ask anybody else on the streets or on the road if you can. When camping, make sure there’s no police anywhere near. Getting into and out of the country, try to show them as little as possible (they took some stuff from us just because).

You might find some problems with women’s rights. Yes, they’re not very open minded on that issue. Or at least not from our point of view. Women are rarely seen the more southern you go, they’re relegated to home works mostly, their clothes are what they are… I’m obviously not in favour of all of this, but you must admit that it’s their thing. The same way us in the “west” would never buy lunch to a tourist from a richer country because our ideas/religion/tradition/beliefs tell us to (actually, we’d try to charge them more or make a whole industry around them), we shouldn’t judge this other ideas so easily. I cannot understand arranged marriages, or young girls marrying old guys, or not being able to work… but I cannot judge them so easily. I guess you need to live in the country (and speak their language) to form a clearer idea.

Cycling.
We had no problem at all except the rockfalls (and that was serious; I’m really happy to be alive!!). The road are in quite good conditions, there’s very little traffic and there’re towns/stopping points every so often. Also, just one pass… and you might not even be able to cycle through!! (I explain this on that day’s description).

There were couple of very hot moments when we ran out of water. We carried a water filter that proved to be very useful!! But those were our first days, so I guess if you’re used to it you shouldn’t have too many problems (we still recommend the use of the filter; reduces the plastic use of the country by a lot!! And no recycling scheme here!)

Visa
And last: visa. We found lots of people who were denied a visa into Pakistan. We obtained ours in Madrid, and it was quite easy (and cheap compared to some other countries nearby!), except the fact they ask you to go there for an interview (5 minutes of easy questions; quite pointless really). Just make it clear you’re staying in the north, you’re not going anywhere near the south, and bring some document showing that. It should all be fine!

@gutxes