Well. Truth be told, the biggest hesitation I had about strapping my backpack to the back of my bicycle was that people would judge me for the amateur I am. I pictured something like this: Girl, trying to repair flat tire while vomiting from altitude sickness, in a snow storm, on the shoulder of a dirt road on a mountain pass with nothing but a big ole’ backpack tied down and jutting off of the back of her bike like a porpoise strapped to a smartcar. They’d be like ‘girl is out of her league!’ And maybe they’d be right – but I was going anyway. So I needed panniers to talk the talk while I learned to walk the walk.
Getting geared up to transition from a backpacker into a bicycle traveler in Central Asia was an involved process. I needed almost all of the big-ticket items: A bicycle, a sleeping bag and mat, a stove, tools and good tires among them. Obtaining these ranged from straightforward to tedious. I’ll move on, but not before adding that our hosts in Bishkek, Nathan and Angie, helped with all of these. Thanks!
By contrast, finding the panniers was anything but boring. I came away with a story, lots of laughs and in the end left Bishkek with an eclectic bunch of bags that have gotten a lot of questions. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was proud of them.
Panniers are those large bags for the sides of a touring bicycle, filled to one’s heart content with items including but not limited to spandex, some way to sleep outside, sweaty socks and not enough sunscreen. And cookies.
Things were not looking promising from the start of the Great Bishkek Pannier Hunt. Christoph and Isabelle, also staying at the house, had suggested early on that I could try making some. I was not keen on this and convinced myself that there must be some lurking in the Kyrgyz capital. As they say (in Russian): Hope dies last.
Panniers 1 and 2: The Back Ones
By the time I had accepted there were none for sale, the time window to ship some from Kazakhstan had passed. Either we were going to have to get creative, or the porpoise backpack was going to be riding tandem with me to Tajikistan. My expectations were tempered – I aimed to make just two panniers, for the back of the bicycle.
Bolstered by hopes of finding awesome, sturdy Soviet military bags Ilona and I were off to the bazaar. Somehow we ended up coming back to the house that afternoon with large collapsible plaid plastic shopping bags with rolling wheels, two toilet seats (with lids) and a long strip of aluminum. Really, truly, it made perfect sense in our heads at the time.
Our host Nathan practiced commendable self-restraint to not betray what he really thought of our toilet seat pannier plan. With such nonchalance he casually suggested that maybe instead we should try to get some plastic gas jerrycans at the automobile market. Maybe he just wanted some new toilet seats for his bathroom, but I think he had my best interests in mind. So, the real start of building the back panniers was here:
Ingredients for DIY Jerrycan Panniers That Will Probably Survive At Least 2,000 KM:
1) Two 20 L plastic jerrycans
2) A long, narrow piece of metal (we used aluminum, from the first bazaar attempt)
3) A hacksaw
4) A candle or a lighter, but a candle is better
6) A drill, or any sort of long narrow thing you can heat up
7) Pannier hooks and screws, or some way to mount your awesome project to the rack (I was lucky here – Nathan had some from MEC in Canada that I purchased from him)
8) Some rope, to tie the lids on so they don’t fly off at a bad moment
9) A way to cover your panniers when it rains (I had a raincover from my backpack but you could use all sorts of stuff)
1) Hack off the tops with a hacksaw and sand/melt all edges to smooth them
2) Wash and rewash the insides and outsides, because they’ll probably be gross
3) Get a friend to help you orient the panniers on your bike so your feet won’t hit them when you pedal. Mark where your hooks need to go
4) Cut your metal piece down to size to fit inside the jerrycan and reinforce the hooks
5) Match up and mark where the holes go into the jerrycan and into the metal
6) Make your holes and enjoy adjusting them many, many times to match if you don’t measure and mark carefully (I learned eventually). Lots of playing with fire!
7) Screw in your pannier hooks
8) Secure your lids to your rack, pannier or bike somehow
9) Go biking!
Panniers 3 and 4: The Front Ones
It was the night before we were planning to leave Bishkek so we couldn’t procrastinate packing any longer. And now, finally, the transformation of my jerrycan friends was complete. Although I was leaving most of my clothes behind in Bishkek, I still had much more than would fit in those beautiful blue buckets. It looked like I was going to bring the backpack and be back heavy, anyways.
We were rewarded for being irresponsible. At the expense of a full night’s sleep before our first day on the road (read about that, here), we took up my friend Phil’s invitation to meet up with him and two visiting cyclists for beers.
They were in hiking boots, I was in flip flops, Ilona had to check her camping knife at the door and so unsurprisingly none of us were let in to Bishkek’s posh rooftop bar. We instead commiserated at a pub and hashed out plans to meet the next morning as early as possible – because Ilona had quickly found out that Nicky was planning to part with not only his front panniers, but also his front rack, a large dry bag, a map, and a spare tire. The next day him and Tom, of Cycling Without Borders, were flying to India and no longer needed many of the items that had taken with them through the frigid mountains in February. This was nothing short of gear destiny for me.
To add a little more local character to my already unusual setup, a friendly Kyrgyz man rigged up my new (to me) front rack the next morning. It wouldn’t attach properly because my bicycle has suspension. A small obstacle for he who owns a hardware shop. Bringing some wire and pliers with him, he had me follow him behind his shop. I was relegated to supervision only (my plier skills are terrible) while he worked amidst empty vodka bottles and flats of potatoes. The man only let me take his picture after he went and donned his traditional Kyrgyz hat. Nice guy!
We were off, and I was packed up much differently than I expected. Having no idea how they would hold up, I’m very excited to report that the DIY panniers have survived over 2,000KM of biking, some on some very rough roads. They’ve been subjected to cold temperatures, hot temperatures and me falling over while on my bicycle more than a few times. I hope that it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.