Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Things I’ve Learned While Travelling II: Pieces of Advice for Nico

Just before he left our group and headed out for another adventure, one of our crew, Nico, asked us all for one piece of advice that we would share with a new overland group.  Ours were “your sleeping bag can never be too warm” and “If you don’t carry Visa, carry lots of US dollars; Mastercard is not welcome worldwide”.

Your sleeping bag can never be too warm

This piece of advice came with a bit of smugness as we had slept comfortably through some cold and damp weather including bush camps at almost 5000 meters in Tibet.  Indeed I had only done the zipper up on the sleeping bag once and hadn’t yet resorted to tightening the hood around my head for the full mummy effect.

It helped that I was looking for sleeping gear in Alberta in outdoor stores that catered not only to the casual outdoor types like me, but also to the military as well as serious mountain climbing types.  In stock were bags rated to -20 and I could have special ordered much warmer ones.  My usual approach to selecting items worked well – go into Campers Village and stand around what I am interested in and look confused.  This time, a young man asked if he could help and when I explained what I was looking for – sleeping gear for a year of travel including spring in Central Asia and also Tibet and Nepal – he willingly explained all the merits of everything they had.  He chatted about his experiences with backpacking in Nepal – what he had taken and what he wished he had taken.  How can you do better than personal experience as a recommendation?

Quick lesson in sleeping bags:  Mummy or modified mummy bags are the only way to go.  Less bag to carry for the same level of warmth, less bag to need to warm up. There are boy bags and girl bags – for the same rating, women need more insulation, narrower shoulders and wider hips.  There are also left and right zippers – usually pick on the basis of what hand you are – left handed go for a right zipper so you can reach across your body to undo it.  However, if you are a couple and plan to zip together (which I find hard to imagine zipping together two mummy bags...) then you need one of each.  Synthetic vs down – I went for synthetic because it keeps you warmer when wet and I loved the explanation of my young man that when it got wet and muddy I could take it to the river, wash it out, hang it over a bush and it would dry as good as new.  We did have wet bags one night and it did keep me warm.

Add in a good air mattress to provide insulation between you and the ground.  Again, choose something that has insulation – synthetic if you suspect wet conditions.  How big and bulky depends on whether you are backpacking for days or travelling by truck like we did.

Sleeping  bag liner.  I went for a fleece liner because I like the fuzzy feel.  It was extra bulk, but worth it on those cold soggy nights.

Pillow.  Again personal preference.  It was actually my first purchase and I tried it out long before we left on our trip to make sure it was “just right”.  My recommendation here is definitely to try your pillow out before you go – everybody has their own personal definition of “just right”.

First night in Georgia and a balcony is the perfect place
to dry sleeping bags

Along the Karakorum Highway (China) and the sleeping
gear is still keeping us warm

Mastercard is NOT welcome everywhere

The pre-trip planning suggested we bring Visa and Mastercard credit cards plus US dollars.  Because our bank uses Mastercard and because it was going to be very complicated to get a Visa card we sort of ignored the suggestion.  The reality is that in most of Central Asia computer systems are iffy, ATMs are rare, and banks are not set up to deal with foreigners.  Most countries did not accept our debit cards to access our accounts and several did not accept Mastercard.  US dollars were accepted everywhere and there were money changers on every corner it seemed. Our bank in Canada was not helpful in dealing with the situation, primarily because as a small local institution they had no international knowledge.

Although I have some funny memories of sightseeing à la looking for an ATM that will work, it can’t be said too many times – don’t rely on credit or debit cards that work in your home country (and don’t believe the advice of your small town bank that Mastercard is welcome everywhere and of course all banks in the world are required to honour your debit card to access your accounts).  Carry US dollars and always have more in reserve than you think you need.  The recommendation was 1/3 of your budget and I would suggest closer to 50% to allow for emergencies and the occasional impulse purchase.

We're millionaires.  In Uzbek terms anyway.At the market,
US dollars were the way to go.

Here’s some other suggestions from our group (if you were there, you probably know who said what)

  • Get a blanket.
  • If there's western toilet, use it! Never trust a fart. (On the other hand, learning to use a squat toilet is a life changing experience)
  • Patience. 
  • Only drink your own bottled water. Stand up for yourself.
  • Do not be tempted by lots of snacks between meals. You don't need them, you fat bastards. 
  • Bring a very warm sleeping bag. 
  • I've never been on a truck that doesn't leak. 
  • Save your dollars, use ATM's if they are available. Always carry toilet paper. In China, two in one means three in one (sugared coffee). 
  • Make sure your hiking boots are good.
  • If you don't have Visa card, get cash! Cash is king, MasterCard sucks.
  • Don't bring loads of toiletries, you can buy is everywhere! 
  • If you're sitting in the back, wear your seatbelt. 
  • Bring a tolerant attitude. 
  • Bring a good -20* sleeping bag and good mat and pillow. And a water proof bag to keep it all dry. (Are you noticing the importance of warm dry sleeping bags)
  • With a positive attitude you can overcome everything. 
  • Don't take anybody else's advice.

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