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One year in the life of a Siberian Cyclist

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

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“Siberia impends through the darkness as the ultimate unearthly abroad… the place from which you will not return” – Colin Thubron

“Every step that you take,
could be your biggest mistake,
it could bend or it could break,
but that’s the risk that you take”
– Coldplay

Days since left home: 372
Days until return home (estimate, all being well): 700

This all began one year ago on the far side of Siberia. The Russian autumn was in her final throes and a merciless winter was primed for unleashing on any who dared enter. A bicycle ride across Eurasia had always held a dreamy appeal for me and in search of new challenges after two invigorating years of teaching adolescents in the UK, I had in the end concluded: “if not now then when”. I also decided it would be more fun to start from some distant point on the map and try riding back home, rather then pedaling towards somewhere from home itself.

As the clunky “Davao airlines” jet plane carried me east from Moscow, over the Urals and then further east again, I slept lightly, nervous and excited about what might lie ahead. Awaking (to find that I was now dreaming with open eyes) I peered out through the rising eastern dawn onto the grey swampy mountain land of Siberia. Empty, foreboding, consuming… I can only say that it brought to mind Tolkien’s Mordor – with perhaps not quite so many orcs. A few minutes later, I was landing at Magadan airport, a town once known in Stalin’s Russia as “the gateway to hell”.

After a week or so of getting ready (and some impressively pointless fun and games with the Russian visa registration office), with bicycle reassembled and panniers packed to bursting, we were on our way. I was beginning this journey with an old friend, Al Humphreys, for whom this was the home leg in his epic 4 year, 5 continent “Round the World by Bike” expedition. I was surprised to notice stronger qualities in Al than I had known previously – a depth, resolution and self-discipline forged through the deserts of Africa, the passes of The Andes, and the wilds of Alaska. I would indeed be glad that he now possessed such a character in the trials that lay ahead.

You cannot pass through this part of Russia without being haunted by history. In the 1920′s, 30′s and 40′s, Stalin had used Magadan as his entry port, through which to bring millions of civilian prisoners to dig gold and die (of cold, starvation and exhaustion). The road on which we set out is also known as “the road of bones” owing to the price many paid to build it. Another relic of the communist past was the abandoned ghost towns and derelict factories by the roadside.

Bang on schedule, at the start of October, in accordance with the pessimistic predictions of friendly Russians, the winter arrived. Snowy roads meant that we skidded and fell; ice meant that we had to use our stove to make water; cold meant that we had to jump off our bikes and stomp our feet to try and stave off frostbite in our toes. Sitting in an air-conditioned flat here in hot Hong Kong as I write today, I have just reread a paragraph I wrote back then:

“Our tent sits in an icicle-shrouded forest, half way across a vast glacial valley which stretches and winds its way westwards to the plains of Yakutia. Every breath exhaled instantly crystallizes – beard, sleeping bag, tent roof – all is covered in ice. We stumble from the tent, gasping our way drunkenly through the bitter dawn to check the thermometer strapped to my handlebars. We are elated and awed to discover the temperature has now dropped right down to minus forty degrees (Centigrade and Fahrenheit in fact converge at this point).”

Such experiences I remember now with joyful mirth – isn’t it strange how difficult experiences are transformed into fond memories over the passage of time!

We fought our way past uncomfortable blizzards, empty swamps and frozen rivers until we at last reached the Trans-Siberian railroad, which we could follow hastily (for our visas had almost expired) to a coastal exit port. The hospitality we received all through Siberia was nothing less than astonishing: we spent countless nights under the care of coal miners, gold miners, weather men, road builders, village families, roadside cafés, Yakut Indians (kind of like the Siberian equivalent of the Inuit). Russia (despite its many problems) is a land of heroes.

And then suddenly, unbelievably, we were on a ferry from the east side of Russia to the northernmost island of Japan. How can I describe the change? We saw more traffic lights in the first hour of cycling out of the Japanese port than we had done in our whole time in Russia. The next three months were spent enjoying increasing comfort (a heated train station floor was most luxurious at this point) in a blur of sumptuous sushi, spring sunshine and super-polite conversations. Japanese history and civilization is something I had never engaged in before and it was fascinating to learn about. The people are kind and generous and enthusiastic, though often their feelings seem to hide away inside. Boarding a ferry away from Japan, I could only think to myself – that place is unique and kind of cool and perhaps a little contorted – and I still don’t understand it!

I pedaled on up through South Korea – with its passionate people, great churches, and peaceful National Parks. Following the valleys northwards I passed literally hundreds of heavy tanks and troop carriers heading out for their annual wargames… the border with North Korea is tense and emotional and of course would not let me pass, so after some fine hospitality in Seoul, I was hopping on another boat to China.

China overturned my expectations, as has been it’s habit on most peoples in most centuries. Rather than (as I had expected) dour and somber and down beaten peasants in ultra untrendy Mao suits, I found vibrancy, helpfulness, laughter, and most noticeably, confidence. Most days I would bypass giant industrial growth spots, culminating in the mother of up-and-coming cities – Shanghai. Leaving the shiny new skyscrapers behind me, I headed further south on quieter mountain back roads – passing through poverty stricken villages, bank bursting rivers and muddy landslides. People would chatter enthusiastically to me and I would reply dumbly in English. I concluded China is a great place for cycling – beautiful roads, cheerful people and cheap high-carb. noodles.

And then I arrived in the glamourous, westernised world of Hong Kong… and (still here now) I have been waiting for a boat to take me south to the Philippines. There have been several unexpected changes in the original plan. Al and I decided to go our separate ways to get home from Japan – partly just because the Siberian leg had been so intense and we needed a break from one another, and partly because a new idea had taken its hold on me to take an island hopping detour to Australasia before turning my handlebars for England. With Al now across the Bosphorus and into his happy, final weeks, it looks like I still have a good 18-24 months ahead of me. (In fact, Al sent me a chirpy little email a while back pointing out that if I continue to cross the lines of Longitude westwards at my current rate, I will not get home until 2018 !!). I am excited about the next few months in particular – the Spice Islands and Papua New Guinea are notoriously unpredictable and mysterious in my mind… I have to admit that this first year of cycling has been quite different to what i expected… it will be interesting to see what happens in this next year. In any case, all being well I will be enjoying barbequed sausages in Australia by Christmas time.

So (I ask myself) what has been the point of all this? I am realizing that the reasons for beginning a journey may be different from the reasons for continuing it. I once heard it quoted that in a “what do you want to do in your life” survey, the number one aspiration of the British people is to “travel the world”. I have lost count of how many successful business people along the way have told me that they wished they could throw it all in and join me. So what is the point, why? Of course it is interesting to see the great bubbling dynamic cities of the east – Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong; to experience the humbling lessons of hospitality from village peoples in Siberian valleys and Chinese floodplains; it is great to understand a little more of our common humanity, yet diverse, special differences, good and bad. I guess it is a privelege to actually experience these things rather than just learn about them on intelligent BBC documentaries… but at the same time I am coming to appreciate more and more how good it can be to just live in one place all the time – where there are still plenty of challenges and adventures and wonders, just different ones. I have also appreciated (though not always enjoyed) being forced to just spend time thinking as i sit on the bike – in the crazy world of work back home, we seem to have so little time for reflecting.

So whilst much of me would have been happy to stay where I was and live a settled life in England, I think my reasons for beginning, I can now sum up as:
1. Sounds fun
2. I might learn something
3. Why not.

The reasons for continuing still need clarification – here are a few that I sometimes consider:
1. In repetitive interviews it is fun to claim I am just in search of a good wife !
2. One chap, upon seeing the huge pile of books I carry, observed that it looked like I was in search of the meaning of life.
3. Sometimes I think I am just trying to build character (this trip is also revealing my own weaknesses to me – I have discovered a huge side of myself which shocks me – in which I can stand paralyzed by fear as a man dies in a fire; or can put my own self-interest above that of a loyal friend).

I think overall though for finding meaning to this journey, I have become attracted to the idea of pilgrimage: of being on a long, sometimes difficult journey, but with a definite end point in mind. Of having many trials and challenges and tests to pass through to get there, but with the hope that I will emerge from it all (eventually) a better person (in some way). In the end, like Frodo and Sam I think we all have a deep, real, longing that our life’s journey has meaning – and a proper, good, destination. I believe that the world is hurting from real evil, but being healed by real good too. Don’t we all just want to accomplish our mission, fighting for the right side, and then return to the Shire in time for tea and medals?

Many, many thanks to all who have helped me with their hospitality, encouragement and generosity in this first year. With all of your help, over 8,000 pounds has now been raised for the worthy work of Viva Network in supporting children at risk through the world. (please see www.justgiving.com/cyclinghomefromsiberia )

Best wishes, God bless, please stay in touch,

Rob
www.cyclinghomefromsiberia.com

TOP TENS
As I have only been through 4 countries so far (2 big, 2 small), I cannot really do my top ten places, etc. Instead I thought I would do bottom and top ten experiences – bad and good (please note these are in chronological, not rank order).

Bottom Ten Experiences (bad, frightening, unpleasant)

1. Falling off bike on icey roads (Russia) / trying not to fall off bike in icey, long tunnels ( Japan)
2. Numb feet, and frozen sweat (Russia)
3. Cycling 15 hour days due to fast expiring visa (Russia)
4. All the pointless bureaucracy and paper work anywhere (see good point 3. below for my revenge)
5. Mugged by gun wielding punks (Russia)
6. The fire (Russia)
7. Knocked off bike by truck (Korea)
8. All the very scary interviews with radio, etc (Anywhere)
9. Going through a bad patch with Al (Japan)
10. Realizations of my own weakness (Everywhere)

Top Ten Experiences (good, funny, heart-warming)

1. Walking into a hardware shop and saying (in broken Russian) “I would like the big axe please” (made me feel like a real man) (Russia)
2. Being invited into a weatherman’s hut for the night when it was minus thirty five outside / seeing the full moon shining down on the white valley that night / seeing the expression on Al’s face the next morning when he realized he had been sharing a bed with a naked weatherman (!) (Russia)
3. Getting through Russian passport control using the wrong passport (Al and I had accidentally swapped) (see bad point 4. above) (Russia)
4. Ferry out of Siberia (bound for Japan) / being met off ferry by kindly nuns who gave us lots of food, baked us a cake and sent us to our first Japanese Hot Spring (Japan)
5. Zooming past Mount Fuji on the bike (Japan)
6. Watching Al trying to negotiate with 4 uniformed police men and 2 plain clothes detectives, after he was busted for cycling naked down a main road! ( Japan)
7. Eating dog stew in Korea (cyclists revenge – dog’s often attack us) (Korea)
8. Meeting my parents in Beijing (China)
9. Spending time with thousands of wonderful people from all over the place
10. Meeting an extraordinarily special girl in Hong Kong

And finally (if you are still with me and in the mood for deep thinking), here is a good reflection on the unattainability of “settled happiness”, by C S Lewis:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home” (from “The Problem of Pain”, Chapter 7)

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Hong Kong Harbour

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Lantau Peak, a retreat from the Hong Kong bustle

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The boat – “Talio” – which will soon be my passage to the Philippines