BootsnAll Travel Network

Shanghai at last… and a different side to China

June 19th, 2005

Km cycled: 11,763
Km to home: 28,237

Current Location: Guidong, a small town in the South East China
Mountains (between Shanghai and Hong Kong)
26 degrees North, 114 degrees East

Cathy: Its like going into the future.
Rupert (the architect): Its like going into the future where all the
buildings are dirty.
Cathy: Except the ones that were built yesterday.

(conversation about Shanghai I was sitting in on)

Gone are the days when Shanghai was a paradise for imperialist adventurers
– English grammar book for the Chinese (a phrase around which were
based various grammatical exercises)


In quite a significant way, this whole bicycle extravaganza (which
seems to keep getting longer and longer) was actually supposed to
begin in Shanghai. I had a peculiarly random thought about 8 years ago
that “one day I should cycle from Shanghai to London”… like most
peculiarly random thoughts I shelved it in “the dusty recesses of my
mind” and then forgot about it. Until, that is, Al Humphreys (who knew
of the old dream) used it as one of his strongest cards in an email
persuading me to join him for the epic ride across Asia “the world’s
most exciting continent”. Somehow we managed to start this joint
escapade in Siberia in winter rather than China in summer (I am still
not entirely sure how that happened. I think it had something to do
with a restless heart and a book about the Gulags?)… and then, after
9 months of cycling, I finally arrive in Shanghai.

What is it like? Glitz, flash, height, pollution, squalor, history,
McDonalds, water… and it even holds a funky monthly retro roller
skating disco (where I was very lucky not to break my ankle and bring
this trip to a speedy standstill). Whilst the imperialist adventurers
may have been sent home, the up and coming western professionals have
taken their place – living the “work hard, play hard” life of style in
this mother of up and coming 21st century cities. After a bit of a
break and much kind hospitality, it is time to hit the rural back
roads to Hong Kong.

On the ride out of town I am fortunate enough to have as a guide for
the day the famed Edward Genochio (aka: the guy who had his bike
stolen by a Mongolian horse last year – ). Edward
has been residing in Shanghai for a while, planning his homeward leg
later in the year. It is great to exchange news from the road –
tactics for dealing with dogs (Ed has a noise emitting zapper, I shout
and throw stones), punctures (Ed never has any, I have lots), and
Russian thugs (Ed prefers to rip off their wing mirrors and thereupon
cause a mutual crash, whilst I prefer the strategy of just handing
over my wallet)!

Two days later, having broken out of the Shanghai urban belt, I am
forging a route on my own through the mountains. It is a constant
conundrum on this journey to try and decide what route to take and
what things I should try to “see”. There are many things which
apparently ought to be “seen”. But then (I ponderously ask myself)
what does “seeing” mean? As I passed through Suzhou just before
Shanghai, I enquired of my host, Alex, what I should see whilst in
town. “There is an old Chinese proverb”, Alex replied gravely, ” that
if you come to Suzhou and you do not see Tiger Hill: what a pity”. So,
of course, the next evening, we bypassed Tiger Hill (what a pity) and
experienced the far more cultural experience of seeing Star Wars III
in Chinese (we reasoned that Yoda is clearly Chinese anyway – hence
his bad grammar and wise demeanour – so it makes sense to watch it in
his native tongue). Often, I wrestle over which way I should go… but
in end, does it matter? I do not know!

Out here in the countryside I start seeing a different side to China.
No more glitzy nightclubs. Rather, I am enveloped by bamboo valleys
which are interspersed with pine forests which bottom out into
terraced paddy fields. Old men, knee deep in muddy water, yell at
their beasts to keep them on their course, whilst young shop keepers
yell at me to keep me on mine. Huge yellow dragonfly dance over the
road as I swerve round the squashed remains of stripey snakes. The
heat and humidity reduce me to a sweaty wreck of a cyclist and I
welcome the weekly rainstorms which rinse my hair and refresh my soul.
Poverty is more evident – barefooted children, windowless houses and
broken roads slip past in a haze (I will spare the politics email
until after I leave China!).

I have not seen a white face now for over two weeks. Zooming (or
straining) my way through each settlement results in lots of people
shouting “helloooo”. However, despite my accomplished 30 words of
Mandarin, I still cannot figure the Chinese people out. The unexpected
is always just round the corner. Half the time I am charged three
times the normal price, the other half of the time I am given what I
need for free. One day I am overtaken and splattered in dust by a
hooting car which seems intent on killing me, only to round the next
corner and find the friendly driver waiting for me with a bottle of
nice cold water. In church I am called up to the pulpit to address the
congregation; meeting some kids in a small town, I am dragged in to
their school to give them an English lesson; passing a hair dresser I
am taken in to be given a free hair wash (!).

Friendly Chinese kids (victoriously holding bike up having just helped me mend a puncture)

The unabashed Chinese way of doing things, I have to remind myself, is
not intended to offend – it is just their way! Indeed, having studied
the rules of the road in China with much care, I find that in fact
there is only ONE rule – that is, DO NOT CRASH! Other than that,
anything goes (makes sense I suppose). It is therefore silly of me to
get offended every time there is an apparent near miss.

To add to the unpredictability of this fun mountainous Chinese
adventure, my bike (after 11,000 km of excessive loads and regular
wipe outs) has started to fall apart in all sorts of novel ways. My
trousers too now take it upon themselves to start tearing (noisily) in
creatively embarrassing places at just the moment I valiantly climb
onto my bike amidst a large crowd of onlookers… “O well” (I think to
myself) as I ride quickly away, bottom firmly on the seat!

I am now less than 2 weeks ride from Hong Kong, from where (hope
beyond hope) I plan to hitch a ride on a boat to Manila. I have just
been informed that the isolated town I am now in was a hang out for
Mao and his mates in the 1930s… every place has so many layers of
history which I never know about. The world is an interesting old
place isn t it!

As always, many thanks for your emails, prayers and generous donations
to Viva Network. I have now raised 4718.48 pounds… I hope to make it
over the 5000 mark by Hong Kong.

Take care and (as a friend pointed out recently) take a few risks too.


To give money to the charity Viva Network, which helps children at
risk around the world, please go to


China’s East side… and some time off the bike

May 23rd, 2005

Km cycled: 10,100
Km to home: 29,900

Current Location: Nanjing, China
(If anyone knows people in PAPUA NEW GUINEA (I know that is a bit of a
longshot) or SHIPPING CONTACTS in Asia for a passage between Hong
Kong-Manila, and Port Moresby-Australia… I would be very grateful if
you could put me in touch)

“Monsieur, do not wake a sleeping lion” (Napoleon, on seeing China’s

“What is ideology? It is a kind of spirit to make sluggish people
industrious and intelligent people even more capable. The spirit should
be started from inside the court and then spread all over the country
to as far as the remotest corner of the empire”
(The Final Imperial
Examination Paper of Number One Student, Confucian Examination Hall,

“It is glorious to get rich” (Chinese Communist Party Leadership in

Two whole hours before we were due to land I strolled out on to the
deck of my ferry from Korea. All around (to my surprise) rather than an
empty seascape and perhaps a distant grey landmass, were literally
hundreds of giant cargo ships, an armada from all corners of the world.
For the final hour of the voyage, cranes, docks and industry bore
around us like prison bars. These were my first views of the waking
lion. China’s east coast.

Rolling off the boat and taking my first few pedals into China was
exciting. Last time I was here, in the late 1990s, it was out in the
far west – the empty deserts and epic mountains which border the
Stans. Here in the heartlands, things could not be more different –
concrete, steel and noisy, busy roads. The people smile and help and
spit. The drivers are wild – but at least (unlike in Korea!) do superb
braking/swerving manoeuvres to avoid hitting you. Food and
accommodation is refreshingly cheap.

There is a feel of partial dilapidation – but in contrast to the
collapsing blocks of Siberian Russia, these buildings are falling apart
not due to alcoholism and despair, but rather because everyone is so
busy throwing up new buildings… there is no time for the past. It is
time to get on with the serious business of getting rich.

In cities, the cyclists swarm… stop at a traffic light and you will
soon be swept up in a spinning, silent pelathon of steel horses –
rushing you into the midst of 6 lanes of moving traffic…
astonishingly, you slip through the gaps to emerge unscathed the other

China. China. It is one of those places you know about from childhood,
but it is unreal until you get here. It is different, vast,
mysterious… like it has been hiding. The history is unfathomably
long: whilst Hannibal was raising his army, China was already united;
as Rome retreated from England, China was busy inventing such exciting
contraptions as the wheelbarrow. For the overwhelming majority of
human history China has been number one – not just in population, but
also in economic wealth and scientific advancement … to the extent
that Samuel Huntington calls the past couple of hundred years of
western dominance a “blip”, an anomaly in the history of
civilisations… many commentators now believe the normal order of
things is being restored – China is bounding with confidence and
strength to embrace the 21st century.

Whilst China in the past was the land of inventions – now it is the
land of fakes. The markets are packed with imitation brands – some are
so realistic that it is hard to tell the difference. I realise that
those bargain North Face clothes I smugly bought on E-Bay and wore to
keep me alive through Siberia (and which had mysteriously non-North
Face zips which broke all the time) just might have originated here!

Riding down the east side of China (south from Beijing) is in a sense
monotonous – endless flat roads, dusty villages, muddy paddy fields,
rubbish filled ditches, chattering farmer cyclists with their
interminable string of questions I do not understand. I attempt some
truck surfing to break the monotony. Truck surfing is a fun sport in
less developed countries – where, with timing of the essence, you grab
hold of the back of a truck/tractor which is moving marginally faster
than you are… the only flaw with my attempts to do this so far in
China is the headwind… when I finally managed to build up enough
speed to grab something I found myself fighting to hold the bike
steady. Suddenly the wind blasts my bike sideways and – like a speeded
up video clip – I shoot headlong into the ditch. This is not the only
time I have felt like the cycling version of Mr Bean recently. For
example, the day I discarded my old boots and proudly put on my new SPD
shoes. These are the shoes with the cunning metal bit on the bottom
which actually locks into the pedal – meaning you can pull it up as
well as push it down. To unlock your foot, simply twist your ankle
sideways… very snazzy, and efficient too. With new found elegance, I
come over the brow of a hill looking sweaty and athletic… I glide
smoothly up to an intrigued throng of Chinese onlookers… and then
slowly, heroically, draw to a halt… and – to their slight
bewilderment – throw myself sideways down to the ground (the bike
crashing on top of me) unable to get my feet out of the pedals.

At the beginning of April my parents arrived in China for a few weeks
holiday, so – call me a wimp – I stopped where I was, dumped the bike
with some friends and had a holiday with them. Seeing the tourist
sights of China with a tour group is fun – the Great Wall, the
Forbidden Palace, the Terracota Warriors, Panda bears and the
semi-submerged Three Gorges… I increasingly realise that tourist
sites only interest me in so far as I understand more of the story
behind them. Such as finding out that the 7000 Terracota guys were
actually meant to help the tyrannical first emperor (Quin – pronounced
Chin) in his afterlife, with thousands of slaves also slaughtered
during his burial to help him a bit more. The other chap who seems
rather reluctant to leave his earthly power behind is Chairman Mao. I
waited in line in the Beijing wind in Tiananmen square, along with
thousands of others, in order to file past his preserved corpse. The
faithful propogandised can buy flowers on the way in to leave before
his statue. These flowers are periodically picked up and resold to the
people queing outside. Now if that is not capitalist initiative I don’t
know what is… and all in homage to a dead communist hero !?

After a good break, it was time to say goodbye to my parents again. I
felt grateful for the chance to catch up with them as we shared the wonder of visiting the great sites together. I was impressed by their
ability to adapt to and enjoy the slightly unpredictable and bumpy
nature of travel in China – obviously their own adventurous spirits
are still alive and well. In a way, seeing them made it all the harder
to get going again. But quality time with family is something not to be
received lightly, and if offered, I think the opportunity should always
be taken, however difficult it may be to say goodbye.

So I am back on the bike and pedalling south through more blooming
cities. Of course, China’s economic boom is not the whole story… I am
spinning through the growth zones and will soon reach the mother of
expanding cities – Shanghai. After that, it will be time to hit the
backroads to Hong Kong, on which (I am told) lies a different side to
China – where many people do not have the luxury of hunting for meaning
– they just want to survive.

As always, many, many thanks for your emails, prayers and kind
donations to help the heroic efforts of Viva Network and their
smart-hard work with orphans, street children and exploited children.

If you would like to donate money in support of Viva network and their
work with children at risk, please visit­fromsiberia (my journey is self funded so
all donations go to charity) Thankyou!

Half a day off to climb Tae Shan (wearing a cool Chinese army coat)


You can see my bike is still excessively loaded… what an earth am i carrying? (i often ask myself this question)


Southern Japan and South Korea

April 7th, 2005

Current Location: Seoul, South Korea (8th April, 2005)
Km Cycled: 9, 024
Km to Home: 30, 976 (approx)

“See China right in front of you” (Bono)
“You will be the same person in ten years as you are today, apart from the books you read and the people you meet” (anon.) [I don’t really agree with this one, but it is an interesting thought]

Riding through southern Japan in March, life began to feel easier again. No more lethal icy roads, no more persistent (but friendly) Russian drunkards, no more tight visa deadlines. In fact, it was rather pleasant cycling from one friendly host to the next. A stimulating evening spent with a hospitable academic, an enthusiastic student, or a budding entrepreneur… interspersed by equally pleasant “nights off” in my tent.

For my final week in Japan, I met Al again, and one night we rode out of the tunneled mountains, and down into the beautiful coastal city of Nagasaki. Standing on the edge of a hillside concrete memorial, I strained to imagine the day when the “noiseless flash” made Nagasaki infamous. The atom bomb (about a week after the Hiroshima bomb) flattened a large part of the city, instantly killing over 75,000 people, with as many again dying in the aftermath. And now, except for the memorials, you could not tell. Nagasaki is a lovely city. Did the bomb really need to be dropped to end the war swiftly… I don’t know?

I really enjoyed my time in Japan, but it was now time to leave. As Al set sail for China, I found myself on a boat bound for South Korea, a five hour voyage away. South Korea is one of those places dwarfed by its neighbors. There is a saying that “when whales fight, shrimp get broken”. China, Japan, Russia, and (across a big Ocean) America, have all fought over and inflicted harm on the peninsula – it is easy to forget Korea has an identity all of its own. The superficial resemblance to Japan however, is quickly undone. Even on the ferry I began to notice strange happenings… a husband slapping his wife’s bottom (very unJapanese thing to do in public!), men having a noisy conversation (again – in public, not drunk!), children running smack bang into me and not apologizing profusely (I was shocked!). The streets of Busan port bustle as Japan never bustled… noisy cars, tasty smells, vibrant crowds.

During pleasant stop offs with kind hosts in coastal towns, I was able to sample Korean food. The dish I most relished was dog stew. Now, whilst I do actually love dogs when I get to know them in their domestic capacity, I must also point out to non-cyclists – that cyclists and dogs have a long history of war and enmity. It is a rare and noble and strange beast which does not hurl itself into a frenzy of vicious barking and chasing when it smells/hears/sights me. After enjoying a meal of the tasty (if stringy) dog myself, I find I am now able to reply to snarling roadside dogs with the words: “yes, you look very tasty yourself actually!” That cheers me up enormously!

As I turned north, I was joined for a couple of days by another cyclist – Sebastian from Germany. I had heard of Seb before in e-cyclists folklore (he has the rather memorable email address of madseb77 or something like that). He began his wildman cyclist lifestyle by pullng off the impressive feat of cycling from Damascus to Cape Town on 15 dollar Chinese bike. Amongst other adventures, Seb has since cycled in Iraq, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Actually, besides the occasional rock throwing battle with thieves in Afghanistan, Seb was remarkably unscathed, cheerful and in fact – sane!

Having learnt more about back country riding from such an expert, I continued towards Seoul. It is enjoyably peaceful to have the time and leisure to stay away from main roads. Progress is slower – but how nice to ride along dusty farm tracks, through wooded valleys, and under clean blue skies … how peaceful and pleasant… ahhh…. that is until over a hundred tanks and lorries rumble their way past on their way to the annual wargames (hopefully not war preparations) in the hills.

The other reason for staying on the back roads is that it increases your life expectancy. In Japan, there is a wise and commendable law stating that should a bicyclist be hit by an automobile – the fault always will be laid on the driver. In Korea there is no such law. In fact, the most well accepted rule of the road seems to be “perform maneuver first… and then take a look and see what you managed to hit/strike down”. So Koreans are amusingly bad at driving… amusing that is until, as you cycle dreamily and merrily through a quiet village, a big truck reverses into you, knocking you off and coming frighteningly close to squashing both you and your bicycle. A close shave is sometimes not a bad thing to heighten awareness and remind us of mortality.

And now I am in Seoul. The adjective which continually springs to my mind when I think of Seoul, is “grey”. The buildings all seem to be grey, cars are black, white or silver (giving a kind of grey feeling), the clothes people wear are grey (or that’s what jumps into my mind now)… even the air is grey. There are lots of neon signs and exciting shopping streets (if you like shopping), but to me it feels just… grey!

13 lanes.JPG
I counted 13 lanes here in Seoul… and still not enough
Grey Seoul

The most out of the ordinary tourist attraction of South Korea is its border with North Korea. Since the full on war of the 1950s, the two halves have continued to point guns (a lot of) at each other – across a 4 km wide area of no-man’s land known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Specialist Pipkin (or something like that) from the US army was our tour guide. In our briefing he ordered us: do not to communicate with North Korean soldiers in any way, do not take photos unless told, and do not to go to the toilet unless it is a “must go” situation! We were marched into the truce village which lies exactly on the border – and into the hut where occasional negotiations between the two sides take place. Ever so briefly we were allowed to stand in North Korea. We also visited the infiltration tunnels built from the North, which were fortunately discovered before they were used to mount a surprise invasion. There are thought to be at least nine more undiscovered tunnels.

The propaganda battle raged around us all day. There is a flagpoles contest in progress with the North Korean flagpole, over 150 meters tall, said to be the winner. The more overt propaganda is being gradually turned down… until last year the North Koreans used speakers to blast out news of paradise in their Communist utopia… the South Koreans beamed messages written in light onto the night sky proclaiming “WE HAVE RICE”. Of course, everything I am writing is based on propaganda from the South. I do wonder what life is really like just 50 km north of here… but, quite strangely in this age of information, no one seems to really know. I found it all quite moving – how would I feel if my own country was split down the middle by the wars of giants – and northerners in England suddenly became my deadly enemies? On this journey I have now visited the Gulags of Siberia, an atomic target in Japan and the civil war focus of Korea. What is the next place of mourning…? Homo est lupi homini (man is a wolf to man, I think).

The world’s biggest flagpole (North Korea)
truce hut me.JPG
Whilst this soldier (he is real, not waxwork) stands astride the border, here I am in the North

On a more positive note, I was intrigued to experience the churches of Korea. In Japan it was not unusual for me to walk into a service attended by less than 10 (or even 5) people. The Yoido Full Gospel church in Seoul, meanwhile, holds seven services each Sunday, with each of these attended by 32,000 people (on the central campus alone). It is still growing at an extraordinary rate and amazingly well organized – the bread and wine was distributed in under 5 minutes. Whilst in England it is a miracle to find all church seats full, in Korea, it seems, it is a miracle to find a seat empty. Of course, such mega churches have their critics, and theories abound as to the reasons for their growth. Personally, I have found my time spent with Korean Christians richly heartening.

As I now brace myself for China, I have been trying to lighten the load I carry on the bike. After posting home my cold weather gear, my main extra burden seems to be books! At one point in Japan I was carrying nineteen books, and although at times I manage to read and pass them on, I just keep gathering more again… I have still not had the guts to start my one kilogram tome which is “war and peace” (carried from Siberia)… perhaps the life of a lonely cyclist is not quite such joyful simplicity as I had thought!

“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need: a homely home and simple pleasures; one or two friends (worth the name); someone to love and someone to love you; a cat, a dog and a pipe or two; enough to eat and enough to wear; and a little more than enough to drink… for thirst is a dangerous thing.”
(Jerome K Jerome, 3 men in a boat)


Brief updates in Japan and Korea

February 21st, 2005

Current Location: Busan (formerly Pusan), South Korea
10th March 2005

With increasingly pleasant weather, I headed south west through Japan, finally arriving in Nagasaki. It is hard to imagine how on one day, 60 years ago, “a noiseless flash” left seventy five thousand people instantly dead, with tens of thousands more dying in the aftermath. A moving place.

Yesterday, a six hour ferry ride carried me to the bustling port of Busan. There is a lot more smell, noise and crazy driving than in Japan – I really like South Korea so far!!

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Nearing the end of Japan. My South Korean flag is hoisted ready for the next country.

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The Nagasaki Peace Park. It was almost directly above this spot in 1945 that the world’s second atomic bomb was dropped.

Osaka (200 miles south of Tokyo)
21st February, 2005

Have just survived a very busy couple of weeks giving slideshows in schools, cafes and churches… i started to feel like my whole life was chained alternately to a bicycle, an internet connection point, and the front of a classroom. A few days sleeping in Kyoto has been great!

Many thanks to all who have given so generously, and helped with organising presentations, which has now enabled the fundraising for Viva Network to rise over the 3000 pounds mark – amazing. (

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Giving talks to younger kids has demanded more interactive presentations!!


The top half of Japan

February 8th, 2005

Current Location: Nagoya (Japan s third largest city, 300km south of Tokyo)
KM cycled: 7,300
KM to home: 17,700 (at least – a bit of a detour is currently fermenting –
see below)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair (Robert Frost)

As our boat from Russia docked in the northernmost Japanese port of Wakkanai, I vaguely recalled that as a geography teacher (in a former life) i had droned on to my poor pupils about the important features of this unique nation… composed of 4 main islands (and many small ones), Japan is flung out on the far Eastern edge of the world, a part of Asia, yet very distinct within it. Strewn with mountains, 120 million people are crammed into valleys and coastal areas, and despite being low on mineral wealth and high
on devastating earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, and wars, Japan is still an exceptionally prosperous country – a prosperity earned through hard work and high technology. It is also a country with a rich culture of traditions. Thus was my stereotyped expectation.

The ice free Japanese roads we had dreamed of in Russia turned out to be a false hope… in fact there was more snow in northern Japan than in Siberia. However, we did soon find that Japan is a wonderful place for the English wildman who is in need of some luxury. The train stations stay open all night, are outstandingly clean, and nobody seems to object to the slumbering presence of a damp cyclist. Once I asked some cleaning ladies who were tidying up where i could sleep… without hesitation they suggested the
very floor which they were cleaning! Can you imagine that happening in England!?

As a geography teacher, i knew that Japan was a hot country… a land free of snow and ice!

Our first night in Honshu!

The Japanese themselves are dignified, polite, hard working, friendly, and at times (it seems) a little strange! (the other night in a quiet Tokyo backstreet I observed a procession of elderly people marching about with a blaring loud speaker which appeared to be ordering them around. Every so often the group stopped to clap together some pieces of wood they were carrying…?! I felt like I was on a Monty Python set).

Whilst the Russians demonstrated a very unreserved friendliness (within 5 minutes of meeting a Siberian Russian, they will have asked you ten questions, told you that you are crazy and offered you some vodka), the Japanese are far more shy. Once introduced though, I have been charmed by their friendliness and humbled by their generosity.

Even encounters with the police can be heart warming… Once we were sleeping in the warehouse of a restaurant, whose owner had kindly fed us and offered us this dry, warm place for the night. Obviously not everyone in the vicinity had been informed of this arrangement, so when someone in the carpark saw me clambering down the fire escape wearing my balaclava in the middle of the night (going for a pee) they naturally assumed i was there without permission. Half an hour later we were woken by a whole brigade of
surprised policemen with torches and truncheons (I have got used to being woken up in strange ways now)… rather than Japanese robbers, they discovered us to be heroic English explorers (i like to think)…

On another occasion, when we were caught between towns on a snowy night, a police car pulled us over, and (after an incomprehensible conversation), we resolved that we indeed did not have the correct lights for riding in Japan at night, and so would of course be given a police escort into the next town, some 10km away… we felt mightily important as we skidded along the windy coastal road, a flashing siren illuminating our presence from behind. Needless to say, they took us straight to the train station and told us to sleep there, rather than in our tent. (i met a welsh cyclist the other day who had persuaded the police to let them stay in their empty cell… my future
ambition perhaps?)

On Christmas day I eventually stumbled into a Church service, and sat in a pew, straining to understand what the sermon was about. I think I missed the more profound meaning, but I understood the words Bethlehem, Jesus, present, and Jerusalem. The friendly congregation fed me noodles and cake… a slightly alternative Christmas lunch!

It has proved hard to communicate at times (one slight flaw in the plan of my learning Russian and Al learning Japanese, is that i am now without Al, and hence without any Japanese)… i have ended up buying salt instead of sugar, of receiving a thermos full of cold water rather than hot… whilst many of the people I have stayed with have an excellent command of English, the same cannot be said of the average person on the street… I am told that the Japanese spend several trillion yen (thats tens of billions of pounds) on trying to learn English each year, but the overall result does not seem to be that great… perhaps it is because it is a culture which does not like to make mistakes… and trying and failing and trying again is so important in language learning. (i am currently staying with EFL childrens book author Patrick Jackson – do check out his new (and very cool) potato pals series if you are involved in TEFL)

I have fortunate indeed with kind invitations to stay with people through Japan. Eating all sorts of exotic food (octopus tentacles with suckers still attached are actually quite tasty), skiing, karaoke, sitting in hot baths, visiting Japanese schools to talk to friendly (if bemused) students about our exploits in Siberia (and raise money for Viva Network).

In this highly motivated and hard working culture (sometimes described as a weakness for overwork), it makes sense that there should be a place specifically designed for compulsory and ultimate relaxation. That place, in Japan it seems, is the public hot baths, or onsen. It is intriguing to watch the stress drain off the faces of an important looking business man as he sinks into the hot water, the strains, mistakes, failures, worries and concerns of the day, seeping away into the tub.

One night in a small Japanese Karaoke bar in a mountain village with a bunch of friendly middle aged locals, i thought i was getting off rather lightly on the singing front… but suddenly, unexpectedly, i heard a strangely familiar drum roll from the speakers, and a microphone was handed to me… i dutifully rose to my feet to sing (or yodel) GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!

Before heading for the bright lights of Tokyo I (for some reason) decided to cross over from the nice, dry Pacific (eastern) coast, through the mountains… and onto the (western) coast of the Sea of Japan. The sea of Japan was described by Yukio Mishima as `the source of all my unhappiness, of all my gloomy thoughts, the origin of all my ugliness and all my strength… a wild sea`. Well, perhaps it was not so bad as that, but it certainly was savage weather, with blasting wind, deep snow and stinging hail. After some very wild cycling i veered towards Tokyo.

Tokyo is a city aglow with neon, and alive with bustle. It is ignited by zooming traffic and energised by focused people. As i started to peddle into the capital, a January dawn rising over the mountains behind me, I set myself the challenge of counting how many traffic lights i would go through on the way to the centre…my rough total came in at well over two hundred for one days riding!

I arrived in Tokyo to discover that Al had become something of a celebrity… drawing large crowds to his charity slideshows, and even appearing in the illustrious and exotic sounding “TARZAN” magazine (they wisely ignored his request to do a photo shoot wearing leopard skin swimming trunks)!
Traffic director with lightsaber
Tokyo made me feel London is just a 20th Century backwater

After 10 days meeting old friends and new, and feeling the existential angst of endless possibility (and overwhelming responsibility) which comes with being in a global city, i had a sunny ride out of town, with a days worth of glimpses of glorious Mount Fuji… and I have now got the city of Nagoya… which brings me up to date.
Beautiful Mount Fuji (and edge of handsome English Cyclist`s head!)
Beautiful Mount Fuji (and beautiful American Restaurant!)
Beautiful Mount Fuji (and beautiful Japanese Factory!)

Observant readers may notice that Al and I are no longer cycling together… we have been friends since the start of University, and been on many journeys together over the years: by bicycle, hiking and hitching… in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America… we have camped in deserts, forests, mountains, dunes, tundra, and once even in a sewage pipe (unused!)… we have now just survived 4 months of ultra intense, friendship testing endurance across a wintery Siberia, after which we each badly needed some space… (something we probably should have planned to do a while ago?)

Whats more, in Japan, we discovered an equation to describe the experience
of staying with generous hosts:

2 English wildmen
+ massive bicycles
+ tiny/tidy Japanese house

= very full and messy Japanese house

In addition to all this, due to being at different stages of our respective expeditions, we have decided to take very different roads home across Asia…

… I am only 5 months into this journey, and in no hurry to get home… from Japan i will head for Korea, then China, and from there (in a year long detour) island hop south for Australasia, before island hopping back to Singapore and back home west across the Asian mainland somehow … (hence this journey should now perhaps be renamed: Cycling home from Siberia via Australasia )…?

Al, on the other hand, has already been riding round the world for a heroic three and a half years, and (understandably) wants to take a more direct route west through China and central Asia (i think!)… as we zig zag our way south through Japan we will cross paths in major cities and on lonely mountain tops… but then will have to wait a few years before we can exchange stories back in London.

So I have been forced to reassess my goals for this journey. I had originally envisioned a one year peddle through Asia, partly to give Al a bit of company and partly because I felt like a break from teaching and partly because Asia seemed like an interesting place. It suddenly came home to me the other night that my new route is pretty radically different from my original plan…(which had been to cycle with Al all the way, for about a year).

I am forced to rethink why I am doing this trip… I now expect to spend more than 2 years cycling through these far flung places, and I will be alone for most of it. The charity side of things has become more and more important to me, so Australia will be a good place to do lots of fund raising… and I guess this just feels like the right thing to do… things rarely work out as expected and the paths which providence has prepared for us can often take surprising turns … one thing leads to the next, and then, before you know it, you are tens of thousands of kilometers from home, alone with a bicycle, and trying to figure out an interesting way to get back.

Traveling alone, it is actually easier to meet new people, so i think that for both Al and I, we will have a more immersed, if intense engagement with the places we pass through by riding alone. At the same time, I know that as well as meeting many new and wonderful people, there will also be days of loneliness and darkness, when I wish I was not alone. Starting this trip with Al was a great thing. I have been able to learn first hand from the maestro of cycling, wild living, and networking. in some ways I feel I became far too reliant on Als expertise.

… so, I guess I will now get plenty of practice at surviving on my own. I hope and pray I am doing the right thing!

As always, your emails, prayers and donations to Viva Network (the childrens charity i am supporting, who do wonderful work for children at risk in South America, Africa and the Philippines) are much appreciated. (just click on the link from this homepage to give money online to help children at risk around the world through Viva Network)

For anybody who would like to receive Als extraordinarily insightful updates first hand, please check out his website


Some days in the life of a Siberian Cyclist (Surviving Siberia – Entering Japan)

December 17th, 2004

KM cycled: 5,200
KM to home: 19, 800 (approx.)
Lowest Temperature: -40 Degrees Centigrade

Current Location: Wakkanai (small seaport on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido)
Awakening an hour before dawn to the sound of a digital alarm clock located in the layer between my 2 wooly hats, I remember where I am. A thousand kilometers from the nearest city, and (besides my fellow Siberian cyclist, Al) probably over 50 km from the nearest human being. 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 toˇˇminus 40 Degrees (Centigrade and Fahrenheit in fact converge at this point).

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As we left the Gulag port of Magadan in September – the first leg of our 25,000 km bicycle ride from Siberia to England, we were repeatedly warned that cycling the `road of bones` in winter would be impossible (this is the same road which Ewan Mcgregor motorbiked 6 months ago – we ran into several people who had met him along the way). However, whilst the going was certainly hard, we came to agree with what Dostoevsky wrote after his stint in a Tsarist camp in the 1800s: that one of the defining characteristics of human kind is our ‘ability to adapt’. It is astonishing how we did adjust to the cold. Yes, we wore a few more clothes, and ate twice as much food as normal, but in terms of actually feeling the cold, things were not nearly so bad as I’d imagined.

Whilst the human body does learn to cope, our human gadgets do not. Plastic in particular dislikes the cold: bicycle pumps snap, petrol stoves refuse to light, and tent poles will not click together. After a long days cycling, such fiddly extra repair jobs resulted in what Al describes as ‘serious sense of humour failures’ (i.e. normally involves shouting loudly at the offending item).

After a frenzy of cooking, eating and packing, we are on the road, the secret of staying warm being to always keep moving. The sun shines bright and cold on the sharp, mountains as we push over another pass and across another valley. The roads are covered in well packed snow, but there are few cars – the last vehicle we saw was a demilitarized tank on caterpillar treads, ferrying around the local goldminers.

As evening approaches, we are relieved to spot light and thus human life through the trees. The thought of standing in a warm room is irresistible and the Russians prove themselves wonderful hosts. Usually merely introducing ourselves as Englishmen cycling to Japan is enough to earn us several square meals and a warm bed. Whether such hospitality is just because foreigners (and cyclists) are so rare in these parts, or whether the cold climate ingrains such a culture, I do not know. But this is not reluctant or ostentatious hospitality – rather, it is lavish and full of smiles, whether it be gold miners, coal miners, weather station operators, factory workers, cafe owners or families.

Having broken through the notorious Gulag covered mountains of Kolyma, we began to realize how seriously behind schedule we were. We had used up half of our visas 90 day allowance, and yet were still only a quarter of the way to our Russian exit point where we could catch a ferry to Japan. Each day we slipped further and further behind schedule, and in our darkest moments we began to think that making it on time would prove impossible. This called for drastic action: we calculated a minimum daily distance and braced ourselves to stick to it, through thick and thin. What follows is a blur of rising before dawn in order to fight our way through blinding blizzards, along icy roads, across forested valleys, and then on and on into the cold nights before we could finally snatch a few hours of desperate sleep on a warm cafe floor.

Besides the cold and fatigue, feelings of guilt also started to get me down, as Al, three years the fitter than me (he has just traversed Europe, Africa and all the Americas on a bike) was able to go at a much faster pace and was continually forced to wait for me to catch up. By carrying some of my gear, he was able to help me to go faster, and we tried desperately to be positive about the situation.

At one stage during the exertion, I collapsed feverishly into a free hostel bed to sleep for 14 hours. Any notions that I would have been among Stalin’s survivors shattered – I too would have fallen if I’d been sent to work in the Gulags. A day later we were back on the bikes, an even higher daily km average now required.

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After many days of relentless effort, things began to look more optimistic. We had covered a lot of distance southwards, and were finally out of the mountains and heading back east to the coast. However… at just this point when we thought we were through the most difficult partˇˇtwo unfortunate events arose before us, one of them deeply tragic.

The first took the form of a white car with a fake Nevada number plate and only one front headlight. It stood obstinately blocking the road one night as we approached a town and the three young men who met us were drunk, but hardly frightening. It was only when they showed us their gun that their demand for money suddenly became serious. We felt we had been robbed by amateur hoodlums as we stomped angrily into the town half an hour (they had relieved me of the contents of my wallet).

Even such a mild experience was enough to poison my imagination. Suddenly I saw a potential thief in every waiting car and in every unlit street (most streets in Russia are unlit).With the help of Al`s determined and optimistic view of humanity, after a couple of days I began to trust and smile at strangers again, even as I prayed through gritted teeth for those who had deemed themselves our enemies.

Just a few nights later came a far greater tragedy – fire. We were being kindly put up in a single room cottage by a lovely couple who were delighted and enthusiastic about their brand new roadside cafe?. That night they treated us to tasty meal on the house, which we ate with them around the table, along with their helper, a friendly but quiet middle aged man from Uzbekistan. Six hours later, at 3am, I was awoken by the sound of screams. Looking out of the window, I beheld a sight which is now forever imprinted on my memory. Half of the beautiful new cafe was consumed in roaring flames, ripping through wood and spraying shouts of smoke into the night sky. Al and I ran outside to find the owners standing wailing on the road. The husband had barely escaped with his life, his clothes in shreds. Nightmarishly, the man from Uzbekistan was still inside. Al bravely considered running into the ferocious flames, but at that very moment a huge gas explosion ripped through what remained of the burning shell, destroying any hope of rescue.

The next morning, having given the police statements for the second time in a week, we climbed sorrowfully back onto our bikes. It felt wrong to pedal onwards, leaving the desperate grieving behind us. Every pedal took us further away. Our quest for adventure and our race against the visas was suddenly void of meaning.

We pushed east, towards the coast, faster than ever. Much of the time our road ran alongside the romantic Trans-Siberian railway, its huge 100 carriage freight trains clattering past us, tooting their whistles merrily. And then finally, suddenly, we were breaching our last barrier – a swirling and blizzardy range of coastline mountains, out of which we descended to catch a glimmering hope filled sight of the port of Vanino.

From here, a ferry took us across the sea to the oil rich island of Sakhalin, which lies just north of Japan, where we recuperated for a few days under the kind hospitality of an old school friend Alexis Fletcher… and then, before we knew it, we were wheeling the bikes into Russia’s final bureaucratic obstacle – passport control. The passport official scrutanised my photo and face unusually carefully and then let me through with a serious nod. A few minutes later, as we headed for the ferry, Al and I chuckled as we realized that we had accidentally got our passports mixed up with one another… we had raced our bodies to the limit in order to stay within the strict parameters of our visa, all so that an official could let us out of the country with the wrong passport!!

I suppose this illustrates one of the most ridiculous and frustrating aspects of the New Russia – the Russia which still has not shaken off some of the most dehumanizing aspects of the Soviet Union – the desire of officialdom to drown and control people through power, fear and paperwork. With the old regime gone, fear and power have become the playthings of the ubiquitous mafia, whilst the paperwork mega-machine continues to exist – incompetent and stubborn and determined to stifle all creativity and enterprise. Several people we met expressed that they believe it will take two whole generations before Russia will be free from this haunting past

Finally, I must emphasise how grateful I am towards all the wonderful Russian people who helped us on our way through the last 5000 cold and difficult kilometers. I am profoundly challenged by such kindness – can I ever learn to be so generous myself?

…and now suddenly, a quick 5 hour ferry journey later, here we are in Japan, enjoying the hospitality of some big hearted Catholic nuns, and the extraordinary comfort of Japanese hot tubs (as opposed to 2 showers a month if we were lucky in Siberia) and electronically warmed toilet seats (as opposed to a minus 35 outdoor squat loo!!). Over dinner on our first night, my head swirls as the conversation breaks between French, English and Japanese, and all the while I keep beginning my sentences in Russian. It may take a few days to get used to it, but I think Japan is going to be fun!!

Many, many thanks to all those people who have supported me so far with wonderful encouraging emails and prayers. Also, for all the amazingly generous contributions to work of Viva Network – I’ve now just passed the 1000 pound mark on my effort to raise 10,000. One of the big reasons I’m doing this ride is to help the really amazing work which Viva Network do for street children and children at risk around the world… please do spare a thought for them if you are wanting to give to a charity this Christmas. (you can give very quickly online at this site, and it will automatically do gift aid for you too… you can also see how much I’ve raised so far)

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Crossing the Aldan River in the Yakutia Province
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Al needs to invest in a handerchief!
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Al – are you having fun yet??

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Rus_snow machine yakutia.jpg
Bicycles are not the only way of crossing the River at this time of year!

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– 40 Degrees, as low as our thermometer goes!


The cycling begins…

October 14th, 2004

Km cycled: 730
Km to home: 24, 270 (approx)

Two weeks ago, bikes laden with clothes, books, camping equipment, food and an axe, Al and I left Magadan, heading into a vast unknown of Far East Siberian mountains and swamps. The only road which connects Magadan with the rest of the world was originally an access route for prisoners into the mineral rich Gulag mines, though less than fifty years later Russians themselves seem unwilling to talk about the past horrors. I must admit that I find the apparent lack of moral outrage rather strange – and in a way, shocking.

As we rode north, the quality of the road changed – from tarmac, to dirt, to mud, to snow, to ice. We weaved through valleys and over passes, the “ever green” trees on either side soon giving up the fight against cold, their needles shed by the last week of September. Many of the old roadside settlements have also given in: whole towns are now empty, dilapidated and ghostly, abandoned as the communist machine withdrew its massive false economy of subsidies. Cycling on ice has resulted in a rather steep learning curve in crash techniques. It has become a regular experience of mine to be cycling merrily down a nice, flat and inoffensive stretch of road, only to abruptly find my backwheel slipping out from underneath me, with the force of a ferocious rugby tackle, leaving me sprawling, bumping and sliding on my side further down the road. After lots of bruises and plenty of laughter, my ice riding technique is steadily improving.

As well as interesting cycling, we have made some great campsites – on the edge of forests, up passes, in old quarries, next to streams. The “great
2004 Siberian swimming competition” currently stands at: Lilwall 2 – Humphreys 2, though I must admit that Al took the first dip which was
(literally) icebreaking! Al, having spent over 3 years now on a bicycle (see, is impeccably (and smugly) efficient with his camping and packing skills. As he settles down after breakfast to munch his way through another chapter of Solzhenitsyn, I usually find myself still trying to find my toothbrush, or wedge another tin of meat in my already bursting panniers. Fortunately for me though, Al is patient and dependable, as well as a capable adventurer, and his skills as a joker, optimist, observer of life and charmer of locals are second to none.

The Russians, whilst continuing to emphasise the apparent lunacy of our proposed route at this time of year, are in practice very hospitable. The saying “the Russians love a man who suffers” is proving true. We have been handed considerable quantities of food, drink, and cash by complete strangers on numerous occasions, and the other day, to our surprise, we were given a slap up meal by a committee of bank clerk ladies, in response to our asking where the nearest pay phone was.

However, it is sad to say that the Russians reputation for heavy drinking is also well earned – even at 8am we have encountered Russian men meeting out vodka and punches to one another as they wait for the bus to work.

After 10 days of steady riding up the trassa (highway), we finally arrived at the turnoff to Jakutsk – what I had labelled in my own mind as “the turnoff of doom”. Along here, we were repeatedly told, we would be on our own – no trucks, no cars, no buses – and besides TamTor (a village-weather station also known as “the pole of cold” due to its world record breaking achievement a few decades back of achieving below -70 degrees Centigrade), no people. It seemed to me therefore, no small act of providence that it was at this point, less than 10 km before “the turnoff of doom” that Al’s back wheel decided to break irreparably. We were left with no choice but to leave the bikes in the nearest town, and beat a hasty retreat by bus back to Magadan, where we are now waiting optimistically for the new part to arrive courtesy of Fedex (will it arrive on time?). All being well, we will soon be rejoining our bikes and then face the race of our lives to cover 4000 km of wintery Siberia before our visas run out in 9 weeks time.

Fully packed and on our way

Exiting a snowy campsite

Wipeout on ice

Cycling in snow

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Magadan – Russia’s Auschwitsz

September 23rd, 2004

I have now been in Magadan, NE Russia, for just over one week, making
preparations to fight my way on a bicycle through the encroaching Siberian
winter – the first leg on a 15,000 mile ride back home.

For me, Magadan has seemed a most haunting city. The strange presence of
sorrow is tangible. Stalin condemned over 2 million innocent people to work
to their deaths in the local gold mines, earning it the nickname “the
gateway to hell”. It was generally understood that “if you were sent to
Magadan, you never came home”.

Perhaps Magadan haunts me because those curses and prayers of anguish
which rose to heaven fifty years ago still hang in the air, unable to move on or
let go. Father Michael, the amazing Catholic Priest whose community I am
staying with, tells me that every day since he was called here, he has felt
something of this spiritual depth. God is indeed present in the
place of sorrow. Father Michael now works tirelessly and gracefully to
raise a beacon of hope and love in the wasteland of despair, corruption,
alcoholism and desperation which is post Soviet Russia.

The Maske Scorbe (mask of sorrow) – a monument to the 3 million innocent Russians who were sent to their deaths by Stalin in the gold mines around Magadan.

Russia, it seems, has been unable to free herself from her past. For the
majority, the hope that an allegedly new political system would bring opportunity, is now lost. One commentator claimed that in fact ‘darkness has followed the dawn’. Corruption holds virtually all offices of power, and a baffling, pointless and dehumanising bureaucracy strangles the will of any who have aspirations for noble endeavour or honest employment. It has taken me an astonishing 8 trips to the local visa office to try and get my visa registered – I must go for the 9th time tomorrow! As Kafka once said of such a system of bureaucracy: “”one is more an object, a thing, than a living creature”.

This said, the Russians i have got to know so far have proved themselves a
very good people. They are friendly, generous, helpful, interesting… and
they speak barely a word of English!

With Al plus Beryl (his bike) now here from Alaska, our panniers are all
packed and we are ready to start riding on the challenging first leg through
the Kolyma Mountains to Jakutsk. Apparently the snow is already falling
inland and temperatures are now dropping below zero. We must move fast – the Siberian winter is on its way.

To Russians, Magadan was known as the “gateway to hell” – over 3 million
Russians who arrived at this port were sent to work to their deaths in the
icy gold mines of Kolyma.

Prisoners were shipped from all across Russia, like cattle.

“If you were sent to Magadan, you didn’t come home.”

The ghosts of communism still seem to haunt Magadan.


Practical Tips for extreme cold cycling

September 23rd, 2004

(this is not an update – only read if you are planning a cold trip or just interested in surviving the cold!)

When we were preparing to start this trip, it was quite hard to find good info on cycling in the extreme cold (below minus twenty centigrade – all temperatures I refer to here are in centigrade). The following is just my opinion from what we experienced. The coldest temperature we had was minus 40 and most of these tips refer to surviving in this (please also note that we were fortunate to have almost NO WIND. The same temperatures with wind would be require considerably more clothing I think)

One good possible source of info is – a North American website

– Would be worth having spiked tyres (we didn’t have these and consequently fell off quite often)
-the metal parts of the bike had no problems, but plastic parts (toeclips, cables) became very brittle and broke/shattered below minus 20
-bicycle pump – ditto – the screw on nozzle (which attaches to the inner tube) snapped on both our pumps when we had a puncture at minus 35. So I would advise at least 2 pumps, ideally with metal nozzles. Treat these with care
-Patches seemed to come off punctures sometimes
-Gears. When it was a bit warmer and water gets onto your gear cables and then freezes, they get jammed… nothing much you can do about that, but I guess if you keep clearing off this ice then once it gets colder they will be ice free. I was nearly always in bottom gear on the front cog.

– During the day, at minus 35 I wore:
Legs: Skimpy Ronhill tracksuit and baggy gortex over trousers
Body: 3 thermals and then a windstopper fleece (if dry) or north face gortex jacket (if snowing) (Gortex did not really function below minus 25, so had a big lining of ice.
Head: Balaclava and Wooly hat. Ski goggles. I grew a silly beard and if it was really cold put a kind of head band across my nose. (oh, and it is worth putting a spare glove or something down one’s crotch to stop your willy getting frostbite (no joke!))
Hands: We had poggies for our handlebars – kind of glove things which you tie to your handlebars and can put your hands into when riding – quite good, especially in the wind. Then – thin layer gloves (always wear, even if fixing bike), and either army gortex gloves or sheepskin gloves. My hands were fine as long as I kept moving.
Feet: This was the biggest problem, as so little blood goes to your feet, especially if cycling… eventually we went 2 layers – the traditional Russian felt boots – Valenki as under boots – and then Neos over boots on top (Al got the over boots in Alaska, Valenki can be found easily in Siberia).
Valenki are very cheap and (as Al remarked) look as if they are made of carpet tiling. They are actually very warm. However, 2 reservations on Valenki:
1. Make sure you get the ones WITHOUT the plastic sole – i.e. The ones with no sole are much, much warmer (as I found out).
2. Your valenki are very liable to shrink! Both Al and I started off with nice big valenki with which we could wear 2 thick pairs of socks. After 10 days, we found we could only wear one pair of socks. After 20 days, one thin pair of socks and it was very hard to get the darned boots off. Eventually we had to cut all sorts of holes in the boots just to get them off our feet. I think most of the shrinking came about due to our feet sweating and then the boots drying out each time we stayed in a village… and then shrinking. Possibly if you do not let your boots dry out (i.e., put them outside so they freeze at night), you would be ok (they quickly thaw in the morning).
The Neos overboots were good and add 10 or 15 degrees to your foot temperature.
I found feet the most stressful thing of all – frequently having to jump off the bike and run with it, stamping my feet – to try and get some feeling back. Both Al and I lost toe nails, but thankfully no frost bite.
If I was doing it again, I would probably invest in the ultra warm Baffin boots (more expensive, but worth it in the end I think)

If the temperature is warmer, obviously shed layers as appropriate. It is also VERY IMPORTANT to manage your heat well in order to AVOID SWEATING. If you sweat, then it will never really evaporate.

Clothes (night)
-In addition to daytime gear, it is nice at night to also have a very warm puffa (down) jacket; some kind of big warm socks/slippers; a massive Russian fur hat; maybe some dry thermals in case you did sweat during the day; maybe a spare fleece.

Other (important) Because it is so cold outside your layer of clothing, it makes sense to use your body heat to keep things warm. So:
– Water: obviously water bottles freeze, so besides a good thermos (1 litre) we also had camel backs – which we wore under our coats, so our body heat kept them mostly non frozen (you have to put the tube down your shirt sometimes to melt it).
– Camera – wear under your coat as otherwise it stops working in cold
– You can keep food in your inside pockets to stop it freezing
– Al had the ingenious idea of filling our panniers with cheap Russian ice cream cones – it never melts and has lots of energy (suitable in “warm” temperatures of around minus twenty)

-Tent: Two things to watch out for (i.e. things I wish I had been told)
1. If you have one of those beautiful plastic windows to look out of to see if it is raining from the comfort of your tent… below minus 25 it will simply shatter when you fold up your tent, leaving you sensational views of the awesome cold!
Solution: do not opt to have the aforesaid windowed tent model
2. The poles elastic goes extraordinarily loose below minus twenty… when it is a cold night and you want to get into the tent… and you then have to spend 20 minutes untying and tightening and re-tying the elastic, this is not funny, and is potentially dangerous. Solution: Not quite sure… certainly, at least practice tightening the elastic before you set off. Also, if you are able to only dislocated every other pole (as opposed to disconnecting all of them), that might help
There might even be special cold weather tents out there (mountaineering) but we did not have one.
-Sleeping bag and roll matts. I would recommend 2 roll matts (I did not like my thermorest as my spit always froze in the nozzle making it a pain to let the air out the next day as the air cap froze) and one very good sleeping bag (or 2 reasonable ones). You will not regret carrying these if it is cold. Also, a good warm down jacket to wear at night (and to act as second sleeping bag) would be great
-Stove – obviously this is a lifeline as needed to cook and MELT SNOW at night (with which to fill camel backs and thermos). We had MSRs… but had big problems with the pumps. Not sure why and we (especially the master improviser, Al) were constantly taking them apart and fiddling around trying to fix them. Maybe the mountaineer versions of MSRs would work better. This is so important it would be worth finding out what Antarctic explorers, etc, use?
Cigarette lighters don’t work usually and matches are quite dodgy too – so carry lots of them.
We used petrol as the fuel.
-Food – because cooking is such a hassle when it is cold, in the end we went for instant noodles and then thawed out tins of meat (dogfood like) to give us fat. Same for breakfast.
We also ate lots of chocolate.
-Other – pee bottle, wide plastic rim.

Buying the gearIn Russia, you can get most of the clothing you need there in cities (if they are in cold regions)… much cheaper and mostly pretty good I thought.

I am sure I have forgotten some things and as I said at the top, this is just my opinion – get other advice and be prepared to improvise. Please email me if you have any other questions. (
Good luck!

Me in a Russian hat in Magadan – getting ready to go!


Practical tips for travel in Russia

September 23rd, 2004

(this section is only for people looking for/interested in practical tips about travel in Russia)
We found it a real headache getting ourselves sorted out with paperwork for Russia, so here are a few practical tips from what we found…

Visas. You can get a 30 day tourist visa, or various types of business visa. We went for the 90 day business visa, but to do so there are some extra hoops to jump through.

-To get any sort of visa, you need to get an “invitation” from Russia. This just basically seems an excuse to charge you some extra cash from the “department of invitations”!

-In the end we just did the whole thing (for a 90 day business visa) through a very helpful Edinburgh based company called Russia Direct. They also sorted out all the extra bits we had to do for getting a business visa (for which Al had to establish a “company”… with himself as President, and me as vice president!!). They do charge quite a bit for their service, but they were extremely reliable and well informed -and even once we were in Russia they were able to reply instantly to queries and put us in touch with their partner company in Moscow. Unless you have an excess of time (to figure it all out by yourself), or a shortage of cash (and so you cannot afford to pay a bit extra), I would highly commend them…

Registering This seems to be a bit of an out of date formality in Eastern Siberia – you are supposed to register in any city in which you stay for more than 2 nights. After visitng the registration office nine times (!!), I eventually managed it in Magadan (where I arrived), and then did not stay anywhere long enough to need to register again… a bit of a headache all in all, but worth doing. Once we had this one registration stamp on our visa, all the police we met seemed to be happy enough… I kind of got the impression that out in Siberia none of the police really know what you are supposed to do with your visas these days. In most parts of Russia I think it is quite easy to register in hotels… but we never stayed in hotels as such.

This is just my experience, so things may be different for you. I think it is certainly important to register when you first arrive at least.

Do contact Russia Direct for good advice.