Into Siberia (September 2004)
“We are the Pilgrims, Master: we shall go
Always a little farther: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea”
—James Elroy Flecker
“Good luck with the last long cold leg, Alastair”
If you head West long enough you reach the East. 482 years to the day since Sebastian d’Elcano got home I watched the GPS tick over from 179 degrees West to 179 degrees East and confirmed for myself that the Earth really is round. I hope that you enjoyed September 7th 2004. Did the sun shine? How was lunch? I will never know as the International Date Line stole that day from me.
Bored ramblings prompted from an endless horizon of empty ocean: I was aboard the Canmar Dynasty, sailing from Alaska to Asia, my fifth and final continent. The Canmar Dynasty is a 187m long freight ship and this ocean crossing was an entirely different experience to my previous boat trips on this journey. I had a bed with sheets, an en suite bathroom, and three meals cooked for me a day. An Indian crew meant the food was superb and I had nothing harder to do than read, watch movies and stare at the blue horizon. I was, of course, bored senseless. But it was a good way of appreciating just how vast the Pacific Ocean really is.
I have been predominantly alone for three years now; an experience that has ranged from the sublime to the suicidal. I have learned much about myself, not least of which being the realization that I am not as interesting a person to spend time with as I thought I was before I left home. One can only compose so many “All-time-greatest Leeds United teams” to pass the time and entertain oneself. And so I decided that some company would be a good thing for the long ride home. Failing to think of any girls who were not only beautiful and inexplicably attracted to me, but also willing to endure unwashed weeks of tent-bound squalor across Siberia, I was forced to lower my standards hugely, and so I have ended up with Rob.
Rob joined me briefly in Ethiopia and in South America, and my first bike trip was with him – the Karakoram Highway from Pakistan to China in 1997. We were also at school and University together. Ever since we were at school Rob had had the ridiculous dream of cycling from Shanghai to London. Like most glorious dreams it was destined to remain always a dream. I began a devious email campaign, politely pointing out to him that his life was dull.
I was ably assisted by one of history’s greatest thinkers:
“Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever
wanted – one moment – would you capture it, or just let it slip?”
Rob had been teaching in Oxford for the last couple of years, and, like many teachers in Britain, he did not take much persuading to decide to escape. He chose to cycle half way round the world instead.
So now we are two. Things will be very different now. Not better or worse – just different. Some things will become much easier and it will be good to have somebody to share the good and bad times with. I am going to have to learn to compromise once more and there are bound to be times when we would cheerfully abandon the other person again. Security may be a bigger issue now, as my trump card for the past three years has been my very vulnerability – smiling wide and playing dumb. Now we will look more like two bumbling tourists ripe for picking. I think also that I am probably going to have to stop picking my toenails when I cook dinner. Now you can read Rob’s versions of my tall tales on his own website: www.cyclinghomefromsiberia.com.
“Magadan” is a word soaked in “Auschwitz”-like terror from the evil years of Stalin and the Gulags. Today, thankfully, Siberia is a far calmer place and Magadan is now up alongside “Timbuktu”, “Ushuaia” and “Ulan-Bator” in the list of place names guaranteed to set an adventurous soul scurrying for the atlas and the airport and the ends of the world. For me now it is the beginning of the long road back home.
Tourist visas for Russia are limited to just 30 days and are not extendable. There is no way we could have made it down to Vladivostok in that time: Siberia is bigger than the USA, Alaska and Western Europe combined, and if it were detached from Russia, Siberia would still be by far the largest country on earth. What good fortune then, that I happen to be the Life President of the little-known and recently formed company called “English Wildman Wafflings Ltd” and therefore was able to secure a 90 day Business Visa. We were also incredibly fortunate that Rob happened to be the Vice-President. We are prepared for some chilly winter weather because “Hitler and Napoleon, to name two, discovered that Russia at certain times of the year can be tough on visitors”. The next 90 days promise to be daunting and exciting. But after 6 months in North America this is exactly what I need – 6 months of civilization is definitely too much for any man. I am sure we will often be asking ourselves “What on Earth are we doing here?” But I know exactly what I am doing now: I am going home at last.
In Siberia – Colin Thubron. A wise man and a fine writer.
Adventure Capitalist – Jim Rogers. You can go round the world with a 5 year budget of $11,000 and a bicycle, or you can be a billionaire in a 4WD yellow Mercedes convertible sports car. Jealous? Me?
SIBERIAN Kit list:
BIKE: Blackburn Expedition back rack, Jandd Extreme front rack, 4 large, waterproof panniers (Karrimor and Edinburgh Bicycle), barbag (Edinburgh Bicycle), 2 large dry-bags (Ark),ï¿½@bungees, odometer (and bike!).
SPARES: tyre, tubes, puncture kit and pumptoolkit, spokes (DT), chain, duct tape, zip ties, string, wire, Leatherman, Cables, Bearings, Grease and oil, Screws and bolts.
CAMPING: Tent (Coleman), Down sleeping bag (3 season), Thin (1 season) down bag, Sleeping bag liner, Therm-a-rest, Foam sleeping mat, Head torch (Princeton) and batteries (Lithium).
COOKING: Stove and spare, Fuel bottles, Pan (1.5L+ per person) and lid, Water bag (10l), Camelbak, Spoon, Mug and bowl, Thermos flasks.
CLOTHING: Thin thermals, Thick turtle neck thermals, Trousers (Rohan), Ron Hill trousers, Non-cotton shirt, Different thickness socks (Thorlos), Cycling shoes (Scarpa), Winter footwear overboots (N.E.O.S), Sleeveless fleece vest, Thin fleece jacket, Thick fleece jacket (Windstopper), “Feathered Friends” Down Jacket, Windproof Goretex Karrimor Jacket, Windproof trousers, Thin gloves, Mittens, Windproof outer gloves, ‘Poagies’ (down handwarmers for handlebars), Thin hat, Fur hat, Face mask, Sunglasses, goggles.
MISCELLANEOUS: Sun cream, Vaseline, Toilet paper, Toothbrush, Camera stuff, Diary, Maps, Book, Introductory letter in Russian, Knife, Hacksaw, Mossie spray, First aid, Foam square to sit on, Passport and paperwork, Credit cards, US dollars.