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Cycling Siberia

Content Image: on bikesCycling Siberia Map

In late 1999, Chris Hatherly and myself were on the fringe of Russia's north-west contemplating our decision to ride together Across Russia to Beijing. We were 20 years old, had abandoned our university degrees and had met each other for the first time in over a year. Ahead lay the forests of Siberia, the Gobi desert of Mongolia and the far away land of China.

All in all, we knew the temperatures would drop to at least -40 below in winter, and had been told about the terrible mosquitoes of Summer. However the details were very few and far between. We approximated that it would take 12-18 months, and on that basis had a budget of around $3 (Australian) a day. A sense of overewhelming uncertainty washed over me: I had never ridden a 'recumbent bike' before, and had no idea whether we had bitten off more than we could chew. Fourteen months and 10,000km later we rolled onto Tiananmen square. In the time since we had departed the small city of Petrozavodsk we had endured frostbite, pushed 1000km along the world's most remote railway, gritted ourselves through the Gobi and even been arrested in China. However, above all of this we had also met countless people and been priveleged to gain insight into the fabric of their lives and country. There was Baba Galya who had taken us in for 10 days after frostbite, the Chuginovs in Siberia who had repaired a smashed hub for us, and the nomads of Mongolia who invited us into their mobile homes with open arms.

Despite many conflicts, Chris and I had also settled into camp every night realising that we were living this dream and not just talking about it over a beer.

To find out more about this journey read the Article below, view the photos, trace our route on the map (large version can be downloaded from bottom of this page) view a selection of short movie clips, or download the 'stories from the road' from the bottom of this page. You can also order the book and film about this adventure.

Making Tracks

10,000km in 14 months, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, China
By Chris Hatherly and Tim Cope for Australian Geographic 2000

“Chris, what do I do!” Tim was visibly in a panic. A bowl of rich mushroom soup lay steaming on the table, but the first indoor meal in a week was clearly far from his mind. Nudging me, he pointed under the table where an enormous purple bubble protruded from his right toe. The other big toe was white and equally bulbous. The old lady who had taken us in for the meal leant across the table suddenly concerned. “What’s the matter?…….show me!……ITS FROSTBITE!” she shrieked. Moments later we were storming down the village street with our heads bowed into the gusts of snow. We barged our way into the rickety wooden doctor’s clinic and were dragged past a queue of startled patients rugged up in their winter furs: “Make way! Australians coming through!” The Dagestani doctor was quick to gather himself after the initial shock. Through a narrow gap in the door, I watched Tim lying on a cracked vinyl bench as he lunged for the pocket dictionary, no doubt looking for words like "numb, painkillers, ‘will it hurt?" “Are you going to read?” asked the doctor in amusement as he sterilized some scissors and wiped the suspect toes with disinfectant. By the time Tim found his page, the doctor was slicing away at the end of a toe…. Only a few hours before, we had broken camp in subzero temperatures as we reveled in the first snow of Winter. Now I sat in an antiquated surgery, feeling slightly dizzy and trying to comprehend this abrupt turn in our journey. I reflected on the week past: temperatures that had plunged to –20?C; melting water from iceblocks hacked from frozen roadside ditches; and the regular roadside ‘cold feet dance’ we had developed. I had never imagined that it would come to this and wondered just how many challenges lay ahead. We had covered just 900km, and were only two weeks into our 14 month, 10,000km Trans-Siberian bicycle expedition. The journey began in earnest on my 21st birthday, the 25th September 1999. After almost a year of organising, staying in touch purely by email, and five months cycling from London, I finally rolled up in Moscow to meet Tim. Best friends during a short acquaintance at University, we’d laid down the rough outline of the journey on the summit of Canberra’s Black Mountain the night before Tim left to study in Finland and Russia. Frostbite, although traumatic was a fitting introduction to Russian hospitality. We were embraced by “Mama Tanya,” sister, “Elena,” and grandmother “Baba Galya”, the incredible old lady who’d first taken us in.

Their original observation when we’d first met had been uncannily accurate: “Deary me! Poor boys, you must be so cold and hungry!” In the end, we spent 10 days in the village of Babushkina and soon got to know many of the locals. Between daily visits to the doctor and giving kids a go on our bikes, most of our time was spent at the table being served generous helpings of pancakes, fried potato, fish pies, and of course the complimentary Vodka. Seven months later we were sitting in a ditch by the side of the world’s most isolated railway. It was raining, the mosquitoes were maintaining a constant onslaught and we were trying to transform our bikes into pedal powered trains using fresh cut saplings and a handful of hoseclamps. We were attempting to cycle over a thousand kilometres along the remote BAM railway to the top of Lake Baikal. The muddy, potholed service track became steadily worse to the point where we were averaging less than 1km/h and decided on the different approach. We spent 8 hours perching our bikes on the thin metal strips trying to work out a system that would let us ride on the rails. In the end however the 60kgs of bike and gear proved too heavy for the makeshift framework, and difficult to haul off in a rush as the trains came roaring through. Wet, cold and exhausted we started pushing…. We had returned to Babushkina after winter, and the first weeks of cycling that followed were some of the hardest. Making camp in itself was an epic. An exhausting hour hauling the bikes into the forest through 1m of snow before collecting and chopping firewood, then digging out a place for our open forest tent. At one stage, after constant warnings from locals, a section of road disappeared altogether, giving way to a slushy trench in the snow. For 12kms we struggled through waist deep puddles of melting snow the size of small swimming pools. Over the two days that this took us, we became, undoubtedly, the first people ever to push recumbent bicycles between the villages of ‘Luptyug’ and ‘Klutchee’. The snow melted, summer arrived and we bore witness to a magical transformation in Russia’s landscape and people. We crossed the Ural Mountains into Siberia, daylight extended to 20 hours/day and the mosquitoes multiplied into millions. Sometimes we would cycle together talking of anything and everything. Other times we would ride 5 or 10kms apart, meeting up for lunch then again at the end of the day. Twice we lost each other along the road towards evening, meeting up again the next day with good humour and stories of the adventures of an unexpected night alone (I had the only billies, but Tim had all the dinner food!) We left the main route often, detouring along dirt tracks for hundreds of kilometres and passing through tiny untouched villages. Often we were the first westerners ever to visit, and were invariably received first with astonishment and bewilderment then with amazing warmth and hospitality. We met thousands of different people and stayed with dozens of families: from the poorest villagers living purely by subsistence to rich ‘New-Russian’ businessmen. Travelling as we were we seemed able to relate to almost everyone we met. Despite the stereotypes and warnings about conditions in Russia we never once found ourselves in a seriously dangerous situation. Twice during the trip we separated to spend a week or so riding alone. This gave us a chance to experience the country and the people from a different perspective and to clear the air of all the minor disagreements and frustrations between us. We were plagued by bike problems – the heavy load and rough roads causing numerous breakdowns. Despairing on the roadside with a collapsed rear hub, we were rescued by the Chuginovs, a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the tiny village of Kvitok in central Siberia who cheerfully tooled up a new hub on a homemade lathe. This family became an icon for us, epitomizing the down-to-earth generosity, creativity and ability to improvise that are part of Russian culture. In early September 2000, after 11 months in Russia we crossed into Mongolia. “C’mon, we’re running out of cow pats!” I yelled scampering up the hill and scanning the earth for the dry biscuits that could be found scattered across the steppe. After a prolonged life running on Russian diesel, our MSR stove had coughed, spluttered and died. Forced to use the system that Mongolians have been using for centuries- burning dried animal dung- it appeared we were going to be feasting on uncooked borsche.

As the sun dipped below the flat horizon the desert air was immediately rendered freezing. I returned to camp, unloading the ‘firewood’ from my coat pockets. Even in the dim light that glowed from our crude campfire, I could make out Tim’s smile – a replica of my own. We were 18 days into the Gobi desert, less than 300km from the Chinese border and fast approaching our ‘longest period without washing’ record. With just a 1:2million “Mongolian Tourist Map” we had been following the compass, meandering along with sandy wheel tracks that wound haplessly over mountains and flats. After reaching the capital, Ulaan Baatar we continued south. The further we rode, the more simple life became. There was only the unblemished expanse of green and brown, camp in the evenings and cycling during the day. The vast plateau with its nomadic people was the ideal chance to reflect on the journey, and to begin thinking about the transition back to life “off the bike” in Australia. Attempting to re-start our cow-pat fire, it occurred to me that Mongolia in essence was an experience of two extremes. In a muse, riding to the horizon, the unending, treeless landscape held a dreamlike quality. This feeling numbed the legs, and induced a lost sense of time and distance. With the jaws of another winter approaching however, the isolation and challenge of the Gobi desert held an ever-present sense of uncertainty that kept us constantly on our toes. The greatest desperation came 130km from the Chinese border. We’d been pushing and riding for 20 days when the unused wheel tracks we’d chosen that morning abruptly became deep, soft sand. After the first 200m, I lay collapsed over my bike: Tim panted: “You know Chris, at 1km an hour, that’s about, well, 130 hours to the border!….And we only have enough water and food supplies for another day!” The following morning we rose before dawn, and soon – our prayers answered – the road improved. With the Chinese border on the horizon, we guzzled down our last litre of water. 9,200km peddled, 800 to go! China was the country we knew least about. Secretly I’d dreamt of crossing the border to find a smooth bitumen road and a sign pointing to Beijing. The reality, however, was more in tune with the rest of the adventure and started with the discovery that it was illegal for foreigners to travel by bicycle. With a photocopied corner of an atlas we eventually smuggled our bikes across the border in the back of a taxi. Then, to our dismay the bitumen soon disintegrated into dusty wheel tracks reminiscent of our Mongolian woes. The odds against us seemed unrelenting. I thought back over the snow, the cold, the railway, the desert, and the breakdowns. Now with Beijing just 500km away, arriving successfully was still uncertain. I was sure of one thing though; that if we succeeded, anything and everything was possible. Two weeks later, we were pushing our bikes into an Apple orchard on the outskirts of Beijing. During this time, we’d spent two days under arrested and struggled to maintain our worn out bikes. We set up camp and cooked together for the last time. In the morning we rode in amongst the busy traffic. Coming to a halt at a red light I noticed a European amongst the crowd on the crossing. He almost stumbled over usbefore noticing our strange bikes. “Hello” he said in a thick English accent. “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Tiananmen Square” Tim asked. “Sure, just go straight ahead, take a left and then the next right.” Soon we were pushing our bikes into Beijing’s majestic centre. Suddenly I felt an abrupt sense of loss. The adventure had come to an end. There was the sense that a long fought for dream had been achieved. An overwhelming euphoria. Elation. I turned to Tim “That’s it, that two years, finished…unbelievable!”

CYCLING SIBERIA Here you can download some quicktime clips from Tim's Cycling adventure. They are all fairly large streaming .MOV files, so you will need Quicktime player to watch them. If you need to download a free copy of Quicktime, just click on the link below: Free downloadable Quicktime