Out of the Wild

If you are just finding this Siberia story you might want to start reading it from the beginning, this first post. Otherwise…I previously left off as we paddled away from Varvarinskiy, fully stocked with new food supplies but several days behind schedule.

Happy to have reached the River Vitim

Later that same day we hit our next big milestone which was the confluence of the river we were on (the Vitimkan) with the Vitim river, the large river we were always aiming for that we would follow to our finish line, which somehow seemed to be getting further and further away. We had high hopes that once we hit the Vitim the water levels might be higher and thus faster and that we would be able to make up for some lost time. This was not the case.

Our hopes for faster waters shattered, we realized that if we were going to have any chance of making it to Romanovka it was going to be if we pushed ourselves even harder and faster, so that is what we did. Our days became occupied with constant analysis of our progress, and this progress was constantly disappointing. Our routine was to wake up, waste no time in breaking camp, eat a hasty breakfast, pack the boats, and then jump in. Once on the water we would essentially paddle full power with a couple short snack breaks and maybe a 45 min lunch break until the sun was almost down and it was time to look for a camp spot. There was no time for relaxation, or any exploration of the surrounding wilderness that did not serve to get us further downstream.

There were specific forces working against us that we constantly had to fight off, endure, or at times simply submit to. Mostly it was just the long stretches of flat motionless water that we called “pancakes” which separated the occasional whitewater. The slow motionless water resisted our paddle strokes with pure malice. It seems unreal that we could paddle as hard as we did only to feel the boats move like sponges through a giant pool of maple syrup, which is exactly what it looked like. There was nothing more disappointing than coming around a bend to see a kilometer or two of dark maple syrup shining motionless in the sun, and there is nothing you can do but dig your paddles in and slog through it.

Pancakes and maple syrup

Sometimes it was rain we had to deal with, in general we had spotty weather and lower than normal temperatures. If the rain wasn’t so bad we would just paddle through it, other times it just made more sense to stop and wait out the harder rainfalls. And maybe even  more frustrating than the flat water and the rain was the wind. When we faced a headwind it was as if no matter how hard we paddled it always felt like we were dragging a bunch of dead weight behind us. Ahhh wait…we WERE dragging a bunch of dead weight behind us! Idiot Two was still dragging Idiot One behind it, in all it’s exceptionally hydrodynamic glory.

On that topic…for several days we had been pooling our collective genius to sharpen the point on an new plan that we believed might just get us out of this mess and propel us literally and figuratively towards our goal. There came the day when apparently we felt we had debated the intricacies of the plan enough that it was time to put it into action. We called the plan “Idiot Three”.

The idea was that maybe it would be faster if we unloaded some of the weight from Idiot Two onto Idiot One and exchanged that extra weight for an idiot. Thus making Idiot One essentially a cargo ship and making Idiot Two… yes, Idiot Three.  

Three Idiots, preparing for Idiot Three

So on a particularly windy day three idiots decided to pull the trigger on Idiot Three and implement the plan. It was tricky because with three of us on the same kayak sitting so close together we had to synchronize our paddle strokes so that we paddled in unison, otherwise our paddles would collide with each other. This coordination and its resulting failures, as one may imagine, added the potential to earn many extra idiot points, which we racked up in spades. And on top of it all, it just didn’t work. It didn’t add any speed whatsoever to our pace.

Idiot Three

“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” – Edward Abbey

Aside from these struggles we were also paying close attention to an infection that seemed to be inhabiting Tyler’s foot…an infection that looked frighteningly similar to the infection that he got the last time he decided to take some time off work and join me on one of my adventures in the Amazon. That time it landed him 5 days in a Colombian hospital.

There was also one rather technical rapid that we had to pass through. Our guru Valentine had written about it and Andrei the photographer hermit had also warned us about it. It was called the Mariktinskiy rapids and had the potential to turn our entire adventure upside down along with our kayaks. It was a couple hundred meters of fast water completely littered with large boulders that we would have to nimbly avoid colliding with. We had it marked on our GPS so we knew it was coming and had time to stop before, do a little bit of scouting, button down the hatches and get ourselves properly suited up. It was an exciting little run and we got through it without any major damage done.

Getting suited up for the big rapids

Aside from all this we just enjoyed the whole experience for what it was. The scenery was still amazing and diverse, occasional rocky cliffs giving way to rolling hills and taiga. Unfortunately though the wildlife was still strangely missing from the picture. Still not a single siting of anything more than a squirrel since the siting of our royal moose on the first day. We did however come across some large paw-prints on the beach of one of our campsites which we can only imagine came from wolves.

We also started to have some luck with fishing. All of a sudden we started getting hits. We reeled in a few fish within a couple hours. This added a welcome new element to our daily routine but unfortunately we were so hard pressed to keep on schedule we just didn’t have much time to devote to fishing.

So it was that the day came when we were on schedule to reach the tiny outpost of Ust’ Jalinda, about the same size as Varvarinskiy. Also cut off from the outside world. Only about 70km as the crow flies from our goal of Romanovka, it is impossible to reach by any 4×4 vehicle.

By this point Tyler had to be in Romanovka in exactly 5 days. At the pace we were going (still 270 kilometers on the river to go) we were exactly 7.5 days from Romanovka. The plan to solve this problem was to find someone in Ust’ Jalinda who had a boat with a motor on it and pay them to motor us downstream for one day to get us back on schedule, or even better a bit ahead of schedule so we could slow our roll a bit and take things at a more leisurely pace.

Ust Jalinda off in the distance

The town sat a half kilometer from the riverbank so I stayed with the kayaks while Tyler and Bartek wandered into town to buy our way out of this mess. What they found out was that somehow, despite the fact that this town exists at the confluence of two different rivers, in the middle of nowhere, there was not one person in the town who owned any sort of buoyant motorized mode of transportation. BUT, we were in luck. Why? Because once a month the government subsidized public transportation that links Ust’ Jalinda with Romanovka makes the 7.5 hour journey overland, and coincidentally it leaves tomorrow and there happens to be three seats left.  Siberian public transportation?

We had already used airplanes, cars, horses, and kayaks to get to where we were. It was only logical that we would end up in a tank. Right?

We didn’t want to get off the river, but at this point we had no choice but to jump on this opportunity. It was physically impossible for Tyler to get to Romanovka at the pace we were going. So adaptability became the name of the game and we decided to accept the tank ride and then once in Romanovka see what could be done as far as arranging someone with a boat or a tank with whom we could work out some way to get us back on the river for a few more days but still make it back again to Romanovka for Tyler’s flight.

Local Buryat woman watching as they loaded up the tank

The tank left at 7am the next morning. We set our alarms for 5:00 thinking it would give us plenty of time to break down the tents and get things packed. In true idiot fashion we did not realize until we were halfway through packing that we had crossed a time zone sometime in the previous days and that it was already 6:30. We were about to miss our only ticket out of here which had been handed to us on a silver plate. Somehow we managed a wild scramble to get ourselves to the village with all our gear just a few minutes after 7.

We met our “driver” Sergei who looked like he had wrestled a few bears in his day but he had a friendly disposition. We paid the man and piled into the back of the tank along with the other passengers, a couple teenage girls, a 4 year old, a baby, an old man, and a few women. Then we rumbled off into the taiga.

The bone rattling journey took 7.5 hours during which children vomited and diesel fuel mysteriously pooled up around our feet. We stopped for a couple breaks to relieve ourselves, pick berries, and test the tank’s sea legs.  

Sergei our driver

Sergei dropped us off in town center. Romanvoka, with a population of a few thousand people and a (dirt) road that actually connects it with the outside world, Romanovka had become a bit of a Shangri-La in our imaginations. Surely we would find hot water flowing from golden

Our roommate

shower heads and toilets where one would not have to worry about finding 20 mosquito bites on their ass after finishing up.

The reality was there was no guesthouse in the town at all, but a nice Buryat woman who owned a shop offered to let us roll our sleeping pads out on the floor of an empty room next to her little general store, we would just need to share it with the night guard, this guy. Sure. He looks harmless.

We threw our bags down and asked where we might find a shower. There was no shower. No problem, maybe just point us in the direction of the sink so we could wash up a bit. No….no sink. Water? We were pointed in the direction of the Vitim river which sat a hundred meters away. The toilet was an outhouse behind the shop. Ok. So we still had not reached “civilization”, but it really was a Shangri-La in its own way. There was cold beer, hot coffee, and people watching. We indulged in all of these and then sat down on the floor to take stock of our situation.

First order of business was to take advantage of our connectivity (our phones worked here) and check the weather forecast for the next days on every possible weather site we could find. The

Downtown Romanovka

consensus among all of them was terrible, low temperatures, and rain all day and night for the next 4 days. Then there was Tyler’s foot, which was still swollen up like a balloon and while we had managed to keep it from getting any worse it was not getting any better either.

Bartek and I were supposed to continue on from here and do another 500 kilometers on the river. But with the weather forecast the way it was and our pathetic pace, we would be hard pressed to reach the end goal on time (there was no option really to just do a part of it because there was no way “out” aside from the one small plane that would leave from the village 500km downriver.)  Mostly it was just the thought of getting back in the boat knowing we would have nothing but grey cold wet weather for at least the next 4 days, there is just nothing pleasureable in that. All this coupled with general exhaustion from our no-rest full-on pace and a feeling that we had lived one hell of an adventure already was enough to lead us towards what would probably be the smartest decision these idiots would make on the whole trip….to throw in the towel.

Romanovka looking over the River Vitim

It had been an insanely wild adventure. It seems like months had passed since Vlad drove us to Rambo’s wild-west compound where we downed vodka shots to appease the spirits, since we had crossed rivers, mountain passes, and endless bogs on horseback, since our first unsteady days in the boats learning the ropes, since tea with Andrei the hermit photographer, since arriving in the rain in Varvarinskiy like ghosts emerging from the closet to surprise the locals with our presence. Each campsite we stayed at along the way was unique and each one held the stories of the day that had passed, stories which we re-lived over a blazing fire surrounded by our wet gear, our kayaks on the shore nearby turned bottom up, as if the moonlight would help to dry the glue on the freshly patched holes created by that day’s micro catastrophes. And then we reached our (new) finish line by tank…go figure.

So what did we learn in all this? That experience should not be underrated, but that inexperience should not be over-dramatised. Valentine’s footsteps were hard to follow in our freshly minted shoes, but our total lack of experience never felt like an obstacle that could not be overcome.  Sometimes you just have to throw yourself into the deep end to learn how to swim.  Speaking of the deep end…I can’t wait to see what the sailing enthusiasts say when I post in their forum my plans to sail from Spain to Papua New Guinea.

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10155926700236545&type=1&l=1d21031c79

 

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Into The Wild – By Kayak

 

 

My last post left off where we found ourselves totally alone about to put our “glorified pool toys” into the water and take our first paddle strokes towards the one and only direction out of the mosquito and bear infested wilderness.

It was a moment characterized by laughter with hints of uneasy apprehension. It was mostly just the feeling of something new. None of us had much experience with any of this so the feeling of being in a tiny inflatable watercraft just felt a bit strange, and the reality that to have such a feeling, while being in such a totally wild and remote place, is a bit absurd if not idiotic did not escape any of us.

So we began to paddle, to get used to it all… the most comfortable way to sit, the best place to put our daypacks where they would be safe from water but accessible, how to get the most power out of each stroke, little by little we slowly found our groove, a process that lasted the entire trip.

The biggest revelation that occured in the first hour of paddling was one that would probably, quite literally, play the most pivotal role on how the rest of our trip would unfold. The area where we started was where the Ikat river emerged from the Ikat lakes and it was a beautiful spot. Very quiet, very peaceful. Sometimes the riverbanks would be crowded with trees, other times they would open up to grassy expansive landscape exposing the nearby hills. And the river itself…well it was more like a lake – pretty much devoid of current. The 2 person Kayak (which we began to refer to as “Idiot Two”) cut right through the water with no problem. The packraft (Idiot One) did not.

Siberia 2 (111)

 

We knew the packraft would be slower. We had been told this by people with more experience than us. But we never expected it to be quite as slow as it was. In our mind the person in the packraft would just have to paddle a bit harder to keep up with the kayak, but that would be fine because we would constantly be in rotation so after a couple hours the packrafter would end up in the kayak and would be able to rest a bit. The reality was that it was nearly impossible to keep up with the kayak for anything more than 10 minutes or so before being totally exhausted.


Two idiots tying together Idiot One and Idiot Two

And so it was that within the first hour of our mission we had already tied a rope to Idiot One and were dragging it along with its idiot passenger behind Idiot Two. Any chance of looking like a team of experienced and well prepared river runners was….well, ok…there was never really any chance of that.

So there we are, paddling along, giddy with excitement at having finally gotten into the water, when we come around a corner and there, standing in the middle of the river, majestic and regal, was a big moose. Just standing there looking straight at us. It was incredible. We stopped paddling and for about 60 seconds we just sat looking at each other, us at him and him at us. And then he slowly turned and walked towards the riverbank, climbed out of the water, gave us one last look and disappeared into the taiga. It was totally exhilarating. This is what we had come for.

 

 

We paddled on, the river picked up speed a bit which is what we wanted, but then the rocks began to appear, the water became shallow, and the bottom of the kayaks began to scrape against the rocks. This was definitely not what we wanted. The only thing that seperated my ass from the millions of liters of water below it was a 1.5mm thick piece of plastic, which was now being dragged by a swift current through sharp rocks – making a horrific sound as plastic scraped against river-reef. Once again we were all reminded just how fragile our existence is out here and dependant on these pool toys. We had no previous experience to know just how resilient this 1.5mm bit of plastic was to these scrapes. So as the water got more shallow and the scraping sound more caustic to our ears we began to abandon ship each time a shallow rapid came up and just walk the boats over the shallow parts.

This problem stayed with us until the very end of the trip, and did wonders to slow us down. Way down. Especially those first couple days on the Ikat river which had less water in it. Somehow though it threw a few more logs onto the fire of adventure that seemed to be raging just barely within the boundaries of control.

Standing up to your knees in the middle of a river as the sun casts that magical Siberian late-afternoon light onto the surrounding wilderness, gripping onto your pool-toy/ticket-out-of-here with one hand while walking through the white water of an ultra-remote Siberian river, your ass still sore from the multi-day horse trek through the bear infested wilderness, knowing that this is just the beginning of this trip… it was another one of those “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure” moments.

Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak

 

We followed this smaller river, the Ikat for a couple days. There was some spectacular scenery, huge imposing rock formations, and one quite intense rapid that I would characterize as a class III. We stopped before to evaluate it and seeing that it was a pretty powerful shoot of water thought it best to try and avoid it somehow, but we couldn’t quite figure out a safe path around it so we just secured everything real tight, braced for it, and barreled through it. Once again a great feeling of adventure and experience-inadequacy laced together. We were smacked in the face by huge waves of water but came out the other end alive, extremely wet and cold, and with just a tiny bit more experience than before. We had to stop right there in the middle of the day and build a fire on the riverbank to dry out and warm up.

Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak
That’s Idiot Two there in the middle of the shot

Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak

Vitim River Russia Siberia Kayaking Kayak

We had tried our luck at fishing a couple times but we caught nothing. At one of our campsites I spotted a squirrel and the excitement this brought on made me realize that in fact, despite keeping our eyes peeled every day for wildlife, hoping to catch a glimpse of another moose or a bear (from the relative safety of our kayaks) – there seemed to be very little wildlife. Maybe they were just smarter than us…all hanging around the river on the other side of the mountain that dad no mosquitos?

Sometime during these days the boats also suffered their first punctures from the beating they were taking and essentially began to sink. No problem, we had a kit with everything necessary to repair them. Except none of us had ever repaired a PVC boat before. BUT… one of the three idiots had watched some YouTube videos explaining the process. Simple, sandpaper the area, clean with acetone, apply glue to both sides, wait 5 minutes. Stick together.

We felt this was simple enough…even for 3 idiots. We were wrong. We followed the directions exactly but the glue wouldn’t stick. Shit. Was the glue bad? Did we have the wrong kind of glue? We tried it again…same result. It was a very unnerving moment. Remembering where we are and how much further we needed to go. Luckily through trial and error we figured out that the cold weather (yes, nights were cold) meant that you had to skip the 5 minute waiting period entirely, and like this the patches seemed to stick…man, that was a good feeling. This patching procedure became an almost daily ritual for the rest of the trip.

Rambo had told us that at some point before Varvarinskiy (The first tiny settlement we were supposed to encounter) we would come across a single homestead on the bank of the Ikat river that was inhabited by a Russian guy named Andrei, a photographer who lived there by himself. And sure enough, after a few days on the river we came around the corner and saw a little cabin on the riverbank. From a long ways off we saw a guy come out of the house, he had obviously spotted us. He was walking down the river surrounded by a pack of dogs holding something in his hand. Was it a gun? Shit….is that a gun he’s holding? No, just a camera. Thank god.

Andrei invited us into his little home for tea and some scraps of hardened homemade bread. This guy literally lives in the middle of nowhere. By himself. The nearest little town would be Varvarinskiy (the place we were so eager to reach). He said sometimes he walks there…it takes 3 days.

He also told us that he has been living in that same spot for 45 years (!!!), and that in 45 years, other than the occasional hunter who actually lives in the area, we were the first people he has seen come down this river! I have no idea what he thought of us. He was not an easy character to gauge. He was friendly enough…as friendly as a Russian misanthropic hermit can be, but well, he was still a Russian misanthropic hermit.

He showed us a book of some of this photos that was published. Shots of local wildlife, Buryat people, landscapes, none of them all that impressive considering he had the last 45 years to work on this full time.

The most useful and concerning bit of info we got from Andrei was when he told us he has done the same trip we planned to do 3 times in his life, to float down the Vitim river to Romanovka. He said the FASTEST he ever did it was in 12 days.

To catch Tyler’s flight back to the US, we needed to be there in…..ready for it?…. 9.5 days. Our guru Valentine with is incredible speed had done it in 11.

Anyways, we had confirmed beyond any doubt what we already knew, we were WAY behind schedule. So we thanked him for his hospitality and shoved off.

Andrei waving goodbye to us as we paddled away


The next 24 hours was filled with constant analysis and disagreement on the progress we were making and estimations of when we could expect to reach Varvarinskiy. The mood was tense after the sobering news and reality of just how far behind we were falling. Rain did not help.

Luckily reality aligned with our most optimistic of guesses and a day after we left Andrei, off in the distance we saw the small settlement of Varvarinskiy. Woohooo!!!!

 

Varvarinskiy has a population of about 150 people. It is inaccessible by land using any normal 4×4 and the inhabitants count on monthly deliveries of food and supplies made

Varvarinskiy

by a small plane that arrives once a month or so. And as we made out way up the river bank to what we believed to be the one store in town a woman magically appeared with the keys to the store in her hands as if she was expecting us. Cold and wet we stomped in to behold the massive stockpile of food. It was really quite a decent selection considering the circumstances. The woman asked Bartek a few questions in Russian presumably about who we were, where we came from and how the hell we got here and I saw her eyes get bigger and bigger with each answer he gave. There was laughter, raised eyebrows, and lots of headshaking.

Varvarinskiy varvarinski vitim russia river

As we pointed to things on the shelf that we wanted she added it all up using an abacus (yes, as in “5,000 year old Babylonian counting device”). Halfway through our shopping spree we heard a rumble coming from outside that came to a stop just outside the store. Just a camouflage-clad guy stopping off for a bottle of vodka… in his tank. He paid for the bottle jumped back in his tank and cruised off. Siberia.

As we left the store with our stash of food, a couple of 10 year old kids who had been loitering around watching the spectacle that was us said “Get the fuck out of here!” in Russian. Which Bartek quickly translated for us. We thought it was just as amusing as they did. It seemed they just wanted to see what would happen if they said this to some random foreigners (possibly the first they have ever seen in their lives). I think they would have been just as happy if we stuck around so their curiosity could be satiated a bit more because they ran along the riverbank waving and following us as our kayaks, laden with fresh supplies drifted down river, out of town, and back into the wild. It would be several more days before we saw another human.

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10155889939551545&type=1&l=01f3e3dc7d

Into the Wild – In the Saddle

I left off last time where Vlad had arranged horses for us to get us to the source of the Ikat river. (Click to see the previous post)

He arrived early in the morning to pick us up, but before we got in the car he explained that we needed to perform a short ritual, part of the local shamanistic traditions, that would help to ensure our safe passage. The ritual was mostly devoid of, well, ritual. Perhaps some incantations or magic words were muttered that I missed, but basically a glass of

Waiting for the milk ceremony to begin

milk was passed around and we all had to take a sip. Still, it seemed important to Vlad that we do this and we were willing to accept whatever worldly or unworldly assistance that came our way. Then we piled into his Toyota Corolla and he drove us to where the road literally ends, the last tiny town on the border of “frontierland”. Vlad had promised us that the guy who was to take us into the wilderness was “a solid guy” named Sayan.

Sayan’s home felt more like a wild-west compound or homestead, straight out of a Hollywood Western film. All wood construction, some horses standing around, a high powered rifle hanging from a nail next to a doorway, some kids with hammers and nails working on an extension of the veranda, and Sayan, who for his part in all this had chosen the Rambo costume instead of the cowboy one that went with the rest of the set. He wore his longish hair pulled back into a ponytail, camouflage pants, combat boots, and a nice big Rambo style knife that hung from his hip.

Sayan readying the horses

He greeted us with an air of equanimity and introduced us to Erdem who would also be coming along with us, a young guy who we never quite understood if he was his son or nephew or grandson. Sayan did indeed seem like a “solid guy”, the type you would want to be leading you into the bear-infested wilderness. The compound was a-buzz with his family members and a handful of others who had no doubt shown up just to witness the spectacle of these three foreigners showing up in their tiny town with big plans.

Rambo wasted no time. He led us into the kitchen of his home and pulled out a plastic tube from which he extracted a couple of battle scarred old military issue topographical maps of the area. Some space was cleared at the kitchen table, the map spread across it, and we all hunched over it and began to discuss the objective and agreed on a plan that seemed to be the most reasonable approach to reaching it.

The next order of business was another shamanistic pre-expedition ritual.  A half a dozen little glasses materialized and a fresh bottle of vodka was cracked. A few words were said, and some vodka

Sayan pouring out the first round

was flicked into the air for the spirits, who apparently do not have the same thirst as us mortals. Because the rest was for us, ALL of it. One shot went down the hatch. 3 minutes later Vlad poured the next round. A few minutes after that the third round was placed in front of me. This time I tried to graciously refuse, but that was clearly not on option. He explained that when a bottle is opened it must be drunk. And so it was that, at 9 in the morning, before setting off into the Siberian wilderness, we found ourselves polishing off an entire bottle of vodka.

Vlad (with his eager compatriot) pouring the second round

Round three, or was this four?

As if that was not surreal enough, it was around this time that one of the guys told us he had some marijuana, that Rambo would be bringing some with him because it’s good to help you sleep, and asked if we wanted some right now. “Uhhh, maybe later. Thank you”.

It was upon leaving the little kitchen, returning to the bright Siberian morning light, half drunk, observing some little Buryat kids running around, one guy loading the gun, another strapping our bags onto the back of a horse so that we can mount up and head into the wilderness, another guy rolling a joint, that I felt a wave of “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure”.

Soon it was time to head off and say goodbye to Vlad. My initial intuition about Vlad had been spot on. He was an honest guy, he just wanted to help out, he wasn’t trying to milk us for money. We gave him some anyways which he tried to refuse, but we insisted.  We were very grateful to have met him. We snapped a photo with him, mounted our horses and rode off.

Within the first few hours we made two stops at places that were obviously sacred to the local people as seen by the offerings left there to appease the spirits. Milk was thrown into the air, and of course, more vodka was drunk.

First milk offering

Second ceremony stop (That ain’t water he’s pouring out of that bottle)

We crossed the Garga river several times, each time elevating the “Holy shit – Adventure” feeling a bit more. The mosquitos were relentless, but the horses took the brunt of that attack.  We kept up an exhausting pace. Rambo was being paid to deliver us to the X on the map, not by the day, so it was in his interest to haul ass. We moved at a fast clip with almost no breaks. The romantic idea of heading off into the Siberian wilderness using horses as our mode of transportation was rattled out of me little by little as the insidious and painful reality (and sobriety) began to set in.

First river crossing

Second river crossing

After 9 hours in the saddle we were all totally wrecked. The forest opened up to a wide grassy plain upon which sat two tiny wood hunters cabins. The sun hung low in the sky casting a magical light on the whole scene.

We pointed our horses towards the cabins (hoping to God that he intended to stop there for the night) and began to part a way through the clouds of mosquitoes when Rambo spotted a wild boar in the high grass about 100 meters off. He dismounted, took aim, and POW! The boar took off running and then I lost sight of it. He had missed! What kind of Rambo was this guy! He had a perfect shot at him! It wasn’t until we got a bit closer that I realized he had not missed at all. The beast had made it 40 meters and collapsed in the grass, dead as a doornail. A perfect shot. Rambo dismounted again, and cooly tied one end of a rope to the boar and the other end to his horse’s tail (!?) and then jumped in the saddle and off we went towards the cabins, dragging the dead wild boar through the grass by a horse’s tail. The Wild East indeed.

Tyler and Rambo with the felled boar

The hunters cabin was a mess. A bear had recently raided it and left quite a scene. Tyler and I opted for our tent and missed out on the late night bong session that Bartek said later ensued just before bedtime.

I fell asleep in the tent to sleep to the sound of a million mosquitos planning a desperate and futile attack.

In the morning the mosquito siege outside the tent had only intensified. The same magical golden light that had lit up the cabins when we first saw them was back on duty, and Rambo and Son were readying the horses. We were back in the saddle by 7am.

From then on the road we had been following became less and less discernible until it just disappeared for most of the time. Solid ground gave way to flooded grassland and giant muddy pools of water. The horses struggled through, often submerged in mud up to their knees.  We crossed rivers. It rained. Mosquitoes mosquitoes. Some more rain. It was very tough going and Rambo was by no means taking it easy on the new guys. The pace was relentless.

After about 7 hours in the saddle we began to reach some higher (drier) ground as we approached the climb to the Ikat pass. We later learned that years ago this pass was so dangerously inhabited by bears and wolves that prospectors would have to give their horses vodka to give them the courage to keep moving because they were so spooked otherwise.

At the top of the pass the landscape opened up to reveal our destination, the Ikat lakes….the source of the Ikat river and our ticket out of here. The only thing that lie between us was 5 kilometers of what seemed to be easy peasy terrain of short-cropped grass, but was in fact our introduction to what we later learned is the terrain that seems to cover half of Siberia….bog. It looks like solid ground, kind of a lumpy grass, but with each step your foot would sink into a spongy hole halfway up your shin. The horses struggled through the bog while we struggled to comprehend the superpowers that Valentine had called upon to do this on foot.

We reached our final destination at 7pm, 12 hours after we started out that morning. Once again the strange and beautiful late evening Siberian light was casting its magic like a net across the landscape.

Ikat lakes

Ikat lakes

We woke the next day to find Rambo and Son already packed up and ready to start the return journey. They left some offerings of candy and cookies for the local gods, and some marijuana for us, then we said some goodbyes and watched them ride off into the morning light. It was right then that I think we all shared another “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure” feeling. We were now completely alone, literally in the middle of nowhere, going back the way we came, without horses, would have been nearly impossible in these post-rain conditions. From now on it wasn’t only about a “fun adventure”, there was literally no other way out of this other than to use our own devices.

Last goodbyes with Sayan and Erdem

After hours organizing our gear, and inflating the kayaks (happy to see they were holding air) we were ready to shove off.  The moment of standing on the bank of this river, about to jump into these boats, provoked another distinct feeling, it had shades of the “Holy Shit – Adventure” feeling, but it was different. At the core of this feeling was the knowledge that we had no fucking idea what we were doing. 

I have strapped dusty backpacks to the side of dustier motorcycles with strange foreign license plates on them, I have methodically packed a backpack with just the right amount of food and all the gear to get myself safely to the top of a mountain. And each time I do those things, when I jump on that motorcycle and start it up, or I take the first steps towards that mountain peak, there is a comforting familiarity to what I am doing.

Standing on the bank of that river next to a kayak loaded up with a weeks worth of food, in the middle of nowhere and with a mandate to reach point X on a map before date Y, using nothing than these “inflatable pool toys” which at that moment seemed impossibly insubstantial… there was absolutely no comforting familiarity.

Team Idiot, about make our maiden voyage

But here we were. It’s not really a feeling of fear, it’s more that feeling when you are about to jump off a cliff into a lake or river or ocean, it’s a little unnerving to take that first step, but you know it’s going to be a rush. For us it manifested itself in laughs, mostly at ourselves and the palpable confirmation of our idiotness.

Readying our steeds

And so we took the first few unfamiliar strokes of our paddles in the direction of the unknown adventures that awaited us. 

More to come….

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link:  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10155860663881545&type=1&l=0e7a5ff190

Into The Wild, First Steps

You may remember my mention in my last blog post about Valentine, our “guru” who to our knowledge is the only other person to have done the route we planned to do.

If there is one thing that we learned from our attempt at this trip it is that Valentine is no guru.

In fact he is more like a superhero, endowed with powers far beyond the average intrepid adventure seeking idiot, of which demographic shoes we shamelessly filled.

Yet we tried our best to follow dutifully the sound of his pipe, one GPS coordinate at a time.

I guess its safe to say that we didnt, in the end, reach our goal. At least not in kilometers covered. But the goal of radical adventure and of finding that remoteness, that patch of untouched of land? That we accomplished.

The trip was essentially a massive test in problem solving, adaptability, and endurance, all administered with a healthy dose of inexperience and comedic relief.

The problem solving, which had begun long before any flights were purchased, continued the minute we all found ourselves in Irkutsk, a small Siberian city with an international airport. After sorting through all our gear, divvying it up and cramming it mercilessly into our backpacks, in a way we were quite impressed that we fit it all in, but there was still some math that wasn’t adding up. There were three of us, and four huge backpacks, which had a combined weight of about 93 kilos (205lbs). The fourth being the two person kayak.

Problem solving commenced and a throng of ideas poured forth, with contributions coming from as far as Germany and Nevada. Tyler was a big fan of tying the fourth pack to a long pole with each end resting on the respective shoulder of two intrepid idiots. This would have earned us style points no doubt, but it met resistance with Bartek and I. Valentine had used a little two wheel cart thing during his trip, although his blog dropped a few hints that it hadn’t worked out so great. Nonetheless we thought it worth consideration.

We spent the better part of a day wandering around Irkutsk looking for bear spray and firecrackers to ward off unwanted camp visitors, picking up other last minute supplies, and all the while keeping an eye out for two wheel carts with monster truck wheels, with none to be found.

Tyler, riding the Babr. The Babr is the symbol of Irkutsk, a mythical animal that showed up on the citie’s coat of arms in the 1600’s and somehow came to look like the lovechild of a beaver and liger.

The next morning the alarm went off at 6:45 so that we could hastily finish the last bit of packing that had to be done and get to the train station on time to catch our 8:30 AM train to Ulan-Ude. Miraculously we succeeded in this mission, arriving proudly at the train station with even a few minutes to spare to order an instant coffee from the babushka at the station cafe. We were puzzled to find that our train was not showing up on the board that announced which track each train would arrive and depart from. Inquiries were made and a local seemed to take some small pleasure in explaining to Bartek that ALL trains in Russia depart from “Moscow time”. Irkutsk being 5 hours ahead of Moscow, that meant that our train would not show up on that board, or any track, for quite a while.  I think this was the first time one of us referred to ourselves as “Team Idiot”. It wouldn’t be the last.

Tyler was not too keen on waiting this one out so the problem was solved by paying a private driver to leave then and there and get us to UIan-Ude.

After a night spent wandering the streets of Ulan-Ude, basking in the gaze of father Lenin and in the shadows cast by soviet era block housing, we were back on the road heading north east, this time our trajectory was completely away from any and all cities, in fact the highway we were taking literally leads to nowhere, it would eventually be swallowed up by the taiga somewhere not long after our next destination, Kurumkan.

The driver of our transport to Kurumkan was a friendly Buryat* who happened to be from Kurumkan, which was an amazing coincidence considering that it was over 400km away and had a total population of just a few thousand people. His name was Stas.

*Just a quick side note….The Buryat people make up the largest indigenous group in Russia. They inhabit the lands around the eastern side of lake Baikal, mostly in the Russian state of Buryatia (where we found ourselves bumping along in the van of Stas) and were traditionally a nomadic people who kept animals, hunted, and fished to survive. Closely related genetically to their Mongolian neighbors, their language (which is still widely spoken in Buryatia) is also similar to Mongolian. The religion they practice is a blend of shamanism and Tibetan buddhism, more on that later.

A photo from the 1800’s of Buryat people that is in the history museum in Irkutsk

Back on the road to Kurumkan, civilization slowly started to take a back seat to dusty roads and taiga. Traffic dwindled to the occasional beat up Lada (the old cars you probably associate with soviet times), and old work trucks and bulldozers who were doing their best to maintain the roads.

With hours yet to reach our destination we had plenty of time to drill Stas for information, help, resources….whatever we could squeeze from him. We were well aware of our need to connect with locals who would be

Bartek translates some grim news to us as Stas makes more phone calls on our behalf

sympathetic to our plan, and/or would be motivated by whatever we had in our wallets. We ran the whole plan by him.  It’s not possible, he said. The rains have been too heavy, the water levels of the Garga river are too high. No truck will be able to get you all the way to where you need to go. He did, however, know someone who had a big 6 wheel truck that would be willing to negotiate with us to take us as far as the road would permit, no promises on how far that might be. He would make some more inquiries when we arrived.

Team Idiot and Stas

Arriving in Kurumkan felt like frontierland. The quietness of the streets, the mountains looming in the backdrop, the people making trips to the nearest public water spicket (most of the town has no running water), and the cows and horses wandering down the main thoroughfare through town.  One had the feeling that not far beyond the town limits lie the wild west, or east as it were, where the eternal battle between nature and man was being fought out, but here the underdog was winning.

_DSC8928

Some weeks before we arrived my friend Dan from Moscow had made a bunch of phone calls to the one hotel in town on our behalf, asking for someone who had a truck that might be able to help us. While we waited for Stas’s call we dialed the number Dan had given us for a guy named Vlad.

When Vlad showed up at our hotel, one of my first comments I made to my brother was that I thought he had an honest face. It would be some time

Tyler, explaining the complex details of our plan to the drunk groundskeeper.

before that sentiment could be confirmed. He echoed what Stas, the women at our hotel, and the drunk groundskeeper had told us. Water levels high, roads washed out, slim chance of any truck making even the half of the trip. He had a new proposal…horses. Horses. This novel idea seemed worth considering. It would certainly add a new dynamic to the adventure. He said he would make some calls and do his best to get some costs and other information.

The next morning Vlad had an answer for us. He found a guy with horses who would take us, but the guy said the water level was still too high to cross the river on horseback, he would agree to take us if we left the following day. It would take somewhere between 2 to 7 days to reach our destination. Two to seven days? Yea.  At this point (having heard no news from Stas) this was literally our only option. We agreed.

The ministry of ministers.

Finding ourselves with an entire day to kill and nothing that we could do to further our personal agenda, we were happy to accept Vlad’s offer to show us around town. But first he wanted us to register with the local…. bureaucratic institution? A building we deemed the “Ministry of Ministers”, ubiquitous in every Russian town or city.  The local haven for pencil pushing bureaucrats and dodgy “fixers” – ready to help you get your divorce papers, acquire some property, register to vote.

Next we checked out the local Buddhist monastery and temple, where a lone monk sat conscientiously chanting while rocking back and forth surrounded by buddha icons and colorful buddhist art that oozed psychedelia. We made our rounds, spinning the  prayer wheels and hoping for the best that buddha could offer us on our journey.

Next we headed to the nearby Barguzin river, where high water levels were confirmed and mourned.

Yep…Water levels are high

Then we had the idea to go fishing. So Vlad picked up a friend who literally carried a tin can full of worms with him and we struck off into the Siberian wilderness in Vlad’s 4 door sedan until the “road” became a swamp. From here we would walk to another swamp, which is where we were expected to throw in our lines.

Gone fishing

This was our first taste of one of the greatest perils of wild Siberia. Tiny, relentless, sanity thieves. The mosquitos will cause your mind to rattle in frenetic abandon in search of some peace. It started to become clear why these people had converted to Buddhism. And when Vlad told us “this is nothing, they will be much worse where you are going” It was these little bastards, not the threat of bears, crushing rapids, or random wilderness related injuries, that made me think for the first time that maybe this idea of ours was a big mistake.

Our fishing mission was a failure, our only consolation was that it was a hasty failure. Within 20 minutes all involved agreed that the only thing that was biting were the mosquitos. So we waded back to the sedan and headed back to town.

Done fishing

The afternoon was whiled away with trips to the ATM (which gave very limited amounts of cash during each transaction) to pay for our horses and to amass a small fund to be used for the next time we had to buy our way out of trouble, and by sitting on the steps of our new abode. Vlad had insisted we move to a flop house on the other end of town that shared a wall with the local mechanic shop. The only other tenant was a politician from a nearby town who we called “The President”. He explained to us that in Russia being a politician is a very dangerous job. Hence he was laying low here in Kurumkan until whatever threat that loomed over his head blew over.

Bartek, Vlad, and The President

We sat on the steps and passed the time by watching a mangy troop of dogs diligently patrol the area, with occasional appearances made by cows. Periodically some local would cruise up in their jalopy eager to meet the three idiots who wanted to cross the Ikat pass so they could float down the Vitim river. News had spread quick in town. Invariably one of the first questions they would ask would be “How many guns are you bringing”. Our answer of “none” was always met with a laugh that seemed to serve only the purpose of reminding us that we knew nothing about their world.  I think they secretly applauded the effort that had gotten us thus far, but were overtly dubious about our abilities to pull this off. 

The next morning the real adventure would begin.

More soon.

If you want to see a few more photos from these first

few days just click on this link.

Into the Wild….Siberia

Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.

-Edward Abbey

I always had a fascination with places that are remote, untouched by man, or at least far away from man. I would hike off-trail in random pockets of wilderness and wonder if the ground below me had ever been trodden by feet before. I know humans have explored just about all the wilderness in the world, but perhaps…just maybe… that one square meter, that one patch of land I was standing on had eluded the touch of man.

In my younger days I would reach such places by foot. Filling a backpack with days worth of food and gear and hoisting it onto my back with youthful exuberance. Nowadays my knees give me problems and I’m limited to 2-3 days at a time with a full pack. So how to get to those ultra-remote places? Where are those ultra remote places?

Well, last year, before the ink had barely dried on the passport stamps which had served to get me from Indonesia all the way back to Barcelona, mostly by train…I had begun planning another adventure. My faithful travel companion Magdalena was back in Zurich and had just started a new job, it might be a while before I could tempt her to quit 😉

As luck would have it though I had befriended a clever and experienced Polish guy named Bartek here in Barcelona whose travel resume closely resembled my own. Long wilderness trips, alpine mountain climbing, extended overland adventures in cars and motorcycles, exploration of countries that make most governments’ State Departments’ lists of “Better to Avoid”. So we set to work hashing out a plan to buy some little local motorcycles in Uganda and to ride them to Zimbabwe. During the planning of this we had also begun to discuss the idea of a kayaking trip in Siberia as a “Plan B”.

And so it was that when the Africa trip fell through for reasons of timing and monsoons, that “Plan B” had become “Plan A”. The problem was that “Plan A” wasn’t really a plan at all, it was just an imaginative concept. We would have called on our collective experience in wilderness river rafting and kayaking to help this concept become a real plan, unfortunately this collective experience amounted to exactly zero. But, to borrow a literary line, “Ignorance had never stopped me from taking action before”. And so the research began.

We were not searching for thrills and class V rapids. Afterall we didn’t know anything about that. What we knew was wilderness, what we wanted was remoteness, to stand on that patch of earth that had never been stood upon. To share the open air with the bears, the wolves, and the elk, to share the water with the trout and taimen and pike, to go to sleep a hundred miles from the nearest human under a billion stars, to let memories of our modern world mingle with the ash of our riverside campfire.

We wanted a relatively non-technical river, one that wouldn’t kill us but also one that would not put us to sleep, one that was remote and not full of a bunch of other people who have the same idea as us that we would have to share the river with. You can stare at a map of Siberia all day long and identify tons of rivers, but how the hell do you know which fit this description? It’s not like you can drag the little google map guy onto the river to see the google street view and get an idea of what the nature looks like, of how dangerous the rapids are, of how many other kayakers we might cross paths with. In-depth searches on google was not turning up anything either, at least not in english.

We finally started to search in Russian using google translate and found what we were looking for in the form a a super detailed blog written by some Ukrainian guy named Valentine who’s amount of experience in long distance river kayaking placed him somewhere between a guru and a god. And the good news was that we could not find online evidence of a single person other that Valentine who had ever done this route. We decided to set off in his footsteps.

The Plan

We fly into a small Siberian city (Irkutsk). From there it is two days travel by train and bus to a small town where we will hire a 4×4 to take us as far as the the road will allow us to go into the Siberia taiga. Depending on how far the car makes it we then might face a 60km (38 miles) walk through the taiga carrying on our backs provisions for 6 days as well as our boat (about 28kg or 63lbs each) to reach the mouth of a small river. From there the plan is to travel 1000km (625 miles) of the river over three weeks to a tiny outpost with 150 inhabitants that is completely inaccessible to the outside world overland except by boat. This tiny outpost gets food and supplies delivered every 6 weeks by a little propeller powered plane when the weather permits. The idea was that we could catch a ride back to civilization on this plane….that is assuming that we remain on schedule to arrive there before the plane takes off 😬.

The river itself is exactly what we were looking for, plenty of easy stretches, but also plenty of small rapids. As for “remoteness”, well the necessity to walk three days to reach our start point sure gets us off to a good start. Then once on the river, in the 3 week time it takes to do the trip we will only pass through one town that is actually connected by road to the outside world and has mobile connection. Other than that we will pass through 2 small outposts each with about 100-150 inhabitants, both of which are only accessible by boat or air. Basically, anything that happens we are pretty much on our own. Remote? Check.

For food we would rely on whatever basic supplies could be bought from the locals along the way, and we hoped to be pulling a lot of fish out of the river. The bigger problem than obtaining food would probably be to keep it out of the mouths of the hungry bears that inhabit the region.

The Planning

If I decided today to begin packing for a motorcycle trip that would take me through 30 countries over the course of a year, I could probably be ready to go in a couple hours. But being completely new to long-distance river kayaking the process of planning and packing became a full time job. Priority number one was choosing our craft. We were able to connect with Valentine, the Ukranian river guru who was gracious enough to answer a bunch of our stupid questions. On the subject of boats he recommended a Russian made inflatable two person kayak weighing about 16.5 kilos (36lbs). The price was great, and it had his stamp of approval.  We were about to buy it when we thought “Let’s post some questions on some US kayaking enthusiasts forums and see what they think about this choice”.

So I started a thread on two different websites frequented by river fanatics and explained a bit about our trip, ie no experience, 3 weeks on a Siberian river with class II and III rapids, super remote location. I linked to the boat Valentine recommended and aside from their thoughts on that choice, I asked for any other general tips or ideas to help us in our planning. The replies began to come in…

I think my favorite line was from a guy who when referring to our choice of boat said,

“This is not a trip to do in glorified pool toys.”

Here are a few other selected quotes from the responses we got:

“I have to admit, this sounds like a terrible idea…”

“I am not saying don’t do this trip, I am just saying take it seriously. If a few crazy Russians did it on inner tubes 12 years ago that doesn’t mean you should as well…”

“Don’t be dumb!”

Ok, neither our plan nor our boat were being very well received in the American river enthusiast forums. So we sought validation elsewhere. The Russian wilderness rambler and pioneer is a particular sort. I had encountered some of them in my last trip to Siberia. They are well prepared, confident, and probably got married wearing full camouflage fatigues. They would be quick to tell us we were silly little boys for attempting this is if that’s what they truly thought.

And so with the help of Google translate we posted the same message in Russian forums and got very different responses than those from the US forums. The Russians, many of whom had rafted the same river (further downstream) all seemed to think we would be just fine with a precursory warning to be careful and take it easy. They also applauded our choice of boat. Validation…check.

So with confidence slightly bolstered, and after weeks of researching other options and getting all sorts of feedback we decided to trust in our guru and stick with the original plan. Here is a photo of Valentine on the same river we would do and in the same boat he recommended to us:

It was around this time that I got word from my brother that he was interested in joining the trip for the first half (which is the half that no-one does). The addition of a third person to the expedition was a welcome one and so it was we had to find another boat. After tons of research and guidance from forums in several languages we settled on a single person packraft. Which is a very different animal from our 2 person kayak but would help us reduce weight and add some diversity to our fleet.

Countless more hours were spent researching other topics – fishing gear, safety equipment, mosquito (and bear) repellant, paddles, weather averages, emergency evacuation insurance, visas, etc. Some decisions were easy, others involved lots of discussion and research.

In the meantime, our russian boat got held up in Spanish customs, which was a whole drama in and of itself. It was also around this time (2 weeks to departure) that we got an email from a Russian friend of mine (Thanks Dan!) who was helping with some of our planning. The subject line was “Massive Flooding” and the message included a link to a Russian news article. Apparently the exact region where we would be going was under a state of emergency. Heavy rains had washed out roads and bridges and flooded entire towns. The river we would be rafting, which normally has a water level of about 2 meters, was at 5.3 meters. Super.

Just as the flooding story was dominating our thoughts the customs fiasco was finally resolved and the boat was delivered to my house. We ripped into it and inflated it on my terrace. Our reaction…Holy shit! It’s huge!

With our new ship in hand we turned our focus to getting a bit of experience. We drove 3.5 hours from Barcelona to do a 2 day white water crash course with an instructor. We learned some basic rules of the river for navigating rapids and received a lot of attention from the local rafting guides who wanted to meet the two guys who were going through with such a plan. They all assured us that we would be just fine, that our plans did not include anything that we couldn’t handle and that the the boat was in fact an excellent choice.

Test run of our kayak during our white water crash course

This blog post does zero justice to explain just how much preparation has gone into this trip, but suffice it to say it was a lot. As usual my parents played an integral role of “command center”, assisting in organizing gear that I had ordered to their house in The States and in making sure we had enough beef jerky to survive a Siberian winter. The last days we watched the weather closely and were happy to see less rain on the forecast and water levels dropping.

This morning I landed in Siberia, Irkutsk to be exact. It was strange to be returning to this place I was in just last year with Magdalena when we were taking the Trans-Siberian back to Europe from Asia. I never imagined I would be back again so soon and under such pretenses. The immigration officer checked my visa, stamped my passport, and as she handed it back she said “Good luck”.

Not “Welcome”, or “Goodbye”, but “Good luck”.

I’m OK with that.

If all goes well I will be back in civilization on the 18th of August. 

We are carrying a satellite tracking device, you can use this link to follow our progress in real time: https://share.delorme.com/JordanJones

Hasta luego 🙂

 

Mongolia on Two Wheels Video

I had a low-quality little fake GoPro camera with us on this trip and from time to time I mounted it on my helmet to grab some impressions of the scenery that we took in each day.

I put together a little video of some of the scenes. Please excuse the terrible production quality!

Click to view

Also, if you haven’t already, you can scroll down to read the blog post that preceded this video. There you will find a few descriptions from this trip and lots of photos 🙂

 

Indonesia, China, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian

I’ve got a new adventure on the horizon, but before I introduce that I suppose I should try and sum up my last one. I would normally have done this while I was traveling and would have broken it up into 2 or 3 blog posts, but as almost a year has passed I am going to condense it into one post. Which means many details and observations will have to be left out, but suffice it to say, those details made their mark on my mind and soul and as always worked to shape my understanding of our world and my identity as it relates to it

Last year there was the Philippines on Two Wheels (I actually managed to get a post out on that that you can read here), from there I flew to Indonesia, where of course I bought another little motorcycle named Indie that I would use for the next 2.5 months to explore the country. I flew solo for a while but after one month was craving some company. There are not many people I know at my age that I could call on to quit their job and fly halfway around the world to jump on the back of a motorcycle and head off into the unknown. Well, by “not many” I really mean there is ONE person…and so it was that “Team Bala” was reunited

A throwback to old times…Bala, Magdalena, and me in the Pamir Mountains near the Afghan border, 2014

We hitched rides on fishing boats to uninhabited islands where we camped on beaches, exploring coral reefs, searching for sea stars by day and shooting stars by night.

One of several tiny uninhabited islands we briefly called home

We spent several days diving around the Komodo Islands…then from 40 meters below sea level one week to 3725m (12,225ft) above on the summit of Mt. Rinjani the next week.  

Sunrise summit of Mt. Rinjani

New Friends…..some great guys who opened their homes to me and helped me to buy Indie

We reunited with old friends and

made new ones.

We absorbed Indonesian culture and hospitality.

 

Then there was a “visa hunting” mission that landed us in Hong Kong. The Great Wall of China has many faces, and the one that is known as the Chinese Immigration Department turned out out to be a tough one to scale.

But after one rejected application (based on the fact that our passports showed that we had visited Tajikistan), and after 10 days of zub-zero air conditioning and forced entry into shopping malls, with visas in hand we crossed into China, the country where our paths first crossed 4 years before. But this time we headed to Xinjiang province, also known as East Turkestan, where the muslim Uighur people live. 

Tien-Shen Mountains, Xinjiang

Imagine a country (it was a country, East Turkestan, before China annexed it in 1949) that borders….get ready for it….Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India, Tibet, and China….imagine the cultural overspill and mix of history, AND…that there is almost zero tourism. A forgotten corner of the world that no-one seems to talk about or know that it exists. We wanted to find out what’s going on there, and to reconnected with our Silk Road roots that had been planted years before when we began our journey through central Asia on our Royal Enfield motorcycle. 

Thanks to an amazing couchsurfing host (thanks Steve!) we got our hands on a motorcycle for 5 days to explore the Tien-Shen Mountains

No Idea what that says, but it looks cool 🙂

We were pleasantly surprised to see many of the same foods in xinjiang as

Lagman with hand pulled noodles

we saw years before in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan…we ate handmade pulled noodles (Lagman), fresh nan flatbread, samsas, dumplings, “Big Plate Chicken”, and lamb kebab.

We were shocked and appalled at the oppression and stifling security presence in the region, which makes Tibet look like a playground. It’s shameful how the Chinese government is treating the Uighurs.

 

We visited dozens of amazing ruins still standing 1000 years after the glory days of trade along this route

We suffered through oppressive desert temperatures and bundled up in the warmest clothes we had to cross snow covered mountain passes. We rode across massive grassy plains, through lush mountain terrain and climbed up huge sand dunes  – taking in an extremely diverse landscape

One of our campsites in the Tien-Shen mountains

Much of Xinjiang is covered in desert landscape

We probably went through an average of 6-10 security checks each day. Want to visit a market? Metal detector and passport. Want to get gas? Facial recognition scan and car search. Want to board a train? Four security checks

Kashgar animal market

each with Xray and a retina scan.

We visited an animal market outside of Kashgar, where animals are bought and traded in the same way they have been doing for centuries

We were whisked around town (Korla) by a father and son who were also part of the team that helped organize a motorcycle for us. Despite not being able to communicate with each other, we were treated to dinner (there was no way they would allow us to pay), shown all the sites of the city, had drinks at a bar, and were dropped back at our hotel (after they helped us arrange our train for the next day). Hospitality 🙂

We visited lively markets where you can buy anything from old shoes to live scorpions or dried frogs by the kilo.

We watched as Uighur master artisans made beautiful copper cookware and teapots or hand carved bowls.

We shared the shade of mulberry trees with old bearded Uighur men – men under the age of 60 are forbidden to grow facial hair.

From town to town we either arrived just in time to see the an amazing Uighur old town before it was destroyed by the Government, or we arrived too late and the deed had already been done – a systematic ploy to erase Uighur culture and replace it with Han Chinese.

The beautiful Uighur old town building in the town of Korla has most likely already been demolished since we were there

I was surrounded by 8 armed police officers, questioned, and had my camera searched after one of them thought I was taking a picture of them (I wasn’t).

We entered centuries old mosques, considered holy and important to the local Uighurs but that young Uighurs are forbidden to enter by the Chinese government.

We ate dinner at 11pm. There is only one time zone in China, so Kashgar, despite being 5,500km (3,400 miles) from the other side of the country, is on the same time zone.

Noodle maker, East Turkestan (Xinjiang) China

From Xinjiang we made our way to Beijing where we began the journey home. True to our favorite style of travel we decided that flying would be too easy, the best way to arrive is overland, to see that borders mean nothing, that cultures, tradition and history shape who we are, not the passport we hold. So after about 4 weeks in China, we got on a train and headed to the nearest border.

We would travel the entire length of the Trans-Siberian railway and beyond…all the way to Barcelona by train from Beijing. Roughly 250 hours gliding along tracks crossing deserts, steppes, mountains, taiga and border after border. But there were stops along the way.

The most memorable was a one month stopover in Mongolia, where of course we bought a motorcycle. Most overland travelers arrive in Mongolia from Europe riding one-up (no passenger) on their 1200cc state of the art BMW adventure series motorcycles, or their 1300cc badass KTMs to explore the dirt tracks that crisscross the steppe. We on the other hand threw down 450€ for a used 150cc Chinese made bike. His name was Khan and together we conquered the Mongolian steppe….our way.

We covered 5,000 kilometers together, much of it offroad, riding two-up loaded with camping gear on our little machine. The most sparsely populated country in the world, it is easy to feel like a speck of dust blowing across an endless grassland with a sky above that looms so expansive it seems like it could swallow you up.

In our previous travels, a big part of the challenge was always to find a safe and comfortable place to camp. In Mongolia that means stopping wherever you are whenever you feel like it and putting up your tent. 95% of the time that means you would be kilometers away from another living soul, aside from perhaps some curious goats or yaks.

We also got a glimpse at Mongolian culture through the fortuitous and coincidental fact that we were there during the most exciting time of year in Mongolia, the Nadan Festival, where nomads from every corner of the steppe flock to the nearest town or outpost to show their skills in archery, horse riding, wrestling, and knuckle-bone throwing. Yes, knuckle bone throwing, but it’s really more of a flick than a throw 😉

We sold Khan, boarded the train again and headed to Siberia. Some days spent walking the shores of the great Baikal lake (which holds ⅕ of all the world’s fresh water…yes it’s true), camping along the way and keeping our eyes out for fresh water seals.

Train passing by our campsite as the sun sets over Lake Baikal

From there we made several stops, a day here a couple days there, in places like Tomsk, and Kazan where we noticed hints of culture and traditions that we had observed years ago while riding across “The Stans” which had obviously spilled across borders, or rather borders had been draw around them.  And of course there were trains trains trains. We did several jaunts that took us 30 or even 35 hours consistently on one train before our next destination.

We finally arrived in Moscow, the end of the Trans-Siberian route, but not for us. As we had decided that it would be too strange to board a plane or a bus after traveling so far by train, we continued on clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack….one station after another, with stops in Warsaw, and Zurich before reaching Barcelona in the middle of August, flooded with tourists and sunshine.

Costa Brava, just North of Barcelona

And that was that. I had departed on that journey in January, expecting to be home in 4 months. Seven months later and a few more stamps in my passport I was back home.

The trip looked something like this:

The blue part was all done by train

Soon the planning would begin for the next adventure. Which has now arrived at my doorstep.

More to come.

Want to see more photos?

Here are links to some albums with lots more photos from the trip (some with commentary)

Indonesia

Hong Kong

China / East Turkestan

Mongolia

Siberia and the home-stretch