Tag Archives: siberia

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.

You can CLICK HERE to be brought to the next blog post

Hasta luego 🙂

 

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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