I was staying at the Dobri Kot hotel in Irkutsk, Siberia. Translated into English, Dobri Kot means Good Cat. I was thinking hard, trying to find some hidden meaning in this name, something to bestow auspicious omens for the journey I was about to embark on. It was the morning of June 27, 2013 and although it was cold, windy and raining, I was on a euphoric high as I stood outside of the hotel ready for my first day of riding.
Although I am an experienced cycle tourer, what lie ahead was even hard for me to predict. My ultimate destination was Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar is a land that has been clouded in mystery for a long time; a hidden realm cut off from the rest of the world for decades and governed by a brutal military dictatorship. A land of azure skies and golden pagodas towering through verdant jungle foliage. A cornucopia of ethnic groups and a land of smiling faces concealing bitter hardships. Myanmar was just opening up and although cross border travel was still not permitted when I began my journey I heard that within a few months borders would slowly start to open. It was a viable destination and Yangon would be my goal. What lay between Irkutsk and Yangon was 11,000 kilometers and the route I chose would take me through six countries and several thousand kilometers of desolate, barren and rugged landscape. Cycling for me is as much an adventure as it is sport and I was looking forward to those idyllic 200 kilometer days of fast paced riding on asphalt roads, enjoying the clear sunny days, your heart working hard pumping blood through your body as your legs in a rhythmic dance propel you tirelessly mile after mile. It’s a deep sense of being at the peak of fitness, muscles and endurance working in harmony. Unfortunately those blissful days of fast paced riding, sunny skies and flawless roads would be few and far between.
Aside from only one five-minute boat ride across the Mekong river connecting the border towns of Huay Xai, Laos with Chiang Kong, Thailand the whole trip was by bicycle. During the trip, I encountered snow, sleet, hail, monsoon rains, sandstorms, typhoons, punishing winds, steep climbs and endless mountains with numerous off road passes between 4500 and 5000 meters. The trip included nearly 4000 kilometers of extreme off road conditions, including stones the size of melons, rocks, slate, gravel, sand, dirt and mud. I tested the limits of my physical body and put some of the best cycling gear through some of the harshest conditions. I experienced the kindness of strangers as well as the indecency of others.
During this journey I found myself sleeping alone in the wilderness, in abandoned buildings, in kind strangers’ homes and often just on the side of the road exposed to the elements. There were moments of sheer gladness and times of desperate madness, of great pleasure and chilling pain, of serene solitude and empty loneliness, of heart warming companionship and fleeting friendship, times where I experienced the rapture of heaven and the inferno of hell.
There were moments when everything seemed wrong, where I felt my luck expired and the gods above were playing jokes at my expense pelting me with hail, flipping my tent 180 degrees in typhoon winds as I was sleeping, shelling me with daily rain storms in mountainous off road tracks making the roads barely rideable and for a period of time setting angry Tibetan Mastiffs on me with near daily vicious chase downs.
But there were also days of pure bliss when the when the world and its surroundings seemed to make sense to me, if just for a short moment. Astounding mountain monasteries in Qinghai, golden pagodas smiling through thick foliage in Myanmar and the sheer kindness of Kazakh nomads giving me shelter for the night when there was nowhere to sleep. These Kazakh nomads showed me the true meaning of kindness, offering me a double portion of stew when they only had one portion each and not even asking for one Tugrik payment for their hospitality. It makes me wonder why is it that often the poorest people are the most generous? It also makes me question, if I was them would I have done the same?
It is difficult for the pictures I shot with my iPhone to capture the true essence of this journey. They can’t capture the nearly 2000 kilometers of rugged off road riding in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the fierce winds, sub-zero nightly temperatures, snow and heavy rains encountered there and having to beg local Tibetans for a place to sleep at night. They can’t capture the weeks of mud and freezing rain I experienced in the back roads of Sichuan then having to sleep hungry, cold and dirty on the side of the road as I prayed for clear skies and paved roads. Pictures can’t capture the restless nights sleeping alone in the wilderness, the night creatures wailing out loud as if in mocking and the loud claps of thunder that drowned out the sound of the nocturnal creatures. Pictures can’t capture the struggle of lifting a fully loaded touring bike and hand carrying it over rock slides, through knee deep mud or across fast moving angry rivers in waist deep water. Pictures can’t capture the maddening and often dangerous traffic in sections of the Trans-Siberia highway and the disregard of truck drivers and other motor vehicles for the lonely cyclist sharing the highway with them. Pictures can’t capture the feeling of utter desperation of being lost in a hail storm nearing sunset in the rugged Mongolian Altai with a broken tent pole and no where to sleep nor the exhaustion of pushing my bicycle through nearly 40 kilometers of dense malaria ridden jungle in Northern Laos with mud and water up to my knees.
Pictures can’t capture the exhaustion, pain, torment yet euphoric grins that crept up on my face as I came to peace with and found pleasure in the torture of the ride. Maybe it is the sense of freedom? Maybe it is the pleasure of leaving behind the doldrums of life in New York, the daily commute in a packed and stinky subway, maybe it is rush of adventure and the sense that yes, we can all be in control of our destiny. My destiny if just only for these five months was to cycle to Yangon from Siberia and it was my destiny that I achieved.
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