Greetings from Finland!
I have lots to blog about—8,000 km worth—and it’s going to take some time to catch up. But since I can’t take time out for now I’ll just avoid it with this brief digression.
In a nutshell, my movements from the point of my last blog, Mongolia Part 1: The Gobi Desert to Ulaanbaatar, I cycled west from Ulaanbaatar to the Altai mountains, entered Russia for the second time, and reached the city of Perm (2,300 km east of Finland), where my visa expired. I left my bike in Perm, caught a train to Moscow, and flew to Stockholm to replace my used passport and apply for a new Russian visa. Then I returned to Perm, to the exact spot on the pavement where I first encountered Julia—the wonderful woman who agreed to store my bike—and completed the journey through Russia to Western Europe.
I crossed the border into Finland at 23:50, April 15, the last day of my visa, after 15 1/2 months (including the unavoidable 3-month visa hiatus in Sweden), and 13,000 kilometres from the coast of the Russian Far East. This distance fails to illustrate the demoralising effort of cycling into prevailing, westerly headwinds for a year. I began this stage at the beginning of winter 2012 and eventually ended it at the end of winter 2013. If another bicycle journey has endured back-to-back Russian winters, I’m unaware of it.
The most difficult section of the route, across the Sakhalin backcountry to the west coast and northward over 20 km of sea ice to the points of the Tatar strait—from where I could cross to mainland Russia—was untravelled and widely considered impossible by Sakhalin locals. I know this because everybody said so and because the service track I took to the west coast, guarded by a security check point, had only been used in winter for a few years due to the construction of the gas pipeline, and, of course, I was the only idiot on a bike that had ever been seen or allowed through. See: Bound for Mainland Russia
In 2005, Japanese adventurer, Hiromasa Andow, completed an epic, winter bicycle journey from Sakhalin to the Chukot Peninsula, on the Bering Sea. Together with a friend, who soon after quit the expedition, he cycled up Sakhalin aiming for the points but was blocked by snow and forced to arranged a snowmobile to cut a track west over the island to the coast. Out on the strait the ice was weak and Hiromasa crashed through into the frigid sea as they began the crossing. ‘We had to arc around to the north onto more stable ice,’ Hero explained, when we met up in Yokohama. If that doesn’t seem bad enough, ‘One time’, he smiled, ‘I spilt my pee bottle in my sleeping bag’.
So the truth is the people were right. Normally you wouldn’t make it over the section of ice that I had trekked to get to the points, but as I’ve previously mentioned, I won the lottery; in a region notorious for blizzards and generally miserable conditions, I scored the coldest winter, indeed the coldest month, in 65 years, and consequently a three-week patch of spotless weather with ice just thick enough to walk across. In other words, if I had’ve attempted that route in any other winter in my lifetime, well, let’s not think about it.
I’m a lucky person, it’s in my blood, and the way this journey has played out it would be impossible for me not to believe it. I’m not superstitious though. I see luck as more a philosophical idea, something we have an amount of control over. You have to be proactive with it because on an expedition, when you push yourself in extreme environments, success really has nothing to do with winning the lottery. It’s about willingness to take risks, following directions that have uncertain, hopefully rewarding, outcomes, sacrificing comfort for growth, making the best of the circumstances, being open to everything, and keeping a sense of humour, dammit! And, you know, when shit happens it often has a positive outcome—at the very least, it gives you something to write about. Australian mountaineer, Michael Groom, talks about the necessity to ‘make your own luck’ in the context of summiting and surviving high-altitude peaks. And a mountaineering expedition, like any worthy quest, is simply human experience distilled; it’s a metaphor for life.
On a solo world journey you get thinking time to work on this stuff, too much time perhaps, but that’s another blog. I’m thinking about it now because this section of the journey is over and soon I will begin planning for the 3rd stage of the expedition. With large projects it’s useful to redefine one’s objectives from time to time, to keep the game fresh. I realise, it’s not enough to simply say, ‘I’m out to challenge myself’, but perhaps I could say, ‘I’m out for a challenge in which I need to figure out the solutions for my self’. In other words, it’s not Google searchable. In the age of having the world in our pockets, that’s a greater challenge, a more powerful learning experience.
I am writing this from a roadside cafe. I’m the sole customer and on my table is one cup of percolator coffee with cream but no sugar, for which I paid €1.80 so I had a place to charge my electronics and type this update. Although I’m hungry I didn’t order food because I can’t afford to eat anything I haven’t cooked myself. It’s a sacrifice one makes in giving up paid work in the pursuit of something else. The waitress did say, however, I could get a refill, which I will do in an hour or so.
It’s a dull day. Through the window I watch wet snowflakes drifting downward, whitening the earth, despite it being May 2nd. Further out is an iced lake surrounded by birch and pine growing among fields of granite boulders carpeted in moss. I’m heading to Nordkapp, Norway, the most northerly point of Europe. Why? Because it’s the most northerly point, of course–the same purposeless motivation needed to cycle around the world. But I don’t need a reason. I’m happy, I’m in Scandinavia, and it feels positively like a holiday since Russia. No more go, go, go. No more breaking camp by the clock with fingers that feel as though the nails have been wrenched out. No more compulsory night riding in the fierce cold to make the distance over thousands of kilometres of roads unwittingly designed to kill. I made it, I’m conscious, and I’m a free man. Soon lakes will thaw, flowers will blossom, and I’ll be camping under the midnight sun.
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