With only Russian at his command, Anatoly Shmakov, amateur cyclist and self-styled “professional traveller”, tries to describe crossing the river Mekong in northern Vietnam with his comrade Vladimir Gryshuk: His hands mime a river, then he indicates waist-high water and carrying his bicycle and 25kg of gear on top of his head.
No sweat, answers Shmakov.
Pedal Pushers: At the end of 12,000km and six countries, Vladimir Gryshuk (left) and Anatoly Shmakov. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Through a translator, Gryshuk describes the perpetual traffic jams in parts of China, the alien food and heavy security, and the dangerous journey through the desolate landscape of Mongolia into northern China, where an accident in a mountain pass 80km from Ulan Bator nearly halted their planned 12,000km journey from the far-eastern Russian island of Sakhalin to Delhi.
Not really, they say.
So, what was the most difficult part of their five-month epic journey?
Gryshuk and Shmakov shrug. “Filling up air in all those punctured tyres,” they say. “Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times over 3,000km.”
Shmakov, 57, and Gryshuk, 54, have just completed a marathon trip to mark the “Year of Russia in India”, a series of cultural events and exhibitions to cement Indo-Russian ties. They left the town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in Sakhalin (just north of Hokkaido, Japan) on 1 July, armed with their Czech-made hybrid bicycles, basic supplies and a sense of adventure. After a train journey to Lake Baikal in Siberia, the two switched over to bicycles, cycling through Mongolia to Beijing, hoping to make it to India through Tibet and Nepal.
As veterans of long-distance travel—Gryshuk hitchhiked 8,000km from Moscow to Sakhalin?in?2004?and then did western Europe the following year—and firm believers in fitness, neither traveller felt the need for extensive preparation ahead of this trip. “It’s easy,” smiles the bearded Gryshuk, who works as a security guard. “Just don’t be in a hurry. We cycled no more than 60km a day.”
Proving his minimalist point is his grey half-jacket, the Swiss army knife of bicycle travel. It yields a GPS device, cellphone, compass, digital camera (connected by a cord so it never strays) and a polythene-wrapped map of Asia. The compass and the map proved indispensable on the second leg of their journey, as they crossed Mongolia into northern China. The rocky, bumpy terrain took a toll on their bicycles and drinking water was hard to come by. “It’s a beautiful country,” says Shmakov, “though very bleak. There are very few roads and the small villages are far apart. We passed through deserts and storms and bridges over dry riverbeds.”
Arriving in Beijing in the middle of the Olympic Games in August, they were distraught to find their request for travel through Tibet rejected. “We spent two weeks, talking to at least a dozen different authorities, but they all said no,” says Gryshuk.
So they had to change route, passing through the hills of southern China into Vietnam (“beautiful country, but terrible roads”), Cambodia (“scooters everywhere!”) and then Thailand (“we want to go back there and visit all the places we missed”). Another roadblock waited here: The authorities would not allow them to cross into Myanmar so the land route to India was ruled out.
“By this point, our cycles also needed extensive repair and were effectively out of order,” says Shmakov, a retired municipal worker. The solution: a flight to Kolkata, and then a train to Delhi. They reached on 10 November, capping a 133-day journey.
The two plan some downtime in India. “We’re tired. We’re old men, after all!” says Shmakov. But that won’t stop them from looking out for some Indian cycling enthusiasts who would be willing to travel the same route to Russia—2009, after all, is the “Year of India in Russia”.