#Trans-Siberia 2015

#The Gear

Due to the cold climate and the fact that I'm making videos, the gear list is a lot longer than usual. A sleeping bag that fills an entire 25L bag, thermos bottles that add 1kg weight, gloves/hats/socks that fill more space than all the clothing combined that I'd usually take... Two GoPro cameras with different attachement options, accessories and a netbook to edit videos... all that adds bulk.

I ride a Carver Transalpin 03 Full Suspension Bike, carrying the luggage in Apidura framebags and two Ortlieb pannier bags. The panniers will be send home from Japan, since they mostly carry the heavy winter clothing. The silkroad I will do only with framebags. I still carry a very light backpack, mostly to carry valuables, documents and the netbook close. That way I could continue as a backpacker, even if the bike with all the gear goes missing.

Have a look at the gear, I sorted it all and made pictures.

If you're more interested in the weight click here for a complete list.

#The Countries

Planned: Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Mongolia, China, South-Korea (+ North-Korea day-trip), Japan, Taiwan, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgizystan, Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaidjan, Georgia, Armenia.

#The Story

Another year, another challenge. This tour had several "firsts" for me, it was the first time using spiked tires, pogies, a full-suspension MTB, it was the coldest trip with -45°, the longest train ride with 90h nonstop in the Trans-Sib railroad... overall very interesting because it was difficult and forced me to learn new skills and adapt, regardless of the many years of experience I have by now.

I started cycling on the first January in Germany, heading to Berlin and later on Warsaw in Poland to pick up several visas. This first stretch was a good test-ride for the bike and gear, even with a rather mild winter. Unfortunately I encountered the first hurdle with the Belarussian visa, the embassy handed me a 48h transit visa instead of the requested tourist visa. Trying to make the best of it, I took a bus into Minsk, walked around for a day, and left the next day towards St.Petersburg. This is a city I've wanted to see since many years, now I would finally see it. The most European of Russian cities with lots of museums and history to see. These days were also the first real winter days I had, the bay was frozen over, heavy snowfall, freezing temperatures at day... I promptly put on my spiked tires and took them for a test ride.

After St.Petersburg I visited Moscow and started the long awaited Trans-Siberian railway from there. Four days in the train in the so-called Platzkart-class, together with hundreds of Russians that don't speak a word of English, I was riding towards Irkutsk, the city near lake Baikal. I was honestly surprised at how little English was spoken, I expected it in China, but not Russia. Even the international ticket counter and information desk in Moscow, the capital, had not a single English-speaking person working there. The couchsurfers I met did, but apart from those it was rare to find someone to talk to.

The time in Siberia was one of the best parts of the tour. I stayed a night in Irkutsk before heading to the frozen lake, due to the company I made by then I was invited to a 2-day hike into the nearby hills; overnighting in a meteorological station. It was -25°c the next day when we hiked back, ice forming inside my beard. It was all I had hoped for and more. I cycled across Baikal for 2 additional days, hugging the coastline, before heading by train to Ulan-Bataar, Mongolia, the last stop before the end of the Trans-Sib railway in Beijing. I did end up taking the train till the Chinese border, when I decided that it was enough sitting around: I wanted to ride!

With temperatures climbing almost to 0°c, I headed through the last bit of the Gobi desert into the Chinese capital, Beijing. Almost three weeks I explored the place, I was glad to meet other foreigners, eat the good food and await spring time. The many parks and alleys, the Olympic gardens, Forbidden city, museums and art galleries filled my days, before my departure towards Tianjin on the coast. Roads in China are amazingly good, very wide with a lane for cyclists and electric bikes. Covering the distance to the ocean was easy, finding a boat to Korea was not. It took 3 days to finally arrange passage and I was happy when I left, because my visa was about to run out soon after.

With spring weather, blooming cherry blossoms and the very well maintained Korean cycling infrastructure ahead of me, the tour turned easy. More English spoken, more bike paths, more tourists and tourist infrastructure. It was like riding around in Europe, no challenge, pure fun. I took a tour to the North-Korean border zone, visited the palace of the old emperors, Suwon fortress, cycled the 4-river bike-trail, a 600km route to Busan and took the ferry to Jeju island, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. (the list is total BS btw, it was voted for online, obviously places in countries with more internet users would get more votes. That's why a river in the Philippines is also on that list)

Japan was my mid-way point, I arrived with my last big ferry ride in the town of Fukuoka in the very west of the country. 1500km between there and Tokyo, one month to head to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka and climb Mt. Fuji. The weather was alternating between thunderstorms and sunshine, the people were the most polite and enjoyable I've ever met and the food was the absolute highlight of the tour. Even Sushi from the supermarket was higher quality than that in most Sushi restaurants where I'm from.

The next big step was getting another Chinese visa. After a detour through Taiwan, which had no Chinese embassies what-so-ever, I got one in Hong Kong. At that point I was not looking forward to China, since the extreme language and culture barrier makes travelling a lot harder than it should be. I planned to skip half of the distance and take another train ride, to Xi'An to see the Terracotta army, but fell sick and spend a lot of time lying around the hostel with a fewer. That cut down the remaining time on my visa so much, that I took a second train to Urumqi, cutting my time in China truly short. Hopefully I can return one day, best case with a translator on my side.

After Urumqi, the proper silkroad began. The Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were ahead of me. To sum them up in one word each: Steppe, Mountains, Mountains, Desert, Desert. Or, to be a bit more detailed, surprisingly developed Almaty with German cars, high-tech and imported supermarket goods everywhere, cheap and beautiful Tajik and Kyrgyzik areas, Uzbekistan full of historic artefacts of the Timurese empire and Turkmenistan with... well, a pretty crazy government similar to North Korea.

Wouldnt get much better in Iran, either. While the country is absolutely stunning and has everything from the most beautiful mosques, Zoroastrian temples, medieval caravanserais, the seat of power of the Persian empire, giant rock tombs carved into canyon walls and more, at the same time the extreme language barrier and weird government made the stay difficult to enjoy. I only saw one other bicycle tourer here, and he had some of his belongings stolen the night before I met him. O.o

I made a compromise and cycled half of the distance but added two busses to make detours to Yazd and Shiraz to catch a few more sights, then headed towards the chaos in Theran, across the hills to the black sea, with it's almost tropical humidity. A short ride north Azerbaijan awaited me, another country in which I met exaclty zero English-speaking people. The tour was almost over by that part and for the better part of the year, I've thouroughly been bothered by the fact that I can barely communicate with anyone. Before my next trip, I promised myself, I will learn the local language first.

The very end of the tour was the Caucasus region, Georgia and Armenia. Lots of churches and mountains, wine and meat. So much wine in fact, that every overseas-visitor gets a free bottle upon entry to the country. A stark contrast to Iran, where alcohol is completely illegal of course. I enjoyed the last week taking a break in a hostel (the family that ran it did, of course, not speak English), before doing a quick loop through Armenia, and flew back home... To plan my next tour. :)

Overall it took me 9 months to traverse these 17 countries, I cycled around 12.000km, the rest was trains, boats and three flights.