Outdoors

Steppe provides tough challenge for two cyclists

Old Russian Babushka yelling at a stubborn calf, Eastern Siberia, Russia. (Photo courtesy of Levi Bridges)
Photo courtesy of Levi Bridges
Old Russian Babushka yelling at a stubborn calf, Eastern Siberia, Russia. (Photo courtesy of Levi Bridges)
Posted Aug. 22, 2009, at 2:51 a.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

Heading west from Novosibirsk, a giant industrial city located in central Siberia, the earth becomes flat as the spine of a drunkard asleep upon the floor. One can turn in any direction and see the same thing: a seemingly never-ending expanse of prairie land without the slightest dip, hill, or rise in the terrain.

We have cycled 3,800 miles here from the Pacific Ocean. This is the beginning of the steppe, a vast expanse of grassland and swamp that consumes much of the Central Asian part of Russia.

Twenty years ago, an American named Mark Jenkins arrived here with a group of cyclists crossing the former Soviet Union. Before embarking on our trip last winter, we contacted Jenkins and asked him what problems we might confront. Jenkins replied with an informative e-mail, but ended his electronic epistle with a cautionary tone. “One more thing boys,” he wrote, “riding from Asia to Europe, the westerlies, prevailing winds in the northern latitudes, will blow against you on the steppe. We battled strong headwinds that significantly slowed us down. I would seriously consider going the other way.”

Ignoring advice given by one more experienced than yourself seems foolhardy. But in order to follow Jenkins advice, we would have had to start our trip one year later in order to slowly ride across Europe in the middle of winter and arrive in Russia during spring. Neither Ellery or myself were willing to put off our trip. We decided to ride against the wind.

Decisions are easily made when you are thousands of miles away from real life situations. Riding out of Novosibirsk, we cross a bridge above the Ob River, one of the largest waterway’s in Asia, which flows thousands of miles northward into the Arctic Ocean. As the buildings of Novosibirsk and the Ob disappear behind us, the Russian Federal Highway trails away into flat steppe. The sound of whipping wind soon replaces the city clamor. It seems to blow against me harder with each passing mile. Most days, I can keep my bicycle moving around 16 mph. Today, I struggle to do 12 mph, and soon find myself breathless.

Cycling along the steppe presents some of the hardest challenges we have faced yet. The first months of this trip were spent riding rough dirt roads over rugged mountain ranges in Eastern Siberia north of China and Mongolia. During that stage, I dreamt of one day arriving somewhere with flatter land and better roads. Now that dream has become reality and presents new hardships.

While riding a bicycle, your stamina depends upon taking short breaks from pedaling. On a flat stretch of road, or downhill, I take small rests. Riding on the steppe, billowing winds gain speed over thousands of miles of flat land. You must pedal constantly against them to maintain a decent speed. If you rest for a second, the bike instantly comes to a stop, and you must use even more exertion to get yourself going again. You tire quickly here and move slower. Sometimes just maintaining 10 mph seems impossible.

The steppe is mentally more challenging than it is physically. Before me rests the ultimate tease: flat earth and good roads. The image before my eyes sends gleeful messages to my brain, telling my legs that we can finally move faster. The wind is an invisible obstacle which forbids my legs from accomplishing what my brain thinks my body can do. You must exercise extreme patience and try to believe that the wind is not a malicious creature. To stay positive, I remind myself that the wind and I are just two natural forces who momentarily are traveling in different directions.

The Siberian plains are all at once a beautiful, captivating, desolate, and tough part of the earth. The area is sparsely populated by humans and each day we rarely see more than two villages. Between these scattered outposts we occasionally pass through rolling fields of golden wheat and sunflowers whose myriad crowns of yellow pedals glow vibrantly on the earth like shining constellations in the night sky.

Much of the steppe is not as visually stunning. The region is mainly covered in lowlands filled with interminable stretches of swamp. For miles on either side of the lonesome road, groves of dead birch trees rise from pools of brackish water like the skeletal remains of prehistoric beasts stranded in the muck. A thick layer of green algae covers the water, obscuring what mysteries lay beneath like a thick shroud of velvet.

These expanses of swamp are not lifeless; birds thrive here. In Siberia, we have mainly seen birds of prey. But the plains abound with a fantastic array of fowl. Majestic wide-winged black and white birds peck at the roadside and soar into the air when I intrude into their habitat. Mallard ducks bob in pools of algae. Song birds fill the trees, and, in marshy areas, where stands of reeds fan out into endless swamp, small brown birds resembling sand pipers eye me from the roadside. Their presence here can make you imagine the marshland belongs to a long tidal inlet in New England or part of the bayou along the Gulf coast.

This colossal swamp is inscrutable. Each day, I have trouble conceptualizing its immensity. I would prefer to believe that a seashore lies at the distant point where the plains collide with the sky. But this is Central Asia. There is no sea for thousands of miles. This flat swampland stretches thousands of miles from here to the Arctic Ocean.

At night, we make camp, and the swamp’s fiercest brethren, mosquitoes, attack us in swarms. Bugs here are startlingly numerous. Stepping into the woods on the steppe is an almost hallucinatory sensation. In seconds, hordes of mosquitoes pour forth from the trees, bushes, and forest floor, in such vast numbers it looks like entire particles of the earth have become weightless and are flowing toward you. I wear a bug net around my face and chest to protect me. As I set up my tent, they buzz around my head like magical winged fairies and sprites, excited by the presence of this strange traveler in their land, who speak to me in a language I cannot understand that sounds like static.

We move slowly through this strange environment. The wind hinders our progress. One day the breeze shifts behind us and we ride across the steppe with ease. We cover as much ground as possible. By nightfall we complete our longest day yet: 136 miles. The headwinds return the next day stronger than ever.

Finally, we reach the city of Omsk in the middle of the steppe. My jaw nearly drops when the city’s buildings come into view. I have spent so much time gazing at flat earth, I nearly forgot what the real world looks like.

Every day we are getting closer to Europe, closer to civilization. If we had taken Mark Jenkins advice, we would be exiting the developed world now, instead of nearing it. Despite the challenges, I am excited about our direction of travel.

Nevertheless, if years from now, someone were to ask me for advice about riding a bicycle from Asia to Europe, I would feel obligated to give them a cautionary admonition.

“I would seriously consider going the other way,” I’d say.

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