Rob Lilwall flies into deepest Siberia and begins to cycle back home to England. It is the ultimate cycling adventure and takes three-and-a-half years. He cycles through many countries, including Japan, China, Australia, Tibet and Afghanistan. This is a gripping book and gives a vivid account of the countries visited, the people met, the challenges and the impact of the journey on the author.
I must admit to being initially disappointed when I discovered that only the first seventy or so pages of the book are about Siberia. The title of the book and the picture on the front gave me the impression that the author was going to cycle all the way across Russia, east to west. I was looking forward to tales of incredible endurance in the face of minus temperatures, but this is only contained within the first part of the book. Rob actually cycles south in Siberia in order to take a ferry to Japan, so most of the pages are about other countries. Once I got used to that I started to enjoy this incredible account of a world-wide cycle journey.
I liked the layout of the book with its maps, statistics at the end of each section, thought-provoking quotes at the start of each chapter and the photographs. There is a particularly fun montage of portraits of the author, showing his changing appearance and facial hair through the various stages of the journey.
The Siberian experience is amazing to read about. He travels this section with Alastair Humphreys, who wrote his own books about cycling around the world. At one point they have to make a difficult choice about taking a 'winter road' or 'summer road':
"The 'summer road' was the shorter of the two, but was passable only in the warmer months, before snow blocked it. On this road there were several unbridged rivers which, although partially frozen, we would have to wade across. We had been told there was only one proper settlement on it, the village of Oymyakon. In 1919 it had been in the record books for recording -71.2 degrees celsius, the coldest temperature ever for a permanent settlement."
The two riders experience great kindness from locals with many offers of warm accommodation for the night, which saves them a number of nights in a tent in freezing conditions.
As Rob makes his way around the world he mainly experiences similar kindness from strangers. He also faces challenges, such as bad roads in Papua New Guinea which mean that he must push his bike through jungle for days and hire locals to guide him. He cycles the mountain passes of Tibet in winter and faces the dangers of Afghanistan. He also copes with being robbed and getting ill with malaria.
The book achieves a good balance between telling the story of the cycling challenge and saying something about the countries that are travelled through. Rob has a good eye for detail and includes all the little observations that form his impressions of places. It makes for strong travel writing, although I found it is at its best in the Siberian chapter and slightly weaker for the other countries. In some sections it feels a bit rushed, for example in Australia one chapter begins "It is four months later..." Of course, some things will need to be left out in order to fit such an enormous journey into the size of an average novel. The final section of the book that covers the journey across Europe has little detail about the countries, but it reflects Rob's desire to get the last few miles over with and see his family again.
I was engrossed in this book and found it very readable and exciting. Even if you have no intention of embarking on a similar journey it still makes you want to get out on your bike and explore.