Biking and Paddling Across Asia-Polartec Challenge Style

“I found out I was being awarded the Grant in Zonguldak.  It is a grim, coal-stained port on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, and I was in a shabby concrete room overlooking the slate sea, searching desperately for a bike shop over a 56k modem.  My partner was outside, fixing a flat and cursing our pump as it failed to build pressure.  I passed by the note from Polartec, hurrying to the mission at hand.  Eventually, that problem was put to bed, as where many others, and on the road with a cleared mind hours later, I realized the impact of what had happened.  After 16,000 kilometers of paddling and cycling, I now had the backing to reach the Pacific.  I knew without the Grant I would never be able to afford the final link- 4,000 kilometers of lakes and rivers in Mongolia and Siberia- and so had set winning it as the pivot on which the decision to attempt the last leg would be made.

Success has been in doubt since the beginning.  Indeed, the project itself- paddling around the world – began as the far-fetched, damn-fool idea of a just-out-of-college and jobless person – me - without the resources or the skills to bring it about.  I started with a paddle home, from Portland, OR to Portland, ME, leading expeditions for NOLS to save up enough to paddle east for another month or two, failing and struggling and eking my way across the continent.  Europe followed, and Central Asia.  Bikes were thrown in for sanity and rational movement across endorheic basins, deserts, and mountain ranges.  As each leg materialized out of the mist of what is possible, I cast about for structure and for ending.  Siberia was the keyhole through which could barely be discerned the great ocean where I began, years ago and as a different person.  The maps of Siberia told of capillaries of blue etched amidst mountains and wedged between the steppe and the sea, and with false starts and the dizzy soar of Google Earth, I sketched a route through the difficult and the unknown, as I had done in successive pushes across three continents.  Still, it was all a sort of a dream.  Only on the last day- reaching the Atlantic, the Black Sea, and the heart of Asia- did I really believe it had ever been possible.  Now, though, with the grandest exploration on the horizon due to the support of the Challenge Grant, I at least have a bit chance of putting my hands in the Pacific.  I’ll need help, a team, and probably a heap of new tricks, and like each step along the way it will have to be earned, with success far from certain.

Our route begins in central Mongolia, on the edge of the vast endorheic basin of Central Asia, where rivers disappear into deserts and dying seas.  We will travel by canoe through the canyons of the Chuluut into the rushing waters of the Ider, to the major flow of the Selenge, to Baikal, the biggest lake by volume on Earth.  From there, we will move into the Amur watershed, moving east towards the Sea of Okhotsk.  Human-powered expedition travel is our means, canoes are our craft, and our goal is to move across the land in the best style possible, gathering stories as we go to share with those unable to visit this last, best place, and perhaps inspire them to further river conservation there and at home.

Shots and visas are on the immediate time horizon, boats and maps in the middle, and camping gear way off.  I’ve become a bit casual in preparations, seeing how it always works out from country to country and river to river, perhaps forgetting that 1500 days on the ground in six years has built a few neural pathways I’m not aware of.  We train for expeditions as we always do, by going on expeditions.  Bria Schurke, my expedition partner for Mongolia and Siberia, will be mountaineering in Nepal and volunteering in Somalia before joining me in in Ulaanbaatar.  I’ll be leading two whitewater expeditions for NOLS in the Utah river canyons, and nailing down details from maps to sat phones during time off.  It’ll come together, as it always does: piece-by-piece, with quality, details a bit fuzzy, planning (invaluable) and plans (useless), thoroughly, and probably at the last minute.

Stay tuned.”

(Text and photos by Zander Martin)

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