Today’s tasks seem simple: cleaning, editing photos, rinsing tent stakes of flakes of Siberian soil. The complicated immediacies of wilderness travel have been left behind. Three days ago, I was in Moscow, wandering across Red Square after a ten-hour flight from the Russian Far East. I wandered among tourists, amazed at the breadth of the former Soviet Union, and the difference between the lands I had inhabited this year, and that monumental human landscape of brick and stone.
Then, I was consumed by travel. Today, I move through simple tasks in a mellow kind of shock. The journey is done, and I am putting the tools and mental structures of this project away for the last time. I wrote, in ending:
“No one was waiting for us, save a startled old man and his silent, flower-print wife. The lights of smokestacks and cranes blinked in the darkness. Twelve hours on the water told in tight legs and swollen fingers, but stepping into shallow water washed equally from the great Amur and the incoming tide of the Pacific, I felt light. The thing was done.
At midnight the night before, a bear had walked into camp amid staccato heat lightning. The forest drone of mosquitoes gave way to the sprayed stones of his retreat. A tropical night led to a tropical day, and a steady push past floating fishing villages and the boats of Russian and Native hauling nets. At 10PM, the industrial outpost of Nikolayevsk, and Pacific tidewater.”
This journey across Asia took six months to complete, and traced a 6,900 kilometer human-powered arc through both deep wilderness and human settlement on the edge of the known. In winter, my expedition partner and I cycled 4,000 kilometers from Turkey to Kazakhstan, and in summer, a new partner and I paddled 2,900 kilometers from central Mongolia to the Pacific Ocean. On roads and rivers we explored the Asian hinterlands, hugging borders of steppe and taiga, mountain and oasis, through nine countries.
The Polartec Challenge Grant fueled this exploration of Asia, allowing it to not just be completed in good style, but to be completed at all. After hustling across North America and Europe by canoe, the mass of Asia beckoned despite an empty bank account. Expeditions are expensive, even two person, bare bones, shoe-string affairs like what I had in mind. The hills of baklava, mountains of khinkali, rivers of visa forms, and wide open endless steppes of penniless anxiety could be conquered only through the generosity, in this case, of Polartec. In the role of enabler, the Grant succeeded. With the funds to eat, cross borders, and not worry about emergencies, we moved east. And, with the durable, high-tech Polartec garments overnighted to us, we braved everything from baking continental heat to mid-summer frosts in Buryatia, constant, sanity-draining steppe winds in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, the deluge of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and the polar cold of winter in the high ranges of the Caucasus and Tien Shan.
Garments worn on this expedition:
MEC Charge Hat (Polartec Wind Pro)
Patagonia Alpine Guide Pants (Polartec Power Shield)
Patagonia Alpine Guide Jacket (Polartec Power Shield)
Patagonia Piton Hybrid Vest (Polartec Wind Pro and Polartec Power Dry)
Patagonia R2 Regulator Fleece Jacket (Polartec Thermal Pro and Power Dry)
In Turkey, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, John, my expedition partner, and I cycled east along the multivarious twisted arms of the ancient Silk Road, dashing through a schizophrenic landscape, both timeless and in millennial flux. Cycling in winter brought new challenges, from frozen derailleurs to wet-slab avalanches burying the road in front of us in fifty feet of cement-like snow. Winter is a clarifying season, and it brought the people, politics, and landscape into sharper focus.
In Mongolia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East, Bria, my expedition partner, and I paddled north through the basalt canyons and open steppes of Outer Mongolia, navigating whitewater gorges and the hospitality rituals of nomads. The Chuluut River fed the Selenge, and Buryatia followed Mongolia. This Buddhist enclave in southern Russia brought us to Baikal, the largest lake on Earth, and thence to the Muya, Vitim, and Lena Rivers. Finally, we traveled to the Amur River, a contested borderland somehow forgotten by the powers that posture over it.
We drank tea with forest rangers and babushkas, fishermen, horse traders and clothing smugglers, all willing, in their way, to share their story and their stake in these harsh homelands. I am transfixed by these stories, of people, politics, and landscape, and their simultaneous familiarity and otherness. In Soviet hinterlands, from Serbia to Siberia, there is consistency in tone and topic – just as there was in past journeys from Montana to Germany, Quebec to Uzbekistan.
In trying to give meaning to this last setting-out, I wrote in a previous post:
“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 making 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.”
The dream, long distant, has come true. I’m home, washing thin Siberian dirt from a clutch of battered tent pegs. The dream was possible in large part because of the Challenge Grant. Joy, then, that there are enablers like Polartec, that stand with explorers of backyards and borderlands. After 408 days and 20,000 kilometers through twenty countries, I am done. This last journey was the just out of reach conclusion of a larger puzzle of exploration, and you brought within reach.
I am done, then, with the easy part. Now comes the telling of the story, and a journey of a different kind.
Zand B. Martin
Media from Mongolia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East is available on our website at www.facebook.com/asiariversexpedition, and more will become available as photos are edited and journals proofread. To see more from Zand Martin or hear about previous legs of this around-the-world exploration, check out his website at www.zandmartin.com
Text and photos by Zander Martin