“Oh no”, I thought, “Not another crazy travel writer doing something offbeat. Still, s’pose I better read it.” And I am glad I did. Llewellyn’s trip with his girlfriend Rohan may have been born out of a premature mid-life crisis and a desire to see Russia, but ends up being an enjoyable and fast-paced story of their trip from Sevastapol on the Black Sea all the way north to Murmansk on the Arctic Ocean.
That this is a bit of an odd undertaking is pretty clear from the outset, but when you spice it up with Llewellyn’s worrying obsession with nuclear power plants a little bit of danger is thrown into the mix. Not that his girlfriend is entirely happy about the slow-acting radiation they might be cycling through, eating and drinking.
This is not a book to read for insights into long-distance bike touring. It does however present an interesting, and very localized take on post-Soviet republics. The friendliness of many people, often welcoming these biking oddities into their house, comes across most strongly, and the cyclists often agonise over subtly throwing away gifts of hand-picked fruit, “the first harvest since Chernobyl”, one farmer proudly declares.
The mood changes from country to country with the Ukraine coming off far the best. But the best is – of course – saved for last. Right up in the far north, amid hypothermia-inducing blizzards, the pair take a boat trip to the Gulag Archipelago that does not proceed quite as planned, and Llewellyn is treated to an ad-hoc tour of Zapadnaya Litsa submarine base. “I wanted to see the submarines,” burbles Llewellyn at the gates.
This book is a quick read, but no less insightful for that. Many many miles must have been covered that merited very little penmanship, but Llewellyn does well with what he has and makes an informative and at times heart wrenching read.
Overall verdict: Bowl through post-Soviet landscapes, and be glad it was them not you.
New Holland, 2000