Marks out of 10 - No elbow patches needed

4th June 2010 at 01:00

Cycling Home from Siberia

Rob Lilwall

Hodder Stoughton, #163;12.99

There can be few teachers who have not, at some point or other, gazed out of their classroom window and wished themselves somewhere else. I would guess, though, that Siberia has not featured too high on their wish list. Warm Mediterranean climes, adventure treks in the Far East, the Himalayas or palm-fringed beaches, yes; the huge sub-zero wastes of Siberia, probably not.

Rob Lilwall's trip gets off to an encouraging start as he is warned that he will freeze to death or be eaten by bears and, rather more mysteriously, is urged by a nun not to trust anyone at all as "it's the wild, wild east out there".

Undaunted, he sets out from Magadan in far eastern Russia on his trusty bike called Alanis, with the intention of cycling the 35,000 or so miles home to London, with only his mate Al for company.

Lilwall was in his second year of teaching geography in a school in Oxfordshire when at the end of a "typical November afternoon... I sat down at a computer, breathed a sigh of relief that the day was over once more and logged into my email account". On screen was a mail from Al proposing a year-long trip across Asia in a single teaching year, quoting Eminem in support: "Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it?"

How could anyone say no? "And that is how I ended up in Siberia at the onset of winter with a heavily-laden bicycle instead of a plane ticket to get me home," Lilwall recalls.

Predictably, the ride across Siberia is tough, but there turn out to be no bears and a lot of human kindness. So much for the warnings of impending doom. Instead there are deeper human tragedies, the most heartbreaking of which is the death in a fire of an Uzbek man who has befriended them at a small family-run roadside cafe the night before.

Lilwall watches in despair as the gasoline store explodes in a fireball. Mortified and full of self-recrimination, he realises how much more effective Al has been in the moments of crisis, but how helpless they have both been to help the family whose dream is now a smouldering ruin.

"Our ride suddenly felt like a ridiculous self-inflicted melody of pain and ambition... all the while people were suffering and we were doing nothing to help them."

When they reach Japan, Al and Lilwall go their separate ways, a decision made in recognition of the fact that they cycle at different speeds (the death of many a cycling partnership), have different levels of endurance and camp and de-camp at a dissimilar pace. The small trials of being together 24 hours a day have told on their relationship and they prefer to travel separately rather than risk their friendship. There are also differences over their proposed route, with Lilwall favouring a detour to the southern hemisphere, through China to Hong Kong and then the Philippines and Australia before catching a boat back to Singapore and heading home via the mountainous spines of south Asia and the Middle East. Al prefers the direct route, traversing the "Stans" and eastern Europe.

One of the problems with writing about such a mammoth journey is the sheer amount of information and recollection that has to be crammed into a comparatively small space. The scope is simply too big for the size of the book and this occasionally tells against it, with some sections having a perfunctory air. In general, the rather lacklustre writing improves as the book goes on, with Lilwall developing a sharper eye and greater confidence as he becomes fitter and more accustomed to travelling on his own. The struggling tourist becomes a bit more of a swaggering adventurer.

But in the end, as in most travel books, the reader's enjoyment depends to a fair degree on the appeal of the narrator whose adventure is shared, and here Cycling Home from Siberia scores. Rob Lilwall is such a transparently decent, honest and likeable bloke that it is difficult not to become involved in the highs and lows of his journey, whether it is calling on all of the resources that his Christian faith gives him in moments of crisis or sharing his wonder at finding the girl of his dreams in Hong Kong. Ever since Odysseus, the traveller has returned home to find himself wiser and more fulfilled than when he departed. Rob Lilwall is no exception.

The verdict: 710.

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