An incredible journey
From -40C in Siberia to +40C in Australia,
a geography teacher from Oxford hopes to cycle 40,000 km home
to raise money for a children's charity
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROB LILWALL
In September 2004, he did just what he said. But rather than going about it the conventional way, Rob left home with about 5,000 (348,700 baht) of savings, a few necessities, his mountain bike, and flew 15 hours to a place as far away as he could think about - the edge of Siberia. At the Gulag town of Magadan, he said, ``I started on my homeward-bound 40,000-kilometre bicycle journey.''
``When you have to go on a big journey or want to do something really big and difficult, sometimes the hardest part is just the beginning,'' he says during a school visit to Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok on December 6.
After detours through Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore, Rob arrived in Bangkok on December 3, 2006, approximately two years and two months after the journey began.
``I preferred the idea of starting a long way from home and gradually going back towards home,'' Rob says. ``And I wanted to travel through Asia. That was the main focus of the trip,'' he adds.
Although the adventure is a big part of it, this journey has become more than just a chance to break the daily routine as a teacher or travel the world. Since the trip started, he has raised more than 15,000 for the Christian charity for children called Viva Network.
While in each country, he also visits local schools and gives an inspiring 30-minute presentation about his journey - the ups and downs as well as cultural and moral issues. ``I try to show them that the world is an amazing place and that most people are pretty friendly,'' Rob says. ``I also try to nail the idea of keep trying, don't give up. I think that's quite important,'' he adds.
The Russian winter
The day Rob began his journey, September 15, was a nice and sunny day in Magadan. Initially, Rob planned to sprint through Siberia in one month, just before the gruesome Russian winter arrived, which sometimes brings the temperature as low as -60 degrees Celsius with it.
``The Russians were very friendly,'' Rob says. ``They would say it's really good to have people coming to visit us in Siberia from England. Welcome to Siberia. But why have you come in September?'' Soon enough, Rob found himself caught in the Russian winter. He woke up one morning to find that his tent was surrounded by snow as far as he could see. On the thermometer, the temperature had dropped to -40 degrees Celsius.
In the freezing Siberian winter, Rob found himself constantly crashing and falling on the slippery road - which had frozen solid - sometimes five times a day. ``I used to wake up in my tent at night feeling very frightened and thinking what on earth am I doing? This is totally crazy,'' he says.
Luckily, Rob rarely had to camp out at night because the friendly Russians would invite him to stay at their homes. After three months - and about 5,000 kilometres later - he made it through Siberia and entered Japan.
To him, going in and out of Asia, from Russia to Japan, Papua New Guinea to Australia, and Australia to Singapore, brings big changes to his cultural experience.
``Whilst the Russians demonstrated a very unreserved friendliness (within 5 minutes of meeting a Siberian Russian, they will have asked you ten questions, told you that you are crazy and offered you some vodka), the Japanese are far more shy,'' he writes in his online blog. ``Once introduced though, I have been charmed by their friendliness and humbled by their generosity,'' he continues.
In Japan, Rob started to visit schools, give presentations, and raise funds for Viva Network. By this time, Rob had cycled about 7,300 kilometres in five months. After nearly two weeks in Japan, he took a six-hour ferry ride to Busan, South Korea, before heading off to China, where he passed through major cities like Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
China is also the country that he witnessed a drastic contrast between urban and rural lifestyles. ``Out here in the countryside I start seeing a different side to China,'' he writes in his blog. ``No more glitzy nightclubs. Rather, I am enveloped by bamboo valleys, which are interspersed with pine forests that bottom out into terraced paddy fields. Poverty is more evident - barefooted children, windowless houses and broken roads slip past in a haze.''
But China is Rob's favourite journey. It is where he felt very safe and surrounded by friendly locals. ``You know, when you look at the newspapers, there's always bad news about terrorists and disasters, and sometimes it makes you think that the world is full of bad people,'' he says.
``But it's quite nice to realise that that's just bad news. There are actually lots and lots of very kind people in the world. In every country I've been through, total strangers have invited me to stay and given me food, and they look after me in all sorts of wonderful ways,'' he adds.
When asked about unpleasant experiences, Rob says that he prefers to remember them as ``a few bad experiences.'' These include having been robbed twice in Siberia, fallen ill with malaria in Australia, and having been knocked over by a truck in South Korea. On top of these bad experiences, he says, boredom is worse.
``Sometimes when I've got to just ride for a whole week, and it's not very exciting countryside, just a big road, that can be quite difficult because I'd get bored, lonely, and tired,'' he says. When this happens, Rob tries to cheer himself up and keep cycling, rather than just sitting there and feeling miserable.
``In a way, it's the same for everything in life. Sometimes, you probably wake up and you don't want to go to work. It's the same with me. You just have to keep going and then you feel a bit better later on,'' he says.
After two months in Hong Kong trying to hitch a ferry ride down south toward Australia, Rob finally was offered a ride in a yacht heading to The Philippines. ``For the whole week, we would sail across the sea, and I could look all the way around and not see any land,'' he says. ``After about a week, I started to see some coconuts floating pass the boat, so I thought land must be nearer,'' he adds.
On the sixth day of sailing, Rob finally arrived in Manila, where he spent three weeks doing charity work for Viva Network, before riding south to the island of Mindanao. After hopping through 10 islands in The Philippines and Indonesia, he arrived by ferry in Papua New Guinea in December 2005.
``I had a new challenge in Papua New Guinea because the road started to disappear,'' he says. ``I had to ride my bicycle through the forest on [little dirt] tracks, and I was terrified in the forest of getting lost,'' he adds. Luckily, Rob met local villagers who were willing to show him the path to the nearest beach road that he could follow until he arrived at the next open road.
Also in Papua New Guinea, Rob celebrated his second Christmas. ``Christmas can be quite difficult because I miss my family,'' he says. Well into the second year of his journey, Rob's enthusiasm dropped a bit from the previous year. Up to this point, he says, the rides in the Russian winter and Papua New Guinea's beaten tracks have been the most difficult.
The tropical heat is also another challenging factor that influences his riding experience, and to avoid it, he tries to get up very early before it gets too hot and try to finish before it gets dark. ``When the road is good, it's quite easy even if it's hot,'' Rob says, adding that he tries to cover about 100 to 150 kilometres each day, depending on the road and weather conditions. ``But I do take quite a lot of time off when I get to the cities,'' he says.
Off the beaten tracks
The final but huge challenge for Rob as he arrived at the final stop in Papua New Guinea was to cross the Owen Stanley Mountains via the Kokoda Trail. This 96-kilometre trail that links southern and northern coast of Papua New Guinea together holds a World War II history of bitter fighting between the Australian and Japanese armies.
``I was terrified in the forest of getting lost because I didn't have a map, and sometimes the tracks would go different ways, and I didn't know which way to go to get through the forest,'' he says.
The rugged nature of the trail also forced Rob to carry his bike, which weighs up to 50 kilogrammes when loaded, through steep mountains, where ``swamps, fallen trees and 2000m high ridges would present daily challenges.''
With help from a local guide, and after seven days of grueling effort to beat the Kokoda trail, Rob emerged from the mountains and arrived in Port Moresby in February 2006. ``My shirt was ripped, my beard was long. I was dirty, tired, and hungry. But I felt really good because I hadn't given up and I kept trying,'' he says.
From Port Moresby, Rob caught a ferry to Queensland, Australia. By this time, he has spent more than 600 days cycling nearly 20,000 kilometres through eight countries. In Australia, Rob resumed his school visits to give presentations to kids once again. His first school visited was to a school in a small town called Innisvail. He arrived just one day ahead of Tropical Cyclone Larry, which ripped through the town at 300km/hr. At this maximum speed, Larry became the worst tropical cyclone to hit Queensland since 1999.
Living a dream
While a detour through Australia means that Rob would be adding another 20,000 kilometres to his journey, the country has given him a nice break from unfamiliar Asian cultural settings. ``It has been good to be able to relax a bit more here and I can see why Australia is such a backpackers paradise,'' he writes in his blog.
``I am very grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy such a luxurious country for a while, but I also felt rather uneasy when I first arrived... because I noticed more than ever before, the sheer difference and inequality between the poorer countries through which I had been cycling for so long - and now, the rich,'' he continues.
From Australia, Rob boarded a ferry once again, before passing through Malaysia and Singapore to enter Thailand in early December. By this time, Rob has raised more than 14,000 for Viva Network.
As he progresses into the third year, however, Rob is starting to feel the fatigue setting in. ``I think I've started to feel a bit tired and am almost bored of constantly meeting new people,'' he says. ``And I've started to get rather fed up, and part of me is thinking why don't I just give up and go home?''
But he keeps on going, and having passed Australia, the turning point in his journey, he feels a bit more cheery. ``Every month, I'm getting a bit closer to home,'' he says. ``If I [give up now], I'd feel really angry and miserable for the rest of my life, probably because I will regret it,'' he adds.
After one week of rest in Bangkok and school visits to Shrewsbury International School, New International School of Thailand, and Bangkok Pattana, Rob is again heading off and continuing on with his journey. From Thailand, he will probably pass through Cambodia, Viet Nam, Tibet, Nepal, India, The Middle East, Africa, and finally Europe.
By going on a cycling journey of this scale, Rob is now living a dream of a lifetime. ``I don't have any regrets. I think it's been a very good experience for me. But,'' he says with a weary smile, ``I wouldn't do it again because I think once is enough.''
For more information and updates on Rob's journey, visit www.cyclinghomefromsiberia.com . To contact Rob for school visits, email him at email@example.com . To make a donation to Viva Network, visit www.justgiving.com/cyclinghomefromsiberia .\
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Last modified: December 29, 2006