Siberia by Scooter and Sidecar
An excerpt from Our Ridiculous World (Trip).
From 2017-2019, Armchair Adventure Festival founders, Matt Bishop and Reece Gilkes became the first people to circumnavigate the globe on a scooter and sidecar. They received a Guinness World Record for the 'Longest Ever Journey By Scooter and Sidecar' and raised just over £7,000 for charities fighting modern slavery. On return of the trip Matt wrote a book called 'Our Ridiculous World (Trip)' about their journey, the people they met on the way and modern slavery around the world - the below is an excerpt from it. You find the guys just over a year into the trip as they begin the ride back home through a Siberian winter...
As we inched our way up the side of China, the temperatures were getting colder and the roads scarier. The adrenaline had worn off and we were now just two blokes sat in a sidecar, cold, scared to death, and still staring at the biggest challenge of our lives. We were still a few days from Chita and it was likely to get worse before it got better. To make matters even worse our headsets had gone, so the guy in the sidecar would just sit there, watch the ice form on his visor and hope that the rider didn’t slip into a passing truck on the treacherous roads. We were genuinely beaten down by the conditions and we were only a few days in. Here’s my diary entry from that evening:
20th November 2018 – Day 6 on the road.
Fucking freezing. Went from Uglegorsk to a place just outside of Sivaki. Kicked off at -30°C or something. Frozen to the core. Every minute we’re not on the bike, we’re dreading riding it. It’s shit. Just genuinely such a stupid, bad thing to do. It’s fucking freezing beyond belief and nothing interesting to see. Worst thing I’ve ever done!
The following day was more of the same. We had managed to get the bike indoors, so it started fine in the morning, but the conditions were just terrible, still. So cold and so scary. Our attitudes were at an all-time low. We said at the time that usually when you do something terribly stupid and genuinely awful, you look back and say, “I won’t do that again.” Here, we were saying, “Hey, let’s do it from dawn till dusk every day, for at least another month.” It was ridiculous.
After a morning’s ride, we were freezing cold and beaten down again. We rolled into the town of Magadachi and agreed we had to make a change. There’s no way we would make it if we kept up this attitude and progress. We decided to book into a guesthouse and take an afternoon off to try and make some adaptations in order to make our ride more comfortable. We knew that there were two things that would make a huge difference: 1. Solve the visor dilemma; 2. Stop the wind whipping through the sidecar.
We’d had loads of people commenting online saying, “Guys, just buy some heated visors or at least a snorkeling set.” Great tips but sadly we were a week out of the last place we’d be able to buy either of those things. This was the wilds of Russia’s Far East and there were no snowmobile shops selling heated visors or scuba diving centres with snorkeling kits. Nope, we would have to get creative. There were about ten shops in the town, mainly selling groceries or clothes, but there was one hardware store. It was our only hope at finding some kind of fix. We went into the place and started looking around when we had a tap on our shoulder by a pretty stern looking local policeman. “Passport,” he said, sharply. I questioned as to why he wanted my passport, but I got a stern look back so handed it over. He looked me up and down, nodded and then turned to Reece, “Passport!”
“It’s at the hotel. Sorry, mate,” Reece replied.
“Passport!” he came back with.
“Listen, it’s at the hotel, besides why do you need it? Is this shop its own territory?” Reece replied.
“Hotel!” he pointed at the door where his colleague was waiting and marched us off back to our guesthouse. He led the way; he knew where we were staying. We got to the hotel and they followed us up two floors and into our room.
Obviously, he had put our noses out of place. Here were two average blokes just trying to get around the world on a scooter and sidecar and he thought he could waltz in there and boss us about. Reece picked up his passport and handed it over to him with a sarcastic, “Here you are flower, feast your eyes on this.”
He looked through it and then said, “Bags!”
To which I replied, “Camping gear, dirty boxer shorts that kind of thing mate, want to have a look?”
I put it on the bed and he saw our tent, which seemed to satisfy his need for knowledge. “Anything else you need officer, fancy a flick through my diary while you’re here, you nosey parker?” I said. They smiled and left us in peace. It was truly bizarre and a small insight into what it’s like to be harassed by Putin’s henchmen.
We returned to the shop to find the ladies behind the till giggling uncontrollably. Then, one of them shoved a phone into my hand.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, welcome to Magadachi. My mum owns shop. You very welcome. Please buy things you wish.”
“Well thank you kindly. How nice of you,” I replied.
We had a short chat about the young lady’s English homework before I finally got around to looking through what the shop had available. Amazingly, we found the answer. A big roll of foil-covered insulation fabric and some washing machine tube. After an afternoon of duct taping and playing around with the kit we had turned the sidecar into a spaceship and created a breathing pipe for each of our helmets.
We called the insulation the sidecar curtains because they went straight down both sides of the rig. In theory it meant that no wind would get across, but it also meant you couldn’t see the other guy. So, with our headsets broken we would have zero communication with each other for the ride home. We woke up the following morning and for the first time in days we were excited to get on the road. Hopefully the adaptations would make all the difference. Reece was on shift and he drove us out of the town. After five minutes he shouted through the curtains, “Waste of bloody time mate. I’ve got a frozen visor and a cut lip!”
Blast, the makeshift snorkel hadn’t worked. I, however, was having much more luck inside the sidecar. It was -28°C outside and honestly, it felt -18°C. Absolutely glorious. Truly a huge difference. The outside curtain soon shook loose and started waving around in the road but the inside one was wedged in by the spare tyres and holding strong. It was brilliant, you could hunker down and feel snug as a bug in a rug, nestled up against the curtain. Better still, with the wind no longer whipping through, you could lift your visor up without getting frozen eyes. Sightseeing was back on the menu. It wasn’t all bad news for the rider either, as we had managed to fix another problem we’d had, which was exposed wrists. Every now and then the wind would catch the right angle and get your wrists, but we sorted it by wrapping them in bandages. The locals must have thought we were a couple of suicidal scooter and sidecarists flying through their town. Probably why they were so nice to us.
The going was still slow, though, and as we neared the most northerly point of the journey the roads got worse and worse. Despite the nicer conditions in the sidecar we only made it 100 km from Magadachi to a roadside café next to a town called “Never.” Never is situated at the turn-off for Yakutsk, which is the last big town before you pick up the Road of Bones and head east for Magadan. Apt, really, because never had I been more relieved that we were unable to ship to Magadan. It would have been colder still and genuinely, completely remote. Or so we are told. I bet there are coffee shacks along there, too!
Never was also the most northerly point of our trip and logic states that it should have been the coldest, too. We looked at a weather map and found that our logic was right, Chita was a barmy -15°C-a solid 15°C warmer than Never-practically shorts and T-shirt weather. We got a good night’s kip at Never and then trucked on southwest for the town of Mogocha. In Mogocha, we accidentally gate-crashed a girl’s night out. I think it might have been someone’s 50th.
We were just having a pizza in the only restaurant in town, when it turned into a night club and the girls asked us for a dance. Unfortunately for them, we were both spoken-for men. Yep, that’s right, Reece too. While he’d been back in the UK, he had received a message on Instagram from a secret admirer and they’d hit things off. I had warned him that it was most likely some catfish trying to con him or some obscure way of selling PPI insurance, but sure enough it had been a real-life girl named Hannah, who actually wanted to date him. How anyone could see that thing on Instagram and want to date him I will never know, especially with the goatee he was sporting at the time. However, it really is a ridiculous world and there are even people out there who like the look of Reece. Sadly for the women of Mogocha, Reece was off the menu and nobody would be getting a birthday dance with Gilko.
Before we left Mogocha, we had a message from Alex “The Devil” on our Facebook. It turned out he usually would have put us up with the local bike post in Mogocha but he had been away on work. However, we would be welcome to stay at the bike post with his friends in Chita when we finally arrived. That was still at least two days’ riding away, though. Incredibly, temperatures rose considerably overnight and we woke up to a toasty -18°C which climbed to -12°C throughout the day. I wrote in my diary that it was the first genuinely good day since leaving Vladivostok. The conditions were incredible. Driveable roads, good weather, and great views. We were treated by a passing trucker to a cup of coffee, too. We had pulled in on the side of the road for a bit of a warm-up, and he pulled in behind us and popped the stove on. We couldn’t speak to each other at all, so we just enjoyed the cuppa and went our separate ways.
The day was capped off with the most incredible sunset that went on for hours, literally. The sun takes forever to drop in that part of the world at that time of year and the sky is full of the most incredible burning, pink glow when it does. That sky, coupled with the frozen forest and glistening white trees, made for an unbelievable setting. We made it 320 km all the way to Chernyshevsk and we were in touching distance of Chita, the end of the most challenging part of our route. From there we would bail on Mongolia and take a relatively temperate journey home along the Trans-Siberian highway. It should have been good roads and great conditions all the way to London. Little did we know that Chita would be more like the start line of our challenge and our journey there had just been a taster of what Mother Russia was planning to throw at us.