Book review: Russia, Mongolia, Motorcycle, Me by Nick Sanders
Serial long distance endurance rider Nick Sanders captures his solo motorcycle trip across Russia and Mongolia.
If you really went for it, you could ride from Land’s End, the southernmost tip of the UK to John O Groats the northernmost, in one single day. It would be a pretty long day, but people do it.
Imagine then, riding all day every day and maybe half the night as well for two weeks through a rural landscape that never really changes. Every moment of each day, the view barely altering. I think I’d go mad with the monotony, but that’s just one small section of the monstrous ride described in Nick Sanders’ book Russia, Mongolia, Motorcycle, Me.
It’s difficult for us in the UK to grasp the overwhelming scale of the Russian landmass. Nick says: “It would be on the money if I said that, were Siberia to be a country by itself it would be the largest in the world. Accounting for 77% of Russia’s land area, this strange and enchanting region is home to just 40 million people, equivalent to an average population density of three inhabitants per square kilometre, the same as Australia.”
As an addict of Crazy WTF? Dashcam clips, Russia has gained a reputation for bleak strangeness that I want to see for myself. As a motorcyclist, I’m interested in long trips. And as I ride an MT-07, similar to Nick’s Tracer 700 I was curious to see how the bike got on. I was late to the party and only started following his posts on social media as he was coming to the end of his trip. So I downloaded the Kindle version of his book as soon as possible.
It’s an enjoyable but odd read. There’s some material about Russia’s history, locations and roads on the author’s route but nothing that I couldn’t have Googled. There’s some interesting, sometimes meandering personal reflection and philosophy but that’s not really what the book is about. This isn’t Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Thankfully.
There’s some description of the riding conditions, the people, landscape, towns, cities and hostels that Mr Sanders encountered. “Set back from the [river] bank were people preparing food to sell from their yurts. I sat in one drinking a mug of tea sweetened with goats milk as a woman chanted under her breath, her old husband standing quite still examining a piece of wood.”
The book doesn’t really dwell on the culture but does reveal the dour conditions many people live in and their stoically glum demeanour. But it’s not an analysis of the people.
Nick describes himself as a long distance endurance rider. He’s not a travel show presenter so doesn’t really stop to feature historical or tourist destinations. He just rides and rides and rides. Maybe there’s not so much to say about a long trip where nothing went catastrophically wrong.
A journey like this is a tough and frightening proposition with many risks and difficulties. But that’s downplayed with few tales of daring do, only casual mentions of falling off the bike a few times, getting lost in the dark, camping in the excruciating low temperatures and the basic ever-present risks of riding motorcycles.
The landscape along the way must have varied between grim industrial areas, beautiful countryside and bleak, empty snowscapes. I say ‘must have’ because while there are some intriguing photographs in the book, there just aren’t enough for my tastes. I guess Nick just got his head down and was more occupied with munching miles than stopping to take photos. In fairness, this was never meant to be a coffee table photography book.
Nick’s short social media videos were cheerful, showed a bit of bike maintenance and some of the scenery. They even included drone footage of himself riding around. The mood of the book feels more like the published notes from a diary.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable read, but as a biker, I wanted more of the nitty gritty details of organising this trip. Bike preparation, passports, visas, currency, finding petrol stations, changing tyres, coping with the language, border controls and coping with the devastatingly cold conditions. But there was less focus on that.
Nick’s narrative is nonchalant. He makes his trip sound easy, but that’s deceptive. What comes across most strongly is that he’s entirely on his own the whole time.
In an age when wannabe slebs go on expeditions more to increase their fame than actually explore, looking more at themselves than their surroundings; with media crews, support vans, satellite videophones and every second live-streamed on social media with slo-mo replays of the best bits edited with music almost as it happens, Nick just got on his (admittedly very well prepared) bike and set off alone.
That’s what interests me and hits me right in my phobias. Being out in the middle of nowhere, where my regular bad luck, ham-fistedness or non-existent language skills could escalate into a major disaster.
I’ll come clean, during the summer my foot slipped and I dropped my bike while stationary. My leg was trapped under the bike and I was firmly pinned to the ground. I got out eventually but now wonder how that might have panned out had it happened on a rarely used track somewhere in Russia, in sub-zero temperatures, on my own, at night. Things can go very wrong very quickly which is why I admire those people with the competence and guts to take on a challenge like this. And in this media-conscious age, to do it without much in the way of fanfare or obvious media attention seeking.
Any self-respecting YouTube influencer can drag out the unboxing of a new phone into a 30-minute video. Nick’s posts from the tundra were literally one minute long each.
I don’t really know who this book is aimed at, if it’s aimed at anyone at all. It is merely an account of a very long, cold journey told through the impressions of the traveller. Maybe the book’s real purpose is to help fund the next trip. If you get a chance, read it. It inspires me to get out on longer trips and explore some huge empty places, on my own.
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