Interview, biking the Silk Road: Ania and Mat about "Getting Nowhere"

Posted: Jul 11, 2012 05:25 am EDT

(Tina Sjogren) It's about the road, not the bike, they say. And the goal is not on a map. Thus the expedition name.

A few weeks back Explorersweb caught up with Polish couple Ania Poltorak and Mateusz Emeschajmer in Tehran.

With global economy in the toilet, after University the couple decided to skirt bleak outlooks of a job and hit the pavement instead. "I wanted to travel," Mat said. "I never lived a predictable life and didn't want to either."

Influenced by two cultures (Poland and Germany) feeling home away from home is part of her life, Ania told ExplorersWeb: "Staying in one place for too long is not for me, at least not now."

Mat had previously hitch-hiked much of Europe but now the couple would pedal bikes instead, for the freedom and independence. They moved to Norway to save up money, learn what kind of bikes and gear to get, and how to fix what breaks.

On the horizon: the former Silk Road in Central Asia.

"It is such a fantastic destination," they explain. "We wanted to see it, spend some time in the Pamir Mountains, visit Bukhara, Samarkand, see the Himalayas far on the horizon, be with the people living simple lives for generations..."

Here goes Mat's and Ania's story: about finding freedom in simplicity, power in self-reliance, and the resulting innovation when you combine Polish craftsmanship with Norwegian attention to detail.

ExplorersWeb: Your site is called "Getting Nowhere", what's that about?

Mat and Ania: We thought for a long time how to name our site. It was clear to us both that the name should not be connected to cycling or bikes; there are a lot of websites out there with main focus on cycling itself: “Cycling to...”, “By bike from here to there”, etc.

To us the idea of traveling, a need to be on the road came first. Cycling was secondary, merely the most suitable method of transportation for what we needed and hoped to get from the journey. We also knew that we wanted to be gone for a long time; not weeks or months, but years.

If you strip “getting nowhere” from its original meaning (doing something without results, effects) you will get kind of an oxymoron: getting means arriving, nowhere is a place that doesn't exist - so it's rather impossible to get there.

We don't want to get anywhere – we want to travel, see the world, learn, change and be changed. There is a vision of where we want to go, but it's a rather rough sketch.

And the world we have left behind (Europe, Occidental culture) does not seem to know where it's going either, so the name has at least two meanings – it's not only us who are getting nowhere.

ExplorersWeb: You are going really light without a trailer, how do you manage that?

Mat and Ania: Mat is a gear freak. Seriously, he is addicted. Months before the trip he was reading gear blogs every day, deciding what to buy and hunting it down on Ebay.

Before, we used to travel with quite a lot of heavy and cheap gear. We knew that if we go to Asia and want to stay focused on what is around us instead of suffering weather and fatigue, we must go light.

We thought to bring a trailer at first, a great Polish Extrawheel, but it's another piece of junk to take care off plus we wanted to reduce the amount of gear as much as possible, going towards minimalistic approach.

When we looked at other cyclists, what they carry and what is standard for cycle touring, we realized that they all carry the same stuff, same for over ten years! It seemed to us that people don't think about their needs, they just buy what others bought. Of course some of it, like Hilleberg tents and MSR stoves, are reliable and we use them too, but the rest is rather questionable.

We wanted to travel differently, and have made careful and conscious decisions before buying anything at all.
There is a lot of ultralight gear out there, and with a bit of luck and patience you can find some really nice stuff.

We lived and worked in Norway for 2 years before the trip and it is definitely a good place to buy all the necessary things. Norwegians love outdoors, and they love consuming – that means you can find top of the line outdoor gear on sales or second-hand.

ExplorersWeb: Tell us about your gear!

We wanted to find the best (lightest, most durable and comfortable) equipment available. We read lots of reviews and decided carefully what to spend our money on (sometimes waiting half a year before buying). Some gear we made ourselves: learning how to use a sewing machine we made our own Gore-tex mittens, overshoes, drybags, toolbags, and cover for our mats.

We modified the tools we had (to make them lighter or more useful), we converted our backpacks to bike bags, made carbon fibre stands for the bikes, found some solutions to the problems with folding bikes, etc. It was fun!

Most people pack their things into panniers – two lowriders on the front, two on the back, drybag on top, handlebar bag, amen. If you are a couple that means 12 bags! Bags that are heavy and you can only use them for cycling! We ended up having only 2 panniers and two 40l Arc'teryx waterproof backpacks converted into bike bags.

The rest of the stuff we carry in light roll-top bags; we have a camera bag; we carry sleeping mats in a home made x-pac cover that doubles as groundsheet or picnic cloth. That's it. With this setup we are not depended on our bikes – we could go hiking for two weeks with the stuff we have and it would be quite comfortable.

We put our bicycles together from pieces bought on Ebay – now we know every single screw and can fix almost anything.

It has been kind of an investment for us: Other people buy cars, TV or furniture - we buy ultralight solar panels and fancy bike parts to use for the next couple of years.

More details and full list of what we carry will be available on our website soon.

ExplorersWeb: You also built your own racks for air transportation?

Mat: The idea of the platform (as we call it) came to me during our short trip on the Canary Islands. We had bought two cheap bikes there (our real bikes were under construction) and had no option to mount our gear on them.

I used to cycle in Oslo with a back rack mounted on the front and I wanted to carry our stuff in a similar way.

I built a lowrider platform on my front wheel, using old vegetable trays and scrap pieces of steel. It worked surprisingly well!

Back home I made a CAD model of a rack that could be mounted on a bike, serve as a transportation platform, and later be used to construct a protective case for our bikes (equipped with BTC S&S; couplings, allowing dismantling of the frame).

Then we found Wim Kolb from Kolb-Rahmenbau, a frame builder who was kind enough to let me use his tools and workshop in Switzerland and helped to braze the racks together.

Now we both have the platforms on the front of our bikes – as stable as lowrider panniers, but much more versatile.

We can pack whatever we want on them, they double as protective case for a folded bike (whole bike fits in, with the rack and mudguards, and it can be checked onto an airline as regular baggage without an oversize charge – 62 inches!) and protect the bike in case of an accident.

ExplorersWeb: How do you eat and where do you sleep?

Mat and Ania: We usually cook our own food. We don't eat meat, and it is rather hard to find good vegetarian dishes in the Middle East and Central Asia.

We love cooking, so we carry a stove and full set of pots. As all cyclists, we eat a lot. We try as much local food as we can and try to buy local (vegetables here taste and look like vegetables, unlike in Europe where they mostly look and taste like plastic).

We also drink a lot – we filter and purify our water, and so far we had no problems. We try to sleep in our tent as often as we can, since we love it so much and it feels like home, but people here are very hospitable, so quite often we get invited to stay with local families.

While we try to find nice and quiet camping spots out in the nature we have no problem sleeping in the middle of the city, such as in a park. During the last two months we have only spent two nights in a hotel, which is not bad we think.

We carry two, closed cell foam, ultralight mats and two short inflatable ones (one kilogram all together). It's a super comfortable, warm and pierce proof setup. We have two inflatable pillows, two Polish down sleeping bags and two silk liners.

ExplorersWeb: We heard somewhere that the only things going well right now in Greece (in terms of economy), besides yoghurt, are bicycle sales! Seems biking is blowing up globally, do you meet a lot of people biking in the area?

Mat and Ania: We've been told that if you stand by the road going from Bukhara to Samarkand, a cyclist will pass every day. Indeed, we meet a lot of people cycling in similar direction!

The former Silk Road is quite popular among adventurous cyclists – it is still rather wild and not easy to access, quite demanding but very welcoming. We meet people from all over Europe, Middle East and Asia. There are people from all over the world here.

In our opinion, during difficult times and times of big change (especially in Europe) cycling is the only sane thing to do!

ExplorersWeb: Iran seems tough these days: do women (and Ania) have to wear a veil when biking?

Ania: By law, women must cover their hair in daily life but it's not as strict while practicing sport. During bicycling a helmet and a simple cover would be enough, but because both hair and neck should be covered in other situations the easiest solution is to wear the scarf at all times.

It's quite demanding to cycle fully veiled and with long sleeves and pants in the heat of the summer. Another thing is that officially bicycling for women is forbidden in Iran because it's considered provocative. But this law is not executed these days and from time to time we can see some Iranian girls and women cycling in the cities.

As a foreign woman I'm treated less strict than the locals.

ExplorersWeb: About politics in the country - what's the general feeling among the people you meet (in light of the suppressed demonstrations)?

Mat and Ania: To be honest, people don't talk about it easily and repeat constantly that it's dangerous to talk about political issues. We had hoped to meet more “rebels” but either they are hiding or we have not been lucky yet.

Most, especially the young, say they don't accept the situation. They want to live ordinary lives without religious rules. They ask very often what we foreigners think about Iran. They do their best to change the international opinion about their often misjudged yet amazing country.

ExplorersWeb: Was it difficult to get a visa for Iran?

Mat and Ania: We apply for visas as we go. There is an Iranian embassy in Trabzon, Turkey, where we were lucky to have it done smooth and fast. It took two hours, and we have since extended in Tehran for one more month.

Unfortunately our next destinations is not as easy – we are currently waiting for an Uzbek visa, and later will apply for a transit visa to Turkmenistan.

ExplorersWeb: Coolest memory so far?

Mat and Ania: There is no particular moment that we would describe as the coolest; rather dozens of jaw dropping examples of Turkish and Iranian hospitality that could be classified as “cool”.

We will never forget the Turkish gas station, waiting for us as we cycled in the rain (somebody must have told them we were coming), offering us tea and a place to stay with wifi access. Or the owner of a small motel offering a room for free when we asked for a place to put up our tent.

Drinking tea with a night watch man on the side of a road construction was just one of many unexpected tea invitations. We have spent hours with Turkish families, having long and elaborated discussions without knowing a single word in each others mother tongue but in the most advanced form of body language.

ExplorersWeb: Scariest moment?

Mat and Ania: When Mat was attacked by 3 shepherd dogs close to Dogubayazit in the Kurdish part of Turkey.

We knew that this part of Turkey is inhabited by wolf-killing dogs and were prepared (carrying a stick and pepper spray). We had some attacks before, but never of this kind.

Unlike the previous dogs, these dogs were not barking. They were big, half wild “kangals” equipped with spiked collars. When they saw Mat, who was a bit in the front, they charged at him and attacked straight away, showing their fangs.

Luckily Mat had his pepper spray ready: he jumped off the bike, holding it between him and them, and used half a can on the dogs.

It worked: they backed off and soon their owner came at them with stick and rocks. No blood, but freaking scary...

ExplorersWeb: Where to next?

Mat and Ania: We are currently waiting for a visa to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. We already have a month long visa to Tajikistan, where we plan to do some nice treks. After that we will probably go to Kyrgyzstan and later to China. Everything depends on the visas...

We are heading towards Australia, but would like to see most of the Asian countries before we get there. It might take us half a year, but also three years. We have no plan, just a vision...

ExplorersWeb: What is important to you, what is your message?

Mat and Ania: The most important thing for us is to remain free and independent. We are aware of the fact, that it is impossible to be totally free, and that there will be always something limiting our dreams, but we try to do our best not to get stuck in routines and stiff concepts.

We want to travel, but we don't want to be attached too much to the concept of traveling either – we have no problem “cheating” from time to time by taking a bus or a train. This is not a race, and there is nobody waiting for us at the finish line.

We cycle because we like it, and if one day we stop enjoying it we'll simply drop it and find something else to do. We have not decided when we'll come back, we have a few different options and are open for new ones.

Right now we have everything we need: good bikes, a portable home, clothes for almost any weather, kitchen to cook our food and filters to clean the water, solar panel and dynamo hub to charge our batteries; all this stuff can be carried by one person!

The only things limiting us at the moment are the visas and strange regulations, but that we can not change.

We would like to show to the others out there that a journey like this is possible – you need a bit of time to prepare, some funds to get all what you need (or lower your needs) and the world is yours!

What is really important is not to spend too much time on planning, dreaming and talking about the journey but actually doing it, starting out and letting the road carry you!

Ania Poltorak and Mateusz Emeschajmer were both born in Poland, in 1984. Ania moved to Germany with her parents at the age of five. Mat graduated as a Cross Cultural and Gender Psychologist at the University of Gdansk, Anna has a Master in Science of Art and Romance Languages from the University of Bremen.

The couple moved to Oslo in Norway (where Mat had previously worked as a carpenter) after finishing their studies to save up for the big trip and assemble the needed gear. Unable to find jobs within their line of education Ania worked with international children for the German kindergarten in Oslo while Mat started a rope access company and freelanced as a climber.

Mat found his urge to travel already during school when he hitch-hiked around Europe and went to New Zealand, Australia and South-East Asia in a gap year. Ania had traveled in Europe but never been outside of it. The couple decided to go to Asia first, "because it is changing so rapidly and soon it might be either too hard or too easy to travel there."

#Trek #topstory

"We don't want to get anywhere – we want to travel, see the world, learn, change and be changed. There is a vision of where we want to go, but it's a rather rough sketch."

Image by courtesy, SOURCE
"What is really important is not to spend too much time on planning, dreaming and talking about the journey but actually doing it, starting out and letting the road carry you!"
Image by courtesy, SOURCE