(By Correne Coetzer) In 2006, when Dimitri Kieffer and Karl Bushby planned on crossing the Bering Strait by foot, they thought that it will take them at least 3 years to succeed. They succeeded on their first attempt and landed in Russia, only to be detained in isolation from the world and from each other by the Russian border guards.
Above Dimitri's cell bed was an old Soviet map of the world. He recalled, "I enjoyed tremendously staring at the Bering Strait on the map, smirking and thinking naively: “No matter what happens to us next, this Bering is “ours” and nobody can take this away from us…”"
Since then he had continued westbound around the world on his own human-power; over six winters and two summers, covering 11,240 km from Anchorage, Alaska, to Kharkhorin, Mongolia: trekking, swimming, skiing, rowing and cycling.
ExplorersWeb caught up with Dimitri while in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, preparing for his next cycle stage, which has started last week.
ExplorersWeb: You have decided to do your human-power circumnavigation according to the Rules of Adventure. Why and how did it change your game plan?
Dimitri: Well, I had been thinking about this plan for a while but I was not ready to announce it until I could fully commit myself to this even longer endeavor.
To avoid any discussion on whether or not what I am trying to accomplish is in fact recognized as a “true circumnavigation”, I have decided that I will take on this additional section through South America in order to reach my 2nd antipode in Chile and therefore oblige to the rules that have been defined. This obviously will add an interesting new element to my expedition, allowing me to cycle through the South American continent.
ExplorersWeb: A short recap about your previous stage and where you are off to now please?
Dimitri: Tenth section: Yakutsk (Republic of Sakha, Yakutia) to Kharkhorin (Mongolia). Date: June 1st - Oct 31st 2013; 4049 kilometers (2515 miles) completed, from Yakutsk to Kharkhorin, through Russian Far East and Eastern Mongolia. 63 cycling days.
Taiga, steppe, sand dunes, Yakuts/ Sakhas, Evens, Buriats, Mongols, lamas, road wokers, miners, herders, Takhi wild horses, camels, yaks, eagles, prairie dogs and reached the first antipode of the expedition on the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar. You can see where I am off to here and here.
[Ed note: The 2013 route in three waypoints: Kharkhorin, 410 km West of Ulaan Baatar, to Urümqi to Almaty: 3033 km (1785 miles). Dimitri still has to decide which route to take amongst three different options for the section between Kharkhorin and Altai (Southwestern Mongolia). For his crossing of Xinjiang Province, Dimitri explains: Because he is cycling, not driving, through the Xinjiang province, he is neither required to have a special permit (in addition to his valid passport and Chinese visa) nor to have a guide on his route. Read more about permits and border crossings between China and Kazakhstan.]
ExplorersWeb: In your adventure life, is it only putting one foot in front of the other or what do you get out of your journey?
Dimitri: I believe “intellectual enrichment”, or maybe some kind of enlightenment, if I can say so…. What drives me? - Well, the desire to see the world, and to finish a goal (no matter how insane it might look to some) that I set out for myself.
The beauty of doing it in a human powered way is that it really opens a lot of doors along the route. I believe that villagers, herders, miners, road workers, farmers are much more intrigued by a cyclist or a man pulling a sled coming through their land than by anyone travelling by truck, car, motorcycle, helicopter, tank or even snowmobile. It really opens up the channels of communication. In my previous corporate life, I traveled quite heavily internationally, but never was able to truly experience the cultures the way that I am able to do this now.
However, let's not kid anyone, the connections that I make with people along the way can be quite ephemeral but I believe that they do matter a little in the greater scheme of things.
This is why our expedition is called, "Nexus", to allow me, my expedition partners and anyone spending time on my website, to connect with the different societies, civilizations and landscapes that we have the pleasure to come across, while moving West through this planet.
ExplorersWeb: You and Gulnara are now married. Does this give another dimension to your expedition?
Dimitri: Between the two of us, I believe this gives us a certain sense of stability. Maybe the only stability that we both have in the midst of this mind-boggling expedition where we both need to face absence, adversities and challenges straight on.
In regards to how others perceive us, in many traditional cultures, which we are crossing on this expedition, this gives us a sense of legitimacy which cannot be underestimated.
It also adds a certain sense of intrigue in people’s minds, considering the very different cultural and ethnical background between the two of us. This often leads us to longer hours of philosophical discussion while seating at our hosts’ dinner table…
ExplorersWeb: What has been your favorite gear during your journey so far?
Dimitri: The robust kevlar “North Pole” pulk made by Snowsled that I used across the Bering Strait.
And if you to know about a 2nd favorite item, I would say my Surly Big Dummy bicycle:
ExplorersWeb: You travel through remote and hazardous areas for long times. Were there times that you had to improvise with regard to gear and clothing because of these difficult conditions?
Dimitri: Definitely so. I must say that I have learned the “art” of modifying my gear from two ex-soldiers and friends, Karl Bushby (ex British paratrooper) and Wilco van den Akker (ex Dutch Green Beret).
I came from a background of “adventure racing”, where I was often given by sponsors top-notch latest and brightest outdoor technical gear. We traditionally did not modify the gear much but instead used and abused it on the trail so that we could send afterwards our gear performance reports to our sponsors.
My two friends Karl and Wilco came from a military background where often the outdoor gear they were asked to use was not as advanced as it could be. So, it came naturally to them to constantly think of how to better modify their gear: cutting straps, permanently screwing, gluing pieces together, etc, etc… So, I learned from them and over my few years of Nexus expeditions, I have:
- turned dry suits into backpacks when we needed to do so on the Bering Strait crossing.
- turned a 2 seasons replacement tent into a 4 seasons one, sewing clothes on mosquito screens to stop the snow from entering the tent.
- permanently screwed and glued skins on back-country skis and warm gaiters on ski boots.
- Screwed and glued as well back country ski boots back together when the front lips were falling apart…
- slept inside an improvised ice cave that we built and inside my sled, when we lost our tent in a -30°C storm…
- braced with wire and metal plaques a broken ski pole which lasted hundreds of kilometers on the Iditarod trail in Alaska.
- modified face masks: cutting out the mouth piece to avoid the formation of the ice on the face and adding duct taped nose piece to the goggles in order to avoid frost bites.
- replaced/repaired/duct taped a few tent poles.
- modified/welded my bicycle and racks in countless ways.
- and finally, sewn countless clothes, gloves and even my tent on a few occasions.
ExplorersWeb: In August there is a swimming relay across the Bering Strait. When reading this, what go through your mind? What emotions/feelings/memories does this bring back?
Dimitri: This might sound pretentious, but here we go…
I can clearly recall that after having crossed successfully the Bering Strait with Karl Bushby, and when the Russian border guards decided to detain us in isolation from the world and from each other (while they were trying to decipher whether or not we were spies), I was kept in a large room with a bed placed under an old Soviet map of the world.
At the time, despite the fact that we were told we could face potentially Russian jail time up to 5 years (for having entered the region without a local required Propusk/Permit, despite our valid Russian visas) I enjoyed tremendously staring at the Bering Strait on the map, smirking and thinking naively: “No matter what happens to us next, this Bering is “ours” and nobody can take this away from us…”
So, the answer is a sounding YES, I do feel a strong connection to this beloved Bering Strait, the whole Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, the Alaskan region across the pond and the inhabitants of the entire area. Any time I hear about any expedition coming anywhere near the Strait, whether it is by kite surfing, windsurfing, trekking, swimming, amphibious vehicles or whatever other idea people may come up with, my ears naturally stand straight up! In fact, over the years, I am often asked very specific questions by a wide array of individuals who want to cross the region on kite surfs, skis, bicycle, by foot or even puzzled map geeks who wish to enter the region to research the area which appears blurred in a wide array of maps (co-ordinates 66°15'42.71"N; > 179°14'47.77"E)
On our new website, we are planning to create pages dedicated to sharing expedition tips we have learned along the way to benefit anyone interested.
As a result of all of these questions mentioned above, we are planning to create a specific page dedicated to explain what are the complex administrative steps one needs to follow to be able to travel through Chukotka and the Bering Strait. And I am talking with Chukotka Autonomous Okrug representatives with whom I have remained friends, in order to make sure I get the facts right in my report!
Finally, I actually feel a sense of guilt when I hear of any expedition attempting to cross the region without the proper permits. I wish I could have informed them properly, if they had taken the time to contact me. So, if anyone has questions about this puzzling region, please, send them my way and I will make it my duty to respond.
Latest update from Dimitri, August 26:
"Landed in Bayankhongor today through the Southern Mongolian road... Tried a middle road through the mountains out of Kharkhorin, but the rivers were just way way too high. Shoulder high... Had to escape down south. Was asked to herd “independent thinking” yaks with my fully loaded bicycle on the open steppe and that is not easy. Trust me. Glad to be now down south in Gobi land where camels roam free. On to some R&R tomorrow in Shagarljuut Hot Springs!"
A true circumnavigation of the Earth (around the world) must:
- Start and finish at the same point, traveling in one general direction
- Reach two antipodes
(Antipodes = two diametrically opposite places on Earth)
- From the above follows that a true circumnavigation must:
- Cross the equator a minimum of two times
- Cross all longitudes
- Cover a minimum of 40,000km or 21,600NM (a great circle)
Check in again for an interview with Gulnara Kieffer.
#Trek #humanpowercircumnavigation #DimitriKieffer
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