(By Correne Coetzer) With a lack of long distance cycling experience, but enough Russian cold winters in her life, in 2011 Gulnara decided to join seasoned explorer Dimitri Kieffer on a 2100 km cycle journey, as part of his human-power circumnavigation. The infamous Road of Bones was part of her Baptism of Fire, which, earlier this year, led to Dimitri proposing to her.
Gulnara shares practical advice with ExplorersWeb about this infamous road. She added that it was a rich cycling experience while connecting different sides of human feelings and cognitions. "Going through this road you can feel the impact of the history, the sadness of human lives, hear sorrowful Gulag stories, see pictures of ghost towns and dead villages, as well as pass by a lot of graves and tombs."
ExplorersWeb: Congratulations with your marriage to Dimitri. Where did the two of you meet and how did it happen that you started cycling with him? Were you into adventure before?
Gulnara: Thanks a lot :-) We met in Morocco in Essaouira at the Gnaoua World Music Festival in 2009. It was the first time (and only time till this date) that both of us went there. One of Dimitri’s oldest Japanese friends was at the time dating a Moroccan man and therefore living in Ouarzazate. She invited him to join them for this festival. I was also invited by my Russian friend and drum teacher to visit this festival and help him guide a group of 20 Russian musicians and artists.
Dimitri and I met on the second day of the festival after midnight in a busy street among the crowd and the music scene. Dimitri heard my friend and I spoke Russian, turned around and said “привет“, which is “hello” in Russian. Since he was already doing his expedition in Russia, Dimitri knew already some Russian. So between the two of us, we began a dialog mixing our two common languages (English and Russian).
My friend whom was at the time an aspiring photographer, decided to invite Dimitri to come and join us for a photo shoot scheduled for a few hours late, at dawn on the seashore. We had already planned on doing this shoot, before we met Dimitri. Since she was trying to gain experience for a forthcoming wedding photo shoot in Moscow, this morning session was going to be a good practice for her. So, on the same day, we met early in the morning, pretending to be a “loving couple” for the photo session. And this, it what it turned out to be, as you know. :-)
I joined him on his Nexus expedition to cycle in the summer of 2011. In the same year, before this cycling section, Dimitri pulled his sled during the winter months through the Magadan region. I did not dare to join him for that section for several reasons: my lack of required experience and training, which I could not get in time prior to his departure and the threat of the severe cold weather he was going to face, which I was not eager to experience, having lived already through enough cold Russian winters in my life.
I understood that Nexus Expeditions was quite important in the life of Dimitri and I realized that if I wanted to be with this man, embarking together on sections of the expedition would then be a good way for us to share this experience; to explore our “own world” and the one surrounding us. So, since the first cycling section was going to start in Omsukchan, I decided that I will join Dimitri there. He was concerned with my lack of long distance cycling experience, but was definitely not against me joining him :-)
Before I met Dimitri, I had travel quite a bit outside of Russia and had completed long treks and hikes, but was not really into “adventures”. At least, Dimitri was glad that I had a lot of experience camping minimally and thanks to that, he was not too worried :-)
ExplorersWeb: You cycled the infamous Road of Bones with Dimitri and you ended up married. He must have been impressed with your performance on that road that is difficult to drive with a vehicle, let alone cycle on a bicycle. How did you experience the Road of Bones and what advice would you give someone who wants to cycle it?
Gulnara: After listening stories about this part of the expedition and looking through our pictures, one of my friend told me, "For Dimitri, it was his way of testing you!" :-)
It is true that you get to know a person better when you are both facing together difficult conditions. For a couple, this can be actually dangerous; since it can go in any direction… I am happy to say though that we made it through! :-) In addition, Dimitri asked me to marry me, one year after having completed together the Road of Bones. It was during our next cycling section, the night we camped 15 km before reaching the Russian-Mongolian border, and while we were in our tent experiencing a strong thundering storm... :-)
In regards to the Road of Bones, it happened that this was indeed my first long-distance cycling experience. I will not deny that the first week was not easy: riding in the rain or in a cloud of dust on a gravel road, which could definitely use some good repair/maintenance and through a few mountain passes.
Although, it worked out well because I was able to overcome my preconceived “weaknesses”, to be patient, determined and received the support and trust from my partner. As the trip when on, I became stronger, faster and Dimitri kept encouraging me with the words: "Good job, girl!” I had set a goal to reach Yakutsk together and I am glad we made it.
For me, the Road of Bones, or as they call it in Russia, "Kolymskaya trassa", was a rich cycling experience while connecting different sides of human feelings and cognitions. Going through this road you can feel the impact of the history, the sadness of human lives, hear sorrowful Gulag stories, see pictures of ghost towns and dead villages, as well as pass by a lot of graves and tombs.
However, this road is also full of beautiful and colorful landscapes, wild life, rare and interesting small towns, and plenty of kind and brave truck drivers. One of my most cherished remembrances of this road was the people we met along the way, and who wanted to share with us their big “treasure”: their home, family, food and stories from their Kolyma life, where they were exposed to harsh conditions.
So, for those who want to cycle the Road of Bones, here are the advices that I can give. For some readers, these advices may seem too simple and too general, but this came from our experience and I hope some of you can benefit from it.
First of all, have a bicycle in good technical condition, spare bicycle parts, comfortable, practical and warm clothes, as well as robust shoes.
Be prepared for a mixed range of weather conditions, depending of course on what month you are planning to ride this road.
We started in August and finished at the end of September. For example, in our situation, we were happy that at that time of the year, we no longer had to face sultry summer heat and that the hordes of mosquitoes were gradually disappearing. But in trade, we faced copious amount of rain, snow in the mountain passes as well as in the plains. The cold water in the rivers also prevented us from swimming in it. Be also prepared for the bad conditions of the road and plan accordingly to have good tires, (we had) and tubes (we used pre-filled tubes with slime). As a result, we were happy to not even experience one puncture!
Plan to have with you sufficient amount of food, and do not plan to rely on roadside cafes as well as grocery stores (which were often quite far apart with an interval of up to six hundred kilometers). For our benefit, we were able to use the remnants of Dimitri’s last winter expedition dehydrated meals and white gas. Although, since it was too much to carry everything on our bicycles for the entire distance (1960 km), because of the large volume this food and fuel represented, we found contacts in 3 locations where we were able to dispatch out food/fuel/spares along our route, sending it over by willing truck or minibus driver. This helped us a lot.
In order to increase our own safety, we also learned to hide our tent away from the road to avoid attracting the wrong kind of crowd at night. To do so, we used trees and man-made hills left behind by gold miners... Finally, be prepared for a lot of dust, some crazy drivers, bears, mosquitoes… Enjoy it slowly, and this will give you the time to build great memories, take beautiful pictures and have great encounters along the way.
Try not to ride this road just for the sake of getting this sport “trophy” as we have heard people referring it to. This is the “Road of Bones”, respect it, it has a deep and interesting past.
And finally good luck to anyone who chooses to embark on this route!
ExplorersWeb: You carried your clothes and gear on you bicycle, which is not much. What items are a must in your panniers? What did you miss, considering that space is limited?
Gulnara: Yes, it is not much. Because I have Dimitri along my side! :-)
In my panniers I had clothes, including warm ones to face colder weather, shoes (biking, hiking, sleepers and boots), sleeping bag, camping mat, first aid kit, photo camera, spare tire, thermos bottle, water bottles, food, personal hygiene related items, mosquito repellent, glasses, headlamps, bear spray, wrench, pair of books, diary, phone, chargers, cups…
I missed having more spare clothes, because sometimes after a rainy day, my clothes were dirty and they did not have the time to dry at night in the tent. It would have been nice to maybe have more books and especially some souvenirs to give away to the people :-) Often hosts wanted to give us something for us to keep in remembrance of our meeting and/or give us a lot of food items. Because it is hard to turn down a gift, we wanted to take it all, of course, but we had limited space in our panniers. We also would have liked to be able to better reciprocate gifts to thank our hosts for their warm and kind hospitality or to give gifts to their children, (besides the Nexus Expedition stickers, which we had).
.A few times we also shared some of the dehydrated meals we had, and above all shared our stories, which some of our hosts apparently were eager to hear.
ExplorersWeb: Dimitri is a veteran adventurer. What do you like best about him on expedition? What did you learn from him?
Gulnara: Yes, he is an honorary veteran adventurer :-)
What I like the most about the expedition is its mission statement: It is not just about going around the world by human power chasing speed and records, but mostly to go through the world while connecting different societies, civilizations and landscapes.
Dimitri loves to discover new places, meet people and share with them his life and stories about his expeditions. He aspires to try new things, eat new types of food, and loves being in the outdoors, surrounded by nature. I also like that Dimitri has a website where he shares his stories and experience.
I like his ability to maintain a positive energy and vibe, as well as a joyful mood on the road, despite the different circumstances and challenging weather conditions we faced. Now, I’m still learning how to gain this skill from him...
ExplorersWeb: Are you joining him in the next stage? If yes, where and when?
Gulnara: Yes! In September in Urümqi (China) or in Almaty (Kazakhstan).
I have to add, last year (2012) when we cycled in Russia (Zabaykalsky Krai) I injured my right knee ligament. Now, almost one year later, I can still feel this pain. However, I still plan to join Dimitri this year, but it will not be on a bicycle. The most likely option is now for me to ride on a motor scooter by his side while he is cycling. Yes, it is not a human powered way for me to travel and regrettably, it does not match our Nexus Expeditions logo with the two cyclists. But it is the only option I currently have for us to continue the expedition together which we have planned a long time ago before my knee started hurting.
Gulnara Kieffer is a Russian Tatar who was born in the city of Kazan, Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Federation. In 2001, she graduated from the Kazan pedagogical University (Philology Department) with a Russian language and literature teaching degree. In March 2006, Gulnara moved to Moscow where she was hired by movie production companies. There, she organized and coordinated the creation of films and musical concerts. In 2008, she started working as a manager for a Russian music recording company. Gulnara met Dimitri Kieffer in 2009 while guiding Russian artists in Morocco, and joined Nexus Expeditions in August of 2011.
Together they cycled 2100 kms from Omsukchan, Magadanskaya Oblast until they reached Yakutsk in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) Russia. Gulnara and Dimitri were married in Kazan, Russia in March of 2013 and she plans to join Dimitri again on future cycling sections. (Courtesy NExus Expeditions).
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