Monday, November 17, 2014

Cycling Home From Siberia: A Book Review of a Great Adventure

Photo courtesy of

With an Arctic cold front blasting through Texas right about now, what better time than now to do a book review about riding a bicycle through really cold places such as Siberia and Tibet. This book will motivate it's readers to grab their winter gear and harden up on their bicycles as they read the account of riding through sub-zero temperatures and rugged landscapes. This has to be one of my all time favorite reads, as it combines my love for cycling and travel into one ultimate adventure. In the following review I will do my best to summarize this book as objectively and accurately as I can.

The book begins in Magadan, a coastal town on the edge of Russia around September of 2004. Ten years the author's junior, at the time I had graduated high school that year and I was on my first fall semester in college. Rob Lilwall was already a college professor and an accomplished book salesman when he began his journey. What was originally planned as a one year journey through Siberia ended up in a three year tour of southeast Asia, the Pacific, Australia, India and the Middle East. The author goes into vivid detail describing the weather, majestic climbs and descending valleys as well as the hospitality of strangers, many of little means living in the developing world. What makes this book so great is the vivid imagery that the author uses to describe the people and landscapes. The author also makes us aware that although performing an incredible feat by cycling through most of the world, he is also human and at times struggles with inner conflicts. At the start of the journey his lack of confidence and insecurities glaringly show, but in the end his travels have made him a braver, experienced and more self-reliant person. The key to his success in his travels was that wherever he went, he made himself a likable guy. Every time he would go into a different country for example, he would translate a letter in the language of that country explaining why he was cycling around the world. Most people who read the letter were all too happy to give him a place to stay. 

The author also includes some short essays about religion in his book. He expresses his own views at times about his faith and has made an effort throughout his life to develop a moral compass, something that is severely lacking in today's society. Although he found a girlfriend throughout his journey, he strongly believed that relations before marriage were wrong and was able to keep the relationship going for the next two years until he returned to England and married her. That mirrors my own views that I personally have had about this subject throughout my life. The author also makes a distinction between those to practice the faith and those who give it a bad name. The author gives the example of how much of the debased entertainment made by hollywood is seen by foreigners to be coming from Christian people, under the assumption that all Westerners are religious and Christian and would practice what is on TV. Although a man of strong convictions, the author gives the impression that even he does not have a complete picture of everything involving his faith. Through his own account, he describes how rival churches in Papua New Guinea, although each professing to believe in the Bible, have intimidated and even killed each other seeing the other as competition for recruiting members. The bible defines Jesus's disciples as having love for one another (John 13:35). That means true Christians will not go to war against one another and will treat each other the same everywhere in the world.

Although the author credits and to some extent emphasizes the hospitality of Churches for giving him a place to stay, he was also taken in by many people who did not share his beliefs as many believed in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or whatever the predominant religion of the region was. It may have been the regional customs of hospitality and a sense of doing the right thing or simply human decency that motivated many of the author's hosts to take him in for the night rather than a shared religious belief. The author also recurrently mentions the church-backed aid organization that he is raising funds for to help needy children throughout the world. Although  there is no doubt the author has a strong and sincere desire to help others, that is not the be all end all expression of the Christian faith. Jesus also gave us the commandment to preach the good news and to make disciples of people of all nations (Matthew 24:14, 28:19). Those who go from door to door the way Jesus did and observing this commandment can be considered among those who practice true Christianity. Rather than focusing on the door to door ministry, many mainstream religions that call themselves Christian think they can achieve this by converting members through aid in developing countries, hence coining the phrase "Rice Christians". However, those who study the Bible know that the desire to serve God comes from the heart and not for personal gain. Those would be the talking points that I would engage the author with if I were to meet him in person. The author's efforts to practice Christianity are laudable and are better than most, however I have to respectfully disagree on more than one of the subjects he brought up in his book. I will have to say he took an objective approach in expressing his views and I was neither offended nor uncomfortable in reading his book. The mention of his faith and beliefs were inconsequential to the rest of the story. However, as a man of faith myself, I have to clear the air about this subject since I am recommending this book by reviewing it and would like to share the discrepancies that I found with readers of my blog. In conclusion, the religious views expressed in the book should be looked at as reference material only.*

The author makes us aware that his journey by bicycle wasn't some idyllic, stroll around a bucolic world, rather there were some nitty gritty and dangerous aspects about it as well. He was robbed twice, once at gunpoint and had to dodge border crossings while crossing Tibet, a country that he couldn't get a Visa to travel in and was therefore in the country illegally. He was chased by a mob of machete wielding bandits in Papua New Guinea and contracted malaria after his stay there. For those of you who like an adventure story, this book has that as well. 

In conclusion, this is a well rounded account of a world travel by bicycle and the obstacles and challenges faced by such a journey. This book answered a lot of my questions about bikepacking, world travel and what gear to carry with me if I were to go on such an expedition. I don't think that this type of adventuring is for me. Not everyone has the time or the resources that Rob Lilwall had when he made this journey. In ten years the world has also changed, and some of the countries he rode through have become more dangerous to outsiders. I would like to plan a weekend trip to a state park on bicycle one day. That is the only type of bikepacking that I can see myself doing in the near future. Maybe when my son is older we can do a father son bike tour, but definitely not on the scale of Lilwall's journey.

This was a good read and a remedy for my cabin fever. If the cold weather is bringing you down and you need some motivation to ride, definitely pick up a copy at a book store near you. 

Stay tuned for more reviews and posts and subscribe to my blog for more updates.

*Ten years ago, when I was in school, it was very common to have student theologians (Southern Baptists, never any other type of religion) visit our campus and have discussions about religion with anyone who would listen to them. The nearby church would host events in the school auditorium, often times with religious rock music inviting people to their church parties and I had to excuse myself from going to such events on many occasions. Back then school districts blurred the line between separation of church and state, something that is no longer heard of these days.  It was 2004, it was the Bush Era, and it was a bible-thumping under the guise of piety kind of time to be living in. Rob Lilwall is from that generation of theologians, that's why it doesn't bother me as much. 

No comments:

Post a Comment