Heading west from Novosibirsk, a giant industrial city in central Siberia, the earth becomes flat as the spine of a drunkard asleep on the floor. You can turn in any direction and see the same thing: a seemingly endless expanse of prairie without the slightest dip, hill, or rise in the terrain.
From the port city of Vladivostok, on the Russian Pacific coast, my friend Ellery Althaus and I have traveled 3,800 miles across Russia in our attempt to cycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic. After four months of riding on pothole-ridden Russian roads, our journey has brought us to the steppe: a vast expanse of flat grassland and swamp that encompasses much of the Central Asian part of Russia.
Twenty years ago, Mark Jenkins, an American writer for National Geographic, arrived here with a group of cyclists and made the first ever coast-to-coast crossing of the former Soviet Union.1 Before embarking on our trip, we contacted Jenkins and asked him what problems we might confront. Jenkins replied with an informative e-mail, but ended his electronic epistle with a cautionary tone. “Riding across Russia,” he wrote, “the westerlies, prevailing winds in the northern latitudes, will blow against you on the steppe. We battled strong headwinds that significantly slowed us down. I would seriously consider going the other way.”
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