Needing to find a route back to the UK on their round the world ride, Matt Bishop and Reece Gilkes have no option but to face a brutal Siberian winter.
In 2015, Reece Gilkes and I came up with the idea to be the first people to ever circumnavigate the globe on a scooter with a sidecar. It took us two years to get the project off the ground and with no prior knowledge of motorcycles we really had to start from scratch. We spent every hour we could find either planning, preparing or trying to learn how to ride a motorbike. Then, on 21 October 2017, we set off on our mission. Our goal was to use the project to raise money and awareness for organisations fighting modern slavery.
Cut to a year later and we were in Canada, wondering where to go next. We had just ridden from London to Cape Town and then Santiago to Vancouver. We had originally planned to ship to Singapore and ride home via South East Asia but despite all of our best efforts in the planning room, there was just no way through. We couldn’t pass through the Himalayas because of the time of year and there would be too much snow on the passes. Even if it was summer, we would have struggled because of the altitude (we learnt that the hard way after literally pushing the outfit through the Andes).
The other options were to either go through Iran or China. China has the whole compulsory guide thing so prices for our kind of trip would have been upward of £10,000 (way, way out of budget), and Iran had just decided to stop all people with a UK passport riding through their country – even with a guide. This ruled Singapore out. We had to look for another way home, and there was only one: through Siberia…
By the time we had got the bike to Vladivostok, far-east Russia, and got it out of the port, it was 14 November 2018. We were going to be facing one of the harshest landscapes in the world, bang in the middle of winter. We tried to equip ourselves and the scooter as best we could, fitting a screen as well as Oxford heated grips and a couple of the Oxford scooter skirts to keep the wind chill at bay. For us, we bought arctic parka jackets from Canada and had some Snugpak insulation layers from the UK too. After giving the bike the service of its life in Vladivostok, we were ready, and we headed out into the abyss.
The first few days were fairly plain sailing. It was a chilly -10 or -15C, but there was no snow and very little ice and we were riding on some well-maintained roads. The landscape was about as bleak as you could possibly imagine though. Very flat, very grey and only broken up by the odd concrete tower block or dirty plume of smoke coming from some sort of factory. We pressed on in these conditions for a couple of days. It was boring, but it was a doddle. Then around 100 miles short of Khabarovsk the snow came. We woke up to a winter wonderland. The boring grey landscape had been transformed into this wonderful, frozen picture-postcard of a place. Everything was bright white and glistening, including the roads.
We were super excited – this was going to be a real adventure and we were filled with nervous anticipation – what on earth was it going to be like? Having never ridden our scooter and sidecar in the snow, we had absolutely no idea if it would move or how it would handle. Prior to setting off, we tried for ages to source some decent winter tyres that would fit the bike. Anything would have done – spikes, big knobblies or even a snow chain, but we couldn’t get anything that would work. We ended up going for a set of Michelin City Grips which are a really good tyre – if you’re on a tarmac.
Amazingly, the sidecar pulled off, we packed up our four 50L roll bags full of kit and headed out into the snow. We immediately got stuck on the small incline leading on to the slip road on to the trans-Siberian highway. I had to get out and walk on to the highway while Reece went back down and floored it out of the carpark in order to get on to the main road. I met him there, sweating buckets having walked 500m in my arctic gear. We spent the rest of the day trundling along at around 25mph. We were slipping and sliding around as we tried to drive in the paths that the lorries had cut out for us. That first day was fun. It was cold, it was scary, but the adrenaline was pumping and, despite the conditions, we were actually moving in the right direction – something many people told us would never happen.
We arrived in Khabarovsk that night completely drained and in need of a good lie down. We found a suitably cheap motel and flopped on to our beds. Thirty minutes later. our silent, lying-down time was rudely interrupted by a knock at the door. I opened up to a smiling Russian guy holding a bottle of vodka and some tomato juice. Behind him was a waitress holding two bowls of piping hot soup. “Eat. Drink vodka?”, said the Russian guy, smiling from ear to ear. Starving hungry and keen for a stiff drink, we gleefully welcomed him in – he gestured for us to start eating. Five minutes later and there’s another knock at the door. The waitress was back, but this time with two steak dinners! We were blown away. We had been living off soup and noodles since we arrived in Russia and our eyes lit up. He handed us the steaks and gestured for us to tuck in again.
We spent the next few hours hanging out with this guy. He spoke no English and we spoke no Russian, but with every passing shot of vodka we understood his toasts even more. Through the aid of Google Translate and our exceptional charades skills, we had full conversations with him. All manner of subjects were covered, from Russia’s involvement in Syria, to Brexit and even to the age old Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi debate. It turned out he was in the army and didn’t want to be put on our social media or have his name mentioned anywhere. He just wanted to welcome us to his country and have a good laugh. In the end, we all drank a bit too much vodka. It was our first experience of Russian hospitality and it was brilliant.
The following morning, we woke up feeling pretty hungover and we were staring down the barrel of the most isolated part of the journey. From here, we would have to continue north to skirt around the top of China before we could start heading south again towards Chita, the next big town, some 1,250 miles away. We knew there would be many villages and roadside motels in between Khabarovsk and Chita, but a look on Google Maps would tell us that there could be stretches of hundreds of miles of completely nothing. We had Russian guys on Facebook messaging us and asking us not to continue, stressing that we really would go hundreds of miles without seeing another person. Armed with our hangovers, we carried on anyway.
We spent the next couple of days crawling up the side of China. With every mile further north, the conditions seemed to get worse. It got colder, but worse than that, it seemed to get brighter. The sun well and truly had his hat on, and the landscape was so, so bright. All we had to protect our eyes was our sun visors in our helmets, and we couldn’t use them because they froze up too quickly. In fact, by this point we couldn’t use our visors at all. Temperatures were around -25C, which makes the moisture in your breath freeze up, causing a sheet of ice to form in-between the visor and pin lock. We had to just squint and hope. We would enter rooms and be stumbling around thinking they were pitch black while we waited for our eyes to readjust.
By 19 November things started to feel really cold. Temperatures dropped in to the low -20Cs and the wind picked up. At that temperature, when the wind really starts blowing, it’s just awful. Each gust feels like it cuts right through you and any skin you leave exposed, even for a millisecond, feels like it’s getting ripped off and carried away. Surprisingly, the coldest place to be in these conditions is in the sidecar. You’d think that the screen and roof would protect you a bit but because you literally sit and do nothing, you just freeze up. At least on the bike, you’re fighting the sidecar to stay on the road and you’re keeping warm that way.
Around midday, I had been sat in the sidecar for an hour and I was properly cold. We just needed to get inside to reset. I asked Reece to pull in at anything we could find. Travelling at around 40mph, this can be a long time; 30 miles passed and nothing. 40 miles, nothing. I was at breaking point. The pain in my toes and fingers was too much and I felt cold to the bone. I asked Reece to pull over on the side of the road so we could run around a bit at least. It didn’t help. The wind just cut through us. I was a mess. I had let myself get too cold and all the running around I was doing wasn’t saving me. Reece risked it all and whipped off his glove to look at Google Maps. He found that there was a restaurant just 15 miles up the road. We got back in and headed straight there.
About twenty or thirty minutes later we pulled in to a truck stop and headed for a cabin. It was an old truck converted in to a little coffee shop, so it was super small. We must have looked ridiculous when we arrived. Both of us were so cold that we flung open the door in full gear. The warm air from inside, flooded out as we entered, and we appeared as a silhouette in the mist. I imagine the friendly Russian lady behind the till was half expecting us to say “tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…” – but instead, we moaned and grumbled to each other as we stripped down to our jeans and jumpers.
After about ten minutes of faffing, we had got settled in and we were tucking into our borscht and slurping coffee when a friendly guy came and started chatting to us in Russian. This had happened very regularly before, but this was different – he just kept going and kept smiling. At this point, we were both trying to work out if we still had all ten toes and although he seemed like a nice guy, we really didn’t have too much patience for a full game of charades. He persisted nonetheless and then eventually took out his phone and began to show everyone videos of us driving, as well as our Spot tracker page. It turned out he had been tracking us since Vladivostok and as we were passing through his neck of the woods, he thought he would come and see if we needed any help. His name was Claus and he was the first of many, many others.
Over the weeks that followed, we were more or less passed along by groups of people like Claus. At every reasonably sized town there was a group waiting to greet us, literally by the roadside, in -20-30C. They’d be stood waiting for our arrival with motorbikes or welcome banners. Further to that, we had guys driving miles to come and find us and give us gifts – gherkins, honey, badges, mugs and all sorts of other things – oh and plenty of vodka. We stayed with another host almost every night, it was an amazing but very intense experience. There was no respite, gruesome cold in the day and gruesome amounts of vodka by night.
After Claus left us in the café that day, we pressed on for another 60 miles to a town called Uglegorsk. We had seen on the map that there were a couple of hotels there. Knowing that we could safely get our heads down for the night, we pulled in about five miles short to take some photos in the sunset. It turned out to be a big mistake. We arrived to Uglegorsk and found a fifty-foot concrete wall surrounding it. It was a closed city. It turned out we had scooted in to some kind of super-secure Russian rocket ship military base.
You couldn’t write it. It was now pretty much dark and the only two hotels in town were the other side of a massive wall. The security guys were telling us we couldn’t go in and there was nowhere around to stay. We were flummoxed. I mean, what are the chances of accidently planning to stay at Putin’s secret space base? We were looking at cracking the tent out in the car park, when a guard told us there was a trucker motel a couple of miles away that wasn’t on Google Maps. We rode off in to the dark and sure enough, 15 minutes later, stumbled across a truck stop. It was a huge relief!
Over the following days, we made it around the top of China and down to Chita. There were truck stops the whole way and although it was the hardest thing either of us had ever done, there was always somewhere warm to get in at night. We arrived in Chita feeling pretty enthused. It had been horrible, but we had done it. We had been through the coldest and most exposed part and come out unharmed – it would be plain sailing from here.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the next few weeks, temperatures dropped to lower than -40C at night and we drove in -37C. When you get to those temperatures, nothing works and everything hurts. The batteries in your phone/GPS die so there are no directions. When you walk outside, the cold feels like it creeps down inside you and squeezes your lungs, making you cough and splutter for the first two minutes until you adjust. Your nostril hairs freeze together within five seconds and there’s still no option to ride with your visor down, so you have to just take it in the face. You sit there while your eyelashes slowly freeze together, and you have to remember to wrinkle your skin to prevent frostbite. It’s really extreme, far too extreme for a couple of small-town boys from the UK.
We faced all sorts of challenges along the way and had a couple of fairly major breakdowns on the side of the road. The cold causes all sort of seals to break and bolts to come loose but although that stuff was tough, it wasn’t what made this challenge truly hard. That was the fear. There was a constant and persistent fear when you were sat in the sidecar. The majority of the time that you were sat in the seat, you were sat in the dark. You would just let the helmet freeze over and stare at the ice while you waited to get to the next fuel stop. Sitting there waiting to feel the next slip and waiting to see if it was going to take you into the path of a lorry, was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
We sat through this for another 3,700-miles-or-so until we arrived in Moscow. It was more or less four weeks of constant fear and freezing cold conditions. It genuinely did get us down at times but fortunately, the Russian people dragged us through. They supported us every step of the way and did all they could to raise our spirits and make the riding more comfortable. Despite what you might see in the mainstream media, the Russian people are some of the most hospitable, welcoming people you will find anywhere on Earth. They have some crazy traditions, and some of these will leave you with quite the hangover, but they’re a friendly bunch and I’d recommend travelling there to anyone. But if you’re planning on taking your bike, please, please go in the summer!
The scooter and sidecar
The scooter and sidecar is a homemade, one off, record breaking, feat of engineering. The Honda SH300i, bought brand new in 2017, is mounted to a custom-built sidecar. The sidecar was made by brothers Charlie and Richard Prescott and their team. Just a group of volunteers in a barn, the Prescott brothers and team built the sidecar completely from scratch. It didn’t seem like a tape measure was used once but the guys constructed a night on perfect rig. During its 455 days on the road, the outfit took the battering of its life but emerged victorious as the first vehicle of its kind to fully circumnavigate the globe.