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ExWeb interview with Dimitri Kieffer: lessons from a bicycle saddle

Posted: May 31, 2012 09:51 pm EDT

(Correne Coetzer - updated: added image ) On June 1 Dimitri Kieffer is on his bicycle again to start the ninth section of his human powered expedition around the world. This time it is a long way, says Dimitri to ExWeb, 6730km from Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russia to Astana in Kazakhstan.

Dimitri tells about his previous cycling section last year, the people he and his girlfriend and expedition partner met, the preparation and planning for these sections, and the challenges that lies ahead, among others as he travels with a US passport and Gulnara with a Russian passport.

ExplorersWeb: Tell us a bit about the previous cycling stage please?

Dimitri: A great adventure/experience that I was glad to be able to share with my girlfriend and expedition partner Gulnara Miftakhova.

We started with the mountainous Omsukchan road for the first 250 kilometers until we joined the M 56 Kolyma Highway aka "Road of Bones". This first section was a busy, dusty, dangerous narrow road where we were passed by countless trucks coming in/out of Omsukchan and Ducat silver and gold ore mines.

We then rode 1712 kilometers on the M56 Kolyma Highway through Magadanskaya Oblast and the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).

We decided to go with the "new" road and forgo the "old" road between Kadykchan and Kyubyume (even if it meant an additional 110 km of cycling for our route), because we received reports from travelers who tried and failed to take the old route in landcruisers/kamaz and motorcycles from both sides (Kadykchan and Kyubyume) and told us that at this time of the year (early September) the rivers were way too high and too furious to cross/ford safely on bikes and/or by foot.

We arrived in Nizhny Bestyakh, Friday night Sept 30th, on our 49th day, after having completed 1962 "official" kilometers since Omsukchan.

Our 49 days journey included:
42 cycling days from Omsukchan to Yakutsk (Nishny Bestyakh) and our row across the Aldan river!

7 visiting/socializing/resting days which we took along the way to:

* visit gold and coal mines, interesting museums, gulag ruins, meteorologist stations, road construction settlements, a dairy farm and a fire station.

* take the time to connect with interesting characters, making countless new friends along our way: road builders, gold and coal miners, truck drivers, arctic permafrost researchers, firemen, museum keepers, journalists, mini bus drivers, photographers, meteorologists, hunters, fishermen, musicians, a Portuguese motorcyclist and a travelling British adventurous couple in their 4x4.

ExplorersWeb: You always meet interesting people, who stand out during your last stage?

Dimitri: Well, not one in particular but I would say more like a kaleidoscope of interesting characters (as I just mentioned above) that we were blessed enough to meet along our way.

Russians often asked me “Zachem?” (“What for?”), to which I usually like to respond: “So, that I can meet you! Arriving in a village/settlement by human power allows us to have a completely different contact with the locals. We are no longer viewed as annoying tourists (if they are any in the regions we cross!)

Rather as “travelers” that are potentially worth meeting, talk to, and share a meal with.

Along those lines, this is why our expedition is called: “Nexus” – “To connect”. Connecting with the people/cultures/landscapes that we come across…

Our most memorable nights were spent with farmers, road workers, musicians, gold and coal miners, meteorologists, and a stranded truck driver, able to experience a slice of their lives…

I love to hear after a good night of discussion: “Klassna Sidim” (“That was a nice sit-down!”)

ExplorersWeb: What have you learned last time that you don’t want to do again?

Dimitri: Currently learning how to better maintain our bicycles on a daily basis so that we can get more mileage out of them, repairs-free… Better daily cleaning, oiling the chain every 50kms, etc…

ExplorersWeb: What were “wow” moments?

Dimitri: The beautiful Landscape and the incredible fall foliage.

Getting over some of the more challenging snowy mountain passes.

Able to find a row boat to successfully cross the Aldan river by human power.

Able to experience the strong local Sakha culture in Yakutia/Sakha Republic, present through so many monuments, prayer flags, totems, wooden statues, cemeteries placed along the Kolyma (M56) highway.

Being able to learn about the gulag history, gold and coal mining culture.

The incredible hospitality that was demonstrated towards us by everyone we met along the way.

ExplorersWeb: When you want to cycle through countries like these, what preparation and planning are have to be done before arrive there?

Dimitri: Local Visas / Permits:

You need to make sure your passport is at least valid for 6 more months after your entrance day, not torn at all, in a good shape.

Need to make sure you have all the proper local visas for the amount of time needed, and potential required permits when you are near border zones and/or sensitive areas, such as the Chinese Xinjiang province or some of the Russian border zones.

Have a letter to explain in the local languages who you are, what you are doing and what is your route. Explain as well in this letter if you will need help to register locally, get internet access, a place to stay, etc…

Make this letter as officially looking as possible. It will help dealing with local authorities.


Study maps carefully / research on the internet to define what could be potentially the best route.
However, try to keep your schedule.

Be flexible enough, if you can, to be able to make potential changes if needed.

In very remote sections, you may need to plan ahead your food and fuel supply, finding a trustworthy contact willing to ship ahead of time your supplies to a few locations, potentially 500-1000 kms apart. This is not always feasible when crossing borders.

Try to learn the local language at least a little bit if you don’t share the knowledge of a common language with the region you are about to cross.

Try to get a separate credit card to only use on your expedition. In case if it gets stolen, your automated bank payments back home will not have to be all reset. Try to set up most of your bills on autopay, the least you will have to try to access the internet to take care of these matters while being away from home, the better.

Bring enough cash to pay along the way, split it and hide some of it.

Out of the big cities, foreign credit cards are rarely accepted.

Update your website/blog (if you have/need one) as much as you can, prior to your departure.
It will be more complicated to get it done while on the road.

Establish local contact (if possible):

The more good apples you know, the better! It will make a world of difference.

Don’t try to rely too heavily on one local contact, you would miss out on the opportunity to meet other locals and you could potentially wear thin your relationship with your initial local contact.

Try to find the best local bike shops who can try to help you fix/replace any broken parts even potentially in remote parts of the world.


Research carefully what is the best and most reliable gear you can get.

Be prepared to deal with the mosquitoes, tics, bears, rain, dust, sickness, mud, dehydration, sun exposure, hypothermia, snow, heat, cold and drunken locals.

Take electrolytes, antibiotics, pain killers, whatever medications you might need ahead of time. Often local pharmacies are either non-existent or quite depleted.

Cover your printed maps with “plastified” “Contact” paper as well as your important documents to protect them.

Bike Metal frames are easier to weld if needed.

Extended frames such as xtracycle might work better than trailers.

Bring good lube oil, good spare parts, tools, great tires filled with slimes (to reduce the amount of punctures). Bring extra tubes and an extra tire.

Bring the white gas you need or a stove that can be modified to burn regular fuel.

Get a proper 4 seasons spacious tent with a mosquito screen,

Bring handwarmers if you are going to be facing colder climates.


Take a small laptop + an external hard drive, unlocked cheap phone and/or sat phone. Be prepared to be able to work with very slow internet access.

Bring a few small flashcards to copy local photos/films/docs from local friends. Be prepared to have these flashcards potentially infested with virus and know how clean them.

Bring enough SIM cards to film and shoot. Bring flashlights cameras that can be recharged with power outlets. In more remote locations, either use solar panels and/or lithium batteries. Bring these lithium batteries from home, if you need them.

Danger prevention:

Drive as defensively as you can. Remember that in most parts of the world, as a cyclist, you really do not have the right of way. When in doubt, get off the road!

Wear bright clothing. Try not to ride at night.

Wear a helmet and protective eyewear: on unpaved roads, large trucks driving by, will project tiny rocks in all directions.

Don’t plan on listening to music most of the time: definitely not when you are trying to be driving defensively and/or while in the tent if you are in bear country.

In challenging/depressed/dangerous parts of world, be on the lookout, especially if you travel alone.

Camp away from roads (if possible) and especially away from villages, unless you are kindly invited into someone’s home.

Avoid intoxicated crowds (especially if you don’t understand the local language), and try not to arrive in a village at night (especially on a Friday or Saturday night).

Lock your bike at night near your tent.

May want to have a spare wallet with a few old expired cards and cash to give away in the event of a mugging.

When stopping in a village, Try to take your most important belongings with you, and try to always keep an eye on your bike. Hide your passport and emergency cash as much as you can and try to not display too many signs of wealth. Try not to pull out a sat phone or laptop in public.

Stop to eat in a local place (if available) where most truck drivers stop. It’s usually safer and tastier there.

ExplorersWeb: Challenges for the next stage?

Dimitri: The distances: I plan to at least get to Astana in Kazakhstan, which is approximately 6730kms away from Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russia and that is a long way…

Road conditions: the first 1000kms between Yakutsk (Sakha Republic) and Never ( Amur oblast) are unpaved and supposed to be quite brutal.

The road conditions in Mongolia and Kazakhstan might not be so great either.

We have chosen to go through Mongolia, which is definitely not the shortest route, westbound because:
- Mongolia is one of the last few countries where a good percentage of the population still maintains a nomadic lifestyle and that is something we definitely want to witness/experience in addition to riding through Mongolian steppes.

- Furthermore, my Russian visa only allows me 3 months in the country at the time. Therefore to make substantial progress, I need to be able to zigzag westward between Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China.

We are also definitely looking forward to riding through Kazakhstan and the Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (PRC), but before all of that, I still need to cover 3180kms in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia…

Visa restrictions: Gulnara (with her Russian passport) and myself (travelling with my American passport) are facing different restrictions. As a Russian, she faces more visa restrictions in Mongolia and China while I face more stringent rules in Russia and Kazakhstan. Which means that we have to carefully plan our route and try to live by a committed schedule to satisfy visa regulations.

Potential problems entering the Xinjiang province, China from Mongolia: We were told that because we are bicycling, (and not travelling by motorcycle or car), we do not need a special permit and are not required to be escorted by guides.

However, in this volatile part of the world, anything can change suddenly. For that matter, if we are refused entry unescorted into China, we will have to make sure that we have enough remaining days on our Mongolian visas to be able to cycle and leave the country through the North, into Russia.

Dangers: Some sections of the highway M58 are going through a few dangerous/depressed/poor towns such as Skorovodino (Amur Oblast) and Mogacha (Zabaykalsky Krai) where a few solo traveling motorcyclists have been attacked/robbed and/or killed in recent years. I will have to be very vigilant in that region, camping away from these ill-reputed villages.

Dimitri Kieffer was born in France and moved to the USA when he was 17. He runs ultra-marathons and participates in adventure races. Since 2005, Dimitri has continued to evolve, transferring from adventure racing to full blown expeditions, like this Circumnavigation around the Globe with only using human power.

The circumnavigation started on February 26, 2005 at Knik Lake, near Anchorage, Alaska. Dimitri plans to complete the entire Nexus Expedition by 2016. Read more about his past and current route here.

In 2011 Dimitri’s Russian girlfriend, Gulnara Miftakhova, cycled with him the eighth section from Omsukchan, Magadanskaya Oblast to Yakutsk in the Republic of Sakha. Approx. 1760 km

On the 2012 section Dimitri will cover the first 2240 km (~1400 miles) alone between Yakutsk (Yakutia – Sakha Republic, Russia) and Chita (Zabaykalsky Krai, Far Eastern Russia). Thereafter Gulnara plans to join him.

Below – Dimitri: “A short concoction of some of the videos, Gulnara and I have shot on the trail over the years. This might get some of you amused!”

This expedition (and other expeditions with RSS feeds) can be followed in the links streams at the Pythom app and at ExplorersWeb

ExplorersWeb Expedition List
#Trek #interview

"We are also definitely looking forward to riding through Kazakhstan and the Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (PRC), but before all of that, I still need to cover 3180kms in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia…"
"May want to have a spare wallet with a few old expired cards and cash to give away in the event of a mugging." In the image Dimitri during a muddy day, 2011 Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).
Route map.
courtesy Dimitri Kieffer, SOURCE
Dimitri writes his most important medical information on paper (here in Russian & English), plastifies it and keeps it inside his wallet and somewhere else quite visible. “I actually thought a few times considering getting my first tattoo with this permanent information,” he says. He also prints out a copy of the most important postal addresses so that once in a while he can write postcards “(if I find any...) to send to the people the closest to my heart.”
courtesy Dimitri Kieffer