Monday, March 8, 2010

Off the map

I just finished a book called Off the map : bicycling across Siberia by Mark Jenkins.  The literary style, or lack thereof, made it brutally painful to read but the content was rather intriguing.  A team of American and Soviet cyclists were put together to ride from Kamchatka to Leningrad during the cold war in the late 1980's.  This expedition was documented by a film maker who assembled the team.  Evidently this was new territory.  No American cyclist had ever been permitted to take this journey and no American film maker had been able to film Siberia at all.  I think the author brought back too much of the Soviet Union with him and wrote this book masked behind smoke and mirrors.  The book left a lot of questions and unknowns about their actual experiences, maybe because they didn't quite understand themselves.  I was amazed with the secrecy and  bureaucracy involved with the simplest of tasks, even just dining at a restaurant or purchasing food.  Nothing is ever available although it might be right in front of your face.  I wish the author would have ditched his annoying, forced poetic style and just wrote about his experiences, maybe explaining a thing or two along the way.  Some things that I found interesting is that there was really only one road that went through Siberia and it was rather incomplete.  There was a stretch of 750 miles that they traveled through swamps either pushing their bikes along the railroad tracks or riding short stints on random trails they encountered taking them from village to village until the trails faded and they where forced back to the rails.  Even where there was a road, it usually wasn't paved.  They were monitored at all times by Soviet police and their interaction with the locals was limited and usually staged.  They were able to lose the police (and the KGB) in the marshlands and had true experiences with real Russians. 

It was an interesting book.  I don't think I'd actually recommend it to anyone because of the difficult writing style.  I threatened to take it back to the library several times but decided the story was interesting enough to continue.

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