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Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall

Cycling Home from Siberia is one of those books where the reader is compelled to learn rather more about the author personally than he really wanted to know. The audacity of the journey, however, makes it pretty compelling reading. Rob Lilwall left a mundane teaching job to cycle from Russia’s Pacific coast back home to London, but he was quickly taken by the adventures of the road and turned his journey into a three-year, 35,000 kilometre odyssey via Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall
Cycling Home from Siberia, Rob Lilwall (Hodder & Stoughton General Division, August 2010; Howard Books, April 2011)

A major motive for his breaking away was a crippling shyness which he hoped to overcome by the necessity of dealing with new people daily on the road. Sadly, this shyness deterred him from interviewing in depth those he met or investigating in detail what he saw, so Cycling Home from Siberia has little of Thubron or Theroux about it. The narrative focuses instead on the difficulties of the road—being held up at gunpoint in the middle of nowhere, being chased by “rascals” in New Guinea or dealing with savage dogs in Tibet. His adventures are not without interest, but between adventures Lilwall shares his lonely musings, many rather shallow and on religious topics. At the same time, whole countries, lacking perhaps in memorable adventures, get scarcely a mention, among them Malaysia and Vietnam. As he remarks on leaving Iran, “It was yet another country of which I had only skimmed the surface.”

Lilwall did, though, pioneer a new system of adventure travel which seems destined to revolutionize the field. He declared that the journey was raising funds for a charity, then created a website on which he could blog about his progress. His posts were apparently very effective in eliciting offers of accommodation, particularly from teachers, missionaries and aid workers in isolated outposts. This led to his spending many nights in the company of English-speaking expatriates, but it helped mitigate the shyness problem, and he spent only GBP8000 in three years on the road.

Forgive Lilwall his religious digressions. If you like the Dervla Murphy style of escapism (and masochism), you’ll love this one.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People's Republic.