'I'm walking, skiing and canoeing from the Russian Arctic all the way to Istanbul'
Explorer Charlie Walker is traversing the length of the Ural mountains as part of a triathlon adventure – and a bid to understand the nature of the east-west divide
Russia has always been a favourite destination of mine. I started learning the language when I fell in love with a girl from Moldova, a romance which didn’t last but I persevered with audio lessons while cycling across Asia and through the “stan” republics of central Asia. I needed it when I drove through Siberia a few years ago and kept breaking down. The Russian people were very hospitable and helpful, and I was forever being offered bottles of home-made vodka.
Since I was about seven I’ve been fascinated by the Urals; this mountainous splinter driven into the frozen expanse of central Russia. Sparsely inhabited, it has bears, wolves and lynxes. At school I was taught that the Urals divide Europe from Asia, and they carry this aura that on “our side” there is a modern world shaped by democracy and the industrial revolution, but on the other side there is the “exotic East”. As an adult, that notion seems absurd, and the idea of travelling the length of this mountain chain, relatively low at that, makes me want to put to bed the idea that they have any sort of divisive cultural significance. Making the trip in winter, and starting in the Russian Arctic with the aim of walking, skiing and canoeing all the way down to Istanbul is a product of my masochistic side.
This journey will be unusual for me because I am travelling with a companion, Callie Morgigno. We met in Mongolia. She’s a glacier guide in Alaska and a very experienced mountaineer – an advantage when we face temperatures as low as -40C. My previous expeditions have always been solo, cycling 43,000 miles through 60 countries, walking across the Gobi desert, riding a horse across the Mongolian Steppe or canoeing down the Lulua in the Congo.
I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Moscow, where we’ll have some time before taking the 40-hour train ride up to Vorkuta in the Arctic Circle. From there we continue more than 100 miles to the island of Levdiyev to start the journey south.
Part of my struggle since I began travelling has been to turn negative loneliness into positive solitude. Callie is a philosophy lecturer and I’m hoping we are going to get to the nub of what it is about geographical boundaries that make people focus their own identities so fiercely.
I’m looking forward to reaching the Ural river and crossing into Kazakhstan. I cycled 1,000 miles through the east of the country and met nothing but kindness. One family took me into their home for several days and tried very hard to buy me a new bicycle because they thought mine was looking ropey – not surprising since it was secondhand when I had left London three years earlier. When we reach Istanbul, if the conditions are right, I’ll try to swim across the Bosphorus and make that final connection between Europe and Asia even more psychologically firm. But this is all about showing that geographical divisions are often all in the mind.
Travelling in Russia has given me a taste for borscht, which we think of as beetroot-based, but anything can go into it – noodles, meat, fish, potatoes, stale bread.
One of my aims is to prove that expeditions don’t have to be expensive.Our budget for this eight or nine-month journey is around £6,000 each. The media often focuses on big ticket expeditions costing £100,000 or more. The main disadvantage of cheaper kit is that it tends to be heavier, a consideration when you’re walking or skiing long distances, but we’ve bought most of it second hand. We’ve put a lot of time into the research and planning, but no one has walked the length of the Urals before, so there are bound to be obstacles. The maps are outdated, but the physical landscape hasn’t changed since the Soviet military maps were drawn in the 1950s.
It might sound cliched but vast open landscapes really do allow me to think better. I’m not a fan of jungles, and forests. Steppes, deserts and tundra set me free. I used to deny it when people asked if I was running away from something when I go to these empty spaces. I have a need to disrupt the routine of life, and shake things up a bit. I’m terrified of stagnation.• Charlie Walker is raising money for Médecins Sans Frontières. He leaves for Russia on 14 February and his journey can be followed on followingtheline.com ■