Courtesy Yves Gauthier and the Museum of Pskov

The Centaur of the Arctic

This article first appeared in the October/November 2022 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

In 1928, Russian Gleb Travin dreamed of cycling around the world by crossing the Bering Strait all the way to Alaska, but Stalin was in power. It was already a gloomy time for many Russians, and then the country sealed itself off from the outside world. Travin was, however, able to leave the peninsula of Kamchatka and tour the USSR on his bicycle in 52,817 international miles1 by pedaling clockwise, to only come back three years later.

Gleb Travin was born in 1907 near Pskov in western Russia, about 20 kilometers from Estonia. His father, a forestry guard, came home injured and disabled from his military service and became the guardian of a depot of kvass,2 at a time when Bolshevik naturalism was in vogue. Travin’s school instructor organized evenings around the fire in which he recited stories about his voyages. Young Gleb quickly became passionate for wilderness — he rapidly learned how to use hunting firearms and honed his sense of direction and knowledge of regional fauna and flora so well that, at 20 years old, he became a youth counselor.

Even though the wilderness was becoming his university, he went on to study geography and become, in parallel, an electrician, the expression of modernity to which this young country pretended to direct itself during a time when Lenin proclaimed, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” Right at the start, Travin’s cycling dream was at a crossroads with the revolutionary era in which he lived, even though he adhered to it.

bicycle touring USSR
Fishing, hunting, and collecting berries, Gleb Travin traveled light and close to nature. Today’s bikepacking equipment has come full circle and once again looks like his. 
Courtesy Yves Gauthier and the Museum of Pskov

Primal Shock

Travin had of course heard about Onisim Pankratov (1888–1916), a master horologist of his time and the first Russian to have toured the world on a bicycle — a “Gritzner” — over the span of two years and 18 days, from 1911 to 1913. Pankratov worked as a firefighter but was active in many different sports. He crossed Siberia and arrived in Moscow after 6,214 miles, four months, and a few pistol shots. He then went to Saint Petersburg, traveling to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Balkans, and England before embarking for the U.S. by ferry. From San Francisco, he took another ferry to Seoul, Korea, then Japan and the Chinese town of Harbin where his parents lived. During his adventure, he changed 52 tires, 36 inner tubes, nine chains, eight pedals, four saddles, two handlebars, many lights, and multiple other various bike parts. Pankratov received four crosses of Saint George, recognizing his courage as a pilot on the German front during the First World War, where he would later be killed.

But the true shock that inspired Travin’s dream of traveling the world on two wheels was the arrival of Adolf de Groot, which he learned about through a photograph in the local newspaper. Having already traveled across Europe, de Groot decided to traverse Russia, Persia, and Africa before arriving in Amsterdam through the Strait of Gibraltar. Travin would name him the “flying Dutchman.” One year prior to this, Travin bought himself his first bicycle, a Leitner, as he was returning from a hunter’s congress in Moscow.  

bicycle touring USSR
Young Travin: a strong, fearless, and resourceful visionary.
Courtesy Yves Gauthier and the Museum of Pskov

Cycling, the Road, and Collectivism

At the time, a bicycle was rare and expensive. In Pskov, the only bicycle was owned by the local banker. A bicycle was the expression of a type of modernity at the same time as being of a dreamy and romantic nature. Leo Tolstoy, who started pedaling at the age of 60, became one of the first true Russian cyclists.3 The bicycle, still quite unknown in this vast country, was despised as too extravagant and too individual, just like the automobile. Bike touring was considered a real burden to the country’s ideology, philosophy, and current thought of its time: collectivism.

Yves Gauthier explained, “In this immensity, you had to build streets, a foreign concept to Russian civilization, which was marked by the Viking conquest where — unlike the Roman conquest — the only “roads” since the beginning of time were made of water […]”

On top of that, Siberian rivers flowed from south to north in a country that stretched east to west.

Gauthier added, “It is not a surprise that in these Russian counties, audacity is named ‘oulal,’ meaning literally ‘towards the distance’ [...] To be precautious (oudaloï), is to defy distance.” Only the train seemed to respond to this geographical excess and reigning ideology: “The rail was a pretext for the orchestration of social enthusiasm — these construction sites where the country sent its youth to spread heavy matter and build bridges, while they sang joyful odes about the future.” The bicycle was not proletarian. It is only later that cycling started to interest politicians, as a sports competition in order to highlight the virtues of communism.

Nothing destined Gleb Travin, the late-blooming child who had only learned how to walk at the age of four, to challenge the unknown and spin the known ideas that nothing big and valuable was accomplishable alone. Travin understood that anyone could do anything alone, including conquering the world on a bicycle, with the power of the body, willpower, curiosity, and the desire to know and learn. In this way, he hid his aspiration to freedom by promoting his trip as a “propaganda to sports, the promotion of effort with his example and electricity.” He taught geography courses in the schools he visited along the way. He became, in this way, a preacher of cycling.

Even I loved having the status of being a “sportsman” as I crossed the southern fringe of the former USSR in the 1990s. This, however, didn’t oppose me to accepting a glass of vodka multiple times, and I was able to cross over old internal borders, which had become official borders since the national independence of each of the ex-Soviet republics.  

Bookish and Naturalistic Inspiration

Travin had been preparing for his trip for five years. He cultured himself by reading and gaining “a healthy spirit in a healthy body,” as the old adage said. He was thirsty to accomplish something extraordinary. He preached his god, Vladimir Arseniev, the author of Derza Ourzala, the popular book published in 1921: “What is left in a man, Arseniev asks himself, when there is nothing left to discover, nothing left to be a pioneer of?” It was an explorer’s great sadness to see that everything had already been mapped, that there were no more blanks, terra incognita. Travin was then only left with the accomplishment, not of the thirst of great adventure, but the willingness to face nature with his bare hands, by fair means, like the first men, to go the farthest he could, even if it meant he might lose his life. He would follow a survival manual to the T: to travel the whole way only by bicycle, not owning any money, and not making any, only living with nature’s grace and its resources without taking any as supplies. According to Gleb Travin, without following this, you could not deserve the worthy designation of being a traveler.  

bicycle touring USSR
An encounter with an officer.
Courtesy Yves Gauthier and the Museum of Pskov

Preparation

Gleb trained with a school friend and started learning Esperanto, that exciting language of universal communication created in 1859, but never ended up using it. With hard work, he negotiated with the administration and made it to Kamchatka by train, then by boat, hoping to earn a permit that would lead him to Alaska.

Being the last soil conquered by the Cossacks in 1699, in the imagination of Russia, Kamchatka was also the wildest.

Travin saw the uncontrollable call of nature, while the electrification of the peninsula was a valued avant-garde movement. In Kamchatka, he ordered an American bicycle to be delivered by boat. The bike was made of oak and survived the 18,641 miles of travel. It had handlebars in the shape of a V, an oil lamp, an extra-large reinforced chain, the equivalent of a 20-foot development (how far the bike travels with one rotation of the cranks), and a freewheel that allowed him to brake by pedaling backwards (a revolutionary thing at the time). His cherry red “Princeton,” once loaded, weighed 185 pounds, the same as Travin. He sewed his own leather rear panniers and his own first aid kit to sit on top of the rear rack. For replacement pieces, he brought emergency lanterns, two chains, two tires, and extra pedals. He added a Kodak camera, a pair of binoculars, a Remington knife, a sheepskin coat, wool underwear, cowboy shirts and some other clothing, a blanket, one kilogram of chocolate, and seven bricks of tea. This all looked like the first bikepacking carriage of history! In 1928, he cycled his first loop of Kamchatka. This is the starting point to his future adventure, on which he brought a survival kit. But, in his mind, to use this survival kit would be failure to use what nature’s resources had to offer. He was so determined that he only broke it open three years later, when he returned to Kamchatka!

Travin never burdened himself with a hat. He let his rebellious locks grow to provide his eyes shade, at a time where long hair and a beard were only the attributes of the Orthodox pope. With a bandana around his neck, his neck covered by isatis root (a respiratory aid and anti-inflammatory), his body enveloped by a fur coat, and his feet snuggled in torbasas (deerskin boots), he smothered bear grease on his face. In multiple remote towns, no one had ever seen a bicycle, and in many languages, there was no word for one.

Tajiks, who were more accustomed to four-wheeled chariots, had decided to name it a chaïtan arba, the devil’s chariot. Siberians named it the iron reindeer or the centaur. Once stupefaction passed, the bicycle was welcomed with wide arms in the immense Russophone territory but less so in the republics of central Asia. Like other long-distance travelers, Travin knew how to communicate with or without knowledge of local dialect. And I know, from enjoying this myself, how much Russian hospitality is not only a human trait, but a great Russian character.

bicycle touring USSR
Travin collected stamps as evidence of his passage. 
Courtesy Yves Gauthier and the Museum of Pskov

The Arctic and the Peninsula of Taymyr

Indeed, his peripeteia were numerous during his partial traverse of Eurasia (Siberia, Lake Baikal, Central Asia, Caucasus, Moscow, Karelia, Leningrad4), but they appear as mere training (despite eating saxaul roots in the Karakum Desert to survive) as he faced his greatest achievement: the Arctic by bicycle, where he would have to confront usual temperatures of -40°C (-40°F), sometimes even -50°C! He traversed the high latitudes of Siberia in the middle of winter by bicycle and in total autonomy: “My greatest pleasure is the road itself. Yes, I said the road itself. I didn’t ride with my mouth wide open in astonishment. I cycled while gaining amazing views and reflecting. I had time to think. The more I rode, the more I thought the Great North was an extraordinary place. Nowhere else could I find anyone so sincere and honest. Wherever I arrived, in the most unexpected way, people asked me where I was coming from and offered me a fire to sit by and a plate of food. The Great North is welcoming, the Great North is generous.”

Travin made it to Murmansk on November 21, 1929. He pedaled over 700 days above the Arctic Circle before reaching the cape of Djenev, the most oriental point of Eurasia, with a 1:6,000,000 scale map as his only instrument. In his mind, the ice floe looked like a velodrome. He poeticized it by saying, “The Great North is magnificent. You never get tired of admiring it. To imagine the Artic as a sad and monotonous place means you have never been there. Nowhere else have I seen anything like it: the sky, the water, the clouds, the icebergs, the snow [...]. Riding on a canvas of snow is like riding on the Milky Way.” He shared the sentiment of being a part of the polar nights with Yves Gauthier. “He loves this night that covers him, this planetarium that brushes him on a large scale, the moon that lights him when he slices frozen fish or when he writes in his journal to remember what day it is or what marked his day. Without speaking of the Milky Way that unravels its white and blue scarf from one end to the other of the horizon. His bicycle glides on a canvas of crystalized snow.”

His heroes were the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, the conqueror of the poles, and Ferdinand von Wrangel, the intrepid Russian of Pskov. Travin only climbed as high as the 74th parallel, about which Amundsen (his sacred reference in polar adventure material and the Russians in general) said, “The serious stuff doesn’t start until the 80th parallel.” Our Centaur sought more than anything to write himself into the list of explorers of the Great North on these still little-mapped borders. After 60 days of his adventure, he reached the end of the impregnable peninsula of Taymyr but avoided the coast, which would have cost his death without a doubt. The extreme cold (-50°C), broke one of his pedals twice and his handlebars once. He rode on the ice, “the white pavement,” ate raw meat, and swallowed ice. His face swelled, chapped — he was covered in cracks. He resorted to a few boat rides, but that will never put into question the soul of his journey. Trainers met along the way equipped him with dogs and a sleigh to approach the next chapter of his expedition. They gave him chocolate provisions, a map of the coast, a Winchester, and most importantly an outfit made of reindeer with a hood and mittens, which would also be used as a sleeping bag. To sleep through the night, he covered himself in snow, an element infinitely warmer and more protective than the ice. The idea to make his bed this way came from birds, who are very afraid of the cold and bury themselves in a protective nest in the snow. One night, a crack occurred, and the water came up and turned into ice. Enclosed in a shell of ice that encased him like a space suit, he freed himself with great pain for many hours with the help of his knife, but not before first losing flesh in the process. With the worry of developing gangrene, he amputated the extremities of his toes, imbibed his feet in glycerin, and tightened them with bandages. Inside a tchoum, Nenets women who witnessed the scene screamed, “Keli! Keli!” — devil eater of man! “You mutilate yourself without wincing. Only the devil can do that!”  

His northern bicycle odyssey came from Ulysses, Faust, and Don Quixote.

The Arctic revealed itself as his Grail: “And food? — I ride on it! [...] Food is at the toe.5 [...] The ice flow is hospitable to those who know how to use it. [...] We are wrong to imagine the Arctic as a desert. It is a desert for those who did not know how to prepare for it. But a savvy tracker, if he has the eye and the endurance, will always know how to read the tracks in the snow. And the tracks will lead him to food. […] As for the scurvy, it is simple: you must eat raw meat and fish just like the people of the Great North do. There is my vitamin table. I never had to regret it.” Travin fed himself with game and fish only with a simple bicycle spoke in the crevasses of the ice floe. He hunted foxes and found himself battling a white bear. He kept in all circumstances a discipline of steel, inherited from his time as an officer in the Red Army and declared his proceedings thusly: “I decided to be my own guinea pig.” The Centaur only ate twice a day to avoid wasting time, precious time to pedal. He only drank two glasses of water, one in the morning, the other in the evening, and sometimes survived a few days without drinking any. He bathed in water sources, where he rinsed his mouth without ever swallowing. It is in the Arctic where he attained plenitude. He elevated himself higher than the simple rank of a mortal, in communion with nature.

Today, we would not go on the adventure that Gleb Travin ventured, in identical climate and politics. He, who underwent temperatures below -50°C and extremely hot summers. To many, his “velodyssey” resembles an ecological fable, semi-dramatic, semi-magical, and reminds us of the versatility of nature.

What is also astonishing is that he only came “first.” In the valley of Chüy for example, in central Asia, Travin described this land wealthy in wheat, vine, melons, and apples as a true paradise. Fifty years later, this would be a place of many interethnic massacres between the Russians, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks, who all fought for this richness.

Travin crossed the Kolyma without issue, whereas precisely there, in the beginning of the 1930s, came the first of many Soviet victims of the Stalin repressions. The three ports of Murmansk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and Vladivostok became the future bases of Soviet nuclear submarines and would heavily pollute the previously clear waters. Travin rode very close to Norilsk, a town that at the time did not exist. At the end of 2020, Norilsk became the home of the largest ecological catastrophe at the industrial scale of the Great Russian North, provoked by the collapse of a hydrocarbon reservoir.6

Travin stayed another few long months in the village of Oulen, situated at the extremity of the oriental Russian empire, because he waited in vain for the authorization from the administration to cross the Bering Strait, before a boat brought him back to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

bicycle touring USSR
Travin with his fur clothes and boots.
Courtesy Yves Gauthier and the Museum of Pskov

Epilogue

To travel is to tell the story of the world. Gleb Travin spoke in villages. He was the carrier of unknown information to the ears that would listen to him. People would hold on to his words as of a great narrator. A recording of his voice on the Russian radio exuded tenderness to the ones who experienced difficult lives, due to the superhuman force of his character.

Gleb Travin was an honest man, did not boast, nor did he complain. He worshipped elsewhere and carried the cloth of a hero. At his return, the compulsive adventurer ordered a bicycle with the firm intention of going to America, Africa, and western Europe. But the Centaur stayed, denied a passport and a bicycle, and endured acute espionage. So much so that, in 1937, Travin’s sisters committed the irreparable act of burning all of his archives, letters, and photographs.

His journal, filled with stamps, and the people who met him, will testify to his good faith. Travin set his bicycle in his attic. The Russian author Vivian Itin published a book about him in 1935 titled An Earth That He Made His and was consequently arrested, convicted, and shot to death three years later, his books removed from the public eye. Travin knew what was being said about him, “That a foreign force would treat him like a spy,” especially in administrations, while he applied for a visa to the U.S. His only chance to survive was to be quiet. He stayed 30 years in Kamchatka, became a mountaineering and sports instructor, and the first driving school instructor of the peninsula. He married and had four children. His wife died at the beginning of the 1950s. His father owned the largest library in Kamchatka. In the ’50s, our hero would experience a return to grace. His odyssey was rehabilitated. In 1960, he inaugurated the new stadium of Petropavlovsk by bicycle. In 1971, he was invited to East Germany.

The journalist Alexander Kharitanovski published The Man with the Iron Reindeer, and Travin was asked to hold a conference. In 1962, he re-did part of his original trip, in a Moskovitch-407 (a small Russian car produced between 1958 and 1963), all the way to the Polish border, not a millimeter more to the west.

His voyage, he said, was a university. “We travel to learn, to testify, to prove that man has no limits.” That is the universe of the Centaur of the Arctic who died in Pskov, his birthplace, in 1979, at the age of 77.  

This article was translated by Juliette Matthews. Originally from Lyon, France, Juliette Matthews has worked at Adventure Cycling since 2021 making sure all the orders from the Cyclosource store are processed smoothly and quickly.

1. This number expresses international terrestrial miles. Yves Gauthier would find this amount slightly exaggerated by his hero, Gleb Travin, but nonetheless it does not detract from his accomplishment.

2. Kvass, also known as kwas, is a traditional Russian beer, slightly alcoholic, made from sour bread and fruit.

3. A popular legend says that the Russian serf Efim Artamonov presented the very first bicycle to the Tsar Alexander I in 1801, long before it was really invented in the West, more precisely the Draisienne, in 1817.

4. Known as St. Petersburg today.

5. “Food is at the toe” is a Russian expression.

6. Greenpeace compares the potential environmental effects of the Norilsk spill to those of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

divider
 

Related Reading

Comments

Log in to post a comment

Forgot Password?

Enter your email address and we'll send you an email that will allow you to reset it. If you no longer have access to the email address call our memberships department at (800) 755-2453 or email us at memberships@adventurecycling.org.

Not Registered? Create Account Now.