I've always loved travelogues, but ever since having children, my own ability and means to travel internationally has been severely curtailed, and so I've avoided reading them on the theory that I'll get jealous. However, I've made a vow to give the armchair travel a chance again this year and see what happens, and in that spirit, I picked this off my shelf from where it has been lingering for several years. There are lots of different kind of travelogues, and this one fits into the category I call "the personal challenge", which generally involves traveling from point A to point B via an unconventional mode of transport. In this instance, we meet Welsh journalist Llewellyn circa 1996 as he seems to be in the midst of an early mid-life crisis -- he's 30 and wants to have a grand adventure before it's too late. Spurred by the stories of his grandfather's trip to the Soviet arctic port of Murmansk during World War II, he decides that since others have already written about bicycling across Russia from west to east, he'll write the first book about doing it south to north.
His girlfriend Rohan decides to join him, and after assembling a dubious pair of cheap Korean kit bicycles, shoddy shoes, and some beat up camping gear, they set out to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, where they start their journey. Since this takes place only a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they are well-received novelties as they makes their way across the Crimea, Ukraine, and Belarus, enjoying what meager hospitality (mainly, vodka) the locals have to offer. However, once they arrive at the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the mood changes, and the trip grows steadily more unpleasant until they cross back over into Russia. For the most part, the narrative follows the template of recounting trials and tribulations of the road, some potted history of areas of interest they pass through, and vignettes involving colorful characters they encounter along the way. This is mostly interesting and amusing, although he periodically drifts into cheesy bromides about the proper way to be a traveler as opposed to a tourist, such as "The real traveler is active, not passive. He moves around but actively reflects on life and what is happening to him and lives each moment as it arrives." Ugh.
Llewellyn writes from the perspective of someone who came of age during the Cold War, and engages in a number of conversations revolving around nuclear destruction. He also has a particular interest in seeing nuclear plants and marveling at how decrepit and unsafe they are. One of the main dramatic arcs of the trip is whether or not his girlfriend is pregnant, and to what extent this lark of a trip is exposing her to all manner of nuclear and other toxic waste. This is an unusual element that adds interest to what is otherwise, an interesting, but traditional travelogue. Worth reading by anyone with an interest in intrepid cycling journeys and the immediate post-Soviet era (see also Between the Hammer and the Sickle and Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia).