Cycling from Calgary to Beijing with Brandon
Brandon Hartwig is what I hope the traveller of the future looks like. For three reasons.
1. He’s disarmingly modest. I didn’t learn until several days after we’d met that he had cycled 150,000km from Canada to China. Or that his photography has been featured in a number of impressive publications like Canadian Geographic.
2. He makes you want to travel responsibly without telling you to. His descriptions of working in community based tourism in Kyrgyzstan and traveling the world on his bicycle make you want to pick up your bike instead of a plane ticket and wave goodbye to the harms of mass tourism.
3. He has some pretty outrageous travel adventures to share. And let’s be honest, we could all use more amazing stories in our lives. From a rogue bear ripping his tent apart in Russia, to getting into a real-life bumper jeeps experience at a border crossing, Brandon has weathered just about every high and low you could dream of facing on the road.
Forget trying to find something to watch on Netflix, you may want to grab your popcorn to hear this Explorer of the Future’s odyssey.
Veering off the Gringo Trail into the unknown
Brandon has spent the past decade consistently working towards his next adventure. After lengthy stints abroad that ranged from surfing around Australia to hopping along the Gringo Trail in South America, Brandon was ready for something different.
“After so many trips you just start looking for those real experiences. South America was a big one for me because they call it the classic “gringo trail” – you’re always doing the same things and constantly running into the same people and same places. And I was like, okay, how can I branch out of this?”
This desire to travel differently and to finance his adventures through his career ultimately led him to pursue a degree in Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership. The ecotourism focus of his degree resulted in a three-month contract in Kyrgyzstan working in community based tourism.
“There was a small article on this up and coming ecotourism destination where it’s just beginning its tourism career in the international realm. And I was thought, oh, I should go there! What can I do? It’s so undeveloped for tourism that community based tourism is kind of the first thing that gets set up. So I headed over there, contacted the Community Based Tourism Association of Kyrgyzstan, and they were super keen to bring me on. I really enjoyed it because it’s just at the grassroots level and it’s often with people in rural and poor areas who are usually marginalized in some way. They can come together in a community collective and start things like guesthouses or traditional craft workshops for women. Then they pool 1% of that back into a community fund and apply those funds to bettering their lives, whether it’s protecting certain areas in the environment or building schools and playgrounds.
It’s a nice way to travel because often people are looking for those authentic experiences and they can be, in areas where mass tourism has taken over, hard to find or to differentiate – is it or is it not? But in community based tourism it really is.”
With this experience under his belt, the outdoors focus of his degree also required him to push the limits by leading an expedition that lasted at least 10 days in his fourth year.
“The experience of being in the wilderness I find after 7 days has a super, I don’t want to say, profound effect on you. You become a lot different and start to think of a lot more things after you’ve been alone – especially away from people for that long and phones and technology. I just fell in love with it and realized I wanted to do it every year. So I kept on doing it. I did ski trips and kayak trips. And then it was alright, I need to do a big trip and I should incorporate it with some travel.”
The start of a 7-month, 150,000km expedition
This initial thought to do a longer expedition led to what would become a 7-month, 150,000km expedition by bike from Brandon’s hometown of Calgary, Canada all the way over to Beijing, China.
“It all started with Mongolia. So [my partner, Kara and I] thought, Mongolia, Mongolia, what can we do? Maybe we can traverse some mountains, and then it was, oh, biking, it’s such a massive country, we can see a ton of it on bikes! How cool would that be?
And then you’re thinking down the line maybe I’ll bike around the world. I’ll turn left out my front door and maybe I’ll return one day from the right. So I started looking into it and realized it’s kind of practical, we can go up to Alaska and take a 3 hour flight to Russia and then we can keep on biking. It kind of blew up from there and we told too many people and once you start telling people you have to back it up.
The day came and I grabbed the bikes from the garage, waved goodbye to mom…. and called her 15 minutes later with all the things I forgot to bring and she drove them across the city, gave them to us, and we kept going.”
Even once his mom had delivered him his forgotten items, things didn’t quite get off to a smooth start.
“We were off to a horrible start actually. On the second day my partner crashed her bike. Really, really bad. We had to get evaced. We had just gotten into the mountains and we had to get evaced out and we ended up spending another two weeks at home before we set off again. She went ripping down our first big gravel hill and I turned around and she was just a heap on the middle of the road. She was super lucky – no broken bones – just a ton of road rash. Her skull and everything was fine. [She had] lots of check ins with the doctor because of the pressure and swelling, that’s a big thing. But it was all good and she left probably earlier than most people would have. We did a couple of test runs around the city and decided we would go super, super slow and not worry about anything. We were just happy to get out again.”
Pushing through any apprehensions, they got back on their bikes two weeks after Kara’s crash and conquered the same hill she had previously crashed on. For the next two and a half months they peddled from Calgary through British Columbia, into the Yukon, and finally to Anchorage, Alaska where they would take a three-hour flight to Russia with their bikes and resume riding.
“Canada was pretty good. We had one day where we were trying to link these backroad towns on the bike. So we ended up having to walk these train tracks and we were asking people, “can we walk these train tracks?” and they were like, “well, I wouldn’t do it without a gun…”. We ended up doing it anyways and we saw about 28 black bears in 5 kilometres. We could hear them in the forest crashing around us. Then the rest of that trip was fine all the way through. Russia was a different story.”
One rogue bear, one shredded tent, and 20 hours of walking to escape
We were in Kamchatka and we didn’t take out the bikes. We thought we’ll take a little bit of time off, just do some hiking and trekking around and just get used to being in a new country. So we were in this national park and we hiked in for a couple of days to these hot springs. We were hanging out in these hot springs and we go back to our tent. And I was like, oh my shoe’s moved, I didn’t leave it here. And Kara was like, nah you probably left it there that’s where we were moving everything. Then we walked around the corner and our tent and our entire campsite was just destroyed. The tent was completely shredded and knocked down and poles were broken, my air mattress ripped in half, sleeping bags were shredded with feathers floating through all the trees and forest. Some of the pockets on the backpack were ripped off. All from a Kamchatka brown bear.
It’s the middle of the night, it’s around midnight, and we don’t have bear spray because we couldn’t fly it and we couldn’t find it in Russia. All we had was a little flare. So we try to gather what we can, get our food which was 100 metres away up in a tree so there was no cause for the bear to come by. But we learned after it was a bit of a problem bear. It had destroyed a quad that was in the area that was the ranger’s. They just kind of failed to tell us any of this when we first saw them.
And then we’re two days into this hike, and we’re thinking how can we get out? We have nowhere to stay. No shelter, no sleeping pads. We thought maybe we could make this work but it was this northern miserable rainforest. It had rained the full two days for us to get in there. In the end we just decided to long haul it out in one giant push. I think we left at 4 in the morning and didn’t get to lay down until midnight. Just like steady walking, whatever that is like 20 hours of walking.
It was entertaining that’s for sure. I wasn’t even shocked when it happened, well no I was shocked. I thought, it’s fine, it’s just crap, at least we weren’t in the tent. I think I started laughing – this is so ridiculous, what just happened. With our little flare to protect us.”
Besides a rogue bear, humans posed the occasional additional challenge for Brandon and Kara on their journey.
“There were a couple of human involved experiences that were a bit scary. Always alcohol was involved. We had an issue with one person who pulled over and became a bit threatening. Every person pulls over and wants a selfie with you – so I thought it was the same thing – then he grabs my hand and doesn’t let go of it. He’s squeezing it as hard as he can. I’m thinking uh, oh. He’s clenching his other fist. Hs mouth, his gums, are all bloody, I can just tell he’s super intoxicated. I was like, oh this is an uncomfortable situation. Then he was threatening to rip out my partner’s nose ring because she had come up. Luckily we did our best to say “we really like Russia!” in my broken Russian, and “oh this is a great place!”, and “oh sorry I don’t understand!”. Then slowly just backed out of the situation. We were backing away and his buddies came over and we just got on the bikes and went off in the other direction.”
In spite of this experience, the majority of people they met were extremely hospitable and intrigued to see these Canadian strangers on their bikes.
“We met a lot of people who had never seen a foreigner before. And there are a lot of indigenous groups up there. They were very, very kind – just wanted to say hello. A lot of them would tell us, they had grandchildren who spoke just a little bit of English, that we were the first foreigners they had ever met. It was a really, really cool experience.
We were always invited in [when we were biking]. People invited us into their homes, people were feeding us, they would pull over and give us food and snacks. It was overwhelming the hospitality all the way from Calgary into China.”
From galloping gazelles to border bumper cars
After cycling through Siberia, they finally entered the fabled country that had inspired their trip in the first place: Mongolia.
“We come into Mongolia and we’re so excited. Land of the big blue sky, it’s like Alberta, so we’ll get like 300 plus days of sunshine a year. So it’s cold but we’ll get the sun and feel warm during the day. And sure enough that’s how it plays out. As soon as we cross into the border, we’re biking along and there are herds of hundreds of gazelle galloping through the steppe, they’re galloping near our bikes as we’re riding. Essentially it became this magical, beautiful place where there’s no cities, there’s just the tiny village here and then just herdsmen and their yurts and motorcycles and horses all over the place. It was so cool.
I remember one morning we were camped up on this hill because you could camp wherever, Mongolia’s like the world’s largest open campground – amazing. And we were on this hill, I think we’d just started the stove for breakfast and we could just hear the ground was shaking and unzip the tent and this huge herd of gazelle is like cresting up over the hill where the tent is and running along the ridge line. We were just laying in the tent looking out the little tent door window and thinking this is just the most magical moment in my entire life.”
This calm was a stark contrast to what they would soon encounter at the border between Mongolia and China.
“We noticed these jeeps going into the border. They were lined up for kilometres and they were super old and smashed to bits. I’m surprised any of them could even drive. We get to the border and it’s all lined up with these things, so I guess you have to go through the border in these jeeps. We were like okay so that’s why they’re all here. So we put our bike in one. And we get to the border in Mongolia and he says, you gotta take your bike and go through the crossing and get your stamps and stuff, I’ll see you on the other side to do the actual crossing between the checkpoint in Mongolia to the checkpoint in China. And we go in and the guy says “you gotta put your bike through the x-ray”. And I was like, that x-ray machine is like 1 foot by 1 foot. And he’s like okay, just whatever, doesn’t scan our bikes or anything. Then he goes through and says you’re supposed to have this stamp. And he’s like eh whatever and waves us through this border. I don’t even know if we got a stamp out of Mongolia.
Then we get to the other side and we’re wondering is this guy going to pick us up? So sure enough we find him. We get back in the jeep with the bikes and we get to the border and it’s getting a little crazier and a little crazier and this took 4 hours or something – there were so many people. We were like what is going on. The cars start to funnel together and I go oh, they’re obviously only letting one vehicle in at a time and I’m thinking these vehicles are getting really close to one another. And the next thing I know our driver is sideswiping the car next to us and all of a sudden we’re smoked from behind by the other jeep. And then it’s just a thousand of these jeeps crammed together, smashing into each other, trying to get into this one single lane to cross into the Chinese side. It was mayhem. It was a thousand vehicles smashing into each other. Like, wow, this explains why these things are in pieces on the other side of the border.
I couldn’t believe it and our driver is laughing hysterically as it’s like smash, smash, smash – it’s pandemonium. And we get to the other side, the Chinese border and he doesn’t even want any money! He just takes off in his jeep around the corner. Then we come out on the bike path and we’re thinking where are we?”
Finding a new routine and pushing through the cold
Bears, bumper cars and gazelles aside, life fell into a new, meditative kind of routine on this journey for Brandon.
“You’re almost wanting to escape routine and life when you go on a trip like this and then it just turns into a daily routine anyways. 7am rolls around I turn on the coffee, then it’s 8 o’clock I’m turning down camp, and oh I’m biking for 2 and a half hours and I’m going to stop and have a tea and some cookies, and then in 2 hours I’m going to stop and have a sandwich, and then bike for two hours and have another cake, bike for another two hours, put up camp. On repeat all the time. It was a lot of time to get inside your own head and to not think and just to be on the bike and be like wow, did 2 hours just pass? It feels really good.
But the hardest thing were a couple of the cold days we had on the trip to be honest. I’ve never felt my hands or my feet go so numb that they weren’t there. And knowing that I have to keep moving because I don’t have enough food to stop for the day or oh we’ve gotta get to this next town and just the bitter cold and shaking and trying to get the pedals to go forward. Just the worry is it going to be like this every day, am I going to be able to do this for 2 months because this was already happening in September I think. It would feel so terrible to cut this short and just take the train to Beijing but we kept telling ourselves maybe we’ll get to Mongolia and we’ll get that blue sky and sunshine, so that kind of helped. And near the end of Mongolia it was kind of the same thing – with wind ripping through the Gobi Desert, we couldn’t even keep our water from freezing during the day. So we’d ride with water bottles in our coat. And you’re in the middle of the desert realizing this is your lifeline. You’re shaking water bottles to try to melt the ice out of it. That was uncomfortable.
Near the end of the trip we couldn’t even cook. We’d just get in our sleeping bags in all of our clothes, all of our layers, and just lean out the door of the tent and fire up the stove. And we’d be done eating and we’d crawl into the sleeping bag and wake up and barely stick an arm out to get breakfast going. You’d only get out when it was like, okay, it’s time to bike and that’s the only thing that’s going to keep me warm.
I was being very stubborn the whole time. People would offer us rides too – “oh I’ll give you a ride for a couple hundred kilometres because this section is going to be boring, you’re not going to see anything”. But in the back of my head it was oh we’d be cheating, we want to do this thing from start to finish. And I mean at the same time you don’t want that to be what it’s all about. Whatever if you miss a few kilometres here and there. But in the end we ended up doing it all.”
Getting off the bike in Beijing
With jobs lined up for the winter season in Japan, Beijing ended up being the end point of Brandon and Kara’s 7-month, 10,500 kilometre odyssey. If you’ve been on a big trip yourself, you know how strange it can feel once it’s over, but for Brandon it was even stranger getting off the bike.
“We went straight to a microbrewery and we hunted down burgers. […] It felt very very weird. It was strange. We had a week in Beijing and we were like what do we do? I guess we’ll just walk. And walking hurt and I remember putting on a backpack for the first time in Japan and that hurt. I think I’d lost 25 pounds on the trip and I was not a big person when I started but I was very, very tiny by the end of it. My sense of time was also skewed. I’d think I need to go here, it’s only a couple of kilometres. I was used to doing 70-140 kilometres in a day, so I couldn’t really make sense of distances. And also what do I do every day? That was probably the biggest thing.”
Finding faith in humanity
Besides getting used to walking again and putting on more weight, this kind of extreme adventure impacts a person in other ways that don’t go away so quickly.
“For me, it was that the human factor became the most valuable part of the whole experience for me. Because before I used to always go on these – I mentioned I was doing skiing and kayaking trips and expeditions – it was always about going to the backcountry and getting away from people and from all that and just escaping. And this trip there certainly was lots of times when we didn’t see anyone and we were remote in the backcountry. But the most important element ended up being the people we’d meet along the way and the people that would invite us into their homes for dinner, or the people who would give us a bed at night. Especially in really unexpected places where these communities are clearly not well off and just for someone to share that little bit with you of what they already have was just overwhelming. And all of a sudden it was like wow, I do all these trips to get away but the human part of this trip was so amazing and it kind of gives you a little faith back in people. [Before] I was like I need to get away from people and then I realized oh, people are so wonderful. The hospitality from people was completely overwhelming, I’ve never experienced something like that before.”
Brandon has no plans of slowing down any time soon after completing this first big bikepacking trip. With his sights set on a bike trip through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan next, you’re going to want to follow along with this Explorer of the Future.
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