Dutchman Henk van Dillon — enthusiast-traveler who dreams to travel around the world by bike. He maintains a blog, which describes his adventures. He had just completed a Cycling trip on the route Saint-Petersburg — Murmansk. “Ribbon.ru” I talked with Hank about why he chose to travel the Arctic and how he saw the North of Russia.
“Ribbon.ru”: Why are you doing this?
van Dillon: In 2015 I went for a bike ride from Holland to Singapore. This journey has taken me. Then I decided to try something new, equally complex, but in a short time. I had the opportunity to take a vacation for 30 days, and I decided to go to a place about which virtually nothing is know. They became Russia — a country, a culture which I really wanted to explore. I saw the reports about Russia in the press, but I wanted to meet people who live there, talk to them. If I went to any European country, you would see approximately the same thing at home, and your country another.
what is the difference?
for Example, I learned that you have strangers meeting on the street, don’t usually smile at each other. We have the passers-by almost always smiling, it’s just normal behavior. But then it turned out that, in conversation, Russians are smiling, and this smile is real, when it is the cause.
In your opinion, what kind of behavior is better?
I travel by bike because I want to learn about the cultural characteristics of a people. I never evaluate a cultural phenomenon from the point of view of, whether good or bad. Sometimes, after reading something in the media, we are angry, sad or happy about some event. But here in Europe, we cannot fully understand what is happening in another country, because the problem is always harder than it seems according to press reports. Russians live in a different era. For example, I was very interested to learn how the people survive where winter temperatures drop to minus 25 degrees.
In some regions, and we have sometimes minus 70…
we in the Netherlands usually does not fall below minus five, and winter rains.
I don’t think European culture is better Russian or Vice versa — they’re just totally different. Since we live in different countries, do not understand each other, and I, traveling on his Bicycle, trying to understand these differences.
But you did have some ideas about Russia and Russians before you came here? They have been confirmed?
First of all, I knew that here everything is easier. In Europe we have a lot of rules, many regulations, prohibitions. In this region Russia was not all that… or Rather, the rules are, but others. For example, I understood that here you drive on the highway on a bike is much more dangerous than in Europe, and this expectation was justified. I was really scared when in twenty centimeters from me, a truck was passing.
Well, Yes, few dare to ride a Bicycle on the Russian polar highway, and even in the winter.
Yes, in 2015, Korean girl decided to do the same as me, and had an accident. She was very angry because, in her opinion, the driver had to apologize and he said he could not ride the bike on the side of the highway in the winter. He just didn’t expect to see a cyclist. And he was right!
In some ways, Yes. But, you know, many Russian drivers consider themselves to be, whether that privileged position in relation to cyclists and pedestrians. Have you noticed this attitude?
Sometimes. When one driver wanted to overtake the other and noticed me, started to honk, considering that I have to get off the road because he just wants to pass and I shouldn’t be here. Sometimes I have the impression that people just don’t understand why I’m on my bike, and even at minus 25 when you can do the same journey by car. I think it’s one of the differences of Europe and Russia, because we have veloputeshestvennikov — common. And the Russians just don’t understand what motivates the people who decided to go in the winter on the bike path.
And you could explain to them why you do this?
Yes. Of course, it was difficult: many Russians do not understand English, and I often had to sign. But in the end I learned to understand simple words such as “where” to simple conversation. There were moments when I was stopped a normal car, and the driver offered me hot tea, asking: “what are you doing here?” I replied that travel by bike. And when I said that sleeping in a tent, people just refused to believe it and wondered why I’m doing this as I could myself to want it. Actually, I believe that such travel is in an environment where there are problems with communication, is good for me. So I know how different people react to a particular situation.
Russians from big cities are different from residents of small settlements?
In big cities all busy with their own Affairs, in a rush, no one cares about me. So I prefer the wilderness and a chance meeting with a rare travelers. Once in 50 kilometers from Petrozavodsk, I met the son with the father. It was a very pleasant meeting — they invited me to his home, offered tea. I was lucky: the son spoke English, he translated to me what was said of his father. We had a very interesting conversation about what represents Russia in Soviet times, 28 years ago, when things were different, he then held a senior position in the local branch of GAI. And then he gave me a star overhead his old jacket. I do not think that such a meeting could take place in a big city. Same thing in the Netherlands — residents of cities no case to single cyclists passing by them. And the inhabitants of the regions just more time.
What stage of your journey was most difficult for you?
I Think when I was in Kandalaksha and was going to go on the highway M18 leading to Murmansk. A Russian told me: “don’t do that!” I met one of Murmansk, a member of the cyclists ‘ club “Vilamoura”, and he also convinced me not to go because of security reasons. In 2011, the famous Japanese traveler Haruhisa Watanabe knocked down near Kandalaksha, in 2015, the Korean cyclist, as I said, also had an accident. I had two examples of cyclists who wanted to get to Murmansk in the winter, and both those failed.
I thought: is there any reason why I should try to do this? Roughly speaking, I was facing a difficult question: do I want to risk my life for achieving the goal? The cold was not a problem — I had a tent and gear for overnight at minus 25. But crash can’t prepare for. Caught some drunk driver won’t see me — and be done with it.
have You met drunk drivers?
I’ve seen drunks, but they were not driving. But, you know, there are a lot of stories about how the Russians can get drunk and do something stupid. Therefore, I had a serious question: am I going to continue its journey or finished it. In the end I decided to go, including in memory of a Japanese traveller to continue his work, drive to Murmansk. This decision I might regret.
there was a moment when you wanted to send everything to hell and back?
One night I was laying in the tent, in a sleeping bag, and could not get warm. At some point I panicked whether my choice in order to freeze here to death? My head is spinning thoughts of what my family, my girlfriend, remaining in Holland, you have something urgent to do… Yeah, then I was ready to quit. But in the end everything worked out, and now this case is like a finger, which is partially lost sensitivity due to frostbite.
You wrote in your blog that when you rode the train dropped you off police, who began to check your documents, and you were scared. Why? ‘ve read some scary stories about Russian law enforcement?
No, not so. Just when I was in China, happened to me a frightening story. One day the police stopped me to check. The police just pulled me off my bike, taken to the police station and held there for four hours, asking questions. It seemed odd that I ride a Bicycle in this place. They wanted to make sure that I’m just a tourist, not a spy, collecting information.
In kandalaksa I was taken off the train by police and began to ask the usual questions like “what are you doing here?” nothing funny happened… But they did it in Russian: imagine five Russian guys, no smiling, all serious… And I panicked: what happens? What’s next? In the Netherlands, even if a COP arrests a criminal, he is always friendly, courteous and smiling.
Well, we cops are always pretending to be cool. They probably believe that other people will not take them seriously.
Yes, I understand, but you need to know — otherwise it seems that they are specifically hostile to you, and you start to take it all to your account. Therefore, many travelers to Russia, people are scared when they arrange such checks. Seemed to suspect me of espionage.
are You already planning the next trip?
I heard the stories about how he biked across Siberia in temperatures of minus 60 degrees. And I thought it was interesting: once I survived at minus 30, maybe at minus 60 happens?
I also want to travel around South America — very much like countries such as Cuba, because I dance salsa. In Russia, too, like salsa dancing — you are associated with Cuba?
Salsa is not part of Russian culture. I have friends who are fond of Latin dances, but craze them there. But back to Russia, especially as you don’t mind to come back. How do you like our country as a whole?
As I said, everything is easier. In Europe the authorities decide everything for you: where to go is dangerous, and what — not. In Russia I have not the feeling. For example, when I came to Norway, I could not ride a bike to the North Cape — I’m just not allowed: told that it is unsafe. I replied that it had checked the weather that I came here from Russia, I have enough experience to decide what to do. In Europe, we constantly monitor and you don’t have it, and I like it.
But safety is a good thing, it is in the public interest.
But when all is safe and regulated, it turns out that you can’t take any independent decisions, everything is decided for you. I as a traveler want to be free. I understand that security is necessary for the good of society. But you know when you have something there, you always want something else. And I love that you have everyone is responsible for himself.