Russian Odyssey tests Mettle and Friendship

Australians, generally speaking, are some of the world's most prolific travellers. One of the craziest travel adventures hatched from Down Under can be found in Off the Rails (Penguin Australia, $24), in which Tim Cope and Chris Hatherly describe their experiences cycling 10,000 kilometres across Russia, Mongolia, and China.

The then--20-year-olds met up in the autumn of 1999 with 12-month Russian visas, a budget of about US$2 per day, and two custom-built "armchairs on wheels" (recumbent bicycles). Hatherly was an avid cyclist who had already crossed Western Europe with his girlfriend that summer, but Cope had never even ridden a recumbent bike before Hatherly assembled them on the platform of the Petrozavodsk train station.

Over the next 12 months, the two tested the limits of their friendship, encountered many interesting characters, and saw Russia from the inside out. The authors take turns writing the chapters. Although neither is going to win any awards, they both write with honesty and a willingness to share intimate details. Cope's chapters tend to wax philosophical, while Hatherly's seem utilitarian.

The book manages to hold one's attention through to the end even if just to see whether or not their friendship will survive the ordeal. The two were at each other's throats from early on, mainly because Hatherly was pining for his girlfriend back home and thus wanted to move as quickly as possible, while Tim "wanted to experience Russia and not just see it".

The main strength of Off the Rails (the title refers to their unsuccessful attempt to adapt the bikes to ride the Trans-Siberian railway) is the glimpse it offers into the remote depths of Russia. The Siberian villages they visit are desperately poor, still reeling from the collapse of Communism. In many cases, the cyclists are the first westerners the villagers have ever met, or probably ever will.