Rennes − Almaty by bike, one Breton’s crazy journey
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Laurent Mahé, 44, of France decided to ride by bike from Brittany to Kazakhstan. Right before his departure, on the 4th of May, Novastan got the chance to meet him in Rennes.
This article was originally published in French on May 6, 2021.
Laurent Mahé is anything but a crazy or reckless man. On the contrary, for this trip it looks as if he has thought about everything: PCR tests, how to cross 14 borders, foolproof GPS, solar panels, studying the topography and weather at each of his stops, days off. In short, this is serious business. The Breton left on the 4th of May with an aim to reach central Asia in September and continue throughout.
As every country is turning in on themselves since the beginning of the pandemic, Mahé is bursting with impatience. His cycling journey along the old Silk Road routes was supposed to happen in 2020. He delayed it for a year. Even if he is bound to a few quarantines on the way, he wishes to achieve his “journey of a lifetime” in 8 months.
Novastan: Why this adventure from Rennes to Almaty?
Laurent Mahé : Since I was 20, I dreamt of a journey along the Silk Road old routes. This legendary route, drawn by men for many millennia, makes its way through plains and mountains, follows the rivers, plays with borders, states, kingdoms and empires, which all grew and died alongside it. My initial project was to go from Mongolia through China. But the situation in Xinjiang – and the repression of the Uyghur people – led me to change my plans. I’m thinking about finishing in Kazakhstan. Almaty is the last major city before the Chinese border, which is a good thing for me, as it has also been Rennes’ twin city for 30 years.
How long will you be staying in Central Asia?
About 6 to 7 weeks. I plan on reaching Turkmenistan by mid-September and I want to stay there for 6 days. I will stay longer in Uzbekistan, 5 days to visit Boukhara and the same amount to visit Samarkand. I will only ride a short 30km in Tajikistan. In Kyrgyzstan, I will cross the Too-Ashuu pass which peaks at 3,580 metres, and I will halt at Bishkek (the capital). I think I will reach Almaty around October the 30th.
As for the return journey, by train, I will board in Petropavl which is in the North of Kazakhstan. I will stop at Nur-Sultan, the capital, to visit and will then take the Trans-Siberian to Moscow.
What do you know about these 5 countries?
This part of the world is little known to the public at large. Personally, it has been an interest of mine for some years. I prepared myself by reading books on its geography, history and also some stories. I read Novastan quite often too. I read a lot of travellers’ online forums. I’m expecting to pass through some very beautiful countries.
In my opinion, the population is rather tranquil and welcoming and they will be willing to share their culture. I also know that the political regimes of these 5 countries are very stable but authoritarian.
Did the Rennes-Almaty twinning committee encourage you?
They did – meeting with the committee chair, Jeanne Havard-Tourebayeva, in December of 2020 gave me a real boost. She was excited about my project, she thinks it is a remarkable example of “friendship between peoples”. Ms Havard-Tourebayeva committed herself to making my administrative actions easier whilst on the road, if I needed help when crossing a border for instance. She will also be welcoming me to Almaty this autumn.
This meeting gave visibility to my adventure – in mid-April, I was even interviewed in Rennes by a Kazakh TV crew.
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How do you picture the difficulties associated with a long bike journey?
On the physical side, I am not worried. 500km per week is doable. Even if I am being treated for asthma, it does not prevent me from cycling. I have already cycled thousands of kilometres across France. The difference being that this time I will be carrying a 24kg cart.
It will carry my backpack equipped with solar panels. I will also have a dynamo on my bike’s wheels. These solutions allow me to charge my laptop and mobile phone.
Mapping my itinerary took me 6 months. I studied the maps, took the elevation into account for each leg of the journey, but I can conceive that unforeseen situations could occur, such as unfavourable weather. My ultimate wish is to finish the journey before winter, which is harsh in Kazakhstan.
What about the difficulties of crossing borders during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, it is likely that I will be stuck in a country for 14 days during the journey. I may have issues with police officers or customs officers around this. I have thought about it. I will make up for the time lost by taking a train over part of my trip. For the European leg of the journey, I purposely chose some less busy routes, small roads which will, hopefully, allow me to slip through the net.
What languages do you speak?
French and English only, but I trust gestures to make myself understandable.
You are devoting 8 months to such an endeavour. How does that feel?
It is a choice. I quit my job as an employee in a company that organises funeral ceremonies.
I don’t have a family to support, I have some savings. At 44, I think it is now or never.
How can we follow your journey ?
I have set up a blog , which I will try to update as regularly as possible.
Interview by Catherine Verger
Translated from French by Eva Houdu
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That’s some effort Laurent – Good wind.3 February 2023