Vladislav Ketov, a Russian artist, set out in 1991 on his bicycle with the insane goal of cycling the entire coastline of the Earth! He literally went to cycle following the coastlines of Europe, Africa, Asia, North- & South- America. Since then he has traveled more than 161,500 kilometres, through 93 countries, eight deserts, eight war zones and used 100 visas on his bicycle tour around the world’s continents’ coastlines.
Vladislav Ketov: Cycling the world’s coastlines
In 1983 Ketov set out for the first time on a long-distance cycling tour from Leningrad to the Ural mountain range in his own country. He fell in love with bicycle travel and it was during that trip that it occurred to him that the ultimate trip around the world would be one where he would follow Earth’s natural borders: its coastline.
While looking at the world map he realised that the entire dry land of the Earth, save for Australia and the Antarctic, represents a pretty much single whole, undivided by seas and oceans. There are only two canals: Suez and Panama and one Bering Strait which is 90 km wide, that divide the single landmass by tiny stretches of water. But given that there are two islands (Little and Big Diomede) between Chukotka (the last part of Russia) and Alaska, the water barrier is not wider than 40 km. Therefore, Ketov reasoned, moving along the earth’s shore you would be able to span nearly the entire dry landmass of the world in one continuous loop.
While people had been traveling many thousands of years, never had anyone traveled around the outer periphery of this dry landmass. Better even, no one had ever suggested such a route, the only one coming close to this sort of ‘bicycle touring magalomania’ has been Jumber Lezhava who cycled 264,000 kilometers to every country on Earth (234 in his days).
Ketov was stunned by the fact that nobody had ever attempted a trip along the outer periphery of the earth’s dry landmass and it would become his life’s mission to accomplish this goal.
Copyright on a travel idea
In 1988 Ketov went to copyright his ‘novel travel route’ at the Soviet-US fund “Cultural Initiative” and he started preparing himself to implement the idea. Bizarely his request for the travel patent was validated under number # 3101. The reason he copyrighted his travel plan was that he wanted to avoid a situation whereby some enterprising person in the West would steal his idea and accomplish it before he could.
Years later a guy named Ian Packham would mesmerize the travel world with his ‘Encircle Africa: a public transport circumnavigation of Africa‘. Like Ketov he followed the entire African continent’s coastline and for a long time he believed he was the first person to have traveled a full loop around it. …..Well he now knows better as Ketov beat him to it by many years.
Ketov’s very sudden departure
Ketov had been preparing for years for his grand cycling undertaking. But then on May 13, 1991 the government suddenly announced over the radio that service passports would be annulled the day after tomorrow. And Ketov had exactly such a passport with his precious Polish visas.
He panicked and contemplated his options all night long. His conclusion was that unless he left immediately he would not have a chance to start his trip. So in a spur of the moment he took his bicycle and went to the airport. In those days departing within one day from Leningrad (nowadays St. Petersburg) to Poland was next to impossible but it turned out to be Ketov’s lucky day. He happened to buy the only ticket left for Kaliningrad and miraculously hisbicycle was accepted at check in without a due case. He left the country just before his passport lost its validity under the new decree.
In Poland Ketov got stuck for three months, since the Germans refused to give him a visa as they did not know how to deal with the new situation. They allegedly were waiting for a response from Moscow as what to do with this strange traveler and his odd passport. After the August coup it became clear that further waiting for the response was futile and the Germans gave in to his request for a visa.
Waiting 5 years for Visas
Germany was only the first in an incredibly long list of visa problematic countries. Ketov repeatedly had issues with his visas.
In Paris he had to wait four months and a half and in Rome one and a half month. There was no Schengen in those days which complicated things hugely.
As a matter of fact Ketov spent a staggering 5 years in total waiting for visas during his 21 year journey.
While Ketov was waiting for visas he tried to make some money to support his journey by painting portraits of people. He was a professional artist afterall and had made a living painting even before he started his kickass trip.
From time to time he would also fly back home for a ‘holiday’. Afterwards he would return to the same point and continue his journey. He had five such “holidays”.
At one stretch along the African coast he rode his bike for three years without traveling back home.
Troublesome Northern coastlines of Russia and Canada
Ketov had always realized that traveling the Northern coastlines of Russia and Canada were going to be near to impossible as there were (and are) simply no roads over there. But he was not to surrender easily.
I spent two seasons in Russia’s north, looking for a viable alternatives. I covered about 2000 km by foot, by boat, by deer and by helicopter. It dawned on me then that the only feasible option was flying by gyroplane. Exactly at that time some Russian manufacturers came out with a suitable model. I reached a preliminary agreement with the designers, but the financial crisis of 2009 frustrated my plan.
This is why I had to travel through the Canadian and Eurasian north over the northernmost road, rather than along the coastline. It should be admitted that in Russia the northernmost road sometimes runs alongside the southern border – remember we are a country of paradoxes. We are not alone in this idiosyncrasy, though, since in Canada they have a similar arrangement. Some lengths of the last third of their northernmost road also runs along the southern border from west to east.
Cycling through Yemen’s civil war
Vladislav Ketov rode into Yemen two days after the unification had been achieved there. This unification left South Yemen in ruins and internally the country was still torn apart by war. Ketov was cycling in this very severe and horrifying setting and it took him very long to get from Yemen to Oman as the border was closed. Eventually he got help from the military who took him by helicopter into the depth of the country where the only border passage was allegedly located. When they dropped him in the middle of nowhere it turned out that the only open border crossing was 60 km away from that spot. Nobody could explain him where it was situated, since there were no maps or roads. Ketov ‘crawled’ 25 km over the rocky desert towards the border but the further he got the more lost he felt. After hours of struggle he realized that unless he returned by the same way he had come he would risk vanishing here forever. So he turned around. Thank God he did. The very next day the helicopter with the Russian-speaking general came back and after having described his peculiar situation the general ordered his subordinates to drive Ketov in a 4×4 jeep to the very checkpoint.
‘Crossing’ the impossible Bangladesh Myanmar Border
The border between Bangladesh or India and neighbouring country Myanmar has been known to be closed for as long as anyone can remember. But Ketov was determined to give it a try anyway as he had to follow the coastline.
In Bangladesh the Burma Consulate told him that there was no way of cycling over the ground – only by plane. Ketov cycled to the border nonetheless and tried to break through, but to no avail. He had to backtrack his way again and returned to Chittagong. From there he flew by plane to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, from where trains and buses took him back to the border with Bangladesh and he continued cycling again into Myanmar.
In the same way he made the crossing between Myanmar and Thailand.
Cycling through Somalia & War Zones
Passing through Somalia seemed impossible even theoretically. But travel serendipity kicked in to his luck and in Dar-es-Salam Ketov found an official representative of the Somalian state. The boring official issued Visa #1 for him along with a recommendation letter. He instructed Ketov: “if you are stopped by guys with machine guns just tell them you are going to general Morgan. No problem. And when you get to Kismayo and see general Morgan who speaks fluent Russian, this man will send you further on. No problem.”
During his trip Ketov crossed eight territories where a war was raging. The war in Somalia was by far the most complicated, dangerous and troublesome vague war zones, skirmishes between different clans. Basically everybody was making war with everybody else. The principle ‘whoever is not with us is against us’ triumphed and because Ketov did not side with anybody, he was automatically opposed to everyone! And really you don’t want to land in such a place.
In the end Ketov managed to ride through the country but it was a highly stressful and intense time.
Anyone can travel
One of the purposes of his travel was to demonstrate that any person can travel the world, even if he or she does not have any superhuman abilities. Ketov had never been known for excellent health and in 1983 he even had a minor heart attack. Yet he finished his travel at the age of 63. In the same way any person may travel across the globe unless others stand in his or her way!
Speaking ‘body language’ instead of foreign languages
Vladislav Ketov admitted that he a had (and has) a very limited grasp of foreign language but is quick to add that does not limit anyone’s ability to communicate with locals in far and strange lands.
Ketov believes there there are two basic laws of direct human communication:
The first and most important law is that if two persons want to understand each other, they’ll sooner or later find ways to bring their points home. This rule has been proven thousands of times in my experience. But when someone is not making an effort to understand you, no languages will help.
The second law says that in direct communication the main information transmission channel are not words, but intonation and the body language. A simple example: I am cycling over the road in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, it does not matter where, and someone tries to harass me. Without pausing to think I just yell at this person in pure Russian… and everything is clear. Nobody has ever asked me to translate what I say.
Help from strangers
Any serious traveler has found himself in a dire situation where he needed to rely on the help of strangers and locals. And Ketov had as well. He made an interesting observation about which type of people are more likely to help a needy or lost traveler:
When it comes to people’s willingness to help there is an interesting dependency: the lesser potential a person has, the stronger his or her desire to help. And on the contrary: the higher the potential, the lesser the desire to help anybody with anything. This is an ironclad dependence with rare exceptions….
And Ketov was lucky to encounter one of those “rare exceptions”. It was ex-Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Viktor Posuvalyuk, an orientalist who inspite of his overly busy agenda personally signed 17 of Ketov’s visa requests for the remaining Asian countries on his route.
Sometimes luck is on your side indeed..
Getting help was also aided by the fact that Ketov’s trip had been extensively covered in local and global media giving him and his trip valuable exposure.
Bicycle Touring Dietary Needs
Ketov is a bit of a stranger in our midst when it comes to dietary requirements for bicycle touring. He dismisses the well known theory of calories and he believes you get energy from many alternative sources of energy, not only nutritional calorie intake through food.
We can get energy directly from the sun and also from water. Where water is available, you may subsist on it quite long. It’s hard only the first couple of days and then your body switches to a different energy supply mode. Once you know this you are OK. But when a person does not have this knowledge and thinks that if she feels bad the next day it means she may die soon. If this feeling is fostered a person can die indeed. This was proven by Alain Bombard back in the 1950s. Having crossed the Atlantic on a small inflatable rescue boat, he showed that people may perish during the first days after a shipwreck only of fear, while having everything necessary for survival.
There were two periods, when I almost had nothing to eat and I was cycling on water alone. On the first occasion I was undernourished in Northwestern Europe, strange though it may seem. I lost 20 kg during 45 days, but felt very good. The second hunger was experienced in South Angola where there was no scale to weigh myself, no villages and no road designated on the map. By that time the Civil war had been raging there 20 years. Praise God, I succeeded in finding some water to drink every 3-4 days. Subsisting on water alone, I got to Namibia.
A cycling journey of 21 years and 21 days
The first part of Vladislav Ketov’s incredible journey – around Europe, Africa, Asia, South and North America – took almost 10 years of which more than half was killed by passing through visa formalities and obtaining various permissions. In those ten years he had had to leave out the Northern parts of Russia and Canada as he had not found a viable route yet. He backtracked to those places later to cycle the Northern most roads of those two countries once he realised that that was going to be the only practical solution to his continental coastline cycling mission. His mad project came to an end in summer of 2012 when he wrapped up the last section of his trip with the entire venture taking a total of 21 years and 21 days, covering 164,000 km.
Since then Ketov has been honoured by both the United Nations Environmental Program and the Russian government for his efforts.
During his 21 years of pedaling around the world, his bike was only stolen once…in Russia.