A profound treatise on solitude.
Much like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not really about Zen or indeed motorcycle maintenance, so Russia. Mongolia. Motorbike. Me. is not really about any of those things either. Russia and Mongolia provide the setting, Nick is the narrator and the motorbike is the object which symbolises a concept. That concept is solitude.
The setting is of course of utmost importance. This travelogue is rich with history and context, and Sanders writes about the people he encounters on his long journey with empathy and affection. But the real journey is the journey of the mind. Nick is best known as a holder of a series of world records for covering very long distances very quickly by motorcycle. So it seems he is a little out of his comfort zone in moving at a relatively normal pace and stopping in various locations for any length of time whilst still remaining on his own. It is from that tension that his philosophical investigation appears to originate. The image of a single motorbike carrying its rider over vast distances is the perfect one for signifying solitude, which is something Sanders devotes much time to exploring in this tome.
As I’ve observed before, solitude and loneliness are two different things, and nowhere is this distinction clearer than in this book. One constantly feels the solitude of the narrator; but with his thoughts and his other self, a notion he discusses at length, he is not alone. His other self is accompanied not only by other motorcycle adventurers who have made similar journeys before, both known and unknown to him, but also by storytellers. Tarkovsky, Murakami and Calvino are never too far away. His thoughts, both ones which he concludes and those he leaves open ended for the reader to take on, are as challenging as they are comforting, especially if you have ever travelled alone, by motorbike or by any other means of transport. In that sense Russia. Mongolia. Motorbike. Me. is almost Neo Aristotelian in its scope and vision.
The book itself is a beautiful artefact: a nicely printed object with strong images and profound pull quotes. It is a pleasure both to hold and behold. Nick’s warm and sympathetic account of Russia and Mongolia and those who inhabit those beautiful gargantuan countries makes for a good narrative rhythm. An important figure who is featured in the author’s reflections and who is clearly there at the edge of his consciousness throughout is Dostoyevsky, in particular when Sanders is travelling through Siberia. There were three kinds of people in Siberia, Dostoyevsky postulated in Notes from the House of the Dead: those born there who choose to leave, those sent there involuntarily, and the strongest kind who have chosen to come there. Sanders belongs to the latter category: paradoxically his strength lies in his fragility as a tiny human figure on a motorbike swinging between lines of huge eighteen wheeler juggernauts in a landscape so vast that the horizon appears almost concave.
If you are expecting a blow by blow travel guide listing which cities have the most comfortable hotels or which routes to avoid at rush hour, this book is not for you. If however you want a glimpse into the mind of a solo long distance traveller who has attained perhaps the best clarity of anyone on what solitude is, what it can be, and how it can pave the way to a better understanding of oneself and one’s environment, then this book is compulsory reading. The ease and elegance of Nick’s writing style makes navigating these extremely complicated conceptual obstacles almost completely effortless for the reader. The hard part is trying to figure out what you will do with the answers once Nick has unobtrusively guided you to them.
Everyone who has ever travelled or dreamt of travelling should read this book. It will strengthen you.
The best place to get Russia. Mongolia. Motorbike. Me. is Nick’s web store for £7.99