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From Bulgaria on a bicycle

Volodia Sorokin has spent much of the last 16 years pedaling around the world

Posted: April 23, 2011 - 4:48pm
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   Courtesy of Volodia Sorokin
Courtesy of Volodia Sorokin

Editor’s note: The Empire is grateful to Walt Sisikin for acting as a translator during its interview with Volodia Sorokin. Quotes attributed to Sorokin in the following article come from the benefit of his translation from Sorokin’s Russian. Passages from Sorokin’s website, www.volodiasorokin.com, have been translated from Bulgarian using Google Translate.

 

Volodia Sorokin stepped off the ferry Kennicott Monday and onto the parking lot at the Auke Bay Terminal.

He had just completed the trip to Juneau from Bellingham, Wash. Many, if not most people who have made that 2 1/2-day trip would describe it as a long haul. For Sorokin, though, it was just a tiny step on a trek that has taken him 40,000 miles in 16 years, across 64 countries on five continents. And, he’s done most of it on what he describes as the “optimum mode of transport,” a bicycle.

“When traveling by bicycle, you have all your senses,” he said. “You can hear, you can smell the things, you can feel nature. … When you’re in an airplane, all you can do is look, and you don’t hear or smell anything.”

 

Trip tips off as Iron Curtain tumbles

People in both the East and the West cheered the fall of communist dictatorships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For one side, it meant a victorious end to the Cold War. For those behind the Iron Curtain, it meant an opportunity for a more free life and the chance to see the world beyond that dismantled barricade.

It also brought economic change as the USSR and its satellites moved from centrally-planned financial and production systems to varying types of free-market systems. That conversion meant many Germans, Czechs, Bulgarians and others found themselves off their lifetime career tracks and on a new line — the unemployment line.

Volodia Sorokin found himself in just that spot. Bulgarian National Television laid the filmmaker off in 1992, along with about 50 of his fellow cinematographers, Sorokin writes on his website. He had been filled with wanderlust from an early age, he told the Empire, by hearing weather reports from cities in Western Europe as he lived in what he called the “closed city” — closed because the military built its rockets there — of Kubishev (now Samara) in the former Soviet Union. As a young man, he had indulged that desire to travel some by moving to Sofia, Bulgaria to live with his wife Lilia, after the two met as university students in Moscow. That trip, however, had less to do with tourism and more to do with necessity, as the Soviet leadership under Leonid Brezhnev would not allow his wife to live with him in Kubishev.

So, in August of 1994, 42 years old and without a job, he asked, and received his wife’s blessing to hit the road and see the world he’d heard about only in terms of cloud cover and Celsius.

“In (Sofia), I can go ahead and kill myself, or be a drunk, or go to Australia,” Sorokin said he told his wife. “So, she told me to go to Australia.”

Sorokin now had freedom and permission, but without a job, lacked much money. So, he scraped together $350 Australian (about $710 in today’s U.S. dollars) and a bicycle and took off across Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India before hopping on a boat to continue his journey through Asia and, eventually, Australia. While Down Under, he worked as a fruit picker and house painter and combined that income with money made working aboard the ships he sailed on. His expenses were minimal, as he almost always slept on a bedroll he carried with him. He said he only paid for lodging one time, $1 to spend the night at a Salvation Army post in Pakistan.

“When I looked at the sky, I wasn’t in a five-star hotel, I was in a 1,000-star hotel,” he said of his typical outdoor sleeping arrangements.

This frugality not only allowed Sorokin to save up more than $1,500, but also gave him the title for his first book, which he said translates to “To Australia for $1.” He also filmed five documentaries during that tour of Europe, Australia and Asia.

 

An annual ritual

Sorokin eventually found his way back to Bulgaria after 13 months. That trip served as a catalyst for a new lifestyle, one where he would alternate between spending a year in Bulgaria with his wife and a year abroad, eventually touring Europe, Asia, Africa, north America and the Middle East, 64 countries in all.

Bicycling to all of his destinations would prove impossible. Some places, like Juneau, are only accessible by boat or air. He had to take a train across Siberia from Vladivostok to Samara, since the Siberian road system is sparse with asphalt paths. A journey from Egypt to Kenya required flying over Sudan, where ethnic and rebel militia fighting has prompted extensive travel precautions.

Still, Sorokin estimates he’s spent five of the last 16 years pedaling. During that time, he says he’s gone through four bicycles, 10 pairs of shoes and an untold number of tires.

Another untold number is the amount of people he’s met in his travels. He might not always have known the local language, but said he could always find a way to communicate with everyone.

“A normal tourist, with an airplane, they go from the airplane to the hotel,” he said. “They don’t see how the people live.”

That interaction allowed Sorokin’s outlook on life to evolve. He began his travels as a pessimist, but became an optimist because “people have good in them,” he said.

“People were interested in talking to me, because they saw a person that’s basically traveling the world, so I was able to give them a different perspective on their lives,” he said.

He also grew spiritually. As a youth in Russia, he belonged to the Young Pioneers, a group designed to instill Soviet values and patriotism in children. Sorokin said most of that teaching didn’t take, as he never was a Communist. During his travels, he said he developed a belief in God and became a Christian. He credits Providence for saving him from a bout of severe malaria in Africa, which may have affected his ability to relate to people beyond language barriers. He found himself in a hospital filled with unfamiliar people and dialects, but another Russian happened to be in the clinic at the same time, and helped him navigate his way back to health.

Sorokin stresses that more good things have happened to him than bad, but there have been mishaps. Cars hit him three times while he was on his bicycle and a pickup truck ran over his foot, causing it to swell to twice its normal size. The swelling would not disappear completely for a month, though he managed to come out of the incident with no broken bones. Dogs and monkeys have attacked him, he said, and he learned to sleep at night with a flashlight in one hand and a knife in the other.

 

End of one journey, the start of another

Sorokin left Juneau Friday morning with his bicycle, headed north on the ferry LeConte to Haines.

Walt Sisikin, a Juneau man who befriended Sorokin in Los Angeles, served as Sorokin’s translator and tour guide while he was here. Sisikin showed Sorokin around town and took him out on his boat to go crabbing, but said Sorokin spent much of his time indoors in conversation.

“I’m outside all the time I love to be inside and rest,” Sisikin said Sorokin told him when asked about his newfound, albeit temporary, love for a roof over his head.

Sisikin said Sorokin did 50 miles on the final leg of his tour of North America Friday, a trip segment which will eventually end in Anchorage. This chapter of Sorokin’s travel journal started in October in Washington, D.C. and took him through the American South and West before he reached Alaska.

It will also be his last, at least by bicycle. He said he promised his wife he would not take any more long trips by bicycle, but left himself enough wiggle room for a trip across Canada to the northeastern United States next year — by motorcycle. He said that trip will be a “practice ride” to see if he can tour the world on two motorized wheels.

Sorokin, already a U.S. permanent resident, plans to finalize his citizenship and take up residence in Anchorage. He plans to fly to Bulgaria for about six months of the year to see his wife and live in Alaska the remainder of the time. He said he hopes to continue his work as a writer and filmmaker in his new home, but will “do anything.” Sorokin also wants to meet a pair of Alaska political figures, Gov. Sean Parnell and former Gov. Sarah Palin.

He said despite his Russian and Bulgarian passports, he now considers America to be his home.

“I really like America,” he said. “Here, any place you go, you always come out in a good mood … because everybody’s very nice and very helpful.”

He also said the Statue of Liberty provided him with a hopeful message.

“People that have lost faith in their countries, the Statue of Liberty basically tells them, ‘I’ll give you the faith back here’,” he said.

Sorokin’s final stop on his 16-year pedaling patrol of the world will be 4 p.m. May 9 as he arrives at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. His website, www.volodiasorokin.com, is in Bulgarian, but can be generally navigated by using an online translation service, such as Google Translate. He has information there about how to purchase his travel documentaries and books.

• Contact Deputy Managing Editor Charles Ward at 523-2266 or at charles.ward@juneauempire.com.

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