How I survived grizzlies and the Russian winter to cycle the world solo

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I was on a mission to ride my bike around the world – and I wanted to be the fastest woman to do so – but around 60km from the British Colombia town of Golden, still very much towards the beginning of my ride, I was thrown into the deep end of what the rest of the journey was going to be like. 

I was happily listening to Megan Hine’s book Mind Of A Survivor – a manifesto that, without fail, reminds me to think before I act and be resourceful, and never fails to drive home the tiny speck I am in this incredible universe.

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One of the bigger bears was up on two hind legs and was coming after me

Not that I needed reminding. Ahead, I had a big mountain pass to ride up, so I set a suitable rhythm and got lost in the audiobook. Then suddenly, as I was freewheeling downhill after the climb, I spotted a few brown creatures on the horizon, seemingly drinking water out of a stream. 

As I got closer, I noticed that they were, in fact, three bears. One of them looked up. I was instantly fascinated. What happened next was something I could never have anticipated. 

One of the bigger bears was up on two hind legs and was coming after me. Every time I’d pictured something like this happening to me, I had always been super calm. In reality, though, I was anything but.

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I tried pressing my SPOT satellite communication tracker

I frantically tried to grab the bear spray but it was deep inside my backpack. Running out of options, I rode with all I had up the hill, even though I knew I didn’t stand a chance. 

I tried pressing my SPOT satellite communication tracker but the SOS button was under a flap and I couldn’t manage it while riding at speed. I didn’t know where the bear was at this point, or if it was still behind me. 

Finally, a huge lorry approached, honking and brakes screeching as it stopped right in front of me – inches away. The bear darted into the woods, scared off by all the noise. Before I’d even caught my breath, the lorry driver cursed me for being on the wrong side of the road and drove off.

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Of course, plans never quite work out as expected

It’s moments like these that made me realise how exposed I was on my 29,000km journey around the world, which started in Perth, Australia, and would take me from Iceland to India and everywhere in between.

Of course, plans never quite work out as expected when it’s just you, your bike and a giant open road ahead. But that’s all part of the adventure, I discovered. 

My Indian visa for one, proved to be a stumbling block over the many checkpoints and border crossings along the journey. 

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I have a dangerous level of conviction in my ability to keep going

Through it all, my goal was to just keep moving, no matter what challenges I encountered. I wanted to see what I was capable of – to know if I could do it all by myself. I wanted to test if I was independent enough and see whether I would keep calm when problems arose. 

Mostly, I wondered if I would end up cycling away at the end of it all, having circumnavigated the world and pedalled past all its locals, still believing that people are inherently good and kind.

What I did know for sure is that I would pull it off. I have a dangerous level of conviction in my ability to keep going and enjoy the ride – whatever the adversity. A conviction that I was sure wouldn’t fail me over the six-month solo journey.

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I realised that I wasn’t scared anymore

About 22,000km after the bear incident, I found myself in Finland waiting for my Russian visa to come through. By this point, I’d certainly seen the worst of the world, having been mugged in Spain, resulting in a concussion that slowed me down significantly and knocked my confidence with night riding. 

But when my Russian visa came through, I realised that I wasn’t scared anymore. The only emotion I felt was excitement. The snowy roads, cold temperatures and the kindness of the Russian people, offering me tea and vodka along the road, made for a bracing but humanity-restoring ride.

The fierceness of the Russian winter naturally meant I had to focus on staying warm, dry and safe at all costs, dodging severe wind chills and temperatures that sometimes dipped to minus 20.

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I surprised myself by managing to stay smiling

But it also meant I managed to find some of my weirdest camping spots on this challenging section of the trip – staying overnight in huge roadside pipelines, building myself makeshift snowholes and bunking down in 24-hour service stations. At one point, I was even offered a bed inside a stranger’s truck. They turned the heater on and offered to dry my wet socks, gloves and shoes. 

Through it all, I surprised myself by managing to stay smiling. When I did struggle, I would make a point of reminding myself that I was strong enough and I would get to the finishing line, back at where it all began in Perth.

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I finished up more appreciative than ever

That mentality carried me through 160 days of visa issues, crashes, injuries, mental challenges, big laughs and happy moments – and meant I finished more appreciative than ever of a real bed and 14 hours of sound sleep. Because, that’s what big adventures teach us – sometimes you have to go all around the world to appreciate what’s right in front of you. 

Vedangi Kulkarni is a solo traveller, adventurer and endurance athlete who cycled 29,000km around the world in 160 days, becoming the youngest woman to do so. 

To take on your own challenges and push your boundaries, join Flash Pack on a group adventure with like-minded people in their 30s and 40s.

Images: ©Callum Howard, Adobe Stock & Unsplash 

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