A borderline journey

They wanted to go on a big journey and think about their lives. In 2013, Cécile Cusin and David Vulliez spent four months in eastern Siberia, living alongside the River Amur. Between China and Russia, in a canoe and on bikes, they followed its winding course – and also experienced an interior journey… 

Departure

8 August 2013

Arrival

6 December 2013

Duration

4 months

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

The year is 2013. Cécile and David, both aged 29, had a single wish: to share a beautiful adventure, far from the comforts of everyday life, before they turned 30. They were keen to discover new horizons. But they also wanted to take time out to think, and to reach out differently to others. So they surveyed the world map on their apartment wall, and the journey began. Their eyes roamed the planet, and alighted on the River Amur – spelt Amour in French. It was love at first sight! “The symbolism was obviously enjoyable. And the idea of going to see what it was like along this remote Chinese-Russian border really appealed to us.” The idea gave rise to their project: to cross eastern Siberia by canoe and bike, along the course of the Amur: a journey of about 3,000km. Seven months’ preparation later, they were ready for the off. On 8 August 2013, the two Annecy residents jetted off with 100kg of baggage for Beijing, then Hailar in Inner Mongolia. They switched from aircraft to bus, and a 10-hour trip later, finally reached the river.

Their eyes roamed the planet, and alighted on the River Amur – spelt Amour in French. It was love at first sight!

A RIVER NAMED DESIRE…

That’s when things began to get complicated. They weren’t allowed to launch on the Chinese side – and not even to cross over to the Russian bank, just 200m away! “There are two bridges over the Amur. So we took our 100kg of kit and caught a bus to the northern bridge, 350km upstream. When we got there, it turned out that the crossing was for goods only. So we had to do a U-turn and head for the southern bridge.” All in all, a four-day detour to get back to their initial starting-point… but on the Russian side. “And then the Amur was in a 100-year flood! So we had to wait another fortnight!” Was the Amur playing hard to get? Without a doubt. When the launch finally neared, they felt even happier. What lay ahead was quite some paddle: a 1,300km journey downriver, with 28 days’ complete self-sufficiency (three cheers for freeze-dried food!) in an inflatable two-seat canoe. But privacy took a backseat: “We were constantly followed by border guards in boats, and they showed us where to camp. We were only granted a single authorisation to disembark, for just 10 minutes in a village! And we had to progress quickly, about 70km a day.”     The scenery on both banks was dreary, usually lined with barbed wire, and punctuated with distance markers – white on the Russian side, red in China… “It was a trip that felt timeless, out of this world, with wonderful encounters – the soldiers who were monitoring us, the Russian journalists who welcomed us at the end of our journey…”

“The river soon broadened: it was 200m wide where we set off, 2km at our finish point, and 200m at its estuary. And the water was about 6°C.” 

THE INNER JOURNEY

While their canoe headed back to France by post, Cécile and David rode a river barge to the Chinese shore. And there, in a “little town” of just 200,000 inhabitants, they went in search of bicycles. To no avail: they had to settle for tricycles with built-in carts to continue their way down the Amur, this time by road. “We rode for 300km past barbed-wire fences. It wasn’t easy going, and the weather was tough… We had then intended to continue on the river, but the winter freeze was slow in coming… So we rearranged the end of our adventure.” The couple gave away their tricycles, and by bus reached the vast taiga 1,000km further downriver. “It was a hard decision to take, but one aspect of our journey was giving ourselves time to think. So we stocked up on food and spent three weeks in a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere. We analysed what we’d just experienced, and how it would influence the rest of our life… We lived in complete self-sufficiency, with an unlimited outdoor freezer (-30°C) and a small wood stove inside!” 

“One aspect of our journey was giving ourselves time to think.”

BACK TO THE PRESENT

Cécile and David have now resumed the course of their lives. Their bond has grown stronger and, they say, they have “refocused on essentials: spending time with loved ones, simplifying how we operate, savouring good times…”. Together they are writing the story of their journey, and Cécile is also envisioning the film that will follow…    

“The Millet prize money was a terrific boost. We had high-performance equipment for our journey, it was definitely state of the art. And Millet’s backing also gave us a foot in the door with other sponsors.”

The Team

David Vulliez
aged 30 in 2014, R&D engineer. Mountain sports enthusiast. Lives in Annecy (Haute-Savoie).
CĂ©cile Cusin
aged 30 in 2014, director of TV documentaries. Mountain sports enthusiast. Lives in Annecy (Haute-Savoie).