No, we haven’t lost the plot, that title is right. On Boxing Day 2016 the valley where we’re based was hit by devastating floods. This weekend will be 6 months since they hit, and businesses and families up and down the valley are still recovering. As part of the drive to boost the recovery of the area, and as a general spirit raiser, this weekend sees Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd celebrate their ‘Alternative Christmas’. So, in support of all those whose Christmas was washed away, we’re bringing you our 12 Days of Christmas Big Reads again.
Phew! That’s over then. We now enter the limbo between Christmas gluttony, Hogmanay hi-jinks, and the depositing of the remains of the tree in the garden. There’s probably still a few relatives and quite a lot of turkey hanging around, so take a break, find a quiet corner, and settle down with the first of our 12 Days of Christmas big reads.
Ends of the earth: Real riding adventures in the mountains of Siberia
First published in Singletrack Issue 58
Words and pictures: Daniel Klawczynski
You either fall in love with it or you hate it. There is no other option. To survive in Siberia you need to be part bear: thick fur and a bearish nature. A tough head also comes in handy: the remedy against the cold is 40% proof. To the outsider, northern Siberia is harsh and merciless, but its people are unexpectedly warm and sincere.
Millions of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, waist-deep mud and a heartwarming 10°C on the thermometer: these are, in summary, the ‘attractions’ of summer in the North Russian borderlands. So what on earth possessed us to go there, when ordinary people were escaping to more clement regions for their holidays?
The enchantment of these barren lands; the allure of the subtle beauty of the tundra; is known to Russians as the ‘romance of the North’. In this cold climate, every pleasure is enhanced; a flower in stony ground, a fish hooked from a river, sugar in tea…
An expedition to the regions beyond the Arctic Circle can be a real school in survival. Despite our fear we decided to take up the challenge. We wanted to beat one of the most severe mountains in Europe – and beat it on bikes.
Destination – Workuta
A single thread of rail reels off to the far, far North. And we’re destined to spend 50 hours winding our way out along this limb of civilisation in decidedly basic style. In Russian long-distance trains there are three sections: ‘lux’ (two beds to a compartment, washing bowl inside, air-conditioning), ‘kupe’ (four beds and sometimes air-conditioning) and ‘plackarta’ (54 beds in one big compartment, in which air-conditioning is rarely found). Although this latter has little in the way of comfort, it’s easier to form friendships. For us it was worth the discomfort, because – of all the unbelievable coincidences – we met a mountain biker and polar explorer.
On the Moscow-Workuta train, tourists (never mind cyclists) are a rare sight. So our Russian friend, on the way to the restaurant car, simply couldn’t miss our colourful group; bikes stashed just under the ceiling, wheels between beds festooned with rucksacks and gloves. (As an aside: the RDZ (Russian railway) doesn’t provide space for bicycles – so you have to be really smart to manage with three bikes.) Anyway, our new friend Boris turned out to be a dedicated cyclist regarded by Workuta locals as a crank for travelling by hardtail almost all year round – riding round the city just for fun in the summer and commuting relentlessly to work despite -25 degree frosts in winter. We spent a lot of the journey together – which gave us chance to pump Boris for the kind of information that could save our skins in a fix. He’d never been to the place we were planning to go to, but knew other parts of the tundra and mountains well, and from a bike-saddle-perspective. He looked at us with compassion and warned us that it wouldn’t be easy…
When we reached the town, Boris invited us to stay – not only enormously generous but also a way of avoiding Russian form-filling and administration.
Alien – the 8th passenger of Nostromo
When we left Moscow, it was extremely hot – dry continental summer heat. In Workuta it was totally different. We were welcomed by heavy grey clouds which virtually dragged their bellies along the ground. The temperature was 5°C. Boris consoled us that ‘it will surely brighten up’. But the city didn’t exactly inspire us to believe him.
There’s no need to delve into its gloomy history to get depressed. One glance at its monotonous early Stalinist architecture is enough; not even a single tree to soften the impression of a desolated factory. Rusty and abandoned machinery protruded from ruined buildings in a post-Armageddon post-industrial nightmare. It’s like the set from a low budget sci-fi film, just missing an alien. I wouldn’t be able to live here, for love nor money. After barely two days we felt the need to escape from the man-made ecological disaster all around us.
The line between Workuta and Labytnanga is one of the most interesting train lines in Russia. Stalin intended that the track should reach to Norilsk and even go farther through the whole of West Siberia to Jakuck, but the project was drowned in mud. Along with a few million people (but that’s another story). The train has an onboard shop selling potatoes, sugar, flour, eggs. We got off after 92km at the Polar Ural station. This consists of three houses – one of which is the stationmaster’s. His dog gave up barking to announce our arrival, and instead started to eye us up with interest.
In the distance, on both sides of the track, the Ural massifs rose above the monotony of the tundra. One of the dips in these mountains was where we planned to go. Finally the weather was pleasant. Finally we had what we wanted: silence, quiet and a stretch of hard cycling. The adventure began.
We set out down the railway, along ‘viezdohodnaya doroga’, a road for caterpillar-tracked vehicles only. After the first few kilometres we noticed that the stationmaster’s dog was still following us. He must like us. Or he was looking for an adventure too.
Near the railway track we came across a border sign that tells that we’re leaving Europe for a continent whose size we cannot fully grasp. We felt strange; small and insignificant. But we cross in style, to the accompaniment of a huge orchestra of mosquitoes. Civilisation disappeared somewhere in the transition and we realised that the wilderness has begun.
Our new treadmill became the fording of cold, rapid rivers. Between them, we were surrounded by northern nature scrambling hurriedly to take advantage of the brief summer months before they gave way to winter’s deep chill. The wildlife is meagre, but surprisingly diverse in form, colour and extraordinary beauty. The water in rivers and brooks was unbelievably clean and we drink it straight without boiling it.
For our first night out on the flat foothills we drank ‘pierzovka’ (pepper flavoured vodka) presented to us by Boris. We sprinkled it on the wheels of our bikes – just for good luck. Only the dog didn’t drink – instead he ran this way and that through the grass. But to our amazement, Graf – as we’d named him – was still with us in the morning.
They’re called ‘Moon Mountains’ by the local geologists. There is something in this. Although they’re not on a grand scale (Polar Ural only rises to 1472m) their barren faces and lack of plant cover is lunar. The peaks are rusty coloured – perhaps more like Mars than Earth’s natural satellite.
Our ‘moon jeeps’ climbed bravely up an increasingly steep road. Luckily, instead of quagmire we had a natural rocky track under the wheels – actually a river bed; an omen – water was our constant companion throughout the trip.
We soon started to have problems describing time. In August here, the sun sets relatively late – and if there are no clouds in the sky, it’s possible to read books at midnight. If only we had packed books…
That first day in the mountains the weather began to change. The peaks and the sky assumed the same leaden shade and it got damn cold as we started to feel a hint of that severe northern climate. Reaching the top of a long pass as evening neared, there was snow lying in rocky hollows although we weren’t even 1000m up. We weren’t sure whether it was the remains of the previous winter or the harbinger of the one to come. And we were hungry, and cold. This was mainly because of the water constantly bubbling into our shoes, exacerbated by the wind howling along the pass. We found a more sheltered spot to pitch camp between some boulders, with a few logs of wood and abandoned planks. Not enough to make a big fire, but enough for a little warmth. Apart from this there was little else; bare rocks with a few frail plants between them.. We gave Graf our leftovers – after all, he’d had nothing to eat.
In the morning we rode downhill along a barely visible thread of road – more accurately a trail of slippy stones – to a mountain lake. There we eagerly unwrapped all our fishing tackle, baited our lines and waited. For precisely nothing. We caught not a single fish. Instead, we noticed that the dog was eating very well. Hey you, sabaka! The cunning hound had learned to hunt and devour live lemmings (the fabled polar rodent). At least we didn’t have to feed him leftovers any more.
Although the area is uninhabited, it bears countless marks of human activity: chunks of rusty scrap iron, oil drums and bits of tracked vehicles. We came across a huge, ownerless, sleigh-mounted, turning lathe. Where does all this rubbish come from? We found the answer a little later, when, on reaching the top of another hill, we rode on – straight into an open cast mine. It proved not to be the only one in the area.
Near some barracks – or ‘barrels’ as they call them, we were surrounded by a pack of hounds, and then by a group of friendly people who invited us into their homes. We were wearing scruffy clothes with no helmets (a deliberate policy) and so looked very similar to the locals. I know from my own experience that if we had appeared in a luxurious SUV, people wouldn’t even speak to us. In our old-fashioned stuff, we didn’t look like rich tourists from the West, vulnerable to being relieved of their luxury goods. We were treated heartily – and there was no need to persuade us to drink hot tea laden with sugar or to devour all the biscuits from the big bowl on the table with huge grins.
The weather was more like November: cold, damp and windy. It sapped our energy and our pantry seemed more notable for its deficits than its bounty. We believed the guide books that said the rivers were overflowing with fish. But so far, we hadn’t seen a single one – and that was a problem for our stock of provisions.
The miners offered to put us up for the night but we couldn’t accept – the far north called. Despite their tales about the terrain we were destined for; no wheeled vehicles can manage it, not even the infamous – and invincible – ‘Ural’ lorries, we were cheerful. The thaw in the tundra is what makes the ground so difficult – but it’s that which attracted us. So we pressed on.
We couldn’t have anticipated our first crisis: brakes. Riding down hills we’d used our brakes reasonably well. But the combined effect of mud coating the wheels and gravel appeared to magically remove the brake surfaces of our brake pads, like braking with sandpaper. However, the real drama started when we found that we’d forgotten the spare ones. How hilarious – in a scary kind of way. The brakes began glowing during downhills, metal on metal, so we decided to dismount when it got really steep.
Our caravan; three bikes and a dog, sped through the valleys of this rain soaked land. Just like the dog, the rain really liked us and followed us through the whole two weeks of our journey. Our lightweight footwear wasn’t good enough for this weather and the cold and damp began to really affect our feet. For the second time, we crawled into our sleeping bags in wet clothes – to see whether we could dry them a little by morning. I don’t have to say how nasty that is, do I? And the fustiness was getting worse – slowly we were going mouldy.
We stopped again to rest – and to have a go at fishing again. Suddenly, to our amazement, we notice fish chasing our sparkling tin bait. And at last we seized our first trophy; Tomek pulled out a grayling. In a short time there were a few more. The increasingly bitter cold cut short our tinkering with the fishing rod but we consoled ourselves with visions of a delicious supper.
We were just preparing to ford a really wide river. Suddenly we heard a whistle. A caterpillar tracked ‘vezdekhod’ (an old Russian tank) appeared from nowhere – bringing our friends from the mine! They offered us a lift. There was a big crowd inside, so we clambered onto the roof. It wasn’t long before we regretted the decision. There was nothing to hold onto as the vehicle jumped crazily across the rocky riverbed. As we clutched and clung for dear life – trying not to let our kit lurch overboard – we suddenly burst into hysterical laughter.
The monster came to a halt three kilometres on at a road junction. We were relieved to find it was turning off our route and we could safely proceed under our own steam. We’d never forget that hitchhike – for all the wrong reasons.
After a couple of days we left the higher parts of the mountains and resumed travel along the tundra. This time, we’d be on the eastern side, Asia. We couldn’t find any roads to take us northwards along the Ural range and were tired of fighting the difficult mountainous terrain.
That day we saw our first dwarfish trees and set camp among some larches (which also made good fuel). The warmth of the fire cheered us up and gave us a chance to dry out a little and finally eat our fish. They were excellent! What a pity we didn’t eat fish heads. But on the other hand the dog was glad we didn’t. Nothing was wasted.
The next day was practically all down hill. Unfortunately the road got steadily worse, tough and swarming with mosquitoes. Our bikes began to sink in the mud and we had to dismount and walk. With only 25km covered all day we came to a place where two huge rivers met. It was impossible to cross. Close inspection of the map proved we should have turned north 15km back. But we hadn’t noticed a side road – and we wondered whether it even existed. It was too late to do anything about it so we decided to sleep – and watch the polar owls circling the camp.
Retracing tracks is always hard. And to add to our woes the rain set in. What was only just possible the day before became impassable. We sunk into the heavy, sticky clay. It took several hours to reach the place where we should have turned. And then the tundra revealed what it had to offer.
To the naked eye it looked like slushy moors and water. The right road was simply a river – the bed firm enough to take the bikes but the surface rushing with little waves like a sea. We had no choice but to keep going – even with the wheels at full draught in the water. Real hard-core! At points it became too deep and claggy to ride and we had to drag the bikes. The dog coped by walking sideways. This hell lasted for almost 50km – undoubtedly the worst day of the whole trip. Apart from the sleeping bags and one set of jackets, well packed against a rainy day, we’re absolutely soaked. Another 30km brought us to utter exhaustion. The mosquitoes swarming on Tomek’s hat formed a dense cap – but he couldn’t bring himself to swat them off. Even Graf the dog seemed sad. The mosquitoes ate us alive but we’d stopped caring. The overwhelming urgency was to find a place to sleep. Marching for kilometres brought nothing but aching shoulders and approaching hypothermia. For the first time in my life I felt I couldn’t warm up despite keeping up the pace.
Call of the wild
And then in the next two hours, our fate changed. To start with, it stopped raining and we had a chance to change clothes. We took off all our wet clothes (and I mean all) and put on our precious spare dry jackets. This improved our morale so much that instead of pushing through the mud we rode the ridges. Then the dog scared away a flock of grouse. The birds – as we had been – were apathetic. When Sobek hit one with a stone we launched our – weary – selves into full frontal attack. Genius – hunting in its purest form. We managed to herd a couple into a thick bush and in just a few minutes had caught three birds. The killing proceeded in a flash – with a stone’s blow to the head and then wringing their necks. Smeared with blood, we tied them to our bikes and rode on. Proper adventurers.
As it started to get dark we saw a glimmer on the horizon. People! We wanted to warm up and rest so, despite having run out of energy a while back, we continued to ride. We received another hearty welcome from miners. This time we didn’t refuse their offers of overnight accommodation. The birds were prepared by the cook in the factory kitchen, so the supper tasted delicious. And we spent the night in a warm barrel-formed barrack. Our hosts – well paid for working in these inhospitable climes – simply couldn’t work out why we would go there, voluntarily, on our holidays.
We visited many places – from the west Siberian Salechard to the unpleasant prison town of Harp. We crossed the biggest Eurasion river – the Ob-and-Irtysh – by ferry. We found out that Siberian drivers are even worse than Polish ones. They really didn’t know how to react when they saw cyclists. We were a rarity in the Far North. There were so many adventures we couldn’t include them all in one article.
We bought brake blocks in Moscow. Essential to continue our ride back to Poland by bike through the Baltic lands and onwards…
And Graf the dog? We left him at the railway station in Harp – with a stationmaster. Graf couldn’t keep our pace as between Harp and Labytnangi it was all tarmac. The stationmaster was to send him back to Polar Ural station, where he started his journey with us.
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