Testing the Ice

AN ATTEMPT TO REACH THE RUSSIAN ARCTIC CIRCLE IN A 1993 URAL SIDECAR….

The beast…

There are two basic prerequisites for a motorbike trip: a motorbike and the ability to ride one. We had neither. Instead we had tweed, a tap-dancing comedian and an industrial dose of determination. And with little more than this potent cocktail of motorbike unsavvy, three of us were on a train from Yekaterinburg in Russia, heading north to the icy wastes of Surgut, an oil and gas town in the armpit of Siberia’s Polar Ural region.  Our mission: to buy an old Ural motorbike and sidecar and ride it 1000 miles up the River Ob  into the Arctic Circle.

As usual, it was Tom’s fault. Tom, founder of adventure anarchists The Adventurists, has a unique talent for coming up with ridiculous ideas. Ideas muttered absent-mindedly over a dog-eared map and a cup of tea in the company’s Bristol HQ. Ideas which either make people snort with outrage and reach for the Complaints Form, or sell their siblings and re-mortgage their house to take part in. Generally Tom’s mutterings end up as hugely successful events which raise mountains of cash for charity (The Mongol Rally, Rickshaw Run and Mototaxi Junket for example), but even I doubted whether he’d pushed the adventure envelope too far with the latest ‘Siberian idea’. Unlike the shiny new models, old Ural motorbikes aren’t known for their reliability, and temperatures in Siberia in mid-winter are cryogenically cold. It was a potentially lethal combination.

Undeterred by such lily-livered protestations, Tom, myself and Buddy, the aforementioned tap-dancing comedian, set off to Siberia in February to attempt the mission. On paper, none of us were exactly cut out for an Arctic motorbike adventure. Tom’s bike experience stretched to coaxing a recalcitrant mototaxi over the Peruvian Andes, Buddy’s to several hours on an antediluvian Ural in Mongolia and mine to passing my test in the UK six years previously and barely sitting on a bike since. What we did have however, was a joint pedigree in surviving outlandish escapades. Moreover, Tom, as well as having the determination of a charging buffalo, was a brilliant mechanic; Buddy a fearless idiot with a string of extreme TV presenting credits and myself; an ability to film what unfolded and hopefully rein-in the boy’s more extreme death-defying stunts. If we succeeded and returned intact, The Adventurists would launch a new event the following winter, The Ice Run. If we failed and lived to tell the tale, well, we’d just put it down to a jolly good adventure.

Our start point was Surgut, a mere dot on the vast ocean of Siberia. Founded 400 years ago as a fur trading outpost, the town has recently exploded to a population of 300,000 thanks to an oil and gas frenzy. Frozen for more than six months of the year and a mosquito infested swamp in summer, it’s hard to imagine a less hospitable environment. For our purposes, however, it was perfect; it being conveniently located on the banks of the Ob, our planned conduit to the Arctic. Furthermore, via the wonders of the Internet, we’d made contact with a group of bikers there who were keen to help us ‘crazy English people’. And since the main problem when we arrived in Surgut was a lack of bike, help was what we needed.

Roman and Alexei, our new Surgutian biker friends, were both ex-Spetsnaz giants of men who’d done several tours in Chechnya. They thought the whole venture was of the utmost hilarity, and soon word had spread through the whole Surgut biker community. Of particular entertainment to them was Buddy, the absolute antithesis of Russian machismo. Bespectacled, thin as a rasher of wind and permanently garbed in tweed, every one of their biker cronies who appeared in Roman’s bike shop to ogle us grabbed Buddy’s twig-like arms and collapsed into laughter. One of them, a  regional dirt bike champion, took great mirth in telling us how we’d either be eaten by wolves or freeze to death. “Would you like to come with us?” I asked him in jest, “Not for a million dollars” he replied, before letting out a gold-toothed cackle.

Despite their reservations, they did all they could to help, and two days later, we were the proud owners of a 1993, 650cc pale green Ural Tourist; bought for 30,000 roubles (£600) off a wild-eyed ex convict called Valody. Our bike had been manufactured a full decade before Ural underwent buyout and major transformation in 2003, and looked and sounded every inch as if it had fought in the battle of Stalingrad. It was perfect.

Valody and his former charge

Roman and Alexei didn’t agree. To us it was the old Ural was an icon, its almost unchanged 1940’s design -based on the BMW R71- a thing of great beauty. To them it was outdated, clunky Communist technology, a symbol of Soviet failure. Why not a nice reliable Honda? We imagined speeding across the snowy tundra to the glorious put-put of a Soviet single-cylinder, goggles flying in the Arctic wind. Roman and Alexei imagined us freezing to death, after having burnt every last inch of our Ural to try and keep warm. Hopefully our vision would prove the more accurate.

Since our rusty steed had been languishing in Valody’s sub-zero garage for a while, there were a few modifications to be done before the journey North. New soft profile, nobbly winter tyres were bought, an Odyssey battery – capable of working down to -80 – was fitted, heated handlebar grips were connected and snowmobile oil was poured into the engine to stop it freezing. We also bought special snowmobile facemasks, local felt valenki boots and an all-in-one down oversuit designed for oil workers to build pipelines in temperatures as low as -60. Dubbed ‘the fat suit’ by Tom, this would be worn by the driver, who’d get the brunt of the bone-chilling Siberian wind.

Just before we left, Roman and Alexei announced that we would be escorted for the first few days by their good friend Vasily. Not only were they concerned about bears, wolves and bandits, but it was due to be -40 the following week, the sort of cold that causes frostbite and hypothermia within minutes, a silent killer with no mercy. Before we had a chance to resist Vasily appeared: with piercing blue eyes, wrestler’s shoulders and a wicked laugh, he didn’t look like the sort of man you disagreed with. “No problem, I have two guns” said Vasily in heavily accented English, pointing to his brand new Land Cruiser, his eyes twinkling mischievously. Whether we liked it or not, Vasily was going to escort us, and that was that. While he was with us, I would film and alternate between car and bike, and once he left, the three of us would squeeze onto the bike – jerry cans, sleeping bags and all.

With the mercury at -32 we finally set off for Salekhard, waving goodbye to a small crowd of worried looking bikers.  And to the amazement of our Russian entourage, the Ural made it the first 200 miles in a single ten hour schlep, with only one minor breakdown.

The real adventure started as we turned north from Khanty-Mansisk, steering off the icy tarmac onto our first zimnik – winter road. Carved out of the packed snow and ice by mammoth snow-ploughs, these zimniks are the lifeblood of Siberia in winter. Without any actual roads between here and Salekhard; zimniks and the mighty Ob are the only transport routes available to the remote villages that dot the region.

Oh the joy of hitting the snow! As far as the eye could see was a blinding blanket of white, broken only by the odd silver birch copse. The bike skidded and bumped along, her new tyres gripping the packed snow with remarkable effect, her tractor-like engine rudely shattering the stillness. Fortunately, there hadn’t been a heavy snowfall recently so the surface was hard and relatively smooth, and we were propelled across the frozen tundra at a steady 30 mp/h. Heavy snow could spell trouble further north, where the zimniks were rarely cleared by snowploughs and we would easily get stuck, but for now we were in luck. Our only encounters were with the odd Soviet-era snowmobile and a handful of lumbering oil and gas trucks.

That night we stayed with some hunting friends of Vasily’s in Kidrovia, a village on the banks of the frozen Ob. According to his friends, Roman and Nadia, we were the first foreigners ever to visit Kidrovia, and we spent the night downing vodka and eating fabulous local fish, cheese and bread. Roman, a dark-eyed Tartar, had served in the Soviet Army in Mongolia, but Nadia had never met a foreigner before, and spent the evening excitedly holding my hand and stuffing us with more and more food. Like our friends in Surgut and our companion Vasily, these were people who we’d never met, yet whose kindness towards us was fathomless.

The bike had clearly enjoyed her stay in Kidrovia too, for in the morning no amount of pushing, swearing and new spark plugs could cajole her to start. Tom, normally able to fix any mechanical glitch, was flummoxed, as was the increasingly drunk crowd of burly men who appeared to lend a hand. The problem turned out to be the ignition timing, and it wasn’t until the shadows began to lengthen and the bike had been pulled apart that the engine finally choked into life. At least the delay had given us a chance to explore the village, with its wooden houses, onion-domed church and frozen fishing boats. We’d even been given a tour of the local school, where we’d been paraded on stage like exotic animals, Buddy entertaining everyone with juggling, dancing and jumping in the snow. There’s a saying that ‘laughter is the shortest distance between people’ and having Buddy with us, always making people laugh, was a constant asset: everyone should travel with their own personal comedian.

Vasily and his wife Anna

The next morning, under a cloudless winter sky, we said goodbye to Vasily and our hosts. Vasily’s eyes filled with tears as we hugged goodbye, and we promised to meet again. Nadia pressed hand-knitted gloves and freshly baked apple cake into our hands and Roman enveloped us in bear-like hugs. From now on we were on our own. With Tom driving, Buddy folded into the sidecar  and me pillion, we set off north, skimming for a while over the smooth surface of the Ob. Fuel was going to be scarce from here on, so as well as sleeping bags, a tent, a stove, food, filming equipment, a spare tyre and toolkit, we also had a 15 litre jerry can filled with petrol. Since the Ural had a less than 100 km range, and official petrol stations didn’t exist between here and Salekhard, we were counting on being able to buy black market fuel in villages along our route.

We were now around 500 miles from Salekhard, but with so much time lost finding and fixing the bike, being able to get there before our flight home was looking increasingly unlikely. Tom was absolutely determined we would make it however, and that day we drove long into the night. Although the temperature was hovering around a fairly clement -20, the wind chill was brutal, and keeping warm our primary concern. The driver, aided by the fat suit, heated handlebars and the windshield, faired best, whilst the unfortunate soul in the sidecar came off worst. Being in the sidecar was like being stuffed into a steel coffin and one’s feet, wedged into the nosecone, rapidly froze. Tom, much to the chagrin of Buddy and I, even complained of being too hot on occasions whilst driving – such was the physical strain of steering the Ural and her load over the bumps and bends of the ice road. Every two hours we’d stop, swap positions, ram a chocolate bar down our throats and force ourselves to run up and down until we could feel our fingers and toes, checking each other’s faces for the tell-tale waxiness of frostnip. Generally at these stops the bike would break down, and we’d lose another twenty minutes changing spark plugs and pushing her until she started again.

Buddy and a Russian friend

The cold aside, what a feeling it was to ride through the Siberian night under that glittering star-lit vault. Snow and ice as far as we could see. The sky so all encompassing it was as if we were swimming in a sea of stars. No sound except the growling engine of the Ural. Rarely have I felt so infinitesimally small in this world, and it was one of those experiences which will be etched in my mind for ever.

At Nizhny Novykary, a tiny settlement on the Ob, we finally gave in to the fact we weren’t going to make it to the Arctic Circle. Our flight home from Moscow was in two days and the only way we were going to make it was to turn around and get a train from Priobe, a town a day’s ride south. Salekhard was a mere 300 miles away, but with the bike developing more problems every day (one of the floats in the carburettor had now developed a leak), it was sadly out of our reach. Without doubt though, The Ice Run was possible. If we could make it this far with so little preparation, such an old Ural and with three of us on a bike, then better prepared teams would definitely be able to do it next year. We’d have to leave the elation of getting to Salekhard to them.

As we turned the bike round and steered her south, an old man who had been watching us curiously flagged us down and pressed an enormous frozen fish into our hands as a gift, wishing us good luck. So touched were we at the man’s kind gesture that we carried that fish all the way back to Yekaterinburg. What a strange sight we must have been; three foreigners and a large fish heading into the sunset  on an old Ural.

Tom snowboarding on the frozen River Ob

How can you take part?

The Ice Run takes place again between 9-22 February 2013. The price per bike (two people) is £2500 and this includes test driving and training at the legendary Ural factory in Siberia, launch and finish parties, and of course the use of one of The Adventurists’ fleet of pimped Urals.

To find out more and sign up see www.theadventurists.com.

This article first appeared in Motorcycle Monthly. To read more like this please see www.motorcyclemonthly.co.uk. Thanks to The Adventurists for the use of some of their photographs.



 

 

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