Saturday, February 23, 2013


Was the Ice Run the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted? Quite probably. The life of an adventurer means constantly having to live outside your comfort zone, a zone with a border that continually slips from your grasp. Fellow Ice Runner Ben Cooke wrote, “I think the only way to determine who you are is by putting yourself in situations, internally or externally, which will reveal more of how you work, how you tick. Many people are afraid to see the gears that work the clock, in case they are dirty. I would rather be dirty and know than live in blissful ignorance.” We humans all revert to type under stress. It turns out my grimy gears expose me for the grouchy control freak I am.  

For example, on our last morning in Siberia I lay unconscious in my bed after the night’s finish line party. Our day began with a ceremony on the Arctic Circle which included the ritual torching of a Ural and finished with dinner and dancing with Salekhard’s chief of police, after which we drank vodka in a night club until 3:00AM. My last, dim memory of the evening was watching the barman pour brandy over the counter and setting it alight to shoo the strippers away. Four hours later Nick and Paddy attempted to wake me for our early taxi ride to the airport by switching on the light. “Turn that bloody light off!”, I shouted, apparently (I have no recollection of the exchange). Björn and Rico tried again to wake me an hour later with more success. But it goes to show, the inner workings of your soul, or at least your limbic brain, like mine, is probably in need of a good cleaning. 

So, go. Go find out who you are. Who you are under stress. Stretch the limits of your experience and your capacity. It’s easy. If the challenge scares you then it’s a good sign it’s something that will ultimately enrich you and help you learn who you are. With that knowledge you can become anyone you want to be. As the Germans like to say, “Geh mit Gott, aber geh.” 

Ice Run Syndrome

This is what two weeks on the Ice Run in Siberia looks like. The youth on the left transformed into the shattered hull of a man on the right after a mere 17 days in Russia. We have confirmed through DNA testing that these are indeed the same individuals.

Medical researchers are asking, how is this dramatically accelerated aging possible? In an unpublished report Prof. Heinz Schnitzengruben of the Allgemeine Forschung und Motorradfahrer Entwicklung Institut, in Arschloch, Bavaria, made an empirical analysis of both the causes and mitigating factors effecting this poor lad's condition.

Major causal factors include:
  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Vodka 
  • Harsh environmental conditions 
  • Mechanical failure 
  • Lack of necessary skills in: motorcycling, Arctic survival, vodka metabolism, orienteering, motorcycle repair, and speaking Russian
Mitigating factors include: 
  • Vodka 
  • Teamwork 
  • Dancing
  • More vodka 
  • The natural beauty of Siberia
  • Russian hospitality

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Crossing the Line

Grateful thanks to the Mayor of Shuryshkary for this map
As soon as night fell the wind dropped and the cold returned. The faint orange glow of civilization drew us onward. After towing Eva for a dozen kilometers, Nick and Paddy’s bike, La Poderosa, was faltering. We paused at a narrow section of the road and flagged down a passing 4x4 to ask for directions. Zaya spoke with the driver who said we were only three kilometers from Labytnangi and the finish line. 

Of course we were never actually going to Salekhard. The Adventurists don’t put finish lines in places that the locals may have heard of. They put them in obscure, out of the way spots that are impossible to find at night. Labytnangi is just that type of place. Besides, all that information was in the official Ice Run handbook - which presupposes that one actually reads the handbook. Still, being so close to the end was, in the circumstances, unbelievably welcome news.

The dominoes started falling into place. The largest truck on the planet carrying a crane the size of an Antonov Mriya pulled over and its driver agreed to tow us to the outskirts of town. With directions from the road guard, we turned left and dragged Eva for another three kilometers until La Poderosa decided enough was enough and finally stopped dead. Five minutes later a Land Rover drove up and offered to tow both our bikes. Inside the car were Björn and Rico who had wisely abandoned the road for the night and hitched a lift. That meant, thankfully, all the Ice Runners were now present and accounted for. 

Fifteen kilometers of perilously steep hills and no brakes later we arrived at our hotel. We had made it! We had completed this most mental of adventures in one piece with the entire crew almost, and not for want of trying, uninjured. What a gas! What an adventure! What an amazing bunch of people the Russians are!

Time to celebrate. We dropped our kit, turned around and piled into a taxi and headed for a bar...  

Salekhard or Bust!

Our electricians finally declared Eva's battery charged, helped us reinstall it and sent us on our way. It was 2:00PM. That meant, we had convinced ourselves, there was still plenty of time to reach Salekhard, even if we took it easy.

Out on the road the weather had changed. The wind was now fully at our backs and increasing in strength. Over the next few hours it rose from light gusts to a full-on 20 knot tailwind. Snow chased us in swirls alongside and sometimes ahead of us as we pushed north. Coming out of the southwest the breeze felt warmer and at cruising speed it was calm and almost downright pleasant. Blank, shapeless clouds, white grey and blue gently settled over us, then slowly joined the horizon until the gap between the sky and the land closed and disappeared. Trees and shrubs faded away until our only directional clues were the ruts of the ice road and the gale pushing us forward. At times it felt as though we were floating. It was beautiful. Awesomely beautiful. A dazzlingly disorienting dream. 

A dream rudely interrupted every time we fell headlong into a crater filled with soft snow and bogged down. We’d swap off. Zaya and I would get stuck and, with Nick and Paddy’s help, we'd drag Eva onto firmer ground. Then it was Nick and Paddy’s turn to get stuck and we’d help push them out. All the while I kept Eva running for fear of losing her battery’s charge. And then, of course, it happened. After trudging back a couple of hundred yards to help Nick and Paddy, the snow blowing so hard I almost lost sight of both Zaya and our bike, Eva stalled and wouldn’t restart. 

Darkness was coming to complicate the incredulously hostile conditions and, oddly, none of us was worried. By now we’d learned that the worst that would happen is the police would come and shake us awake in our tents in the middle of the night. We had water, food, stoves, fuel, youth, beauty, and sang-froid. What else could we possibly need to survive a night in a Siberian blizzard? It was the moment that, for me, the adventure was complete. We had looked the harshest of conditions in the eye and stared them down. All that remained was the logistical challenge of getting both bikes to the finish line in time for cocktails. 

Dad Rock Ice Run Playlist

Motorcycling is a sport for those comfortable in their own heads. I can't speak for other Ice Runners and what mental side roads they travelled down while riding, but I took a little inspiration from Ladyhawke Willings (The Adventurists own Hunting Girl) and came up with this playlist from the tunes that rattled around in my head on the way to Salekhard: 
  1. The Revolution Starts... | Steve Earle | The Revolution Starts Now
  2. Back in the U.S.S.R. | The Beatles | White Album
  3. Russians | Sting | The Dream Of The Blue Turtles
  4. (I Never Loved) Eva Braun | The Boomtown Rats | A Tonic for the Troops
  5. Road To Nowhere | Talking Heads | Little Creatures
  6. Come On, Eileen | Dexy's Midnight Runners | To-Uray-Eh!
  7. Don't Eat The Yellow Snow | Frank Zappa | Apostrophe
  8. The Sky Is Fallin' | Queens of the Stone Age | Songs for the Deaf 
  9. Avenue B | Gogol Bordello | Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike
  10. Skating Away (On The Thin Ice Of The New Day) | Jethro Tull | War Child
  11. Ain't No Easy Way | Black Rebel Motorcycle Club | Howl
  12. Fix You | Coldplay | X&Y
  13. Gangnam Style | PSY | Gangnam Style
If the songs are not self-explanatory, please send a donation to Half the Sky Foundation and then contact me for more information. 

Power to the People

Of course I didn’t sleep - not a wink. For some reason I’d been taking on water for several days, probably some physiological response to the dry Arctic conditions. I wasn’t alone as I’d overheard others complaining about the same thing. But there’s a limit to how much interstitial fluid you can hold until it needs expressing. Quite why my body chose the wee hours of the coldest night of our journey to force me outside and make yellow snow only it knows. But it was a relief that my early morning systems were still functional at that latitude. (Really, way too much information - ed.)

Nick wasn’t quite so lucky. His toes had shut down again and he had no sensation or apparent circulation when he woke up. There was no way that he was going to get warm enough around the campfire that morning and evacuation seemed prudent. We flagged down a passing car and bundled him into it with the promise that we’d meet at the finish line. 

The last bulwark against Eva’s complete electrical failure occurred when her sole remaining battery isolation switch failed. We either kept her running or the battery would simply drain away. We weren’t that far from the finish and were intent on making a run for it, so stopping didn't seem necessary. At the next village, 45 minutes up the road, we found Nick all warmed up in the mayor’s office. He said the pain was excruciating as the blood returned to his toes, which meant we’d made the right call earlier. After a cup of tea we went back to the bikes and Eva had died. Simply died. She wasn’t going to bump-start either. Fortunately, the chief engineer of the town’s power station came by and towed us to the plant. There, he hooked up the battery to one of four diesel turbines that churned out a combined 800 kilowatts of power. And we waited. We had lunch, rode a snowmobile, and watched the sun slipping into afternoon, and waited… 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One Last Night Outdoors

We drove until early evening when we turned a corner and saw Geordie, Pat and Guy setting up camp and lighting a huge fire. Ever since Zaya had confided in me her attraction for Geordie, I felt it my duty to put opportunity in the way of circumstance. Nick on the other hand wanted to press on and find a camp in the next village somewhere up the road. Pat was equivocal, he’d stop or go on, whatever the majority decided. Zaya, for obvious reasons, was ready to stay and hang out. Geordie played it cool. As a crotchety, diehard romantic I played my “I’m old enough to be your dad and I’m going to make the final decision card” and overruled Nick.

Seated at the roaring fire an hour later Nick managed to thaw out his blanched and lifeless toes enough to get some blood circulating back in them. By 9:00PM the sun finally disappeared altogether and the temperature dropped off the scale of Pat’s thermometer. That meant it was colder than −25C and heading down. Passing around the vodka kept the stories flowing as we whittled the clock down towards midnight. Suddenly, out of the fog of our woodsmoke the peace was shattered by the throb of a Ural heading directly towards us at a hundred kilometers an hour. It was Ben Cooke roaring down the road, his long black hair and beard stiff with ice. As soon as he spotted us he hit the brake and spun to a stop directly beside the fire to a round of applause. He explained that two of the group's bikes were shot and they were heading to Salekhard with all possible dispatch. Shortly a truck appeared carrying the broken bikes and their riders. As Rob and Jenna opened the door of the cab it blew a jealous fug of warm air in our direction and we exchanged a few updates. Moments later with a wave and a flourish Ben and crew disappeared into the night. Heading to our tents under the stillness of the stars, I remember the only sounds were the faint snap of the dying fire releasing sparks into the darkness and the squeak of snow like styrofoam under my back as I turned over to sleep. 


Cautiously the door opened and the policeman peered in for signs of movement. There were none, just heavy breathing interrupted by the occasional snort of sleep. Out of the slits in my eyes I watched him slowly turn around and quietly close the door again. It was nine o’clock and time to get going. 

Our next stop was for fuel in Muzhi, a largish bump on the river’s bank. The new normal meant were greeted by the overly attentive police, who were busy dragging Geordie, Pat and Guy around every shop in town as they searched for a shovel - the three of them having arrived an hour ahead of us. A quick lunch and we were back to trying to get the bikes started. For us that meant fixing Eva's carburetor choke. The spare carby we’d bought in Irbit came in handy and proved there is some upside to 60 year old technology with a common design standard.  

Out on the zimniks we cherished the rare occasions when we found glare ice. It meant we could speed up and enjoy Eva's desire to go - for at least a short while. Then the ruts and potholes would reappear and before long we’d be digging ourselves out again. One long stretch of good road led us straight towards a zimnik maintenance team. Three trucks working in concert is all it takes to maintain the ice roads in tip-top condition. A plow smooths the way and is followed by an enormous flatbed truck carrying water that drips directly onto the snow. Lastly, a transport truck pulls three gigantic tyres across the newly formed ice smoothing it out. The process is a constant battle. Soft patches give way under the weight of traffic and form divots that the wind blows snow into solely to trap nutters on Urals. Nature is fully in charge in these parts. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Slice of Siberia

© 2013 Ben CookeThe landscape was changing again. River crossings became wider and more frequent. Villages spread out and everything felt more remote. Azov was our last checkpoint of the evening. The road guard kept the barrier down and would not let us pass. He didn’t lift it until he was sure we understood we had to go to the local police station to check in. When we got there, Guy, Geordie, and Pat had already arrived and were busy warming up. Between the three of them they had managed to replicate every daft thing Zaya and I had done over the past week, only they did it in in a matter of minutes earlier in the day. Pat and Guy had failed to crest a steep riverbank and duly slid backwards into a snowdrift. As they dug out Geordie spent his time practicing doughnuts on the ice. In his final attempt at a 540 spin he disastrously caught a wheel. His bike reared up and over and crashed on top of him. Luckily he was unhurt even though he knocked a big dent in the fuel tank with his knee.
© 2013 Ben Cooke

An old fisherman, Sergey, strode into the police station and impishly charmed his way into our hearts. With shining eyes and a crenelated smile he welcomed us, told stories and insisted we come to his house for dinner. Zaya listened and videoed and translated for us. Once all the other teams had arrived, the police insisted we stay put for the night and sleep in the village hall. We checked out our digs, found the outhouse, and then made our way en masse to supper. 

With long confident strokes, and a little theatrics, Sergey first shaved off the frozen fish’s scales. Next, slices of flesh curled and broke in a welcome heap on the cutting board. He pointed at us with the sharp end of his knife, urging us to try this delicacy with a little mustard and salt. And what a treat! Solid fish, rich in oil, melted on your tongue with fiery, spicy mustard to complement its wintery flavor. Mustard with the ability to tickle your nose and bring tears to your eyes, the way it used to be when I was a kid. Snug in the little dining room, the entire group gathered around the table enjoying Sergey’s generosity and playing with his grandchildren. Vodka? Of course! It would be rude not to! здоровья! Good health! We smiled and laughed. 

Walking back to our sleeping quarters for the night, my breath instantly condenses and floats beguilingly under the bright white street lights. It was really, really cold. 

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Cylinders

Zimnik Nick
Instead of turning the corner to follow Paddy and Nick, Zaya kept straight on and plowed into a snowbank. Eva stopped - just altogether stopped. Between us we got her turned around and were trying to figure out what happened when the other team showed up. Rob, a Londoner who sounds like he just walked off the set of a Guy Ritchie movie, came over and asked if he could help. Not being sure what was wrong, we explained that Eva had died, even though there was plenty of juice in her battery. Turns out Rob’s bike had exactly the same problem two days before and the solution was to run a wire from the positive battery terminal directly to the starter. Ten minutes of crimping and taping later Eva was running again and we were very grateful for the advice. 

Earlier that morning Nick and I had taken a taxi to the police station to fetch our bikes. Strolling in in our fat suits past a group of thugs who looked like they had just posed for a series of mug shots, we managed to grab the attention of an officer in her mid 30’s. With dark brown hair, four inch heels and a tight pencil skirt she was no babushka. By this time my adventure beard was grotty enough that, when combined with 10 days lack of sleep, I looked like crap. I figured her willingness to help was all down to Nick’s good looks. She confidently bossed her male colleagues about until one of them found his keys and led us out a back door to the impounded vehicle area. Returning to our hotel we then putzed around for a couple more hours. At lunchtime I saw Rico and Björn, almost like an apparition, orbiting the town’s center and gathered them up. Over tea they brought us up to speed on what had happened back in Priobe. To keep their engine running they tried to drive around the hotel. They only got halfway. Their bike simply stopped and wouldn’t restart. Help eventually arrived and they had to buy a big new car battery, by which time we were long gone. To make matters worse they were only running on one cylinder and progress was slow. 

After fixing Eva the road conditions deteriorated sharply. The zimnik would be nice and smooth for 500 metres then dissolve into five kilometres of ruts and potholes full of loose snow. Standing on the pegs helped me find a line of attack while simultaneously keeping my tailbone from being bruised. At one point the road bent around a copse of trees at an incline of 25 degrees. In a moment of panic Eva slid sideways on the glare ice until we gripped some softer snow at the edge of the river and bounced. Whew! 

The next biggish village sat on a high bluff looking out over the main river. A side road ran directly from the shoreline past a couple of grounded fishing boats and straight up onto the main street. I eased on the throttle and with plenty of runway made it quickly to the top of the hill. As we crested out of the shadows, the sun dazzled me and I saw a car bearing down on us. We came to a quick stop just before the car crossed the intersection. Slowly, with agonizing anticipation, Eva started rolling backwards, down the hill, the steep hill we’d just climbed. No front brake. Useless rear brake. Lots of rapid mental calculations and vocal swearing. I decided to swing into a snowbank and we came to a rapid, safe rest. Zaya and I looked at each other for a moment, exhaled, and then got out and started pushing. At that point, Nick and Paddy, who were laughing hysterically, came over to help. It was then I decided if there’s one thing a geezer and a young woman need on the Ice Run, it’s a couple of big, strong Yorkshireman. Paddy, in his quiet deadpan way, said watching us was a bit of a spectator sport. I’m not sure it was a compliment. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

We're the Police, We're Here to Help

The police are everywhere in Russia*. It was at a crossroads outside Nyagen that I first realized we were being watched over like kindergarteners on a field trip. It became more and more apparent the cops were in contact with each other and were handing us off from one station to the next. I think they had two goals: firstly, as ambassadors they wanted make sure we got all the support we needed, and, secondly, do their best to ensure we didn’t kill ourselves and generate a huge amount of complex paperwork. Their attentiveness reached its apex in Bezerovo. There they met and guided us through town, watched our bikes as we checked into a hostel, flirted with Zaya, and then escorted us to their brand new police station so they could lock our bikes up overnight. We couldn’t have been more conspicuous if we’d wanted to be. 

By now the lead team was probably a full day or more ahead, but after driving over 200 kilometers in one go we had at last caught up with Geordie, Pat and Guy. Everyone else soon followed us into town. Everyone that is except Björn and Rico who were still missing in action. Our hostel was the cheapest place we could find and the receptionist gave Zaya a quick lesson in Russian gender politics by making her take a room of her own. For us men, we booked a shared room, scheduled our showers, and marveled at how a building without any right angles could actually remain standing. 

Geordie and Ben - AdventuringJust before we ate we let slip that we were still looking for one other team and the police duly set off in search of the missing Swiss. Around 10:30PM the cops returned saying they’d found our comrades camping about 45 minutes south. At first they thought the tent had been abandoned, but they were there after all. A few days later Rico pointed out there is a reason you don’t wake up a hibernating bear - they get really cranky when you get them out of their nice warm bed in the middle of the night for no good reason. And, no, they didn’t want to go with the officers to a hotel, no, really, thank you, we just want to sleep. 

During dinner the group swapped stories about the meteor, tipping Urals, and snow camping. We downed local brandy under the encouraging auspices of a drunken self-appointed mentor. And somehow I sensed things relaxing, the inherent competitiveness giving way to a collective appreciation of “isn’t this a bloody awesome adventure?” Yes it is! Siberia is bloody awesome! And there was more to come… 

*Click here for our Mongol Rally view on Russian police

Slim Pickings

© 2013 Ben CookeTurning west, the zimnik led us back towards evergreens and low hills. The sun shone brilliantly, casting deep shadows across our path through the woods. As intimidating as the ice road sounded, it was far easier than what we had faced in the first few days. As I drove along, Rico’s advice maundered through my head, “Keep very steady on the throttle, find the sweet spot and only move it forward or back a couple of millimeters. Like Olly said, make love to your bike.” I stroked her and caressed her, and, despite one pirouette, Eva responded in kind. At a T-junction we followed the sign, and Sergei’s map, and turned left towards petrol and lunch. 

The little town of Igrim has tidy streets, modern apartments, and well mannered children. A gentleman we met at the gas station led us to a cafeteria where we wolfed down borscht, olivje (traditional Russian salad with peas and beetroot) and a kind of shuba (a ‘fur coat’ salad with carrots and onions, and in this case not herring, but mystery meat). Both the latter dishes were rich with mayonnaise, which, along with sour cream, is a staple ingredient of Russian cuisine. The restaurant’s manager, like many other Russian women my age, was built like a life-sized babushka doll. And like others I had met, she chastised me for buggering about on a motorcycle in the dead of winter and not being at home with my grandchildren. I appreciated her bemused attention. 

On the northern end of town the zimnik sat at the bottom of a high, steep riverbank. We followed a friendly taxi driver cautiously through the backstreets until we started downhill. Suddenly Nick flew past us, feet out like Fred Flintstone, trying to slow down La Poderosa before the intersection. Sweeping through the corner, the lack of traffic was probably the only thing that saved his and Paddy’s lives. Despite myself I couldn’t help but laugh in sympathy. 

There’s a scene in Blazing Saddles that you might remember, the one where Black Bart and the Waco Kid build a fake toll booth to slow up the bad guys. Leaving Igrim was no different. A tiny hut stood alone on the wide, empty plain, with only its candy cane gate blocking our way to Bezerovo. “We're gonna hafta go back and git a sh**load of roubles!”, I said in my best Slim Pickens voice. The guard gave me a quizzical look and slowly lifted the barrier… 

Two Teams Forward, One Team Back

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz! I grew up in Chicago where the winters are harsh and the women are hairy. Or are the winters hairy and the women harsh? (Get on with it! - ed.) It wasn’t, therefore, a great surprise that our hotel was ferociously overheated. Opening the window merely led to a binary standoff between the blood crystalizing cold outside and thermo-nuclear furnace inside. My ears were cold and my feet were melting, and still I slept the sleep of a sterno-infused vagrant underneath the 47th street bridge in January. (Will you please get on with it! - ed.

First down for breakfast at 8:00AM, the appointed time, I turned my attention to the TV. It had the good sense to be showing a documentary on the history of Ural motorcycles. And there they were! Our guide at last week’s museum visit in Irbit, Sergey-the-boss of the factory, and a whole raft of wonderful Ural film clips dating back to the second world war. Note to The Adventurists: you should track down this 60 minute film for Ice Runner's movie night. Sadly it was over by the time the rest of the team turned up. Eggs, toast, packing and, what’s this?, the local chief of police to show us the way out of Priobe and onto the zimniks. 

The sun inched towards what was sure to become a beautifully clear day. All engines throbbing we were ready to leave. Like Nick and Paddy, Rico and Björn had to keep their bike moving or the spark plugs would foul and the engine would stall. So around the corner they went as we all followed the policeman. Or so we thought. The four of us, Nick, Paddy, Zaya and I arrived at the last petrol station in northern Russia, filled our bikes and waited for Björn and Rico who should have been just behind us. We asked the chief if he’d seen them. He had no idea where they were. I called Rico, no answer. Hmmm… Now what? This didn’t make any sense. They couldn’t have simply vanished. After 10 more minutes we figured that either they had lost patience and gone ahead like the night before, or they went to Plan B, whatever that was. We were all baffled. Then, even though it somehow didn’t seem right, we decided we’d continue on in case they had indeed passed us. 

Following the police car out onto a tall berm, we turned right and three kilometers later said our thank-you’s and slid down a side track towards a vast white expanse that seemingly stretched out forever. Pine trees quickly faded away behind us. In their place bare willows, low shrubs, and bullrushes obstinately poked through the snowdrifts waiting for warmer weather. My initial impression of the zimniks was how well maintained they appeared. In the first 20 minutes of our ride we saw three huge earth movers busily shaping the road. Another 20 minutes later we came across our first zimnik crash. A family in a 4x4 had run smack into the back of a huge flatbed truck and a passionate argument was in full swing as we needled our way around them. We paused, tried Rico again on his cell phone, and asked a passing driver if he had seen another motorcycle like ours. He said, sure, just up the road there is a bunch of your guys. And in less than five minutes we had caught up with Ben, Arran, Ben, Jenna, Rob, and Thomas as they broke camp. They hadn’t seen Björn or Rico either. It was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma… 

(to be continued...)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

To Nyagen, and Beyond!

Revelries over, morning had broken with air so cold and dry it made you cough as soon as you stood outside and inhaled. Kickstarting Eva proved a good way to clear my addled head, only she wouldn’t start. Eventually we tied her to Björn’s bike and pulled to her life. As we were futzing about, my mittens had sneakily dropped off the sidecar and I threw a full-on hissy fit searching for them. Luckily Zaya saw them lying in the middle of the road before I burst a blood vessel. We finally got underway. For the first couple of hours things went steadily, then Eva started acting up and finally died on a hill 15 kilometers outside the city. It was Sunday. 

“You just missed your friends.”, said the tall, square jawed policeman who had pulled us over almost as soon as we entered Nyagan. His confirmation that we were dead last didn’t help our mood. Still, we did as we were told and followed him to the main police station to register our visas. 

Finished with our visa paperwork we were shown the way to a clutch of repair shops and several hours passed as we watched a team of technicians, led by Vitaly, wire up a new headlamp switch and battery for Eva’s failing electrics. The charge? Nothing, it's from the heart! Thank you! спасибо! Then, just as we were finishing, we noticed the rear tail light wasn't working. Having bypassed the lamp's standard wiring in Uray it took another 15 minutes to hook it up to the new circuit. Tiring of the delays, Björn and Rico took off and agreed we'd see them in the next town. Another officer, off-duty this time, escorted us out of Nyagen and told us that the police in Priobe would find us and show us the way to a hotel. Driving at night wasn’t our first choice, but we had time to make up. This was the last stop and for all we knew the last outpost of civilization before the zimniks, the ice roads that would lead us another 600 kilometers to the Arctic Circle and the finish line. In Priobe we met the others in our hotel’s cafe for a bite and a beer. We felt good that we’d made it as far as we had in two long days, then wondered how far ahead the others were. 

Dedicated to her documentary, Zaya stayed up all night downloading data and charging batteries. I don’t know how she does it. Fading into bed I felt like I needed a week’s sleep just to catch up.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Roadhouse Rave

Nyagen lay some 350 kilometers away along clear, asphalt roads. Our agreed plan was for an early start and a heavy hand on the throttle, but we didn’t leave Uray until past noon. At the halfway point the sun dipped to the horizon and we stopped for gas. Clear skies meant that the temperature would fall quickly and that my glasses would freeze behind my goggles, making me completely blind. It was now −17C and Zaya bravely took over as I hid behind the sidecar’s windscreen in relative comfort. Our intermediate goal was dinner at a roadhouse another 40 kilometers up the road towards Talinka.

In the gloom and the cold we drove as fast as we dared and arrived at the roadhouse in pretty short order. After we had eaten and we debated whether we should camp for the night or continue on to Nyagen. I wanted to stay, Björn wanted to go on and we went at each other for a bit. Finally, we decided to put it to a vote and the majority agreed that carrying on in the dark, freezing conditions, didn’t make much sense if all it meant was getting to Nyagen at 3:00AM.

The temperature was now below −25C and Zaya sweetly started working her magic on the roadhouse’s manager, asking if it was possible to sleep in the restaurant’s warm little dining area. Lest you, dear reader, get the wrong impression, our roadhouse was the size of a single mobile home, about 8 feet wide and 30 feet long. The manager was smitten and conferred with his staff. With incredible hospitality they said, no, that we should sleep in their bunk house out back and they would sleep in the restaurant. The price? Nothing, no charge, but we are going to celebrate! At which point both Björn and I lit up, our tensions vanished and with Zaya we fully embraced the moment. The others made their various ways to bed while the three of us danced, sang, and drank ‘tomato paste’ vodka with the manager, his two ladies, and a few truckers until the very wee hours. For the record, tomato paste vodka has a simple recipe: take one empty jar of tomato paste, go round back to the 500 litre barrel of vodka, fill, swill, and repeat until blotto.

This video pretty much sums things up.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Meteor - Right!?

Surreal - adjective, unreal, bizarre, unusual, weird, strange, freakish...

It was past 10:00PM and we’d spent the entire afternoon working on our bikes with the coolest mechanics in Siberia’s most tricked out man cave and were just settling down for dinner with a side of vodka and accordion music when the TV blew what was left of my brain cells out. The images on the screen couldn’t have been more surreal or terrifying. A meteor had exploded over Chelyabinsk, a mere 600 kilometers south, and with the force of 440,000 TONNES of TNT it leveled buildings and injured hundreds of people! I mean Wilco Tango Foxtrot?? What were the chances? Really, what were the chances of being at galactic ground zero for an asteroid strike? (Well, actually, I did the math and it’s about 1:451*. Which means it’s way, way easier to be pink misted by a meteor than win the lottery.) According to the news we should never have seen 9:31 that morning. Had we not, we would have missed an entire litany of coincidences, comradeship, and good fortune. 

With all the energy we could muster and our faltering Urals would allow we left our hotel early. Our objective? The mythical city of Uray, so famous that even Dexys Midnight Runners wrote an ode to the place in 1982 and the song** shot straight to number one in the charts. Uray meant petrol at a pump, it meant food on a plate, it meant garages with spare parts. It meant we had survived the Road of Death.

Standing a little nonplussed at the side of the highway, Nick and Paddy waved back at us. Something in their body language gave me pause and we turned around to make sure that they were okay. “Nah, bloody thing won’t start,” Nick, in his broad Yorkshire accent and pointing at ‘La Poderosa’ said, “It’s completely knackered!” “We can give you a tow,” I said offering Rico and Björn’s services in absentia. “That would be brilliant!”, he said. A hundred kilometers later we had long since missed the meteor and it had missed us, but we had at last found Uray. In one phone call we met up with the same stable of mechanics that the lead team had seen the day before. Severally, almost ten guys worked on various parts of our bikes. Eva had lost fourth gear sometime before the accident and now her windscreen needed replacing. Björn and Rico’s bike needed timing and wheel bearing work, while La Poderosa needed a kick in the butt. In the melee we discovered the leading team’s dirty tricks squad had bought every bearing in town. Given the amount of play in our wheels it seemed unlikely that the bearings would have enough enclosed space to actually seize in any case.

Repairs completed we segued into partying at a local restaurant with Uri, Pascha, Alexsander, Sergei, and various partners and spouses. After the main course, Sasha cranked out a few Russian gypsy punk songs on his squeezebox. Speeches were made, bottles of vodka consumed and plans formed for reuniting in backwoods adventures and July’s annual Irbit motorcycle rally. My windshield expert, Alexsander, leaned over and looked at me with great seriousness and said, “In life you need four things: fire in the eye, fire in the heart, fire in the soul, and fire in the arse!” As for fire in the sky? Well, not so much, we both laughed heartily. _______________________________________________
* As a Google recruiter, this one is for Rico. Here goes:

  • Area of earth’s surface: 510 trillion m2
  • Area occupied by average human: 1m2
  • Odds of any one individual being hit directly by a meteorite: 1:510 trillion
But we know that the meteor left a much wider path of destruction. For our poetic license we took:
  • Area of Galactic Ground zero (GG0): ((600km*1000)^2)*pi = 1.13 trillion m2
  • Likelihood of a human being hit while standing in GG0 at time of meteor impact: 1:451

** Come On, Eileen (To-Uray-eh!) 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flipping Urals!

The day started slowly. After an hour troubleshooting their broken headlamp, Pat and Guy realized the rat’s nest that is Ural wiring wasn’t about to yield. Eva was running a bit rough, but started soon enough. Björn and Rico’s bike, however, was acting up and mis-firing on one of its two cylinders. We left with the intention of reaching the next major town and a mechanic. About 40 kilometers out and 20 minutes into Björn’s second repair, we split into two teams and Zaya and I hung back with he and Rico.

Light snow had dusted the icy road making it wildly slick. The treacherous conditions presented us with a whole new lesson in throttle handling. Now a tiny bit too much oomph meant a 360 degree spinout (which can be fun). The ruts were smaller, but trickier. Struggling for control we hit one at the wrong angle and I rolled on the throttle a little heavily. The bike snapped to the right and when the sidecar wheel caught on a patch of snow we summarily flipped over. I went down first and hit my head and the bike landed on top of us. Looking up I did a quick inventory. Pain? No. Twisted limbs? No. Breathing? Yes. Bleeding? No. Zaya - you okay? Yes. That out of the way the next thing I noticed was petrol and oil leaking out - crap - have to turn this thing over or we’ll be stuck. Pushing against the sidecar felt oddly soft and I realized that I was pushing on Zaya. By this time Rico and Björn had pulled up. With their help we managed to wriggle out and together put Eva back on her tyres before she lost all her fuel. 

There are three main things they teach you in motorcycle training school. Don’t drink and drive, always wear a helmet, and make sure that you are in the right frame of mind. Two out of three won’t do. I was sober and wearing a full face, DOT approved helmet, but realized that in my frustration with the day’s late start I was over cranking things in the conditions. Rico said later that the crash looked really ‘awful’ and fortunately neither of us was seriously hurt. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

À la Recherche de Caméras Perdus

“Basically you’re being too cautious.”, Rico said in answer to my question after he and Björn had dug me out of my third crater in 30 minutes. With dark blonde shaggy hair and a beard, gold rimmed glasses and a precise fluency in English, Rico’s lust for adventure makes him every inch a geek and polymath. “You need more speed and to be a little more aggressive to get through the deep sh**.” Björn murmured in agreement. I made a mental note to stop driving like a dad and more like a lad. We had just spent the last hour bashing our way along a logging trail that didn’t exist on any map. It was around three o’clock and we’d already had a pretty full day, including towing, repairs, lunch at a local school, and losing the contents of Zaya’s camera bag and, as a result, Zaya. Taking it from the top:

We awoke with surprising agility and as we packed up the tea bags the early team came up from behind and paused to see how we were doing. This team included Ural owners, serious bikers, and ace mechanics. Heavily overweighted as they were with motorcycling talent they would ultimately finish first, but in doing so missed the mechanic’s melee in Uray and the roadhouse rave outside of Nyagen. But I am getting ahead of myself. 

It was all of 500 meters into the little village of mostly single level wooden houses, many with rustic barns on one side. In the tidy corner shop we found a few essentials (chocolate and vodka) and waited for Björn and Rico. Children, all smiles and curiosity, appeared in droves out of nowhere. (Actually, the children came out of the local school that stood directly across from the store.) With all the innocence of youth we became the object of many photos, our bikes were decorated with Russian flags, and we got invited in for lunch by the school’s director. Chicken soup and kotlette (a kind of Salisbury steak) with a side of bread, for which we were duly grateful. 

Rico walked up alone and announced their bike had died and could they have a tow? Sure I said and quickly brought them round. It seemed like it was an ignition problem and Geordie dug through their spares and together they replaced the coil. That seemed to do the trick. We all started our bikes and with a wave bid our goodbyes to the kids and bemused adults and pointed our noses north. Our route was a bumpy track that ran alongside the railway line. Did I say bumpy? I meant tortured. The trail started off smoothly enough, but soon disintegrated into a choppy, lumpen mess of heavy snow, icy patches, and ruts. We’d battened our luggage down pretty well, but about 50 kilometers in we realized that Zaya’s camera bag had unzipped and spilled its contents out - who knew where or for how long? I swore - @#$@%! - with a combination of concern for Zaya’s very expensive equipment and priceless videos, but also for figuring out how we were going to keep up if we double-backed to recover her things. Just as we agreed that it made the most sense for her to hitch a lift back in a truck, the second team behind us pulled up waving her camera and some, but not all, of her video equipment. Still missing was her external hard drive with all her media on it. We agreed we’d rendezvous in Mortka later. 

Without Zaya in the sidecar, Eva became a different beast. Lighter on her wheels, but also more prone to bucking and tipping. Unaccompanied I felt I could take a few more risks and picked up the pace as Rico suggested. The morning’s low clouds had burned off and through clear blue skies the sun quickly brought the temperature up to about freezing. It was so warm wrestling Eva around the deep ruts and pushing her out of snowbanks that I worked up a heavy sweat. I peeled off my coat and unzipped my shirt and then agitated about hypothermia. “Ruts are sluts!”, Olly had said in our briefing, and he was right. Trying to keep the driving wheels on level ground wasn’t easy and I just had to go with it, keeping the revs up and my fingers crossed. The bike leaned over so far at times the left cylinder would catch a wad of snow which instantly vaporized into a cloud of steam that obscured my vision. It was awesome fun!  

Pat, Guy and I caught up with Geordie who had just bought some benzine from a chap that had broken down. Apparently the gentleman was saying this road wasn’t really a road at all and that only an ‘dickhead’ would drive on it. He spoke in Russian and looked at Geordie who, with typical Australian directness, made an inspired translation. Pressing ahead it took another couple of hours to find our way to the outskirts of Mortka, a town dangling on the end of a paved road from the north. Catching our breath at the welcome sight of smoother surfaces, we paused long enough to notice that Geordie’s bike was leaning against his sidecar at an unhealthy angle. On the Ural, the sidecar is secured to the bike by two ball joints and a couple of other bolts. One of Geordie’s balls had plainly separated from its joint requiring a quick field repair. That led to a group effort of tipping the bike and spinning spanners and setting things aright. By now it was getting late and the first thing we needed to do was find enough petrol for the entire team to drive another 100 kilometers. There is no petrol station in Mortka. It was Björn’s turn to take the lead. While he’s not fluent, Björn’s Russian is strong enough that he secured us all the benzine we needed from the resident policeman and his neighbor. The price? Twice what it was at the pump, but that seemed standard for folks in these parts. 

Back out of town we paused for beers and a bite at the crossroads diner. A crusty geezer in the bar speaking in broken English warned us not to get caught drinking and driving - that Russia’s zero tolerance policy is an expensive thing to bribe your way out of. Perhaps he was talking from experience, perhaps he was an off-duty cop, in any case we decided that only passengers would enjoy the brews. Rico and Björn had scouted a location for our campsite and as soon as we finished we gathered our things and walked out to start the bikes. At that moment Zaya climbed out of an SUV having located all her missing equipment. There’s something karmic about traveling with Zaya. Neither she nor I had any doubt we’d find each other again and here she was in the very place she needed to be at the precise time. 

Our campsite lay about three kilometers away alongside a picturesque, solidly frozen river. Almost as soon as we started unpacking the wind picked up and soughed through the tall birches. After the previous night’s festivities, Geordie announced that he intended to fill his sidecar with enough wood for a real fire every time he slept outdoors. With Björn’s help in town he had negotiated for a cord of wood and was now happily burning it. We sat in a circle and discussed our incredible day and what we had learned about bike handling in the heart of Siberia’s winter. Woodsmoke, coddled by the chilly breeze, swirled around us and then fainted up and away into the clear, cold night. It was time for bed.    

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

We're on a Road to Nowhere

Pat had the only detailed map amongst us. My 1:70 billion bizzaro projection map was all I could find before I left. It was the same one Tom and I had used on the Mongol Rally. Back then we ultimately resorted to relying on a combination of downloaded GPS files and asking for directions. Pat’s map on the other hand was purchased in Yekaterinburg on his arrival and looked confidently detailed. The route was selected, bikes packed and off we set. The roads were still covered in snow, but even in these remote areas plows and earth movers keep things smooth and passable. Blue skies, sunshine and the open highway - this will be a breeze we thought! Plus, we’re ahead of all the other teams - we might make even finish first. 

An hour and a half later the road petered out. Not only did it peter out, it came to an abrupt end in dense woods with only ‘No Unauthorized Hunting” notices to keep us company. We had found it - the Death Road that Olly had spoken of - or so we thought. Rather than wander on into the wilds, we agreed that we’d head back to the nearby village and find out why we were so far off our course - it seemed more practical than spending three days starving in the belief that we were right and the map was wrong. Backtracking then towards our missed turn and steering due north, not northeasterly, Zaya took the helm. We were making great progress when, at a corner, the team decided to pause for a break. As she came round the bend, Zaya either decelerated too fast or braked too hard and described a perfect 90 degree leftwards arc into a snowbank. As passenger I did the mental arithmetic and decided there was no real danger to us or the bike and enjoyed the slide as we flumed into the ditch like a couple of cartoon characters. Geordie, laughing his head off, saw the whole thing, but sadly had his camera turned off. 

Checking with a local shopkeeper we were sent off towards a village and from there onto a road marked by the tiniest of signs. We should have been a little more suspicious. Ruts appeared and deepened quickly. It was close to freezing now, warm enough to make us open our jackets as we muscled the bikes through the crud. Trucks were bogging down and getting stuck creating obstacles for us. Eventually we made our way through a long track and the rest of the teams, who by now had caught up, followed suit. Getting past the disabled lorries was full on body contact motocross and Zaya perched herself atop of a stack of hay and videoed the excitement. By the time I collected her we were pulling up the back of the phalanx of Ice Runners. And it was real work. With Björn and Rico’s help we muscled our way through, though. As a solo rider and having lost second gear, Geordie was lighter and necessarily faster than the rest of us. Along with Pat and Guy he set a cracking pace. Towards evening we passed the other teams as they set up camp and asked if our partners had gone ahead. They had, so we pushed on into the twilight with its long shadows and deep snow. We bounced and thrashed and when we were almost at the point of giving up we turned a corner, crossed some railroad tracks and were suddenly reunited with big smiles and congratulations all round. 

Nothing remains a secret for very long in Russia. Moreover a bunch of foreigners pitching camp on the edge of town is really an excuse for a party. Night fell and the Milky Way lit up in all its glory. Without cloud cover the temperature dipped towards −20C. Fog rising from our breath was backlit by our headlamps in a scene worthy of a James Cameron sci-fi epic. Then out of the darkness a motorbike rider bearing vodka appeared. When the first bottle was gone Vladamir insisted that we must be hungry, so he rode off and reappeared 20 minutes later with more vodka and pot full of varénikis prepared by his mother. Varénikis are traditional meat or vegetable dumplings and these were warm and swimming melted butter. It was the best meal we'd had since our arrival in Russia. Within the hour two cars full of Russian men turned up with more vodka and trunks full of firewood and the festivities got into full swing. Around 2AM the fire and conversation finally burned out and we bid our farewells and crawled into our sleeping bags. Thank goodness for slow sunrises. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Camping It Up

The drive was cold. We hit the main highway and headed east. There is nothing remarkable about Russian roads. In general they are well maintained and signposted, with the same twee blue signage that they use all over Europe. Conditions, however, became progressively worse as we rolled on. Snow fell and drifted and then deepened enough that it packed down over the blacktop. As the clouds darkened and closed in the weather grew chillier and I was glad that Eva, our aging Ural motorcycle, had been fitted recently with electric handwarmers. 

For the casual tourist the town of Tavda may seem somewhat pedestrian, for us it was simply a turning point as we headed north towards Uray. The afternoon was coming to a close as we swung through the city center looking for our turn. Nothing. By the time we reached the far side of town we still hadn't found the junction, so we made a U-turn and looked for help. Pulling into a thoroughly modern gas station, Zaya went into the little shop and asked the two middle aged women in bright red uniforms behind the counter if they knew where we could find the road to Kaminski. Neither of them had any idea, but a helpful man, with a thin face and a shaved head, looked at Zaya, still dressed as rabbit, and then me, still dressed as wolf, and said he would show us the way. The other riders pulled up and together we followed the good samaritan's shiny black BMW X5 through Tavda’s twisting backstreets. Eventually he dropped us at a big, faded green steel bridge that spanned a wide riverbed, running ran parallel to a train line. Despite the bridge's size there was no way we would have found the crossing from the main road on our own.  

About a mile on from the bridge we pulled over and agreed to stop for the the night before it got really dark. A small road to our right looked promising, so we punched the bikes through a snow bank and dropped down the embankment towards a stand of evergreens and birches. Eva’s engine kill switch was, ironically, dead, so I reached over and turned her ignition key off. She sputtered and stopped. Ahhh, quiet! Our first campsite. It was time to set up for the night and start a fire. Guy and Pat (brothers from Perth) traipsed off to find firewood, their headlamps on full beam. Their lights were bright enough to land an aircraft and reminded me I needed to put new batteries in mine. When they returned, Pat proved just how well prepared he was when he pulled out a portable flame thrower and started torching the wood. In minutes we sat around the roaring campfire sharing snacks and tea and vodka. We turned in soon afterwards and even though the temperature dipped below −15C we all slept soundly. 

Our impromptu team was without doubt the most diverse. All told there were three Australians, Geordie, riding solo, along with Guy and Pat. Guy distinguished himself by at 18 being the youngest adventurer on the trip. (I was the oldest by four years.) Then we had two Swiss guys with very un-Swiss sounding names: Björn and Rico. Zaya was single handedly representing 50% of the Ice Run’s women and was also the Ice Run's only Mongolian. In addition, she was going to be sworn in as an American any day. Finally, there was me, an English/American hybrid.

Modern business pundits say that diversity in a team makes it stronger and more effective. We had it all, age, gender, ethnic, and cultural differences. The only question was, were we a team?

When Life Hands You Lemmings...

Monday duly rolled around. By now we were getting used to the way the sun meandered over the eastern horizon and brought a cautious start to the working day. It was fully 9:30 before there was enough light to call it morning and we still had lots to do. The first thing was pimping our rides - and ourselves. Nu, Pogodi! (trans. I'll get you!) is to Russians what Tom and Jerry is to Americans, a beloved animated cartoon. It began back in the 1960’s with the familiar premise of a clever rabbit that does its best to outfox a chain-smoking, hard drinking wolf. Zaya grew up on this stuff and decided that not only would our team be called Nu Pogodi, but we would dress the part, too. (This was one of those times that I figured it was better to just go along for the ride.) 

Next it was on our bikes and off to official start of the Ice Run, it seemed like it had taken us a week to get to this point. We looked splendid though, 12 Urals and 23 hardy adventurers arrayed in a straight line fit for a May Day parade. With military precision we immediately got lost, turned around in a petrol station, wound noisily through a housing estate and finally arrived an hour late at the start line and the press briefing.

Fluent in Russian, Zaya, now dressed as Zayats, the Nu, Pogodi! rabbit, complete with ears, gave the local TV station a rundown on what was happening. Well, at least that’s what I thought she was doing. She might have been talking about the advantages of Mongolian airag over Russian vodka for all I knew.  
© 2013 Ben Cooke
The mayor gave a speech, shook hands with us, presented each of us a memento of our stay in Irbit, invited us back for the annual motorcycle rally in July, and lastly wished us luck. A quick stop at the supermarket for last minute chocolate bars, then a few photos, and we were finally on our bikes being led out of town towards what was probably going to be the last gas station we'd see for days. We filled up and divided into makeshift teams. Nick and Paddy were the first to set off and led the way by turning right towards Tavda, taking the notorious, uncharted northeastern route - otherwise known as the ‘road of death.’ There is no better way to start an adventure than by leaving common sense behind, following your fellow lemmings and leaping over the cliff towards certain doom. Wahoo!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Flailing About

From The Adventurists, click to follow through
The phone rang and rang and rang again. Staggering around the bags strewn around our room I groggily picked up the receiver. A Russian accent on the other end spoke in English: This is Sergei, Oleg’s friend. We have Zaya - where should we bring her? I looked at my watch, it was 4AM. Room 206, I said, and opened the door in anticipation. Fortunately, I’d decided not to follow the crowd to the Russian disco earlier in the evening. I expected that it would be incredibly loud, smokey, and potentially dangerous if one of the Ice Runners showed a bit too much interest in one of the local women. Turns out that I was right on all accounts. Our organizers, Olly and Katy, had hatched a plan to get people thoroughly drunk on Saturday so that they would go to bed early on Sunday and get a clean start Monday morning. It seemed to be working a treat. 

Practice driving was the order of the day and we headed to a motocross course outside of Irbit. Understanding the Ural’s unique handling characteristics wasn't intuitive. Motorcycles with sidecars pull to the right on acceleration and push to the left on deceleration. That's because ours were one wheel drive and the sidecar was in effect dead weight. Some versions of the Ural drive both the motorcycle and the sidecar's wheels, making them more versatile than tanks. The cruddy conditions dictated caution at every turn. Lots of room. We needed lots of room to maneuver. Eva's dodgy brakes and the snow and ice taught us that downshifting through the gears was the best method of slowing down. The biggest challenge, though, wasn’t navigating the race course, it was climbing the steep hill back towards town. After watching several teams fail, we drew on our Peruvian mototaxi experience from October, pulled out all the stops and successfully crested the slippery slope. We made it back to the hotel just in time for the official launch party. 

Entertainment for our traditional Russian dinner was provided by a group of very cheery dancers, none of whom could have been younger than 70. We agreed later that the appropriate collective pronoun for the ensemble was a “flail of Babushkas.” Supper was followed by another Russian tradition, the banya. Essentially a banya is a Finnish sauna, complete with cold plunge and flogging with birch branches, set up on a frozen lake. Despite having brought my swimsuit, I decided that jumping through the ice before warming up in the sauna was a mug’s game. So I watched in amusement as the lad’s ‘nads vanished up behind their kidneys. Sleigh rides complete with cossack hats and a horse riding demonstration by Olly finished the evening and we retired in anticipation of the morning's adventure.