The 1,200 miles across Turkey was a good time for reflection. The days were warm and the nights cool. Most of the cycling wasn’t especially tough, food was amply available, and we could wash in the Black Sea daily. As we traced the coast westwards, I began to look back at the past eight months. I considered the question that led us to undertake this expedition: what does a border between Europe and Asia really mean in the modern world?
Looking at the literal geographical/geological idea of a continent (humour me here), Eurasia is clearly one rather than two. The northernmost stretch of the Europe-Asia border are the Ural mountains, 600 miles of which we traversed by ski. The Urals are the world’s oldest extant range and formed from tectonic jostling over 250 million years ago. It wasn’t a collision of landmasses either side of a shrinking sea, as famously with the Himalayas. It was eons of frottage between three already joined tectonic landmasses within the super continent of Pangaea.
The other five continents could all be argued to inhabit their own current tectonic plate. However, if we are to use defunct tectonic plates as continental boundaries, then things get very complicated with many, many continents to consider. Even if we are to use current plates as a guide then Far East Russia and much of Japan relocates to “North America”, Iceland snaps in twain, and the Philippines get their own shiny new ring on the Olympic flag. Silly isn’t it?
Written by Callie
After reaching the Caspian Sea, we had to move quickly to exit Kazakhstan before our thirty-day visas expired. As per usual, Charlie’s Russian visa situation was more complicated than mine. Technically, when we were last in Russia, he had overstayed the 90-days-per-visit that he was allotted. To be on the safe side, he had applied for a ten-day transit visa, but now had to bus back to Uralsk, about 500 kilometers by road, to pick it up. By the time he rejoined me at the Caspian Sea in Atyrau, we had only two days to cover the 300 kilometers to the border.
We re-entered Russia with no problems, but were still feeling the time crunch as Charlie’s visa gave us 10 days to cover 1,000 kilometers. Our first real day on the road, I had a major blow-out on my rear tire; the explosive pop sounded like a car backfiring. We had to leave the bikes and take a bus to the next town, buy a new cheap tire, and bus back. Cheap tires would cause two more blow-outs, and of course multiple punctures, in the coming weeks.
Our route may seem a bit confusing at this point, as we had re-entered Russia. We were now tracing the Caspian coast through a thin strip of Russia, which contained the Buddhist region Kalmykia, and the Muslim region Dagestan. Kalmykia is the only majority Buddhist region in “Europe”, peopled by an Mongol people who migrated to the area from northwest China 400 years ago. Lenin’s paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk and it’s not hard to spot the Mongol blood in his face. However, during our transit we saw few Buddhist symbols, as our route through Kalmykia dragged us along a punishing dirt track with stretches of deep, soft sand.
The region of Dagestan is known for its independence struggle, with the nearby conflict from Chechnya often spilling over. Internationally, it seems to be viewed as a dangerous region due to Islamic insurgency and secessionist terrorism. However, it was in this region that we experienced the warmest hospitality in all of Russia. Our first day in Dagestan, we stopped at a café for lunch and a break from the 100+ degree heat. A man in the café, having lunch with his son, bought us potato pirozkhi, which are ubiquitous fast-food savory pastries. After we had finished our meal, the woman in the café set two ice creams in front of us, which she didn’t let us pay for. Even petrol station managers welcomed us in for coffee and to watch videos of the local, Dervish-esque dancing.
We made it to Azerbaijan in the required time, and headed straight for Baku, a day’s ride from the border. By this point, we were feeling extremely dusty and dirty. While kayaking, we had grown accustomed to frequent swims, sinking up to our chins in the water for a few minutes just to cool off. Now, after the sweltering days and dusty tracks, it was getting hard to fall asleep in the tent for how dirty and sticky we felt. The night before arriving in Baku, we had made a failed attempt at reaching the Caspian to bathe. We wheeled our bikes down a side track, past a disgusting chicken farm, until we were stopped by an unsurpassable irrigation ditch. In the dark, we decided to use the ditch to wash some dirt off as best we could. As it happened, the nearby oil derricks were spilling crude oil into the flowing water, and we ended up mostly dirtier than before with unsightly stains on our already unappealing clothes.
We decided to pass through Azerbaijan relatively fast, leaving more time to explore Georgia’s mountains, which we had both long wanted to visit. Nearing the Georgian border, we encountered our first cycle tourist, going the opposite direction. We hadn’t met many young tourists on our trip at all, as we had mostly been in the wilderness, and were eager to chat. We would soon find out that Georgia was full of cycle tourists, and we would see one or two almost every day from then on. In fact, cyclists rarely even stop to chat in Georgia.
It seemed that the landscape got immediately more beautiful as we entered Georgia, and our relief at being finally out of the grasp of Russian bureaucracy and authority deepened. (See our last blog for why this feeling turned out to be misplaced!) Mountains unrolled in front of us, and we stopped at a roadside café for beer and delicious Georgian food, which actually had flavour, something often lacking in the more utilitarian Russian cuisine. The next morning, at our first pit stop to fill our water bottles, we were invited for chai, bread, butter and fresh cheese. We reached Tbilisi that afternoon, and spent a few days wandering the cobbled streets and indulging in cold Georgian white wine. After six months of Russian lager, wine tasted so, so good. Buying bottles in the afternoon, and burying them under rocks in a cold river, would become a favorite evening tradition.
Leaving Tbilisi, we headed north for the town of Kazbegi, a 2,000 metre climb through stunning terrain, and the ski resort town of Gaudari. We pedaled uphill for two days, watching paragliders floating over the peaks as we approached the top of the pass. From the town of Kazbegi, it is a further 400 metres to Gergeti, the mountaintop monastery for which it is best known. There is a steep walking path, or a six-kilometer rutted, rocky road. After some cajoling from Charlie, I was convinced to cycle the road so that we could camp at the top. In my lowest gear, I had to stand up to pedal up all the steep parts, and upon the descent cringed as my cheap bicycle rattled down the rocky path. But, it was a gorgeous campsite, and we were cold for the first time in months.
The downside to this route was that it is a dead-end deep in the mountains. We scoured topographical maps, hoping for some way through the mountains so that we would not have to turn around and cycle back the same way. But, pushing bikes up and over 45 degree scree slopes seemed like a bad idea, and we turned around. We found out later that had we attempted our mountain scramble, we would have landed in South Ossetia. Again, see our previous blog for more on misadventures in South Ossetia, an illegally occupied region of Georgia.
After leaving the mountains, and following a route on Google Maps, we ended up, once again, arrested by the Russian border military. Charlie wrote a separate blog about this third clash with Russian authorities.
Once released “back into Georgia”, we headed into the mountains again, taking small paths to avoid main highways. We had some gorgeous climbs on a horrible, destroyed asphalt road, and a 30-kilometer descent that took us all morning due to the road condition. Then it was a cruisey ride into Batumi, a resort town on the Black Sea coast. After a few days of reading on beach chairs and swimming in the sea, we are ready to take on Turkey. We are now only 1,400 kilometers from our finish line. The route looks lovely, following the sea coast almost the entire way. It now truly feels like a vacation, and it’s hard to believe that most of our challenges have been overcome.
From the café I’m now sitting at, I have a view of the sea, and we are about to cross the final border for the trip, change our last currency, follow our last route. It’s all happening so quickly, but it also feels like an age since we set out onto the frozen tundra of Arctic Siberia, plodding into headwinds with frosted hair and freezing fingers.
Written by Charlie
Callie’s ailing brakes screeched as we clattered down the winding track towards a tarmac road. We were nearing the end of a shortcut to the Georgian city of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The main road had been loud and boring so we plugged the “avoid highways” option into Google maps and followed a string of village roads and rubbled farm tracks across some hills browning with autumn.
The heat and dust had formed a sweat-crusted paste on our skin by the time we reached the asphalt in a valley that gathered in the high Caucasus to our north and splayed into a plain just south of us. The route directed us a few miles north to where we would cross a bridge and then continue south on the other side of the valley.
It was late in the day and we’d cycled sixty miles of rough roads so planned to cross the valley and then camp, leaving the last 20 miles to Gori for the morning. However, as we neared the turning to the bridge, we found a police post. The Georgian officers spoke no English but informed us simply in Russian that the bridge was closed and we’d have to go around. Looking at the map, ‘going around’ would mean one of two things. Either cycling south, out of the hills and down to the highway which we would then follow to Gori. Or, pedalling back a mile or two, following a footpath of some sort down into the valley, crossing the river and arriving at the back road to Gori less than half a mile from where we left the road we were currently on. The former would both be boring and add twenty miles to our journey. We opted for the latter.
It didn’t take long to reach the river, plucking a few blackberries from brambles as we went. Although it would be a deluge in spring, the water was only ankle deep so we wheeled our bikes across and found a way up the other bank. A few minutes later we reached the deserted tarmac and began pedalling happily south. Seconds later a car roared up behind us and pulled over. Out jumped an army officer in uniform. It took a few seconds to recognise his fatigues and to spot the Russian flag on his arm. This both worried and confused me as we were a good fifty miles from the Russian border.
The man asked in pidgin English if we had passports and what we were doing. We replied that we were tourists on our way to Gori. He then asked why we had illegally crossed an international border. We protested. We were in Georgia and nowhere near Russia. He pointed at the ground and said two words: ‘South Ossetia’. He then led us two hundred yards further down the road to where a twisted stack of barbed wire coils barred the way and a Cyrillic sign announced the border of Georgia and the “Respublika Yojnaya Ossetia”. My heart sank. We were on the wrong side of it.
Somehow, through an incredible cocktail of ignorance and misfortune, we had missed the fences and guard towers and strayed unchecked into a disputed territory. South Ossetia has claimed independence since the Russian invasion of 2008. We had little choice but to obey the man and cycle away from the fence, deeper into the forbidden land towards a military base. The officer drove a couple of yards behind us while a khaki jeep manned by two heavily armed soldiers lead the way before us. We talked as we rode, getting our story straight, but unlike our previous arrests by Russian authorities, there was really nothing to hide this time. We had made an honest mistake.
Reinforced bollards sank mechanically into the tarmac at the gate to a smart new Russian compound, allowing us and our escort to enter. We were told to spread all our belongings onto a canvas sheet. I slipped my second passport into my shorts as it had a Russian visa I’d violated the terms of and possessing two passports in Russia is illegal. Everything was noted and photographed, one item at a time, photos were browsed on our phones, and there was particular interest in my laptop and video camera.
We were placed in a room watched over by the pitiless gaze of Putin’s portrait, his fish lips drooping at their edges in a cartoonish frown. We patiently went through the slow process of questioning, fingerprinting, being photographed, displaying all our belongings again, and then being further questioned with a briefcase-sized video camera thrust in our faces. Among the questions was the straightforward ask that must catch out so many: “are you a spy?”
There were long intervals where we were left to wait but we were never without guards. One of the soldiers correctly guessed that we might be hungry after cycling all day and fetched us tea, a cucumber, and a few bits of bread. We ate quickly and gratefully but were still famished. We had to sign in 19 places on lengthy Russian language documents detailing our offence.
During questioning we explained our ignorance of the border. I showed them the Google map on my phone on which (I now noticed) the border was marked as a faint dotted line and not the bold solid line of an international border. We had been picked up less than two hundred yards from the tip of a pointing finger of Ossetian land that jutted inconveniently into Georgia proper. An officer said America didn’t recognise the sovereignty of South Ossetia and that was why Google didn’t mark it as an independent country. I asked which countries did recognise it and they listed Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. I asked if Burkina Faso was also on board. They shook their heads in confusion. We questioned why they, The Russians, were fifty miles from their own territory policing the border of an apparently independent nation. They said the South Ossetians invited them to help protect their land after the Georgian army began bombing their villages in 2008. I did my best to stifle a scoff.
At midnight we were told we would have to go to the capital, Tskhinvali, to pay a fine. Our pleas to pay on the spot and be put back into Georgia were ignored. With the camera still rolling, we were lead outside and our laden bikes were loaded into a grey soviet minivan. While climbing in, I noticed that the driver and his companion were wearing different uniforms and speaking an unfamiliar language. We had been handed over to the South Ossetians.
Almost an hour of hopelessly rutted farm tracks took us to a village where we stopped outside a walled compound. We remained in the van. A couple of men came out and asked repeatedly in Russian to see our valuables. We feigned incomprehension, feeling certain that anything we produced would not find its way back to us. An unofficial nighttime pitstop in a small village while under arrest in a rogue nation seemed just the place to be permanently relieved of our possessions. Disappointed, the men eventually gave up and our guards climbed back in. One of the two men reached in the window and yanked my foot off the seat, calling me a ‘pig’ in English as he did so.
It was 2am when we reached the police headquarters in Tskhinvali. Our hunger was outweighed by fatigue and so we were less phased than we might otherwise have been when shown to a cell and locked in. We stretched out on the narrow bed-cum-benches and went to sleep. A guard escorted us to the toilet at 7am but we were not allowed to close the door while using it and were ushered straight back to our cell. The room wasn’t especially unpleasant and had natural light from a large window, albeit heavily barred. There was a single book in the room: a Russian history of the CIA and the KGB.
By 9.30am we were extremely hungry and thrilled when a police officer led us upstairs to another room where we were given tea and fried bread. An hour later the familiar lengthy process of questioning began. The Ossetians were both less friendly and less professional than their Russian counterparts. They searched my phone extensively, even reading messages and emails, but failed to spot on the documents compiled by the Russians that Callie had a phone too. She simply denied owning one. My second passport was still hidden in my shorts. When they asked to see footage from my video camera, I gave them a blank memory card which they took away to inspect but seemed satisfied when they handed it back. I was asked to switch on my laptop and so simply logged onto it as a guest, handing them a seemingly unused computer.
We really had nothing to hide but knew they would try to be thorough and handing them an unorganised warren of computer files would slow down our processing and delay us getting back into Georgia. It was a Friday and we were already into the afternoon. I guessed correctly that not being processed before the close of business would mean being locked up for the weekend. At 3pm we were driven to the courtroom and stood before a judge. Both he and the translator seemed amused by our appearance. We were still unshowered and wearing sportswear. Their levity seemed to irritate the stern police officer who had been dealing with us.
We were not offered a lawyer and, in fact, hadn’t been offered a phone call since being detained. However, we admitted guilt and explained our ignorance. We were found guilty and issued a $35 fine. When the judge asked if I had anything to say I replied meekly that I was hungry. He turned to the police officer and scolded him for not feeding us. We were driven back to the station by the now ever sterner officer and given some plov (an Uzbek dish of rice, meat and vegetables). The officer then led me on foot to the bank to exchange dollars into rubles, and then to a government office to pay our fine. Then it was back to the cell. We were told we would be driven the two miles to the nearest Georgian border at 6.30pm. We slept again.
The drive was in another Soviet minivan. The border was clearly not open for public passage and a group of six soldiers marched us between sturdy concrete defenses into no man’s land where several signs announced unexploded ordinance. A couple of Georgian soldiers and a plainclothes man approached and nodded perfunctorily at the Ossetians who took a few steps back. The plainclothes man smiled and reached out a hand.
“Welcome back guys. My name’s Giorgi. I’m from the Ministry of the Interior. Are you OK?”
We said we were fine and he led us down the road to a waiting group including representatives from the police, the EU Monitoring Mission, and both the British and U.S. embassies. We were deeply embarrassed but all were the model of professionalism, expressing concern for our wellbeing and explaining that we would be doing them a favour if we accompanied them to the Gori police station for a quick debrief. Naturally we said we’d do whatever they wanted. During the fifteen minute drive Giorgi referred repeatedly to our “illegal detention”.
We made a statement in the police station to a friendly officer and translator who winced with indignation at various points. The Russian occupation of South Ossetia is a still-fresh wound in the Georgian psyche. The Russian officer’s claim to have been invited in to protect against Georgian aggression was the deepest cut.
The five days of war in 2008 didn’t just see the Russians and South Ossetians destroy all ethnic Georgian villages in the territory creating 20,000 refugees, it also saw Russia occupy and bomb sites throughout the rest of Georgia. Although the international community later condemned Russia’s actions and refused to recognise South Ossetia’s independence, during the fighting the world looked away, mostly to Beijing where the 2008 olympics were underway. No punitive action was ever taken towards Russia.
At 11pm we left the police station, checked into a hostel, and hurried to a supermarket. The experience had been interesting in parts, but mostly boring and hunger-filled.
Written by Charlie
The day before we crossed into Kazakhstan remains a blur in my memory. We had decided on a rest day, camped under some riverside trees, before beginning a rush to paddle across Kazakhstan’s vastness in the 30-day period allowed.
After a late breakfast, I wandered over to a couple of men setting up a table and fire nearby. In my halting, childish Russian, I asked if they could order a taxi for us the following day as we would need to cross the border by road. The walk would be punishing with a 30kg kayak among our kit. The larger of the two men, Slava, sat me down and poured out two generous measures of homebrewed brandy. “Nasdroviya”, he chanted, raising his glass. We tipped the caustic hooch down our throats. Slava then said he would drive us to the border himself in the morning and refilled the glasses. I suddenly foresaw the rest of the day with more clarity than I can now remember it.
Slava turned out to be the boss of a small team of police personnel who were shortly coming to the river for an annual day off. The atmosphere was something akin to that of the British Christmas office party. Around lunchtime, seven more people arrived and started drinking in earnest. Every shot was accompanied by a toast, some of which were rambling and heartfelt, some of which (ours) were brief and in pidgin Russian. Huge hunks of delicious pork were roasted on a fire and little bowls of salad were largely ignored. The afternoon descended into circle dancing, slurred shouting, men dragging women into the river, Callie knowing her limits and declining drinks, Charlie not knowing his and vomiting (mostly) in the tent porch.
Slava drove his rammed and riotous jeep home around midnight but was back at 9am bearing cold beers to ease our hangovers. We loaded everything into the car and drove to the border via the police station to say farewell to our comrades from the party. They all looked decidedly more fresh than us. At immigration, an officer noticed that, due to a technicality of my visa, I’d been illegal in Russia for the previous two months. I played dumb and was eventually allowed to leave the country but told I’d need a new visa to re-enter.
Not wanting to risk yet another arrest, we took a taxi around the 40 miles of restricted river that formed the Russian-Kazakh border. Under a midday sky milky with humidity, we pumped up “Badge Fly” (our kayak) and launched in an area so densely swarming with mosquitoes that we were panicked and frantic for the time it took to shake the several hundred that had settled on us. A dip in the cool water soothed the itching bites.
The river was different in Kazakhstan. It looked similar but gone were the scores of stolid Russian men sat by motionless fishing rods. In their place was only the occasional weathered Kazakh fishing without a rod, casting by swinging the line above his head like a lasso. There were less little birds nesting in the muddy banks and more vast eagles and hawks circling overhead. Grey herons, startled by our approach, flapped lankily into the air and fled downriver.
We saw few people and several days later reached Uralsk where I would have to apply for a Russian transit visa. Visa difficulties are the least interesting and (all too often) most commonly featured topic in travel blogs so I will rush hastily past the five days we were stuck in Uralsk getting (and forging) documents and finally paddling on with the unnerving conclusion that my application would be referred to Moscow for approval. I wouldn’t know the outcome for two weeks.
We now had just over two weeks to reach the Caspian Sea, over 600 river miles away, ship the kayak home, buy bicycles, get back to Uralsk to collect my (hopefully) approved visa, and cycle 300km to the Russian border before our Kazakh visa expired and we incurred a prison sentence for overstaying. The race was on.
We began starting early and finishing late. The days grew hotter, nudging into the low 40s, and we swam every couple of hours to cool off. Lunch was often taken up to our chests in the water. Cows, horses and camels stood in the shallows, drinking and wallowing in the relative cool. Impressively aggressive horseflies attended them. Above the mud banks was a thin growth of trees and behind those was only the dry, desolate Kazakh steppe, stretching off far further than the eye could see. We spotted many snakes: vipers that can kill a human in the unlikely event that they manage to bite. Their fangs are placed awkwardly far back in their mouths.
With up to twelve hours paddling a day, our backs, necks and shoulders ached incessantly and, to our frustration, the river seemed to slow as it widened. Our diet became less exciting as the heat rose too much to carry fresh produce. We had no exact idea of how many river miles we were paddling each day, only how far we’d managed as the crow flies. With little time to spare, and few people around, our interactions with Kazakh people were sadly rare. There were few villages along the river and only one bridge during those two weeks. Occasional African-style car ferries puttered across the water belching black smoke.
We spent all our time confined to our little kayak with cramped legs and growing susceptibility to frayed tempers. However, patience won out in the end and we jubilantly pulled into Atyrau one hot afternoon. Only a day’s paddle from the Caspian, we landed at the dock of a group known as the River Rats who’d kindly allowed us to base ourselves there during our stay. Their neighbour, a quirky caviar dealer (read: sturgeon poacher), kindly welcomed us into his guestroom.
Tom, a Canadian expat, offered to pick us up from the Caspian and bring us back in his speed boat. In the morning we set off for the final 20 miles of the Ural. Illegal fishing nets cluttered the river and eventually the crumbling mud banks gave way to tall reed walls. The Caspian acts as an international border and at the border patrol point we were turned back. The police were friendly but said we couldn’t paddle the final mile to the open sea visible before us. However, we were informed that we were already a mile or two into the Caspian and the floating reed beds around us were technically sea.
Although a little unspectacular for the completion of a ten week, 1500-mile journey from source to sea, the beers we sipped at 45 knots in Tom’s boat tasted extra good.
Written by Callie
I had been anticipating the paddling section of our “triathlon” since the windy, frigid March days, and we finally put on the Ural River on a sunny day in mid-June, about four and a half months into our trek. The river started as a narrow, vegetation-choked waterway, and we repeatedly rammed into overhanging branches, shrubs and fallen trees as we learned how to steer our new craft. Our kayak, a rudderless, inflatable tandem number, is not the most responsive of boats. Neither of us had ever paddled a tandem kayak, and it took awhile to learn how to share responsibilities of steering. I had worked as a river guide, and was used to yelling commands- “back left!”, etc., which seemed like overkill, but if we didn’t communicate we ended up paddling against each other. Finally, it was decided that Charlie, relegated to the back seat by his long legs, which couldn’t fit up front with all our gear stuffed into the bow, would steer.
The first day was full of spiders. We kept running into overhanging trees, kidnapping their arachnid residents as we swept past, unable to dodge every obstacle on the narrow, winding river. The corners were too tight, and our kayak too long, to be able to avoid running into the sides. We were sliding through tree after tree, covered in mud, leaves, and countless spiders. Really – countless spiders. Much to Charlie’s irritation, I kept putting down my paddle to shriek and pluck two or three spiders off my legs which, of course, led to us running into the next set of bushes and collecting more eight-legged friends. It’s no exaggeration to say that on the first day, we had at least thirty spiders in our kayak at a time. It was rather unpleasant.
It seems surreal that these few yards of water are the supposed divide between the continents of Europe and Asia. In places it could have been cleared by a mediocre longjumper. We lunched or camped on whichever side offered the best landing spot at the appropriate hour, sometimes in Europe and sometimes in Asia. Most of each day was spent cruising no man’s land in between and passing under the odd bridge with signs marking the continental divide. Russian’s seem to view the construct as a novel curiosity but the implications of perceived otherness across the border likely swell in significance the further one strays from it.
The scenery changed quickly. The river widened, we got better at paddling, and developed a routine. The forested taiga changed into dry grasslands and Kazakh-like steppe. We paddled past tiny, lonely villages, with dirt lanes and copious flocks of geese. It is dreamlike and summery; we can pull up to the shore of a village, and walk barefoot up the straw-like pathway to a small store to buy an ice cream to eat in the shade. We feel very safe in Russia, very often leaving our kayak unattended on the bank while walking to the shop.
When approaching a village from afar, we tried to guess whether it was Russian or Bashkir, a Muslim ethnic group that have lived in the region since before the Mongol invasion. Bashkortostan is recognized as an independent republic within Russia, and Bashkir villages seem a lot tidier than their Russian equivalents. The main tell between a Russian and Bashkir village is the emblem atop their religious buildings. Orthodox Christian churches, in Russian villages, have crosses on their domes, while Muslim mosques have the crescent moon. Other than this small symbol, Orthodox and Muslim churches appear almost identical with their minarets and domes.
Russians are avid fishers, and we constantly pass men and women fishing from the shore, groups of campers, partying teenagers, and young men washing their cars. It’s nice to see the local people out enjoying nature and summer. We have, however, been surprised at the lack of development along the riverfront in the bigger towns. Early on, we talked about stopping at riverside cafes for cold beer in the afternoons, but this idyllic goal still has not been met.
The main challenges of the river so far have been the three dams that we had to circumnavigate, as well as paddling across their respective man-made lakes. The first lake took us a full day to paddle across, with small whitecaps and furious rain blowing into our faces. We camped at a disused resort-like beachfront, and cooked dinner from a sunset-lit table on a terrace. Only a week or so into the paddle, it already felt luxurious to have a table and landscaped, pebble beach. The next morning, we decided to paddle up to the dam to check it out. We scrambled up the concrete barrier and were investigating the best route to walk round, when two security guards, guns slung over their shoulders, came over to question us. They didn’t speak English, but repeated that it was forbidden to be there, motioning to their guns. They did not seem at all interested in how we would get our kayak around the dam.
We paddled over to the shore as close to the security fence as possible, and started unloading our gear. A wiry old man came up to us, excitedly rambling about tourism and offering to drive us around the dam. First, he gave us an extensive tour of the property that he appeared to be building on. It was all in Russian, but we gathered something about music, concerts, and Elvis Presley. He was very friendly, and within an hour we were back on the river, south of the dam.
A few days later, we approached another dam. This time it was only a few kilometers to walk around, so we unloaded the kayak, slung it up above our heads, and walked it through a small village and beyond the dam. We then went back for our bags, and half a day’s work had us back on the water.
The final dam boasted the largest lake and the longest trip around. It took over two days to paddle across the lake, which seemed to have the magical ability to grace us with a headwind no matter which direction we faced. However slow the lake paddling was, it was also fun. The wind-fuelled waves made us feel as if we were kayaking on a sea, and staring across at a far shore gave me the feeling of being on vacation.
We celebrated summer solstice on a pebble beach just downriver from a group of festive teenagers, blasting the ubiquitous Russian techno club music. We had our first riverside bonfire, cooking vegetables over the coals, and sitting outside until midnight, sipping on honey brandy, wine and beer. By the time we stumbled up the bluff to our tent, I was convinced that the tent zipper was broken, and it took me quite a few minutes to realize I was pulling the zipper in the wrong direction.
Overall, paddling down the Ural is blissful. Days do get tedious, but the novelty hasn’t worn off. Wearing a swim suit all day every day, jumping in the water to refresh, and wading in to wash off in the evenings just feels divine. I daydreamed about these exact moments while my head was tucked under the hood of my -30˚C sleeping bag all spring. The riverscape scenery was beautiful yet punctuated by hulking, rusting semi-ruined industrial cities with no-nonsense names like Magnitogorsk and Energetik.
Everything was going according to plan as we descended a stretch where the river forms the border between Russia and Kazakhstan. Then we got arrested. We were taking a break to stretch our legs, sitting on a log after deciding not to swim at the mud wasp-infested bank, when a speedboat drove up carrying three men in fatigues and their guns. Charlie had wondered whether we would be allowed to paddle along the border, but we had seen so many people fishing and camping on the shores that we decided to go for it. However, we were tersely informed that this area was forbidden to non-locals, and the soldiers put us in a Jeep, and loaded our kayak onto their speedboat.
We were driven the short ride into town and taken to the local FSB station (formerly KGB) to undergo a thorough and ridiculously slow process of being booked for the “administrative offense” of being within 5 kilometers of the border without a permit. Everyone was very friendly, but asked us the same questions over and over, “Did you know you were in a border zone?” “Yes, but we thought if we stayed on the right side, the Russian side, that we would be ok”. “But it is forbidden”. “Yes, now we know”. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it seemed that at least ten people were called in to deal with us and our transgression. We felt bad for ruining their evening. Our translator, a young English teacher, was so nervous to talk to us that she didn’t even say hello, and was literally trembling as she said, “I have some questions for you”. She eventually warmed to our smiles. The man who seemed to be in charge looked like he had been dragged straight in from fishing, wearing a t-shirt and flip flops. He had some impressive tan lines surrounded by sunburn; we joked that he had probably been one of the fishermen waving and shouting hello to us from the riverbank.
After five hours, we were let go with a $7 fine, and joked that they had probably fed us about $3 worth of food anyway. We have now been found guilty of two separate administrative offenses in Russia, which shouldn’t be surprising in a country of such exemplary bureaucracy.
Written by Callie
After being whisked 150 kilometers over sodden, thawing swamplands, our Gazprom helicopter deposited us in a culture-shock inducing city: Sovietsky. We lugged our ski gear through town, feeling hot, crowded and tempted by all the grocery stores and fast food shwarma kiosks. We left our things in a hotel and strolled to a pizza restaurant where I accidentally ordered us four milkshakes, which were downed happily. At this point, we were preparing ourselves for a 1,000 kilometer hike to get to the source of the Ural River, and headed to the post office to ship our ski gear home.
Dmitri, the post officer manager, spoke English and was fascinated by these dirty foreigners sending skis to the UK. He invited us to the local radio station to do an interview. After describing how Charlie and I met, bicycle touring through Central Asia, he asked us if we planned to continue from Sovietsky by bicycle. Something seemed to click, and we looked at each other as if to say, “I can’t believe we didn’t think of that earlier!” Perhaps because we already planned to cycle the last leg of our trip, from the Caspian Sea to Istanbul, the idea of cycling this intermediate section hadn’t crossed our minds. Suddenly, the prospect of walking 1,000 kilometers along busy roads seemed ludicrous. Bikes sounded so fast and wonderful. So, Dmitri made it his mission to help us. He drove us to a bike shop from where, bikes purchased, gear strapped awkwardly on (we hadn’t bothered purchasing panniers for this relatively short ride), we set off down the highway.
At this point, late May, it was still cold, and though we’d finally and officially left the land of frozen rivers, skis and mountains, we were still in Siberia. We woke one morning to a blanket of snow on our bicycles, and decided to take a rest day. Travel felt so speedy! After the monotonous swishing of our skis underfoot, sailing up and down paved roads on our bicycles was glorious. 100km in a day was a walk in the park.
Oh, I forgot to mention that, feeling budget-conscious, we had purchased single speed bicycles. That’s right, those basic, one-cog machines that you rode on as a child, where you have to pedal backwards to engage the brakes. Armed with these simple machines, we took on the hilly highways of the Ural region, headed to the large city of Ekaterinburg. We only had to push the bikes up one hill, but there were times when I felt I would rip my bike apart with the sheer force of pulling upwards on the handlebars while attempting to rotate the pedals.
We cycled through picturesque, quiet villages, with shoddy wooden homes and fences painted in peeling shades of blue and green. These villages, away from the mountains, felt different to the small, icy towns of the Artic. Many buildings in the Arctic were pre-fabricated, plastic-y monstrosities with rotting concrete cores. They were cookie-cutter and usually bright blue. The villages felt more rustic, traditional and bucolic, and most importantly boasted village shops with well-stocked ice cream freezers. However, they were undoubtedly poor. The inhabited homes were cared for but in decay. One in three houses was a tilting ruin. There seemed no possible commerce or employment beyond tending the small cabbage and potato patches by each house. Villagers used horse and cart to carry firewood and haystacks along the mud roads. It struck us as jarring to see such impoverished white communities technically within “Asia”. This observation further led us to question our preconceptions about race, region and prosperity.
We pedalled about 1,000 kilometers in 10 days on our single-speed bikes, and noted that it had taken us nearly three months to travel the same distance, albeit up and over mountains, on our skis. We had covered some 2,000+ kilometers of the Eurasian “border”, when we cycled into Chelyabinsk. From there, we planned to organize logistics for the much-anticipated river leg.
We were lucky enough to be welcomed in Chelyabinsk by Andrey and Nata, who we met via the cycle tourist website, Warm Showers. Andrey, a Brompton-folding-bike enthusiast, led us through the streets of Chelyabinsk to a cozy apartment that Charlie and I were to have all to ourselves! Andrey and Nata had us over for meals and tea, and guided us around town.
Andrey proved logistically invaluable, and even introduced us to a friend who was willing to sell us his kayak. We were driven to a lakeside dacha, a summer-house, where we inspected our new tandem, inflatable kayak, and were served homemade booze and hand-harvested honey by a beaming old man who once led mountaineering expeditions in the Tien Shan.
Andrey was keen to join us in a final bit of cycling, to find the source of the Ural River, about 200 kilometers away. We planned to cycle from the source to a navigable stretch of river, where a friend of Andrey’s would meet us in a car, and we would swap out the kayak for the bicycles. Everything came together beautifully!
We spent three days cycling and camping with Andrey, and the company was nice and novel. It was starting, for the first time, to feel holiday-like, and we spent evenings around a campfire, composed mostly of smoky logs to fend off mosquitoes, which seems to be a summer Russian tradition. The final bit of road to reach the source of the Ural River involved some muddy, rocky, off-roading which tested the limits of our single-speed, loaded bikes. We ditched the bikes and gear in some bushes and walked the final 15 kilometers to reach the source of the Ural. A small metal bridge spanned the gladed spring and labelled each side as Europe and Asia respectively.
Back on the bikes, we cycled for one more day to the point where we thought the river would be wide enough to paddle down. Camped beside the river, with our kayak next to the tent, we said goodbye to Andrey and prepared to put on the river.
Many photos kindly supplied by Andrey
Written by Charlie
We picked up where we left off: the small cluster of buildings known as Sanovoj. It was early May and there was well over 300km to reach a small village called Pripolyarnyy from where we planned to send our ski gear home and continue south by foot. As we set out from Sanovoj our big concern was that Spring was coming and there wouldn’t be enough snow. If we became stranded in the snowless wilderness with our heavily laden sleds then it would be a very tough trek out indeed on painfully reduced rations. We carried three and a half weeks of food. I'd managed to loose one of our spoons so we were sharing one teaspoon to eat meals out of one cooking pot, alternating mouthfuls.
Following a valley due south through three days of light snowfall, we approached the tallest peaks in the Ural range. This knot of mountains isn’t high when compared to most ranges on Earth. The highest peak, Narodnaya, is only 1,894m. However, the surrounding landscape is significantly lower so the mountains increasingly loomed over us as we got closer.
One cold and miserable afternoon, with visibility too low to safely start threading a route through the high Urals, we chanced upon a wooden cabin. Ten minutes of digging out the 4ft snow gained us entry and we found everything we needed for a comfortable stay. The building was tiny; about three by four yards. I couldn’t stand up inside and had to take care when edging between the table (with a fork...hurray!), two low beds, and an antiquated stove. A small south-facing window, glass intact, let in plenty of light. There was a ruined cabin twenty yards away so, while Callie chipped off some of the ice on the floor, I dismantled half of the derelict neighbour and made a wood stack inside our home for the night. In the morning we left the place tidier than we found it and with a ready fuel supply for the next occupants.
Our planned route through the highest section of the mountains, programmed into the GPS, proved impossible. We’d been rushed and cavalier when plotting, and had drawn lines up impossibly steep slopes. So, we diverged and relied solely on the old Soviet military maps that we’d had printed on PVC. These weren’t the clearest guide and we were borderline lost for five days. As the daytime temperatures rose, the snow become sticky and energy-sapping in the afternoons. The solstice wasn’t many weeks away and it was only dark for an hour or two each night. We began starting earlier and earlier each day to utilise the firmer snow after the still-frigid nighttime temperatures.
Early one morning we progressed up an increasingly narrow ravine. The climb at the head of it looked passable on the map but the contours were faded and unclear. As the gradient steepened, we slowed. Finally we had to take our skis off and struggle forward in our boots. It became more precipitous and we found ourselves kicking footholds in the deep snow and progressing on all fours. Without the heavy sleds yanking us downwards, it wouldn’t have been too bad. As it was, every inch was hard fought. We were essentially on a snow wall. The sleds would slide back if given an inch of slack and so we couldn’t safely stand and rest for fear of being yanked off the wall and quite likely snapping a limb. Legs permanently braced and noses dragging on the snow, we struggled forward.
To compound the situation, the wind had crept up on us and slowly we were enveloped in a howling whiteout. We couldn’t see how much further there was to go and communication was increasingly difficult. I was ahead of Callie and to one side. She yelled up to me: “Don’t you dare fall, Charlie”. Outwardly she was thoughtfully showing concern for my safety but I knew she also self-interestedly didn’t want to be stuck in the mountains with a partner unconscious and/or unable to walk. I didn’t resent this. I had been thinking the same thing.
The angle crept further towards the vertical plane. I was reduced to climbing a couple of yards, stamping out a nest in the snow, hauling my 40kg sled up by hand, and dumping it in the nest so it wouldn’t slide back down. I could then move forward another two yards (as far as my sled lines would allow) and repeat the process. Each couple of yards took several minutes. At the steepest point, I carefully measured the angle with the inclinometer on our compass. It was 60˚.
When the slope mercifully began to relent and we finally managed to get our skis back on, I checked the GPS. In three hours we’d climbed 600m and moved less than a kilometer forwards. Still in a swirling world of white, we reached what seemed to be the pass and, exhausted, pitched the tent. The descent on the other side looked steep and perilous. In the morning we started down into the next valley. Callie fell forward five minutes in and knocked her head on a ski tip. She seemed dazed and distracted but her pupils were behaving normally and she insisted on continuing. Fed up with her sled running ahead and wiping her out, Callie unclipped it and let it go. It shot down, much further than anticipated, and disappeared into the distance.
When we finally found it we checked our coordinates and were devastated to discover this wasn’t the next valley at all. We must have become disoriented. We had dropped back into the same bloody valley! The hellish climb of yesterday had been a complete waste of time for we were now just an hour’s gentle, flat journey from where we’d started the previous morning. Worse still, we’d wasted a day of precious food rations. We found a more gentle pass out of the valley and continued our push southward.
Following a river up another valley, we came upon our first set of bear tracks. Spring must be starting if they were waking from hibernation. I knew that the Urals had Eurasian brown bears but I was unprepared for how big their paw prints would be. These were freshly pressed in soft snow and about 25cm wide. Between the prints, parallel lines were carved where the claws had dragged through the snow between steps. Bigger than grizzlies, males can grow to 2.5m long and weigh half a ton. The owner of the prints had been asleep for six months and would be hungry. He was heading south too and we followed him up over a pass and onwards for 15km.
We started protecting our food at night. We didn’t put it far from our tent as advised in North American bear country because we these bears would be afraid of humans unlike the cocky characters of Alaska and Canada. Besides, if they wanted our food they’d have to fight us for it. We’d be stuffed without it. I dug into the snow beside the tent and created a rudimentary box with the two sleds, running bungee chords tightly around them.
As we made our way over a nondescript pass and back into “Asia” one afternoon, we were wrapped in another windy white out and temperatures far below freezing. The hardy shrubs had a horizontal half inch of rime clinging to their leeward side. Later that day we rejoined our planned route and, no longer lost, finally began to make faster progress. With the worst of the mountains behind us, we shot down a valley and found a clutch of buildings; a small mining operation. Vasya, a chunky slav with a straw-brown moustache, emerged and welcomed us in for tea.
“Where are you going?” he asked in Russian.
“South. To Pripolyarnny,” we stuttered in Russian.
“Through the mountains. On skis.”
“No. You’re late. You’re too late. Don’t go.”
“Winter’s over. Tomorrow will be +10˚C. The snow is melting. The rivers will be deep and fast. It’s dangerous. Some Moscow tourists got in trouble a few years ago. They were rescued by helicopter. One was badly hurt. There is a track out of the mountains from here. It’ll take you to Saranpaul. There’s a hotel and a supermarket and everything you need. Please, go to Saranpaul.”
Callie and I held a quick muttered conclave as follows:
Me: “What do you think?”
Callie: “I don’t know. Local people always play up the danger.”
M: “But what if he’s right? And about the forecast?”
C: “Then we’ll start even earlier in the mornings.”
M: “He seems genuinely concerned for us.”
C: “How often have you disregarded local advice before.”
M: “Pretty much always, I suppose.”
C: “And how often have you got in trouble?”
M: “Fair point. Rarely.”
C: “So, lets go!”
We calmed Vasya by saying we would go to Saranpaul and thanked him for his help. Half a mile down the track we cut into the forest and back towards the mountains. We were semi-nocturnal from that point onwards. Our alarm the next morning was at 1.30am, just as it was getting light. It was uncomfortably cold and we had to move ceaselessly for five hours to keep warm. My beard was quickly thick with ice which didn’t thaw until I crawled into the tent at 2pm, ready for a 5pm bedtime. We joined a river which was still covered in 5 feet of snow and ice. It ran south and a tributary of it continued south when the main river swung westward. On the flat and even surface we were able to remove the skins from our skis for the first time on the expedition and advance quickly with much less effort expended. If the river was frozen all the way we’d be in Pripolyarnyy in excellent time.
Many bears had preceded us down the river and their galumphing tracks ran everywhere. We often camped on top of them and they were crossed by countless smaller tracks: foxes, arctic hares, wolverines, deer. As we continued, dark leads of unfrozen water were opening and then refreezing at night. A phalanx of thickly-treed mountains stood to either side of it. As the thickness of our zimnik (Russian word for winter road) melted thinner, we had to pick our way more carefully, constantly scanning the snow for darker patches which were prone to cracking or giving way. The alarm clock came forward to midnight midnight.
After six days we left the river, and not a moment too soon. It was no longer frozen across and we were weaving through forest on the banks. A sign announced that we were leaving Yugyd Va National Park and informed us that we’d been in a UNESCO world heritage site for the last three weeks. Running past the sign was a gas pipeline and an attendant track that ran the 40km out of the mountains and through the taiga to Pripolyarnyy. We’d reached the end of the Subpolar Urals and the end of our ski traverse. The Urals extended further south but no longer in a continuous, ski-able range. Instead, there was forest with a disconnected north-south string of rocky protrusions poking out of it. Over 1,000km lay between us and where we’d started our journey three months earlier.
The moment was strangely anticlimactic for both of us. Callie, a keen skier, was despondent. The rest of the trip – walking, paddling, cycling – was “too easy” to her mind and the big challenge was done. I had never ski-toured before. The journey had been so different to how I’d imagined. For starters, to my mind we’d hardly skied. I’d walked 1,000km in tortuous boots with heavy planks clipped to my feet that lead me to fall over regularly with comicbook clumsiness. And yet, it had been so much more than I’d dared to imagine before we set off. We’d been through places so remote and untouched that I’d felt an odd ownership over the landscapes. We had usually been the only people for many miles around and it was easy to feel that the place was ours, and ours alone. However, in reality, the mountains and the tundra had been the boss and had very nearly owned me at several points. It had been harder and less enjoyable than I’d expected. But I already know that this would lead to hindsight’s unexplainable turntable logging it in my memory as better and more worthwhile. Rosetinting usually spreads it’s sweet-filtered mantle over my memories in a matter of days.
We skied alongside the track for a while but the snow eventually disappeared and we were forced to walk along the rutted track, dragging our sleds through the cloying mud behind us. Just 6km from Pripolyarnyy, we were approached by an immaculately waxed Landcruiser. Out climbed Alexander, in a smart suit, and a couple of security guards with Gazprom badges on their arms. We back-and-forthed politely for a bit. They were offering us a ride which we graciously declined. They then said they’d take our sleds and leave them for us by the entrance to the village. Off they went and on we walked, feeling spry under our lightened loads. Twenty minutes later they returned with an English teacher in tow.
“You must come with us. This is actually a private road and you’re actually trespassing. We will give you a ride to Pripolyarnyy,” said Marina.
We could hardly refuse. On the drive, they asked us about our onwards plans. We explained we would post out ski gear home and hike south to the road network on tracks through the forest that we’d seen on satellite images. Once on the roads we’d continue to Chelyabinsk.
“But how will you find your way?” asked Marina.
“When we get online in Pripolyarnyy, we’ll plot a route on our GPS using the satellite images.
“But we have no internet. We are a small village. Only 2,000 people.”
We were driven to the only hotel, built and owned by Gazprom who, incidentally, also built the pipeline and the entire village. There were no police. Gazprom was the law. We were told that we were guests of Gazprom and should wash and rest. In the morning someone would visit us to discuss our options.
Konstantin was stern and brusque when he arrived but seemed keen to help us. He was the Gazprom commissar and effectively ran Pripolyarnyy. He showed us various maps and explained that we’d find thigh deep slush in the forest and that the tracks we’d seen on satellite images were only zimnik. When the snow melted they quickly became balota (swamp). In fact, much of Siberia becomes one vast, tree-tangled swamp in summer; a nightmarish mess of mosquitoes and squelchiness.
We were given a day to think things over. Marina took us to the school and showed us around before putting us on a stage and having the older pupils fire questions at us in impressive English. In the evening we asked Konstantin if we could either walk or hitch a lift along the east-west pipeline road until we found a more viable way south. He made a couple of calls up the chain of command but access was denied. He then made another call. When he hung up he turned to us.
“There is Gazprom helicopter flying to Sovietsky tomorrow. That is 150km south. Is on road network. You are welcome. Our guest. No charge. You will go, yes?”
He seemed impatient and probably wanted us off his hands. We felt we had only a few seconds to think about it. We awkwardly mumbled a few words back and forth between us. Naturally, we both recoiled from breaking our continuous line of human-powered travel, even if only for a relatively short stretch. However, we had wandered into a bit of a bind, a swampy cul-de-sac, and this would get us moving without biting deeper into our increasingly tight visa allowances. With gratitude and remorse we accepted and were soon climbing into the back of a large chopper with 18 other passengers. We all sat facing each other on two benches along the walls with a disorderly mound of baggage between. As we were whisked over the taiga, low and fast, we saw the white sky reflected in most gaps between the trees. The balota was already smothering the forest.
Written by Charlie
Inta is among the bleakest and least attractive towns I’ve ever visited. Needing rest and supplies, we hitched a lift to town from the mountains with some rangers from Yugyd Va National Park. Their off-road snow truck had 5ft high wheels. As we jolted through the coal-dusted outskirts of the town, the vista was an unplanned, unloved jumble of crumbling concrete. The dreary-faced buildings and snow-banked roads were threaded through with a complicated tangle of rusting water pipes; once a jaunty yellow, now flaking tubes of rust red. In the Russian north, all pipes run above ground for ease of access when they inevitably crack in the unspeakable cold of winter. The winter, however, seemed to be drawing in. Compared to the mountains, Inta was balmy. Much of the snow on the roads had melted to reveal a hopscotch of potholes.
We walked through the centre, stumbling under the weight of our bags, looking for an affordable guesthouse. The town square sports an aged, silver Lenin atop a red plinth. Right hand tucked casually in cloak pocket and left clasping an unidentifiable object, presumably of some great revolutionary significance; an industrial tool, perhaps, or a list of agitators that could do with dying. The statue strides ardently towards his vision of a fairer Russia. Nearby, a rotting row of derelict wooden houses harks back to the origins of Inta. A few years after Lenin’s death, his walrus-faced successor needed coal to fuel the new, industrial Russia rising from the flames of revolution. He began exploiting the far north.
Inta’s first inhabitants arrived by foot after a long journey first by sea, then by riverboat, and finally by foot. They carved clearings into the forest and used the felled trees to build shelter. They then built a railroad connecting Inta to the rest of Russia. They didn’t build a road. There still isn’t one. Then they started mining. The coal mines were hellish in summer. Dark, dangerous and sweltering. In winter they were equally hellish, but warm in comparison to the fierce conditions on the surface. Inta lies on the Arctic circle. Minus gifty degrees Celsius is not unknown. These industrious settlers weren’t exactly there by choice. They worked at gunpoint. They were a ragtag assortment of criminals and political prisoners; one small speck in the sprawling Gulag archipelago that reached from the Finnish border to the Pacific coast. Inta was a place peopled by prisoners and guards, a place people wanted to get away from.
Despite the Gulag closing in the 1950s, little has changed if I’m brutally honest. The town has 30,000 people: gruff men working the mines and unsmiling women working everywhere else. Children seemed in short supply. The inhabitants talk of the cities they’d rather live in and the cherished few times they’ve visited other parts of Russia.
As with all remote Russian cities, tourists are exceedingly rare in Inta. The authorities aren’t used to dealing with foreigners. The prevailing attitude is one of suspicion – a hangover from the Soviet era when the war of ideology was still being waged. Why the hell have they come here? Why on earth would they want to? We all want to leave. What are they after? There must be something they’re not telling us. Are they spies?
The police first came to visit us in our guesthouse. Three of them. They closely scrutinised and photocopied every single page of our passports. What they might want with Congolese visas and Indian exit stamps, I’ve no idea. We later received a message that we should report to the police station as they wanted to copy our passports again. When we arrived, we found Olga, the impressively cold head of police. There was also Yelena, an English teacher, called in for translation. She was friendly and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to practice her language skills.
Through Yelena we answered Olga’s endless questions about where we’d been in Russia, the exact dates we’d been there and how we got from there to the next place. This took an hour or so. She then became interested in our visas. The longest available Russian tourist visa is only 30 days. Therefore, we had obtained business visas for our visit. This is standard practice for travel in Russia. Olga wanted to know why we had business visas. We gave our pre-agreed story of scouting out a route for a potential commercial ski expedition for the respective (imaginary) tour operators we worked for. Olga’s questions became more and more obsessed with minute detail and she was tapping away at a document on her keyboard. She finally printed and placed it before us with a pen.
“Just sign here,” said Yelena while Olga thrust a painted fingernail at the bottom of the sheet.
“What is this document?” I asked.
“Just a declaration.”
“But what does it declare?”
“That you have broken the law and will be attending your court hearing tomorrow.”
“I beg your pardon! What law have we broken?”
“It says here: law 114-F3, created on 15th August 1996. ‘Travelling for purposes other than that stated on your visa.’ You came to Russia for commercial purposes but have been committing tourism.” The law was clearly to prevent people carrying out business while on a tourist visa, not vice versa.
“And what will happen if we are found guilty?
Yelena asked Olga who replied swiftly and simply. The translation came back: “a fine or deportation.” We were made to sign but scribbled in English on the document that we denied the charges.
We reported to the police station at 8.40 the following morning. With nothing but a nod, Olga led us for five minutes to the court. Her high heels wobbled unsteadily on the slush-covered pavement. We had the right to a lawyer but decided there was no point. Why complicate things further. Plead innocence and politely point out the absurdity of the charge was our loose plan. We were trying to see the funning side of the whole farcical situation. Outwardly, we felt fairly confident that it was less serious than it seemed. On the one hand, “committing tourism” isn’t exactly theft or murder. They wouldn’t really deport us would they? But, on the other hand, the very existence of Inta was a testament to the Russian justice system’s lackadaisical relationship with the concept of justice. Privately, we both worried that they might deport us. That would be curtains for the expedition.
Yelena arrived while we waited on a bench in a pastel green corridor. Olga sat apart, thumbing through Instagram on her phone. We were ushered into the court. A 10x10m room with a dock at its centre, a long desk to the right with several microphones, and a judge’s bench stood before three high-backed office chairs. The Russian coat of arms (a two-headed eagle holding a scepter and orb) adorned the wall alongside a droopy Russian flag. In the windowsill was bare brickwork with lazily splotched clumps of cement. It was sunny outside and the windows were closed. The room’s warmth was reflected by the sleepiness of the stenographer sitting behind her computer.
When the black-robed judge swept in, we resentfully stood and bowed as we’d been instructed. I was tried first. The case was gone over. The same questions were asked. Through Yelena, I stated our innocence. I explained that it was necessary for us to run this recce prior to sending commercial tour groups. We needed to ascertain if the Komi Republic (the region of Russia we were in) was ready for tourism, and if it would provide a welcoming, hassle-free environment for foreign visitors. Olga and the judge, a woman in her 40s, looked at each other and snorted when that was translated. A witness was called. To our surprise, in shuffled Yura, one of the park rangers who’d driven us to Inta. He confirmed that he had indeed seen the accused in Yugyd-Va National Park on the dates specified. He was then excused. His presence was a pointless pretense of legitimacy for the trial.
After forty minutes of these proceedings, the judge withdrew for deliberation. Olga returned to Instagram and Yelena chatted to us politely. After an hour the judge returned and pronounced the accused guilty. The verdict: I should pay a fine of 2,500 rubles (about £35). I was asked if I wanted to appeal. With both relief and irritation, I accepted the penalty and signed the papers. Then it was Callie’s turn. The court was just embarking on the same lengthy series of questions that I’d faced when Callie broke in and said her circumstances were the same and that she’d accept the same penalty. Thirty minutes later, we had paid up and were free to continue our illicit journey. The light fine seemed to be a convenience merely to avoid having to find us innocent. What had been achieved seemed little more than Olga and the judiciary saving face for wasting everybody’s time.
We gladly left Inta the following morning and returned to the harsh simplicity of the mountains.
Written by Callie
Ski. Pitch Tent. Cook. Sleep. Ski. Pitch Tent. Cook. Sleep. Ski.Ski.Ski. Curse the icy, sastrugi-covered terrain and the bulky, unfriendly sled that keeps nipping at your heels on any slight downhill. Navigate solely by compass bearing because the landscape is featureless and obscured by blowing snow. Argue over which line to take. Savor three decadent mouthfuls of the most delicious Snickers bar imaginable. Crave snacks. Crave snacks. Fantasize about the all the different meals you’ll make your friends when you’re home and can get whatever you want at a supermarket. A supermarket! Get lost in thoughts of consumerism, capitalism…. Ski. Ski. Pitch Tent. Cook. Sleep. Whew! That was an easy blog to write.
In all seriousness, the greatest struggle of a long traverse is the monotony, but it’s also the monotony that makes it beautiful. Every day, we wake up, shudder as we pull still-wet boot liners out of our sleeping bags (where we placed them, shuddering, the night before so they won’t freeze overnight) and force our boots onto aching, blistered feet. We pack up camp, load our sleds, scrape the ice off our skis, click into our bindings, and swosh, swosh forward. We stop for food breaks, pee breaks, map/compass/GPS breaks… and that’s it. Otherwise, we ski. We ski, and we get lost in our thoughts, which to me, is the beauty. There is a profound novelty in the life which has time, which has ample moments for reflection, and nothing more. I have time, so much time – to think, and I believe this period of daily, all-day meditation, is such an important reset for my brain and my well-being. These periods of solitude with my thoughts, on such a grand, empty landscape, are beautiful because I literally can do nothing but think.
On this leg, we skied 310 kilometers through the mountains, from Kharp to a “mystery village” that we located on Google Earth. On the previous leg, we had skied across tundra, and then briefly crossed the mountains and headed back into the lowlands in order to maintain the straightest possible line to Kharp. This had been a mistake. The lowlands are forested valleys with thawing rivers which make navigation maddening to impossible. This time, we wanted to stay in the mountains, above treeline and away from spring conditions. Unfortunately, Inta, which was the next re-supply town, is about 80 kilometers away from the mountains. Desperate to avoid this slog through annoying terrain, we pored over Google Earth looking for signs of settlements closer to the mountains. And we found Mystery Village. On the computer, Charlie followed all the various dirt tracks leaving Inta, until one led to a collection of buildings and tracks in the mountains, 80 kilometers south of Inta. The problem, of course, is that we had no idea if people actually lived at Mystery Village, or if they would be there in the winter; and there was no way to find out. We decided to take the gamble and head to the village, with a back-up four days of food in case the village was uninhabited and we had to walk or ski the road back to Inta in order to re-supply.
Plans made, we headed out, into very bad weather. Over a total of 21 days, we had 3 days of sunshine, and I think one was a half day. The wind is incessant and maddening, reminding Charlie and I both of days cycling across deserts, when the relentless wind steals all joy and no peaceful moments are possible. Though the weather is beginning to warm, the wind keeps everything brisk. Our faces remain covered, and most days it is too cold to take a real lunch break. We face away from the wind, taking gloves off just long enough to unwrap a sandwich. On the really stormy days, we wordlessly eat our lunches, without even taking our backpacks off, comment that we should get going because it’s getting cold, and start off again after a ten-minute lunch break.
On our first week, it snowed almost every day. It doesn’t seem to snow much in the Urals, we haven’t had to dig our tent out during the night, but it does snow often. It snowed about a foot and half over that week, which was very lovely, but we had a few days of breaking trail through deep snow, which happened to coincide with some big climbs, and that was hard. Charlie looked back on one particularly steep, deep climb and commented, exhausted, that he had just plowed a trench through the Urals.
Our sleds were also really heavy that first week, loaded down with 28 days worth of food and fuel, plus all our other gear. We had some pretty steep climbs to make it over, and it was a struggle to pull the sled uphill if we found ourselves on a slippery snowpack. One particular occasion, Charlie was leading, and led us up a steep, rocky slope where it was hard to gain purchase on our skis. I watched him struggle in front of me, but finally make it to the top. I was slipping and slipping, trying with all my might to gain six inches, then another six. Finally, I took my skis off; I felt absolutely worked, maybe close to tears, or curses. The sled hangs like a deadweight, and sometimes it feels absolutely impossible to budge. Charlie came scrambling down the hill; he had left his skis and sled at the top. “I’m fine!”, I yelled, stubbornly. “I chose the line, and it’s a bad one, just let me help you”. I wordlessly allowed him to unclip my sled, throw the line over his shoulders, and scramble on all fours up the slope. Beast mode. Without the weight of my sled, it was easy to follow him to the top.
That day just got worse; the weather set in and we found ourselves in a whiteout on top of a ridge, more or less fumbling through poor visibility, to get down to the other side. On the next climb, again, Charlie made it up, leaving me behind, again unable to gain purchase with my sled weighing me down. The whiteout set in, and Charlie disappeared. Charlie has this habit of going straight up things, which is great, because he can. I tend to think switch-backing side to side, making the incline less steep, is the best way up a hill. In this situation, I had no choice. I simply couldn’t make it up the steep part, and had to traverse out, making the slope angle manageable. On top, Charlie didn’t know which way I had gone, and had to scramble around a rocky ridge to find me again. We yelled some things back and forth through the howling wind, tempers flaring a bit.
We finally made it to the other side of the ridge, and faced a long downhill. Now, skiing downhill while dragging a sled, with your feet in walk mode (only toes clipped to skis), is not necessarily pure fun. It’s hard work. And this day, this absolute flat light, and our state of exhaustion, made the hill somewhat intimidating. But we navigated down through the deep powder and decided to camp right at the bottom. That was the first day of horrible conditions, and there were many more to come.
About a week later, we found ourselves facing wind of an estimated 50 mph, with gusts that were stronger. We were picking our way down a rocky, icy, windblown hill, slipping and just mentally exhausted by the continuously precarious footing. I skied up next to Charlie, and we yelled back and forth about the conditions. They were bad, getting worse quickly, and at this point, pitching the tent was sure to be a struggle. We decided to ski on, feeling like just moving to stay warm was the best option. A while later, a gust knocked me over, so hard that it knocked my head against the snow. It caught me so off guard, and felt so forceful. After that, we decided to camp. We skied around for a while longer, trying to determine where the ground might be flat. In winds like these, pitching the tent is a process, and it’s impossible to get all our gear inside without a load of snow.
That night, we were pleased with ourselves. The wind had calmed a bit, and we had pitched the tent securely and quickly, even in the ferocious wind. Then came morning. By this time, we were accustomed to traveling in almost any weather conditions. Every day was windy; every day seemed like it should be a stay-in-the-tent rest day. I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but only slightly. For several days before this one, I had lain back in my sleeping bag after breakfast, feeling so unmotivated to re-enter the howling inhospitable outdoors. Charlie had tried to motivate, “Come on, you’re making me feel like a slave driver. You know we have to go”. I knew, and after putting it off as long as possible, I’d unzip my sleeping bag. But this day, we knew the instant we woke up that we wouldn’t be leaving the tent.
About an hour before our alarm, we awoke to the tent pressing down over our heads and shoulders, forced by the wind. We wondered whether a guide line had come loose, or a deadman unburied. Charlie had gone out the last time, in the middle of the night, when a stake needed re-burying. I put on my Gore-tex and my overboots, pulled my buff over my face, and slid underneath the vestibule door. The wind hit me like wall. It was hard to stand up, and tightening windward guide lines was out of the question. I fumbled back into the tent, dragging in loads of snow. I sat there, breathing hard, feeling cold and irrationally upset by the snow I had just scattered all over my sleeping pad and bag. (It’s easy to get pre-occupied by snow in the tent – it’s always there, you just have to ignore it. It usually just find its way under our sleeping mats and doesn’t really matter.) “Everything seems secure. The wind is just really strong”, I reported back. It was too windy to cook, as we cook in the vestibules and they were both filling quickly with blowing snow. We huddled in our sleeping bags, occasionally shouting at each other over the wind. We tried to read, until the tent just seemed so ridiculously distorted by wind that we began to wonder again whether something was wrong.
Charlie went outside to check, and a few minutes later, he shoved various bits of a tent pole back in through the zippers. Crap. A pole had broken ,and when it snapped, it had even snapped the elastic cord that holds the pieces of the pole together. We were lucky that none of the pieces had been lost in the wind. Also, the broken pole had ripped an 8-inch gash in the rain fly that covers the top of the tent.
This is when the hard part started. We weren’t sure what the best course of action was. The wind was STRONG. At some point, Charlie commented that it seemed like hurricane-strength wind! We didn’t think that we could take the tent down and re-pitch it with the repaired pole without further damaging the tent or the other poles. But we worried that the weakened tent, down a pole, would not be able to withstand the storm. We worried that the storm might last days, and we couldn’t cook, it was really difficult to pee, and the tent space was getting smaller and smaller as snow packed in around it. By this point, the tent was folded nearly in half, with us huddled in the middle. We decided to flip around, putting our heads away from the wind, and laying with our knees up, trying to brace the remaining poles.
We laid like this for about nine hours, every so often yelling at each other, “You ok?”, “Yeah, you ok?” “Yeah”, “Do you still have your knees under the poles?” “Yeah, do you?” “Yeah”. Then silence again as we drifted in and out of sleep, our bodies going numb in various places as we were essentially unable to move. The wind would tease us, backing off for just long enough to begin hoping – please, please, please, be over! I wondered what we would do if the tent were shredded. It was so cold with the wind chill that we’d have to just keep moving. We were about 100 kilometers from Mystery Village at this point – we could get there in 3 days and nights if we had to, not stopping to sleep unless the weather got nice and we could bivy outside.
Around 3am we awoke to a fluttering stillness, and realized the pressure on our knees had subsided. Gratefully, we agreed that we could stop bracing the poles with our knees, and rolled onto our sides so we could get a few hours of sleep before morning. The weather remained relatively calm in the morning; we were able to repair the pole and devour a much-anticipated breakfast and coffee.
But by that afternoon, the skies were up to their old tricks. The wind returned in force just as we were attempting to climb a slick hillside. The wind-scoured icy surface was just too much for our skins, and we took off our skis, bootpacking to the top. We kept our skis off for the next hill as well, which found us fighting through a raging headwind and navigating our sleds around piles of black, snaggy rocks. Again, the weather was becoming unmanageable, but we had no place to stop until we got down the hill. Still walking, we let our sleds hang down in front of us, as if walking them on a leash. I briefly thought of getting out my crampons, but they were buried in my duffel, and in the wind, it just seemed too difficult and cold a task. Also, this slippery slope seemed like a moderate probability, low risk scenario. A slip seemed possible or likely, but there was nothing precipitous to fall off of, and it wasn’t too steep. Sure enough, I lost my footing, and my sled gained enough momentum in front of me that it was carrying me quickly down the hill. I had nothing with which to arrest my slide. I tried flipping over and digging my toes into the slope, to no avail. I yelled to Charlie, below me, “Look out! I’m coming right at you and I can’t stop!” Of course, he couldn’t hear me over the wind, but luckily, my sled was stopped on a rocky patch and I came to a stop as well. It wasn’t the scariest of falls, but enough to get my heart pumping and make us re-evaluate our travel plans for the day.
Just as I was feeling that we absolutely had to get out of this wind, Charlie spotted a giant boulder. We skied over, into the leeward side, and felt immediate relief. No wind! I giggled and hugged Charlie, “Yes! Best camping spot ever!” We were able to dig out a flat platform and pitch our tent in the security of the boulder. If you wandered over to the edge of the boulder, the force with which the wind hit you as you peeked out from the shelter of the rock was incredible.
The weather mostly continued to be windy and overcast, manageable but unpleasant. As we got closer to Mystery Village, the likelihood of people being there became our main topic of conversation. We had enough food to reach Inta if Mystery Village was uninhabited, but, as the days progressed and we got hungrier and hungrier, the prospect of eating all of our extra rations got increasingly enticing, especially for Charlie. I was mostly ok with the amount of food we ate each day, but Charlie seemed to be getting hungrier by the minute.
Finally, the morning dawned when we were 24 kilometers away from Mystery Village. That afternoon we ate our last snacks, and hoped we would be greeted in the evening with a hot cup of tea. But the day seemed full of obstacles. After complicated navigation that included lean ice bridges, rocky bluffs, disorienting forests and rotten snow over vegetation that was energy-sapping to travel through, we saw buildings. And then. “I see a light!” Charlie exclaimed. Our gamble had paid off. However, it turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing.
We were greeted by an enthusiastic and very drunk man, Philip. He seemed to be the lone caretaker, with only his vodka bottle and dog for company. We were ushered into his dirty, dimly lit employee quarters, where he sat us at a table on which sat pots of boiled potatoes, smoked reindeer, grilled chicken and sliced bread. It seemed a feast. It’s hard to accurately describe just how grateful you are for a warm fire, a dry room and the ability to walk around without your ski boots on. I was exhausted, happy, relieved. We quickly downed at least three cups of heavily sugared tea, trying not to look too greedy as we picked at bread, meat, potatoes. As if food wasn’t enough, Philip had a banya (a rustic, wood-fired sauna) going. We stripped off weeks’ old clothes, and poured hot and cold water over ourselves, luxuriating in the feeling of clean.
And now, the reason it was a mixed blessing: Philip was a character. He was very drunk when we arrived, and kept drinking throughout the evening. He woke the next day around 3 am, which is when the sun comes up, and immediately poured himself vodka with his unfinished tea. The thing is, he didn’t get it, or didn’t care, that we couldn’t understand his slurred, fast Russian. He kept talking at us, and talking at us. If we were talking to each other, he would interrupt. If we were trying to read a book, he would interrupt. We felt bad, for one, because he was obviously a half-crazed, lonely alcoholic, but also because he had shown us hospitality and yet, we were annoyed with him. When you are exhausted, it is really hard to care about someone else’s neediness. I resorted to ignoring him, and poor Charlie, having more Russian, being a man and also more polite, got the brunt of it. Philip was constantly practically yelling at him, appearing frustrated when he didn’t understand, and repeating some Russian phrase that seemed to be a swear word. It got to the point where it felt like he was swearing at us, and it was uncomfortable, when we desperately just wanted to rest.
Luckily, three park rangers and a driver showed up that afternoon, and we learned that they would give us a ride into Inta the following morning. With huge relief, we sat down to a bountiful feast packed by their wives. Other than an over-enthusiastically stoked fire which caused us to sweat all night, it was all downhill from there.
Written by Charlie
One aspect of team expeditions all too easily glossed over is the necessity to function as a unit, not as individuals; to share absolutely everything. Beyond clothing, there is little space for personal belongings when kit must be bodily dragged on sleds weighed down by up to a month’s supply of food. And herein is the first thing that must be shared: the food and equipment we haul. Callie’s duffel bag being slightly smaller than mine, and better able to fit in the tent porch, she carries the stove, stove repair kit, first aid kit, and food bags that are used everyday. My (larger) duffel stays outside at night, prevents the sleds blowing away, and contains spare kit, maps not yet in use, electronics, and food not immediately required.
The tent is the most important thing we share. It’s our home and our sanctuary. Without it we would have succumbed to the elements long ago. When visibility plummets on treacherous slopes, or cruel winds lick across the mountainscape, knocking us over, we know that once we’ve muddled the tent up and tethered it firmly to ski poles and fuel bottles buried in the snow, we will be safe.
We’ve developed a slick routine at pitching the tent and set about it each evening, quickly and without speaking. It is the last task before we can sit/lie down after as much as twelve hours on our feet. If there is no reliable snow crust, we fetch shovels from our backpacks and dig until we find firmer snow pack. Shovelling out a foot or two of crumbly snow from an area equal to the tent’s footprint creates great mounds of snow and, from a few yards away, the tent appears all but buried.
We share cooking, alternately taking an evening and the following morning’s duties. This means that, once inside the tent, the cook must fire the stove and melt snow into water for drinking the following day as well as cooking with that evening. (Meals rotate between the following: tuna, macaroni and cheese sauce; instant noodles and hotdogs; instant mashed potato and hotdogs; tinned plov; couscous and baked beans.) The other team member enjoys their evening off cooking duties by reading, inspecting and attending to their feet, or simply lying back and luxuriating in the novelty of doing nothing while nursing a cup of hot chocolate - the first thing the cook prepares.
We seldom talk while dinner is prepared. Sitting up, side by side in our sleeping bags, we eat from a single cooking pot, taking it in turns to scoop a teaspoonful. So hungry have we been throughout the day, and so pre-occupied are we with the food before us, that we usually speak little while eating. The finger-cleaned pot is put back in the porch, ready for breakfast. We then lie back in a tent made poky by voluminous winter sleeping bags, and made ripe by weeks-unwashed clothes and feet.
We have gone up to a month without meeting another person and in the tent we spend 12-16 hours a day in the closest possible proximity. Constant exhaustion is another thing we share. Arguments are inevitable and, with hindsight, usually absurd; merely an outlet for fatigue or frazzled nerves after a precarious day’s journey. Space in the tent has occasionally been a bone of contention. Callie prefers to huddle for warmth, wormlike in our respective sleeping bags, and I prefer not to so we don’t wake each other when rolling over. However, space is tight and there is little choice in the matter. As Spring approaches and the temperatures creep up towards freezing, spending the night with a sleeping bag touching the tent wall means waking with it wet and therefore less warm the following night.
Back to the evening routine: while supplies last, we enjoy a cube or two of chocolate after dinner and this is the time we speak most. Daytime conversation consists mostly of practical, navigational matters and (increasingly often as weight is lost and hunger grows) food fantasies. After dinner we are more likely to talk of what lies ahead, of life, of home, of family or of friends. It is easier to be reflective, measured and abstractly-thoughtful with a hot meal in one’s belly. After almost three months solely in one another’s company, silences are not uncomfortable. We are happy to be talkative at times, and peacefully pensive at times. If we have the energy after dinner, we might read aloud to each other for a while.
Before sleeping there is one last chore. We sit up and brush teeth. Callie opens the door to the porch and spits onto the snow. I simply swallow the toothpaste froth. We both suck our toothbrushes clean and place them (and the shared tube of toothpaste) back in the shared washbag that has been dubbed “Seaweed”.
Going to the loo before sleeping is done inside to save making the journey out and dragging snow inside. Naturally we both want to use the shared ‘pee bottle’ first but there’s no argument over it. I can simply unzip my sleeping bag half way and roll onto my side so as to face away from Callie. Things are less easy for Callie. I remain rolled away while she employs a funnel and performs an awkward balancing act. The bottled is emptied into a hole in the snow and then placed by our heads incase of need in the night. After head torches are switched off, sleep comes quickly.
The first alarm sounds at 5am from the wristwatch inside Callie’s hat. The word “alarm” is grumbled and, at some point between then and the the second alarm seven minutes later, the cook sits up to prepare coffee and porridge with powdered milk. After breakfast, the tent comes down with the same slick cooperation that put it up.
We have slightly differing approaches to navigation and pathfinding. Callie wisely prefers, when possible, to angle around slopes, avoiding unnecessary climbing. I bullishly prefer the straightest possible line, travelling up and over rather than around. We take two hour turns to lead and ‘break trail’ through the virgin snow, one hour if the going is particularly tough. After any consultation, the leader has final say on route. We both have occasional rough days where we feel particularly tired or feet/shoulder/hip pains flare up. On these days, the other usually recognises the struggle in their teammate and picks up the slack, taking longer stints at the front or trying to boost morale. Seeing the temporary weakness in another tends to instill a temporary strength in oneself. Thankfully we rarely have days when we both feel unusually stretched.
When we reach civilisation, the sharing doesn’t stop there. We share a wallet (in reality, a ziplock bag) and its contents, we share hotel rooms, we share laundry loads, and we continue to share meals.
All this sharing and time spent in each other’s pockets has proceeded relatively smoothly. It may not sound so incredibly challenging for two friends setting off on an expedition together. However, this seems a good time to relate just how little Callie and I actually knew each other before embarking on this journey. We met in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in late 2012 while each on bicycle journeys across Asia. Callie and her travelling partner Richard had just come from Afghanistan and I was shortly to go there. We both camped under a fecund walnut tree in the courtyard of a hostel for a few nights. Being another Brit, with a similar sense of humour, I spent more time talking to Richard than Callie but the stories of her various exploits in Antarctica and South America stuck with me.
Over the next few years there was the odd facebook message and a one day catch up in London. It must have seemed quite out of the blue, one year ago, when I asked Callie if she wanted to undertake this challenge with me. We spoke on Skype, mostly logistics, every three or four weeks while planning Following The Line. She arrived in London two weeks before departure. It is only since then that we have truly become acquainted in person rather than as correspondents. We haven’t killed each other yet. Watch this space…