Written by Charlie
The tank was noisy. Soviet-era tanks certainly weren’t built for stealth. We clambered down through a porthole into the cabin on a clear fresh morning of around -15˚C and sat, sweltering, next to the clanking, groaning engine for the next eight hours. Slava’s headless body groped expertly at the levers next to us, steering us across the tundra. His exposed face braved the increasingly inclement elements outside the hatch. Our driver owned the convoy of four tanks that we’d hitched a ride north on and he makes regular journeys to Ust-Kara: a small Nenets (indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic) settlement to trade in fish and reindeer. We’d been introduced to him by Nadia and a different Slava, friends we’d made in Vorkuta, who affectionately termed him a “brutal Russian man”. He was thickset, scarred, crop-haired and looked like Tom Hardy’s wayward twin. He was also very kind.
We lacked the necessary documents (which would require money, a six-month wait, and a return journey almost to the border of Finland) to visit Ust-Kara which is in a restricted military “zona”. So, Slava agreed to drop us somewhere shortly before arriving there. We didn’t know where but trusted him. It was after dark when the convoy stopped at what seemed to be a restaurant at the end of the world. We were somewhere on the tundra, apparently on the banks of the frozen river Kara. There was a single building with a dog, a kitchen, a dining table and a little dormitory upstairs. There was a windswept snowman by the door holding a fishing rod and a bottle of vodka. A wooden pistol hung from his belt. We all bundled inside for bowls of borsht, smoked fish, sweet cherry blinis and shots of vodka. One man pointed out that tomorrow was international women’s day and so we (nine men and Callie) toasted the women of the world. Slava said we should sleep upstairs, covered our dinner, shook our hands warmly, said shastlieva (good luck) and exited with his team. We shared the dormitory with one very drunk man in a bold Christmas jumper. He fell loudly out of bed in the night.
In the morning we loaded our sleds, heaved on our backpacks, clipped into our ski bindings and finally put one foot in front of the other. We moved slowly. Our bags contained rations for twenty-eight days and our legs contained lethargy from a week’s inactivity. My blisters from our ‘trial run’ had healed a great deal and the sadistic ski boots were rendered just about workable with a collection of innersoles, blister patches and zinc tape covering half my feet.
It wasn’t a sunny day but it was clear enough and we could see several kilometres. Our navigation was simple. The GPS gave us the compass bearing to a point, roughly a hundred miles away, at which we’d leave the tundra and follow a valley up into the Ural Mountains. We looked at our compasses, picked a feature in the far distance that lay on the correct bearing, and headed straight for it. The light began to fade at around 3pm, so we threw up our tent and crawled in. When we looked at the GPS it said that we were 10km closer to that valley. Only 10km. Shit! We’d calculated our rations on an average of 15km each day. Well, we thought, no need to worry. We’ll get faster and stronger and our routine will grow slicker. And we’ll start earlier. We stopped fretting and went to sleep.
When the alarm sounded ten hours later we were both already awake. The tent was flexing and flapping and fluttering in a strong wind, and had been for hours. We had to speak loudly to hear one another while spooning porridge and prunes (gotta keep oneself regular, you know) into our mouths. We peeked outside and saw only white. It was hard to tell if it was snowing (unlikely at the temperature of -15˚C) or if it was simply “blowing snow”. If we set off, the fierce wind would be largely at our sides and slightly in front of us. The real problem was that visibility was around ten yards and so navigation would be tricky with no distant features to aim for. We decided to wait and see if it calmed. Our dilemma was that we didn’t know if this was an exceptional “storm day” that we were justified in sitting out, or if this might be the norm for the area.
By midday it had only grown worse so we decided to stay put. Callie wryly noted that our daily average was now three miles. The following morning conditions were exactly the same so we layered up, wrestled the tent down and into its stuff sack, and set off into the blizzard. The going was even slower. We took turns to follow one another. The leader would have to halt every hundred yards or so, fumble their compass out with mittens and correct their direction. There was zero definition and it was often hard to tell if we were on an incline or not. On a few occasions we thought we were about to lunge down a steep embankment, twenty yards or so tall, only to find that it was a gently slope dropping only a few feet. Lunch (a frozen sandwich each, semi-thawed in breast pockets during the morning) was taken standing side by side, back to the wind, in the course of five or so minutes. Standing still any longer stole sensation from extremities which was hard to win back. After six hours of this, we pitched our home again and fired up the GPS. The bearing of the turning into the mountains had changed a few degrees so we’d evidently veered off course. As the crow flies, we were only another 10km closer. We knew we had to up our game and set the alarm 30 minutes earlier for the following morning.
Over the next week the conditions were consistent each day and only marginally better than those two storm days. We forgot what shade of blue the sky is and largely spent our waking hours bent forward, trudging painfully slowly across the tundra. However, our daily distances improved: 15km, 17km, 19km, 16km, 20km…
The leader would spend their two-hour stint up front squinting into the howling purgatory of whiteness, trying to fix upon and not loose sight of scraps of shrubbery poking through the snow on the correct compass bearing. The other would enjoy falling into a trance, staring at the hind of the leader’s sled a few yards ahead. Despite our best efforts with navigating, we found that somehow we were veering a little right (West) of our bearing every day. Embarrassed at such a novice’s error, we eventually realised that our GPS was set to “true North” and our compasses, naturally, worked off “magnetic North”. These two systems vary by roughly 30˚ at seventy degrees of latitude.
One day we were chanced upon by a passing snowmobile. The odds of this seemed absurdly slim in such a remote and uninhabited place. The riders were two young Nenets men, dressed all in reindeer skins, and a scrappy-looking dog. We chatted briefly before they roared off. Nenets clans exist on both sides of the Urals but are divided into two categories known as the ‘European Nenets’ on the western side and the ‘Asian Nenets’ on the eastern side. To my eye these men looked unarguably “Asiatic” with facial features akin to Mongolians or Tibetans. Dividing their tribe into ‘European’ and ‘Asian’ subcategories is clearly just for convenience but seemed absurd and was the first time on our expedition that we saw the arbitrary nature of a Euro-Asia border so neatly illustrated.
After a week we spotted an unusual silhouette in the distance and, as it wasn’t far off our line of travel, we detoured towards it. When we got close it turned out to be a Gazprom (Russia’s largest petrochemical company) installation with rows of mobile homes and massed ranks of hydraulic diggers. There were only a couple of men there, acting as winter guardians, but Nicolai and Alexei welcomed us into their cramped trailer home for the night. The temperature was stifling inside (as in all Russian homes) and, after we’d washed and put our dirty clothes back on, we each watched our battered feet swell and start to throb. They were evidently acclimatised to the cold now. Nicolai jovially roasted a chicken and some potatoes which we tore through with impolite excitement. With various items of kit hung to dry, we then crawled onto the bunks above our hosts and passed out while a scavenging Arctic fox picked through the discarded chicken bones outside.
When we finally reached the valley and turned into mountains we were enjoying our second day of sunshine (out of twelve days). We’d been hugging the range’s western flank for a few days but entering their seldom explored valleys was a landmark moment for us. Over the following few of days we climbed up and over our first pass and crossed a small plateau before tracing another valley down towards the eastern side of the mountains. At some point on that plateau we technically crossed from Europe to Asia. There was no line or sign or fence, just snow and ice and rock, and not a trace of human civilisation. The only thing that had changed was that, unbeknownst to us, our watches were now two hours behind. And we were now in Siberia.
The valley led us down to an abandoned mining town on a still-functioning railway. Hulking, rotting metal structures leaned crookedly in the snow. The molybdenum (a metal with an unusually high melting point) mine had dried up and the people left. Things are always abandoned rather than removed in remote Russia. That night we were invited in by a young man and his family who were staying in their dacha beside the railway for a long weekend. Vadim, Natasha and their young children fired up the banya (sauna) for us where we scraped ourselves clean, sluiced the dead skin off with cold water, and once again donned our dirty clothes for the last two days to Kharp: our first resupply point. Our shy but charming hosts spoke halting English which they learnt together with audio lessons. They were also skiers and friends of Nadia and Slava in Vorkuta.
We skied along a frozen river surface towards the village in clear sunshine. The weather had been generally much kinder since entering the mountains. Kharp perches on the eastern hip of the Urals. We were finally below the tree line and so now on the ‘taiga’ rather than the tundra. As we approached the first buildings, we saw a snowmobile track running up a bank toward them. We followed it and were soon at the corner of a large razorwired compound with several armed, sour-faced guards striding towards us wearing fur hats and leading mean-looking Alsatians. Kharp was originally built as a gulag prison for forced labour during the Soviet-era. Most of these sites had closed down but this one is still an active prison. We smiled nervously at the guards and found our way around the compound to Kharp’s only hotel for a weekend of rest.
Tomorrow we embark on the next section of our adventure which will take us out of the Arctic Circle and southward through the mountains for 3-4 weeks.