In Nevelsk on the west coast, I rested up in an old, brick hotel for a few days to treat my toe and readjust my gear. Footsteps and chatter and snapping of locks echoing through the corridors like an old prison. From my fifth-level room I looked out over the marina at rusted hulks entombed in sea ice. The weather had deteriorated into blustering northerlies and heavy snowfall.
The staff treated me like family. I was invited to eat at the cafe each day but they never accept payment for my meals. I joined celebrations for the ‘old Russian new year’, which developed into a vodka intoxicated haze. There was genuine concern for my winter travel plans but all I can do is assert that I’m prepared and I know what I’m doing, sort of.
My friends from Nevelsk welcomed me with beer and delicious smoked fish.
‘Mad!’ ‘Crazy!’ I’ve heard it so many times it sounds like a skipping record. Of course no one really believes it. What they mean by ‘crazy’ are young women getting around in stockings and stilettos in a Siberian climate; at least I’m dressed appropriately. But that’s not crazy either. Real institutional madness manifests in barking fits, tethered to snapping chains at every house and hovel. There’s no sadder sight than an animal gone berserk with chain-rage.
The poor conditions continued unabated but I had to push on. I had one final meal at the cafe, zipped up and cycled into the headwind and snowfall, this time with an abundance of energy. The road follows the undulating coastline, passing tiny timber villages. Small packs of ice-flow collecting in coves and inlets. I rolled past Semi-derelict shacks half submerged in snow, that would be lifeless if not for yapping dogs. Every now and then a stubbly old man surrounded by mangy animals appeared from a cave-like hovel looking vacant and spooked, like he hadn’t had a conversation in 50 years.
Nearer Kholmsk the road passes through a series of small villages, the air heavily contaminated from smokestacks belching opaque billows of nauseating pollution. I was cold. My neck and checks numb and tingling from the snow driving through the gaps in my headwear but the discomfort of the air quality forced me to swap my face shield for my pollution mask. Once through the worst of it, I picked a vacant area a few hundred metres between dwellings and performed my nightly routine of strapping on my snowshoes, dragging my bike through the snow and setting up camp.
There was almost no traffic and I felt good about heading up the west coast. My plan was to cross over to the east via a pass further north but it was heavily discouraged by every person who enquired about my trip due to heavy snows and blocked roads past Kholmsk. The only way North, they told me, was from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to the east coast. Knowing that a failed attempt would cost six days, I relented with disappointment and returned to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to travel the alternate route.
From the city, it’s an uninteresting days ride north to the coast. I bought some bread from the store and dropped my bike by a corridor of snow that lead out to the frozen sea. The sun was shining but my hands struggled in the bitter cold to manage cutting the bread and slicing chunks of salted pig fat, that I had been given for warmth and energy. Performing the simplest task can be a laborious cycle of removing and replacing gloves, doing the job in bits, warming hands in armpits, hunkering down from the wind and so on.
People shuffled passed with big rubber boots and puffy clothes, carrying ice drills and buckets full of fish caught from beneath the sea ice. There I met Pavel and Liza as they were heading out for some fishing. After a very brief and basic communication they aborted their fishing trip and invited me to their house for tea. There we could communicate much better using google translate and Liza cooked these delicious fish for lunch. Some instant friendship, a relaxing afternoon in a warm apartment and a few shots of vodka seemed cruelly short lived as I cycled away late into the frigid world.
Pavel and Liza aborted their fishing plans and invited me into their home for tea and tasty fish they had caught the day before through the sea ice.
There was no secluded area so I camped behind an ice dune about 20 metres from the road. I feel uneasy if I know I can be seen, and at some point in the night I woke to the sound of a truck engine idling near my camp. My heart jumped as I listened for boots crunching through the snow. It was -33ºC so to extract myself from my cocoon and prepare to exit the tent to deal with anything hostile would take 10-15 minutes at best—a task not worth thinking about. Thankfully the truck eventually left without bothering me but still it turned out to be a very uncomfortable, sleepless night as my feet got progressively colder. I was so concerned that I feared if I fell asleep my toes would freeze, so I spent the night doing all I could to keep circulation in my feet.
I had also discovered as I was setting up camp that I had dropped my 1 litre stainless steel water bottle with an insulation bag. It was really bad news because that bottle is able to keep liquid in a liquid state most of the day, while my other bottles freeze over almost instantly. Knowing that you can buy just about nothing in this part of Russia, I had to get it back before someone else snatched it, so I set my alarm for 6:00 AM allowing two hours to break camp—not an easy task at 30 below when I spend most of the time jogging on the spot with my hand firmly implanted in my armpits. Regardless, I managed to get the job done by first light at 8:00 AM and retraced my track to find it 500 metres back. Seeing it there to the side of the road felt like I’d won the lottery!
Struggling in the deep freeze to break camp before sunrise and go in search of my precious water bottle.
After I recovered the bottle I had to fire up my stove to thaw it out.
In this environment the loss of just about anything I carry can be a game changer. I’m constantly checking and rechecking my gear, slapping all six panniers and bags attached to my bike to be sure everything is secure and I haven’t left anything out, such as my sunnies or mitts. Travelling in the frozen world is serious business, and you have to adapt quickly because there little room for error.
A pickup truck pulled over and offered me a lift. It happens occasionally and somehow I must convey that I’m actually on a bicycle out of choice. A few hours later as I was getting really hungry, I was flagged down at a bridge construction site by the same guy from the pickup. His name was Ivan. With an eating gesture he asked, ‘Yum-yum?’
‘Yum-yum! Da, da. Yum-yum.’ I said, excitedly.
I bounced my bike down the rough, frozen track to the workers camp and entered the kitchen, where two women prepared the meals for the men. They must have been expecting me because the table was set for one with potato salad and bread, and with barely a word said served me up a big bowl of noodle soup and a fatty meat and rice dish—a typical Russian meal and great winter comfort food. This first experience at a construction camp was a revelation.
The wonderful people from the construction camp that invited one cold, hungry traveller in for a hot meal.
This stretch of coast might be like any other if not for the time of the year. Around the end of October frozen sea water begins to amass in the north Russian coast of the Okhotsk Sea and is carried by seasonal winds and sea currents over the north of Sakhalin and along the east coast, reaching the northeast coast of Hokkaido in January. The same stretch of coast where I lived in northern Japan. I’ve seen the ice floe many times. I often rode my bike to the coast, about 5 minutes from home, and walked along the beach to think. The ice floe has a magical calming quality as though it forces the powers of the ocean into submission. Today there is no ocean, just a blanket of white sheets of sea ice extending out to the North Pacific horizon.
Photos don’t do justice. The ice floe has to be seen and heard to be appreciated.
Cycling beside the ice floe takes me back to Japan. I think about what I have and haven’t accomplished. Did I spend my time well? Did I learn all I could while I had the chance? What were the lessons? Am I any wiser? It reminds me just how finite experiences are, how easily life passes by if we don’t pay attention. I wish I had more time to take it in but there’s not enough hours in the day or days in the year to make sense of all there is. At some point you have to move on.
One advantage, I thought, to travelling in winter is that the bears are sleeping peacefully in hibernation. When I mentioned this to someone soon after commencing the ride, this assumption was immediately squashed.
‘Niet! Niet! Not fish in river, not sleep bear.’ I was told with alarm.
‘Oh, I see. This year fish in river?’ I asked optimistically.
‘Niet! This year not fish in river.’
Oh fuck! I thought, but by that stage I’d been warned about every little thing under the sun that I was experiencing some kind of red alert overload. RED ALERT! RED ALERT! RED ALERT! And frankly, the possibility of a few rogue bears didn’t bother me much. But the dark has a habit of playing games, and lying in my cocoon that night in a forested section on the inland side of the road, I couldn’t distinguish if the sounds entering my head was the slight rustle of the fly sheet over ice or a hungry bear sniffing at my tent. Then I could hear foot steeps outside. I froze. It became louder and I could feel it vibrate through the ice, then I gasped a sigh of relief. The disturbance was not outside but actually my heart pounding through my chest.
No footsteps in the snow, just sounds in my head.
My gear in a pile each morning after lugging it out from a secluded campsite.
Back on the track I was battling into the prevailing northerlies and driving snow. The road diverged inland from the coast and traversed a series of exhausting passes that took two days to navigate, my 65 kilogram bike thumping disagreeably over potholed ice roads.
A 24-hour warm spell saw temperatures rise to around 5 below—just warm enough inside my tent to melt ice and drench everything in condensation. My down jacket became soaked from inside and out. When the temperature plummeted again my jacket froze and was useless to proved the added insulation needed at night.
Getting down gear wet, even from perspiration, is a cardinal sin of cold climate travel. I use a body size plastic bag that I bought for 130 yen ($1.50) at a home centre in Japan, as a vapour barrier liner. It’s very uncomfortable to sleep in but it stops my perspiration being absorbed and condensing inside my sleeping bag—adding weight and reducing the insulating properties (eventually to nothing)—which is necessary for extended winter trips. I also use supermarket bags over one thin pair of socks inside my boots for the same reason. If not, I would be putting my feet into frozen footwear each morning. So essential it is that I keep my down jacket dry and functioning day after day, I don’t use it for any kind of aerobic activity anymore, especially not cycling. Instead, I underdress, sweat less and grin and bear the excess cold.
Occasionally vehicles stop for a chat. It happened one time when the weather was really bad. Four massive construction workers in a UAZ “Bukhanka” (Grey Russian van) wanted to know what the hell I was doing out here. Two of the guys got out and one of them, quite drunk, was aggressively trying to knock me off my bike. They wanted to load me into the van and drive me to the safety of a town. ‘Palatka. Palatka.’ I protested, meaning tent. He was so disgusted that I was camping that his coworkers had to calm him down. With that he threw his hands in the air with frustration and stormed back into the car. After they had realised that I was just some madman that wasn’t going to get off the bike, they served me up some bread and pig fat and a shot of vodka, and wished me luck.
The reaction to this trip has been less than optimistic and I have wondered why there is such a strong natural inclination in the human condition to oppose anything that may cause discomfort. Once upon a time discomfort was a way of life, so where’s the evolutionary benefit in fearing it? Or is it purely conditioning—a symptom of modern times? I feel some ease though, in coming from the other side of the world. You see, a Russian wouldn’t be seen dead out here on a bicycle because they understand that the climate is not to be messed with, and Australia is just too far away to know anything about. There is advantage to that obscurity. It’s easier for people to dismiss this journey as an error of judgment, as ignorance, and Maybe it is, but there is only one way to overcome ignorance. While the winter won’t last forever, the experience certainly will.
Back on the coast I was covered from head to toe in Gore-Tex, gloves, goggles and headwear to shield from the miserable weather. Snow and blustering winds ponding down from the north, occasionally flipping to the east or west and knocking my bike sideways. Trucks tearing past kicking up blinding clouds of powder. I worry might there be a second vehicle that fails to see through the wake of the first so I make a habit of stopping for a convoy, but sometimes the the wind is so strong that I hear nothing through my headwear but the screaming gale.
Beaten down by violent headwinds. Wish I was travelling in that direction.
By the evening I arrived at a railway camp and I recalled the wonderful hot meal I had at the construction site. In the morning I gratefully filled my bottles with hot tea and my stomach with hot food gratis from the camp kitchen.
The bad conditions finally ran out of steam and revealed a stunning rugged coast line gleaming white and out to the east broken slabs of ice floating motionless in the ocean. No animal life to be heard and virtually no traffic.
My feet continuing to give me trouble, felt wooden and numb. I could hear excavators nearby so I hurried to break camp and headed straight for the excavation site to refuel. Inside the mess shed I sat by the coal fire and removed my boots, relieved to fine my toes still pink. A group of off-duty workers were playing card and I was invited to hang around for lunch.
Some of the friendly guys at the excavation site. I dived into the mess shed, planted myself by the fire, removed my boots to inspect my feet, then introduced myself.
I was invited to climb into an excavators for a photo op. Didn’t get to turn it on unfortunately.
From the road people haven’t hesitated to show kindness. One bloke pulled over in an intimidating looking jacked up and beaten, black Hilux. He was bearded (a rare site in Russia) and had a instantly warm demeanour. He looked over my bike and shook his head with a gigantic smile that revealed gleaming gold teeth. He invited me to his place to stay but I was long past the area so had to decline. Before driving away he untied a sack of fish in the tray of his truck and filled a supermarket bag full that would have fed me for a month, but again I had to decline and accept only a handful instead.
Cycled through some gorgeous villages built almost entirely out of timbre.
The drab concrete apartment blocks of city housing aren’t quite so endearing.
Even on sunny days the air temperature can be so frigid I need to cover up completely.
I am now travelling inland. That story coming up…