About a third of the way up Sakhalin island the coastal road veers inland. Traffic reduces to the occasional Japanese 4×4 burning passed or Lada Nivas struggling almost as much as me on the bumpy road, though more regularly I’m disturbed by the thunderous, clanking steel racket of dumpsters and transporters hauling machinery and parts to the energy camps at the far reaches of the island—their huge wheels spitting showers of ice particles and coal dust in my face, sometimes driving me into the snow banks.
As I progress north the temperature continues to drop. A clear and windless day never rose above -20ºC. Knowing it was going to get really cold that night and that I was struggling with my sleeping gear to stay warm at -25ºC, I setup camp in the woods allowing for enough daylight to cook up a storm—a ravioli-pasta concoction in which I dumped an entire jar of tomato paste. It worries me that my feet are getting so cold so to counter that I cradled the hot pot in my feet and didn’t start eating till I’d got all the warmth I could out of it. I didn’t drain the pasta either, just drank and ate the lot till it hurt because I knew from the experience of the previous days that I was putting myself into a survival situation.
Again I didn’t sleep well and rose in the night around 5:30 when I began to shiver and feel my core temperature starting to drop. It was -37ºC and I knew it was safer to get out of the tent and move than stay inside. Doing anything at that temperature is difficult and painful. I struggled to light my stove with handicapped hands and intermittently did snowshoeing laps around my camp to try to warm my feet. It worked for a while but if I stopped for any length of time, to melt snow or break camp, my feet would rapidly go numb. Painful and numb extremities should never be ignored and I had to reconsider the situation. I felt the only reason I made it through the night without damage was because I had enough fuel and fluids in the system, but that isn’t always sustainable. I arrived at the next town feeling defeated. How was I going to get out of this? If I go forward I risk frostbite. It was obvious I couldn’t continue until I rectified the problem of my inadequate sleeping gear.
The snowshoe track around my camp for warm up.
My best option was to get Mont to courier an expedition bag but I had heard mixed reports about the efficiency (or inefficiency) of Russian customs and I couldn’t risk time delays on my visa, so I left my bike at a small pension and caught the train back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. In the meanwhile I contacted my friends there, Matt and Lena and they went out of their way to accommodate and help me sort out extra sleeping gear and winter clothing for the cold nights ahead. With in two days the journey had been restored but my bike is now worryingly overloaded and heavier than ever. I rearranged my gear and used every last scrap of rope and bungee cord to bound it all together.
Salo (salted pig fat), a popular winter food to warm the body.
My aim was to get to the tiny settlement of Pogibi, on the north-west coast. From there I hoped to cross the frozen Tatar Strait by bike or foot, to the main land. Getting to Pogibi, however, was not going to be easy. Apparently there is no cleared road, just a track passable only in the summer months running across the island from the pacific side. When I mentioned my plan to people down south, they invariably looked at me as though I was beyond help. Everybody told me that it’s impossible to get to Pogibi, that the ice would not be thick enough, that I must take a ferry from Kholmsk to the mainland, but I just couldn’t let it go because I had been dreaming about making that crossing since first deciding to travel through the Russian Far East, so I continued heading north to see what I could manage. The latest information I had was that a service road for a gas pipelines that runs across the island to the mainland is cleared for the first 50 kilometres for maintenance and inspection, but after that there would be no way through. I was advised that my best chance would be to visit one of the big energy camps in the north and get up-to-date information there.
Back on the bike I picked up from where I’d left off. The weather was clear but bloody cold. The road followed a forested valley between twin mountain ranges extending to the north. I stopped at a small village shop for some groceries in the afternoon and a young driver named Stas, lent out of the window of his green dump truck and invited me in for ‘Chai?’. I climbed into the cab of his truck as he lit up a portable propane stove he’d extracted from behind the curtain. Pictures of naked blonde women with huge breasts hung across the windshield.
‘Where do you go?’ I asked.
‘Pogibi,’ he replied.
‘What?!’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. If he could get this truck to Pogibi what route was he taking?
I jumped out of the truck and rushed to get my map and he showed me a service road running from the south-east about 140 kilometres through the mountainous backcountry to a gas pipeline camp about 60 kilometres from Pogibi. This was not a transit road but he assured me it would be possible to travel this route. Brilliant! This mad plan may work out after all. It was like winning a golden ticket. No one had ever mentioned this road. As far as I know, not even the engineers down in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk who contracted for the energy companies were aware of it. I had about 50 kilometres to get to the start of the service road and I cycled on with renewed optimism and excitement.
Later I was invited for tea again at an nearby farm house that was adjacent to a small sawmill, surrounded by piles of lumber and offcuts. The double-story log cabin was very rough—the walls stained with soot and grime, timbre planks riddled with termite holes, pales of cow’s milk on the floor, shelves piled with tools and machinery—but it had a fire.
Ginadi or Petro(vich) as his workers called him by his last name, is a quiet, kind-natured man in his 60s. He has a motley crew of four guys boarding with him and running the sawmill. I scoffed down three bowls of potato soup and he invited me to stay the night. He showed me to a barn where he keeps his animals during the winter. I bent over and followed him through the dark barn, ice crystals on the walls shimmering from the chink of light passing through the door opening. At the back of the barn Ginadi tugged on a rope leading into a pile junk and proudly pulled out one very frightened racoon tied to the rope. When he released the rope the Racoon scurried back into it’s hiding spot in the junk. I felt awful seeing that animal miss treated. I wanted to say: That’s a wild animal. What the fuck do you think you’re doing? But the language barrier prohibited such direct communication. I even considered releasing it but I cowardly decided I wasn’t in the position to make enemies.
Ginadi insisted that I take a banya so he sent one of his men out to light the fire. I few hours later in the sweltering heat I struggled to remove my layers of sweaty clothing, balancing on rickety planks that sloshed about in the mud and scum on the floor. I left the banya feeling dirtier than when I entered.
Despite being only 35 kilometres from the truck route, Ginadi was certain that the road wasn’t passable. The guys laughed at my plan and were adamant I’d have to take the northern route, which I knew was only partially cleared.
Ginadi cutting delicious bread straight from the oven.
Searching for a store in a small village I was followed around by a guy called Sasha who had a hardened face and a patchy set of metallic teeth. He seemed impaired, though it’s hard to tell; so many men have fried their brains with vodka and cigarettes I can never be sure if this is a temporary or terminal state. He spoke at the top of his voice, as many guys do, and the less I understood the louder and closer he got as though there’s a correlation between volume and comprehension. Sasha also had no knowledge that the road was open saying emphatically that it would only be possible to take the northern route. Again my plan was shot down but I wasn’t to be deterred. I had already learnt earlier that the more people speak with certainty, the higher the odds are that they are wrong, and there is nothing more irritating than when plans become infected with misinformation. I can live with my own mistakes a lot easier than someone else’s.
Security at the ‘zero kilometre’ camp.
A few kilometres past the turnoff I came to a large workers camp. Huge trucks and construction machinery rumbled through the compound. I was given a feed and a key to someone’s vacant cabin to crash the night. Things were looking up. It turned out this was kilometre zero of the southern service road for the pipeline. The truck driver was right; this road is used in winter and could potentially get me within 30 kilometres of the narrowest point of the Tatar Strait. I was thrilled. For the first time I really felt I had a good chance of pulling this off, but I was also a little anxious—it was a long trip over difficult terrain and should the weather turn foul I could be left stranded. I strapped three litres of fuel to my bike—backup should I get caught in a blizzard—and stocked up on food before heading into the backcountry.
A security checkpoint cut off the entrance to the service road. Two tough looking guards with missing teeth, told me to get off my bike. I had a bad feeling about it. Don’t tell me this is the end of the line! I grabbed my cup and quickly diverted attention away from ‘who I am’ and ‘what I’m doing’ to ‘Chai?’. Inside their tiny cabin we sat down on the steel spring beds and they gave me coffee, bread and a hard boiled egg. They were mostly curious and concerned about my safety but they let me go on.
The backcountry was liberation. No power lines or signs or traffic, just a narrow, bumpy ice road cut like a trench through the snow. I set up camp early at a high pass, knowing that there would be no one around to bother me.
There is only one way, following the roller coster road barely a truck width across. Word spread that a bike was on the road and truckies began to stop for a photo opportunity or give me bags of truckie food: tinned beef, pâté, condensed milk, instant potato, noodles, tea and sugar. They’d offer me vodka but I couldn’t accept alcohol from any driver I was sharing that road with.
Truckies stop for a photo opp.
About 40 kilometres in I was surprised to arrive at a small log cabin with a smoking chimney. It was a three-man snow clearing camp. The cabin was a shambles but it did have a splendid gallery of Russian lingerie girls pinned to the wall. It felt great to strip off the layers and sit by the fire. Again I was sent to the banyo, apprehensive after the last experience but relieved to find in the steel container a very well kept raw timbre banyo with a wood fire raging from the belly of a makeshift furnace constructed from a stainless steel fuel tank. One of the guy threw a scoop of water on the searing rocks, releasing a suffocating burst of steam that even he, a banyo-loving Russian, had to dive for cover.
The snow clearing camp. The banya is the green container.
I love white winters, the way snow makes everything look fresh. The rougher the country probably the better it looks because it hides the crap, but I miss the sounds of animals. I can’t hear birds singing at the break of dawn, just the sound of each man waking in violent coughing fits from lungs afflicted with tobacco addiction.
The men gave me a heavy sack of tinned foods, noodles and juice from their store of supplies. Having no idea how my bike was going to manage the extra volume and weight, I tried to refuse but they wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Back on the road I met Stas again—the guy who originally told me about this route, and he too handed me his food bag from the window of his green dumpster. It was getting ridiculous so I decided to cook lunch and eat into the pantry, a luxury I never normally do as it takes up too much of the precious day. By the time I setup camp the tins had frozen solid and with some desperation I had to tear them open with pliers like cans of spam. It was a very inefficient way to get to the food so from then on I resorted to heating the cans in water first then used that water defrost my water bottles.
Stas, from whom I discovered the southern route.
One way to get to frozen tinned beef.
The road was becoming tighter, steeper, dangerous. It was really hard going with my bike that must weigh close to 80 kilograms. I couldn’t hear well through the scraping of my studded tires over the ice and almost got wiped out as a truck returning south came around a bend and screeched to a skidding halt. It took a lot of concentration to negotiate the truck tracks and loose snow.
At the western side of the second mountain range I came to another snow clearing camp. There were two guys there. A machine operator in his 60s and a security guard, 35, but looked more like 45, who chain smoked to a point that seemed excessive even by Russian standards. He showed me photos on his cell phone of his beautiful 19-year-old asian wife, who he married when she was 15, and spoke about how much he missed her while he was in the field and out of contact for the winter months.
It was quite late when 4 guys in a 4×4 arrive at the camp. One of them was Dmitry, a hitchhiker from Moscow who had come up from China, crossed the strait and got a lift with bootleggers flogging bottles of vodka at double markup prices to workers at the gas pipeline camps in the north-west. It was so unlikely and surprising to come across another traveller out here in the Russian Far East in winter. Out came the bottles of vodka for an impromptu party before the men drove away.
The second snow clearing camp.
Dmitry and the guys from the second camp.
Hampered by difficult terrain, a heavy bike, limited day light and the extreme cold, it took 6 days to cover 140 kilometres to the final gas pipeline camp in Druzhba, on the Tatar Strait. As so often happens, the men at the camp didn’t really know what to make of me, but they were delighted I had arrive and suddenly out came pocket cameras and cell phones to snap matey photos of the traveller.
The final camp before the pipeline crosses under the Tatar Strait.
Shipping container housing.
The girls always welcomed me to the kitchen and made great meals. Probably the most important job at the pipeline.
Camp dogs. Their bark is greater than their bite!
My first and only sight of the pipeline. I wasn’t allowed to video but I did anyway.
The idea of bike touring out here and in winter is abstract to most people. Almost certainly it’s the first time this route to mainland Russia has been travelled by bicycle and that probably worked to my advantage because this isn’t a place for bikes, not only for the perils of the haulers on the narrow track but that often the drivers of these huge vehicles are knocking back bottles of vodka on the job. It was something I was warned about repeatedly.
After two nights at the camp I had a final meal and pushed my bike through the snow to the coast. The mainland stretched across the western horizon like a hazy ribbon, dividing the deep blue sky from the glaring white sea ice. It felt like a desert, solid and motionless, but it was an illusion. There was no way I could ride this. I had to travel 20 kilometres north to get to Pogibi before making the crossing to the Lazarev on the mainland, and I was going to have to drag my bike through the snow the whole, exhausting way. The snow on the shore was too heavy. There were patches of frozen sea where the tide breaks through the ice but only lasted short sections before I’d run into deep snow. A little further out the conditions were more consistent but the weight of my movement was cracking the ice sheets beneath my feet. I could hear it transmit from different spots around me. I considered putting on my snow shoes but didn’t want to move slower than I already was. As I rounded the first point and moved deeper out to sea I found the ice more stable so I decided to take a direct line across the sea to the northern point and not skirt the coast.
Camp dogs accompanied me until I pitched my tent on the frozen sea.
First night on the sea ice. Looking due north, the points of the Tatar Strait—my destination—can be seen in the far distance.
The state of the ice is constantly changing and there’s no guarantee that it’s passable but I’ve been fortunate—it’s been a very cold year as anyone who’s seen the news from Europe will know. Out on the frozen strait the temperature drops to -40ºC at night and doesn’t become sufficiently warm for comfort until midday. My camera battery ceases to work if I don’t keep it in my jacket. The Canon camcorder batteries work but deplete much faster. Lids freeze concrete solid on water bottles. Plastic fastener on panniers snap. It’s slow and painful to do any task that required the use of hands for more than a few seconds.
I had only dragged about 5 kilometres by the late afternoon. Every now and then i broke through the ice crust and urgentlly shifted my weight to the side. Alarmingly, the ice was becoming less stable. The pressure from the currents pushing through the bottle neck of the strait was crunching and splitting the ice sheets, producing dark pools of frozen sea that were impossible to read, and turning up giant shards of translucent sea ice. My track became a weave through this uncertain maze and it became obviously perilous to travel into the dark so I decided to spend a second night on the ice.
With the heightened sense of an eskimo, my ‘safe’ passage over the ice was all, um, guess work.
As I lay in my sleeping bag, silence from my own activity finally upon me, I could hear the haunted voice of the ice. Deep, echoing thuds of ice sheets pounding together followed by high pitched cracks sounding around you doesn’t inspire confidence in the security of your foundations. I could picture in my head the contours and textures of the terrain around me, and I hoped to god that the piece of ice I had chosen to camp on was as solid as it looked.
On the third day I finally dragged my bike from the strait up to the high banks of Pogibi, exhausted and dehydrated but with high spirits. I was almost there. 10 kilometres across the strait was mainland Russia. Soon I would be heading south-west and on the way back to China. I wasn’t quite ready to reach civilisation yet so I cycled out across the Tatar Strait, found large piece of solid ice and made camp for the third night. The ice sheets had come to rest and the skies were clear and shimmering. How many time in my life, I wondered, will I sleep on a frozen sea.
Looking across the strait from Pogibi.
My third night on the sea ice, camped halfway across the Tatar Strait.
I could cycle the final 10 kilometres on the snowmobile track connecting Pogibi with Lazarav.
Lazarev on the mainland—mission accomplished!