A few years in Japan will turn any man soft, life was too good, and I knew the transition from comfort back to the nomadic experience was going to be tough, but I’m not the kind of person who tiptoes into cold water. I needed a challenge that would allow me to take the plunge back into the ocean, that would beat me back into shape, battle hardened and expedition ready. The Far East provided the perfect bootcamp.
Arriving in Sakhalin in early January, I was alarmed at how warm it felt. If my plan to cross the Tatar Strait was to succeed, everything depended on timing and an extremely cold season, so I kept asking people, ‘Is it warmer than usual this winter?’
‘Yes, it is warm,’ I was told. It was disappointing but I hadn’t lost all hope as I was informed, ‘Here it does not get so cold but in the north it gets much colder: -40ºC, -50ºC.’
I could not have known my fortune for it turned out to be an exceptionally cold winter, as described in the following email from my friend Marina from Moscow.
You are very lucky, because there was the coldest and the sunniest February for the last 65 years on Sakhalin.
Usually no wolf can cross the Tatar straight because of the thin ice. And this year 5 wolfs came from Khabarovsk region to Sakhalin. It could be a big problem for Sakhalin habitants and animals if the wolf will be distributed around the island. Before this year the wolfs came to Sakhalin on 1946 and on 2000. And may be on 2007. To be honest, I have not found any science-based information about connection between the density of ice and the wolf migration, but some local habitants believe that there is a connection (according to the Internet source).
Good luck :)
In crossing the strait I’m satisfied I’ve achieved my objective, although I didn’t know if it would be possible. Pouring all my energy into going north in what, by most accounts, would be a treacherous and futile enterprise, was a gamble I was willing to take because the payoff was a unique experience in an extraordinary wilderness, and even on world bicycle journeys, that’s not easy to find.
My second objective was to learn how to survive and travel in the extreme cold. I prepared as best I could for this journey based on my experience of ski touring and snow camping (in less severe conditions) and what little information I could gather, however, the difference between -20ºC and -40ºC is huge. To put it in tangible terms: if it took 2 hours to melt snow, cook breakfast and break camp at -20ºC, it would take 3 hours at -30ºC and 4 hours at -40ºC, with equally proportional increases of discomfort. Making camp and cooking dinner was generally a lot easier and faster because it wasn’t as cold and I was warm to begin with, but still in the dead of winter I was spending somewhere between 4-7 hours of the day on camp tasks. Travelling in this environment with a partner would probably be a good idea—at least sharing the load and chores would make life a lot easier.
With the benefit of hindsight, I’d score my preparation around 80% or a B, which isn’t good enough. To travel safely in this climate you need to score an A+ on your prep but you also need the experience to get it right, to know how your body reacts to the extremes, to understand how deal with water vapour and perspiration, to learn how to refuel when everything freezes and to develop the necessary efficiency to keep moving when it hurts.
Beyond the practical lessons I sought, this winter episode has enforced in me the importance of backing yourself, even if it means betting against reason and a torrent of local say-so (I’ve grown reluctant to use the word ‘local’ alongside ‘knowledge’). Sometimes you have to block out the noise, put yourself on the line, trust in your own self reliance and creativity, and throw everything you’ve got at it, if you want to achieve audacious goals.
Local guys greeting me at Lazarev.
Pogibi is barely a settlement, with only two inhabited weatherboard houses. Lazarev, on the opposite side of the strait, is a frontier town, raw and basic and stuck in distant times. Coming in from my journey through the backcountry and across the ice, I felt like a lone drifter, without home or destination.
Dmitry—my shipping container mate at Druzhba—did not speak highly of Lazarev. ‘It’s an ex-prison colony,’ he told me. ‘There are many bad man there. It’s in the genes. You must not drink with anyone. You will loose all your things. Do not stop. Go to Nigir.’
In my note book he scribbled a message to his friend, Evgeny, from that town 26 kilometres south-west of Lazarev. ‘He’s mafia,’ he said. ‘Find him. He will look after you. Give you protection.’
I don’t know exactly what he meant by this but I think it’s code for describing the town boss or someone who owns businesses in the area. In any case, I was curious to see what would come of it so once I hit the mainland I waisted no time in cycling on from Lazarev. A tough climb had me back on two feet pushing the bike up the steep, forested incline and into the night.
A few hours later after crossing the pass, I arrived at the cluster of houses that form Nigir, a town of a few hundred people—square windows and smoking chimneys illuminated out of the dark. My body heat dissipates rapidly when I stop so I was pleased when the second house answered my knock and invited me inside. Village houses have large, cuboid wood fire places, designed for drying clothes and cooking. A steel pipe runs out of the furnace and feeds a continuos central heating duct through the rooms of the house.
The charming town of Nigir.
Following four days of the most extraordinary travel over the Tatar Strait, I exited the painfully cold world—achey boned and chill-nipped—and slumped on a stool at the kitchen table. While waiting for Evgeny to arrive, my host fed me tea and pancakes with home made jam. Her modest house was immaculately kept, swathed in predominantly pink floral decor—a typical example of Russian (Far East) style. When you live in an extreme winter climate for much of the year, colourless and lifeless, I suppose it makes sense to surround your world with images of blossoming life.
Evgeny showed up with a friend looking slightly perplexed but after reading the note he invited me to his house to stay and his family showed me wonderful hospitality.
Looking back at my final view of Sakhalin island.
Finally, I was heading south-west and advancing in the right direction. To the east, across the Tatar Strait, I could see for the first time the volcanic contours of Sakhalin island. The road rolled over the mountains in a strait line still following the gas pipeline, which supplies the main population centres of the Far East, including Khabarovsk and Vladivostok (destined to supply China and South Korea also). At dusk I turned up a side track cut through the spruce forest. A few hundred metres in I came to a radio tower serviced by a three-man team that was stationed in a Kamaz truck—a Russian military style truck with a living compartment complete with four beds and a steel box fire place. In the hot compartment we consumed tea, cookies, bread and salo, and watched MMA videos on a laptop. Alexi, the young electrical engineer, excitedly skipped to a fight from Khabarovsk especially for me, featuring an Australian beating the crap out of a Russian.
Accepting their invitation to stay meant I could get an early start in the morning. They warned me that it gets cold in the night (as the fire dies off) but they were also running a large electric heater powered by a generator which, in addition to the fire, turned the cabin into a furnace. My watch read 33ºC but I’d become acclimatised to the cold so it felt more like 43ºC. Sweat soaked and stripped to my underwear, I couldn’t sleep for hours and got so hot I had to cool down outside in minus-god-knows-what. This was typical of my experience in the cabins on Sakhalin also. It’s simply a survival technique to avoid stoking the fire though the night.
Starting the day with warm boots and a packed bike is a huge advantage but at least until midday I still had to contend with the bitting cold, stopping frequently on downhill runs to readjust my face mask and rewarm stinging hands. The pain could be so intense that I grew to anticipate the inclines for the chance to slowdown, remove my face mask and warm my body. It was a killer section of remote road to De-Kastri, so steep in parts that black rubber skid marks from trucks were imbedded in the ice.
For the next 130km the grade of the road eased as I rolled and bumped passed swaths of snow fields spiked with dead withered tree trunks, and through birch and spruce forests, towards the next snow-capped mountain range. Bathed in spotted sun light, the backdrop gave the impression of a prehistoric landscape, like an artist’s rendering.
Last day with a working stove.
As I mounted my bike, my stove pump attached to my bike frame, got caught in my pants and the fuel rod connection between the fuel line and the pump, snapped off. I could only look in horror at the jet of pressurised white fuel spewing out of the pump head. After overcoming the shock of the situation—sub-zero travelling without a stove—I immediately began thinking of makeshift solutions for melting snow. I could make a reservoir style burner easily enough by placing a series holes around the rim in a steel tin, but I knew from experience how horribly inefficient unpressurised burners are in the cold. Fire was really my only practical option.
It was a bad day at the office and with no stove I decided to cycle into the dark to the next town to get hot water. At the basic settlement of timbre shacks, I knocked on the window of the largest building and a group of men came out looking on the defensive. I had arrived at a halfway house for truck drivers, surveyors and road construction workers. Obviously posing no threat, they invited me inside the shabby building. Painted child-like murals adorned the walls and wood smoke permeated through the rooms. It was like a circus, excited questions and incomprehensible chatter shot at me from all directions. The men immediately served me up plates of steaming hot food. I struggled to eat and fend off my personal space from the house drunk, at the same time. It was a ‘bandito’ town, I was told. I should not knock on any doors in the town, especially the one next door, and it seemed I wasn’t going to make it far down the road before someone knocked me over the head. I had herd these warnings before but they were becoming more frequent and in the cold, dark night it was unnerving.
Out on the road, in the bright of day, my experience was quite different. There were few passing vehicles but often drivers stopped to chat. Some days so many drivers were pull me over to take my picture, it was seriously hampering progress. The reactions to my adventure were sometimes so bizarre that I could hardly imagine a reincarnation of Yuri Gagarin being received with such excitement. One animated young driver of a petrol tanker went to shake my hand then launched into a bear hug, then he gave me his lunch. Another filthy truckie tried several time to kiss me on the cheek. It was completely over the top. Why aren’t gorgeous Russian women flagging me down to do the same, I lamented. There are enough of them.
A short photographic essay: I began photographing the drivers who stopped to photograph me.
As it turned out there was a positive side to all this. I had only about 1000 roubles ($30) in my pocket and little did I know I wouldn’t come across an ATM until I arrived Khabarovsk, hundreds of kilometres south-west, but I was given tins of beef, bread, noodles and hot tea by some of the drivers, which allowed me to build a stockpile of food that would eventually get me through. Occasionally drivers asked if I needed help and as it became clear that I was going to be broke for some time, I had to ask straight out, ‘Yes, I have no money. Do you have any food?’ In my eternal endeavour to have the widest range of human experience, I can now legitimately tick ‘beggar’ off my list.
One haggard woman with a cigaret dangling from her emaciated fingers, demanded a lighter. It was an unusually terse interaction and it put me on guard. I dug out a box of matches as a young bloke on a Cossack motorcycle (Soviet era motorcycle with sidecar) came flying around a bend. With a glance he slammed on his breaks, throwing the tinny machine into a frantic display of mono-wheeling fishtails and near flipping it in the process. In his big, black shapka (Russian fur hat) and military style insulated clothing, he had the imposing presence of a towering Soviet monument.
Sasha on his Cossack motorcycle.
I must have been stopped a dozen times that day and was really eager to get moving but he wouldn’t have it. ‘Stop!’ He demanded through clenched gold teeth. His name was Sasha and as he was about twice the hight and width of me, and frankly bloody intimidating, I though it was best to obey. I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying, which seemed to antagonise him but it soon became apparent he wanted me to visit his house, at least to eat. He was horrified at my hole riddled woollen gloves and he offered to replace them. I was unsure of this guy but relented as it took less effort to accept than decline. Back at his tiny, sky-blue weatherboard, the tension dissipated. Sasha, like so many Russians I’ve met, just wanted to help in any way he could. At his kitchen table I cut a thin piece of bread and a slice of cheese. With that he snatched the knife and cut a thick chunk of meat loaf, cheese and bread and shoved it in my face, insisting I eat all I could. He dug out a pair of Russian army sheep’s wool mitts (an absolute godsend that I used for cycling every day from then on) and as I was leaving he gave me his army beret adorned with gold military pins—the coat of arms of the Russian Federation (two-headed eagle) and the red star. ‘Snipper,’ he said proudly, showing a bullet hanging from a tassel at the back. I’m not a military guy so it felt more like an honour bestowed upon my journey.
The wonderful Russian army sheep’s wool mitts Sasha gave me—a real game changer to the comfort of my hands while cycling.
He showed me the way out of town before departing ways but about a kilometre on he came after me again and seemed irritated. There was a problem but I couldn’t figure out what it was. He spoke no English but he came up with a few universal words, ‘English. Fuck you!’ He said with a violent kick to the dirt. Oh boy, some how I’ve offended him and he’s tuned into Mister Hide. He seemed really mad and I had no idea why. ‘Sasha, eta nie problema!’ I said calmly, trying to defuse the situation, while flicking through my memory the events of the afternoon; was it declining his invitation to stay or turning down the customary shot of vodka? What ever it was it had to be trivial, which made it more scary. Another man pulled over in an old, white sedan while looking me over curiously. The two men exchanged some words and Saha became more irritated before the man drove away. I felt really vulnerable at that point but then Sasha referred to the man as a bad guy and it eventually dawned on me that he wasn’t pissed at all but actually wanted to accompany me out of town to make sure no wrong doing would come of me. ‘Oh, sure,’ I accepted with relief. Once we were sufficiently out of town he turned his red motorcycle around and saw me off with a solute, a fist to the heart and a big, golden smile.
Next, I had 100km of mountain range to cross including three major passes to climb. In the valleys, for the first time I could hear the vibrant calls of bird life. On the southern side of the range large patches of the ice road were mysteriously covered in crude oil. Suddenly the climate seemed to have changed. Snow melt was streaming out of a valley and flooding a dip in the road. The mix of water and crude oil froze to my rims, and speeding downhill I discovered my breaks were rendered inoperable. Unable to see through the night I came to a skidding halt thanks only to my big arctic boots. To make matters worse, ice no longer covered the gravel roads and vehicles sped past in clouds of dust—a rude awakening that sent me digging through my panniers for my dust mask.
A rude awakening. Contaminated snow and no more ice roads on the western side of the ranges.
Before I busted my stove, it was most efficient to alternate between setting up camp, melting snow and cooking at the same time, but now I’m surviving by fire, camping has become a little more involved. After lugging my gear from the road I kick down dead tree trunks and dig out fallen branches from the snow while I still have daylight, then set up camp then light a fire and cook.
Melting snow and cooking by fire has slowed me down, but unlike most inconveniences, fire is godly; it warms me up, tars my hands, impregnates my clothes and flesh with wood smoke. In the deep cold it trances me and makes me sluggish. In the morning I wake, cook hot chocolate and porridge or simple rice pudding with milk powder and raw sugar, then do the same again and pack it in my 1L water bottle for lunch.
One night, camped in a snow ditch off a side track, I was huddled by my fire when a dump truck came down the track. The driver warned me about a dangerous animal but I wasn’t familiar with the Russian name so he drew some werewolf-looking creature in the snow. ‘What the hell is that!’ I asked, worried I wasn’t going to make it through the night. He drove off leaving me looking around for glowing eyes burning through the darkness. The next day the same guy passed me on the road and asked if I saw the ‘wolf’. I hadn’t but I was more worried about bears at that point, especially the ones that didn’t get enough fat on the bones before hibernating. ‘If a bear wakes early,’ I was told, ‘nothing will scare it. If it sees you, you are dead!’ It was that time of year.
If bears and wolves weren’t enough to send shivers down the spine, red alerts were sounding about another man-eating creature. The fury, black and yellow type weighing about 300kg with big teeth. I hadn’t even considered tigers, which was a good thing, but I had to ask if it was safe to camp. The guy who broke the news to me had seen them on the roads and just shock his head with a grunt, as though there was no way in hell he’d be out here with nothing but a drape of silicone impregnated nylon shielding from the outside world. I’ve had no choice, travelling and camping for weeks in a region apparently where three animal species would see me as food. Needless to say, as extraordinary an animal the tiger is, I haven’t been overjoyed at the prospect of meeting one in the wild. I guess I just don’t relish the idea of not being on top of the food chain.
I battled a nasty 130km stretch of gravel road before arriving at the paved road to Khabarovsk. Snow remained thick on the ground but as the climate gradually eased and I progressed closer to civilisation on sealed roads, predictably less interests was shown towards my journey and less vehicles stopped. I dreaded the gradual seasonal transition, weighed down with winter gear that was becoming progressively less useful, overheating during the days, sweating in my boots and yet still freezing at sundown.
Long stretches of road cut through spindly birch forests. I ventured up service tracks to light cooking fires or camp. Depending on the fuel available, lighting fire in snow requires some pragmatic thinking.
Successful cooking fires in deep snow can be achieved by digging a snow ditch and constructing raised platforms of dead tree trunks. The key is to regulate the fire long enough to cook before burning through the base.
With nothing to add but powdered milk and sugar, my rice pudding was invention of necessity.
One couple stopped for a chat. With both my cash and food supplies running out, I asked for some bread which lead to an impromptu picnic of homemade delicacies from the back of their car.
A massive 100km day of punishing pitted gravel roads with an 80kg bike, I finally arrived at the sealed road to Khabarovsk (and Vladivostok) around midnight. After asking for directions at this service station, was offered to crash the night on the couch. Just another example of genuine kindness of the Russian people.
My rear wheel blew out 250km from Khabarovsk. Pressured to get through this final section under stringent visa requirements, I was already winded by my broken stove, and the busted wheel was just another punch in the guts. I had to extract myself from the situation, get my bike repaired and return to the same place ASAP. The question was: How long would it take?
I hitched a lift in an archaic red truck to a road house 10km back to figure out my next move. There I managed to get a ride to Khabarovsk in a meat truck and arrived about 1am. The first hotel refused me entry as, evidently, they weren’t bothered to file the require foreigner registration, so I was delivered to the largest lodging in town—a huge, ugly Soviet block hotel. Somehow, the decaying 1960s decor and the receptionist who was about as genial as someone who, say, would harbour the desire to rip my head off, felt just right. Insolence, by the way, seems to be only present in the service industry—but don’t bother, every country has its anomalies.
Drying my gear in the hotel, Khabarovsk.
Ice hockey, Khabarovsk.
I spent a week in Khabarovsk while I waited for my Chinese visa and was kindly hosted by Sergei from the Khabarovsk Rotary Club. I gave slideshows at two schools and the opportunity arose to feature in a TV news story about the expedition. It was an opportunity to tell the story—something I was motivated to do after receiving the following email, again from my friend Marina:
I hope you are ok.
As got known, you are a celebrity in Sakhalin. There was some information about your adventurous trip on local Sakhalin TV. I mentioned about you with 3 of people, and everyone knows about you. That is good for your sponsors and good for your potential opportunity to get money from your trip. But they all have doubts that you managed to cross Tatar strait…
I wish you good luck!
I had heard about this a few times but I never had contact with any media in Sakhalin. Now was my chance to set the story straight.
The journalist from Khabarovsk TV introduced himself as John, using an English moniker. ‘First we want to video you fixing your bike,’ John said. ‘After, I want you to walk through a supermarket and pick up some products and say “Wow!” and like that.’
‘Um, why?’ I asked.
‘You are a foreigner visiting Russia and it is interesting to see your reaction to the Russian products.’
‘But that’s got nothing to do with the story,’ I said, somewhat confused.
My wheel had been rebuilt so after shooting me reassembling my bike and some video packing my panniers, John ask to go outside and get some video of me riding down the street.
As the camera man shivered in the background, John instructed me, ‘I want you to ride beside the van and say “Oh, it sooo cold today! And isn’t it windy.”’
It was a sunny, windless day, barely -10ºC, and compared to where I’d been it felt positively tropical. ‘But it’s not cold. Why would I say that?’ I asked.
‘It’s interesting to see your emotions.’
Perhaps -10ºC is cold to these guys. Perhaps -40ºC doesn’t feel extreme to someone coming in from -60ºC, but to claim that -10ºC is cold in the Russian Far East would be nothing but theatrical mockery.
‘You know what? I can’t do that. I’m not an actor but I can give you video of the real thing: blizzards and camping in -40.’
I just assumed from the outset that I would supply the video (What else would they use?) but it became evident that the news team had job requirements to fulfil, which were not conducive to factual story telling. Unfortunately for them the supermarket (product placement) scene wasn’t destined to happen with anything I was involved with.
After the news had aired John asked, ‘Did you see the story?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘Did you like it?’
‘Yes, but you didn’t report my crossing of the Tatar Strait.’
‘I wanted to but my boss wouldn’t allow it because it’s not confirmed that the Tatar Strait froze. It happens once in 50 years. It’s usually water.’
‘Really? He just needs to look at my website. I spent four days on the ice. All the photographic evidence is there.’
‘I tried to find [official] information about it but I couldn’t confirm it,’ John said.
‘What did your boss say exactly?’
‘He said, “It’s not possible to cross the Tatar Strait. It doesn’t freeze, and I can not publish something that is not true.” From your video and pictures it’s obvious you crossed the Tatar Strait but that’s what my boss said and I have to agree with him.’
I do not tell this story because I’m precious about my own narrative but rather it illustrates the virtues of forming one’s picture of the world experientially, because so often truth is lost in perception. Regardless, it’s amusing seeing one’s self on Russian TV. No prizes for guessing the two clips used in the story that were shot out in the middle of the Tatar Strait.
Now that I was in the capital of the far east awaiting my visa, I set to work. I had a mountain of stuff to get done, most of which I didn’t accomplish. It occurs to me that no matter how hard I may strive to achieve a simpler life, stripped of possessions, television or even a career, I am still strapped for time, constantly looking for ways to streamline my daily tasks so I can undertake this journey and document it well. It boils down to a lot of hard work.
I’ve never looked on this project as a dream but the label sticks, I suppose, as a way of distinguishing such an undertaking from a more pragmatic course. If I could turn this into a career I would. I envy anyone who makes a living out of doing what they love. I just don’t want to wake up one day and realise I’ve blown my youth in a pursuit that doesn’t challenge or teach me anything. Whatever the currency I’m trading in right now for my efforts, it doesn’t put beans in the billy, so I need to figure out ways of making income from this journey. If anyone has any contacts with publications that may be interested in publishing adventure articles, please let me know. For now China is on the horizon and I must keep pedalling.