As you may have gathered via our social media posts a couple of days ago, we and our vintage Ural motorbike called Panzer have made it to Salekhard and the finish line for our trip. I’m sitting in a lovely lovely warm hotel room in a ski resort on the outskirts of Labytnangi (a large town across the river from Salekhard), and the best thing ever is the knowledge that I don’t need to get back out and camp in the cold to sleep tonight.
My apologies for the complete lack of communication for a while, but apparently this ski resort has not heard of the free wifi revolution sweeping Europe (in the words of Katie, the Adventurists person coordinating things on this end, “some aspects of this place make you wonder if they have ever had guests before”). We’ve compensated by spending the intervening couple of days getting regularly drunk with Russians and sampling the local bar/cafe/club scene (often all in the same venue).
We rattled into Salekhard on the 21st at about 3pm after a pretty nice sunny day of riding. Left our campsite reasonably early (for us) – 9am or so, which was still a little before sunrise. It was damn cold (perhaps -25) with a cutting wind after a clear night – though we had a fantastic bonfire the night before, after camping next to some trees with lots of dead wood – and one of the guys from another team was worried about his feet, so he hitched a lift on a passing car to the nearest town to get them checked out at the little first aid post. All turned out ok.
The night before our convoy of Guy, Geordie and myself opted to camp a little early and and enjoy the sunset, which was really awesome. Siberia does truly fantastic sunrises and sunsets, which cover the horizon and last for an hour or more thanks to the latitude. We got a big fire going, had a big dinner (freeze dried beef mince with rice woo) and were joined by a couple of other teams – Mike, Zaya, Patrick and Nick. Had a good time sitting around the fire and enjoying what we hoped would be our last night in the wilderness.
Just when we were thinking about bed, four other teams rocked up with three bikes on the back of a truck and one riding out in front. Their bikes had broken down beyond repair and so the local police in town rustled up a crane, a large truck and a driver to drive them the 400km to Salekhard for 15,000 roubles (about $500). Their plan was to drive through the night watching movies on a laptop in the warm cab; we briefly considered offering the driver 20,000 roubles to dump them and their bikes off the back and load on ours but opted instead to do the manly thing and continue suffering. As it turns out they made it to Salekhard at 6am.
While we were told that the ice road would have zero supplies for 600km or so, there seems to be tiny villages every 10km, and small towns every 80km along the main zimnik route. The towns all have several little shops called магазин (magazine) or продукты (produkti) which sell bread, cheese, milk, juice, salami, canned goods etc as well as more general products. The larger towns (perhaps every 200km?) have petrol stations – though rarely with the 80-octane our bike requires, tends to be 92 and 95 only, so we just ran it rich – and various other shops (hardware stores, camping stores etc for supplies). I guess this makes sense – because the area is just marshland in summer, all these places are completely isolated when the show melts except via ferry and occasional flights from the tiny airstrip, so they need to be pretty self-contained.
After heading off the next morning, we pulled into a small town 40km or so from our campsite and hit up the local Produkti for freshly baked jam rolls and fried potato cakes, and ate it all in the shop as we defrosted and the shop lady watched the crazy foreigners. Headed north out of town on pretty reasonable roads really, doing 50km/hour on the good bits and slowing down for the potholes and rutty bits. Salekhard was only 120km away at this point and we had our minds set on the finish. Panzer had started jumping out of second gear into neutral, and occasionally entirely refusing to go into first (plus the gear lever was all bent thanks to a surprise encounter with a large rock at 40km/hr) and so we were thinking kind thoughts and praying the gearbox would just hold up for another 100km.
Aside from that it was a fairly uneventful day. I crashed the bike into the snowbanks on the side of the road twice much to Guy’s annoyance and we had a lot of fun with our last day of dodging potholes on the slippery ice road. Which is really a lot of fun – because you have zero traction on your front wheel and zero working brakes (we disconnected our front brake to fix Geordies clutch, because it wasn’t so much a brake as a “send the bike into an uncontrollable spin and then roll it” lever), you can turn or brake all you like but the bike keeps going forward. To turn, you need to change engine speed – deaccellerating causes the freewheeling sidecar to swing forward and turn the bike left, and accelerating makes it lag behind and turn the bike right. You can then use this to slew the bike around obstacles reasonably nimbly if you can see them coming (which isn’t at all easy with snow) and the rest of them you just hit, preferably – for the person in the sidecar with no suspension – not at 50km/hr, but sometimes they just have to take one for the team.
The other obstacle the zimnik designers throw at you is the good old incorrectly-cambered right hand bend up an icy hill, where the intention seems to be to somehow automatically select which traffic passes through – vehicles of a particular size handle it fine, but if you are too small (or too large, I suspect) you will be violently thrown off the road and into the river. I guess this is cheaper than a weighbridge. While you absolutely need to take it slow to not roll the bike around the corner on the slippery, sloping road surface, you need some momentum to make it up the hill at all, otherwise you start rolling uncontrollably backwards which is not something you ever, ever want to do. Fun times, particularly for the morbidly fascinated spectator in the sidecar.
In any case, we made it to within sight of Salekhard and then opted to not follow the complex directions provided by the Adventurists to get to this ski resort (in Labytnangi which faces Salekhard across the river Ob), but instead head into Salekhard town proper so we could say we made it (and also find some coffee and defrost). Drove across the river via the temporary highway that must get constructed each year, which was amazing to see though the icy wind was brutal. Asked some locals for directions, did the usual we’re-from-Australia-yes-this-is-our-motorbike-I-know-it-*is*-cold-riding-yes-we-are-crazy-goodbye routine then sat and ate everything on the menu at a cool place called “Coffee Black”. Wonder of wonders they had wifi and we all Facebooked it up after a week of no Internet, going (very) cold turkey.
Headed back, found the ski resort eventually, crossed the finish line and we were done. It still seems hard to believe, but our little convoy of three people actually managed to get two vintage Ural motorbikes 1649km through pretty damn inhospitable conditions. We were one of only six (I think) teams that drove their bikes across the line, which is probably a combination of luck and Guy checking the oil and tightening bolts every morning (our bike was given to us at the the start without a drop of engine oil in it…). Our convoy-mate Geordie was truly awesome, keeping us slowcoaches moving and generally being a super cool dude to be around. It made all the difference to hang out with awesome people like Geordie (and our other occasional convoy-mates Mike and Zaya, Pat and Nick, Bjorn and Ricco) when you’re sitting around a campfire swapping stories in the absolute middle of nowhere.
The last couple of days have been parties every night (last night until about 5am, with flaming shots, ending up at what can only be described as a Russian strip club) and generally chilling out and enjoying not camping in the cold. Haven’t been skiing but we did go tubing this afternoon which was surprising chilled, though with a bit of a hike back up the hill to the top.
I’m going to write a few more blog posts on our 30-hour trip-home-from-hell (we fly out from Moscow on the 25th) so stay tuned, but thanks to everyone for following along, your messages of support and of course the donations to our charity Operation Smile. Photos sadly will have to wait until I get back home as Guys computer apparently suffered a critical injury during one of the larger jolts and I don’t have access to my copy of Lightroom any more. In any case I’ll post them when I can.
That’s a mammoth post anyway, so signing off for now: