Stage 44 – Russia: The Siberian Winter [3/3]

The final part of my winter journey across Russia would take me on more winter roads; up across the vast, frozen lowland of West Siberia to the Arctic Circle and back down using a final, long ice road on the Ob River. Here, the experience would differ slightly from that of the rugged east of Siberia, with superior infrastructure and better-maintained winter roads as a result of the region’s oil and gas industry. The grip of the winter would also start to ease; days were now getting longer and the warmth of the sun would make crisp, clear winter days very pleasant, despite night-time temperatures regularly still reaching -30º C. But whilst the driving would be less daunting and uncertain, the stops I made along the way, and the experiences I had there would be among the most moving, thought-provoking, life affirming and unforgettable of the entire journey through the Siberian winter.

Vasyugan River, Novoyugino, Tomsk Region, Russia

I leave the tiny village of Prokop on the bright, sunny morning of the 27th February 2018. The temperature is a perfect -25º C as I drive to the end of the asphalt road in the town of Kargasok from where, after a brief stop for supplies, I take an unpaved road along the Vasyugan River to the village of Novoyugino. Here I am glad to find the beginning of the next zimnik (winter road), which crosses the Vasyugan Swamp, the largest in Eurasia, and marks the end of a long section of highway driving which started on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal nine days ago. As always, I am unsure of the route which this temporary road will take, but here at least there is a schematic map and a toll office where I confirm that the road leads to Strezhevoy, on the opposite bank of the Ob in the far north-west of Tomsk Region, several hundred kilometres away. After paying the toll, I drive down the river-bank past a scuppered tug-boat and cross the Vasyugan River into a frozen wilderness.

Novoyugino to Strezhevoy Winter Road, near Vertikos, Tomsk Region, Russia

The zimnik is initially wide and well-graded, passing through alternating forests of tall, old-growth pines, stands of birch trees and more open, waterlogged ground, all deep frozen and still. The road becomes progressively narrower and lumpier as it crosses the frozen swamp, heading northwards, well inland from the Ob River. Most other suers of the zimnik are lorries servicing distant oil and gas infrastructure, but I am passed by two passenger vehicles whom I later come across stopped at the road-side, with one old Volga estate car crashed off the road sticking out of a snow-covered swamp. The car is soon pulled out by a passing truck and I lend the driver some tools to get the engine re-started by taking the battery out of his friend’s car, which has already crashed further up the ice road. I take some comfort in knowing that even the locals come to grief on these slippery winter roads and keep my progress slow and steady over the slippery, frozen surface of what must be an impenetrable peat bog in summer. Late in the afternoon I pass the riverside settlement of Vertikos, from where the road roughly follows a large oil pipeline. I’m delayed waiting for a stranded articulated lorry with no chains on its rear wheels to be recovered by a civilian tank on a treacherously slippery descent into the forest, then push on in the gathering dusk northwards through the forest. Well after dark I pass the oil pumping station at Raskino and push on to another oil processing facility with a glowing orange flare stack where I stop and heat up some Russian Army rations inside the car.

Pontoon Bridge across the Ob River, Koltogorsk, Tomsk Region, Russia

Just beyond this facility I meet a fork in the road, signed left to Strezhevoy. There is of course nobody around from whom to ask directions, so I reluctantly take the left fork, away from the river where I had entertained some hope of spotting Nazino Island, infamous in Gulag history for the abandonment of six thousand deportees on a river island in the Ob in May 1933 without any supplies, some of whom resorted to cannibalism to survive. The zimnik soon turns due west, away from the river and pipeline and enters the dark forest on a narrow track. On a wide, frozen lake or mire I decide to stop for the night, but with the temperature at -30º C and the road far from any sign of human settlement, I decide to keep the engine running through the night for the first time since the Lena River. In the morning, after around eighty more kilometres of beautiful forest and swamp, I come upon a straight asphalt road which I take north to the bank of the Ob. This is an important transport artery for the oil fields to the south (from where I presume the asphalt road originated), so rather than a simple ice road crossing, the Ob is traversed here by a temporary pontoon bridge, with the steel pontoons shored-up by large tug-boats, all now frozen solidly into the ice of the Ob. Beyond the port of Koltogorsk on the river’s right bank I find the city of Strezhevoy. Though a slightly grim and charmless-looking place (albeit with the cheapest petrol I would find in the country), Strezhevoy is far from a backwater and currently marks the end of the ‘Northern Latitudinal Corridor’; a modern road, rail and oil conduit which links the oil and gas producing regions of West Siberia with European Russia and will one day make the zimnik I have just taken redundant when it bridges the gap to the city of Tomsk.

Surgut-II Power Plant, Surgut, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, Russia

Just outside of Strezhevoy I cross into the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, Russia’s main oil-producing region and am taken aback by some of the best infrastructure I have seen in the country; a very high quality road and parallel railway built on berms above the swamp and conducted above countless mires and meandering streams by many new bridges. I pass the city of Nizhnevartovsk on a road busy with ever more traffic as I near Surgut, the largest city in the region. The first sign of reaching Surgut is a broiling mass of steam to the right of the highway; the source of which are two power stations, Surgut-I and -II, the latter being the largest gas-fired power station in the world, whose dense billows of condensed water vapour fume wildly in the frigid afternoon air. I’m welcomed to Surgut by aggressive traffic but soon find the apartment of my host Anna, where I will spend a rest-day. Surgut was founded in 1594 as a staging post and ostrog (wooden fortress) on the old pioneer route along the Ob, though there is no hint of this when looking at the city’s relentlessly modern architecture. Anna takes me to the rather contrived ‘Old Surgut’ open museum where in newly-built wooden houses one gets the impression that Surgut was nothing more than a large muddy village until well into the twentieth century. All this changed in the 1960s with the discovery of huge oil reserves below the vast West Siberian swamps, which triggered an oil boom and the largest free population movement in the history of the USSR, transforming Surgut into a modern city with a population now over three hundred thousand. With people having moved from across the entire Soviet Union, today’s population is a cross section of the Former USSR, almost none of whom belong to the area’s supposedly titular Khanty or Mansi tribes.

Surgut is a boom town, a dull place to work and sleep (I find myself drawing parallels to my own posting up in a dreary corner of north-western Europe) and after one day I am ready to leave. I make use of the city’s amenities, have the engine oil changed in the car, do some shopping and refuel, then head out in the early afternoon on another excellent road, this time heading north through a flat, featureless landscape of swamps with thinning stands of forest. As darkness nears I cross into the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area and spend the following day driving ever north, watching the trees thin out and become small and stunted as the landscape changes from forest and swamp to wide, featureless tundra as I near the Arctic Circle.

Tundra, near Novy Urengoy, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

I stop for a day in the modern city of Novy Urengoy where I am hosted by Evgeniya and her mother Lyuba in a spacious, comfortable apartment. Evgeniya calls a contact the following day, a Russian-German who speaks perfect English and turns out to be a fellow Imperial University alumnus. With a driver, we enter the network of private Gazprom roads north of the city and visit first an active drilling rig, then stop at a roadside marker precisely on the Arctic Circle. The landscape around is pure tundra, but everywhere are the rigs, pipelines, well-heads and production facilities which produce the gas and condensate from the Urengoy Gas Field, the second largest in the world. Back in Novy Urengoy we meet Evgeniya’s boyfriend and make a quick tour of the city; established only in the 1970s and with a relatively affluent and well-educated population, it feels somewhat more amiable than Surgut if even farther from the rest of the world. At home, Lyuba, who has been feeding me delicious home-cooked food at every opportunity, makes a point I so far had not considered: “It’s a nice place to live. Salaries are high and the living standard is higher than in other places in Russia. We have the time and the means to travel abroad. But what future does this place have? In one hundred years, when the gas has long run out, there will be nobody left here”. Lyuba and Evgeniya have certainly had enough of the isolation and nine-month long winters, and are planning to move to Saint Petersburg later in the year.

Apartment Building, Nadym, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

I continue eastwards from Novy Urengoy on the last section of the highway, driving through more tundra under a sky of windswept, fibrous cirrus clouds and patchy stands of dwarfed pines and larches; the most beautiful scenery I have seen since crossing the Ob. At some point on this road I complete the ten thousandth kilometre since leaving Magadan, a quite astounding distance given that I am still in the thick of the winter trip. After a few hours of easy driving I cross the Nadym River on an impressive modern road bridge (with an adjacent railway bridge stalled in mid-construction) and reach the end of the road in the city of Nadym. Here I am hosted by Sveta and her husband Yury, both of whom have moved here from southern Russia in pursuit of higher salaries. The day after I arrive, the weather deteriorates with a warm front bringing strong winds, snow and temperatures up to a horrible -1º C; an early warning of the spring melt and a reminder that it is the fickleness of nature which dictates when the winter driving season ends. I appreciate the down-time however, enjoying Nadym’s relaxed, small-town atmosphere, practising English with Sveta, drinking beer with Yury, researching the next few steps of my trip and recovering from a cold I have picked up somewhere.

Trans-Polar Mainline, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

After two much-appreciated rest days waiting for the bad weather to pass, I awake to a beautifully clear morning with the temperature back down to a pleasant -19º C. I bid farewell to my hosts at around 11:00, top up with fuel, then drive to the checkpoint on the edge of town. Here, after registering myself, I pass the barrier and begin the penultimate zimnik of the trip; this one connecting Nadym and the oil and gas towns of the north with Salekhard on the Ob River. Though still a temporary winter road, the initial section is built on a well-made berm above the swamp and is even asphalted; in a few years’ time, this too will be an all-weather road. What makes this route special however is that there is more than beautiful, frozen wilderness to look at whilst making my way to the Ob, for the zimnik takes the path of what remains of the Trans-Polar Mainline, better known as the ‘Dead Road’; one of the most grandiose of Stalin’s many Gulag construction projects.

Tundra, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

The isolated appearance of Nazi naval vessels in the Kara Sea during the Second World War, together with the potential exploitation of mineral riches of the Russia Arctic, convinced Stalin of the need for a new, deep-sea port to be built at Cape Kamenny on the Yamal Peninsula. In 1947 work was started to reach the site of the new port by rail, connecting the Pechora Basin across the Polar Urals to the Ob River. Meanwhile, surveying of the Cape Kamenny site showed it to be unsuited as a deep-water port, which led to the focus of a new port shifting to Igarka on the lower reaches of the Yenisei River, far further to the east beyond more than a thousand kilometres of virtually unexplored wilderness. The railway was to be built by forced labour and it is thought that between eighty and one hundred thousand prisoners, most of them ‘politicals’, were sentenced to this terrific wilderness to build a railway of a projected 1,482 kilometres between the Ob and the Yenisei. The project was divided into two units; Project 501 worked eastwards from Salekhard on the Ob, whilst Project 503 worked westwards from Yermakovo, upstream from Igarka on the Yenisei. The two great rivers would be crossed by railway ferries in summer and by laying tracks on the ice during winter. The use of slave labour was nothing unusual for the time, indeed railways had customarily been built by prisoners even in Tsarist times, but the conditions here would have made life here horrific; an untrammelled wilderness of endless bogs, streams and forest, bitterly cold in winter and alive with pestilent biting insects in the short summers. The sheer absurdity of the project must surely also have weighed on the minds of the conscripts. Shortly after Stalin’s death in May 1953, the project was abandoned with around eight hundred of the 1,482 kilometres of track completed. Billions of roubles were written off on the failed project. The thousands of prisoners who died from exposure, malnutrition and exhaustion are today unrecorded, most likely of little concern to the NKVD’s accountants. The remains of Project 501; the railway line and the camps which housed the prisoners who built them, lie slowly decaying in the vast tundra, poignant relics to the ignorant ambition of a monster. Perhaps nothing better embodies Gogol’s oft-repeated adage that ‘Russia has two problems: Fools and bad roads’.

Isolation Cells, Karas Camp, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

Soon after leaving Nadym, the railway comes into view just to the north of the zimnik. Seeing the first of what would be dozens of ruined bridges crossing a small stream, I pull over, driving foolishly far from the road surface, something I should by now know not to do, and get my front right wheel stuck in deep snow. I’m furious with myself for making such a beginner’s mistake but resign to waiting for a lorry to pass and pull me out. Some Nenets reindeer herders on a snowmobile stop to check I am not in trouble, though I decide to keep waiting for a truck rather than try to dig and recover the vehicle by hand. Perhaps half an hour after getting stuck, a huge 6×6 lorry stops and tows me out, the Bashkir driver refusing the two bottles of vodka I offer him on the grounds of alcohol being forbidden for workers in the area. Resuming progress along the road, I spot many more bridges; some intact but buckled by repeated frost-heaves, others collapsed with rails drooping off leaning piers where wooden supports have long rotted back into the swamp. At one stop I am able to carefully make my way across the knee-deep snow and reach the railway line itself. Here, where the wind has scoured away the winter snow cover I can clearly see the rails and rotted wooden sleepers. Often the bowed, rust-pitted rails have broken free from the sleepers leaving baseplates and spikes scattered on the ground. It’s a poignant sight, the line stretching out into the snow, seemingly untouched for decades.

Ruined Bridge, Trans-Polar Mainline, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

Along the course of the railway there were lagpunkti (camps) approximately every twenty kilometres, many of which have survived until today, though with the thick winter snow I will only be able to visit those that are immediately adjacent to the zimnik. I come across the first of these, Shchuchy Camp, in the afternoon and am able for the first time in my years of travel in Russia to see a Gulag camp, as described in the harrowing literature of authors such as Solzhenitsyn or Shalamov, preserved in its original state. Close to the roadside are remains of an old barbed wire fence and the support piles of a guard-tower, beyond which is a barracks with the remains of prisoners’ bunks and a kitchen area with large cast-iron cauldrons. Rather movingly, passing drivers and hunters have made something of a small altar, with offerings of coins, cigarettes, vodka bottles, sweets and even food, evidence that, contrary to the wishes of the Russian government, the Russian population are not ignorant of, or unmoved by, the crimes of the Soviet regime. I’m deeply impressed by the camp; fascinated by its state of preservation, having presumably been untouched since the early 1950s; shocked by the conditions the prisoners must have endured, but also enchanted by the perfect silence and great natural beauty, as the late afternoon sun pierces the stunted pines and birch trees which have grown inside the abandoned lagpunkt. A little further along the road I’m treated to a spectacular sunset behind sparse stands of larch, and choose to stop as darkness falls, not wishing to miss any part of this fascinating ‘Dead Road’.

Watchtower, Idyakha Camp, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

I awake to a cold but perfectly clear morning and, not far from my rest point for the night, come across Karas Camp where I find three of the infamous ‘punishment isolators’; cells where prisoners were locked up alone as punishment and given rations insufficient to keep them alive. Nearby, I decide to brave the snow to examine a large collapsed bridge whose rails fly through the air above a stream totally stripped of their sleepers. It takes around half an hour to reach the bridge which is little more than one hundred metres from the road. I’m well-dressed, well-fed and the weather is a benign, sunny -25º C. What the undernourished, poorly-clothed prisoners must have suffered in the dark depths of winter, or the boggy, pestilent summer is still hard to imagine. I pass more camps; Idyakha, where I wade out to the shell of a guard tower and barbed wire fence, and Limbyayakha where an intact guard tower directly overlooks the road. The zimnik then leaves the new road-bed and reverts to a lumpy, temporary track, soon bringing me to the wooden entrance gate of Glukhariny Camp, which seems to be actively preserved and is the most intact camp I come across. Here one can get a feel of the entire layout of a lagpunkt; specifically of the square ‘Zone’ in which prisoners could move between buildings, surrounded by a triple barbed-wire fence with a sentry guard tower in each corner. I feel I have a had a privileged glimpse of one of history’s darkest episodes, one the current government is keen for people to forget. It’s pleasing to see the camps either preserved or left alone, but I wonder at this point what their fate will be once the highway is completed. Beyond Glukhariny the zimnik takes me through more forest in which I see a number of overgrown camps, running to the north of the railway line and more dilapidated bridges, though I reluctantly pass these places as I wish to complete the zimnik today. Well after dark the zimnik descends into a wide bog in which the snow is thick, stranding a two-wheel drive van which I unsuccessfully attempt to recover, then meets a new asphalted road. From here it is a smooth drive of ninety kilometres to the city of Salekhard, capital of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area and my base for the next few days.

Ob River and Polar Urals, Salekhard, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

I am met on the edge of Salekhard by Slava, a friend of a friend of mine, who escorts me back to his lavish dacha or holiday house on the northern edge of the city, a few kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Slava returns to his family home for the night, but meets me in the morning to show me around. We start at a small hill on the bank of the Ob on the inside of the wide turn which the river makes towards eastwards where it soon meets the Kara Sea. The unbridged expanse of ice is crossed only by a seasonal two-laned ice road with the cranes of the port of Labytnangi lying dormant on the far shore. Well beyond this are the magnificent Polar Urals, sculpted, ethereally white mountains which hover in the far distance and mark the easternmost boundary of Europe. During the planning stages of this trip I had hoped to find a zimnik running through them, alongside the railway to the Pechora Basin, but Slava assures me that there has not been a zimnik since Soviet times. Heading into town, we stop to see a reconstructed ostrog marking the position where the village of Obdorsk was founded at the end of the sixteenth century, which would become the town of Salekhard in the 1930s. On the highway nearby is a large black locomotive on a plinth, a monument to Project 501, though the monument’s brass inscription states only that the locomotive was brought here in 1947; no mention is made of the forced labour which underpinned the project. I am glad to have seen for myself the reality of the project out in the wilderness to the east. In the afternoon Slava invites a couple of friend over, who bring their families, and we round the day off in good Russian style grilling shashlyk (skewered meat) outside Slava’s dacha, enjoying the bracing Arctic Siberian air at a temperature of -25º C.

Khanty Woman, near Aksarka, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

What I wish most to do in Salekhard however, is head back out into the tundra in order to catch a glimpse of the life of the native reindeer herders who still live a traditional life beyond any modern infrastructure. Yury, a close friend of Slava, knows a family of herders who live not far from the town of Aksarka, around sixty kilometres downstream on the right bank of the Ob. Yury and Slava very kindly agree to facilitate a trip out to meet them, so on my second day in Salekhard we load Slava’s snowmobile onto a trailer behind Yury’s Nissan 4×4 and head out on the only road out of Salekhard, east to the small town of Aksarka. Here we join an ice road on the Ob and drive just over twenty kilometres downriver, stopping at the mouth of a small stream and getting out the snowmobile. Slava and I get into a sled while Yury carefully drives up the bank onto the tundra, passing through stunted, metre-high pines for a few minutes until we reach a stirring sight. In a small patch of open tundra well above the Ob, four chums, large, reindeer-skin conical tents, sit amongst the paraphernalia of nomadic herders; sleds, storage chests, animal skins and much else. A few reindeer plod around the camp, interested and not in any way fearful of our arrival. We have reached the winter home of the Kondygin family, who belong to the Khanty nation.

Khanty Woman, near Aksarka, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

The Khanty are a Ugrian people indigenous to the northern Ural Region (once known as Yugra) who speak a Ugric language thought to be related to Hungarian. Traditionally living nomadic lives based on reindeer husbandry, fishing, trapping and hunting, the Khanty are one of very few indigenous Siberian tribes to have received their own autonomous okrug (area) during Soviet times. Despite having endured collectivisation, which saw the murder of tribal chiefs and traditional shamans and the abduction of children into state care, many of Russia’s estimated 12,500 Khanty still live traditional lives, though the ever present lure of globalisation, plus incursion of the nearby oil and gas industry threaten this. We are warmly welcomed by the extended family when we arrive in the chum of Tikhon and Anna, whose children and grandchildren are visiting. In the warmth of the chum I meet people with kind, round faces with almond eyes, not dissimilar looking to Tuvans or Mongolians but with paler features and often coloured hair and eyes. With one another they speak Khanty, which sounds nothing like Hungarian to me. We are invited to have tea at a table spread with bread, jam, sweets, frozen fish and reindeer tongue which is very tasty, not unlike well-cooked duck. Soon the children wrap the grandchildren up against the cold in brightly coloured clothes, then leave towards the river. Slava and Yury also wish to return to Salekhard, but very kindly offer to collect me the following day, thus giving me the chance to spend a night sleeping in an authentic Khanty chum.

Khanty Chum Camp, near Aksarka, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

Once the sound of Slava’s snowmobile recedes into the distance, I’m struck by the silence and marvellous isolation out in this wilderness a few kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. I have a walk around the surroundings of the camp, then watch life slowly unfolding around the chums; Tikhon chopping wood for the stove and Anna fetching fresh snow to melt into water and feeding the three friendly and very tame reindeer who wander around the camp like pets. There’s a long, red sunset over the Ob with the prospect of a storm coming in from the west most likely precluding any aurora sightings. Inside the warmth of the chum I’m struck by the similarity of the layout with a Mongolian ger; a central stove and a south-facing entrance; a family area to the right as one enters, with guests accommodated on the left and a storage area with utensils and trinkets opposite the entrance. The chum however lacks the ever present musty, milky aroma of a ger and is also slightly less spacious, being built around forty-five thin, straight larch trunks rather than the pre-tensioned and shaped supports of a ger. Anna makes me a den of thick blankets in which to sleep, unrolling a flowery sheet from above to form a privacy curtain. In the absolute silence of the tundra, I drift off into a deep sleep.

Khanty Chum, near Aksarka, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

In the morning the weather has indeed closed in and we wait patiently in the chum for a call from Yury. I watch Anna pack away the bedding and make tea, whilst Tikhon sits ruefully at the stove smoking. I sense in them a tremendous sense of patience, perhaps not surprising from a people who watch the seasons pass and must adapt their lives to the conditions around them. Their lives seem startlingly different from my own; restless, ever chasing various ambitions and projects. “We stay here in winter to be close to the forest, for fuel. In summer we move into the open where the insects are not so bad. Right now our reindeer are being herded off to the north. You could go and visit but we don’t have any fuel for the snowmobile.” They also seem to be free from any sort of political or religious prejudice; with the pragmatic life-outlook of nomadic people living in tune with their environment and accepting their place in the world. I wished my Russian were good enough to ask them if they preserve any of the old shamanic rituals or holidays, or if any of their wooden idols have survived attempts at Christianisation and Soviet purges. Given more time I would love to stay longer with these people and witness more of their lives, perhaps trying to learn a little patience from them.

Aurora Borealis, Salekhard, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

After lunch, with the conditions outside slowly worsening, Tikhon and Anna pack up some belongings and we drive down to the river on Tikhon’s Soviet-era Buran snowmobile, where we meet Yury. Anna will join us for the drive to Aksarka, where she will visit her family who live in the town, while Tikhon returns stoically alone to the chum. The ice road is about to close as the blizzard worsens, but we make it to Aksarka where we drop off Anna then return to Salekhard. Soon after returning to Slava’s dacha, it’s clear that I have eaten something which my body violently disagrees with, and I spend the next two days lying on the sofa, consuming nothing but boiled water with a little sugar and salt to replace the fluids I lose with each purgatory visit to the lavatory. On the evening of the second day of rest I am feeling back to normal and preparing dinner when I look out of the window and am filled with an uncontainable, child-like excitement at what I see out of the window; a strong, green glow moving gently in the sky; my first real view of the Aurora Borealis.

Aurora Borealis, Salekhard, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

After grabbing my camera and tripod and donning my warmest clothes, I rush out into the bracing cold; temperatures have dropped to almost -30º C once again, leaving a crystal-clear sky. A steady green band of aurora is streaming in the sky above; charged particles from the Sun’s solar wind meeting the Earth’s magnetic field and being deflected into the upper atmosphere, exciting sparse atoms, with atomic oxygen giving the common emerald-green colour. As I stand watching, mesmerised, the intensity of the stream of energy approaching me from the north-west increases, with the band bifurcating into two separate streams, folding in on themselves to form more chaotic, whirlpool-like formations and vertical rays which shimmer in red and yellow, shooting across the sky with surprising speed to form a shimmering curtain of aurora; one of the most breathtakingly beautiful things I have ever seen, all taking place perhaps one hundred kilometres above my head. After reaching this crescendo, the aurora diminishes, and I take refuge in the warmth indoors. At around 02:00, as I’m about to sleep, I see another band of light in the sky; this time coming from the north and bending round to the east. Heading out once more I watch the sky again as the band passes directly overhead and abruptly folds in on itself so that I am looking directly up a vertical arc to witness a staggering auroral corona, with lines taking the eye to a convergence point far overhead, giving the impression of peering out into space; something I will never forget. I count my food-poisoning as a blessing; had it not happened I would be far to the south by now and would have certainly missed this natural wonder.

Ob River Ice Road, near Labytnangi, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia

I leave Salekhard the morning after my aurora experience wondering how I could ever repay Slava and Yury for their efforts and kind hospitality, facilitating something of a climax to my winter trip. It’s another beautifully clear Arctic day with bright sunshine and an invigorating air temperature of -29º C, though a brisk wind makes outdoor conditions bitterly cold. Crossing the Ob, I reach the left-bank town of Labytnangi and, after registering at a checkpoint, begin my final ice road; a long one which will take me up the Ob to the roadhead in Priobye, around five hundred kilometres to the south. From the sunny warmth of the car, it’s a pleasure to drive the ice road and I’m filled with a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at the experiences of the last few days. Soon Salekhard feels far behind me as I re-enter the Siberian wilderness; here a huge, frozen wetland formed by the many branches of the anastomosing Ob. The ice road hugs the left-most bank of this channel system, alternating between the river, small side-channels and fluvial islands, passing small towns and tiny villages with Ugric sounding names such as Shuryshkary, Unselgort and Vorzemgort. As the day wears on, cirrus clouds appear, signalling an incoming weather front which by sunset brings an overcast sky. After stopping for fuel in the town of Muzhi, I continue on into the night, eventually stopping at a road-side clearing to sleep, exactly on the border between the Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Areas.

Nativity Church, Beryozovo, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, Russia

I awake to snowy conditions, with the overcast skies making the ice road far less enjoyable to drive, though the weather eases by mid-morning as I reach the small town of Beryozovo. Built on three hills at the riverside, Beryozovo is one of the region’s oldest settlements and has long been a place of exile. It was here that Trotsky escaped en-route to exile in Obdorsk in 1905, but the town’s most famous resident was Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov. Born a commoner, Menshikov became a favourite of Peter the Great, leading to tremendous wealth and power. Despite being repeatedly found guilty of corruption and fraud, Menshikov retained his position and at the time of Peter’s death was influential in bringing Peter’s second wife, Catherine I, to the Russian throne. During Catherine’s reign, Menshikov was the de facto ruler of Russia, promoting himself to the rank of Generalissimo. His downfall finally came upon her death when, attempting to marry his daughter into the royal line, he was overthrown by old nobility and exiled to Beryozovo in 1728, where he would die two years later. I find the tall, gilded spires of Beryozovo’s Nativity Church at a beautiful riverside setting next to a small park of old-growth pines surrounding Menshikov’s lonely grave. Here suddenly I have an odd feeling of translocation; I could be in a European Russian estate, perhaps somewhere in the countryside around Moscow. The knowledge that I am thousands of kilometres away, even today beyond the reach of any highway or railway, merely emphasises how absolute exile must have been here in the eighteenth century.

Beyond Beryozovo the ice road continues, reaching the town of Igrim and, after a short stretch of asphalt returning to the frozen swamps of the Ob. I manage to pick up a phone signal here and am able to track my progress on a satellite map; below the frozen white expanse across which I am driving lie myriad streams, swamps, ponds and oxbow lakes, all unseen from the ice road. After an unpleasantly corrugated final section in the gathering dusk, I reach a ramp where the ice road ends on the edge of the town of Priobye. This is the end of the final ice road, and in many ways the end of the winter journey. From here on, I have no option but to drive on the highway to journey’s end in Moscow.

North Urals, near Severouralsk, Sverdlovsk Region, Russia

After an overnight stop in the town of Nyagan, I set off on a dull morning for the long drive to Moscow. The temperature has risen to -3º C meaning the winter snow is starting to sweat and melt; the road is a mess of slippery brown slush, filled with typically impatient Russian drivers as it plunges straight through the endless taiga. It’s as if I have awoken from a nice dream; all the magic of the frozen, open north has vanished to be replaced with dirt and blandness. I spend four days driving back to Moscow; firstly down through the North Urals, crossing on the same highway Maciej and I had taken last August, then across the backwaters of European Russia; Kirov, Kostroma and Ivanovo Regions which are filled with broken roads, dying villages and stagnant small logging towns. On the morning of the fourth day I cross the Volga north of Kineshma, making my way to the capital on muddy backroads through the Golden Ring region. As I approach Moscow on a quiet road through the forests to the east of the capital, the temperature creeps above freezing for the first time on the trip and, driving with the windows open I am suddenly aware of the smell of the dripping pine forest, one thing I now realise I have missed during the deep Siberian winter. I brave the afternoon traffic of the MKAD, the Moscow orbital, and reach the apartment of my friend Katya by mid afternoon: journey’s end, 13,875 kilometres since leaving Magadan forty-nine days ago. Katya has just moved in to her newly-built apartment and thus I find myself shopping with her in Ikea for tableware shortly after; a more unlikely ending to a winter expedition I cannot imagine.

Despite ending in the overcast sprawl of Moscow, I am thrilled to have completed the winter journey, a dream-like journey through the vivid imagery of my own imagination; through what seems to be almost a parallel world of stunning landscapes and harsh conditions far removed from mundanity; a real adventure involving ever-present risk and uncertainty, rewarded by sights few others have seen, far removed from the tawdriness of modern-day mass tourism. With no major delays due to weather, and none due to problems with the impeccable Hilux Surf, I have two weeks of redundancy which I had built into the schedule to now enjoy, and so I plan to take a long way back to Western Europe together with Katya.


2 thoughts on “Stage 44 – Russia: The Siberian Winter [3/3]

  1. Pingback: ZIMNIK – Ice Roads in Russia – Kolja Spori

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