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Pedalling across a Siberian Winter

“Nyet! You cannot cycle through Siberia in Winter.”
“Nyet! The bears are not yet hibernating.”

‘Nyet’ means ‘no’ in Russian, and it was the first word I learned. I soon also learned the words for ‘cold’, ‘snow’ and ‘very far’. They seemed to suffice for most conversations as I cycled across Siberia this winter.

Crossing a Siberian river

I began in Magadan, whose very name shivers with Auschwitz-like horror. For this was the port where millions of Stalin’s prisoners arrived in Siberia to work and die in freezing mines. Peeling paint blistered on dreary apartment blocks. Tears of rust streaked the walls. Huge fading murals showed sturdy men straining hearty muscles, grafting nobly for the good of the mighty Soviet Union.

I rode out into a joyfully burning autumn; a blazing celebration of brief defiance before stone-white winter arrived to strangle the land. I relished the glorious golden days until one night winter slid its appallingly cold pale hand over autumn’s soft flank. The first snow fell. Pine needles shivered down leaving the bony ghosts of trees bracing against the freezing onslaught that was rushing over me fast: squeezing, squeezing the life out of all it touched. I skidded and fell and bruised as I struggled through the first snows. Some days the skies were grey and pregnant with more snow, others were bright like a new razor- shining; slicing.

I rode across 5000km of empty ‘taiga’, leafless white birch forests, crunching snow roads and squealing stretches of ice where every nerve tightened in readiness for the next skid and crash. I rode along frozen rivers for in Siberia the rivers are the roads of winter. I had imagined that frozen rivers would be flat and ice-rink smooth, but in fact they are a chaos of broken and frozen chunks of grey ice- the tangled frustrations of a fevered person’s bed sheets- dusted in thorny thistles of pristine white frost.

Ice takes hold

I had managed to wangle a 90 day business visa by inventing my own business. A tourist visa for Russia is a miserly 30 days. But 5000km of icy riding is not easy in just 90 days. Racing against the visa meant that my days began in freezing black starlight and ended, after up to 15 hours of riding, by frigid moonlight under glowing, rolling towers of Northern Lights. Interwoven in that unpleasant long race is a constant memory of horrible cold, as low as -40C. Omyakon is the coldest inhabited region on Earth (record low: -71C). I remember once stewing at +45C in the Sudan and promising myself I would always enjoy being cold in the future. That promise did not last long here! Which is worse, excess heat or excess cold? I think the answer is whichever one you are suffering at the time. Heat is a torment; cold a cruel pain.

Cold makes everything more difficult (except for the superb bonus of being able to carry ice-cream in your panniers!) Plastic snaps, tyres freeze to rims, metal sticks to flesh, flesh screams or moans an endless painful protest. Somebody made me a reindeer fur saddle cover to assist my numb bum. My beard filled with ice and I sported long icicle bogies most days. Camping was tough and dawn brought little relief for the sun was soft that far north so late in the year, rising late and sliding sideways before slipping down once more into another long, unforgiving night. Dancing the ‘Funky Chicken’ at dawn was my strategy of choice for warming my toes: self-respect and dignity are low on your priority list at -40.

But this climate creates an unconditional kindness amongst the people who live in it. Yakutia is a nation within a nation and my fondest memory of Russia. The people are descended from Central Asian nomads and their language, intriguingly, is related only to Turkish. The people of Yakutia live in small farming communities with smallholdings of cows and summer vegetables and small cozy cottages. Because of the permafrost there is no plumbing or running water. Water is carved from rivers in paving-slab sized chunks and stored outside homes in big heaps of giant ice cubes. An early morning dash to a -40C outside loo substituted well for the fresh wake-up shower I would normally enjoy back home. (How do you go to the toilet at -40? Answer: very quickly).

A cold Alastair Humpries

Convinced of my madness, people would whisk me out of the cold and into their homes to be fed, fussed over and given a snug place to sleep. The homes are warmed by wood stoves and as my frozen boots thawed by the stove I would be fattened up with milky tea, bread, pancakes and homemade butter, jam and whipped cream. A full stomach and a warm stove was all that I needed to be able to think that maybe cycling across Siberia in winter was not such a foolish idea after all.

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