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A tank beats a trudge across the Soviet Arctic

The tank was noisy. Soviet-era tanks certainly weren’t built for stealth. We clambered down through a porthole into the cabin on a clear fresh morning of around -15˚C and sat, sweltering, next to the clanking, groaning engine for the next eight hours. Slava’s headless body groped expertly at the levers next to us, steering us across the tundra. His exposed face braved the increasingly inclement elements outside the hatch. Our driver owned the convoy of four tanks that we’d hitched a ride north on and he makes regular journeys to Ust-Kara: a small Nenets (indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic) settlement to trade in fish and reindeer. We’d been introduced to him by Nadia and a different Slava, friends we’d made in Vorkuta, who affectionately termed him a “brutal Russian man”. He was thickset, scarred, crop-haired and looked like Tom Hardy’s wayward twin. He was also very kind.

Tanks in Russia

We lacked the necessary documents (which would require money, a six-month wait, and a return journey almost to the border of Finland) to visit Ust-Kara which is in a restricted military “zona”. So, Slava agreed to drop us somewhere shortly before arriving there. We didn’t know where but trusted him. It was after dark when the convoy stopped at what seemed to be a restaurant at the end of the world. We were somewhere on the tundra, apparently on the banks of the frozen river Kara. There was a single building with a dog, a kitchen, a dining table and a little dormitory upstairs. There was a windswept snowman by the door holding a fishing rod and a bottle of vodka. A wooden pistol hung from his belt. We all bundled inside for bowls of borsht, smoked fish, sweet cherry blinis and shots of vodka. One man pointed out that tomorrow was international women’s day and so we (nine men and Callie) toasted the women of the world. Slava said we should sleep upstairs, covered our dinner, shook our hands warmly, said shastlieva (good luck) and exited with his team. We shared the dormitory with one very drunk man in a bold Christmas jumper. He fell loudly out of bed in the night.

​In the morning we loaded our sleds, heaved on our backpacks, clipped into our ski bindings and finally put one foot in front of the other. We moved slowly. Our bags contained rations for twenty-eight days and our legs contained lethargy from a week’s inactivity. My blisters from our ‘trial run’ had healed a great deal and the sadistic ski boots were rendered just about workable with a collection of innersoles, blister patches and zinc tape covering half my feet.

Arctic tundra

It wasn’t a sunny day but it was clear enough and we could see several kilometres. Our navigation was simple. The GPS gave us the compass bearing to a point, roughly a hundred miles away, at which we’d leave the tundra and follow a valley up into the Ural Mountains. We looked at our compasses, picked a feature in the far distance that lay on the correct bearing, and headed straight for it. The light began to fade at around 3pm, so we threw up our tent and crawled in. When we looked at the GPS it said that we were 10km closer to that valley. Only 10km. Shit! We’d calculated our rations on an average of 15km each day. Well, we thought, no need to worry. We’ll get faster and stronger and our routine will grow slicker. And we’ll start earlier. We stopped fretting and went to sleep.

Arctic tundra

Callie celebrates International Women’s Day

Live updates from Charlie on his Arctic adventure on his expedition website. Information about donating to his chosen charity can be found here. Perhaps the best reason of all to visit his website is to buy a signed copy of Charlie’s new book, Through Sand and Snow.

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