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Overland Challenge - Week Five

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Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen

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24 January 1994

Road of Bones

Nyurba to Vilyuysk (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

I had slept like a log and felt great as I ambled over to the dining hall for breakfast across the permafrost with Jeff talking about the relatively easy 200 kilometre drive that lay ahead of us.

And we determined to tell of our, albeit superficial, knowledge of the environmental horror that we could so easily see had shocked the Soviet Union to death.

It was all around us. Great waterfalls of frozen ice that looked so beautiful but told so much about the world we were travelling through and where so many people had to live. As we drove to Vilyuysk, with the vapour streaming out of the vehicle exhaust pipes forming a moving cloud, the temperature dropped from minus 40 to minus 52.

Indeed the cold had gripped us so hard that when we got to the warm garage, where the vehicles would be stored overnight, we found that the two of the security guards who had got into the back of one of the sleeping trucks were frozen in and Volodia had to take out one of the small windows, climb in, and take off the locking mechanism before they could be freed.


This, for them tiny incident, gave me a clue about how to keep the "girl's" on board. If three security guards left the convoy at Yakutz then there'd be enough bunks for the whole team.

That night we stayed in a hostel for students. I haven't worked out where they slept while we took over their rooms, but I do know that a lot of work had been put in to make it bearable for us.

New loos had been constructed. Boards with six holes in had been put over a trench and a wooden structure/cabin had been built onto the side of the hostel so that, although it wasn't heated, it could at least be entered from the back door of the hostel. The women's loos even had partitions. There is of course no water flushing in this deepfreeze part of the world.

I couldn't imagine what the English speakers would have thought if they hadn't spent a whole lot of time in the trucks already. As it was it was a welcome shelter, and a bunch of students would never forget we'd been there.

That night was reception time again. I went there with a sense of slight gloom especially as Victor, Vera would be back on the top table and the deputy mayor turned out to be a Russian, looking out of place in this Yakutian part of the world. I irrationally took an instant dislike to him, ignoring his disarming smile and his love of being a Tamala.

He gave the first speech to a weary team.

The town had first been established 360 years ago to the day as a colony for exiles he said, and I could feel the generations of gulag exiles listening to our Russian host.

And then the mayor of the region came in.

The Mayor

Yury Atonotich Mikhaziov - a Yakutian wearing a magnificent green embroidered coat

Yury started with great apologies for being late and told us "when I first heard of the expedition I thought you were crazy. When I learned you had left Moscow I thought would take you forever, but when I heard that you were in Mirnyy and would be here today I couldn't believe my ears. You are a great team and now I see you here I know that you will make it all the way across my great Siberia"

Yury enthralled us with his wit and intelligence. He was the son of an exile who had married a Yakutian and I witnessed for the first time the rich intellect that so many exiles had brought to this remote corner of world. He also talked about an English doctor who had come here on horseback to set up a leper colony, her name was Kate Marsden.

We ended up dancing a Yakutian folk dance until well after 1am.

25 January 1994

Nyurba to Vilyuysk (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

It would be great to film in the leper colony that had now become a mental hospital in the desolate nowhere, and much more important Doc Ford would be able to give some second opinions, so I agreed with Yury that we'd delay our start by going via the hospital.

Victor felt the need to take the initiative. Before I could get a word in he had ordered the Ural trucks to go ahead, as he had at Ust Kut.

The temperature dropped to minus 57 centigrade on, what I now thought of as, this trial stretch of winter road. Soon we would be back on the tarmac and would not again have a change to see what a winter road could do until we had reached our point of no return.

Our guide for this stretch of the ice road was Vladimir and I spent the time, while Doc and others were in the hospital, talking with him and trying to understand the conditions that would hit us after Seymchan.

There were no clues beyond the fact that we had been amazingly lucky with the weather so far and that the conditions ahead were treacherous. No one, Vladmir reminded me, had ever managed to go the whole distance before.

When the hospital filming was complete Victor ordered the Urals off again, but this time I was waiting and said gently that we should keep as one team and that we'd go when I was ready.

That night we reached Nyurba. Half way on the ice road to Yakutsk.

This time dinner was in a house and we all just fitted round one table. The food was glorious, the atmosphere terrific and Victor, in one of his rare toasts was unnervingly warm. He toasted to a team that he was proud to be part of, that had passed one of the great driving tests of the worlds coldest region and he was convinced that all of us could make it.

I wondered whether he really meant to include Marielle, Jeni and Vera. But for now at least Victor was firmly back on side.

26 January 1994

Vilyuysk to Yakutsk (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

The drive to Yakutsk, which would be a real milestone for us when we reached it, was quick and easy except for one incident. Some of cars started playing up; the revs wouldn't go beyond 2,500 primarily because of the terrible cold. Paul and Mark tried to insulate the distributors with rags, anything to warm them up. Inside the manifold, the temperature was minus 20 centigratde. Outside it was minus 56. As Paul said, what was happening was beyond his knowledge or anyone at Ford because the cars had only been tested down to minus 40.

But he was confident that nothing too much was wrong. Soon, Victor's Mondeo and then the police car were forced to stop. But Doc, Jeff and Marielle charged ahead in the Maverick. Indeed they gave a villager a lift.

Talk on the Russian wave bands was blue. Suddenly, the English-speaking people had gone beyond the line of control, the lead if you like which stretched from one end of the convoy to the other but not beyond, had been breached.

I found myself wholeheartedly on the side of the Russians. Security was the major point. One lone car ahead of a convoy was too easy to pick off like a lone wilderbeest when there are lions around. And news of our arrival would be attracting lions.

Stepan, Igor and Victor were in Yakutsk to welcome us with a number dignitaries including the boss of all Russia's traffic police, Major General Boris Alexandrovich Koryakovtsev.

We were staying in four different hotels. Stepan and Igor were in the Yakutian Presidential Guest House with General Koryakovtsev. And that was where I finished off the day with a good meal and too much vodka. Stepan told Rupert that the girls were definitely either going back or being flown on from here. Tomorrow I knew I would have to fight like hell to keep the team together.

27 January 1994

Yakutsk (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

The cold was an undeniable killer.

Yakutsk was the real gateway of icy deepfreeze of Siberia - the second of the never-before-done hurdles that had to be leaped if we were to be the first team to travel overland from London to New York.

The first had been travelling through the Channel Tunnel - going overland from England to France. The third would be the Bering Straits. Both black and white hurdles; we would either crossed them or we wouldn't. This second hurdle was greyer and was epitomised by the vapour that poured from the exhaust pipes of the cars and trucks to make its own blinding fog.

United Team

The Siberian challenge was for me more about the people than the weather. The international team of us from England, Northern Ireland, Ireland, France, Germany the Netherlands, Russia, Canada and the USA who hardly knew each other just over a month before had now been living on top of each other while travelling through eight countries: England, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakstan and back into Russia.

We'd encountered some of the harshest weather conditions in the world: minus 57 was cold. You knew it within seconds of getting out of a car and heard your Arctic down jacket crackle as the molecules adjusted to the severe cold. It was second nature now to watch out after a few minutes for the first telltale signs of frostbite, the tips of each others' noses going white.

If anyone ever wanted proof that the world could work together, you need look no further than our quite merry bunch. Indeed we got on so well together that Richard Blanshard, our stills photographer, was being asked by ITV in England to cut down on the number of photographs of the team smiling, laughing and enjoying themselves.

Difficult because that was what we'd been doing mostly although I found myself spending more and more time away from everyone else trying to see the buried icebergs that could sink us.

Buried Icebergs

I had no serious worries about the cars yet and the Ford mechanics - Paul, Mark and Neil - were amongst the strongest of us. Russian and English-speakers alike went out of their way to praise them.

I did have serious worries about that Ural Arctic bus though. This was a six-seater, four-sleeper, cross-country people-carrier that I was relying on having with us for when the Ford Mavericks could go no further. Without the bus, I had too many people and too few seats. The bus itself was fine but the heating system in the passenger section, shipped in from Germany, failed at minus 40. So no one had been travelling in it for two weeks.

But we were a day ahead of schedule - not a week behind as many had predicted. The roads had been fine because the weather had been remarkably kind.

Would that be the case right up until the Bering Straits or would we soon reach a two, three or four-hundred kilometre section which tore the Fords apart ?

Despite the numerous back-up plans we had in place, Stepan Pojenian, the Moscow boss of the East West Creative Association which had been masterminding the logistics in the CIS, had flown all the way from Moscow mainly to tell me that the fault with the Arctic Bus made it irresponsible to carry on without reducing the team.

Under Pressure

Stepan arrived in full winter gear at The Ontario, a Canadian/Yakutian joint venture hunting lodge where the crew was staying, to collect me for a midday meeting with Major General Boris Alexandrovich Koryakovtsev, the First Deputy Chief of the traffic police of all Russia.

Both of us, I could feel, were under enormous pressure.

Major General Boris Alexandrovich Koryakovtsev was in his full military kit, big red stripe down his black uniform trousers and distinguished looking epaulets.

He had arranged for us to have a police escort for every kilometre of state-maintained road in Russia. Security was the major reason as foreign cars were a nice prize for bandits and we had a lot of equipment in them. We'd only been without an escort on the winter roads which were impassable in summer and unpatrollable in winter.

Seeing the police cars in front of us all the way never ceased to amaze me. Seeing General Koryakovtsev with his big red stripe made me realise how it was possible.

Twenty, thirty police officers were told to come to the office he was using to listen to the speech I was told I was about to make. After it the General joined in our deliberations about the best route from here on, where there would be no police escort.

All Change

Our detailed plans for the most difficult leg of the whole Challenge were torn up in front of our eyes.

This year...', said Vladimir Vasilyev, General Koryakovtsev's Yakutsk deputy as he replaced the handset of a phone he had been shouting into, '... the winter road from Seymchan to Zyryanka is very bad; no one is travelling that way. You should find another route'.

Throughout our year of planning we'd counted on reaching Seymchan, the town where the state roads come to an end and the town where every Russian I'd talked to expected the Ford Mondeos to stop and then be driven down south to Magadan for shipping off to Fairbanks in Alaska while the Ford Mavericks and the Ural Trucks struggled north for a month of off-road journeying to the Bering Straits.

The main alternative was significantly different - leave Yakutsk for Khandyga on the 29th and then drive due north up beyond the Arctic Circle to Deputatski, a fair road according to Vasilyev who had driven it in five days during December. Across to Balaya Gora on a very difficult winter road. If the Fords couldn't pass over the Balaya Gora winter road they would have to be driven back to Deputatski where there was an airport.

As the meeting moved location to the Yakutsk Presidential Rest House where Yeltsin had stayed during one of his visits to this far-flung republic and where General Koryakovtsev and Stepan were then staying I could feel disaster looming. The General wasn't there so we got straight down to discussing the key purpose of Stepan's visit.

'Richard, whatever route - you have to reduce the team', Stepan insisted.

He had flown to see me two weeks before at Novosibirsk to say the same thing. And he was right in many ways except in Novosibirsk 'Reduce the numbers on the team' was easily-decipherable code for 'Send back Marielle, Jeni and Vera.'

The fact that Jeni, Marielle and Vera had made it to Yakutsk in such cold weather was challenging that opinion but it didn't affect Stepan's insistence that I had to have a plan at least to reduce the crew. If not 'the girls', then who?

At last, after hours of bickering, we agreed that the team would be reduced if all the Fords stopped because we wouldn't need the Ford mechanics. We also agreed to reduce the number of Russian security people we had with us. That would make the numbers fit if the Arctic Bus could be repaired.

I'd won one vital battle but could see us losing the war if we were forced to abandon all those months of planning the Seymchan route.

I decided to postpone leaving Yakutsk for a day and slept badly.

28 January 1994

Yakutsk (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

Vera bounced into the hotel room where I was typing to say she'd just had a call from Vladimir Vasilyev, General Koryakovtsev's Yakutsk deputy who'd recommended the northern route to Deputasky, to say that the last 700 kilometre route from Belaya Gora to Cherskiy was not open. And that it hadn't been since 1985.

We never did get to the bottom of quite why he'd recommended that route but we did discover that the Seymchan Zyryanka road was passable and that Victor's fixers were arranging for the last winter road to be made. The weather might close in on us but baring that Stepan's great, hardworking team was back on top.

I felt very relieved in time for a press conference in the town centre. Valery was on the top table and was very helpful. He politely added Ford, UralAZ and the radio sponsor to my speech and jumped in well to a couple of questions about charging through the country and not meeting the people properly. It was in my view a very fair criticism, but Valery insisted that we met lots of people all along the winter roads.

The question had come from two young journalists from Latvia who were friends of friends. They were hoping to hitch a lift and this was one of the (increasing in number) times when I desperately wished the expedition could be more relaxed.

I also knew I was feeling much more tense than I had expected to, especially after achieving so much.

Getting through to London was a tiny example of the difficulties we were having. I had been told this would be easy but it took over an hour. Waiting for the right time because of the nine-hour difference didn't help. Eventually, I talked to Roger and he had good news.

The audience ratings for the first programme were a million more than was normal for the slot and the schools' packs had been exhausted. 7,000 had gone out so far. Ford had asked for a further print run of 50,000.

And I got through to Wendy who sounded much brighter than I thought she would.

29 January 1994

Yakutsk to Khandyga (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

Despite our best intentions we started late again. It was a dramatic start though with the crossing of the Lena River. It must have been 12 kilometres across - all frozen solid.

Volodya, our No 5 truck driver, said that it was one of the narrowest parts of the river which was the second biggest in Russia and nearly the size of the Amazon. In some parts, it was 25 kilometres across.

Frozen in near the bank where the river road goes down to the ice were two boats. We asked Kees via the car radios if he wanted to film and heard,

"We've missed it. It's f***ing too late. Forget it".

Now Kees always smiles, always keeps his cool and never swears.

It was clearly something we shouldn't miss. So, despite the slow start, I called the convoy to a halt - let the Urals go ahead and we took two takes of the Fords passing the iced-in boats.

Stalin's Gulags

After a relatively uneventful but long drive we arrived at the village of Cherkekh for a late lunch.

I asked Vladimir Zorin, the guide who used to be the traffic chief for the whole of Yakutia, to join us. It turned out that Cherkekh was well known for local writers and intellectuals. And that they were the descendants of people in the Gulags. Indeed, Khandyga which lay on the Aldan River had been a centre for Stalin's gulags.

"The prisoners built the road with their bones", said the guide.

Many of them walked here and some of those that survived their ten to fifteen-year terms were released into the villages where they then married.

That night, we reached Khandyga at 11 and I decided to miss the yet another meal and go straight to my room.

An upset Vera - who wanted me to eat, a bewildered fixer Volodya and a slightly despairing Valery arranged for the police car to transport me to the hostel.

It was much cleaner than the one in Vilyuysk and this break gave me a chance to start reading Solzhenitsyn's 'The Gulag Archipelago', my first read since London.

30 January 1994

Khandyga to Oymyakon (Yakutia, Siberia, Russia)

At ten past seven, Valery was knocking gently on doors and softly asking people to wake up. We had an agreed 7.30 leave time. Fifteen minutes later, Valery was shouting,

'Get up, Get up, Get up'. Peter George joined in: 'Whose not up ?'.

I opened my door and Valery said 'Sorry' with a shrug of the shoulders which meant he wasn't.

Valery and I soon fall into a discussion about whether to take the short cut via the Oymyakon to Seymchan or the longer loop with the better road. I was all for the short cut but the decision didn't have to be taken for some time.

Road of Bones

We wound our way into the mountains on the most beautiful road and stopped a number of times for Kees to film which gave me a chance to reflect on the fact that this were now driving along the 'Road of Bones'. It and all the surrounding roads had been built by the zeks (prisoners) of the Gulags (labour camps) in 60 degrees below, with only the clothes they came in from Moscow.

Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago gave a real double edge to the beauty, especially his passage about logging trees. At seven that evening, we refuelled and I took the decision to go for the short cut.

We would aim to get to Oymyakon, also known as the Cold Pole, where the coldest-ever recorded temperature had been taken - 71.2 below, much colder than the North and South poles.

As the temperature dropped the Mavericks started playing up. Coughing almost literally with cold, their power was being almost visibly sapped. Doc found driving L4 nearly impossible so Paul Wilson took over and worked out that you could fool the engine-management system in the Mavericks by half-switching off the ignition; the management system is then neutralised and run normally for a little longer until the engine works out that it's too cold to go again.

Driving along in Ural 5 under a full moon watching the stuttering cars, I felt as if I was in a horror movie with the music reaching acrescendo to signify approaching terror. In the real world, this was a real gamble. That night, the temperature dropped to 58 but we made it, not in eight hours but in four. The whole team was ecstatic.

Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen

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