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Overland Challenge - Week Seven

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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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7 February 1994

Snow Diving

Zyryanka (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

Every preconceived idea about what you'd see in Russia could be turned turtle in a day. And the same applied to first impressions.

I arrived in what I imagined to be a Siberian frontier town, a rough, tough, hard-drinking kind of town made even worse by its association with the neighbouring gulags where, to survive, it helped to become an animal.

The museum was the first place to put me right. Yes, Zyryanka, with its population of 8,000, was a frontier town which was built only 50 years ago after prospectors found vast quantities of surface coal and gold. And the town was built and the mines worked by convicts and political prisoners - slave labour because very few would come here voluntarily.

But there the frontier analogy ended because the gulags were filled in the main by middle-class intellectuals, too dazed and frightened even to complain as they were wrenched away from their families, their lifetimes of personal possessions and shipped via the Arctic sea to the Kolymar River on boats arriving from Leningrad and the northern ports. It was summer then, when the Kolymar wasn't frozen, and it was physically bearable.

And not all exciles went to the Gulags. Many were just dumped in the small villages just as exiles had been for centuries by the Czars. No need for barbed wire or guards. There was nowhere to go, no fight left in them anyway. In the winter cold, you froze or survived and to survive, you worked.

And the locals, the Inhuits were a gentle people. As winter approached the cold encouraged patience, comradeship, working together. And it was these people that the zeks from the gulags met when they'd survived the terrible terms of hard labour, and many of them stayed in the villages. And they mixed and they married and their children and grandchildren were some of the people I met in Zyryanka.

One of these 'enemies of the state' had founded the museum.

For me, most of the day was taken up by a 6 page fax, the result of a phone call from John who put into words what I'd already known in my bones.

I'd asked him about Central's attitude towards 'The Big Race'. Everyone knew it was underfunded. If you came back now you'd be fighting off swords and bullets from every direction. But if you get to New York you'll be the local hero.

By the time the evening reception dinner arrived with its dancing and speeches, I could only think of a warm shower and bed.

So, instead of dancing, I trudged back to the airman's hostel in the strengthening wind and dropped as quickly as I could into bed.

8 February 1994

Zyryanka to Sredekolymsk (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

During breakfast in the hunters' lodge came a call from David Fuller. The best story on the project so far was Russians drinking screen-wash anti-freeze - they needed a better story. I told him about Factory 3, the most emotional day of the journey so far. Could be good for The Observer but the tabloids would need torture happening in the gulag right now, he said.

And then John phoned. Thanks for the long fax. What should we do about Peter George? We didn't honestly need him or Neil back on the convoy. I'd tell him there wasn't space on the convoy and that it would be best if he could sort out a way of using the Hercules to get the Arktos in and the Fords out.

While Peter Duncan, Vera and I waited for Associated Press to phone (they never did) everyone else went to the garage to prepare the cars.

When we arrived, I gave the "Let's go". But the guides weren't ready. Their truck had a fuel pump problem. I agreed to a suggestion that the guides come in our truck and let them catch up.

Zyryanka had been good to us and by the time we had set off I was, as usual when on the move, in fairly good spirits.

Time to Tow the Mavericks

It had snowed. There were eighteen inches down on the ground. And before long, Jeni had to stop to change from high to low gear. But she never got going again. The four wheel drive on her Maverick had completely collapsed.

By now the wind was up and the snow practically falling horizontally. I was keen to tow the Mavericks. Paul and Mark were understandably very against this. But I won after a short while.

The tow bars went back on and stayed on for from five to eleven when we stopped for the night. Most of the drive had been over the river that was cleared only by the guide Urals. Two days' snow was already deep enough to reach my knees and for the first time I fully understood what had been meant by luck on the journey to Seymchan.

This road had been cleared by bulldozer only two days ago and was now undrivable. And that was what had been expected every day since Ust Kut. Then, of course, we had to cover 350 a day to keep on schedule. Here we'd planned only 100 and today we'd managed 150.

Luck was well and truly on our side. And although it was a lousy, sightless drive, the team remained in extraordinarily high spirits and we saved a lot of fuel.

That night, the temperature had risen to a mere minus 20. And for the first time in four weeks we left the engines off when the vehicles were outside. Jeff stayed in his bivouac.

9 February 1994

Zyryanka to Sredekolymsk (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

This was the day more than any up till then that I was convinced the entire convoy would have to be fuelled by my own blood.

In comfortable retrospect, there was no good reason for this, although I would still maintain it was the single day that luck had to hold us together more than any other.

It had started as always with some of my little decisions going wrong. Little decisions take up a large part of the day.

The idea of Valery, Victor, Volodya and Jeff getting together to make decisions had disappeared long before. Out here where so few have been before, so many decisions are just shots in the dark but in these cold, potentially life-threatening conditions, the clearest demand is for clear leadership. And clear leadership meant taking all the decisions - something I hadn't done for a long time.


'Comandor' is my nickname with the Ural drivers.

Two days ago, I asked Volodya Glebov what the drivers thought when a decision of mine had been undeniably wrong.

"Article 1", he said: "The Comandor is never wrong." "And if he is?" "Refer to Article 2." "Which says?" "If the Comandor is wrong, refer to article 1."

At home, I usually took decisions only after knowing what everyone thinks. So I naturally listened to the guides, Volodya Glebov, the Chief Ural driver, Victor Taranov, and Victor Karputchin, all of whom had some experience of this land and its daunting climate.

The terrible truth though is that, in these parts, no one was sure about even the simplest circumstance concerned with the most immediate future:

The last decision of everyday is made the night before: "When do we leave?" If you say 7, that means up at 6 - last night no one was in the sleeping trucks before 1.30; if you say 9 you risk not reaching your goal - today that was the village of Srednekolymsk which in summer can only be reached by boat or plane. It would be good for morale to stay in a hostel. I said 7.30. We started, as we always did, after 9.

I understand so much more clearly the skipper in 'Moby Dick'. His goal, fought for in stubbornness, wrongly reached in utter isolation.

I woke to find we'd camped on the banks of the Kolyma River.

We had become a convoy wrapped up in our own endeavours and what was happening or had happened elsewhere was impossible really to grasp.

A quick get-up in front of Truck 5, teeth cleaned with half a cup of warmed water taken from the boil-in-the-bag canteen-size saucepan and a trudge through snow that went well over the tops of my knees now to the river bank for a commanding view of the convoy.

And there I stood, watching a bank of snow move towards us out of the Southwest, watching the light emerge, no sun today, it was to be filled by snow and cloud and the effects thereof. Watching the convoy slowly awake, the Ural drivers weld one of the tow bars.

And time slipped by.

For a while I allowed myself to be mesmerised by where we were; driving along one of the world's most beautiful yet toxic rivers in the depths of a Siberian winter. This is something that few, if any of us, will ever do again.

It was extraordinary.

Being Towed

But soon L8 brought my daydreaming to an abrupt end as it was dragged by Victor in Truck 3 through the two-foot snow, bumping, bouncing and sliding its way towards Srednekolymsk.

I stopped Trucks 3 and 5 and suggested Kees and I swap places - mine, I was sure, would be a lot better for filming.

It was - in L8, like in all three Mavericks, you could hardly see anything. The side windows were coated in snow, the front windscreen dripped with melting slush from the blowheated glass and streaking from the occasional wipe from an ice-caked windscreen wiper.

I found it extremely claustrophobic.

The convoy stopped two hours later to allow three Urals to catch up that had lagged behind for minor repairs. I fell out of L8 with great relief and a determination to find ways of getting the Mavericks away from the tow bars. But how? Where? When? And would it stop us from getting to Srednekolymsk that night ?

You can emerge from that kind of claustrophobia grumpy at what you've endured or happy with the break, I've found. Glass half-full or half-empty is the way I see it. At home, I'm always the glass half-full man and here that was refreshingly true of most of the team - smiling and inquisitive.

But I was almost finding myself grumpy as often as not. Working out why was always cut off by finding something new had to be done.

Hunters Cave

Three fur-hatted men peered down at us from the top of the bank. Smoke was pouring out of one house in a small settlement. The snow had let up for a while.

"Hunters", said Rupert. "Tell Kees", I said. "So what ?" answered Kees over the radio. "Richard thought you would be interested".

Another decision, this time not even intentional, sent Kees, thank goodness always smiling, climbing up the steep bank with Vera in tow to interpret. I felt guilty about sending them up there to a potential nothing so followed without scarf or balaclava.

One man, very much a Yakutian, lived there all the year round in a new single-room wooden hut that he'd built himself two years before. In the summer, his family would come from Zyryanka where they lived during the winter. He had two friends staying, one of whom had frostbitten cheeks and nose.

And it wasn't that hick. A high television aerial from the roof on its metal tree and two skidoos sat outside, one clean of snow and obviously used.

Having made the effort, there was usually some surprise: carved out of the rocky river bank was a hundred foot winding permafrost cave filled with 5 tons of fish, 50,000 altogether we were told. The two fives sounded a little too easy a figure to be accurate but Jeff, Dion, Vera and I took minutes not seconds to wend our way round the pickaxe-designed pitch-dark cave that acted as a deepfreeze even in the heights of summer. The hunters were quick to accept our invitation to look at the Mavericks, even though they were still attached to tow bars.

A Mars bar for thanks was quickly rejected. Cigarettes, vodka ? Hunters here knew more about worth than you might think.

My mind, however, was already back on the clock. We'd set off late, the snow had reduced our speed to nine or ten kilometres an hour and three Urals were involved in repair work far enough back for us to have lost radio contact. Would this be the day we slipped behind schedule or would we make Srednekolymsk?

That thought spoiled my appreciation of entering into the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic Circle

A small reception committee had come to welcome us. A red banner saying 'Welcome ...' had been made and a blue ribbon was tautly strung across the "road" for me to cut. L9 was speedily unhooked so that at least one Ford could be seen to drive across the symbolic line. Marielle and Vera promptly sneaked off with the Ural drivers for a symbolic tot of vodka, a team photo was taken of the whole team - English and Russian speakers.

I should have been euphoric - everyone else appeared to be and moving away I knew that one of my own main challenges was to worry less and enjoy more.

But there were still well over a hundred kilometres to go to Srednekolymsk and, by now, both Victor Taranov and Volodia Glebov were convinced we wouldn't make it.

I thought we might if we kept the tow bars on.

Regularly, I talked to Volodya. Take them off. Leave them on. Volodya was for leaving them on, me too. Victor, listening in, was for taking them off.

I won, of course, but at one break, Volodya really had a go at Victor for giving orders to his drivers that he couldn't easily control. Although Volodia was the Ural driver chief, Victor was a General.

Towing Hell Leads to Freedom

Jeff best described the next three hours as riding out a storm in mid Atlantic. It came to an end when one part of the Maverick studio 8 tow bar was torn off. It happened when Victor was driving a Ural relatively fast on a relatively good section of road. Kees, Richard and Peter, unable to know what was wrong, slued back and forth hitting one bank of snow then another. Without discussing it with Volodya or me, Victor ordered the tow bar off.

Looking back, it was probably the right decision, but it made me furious - by the time I had got to the car the tow bar was off, leaving me shouting angrily at Victor.

A minute cooling off, as easily done as said, and the Maverick being towed by 'my' Truck 5 was let off. Victor's decision was irreversible

And then followed a crazy rally-type drive for over two hours as the finally freed Mavericks sped, slid and skidded across the good sections, using their momentum to fly them over the ice track.

When they stopped, the covering Ural truck would tow them out of the snow and then on they'd career. For the drivers, it must have been fun. A team spirit developed between Ural truck and Maverick, each trying to outdo the other. Word spread. Dieter's car was unhooked as he "raced" Paul Wilson - Dieter winning incidentally despite only having two wheel drive.

From where I sat, this fun was nuts. Never before had a crash been more likely. I should stop it. But against that, the Mavericks were proving their worth, the team spirit tried by the towing, was kept intact and there was a good buffer of snow if there was a crash.

I let it ride - relying on luck to carry the day. As it luckily did. Not only did the Mavericks career on under their own steam, they made it all the way to Srednekolymsk - albeit at 1.30.

The hostel, which I had been told would be the worst on the journey so far, was fine. Stepan's team had it overhauled just for our stay. Frozen water pipes had been replaced, hot water was available throughout the night, fresh wallpaper had been put up in the corridors, electricity sockets had been replaced.

Relieved that the day was over, I decided we'd stay for two nights, which would allow time to look at the two-wheel Maverick and see if it could be fixed, repair the tow bars and work out a way of removing the luck aspect from our deep midwinter madness.

10 February 1994

Sredekolymsk (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

The next day at breakfast, I called together Volodya, Victor Nikoliavich and Paul Wilson to discuss how we could ensure the same could happen again but free of risk.

Victor's was the first problem to solve. He was a General; he wasn't going to stop giving orders. So he should go back to what he had been doing before Seymchan - driving the front vehicle, leading the convoy. We'd make pairs out of a Ural and a Maverick and strengthen the tow bars which would be used only when they absolutely had to be.

The day off in Srednekolymsk was at least stable. I met the District Chief at 'The White House' which, yes, had a flag flying.

Lenin Loo Paper!

And being the Region HQ a toilet, where the toilet paper was torn up sheets of the Constitution of the United Soviet Socialist Republic and the works of Lenin!

Nikolai Tarasov was a "nice", sadly inarticulate Yakutian who, it seemed, has spent much of his life ineffectively trying to stop five power stations being built in the Magadan district downstream on the Kolymar River. Two were on stream all under construction but he was still fighting away and he was right to fight in my opinion and he asked me to tell the world about it.

The ecological fight can, of course, only be won if its base is firmly founded and grounded in the grass roots.

From there to the garage for a talk with Paul - a small pin in the front nearside dampener (shock absorber) had broken - this allowed too much flexing for the drive shaft which had sheered.

It could easily be put right but the spare needed to come from London and wouldn't get to us before Pevek. That left me with one lame car for the first time on the expedition and this was just as we were about to hit our potentially most difficult ten-day section.

Back in the UK, I had determined that when this happened, we'd drop off the car. But here it was clear that would take away personal space from some of the English-speaking team and I'd be putting team morale at unnecessary risk. How good was it? Very good, but Spring-ice thin in my opinion.

So I decided to keep the car with the convoy. At least until Cherskiy. I couldn't see beyond that anyway.

And that night, it was reception time again: talks, folk dances, a certificate to say we'd crossed into the Arctic Circle printed especially for us and general merriment. My cue as ever to exit quietly, giving me a long hot shower and an early warm bed.

11 February 1994

Sredekolymsk to Andryushkino (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

What a contrast to two days ago! High clouds, no wind and a clear albeit bumpy road, the foundations of which were nothing other than the Siberian countryside and lakes. In summer, it would have been impassable.

I was hoping but not expecting to cover 140 kilometres and so reach the village of Andrysushkino. In fact, we reached the outskirts as the light was fading at about four thirty only just too late for Richard Blanshard to take good stills.

Reindeer Sleighs

Awaiting us were dog and reindeer sleighs and three or four snowmobiles. Victor, who had been pushing to go on and on, jumped straight onto a snowmobile while Kees found himself riding a reindeer sleigh, minus jingle bells, three kilometres into the village with six or seven of the team including Peter Duncan, usually close to a camera, Jeff always keen to experience anything new, Dion, Jenny, Marielle and Vera.

We'd left by 5.30 and headed on another hundred kilometres of rough (20 kilometres an hour) winter road and arrived in the small town of Andryushkino where a long, very Communist-inspired speech was read to us in the bitterest cold. No matter. Most heads were turned towards the sky by the Northern Lights which were dancing 100 miles high up above us.

They were magical.

Northern Lights

Adapting Jeff's description of them into a simile I could understand, they looked as if a wind had come all the way from the sun and been deflected over the earth like snow from the sky is deflected over a car. But it was only in the north that you could see them.

Unbelievable. I'd seen stills, although Richard B said it would require a thirty minute exposure to capture them on camera, but what was extraordinary when you actually saw them, was their glorious dancing movement.

I'd never forget it. Nor being hustled and bustled away from them into an urt, a huge tent that was hot enough, from a burning wood stove, for us to immediately peel off our coats. A reindeer stew and tea was magnificently welcome and while others lay on deerskin rugs that lay over the snow, I sat in the lap of luxury in the shape of my fold-up floor-chair that I'd brought all the way from London for just such an occasion.

A Move to Many

I'd presumed we'd stay there but to my surprise found that all the Ural drivers were keen to push on 5 or 50 kilometres to escape the town and get some sleep in. The English-speaking "drivers" to a person wanted to stay. To douse a possible flashpoint, I decided they could stay with two Mavericks and two of the security guards while everyone else including Dieter, Doc, Kees, Richard, Paul, Mark, Vera, Rupert and I went on with the Urals to stop just outside the town.

The Russians thought this was a bad decision. The town was full, I was assured, of drunks with kalashnikovs.

12 February 1994

Andryushkino to Cherskiy (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

I woke up full of dreams of a long day covering all 400 miles to Cherskiy. There was nothing to stop us, I thought. In fact, there was the snow. The winter roads were badly broken this side of Andryushkino so the Mavericks, 'little hares' as they were now being called by the Ural drivers, spent most of the morning and afternoon alternating between tow rope and a hundred or so odd yards off their lead.

And to top it all, Urals got stuck three times, in what Volodya talked of as 'ice-snow' which allowed no grip, and had to be winched out.

On top of this the Mavericks had 7 punctures. By nightfall, we'd crossed less than 90 kilometres. How moods can change. I was on the verge of being ready to drop the lot off the Cherskiy and didn't take kindly to Marielle driving the Arctic truck which appeared to me to be dangerous, flippant and holding us up - so I chucked her out and made a rule on the spot that only those with HGV licenses could drive them: Paul W, Dion, Peter, surprisingly - and Dieter, I presumed.

However, at night the snow appeared to change - I can now believe there are 30 different types of snow, wet, ice and powder being the three most popular. The firmness returned and although Paul didn't like the damage sustained by the Mavericks as they hit bump after bump over an ice track which only had a field as its foundation, we got in another hundred kilometres before setting up camp. On the way, we'd met a number of oncoming tankers who'd told us the river section to Cherskiy was fine. From one, we picked up some diesel.

Just 240 kilometres to Chersky. If we reached there tomorrow, we'd be two days ahead of schedule.

13 February 1994

Andryushkino to Cherskiy (Eastern Siberia, Russia)

I was awake early - No 5 the canteen truck was the first port of call for those in charge of breakfast.

Jeni came in for her bags of beans and sausages boil and stopped to chat.

We'd stopped a few kilometres short of the Kolyma and once on it, I relaxed. The snow was cleared down to the ice and a frozen motorway or white highway opened up in front of our eyes. Our tyres were designed for it. We'd be in Cherskiy by three.

And we were. Kees was able to film, dash ahead, film and dash ahead without oncoming traffic. And the Ural trucks became "little hares" themselves as everyone beamed their way under a hazy sunlit sky.

We passed a village which looked as if it was a Lowry painting, the black smoke which was pouring from two chimneys over low pastel-coloured buildings stood out in pure contrast to the pure white backdrop.


But as soon as we arrived in Cherskiy all thoughts of Lowry were put to one side by John Creasey. The town librarian embraced me as a real hero for being his son, shoved one of Dad's very own books into my hands and asked me to sign three more. Real favourites with the town, she said and one was extraordinarily well worn. And the restaurant had a shaman singer - I could really feel myself starting to relax.

I was now sure, barring accidents, that we'd make the Bering Straits. Indeed, we'd negotiated the most difficult section of Siberia. Mys Schmidt to Lavrentia would be difficult but that would be the Urals' problem and I was sure they'd solve it.

The hostel had a fine example of a shower and even finer examples of cockroaches, twenty or more in just one of the corners of my room. But I slept soundly.

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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