This article is written for the Wereldfietser, a Dutch magazine full of stories, interviews and travel reports about traveling by bicycle.
A long way stretches in front of me. Left and right I see as far as I can forests with fir trees that jut upwards. It looks nice, everything is covered with a thick layer of snow. But that is not where my attention is at the moment. I focus myself on the emergency lane of the R-21.
This road is also known in Russia as the Kola motorway, the only road that goes directly from Saint Petersburg to Murmansk and to the Norwegian border. A road known as one of the more dangerous roads in Russia. I have to pay attention. If I divert too far to the left, I’ll get close to traffic. Cars and worse, trucks are shooting right past me. If I divert too far to the right, I slip into the thick layer of snow. I stay focused in the middle of the emergency lane. I wonder how long I will keep this up.
My ideas about Russia were very different. In my head I would now drive over remote roads in no man’s land. Luckily I learned during my previous long bike ride not to attach too much to expectations. It is incredibly difficult to estimate a place that is this far away from home. What did I expect from a cycling trip in winter over the Arctic Circle in Northern Russia? What motivated me to wanting to cycle in this dangerous place with temperatures of minus twenty degrees Celsius?
A car stops in front of me, a mysterious black Kia. I stop cycling and stand still next to the Kia. The window opens. I always find it difficult to estimate how I should deal with curiosity. I always take an open attitude, but I have learned to properly screen where someone’s interest comes from. The man in the Kia starts talking in Russian. From his body language I can deduce that he is wondering a lot. I indicate that my Russian is not good enough to understand him. “Tchaj?” He asks, pointing to his co-driver’s seat. That word I understand. Tea, hot tea, I like that. He wants me to sit comfortably next to him in his warm car. He seems friendly, but I reject his offer. Here in Russia I constantly have a double feeling. I have faith in all experiences to come, but I need to be careful. I don’t know it here. What if he continue driving with me in the car?
The man gets out of the car with his thermos and two plastic cups. He enthusiastically points to my bike and so there we are in the middle of the R-21 emergency lane to have a tea break. I smile in myself, I already see myself on the Dutch highway emergency lane having a tea break like this.
I have been on the road for two weeks now. My plan of a cycling holiday has turned out differently than I thought. The idea was to experience an adventure where everything, and then really everything, would be far beyond my comfort zone. I had already read bizarre stories about Russia. Few people speak English. Roads are not optimal. And the country is far from western influence outside the bigger cities. Which perhaps attracts me the most. In this journey even that was all subordinated. The real challenge would be the cold weather. It’s in the middle of winter, the days are short and the temperatures are far below zero. I could be experiencing temperatures of less than thirty degrees Celsius below zero.
After the tea break, I continue cycling in a focused way. Don’t go too far to the left and not too far to the right. Suddenly I hear a very loud sound from behind. I don’t dare to look because I’m afraid to lose my balance. I stop quickly to be sure that nothing unsafe is going to happen. A big snow car roars past. The snow sprays to the side of the road.
I give myself some courages words. Although it all seems uncomfortable now, this is what I want, a situation that I choose for myself. This gives me energy. And speaking of energy, I use this moment to grab a frozen Twix bar from my frame bag. The bag is full of Twix chocolade; wonderful that I can now eat unlimited chocolate. I also have to, because the cold demands a lot from my body. I jump on my bike again to follow the road for hours without encountering anything.
When it starts to dawn, the daily search for a place to sleep begins. I stop and ride my bike into the thick layer of snow at the roadside. Easy, I always think, my bike does not need a standard here. Less easy is that I can not set up my tent anywhere. The soft snow layer is at least one meter. I have learned to look for snowmobile tracks and to follow them to find a camping spot along the road. These traces are not everywhere. Especially now that it’s getting dark I have to find one soon.
It was clear to me that if I could only take a month off work, the journey would have to be extreme. The two thousand kilometers from St. Petersburg to the North Cape would then amount to 67 kilometers per day. I had to succeed in this. And what have I dreamed of this adventure. The combination of challenge, nature and loneliness would suit me perfectly. I spent two thousand euros on a bicycle, camping gear, a visa and the flight. I would escape the daily routine and be completely free again and discover a new place on my own.
It cools quickly, now it’s already twenty degrees Celsius below zero. There is no snowmobile track anywhere. The next town, Montsjegorsk, is certainly eighty kilometers of cycling. I have to sleep here somewhere. I can scream with joy when I finally see a trace. I jump from my bike to make an exploratory walk. Not much later I put my tent pegs in the hard snow with a wrench.
It’s dark now. My bike is standing next to my tent in the thick layer of snow. Softly burns my petrol burner so that I can always warm my hands. I shiver, even the thick down jacket is not warm enough. I make a kind of soup from pieces of chicken, corn, spices and vermicelli. If I were served this in a restaurant, I would run away. Now I don’t care. I’m tired and hungry. I don’t have a seat, I eat the soup from a pan sitting on my crouch.
The cold goes through my down jacket, sweater and merino thermal shirt. On my phone I see that the temperature has dropped to 22 degrees Celsius below zero. I decide quickly to crawl into my sleeping bag. Normally I read a book, but it’s too cold for that. I don’t get warm and that is what concerns me. I panickly move my feet in the hope that they become warm. What can I do? I put extra clothes in my sleeping bag. The fatigue takes over and although still a bit in panick I do fall asleep not much later. A long and deep sleep.
When I open my tent in the morning, I don’t believe my eyes. The sun, the clear sky, the white landscape, it all seems too good to be true. Two thousand kilometers in thirty days? I don’t really care. I’m alone, equipped and in a beautiful environment. I decide this morning to take the time to enjoy where I am.
During this journey from St. Petersburg to the North Cape in the winter of 2018 I made a magazine: Cycling on Ice, 30 days of surviving the Russian and Norwegian Arctic Circle. You can order the ebook here.
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