The endless Siberian Taiga seems to swallow us, covered in snow and dotted with dense forests of fir and beech trees. Several hours ago we passed through the last village and there is hardly any traffic apart from the occasional truck loaded with timber. It feels like being at the end of the world and this is exactly how I imagined Siberia and the Russian Far East!
It is day 87 of our journey from Africa to Brazil and I feel an incredible sense of freedom, adventure and excitement as we are heading east into the morning sun – we have 4,000km ahead of us, crossing Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean where we need to be in 8 days to reach the ferry to Japan. Today, we will cross the 20,000km line on our journey, almost half the distance from Africa to Brazil. Our GPS, however, still points us west when we plug in "Rio de Janeiro" – Rio would be closer if we turned around and headed back instead of continuing heading East! On our way, we visit the beautiful Atsagat monastery located gaudily on a snow covered knoll, surrounded by Buddha statues and stupas placed on the surrounding hills. I wasn't aware that Buddhism is also part of Russian culture.
The next day, we leave shortly after sunrise as today's distance will be 950km, our longest drive in Siberia. Our goal is the little town of Skovorodino, the northern-most and also the coldest point of our journey, with the lowest ever recorded temperature of -63°C. We hope that the weather god has mercy with us and we seem to be lucky as the weather forecast predicts only -42°C for tonight.
Initially, the road is decent but then suddenly the tarmac ends and only a dirt track stretches in front of us to the horizon. Alec, my travel companion, and I look at each other and I can't hide my anxiety – we have been driving for 5 hours and have covered barely 350km. We have 4 hours of daylight left and 600km to go to Skovorodino, on a rough road, in the middle of nowhere and with night temperatures dropping to a level where even shock absorbers freeze. We have no choice but to continue and after another hour, our dirt road suddenly crosses a fantastic highway. The sign pointing west states "Chita 260km". Chita is where we started our journey in the morning, but we drove 440km to get here. We realize that we have taken the wrong road and made a detour of 180km - instead of seven hours, we could have made it here in three. We are a bit confused since neither the GPS nor our map shows this new highway, but a sense of relief overrides our frustration about the detour as in spite of the advanced time, we now see a slight chance to reach Skovorodino tonight. The next three hours are bliss - a wonderful drive in the afternoon and evening sun, with virtually no traffic and the forests and wooded valleys of Siberia zooming past.
At 8pm, the full moon rises magnificently and skirts along the horizon, an almost zen like experience. At 9pm, we are still 300km from Skovorodino and pass a tiny village, with invitingly cozy lights coming from picturesque wooden cottages under the beautiful moonlit sky. We stop at a small café to have dinner. The waitress doesn't speak a word of English and we struggle to order as our Russian vocabulary hasn't significantly increased over the last 4 weeks. Finally, we order what we see the only two other patrons in the café eat – a mix of meat with some starch. Not having had any food for the entire day, it tastes delicious and we wolf it down.
Driving on after dinner, the road turns increasingly icy and after another two hours and approaching midnight, Skovorodino is still 150km away. We are tired and Pele has started to make a mysterious noise whose origin we can't locate. We are wondering what would happen if we break down at -40°C at night in the middle of nowhere. The lights of a lonely guest house glimmer from the road side and we decide to call it a day. After driving for 15 hours, we are exhausted but before going to sleep, we need to solve two challenges: we are broke and as there is no garage we have to find a way to keep Pele alive during the night.
In search of an ATM, I head to a nearby village – it is past midnight now and completely dark and there is nobody on the road who I can ask for directions. I pass a bank but it the entrance door is locked, so no money here. Driving on, I suddenly find myself in front of railway tracks - the Trans-Siberian Railway line. There is a train station to the right, light shining through the windows. I walk over to the train station – it is completely deserted and feels like a ghost station, but miraculously there is an ATM in the entrance hall. Even more miraculously, the ATM is functioning and even kind enough to dispense the requested amount of Russian Roubles. Money challenge solved!
I drive back to our guest house and we prepare Pele for the night: anti-freeze into the tank, blanket on the engine, cloth into exhaust. Alec and I agree on a schedule for the night - he takes the first shift to get up and start Pele's engine, and I will take the second.
4:30am: the alarm rings, my turn to look after Pele. In spite of the arctic cold outside, the temperatures in our room approach sauna level and it is impossible to regulate the heater. Therefore, we have to keep the window open to bring temperatures to a bearable level. Reluctantly, I get dressed and walk from the cozy warmth of the room into the night. The sight out there stuns me for a moment - there are eight trucks parked in front of the guest house, all with their engines running. The drivers keep them running through the night in order to avoid freezing in the bitter cold. What a waste of fuel, but this seems to be the only option as there are no garages for passing trucks in this remote part of Siberia. This is by far the coldest night on our journey so far and I say a little prayer hoping that the diesel in Pele's tank hasn't frozen. When I turn the key, Pele's engine roars confidently – I give him a pat on the dashboard as a "thank you" and let him run for 30minutes before going back to bed.Two hours later, we get up again to start the day early as we have another long drive ahead. Last night, temperatures dropped down to -45°C and at these temperatures everything freezes, even grease - driving Pele feels as if the power steering is no longer working and the pedals are only reluctantly responding. It is so cold that even the paint starts to peel off Pele's bonnet. We are driving into a stunning sunrise over the Taiga. Today we are flirting with the Transib, the Trans-Siberian Railway, and frequently cross its tracks and at one point even share a bridge with it. After two hours, we finally reach Skovorodino. For the last two years, I have been dreaming about what Skovorodino will be like – as the northern-most and coldest point on our journey from Africa to Brazil, it to me symbolizes the spirit of this adventure. Driving through Skovorodino feels like being on a movie set about political exiles in Siberia – potholed streets, dilapidated prefabricated apartment blocks, grey factories with horrendously billowing chimneys and bone chilling cold.
We leave Skovorodino behind and push further east towards Blagoveshchensk on the Russian-Chinese border. Ten hours later, we watch another spectacular sunset in the rear mirror - we are heading East of the Sun!