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Siberian Arctic Circle
Through Ural

Motorcycle travel diary, 2017
~ 20 minutes reading
To navigate to a specific chapter, use links below

It was the first serious motorcycle trip I took alone.

The idea was to explore Russian North and to get to the Arctic circle. I was to ride from Moscow to Urals then take North and get to the Arctic circle, and finally get back to Moscow via a different route. Kind of a circle to the Arctic circle. About 8 000 km in total.

This article is a modest attempt to share my experience, sights and a few thoughts.
I humbly hope it will be useful to some of you.
Part 1 of 5: Moscow → Chelyabinsk region
So, the journey began on June 24th, 2017. And frankly, I started to screw up my plans and timing from the very beginning.

On the first day, I expected to leave Moscow at 7 AM and meet the evening glow splashing in the river Usa near Syzran town. But the last few days before the departure were pretty tiresome. I abandoned all hopes of early waking and managed to leave only at noon, covered a little more than 500 km and spent the night in a roadside motel near Penza.

When it became obvious that I couldn't stick to the schedule, it remained only to relax and enjoy the road. So, the first day became a reminder that journey is more about the daily path and less about the initial plans and destinations.
On the second day Bashkiria region was welcoming me. Tranquil road, sunflower fields, river bridges. I left early, had many stops. Took pictures here and there, frequently slowed down in front of police posts, needed time to fill my tank with gas and my stomach with food...

By the second evening, 750 km were covered. As the sun was setting and the darkness descending, I spent almost 2 hours searching for accommodation along the highway. I didn't have any tent with me, and most hotels and motels wanted a prodigious sum of money for disgusting rooms (well, I'm not a spoilt kid, rooms were really terrible, far from worth the price).

In the end, I've found a compromise. Spent the night in the cleaner's room in a mini-hotel by the gas station. Fully-fledged single room with a strategic supply of clean sheets and disposable shampoos ;) Neat and cozy. Well, cleaners' rooms are supposed to be like that, right? Besides it was two times cheaper than regular motel rooms.
The next day, 650 km remained to get to my relatives near Chelyabinsk. I expected the ride to be easy. Good old M5 highway. I frequently traveled here and was well familiar with it.

Yet the ride turned out quite tense. Frequent road repairs, dust, trucks slowly crawling along the Ural foothills. Overtake prohibitions, no rideable roadside space and frequent presence of road police — all that didn't help overtaking at all.
By the end of the third day, while I was savouring turn after turn and crossing hill after hill, it became obvious: my attitude to speed had changed. From the moment I left Moscow, I was gradually slowing down. First day average speed — 115 km / h. Second day — 105 km / h. Third — 97 km / h.On the one hand, of course, the change was partially dictated by external factors. Roads were getting narrower and their quality was getting worse. Cars were slowing down all around. Comparing to Moscow, seemed like rural people are in no hurry at all. More and more spectacular views kept appearing and drawing attention.

On the other hand, made a significant inner discovery. At a speed of over 100 km/h by the end of the day I couldn't remember more than 5% of sceneries I drove by. And at a speed of 95 km/h I remembered 15%. By comparison, when I stopped completely and focused, for example, to take pictures, I remember around 60% from such moments.

Thus, decreasing the speed by just 10% gives a threefold increase in the quality of living and experiencing...

The numbers, of course, are approximate. The main takeaway for me is: drive slower, live deeper.

And surely, this principle must be applicable in everyday life, not only on the road. Where is this thin line, this rhythm of life, which may be a little slower than the current one, but gives much more pleasure from actual living?

As the American moto traveler, Russ Ketchum, wrote in his "Adventures Through the Southwest":
...people have stopped looking, and that is the saddest thing that can happen. When people stop looking, they slowly stop caring about the places around them. They fail to realize that just around the corner is something wonderful, they only see the dirt on the side of the road.
Part 2 of 5: Chelyabinsk region → Tyumen
For more than a week I stayed in Urals. Between the water and the sky, with mountains on the horizon and fresh air all around me, among the hospitable relatives – 10 days just flew by.
I've re-checked the further route, added destinations to the navigator and slightly serviced the motorcycle. The time has come to move on — to the "Olenii Ruchii" ("Deer Streams") natural park.

I left early in the morning. By afternoon I was already settling in the village of Mikhailovsk. The place was chosen so that I could stay near the park but not to overpay for living on its territory. It took only 214 km to get to Mikhailovsk that day. Of which, 20 km lay along a forsaken gravel road crossing forests and fields. That surely added variety to the day. Otherwise the road was bearable tarmac, pleasantly only a few cars on my way.
In the evening I was caught in a gusty wind with the speed up to 25 m/s. A black sky was ripped by lightnings — it was a real tropical rainstorm. The electricity kept going in and out. The owner of the hotel complained that this summer the temperature was 5°C below the norm and that it has been raining every other day for almost two months. Because of that, he added, he and his family couldn't finish building their cottage and the potatoes they had planted were rotting away.

Yet, watching this weather from a warm and cozy room added some hygge-feeling. I was happy it didn't catch me on the road. Gradually the sound and the smell of a pouring rain lulled me to a blissful sleep.
I spent the whole next day wandering in the "Olenii Ruchii" natural park. Walked 22 km, 15 km of which — barefoot. At first, I took the shoes off just for fun. But gradually the path became so muddy my sneakers were absolutely useless anyway. In the afternoon, as it started raining again, the trails turned into ankle-deep brooks that washed away the last reasons to put on any shoes at all.
I kept wandering among the rivers, rocks, forests, limestone lakes, grottoes and caves. Time itself started to feel sticky and thick as it slowly and non-linearly flowed down the tree trunks into the river at the bottom of the hollow. Not a soul around. Probably for this peaceful and quiet solitude I must thank the weather, the workday and my early arrival at the park.
The original plan was to stay there for another day. But due to some kind of yes-it's-nice-but-I'd-better-not-stay-here-much-longer feeling, I decided to set out the next morning.

I jumped on my bike very early, and by afternoon got to the motorcycle museum in Irbit. In Irbit, legendary "Ural" motorcycles are produced to this day. Though the production volumes are very modest nowadays comparing to the USSR times. New "Urals" cost around $16k. As I heard, these are the only motorcycles in the world that come with a sidecar in the basic configuration.
Throughout the day, I kept pulling out and putting on warm clothes. Layer after layer, fighting off the cold. The weather in the morning seemed promising: 14°C, sun warmingly twinkled from behind the clouds. But, disregarding my expectations, the temperature suddenly went down to 11°C and a drizzling rain started.

Thus, I officially entered Siberia.

Driving past corn fields and rusty buildings in such weather felt like being in a Hollywood thriller. As oppressive music plays, the main character keeps driving and driving in seemingly obscure direction. Then he finally stops to have a rest at a roadside motel with a blinking sign, and there the most hardcore part begins...
Fortunately, having covered 530 km that day, I ended up in a bright hotel with a warm (ohhh, joy!) shower in Tyumen. The evening flew by as we met with beautiful Marina. We had some tea at the local restaurant, relaxed and chatted about hobbies, "true" callings, work, other people's expectations and some other existential trifles.
The next day I spent walking around Tyumen. For an hour and a half I sat at the edge of the Tura river. I savoured this long-awaited sunshine, felt hypnotised by bright glares of a slowly flowing water and was sinking into personal inner processes.

Two young girls were sitting nearby.

They were cuddling tenderly, sometimes romantically looking each other in the eyes, exchanging light phrases and smiles. And gosh, how authentic they were in it, how fully present and… simply themselves. Sincere, open, calm. With absolute mutual attention, respect and care. Boldly, to some extent, but without the slightest touch of defiance or provocation... This state, this total being-themselves they were embodying... I want but can't describe it with words. Unfortunately, they didn't allow to take a picture.

Somehow, this occasional encounter became one of the most vivid and deep experiences of the trip. Some deep layer inside me has shifted. Apparently a big one, since I spent several hours trying to reassemble myself afterwards.

Isn't that what this was all about? You wanted depth? Here you go. Yet it took two weeks and three thousand kilometers to notice: the depth was with me and around me all along. And still, what's next? Good thing, I had noticed it. But am I ready to dive into this depth? And how much more do I need to travel to finally be able to?
Part 3 of 5: Tyumen → Novy Urengoy → Surgut
Got to Nefteyugansk. It is probably the most northern latitude I have ever been in Russia.

718 km travelled in one day. North of Tobolsk, the benefits of civilization became more and more rare. Gas stations only once every 100 km, cafes — once every 200.

The road had a good quality tarmac but felt rather monotonous, as it ran like a winding gray ribbon among forests, swamps and rivers. Almost all side tracks and minor roads were leading to resource-extracting or -processing facilities.
Nature was very beautiful here. Yet this beauty felt somehow alien to me. As if it was smirking: you can watch and you can admire while the sun is high. But when the night comes or you breakdown in the wilderness — I'll eat you with your guts.

I couldn't help but noticing the difference in my perception. When I was in the North, in Karelia, I felt comfortable and resourceful. But here in the Siberian North, I feel as if nature was hostile and my presence was… inappropriate? The feeling seems to be most evident near the densest concentration of oil and gas plants, located here and there all along the road.

I caught myself thinking. People are exploiting nature so greedily here. Pumping oil and gas out of the ground, laying pipelines and draining swamps. All local infrastructure and economy has evolved around resource mining. No place for balance, for sustainability. Corporations that prosper on these resources have their head offices in the big cities. I doubt those CEOs have ever cared how ecological is the relationship between nature and man here, in the North. Have they ever been here in person? Have they ridden this road? Looked around? Noticed anything?

I may sound like a hippie… But what if men have exhausted the nature here so much, that its dislike, its hatred toward us can be felt in the air itself. Like invisible poisonous mercury spilled throughout the whole Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. Maybe that's why I feel so strange here. Maybe the first local settlers felt very different when they came here centuries ago.

Or maybe this is all nonsense. Just an effect of my lousy mood which dropped because of the shitty weather. Again.

Stayed at Gubkinsky workers' village for the night. 370 km to the Arctic Circle. Glad to have a roof over my head and a warm shower. Dear good night sleep, oh, you are so welcomed.
...And here comes the big day. Today-I-get-to-the-Arctic-circle day. The culmination. At least, it was supposed to be like this...

But not that time and not for me.

I am totally exhausted. I give up.

That whole day I spent driving in the rain at 11°C. Because of all that water and sand on the road, the chain was wearing out 2 times faster. The level of brake fluid in the rear loop fell down abruptly. Turned out the rear brake pads were grinded to a total write-off, much faster than I expected. And I didn't have spare ones.

I was prohibited to drive to the Arctic circle itself. The road leading to the memorial stele belongs to Gazprom nature resource corporation. And they tightened the requirements to pass, so no private visitors are allowed to use the road. I spoke to the guards, spoke to the employees of the passes bureau, spoke to the head of the corporate security department. The answer was: we understand your situation, but we cannot give you the pass. Locals told me there was another good road to the Arctic circle, I just need to make a 200 km loop. But by that moment I was done caring.

Felt emotionally and physically exhausted. If I tried to keep my thigh or lower leg muscles tense, a tremor began there. The lower back hurt, apparently, from cold and long sitting in one pose. I became unfriendly. Stopped smiling to people.

Next day I was going to turn around and go back. Didn't reach the polar circle by 80 km. Well, to hell with it. Got no desire to test the fate by making my way through detours in such weather and almost without a rear brake.

No photos. Rain continues. All aspirations are fading. I don't want anything at all.

Went to bed early to recover as much as possible.

Weather forecast for the morning: 8°C, rain. Again.

Apathy.
And this is how the white nights in Novy Urengoy look like. The photo was taken at 3:00 am. It doesn't get any darker than this throughout the night.
Friends and followers gave me a great support the next day, both emotional and financial. It strengthened and warmed me from the inside. Helped to pull myself together and to cope with all adversities.

So I fueled up, drank hot chocolate at the gas station. Back to the cold again. The road back home has started.
Body, emotions, thoughts — everything was subdued to just one single desire: get South, as far as possible. It seems that such clarity automatically brings oneself to a flow state. I covered 738 km with rare stops. For someone it may sound like not a big deal. But for me it was a considerable distance, taking into account that the road in some places was made of concrete slabs.

Gradually, the thermometer also became a good motivator. 8°C, 9, 10, 11,... On average, every 100 km the temperature grew by a degree. Oh what a blessing it was. In the evening I even caught a glimpse of the sun, right before the nightfall. Greetings to Surgut.

By the end of this day's ride, the rear brake pads were completely worn out. Even though I tried not to use it while riding. Moreover, I might have already started hearing metal scratches on the rear disk. So the task was urgent and clear: I needed to find new brake pads. Original, Chinese, second-hand, it doesn't matter... Can't go further with the old ones.

The whole next day I stayed in Surgut.

I've found a moto service in the Internet and came there to change pads. They didn't have neither original, nor any other spare pads. Nothing that could fit my bike.

Yet the guys from the service didn't give up. They phoned their friends. Found one craftsman. Gave him my expired pad bases. He welded a Gazel (Russian car) friction pad to it. Hooray! Now I can probably reach Moscow (moreover, I gladly used those pads until the end of the season — author's note from the future).
The process took almost the whole day. And that day became a good lesson and an inspiration for me. It was about acceptance, about customer orientation, about creativity, and about the fact that there are no hopeless situations in life.

I am immensely grateful to those service workers. They went through so much trouble for me. Brainstormed solutions, called different people, searched for the craftsman, carried pads to him and back again. For me this small service on the edge of Surgut can be an example for 99% of Moscow businesses, where people only talk about missions and customer care... In the meantime, while they polemize in their leather armchairs in expensive top floor offices, the masters in Surgut humbly dismiss my thanks, and say sincerely and simply:
"If we didn't help you, then what are we doing here?"

This question alone, this story alone — was worth all the troubles, all the bad weather in this trip. In fact, it was due to bad weather that the brake pads expired unexpectedly and brought me to Surgut.

It was 9°C and raining again outside. But, for the first time in the whole trip, I loved this weather...
Part 4 of 5: Surgut → Moscow
In the evening in Surgut, a neighbour moved in my double hotel room. Formally it was ok — I was staying in a double room for the price of a single. But usually hotels let the clients stay alone until they run out of other empty rooms. Not that hotel though. It was evident they have at least 3 similar empty rooms but they decided to put that guy in my room. Did they want to cut their expenses on cleaning or what?

Yet the real problem discovered itself later. As night fell, it turned out the lad snored sooooo freaking loudly. No way I could sleep with such sound effects. So I went to negotiate with the administration to be relocated to the other room, one of those empty ones. But administration whipped me off. I tried different tactics, ended up even arguing and quarrelling with them. Zero effect. Returned to the room. I tried to accept my fate, to reconcile, to sleep somehow — succeeded in none of the above. So, after an hour or so I got up, collected my luggage and at 3 o'clock in the morning started out to Khanty-Mansiysk.

There was something romantic and soothing in riding at night through a deserted city and empty highways. Part of me still wished I could catch a piece of warming sunrise... But instead I got the standard program: 6°C and raining. Well, never mind, seemed I finally got used to it.
By 9 am I was already in Khanty-Mansiysk. Spent the day walking around the city centre and… well... less favourable areas. The latter attracted me more that day. The photos might be gloomy, although the city centre itself is nice, well maintained, has some interesting sights. The museum of nature and man is one of those...

That night I slept in a spacious clean room on a huge bed. Was lucky to catch a discounted offer on booking. Otherwise, wouldn't afford such luxurious conditions.
Next day was marked by a 891 km run, the longest day ride in the entire trip. And, finally, it was sunny! For the first time in a week I was looking at a clear blue sky and kept taking warm clothes off, instead of putting it on. For the first time the temperature rose up to 20°C.

The road "Ugra", that laid to the West from Khanty-Mansiysk, turned out to be beautiful and calm. Very few cars, good tarmac almost the whole way. Charming northern nature, without this feeling of hostility spread in the air as it was in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. One of the most beautiful roads I'd been during this trip.
"Ugra" road became a kind of bridge for me. Bridge from the new and not always hospitable world of the Siberian North to the long-familiar and dear Urals.

Just as the mountainous nature of the Urals came to replace the northern swamps, rivers and moss, so the northern part of the trip internally ended for me. And it ended with a notable challenge.

I was headed to a recreation base in a remote taiga area. The last 50 km to the destination I was driving while being pretty tired: by that time I've spent 15 hours on the road. It was very late and a total darkness was all around me. Of course, no street lights in taiga forest. The route twisted through the woodlands sometimes jumping out to the field with a small village of 10-20 houses. The road changed all types of surfaces: broken asphalt, concrete plates, gravel, clay. My eyes ached from the tension — looking out for pits, stones, tree branches, as it suddenly plunged into the beam of front lamp. What was there, at the end of another descent diving into the void of unfamiliar darkness...

But it was 100% worth all the effort. Night taiga forest, located far away from the main roads and cities, smells astoundingly. I arrived at the destination base half dead, but fully pleased: both with taiga and myself.

The next few days I spent without any communication to outer world, without a motorcycle, meeting only a few people. It was time to breathe out, listen to the chant of the forest, to the serenades of birds and the music of the river. An opportunity to give myself time and space to integrate the previous experiences. A time to have a good rest.
Three days passed in a blink of an eye. It was the 27th day since I left Moscow. And again the path was calling to explore what laid ahead.

I woke up and packed before dawn. Crispy and fresh morning welcomed me with 0.5°C outside. How's that for 14th of August? Morning mist, thick cold air and wild animals running along the road. By the afternoon the air warmed up to +21°C. That's 20°C leap in just 5 hours!

Spent the night in a hostel in Perm.
On the 28th day I drove 651 km, crossed 2 time zones and 3 republics: Udmurt, Tatarstan, Mari El.

The only surface I didn't ride over in the past month was sand. Well, this day I got my full house. 15 km of sandy suffering to get to the pontoon bridge. In general, almost all day I drove secondary roads in terrible conditions. But thanks to this, I saw an authentic rural Udmurtia. Fields, barns, tractors. People who barely speak Russian. Would it have survived in such a bright and authentic form if it was more accessible to the world?
Spent the night in Yoshkar-Ola. Impressed. Didn't expect such an intense day.

Next morning I lazily strolled around Yoshkar-Ola embankment.
I was very relaxed, rode 90 km to Cheboksary without any hurry. Met with moto cases producers. Walked around the city. Ate all kinds of local berries at the market. Met sunset in the central park near the water. Sat and listened to Linkin Park, Nirvana and Depeche Mode performed by two locals on a guitar.

A beautiful girl asked if I would ride her on a motorcycle. I said no, because the passenger seat was occupied by a gas canister. Oh, fool. Could have removed the canister. And the evening might have become even more interesting.

The end of the trip was getting nearer. Next night I expected to be back home in Moscow.
When I was leaving Moscow on the M5 highway almost a month before, I saw various moto-travelers on the road. In my head, I symbolically divided them into two types.

The first type was "Tony Stark".
Shiny new motorcycles without a single scratch. Expensive branded equipment. They rush past at the speed of 150 km/h.

The second type was "Indiana Jones".
Motorcycles covered with a road dust and the drop markings were visible here and there. Worn out clothes. Driving speed was within 100 km/h. I couldn't help wondering where they were riding from... Kazakhstan? Pamir? Mongolia?

Both types are beautiful in their own way. Yet, in this dichotomy, I wanted more to belong to the second type. Experience, calmness and depth in the eyes of such people have always attracted me more than expensive motorcycles. And at that moment of the trip, as I looked at myself and the motorcycle from aside... Well, judging by the dustiness, it seems I was on the right track…
Mission accomplished. Moscow.
Part 5 of 5: Summary & Tips
This was my first solo trip with such a long distance to travel, and the main personal conclusion I got: nothing is impossible. In any situation there were good people who helped to solve any problem.

What can I recommend to those who are planning to ride to the Siberian North?
  • Take warm and waterproof clothes. The more the better. Even in the middle of August you might have to ride through +10°C and rain for days.
  • In order not to mess with getting a pass to the Arctic circle from Novy Urengoy, you can take an alternative route. Locals say there was good tarmac and a stela as well. Though I haven't checked it myself, so no guarantees here.

Now to the numbers.

From start to finish, the trip took me 30 days. Of which 10 days were spent with relatives near Chelyabinsk, not on the road.
Travelled 8 216 km in total.

Spent 1066$, of which:
  • accommodation in hotels and motels = 326$
  • service + tuning a motorcycle before leaving = 241$
  • gasoline = 204$
  • food = 187$
  • other = 108$

Thanks a lot for your attention and time! I guess some closing words should be here... Well, believe in yourself, travel the world, ride safe and may you have a better luck with the weather. That's it. Cheers!