“Sometimes travel is merely an opportunity taken when you can.”
From Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier
It never was the plan to drive in a Siberian winter. On the contrary, it was the plan NOT to drive in Siberia in winter.
Planning has never been our strongest feat.
A misinterpretation of what the one-year visa allowed us to do (and not) resulted in a two-month drive in snow and on ice. It was a challenge, an adventure, as well as a beautiful part of our journey. Highs and lows came and went as each night brought colder or warmer temperatures, the Land Cruiser responded well or not at all, and, of course, our own moods.
Here’s an impression of our Siberian winter journey, a loop from Irkutsk to Yakutsk, Tynda and Ulan Ude and farther west to Novosibirsk.
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September 9: Irkutsk – Ust Kut
Yesterday we were meandering our way through a forest in beautiful autumn colors. But last night, the winter weather gods sent their first message,
“The Siberian winter is on its way. Be prepared.”
October 7, Mirny – Yakutsk
The winter gods are calling out once more,
“Hurry up, it’s October 7. Can’t you see we’re coming to take over?”
We know that around October 15, the ferry on the Lena River will stop plying for the winter. If we haven’t left Yakutsk by then, we will be stuck for at least a month until the ice on the river will be thick enough to drive across. The idea is hard to fathom. Winter that early? Really?
October 11, Yakutsk
People have taken out their fur coats and are sliding across slippery and icy sidewalks. When preparing the banya at our host’s place, the outdoor water reservoir is covered with a thin layer of ice that Coen has to break to fill the buckets with cold water.
In these coldest parts of Siberia, people have their own ways of dealing with the extremes. One is to install a second windshield. We got one too, given to us by Ruslan.
It’s not cold enough yet to fully appreciate that measure yet but we will certainly come to be enormously grateful for it.
October 14, Across the Lena River
In time! It’s hard to believe the ferry will stop plying soon as the river is still entirely open. Two days later, however, we will see how quick the waterways in Siberia can freeze.
The gas heater, kindly given to us by Romance Factory in South Korea is serving us well. We do wonder if it will be powerful enough in the months to come.
Read More: Being Spoiled at the Romance Factory
October 16, Yakutsk – Tynda
One day we are driving under a beautiful blue sky across a mesmerizing white landscape. The next morning we wake up after a sleepless night. Temps plummeted to -13C (8,6F). All water bottles are frozen, so is the so-called anti-freeze window-washer fluid. This is just the start of issues to come.
The edge underneath the ceiling will remain frozen for most of the coming weeks. The snowy, icy drab under the fenders has become so heavy, it caused the wires of the indicator lights to break.
For most of the day is astonishingly beautiful though, and the driving on snow easy.
When we cross bridges we now also see with what speed the fast flowing rivers can freeze. We are seriously impressed.
October 25, Tynda – Ulan Ude
We’ve made a stint by train to Komsomolsk-on-Amur. On our return to Tynda the Land Cruiser is, unsurprisingly, freezing. Coen clears the snow from the roof and we continue west.
Road conditions change constantly. Higher in the mountains, trucks are having hard times getting up the slopes. Along the side of the road are piles of sand that they can shovel in front of their tires. We see the first trucks capsized and cars having slipped entirely of the road.
There is no doubt, the Siberian winter weather gods have taken over.
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November 16, Ulan Ude
Coen’s question about heaters on Facebook results in a good discussion. Which is better, Webasto or Planar?
Tigerexped let us know they’ll be happy to send us a Planar heater to Ulan Ude. We’d only have to pay for having it installed there. What a generous offer. Thank you, Tigerexped!
November 19, Ulan Ude – Irkutsk
Days are shortening quickly and evenings fall early.
Ever since we left Yakutsk we have camped along the side of the road, at a roadside cafe or gas station. Convenient as that is (and we felt safe), it isn’t enticing. We try finding a favorite spot of ours from this summer, along the Snowy River.
All we see is snow, snow, and snow. It’s beautiful but we have no idea of what lies below that snow and opt for the safety of a parking lot instead.
Read more: Accommodation and Camping in Russia
November 22, Irkutsk – Krasnoyarsk
Something is not right with the windshield washer installation, but it’s too cold to search for the culprit. The only easy way now is to clean the windows is doing it by hand.
November 27, Beautiful Days of Driving in Snow
There are days that driving is easy, whether on asphalt or on snow. We relax, sit back, and enjoy the scenery.
November 28, Krasnoyarsk – Abakan
But just as quickly that peace and quiet can be over. Like today. A flat tire. Not just flat; it is gone.
Driving with snow tires on Mongolia’s rough, stony tracks last summer ruined them. We had hoped they’d take us through one more winter but we are beginning to have our doubts.
Changing the tire at -25C (-13F) is no small feat. Coen lacks proper gloves.
December 1, The Siberian Winter is Real
There are days we seriously suffer. The Planar heater is on during the day as well, however both our doors don’t close properly. With a severe sidewind, the cold penetrates through holes and cracks. We keep our jackets on and cover our legs with fleece blankets. How downright wretched it would have been without that Planar heater or without that second windshield!
The wind is howling across the plains. It takes an effort to avoid the Land Cruiser from being blown off the road.
We call it a day after lunch, this is too much. Coen’s arms and shoulders are hurting from keeping the Land Cruiser on the road. We seek shelter behind a roadside cafe where we keep warm inside with tea.
December 3, Main Road to Novosibirsk
Parked next to a roadside cafe, the Land Cruiser doesn’t start. -25C was okay but at -35C (-31F) the engine protests. It takes a lot of effort to get it going.
What is causing the problem? The international community shares their ideas on Facebook and Instagram, for which we are grateful. Thank you all for your suggestions!
With those suggestions we jot down a checklist.
The idea that a warm home is waiting for us, gets us through the day. Vitaliy, Ana and their two sons Arthur and Timoti are waiting for us. The boys initially shy, their shield comes down as we play board games every night after dinner.
December 4, Novosibirsk
Temperatures plummet further. At 9 am, it’s -39C (-38,2). The Land Cruiser refuses to get started. A good 45 minutes we struggle pushing the frozen vehicle into Vitaliy’s garage, having to make a 90-degree corner.
Inside, the Land Cruiser thaws while we are having lunch and the batteries are charged. When our home on wheels runs again, the men take it to a workshop and the testing begins. Two failing glow plugs are among the issues that are fixed and improved.
December 9, Novosibirsk – Barnaul
We are used to the cold temperatures and don’t blink an eye when having to use outhouses, which are still very common in the Russian countryside.
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December 11, On the Road
Then there are days like this…
And you know what the charm is of overlanding in a Siberian winter.
When we went to Russia it was with the intention NOT to be in Siberia in winter. As you can see it turned out very differently.
In fact, it turned out beautifully.
Siberian winter, we will be back!
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