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Travel: Russia – Really!

Snowmobiling in the Ural Mountains should be on every sledder's bucket list
RELATED TOPICS: TRAVEL | RUSSIA
European-Asian border power line Russia snowmobile
Russian border: A power line running north on the European-Asian border seemed to go on to infinity. The depth of snow in some sections was equally deep.
Photo by Dan Gould
My eyes pop open at 3 a.m. It’s the middle of the night in a small village on the Euro-Asian border. I start to chuckle. Still in a dream state, I simply can’t comprehend this is real. I’m in Russia on a snowmobile trip in the Ural Mountains. I’ve ridden all over North America, but nothing will ever top my adventure with Borodin, Roman, Igor, Sergey and Vlad.
Igor Zapivalov snowmobile Soviet truck Bolshaya Oslyanka Mountain Russia
Buildings aren’t the only things that have been abandoned here. Igor Zapivalov snowmobiles past a Soviet era truck in the same abandoned town.
Photo by Dan Gould
Come on over, comrade
In 2011, an email arrived from Russia. Against my better judgment, I opened it. The brief message was from an avid snowmobiler who wanted to attend the International Snowmobile Congress and was looking for assistance. A snowmobiler in need – how could I refuse? I helped with logistics and more importantly, found him an interpreter.

Evgeniy Borodin arrived a few months later and we hit it off. He insisted I fly over and ride with him. I wasn’t very worldly, so being invited to Russia was like being invited to a distant galaxy. I prefer pulling my trailer behind a pickup to my own special places.

But it’s good for one to break out of his comfort zone, and last year snowfall just wasn’t happening in the eastern reaches of North America. Borodin knew that. I finally gave in to his endless stream of emailed photos of armpit-deep Russian snows, and booked a flight. Roman Shtefan of Massachusetts would join me. He was Borodin’s interpreter in the U.S. and would be mine in Russia.

The flight wasn’t much longer than a drive to some of my favorite riding spots in Canada. In Perm, we were greeted by Borodin’s family and fellow snowmobile expert Igor Zapivalov. Four sleds were strapped to a trailer pulled by Igor’s 2013 Dodge Ram Power Wagon, a rare machine on that side the world.
shallow brook snowmobile Babinov Road Ural Mountains Russia
A shallow brook cuts across Babinov Road, the first direct route across the Ural Mountains.
Photo by Dan Gould
We arrived at a domed hunting camp just outside the town of Kizel, where Vlad Klekner and Sergey Valeev joined us just in time for a bowl of borscht. Sergey made a toast with special Armenian liquor. We retired early, anticipating our first day in the mountains.

In the morning, we rode along the banks of the Kosva River. The wide-open space offers a choice of smooth, quick travel or dips and mounds to play in. It’s important to note that Russia has no trail system, so every ride consists of breaking trail through remote country. No maps, no signs, no cell phones, no trails. As a native, Borodin has explored the region for decades. As a professional guide, he’s led hundreds of his countrymen on expeditions. I called him the Tsar of Snowmobiling in the Urals.

Bushwhacking into a scrub field, the snow was around four feet deep. Through a tree line, we discovered an abandoned barn and a few homes half buried in snow, many crushed to the ground. We were on Lenin Street, in the former town of Bolshaya Oslyanka. We rode into the lost settlement of tiny log homes, pulling over next to a Soviet era truck that hadn’t turned a wheel in decades.

Russian relaxation
After our ride, we ate a little bit at the dome. Sergey played guitar and sang traditional Russian folk songs. Vlad shared photos, Roman interpreted back and forth, and we all razzed each other, just like home. We retreated to the Banya, a traditional wood-fired sauna that peaked at 199 F. After sweating it out, we ran outdoors and dove into the snow. Crazy Russians! But I followed their lead! Next, they fired up a charcoal grill, cooking chicken and pork to perfection while standing in their shorts, ignoring the fact that it was 15 F outside.
Bolshaya Oslyanka Mountain Russia
Dozens of weather-damaged buildings still stand in the abandoned town of Bolshaya Oslyanka at the foot of Oslyanka Mountain in Russia.
Photo by Dan Gould
The next day, we headed north. Surprisingly, we came upon a group of sledders lighting up cigars. Not surprisingly, they knew Borodin, as he had introduced them to the area years ago. They choked on their stogies at the sound of my voice. Apparently they weren’t expecting an American snowmobiler in these parts. The chatter picked up, and Borodin started waving his hands side-to-side, firmly repeating “nyet, nyet!” These Ruskies were insisting I have a welcoming toast of vodka. Flattering, but “nyet” it was.

We continued on, and Borodin stopped deliberately to take a long gaze left and right, signaling Roman and I to do the same. A small valley cuts across the trail here. We were standing on the geographic border that separates Europe and Asia. This is called Babinov Road. Chopped out of the woods in 1597, it was the first trade route that directly linked Siberia to Moscow over the Ural Mountains. Tsar Theodor was so impressed with the flow of commerce that he excused Artemy Babinov from paying taxes for life.

Borodin then glanced at his GPS and disappeared into the thick forest. There was nothing resembling a trail here, so we dodged trees and saplings. Thin whips of branches ricocheted off our helmets as we bobbed and weaved, Muhammad Ali style.

The snow deepens as you go back into the forest, and we had to stand to keep our balance. We rode 154-inch, wide-track sleds with fully articulating suspensions (the epitome of stability), yet it felt as though we were Olympic performers atop a balance beam. It didn’t help that my Lynx Yeti was freighted with hundreds of pounds of gear and extra fuel.
Vlad Klekner guitar song Russia snowmobiling trip
After a day’s ride, Vlad Klekner entertained with guitar and song.
Photo by Dan Gould
Entering a field, I was hypnotized by fox tracks for miles, finally delivering us into the town of Kytlym, a rural village of log homes, a “closed town” during the Soviet era, limited to residents only.

In the morning, a curious husky trotted around as Borodin and Igor drained gas cans into sleds. We stopped at the local store, grabbed provisions, and then rode a logging road, which dropped us onto the longest set of power lines I have ever seen. The drifts at the base of the rolling hills are bottomless, requiring plenty of forethought and throttle. Roman got stuck in the equivalent of milky quicksand. Igor let out a big belly laugh, one of the few Russian expressions that directly translated to English. We dug, pulled, sweated, and finally freed the 800-lb. beast. Oh, and I learned how to swear in Russian.

The logging road on the return trip was freshly groomed … but there aren’t any groomers here! We zipped along for miles, carving our way along the only real trail of the entire week. Next to a stack of logs was a bulldozer. My comrade, Borodin, anticipated that a week of logging operations would have turned the road into a rutted mess.

He arranged to have the entire trail bulldozed for our ride back. He truly is the Tsar of Siberian snowmobiling!

Dan Gould is president of the Snowmobile Association of Massachusetts, and yes, he is going back to Russia this winter.
QUICK TIPS: Riding in Russia takes more planning than usual
  • Documents: In addition to a passport, a visa is needed. An online application takes about six weeks to process. Make copies of important documents in case you lose them. Keep one set at home and a spare with you. This includes  your passport, visa, embassy info, credit cards, airline and hotel info, itinerary, and medical info. 
  • Insurance: Many health care providers cover Russia, but call to be sure. Carry a list of doctors that accept your insurance where you plan to travel. For $30, I bought travelers insurance that covered lost or stolen luggage (my snowmobile gear, in particular), additional medical coverage, medical evacuation, trip cancellation and the usual life insurance. 
  • Money & Credit Cards: The dollar buys many Rubles right now. We used a service that offered a much better exchange rate than many of the banks would have. Notify your credit card companies in advance, otherwise the cards will be useless. Even with that, my cards simply wouldn’t work. Consider travelers checks, too.
  • Communication: Contacting home is important, and the options can be overwhelming. I bought a used, unlocked, GSM-network iPhone in the U.S. and purchased a SIM card with a data plan in Moscow. I had a Russian phone number to communicate locally and installed WhatsApp to text and call home on data. Print a set of contacts in case you lose your phone.
  • Interpreters & Guides: Few Russians speak English, so having an interpreter is vital. Even though my travel companion spoke the language, I hired expert guides who spoke English for tours of the Kremlin in Moscow and other museums. It was worth it. A snowmobile guide is a must. Beyond the logistics of lodging and renting a sled, you need someone who knows the region and understands the regional cultures. I was fortunate to meet Borodin and learn about his guide service. You can connect with him at www.snowmobilerussia.com or contact me (Dan Gould) by emailing sledtraveler@gmail.com.
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