For these bike enthusiasts, a road obviously wasn’t enough. They craved for a greater challenge and went all the way to Russia to test the waters. Literally! Well, at least almost.
Participants from nine teams across the world rode on the frozen Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world (636 km long and 79 km), for the Ice Run 2015 organised late March by The Adventurists on a rather unique bike.
Their ride, IMZ-URAL, a bike with a sidecar, played a pivotal role during World War II. “It is one of the most unmanageable bikes to ride on a tarred road,” aver Chennai boys Ashwin Chandrasekar and Natraj Mahalingam — the only team from India to participate in this ride. They called themselves Meh-The, which means yeti in Tibetan. Ashwin and Natraj are friends since their college days. While Ashwin is a city-based entrepreneur, Natraj works in the U.S. “One has to be out of their mind to try something like that,” they laugh.
Both of them have been on tough expeditions before. When Ashwin was 18, he rode from Kanyakumari to Kargil on his Royal Enfield. Natraj too has travelled across India on his bike and also went on a motorcycle expedition from New York to San Francisco. So when the two heard about the Ice Run, they signed-up for it without a second thought.
“When Natraj called to ask me if I wanted to participate, I immediately agreed. However, having lived in Chennai most of my life, I assumed the weather would be like Kulu-Manali,” says Ashwin. Thankfully, Natraj came prepared — for both of them.
But the cold was nevertheless brutal. “This year has been the mildest winter Siberia has seen in the last 60 years. It may sound perfect for vacationing but for us this news was terrifying as the chances of falling into craters of deep water were high. We came across open water with depths ranging from knee deep to 500 ft. It was either about turning back or braving it,” says Natraj.
They skidded, glided and hovered over the ice and open water, lucky to make it alive. “The bike is like an untamed horse in a rodeo; with a mind of its own and the chances of breaking down were high. It was powered by a 42bhp engine,” remembers Natraj. However, both of them agree that the ride wouldn’t have been as memorable if not for that bike. “We tried our hands on it on tar before the ride started but the trouble on ice was double.”
Those experiences were going to come in handy soon. The temperature was as low as minus 25 to minus 30 degrees. “The wind pierced through our bones when on the move,” says the duo, who had to wear four-layers of clothes to resist the biting cold. “The ice is not even on the lake. In some places it is as smooth as a mirror and in others it’s broken like glass shards. Towards the end ours and another team’s bike fell in the water. Four of us had to pull our bike out first and then the other. We ran out of petrol and had to borrow from the other team, which was just enough to take us to the finish line,” says Ashwin.
They spent most of the nights at the villages closest to the lake, but there were nights when they camped on ice. “Though we were well prepared to spend our nights camping on ice, an earthquake had rocked one of our campsite and it brought in a new fear factor. The ice cracked under our feet and massive sections of it dislodged and broke through the surface near the shore. Guts played our saviour most of the nights,” says Natraj.
The duo had equipped itself for the 12-day trip with utilities which included a stove, torch, rope, food ( dry fruits and chocolate), petrol, tent and other essentials. “We couldn’t have carried much because that would have slowed us down,” he says.
“We had our share of arguments but we had to work together to get through this. We’d forget our troubles the minute we took time to enjoy the view. It was as if we were in another world. There were so many breathtaking moments that we’d sometimes just stop to soak it all in. We even got a chance to bathe after days in a hot spring. The trouble, the chilling cold, the tiredness — it was all worth it,” says Ashwin.
The other participants made the race even more memorable. “There were teams from Italy, Belgium, Australia, the U.S.Our favourites were this couple from Australia and a man who travelled across Europe in a taxi,” say Ashwin and Natraj, who came home with a special memento. “In the last leg of the run, we did a 22-hour marathon, with broken headlights, and a broken clutch cable and we reached first, 11 hrs before the next team. We were given a stone carving from the lake with 100 kmph carved on it,” smiles Ashwin.