An Epic off-road festival held in the Russian Northland
Five Days In November. “Total Chukhloma”
During the first five days in November, we traveled to Chukhloma for the Off-Road Festival. OK! OK! I know you will have a lot of questions like... What is a Chukhloma, where is Chukhloma, why Chukhloma, what is off-road, and why do you call this a festival or an adventure?
Just so you know, right from the start, Chukhloma is a town a serious distance north of Moscow. There is a town and also there is a lake. They are both named Chukhloma. Maybe they named the town after the lake or the lake after the town. I’m not sure. One thing for sure… there is no McDonalds in Chukhloma!
One thing for sure… there is no McDonalds in Chukhloma!
I’ll tell you a lot more about this exciting place in a moment but first, you need to know why we were there.
Our story background
As you might have already guessed, it’s an Off-Road Driving competition that is held in the town of Chukhloma. It takes place here every year, in November, the nastiest possible month in Russia when the snow still hasn’t fallen yet and the grass and leaves have already faded under the weight of a heavy local atmosphere.
During this wildly fertile festival, local wet and soggy soils are plowed and harrowed by the huge wheels of 200 jeeps and fertilized by chunks of plastics and metals falling off of these jeeps. A real holiday!
And don't forget about their crews, 1000 men, women and their children eating, drinking and enjoying this wildlife despite the cold, the mud, and the dullness of Russian November.
Why do they do it exactly? Nobody knows for sure but our CrazyBu team has dreamt about this festival every cold night for last five years. And so, thanks to my family, my parents, and my friends and colleagues, this year we finally found our way there!
Our crew is composed of experienced adventurers and explorers who have often driven off-road in the seriously difficult Russian Arctic and so we were brave and crazy enough to challenge and survive this challenge and that’s without any experience in jeeping and camping in the harsh conditions of the special Chukhloma wilderness. It was proven again that optimism and enthusiastic morale help in enjoying this crazy life, wherever and whenever, despite the mud depth and the wind speed. Enjoying nice company is the key to a good trip, you can be sure!
The atmosphere of the festival
I can only describe the atmosphere at this festival as one of joy and celebration! All jeeps fall within one of the class divisions depending on their masochism and the wheel size. There were suffering «geojeepers» with relatively small wheels and without the life-saving winch (we were among them). And there were «egegey-jeepers» cruising the mud oceans in their super jeeps under the ecstatic gaze of hypnotized women and especially shivering men wrapped in as many layers as possible. And yes, «Egegey!» is Russian way of saying «Woooohoooo!» It is something that you scream while blasting through deep and gooey mud and a wildly bumpy road in a flash!
Actually, I want to drive a super-off-road vehicle, too. At least once a year! What can be better than cruising mud rivers somewhere between your tent and the camp entrance without paying too much attention to where and how to go? And yes, CrazyBuuu got stuck in the mud many times, even in the camp area (thanks to «Egegey»’s wheels)! It can be a little insulting especially when long-awaited cold soup with two cm of frozen fat is somewhere within 300 meters of you but you can't get there because you don't know the path through the misty night full of other tents and jeeps.
CrazyBu was quite good in off-roading too, especially when Tony wanted to drink beer, so he needed to get to the camp very fast!
But generally, CrazyBu was perfect! It was warm and safe, even if we were stuck in the mud. We had a wonderful view from the van of our driver and navigator running back and forth knee-deep in the mud, carrying and wrapping cables and ropes. CrazyBu was quite good in off-roading too, especially when speeding up or when a second vehicle dragged us through the mud. (Or when Tony wanted to drink beer, so he needed to get to the camp very fast. Almost like in our Adventure tours!)
Actually, we had only one day of not being stuck in the mud at all! After nights full of cold and snow, the weather finally became our ally, freezing all the mud and the ground. That day our speed dropped dramatically… an ice road is not a good place for trusting your brakes. In the evening, we had two challenges of crossing rivers. The first one was a wooden bridge in very bad condition. We plucked up all our courage to cross it! And then we came up against the waist-deep ford. Fortunately, love of cars won over the love of adventure and we turned around to get to the camp very late by a long and lonesome road. Without nerve-wracking fords. My cold faithful soup was still waiting for me!
And so more about Chukloma
Don't be surprised! Taking local roads into account, it can take you at least 10 hours to get there from Moscow. (However, nobody wants to go there!) It is really the middle of nowhere! Like Pinega and millions of other small towns. Chukhloma looks like it sounds. It looks like millions of other small Russian towns. You can find similar «Chukloma» style towns near Moscow, but there is a huge difference. If you live in the Moscow region, you need only 2 hours to get to the city and enjoy the bustling, bright, and promising city life of the typical office monkey (sarcasm sign) No way in Chukhloma!
Decay and Depression Rule
As you roll northward you begin to see that there is just nothing besides multiple villages dying in front of your eyes. A once flourishing region is turning into nothing right here and right now... Almost like military settlements within tundra of Rybachy peninsula...
Rare inhabitants are now found in the villages. Crosses fall from washed-up old churches. Cracks crawl along their bell towers. Houses decay and sink into the dark and empty ground. Once rich and elite ’Terem’ palaces fade to black together with the nature of the next grey autumn.
Nothing will change if you turn your photos into black and white. Local landscapes are fully made up of white snow, grey sky, and black wood. Some of the wood will be hidden by vibrantly green leaves in the spring, but some will stay forever as beat-up old houses with broken furniture, peasant cookware, papers of 1903 papering the walls and white colonies of mold in the ceiling. At least something thrives here even if it’s just mold.
Roads Influence Life
In the Chukhloma region, you can see how roads influence life. (Or for five days in November it’s how life influences the roads?) Any car can get to the nearby thinly populated villages by a local bumpy road. Where the road ends, all life ends, too. It can be sadly said that the number of villages out on these roads is many times larger than a number of their inhabitants. Twenty abandoned villages for two people and this is the real story. One of them is a very senior man and another is quite a young guy by comparison… only 50 years old.
Closing This Story
I think now, at the end of my story, about how the dynamics of a close-knit group of people traveling together can unknowingly share a mood, a moment of reflection, or even a sense of disaster. I guess the memory that stands out was our walking around Soligalich town (the same as Galich town but 100 km to the north). There was a common emptiness everywhere in this region… and in our group also.
It was November, a time when the grass dies and the leaves fall, animals hibernate, and the climate turns gray, often cloudy and dark, and often snowy. The scene was one of the cracked churches, sunken houses leaning into the howling wind and freezing cold and at the very most, if you searched hard, you could only find a few people. What is the future of Chukhloma?..
Now, having distanced ourselves from the gloomy scenery and dark moods and feelings, our thoughts flew somewhere towards the discovery of warm WC and coffee at a gas station... just maybe we’d soon see the Golden Arches of a McDonalds. Is that progressive thinking… I wonder?
Our sturdy and strong CrazyBu was wonderful. It kept us warm and comfortable and served us well in the competition. We proved ourselves skilled and worthy of the challenge and feel as if we conquered not only Chukhloma but also proved worthy of any off-road driving hardships to face us in the future.
Our mood has now improved and we share a common belief that somehow everything is OK, the new houses will replace the old ones, new people will find their way to the Northland, and the most important part for me was that our customers and guests really enjoyed the trip (or simulated very well).