Active holidays: Back in the USSR with the brothers karaoke

What happens on a Russian snowmobile expedition, wondered Marcus Waring. Guns, vodka, singing and dancing - that's what

'For the Englanders, the 'Road to Hell'!" shouted a Finnish journalist called Harri. Next to Harri was me, bewildered, in the lounge of a dingy Russian hotel in the Kola Peninsula, in the most north-westerly part of Russia. While Harri and my other new Finnish friends sang and danced along to Chris Rea after 17 hours of riding skidoos, I tried to remember if my travel insurance covered me for downing neat vodka and took to the floor...

'For the Englanders, the 'Road to Hell'!" shouted a Finnish journalist called Harri. Next to Harri was me, bewildered, in the lounge of a dingy Russian hotel in the Kola Peninsula, in the most north-westerly part of Russia. While Harri and my other new Finnish friends sang and danced along to Chris Rea after 17 hours of riding skidoos, I tried to remember if my travel insurance covered me for downing neat vodka and took to the floor...

When the Chris Rea CDs run out, the Finns have another way of getting over-excited – the extreme snowmobile safari. Ours was to take us from Salla in northern Finland to Murmansk across the Russian border, 450 kilometres and two-and-a-half days' hard riding away. And back.

Setting off, we were at the border within an hour and a half. It looked exactly as you would expect – nicked from a Bond-film backlot. But if we thought we had seen the last of the AK-47-packing Russian soldiers at the border post, we hadn't counted on the dutiful Igor and Alexei. This serious-looking pair were to "escort" us on the journey to Murmansk, beyond which lies nothing much except a few polar bears and the North Pole.

Barriers raised, we had a generous shot of potent Russian vodka, took an unsteady left turn down a forest track and let the hinterlands swallow us up. Snowmobiles aren't for the faint-hearted: noisy, smelly 540cc beasts with a finger throttle, heated handlebars, no gears and nearly the acceleration of a motorbike up to a top speed of 70mph. A single caterpillar track powers the machine, which is fitted with two skis at the front. Cornering involves leaning right over to the opposite side of the turn; but the uneven terrain over low hills and woods on our trip meant a mixture of slow rumbling and blasting along.

The snow was up to two metres deep, and we frequently had to dig our machines out. Because we were on the "routebreaker" journey, laying the trail for that year's safaris, the riding time was also far longer than normal.

It's safe to say that our route to Murmansk qualified as "the middle of nowhere"; 40,000 square miles of it, in fact, a snow-white wilderness of low hills, woods and frozen rivers deep inside the Arctic Circle. There were no planes in the sky, no houses for miles and just the occasional brown bear hibernating underground.

My two friends Alistair and Reg and I were the first English people to go on such a safari, although Kola Extreme – the Finnish snowmobiling outfit hosting us – take a lot of German custom. ("They like crossing borders," explained Reijo, the founder of the company and our guide, with a smile.) Reijo cheerfully informed us that the temperature dropped to -58C not long ago. I kept one eye on the skies and prayed for a local burst of global warming.

Past a display by the northern lights after sunset, our group raced north to Kovdor, yards from an electrified border fence. By the time we arrived at 1.30am we had been riding for 17 hours – a day's ride was more typically eight hours. Kovdor – a frozen industrial town with a big smoking chimney – may as well have been Shangri La. "I feel like I'm in a parallel universe," moaned a suitably spaced-out Alistair, as Harri shouted "Champagne!" and got the hotel stereo going.

It's difficult to say what the Kovdorians made of Kola Extreme and their entourage of thrill-seeking Westerners. Amid the identical grey apartment blocks and strange little kiosks selling flowers and sweets, our small group cut quite a dash. But not for long – after a quick tour of the town, it was time to head indoors before frostbite made using the finger throttle on our machines a lot more difficult.

If you think one northern Russian industrial sprawl is much like another, then you'd be right. Our most northerly point, Murmansk, was larger and colder than Kovdor, with yet more apartment blocks and smoking chimneys (the town hit the news last year when the hulk of the ill-fated submarine Kursk was brought into the nearby port of Roslyakovo). Not far away, Severomorsk is the home of the Northern Fleet, as well as much of Russia's nuclear arms.

The nearest our tour bus took us to military hardware was to pass by a Mig jet that used to defend convoys and is now on display overlooking the nuclear-powered icebreakers. The anchor of the first Russian icebreaker to reach this godforsaken place also lives here, a relic of the time when the British coerced the Russians into making Murmansk a supply port following the discovery of a northern sea route in the 16th century.

That night brought the trip's set-piece. In the town's finest hotel, a Russian choir in traditional costume invited us to sample salted bread and vodka, then burst into beautiful song. After Ukrainian borsch and cod from the Barents Sea they sang folk songs and made us dance, finishing with, what else, "Back in the USSR" in Russian.

On our last day, picking up the trail from the first night of madness, our column of eight snowmobiles finally reached the road and raced back down to the Russian/Finnish border, kicking up a 60mph snowstorm on a road like the Cresta Run. Farewells were bade to Igor and Alexei, who were rewarded with roubles for their troubles. At the second and last border post before re-entering Finland, Harri, the Finnish journalist, chanced his arm and gave his name as "Bond, James Bond". The Russian officials were amused, thankfully.

Cut to the interior of a deliriously warm hotel back in Finland, where Reijo is congratulating us: "You have not betrayed your country; you are now Extreme Men." Which didn't quite satisfy Harri. He was driving for 50 hours on his snowmobile back to Joenssu in southern Finland. Even the Finns agreed that he was a reindeer short of a herd.

I shook his hand and told him I was going to use every towel in the hotel, watch Ally McBeal and fly home to recover. The road to hell was all his....

The facts

Kola Extreme Safaris run from February until the end of April. Trips can last from two days (Salla to Kovdor and back) up to five (Salla to Murmansk and back, which costs £1,600 plus flights). For further details and prices, visit www.travel.fi/int/salla/safarit/

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