Road trip on the Road of Bones – Kolyma Highway

Kolyma Highway – The Road of Bones. I have an eerie feeling driving down this infamous highway, built by Gulag prisoners, many of whose final resting place is right under this very gravel. We have embarked on a five day road trip – a journey – through the very heart of abandoned Russia.The Kolyma highway stretches 2020 kilometers between Yakutsk and Magadan, spanning three timezones. It passes a few kilometers North of the “pole of cold”, the coldest settled region of the world. The road is easy to drive in dry conditions with good bridges and plenty of road workers fixing/improving the gravel road cover (the road has been granted federal highway status in 2011). Locals told me that the road is impassable for a month in Spring and in Autumn. Best driving conditions are in winter, due to the snow cover. Our travel speed was ca. 50-60km/h on average. There are a few “options”, esp. (1) drive the old summer road (not maintained, ok to Oymakon but requires heavy off-road machinery later) and (2) take the old road from Susuman (while this is more “pure”, this road will not meet the Kolyma River). The main road was a good choice for a 5 to 6 day trip, as it also has giant pot holes and plenty of landscape/adventure but allows to travel the long distances at decent speed. We met plenty of other cars on the road, fewer in the middle section. While people were very helpful and there are some patches of cellular network, it was good to have a satellite phone with us. Temperatures were very pleasant at around 25°C during the day. Most important packing item was the Deet mosquito spray.
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I arranged the trip with the help of a local blogger/guide in Yakutsk, Bolot Bochkarev. For the Road of Bones section I joined his “group” tour. We were four travelers and Alexander, our driver. We stayed in a mix of private apartments and hotels, as there are only few hotels along the road. As I do not visit Siberia everyday, I decided to also visit the famous Mir diamond mine and fly out via Moscow.

Things to cross of the bucket list

  • Hike around Mir Mine
  • Take a flight in a 40 year (?) old airplane
  • Ride on the Road of Bones
  • Climb an abandoned residential building in the abandoned town of Kadykchan
  • Take a selfie at the center of the end of the world (Ust-Nera)
  • Buy 1kg of Kaviar for 30eur
  • Do the “Scorpions” jog via Red Square, follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park

Things I would improve with hindsight

  • Eat with the locals. We were self reliant on the trip, which ment store bought food. Pelmini, Borscht, etc. are much more tasty.
  • Try to catch a ride int Mir mine. There are no tours but I saw a truck go to the first level, every day in the evening. Would try to bribe the driver
  • Arrange a hunting/fishing trip for a day. Hunting and fishing is what Yakutians do
  • Make sure to have two vehicles and be able to go to Jack London Lake and Dneprovski Gulag
  • Buy more Kaviar in Magadan

Here is the full story

I left Shanghai on the evening of 28.7. for Beijing to catch the red eye flight to Novosibirsk on the 29th. Langham at PEK was nice enough to upgrade my room to a maisonette suite. Last super luxury of the travel?
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Landing in Novosibirsk, I arrived in eastern Russia: Despite 1.4mio inhabitants, the airport is small. I only find an ATM to accept my visa card in the domestic (part of the) terminal. Upside, my hotel is only 5min walk from the airport. I use my layover to explore with my guide Ekatarina from asknovosibirsk. We visit the river Ob with its reservoir as well as Trans-Siberian Railraod Bridge (which has contributed greatly to the rise of Novosibirsk), the railroad museum, the academic town of Akademgorodok, which is actually is located beautifully in the forests around Novosibirsk, as well as the town center with theater, memorials and famous constructivist architecture. Ekatarina is very helpful to get from a to b, to explain and bring me to a superb small restaurant (some explorer kitchen).
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After a short night, I am back at the airport. Way to early. Check-in takes only 5min, security another 7min. Heavy rain delays our flight by 2h. Finally, around noon, we fly into Mirny. From my window, I can see the giant pit as we fly almost directly over it. Mirny airport is even more interesting than Novosibirsk. A bus brings us to a small sheet metal shed, wedged between two buildings. As it turns out, this is the arrival hall. My guide/driver Dimitry picks me up basically on the airfield. Drive from the airport to the city center takes maybe 10 minutes. The Zarnista Hotel is located on the central square and provides a ca. 3 star standard. In the afternoon, I meet my translator Natalie and the three of us take 2h to explore the entire city: Mine, town sign, geologist memorial, church, war memorial, sorting plant and underground mine site (unfortunately, I cannot visit the last two from the insight).

Mirny was founded after geologist discovered diamond material in the region. The entire town is dedicated to mining and almost everything seems to belong or be controlled by the mining company Alrosa. The ground is permafrost, so buildings are set on stilts. Melting permafrost will create a layer of mud on which buildings would otherwise drift away. The love of the early workers must have been very hard, with winter temperatures of -50°C without central heating and swarms of mosquitos in the summer. The Mir (“Peace”) mine was operated as open pit mine from 1954 to 2001 and is still operated as underground mine, today. According to Wikipedia, it’s the second biggest man-made hole in the world, but it surely is a tremendously impressive site.

As there are no flights out of Mirny over the weekend, I have two more days to explore the city. Natalie and Dimitry take me to the “zoo” and the site of the national day celebrations (a big festival site). Central to all celebration places is the tree of life. People in Yakutia believe that the tree of life connects our world with the heavens and the world below. Also, they give me a private tour through the Regional Museum and the Kimberlite Museum.

The adventure begins as I set out to explore the Mir mine by myself. My goal is to walk around the mine (which should be roughly 3,5 to 4km). I walk past sheds and abandoned cars until I accidentally hit a road leading into the mine itself. There are plenty of signs in Russian, possibly stating that entry is forbidden, but I do not speak Russian. I can safely walk down to the first level. It’s an eerie feeling to climb around in this abandoned mine. Therefore, I shy away to climb one level deeper, although this looks accessible from the other side. I return to the street and walk among the mining trucks to complete my tour (of course, not without climbing on top of the monument hill).

On Monday I leave Mirny to Yakutsk. The airport is yet another experience. For check-in, I hand my backpack through a door, where it is thrown on a pile of luggage, hopefully destined for Yakutsk (there are only 3 flights that day, so I am confident). Finally, we board an Antonow An-24 Turboprop. The last An-24 was build a year before I was born. While this may not have been the latest model, Alrosa has done an awesome job to keep it in its original state. But, what has flown for so long is unlikely to crash, just now. No problem to bring your water on board, no problem to use your cellphone, no use to look for your seat because it’s first come first serve. After surprisingly smooth flight, we arrive in rainy Yakutsk. I only do a quick late night exploration; Lenin Statue a central square, the old town and the Lena River, before I take a short rest at Hotel Lena.

Kolyma Highway day 1: Yakutsk to Khandyga (ca. 430km)

The next morning, on 02.08. at 6.30 give adventurers get into their minibus, to embark on a journey along the Road of Bones. We want to take the Lena ferry at 7.00. There is no bridge across the Lena river in this area. As we arrive at a muddy river bank, I keep a lookout for the ferry terminal until I realize that the bulldozed trail through the mud is the ferry terminal.

The ferry captain looks like TinTin’ s Captain Haddock. The crossing is beautiful. I did not realize how fast the Siberian rivers are. On the other side, our ride begins… to my surprise with a paved road, at first. But the road quickly turns into gravel and later into deep mud. We pass green meadows and local villages under wide open skies. Only remarkable stop is an open air museum of Yakutsk houses. At sunset, we reach the Aldan river. The 1.5h river crossing is beautiful with the sun setting over the river. In the darkness, we reach our first stop in Khandyga, where we sleep in a private appartment.

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Kolyma Highway day 2: Khandyga to Ust-Nera

We leave very relaxed at 9am and head towards the mountains. The road is much better, solid gravel instead of deep mud. There are fewer or almost no villages along the road. Dust becomes a major problem, as trucks have a 200m to 300m trail of impenetrable dust that makes impossible to overtake. We drive under a beautiful wide open sky. There are many foto opportunities, today. Most prominent stop is at the gas station at the intersection of the road to Oymakon (the pole of cold), the old summer road. The road is no longer maintained but, according to our driver, can be navigated with off-road trucks. We drive into the gold mining territory and start to see mining cities (closed of, do not allow visitors in), gold mines and trailings without end. In the evening, we reach the (open) gold mining two of Ust-Nera (“mouth of the river Nera”). We stay in a private apartment by the river. 

Kolyma Highway day 3: Hiking at Ust-Nera

We have a free day today and decide to hike in the mountains around Ust-Nera. The mountains are covered by “sacred stones”, vertical stone pillars. This area would be a superb rock climbing area. Our local guide leads us through a mosquito invested valley (I am frequently assured that there are only few mosquito this year) up the mountain. We find plenty of wild currant and blueberries. Very delicious. We hike past several stone formations and have a great view over the Nera valley, the leaning stone formations “Yakutians heading North”, and the ski lift, built by geologists many years ago.

After our return, I have some time.to explore the city. This truly seems like the end of the world, and I have a selfie at its center.

Kolyma Highway day 4: Ust-Mera to Susuman

Today, we continue to make our way through and out of the mountains. Again, incredibly beautiful skies. Our main stop today is the abandoned coal city of Kadykchan. The city has been built, as many of thee few settlements in the area, by Gulag prisoners. In the late 1990s, the city was closed and abandoned after an explosion in one of the two underground mines. Now the city is a ghost town or a big adventure playground. I first play area was a residential buildings, which offered view over the entire city from the roof. In one of the apartments, I found a beautifully illustrated book on russian space travel, which I took as a souvenir. I visited the post office and than explored the school building with two gymnasium on the second and third floor. I even found a 8/9th grade German book in one of the classrooms.

We passed more abandoned villages on the way to Susuman. Apparently, many villages had been supported by Soviet central planning and were abandoned after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Susuman looks like a good forsaken town. Grey and run down. We stay in an old style hotel.

  

Kolyma Highway day 5: Susuman – Magadan

This is the last day on the Kolyma Highway. Honestly, today the road drags on. Dusty roads under an overcast sky. Fotostop at the famous Kolyma river, which gave its name to one of the most extreme Gulag regions. In the afternoon, we visit make a small detour to visit an abandoned soviet prison. In the same town is also a still active Sanatorium. A strange building to see in this remote taiga.

Back on the road, we descend into the Magadan valley. Late at night, we reach Magadan. A (way to dark) group picture marks the end of truly epic journey I. the Road of Bones.

Next day, we sleep in and explore the city of Magadan. Compared to places we visited on the Road of Bones, Magadan feels like a sprawling metropolis with its two shopping streets, 5 rides amusement park, and the largest orthodox cathedral east of the Ural Mountains. Kaviar can be purchased for something between 2000 and 4000 rubles per kilogram.

In the afternoon, we visit Magadan harbor, the arrival place of many Gulag prisoners and the Mask of Sorrow, a memorial to the millions who died in the camps. To end the trip, I walk to the beginning of the Kolyma Highway. It has truly been a journey.

August 9th is my departure day. From Magadan I take Aeroflot Time Travel Airlines to Moscow, leaving at 15.20, touching down at 14.50. Arriving in Moscow is like stepping onto another planet. It takes a while to negotiate a taxi price, because it seems that even the solid built “official” taxi booths in the airport try to rip me of (while the taxi fare map shows 2300rub, they have another map printed on the back of their official license, which shows 7800rub). China training helps, I get a taxi for 2.000rub and laugh off the guy who tries to charge 500rub for the receipt. My hotel is superb. It’s a small 30 room hotel build against the backside of Bolschoi Theater at a busy pedestrian bar and restaurant street, the Kutsnetski Most. It’s only 10min walk to Red Square, so I cross the “Visit Red Square with St. Basil” of my bucket list.

How to better start my first day in Moscow than with a “Scorpions Jog”, so I follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park. After shower and breakfast, I set out to Old Arbat Street fir shopping, as I promised Michi to bring her a Nesting Doll. The street is ok, but I am a bit disappointed. Shops seem generic as the sell dolls, fur hats, flags and other cheap stuff. No shopping here.

In the afternoon I meet Tatiana, my guide for the Kremlin. It shall turn out as one of my best decision to get a guide. Ticket- and entrylines are incredibly long, but we make our way in in less than 10min (took so long because Tatiana was helping a couple with a small child in a stroller to get in, quicker). First stop is the Armory. I could not have imagined it to be so impressive. Diamond Fund with the crown jewels and some of the world’s largest diamonds (I entertain the guards by showing them pictures from Mirny the very mine, most of these stones come from), and the museum with plentiful treasures, none the least the Tsars Faberges Eggs, but also princess dresses and coaches as well as opulent tableware, clocks, bibles, etc. Outside, the cathedral square is equally impressive. We visit three cathedrals, the Tsars prayer cathedral, the coronation cathedral and the crypt cathedral (again, Tatiana parts the masses and gets us in in notime). Outside, we look at the massive Kremlin walls and towers, Wladimir Putin’s office (he received visitors from Turkey on that day), the garden with a tree planted by Juri Gagarin after his return from space, as well as Putin’s helicopter pad. Kremlin is not only worth a visit, it’s definitely the thing to see in Moscow. Afterwards, I all I can (and want to) do is to relax in Alexander Garden. 

I want to start my final day in Moscow with a view over the city from Sparrow Hill. I take an early metro and beat the tourist crowds. Beautiful view over the city, but even more impressive, almost intimidating, is the view on Moscow University (one of Stalin’s 8 Sisters Buildings commissioned for Moscow’s 800th birthday). Befor I am allowed entry into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, I need to make a detour via the hotel, as shorts are not allowed inside. Orthodox cathedrals have a strange charm with their walled off altar section, the icon walls and the comparably smaller space as people stand during the (long) cermons. After I get my share of enlightenment for the day, I head over to Tretyakov State Galery. For my taste the 18th and 19th century paintings are a bit heavy but I enjoy the Russian realism. From Tretyakov (now again with shorts), I visit the dreamland of Izmaylovo Kreml. On the weekends, there is a flea market and the place is apparently packed. This Thursday afternoon, it’s almost deserted. And it’s perfect. The Kreml has a surreal charm; it looks like it does not belong here, in place and time. Only a few vendors open their booth, which makes shopping pleasant (although negotiating is difficult, because the de facto have monopolies). I find a beautiful nesting doll, so it’s a successful trip. After some more explorations of the Kreml, I head back to my hotel and relax by listening to the awesome street musicians playing cover songs on the violin.

  

Friday the 12th is my departure day. Again, as on every single departure during this trip, it rains (although lightly). I have some time in the morning. Since I enjoy modern art, I decide to visit the Pushkin Fine Arts Galery, opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The Galery has three buildings. The main building houses an archeological collection (quite cool, with Egyptian mummies, hold from Troy, statues and relics from Greek and Roman cities). The impressionist collection is housed in another building. It’s a comparatively small bit very fine collection featuring works of Monet, van Gogh, Czesanne, Picasso and others. My final stop is, again, GUM at Red Square to buy sweets before taking a taxi to the airport (arranged by hotel at reasonable price of 2.500rub).

I really enjoyed Russia. especially the tremendously friendly people. The exchange rate of the ruble (1EUR to 72RUB, compared to 1 to 35 a few years back) made travelling very cheap to travel. As I had to leave out St. Petersburg, this time, I will need to come back.

Travel summary
Date: 28.07. – 12.08.2016
Type: Self arranged/guided
Tour / Travel / Hotels
– Shanghai – Beijing (Air China, Langham Palace Airport)
– Beijing – Novosibirsk (S7, Skyport Hotel Airport)
– Novosibirsk – Mirny (S7, Zarnista Hotel)
– Mirny – Yakutsk (Alrosa Air, Hotel Lena)
– Yakutsk – Magadan (car, various along the route, Hotel Magadan in Magadan)
– Magadan – Moscow (Aeroflot,Kutsnetskiy Inn Hotel)
– Moscow – Shanghai (China Eastern)

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