The Kolyma Highway


Kolyma Highway - The Road of Bones

Kolyma Highway - The Road of Bones. Distance in miles

If the world would have an end, the Kolyma region would be surely a firm candidate. The end of the Russian almost uninhabited Far East offers a mix of adventure, unknown, picturesque people, incredible nature and cold. A lot of cold.

Made by forced labour in Stalin’s times, the road M-56 is also known as the Kolyma Highway or the “Road of Bones”, because of many people who died building it were directly buried under or along the road. It begins in the big city of Yakutsk, in the region of Sakha, and finishes in the Pacific coast, in the city of Magadan. The original route via Tomtor was 1900 km long, and distance increased with the new road. On the road you can find  the coldest inhabited place on Earth, ghost towns, several old gulags  and a stunning nature all over the landscape.

Traveling the Kolyma highway is a challenge itself and should not be done by people not ready for extreme conditions of isolation, cold, inexistence of public services (such as health, transport, security, etc), wild nature (wolves, bears and those dangerous ticks), and bad road maintenance that can lead to an accident. Alcoholism and nature of locals can be tricky, as well as their lack of foreign languages knowledge, but I suppose this should be considered as part of the fun.


Cold Oymyakon

Oymyakon is considered the Pole of Cold of the Northern Hemisphere, and have the world record of the lowest temperature ever registered in an inhabited place: -71.2ºC in 1924. Only in Antarctica have been registered lower temperatures. Recently, crazy travelers found some fun in the idea of passing a winter in the coldest town in the Earth, and Oymyakon have appeared in some off-the-beaten-track travel diaries.

The road starts in Yakutsk, Siberian city located in the west bank of the river Lena. Once built as a cossack fort, now is one of the most important ports of the river and known for its diamond production. The first challenge of the road is to cross the river Lena, one of the most powerful rivers on Earth, and without bridge on the city. A ferry service runs on summer to Nizhni Bestiakh, and the road is crossable over the ice in winter, but it’s not possible to cross in spring and autumn.

After Yakutsk you will find a large area of flat wetlands with small villages untill arrive to Khandiga,  then pass the mountains of the Cherskiy Range and descend to the Indigirka River basin, where the new and old road divides. The old road is the most romantic for travelers. It crosses the villages of Tomtor and Oymyakon, the coldest places in inhabitated Earth, and the bridges are a challenge to cross. After Tomtor, most of the bridges are fallen and the roads are only crossable in winter, when the rivers are frozen, and summer, with big trucks that can bear with the water current. But travelers agree that this is the road to take if you can. Not every time you will be able to be in the coldest place on Earth, and the waiting times for cross the rivers are famous for the fun you can find in them: two days waiting for a truck are a good excuse to open some vodka bottles, cook and enjoy the beautiful nature all around.

Kolyma Highway

Kolyma Highway

On the other hand, the newest road makes a long detour to the north through Ust-Nera. The mines all over the region assure a fluent traffic (we mean fluent for the standards of that part of the world) if you want to hitchhike, and it will be your way if your time is not enough. Some years ago, the road granted the status of National Road and now it is well maintained, even with some new bridges that make it passable all year round.

Both roads reencounter in the ghost town of Kadikchan. Once a soviet enclave for the exploitation of coal mines, they became unprofitable and the mines were closed. As it was a new city, made only for miners, the economy built around the city was almost nonexistent (no fields, no pastures, no industry, no factories… nothing) so the possibilities to live there without the mines were zero. Now the town is a cemetery of soviet relics, and a frozen sanctuary for creative photographers.

If the previous place was something to get sad for, after Kadikchan comes the saddest place of the road. The Kolyma labour camps were probably the most hard of the GULAG system in the Soviet Union, and the Butugychag Gulag was maybe the worst of them all. The locals knew the place with the name of “Death Valley”, because the reindeers didn’t want to go there and took strange diseases when they did.  And why? Because the quantity of uranium lying under the surface. This was the reason why the life expectance of the Camp was few times lower than others in the Gulag system. After the Stalin’s era, and until the end of the Soviet Union, most of Gulags were demolished, but it was not the case for Butugychag Gulag, that was simply abandoned and is still standing there waiting for the wind to take it away. The road to the place is nearly abandoned, and you’ll have to endure to reach it. But traveler’s videos are there to prove that it’s possible to arrive and give some respect to the anonymous workers lying down that grown. Note that it’s easier to get to Butugychag from Magadan side than from Susuman side. For more information and great photos look here: part1 part2

Butugychag Gulag

Butugychag Gulag

After a very recomended stop at Jack London Lake, known for the fishing possibilities and for its landscapes, the next step is arrive to Magadan, the last town on the route. Founded in 1933, it was a major transit center for prisoners taken to GULAG prison camps. Some say most of the people living in Magadan are descendents of criminals or their jailers, but that’s not true. The town has its importance as a major port for export the mining products of the region, and although its isolation the town have the funds to build the two big churches of the Trinity (Orthodox) and the Nativity (Catholic), as well as the Mask of Sorrow, a sculpture in memory of Stalin’s victims.

Jack London Lake

Jack London Lake

And after Magadan?

Well, the question is very clear. After Magadan there are not more roads, and go back for the same path is not a big fun. So we’ll have to think on taking the plane or, more exciting, the boat.

The easy way is to take a plane to Vladivostok, and from there fly to Moskva, Beijing or any other place, or take a ferry to Japan. The flights from Magadan, although not so often, are not expensive if you don’t want to reach other countries. But the challenge once in Magadan (at least will be mine) is to reach Kamtchatka by boat, where with a long visa, hard endurance and many many patience, is possible to catch Chinese or Japanese fishing boats to third countries.

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