Jul 042012

Chisinau to Tiraspol, Transnistria map

Chisinau to Tiraspol

I decided not to hitchhike that day. A marshrutka was heading to Bender and I decided to take it. We drove for an hour or so through the flat central Moldova, thinking about not important things as I was looking through the window, when Nikolai showed some interest in me.

- Iedich na Priednistrovie, da?

- Da, I answered.

Well, my Russian was quite bad. Although when you are alone in a foreign country you improve fast, I had been only for three days in Moldova, and even Moldova isn’t a 100% Russian speaking country. I would say, maybe, 45% of the people I met spoke Russian. But this doesn’t matter. Nikolai was talking to me and I had to please him, I wanted to cause a good impression despite my broken trousers and my dirty bag, so I asked him questions like where was he from, if he had kids, wife, horse or dog.

And then I was there, applying for some sort of transit visa to the unknown Republic of Transnistria, an auto-proclaimed state, a de facto republic, the Russian area by the Dniester River that didn’t want to become a region of Moldova and gained their independence by the power of weapons. But being still a communist country, the new state was not recognized by any other state, and just got the sympathy and protection of Russia, giving a Russian passport to all Transnistrians. Now the Republic of Transnitria is still called a communist state, but the only thing left from that is the unique party regime, while the economic system is a fierce capitalism with Soviet symbols and Lenin statues here and there, extended corruption and Russian soldiers controlling the strategic points.

Mime and Alberich, Dniester River, Bendery, Transnistria

Mime and Alberich by the Dniester River in Bendery

In the border, they gave me a thin paper with some writings in it. It was my visa. As a non-recognized state, they cannot stamp the passport, so a paper is all they can do. It all ran without hassles and all the stories about corruption I heard about Transnistria vanished in the happy face of a kind policeman. I had a visa for stay in the country for several hours and I got into Bendery. You can hear many awful things about Transnistria, but there the market looked like a normal market, the streets were the same as in the neighboring countries and the people looked more or less like everywhere. I realized how many writers’ exaggerations about this land made us have a wrong image of it, because the corruption and criminal affairs may be true, but most of the people in the country have nothing to do with this; they are kind, well-dressed, polite and a little bit abject, more or less, like everywhere. I had read Nikolai Lilin’s book Siberian Education¸ with many criminal matters about this land, which made me expect another thing.

But maybe it wasn’t that normal, possibly Transnistria still had something unique and special.

Lenin statue in Tiraspol, Transnistria

Lenin statue in Tiraspol

Just when I got down the bus I saw a war tank turned to a monument that welcomes and warns everybody not to mess with this land. Bendery was a normal ex-communist city, wide alleys and short houses combined with huge concrete buildings, the market with the typical products and policemen with wide hats. But the things changed when I saw then Dniester River and the bridge. As a result of the war between Moldova and Transnitria in 1992, the Russian army took positions in the area, being the bridge linking the two sides of the Dniester River one of the places permanently controlled by the Russian Army.

The soldiers asked me for papers, information and so on. After a while, I stopped being a fun, and they left me go and put the attention to a couple of vans. I passed walking over the river remembering how far the Dniester seemed during the geography classes when I was in school. I was pleased to be in a mythical geographical feature like that. As pleased I was that I decided to take a trolleybus to Tiraspol and use my first Transnistrian rubles, getting down just when I had enough of it. The river made a long detour by the city, and I was again not far from it. There was a promenade and some aquatic attractions, just by a muddy beach where the people was swimming and sunbathing. I got there and extended my little travel towel, emulating them and laying over it. Some people’s attention turned to me. They came and we maintain a little conversation. They all decided I would have problems with police getting out of the country and wanted to help. They catch my notebook and wrote something in Russian I couldn’t understand.

- Show it to the police in the border – they said.

After a short bath and thanking them, I went to look for the station. I had only a couple of hours left to leave the country. I passed through Tiraspol center, with the opportunity of making some photos to those Lenin’s statues and war cars decorated with the Transnistrian flag and the inscription “Za Rodinu”.

Just there I found Andrei. I asked him how to go to the bus station, and he wanted to go with me. He was a mathematics student who became very excited when I told him I was from Catalonia. He knew a lot of things about my place, the willing to be independent, the political events of the past years, the differences with Spanish, the language, football and so on. I made him note that the realities here and there were somehow similar.

- Yes, the way to understand identity maybe it’s similar -he said-, but the situation is different. Very different. Here, the politics…

And he looked up at the sky and exhaled a deep sigh.

And I agreed.

Za Rodinu, War Car, Tank, Tiraspol, Transnistria

Za Rodinu! (For the motherland!) says a tank in Tiraspol

After a couple of typical Eastern-Europe-bus-station-drunkards, I got into a bus heading to Ukraine. It was a pity: my dreamed stay in Transnitria had been too short; a six hours visa was not a big thing. But it didn’t disturb me for a long time. After a while I would be again in Ukraine, one of the countries I’ve visited more times. And I’ll have never enough.

Bendery Fortress by the Dniester, Bendery, Transnistria

Bendery Fortress by the Dniester

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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