Returning to Western Europe in October 2017, with the Hilux Surf in covered storage in Magadan, I had just three months to wait before beginning the winter journey for which I had been planning and preparing for two years. I found myself feeling more nervous than in the lead up to any other part of the Odyssey so far; perhaps I was really about to embark on the most dangerous adventure of my life, or perhaps I was just getting older and unwillingly adapting to a predictable, mundane life in the utter doldrums of north-western Europe. I sometimes found myself lying awake at night wondering how the car would react to temperatures potentially below -40º C; how I would deal with a breakdown or crash; how I would gauge the strength of the ice on the Lena River or Lake Baikal. I also did not know for sure that the trip I had planned was actually possible, as large parts of it were on impermanent, seasonal winter roads that were subject to weather and the resources and needs of local communities. I realised however that my concerns lay less in the risk of discomfort, damage to the car, or even personal harm, and were focussed on a clear fear of failure; to have to retreat from the winter roads and in essence re-trace my 2017 journey on normal roads.
I was about to embark upon a gruelling winter trip, crossing some of the coldest and least-accessible parts of Eurasia in the depths of winter, staying as much as possible on ice roads or zimniki made through frozen swamps and across the frozen surfaces of rivers and lakes. My proposed route would take me back along the Kolyma Highway, then far up the Lena River, down through the lower Tunguska Basin and across Lake Baikal, then a necessary run along the normal road network and back onto ice roads through the Vasyugan Swamp and up to the Arctic to meet the lower reaches of the Ob River. Unlike other journeys, this would be expedition-like; there would be few specific sites of cultural interest; instead, I would be pitting myself and the car against the harsh beauty of an immense, frozen wilderness; travelling solo across the Siberian Winter.
I land in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in the early hours of the morning of the 13th January 2018, heavily laden with winter clothing and car parts, and wearing winter boots which are far too warm for Moscow’s mild winter. I take a taxi to the apartment of my friend and colleague Tom and, after a brief sleep and some last-minute shopping, we part over a couple of bottles of Armenian Kilikia beer. I take another taxi to Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport and board an overnight flight to Khabarovsk, which lands on a beautifully sunny, clear winter morning with bracing air temperatures of -26º C. After a connecting flight to Magadan, I am collected by my friend Oleg and his friend Sergey, who drive me the fifty kilometres from the airport in Sokol to the apartment of my hosts, Zhenya and Kate, whom I had met only briefly last October. Whilst Magadan is a quite pleasant -25º C, inland temperatures have dropped to -60º C in Oymyakon; a thought which I find both thrilling and slightly worrying.
I spend a week in Magadan doing some final preparations on the car; blanking off the radiator with insulation, buying an engine blanket and fitting a second windscreen which I had ordered last October. Oleg helps me greatly in finding everything I need and in offering advice on my preparations. I make the first drive of the year with Oleg, out of the covered parking lot into town, then out onto the frozen surface of the Sea of Okhotsk in Gertner Bay on the city’s eastern edge. It’s an odd sensation to be driving on the sea, over a series of pressure ridges near the shore and out onto unbroken salt-water ice, which I find has a strange roughness to it. Despite being illegal, the sea surface is busy with local ice-fishermen and their four-wheel drives, though every year cars are lost from falling through thin ice. I stock up with supplies, including a number of Russian Army food ration packs which Oleg recommends, fill up with fuel, then put the car back into the covered car park while I make a week-long side-trip.
Normally, I would never entertain the idea of flying to a new destination, but I make an exception in order to pay a winter visit to Kamchatka, boarding a turboprop flight to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. I am greeted by low clouds, wind and warm temperatures hovering very close to 0º C making the rather charmless modernity of Petropavlovsk look no different from a suburb of Moscow. A large winter cyclone is responsible for the foul weather, though it is still thrilling to stand truly on the eastern edge of Eurasia, looking out to the Pacific Ocean. Only when the cloud lifts one afternoon am I greeted with a magnificent view over the city to the dramatic, snow-covered volcanoes Koryaksky and Avachinsky whose fluted, gleaming flanks make the place seem suddenly exotic. Although I manage to make a trip to a nearby husky camp, and sit outdoors in a natural hot spring while the worst of the cyclone wind blows overhead, the weather precludes any exploration of the peninsula and I am keen to return to Magadan and start the drive west. My flight to Magadan is however cancelled, meaning I have to make a spontaneous detour to Khabarovsk. The upshot of this is that I am kindly offered a place to stay by Semyon and Nastya, whom Maciej and I had stayed with last year on the outward journey to Magadan, and with whom I spend another lovely evening eating and drinking at the kitchen table.
Unfortunately, on returning to Magadan I run into the cyclone once more; gone are the cloudless blue skies and cold, crisp days, and also the sea ice on which I had driven just over a week ago. Inland, temperatures have risen from around -50º C to around -15º C in a matter of days; a great disappointment. The time comes however to leave, so I must say goodbye to Oleg, who has been so generous with his time in helping me; to Zhenya and Kate who have been so generous in hosting me, and to Magadan which I have grown very fond of; a friendly, welcoming outpost at the edge of the world. I leave early in the morning of the 30th January during a howling blizzard, driving out of the dark, sodium-yellow streets of the the sleeping city with the temperature creeping up to 0º C; just about the worst condition imaginable. Immediately I have problems with liquid water lifting the tape sealing down my second windscreen, causing condensation to form in the gap between the two screens which is difficult to clear. The snow is thick on the passes north of the city, but I make it through into a dull, overcast day.
As I drive northwards on the Kolyma Highway, the temperature slowly drops to -18º C as I leave the worst of the snowstorm but the clouds remain, meaning there are no shadows to indicate the texture of the snow surface. This makes driving rather difficult and after a momentary lapse of concentration in the early afternoon, I drift off the invisible road and down into the thick snow of the berm. I am immediately recovered by a gentleman in a passing Landcruiser, with no damage to the car aside from having to remove the outer windscreen as the crash has filled the cavity between the screens with snow. I stop for lunch in Orotukan, where the highway turns westward and in the afternoon see my first glimpses of light in the sky before crossing the Kolyma River in the town of Debin. I drive on into the night, cursing the cyclone for pushing up temperatures, bringing heavy snow and robbing the landscape of the deep-frozen beauty I was hoping to see. I pass Yagodnoye and Susuman in the dark and, late in the evening, reach the small town of Kholodny, where Sergey’s brother meets me and guides me to an avto baza; a large, heated communal garage where I spend a very warm night sleeping in the car.
The next day I soon pass the turning to the Tenkin Route which I took southwards last October, and so begin a long section of back-tracking towards Yakutsk. The road begins to get very quiet and the snow deeper as I climb out of Magadan Region and into the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, passing the old Soviet obelisk marking the regional border at the forlorn settlement of Delyankir, whose sole inhabitant lives in the weather station in what is one of the world’s coldest settlements. The road improves in Yakutia and by evening I reach the rough mining town of Ust-Nera, where I stay in a very basic but very friendly hotel adjoining a small heated garage, where the owner makes a very neat job of re-attaching my second windscreen. As I cross the Indigirka River the next morning and begin climbing into the Chersky Range, the temperature is -27º C though I am startled by the strong temperature inversion, recording just -10º C at the top of the pass, which creates a layer of condensation all over the outside of the car. Finally, at around midday I outrun the wretched cyclone which has been following me since Kamchatka and am delighted to emerge into an utterly still, frozen wilderness where the deep blue sky contrasts beautifully against the still, snow-laden trees. Finally, I am seeing the winter landscapes I had been dreaming of, although the temperature is only -22º C rather than the -50º C I had been hoping for.
The temperature drops in the afternoon and the landscape takes on an ever more haunting beauty as the sun very slowly drops towards the horizon and my worries dissipate. I find myself in what is certainly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, marvelling continually at the beauty of the trees freshly coated in snow yet frozen in absolute stillness; the utter emptiness and stillness on the road, where I pass just a few trucks; the vast, untamed wilderness sprawling in all directions and the fact that the Hilux Surf is performing utterly flawlessly in the cold as I drive through the winter scenes I have been dreaming of seeing for so long. I stop for fuel at a lonely petrol station which is staffed by the last inhabitant of the abandoned settlement of Kyubeme, then turn off the modern highway and onto the original Kolyma Highway, the infamous ‘Road of Bones’, which leads back eastwards towards Oymyakon, the world’s coldest permanent settlement. Here the scenery becomes yet more fantastic as the narrow, perfectly white track winds through a forest of larch trees heavily coated in snow. Occasionally trees overhang the track under the weight of their snow colour, their perfect white forms contrasting with the other-worldly blue-black sky. I stop to have tea and admire my surroundings as the temperature drops to around -35º C and I feel the magic of the deep winter. A little further down the road, just before darkness falls, a reindeer herd emerges from the forest; beautiful, inquisitive creatures who cautiously approach me in hope of being given salt.
Late in the evening I reach the town of Tomtor, beyond which the original Kolyma Highway has been abandoned and is unmaintained, making it too dangerous to have taken from Magadan Region. I see signs of life in a sports centre and go inside to ask about a heated garage. Soon enough I drive with a lady to the large home of Innokenty, an 82 year-old, rather deaf Yakut gentleman who guides me into a wooden garage and lights the stove. I spend another very comfortable night here, pushing on to Oymyakon the following morning. Whilst Oymyakon holds the record for the coldest ambient temperature recorded anywhere outside of Antarctica, I arrive on a snowy, overcast morning when the temperature is a comparatively sweltering and disappointing -29º C. It is nevertheless a friendly, lively Yakut village and I decide to spend the day there. I check into a homestay run by local historian Tamara Yegorovna, and after speaking to a gentleman in the city administration, am given a free, heated garage to keep the car in. I spend the day walking around town, trying to imagine what it would have felt like to be here two weeks earlier when the temperature was thirty degrees lower.
I leave Oymyakon early in the morning and drive in the dark back to Tomtor, with the sun rising to reveal another clear day with stupendous views through the still but dazzling landscape, with sweeping views over endless forested ridges of utter wilderness. Rejoining the modern highway I climb gently through the upland which separates the Chersky Range in the east and the Verkhoyansk Range to the west. The views here are again magnificent with a broad valley of wind-sculpted snow dotted with trees wholly frozen in place by a thick coating of snow, backed by gorgeous, sculpted peaks whose ridges gleam in the late afternoon light. Crossing a gentle pass I descend along the Vostochnaya Khandyga River, entering frozen lowlands where the temperature drops to -40º C and the world is ethereally still, each shape picked out in sharp detail as far as the eye can see in the absolutely dry air. At these temperatures I can feel the car’s brake and clutch pedals stiffen as the hydraulic fluid thickens, but there is otherwise no noticeable change in how it runs.
In Khandyga I meet Rustam once more; this time at his family home, outside which I leave the car with the engine running whilst we have a cup of tea and catch up, before driving to a large heated garage where I safely store the car. I took an instant liking to both Rustam and Khandyga when visiting last year and so I am happy to accept Rustam’s offer to spend a rest day here. Although the family stay indoors when possible during these depths of winter, I decide to take another look around town, wearing my warmest clothes and heading down to the totally frozen Aldan River. I walk on the river for a kilometre, listening to the different sounds that my feet make on the thick, snow-covered ice and breathing the numbing cold air, my breath causing my facial hair to become coated in ice. Here I come across my first ice road which has been cleared across the Aldan, and I stop to watch cars shuttle across the river to a village on the opposite bank, imagining the hundreds of kilometres of ice road I hope to drive on the Lena River.
West of Khandyga, the Kolyma Highway reaches the un-bridged Aldan River where the hour-long ferry trip which links the two sides of the river in summer is replaced by a ten kilometre-long ice road. This is my first experience of driving on a frozen river and I’m relieved to find that the ice, which is around a metre thick, is as hard as rock and feels far more solid than the sea ice I had driven on in Magadan. Once on the river’s left bank, I drive through a series of small towns and villages which are something of a heartland of the Yakut people; Turkic herders who were displaced from the Baikal region by the Mongols starting in the thirteenth century and have come to live by herding cattle, horses and reindeer in these coldest inhabited parts of the planet. Initial contact with Russian explorers and trappers travelling down the Lena and Aldan Rivers in the seventeenth century brought subjugation, violence and disease to the Yakuts. Later however, they would become largely Christianised (though retain strong, syncretic animist beliefs) and brought into the Russian Empire; evidence of which I can see in the form of a fine, nineteenth century wooden church in the village of Cherkyokh. I drive on in the dark, reaching the town of Nizhny Bestyakh where the Kolyma Highway, and my backtracking, come to an end. I cross the river on a wide, two-lane ice road in the dark, with the outside temperature at -42º C. On the left bank of the Lena, I find Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic and the world’s coldest city.
I’m very lucky to have connections in Yakutsk; I firstly meet Misha, a close friend of Alexey, a Yakut friend and colleague of mine, who escorts me to his own private heated garage complex where I leave the car, then drives me back to the house of my host, Nariyana, who returns from work shortly after I arrive. Now, in the depths of winter, Yakutsk is numbingly cold with a midday temperature of -38º C and is enveloped in a pall of fog created by power stations, heating systems, vehicle exhausts and even people breathing. Vehicles move carefully along the streets in billowing clouds of steam which never dissipates in the totally still atmosphere; with only the faintest hint of the clear blue skies which lie just above the fog. Outside apartment buildings those who do not have a heated garage leave their cars with tent-like covers from which only the exhaust pipe emerges, with a timer to start the engine when the temperature drops too low. Aside from these idiosyncrasies of living somewhere far colder than a commercial freezer, life goes on as usual and the cold does little to faze the hardy locals. In the evening I meet Misha again and go to a ‘Scottish Pub’ owned by Dima, Alexey’s brother. It’s an evening of high spirits but I drink uncontrollably and wake up the next day disoriented in Misha’s apartment, being muzzled by his wife’s hairless cat and suffering a horrific hangover.
Despite the cold and my binge drinking, I like Yakutsk; although it is physically extremely isolated, lying more than one thousand kilometres north of the Trans-Siberian Highway on the far bank of the un-bridged Lena River, it feels modern and worldly; more so than many Russian cities. My host Nariyana is also a beguiling character; quiet, intelligent and astonishingly attractive, but my thoughts are preoccupied with the next leg of the journey, a twelve hundred kilometre drive up the frozen Lena River which is the section of the journey I am most worried about. I’m very keen to get information on the condition and even existence of the ice road, something I have not been able to do until now. Misha once again helps me, putting me in contact with his friend Ayal,a logistician who works for local oil companies. I am told that the road is clear until the town of Olyokminsk, but rather uncertain beyond that. I need to get as far as the city of Lensk to have a chance to connect to another ice road south through the taiga (boreal forest) towards Lake Baikal. There is an alternate route, a long detour on a normal road through the forests to the north, but my ambition is to drive as far up the river as possible. I am slightly reluctant to leave all my new friends in Yakutsk, but also nervously excited as I take the car from Misha’s garage and head out of the city’s fog and onto a paved which follows the Lena’s left bank. For what is the first day of the most significant section of this winter journey, it is perhaps fitting that this is Day 2000 of the Odyssey as a whole.
Emerging from the fog of Yakutsk, it’s a clear, cold morning; the temperature has jumped to -30º C but there is a bitterly cold wind which makes me feel colder than I have ever felt. I top the car’s tank up in Pokrovsk, foolishly venturing out of the car without a hat on and soon getting frostnip in the top of one ear. The road becomes smaller and very quiet until, in the village of Ulakhan-An, I follow a sign marked ‘avtozimnik’, descend the long bank of the Lena then venture onto a bulldozed but lumpy ice road. It is one thousand kilometres to Lensk and there is no alternative route to the ice road (apart from a private oil-company road which foreigners are barred from using). The ice road soon improves, tracking the Lena’s left bank and becoming a wide carriageway of smooth, translucent, deep blue ice. It’s a joy to drive on this section and I’m thrilled to be living out another experience I have long dreamed of, the Hilux Surf once again performing flawlessly. In the early afternoon I reach the Lena Pillars; beautiful eroded stone columns on the river’s distant right bank. A track across the river ice to the pillars is barred and the wind is unbearable, so I enjoy the sight from the warmth of the car with a cup of tea, watching eddies of windblown snow scurry across the ice surface.
I drive on into the afternoon, passing perhaps one or two vehicles each hour, climbing off the ice road briefly to stop in the quaint village of Sinsk, a place accessible only by boat in summer and by ice road in winter. The population here is a mix of Slavic and Yaukt, giving it a different character to the almost purely Yakut settlements I have been passing through between Khandyga and Yakutsk. To the west the sky starts to fill with cloud, the wind picks up and as the light fades the first snowfall begins. The darkness however makes driving more relaxing, as the intense reflection from my headlights on the clean, white snow and ice mean I can easily discern the path of the road, despite the snowfall. I pause for dinner on a wide section of the ice road, carefully heating up Russian Army rations with a butane stove on the passenger seat with the window cracked. At around 22:00 the ice road diverts through the village of Sanyyakhtakh on the Lena’s left bank and I decide to stop for the night. With the temperature still -30º C, I park the car into the wind and settle down to sleep, leaving the engine idling and setting the separate cabin heater to 15º C. Stretching out on the bed platform in the rear of the car, very comfortable and in only my boxer shorts with a sleeping bag draped over me, I feel almost as if I am in a space capsule. It’s very satisfying to reap the benefits of all the time and effort I have spent in the last two years getting the Hilux Surf into perfect running order, and so well equipped to protect me from the potentially lethal cold outside.
The next day, conditions on the ice road have deteriorated; snow has fallen on the cleared ice and the sky is overcast, making it difficult one again to pick a path. I encounter a section of dreaded naled; a phenomenon whereby liquid water breaches the surface of the ice road, quickly re-freezing but leaving a water filled cavity between the newly formed ice and the thick ice of the river in which vehicles can become stranded. I manage to take a diversion through deep uncleared snow, but doubts start to creep into mind about how likely it is that I can make several hundred kilometres further to Lensk. Through the day, the conditions vary frequently, but I maintain progress, passing perhaps one vehicle every hour or so. As I get closer to Olyokminsk, the only sizeable town before Lensk, the road diverts inland and becomes dangerously slippery, causing me to slide and spin several times and I’m glad when the track switches back to ice. Eventually, in the village of Solyanka, I pick up a formal road, driving twenty-five kilometres into Olyokminsk where I stop to refuel. The formal road continues through a string of quaint, isolated villages in a beautiful landscape now forested with pine and birch, making it feel more familiar than the exotic, larch-filled Far East. Just over fifty kilometres from Olyokminsk I pass the village of Biryuk, then find a rough path back down to the river. Ayal has warned me that this next 360 kilometre section to Lensk is difficult and indeed, the ice road is narrow, rough, in places steeply cambered and covered in snow. There are no other vehicles around and I nervously make my way along the road, confident that with my supplies of fuel, food, water and very warm clothes, I can survive a few days stranded in case I get stuck in deep snow or by worsening weather.
The ice road is initially quite gruelling; difficult driving due to a bad camber and patches of naled, backed by the slight anxiety of being alone, but I am determined to make it to Lensk. I make steady progress at around twenty kilometres per hour and am glad of nightfall when my vision improves. It’s an odd feeling to be driving absolutely alone, late at night on a remote, frozen Siberian river, with the sloping banks just visible to each side, slowly closing in on me as I progress up-river. I pass only one or two tiny villages on the river’s left bank and don’t see a single vehicle for several hours, but at one point several tracks converge and the ice road becomes wide and well maintained again. At around midnight, opposite the right-bank village of Macha, I encounter a large patch of what looks like naled in my headlights, but belligerently dash across it. Beyond the road seems almost unused and it is at times very difficult to pick a path through the snow, but eventually I make it to the small town of Chapayevo, somewhere I am extremely relieved to reach. Ayal has only been able to confirm that the ice road exists this far, but from the good quality of the cleared roadway leading out of town, I am confident that it must extend to the road-head at Nyuya. I decide to stop to sleep in the village but attract the attention of a local drunk dashing around recklessly in a Landcruiser and push on, eventually stopping, exhausted outside the quiet village of Turukhta at around 02:00 and sleeping again with the engine running all night. It’s a straightforward drive on the last section of ice road in the morning, though as I approach the landing at Nyuya the road enters a wide swath of wind-blown snow and dangerous-looking, glistening naled. I get stuck twice, once getting a tow out from a UAZ, and the other time digging myself free, meaning my nerves are rather frayed by the time I climb the river’s left bank into Nyuya, hugely relieved to find a good, all-weather road running the final one hundred kilometres to Lensk.
Lensk is a sizeable town and is the first place since I joined the ice road which is accessible by all-weather, public road from Yakutsk. My aim however is to drive the entire length of the Lena River Ice Road, which runs a further two hundred kilometres to the small town of Peleduy. The weather however is not looking good; a blizzard is blowing down the river and as I make my way to the embankment and look down at the descent onto the ice road, I see two cars stuck in deep drifts of snow. I drive up to the private oil company road which runs just north of town which could also take me to Peleduy, but am politely but firmly denied access. I return to the embankment in the bitterly cold wind, watching the locals extricating their cars from the snow. Just as I am resigned to spending a night in Lensk, waiting for the weather to improve and the road to be cleared, I meet Dima, a one-eyed man driving a four-wheel drive Toyota HiAce with his mother in the back. He is heading to Vitim, a town just beyond Peleduy and tells me that we can force our way through the drifts, beyond which the ice road, which he drove earlier in the morning, is passable.
Together we race and dig our cars through the thickest of the snow and onto the ice road which is the worst I have yet seen; the ice has heaved up onto the river’s left bank and the dangerous camber means I slide off into the large snow bank countless times. The river has narrowed here and we pass tall sandstone cliffs dotted with pines, which funnel the wind down along the ice road. Eventually I get the knack of driving; each time I feel the tail of the car beginning to break free I drop a gear and jab the accelerator to right it, then carefully try to lose the additional speed until the next time the rear starts to slide. It’s a thrilling, exhausting and nerve-racking drive and I’m very glad to be teamed up with Dima, who is a far more proficient ice driver and takes everything in his stride. At times our cars seem to be defying the laws of physics, clinging onto an almost frictionless cambered plain of smooth ice covered in powder snow, and I am quite sure I would have turned around by now if I were alone. The road makes several excursions into the forest on the river’s left bank; sometimes jarringly rough, at other times a smooth, narrow, high-speed bobsleigh track weaving through the trees. For the first time the ice road crosses to the river’s right bank at Yaroslavsky, then switches back to the left. We continue into the night, sliding and gunning our cars through deep snow with me forever following the red of Dima’s tail lights. Eventually we make landfall a final time, driving up into the sleepy, small town of Peleduy. I hug Dima a heartfelt goodbye, thanking him for his company before he drives his mother the final kilometres to Lensk on a normal road. I drive into the centre of town and call my hosts, who are shocked that I have made it along the ice road in these conditions. Before long I’m being fed and looking forward to a hot banya, a perfect end to what has been the toughest drive of my life. I’ve covered around twelve hundred kilometres between Ulakhan-An and Peleduy, of which I estimate nine hundred to have been on the frozen river itself.
After a very good sleep, I spend a rest day in Peleduy. My hosts Lyuba and Gleb are Russian (though Lyuba clearly has some Asian genes) and are frankly surprised to host a foreigner in their far flung town, though they welcome me generously into their modern house. Gleb has the day off and so we walk together around the friendly town, along streets with very little traffic, down to the riverside. Peleduy is an important port on the Lena and much of the river fleet, which in summer brings goods to this roadless swath of wilderness, lies dormant in the port at the mouth of the Peleduy River. Scuppered on the riverbank are several rusting hulks of slowly decaying ships, and on the river’s far bank towering jagged sandstone cliffs rise up, unseen by me last night. At the river’s mouth I also see the ice road heading out to the Lena on which I arrived last night. It’s a stark contrast in mood between the rigours and dangerous conditions of the ice road and the gentle, calm atmosphere of far-flung Peleduy.
Peleduy marks the end of the toughest section of the winter trip, but my route ahead is still far from certain. The next challenges will be getting permission to use a private road out of Peleduy, and later navigating a potentially dangerous route across the surface of Lake Baikal. I am still a long, long way from Russia’s road network.
From the edge of eastern Siberia, the last nine thousand kilometre leg of the journey to Magadan now lay ahead of us. This would first take us on a long detour into the lowlands of the Russian Far East, where we would find a string of vibrant, prosperous cities; a Russia which looks more towards the large Asian economies of China, Japan and South Korea than to distant Moscow. We would then head into a huge tract of wilderness; into the Sakha Republic, the largest of Russia’s constituent regions, immediately confronting the onset of winter with temperatures well below zero. After making the critical crossing of the Aldan River at the very end of the navigation season, we would continue on the infamous Kolyma Highway into Magadan Region, a place synonymous with brutal forced labour, dotted with abandoned towns and infrastructure, profound monuments to the ephemerality of human ambition in this awesome wilderness. Finally, in the snowy port of Magadan, we would complete our nine-week, 23,000 kilometre Trans-Eurasian journey, where I would put the car into storage in preparation for my return three months later in the real depths of winter.
On the 16th September 2017, Maciej and I awake to a cool autumnal morning at our campsite above a flooded quarry now abandoned by the builders of the M58 Highway. It’s a strangely beautiful scene, with steam rising gently from the water which is surrounded by larch trees now losing their brilliant yellow needles. We are about sixty kilometres north of the northernmost point of China in the vast, almost uninhabited wilderness of the Stanovoy Range, which marks the boundary between Siberia and the Russian Far East. Rejoining the highway, we soon pass the turning to Magadan and spend the day driving gradually south-eastwards, dropping from the mountains into the lowlands of the Amur Basin. After 550 kilometres, at a junction overlooking Tsiolkovsky, the site of Russia’s new Eastern Cosmodrome, we turn onto a smaller road which passes through villages and small towns, giving the fairly abrupt feeling of having returned to civilisation. The road tracks the Zeya River through a pleasant though unspectacular landscape of low, autumnal oak forest and by late afternoon we reach the city of Blagoveshchensk on the Amur River and settle in with our host Tata, a host at a local radio station.
After early incursions of Russian Cossacks into the Chinese-controlled Amur Basin in the seventeenth century, the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk set the Russian border along the Stanovoy Range, with the Qing Dynasty (Manchu) rulers of China keen to keep Russians away from the Amur. This frontier wilderness was in reality only loosely controlled by China, and was slowly settled by Imperial Russia, which had ambitions of establishing a naval presence on the Pacific coast. In 1858 Qing-era China, weakened by war with the British and French, signed the Treaty of Aigun with Russia which set the Amur River as the border between the two countries. Blagoveshchensk was founded at around this time and was initially a point of cross-border trade, though for much of the twentieth century this border was closed due to hostilities between the two countries.
Maciej and I set out the following morning to explore the city, heading straight for the river where we are greeted by a view across to the small Chinese city of Heihe, a sprawl of rather characterless apartment buildings. Today it’s clear that Blagoveshchensk hums with cross-border activity; the river is busy with tourist ferries and barges; there are numerous Chinese tourists braving the rain, presumably curious to make the day trip to this strangely European city right on their border, and the central market has a decidedly Asian flavour with stalls selling Chinese street food, tea, clothes and much else. We are struck by the sudden impression of being in Asia and an atmosphere quite unlike any city we have yet visited in Russia, with its curious mix of timeworn Russian infrastructure, frantic Chinese commerce and congestion of used Japanese vehicles. In the afternoon the rain stops and we invite Tata to join us on a short cruise on the river. Once we have boarded the small ship, we are soon bombarded by the ship’s loudspeaker system with cheap Russian pop music and a barrage of trivia about Blagoveshchensk whilst we ogle the Chinese side of the river; a glimpse of a huge and fascinating country I am eager to visit in more detail.
Leaving Blagoveshchensk the next day, we take a road eastwards across the lowlands along the Amur; a dull landscape of flat fields under a miserable, leaden-grey sky which reminds me very much of the Netherlands; a slightly disorientating pang of familiarity. In the town of Novobureyskiy we re-join the M58 and the landscape changes to low, rolling hills of lush-green deciduous trees showing only the very first hints of autumnal colour. We cross the border into the intriguingly named Jewish Autonomous Region and by mid-afternoon arrive in the capital Birobidzhan. What we find is a very nice example of a small town; streets lined by yellow-leafed lime trees, small urban parks and a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere. There are hints of Jewish culture; a large menorah monument outside the quiet train station, street-signs in Russian and Yiddish and a monument to the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, but there is nothing otherwise to suggest this is anything but a normal Russian town.
In the morning we try to see a little more of the town’s Jewish credentials and head to the Beit Menakhem Synagogue which is set off from Sholem Aleichem Street behind a gilded statue of a horn-playing caricature of a Jew. We are warmly received by a custodian upon walking into the grounds of the synagogue, which is simultaneously an active place of worship, a community centre and a museum, which he is keen to show to us. In Tsarist Russia Jews were largely restricted to living in the Pale of Settlement, located along the Empire’s western border. Jews were made to live in cities and were subject to periodic pogroms, particularly during the chaos of the Russian Civil War. Shortly after the establishment of the Soviet Union, Jews were given rights similar to other minorities, with the Soviets promoting Yiddish language whilst repressing religious expression. This Jewish Autonomous Region was established with the intention of giving Jews a socialist Zion; a homeland where they could farm and refrain from traditional private enterprise, forbidden by the Soviet regime. It also served as a useful bulwark against Chinese incursions into this remote frontier, and both Jewish and non-Jewish settlers were attracted by the lure of free land. By the late 1940s Jews accounted for around a quarter of the population of the autonomous region, though numbers have steadily declined since, particularly from the 1980s when many Jews emigrated from the socio-economic malaise of the Soviet Union to Israel. Today, Jews make up perhaps one percent of the autonomous region’s population, but the synagogue’s main sanctuary is in active use, and we are told that some of the regions schools still have compulsory Yiddish classes.
We walk a little more around Birobidzhan’s friendly streets then, after lunch, head back out onto the M58, driving through a swampy landscape until we meet the Amur River once more, crossing it on a three kilometre-long bridge into the city of Khabarovsk. Here we are hosted by Semyon, a TV cameraman and his wife Nastya who live in a beautiful, spacious house on the northern edge of the city, built by Semyon’s father in 1991. We’re received like old friends into a warm family atmosphere and finish a very pleasant day with home-cooked food and wine. In the morning we meet Nastya’s friend Olya who by coincidence works for the same company as I, and who accompanies us into the centre of the city. Khabarovsk is centred on a grandiose street of Tsarist and Stalinist architecture, but what is most striking to me is the youthful vibrance and feeling of prosperity of the city, which is filled with happy, healthy looking people. We stop in a patisserie and later a craft beer pub as we make our way down the main street, visit the excellent regional museum and end the day walking along the embankment, overlooking a beach and the wide Amur River. As in Blagoveshchensk, I get the impression of seeing a new and rather different side of Russia.
We leave Khabarovsk wishing we could spend more time with Semyon and Nastya, but also keen to reach Vladivostok. South of Khabarovsk, the border becomes defined by the Ussuri River, which was set by the Convention of Peking in 1860, the same convention which ceded Hong Kong to the British. We spend a day and a half driving through very pleasant scenery of thickly wooded hills and rolling farmland, but around 140 kilometres out of Vladivostok are surprised to join a high quality dual carriageway which takes us right to the Pacific. We reach the shore of the Sea of Japan before entering the city proper, marking a significant milestone on the journey, completing an initial crossing of the Eurasian continent. Despite the huge infrastructure investment on the periphery of the city, the centre is close to gridlock, though I notice with some surprise that drivers here have a degree of courtesy and are less aggressive than elsewhere in Russia. We find a hostel overlooking Fedorov Bay in the city centre, on the finger-like tip of the Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula, park the car in a secure car park with a very friendly guard and settle in for a four-night stay; the longest we will stay anywhere on this trip.
There’s a thunderstorm on our first night in Vladivostok, but we wake up to a clear morning and have breakfast in the hostel enjoying a breathtaking view across the deep blue water of the Amur Gulf to the hills in the west which form the Chinese border, a view which strongly reminds me of the Aegean. Our task for the day is to find a new set of tyres, and after browsing online adverts, we drive into the suburbs which seem entirely given to car parts and services, eventually finding a distant warehouse on a hillside stacked with fresh tyres imported from Japan. The friendly owner of the business, Valentin, is patient and helpful, allowing me to browse all his stock, and after much consideration, I purchase a set of six stud-less winter tyres at a very good price. We drive down to a tyre service owned by Valentin’s brother and here I dispose of six very worn road tyres (one of which blew out on the journey from Khabarovsk) with brand new rubber, a job I am greatly relieved to have finished. Returning to the car park we have some celebratory beers in the car (alcohol is forbidden in the hostel) and then walk down to the beach to witness a magnificent sunset in a cloudless sky, greatly impressed by the unexpected natural beauty surrounding the city.
We spend our second and third days exploring Vladivostok, enjoying being back in summer and wearing T-shirts again after a few cool weeks. We start from the hostel and cross the narrow peninsula to Golden Horn Bay which is spanned by the very impressive, newly built Golden Bridge. The bay is also the main base of the Russian Pacific Fleet, something which caused the city to be closed to outsiders during the Soviet period. We pass the city’s passenger sea port and Vladivostok Station, the romantic terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway which sits at kilometre 9289 from Moscow. We pass streets of elegant Soviet Neoclassical buildings choked with container-carrying lorries, then walk up steep streets with occasional views of the glimmering blue Sea of Japan. Visually, Vladivostok reminds me often of San Francisco or even Istanbul, but I’m most struck once again by how different this is from much of the rest of Russia; the people are healthy looking, young and attractive, and happy. To my eyes this is a softer, more worldly side of Russia, close to the great Asian economies of China, Japan and South Korea; a Russia without a brutal climate, not isolated far from the rest of the world. There has clearly been a huge investment of capital in this far flung corner of the country; new roads, bridges and a huge university campus on nearby Russky Island. Vladivostok retains hints of port seediness and post-Soviet decay, but the overwhelming impression it makes upon me is of being the nicest large city in Russia.
Our three balmy days in Vladivostok feel almost like a holiday, but we are still far from Magadan and must get back on the road. It’s a short drive to our next destination, the port city of Nakhodka, which marks the southernmost point of the trip and will be the last city of any size which we visit until Magadan. Nakhodka is an unglorified port city alive with the sound of creaking dock cranes and traffic. Unlike Vladivostok, Nakhodka was open to outsiders during the Soviet period but there is little of Vladivostok’s confident energy here. The highlight of our visit is undoubtedly our host Vadim, a prison dog handler who lives on the northern edge of town in a simple dacha (weekend house) with his two Malinois; Horta, a prize-winning attack dog and puppy Barsa. Vadim is a gentle, happy-go-lucky character and the three of us spend the evening around a campfire in his garden, talking about our intended route north on back-roads along the coast, and listening to Vadim’s plans to spend the winter hitch-hiking with his dogs through China and Thailand. In the morning before we leave, I have the unique experience of donning a sixteen kilo training suit and being attacked by Horta. Vadim tells me she has won first prize in Russia for bite-work for two years running and I have already been shown her stainless steel teeth implants made by Vadim’s estranged wife, a dentist, after Horta’s natural teeth were damaged. Vadim gives the command ‘fass!‘ causing Horta to lunge and attach herself to my right biceps with debilitating pressure, though there is no hint of aggression and as Vadim barks ‘aus!‘, Horta immediately releases her grip.
We thank Vadim for his hospitality and wish him luck on his Asian trip, then begin our journey north, leaving Nakhodka on a small road which soon becomes quiet and climbs into the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, which spread for hundreds of kilometres towards Khabarovsk and the Amur. We climb through mixed forest in riotous autumn colour, crossing numerous small valleys on roads with very little traffic. We turn off this road onto an unpaved road which I have identified on satellite maps, passing the village of Zerkalnoye and then descending a very steep, rocky track to reach a sweeping beach, a beautiful campsite which we have completely to ourselves, where we make a smoky fire from driftwood and sleep to the sound of the gently lapping sea. The following morning is crystal clear and I watch a stirring sunrise over the translucent turquoise of the Sea of Japan. It’s such a magnificent spot that we spend much of the morning here on what we correctly predict to be the last warm day of the trip.
Leaving the beach late in the morning, we continue north through forested hills textured by the contrasting autumnal shades of the mixed trees. Beyond Dalnegorsk the landscape becomes wilder, and we catch a final glimpse of the sea near Plastun before heading inland slightly, through the edge of the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve where the road is lined with yellow signs showing a tiger and prohibiting us from leaving the road. Just before reaching the town of Terney, we turn onto logging tracks and soon camp on a riverbank in a primordially beautiful landscape of sparse forest and scrub. We wake to our first cold morning, with the temperature around -6º C and spend the day on the logging track driving around the eastern border of the reserve, with occasional views into the wilderness where a few hundred Siberian tigers still live. In the afternoon we reach the nearly deserted logging town of Tayozhnoye and continue on a narrow and unmaintained track across the mountains, encountering our first snowfall of the journey. It’s a long, slow drive via the isolated village of Melnichnoye, which seems a world away from the modernity of the regional capital. I’m glad to finally reach asphalt in Roshchino and we drive into the night, rejoining the main highway back to Khabarovsk and camping well after dark in a field.
We wake to a still, cool autumn morning and get back onto the highway, with the time pressure to reach Magadan playing slightly on my mind. We make one last detour, leaving the highway and heading east on muddy and increasingly rough tracks through the forest used by hunters, until we come across the A375, a half-built road which was planned to reach Nakhodka but sits strangely abandoned and unfinished, abruptly ending somewhere in the wilderness to the south. We head north and in the afternoon reach the Amur in the Nanai village of Sikachi-Alyan where basalt boulders on the riverbank hold petroglyphs which were made as long ago as 11,000 BCE, at the end of the last ice age. These simple stone impressions show shamanic masks and various animals including a pair of mammoths; images made by people who lived at a time when the land bridge with North America was still open. We stop in Khabarovsk to have a shower at Semyon’s, then hit the road with the intention of making some serious progress in the next few days, driving until the early hours when I pull into a truck-stop for a few hours of rest.
The following afternoon, after twelve hundred kilometres of backtracking from Khabarovsk, we turn onto the M56, the Lena Highway, where a signpost informs us that we are 3177 kilometres from our destination of Magadan. The road is initially excellent, having been newly paved, but a cold wind is blowing from the north signalling the onset of winter despite being only the first day of October. We camp for the night in a patch of forest of spongy moss dotted lightly dusted with snow, next to a stream whose edges are just starting to freeze over. The following morning we stop briefly in Tynda, a major stop in the BAM, the Baikal Amur Mainline, which has an unusual looking train station whose interior is filled with Socialist-Realist pictures glorifying the ‘heroes’ who built the railway and pioneered new cities for happy Soviet citizens to live happy lives. In reality the line was initially built, like so much in the USSR, by slave labour and the route, which opened in 1991 just months before the Soviet Union collapsed, is basically useless, connecting a few small towns in the middle of this forbidding wilderness, where people have no reason to wish to live.
We spend the day driving north and enter the Sakha Republic, known as Yakutia in Russian, homeland of the animist, Turkic Yakut people. Here we enter real wilderness once more, as the well-graded road crosses range after range of hills and low mountains. A weather front comes in and the snow falls steadily through the afternoon so that by evening, when we reach the gold-mining town of Aldan, we find fifteen centimetres of fresh snow; an early onset of winter even at these latitudes. After supper we push on and I start to feel very comfortable with the new snow tyres; I detect no sliding on the fresh snow and the car feels so perfectly controlled that we maintain a normal speed, parking-up amongst some lorries in a lay-by after midnight. We wake to a scene of real winter, with temperatures down to -20º C as we continue north, crossing the steaming Amga River in which the first patches of winter ice float past. As we drop towards the Lena River the temperature rises back almost to zero and, shortly after passing the one thousand kilometre marker, we glimpse the blue river very briefly, and soon after stop in the town of Nizhny Bestyakh to refuel and buy supplies.
Nizhny Bestyakh marks the start of the R504, better known as a the Kolyma Highway, which traverses the final two thousand kilometres of wilderness to Magadan. The quality of the road soon deteriorates, but there is a quite unexpected change in the landscape; the rolling wilderness of low mountains is here replaced by a quite beguiling, wide grassy valley grazed by horses and cattle and dotted by Yakut villages. It comes as quite a surprise to have travelled one thousand kilometres north of the Trans-Siberian Highway and find a bucolic landscape somehow reminiscent of rural Kyrgyzstan and I’m aware of being in a far-flung corner of the Turkic world. The temperature is hovering around zero and overhead is a motionless mackerel sky of altocumulus clouds. The grass is yellow and the scraggly larch trees have already shed their yellow needles, all giving the place a sense of muted beauty and a still, somnolent foreboding in face of the brutal winter which is approaching; a winter which I plan to drive through next year. I have been advised by a Yakut colleague back in Europe not to make camp near settlements due to potentially aggressive local drunks, particularly in the town of Churapcha, which we reach at dusk. The streets of Churapcha are a horrific quagmire of melting permafrost but we manage to find the town’s only alcohol shop, which is fortified like a bank, and pick up beer for the evening. We drive into the night, passing village after village on a rough road until, somewhere after Ytyk-Kyuel, we stop in the dark and make camp in a patch of tussocky grass behind a stand of birch trees.
We awake under the same mackerel sky to a cold, still morning after a peaceful night. Today is the critical point of the trip, for we must cross the Aldan River. This is the key pinch-point of the entire trip, as there is no bridge across the river and once the river starts to freeze, there is a period of several weeks before the ice is strong enough to drive over. After four long days of driving with rather little sleep, we are also ready for a short day in the car. The road soon leaves the grassy valley and cuts through bare larch forest until we emerge overlooking the Aldan at 10:00 and, by a stroke of luck, a ferry is just ready to leave. The river is still ice free and we enjoy a smooth, two hour crossing, driving a little further along the river to reach our destination for the day. Khandyga has a mixed Russian and Yakut population and feels far less wild than anywhere we have recently passed through. We meet my contact Rustam, an ebullient Russian / Tatar lawyer who seems to know everyone in town, guides us to an apartment hotel and later brings us pizza for dinner. Maciej and I greatly enjoy Khandyga, spending a relaxing afternoon meeting the town’s exceptionally friendly inhabitants and enjoying a stunning, very protracted sunset over the Aldan River, again feeling the melancholy of late autumn with the quiescence of nature only broken by the cawing of ravens.
On our way out of town the next morning, we meet Rustam in the gently falling snow, which he tells us is unseasonably early, and bid him farewell. We stop briefly in his home-town of Tyopliy Klyuch where there is a small museum about the Kolyma Highway run by very friendly and enthusiastic women who show us the rather poignant exhibits; maps, remains of the tools prisoners would have used to fell trees and construct the road, and an old wooden kilometre marker. It makes us remember the grim human price which was paid to open up this region, with unknown tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths. The very roadbed reputedly incorporates the dead bodies of thousands of prisoners and the road itself might be considered a memorial to Stalin’s unbridled evil. After Tyopliy Klyuch we enter utter wilderness as we track the Vostochnaya Khandyga River, with the road often far above the yawning river valley which seems to exist wholly detached from the intervention of man. I’m quite awestruck by the views, feeling that we are glimpsing the ends of the Earth, a land which exists far, far away from the rest of the world.
Late in the afternoon we climb a pass in the Verkhoyansk Range which in tectonic terms marks the boundary with the North American continent, emphasising the end-of-the-world feel. We camp in a beautiful, open, snowy forest on top of the pass surrounded by mountains, but I’m disappointed to see that I have a puncture in a rear tyre, which has to be changed in the morning at -13º C. We descend gently into a sweeping plain ringed by mountains, stopping at the lonely fuel station in Kyubeme, the only inhabited building left in the settlement. Here the original Kolyma Highway heads east towards Tomtor, beyond which the road is barely passable, but we take the modern highway which turns north. We spend the day driving through more austerely beautiful scenery, with no sign of human habitation except for the occasional herd of Yakutian horses. Stout, fat and with thick winter coats, these horses have adapted to the extreme cold winters of Yakutia since being introduced by Yakuts migrating from the Baikal region in the thirteenth century. They are bred for their meat in an environment too extreme for sheep or cattle and so are essential to traditional Yakut life.
After crossing a pass in the Chersky Range, we stop for fuel and supplies in the rather grim gold-mining town of Ust-Nera and camp a little further east above the Indigirka River, enjoying a long evening of drinking around a roaring fire. Beyond here, the landscape is less dramatic but still vast and untrammelled, as we pass the forlorn town of Artyk and cross into Magadan Region. Here there are some signs of mining activity which gives the impression of entering deeper into ‘Kolyma’, the region named after the Kolyma River, which is synonymous with brutal forced labour camps, murder and death by exhaustion and exposure. We pass a string of abandoned settlements: Ozernoye, Arkagala, Kadykchan; places where from the 1950s onwards free Soviet citizens were lured to live and work with high wages and long holidays. With the collapse of the Soviet system it became far less advantageous to live here and people naturally moved away. Now these towns are shells of concrete apartments, crumbling houses with peeling walls of wood panelling and fields of scrap metal, picked through by scavengers. Just past Kadykchan we are almost startled to see the normally familiar sight of a field of hay bales, and decide to camp in it for the night.
It’s snowing again the following morning and soon after starting out we turn off the Kolyma Highway onto a side track known as the Tenkin Route, which cuts through the mountain ranges and is a more direct and more scenic route to Magadan. We carefully negotiate a steep snowy pass, the new winter tyres proving themselves once again, and spend the day driving through a mountainous wilderness, crossing the Ayan-Yuryakh and Kulu Rivers, passing the half-abandoned gold-mining town of Omchak and shortly after, turning off the road. Crossing a small river we pass signs warning of radioactivity and enter a site known as Butugychag; a formerly secret Gulag camp where prisoners were forced to mine uranium from a nearby hillside. To reach the mines on the hillside requires crossing a a river which is now half-frozen and therefore unfortunately impassable for the car. We spend the night near the ruins of old administrative buildings and awake to a gloriously crisp winter morning at a temperature of -23º C. After a leisurely breakfast we carefully cross the river on foot using planks taken from a ruined building and investigate the lower part of the site, where a ruined processing facility bears graffiti dating back as far as the 1960s. From the top floor of the facility we look across the beautiful winter scene to the snow-covered hills in the distance, where we can just make out the old tracks leading to the mine shafts.
We camp in the snow for a final night near Madaun, then cross a pass thickly covered in fresh snow in a landscape now almost entirely white, reaching the town of Palatka and rejoining the final section of the Kolyma Highway just before noon. The light traffic on the road marks an end to our wilderness drive, but the conditions become difficult, with heavy snow and white-outs in places. This is the first snow of the season and it has come early, surprising the gritters out of their summer hibernation and catching several drivers unprepared; we see one overturned vehicle in a ditch and later emergency vehicles rushing in the opposite direction. We pass the city limits of Magadan but before entering the city proper, make our way up to a poignant monument; the Mask of Sorrow, which sits overlooking the city. The memorial, constructed in 1996, consists of a large concrete face whose left eye is streaming tears, each of which is in itself an anguished face. Around it are roughly hewn rocks; some engraved with the various religious symbols of those who were swept into the Gulag system, and some carved into the names of various Kolyma camps. It’s one of very few monuments in the country to one of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century, a telling sign of the how the Stalinist period is dealt with in modern Russia. This indeed raises several uneasy thoughts in my mind; Is there really such widespread ignorance of the crimes which took place? Are those who look up to Stalin wilfully ignorant of his crimes, or is there something much darker; a complete suspension of morality for the perceived purpose of patriotism? Will the present Russian government, whose institutions and leaders are descended from the organs who oversaw this atrocity, ever find the courage to publicly to renounce Stalin, rather than clinging to his brutality?
For a place which was called the ‘Gateway to Hell’ by arriving prisoners, who reached the ‘island’ of Kolyma by ship, Magadan looks surprisingly pleasant as we drive in. We make our way to a snowy, rocky beach overlooking Nagaev Bay and the Sea of Okhotsk, marking the end of our journey. For the hundreds of thousands of prisoners who landed here, this must have been a place of despair, but for us it is a place of respectful jubilation, for here we complete our journey; 23,176 kilometres in sixty-one days, crossing very nearly the entirety of Russia. From this slightly bleak, end-of-the world outlook, the first days of the journey in the late summer warmth of European Russia seem very remote in both space and time. Our proposed host Evgeniy is sadly indisposed, as his mother has been involved in a car accident, and we spend a rather tense afternoon trying to find a hostel or apartment without success, and almost resort to another night of camping. Finally however, my contact Oleg finds us a well equipped apartment which we are delighted to take greatly desiring a hot shower after days of winter camping in the wilderness. Over the next two days we wash our equipment and clothes, and I take the car for a deep clean at a local car wash. Here all the dirt, snow and ice from our journey are blasted off, with the car emerging polished and gleaming, cleaner than I have ever seen it. On our final evening, Oleg helps me put the car into a guarded warehouse, from where I will collect it in mid-January.
Together with the apartment owner, who happens to be on the same flight as us, we drive to Sokol Airport and take an eight-hour flight back to Moscow, crossing back eight time zones and thus effectively standing still in time, landing into a damp and warm European autumn. We head straight into town and meet my friend Katerina in a bar just off Red Square. Maciej flies out late in the evening but Katerina and I meet with her friends and stay out until the early morning; something which seems to prevent my feeling any jet-lag. On the morning of the 14th October I take off from Moscow; feeling delighted at having pulled off such a huge trip, enriched with the imagery of driving across an entire continent, slightly odd at leaving the car behind and slightly nervous at the prospect of the return journey in the depths of winter. There is no turning back now.
Having crossed European Russia and West Siberia, Maciej and I would now embark on the next stage of our route to Magadan; through the mountains, rolling steppe and vast taiga (boreal forest) of southern and eastern Siberia, driving where possible on quiet back-roads and passing through a magnificent and varied landscape as the warmth of summer gave way to the vivid colours and deep blue skies of autumn. Leaving the main Trans-Siberian transport routes, we would come into contact with the indigenous cultures of Siberia; from the intriguing remains of ancient pastoralists to the nomadic Khakass, Tuvans and Buryats, whose cultures are recovering from Soviet repression, and who make up part of the great diversity of Russia’s population. This would be the most the scenic and exotic leg of our Trans-Eurasian journey.
On the rainy morning of the 2nd September 2017, Maciej and I leave Novokuznetsk, driving east alongside the Tom River on roads blackened with coal dust, to the coal mining town of Mezhdurechensk where the road ends. From here a railway continues eastwards over the mountains of the Abakan Range towards Askiz in the Republic of Khakassia, a journey of 220 kilometres by rail, but well over a thousand kilometres by road, via a circuitous route backtracking far to the north to avoid the mountains entirely. However, from carefully studying satellite maps and high-scale Russian paper maps, I have identified what seems to be a viable track across the mountains via the village of Orton, which we call simply the Orton Route. I know of only one account of someone taking this route and in Novokuznetsk this morning, whilst at a garage having the car’s oil changed, a local had laughed at our chances in anything other than a military truck. When I had remonstrated and pointed out the route on my Russian paper map, he had scoffed and told us: ‘Following maps is how the Germans got stuck in Russia during the war!’
After topping up with fuel in Mezhdurechensk, we cross the Tom on a narrow pontoon bridge in the village of Mayzas, where I stop to ask a man fixing a lorry at the roadside, who confirms that the road is passable in a 4×4. Encouraged by this news, we head up into the mountains on an excellent, recently graded track with occasional glimpses across a cloud smeared, rolling wilderness of taiga, crossing a pass of around one thousand metres and descending to the village of Orton.
From Orton a narrow track heads east, which we follow for a few kilometres before making camp at a damp but gloriously wild spot on the bank of the Orton River, a tributary of the Tom. It’s very satisfying to take this back-route into the mountains, well away from the traffic of the main Trans-Siberian Highway, and to make use of the car’s off-road abilities instead of driving on smooth asphalt. In the morning we continue, climbing along the Orton, fording the river near a cleared area which was the village of Bolshoy Orton until 2012 when the regional government demolished it. We then follow the Fedorovka River, climbing on a rough forest track with many puddles and frequent, if minor water crossings until we reach a small pass which we presume to be the regional border. We stop here for lunch, enjoying the now sunny and pleasantly warm weather, glad to have made the adventurous crossing of the mountains without any serious challenges, the car having proven itself very capable off-road.
Once in Khakassia we descend on tracks which are immediately better and more frequently used and soon become wide and well graded, with views once more across the eastern slopes of the Abakan Range. After stopping to buy beer in the mining town of Vershina Tei, we climb another pass, where we find the first indication of having crossed into a new culture, in the form a road-side ovoo. Derived from the Mongol word for pile and usually taking the form of a cairn or stack of logs, an ovoo is a type of altar commonly found in the Turkic-Mongol world and is a place to worship and make offerings to the spirits of a peak or pass, or to the spirits of deceased shamans or elders. This ovoo has a perhaps Russian touch to it, consisting of a decoratively carved wooden pole with a spoked wheel entirely covered in colourful votive prayer rags. The pass also forms the border between the watersheds of the Ob and Yenisei Rivers and so marks our entry into eastern Siberia. We drop into the Askiz Valley, soon stopping to camp in a field surrounded by magnificent, untouched hillsides of mixed forests glowing with the first hints of autumn colour in the warm evening light. It’s a perfect ending to a very memorable day.
Descending further the next morning, the Askiz Valley soon opens up into a broad, sweeping grassland fragrant with the smell of wormwood, which instantly recalls to me the wide steppes of Central Asia. Fed by the clear water of the Askiz, the valley is perfect pasture and is dotted with villages of livestock farmers; mostly Russians whose ancestors arrived here as early as the eighteenth century, though many are the descendants of twentieth century forced migrants. It’s no surprise however to find that the valley has long been inhabited by pastoralists and is rich with the relics of its Bronze Age and Iron Age inhabitants. These we find first just outside the village of Kazanovka, where the farmland is dotted with menhirs; large slabs of pink shale, sometimes solitary but often arranged in square arrays which may have been used for ritual purposes, as territorial markers, or as burial complexes. These rather mysterious constructions may be found across Eurasia and were common to many distinct though presumably related cultures. The Bronze Age people who carved these stones here Siberia are thought to have been speakers of early Indo-Iranian languages and it’s intriguing to think that they may have been related to the earliest Indo-Aryans, who penetrated the Indian Subcontinent and whose cattle-herding culture formed the basis of the ancient Vedic religion in which Hinduism is rooted. Many of the Bronze Age slabs have been re-used by later peoples such as those of the Tagar Culture who flourished here from the eighth century BCE to the third century CE; a race of settled livestock herders with European facial features.
In the small, friendly town of Askiz we reach the A161 and turn south towards Tuva and the Mongolian border. The road follows the Abakan River through more beautiful, watered grasslands with occasional poplar trees dotting the river, and mixed villages of Russians and Khakass. In the late Bronze Age, pastoralist cultures of the Eurasian Steppe such as the Tagar came to be replaced by nomadic horse-men, ushering in a period in Eurasian history of nomadic invasions into ancient centres of settled civilisation; the Xiongnu into China, the Saka into Iran and the Huns into Rome. Here in Khakassia, the Tagars were displaced in around the third century CE by the Yenisei Kyrgyz or Khyagas; Turkic nomads, many of whom would migrate south to become modern Kyrgyz and whose local descendants are known today as the Khakass. We turn off the highway in the late afternoon and drive into the hills immediately above the village of Safronov, camping in an enchanting landscape of rolling grassland hills, backed by low mountains darkened by pine forest. After a beautifully tranquil night, we descend to Safronov’s memoirs; some of the largest in situ menhirs in the region. There are four distinct square-plan complexes, one with a single stone almost five metres in height, richly carved with Iron Age petroglyphs depicting human figures, shamanistic symbols and tribal tamgas. Their silent power, the weight of history which they represent, and their location out in this wonderful, soft landscape, with no fences or even signposts, makes them one of my favourite archaeological sites.
Rejoining the main road, we continue south, with the looming ridges of the Western Sayan Mountains rising on the horizon. We leave the grasslands and enter thickly forested mountains, stopping in the iron-mining town of Abaza to stock up on supplies, then climbing on the almost eerily quiet A161, passing the treeline and stopping on the 2207 m Sayan Pass, the border with the Republic of Tuva. A huge ovoo occupies the roadside on top of the pass; a central mast held by guy cables covered with Buddhist prayer flags which flap furiously in the strong wind. Beyond, darkened in the shadow of brooding clouds are the dark ridges of Tuva, a severely beautiful landscape and a place which fills me with both excitement and a a touch of terror. Back in 2007, on my very first trip to Russia I had entered Tuva on the glorious but tough off-road route from the Altai Republic and found Tuvans with whom I interacted in the west of the republic to be cold, hostile, drunk, aggressive and ultimately violent, leading to two young men attempting to mug me and hurling an apple-sized rock at my truck. Aside from the breathtaking scenery I came away from Tuva with rather negative impressions and so now, looking down once more to the wilds of western Tuva, I am nervous about our safety, but also anxious to have more positive impressions on this second visit.
We drop into the pristine valley of the Ak-Sug River, which appears to be wholly unpopulated aside from a couple of roadside cafes. The area is said to have been depopulated because of lawlessness and cattle rustling, so we are very careful when picking a place to camp. We spot a track heading down to the river, which is completely concealed from the road by a thick swath of poplar and pine forest and after checking a few kilometres beyond the junction, we double back and slip into the forest, making sure no traffic sees us heading off the road. What we find is actually a most charming spot amongst the trees, next to the rushing cold water of the Ak-Sug were we spend the night completely undisturbed. In the morning we climb out of the forested valley over a small pass and drop into a new landscape, one of much dry steppe; a wide, open landscape very much reminiscent of Mongolia. Here we see our first yurts, known as ög in Tuvan, sitting beyond the calm Alash River in a small herder’s camp. After a lengthy stop at a police checkpost, we proceed across the plain and drop into Tuva’s second city, Ak-Dovurak, which was built up in Soviet times around a large, now barely functioning asbestos mine. There are a few cold stares from idle men, but otherwise Ak-Dovurak seems like a friendly small town, unchanged since Soviet times and populated by slightly rough looking men and astonishingly attractive, lithe young women.
Tuvans are Turkic nomads who in terms of language and culture are closely related to Mongolians, typically practising Buddhism, though with strong animistic influences. Throughout history the land now known as Tuva has been a fairly marginal part of larger empires; Turkic, Mongol and from the late seventeenth century, Qing Dynasty (Manchu) China. Russian traders, gold-miners and Old Believers began to slowly colonise Tuva in the late nineteenth century and, following a 1911 rebellion against the Qing in China, Tuva sought to be free from Chinese domination, becoming part of Tsarist Russia in 1914. Following brief independence during the Russian Civil War, Tuva was incorporated into the USSR and closed to the outside world. In the Soviet period Tuva was decimated by forced collectivisation and communism, which replaced the age-old nomadic culture with the flawed ideals, corruption and economic incompetence of Marxism-Leninism.
Driving out of Ak-Dovurak, we cross the rugged, sere landscapes of central Tuva, passing through the town of Chadan which is renowned for its violent crime rate and stopping at the tranquil Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Ustuu-Khuree. Built in 1905 in the waning years of Qing rule, Ustuu-Khuree was destroyed in 1937 as part of Stalin’s repressions against religion, which also saw much of the Buddhist (and other) clergy murdered or imprisoned. Recently a new temple has been constructed, with tapering, whitewashed walls and a yellow pagoda roof typical of the Tibetan style. The stout, mud-brick foundations of the original remain however, and seem somehow emblematic of the fate of Tuvans under the Soviet system. Detached from their traditional lifestyle with their culture deliberately destroyed, the Tuvans were plunged into poverty, later exacerbated by the collapse of the USSR and their physical and political isolation from the rest of the world. It’s perhaps understandable that there are undertones of aggression towards outsiders amongst the most marginalised elements of the population.
We reach the Tuvan capital, Kyzyl, early in the evening and meet our hosts; Tuvan student Syldys, currently on a break from his studies in Moscow, and his father Mergen. I’ve been a little nervous throughout out journey through western Tuva but upon meeting our host family, I am instantly at ease. We drive together to the eastern edge of the city where the family lives in two comfortable wooden houses. We are fed by Syldys’ mother Sara, then head off with his father into the banya for a very welcome hot soak; the first hot water since leaving Novokuznetsk. Mergen is a retired chief of police and Syldys a student of criminology, so I am keen to relate my experiences in the west of the republic ten years ago. Mergen nods knowingly at the memories which I recall, telling me: ‘In the west the people can be crazy; they drink, smoke marijuana and lose their head. There are no Russians there and its pretty lawless. We are originally from the west of Tuva, but we are also very careful when we go there’. I’m somehow reassured by this; glad that my experiences and impressions were not unreasonable.
In the morning I collect a pre-arranged border permit from the border guards’ office and drive alone (Maciej’s late application has not been processed), south on the M54 towards the Mongolian border, a road I have wished to drive for many years. I pass through a mesmerising array of Tuvan landscapes, starting in the dry, grassy steppe south of Kyzyl, passing salt-fringed Lake Cheder-Khol, then climbing a ridge of thick forest with glowing yellow-leafed birches contrasting against the dark pines. Descending past the town of Samagaltay I enter a magnificent landscape of dry steppe as I meet the Tes River, which flows through this corner of Tuva from its source across the Mongolian border, to its end point in Lake Uvs, also in Mongolia. The river cuts a swath of greenery across the barren plains, dotted with more birches in riotous autumn colour. The road is perfect highway and practically empty and I cruise down towards the Mongolian border where the scenery becomes yet more spectacular, with dunes on the far side of the river spilling off across the border to distant mountain ranges which Maciej and I had driven through in winter, seven years ago.
I stop at a pack of Bactrian camels, sitting in a tight clump at the roadside. Curious adults leave the pack to get a closer look at me, beautiful creatures in fine health with tall humps covered in ochre-coloured fur, while further back a calf muzzles its mother for milk. It’s a thoroughly stirring vista of high, inner Asia and for a moment I wish I could nip across the border to re-acquaint myself with Mongolia, but sadly the crossing is open only to Russians and Mongolians. The strangely perfect highway ends eleven kilometres from the border, so I turn around, backtracking to the town of Erzin and taking off on sandy tracks across the steppe. I cross the Tes on a concrete bridge and after asking directions from some friendly Tuvan tourists, head down to Lake Tore-Khol which straddles the border. I find a distant spot on the lake’s western edge and stop to camp for the night. The lake’s glossy, almost motionless water reflects perfectly the deep blue sky above me, with the golden sand dunes of the Tes Valley reduced to a thin line on the lake’s far shore. I am absolutely alone here and the area is totally silent apart from a distant flock of geese whose calls float gently across the lake’s surface. This ambience and stupendous scenery evoke in me a quite overwhelming sense of awe in the beauty of this planet and the grace of the natural world; my original and still primal motivation for travelling. It’s little wonder that the Tuvans, living in such a rich natural environment, retain their animistic traditions, offering prayers to the spirits of the mountains, rivers, trees, lakes, rocks, and see no boundary between human, animal and the inanimate, all being infused with the primal dynamism of the universe.
After a thoroughly regenerative night camping at the lakeside, I return to Kyzyl where we say our goodbyes to Syldys and his parents, and drive north on the M54. As we cross the Turan Plain and climb out of Tuva, I’m in high spirits. In addition to being thoroughly enchanted by Tuva’s gorgeous and ever-changing landscapes, this visit has reversed my negative impressions of Tuvan people; through meeting Syldys and his family, and through interacting with friendly, civil Tuvans in the east of the republic. It would be tempting to spend weeks slowly touring the republic, but I must keep in mind our ultimate goal; Magadan, still very far away. In the late afternoon we pass the dramatic, horned peaks of the Ergaki Mountains which unfortunately are mostly shrouded in cloud, then turn off the highway in Tanzybey and camp in a forest clearing. Now well out of Tuva, we are in an area of Russian settlements, with pretty wooden houses with coloured window-frames and kitchen gardens behind painted picket fences. Beyond the villages are large arable fields and a striking preponderance of mature, flowering cannabis plants growing along the roadside; something which might explain the rainbow-coloured local bus shelters. We spend the day on very quiet back-roads tracking north-eastwards towards the main Trans-Siberian Highway, nearly running out of fuel but joining the M53 in the afternoon without a problem. It’s almost one thousand kilometres, a distance which takes us a day and a half, heading south-eastwards through taiga and then farmland, passing the unappealing cities of Kansk and Tulun to Irkutsk, the largest city in eastern Siberia.
We spend an afternoon in Irkutsk and stay overnight with Nadia, a Buryat originally from further north in the province, who is about to relocate to Moscow, but we are falling behind our schedule and so, with plans to visit the city again next year, I make the decision to push on. Back on the highway, progress is slow as we negotiate the fringes of the Eastern Sayan Mountains overlooking Lake Baikal, not made any better by the region’s appalling drivers, the worst I have encountered anywhere in Russia. As we cross into the Republic of Buryatia, the traffic eases and we stop in Tankhoy to stand on the lake shore. A squall is coming in off the lake and the thrashing, steely-blue waters look very much like the sea, though the impression is somewhat odd as the drinkably clean lake water has no hint of a salty tang. By late afternoon we enter the swampy delta of the Selenga River and watch a glorious lakeside sunset from the village of Posolskoye, highlighting the spires of the village’s monastery and silhouetting a beached fleet of fishing boats against a deep red sky.
Long before the Trans-Siberian Railway, Posolskoye was the choice of landing point on Baikal’s eastern shore, and it was here that in 1651 Yerofey Zabolotsky, an envoy to the Mongols from the Russian crown, was murdered by local raiders. Thirty years later, the Holy Transfiguration Monastery was founded on the spot and while Posolskoye (the name deriving from the Russian for ambassador, posol) is now a sleepy village bypassed by all modern transport links, the large monastery remains. We enter the monastery grounds in the morning and are met by Nikolai, a priest with cropped hair, thick glasses and a mouth of gold crowns, who energetically shows us his well tended flower-garden and a simple ossuary where the skulls of former priests sit on an empty shelf. It’s a lovely spot, looking out over the vastness of Baikal.
We continue through the parkland and quaint villages of the delta, returning to the busy main highway only to drive to Ulan Ude, where after navigating the city’s rather arcane Soviet road network, we leave to take another back-road into the Uda Valley, a detour that will bring us to Chita without further using the M55. Leaving the environs of Ulan Ude, we enter a broad, beautiful valley of yellowing grass lined by distant forested ridges and an enormous blue sky. We turn off the road, driving to the village of Shuluta to visit the Gandan Darzhalin datsan or monastery, one of Buryatia’s few Buddhist monasteries to have survived the Soviet period which sits below a grassy hillside.
The Buryats are the major northern sub-group of the Mongols who inhabit the forested valleys east and west of Lake Baikal. Traditionally shamanistic, Buddhism spread among the Buryats from Mongolia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though it often came to coexist with, rather than replace, shamanistic beliefs. Russia formally annexed these territories in the seventeenth century, but it was only in Soviet times that the Buryats and their culture were repressed. Under Stalin tens of thousands of Buryats were murdered in an uprising against collectivisation and by the end of the 1930s the majority of monasteries had been closed and destroyed and the clergy murdered. Buryats to the west of Baikal have been strongly Russified, with some becoming Christians, but here, in the beautiful valleys beyond the lake’s eastern shore, the old traditions are slowly returning. Shuluta’s original datsan has survived Stalin’s Great Purge, though it is a formless shell awaiting restoration, but on a rise above it sits a beautiful, modern wooden temple, built in the Tibetan style and surrounded by a wooden fence hung with fluttering prayer flags. Just next to the temple is an unusual construction of multiple poplar sticks arrayed in a cross; a newly built ovoo hung with prayer rags in offering to the spirits that inhabit the place. There’s little activity in the temple, but we get chatting to a Buryat carpenter who tells us a little about the place, then takes Maciej’s palm and reads his fortune.
As we head deeper into the sun-drenched Uda Valley it becomes subtly more beautiful; the colours more vivid and autumnal, the settlements more widely spaced and the huge sky a gently deepening cerulean. At sunset the air is still warm and we stop to camp on top of a hill overlooking the valley, watching farmers cut the long, yellow grass in preparation for winter and hearing the distant singing of a cowherd following his cows back to a tiny nearby village; another lovely spot. We start at dawn the following morning in order to try to make up some time, but the road deteriorates to a rutted, unsurfaced track as we leave the beautiful valley and enter the taiga which here is being felled by most likely illegal logging companies to supply the nearby Chinese market. The bad road, dull scenery and my concerns at losing time make for a rather less than pleasant drive, but crossing out of Buryatia we encounter good asphalt once more and later, just north of the city of Chita, we join the M58, the highway which will take us eastwards to Khabarovsk.
We bypass Chita and enjoy the good asphalt of the highway, passing through taiga for two hundred kilometres before turning off the into the wide Shilka Valley, filled with gently rolling grassy hills. We camp for the night in a hillside meadow, watching a beautiful sunset over the gentle undulations of the wide, grassy valley, though we are slightly disturbed in the early hours by some nearby hunters in a Lada Niva shining spot-lights at us and later firing shots in the distance. In the morning we move off, soon reaching the banks of the Nercha River which marks the most easterly point I have ever visited; for me, the trip from here on is entirely breaking new ground. Across the river is the city of Nerchinsk, our last stop in eastern Siberia before the long journey into the Russian Far East. On first sight a slightly shabby, quiet country town, Nerchinsk is in fact of great historic importance and we head straight into the local museum as soon as it opens.
This far flung and very sparsely populated edge of eastern Siberia was one of the last parts of Asia to be formally added to what is now Russia, by a set of treaties with Qing Dynasty China. The first of these treaties, the Treaty of Nerchinsk, was signed here in 1689 and formalised the border along the Argun River up until its juncture with the Shilka, where the two become the Amur. Beyond this, the border followed the Stanovoy Mountains in attempt to keep Cossack freebooters out of the Amur Basin. Having formalised the border, Nerchinsk became the chief centre of trade between Russia and China, until 1728 when trade was diverted through Kyakhta far to the west. Nevertheless, Nerchinsk continued to flourish, now on gold mining, using mostly exiles for labour. It is in fact in part of the palace of the local gold magnate Butin Family that the museum is now housed complete with the lavish nineteenth century furnishings. Among elegant chandeliers and gilded stucco mouldings are what at the time were reputedly the world’s largest mirrors, transported from Paris via the Pacific and Amur River to this wild outpost of eastern Siberia. It is indeed quite surreal to step from this Neoclassical refinement onto the streets of the lethargic town, which has other signs of long-past prosperity; some dank, crumbling trading arches, a boarded-up nineteenth century market and a red-brick structure overlooking the river which once received the town’s wine supply, but is now a shabby trade emporium.
Nerchinsk is for us the last point of interest in eastern Siberia; beyond this lie more than a thousand kilometres of wilderness until we reach the city of Blagoveshchensk on the Amur River. We rejoin the M58 and begin the long journey on a perfect asphalt highway, one notable infrastructure project of modern Russia, for in Soviet times there was simply no road, with vehicles being loaded onto the train between nearby Chernyshevsk and Yerofey Pavlovich in Amur Region. It’s a joy to be able to make good progress with no distractions, looking out into the endless taiga which surrounds us on both sides as we round the northern-most bulge of Manchuria in China. Late in the afternoon we cross an administrative boundary into Amur Region, entering the Russian Far East and stopping to camp in a forest clearing.
During my 2015 journey to the north of European Russia, I had sketched out an idea for a very ambitious future trip, right across Russia from Magadan on the Pacific coast back to Europe in the depths of winter, satisfying a long-time desire to visit the world’s coldest inhabited areas and explore the Russian north on winter-only roads. Returning to my relatively new, settled life in July 2015 in a charmless corner of North-western Europe, I would find that what had once seemed like an exciting opportunity would pan out to be a disappointing career in an industry witnessing its largest crash in history. However, the extensive planning and preparation for this winter trip would give me something firm and positive to focus on, working towards an expedition which few had attempted. Preparations began in November 2015 with the purchase of a second vehicle, a Toyota Hilux Surf 4×4 with a petrol engine and manual transmission. The vehicle required such extensive mechanical repair and preparation that a proposed departure date of August 2016 had to be delayed by a year, as I spent weekends in the garage ensuring the vehicle would be mechanically fit for such a testing trip.
In the early stages of planning I had dismissed the idea of shipping the vehicle straight to the start point of Magadan and so there would be an outward, eastward journey across Russia in 2017, finishing just before the winter set in. This transcontinental journey would be a fast-paced road-trip, crossing very nearly all of Russia; from its European west, across the Urals, the lowlands of West Siberia, the mountainous republics of southern Siberia, wild taiga of eastern Siberia, and on into the Russian Far East. At the Pacific coast I would turn around, heading north into the wilderness for the long journey to Magadan where the Hilux Surf would be put into storage in preparation for departure in January 2018.
Finally setting off after work on the afternoon of the 11th August, I drove overnight to Gdansk in Poland where I met my friend Maciej who would accompany on the eastward trip. Together we would make a very memorable journey across the vast and subtly changing landscape of Russia, starting in the sweltering days of late summer and ending in the opening stages of a brutal winter. Nine weeks and more than 23,000 kilometres driving Trans-Eurasia.
It’s the afternoon of the 13th August 2017, and Maciej and I enter Russia’s exclave Kaliningrad Region, taking our fist steps into Russia on the long road to Magadan. Leaving the border town of Mamonovo we make a side trip up to the ruined red-brick fortress of Balga, a medieval castle of the Teutonic Knights which has long been in ruin, though was heavily damaged in the Second World War when it was the site of one of the Red Army’s final battles with the Wehrmacht. Today the castle is a sad ruin in the midsts of being reclaimed by the forest, with clumps of its exploded masonry lying on the wild shore of the Vistula Lagoon. Returning to the main road just before sunset, we strike our first camp in a large fallow field surrounded by a tall, natural perimeter of trees. After years of preparation I’m thrilled to be on the road at last, enjoying life with thoughts of work well out of my mind, though this idyll is almost broken when my camping stove bursts into flame on first use.
In the morning we pass straight through the city of Kaliningrad, stopping in Zelenogradsk on the wind-swept Baltic coast. Once known by its German name of Cranz, Zelenogradsk is a faded nineteenth century resort, an odd mix of Germany and Russia with an air of what I imagine might still be post-war dereliction and depopulation; the same impression that I had in 2010 on my previous visit to this intriguing spoil-of-war territory. We leave on a small road heading out onto the Curonian Spit; a long finger of land which stretches over into Lithuania. In contrast to the general scruffiness of the ‘mainland’, the spit is a beautiful stretch of wilderness, thickly forested with occasional bare slopes of sand dunes. It’s popular with tourists from Russia and the Baltic States, but still a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, seeing the ‘Dancing Forest’, a patch of strangely twisted pine trees, walking through another stand of forest to the tranquil Curonian Lagoon, or watching the breakers wash onto fine, sandy Baltic beaches. Late in the afternoon we enter Lithuania through a quiet border crossing, driving north to catch a ferry back to Klaipėda on the mainland.
We drive the next day through Lithuania into Latvia, passing through Riga then heading across the country, cutting through the very south-eastern corner of Estonia to cross into Russia at the border crossing of Shumilkino, where I had finished my 2015 trip. One of the immigration officers asks me my destination in Russia. ‘Magadan’ I tell him. He looks at me for a second, then warns me that Magadan is a Gulag. ‘All Russia is a Gulag’ adds a young colleague sardonically. Now in Russia proper, we truly set off on the road to Magadan. It’s a beautiful, warm summer evening and we soon stop in Izborsk to visit the town’s fourteenth century stone fortress, one of Russia’s oldest, which sits on grassy rise, beautifully illuminated by the soft evening light. Legend tells that in the ninth century Izborsk was the seat of Truvor, brother of Rurik, founder of the dynasty that would govern Russia until the seventeenth century and, as we listen to the gentle sounds of village life floating in the warm evening air, we tell ourselves that we are really in Russia.
It’s after dark by the time we reach Pskov, a city I have twice passed through without stopping and am keen to properly visit. Pskov is one of Russia’s oldest cities, first being mentioned early in the tenth century and was initially part of the Novgorod Republic, then independent, before being incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Traditionally a border city, Pskov grew rich on trade but its fortunes waned when Peter the Great pushed the border of Russia westward in the eighteenth century, roughly to its current location.
Maciej and I are hosted by Vladimir and his wife Rita, who live in a Soviet apartment complex on Pskov’s main Rizhsky Prospekt (Riga Prospect) on the city’s western edge. A computer programmer, Vladimir also describes himself as a social activist and tells us that he was threatened with legal action from the authorities in his previous home in Moscow, for reasons he does not elaborate on, and now keeps a low profile in this relative backwater. As Maciej and I leave his apartment the next morning to spend the day in the city, Vladimir is out watering some saplings which he has recently planted outside his home, trying to take the edge off the brutal Soviet concrete gigantism.
Pskov indeed comes across as a slightly down-at-heel place, the capital of one of Russia’s poorest regions. Happily, this seems to have largely spared it from the ugly rash of modern development, which together with the friendly nature of local people give it a pleasant, provincial air. As we reach the banks of the Belaya River however, we see Pskov’s magnificent ancient centre, which spreads around the imposing fifteenth century Krom, or fortress. This beautiful landmark is one of the finest pieces of medieval Russian architecture I have seen, sitting above the calm river with large, red letters spelling out ‘Russia starts here’ on the bank. Crossing the river, we enter a centre of shady parks and countless small churches, albeit above the dust, noise and fumes of modern traffic. South of the centre is the serene Mirozhsky Monastery, whose twelfth century Transfiguration Cathedral is a rare pre-Mongol building and contains beautiful frescoes showing the life of Christ with clear Byzantine influences. We end our tour of the city drinking beers in the evening warmth on the riverbank overlooking the Krom, delighted at the prospect of a journey across the world’s largest country.
We leave Pskov in the morning of a sultry, late-summer day and head north-eastwards on a pleasant country road, passing the coffee-brown waters of Lake Ilmen and the ancient town of Staraya Russa, once a summer home of Dostoyevsky but which today looks rather run-down and seedy. We turn south-eastwards onto unpaved roads, heading for the Valdai Hills, an upland of thick forest, swamps and lakes which form the highest point of the huge East European Plain. Out here the villages are isolated and rather idle; stopping in one we attract a group of friendly drunks who talk to us; one stumbling, punch-drunk man tells me he has a sister living in the UK, before asking for fifteen roubles to help him buy a bottle of port-wine. We cross into Tver Region in the evening and make camp in a small forest clearing next to a beautiful lilly-filled pond. As we sit inside the car drinking beer, taking refuge from the mosquitoes, we are jolted by a loud explosion. Far too powerful to be a gunshot, I guess it might be locals dynamite fishing in these remote backwoods.
We leave at dawn the following morning and just after sunrise reach the tiny village of Volgoverkhovye. Here, in a small, tranquil bog on the edge of a stand of birch forest, alive with the sound of chirping frogs and buzzing insects, the Volga rises and begins its journey to the Caspian Sea. The bog drains through a stand of water hyacinths into a tiny stream and it is quite mind boggling to think that this is Europe’s longest river, in places so wide that one cannot see from one bank to the other; the backbone of European Russia, flowing south-eastwards almost to the borders of Asia.
We spend the day driving east towards the capital, passing Ostashkov and Torzhok, then getting lost on small country roads which end in forlorn villages, eventually finding a route to the tiny village of Krasnoye. Here we find the astounding Transfiguration Church, a pink piece of Gothic Revival of very unusual proportions; a circular plan with four subsidiary circular apses, all covered in narrow, white vertical bands. The church is a copy of the Chesme Church in Saint Petersburg, commissioned by Catherine the Great to commemorate Russia’s victory over the Turks at the Battle of Chesme in 1770 and is utterly at odds with the simple village scenes which unfold around it. Approaching the church we are given a tour by a tall, thin, greying but energetic woman, the mother of the local priest. She explains how a Mr Poloratsky, the local landowner, built the church for Catherine the Great in 1790, anticipating her visit. Sadly, after receiving what she considered an unsatisfactory welcome en route, the empress returned to Saint Petersburg and never saw Krasnoye’s church. This incongruous structure survives today as a mere memory of the Russia of old; the wealthy class of feudal landlords whose estates covered the rolling farmland of European Russia.
In nearby Rzhev, we cross the Volga once again, here already a sizeable river almost one hundred metres wide, then enter modern Russia in the form of the furious Moscow-bound traffic of the M9 Highway. As we approach the capital, this becomes a much-needed motorway, a rare improvement of inadequate Soviet infrastructure. We get caught in gridlock on the edge of Moscow, and it’s not until after dark that we reach Podolsk, where we are hosted by my friend Katerina in her parents’ comfortable self-built house.
It’s nice to see Katerina again and tempting to stay for a day, but we must push on and so join the infamous MKAD, or Moscow ring road, where Saturday traffic is heavy but generally free-flowing. However, as we approach the M7 junction, roadworks cause traffic to snarl up and we barely move for an hour, reminding me of the hours I spent near here trying to leave Moscow on my first visit to Russia in 2007. Despite having driven several times in Tehran, Karachi and Istanbul, nothing in my experience compares to the gridlock of Moscow’s overwhelmed road system. Traffic remains heavy well out of the city and we soon see a four-car pile up happen right in front of us. After more than two hours the traffic starts to clear, but it is not until the afternoon that we feel to have escaped the grip of Russia’s unlovable capital. We continue east, driving into the night and stopping late to camp in a field. Waking up to a beautiful morning and the sight of low, rolling hills on the horizon, we make a short side-trip to the Volga and the fortress of Sviyazhsk, located on a hill now almost surrounded by the waters of the Kuybyshev Reservoir. It was from here that Ivan The Terrible launched his final siege against the Khanate of Kazan in 1552, a crucial step in the Russian subjugation of the Tatars, descendants of the hated Golden Horde. The fortress is teeming with Sunday tourists though this does little to detract from the dramatic setting overlooking the now very mighty Volga.
We turn south, missing Kazan and leaving the M7, driving through the rolling fields of Tatarstan and notice a gentle cultural change with the appearance of mosques in the towns and villages, bilingual Russian and Tatar road signs and a more noticeable police presence. We end another long, hot day camping in a field having failed to find a suitable spot on the Volga. In the morning we pass through the northern edge of Ulyanovsk and cross the Volga on the new and very impressive President’s Bridge which runs for almost six kilometres over the vast river. This central Volga region of Russia, with prosperous industrial cities, friendly locals and beautiful rolling landscapes is perhaps my favourite part of European Russia and it’s tempting to continue downstream towards Tolyatti and Samara, but we turn northwards, doubling back into Tatarstan. We drive on a quiet country road through fields of dazzling sunflowers, freshly baled hay and neat Tatar villages, stopping in the town of Bolgar in the afternoon.
Bolgar was the capital of Volga Bulgaria, a state formed by groups of descendants from Old Great Bulgaria (as were the Bulgars who moved west to become the ancestors of modern Bulgarians) which was destroyed by the Khazars in the seventh century. Sitting astride the Volga, then a trade route for the transport principally of furs from Europe to Asia, Volga Bulgaria flourished. Decline began with frequent raids by Russians of Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal early in the thirteenth century and soon after, in 1236, Volga Bulgaria was overrun by the Golden Horde. The Volga Bulgars, themselves of nomadic Turkic stock, integrated with the invading Mongols and Bolgar became a very wealthy city. When the Golden Horde split into Tatar Khanates around the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Khanate of Kazan came to occupy an area similar to that of Volga Bulgaria, and whilst the capital was now in Kazan, Bolgar remained an important fortress city.
Bolgar is beautifully situated above the widest part of the Kuybyshev Reservoir, the largest in Europe, where the Volga resembles an inland sea. The museum complex consists of several mausoleums dating to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, the ruined walls of what is called a Cathedral Mosque, two reconstructed minarets and the very faint remains of the Khan’s Palace. Much of it is rather obviously restored and only the fourteenth century ‘Black Chamber’ retains much of its original form, with clear influences from Central Asian funerary architecture. The function of the building is unknown, but legend tells that the Khan’s family hid here from Tamerlane in 1396 who blackened the building by setting fires against it. The cultural significance of Bolgar is also interesting, as something of a cultural homeland for the Tatars, Russia’s largest non-Slavic and Muslim minority, whose culture is slowly re-emerging after decades of Soviet repression. Indeed, in Soviet times, Bolgar became a secretive place of hajj in place of Mecca. Compared to the legacy of the Ilkhans in Iran, the Golden Horde left very little physical evidence and so Bolgar is altogether quite fascinating, though any direct link between the Kazan Tatars and the earlier Volga Bulgars remains to be proven.
From the beautiful summer landscapes of southern Tatarstan we head north the next morning towards the Kama River, the largest tributary of the Volga, passing through the noxious industrial city of Nizhnekamsk. The jaundiced light, fumes and broken roads of the petrochemical city are a far cry from the bucolic landscapes to the south, but it is heavy industry such as this which makes the republic one of the most economically developed regions of Russia. On the north bank of the Kama we stop in the pleasant town of Yelabuga where the sentinel ‘Devil’s Tower’ overlooks the broad river, remains of a supposedly tenth century Volga Bulgarian border fortress.
From Yelabuga we leave the Volga region and head north into the outliers of the Urals, crossing into the Udmurtia Republic and making a brief stop in its capital, Izhevsk. Once Ivan The Terrible had defeated the Tatars, the Tsardom of Russia rapidly expanded eastwards into the Urals, an area long inhabited by various Finno-Ugric tribes such as the Udmurts. Initially a staging post in the conquest of Siberia, the Ural region was heavily settled from the eighteenth century onwards with the onset of large-scale extraction of the Urals’ mineral resources. Izhevsk is exactly this; an industrial city which looks to have changed little since the Soviet period, dotted with smoking chimneys and a rather noxious looking city pond on which residents pedal pleasure boats on this sultry afternoon.
Leaving Izhevsk, we pass through rural Udmurtia, noticing another subtle change in the landscape as stands of pine forest, the outliers of the great northern taiga appear, and villages become smaller, linear settlements of wooden houses with coloured window frames. We slowly climb over an undulating landscape, watching a hazy sunset over the unfolding ridges, arriving after dark in Perm.
Like Izhevsk, the city of Perm was founded during the reign of Peter The Great as a factory city and would grow into a major industrial hub during Soviet times. Perm became a centre for weapons manufacture and would become a closed city during the Cold War, though today, with a population hovering around one million, it is a thriving Russian city. We are hosted by Vanya and Irina, a young local couple. Vanya drives us into town in the morning and we begin a lengthy walk around the city, whose centre is developed very much in the Soviet gigantic style. We meet with Vanya again for lunch and afterwards visit a small open air museum of the Motovilkha Arms Factory, where Cold War-era ICBMs and launchers are on display. Irina, Vanya’s elfin girlfriend works for Motovilkha designing components for aircraft engines, though she does not have clearance to know what these components are used to build. It’s perhaps not surprising that this arms city is busy and prosperous; throughout the turmoil of the Soviet collapse and recent crashes in commodity prices, the Russians Arms industry was one of the few parts of the country which was kept relatively healthy, vital for defence purposes as well as a source of foreign hard currency. In the evening we take a walk around the centre with Vanya and Irina. Vanya explains that whilst Perm was in the recent past a rather gritty place, today it is one of Russia’s more progressive cities, and we can see plenty of modern small businesses run by young entrepreneurs. We finish the evening in a smart restaurant serving dishes supposedly inspired by the cuisine of the indigenous Permyak people, stopping off at a craft beer shop on the way home for some excellent local IPA.
East of Perm the Urals build into low, thickly forested ridges amidst which we stop to visit one of Russia’s most unusual museums. In the tiny village of Kuchino is a facility which was known simply as Perm-36 (a code name to keep its real location secret), which served as a prison camp from 1946 until 1987, well into the Gorbachev-era. Perm-36 began as a logging camp in Stalin’s brutal Gulag network which was conceived to provide slave labour for the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union and cow ‘free’ Soviet citizens into a state of terror. Perm-36 survived the dissolution of the Gulag network upon Stalin’s death in the 1950s, becoming a maximum security prison camp for the regime’s most difficult political prisoners, some of whom were locked in twenty-four hour isolation. Perm-36 is the only such camp which has remained preserved as a museum, though rather disturbingly it has recently been subject to state harassment, with the authorities censoring some references to Stalin and Soviet leaders. We are given a short tour of the facility, which preserves the multiple barbed wire perimeter fences, a guard tower and most chillingly, the cold, concrete isolation cells where prisoners of conscience were held well into my lifetime. The Gulag represents one of the darkest sides of the twentieth century and I find it rather disturbing that resurgent, chest pounding Russian nationalism from government channels seeks to bury this history.
In the nearby town of Chusovoy we turn north, driving through often rather grim industrial towns which are juxtaposed upon the beautiful wilderness of the North Urals. In the afternoon we stop in the salt mining town of Solikamsk which, beyond grim piles of salt tailings and rusting, derelict-looking infrastructure, reveals an ancient centre unexpectedly filled with seventeenth and eighteenth century churches. Solikamsk is one of the oldest towns in the region and was once the largest industrial city of Russia, with salt having been mined here since the fifteenth century, long pre-dating the industrialisation of cities such as Perm. The city is also important for having been the western end of the Babinov Route, the first practicable overland route across the Urals, which was established in 1597 and remained in use until the opening of the Siberian Route, much further to the south, in 1735. It was the Babinov Route that allowed Russia (using Cossack mercenaries and funding from the Stroganov Family) to rapidly expand into Siberia, thus becoming the enormous, resource-rich country that it is today. Sadly the Babinov Route has long since fallen out of repair and is impassable to vehicular traffic, so we must content ourselves with the view of Solikamsk’s 1713 Bell Tower, which once marked the route’s starting point. Solikamsk also seems to have fallen on hard times; whilst the town’s mines are working, the general atmosphere is rather less than friendly with hard-faced, thuggish looking men and women, drinking and arguing in the streets. We’re both pleased to leave what is perhaps my least favourite Russian city.
After backtracking to Chusovoy we turn east onto a modern, paved road, the most northerly road across the Urals which is open to the public. On a gentle ridge just over 450 metres above sea level, we pass a whitewashed marker announcing that we have crossed from Europe to Asia; a singularly unremarkable transition which merely highlights the absurdity of this notional continental boundary. We make a detour to the north to visit the town Verkhoturye, which was established in 1598 as an ostrog (wooden fort) on the Tura River and marked the eastern end of the Babinov Route; the gateway to Siberia. In stark contrast to Solikamsk, Verkhoturye is a truly beguiling place, feeling like a large village, centred on the slow Tura River, overlooked by a small whitewashed kremlin (fortress) and the soaring towers of the eighteenth century Trinity Cathedral. On this warm summer’s day, Verkhoturye presents a quite idyllic scene from bygone Russian, with children playing in the shallow Tura beneath a wooden footbridge which connects the town’s compact centre with the colourful wooden cottages on the south bank, with almost no Soviet concrete in sight. I leave Verkhoturye thinking I have found my favourite small town in Russia.
We drive south towards Yekaterinburg then east, back onto small roads which take us out of the last ripples of the Urals. Here we enter the West Siberian Plain, the world’s largest lowland, and stop to camp for the night in a fallow field surrounded by stands of birch forest; a quintessentially West Siberian landscape. Our next stop, the following morning, is the rather run-down town of Irbit which, despite first appearances, was once perhaps Siberia’s greatest trade centre. Founded in 1631, Irbit soon came to be the location of an fair where the riches of Siberia could be traded. The eighteenth century saw both the signing of the Treaty of Kyakhta, which opened a border post with Manchu China, and the opening of the Siberian Route, a river route which would also become known as the Great Tea Route. Thus Irbit found itself at the centre of a huge annual trade in tea from China and furs from Siberia with manufactured goods from Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century the trade route shifted once more with the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway far to the south. This, together with the upheavals of the Russian Revolution and Civil War put an end to Irbit’s fortunes; the last Fair was held in 1928, and the town has remained relatively obscure ever since.
Although Irbit today is a scruffy place of damp, peeling nineteenth century buildings and streets with more than the occasional roaming drunk, there are still reminders of its past prosperity. The local museum has some old photos of the city and fair, and an exhibition on the Great Tea Route, but most interesting is the Passage building on the northern edge of the centre. Still a shopping centre today, the Passage was built in 1864 to serve as the fair’s store-front, with the opening of trade announced in the square out in front. Inside is a busy local market laid out on two open floors unlike any other I have seen in Russia, even with its own tea shop; a distant descendant of the old Tea Route.
East of Irbit the land becomes wilder and the towns smaller and farther apart as we pass the southern edge of a huge marshland which stretches for hundreds of kilometres to the north. We cross into Tyumen Region, Russia’s richest, and immediately notice an improvement in the infrastructure as we bypass the capital Tyumen and join the heavy traffic of the main road leading north towards Surgut and the centre of Russia’s petroleum industry, via Tobolsk where we stop for the night.
It was in this region in the late fifteenth century that another successor state of the Golden Horde emerged; the Khanate of Sibir, from which the name ‘Siberia’ may well derive. After conquering the Tatars of the Khanate of Kazan in 1552, Ivan The Terrible looked further east and through the Stroganov Family sent Cossacks across the Urals in 1580 to attack Sibir. Yermak Timofeyevich, the Cossack ataman (leader) took the Siberian capital Qashliq, in 1582, though he was killed two years later by a Tatar reprisal. However, his Cossacks went on to seed numerous Siberian cities, the second of these (the first was Tyumen) being Tobolsk, founded in 1587 at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers.
We arrive in Tobolsk in the evening and are warmly received by our host Ilya with an excellent meal and home-made hazelnut vodka. Tobolsk is centred around a large and impressive eighteenth century kremlin which overlooks the rest of the city and reflects the fact that it was effectively the capital of Siberia until the late eighteenth century, and remained an important city until the end of the nineteenth when it was bypassed by the Trans Siberian Railway. Away from the kremlin however I am slightly disappointed with Tobolsk; what once must have been a beautiful Old City of traditional wooden houses has been largely displaced by ugly modern buildings or scruffy vacant lots waiting to be ‘developed’ (often after the old houses are burnt down) and the newer parts of town are bland and characterless. Only the mighty Irtysh stands aloof from this, silently slipping off northwards on its way across West Siberia, carving deep, gracious curves into its silty banks. Ilya drives us out of town briefly, slightly upstream on the Irtysh, to the edge of the village of Sibiryak where the ancient Tatar capital of Qashliq once stood. We meet a Kazakh working at a holiday camp who walks us to a viewpoint over the Irtysh and points across an overgrown and inaccessible ravine to a cliff where he tells us the capital once stood, though there is not a single visible trace of anything man made.
I leave Maciej briefly in Tobolsk to make a trip down into Kazakhstan while he takes a bus to Omsk where we will meet tomorrow. Crossing the Irtysh, I leave the main highway and head south on an excellent country road, passing through neat, lively Siberian Tatar villages dotted with pretty cottage-like mosques. The region’s hydrocarbon wealth seems to have trickled right down here and it’s very pleasing to see a part of Russia where rural society is in good health, though it makes me reflect wistfully on what Russia could be if it had a better managed economy. I drive straight across the Trans-Siberian Highway and Railway and enter a beautiful landscape of rich, prosperous farmland near Golyshmanovo, which is marked by its towering grain elevator above a busy bread factory. This is the cultivated swath of territory which marks the southern boundary of Siberia, beyond which the fertile forest-steppe gradually blends into dryer, true steppe, roughly demarcating the Kazakhstan border. Joining the M51, the main Soviet-era Trans-Siberian Highway from Chelyabinsk to Novosibirsk, I head east and cross into Kazakhstan late in the afternoon, camping and driving into the regional capital Petropavl the following morning.
After crossing the Urals, Russian Cossacks acting on behalf of the Tsar rapidly conquered the forests of Siberia using a network of vast river routes in the sixteenth century. Expanding southwards into the open Kazakh Steppe, populated by war-like tribes, was a more lengthy and hard-won process which began in the eighteenth century using a network of forts. These stretched along a line which became roughly the Russia – Kazakhstan border, and developed into a number of large cities such as Orenburg, Semipalatinsk (now Semey) and Petropavlovsk (Petropavl). Today there is no trace of Petropavlovsk Fort, but Petropavl is a pleasant, if rather dull city of modern Kazakhstan. My impressions are on the one hand of a city rather trapped in time, filled with Soviet touches such as a large, colourful wall-mosaic, or squads of ladies sweeping streets with brooms and whitewashing kerb-stones, but on the other hand of a city witnessing demographic change, as the Kazakh population slowly becomes a majority in a city which in Soviet times was largely Slavic. As I leave the city in the afternoon, I pass a turning to the south which leads to all the exotic yet familiar destinations of Central Asia and must fight a strong urge re-visit them, but I return to the old M51, re-entering Russia and meeting Maciej outside the station in the centre of Omsk in the evening.
We wake up at our campsite behind a stand of birch trees to a magnificent morning; the deep crystal blue sky seems to glow with late-summer depth, painted with delicate wisps of cirrus hanging still above the quiescent landscape. We spend the entire day driving east on the Trans-Siberian Highway, driving without stopping through the seemingly endless landscape of the Baraba Steppe; fallow, cleared land, rarely farmed, with pockets of birch forest. After six hundred kilometres we reach the edge of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city (and the third largest in Russia overall) crossing the Ob River on a dam, beyond which spreads the shimmering Ob Sea. We stop for the day in Akademgorodok, a detached city district built around Novosibirsk State University, where we are hosted by Ilyas, a Kazakh biologist with whom I stayed for a few days in winter 2010. Ilyas has recently married Nadya, the two having met through their shared love of tea. In the morning before we leave, Maciej and I are treated to a lengthy, almost meditative tea ceremony, based on the Japanese tea tradition, tasting delicately fragrant pu’er tea from one thousand year-old tea trees in Yunnan Province, China.
Now east of the Ob River, as we leave Akademgorodok, we leave the West Siberian Plain and climb gently across the Salair Ridge, a low, outlying spur of the Altai Mountains. We descend again past Lake Tanayevo into the Kuznetsk Basin, famed for having some of the world’s most extensive coal deposits. Though settled by Russians since the early seventeenth century, it was only in the 1930s with Stalin’s rapid industrialisation of the USSR that these coal deposits were exploited on a large scale, used principally for the smelting of iron ore mined in the Urals. With this came a great demographic shift as huge numbers of settlers arrived in the region, and it remains the most densely populated region of Siberia. Reaching the rather grim and dirty mining town of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, we turn south onto a broad dual carriageway and by evening reach the region’s largest and oldest city, Novokuznetsk.
Founded in 1618 as a fortress on the right bank of the Tom River, Kuznetsk was a bulwark against invading tribes, notably the Dzungars of north-western China, but was of little importance until the development of the region’s coal reserves. In 1931 Kuznetsk was merged with a left-bank settlement to form Stalinsk, which was renamed Novokuznetsk in 1961. Having suffered during the times of the Soviet collapse, domestic coal mining became profitable once more after the 1998 devaluation of the Rouble, meaning that Novokuznetsk today is a modestly prosperous place. The city’s population remains lower now however than in Soviet times, and so there are few signs of modern development, leaving an urban landscape almost entirely built up during the heyday of the Soviet Union. Maciej and I spend a day walking around Novokuznetsk, taking in its numerous Soviet touches; Stalinist architecture of Theatre and Mayakovsky Squares, statues of Lenin and Gorky standing side by side, and broad avenues lined with elegant rows of poplars whose yellowing leaves signal the onset of autumn. The city’s central square is an ocean of concrete; a large flower-like monument commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the USSR, a monolithic city administration building and nine-storied prefabricated apartment buildings, one with a fine Soviet mural. Across the Tom River is the restored nineteenth century Kuznetsk Fortress, bracing for an invasion from the south which never came.
Novokuznetsk makes a nice end point to our journey across European Russia and West Siberia. Ahead of us are the beautiful and fascinating republics along the Mongolian border, and the vast wilderness of Eastern Siberia and the Far East, as we continue our Trans-Eurasian journey to Magadan and the Pacific.
Having passed through many church-dotted, historic cities of Russia on my way from the country’s southernmost border, I would now head into the northern wilderness in search of more natural attractions, finding these in the great pristine forests of the North Urals, the rugged, tundra-fringed shore of the Barents Sea and the beautiful Tersky Coastline of the Kola Peninsula. Finally, on Russia’s western border, I would complete my 2015 trip across Russia’s European Heartland.
It’s the afternoon of the 11th June 2015 and with the truck in a secure car park, I say goodbye to my host Isa and get on an overnight train which takes me to Sosnogorsk, a small railway town next to the larger oil-city of Uktha, once the centre of one arm of Stalin’s GULag network. I am on my way to the far-flung town of Troitsko-Pechorsk on the Pechora River, where I will join a group of Russian tourists to visit the remote rock formations of Manpupuner, located in the wilderness of the North Urals, far beyond any road. In the waiting room of Sosnogorsk’s small railway station I meet Alexander, a corporate lawyer from Moscow, who is on the same tour and informs me that due to a last minute cancellation, it will be just the two of us (and guides) making the journey. We take the daily train south-eastwards, which crawls along the lumpy, single railway line reaching its terminus at Troitsko-Pechorsk just after midday. Here we are met by a driver in a minibus loaded with boxes of supplies and large plastic petrol cans, who takes us to a billiard-hall come restaurant where the local police immediately arrive to drag out an aggressive drunk. After lunch, we are driven fifty kilometres to a small clearing on the bank of the Pechora just opposite the village of Ust-Ilych, which marks the junction of the Ilych and Pechora Rivers.
We are met by a man in a long wooden boat and after loading the fuel and supplies, we quickly get moving on the cold, calm waters of the Ilych, heading into the unspoiled wilderness of Europe’s eastern frontier. Alexander and I hunker down under tarpaulins to keep out the freezing cold air and admire the scenery. The river’s broad meanders are lined with a wall of pine trees broken only very occasionally by villages perched on the grassy riverbanks. It is in the third of these, Yeremeyevo, that we stop after eighty kilometres to sleep for the night in the house of our guide Zhenya. Yeremeyevo is a somewhat idyllic settlement consisting of neatly attractive wooden houses overlooking the wide, beautiful Ilych. Unlike most settlements of the Komi Republic the population here is entirely Komi, an indigenous Finno-Ugric nation of whom many, including our hosts, retain their indigenous Komi-Zyrian language; highly unusual in Russia where many Finno-Ugric nations are highly assimilated into Russian culture. Zhenya’s wife cooks an excellent dinner of grayling (which our hosts prefer to eat salted and raw, though I ask to be cooked) alongside excellent home-grown potatoes; perhaps the best-tasting freshwater fish I have ever eaten.
Yeremeyevo is the furthermost settlement on the Ilych and as we continue our journey up-river the following day, it narrows and enters denser forests, occasionally passing craggy cliffs of heavily uplifted rock strata as we enter the low, undulating, forested ridges of the Urals. We stop at three kordons; firstly at Izpryed where the two friendly rangers check our permits and allow us to continue into the Pechoro-Ilych Reserve, then at Shezhymdikost for lunch, and finally at the ranger station of Ust-Lyaga, 120 kilometres up-river from Yeremeyevo, where we will spend the night before continuing on foot tomorrow.
In Ust-Lyaga we meet our second guide Sasha, who along with Zhenya prepares us another excellent dinner of freshly caught fish, whilst preferring to eat cheap kolbasa (luncheon sausage) themselves. Alexander and I make use of the camp’s banya and wrap up the evening alternating between sweating in the scalding steam room and plunging naked into the near-freezing water of the Ilych. Out of the noisy boat, I notice the great beauty of the river, which passes slowly in majestic silence, its surface disturbed only by the tiniest of eddies as it makes its way towards the Arctic under a sky of subtle blues, yellows and pinks which mark an extended twilight above the soft curves of low, pine-clad hills.
The following morning, after a very short boat journey to the mouth of the Ydzhydlyaga River we begin a twenty-kilometre walk through thick, dark, boggy, forest of lichen-covered birches and pines. I soon realise that I am rather under-equipped, having previously imagined a pleasant walk through dry pine forest. After a few kilometres the joy of being in untouched nature has long-since worn off and the boggy path, constantly made worse by tree roots, infinite hordes of biting mosquitoes, constant diversions around swampy sections and the pain in my left ankle which I twisted in the banya yesterday, has become a masochistic ordeal. At the very end of the day however, as I abruptly emerge from the dense forest onto a high bank of the Ydzhydlyaga, I have my first view of a treeless ridge of the Urals, on top of which are the seven natural stone towers known in the native Mansi language as Manpupuner (‘Mountain of Idols’). The view of the towers is utterly enthralling and enchanting, almost menacing in their verticality compared with the low, ancient ridge; the seven giants standing silently, eternally, far in the distance beyond yet more of this terrible forest. Somehow this glimpsed vision of the giants expresses to my mind perfectly the mystery of these dark, endless expanses of northern Russia where they lurk, magnificent and unseen. I can well appreciate how in the past the native Mansi tribes revered the idols fearfully and forbade themselves from climbing their ridge.
The fourth day starts calmly beside the Ydzhydlyaga, before we re-enter the wearying forest; though after some hours the very faint path starts to climb, finally leaving the swamps. Here I get a surge of motivation and pass Alexander and our guides, keen to reach the ridgeline before it clouds over. I climb briskly beyond the treeline at about 600 metres elevation, topping the ridge at around 750 metres, a few hundred metres distant from the giants. The view is simply astounding and all the miserable slogging through the forest is quite forgotten. Here is one of the most singularly striking natural wonders I have ever seen, with the seven stone towers of Manpupuner perched on the treeless alpine tundra of the ridge, overlooking a veritable ocean of forest stretching to the northern and western horizons, punctuated only very distantly by the bare ridges of the Urals and absolutely devoid of any trace of human presence. This thankfully protected forest is part of the largest swath of primeval forest remaining in Europe today. To the south and east are more bare ridges, demarcating the notional border between Europe and Asia.
The rock formations themselves appear a dark, igneous grey but this is merely a thick covering of lichen covering the white, resistant schists from which they are made and which have weathered more slowly than the surrounding rock, leaving the seven towers between thirty and forty-two metres in height. I spend several hours around the rocks, enjoying them from all angles and looking out over the sea of forest. We rest at night in a recently constructed wooden hut (with the timber having been brought in by helicopter) and awake in the morning to low cloud and light rain, giving the giants a different, more brooding atmosphere without the expansive backdrop. Then begins the long return journey, retracing our route back for two days through the forest to the Ilych. Alexander and I often walk together and I feel that I get to know him quite deeply; a childhood marked by the relationship issues of his parents, an adolescent dream of visiting the US shattered upon finally visiting the country and finding a flimsy, commercialised reality. He also admits to being a womaniser, a pick-up artist and an assassin of aggressive feral dog packs in suburban Moscow. We return down-river, finally reaching Troitsko-Pechorsk and checking into a hotel, though I split with Alexander and take an overnight minibus back to Syktyvkar, saving more than a day compared to the sedate trundling of Russian Railways.
I reach Syktyvkar at around 04:30, though the sun is already up, giving an odd feeling of walking in daylight through a dormant city. After having breakfast with Isa and thanking her profusely for her early-morning hospitality, I collect the truck and begin the road journey broadly north-westwards towards the Arctic. After the exertions of the last few days it’s a great pleasure to be driving the truck again and comfortably watching the world go past my window. After back-tracking on the main road towards Kirov for just over a hundred kilometres, I turn westwards and soon enter Arkhangelsk Region, where the scenery starts to change subtly from the dense, flat taiga (boreal forest) of Komi to a slightly more settled landscape of gently rolling hills. In the sprawling and rather ugly logging town of Kotlas, once also a major locus of Stalin’s GULag network, I join the Northern Dvina River whose wide, coffee-coloured waters I cross on a bridge just west of town. I follow the Northern Dvina downstream on a road which is partly paved and partly well-graded gravel, passing villages of traditional wooden houses; some extremely pretty and well kept and others derelict and collapsing. I camp for the night near a junction with the busy M8 Highway, which I drive the following morning to the delta of the Northern Dvina, which I cross once more on a long, pot-holed Soviet bridge to enter the city of Arkhangelsk, the chief port of medieval Russia.
I’m hosted in Arkhangelsk by Vladimir, who I join for a late breakfast. I immediately find Vladimir a very likeable, laid-back character and he soon calls his friend Alexander who drives us forty-five kilometres to the formerly closed city of Severodvinsk. Parking at a small patch of coastal forest, we walk onto a wide, sandy beach with picnicking families and a groups of youths drinking beer around a parked car blaring out tawdry music. The view is surprisingly beautiful; of a wide, clean beach shelving very gently out into the calm waters of the White Sea in which people are swimming and paddling dinghies. It’s hard to believe we’re little more than two hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. Alexander takes us around Severodvinsk, stopping to peek across a small inlet to the nuclear submarine yard whose presence made the city firmly closed to all outsiders during the Soviet period, then into a pleasingly harmonious and uncrowded city centre of preserved Soviet architecture. I immediately warm to the atmosphere of Severodvinsk and we stay for dinner and beer, only returning to Arkhangelsk in the evening. Vladimir and I walk into the centre later in the evening, watching a beautiful pink sunset over the Northern Dvina at around 23:30, then heading into a bar for a few drinks and emerging at around 02:00 to a somewhat disorientating pinkish dawn light, with the sun rising just as we return to the apartment to sleep.
Whilst this region has been settled since the earliest times of Russian history it was not until the mid-sixteenth century that the British, unsuccessfully searching for the North-east Passage to China, inadvertently opened a trade route to Russia via the Northern Dvina. In 1584 Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) founded New Kholmogory, which would later become Arkhangelsk, Russia’s principal sea port, though one that was made inaccessible by ice for several months of each year. When Peter the Great defeated the Swedes in the Baltic and established Saint Petersburg in 1703, he realised his dream of giving Russia a year-round, ice-free port and Arkhangelsk rapidly declined in importance. Today, Arkhangelsk is directly connected by rail and highway to Moscow and is no backwater, but my overwhelming impression after a day touring the city with Vladimir is of neglect and lassitude. There are numerous damp, warped and subsiding pastel coloured wooden apartment buildings, some in a shockingly advanced state of decay and creaking Soviet infrastructure of potholed roads and bowed tram tracks. It is nevertheless a very likeable place, and I’m slightly sad when my time with Vladimir in this shabby old port draws to an close.
I leave Arkhangelsk and initially double back on the main highway towards Moscow, then join smaller, mostly unpaved roads which lead towards the Onega River. After several hours driving through the endless taiga, I reach the town of Plesetsk, connected to Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Once an ICBM launch site, today Plesetsk is used for occasional high-latitude satellite launches and I know that a launch is imminent, but no firm date has been published. I later find a Soyuz launch took place the following day. The road eventually crosses the Onega near the village of Sholokhovskaya. It’s late in the evening, twilight is slowly descending and I stop at what is a blissfully tranquil spot; on the one side is the pretty village perched on the riverbank, with a skyline dotted by ancient, slightly dilapidated wooden steeples and domes, whilst on the other, a fisherman silently punts a canoe across the wide, millpond water of the Onega, whose surface is only very faintly disturbed by the very light drizzle.
I find myself in the town of Kargopol the following morning which surprises me with its abundance of ancient churches; rather like a northern Suzdal, though totally devoid of tourists. Today a charming backwater, Kargopol is an ancient place and must once have been one of the northernmost settlements of the Slavs. With the opening of Arkhangelsk’s maritime trade route in the sixteenth century, Kargopol prospered as a staging post on the road from Moscow. The city’s fortunes also waned in parallel with Arkhangelsk’s, though like many of Russia’s most faded cities, it was also bypassed by the railway. All this makes me fall for Kargopol; a quiet, untouched slice of ancient Russia, and I spend several hours strolling and admiring numerous fine sixteenth to eighteenth century churches which spread along quiet streets roughly alongside the overgrown, grassy bank of the Onega.
At midday I begin a long drive, leaving Kargopol on an unsurfaced road heading westwards and entering the Republic of Karelia, the homeland of the Karelians who live on both sides of the Russia – Finland border. Karelia is subtly beautiful; a land of ancient forests and meadows dotted with small, wild lakes and neat villages. There is somehow something softer, more European about it than other parts of the north and I immediately warm to it. Like Arkhangelsk Region it is home to some fine pieces of wooden architecture and so despite the persistent rain, I stop in the village of Pyalma which sits almost on the shore of Lake Onega and has a quaintly miniature wooden chapel in a small graveyard. Late in the afternoon I join the main M10 Highway connecting Saint Petersburg with Murmansk on the Arctic Coast and drive steadily north as far as the Kem River, where I camp on the shores of a reservoir, watching an otter swimming on its back and later hearing an owl hoot in the trees directly above me.
I start early the next morning, driving the short distance through the town of Kem to the small port of Rabocheostrovsk where I park the truck and board a ferry out into the White Sea to the infamous Solovetsky Islands. It’s a perfectly clear, cloudless morning and the White Sea is an endless shimmering plain of liquid light. The ferry heads out into a seascape where deep blue sky meets deep blue sea and soon the low, sculpted form of the Solovetsky Archipelago appear in the distance.
The Solovetsky Islands have been centre of monasticism since the fifteenth century and the main island, where the ferry docks, is dominated by the massive, almost Cyclopean walls of Solovetsky Monastery. Now both an active monastery and a tourist attraction, this fortress on the White Sea has withstood the sieges, uprisings and invasions of the last few centuries of Russian history, but it is also an important landmark in perhaps the darkest period of Russian history. Under the Soviets, Solovetsky Monastery was liquidated in 1920 and the islands became a prison camp; the archetype of Stalin’s GULag which would enslave and murder many millions of Soviet citizens. After exploring the monastery and its surroundings, I walk along the beach and find a quiet spot, looking out to a greying sea. I’m no fan of the crowds of tourists and with only a day on the island and no means of transport other than walking, I lack the time required to fully explore the islands and once more feel slightly frustrated at the pace of the trip.
Back on the mainland, I spend the evening and much of the next day driving steadily north, first through Karelia, through a largely unpopulated wilderness of forests and small lakes. I stop at a roadside monument which marks the Arctic Circle at 65.56º North before driving on into Arctic territory for the first time in my life. Soon after, I enter Murmansk Region and cross a final inlet of the White Sea, pushing ever further north onto the root of the vast Kola Peninsula. Around the copper and mining city of Monchegorsk the Arctic wilderness is rudely interrupted by a localised ecological disaster zone of dead forest, but soon after the scars of the landscape heal and I’m back driving around pristine-looking lakes backed by low mountains still lightly flecked with last winter’s snow.
By mid afternoon I reach the regional capital, Murmansk, which with a population of around 300,000 is by far the largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle. Murmansk was also the last city founded in the Russia Empire, just two years before the October Revolution and was an important port during twentieth century conflicts, despite being set on an inlet relatively far from the ocean. I walk across the city and climb a small hill where the thirty-six metre high Alyosha Monument, a Soviet solider in a greatcoat with a rifle slung over his soldier overlooks Kola Bay; a piece of 1970s Soviet monumental concrete outdone in size only by ‘The Motherland Calls’ in Volgograd. I’m hosted in Murmansk for one sunlit night by Igor and Marina, a middle-aged couple who live in an apartment with their very excitable Dalmatian Bert. Above their kind hospitality I’m inspired by the couple who, despite being in their fifties, make road trips into neighbouring Finland (where they claim mosquito numbers are far more manageable) on a tandem bicycle, towing Bert along in a trailer.
I make another walking trip into Murmansk the following morning, this time to the city’s elegant twentieth century centre which I immediately like. Murmansk is a city which seems to me remarkable only for how ordinary it looks, with little to distinguish it from other Russia cities. Murmansk was the type of far-flung outpost which the USSR could support, but in today’s post Cold-War, market-driven economy, despite remaining an important centre for the Russian Navy and Air Force, it is a city in decline. Thankfully, this does not translate to obvious decay and dereliction, but instead means that Murmansk’s centre is unspoiled by ugly modern development, retaining a harmonious centre of grandiose civic architecture from the heyday of the Soviet Union. In fact, the damp, patinaed pastels of Murmansk are perhaps the best-preserved example of a Soviet city I can remember seeing since Minsk.
Wanting to see the Arctic coastline, I set off eastwards onto the Kola Peninsula in the afternoon, finally leaving the forests and entering the tundra; an undulating landscape of thick, spongy herbs which smell almost like the wormwood-steppes of Central Asia but which are full of bloodthirsty mosquitoes that emerge in clouds with each step I make onto the spongy flora underfoot. Turning north, I reach the coastline in the half-abandoned looking fishing town of Teriberka, beyond which I find a rough track down to the coast where I camp for another ‘night’. This is far from being the northernmost point of mainland Europe, but unlike Norway’s Nordkapp, the coast here is truly the edge of the Eurasian landmass, for there is nothing north of here but unbroken sea for 2,320 kilometres to the North Pole. In fact, walking down to the coast of the thrashing, steely-blue waters of the Barents Sea and looking out beyond the rose-pink headlands which bound Teriberka Bay, I can’t help but think of the Ancients whose world was flat and bounded by the huge, mythical River Ocean.
Teriberka marks the northernmost extent of the trip, and from here I will do some lengthy backtracking, starting with the road to Murmansk and then the highway back towards Karelia. I make a side trip through Apatity to Kirovsk on the edge of the Khibiny Mountains, but they are obscured with low cloud, making me return to the highway and turn east in Kandalaksha on the southern edge of the peninsula, which is known as the Tersky Coast. This coastline remains home to descendants of early Russian settlers known as Pomors who moved from The Novgorod Republic to the shores of the White Sea as early as the twelfth century, long before the rise of Moscow, and were generally engaged in fishing and other local enterprises rather than falling under the ownership of feudal landlords. I spend a whole day driving slowly along the Tersky Coast starting in thick forests around Umba, then descending to the beautiful shoreline and stopping in the village of Varzuga, located around twenty kilometres inland. Famed for its salmon-rich river, Varzuga dates from the late fifteenth century, making it perhaps the oldest settlement on the peninsula. It also feels wonderfully isolated, with just a few hundred inhabitants living in attractive wooden houses surrounding the fine, all-wooden Church of St Afanasy, which dates from the nineteenth century but was originally constructed by monks from the Solovetsky Islands in the fifteenth century.
Near Varzuga a four-wheel-drive track leads into the forest, becoming deep sand and emerging at the even smaller village of Kuzomen. Despite being located very nearly on the Arctic Circle, Kuzomen has the feel of a remote desert settlement with a main street of soft sand and wooden walkways for pedestrians. Neat wooden houses sit behind picket fences and horses roam the streets; perhaps more practical than wheeled vehicles for getting around. The village sits on an eight-kilometre bar of sand brought from the hinterland by the Varzuga River, which meets the White Sea here. The river is un-bridged and thus Kuzomen marks the end of the road; beyond is just roadless wilderness, curving around the coast of the peninsula all the way back to Teriberka. The scenery is magnificent and after driving a short distance in the sand I decide to camp for the night on the beach, just above the high water mark, watching an endlessly changing sky of subtly textured clouds as a sea squall makes its way ashore.
Returning along the coast I stop at a point on the beach where the pink volcanic bedrock has a seam of rich purple amethyst, a hint of the mineral riches found in Kola’s volcanic rock. Later I stop at some rocky coastal hills near Kandalaksha, from where the view across Kandalaksha Bay is unexpectedly mesmerising; a wide tapering bay of blue water between the rugged coasts of the peninsula and mainland, dotted with pristine forested islands, one of the most beautiful spots I can remember seeing in Europe. I take a very steep, rough track down to the bay to reach an intriguing Neolithic labyrinth whose function remains only speculative, but of which examples may be found at numerous sites around the White Sea. It’s another magnificent spot and so I decide to stay for the night, looking out towards the low, rolling hills of the mainland which are illuminated by the low rays of the night sun, their tops treeless and white with tundra. As midnight approaches the shadows creep slowly up the hillsides across the tranquil mirror of the White Sea, which reflects lances of cloud in a yellowing sky; a perfect final wild campsite in Russia.
It’s a seven-hundred kilometre drive south from Kandalaksha to Petrozavodsk, but I break the monotonous journey in the town of Belomorsk, another White Sea port from where one may reach the Solovetsky Islands. Nearby in a rocky forest clearing accessible only by foot is the Neolithic petroglyph site known as Zalavruga, where the pinkish gneisses are covered by expressive ancient rock art. The style is consistent with that found across Eurasia, but here there are also rich scenes of hunting moose and whales; perhaps my favourite is of twelve men paddling in a boat, poised with bent knees, pursuing a harpooned white whale; a fascinating insight into Neolithic culture. I reach Petrozavodsk, the Karelian capital in the evening where I am hosted by Anton, who lives with his girlfriend and two sons. Anton is an architect and a talented photographer and explains to me that he has ‘some problems with his passport’ and therefore only travels in Russia; something he has done quite thoroughly to destinations as far flung as Wrangel Island, where the very last mammoths would have roamed at roughly the same time that the petroglyphs at Zalavruga were being carved.
Petrozavodsk sits on the shores of Lake Onega, the second largest in Europe and I make a tourist trip the next day on a green Soviet Kometa hydrofoil to the museum island of Kizhi. There were once several villages located on the small island, notable for their beautiful wooden churches. Today the entire island is a museum, centred around the two highly distinctive eighteenth century wooden churches (one with twenty-two domes and the other with nine) which together are known as Kizhi Pogost. Elsewhere around the island are a number of other churches transplanted from across Karelia, as well as several large Karelian wooden farmhouses showing how peasant families lived here; in surprisingly good conditions if the preserved and period-decorated rooms are to be believed. It’s hardly an adventurous destination but the walk is very pleasant and free from mosquitoes for once and with beautiful views of a gathering storm out across the beautiful blue waters of the lake.
Back in the capital I spend another day strolling and find Petrozavodsk to be a very pleasant, if not particularly interesting city. Like much of Karelia it feels slightly more westernised than much of Russia with some nice real-estate; tree-lined streets of good-looking apartment buildings, though very little pre-dates the Second World War. It feels like a particularly liveable city and I decide that it would most likely be my pick of Russia’s European cities in which to live.
After two relaxing days in Petrozavodsk, I start the final trip south, leaving the forested northern wilderness and driving just south of Lake Ladoga towards Saint Petersburg. I make one last stop in the town of Staraya Ladoga a few kilometres off the main road. Occupying a grassy bank of the Volkhov River, Staraya Ladoga was one of Russia’s oldest cities, located on a trade route between Scandinavia and the Middle East and according to legend was founded by Rurik, the first Varangian (Viking) leader of ancient Rus’. Today there is a rather obviously restored kreml (fortress), two old churches and even an ancient burial tumulus attributed to Oleg of Novgorod, a close relative of Rurik, but somehow the place has the air of histrionics about it and lacks in authenticity, with a colourful recent mosaic of the legendary Varangians leaving the most lasting impression upon me.
I turn south well before Saint Petersburg but get caught up in the furious Friday afternoon traffic heading out of the city; a miserable spectacle of reckless speeding through small towns and villages which I find wearying. Just after midnight I pass through Pskov, thus for a second time passing one of European Russia’s nicest cities unfortunately without stopping. In the early hours of the morning I slip out of Russia, thus ending my 2015 journey.
I greatly appreciate the luxury of being able to take eight weeks of holiday from my job, but at the same time I realise that the trip, with its defined time constraints, has been fundamentally different from my previous, long-term travels. Nevertheless, making this trip to the edges of European Russia has shown me yet more sides to this ever-fascinating country, but I am also conscious that winter, with frozen swamps and not a single mosquito, is the time to really explore the Russian North. And such are the beginnings in my mind of a very ambitious trip to cross Russia to the Pacific Ocean in Magadan and then return in winter; a trip for which I will need a different vehicle and a lot of research and preparation.
I stop the next day with my old friend Maciej in Gdansk, then after a swelteringly hot rest day drinking beer and catching up in his apartment, make the final drive across Germany and back to base on the 7th July 2015, where I must slip back into my odd corporate double-life and begin planning and preparation for the next Russian adventure.
Russia has fascinated me since I made my very first visit to the country in June 2007, at the very start of this Odyssey. Its huge territory presents almost limitless opportunities for exploration in wild, pristine and sparsely populated environments which stretch from the borders of the EU to the Pacific Ocean. The Russian people are also a great draw for me; free-spirited, highly cultured and intrinsically welcoming, a pleasant juxtaposition of European and Asian qualities and a fascinating mix of races from across Eurasia. Russia is a country which offers a scale of travel and a depth of immersion which in my experience is unmatched. Having made more than ten individual trips to Russia, mostly in 2010-11, I had plenty of experience of the country, yet I craved for more; specifically to make journeys to the far north and later far east (and back); journeys which would occupy the next four years of my free time.
The first of these would be the main focus of my 2015 journey. After entering the far south of Russia from Azerbaijan, this stage would take me right across European Russia to its eastern boundary in the vast wilderness of the North Urals, then north to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Between these natural boundaries I would stop in some of Russia’s most ancient cities, before turning my attention to the beautiful landscapes and twenty-four-hour daylight of the country’s far north and completing a completing a ten thousand kilometre journey across Russia’s European heartland on the Estonian border.
On the 25th May 2015 I cross the Samur River and after a friendly but rather lengthy process at customs, I start my trip across Russia in the Republic of Dagestan, one of my very favourite parts of the country. I pass the glorious Sassanian-Persian Naryn Kala Fortress above Derbent and arrive in the capital Makhachkala in the early evening, to a warm welcome from my old friend Bagdat, with whom I had stayed on my first visit to the region in 2010. The transmission of the truck has been making ominous noises ever since entering Turkey and so I decide to take it to a mechanic, where it is diagnosed with a worn clutch disc. Though the underlying reason seems to be general wear in the transmission, something which cannot be quickly rectified here, a new clutch disc will make a temporary cure. With the help of Zaur, whom I befriend at an auto parts store, a new clutch is quickly flown down from Moscow, being carried for a small fee by a passenger using an efficient system which is typical of the pragmatic approach Russians take to solving problems, a breath of fresh air coming from over-regulated Western Europe.
Whilst waiting for the clutch disc to arrive, I spend a few days in Makhachkala, which is an interesting blend of ancient Asian tradition and modern Russia; where I can sit with Bagdat’s cousin and two of his friends knocking back vodka while veiled women pass in the street outside. Makhachkala, and Dagestan as a whole, has become much safer since my last visit (when I witnessed a long gun battle in the streets) thanks to the ‘liquidation’ of many militants in security operations before the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi, and a general exodus of others to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq. I hang out at the National Museum, where Bagdat works, and once again enjoy the company of his colleagues; wisened older men who lived their lives in the Soviet Union and wear their different national identities distinctly but lightly; another feature of Dagestan which I find rather endearing. There’s Magomed, a chain-smoking engineer, one of the museum’s craftsmen, with his love of the Beatles and all things German, and Temur, who with obvious tragedy and a touch of apprehension from his colleagues tells me that his two sons disappeared three years ago after quitting their jobs and getting involved ‘in something’. Both seem finely tuned to the museum’s old workshops and their rather frustrated intellect and camaraderie reminds me strongly of the descriptions of the Moscow sharashka in Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle.
Soon enough it’s time for me to move on; to say farewell to the gentlemen in the museum, thank Zaur for his help in finding a new clutch disc so quickly, to thank Bagdat and his mother for their generous hospitality, and begin a long journey northwards. I drive roughly parallel to the coast, initially re-tracing the route I took in 2010, but just past the brandy producing town of Kizlyar I turn westwards onto a quiet provincial road across the flat pre-Caspian steppe, passing through the outpost town of Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk and then crossing into Stavropol Territory where the land abruptly improves and I find myself passing small but prosperous looking farming communities; I am back in Russia proper. Just beyond the town of Neftekumsk I stop for the night, but my hopes of spending a cool night on the back of the truck sleeping under a star-filled sky are dashed by the numerous mosquitoes which buzz all around me as soon as I step out of the car; an annoyance which will become ever worse as I move northwards.
In the town of Budyonnovsk I turn northwards once more through huge fields on a road lined by flowering trees and I’m impressed by the scale of agriculture which seems to be thriving here in Russia’s southern steppes. As I reach the Kalmykia Republic the quality of the land deteriorates once more and I’m again struck by the heavy set faces of the Kalmyks, an unexpected sight in what still seems like provincial Europe. In the afternoon I stop in Volgodonsk, a pleasant-looking small town located well away from any major highway and where little appears to have changed since Soviet times. The city is located on the southern edge of the Tsimlyansk Reservoir on the Don River, at the northern end of which starts the Volga-Don Canal which links the two great rivers of European Russia and thus the Caspian and Black Seas and also gives Volgodonsk its name. In a territory as large as Russia, rivers have always been a key means both for control and communications, and for trade, and it was along the rivers that the early Varangian (Viking) controlled state of Rus’ was established in the ninth century, operating the Volga Trade Route which connected northern Europe to the Caucasus and even Abbasid Baghdad.
On my way out of town, I stop at the Don River and watch a ship passing through an ornate, Stalinist-era lock, part of the Volga-Don Canal system, before continuing my northward journey on a small back-road eventually joining the M21, which I take briefly before turning north once more in Surovikino and soon stopping to camp, again having to take refuge in the car from the voracious mosquitoes. The following day, I re-cross the Don in Serafimovich and notice an immediate change in the landscape; from the endless rolling farmland of southern Russia, dotted only occasionally by small villages beyond the fields, to a more varied landscape with small stands of pine forest, sandier soil and linear villages of pretty wooden houses lining the road.
Despite this change, I am still in an area outside of the ancient heartland of Russia, an area which even after the withdrawal of the Golden Horde in the fifteenth century, was a frontier region used by raiding groups of Crimean Tatars and Nogays who would prey on the southern flanks of the country. After joining the busy M6, I stop in the afternoon in Tambov, a city established in the seventeenth century as border fortress against Tatar raids, later to become a provincial trade centre. I’m hosted in Tambov by Olga, a photographer who lives with her brother, and who takes me out in her car for a tour of the city. Tambov is a pleasant place, far enough from Moscow to retain a pleasant provincial atmosphere, but with sufficient infrastructure to avoid being a neglected backwater. We drive around taking in the city’s modest sights until we reach the central square with its Eternal Flame Monument to those killed in the Great Patriotic War, when a roiling mass of black cloud suddenly breaks into a heavy summer storm.
Tambov is around 450 kilometres south-east of Moscow, a city which emerged from the chaos of the thirteenth century Mongol invasion to later become the centre of a new Russian state, and remains by far the most important city in modern Russia. I however head northwards on small roads towards some of Russia’s oldest cities, glad to avoid Moscow’s wearying sprawl and traffic by doing so. I pass through faded small towns and depopulated villages, often with old churches still in ruin after the neglect of the Soviet period, their whitewash and plaster slowly peeling away to leave a damp brick shell. I cross the wide, slow Oka River and stumble by accident into the beautiful small town of Kasimov, with a charming unmodernised centre whose main street runs straight to the large nineteenth century Assumption Cathedral. Later in the afternoon I stop in Murom, one of the very oldest cities of Russia, first listed in the Primary Chronicles, the earliest history of the Eastern Slavs, in 862 CE.
Murom harks back to the times of Kievan Rus’, when it is believed that Varangians (Vikings) from what is now Sweden came to rule over the Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples of northern-western Russia, soon integrating and spreading southwards to Kiev. There they would establish Kievan Rus’, the first Eastern Slavic state, a loose federation of principalities such as Murom, which would last until the Mongol invasion. Culturally, Kievan Rus’ is the ancestor of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus however, the origins of the modern Russian state are very much Moscow-centric with only distant connections to pre-Mongol Kievan Rus’. Murom is interesting for having been on the eastern-most frontier of Kievan Rus’, a border with the uncharted territory of the native Finno-Ugric tribes, locally the Muromians. Today Murom is a pleasant enough provincial town, though following heavy destruction in Soviet times, there is scant evidence of its historical importance and I’m soon driving out of town to spend another night camping in the truck to avoid the voracious mosquitoes.
In the morning I pass through the regional capital of Vladimir, which I regard as one of Russia’s most beautiful cities, but stop only in the adjacent village of Bogolyubovo. Here, well beyond the heavy traffic of one of the country’s main highways, alone in the swampy fields along the Nerl River is the twelfth century Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. Elegantly slender, with the beautiful proportions of an early, strongly Byzantine-influenced cross church, but crowned with the later addition of a traditionally Russian onion dome, the Church of the Intercession ranks immediately alongside the similar Cathedral of Saint Demetrius in Vladimir, which I visited on a snowy December morning four and a half years ago, as one of my favourite pieces of Russian architecture. The immediate surroundings of the church, a wild, unkempt grassy landscape of ox-bow lakes and willow trees makes for what to me is an almost perfectly Russian scene.
I’ve entered the region known historically as Zalesye, which came to prominence in the twelfth century following the decentralisation and decline of Kievan Rus’. The name ‘Zalesye’ literally means ‘beyond the forest’, referring to the swathe of forest which separated it from the other successor states such as the Republic of Novgorod to the north-west, or those further south around the Don. Once the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, today it’s a beguiling region with small farming villages built around ancient whitewashed churches. Amongst the rolling fields are towns such as Yuryev-Polsky; clearly once of some importance but now a real backwater and those which have managed to fare a little better into modernity, such as Pereslavl-Zalessky, where I make my next stop. Located on another major highway, Pereslavl-Zalessky is busy with Muscovite tourists who come to enjoy the town’s historic atmosphere and location on the shores of Lake Pleshcheyevo. It was here that one of Russia’s greatest heroes was born in 1221; Alexander Nevsky, who would lead the country through wars with western invaders and eventually submit to the Mongols of the Golden Horde, preserving medieval Russia; something for which he was canonised in the sixteenth century by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nevsky’s youngest son Daniel would go on to found the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the late thirteenth century; transforming it into the city which would forever eclipse these more ancient cities of the early principalities of Rus’.
Not far north from Pereslavl-Zalessky is the very ancient city of Rostov which, like Murom is among the oldest in the Russian heartland, having first been mentioned in 862 CE, but which is much more attractive and is perhaps my favourite in the region. I stop outside the large brick kremlin (fortress) and walk to the shore of Lake Nero, where I’m greeted by a vista of exquisite beauty in this seemingly endless landscape of grass, lakes and hills. It’s a scene which so perfectly encapsulates rural European Russia; understated, timeless, unspectacular though soul-stirringly beautiful; a live view of a Russian watercolour looking across the limpid waters of the lake towards the silhouetted domes of the Monastery of Saint Jacob and the low, rolling folds of Russia beyond. Rostov’s seventeenth century Kremlin is exotically beautiful, almost kitsch in its fairytale proportions; a picture-book image of onion domes and (largely decorative) defensive towers which stand over the the city’s quiet streets and still-active trading arches, all giving Rostov a very pleasant small-town atmosphere.
I stop for the evening in Ivanovo which, unlike its neighbours, is a city lacking any historical allure; a city of textile factories fallen on hard times and capital of a region which is very nearly the poorest in the entire country. The following day I drive north and in the picturesque town of Plyos, famous as the retreat of Russian landscape painter Isaac Levitan, I meet the greatest river of the Russian heartland; the Volga. Together with the Don and Dnieper, these three rivers are of great importance in Russian history; firstly as the very conduit along which the nation was established and later as a means to connect and control a large, sparsely populated territory. I drive up the Volga, stopping next in the city of Kostroma, which sits on the mighty river’s left bank. On the edge of town, sitting beyond the wide junction of the Kostroma River with the Volga lies the fourteenth century Ipatievsky Monastery, an important landmark in Russian history. It was here, in 1613, during an interregnum of foreign domination and famine known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ following the demise of the Rurikid Dynasty (descendants from the original Varangian rulers of Rus’) that the first Romanov King, Mikhail was crowned, seeding the royal line which would transform Russia into an empire and rule the country until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Kostroma has a delightful, preserved eighteenth and nineteenth century city centre radiating out on spokes from the central Susanin Square, named for a semi-legendary martyr who is said to have refused to reveal the hiding place of Tsar Mikhail to the Polish-Lithuanian occupiers of Russia at the time and was tortured to death in punishment. Amongst the grandiose, pastel-coloured administrative buildings are a distinctive fire-watch tower and a very nicely preserved, though rather quiet, example of city trading arches; a typically Russian marketplace which has often disappeared in Russian cities. I spend the day strolling around Kostroma; visiting an art museum, then walking down through a shady park to the river. It’s a perfect early summer day and whilst a few weeks ago the last dirty remains of the winter snow would have been lying around, now the city is at its most beautiful with all plants in bloom and people out in the streets. The temperature is in the mid-twenties and the sky is a cloudless deep-blue for the whole day; the start of the long, wonderful Russian summer. Down on the Volga, locals are enjoying the weather on a sandy riverbank, an excellent inland beach, where one can lie in the sand as the Volga slowly moves past on its way to the Caspian and feel quite detached from the stream of traffic crossing the city’s road bridge from the south. By late afternoon I am slightly regretting having to leave, feeling that Kostroma is one of Russia’s nicest cities.
It’s not far from Kostroma to Yaroslavl, my next stop on the Volga. Founded as part of Vladimir-Suzdal, then becoming capital of its own principality, before being merged into the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the fifteenth century, Yaroslavl is the largest of the ancient cities lying to the north-east of Moscow, in an area (incorporating Zalesye) known as the Golden Ring. I’m hosted in the city by Roman, a local small businessman who works from home and who shows me the UNESCO World Heritage-listed centre of the city after dark. Yaroslavl has a centre filled with parks and churches but, perhaps due to its greater size, does not quite have the harmonious feel of Kostroma. I spend all of the following day strolling in Yaroslavl, visiting a wealth of churches, most spectacularly the Church Of Saint Elijah The Prophet, which sits in a large square and has a distinctive tent-style steeple and wonderful frescoes. What I most enjoy finding in Yaroslavl however is something in my experience very unusual in Russia. On the Volga Embankment is a tranquil, tree-lined street of tall beech trees and quality housing; not choked with traffic or filled with the vulgar black SUVs of local ‘biznesmen’ who ruin the area with crass cafes and boutique shops. Here instead is a slice of European sensibility; a genuinely pleasant, liveable centre to the city, with the cupolas of various churches visible in the gaps between elegant apartment buildings.
From Yaroslavl I continue up the Volga as far as the pretty city of Rybinsk, where I drive across the Volga on an attractive iron bridge and turn north. Here, driving along the bank of a large reservoir on the Volga, the landscape changes noticeably; gone are the fields and ancient cities of the Golden Ring region, replaced by dense forest, lakes and villages of wooden houses; I am beginning to enter the wilds of the Russian North. It’s a very tranquil and pleasant drive, though in the afternoon I find myself passing through the noxious city of Cherepovets where the air is so polluted with industrial fumes that I have to wind up my windows whilst stuck in traffic. It’s not long however before I’m back on a minor road, heading north through more forests and swamps and occasional fields, towards the ancient city of Belozersk which I explore in the morning after a night camping. Belozersk is, along with Murom and Rostov, one of the oldest cities in the Russian heartland, having also first been mentioned in 862 CE, but feels far removed from its contemporaries. Now effectively a large village with a feeling of being rather distant from central Russia and with a slight air of timelessness, I immediately like the place. Especially fine is the view from an ancient settlement mound across the rooftops of Belozersk towards the misleadingly named ‘White Lake’ whose waters are a tannin-rich, dark, reddish-brown; a sure sign of having entered the North.
After a walk along the lake-shore, whose sandy beach is scattered with driftwood, watching distant ships crossing the lake, which is part of the Volga-Baltic waterway, I head east on an unsurfaced road, taking a free ferry across a narrow reservoir to the town of Kirillov. Soon after coming under the control of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the end of the fourteenth century, these remote northern territories of the Russian heartland became a refuge for monasticism, and their remoteness has seen them escape many of the ravages of Russian history. The first of two monasteries is the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Kirillov itself, picturesquely set on the banks of Lake Siverskoye and notable for its huge defensive walls with distinctive towers. A few kilometres away in the village of Ferapontovo is the second, Ferapontov Monastery which is less architecturally vibrant than Kirillov, but contains a collection of magnificent frescoes. Painted by the Russian master Dionisius in 1495-96 and quite staggeringly complete and unmolested, the frescoes cover every wall and roof in the interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity, making it the last medieval church in Russia with intact frescoes.
In the late afternoon I drive to the regional capital of Vologda, where I am hosted by Sveta, who lives alone and works as a theatre set designer. Vologda became rich during the sixteenth century, based on passing trade between Moscow and the port of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea, which for a long time was Russia’s main sea port. With the establishment of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic coast in the eighteenth century, much of this trade was diverted and Vologda declined. With improvement in infrastructure however, the city’s fortunes later recovered somewhat and around the central Cathedral Square Sveta shows me several fine examples of coloured wooden merchants’ houses with finely carved decorative window frames known as nalichniki. Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, Vologda was Russia’s diplomatic capital, away from the ravages of the First World War, and it is perhaps for this reason that the city received one of the very first statues of Lenin, in 1925, which still stands. Unlike any other of the many Lenin statues I have seen, here Lenin is life-sized, showing just how small he was.
From Vologda it’s a long drive east towards the Urals, passing a swathe of very sparsely populated territory, rather forlorn-looking villages and towns dependent on the timber industry, using a road which in places is newly built and at one point swarmed by hornets, making me keep the windows shut and suffer the summer heat. It’s well after dark when I reach my next destination; the city of Kirov, where I am hosted by Zhenya, who calls himself Jack in English. Jack is one of a community of low-budget Russian travellers who return to Russia only for long enough to scrape together a little money doing informal work, before taking the road once more on long journeys hitch-hiking, camping, Couchsurfing and trying to make a little money in order to extend their travels for as long as possible.
Kirov feels again different from any of the cities I have recently visited; a large, mostly unattractive industrial city which feels a long way from anywhere else and was indeed historically a place of exile. Known formerly as Khlynov, then Vyatka, the city was renamed in honour of Bolshevik leader Sergey Kirov, who was born in the town of Urzhum south of Vyatka and murdered (in Leningrad) in 1934. Kirov was the human face of Bolshevism; a charming, handsome man amongst ruthless (often criminal) contemporaries. Whilst there is no concrete evidence, it is likely that Kirov was murdered by the most ruthless of the Bolsheviks, Stalin, who saw Kirov’s popularity as a threat. Allegedly a close friend, Stalin publicly mourned Kirov’s tragic death with great fanfare and used the event to set off his Great Purge of the Bolshevik Party, staging show trials which swept up hundreds of thousands of Soviet Citizens on flimsy or absurd charges, to be incarcerated or summarily executed. Poor Kirov still stands beaming benignly on his plaque; a monument to one of the darkest periods in Russian history, a tragedy which sits rather awkwardly in modern Russia, with many deliberately trying to forget or wilfully deny the dark events of Stalin’s rule, while the tyrant is slowly being rehabilitated by the current regime.
From Kirov it’s another long drive, this time north into the forested wilderness of the Komi Republic where I stop in the low-rise capital Syktyvkar. I’m hosted in Syktyvkar by Isa, who is delighted to have a guest in such a far-flung spot and introduces me to a number of her friends. My reason for stopping in the city is however to put the truck in a secure car park and prepare myself for a journey to the remote primeval forests of the North Urals.
My journey to this outpost in the taiga has taken me across much of European Russia, across the most ancient heartland of the country, through some of the country’s most pleasant cities. From here however the nature of my journey will change slightly, as I start to explore the great northern wilderness, up to the Arctic Circle and Barents Sea.
Upon returning to the UK back in November 2014, I had put the truck in storage and within days was flying to start a new job, my first in almost eight years. Although this necessitated basing myself a singularly charmless part of northwestern Europe, the job as a geoscientist for a large energy company offered the possibility of relocating internationally in the future and, of course, a chance to replenish my bank balance after years of travelling. Most appealing in the short term however, were the generous holidays and so after less than six months in the position, I was able to use my annual leave to make a trip of almost nine weeks, focussing on a return to Russia to make a south-to-north journey across the country. After taking the truck out of storage, I departed from the office car park on the afternoon of the 8th May 2015, stopping with my cousin in Jena, Germany, then continuing the next evening, roughly retracing my route from November of the previous year to the Turkish border.
This first stage of my 2015 journey would take me rapidly across northern Turkey, weaving between the dramatically beautiful Black Sea coastline and the rugged interior of northern Anatolia. Then, from the striking mountains of Turkey’s north-east, once part of an ancient Georgian kingdom, I would enter Georgia, climbing from the Black Sea to drive across the country into Azerbaijan and on to the shores of the Caspian from where, after a brief trip into the eastern Caucasus, I would enter Russia.
I cross the Turkish border at Kapikule on the afternoon of the 11th May 2015, driving across the rolling landscape of Thrace towards the bottleneck that is Istanbul. I’m sucked into the fast-moving traffic of the city’s sprawling western suburbs where I make good progress towards the centre but miss a critical turn which would have taken me to the ferry port in Sirkeci, and instead get lost in heavy traffic just north of the centre. I make my way into the gridlock approaching the Bosphorus Bridge, and emerging some time later on the city’s Asian side, become lost again in the back-streets of Kadıköy until I realise that the name ‘Çevreyolu’ refers to the main road I have been searching for rather than a city unmarked on my maps, and finally exit Istanbul late in the evening, heading east into Anatolia.
On the following day, the road takes me through beautiful forested hills, passing the turning south to the capital, then leaving the main highway to stop in the beautiful town of Safranbolu, which nestles in a small gorge and has a preserved centre of white-washed Ottoman-era houses with wooden window frames and terracotta-tiled roofs. Safranbolu is something of a tourist town, popular mostly with domestic tourists, but it’s out of season and with the pleasant warmth of early summer and cloudless deep blue skies, it makes a wonderful place to stop and rediscover one’s senses after months of appalling weather in the blandness of Western Europe.
From Safranbolu I drive north, crossing the rolling slopes of the Pontic Mountains which are richly covered in dark pine forest with contrasting patches of bright lime-green from beech trees newly in leaf. Perched on some of these slopes are rustic half-timbered houses above small clearings and villages where time passes slowly; where the elderly sit under shady trees and dogs doze at the roadside. I join the D010, the coastal highway, and above the town of Amasra get my first dazzling view of the Black Sea. I stop for a moment at the Kuşkayası Monument, hewn in the first century CE from the native limestone and consisting of a now headless Roman eagle and headless Roman figure who may have been the emperor or provincial governor.
Having long been cut off from the interior by the Pontic Mountains, with access far easier by sea than by land, the Black Sea Coast has a history somewhat distinct from the rest of Anatolia. A prehistoric crossroads between the Mediterranean world, the Eurasian Steppe and the Caucasus, the earliest history comes from the Greeks, who named it the Euxine or ‘hospitable’ sea and settled what is now the north coast of Turkey starting in the early first millennium BCE. These coastal colonies of the Ionian Greeks (centred on what is now Turkey’s Aegean Coast) would become part of local kingdoms; Bithynia in the west and Pontus in the east, spreading around the coasts of what is now Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. In the first century BCE these were combined and incorporated into the Roman province of Bithynia and Pontus, and it is from this period that the Kuşkayası Monument dates.
Amasra is a charming small town whose harbour is surrounded by Byzantine and Genoese fortifications, but I stop only for a brief walk before continuing eastwards. The coastal highway is stunningly beautiful, at times narrow where it hugs the cliff-tops with views along indented bays, then dropping down to quiet seaside towns such as Cide, with its long, empty pebble beach at the foot of a dramatic coastline. Further east, the road climbs once more into the fragrant forest of the mountains’ lower slopes, giving magnificent views over the gleaming turquoise of the Black Sea, which here I find even more picturesque than the usually deforested coastline of the Mediterranean. After an overnight stay in the town of Ayancık, on the following morning I reach the small city of Sinop, located on a large headland forming the northern-most point of the coastline.
Sinope was founded as a Greek colony in approximately the seventh century BCE and would go on to become one of the capitals of the pre-Roman Kingdom of Pontus, ruled by the Persian Mithridatic Dynasty who are thought to have descended from the Achaemenids. Somewhat larger than Amasra, I find Sinop an immediately likeable place with its compact, walled centre and beautiful harbour, gently busy with fishing boats and with a magnificent view back towards the emerald-coloured mainland as a backdrop. In the afternoon I drive inland, through a winding valley dotted with rice paddies and brush-like poplar trees, climbing to the city of Amasya. Also a capital of Pontus, and birthplace of the Greek geographer Strabo, unlike Sinop, Amasya was a place of importance well into Ottoman times. Situated on the banks of the Yeşilırmak River in a scene which reminds me somehow of Kabul, Amasya retains an elegant, if slightly over-restored river-front of Ottoman houses. Above this rise almost sheer cliffs which in the third and second centuries BCE were carved into the necropolis of the Pontic royal family, in a tradition similar (though less elaborate) to their Achaemenid forebears in central Iran.
I drive initially east from Amasya, then turn north and cross the Pontic Mountains once more via the Eğribel Pass, where in places there is still more than a metre of snow along the road-side, dropping through a steep limestone gorge and more thickly forested mountains, down to the coast just east of Giresun. This eastern stretch of the Black Sea Coast is very much more developed than that which I have passed through so far, and the coastline less attractive, but the views eastwards towards the snow-capped mountains near the Georgian border are captivating.
By late afternoon I reach the city of Trabzon, the most famous of Turkey’s Black Sea cities. Also founded by Greek colonists in the eighth century BCE, the city’s heyday would come long after, as seat of the Empire of Trebizond, a successor state of the Byzantine Empire following the disastrous sacking of Constantinople by the Latin (Roman Catholic) Fourth Crusade in 1204. Later in the thirteenth century Trebizond would become fantastically wealthy as a result of trade routes across Anatolia being pushed northwards by the Mongols, with Venetian and Genoese merchants (such as Marco Polo) receiving goods from the Silk Road in the city’s port. Trebizond was a place of luxury and high culture; an oasis with a mainly Christian population in the Turkish heartland of Anatolia until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1461, who in overthrowing Trebizond, put an end to the Byzantine Empire and a tradition which had started with the Romans almost 1500 years earlier.
There are few outward signs of this historical richness in modern Trabzon, but in a park planted with palm trees at the side of the coastal highway one finds the thirteenth century Hagia Sophia Church, far more restrained than its namesake in Constantinople but nevertheless a beautiful piece of late Byzantine architecture with well restored frescoes, thankfully still on display despite the church recently being controversially reinstated as an active mosque. Following the Ottoman takeover, Trabzon’s Pontic Greek community slowly declined as a result of voluntary emigration and conversion. Imperial Russia, which had long coveted the southern coast of the Black Sea, launched numerous wars with Ottoman Turkey in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the region’s Christian population frequently supported the invading Russians. These actions no doubt contributed to the atrocities committed against Christians in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire, with Trabzon witnessing the deportation and genocide of Greek and Armenian populations as part of a greater tragedy which was replayed all across central and eastern Turkey.
The Pontic Mountains have been a refuge for monastic Christianity since the beginning of the Byzantine period, and I stop on my way south at the gorgeously located Sumela Monastery, said to date originally from the fourth century, which clings iconically to an almost sheer cliff in a steep, forested valley of the Pontic Mountains. To my dismay, the approach to the monastery is thronging with tourists, to the point where I consider leaving, but I persevere. Entering the inner courtyard of the monastery, behind the facade of the dormitory and refectory which are visible from the valley below, one enters a small courtyard in the shadow of the overhanging cliffs, out of which the original Rock Church has been partly carved. Both exterior and interior of the Rock Church are densely covered in frescoes, including a huge Christ Pantocrator on the cave-ceiling within, though there is plenty of evidence of vandalism and graffiti (much of it in Greek script) dating from after the monastery was abandoned in 1923 upon the deportation of the Greek population.
Leaving Sumela, I continue inland, crossing the Zigana Pass and driving south-eastwards into the mountains and treeless steppe of the interior, towards the city of Erzurum. Despite years of overland travel in Eurasia, this is my first visit to a city which lies firmly on the Great Eurasian Overland, lying on the main route between Istanbul and Tabriz. I’d long imagined that Erzurum to be another bland and shambolic Kurdish city, but I soon find this to be quite wrong. I’m hosted by Ahmet, a Kurdish student who introduces me to a group of his friends, who take me out to eat the city’s famous Cağ Kebab, a horizontally rotating Döner Kebab which apparently originates from Erzurum. We then walk briefly around the city centre before retiring to a low-ceilinged tea house, where we recline on cushions for all-male conversation in an atmosphere thick with tobacco smoke.
Erzurum is located on a windswept grassy plain flanked to the north and south by rows of snow-capped mountains and feels somewhat depopulated, with what appears once to have been the centre now mostly a collapsing expanse of old buildings, derelict or half-demolished, surrounded by a jumble of bland modern apartment blocks. In amongst this however are a clutch of glorious medieval monuments, such as the imposing bulk of the fourteenth century Yakutiye Madrasa dating from Ilkhanid times, which manages to juxtapose brutal, militaristic bulk with fine and intricate decorative detail. Inside the former seminary, now an art museum, the stonework is magnificent with graceful stone arches and an ocular skylight surrounded by finely carved muqarnas (corbels).
Driving north out of Erzurum, one crosses a high grassland plain grazed by cattle and backed by snow-streaked mountains, a beautiful scene which must have stirred the souls of the nomadic Turks and Mongols who arrived here from the steppes of Central Asia and made Erzurum their home. Soon after crossing a low pass the landscape changes dramatically to the steep rocky valley of the Tortum River, planted with walnuts and poplars and irrigated by milky glacial streams. This also marks what was historically a cultural boundary, into a region which is regarded as an ancestral homeland by the Georgians. These valleys of north-eastern Turkey were part of the ancient Georgian Kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis, which would become part of the Achaemenid, Roman, Byzantine, Sassanian and Arab Empires. It was in this region north of Erzurum, then the Principality of Tao-Klarjeti, that the roots of a unified Georgian state would emerge in the early ninth century CE. It was here that the Bagratid Dynasty (who also contributed leaders to the Armenian line) established a Georgian prince, the descendants of whom would oversee a cultural flourishing of Tao-Klarjeti in the late tenth century, then in 1008 under Bagrat III the establishment of the first unified Georgian state and an end to centuries of power struggles.
Today the remains of this cultural high period of Tao-Klarjeti, built during the reign of King David III in the tenth century lie in various states of ruin in these beautiful valleys of the southern Pontic Mountains. I start by visiting the large and well preserved church of Khakuli, now a mosque, in whose cold interior I listen to a man reciting verses from the Quran. Nearby, the even larger but ruined cathedral of Oshki stands in the middle of the village of Çamlıyamaç, its broken roof allowing in alternating rain showers and shafts of sunlight to illuminate its exquisite stonework. Further north, above the Oltu Valley is the church of Ishkhani, but its clumsy restoration by Turkish authorities has rather robbed it of both poignant dereliction and its original grace. The fourth and final church which I visit is however my favourite; situated further to the east in the Çoruh Valley, reached up a steep unpaved road beyond the village of Dörtkilise, the monastery of Otkhta sits in dignified ruin seemingly almost consumed by burgeoning spring-time vegetation like a Christian Angkor Wat, sitting alone among a few garden plots and vertical scenery. The interior of Otkhta, whose walls retain traces of frescoes, bears the definite smell of livestock and its a rather ignominious fate for such a glorious building, but such is the history of cultural decline across much of eastern Turkey. As the balance of power shifted around the borders of medieval Georgia, it would become once more fractured and a vassal of regional empires in the fifteenth century. The region of Tao-Klarjeti would be absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in 1545 and aside from a forty-year period of Russia rule, would stay under Muslim rule until the present day.
I spend the night next to Otkhta, and in the morning continue along the beautiful Çoruh Valley, dotted with ruins of ancient Georgian castles. Turning north just after İspir I climb into a winter landscape of blinding white snow, crossing the 2650 metre Ovit Pass and descending through the beautiful İkizdere Valley, where villages of wooden houses cling to the steep grassy mountainsides, then descend to the balmy warmth of the coast through striking, lime-green tea plantations near Rize, where I turn eastwards once more towards the Georgian border. This far-north-eastern region of Turkey is home to yet more minorities; the western Georgian Laz People, thought to descend from the ancient Colchians, and the Hemshins, highlanders thought to be descended from medieval Christian Armenians. It’s late afternoon by the time I reach the Georgian border crossing at Sarp and less than an hour later, I’m in Sarpi, Georgia, watching a beautiful cloudless sunset over the Black Sea.
I stop in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city, for three nights, taking a break from the rather brisk pace of travel I have kept up on the trip so far. Batumi was established as a Colchian-Greek colony but has no outward signs of age, and currently has the air of an out-of-season tourist resort with a seafront of bold, modernist buildings, an unremarkable pebble beach and a mixture of new and old architecture; a far cry from the exotic beauty of Abkhazia or some parts of Crimea, but a pleasant place to spend two relaxing days nonetheless. The Georgians here are as I remember them; driving around town flat-out in ailing European cars, but are otherwise strangely unobtrusive and the air of progress and change which I have noticed on previous visits to Georgia seems somewhat diminished here.
One real highlight is Batumi’s magnificent Botanical Garden, established in the nineteenth century by a Russian botanist and located a few kilometres north of town, which I visit on my second day in the city. The gardens consist of glowing hillsides of species from across the world, though those from East Asia and North America are the most vividly beautiful; giant magnolias and sequoias, rhododendrons, azaleas, japonicas, cedars and palms, all looking out across the limpid blueish waters of the Black Sea on a day when sea and sky merge seamlessly at the horizon and the verdant green hills of Georgia stretching off into the haze to the north look like something of an Earthly paradise.
Batumi is in fact the capital of the Adjaran Autonomous Republic, commonly known as Adjaria, which spreads up into the Lesser Caucasus Mountains behind Batumi and along the Turkish border. The Adjarans were once subjects of the Ottoman Empire and were distinguishable for having adopted Sunni Islam, though nowadays the majority of Adjarans are Orthodox Christians and the environs of Batumi look no different from anywhere else in Georgia. I leave Batumi and drive west, climbing away from the Black Sea for the last time, into the Adjaran hinterland. As I climb up the Acharistskali Valley I pass attractive, sprawling villages with large stone hoses perched on steep hillsides above neat garden plots, in places almost idyllically beautiful with views over the yawning valley. In the town of Khulo I notice for the first time a large mosque with an Ottoman-style minaret (no doubt funded at least in part by Turkey), which looks somehow odd against the rural Georgian landscape, but I suspect that religion is worn lightly by the region’s inhabitants. Beyond Khulo the road climbs above the level of permanent settlements into a landscape which seems only recently relieved of its winter snow-cover, and I stop on the Goderdzi Pass at around 2000 metres elevation to watch a cow-herd trail his cattle up the steep grassy mountainside in front of me, with a stupendous backdrop of still snow-capped mountains to the north and the wooded valleys of Adjaria far below.
Once over the pass it’s a long and rather less scenic drive through central Georgia, dropping down to Akhaltsikhe and then on via Borjomi to Mtskheta where I stay for a night with Gerhard and Julia, with whom I had stayed several times last year. I continue the following day, taking the bypass around Tbilisi and crossing out of Georgia and into Azerbaijan on the main road to Baku. I’m a little disappointed at the Azerbaijani border to notice that (in contrast to my two previous experiences entering the country) it is visibly corrupt, with money and bottles of drink changing hands between passengers and the customs officers, who seem like the typical half-educated idiots of a police state. My negative impressions are furthered when, not long after driving away from the border, I’m stopped by traffic police for some farcical traffic infraction and made to hand over some cash in the back of their patrol car. Whilst neighbouring Georgia and Armenia have moved firmly on from the Soviet period and opened up to the outside world, it is Azerbaijan, by far the richest of the three countries, which remains mired in the insular mentality and shameless corruption which marked the era of the Soviet collapse.
I reach the city of Ganja after dark, which has the slight Potemkin-esque atmosphere of a large city in a dictatorship; the statue of First President Heydar Aliyev and accompanying museum, the de-Sovietised City Administration Building set in a vast square, a limited range of shops along a paved and well-lit main street, but otherwise no real civic investments and dark back-streets of broken roads and shabby housing. As ever though, the people of Azerbaijan are extremely friendly, and curious to meet a rare foreign visitor. After eating a kebab and having a short walk around Ganja, I leave, and after some difficulty navigating the totally unsigned city streets I return to the main highway. Managing to avoid any further encounters with the police, I reach Yevlakh and turn south, stopping for the night just before reaching Barda.
Barda, formerly known as Partav, was once the capital of Caucasian Albania, a historical kingdom whose territory covered much of modern Azerbaijan and of which much remains unknown, including the kingdom’s origins and even its endonym. Like other Caucasian nations it was a vassal of larger regional empires (usually Persian), and has recently become the rather unfortunate subject of Azerbaijani historiography which falsely claims much of the region’s Armenian heritage as being ‘Caucasian Albanian’ in an attempt to refute the historic presence of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhchivan.
I reach Barda early the next morning and watch a sleepy provincial town come to life, with butchers cutting up carcasses on the street-sides, children fetching bread and women sweeping with hand-made brooms. Following the Arab takeover of Persia in the seventh century, Barda retained its importance as a centre of trade but was subject to raids, most curiously by the Varangians of Rus’ in 943, who occupied the city until being forced to return by an outbreak of dysentery, but more seriously by the Mongols and Timur who devastated the city. I make my way to Barda’s only surviving monuments; a fragment of ancient mud-brick wall allegedly of Albanian age, and the beautiful tomb tower of Akhmad Zocheybana which is covered in turquoise-tile Kufic faïence and undergoing a much-needed restoration. I also look into the rather plain nearby Imamzadeh (Shia shrine), built by the same architect as the now derelict mosques of Shushi and Agdam in Nagorno Karabakh which I had visited last year. I watch pilgrims process anticlockwise around the green-cloth covered tomb of an ancient holy man; an example of the public revival of Iranian-influenced culture of shrine-visiting.
I leave Barda heading southwards and begin to deeply enjoy rural Azerbaijan, which grinds along to an ancient routine. Men on foot or on horseback herd sheep and cattle over the flat plains made green by the water of the Aras, brought in brown torrents by a system of irrigation channels. The air has the scent of woodsmoke and the herb esfand which is burned to war off the evil eye, and this, together with the lumpy Soviet-era roads give me the strong sensation of being in Central Asia. Always off to the west are the misty, greenish mountains of Karabakh, the loss of which weigh heavy on the heart of Azerbaijanis. Road-signs are still in place for destinations such as Füzuli and Agdam which have been razed to rubble, and others such as Khojavand (Martuni) and Khankandi (Stepanakert) which are firmly settled by ethnic Armenians. Even the buses still show destinations in Nagorno Karabakh, despite them lying totally out of reach beyond a tense cease-fire line.
The road reaches its southernmost point around the town of Bahramtepe, close to the Iranian border, then turns north-eastwards towards the capital, becoming busy with slow-moving lorries and leaving behind the irrigation canals, passing through a number of dull towns in the dry landscape. Later, a range of parched dry multicoloured hills come into view in the hot, dry air and the landscape is dotted with nodding pumpjacks. In the afternoon I re-join the main highway, here a new dual carriageway which is woefully lacking in exits, no doubt making life difficult for those who live alongside it, though in a country as corrupt as Azerbaijan these people clearly matter little; the road is for the benefit of the rich cadres and cronies of Baku. After a detour and some backtracking thanks to a total lack of signposting I reach the petroglyph site of Qobustan which has a distinctive set of humanoid figures with strange frog-like legs; interesting but somehow less spectacular than the remote rock-art sites of Central Asia and Mongolia. On my way out I stop to look at a lone stone in a barren landscape, unremarkable but for having been inscribed in Roman times; the easternmost Roman inscription ever found.
Rejoining the main highway, I bypass the centre of Baku, which I had found to be a vulgar and ostentatious city on my visit in 2010, and head instead for the chaotic roads of the Absheron Peninsula, much of which is now a sprawling extension of the capital. I drive onto the beach in the northern suburb of Pirshagi which is apparently a popular holiday spot, though the less-than-clean sand is backed by a goat-grazed wasteland of litter and sewage. The sunset view across the turquoise water of the Caspian towards the eastern edge of the Caucasus Mountains is however magnificent, and I decide to stay for the night.
The Absheron Peninsula presents a truly blighted-looking landscape; dismal parched ground with putrid salt lakes, an ever-present bitter, sulphurous stench in the air, and sprawling formless towns choked with heavy traffic on pot-holed, poorly-planned roads. Absheron is however a land rich in hydrocarbons, which spew naturally from the brackish earth. The peninsula’s oil has been exploited for well over a thousand years, was the focus of Eurasia’s first oil boom, and was one of the prizes Hitler sought when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. I visit a few sights relating to this natural abundance of hydrocarbons, firstly the Ateshgah or ‘fire temple’ in Surakhani which seems to have been built in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries by Hindu immigrants from India around a (now exhausted) natural gas flare, and is recorded as having been worshipped by Sikhs and Zoroastrians as well as Hindus. I then drive northwards through a forest of oil derricks to a curiosity known as Yanar Dag, where a burning flare of natural gas escapes along a short section of exposed sandstone. Most interesting however is a particularly desolate area nearby, where oil streams from a natural seep down a hillside. I walk up to the top of the hillside and see a landscape cratered by the remains of hand-dug oil wells dating from the nineteenth century, before the invention of modern drilling techniques, when oil was exported to Persia. From this vantage point, across the wasteland of Absheron is the modern skyline of Baku, now rich from oil produced by offshore fields under the Caspian.
Heading north through Sumqayit and leaving the Absheron Peninsula, the land starts to green once more as I climb slowly inland, passing through the attractive town of Quba on the Gudyal River. The road out Quba steepens immediately, entering beautiful beech forests popular with domestic tourists, who ruin the tranquillity with blaring low-quality music and piles of litter. Not far beyond however, the road leaves the villages and begins to climb steeply into the highlands, a spectacular landscape of flowing, treeless emerald hillsides grazed by great herds of sheep, with distant views of the snow-capped eastern peaks of the Caucasus. I stop at the end of the road, in the village of Khinaliq, which sits at an altitude of around 2100 metres. Although some modern buildings have cropped up, much of the village consists of traditional dry-stone houses, some terraced one above another, looking very much like a Dagestani aul (fortified village). Khinaliq is a very ancient settlement and its pale-skinned people speak their own language, which may even be a language isolate. I walk around the very friendly village enjoying the fresh air and magnificent views to cloudy mountain peaks, walking on ancient trails between the stone houses against whose walls are often stacked large piles of dung patties, an essential fuel source in this totally deforested corner of the Caucasus.
The beautiful mountain atmosphere and friendly villagers make me wish I could stay some time in Khinaliq, but I’m limited by customs restrictions to seventy-two hours in the country with the truck. I camp nearby however, on the broad bed of the Gudyal River, looking up the valley towards the mountains on the Russian border. In the morning, after a few hours relaxing and admiring the scenery, I descend once more to Quba and have a quick look around. It’s a pleasant place with unfailingly friendly people, like everywhere I have encountered in Azerbaijan, but the real point of interest for me is the town of Qirmizi Qasaba, lying on the far side of the river. Qirmizi Qasaba is inhabited entirely by Mountain Jews, thought to be descendants of Persian Jews who themselves were descended from the ancient Israelites who were exiled to Babylon by the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE. Escaping persecution, the Mountain Jews began to move to various isolated valleys of the Caucasus in around the fifth century CE where they have lived ever since. In the nineteenth century they escaped the rules of the rest of the Russian Empire which forbade Jews from farming and were even in some cases spared by the Nazis in the Second World War, who were unsure as to whether the Mountain Jews were ‘Racial Jews’.
Today Qirmizi Qasaba is one of the last strongholds of the Mountain Jews and, although not populated by Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, could be regarded as the world’s last shtetl. It’s perhaps slightly tidier and wealthier looking than the rest of Quba, but only the unassuming Grand Synagogue hint at the town’s unique demographics. The inhabitants too look and dress little different from other Caucasians, but they retain their own language, Judeo-Tat, a Semitic influenced form of Persian.
My seventy-two hours in Azerbaijan is coming to a close, and so I make the final drive north through a string of villages on the undulating plains between the mountains and the sea, to the customs post at Samur. Only recently made a multilateral border crossing, I approach the border with some trepidation; after all this is the border between one of the world’s most corrupt countries and the most corrupt region of Russia. However, after a thorough search I’m free to proceed across the Samur River on a boxcar bridge which reminds me of crossing the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, somehow making the crossing seem more momentous than it really is.
I’ve greatly enjoyed my journey from the Bulgarian border to the Samur River; the astoundingly beautiful and historically interesting Black Sea Coast of Turkey; yet more beautiful landscapes in Georgia, and then a second transit across ‘mainland’ Azerbaijan, a country which though wealthy from its natural resources, is visibly held back by corruption when compared to its neighbours. I would like to spend longer in the country but am held back from doing so by restrictive bureaucracy, which shows how little interest the government has in welcoming foreign visitors. Whilst the people of Azerbaijan are perhaps the most friendly in the South Caucasus, I still cannot bring myself to like the place quite as much as I like Armenia and Georgia.
What has also been apparent to me on this trip is that my pace of travel has been slightly too rapid, and so I look forward to the next stage of the trip, moving slightly more sedately across the vast tracts of European Russia, all the way to the Barents Sea, well above the Arctic Circle.