The final part of my winter journey across Russia would take me on more winter roads; up across the vast, frozen lowland of West Siberia to the Arctic Circle and back down using a final, long ice road on the Ob River. Here, the experience would differ slightly from that of the rugged east of Siberia, with superior infrastructure and better-maintained winter roads as a result of the region’s oil and gas industry. The grip of the winter would also start to ease; days were now getting longer and the warmth of the sun would make crisp, clear winter days very pleasant, despite night-time temperatures regularly still reaching -30º C. But whilst the driving would be less daunting and uncertain, the stops I made along the way, and the experiences I had there would be among the most moving, thought-provoking, life affirming and unforgettable of the entire journey through the Siberian winter.
I leave the tiny village of Prokop on the bright, sunny morning of the 27th February 2018. The temperature is a perfect -25º C as I drive to the end of the asphalt road in the town of Kargasok from where, after a brief stop for supplies, I take an unpaved road along the Vasyugan River to the village of Novoyugino. Here I am glad to find the beginning of the next zimnik (winter road), which crosses the Vasyugan Swamp, the largest in Eurasia, and marks the end of a long section of highway driving which started on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal nine days ago. As always, I am unsure of the route which this temporary road will take, but here at least there is a schematic map and a toll office where I confirm that the road leads to Strezhevoy, on the opposite bank of the Ob in the far north-west of Tomsk Region, several hundred kilometres away. After paying the toll, I drive down the river-bank past a scuppered tug-boat and cross the Vasyugan River into a frozen wilderness.
The zimnik is initially wide and well-graded, passing through alternating forests of tall, old-growth pines, stands of birch trees and more open, waterlogged ground, all deep frozen and still. The road becomes progressively narrower and lumpier as it crosses the frozen swamp, heading northwards, well inland from the Ob River. Most other suers of the zimnik are lorries servicing distant oil and gas infrastructure, but I am passed by two passenger vehicles whom I later come across stopped at the road-side, with one old Volga estate car crashed off the road sticking out of a snow-covered swamp. The car is soon pulled out by a passing truck and I lend the driver some tools to get the engine re-started by taking the battery out of his friend’s car, which has already crashed further up the ice road. I take some comfort in knowing that even the locals come to grief on these slippery winter roads and keep my progress slow and steady over the slippery, frozen surface of what must be an impenetrable peat bog in summer. Late in the afternoon I pass the riverside settlement of Vertikos, from where the road roughly follows a large oil pipeline. I’m delayed waiting for a stranded articulated lorry with no chains on its rear wheels to be recovered by a civilian tank on a treacherously slippery descent into the forest, then push on in the gathering dusk northwards through the forest. Well after dark I pass the oil pumping station at Raskino and push on to another oil processing facility with a glowing orange flare stack where I stop and heat up some Russian Army rations inside the car.
Just beyond this facility I meet a fork in the road, signed left to Strezhevoy. There is of course nobody around from whom to ask directions, so I reluctantly take the left fork, away from the river where I had entertained some hope of spotting Nazino Island, infamous in Gulag history for the abandonment of six thousand deportees on a river island in the Ob in May 1933 without any supplies, some of whom resorted to cannibalism to survive. The zimnik soon turns due west, away from the river and pipeline and enters the dark forest on a narrow track. On a wide, frozen lake or mire I decide to stop for the night, but with the temperature at -30º C and the road far from any sign of human settlement, I decide to keep the engine running through the night for the first time since the Lena River. In the morning, after around eighty more kilometres of beautiful forest and swamp, I come upon a straight asphalt road which I take north to the bank of the Ob. This is an important transport artery for the oil fields to the south (from where I presume the asphalt road originated), so rather than a simple ice road crossing, the Ob is traversed here by a temporary pontoon bridge, with the steel pontoons shored-up by large tug-boats, all now frozen solidly into the ice of the Ob. Beyond the port of Koltogorsk on the river’s right bank I find the city of Strezhevoy. Though a slightly grim and charmless-looking place (albeit with the cheapest petrol I would find in the country), Strezhevoy is far from a backwater and currently marks the end of the ‘Northern Latitudinal Corridor’; a modern road, rail and oil conduit which links the oil and gas producing regions of West Siberia with European Russia and will one day make the zimnik I have just taken redundant when it bridges the gap to the city of Tomsk.
Just outside of Strezhevoy I cross into the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, Russia’s main oil-producing region and am taken aback by some of the best infrastructure I have seen in the country; a very high quality road and parallel railway built on berms above the swamp and conducted above countless mires and meandering streams by many new bridges. I pass the city of Nizhnevartovsk on a road busy with ever more traffic as I near Surgut, the largest city in the region. The first sign of reaching Surgut is a broiling mass of steam to the right of the highway; the source of which are two power stations, Surgut-I and -II, the latter being the largest gas-fired power station in the world, whose dense billows of condensed water vapour fume wildly in the frigid afternoon air. I’m welcomed to Surgut by aggressive traffic but soon find the apartment of my host Anna, where I will spend a rest-day. Surgut was founded in 1594 as a staging post and ostrog (wooden fortress) on the old pioneer route along the Ob, though there is no hint of this when looking at the city’s relentlessly modern architecture. Anna takes me to the rather contrived ‘Old Surgut’ open museum where in newly-built wooden houses one gets the impression that Surgut was nothing more than a large muddy village until well into the twentieth century. All this changed in the 1960s with the discovery of huge oil reserves below the vast West Siberian swamps, which triggered an oil boom and the largest free population movement in the history of the USSR, transforming Surgut into a modern city with a population now over three hundred thousand. With people having moved from across the entire Soviet Union, today’s population is a cross section of the Former USSR, almost none of whom belong to the area’s supposedly titular Khanty or Mansi tribes.
Surgut is a boom town, a dull place to work and sleep (I find myself drawing parallels to my own posting up in a dreary corner of north-western Europe) and after one day I am ready to leave. I make use of the city’s amenities, have the engine oil changed in the car, do some shopping and refuel, then head out in the early afternoon on another excellent road, this time heading north through a flat, featureless landscape of swamps with thinning stands of forest. As darkness nears I cross into the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area and spend the following day driving ever north, watching the trees thin out and become small and stunted as the landscape changes from forest and swamp to wide, featureless tundra as I near the Arctic Circle.
I stop for a day in the modern city of Novy Urengoy where I am hosted by Evgeniya and her mother Lyuba in a spacious, comfortable apartment. Evgeniya calls a contact the following day, a Russian-German who speaks perfect English and turns out to be a fellow Imperial University alumnus. With a driver, we enter the network of private Gazprom roads north of the city and visit first an active drilling rig, then stop at a roadside marker precisely on the Arctic Circle. The landscape around is pure tundra, but everywhere are the rigs, pipelines, well-heads and production facilities which produce the gas and condensate from the Urengoy Gas Field, the second largest in the world. Back in Novy Urengoy we meet Evgeniya’s boyfriend and make a quick tour of the city; established only in the 1970s and with a relatively affluent and well-educated population, it feels somewhat more amiable than Surgut if even farther from the rest of the world. At home, Lyuba, who has been feeding me delicious home-cooked food at every opportunity, makes a point I so far had not considered: “It’s a nice place to live. Salaries are high and the living standard is higher than in other places in Russia. We have the time and the means to travel abroad. But what future does this place have? In one hundred years, when the gas has long run out, there will be nobody left here”. Lyuba and Evgeniya have certainly had enough of the isolation and nine-month long winters, and are planning to move to Saint Petersburg later in the year.
I continue eastwards from Novy Urengoy on the last section of the highway, driving through more tundra under a sky of windswept, fibrous cirrus clouds and patchy stands of dwarfed pines and larches; the most beautiful scenery I have seen since crossing the Ob. At some point on this road I complete the ten thousandth kilometre since leaving Magadan, a quite astounding distance given that I am still in the thick of the winter trip. After a few hours of easy driving I cross the Nadym River on an impressive modern road bridge (with an adjacent railway bridge stalled in mid-construction) and reach the end of the road in the city of Nadym. Here I am hosted by Sveta and her husband Yury, both of whom have moved here from southern Russia in pursuit of higher salaries. The day after I arrive, the weather deteriorates with a warm front bringing strong winds, snow and temperatures up to a horrible -1º C; an early warning of the spring melt and a reminder that it is the fickleness of nature which dictates when the winter driving season ends. I appreciate the down-time however, enjoying Nadym’s relaxed, small-town atmosphere, practising English with Sveta, drinking beer with Yury, researching the next few steps of my trip and recovering from a cold I have picked up somewhere.
After two much-appreciated rest days waiting for the bad weather to pass, I awake to a beautifully clear morning with the temperature back down to a pleasant -19º C. I bid farewell to my hosts at around 11:00, top up with fuel, then drive to the checkpoint on the edge of town. Here, after registering myself, I pass the barrier and begin the penultimate zimnik of the trip; this one connecting Nadym and the oil and gas towns of the north with Salekhard on the Ob River. Though still a temporary winter road, the initial section is built on a well-made berm above the swamp and is even asphalted; in a few years’ time, this too will be an all-weather road. What makes this route special however is that there is more than beautiful, frozen wilderness to look at whilst making my way to the Ob, for the zimnik takes the path of what remains of the Trans-Polar Mainline, better known as the ‘Dead Road’; one of the most grandiose of Stalin’s many Gulag construction projects.
The isolated appearance of Nazi naval vessels in the Kara Sea during the Second World War, together with the potential exploitation of mineral riches of the Russia Arctic, convinced Stalin of the need for a new, deep-sea port to be built at Cape Kamenny on the Yamal Peninsula. In 1947 work was started to reach the site of the new port by rail, connecting it to the Pechora Basin across the Polar Urals to the Ob River. Meanwhile, surveying of the Cape Kamenny site showed it to be unsuited as a deep-water port, which led to the focus of a new port shifting to Igarka on the lower reaches of the Yenisei River, far further to the east beyond more than a thousand kilometres of virtually unexplored wilderness. The railway was to be built by forced labour and it is thought that between eighty and one hundred thousand prisoners, most of them ‘politicals’, were sentenced to this terrific wilderness to build a railway of a projected 1,482 kilometres between the Ob and the Yenisei. The project was divided into two units; Project 501 worked eastwards from Salekhard on the Ob, whilst Project 503 worked westwards from Yermakovo, upstream from Igarka on the Yenisei. The two great rivers would be crossed by railway ferries in summer and by laying tracks on the ice during winter. The use of slave labour was nothing unusual for the time, indeed railways had customarily been built by prisoners even in Tsarist times, but the conditions here would have made life here horrific; an untrammelled wilderness of endless bogs, streams and forest, bitterly cold in winter and alive with pestilent biting insects in the short summers. The sheer absurdity of the project must surely also have weighed on the minds of the conscripts. Shortly after Stalin’s death in May 1953, the project was abandoned with around eight hundred of the 1,482 kilometres of track completed. Billions of roubles were written off on the failed project. The thousands of prisoners who died from exposure, malnutrition and exhaustion are today unrecorded, most likely of little concern to the NKVD’s accountants. The remains of Project 501; the railway line and the camps which housed the prisoners who built them, lie slowly decaying in the vast tundra, poignant relics to the ignorant ambition of a monster. Perhaps nothing better embodies Gogol’s oft-repeated adage that ‘Russia has two problems: Fools and bad roads’.
Soon after leaving Nadym, the railway comes into view just to the north of the zimnik. Seeing the first of what would be dozens of ruined bridges crossing a small stream, I pull over, driving foolishly far from the road surface, something I should by now know not to do, and get my front right wheel stuck in deep snow. I’m furious with myself for making such a beginner’s mistake but resign to waiting for a lorry to pass and pull me out. Some Nenets reindeer herders on a snowmobile stop to check I am not in trouble, though I decide to keep waiting for a truck rather than try to dig and recover the vehicle by hand. Perhaps half an hour after getting stuck, a huge 6×6 lorry stops and tows me out, the Bashkir driver refusing the two bottles of vodka I offer him on the grounds of alcohol being forbidden for workers in the area. Resuming progress along the road, I spot many more bridges; some intact but buckled by repeated frost-heaves, others collapsed with rails drooping off leaning piers where wooden supports have long rotted back into the swamp. At one stop I am able to carefully make my way across the knee-deep snow and reach the railway line itself. Here, where the wind has scoured away the winter snow cover I can clearly see the rails and rotted wooden sleepers. Often the bowed, rust-pitted rails have broken free from the sleepers leaving baseplates and spikes scattered on the ground. It’s a poignant sight, the line stretching out into the snow, seemingly untouched for decades.
Along the course of the railway there were lagpunkti (camps) approximately every twenty kilometres, many of which have survived until today, though with the thick winter snow I will only be able to visit those that are immediately adjacent to the zimnik. I come across the first of these, Shchuchy Camp, in the afternoon and am able for the first time in my years of travel in Russia to see a Gulag camp, as described in the harrowing literature of authors such as Solzhenitsyn or Shalamov, preserved in its original state. Close to the roadside are remains of an old barbed wire fence and the support piles of a guard-tower, beyond which is a barracks with the remains of prisoners’ bunks and a kitchen area with large cast-iron cauldrons. Rather movingly, passing drivers and hunters have made something of a small altar, with offerings of coins, cigarettes, vodka bottles, sweets and even food, evidence that, contrary to the wishes of the Russian government, the Russian population are not ignorant of, or unmoved by, the crimes of the Soviet regime. I’m deeply impressed by the camp; fascinated by its state of preservation, having presumably been untouched since the early 1950s; shocked by the conditions the prisoners must have endured, but also enchanted by the perfect silence and great natural beauty, as the late afternoon sun pierces the stunted pines and birch trees which have grown inside the abandoned lagpunkt. A little further along the road I’m treated to a spectacular sunset behind sparse stands of larch, and choose to stop as darkness falls, not wishing to miss any part of this fascinating ‘Dead Road’.
I awake to a cold but perfectly clear morning and, not far from my rest point for the night, come across Karas Camp where I find three of the infamous ‘punishment isolators’; cells where prisoners were locked up alone as punishment and given rations insufficient to keep them alive. Nearby, I decide to brave the snow to examine a large collapsed bridge whose rails fly through the air above a stream totally stripped of their sleepers. It takes around half an hour to reach the bridge which is little more than one hundred metres from the road. I’m well-dressed, well-fed and the weather is a benign, sunny -25º C. What the undernourished, poorly-clothed prisoners must have suffered in the dark depths of winter, or the boggy, pestilent summer is still hard to imagine. I pass more camps; Idyakha, where I wade out to the shell of a guard tower and barbed wire fence, and Limbyayakha where an intact guard tower directly overlooks the road. The zimnik then leaves the new road-bed and reverts to a lumpy, temporary track, soon bringing me to the wooden entrance gate of Glukhariny Camp, which seems to be actively preserved and is the most intact camp I come across. Here one can get a feel of the entire layout of a lagpunkt; specifically of the square ‘Zone’ in which prisoners could move between buildings, surrounded by a triple barbed-wire fence with a sentry guard tower in each corner. I feel I have a had a privileged glimpse of one of history’s darkest episodes, one the current government is keen for people to forget. It’s pleasing to see the camps either preserved or left alone, but I wonder at this point what their fate will be once the highway is completed. Beyond Glukhariny the zimnik takes me through more forest in which I see a number of overgrown camps, running to the north of the railway line and more dilapidated brides, though I reluctantly pass these places as I wish to complete the zimnik today. Well after dark the zimnik descends into a wide bog in which the snow is thick, stranding a two-wheel drive van which I unsuccessfully attempt to recover, then meets a new asphalted road. From here it is a smooth drive of ninety kilometres to the city of Salekhard, capital of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area and my base for the next few days.
I am met on the edge of Salekhard by Slava, a friend of a friend of mine, who escorts me back to his lavish dacha or holiday house on the northern edge of the city, a few kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Slava returns to his family home for the night, but meets me in the morning to show me around. We start at a small hill on the bank of the Ob on the inside of the wide turn which the river makes towards eastwards where it soon meets the Kara Sea. The unbridged expanse of ice is crossed only by a seasonal two-laned ice road with the cranes of the port of Labytnangi lying dormant on the far shore. Well beyond this are the magnificent Polar Urals, sculpted, ethereally white mountains which hover in the far distance and mark the easternmost boundary of Europe. During the planning stages of this trip I had hoped to find a zimnik running through them, alongside the railway to the Pechora Basin, but Slava assures me that there has not been a zimnik since Soviet times. Heading into town, we stop to see a reconstructed ostrog marking the position where the village of Obdorsk was founded at the end of the sixteenth century, which would become the town of Salekhard in the 1930s. On the highway nearby is a large black locomotive on a plinth, a monument to Project 501, though the monument’s brass inscription states only that the locomotive was brought here in 1947; no mention is made of the forced labour which underpinned the project. I am glad to have seen for myself the reality of the project out in the wilderness to the east. In the afternoon Slava invites a couple of friend over, who bring their families, and we round the day off in good Russian style grilling shashlyk (skewered meat) outside Slava’s dacha, enjoying the bracing Arctic Siberian air at a temperature of -25º C.
What I wish most to do in Salekhard however, is head back out into the tundra in order to catch a glimpse of the life of the native reindeer herders who still live a traditional life beyond any modern infrastructure. Yury, a close friend of Slava, knows a family of herders who live not far from the town of Aksarka, around sixty kilometres downstream on the right bank of the Ob. Yury and Slava very kindly agree to facilitate a trip out to meet them, so on my second day in Salekhard we load Slava’s snowmobile onto a trailer behind Yury’s Nissan 4×4 and head out on the only road out of Salekhard, east to the small town of Aksarka. Here we join an ice road on the Ob and drive just over twenty kilometres downriver, stopping at the mouth of a small stream and getting out the snowmobile. Slava and I get into a sled while Yury carefully drives up the bank onto the tundra, passing through stunted, metre-high pines for a few minutes until we reach a stirring sight. In a small patch of open tundra well above the Ob, four chums, large, reindeer-skin conical tents, sit amongst the paraphernalia of nomadic herders; sleds, storage chests, animal skins and much else. A few reindeer plod around the camp, interested and not in any way fearful of our arrival. We have reached the winter home of the Kondygin family, who belong to the Khanty nation.
The Khanty are a Ugrian people indigenous to the northern Ural Region (once known as Yugra) who speak a Ugric language thought to be related to Hungarian. Traditionally living nomadic lives based on reindeer husbandry, fishing, trapping and hunting, the Khanty are one of very few indigenous Siberian tribes to have received their own autonomous okrug (area) during Soviet times. Despite having endured collectivisation, which saw the murder of tribal chiefs and traditional shamans and the abduction of children into state care, many of Russia’s estimated 12,500 Khanty still live traditional lives, though the ever present lure of globalisation, plus incursion of the nearby oil and gas industry threaten this. We are warmly welcomed by the extended family when we arrive in the chum of Tikhon and Anna, whose children and grandchildren are visiting. In the warmth of the chum I meet people with kind, round faces with almond eyes, not dissimilar looking to Tuvans or Mongolians but with paler features and often coloured hair and eyes. With one another they speak Khanty, which sounds nothing like Hungarian to me. We are invited to have tea at a table spread with bread, jam, sweets, frozen fish and reindeer tongue which is very tasty, not unlike well-cooked duck. Soon the children wrap the grandchildren up against the cold in brightly coloured clothes, then leave towards the river. Slava and Yury also wish to return to Salekhard, but very kindly offer to collect me the following day, thus giving me the chance to spend a night sleeping in an authentic Khanty chum.
Once the sound of Slava’s snowmobile recedes into the distance, I’m struck by the silence and marvellous isolation out in this wilderness a few kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. I have a walk around the surroundings of the camp, then watch life slowly unfolding around the chums; Tikhon chopping wood for the stove and Anna fetching fresh snow to melt into water and feeding the three friendly and very tame reindeer who wander around the camp like pets. There’s a long, red sunset over the Ob with the prospect of a storm coming in from the west most likely precluding any aurora sightings. Inside the warmth of the chum I’m struck by the similarity of the layout with a Mongolian ger; a central stove and a south-facing entrance; a family area to the right as one enters, with guests accommodated on the left and a storage area with utensils and trinkets opposite the entrance. The chum however lacks the ever present musty, milky aroma of a ger and is also slightly less spacious, being built around forty-five thin, straight larch trunks rather than the pre-tensioned and shaped supports of a ger. Anna makes me a den of thick blankets in which to sleep, unrolling a flowery sheet from above to form a privacy curtain. In the absolute silence of the tundra, I drift off into a deep sleep.
In the morning the weather has indeed closed in and we wait patiently in the chum for a call from Yury. I watch Anna pack away the bedding and make tea, whilst Tikhon sits ruefully at the stove smoking. I sense in them a tremendous sense of patience, perhaps not surprising from a people who watch the seasons pass and must adapt their lives to the conditions around them. Their lives seem startlingly different from my own; restless, ever chasing various ambitions and projects. “We stay here in winter to be close to the forest, for fuel. In summer we move into the open where the insects are not so bad. Right now our reindeer are being herded off to the north. You could go and visit but we don’t have any fuel for the snowmobile.” They also seem to be free from any sort of political or religious prejudice; with the pragmatic life-outlook of nomadic people living in tune with their environment and accepting their place in the world. I wished my Russian were good enough to ask them if they preserve any of the old shamanic rituals or holidays, or if any of their wooden idols have survived attempts at Christianisation and Soviet purges. Given more time I would love to stay longer with these people and witness more of their lives, perhaps trying to learn a little patience from them.
After lunch, with the conditions outside slowly worsening, Tikhon and Anna pack up some belongings and we drive down to the river on Tikhon’s Soviet-era Buran snowmobile, where we meet Yury. Anna will join us for the drive to Aksarka, where she will visit her family who live in the town, while Tikhon returns stoically alone to the chum. The ice road is about to close as the blizzard worsens, but we make it to Aksarka where we drop off Anna then return to Salekhard. Soon after returning to Slava’s dacha, it’s clear that I have eaten something which my body violently disagrees with, and I spend the next two days lying on the sofa, consuming nothing but boiled water with a little sugar and salt to replace the fluids I lose with each purgatory visit to the lavatory. On the evening of the second day of rest I am feeling back to normal and preparing dinner when I look out of the window and am filled with an uncontainable, child-like excitement at what I see out of the window; a strong, green glow moving gently in the sky; my first real view of the Aurora Borealis.
After grabbing my camera and tripod and donning my warmest clothes, I rush out into the bracing cold; temperatures have dropped to almost -30º C once again, leaving a crystal-clear sky. A steady green band of aurora is streaming in the sky above; charged particles from the Sun’s solar wind meeting the Earth’s magnetic field and being deflected into the upper atmosphere, exciting sparse atoms, with atomic oxygen giving the common emerald-green colour. As I stand watching, mesmerised, the intensity of the stream of energy approaching me from the north-west increases, with the band bifurcating into two separate streams, folding in on themselves to form more chaotic, whirlpool-like formations and vertical rays which shimmer in red and yellow, shooting across the sky with surprising speed to form a shimmering curtain of aurora; one of the most breathtakingly beautiful things I have ever seen, all taking place perhaps one hundred kilometres above my head. After reaching this crescendo, the aurora diminishes, and I take refuge in the warmth indoors. At around 02:00, as I’m about to sleep, I see another band of light in the sky; this time coming from the north and bending round to the east. Heading out once more I watch the sky again as the band passes directly overhead and abruptly folds in on itself so that I am looking directly up a vertical arc to witness a staggering auroral corona, with lines taking the eye to a convergence point far overhead, giving the impression of peering out into space; something I will never forget. I count my food-poisoning as a blessing; had it not happened I would be far to the south by now and would have certainly missed this natural wonder.
I leave Salekhard the morning after my aurora experience wondering how I could ever repay Slava and Yury for their efforts and kind hospitality, facilitating something of a climax to my winter trip. It’s another beautifully clear Arctic day with bright sunshine and an invigorating air temperature of -29º C, though a brisk wind makes outdoor conditions bitterly cold. Crossing the Ob, I reach the left-bank town of Labytnangi and, after registering at a checkpoint, begin my final ice road; a long one which will take me up the Ob to the roadhead in Priobye, around five hundred kilometres to the south. From the sunny warmth of the car, it’s a pleasure to drive the ice road and I’m filled with a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at the experiences of the last few days. Soon Salekhard feels far behind me as I re-enter the Siberian wilderness; here a huge, frozen wetland formed by the many branches of the anastomosing Ob. The ice road hugs the left-most bank of this channel system, alternating between the river, small side-channels and fluvial islands, passing small towns and tiny villages with Ugric sounding names such as Shuryshkary, Unselgort and Vorzemgort. As the day wears on, cirrus clouds appear, signalling an incoming weather front which by sunset brings an overcast sky. After stopping for fuel in the town of Muzhi, I continue on into the night, eventually stopping at a road-side clearing to sleep, exactly on the border between the Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Areas.
I awake to snowy conditions, with the overcast skies making the ice road far less enjoyable to drive, though the weather eases by mid-morning as I reach the small town of Beryozovo. Built on three hills at the riverside, Beryozovo is one of the region’s oldest settlements and has long been a place of exile. It was here that Trotsky escaped en-route to exile in Obdorsk in 1905, but the town’s most famous resident was Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov. Born a commoner, Menshikov became a favourite of Peter the Great, leading to tremendous wealth and power. Despite being repeatedly found guilty of corruption and fraud, Menshikov retained his position and at the time of Peter’s death was influential in bringing Peter’s second wife, Catherine I, to the Russian throne. During Catherine’s reign, Menshikov was the de facto ruler of Russia, promoting himself to the rank of Generalissimo. His downfall finally came upon her death when, attempting to marry his daughter into the royal line, he was overthrown by old nobility and exiled to Beryozovo in 1728, where he would die two years later. I find the tall, gilded spires of Beryozovo’s Nativity Church at a beautiful riverside setting next to a small park of old-growth pines surrounding Menshikov’s lonely grave. Here suddenly I have an odd feeling of translocation; I could be in a European Russian estate, perhaps somewhere in the countryside around Moscow. The knowledge that I am thousands of kilometres away, even today beyond the reach of any highway or railway, merely emphasises how absolute exile must have been here in the eighteenth century.
Beyond Beryozovo the ice road continues, reaching the town of Igrim and, after a short stretch of asphalt returning to the frozen swamps of the Ob. I manage to pick up a phone signal here and am able to track my progress on a satellite map; below the frozen white expanse across which I am driving lie myriad streams, swamps, ponds and oxbow lakes, all unseen from the ice road. After an unpleasantly corrugated final section in the gathering dusk, I reach a ramp where the ice road ends on the edge of the town of Priobye. This is the end of the final ice road, and in many ways the end of the winter journey. From here on, I have no option but to drive on the highway to journey’s end in Moscow.
After an overnight stop in the town of Nyagan, I set off on a dull morning for the long drive to Moscow. The temperature has risen to -3º C meaning the winter snow is starting to sweat and melt; the road is a mess of slippery brown slush, filled with typically impatient Russian drivers as it plunges straight through the endless taiga. It’s as if I have awoken from a nice dream; all the magic of the frozen, open north has vanished to be replaced with dirt and blandness. I spend four days driving back to Moscow; firstly down through the North Urals, crossing on the same highway Maciej and I had taken last August, then across the backwaters of European Russia; Kirov, Kostroma and Ivanovo Regions which are filled with broken roads, dying villages and stagnant small logging towns. On the morning of the fourth day I cross the Volga north of Kineshma, making my way to the capital on muddy backroads through the Golden Ring region. As I approach Moscow on a quiet road through the forests to the east of the capital, the temperature creeps above freezing for the first time on the trip and, driving with the windows open I am suddenly aware of the smell of the dripping pine forest, one thing I now realise I have missed during the deep Siberian winter. I brave the afternoon traffic of the MKAD, the Moscow orbital, and reach the apartment of my friend Katya by mid afternoon: journey’s end, 13,875 kilometres since leaving Magadan forty-nine days ago. Katya has just moved in to her newly-built apartment and thus I find myself shopping with her in Ikea for tableware shortly after; a more unlikely ending to a winter expedition I cannot imagine.
Despite ending in the overcast sprawl of Moscow, I am thrilled to have completed the winter journey, a dream-like journey through the vivid imagery of my own imagination; through what seems to be almost a parallel world of stunning landscapes and harsh conditions far removed from mundanity; a real adventure involving ever-present risk and uncertainty, rewarded by sights few others have seen, far removed from the tawdriness of modern-day mass tourism. With no major delays due to weather, and none due to problems with the impeccable Hilux Surf, I have two weeks of redundancy which I had built into the schedule to now enjoy, and so I plan to take a long way back to Western Europe together with Katya.
With the deep cold of the Kolyma Highway and the remoteness of the Lena River Ice Road behind me, I felt I had completed what were likely to be the toughest and most dangerous parts of my winter journey. Buoyed by the success of driving as far up the Lena as possible and with no hint of any issue with the Hilux Surf, I was confident of making the next section of the journey. This would take me onto the Tas-Yuryakh to Verkhnemarkovo zimnik (seasonal winter road), then across the ice of Lake Baikal, onto the regular road network to the city of Tomsk, and on to the end of the road on the Ob River. However, I still had to find a way through a private road to reach the zimnik and had no idea of the ice conditions or feasibility of driving on Lake Baikal. Once again, I was heading out into the unknown.
On the morning of the 13th February 2018 I wish Lyuba and Gleb, my hosts in Peleduy, farewell, thanking them for their warm hospitality in this friendly town in the heart of the Siberian wilderness, and drive to the neighbouring town of Vitim to fill up with fuel. Vitim is as far up the Lena River as one may travel by road from Yakutsk; from here it will be around eight hundred kilometres through the vast taiga of eastern Siberia before I reconnect with the river near the city of Ust-Kut. I pass the dormant, ice-bound river docks on my way out of town, then a large blue highway sign with the memorable information ‘Moscow 5796 km’; by far the largest distance I have ever seen recorded on a such a sign. Beyond the turn for Peleduy I am on a private road owned by Surgutneftegaz, a Russian oil company which operates the nearby Talakan Fields, to which the road leads. I am using the road in some trepidation as I should have secured a permit, though on the advice of Lyuba I am trying my luck without one. To be sent back to Peleduy to apply for a permit would be a minor inconvenience. To be refused outright and have to return to the highway in Lensk, via the most brutal section of the Lena River Ice Road, would be deeply frustrating and disappointing.
It’s almost seventy kilometres before I reach the first checkpoint on the road where I stop and hope not to have to backtrack at all. I am asked for a permit by a guard, but on inquiring how I should obtain one, am told to wait while he takes my passport and summons his boss. After an hour or so I fill in some brief paperwork, then am told to follow two gentlemen in a company pick-up truck, who escort me through the huge Talakan Oil Base, effectively a private town complete with airport, surrounded by dozens of well pads and oil-extraction infrastructure. We pass a second checkpoint, then stop at a third where my documents are checked, my escort bids me farewell and I pass through a barrier at which a long queue of lorries waits, with a sense of huge relief. This marks the end of all the uncertainty along the Lena River; from here I am certain that it is possible to reach Ust-Kut and the formal Russian road network. This last section of the private road runs northwards to the Verkhnechonsk Oil Field and soon after leaving the third checkpoint a sign announces the border between the Sakha Republic and Irkutsk Region. It has taken me two weeks to cross the republic, which is not only the largest in Russia but the world’s largest sub-national territorial entity. My mind boggles at the vast northern reaches of the republic which stretch well above the Arctic Circle. About an hour after passing the border sign, I encounter a crossroads in the utter middle of nowhere and turn left onto the infamous Tas-Yuryakh to Verkhnemarkovo Zimnik.
The zimnik is winter-only road consisting of solid-frozen swamp which runs for 850 kilometres through the thick taiga of eastern Siberia, passing only one village and no fuel stations on its route to the roadhead at Verkhnemarkovo. I join the zimnik 470 kilometres out from Verkhnemarkovo and see immediately that it is a very different proposition from the Lena River Ice Road. I am surprised by just how much traffic there is, much of it large, articulated lorries carrying supplies up to the oil fields and mines of the Siberian north, servicing the industries which fuel the Russian economy. With the traffic comes a reassurance that this seasonal road is in passable condition and that I will not get stranded for days on a lonely frozen river. But the heavy lorries compress deep ruts into the frozen swamp with a wheel-track far wider than mine, causing the car to tram-line dangerously and sometimes spin. Extreme caution is required when passing oncoming lorries, who take the best line and may pass me on the right rather than left according to conditions. Especially dangerous is overtaking, as any spin would most likely cause a collision. I see several accidents along the route, though the low speeds mean that none look particularly serious. It is nevertheless a good feeling to be on this busy winter road, despite it being a far from relaxing drive. As the day wears on, the sunshine smooths the very top of the road surface of compacted snow, making it extremely slippery with my stud-less winter tyres. I spin frequently and so keep my speed very low, eventually finding an area to pull in for the night overlooking the Lower Tunguska River with the village of Nepa, the only permanent settlement on the zimnik, on the far bank. I heat up more Russian Army rations on my butane stove then settle down for a night with the heater running and engine off.
In the morning the temperature has dropped to -29º C from last night’s -18º C but the car’s engine fires to life from dead cold immediately and with no alarming noises, further boosting my confidence in the Hilux Surf as a remarkably dependable vehicle. I drive for the entire day on the zimnik, mostly passing through dense taiga but sometimes patches of frozen, leafless birch forest whose trees lean over into the cleared roadway. In other places the forest is bare and open, a victim of summer wild-fires in recent years, or marked by grids of narrow, cleared corridors for past geophysical surveys. As I progress further southwards, the road occasionally twists and turns for reasons which aren’t obvious to me on the ground and there are temporary wooden shacks serving food to passing lorry drivers. In a cleared area adjoining one such establishment I stop to pour forty litres of petrol into the car and get chatting to one lorry driver, who tells me I am the first tourist he has ever seen on the zimnik. I ask him how long the road is open, out of curiosity. “Only in the winter. If you bring your truck up here in March, or early April when things start to melt, you can get stuck. Then you can forget about your truck”. As the day wears on the road gradually improves and passes the flare stacks of the Yaraktinskoye Oil Field. I take in a spectacular, slow sunset which seems to be amplified by a lensing effect of winter ice clouds, pass the turning to Verkhnemarkovo and for the first time since Ulakhan-An, near Yakutsk, join the Russian public road network.
It’s -30º C the next morning and after another effortless cold-start I soon meet the Lena River which here is merely an average-looking river rather than the vast waterway I had earlier encountered. Ust-Kut is busy with morning traffic and feels very ordinary after all the wilderness I have been driving through since Yakutsk, but here I find a bridge across the Lena; the furthest downstream on the river, despite being around 3500 kilometres from its mouth on the Laptev Sea. On the far side of the bridge, I catch my last glimpse of the river; this mighty Siberian giant along which Russian explorers and traders conquered the easternmost reaches of the country, and along which unfolded a personally unforgettable road journey. A junction takes me onto the ‘Avto BAM‘, an access road for the purpose-built settlements of the BAM, or Baikal-Amur Mainline, a communist white elephant project which runs all the way to the Pacific Ocean and which has never quite sparked the local development which was originally intended as its purpose.
The road winds through a series of hills and valleys, a nice change from the dense taiga, and is well graded and cleared. Traffic is light and the weather crisp and clear, making it a pleasure to drive. The BAM passes through a number of settlements built in the 1970s and 80s though today they are clearly smaller than intended, sometimes heavily depopulated. Many of the buildings are however smart, distinctive and well constructed with touches of the national designs of the BAM construction teams from different parts of the Soviet Union who built them; Zvezdny has a striking station building finished in the pink tuff characteristic of Armenia, and nearby Nebel has pastel-coloured clapboard building which look to be Baltic in style. The overall impression however is of a number of ill-conceived settlements where few people find a reason to remain. Beyond Kunerma the road narrows and dramatic, steep peaks of the Baikal Range rear up, the first real mountains I have seen since leaving the Verkhoyansk Range on the Kolyma Highway. I cross the Davan Pass surrounded by snow-covered peaks and descend on a jarringly rough road, stopping at a lookout point above the city of Severobaikalsk. Out beyond the rooftops is the huge, white expanse of Lake Baikal, frozen solid and tinted soft pink in the evening light, which also picks out the gorgeous contours of the mountains on the lake’s eastern shore.
Lake Baikal is a magnificent sight, and I walk out onto it the next day, thrilled by the blinding white expanse of ice on which locals walk, cross-country ski and fish through small holes. My intention is to drive across the ice to the town of Ust-Barguzin on the lake’s eastern shore, and possibly on to Olkhon Island from there. Once again, the feasibility of this plan is uncertain; my host Aleksey thinks it’s still a little early in the season, with the ice optimally thick and static in mid-March, still a few weeks off. The ice fishermen I speak to, many of whom have cars parked out on the ice, tell me it is technically possible, however none of them have done it this year. The only marked track on the ice runs directly across the lake to the Khakusy Hot Springs on the eastern shore. I begin to worry that my ambitious plans may be unrealistic. Aside from this, it is also technically illegal to drive on the ice, though like the local fishermen, I intend to ignore this inconvenient regulation.
Away from the beauty of the lake and its jagged mountainous backdrop, Severobaikalsk is a very pleasant town; much of it pre-fabricated 1980s concrete of little aesthetic appeal, but it is neither overcrowded nor underpopulated, and very friendly. All the time however, I feel myself being drawn back across the footbridge of the busy BAM station to the embankment of the lake, from where the views are stirringly invigorating. On my second morning in Severobaikalsk, I take another walk around town wondering if I should risk venturing out onto this ice alone, if necessary following a bearing on my GPS receiver, though I have no local knowledge of where the ice is likely to be drivable. I meet a Buryat lady selling large chunks of meat on a table in the open air, the Siberian winter providing a natural deep-freeze better than that in any supermarket. Customers order by weight and the meat is carved with a chainsaw. I happen to mention my plans to her and am very excited to hear that she and her husband, who is keeping warm in the cab of their pickup truck, drove up from Ust-Barguzin yesterday on tracks across the lake. They tell me that there is snow on the ice, but not too much to drive through. Relieved to hear this, I conclude my time in Severobaikalsk with a visit to the BAM Museum and lunch in a typically Soviet stolovaya (canteen). Later in the afternoon I say goodbye to Aleksey and drive in the dark down to the village of Baikalskoye, around forty kilometres to the south, where the road ends and the tracks should set off across the lake.
I awake to a cold morning of thin cloud and a beautiful view of the snow-dusted wooden houses of the village, each streaming a small plume of smoke which sits in the heavy, still air. I drive down to a beach with a small jetty where a number of boats have been scuppered for the winter. Beyond, a huge, barren expanse of ice extends to the southern horizon. After making use of a latrine with one of the finest views I can remember, I drive out onto the ice. I’ve seen two other cars drive out onto the ice this morning but was not in a position to stop the drivers to ask directions. There are numerous vehicle tracks on the ice, but I suspect the great majority have been made by local fisherman or hunters driving to their favourite nearby spots. One track heads arrow-straight out onto the lake, so I chose this track. I once again have the slightly nervous feeling of heading into the unknown. This is an illegal, unofficial track. If something happens out on the lake, I will most likely be totally alone.
Driving is initially excellent as I get used to being on the surface of a huge, deep lake, getting increasingly far from land. Several vehicles have recently used these tracks and whilst the snow is thick enough to obscure the ice at all times, it is currently thin enough not to worry about getting stuck. The ice surface feels smooth in places, though it is clear that the ice is not static, forming pressure ridges and occasional cracks a few centimetres wide, though the open water rapidly re-freezes. I am initially only concerned that the track appears to be heading towards the lake’s eastern shore, though after around thirty kilometres it turns southwards towards Ust-Barguzin. I suppose it’s human nature that the individuals who first made these tracks wished to be reasonably close to the reassuring mountains which rise up straight from the shoreline. A little further along, I start to worry when I notice the tracks diverging and thinning, and the snow getting thicker. Mounds and ridges of broken ice dot the surface causing the tracks to twist chaotically around these obstacles and I eventually find myself following a single set of tracks through increasingly deep snow. I recall travelling in remote parts of Mongolia, following little-used tracks which would suddenly thin out, usually signalling an obstacle or bad patch of road lay ahead. Sure enough, I come across a large crack perhaps sixty centimetres wide. Brashly, I drive across the re-frozen water and make it to the far side without a problem. I then make a very foolish decision to reverse back over it, in order to take a photograph of the car crossing the crack. Reversing more slowly across, I feel the wheels punch through the ice, but clamber out to the far side. I am then left in the alarming situation of having the car straddling the crack which is now partially open, with nothing but eight hundred metres of cold water below me as I open my door and look down in anguish. I consider my options, then brashly gun the accelerator with the transfer box in low-range to maximise the torque to the wheels. I make it across without an issue but am left rather shaken; along with my crash into a snow-bank on the first day out of Magadan, this is my closest brush with disaster. The crack is far too narrow to swallow the car, but an axle stuck in the crack and resting on the chassis would make for a very difficult recovery.
Amazingly, just as I am preparing to leave, a local car approaches; an overloaded Toyota Corolla estate car with the panels of a garden shed stacked on its roof. I stop the driver to warn him of the wide crack. In typical Russian style he picks a spot where the crack is somewhat narrower and nonchalantly guns the low-slung car across. Now on the far side of the crack, I am doubly relieved to see that the track is again more heavily used, and continue calmly southwards. I start to spot people with cars closer to the shore, fishing from small wooden sheds. It’s still more than one hundred kilometres to Ust-Barguzin, so I imagine that the fishing is particularly good – or illegal – here. As the day wears on, the weather worsens and visibility becomes poor, at times a white-out when I am simply driving into a white void, with lake and sky merging into one white mass. Thankfully, there are occasional markers stuck in the ice, delineating the boundary of a nature reserve into which entry is strictly forbidden. Early in the afternoon I reach the entrance to Chivyrkuysky Bay and although an ice road of sorts has been cleared recently, the ice has a nasty, wet sheen to it, and I feel more drag from the wheels, as if the ice were becoming slushy. I decide to put my foot down rather like gunning a tender against the tide into a difficult landing. Eventually, 223 kilometres after leaving Baikalskoye, I make landfall as I drive onto the ice-covered beach in the tiny village of Kurbulik, with a sense of achievement and relief, having completed another uncertain and potentially dangerous section of the trip.
I’ve actually landed on the Svyaty Nos Peninsula and it’s a bumpy fifty kilometre drive on a washboard track – something I have come to expect in Buryatia – to the town of Ust-Barguzin, a place I have very fond memories of as it was here that I met Finns Toni and Marjo back in 2010, the start of six weeks of travelling together through stunning autumnal landscapes of Siberia and Mongolia. Afternoon clouds now hide the gorgeous scenery, but this does little to dampen my spirits after successfully crossing the lake. A bridge now spans the Barguzin River, replacing the old ferry service which I used on my previous visit, and once in town I make my way to the lake shore where we camped for one glorious, warm autumn evening, this time to see if there are any tracks heading across the ice towards Olkhon Island. On reaching the lake shore I see nothing, and a local fisherwoman shrugs her shoulders when I inquire about a track across to Olkhon. The ice looks sweaty and unsound to me so I decide to abandon the idea, having already pushed my luck enough. It’s a joy to drive into the darkness on the newly paved road to the junction town of Irkilik where I spend the night, pushing on in the morning. I decide to avoid a long highway detour through the regional capital Ulan Ude and instead drive on a small road on the right bank of the Selenga River where I soon find an ice road across the river. On the river’s left bank I reach the small town of Tataurovo and join the Trans-Siberian Highway for the first time on this trip. Here I’m suddenly reacquainted with poor driving and dirty brown road slush; two things I have not missed while driving on the icy tracks of the north. In the industrial lakeside city of Slyudyanka I climb into the very eastern edges of the Sayan Mountains, catch my last glimpse of this beautiful lake and by mid-afternoon reach my next stop; the city of Irkutsk.
Irkutsk lies astride the Angara River just downstream of where it emerges from Lake Baikal. Like many Siberian cities, its origin lies in a fortress from which early Russian pioneers extracted yasak (tribute) from indigenous Siberian tribes and began to exploit local gold deposits. When the popular Decembrist Revolt against Tsar Nicholas I took place in Saint Petersburg in 1825, Irkutsk soon received a number of Decembrists; nobles and officers, often accompanied voluntarily by their wives, whom the Tsar banished to distant Siberian outposts. With the influx of such exiles, Irkutsk saw a great intellectual, educational and cultural flourishing which later with the advent of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the last years of the nineteenth century, saw the city gain an epithet as the ‘Paris of Siberia’. My pretty Buryat host Julia takes me out in Irkutsk to see a number of surviving wooden buildings from this era, often beautifully adorned with nalichniki (decorative window frames). These buildings are either run-down tenements or meticulously preserved museums, in both cases sticking out rather incongruously from the city’s often haphazard streets of Soviet concrete and modern blandness.
The twentieth century favoured Irkutsk rather less; brutal fighting during the Russian Civil War was followed by heavy industrialisation in Soviet times, though the city has remained a centre for education with Irkutsk State University an integral part of the city’s elegant Stalinist centre. Striking out on my own for a full day’s exploration, I see a variety of sides of the city; the colourful Baroque of the Epiphany Cathedral above the steaming water of the Angara; the slightly gritty embankment where men fish from desolate banks; the wooden houses slowly being edged out by ugly, modern construction and the grimly industrial suburbs around the large dam and hydro-electric power station which I walk across in the waning afternoon light, looking across the frozen Angara Reservoir feeling a little uneasy at how close this industrial squalor is to Baikal’s drinkably pure water. Though not what I would term a beautiful city, I like Irkutsk’s raffishness and am glad to spend a couple of days here after rushing through last summer. But with the temperature a mere -12º C and the roads filthy with slush, I yearn to return to the clean, cold wilderness to the north.
In order to return to the invigorating north, I judge it necessary to move west now for around seventeen hundred kilometres on a route using conventional roads, much of it on the Trans-Siberian Highway, back-tracking my outward journey last year. My route so far has generally followed major rivers, the reverse of the old pioneer trail into Siberia. Ideally, I would now follow the Angara to the Yenisei and make a portage of sorts by zimnik to the Ob, but to my knowledge there is no such road of any sort. Therefore, after leaving Irkutsk I make a solid two-day drive on the modern road, sleeping for the first night among parked lorries in a road-side village, then pushing on, crossing the steaming, strangely ice-free Yenisei on a bypass road north of Krasnoyarsk. From here I am retracing a route I last drove in 2007, on my first visit to Russia and Siberia which made such a deep and lasting impression upon me. Reaching the city of Marinsk as darkness falls, I turn off the Trans-Siberian Highway and join a rather rough road as the weather deteriorates, with heavy snowfall making the last section of the journey to Tomsk rather arduous.
Tomsk is one of Siberia’s oldest cities and until the nineteenth century was one of its most important. Two key points in the city’s history have however made it quite distinctive; the decision of its administration to make it a centre of education (many Russian expatriates whom I work with in Europe have studied here), and the fact that the city was bypassed by the Trans-Siberian Railway. This is my first visit to Tomsk and as I start to explore the city I notice that these two factors play off against each other nicely; its (albeit fairly minor) dislocation from the region’s main transport conduit means that modernisation has been rather less brash than in, for example, Irkutsk, yet the city’s youthful, intellectual population means the city feels modern and progressive rather than a somnolent backwater. Tomsk is built along the right bank of the Tom River, a major tributary of the Ob, and sits on the edge of the vast lowland of West Siberia which stretches up to the Urals and the Arctic Ocean. It’s a cold, clear day and the view across the snow-covered Tom towards to a ruler-flat landscape of marshes and patchy birch forest give the city a slight edge-of-the-world feel. In contrast to the riverbank views, the main Lenin Avenue, though not devoid of Soviet concrete, is still a modestly proportioned thoroughfare, much of which is lined by quaint, two-storey, pastel-coloured Tsarist-era buildings and even the occasional wooden structure. I visit the Regional Museum and then cross the road to a former police jail, which is now the Memorial Museum of the History of Political Repression, though the real highlight is simply to walk along a major thoroughfare in a Russian city which has ridden the wild transition to a market economy so beautifully unscathed.
On my second full day in the city, I start by walking through quieter streets a little east of the centre and find many beautiful wooden houses which, whilst often rather shabby or hemmed-in by modern, red-brick mansions and apartments, are still present in sufficient numbers to constitute perhaps Russia’s best-preserved, living urban landscape of wooden architecture. Some wooden structures are lavishly built with ornate turrets and spires, having once belonged to wealthy merchant families. I however find my highlight of the city close to the riverbank, behind Lenin Avenue in the slightly down-at-heel Tatar Sloboda, an ancient settlement said to date from the seventeenth century, having been founded by ‘Tatar’ traders from Kazan, Tobolsk and Central Asia. Here I stroll along the aptly the named Tatar Street where an almost unbroken line of lived-in wooden houses is overlooked by the tall, green-tipped spire of the early twentieth century Red Mosque; a particularly fine view. In the afternoon my rather excitable host Natasha, a photographer, persuades me to engage in – of all unlikely things one might do during a winter expedition – a spot of menswear modelling for her friend (also Natasha). Resuming my wandering of Tomsk’s backstreets, I amble up Oktyabrsky Vzvoz (ascent) and as the sun lowers behind yet more period architecture and watch locals skating on a large pond in a scene which could be a classical Russian painting.
I leave Tomsk on a bright, cold morning feeling I have found Siberia’s most attractive city and one of the nicest in Russia. I cross the Tom which I last crossed with Maciej on a pontoon bridge far upstream in the foothills of the Abakan Range, then shortly after meet the Ob River for the first time on this trip; the westernmost of the three great Siberian rivers. I spend the day driving roughly along the Ob on an excellent asphalt road into what feels like an ever-widening landscape, to the tiny Siberian village of Prokop. Here I have arranged to stay with Slava, who lives with his family in a traditional Russian village house with a kitchen garden, banya and outhouse. I am the first foreigner that the family has hosted and am treated to famously generous Siberian hospitality; a table is soon laid with baked meat and potatoes, sausage, potato salad, pickled wild mushrooms, pickled vegetables, fresh bread and a bottle of rather fierce peppered vodka. The family have also invited a former neighbour, Alex, a Volga German and English teacher from the small nearby town of Parabel to relieve us from having to rely for communication on my Tarzan-Russian. What unfolds is a really lovely evening; the type of inter-cultural communication which makes travel so enjoyable. I go to bed in a warm Siberian home a full stomach and in high spirits, though with the clear, star-filled sky keeping the temperature at a brisk -25º C, the inevitable nocturnal trip through the garden to the outhouse is more than a little bracing.
Though the heart-warming kindness of Slava’s family and experience of Siberian village life would be reasons enough to come out to this distant village, it is the nearby village of Narym which has brought me here. Slava and I drive out on a sunny morning, passing Parabel and joining a winter road which leads for thirty kilometres across lumpy, frozen swamp to the Ob, which we cross on an ice road to reach the isolated village. Narym is the oldest settlement in Tomsk Region, having been founded in 1596 to extract yasak from the indigenous Selkup by pioneers coming several hundred kilometres down the Ob from Surgut. Once a prosperous, if tiny, trade outpost, Narym’s position on a riverbank surrounded by nothing but swamps and vulnerable to flooding meant it never really grew, and was soon permanently eclipsed by Tomsk. Perhaps unsurprisingly it became a lasting destination for exile, first in Tsarist times, when the relocated included Decembrists and Bolsheviks such as Kuybyshev, Sverdlov and most famously, Stalin. In Soviet times, under Stalin himself, thousands were sent here and either summarily executed (gruesome images in one of Tomsk’s museums show the result of the Ob eroding into a bank filled with the bones of an NKVD mass grave) or sent to labour camps. Locals say that “God created Crimea; the Devil, Narym”.
Driving through the empty streets of the village, the size and quality of the wooden houses suggests early exiles lived in reasonably comfortable conditions, though many of the structures are slowly disappearing into the swamp. Slava and I stop at the bright yellow Museum of Political Exile which is thankfully open and are taken around the museum by one of the lady curators. The museum was once a shrine to Stalin and there is still a plaster bust of the tyrant, fine oil paintings of a young Joseph and old photos of the huge Stalin statue which used to stand in the village. Following his denunciation, the museum was de-Stalinised into a museum of exiled Bolsheviks (ignoring the irony that the Soviet regime continued to exile dissidents here) which later became the current incarnation of the museum. Out in the museum’s grounds is Stalin’s old lair; a very comfortable cottage more holiday-home than prison, from which he chose to escape after just two months of internment. Though lovingly maintained, the place inspires a sense of increased loathing for the man, in view of the truly horrific conditions to which he deported and condemned many millions of Soviet citizens.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but like Narym, which is looking its best on a crisp, sunny winter morning, though I can only imagine the hordes of pestilent summer mosquitoes rising from the endless swamps all around. I make a stupid decision to ignore a no-entry sign onto what looks to be a short ice road across a channel to the village of Shpalozavod, which turns out to be deep, soft snow in which I bog the car. Slava borrows a shovel from a local home and a passing local, drunk and driving an old snowmobile with one of its tracks missing, directs us on how to rock and power the car out, turning a worrying stranding into a bit of light-hearted fun. We stop on the way back at Chisty Yar, a natural sulphurous hot-spring where we sit in steaming hot water overlooking the deep-frozen swamps along the Ob, then drive into Parabel where we meet Alex at the local school. Here I sit as a very unusual Anglophone visitor, quizzed by the town’s pupils, many of whom have never before met a foreigner. We finish the evening in Alex’s apartment with his wife and friends who ply me with food and drink, rounding off a truly enjoyable day.
Returning with Slava to his home in Prokop, I can’t help but see the irony that in this remote and maligned swamp, I have one of the nicest experiences of the entire trip. It is with very fond memories of Tomsk Region then that I look to the next, and final stage of my journey through the Siberian Winter; back onto winter roads up along the Ob and on to the Arctic.
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 closely 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 menhirs; 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.