Stage 43 – Russia & Kazakhstan: Trans-Eurasia [3/3]

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.

Landscape, near Khalan, Amur Region, Russia

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.

Amur River, Blagoveshchensk, Amur Region, Russia

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.

Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Region, Russia

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.

Jewish Man, Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Region, Russia

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.

Komsomolsk Square, Khabarovsk, Khabarovsk Territory, Russia

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.

Fedorov Bay, Vladivostok, Primorsk Territory, 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.

Muravyov-Amursky Peninsula, Vladivostok, Primorsk Territory, Russia

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.

Golden Bridge, Vladivostok, Primorsk Territory, Russia

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.

Nakhodka Bay, Nakhodka, Primorsk Territory, 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.

Forest, near Lazo, Primorsk Territory, Russia

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.

Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve, Primorsk Territory, Russia

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.

Mammoth Petroglyph, Sikachi-Alyan, Khabarovsk Territory, Russia

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.

Amga River, Verkhnyaya Amga, Sakha Republic, Russia

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.

Lake Tyungyulyu, Tyungyulyu, Sakha Republic, Russia

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.

Landscape, near Uolba, Sakha Republic, Russia

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.

Aldan River, Khandyga, Sakha Republic, Russia

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.

Vostochnaya Khandyga River, Sakha Republic, Russia

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.

Yakutian Horses, near Kyubeme, Sakha Republic, Russia

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.

Arkagala, Magadan Region, Russia

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.

Ayan-Yuryakh Valley, Magadan Region, Russia

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.

Mask of Sorrow, Magadan, Magadan Region, Russia

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 renounce Stalin, rather than clinging to his brutality?

Nagaev Bay, Magadan, Magadan Region, Russia

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.


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