Stage 44 – Russia: The Siberian Winter [1/3]
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.