Yakutsk to Magadan

September 12th, 2017

Kolyma Highway
Above and below are the two halves of the top maps.  The total distance is about 1200 miles.  Ust-Nera is the half-way point and about 64.5 degrees north, comprable to Fairbanks, Alaska.   Magadan is at 59 degrees north, about the same as Skagway.

The Kolyma Highway is the world’s longest federally funded dirt road.  It covers about 1200 miles, nearly the distance in going from Denver to San Francisco, with about 1100 of it being dirt/gravel.  It’s by far the toughest piece road I’ve encountered in 23,000 miles of cycling since leaving Logan.  It took 21 days and all else till now was just training.  Mosquitos and flies could be horrendous.   Some stretches I wouldn’t see a vehicle for hours and others would have a steady stream of trucks throwing up either choking dust or mud-spray as weather dictated.  There were many steep grades and passes.  Towns were few, with one stretch of nearly 400 miles having only a shack selling gas at the half-way point.   Bears closely related to our grizzly are said to be plentiful but I saw only tracks.

The Kolyma (CALL-ah-mah) was built largely by Russian convicts and prisoners of war for the extraction of gold and other metals on the Kolyma River.  Beginning in the 1930s, is was a Joseph Stalin project put in coordination NKVD’s Dalstroy, a USSR forced-labor program. NKVD was the predesessor to the KGB.  The Dalstroy had a reputation for brutality and unknown thousands, perhaps over a million, perished in the GULAGs.  Records are scant.  The Kolyma today is called The Road of Bones as surrounding permafrost made the road itself the easiest way to dispose of bodies.  Efforts for getting gold were stepped up during WWII to help fund the war.   With millions dying in the fight against Hitler, prisoners, many of which were POWs, on the Kolyma were dispensable.  GULAG commendants themselves were several times executed for not getting enough work out of the inmates.  Stalin is known to have said that a prisoner was only good for about three months and after that they didn’t need him- he was just another mouth to feed.  The inhumane GULAG conditions died with Stalin but intensive gold mining goes on today.  Since Perestroika, investment and mining technology have come here from worldwide sources including the US and Canada.

Magadan has grown to a city of over 100,000 people and is a major port and jumping off point for the gold fields. It was a “closed city” till 1987, the beginning of Perestroika, and even a Russian needed an invitation to go there.  Tourists worldwide now come here as well as Russians looking for jobs and better pay.  There has been boom-bust over the years with fluctuating metals markets and recovery from the dissolution of the Soviet Union was slow.  Today, Magadan Oblast has much the same allure and culture that Alaska has for the US.  It’s remarkably similar to Alaska in climate and topography, with the two being symmetrically situated about the northern Pacific Rim.   Any Russian you talk to is well aware that Alaska once belonged to Russia, a fact that often gets squeezed into conversations.

Andrei Onishyenko is from Kamchatka and was just finishing the R of B east-to-west and then heading home.
One of many camps.
This is a stockpile of cement powder that they evidently mix with the dirt/gravel road surface in some places. I don’t think it lasts more than a few years but when it’s new it could be really good…..
…..but then it deteriorates to this and worse.  Road conditions were probably 50% bouncy but tolerable gravel, 25% very smooth and 25% horrible.
Nyurguyana Egorova and Petr Polusklin  were from Yakutsk.
Sergei and Alekse Mekyrdyanov were two brothers that stopped and gave me food and water. They saw my pants were pretty much in shreds (I wanted to buy new in Yakutsk but gave up finding what I wanted) and pulled out of the back of their car a pair of army fatigues- gorkas- that fit perfectly and were ideal pants for the Kolyma.  Notice the O’Neil tee-shirt.  I worked for O’Neil Wetsuits in 1979.
Friendly Russians
Ferry at Khandyga crossing the massive Alden River.  Trucks had to be backed on which took hours, then this guy just about rolled his UAZ (AKA a bukhanka or “bread loaf”) backing down the narrow spit.  UAZs are mass produced in Russia and serve as ambulances and sturdy 4WD vans on the extensive dirt roads of Yakutia and Magadan Oblast.
Andrai and Victor were a two-truck convoy hauling diesel. Over the weeks it took me to pedal the Kolyma,  they lapped me several times making trips back and forth from Magadan to drops along the Kolyma. They always stopped and made sure I was OK, gave me food and offered a ride when we were going the same direction.   Good guys!  The “Ognyeorno” truck trailer is bright orange when the mud’s washed off.

“Bear Aware” sign and entering mountains for the first time.
Eugeny Radshenko and Alex Kimaev were from Magadan and heading to Yakutsk.  Eugeny put me on the Magadan social network and people knew I was coming.
Defunct Dalstroy era bridge.

The Kolyma begins in flat terrain and travels 200 miles through swampy taiga to the Alden River where a ferry transports vehicles across to Khandyga, the last city of any size (7000 people) for 400 miles. There’s one cafe at about 60 miles out, a shack selling gas at 200 miles and then the town of Ust-Nera at 400 miles.  Ust-Nera marks the half-way point of the Kolyma.

Soon after Khandyga the road left the flats and entered mountains.  These were the first real mountains encountered since Mongolia and were a welcome change.  Flowing water was everywhere and it was great to be able to dip your water bottle in to a stream to get a drink and then not need to carry more than a few swallows-worth of extra weight.   The mountains meant steep grades and rougher roads that were made from sharper, crushed gravel causing many flats.  Being on a thin-tired road bike, I was worried from the beginning about this much dirt road but was relieved when I had had no flats the first five days. Then the rougher road bed, sometimes with gravel a couple of inches across (‘2-inch minus’ in American lingo) would pinch the tire against the rim if you caught one just right and puncture the tube leaving a pair of “viper bites”.  It’s tough to patch the two holes with one patch, and sometimes it takes two.  After a few days of two-flats-a-day it was clear I wouldn’t have enough patches to get another 800 miles to Magadan.

Vehicles and trucks have the same problems with these stretches and the shoulders are strewn with old tires and tubes.  With few tire shops the entire length of the Kolyma, changing a tire often meant removing it from the rim right at the roadside and repairing it if you could. Semis are equipped with air compressors to refill the tire.  Tires and tubes beyond repair line the road.  But the old tubes came in handy for me.   I was able to cut a strip out of one to make a liner for the inside of the rear tire.   This gave a little added cushion.  It helped things, but I was still getting a flat maybe every other day.

As I got close to Ust-Nera I decided to try another idea.   I had had it in mind for a while to completely stuff the tire with thin strips of rubber from the old tubes and make it into a “non-pneumatic”.  It being better to experiment when getting close to a town as opposed to when starting off on a long empty stretch, I tried it out maybe 80 miles from Ust-Nera.  It worked tolerably well.   On the dirt roads I could hardly tell it from a pneumatic, though later on when I hit pavement it made for a rough ride.  I made some adjustments over the next couple of days to get it running as true as possible and ended up riding non-pneumatic on the rear 700 miles to Magadan.  In that time I only had one flat on the front, but it was simply that the tire was shot and I had a new spare to put on.

Short section of the original road to the left, new road switchbacking to the right. Not hard to imagine that the old road was hand dug.

 

Another original-looking bridge
Great camps.
Most streams and rivers have bridges but a few had to be forded.

 

Above and below, cutting the rubber liner at a road-side shelter during rain.

Trying out the strip method and making a solid tire.
No tube, no flats!
When I put the new tire on the front rim I discovered that the sidewall was begining to wear thru from years of breaking.  Got me to Magadan but I haven’t yet found a replacement.
Many markers for people in more modern times that have died on the Kolyma.
Mark and Bronya stopped in their UAZ and had bread and raw fish to eat.

The road to Tomtor is the original Road of Bones and shorter than the loop to Ust-Nera by about 120 miles. It’s unmaintained and I didn’t dare try it on the road bike but I got word that two Canadians, Kara and Brandon, came from Magadan across it while I looped up to Ust-Hera.    The R of B is a small world and we were put in touch with each other later on and have exchanged a few emails.  Tomtor and twin city Oymykon claim the world’s coldest recorded temperatures (-71 C) for cities outside of Antarctica.

These guys were broken down and apparently waiting on help but had food and a fire going cooking mushrooms they had collected.  They invited me to join in. If I got the names at all right, they are, L to R, Andrei, Ebadula, Akeem and Petrov.
Old tire rims make good fire grates.

The mix of people in remote towns like Ust-Nera range wildly from almost hostile to over-the-top friendly and little in between.   Alcoholism and associated domestic violence are ongoing problems.  I was approached by drunks on several occasions that would at first be very friendly- especially when they found I was American- but you never knew where it was heading.   I had a couple of times, 250 pound drunk men put their arm around me and start walking towards some untold destination and breaking away without an outright confrontation could be tricky.  They were insisting on hospitality and to refuse was to offend.  In Ust-Nera I wanted to buy more patch glue from a “shinomontaj” (tire repair) but was getting that sort of treatment from people working there.   I managed to break free, sans patch glue, but decided after that to just get to a grocery store, stock up for the next week, buy gasoline for the cook stove and get out of town.   I got the gas, found a magazine productivy (small grocery store) and was packing to go when a guy, Nicoli, I had said a few words to in the store was watching me pack and asked some questions.  He spoke a few words of English, was sober and respectful- you never know whether you’re going to get sincere curiosity or heckling curiosity.   After a few minutes he invited me to stay the night at his apartment which he shares with his mother.  Well, they treated me like royalty and I ended up staying two nights and got a much needed rest.  It was one of those times you could really use some kings-x safety and there it was.

I met Nicoli at the small Ust-Nera magazine and he spoke enough English that we could communicate. He shares some of the same culture a younger generation from the West is into.
Natalya cooking one of several meals she made while I was there.
Natalya has the job of checking the town’s water supply once a day where it’s taken from a creek.  It involved measuring water height and temperature and keeping a chart recorder for the flow working properly.  Tough job in the winter.
Walking to the water source with Nicoli.

Nicoli is a tattoo artist and into Heavy Metal which I may have gained a slight appreciation for listening to him play it. He has drawing books filled with amazing artwork but little outlet for it in a place as remote as Ust-Nera.

J6

Natalya was a very sweet lady and did everything for me while I was there.  I never got the story straight, but either her father or grandfather was a physicist/mathematician that ended up in “rehabilitation” here.  They were from the Black Sea and she decided to move to Ust-Nera some years after he had passed away.  That was over thirty years ago.

A few miles out of Ust-Nera I passed the half-way marker for the Kolyma.  The first half took 10 days so I was making excellent time thus far.  It was August 20th and it looked like I could make Magadan by the beginning of September.  Before Yakutsk I was thinking I might average 40 to 50 miles a day on the dirt-road Kolyma.  That would have put me in Magadan more like mid September.  I was dreading what would happen if things went even slower, as they usually do.   Ust-Nera is at 64.5º north- the Arctic Circle is at 66.5º – and the end of September is essentially late fall / early winter.   But I was averaging over 60 miles a day and though the rear tire was slowing me up a bit, I knew I’d make it OK.

Halfway point in Kilometers. It’s about 600 miles to Magadan.

This is a side road that goes north essentially to the Arctic Ocean…….
….and a sign with info. “Deroga Arctic” is in the quotes and is “Arctic Road”.  I’m guessing it is a winter “ice road”.  Be interesting to check out some day.

Snow fences.
Katya and her dad, Sasha, stopped and wanted a photo. They’re from the small town of Yagandnoe where Sasha works in tax collection.  Katya won my heart in all of two minutes.  The pants are the gorkas from Sergei and Aleksi. 
Sasha and Katya.
Five needle dwarf pine with a stone-seed cone that I’m sure the bears feed on.

Bolshevik, Susuman and Magadan
Bolshevik. Not much left of the town but there was some active mining going on.

Gold mining on the Kolyma and Indigirka River systems has been long term and extensive. Rivers over thousands of years concentrate the gold and other heavy metals in a sort of natural sluicing process that is one of the universe’s great examples of negative entropy. Getting the gold means shoveling the river’s flood plain and bottom through a sluice, one dump truck at a time, and digging to what ever depth it’s profitable.  Hundreds of miles of river have been made into a wasteland probably not much different than what things looked like when the glaciers first retreated.   Recovery will be many years. What the rivers would be worth as 21st century eco-tourism destinations we’ll never know.

Huckleberries on breakfast cereal and bolete mushrooms with pasta were a daily thing.
Closest I got to a grizzly bear, this guy stopped, couldn’t speak a word of English, wanted to know all about the trip, offered a ride, then gave me the best leftovers (below) I think I’ve ever had (I’m sure from his wife). Kbac is a lightly fermented wheat-derived drink- no narcotic effect- that tastes a little like prune juice. I’ve grown quite fond of it.

B

A camp at a pass in alpine where I quit early and went for a hike to a small Siberian summit and got a few plant photos.

Grizzly track.
Many beautiful, clear running streams.
100 miles to go.

For the last couple of days getting to Magadan the weather turned rainy and cold.  Magadan’s airport is at Sokol, about 40 miles before Magadan, and I got there in driving rain and found a hotel.  Later that night I got a knock on the door from two guys, Dima and Sanya I (Sanya II to be met later and there was even a Sanya III) who knew I was coming and somehow learned I was in that hotel.  Sanya spoke enough English that we could communicate and soon I was invited to a gathering in Magadan the following night.   Dima picked me up the next afternoon and shuttled me to town.  Dima took me all over, wanted to pay for repairs to the bike and payed for a room.  Their gathering was a great time with food cooked over a fire, guitars and singing later on.  There was no alcohol- they call themselves “the new Russians”-  for which one can only have respect.   These folks have got it figured out.

Sanya II and Dima.
Jenya and Luba.
Dima does about the same thing for living that I do but on a grander scale and he has many employees. This is a bandsaw-type sawmill a little bigger than the portable one I have.
Dima was never too far from his cell phone- or his guitar.
Great folks.
Sanya I, Dima, Kolya and his girlfriend.  If you can find my Facebook page, one out of hundreds of Steve Walkers, there are some video clips of playing songs and links to lyrics.   These guys are all computer experts and one guy, Andrei, had live video on my page within a few minutes.

The next day they had a mountain bike ride planned and Dima lent me a bike as mine was pretty much non-functional with the front rim wear and a freewheel pawl that had begun to skip.  We rode 12 miles of road/trail to an oceanside cabin at Cape Ostrovnoi and spent the night.  Next day Sanya I and I hiked to Cape Ostrovnoi and got beautiful views of rugged coastline and saw many sea birds and chuleen, or seals.

Sanya I……
…..getting a drink.
Cape Ostrovnoi.
Sanya I & II at the oceanside cabin.

Dimitri and Yaroslof were fishermen that stopped by the cabin.
Sanya II
Puffin.
Sanya I near the top of Cape Ostrovnoi.
Spit leading to Ostrovnoi.  It was once an island but the bridge was created during WWII to prevent Japanese ships from going undetected towards Magadan.
Fisherman who when he learned I’d cycled the Kolyma said it was the bones under the road that protected me.
Descending a cable that led to the cabin.
Sanya I and Ostrovnoi behind.
Andrei works in real estate and lined me up with an apartment and took me around Magadan. He brought me to a “banya”, a sauna/massage place and though I’m glad I saw one, it was unbelievably hot and a bit painful for the uninitiated.  They love it though.
Picking brushnika with Dima and family. They’re essentially the same as our lingonberry or wild cranberry.
Luba and Dima’s son.
Dima’s wife Julia.

Tour of a house Dima’s building for himself and family.  Just finishing up the foundation.

Stas, Victoria and Sergei.  Sergei has built a water park, photo above this one, where you can “wake board”, a sort of waterskiing but with jumps and acrobatics.  He’s wearing a “Los Angeles” tee-shirt and I tried to tell him that Logan, Utah has more in common with Magadan than LA.
Pulling the rubber out of the tire and going back to pneumatic.

So, I’ve rented an apartment for a month and will stay and get to know Magadan a little and learn some Russian.  I’ve bought a cheap guitar to play and Dima has lent me another guitar.  I’ve been playing a lot and learning a few Russian folk songs but old tendonitis problems in my wrist and arm have been right there to haunt me.  After this, there’s not much left but to make my way back to the US.  I’m less than 800 miles from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands (Attu) but so far I haven’t found direct transportation there from Magadan at any kind of reasonable price.  The alternative is an inexpensive flight to Vladivostok, ferry or fly to either Japan or South Korea, then probably fly to San Francisco.  Then it’s either to Anchorage for the winter or cycle home for house repairs and earning money for the first time in a while.   At the moment I’m favoring the latter and would do the logistically easy leg from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay next spring/summer.

 

 

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Steve

I'm so silly

13 thoughts on “Yakutsk to Magadan”

  1. Just an unbelievable journey Steve! Your ingenuity astounds!!! I love all the photos and stories of the people you met up with. It warms my heart to know there are so many caring people worldwide. I can’t imagine what life in Logan will feel like now, for you? Not riding everyday on tough terrain, finding camp spots, experiencing different cultures, watching for large game, etc. Please post what it’s been like for you when you’re home. I’ve so enjoyed your blog! All our best to you!

        1. Hi Melanie,
          I’m back in Logan procrastinating on writing the last leg from Magadan to home. Briefly: Flew to Vladivostok, ferried to Korea, cycled across the peninsula, flew to SF via Beijing, rode home from SF across the Great Basin (beautiful stretch). Home now adjusting. I was as happy as I’ve ever been on the road. It’s like I’m destined to be homeless- maybe a little like Grampa. Hope you’re well. Think about Norm once in a while. Had his pocket knife over the whole trip. SW

  2. Hi Steve. Sorry I didn’t get your name when I ran into you yesterday on the Lafayette-Moraga bike trail when you stopped to ask for directions. Hope the directions helped and you made is safely to Pleasanton. After I got home, I started thinking about your adventure and maybe you had a blog somewhere so I poked around Google and Bingo! Hope you make it back to Logan before winter sets in and I’ll be following along.

    1. Hi Mike,
      Yes I found the way. Also, the guy I mentioned that gave me the directions, Paul Larsen, did NOT tell me to cross the creek, he said to take the very trail you pointed me to. Too much to remember in the instructions for going from his dad’s place in Piedmont to Pleasanton!! Thanks for your help, Steve.

  3. Unbelievable Steve, 23,000 plus miles. I am really amazed at your journey, your resourcefulness and the people you have connected with, learned about, not to forget the beauty, the starkness and the rigors of your journey. You can give lectures or write a book. Not many people could do what you’ve done in the style you did it in. Grit and self reliance. Sincere kudos.

  4. Hey Steve, what a cool section of your epic journey. I’m in Fairbanks (64.8 N) airport right now after just finishing a week in the Alaskan “taiga” – so there is at least a lattitudinal kinship.

    All the best! -paul

    1. Thanks Paul. I see you’re running for City Council. I may be home in time to vote for you! For interested Loganites checkout Paul’s Facebook page at VotePaulRogers. Steve

  5. My head is literally spinning with new learnings and impressions garnered from this section of your blog! Check your e-mail for further elaboration! What a saga! It sounds like you’ll be having the winter of a lifetime among people you truly admire and appreciate. I am so happy for you. Hope their language and music become a part of you. Pam

    Stupendous Trek!
    It did not wreck!
    The wonder man set out so bold!

    Solution master!
    With no disaster!
    His story will ever be told!

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