Yakutsk is called the world’s coldest city. It is built on continuous permafrost; most houses stand on concrete poles. Winters here are extremely cold and long. The daily mean is above zero degrees from May to September only and hits lows in winter that are hard to imagine. January’s daily mean is at -38.6 degrees, for instance, while the city’s all-time low is at -64,4 degrees. But locals say, what comes after -52 doesn’t make a difference anymore. It’s just cold. We were happy to get to the city in the middle of their three month summer. As if we had planned it!
But Yakutsk is not only a special place because of its climate. It’s also in a special location. Yakutsk lies on the eastern side of the Lena river while the street leading there from the south is on the western bank. No bridge exists. You can drive on the frozen Lena in winter or cross it by ferry in summer. But in between, you can only reach the city by plane.
Yakutsk is responsible for a fifth of the world’s production of diamonds, so it is not a poor town. You can see it on the streets. Still, the people we spoke to think a lot about leaving. High wages and family seem to tie many to the city, while the harsh winter is driving people away. In the Yakutian winter they stay home on the weekends, they say. You don't leave the house without having a good reason. Simple as that.
After two days of exploring the city and its sights such as the Mammoth Museum, we took the ferry across the Lena for the second time. Back to the east.
Ahead of us lay the Kolyma Highway. The 2000 kilometers of dirt and gravel lead to Magadan, Russia’s easternmost city reachable by road. The Kolyma highway was first built by Gulag prisoners, which many of whom did not survive. That’s why it carries its second name: Road of Bones.
The road was a bit sandy at first but after some time we got used to it and were able to do between 50 and 70 km/h in this section. After 350 kilometers we reached the Aldan river, Kolyma highway’s only gap. When we got there, a few cars were already in line. We knew Declan – an Irish biker who had done the trip a few weeks ahead of us and provided us with much helpful information – had waited long hours at this very spot, but we were luckier. A loaded ferry appeared after a few minutes only.
But after waiting for the ferry comes waiting for the ferry to leave.
It took two hours until a pair trucks appeared and the (obviously drunken) captain gave the signal for departure. The ferry ride took two hours and by the time we got to Keskil, it was pitch dark. In this town there was no guesthouse whatsoever in sight so we carried on with a night ride to Chandyga. We were lucky to find two beds in a Gostiniza well after midnight.
When we got back on the road the next morning, the landscape changed.
The mountains were not higher than 1.600 meters but produced nice bends and a few postcard shots.
In some places, there was still some ice lying around.
We then reached the most important junction of the Kolyma highway. In Kyubeme, the Old Summer Road branches off the federal highway. It is one of the most challenging roads for motorcyclists.
There were two groups a few days ahead of us that had to turn around, one of them being our Indian friends of the Dominar Trip. Rainfalls had washed the road away, rivers were impassable. Both groups had significantly lighter bikes than us, so there was no use in us even attempting the ride. We were a bit disappointed.
The Road of Bones in general and the Old Summer Road in particular were made popular among motorcyclists by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman. They included it in their 2004 round-the-world trip “Long way round”. McGregor and Boorman completed it only with the help of trucks, which their bikes were loaded onto. An option they did not have then was the one we took. The federal highway is a northern alternative to the Old Summer Route and in much better shape. It was completed in 2008.
We rode 584 kilometers that day before we reached Ust-Nera, the northernmost point of our entire journey. At first sight, it comes across as a ghost town.
We soon found out that Ust-Nera is not a ghost town, but a shrinking city. From 1989 to today, the population decreased from 12.000 to 6.000 people. Yet, it was incredibly tricky to find a place to sleep. The reason: We arrived two days before Ust-Nera was celebrating its foundation 80 years ago. All guesthouses were booked, all beds were taken. So we were very lucky when Aygul and Andrey, a couple we met through a cab driver, offered us to sleep in their children’s bedroom. Thanks again you two!
It was a grey day the next morning. The weather adapted to the city’s architecture.
Before leaving towards Jagodnoje, we had to fill up on fuel. This proved more troublesome than expected. The lady of the gas station started shouting at us for no apparent reason. Miraculously she switched to completely different mode when we asked her for a photo. Glasses off and smiles only.
Unfortunately the gas pump broke after we had filled up the first bike. It was Ust-Nera’s only gas station and we did not want to wait the two hours it would take them to repair. Some locals standing by gave us the tip that the next gas station was in Artyk, 130 kilometers away. It was still in our range so we decided to go.
When we got to Artyk, we did find a fuel station. But by the looks of it, it had finished service a few years ago. The whole town looked deserted but we found some people still living there. They told us 50 kilometers further, in Delyankir, fuel should be available somehow. The next proper gas station would be in Sussuman, 260 kilometers away. With 50 kilometers left in the tank we decided carry on to Delyankir.
We had expected a town, but Delyankir was really just a house. We first rode past it. But as always on this trip, we got lucky. Here, in the middle of nowhere a woman was in charge of numerous big barrels of fuel. She let us pour 20 liters into the 1090 and we were good to go again.
The next stop on our way was Kadykchan. At this point, the Old Summer Road rejoins the federal highway. Kadykchan is a true ghost town. It once had more than 10.000 inhabitants. Now it is completely depopulated.
The city was built by Gulag prisoners during WWII because a coal mine was close by. But when a coal mining became unprofitable in the 90’s, the city was given up.
It’s a post-apocalyptic atmosphere in this town. It looks as if people had to run away as fast as they can.
The dirt of the streets had somehow made it to our faces and seemed oddly appropriate.
We explored this depressing sight for an hour or so.
But then it was time to hit the road again. There was still plenty to ride before Jagodnoje.
Along the way lay a few other ghost towns. This part of Russia is widely deserted. Infrastructure is really scarce.
When we came to Jagodnoje, we were welcomed by Michail and his mate from the local bike club who had arranged an apartment for us for night.
The next morning we left for the last 500 kilometers of the Kolyma Highway. Like the days before the road was a very dusty.
This day, the dust mixed with a light rain. Our bikes, our bags, our clothes: everything was covered with thick film of dirt. But it did not affect our mood to much.
We were happy to be on the last kilometres, happy that we made it so far.
The last bit of the street was asphalted, so we were able accelerate a bit more than on the past day. Only the Siberian landscape stopped us eventually.
And then we reached Magadan. The final point of the Road of Bones.
Four days and 2.000 kilometers lay behind us. It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, the atmosphere of declining civilisation is something we were happy to leave behind. But having ridden that road was an experience well worth making. We’ll be off to new shores soon. Since there’s no road to take from here, we’ll have to find a ship. Or something like that.