Journey to Oymyakon - The Pole of Cold in Yakutia, Russia (Part II- Kolyma Hiway)

Journey to Oymyakon - The Pole of Cold in Yakutia, Russia (Part II- Kolyma Hiway)

adventure travel & photography

Destinations: Pakistan ◦◦ India ◦◦Turkey ◦◦ Egypt ◦◦ Bulgaria ◦◦ Mongolia ◦◦ Bangladesh ◦◦ Jordan ◦◦ Russia ◦◦ Turkmenistan ◦◦ Iran ◦◦ Kazakhstan ◦◦ Japan ◦◦ Hong Kong ◦◦ Greece ◦◦ Ukraine ◦◦ Syria ◦◦ Morocco ◦◦ Italy ◦◦ Mauritania ◦◦ Oman ◦◦ Algeria ◦◦ Faroe Islands ◦◦ Indonesia ◦◦ Uzbekistan ◦◦ Ghana ◦◦ Togo

Departing from Yakutsk

Our journey started from Yakutsk, at around 8 o'clock in the morning. As soon as we left, the bus started to make its way onto what appeared to be a sheet of ice. This marked the beginning of our journey on the frozen Lena River, one of the major rivers in Russia. The Lena River, in its grandeur, typically freezes from the middle of October, transforming into a vast frozen highway and remains in this state until around mid-April.

When the spring season begins, an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon known as the ice drift starts. It lasts until the end of May, with the river returning to its liquid state, becoming a bustling waterway. From this time until it freezes over again, the river is navigable for ships and barges of various sizes.

During the warmer period, adventurous travelers have the opportunity to embark on a cruise along the river. This journey takes them to the Lena Delta, a spectacular sight where the river spills into the Arctic Ocean, and further to the small, quaint town of Tiksi. This town is located in one of the most remote and unexplored regions in the world.

However, the opportunity to take this cruise is rare and highly sought after, as it only occurs three times a year. It's also a fairly expensive venture, with the cost averaging around 3-4,000 euros. Despite the cost, the unique experience of navigating the Lena River, witnessing the stark beauty of the Siberian landscape, and the chance to visit such remote locations, makes it an intriguing prospect for many.


In the heart of winter, vehicles in Yakutia navigate a unique network of icy roads, some of them on frozen rivers. A dedicated service is responsible for shaping these icy roads, using a fascinating process that involves pumping water from the river to flood the intended route. As the frigid air interacts with the water, a new layer of ice forms and freezes. This process is repeated multiple times to build up a robust icy road that can withstand the weight and pressure of passing vehicles. Vehicles can travel at speeds ranging from 50-80 km per hour, with a weight limit of 40 tons. For heavier vehicles, up to 60 tons, they can traverse these icy roads under special conditions, a testament to the strength of these frozen highways.

As we journeyed through this icy landscape, the scenery would shift rapidly, revealing small villages and settlements. On one occasion, we stopped in a quaint village that was marked by traditional wooden houses, a lone horse harnessed to a sleigh, and an almost eerie absence of people.

After crossing the river, our journey took us through a small town that marked the beginning of the infamous Kolyma Hiway, also known as the "Road of Bones". Knowing the history and the stories tied to this road, we couldn't help but feel a sense of awe as we planned to spend the next 4-5 days navigating this historic route. We were very much aware that we were traveling atop the remains of deceased people. This particular section of the road, stretching between Yakutsk and Khandyga (approximately 500 km), is relatively new compared to the historical Kolyma Hiway, which runs between Khandyga and Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk. The entire distance from Yakutsk to Magadan is around 2,000 km. Our goal was to cover half of this formidable distance, up to the village of Oymyakon, approximately 1,000 km from Yakutsk.

Our journey continued through the stunning yet unforgiving frozen lands of Yakutia. Inside the bus, however, the atmosphere was a stark contrast to the external conditions. The inside was warm and filled with the sound of jokes and laughter, a clear indication of the high spirits everyone was in despite the challenging journey ahead.


The villages along the road were becoming increasingly sparse and smaller. We stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe, a common dining spot for us. These establishments are located every 300-400 km along the Kolyma Hiway, featuring large parking lots for the numerous trucks traveling from the Far East. The drivers quietly queue in front of the food bar, selecting dishes like fried fish, borscht, dumplings, and cabbage pies when it's their turn. The food is warm and high in calories, making it ideal for us to share.

The atmosphere reminded me of the Wild West, though it was the Wild East in this case. It seemed surprisingly similar to establishments I'd seen in the USA, though it was less affluent here. Both Eastern and Western drivers seemed to belong to a distinct caste.

The women behind the bar seemed somewhat irritated. One reprimanded me for filming inside, and another tried to smile despite her broken teeth. This prompted a discussion about the daily routines of these people. We speculated that these women probably spent their days cooking and their evenings serving drivers.

City of Khandyga

We arrived in the city of Khandyga in the evening. Before settling down for the night, we had to find a garage for the bus. In temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees, vehicles in Yakutia won't start if left outside. Therefore, a warm garage is essential. After some time, we found a garage. Our driver, Andrey, negotiated with the owner before we headed to our hotel. The vehicles are always prioritized first, then the people - that's just how it is here!

At first glance, the small hotel looked run-down, similar to a semi-decayed Stalinist-style building. However, the interior was much better - warm, with simple but clean and comfortable rooms. The building is residential, with only the first floor serving as a hotel. The woman we met there seemed stern at first, probably due to the usual clientele - miners from the local gold mines en route to Yakutsk or Magadan. Since alcohol is prohibited in the mines, they often get drunk at the hotel, leading to frequent fights. It's the Wild East in its purest form. Observing our quiet and respectful demeanor, the woman softened and became quite helpful.

Although Khandyga is a declining city today, it remains one of the major settlements in the region. During the construction of the Kolyma Hiway, the city served a crucial role as one of two distribution centers for goods, materials, and fuel. The other center is Magadan, located at the opposite end of the road. Handiga housed some of the largest oil storage facilities in the area, which we passed on our journey. There were also extensive warehouses for building materials and supplies. However, with the completion of the road, the city's importance diminished. Today, Khandyga still has a well-stocked supermarket, likely a hospital, and other essential services. Unfortunately, we only saw the city in the dark during our trip.

Kolyma Hiway - Photo Gallery (Part 1)

On the Kolyma Hiway

The following day, we continued along the Kolyma Hiway. This route spans just over 2,000 kilometers, roughly the distance between Madrid and Munich, connecting Yakutsk with Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk's coast. As the route progresses into mountainous and semi-mountainous areas, the landscape transforms into a truly magical scene. Rugged mountains with untouched peaks and deep valleys surround the road.

I refer to these as untouched because it's clear that in Yakutia, activities such as hiking, trekking, and peak climbing aren't popular. Unlike in Europe, there are no huts or trails dedicated to these types of tourism.


Hunting is a popular activity in this region. A wide variety of animals are hunted including bears, foxes, wolves, and various types of geese. For the locals, aimlessly strolling around the mountains is perceived as a waste of time and resources.

We made stops for photo opportunities but could only stay outside for 15-20 minutes due to the frigid temperatures, often between minus 30 and minus 40 degrees. Our bus was equipped with a separate heater which the driver would activate during our stops, maintaining a comfortable environment inside. We were provided with tea, coffee, fruits, and most importantly, alcohol (local vodka). We would stop at picturesque locations, take photos until the cold became unbearable, then retreat to the warmth of the bus for food and drink. The overall experience was memorable, combining atmospheric surroundings with a vodka in hand for a perfect blend of experiences.


However, the builders of the road had a different destiny. The largest GULAG camps were closer to Magadan. Some are completely destroyed, while others still stand. Stalin's regime targeted this remote region for its gold and later uranium deposits. The GULAG became a significant source of forced laborers, targeted under various pretexts, mainly for extracting precious metals and eliminating regime dissenters.

Our guide shared his story, which is connected to these camps. His grandmother, originally from Ukraine, followed her imprisoned husband to Magadan. After her husband's death, she relocated to Yakutsk. The guide's father was around two years old when this occurred. This story is not unique; many women followed their husbands to the camps and engaged in various activities. For instance, our guide's grandmother was skilled in calculations and assisted the local camp store manager in report writing. However, a mistake in her calculations once led to the manager being accused of subversive activity and sent to the gold mines. Such incidents were common in those camps.

We passed a well-preserved wooden bridge, constructed by an ethnic German imprisoned for his heritage. A skilled civil engineer, he built several bridges in the region. Unaffected by harsh weather and time, these bridges stand as testament to human resilience and talent.


Kolyma Hiway - Photo Gallery (Part 2)

In 1953, the year of Stalin's death, a wave of fear swept through the area when the camps released both political prisoners and criminals without providing any financial support for transport or survival. These freed individuals turned to marauding in nearby villages, even reaching Yakutsk. The local people were so terrified that they didn't dare venture outdoors. However, they came up with a strategy to deal with these criminal gangs. They would send a well-dressed child out alone into the street while they hid in nearby buildings. When the criminals approached the child with ill intent, the townsfolk would emerge from their hiding spots and eliminate them. This is how they gradually rid the city of the freed criminals.

The stories about the GULAG are well-documented. You can find the some of the most notable authors and books here.

For most of the year, the route is blanketed in snow and ice. Paradoxically, the road is safer during winter. Come spring, the terrain becomes difficult to traverse due to mud and fallen trees, and the ice ferries and roads vanish.


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