Eats, fuel, and places to stay – on the Kolyma Highway.

Before the next report on the next stretch of long, frozen road… a digression, albeit one central to the whole Magadan-to-Moscow-road-trip experience, or, to be more precise – to the first segment thereof – on the Kolyma Highway. And that digression is about the daily routine and practicalities of life-on-the-road and the mundanities it comprises: eating, sleeping, refueling, etc…

We start from the reindeer at the city limits of Magadan and will get to… well, let’s just see how far we get before the quantity of photos becomes excessive for a single post…

The Kolyma Highway is 2032 kilometers long, and ends (for us – started) in Magadan. In the city locals call it the ‘longest street in the world’, since it starts out as the city’s central street, Lenin Prospect, which ends (starts) at a roundabout with a TV tower in the middle of it.

Curiously/coincidentally, not far along the highway from the reindeer, there’s this here distance marker, which happened to show 2021 – referring to kilometers, not the number of the year that had just begun (we saw it on January 6, 2021)!

All righty. About the day-to-day occurrences on our road trip. First up – food…

Sometimes it was plentiful – as we say in Russian, the ‘table groaned with food’ – like in Oymyakon. Other times things were much more spartan. Once (in Susuman), no breakfast was served – at all! – in the hotel we were staying at, so we had to make it ourselves: boiled frankfurters and instant noodles! In Khandyga we also had to cook for ourselves, but at least it was in the comfort of the kitchens in the rented apartments we were staying in.

On the road we’d stop at cafes by the side of the highway, and they were all… acceptable in terms of comfort. I say ‘acceptable’, but let’s face it – any premises with some heat supplied thereto would have been acceptable when it was this cold (~-50°C). Even a barn!

As to the food served in these eating establishments… acceptable I think is the best way to describe it, too. It was hardly haute cuisine, but it was all edible. And there were no… aftereffects. But of course there weren’t: most punters at these cafes are long-distance truck drivers, and serving them food of questionable freshness and quality is dangerous: they come back!

In some of these cafeterias there was even a bathroom – inside the building, all cozy and warm, and not out in the backyard!

Probably the most famous eatery along the Kolyma Highway is the Cuba cafe, which, handily, has a filling station next door. Oh my: before even getting out of the car, noticing the litter and abandoned this, that and the other all around, you clock straight away that this is a bit of a seedy joint. Very much the greasy spoon ).

So, where’s the Cuba connection to this place? Actually, there isn’t one! Though there are a few Cuban flags up (and surely there’s a Che pic somewhere:), the connection is more likely with the nearby river Kyubeme.

Yes, that there folks is the front of the Café Cuba. All those stickers – surely proof that this is somewhat a legendary eatery along the Kolyma? )

‘Open all hours; knock hard’!

Also: ‘Entry with your own food: 200 rubles (~$3) fee per person’! Can’t say fairer than that )

Inside: just as small as the outside suggested! Cozy!

After lunch, a brief walk around the vicinity of the Cuba café. Oh my goodness: what’s this? No, that’s not the WC is it? It sure is. Looks like it went up when the road was built in the 1930s to 1950s! Wait: but this is the only public convenience here. And it’s minus-fifty outside! In a word: careful! )

The smoking area )

Assorted clutter, trash, scrap and other detritus:

Payphone; remember those? Also: poster of Jengish Chokusu mountain, on the Kyrgyzstan–China border; because – why not? )

Here’s an interesting kunst installation with a post-modern (frozenist-Yakutist-socialist-realist) twist: it’s made of short lengths of the fiber-optic cable that’s used to deliver internet along the full length of the highway. You might expect such infrastructural kit to be laid underground so it’s out of the way, safe, and doesn’t get tripped up over or tangled in reindeer’s antlers. But you’d be wrong (well, everything is permafrosted out here, so this is probably justified). The cable is simply laid overground, fastened down occasionally. We saw it quite a few times, swaying in the wind! And yes, it does get tripped over and caught up in antlers: the line is cut, and the digital traffic it carries is switched to a backup comms channel! These short lengths are cuttings when repairs are made, I think. And of course they’re trucked here for the modern art installation in the Cuba!

Also – kit such as this can sometimes contains semi-precious metal like copper. Apparently, not this stuff though – as is mentioned here on this attractive laminated sheet of printed A4, which makes up an essential element to the art installation:

Yes, the Cuba – not the most respectable of diners. However, practically every vehicle that passes it stops for refreshments! Why? Quite simple: supply and demand. There’s no other café in either direction for around 250 kilometers! And even if a more decent snack bar were to open, would it last long? After all, it would no doubt be more expensive. Would pricey real fresh ground coffee and avocado bruschetta go down well with the regular clientele of truck drivers? Not so sure…)

Btw – if you’re wondering what folks do if they need to… ‘go’ between cafes every 250km, this, too – just like the supply and demand – is quite simple: two words: al fresco. Signore – off to one side; signori – to the other ).

Next – refueling!…

Yes – those really are a functioning gas station and pumps )

Old school or what?!

Regarding the quality of the gas, no problems to report. Perhaps in such cold climes there’s no difference between bargain-basement/dodgy and super-hi-tech/fancy with all the right additives. Main thing – the cars go. It’s probably the same as with the meals at the cafes – if the truckers fuel up on watered-down gasoline – they’ll be back sooner or later: mad as hell!

As you’ll no doubt have guessed already, filling up with gas needs to be done quickly. We’d form a line of cars at a fueling station, and the leader – and accountant – of the expedition would pay the man in the kiosk for the full convoy of cars beforehand. Then, one after the other, the cars drive up to the pump, and a passenger from each gets out to do the honors. No problem? It wouldn’t have been a problem if the pump guns had latches to enable taking your hand off the trigger. But no latches. And even with multiple layers of gloves on, grasping -50-degree metal… those poor hands inside the gloves still froze to numbness. Then the refueler would race back inside the car, and spend several minutes with his hands on the steering wheel – mercifully a heated one ).

Closing this digression of daily life on-the-road, a bit about our lodgings of a night…

Main thing: you don’t need to take a sleeping bag with you: all hotels were very warm, with sufficient beds and bedding (like I say, just don’t expect breakfast in all of them:). The rooms were… spartan, basic, but adequate. Here, for example, is a single room (there were also ‘lux’ rooms to sleep two or three) in Ust-Nera (in corporate K colors, too:) ->

Remember: the main thing – the hotels were warm ).

In Susuman and Ust-Nera the hotels were in regular residential apartment blocks; in Khandyga, as mentioned, we rented apartments – in an old three-story (wooden!) building. No five-stars here, and everything kinda old and tired, but all our lodgings were very clean and – once more: warm!

Regarding eats: the hotels didn’t offer much at all, as mentioned. (EH?!) So we either rustled something up ourselves, or, like in Ust-Nera, we went to the restaurant by the hotel:

Getting washed: conditions adequate – apart from in Oymyakon with the outside toilet! Everywhere else: hot showers, sometimes even baths:

And that’s about it for today folks: now you know all about the day-to-day life essentials on the Kolyma Highway! Back tomorow with more tales from the permafrost side…

The rest of the snaps from our Magadan–Moscow road trip are here.

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