Kolyma dreaming.

Though we weren’t to quick getting from one end of the Kolyma Highway (in Magadan) to the other (in Yakutsk) – a mere seven days! – we didn’t see all that much. Still, what we did see, I haven’t told you about or shown you yet. That changes here…

Eighty kilometers from Magadan there’s a village with the unusual name of Palatka, which means ‘tent’ in English. You might think the name comes from the early days of the settlement – in the early 1930s – when it was indeed merely a collection of tents put up before buildings were built during the construction of the highway. However, it seems that’s just a coincidence: the name actually appears to date back a lot earlier than the 20th century – from two ancient Evenk words, palja and atken, meaning ‘stony river’!

From Magadan to Palatka there are quite a few settlements along the highway; after Palatka – hardly any, and there’s also very little oncoming traffic. Meanwhile, after a few mountain passes from Palatka, the temperature sinks below -30°C and edges toward -40.

Occasionally we see old abandoned settlements near huge mountains of dug-up earth: remnants of gold mining. Indeed a great deal of the countryside appears to have been dug up, the gold extracted, and hundreds thousands of the black-gray pyramids left behind for young forests to grow up from. The industrialism here has clearly been brutal.

Onward we drove for what seemed like an eternity, taking in the brutalized scenery all around (which still had its charms), before we finally arrived in the town of Susuman – the ‘Gold Capital’, since it is here where the largest gold-mining companies are based. We arrived at night, and left before dawn (Sleep? What’s that?!); therefore – there’s no sun in the pics. Still, the night-shots we did take turned out great:

The front section of an Ilyushin Il-18 attached to the second floor of the ‘Station of Young Technicians’! ->

A monument to the Tatra 111:

In northern Magadan there’s a district called Solnechniy – ‘Sunny’. The city doesn’t see all that much sun in a year compared to most cities, but that didn’t stop a fixed expression enter common usage in Russian that’s often used when referring to the city – ‘Sunny Magadan’! Well, not far from Susuman there’s a similarly straightforwardly-named place, albeit without the irony: Kholodniy – ‘Cold’!

And it really is cold there. It was passing through this village when our Renaults’ temperature gauges (measuring the outside temperature) simply stopped working – at -40! From then on we had to use the thermometer we’d stuck to the windscreen of one of the cars!

Not long after Kholodniy the highway turns sharp right – north – and keeps on heading north for 600+km (until we reach Ust-Nera – our next overnight stay location). Colder and colder it gets, whiter and whiter the scenery turns, more and more covered in hoarfrost the trees become, and yet more mountains of slag and abandoned villages. Also en route is the ghost town of Kadykchan, but I’ll tell you about that particularly eerie place in a separate post:

Next up, a somber monument to the crew of a fighter plane that crashed while being flown along ALSIB from Alaska during WWII as part of the Lend-Lease program:

Respects duly paid, we drive on. The white, pale blue and golden beauty off the scale:

The gold – especially just after a mountain top ->

We leave the Magadan Oblast [Region]…

And enter the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)!

The ‘1111km’ distance marker! ->

We arrived for the night in the village of Ust-Nera, which is situated at the half-way point on the Kolyma Highway. Alas, after a long day on the road, we were all too tired for walkabout and snaps.

Crossing the Indigirgka river:


Another extraordinarily beautiful place along the Kolyma Highway is the Olchanskiy Pass, around 40km from Ust-Nera in the direction of Yakutsk.

‘Attention! Dangerous section of the Olchanskiy Pass road ahead’

…Dangerous; also delightfully dazzling at sunrise ->

This installation also features the ubiquitous -50° designer hoarfrost coating:

And here’s the optical cable for the internet, which stretches along the full length of the highway as I’ve mentioned before. A.I. can’t quite believe his eyes, so gives it a tug to make sure it really is real ) ->

Yes – really. Not safely encased underground, not out of the way strung up between traditional telegraph poles (remember them?!). Indeed, the internet between Irkutsk and Magadan would make Bob Dylan proud:

“Where did you say the cable lies?”
“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

We were told how this method of cable laying was chosen purely on cost-saving grounds (fair; let’s face it – millions if not billions of rubles will have been saved). Of course, it gets entangled in antlers, tripped over, and local bandits have been known to cut and steal sections of it in the hope that it contains copper (it doesn’t). Thus – stability of the internet connection around here: not quite world-class yet ).

Ever wondered what it’s like to ride on a sleigh pulled by reindeers, just like Santa Claus? Well you can find out right here! ->

Magnificent creations! ->

For the locals here the reindeer is: transportation, food, clothing, and business (with visiting tourists helping out with the latter).

The reindeer herders live in canvas tents like this one. Apparently such modern tents are more convenient than traditional raw-hide ones. A stove is on the go inside, there’s a diesel-powered generator not far off, the father of the family has a smartphone in his hand, and then this little ‘captain’ peeks out of the front door! ->

Captain’s older brothers aren’t home – they’re out tending to the flock. Such an idyllic scene – and all at -50°C! I do love beautiful scenery such as this… but I’ll take a warm office over such a cold workplace any day!

One of the main populated centers along the Kolyma Highway is the small town of Khandyga. We stayed two nights here, with the group splitting up for a short while – one sub-group headed out for a drive along the Yana Highway for a day; the other remained in Khandyga and had a walk-about/photo-about:

Check out the Russian-Orthodox onion-dome-shaped halo! ->

Sudenly… woah! UFO? Turns out it’s the ‘Children’s Aesthetic Center’! Classic Soviet post-modernist architecture too!

The river Aldan:

In winter – you cross the Aldan on the Aldan ). In summer – you take the ferry, as there’s no bridge (you stay in the car – so this short stretch of non-road doesn’t make Magadan to Lisbon not (possibly) the longest road:).

From Khandyha to Yakutsk – a thick Siberian fog spoiled the views somewhat:

Curiously, the naked eye couldn’t see much at all; but our cameras had no problem taking it all in!

Also curiously, around here was the only stretch of poor road; mercifully, it didn’t last long…

And here she is – Yakutsk! The first leg of our road trip – completed!

But I’ll save Yakutsk for a post of its own…

Meanwhile – the next dashcam chapter! A full-length one this time! ->


0:06:00 – Magical forest; occasionally snow dust from the car in front hinders visibility
1:06:00 – Dawn
1:08:30 – ‘Attention!’
1:12:00 – More OMG forest
3:05:30 – Onto the Kolyma Highway, fuel stop
3:19:00 – Woah, pt. 1
3:43:50 – Reindeer :)
4:30:00 – Hill top; -34°С
5:07:00 – Foggy valley
5:11:00 – Woah, pt. 2

Back tomorrow folks!..

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

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    Thank you Eugene, great reportage and photos! I love this specific film ! But I am looking forward when all your films from your expedition and adventures ‘into the cold’, are rolled into one, and into a two hour movie … :)

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