You’ve heard of a road trip. But what about an ice-road trip?!

You’ve had your intro posts already; now, if there are no questions from the audience, I’ll proceed to my next tale from the Far Northern side, which could have been titled “Yakutian ice roads heading north from Kolyma Highway“. But first, I think – an explainer…

What is an ice road? And what’s a winter road?…

But before I get to that, a few pics (what else?) ->

That pic is of a stretch of winter road between the villages of Sasyr and Khonuu (here). As you’ll see by that there Google Map, there’s no regular (asphalted) road between the two, but in winter (and into spring) there’s the winter road you see in the pic. From around April to October each year the only thing here is impassable tundra, marshland, lakes and rivers. But by November, everything here is covered in deep snow and thoroughly deep-frozen, and along come large snow-clearing trucks and… voila – the winter road is ready for use; until, that is, the next heavy snowfall – when the snow-clearers come back for another pass.

That’s the basic description of a winter road. An ice road is pretty much the same – only it’s not on land but on the thick ice of a frozen river; for example – on the Indigirka (see next pic). And these are much-preferred by long-distance truckers to winter roads since they’re normally so much smoother: they even call them “asphalt”, since they permit speeds just as on actual roads.

Sometimes the ice of an ice road is covered in snow ->

Other times the ice is visible; for example here – on the Yana ->

Ice hillocks on the surface (more details on these later) ->

This ice road isn’t on a river, it’s on the sea! Specifically – the Laptev Sea ->

In places the wind clears not just the ice road but the whole bay! ->

Yes – driving on the ice roads was a dream. But when the ice roads became winter roads over land the dream was gone – swiftly turning into an automotive nightmare ->

As you can see – bumpy as heck, seeing our speeds fall to 15-30km/h – sometimes even less than 10km/h!

Another problem on the winter roads were the ruts along them made by bigger vehicles like trucks. Since they have wider axles, the ruts left by them were of course wider too – wholly unsuitable for our “narrow-gauge” axels. Grrrr.

Ice roads also cross lakes. These are especially smooth since there are no river/sea currents or sudden influxes of water from inflowing streams causing waviness. Our cruising speeds on lakes as a result increased significantly ->

We drove on “roads” like this for thousands of kilometers; what better road surface – or views all around – could one dream of? ->

Back on winter roads across land – sure the ride was bumpy and slow, but given the views and the low sun: still immensely enjoyable ->

Back on to a much smoother – faster – ice road on a river ->

Sometimes even on the frozen rivers our speeds came right down – but for another reason! ->

Those there serpentine rivers will get a post to themselves later on, btw…

Ice roads can be smooth ->

Ice roads can be covered in heavy snowdrifts; guess which we preferred…

Sometimes the snow was just too heavy on the ground to be passable ->

Fortunately, such difficulties were few and far between throughout the whole three weeks. Still, incidents like the one in the above pic just made the whole winter/ice-road trip all the more adventurous and unforgettable!…

Incidentally, we never once met any other vehicles on the above river-based ice road: it was exclusively ours! Other winter/ice roads actually got quite busy at times – mainly with trucks hurrying to deliver their cargoes to the remotest settlements before the imminent thaw (after which they’re accessible only by air, or not accessible at all until late fall/early winter!).

The trucks haul just about everything northward on the winter/ice roads: coal, diesel, construction materials… Ok, maybe not drinking water – they’ve plenty of that up north. But practically everything else: up it all goes – and only in the extended cold season; and that goes for bulldozers too ->

Check out the look on the driver’s face: “What the?…” :)

As you can see, in places it was tight on space – so much so we sometimes ground to a halt to make sure we weren’t clipping wing-mirrors or anything. Then it was back onto the river and it was plain… sailing again ->

We gave the snow clearers a wide birth too – and a salute ) ->

Indeed, I think we also gave those wide berths as a sign of respect; after all – without those hard workers there’d be neither winter roads nor ice roads (just… winter and ice:). Apparently they work in groups and go off for days along their assigned lengthy stretches of the route to keep it clear.

Trucks sometimes look like they’ve taken a wrong turn and gotten stranded in the snow; or – to the more imaginative mind – like whales snorting away after coming up for some air! ->

Suddenly, after covering hundreds of kilometers of ice road, we pass this here “street” sign warning us that the road’s going to be bumpy just ahead. “Oh, that’s helpful”, we thought sarcastically, wondering where the other zillion missing signs had gotten to. Actually, it did have some worthwhile meaning – the road really did become really bumpy just ahead – more so than before it. Well, well )…

Other signs were… less useful; like this one – indicating a downhill stretch ahead. First – it’s hardly going to be more than the slightest of descents (as we can see all around into the distance); second – the surface here is really uneven, so all vehicles move at a snail’s pace: it’s not as if drivers don’t have time to see there’s a slight dip in the “road” ahead now is it?! ->

Signs showing the distances to settlements were factual – if a little daunting ->

One very useful sign was the ПУСТОТЫ (Pustoti – Emptiness) one ->

“Emptiness?” you may wonder…

Emptiness. Turns out pockets of unfrozen water form in places within the ice of a frozen river, and these cavities are very hazardous for heavily loaded trucks, which can get bogged down in them if they’re not careful. Here are some small pockets of water/”emptiness” on an otherwise smooth ice road (see the bottom of the pic – the left track) ->

Another feature peculiar to winter/ice roads: so-called warm-up points – basically rest areas at typically super-cold locations whose sole purpose is to give drivers some brief respite from the extreme temperatures. Distances to warm-up points are even given on signposts – so clearly they’re in demand (perhaps not all vehicles have modern air conditioning systems like ours had) ->




Tyallakh mobile warm-up point – 1km & Chibagilakh mobile warm-up point – 41km

Sometimes the signage was comical. Either the road workers hadn’t gotten round to positioning them in the right places, or up ahead (like here) you’d reeeaaally better watch how you go (left bend, right bend, zigzag, bumps, and emptiness all together!) ->

But mostly the signs were spot-on and really very useful. Seeing “Emptiness” meant you really should bring your speed down as there could be collapsed pockets of water ahead; “bumpy road” meant the road ahead is even bumpier than what you’re driving upon now, while НАЛЕДЬ (Naléd) meant you need to be super careful…

Naled (the Russian term) or aufeis (from the German) – similarly to “emptiness” – refers basically to water ahead on the road, only this time not hidden in cavities but open-air, like in ponds. Naled actually refers to the sheet-like ice that forms from successive flows of groundwater, which switches between a frozen and liquid state over and over with new influxes of water. When frozen – there’s a risk of sinking into a naled under the weight of a vehicle; when liquid – well, you don’t want to be driving around submerged in a near-freezing pond now do you? ->

A truly bizarre phenomenon these naleds. It’s -30 or 40°C outside, yet there’s (unfrozen) water here! ->

The open waters of naleds are very common in Yakutia – no matter how cold it gets. Of course, eventually the water freezes, but not straight away, as you can see in these pics.

Having driven through naled water carefully, we came to our next deep-frozen hazard – a Siberian blizzard…

…So our speed was brought way down yet again. Mercifully, the spell of bad weather didn’t last long! ->

Meanwhile DZ was getting to grips with new technologies: given the very bumpy ride, he applied gyroscopical and assorted other principles of physics – plus a makeshift mobile darkroom – and got down to editing our freshly-taken photos! Respect! ->

Here’s the ice road on the Indigirka Tube. What a beaut!

Hurry up, drone; you’ll be left behind! ->

So there you have it folks – the low-down on Yakutian winter/ice roads: endless, smooth and comfortable – and also precisely the opposite! But you know me: never one to dwell on the negative )…

We left the Indigirka and up the valley between the Chersky and Moma Ranges ->

…Where we made speeds of up to 90km/h!

Then came a slow stretch; never mind – still beautiful all around ->

And on and on and on and on…

In closing a few… masterpieces (no false modesty here). First – the Indigirka ice road approaching Ust-Nera:

Second – I can’t recall where it was; doesn’t make it any less of a masterpiece ->

Btw – here’s the map of the winter/ice roads of Siberia (and there’s another one here) ->

And that’s all for today folks, but I’ll be back with more Yakutia-2024 winter/ice road tales soon…

The rest of the photos from our Yakutsk-Tiksi-Yakutsk winter/ice-roadtrip are here.

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