1500km on the R504: devilish cold; snow, ice and hoar.

There are many different kinds of roads and highways. There are straight and there are winding; there are smooth and there are bumpy; there are fast-moving and there are snail’s pace; there are ordinary and there are beautiful (rather: ordinary, pretty, beautiful, and mind-blowing). There are plenty of beautiful roads around the world – most often among mountains and along coasts. Especially beautiful (mind-blowing) are those that follow the coast on mountainsides (= x2 the effect); for example – the GI-682 along the Costa Brava near Barcelona, which we drove on last month.

Other great along-the-coast roads I’ve had the pleasure of driving on down the years include, among many others, Chapman’s Peak Drive between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa (which, alas, is waaay too short), the Great Ocean Road in Australia, and the Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West. Then there are the many meditative roads I’ve driven on, like the TF-436 on Tenerife, State Highway 2 in New Zealand, Highway 565 in Tibet, and the R256 in Altai, Russia (which I’ve only done in summer).

Now, the above-mentioned are great, beautiful roads. But then there’s the Premier League of roads – the crème de la crème of roads that both boggle and truly blow the mind. These include: State Highway 94 ending at Milford Sound in southern New Zealand; the roads of Namibia that cross the desert; and also – less of a road and more just a frozen surface – Lake Baikal. Then, of course, there’s R504 – the Kolyma Highway – through the Russian Far East

Of course, it’s not only me who has a fondness of scenic roads. The internet is full of listings of the most beautiful ones; for example, here, here and here.

A few brief observations of mine regarding some of those roads in those lists there:

  1. Chapman’s Peak Drive in South Africa: yeah – it’s awesome, but, as mentioned above – it’s reeeaaally short; too short really – two kilometers short!!
  2. The Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone in the U.S.: ok – sure, it looks OMG-amazing; I’m afraid I’ve yet to see/drive it in the flesh.
  3. Arches National Park Scenic Drive in Utah: with a name like that – it’s gotta be fantastic; and it is!
  4. Norwegian roads: dunno, never been; but even without the pics in those listings – all those fjords and little islands (the latter – all 239,057 of them!) surely mean there’s bound to be some gorgeous scenic routes there.
  5. Great Ocean Road – agree.
  6. The flower-lined roads of the Azores; of course – couldn’t agree more!

All great scenic roads, but nothing too monumentally magnificent – apart from the rare exceptions I’ve pointed out. Which brings me back to my top exception: the R504 Kolyma Highway. This highway really is monumentally magnificent – but only in January-February: it’s only then when the temperatures go silly low – like under -50 or sometimes even -60°C – and as a result the whole region becomes an almost alien white-whiteness that needs to be seen and experienced (read: driven through!) to be believed…

Not so 100%-white, I hear you say? Sure: this time around we left it a little too late in the year – March – when the rising temperatures of spring were muddying the waters roads a touch and lessening the density of the snow and hoarfrost that coats everything in sight. For the real-deal full-on white-winter-wonderland scenes – check out my best-of pics from 2021 and 2022, or my full Kolyma-dreaming tales – also from 2021 and 2022.

But even in March-April – the scenery was still rapturously delightful ->

In March – no hoarfrost covering every branch and twig of every tree already ->

Out of the full ~2000 kilometers of the R504 between Magadan and Yakutsk, only around 500 are boring. The rest lie up and down hills and mountains, through valleys, and across streams and rivers, and are in no way boring!

I recall how in the late 90s there was a huge map of Russia on a corridor wall in our last-but-one office. I remember how I used to study it in wonder – especially the road to Magadan. I’d try to imagine what driving on that road would be like in winter. Well now I know: driving on it is out-of-this-world amazing!…

(Relatively) smooth, (convincingly) beautiful, (undeniably) captivating. This was my third R504 drive – and it still won’t “let me go”! I need MORE!…

In places it’s brutal. But of course it is: it’s in deepest, remotest Siberia! ->

Deepest Siberia or no – it’s still a comfortable ride. You’d think being so remote its maintenance/repairs might get neglected, or it might not be cleared of snow so diligently. Nope. All good super! ->

The distances given on the signs – never short:

Especially beautiful on the Kolyma Highway is the Olchansky Pass (here):

…But this year we found out that that beauty is only off-the-scale during winter ->

Occasionally the weather takes a turn for the worse ->

Poor weather round here doesn’t just dampen the mood; it can also cause serious risks for vehicles – especially trucks ->

Yikes! ->

The bad weather didn’t last long though ->

After snowfall the road becomes smoother (it’s not asphalt around here, but loose chippings). Alas – it doesn’t fill in the occasional potholes… ->

In closing, let me reiterate the uniqueness of the R504 Kolyma Highway…

Now, you can’t get roads like this in winter in the southern hemisphere: alas, there are no roads on Antarctica. As to the northern hemisphere – where else are there roads like this one? Like Antarctica, there are none in Greenland. So, that only leaves Canada (Scandinavia is never normally this cold)…

Sure, it gets crazy cold in Canada too – like below -50°C, but very rarely below -60°C. Still – that’s plenty cold to produce phenomena like snow-covered mountains generally, and things like naleds specifically. However, what Canada lacks is those things plus roads: there simply aren’t any in the remotest parts of the country – so curious petrol-head tourists never get to see any of them!

Let’s take, for example the town of Norman Wells. You can see on the map that it has a few roads, but they’re only inside the town, with just a few stretching outside it – for just a dozen kilometers or so (e.g., to Jackfish Lake there).

Which brings me back to the uniqueness of the Kolyma Highway (and a few other highways around this end of Russia, albeit it to a lesser extent): it’s the only road upon which in the extended winter period you get non-stop snow-and-hoarfrost covered winter-wonderland scenes (+ naleds, etc.) all the way – from on end to the other. Now, if that doesn’t convince you that it’s not just me rapturing and hyperboling about this remote road in one of the remotest corners of the world, and that Kolyma does indeed need experiencing at least once in a lifetime – I don’t know what will!

The rest of the photos from our Yakutsk-Tiksi-Yakutsk road-trip are here.

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