4 September 2012

Week Thirteen - The Final Push

The Complete Journey - Final Distance 28,100 kms over 105 days
25-30 Aug – Day 98-103 – Yakutsk – Magadan – the final 6 day push to the finish line via the Kolyma Hwy. 

The Kolyma Highway, or M56 is a road through the Russian Far East. It connects Yakutsk and Magadan via Nizhny Bestyakh on the eastern bank of Lena River.The length of the original road via Tomtor is about 1,900 kilometers. Locally, the road is known as Trassa (RussianТрасса - "The Route"), or Kolymskaya trassa (RussianКолымская трасса - "The Kolyma Route"), since it is the only road in the area and therefore needs no special name to distinguish it from other roads. The bulk of the Kolyma Highway, the sections between Khandyga and Magadan, is often referred to as the Road of Bones.

It was constructed in the Joseph Stalin era of the USSR with the first stretch built by the inmates of the Sevvostlag labor camp in 1932. The construction continued (by inmates of gulag camps) until 1953. The road is treated as a memorial, because the bones of the people who died while constructing it were laid beneath or around the road.

The road today is in an area which is extremely cold during the winter. Two towns by the highway, Tomtor and Oymyakon, both claim the coldest inhabited place on earth (often referred to as -71.2°C, but might be -67.7°C) outside Antarctica. The average temperature in Oymyakon in January is -46°C. The road was in a state of disrepair and is not traversable by standard road vehicles because of washed-out bridges and sections of road reclaimed by streams. During winter, frozen water actually helps river crossings. The Road of Bones has become a challenge for adventure motorcyclists. After the fall of the Soviet government, the road was first travelled by Western motorcyclists in summer 1995 by the British Mondo Enduro team (West-East) and by Norwegian wanderer Helge Pedersen (starting from Magadan). Subsequent traverses by motorcycle include Simon Milward in 2001 and also Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's round-the-world motorcycle journey in 2004, made into a television series, book and DVD, all named Long Way Round. However, due to the timing of the journey and the condition of the road, it was not possible for them and their support crew to complete the traverse unassisted. They instead joined a Russian freight convoy, whose trucks were able to ford the still swollen rivers.  

As of 2008 the road became a frequently maintained all weather road for the first time as the road was granted Federal Road status with Federal Government funding. The main route of the Kolyma Highway now passes through Khandyga, Kyubeme, Ust Nera, Susuman, Artik and Magadan. The old 420 km section between Kyubeme and Kadykchan is now largely unmaintained and over 200 km of that route is completely abandoned. This section is known as the Old Summer Road and remains one of the great challenges for adventuring motorcyclists and 4WDers.

Up early for the ferry crossing back over the Lena River. Unfortunately all of the bikes got on a ferry which was just getting ready to depart, however the 4x4’s had to wait 2hrs for the next one. Once the 4x4’s had arrived it was time for a quick lunch & then time to hit the road again.

Ferry crossing of the Lena River
Russian hydrofoil on the Lena River
Unloading at the start of the Kolyma Hwy
The taiga forest has really thinned out and we pass many meadows, cows & horses. The fields are dotted with winter shelters for the livestock, some in better condition than others. We ride past a wedding party on the side of the road & decided to brighten their day by having two grubby bikers pose for photos with them. They all seemed happy with the intrusion and waved us off as we slithered through the mud back to the road.
Winter shelter for stock
Just what you need at the Wedding Photos - a grubby biker
Camp that night is made in a grassy field on the edge of the forest & for a change the tent pegs are easy to put in.
The track to the nights camp site
The road just ridden in rain & mud
Next morning we see that the road is also dotted with small shelters that we have seen off & on since Mongolia. We decide to investigate thinking that they are storm shelters for lonely shepherds however on further inspection find them to be what look like some form of bunker.
The Shepherds shelter that turns out to be a bomb shelter
Inside the bomb shelter
Even though we are in the middle of nowhere, and well & truly off the popular tourist routes, the road is still dotted with monuments, graves & plaques. Every now & then we also pass what look like local towns Show Grounds, complete with grandstands, podiums and what look like, horse racing tracks.
Mongolian Warrior Dude Statue - in the middle of nowhere
Siberian Showground
Our last ferry crossing at the Aldan River once again involved much waiting & standing around. The time was put to good use with a back of car lunch prepared & eaten with relish. . 
Ferry for crossing the Aldan River
Time for a tailgate lunch on the Ferry
The ferry loading point on the other side of the Aldan River- yes that is a truck stuck in the river
The temperature is dropping & the rain has once again returned so rain suits are donned & we ride onwards. Shelter is found at the fuel stops required to feed the bikes their regular diet of low / variable octane Russian benzene.
Fuel stop & a place to shelter out of the rain
The Siberian time-share at the back of the fuel station - NICE
Camp that night is made in a soggy quarry beside the road & a fire built to ward off the chill.
A wet & damp camp for the night

We awake to more rain & ride through spectacular scenery, complete with snow covered peaks & landslides + roadworks.. The winter gloves are donned & heated grips turned up to ward off the 0.5 Deg C chill. We arrive at the thriving little hamlet of Kyubyume, consisting only of a muddy damp petrol station & basic café. This is where the Old Summer Road, of Long Way Round fame branches off, however, we only managed a few 100 meters up this before a failed bridge stopped us in our tracks.
Landslides, mud + big bulldozers
More fuel & a 1hr wait for the petrol station attendant to return from lunch / vodka ??
The start of the old Summer Road

The end of the old Summer Road - no bridge means no crossing
The weather clears & we camp that night in an old quarry with views out over the Siberian mountains & plains. A chill wind keeps the bugs at bay which is a welcome relief.
Snow starting to appear on the peaks
Spectacular Siberian autumn scenery
The road ahead
The view from camp out over the Siberian mountains & plains
The morning brings clear skies & low temperatures. We ride through spectacular scenery complete with landslides & road works. Refueling at Ust Nera produces a flat tire for the bike & the tire plugging kit once again gets a work over. We push on to the abandoned town of Kadykchan & camp in this eerily deserted place.
The morning view over the Siberian mountains, rivers & plains 
More landslides + sunshine & blue skies
Drying roads - a welcome relief from the slippery mud
A Russian Ural + sidecar - no idea where the rider was???
Ust Nera & a flat rear tyre
Kadykchan was built by the hands of GULAG's prisoners during World War II. Later it accommodated miners of a few local coal mines which supplied Arkagalinskaya electric power station. The depth of mines was about 400 meters and at some point along with the dropped demand for coal after the dissolution of the Soviet Union made the mining pointless. Moreover, there was an explosion at the mine when six people were killed in 1996, which lead to a decision to close the mines altogether. As of 2010, the settlement was completely depopulated.
Coal mines on the side of the road
Kadykchan - the Deserted City
Kadykchan City Square looking down an old pedestrian boulevard
Camp for the night - watched over by eerily deserted apartment blocks
The morning of exploring Kadychan showed a once vibrant town, full of people & life now trapped in a moment in time & totally deserted. School books remain, old ice skates, abandoned apartments.We were lucky with a fine morning for our exploring, however by the time we set out to leave the rain had returned.
A rainbow at dawn for the deserted city of Kadykchan
Kadykchan City Square - Lenin's head in need of repair
Kadykchan Sports Stadium

Inside the Sports Stadium
An abandoned ice skate 
A quick visit to the Myaundzha Uranium Mine + town greeted us with an sign of Welcome to Hell painted on an old pipe as a grim reminder of times past. It was then once again off into the mud, rain & gloom. 
Myaundza Uranium Mine 
Once again stunning, yet damp scenery for most of the day. A brief lunch stop at Susuman which was founded in 1936 as a settlement & named after the nearby river of the same name. In 1938, the settlement was greatly expanded to become a center of gold mining in the western part of what is now Magadan OblastGold mining and other industrial operations in the region were largely reliant on forced labor camps of the gulag system, with a large number operating in the area around the town. From 1949 until 1956, the town was the base for one of the Soviet Union's largest forced labor camps, the Zaplag of the Dalstroy program. During this time, up to 16,500 prisoners were kept in the camps. We sheltered out of the rain under an abandoned guard tower where the local Police chief checked us out having lunch under an abandoned guard tower to try & stay dry.
Magadan - 698 kms to go
We pressed on to try & have camp at an old Gulag, however the wet, cold & mud meant we only made it as far as Debin. Whilst sheltering in a bus shelter the locals took pity on us and found some accommodation for us at the local “hospital. We were not sure exactly what type of “hospital” however there did seem to be quite a few “inmates” who were wandering the corridors. Dr Tatyana made us most welcome as we spread our camping mattresses on the soiled mattresses / floor.
Debin Bus Shelter - wet & muddy bikers looking for a dry bed!!
Debin "Hospital" - a dry bed for the night
Debin Hospital - preparing a wet dinner
Up early to once again try & find the old Gulag, however the weather gods once again conspired against us in the way of flooded road & potholes full of axle deep water. One of the riders tried to turn his bike into a submarine with the end result being that he filled his exhaust with water & proceeded to pump out steam for a few kms. A quick lunch on the side of the road & a decision was made to press on to Magadan. The rain eased up and at 142 kms to go we were back on the bitumen. Unfortunately the dirt was actually smoother that the badly repaired tar so it was a bumpy ride into our final destination – Magadan.

How NOT to park a coal truck on the side of the road
Lunch Stop after the unsuccessful attempt to reach the Gulag
The Hammer and the Sickle - a friendly reminder of our Soviet hosts
Bad tarmac at 142 kms to go to Magadan
As we approached the traffic increased so it was a welcome sign seeing the city marker of MAGADAN.
Magadan at last -  complete with rain
Magadan was founded in 1929 on the site of an earlier settlement from the 1920s. During the Stalin era, Magadan was a major transit center for prisoners sent to labor camps. From 1932 to 1953, it was the administrative center of the Dalstroy organization—a vast and brutal forced-labor gold-mining operation and corrective labor camp system. The town later served as a port for exporting gold and other metals mined in the Kolyma region. Its size and population grew quickly as facilities were rapidly developed for the expanding mining activities in the area. 

On an official visit in May 1944, U.S. Vice-President Henry Wallace failed to understand the true nature of Magadan. The watchtowers had been temporarily taken down and the prisoners were locked up, while a model farm had been set up for his inspection. He took an instant liking to his secret policeman host, admired handiwork done by prisoners, and later glowingly called the city a combination of Tennessee Valley Authority and Hudson's Bay Company. Eight years later he apologized for not understanding the true situation.

After 6 days of rain & mud the 4 nights of rest & relaxation give us all a chance to get ourselves & our bikes clean, but also to prepare ourselves for the return to "reality"after 105 days on the road.

Next day, with Michelle on the back, we re-visit the Magadan City Marker  in sunshine & blue skies
Magadan is, to our surprise, a beautiful city & quite different from Yakutsk. The population appear to be mostly of Russian origin (hence the Gulag connections) with the "Eskimos" of Yakutsk nowhere to be seen (ie the folk of Inuit descent). Some beautiful old buildings & lost of restoration work in progress. Lots of old USSR military hardware scattered around & poor old Lenin consigned to a minor Park outside the city Centre.
Just the thing for a City Park - 2 MiG fighters
Plus a few tanks for good measure
Beautiful Magadan Buildings
Wall murals in central Magadan
Lenin + KGB Building
Friday is spent doing the washing followed by a walk down to the "seaside" to partake of a truly revolting hamburger meal, complemented by lots of attention from the curious locals. The seaside burger joint was the hang-out of the rev-heads + cute young things all dolled up for a Friday night on the town. 
The Magadan Burger Cafe - food horrible, company the best
Hot Japanese cars at the burger cafe
Young ladies out for a night on the town
Sunset over Magadan harbour
Saturday we explored further & did a city tour back to the harbour & a visit to the Mask of Sorrow which is a monument commemorating the many prisoners who suffered and died in the Gulag prison camps in the Kolyma region of the Soviet Union during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It consists of a large concrete statue of a face, with tears coming from the left eye in the form of small masks. The right eye is in the form of a barred window. The back side portrays a weeping young woman and a headless man on a cross. Inside is a replication of a typical Stalin-era prison cell. Below the Mask of Sorrow are stone markers bearing the names of many of the forced-labor camps of the Kolyma, as well as others designating the various religions and political systems of those who suffered there.
Mask of Sorrow Monument
The grieving child at the Mask of Sorrow monument
Curious happy smiling faces at the Mask of Sorrow
We celebrated Fathers Day with a 90 min Russian Orthodox Sunday service. Very different to the Catholic services that we are used to with the mass being all sung by the choir & priests. Minimal participation from the congregation. The complete mass is also conducted with the congregation standing. 
Magadan Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Inside the Cathedral - note the lack of chairs / seats
Wandering up to the City Museum we stumbled upon a WWII remembrance ceremony (ie very similar to our ANZAC day events, where there were many serious speeches, flower laying & 3 gun (ie AK47) salute.
The Eternal Flame at the Remembrance Day Ceremony
Many medals & many memories
The Patriarch's blessing at the War Memorial
We also witnessed a mass parade to celebrate the start of the new School Year with all of the children dressed in their fines. Hard to imagine similar celebrations being conducted in Oz!!  
2 September - Start of School Year parade
Happy school girls excited about the start of the new school year
Monday was more exploring with highlights being a visit to Lenins' statue & the local office of the KGB & a local gun shop where they had really good deals on AK47's & UZI sub-machine guns. Michelle scored a new raincoat at the sales & I lashed out on a Magadan fridge magnet. Bags & Bike are now packed & we depart for the long 3 day journey back to Oz tomorrow (via Vladivostok, Seoul, Bangkok and finally Perth).

And so endeth the adventure. Many sights, many experiences, many memories. Once again we have both learned much & come to, once again, appreciate how lucky we are to be citizens of the Land of Oz.   
Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie at the end of the adventure