Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Last days in Kamchatka

The day before yesterday I was awoken at 7:53am by a frantic text message 'wake up, be at the hotel as soon as possible' - presumably there was some chance a helicopter would fly before 3pm (or not at all!). Within 15 minutes I was at the bus stop, and soon enough found myself at the hotel (on the other side of town), where I handed over a frightful amount of money, signed some paperwork, and then headed for the airport.
This time there were about 22 people, mostly Russians, taking the helicopter to the hopelessly remote 'valley of the geysers', the second largest geyser field in the world (after Yellowstone). The only other way of getting there is walking, and it takes about 2 weeks. Our guide gave us the safety chat, and insisted we wear set-belts, probably to prevent everyone changing sides to look at stuff as we zoomed past. The helicopter went through its 5 minute preflight warmup, then the engines strained to life and we leapt from the ground as daintily as a frightened elephant.
The flight took us north past the home volcanoes Koryaksky and Avacha (at that moment being climbed by about 1500 people as part of a volcano festival), Jeponova, and into the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. At this point large, steep, angry looking cone appeared on the horizon - Karimsky Volcano, so active it is a perfect cone within an older caldera, smoke and ash billowing from the top. Not far away the volcano Maly Semyachik with a large lake in the crater. Once deep blue, the lake is now a white colour, and has always been acidic. Soon we banked to the left and entered a steep-sided canyon with vegetation reminiscent of the cliffs in the Altai.
The upper parts of the valley are filled with steam, and we landed quite close to the central building and ranger lodge. Here we could see the results of the landslide that occured in the winter of 2007, apparently without being noticed by anyone until after enormous boulders had stopped about half a metre from the lodge. The landslide also blocked the valley, forming a lake and drowning about a third of the geysers.
Discovered in 1941, the geyser field is caused as water seeps down fault lines to hot magma about 1700m beneath the surface (associated with a nearby volcano). This water then bubbles to the surface, forming an intermittent spring, as well as many mud pots, hot pools, and other cool stuff. The plumbing of a geyser can be modelled as a very long vertical straw. Due to the geometry, heat flow by convection (or radiation) is essentially negligible, and so heat is transported by conduction, as well as phase changes. Under intense pressure, steam can form. Bubbles rise through the system until their heat is absorbed by colder water above and the bubbles collapse. I have no idea what the mean distance they travel is, but I suspect not far. Heat continues to be transported upwards, as well as outwards through surrounding rocks, and bubbles form and absorb in a manner analogous to a binary counter. When the counter overflows, so does the geyser, discharging a good quantity of water and resetting the system. It is for this reason that some geysers erupt with very regular periods. Another cool thing is that you can make a geyser erupt by pouring in soap - it affects the viscosity and surface tension of the geyser, releasing the pressure which is building up!
While we were there we saw many geysers erupt, including 'grot' (ie 'cave'), which apparently only erupts every few years, and discharged thousands of litres of boiling water about 10m into the air. We also took the opportunity to check out many other steaming holes in the ground, pools of boiling mud, and other awesome stuff.
Next we flew in the helicopter to the Uzon caldera, not far away, which are the remnants of a volcano that was most active about 300,000 years ago. The magma chamber emptied and the ground collapsed, forming a large ring of hills about 11km in diameter. In the middle are a series of hot lakes which contain sodium, potassium, sulfer, and aluminium (amongst other minerals). Apparently bears like one of the lakes in particular as the water helps to treat their paws, which can get itchy in summer. We saw enough bear tracks in the area that it seemed likely.
Next we flew back over the ranges (sadly without a view of Krashennikov or Kronotsky volcanoes, or the more distant Kluchevskoi group) to the Jeponova river, which was full of salmon in retirement after their spawning activities. We ate a lovely lunch of different varieties of salmon fish, bread, tea, juice, etc. I skimmed some stones and flew a kite. As we were leaving, two other helicopters landed - it was pretty awesome. Above the river (on which some people do rafting fishing trips) was the volcano towering into the clouds.
Too soon we had to fly back, arriving at Yelizovo heliport, receiving certificates to mark the occasion (I don't know why...), and of course waiting almost an hour for the airport transfer shuttle. Lost World Tours (the group through whom the agents I booked through booked, who in turn booked through the heli tours group, who leased helicopters from the airport...) seems to struggle a bit with timing...
I headed back to the flat, arriving exactly in time with Nina, Denis' mother, who was making a surprise visit and helping the electricity people check the meter. We managed to communicate what time my flight was leaving the following day, and make arrangements to hand over the key.
I walked to Tanya and the Australians (Kent and Olya)'s place with a bag full of Russian sweets, we ate dinner and had a 3 hour comedy session, in which we realised the potential of the Russian word for 'shield'. The other highlight was comparing idiom in which the word kitten (or kotyonok) is used. In English 'she was so happy, she was having kittens' seemed to be the most common. In Russian, the equivalent phrase was 'my boss was so happy, he must have run over a kitten'.
As I walked back I noticed fog building up near the coast, and the next morning, the entire city was again shrouded. I had been lucky to get the three day window in which I helicoptered and climbed Mutnovsky! With the traffic stopped I wasn't tempted to go shopping, so instead backed my bag and cleaned the flat to within an inch of it's life, and ate all the leftover food. Mmmm.
At 3pm Alexsei, Denis' father, arrived. We had tea, I unplugged the electronics, and then he insisted on driving me to the airport. He also insisted that my Russian, which is good enough for most things, was utterly incomprehensible when I said I was happy to take the bus!
Airports are boring, but after about 4 hours, I had cleared security (I beeped lots, so was waved through), and boarded the plane. The flight out, in the evening, was one long sunset, but the definite highlight was just after taking off, we punched through the fog, and instantly every volcano in southern kamchatka was visible, including Gorely, which was still erupting. =D. Only Avacha bay was filled with fog, which spilt through passes of mountains ringing the bay and into surrounding valleys. Some time later an airliner passed us going in the other direction at quite close range - but it only took 3 seconds. We were really moving.
The airbus made a hard landing in Vladivostok, and I had arrived. Kamchatka was 12 crazy crazy days of volcanoes, in a land that, being at the edge of the world, was never quite finished. I think I will certainly return, though timing is everything!
In the meantime I've uploaded photos from Kamchatka except for the flight out, so enjoy!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The weather improved

The weather finally improved a bit. I borrowed a bike and attempted to ride to the pacific ocean (maybe 12km), but ultimately failed, primarily due to my own incompetence. I saw a road on a map (old trick) and followed it, though it was rather muddy. I saw a barking dog on a chain (no problem), who was then joined by about 7 unleashed dogs who did not like me much at all. I decided to ride another way. I rode around the bottom of the bay until I had a great view of the southern part of the city and a bunch of sunken and semi-sunken ships, as well as Vilyuchinsky volcano, and saw the road curve in a huge arc below me down to the turn-off to the road which would go (via another route) to the ocean. Remembering that I had to ride back (and my knee wasn't real good for walking, though riding was okay), I decided to stop at the top, next to a small army base, and take lots of photos. Fortunately my clothes are now worse than my Russian, so I'm the definition of harmless. Also, Putin left the day before, so probably all the security personnel are still unconscious! I rode back, cooked a hearty dinner of some packaged something boiled or whatever (my memory is not clear - it was not an overwhelmingly amazing dinner), went through the usual routine of exchanging text messages with the travel agent, uploading photos, reading about Australian politics, and sleeping.

The next day I got up early, got a lift to the hotel, waited around for a few hours, got a lift to the heliport. There there were a number of mammoth MI-8 Russian helis sitting on the tarmac, but due to the delays from weather, they were all pretty booked out. I realised at that point that the group I had booked through didn't exactly have priority, and in the end I took a helicopter to Kurilskoye Ozero instead. The preflight safety talk was rapid, in Russian, and can be summarized thus 'the exit is the door you came in through, and you can open the window to take photos'. Which was pretty cool. Soon enough the jet spooled up (best noise in the world) and, incredibly, 7 tonnes of Russian aluminium and steel became airborn and rapidly zoomed south through a series of narrow wooded valleys and past literally hundreds of volcanoes! At some point we popped through a hole in the cloud and then were in sun, the tops of the tallest peaks poking up through the sea of white below. The lake appeared on the horizon and with a shudder and a clatter, the helicopter began to descend, flying low over an island (disturbing hundreds of birds), and landing next to the lodge. Our guides were two interesting local girls with reasonable English, and we soon stumped off down a path accompanied by a ranger with a flare and a big gun to the bear observation platform. Sadly, no bears appeared here that day, so after a rather mediocre lunch (that was rather heavy on packaging) we flew to the lake's (current) outlet to try our luck at the salmon counting station there. Salmon, I hear you ask? Kurilskoye Lake is the world's largest salmon spawning ground. The lake formed 8400 years ago with a rather large volcanic explosion, and is actually much deeper than the surrounding ocean. Once deeper still, the ancient outflow to the pacific was blocked by the formation of a number of new volcanoes around the crater rim (now well over 2000m high!), and a new outlet to the sea of Okhost formed, causing the lake level to drop more than 40m. 

At the salmon counting station we walked through the camp to a bridge built across the river with a net designed to direct the salmon through narrow gates where they can be counted every hour or so. Salmon waiting for the opening scudded back and forth creating a serious surface disturbance. By far the most excitement, however, was a dozen Kamchatka bears swimming in the river catching the salmon and carefully eating the salmon eggs, then other parts before discarding the head. The bear uses the back of its non dominant arm as a platform to hold the unlucky fish on! Of the bears, 4 of them were cubs of various ages, and the bears quite frequently swum, splashed, stood up, fought, and basically did everything else their contract required of them. I melted a set of batteries taking photos, but was probably the least photo-ey person there. Half our group were middle-aged Korean tourists, all of whom had cameras which were either obscenely enormous or absolutely minuscule. Mine has got to the point where I have to squeeze the bottom if I want the zoom to work, etc etc! After a while we had to vacate so the counters could do their counting, so we reboarded the helicopter, watching the pilots go through some intricate choreography involving flicking switches, and then feel the five bladed rotor's collective thump into position and once again we were airborne. These helicopters can easily carry a (small) car, so if I can somehow raise the $25000/day running costs, I might move into one permanently! Also they're kinda loud...

We flew to the base of a nearby volcano where there was a lake that steamed with water at 43C. The clouds had lifted to the point where nearby volcanoes were visible to about half way up, creating the impression that we were surrounded by steeply sloping columns covered in trees or tundra. Soon, however, we had to get moving again as the weather was not improving. As we flew back towards Gorely volcano (which has recently become much more angry) the clouds parted and the impossible landscape of twisting gorges, glaciers, pinnacles, layers of ash and ejecta, and the superposition of maybe 40 generations of volcanic activity was illuminated by streaks of light which seemed to rotate in real time as we cruised by at 260km/h. Too soon we circled the heliport and made a rolling landing on the short airstrip. Russian helicopters are built with wheels rather than skids. We eventually drove back to the hotel where I ordered a 3 course meal, then ate the other tour groups 3 course meal as well (they had spare). Back to the flat and sleep.

Today I woke up, again, absurdly early (maybe 5:40am), and took a cab across town to the hotel where I was met by our tour guide for today. A four hour drive in a Mitsubishi Delica (a 4wd people mover) took us via the museum of natural disasters (an extensive rocky/ashy plain) to the base of Mutnovsky volcano. The path winds inwards towards the caldera up a steep-sided slot canyon, revealing bit by bit what you came for! The path largely was composed of a thin layer of mud over glacial ice that filled the base of the gorge (even in summer). Quite frequently one is surprised to find a glacier hiding beneath layers of exposed moraine, even quite far from a mountain or apparent source.

Mutnovsky is composed of three large craters. The first, largest, and oldest is cut by a deep river valley, and the opposite face is covered in a tumbling glacier, with enormous rocks perched above, vanishing in and out of mist composed part of cloud, part of boiling brimstone. The smell was... sublime. We left the glacier and climbed to a lookout, surrounded by fumaroles spewing out steam at temperatures between 150 and 300C, some sulfur subliming to form insane and quickly changing formations of bright yellow and almost green. With our sleeves over our mouth and nose we walked through a wall of steam (two distinct smells, one of sulfur, one like burning matches) into the more remote parts of the caldera. The stream flowed swiftly to our left, dotted with geysers and chunks of ice amidst a mozaic of rocks of all different colours. Above us the opposite side stretched steeply to the exposed edge of an ancient glacier with one particularly large rock teetering on top. The second caldera was filled by a glacier than nearly did a figure of 8 to reach it. The opposite wall was steep sided with several large water falls, the glacier was riven with crevasses that stretched lengthways, and periodically the area was filled with the sound of falling rocks as the volcano continued its rather fast journey to flatness. Volcanoes tend to erode very quickly as they are composed of unconsolidated rock (mostly). At this point the sun came out, and the glacier glittered white, while water pools in the bottom of the crater glowed deep blue. We risked a short walk on a precarious mud/dirt track to the third, and most active crater. This crater had a major eruption in 1970 and a smaller one in 1993, but today was largely obscured by huge clouds of sulfur crystals blown upwards by rising heat. In short spaces we saw the bottom - a deep hole filled with fumaroles and mud!

We turned around and made our way down to the floor of the second crater, walking on the glacier. I of course skimmed a few rocks on the lake between the ice, and then we headed back down the valley. As we emerged from the other end of the canyon, we had a terrific view across the plateau towards Gorely volcano. Composed of 11 major craters (from 3 intersecting volcanoes) the central one was continuing to blow large amounts of steam from its newly formed vent. Volcanoes in Kamchatka are more than capable of dumping cubic kilometres of dirt into the stratosphere, so it remains to be seen if Gorely's activity will continue to intensify, however at its current state it could (hypothetically) be approached with little danger. We drove down the slope to a rocky promontory, from which we had an excellent view of a waterfall. The canyon continues down the mountain, and beyond the end of the glacier, drops about 30 or 40 metres into a very deep canyon surrounded by steep rocky scree slopes - falls are not infrequent, according to our guide. The canyon cut the side of the slope, revealing many layers (each about 4 metres deep) of the volcanoes eruptive history; ash ejection followed by lava flow, and vice versa.

Back in the car and the drivers took a 'short cut' across a field of substantial boulders to the main road (built to service the geo-thermal power plant nearby), from where a 3 hour drive returned us to the hotel. This time I opted for pancakes only and headed back to the main road to catch a bus south to my flat before they stopped for the night. After about 5 minutes waiting, who should drive by but two people I met from the tour (and with whom I posed in front of Vilyuchinsky volcano in a handstand), who offered me a lift all the way to CRV, a drive of about 20 or 30 minutes. Thankyou!

Once here I had a quick shower, and contended once more with a towel which exceeds the size of the bathroom in every dimension. When using it many hands are required to keep the corners from the bath, floor, sink, and toilet bowl!

Tomorrow, with any luck, I will take another helicopter (at this rate I have spent about as much in 3 days as I did in the previous 3 months - which was kinda the point of hitchhiking!) to the valley of the Geysers, Karimsky, Maly-Semyachik, Kronotsky, Krashennikov, and Uzon volcanoes, etc etc.

In the meantime I uploaded photos from Magadan and Khabarovsk - now all that is required are photos of Kamchatka (of which there are a few) and photos of Vladivostok, which I haven't taken yet.

Heli to lake
Magadan photos

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fog, rain, snow, wind.

In Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the weather has continued to be miserable, and helicopters are not working. Just my luck that I can't blow my life's savings on a 3 hour flight to some glorified conical pile of rocks! In the meantime I've visited places of interest, eaten pancakes, and walked around a bit. I managed to get iliotibial band friction, I'm not sure how (probably sitting badly on a bus), which has limited my walking range. Fortunately there are buses in the city, which I've taken around the place. Visited the music college and played their piano, but it was no comparison to the one in Magadan. Also yesterday visited the institute for volcanology, and used my lack of Russian to fail to understand 'no, the museum is closed' until they let me in. :) 

In the meantime have continued to upload photos - the album covering the Kolyma highway is now complete! Yay! It can be viewed here: http://picasaweb.google.ru/CaseyHandmer/KolymaHighway#

I also had some friends over at different times for dinner, which I improvised given available ingredients and which turned out quite well. 

With any luck helicopters will fly today or tomorrow, and my leg will be good enough to climb Gorely (which is currently erupting whee!!) and Mutnovsky (which has waterfalls, glaciers, sulfur flowers, fumaroles, and hasn't erupted in 17 years).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More photos and not much else

Today I got up early for the helicopter ride, but was informed in the nick of time that it was delayed until 2pm. I uploaded a bunch of photos, and then was told that because Putin arrived in town today (contrary to earlier reports), airspace is closed until further notice, in case he wants to take a helicopter to see the attractions I paid about 1000 bucks to see last week, but had bad weather, etc etc etc. So yay - I get a taste of the Russia that people who live here deal with on a daily basis. I guess it's only fair.

Instead, I cut my losses, met Julia (a couchsurfer and linguist) at the music school, managed to con/charm my way into a music practise room, where as soon as I touched the keys, all doubt was erased. The secretary then went from querulous suspicion to curiousity. I played some music and discussed musical theory and notation with Julia. After a few hours, I gave my splintered nails a break (this piano was not quite the Ferrari I had at my disposal in Magadan), and returned home.

At home I met Roman, a friend of the man who's flat I'm borrowing, and cooked dinner with what I could find in the fridge. It was rice boiled in juice, chopped tomato and egg fried on the stove, and sliced cucumber with salt - a winning combination. He showed me some photos from Mutnovsky - which may be as close as I can get if the current environment of tour paralysis continues, and then departed. I uploaded yet more photos, and have completed the section from Baikal to Yakutsk via the BAM. The next section will cover the trip from Yakutsk to Magadan via the Road of Bones. Be afraid, be very afraid. All these photos is one upshot of enforced idleness through a combination of uncertainty over tours, bad weather, and a sore knee (from cramped buses, funnily enough!).

Yay photos!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Some photos from Russia up

Some space issues being resolved now. This takes us to the shores of Lake Baikal. Enjoy!
Casey Handmer

Hot mud and rain

Yesterday the tour agent informed me that due to bad weather, helicopter flights had been cancelled. This was a shame, but they suggested I meet with their friends to go to a remote hot spring and so on, for the day. I was given a time and a place, but no names or numbers. After making the rendezvous point I wandered around shivering slightly for about 10 minutes, wondering just how this was going to work. After a while I saw a man in camo water proof clothing (pretty common in Russia, actually) say the words 'Australian' and 'red hair' in Russian, and so all was sorted. We jumped in a series of buses and taxis, then walked about 4km. Along the way the man (Nikolai) carried an empty plastic bag, which he proceeded to fill with an astounding variety of leaves which he spotted, then bounded off the track to collect. In the meantime, he whistled a bit to warn the bears we were coming. There were 7 of us in total. The track steadily degraded, and passing a half submerged car, degenerated into a loamy, peaty track next to a swiftly flowing stream. At last the scenery opened out to reveal a rather makeshift looking hut next to an ancient, mineral encrusted well-head, presumably sunk into underlying strata. Hot water bubbled up, and ducted through several insulated pipes to heat the hut, filled a series of mud-lined dams before flooding a section of ground filled with dead Birch trees. Several decaying slabs of reinforced cement completed the picture, and combined with the smell of sulfur, it was really quite something.

We dumped our food on the table, stripped to our underwear, and took off down the track towards the river. The river ran between muddy banks (not the usual stones), and was freezing. I decided it was now or never and had a dip, which was actually not nearly as painful as I thought it might be. We returned to the pools and gradually immersed ourself in water that was pretty hot. Rolling around in the mud and clay (a deep blue colour) we soaked and steamed until we were bright red and puffy, and there was nothing for it but to run back to the river and jump in. Putting your head under stimulates the mammalian diving reflex (in a BIG way), which is probably why the experience wasn't fatal! After a while we scraped off most of the mud, dressed, and ate most of the food we'd brought. Nikolai poured his leaves into a cauldron and cooked up an amazing tea. We left in quite a hurry to meet the taxi driver, and sadly I forgot my wet underwear, which I'd left on one of the pipes to dry.

About a 40 minute walk back (no sign of bears), then a series of 3 buses taking about 2 hours (one of which was full of men from the navy), and I was home. I cooked about 60 ANZAC biscuits (though some went missing in action...), then walked across town to meet another couch surfer (Tanya), her family, and two couchsurfers from Australia. They are the first Australian tourists I've seen the WHOLE trip (there were 3 others, geologists and mining engineers in various places), and to my delight I discovered I had not forgotten how to speak the lingo. We chatted for the rest of the evening. My knee had got a bit sore (from the bus ride after climbing the volcano, crammed into a tiny seat!), but Olya, who is a physio, confirmed that it was nothing too serious. I put my raincoat back on and struggled through wind and driving rain (which looked amazing under yellow street lights) to my flat, where I took a shower (win!), closed the door (win!), and slept on a bed with sheets (win!!!). 

Today the weather is awful, so I slept in, then ate food and uploaded photos. They are visible here:
This album completes Mongolia, meaning I'm only 46 days behind now.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Kamchatka rocks my world

I'm sure I can work a geology joke from the title... - stay tuned.

Last post left me just arrived and already found some nice people to spend time with. One cool thing was Vasily's prospectus for studying in Australia. The photos for Sydney Uni were of the St Paul's College quad, and the harbour bridge from Milson's Point, which is a ferry wharf, not a uni. UNSW same story. Kudos to Macquarie for actually having a photo of their campus!

In other news, I was also published. Some honours work from last year finally matured to the point of being accepted by Optics Letters, so yay! Here's a link: http://www.opticsinfobase.org/abstract.cfm?URI=ol-35-17-2846
If you actually click it, and then read the abstract, and don't want to pay 35 dollars for further confusion, and your curiousity has not been quashed by the limpid prose and completely oblique subject matter, send me an email - I have a copy!

I heard some Russian jokes which I thought were funny. Probably after I tell them here they'll be eviscerated from the national memory (at the least), but here they are!
The Russians say that east of European Russia, there are no roads, only directions. *cue laugh!* This is actually not so far from the truth.
In response to one of my maps a friend stated "We have no maps of Magadan, except for one that Russian spies stole from the CIA - which must be that one!" Think about it!

Back to the narrative. Yesterday I got in touch with four local couchsurfers (and friends), and hung out for the day. The first problem was that none of the tour agencies I had researched on the web seemed to be in business anymore - the ghost web. Fortunately, the first Cser (Anna) works for a hotel which does tours, so I went there and signed over my life's savings for a helicopter ride (in a Mi-8!!!!!) to some valley with geysers or something. The important thing is that I nearly melted the ATM paying for it. 

The next couchsurfer I found was a 20 year old linguistics student called Julia, who spoke better English than I did. I knew nothing about her prior to our meeting except her telephone number, and was somewhat surprised to see such a young Cser, even with braids and stuff. Not to worry, Julia told me about her solo travel experiences in Japan last month, which was pretty impressive. Also, at long last, I found someone willing to swap swear words in the 10 or so languages I know them in! You would have thought any of the 15 truck drivers in Magadan could have taught me one each, but they were too bashful. Nevermind - the school girls know them all! (And most of the English ones too). It reminded me of a time in Japan a few years back when I conversed painfully with a girl in French (those of you who have heard me speak French will understand the pain), but who was very enthusiastic when it came to swapping dirty language. 

It wasn't all fun and games, however. We also discussed physics, atheism, stone skimming, dance styles, travel styles, and a few hundred other things! At some point we saw a police Uaz jeep in hot pursuit of something. That something is safe, however. Uazes have many virtues, and speed is not one of them! That evening we met some more people and climbed the central hill (again) to watch the sunset. Following this I went home and cooked an excellent dinner, then stayed up WAY too late using the internet.

Doing what, you may ask! Since no more photos have yet appeared. I did a backup yesterday. There are about 5000. I'm less than keen to start climbing that mountain! However, I was watching science revu ee videos on youtube. They've shot some really funny advertisements, (but for some reason they're not on youtube... =P). Still, the ones that are can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/user/sciencerevue

Other cool stuff in town is Vladimir Putin, who arrived yesterday (maybe). He will shortly be joined by Medvedev (the president) and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. They're opening a new church in town, and probably closing the airspace on the one clear day I have to fly around. But in any case, it's nice they could make it here for me!

4:30am the next morning I woke and took a cab to the rendezvous point for the climbing tour. We piled into minibuses and departed at 6am. The bus drove to the edge of the city then wound up a ashed filled creek, with plenty of bumps to test if 10 days had really mended my back post crash. No problems, and after the van navigated impossible potholes and washouts, we arrived at basecamp, where the advantage of paying became evident - free (sort of) food! After we took about 4 million photos of Avachinsky and Koryaksky volcano we set off. At this point I discovered on our tour was a translator from Moscow, who also spoke better English than me, so we had a great chat (while everyone else was huffing and puffing) about linguistics, case structure in Latin (and the untimely demise of the instrumental in said great language), walking style, volcanoes, helicopter maintenance techniques, and so on. Our guide insisted on maintaining a 10cm per step pace, which I (probably alone) found rather frustrating. I'm a great believer in minimising the number of steps by taking huge ones, but since the climb took about 6 hours over all, some degree of pacing wasn't a bad idea. Early on a few people flaked out - later on a few more people who should have flaked out opted instead to slow the group down, meaning that by the time we got to the summit we had a great view of the inside of a cloud. However, all was not lost - during a few moments on the ascent (sliding on 40 degree scree slopes with permafrost above terrifying glaciers, etc etc etc - think Mount Doom only with less hobbits) and on the summit the clouds cleared, affording an excellent view to more distant clouds covering the ground and surrounding volcanoes. Over the course of the day no fewer than 7 other major volcanoes were visible, the closest being (of course) Koryaksky, which is about twice as steep and also erupted last year.

Disapointingly, no eruption occurred today, so the climb was uneventful in that respect. A steam/ash plume from Gorely was visible in the distance. At the top the wind was very strong, the smell of sulfur pleasant (in my mind!), and the mountain steep. The summit is at 2714m, which is high enough to feel the effects of a thinner atmosphere. When climbing the more active volcanoes altitude sickness kicks in earlier and harder due to CO2 inhalation! SO2 forms sulfurous acid in your lungs, and thus climbing volcanoes is something which probably shouldn't be done every day!

The climb down could have taken about 15 minutes, but our guide decided instead to not opt for a 15% fatality rate and picked a speed that I would have liked going up! Even so, once the tricky permafrost section had been negotiated, thick gravel on a very steep slope made for a quick and soft descent. Often climbing down mountains is as hard as up, due to the constant jarring motion. In this case it was more of a semi controlled slide. I opted at the beginning not to take walking sticks (bipedalism is confusing enough for me!) and to everyone's surprise managed not to fall over, despite about 100 close calls! We dropped down 3 or 4 steep slopes in quick succession, filling our shoes with gravel and our hair with mist. At the bottom we piled into the almost sliflingly warm kitchen and were served salad and potato soup (the Russian staple) with an option for tea, biscuits, etc. Due to a series of complicated events I had been carrying food for someone who gave up very early on, so I had plenty to eat the whole day. Happiness!

We swapped email addresses, got back in the vans, and bounced back to the city. I returned to my (Denis') flat, had a wonderful hot shower (hot water works again in Russia after a month of repairs in summer = yay!), bought ingredients for anzac biscuits, but forgot to buy pasta (no matter, I'll live on biscuits for a week!), and made some plans for tomorrow.

In the meantime, I need to catch up on some sleep. I have photos, I have internet, if I have boredom, you will have photos. In the meantime, sit tight! (I uploaded five from the first day to facebook, if you're desperate!).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Magadan - Khabarovsk - Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

I wound up my wonderful week in Magadan with a private performance at the music school and a session repairing the guitar hero drum kit of my couch surfing host. To my relief the repair went perfectly and we spent many fine hours playing the best of western pop!

Next morning I went through the familiar ritual of packing and saying goodbye to people I have bonded with and will probably never see again. But one can hope. Took a bus to the airport, where security was pretty interesting. Luggage was thrown into the truck by hand, then driven through heavy rain to the plane, where it was also loaded by hand. Wall was decorated with stamped metal sheets commemorating events and locations in Russia. Several planes of defunct airlines were parked on the grass nearby, their rear engines and drooping wings (in the Soviet style) looking both sad and menacing at the same time. In the departure lounge I met another Australian (the third for this trip!), a geophysicist who was doing work at Cupol, where apparently the ore grade is as good as 28g/T in places, meaning the extraction cost is about $340/ounce, and the market price is around $1200/ounce. Like a gold mine! Apparently their capacity of 1000T a day of ore is unspectacular - some other mines manage as much as 20000T/day. Hooray.

The flight had a great view of the tops of clouds, some coast lines, secret military installations, the enormous Amur river (joined by the Ussuri river at Khabarovsk), and about 20 uniformed and face-masked troops sitting at the back of the plane.

In Khabarovsk I found a Cser with 2 very cute kittens, chatted, walked around the city, and slept the night. The next morning after a brief walk, more talking, and farewells I had to depart - one of my quickest couch surfs ever (mainly because of difficulties in getting plane tickets). Back at the airport things went much more smoothly. I had a lunch of chocolate and apple juice (probably a little high on sugar), and passed security without a blip. This was regarded as suspicious (I had even removed my belt buckle), so I was frisked by one very lucky Olga! Back to the plane, which also had excellent food (kudos Vladivostok Air!), more secret military installations, and a flight to Kamchatka over Sakhalin Island, which I've heard is very beautiful, but looked green and flat from way up high. I've heard the main hobby of people on the island is to make home-made gliders and test them by being dragged behind jeeps. Frequent crashes and broken bones!

The plane cruised over Kamchatka. Kamchatka resembles a flint spear point thrust into the Pacific Ocean, and is quite young (only 4 million years). Somewhat similar geographically to New Zealand, it has the highest density of active volcanoes of almost anywhere on the planet. Which is why I'm here! The plane cruised past two biggies, Koryaksky and Avachinsky, landed at the airport, and we disembarked (by bus, of course). Waited for luggage and just watched these two mountains. Only 30kms or so from the city, both are active. Koryaksky is currently in an eruptive phase, and Avachinsky erupts about once every 10 years, last in 2001. One can hope :). Avachinsky is about 2700m, Koryaksky 3456m, but both their summets were hidden by layers of clouds, as their flanks were covered in forest stripes with lava flows. This place is as close as one can get to heaven. One might even say the edge of the world, where some bits are still in pieces!

Took a bus into the city to Avacha hotel, a place with 5 star prices and 3 star standards, but a cheap dinner, clean room, comfortable bed, 47 channels on TV (one in English - Russia Today, but basically propaganda), and two Caterpillar reps from South Africa, with whom I had a good chat. Shower, food, clean clothes! Hooray. Also waiting for me at Avacha hotel (which was an enormous pain to organise) was a postal ballot for the Australian federal election, which I duly completed (voting below the line for the senate, of course!), enveloped, and posted the following morning. I read (at 8pm, when I recieved the delivery), that the outgoing envelope must be post marked on or before the 18th of August, which was the same day. Obviously this was impossible, but I pointed out in my letter (in which I had to explain why no Australian could witness the procedure) that I was unfairly close to the wrong side of the international date line and that this would be posted while it was still the 18th on more than half of the world. If Russian post even works at all. Hypothetically, I could have chartered a plane to Anchorage... ;P.

Next morning I woke early, ate breakfast (included in the $150/night bill), posted the letter, and tried to get in touch with a couch surfer's father. Said Cser, Denis, is out of the city but promised to lend me his flat. Neither he nor his father (who had the key) spoke English, so it was an adventure. But in time for the checkout it was all organised (with the help of a friend who speaks English, admittedly - though I would like to think my Russian contributed only 50% of the difficulty - the remainder being the fact that my phone's speaker is less than functional...) and I have the run of a flat for 2 weeks, free of charge. I was pretty embarassed by this generousity and good fortune, but then Denis' mother Nina handed me two shopping bags full of groceries and insisted I was too skinny. Now it's nearly midnight and I look forward to eating something, but am too busy completing a blog update!

In the meantime I met an English speaker randomly on the street who offered to show me the best places in the city (and saved me a big walk up the central hill), for an awesome view of the entire city nestled between extinct cinder cones and the distant peaks of Koryaksky and Avachinsky, the bay, the river delta, the port, the closed city and volcano of Vilyunchinsky across the bay, and on the horizon Mutnovsky, yet another volcano famed for unique sulfer formations in the crater.

In the evening Denis' friend Roman and I walked around the square and 'lover's hill', skimmed some rocks, and watched an awe-inspiring sunset before returning to the flat for tea. This place is unreal! I thought maybe I saved Kamchatka for last for financial reasons (helicopters are not cheap), but now realise I saved the best for last. I often thought Scarborough (north of Wollongong) or Sydney's northern beaches could be improved by the addition of a few stratovolcanoes, and here's a place that offers a pretty good idea of what that would be like. So, people, start digging!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Magadan adventures

Since arriving in Magadan, I spent a few days recuperating in the hotel, chatting with miners as previously mentioned, and compiling a list of Russian swear words. Many other Russians had declined to teach me any, saying I would learn more than enough in Magadan, but until the crash I had heard none. The crash afforded an excellent opportunity to hear them used in context and with the correct inflection. 

I got on the couchsurfing horn and found a few locals to hang out with. One couple (Anna and husband) were very keen to show me around, and drove me to the beach, the Mask of Sorrow, and many other places. Anna's mother is part of Rotary, and they have often had American exchange students, which explains why Anna's English is so good! At one point Anna's cousin drove us to a local beach. As we passed the police post we saw dozens of cars with illegally tinted windows waiting for one to make the sacrifice and cop a $20 'straf' or fine, so the others could then herd past. We swapped drivers, because the cousin didn't have his license. I thought maybe it would be a problem, because Anna's husband is a police officer, but quite the opposite. Russia! Also, Anna's cousin described several intrusions by bears at their dacha! The beach was framed between steep rocks and cliffs and leaden autumnal skies and was suitably spectacular!

Speaking of bears, the Russian word is Medved (as in the president). Medved, I discovered today, comes from the word myod (meaning honey) and an old word for 'to know', 'vedit' (as in the Sanskrit). Cool huh?

Anna's husband also followed up some details of the crash, finding that the car was a 1996-1998 model Hilux (but new looking!) that had recently been sold. This is pretty much a dead end as far as getting an official police report and insurance, but fortunately my costs were very low. 

I investigated visiting the Magadan Zapovednik, or nature reserve a few 10s of km from Magadan, most easily accessible by boat. This nature reserve is mainly a marine reserve centered around some stupendous rock stacks (similar in a way to the 12 (7.5?) apostles in Victoria) with bajillions of nesting sea birds and so on. I heard today that recently an unlicensed Brazilian scientist was found adrift out there missing socks, so I think the chance of hitchhiking out there tomorrow is pretty slim. If I come back next decade in a helicopter, I'll visit the Zapovednik, Jack London Lake, and the Pole of Cold, amongst other interesting things I know of hidden in the Taiga.

This evening, following a stupendous lunch celebrating Anna's grandmother's 85th birthday, we visited a local banya, which was inspirational. In the meantime I organised a home stay with another couchsurfer, Elena and her boyfriend Sergei, who just got back from a 25 day trip to Turkey and Scandinavia, and have just the right amount of jetlag to stay up all night playing games on their xbox or playstation. They also have a large number of very nerdy friends who visit to play guitar hero (though encouragingly, not very well), oggle pictures of a cleanroom I worked in a few years ago, and provide interesting conversation. One tennet of the conversation is the similarities between Magadan and Australia, as both started life essentially as very remote prisons of a colonial power. In Magadan's case, however, it was built by intellectual exiles. Many millions died in camps in Kolyma, but enough survived to give the city interesting architecture (some of it built by Japanese POWs) and flavour. In many ways the most remote power here is Moscow - China, Japan, Australia, US are all closer. Later this evening 4 guys joined Elena, Sergei, and I to watch Japanese anime, but had to spend about 25 minutes (longer than the anime itself) syncing the Russian subtitles on a transparent window on a remote screen - transcendent nerdiness the hard way! I have never felt more at home.

I've also been steadily patching holes in my jeans (about half as fast as they appear), and spending an hour or two each day at the music college attempting to bring Godowsky's transcription of Chopin's revolutionary etude under control. Words cannot describe how relieved I was to find my piano abilities (already and perpetually at dangerously low ebb) undiminished by the crash! Another peculiarity of Magadan is that although the local airport (only 50kms away) services most local airports, including Anchorage from time to time, the cheapest flights are to Moscow, due to competition.

I was dismayed to realise I'd left one small detail out of my description of the crash. As I started in the front passenger seat and finished upside down (with respect to the car) in the opposite side back seat, I performed personally the coordinate inversion (x,y,z)->(-x,-y,-z), thus underscoring the validity of Hamiltonian Dynamics in this particular instance.

Finally, two days ago I walked to the base of the TV tower at the top of the hill and the end of Lenina Ulitsa. There is a view down the road maybe 5km, however the road continues unbroken nearly 1700km past the port of Khandyga to the bank of the Aldan River, making it probably the longest main street of any town in the world!

Thursday, August 12, 2010


For those who are interested, here's some stats on the trip.
2025km, 26 vehicles, 12 days, one crash, $250 net expenditure. Of that all but food (maybe $30) was discretionary - that is, I paid for a night in a hotel when I could have camped, had I been sufficiently stingy.
In Magadan I explored the city on foot (albeit slowly!). I found the music college, at which I had a contact from Ust-Nera, and played the piano well enough to get an invitation to see the regional museum with a guide (in Russian...) and free of charge. Aran, the head of the music school, plays the piano accordion!
At the hotel, a steady stream of foreign and English speaking mining people made their way through. I spent last night in the bar chatting to two guys who between them had enough stories and interesting goss to fill a book. One worked in a not-so-near nuclear power station, but said that a visit would be impossible due to tight security, which he then outlined in excruciating detail. The other specialises in deep hard-rock mining and provided heaps of information I was curious about - like how do the Russians remediate oil-spills on the site? Covering with more dirt, apparently! Magic!
In the meantime I also saw the sea, which is quite amazing. 53 days travelling overland, and finally have seen the sea (and it's not frozen over, which is a bonus). The seagulls like it too. :) I continue to live it up in the hotel (where my habit of photographing everything translated to a free dinner).
One problem continues to bug me - internet cafes are in short supply. I have heaps of time - as soon as I find one which can do USB I'll upload 1000 photos from Mongolia and Russia. Until then, try and imagine the awesome.

Corrections, etc

Hello peoples! A short post to say that Vladimir Dinets' websites are actually:
http://vdinets.livejournal.com so click through and make google happy!
Also, it goes without saying (almost) that all the text I've punched out on crappy keyboards in mudbrick internet cafes are mine, also the photos that my ancient camera somehow saved in JPEG format (rather than bass-relief) are copywrite. If you want to use some text or photos or retell my stories as your own, that's fine, just ask me first. I'll probably say yes. If you want to plagiarise my pulitzer worthy prose and (I don't know) very good photos, then don't. Save a few thousand bucks and go hitch-hiking yourself! Just don't flip a hilux on a dirt road... Also you'll have some difficulty stealing my photos as I haven't been able to upload very many of them. Shucks.
More stuff - I want to thank my brother Marcus who came to the rescue when internet proved elusive along the way, extracting data from google and who knows where and providing useful information, like which towns were abandoned (interesting, but no hotels), and the straight line distance from Ust-Nera to Tomtor (150kms).

The Kolyma Highway, or, In Soviet Russia, luck pushes YOU!

I left Yagodnoye with half a plan to visit Jack London lake, a picturesque lake amongst the mountains about 50km to the south. I hitched quickly to the junction, and to my surprise, found the bridge in perfect condition. Realising that a 60km walk (and 60km back) through bear infested territory was not such a good idea (I only had 2 days of food with me), I decided to walk anyway. About 1km, to the first pass to get a good look down the valley. After a quick chat to some guys who were there in their UAZ to pick berries, and a lift back to the highway, I skimmed stones in puddles, ate biscuits, and considered the problem of a mud-water boundary layer (which supports very slowly propagating waves).
Not long after, a man in a van gave me a lift 100km down the road to Debin, a town that was once the administrative center of the Kolyma gulag, at the junction of the road from Magadan and the river itself. According to Solzhenitsyn's interviews, in winter the place was an array of tents surrounded on 3 sides with frozen bodies piled 6 deep, as the snow was too deep to attempt burial. Today, there are a handful of inhabitants, an abandoned TB sanatorium, and a newish single lane bridge over the river. Soon a passing UAZ ute gave me a lift down the road towards Orotukan. First, however, we had to stop at a gold mine and refuel two graders, which circled the tiny truck like barracuda before each parking about 2mm away on either side and pumping diesel from some cans in the back. When I attempted to jump out to photograph the process I found BOTH the inside and outside door latches of my door were not functional, but that a well aimed blow could open the door. Later, we picked up 4 workers in the back, and their door wouldn't latch shut, in some kind of odd symmetry.
In Orotukan I bought some juice and snacks and waited about 40 minutes for a lift. A guy drove out of the town in a nearly new Toyota Hilux. I thought - wow! Best car of the trip. The driver knew it too, and slowed to 20km/h in muddy sections to avoid getting mud down the sides too. Just after Orotukan we passed a memorial for 7 people killed in a crash 2 weeks before. Trucks throw up enormous dust clouds, and somehow 2 of the four cars which see the road each hour managed a head-on in one of these dust clouds. My driver seemed quite upset by this - as you can imagine, very few people live in the region, and he almost certainly knew some of them. They were in a minivan doing a run from Yakutsk to Magadan - more or less how I would have travelled had I paid. Not long after we picked up another hitchhiker - a Russian who has travelled quite widely and hoped to travel to Canada. We paused in Atka, a village with about 200 people left in between the usual windowless empty apartment blocks, for a quick snack, and then continued on. The road wound pleasantly through valley after valley, high mountains on either side, larch alternating with tundra as very Mambo clouds hung in the sky. We made good time and I anticipated being in Magadan late in the evening. To pass the time I counted the cars and trucks I'd got lifts in since Yakutsk - arrived at a total of 25!
About 33km after Atka the road crested a pass and began a winding descent into a valley. I pulled out my passport to show the other hitchhiker some visas. At that moment we rounded a corner and the back of the car began to slide. In seconds we had spun 180 degrees and slid into the curve. The car struck a low earth embankment, shearing off a tyre, then flipped into the ditch, coming to rest after one and a quarter rotations. I had previously been sitting in the front passenger seat, and now found myself on the opposite side, in the back, my back against the door (which was facing the ground), with my head in the foot-well, passport still in hand. I transfered the passport to my mouth, grabbed the nearest head restraints, pulled myself upright, and made my exit through the smashed windshield. I figure I must have been thrown into the ceiling and slid along it for a bit.
Fortunately, noone had been hurt seriously. My back and shoulders were pretty sore, and the driver and other hitch-hiker seemed to have escaped without a scratch. Debris was scattered widely, but I soon found my camera and dictionary, replaced my passport, and pulled my bag through the smashed window. I also found the drivers coat, which contained maybe 50-100,000 roubles (2-4000 bucks), and returned it to him. None of us would make it to Magadan that day, and he without his car. I'm not sure why we lost control - perhaps older cars have proven their reliability? Also possible is that the shop-supplied tyres are no good. We were not speeding given the conditions, but it's possible the ABS system freaked on a dusty dirt road.
Soon enough a passing truck stopped and we flipped the Hilux back upright. Some of the doors still worked, so we got the rest of the stuff out we needed, then me and the other hitchhiker got in passing trucks going the right direction. At about 3am I made it to central Magadan, where I located the best hotel in town and checked in. Even better, because I checked in so late, the first night was effectively free.
Next morning I got an Xray at the polyklinika which said nothing was broken. This is excellent news. My adventures in Magadan will have to wait for another post.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Kolyma Highway, or, if you fear rejection, hitchhiking is not for you (part 2)

Last post had me sleeping the night with a bunch of salvors in the abandoned settlement of Kyubyume. As I cooked dinner, the sun poked through a distant hole in the clouds and gave everything a rather nice colour. Little did I know this would be the last sun I would see for some time!

Next morning, I woke, packed, and walked back to the road, via a frigid stream and some frightful mozzies. Walking a few ks down the road towards Ust Nera, I saw a functional petrol station, and a family of friendly dogs. After a while, 3 Uaz vans loaded with people appeared FROM Tomtor, going to Yakutsk. I decided to take the next car regardless of destination (Tomtor or Ust Nera), and wound up crammed in a Mitsubishi van heading to Ust Nera. The five hour trip was uneventful, save for the chance meeting of a hitchhiker going the other way and the road climbing two mountain ranges with the appropriately spectacular cliffs, mountains, valleys, trees, and holes in the guard rail with skid marks between.

I spent 3 nights in Ust Nera, staying with Natella and her boyfriend Zhenya, both of whom were wonderful hosts and had lots of interesting friends to hang out with. We ate well, swapped stories, and generally carried on. The wind picked up from the north, bringing icy rain and 5-10 degree weather. Colder in the peak of summer than Sydney in the middle of winter. I went for a walk in the mountains to the south of the town, but didn't see any bears. The area is mainly a gold mine, and spoil piles are frequently visible. I pondered chartering a helicopter to visit the Indigirka gorge, but the weather and cloud was too terrible to be worthwhile. About 150km further upstream the coldest ever temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was recorded -71.6C in the 1950s. It has been warmer in recent years - only -65. Also in Ust Nera I visited the museum, the music school, and a few other places, but Ust Nera has no public internet facilities, so soon it was time to leave!

I waited for two hours at the petrol station at the edge of town, to the point where I was able to recognise local traffic. Eventually a chance conversation with two men from Ingushetia led to a lift 150km down the road to the rather miserable (state) border town of Artyk, where I chilled with 6 guards, an AK47, and some tea doing show and tell with my photo cards until another truck came past. This was an empty petrol tanker and it practically flew the 170km to Kadykchan, over some interesting hills, between wide valleys, some with trees, some without, and of course, plenty of gold mining.

In Kadykchan I got out and walked up the road to the city. This city had a population of 15000, but in 1995, the heating system broke down in winter and the mine yield fell substantially. Very quickly, the entire city was abandoned. Now there are about 50 large concrete buildings, mostly everything inside broken, but occasionally you can find an untouched flat, some books, furniture, cutlery, etc. Most buildings are still standing. I explored widely and found restaurants, a cinema, shops, the school, another school, a factory, a sports hall, the main administration building, etc. The school in particular was fascinating - it could have accomodated easily 1200 students, had science labs, a library, gym, sports hall, auditorium, staff room, lecture theatres, and an accessible roof. Certain store rooms also contained piles of slides, books, etc etc. Lenin's statue in the town square looks like a cyborg as half the concrete has broken off. In the evening I pitched my hammock-tent on the main street between two trees and had a lovely night's sleep.

The next morning, I woke up and walked back to the road. I found the junction with the old road leading to Tomtor, but was not tempted to walk the 250km! Instead I walked about 15km to Myaundzha, a city founded in the 1940s and envisioned as a worker's paradise with wide avenues, uranium processing, and barracks for 10000 prisoners. Now home to about 1200, the main employer is the coal power station, which supplies power to most towns in the region (including Ust-Nera). I wandered about, discretely photographing excellent graffiti and other cool stuff, and eventually found the school, painted in many bright colours! A bit of searching found the English teacher, also the school principal, a physics teacher, and an energetic student who was hanging around (there was some summer camp going on recently). I chatted for so long that hiking back to the highway and hitching to Susuman seemed unlikely, so Natalya (the English teacher) offered for me to stay the night, which I gladly accepted. Amongst many other things (excellent food, for example), the shower was without parallel this entire trip. Hot, fast, and apparently time unlimited! Next morning I was shown the dacha (vegetable patch and summer house), which was a couple of giant greenhouses, a banya, etc. The plants were grown inside in raised boxes and preposterously large. I was also shown her husband's hobby, in their other flat. Flats are about $4000 each, so owning two is not too hard! His hobby is making and repairing shoes! And he is rather good at it. The workshop was extraordinary, and well decorated with all sorts of jokes and posters. He is originally from Moldova, and Natalya is from the Caucasus. They both moved to Myaundzha in their early 20s, met, married, and settled. 30 years ago must have been a trilling time in the far east as there was a major colonization drive of young people. Now, the next generation has all left and in another generation, there might be almost noone left.

We had a lunch of chicken wings on the barbeque, then I got a lift out to the highway, where I waited in the freezing rain for 80 minutes until a truck stopped and I continued on. In the meantime, several extraordinary things happened. First, I skipped a stone through three consecutive puddles. Second, I managed to avoid being sprayed with mud by passing cars. Third, a car stopped (going the other way) and chatted, then offered me food, money (!) (I could not accept either!), and finally some sweets, which I accepted. It was pretty good. Lastly, I was standing under a raised security post (OMOH) out of the rain and a family of squirrel type things (with no ears and a small tail) lived in a nearby stack of concrete slabs. They screamed at me for a bit, then one came out and started running between my legs and climbing on my bag and generally having a grand ol' time. I managed to get some photos, so maybe I'll be able to upload (next year?).

I got a lift to Susuman about 100kms down the road, where I stayed in a cheap hotel. The room was okay - the bed flat, the TV reception functional, the lights worked. The toilet facilities were shared, but seriously basic, even before 20 years of complete neglect and no maintenance. Bizarrely, the only tap in the whole hotel that delivered hot water (in one of the hand basins) could not be turned off, but even that was not surprising. I walked around the town, but the only thing that really stands out was a building which housed a model aeroplanes youth club, and had the front of a (commercial jet) plane stuck to a window on the second floor. I was shown around by a resident landscape artist and found the variety and quality of the planes (mostly control line petrol planes) very impressive. Also in the town were several recent (and cheapish) monuments and signs saying '65 years of freedom', celebrating the end of the second world war. I thought the use of the word freedom, rather than peace, and 65 years being not that special (of all the numbers between 0 and 100), was rather interesting.

Next morning I woke, packed, checked out, and walked down the highway to the first junction I could see. I waited here for 45 seconds before a man called Alexsei picked me up and drove me 4kms down the highway to the actual last junction. I thanked him and walked on to a spot with better visibility, and as I did so a large truck came around the corner. I stuck my hand out and it skidded to a halt. Fastest ever hitching! This ride was unusual for many reasons. It was my first in a truck that wasn't a Kamaz. This was a Man, owned by a gold company. It was quiet in the cab, so lots of talking (I learned several new words). The driver stopped in a few places to help me take photos, and even collected some pine cones to demonstrate how to eat the nuts, showned me Yagoda berries, and a video he took on his phone of a bear sniffing around the truck not long ago. Also, he slowed almost to a crawl to drive over puddles, but fortunately there weren't too many. The road for the most part is passable by a standard 2wd car - just don't take your own.

I arrived in Yagodnoe, checked into a (the) hotel (the first with a locking door, a bed, AND a bathroom with a hot shower this entire trip!). Yagodnoe has about 4000 people, and I walked around the town, then down to the river. I had a couple of epic stone skimming sessions. The river is rather full on account of recent rains (which seem to be clearing - the weather is lovely today), and I worry that access to Jack London Lake (which is only 50km away) might be difficult if not impossible. In the evening I climbed a hill behind the town for an awesome view of the village, valley, sun, and so on. Recent forest fires had scarred some hillsides, but from the top it was possible to see several consecutive ranges of mountains - really quite stunning. Also in the town was some interesting soviet era banners, signs, and some architecture. I visited the cinema, which bizarrely had a aviary full of budgerigars, and was also the first non-closed cinema I've seen since Yakutsk (12 days and 15 lifts ago...). Though I spent the previous day cutting up socks to patch my jeans, they grew three new tears during the epic stone skimming sessions, so I don't know if I'm going to win this battle!

Today I'm going to attempt to access Jack London lake, and if unsuccessful, hitch another 500km to Magadan! This trip gets stranger and stranger, but I've enjoyed having a few days up my sleeve and exploring options as I come to them. I know almost nothing about the area, so I have to explore as I go along.

In other news, I recieved proofs of a paper that will be published rather soon, hopefully!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I was blogged!

http://dnevniki.ykt.ru/sibumi scroll down a bit! A google translation is here:
Handmer Casey, an Australian, riding from China via Mongolia and Siberia all Magadan, fit in a Junior Hospitality Club CouchSurfing about which I wrote a little earlier. Sydney, Casey has traveled decently for his 22 years, even in Russia is the second time, the physics and autumn comes to postgraduate study in the University of Pasadena, yes, the one where zadrotstvuyut Leonard, Sheldon & Co., to study gravity. As it turns out, Casey himself zadrot yet he told a lot of fascinating stories about the cosmic background radiation, black hole, the colonization of Mars, particularly alternative energy in a far north and was even able to literally on his fingers to explain the fundamentals of quantum physics. In general, interesting people, like the absolute majority of those 
meet a traveling or hosting a visit. Bon voyage. 

PS: And we are engaged in an amusing project, will soon find out the details on Joker.Ykt.Ru. Follow the news!

The Kolyma Highway, or The School of Infinite Patience (part 1)

Kolyma is a name that means little to anyone not born in Russia. To Russians, it is synonymous with death. Since the creation of DalStroi by Stalin to provide a labour force to conquer the Russian Far East and tap its vast mineral riches in the 1930s, more than 4 million prisoners, both political and criminal, perished in the region. The interested reader is referred to Solzhenitsyn's exhaustive analysis, or wikipedia, depending on your style. Keyword: Gulag.
The labour camp system was disbanded following Stalin's death, though the region's strategic importance ensured a stream of money and incentives from Moscow until the end of the Soviet union, about 20 years ago.
Enough background, on to the story. My last update finished in Yakutsk. Soon after I met a man from Anadyr travelling there from Vladivostok on a quad-bike. He was pretty crazy, and had some awesome tattoos. The next day I packed and headed to the river port to get a ferry to the other side of the Lena. The Lena, as previously mentioned, is a pretty substantial river, and after a one hour wait, a ferry left, with me on it. The crossing took about an hour, during which time miniature hydrofoils scudded past and the shores were dotted with rusting abandoned ships and barges. In a cloud of dust we pulled up at the shore of Nizhny Bestiak and I began to walk to the town. A dude gave me a lift to the center, and later another guy out to the edge in the correct direction. After a short (maybe 2 hour?) wait an UAZ van pulled up, with a family going home after a holiday. The mother was an English teacher, and the son had just bought a new play station. We stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe, and by 6pm were in the predominantly (ie entirely) Yakut town of Churapcha, which is built around a lake. I checked into a guest house which I think averages 3 guests a year, then walked around town for a few hours, thoroughly acquainting myself with the place - it was actually rather nice. Particular highlights included a truck filled with bouncing hay and a (maybe the) policeman on a postie bike pulling over some kids driving a tractor down the rather muddy main street.
Next day I woke up after a night of dreams, mostly involving effortless communication (something which I basically never experience anymore...), and walked to the main road. Before long a man driving to Ytyk-Kyuyel pulled over and gave me a lift, via a petrol station in Kyyy. If Russian names are unpronouncable... At Ytyk-Kyuyel, the sky was darkened by lots of bushfire smoke, and I was driven to a friend's petrol station, where my Russian-English interpreter skills were called upon to decypher an instruction manual and isolate a fault in the petrol station's computer system. After a few dozen words, we realised the fault was mechanical in nature, and lacking the knowledge to safely repair a float system in a petrol tank (they are all above ground and well insulated, but still...) I said goodbye and walked back to the main road. After a short wait (maybe 30 minutes) a UAZ Patriot (a newer make of SUV than the classic Hunter seen in Mongolia) with three guys pulled over, and gave me a lift 100kms down the road to the Aldan river, where we skimmed stones and paddled. They said goodbye, and while a few friendly feral dogs eyed off my biscuit supply, two more vehicles pulled up - an ancient Kamaz truck with a container of building materials on the tray, and a newish mercedes van with a DVD player stuffed with pharmaceuticals. The latter agreed to take me to the next major town, Khandyga, after a ferry arrived. The ferry has a capacity of 10 cars, so waited about 4 hours before taking us across. The grind upstream was also pretty slow, so even after an early start, 4 hours on the bank, and 90 minutes on the ferry, it was evening when I arrived in Khandyga, exhausted. I knew of a hotel, and by chance was dropped nearly right outside it. The owner was currently in Yakutsk, but a fellow guest let me in and the administrator arrived soon after. I used the kitchen and cooked some real food (!). In the evening, sick of rivers and dust, I stayed in and watched a very silly Russian movie on TV, with the volume turned down so as not to keep the other guest, a aircraft maintenance engineer, awake. I went to bed. At about midnight, I was awoken by frantic ringing of the door bell - it was the other guest, who had gone out previously (I don't know when), and on returning, found his key didn't work. So much for aircraft maintenance - he was trying to use the key upside down!
Next morning I walked to the edge of town and waited 3 hours for a lift, and began to invent a few games to pass the time. The first is called photographing everything. The second is walking in infinities (or figure 8s, depending on your perspective). The best, however, had not yet been invented. It's not that noone stopped, but few people travelled - maybe 3 cars an hour. Sick of the view, I walked through mist and light rain out of the town into the forest. Soon after, a van filled with sausages gave me a lift 4km down the road, and I decided to keep walking. There are bears in the forests, but near the roads I figured the chance of a bear giving cars a good reason to stop for me was a lot greater than actually being eaten by one, especially as it is late in the summer and most bears are pretty fat by now. This strategy paid off and about 40 minutes of walking later, a Lada with a family stopped. There were three very cute kids (12, 5, and 18 months), mum, and dad (so the car wasn't remotely overloaded). I remember it vividly - every window was badly tinted with 'sony' markings, the rear-view mirror had a translucent pineapple and topless girl picture hanging from it, the footwell was filled with empty glass jars. To say the car crabbed is a massive understatement - to drive forwards, the wheel was held at 3 o'clock. Every time a rock was thrown by the tyres onto the floor, it sprayed dirt up in the air with a massive bang. The eldest kid dug a squashed strawberry sweet out of the gap in the seat - it tasted excellent. I have to say, I was never yet more glad to get a lift! 70kms down the road we arrived at Tyomply-Klyuch, the airport town. I said goodbye, walked to a magazin (store) and chatted with the shop owner. This came in handy soon after, because an unloaded (ie fast) Kamaz pulled up and the driver was a bit grumpy. The woman in the store though convinced him to give me a lift down the road towards Razvilka, the next town (maybe 95kms further on). I clambered into the cab, about 100m off the ground, and we set off. The footwell was full of machine parts which were being delivered to a breakdown down the road - upon arrival, I got out and said good bye. I was 10km short of Razvilka, a town of maybe 60 people, so set off. Soon it began to rain, and then it rained a lot. Two fully loaded Kamaz semi trailers rumbled past, and the second stopped for me. At Razvilka, both stopped and I joined the drivers in the other cab for afternoon tea - the dashboard converted to a kitchen table. As the rain faded, a couple emerged from the distance following a romantic walk in the woods - only they had been surprised by the rain. The truck, bright orange, 260HP, and 28 tonnes, climbed hills at about 3km/h. If the gear changing was problematic, a clutch dump would send everything in the cab towards the ceiling at great speed. Never the less, we made good progress bumping down the road, reaching the border of Oimyakon region by 1am. (Still light, of course). Most of the road is in excellent condition, with functional bridges, graded surface, and so on - better than the road to Yakutsk. Sections, however, are carved from the cliff high above raging torrents, where the only thing more frequent than washouts and land-slips are memorials to dead drivers, usually a plinth with a photo, the steering wheel, and a PET bottle of petrol - enough to get them to the first truck stop on the other side. Funnily enough, the most common cause of death on the road is not falling from some precipitous section into a river, but mechanical break-downs. In winter, the temperature is regularly -50, the engines are kept running for 6 months straight, and a breakdown in a remote section of road is almost certain (though slow) death. At the pass we stopped, had a snack on the dinner table, and lacking trees, I pitched the hammock between the two trucks and had the best night's sleep I'd had in a long time.
Next morning they dropped me at the turnoff to Kyubyume because I wanted to visit Tomtor, a town on the old road (the Road of Bones, built by hand in the 1930s), most famous for recording a temperature of -71.6C in the 1950s (I think). It is the pole of cold in the northern hemisphere. After clambering across a broken bridge I arrived in the town, which is completely abandoned. There were five guys squatting in a shack while they gutted some of the buildings for building materials to sell to Yakutsk. I set up an old chair at the dusty road junction and waited for traffic to take a lift. Aside from an UAZ that passed as I arrived (completely full of people and luggage), I didn't see a car the entire day. Nothing! With plenty of time, however, I explored the town, finding the old theatre, a mineral spring, some destroyed garages, a banya, abandoned apartments with fading wallpaper, and last of all a building that had previously been a telegraph relay station, stuffed with smashed electronic equipment and technical diagrams, the floor boards already scavenged. I also invented the best game ever - throwing rocks at small targets. Inexhaustible! That evening I collected some wood, made a fire, and cooked some dinner outside an abandoned petrol station. Using the same pot for tea, scouring with the teabag - ingenious! That evening the men returned from their perilous work (crowbarring huge timbers from multistory buildings) and fired up a laptop. We watched two dubbed and obscure American films, one based on a magic mobile phone, the other about some guy who gets into a Wall Street firm. I slept on the floor.
Now I must go and be sociable - for the next few days of history, you will have to wait. Many excellent adventures have occured!