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!

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