Thursday, August 12, 2010

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.

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