Wednesday, August 4, 2010

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!

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