Cycling Through Eastern Russia
For the month of August, Brandon and I have gone from the coastal city of Magadan cycling over gravel, dirt tracks, mud, sand, and river rocks to reach the city of Yakutsk. Travelling such a large distance through the far east of Russia has left us both with a plethora of stories to share, wonderful memories, lessons learned, kind encounters, new friends, challenges and many rewards. I hope this entry will give a small glimpse into what we have been up to the last while.
Landing in Magadan on the first of August, we quickly decided to stay a few more days than anticipated as our welcoming hosts, Evgeny, Kate and their crazy dog Shiksha, quickly became amazing new friends. We spent the next days riding old trails with the local mountain bike club, checking out the city, spending a day at a beautiful, secluded beach and finding out more information about the road ahead.
After departing Magadan, we turned west along the Tenkinsky Road diverging off the main Kolyma Highway, undertaking the more scenic route passing over larger mountains and seeing less vehicles. This section of the road did not disappoint. The landscapes were stunning, the fresh, clear streams were plentiful, and the days included blue skies and sun. While we saw less car traffic in total, we were amongst more work vehicles and semis, as the region is popular for mining. We were caked from head to toe with dust from each passing vehicle, but I can’t complain as we witnessed such genuine excitement and kindness from nearly every truck driver. Many men stopped to shake our hands, ask about our journey, offer big smiles, ask for a picture and even go as far as loading us up with juice and cake. We also couldn't help but notice the looks of confusion and disbelief from many at a first glance. This continued as we came across a couple small villages along the road, as the locals wondered what on earth two crazy, foreign cyclists were doing there.
After coming off the Tenkinsky road leading back to the dirt highway, we road to the town of Myaundzha. What started as asking a local about a place to set up our tent for the night, turned into staying in her relatives sons empty apartment. Lena, Igor, Nadia and her son Valentine insisted we come for dinner, which was followed by a tour of her incredible garden and greenhouse, driving up to the local mountain at sunset and a lesson in edible and medicinal plants... all in Russian (the veggie and plant lover in me was beyond stoked)! Their welcoming arms and generosity, along with their curiosity and interest in our journey left us in awe and immense gratitude.
The following morning as we pedalled away, expressing our endless thanks to Lena's family, we were off to Kadychan, an abandoned ghost town where over 10,000 residents once lived. We spent a good portion of our day exploring the torn buildings, climbing to the tops of apartments, and venturing through the streets. It was an incredibly eerie but fascinating experience.
From this point, we turned on to the only remaining original portion of the ‘Road of Bones’. Back during the USSR, Stalin had issued the construction of the Kolyma Highway from Magadan to Yakutsk. The name 'Road of Bones' stems from the very unfortunate building process of the road. Sadly, many bodies were left along the road during the inhumane and brutal work conditions that were forced upon a large number of men building the road. Today, much of the Kolyma has been reconstructed parallel to the old road, but this particular section after Kadychan to Tomtor is the only real, remaining path left. This section is no longer used by locals as most bridges have been washed away, so it comes at no surprise that we were continually told "нет, нет, не возможно - NO, NO, NOT POSSIBLE”, by the locals we talked with.
With that in mind, we knew there would be a possibility of turning back and taking the new northern section of the Kolyma. In the end, I couldn’t have been more thankful we took on the challenge and risk of the old road. It offered us endless challenges with mud bogs, broken bridges, pieces of the road sliding out into the river, carrying the bikes overhead and a lot of climbing, but it also granted us the some of the most spectacular views, solitude and riding along the entire route to Yakutsk. To our delight, the destroyed bridges were difficult but still passable and the major sections of the river, which would have been impossible to cross, still had intact remnants of the old wooden bridges. Mind you, watching the wooden pieces fall beneath you, it almost felt safer to swim across then step on these bridges, but we made it regardless. To top it all off, we had the benefit of daily foraging for the endless wild berries - one of my favourite parts.
Once we passed the final river crossing and entered into the Oymyakon region, we reached the town of Tomtor. This region is know for being the coldest permanently inhabited place in the world with a historical record of -71.2°C and average winter temperatures of -50°C. We decided to have a rest day in town, having rode every day since leaving Magadan. Our experience and memories of the small village were greatly enhanced with the company of Liuba, the English school teacher, her son Vova, our host Suzanne and the the other incredible local Yakutia people we encountered. After visiting the local history museum with the help and translation of Liuba, going deep into a permafrost cave to see carved ice figures, filling our bellies with Suzanne’s delicious cooking, and much to my reluctance, drinking kumis (fermented mare’s milk - never again) we continued to ride.
From Tomtor we connected again with the gravel Kolyma Highway where we ventured through a new mountain range, other small villages and soon came into forests of endless birch trees. One day in particular, we were stopped by three road workers who invited us into their mobile home for chai. After a couple hours of conversation, including endless hand signals and drawings, and a ton of laughter, they told us of a weather station up the road we could sleep for the night. An hour later were greeted by Tanya and Evgeny who gave us a little room to rest our heads.
Our time in the Yakutia region was chalked full of even more friendly smiles and encounters, passing vehicles asking for more pictures, warm, inviting conversations and of course, more dust. As we edged closer and closer to Yakutsk we began to veer away from the clear mountain streams and came into the land of agriculture and little ponds surrounded by herds of animals where we were unable to wash off in. With the dust, and lack of fresh water, coming into Yakutsk not only signified the end of another big leg of our journey, but most anticipated... our first real shower.
We are now spending a few days in Yakutsk touring around, enjoying a large selection of food (give me all the veggies), and planning the road ahead before we continue riding. At this point, with the weather getting cooler and needing to cover a great distance before reaching Japan to work for the winter, we don't know exactly how the following months will pan out. All we know is we will continue riding south and take each day as it comes, being open to more learning and new experiences.