On Stalin’s “Dead Road” above the Polar Circle

-20 °C

Together with the famous Road of Bones in East Siberia, and the Tuva Track in the Altai Mountains, Stalin’s Dead Road in Northern Central Siberia is probably the most adventurous road in Russia. Contrary to the Road of Bones or the Tuva Track, there are no travel reports whatsoever to be found about Stalin’s Dead Road so far. Time to give it a try …

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The missing railroad link between Salekhard and Igarka was tackled by Gulag workers on Stalin’s orders in 1948, but immediately abandoned after the dictator’s death in 1953. Construction conditions were simply too harsh in this particularly cold and remote region above the polar circle. The poor prison workers died in the thousands.
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Details of the Stalin Railroad (in German; most Gulag laborers there were German WWII soldiers).

Today there is a temporary winter road (“Zimnik”) of ca. 250 km along Stalin’s Dead Road, between the cities of Nadym and Salekhard, maintained every year from December to April. Among Russians it has a reputation of being “extreme” to drive.

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I decided to use 3 days between business meetings in Moscow and to fly with Yamal Airlines to Novy Urengoy. It is also possible to drive there all the way from Moscow on asphalt roads (3.700km).

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Novy Urengoy is a wealthy gas city, controlled by Gazprom. Here’s the shopping center in mid-town (with a helicopter on top).

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Ice sculptures.

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The excellent 4*-Hotel Yamburg is operated at a high standard by Gazprom. Beware: Novy Urengoy is formally a closed town, so you require a “propusk”, an FSB-permit to stay overnight at any of the hotels in town. However, entrance or transit through town are not a problem.

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Found this friendly local driver. Like many of the workers in the region, he is from Azerbaijan.

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Cars are parked in endless heated garage rows in winter, otherwise it would be impossible to ignite them in the deep winter temperatures.

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230 km on an icy but asphalted road from Urengoy via Pangody to Nadym.

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Some gas stations are not so modern yet.

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Typical public transport in Siberia.

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A Gazprom helicopter flying along.

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Arriving in Nadym at the 1.000 km road mark. This is exactly the distance from Surgut with an asphalted road all the way up. In Nadym, the asphalted road ends and the adventure starts.

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The best hotel in Nadym – not a closed town – is also operated by Gazprom. The 3*-Hotel Iceberg, shaped like a pyramid.

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Street scene in Nadym.

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Cross-country skiing on the outskirts of Nadym.

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The entrance post to the Zimnik, ca. 1 km outside Nadym.

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Overland trucks lined up at the control post (A possible alternative for hitchiking. Speaking Russian would have been very helpful here!).

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My vehicle (here with the driver) was a little more comfortable, but I was under time pressure and had to accept a drive at night, leaving Nadym at 7 p.m.

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First impressions at sunset on the Zimnik.

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A broken railroad bridge of Stalin’s infamous “Transpolarnya” train project, next to the road. Truly a “dead trassa”.

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Meeting reindeer herder nomads on the way.

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Wonderfully friendly Nenets people.

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And the occasional reindeers …

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Water pools on the road posed no major difficulty at this time of year (mid-March).


Short video: later on, driving through a bit of a snowstorm.

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There are already bridges and other road segments being built for a completely asphalted road from Surgut to Salekhard by 2020.

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Control post at the end of the Ziminik, ca. 90km before Salekhard.

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Approaching Salekhard, a major oil and gas city in the North.

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Arriving at Salekhard entrance monument at 4 a.m. Again, no hotel accessible without a “propusk” permit. Shame. They will send you back out into the cold even at -50 °C. Soviet style. This unfriendly and bad attitude in the region really needs to be changed!

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Advertisement for a Yamal-Trekol car to venture even deeper into the snowy tundra. Next time maybe …

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Salekhard sits above the Ob River, which is connected to Labytnangi on the other shore by Zimnik in winter and by ferry in summer. When the ice thaws in the month of May, the city is completely disconnected from the outside world (except air freight).

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Finally on the 10 a.m. flight from Salekhard back to Moscow.

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Flying over the endless snowy plains of Siberia. Yamal Airlines check-in was unfriendly even for Russian standards and as a foreigner I was given the last row both times. “Spassiba”. I enjoyed the trip anyway!

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