Russia’s M56: “Highway from Hell” and “Road of Bones”
4.200 km through the “Pole of Cold” … 3 days and nights …
nonstop driving with temperatures never warmer than -30 °C …
… even below -50° C for 2.000 km !!! (like on planet Mars)
It was also the coldest winter in Russia in 70 years !
That is a long way where you hope not to have a car crash or breakdown. You know you will probably not die, because you have a satellite security back-up, BUT: the waiting period will be very painful! Without heating, the warm temperature inside the car drops to the equal of the outside temperature within 30 minutes! Our record cold was -62° at the petrol station in Kyubyume Junction (Oymyakon District). The area around Tomtor, Oymyakon Village and towards Kyubyume is also where the lowest ever temperature on earth was recorded (talking about inhabited places) and which is therefore known as the “Pole of Cold” … We wanted to experience the MAXIMUM and therefore chose the coldest month of FEBRUARY.
Our car had been waiting in Chita for 8 weeks since our previous Trans-Siberia-Trip (Please click).
It is a 12 year old standard Mercedes SUV which we didn’t even test-drive before purchase …
Arriving at Siberian airports in winter at -20° C to -50° C is a shock (here in Chita). I will never complain again about “bus gates” in warm Europe 😉
(Harald’s approach was even harder: 3 taxis in 14 hours, from Ulan Bator to Chita, in business suit and shoes !)
Our Mercedes ML 320, parked for 2 months in Chita, had to be restarted by cable.
The front got a makeshift wind protection, otherwise the wind chill factor would stall the motor into emergency mode for sure (as happened to us on the way to Chita). Another trick is to put the heater on minimum, so the motor receives maximum warmth.
Our car thermometer scale ends already at -38 °C (not enough for Siberia !)
The first night drive on the fantastic Amur Highway M58 from Chita towards Khabarovsk felt like a video game …
1.000km of new black asphalt and fluorescent sideplanks.
… until Skovorodino / Never and the turn-off to Yakutsk (1.056 km) and Magadan (3.177 km).
First sunrise on the Lena Highway M56, 1.000 km un-asphalted to Yakutsk, a.k.a. “Highway from Hell” …
“Highway from Hell” … because it gets terribly muddy in summer. (Foto source: Rick Archer )
Entering Yakutia with its many totem poles and shamanistic rituals
Crazy Harald has his own morning rituals
Two guys who don’t give a damn …
… driving into the second night … to reach Yakutsk way after midnight …
The Polar Star Hotel owned by the world’s largest diamond producer ALROSA was a deception so after a late drink, a big cigar and a loud shouting with their security staff, we kept going throughout the second night.
Start of the Kolyma Highway M56 (not asphalted). 2.100 km from Nizhny Bestiak, opposite the Lena River near Yakutsk, to Magadan, a.k.a. “Road of Bones”, because of the thousands of GULag workers buried under it.
VIDEO: Second sunrise on the “Road of Bones”.
Interesting Turkic rider (epic warrior Nurgun Bootur as monument to local Olonkho writer Platon Ojunsky) crossing the Kolyma Trassa near Curapca. Normal traffic still ocurrs as well.
Crossing the frozen Aldan River on an ice-road in winter is a lot faster than taking the ferry in summer
Plenty of crushed ice on the river. We had no shortage of Red Bull here, but ain’t no Coke Light in the wilderness.
A rare truck stop in the loneliness after Khandyga
The wonderful Siberian dogs beg for food and a pet of their hard fur- and they somehow survive the temperatures.
We were extraordinarily lucky to meet this tough local man who accepted to team up with us as a convoy on part of the way. There is not much through-traffic in the central section (1.000 km), but quite a number of cars until Khandyga (first 400 km) and just before Magadan (last 100 km).
The locals wear Walenki, special felt shoes without soles, against the cold. Remember: we are at -50 °C for 2.000 km between Yakutsk and Magadan.
Beautiful driving conditions
Harald with our new friend.
In front of Wild Siberian Horses. No permanent settlement in a range of 500 km.
A “hot” spring – before entering the first of the three difficult mountain ranges that form the highland valley around Oymyakon (“Pole of Cold”).
Warning signs before the Suntar – Hajata mountain range (part of Verkhoyansk mountains)
VIDEO: Travel conditions at -50° C to -62° C on a steep, slippery and curvy mountain pass – with a 500m drop on the right …
Unfortunately we were speeding past the “Oymyakon Rayon” monument at night, thinking – wrongfully – there would be another foto opportunity at the exit (Foto: Siberian Times).
Here is a temperature chart of the “Pole of Cold” (Source: Wikipedia)
(I placed my cap and a signboard here at the petrol station in Kyubyume, as a “Gessler hat” for future passers-by, or should I say for pussy-bears, from the HUBB, the most useless travel forum on the internet. Hahaha …)
The petrol station in Kyubyume, is located in an otherwise abandoned village, where a few “overland expeditions” left their stickers. This is also the turn-off-point from the NEW part of the Road of Bones to the OLD part of the Road of Bones towards Tomtor and Oymyakon Village (150 – 180 km dead-end in winter). It took forever to find the petrol station operator … around midnight. A young woman !!! Worth the wait: one cannot afford to miss the 3 petrol stations in a range of 300 – 500 km between Khandyga, Kyubyume, Ust-Nera and Susuman.
Here, the buyer of petrol needs to rotate the pump himself – by hand !
Today at -62° C !!!
Contrary to the myth, one does NOT PEE ICE CUBES in these temperatures, but the iPhone shutter starts to studder ! Therefore the blurred picture …
I was extremely pleased to see my Breitling Emergency watch operate without problems at these extreme temperatures, although officially it is only working at up to -10 °C.
Onwards on the NEW part of the Kolyma Highway over the second leg of the Verkhoyansk mountain range. Next stop in Ust-Nera, an ugly mining town.
-55° C in pitch black Ust-Nera nights somehow feel more stingy than -62° C in Oymyakon
Our third sunrise – after crossing the Cherskyi mountain range … and driving nonstop without proper sleep.
Our friendly escort driver left us in Yagodnaya, 600 km before Magadan.
Thanks for your good company, Vada!
Even deeper snow on the Kolyma side of the mountains
Harald in front of one of the many abandoned villages in the Kolyma Range towards Magadan. After Perestroika many inhabitants fled the hard conditions.
The most striking of the ghost towns is Khadykchan.
A pictoresque retro petrol station
Magad(an) – end of the road – after 20.000 km – and 12 hours time difference from London GMT !
Kudos to our car: German engineering … only the American parts fall apart 😉
Magadan’s elaborate Mask of Sorrow was erected in 1996 in memory of the victims of Stalin’ s GULag terror along the Kolyma Highway.
We extend our respect to the victims of Stalin’s GULag terror who built the “Road of Bones” and were buried under it – and we apologise for disturbing your peace with our primarily adventurous motivation.
The Mask of Sorrow looks away from the horror, towards the beauty of Magadan and the Sea of Okhotsk.
We look back to an incredibly intense road trip.
Interesting atmosphere in Magadan’s city center too 😉
Official monument to the Road of Bones (fotos taken next summer when I had to get the car out)
Mammoth monument Magadan
Finally some sleep. At the best hotel in Magadan, the VM-Centralnaya. I think this was our most stressful but also most spiritual overland road trip (even before Round-the-Black-Sea to Grozny – Chechnya in 2012, to the Arab Spring Benghazi – Libya in 2011, crossing the Ilemi Triangle to Juba – South Sudan in 2010 or through the Stans to Mazar-i-Sharif – Afghanistan in 2010).
A giant Wall Map inside Magadan Sokol Airport puts distances (and country sizes) into perspective.
Magadan is 20° further east than Vladivostok !
Special Equipment we took for this trip:
Baffin Titan -100 °C and Sorel Glacier -74 °C
(both very good, although feet do get cold when sitting in the car for long)
First layer: breathable long underwear
Second layer: thick thermo fleece
Third layer: extra padded parka and padded trousers
(The better place to buy these, in particular made from REINDEER FUR, is of course Siberia, although not cheap. CANADA GOOSE is even more expensive. SURPLUS army clothing (Bunny Boots, N3B Parka, Gen. III underwear) or PLANAM -49 °C freezehouse workwear is an alternative.)
Iridium sat phone & Thuraya sat phone (works if direction towards satellite above Somalia is not obstructed)
iPad Navigation with google Maps (works terribly wrong East of Chita)
Special security back up via Sakha Government, Moscow and Germany
(Thank You Vasilijs, Viktor, Vladimir and Josef !)
Breitling Emergency watch with distress signal @ 121,5 Mhz
2 x 20l jerry cans
2 down sleeping bags (good to wrap around while sitting immobile for long hours in the car)
Interesting story about some really brave and tough Norwegians:
And how things can go tragically wrong:
Recommended viewing / reading:
One of my favourite books and movies describes the (apparently) real story of German prisoner-of-war Clemens Forrell’s escape from a GULag in the north-eastern Siberian Kolyma area, back home, partly on foot, over 15.000 km, from 1949 to 1962: “So weit die Füsse tragen” (“As far as my feet will carry me”). Source: Wikipedia.