The Kolyma Highway

Thursday was still wet, so I stayed in Yakutsk and enjoyed the cheap hostel. Went out in the morning and spent rather too much on Russian baked delicacies, and then in the afternoon ended up drinking on the beach with my new friend Slavik: shots of really excellent home-made congnac in between historic photo opportunities. I had to leave early the next morning, and after half a bottle of cognac… it was messy. But we got there. The things we do for adventure travel.

Nice road, cute Russian trucks

Nice road, cute Russian trucks

Powered on out of town bright and early on the very start of the famous Kolyma Highway, aiming for a town called Churapcha – only about 200km away. I wasn’t sure whether the road would be the same as the Lena Highway, but I figured after pushing too hard on Tuesday it would be good to have a relatively easy day just in case. Slavik had recommended a cafe about 90km from Yakutsk, which I investigated and found to be excellent. I’ve yet to have a terrible cafe in Russia; perhaps I’m always biased after long days riding.

Pretty scenery. Road surface: lovely clay/gravel mix, good riding

Pretty scenery. Road surface: lovely clay/gravel mix, good riding

As it worked out, I arrived in Churapcha around 3pm. Stopping to fill up with fuel, a fairly drunk dude at the petrol station proclaimed his love for me and said I should stay in his apartment. I wasn’t super keen on this idea, so I left to find a guesthouse. Unfortunately, all the guesthouses were full. One plaintive request for accomodation later and I ended up in my tent in the backyard of the first place I asked at, plus the use of their bathroom: winning. But no running water: less winning. But free tea and coffee: winning.

They were very insistent on a photo

They were very insistent on a photo

After photo ops with the guesthouse ladies Friday morning I hit the road. I knew rain was forecast for later that afternoon, so the plan was to find a place to say before it started. Unfortunately I’d been looking at the Yakutsk forecast, now 200km to the west, and as a result the rain started almost as soon as I left Churapcha. The previously hard-packed dirt road surface turned to deep, sticky mud. I dropped the bike once, and couldn’t pick it back up again – in the mud it just kept sliding away from me – and so I just stood there, in the rain, until a friendly farmer came along to give me a hand. He left shaking his head at the crazy foreigners. There was no other traffic on the road.

Not wanting to drop it again and spend more time waiting in the rain, I abandoned all dirt-riding-dignity and went really slow, walking the bike through the ruts with both feet. I figured I’d stop in the first cafe I came to until the weather dried up.

The first town I arrived at had a cafe, but it was closed. According to a local mechanic, there was a cafe 40km away.

Check out that mud

Check out that mud

The road and the rain got worse: I was basically pushing the bike at about 5km/hour through the thick, sticky mud. Occasionally, the road would firm up a bit and I could lift my feet and do 20km/h, but it wouldn’t last – the surface was appalling. I figured it was still faster and easier than actually walking to the cafe, so I kept going: thanks to my excellent Revit jacket my top half was dry, I had good music going, and my plan was to ask if I could stay the night on the floor of wherever I ended up.

The forecast for Saturday was for dry weather. I couldn’t help but think, though: this highway was damn hard. After roadworks all the way into Yakutsk, and now this mud – I still had 2000km to go to Magadan! I wasn’t broken yet, but my plans to attempt the Old Summer Road and ride to Magadan-and-back were being rapidly revised. I would be extremely happy if I could just make it to Magadan. From there, I could catch a ferry or steal a spot on a cargo ship – anything other than fighting through a return trip consisting of 3000km of mud and roadworks.

After a couple of hours of walking/pushing, I arrived at this modern two-storey-log-cabin cafe in the absolute middle of nowhere. It shone like a beacon of warmth and dryness, surrounded by a moat of thick black mud. They had only been open three months, and – bonus – they had really nice rooms upstairs for 1000rub/night. Slight downside, still no running water. At that point I didn’t care: I was happy to settle for a roof. Let alone really good hot food and a comfortable bed. I loaded up on borsch and piroshki.

View of the mud. Dogs sensibly worked out where the best sleeping spot was.

View of the mud. Dogs sensibly worked out where the best sleeping spot was.

The intel from the other truckers and the cafe owner was that the ferry across the Aldan river left at 9am and 9pm with nothing in between. There was 80km from the cafe to the ferry. At 4km/hour, I doubted I’d make the 9am ferry no matter how early I awoke, but I got up at 5am anyway and figured I’d try. The road surface had firmed up really nicely after a night with no rain; the sun was trying to burn through the clouds and while it felt like the temperature was about -10 I had an excellent jacket. Things were looking up.

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One thought on “The Kolyma Highway

  1. Seriously dude, you clearly turned right when you should have turned left! There is no sensible way out of the NE corner of Siberia!

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