The White Desert: Riding the Coldest Place on Earth
WORDS & PHOTOS: ANATOLY CHERNYAVSKIY
This is the story of a crazy dream: to ride a motorcycle through the coldest places on the planet, and to meet the rugged people who live in the incredible White Deserts of Yakutia and Chukotka.
In the far northeast of Siberia, there is a vast, largely uninhabited land stretching thousands of kilometers to the Arctic Ocean. A land of cutting winds and seas of ice. In this land, the few human and animal inhabitants endure conditions unimaginable to most of us. For eight months of the year winter and darkness reigns, coating the ground, trees and hills with a thick white coat and turning the lakes and rivers into sheets of ice. Most of this land is accessible in summer only by air or boat, but in the winter, roads of ice and frozen lakes provide a route that can be traversed on solid ground.
Yakutsk is a city in eastern Siberia, located on the banks of the Lena River. It is the largest city in the permafrost zone and has one of the greatest seasonal temperature variations in the world; a range of up to 100° Celsius. In winter it is frequently below minus 60°, in summer it is above plus 40°. This year, Yakutsk has had a particularly cold winter. Frosts have been remaining at minus 50° for several months now, giving no respite to local residents. When you step out of a warm airport into the darkness of the city, the first impression that hits you is your dry, burning breath. It feels like the steam can be taken by the hand, like a piece of ice it is so dense. If you listen, the air crackles when you breathe. These are tiny pieces of ice that bang against one another when the exhaled water vapor instantly freezes in these frigid temperatures. Only occurring where the air temperature is below minus 50°, the ancient people called this effect, “the whisper of the stars.”
How difficult can an hour-long city walk be? That depends if it’s in Yakutsk at minus 55°. A thin suspension of tiny ice crystals is visible as a drifting mist in the air. If you take your hand out of your down mitten to get your camera out of a warm pocket, you can feel your hand stiffening within seconds. The metal body of the camera stings your fingers, freezes the lubricating oil in the lens. In these cold days, nothing can be touched with your hands for risk of cold burns or sticking to objects. But the city never sleeps. Cars drive along the roads trailing plumes of exhaust steam. Their drivers carry large covers and put them on the cars like down jackets when they park. People walk through thick frosty fog or stand waiting for buses. Shops and offices are open and their bright lights shine onto the street. Yakutsk is famous for its Farmers’ Fish Market, where produce from all over the region is sold, frozen in the cold air, and vendors wrapped in their warm clothes call shoppers to try their wares.
I have arranged to have my motorcycle shipped to Yakutsk for the start of my ride. It’s a Honda XR 250 Baja model, a sturdy lightweight machine designed to be equally capable on or off the road. This bike has served me well in the past as a reliable, economical, and easy-to-ride machine. Although lacking the power of a bigger motorcycle, it also lacks the heavier weight, important for when it needs to be picked up after a fall or wrestled through a difficult section of countryside. But for riding in extreme cold weather, some special preparation of machine and rider are necessary. Thin metal shields that deflect cold air from the engine are installed, and the oil is changed to special non-freezing snowmobile oil. Winter tires are fitted with 8mm spikes to bite into the icy surface. Protecting the rider, I wear Russian-made Technoavia outer clothing, as used by workers in the far north, and Canadian Baffin boots. Though heavily insulated, this clothing is not heated. In case of breakdown the clothing will need to protect me without any supply of electrical power. Only the double glass visor of my BRP BV2S snowmobile helmet is heated, since without heating, this would mist up immediately despite the special breathing evacuation system.
Rather than ride from Yakutsk, I have chosen to start my motorcycle journey from further north, so I had to wait for trucks to go north that can take me to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. My driver would be Nikolai, who I met two years ago on another visit to Chukotka. This year Nikolai flew in by plane, bought a Kamaz truck and was preparing it for ferrying back to his home on the Chukotka Peninsula. In summer, the marshy terrain and many deep rivers make the journey impossible, but in winter the Arktika is laid along frozen ground and waterways. Thanks to this winter road, the residents of Chukotka have a road connection with the mainland for several months a year. Nikolai, who is used to the challenges of the winter roads, prefers simple trucks without unnecessary electronics, that can be repaired by the roadside. The snow-white tundra and taiga stretch for hundreds of kilometers. You could wait for days or even weeks for outside help, so on winter roads you must be able to rely on yourself. To work in the Arctic Circle, the vehicle must be well prepared: large fuel tanks, special tires suited to snow chains, insulated cab, and additional heaters. Nikolai agreed to take me and the motorcycle with him on his journey north. After loading his cargo in the back of the lorry, the motorcycle was strapped securely in behind. Finally, we bought food for the journey and hit the road.
The Arktika winter road begins from the famous Route P504 Kolyma Highway, about 1,000km northwards from its origin in Yakutsk. The Kolyma Highway is one of the key transport links in the East and, until recently, was itself a winter road, nearly impassable in summer. Since a program of reconstruction finished in 2008, it has been officially open for year-round use, connecting the coastal city of Magadan with the rest of Russia. The origins of this road, like those of Magadan itself, go back almost 100 years when the region was an involuntary home for hundreds of thousands of Gulag prisoners, forced to mine the rich mineral deposits of the region and construct its roads and settlements. The high mortality rate gave the route its infamous nickname, The Road of Bones.
Along our route we crossed the Verkhoyansk ridge and the Oymyakon lowland beyond it, the coldest inhabited places on the planet, where temperatures have been recorded below minus 70°. Still air lies in this area, prevented from moving by the surrounding hills and results in the intense low-lying cold. Climbing the Verkhoyansk ridge, the air temperature rises. Making the most of this, we decided to spend the night at the very top of the pass. Silvery forests shine against the dull grey sky. Crystals of ice, formed from moist air, flourish on tree branches like surreal blooms.
Every spring, thousands of kilometers of highways disappear without a trace in Russia. But these are winter roads, and as soon as the next frosts come, they appear again. They are a unique feature of life in the isolated settlements of the North. In total, up to 30,000 kms of winter roads are opened annually in Russia. For comparison, the entire network of federal paved highways in the country is 50,000 km. In the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) alone, 18 out of 34 districts are connected with the mainland only by winter roads. Every year about 10,000 kms of seasonal roads are laid in the Republic.
Life on the road took place inside the cramped Kamaz cabin, jammed with food and essentials. Here we cooked, slept and worked. Engines were not turned off throughout the two-week journey to Chukotka. The average speed during the day was a meager 10 km/h. Winter road drivers are hard men, able to deny sleep and withstand great physical effort, driving for up to 16 hours to cover the planned daytime distance. They are totally committed to their task: delivering vital supplies to the villages of the North, with intimate knowledge of the roads and their vehicles. You won’t find many novice drivers on this road. Either the driver himself lives in the Arctic region, or already has experience working on seasonal roads. Newcomers must take a season to learn the roads, traveling in convoy with the experienced drivers.
From a warm cab with an experienced driver at the wheel, the frozen road didn’t look dangerous, but that was an illusion which quickly disappeared as soon as a truck breaks down. The combination of old trucks, parts not designed for harsh conditions, rough roads, and extreme low temperatures bring problems for even the most skilled driver. Metal becomes brittle. Bumps, ditches, ruts and descents into river beds threaten to break the vehicle in half. Sooner or later, something has to give.
We met a convoy of trucks traveling to Chukotka from Magadan. One of them, climbing up from the river, broke an axle. They had been stranded waiting for spare parts for several days and seemed likely to be there for some days yet. The driver told us that parts from the distributor were sent by air to the nearest airfield in Srednekolymsk, from which they would be transported to the winter road with passing vehicles.
It was a birthday for one of the stranded drivers. They had sufficient food and warmth in the cab, but a chilled bottle of vodka was a special gift from us. Most of the small villages of Yakutia live under dry laws, where alcohol is not legally sold due to the weakness of the inhabitants for alcohol. That doesn’t mean it’s not sold at all, of course, and the carelessness of drunk Russian drivers is legendary. In the evening, we met a gasoline truck driver whose companion, drunk, started his UAZ and drove off in completely the wrong direction, forgetting which way he was going.
After 13 days in the truck, we finally crossed the Arctic Circle and reached the Chukchi city of Pevek, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. On the long journey I had time to think, talk with Nikolai, and explore some of the challenges I would face on the motorcycle, not just on a one-hour trip but for days on end. I have modified the machine for winter riding, but there are some things you can’t modify. If I need to spend the night in a tent, I must not turn off the motorcycle engine. For round-the-clock operation, a motorcycle will need about 50 liters of gasoline per day. This is difficult enough to carry as a daily supply, but carrying 100 litres for two days would be quite impossible. So I planned to move from village to village, ask the locals for help to keep the motorcycle warm, and buy some gas from the snowmobile owners. But first, I needed to find a place to stay in Pevek and put the motorcycle somewhere warm to defrost.
On the very edge of the continent, off the shores of the cold seas, lies the Chukchi Peninsula, a desolate land like no other. I fell in love with Chukotka when I traveled here in the summer, two years ago. Nowhere else on earth has the same feeling of primal wildness and openness as this distant peninsula between two oceans. The humans, animals and vegetation in the region have adapted uniquely to live in this harsh climate, with its vast open spaces. Chukotka is one of the largest regions in Russia, larger than any country in Europe, and yet with a population of only about 50,000. It has the lowest population density of any other region in the country, and one of the lowest in the world.
The town of Pevek is located in the Chaunskaya Bay area, on the shores of the East Siberian Sea. A hundred years ago, the area was uninhabited, visited only in summer by migrating reindeer herders with their animals. Now the northernmost city of Russia is located here. The name Pevek comes from the name of the Peekiney Hill, overlooking the polar city. According to legend, in ancient times, at the foot of the mountain, a great battle took place between the Chukchi and the Yukaghirs. Because bodies cannot easily be buried in the permafrost, and lacking trees for wood to burn them, it was customary not to bury the dead, leaving the bodies out in the tundra to decompose or be scavenged by animals. But after this battle, the number of dead meant that a terrible smell arose, leading to the name Peekiney, which in Chukchi means “a rotten place.”
Today, Pevek is a lively working town. The indigenous population remains, working their herds as their ancestors did, and new workers come to take up jobs in the extraction of minerals, of which is the town’s main source of income. Products from the mines leave the town by sea, as they have for decades. The town is the northernmost arctic port of the country, as Chaunskaya Bay is deep and well suited to large vessels. To provide the 4,000 residents of the city with heat and electricity, a floating nuclear power plant was installed in the bay.
Standing at Cape Valkumey, overlooking the solid white frozen sea, you can see in the distance a few small coastal islands. At this height, you feel the breath of the north at its fiercest. Yet even here, the activity of mankind can be seen. Trucks moving as tiny black dots along an icy road over one of the coldest seas on the planet. The 100 kms of winter road over the arctic sea connects the town of Pevek with the island of Ayon, where reindeer herders live in a small village. Despite the cold, it is only towards the end of winter that the salty sea water freezes thick enough to support the weight of the trucks. The period of operation of the ice road is just two months, during March and April, and in this time all the necessary supplies of fuel, construction materials, food and other goods necessary for the survival of the inhabitants must be delivered to the island.
Despite its importance, the locals dislike traveling on the ice road. Ice cracks and frequent blizzards make it very dangerous. Due to the uncertain strength of the ice, weight restrictions are necessary so the traffic only flows in one direction at any given time. Trucks traveling to the island are allowed to leave and depart only at certain times to avoid a double load on the ice with two-way traffic.
I could not drive the ice road yet, however. The previous evening, Pevek was visited by Yuzhak, the famous local wind, bringing a blizzard and leveling the road and snow covered surface of the sea. Coming from the south and falling from Mount Peekiney, the wind accelerates to hurricane speeds, blowing from 60-70 km/h on the plain to as much as 120 km/h in the city.
Yuzhak howled all night and in the morning had gotten worse. On days like that, life in the city stops. After renting an apartment, I had to go outside to buy groceries. Opening the entrance door, I ran into a snowdrift that had formed overnight. Clouds of snow were rushing through the streets. The air was filled with millions of dry particles lifted from the ground that flew into my face and stung like needles. Turning the corner of the house, the wind hit me head on, knocking me backwards off my feet and dragging me down the street. I held on to the fence and hoped for the wind to gust lower, but Yuzhak had strong lungs.
The streets were swirling with snow, all around in a whitish fog. Snow streams flowed down the slope from Peekiney Hill. There was no one on the streets, and even the hungriest dogs refused to venture out. Rare cars drove through empty roads, garbage cans were turned upside down by the wind, swings rattled in playgrounds, adding their music to the symphony of gusts. Returning home with a bag of groceries, I found out that there was no water in the tap because the pipes in the basement were frozen. By evening, the electricity had gone out in the whole city. Yuzhak had been blowing for 24 hours, without interruption and without weakening for a minute.
After several days of bad weather, I stared in amazement at the snowdrifts connecting the houses flush with their roofs. With the merciless wind finally abated, I walked to the seashore. Before me stretched the flat snowy surface of an endless white desert. The ice road to the island of Ayon no longer existed, completely covered with snow. The road builders would have to start their construction task afresh. After bad weather, good weather should last for a while, but there was no certainty. If the weather deteriorates while riding a motorcycle, there is only one salvation – to build a shelter in the snow. Setting up a tent in such a wind would be impossible, so you must pay close attention to weather forecasts and buy a shovel.
Every day I went to the seashore in anticipation of seeing the new road. But time rolls more slowly in the north. Locals say that time does not exist in the tundra. It was a full week before I saw a vehicle leaving the cleared ice road onto land. According to forecasts, frost is due in the coming days. This was my chance. Low temperatures are usually associated with calm and sunny weather, while warming is often associated with a blizzard.
In the North, there is a rule for hiking in the tundra – go for a day, prepare for three. I packed the motorcycle, taking with me a shovel donated by my friends, a thermos with hot tea and a tent with a sleeping bag. I had enough warm clothes and food to survive for several days even in very cold weather. I put all batteries for electronics in warm pockets under my jacket. In my luggage I carried equipment for starting the engine in the cold: gas cylinders with a burner, an ether cylinder to encourage cold starts, and frost-resistant jumper wires in case I needed to start the motorcycle from the trucks. Leaving the town, the journey that had been paused for so long had at last started, and I once again felt “on the road,” that sense of freedom only long-distance travelers understand.
At 30-below, with the bright March sun shining, I descended onto the ice, passing the strait between Pevek and the Big Routan Island, the low flat plain of sea covered with a shiny layer of snow. I rode at a cautious speed of 50 km/h, unwilling to invite further wind chill and unsure of the ice conditions. A compacted layer of several centimeters of snow was left to promote traction between the wheels and the road, yet still visible were a network of small cracks in the sea ice. Where large faults form, cracks converge and diverge, squeezing water to the surface. Huge piles of ice are formed, glowing blue-green in the sun.
The cracks stretch out to the endless horizon, and it is impossible to go around them. To allow the passage of trucks across the cracks, road workers have to make bridges across them. This year there were two large cracks on the road, each more than a meter wide. Bridges were quickly assembled from thick logs tied together with steel ropes. One side of the bridge was anchored to the ice with snow and frozen in place with sprayed water. The other side remained unsecured to allow it to slide on the ice as the crack expands and contracts.
Having crossed the second crack, I tried to make out the island of Ayon in the distance, but I could still only see the frozen surface of the ocean, a thick layer of white snow, hardened by continuous storms to the density of a stone. The cold was biting and I stopped to warm up. In extreme cold, the hands and feet start to be disconnected from the warm blood supply. Heat is directed to vital internal organs, bypassing the limbs. Fearing freezing my fingers, I hugged the hot engine until feeling returns.
After the second bridge, the cleared road ended, deteriorated into rutted tracks churned up by the trucks. My speed dropped, struggling to drive in a narrow deep rut. Paddling with my legs, I tried and kept moving forward, but the rear wheel spun and the front wheel got stuck in a rut, throwing me to one side and off the machine. I fell into a snowdrift and the motorcycle stalled. I pressed the starter button, but the dull sound said that the battery is frozen. The motorcycle would not start. Attempts to push start in a snowy rut proved futile, with the motor rapidly cooling, soon to freeze completely. I was alone, and in the matter of a few seconds the adventure has become a crisis.
Condensing breath in the balaclava quickly turned into a lump of ice, freezing to my nose and mouth, but in this increasing cold it would have been suicide to take off my helmet to remove it. Icicles grew round my eyes, crystals of ice on my eyelashes. The ice crusts blurred my vision, so I had to clear them from time to time, rubbing the frosty lashes with a mitten. I put up my tent as a precaution, waiting for the passing trucks. But even if I was able to start the engine from the trucks, to continue the journey to the island with a frozen battery would have been impossible. I had to return to the city. So much effort went into preparation, and at that moment dreams of crossing Chukotka were crumbling. At the first real setback it seemed like my odyssey was over, digging a tent site into a roadside snow pile. At least while digging I was not cold.
As the sun set in a yellow blaze on the horizon it was getting really cold. Then the faintest rumble broke the silence. Trucks! First, clouds of steam were visible rising from the exhaust pipes. Then the dark boxes of the vehicles themselves appeared, standing out stark against the background of white snow. This convoy of trucks was returning to Pevek after unloading their cargo of coal on the island. The drivers were astonished to see the crazy guy on a motorcycle who seemed to want to sleep in a tent on the ice on the East Siberian Sea. To be fair, they had a point.
I took out the towing strap for the motorcycle, attaching one end to a hook on the back of the truck, the other to the footrest of the bike. But the motorcycle was reluctant to move, the grease in the wheel bearings was frozen and as soon as the truck started to move, the strap broke. My last option was to try and start my engine from the truck’s battery, but despite the starter spinning the engine with a clatter of frozen metal, the engine wouldn’t start. Without a hot engine underneath it, the gasoline in the tank was too cold to vaporize. For this I had a can of ether, cold starting spray. I tried to spray it on the air filter, but the can was frozen, and instead of a spray, I got only a dribble of liquid. And yet, thanks to that, the motorcycle coughed its way into life and, after a few minutes, began to breathe properly. While the engine was warming up, I packed up the tent.
Gathering my things in a hurry, I sweated a lot and then was freezing from the added moisture. I started driving ahead of the trucks for safety reasons, in case I had to stop again, but I couldn’t stop because it would have made the drivers wait for me again. Kilometers were counting very slowly, and once again my fingers started to lose feeling from the cold. I drove up to the bridge through the last crack. The entrance to the wooden logs was broken by large truck wheels. The motorcycle stalled and once again we had to reconnect to the Ural truck battery.
The last 10 kilometers were the longest ones that I have ever had to travel on a motorcycle. Time felt like it was frozen, every second like an hour. My motorcycle headlight did little to illuminate the snow ahead but then the moon lit up the path and ignited a million stars in the clear sky. In the near distance, lights from the city appeared. Leaving the sea ice onto the land, it felt like I was nearly home. I needed to return to the garage, but I first needed to phone the guys to open up. The phone battery was enough for one call in the cold before it died, typing with frozen fingers. Nikolai came and opened a warm garage; the most welcoming sight I think I have ever seen.
Sometimes, the simplest moments bring the greatest joy. Meeting friends, even if you saw them just a few days ago… a rented apartment with a hot bath, albeit with dirty water… a warm place to sleep, albeit in a random place! I considered whether this really did mark the end of my arctic adventure, but it seems adventurers have a short memory of hardship. By the next day, I decided to continue.
My friends had an old Jawa motorcycle but its battery was healthy and they agreed I could take it. I wrapped it in a double layer of felt for insulation and again headed down to the ice of the East Siberian Sea for another attempt to get to Ayon Island. The weather was sunny, yet even colder than on my first outing. This time I decided to go non-stop in order to cross the sea ice road as quickly as possible. During the two days of my absence, many new cracks had appeared on the surface of the ice, cutting across the road.
As snow flew onto the hot engine it melted and froze again into icicles. I didn’t want to stop but I had to hack off the ice formation, otherwise it would form a solid lump, obstructing the foot controls. Outside the ice fields, the coastal road and small coastal islands were dotted with old navigational beacons, their forms as lifeless as the white face of the ocean. Riding across these islands, I had to go very slowly. Frozen shock absorbers could not cope with the numerous tundra bumps.
Finally, a whitish haze could be seen – the exhaust from the boiler room of the island of Ayon, a large plain of tundra which stretches for 60 km. At the far end of the island there was a small Chukchi settlement, whose inhabitants are engaged in reindeer husbandry and sea fishing. The name of the island derives from the Chukchi word for “revive,” as the island has long served as a feeding and resting place for reindeer during the summer. Reindeer are brought here to drink salt water and eat young lichen as a way to restore their body’s supply of minerals. In summer the temperatures are comfortable, and the sea wind drives away the ever-present Siberian mosquitoes. The reindeer graze, rest and build up their fat reserves and strength in preparation for the long winter. Only with this preparation can they hope to survive the winter, when strong winds pack down the snow so hard that animals cannot break it to find their food. In winter, the deer are taken to the mountains, sheltered from the winds. And in the summer, they will again go out to rest by the sea.
The locals greeted this unusual traveler with great hospitality, and they invited me to eat with them and sample their traditional dishes – fish stroganina, jerky, soup and pancakes with venison. We put the motorcycle in a warm garage of public utilities, while I was offered an empty apartment in one of the blocks. As the long arctic night settled into its frosty haze, I was happy.
In March, all employees of the agricultural enterprise leave the village for the tundra to help reindeer herders in the spring corralling. In a huge collective effort, all the animals are collected in a corral and a number of essential veterinary treatments are carried out, along with counting the number of livestock. After corralling and treating one herd, veterinarians move to the next one until they have visited all the camps, a process that can take a whole month. The caravan of people and their cargo move on old tracked all-terrain vehicles, the most reliable transport system in the world of the herders. Only these versatile vehicles are able to transport people and their cargo where there are no roads – in the snow in winter and on the swampy tundra in summer.
The life of a reindeer herder is a hard one, and young people are reluctant to continue the work of their parents, feeling the attraction of an easier life in the cities. But life with the deer means life in the wild, the animals walk where they want. Despite the fact that now the Chukchi have snowmobiles and modern electronic devices, there is no way to make life in the wild comfortable. Reindeer herders in the tundra live in chums as they did a thousand years ago. The Chukchi are forced to move constantly across the tundra following after reindeer, traversing great distances in the snow. Their diet, as you can imagine, consists mainly of reindeer meat.
Following the reindeer tracks, I climbed the hill. Around me giant sentinel mountains jostled shoulder to shoulder to fill the space in all directions. Snow-covered ridges jutted into the sky, blurring the boundaries between heaven and earth. Domesticated deer are accustomed to people and allowed me to come within a few meters, but some were more wary. One of the leaders of the herd regarded me suspiciously, staring me in the eye and shaking its huge antlers to warn me of its superiority. I got the message.
I spent several hours watching the animals. Most of the time, they were content digging moss out from under the snow, resting or sorting out the social order in the herd. Wolves are not the only animals to pose problems to reindeer herders, but also wild reindeer. In Chukotka there are still many wild reindeer, and they are very different than their domestic cousins. Wild reindeer are larger and will never submit to humans as domestic reindeer will, who are used to human contact. The presence of the wild deer can lead to losses among the domesticated herd. If wild deer happen to pass nearby, the domestic deer’s herd instinct kicks in and they wander away to join the wild animals. If the shepherd doesn’t see this and his herd has left with the wild animals, it’s almost impossible to get them back. Animals swiftly move along the migration route of wild animals. It is only possible to find domestic reindeer by satellite trackers put on a few of the most active reindeer in the herd.
A corral was being assembled into which all the deer would be taken to separate the males from the females. Females would soon give birth to calves, after which they will graze separately from the males, protecting the offspring. And only six months later, when the mating season begins, the herd will reunite to spend the winter together. This mirrors the natural rhythm of life of wild reindeer, in which the mixing of the herd occurs only during the mating period. Outside that time, males roam separately from females with their young. The foreman of the herd, Aleksey, set out on his snowmobile towards the reindeer grazing on their own behind the hill, his devoted herding dog running behind, joyfully bounced through the snow in his wheel-tracks. An hour later, a strip of thousands of animals appeared on the hill, gradually filling the slope.
The corrals are made from tarpaulin tied to pre-prepared wooden stakes, with ropes stretched around the perimeter. Next to the large main corral, a second smaller one is made, and all the males will be separated into it. The reindeer are directed into a narrow sorting corridor. They trot one after another, hooves beating on wooden boards. The senior reindeer breeder only has a few seconds to identify each reindeer as it passes. Females are allowed to pass, while the males are diverted into a separate corral, where all males are collected. Veterinarians vaccinate, take blood for tests and castrate most of the males. To maintain the quality of the herd, only the strongest and largest bulls are left to fertilize the females. Herders wrestle the males to the ground, risking injury themselves. Once grounded, the animals calm down and the operations are carried out in scant seconds. Steam rose from the heated bodies of people and deer as I watched this process take place.
After several hours of hard work, the corralling was complete, and the herd was divided into males and females. The females were immediately taken to a distance of several tens of kilometers, where they will give birth to their calves separately from the males. Snow started to fall, lightly at first but became harder, and then everything around was covered with fog. Despite the poor visibility, we decided to drive into the night. The sooner we could get out, the better chance we would have of finding our old tracks and following them before the snow could cover them, bypassing dangerous ice. We disassembled the corral and loaded the equipment into the all-terrain vehicles. Valya and Zoya waved us off, wrapped in traditional fur overalls – kerkers. The child’s sleeves are fully protected so that no snow could get inside. She looked like a little bear cub.
The tourist went away from his home, always looking forward to when he will return there; the traveler makes his home wherever he is. He accepts and understands the customs of the people in the places he visits, never criticizing or condemning. In faraway lands it is not easy to do this, as the harsh life of reindeer breeders is so different from any other. For me, a few days spent with them in the mountains allowed me to touch the unique traditions and life of the indigenous people of the distant Chukchi land. For them, it was just another day and after a short rest in the village, the reindeer herders and the convoy of helpers will again go to the tundra to continue their corralling.
Every day the sun lingered in the sky a few minutes longer as the polar nights turn toward the polar day. In summer, the never-setting sun can take the surface chill off the permafrost, but today the weak sun is still unable to melt the snow. During the day, the temperature settles at minus 25-30 degrees. It’s time for me to set out on my own, and after refueling my motorcycle from the reindeer breeders’ snowmobile, I go out onto the ice track, continue my journey in hopes of taking another unusual road that runs along the frozen Kolyma River in Yakutia.
The Republic of Yakutia is one of the largest, most isolated and inaccessible regions in the world. The main part of the vast territory does not have a year-round road connection with the capital in Yakutsk. Here, like nowhere else, people must rely on the winter roads, and about half of all roads in Yakutia are seasonal. I was heading for Yakutsk by motorcycle, and for this I needed to pass the longest winter road in the republic, some 1,500 kms. The Arktika road is a lifeline for remote areas of the region with villages along the Kolyma River.
Starting in the village of Chersky near the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the road leaves the Arctic Circle, crossing mountainous country and ending on the famous Kolyma highway near the village of Ust-Nera. The weather forecast was giving me a short window with no blizzards. To take advantage of this, I would have to drive 420 kms in one day to the village of Andryushkino, passing the windiest section of the road, where drifts will form when snow comes. Traveling so many kilometers in one day is a challenge not to be taken carelessly in these conditions. With an average speed of 30 km/h, it would take at least 15 hours to cover the full distance. Careful preparation could be the difference between life and death. The motorcycle must run all day without stopping, so additional fuel will be needed. In addition to the stock that I carry with me, I hoped to get gasoline on the way to the village of Kolymskoye. Before leaving, I cleaned the gas tank, knocking on its metal walls to remove pieces of ice from frozen condensation. Only a complete change of fuel helps to get rid of water for a while. The motorcycle was ready, and having purchased food, I left on the ice of the winter road.
To the end of the Arktika winter road was 845 kms. The further south you go, the more trees can be seen and forest-tundra is replaced by taiga. Between Srednekolymsk and Verkhnekolymsk, the winter road rolls over bumps among endless stretches of larch, wild taiga with no end and edge. Crossing the border of the polar circle, suddenly the wind started. Snow flurries crawled along the road like snakes. Despite the bright sun, everything around was shrouded in snow driven by the currents of air at ground level, and I was chilled by the wind.
From the road, the landscapes did not look so impressive. The sparse vegetation of the forest-tundra and the absence of mountains made this area not only visually boring, but also dangerous. Winds blow here more often than in other places on the Arctic winter road. Snowstorms seal the roads. Drivers stranded in the snow have to wait for several days until road workers with tractors make their way to them. Everywhere I looked were ruts clogged with snow, evidence of the struggles of recent weeks. The sun set quickly, almost abruptly, as the heavy hand of cold fell on the earth. In the brief lilac sunset, smoke could be seen rising over the village of Andryushkino. The village stands on the banks of the winding Alazeya River and is a difficult place to live, not only in winter. In summer, the territory around is flooded with water and the village becomes an island, separated from civilization by swamps and lakes. More than 20,000 lakes are located in the Alazeya basin alone. In winter, merciless blizzards rage, forcing people to sit at home for weeks. Yet still, people do not want to leave the village, the home of their ancestors.
There were almost no roads through the village. Most of the directions were just snowmobile tracks. As my wheels fell into the snow, I struggled to make my way to the boiler house building, focusing on the smoke from the chimney. It got dark. It was April 8th, my birthday, and the furthest from home I had ever been on this day. People here make a living from searching for mammoth tusks preserved in the permafrost as well as by the more usual reindeer herding and fishing. It was difficult to imagine more difficult living conditions. But as in other places where life is harsh, local residents are quick to show kindness and give assistance to travelers. Not because the people here are special, but rather they understand that mutual assistance is necessary for life. The motorcycle found a place for the night in a warm boiler room, the source of heating for the village, while I settled down in a small school. In places like this, the greatest pleasure comes from the smallest things, and you really appreciate the simplest shelter for protection from the harsh natural world outside.
The Sasyr settlement is located on the banks of the Moma River. Approaching the river, I was confronted by an alarming sight. From one bank to the other, the river was not solid ice, but rather a network of cracks, in Yakut, “taryn”, where surface water has been forced up by the weight of ice above it. The main, mostly solid, route across the frozen river was blocked by a truck that had broken through the surface ice. The driver was waiting for a tow truck from the village to recover the vehicle. Smaller cars made their way around the stranded giant, where the ice was intact. This was my chance too, but I had to be quick. A heavy Kamaz truck was making its way through the forest to the crossing zone. If it arrived before me, it could break the ice there too.
How quickly spring comes in the north! The thermometer still showed 30 degrees of frost at night, but during the day the ice was melting, snow was settling, and stones out of the shadows were exposed on the slopes. Having left the winter road to the Kolyma Highway, after 90 km I was very tired, but content, entering the village of Ust-Nera. After winter roads, the packed dirt road of the Kolyma Highway felt like a majestic boulevard, and the shabby Kolyma villages great bustling towns. Ust-Nera is an urban-type settlement located at the confluence of the Nera and Indigirka rivers, the capital of the Oymyakonsky district. Like most settlements along the route, the construction of Ust-Nera in the middle of the last century is associated with Gulag labor and mining for metal deposits. Even today, with the camps long gone, the locals still mostly work in gold mining.
Beyond the Verkhoyansk ridge the road took me down to the valley of the Aldan River. At the end of the day, I entered the village of Khandyga, where I spent the night with the firemen again. There was no dirt or dust on the winter roads that ran along the rivers and frozen tundra. The motorcycle was perfectly clean, but on hitting the gravel Kolyma track, the motorcycle and my clothes were smothered with a thick layer of dirty ice and dust. I went to a cafe, the ice on my clothes and shoes started to melt in muddy puddles, and I had to eat outside. Bright green fluffy pines started to appear along the road. Returning to Yakutsk from more northern latitudes felt nearly tropical. A last reminder of the white desert was the ice crossing over the great Siberian River Lena, on the banks of which the city of Yakutsk is located - the capital of the huge region of East Asia.