Kolyma Highway

The famous Siberian road from Yakutsk to Magadan
The famous road attracts adventurers from all over the world. In winter and summer, travellers challenge the harshest weather conditions on the planet to test themselves and see the pristine beauty of northern nature on their way from Yakutsk to Magadan.
The Kolyma road runs in north-eastern Siberia, where marshy lowlands, river valleys and mountain slopes are surrounded by endless larch taiga. The route crosses the Verkhoyanskiy Range and the Oymyakon Depression, which are famous for their brutal frosts in winter and hordes of mosquitoes and light nights in summer.
The decision to build the Kolyma road was made almost a century ago after gold deposits were discovered near the Kolyma River. The first expeditions travelled there for several months at a time. Caravans of packhorses and boats on numerous rivers were used to transport goods. There were no roads, only trails which were walked in the summer and traveled by reindeer or dog sled in the winter.
Yuri Bilibin. A geologist, under whose leadership the First Kolyma Expedition was organised in 1928, which confirmed the gold-bearingness of the region. Members of the expedition discovered the first gold deposits and carried out initial surveys of the future road to them. The road to the mines would be called the Kolyma Highway and would become a symbol of the region's development.
Yuri Bilibin. A geologist, under whose leadership the First Kolyma Expedition was organised in 1928, which confirmed the gold-bearingness of the region. Members of the expedition discovered the first gold deposits and carried out initial surveys of the future road to them. The road to the mines would be called the Kolyma Highway and would become a symbol of the region's development.

The length of the modern Kolyma road from Yakutsk to Magadan is almost 2,000 km. The zero kilometre of the road is located in Yakutsk. But historically it was the other way round. The first kilometres of the route started in Magadan from the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, where equipment and the first workers were brought in by water. A tiny port village with a few chums and huts on the Magadanka River later grew into the city of Magadan. From there the Kolyma Highway began to grow and would link the gold mines with the port.
Large-scale construction and poorly mechanised processes required a lot of manpower. But there were few volunteer builders willing to master the faraway region. The «Dalstroy» (сonstruction on the far side) Corporation was formed to deal with road and industrial construction in the region. Its main manpower were prisoners, whose number exceeded the number of freely hired workers by a factor of two. In this simple and tragic way the lack of workers was solved with minimal investments.

During the modern reconstruction of the Kolyma road, human remains were often found. This gave rise to the legend that prisoners who died during construction were buried directly at the bottom of the road. This is how the unofficial name "The Road of Bones" came about.
The work was exorbitantly difficult. Due to a lack of machinery in the early years, the road was built by hand with shovels, picks and wheelbarrows, which carried soil from nearby quarries to fill in the future road. At first, a low-quality road was built. Only tractors could pass on it. This road could only be used actively in winter. Over the following years, the road was upgraded to technology standards, after which the section of road could be fully used by laden trucks throughout the year.
The Kolyma Highway was named after the Kolyma River, celebrated in gold prospector's legends and which gave its name to the whole region. The most challenging part of the Kolyma Road construction was a unique wooden bridge across the Kolyma River, built in 1937. Even today we can see the concrete supports of this structure sticking out of the water next to the new bridge. The construction of the bridge was a real drama and labour exploit of engineers and workers.


«The head of Dalstroy, Eduard Berzin, promised prisoners release for 200 per cent output throughout the construction. The bridge was commissioned ahead of schedule, less than a year after construction began. Engineer Senkevich, who was building the bridge, was released on the opening day of the bridge on Berzin's orders. However, after Berzin himself was arrested, he was jailed again, but in 1939, after the bridge had withstood a flooding that was absolutely exceptional in terms of its scale and the damage caused, he was released again». Aleksey Yarotsky.
The route of the future road went through many rivers, swamps and mountain ranges. When construction of the Kolyma road started, there was no scientific data on how to do it in the permafrost zone. One serious mistake in the early years was the removal of the surface vegetation layer before laying the base of the future road. It turned out that the vegetation layer protected the permafrost from thawing. Its removal caused gaps and voids in the road. Later, the road was poured over the natural layer without disturbing it.
Permafrost ice on the slice of the collapsed road. You can see how thin the vegetation layer is over the ice.

Permafrost ice on the slice of the collapsed road. You can see how thin the vegetation layer is over the ice.
Despite the permafrost and harsh climate, the road was built in just five years and brought up to technical standards in the same time.
The length of the first Kolyma road was 600 km. The road went from Magadan to gold mines and ended in Kadykchan settlement, well-known to travellers, where coal was mined for a power plant (nowadays an abandoned «ghost town»). As new metal deposits were discovered, the length of the Kolyma road increased and reached neighbouring Yakutia.
An old monument at the crossing of the borders of Yakutia and the Magadan region.

An old monument at the crossing of the borders of Yakutia and the Magadan region.
Large quantities of gold are still being mined in the Magadan region. All the streams along the road are washed and disfigured by waste dumps. With the advent of new technology, the old dumps are washed over and over again to squeeze all the precious metal out of the ground. It will take a long time for vegetation to re-emerge on these artificial mountains.
On one of our journeys along the Kolyma Road, New Zealander Andi and I had to live in an abandoned village. We waited out the rains in one of the surviving houses. We dried our clothes and enjoyed the accommodation equipped with a stove. At one point, from the window of our house, we noticed a fire in an abandoned hangar on the other side of the creek. This alerted us, so I decided to go and have a look. I crossed the stream and saw people cooking food on the fire. As we talked it turned out that they were illegally mining gold here and the cabin we had settled in was their base, but they did not bother us, realising we were tourists. After drinking tea, they set off up the creek to scout the banks for gold. I asked to go with them; I wanted to see how the gold mining process works.

They used a tractor to throw soil into a special device. They pumped water and pressure washed the soil with it. Gold is heavier than soil, and while the ground was washed with water, the metal was deposited in a special mat. It was an interesting adventure, I even washed some gold sand myself.
Despite the many engineering successes, construction feats and infrastructure built along the route, some sections of the road remained seasonal right up to the present day. They could only be travelled in winter when the rivers were frozen over, or in summer when the rivers dried up.
The road remained seasonal until 2008, when bridges were built and the most dangerous places were reconstructed. The Kolyma road was given federal status and officially named R-504 Kolyma.

The Black Cliff was once one of the most dangerous sections of the Kolyma Highway. But even after the road was reconstructed, cars continue to plummet down the slippery turns and descents, remaining lying at the bottom of the gorge and reminding passers-by of the danger.
The road was widened, the most dangerous places were bypassed, new concrete bridges were built over rivers and culverts were laid across streams. But
R504 Kolyma is still one of the most dangerous routes. It has steep climbs, descents, passes, and steep slopes. It is shrouded in frost in winter and in summer in a cloud of dust. I've never seen so much dust on the road! When you overtake a truck it's impossible to pass it. You can't see anything but a wall of dust. Overtaking without visibility is deadly. The only thing to do is to follow the truck, waiting for the wind to blow through the dust for a moment so you can overtake.

Trucks from gold-mining companies are constantly moving along the road. The drivers, working under difficult conditions, treat travellers very kindly and are always ready to help in a difficult situation.

When I first drove to Magadan, I miscalculated the amount of petrol I needed. At one stage of the road, I needed help with the fuel. I approached the road workers, and they filled up my motorbike with petrol for free, fed me and let me stay overnight at their base.

There are still no bridges built on the way from Yakutsk to Magadan across the widest rivers, the Lena and the Aldan. In the places where these great Siberian rivers cross the road, ferry crossings are provided in the summer, and in the winter, passage on ice is arranged.
For the first 400 kilometres from Yakutsk, the road runs along numerous villages whose inhabitants are traditionally engaged in cattle-breeding. After the Aldan River, the fertile land ends and the road becomes more desolate.
After Stalin's death, the prison labour camp system was abolished. Without prisoners there was a labour shortage at Kolyma. Workers were attracted to the north by good wages. This gave a strong impetus to the development of the region. New industrial enterprises and hydroelectric power stations were built. The settlements along the route grew.

At the end of the 20th century, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the crisis came to Kolyma. High wages and good supplies were no longer available. Without investment in infrastructure, the enterprises became dilapidated, the mines were gradually deserted, the old mines were declared unprofitable and closed down. People were resettled. The settlements became deserted, turning into dead towns.

When the economy in the new country began to pick up, there was no need to rebuild the dilapidated settlements. The infrastructure had already been destroyed and there was no point in building new ones. Modern enterprises use their own autonomous infrastructure with a minimum number of seasonal workers coming from the mainland. The Magadan Region is increasingly becoming a working region where the number of permanent locals is reduced in favour of cheaper seasonal workers.

The closer you get to the Magadan region, the more abandoned villages along the road are encountered.
Which motorbike to ride on the Road of Bones? On one trip to Magadan, my companion and I rode two very different motorbikes, a Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin and a Honda XR 250 Baja. More often than not, the lighter bike was the laggard. Especially in good weather when the road is dry and we can keep a high average speed for hundreds of kilometres on it. In rainy weather, the speed levelled out. The road becomes slippery in the rain and one must be very careful on any motorbike. Accesses to overnight stays on the rivers could be found on any of these motorbikes. The approaches to the ferry crossings over the Lena and Aldan rivers were also no problem for either bike. There was only one creek left on the Kolyma Road that had to be waded across by itself, but even that place was no problem for our bikes.
If you don't want to go off the main highway onto abandoned sections of road, a Dual Sport bike of 650cc and up will be more suitable for the trip. But if your destination is off the main road and you want to ride through Old Kolyma (Old Summer Road) with its ruined bridges, swamps and famous Kolyma puddles, a lighter bike is needed.
Tips
When to go?
End of June - beginning of September
How many days?
From 4 days or more
Gasoline supply
Maximum distance without gas 400 km, section between Ust-Nera and Susuman villages
Motorbike shipment
To Yakutsk by land. Magadan - Vladivostok by sea
Hotels
There are modest hotels for workers in all the larger villages
Bears
Not as much as they say
Campsites
Comfortable overnight camping on the many rivers
Water
You can drink water from most streams without further treatment
Cellular and internet
Only in populated areas and at emergency call points
Parts and workshops
Parts should be sent in advance to Magadan or Yakutsk, or brought with you. You can only buy oil on the spot. There are motorbike workshops in Yakutsk and in Magadan.
Motorbike
Any Dual Sport motorbike
Tyre
Any universal Dual Sport tyre
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