Landing in Jakutsk
When we land on the Jakutsk runway on the 29th of July, 2018. Relief washes over us. We are halfway around the world with 140 kg of luggage. Hailing the largest taxi we can find, we drive to our accommodation: Nariyana, a couchsurfer, has agreed to store our unneeded needed things for a month and a half until our return. After some last-minute shopping in Jakutsk, we sit on the eve of our departure. Five weeks of Siberian loneliness, 2000 kilometers, and some unforeseeable events lie ahead of us. And a lot of gravel.
The next morning, the route out of the city leads us through dense Russian traffic. We quickly note that the local drivers have no regard for cyclists. Close overtaking maneuvers and lengthy blasts from car and truck horns follow us out of the city. After about ten kilometers we arrive at the ferry station which will take us to the other side of the Lena. When we saw the river on our maps, the life-blood of the Yakutian, we knew we would not be using our Packrafts on this day. The river is a solid two kilometers wide, and with a current of 10 km/h, not exactly slow moving either. To traverse this waterway, one would have to start very far upstream to reach the intended ferry dock on the other side. The ferry crossing itself takes about an hour, and the first curious passengers ask us in amazement where we plan to go. An older man shakes his head and gives us a half-filled bottle of vodka, laughing: "For the road!” And then he says another sentence, which we have heard often already, and would here many more times in the coming days: "Good luck!”
The Road of Bones
On the other side of the river we enjoy a short, unexpected stretch of asphalt before the road turns into gravel. This road through no man's land connects Jakutsk with the small town of Magadan on the Okhotsk Sea and has a terrifying history. The "Road of Bones" was built by thousands of prisoners under Stalin's rule from 1930 to 1950. Political prisoners and gulag inmates died like flies, shot by their captors or unable to endure inhuman conditions, cold, and malnutrition. The foundation of the road itself is told to contain of the bones of the prisoners who built it. And to what end? To extract the enormous resources of gold and diamonds in the region. What else.
From Jakutsk, the road extends 600 km in almost straight lines into the Werchojansk Mountains. For us, the occasional curve in the road is a welcome break in the rather meditative route towards the hills.
With each pedal stroke we pass through sparse larch and pine forests, through birch groves and by old, decaying farm communes. We pass abandoned barns and herds of wild horses. The road surface is much more varied than the view. For days there is nothing but trees on the horizon. After some time we notice that our cruising speed is a little bit too slow: the first mosquitoes fly alongside us, seemingly unaffected by the wind. A nerve-racking affair. After five days riding gravel and bones we reach Khandyga, a somewhat disheveled town on the eastern bank of the Aldan River, another huge tributary of the Lena. Rusted remains of old factories still stand, and are witnesses of a bygone era. We are greeted with raised eyebrows. Children watch us suspiciously. A small supermarket gives us some culinary variety before we use the rest of the afternoon to rack up some more kilometers.
The first Mountains
The next day we reach an eagerly awaited milestone: the first of the mountains. It is about time, as we had had enough of the dead-straight kilometers. The last few days were harder on our minds than on our bodies. We were no longer interested in counting and comparing different types of gravel.
In this region, trucks circulate through the remote villages like Oymyakon, which was 200km away. With a record temperature of -70 degrees Centigrade, this settlement is regarded as the cold pole of the world. Fortunately, in August we experienced a much more temperate 20 degrees. The wakes of dust kicked up by these trucks cover our skin with a thick crust. During the daylight hours, huge thunderclouds build up in the mountains and proceed to unload their cargo every afternoon, providing us with precious drinking water. We don’t mind the wet so much, but soaked firewood is makes for challenging evenings. (Bikepacker tip: Birch bark contains betulin which is flammable, and helps the wet wood burn). We build our evening bonfires little bit bigger as we come across the first sighting of bear tracks in the sand.
Red Rubber Boats
The dynamic weather conditions resulted in pushing the bikes more than riding them. We leave the "Road of Bones" on the ninth day, managing only 40 kilometers as we slowly progress to our next goal: to reach the Dyby River and paddle it from the mountains towards the Aldan River. We have our Packrafts with us – these red rubber boats, which, as we will learn later, can take some serious punishment.
Our equipment, including the bike, weigh in at 70 kilos each. We hadn’t had that much time to fully load the boats and test under the conditions we would be facing. What we considered to be a slight lack of experience would turn out to be quite dangerous a short time later. The river, in its most pristine form, meanders through the mountainous landscape and hosts sections of whitewater rapids. Although the passages themselves are not technically difficult, they become extremely complex. Overturned trees and roots block the river and hide under the water’s surface. Sections of the riverbank are constantly eaten away and fall into the water, and tributaries from all sides combine to form eddies and change the riverscape.
On the second day of paddling I capsize, taking an unplanned dive into the river. I, along with the boat, am pulled under water and wedged against two adjoining tree trunks which had fallen from the riverbank. On this day only one things is certain: We will not die here. We take our time moving forward, and with greater care we inspect the dangerous sections of river circumnavigate them if necessary. After a few days the river becomes noticeably wider and calmer. With a smile on our faces we paddle through dramatic landscapes and pristine natural beauty. We are the only humans within 200km, but the wilderness is densely populated. The woods are teeming with bears and moose, but the creatures are so shy that we manage only fleeting glimpses before they disappear into the thicket once again. It is a vast landscape that is ripe for exploration and bursting with life. And yet as we journey through we see only a fraction of this world, floating beside the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
The Fishing Trip
After three weeks of solitude we reach the Aldan, a river that, if we continued to follow it, would flow into the Lena and spit us out into the Arctic Ocean. Here paddling becomes a slow and tedious affair. Frustrated with our lack of progress, we construct a new vessel, a catamaran of sorts, out of driftwood and our two pack-rafts. We hoist a tarp to use as a sail, and embark on the next part of our adventure.
We set sail, and with the mainsail deployed, we momentarily read a surprisingly spritely 15 km/h the GPS "speedometer". We start to pass by some fishing villages and encounter some barges on the waterway, soon realizing that we are indeed bound towards civilization. Anglers stand on the shore and rub their eyes as we float by.
We are relieved when we touched land again, with the calendar approaching the end of August. The temperatures have dropped in the last few days and constant rain has dampened our spirits. The rain had also transformed the road leading from the village of Ust-Tatta back to the "Road of Bones" into an impassable trough of mud. A few kilometers outside the village we are told the same: There is no getting through.
In an unexpected moment, a Russian-built jeep (a "Rennpappe") comes towards us. Three gentlemen excitedly leap out of the vehicle and ask us where we want to go. Their answer to our plan is straight up laughter - we happily load our mud-filled bikes onto the roof of their all-terrain vehicle. In broken English they suggest that we would be better off joining them for some fishing.
Arriving back in the village we are given a warm welcome and invited for dinner. They are quick to lead us to the showers, an old wooden hut which doubles as a sauna in the cold season. After four weeks without bathing, our hosts determine that a bit of hygiene was in order. Once we cleaned up, we set off to catch dinner.
We learn quickly that catching the night’s main dish would be no small endeavor. We set out in speedboats onto the Aldan toward a group of log cabins. We didn’t count, but something like twenty-five camo-clad men carrying rifles over their shoulders loaded case after case of vodka into the huts. It turns out to be a sporting evening of multicultural bonding and brotherhood, the details of which are either a bit hazy or a beyond translation…or perhaps a little of both.
The next morning our hangover is quickly remedied by the a few swigs from the freshly-opened bottle of vodka that had appeared on the breakfast table. For us, the liquid courage is a big help, as Moose Heart Soup was on the breakfast menu. "Are there croissants in Siberia too?"
It is late morning by the time all of the evening’s participants awake from their beauty sleep. We board the speedboats again. Roman and I look at each other a bit confused as all of the boats except ours turn into another direction. Upstream one of our companions starts pulling fishing nets out of the river. We both swallow hard when we realize that fish in the nets are strictly protected sturgeon. The fish there are considered a delicacy and are hunted for their caviar. We return to the camp with the fish still gasping for air. Celebrations on shore begin immediately, and the sturgeon gutted. The largest fish contains what must have been two or more kilos of fresh caviar. Our hosts’ English isn’t great, but "No Instagram" is quite clear when I pull out my camera. I smile and photograph anyway.
One day later we leave the village and head back to Jakutsk. 350 kilometers of dirt road and mud lie ahead of us, but we have to hurry as our little fishing expedition took some time out of the calendar. The kilometers flow by and Jakutsk welcomes us with warm coffee and a bag of chips.
The end of an exciting and partly nerve-racking journey and possibly the start of a new adventure. As I said: This was the tip of the iceberg. I've already decided for myself: I will be back. Thank you Yakutien.
Text and pictures (c) Kilian Reil
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