Road of Bones
This unique trip will take travelers through one of Russia’s most infamous, remote yet stunningly beautiful regions – Kolyma. Under Stalin, all the most dreaded gulag concentration camps were located here. Millions of prisoners were starved, frozen and worked to death in the world’s coldest inhabited region, where summer temperatures can reach +40C but in winter can drop to the -70s or perhaps even -80s. Only one road, a 2000km dirt track built by gulag prisoners and known as “The Road of Bones”, runs through the region, connecting Magadan on the Pacific Ocean coast to Yakutsk, the capital of the indigenous Yakut people who occupy a territory the size of India but with a population of only 900,000. This trip takes travellers from end to end of the Road of Bones, through remote areas of stunning natural beauty rarely seen by outside eyes. We will visit the best-preserved gulag camps, explore whole abandoned towns, stay in communities of indigenous Yakut horse herders and Evenki reindeer herders, climb mountains to gaze with awe upon the colossal sacred Kisilyakh rock pillars, walk on a glacier, visit the Lena Pillars UNESCO World Heritage Site, have a good chance of seeing bears and moose and much more.
Number of travellers: 2 – 16
Time of year: any
Day 1: Fly from Moscow in the afternoon / evening.
Day 2: Arrive in Magadan (Moscow time plus eight hours) around midday. Transfer to the hotel. Afternoon excursion around the town. Get acquainted with the history of the town that was once known as the Gateway to Hell, as gulag prisoners were often shipped in to the port here. Sometimes, if they misjudged the season, boats would get stuck as the ice formed and the entire cargo of many thousands of prisoners would freeze to death
Overnight in hotel (twin rooms).
Day 3: Day Hike (8 – 9 km) to the Stone Crown – a group of rocks resembling a crown on the ridge of the Staritskiy peninsula. We can get there by walking along the coast at Nagaev Bay or by walking along the ridge of the peninsula itself.
Day 4: Leave Magadan at 9am on the Road of Bones. Travel for 300km until we arrive at a small, almost unnoticeable track leading off to the right. We travel down this track for 20km until we arrive at Dneprovskiy, the region’s best preserved gulag concentration camp. Even locals do not know its location – it is far away, down an almost impassable track, isolated in the deep taiga forest. Unlike European concentration camps it has not become a tourist attraction, so there will be nobody else there and you will be free to explore its buildings, watch towers and mines as long as you want.
In the evening we will transfer to the main road and overnight in Talaya, a beautiful Tsarist era health spa with mineral springs.
Day 5: Drive on down the Road of Bones to Yagodnoe village. Visit the Kolyma Rememberance museum, dedicated to gulag victims. They have 400,000 photos of former prisoners, veterans of the Kolyma, remains of camps, and 300 exhibits – work tools and objects from the daily life of camp prisoners. Overnight in village hotel.
Day 6: Drive on to the town of Kadykchan. This coal-mining community, founded during World War Two, was abandoned by its inhabitants at the beginning of the 2000s. Nobody lives there now but the town still stands amid the encroaching taiga forest, cars rusting on its streets and many apartments still with furniture.
Drive on across the border between Magadan Province and Yakutia. Yakutia is Russia’s biggest province, with an area almost that of India but a population of just 900,000, around half of whom are indigenous Yakuts. The Yakuts originally lived in teepees and semi-underground huts as nomadic horse herders. When the Russians arrived in the early 1600s and in the centuries after, the Yakuts developed an extraordinarily rich indigenous culture, including music, literature, dress, dance, jewelry and more, while at the same time retaining the horse as the central element in most people’s way of life. Unlike many indigenous peoples who died out after the Russian conquest of Siberia, the Yakut population exploded. And unlike many other languages, which either disappeared or survived by just the skin of their teeth, the Yakut language blossomed and actually spread to the Russian conquerors. To this day there are many people in Yakutia, both Yakut and Russian, who barely know the Russian language.
Overnight in a hotel in the village of Ust-Nera.
Day 7: Trek up a nearby mountain to visit the sacred Kisilyakh rock pillars at the top. These gargantuan, 35-metre tall rock pillars protrude almost inexplicably from the mountain top. They can be found in several locations across Yakutia and are considered sacred by the Yakut people. Return to Ust-Nera in the evening. Overnight in hotel.
Day 8: Drive on to Oymyakon, often referred to as “The Pole of Cold”. In this village of indigenous Yakuts and Evenki, the coldest temperature in any settlement on earth was officially measured: -71.2C. Locals say that in the nearby valleys, home only to nomadic reindeer herders, temperatures can drop even further to the -80s.
Arrive around 4pm. Explore Oymyakon, school, sports hall, do small hikes up nearby hills for views, etc. Visit Archy house where people do religious chants and rituals to Yakut gods. Overnight in guest house.
Day 9: Explore the other villages in Oymyakon Valley, Tomtor and Yuchyugey. Visit Museum of Ice Sculptures. Do day hike in the surrounding hills. Overnight in a guest house in Tomtor.
There is much more to do in this area in winter than in summer. In March all the horse herders bring their herds into the village horse farm for the birthing season, so guests can visit the horse farm. The nomadic reindeer herders are also located quite close to Yuchyugey village for most of the winter, so guests can visit the reindeer herd, ride reindeer sledges, and so on, while as in summer the nomad camps are 200km away and inaccessible.
In winter it may be worth adding an extra day in Oymyakon Valley as there are a host of other activities available such as ice fishing, and weird cold weather stuff such as blasting hot water into the air and watching the droplets freeze into crystals which shatter when they hit the ground, or watching a local guy who likes to go swimming in -60C in a river that never freezes!
Day 10: Drive from Oymyakon to Khandyga. Most scenically spectacular part of the Road of Bones, with forests, lakes, and the tallest mountains. Often the road is an incredibly narrow track hacked into the cliff side.
Overnight in private hotel in Khandyga.
Day 11: Drive from Khandyga to Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia. On the way we cross two rivers, the Aldan and the Lena, on ferries. Even though Yakutia is the world’s biggest producer of diamonds, as well as exporting large amounts of gold, oil and gas, the government cannot even find the money to build bridges over its rivers!
Overnight in twin rooms in the Lena Hotel in Yakutsk.
Day 12: City tour.
10am – 11am: visit “Treasure Troves of Yakutia”, an exhibition of the republic’s valuable metals and jewels.
11:30am – 12:30pm: visit the Mammoth Museum (many of the world’s best preserved mammoths have been found in Yakutia).
1pm – 2pm: lunch in the restaurant of the ethnographical museum, Chochur Muran.
2:15pm – 3:30pm: visit ethnographical museum and the Permafrost Kingdom, an underground tunnel of ice sculptures in the permafrost.
3:45pm – 4:45pm: visit the underground laboratory of the Permafrost Institute. Lecture on permafrost.
5:15pm – 6pm: visit the Yakutian Culture and History Museum.
6:15pm -7pm: visit “Old Town” – reconstruction of the first wooden buildings and churches to be built on this site by Cossacks in 1632. Visit souvenir shops, the Embankment of the River Lena and the monument to Pyotr Beketov, the founder of Yakutsk.
Overnight in twin rooms in the Hotel Lena.
Day 13: Boat trip to the Lena Pillars Unesco World Heritage Site. The Lena is Russia’s longest river and about 150km from Yakutsk, a long-section of its bank is lined with a spectacular forest of rock fingers up to 300m tall, known as the Lena Pillars. This will be a full-day excursion, with guests leaving Yakutsk at 7:30am and returning at 22:30.
Overnight in twin rooms in the Hotel Lena.
If required the Lena Pillars trip can be made into a 2-day one, as there are some log cabins nearby where guests can stay.
Day 14: Morning flight to Moscow, arriving around midday.
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Price includes: All flights, transfers, accommodation and transport along the route, all excursions and museums, local guide and English-speaking interpreter throughout, visit to Oymyakon reindeer herders and horse breeders’ farm (winter only)
Price does not include: International flights, food, insurance, Russian visa or letter of invitation, equipment or a medical kit.
Accommodation: accommodation will be in hotels, guest houses and local homes. Where available, this will be in twin rooms. There will be no need to sleep in tents anywhere on the route.
Transport: Groups of up to 10 people will travel in Russian UAZ vehicles. Larger groups will be transported along the route in a Russian vakhtovka truck
Food: there are plenty of cafes along the way, where we will have our meals. Around 1000 rubles per day will be sufficient for this.
Payment: a 30% deposit is required to reserve the dates of your trip. The balance must be paid two months before the trip start date.