Originally built by prisoners using hand tools in the 1930s, the Kolyma Highway represents the unification of two road systems, one stretching east from Yakutsk, the other north and west from the sea port of Magadan. At varying points in history and times of year it has been possible to go from one end to the other, and in 2008 an 'all-seasons' road linking the two ends was completed. The last 500km or so of the road closest to Magadan has seen a recent influx of investment to reach the gold mines near Susuman, and is in much better condition. The rest of the road system between the Aldan river and Susuman remains incredibly remote and nearly abandoned.
One of the ultimate adventures in the taiga of Russian Far East, be ready to see lots of mines, wilderness, bears, moose, squirrels, abandoned cities, dust, and a few resourceful and interesting people.
When to go
The road condition is best in winter, when it is made of ice. This begins when the ice bridges on the Lena and Aldan are passable to trucks, around late October. In early April, these ice bridges become unsafe and by May the road is impassable while river crossings are blocked by moving ice. During winter the temperature is rarely warmer than -30C. Most vehicles travel in convoy, as if the car breaks down, it's only a matter of days until everything flammable has been burnt. If no other cars come, people swiftly freeze! There are many memorials along the road to people who have perished in this manner.
In late May and June (early summer), the road is muddy due to frequent rain, and the taiga is infested with hungry bears and semi-lethal Ichodes ticks. Neither are a problem in the few built-up areas. In July and August, the road is dusty, but in reasonable condition. By September it is Autumn - expect grey days, rain, and cold. During the freeze (in late September), river crossings are again impossible, except by helicopter.
Independent travel in Kolyma is serious adventure, with the very real possibility of death. The area is essentially lawless, undeveloped, barely populated, and unbelievably remote. Just getting to either terminus at Magadan or Yakutsk is an adventure in itself - travelling along the road makes this look like buying a bus fare in comparison. Every year dozens of people die in the region from drowning, freezing, car accidents, starvation, tick-borne encephalitis, alcohol poisoning, fires, crime, wild animals, or just disappear. While travelers in the region are rewarded with nature, adventure, and so on, there is NONE of the safety net that accompanies nearly every other area that people travel, such as health care, consular support, English speakers, law enforcement, telecoms, etc.
Russian is the only language that will be encountered here. Some basics, enthusiasm, and a dictionary are a must.Some English speakers can be found in large towns - one possibility is English teachers in schools, or young professionals. Escorted trips or tours by Russian companies with their vehicles are available, often at significant cost.
Stores are not obvious and are often inside buildings, sometimes selling along internal rooms or corridors in residential buildings. The locals are friendly and most probably they wouldn't leave you to die by the roadside. Although “the possibility of death” may still be real, it is relatively remote for those who plan carefully and who travel by convoy in more than one four wheel drive or heavy truck in summer, and only a significant probability in winter for those not equipped for the extreme climatic conditions, even assuming they are experienced 4x4 drivers. Plan fuel carefully though – it is not available in all places in winter (eg the Pole of Cold near Tomtor). Take the northern loop (newer) not the old road which has become impassable much of the time – the northern route is the obvious major road and you won’t miss it near the truckstop/turnoff near the abandoned city of Kyubyume if traveling from the west or Kadykchan if traveling from the east. Drivers are of very variable quality and consumption of alcohol is common, especially in winter. Drive defensively.
Flights to Khabarovsk, Magadan and Yakutsk are regular and modern and easy to get to via Tokyo-Khabarovsk-Yakutsk or Tokyo-Vladivostok-Khabarovsk-Yakutsk and Beijing-Yakutsk, as well as others from Moscow, but between Yakutsk and Magadan only once per week. These are various combinations of Siberian airways, Yakutsk aerocompany and Aeroflot (all new and modern through mostly modern airports.
Taxis from airports start at 3 to 5 times the normal fare but barter few hundred rubels is the maximum correct fare at most of these airports, perhaps a bit more into central Vladivostok – you might have to accept 600 rubels if it is the last taxi (July 2013).
If you don't have a car, a bike, a motorbike, or a LOT of time (the route has been walked several times, taking around 2 months), you will need to hitch-hike with trucks, postal services, car salesmen, families, hunters, etc, or be prepared to pay for perilous overloaded and speeding group taxi services which cover the distance in about 4 days.
The distance of 2025km can be covered in 4 days, however given the trouble it takes to get to either terminus, taking time and seeing the many unique things along the way is worth it.
From Yakutsk, populated settlements on the route include:
Maps (there are several available in Russian from some stores) are generally out of date by a decade or more. Many towns listed on the maps will be either abandoned or completely vanished. Only a few towns have a single hotel, though in the more remote towns almost anyone you speak to will be extremely helpful!
Khabarovsk (an airline hub a few hours from Yakutsk and Magadan on the Amur river) is worth a day stopover for sightseeing and is the only place with real life on the streets at night in summer. In winter, the Amur river is frozen all the way across. Yakutsk has some fascinating spots (eg the mammoth museum, the river tour on the Lena) and the cultural events might be worth trying in all of them (eg the playhouses, but in local Yakut or Russian language). All have some top restaurants eg the Green Crocodile in Magadan, and you can eat at places like the Polar Star (Northern Star) hotel in Yakutsk as well as in restaurants. The Polar Star (and Hotel Magadan no 1) are expensive but of much higher standard.
Local cuisine includes raw fish of multiple types, horse steaks, fermented horse milk and moose with berries, but large and conventional menus are the norm in these cities (350 to 800 roubles for a main course). But on the road you take what you can buy in the shops (ie what limited range is often available at any time).
Hotels in Khabarovsk, Magadan and Yakutsk are expensive. Hotels in small places on route are small, rare and often rough (ex. no hot water). If they exist at all, they are often near the bus terminal. Since no town has more than one, expect no competition. As of 2010, hotels or guest houses could be found in Churapcha, Khandyga, Ust-Nera, Susuman, Yagodnoye, and Sokol. Between Khandyga and Ust-Nera is about 700km of nearly uninhabited road.
Police are theoretically present in a few larger towns, and the federal government is gradually upgrading the highway and bridges on a grand scale along the entire Yakutsk to Magadan stretch. Most small villages or partially abandoned towns lack police, so it is unwise to appear rich. Drunken people are more common in winter, and can occasionally be bothersome. Bears and other wildlife enjoy a fearsome reputation but very few actual recorded fatalities. Bears in Russia are less accustomed to people than in North America, have ample food resources in the wild, and are very frightened of people due to incessant hunting. The biggest risk by far is death by car accident due to unsafe driving, bad roads, unmaintained vehicles, or a combination of all three. In particular, large trucks throw up enormous clouds of dust in dry weather which can easily hide an oncoming vehicle.
If necessary, evacuation or (relatively) speedy exit from the region is possible, either by road or from a regional airport. Helicopters in the area exist and can be hired at enormous expense (around $3000/hour).
Possible side-trips while doing the route include:
Via the old road, it is possible to visit Tomtor and Oimyakon, the nearest towns to the (northern) Pole of Cold. It is also possible to get from Susuman to Magadan via Ust-Omchug, a large (pop. ~3500) coal mining town. About 70km by road from Yagodnoye is Jack London Lake, which is rated supreme in the Russian Far East for fishing and scenery.