Yesterday we traveled from Yakutsk to Khandyga (yellow) today we will travel into the northeast Yakutia mountains (green). Alex promises the roads will be even worse.
The gold in the northeast Yakutia mountains (also replete with diamonds and uranium) was well known by the Tsars, but they reckoned no-one would voluntarily endure the extreme deprivations needed to mine it – seasonal fluctuations between – 60° and +40°C with vicious mosquitoes in the summer. And so it more or less sat. Post-Soviet revolution, circumstances were different. Breakneck industrialization needed urgent financing. Eventually a solution emerged: A captive work force, sentenced by law to hard labor. As each wave succumbed to cold or disease, ever more spurious charges kept the pipeline rolling. And so the purges. And so the gulags, where we are headed today.
Few of the villages we passed yesterday, strung out every 50 km, appear on any maps. Today we will see only one village Treply Kyuch. It isn’t on the map either (even though its cafe gets a 4 star rating on Trip Advisor, for no reason I can discern).
All the villages look like Treply Kyuch, snuggled into the snow, barely visible from what passes for roads. Conspicuous absence of bustle.
We are not just passing through though, because Treply Klyuch is the home of the Gulag Museum. Up until 2019 the Gulag Museum was housed in the village kindergarten, it has since been moved to its own more spacious accommodation in the cultural center.
The gulag museum has in fact received many rapturous reviews
Since I thought I would also be visiting 5 year olds, I have brought along a book for them as a gift. I present it to the museum director, to her great confusion.
Alex insists everyone sentenced to the gulags were bona-fide criminals, even when presented with pictures like this. ‘Moscow family’ the Director tells us.
This unlucky young lady was sentenced for stealing 5kg of potatoes during the famine. It is not clear whether Alex regards this as evidence of a true crime.
I am currently reading a book by an American true believer whose family emigrated to the USSR in the 1930s. He was thrown into the gulags around here for 12 years on a trumped up political charge, or more accurately no charge at all (he was exonerated, as were many others in the 1950s)*. He claims many fewer than 1 in 100 survived to tell the story, others put it at more like 1 in 1000. They fashioned padded mittens from American flour sacks to stave off the intense winter cold as they worked the gold mines.
The mitten in question, right here.
“Did your family suffer during the purges?” I ask Alex. “No” he says “My father big communist leader, big fan of Stalin”.
The Director insists we see the second room, which is devoted to Soviet glories and war heroes. Alex cheers right up.
The route of choice to the gulags from the west was by train to Vladivostok, on the east coast, then from Vladivostok to Magadan by boat via the East Japanese Sea. Magadan to the mines in Kolyma required a road. The prisoners dug it and then paved it with clay, gravel and their bones.
The road we take out of Khandyga is a spur off the Kolyma Road, en route to the most dreaded Ust Nera mines where harsh physical deprivations (-60° in nearby Oymyakon, the coldest town in the world, is normal) needed equivalently harsh discipline to keep things rolling. It is another Road of Bones.
Vast and the empty it is hard to conceive of building this road.
Me: Are there bears here Alex?
A: Here no. In the mountains. Many people killed by bears every year. But now they are sleeping.
Later, in the mountains.
Me: Is this where bears kill people Alex?
A: Yes only when they sleeping at the wheel.
Don’t sleep at the wheel
There are many gulags beside this road to the mines. Many are still unexplored. These nearest ones are our only possible destinations, given the distance.
Alex: Go along this path to the gulag. It is about 2km. I will meet you back here in one hour.
The path to the gulag
A bridge to the mines, built by the miners.
We turn towards home. Suddenly in the distance, unbelievably, people on the road! Alex is agitated “Erweks” he groans “This will be problem”. I later learn that Erweks (another area indigenous minority) only take to the road when they are drunk, and weaving from side to side.
But no! It is not drunken Erweks, it is 4 Japanese from Kyoto who have had the brilliant idea to cycle 750 km along this road in March (to be fair it is impassable in the summer because of mud, bears and mosquitoes).
They seem grateful if somewhat confused by my gift of vile cabbage dumplings from the Treply Kyuch cafe. It is currently -37°C.
Back out of the mountains: Sunset over the taiga
*Dear America: The true odyssey of an American youth who miraculously survived the concentration camps of the Soviet Gulag. By Thomas Sgovio.
A self-published first person account, free on Amazon so its not a literary masterpiece but nonetheless both chilling and very poignant. 4 stars.