The route of bones: from the coldest capital in the world through a 2,000 km necropolis

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Agustín Amaro/Miguel A. Julián

In the 1920s, with the development of the mining industry, the Soviet state saw it necessary to create a network of local roads that would allow quick access to all that wealth. One of the richest regions was Kolyma, in the Far East, a region that takes its name from the river that crosses it.

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During the Stalinist era, thousands of convicts were sent to the gulags region of. These victims of Stalinist repressions began to arrive in the early 1930s: Ukrainian and Polish kulaks, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians who, after the invasion of their countries, filled the first consignments. The objective: to communicate the Magadan port with distant Yakutsk, in a vast Arctic and subarctic territory, the white hell that the Soviets feared more than any other place in Siberia.

The result was a 2000 km highway between these two capitals, a road built with the blood of thousands of those prisoners: the Kolyma highway, also known as “The route of bones“.

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The route of bones

With extreme weather conditions, temperatures below -50 degreess, very insufficient food rations and epidemics of scurvy and dysentery, the mortality of the prisoners was 30% during the first year, and almost 100% after two years. In the absence of data, it is almost impossible to know the exact number of deaths, but estimates vary between 130,000 and 500,000 dead.

Which caused another problem: in that region it is so cold that even the corpses that are buried in cemeteries, due to the cycles of thawing of the soil, tend to emerge from the ground, as if it were a zombie movie. To avoid this problem, the soldiers who guarded the workers chose to throw the bodies under the foundations of the road as it advanced (legend has it one every meter of the road).

So, if you drive on that road, you are driving through a holy field 2000 km long. After the fall of the USSR, the road became an attractive destination for Western tourists; it was traveled for the first time by a British team in 1995.

It is a route that, strange as it may seem it is advisable to do it in winter, since this will allow you to cross and circulate on the frozen rivers, and not on the mud that the road becomes, in summer.

If you travel on that road, you will be traveling through a 2000 km long holy field.

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The best option is to start from Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic, the most populous city in northeastern Russia and an important cultural, scientific and economic center, as well as an important diamond market. 20% of global diamond production comes from Yakutia. Therefore, if you pass through Yakutsk, be sure to visit its diamond market, you will find them at prices well below those of the Western market.

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It is also considered the coldest capital on the planet with a historical minimum of -64.4ºC, that's why another curiosity that can be visited is its open-air market where you can see that the meat and fish merchandise is displayed in the air since with a average -40 is colder than a freezer.

You also can't leave the city without trying the typical stroganina, a frozen raw fish served in thin, long slices accompanied by salt and pepper, sometimes also with mustard.

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Already on the way out to the Bone Route, you will have the opportunity to cross the frozen Lena river (a river that alone deserves a separate chapter for the curiosities it houses) and encountering herds of yakut horses.
A horse perfectly adapted to the cold Siberian temperatures, with a compact build, abundant and thick hair and short, robust legs.
Once you enter the Kolyma you will find an altar where a small offering to the spirits of thousands of dead that its construction cost, they are not very demanding, it will be enough to leave some sweets, cookies or some cigarettes to have their approval to cross and their protection throughout the journey, a journey that rarely ends without incidents of some kind.

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Even if you do not believe in them, it is advisable to leave your small offering, the Siberians, and specifically the Yakuts, are very superstitious, they would take it very badly if you did not do so. And never, ever think of whistling indoors, that will attract angry spirits, and above all, it could cost you serious trouble with the locals, they will not hesitate to throw you out of their homes if you do.

 

Temperatures that will rarely rise above -40 °C

Along the way, with temperatures that will rarely rise above -40, a stop is mandatory at Taatta, birthplace of the poet, writer and translator Platon Oyunsky, translator of the Olonkho, the Yakut heroic epic and founding father of modern Yakut literature. .

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There are monuments based on his works, such as that of the shaman Karakeen or that of the fisherman boy.

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The one who owns a fast and brave black horse. Born on the horizon of a clear white sky” Pray at the foot of the monument to the most important Yakust epic, thirty-six thousand lines
poetics dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries

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Stories that speak of blood feuds, intertribal wars and disputes in the ancient Yakuts, the hero: Nyurgun Bootur the swift and his tribe, represented as a strong, athletic, brave rider and as fast as an arrow, but also with an uncontrollable temper .

Plato Oyunski was arrested in 1938 by the NKVD accused of bourgeois counter-revolutionary conspiracy, died in a Yakutsk prison hospital in 1939, and was fully rehabilitated in 1955.

In 2009, UNESCO included Olonkho on its list of intangible heritage of humanity. Although his work has not been translated into Spanish, there are translations into English for those who are interested.

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The coldest town in the world

Continuing with the route we enter one of its most emblematic places, the valley where
find the town of Oymyakom, considered the coldest inhabited place on the planet, although there are disputes on the subject with Verkhoyansk.

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The so-called North Cold Pole recorded a temperature of -71.2ºC on January 26, 1926,
A fact about which there are some doubts was no longer measured directly but by approximation, something that Verkhoyansk and its neighbor Tomtor take advantage of to also claim that record.
But despite these disagreements, the inhabitants of Oymyakom are very proud of being the coldest town in the world and it is not a good idea to discuss it with them there either.

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Once there, you cannot miss the monument to the Cold Pole in the center of town to take the required photo and go to register at the small Town Hall office, where they will give you a diploma certifying that you you have visited the North Cold Pole with the temperature recorded on the day of your visit.

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Currently it is difficult to reach the -71.2 degrees from the record but if you are lucky and arrive one day especially
cold you can encounter one of the most beautiful and rare natural phenomena: what the Yakut people call “The Whisper of the Stars“.
It occurs when a person speaks or breathes in a -60ºC environment, as sound travels faster in extreme cold, which is particularly beautiful along with the tinkle of your breath freezing.
At night you can hear the breathing of cattle freezing and the starry Siberian night turns into a continuous rattle of frozen crystals falling to the ground.

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For the Yakuts, this moment is festive, as they claim that words fall to the ground and return with the thaw, which is why during The Whisper of the Stars; You should only say beautiful and happy words, so that they return in spring.

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If you can, before leaving, take a walk along the Indigirka River (another with fabulous stories), there you can accompany the fishermen who fish in holes in the frozen river and see how the pieces freeze a few seconds after leaving the water.

 

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Thank you for the collaboration of Carmen Cabeza and Oksana Boretska in the translation.

Don't miss the continuation of the route next Sunday.

Next stop: the town of Tomtor.

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