SIBERIA
Our three winter trips across Siberia: twice by car, once by train and air.
We've been from Novosibirsk all the way across to Magadan, Kamchatka,
Sakhalin and Vladivostok.
Siberia is special. We've travelled to other big countries - Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Australia, the US - but none comes close to how vast and empty Siberia is. In Siberia you ride for days, and you look at the map - you've only moved a tiny speck. But the bleak vastness does not turn you more thoughtful or creative. It makes you feel small and insignificant. And there is that thought - what will happen to you, in the middle of nowhere, if your car breaks down?

I love the north. Landscapes of Sweden and Newfoundland, forests, lakes and hills, have always made me dream. But there is something about Siberia that just lacks this cosiness and warmth I always associated the north with. It could be the vast distances and dreadful roads - often you ride for hours not meeting another soul; it could be the dead trees on the permafrost - there is something ominous, gloomy about lifeless trunks. As if they are portals to a sinister world.
But, you may ask, why not travel in summer, when everything turns green? Most roads do not exist in summer. You have to rent a barge and travel on a mighty Siberian river; or fly. Neither is particularly appealing. Winter is the only time to go anywhere in Siberia, all the way to the Arctic. And there is something alluring, ephemeral in the fact the road you ride on will be gone in a month, without a trace.
From all places in Siberia, I had always wanted to go to Magadan. Why Magadan, why not Chukotka or Kamchatka? Easy - the map has no roads to Chukotka or northern Yakutia or Kamchatka. But it has a road to Magadan: the Kolyma Highway. That's the farthest away, to the east and to the north, you can go, year-round.

The Kolyma Highway has featured in many adventure travel blogs. The quintessential Siberian image - riders braving deep mud. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised, but also disappointed - the Kolyma was probably the best maintained road on our northern Siberia adventure. The surface was (mostly) smooth, the signs were thorough and accurate, and they were cleaned from the snow. Even the food was decent. On other roads food and fuel were completely absent for hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres.
But the Kolyma was not just the bumpy, rugged road that's a test for you and your car (for it actually wasn't - only the extreme cold was). I was drawn by the history of the Kolyma road: the hundreds of thousands of labour camp inmates send by rail to Vladivostok and Vanino, then boat to Magadan. These GULAG prisoners built Magadan, Susuman, Ust-Nera and numerous other settlements; they manned the gold and uranium mines; and they built the road.

There is a reason why the millions of prisoners were sent to this land. During the Stalinist industrialisation, and in the countdown to a world war (with political and economic adversaries like Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and the US, a standoff between the USSR and at least one of these powers was very likely), the state needed shock exploitation of resources. It was unlikely many would have volunteered to work in the extreme north-eastern Siberia, at least not until infrastructure was improved (the examples of Magnitogorsk and Birobidzhan from the 1920s confirm this - and both were far to the south, and far closer to existing infrastructure than Kolyma was). Prison labour was the solution. The Great Purges provided the numbers. The gold mined in Kolyma paid for large parts of the US equipment and 'aid' during the war.

My father said, and I agree, that no matter the circumstances around the building of the road, the Kolyma remains a human feat. It was built by people, hardly different than us, enduring the harshest environment and conditions our planet has.
I was always fascinated how can the human spirit endure such hardship. It turns out it can. Even I could even imagine living there, for a while at least. Going out in the cold, and looking forward to a hot tea and hot borsht soup in the village canteen.

We enjoyed travelling in winter when everything was covered in snow, white and clean. I've seen photos of Kolyma in summer, and I've seen it in autumn, too. It's pretty. But winter is harsh and actually covers much of the gold mining and dredging that has been done. I won't lie to you - Kolyma is extremely remote. The air is pure. But bad things have been done to the environment here. Winter covers all this.

There are many ruined towns, hamlets and mines along the Kolyma highway. It truly feels like the Road of Bones - the bones not just of the workers who built it, but of the entire Soviet empire. It is impressive just how much the region has changed since Soviet collapse.

The other place, apart from Kolyma and the zimnik roads, that we will remember forever is Severobaikalsk. I love the north of Baikal. Probably it's the fact that it's so hard to get to: either a very long train ride from anywhere (30 hours from Irkutsk!), a long car ride (17 hours from Irkutsk), or the short, but unpredictable and dangerous flight from Irkutsk or Ulan Ude. Here I should mention that the plane we flew from Irkutsk to Severobaikalsk last year, later crashed, killing a few people; after this accident, we are not flying any more on old Soviet planes!

Severobaikalsk is remote. Architecture-wise it is unique: all stations along the BAM, Baikal-Amur Mainline, are unique. They are not too old, dating back only to the 70s to 80s, but built collectively by all Soviet republics, bar Kyrgyzstan. The construction of the BAM had attracted a diverse, hippie-like crowd that's different from anywhere else in Siberia. Those were the people who could not fit in elsewhere.
We love Severobaikalsk for its colourful, lake-side dachas; we love it for the amazing Bar Bison, one of the few places we know where photos of food represent what you actually get on your plate; and we love it for the stunning mountains around. They are not a bit less spectacular than the Swiss Alps. Yet here you won't find another tourist around. The south of Baikal, in comparison, has been overrun by Chinese and domestic Russian tourists. Some parts of the lake have become unbearable - there are just so many tourists, and the facilities are so basic, yet so overpriced. The north is a peaceful idyll, and we sort of hope it stays so - although we know many people from the Severobaikalsk who will benefit if they get more tourists. Our amazing guide and friend Yevgeniy Alexandrovich is one; his son, who owns the lovely Geography of Coffee cafe in Severobaikalsk, is another; our friend the artist Valentina Shtanko is yet another - she makes amazing clay and ceramic gifts. (Tip: go to the town museum, it has one of the best stocked museum shops in the world, all things locally made!)

We will remember forever Siberia. We actually long to return to some parts of it. Others, we just want to leave as adventurous memories.
Photography and text — Yuri Boyanin