The R504 Kolyma Highway connects Magadan and Yakutsk – actually, Nizhny Bestyakh on the eastern bank of Lena River at Yakutsk-, where the coldest temperature ever recorded outside Antarctica was recorded. The road is 1.738km (1,079mi) long crossing forests, mountains, deserts, and everything in between. Much of it is unpaved and certainly not ideal for a casual Sunday drive.
Located on the outskirts of the world, the road is part of the M56 route. Yakutsk is also the largest city built on continuous permafrost. Most houses are built on concrete piles because of the frozen ground. Locally, the road is known simply as Trassa ("The Route"), or Kolymskaya trassa ("The Kolyma Route"), since it is literally the only road in the area and therefore needs no special name to distinguish it from other roads. Untarmacked, the road shows few signs of use. The road is mostly unpaved and very difficult, mostly made of small sharp rocks. There are several mud sections which are almost impassible in rainy weather, and many sand sections that start suddenly after another corner.
The road is extremely dangerous during rainy spells, when the usual clay covering of the road turns into impassable mud blanket, swallowing trucks and tractors alike. The road is in a state of disrepair and is not traversable by standard road vehicles because of washed-out bridges and sections of road reclaimed by streams. The keys on the road are the extreme temperatures, heavy snow, ice and reduced visibility, excessive mud in the summer months make it almost impossible to navigate and the ‘Mud Pirates’. It also remains one of the most desolate, with few travellers knowing of the world’s most frozen road – or its tragic history.
Ideal time to travel is daylight. Not adviced night drive. This road is extremely dangerous during the winter, which is ten months long, because the heavy snow, the ice, and an extremely reduced visibility. But in summers, the conditions of the road become extreme. On July and August, the mud is the worst enemy. Be careful: this road is not for the sissies. One mistake can have consequences. Because of the permafrost there is no asphalt, creating a mud induced traffic jam every time the summer rains swing in the area. The main risks along the road are death by car accident due to unsafe driving, bad roads, unmaintained vehicles, large trucks can throw up enormous clouds of dust in dry weather which can easily hide an oncoming vehicle. Maps are generally out of date. Bears and other wildlife are also a hazard.
This road is the only route available to arrive to Yakutsk City. There’s no choice. After the rain, it can take five hours rather than a few days to drive it. The road gets paralysed and it’s a chaos, with cars being stuck in a 100-km long car line-ups. It’s known as ‘Bone’s road’. The nickname speaks to its tragic history: it was built by the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners who were exiled to the region’s gulags under the Stalin regime from the 1930s to the 1950s. Thousands were shot for not working hard enough, while others died from the gulags’ brutal conditions. The cold was another killer: with temperatures recorded as low as some -70C, the Kolyma is located in the world’s coldest inhabited area. Many of the dead simply were buried beneath the road’s foundations. It is said that the Kolyma Highway cost one death for every meter of road built. In fact, to circulate on it involves traveling over a colossal mass grave that houses many thousands of corpses. The work was done with very rudimentary methods, such as shovels and wheelbarrows. It was constructed in the Stalin era of the USSR by Dalstroy construction directorate. The first stretch was built by the inmates of the Sevvostlag labor camp in 1932. The construction continued (by inmates of gulag camps) until 1953. The road is treated as a memorial, because the bones of the people who died while constructing it were laid beneath or around the road.