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Eastern Russia

©Marie Négré-Desurmont

The advantage and the disadvantage of traveling in Russia without speaking Russian: you will be welcomed everywhere but you will not always know where! That's how I find myself, in the middle of Siberia,, sleeping in a youth offenders center, a charming place. 

I even had the pleasure to discover a rather old-fashioned pool with walls painted to the former glory of Sovietism. After all these hours cloistered in trains, it's a huge pleasure for me to swim a little. 

While I am at it, I take my pair of shoes to run and I go discover the city. In a place like this so undeveloped and isolated, it is a little surprising to see a young woman running ... only for pleasure. But I have another fifty hour train waiting for me tonight, I'm more motivated than ever.

At nightfall, I wait on the platform for train 78 of the Baikal Amour Magistral (BAM) line, named after the famous lake, as long as a Paris-Marseille, and the Amour river that flows into the Okhotsk sea to the Pacific. 

I spend two delicious days with Katia, a russian babushka who literally feeds me during the whole trip, she will even give me an entire chicken! Then I look at the rivers surrounded by the taiga, the immensity of this virgin territory makes me dizzy, and nourishes my dreams of exploration.


Once in Tynda I have another train to Neryungri, that I still can not reach by foot, because only the railway connects these cities together. I climb in, I prepare my berth, I dine and ... the prodvonista asks to recover my sheets. We arrive in an hour! Beginner's mistake; I knew that the timetables on the train tickets are those of Moscow, to which must be added the local time zones, but I obviously got it wrong and I arrive at the end of the evening in a city where I have nothing planned. On the platform, my train acolytes, Vladimir and Anton, take me under their wings and search very quickly someone who leaves tonight for Yakutsk. A taxi driver offers me a ride, but I don't feel like I can trust him. He says we can leave tomorrow morning and sleep at his place together. Vlad warns me, via my translation app; "Dangerous, sleep in the dormitory of the station". Finally a young couple grabbed my arm and offered me a ride tonight in their taxi for 3000 rubles (44$). The first taxi driver got  furious and yelled at them for "stealing the clients". 

After this unpleasant moment, we leave around midnight for a tough 16 hour drive to Yakutia, an inhospitable region that only one track connects to the rest of Russia. Normal people takes planes...


Our taxi is a crazy one who accelerate between each hole, before pounding right before one. Once, it seemed to me that we were flying! Vasil, who is sitting next to me, laughs and say, "Taxi, Émilien !!" I do not know where he is releasing this french cinematic reference from, but I burst out laughing.


We stop a few times to eat meat donuts on the side of the road, before arriving at Yakutsk in the middle of the afternoon, relieved and livid.

I spend two days in this weird city, where the streets are muddy paths that follow the outside gas pipes, and the roads lined with tall buildings topped with electric cables that dance over our heads. Built on permafrost (the upper layer melts in spring and froze again in winter) the city has to overcome the base of its buildings on pillars; we can literally walk under the concrete towers, which seem to levitate. Yakutsk is said to be the coldest city in the world, with average temperatures of -40 in the winter. This does not seem to affect the warmth of its inhabitants, a small group of them offer me one of their barbecue skewers while I randomly walk in an alley.


From Yakutsk, my goal is to join Magadan by the road of Kolyma called "road of the bones", (named this way because it incorporated the bones of the prisoners of gulags who built it and died there, atmosphere) Magadan is the capital of what was once the Gulag region. And when I say I'm trying to reach this city, people look frantic and watch me, astouned, before they try to discourage me. The word  "Magadan" itself sounds in a mournful and creepy way. 

Song of Dina Vierny about the last meeting before getting on the train that will lead her to the camps.

Translation of the last verse: "Here the forests bend under the wind, all around, snow only, behind 7000 km, before, 7 years of haze to live ..."

As I rather try and fail than being told that it's impossible, I leave the next day on foot along the river Lena, to the north. I walk a dozen kilometers with my mosquito net and my coat because the shore is infested with mosquitoes. I sit on a truck area to have a quick lunch, and ask if anyone could take me to Ust-Nera, then Magadan.

There is 1700 km to go, but every one tells me that I do not realize how extremely difficult this is going to be, nobody takes that road, and if by miracle someone does, I'll be stuck there. They say I won't be able to go further, to Alaska, because no boat goes there. A truck driver imitates a man who hangs himself and says: "Magadan, for 2 million, I do not go!"
I understand that I would have had more luck in the winter, because the roads would have been smoothed by the snow, and the rivers frozen, therefore crossable. 
So you have to either fly or go down to the southeast on the far eastern coast of Russia. I pull out my map of Siberia, and I'm planning a new route, since I can not go further north. I decide to attempt a crossing of the Bering Sea from the ports of Vanino or Vladivostok. If I fail again, I will go to Japan where I'll surely find a cargo to "hitchhike". Of course, at this point, the plane option is still unthinkable.
A little annoyed but although curious about this new itinerary, I ask if a truck can eventually take me to the South ; Vitali has to marry his daughter near Vladivostok in two weeks, he takes me on 2375 km for a four days trip, giving me an insight into the life of those who hits the roads in their machine of 30 tons. Vitali, a very funny man, will pamper me like a princess, he wants me to feel like in a hotel ! He pays me every meal, my showers, supplies me with clean sheets and a towel, and stops on the road to pick me berries.
The truckers talk to each other in a radio, where one warns the other that he is going to overtake him, they greet each other, and meet in their "kafé" (cafes) along the road. In the evening, we take a shower and wash our dirty and dusty stuff. But we could also go in a sauna, or swim in an indoor pool if we wanted ! Surprising life of truck drivers ...
Vitali tells me that he was not always a driver, he studied and was general manager of companies. But he was not the master of his time, so he put everything down to be, I quote, "a free person" and do what he wants, whenever he wants to. It's a way of seeing freedom that I did not imagine, but when I look at it, facing thousands of miles of Siberian roads in its rolling house, I think he is really free.
Certainly, I love this adventure where I live thousand lives, where my itinerary is made depending on encounters, chance, and local transports sometimes unpredictable. Time is long and the road exhausting, but I love to get every day a little closer to my goal : the East. the American continent is only 4000 km, and I have just travelled 6375 km in a week.

Badaibo - Dina Vierny
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