(By Markian Hawryluk) Artist and adventure traveler Galya Morrell has traveled the infamous Road of Bones in Siberia in the winter time, when the road is frozen and passable, photographing the unique scenery and people. This year, she has returned in the summer, when the only viable means of transportation is inside a tractor scoop. ExplorersWeb caught with Morrell en route.
Describe your current journey? What was the vision and what are you hoping to accomplish?
The Road of Bones, a.k.a. the M56 Kolyma Highway that connects Yakutsk with Magadan via Pole of Cold always had a special meaning for me. One of my great-uncles lies under it. The Road on Bones was built by the prisoners of GULAG. They were dying on this road while building it. Their bodies were not removed, so the road became a collective grave - not known to the rest of the world.
My expedition partner, Greenlandic explorer Ole Jorgen Hammeken, has been on this road too, briefly – during his circumnavigation of the Arctic in a small open boat. He was fascinated with the tragic story of this road and wanted to come back.
But the road itself was not the main character of our journey. We were much more interested in exploring the life in the small settlements along the road. Summer is a special time here. When the snow and ice melts, local roads turn into impassable swamps and little settlements become islands. Much has to do with abrupt the climate change. Permafrost is melting while heavy rains that now fall in late fall, in early spring and all summer long. This just accelerates this process. We wanted to know how climate change affects communities, how people forced to live in isolation manage to not only survive but to thrive. They are not complaining; instead they are adapting – exactly like their ancestors did for generations.
Yakutia is often referred to as “prison without bars”. Generations of free thinkers have been sent here in political exile. It is so so far from “everything”. One can’t escape. One can only try to survive. But it is hard to survive in this land if you don’t have the proper knowledge. Yakutia has one of the harshest climates on the Earth. It is -65C in the winter, and +40C in the summer. Over 100 degrees difference. No running water. No indoor toilets. Not much in the stores. One can rely only on one's own self. One must hunt, fish, raise livestock – mainly horses and cows – collect berries and mushrooms, sew skin cloths and containers out of birch bark. One must cut the ice cubes with a primitive axe and store them in the underground permafrost cellar – this is the only source of water for those who live away from the river. These cubes are very heavy, but even 80-year-old grandmothers manage to carry them up onto the surface where they gradually melt and turn into water. This land teaches patience, resilience and creativity.
During our journey we made many detours, moving in zigzags; the Road of Bones was washed up in many places, and it took weeks to rebuild them And then the rains washed them down again… So, all in all we traveled around 1,500 km along the route. The entire journey took over a month.
You have traveled this road before in the winter. What are the differences that you have noticed traveling in the summer?
I traveled up this road in 1984 and in 1986, to Oymyakon, to the Pole of Cold. I traveled in an ambulance, which was the normal way to travel back in the 1980s. UAZ is a laconic minivan with very poor insulation, but it is considered to be the only reliable vehicle in this land. But of course if something goes wrong it is very easy freeze to death very quickly. You can see the carcasses of these vehicles along the way – as a reminder that every meter of the road can be a death trap. But ironically in the winter, the road is much more passable compared to the summer time. In the summer drivers are forced to find their way in the clouds of dust. You become blind on the road, you can’t really see anything. A friend of ours, a one-eyed driver (he lost his eye to the Road of Bones), told us that eyes are of no use in the summer – one must be able to make judgments even without seeing the road. One must know it by heart.
It gets very hot in the car in the summer, but you can’t open windows because Siberian mosquitoes will eat you alive.
This summer was quite unusual. There were so many rains that the road got flooded and became impassable in many locations. On the stretch Borogontsy – Churapcha – Ytyk Kyol – Khandyga it was completely washed out. We saw many huge KAMAZes and other big trucks swallowed by mud or overturned. It’s a scary landscape, even though it’s also one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.
I don't think I've seen any adventurers travel in a tractor scoop before. How comfortable is it?
If I were a poet, I would write an ode to the tractor’s scoop. You can’t live a life without it. Pensions are delivered in the tractor’s scoop, and so is mail, food and other essentials. Tractor is a taxi, a delivery truck and it is also an ambulance. It runs on the Road of Life, back and forth, when nothing else can.
We started our travel in the “ambulance” car. But we lasted only for some 500 km. We were stuck in mud, felt hopeless.. Cell phones often don’t work here, so you can’t call for help. The rescue always came from passing tractors, so at certain point we decided to switch to a tractor. No matter how unusual it may sound in the West, it is a very common way of transportation in Siberia. As much as 7 people can fit in the scoop – they just have to lie one upon the other like sausages in a can. And then the journey begins – with all its ups and downs – if you really want to try Russian hills, come to Yakutia – Disneyworld rests in peace. So much adrenaline and at the same time so much love! Because you really feel how much people who lie under you and on top of you love you! It’s all about community and sharing!
But sometimes we traveled in comfort. I mean – just 2 or three in the scoop. Then our journey would be luxurious. We would even install the seats – birch stumps in the scoop - and cushion them with hay in the bags. We would even cover ourselves with beautiful Siberian carpets – some with incrustation of precious metals, beads. So art goes along with extreme journey here. Each carpet made by local artists will tell a story or a legend – based on true events that happened some 100 or more years ago. And then we would drink kumis (mare’s milk) on the road (it is kept in birch bark containers – that’s how it stays fresh). We would sing Siberian songs and chase mosquitoes with horse tail whips....
Tell me a bit about the people living along this road?
The great distances, isolation and the great mud that swallows up tractors could be a valid justification for hopelessness. Where to go and what to do? And why? Why to stay in this land at all? Why not to move to a warmer place? To a more comfortable and reliable place? But people don’t leave. They stay because they think that their land is the best.
On the Road of Life its Great Mud reminds us every single minute: how weak we are, how imperfect we are, how limited our abilities are. Here it is easier than anywhere to find an excuse. Here it’s easier than anywhere else to end up believing in nothing.
Here it is easy to give up. It is easy get depressed. It is easy to let the dangerous toxins of depression, apathy and disbelief eat away our hearts. The only way forward – is to find the energy to resist them somehow, somewhere… And where else would you find it except for within ourselves?
Every single person living here is an artist. Yakutian artists create things that may have never existed. They don’t have many tools. But one tool – their limitless imagination – compensates for the absence of all the rest. The fire of their imagination creates the light that illuminates the darkest and emptiest corners of our existence.
There is everything in this land, except for boredom. Work hard, wake up before sunrise, use your hands and mind, and share with others. Through hard work people learn to compensate for the cruelty of nature and their own shortcomings. This is a secret of Taatta that we are learning on the Road of Life.
I have seen that others have completed this journey on bicycle or motorcycle. Is this becoming a more popular area for adventure travel?
The Road on Bones has become a magnet for adventure travelers in the last 5 years. Young Yakutian blogger Bolot Bochkarev put his life in publicizing the treasures of this road to the rest of the world. In 2010 he traveled to the Pole of Cold in the coldest time of the year. This expedition ended up in the photo exhibition “On the Road of Bones: Ghosts of the Siberian Gulag Along the Old Kolyma Highway” at Kris Waldherr Art and Words studio gallery in Brooklyn, New York. It was curated by anthropologist Thom Miller.
Nowadays adventures from different countries travel by bikes, motorcycles, .. you name it. My friend American explorer and philanthropist Paul Rodzyanko who happens to be a grandson of the last Speaker of the Russian Parliament before the arrival of communists in 1917 is now planning the expedition in the electric car. This will be quite a challenge. I would rather travel by Yakutian horse, they can bear it all. They are so robust – they sleep outside when it is -67 – and don’t get sick.
What has been the highlight of your trip so far?
Anna and Kolya. Anna is 82, she has lived one of the harshest lives I have ever heard of. Hunger, wars, loss of children. She re-created the almost lost tradition of national dress and built the first private museum of history and art in Yakutia – out of her small pension (300 dollars a month). She not only hosted us during the worst rains in flooded Taatta, but she “adopted” both of us as her children. We are both so proud of our new mother!
Kolya had been traveling with us in the tractor’s scoop for his heart surgery. He did not make it. Kolya was a tractorist, a horse herder and an artist. He dedicated all this life to the Road. We made together the last journey in his life .. and we will never forget him.
#roadofbones #galyamorrell #siberia #russia #polar