By S. Ancín
At forty degrees Celsius below zero and throughout 2000 km across the Siberian Arctic Circle, runs the M56 Kolyma Highway or The Road of Bones. It joins the Russian city of Yakutsk, capital of the Saja region, with Magadan, being the only access route to this town.
This route is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world due to its extreme weather conditions. The road crosses one of the coldest regions on earth and so in January it is not unusual for temperatures to drop below the – 40 ºC mark, although in the summer temperatures can rise above 20 ºC. The ice melting season is often accompanied by abundant rainfall transforming the road surface into a bog and making its outline disappear into the surrounding land. On top of this, the road is very poorly kept which also accounts for its numerous fatal accidents and the abundance of abandoned vehicles, which are now part of the landscape.
Such extreme temperatures make it difficult for the locals to bury their loved ones. The ground undergoes a number frosting and defrosting cycles through the year which causes the corpses to rise to the surface to the consternation of relatives and neighbours. Then they have to be buried again.
Stalin and the dissident Gulag prisoners
The M56 was built under Stalin’s orders between 1932 and 1953 to join the gold mines on this part of the country to the Pacific ocean. To carry out the building work he used the dissident Gulag prisoners as forced labour. Most could not endure the extreme weather conditions and the gruelling shifts and ended up succumbing to death or otherwise being executed by the guards as their productivity diminished.
Knowledgeable of what happened to the buried corpses under those conditions the guards decided to grind the dead men’s bones and use them as artificial gravel to toughen the soil under the tarmac. Although there are not official records, historians estimate that thousands of people died and legend has it that there is a dead body for each meter of road. The solution didn’t work quite as well as they thought and every year with the thawing of the ground, a mixture of mud, tarmac and human remains is brought up to the surface. This is why the Kolyma highway is considered to be one of the grimmest in the world as you literally drive over the bones of the men who built it, and that is of course where its nickname comes from.
For the plucky ones willing to take on this route it is highly advisable to follow some basic recommendations to avoid getting into trouble. It is paramount to always carry a fully charged GPS and satellite phone as well as an iron bar and crowbar. It is also a good idea to let locals know when you are leaving and which is your destination (ideally you would take one on as a guide) and finally it is advisable not to travel alone.
Photos: megaconstrucciones.net, mancrow.com, elpensante.com