Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Kolyma, the last of the four great Siberian Rivers


4. The Kolyma River

The Kolyma River forms from the confluence of Ayan-Yuryakh and Kulu rivers in the Kolyma Mountains, part of the Suntar-Khayata Range in southeastern Siberia.

It runs for 2 129 km, permanently winding along the mountainous and then flat tundra terrain as it flows nothernwards to the East Siberian Arctic Sea, at 69.5º N, 71.5º E.

Kolyma mountains

This is one of the most astoundingly beautiful wildernesses in the world, kept pristine by the limited presence of man. There are surely mines and dams and fuel-linked industries, but they are relatively confined to few locations near the infamous Road of Bones, between Yakutsk and Magadan. The mountainous sanctuary areas have been spared, and there lay the most precious Nature reserves, with glaciars, lakes and valleys.

Suntar-Khayata Range

The confluence of the two rivers in Suntar-Khayata happens near near Pik Aborigen, a peak at 61° 59' N, 149° 20' E.

Pik Aborigen, Пик Абориге́н

Few miles from its source, the Kolyma with Pik Aborigen in the background.

In its upper course the Kolyma flows through narrow gorges, deep canyons, with many rapids. Gradually its valley widens, as it flows more northernly through the taiga. The river is navigable upstream to Synegorye, but the ice-free period is short: freezing lasts from late September until early June in the lower course. The breakup of the ice is accompanied by vast ice jams and widespread flooding.

Reindeer nomading, upper Kolyma

For the sparse population that lives in the basin, the river species are plentiful enough: sturgeon, Siberian white salmon, broad whitefish, Arctic grayling,  burbot. “For the neighborhood, this river is its daily bread”. Else, just moose meat - no vegetables here. This is one of the coldest rivers in the world.


The montainous region north of Magadan is crossed by the Kolyma Highway R504, also known as the 'Road of Bones'. The beauty of the landscape is amazing, one of the most magnificent Nature wildernesses in the planet; but it also has a very sorrowful and criminal story to tell, of gulags, of prisoners' forced labour and their massive death toll.

The sheer scale of the convict labour that was exploited is particularly evident in the hundreds of wooden bridges over rivers and streams, most of them now in ruins.

As the Kolyma receives an important flow from its tributary Indigirka river, in the proximity of Ust-Nera and Seymchan, it flows through landscapes which are among the most amazingly beautiful in Eurasia, as well as submitted to the most severe climate on the planet. In the area of ​​Ust-Nera is also located the Pole of Cold (Oymyakon) where cold has reached under -70ºC.

Right where the "Kolyma" highway R504 crosses the Indigirka river - itself a large and spectacular river-, Ust-Nera is a ruined gold mining settlement in the flat taiga region where most of the gold has been found.

The Indigirka at Ust-Nera, one of its few bridges

One of several ghost towns in the Kolyma basin.

From Seymchan to Zyryanka, the Kolyma starts widening, splitting into numerous branches, and permanently undulating through the swampy tundra.

This is the Kolyma Lowlands.

Futher north as it reaches the village of Kolymskoye, the Kolyma receives addtional water from tributaries that frequently cause huge flooding. In its final course, the river level can differ up to 14 metres.

Kolymskoye is a small Chukchi village of reindeer herders.


Chersky once was a strategic hub on the major supply route for northern Siberia. It was also the main base to support the Soviet Union’s Arctic expeditions and - most important ! - Moscow’s main military outpost in the area.

There were daily flights to Moscow and Yakutsk, the port was busy with barges and tankers; salaries were kept higher than in Moscow, though most labour in the mines was done by starving political prisoners transported in barges; many died of scurvy, maybe the most lucky.

Bur now the population shrank to 3000, ships and cranes are rusting, the airport ruined, the airstrip impraticable. Residential blocks were demolished or abandonned and left to crack under permafrost thawing.

Mounds of rubble, wrecked huge military installations and plundered storage facilities dot the area surrounded by the wild Arctic tundra. Chersky was a victim of democracy.

The only planes in Chersky are rusting on pedestals, decorating the squares.

Well,  the ugliness of man's transitory buildings versus the eternal wondrous beauty of wild Nature.

As it aproaches the Arctic Sea, the Kolyma flows smoothly through the flat tundra, creating multiple channels and islands that change unpredictably.

The Delta

The satellite view shows the delta of the Kolyma River with thousands of lakes.

The final breath: the Kolyma is hindered by a sandbar at its mouth.

Kolyma Gulf

This was the last of the four Great Siberia Rivers. Further towards the east, another river flows in a large basin, close to the Bering Sea: the Anadyr River. But this is a story I leave for later on.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

The Lena River in Artic Siberia, a geographical and historic landmark


3. The Lena River

The Lena (Ле́на) River in Siberia is also one of the world's longest rivers (~ 4 300 km). It starts in the Baikal Mountains, west of Lake Baikal, and in a meandering course flows first northeastward and then almost due north to the Laptev Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. 

The Lena begins west of the Baikal.

The Lena at its source.

The Lena is a major and crucial waterway, being navigable almost its entire length. Unfortunately, its waters freeze at different times of the year along its length.

The Lena at Ust-Kut.

The first section flows through Yakutia in a quite irregular course, winding on mostly flat taiga land of the central Siberian plateau. The first remarkable feature is the Lena Pillars geologic formation, as it approaches Yakutsk city.

The Lena Pillars

Lena Pillars (Ле́нские столбы́) is a natural rock formation along the banks of the Lena River, after Ust-Kut and a few miles before Yakutsk city.

Lena Pillars is a classified Nature Park

The pillars are 150–300 metres  high. Most are situated between the villages of Petrovskoye and Tit-Ary.

They consist of alternating layers of limestone, dolomite and slate from early to middle Cambrian, which have been eroded, producing the rugged outcrops.

The Lena Pillars Nature Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2012.

Recently a tourist cruise ship started operating from Yakutsk.


This Siberian region of Yakutia suffers severe cold conditions, and the Lena freezes for several months (October to May, at least).


Yakutsk is world famous as a record cold city, a "pole of cold", reaching and surpassing frequently - 40ºC. The low record is -64.4ºC, something beyond imagination.

Here the Lena course is  divided in branches; on the main wide branch is the large harbour, but the city grew on the banks of a smaller branch.

Pedestrian bridge over a Lena branch.

This is the main urban settlement (pop. ~ 300 000) in Yakutia, a large and historic industrial city and port in central Siberia founded in the 17th century. Mining (mainly diamonds, gold also), oil and gas processing, are the main activities. Yakutsk is the most dynamic and fast-developing city in the Russian Far East.

Lacking a bridge over the Lena anywhere, the city is then the end of the three only roads in the country. The river has to be crossed by ferry, or driving on thick ice in winter. There are several projects of high tech bridges, but the costs have been forbidding due to the unstable ground (permafrost is 250m deep) and ice packing.

In the past, the area was also chosen by soviet regim to install Gulag camps to explore  prisoners' work. A "death road" from Yakutsk to Magadan still remains, its ruins testifying the terrible era of Stalin rule. Today, the worst in Yakutsk is pollution and isolation, though life standards have been increasing.

Yakutsk is also the only city entirely built on permafrost; houses have to be built on wooden or concrete stilts.

One of the most important river harbours in Russia, Yakutsk is a regional hub for shipping trade.

The spring ice break-up is accompanied by ice jams and a sudden rise in water levels often with very destructive flooding. The river level has been known to rise as much as thirty feet in one day as a result of an ice dam.

The Lena after Kyusyur, approaching the Delta.

As it heads to Tiksi, the vital and strategically crucial port in the Laptev Sea near the Delta, the river gets busier; several cargo ships make the trip between Yakutsk and Tiksi.

In summer, also the new Lena cruise line operates from and to Tiksi:

Entering the Delta.

A few decades ago, this part of Siberia was probably most desertic, murky and dismal, few settlements surviving in such an unfriendly environment, far from everything, far from the world. Just some native Yakut hamlets persisted when, in the 19th century, the tragedy of the Jeannette  happened on the Delta, after a failed but heroic Arctic journey in the years 1879-1881.

Members of the crew wading ashore on the Delta, 1881.

The USS Jeannette expedition painfully progressed through iced arctic waters, until the ship was captured and sunk by thick ice. Two of the three boats managed to land on the Lena River Delta, and part of the crew was finally rescued in very bad shape at native Yakut villages; but many couldn't and left their lives buried in the Delta's marshy soil.

Map of the Delta after George Melville, from the Jeannette crew.

The Lena Delta

So: at the mouth, the Lena flows in a large Delta that is about 400 km wide, and is divided into seven major branches.

The Delta is frozen tundra for about seven months each year, but from May through September it is a lush wetland.

The Lena Delta was first reached in 1633, and the whole river fully explored in 1885-86.

Stolb Island (остров Столб), a huge rock formation in the Delta. Most other islands are flat.

Finally, Tiksi:

Since the 90's, the town has been progressively abandoned and almost left to military personnel, which kept living and working here, as the harbour is an important naval base. Its location in a possible Northeast Passage route is the reason for the rehabilitation that seems to be in process.

Tiksi in the freezing mist, the Delta visible in the distance.

Next, and last:
The great Kolyma river, on far eastern Siberia