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 Sinegorye, 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. Many were buried under the road pavement !

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.