Russian Highway from Hell
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The Russian Highway from Hell

Written by Rick Archer
SSQQ Dance Studio,
Houston, Texas

First Published: January 2007

   

Above is a picture of the Lena River
during the bitter Russian winter.
The Lena Highway (road of mud) is nearby.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

How would you like to be caught in a mess like that? 

This is the story of Russia's Lena Highway, aka the
Highway from Hell

The Russian Federal Highway runs from Moscow city to the Siberian city of Yakutsk.  The last 600 miles is called the "Lena Highway"This bizarre road runs parallel to the Lena River on the final leg to Yakutsk. 

As you can readily see for yourself from the picture, in the summertime, the Lena Highway turns completely to mud whenever it rains. 

There are several Internet sites that consider the Lena Highway to be the worst road in the world. 

Personally I would give this dubious honor to Bolivia's Road of Death
(next story).  After all, no one gets killed in the mud, just incredibly aggravated.  People actually die on the Bolivian road all the time.


Yakutsk is the capital of the Yakutia Republic, part of the vast Russian region known as Siberia.  

The old joke is 'War is God's way of teaching us geography'.  With that in mind, any kid who grew up playing the board game Risk remembers Yakutsk and neighboring Kamchatka as two territories with weird names located up at the top of Asia.  As a kid, I had never heard of these places until I played RiskNor did it ever dawn on me that people actually live there  (as if getting stuck in the mud is considered living...

The road of mud isn't the only problem.  It seems that people who live in Yakutsk were born to suffer. 
Yakutsk is considered the coldest city on earth, with January temperatures averaging -45 F.  The coldest temperatures ever recorded outside Antarctica occur in the basin of the Yana River just to the northeast of Yakutia.  Yakutsk, the capital, is the world's biggest city built on top of continuous permafrost.  Most houses are mounted on concrete piles to keep from sinking. 

Surprisingly, for most of the year, the driving is excellent.  The road to Yakutsk is so frozen that the road is frozen solid.   It is only in the summer that the road periodically becomes impassable.  In the autumn the road freezes back and becomes even better than most soil roads
.  In the dead of winter there is no problem as vehicles drive over the frozen Lena Highway.  Cars are allowed to drive up to 70 kmh (45 mph).   In fact, one report suggested some vehicles even drive over the Lena River as well in the winter!  It becomes a solid block of ice.

But watch out for Summertime!   Believe or not, Yakutsk is actually cut off from the world much of the time during the summer.  In a story I read about a 2001 flood caused by the overflowing Lena River, it said Yakutsk does not even have railroad!   This means that in the summer when it rains, Yakutsk is virtually inaccessible except by boat or plane.  

And even the boats are not much help.... the Lena River is impassable for large stretches of the year when it is full of loose ice, or when the ice cover is not sufficiently thick to support traffic, or when the water level is high and the river turbulent with spring flooding.

Get this: July temperatures often exceed 90 F!  This makes the Yakutia region among the greatest in the world for seasonal temperature differentials.  This helps explain the mud road fiasco which you are about to witness.  When it rains in Yakutsk, it pours!  And the rains turn the Road to Yakutsk into a quagmire. 

Unfortunately, this major artery does not have an
asphalt surface even though it is a vital Federal highway.  Attempts have been made to put down a proper surface, but the road immediately turns to mush the moment it thaws making repairs impossible.  Consequently, in the summer, every time it rains, hundreds of cars become stuck in the mud. 

Yakutia is an area of permafrost.  The Lena Highway melts down to 1 meter every summer for 2...3 months (usually July and August) - that makes it impossible to build usual roads (using asphalt or concrete) there. Such roads are called "zimnik" ("zima" means "winter" in Russian). 

In the autumn the road freezes back and becomes even better than usual soil roads, but that is little consolation to those stuck in the summertime mud.  The pictures you
are about to see were made in August 2006 at the start of the problem.  Ultimately 600 cars got stuck there.  In other words, as bad as things are in the pictures you are about to view, they only hint at how impossible the conditions can really be.

A car can be trapped in the quagmire for days.  According
to witnesses, hunger and lack of the fuel are all part of these mud traps.  One woman even gave birth to a child right in the public bus she was riding because no ambulance could possibly get to her.

Making things worse, people are afraid to come to the rescue.  There is a report of construction teams that were afraid to appear on site when called.  It turned out that during their previous visit they were beaten by people who had been stuck in the jam for a few days.  So now the cars and trucks are left to fend for themselves.  Only in Russia.

Lawlessness is common. 
People often break the locks on the trucks in a search of food and warm clothing.  Fuel, food, firearms and steel tow-line cables are needed most during the rainy days on the Lena Highway.
 

Apparently Russia is infamous for its bad roads.  For instance, the cynics insist Russia's bad roads had more to do with stopping the advance of the German army in World War II than anything the Red Army did.

I decided to ask my friend Olga about the Russian roads.  Olga was raised in Russia, but now works here in Houston.  This is what Olga had to say.

From: Olga B
Sent: Monday, April 20, 2009 12:23 PM
To: Rick Archer
Subject: the russian roads

Back when I was growing up my parents never could afford a car (well, they actually still don't have one).

Consequently, we did not have much to do with the roads problems all that much.

But it is common knowledge the roads are quite an issue in Russia

We even have a national song about how bad our roads are.  And it has lots of verses.  :)   

 

It seems like Russia could do something about this road.  After all, America built the Alcan Highway in Alaska under similar conditions. 


Driving upon these roads
in summer when the snows have melted seems like a very stupid idea.  But the authorities never even meant for the Lena Highway to be used in the summertime.  Apparently the ancient way of reaching Yakutsk in the summer was by boat.  Now, even though it is the 21st Century, this tradition continues.

Yakutsk can only be reached by ferry in the summer.  The road dead ends on the wrong side of Yakutsk.  In fact, there is no bridge anywhere in the Sakha Republic that even crosses the mighty Lena.  

But just because it is a very bad idea to drive doesn't mean people don't try anyway.  After all, most people in this area are have no choice if they wish to reach another part of Russia.  Unless they own a plane or a boat, the Road of Mud is the only way in and out of the city. 

These poor people were born to suffer. 

The picture above was taken on August 30, 2006.  As you can see, this is a dirt road.  The ground is firm because his truck is stopped on the high ground.  However the road has become impassible due to the watery conditions up ahead. 
This driver probably has no idea how lucky he is that his truck isn't stuck.  As you see below, others are not quite so lucky.

Have you ever seen a more unbelievable picture of a car stuck in mud?

Please note the condition of the Lena Highway before the rains came.  Maybe a few ruts, but the road is dry and in good shape.
Now let's see some truly horrifying pictures of a road ruined with mud.

 
   
   
   

This road resembles a river.  Or maybe a 'lake' would be a better description.  This area is surrounded by hills on both sides and there appears to be nowhere along the side of the road for the water to drain.  Instead the water just sits there.

 

Note the sign in the picture above on the left.  70 kilometers an hour is the posted speed limit. 
That translates to 45 miles per hour.  Lots of luck reaching that speed... my guess is the summertime speed is 45 miles per week. 
Somehow those two trucks got to the top of the hill.  As you can see from the overturned trucks, others weren't so lucky.

   
   

Did they ever think of perhaps dropping gravel on this road?  You can do that any time of year. 

If nothing else, they could use gravel to elevate the road above the terrain around the road. Another idea might be to dig some trenches alongside the road to improve drainage. 

In the picture with the yellow truck, it looks like the water has nowhere to go... the sides of the road seem as high or higher than the road itself. Surely there must be a low spot to use as a retention pond somewhere.

A damsel in distress.  Such a pretty girl and such a pretty car.  What a pity.
Two more damsels in distress.  That jeep looks seriously stuck in the mud. 

Have you ever seen more mud in all your life?  Well, at least they are smiling... sort of.  I am not sure I would be able to smile in such a predicament. 

Notice the blonde on the truck.  She is actually smiling for the camera!   And I know why - for some reason, no one has made her get in the mud and push.  She is clean as a whistle.  Glad someone's in a good mood.

If you study this picture, you realize just how hopeless this situation is.  It could be days before they get out of this mess. 
Surely there is modern technology to fight this problem. This is ridiculous.
 

Do you know anything about this road or have a comment to share?   Send comments to Rick Archer, dance@ssqq.com


LETTER ONE

From: Paul D
Sent: Saturday, March 20, 2010 6:43 PM
To: dance@ssqq.com
Subject: RE: Russian Road

After seeing the page on the road to Yakutsk and your despair at the fact that the Russian government seems to do nothing about the road (or can do nothing), and that you stated there must be some modern technology to make this a passable road -- well, there is a way to make a very passable, all weather road -- and it is not modern technology, but a modern understanding of how roads must be built on permafrost.

I watched road construction in Alaska back in the 80's. The construction crews built a modern 4 lane divided highway over permafrost - and it functioned very well -- year-round. However, it does require a lot of digging out for the road (a very large trench, much wider than the actual road and quite deep) and backfilling with rock and gravel. This allows the heat from the road to dissipate so the permafrost does not melt and cause the road to break up.

It just costs money and time - neither of which the Russian government is willing to spend on a mere road.

Regards, Paul Davis

LETTER TWO

From: Karl Z
Sent: Monday, July 11, 2011 6:03 AM
To: marla@ssqq.com
Subject: your article about the Russian Highway from Hell

Dear sirs ,

I have read your article about the Russian Highway to Yakutsk . I just would like to comment the general tone of the article . I think it is a gross mistake to use such contemptuous sentences like 'this people are dirt poor' or can't these poor people do something about it ? . The general tone of the article is characteristic of an ugly and stupid feeling of superiority toward Russia . e.g. : these women should get married in Australia / in the U.S.A ... look at these poor bastards trying to get out from the mud , etc ...

You seem to ignore that

1) The Soviet empire collapsed in 1991 and as a result , all its economy was destroyed . almost all the infrastructures have not been renewed since the soviet union area . Russia and the former soviet republic is ruled by gangsters and mafias ( at least it is clear ) who do not care investing into public transportation . This is partially the result of an aggressive policy of the U.S.A aiming at promoting this gangs in the former soviet union space so that the 'threat' of communism would be definitively buried . The consequence is that the populations of Russia who were not fortunate enough to relocate into Europe or other 'developed' country after 1991 must - as it is said - suffer the effect of the total collapse of communism , state , economy , science that happened in 1991 . To mock them is really disgusting . Since they are not different as you .

2) The basis of the scientific and technological power of the USA comes almost exclusively from German , Jews and Russian scientists who had to escape Europe . I have never seen a U.S university able to provide 'pure american' scientists . Only they can buy them to foreign nations . When you mock these people , just think of the tremendous number of high-level mathematicians , physicists or technologists who are giving to your prestigious universities the label 'prestigious' .

3) The soviet union liberated the world from Nazi Germany . Just for your knowledge , the Nazi army was so powerful that it was almost the same equivalent power as the U.S army nowadays ( and this comes from the best army experts , U.S included ) . When the USA entered into Europe , the war was already lost for Hitler . Only the Russian communist power wiped out the invincible Nazi army . ( and this still remains partly a mystery ) . The Nazi army had wiped out in a few days the French army who was at that time the first army in the world while the US army was only at that time made with battalions of peasants . Ask yourself what your country would have do in front of the Nazi Army in 1941 ? You would have been reduced to slavery . The Russian did not .

4) What destroyed the Soviet Union was something which is very difficult to understand . I have been analyzing this and came to the conclusion that it is some kind of intrinsic process bound to the maximum level of information that can be contained in a Human society . If I am right , the USA should themselves collapse such as the European Union since this process must be universal . Look at Katrina ? Wasn't there a technological solution to this ?

It is just that I am living there.  I am not Russian but French .

I find rather disgusting to be so contemptuous. Look at these dirty roads and all these people who fight to get from one point to an other and you may look your future, when the economical crisis of 2008 will come back and will blast your country as a tsunami . Will you have enough courage to survive economical destruction, to learn other languages and other alphabet?

Never judge since you don't know.

I take these roads . Yes they should build new roads . That's easy to say .

LETTER THREE

From: Dan Popescu
Sent: Monday, July 25, 2011 12:40 PM
To: dance@ssqq.com
Subject: Yakutia Road

I read carefully your article. I observe the fotos one by one. Many are from the internet, but not in the Lena Highway. What I can tell you? Good news! I was in an solitary expedition riding my Aprilia Pegaso motorbike from Bucharest - Romania to Magadan - Russian Federation. 2100 km before Magadan is that Lena Highway. Why good news? Because last year (2010) exacly in july-august when I ride exactly this road the condition was normal: macadam type of road, 3 layers of rocks, stone and gravel, dirt on the surface for "glue" the gravel. With the motorbike the average speed was 70 km/h, the peak speed was 120. Sometime in the Lena Highway they work to the road, and the speed decrease down to walk speed for few kilometers. Was need few days to reach Yakutsk, and two days rain like hell. The problem is when is not raining the dust go anywhere, including in the..

So, believe me, these pictures are no more available. The situation is about normal now.

All the best,
Dan Popescu - Romanian biker

From: Rick Archer
Sent: Monday, July 25, 2011 9:26 PM
To: 'Dan Popescu'
Subject: RE: Yakutia Road

Thank you, Dan. Before I post your letter, may I ask you some questions?

Are you saying the pictures on my web site are NOT the Lena Highway?

Or are you saying the problem is solved? Please explain.
 

From: Dan Popescu
Sent: Monday, July 25, 2011 3:12 PM
To: 'Rick Archer'
Subject: RE: Yakutia Road

Hallo Rick
Some picture are from Lena (road to Yakutsk) "highway", but not all of them. Few are from another places, or from inside the cities; I saw these fotos in tens of internet sites. But still missing one with a modern Russian battle tank stocked in mud.

Regarding the status of the road, last year in july-august just ride all way and the situation is far away from what you present in the article: the road in with no asphalt or concrete (in fact is asphalt but just maybe 200 km in different legs, usual from cities to the nearby airport), but the rest is in good condition, including in raining weather. In some sectors I reach maybe 120-130 km/h speed with my Aprilia Pegaso with heavy load.

But is ok, taking in consideration that the pictures and article are talking about 2006, and now is 2011. By the way, last year they almost reach the Yakutsk city (of course, in right bank, the city is on the left one) by railway. Slowly, they come with the train. The Lena barrier between the road/train and Yakustk is an heavy problem, taking in consideration few month /year when the big river froze and defrost, that means no ferry navigation and no auto/truck crossing on ice. But they have hovercrafts and a lot of helicopters for some cases.

The situation is not like in the internet. This is a big problem with internet, people think they know the truth , never been there.

All the best
Dan Popescu
 

From: Leonid F
Sent: Tuesday, August 02, 2011 7:39 PM
To: dance@ssqq.com
Subject: Highway from Hell

Dear Rick,

I enjoyed your site. The pictures bring back old memories. I have never been to Yakutia, so I can not testify on whether the pictures were taken there or somewhere else. However, the first 34 years of my life I lived in the Soviet Union, and, though a city dweller, I spent some time in the countryside. After couple of rainy days, dirt roads would become dirty indeed, and pictures like the ones on your site could be taken 40 miles from Moscow, albeit at that time they would be black-and-white. I do not want going into political discussions, but that was before the collapse of the Communism. As for which particular road goes from/to Hell, it is always debatable.

With Best Regards, Lennie
. .
 


Next we will visit
El Camino de la Muerte, the story of a narrow road high up in the Andes Mountains that has claimed many lives. 
Click "
The Bolivian Road of Death"

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