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Kolyma: no barbed wire in sight

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16 July 2012


The stunning nature of Kolyma. Picture: Alexander Lesnyanskiy 

Going through 'a door to another planet' is how photographer Alexander Lesnyanskiy describes his rafting trip to Kolyma on the route of notorious Road of Bones. 

Its macabre reputation is well-known from the Stalin era, but, in contrast, he found here, in one of the remotest and untouched parts of the world, emerald waters and stunning beauty, as his pictures show. A seasoned traveller, he says: 'I have never seen such harmonious landscapes.'  

ROUTE OF TRIP: Magadan-Susuman-Omulyovka-Zyryanka-Seimchan-Magadan

Moscow and Red Square, Kolyma and barbed wire - how strong indeed are the stereotypes. This was my thought while preparing my camera and packing my rucksack before leaving my home in Chita (Eastern Siberia).

I had been invited to join a photo expedition rafting on one of Russia's most stunning rivers, the Omulyovka, flowing down the Great Cherskiy Mountains into the Kolyma River, in the far north-east of Russia. 

Kolyma' itself is a large territory spanning both Magadan region and neighbouring Yakutia. 

river Kolyma

River Kolyma, picture: Alexander Lesnyanskiy

We started our journey from Susuman, the second biggest settlement in the region, and the heart of the old gold-mining industry. The infamous Road of Bones leads here from the city of Magadan, built at the cost of dozens of thousands of lives. Along the river beds, and across the mountain passes, the road gets to Kolyma's gold deposits, with the haunting remains of the Gulag camps adding to region's stern landscapes. 

There are actually only a couple of labour camps left in Kolyma - less perhaps than anywhere else in Russia. But there is also a rather sad statistic of the number of people leaving this part of the world and moving elsewhere, reducing the figure of half a million inhabitants to some two hundred thousand people. Several of the richest gold mines, which were at the very beginning of their development, lie abandoned. 

Coming back to our journey: from Susuman we planned to take a 300 km off-road journey up north to the Omulyovka River. We spent several days, waiting for the off roader vehicle to come, and looking for the right man to show us the way. We knew for sure that the road exists: it goes around the most dangerous rift, and takes you to a hunting base called Margaritto, built ages ago by gold miners. 

The team. Picture: Alexander Lesnyanskiy

In the end we managed to get there, and the road after we left behind the gold mines was like a door to another planet: we were surrounded by pure streams and huge blue-watered lakes ringed by wild rocks, without a man in sight. 

We saw wild deer, and when we stopped by the left inflow of the River Omulyovka, the Momontai stream, there were 40 cm long grayling behind each of the million rocks in its waters. 


River Omulyovka, Kolyma

Wild nature of Kolyma, pictures: Alexander Lesnyanskiy

We lost part of our team on the way: one got ill; another, the professional photographer and traveller Sergei Karpukhin, decided to keep going on his own route. There were four of us left - Yaroslav and Roman from Novokuznetsk, Yevgeniy from Magadan, and myself, from Chita.  

At this point we still had some 450 km of our water journey left. I remember the moment when we entered the mountains. I have travelled a lot over the years, but I have never seen such harmonious landscapes as here. Stunningly beautiful. 

River Omulyovka, Kolyma

River Omulyovka, Kolyma, Alexander Lesnyanskiy

Kolyma, pictures: Alexander Lesnyanskiy

There were about 40 kilometres of the route with the Omulyovka squeezing itself through tight hugs of the ancient rocks, making for unforgettable memories of the emerald-coloured water, paving its way through this narrow corridor. 

We were fishing - wrong as it was to call it so, with one and two kilogram  graylings competing to be caught. We were boiling the catch, frying it, smoking it, and even eating it raw with salt and pepper. Quite often we were just letting the fish go - there was no way we could have eaten such vast quantities of it. 

fishing, Kolyma

Left to right, Alexander's friends Vyacheslav and Roman. Pictures: Alexander Lesnyanskiy

Omulyovka is not an easy destination to reach, and it remains one of the truly untouched places on earth. 

On our journey, we have seen quite a number of bears, first a mother with three cubs, and several hours later - another one, standing with its back to us and digging something in the bushes. 

'Lets get a bit closer, I'd like to take a good picture of it', I asked my team. 

'No-o-o, thank you' - they replied in one voice. 'Look how huge it is. What if its hungry.' 

I persuaded them in the end to get to the bank, but to be on standby to retreat. 

The bear didn't notice us at first, so we screamed and whistled. It turned around, and started to walk towards us, making for fantastic shots with the camera. The distance between us was getting shorter and shorter. Suddenly the bear jumped into the water, into a fast stream, and it rushed it towards us. 

'Aah!!' - my mates shouted, promptly jumping back to their seats on the raft, and trying to get back into the current.

I felt my hair rising - but I just could not stop taking pictures. Just that moment, finally, a sudden change of wind got our scent to the bear. It stopped, stood up, and quickly got out of the river. 

After that, we followed Omulyovka on its way to a little Cherbynyinskiy Mountains, and then out into the valley. The river got wider and calmer, with lots of little islands appearing on our way. The Omulyovka then joined the Yasachnaya River, and then flowed into a mighty Kolyma River. 

River Kolyma, Alexander Lesnyanskiy

River Kolyma, picture: Alexander Lesnyanskiy

There after our adventures, we got a little bored, as it was too quiet, and too slow to follow it, so we decided to stop and arrange  our way back to the city of Magadan. We spent three fantastic days in the Svetlaya Bay on the Sea of Okhotsk. 

And, as with a wave going through my mind, this last part of our journey completely washed out the remains of the stereotypes about this stunningly beautiful region. 

Sea of Okhotsk

Kolyma river
Sea of Okhotsk, above, and Kolyma river. Pictures: Alexander Lesnyanskiy

Alexander Lesnyanskiy

Alexander Lesnyanskiy, 54


'I moved to live in Chita, Trans Baikal region, in 1980, right after my graduation from Dnepropetrovsk Mining Institute in Ukraine. 

'My first profession is as a geologist; in 1990 I changed to become an entrepreneur, and gradually my love of photography transformed into a third job (or rather an extra one, as it hasn't become my main source of income).  

'I felt a lack of the romance of expeditions since leaving geology, and wanted to get it back by joining free-tourism trips.

'Some of them happened to be on an extremely complicated level; some less, but in the end I have never been seeking the extreme.

'The main reason for them has always been photography. After two of the most serious expeditions, I felt I wanted to find a way to sum them up, this is how my blog appeared'. 

Comments (36)

Beautiful country, great pictures, travelled along on your expedition description & wish I were there! What a fantastic journey to remember for a life time.
C Snow, United States
01/07/2021 21:24
It is not about antagonising Russian people because there are good people and bad people in all countries and cultures. It should not be about politics. Simple. Beautiful photos of an untouched land.
Kiro Kawabata, Italy
29/11/2020 19:24
Stunning photos
Such an amazing scenery
There is something to be said for having few people there!
Mike, Ste Anne Canada
21/08/2020 22:11
Beautiful Pictures of a great adventure. Thank you Alexander Lesnyanskiy. I do express my agreement with a post above that says Donald Trump is right. I 100% agree that we should get along with Russia and be truly friends. Russia has never really been our enemy and I hope never will. Beware the Democrat and GOD bless the Russian people.
Mark, Randle, USA
13/07/2020 02:42
Beautiful, love the men in the boat with the shoreline mountains behind capturing the sunset colours.
Carol Oliver, Golovin, AK
07/02/2020 01:34
What awesome photography! Thank you for sharing these beautiful images, though I would have not been as daring with the bear!
Stephen, Odessa, United States
01/02/2020 06:01
Wonderful photos and account of your travels. I visited the Kolyma region (as far as Chersky) in the summer of 1992 and found it to be a fantastic place.
Graeme Rendall, United Kingdom
29/12/2019 03:03
Beautiful countryside, untouched as it should so nature can show off it's best !
Peter, London. UK
15/06/2019 05:27
Everywhere I go, whether there are humans on not, the most spectacular parts of any journey are the geology, flora and fauna.
I often take trips alone and, due to the above, I am never lonely.
I enjoy the peacefulness of being on a lake after dark with the only sounds those of the wildlife.
I enjoy fishing during these times and always only take enough for a few dinners.
I am still RON, Wisconsin, USA
25/08/2018 21:14
A wonderful place, like a dream.

What are the flowers in the first photograph? They are fascinating, have never seen them before.
Anne, Kapunda Australia
29/12/2017 16:18
Oh my God! My soul is moved to the core by the magnificence of Kolyma! I weep at the beauty. May it forever be protected from human exploitation.
Paul Elwell-Sutton, Haast, New Zealand
23/10/2017 05:20
I have dreamed of visiting Siberia for many, many years. Now I know why. A year in Siberia.....
Paul Elwell-Sutton, Haast, New Zealand
22/10/2017 05:37
Truly a place of wondrous beauty!
Deb, Michigan, USA
02/06/2017 05:54
Such a beautiful region, thank you for the opportunity to see such wildness!
Moira Corby, Tasmania, Australia
29/03/2017 18:08
Siberian Times es una maravillosa página en la que se disfruta de temas de gran calidad, soy un enamorado de Siberia y de Rusia en general, ya estuve de viaje en el año 1988, en aquel tiempo Unión Soviética y fue una experiencia inolvidable, desde ese momento sueño con volver a Rusia y visitar alguno de los maravillosos lugares de Siberia, es bellísima, y gracias a ustedes puedo disfrutar de información y bellas fotografías.

¡Muchas gracias les felicito calurosamente desde Murcia!
Pedro Requiel Martínez, Alcantarilla, Murcia, España
28/03/2017 16:20

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