A year on from the scariest assignment of my life I still have nightmares about ice shattering under truck wheels.
For ten days and nights, I rode with Ruslan and his young helper as they rumbled along this river to deliver 12 tons of food to the town of Belaya Gora in Siberia’s Arctic north.
This is Ruslan
And this is (the ass of) his truck
For ten days and nights I rode with Ruslan and his young helper as they rumbled along this river to deliver 12 tons of food to the town of Belaya Gora in Siberia’s Arctic north
Half the journey from Yakutsk, the region’s big city, to Belaya Gora is along the Kolyma Highway, built by Stalin’s gulag slaves. The second half is along the frozen Indigirka River
Things started out fine. With solid (if slightly slippery) earth beneath our wheels as we rolled through the mountains of the Kolyma highway
With three of us in the cab the nights were cramped and sweaty. Siberians love heating the way Emiratis love AC (too much is never enough)
Meals were cooked on a little gas stove inside the cab
The landscape had none of the bleakness you expect of Siberia: Clean white hills rippling away in all directions. We made good progress in the clear weather
Until this. Ruslan’s friend Andrei, who’d been sitting in the cab of our truck just a few minutes before this, had sped off, taken a corner too tight and flipped
His van was totaled and Ruslan offered him a lift up to Belaya Gora.
Crazy Andrei with his semi-automatic shotgun at a truck stop. His hand banged up from the crash
I asked him what he’d thought when he’d been flying through the air upside down: Said he thought: “f**k, why didn’t I put on my seatbelt?”
In a cab designed for two people, we were now four. Trying to get to sleep in here was a miserable game of human tetris. This is the scene after the first night with four in the cab
Then, at the halfway point we rolled onto the ice and things got heavy
We were sailing along in hazy light, then Ruslan suddenly crunched down through the gears and stopped short of this truck-shaped hole in the ice
He said “that’s fresh”, then punched the truck into reverse and we hunted out another route upriver.
The spring melt was well underway
I don’t know what happened to whoever had gone through that hole, but local guide Bolot Bochkarev told me around 5 people die each winter in the region after breaking through the ice.
Through the ice you could see the current moving beneath
With time on my hands as we prowled along the river I started thinking what it might be like to be under there, fighting against the current to get back to the hole you’d just crashed through.
Ruslan showing a picture of a friend’s truck on a previous run
He told me “If you go through nose first, you’re screwed.” I promised myself if the truck went down on my side I was gonna jump. Underwater in a crowded cab it would be near impossible to get out from under three struggling men.
We hugged the riverbank where we could, but had to traverse the river at some points. This was the last crossing we made before things went wrong for us
When the ice started shattering under the wheels on my side. I pushed open the door, jumped out, and, as the truck toppled above me, scrabbled across the ice to get clear
Somehow, the truck caught and held there, and they managed to back out, ready to try again
I flat-out refused to get back inside the cab while they crossed. I ended up (as embarrassing as this is to admit) clinging like a limpet to one of the spare tyres on the back.
And then it got worse. In the darkness we kept pushing on and on, crossing and re-crossing the river, with everyone yelling directions at each other
When we finally stopped, Andrei tried to cheer my up by showing me a video of two gay guys being caught in the act, then beaten up. I so desperately didn’t want to be there, and we weren’t even halfway along the ice road. I sat awake with dread in my heart as the others slept wedged into various shapes next to me.
And then, this. At 3 in the morning, while the others slept next to me, the horizon started twinkling green. It was the first time I’d ever seen the aurora borealis
It’s a little hard to write this with clarity but at the that moment I felt like somehow, everything would be ok
It wasn’t that I thought I would be safe (I still felt there was a real chance of dying on the road ahead) but that *whatever happened* everything would be ok… This is better told over a late-night beer, but it was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience.
Then the next day dawned bright and clear, and the road was rock solid
At the end of that day, we visited the tiny church at Zashiversk
I’m not saying I went all Christian or anything, but I stayed after the others had left, basking in the peace inside that little space.
As we neared Belaya Gora the whole crew were in good spirits – humming along on under the empty Siberian sky
Finally, after five straight days without a shower or a change of clothes, we arrive at Belaya Gora, where Ruslan has a small apartment
He came out of this bath announcing he felt like “A newborn baby”.
Groceries were delivered to Belaya Gora, then the guys carried on further up the river
I stayed behind b̶e̶c̶a̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶I̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶s̶c̶a̶r̶e̶d̶ so I could photograph life in the town.
This little lass (possibly) got her groceries from the fresh batch of deliveries from Ruslan
Cute, but as hours turned to days without any sign of Ruslan, my mind turned to the rapidly melting ice road we still had to return to Yakutsk on.
Ruslan’s apartment block on yet another night with no sign of him. (Cellphones have no coverage outside the towns in this region)
Finally, after I’d started to get worried for the guys, Ruslan showed up and we were on the road again
Ruslan leaving an offering to the Shaman spirits at before we hit the dangerous parts of the river
Towing another truck we were occasionally slithering on the ice
And the road was melting away fast. (This was the view from the roof of our truck as we let another past)
Again Ruslan wanted to push through the night. I bailed – pulling on my coat and standing on the back of the second truck, ready to jump out if we went through the ice
We were literally feeling our way through the dark. The other trucker used a pole to test the strength of the ice and waded through the surface sludge before waving Ruslan forward
Drinking water came straight from the river
Crunching through, getting ever closer to the safety of solid ground
Safety being a relative thing on the Kolyma highway…
The truck on left had plunged of the cliff right next to where pic #4 of this gallery was taken, killing its driver on impact.
But, on March 8, 2016, the terror of the ice road was behind us and we were rolling on solid ground
The sun came up, the music was cranked loud and I was on my way home. But Ruslan wasn’t quite done for the season. He was going to spend a couple of days in Yakutsk, then charge back up to Belaya Gora, where he would spend the summer. He asked if I wanted to join but I had to bow out. I was happy to be back on solid ground again.
All photos copyright: Amos Chapple/RFE/RL