Gulags & Abandoned Cities & Diving
On to Dneprovsky Gulag
July 9, 2012
This morning we have been told we need an early start but that’s still around 8 or 9. Early around here has a whole different meaning when you have so many hours of daylight. Same procedure for breakfast but I hit the right combination this morning. I have the “milk porridge” which to me is oatmeal and add some of the fruit on it or bring my own banana and it’s delicious. I think they put a bunch of butter in it so probably not ideally very healthy but yum.
We are going camping tonight. It takes a while to get to Dneprovsky Gulag and the last hour or so is on rough roads back beyond everything so makes no sense to try and get there and leave again in one day. The camping bit has me worried as the hips do NOT like hard surfaces but we brought an extra blow up mattress to share beneath our hips and hopefully that will do the trick. Turns out I did not need it but that’s for later.
Our vehicle of choice will be the workhorse of the Russian Far East, the Kamaz truck! These are wonderful vehicles. It’s a huge big truck front with a bed and on the bed, they can interchange out different bodies for different uses: a passenger/bus arrangement, hauling freight arrangements, equipment usages of all sorts. It’s just a wonderful all purpose vehicle that gets through some of the worse terrain the roads have to offer and can drive through some non-road type places as well.
So we load in our bags, no suitcases thank you, and everyone takes a seat in our truck for our adventure. There will be several stops at different places of interest plus some breaks for facilities (can’t wait to see what kind of facilities), and more. Just a good all-around adventure waiting for us today. Huzzah!
Riding in the truck wasn’t that uncomfortable. We have a support team with us of Olga and Vika, the travel agency owners, and a bunch of men who will put together the camp for us and take it down. This is luxury camping! Having someone do it all for you and all you have to do is show up. Always nice. Then there is our Bear Guy. Somehow I missed this information in the preparation literature, that we would have protection against bears on our camping trip in the form of our mighty Bear Guy. He was amazing. Not a big man but he sure looked big in his camouflage and with his rifle slung across his shoulders and his huge machete knife on his belt. Now I feel like we are really roughing it and adventuring it, in spite of having the all-male crew to set up and take down our tents and build our fires and such. Olga and Vika are going to be the cooks and everyone is keeping in contact with radios but I am getting ahead of myself to the camp. We have a long way before we get there.
We are going to be riding down the Kolyma highway or the Highway of Bones. It goes to Yakutsk some 1900 kilometers away but the major part of the road in this area was built by prisoners and those who died while doing it had their bones laid in the road as part of the construction material – so goes one report, hence the name. I’m sure back then, it was a small one track road suitable for carts and horses. Now it is wide enough for large trucks to pass each other but the condition is still questionable in spots and our journey has been known to take quite a while as tires pick up all kinds of spikey things to go flat. For now, we are enjoying the scenery.
The scenery. There are a lot of dead trees. Sometimes it looks as if they have been in a fire and sometimes it looks as if they have just died. Didn’t ever get a satisfactory answer on what happened to all the trees. Otherwise the countryside is green and lush further away from the road but next to the road, all dusty. We pass the occasional town or village, most of which look rather deserted. We are in a part of abandoned Russia now as well. Some of these towns were going concerns when the Soviets were in charge but once communism fell, the towns and industry fell along with it. With no money and no way to ship products in and out, some of the towns were just abandoned and everything almost left behind. We are going to explore several of these places and see what we can find.
Our first stop to stretch our legs and a cigarette stop for some is by the highway sign that gives the mileage to Yakutsk. Going back towards Magadan, it’s 66 miles. On towards Yakutsk is 1929 miles. A long way away and apparently the entire road made by prisoner crews. We are in tundra and permafrost land too. We pass some spots where there is still snow and are told it doesn’t melt totally, ever. And it gets very hot during the summer, which is now. We kept trying to see what the temperature would be while here and it’s very difficult to find these places on line. The temperature could go up to 30-35C during the day in the sun and down to -40 in the winter. And I would imagine that the prisoners didn’t get to curl up in a nice warm shed when it was snowing outside so the highway is aptly named, I think. Oddly enough, Julia and Olga and Vika all said they had never heard it called the Highway of Bones within their country but it is an outside name given to the Kolyma highway. Not surprising. No one wants to point a finger at themselves and say, Shame on me.
After our highway sign stop, we pull into a small village for shopping. There are signs of life here! Actually, quite a lot of life and I’m not sure what they do but it was a thriving village with several stores where we bought snacks and drinks. Unfortunately, no public toilets. There were plenty of bushes but Olga assured me we would hit a real toilet stop before too much longer.
As we are leaving the stores, my hubby runs inside to drag me out of a store and look at a car parked outside. It has two large cats in the back seat just sitting and looking out of the window. Their “dad” is sitting behind the wheel and waiting for his wife to return from shopping. I start tapping on the window and the cats pay a bit of attention to me. These cats are about the size of our Puff who is a monster tabby of 22 pounds. The wife comes out of the store and sees me making goo goo eyes to her cats and goes all melt-y and friendly to me. How to make friends with locals: love their animals and they will love you! She snaps at her husband to lower the window and entice one of the cats up on the back of the seat so I can pet it. I am so happy to have a fuzzy to pet. I miss my cats when I am traveling. They are quite happy that I am enchanted with their cats but too soon I have to leave and say Spiceba (thank you) and must head back to our truck.
We pass some more towns that look abandoned. Lovely countryside and abandoned towns. We pull up next to a big yellow hammer and sickle. All out and over to take photos. This is also next to a rather large ice field which doesn’t look that big until some of the Aussies and Brits run down to the edge and they are like tiny mice standing below us. Everyone runs around taking photos of this wonderful sign of the past Soviet era and of the ice field and I also include shots of tiny little tundra flowers nested in the grass and beside the road. This was a short break and while I wanted to go down to the ice, it didn’t look easy to get there so I had to give it a pass.
We didn’t have far to go before we reached our official toilet stop. This is an actual café on the corner of the town of Atka. There is an outhouse there so I head for it. While in there, most of the group has scattered and dispensed into the town. Half of it is abandoned and Simon knows of some places that have some good things to see and pick up for souvenirs. I’m muttering and fuming because my hubby and I got left behind. I’m sure everyone will find something wonderful before I stump my way over to the town. What’s amazing is how fast everyone disappears. One minute they are halfway down the road in front of us and the next, they have turned the corner and no sign of them anywhere.
We go into a few buildings and I find a nice unbroken bottle. This is in a room that one of the Aussies told us about that had a pile of broken gas masks covering the floor. I was a bit leery of picking up a bottle from the floor with all the gas masks there but I figure it’s been a long time and it was a very nice bottle. I wrapped it carefully to store in my bag. Outside near one of the trucks was a lovely old enamel spaghetti pot and strainer. It probably wasn’t that old but it looked old so I grabbed it too. Oh boy, spoils!
Time to get back to the truck and some of the men come back with different things they have found including some electronics that they plan to take apart or just use the bag or box that was housing it. Nice stuff for garden souvenirs and such. Simon is waxing poetic about a new room he found that had lots of interesting stuff in it. He says we will pass by this way again and he will lead us to this place where he hung a gas mask on the door so he would remember where it was. Gas masks again! Wonder why so many and why? Think it was for the mining because gold mining uses some cyanide to help bring up the gold. Great. I’d want a gas mask too.
Back to the truck and now on to Dneprovsky Gulag.
I got this bit from: http://www.historvius.com/the-dneprovsky-mine-648/
“””” The Dneprovsky Mine was a Soviet prison camp in eastern Russia and is now one of the best preserved of its kind.
Operating between 1941 and 1955, the Dneprovsky Mine was a tin mining site used by Joseph Stalin as one of his infamous gulags.
The gulags were prison camps which housed those who were considered to be ‘enemies of the people’, subjecting them to forced labor. There are thought to have been hundreds of gulags throughout soviet Russia, although few can be found today.
Much of the infrastructure at the Dneprovsky Mine at the time it was used as a gulag is still there today, including watchtowers, huts and barbed wire fences.””” And we are off!
And this information from DVS tour agency which is Olga’s and Vika’s agency: http://www.dvs-tour.ru/index.php?newsid=11
“””Dneprovsky mine is situated 320 km far from Magadan. It started in summer 1941 and functioned with short interruptions till 1955. Tin was mined there. The basic manpower was prisoners, convicted according to different Criminal Code titles of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and other republics of the USSR.
Along with them there were illegally repressed people according to political titles who have already been vindicated or still being vindicated. They are the victims of mass repressions, Stalin totalitarian regime and bloody Gulag.
During the Dneprovsky operation the main tools were a pick axe, a shovel, a steel bar and a wheelbarrow. However the most part of hard production process was mechanized including American equipment “Denver” which was brought in from the USA during the Great World War II according to the Lend-lease program.
Later the equipment was disassembled and sent to other industrial camps, that is why you will not see it in Dneprovsky site now. When the mine worked it was divided into fishing and camp zones where the prisoners worked and lived.
They were located above the settlement of civilian employees and technologists.
The fragments of industrial and residential constructions remained up to the present moment, i.e. houses similar to the Russian hut in the settlement, a fragment of a crusher with dead ore piles, watchtowers, barbed wire and lanterns in the industrial and camp zones. On the top of the industrial zone (100 m altitude) there are some ditches for ore mining thus describing the hard labor of the prisoners.
Here you can also see watchtowers proving the presence of existed custodial guard all around Dneprovsky mine surrounded by barbed wire. Thus Dneprovsky mine is one of the most preserved industrial sites of Kolyma camps and Kolyma Gulag. It is the historical monument of Stalin despotism.””””
Driving into the camp is rough going and shows us the reason for the Kamaz truck. We are bouncing up and down shale and rocks and mine tailings. Now it is not so comfortable. The truck takes us right up to one of the remaining sluice waterways which is now falling down and ramshackle but still well visible as to what it was and its purpose. And now we come to the Bear Guy!
As we get out of the truck to start our walk through the gulag, we are given a couple of very important items. First is a gift from Simon of a bee keeper’s hat or in our case, a mosquito abatement hat. We are now covered from head to toe with clothing or netting so that we can avoid getting eaten alive by these mosquitoes living in the Far East and just waiting for our tender flesh. Not sure how they survive without too many humans around but there are tons of them. The next item we receive is a bit more of a surprise. We are each given a road flare to use against bears! We have been hearing from Julia that the bears are really hungry this year because the fish have not been able to come upstream because winter went on a bit too long. Hungry bears means dangerous bears. We are given a quite demonstration on how to use the flares and told that we should not use them until the bear is about 5-6 feet away from us. OMG!!! I might be standing 5-6 feet in front of a bear which I will assume is not just sauntering towards me but might be charging towards me and I am supposed to calmly pull out my flare and light it when I have estimated the bear is about 6 feet away! Oh yes, like that’s going to happen as planned and stated. BUT we have our Bear Guy. He is going to wander the hills, keeping us poor tasty tourists in sight and communicate with the camp and with Julia and with our naturalist guide and should any bear deem it wise to head for us, our Bear Guy will shoo him away either with his own flare, knife or gun. I’m opting for gun if the bear has decided I look the tastiest and obviously the slowest so can be cut from the herd the easiest. So far though, no bears sighted.
Flares passed out so each of us has one somewhere accessible, Bear Guy takes off and hikes rapidly up the pile of shale and rubble and broken rocks and stones and in a very short time, he seems to be standing on top of this small mountain and is surveying his realm. The rest of the group starts up the slope. Here’s the measure of a true tour leader! I started getting encouragement from Simon, Naturalist guy, and Julia that it wasn’t bad, if I could just make it up this steep hill to the first watch tower, everything else was easy peasy. Wow, easier said than done. We are climbing up rock chunks that tend to slip and slide under your feet. Luckily I brought real hiking boots and am wearing them and relying on my walking stick as well. Not sure I could have made it in tennis shoes without breaking something important.
I have my camera with me so I do the “tourist with a camera bit” meaning whenever I am tired, I stop to take a photo of something. Doesn’t really matter what, just the opportunity to stop and rest and fiddle with the camera. Man, I was taking a LOT of photos! Luckily, my intrepid and “OK, honey, it sounds like fun” husband was right there with me to make sure I didn’t fall down the slope or get eaten by a bear. In the meantime, everyone has made it to the first watchtower and they are moving on and guess what – it’s uphill again! Simon comes back to tell me how good I am doing. He was great in the encouragement department too but then I had warned him before we came that I’m not so good in doing the hills and stairs and such anymore.
Made the first watchtower! And we’re not last in line. Our lively team member from Germany who has more camera lenses than me (camera lens envy here) is behind and taking more photos than me. However, he was taking them because he’s a good photographer, NOT because he needed to stop and rest.
Dneprovsky Mine/Gulag is spread out before us. It is huge and again, distances are deceiving because the whole valley is so immense. We see our truck and support team way far away at the bottom of the hills setting up our camp. Further up is a line of poles and more watch towers. There are building ruins and remains in various places, some of which are obviously more sluices and some of which might have been offices or barracks. It is not hard to visualize men climbing up and down these slopes, fighting to stay alive another day, as they dig tin out of the mine. It is sobering and yet exhilarating to be in such an incredible spot with its history and its notoriety and its difficulty.
Simon tells us to follow the line of poles towards the next watchtower and he takes off to catch up with some of the other group members. Our naturalist and historian is a bit ahead of us with Julia who is busy communicating with the other support team members. We are all covered with mosquitoes on our hats and nets. Hubby and I take a moment to re-apply some insect repellent to our hands and anything that might be exposed. We continue trekking upward and sometimes we can only hear the other tour members, can’t see them. If we look up to the very tops of the hills, we can see Bear Guy, Vladimir, but everyone calls him Volodya. He works for the tour agency that has arranged our trip and he is the all-purpose do anything man. He is just impressive as hell as he stands on the summit of one hill or another with his binoculars and his radio and his gun and knife.
If we are not walking on broken rocks and tailings and such, we are walking on tundra and something very spongy and springy and sink-y. First time I stuck my walking stick on this off-white moss-like substance, it sunk about ½ foot. This is reindeer grass. Oh, would love to see some reindeer around but they’ve gone north for the summer. I’m worried that we might be irrevocably damaging the tundra and grasses but am assured that we are not and we actually help it by walking on it which helps it spread. Good to know.
Our German photographer buddy (he lives in Shanghai) catches up to us and as he is pointing the camera at the camp far below, along a small watercourse, he says “there’s a bear!” He tells me ½ dozen times where to look but I can’t see it. Hubby takes out the binoculars but he can’t find it either. Our naturalist heard him and came back to see but the bear has gone underbrush. The word is relayed via the radios to Julia and to the camp and to Volodya (Bear Guy). We are now on high alert as a bear has actually been seen. Volodya starts moving downhill so he can keep his chicks in a tighter circle. I do not take my trusty yet untried flare out of my pocket but I do check to make sure it is free for a fast draw in case the bear got within 5-6 ‘ and I was still standing and hadn’t passed out from fright.
By now we have been walking about 1 ½ hours, almost all of it uphill on slippery slopes. I now have an entourage. One is the naturalist – great guy, who helped me across many a small bump in the hillside. He’s also telling us things as we go along. The rest of the group was missing out on this information or perhaps he’d already told them before he came back to walk with me. I am exhausted but I want to see it all and the group is still going on so I continue too. Simon comes back to walk with us awhile also and encourages me all the way. He makes a very good cheerleader. Julia is with me by now as well and while she is encouraging me, she is also a bit worried because of the bear and some of the group has taken the higher route to get to the next watchtower and also another sluice and a mine opening. She’s afraid that Volodya might not be able to keep track of all of us. He seems to be doing a fine job though and we haven’t heard a gun report so the bear has probably hightailed it for quieter woods.
After 2 hours, I am really tired and want to go to the camp. Simon says it isn’t far if I can make it to a ruined building. However to get there, it involves crossing a tricky bit on rails that are hung over a ruined sluice. My entourage crosses ahead of me and then I step up and creep across like the decrepit old lady I seem to be today. However, I am doing it, I am there, and I am managing! We’re all looking for a way down to the camp. The rest of the group has assembled at the ruined buildings and Volodya is waiting for the last few members to appear. The group starts down what looks like a slam dunk to get to the small creek and then the camp. We can see a bridge across the creek. By now everyone is ready to get to camp and put their beer in the refrigerator (the creek) and have a sit down and relax. It’s been hard climbing and slogging over these rocks and hills but it’s been worth it to explore this former gulag.
As Julia and our naturalist and my husband and I start down the hill, Simon calls back that there is a drop off and we need to find another way down. Groan. It had looked so easy. So we are up over some more rocky bits and in among the tall grasses again and working our way slowly downhill. I am probably going to be sore for days.
Finally we get to the creek. I look behind to see where we have walked and it is just unbelievably difficult looking and I can hardly believe that I made it. And where we started is a long way away and around a bend so we can hardly even see it. Wow. I’m ready for Mt. Killi! BUT of course, the difficulty wasn’t quite over yet. We arrive at the bridge which was a generous term for this rickety listing of boards across the creek. Some boards were missing and a few looked like they were about to fall into the creek but I made it across. Julia is ahead of me and when I look up, she is climbing this even more decrepit ladder to get to the top of the bank to get to the camp. Oh my gosh! This is an almost straight up the hillside ladder AND it is missing several rungs. My legs and back and knees are so tired and in pain that there is absolutely no way I am going to be able to lift up a knee to get that high of a step to move up the ladder. So I did the only thing I could, I crawled up the ladder. And if there is ever a photo that shows up of me doing that, I will sueJ
We have made it to camp. Amazing. The whole journey was amazing. I sit which is probably a mistake because things will start to stiffen but if I don’t sit, I will probably fall over. Olga and Vika are busy cooking and getting things set up inside a dining tent. My hubby starts to take his beer to the refrigerator but Simon graciously takes it for him. I’ll just drink my stuff warm. No way am I going back to the creek.
Dinner was a good meal of fish soup with lots of good Russian bread and caviar if you wanted it and vegetables. It was extra tasty out in the open after a hard climb around a gulag.
I think I was ready to go to bed by about 8 p.m. That’s about when we had dinner. Of course, it was still very light outside. It was starting to get a bit chillier though and we actually had to put on our light coats. When I overexert my legs, they have a tendency to cramp up horribly and it’s not a pretty sight to see or hear so I warned Simon that I was probably going to have to sleep sitting up in the truck. That meant my hubby could have the extra mattress we brought plus my mattress and maybe he would be able to sleep well inside the tent. So sometime later, I climbed into the truck, took off my shoes, and wiggled into the sleeping bag, stood up in the bag to get it up to my chin and sat down on the seat and was probably asleep in about 10 minutes. It was actually a pretty comfortable night.