Driving to the edge of Russia: How far can you go?

This route-planning article looks at how to overland to the edge of Russia. It picks up where we left off with How to Get from Russia to Alaska Across the Bering Strait. There’s a lot of info in there that will be useful for anyone trying to overland to the edge of Russia.

Since I wrote the Russia to Alaska article four years ago, things have changed in Russia. In four years, they have invested in some construction. It looks like they are embarking on a road-building project which, while it doesn’t quite rival China’s construction speed, is still a lot faster than anything you would see in the West in recent years.

The geography is new and exciting!

When I wrote the original article about this side of the world, there was no complete information about any of it, only rumours. The only thing everyone agreed on was that the road ran out at Magadan, and after that, there were just isolated cities surrounded by untameable wilderness.

There were reports of people hiking the 800 miles from Magadan to the Bering Strait (it’s actually 1200 miles left to right, not including any up and down you might need to do, so there’s about 1500-ish miles between Magadan and the Bering Strait), and someone attempted to do it on a dirt bike but it got too damaged by fallen trees etc in the thick forests. No one seemed to have had much success, or where they had, they hadn’t talked about it or explained how to do it.

In 2016, Google Maps wouldn’t even accept one of the parts of the journey, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport, as a real place. That’s changed, now. I like to think it was down to the popularity of my original article but it’s more likely to be that Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky has been given some updates recently. There’s even some Street View of it on Google Maps. God knows how they got a Google Car Camera out there but if the person who drove it wants to guest post about the experience, please email me!

And most importantly, there are now approximately 500km more roads on that side of Russia. Progress is slowly making its way over there. Where before the road ended at Magadan, you can now travel as far as Omsukchan using Google Maps! See the route, below (this is a static image, not an embed):

The astute reader will notice you are still over 500km away from the Bering Sea.

Personally, I don’t think you’ve crossed Russia to its edge until you’ve reached the Bering Sea.

The good thing about this journey, and the difference between this and my other article on driving across Russia, is that you don’t actually need to get to the Bering Strait itself to have crossed Russia. There are many endpoints to this journey. Unfortunately, all of them are currently impossible.

So Google Maps only knows about roads as far as Omsukchan, but I have a hunch the roads now go further than Google knows. I think this because I used to live in China and I know Google’s mapping isn’t always updated even after they take new satellite images. So, how much further can you travel?

The Google Satellite images are from 2020, from NASA. I studied aerial photography and how to read aerial photographs as part of my master’s degree in Archaeological Information Systems. So I decided to read the images and attempt to learn how far I could really go, drawing a map over the raw satellite image.

The answer was not good, I am sorry to say. The road really does seem to run out at Omsukchan. However, there may still be a way to get across. Next, I looked at the deep river lines. I was primarily interested in whether it would be possible to take a kayak, perhaps with some portage (carrying it overland). I have kayaked before and feel confident with it if the conditions are safe.

The closest big river to Omsukchan is the Kolyma River, which transects Russia north to south. One of its tributaries is the Reka Sugoy. What I first needed to establish was which direction the river flowed in. For this, I followed the river from Omsukchan in both directions to find out how it changed.

Usually, an easier way to find out the direction of a river on a map is to look at the elevation. They always flow high to low. Unfortunately, Google and NASA’s satellite images hadn’t got any elevation info. I didn’t have that information, but I could see where other rivers joined it, and it became clear the Kolyma River (and by default the Reka Sugoy) were flowing East to North West.

So to use them to travel from Omsukchan, one would be paddling against the stream the entire time. Not ideal. But if the river was wide enough, a small motorboat could do it.

Unfortunately, however, the elevation will be the downfall of this idea, because the Reka Sugoy moves into the mountains as it goes east. So it will become considerably narrower at some point, while depositing me in a high-altitude mountainous region about 20km east and 50km south of Omsukchan.

Back to the drawing board.

So the only way I can think of to get to the Bering Sea, without taking a commercial flight, would be to take a microlight, which is a type of engine-powered small aircraft. You need a microlight pilot’s licence to fly one, but you can get a type called a “powered parachute” whose top speed is 45mph which folds quite small, and could fit in the back of a van or on a trailer.

However, you would have to get a microlight licence valid in Russia to fly across the country, and they are not easy to come by.

At this point, it becomes clear that it’s actually easier to fly to Alaska than to overland to the end of Russia!

But why are there no roads? Basically, several reasons. The official reason is, there are indigenous tribes and the area in the far East of Russia is a nature reserve whose beauty needs to be preserved.

This is, of course, true.

What is also true is, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is across a 5km bay from Rybachiy, where Russia keeps a lot of its nuclear submarines. This area is still used by the Russian Navy, and presumably, the towns on the peninsula all get their supplies delivered by boat.

There are many, many towns in the East of Russia just like Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. No roads, cut off from civilisation. Largely, without a map or a road, this journey currently ends at Omsukchan.

However, Omsukchan is an interesting end-point in and of itself. It is 10 miles north of a real ghost town – Galimy – which had a population of 5 at its last census in 2010 (down from 188 in 2002). However… you guessed it. There are no roads to Galimy from Omsukchan.

However, 10 miles shouldn’t be a difficult hike for most intrepid explorers. Except for the mapping issue that there are no maps. According to Google’s satellite images, there is a path/trail between the two towns. However, if you got lost, you would have to either cross some mountains or follow the river bed/stream from Omsukchan to Galimy.

One issue for travellers wishing to cross Russia is the length of time it takes to get there overland compared to the length of time you are allowed to be in the country with a Visa. From my country, I believe 28 days is the longest I could be in Russia. According to Google Maps, it would take 139 hours to drive from Moscow to Omsukchan via the most direct route. If you want to do some actual sight seeing, and plan in stops at cities such as Novosibirsk and Vladivostok (highly recommended) it will take even longer.

When I drove from York to Rome (a tiny journey by comparison) I planned about 8 hours of driving per day. With traffic jams, time to eat etc, that usually meant about 12-14 hours. Magnifying that over a 10,000-mile journey, at 8 driving hours per day, you are looking at 18 days to make the journey without any days off. Travelling via Novosibirsk and Vladivostok adds time, making it a 185-hour journey, or 23 days. That’s assuming nothing goes wrong with your vehicle and that you don’t have to take any weird detours.

This sounds like it would work on a 28 day Visa, but it wouldn’t, because you still have to get back. Unless you are planning on dumping your car and all your stuff in Russia and flying back, á la the Mongol Rally, which is fairly irresponsible because they don’t want your trash.

So you would need to either take a shorter route or find a shipping company to take your car out of Russia for onward travel, and as I’ve pointed out before, this gets expensive quite quickly. You can ship a vehicle to most places from Vladivostok, if you have the money, but for a car you would generally have to pay for a shipping container.

Overall, with the length of time it would take to get from Omsukchan further east to the Bering Sea, I think you would be better to wait a couple more years as I am sure more road-building work will be done soon.

The example of Galimy (which had a population of over 1000 in 1989) shows that Russia’s central administration knows they need to give the people in East Russia access to the rest of the world, and that means building roads.

In another four years, there might be a road all the way to Manily, and four years after that? Surely there will be a road that finally reaches the Bering Sea and bringing much-needed transport to this side of the world.

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