Russian Off-Roaders Crossed 2,000 Miles of Siberia to Reach One Of The Most Isolated Cities On Earth
Oh, you hit the fire road again with your lifted Wrangler? Cute.
Petropavlovsk is a city of nearly 200,000 people on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a wild land dangling off the far eastern edge of Russia. Situated on the Pacific Ocean, it's the site of one of Russia's largest nuclear submarine bases, and it was the home port of the Soviet Union's most important fishery in the 20th century. The peninsula itself is dotted by over 100 active volcanoes, and most of the parts that aren't active volcanoes are swamps. Because of this, and the severe winters, there are no roads or rail lines to the Kamchatka Peninsula—and therefore Petropavlovsk—from anywhere. It is one of the most isolated areas on Earth.
To reach it by land, you're looking at a journey of over 2,000 miles through the Siberian wilderness, which is about as crazy as it sounds. The summer is mud season, where what few overland trails exist melt into endless, bottomless, truck-swallowing slop. Also, there are bears. Lots of bears. A winter trek is just a bit more manageable because at least the ground is frozen solid. Then again, that's because it's 40 below zero.
Needless to say, it's not a trip for your average weekend adventurer, or even an above-average one. The last expedition overland to Petropavlovsk happened back in 2016—but when I got wind of it earlier this month after doing a little research about the region, I had to share the incredible story.
No Roads, No Problem?
First off, you need a few details concerning the starting point, Magadan. Originally founded in 1930 as a transportation hub for the forced labor camps—the Gulags—in the area, the port city is located about 250 miles west of the peninsula, sitting across the Sea of Okhotsk. It has a population of just about 100,000 people and the distinction of having at least one road connecting it to other parts of Russia, even if it just runs to the Siberian city of Yakutsk, often referred to as the coldest city on the planet.
All this to say is even the most realistic starting point for a Kamchatka expedition is way the hell out there. The closest major settlement to Magadan that you’ve maybe heard of is...well...there really are none. It’s closer to Montana than it is to Moscow. And it just so happens to be the home of three hardy off-roaders named Anatoly Subotin, Nikolay Dekhonov, and Sergey Yakovlev.
Supported by the Russian Geographical Society, the team of enthusiast explorers departed from the coastal city on January 16, 2016 with their sights set on Petropavlovsk. It wasn't just as simple as setting off, however. The year before, the team spent a significant amount of time traveling east by boat to coastal settlements dotted along the Sea of Okhotsk, dropping off fuel and supplies to support their upcoming journey. Curving around that sea is what turns a 250-mile boat ride into a 2,000-mile overland trek.
The Magadan trio was also joined by two other off-road nuts from the city of Vladivostok, Sergey Milakhmetov and Vladimir Streltsov, who turned out to be a vital addition to the party. And before we get any further, let me make something clear; when I say these guys are off-road enthusiasts, that’s all I mean. They aren’t flying all over the world to drive in the Baja 1000 or the Dakar Rally, and they’re putting in a similar effort here for fun.
Six Wheels Are Better Than Four
You can't attempt to cross Siberia in just any lifted Jeep Wrangler. Typically, tracked ex-military machines are used to cross large distances between the isolated villages and encampments that exist out there. Indeed, the group had completed the journey previously in 2011 when accompanied by such a vehicle. This time, however, they wouldn't be getting any such help. For that reason, the two trucks, A Toyota Land Cruiser Prado—similar to the 4Runner—and a Suzuki Escudo (Grand Vitara) were very heavily modified.
Both trucks received massive low-pressure tires—made by the company Avtoros—fitted to new axles. The axles on the Land Cruiser were taken from a Volvo Laplander military vehicle, while those beneath the incredible six-wheeled 1992 Escudo were salvaged from a J80 Toyota Land Cruiser. The front and middle axles on the Escudo had limited-slip center sections, while the rear differential was a manual locker. Each axle is triangulated by three trailing arms, two above and one below.
The stock engine in the Escudo was replaced with a 3.2-liter turbo-diesel QD32 from a Nissan Elgrand—a minivan. The transmission is also not stock, a Toyota 340-series 4-speed automatic works in concert with a GAZ66 transfer case to get power to all three axles. And to ensure this mishmash of parts can keep going for as long as possible, the truck has two heated fuel tanks with a combined capacity of about 92 U.S. gallons.
As far as the massive cab on the back of the Suzuki goes, it’s a well-appointed living area, with space to sleep four people. It has a TV, a powerful sound system, and just in case it got a bit too cold, a wood-burning stove. Subotin also told me that a 2,000-watt diesel-powered hair dryer was onboard. I'm not sure if something got lost in translation there, but it's... interesting nonetheless. All of this work on the Suzuki took two years to complete.
The Land Cruiser Prado received a series of very similar modifications. The stock engine remained, however, the EGR system was removed and a new intake and exhaust were installed. The transmission was also swapped for an automatic unit from a Land Cruiser Prado 90, with several of the U-joints in the driveline being replaced for sturdier units from a Mazda Titan commercial vehicle. The Prado could also quickly deflate and re-inflate its tires thanks to a repurposed A/C compressor—won't be needing air conditioning in Siberia—and the interior was similarly appointed to the Suzuki's, with the rear seats removed to accommodate sleeping quarters, a small kitchen, and other facilities. It was also equipped with an enlarged, heated fuel tank of about 79 U.S. gallons.
Petropavlovsk or Bust
Once everybody arrived and all of the preparations were made, the group set off on a journey that would take 23 days, with only stops for fuel, rest, or repairs taking place along the coastal settlements where they’d previously dropped supplies and other villages. Thankfully, local photographer Anton Afansyev was able to capture several pictures of the group's vehicles before they set off from their starting point of Magadan, where Afansyev lives.
It's worth noting that some of these small villages are connected by roads only when the ground is solid during the winter, but otherwise they are nearly impossible to reach. Many of them are much easier to access via aircraft, the Sea of Okhotsk, or the Pacific Ocean. Subotin provided me with a stop-by-stop guide of the group's entire route, as well as some incredible photos of the Kamchatka peninsula taken along the way.
In the video below, one can see the two trucks in action, as well as the other sorts of vehicles more typically used for transportation on the Kamchatka peninsula: snowmobiles, tracked vehicles, and what looks like some former military hardware. An Aerosledge certainly looks like it would be at home here.
The route the group followed took them through barren Siberia, although you can tell from the map below that occasional stops were made along the coast for fuel. Many of the villages encountered are inhabited by the native people in the region, who helped them along the way. I put together a map of most of the stops on the route that you can look at. Some were too small, unmarked, and therefore impossible to find after the fact. The best kind of exploration.
Even just by poking around the region on Google Maps makes it easy to imagine just how difficult this journey must've been. Fortunately, we can also hear it straight from the source.
At one point, Subotin says that a member of the expedition jumped out of one of the vehicles only to land chest-deep in snow, unable to feel the ground with his feet. As you can imagine, it was also incredibly cold. Subotin described -31 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to me as "mild frost," and said that it once got below -60. The team was, for the record, actually phased by that number. That being said, Subotin claims that the group bathed in a frozen stream at least once, scrubbing themselves with the snow. These people.
Beyond the subzero temperatures, the group also suffered from transmission failure, broken universal joints, burst coolant hoses, and other failures which would typically mean game over for other over-landing treks. At one point, one of the vehicles broke through a thick layer of ice, pictured below. How they got the truck out of that, I do not know, but if it's not clear already, these guys aren't the type to give up.
But it wasn't mechanical failures and ice baths, planned or otherwise. Thanks to the intense volcanic activity in the region there are numerous hot springs on the Kamchatka peninsula, which they swam in during stops in some of the villages. Must've been nice to not be freezing cold for a little while. It was also nice when they reached the final stretch of the journey, which happens to be a long gravel highway stretching 350 miles south down the peninsula to Petropavlovsk.
After nearly a month in the wilderness, the group arrived in the city where they were met by gifts and celebrations. The Deputy Chairman of the regional government, Sergey Khabarov, told the group that they had "confirmed that Kamchatka is not an island," which seems like a popular joke in the region. After all of the fanfare had ended, the two teams stayed for a week in Petropavlovsk before going their separate ways. The Land Cruiser Prado went back to Vladivostok via ship, while the Suzuki—if you can still call it that—headed back to Magadan over the same trail that it had blazed over the past month of travel.
This return journey was completed successfully after 49 days—more than a month and a half trudging back through the Siberian wilderness. Subotin and his crew could’ve easily sailed home to Magadan as the other group did to Vladivostok, but he tells me that the arduous return journey—which included at least one instance of welding using daisy-chained car batteries—was done to prove that a road between Magadan and Petropavlovsk would indeed be possible to make, and is something that the citizens of the region desperately want.
Today, Subotin tells me that he wishes to go on another one of these adventures. If it's possible to get to Alaska over the frozen Bering Strait, he tells me, he wants to try it. This is, to be frank, basically impossible. But if anybody is going to prove that North America is not actually an island, it's Subotin, his crew, and his six-wheeled Suzuki.
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