It was getting brighter and we started to wake up in bunk beds of the train. Its jarring and scrooping sounds made a good, authentic lullaby. In the third class carriage we could observe the rest of the passengers sleeping and snoring around us, but the view outside was something much more worth our attention. Mystic Kodar Mountains emerged from the dark curtains of rain far in the horizon. We smiled as we were getting closer to our destination, though this time they were not mountains, it was something rather unique at their foot – the desert.
Chara Sands is a tiny desert, its dimensions are 3 kilometers wide by 6 kilometers long. The current form is what’s left after the extinct lake formed by the runoff from the Sakunan glacier in the last glacial period. Surrounded by taiga forest, swamps and mountains, it’s one of the northernmost deserts in the World. Described by few articles as place “in the middle of Siberia”, it actually lays in the north of Zabaykalsky Krai, near the borders of 4 different oblasts, where the last Evenki reindeer herders live… While planning the journey we wanted to learn more about it but the lack of information online is pretty striking. At the same time it made this place even more tempting for us, and although getting there required a big detour to be made, it was very much worth it!
Clean screech of the train wheels started to get louder and the in one second went silent. After 13 hours we finally reached Novaya Chara village. Though the rail trip is a great experience on its own, we would happily hitchhike to here – the problem is, there is no road to here from Tynda. It doesn’t seem like the one will appear soon also. From what we’ve learned from the local people, government, both local and national, has an interest to keep it this “rails only” way, and in aim to do so, even some existing car bridges were dismantled. More about all this we will write in separate post about our BAM (Baikal Amur Mainline) experience.
Sleeping in a tent did not seem like a nice option as the temperature at night already went below zero. Except from that we could book the night in the area’s only hotel, but we didn’t have to do that because suddenly a small miracle happened. Out of nowhere, when we stood in the middle of dark wet street, we got a message, a response to our couchsurfing request – yes, couchsurfing. Few days before our trip here we were shocked to find out that there’s one host in Novaya Chara. We did not have much hopes for his response, but just then in the night when we came to this remote place, he wrote to us, and accepted us!
Sayid is a man with a golden heart. Once again during our stay we could ascertain, that the people raised in islam culture are the most kind and welcoming of all. He came to pick us up, showed the apartament and said that he’s going to sleep at friend’s flat so we can have it for ourselves, “stay as long as you like”. Born in Tajikistan, living in Turkey, he as many, many other foreigners from those sides came here to work. It seems like in the whole Siberia region there are many people migrating to earn money on various building sites, mainly new car roads. Next evening Sayid organised small pizza party, so we could learn more about him and his stay there. He and his friends don’t walk outside much, beside work they stay indoors since according to him it’s quite unsafe. Encountering more local inhabitants we imagined that in the past some workers could get easily in unwanted problems. Saying that, most of the people in the village were of course very helpful, especially for us, guys with facial features just like Russians.
Our host said that he’s planning to terminate the contract soon and find some job closer to his family. We talked more how crazy is the world in which so many people work in places they do not especially want to be, but the situation in the homelands make them do so.
We had our mission though. Get to the desert! First, a walk to approach it, checking the ground. River which we read about was not deep at all during this time (end of September). We started to plan our hike but remembered that the best way is always to ask. After a quick survey our motivation dropped a bit. Crossing the river is a minor problem, the real hardship during autumn is further road, when the swamp surrounding the dunes is wet and cold. We were told that the bog covers a vast area and in more dry place the distance from the road is long. Since we did not have enough time to sleep in the dunes, and we remembered the nights freezing air, we considered only a day trip.
“Go to museum, they have the number”, one hunter advised us. Of course, in Russia even small, small villages have museums! The theme can be anything and the soviet feel to it is big – we like it that way. We were guided through exhibition full of minerals, medals, photos of working class and flags with Lenin, then we asked about the contact. The lady at the museum, gave us the number, and we called once outside. The meeting was set up for tomorrow morning, we got a free hand concerning how much we want to pay, the man, Anatol, seemed very nice.
There we were, waiting for our guide. He came in the big jeep. Instead of going to the desert first we made a tour around the deserted city (Chara) – the reason was the registration. We had to visit two (!) offices and fill a few papers. Time was passing and we were forced to chat with some officials about the reasons for us being here. Finally we were good to go. Anatol drove us to his home – it turns out that for the desert, the jeep is not enough. He drove out from the wooden garage with big, noisy, self made vehicle. Looking a little bit like half of the tractor with pick-up back. We jumped in there and were ready to go.
Time was passing and we were nowhere close. As the air got cooler it was good advice to take gloves and warmer clothes. Machine could get through any imaginable obstacle in the back, were trying to spot any hint of thestacle – rivers, deep swamps, small trees and steep hills. We, well shake sands, at the same time wondering if we won’t sink in another swamp. Few more almost vertical hills and there it was, out of nowhere, sand spilling between the trees with yellow autumn leaves.
There’s no transition zone. It’s almost like somebody would just transport tones of sand in the middle of taiga. We exchanged shocked faces and waited anxiously for more. After conquering first dune the views were getting breathtaking with every second. Chara Sands is truly beautiful. We could easily just sit or stand in one place and admire the unique landscape for hours. White sand, shining in the autumn sun, dwarf birch, larch and moss, here and there. The closer to the center we got the more sandy it was. To our surprise we encountered also small bodies of water, little lakes with mirror-like calm water surrounded by flora. It was a real and the only oasis of siberian taiga. Once the engine of the machine was turned off, the silence hit our ears. We could hear sand moving with the smallest gusts of wind. We started to climb the dunes and look around us. Heights of those sandy hills are various – 15 to 30m. They’re hard to climb but once we were at the top we had to sit down because of the exceptional view. It’s the sorrounding of the desert that makes it such an unbelievable experience. Red, orange and yellow forests spreading far and wide, cut by the high Kodar mountains with their amazing canyons and snowed tops. We took a longer time to let ourselves into meditation in this paradise, and our guide, seemed to understand us well.
Once we were done up there he shared a lot of his knowledge and Marek tried strongest as he could to understand everything. “There, there and there” Sacha pointed at the mountain ridges, “are the buildings of the camp”. He meant of course the Gulag, which ruins are still there. The inmates in this remote place used to mine uranium in the mid-20th century. Like in many gulag locations it’s hard to imagine that this terrain was once inhabited. Guard over prisoners was not required. Though most of them probably had an escape in their mind all the time, none would try it – in such a remote location, it was impossible for them to reach any civilization. The time was not on our side, we always want to see everything, yet we need to remember it cannot be done – we’re pretty sure that once in the future we will visit Kodar Mountains, and see what’s left of the terrible labour camp.
We went into the valley between two dunes, forest inside seemed to be impenetrable. At the end of the narrow foot path we encountered a weird and rusty pipe construction with water pouring all around. With the icy flora around it, it looked like some kind of artistic installation – post soviet industrial fountain. Anatol was quick with explanation – “they tried to find oil here, but the water was all that came out, then, they left it”. The man wandered with his sight into the air, as if imagining how his life here would turn once the oil would be found underground.
We came back to the bigger oasis lake for a break. All of us put on the table any food we packed and waited for the tea to boil. Endless conversations were stopped by a little guest. Speedy Siberian chipmunk came to visit us and Anatol reacted as if he would expect him to come. It was the time to make winter supplies and this cute guy wasted no time – running and jumping all over us and the table, he checked snacks he fancied the most. Once the choice was made it run away with it in one specified direction. Anatol, spending in this desert probably the most time of all the people, talked to it like to an old friend. He raised his head and said “beside those guys, not many animals in the desert, bears are crossing it in the night”.
Though in the summer we could enjoy the desert for a few days, spending our time in the tent, in the winter the crossing on foot would be fast because of the frozen land. Thus we could experience it well during the whole day, we loved the fact to reach it in the autumn. As if the desert in the middle of taiga would not be enough of bizzare, beautiful view, fall foliage in its peak seemed to fit this unreal environment. Needle shaped leaves could not get more yellow, shining in the sun, they were sliding in the streams of wind through the sands mixing with read broad leaves.. The ginger rust coloured forest in the valleys and on the hills in the far looked like some extreme instagram filter would be in use.
We made one last stop on the way back home to pick up some sweet blueberries. Anatol looked at his self-made monster machine and asked us to recommend this place to others. He explained that not many people come there. We talked about future possibilities and ideas of making organized trips from Europe. Until then we kept his number, if anyone would be interested you know where to find it 😉
Back in the village, with our description we inspired Sayid to visit the desert with his workmates. Due to crippling workload in the mine building site he never had a chance to even learn more about this place.
Coming back on the train, all we thought about is the sand and the silence. Many magic places are hiding in the doorsteps of our houses, it’s true, but some are calling us from the far, far corners of the world. Not even one photo we found online can give justice to the nature’s oddest beauty that is Chara Sands.