The Kolyma highway, M56, or the Road of Bones, no matter which name you know it by, has become synonymous with adventure biking and in recent years one of the last great challenging rides for motorcyclists still wanting a destination that hasn’t been ridden to death.
Long before Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman put this place on the map it had a far more sinister history. Built during the Stalin era by Gulag prisoners, it is said that up to two million people died during its construction, the bones of the dead lay under the road.
It is also in this region that the coldest temperatures ever recorded outside Antarctica exist. We knew we were in for the "ride of our lives".
A group of anxious bikers had gathered at the Ace Café in London aboard their assortment of BMW GSs, fitting, as it is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the GS range, the group had gathered to begin a 100-day expedition from London to Magadan being conducted by Compass Expeditions.
The trip started with a quick ride across Europe – through France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria which gave the riders a great taste of this compact yet fascinating continent, with all riders declaring they will return for a "European only" tour one day; however we were on our way to Siberia and didn’t linger in Europe for too long.
The wonderful city of Istanbul spelt the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia and a chance to get off the bikes for a few days.
We continued on into Central Turkey stopping at the Troglodyte city of Goreme where we were accommodated in caves for three nights, enjoying a magnificent hot air balloon ride over this remarkable landscape.
Up onto the Anatolian Plains we visited the Ottoman city of Safranbolu and the UNESCO listed city of Amaysa, both little known yet both amazing, a real surprise. We eventually reached the Turkish Black Sea coast and rode the shoreline until Trabzon, our departure point for Russia.
The 12-hour ferry from Trabzon, Turkey to Sochi, Russia turned into a 24-hour marathon, the delays and incompetence only matched by that of the Russian border post at Sochi.
An agonizing six hours after disembarkation and a plethora of paperwork we were allowed into Russia, at 1am.
It was s thrill to be riding in Russia, something that was not possible only a decade or so ago. We rode into Volgograd, (formerly Stalingrad), home to the bloodiest battle of World War II and then onto Moscow with its infamous Kremlin and Red Square.
It was an amazing feeling to be sitting astride our bikes on the edge of Red Square when it wasn’t that long ago we all saw footage of Russian leaders watching over military parades as they rumbled across the square displaying Russia’s military might.
Crossing into Kazakhstan we entered the mighty Kazakh Steppe, a region so vast one can see the curvature of the earth, it a is lonely, silent place and roaring across it on our BMWs seemed to be almost irreverent. The nights spent camping out under the stars shall long be remembered by all.
We entered the fabled storybook lands of the Silk Road as we crossed into Uzbekistan. We were riding the edge of the Kyzulkym Desert and the riding was hot, well into the 40s on a number of days.
With some days off the bikes we visited the mighty Registan in Samarkand, built by Tamerlane and wandered the bazaars of and spice markets of Bukhara.
Sadly Kyrgyzstan had to be removed from the itinerary due to violent civil unrest; a quick itinerary change was made that saw us riding the Western Tien Shan Mountains in southern Kazakhstan.
A fantastic home stay was organised were we had a break from the bikes and wandered the small village watching small children wander freely and playing on the road. It was a scene that would not exist in western society these days, and we all lamented that fact.
After a service of the bikes at BMW Almaty and fitment of the super tough Heindineau tires to all of the bikes, we rode north across the Kazakh Steppe and into Russia again.
We rode the Trans Siberian Highway towards Irkutsk where we stopped to visit the jewel in the Siberian crown, Lake Baikal, one of the worlds largest supplies of fresh water.
Mongolia was our next country of destination and promised to be a highlight of the ride. Riding Mongolia has often been described as riding the worlds biggest paddock; there are very few roads, mostly dirt tracks, and the majority of riding is across open grasslands.
The riding here was epic as we rode down vast yawning valley’s under a huge blue sky, all the while the rare Bactrain Camels grazed nearby, the landscape was dotted with gers of the Mongolian herdsmen always situated near a crystal clear river and stands of pine, it was great stuff.
The riding was tough in sections with a number of creek crossings and mud holes to be negotiated. Along with the constant battering the bikes and riders took, much of the day would be spent standing on the pegs, and part of the day would be spent retrieving dropped bikes in rivers.
Khovsguul Nuur is renowned as one of Mongolia’s scenic highlights and it didn’t disappoint. This stunning alpine lake is surrounded by lofty snow capped peaks and forests of pine, brilliant white gers stood on the shoreline of the deep blue lake and long haired Yaks wandered freely. Staying in these gers was a wonderful experience and surprisingly warm.
We continued back into Russia for the third and final time riding the Trans Siberian Highway once again. We rode onto Chita were we all celebrated Joe and Carmen’s 30th wedding anniversary with the local prostitutes and their pimps at an adjoining restaurant to our hotel; it was a humorous night to say the least.
The Trans Siberian Highway is now paved for its entire 7000km length from Moscow to Vladivostok making it the longest highway in the world. We turned off the Trans Siberian and rode north up the M56 or Lena Highway into another world.
This road was all dirt and rough, however the riding was as stunning as the autumn colours of the Taiga forests that stretched off into the distant horizon.
Looking for a camping spot one evening a local Reindeer hunter insisted we camp with him by his log cabin. The cabin was spectacularly set on the banks of a tannin filled river that brilliantly reflected the bright yellows and reds of the Taiga, a Sable Cat, recently shot, was being stewed and fish from the river being dried on the wall while Siberian Huskies were frantic with our presence.
It was a great night spent with three generations of family living in a single room log cabin, truly in the middle of nowhere.
After days of doing our best to destroy the bikes, we arrived at the remote capital of Yakutia, Yakutsk, where we had a welcome break off the bikes.
We were greeted by the Nord Brotherhood Motorcycle Gang who showed us the sights of the city and helped us immensely finding parts and getting work done on bikes and support vehicle trailer. Riding in these parts takes a special breed of biker as the winter temperatures drop well into the 30s, and they would be lucky to have 100km of paved road in total to ride; curiously they all had road bikes.
We left Yakutsk crossing the Lena River by ferry and began what we had all come for, the Road of Bones. The weather had turned against us and we rode in light rain for many hours as the temperature struggled to top 5 degrees. Stopping at one of only a handful of truck stops we savored the hot Borscht soup and the warmth of the basic café that was owned by an old couple.
Living out there is an existence that could not have been more removed from ours and we wondered out loud how they survived. The traffic was non-existent now and we had the Road of bones to ourselves.
The Road of Bones is cut in two by the mighty Aldan River and a torturously slow ferry served as the link. From the Aldan we steadily rose to a height of around 900mts, usually no big issue however this far north it spelt trouble.
In a heartbeat the majority of us were on our sides all having fallen, we had hit ice on an incline few of us had barely noticed. Even walking proved difficult as I took my heaviest fall winding myself when landing heavily on my back, (my bike was still laying on its side down the road, photos first).
The more we rode, the more spectacular the scenery became. Autumn had well and truly arrived and the entire landscape was a spectacular shade of yellow and red. We rode the stunning valleys that wound there way through the lofty snow capped peaks of this wild uninhabited land.
Silt laden rivers roared by under decade old rickety wooden bridges that looked about ready to give up and collapse. The campsites were some of the finest on the entire journey: wild, empty and silent.
We battled on through more spectacular snow covered scenery, however the temperatures were savagely low, at times below zero, but with a few more bike drops temperatures quickly rose. What very few villages we did pass looked as if they had been a victim of a long-ago bomb blast.
Never had any of us witnessed such run down forlorn looking towns and we truly wondered if they were inhabited, indeed they were. The towns were more in line with what we expected in this historically tragic region of Russia, not the absolutely stunning scenery we had spent days riding and photographing, it was hard to imagine the horrors of Stalin’s Gulags.
A broken axle stud on the support vehicle trailer meant a chance encounter with some incredibly helpful and friendly Russians. A long night was spent with these wild but generous men drinking way too much Vodka and a little welding then more vodka.
These were tough guys living in a tougher land yet their generosity and friendliness will stay with us forever. An invite for our next group to go bear hunting with them was genuine.
Our last day, after 100 days on the road, was greeted by spectacular sunshine but very low temperatures. The stunning scenery continued on unabated as we remained at around 700mts.
Coming to another pass, that few noticed, again we were down, I slid for 30mts while still in the riding position and managed to reach up and turn the key off while still sliding, it was about as gentle and tranquil of a spill as one could have. After a week on the Road of Bones and 3300kms since we last saw a paved road we reached pavement and immensely enjoyed the ride into Magadan.
Emotions ran high as we stood under the Magadan sign after 100 days and 28000km on the road. We knew we had accomplished what so very few bikers have before and we could be proud of that.
We had experienced every kind of weather, road and emotional condition one could hope to experience and we all stood under that Magadan sign, no trip ending injuries, no fatal bike problems, we had made it.
For the blog on the 2010 Road of Bones expedition visit londontomagadan.com for more info on the 2011 expedition visit compassexpeditions.com
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