Into the Wild: Riding the Road of Bones
In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin took control of the largest country on earth, Russia, and embarked on an amazing feat of engineering that also became infamous for its inhumanity and cruelty, thus the Road of Bones was born.
This 2000km-long track from Yakutsk to Magadan, through some of the wildest country on earth, took a massive toll on the Gulag prisoners who built it with an estimated two million dying, either shot for not working hard enough or perishing due to the intense cold.
September 2010 saw a group of adventurous riders tackle the Road of Bones with Compass Expeditions, the first tour group ever to ride this route. Every rider was on board a BMW from the GS range, from the old Dakar’s and R1200s up to the latest G 650 GSs
The ride began in London 93 days prior but that is another story; we pick up the expedition as it crosses the Lena River and begins the ride on the M56 Kolyma Highway otherwise known as “The Road of Bones.”
We left the luxury of the Tygan Darhan Hotel, which is Yakutsk’s finest, knowing it would be a while before we had any more small comforts. With our BMWs fully prepared for the ride ahead we crossed the Lena once more on the ferry in light rain and freezing temperatures. The road was deserted and we felt reassured to have Leo in the Toyota Landcruiser support vehicle always at our rear.
It was well into autumn and the countryside was aglow with the brilliant yellows and reds of the Taiga forests that disappeared off into the distance. We were soon into a good rhythm but freezing cold and promptly stopped at the only cafe we saw since leaving Yakutsk.
A wood fire was raging inside and a wonderful hot Borscht soup did the trick for lunch. The café was owned by an elderly couple who lived there, it was amazing to think that they spent winter there in such a lonely isolated spot, their world and way of life could not have been more removed from ours if they tried.
We rode for the remainder of the day as the temperature struggled to get over 5 degrees, finally calling it quits late afternoon and before riding into a fierce looking snowstorm that consumed the valley ahead of us.
As we erected our campsite the sun finally broke through setting the forest ablaze in a dazzling light and then treating us to a magnificent Siberian sunset. We huddled around a raging campfire drank soup and ate a fine stew analysing our first day on the Road of Bones.
The following morning started off with a flat tire on Pats bike causing us to just miss the Aldan River ferry, the next one departed three hours later. The Road of Bones is dissected by the mighty Aldan River and the tortuously slow ferry is the only link. We fitted a new Heindineau rear tyre to Pats bike as we waited while others wandered around taking photos and eating dried fish given to us by the ferry Capitan.
The 1.5-hour ferry ride downstream was wonderful under a huge blue Siberian sky that was interspersed by white clouds that reflected off the slow moving river, the region had an incredible sense of remoteness about it. Refuelling at the decrepit village of Handagar we quickly rode out into the wilderness again. The altitude began to ascend now and the temperature descended correspondingly, at around 1000mts we reached zero degrees by mid afternoon.
The scenery however was epic and took us all by surprise with its beauty. The road followed a winding path through looming snow capped peaks while silt laden rivers roared by under rickety old wooden bridges that looked as if they were about to give up and collapse.
The bright yellows forests provided a wonderful contrast to the intense white of the surrounding snowy landscape; we all agreed that this was some of the finest riding we had ever experienced. We decided to camp at an impossibly scenic spot on the banks of one such river in the shadow of a huge snow capped range that seemingly barred any progress forward.
The weather had turned against us overnight and light snow had begun to fall as we left our campsite. It wasn’t long before a number of us were lying on the road with our bikes in a snow bank; we had hit ice on a small incline that we had barely noticed, with the snow getting heavier it became a priority to get off the mountain and fast.
Staying upright while sliding down the mountain on ice was proving difficult and a couple more falls ensued, we were never so happy to see mud and slush; at least we had some form of traction again.
The day was spent again riding through magnificent scenery amongst the mountains and valleys of the Sakha region of Siberia. A number of mountain passes were no more than narrow tracks that clung precariously to the sides and were barely wide enough for our support vehicle. I thought of the incredible effort it would have taken to forge these roads by hand, through these mountains in the frozen winters of the 30s and 40s.
We were now riding in a region known as “the pole of cold” with the lowest temperature ever recorded for an inhabited area of a staggering -72 degree Celsius taken just a few years ago, Stalin’s gulags prisoners certainly wouldn’t have had the luxury of warm clothing as we did.
Camping 20km before Ust Nera we made it over one final pass riding through deep icy slush, “tomorrow morning this would be unrideable.” We all agreed. A warming campfire was soon underway to be shortly followed by a warm hearty soup and main course.
We were in an incredibly wild region but still the camping was a wonderful experience although we were wary of the presence of bears, especially considering the fresh bear tracks we had seen earlier.
Fine weather greeted us the following morning as we rode into Ust Nera to stock up on fuel and food. Our presence at the one and only fuel station caused the usual pandemonium amongst the locals; they always displayed a mixture of bewilderment and amazement at our presence. We departed the Road of Bones to check out an abandoned city slowly being engulfed by the weeds.
The city was amazing with twenty story high apartment blocks, the main street lined with shops and offices and everything one would expect to see in a city except people, not a soul remained. It was as if the inhabitants had fled in the middle of the night fleeing some terrible diaster.
It was surreal experience to be riding down the main street in this ghost city. Apparently Lenin had “relocated” a city full of people to this region to support the unsustainable Soviet industries, with the fall of Communism every man woman and child departed and returned to their hometowns across Russia.
We returned to the Road of Bones and became instantly concerned that Leo still hadn’t arrived in the support vehicle. We decided to turn back and try and find him and Carmen, who had been his passenger since Europe.
After twenty kilometres we found him on the side of the road and the scene was instantly recognizable, the axle stud had broken again, an agonizing 800km from Magadan, it had started to snow and the light was fading, my mood could not have been worse. Incredibly a local Russian van stopped and two burly Russians swaggered over to help, even more incredibly one spoke English.
It was quickly decided to remove the axle place it in the Russian van and drive to a nearby gold mine to have it welded, but first the Russians, Andre and Sasha, insisted on a round of Vodka and some dried fish.
When Leo returned with the Russians two hours later and told us that all the welders were drunk and would be until Monday my heart sank, I hadn’t counted on the resourcefulness and generosity of the Russians though and their “can do attitude.”
Andre decided to drive Leo to Sussamam 150km away to try and find a welder and also a truck to collect our trailer, and with that the trio roared off into the night along the Road of Bones, as snow continued to fall, toward Sussaman.
The following morning the snow had set in and it looked like winter had arrived and would be going nowhere until the following April. We decided to pack the luggage into the support vehicle and leave all other supplies, including a Compass Expeditions bike, in the forest and ride off toward Sussaman.
We had only been on the road for half an hour when a grinning Leo nearly fell out of the small crane truck coming the other way as he flagged us down; I had never been so happy to see him. The riders continued on, with directions to a hotel in Sussaman, and I returned to help load the trailer onto the truck and ride the remaining bike. A blizzard had sprung up and it was virtual white out conditions as we loaded the truck.
Eventually arriving in Sussaman we stopped at the local mechanics workshop and first warmed up. A Russian axle had been cannibalized for parts to make ours serviceable again.
We fitted the axle and against our better judgment spent the remainder of the evening drinking vodka eating an assortment of fish, cheeses and breads and generally enjoying the company of these wild yet wonderfully generous and friendly Sussaman locals, the offer for us to return next year and go bear hunting with them was a genuine one.
Our final day of the expedition had arrived. We again rode out in brilliant sunshine but the clear blue sky also meant frigid temperatures. The Road of Bones was in a varying state of great 80kph dirt to crawling though deep mud holes and frame smashing potholes, all the while the scenery remained the same, epic.
The going was slow, slower than anticipated and as we neared another pass the majority of us came off again, myself six times. It was impossible to get the R 1200 over the pass with me riding it.
The combined weight of bike and rider meant that it either bogged in the snow banks, where I generally ended up, or slid out on the ice, I had to idle it over and down with me running along beside it, it was exhausting but at least warming.
We had lost a lot of time and as the light faded and the temperatures dropped even lower, freezing everything, it was decided to camp for one last time in the snow on top of a 900mt plateau.
Little did we know that within 20km of our previous night’s campsite in the snow the road descended three kilometres and out of the snow and ice zone and onto a paved road for the first time in 3300km. We rode on toward Magadan, elated, through the diminishing mountains as we neared the coast; we knew we had done it.
Arriving at the Magadan sign emotions ran high as a few tears were shed and a lot of sincere congratulations and hugs were given. Only a handful of bikers each year make this arduous yet exciting journey and we were the first group ever to have accomplished this, we all felt justifiably proud.
After 101 days and 28,000 kilometres since leaving London we had ridden the epic Road of Bones. We had ridden “into the wild” and we had made it.
The BMWs performed magnificently non stop for over 100 days. We had issues, mostly with fork seals and head stem bearings however it was Mongolia and the Road of Bones that exacted the highest toll on the bikes. One rear shock blew on the G 650 GS as did a radiator, but this was due to a small rock that lodged itself between the radiator and the frame eventually wearing a hole in the core.
The bikes went and went and went across some of the most inhospitable and wild regions on earth and proved why they are such a big seller. Lesser bikes would have fallen to pieces, I am confident of this.
We choose the Heindineau’s as our tires for this expedition and they performed magnificently. Although a little disconcerting in the wet on paved roads that wasn’t really an issue as we spent so much time on dirt.
The tires’ wear characteristics are amazing and I still have at least 10,000 ks left on my rear tyre of the R 1200, they have already accomplished 15,000km, curiously though the wear rate of the 130s is terrible as opposed to that of the 140s.
For the blog on the 2010 Road of Bones expedition go to londontomagadan.com and for info for the 2011 expedition visit compassexpeditions.com
Alternatively email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.