……the Kolyma Highway, Yakutsk to Magadan
26.08.2014 - 04.09.2014 22 °C
Now we are really at the pointy end. In six days’ time it will be over but it will be one day at a time as anything could happen….this road, this region is very remote, wild and services are very few.
So the Road of Bones what is it, what is its significance and why do it?
Firstly there is not just one Road of Bones; there is the summer road, the winter road, the old summer road and the old winter road and all have their challenges however the old roads have been receiving less and less maintenance over the years but are still passable in the right conditions. All the roads lead to Magadan. It is natural surface (read- dirt) for the entire length other than the last 100kms into Magadan and as you can imagine the topography is constantly changing hence so is the surface……..good dirt, loose dirt, thick gravel, slippery gravel, mud, sandy patches, road works, valleys, mountains, numerous passes and rivers. Visually stunning it’s a bikers dream and is what makes the ride from London to Magadan across a quarter of the world’s surface such an awesome, challenging and magnificent ride as well as possibly only a once in a lifetime journey.
Prior to the 1930’s there was virtually nothing and practically everyone arrived by ship. Once construction began it increased rapidly from 1931. There are conflicting reasons as to why the road was built, one being to have the ability to move military hardware to the Russian Far East to shore up defences and prevent attack from the Japanese at the time. The other reason and from my understanding the main one was to access the vast mineral resources that are contained in the area to fund Stalin and the Russian war machine of the period. This area contained and still does some of the largest gold reserves in the world; rivers of gold the locals say and areas around Yakutsk produce the world’s purest silver but I would think it takes a special type of person to live in this environment where some of the world’s coldest temperatures have been recorded. So who would go out there to build such a road?
This area of Russia is also known for the Gulags, the internal Russian concentration camps where Stalin sent millions of Russian dissidents into forced labour and state sanctioned slavery. It is a horrific story and it is estimated that up to two million people perished in the Gulags and the construction of the road. It is a chilling history and it is difficult to imagine the hardship the prisoners would have endured. The world’s largest cemetery; if you died on the road that is where you remained……..one body every metre……..hence the name: The Road Of Bones
I’ve got to say I was just a little envious as I met everyone outside for our departure. There was a good buzz amongst the group about the ride and I would have loved to have been riding but that was not my journey and I was happy to just be there and finish with everyone. The first part of the trip was to take a vehicle ferry to cross the Lena river to begin and this was quite time consuming as they don’t leave until full and the crossing itself was a good one and a half hours however it was good to be on the water and enjoy the moment. A quick calculation of time and k’s told me that we would have to average around 300+ kms per day to reach Magadan on the sixth day. Doesn’t sound like a lot but when it is all dirt you just don’t know what could be around the corner………and this is where it started; stopping for fuel we noticed the trailer wheel at an odd angle and the springs had broken again! Luckily this was noticed where we stopped for fuel and there was a mechanic workshop (well let’s call it a workshop) about 200m away. I called up Mick and the group on the Sat phone and relayed the story. Mick was now at the end of his tether with the trailer and when he arrived he decided to hire a local truck and driver to carry the majority of the gear as we could not afford another breakdown with the trailer otherwise it would have to be left on the side of the road. So let me introduce Dimitri, truck driver and new group member! So along with Alex & Mila (see update to the last post) the group had grown by three. It was not a good first day and we only managed 160kms for the day when we stopped to make camp for the night. I was back in the kitchen where I was of most help and my rides mates were great helping set up my tent etc. for the night…….the broken ribs don’t like to bend much.
We had been warned about two things on the Road, bears and insects of all descriptions. Didn’t see any bears but the insects attacked in squadrons, many with their own pilots……..they were bad and aggressive! Dimitri arrived at the campsite at 8am for our departure, a reload organised and we were on our way. It wasn’t long before we came across the first bike stopped on the Road, a puncture so we assisted and waited until they were on their way again………..then there was the next one and the next one, five in total; now throw in another river crossing across the Alda and we only achieved a very hard 210kms for the day!
The only positive here was that Alex and Mila being native Russian speakers we were able to get things done a lot quicker in many cases. They were great company, fantastic sense of humour it was a pleasure having them ride with us and giving valuable insights into all things Russian…….I loved that!
In fact in three days we only managed 770kms; there was no way we would make Magadan in six days and by day four we had a total of seventeen punctures, thirteen to bikes and four to trucks and the trailer……………at least the springs didn’t go again. Now this is energy sapping stuff, especially bike punctures. Now consider the dust, the sweat and the insects and at day five we arrived in a town that time had forgotten, Susamen; the group were burnt out and we were only just over half way with 750+kms to go! Mick now decided that we would have to extend the trip by a day and with the help of Alex & Mila we found two small hotels that were able to accommodate us for the night but finding food was trickier than accommodation but again Alex and Mila came up with the goods including a nightclub!......................and only Alpha could find a way to party until 4am!
The next day (day 6) was my birthday and whilst I had thought yes it would be great spending it in Magadan it was a far better treat spending it camped by a river in the Russian tundra, huge campfire and all my new ride mates there to help celebrate. We awoke to a beautiful but cool morning and there was certainly a buzz in the air today, the last day of the ride…….270kms to go and it would all be over. At about thirty km‘s out the boys had pulled over and were waiting for me to grab my helmet and ride with them into Magadan. I jumped on the back of Tango and revelled in the feeling of completing the ride on two wheels. It as an awesome gesture and so totally appreciated. It all happened in a moment, there we were at the Magadan monument announcing the entrance to the city……………..106 days, 16 countries, 28,830kms and 17 new friends. A mix of emotion was evident within the group, satisfaction and relief, joy and sadness; now the only thing left to do was to pay our respects to the people who had built the Road.
One thing the Russians do very well are sculptures and memorials. Once you have completed the Road it is a must, possibly an obligation to visit the “Mask of Sorrows” in Magadan. It is a powerful memorial to those who perished during a bleak and horrific time in Russian history and created for us today the opportunity to experience this journey.
To everyone who has followed my journey I hoped you enjoyed it and for those that didn’t well you should have stopped reading. I can say that this ride has changed forever many thoughts, ideas and preconceptions I may have had around a fascinating part of the world and reinforced to me that no matter where we may hail from we essentially all want the same thing; to be able to live in peace, be happy and provide the best for our children and families. I feel privileged that this trip has given me the opportunity to experience the very best of humanity…………..thank you to all those people that made that possible.
As in life “some roads are not meant to be travelled alone”