Lovely Bones

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Siberia’s Road of Bones was named after the prisoners who built it – they were buried where they dropped. This famed adventure motorcycling route was used as a ‘prop’ in the Long Way Round. Gabriel Bolton and his mate Simon ride it

It’s with a feeling of excited apprehension that Simon and I leave Yakutsk in Russia’s far east and start the journey that will take us east through Siberia, along the Road of Bones, to Magadan.

It’s such an unknown quantity. We know that the Long Way Round team made the journey back in 2001. But the information we have is sketchy, and responses to questions are often contradictory. If it’s hard going and we have to turn back, it will be no surprise. If we do the whole thing at top speed within three days, it will also be no great shock. We check the map once more and come to the conclusion that our trip’s a strong contender for the worst prepared Road of Bones venture ever.

Park and Ride
Park and ride: the ferry home

On day one, at a town called Kubumay, we have to make a decision. There’s a junction for the old Road of Bones or the newer alternative – a Federal Highway under major construction. We bump into a couple on a BMW F800 who’d travelled the original from Yakutsk to Magadan and returned via the new road. “The new roads are no challenge,” they say. “Take the old road, just keep a lookout for the potholes.” So off we go, for 100 miles to the only reasonable-sized village on the route and our stop for the night.

Remote Siberia
Remote: Siberia

The next day’s my 27th birthday, and it turns out to be a memorable one. The road’s much, much tougher with frequent obstacles, but I love off-road riding so relish the challenge. I’ve been hoping to see a bear, and as if on cue we round a corner and disturb a pair of black bears – a mother and her cub. They’re close up and it’s magic, it feels wild and remote.

We encounter dozens of river crossings. Almost every bridge is out, and the road diverts round the remains, to ford the river. Sometimes the water is shallow and we cross without needing to walk the route first. Others are not so simple.

KTM bike box out
A bit ropey: Simon’s KTM

But the toughest features are when the track is forced to bypass deep, standing water: sometimes just big puddles, on other occasions they resemble small lakes.

These are deep, generally layered with a thick base of mud and avoided even by the biggest trucks that use the road.

Hi-tech road sign
Hi-tech road sign

Rough tracks have been formed around the water, heading off-piste and into the marshland which is a combination of hard tufty reed/grass mounds set in a matrix of waterlogged muddy silt. The mounds sit a foot or more above the water level. It’s difficult motorcycle terrain, and we are often unable to ride it alone, needing the other rider to dismount and help manhandle the bike through. It’s hard work.

This is the perfect off-road overland route, I think to myself as we ride. I couldn’t have designed it better: a mix of all kinds of track surfaces, lots of challenges, water, stunning scenery, but nothing beyond our capability. Yet.

The Honda assesses the situation
The Honda assesses the situation

It takes us a full day to cover 150 miles and according to our maps, we should be back to the main road. We pass a junction of sorts and see the first person in well over 100 miles. He waves us down, and I’m suspicious. He’s talking to Simon but I shout, “There’s something odd going on, we’ve got to bail.”

Simon had exactly the same feeling. We’re both trusting people, and certainly not overly cautious, but I felt the man posed a threat. We’d read that bandits still operate in this region of Yatutia. Maybe we were being over-imaginative, we’ll never know.

Leader
Leader of the worst prepared Road of Bones venture ever

We’re exhausted. Simon starts to fall more often, and each time the bike needs picking up it uses up more of our strength. Simon’s a bit older than me, and would almost fall into the category of born-again biker. Before our trip (we’d ridden all the way from the UK) he’d had virtually no off-road experience, and took a baptism of fire when we hit Mongolia. Since then he’s learned at a phenomenal rate, but his bike’s heavy and overloaded, and there are still sections that he struggles with. This is tough stuff.

Scary Bridge Crossing
Scary bridge crossing #1

We ride through a deep bowl of standing water, and I look back to see Simon and the KTM horizontal, both almost completely submerged.

We right the bike but it refuses to start, and we flatten the battery trying to get the bike going.

It’s evening and no time to start playing with mechanics. A night camping in the thick of bear country it is then.

Water Crossing

The following day the stream is half the depth it was the previous night. We’re learning that conditions here change quickly. Streams can quickly become rivers; easy terrain can quickly become close to impossible. I conclude that no two experiences on the Road of Bones can be the same: a day’s rain transforms everything, a week or two will mean a big difference in temperature.

Bear print
Bear foot

We spend most of the day trying to get Simon’s KTM running. It’s fitted with a kick start, but the general consensus is that it’s only for decoration and impossible to use to start the bike. We clear water from the combustion chamber, drain pints from the exhaust system, spray WD40 everywhere and use the Honda battery to turn the engine over. No progress, so it’s on to plan B. Simon stays guarding the KTM, I ride off to get help.

The Team
The team: Gabriel (left) and Simon

I’d hoped that from this point on the going would be easier, and initially, the track’s pretty straightforward. I ride at a sensible speed – I need to arrive safely. But fewer than four miles down the track I’m forced to skirt round deep water and get bogged down in swamp mud. I can’t let the bike stall, but it’s hard work getting it free. I sweat buckets and move the bike only a couple of metres before it falls horizontal and stalls.

Nice Neon
Nice Neon

I’ve little choice but to walk back and get help from Simon, so it’s lucky I got stuck so close to camp. He grabs the bare minimum kit, and we hide the rest of his luggage in the swamp. There’s no chance of pushing the KTM anywhere out of sight, we have to leave it in full view.

We walk back to the stranded Honda and get it through the swamp. It’s a damn sight harder without engine power to help. It’s late, and we camp. The road is the only place we can really pitch a tent, but there’s no traffic to worry about. We light a fire to ward off bears for a second night running.

Siberian sunset
Siberian sunset

The next day we rise early, bump start the Honda and crack on, two up on the bike.

We’re doing well and cover about 20 miles without drama.

And then comes the showstopper: another collapsed bridge and a river that looks too deep to cross with a sub, let alone a bike.

We park up and check it out, but every line we try walking is deep, far too deep. Even walking, we’re unable to cross to the far bank, the current is just too strong.

Scary Bridge Crossing2
Scary bridge crossing #2

We remind one another that we came looking for adventure, and here we are. Simon just about collapses and it takes a couple of hours of lying motionless to get back to a sensible state of normality. We set up camp and, after cooking up the last of the food, weigh up the options. We place stones at the water’s edge, and even over the course of the afternoon, the water level drops noticeably. We could be in luck.

Gravel

But an alternative we never even considered comes along. A huge truck appears on the far bank and plunges straight into the deep water. We’re elated – we’re saved! Nothing is simple here though. In crossing the river, the truck gets a stone wedged between the radiator and the fan, ripping a doughnut-shaped gouge into the fins. But the driver sets about fixing the problem, sealing off each watercourse that’s been damaged. I’m intrigued – it’s time-consuming and not a perfect seal, but it gets the vehicle moving again. We lift the Honda into the back, and we’re ferried across.

Payment is refused.

Once across the river, the riding is far easier and after another night out on the trail, we arrive at the town of Mayawanger.

No Surprises
No surprises: the new road

Again we’re extremely fortunate. Simon troops off to find someone that can help, and re-appears within a few minutes riding in the back of a big Japanese 4×4 with blacked-out windows.

He’s been introduced to Sergy, the director of the power station, the largest local employer, and the reason the town exists. Oh and he’s also the mayor.

Sergy insists he can help but that we must first accompany him for lunch and vodka.

Sergy gets his driver to chauffeur us back to the KTM in the 4×4, and a big truck follows. Thankfully the luggage and bike are still where we left them, and it all gets loaded into the truck. We notice that the river water levels have started to drop, but it’s still deep enough to get the 4WD Russian truck stuck.

Super Siberian scenery
Super Siberian scenery

Back in town, we set about reviving the KTM. We strip her down, dry everything and, with help from a car battery, she reluctantly fires up.

What relief.

“It’s too late to leave now,” says Sergy.

“You’ll stay the night here, in my other apartment, and set off tomorrow.”

What amazing kindness.

I try and sneak to the shop for thank-you beers, and food, but Sergy catches me. “No you don’t – I’ll send my driver. He’ll get all you need.”

Scary Bridge Crossing3
Argh! Scary bridge #3’s a goodie

We’re on the road by about 9.30 the following morning. We’re still dead set on keeping to the old road, but in order to refuel, we have to take the new route south for 50 miles. The gravel is easy-going and predictable, but the road winds around awesome mountain scenery with never a dull moment: constant ascents and descents and long successions of hairpin bends. It’s great fun, but we’re averaging less than 40mph, and we’ve got a long way to go to get to Magadan by nightfall. The ship we’re aiming for is scheduled to leave tomorrow.

A Bit Clogged
A bit clogged: the truck radiator

The road opens out and we pick up the pace. It’s a fantastic, sweeping track in beautiful surroundings. Again, the battle is to keep riding sensibly, when the track is begging you to go flat out. We ride all day, fill up three times, and keep stops brief.

Tough for Trucking
Tough for trucking, let alone riding

We pull onto the main highway about 50 miles north of Magadan. It’s after 11 pm, but even without streetlights, it’s light enough for me to lead without headlights.

Maintenance

As soon as we join the main road, there’s a police checkpoint and toll station.

“Where are you from, and why haven’t you got any lights?”

“England and they’re broken.”

“Stay here.”

The cop walks back to the police building and returns with a camera. He takes dozens of photos, instructing us to arrange the bikes in different poses. He wants photos with both of us in, with just the bikes, and when he’s done we’re waved on with smiles and good luck wishes. No mention of documents, bribes or toll charges.

Scary Bridge Crossing4
Scary bridge #4

Simon leads us for the last hour, and it’s with relief that we summit a hill to find the lights of Magadan laid out below. There’s a lay-by on the edge of town and we pull in to take stock. It’s after midnight, and we’ve covered 440 miles in one day.

Rescue Me
Rescue me: the expedition-saving truck

I wish I could say I feel great elation and fulfilment, having reached the goal we’ve been dreaming about for so long. But mostly I just feel cold and exhausted. The empty lay-by soon begins to fill with cars. What are these strange English motorcyclists doing here? Two blokes, Andre and George, approach us and offer to help:

“What can we do? What do you need?” We explain that really we just need a cheap hotel, and possibly a beer.

“There are no cheap hotels in Magadan. I have a big house, and you will stay with me.”

A problem shared…
A problem shared…

As we pull off, Simon’s KTM refuses to move. The chain and sprockets have been in terrible shape for a long time now, taking all kinds of abuse over the 10,000mile trip from England to Siberia. The front sprocket is missing most of its teeth, and the chain is a succession of 110 tight spots. So we whip off the chain, and I tow the big KTM into town.

Chatting up the locals
Chatting up the locals

We enter Magadan at about 2 am on Sunday 15 August. A Honda with no lights that needs a bump start every time it stops, towing a chainless KTM. It’s dark, we’re cold and hungry – and we’ve completed the fabled Road of Bones.

Huzzah!
Huzzah! That’s what we call two well-deserved beers

The Bikes

The Bikes

Honda XR650L 2008

This bike has been unbelievably good. Over 30k miles and not one serious problem. It’s not race-fast, nor cover shot sexy, but it’s tougher than old boots. It runs faultlessly on 76 octane fuel, bump starts at a walking pace and is fantastically simple in design. For one-up travel, it’s extremely hard to beat. With a few modifications, this one gets 54 MPG (UK). The 940mm seat height may cause problems for some riders, stock lights are weak and the subframe benefits from strengthening. But few bikes come overland-ready from the factory. I’d recommend this bike without hesitation.

KTM 640 Adventure 2003

The 640 Adventure (the left of the two pictured) is fast and rides really well. It needs maintenance to match this highly-strung engineering, and it isn’t the easiest bike to work on. But for me, the pleasure of the KTM ride outweighs the workshop demands. People get too carried away with spares and reliability and breakdowns. With a bit of time to spare, anything can be fixed anywhere. By the time we got to Magadan, the bike had had a dozen or more problems and was on its last legs. But I’d not change a thing. I’ll do another trip on this bike, no regrets!


How’s the Weather

This far north there isn’t really nighttime as such, it just gets kind of dusky between about 11 pm and 3 am. Light levels begin to slowly drop at about 9.30, but the temperature drops fast. Over the course of an hour or less, daytime temperatures of more than 30°C drop 20°C or more. If you’re riding at this time, you find yourself passing through pockets of microclimate – sometimes with a bitterly cold wind in your face, sometimes pleasantly warm.

When to go

This difficult route is only possible on a motorcycle for about a month or two each year – August and September.

Go guided

If you don’t want to do it all by yourself, Compass Expeditions offers a trip from London to Magadan, and the last stretch is, of course, the Road of Bones. See www.compassexpeditions.com.


Gabriel’s top five tips for the road of Bones

  1. Every trip down the ‘road’ is different – the conditions change daily, along with the weather.
  2. You’ll need to be prepared and plan for food and water at the very least.
  3. The locals have no reason to travel the central 100 miles of the road, and there will be no other traffic.
  4. This part of the world is home to a variety of bears; some kind of knowledge about these animals would be beneficial.
  5. It’s an adventure, take photos and videos and enjoy every second of it.