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Riding the 'Road of Bones'

It's difficult to try and explain the feeling of excited apprehension that Simon and I felt, as we left Yakutsk, and started the journey that would take us East, along the Road of Bones, to Magadan.
It was just such an unknown quantity; we had been able to find little information on the subject.
We knew that the 'Long Way Round' team had made the journey back in 2001, a fact that we'd been reminded of so many times, it now made us sick to hear it.

I felt the journey just couldn't surprise me, if it was so hard going we had to turn back, this would come as no surprise. If we did the whole thing at top speed, and arrived in 3 days, it would be no great shock. The information we had to go on was just so sketchy, and peoples responses were completely contradictory.

As we took the ferry from Yakutsk, back across the Lena River, we had another look over the map. I maintain that this trip was a strong contender as worst prepared Road of Bones venture ever. On this morning of departure, we still did not know which route was the authentic Road of Bones. At two points between Yakutsk and Magadan, the road splits, giving you an option of new or old road. We had gone over this map with dozens of people, and most agreed that one or both of the old roads were completely un-passable, regardless of vehicle or driver.
Everyone agrees my half hearted dual-sport tyres aren't man enough for the job, no, you'll not make it along the old roads on those.

So we sketched out a route along one of the new sections and one of the old. Jotted down some village names in Cyrillic, and nervously waited out the hour ferry crossing.

Despite the big scale commercial nature of the ferry service, they refuse payment for our passage. They can sense the adventure spirit we're feeling, and they want in, I'm sure of it.

The first stretch of track is sandy gravel, sometimes deep. Not the easiest motorcycle terrain, but we'd seen plenty of this kind of stuff already on the trip. I agree with the majority, that the key is momentum. The key is often momentum in fact, keep speed and revs up, approach difficult terrain with momentum and confidence. Kind of all or nothing, get through it, or fall off with spectacular failure.

We're too late for the next ferry, and camp on the river bank. By this point it's getting cold and dark.
This part of the world, at this time of year, has an odd approach to cold and dark.
This far North, there isn't really a night time as such, it just gets kind of dusky between about 11pm and 3am. Light levels begin to slowly drop about 9:30, but temperature drops off fast. Over the course of an hour or less, daytime temperatures of 30°C+ drop 20 or more degrees. If you're riding at this time, you find yourself passing through pockets of microclimate, sometimes with a bitter cold wind in your face, sometimes pleasantly warm.

We're woken at 4:30am by the first ferry of the day, and pack up camp double quick. The heat retained by the river water throws up a thick covering of fog in the early morning cold, and as the sun rises, and boat appears, the scene has some kind of majestic calm.
Vehicles are jammed onto the boat, barely a single car can open a door. When the boat's full, our two overloaded motorcycles are directed on, and balanced on the raised loading ramp.
With the added weight of vehicles on the boat and the gentle slope of river bank, it's well and truly grounded. After 10 minutes of wriggling left and right, and unloading/reloading cars, a huge 6 wheel drive truck arrives, and shunts the boat off the bank.

Drizzle today. Fuel up, and get on. It's such a relief to have started this adventure.

First river crossing. We roll up to a construction site in the early phases of building a bridge, and it's now nothing more than a path of huge boulders across the water. We are directed downstream to the shallower water, and begin the crossing, escorted by a Russian van. Van gets stuck, and we spend a fruitless hour or so trying to free the vehicle.

Crack on, and as we ride East, the track, landscape and weather improve. I'd felt the road was incapable of surprising me, but the only variable I had considered was its difficulty. I'd not anticipated the fact that it might be stunningly beautiful, and one of the best riding experiences of the trip.
Simon and I stopped frequently to marvel at the scenery and enjoyment we were taking, in riding this perfectly set out gravel track.

We thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the days riding. The only battle, was to resist the urge to ride with reckless abandon. Keep it sensible Bolton; ride to arrive.
I struggled with this conflict, the surfaces and winding course of the road was just too good. Riding huge sweeping gravel curves, I gently allowed the back tyre to lose traction and drift sideways.
Why are you being so silly?

As the daytime started to become evening, we pull into a petrol station. It happens to be on the first junction, a place called Kubumay. Turn right for the old road, continue straight for the newer route.
We were heading down the newer road, which has been designated a Federal Highway and is under major construction.
Pulling into the patrol station we see a couple, 2 up on a BMW F800. There are few enough bikers in this part of the world, we immediately knew who he was. “Thomas, how's it going?” Although we'd never met, we'd been told about him by folks in Yakutsk.
He'd done the old route from Yakutsk to Magadan, and had just finished the new route back.
“The new roads are no challenge at all, take the old ones, they are really interesting”
Good stuff, cheers chap. If he can do it, there's no reason to think we can't.
Thomas warns us of deceiving 1.5m deep pot-holes, that fill with water and appear safely shallow. We struggle to understand this odd feature, but take heed, about 260km on, be careful.

So off we go, getting darker as we start the 100 mile ride to the only reasonably sized village on this route.
To kick things off, we're instantly confronted with a large wooden bridge that looks like it collapsed a long while back. I should be wiser after all the previous river crossings, instead I head straight in without first walking through to find a sensible route. It's deep, and more importantly, the current is strong, I'm lucky to make it to the far bank without incident.
Simon isn't as lucky, falling in the deep water. We wrestle the overloaded KTM upright, and a Kamaz 6 wheel drive truck takes pity on us, leading a shallower route across the rest of the river. Again Simon falls in a deep section close to the bank. It can be hard work fighting against the current to right these heavy overland bikes.
The drivers house is a stones throw from the far bank;
“Come to my house, chai, beer. Stay the night, no problem”
It's difficult to decline the offer, but we're on a tight schedule, our ferry from Magadan sails on the 15th August, and the next one is 2 weeks later.

The track is soon more interesting, predictable gravel becomes more technical narrow track, frequently punctuated with deep gullies and huge potholes. Not so much potholes, as craters.
It's difficult to put enough concentration into the track ahead. We're caught out a number of times, and as I hit a savagely deep gully, my rear shock takes a damaging blow.
Simon suffered the same scenario a week previous, and I instantly feel the symptoms he described. Bike sits much lower, as the rear shock struggles to support the weight of rider and luggage, and ride feels sloppy. Previously tight and responsive suspension now wallows about, as we cover this more challenging terrain.

It's after midnight by the time we reach the village of Tomtor. Riding around the small settlement we see only kids, no sensible adults about to quiz on accommodation. Pulling up outside the town hall, a group of girls pour out, alcohol on their breath, sounds of disco from inside the building.
They giggle and joke as we try and keep the conversation focused.
“Yes, we'll happily come in and dance later on, but could you first point us in the direction of a guest house?”
“Only 17 years old, goodness... really?”
“Simon, can you pull these two young girls off my bike? They're going to break my panniers”
With a single passenger on the back, whooping and shouting directions, we make our way across the village to a house.
The elderly lady owner is initially (and understandably) wary of the strange Englishmen knocking at her door, well after midnight, but the ice is soon broken.

Susan, the landlady, is an absolute love. She takes great pleasure in fussing over us, three times a day there is a great feast laid out on the kitchen table.
We're told of the vicious winter climate in this part of the world, where temperatures drop to -60°C. I'm fascinated by how regular tasks are achieved at this time of year. The only toilet is a tiny hut perched over a pit, at the bottom of the garden. The morning visit would be quite a different kettle of fish at -60.
What do folks do about water? Anything outside would instantly freeze, no one seems to have running water. Do any of the vehicles work? Doesn't fuel go funny, and rubber crack at this temperature? How do any of the animals survive the winter?

Changing Simon's tyres the following morning, we find his rear sprocket to be dangerously worn, with most of the teeth already snapped off. I seriously doubt it will make it to the next big town (Susuman), let alone Magadan. We're stuck.
Amazingly, we're only stuck for a day. With the help of an enthusiastic local chap named Nikoli, we find a Russian sprocket that matches Simon's with amazing accuracy. An hours rough engineering with grinder and drill, and KTM's back on track.

It's odd, even though we're 100 miles down this old road, every time we mention we're going to Magadan, people assume we'll turn back to the main route and take the new road. They tell us time and time again it's not possible. No one uses this road, there will be no other vehicles.

The next day is my 27th birthday, and it's the most enjoyable and memorable birthday I've had.
The road becomes much much tougher. It's not constantly tough, but there are frequent obstacles, and they're sometimes a real challenge. I love off road riding, and I love a challenge, and I was having the time of my life.
“Simon, I  can't think of anything I'd rather be doing on my birthd....”
I tail off, and Simon laughs and continues;
“But it wouldn't last as long though, would it mate!?”

I pray to see a bear. The only other time I've seen a wild bear was on my 22nd birthday in Canada. I'm lucky, and as I round a corner I disturb a pair of black bears, a huge mother bear and her cub. They're close up and it's magic, it feels wild and remote.
Over the course of the day we do dozens of river crossings. Almost every bridge is out, having collapsed long ago, and the road diverts round the remains, to ford the river.
Often the water is shallow and we cross many rivers without the need to walk a route first. Others are deep. One of the tougher ones has a strong current and a steep climb up the far bank, and we revel in the adventure.

The toughest features are when the track is forced to bypass deep standing water. There are big bowl-like dips in the road, something between a huge puddle and a tiny lake. They sit filled flush with water, are often layered with a thick base of mud, and can be extremely deep.
The deepest ones have to be avoided even by the trucks that used to use this road, and very rough tracks are formed around the water, heading off-piste and into a very strange marshland.
Difficult to describe, but let me try. A combination of hard tufty reed/grass mounds about a foot square, set in a matrix of waterlogged muddy silt. The mounds sit a foot or more above the water level. It is very difficult motorcycle terrain, and we are often unable to ride it alone, needing the other rider to dismount and help man handle the bike through. It's hard work.

I think to myself as we ride, this is just the perfect off road overland route. I couldn't design it better, a mix of all kinds of track surfaces, lots of challenges, water, stunning scenery, but nothing yet that's beyond our capability.

The day wears on. It's taken us the full days riding to cover 150 miles. Our maps says that our 150 miles should have taken us all the way 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 over; “There's something odd going on here chap, we've got to bail, lets go”
Strange, Simon had exactly the same feeling. I'd say we are both over trusting people, certainly not overly cautious. I think it's the first time on the trip I've felt that someone posed a threat.
We'd read a few times that bandits still operate in this region of Yatutia, and read a few first hand accounts of problems. Maybe we were being over imaginative, I don't know.

We're exhausted. Simon starts to fall more often, and each time the bike needs picking up, a little more of our strength is used, and we feel a little weaker.
Simon's a bit older than me, and would almost fall into the category of 'Born again Biker'. Before the trip 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, and is now confident through most of the terrain we're coming across. But his bike is heavy and overloaded, this is tough stuff, and despite his steep learning curve, there are still sections that he struggles with.
We ride through a deep bowl of standing water, and I look back to see Simon and KTM horizontal, both almost completely submerged.
Righting the bike is standard procedure, but with the submersion, it refuses to start, and we stupidly flatten the battery trying to get the bike going.

It's evening, and no time to start playing with mechanics. It looks like a night camping in the thick of bear country. We'd seen bear prints not so far away, and it was with hesitant apprehension that we set about making camp. It'd been drizzling off and on all day, and getting a fire going wasn't easy.
We're camped next to a stream, and with no mineral water left, we boil or iodine the suspiciously dark stream water in order to drink and cook.

The following day the stream is half the depth it was the previous night. We're learning; conditions here change quickly. Streams can quickly become rivers, easy terrain can be quickly made close to impossible. I conclude that no two experiences on the Road of Bones can be the same, a days rain transforms everything, a week or two will mean very different temperatures. This difficult route is only possible on a motorcycle for about a month or two each year.

We spend most of the day trying to get Simon's KTM running, and fail at every attempt. It's fitted with a kick start, but the general consensus is that it's decorative only, impossible to actually use it to start the bike. We clear water from the combustion chamber, and drain pints from the exhaust system, spray WD40 everywhere, and use the Honda battery to turn the engine over. No progress. The KTM somehow sucks the life-force from my battery, and it will now hold no charge whatsoever. Honda needs to be bump started every time, which thankfully is an easy job. KTMs eleven point something stupid compression ratio means even with a 4x4, bump starting is a challenge, Honda will bump start, from cold, at almost walking pace.
I feel sick all day, don't eat a thing, struggle to hold down the murky stream water.
The day's moving on, and I switch to plan B. Simon stays guard of KTM, I ride off to get help.

I'd hoped and expected that from this point on the going would be easier. Initially the track is pretty straight forward. Riding at a sensible speed. More important than ever to arrive safely.
But less than 4 miles down the track I'm forced to skirt round deep water, and get bogged down, deep into swamp mud. I can't let the bike stall, and it's hard hard work getting the bike free of the swamp. I sweat buckets, but move the bike only a couple of metres before it falls horizontal and stalls.
I've little choice but to walk back and get help from Simon. Really, it's lucky I got stuck so close to camp, if I'd got another 10 miles before getting into trouble, the walk back would have been a real chore.

It's on this walk that I realise the danger of what we're doing. If I'd had an accident on this little solo jolly, and broken something, what happens then?
We rode close to 150 miles without seeing a sole, we saw more bears than people. With 2 riders, there's no margin for error. If one rider is injured, you're in real trouble. With the track in this state, you just can't ride out alone to get help, it needs two people.
There are points on this track, that you can't get to even with a Kamaz. So potentially you've got a 75 mile walk, through bear country, to get to a village, and even then there isn't going to be a vehicle capable of recovering the injured person. It would need a helicopter, or group of people to walk back and carry the injured to safety.

I suggest Simon grabs the bare minimum kit, and we hide his luggage in the swamp somewhere. KTM must stay in full view, no chance of pushing it out of sight.
We walk back to the stranded Honda, and man handle 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 concern of traffic. Light a fire to ward off bears.
I've eaten nothing all day. We've very little food left, and it's extremely fortunate that Simon's carrying iodine. We take water from puddles and the gullies that flow over the track.

Next day we rise early, bump start, and crack on, 2 up on the Honda. Shot rear suspension curses me for the tall order I'm asking. Together with luggage we're a lot of weight for the trail bike to carry, and along the worst section of the Road of Bones. Bike does extremely well.
Simon dismounts for the hardest sections, a couple of deep rivers, and some marshland.
We're doing well, and cover about 20 miles without drama, before the show stopper; another big collapsed bridge, and a river that instantly looks too deep to cross. We park up and check it out, but every line we try walking is deep, far too deep to try with a motorcycle. Even walking, we're unable to cross to the far bank, the current is just too strong.

It's getting difficult. We remind one another that we came looking for adventure, and here we are.
Simon just about collapses, his body is about spent, and it takes a couple of hours lying motionless to get back to a sensible state of normality.
We've set up camp, and after cooking up the last of the food, we weigh up the options;

  • Someone swims the river, walks the estimated 6 miles to the main road, and hopefully finds a big rescue truck
  • Dismantle the bike into small enough bits to get across the water, and re-assemble
  • Sleep the night here, and hope that the water level drops enough to bike across

We go for option 3, and light a huge fire with the plentiful supply of driftwood. All afternoon we sleep. Day after day we've been telling our bodies;
“This is the last push, just get me though this, and I'll reward you with lots of calories, clean water and rest”
But the last push went on and on, more and more obstacles.

We put white stones at the waters edge, and even over the course of the afternoon, the water level dropped noticeably. We could be in luck here.

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 are elated, we are saved.
Nothing is simple here though. In crossing the river, the truck got a stone wedged between radiator and fan, ripping a doughnut shaped gouge into the fins, and rendering the vehicle useless.
But drive sets about fixing the problem with cool confidence. I'm intrigued by the fix, sealing off each water course that's been damaged, time consuming and not a perfect seal, but it gets the vehicle moving again.
When drive's done, we man handle Honda into the back, and we're ferried across. Payment is militantly refused.

Riding to the main road is a breeze. We can't find a town, but are welcomed with open arms at a road construction site camp. We've barely eaten for 2 days, and accept a feast of food and coffee with great appreciation. People are so amazingly kind and generous here. Time and time again we're stunned by the generosity of the people we meet.
In the morning we're fed more coffee, and a hearty breakfast. The workers provide excellent directions into the nearest town, Mayawanger, and we park up in what feels like the centre of this little industrial town.

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 4x4 with blacked out windows. He's been introduced to Sergy; the director of the power station, the biggest local employer, and the reason this town exists. Sergy is also the town mayor, certainly the most influential man of the town.
Sergy insists that he can help, but that we first come to his house.
Housing here is tower block only, and we note that his apartment is the only one in the block with bars on the windows.
We've not washed for a full 7 days at this point, and carry a formidable scent. Removing our motocross boots releases a torrent of noxious fumes. We've spent days wading through stagnant marsh and bogs, sweated over man handling bikes through swamp.
Sergy is fantastic. We arrive at his apartment to find three piping hot meals on the table. With lunch comes three rounds of his home made sloe vodka.
Sergy's daughter Anastasia speaks excellent English, and is assigned as our translator for the duration of our stay in  Mayawanger.
We then set off for Simon's KTM. Sergy has his driver chauffeur us in the big 4x4, and a truck follows. Thankfully the luggage and bike are still where we left them, and everything gets loaded into the truck. Water levels have certainly started to drop, but the river is still deep enough to get the 4WD Russian truck stuck.
Back in town, we set about reviving the KTM. Strip down, dry everything, and with help of car battery, she reluctantly fires up, music to our ears, what relief.
“It's too late to leave now, 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”
We're shown to a huge apartment, the one under Sergys family apartment. 2 enormous bedrooms, each with 4 beds, expansive kitchen, giant living room and a shower so big you could swing a cat. There's a big bag of shopping on the table.
Through Anastasia, we approach the subject of cost, how much for the truck rescue service, and the use of workshop etc? She laughs hard at the idea, but translates the question to her father. He doesn't even dignify the question with an answer, they just laugh together.

We get 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 re-fuel we have to take the new route South for 50 miles, then back 25 North to the junction.
Before we make it to the fuel station, I pick up a front puncture. No drama, we've been here plenty of times before, just hope it's a one off. Back on the bike in 20 minutes.
On arriving at our turning we find some lengths of timber across the road, and a warning sign that we can't understand. Ever the positive travellers, we assume it says something like
“Road in excellent condition, ideally suited for motorcycles, crack on and enjoy it”

So we skirt round the obstruction, and press on. This road is completely different to the other old route, gravel is easy and predictable. Initially the road winds tight round the staggering mountain topography, never a dull moment, constant ascents and descents, long successions of hairpin bends. It's great fun, but we're averaging less than 40 MPH, and we've got a long long way to get to Magadan by nightfall. The ship we're aiming for is scheduled to leave tomorrow, and the agent we've been in contact with really wanted us there a few days earlier.
We see no traffic for a the first 100 miles or so, just a few huge road construction vehicles. Again I pick up a puncture, rear this time, and I pray it's not the start of another saga.
The road opens out, and we pick up pace. Beautiful surroundings, and fantastic sweeping track. Again, the battle is to keep the riding sensible, when the track is begging you to ride flat out.

We ride all day, fill up three times, keep stops brief.
At about 9, light levels start to slowly drop, and we've still got a fair distance to go. Pick up the pace, and race against the light.

We pull onto the main federal highway about 50 miles North of Magadan. It's after 11pm, but even without streetlights, it's still light enough for me to lead without headlights.
As soon as we join the main road, there's a police checkpoint and toll station. Inevitably, we're flagged down.
“Where are you from, and why haven't you got any lights?”
“England, and they're broken”
“You two stay there”
Copper walks back to the police building, and returns with a camera. He takes dozens of photos, instructing us to arrange bikes, photos with both of us, with just the bikes, and when he's done we're waved on with smiles and good luck wishes. No mention of documents, bribes, toll charges.
Simon leads us 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 today.
I wish I could say I felt great elation and fulfilment, having reached this goal that we'd been dreaming about for so long. But mostly I just felt cold and exhausted.
The empty lay-by soon begins to fill with cars. What are these strange English motorcyclists doing here? Andre and friend George approach, 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”
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 his 10,000 mile trip from England to Siberia.
The front sprocket is now missing most of its teeth, and the chain is a succession of 110 tight spots.
Whip off the chain, and I tow the big KTM into town. So it is as such that we enter Magadan, about 2am, on Sunday the 15th August;
Honda towing KTM, Honda has no lights, and needs bump starting each time we stop. It's dark, both Honda and KTM rear shocks are dead, fork seals are leaking, KTM has no chain and we're bitterly cold after full days riding, well over 400 miles along the Road of Bones.

 

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