Road of Bones


The "Long way round" adventure turned it into a legend among motorcyclists: the Road of Bones. This route in the extreme north-east of Siberia was carved out of the marshy tundra more than 60 years ago by Gulag prisoners. The dirt road isn’t at the end of the world. Anybody who reaches the Road of Bones has already left it way behind them.

Beyond world's end

Comfort comes to an end in Never. This town in eastern Siberia divides the thoroughfare between Chita and Khabarovsk and is situated directly at the M58/M56 intersection. Where these roads meet has the dimensions of a motorway junction, although the traffic here will never exceed that of a driveway. We are now heading straight up north to Yakutsk. This Siberian city lies more than 600 miles away; Magadan, the final destination of our journey, is yet another 1,300 miles further on. All has gone well for us for two days. The best asphalt on the M58. The road linking Chita and Khabarovsk is new. No potholes, the chassis of both BMWs remain unscathed. Hardly any traffic, we could let the bikes roll along - just like that. The endless Siberian taiga flew past us.

That’s over now. Facing us are more than 1,800 miles of bouncing dirt roads. Now all hell breaks loose, tormenting the suspension. A turbulent surface, just short of breaking up, without any evenness whatsoever. From the ease with which we were rushing along at 75 miles an hour over the past two days, we are now reduced to a lurching 20 mph. Even this speed is still too fast for lorries. Weighing up to 60 tons, the trucks lumber along at snail pace. Heading north to Yakutsk, they crawl like this for five days.
Nevertheless, we manage to reach the city on the Lena in four days. We have been on the move with Lukasz for two days now. The young Pole is fulfilling his dream of adventure riding an old Ténéré. Lukasz is a big gain for us. He enlivens our days and speaks almost fluent Russian. But our new companion fears the Siberian countryside; especially the bears that live there make him feel uneasy. Although the probability that such a furry visitor will turn up in his tent at night is minimal, it still can’t be fully discounted. Lukasz reckons that our presence lowers his risk of being attacked by this predator by about 50 percent.

We leave Yakutsk behind us in the west. The city’s buildings rise on the far bank of the Lena. There isn’t a bridge and the ferry has just started drifting towards the other side of the river. It could take some time before she moors at this pier again. So, straight onto the Kolyma Highway. We refuel, do some shopping and continue on our way. This road between Yakutsk and Magadan puts one more over on the M56. The surface alternates between loose grit, rough corrugated iron, deep sand, course scree and rounded potholes.

Driving on this humpback Kolymar Highway is rather weird. We’re not unhappy about the break forced upon us by the Aldan River. We have to get over to the other side, and the only way is by ferry. When will it set off? Always at 9 am. That’s what somebody told us over 40 miles further back in the last village. At the mooring, no-one wants to know anything about that. In any case, the skipper doesn’t seem to be making the slightest preparations to set sail, although it would by all means be justified.

His timetable has nothing to do with hours and minutes, the captain’s not interested in punctuality, he pays more attention to the commercial aspects. The ferry casts off when the trip is worthwhile, and that means when there are enough passengers. Taking the number of people here at the moment, it doesn’t look as though we’ll be reaching the other shore any time soon.

Then, just as the sun is about to sink below the horizon, some weighty arguments materialise. Two trucks and another three cars roll up. Together with us and our motorbikes, the boat is full. The motor-driven steel plating braces itself against the flow of the river. The GPS shows 1.8 miles an hour, our destination lies six miles upstream. It’s already long past midnight when we arrive at the other shore. We pitch the tents right next to the mooring on the edge of a village. A couple of dogs protest, yelping. Whatever, we’ve got no inclination to look for somewhere quieter.

The next day we are in Kyubeme. It’s the turn-off to the "Old Summer Road". We have to decide. On the other side of the Kyubeme River there is difficult terrain. In comparison, the Kolymar Highway would be a real motorway. The petrol station attendant doesn’t give us any more insights into his territorial knowledge. Also considering whether to take this route to Magadan, the true "Road of Bones", are Anna and Richard, two Swedes travelling in a Landcruiser.

We’re all sure that things will be a lot easier in a team of five, so why not take this legendary road together. The first challenge awaits us just 300 yards further on. The Kyubeme River. The current is fast, the stones on the riverbed are huge, the water is deep. You can’t ride across it, we have to push the motorbikes through the water having first carried our kit over the river. The Old Summer Road proves to be pleasantly tame until Tomtor. The first 150 miles are still being maintained. The small town, like Oymyakon, is supplied with its most essential needs along this road.

Oymyakon, the Pole of Cold, lies 25 miles to the north of Tomtor and can only be reached via a dirt track. In 1924, a meteorologist measured a temperature of minus 71.2°C there. No other inhabited place on earth was as cold as that. In spite of global warming, the winter temperatures here still fall to around the -50°C mark. And the people who live at this frostiest place in the whole of civilisation don’t even have three months to prepare for the winter. This short period is the only time when the world here is free of snow.

After Tomtom, things don’t look good for the Road of Bones. Ramshackle bridges, fierce fords and deep water holes time and time again. Yesterday we still managed 155 miles in one day, today it was just 37. These puddles are not seldom the size of a garden swimming pool, and we have to go around them by pushing the motorbikes through the marsh lining the road.

For three days we struggle against water, heat and midges. A confrontation that really takes it out of you, and which some people can’t cope with and is just too much for one or the other "Bonesman". Some days before us, there was a punch-up on the "Road of Bones" between some people travelling with an English tour company. Everyone’s nerves were frayed, the tour guide will tell us later in Magadan. Over and over again we have to pull the enduros through the bushes, everyone has to lend a hand and it wears us out. One water hole follows the next, sometimes there are only about 50 yards of dry track between them.

We get a real shock right at the end of our journey as a large section of the road has disappeared. Where wheel tracks should be is now just a hole - ten feet wide and over six feet deep. All that remains is a small part at the embankment next to the track. Wide enough for the motorbikes, but not for the car. Trees will have to be chopped down if the 4x4 is to overcome this rift as well. Four coniferous trees fall victim to this project and are cut to size. Darkness is already falling as finally the cross-country vehicle also safely crosses the decaying road.

Towards the end, the "Road of Bones" is merciful, and we can just reel off the final miles. We’re back on the Kolyma Highway again. Kadykchan lies opposite the turn-off. A ghost town. It used to be a Gulag camp, then a mining town, until extracting the coal became no longer worthwhile. The last inhabitants fled the cold after the central power station broke down in the winter of 2003 and stopped supplying heat.

Two days later, we are in Magadan. The Mask of Sorrow rises above the town, the region’s only monument reminiscent of the misery of the prisoners in the Gulag camps. Millions of people died in the mines or building the roads. The Great Terror under Stalin brought them to this place, where they were to be exterminated at the will of the dictator through work and cold.  

Our journey ends in Magadan. The town on the Sea of Okhotsk is the last eastern outpost of civilisation in the unpopulated expanse of Siberia. It isn’t the end of the world here; we left that place behind us long ago on this tour. Now we’ll be heading west again. We still have no inkling that the return journey will be almost as adventurous as the trip that brought us here.

Category: Adventure | Travel