|09-24-2012, 07:23 AM||#106|
Joined: Aug 2009
Location: Our Hub is Ballan, Australia
Day 97 Yakutsk
Another free day in Yakutsk. The main thing we did today was to visit an academic institute that studies permafrost … for a few roubles they will let tourists in and give a tour. Yakutsk is the world’s centre for permafrost constructions, most of the buildings are on concrete stumps like this …
… in order to keep the heat away from the ground. All large buildings in Siberia are heated by hot water pumped in from a central oil-fired boilerhouse; the pipes for the heating water, as well as gas water and electricity, are run above ground, forming an ugly arch at all road crossings:
For big buildings it is easier to throw the electriciy cables from roof to roof, than run them along the ground:
If you don’t build on stumps, then the heat from the building will melt the permafrost under it, the soil becomes soft and the building sinks into it, like these old wooden ones:
Anyway, to the permafrost institute, which has labs above ground but also some storage and original research sites below ground. You go down into a basement, open two insulated doors and you’re in a tunnel at -8*C again. The soil has built up over the years, so at about 15 feet below ground they can see grass and plants that grew 10,000 years ago, and expose their roots for study:
Things get found when they make the tunnels, and if not exactly here, at least the things are now stored here at the Institute – these are mammoth teeth:
And indeed, above we see an Actual Mammoth in this tunnel; it’s a baby, named Dima, the cadaver is now 39,000 years old. They sell jewellery and souvenirs showing Dima’s body … but there is something suspicious about it all, because we also saw Dima in the Treasures of the Sakha Republic museum yesterday. It turns out that Dima’s actual fleshy cadaver is in a vault in St.Petersburg, with fibreglass copies placed here and elsewhere. Anyway how do they know it was called Dima? Only mammoths know their true names … Alexander Solzhenitsyn starts off “The Gulag Archipelago” on page 1 with a report about prisoners who uncovered an ancient frozen mammoth and promptly ate it, with relish, as they were so hungry.
People rarely go in the tunnel – it gets very uncomfortable after half an hour, even with proper warm clothing – but when they do, their breath contains water vapour which condenses on the metal surfaces as ice, and as the condensation process is very slow, beautiful cubic and hexagonal crystals of ice are formed:
Back out of the tunnel to look around the Institute, not much to see but on the walls they have every safety poster in the set, including the one about terrorism (“do not panic and wait quietly, while our Special Forces machine-gun the lot of them”)
Outside the Institute is a model of a mammoth, made out of yak dung by the look of it (there were fossilised mammoth turds in the museum yesterday). You need to appreciate this because the model below it shows the proposed Sports Stadium for Yakutsk, with the roof held up by two almighty curved beams like mammoth tusks:
Today I also saw a relief map of Yakutsk and surrounding area. I wish I had not seen this, showing Yakutsk on a nice flat, fertile plain; that road up toward 2 o’clock is the M-56 “Kolyma” Highway a.k.a Road of Bones, and tomorrow we ride up into those mountains for 6 or 7 days! It will be cold, wet, and muddy. Arghh!
We had heard that the M-56 road had suddenly been closed – there had been a huge downpour last week, part of the road had been washed away, motorists were evacuated and given warm clothing and food, road-repair crews and heavy equipment had been airlifted in, and the local mayor had declared a state of emergency. Our Ride Leader had to make a decision today, do we go in and risk having to get 12 bikes 2 cars and 18 people evacuated, or do we call it a day and ship the bikes home from here in Yakutsk. Conflicting reports were available but finally our contact in Magadan reported that a group of cars had gone up from there and was now in Ust-Nera, on the other side of the problem area. So we are going ahead tomorrow morning, Day 98, August 25th (readers, please recall that this blog is being written 4 weeks later, and I’m in Melbourne today, Sept 23rd). We will encounter the swept-away and damaged road, and conquer it, on Day 103.
M U S I C
Some riders ride in silence, but mostly I play music at full volume in the crash-hat, causing me to enact bursts of air-guitar when we set off. I brought 60GB of MP3′s on the computer and I copy 1-2GB of it into my MP3 player every few days; but it seems a shame to delete some of the more amazing tracks, so they stay in there and go round and round. Now we’re at the end of the trip I’m also, neatly, at the end of the 60GB and I made the final copying this evening. Readers may wish to appreciate the depths of my depravity and marvel at the ghastly mix of death-metal and ballads, so I list the songs that have survived for repeated playing (in alphabetical order):
… Well, if I had a normal brain, and if I had reasonable tastes, I would not have come on this trip.
|09-25-2012, 07:02 AM||#107|
Joined: Aug 2009
Location: Our Hub is Ballan, Australia
The Road of Bones
September 25, 2012
A belated update today, I have fallen behind with the updates again but I will get stuff put up tomorrow and the next 6 days … covering the final six days, when we rode the ROAD OF BONES!! As stated from time to time, this blog is running 3-4 weeks behind reality, we actually arrived in Magadan on Aug 30 and stayed a week, then everyone except me flew home but I spent a week in Khabarovsk and a week in Vladivostok, arriving home on Melbourne on Sept 22. I am fit and OK – and so is Millsy, except that his spleen is somewhere in Siberia.
I’ll describe our journey as the days come by in the blog, also will put up lists of Amazing Things Seen, and how the bike and accessories performed, etc. Right now I am trying to reconstruct my life at home (it feels like being in somebody else’s house).
Here’s a very good 15-minute presentation by someone who hitch-hiked the Road of Bones last year
He travelled earlier in the year, as ice is visible – I did not see any ice, and I saw the snowline much higher up the hills. I recognise every place that you see in this presentation, and even now I break down and weep when Magadan comes up, near the end. It will be hard to write about these 6 days, but bear with me. – Steve
|10-02-2012, 07:06 AM||#110|
Joined: Aug 2009
Location: Our Hub is Ballan, Australia
Day98 – ROB1/6 – Churapchy
September 26, 2012
Magadan lies lazily gleaming, so they say, on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, its jewelled spires reflected in its golden streets; choirs of angels sing as its fair people rejoice, its perfumed diamond-encrusted plants wafting gently in the breeze emanating from the beer volcano. Well, it might be true about the beer volcano. Our Fearless Leader made the decision (correct, as it turned out) that the Road of Bones would be passable, and today we set off on the legendary 6 or 7 day ride to traverse its 2,000 km, from Yakutsk to Magadan. This is a serious venture – the road goes well north, nearly as far as the Arctic Circle, and legends abound about bears and mud, and we can only come back the same way; the washed-away bit of the road will be on day 6. If we delay, bad weather may set in, and stay for 9 months.
THE ROAD OF BONES
The name “Road of Bones” is unofficial – it is not on any signs; it commemorates the ghastly fact that the road out of Magadan was built with convict labor, many men dying in the attempt and being buried beside, or even under, the road. The name really refers to any road out of Magadan up to the gold and uranium mines, only 1/4 of the way over to Yakutsk, and there are hundreds of such roads, most or all of them now replaced or resurfaced with modern (and non-convict-built) road surfaces. The original major road (Of Bones) out of Magadan was later extended to Ust-Nera halfway, and later all the way to Yakutsk, but that was not all by convict labour. “Road of Bones” now usually means the entire length from Yakutsk to Magadan, for example in Wikipedia.
It’s just a name, but that name and two monuments in Magadan are almost all that commemorates the ghastly history of this area, comparable in scale with, if I may say it, the Holocaust of World War 2. There were many similar enterprises, for example the railway station at Bishkek was built by POWs and convicts, nearly all of whom died and were thrown into pits nearby. The Kuban, a nice-looking fertile area which we crossed just north of the Black Sea, is witness to not one but several multi-million genocides (extermination of the Cossacks, collectivisation, German invasion, Russian counterinvasion, and 3 separate famines). But now we’re here and when I get to Magadan, which I will, I will show suitable quotes and reverence on this blog for the dead of the Kolyma, numbered not in thousands but in millions. As in the Kuban, we will ride this road with the greatest respect for those men – innocent, but victimised by Stalin – who gave their lives to build it.
The original road, coming out from Magadan, used to cut across westwards from Kadykchan (there is nothing like Kadykchan – wait till you guys see it, on Day 101) through Tomtor to Kyubyume, and it is marked in yellow on yesterday’s map. See that place “Oymyakonskoye” just north of it – there’s a town there, which is the coldest inhabited place in the world, -71*C in the winter. Anyway this 420-km short-cut is called the “Old Summer Road”, and annoyingly, some maps title it “The Road of Bones” causing some of our riders to insist on trying to ride along it. Ewan & Charley in “The Long Way Round” rode the O.S.R., and had to be bailed out by a whole convoy of tough Russian vehicles at several points, notably the river crossings. That was in 2004, 8 years ago, and the road has degraded since, but a modern road through Ust-Nera was built in 2006-8 and declared to be a Federal Highway. Thus, the new road is maintained at bottomless Russian Federal expense, whereas most of the Old Summer Road has not been touched at all since 2006. If one of its bridges falls through – as they do, one by one – it’s left like that, so the OSR now “remains one of the great challenges for adventuring motorcyclists”, as Wikipedia has it. It CAN be ridden, but the last guys who came out nearly died of starvation because they took a lot longer than they thought. Our expedition was not equipped for macho feats of motorcycling, but as we rode along the modern road, I determined to ride the first kilometre or so of the two ends of the OSR in homage … but even this turned out to be impossible.
HERE WE GO
So this day, August 25, is day 1 of 6 or 7 and it will end with bush camp 26 which we will pitch … heavens knows where. Somewhere along the road. It begins. Prepared for anything, in heavy-weather gear and with bikes all nicely set up and adjusted, the 4WDs laden with 20 days’ worth of food (why so many extra days? Don’t ask) we left Yakutsk, tooling down the main drag and out of the town to where the ferry crosses the mighty River Lena, more than a mile wide. There was no quay or wharf – you just drive off the main road and across the dirt onto the ramp of the ferry, which departs when it’s full. We got all the bikes on, but not the 4WDs which had to wait 2 hours for the next ferry.
The ferry was nearly full when we arrived and the bikes were packed in with some difficulty, leaving room for our last bike, and then one car – next in the queue was an immaculate white 4WD driven by a little, rich Asian guy. We got all the bikes except Hugh’s onto the ferry, then we had to manoeuvre and rearrange them to make enough room to pack in Hugh’s bike. Hugh was waiting on the dirt, in front of the 4WD, at the bottom of the ferry ramp. After a while, Peep Peep! went the horn of the 4WD. Hugh didn’t move – he had nowhere to put the bike at that point – Peep Peep Honk Honk! Hugh kept right on waiting. Honk honk HONK HONK!! Like, we are going to rearrange the ferry bikes quicker if we are honked at? HONK HONK HONNNNNK!!! and the 4WD tries to edge forward a bit, aggressively, up Hugh’s arse. Hugh at this point became a trifle fed up, pressed the button to disable his bike’s Traction Control, held the front brake on, revved the engine, banged it into bottom gear, let the clutch out and sprayed filthy mud all over the immaculate white 4WD. (Later, on the ferry the driver agreed he was a bit out of line, and they shook hands).
We crossed the Lena on the ferry and had lunch in a cafe on the other side while we waited (and waited) for the 4WDs on the next ferry. The women who ran our cafe were very proud to see tourists come to Yakutia, very proud of their natural environment and anxious to preserve it. When the 4WDs arrived – mid afternoon by now – we set off, the road was very potholed and very poor quality, with loose gravel (which to motorcyclists is about as welcome as a pork chop at a bar-mitzvah; as welcome as a Kawasaki on a BMW ride) and we were worried that the whole 2000-km stretch would be like that, but after a few km it improved and we got a bit of speed up. The rest of the road was dirt, but well rammed down to a hard surface and the holes were mostly avoidable. We were not very happy with the distance we covered, but by going until the evening we covered 325 km; typical for each of the first 5 days and we’ll be doing 450 km on the 6th, avoiding the need for a 7th day of riding. Anyway, here’s some pictures: this is what the road was like – my bike was getting smashed to pieces:
When the road’s dry, like today, the dust is a problem, but it would be a lot worse if it were dry for many days. We were spared that, because it rained a lot
A beautiful little pond – water is everywhere in Siberia – and another cute little hamlet:
Some weird, colourful graves in a graveyard. The bodies are above the surface … you try digging a hole in permafrost
Grave of a truck driver, with steering wheel, in a cute location. There were many of these, in remote locations along the road.
A town sign, in Yakut, so this town “Toloy Dyrynz” is not marked on the maps, unless you get hold of a map printed in the Yakut language and in any case nobody does a map of the M-56 because it’d just be a line across an otherwise blank page. (I know, I went to a map publishing company in Khabarovsk and asked).
This is a different country – the road signs are in Yakut, not Russian. Here’s a town sign with two names, Russian on the left, the other name is nothing like it.
We filled up at this town “Churapchy” – yes we’ve only done 15% of the road but our tanks were getting empty – and went about 20km further on, and found a campsite. All our campsites were about 500m from the road but not visible from the road, and most of them had a wonderful view. This was bush camp number 26, on the edge of a forest. We made a nice big fire, and got very drunk on vodka. A good day, considering that we had to spend hours for the ferry. Tomorrow, we press on, but there will be another ferry at Khandyga.
Day99 – ROB2/6 – Khandyga
September 27, 2012
We woke up, still fired up after this first of 5 or 6 bush camps on the Road of Bones, just outside Churapchi. Today there will be a second ferry crossing, of the Aldan River which flows into the Lena somewhat further down (further north). The Lena, which flows past Yakutsk, is the second largest undammed river in the world (after the Amazon – try damming that) and the Aldan is also a kilometre or two wide, requiring a ferry crossing, as a bridge is infeasible to build across such a width.
Soon after we started, dark rain clouds were seen, and we stopped to put on our wet-weather gear. But really the weather this morning was the worst of all because we got very light rain, enough to make the road muddy and generate a muddy spray from the trucks’ tyres, but not enough to wash the mud off. The road was bumpy as ever:
We came to a tiny village of a few houses, but even that had its war memorial; as you can see, there are not many different surnames of the soldiers who paid the ultimate price.
Beautiful yellow bushes and sparse trees at this point. We are in the Aldan River basin, but we will be climbing up to 1000m later today.
The Aldan River curves around anti-clockwise to meet the Lena; the town called Aldan, which we visited on Day 93, is near its source. Millsy liked Aldan so much, he left his spleen there and stayed two weeks in the hospital. I would later catch up with him in Vladivostok, where he told me all about it … they served beetroot soup for meals. Not with anything like potatoes or onions or carrots in it, just pale purple water (and do I hear a comic Yorkshireman’s voice “Oh yours was purple! We used to dream of purple soup…”). He was lucky to meet another overseas visitor who spoke fluent Russian and could translate, for a few days but he ended up on his own and he got a trifle tired of the town … despite the fact that it is served by Aldan Airport, has a population of 21,000 which is decreasing but not as desperately as other Siberian towns, and has an unusually heavy rainfall, isn’t that interesting. Millsy by the way is quite OK now and back in Australia as I write (late September) and he is very keen to go back and complete the Road of Bones ride himself, but not to visit Aldan again. Pity, he’d miss the Aldan Rain Festival (Jan 1 – Dec 31). Oh look, here comes another ferry crossing.
There’s more room on this one and we are not so muddy, but the crossing took some hours and this picture was taken just as we neared the, er, place where the ferry landed in the mud and we drove off. Or rather, we didn’t because although we got aboard and made the crossing free of charge, we found that we needed to show a ticket to get off, the ticket costs money, the ticket office on the boat has packed up and when they re-opened they had no idea how much to charge for motorbikes, so it took quite some time before we could get off and get going again.
The road had a better surface after this – these first two days were the worst for road quality; today (day 2) and day 5 were the worst for weather, so today we copped it all. There were loose stones on the road today, too – my bike has a “bash plate” to protect the sump, which rings like a bell when a rock hits it, and today I counted 33 hits. I turned the music off and put the MP3 player away, it is too much bother to manage the wires when you are wearing rain-clothing, I am happy with the music of the rocks hitting the bash plate and I want to hear every noise the bike makes as I smash it to pieces along this road.
Soon after the ferry we re-fuelled at Khandyga, a major town that was said to have a Gulag Museum, which we looked for but could not find; it does have a very impressive war-memorial square and statue of Lenin (as do all towns in Russia, still), a natty little church and a UFO.
The words in red exhort the Khandygans to: Remember! Have respect! Give thanks! We are still in permafrost so the heating pipes and all other pipes go over the road, most of them in a great big arch but one pipe goes over the road only a few inches above the surface. This is not a very good idea, really, but they dump a load of gravel over it, so you can drive or ride up and over it safely. Well, safely if you see it in time, and I suppose they have to keep replenishing the gravel as it wears down … this is the main M-56 highway, after all.
Oh look. A nice pretty rainbow. In a few minutes some nice pretty rain is going to dump all over us.
We finally camped just past Tepliy Klyuch, in a neat little grove with bear-poo everywhere.
This may not have been a good idea either, but the bears are afraid of humans and will avoid a camp of many noisy ones. Actually, it is my snoring that keeps them away. I was reminded of this passage (I have edited it for brevity) from the parody, Bored of the Rings:
They arrived at a great crossroads and halted to determine the best way to go. “We must head east,” said the Wizard, gesturing with his wand to where the sun was setting. As he watched, the moon rose, there was a meteor shower and a display of the aurora borealis, a cock crowed thrice, it thundered, and a flock of geese flew by in the shape of a swastika. There came from deep in the surrounding forest the sound of some great bird being briefly, but noisily, ill. “It is best that we make camp here tonight,” he said, dropping his pack heavily to the ground, where it crushed a hooded cobra. “Tomorrow we must seek the high pass across the mountains.” A few minutes later the company sat in the middle of the crossroads around a bright fire. “A proper fire at last, and no mistake,” said Spam, tossing a rattlesnake on the cheery blaze. “I reckon none o’ Master Pepsi’s wolves is likeable to bother us tonight.” Pepsi snorted. “A wolf would have to be pretty hard up to eat a road apple like you,” he said, flicking a rock at Spam, which missed him by several feet and stunned a puma. “Where are we, and where are we going?” asked Frito. “We are at a great crossroads, but do not fear,” said the Wizard, sitting on a wolf, “we will guide you safely through.”
Day100 – ROB3/6 – Ust-Nera
September 28, 2012
Day 3 of the 6-day Road of Bones ride, and today it was 2*C all morning but it rose to a balmy 6*C in the afternoon. Magnificent views, always different, as ever:
We came to this slippery wooden bridge:
and you see the narrow side channels at the lowest height on the bridge’s road surface, well I slipped off the main track into one of those, there was no hope of getting back out of it and eventually – after, oh, 1 second – I dropped the bike, and went skating with it along the slippery wooden surface. Never mind, I picked it up and carried on. Here’s John riding a similar bridge, over the river Satarin; note that he rides in the “vertical” position, instead of the less conventional but more fun “horizontal” orientation of the motorcycle. And rider.
We are at 1000-1200m altitude all day; the tree line is very clear:
… and we have only 1,430 km to go, to reach the holy city of Magadan.
Two days done, 4-5 more to go. Let’s get rolling! Well, until we ran into this:
This was at the most scenic place on the whole road, where the road goes sharply down and curves around to a bridge and you can get cute photos of it. It’s in the trip brochure. The bridge is behind that spur of the mountain down at the right, going over the river (well, it would go over the river, wouldn’t it – duhhh…)
But high up in the scenic mountains, the scenic rocks had fallen scenically across the road; so a bulldozer was scenically clearing away those, and would have happily cleared away any motorcycles nearby. So we had to wait an hour or so … we spent the time watching the rocks roll down the hillside and betting on whether they would reach the river. A great cheer went up when this one made it – Kerr-Splash:
Eventually we were allowed forward. Ah, there’s the bridge (But not as cute as it looked in the brochure; yet another disappointment in regard to expectations, for which the trip leader can be blamed and roundly told off):
And the colours on the mountains continue to astound us:
Being at relatively high altitude now, we saw the snow line:
But we never reached it – we were having enough fun already. It is the end of the summer (hence the balmy 6*C temperature), and the bad autumn weather can set in any day now – the previous tour that Compass Expeditions brought over this Road of Bones, in 2010, copped 5 days of that; they were riding at -4*C up here. Mais soddez ca pour une alouette, as the French would say. We stopped in a miserable wet lay-by for a miserable wet lunch,
Here there was an abandoned (convict built) wooden bridge:
There are many of these, all replaced by modern concrete bridges now that the road is a Federal Highway, leaving most of them decayed and collapsed. There are many rivers, as everywhere in Siberia, so the equal number of the bridges shows the sheer scale of the convict labour that was exploited here. Later we came down in altitude to 600m and I snapped this cute, colourful pond:
And then, at Kyubyume in the early afternon, we came to the turnoff for the OLD SUMMER ROAD; the sign said “Tomtor 153?, IIRC. We wanted to ride the a few kilometres down this branch, in homage to the convicts, and so that we could truthfully brag that we had ridden on it. The first few hundred metres had huge puddles, deep, muddy, and stretching right across the road, making progress almost impossible, even on a motorbike, but we found an elevated track next to those – gosh aren’t we smart
The elevated track was in fact the ramp up to a bridge, which had fallen through, and as we made our way through the overgrown track, without warning we suddenly came upon it:
There was no help or mercy in crossing that river, and this was all in the first kilometre. So abandoning plans to complete even 1 kilometre of the Old Summer Road we returned, somewhat sheepishly, to the main M-56 Highway and after 10 minutes we came to the fuel stop at Kyubyume, where I took this photo of my wonderful motorcycle. Well, there wasn’t much else worthy of being photographed.
The bike looks pretty screwed, doesn’t it? And you see that little bright spot in the front tyre … well that is screwed, also.
So while waiting for fuel (which can be 30-40 minutes wait, as there’s only one pump and you have to pay before you take any fuel – you stick the hose in your petrol tank – so far so good – then as nothing will happen you have to go up to the window in the armoured hut and the girl inside, whom you can’t see, asks how much petrol you want and you say I don’t know because I want to fill it up, but she won’t understand a word of English so while she is trying to assimilate that concept you leave a $15 or $30 banknote with her and run away back to the pump, she will then activate the pump and you have to find and press a black button on it, petrol will then shoot out very fast from the hose and most of it should go into the tank, the pump will not shut off when the tank is full but you watch for that and stop pouring and hang up the hose, go back to the window and get your change, then go and move your bike so the next motorbike can come up to the pump and start the whole procedure again, while you and the other riders all wait for him to go through it – and this can be all in pouring cold rain; some garages sell Coca-Cola and chips, etc, and you can go indoors, but that never happens in Russia) we repaired the leak – this is quite easy on a motorbike if you have the repair kit, as follows. First of all you unscrew the offending souvenir and make the hole even bigger, with a special vicious circular file:
Then you put the special rubber plug into the insertion tool:
Then you bang the tool into the hole and force the plug in, by screwing down a plunger:
When the tool is taken out the plug stays behind and forms a very good seal, then you inflate the tyre and the pressure holds the plug in place. There is no need to do anything else, and you can ride forever on that. Hey, now I recall that all this happened to someone else on Day 71, also with a Phillips-head screw in the front tyre. They must be scattered about the roads of Russia in significant quantity. Anyway, in the evening we camped in a wide-open rocky quarry somewhat short of the much bigger town of Ust-Nera and, as throughout the whole day, it was bloody cold:
But the camp had a magnificent view out over the valley:
The sun set, further enmagnificenting the view, which can indeed now be yet further enhanced by cranking up the colour in the computer’s .JPG file until the trees catch fire:
The Moon rose. Well actually it didn’t, we were so far north – nearly at the Arctic Circle – that the damn thing failed to rise, it just skated along the horizon. Look at it in the first photo, behind the second of those four trees above the red line I’ve added – and 20 minutes later it has moved sideways and not risen! Where the hell are we, on the planet?
Day101 – ROB4/6 – Kadykchan
September 30, 2012
Fearing (rightly) that there would be no more like this, we took a last look at last night’s amazing view -
- and set off, in full rain gear again – in full rain gear I fear no weather, no spray, no hailstorms, nothing, but it is a lot more trouble to run the wires from the MP3 player into my helmet, so from here on I rode in silence. In any case the bike was making new rattling sounds every day and I wanted to try to understand what was coming loose, and to hear the bangs and thumps from the road surface. Who needs Arctic Death Metal music when you can hear and experience the real thing between your legs?
Anyway, we will soon have ONLY A THOUSAND KILOMETRES to go!!! -
This part of the Road of Bones is at higher altitude – Yakutsk is almost at sea level, our second camp at Khandyga was at about 400m and yesterday we climbed (you don’t notice slopes on a motorbike), now we are always around 1000m with mountain passes at 1300m (the Old Summer Road turnoff was at 1135m), but back in Kyrgyzstan we were camping for the night at 1900m and 2314m, and in the rain at that – brrrr! Magadan of course is at sea level, so when the road begins to go downhill on Day 6 we will be thinking, hey this is REALLY HEAVY, here we go downhill and all the way home.
The weather cleared up and we came to the top of a lesser mountain range, with sweeping views over, oh, much less than 1% of Siberia.
We came down to a flat sort of valley, leading into Ust-Nera.
The textures on the hills continued to astound us, and I hope dear readers, you.
Ust-Nera, on the river Nera, is at somwhat lower altitude (600m) – yes, it is down a hole. God, what a dump. This was the furthest north that we got on the whole ride – about 64.5 degress North, 3 degrees short of the Arctic Circle. (I have been similarly far south, by ship along the Antarctic Peninsula, and have been at 80*N at Spitsbergen on a different voyage of the same ship; there were walruses.)
The town sign proclaims its foundation date – from which you can tell, it was founded by prisoners, and its wealth derives (or, used to) from gold, reindeer, pelts of animals, and something radioactive, with snow dominating the whole show. We stopped for fuel, and I rode around the town. At least there is a little church, kept nice and clean in this oasis of mud. I could not find the shop, if there is one – so no Coke or Mars bars here.
I have seen nicer, less muddy towns. Jesus H Christ and his saints, get me out of here. Get me to the end of this Road of Bones. Get me to Magadan, where I can ride into the sea. Get me home. Hurry up, everyone fill up with fuel, I do not care what octane rating you put in but LET’S GET GOING AGAIN OUT OF THIS PLACE.
It began to rain. But what do I care? Every metre ridden is a metre towards home. And look at the map, we go south from here. South! They say it gets warmer if you go south. One of these days we will experience double figures on the thermometer. Ha! Ha! And we can watch flocks of pigs flying gracefully into the sunset.
My camera packed in, the lesser one, a battered old pocket Lumix TZ-1 which I’ve had since 2006 and has taken 22,000 pictures … well it’s about time it went, they make the TZ-30 now. Anyway what with the rain and cold, and the battering, it has given up the ghost. Farewell old friend … I took out the SD card and threw the camera onto a trash heap at Ust-Nera. (I still have the wonderful but heavy Canon 40D, and a spare Canon 20D and four lenses).
Yes, it was another bloody cold day. And wet and muddy. Due to muddy spray my visor kept getting covered in mud, and when I wiped it my glove got muddy too. At one point I could not see anything very well, but I could make out a large truck coming the other way, there was a left-hand bend and I moved to the right for more safety, the truck sprayed me with mud and my bike left the road (driving on the right, of course) and descended down a 15-foot slope, which had an interesting roadside structure of 3 or 4 different types of mud, earth, and gravel, requiring 3 or 4 different degrees of manouevring to stay upright. I really thought I’d be dropping the bike, but by my usual trick of yelling HORIZON HORIZON HORIZON and looking thereat, I kept it upright despite several near-falls. The rider just behind me said it was the most amazing feat of motorcycling he’d ever seen, well perhaps hisvisor was muddy too, anyway I took a deep breath, wiped my visor (carefully this time) and drove the bike back onto the road, and proceeded. As readers would understand by now, I feel perfectly in control of the bike these days and will happily address any obstacle that can actually be ridden over; even though I’ve only ever done 4 km on dirt (apart from the 6-8,000 km of dirt on this trip).
We came to a town founded in 1942 and now abandoned. The sign says “[town] named: 25 Years October” commemorating the 1917 revolution. I still have difficulty translating this sign but I see that among other letters, the ’2? has fallen off. All the buildings were ruined, but, men were still living among the wreckage. We came upon one group in the ruins, if they had not been paralytically drunk we would have been dragged off our bikes and, probably, eaten. Here’s me riding perilously across a makeshift bridge (it is wider than it looks)
If I lived here (although you can’t really call it “living”) I would put my abode on a truck like this guy is doing, and get out of here, and go anywhere else … even Ust-Nera.
We pressed on – being careful not to ride too near the edge of the road
And we came to another abandoned town, somewhat bigger and with more sober inhabitants …
… where we explored an abandoned building, probably the HQ of the mining company as it was full of maps and logbooks and the like, and a medical room with broken glass and bottles of medical stuff scattered everywhere. Really spooky.
In the USSR they could not only create towns overnight with a stroke of the pen, they could abandon them with another stroke of the pen if the coal-mine or whatever drove the town was thought not to be paying off. Ten Km down the road we came to Kadykchan, here it is on Google Earth, and on the ground
It was home to about 20,000 people, none of them convicts and nearly all volunteers (if you served a few years in a place like this, it would look very good on your public record and you would hopefully then get better jobs and nicer housing than if you did not so contribute to the welfare of the USSR). The discovery of coal nearby created the town, but when the Soviet empire fell the mine closed and everyone was out of work. They were offered re-location and HALF THE POPULATION preferred to stay, even without work – so one wonders what was offered instead. Despite this the town was destroyed, the hot water and power were turned off and bulldozers were sent in, to plough up the underground pipes. Nevertheless, a few clumps of people were still living here and we met a couple who were born here, and seemed comfortably off, with a car and some sort of income. But it is a ghost town; here’s the main street -
Here’s the library – the Soviets were very keen on literature so the library is always a big building. The caption says “WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF KNOWLEDGE” – further words used to be in the books inside the building, but no further words are now necessary.
Most devastatingly, here’s the Party HQ building dominating the top of the main street, with the inevitable bust of Lenin. His face has been shot off. Do that in the old USSR, and you’d be in deep poo – you’d be sent to live in Siberia … er …
We camped outside the school (at the red line marked on the above Google Earth map), eerie in the ruins – our camp fire being the only source of light (or warmth) in the town. Maybe Ust-Nera was not so bad after all. Tomorrow: another bizarre adventure awaits us.
Day102 – ROB5/6 – Debyn
October 1, 2012
We woke up in the ghost city of Kadychan. Very weird, nobody about except us. We made a late start so people could wander around and take photos, also, we felt that we had time in hand, having made good progress for the last few days. We did not know, but that had been our LAST CAMP OF THE WHOLE TRIP. No more hammering tent pages, wet tents and flysheets, inflatable mattresses and pillows, fly spray, cooking tent, 20-litre pots, folding stools, camp fire and vodka. Well, there’d be more vodka….
I had to change my back brake shoes. When you ride on sand or dirt, the dirt particles get between the disk and the brake pads and effectively apply the brake, even if you don’t apply the brake yourself, and wear the shoes down. Why does life have to be so hard? Today, mine looked like this:
- where you see the edge of the brake disk and in the red circle, the edges of the two brake pads which are right down to the metal. Another day and metal-on-metal squeals would be coming out … I’d probably mistake that for some of my music
It was easy to fit the new pads – especially as I didn’t do it, John did. There are a couple of tricks with fitting these that I had to learn, so he showed me how.
A few of us – me, Steve, Hugh & Andrew – went on ahead of the others, only to find later in the day that we had to stand around (in the pouring rain) for an hour to wait for the others, and the 4WDs, to catch up. The big advantage though was that we found the junction for the other end of the Old Summer Road and drove up it for a few km. So we have driven on the O.S.R. after all – the first part looked like this:
- the sign says “Attention! Travel through Lower Ayan-Yuryakh is closed” and wherever that is, some road workers nearby made it very, very clear that this road would not lead us to there or anywhere else, but (to their bafflement) we went on for a few futile kilometres -
At one point the ‘road’ crossed a stream – the ‘road’ goes over it from the right, where the pipes are:
You get the idea – progress was looking ever harder, so given that the road was closed at some later place, and we didn’t want to go down here anyway, we turned back and rejoined the main road. Mid morning we came to Susuman, quite a big town with a proper airfield and an air-force base. There were big blocks of flats, some abandoned, but we did not explore much, as the rain was steady and we were wet and cold (already, at 11am). Its main street does not exactly invite the visitor in:
But never mind, we found a shop! So we promptly feasted on Mars Bars and Coca-Cola. What paradise – the last shop was early yesterday afternoon and the next shop will be many hours away down the track. (The M-56 Kolyma Highway was called “Trassa” which means “The Track” because it was the only road in the entire surrounding area). Imagine our joy at finding this little oasis of cute comestibles and succulent sweetmeats! Other holidaymakers may sip on their Pina Coladas on a distant beach, and good luck to them because their joy cannot compare to ours, on making this most serendipitous of discoveries:
Susuman is of similar size to Ust-Nera but less exciting, and it was raining harder and the temp was 3*C. But we did get Mars Bars. In my later travels I would read of an even worse place than Susuman today, of which I will now tell; for the Magadan bus station has local and distant services, and its most distant service is the bus ride back to Susuman – which twice a week, after an agonising 700-km journey back up this Road of Bones, taking 16 hours, arrives here and tips out all its passengers – at 3:30 in the morning.
Ho hum, more intense colours of the trees and bushes. Compass Expeditions will send prospective clients a couple of DVDs extolling the virtues of this and other rides that they do (mostly in South America, which I hope is warmer than here) and I recall from the 15-minute movie of their 2010 Road of Bones trip that the trees up here were all brown – and they were riding in snow and ice, a couple of weeks later in the year than us. But we are seeing these fascinating green/yellow colours at the very start of autumn. Also, you see at the bottom right of that last picture, there’s a road going off into the bush? We knew that it led to an abandoned Gulag camp, so we decided to ride along and see that. The start of the road was like this:
- and those big puddles go across the entire width of the road and you can’t ride around the edges, the first big one was a few inches deep, the middle big one was axle deep, the last big one was deeper than that and one rider fell over in it, then there was a sea of black mud going off to the right. That was the first 200 metres, and as the abandoned camp is 16 km down the road we, er, abandoned the idea of seeing it. It also occurred to us, that the diversion would take so many hours that we wouldn’t get much further along the M-56 than than here today, and we would need to spend AN EXTRA NIGHT CAMPING. Here. It was noticeable that motivation was decidedly lacking in view of this concept.
So, we continued along the M-56 Kolyma Highway, which was also pretty muddy but nothing like as bad as the above picture. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was brought along this road and incarcerated in camps along here, not sure how long for but the death rate was only 1/3, these were not extermination camps (And they probably had other cheerful and positive aspects too). At 4pm we reached Debyn, which is not named but arrowed on the map which I repeat below, at the 5th purple star, showing (if I can jump ahead a bit) that we will stay our 5th night here – now, thereby hangs a tale …. Read on!
Here at Debyn the M-56 Highway crosses the mighty and dreaded Kolyma River, which gives its name to the road and the whole region – and saying it to a Russian is like saying “Auschwitz” to a European. There was a huge wooden bridge here, a miracle of engineering especially given that it was convict-built, but nowadays a concrete bridge spans the notorious, gold-bearing waters. The group of 4 of us waited, at a wretched bus shelter in this wretched town, in the pouring wretched rain. We had to wait for the other bikes and 4WDs and then see what to do – we had surveyed a workable but not very nice possible campsite just out of town. We talked with a local wide boy, Moses, who had been a Sergeant in the Russian Army. Here he is, with a friend … I don’t think there will be any trouble, do you?
Moses was very pleased to meet us because he had met, and been photographed with, Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor at this very bus shelter in 2004. I was called in to our guys’ conversation with him, to interpret. The other bikes arrived and John took this photo of the historic building and its attendant motorcyclists -
So we waited and waited for the 4WDs and one missing bike, which it turns out had had a puncture – to our relief, as we had feared the many worse things that can happen. Suddenly Moses turned up in a car and pointed at me, knowing that I was the only Russian speaker; in his best Army style he invited me to follow him. That is, he pointed right at me and loudly shouted “YOU! YOU COME!! NOW!!!” So without pausing to wonder how quickly, or where we might be going, I jumped on my bike and followed his car to a large but unlabelled building that was being refurbished, new floor tiles etc. This is it, later, when the 4WDs and bikes had also arrived.
Here Moses left and I was made to stand inside a big empty hall while 5 people arrived and looked at me. They said a lot of things I did not understand – my Russian is really very rudimentary – I was soaking wet, standing there like a large, wet, muddy, black fish while they muttered “We’ve got a right one here” and “Do you think he’d fit into the stew pot” – alarmingly, one of the 5 people was wearing a white coat. Then I was motioned to follow up some stairs and was shown a big empty room with 7 metal beds in it; here it is after we’d moved in -
So it turned out that Moses, as a great motorcycle lover, had fixed this for us. We could stay in this building, have the use of several rooms, toilets and 1 shower, cook our food outside and there would be no charge! We spread out on the 7 beds, 8-10 inflatable mattresses and I set up my Snororama in one of the bathrooms. We even charged up our mobile phones and stuff. Imagine – staying the night in a BUILDING, with floor, walls and a ceiling! (and, looking ahead again, tomorrow we’d be in a building too, and forever after). Our gratitude was intense, we were very wet and very cold, frostbite was starting to form in my thumbs and big toes, all our gear was soaking wet and we had not been looking forward to camping.
I spoke to two women in white coats to help arrange all this. All the other rooms were empty on the ground and first floors, we were on the first floor and there were very few people about. There was rudimentary hygiene equipment and one bath/shower was configured for the disabled. The building, whatever it was, had fallen on hard times like the rest of the region; populations in 1989/2002/2010 were Ust-Nera 12,000/9,000/6,000, Susuman 17,000/8,000/6,000 and here at Debyn, 2400/900/700 people. The place looked horribly sterile and clinical.
“Is this a hospital” I asked and they smiled and said “Sort of”. Although discouraged from doing so, I wandered around and onto the second floor, where a stern sign said NO ENTRY! but another rider did venture in … to walk a ghastly corridor of dark, padlocked cells with mumbling, groaning people inside. Oh great. We are staying in the town’s lunatic asylum.
Come to think of it, this was an appropriate place for us to stay, and I was surprised that they let us out.
|10-02-2012, 07:08 AM||#111|
Joined: Aug 2009
Location: Our Hub is Ballan, Australia
Day 103 – ROB6/6 – Magadan!
October 2, 2012
Oh what a day. What a glorious day … we woke up at Debyn in the town’s loony-bin and they let us out, and the day improved even further from there. The rain even stopped in the afternoon.
There were 1550 km of the Road of Bones ridden and lying behind us, traversed in five days, with 450 km still to go to reach Magadan.
Magadan … it’s a bit of an emotional burden to even think about this day, Thursday 30 August 2012, a day which will forever remain in my heart; I’ll see how far I can get, writing this. Because this day will bring not one, but two mighty challenges for all of us; and mastering each of them will be up there with the biggest things we have ever done.
Here at Debyn, the weeds sparkle in the downpour and the birds are shivering in the trees, we are in the Kolyma valley at 300m altitude; but the road will rise to 1000m and stay up there much of the day. Just over the other side of today’s mountains, at about 800m altitude will be our FIRST CHALLENGE – here will be the place where the river Orotukhan has flooded and washed the road away. If we can’t get through that – and the damage is said to be 50km long, and two weeks ago motorists were being helicoptered out of here – we will have to go all the way back to Yakutsk, a five-day journey in worsening weather. That 5-day return trip would be the penalty for failing this test of motorcycling skills, endurance and manic persistence.
But there will also be a penalty for success, because if we do make it across the floods and the river, we will come to our SECOND CHALLENGE which is that the road will go downhill, more and more downhill and we come out of the mountains and today or tomorrow, we will come to Magadan. And the ride will end and there will be no more motorcycling and everyone will go home and we will have to go back to our former lives and when each day starts, the great friends that we have all made on this trip, lifelong friends to die for, they will not be there and there’ll be no motorbikes and nothing to do and nowhere to go. And none of us can face this. It cannot happen.
So, clad in our wet-weather gear as on so many other days, we said goodbye to the loony-bin and set off, crossing the Kolyma River, admiring the usual glorious scenery, the trees and bushes glistening in the rain; some bushes got wetter than others -
And we came to the settlement of Orotukhan, and a little further on, still in the pouring rain, the road forked into two ways, both gravelly and in bad condition. We chose the left-hand path, which looked older, but after a kilometre of that, the track ended abruptly at a rocky 5-foot drop into a foaming rapid torrent, although it was ‘only’ about 30 feet wide. This was the tributary of the river Orotukhan (itself a tributary of the Kolyma) that, as advertised, had washed the road away. With remarkable skill, several motorbikes made it down the rocky drop and across the violent waters. The rest of us turned back and chose the other fork of the road; across this there were several runs of water each 30 feet wide but reasonably shallow, although one was running pretty fast and it grabbed your steering so you nearly drop the bike. I have no pictures because it is no end of trouble (and damage) to get the camera out in the wet, but this picture was taken from the 4WD that followed later -
So, we crossed all of these inundations with everybody intact. We then rode along, watching out for the rest of the 50-km damaged road – but there wasn’t any. Crikey, was that it? Yes that was all, well, all for the first test; the second test will be harder.
We kept going and soon the vegetation was seen to be changing – the trees were thinning out, eventually no trees and great bare spaces opened up; we came to one wide-open downhill part -
From the different vegetation it was evident that we were over the top of the mountain range and starting to come down the other side. Desperate for signs of getting to the end of this road we appreciated the vegetation change, and the road surface improved slightly. Heaven help us, it is another sign from the angels, we are heading for Magadan and we are within reach of it. I can feel it already. A road sign showed a knife & fork and the added caption “75 km”. That would be at Atka. Oh dear God, we know Atka from the maps as being a veritable metropolis with a Fuel Stop and a Cafe. It’s on the final stretch to Magadan. Dear God, what have we come to? I never rode 75km so quickly, or so it seemed. Maybe I was not riding, but flying.
Atka had several buildings. We squelched our way into the cafe, sat down (soggily) and enjoyed, well, ate, a bowl of borshch that sold for triple the usual price. But what did we care – there are lots of things that can be known, but now we knew this fact, that Magadan was … ONLY … 200 km … AWAY … and we would be there today. The road will get better, the weather will get better, and even if we crawled on our hands and knees, which we were fully prepared to do, we’ll be in the Magadan Hotel this night. We had a second bowl of borshch, hang the expense.
Nothing else matters. We filled up at the Atkanskii fuel stop, the usual wretched affair in the pissing rain, with the usual scowling, surly woman in the defended building who takes your money. I actually danced in front of her and gave her a tip, a faint glimmer of a smile flickered across her face (but I may have been mistaken) – because we will have to ship the bikes from Magadan with nearly-empty fuel tanks, therefore this is the LAST STUPID FUEL STOP where we will have to go through this silly ritual of paying in advance, gesticulating, waiting, queueing and waiting again all in the bloody freezing rain and I DONT CARE ANY MORE, I will fill my tank with the finest champagne, I will push the bike along the road when it conks out, I will carry it on my shoulders. (But I will not leave it behind, under any circumstances; this bike is part of me). Imagine our joy, look, you can splurge in the happiness exuding from us in this picture at the single-pump Atkanskoidalovitchesky fuel stop -
And then as I recall, I sat on the seat of the bike, pushed it off the stand, pressed the starter button and set off, knowing (but denying) where I would be when I put the stand down again. In denial because this ride can never end. I could turn it around right now, and go back to the Ace Cafe in London.
Oh holy hell … I felt as an Olympic Aerial Skier must feel as he stands at the top of the ski jump. And indeed, the road did go downhill, but gently. The weather improved. The rain stopped. The birds coughed in the trees and the bears shat in the forest. The dense covering of trees and bushes returned and became, as usual, magnificent:
I stopped at a little religious site with a well, and as the weather was now not only dry but hot (oh, 10*C or so) I took off my rain gear.
Yes I took off the weather jacket and waterproof trousers and stowed them in the rear carrier box – I won’t need them again, if it rains again today I can get soaked through, because nothing matters any more and I will probably never wear them again because when I’m at home and there’s a bike ride and if it’s raining then I won’t go on that ride …
And then something really weird happened. Unbelievable. Look at this:
No no, not the hills or the trees, look at the bloody road! The road is covered with solid grey stuff. I remembered from a week ago, the streets of Yakutsk were similar. Tarmac. I cranked the bike up into 6th gear and did heaven knows what speed along it, briefly. Tarmac! And I knew, if I were to grab hold of the tarmac ribbon and pull really, really hard, Magadan at the other end of it would come sliding up towards me.
We flew down that tarmac road like saints on acid, into the valleys, with 28,000 kilometres behind us – London, Budapest, Istanbul, Rostov, Volgograd, Moscow, Samara, Aqtobe, Aral’sk, Baikonur, Tashkent, Samarkand … Samarkand! with its dusty, priceless, jewelled mosques … Bukhara, Bishkek, Issyk-Kul, Almaty, Irkutsk, Ulaan Bataar, Tsetserleg, Karakorum, Chita, Skovorodino and Yakutsk, we’ve ridden through them all, they rattle in the brain; the Channel Tunnel, the perfect freeways of Europe, the cracked roads of Russia, the dusty sheep-trails of Mongolia, the muddy tracks of Siberia; five-star hotels, no-star hotels, a lunatic asylum, camps on waste ground, camps with cannabis bushes, camps with bear shit, cathedrals, mosques, museums, mighty cities, tiny villages, missile ranges, astronaut launch centres, atom bomb test sites, war memorials, statues, deserts, swamps, forests, huge rivers, lakes the size of open seas, seas with no water, heat, cold, rain, hail, thunder, blinding dust, mud of several interesting types, and scenery of unspeakable beauty, all of these burned behind us as we came slamming down those hills in the ever-warmer air, down from the vast Siberian plateau and down towards the open sea, ever down and down as tears ran down our faces and eventually, after 103 days actually, as choirs of angels watched over us, on a rainy Thursday in August we saw this:
At least, I think we saw this
Gosh, what a muddy motorcycle
Deany stuck his head up the arse of the town’s civic mascot
Our Fearless and Heroic Leader, finally able to go napping on the job:
Now know this:
I have never feared the miles – not even 20,000 of them, halfway around the planet and crossing eleven time zones. And I have never feared what might lie behind the hill. But after we passed the town sign we came to the brow of a hill and then this view appeared
sorry I have to stop for now
|10-02-2012, 07:10 AM||#112|
Joined: Aug 2009
Location: Our Hub is Ballan, Australia
Sorry about the lack of photos in the final Road of Bones section of the blog. To view the photos visit Steve's personal blog
Thank you Steve!
|10-02-2012, 01:55 PM||#113|
Joined: Dec 2010
Location: Basel, Switzerland
That was great. Thanks a lot!
Loved the writing, it became better and better and the last parts were incredible! I can almost relive what emotions were present on a ride like that. There is no "normal", only the extremes.
Again, thank you for the write up of this great trip.
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