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What I didn’t tell Sherri Jo was how far we still had to go … 320 km on dirt mountain roads. Not only was it now raining, but it was cold. Barely above 10C (50F) … when you are wet and cold, it’s a bad combination.
First stop was some triumphant fotos on the other side of the Kyubeme Bridge:
We stopped at a film set my French friend Arnaud had built for French film back in early 2009. There was some shelter from the rain so I pulled out my fleece, and Sherri her heated jacket. That was the best we were going to get. There was no choice now but to hit the road and get to Khandyga.
As usual, when the going was easy, I rode on ahead and left Sherri to deal with the road alone, I stopped for photos every now and again, and made sure I saw her at least every 15 km.
There is a particularly steep section near the tiny village of Razvilka:
The rain meant a few sections had water over the road. I waited ahead at any obstacles. One section of road had been washed away and trucks were waiting for lower water levels, or a repair crew. I thought we had a chance to cheat. A new bridge was being built and I saw we could sneak up and use the under construction bridge, since the construction crew had closed shop for the day.
New bridges are common on this stretch as the older bridges get pensioned off. Being a designated “Federal Road” it receives healthy Federal Russian funding and maintenance and construction is evident along the way.
By 10pm and with daylight fading, we had made it to the village of Tyoply Klyuch, still 70 km from Khandyga and the end of the “Road of Bones”. Sherri Jo could go no further. She was shivering with the cold, despite having a heated jacket on. The constant light rain and our big river crossing meant that hands and feet were soaking wet. The temperature was only 10-12C. On top of that, it had been a long day. We had been on the road since 10am with the only breaks from riding being the fuel stop and river crossing at Kyubeme. I found a house with lights on and spoke to the inhabitants. It was a woman in her late 30s with a few boys around 18-19. She agreed to take in a cold, wet Sherri-Jo and even offered a garage for the bike.
I left Sherri-Jo in the company of the family and headed off for Khandyga. Four days ago I had told Arnaud, the French biker out exploring gulags this year that I would meet him in Khandyga in 4 days time. 45 minutes later I was in Khandyga and called Arnaud. It was the first mobile phone coverage I had in 3 days. Arnaud was staying in the Gulag and Road of Bones Museum in Khandyga – I should have guessed.
The following morning, Arnaud prepared to leave Khandyga, heading towards Ust Nera to explore some Gulags on his DRZ400 and I was preparing to move to a nice guesthouse in town.
I needed a nice warm shower, and the town’s hot water was off for its summer cleaning. The Guesthouse had its own electric hot water system – a real luxury in these parts! Sherri Jo would also need a long hot shower when she arrived. As we were both preparing to leave the guesthouse, I got a call from Sherri Jo … she had made it into Khandyga and was already waiting for me at the guesthouse. I drove around with Arnaud and after a brief foto-session, Arnaud hit the rainy road. Yuri the proprietor of the guesthouse came out and greeted me… he remembered me. He grabbed his camera, flicked through it and bingo, even found a foto of me and Tony with our bikes from July last year.
SJ pulled into the guesthouse just as Arnaud was leaving. We relaxed for the rest of the day and SJ checked out the Gulag and RoB museum. They had a guestbook there. SJ hit on the bright idea that this should be the guestbook that bikers sign in when doing the RoB. Tradition had it that the Chinese Restaurant in Magadan had the guestbook that everyone signed in, on completing the Road of Bones, but when we were in Magadan, we noted that the restaurant was clearly under different management now. They dont have a guestbook anymore, and all the clientelle appeared to be the towns gay community. We felt like the odd couple sitting in there. So unless anyone else has a better idea, we reckon the Gulag museum in Khandyga becomes the Road of Bones guestbook !
Sherri Jo cooked up a tasty stew of whatever we could find in the shops of Khandyga, supplemented with fresh garlic bread and red wine. Life wasnt so bad … even if it was cold and raining outside.
– – –
After another day or rain and rest, we finally pulled out of Khandyga early in the morning of the 6th of August. There is a 9am ferry across the Aldan river 40 km away from town and we were advised to be there at 8am. The road between the ferry and Khandyga is notoriously deep gravel and I decided we needed to set off at 6:30am. I didn’t want to miss the ferry, as the next one would be at 9pm. If Sherri Jo struggled with the deep gravel, we could be quite a while. The gravel was not only tricky for bikes:
I need not have worried. SJ did very well and we made it to the loading point at 7:30am, and waited an hour and a half for the boat to load up. The ferry travelling away from Khandyga is a relatively quick one – only 30 minutes, as it goes downstream and across. I know from experience, that the ferry going the other way, towards Khandyga, takes 90 minutes.
Sherri struck up a conversation with a Yakut geologist on the boat – unlike the Aussie one she spoke to back in Atka, this one didn’t have a beard, as most geologists seem to.
Once across, we had 400 km to do to Yakutsk. The road was wet and in worse shape than the previous time I did it. I had told SJ the road from here to Yakutsk would be a breeze, but it was anything but. I was grateful we had waited an extra day in Khandyga, as one semi dry day had seen enough trucks use the muddy road to dry out some wheel tracks through the mud.
Despite the mud, I pressed the importance of making it to Yakutsk that evening to SJ. We stopped a couple of times, once for food and once for fuel, and by 5pm we were within 30 km of Yakutsk. Only the final 30km was a loose sand and gravel mix. At this end of the day SJ was getting tired, concentration levels falling and hands were ready to drop off. I waited for her near the ferry turn off for over half an hour. On this better road I had ridden ahead and let Sherri Jo ride her own road. I stopped to check on her every 20 km and then rode ahead. The last 20 km took her about 40 minutes. When she finally met me, waiting on the asphalt at Nizhny Bestyakh, just across the Lena River from Yakutsk, she was clearly knackered. Fortunately from here it was asphalt to the ferry and then an hour rest on the ferry while it crosses the massive Lena River to Yakutsk.
We were met in the centre of Yakutsk by old friends Artyom and Katya, who I had stayed with previously, and Bolot the imformation master of Yakutia. Also with them was an energetic Italian chap, Daniele, who had just cycled from Yakutsk to Magadan via the new road.
After garaging the bikes, we all headed back to Artyom and Katya’s for beer and dinner.
It was an early start in Tomtor, as we had a huge day ahead of us. There would be no towns on our route until Khandyga, 500 kilometres away: 165 of that was still on the old summer road. We began the day at the museum in Tomtor. The Museum had everything from typical Yakut houses and local Yakut history, to the Road of Bones and Gulag history and had a decent section on the Alaska-Siberia air bridge, that delivered US lend lease aeroplanes to support the Soviet war effort against Germany. 8500 planes left Fairbanks, Alaska, hopping via Nome (Alaska), Uelen (Chukhotka), Seymchan (Magadan Region), Oymyakon / Tomtor (Yakutia), Yakutsk, Kirensk (Irkutsk Region) and finally Krasnoyarsk in Siberia.
Our final stop before leaving Tomtor was the pole of cold monument.
Tomtor and neighbouring Oymyakon have the coldest recorded temperature of any settlement on earth. -71.2 degrees Celsius (-96F) has been recorded here. I had spoken late yesterday to the cheery man about temperature and he said in winter, -50C was normal. -60C felt cold, and -40 was a warm day in winter.
Then we hit the road. West of Tomtor, the road was better still … not quite the same as the federal road, the Kolyma Highway, we were aiming to meet up with at Kyubeme, but I was comfortable cruising at high speed along the road.
Bridges, were exactly what you would expect from the Road of Bones – wild and romantic.
Lakes dotted the countryside. We had been in mountainous terrain since leaving Magadan and it was not about to finish now. In fact, after Magadan, you are in or around mountains until near Tyoply Klyuch: 1500 km of Siberian mountain roads. Does it get any better than that?
Three hours after leaving Tomtor we reached the final 200 metres of the Old Summer Road
… only the path was blocked with one of the biggest obstacles of the whole road, the Kyubeme River. I spent an hour in the water trying to find the shallowest route across.
In the end I thought I found one we could do. It would be tough. The deeper section had a ferocious current that I was barely able to stand up in. Before committing us to that route I told Sherri to wait by the river as I had seen some side tracks leading off downstream from the abandoned village of Kyubeme. I wanted to check where they went.
Sure enough, they led to a ford, just over a kilometre downstream from the bridge. This was clearly the preferred crossing point. Evidence of truck drivers campfires, as they waited for river levels to go down, was everywhere. Despite the fact that it was raining lightly, I thought the river looked fordable at this point. I needed to check it and see if it was indeed better than the other crossing route I had worked out nearer the bridge. I walked across. There was a deeper section for the first 15 metres, but the remaining 30 metres was fine: full of boulders, but only 2 feet deep. I returned to the bridge and got Sherri Jo. We walked again across the river at the ford and carried over anything not in an 100% waterproof environment, that was valuable. Key documents, cameras, mobile phones etc.
Then it was time for the bikes. I felt I could ride the bikes over comfortably with Sherri Jo helping for stability at the deeper first section. Her bike went first. I asked SJ to add some stability at the rear panniers. Over every rock, the front skid further down stream. Every few yards she had to switch from adding support at the back of the bike to adding support at the front – via the fuel tank … then the back slid downstream. But we made it over the deep bit and the remaining 60% of the river I was able to ride out. The I went back for my bike. Same deal. Sherri Jo could only support either the front of the back of the bike. Whichever section of the bike wsnt supported would get washed downstream as the bike momentarily lost traction over every rock. So it was 3 metres progress supporting the back, then 3 metres supporting the front. Once we had made it through the deeper section, SJ had the bright idea that we really should be getting some snaps and filming this. It was typical of my adventure rides. The toughest sections never have any photos. I get too focussed on just making it through. So I said “OK, good idea. I should be OK from here, fire up the camera.”
As SJ waded thought the rocky river bank to the other side, I looked down. I remembered my battery had been relocated to my sump. It was completely underwater. I yelled out to the girl to hurry up … If my battery dies here it will be impossible to push it over the rocks and out of the river. And thanks to SJ’s bright idea, and her scurrying across the river, we actually have some footage and fotos of the final stages of the Kyubeme River crossing. PS, pleased to say that battery in sump guard seems to have no problems even when submerged for a long time on significant river crossings.
And with my bike now safely across, we followed the path up to the back of the Kyubeme fuel depot … a lonely isolated pocket of humanity (and fuel) with no proper settlements until Khandyga (325 km west), Ust Nera, (240 km North East) and Tomtor (165 km East).
I have heard of people kissing the asphalt after doing some time on dirt roads, but Sherri Jo kissed the nice slick looking federal graded dirt road, now that we were off the unmaintained Old Summer Road.
By the time we had filled up it was raining properly.
I tried to explain to Sherri Jo what she had just achieved: knocking off the legendary Old Summer Road … and doing it in 48 hours. For a girl who had spent just one day off-road before we left Magadan, she had passed one of the ultimate tests. She had cleared falled trees off the road, she had waded her bike through muddy bogs, crossed countless water hazards … but she just asked where do we go now.
I told her, “now we have the most scenic stretch of all” … if the Old Summer Road is the most challenging part of the Road of Bones, the stretch between Kyubeme and Khandyga is the most beautiful.
I woke at 7am, Sherri was moving about and told me to go back to sleep as she had plenty of repacking to do. I woke again at 9:15am. Sherri Jo had rejigged her luggage and was all loaded up ready to go. But by the time I was ready to ride, it was almost 10pm.
True to form, the road continued as it left off last night. Every 100 yards, another tree had crashed across the road courtesy of the bushfires. But we were luckier … there were no trees that we could not find a relatively quick solution for. Most could be broken, moved or ridden over. When we had done 5km in our first hour, I told Sherri Jo things were looking up. I told her about the day I had on the BAM Road last year when Tony, Terry and I managed a mere 9km in a day, and 65km in three whole days.
By 11:30, with an hour and a half of struggle under our belt, I announced to Sherri that we had exceeded the 9km day from the BAM Road, and we had done it in 90 minutes. To be even more positive I noted that we were now riding in an area not touched by the fires … and there were no trees across the road.
While the tree situation now appeared to be no longer an issue, water crossings were. There were small sections of BAM Road-esque bogs and deep murky puddles that spanned the entire road. While Sherri Jo was quickly becoming adept at the simpler water crossings and muddy puddles, I still helped out for the more challenging ones. The unspoken deal was I would obviously help out less and less as time went on, and increasing I stood and simply told her what line to take and how to handle the obstacle. The girl listens, and as a result was rapidly gaining the ability to do most of the water hazards and other obstacles herself.
We stopped for lunch at 1pm. We had done 50km in three hours. Our pace was picking up, not because the road was getting better, but because there were now no more trees over it. The road was still in very bad condition. The impression I got was it was not generally as bad as the BAM Road, many section of which hadn’t seen maintenance in 25 years, but I guessed it was at least 15 years since this section had seen maintenance. By now we were riding with Mosquito hats on. The bugs and mosquitoes could be avoided when moving in 2nd gear or more, but anything less than that saw then feasting on us. Safer just to spend the day riding with the nets on.
The Old Summer Road was until 2008 still the only way to get from Yakutsk to Magadan, despite the lack of maintenance. In fact much of the maintenance was done by passing traffic. If trees were across the road, the first guy with a chainsaw (almost every off road vehicle in these parts has a chainsaw for this very purpose) would chop it up in small bits and clear the road. Every hole in the road would be filled again by trucks using the road and every unpassable section of road would see a detour made around it by the regular traffic. But since 2008, with the new Summer Road completed via Ust Nera to the North, there is no reason for any traffic what-so-ever between the hunters camp at the southerly tip of the road and Tomtor. Everything for the hunters camp goes via the road to Kadychan, and every thing in and out of Tomtor goes via Kyubeme. Nothing goes between Tomtor and Adygalakh any more and so even the maintenance of passing drivers is no more. It’s 200 km of deserted, abandoned road.
Soon after lunch, we crossed in Yakutia. We were greeted by bear tracks – but they were not that large, and not that fresh. We shrugged them off and rode on:
I was optimistic that Yakutia, with its wealthier, growing population would have better infrastructure investment that the declining population of Magadan Oblast. And so it was. Immediately on crossing the ‘state line’ the road improved considerably. I was thrilled. Clearly the road was no longer maintained. But I reckoned it had seen a grader at some stage, perhaps about 5 years ago. I was overjoyed at our good fortune and several times took the bike up to 100 km/h to celebrate. While I had been doing 40 km/h in the Magadan section after Adygalakh, with odd bursts up to 55 km/h, now that we were on the Yakutsk section I was comfy at 70-80 km.h with bursts up to 100. Sherri Jo seemed to be picking up the pace accordingly too. While she had been doing about 25 km/h on the Magadan side of the line, she was doing 40-45 on the Yakutsk side. I began to think we can make Tomtor today. Tomtor is 2/3 of the way down the road from the direction we were coming from. It’s effectively the only town on the Old Summer Road. It was 190km from our overnight camping spot.
60km from Tomtor we bumped into the first people we had seen in 23 hours. A van full of Yakuts … our hunting I assume, tho they denied it.
They were able to re-assure me that there is fuel at the moment in Tomtor. From this point on, there were increasing numbers of vehicle tracks on the road. Obviously Tomtor locals come out this far, but don’t go beyond the abandoned village of Kuranakh Sala.
We made Tomtor by 5pm. It was progress beyond my wildest dreams. From here to Kyubeme is well trafficked. It’s the only way stuff get into or out of Tomtor. I told Sherri Jo the hardest part of her world tour was over. From now on it will be a cruise. She needed to hear it. The last 25km into Tomtor had clearly been a struggle for her, driven only by the thought of a shop, some food and a warm bed for the night – civilisation.
I stopped a cheerful looking man in the street and asked directions to a shop. He not only took us to a shop but then when I asked where we might stay for the night, he got two young lads on bicycles to lead us to a specific house, where we were greeted by Tatyana, the lady of the house, with “you are the bikers?” in Russian. I shrugged and looked at Sherri Jo and said “yes, that would be us”.
“I heard you might be coming from Bolot”.
“Bolot?” I asked … “Which Bolot?” I have a friend in Yakutsk called Bolot who had been following our travels … surely no …
But yes, my friend Bolot had obviously been watching the spot tracker on Sherri’s website and called contacts in Tomtor to say we might be coming. Accordingly an apartment had been prepared for us … a room each, and bathtub (much needed), a kitchen where we could prepare some food. It was overwhelming.
It was almost 2pm by the time we left Kadykchan. The reason I wanted as early a start as possible was today we begin one of the classic adventure rides … the Old Summer Road section of the Road of Bones. If I show a map of the whole Kolyma Highway / Road of Bones system, you will note that between Kyubeme and Palatka (just north of Magadan) there are four segments, Two between Kyubeme and Kadykchan, and two between Bolshevik and Palatka. The northern branch each times the road splits is just known as the Kolyma Highway, or Kolymsky Trakt. The southern alternative between Bolshevik and Palatka is known as the Tinkin Road or Tinkinskaya Trassa. The southern alternative between Kyubeme and Kadykchan is known and the Old Road or Old Summer Road. Of these 4 segments, 3 are maintained roads. One segment is no longer maintained, and is, in parts, abandoned. That is the Old Summer Road from Kyubeme to Kadykchan. This is the “classic” stage of the Road of Bones.
Sherri Jo, who left Magadan with a grand total of 2 half-days of off road riding under her belt, was going to have to learn fast or die trying. We made good time on a well used first section … the first 40 km southwest from Kadykchan to the Old Summer Road’s most southerly point, where there is now a popular hunting / fishing base. As we turned northwest, the road began to deteriorate and it was clearly not so heavily used. Our speed slowed. We passed the abandoned village of Adygalakh and met a couple in a landcruiser. They were from Susuman, but the man had been born and raised in Adygalakh, when the town had existed, and they often returned to the region to pick berries and soak up the utterly wild, unspoilt nature. We were offered as many blueberries and redcurrants as we could fit in our mouths. Soon after saying goodbye to the berry picking couple, we were on a road that to all intents and purposes looked abandoned. I could see only one set of vehicle tracks … made a day or two ago. To make matters worse, there were bushfires in the area and the area we were passing through was still smouldering. A tragic (for us) consequence of the bushfires, was the large number of trees that had fallen across the road. Some we were able to move. Some we were able to break. Some we were able to lift and ride under. And there were some we could nothing about at all about. One log took 90 minutes to get both bikes over. I had to crash my bike over it. Get the front wheel up, and then throw the back end over. SJ’s bike I decided to take around through the burnt out forest … through super light ash – impossible to get any traction … all the while hoping cinders didn’t burn through the tyres. Every 50-100 metres was another tree across the road. We had said goodbye to the berry picking couple about 5pm. By 10pm we had done a mere 8km more. If we’d had a chainsaw, we might have done it in an hour. We reached a stream across the road at 10pm and refilled our water bottles. The struggle with the trees across the road had resulted in me drinking a gallon of water since 5pm. I spoke with Sherri, who was as knackered as I was. We were both covered in soot from manhauling burnt trees and driving bikes through ash. There was just an hours daylight left. It was time to set up camp. There was clearly no traffic on this section of the road, so we set up tents in the middle of the road, right next to the stream.