Siberia ‘Road of Bones’ Expedition

You will definitely meet bears….

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‘You will definitely meet bears’ remarked our drunken Russian guide. After a pause and a reflective look away, he followed up in a concerned voice ‘I hope you escape’. Needless to say the three of us looked quite agaze at each other. We just hoped that for Anton, our Russian Comrade in whom we placed all our trust, that it was simply the ‘vodka’ talking. Time will tell. With that stark thought uppermost in our minds, we skulled the last shot glass of vodka like it was our last – proudly shouting ‘Pedonya’; that is ‘drinking to the bottom’ – staying true to Russian traditions in an act of enticing good karma.

Up until that moment we were never really sure as to whether we would come face to face with the Russian brown bears.  Some say you won’t see them and they are no problem. Others say it’s a big concern. Now, as we were about to embark on our remote Siberian expedition, the locals confided their concerns to us. For the first genuine time, we know the risk is real. In the morning, our merry band of five Aussies nicknamed the ‘Kolyma Komrades’ will also get real on our 2000km mountain bike journey through this Siberian Taiga Wilderness– whether the bears like it or not.

Like many trips, the birthplace of this sojourn was a long held dream of an adventurous mind. This dream was held by my father, Leigh, who visited Russia in the early nineties on an ultra-marathon challenge. Like many of us, he was drawn to this land – the largest wilderness on earth – otherwise known as the land of the sleeping giant. Dad was one of the first few westerners to visit these remote areas of Siberia and Far East Russia, particularly the much heralded Kamchatka peninsula. Needless to say he was quite enchanted by what he experienced and it was during this marathoning challenge that he learnt of and was captivated by the untold secrets of Siberia and in particular the tragic history of the Russian Gulag prison camps. The seed was planted. Almost 20 years to the day, he had returned to fulfil this desire, with us comrades in tow.

The next morning we found ourselves basking in the obligatory pretrip photos, albeit one or two of us with sore heads. Our moment had arrived. We were about start our ride east out of this small, mostly derelict, town of Khandyga. Yesterday we had driven from the metropolis Yakutsk in Anton’s UAZ (Combi van on steroids) across the great Lena and Aldan rivers, notably with one breakdown already. Nothing that some Russian ingenuity couldn’t’ handle. Yesterday, Anton seemed a little puzzled and unsure of our journey and today we curiously found ourselves unsure about him. It appears that some Russians can’t handle their vodka. Go figure, especially how the name extends from the Russian word ‘voda’ meaning that they supposedly drink it like ‘water’. As we excitedly started our wheels in motion, Antons wheels were well & truly seized up in bed. He muttered to us he would catch us up later in the day…..or was that still the vodka talking? Interestingly enough, he never got around to giving us the ‘bear safety talk’ as promised. It seems things never seem to go to plan in Russia.

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As we pushed out the first few kilometres trying to wear our backside in, it provided us with one of our first quiet moments to reflect upon this adventure of ours. As much as it was a journey of discovery for ourselves, it is also a journey to discover and learn about this historic Kolyma Highway which extends from Yakutsk to Magadan in Far East Russia. Back in the 1930’s, 40’s & 50’s – this road had a very tragic tale to tell. Millions of prisoners were forcibly made to build this road for the inland treasures and gold under the reign of the contentious Joseph Stalin. They became known as the Gulag camps. This simply translates to mean Main Camp Administration or Prison. From minus 60 degrees to 40 degrees above, the prisoners worked fifteen hour days. The camps were abysmal with virtually no sanitary facilities. Torture and abuse running rife. Incredibly and shockingly, it soon became the largest network of concentration camps ever created; Russia’s forgotten holocaust. It’s said that over a million prisoners died during its construction and they were simply buried under the road because it was too hard to dig through the surrounding permafrost. It therefore became the largest cemetery in the world and was therefore nicknamed the ‘Road of Bones’. We were here to not only challenge ourselves but to try to uncover and learn about the roads tragic tale.

With some good miles under our belt, we feared one of our greatest concerns may have already came true. That is, our trusty Russian guide may not be so trusty after all? It was well after lunch time and yet we had not seen Anton yet, fearing our dearly loved possessions are already being sold on the black market. It was about mid-afternoon before Anton appeared, swearing to never again go near Russia’s poison water. Not only is he carrying all our camping gear & food (all the vodka finished) but the plan is that he tracks us down during the day, hopefully a bit earlier, to supply back up and supplies on the road. By in large, we ride by ourselves – comrades wheel to wheel riding roughly 70 – 120km’s each day on our faithful mountain bikes.

Who are us comrades? Well, we’ve already introduced my father Leigh. As tough as old nails, he is not only the inspiration behind this trip but he is an eternal adventure seeker that has an astonishing ability to push his body to great limits, even at this ripe old age of 67. Hugh, dad’s neighbour, is also in a similar league (both in age and endeavour) to Leigh. A fit fella who has any eye for getting off the beaten trail. Then there is the ‘pups’ of the comrades. Jase is a meteorologist who has always taken a shine to the anything outdoors. The bloke has a heart of gold. Dan, an Outdoor Education teacher and small business owner, is an ever irrepressible source of goodness. He is frequently the rock of Gibraltar/ anchor man of many adventurous trips. Me (Ro)? Well…..wilderness seeker will do.

The day in the saddle seems to be a mixed bag of various road conditions, sore bums, deserted and dilapidated old mining towns and the occasional memoir to the prison camps. In years gone past, the raw remnants of these prison camps were clearly evident but these days it’s much harder to get a glimpse of as the forest and new road construction are concealing its tragic past. What is most noticeable for us riding along is the endless sea of gravestones commemorating the many tragic car accidents and ‘frozen to death’ broken down car tragedies. The cocktail of freezing conditions, remote highway and a poor excuse for a road has proven quite lethal. This highway (if you can call it that) has recently received government funding and so a new road is being built over the existing road to enable better access and reliability for the mineral resources. A better road is welcome to the occasional trucks and cars but one can’t help but draw a parallel that the new road is Russia’s attempt to bury the past?

Before we could crack under the pressure of the long cold days of bike riding, it seems Leigh’s bike had cracked…..literally. Normally that would mean curtains out here in remote Siberia but with uncanny luck, there was a construction camp nearby that had a welder. Uncanny. Preparedness and opportunity may have brought us good luck. With some crafty Russian handiwork, dad’s GT bike lived on. This bike has already survived a world cup mountain bike campaign years ago before dad got his hands on it…..poor old thing. The long days of riding thus far were certainly made bearable (pardon the pun) by the mostly good weather. As we now approached a remote outpost called Kyuburne, the weather was beginning to turn as we neared the mountains. We all sensed that we are now entering the cold heart of this Taiga wilderness. It had an eerie sense.

At two locations along this Kolyma Highway, the old road diverges away, albeit treacherously, before re-joining– as if in a defying effort to retain its forbidding heritage. Kyuburne is the first of these two divergents. This old road is said to be in a near impassable state as it is no longer maintained and is in total disrepair. Large four wheel drive trucks are lucky enough to struggle through on rare occasions though; which has always gave us a glimmer of hope. We all had a wry smile at this moment as it reminded us of an old Russian adage which appears to ring true; Russians don’t tend to build better roads but instead build bigger trucks. Indeed. We comrades are far from accomplished adventurers but each of us certainly ‘hold to’ and take a leap out of Robert Frost’s poem of ‘road not taken’. That is, we desire to venture this way to get a true glimpse of the GULAG era……but alas, the advice was that it was totally impassable and quite dangerous with treacherous river crossings, so sanity prevailed. May we get a reprieve on the next old road divergent.

Along this section of old road is a no name turn off to a little and mostly unknown place called Oimyaken. A place like no other. This place with its few buildings is well and truly frozen into the record books – albeit for far than enviable reasons. It is simply the absolute coldest inhabited locality on earth excluding the poles – period. What a ‘hands down’ drawcard. Sitting in a narrow valley by the Indigirka river, the mercury plummets to an astonishing 70 degrees below zero during the long dark winter. Hard to fathom for us Aussies. Later on, as we sit around the campfire sipping on hot milo’s, that chilling thought of Oimyaken is ever present as we gaze across to a neighbouring iceberg still commanding its place in the river throughout summertime.

Wearing two sets of clothes is often paramount in this neck of the woods. Not only does it help stave off the cold but it’s also for some relief from the dreaded mosquitos. At times during the year, they can reach plague like proportions, not to mention they are known to pass on disease like encephalitis. We rigged up a huge mosquito net under our tarp to keep the buggers at bay – thankfully though, our timing for our journey was spot on as the mozzies were reasonably dormant. Back in the saddle and our old familiar road is now under fire from a cold front bringing consistent rain. The mountains are beckoning. Thankfully the mercury hasn’t dropped below zero yet but the time will come. Climbing up one of our first few passes, we were greeted by some truck drivers keen to share their adoration of Vodka. Deja-vu maybe? As much as we have already had a fair initiation to this frequent Russian past time, saying no to these nomadic journeymen would be like declining tequila from a Mexican. Needless to say it gave us some dutch courage for the afternoons grind.

One of our greatest highlights while riding during the day is the small and meaningful interactions that we have with the locals. Not only are they a bit dumbfounded by our plight and take a keen interest but they provide an invaluable insight into the real Russia that we had come to see for our own eyes. One of the more hilarious interactions is our occasional lucky visit to a local ‘magazin’ (shop) for food and supplies for the days ahead. It also breaks up the long days on the bike. Half the battle is finding these stores, as they are usually tucked away in some tiny nook and cranny with no sign or fanfare. Then there is our almost comedial and poor Russian language which causes all sorts of beloved confusion. Needless to say, both parties are richer from the cultural experience.

As we ride over the Alchin mountains, the fog and mist were well and truly set in. Such moments just add to the surreal nature of where we are and what we are doing. We were constantly pinching ourselves. The road was gradually transforming into a mud pack….much to our bikes disgust, so it was a relief to reach our campsite for the night just before dusk. Most campsites were nothing more than a roadside makeshift affair amongst the local forest but like many adventurous folk can attain to, the hot food and banter were the daily highlights. A constant source of laughter was the toileting routine….or as we were instructed to call it – ‘govno’. Anton made a strong argument for always making a lot of noise when nature calls, so to scare off any bears. Needless to say, this gave a bunch of Aussies plenty of ammunition to take it to the next step and reel off any verbal diarrhoea that we could. You got to love the simple life…….and the simple pleasures that go along with it.

Speaking of bears, they were never too far from our mind or were a constant talking point. When something is higher on the food chain than you and you’re on their turf, it’s provides a constant eerie-ness. Anton finally gave us the ‘bear talk’ as promised but yet, it seemed quite casual and token…..not to mention many days late! On one side of the coin, there aren’t a lot of bears in this region so we are told but on the flipside a few people a year are taken and killed by them in Siberia. Then we are also told that locals feed them by the roadside (in order to hunt them) so they are reasonably prone to hang by the road. The funny thing is Anton himself sternly says that he is not willing to sleep under the stars for fear of his safety and so chooses to sleep in his car where the food is safely kept. Obviously we can’t all sleep in the car so we expendable comrades are forced to sleep outside. In a somewhat reassuring manner (??), Anton has provided us with large firecrackers to sleep alongside to use as bear deterrents should one have a visitor during the night. We never quite got our head around that thought or how we would pragmatically follow that procedure. We sleep in hope.

After yet another dilapidated old town and a few miles short of Ust Nera, we rode across a bridge a couple hundred metres wide. It was amazon’esque compared to the rivers Down Under. We had reached our namesake river – the Kolyma. It is just one of the approximate 100,000 rivers that flow in Russia which together is known to be the second largest supply of fresh water in the world (Brazil believed to be the largest due mainly to the mighty Amazon). Just amazing. Rising in the Kolyma mountains, it is the seventh longest river in Russia flowing over 2000km to the sea. It is frozen to depths of several metres for about 250 days each year, becoming free of ice only in early June, until October. It certainly distracted us from our mud bath for a minute.

The heavens have well and truly opened up and the road had turned into a mud dodgem derby. Our goal today was to get to an outpost called Ust Nera – a thriving mining town in the middle of nowhere. Our honest efforts to stay clean were totally in vain. We were simply caked in it from head to toe. Quite funny. We were unrecognisable to each other. Our bikes running gear was simply a quagmire. Jase was the first one to have his gear cables chock up with mud but he used nonchalant deft to simply kick his de-railler into the right gear. That was up until he couldn’t do so due to his bike shoe stubbornly not releasing from his pedal. Jase shared our laughter, knowing that we soon would be in the same predicament.

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The long cold day was getting to us too, particularly Dad who rode ahead faster to get warm and to suss out where to stay in Ust Nera. As we eventually strolled into town, we were greeted with a sea of blank faces. This is a town wholly geared towards mining and industry and so combined with the often foul weather, it was particularly stark grey in demeanour. Five bike riders were part of the usual fanfare. Dad had hunted down some accommodation, but needless to say, we weren’t allowed inside in our filthy state. Dad pulled off a masterstroke and found some hot showers in the local hot water station. In Siberia, hot water is at a premium so they allocate a large station for such a cause. In true Russian style, the showers were far from hygienic but it was still one of the best showers that we have ever had.

Then came the cultural exchange of the trip. We were thoughtful enough to have packed some Aussie souvenirs including…..the faithful boomerang. Like honey to a bee, the staff at the hot water station took to it and it was out to the muddy car park to test this stick out. Priceless. Not only was there the usual weird and wonderful throws and associated laughter, but the piece de resistance was when one chap, now part aboriginal, hurled a big throw that well and truly came back. Realising it was headed for the tin shed, everyone was screaming and up in arms before the inevitable ‘bang’ as it almost knocked over the tin shed. Like kids in the school playground, our cheesy grins and collective playfulness transcended beyond any language barriers and we were left with a moment that we all will never forget. Life is hard out here in Far East Russia but with that little moment these new comrades of ours were without a worry in the world…..even if only for a small period of time. With a hearty farewell we left the boomerang with those guys, in hope of routinely transforming that muddy car park once again into the Aussie playground.

That experience of a hot water plant amongst frozen wilderness was like a metaphor for how we found many Russians. After so much repression and suffering, most appear to have a cold and hard exterior. To us, it seems like many locals have chosen one of two approaches to survive. Understandably, a ‘survival of the fittest’ approach seems common amongst a few that have resorted to a ‘look after yourself’ attitude. By in large though, most seem to be the opposite. Once you get to know them, many have developed a spirit of collectivism and community to survive where each person is to each other a comrade. It was very heartening.

Apparently around Ust Nera, you don’t venture off the beaten track too much. It’s not due to the bears so much but the mines to the north are infamous for some very questionable activity; bordering on corrupt and sometimes malicious behaviour. People go missing. Our radar was well and truly pointed south. Ust Nera is one of those places that you can boldly claim that ‘you’ve been there’. It’s not particularly desirable or attractive to say the least but it’s definitely on the ‘road not taken’ and provides quite a humbling and learning experience.

The rain has eased and so with our bikes deservedly receiving more bath time that we had, we were off riding along the Kolyma valley. The road had dried up quite quickly and so we comfortably pushed out ~120km’s. Did I say comfortably? As much as we are all regular bike riders and we have well and truly worn ourselves in by now, we all had moments of tiredness and near exhaustion. After 1000km, it was only natural to have signs of wear and tear. This day it was Jase’s turn to be out of puff. Usually, there are enough interesting daily moments and cultural exchanges that keep us distracted from such tiredness. If not, we made our own entertainment like taking off songs like ‘Jukebox in Siberia’ made famous by the Skyhooks;

 

‘Aussie’s in Siberia,

Imagine the hysteria

Pain in the posterior

Aussie’s in Siberia’

 

Today, as we rode through the one horse town of Artyk, we were greeted by an old Russian riding his old World War II motorbike. An amazing relic. He, like many others, was a little perplexed why anyone would ride so far along this road but he certainly admired our efforts and willingness to embrace their culture. One of the earliest known people to cycle this road was Alastair Humphreys and Rob Lilwall in 2004. They did it in winter as an ice/ snow road, snow camping along the way – just amazing. More amazingly, Rob decided to take the long way home and for the next three year rode 50,000 km through 28 countries, an incredible feat. His journey was released as a book entitled ‘Cycling Home from Siberia’. Subsequent notable traverses included Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s round-the-world motorcycle journey in 2004, made into a popular television series, book and DVD, all named Long Way Round.

The day now took on a strong sense of grey and not just because of the rainy weather. We took a small side turn off the highway to meander through a town called Kadykchan, which resonates a grey nature in many regards. Known as the city of broken dreams, this old coal mining town was built by the Gulag prisoners roughly 80 years ago. In its heyday it was home to 11,000 people, all heavily involved with coal production. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, this place like many others lost its funding and the work quickly dried up. Everyone simply packed their bags and left. This full scale city in the middle of nowhere was simply abandoned with all its infrastructure intact. Photo’s still on the walls. Kids toys in the front yards. Playground swings swaying lonely in the cold breeze. It’s how we imagined Chernobyll would be like. A place that time forgot. Sure, there was no noise but at the same time it wasn’t quiet. There was noise and voices to the silence. Akin to many memories of this trip, this is one place we will never forget.

With that humbling experience behind us, we rolled into Susuman. As close as we can get to an oasis in this unforgiving landscape. Our bodies were well and truly aching, so this town provided a well earnt break, rest and reprieve from the mud and rainy weather. After we scrubbed up, we had the novelty of a small café/ restaurant! A few ‘pedonya’ (drink to the bottom) shouts of ‘pivo’s’ (beer) were indulged. After a few more humorous and barely productive Russian interactions at the supermarket, we had an important choice to make. The second old road divergent leaves nearby. It’s a road that we desire to travel. Early feedback was promising but then mother nature dealt us and Siberia a blow. Severe flooding along this road has resulted in landslides. Alas, again, the road is totally impassable. Even the main road is rumoured to be also shut in places ahead. One wonders if these two old roads will ever be travelled much ever again if the Siberian weather gods continue their usual reign. With that in mind, much of the physical memories of the Gulag may be tragically lost as well. We are ever glad that we are here, in a small part, to help hold up their memory and spread the word.

With some blue cell foam as extra padding in the cycle pants, to counteract some nasty rear end soreness, we pushed out a good day on the bike. Often one of us would scoot ahead and get some photos and video footage as the group rode by. The road was dry enough in parts. We found ourselves doing a sort of dodgem derby from side to side on the road, trying to find a half decent surface and avoid the worst potholes. It kept our simple minds entertained. Besides dads broken bike frame and endless chain cleaning, our bikes were holding up quite well. Anton had stopped ahead to allow us to have lunch and with that we sampled what seemed to be a Russian novelty – ‘cow in a can’. It became quite the talking point. A simple silver can that only had a picture of a cow on it. We ate some with trepidation. While we ate quite well on our camp oven, food choice is quite limited here and one is forced to broaden one’s horizons.

For once we found ourselves passing some vehicles and not the other way round. We came along a long line of vehicles waiting in queue and many drivers partaking in smoko breaks. We rode ahead wondering what is stopping their progress. By now, we have well and truly realised that no man made road in these parts is a match for mother nature as we came across a flood damaged bridge. While it was still standing, it was warped and buckled; clearly unsafe for vehicles. We enjoyed some banter with some locals standing around, all taking exception to these fluro coloured fools resorting to pedal power. Earthworks machinery was busy making a new temporary river crossing now that the water level had receded. For once our mode of transport was a leg up on others, as we were allowed to sneak across the old bridge. Reports were that accommodation would be at a premium in the next town of Yagodnoe, so we put the pedal to the metal.

 

As we rode into town, we eventually found Anton who was, let’s say, a little sheepish about our sleeping prospects. We are all quite fond of camping, so we weren’t too worried. He drove us to what accommodation he found. It was like a scene out of Hogan’s Hero’s. Some of us found it quite funny. Some backward looking dwelling that would struggle to meet most safety standards. We won’t go into details but in the end, we quite enjoyed it. It simply resonates part of the culture along this journey and culture is what we came for. Speaking of culture, we had our first opportunity to have a Russian Banya! Entwined deep into their historical traditions are these communal wooden sauna houses that are not only a deep cleanse but also a source of community and comradery. As curious Aussies, we had heard about these Banya’s years ago from Russian rafting videos and just like Vegemite is to us, this is a tradition that is a must do. The common pun with banya’s is that it’s a place where you meet, greet and beat. The beating part does prick one’s ears up, but it’s in reference to the birch tree branches used to hit and massage each other in the sauna. The obligatory hollers of exhilaration are common place as you receive a branch. Brilliant.

The forecast outlook looked as grim as the accommodation, so before we moved on we all improvised with our best Bear Grylls skills to knock up some makeshift mud guards. The roadside litter was just the ticket. It got quite competitive with rubber mats, milk bottles and vodka cans to say the least. It was a bitterly cold morning. We had a sense that this was a sign of things to come. The heavens opened up and not only were we dealing with the moisture from above, it seems the passing cars and trucks give little concern to our plight and threw in extra mud baths for good effect. Got to keep riding to stay warm. It’s fair to say the mudguards came into effect immediately. We find ourselves trying different things to mix up the routine and keep the countless hours in the saddle up vibe. Dan, ever up for some randomness, tried adding some vodka to the days riding. Hours later his feedback was ‘No more vodka while we are riding!’

The next morning dawned with a snow blanket over the landscape and our campsite. This is indeed the Siberia that we have come to hear and know about. The only way to get warm was to start riding ……. after we de-iced the bikes. We can’t believe we are riding at minus four degrees! Unreal. It’s times like these that you can’t help but reflect upon those Gulag prison camps. To think you could get ten years of this life just for stealing a loaf of bread. The remoteness of camp and the local bears prevented any chance of escape. Those that did soon perished albeit after resorting to cannibalism. Another sobering thought. There is an old Russian proverb that says ‘He who has not been there will get his turn. He who has been there will never forget’. Rest In peace.

We found a small store in the backstreets of a largely deserted old town which revived us with some hot coffee. We set in for what should be another hard and mostly uneventful afternoon. How wrong we were. Hugh and I were riding at the front of the group when a car approaching us in the distance was beeping their horn and driving erratically. It was at that moment that we saw it. A Russian brown bear was running off into the distance. Cripes. As much as we were sort of prepared for it, you’re not. Arguably with a stroke of bad luck, that bear could’ve been running after us! Hugh and I waited for the fellow comrades to arrive. Once the approaching car had reached us and told us that the bear had disappeared up the hill, we slowly started riding again; hoping that safety in numbers is our saviour. Dan noticed the bear’s footprint in the roadside mud. It was big. Very big. It was a certain reality check. Exciting but concerning. It was a definite theme for discussion that night as we camped under a bridge to escape the heavens opening up once again.

The awe inspiring Kolyma river graced us again as we rode through another one horse town called Debin. The bridge spanning the river was simply enormous. You couldn’t help but be humbled by the rivers sheer presence of at least a couple hundred metres wide. We pulled up stumps besides the river. As spoken about before, most nights revolve contently around the warm grub that we knock up and the engaging conversation that only such a trip can unfold. For tonight’s entertainment, besides the questionable cow’s liver stew, also was some tent dilemmas. The Kolyma was clearly in an angry mood and so overnight it astonishingly rose several metres. It was a sight to see. Jase moved his tent well and truly uphill the first time but dad awoke to find himself almost swimming on two occasions. Close call yet quite funny. At least it gave us a reprieve from his snoring! In the morning, the laughs continued as dad’s old Trojan bike gave up the ghost. No, not the weld but the rear cluster lost its ability to engage the chain/ was stripped and so try as he would to pedal, no momentum was transferred to his rear wheel. What was a real concern at first was soon overcome with comical banter as he crashed many times harmlessly trying to ride the damn thing. Anyways, we subbed his bike for the day until we could Bear Grylls something up.

We were now on a long stretch away from any outposts, just the way we like it. Feels like a road to nowhere. Five Aussies and a Russian guide in the wilds of Siberia. The road was still pretty muddy and full of holes so it kept our mountain bikes honest. We found that, if we gave dads rear wheel a firm knock on the spindle with a tomahawk, it engaged the drive system back and he could get a few hours riding out of his bike. As we also just heard that some more bears wee residing by the road further along, carrying the tomahawk was a good idea on many fronts. Rumour has it that it’s mating season. As the saying goes ‘If you see a baby cub, you are already dead’.

I found myself casting my wandering mind back to an inspiring talk we had with the intrepid adventurer John Muir some time ago. On his trek to the North Pole with Eric Phillips, he told a comical tale about their frightening encounter with a polar bear. As one bolted towards them whole heartedly, he calmly resorted to some previous advice and stood on his gear and made monstrous noises accompanied with a wild dance to hopefully ward the rapidly advancing beast off. It damn well worked. Well, at least the bear thankfully changed its path and retreated, whether it was John’s macarana to the rescue or not. ‘OK’ I thought. ‘The ‘bus stop’ prance will be my hopeful ‘get out of jail’ card. Hopefully the boys will follow suit.

A couple days passed pretty quickly as we rode through some more mountain passes. Anton kept us entertained with his nightly butane fireworks and cultural initiations. We initiated him with some Vegemite. His opinion of ‘not bad’ didn’t seem too convincing. Interestingly enough, post trip he has respectfully declined us sending any vegemite air mail. Go figure. Just when we had seen enough potholes to last a lifetime, our bikes rolled into the sleepy hollow of Atka. A roadside café served us some hearty Borscht soup which has now fast become a welcome staple in our unorthodox diet.

Riding back in a tight group again was heeded due to more reports of bears and cubs near the road ahead. Our man Anton drove ahead in hope of warding off the buggers. As you could well imagine, we had interesting theories and discussions about what position in the riding pecking order was safer during a bear attack. Any encounter we imagine would be randomly provoked, akin to like a shark attack so most theories went out the window, but it kept us simple men entertained nevertheless. Before the bears could get wind of our now questionable body odour, some locals near ran us over with their sheer excitement to see us out here in the middle of nowhere. They all jumped out of their large American pickup truck and were all over us with the exuberance of the paparazzi. It was quite infectious. Another one of life’s little cultural moments when a meaningful connection resonates above and beyond the necessities of the spoken language. They, like so many here, have such a sense of comradery and community that is bonding them through the tough times and disillusionment with governmental management. Whenever we glimpse a Russian with the somewhat stereotypical cold and hard exterior, we now have belief and hold hope that there is indeed a compassionate comrade deep inside.

It was another long stretch to the next outpost called Palatka. The daily kilometres were reasonably routine like by now. The weather seemed to be warming up towards the coast, right on cue. Right on cue was also the daily moments that spice things up. Today we met another bike rider, a Scottish fellow, riding solo the other way. Loaded up with all his gear, he was clearly ambitious on the journey ahead; akin to us only a few weeks back. Like long lost friends, the warm rapport of kindred spirits opens up with a cordial dialogue. After extending our best wishes to each other, it was on the lookout for a campsite for the night. The nearest river provided a beautiful place to lay our head for the eve. Some of the firecrackers that were exclusively reserved for warding off the bears were now enticed, albeit nervously, into dad’s birthday celebrations. He had knocked up 68 years. Not bad.  We reacquainted ourselves with vodka and rustled up a birthday cake. A Great moment that typified the uniqueness of the whole trip. Not only was this a birthday celebration, but it was also a farewell ode to the wilderness component of the trip as tomorrow we should reach a tarmac surface and relative suburbia, within two days of the symbolic end of the trip – the sea of Okhotsk.

Coffee is the welcome ‘go-to’ each morning. Not only is the coffee a quick pick me up ritual during a weary trip, it’s also a toast to rejoice another evening without becoming bear fodder during the night. Well worth a cuppa. Not long down the road, we reached a partially sealed road. With a landmine of deep potholes, the previous dirt road was a far sight better. A few more large trucks raced past, beeping their horn. The old adage ‘Bigger trucks not better roads’ certainly came back to mind. Palatka graced us by late afternoon with its small array of shops, buildings and curious locals. Some hearty soup and snacks were an absolute delight. A local Russian, whom clearly fancies vodka more than our Anton, latched onto our unusual cavalcade as we rode a few kilometres out of town looking for somewhere to lay our heads for the night. As harmless as he was, he was certainly vertically challenged. This night would be our last night camping out for us comrades and besides a small celebration, it should have been a regular affair. Not to be. Unless Anton is taking the mickey out of us a bit, he is showing definite fears of bears tonight in light of many sightings around town. Our trusty guide even faced the car ready for a quick getaway down the road, leaving us pondering if any mad escape involved us tent bound folk? Maybe we are the decoy! Not much we could besides the usual precautions so we laughed it off as best we could. The image of Hugh sleeping under the tarp somehow still clutching the firecracker for dear life was indeed an admirable effort I thought. Now…….where did I hide that lighter?

Restless night to say the least. A few times you nervously woke up as with the subconscious playing its silly mind games but by in large the bike riding fatigue always wins over. We sort of figured dad’s snoring would scare off the bears anyways. Back on the tarmac and before we could even find any morning rhythm on our treadlies, we were stopped in our tracks. A bear just ran off the right hand side of the road. Cripes, all within a couple kilometres of camp. Not only was that a bit chilling but it turns out that we were camping quite near the local tip. Needless to say, bears treat that place like drive thru MacDonald’s. In hindsight, all you can do is learn from it and have an innocent chuckle, relieved that we still grace this earth.  With the Siberian Taiga wilderness sadly behind us, the hub of Sokol was on our doorstep. This is the local airport town from which we would fly south in a couple days’ time. As we rolled into town, we had a slight wry smile on our face, knowing that we were about to pull this damn trip off and also a hot shower would soon be making us look hopefully respectable. At least as much as we were before anyway.  The night was grand. Dining out and some local Russians inducting us their town with a vodka and arm wrestling party. We flew the Aussie flag well….in regard to the arm wrestling that is. There’s always something priceless about kindred strangers coming together from different cultures. A proud and passionate exchange of social customs intermixed with comedic attempts at the others perplexing language. A few samples of alcohol seems to always be the common ground, arguably enhancing the interaction.

 

With last night’s memories spurring us on, it was onto the tarmac for one last time as we pushed out the last seventy kilometres or so to Magadan. Dan was on the money when he said ‘This will be by far the most dangerous day of the trip’ as many cars and trucks were racing past us. The pot holes were still keeping us on our toes, as we took on a more sleek riding formation – tour De Siberia style. It seems that word has got around about us unusual Aussie’s as the local TV station tracked us down by the roadside and cornmandeered Dad for an interview. Anton was our trusty translator – but judging from the often wry expression on his face, we wondered if he was toying with our responses or just at a loose end to translate and understand our Aussie lingo. The metropolis of Magadan was fast upon us with its visual stimulation of simple housing, Russian monuments and its haphazard vehicles and trucks. We now arrived at one of the biggest highlights of the trip. The Mask of Sorrow. This bold and discerning monument on top of a hill overlooking Magadan pays personal homage to the Gulag. The statue’s clearly evident teardrops are a painful reminder of deep ongoing weeping. Not only is it an endearing tribute but just as importantly, it seems to be provoking a timely reminder to all Russians to open up the old Gulag wounds and move on from this terrible past. A very solemn and be-stilling moment for us comrades. Each of us in our own way paid their final quiet respects to the Gulag. We felt that, after riding 2000km along this road of bones, some of the untold and appalling stories of these prisoners slowly opened up to us and this statue was the final eulogy. The memory of the Gulag will never leave us. We will look beyond the terror and instead draw great strength from their perseverance and their miraculous deeds against all odds.

We were well and truly due for a bath and so dipping our feet in the sea of Okhotsk was the next best thing. We had done it. Salt water never felt so good. We let our hair (now washed) down for the night and celebrated with our final banya. Rightly so, this was in true Russian style at our Russian friend Slava’s homemade backyard banya. Imagine scattily clad men jumping between the hot sauna and the icy backyard pool, all while feasting on seafood with vodka to wash it all down. Not just washing down the food but also the whole memorable experience. ‘Pedonya’. The final Russian ode was, amazingly, scampering past a Russian brown bear while driving the back streets home…..all within three hundred metres of five Aussies obliviously lounging in a pool! No one mentioned bears in the city to us, but somehow we were not surprised. This is a land that you have to experience firsthand to gain its knowledge and insights, no lonely planet guide can fill this void.

It was goodbye to our new comrade Anton for his guiding and friendship. He himself has had a difficult life and so we hope that his future reflects the promise of a revitalised and optimistic Russia. For many Russians, the ghost of the Gulag is still wandering inside. We learnt that, sure there are tragedies but amongst those tragedies are also miracles. The true Russian stories, culture and their miracles have inspired us. We draw endless strength from the Gulags. We hope that in reading this tale and learning about the Gulags that you do too. Each person is to each other a friend, a brother, a comrade.

 

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