Audio below: Leigh speaking on ABC ‘Australia All Over’
re: Road Of Bones
‘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.
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.
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.