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ROAD OF BONES: Unless you were paying particular attention during history classes at school, it never really featured in our knowledge base. That was until Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman made it a household name in the Long Way Round series.
The ride has now become an epic ‘must do’ journey for any biker who craves real adventure and still wants to ride somewhere that hasn’t been ridden to death by a million others. Places like that are on the ‘soon to be extinct’ list…
June 12th 2010 and a group of nervous bikers gathered at the legendary biker’s hangout in London, the Ace Cafe, about to embark of a day ride across ¼ of the earth’s surface organised by being run by Australian company Compass Expeditions. Joe and Carmen, Pat and Lauren, Mick and Murray, Isaac and Jacquie, Jason, Leo and myself (another Mick), all gathered, along with many well-wishers, to begin the Expedition. A good line-up of BMW motorcycles were also represented to undertake this ride; we had the old Dakars, F650GS Twin, F800GS, R1200GS and a number of the new G650GS singles. After a quick ride down to the Dover docks we had our last views of those iconic white cliffs and crossed onto the European continent and into France. The riding was a mix of freeway and back roads stopping off at small French villages eating strawberries and drinking coffees; just because we’re bikers doesn’t mean we have to do things the unnecessarily hard way.
We kept a good pace across Europe experiencing some magnificent riding through the Swiss Alps, the Tyrolean region of Austria and onto the Danube in Hungary. Those of us with a sweet tooth revelled in Budapest when we paid a visit to the famous Gerbaud cake shop which has been going since 1856. Romania was a revelation to us all with its medieval castles and old town squares, the ancient towns of Timisoara and Sighisoara were highlights for us. Riding the small country lanes through Transylvania was particularly stunning with every castle potentially housing a Dracula type character. The foul weather we had been experiencing across Europe just added to the eerie effect in Romania (Jacquie swears she saw bats). We were in the middle of the worst rains in 300 years and it didn’t let up when visiting Dracula’s castle at Bran.
Crossing the Danube and into Bulgaria we visited the UNESCO listed village of Nessebar, the oldest continually inhabited place in Europe, a tiny village with narrow cobbled stone streets that was crammed on a rock that juts out into the Black Sea.
A wonderful ride saw us enter the chaos of Istanbul, the gateway to Asia, again in driving rain. Some days were spent off the bikes visiting the famous sights of Ayasofya, Topkapi Palace, the Roman baths and dining at the Pudding Shop, the restaurant that features in the classic movie Midnight Express. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Istanbul we rode into Central Turkey arriving at the Troglodyte castles of Goreme. The Troglodytes actually lived in caves and underground to escape persecution. The accommodation was unique here as the hotel is actually inside some of the caves with each cave making up one room. A hot air balloon ride over this fairytale landscape was brilliant, although the pre-dawn awakening wasn’t.
The expedition continued on to the Turkish Black Sea coast where we were booked to cross the Black Sea by ferry. The 12 hour ferry ride from Trabzon, Turkey to Sochi, Russia turned into a 24 hour sailing of endurance only to be challenged in incompetence by the Russian border guards. Once we eventually disembarked, another 6 hours were spent laboriously filling in countless forms. We eventually arrived at the hotel at one in the morning. “Welcome to Russia,” I muttered as we finally rode out of the border compound, “and you guys want to host the winter Olympics in 2012? Good luck,” I muttered even louder. Tempers were soothed though as our Russian translator, Svetlana, was beautiful and kept us all entertained into the night. Riding into Moscow was an exercise in frustration as it took 2 hours of traffic snarls to get to the hotel with myself never having been so close to getting run over, another coat of paint on my bike would have spelt disaster. We had a city guide organised who took us to see all that is famous in Moscow including Saint Basils and the opulent underground rail system.
We crossed into Kazakhstan and rode the immense, lonely and silent Kazakh Steppe, so vast that you could see the curvature of the earth.
Camping out there we got to experience a silence that few could image can still exist in today’s world, except for all the snoring. It’s amazing how far sound carries when trying to find a tent site away from the noise. The riding had been, to that point, all paved, although some of that pavement was simply a series of potholes connected by an ever diminishing ribbon of asphalt. The ‘Road of Death’, another road made famous by Ewan and Charley is all but paved yet still had remnants of what it used to be like, rough as hell and hard dusty work in the heat. Continuing on, we entered the storybook lands of the fabled Silk Road, in Uzbekistan. Oasis cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were visited; remnants of antiquities left behind by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane were ridden around, photographed and gazed upon and our history buffs were hyperventilating.
Eating a shashlik while sitting crossed legged on Arabian mats at one of the many restaurants that surrounded the 16th century Laubi House, (Bukhara’s old town centre), you could easily feel as if you left your donkey out back (instead of the BMWs) and you were back in the 15th or 16th century, it was wonderful relaxing stuff. We all enjoyed being off the bikes for a few days visiting such iconic Silk Road sites as the Registan in Samarkand and the Ark in Bukhara. Unfortunately the Kyrgyzstan locals thought it might be a good idea to chase out the Uzbeks from their country, killings hundreds in the process, this uprising scuttled our plans to visit Kyrgyzstan, a new plan was hatched immediately. We rode into the western extremities of the Western Tien Shan mountains where we enjoyed a great home stay eating better than we had thus far, these people know how to feed hungry bikers. A great day of walking and riding was had in the nearby alpine valleys. Almaty was a tyre change-over point as we prepared for the dirt of Mongolia.
We fitted the Heidenaus to all the bikes, both front and rear, along with a BMW service at the Almaty BMW dealership. The only problem was the dealership didn’t have a motorcycle mechanic, doesn’t sell bikes and had to call in an ‘on call’ bike mechanic to attend to us. However we had some bikes serviced but more importantly got that BMW stamp in the service book. The ride north back across the Kazakh Steppe was extremely scenic with the snow capped peaks that border China never far off.
We re-entered Russia and rode another famous road, the Trans Siberian Highway all the way to Irkutsk, stepping off point for the stunning Lake Baikal. With our Mongolian visas in hand, (obtained at the consulate in Irkutsk) we rode, full of anticipation, toward Mongolia. We had endured many disorganised border crossings but the Mongolian border crossing really was chaotic. Eventually granted entry we rode on great paved roads until finding a campsite on the bend of a river that dissected two valleys. Mongolian horses grazed nearby, a small number of Gers stood off in the distance and a full moon rose illuminating the landscape in a beautiful silver light, it was epic stuff and we all loved it. A father and son trotted over at dusk imploring us join them in the morning for Kymys (salted mares milk) and cheese, we duly complied.
Mongolia has often been described as the world’s biggest paddock and is always described as the world’s best off road riding by those who travel there…
The pavement ended with a thud and we were on dirt. Navigation was extremely difficult as dozens of tracks would disappear off into the distance with no indication of which one to take, we soon realised that as a general rule they all meet up again and you just need to keep the powerlines in view. The riding constraints of the west such as roads, tracks valleys etc are virtually non-existent in Mongolia, if we didn’t like the track we were one we simply went bush-riding up to 100 meters apart but all heading in the same direction; it was really liberating. The days were filled with some epic, and at the same time, challenging riding. Vast valley after vast valley had to be ridden while twin humped Bactrian Camels grazed nearby as did the ever present mobs of Short Mongolian horses.
The vast blue sky and clarity of light added to the scene. Each night’s campsite seemed to outdo the previous nights spot in beauty; it really was the stuff of dreams. Finally we made it to the town of Moron after 3 days of dirt riding, then pounded our way a further 80km north to one of Mongolia’s most scenic spots, Khovsgul Nuur, a stunning alpine lake surrounded by snow capped mountains and pine forests. The dirt was getting more and more challenging with a few creek crossings to be tackled which saw a few minor spills and impromptu cleaning of bikes; the filling of the airbox with water on Joe’s bike wasn’t helpful though.
The scenery remained epic with vast valleys, huge blue skies and a totally uncluttered empty landscape that was dotted with brilliant white Gers. Things were going well, too well, and then disaster struck. Well, it seemed like a disaster at the time. The Mongolian tracks had taken a fatal toll on the support vehicle trailer with the axle stud snapping off with the wheel, bearings and stud rolling into the nearby river (there was a million square km elsewhere it could have rolled but no, it had to roll into the river). Being a former interstate truck driver, I knew you couldn’t weld an axle stud back on; the other riders agreed. We were in a very remote part of what was already a very remote country. Things didn’t look good. The only vehicle to pass us in hours spluttered to a halt and a huge Mongolian unfolded himself from out behind the steering wheel. He offered to take us to a welder only 60km away.
With the axle removed and in the back of his pickup and with me driving the support vehicle (accompanied by Mick T, a boilermaker), we drove into the night in total darkness and promptly got bogged down for two hours. Eventually free, we made it the 60km to the next village (that took 5 hours to get there) at 1 am. The following morning, our Mongolian helper tracked down the only welder in a dusty forlorn little village where he proceeded to reattach the axle stud. I had zero faith that it would last 300 meters let alone all the way to Magadan. I managed to drive back to our camp without getting bogged down and refitted the axle. We only had 36ks to ride that day until our Ger camp on the shores of Tsagaan Nuur. The Ger camp was wonderful and the setting could not have been more idyllic.
We all enjoyed a great meal and more than a few beers. Against my better judgement, the trailer made it to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital. As luck would have it we found a Kiwi gold mining company that re-machined and re-welded the axle, I now felt confident we could make it to Magadan. The dirt took its toll on both riders and bikes as well. The riders were simply tired and dirty but the bikes took a pounding but nothing serious; fork seals and a few loose nuts and bolts were all that needed attending to. I decided to get the local authorised BMW dealership to change my driveshaft and engine oil on the 1200; they of course had no oil so we had to find our own for them and supply our own filter.
The BMW dealership networks in these regions really are basic and cater only for cars; spare parts for bikes are utterly non-existent. Sadly our time in Mongolia was at and end and we rode north and entered Russia at that same chaotic border, things hadn’t improved since our last visit. Back on the Trans Siberian highway we continued on to Chita and celebrated Joe and Carmen’s 30th wedding anniversary with the prostitutes that hung around the adjoining restaurant where we had dinner and drank champagne. Riding out of Chita the traffic had thinned and we had the Trans Siberian to ourselves. The colours of autumn had arrived and the vast Siberian forests known as the Taiga were an intense colour of yellow and red, it was sensational relaxing riding on some great new paved road.
The Trans Siberian is now paved all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok; this makes it the longest highway on earth, over 7000km in length.
Turning off the Trans Siberian, we were entering a new, unknown and rarely travelled region of Russia. Known as the “Highway to Hell” or somewhat optimistically, the M56, the Lena Highway had a reputation amongst bikers as being worse than the Road of Bones. The first few kilometres seem to confirm the reputation. The road was in a terrible state and with over 1300ks to Yakutsk we figured it would take forever. One evening while looking for a campsite, we were invited by reindeer hunters to join them at their riverside log cabin. A more scenic spot would have been difficult to find; the log cabin was situated on the bend of a tannin-filled river that magnificently reflected the autumn colours, especially at sunset. The hunters were in the process of cooking a Sable cat they had shot and the floating eyeball in the stew made my stomach turn. Thankfully we weren’t offered it. Finally we made it to the capital of the remote Yakutia region, Yakutsk.
Well, nearly. We had to cross the mighty Lena River and that proved easier said than done. Nothing is easy in these parts and that includes unloading trucks off the Lena River ferry. A truck was bogged, tearing off his tailgate in the process while trying to drive off the ferry. Tractors were commissioned as were heavy trucks to try and pull the small Isuzu truck out, all without success. Eventually the ferry captain simply moved to another part of the sandy river bank and directed everyone to board there, leaving the hapless truck driver to sort his problems out himself. Riding onto the ferry was more like an off road riding course than a ferry boarding. Three nights in Yakutsk’s finest hotel was just what the doctor had ordered. It was the last chance to prepare the bikes and ourselves for what we had all come for, the Road of Bones.
The days in Yakutsk were spent with the guys from the Nord Brotherhood motorcycle gang, a hardy group of bikers, (you have to be up there), that delighted in offering whatever help travelling bikers may need, at nights we would meet in the bar and swap stories and drink a little too much vodka. They were a great bunch of guys. In fact we were approached in many towns and cities we rode through in Russia by bikers always with an offer of help for anything we may need or just to ride with us a while to help us find our way out of town. It wasn’t only bikers either. On one memorable occasion we had a police escort for over 50km complete with flashing lights.
We will all miss this amazing friendliness and hospitality so long departed from our society in the west. The Road of Bones has a fearsome reputation that varies from being paved all the way to Magadan to being a bear and wolf infested hell hole that we shall never survive. Somewhere in amongst all that lays the truth. However we were all a little anxious as to what was in store for us. The day had arrived and we once again crossed the Lena River to officially begin the Road of Bones, in the rain. The first sections were mostly fairly compact sand but still not enjoyable. The traffic had become non-existent and we really were on our own, it felt reassuring to know that the Land Cruiser support vehicle was always behind us. The trailer axle was still holding and I was confident of it seeing us through.
We rode all day though the brilliant yellow trees of this arctic region, however the temperature struggled to top 5 degrees. Nearing day’s end a nasty looking snow storm ahead convinced us all to stop on top of a hill overlooking the endless Taiga. While setting up camp the sun broke through illuminating everything in a wonderful clear light. The following morning started off with a flat tyre on Pats bike causing us to just miss the Aldan River ferry, the next one departed three hours later. The Road of Bones is dissected by the mighty Aldan River and the tortuously slow ferry is the only link. We fitted a new Heidineau rear tyre to Pat’s bike as we waited while others wandered around taking photos and eating dried fish given to us by the ferry Capitan. The 1½ hour ferry ride downstream was wonderful under a huge blue Siberian sky that was interspersed by white clouds that reflected off the slow moving river.
The region had an incredible sense of remoteness about it. Refuelling at the decrepit village of Handagar we quickly rode out into the wilderness again. The altitude began to climb and the temperature dropped accordingly; at around 1000 meters we reached zero degrees by mid-afternoon. The scenery however was epic and took us all by surprise with its beauty. The road followed a winding path through looming snow-capped peaks while silt-laden rivers roared by under rickety old wooden bridges that looked as if they were about to give up and collapse. The bright yellow forests provided a wonderful contrast to the intense white of the surrounding snowy landscape; we all agreed that this was some of the finest riding we had ever experienced. We decided to camp at am impossibly scenic spot on the banks of one such river in the shadow of a huge snow-capped mountain range that seemingly barred any progress forward.
The weather had turned against us overnight and light snow had begun to fall as we left our campsite. It wasn’t long before a number of us were lying on the road with our bikes in a snow bank; we had hit ice on a small incline that we had barely noticed. With the snow getting heavier it became a priority to get off the mountain, and fast. Staying upright while sliding down the mountain on ice was proving difficult and a couple more falls ensued. We were never so happy to see mud and slush – at least we had some form of traction again. The day was again spent riding through magnificent scenery amongst the mountains and valleys of the Sakha region of Siberia. A number of mountain passes were no more than narrow tracks that clung precariously to the sides and were barely wide enough for our support vehicle. I thought of the incredible effort it would have taken to forge these roads by hand, through these mountains in the frozen winters of the 1930s and 40s. We were now riding in a region known as the Pole of Cold, with the lowest temperature ever recorded for an inhabited area of a staggering -72 degree Celsius taken just a few years ago, Stalin’s gulags prisoners certainly wouldn’t have had the luxury of warm clothing as we did. Camping 20km before Ust Nera we made it over one final pass riding through deep icy slush. We all agreed that tomorrow it would be unrideable.
A warming campfire was soon underway to be shortly followed by a warm hearty soup and main course. We were in an incredibly wild region but still the camping was a wonderful experience although we were wary of the presence of bears, especially considering the fresh bear tracks we had seen earlier. Fine weather greeted us the following morning as we rode into Ust Nera to stock up on fuel and food. Our presence at the one and only fuel station caused the usual pandemonium amongst the locals; they always displayed a mixture of bewilderment and amazement at our presence.
We departed the Road of Bones to check out an abandoned city slowly being engulfed by the weeds. The city was amazing with twenty story high apartment blocks, the main street lined with shops and offices and everything one would expect to see in a city, all except people. Not a soul remained. It was as if the inhabitants had fled in the middle of the night fleeing some terrible disaster. It was surreal experience to be riding down the main street in this ghost city. Apparently Lenin had ‘relocated’ a city full of people to this region to support the unsustainable Soviet industries. With the fall of Communism every man, woman and child departed and returned to their hometowns across Russia.
We returned to the Road of Bones and became instantly concerned that Leo still hadn’t arrived in the support vehicle. We decided to turn back and try and find him and Carmen, who had been his passenger since Europe. After twenty kilometres we found him on the side of the road and the scene was instantly recognizable: the axle stud had broken again, an agonizing 800km from Magadan. It had started to snow and the light was fading, my mood could not have been worse. Incredibly, a local Russian van stopped and two burly Russians swaggered over to help, even more incredibly one spoke English! It was quickly decided to remove the axle, place it in the Russian van and drive to a nearby gold mine to have it welded. But first the Russians, Andre and Sasha, insisted on a round of vodka and some dried fish. When Leo returned with the Russians two hours later and told us that all the welders were drunk and would be until Monday my heart sank.
However, I hadn’t counted on the resourcefulness and generosity of the Russians and their ‘can do attitude’. Andre decided to drive Leo to Sussamam, 150km away, to try and find a welder and also a truck to collect our trailer. With that the trio roared off into the night along the Road of Bones, as snow continued to fall. The following morning the snow had set in and it looked like winter had arrived and would be going nowhere until the following April. We decided to pack the luggage into the support vehicle and leave all other supplies, including a Compass Expeditions bike, in the forest and ride off toward Sussaman. We had only been on the road for half an hour when a grinning Leo nearly fell out of the small crane truck coming the other way as he flagged us down. I had never been so happy to see him. The riders continued on, with directions to a hotel in Sussaman and I returned to help load the trailer onto the truck and ride the remaining bike. A blizzard had sprung up and it was virtual white out conditions as we loaded up. Eventually arriving in Sussaman, we stopped at the local mechanic’s workshop and first warmed up. A Russian axle had been cannibalized for parts to make ours serviceable again. We fitted the axle and against our better judgment spent the remainder of the evening drinking vodka, eating an assortment of fish, cheeses and breads and generally enjoying the company of these wild yet wonderfully generous and friendly Sussaman locals. The offer for us to return next year and go bear hunting with them was a genuine one. Our final day of the expedition had arrived. We again rode out in brilliant sunshine but the clear blue sky also meant frigid temperatures.
The Road of Bones was in a varying state switching between great 80kph dirt stretches, to crawling though deep mud holes and frame smashing potholes, all the while the scenery remained the same: epic. The going was slow, slower than anticipated and as we neared another pass, the majority of us came off again, myself six times. It was impossible to get the R1200 over the pass with me riding it. The combined weight of bike and rider meant that it either bogged in the snow banks, where I generally ended up, or slid out on the ice. I had to idle it over and down with me running along beside it; it was exhausting but at least warming. We had lost a lot of time and as the light faded, the temperatures dropped even lower, freezing everything. It was decided to camp for one last time in the snow on top of a 900 meter plateau. Little did we know that within 20km of our night’s campsite in the snow, the road descended three kilometres and out of the snow and ice zone and onto a paved road for the first time in 3300km. We rode on toward Magadan, elated, through the diminishing mountains as we neared the coast; we knew we had done it.
The BMWs performed magnificently non-stop for over 100 days. We did have issues but mostly with fork seals and head stem bearings. However it was a combination of Mongolia and the Road of Bones that exacted the highest toll on the bikes. One rear shock blew on the G650GS as did a radiator, but this was due to a small rock that lodged itself between the radiator and the frame, eventually wearing a hole in the core. The bikes went on and over and just kept going across some of the most inhospitable and wildest regions on Earth and proved why they are such a big seller. I’m convinced that lesser bikes would have fallen to pieces. We chose the Heidineaus as our tyres for this expedition and they performed magnificently. Although a little disconcerting in the wet on paved roads, that wasn’t really an issue as we spent so much time on dirt. Their wear characteristics are amazing and I still have at least 10,000kms left on my rear tyre of the R1200. Very good when you consider they have already accomplished 15,000km. Curiously though, the wear rate of the 130s is terrible as opposed to that of the 140s. Arriving at the Magadan sign emotions ran high as a few tears were shed and a lot of sincere congratulations and hugs were given. Only a handful of bikers each year make this arduous yet exciting journey and we were the first commercial group ever to have accomplished this; we all felt justifiably proud. After 101 days and 28,000 kilometres since leaving London we had ridden the epic Road of Bones.
We had ridden ‘into the wild’ and we had made it.
With thanks to Compass Expeditions.
Compass Expeditions was founded off the back of a fundraising motorcycle ride across Siberia in 2005 for the sufferers of the rare ultimately deadly disease Friedreich’s Ataxia. “We knew the moment the ride stopped so would the fundraising” said Mick McDonald, Ride co-ordinator.
In response to these concerns and the need for a redirection in life Mick founded Compass Expeditions, a motorcycle expedition company that offers motorcycle based adventures around the world. Part proceeds go to a support group for sufferers of Friedreich’s Ataxia.
Along with Mick are co-founders Jerry Cook, Ryan Heath and Brendan Barbetti whom all met in South America while leading tours. “It was natural progression to offer our initial tours in South America as we knew the destination intimately” continues Mick.
From 5 bikes, one battered old Toyota support vehicle and a load of enthusiasm Compass Expeditions has grown rapidly to offer over 25 tours in 36 countries across 4 continents, with offices in Chile and Australia. We offer all new BMW motorcycles and support vehicles and have been recognised by National Geographic and Outpost magazines amongst their top adventures tours in the world as well as been inducted as an official BMW Travel Partner.