The Road of Bones: Vladivostok to Magadan, the Hard Way

Surviving Joe Stalin's Siberian Superhighway.

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Daniel Byrne, Fred Williams, Joe Gresh

If you told a citizen of Stalin's Russia they were being sent to Siberia, their response would have been abject terror. The poor souls unfortunate enough to suffer this fate faced months of backbreaking labor in freezing conditions, brutality at the hands of sadistic prison guards and finally, when they weakened from exposure, a bullet to the back of the head.

Just 70 short years along the swirling miasma of time, my response to this same destination is joyous excitement. Siberia's about-face gives us hope for today's seemingly intractable problems, but let's not kid ourselves: A hell of a lot of slave labor perished building the road in this story. The Road of Bones gets its name from the fact that as workers died, their bodies were plowed into the road bed. The bloodletting was astounding: Some estimates say 2 million people were killed, an average of one body for every 31/2 feet along the 1300-mile stretch.

Even though I'm pretty sure unimaginable human suffering should not be used for entertainment purposes, the Road of Bones has become the adventure rider's Holy Grail. Besides, Suzuki is footing the bill for this expedition. Dangle a free trip in front of me and what little karma I've accumulated evaporates instantly.

This ride is a mega-event: Tokyo to L.A. The Hard Way, meant to promote Suzuki's new all-wheel-drive Kizashi sedan. I'm not sure how riding a DL650 V-Strom through Russia can help in that endeavor, but I'll do what I can. The trip is broken into three legs: Japan was first; Alaska to L.A. is last. My Russian section is the mid-point, and there are so many people involved, you'll need a line-up card to sort them all out.

The players: Ed, Executive Editor of Motor Trend magazine; Jeff, team leader; Gavin, rally-car racer and prolific tire destroyer; Fred, editor for Petersen's 4x4 & Off Road Magazine; Allen, navigator and care-giver to un-prepared motorcyclists; Harry, ace mechanic and barista; Duane, videographer; Daniel, photographer; and Polina, our interpreter and long-suffering mother hen.

At Vladivostok, I get my first look at the 9-mile-old "Wee-Strom." The parking-lot consensus is the bike should be knobby-shod. It's wearing OEM street tires because I procrastinated and the bike shipped from L.A. without the planned Continental TKC80s. I'm looking at the near-slick stock rubber. How bad could it be?

The roads in southeastern Russia are paved but very rough. The 'Strom is perfect for this kind of service, and we spend our first day together complimenting each other on a job well done.

Our all-British support crew brews tea and breaks out snacks whenever there's a pause in the action. In the evenings we go to nice restaurants, where Polina orders Russian specialties for everyone. We eat anything that swims, flies or gambols, drawing the line only at cannibalism. The food is great, the salads fresh and the prospect of a bad Suzuki review grows dimmer with each passing meal.

At the end of each day, my personal mechanic Harry checks over the bike and fills the tank, then puts it to bed. Harry brought his riding gear along because Jeff wanted a back-up rider in case I was a flop. Naturally this news fires my competitive urge. Each morning Harry parks the Suzuki in front of our hotel, brings me the key and asks if I'd like him to take over. It's valet motorcycle touring with passive-aggressive reinforcement.

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