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

In Kabarosk, a fabulous gold, onion-domed cathedral dominates the city. The church draws our collective photo firepower. The professionals break out cameras with huge lenses and take picture after picture, positioning the Kizashi just so. I manage to get six shots of the V-Strom before my Close-n-Play's battery dies. The only time I feel anything approaching spiritual is around large construction projects. Bridges, dams, whatever: The grander and more difficult to fabricate, the stronger I feel it. The untold hours of human endeavor, civic wealth and love emanating from Kabarosk's church puts me in a contemplative mood. I really could look at it all day.

I awake to a steady rain. Harry brings the V-Strom to me and I offer him a turn on the bike. He politely refuses, saying it would upset the continuity of the story. My riding gear isn't waterproof, but looks like it should be, so I head out into the rain following the all-Suzuki convoy.

After 15 minutes, my jacket is the first victim. Rivulets of water pool inside the sleeves. My sweater wicks this sleeve-water through the rest of my clothes. The overpants do a better job repelling the water, but the leakage is working its way across my body. Thirty minutes in and the soaking is complete. I've got the Suzuki's heated grips on high, but I'm starting to shiver.

If I were riding solo, I'd get a room and wait out the storm. After topping up, I rig the power cord for my electric vest to the Suzuki's battery. I mooch a rain jacket from Allen, which seals pretty well. The adverse weather has the car guys struggling to survive as well. They expend fractions of a calorie adjusting windshield wiper speeds and thermostat settings. Thank goodness those Kizashis have heated seats.

I've never owned proper motorcycle gear, but this electric vest is a revelation. Within seconds, warmth oozes into my body. I want to cry with joy. I'm soaking wet, running 80 mph in the cold rain, yet I'm toasty and comfortable. The electric vest is the single greatest invention for motorcycling ever, and I will never be without one again. Why have I suffered these last 40 years?

The further from Vladivostok we go, the shabbier the cities look. Mining and gulags were Siberia's main industries. Young people flee their dying towns for Vladivostok, Yakutsk or Magadan, leaving behind the old, the weak and the drunk. Massive apartment buildings slowly crumble around their remaining tenants. Even though they are large construction projects, the apartment buildings are spiritually dead. I feel nothing, only silence.

We come to our first long dirt section. The Suzuki is bounding along at 70 mph when Allen's jacket and the Overpants I bungeed onto the rear rack de-bungee and fall into the rear wheel. The wheel momentarily locks up, stalling the engine. The chain derails, bunches up in the countershaft area and tears loose the chain guard. Somehow the rear fender extension folds up between the tire and the seat. I coast to a stop, the Suzuki looking like it's been rear-ended.

I've got the tool kit out and am working on the axle when Jeff and Allen pull up in the Equator pickup that's chasing our group. We cut away the broken spoil, unfold the rear fender and dig the jammed chain out of the countershaft area. Bits of engine sidecover fall onto the ground, but luckily I haven't broken the crankcase. With the chain back in place and a much sportier-looking tail, the V-Strom is again ready for action.

Stopping in a picturesque little town on an off-camber road, I park the bike. Mid-dismount, the thing rolls forward on the kickstand. I can't hold the damn thing up; the best I can do is to slow its fall. The 'Strom lands on its Pat Walsh Design crash bars.

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