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.

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.

The 650's engine cases and oil cooler could not have made one day on Russian roads without the deflection qualities of those bars. The constant din of debris pounding the skid plate and rock screen accompany me wherever I go. These crash bars work so well, I may stop using the kickstand altogether; just pull up and let the bike topple over.

After dropping the bike this time, it won't start. All electrical systems seem okay except for the starter motor. Allen tells me "Screw the starter" and gives me a push. The Suzuki burbles to life.

Push-starting the V-Strom gets old fast. At our next overnight stop, I study the wiring situation. I am an electrician, after all. Turns out when the bike fell over, the left-side hand guard bumped into the clutch safety switch, knocking the wires loose and bending the switch terminals. I straighten the switch out, re-plug the wires and presto, we have ignition, as the cosmonauts say.

What started as a small rattle from the fairing is getting worse. The plastic side pieces that connect the windshield to the gas tank are flexing alarmingly over each bump. Further on, the rattle changes into a loud clunk. I suspect I ought to check it out before the whole thing falls off. At our 12:45 p.m. tea break, Harry and Gavin swarm over the V-Strom while I drink coffee and eat Bon-Bons. The front fairing hardware has fallen out, with only one loose 6mm bolt securing the bodywork. Re-bolted, we continue on to ride the ferry into Yakutsk, the coldest city in the world.

We begin the actual Road of Bones, called the Kolyma Highway locally. We're running hard today because we have to make two ferries, and if we miss the second one, we're stuck overnight. The rain starts again, turning the smooth dirt road into a slippery nightmare. Those Conti knobbies sure would have come in handy as I slip, slide and crash my way down the highway. With the perilous footing, it's all I can do to lift the 'Strom upright. Normally I cruise 10 miles ahead of the convoy, but in this mud I'm doing walking speed and the cars catch me up. There's no way we will make the ferry at this rate, so we load the V-Strom into the Equator.

The only space available for me is with Ed and Duane in the lead Kizashi. The inside of the car looks like a college dormitory. Empty soda cans, bags of chips and fruit rinds litter the back seats. Ed has the Beatles' Back in the USSR blasting and is talking crazy stuff about how he's a rally-car racer like Gavin. People must think I'm gullible.

This damn Kizashi all-wheel-drive motors through motorcycle-falling-down mud with no problems. Places where I could barely walk, the little Kizzy is pulling Gs. Ed and Duane chant "Four wheels good, two wheels bad" over and over. I shrink down into the plush passenger seat, my humiliation complete.

There's a mad scene at the ferry landing. The Russians use an inverse variation of the Rats Leaving a Sinking Ship loading system. Harry and Allen, being British, try to explain the concept of a proper queue to the uncomprehending scrum. There is no line, no order; whoever can jam their car onto the ferry wins. Gavin throws a body check on a Mitsubishi van trying to cut in front of us and we manage to get the Suzuki convoy on board.

Today is the perfect day: blue skies, warm, dry, but not dusty. The V-Strom rips down the Road of Bones, running 70-80 mph. The suspension soaks up unspeakable abuse. For a streetbike, this funny-looking Suzuki is doing a passable imitation of a Paris-Dakar rally racer. The only nerve-wracking moments come when I stand on the pegs and hit a monster pothole. Violent headshake follows the impact, and it takes all my nerve to not fight it and just let it wobble. Strangely, this headshake doesn't happen when I'm seated.

Despite its horrific reputation, the Road of Bones is kind to me. We climb into the mountains and the scenery becomes more spectacular. The highway squeezes into one lane. There are no guard rails to stop us from plunging into the river far below. The Kizashis, normally averaging a flat or two per day, step up the pace and put in a six-flat performance. Two wheels good, four wheels bad!

We are truly in the country now, towns and hotels left far behind. Jeff finds a beautiful campsite on a river bank where we circle the wagons. The Chinese-made tents are up in minutes, but it takes the combined knowledge of Duane, Ed and me to figure out how to erect my Russian-made job. There are instructions, but they're printed in Russian, without diagrams. It's ridiculously difficult, so we give up. The tent sits askew. I'll sleep in the damn thing as is.

We break camp for another glorious day. The remoteness equals long hours on the road. For all the headlights on the V-Strom, it doesn't light up the Russian outback very well. I am reduced to 45 mph as we cruise the last 80 miles to our hotel. The crisp, cold night air drifts into my helmet. With my electric vest on high and the heated grips at medium, I am perfectly comfortable. Oncoming headlights drift past as my world scrolls by in a small oval 30 feet wide by 100 feet long. This damp dirt is slippery but not impassable. The 'Strom drifts gently, its rear tire painting broad, monochromatic rainbows in accordance with the amount of throttle applied.

The miles roll slowly by, the Suzuki barely ticking over, inaudible except for the clatter of suspension over bumps. An odd kind of mystical state settles over me and I am truly happy to be alive. I feel sorry for the car guys. The last 80 miles were a chore for them. Sealed inside their metal boxes, they can't feel The Road's welcoming embrace.

After another night of camping due to our planned hotel being a dump, the perfect weather is holding: sunny with sprits of rain to keep the dust down. A long line of cars and trucks forms at the first of many water crossings. Not very deep but full of boulders, the crossings threaten to get my boots wet so I sit by the river bank and pout until Jeff agrees to load the Suzuki into the Equator again. I ride across the raging torrent high and dry. This set-up works well for the next five crossings.

We unload the bike again; the guys are getting really fast at it. The Suzuki is doing a fine job on this hilly section when I hear a knocking sound. I look down at the dash and the red oil warning light is illuminated. Killing the engine, I coast to a stop. The lower part of the bike is covered in oil.

The skid plate has taken an incredible beating; some rocks have gone completely through the aluminum plate, leaving what looks like bullet holes behind. I'm sure the crankcase is broken, and resign myself to finishing the trip listening to Ed and Duane rant about how great cars are. Jeff and I look over the bike; we can't see any holes but there is so much oil it's hard to tell. Gavin pulls up in his Kizashi tire-flattener, and within seconds has found a loose oil line. He tightens the banjo fitting, dumps in a fresh load of oil and the V-Strom is on its way again.

I'm far ahead of the convoy, and here comes another water crossing. The wash running parallel to the road has broken through and a 200-yard rapid lies ahead. The water looks fairly shallow, so I plunge in. Man, this current is strong! The water piles up on the starboard side of the bike, pouring into my boots and pushing us downstream. I'm steering into the flow but the bike keeps drifting toward the ditch. All I can think is how I'm going to explain to Jeff that I sunk his motorcycle...

The water recedes and we make it to the other side. The convoy has no trouble crossing. I'm sitting in the road pouring water out of my boots when Ed walks up and gives me a dry pair of socks. After 10 days on the Road of Bones I must look a sorry state, because he kindly doesn't tell me how four wheels are good and two wheels are bad.

A super-long line of cars and trucks are parked ahead of us. The road has washed away and heavy equipment is building a bypass. The crew uses the downtime well, repairing two holed Kizashi tires with spare V-Strom inner tubes.

I meet Valintin, a former Norton/Wasp sidecar motocross racer of the '90s. We speak the Universal Language of Motorcycle, so he invites me into his Kamaz produce hauler for dinner and an Extreme motocross video. We pass the time naming famous racers; he knows them all. The hour is getting late, I can't make much speed at night and our destination is a long way off. Once Valintin gets the drift of my situation, he wheels the Suzuki to the front of the line, yells something at the cop blocking traffic and we push the bike across the washout. Telling Jeff to watch for me in the ditches, I ride alone in the dark toward Magadan.

I don't know why I am so calm on the Road of Bones. Riding at night, on a dirt road shot through with slippery sections, would normally have me in a panic. I'm within 100 miles of town when my trance is broken by Ed's Kizashi passing at 75 mph. The rest of the convoy shows up shortly thereafter. I hate to admit it, but I'm kind of glad to see the cagers. A bit of fog ices the cake and we pull into our destination at midnight. Jeff pulls out all the stops, and we stay at the nicest hotel in town for our final evening together.

In Magadan there is a monument to those who died building the Road of Bones. Called the Mask of Sorrow, it's a huge, blocky face with tears consisting of many smaller faces flowing down its cheeks. The back side is recessed; within the hollow a statue of a woman prays beneath the contorted body of a road worker. Next to the woman people leave coins and flowers. Each of us offers alms to The Road without comment. Ed and Duane were going to shoot a video in front of the monument, but it's too powerful; they're uncomfortable commercializing the suffering of so many. They do their exit interview overlooking the city instead.

And just like that it's over. Thirty hours on a plane and I'm back in the Florida Keys. I can still hear that road from halfway around the world. Maybe I always will. The Koloyma Highway is being improved at breakneck pace. Before long this fabled motorway will be sealed, brand-new bridges spanning the washes. There's no need to rush, though: However thick they lay the asphalt, if you ride a motorcycle on the Road of Bones, you'll be hearing from all those people too

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