This Russian Federal Highway is 2,031 km (1,262 mi) long and its morbid nickname is in remembrance to the skeletons of the forced laborers who died during its construction that are buried in its foundations.
A little bit of history about what the ‘Road of Bones’ is and how it came about.
In the early 1930’s Stalin decided to build the Kolyma Highway, M56, from Magadan in Far Eastern Russia to Moscow. Forced labour was used to construct this 2,000km stretch of road in the Siberian wilderness. The inmates of labour camps and later the Prisoners in the Gulags were chained except when they were working the 12-hour shifts. Many died while working and many others were shot dead for not working quickly enough. Any worker who died was ‘buried’ where he fell. Hence, the name “Road of Bones” as the skeletons of thousands of workers are buried in the road.
The Road of Bones is the stretch of road that runs from Magadan to Yakutsk. In 2008 the route was changed to go farther north between Kadykchan to Kyubeme, through Ust Nera. This road, the M56, is now a maintained gravel road, with small stretches of tarmac.
The old road through Tomtor is now completely unmaintained and is known as the Old Summer Road.
This stretch of road, 420kms, has become a challenge for 4 x 4 drivers and bikers to complete.
In 2015, my partner Kevin Emans and I decided that we would ride the Road of Bones including the Old Summer Road section. Kev had already been to Siberia in 2012 and rode his bike home to Dublin, (check out www.bamriders.com.) This time our team consisted of Kev, myself, Gary (driving a Land Cruiser) Fritz and Thomas, 2 Germans whom the BAM riders met in Vladivostok in 2014.
We had our first planning meeting in March 2016 and it was agreed that Gary’s jeep and trailer would leave Ireland in June, drive to Germany to pick up Fritz and Thomas’ bikes and then go to Warsaw. We would fly to Warsaw and meet the jeep and bring it over the border into Russia. In Moscow we would leave it with a driver, who would then drive it to Magadan.
We would then return home for 4 weeks while the jeep made its way east and at which point we would fly to Magadan to begin our trip.
We had learned from previous experience that a bike and the person to whom it is registered must be at the border in order for the bike to be allowed into Russia. Thomas couldn’t make it to the border so he put his bike in Fritz’s name, against all advice.
Because Kev had been before, we had a good idea what to pack, what we would need and more importantly, what not to bring.
All of our luggage went with the bikes at the beginning of the trip so we wouldn’t need to bring much with us when we flew to meet the bikes in Magadan.
We had applied for double entry visas for Russian as we would need to go in with the bikes and then in again flying to Magadan, and a transit visa for Belarus. This is a timely and costly exercise.
The jeep left Abbeyleix on 24th June and picked Fritz up and the 2 Germans’ bikes in Germany en route to Warsaw.
We flew to Warsaw on the 28th to meet them. We had a night out in Warsaw before heading towards Russia. Kev went to the ATM and inadvertently took out €500 worth of zlotys!!
We headed off to the Belarusian border which we reached at 3pm. Our first, of many mistakes, was not eating before we went to the border. It was a very hot day! We arrived at the Polish part of the border and showed passports/documents etc. The officers came out and walked around the vehicles asking where we’re going and what we’re doing.
We had to open all the doors of the jeep; take the wheel off the metal box on the trailer; remove the locks, open it up, take some stuff out, let them see the camping gear etc. They climbed up on the roof of the jeep to check out the bags and the tent etc.
We drove forward 10 feet and had to go through the same procedure again with the customs guy. Then off to the Belarusian side and go through the whole procedure again!
The queue, Oh the queue, lasted for ages, and ages, and ages. In the heat, with only 3 packets of candy to eat between the 4 of us!!
Eventually, we got to the hatch and that’s when the trouble really began. By now it was about 7pm. We gave them all the paperwork and passports and answered all the questions. They weren’t happy with Fritz having 2 bikes in his name and weren’t going to let us in. Eventually, they agreed that Gary could get a temporary license for Thomas’ bike in his name. So, they went off to do the paperwork.
The shift changed. A whole load of new staff came out and started asking the same questions again, wanted everything opened up again etc. Then they too decided Fritz couldn’t bring both bikes in, so Gary explained that the paperwork was being done. In the meantime, Kev changed up the zlotys into Belarusian roubles. That was another palaver, nothing was straightforward! They needed passports to exchange the money so I was running in and out bringing passports back and forth!
The border officials had now decided that the extra bike was ok but they wouldn’t let us in as there was no VIN number on the trailer.
They turned us away at 11pm and closed the office. The biggest kick in the ass at that stage was that we then had to queue to leave Belarus and go through customs, then queue to re-enter Poland and go through their customs!
Tired and weary, we headed back to Poland and stopped in the first hotel we came to. We booked in, asked for and were refused food and went to bed. Not a great first day.
So here we were back in Poland without a zloty between us and a load of Belarusian roubles!
We rose early the next day and got on the road, looking for somewhere we could get a false Irish VIN number put on the trailer.
Less than 10 minutes later we had found a guy at the back of a garage who led us down some back roads to the middle of nowhere to a massive garage.
Talk about “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies!” there was a car bumper in the corner with a UK plate on it.
We got some number stamps and a lump hammer and a brand, new VIN number, but even he wouldn’t take the Belarusian roubles, and we weren’t 15 miles from the border!
We thought that it might be unwise to go back to the Belarusian border so we decided to go north through Lithuania and Latvia and straight across the border into Russia.
It was a long day driving in the jeep, in the heat, with air con that worked ‘most of the time’.
We stopped before we reached the Russian border for something to eat, having learned our lesson the day before. The restaurant was closed but we managed to get a selection of pastries and a cup of tea.
We arrived at the border at 11pm. There was only one other car there, so we figured we’d get through in no time. We had the same palaver with documents and passports and forms and questions and opening doors and the box etc.
Eventually, they stamped our passports and we moved to the next window, which was customs. He came out and walked around, had a good look, totally ignored our lovely VIN, took all our documents, gave us more forms which we filled out, and disappeared into his hut. He came out and said that Fritz could not import 2 bikes. We pleaded, he refused, Gary offered to import one and he refused. The only way he would let us in, was without Thomas’ bike. We had no choice but to leave it. So, we agreed to leave it there and he said, “Not here”. That meant that we had to go back to Latvia and leave it there.
This meant that we had to turn around, go back through customs to leave Russia, go through customs to re-enter Latvia, find a safe place to leave the bike, which actually wasn’t as difficult as you might think.
There were loads of car parks at the border where people obviously met up and left some cars there and carpooled into Russia. These car parks all had containers where the security guards ate/slept. We managed to find a guy who was happy to take a few quid to mind the bike until Thomas could pick it up.
Of course, we then had to go through the whole border control out of Latvia and into Russia again.
They cancelled the first stamp into Russia, then put a new stamp to enter Russia. This was going to cause problems in a few weeks when we tried to re-enter Russia again!
It was now 5am and we were exhausted. Physically and emotionally drained and minus Thomas’ bike.
Fritz drove for a few hours. We found a motel and had breakfast and 3/4 hours sleep. We were tight for time now as we had to get to Moscow to meet Andrei who was driving the jeep to Magadan. We arrived in Moscow and booked into a hotel near the airport into which he and his wife and daughters were flying
We all went for dinner and had one or two drinks that night. You know how it goes… Some guitar playing, tin whistle playing, a new friend from South America who had his own guitar and a bit of vodka and sure it was about 5am before we got to bed!!
We spent Monday trying to find a commissioner of oaths to give Andrei permission to have all our vehicles and organise insurance etc. Then we handed it all over to Andrei and Lena.
Kev and I flew home through Moldova, where we had a 10-hour stopover in Chisinau the next day. An opportunity to see a bit of another new country.
That left a 4 week wait at home before flying to Magadan. We were going to meet Fritz in Moscow and then fly to Magadan on 27th July. Thomas was arriving the next day from USA and Gary was flying in on Friday morning. The plan was to hit the road on Saturday.
In the weeks before we were due to fly out we were watching the weather forecast closely and the weather was horrific!! Torrential rain followed by more torrential rain. Heavy rainfall is disastrous because of the permafrost in Siberia. There’s nowhere for the rain to be soaked up so the rivers just get higher and higher, really quickly. Luckily, they get lower quite quickly too once the rain stops.
Then, 10 days before we left, we heard that a bridge had been washed away in Ust Nera, a town north of Tomtor. No traffic could get in or out of Magadan, 110m of bridge was gone! This didn’t bode well as we had no idea what damage would be done to the Old Summer Road, 100km to the south.
Andrei and the jeep hadn’t arrived to Ust Nera yet, so it meant that the jeep couldn’t get to Magadan until the bridge was rebuilt. We were assured that the local workers were on the job.
We flew to Magadan not knowing when, or if, our bikes were going to get there.
to be continued….
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All photos © of Míde Maher
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Adventurer, World Record Holder, BMW 1200GS Rider
Míde came to biking relatively late in life. It had always been her ambition to ride a bike but having 4 children kept her too busy.
In 2007, she met her partner Kevin Emans and he was in the process of organising a motorbike trip from the UK through Scandinavia, up over the Arctic circle and back through Europe. Míde went as pillion, riding 5,500 miles in 16 days. That was it, she was hooked. She bought her first bike, a Suzuki Marauder, in September 2008, passed the test in March 2009, bought a BMW 650 GS in April, rode to Ullapool in Scotland in June, around Europe in August, and hasn’t looked back.
In 2012, she accidentally bought a BMW 1200GS, shipped it to Poland where she picked it up and rode to L’viv in the Ukraine to meet Kev, who was on his way home from Russia.
At some point along the way, a friend introduced her to off road biking. She had a bit of a love/hate relationship with off-roading for a few years.
In 2014 she bought a Honda CRF230. Kev had gone to Siberia in 2014, riding the Eastern BAM, becoming the first person to ride the whole of the BAM road. They were planning another trip to Siberia for 2016. So, in the summer of 2015, they did an off-road trip across the Pyrenees, from Biarritz to Barcelona. The idea was to test Míde’s ability (and sense of humour) doing an off-road trip. It was a great trip.
In 2016, Míde and a team of 4 guys went to Magadan, in far eastern Russia. They rode for 9 days, from Magadan to Yakutsk, via the Tenkinsky Tract and the Old Summer Road becoming the first Irish person to ride the OSR.
They left their bikes in Mongolia with the intention of returning in 2017 to continue the trip home. However, they got sidetracked. An opportunity arose to go to the Andes in South America.
In March 2017, Míde broke the world record for highest altitude on a motorcycle(female) by riding to 5,918metres on Mont Ojos de Salado, Chile.
One of the plans for 2018 is to return to Ulaan Bataar to collect their bikes and ride to the Gobi Desert, then up into Russia and then on to Kazakhstan and Kyrgysztan, leaving the bikes in Bishkek for next year.
In March 2018 she traded her 1200 GS in for a new 1200 GS Rally and is very much looking forward to some road trips.
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