The Lena Highway

As I got further inland the weather kept improving. After packing up camp I found a cafe for breakfast: coffee and piroshki which are the best. Oh man. I have dined on these most days since arriving in Russia. At this particular place – seemingly made out of a railway carriage, the lady was frying them fresh in the kitchen. I ate, like, five.

Railway carriage cafe

Railway carriage cafe

After breakfast, I made a cool 500km before finding a rather awesome campsite next to a mobile phone tower just off the highway. When I camp I try and stay a bit hidden on account of being solo, so I was disappointed when a family rocked up to camp around the corner. Apparently, mobile phone towers are the place to be. I stopped walking around without pants on^W^W^W^W^W^Wput all my valuables in my tent.

Sunset from my tent

Sunset from my tent

At this point, I was only about 150km south of the turnoff to the Lena Highway – the start of the great highway M56 to Magadan. I was pretty excited. Wikipedia lists the Lena highway as the “highway from hell” and says there’s mud that swallows whole vehicles. But looking at the size of Tynda, my target for the day, there was no way it would survive long without a steady stream of trucks bringing in delicious Russian baked goods for the people living there. Could the Wikiedia article be a case of “here be dragons” off the edge of the English-speaking map? In other words, could Wikipedia be … wrong? In 150km I was about to find out.

I hit the turnoff, got a quick photo with the bike, and … the road was shit. Oh my god, it was beyond shit. Initially, there was gravel. Gravel is fine, I thought. I love gravel! Then there were trucks (presumably filled with baked goods) swerving everywhere, and then roadworks on the gravel – possibly to improve it, though I failed to see any evidence of this – and these involved dumping large piles of loose, fist-sized rocks on the otherwise acceptable road. I could barely keep the bike upright. Did I mention there were trucks.

Me, my bike, and the very start of the Lena Highway

After 100km of fighting with the bike, the road and the trucks I was wrecked; I pulled into Tynda around 3pm and got a hotel room reasonably cheaply. It was actually quite nice for once to be in town early-ish, so trying not to fall asleep I took the opportunity to walk around, see some things, look for maps, buy some toothpaste. I had dinner at a lovely Uzbek cafe, fantastic food, and provided visa advice to the english-teacher/proprietor. As you do.

One thing I thought was pretty cool was that my cheap hotel had a genuine “floor lady“, which is supposed to be a common thing in hotels here but I had yet to experience. Rather than reception being the main point of contact for guests, all reception does is take your money and allocate you a room number. You go upstairs and give your receipt to the floor lady, who is a sort of cross between a cleaner, security and concierge. She holds your key and makes your stay comfortable. I also read, a long time ago, that they’ll wash your clothes for you. I decided to try this.

In my best Russian, I asked if there was somewhere I may wash my clothes. Yes! she replied. This is a service we offer! We travelled together to the subterranean cleaning room beneath the hotel, where enormous soviet machines fulfilled mysterious Cleaning Duties, possibly involving linen. I gave them my clothes, and got them back the next morning, dry and folded. It was amazing.

No really – you have no idea now awesome clean clothes were to me at that point. At some point around Khabarovsk, I tried to wash things in the hotel sink but they didn’t dry properly because it was always freaking raining, and the mysterious mould that grew on those items slowly spread to the other things in my waterproof clothes bag. The smell was overpowering, and possibly a biohazard.

I thanked the floor lady perhaps a little too profusely, and was clearly classified “crazy foreigner”. This happens a lot.

That evening, I psyched myself up. I would conquer this road, even if it was fist-sized rocks all the way to Magadan. I had a goal, and I was going to reach that goal, dammit. I had new respect for the off-road skills of the other people who’s blogs I had read – Walter Colebatch and friends. How freaking fast must they have been going to cover the distances they did, if this was the road surface all the way to Magadan? Good grief, I could barely keep up 50km/h on the good bits.

I went to bed, ready for an early start.

The next morning I set off with grim determination. Filling up with fuel as I was leaving town I ran into another biker from Tynda, Alexey, on a decal-ed up Suzuki. He gave me his website, but unfortunately I can’t decipher his handwriting… We talked, he gave me his number and said to call if I had problems. About 100km down the road, he said, there was an excellent cafe for lunch.

He thought I could make 100km before lunch! This sounded positive. I headed off and crested the first hill, waiting for the town asphalt to come to an end, and for the pointy rocks to begin.

Ahead of me stretched amazing sealed road, as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t perfect, just bumpy enough to be interesting, slightly windy, and stunning scenery. In otherwise, perfect motorbiking road. I couldn’t stop laughing, after all the stress the previous night. This was how the other guys covered proper distances – the road south of Tynda must have been ripped up for roadworks. In classic Russian fashion, they de-surface 100km at a time, before starting work re-sealing it again. In short, it was an amazing morning.

I stopped at the recommended cafe, which was indeed excellent. Chatted to the guys in the photo below, who were on their way home to Yakutsk. I said I’d meet them there. They asked where I was staying, I said in a tent, probably 200km down the road. This produced concerned responses. “It is very dangerous,” they said. “Bears. Wolves.” The pointed at the bear heads mounted around the room for effect. The cafe owner joined in, nodding solemnly.

Friendly Yakutians

Friendly Yakutians

I was unsure how serious they were… I stayed in a hotel that night.

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3 thoughts on “The Lena Highway

  1. Quote: “I was pretty excited. Wikipedia lists the Lena highway as the “highway from hell” and says there’s mud that swallows whole vehicles.”
    Patrick, I hope that your accident was the first and last on this track. Roland (the guy in white t-shirt on the ferry to Yakutsk.)

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