By this point, we were within spitting distance of Magadan: two days hard riding. The road was good, and I could almost taste the finish. The Kolyma Highway tries to break you: with mud, with mosquitoes, with roads piled so high with loose gravel it’s like riding on sand. But it rewards you too, with scenery second-to-none, and with the people you meet along the way.
For me, this highway was more of a test mentally than I expected: after discovering how bad it could get – fighting through the sand and mud around Yakutsk – the hardest part was not knowing what was around the next corner. Would it be more excellent hard surface? Would the road abruptly turn to mud? Was the mud you were currently fighting through just a small rough patch or was it going to last for hundreds of kilometres? Would I reach Magadan in two days, or would it be another week? Travelling alone made this harder, and it was the best thing ever to travel as a team with Francis – travelling with someone for the first time since leaving Vladivostok with Kim.
We made a brief stop at the turnoff to Kadykchan, the huge abandoned city just off the highway, but didn’t go in. It looked very cool from a distance. Francis wasn’t going to Magadan – he was turning east about 400km prior to catch a ferry north to the coast, and he was eager to keep moving so he wouldn’t miss it. The ferry left once a week, but there was no information on which day it left; so the sooner he got there the better. We pushed on, and I promised myself I’d check it out on the way back.
Riding along on beautiful road, we ran into two bikers coming from Magadan. My impression was that they were Russian, but Francis reports that they were Polish. Which perhaps gives you some idea as to my command of the Russian language.
One had been injured in a fall (Francis says two broken ribs!) and did not get off his bike, but had opted to ride the highway back rather than wait or fly out of Magadan (!)
A brief chat, we said goodbye and the epic wilderness stretched on. It was really, really nice riding. Stopping for a break, I filled my bike from my fuel bladders, not having quite the extended range of Francis’ KTM. My bike chews through fuel like a truck – I’m too scared to mess with the carburetor for fear of breaking things in a big way, and so my range with bladders is only a little over 400km. The leg from Ust-Nera to Susuman is 410km with no fuel stops.
Coming into Susuman, I was watching the odometer and counting kilometers. Stupidly, I was riding behind Francis – we alternated every few hours – so if I ran out of fuel it would probably be a while before he noticed I was no longer following. I knew I had 100km-and-a-bit of fuel in the bladders, but I filled the bike 150km from Susuman. However! I never know exactly how much fuel is in the bladders, because the meters on the more antique fuel pumps in Russia only give you fuel to the nearest litre, so I was hoping that over the course of a few days I’d overfilled just enough to get me there.
As the kilometers ticked down, I regretted spilling a few millilitres of fuel when I filled the bike. That could make the difference! I started trying to coast down hills.
As it turned out, I pulled into the fuel station in Susuman with a few fumes left in the tank. It was a very, very close thing, and I was probably lucky that it was downhill most of the way into town. We filled up with fuel and stopped at a really excellent cafe, the first decent meal in a few days. After three days of camping, sticky mosquito repellent and dust from the road I was very, very dirty. I didn’t realise quite how bad it was until I looked in the mirror in the cafe bathroom: it was bad. I utilised the wonderful, modern bathroom facilities; the light didn’t work, but this is far-east Russia – after a while you stop noticing and are grateful there is actual running water with options for hot and cold.
Even better… there was working mobile Internet in Susuman! With the lack of coverage along the highway, and either incredibly slow or broken mobile data services in Ust-Nera and Khandyga, it had been four days without access to the Internet for both of us. We both tried to be polite and make some sort of conversation over the meal, but sneakily satisfied our addiction to our smartphones in between mouthfuls of grechka. The borsht was hot and chunky, the Internet was working – it was like heaven.
The last hotel waypoint I had before Magadan was in a small town called Yagodnoye, which was about 550km from Magadan and 100km from Francis’ turnoff. We resolved to skip Susuman, stop at Yagodnoye and then each make our final stretch to the finish in the morning.
Arriving in Yagodnoye, I navigated to the hotel. It seemed a bit out of the way, and the sign looked awfully fancy. But I could see the word “hotel” there, along with federal-something, so I wandered in looking for a reception. I met two policemen coming the other way, who seemed a little confused to see me. They stopped. I figured it might be best to ask them where the hotel reception was and save some time.
Turns out, not actually a hotel. The building is now used by the federal police services as a base, and I’d wandered in looking like I’d just crawled out of a mud bath. But they were friendly and eager to help; there was no place to stay in town, but an apartment would be arranged and we would be able to keep our bikes in the police garage.
We went to check out the apartment, unloaded luggage, rode to the police station, and were taken to meet with the friendly, overworked police chief. The whole process was eerily similar to the experiences we had in almost every town on the Ice Run in 2013 – the same script – and my theory then was that it looks good for the police chief to say in his report that he assisted two foreigners stuck for accommodation. Not that I’m going to look down my nose at the treatment I have received from Russian police – over the course of two trips, they have gone out of their way to assist me and the people I have been travelling with every single time, and have always refused payment. I can’t imagine local cops giving tourists free apartments in Australia.
The police chief – in between barking orders into his three desk phones and radio – was eager to hear our opinion on the trouble in Ukraine, which I gathered was still a hot news item from the plasma in his office. We both made polite, non-committal responses. After two months in Russia, it’s pretty clear that there’s no easy resolution to the dispute, and it’s certainly not as clear-cut as either western or Russian media presents. 6,500km from Kiev, I’ve met many, many people with immediate family ties to Ukrainians; the country is bound tightly – through the people who live there – both to Russia and to Europe.
A wonderful mosquito-free dinner in our apartment and we turned in for the night. I’d forgotten we’d crossed a timezone and booked us a police pickup at 8am, which was actually 6am by our clocks, meaning a 4am alarm to get everything packed. But we got away early; after all the messing around that comes from leaving from a town rather than a campsite we were on the road by 10:30am. However, we had 550km to go and the last time I attempted a leg that long I plowed headfirst into a pile of gravel at 80km/hr; I was therefore a little unsure about whether I could make it all the way to Magadan. On top of this, the wonderful fine weather we had enjoyed had ended and it was cold and wet. But it was time to finish this stage of our respective trips. I was ready to go.
Five minutes in, my bike felt funny. The surface didn’t look that loose, but it was all over the place. Travelling at the rear again I stopped, hoping Francis would notice and come back, and walked around the bike, hoping hoping hoping it wasn’t a flat tyre. Please, please let it not be a flat in this weather.
It was a flat tyre. It was raining and cold. There was mud everywhere. Clouds of mosquitoes were fighting through the rain. It was a final screw-you from the Kolyma highway.
But, what could I do except fix the problem? I started by unpacking my bike to get at my spare tubes. At this point Francis rocked up; I told him to go on and not miss his ferry. I’d only ever changed a tube once, back in Australia, but hey how hard could it be.
Francis, the amazing person that he is, insisted on staying and helping – for two hours – in the rain and the mud and the mosquitoes. Drawing on 40 years of offroad experience riding bikes in Algeria and France, he showed me how to rig up a centre stand using my monopod – which I carry everywhere in the faint hope that I will one day use it to take a photo – and we had the rear tyre off quick-as. We swapped out the tube with my spare and I was just inflating it with my tiny bicycle pump when two other bikers rocked up.
Espen and Oskar were from Norway, and were on the final leg of a Norway – Magadan trip over four weeks. Francis did his standard “oh, that thing on the back of my bike is a boat. That’s right, a boat. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, French people are pretty crazy!” routine while I packed my bike, we all swapped details, I said I’d buy them a beer in Magadan that evening and they headed on.
Back on the road again, the rain dried up a bit and it was good to be riding again. A few muddy sections made for some fun riding before the surface firmed up and we stopped at a cafe a few kilometers from Francis’ turn east. Espen and Oskar were just leaving and recommended the piroski, which were excellent. Me and Francis enjoyed a decent hot meal, said a tearful goodbye and headed our separate ways – you can follow his blog here. Once again, I was travelling alone.
But not for long. 5km down the road, two familiar bikes were pulled over behind a truck. Oskar had – of course – gotten himself a flat rear tyre, 400km from the finish of his trip. I pulled over and waited with them, trying not to backseat-tyre-change as the trucker helped out, using his compressor to inflate the tyre in around five seconds. I watched jealously, having just spent ten minutes pumping.
So we travelled as three bikes to Magadan.
As we made our way towards the end of the Kolyma Highway, the road improved but the weather worsened: cold, miserable rain. I was underdressed and freezing cold. We rode through huge gravel mountains, beside rivers still covered with ice; a real moonscape, an inhospitable place. This would have been the first thing people shipped to the gulags would have seen, and coming from Moscow or St Petersberg it must have been like Mars.
We stopped briefly to check out a old gulag waypoint we had, but the first 500m of the track had five water crossings, and the waypoint was 10km off the highway. So we turned back, now dripping wet. I dropped the bike trying to turn around on the narrow track; stupid mistakes because I was cold. Oskar kindly helped pick it up.
Now that we were wet, the road at 110km/h was even colder. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a screen (you will of course remember I smashed it into a million bits just outside of Yakutsk) so the wind chill was brutal.
About 100km out of Magadan we stopped for a quick break and I dropped the bike again; I forgot to put the footstand down, more stupid mistakes. This wasn’t boding well, but there was nowhere to stop.
The last section of the highway was a frozen hell. The road was fine except for occasional huge dips in the tarmac – testing my excellent suspension, but the wind chill was rough; the air temperature was only eight degrees to start with and it was raining. I shouted “100 bottles of beer on the wall” to myself to stay focused, all the way down to one. Oskar later said he spent most of the time screaming inside his helmet to stay awake.
Finally, finally, we passed the magical Magadan townsite sign. Stopped for photos, shaking uncontrollably, then pushed on to find a hotel. I felt absolutely no recognition of what we had just achieved, I was focused on one thing only: a hot shower and bed.
After a lot of messing around trying to find the cheapest of the extremely expensive hotels, I ended up in a place for $100/night. I had my shower and was about to sleep when the phone rang – from what I gathered someone was waiting for me in reception. Was it Espen and Oskar ready to head to dinner? They hadn’t called ahead! I grabbed my stuff and headed downstairs.
…to find the lobby filled with guys in leather jackets. The bikers had found me.