The Kolyma Highway: round two

There were a lot of bikers in the lobby, and the receptionist looked at me as if asking if she should quietly call the police. But on the contrary, we all loaded into a car – everyone seemed to be called either Aleksey or Sergei – and headed to the local biker hangout, a “trash bar” called Leningrad.

The local bike club is called the Polar Owls, and they have a few hundred members. Aleksey, the president and all-round awesome dude, showed me some photos of huge events they run with hundreds of bikes, which is really impressive if you consider that a) Magadan has a population of 100,000 and b) except for about three months of the year, it is ridiculously, ridiculously cold.

From the sign out the front – “trash bar” with a skull symbol – I figured Leningrad was a dive bar, but instead it turned out to be a “hipster bar trying really hard to be a dive bar”. The custom cocktails, good food, excellent bar staff, trendy skating videos on the projector and artful exposed brick were a bit of a giveaway. The bikers talked about manly things like fighting as they sipped their craft beers or chai tea with lemon, sugar and extra cinnamon, according to preference; it was a really, really nice spot.

Unfortunately, after a 4am start that morning I wasn’t feeling so great. Around midnight Aleksey noticed me swaying slightly and suggested we head back to the hotel. I crashed into bed, still shaking, and finally noticed I was running a fever.

Aleksey's bikes

My bike on the left, Aleksey’s three enormous bikes and Sergei’s on the right

I then spent the next week being sicker than I have been in a long, long, time. With the help of Aleksey and Sergei – a fellow network admin, photographer and biker – I moved from the expensive hotel to a cheaper apartment they rented for me. I huddled in bed, fending off requests to socialise with the friendly bikers as politely as possible and reconsidering all my plans. I had originally intended to do the return trip down the Kolyma and Lena highways, but the way I was feeling that wasn’t an option. I emailed Yuri – my shipping agent back in Vladivostok – and asked for options to ship the bike back.

My bike looking cleaner than it has in a long time

My bike looking cleaner than it has in a long time

Sick and weak, I was still determined to check out some of the sights of Magadan, seeing as it was so bloody hard to get there. Sergei kindly drove me around. The museum in Magadan was cool, with some of the history of the Gulags – and Sergei even arranged for a lady friend of his to come along and act as a translator, as the museum was only in Russian. Afterwards, we went and ate pancakes at a trendy pancake emporium. Magadan might be the “end of the world”, but Russians need their blini, preferably served as trendily as possible.

Sergei and Aleksey also spent a lot of time looking for brake pads for my front wheel; just after leaving Yakutsk I’d realised that what I had thought were brake pads with plenty of wear were actually just the metal backing plates. Turns out, the metal backing plates are supposed to have brake pads attached to them, which explained why my brakes had been squeaking since I left Australia. I had of course made sure I brought a huge variety of small spare parts, from clutch cables to fork seals to wheel bearings, but completely forgot the brake pads.

4000km of metal-metal wear later, my front brake disc was wrecked and I’d worn a good millimetre into the metal. Worse, we were unable to find any Suzuki pads in Magadan. Plenty of Yamaha options available – Yamaha seems pretty popular in Russia, with a large dealer in Yakutsk (!) – but a big fat nyet to Suzuki. We even asked car places about riveting new material on to the old pads, but noone was interested.

My apartment building

My apartment building entrance

The good news was that after hitting some serious meds from my medical kit, I was starting to feel a little bit stronger every day and was considering the ride back. Yuri’s associate in Magadan had told me that it would be two weeks to ship the bike, which didn’t sound that attractive when I added up the costs of getting me and the bike to Vladivostok – around $1000 for ship, airline and train fares. Fuel for the ride back was perhaps $300. I was therefore keen to fix the brakes so I could ride and not die.

Finally, Sergei took me and the bike to a mechanic friend in a tiny garage, who said he would see what he could do. The next morning I got an SMS from Aleksey saying that the bike was fixed – for the grand total of $100 my handlebars had been straightened (bent since Australia!) and new brake pads had been found and installed. No new brake disc, but the pads would slowly polish it through normal use. The bike was like new again! It was really, really amazing to be able to stop: the small things.

Pretty evening light over Magadan

Pretty evening light over Magadan – rare sunny weather

I was still a bit apprehensive about the ride – considering I’d dropped the bike badly twice on the way to Magadan, and narrowly escaped injury – and I was feeling very comfortable in my apartment. Oskar-from-Norway had warned me not to stay too long because I would settle and not want to leave, and sure enough this was exactly what was happening. To make matters worse, the weather had been a steady 10 degrees with rain all week, which was not at all conducive to getting me up off the sofa.

The Mask of Sorrow monument in rare sunshine. Really beautiful

The Mask of Sorrow monument in sunshine. Really beautiful

...and the back, so you can see inside. Magadan in the background.

…and the back, so you can see inside. Magadan in the background.

I set myself a deadline: on Thursday, eight days after I arrived on that cold, cold Wednesday evening, the weather forecast was for dry-ish weather. I would leave really early – according to my ZyGRIB prediction it would get wetter in the afternoon – and try to get far enough north before lunch to get away from the terrible Magadan Wet Weather Zone.

Wednesday evening I got everything packed, retrieved my bike from Aleksey’s garage and prepared to ride the highway all over again. Here’s how I was feeling:

at-dawn-we-ride

I rounded off my Magadan trip with goodbye drinks at Leningrad with Aleksey, Sergei and Stanislav – he of the chai tea – and I miss their company. They are a really, really great group of people. Also, for the first time I was able to enjoy myself at the bar instead of feeling like I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Winning.

Stanislav and Aleksey

Stanislav and Aleksey

Left to right: enormous iron mammoth, Aleksey's son, Stanislav, Sergei, Aleksey's wife, Aleksey

Left to right: enormous iron mammoth, Aleksey’s son, Stanislav, Sergei, Aleksey’s wife, Aleksey

Stanislav, me, Sergei

Stanislav, me, Sergei. And Aleksey’s son sneaking into shot

Sergei checking out a new 125cc bike the club has just purchased, to be used to give riding lessons. There is no riding instructor in Magadan now

Sergei checking out a new 125cc bike the club has just purchased, to be used to give riding lessons. There is no riding instructor in Magadan at present

Thursday dawned, and I was away early wearing every bit of warm clothing I owned. It was 10 degrees and raining, and colder north of Magadan. However! Just as I guessed, about 200km inland the weather fined up into a glorious, warm sunny day. It was amazing the difference good weather (and warm clothing) makes to your opinion of that road; what had been a miserable, grey muddy track on the way in had become a glorious gravel motorbiking road with breathtaking scenery. The huge gravel mountains were sunlit with occasional shadows from the patchy clouds, the road was dry, smooth and windy, I had brakes that worked for the first time in 5000km, and it was a ridiculous amount of fun. I couldn’t believe I had considered shipping the bike.

Just before Yagodnoye – 550km from Magadan and my destination for the night – I overtook a car and realized it had British plates. Sure enough, when I next stopped for a break they overtook me and we had a chat – they were a couple driving from their home in the UK to Magadan and back as a retirement holiday. We continued to pass each other back and forwards for the next few days until we reached Artik, where they had to stop to repair their Landcruiser.

After chatting to the British couple, I was getting ready to leave when a passing truck slammed on the brakes and pulled over. The trucker lept out and shouted at me. “There are many bears! You must not stop!”. I looked around. I had not seen a single bear, or evidence of bears actually existing, all trip. Frankly, I was more concerned about being hit by a truck. But he clearly thought it was so dangerous it wasn’t possible to even stop for five minutes – and wouldn’t leave until until I had started moving again. Presumably the bears were about to leap from the bushes and … who knows. Eat me, I guess. Or steal my Nutella.

Aleksey had given me the details for a Polar Owls club member in Yahodnoye, and sure enough after a very long but very pretty 550km I was met in Yagodnoye in the light rain. He got me a booking for the hostel in town, we had tea with his wife and it was a really nice evening.

Awesome friends

Awesome bikers

The next morning my plan was 220km, then… Kadykchan: the huge abandoned city! I’d been planning this visit since Australia, and it was going to be a real highlight of the trip. It didn’t fail to disappoint. Although very, very muddy getting in there, I spent an awesome two hours checking it out and you should see my video below if you haven’t already.

After not getting mugged/eaten by a bear I pushed on for a another hundred kilometres or so and camped in a gravel pit a bit off the road. I hid my food in a tree – just in case – but still no sign of bears. Which I guess is a good thing.

Dinner: rice, peanuts and chocolate. Rather excellent cooking if I do say so myself

Dinner: rice, peanuts and chocolate. Rather excellent cooking if I do say so myself

Food in tree

Food in tree

What with exploring Kadykchan and all, Friday was a short day and so my plan for Saturday was to take advantage of the excellent weather and see how far I could get. It was wonderful – good roads, great camping and amazing scenery, and this kept up until I made it to Khandyga again, four fantastic days later.

Dinner. And pretty campsite scenery

Dinner. And pretty campsite scenery

Good riding

Good riding

At Khandyga the roads turned to shit, but I was expecting it so it wasn’t so bad. The final stretch approaching from the east is a single-lane track with lots of dust and trucks, followed by roadworks with appalling mud. On the way to Magadan I hit that stretch in the morning when I was fresh and it was a lot of fun, but last thing in the day it was a hard slog. After four days of camping I was desperately looking forward to my amazing guesthouse with home cooking waiting for me, and I planned to get up early the next morning to travel the last 80km from Khandyga to the ferry across the Aldan river.

…the guesthouse was closed. Or something. I called the number on the door as I had the first time I stayed, and someone picked up, realised I was a foreigner trying to ask questions in Russian, panicked, and just started shouting NYET! NYET! NYET! (no! no! no!) down the phone. When I tried to ask “but no WHAT??” she just hung up on me. So that was that.

Devastated, I bought some food and went looking for campsites, dropped the bike in a big puddle on a track off the highway and got all my gear wet, and ended up camping near the ferry launching point with the most brutal mosquitoes I have ever experienced. After I had set up the tent, a thunderstorm started. It was a miserable end to an otherwise fun day.

Pretty campsite, shame about the killer mosquitoes

Pretty campsite, shame about the killer mosquitoes

Monday, I was up at 6am and riding by 7:15, the mosquitoes ensuring a speedy if miserable campsite packup. Made it to the docks around 7:30 and there was no sign of life. The first ferry was supposed to leave at eight. Then I realized that I had crossed a timezone and all my clocks were still on Magadan time, two hours ahead, and so it was actually 5:30am. I had two hours to wait.

Pretty contrails

Pretty contrails

I sat on the riverbank, ate breakfast (spoonfuls of Nutella with instant coffee sprinkles) and watched the sun rise over the river as the town behind me came to life. There was – magically – no mosquitoes and the water was very pretty in the morning light. I dropped the bike again trying to turn around on the steep riverbank, picked it up, made it to the ferry, and had a relaxing trip across the beautiful river chatting to the locals.

Ferryboat docked in the dawn light

Ferryboat docked in the dawn light

Pretty scenery

Pretty scenery

At this point, Yakutsk was only 250km away and the weather was good – I figured I would try and push all the way through. However! This was the section of highway that took me three days in the rain and the mud, so I was a little concerned. I figured if the road was bad I had plenty of options for guesthouses.

Photo ops with cafe ladies

Photo ops with cafe ladies

Words to live by

Words to live by

As it turned out, the road in dry weather was fantastic. I cruised along, stopping at cafes along the way for coffee, and blasted triumphantly down the final 50km of asphalt to the Yakutsk ferry launch point for 5pm. It had taken two weeks, what with rain and mosquitoes and sickness, but I had conquered the Kolyma Highway on a motorbike.

I bought myself some icecream to celebrate.

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