The Kolyma highway in Siberia is M56 or the “Road of Bones.” No matter which name you know it by, it has become synonymous with adventure biking and in recent years certainly one of the last great challenging rides for bikers still wanting a desolate and memorable destination.
Long before Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman put this place on the map it had a far more sinister history. Built during the Stalin era by Gulag prisoners, it is said that up to two million people died during its construction, and the bones of the dead lie under the road. It is also in this region that the coldest temperatures ever recorded outside Antarctica exist.
A group of anxious bikers had gathered in London aboard their assortment of BMW GS machines — quite fitting for the 30th anniversary year of the launch of the GS — to begin a 100-day journey from London to Magadan, Russia. Compass Expeditions team leader Mick McDonald knew that they would be in for the ride of their lives. The trip started with a blast across Europe through France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, which gave the riders a great taste of this compact yet fascinating continent, with all declaring they would return for a “European only” tour one day. However Siberia was waiting, so they didn’t linger for too long.
The city of Istanbul signaled the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia, eventually reaching the Turkish Black Sea coast, the group rode until Trabzon, their departure point for Russia. The 12-hour ferry to Sochi, Russia turned into a 24-hour marathon, with delays and incompetence only matched by that of the Russian border post at Sochi. An agonizing six hours after disembarkation and a plethora of paperwork later, they were allowed into Russia, at 1 a.m.
After visits to Volgograd, (formerly Stalingrad) and Moscow, the group of adventurous BMW riders crossed into Kazakhstan and entered the mighty Kazakh Steppe, a region so vast you can see the curvature of the earth. After days spent riding across this lonely, silent place and nights camping out under the stars, they entered the fabled storybook lands of the Silk Road as they crossed into Uzbekistan.
Riding along the edge of the Kyzulkym Desert saw temperatures well into the 40s. Sadly, Kyrgyzstan had to be removed from the itinerary due to violent civil unrest, so a quick itinerary change took them to the Western Tien Shan Mountains in southern Kazakhstan. After a service of the bikes at BMW Almaty and fitment of the super tough Heindineau tires, the group rode north across the Kazakh Steppe and into Russia again, where they got their first taste of the Trans Siberian Highway en route to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, one of the world’s largest supplier of fresh water.
Mongolia was the next destination and promised to be a highlight of the ride, as Compass Expeditions team leader Mick McDonald explains, “There are very few roads, mostly dirt tracks, and the majority of riding is across open grasslands. The riding here was epic as we rode across huge valleys under massive blue skies, while rare Bactrain Camels grazed nearby with Mongolian herdsmen dotted around.”
After dipping back into Russia for the third and final time on the Trans Siberian Highway, the group then turned off the longest paved road in existence and proceeded north up the M56, or Lena Highway, into another world. This road was all dirt and rough; however the riding was as stunning as the autumn colors of the Taiga forests that stretched all the way to the distant horizon.
After several days of seriously tough riding, they arrived at the remote capital of Yakutia, Yakutsk, where they were greeted by the Nord Brotherhood Motorcycle Gang who showed them the sights of the city and helped in finding parts and getting work done on the bikes and support vehicle trailer. Riding in these parts takes a special breed of biker as the winter temperatures drop well into the minus-30s and there is hardly any paved road to ride. Curiously though, they all had road bikes.
After leaving Yakutsk and crossing the Lena River by ferry, the BMW riders began what they had all come for, the Road of Bones. After many hours of riding, they steadily rose to a height of around 900 meters (3,000 ft.) — usually no big issue, however this far north it spelled trouble. In a heartbeat the majority of them had fallen on ice. Even walking proved difficult.
The further they rode the more spectacular the scenery became. Autumn had well and truly arrived and the entire landscape was a spectacular shade of yellow and red. Riding through stunning valleys with lofty snow-capped peaks in the distance, this is a truly wild, uninhabited land. Silt-laden rivers roared underneath decades-old rickety wooden bridges that looked on the verge of collapse.
The BMW riders battled on through more spectacular snow-covered scenery, with temperatures savagely low and plenty of minor crashes experienced in the difficult conditions. A broken axle stud on the support vehicle trailer meant a chance encounter with some incredibly helpful and friendly Russians. A long night was spent with these wild but generous men drinking too much Vodka — with a little welding — then more vodka. These were tough guys living in a tough land, yet their generosity and friendliness was remarkable, as was their genuine invitation for Compass Expeditions’ next group to go bear hunting with them!
After 100 days on the road, the final day on the Road of Bones was greeted by spectacular sunshine but very low temperatures. The stunning scenery continued, as did the slides off the bikes in the icy conditions. After a week just riding the Road of Bones and 3,300 kms (2,000 miles) since they last saw a paved road, the group found the tarmac again and relished the smooth ride into Magadan.
Emotions ran high as they stood under the Magadan sign after 100 days and 28,000 km (17,000 miles) on the road, as they knew they had accomplished what so very few bikers have before. Along the way, they had experienced every kind of weather and road conditions one could hope to encounter, without any trip-ending injuries or bike problems. They had made it.
“The BMWs performed magnificently non-stop for over 100 days,” said Mick. “We had issues — mostly with fork seals and head stem bearings — however it was Mongolia and the Road of Bones that exacted the highest toll on the bikes. One rear shock blew on the G650GS, as did a radiator, but this was due to a small rock that lodged itself between the radiator and the frame, eventually wearing a hole in the core. The bikes went, and went, and went, across some of the most inhospitable and wild regions on earth – and proved why they are such a big sellers. Lesser bikes would have fallen to pieces, I am confident of this.”