29 August 2011

Road of Bones, Old Road or New, that is the Question?

AUGUST 18, 2011

The next morning dawned kind of sunny.  Here are a couple of views from our campsite, one early, one a bit later:

Today we would reach Kyubeme, where we would have to decide between taking the new "federal" road to Magadan, or the "Old Summer Road".  The federal road was completed only a few years ago, and sounded rather easy—well-graded gravel, bridges, etc.  No real problems, and apparently even normal cars (ie, without four-wheel drive) could do it.  The so-called "Old Summer Road" is the classic, old-school Road of Bones.  The bridge at the Kyubeme end of the OSR had washed away some years ago, so now the only access to the OSR was through the river at Kyubeme, or from the eastern end, near Kadykchan.  There are still a couple of small towns along this road, but since the construction of the new road, it is no longer maintained, and has already been reduced to a rather poor state indeed, with something like 150 kilometers of bog separating the eastern end of the road from the part of the road with the villages. Obviously, there is very little traffic along this road, and basically NO traffic on the eastern end, once you pass a village called Tomtor.

The chief question about doing the OSR was the water level, both at Kyubeme and further along, in the bogs and the remaining rivers.  Sometimes the river at Kyubeme is too high to cross on bikes, and the only way across is to hire a huge six-wheel drive truck to ferry the bikes across the river.  Further east, at least past Tomtor, hiring such a truck would not really be an option, because there would not be any.  So if you got stuck there, you'd better be able to get yourself out, especially since we were kind of late in the season, and there would probably not be anyone coming up behind us to help out. 

So you can see that this is in some ways a momentous decision, not the mere "pick a fork in the road":  take the easy new road, and forever have your ride to Magadan marked with an asterisk, or take the OSR and be prepared for some serious challenges, and perhaps find out once you were in pretty deep that the route was simply impassable due to high water levels.  Doug, Max, and I had already decided that there was no way we would tackle the OSR on our own, since none of us has any serious off-road riding experience, and Doug's Harley in particular was a heavy bike, rather ill-suited to the road.  Moreover, in Yakutsk we had mounted dual-purpose tires that were fine for the gravel/dirt roads but which would be very poor for the deep mud to be expected on the OSR.  

However, the Moscow guys planned to do the OSR, and had invited us along.  If we were with them, all very experienced off-roaders, we would probably be able to do the OSR (if it were possible at all), although it wasn't certain, and moreover, it was not clear how long it would take. We had been trading stories about some female Russian rider who had been riding in the middle of nowhere when she was caught in some rain and the rivers rose in front of, and behind, her, forcing her to wait a week (according to the story) before the water levels fell enough to make the rivers passable. I didn't know about anybody else, but I could not afford to get stuck for a week…

Anyway, the final decision lay a few hours ahead of us.  In the meantime, in the morning Big Andrei discovered that his rear sprocket had been worn to nubs, and the Russians were busy figuring out how to fix it.  I gave them the old sprocket from my bike (I had changed mine in Yakutsk), and once again Doug, Max and I set off ahead of the Moscow guys, figuring they would catch up with us along the way. 

So off we went.  The hundred or so kilometers after Razvilka is probably the most beautiful part of the Road of Bones, so it was quite nice, although often there was no where to stop, so I didn't get as many pictures as I would have liked.  Here are a bunch of shots of this stretch of road:

I didn't take any pictures of it, but there was lots of construction along this stretch road, some of the places were a bit hard to ride because of the deep churned mud, although overall this stretch was pretty slow, but not very hard.

Finally we reached Kyubeme.  Kyubeme is not a town, just a "fueling point" or gas station, and it is also, or was before the bridge collapsed, the western end of the OSR.  The turn-off for the old bridge is a little bit before the actual fuel station, and we wanted to check that out, as it is kind of a famous RoB photo-opp.  We took one wrong turn down a little path to the river, but then turned around and found the right road to the bridge.  As I parked my bike in the sand by the river, something happened with my kickstand, and the bike toppled over on top of me, pinning my leg against a big rock.  It hurt like hell, and I started screaming like a little girl.  Luckily Doug was nearby and came over to help lift the bike up.  I thought I'd broken my leg, it really hurt at first.  But after limping around for a few minutes, it hurt quite  a bit less, and by the next morning, there was no trace, no swelling, no bruise, no nothing.  I guess I was lucky I was wearing some decent boots at the time.  Anyway, here is a picture of the guilty rock (just left of my bike, in the shadow) and of the bridge itself:

So then we went to the fuel station, filled up, and asked about the water level in the river, and if we'd be able to cross on our bikes.  The guys there said that the water was high, and that we'd never be able to get across on bikes.  They also said that the day before, a couple of UAZ jeeps had been flooded when they tried to cross the river, so the only thing that could make it across was the gigantic 6x6 truck at the fuel station. 

After two nights of camping, all of us were also pleased to discover that there was also a cafe next door, so we could order a hot lunch and discuss next steps.  The Cafe "Kuba" needs to work on its menu (Coca-Cola and nachos, please?), its decor, and its location, but I sure was happy to see it:

By the time we finished lunch, the Moscow guys still had not caught up with us (we didn't know if they'd been able to fix the sprocket at the campsite so weren't sure that we'd see them), and we'd decided to definitely take the new road.  Just as we were about to pull out, however, the Moscow guys roared into view and pulled into the fuel station.  They also asked about the river level and decided that they would pay the truck to ferry them across the river; they also invited, or rather strongly encouraged, us to come along.  So now we really had to decide…

For me, it was a pretty easy decision; my main goal was to get to Magadan, doing the OSR would be nice but really wasn't critical to me. Moreover, because of work, I had to get back to Moscow in a few days, I couldn't really afford to get stuck in the swamps for a week.  And finally, if for some reason I later decided that I really really wanted to do the OSR, I could come back some other time and do it.  So I voted for the new road.  I'm not really sure what Max wanted to do, and Doug seemed to kind of want to do the OSR, but said that he would accompany Max and I on the new road.  So that was that.

From Kyubeme it was a couple of hundred kilometers to Ust Nera, the next town up the road, where we would spend the night. Here are a few shots of the scenery along the road:

Ust Nera is not quite as beautiful and the wilderness around it; in fact it is pretty damn ugly.  Here is the town:

It had been a long day, I was tired and dirty and very glad to get off the bike:

While we were making enquiries at the local hotel, a local came up and offered to let us stay in one of his apartments for a lower price.  We checked it out, and it was OK—three bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, etc., definitely better than a crappy Sov hotel.  Doug and Max went to the store and bought some food (ramen noodles, sausage), then we had dinner and went to bed.

1 comment:

Phil Krix said...

Am planning to do the ROB this year but starting from Magadan. Would like to find out details of fuel stops and if you used GPS and what recommended maps and GPS type