Kolyma highway, aka Road of Bones
This place is famous for its tough climate, many gulags (labor camps), very dangerous and challenging road. It is located on the outskirts of the world, most people know almost nothing about it, but in motorcycle touring/travelling community its well-known destination, one of a bucket list rides, iconic and demanding.
Kolyma region in general and Road of Bones in particular became sadly famous after road was built here by USSR government in the 30-50th years. It was built almost without machines with labor force of prisoners that were sent here from all the USSR by fake cases, mostly as enemies of the state. Located in the permafrost area with winter temperatures as low as -50-60 degrees, conditions were tough. People lived in barracks almost without heating, with one stove in the corner of 300 meters building, with poor food, hard labor, bad medicine and ruthless attitude of security guards. Not surprisingly many died.
As construction was led in the permafrost area it was very difficult and time consuming to dig a grave for each prisoner, so bodies were buried right under the road. From here the name Road of Bones appeared.
Region was closed for tourists in USSR time – all changed in 90th with the collapse of the Soviet Union. When first motorcycle travelers came to Kolyma, they saw total lack of any infrastructure, but same time breathtaking views of taiga and wild nature, huge Siberia rivers and perfect conditions for extreme off-road riding. 2000 km of gravel road from Yakutsk to Magadan with unpredictable weather conditions and short two months summer. Only rider, his bike and wild nature around.
Nothing foreshadowed any progress until in 2004 Evan McGregor and Charley Boorman came here with a film crew. Shots from this film how they passed Road of Bones became iconic. Later Mick McDonald, as Australian rider, with friends came here and made another movie about their ride. Once again all were intrigued/interested. These rides and many other stories of other travelers made Road of Bones an iconic route for all adventure riders.
How does this road look like today? Is it risky, difficult to pass? What are the main challenges and what are the options to ride it for a regular adventure rider?
Let’s start with basic information. Road of Bones is a 2000 km gravel road from Yakutsk to Magadan, all Russia, Far East region. Most people ride it starting, either in Vladivostok (Vladivostok-Magadan is 5 000 km) or in Moscow (Moscow-Magadan is 11 000 km).
Obviously, Yakutsk is a good place to start this ride, but it’s a small provincial city with few airplanes arriving every day, no cargo planes, to train connection, so you can’t ship your bike there fast and easy. And you can’t rent a bike from any local companies, there are simply no such companies, no motorcycle shops, no tires, nothing. Vladivostok is the nearest big city where you can buy something. So most people start from there or from Moscow, doing Trans-Siberian Route + Road of Bones.
Road of Bones is unpaved and very difficult route, there are several reasons for that. First of all it’s mostly made of small sharp rocks from located around mines. These sharp rocks easily pierce motorcycle tires and you must spend time repairing it. This is problem number one you will have.
Next risk comes from dust, which is very corrosive here. It rises like a cloud for hundreds of meters after any vehicle and you can hardly see anything in front of you. Also, it penetrates everywhere – inside helmet, your riding gear, air filter will be full of dust after 1000 km, so make sure you have at least one replacement.
There are several mud sections which are almost impassible in rainy weather, and many sand sections that start suddenly after another corner.
Last, but not least – there are many pits, sometimes stones can be met on the road. And now image what happens if you get into such pit overcoming a truck in the cloud of dust. Exactly, can be bad.
Approx. ten years ago Russian government decided to upgrade/reconstruct Road of Bones and today many sections of the road are under construction, but it’s still far from finish and it will take many years to make at least a good gravel road.
What will you experience once you decided to do this ride?
When you enter Road of Bones you leave civilization and go to absolutely wild area – forget about good coffee, restaurants, petrol stations with a small food store/supermarket and toilet inside, ATM, there will be no mobile coverage, not to mention mobile internet. If you buy local Russian sim card you will pass small towns and villages evert 300-400 km where there is network and you can make a call to your relatives, that’s it. You will see signs of civilization next time in Magadan only.
If you are sensitive to level of hotels, we must upset you – during a week, may be more, depends how long you will take this ride, you will have to stay either in different guesthouses and local hotels that can be rated 05-1*, or in the tent in taiga. Tent in many cases is preferred option to old abandoned hotels. Yes there will be a bed, shower with sometimes warm water, most probably cold, but its so devastation everywhere that staying in tent is more mind relaxing option. We hope you understand local hotels are not listed on booking.com or any other web site, except Yakutsk and Magadan.
There are no service stations, no motorcycle shops, if something happens with your bike you must be able to fix it with what you have.
What else makes this route so exciting?
Weather. Changing and unpredictable. Summer in Kolyma is something illusory. It’s a two months period from end of June till middle of August when temperature during the day goes up to +15-20 degrees, at nights its +5-7 as a rule. Still it can be +10-12 or even snowy any day, that is ok here.
One more difficulty that comes from weather is high water in the rivers in case of heavy rains. As earth is frozen water can’t soak into the ground, but instead level of water in the rivers and streams quickly goes up. In several hours small stream can become a river with up to one-meter water level and strong flow. No need to explain you what happens if you drop your bike there? And the water not at all warm and comfortable for swimming. In this connection always have extra oil, filters and candles with you.
Candles may be also required because of mostly bad quality of fuel from local petrol stations. There are no big brands in this area, so many small stations diluted fuel with different additives to increase quality but that doesn’t really work.
No branded petrol stations, no restaurants, no mobile coverage, and… no police as well. Well, to be honest there are several police stations in small towns on the route, but they are located so far away that locals don’t mind against riding on cars without registrations places, driving licenses, sometimes even drunk.
Be aware, that many people who live there were in prison and now, released, they drink heavily without any perspectives to leave this area and without good job. Although people in Russia are known to be very friendly and helpful Kolyma is an exception. Many locals are cocky, can be aggressive and molest asking to sit on the bike, give them a ride, drink with them. It is strictly recommended to stay in the evening at hotel/guesthouse or camp outside of towns, hide your bike with tent, don’t walk around just or fun and don’t communicate with locals without a reason.
Another important thing you must be aware of – bears. If you have been in Russia before you probably know that there are no wild animals near main roads, and you can see bear only in the Zoo. Kolyma is an exception. Taiga forests are full of wild animals, including bears, so make sure you have anti bears protective tools/accessories (flare-gun). And you know what to do if you see a bear, how to behave etc.
Despite bears there are also mosquitos, many mosquitos, so make sure you take with you anti mosquito net and repellents.
Plenty of reasons no to go this road, yeah? Still it’s a dream route for adventure riders that did all easily reachable routes and are looking for something more. Long way Round intrigued many people with the wild conditions you must bypass to reach next level of self-confidence.
So here are the reason to ride Route of Bones
- First of all it’s a chance to escape from usual routine life, hide in taiga without internet, social networks, phone calls, for 1-2 weeks. You will help other people (same travelers) and will receive help in case something happens with you bike
- You will make new connections and these connections can grow up into real friendship later
- Extraordinary people ride Road of Bones, so you will have extraordinary connections
- Its a test, of stamina, will, physical shape, of your bike. Doing it will bring you satisfaction like after running an IronMan. Real challenge and same time lifetime experience
- Reload from regular way of life. You will take a different look at things that are common now, most probably you will start valuing many very simple things because you will understand after many days in taiga how a regular cup of coffee can make you happy. Or how damn tasty glass of Guinness can be
- Pole of cold is located in Tomtor, place in the middle of Road of Bones. It’s a small town, the colder place on Earth where people constantly live. In winter it was once recorded unbelievable -72 degrees. Usually its -40-60 here. Children go to school, people go to work….
- You will visit museum of cold, ice cave, old gulags (prisons), ghost cities and motherland of mammoths. In Magadan local seafood, especially Kamchatka Crab is a must try
How can you prepare for such a ride?
First and foremost, be good at riding on gravel roads. Train this skill and practice more. You must be able to ride 6-10 hours per day off-road.
Take some technical classes to be familiar with such things as changing oil, repairing tires, changing candles, filters, repairing tubes, etc. There will be no internet to have a look at youtube how it works, and no service station to bring your bike to and ask for help.
Best tires for this road is Michelin Anakee Wild. From our experience, and we tried different tires, Metzeller Karoo 3, Mitas, Shinko, TKC, its was Anakee Wild that showed outstanding results. There tires have least number of punctures and best road control.
Make sure before the ride you service your bike properly. Change all that can potentially require change on the roads – chain, filters, oil seals, filters and oil, candles, etc. Take with you extra tubes, spare parts, air filter, chain good pump an extensive number of repair kits with different patches and glue and be good at tire repair/tube changing lubricants, etc. Make sure you are easy with repairing tires
There will be several mud sections, but the most difficult/tough will be right after Yakutsk, approx. 250 km. If it’s rainy or there was a heavy rain the day before, road will be slippery as butter. Best advice to wait for extra 1-2 days in Yakutsk if you have time. till the road will get dry. If you can’t wait ride, but 200 km will take you 15 hours riding and you will lift your bike hundreds of times.
While riding the Kolyma Highway there will be tough conditions for camping, because first part its swamps around, then you reach some mountains and there are cliffs along the road. After you ride near forests with bears and other wild animals where its better not to stop for camping. So literary you have to ride 200-300 km per day to reach safe place with hotel/private guesthouse or primate level.
Small bike is better that large bike. And spike tires are better than alloy wheels.
Have 500-700 Euros changed in local rubles, you will need cash as nobody takes credit cards in that area. And there are no ATMs.
Take a satellite phone and put a hot spot GPS tracker. First one can be helpful if you need urgent help. Second one will help your friends/relatives follow you and have at least some update on your progress.
Make sure you have good riding gear, rain suit, warm clothes and do not listen to BMW Officials or sales managers that say Enduro Guard or Rally 4 or any other top price gear will protect you from rain, no need in rain suit, etc.. Bullshit. You MUST HAVE good rain suit with you. We checked - both top BMW suits let water in after heavy Siberian rain. Good helmet, good touring/endure boots, warm glovers, wind stopper, etc. Make sure you have camping accessories in case you will stay in tent.
Shipping your bike from Magadan to Moscow cost approx. 2000 Euro. By cargo ship will be approx. 1000 Euro in small container where few more bikes can be placed. So, if you are traveling with friends you can share costs. By cargo ship it takes 7-8 days to Vladivostok, departure every 5-6 days from Magadan.
Some people always ride solo. We respect your choice, but please for this route take a friend with you. Its not safe to ride so challenging route alone.
Always be focused on the road, hard gravel road can become sandy and after few big stones can be just in the middle of the road. If you break your wheel you won’t be able to repair it or buy another one
Don't take detours alone to small villages and towns, don't put tents just in the forests, find a good spot near the river.
Aside from all difficulties we mentioned above ride to Magadan along the Road of Bones is for sure will be one of most bright and picturesque experiences you will have in your life. It’s not easy, but there are few roads in the world that are same level of excitement.
You will cross great Siberian rivers, pass areas where few people live with cool landscapes, it will be for sure challenging and a bit risky, but in the end, what is life if not an adventure.
If you are not ready to ride on your ow there are several tour/rental companies that do motorcycle tours over the Road of Bones, you can easily find them in the internet.
Hope this material was useful, if you have questions or comments please write them below or send to editors, we would be glad to provide you more info about this road/part of the world if necessary.
Also please join us for a guided tour, here is description