Surviving Siberia's 'Road of Bones'

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Houses on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Photo / Rob Gray
Houses on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Photo / Rob Gray

"Siberia!" spluttered Dennis, aghast. "But there is nothing there! Nothing! No petrol. No food. No roads. Only forest, huge forest, and decide direction, and go through forest."

Gaining momentum, he continued "Bandits! Very dangerous! And policeman - very corrupt! He will stop you every few kilometres, make you pay very big bribe. I think maybe after one week, you have no money left. I beg you, don't go to Siberia!"

Dennis was from Moscow. An amicable middle-aged man who had practiced as a doctor in Russia and was in New Zealand to improve his English. He was imploring me to cancel the trip, just weeks out from departure.

By this stage, our bikes were already on board a ship bound for Korea. Dennis felt so strongly that he recommended we cut our losses and leave our bikes in Vladivostok, escaping with our lives.

The night before we left New Zealand to join our bikes and begin our journey, I received a similar email from a friend of mine in Siberia who had known about my plans for more than a year.

"By the way," it read, "it is extremely dangerous to travel through Siberia. You must carry an AK-47, and be prepared to run from anyone that approaches you. Do not trust anyone."

Reading this eleven hours before our flight, there was little I could do but hope the advice was not accurate.

Thankfully, I am writing this blog from Irkutsk, at the end of the Russian leg of our journey.

We have seen the endless forest of the Far East open into the beautiful plains around Ulan Ude, with wild horses grazing and shepherds straddling mounts while watching their cattle. This far north, entire lakes are still frozen and there is a chill to the air.

Safely in Irkutsk, what do I make of the well-intentioned warnings we received before setting off? Now, before I say any more, please don't think I'm cocky and over-confident in anything I say - I pray every day for protection and safe travels. But, for what it's worth, here are my thoughts on the main hazards we were warned about...

Bandits

We had our first bandit encounter on day three of our travels. We were in a particularly remote area of the Far East, winding our way along small dirt roads up the coast. I rounded the top of a crest and braked suddenly when I saw Tom and Mike stopped just in front of me. We surveyed the scene in front of us. Up ahead, perhaps one kilometre away, were three cars parked on the side of the road - two on one side, one on the other. Several people were standing around, and it looked like one of the cars was broken down and being repaired.

We had been warned about this: most hold-ups on these roads take place by staging a breakdown and then robbing the poor souls that stop to help. We were faced with a dilemma. It wasn't as easy as turning back and finding another road - there weren't any for hundreds of kilometres.

The 51st Traverse had its first emergency meeting in the middle of the road. If we were to go ahead, we all had to be in agreement. We talked strategy and decided we would press on.

The plan of attack was simple - a procedure we had settled on in New Zealand. We would carry on down the road in close formation, and as we neared the potential hold-up we would indicate that we were pulling over to assist. Then, just as we drew level, we would step on the gas, accelerate rapidly, and be well past the situation before anyone could realise otherwise.

Tom went first, and I was close behind him. Nerves tingled as we approached, not sure what the next few seconds would bring. The thought entered my head that these could be the last seconds of my life. According to plan, we indicated, pretended we were slowing down to pull over, and then opened our throttles, leaving the locals in the dust.

As we drove past, I saw ... not several vicious criminals with AK-47s, but three poor ladies struggling to change a tire in the dirt. A couple of hours later, we were filling up at a petrol station when they pulled in too. I couldn't understand what they said, but I suspect it went something like: "No time to help some ladies change a tire, eh?"

Roads

We arrived in Irkutsk to a standing ovation from the local Rotary Club, who had offered to provide us with accommodation while we were in the city. They were astounded we had made it from Vladivostok to Irkutsk, and several members made impromptu speeches about our journey - one young man marvelling that we had travelled along the infamous "Road of Bones", and others repeating the sentiments that there were no roads connecting Irkutsk with Vladivostok.

We didn't have the heart to mention that there is actually a fantastic road running the length of Russia, with smooth, flat roads that make driving easy and enjoyable. We fill up with gas regularly, at tiny stations in the middle of nowhere, and have not yet had any need for our after-market 24L capacity fuel tanks.

It has actually been a little embarrassing for us, given the response of the locals. Sure, there have been plenty of rough patches - but the majority of these have been road works (albeit in hundred-kilometre stints), all dedicated to finishing this highway across Russia.

As soon as we venture off the highway, the roads are admittedly terrible. But, when I think about the many warnings we received about finding our way through giant forests with a compass, I'm grateful they are are decidedly outdated.

Policemen

We have been stopped at roadblocks perhaps half a dozen times since we arrived in Russia. Several times, the police, armed with sub-machine guns and grim expressions, have signalled us on with a friendly wave as soon as we explain we are from New Zealand. If they demand our documents, they never bother looking at more than one person's, and as soon as they realise everything is in English they are inclined to give up. Once, all they wanted was a photo, standing proudly with these crazy bikers from the other side of the world.

A couple of times we have thought things might get a little more serious. We were eating our lunch on the side of the road in a large town near Khabarovsk, when a local drove up and blocked us in, speaking in hurried Russian and gesticulating in an agitated manner.

"Politski! Politski!" he said again and again, and soon he was on the phone, perhaps summoning someone our way. Sure enough, within a few minutes a blue and white car drew up (any blue and white car will do, no matter how old and rusty) with lights flashing. Several policemen got out and approached us.

At times like these, all five of us act in unision, smiling but at the same time pretending not to understand a single word.

All we say is "Nova Zealandee", grinning stupidly and pointing at ourselves, and "Vladivistokie Londonie", grinning stupidly and pointing at the motorbikes.

The only other phrases we pull out are "spasiba" (thank you) and "nye banimaya" (no understand).

These cops were clearly not going away, so we took the leader over to Climo's bike, and showed him our route on the world map printed across Climo's luggage rack. For around half an hour, the cops milled around in confusion while we smiled at the locals, shook hands and finished off our lunch. If they were here to cause trouble, we might as well enjoy ourselves in the process. We knew they would be finishing their shift at some point, whereas we had all the time in the world.

Eventually, they signalled that we must come with them. Things might have just escalated, we thought. Sirens blaring, we were led through town at a crawl, locals stopping and staring blatantly as we past dilapidated apartments with stained washing draped from the small balconies. When we reached the edge of town, the cops pulled over and waved us on. We had just received our first police escort through a Russian town!

The second incident happened just outside Ulan Ude, a large town near Lake Baikal. We had the usual conversation with the on-duty officers, and they seemed ready to wave us on, when they must have received a message from the control tower to send us upstairs.

Climo and entered the central office that overlooked the main road out of town. After waiting for so long we considered sidling out of the office and telling the guards we had been seen and everything was fine, we were called over and our documents demanded.

Climo produced a soggy pile that was slightly worse-off for being left in his pocket during a particularly wet day's ride. Rifling through the documents, the head officer carefully scrutinised each one, before pulling out Climo's New Zealand driver's licence. He held the picture up as a night-club bouncer would, looking backwards and forwards between the picture and Climo, his frown deepening until he shook his head. Next he held the picture up to me, looking intently before shaking his head again and turning to the last man in the room, a small Russian with black hair and several teeth missing.

"Ah, Robit Weeliam Cleemo?" asked the police officer. We realised he was having a laugh.

Next he carefully examined the licence, bending it back and forth to see what it was made of, and holding it under a UV light. The cop was still frowning but clearly struggling to keep his serious face on.

Finally, when he had tired of this teasing, he handed back Climo's documents and waved us through. We sauntered back to the boys, only to see Misha interrupting an armed officer's interrogation of a suspicious looking character in a raised Mercedes with 4x4 tyres.

As we watched Misha posing for a photo with the car while we kitted up, it was easy to forget the officer was carrying a sub-machine gun - he seemed happy to take photos of Misha and the man he had just been interrogating.

* To help Rob and his mates reach their fundraising target for the Living Hope charitable organisation in Vladivostok and for more information on their journey, click here.

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