Drohnenbild: Nadelwald und Gewässer.


Through Siberia by packraft and bike

  • #Travel
  • #Water sports
Porträtbild Kilian
Guest author, 4-Seasons
© Fotos

What do an old Russian military map, Hollywood star Ewan McGregor and two dinghies have in common? Kilian Reil and Roman Brünner provide the answer in this report on their 2,000-kilometre journey by bike and packraft along the ‘Road of Bones’ through the Siberian wilderness.

Roman spreads a hand over a confusing network of lines, dashes and green areas – lots of green areas, huge green areas. He’s kneeling on the ground looking at a huge map. It’s like a labyrinth: his finger follows a line and then hits a mountain range. Roman sighs. He sits up and tries to find another way through. Apps and GPS tracks aren’t much help. Exploring the east of Russia from afar, you quickly reach the limits of digitalisation. Roman had casually mentioned ‘bike rafting’ early on. For us Europeans, the combination of bike and rubber dinghy is a relatively unknown form of transport, but it opens up completely new possibilities for linking up land and water routes. In other words, we’re not just looking for suitable roads, but also rivers.

A vanquished Hollywood star

A few days earlier we had at last found some usable maps online. A rather dubious website provided us with military maps from the 1950s. Roman and I were amazed at the amount of work that went into surveying back then: even the furthest uninhabited corners were mapped.

We kept getting stuck in the region between Lena and the Verkhoyansk Mountains: Yakutia, also called the Republic of Sakha, is about seventy times the size of Switzerland but it has a population of around a million, half of whom live in the capital Yakutsk.

  • Aufnahme von oben, zwei Personen mit bepackten Velos fahren auf einer schlammigen Strasse, links und rechts eine Wiesen-Wald-Landschaft.

    This is a comparatively easy section on the Road of Bones.

    Photo © Kilien Reil
  • Ein Mann schiebt sein bepacktes Bike, die Strasse ist sehr schlammig.

    The pair often had to push their bikes through the mud.

    Photo © Kilian Reil
  • Gezeichnete Karte der Road of Bones in Sibirien.

    Siberia’s Road of Bones runs over roads, on rivers and through mud.

    Photo © Kilian Reil
  • Landschaftsbild des Flusses Lena in Jakutien.

    The River Lena in Yakutia.

    Photo © Kilian Reil
  • Zwei Personen auf bepackten Bikes in der Wildnis von Sibirien.

    Kilian and Roman

    Photo © Kilian Reil
  • Jemand sitzt in der Wildnis, er hat ein Lagerfeuer entfacht.

    Perhaps a big campfire will keep the bears away?

    Photo © Kilian Reil

One week later, an email from Roman popped up on my screen: ‘We have to take a closer look at this!’ There was a video link: a man riding his motorcycle along a road. In Europe, this wouldn’t even pass as a gravel track, it was more of a field. The man? Ewan McGregor – better known as Star Wars Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi. The film ‘Long Way Round’ follows his journey along the Kolyma Trassa from Yakutsk to Magadan.

The Kolyma Trassa, also known as the Road of Bones in the West, was constructed by thousands of forced labourers under Stalin. During his rule between 1927 and 1953, countless political prisoners and gulag inmates died through execution, starvation or the extreme weather conditions. Their bones are said to form the foundation of the Road of Bones and give it its name.

McGregor’s motorcycle was no match for these roads: after several setbacks, the actor and his team had to join a convoy. This was the only way to reach the distant city of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk. I was convinced that we had to go to Yakutia, too – and the Road of Bones.

‘Good luck!’

After nine months of planning, we finally came up with a route: 1,300 kilometres from Yakutsk on the Road of Bones. Then we would struggle through the hinterland for 200 kilometres, paddle 20 kilometres across a glacial lake, conquer a 150-kilometre pass and finally cover another 500 kilometres on a river towards the Sea of Okhotsk. No sooner said than done: Roman and I are relieved when we finally touch down on the runway in Yakutsk in late July 2019. We have reached the starting point of our adventure together with 140 kilos of luggage with five weeks of Siberian wilderness ahead of us. Our route is around 2,000 kilometres long, much of it over gravel and through mud.

The first kilometres biking out of Yakutsk are, well, let’s say exciting, with tight overtaking manoeuvres wildly gesticulating drivers and honking their horns – it seems the locals rarely see bikes on the road there. After ten kilometres we arrive at a ferry landing on the Lena – the main river in Yakutsk. We quickly realise that the current is too strong for us to cross the raging river with our packrafts. So we have to cancel our maiden voyage and take the ferry to the other bank. During the hour-long crossing an elderly man comes up to us, and shakes his head when he sees our bikes. He laughs and hands us a half-full bottle of vodka. ‘For the road …’ he grins. Then he says something that we will hear often: ‘Good luck!’

Having reached the other bank, we cycle off on the gravel track. There it is: the ‘Road of Bones’. We ride through sparse larch and pine forests, birch groves, past old, dilapidated collectives, abandoned farms, and herds of wild horses.

Welcome to the wilderness

The initial variety soon gives way to monotony: nothing but trees for days on end. Only forest on the horizon. We can only imagine our first destination, the Suntar-Khayata Mountains, in the distance. The road surface is a colourful mix of sand and gravel, and much more varied than the panorama. In the evening we set up our tent on a gravel bank by the river – the only area along the road without trees. As I am gathering firewood, Roman calls me over. He points to the sand at his feet: it is clearly a bear paw print. We look at each other wide-eyed and decide to make the campfire extra big.

After five days we reach Khandyga – a small town on the banks of the River Aldan. With old, rusty factories, stranded trucks, broken-down cars in front gardens and peeling paint on the shacks and wooden doors, the town makes a pretty rough impression. As we cycle into the centre of the town, the few residents greet us with surprise on their faces. A small group of children watches in amazement as we park our fully loaded bikes in front of a small supermarket, where go in search of a little culinary variety.

We cover the last few kilometres of the dead-straight Road of Bones and finally reach our long-awaited interim destination: the mountains. Every curve, every hill is a welcome change. A truck passes us, leaving a trail of dust which forms a thick crust on our arms.

On the ninth day we leave the Road of Bones. Pushing more than cycling, we travel 40 slow kilometres a day towards our next destination: Dyby, a river that issues from the mountains and flows into the Aldan.

When we arrive at Dyby we unpack our red rubber dinghies – which, as we will later discover, can withstand more than we thought. We stow our luggage and bikes in the bow – a 70-kilo load that makes the boats difficult to steer. Although we have already done a test run at home, the conditions could never compare with the raging Russian rivers.

We have to continue our journey, right?

The Dyby flows through the Yakutian mountains and often has tricky whitewater spots and other surprises in store. These stretches are not technically difficult but very confusing, with fallen trees and roots extending into the river, hidden beneath the surface. The varying currents form eddies with strong whirlpools.

  • Zwei Personen auf einem Packraft, darauf verladen jeweils die Bikes.
    Photo © Kilian Reil
  • Skizze eines selbst gebauten Katamaran mit zwei Packrafts.

    The improvised catamaran.

    Photo © Kilian Reil
  • Zwei Männer beim Essen.

    After four weeks, we finally get to take a hot shower and eat soup at Kolya’s house (left).

    Photo © Kilian Reil
  • Foto von oben, Gals mit eingemachtem Gemüse, ein Fisch und Vodka.

    Siberian lunch: raw fish and vodka.

    Photo © Kilian Reil

On the second day of paddling, there are two tree trunks in the river below the water’s surface which I don’t notice in time. The current pushes me against them, trapping me and my boat in the branches under the water. The boat gets more and more entangled in the tree trunks. I gasp for air and try to orient myself, grabbing at the branches above me. My heart is racing and I am getting cold. I manage to free myself at the last moment and drag myself onto the bank. My boat is squeezed between the tree trunks like a toothpaste tube, my bike and luggage still attached. I manage to drag the boat out of the water with my last bit of strength.

After we get over the shock, we are relieved to see that the boat and luggage are miraculously intact. ‘What do we do now?’ asks Roman, slapping me on the back. I dry my glasses on a towel and reply: ‘Well… we have to continue our journey, right?’

We agree that from now on we will take the time to check any difficult stretches and, if necessary, give them a wide berth. Then we slide our boats back into the water. A few kilometres further on the current becomes wider and calmer. The spectacular landscape and the bright colours of the untouched natural surrounds make us forget the shock. We are probably the only people within a hundred kilometres. We see moose and bears here and there along the river banks. I take a deep breath and Roman gives me a satisfied grin. Three weeks have passed since we landed in Yakutia.

Bike helmets

We finally reach the mouth of the Aldan 300 kilometres downstream. It’s an immense river that flows via the Lena into the Arctic Ocean. Our journey has become more monotonous and the headwind has been building up since we left the mountains behind. But we soon gain speed thanks to Roman’s sailing expertise: we cut a few boards out of young poplar trees that we find in large piles of driftwood on the bank and turn our boats into a catamaran, with the boards and a mast in the middle. We use our tarpaulin as a sail. We shoot down the Aldan at up to 15 kilometres per hour, passing small villages and the occasional barge.

Full speed ahead

It is late August when we haul our catamaran back onto shore to tackle the final stage. The temperature has dropped in the last few days and the constant rain is taking a toll on us. A road leads back to the last part of the Road of Bones from the village of Ust’-Tatta, but it has turned into a deep mud bath. The clay soil sticks to our tyres and frames, making progress impossible.

Roman and I are discussing how on earth we are going to make headway when an old, rickety Jeep stops beside us. Three men jump out and ask where we are headed. When we explain our plan, they start laughing loudly. They then point at our bikes and at the roof of the off-road vehicle. We’d be better off going fishing with them, they explain in broken English.

A trip with repercussions

Once we load our bikes onto the roof of the Jeep, the driver shows off his spectacular driving style. We stop in front of a small wooden house with paint peeling off the façade. The door opens and a woman greets us warmly. She is the mother of one of the men. Gesturing wildly, she points to the dining table and signals that she wants to bring us something to eat.

After a hot meal, Kolya, one of the men, drives us to a sauna hut to wash before we go fishing. After more than four weeks without a shower this comes as a welcome – and highly necessary – invitation.

Shortly afterwards we take the Jeep back to the Aldan. But we are not alone – about 25 men are gathered around small aluminium boats, which we use to get to a row of log cabins in the forest. The men are dressed in camouflage clothing and they carry rifles and around 80 bottles of vodka into the huts. At that moment I realise that it is going to be an exciting evening.

I awake the next morning with a throbbing headache. One of the men hands us two glasses of vodka for breakfast. It is the best way to get rid of the hangover, he assures us in sign language.

In the late morning the men split up into the boats again. Roman and I look at each other, confused – our boat is the only one going upriver. Our two companions are chatting animatedly when we stop in the middle of the huge river after just a few kilometres. Kolya drops anchor and starts hauling nets out of the river. The men grab the fish and throw them into the buckets at our feet. We return to the log cabins with two buckets full of sturgeon.

Done – in every respect …

The next day we leave the village and make our way to Yakutsk. There are still 350 kilometres ahead of us on difficult trails and through mud. We have to hurry because our fishing adventure was an unplanned stop.

Five weeks later we arrive in Yakutsk. We discuss our experience over a cup of coffee: the endless expanses of this region and the time in the wilderness have left their mark on us. Were we certain we would manage to complete the route before we departed? Certainly not! Would we go on a bike rafting trip again? Definitely! Mongolia would be perfect. Or the Tatra mountains, for a lower CO2 footprint. Or perhaps Greenland? And so this journey ends as it began: with the search for the next adventure.

  • #Travel

  • #Water sports

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