Russia. The name alone conjures images of cold winters, vodka swilling men in furry hats, strict governments and domed churches, but there is so much more to this country. We recently accompanied Motor Trend and Motorcyclist magazine journalist on a 3159-mile adventure across the Russian Far East province in a quintet of Suzuki vehicles; two Equator pickup trucks upgraded with Old Man Emu Suspensions and ARB winch bars, two new Kizashi all wheel drive sedans with rally style suspensions and a V-Strom 650 dual sport bike.
Suzuki was looking for an adventure to showcase their company’s world presence and their many different vehicles (we didn’t get a chance to test a Suzuki outboard marine engine; though there were many rivers we encountered which could have been perfect test locations). The plan was simple, first a short leg in Japan done by the new Kizashi sedans, then the trucks and bike joined the trip for a south to north run from Vladivostok, Russia up to Magadan Part of this lies along the Kolyma highway, declared one of the most dangerous roads in the world and commonly referred to as the Road of Bones for all the government prisoners who died in forced labor while building the route from 1939 to 1952. From there the cars are shipped to Alaska where they begin the final leg of the trip again accompanied by trucks and bike down to Los Angeles fulfilling the Motor Trend title “Tokyo to LA: The Hard Way” (read their story in the next issue of Motor Trend).
We have been on many road trips and seen many parts of the USA but getting a chance to explore eastern Russia was unlike anything we had experienced. It mostly resembled Alaska, but the roads were 60% dirt, and the paved sections were so rough that we wished they were dirt. The cities are full of women who could be on the cover of any fashion magazine, long legged and apparently required to wear high heels. While every Russian man reminded us of an Olympic wrestler, short cropped hair, a brooding stare, and rarely a smile. However the people were never short for conversation and as friendly as folks from any Midwestern town in the US once you crack their rigid veneer. The smaller towns have definitely taken their toll since the fall of communism. Where they used to be stoic and drab due to their seemingly required concrete facade, they are now stoic, drab and in desperate disrepair after years of neglect.
The indomitable people and dilapidated places of eastern Russia are astonishing until you learn a bit of history from this region. Under control of Joseph Stalin millions of people were arrested and displaced to the wilds of eastern Russia as forced labor in road building and mining operations from the mid 1930’s to the mid ‘50’s. Their crimes ranged from being academics and intellectuals to just disagreeing with Mr. Stalin, resulting in death-filled train rides and Gulag prison camps in a part of Russia known for some of the coldest temperatures on earth. As can be expected this dark history, remote and challenging countryside, and struggling economy can take a toll, especially on small towns that have seen a mass exodus as government controls loosened in the late ‘80’s.
The people of Russia may have seen a lot, and experienced a dark history, but they also possess some of the most amazing wilderness in the world. Our trip on the Kolyma highway rolled out through thousands of miles of wooded hillsides and rugged mountains all split by fast flowing rivers fueled by the runoff of melting snow. Imagine Colorado’s Rocky Mountains before all the ski resorts showed up. The road is deemed impassable much of the year due to deep snow, high river crossings, and wash-outs (we experienced the last two). The local vehicles we passed in our Suzuki’s were often massive 6x6 Kamaz trucks, resilient 4x4 Uaz vans, and nimble little 4x4 Lada cars, all of which looked as tough as the men behind the wheel. The road careened up and down through thousand-foot passes and often had little or no guardrail between us and the raging river down below. Add in the mixture of both left and right hand drive oncoming traffic, logging and mining trucks, and more than a couple drivers partaking in Russia’s favorite distilled liquid while behind the wheel and you can imagine each day on the road was exhilarating to say the least.
We soaked in this amazing country, we celebrated each night around a table of delicacy’s (Russian beer, cold fish salad, cow’s tongue, and at least one serving of foal –baby horse), and we soon found ourselves hoping the trip wouldn’t end. Our group didn’t consist of any rugged off road machine besides the Equators so our exploration of the countryside didn’t diverge from the designated route, but we can only imagine the rockcrawling, mud bogging, and general trail exploring eastern Russia has hidden in the hills we passed through. As crazy as it may sound, we hope this isn’t our last trip to Siberia.
There are a lot more pictures from our adventure in Russia on Page 2 so be sure to click over and check them out!