The Road of Bones

Friday 12 Sep 2014
We didn’t make it to the ferry yesterday,  125km short. So we left the campsite early this morning to catch the Aldan river ferry before noon. Beyond that is the “road of bones” right up to Magadan.


This 7 footer Canadian motorcyclist came from Magadan. So if he’s ok then we’d be ok. The ferry terminal is just 20km ahead and it’d be an 1 hr ride.


Passing time on the 10km (1.5 hrs) upriver ferry ride.


The road of bones starts from the ferry terminal. Nothing unusual about it except for its history. See Wikipedia for details. What’s amazing about it is the amount of massive upgrading the Russian authorities are doing to it. Based on a Presidential directive the upgrading started in 2008 with an upward bow of a highway called the Kolyma Highway M56 to Magadan. The old road of bones has fallen into disuse; but it’s still there for the diehard 4×4 offroaders who loved to ford rivers and repair makeshift bridges.  If Stalin was around he would certainly be pleased.


It’s also very scenic.

At last light Thomas decided to camp. It was drizzling and the campsite was below the road with quite a slope to negotiate in the dark. Anyway we all got down safely, pitched our tents and Jeremy set up his kitchen.


As for me the car has been my bedroom for the last three nights and it’ll continue to be for the next three.

Saturday 13 Sep 2014

Destination Ust-Nera again. A fine sunny day. The views were simply awesome


The roads were dry. However there were as many punctures as yesterday because of the gravel road surface. So there were many stops even before Ust-Nera.


We arrived Ust-Nera at 8.25pm and found a tyre shop. Already last light and I was hoping for a hotel. Yes, no camping but our Russian handlers only managed to get us a dilapidated apartment. But with hot water, flush toilet and kitchenette.


Sunday 14 Sep 2014
It’s to Susuman today just under 400km away ESE. More punctures further delays. Didn’t make it to Susuman. Camped out 70 km short of the town.
Monday 15 Sep 2014
About 680 km to Magadan. Must make it today, maybe in 12 hrs. It’s now the destination not the journey. Rolling by 9am.
Along the way there are many villages and townships,  but mostly abandoned. Reasons being that they were settlements for the exploitation of the natural resources ie coal; and these have run out. Now gold and diamonds are found and some of the townships have remained (like the one where we stayed at Ust-Nera.) The mine owners, however, are not keen to develop these townships because they know the exploitation wouldn’t last forever. Thus only basic services were available; no maintenance of buildings or roads; and no hotels because tourists were not expected.
Not many punctures today. But Car 8 had a major problem when its LR wheel came off and rolled to the other side of the road into the drain. It was 8.30pm. One wheel stud had sheared. Temporary repair was done and we drove into Magadan with no further incident. Arrived hotel at 11.15pm, had dinner and checked into our rooms. Hotel had good wifi. But a hot bath and shampooing hair were more urgent. I was also lucky to have a single room.


Magadan 16 Sep 2014

Magadan was the end of the road for me (and for four others as well.)  The rest die hard adventurers were to drive back to Vladivostok via the old road (of bones) which was abandoned when the Russians built the new sections of the Kolyma Highway (bowing upward as in the picture.) Why wasn’t I keen to do it?  Several reasons: (1) the thought of doing the campings all over again (2) I’ve seen enough of Siberia for my brag list (3) money.

Kolyma Highway M56Anyway, I was glad to see Magadan and walked around the city and to learn of its infamous history. Magadan was the seaport that received the prisoners delivered by the Trans Siberian Railway to Vladivostok for trans shipment to the gulags.  Thus the memorial sculptures at the city square told the sad story of the Stalinist era.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat night we had a farewell dinner at this seafood restaurant.  Had to walk for quite some distance from the hotel because the cars were all away at the workshops for maintenance and repairs.  We had a good time.  Actually only John Jarvis and myself were leaving the group tomorrow morning to fly out to Vladivostok via Khabarovsk (the other three – Aman Yong, Dr Sharanjit and Cliff left on the 15th.)

IMG-20140922-WA0005The next morning 17 Sep, we left the hotel and made a stop at the “must see” tourist attraction of Magadan; that is the Mammoth and Tears of Sorrow, the Mammoth being historical but the Tears of Sorrow being in memory of all those who suffered during the Stalinist era, in particular the prisoners of the gulags.


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Thursday 4 Sep 2014
Woke up early this morning. But hotel Momin in this border town Mongolia had run out of water. What lousy luck. Breakfast was ok; and we departed by 7am to arrive at the CIQ complex 8am but to a long wait. Anyway the Mongolian handlers from Genco did their best to get us as group given some priority.

So by 10.45 am we were out and into Russian CIQ complex. More waiting to be processed which included 100% check on all cars. We were only cleared by 4pm. Phew.
Anyway, the 220km drive to Ulan Ude was very pleasant. Good roads and beautiful scenery. It was like driving in the English countryside.



We were supposed to be in a yurt camp tonight but Thomas rearranged things and we stayed at the Baikal Plaza 4* hotel instead. Our Russian handlers were also very helpful.

Friday 5 Sep 2014
Washed T-shirts and boxers at hotel. Had a good night’s sleep after updating websites. Hotel had good wifi.
Morning was very cold. Olga went to change money and Convoy went shopping for provisions. Then off to Lake Baikal some 200km NE of Ulan Ude. Camping by the lake tonight.


Arrived campsite about 3.30pm. Not bad with toilet facilitues. Setup tent and Jeremy the kitchen. He whipped up mee hoon goreng. Wonderful. For dinner he’s preparing nasi lemak.


Saturday 6 Sep 20

Very cold last night. No wifi but SMS ok to contact home. Should have bought Russian simcard. This morning foggy. Departed for Yakults 5 days away north. Hence 4 more campings, but with last night’s experience should be better organised.

It rained all day well into the night. Thomas decided no camping but had to divert to Chita for hotel accn. It’s another 7 hrs drive, ETA 1.30 am. It’s better than camping!


Sunday 7 Sep 2014
Hotel at Chita ok, warm room, hot shower and flush toilet.
Today, we’re driving to Mogocha some 600km away NE. Camping. Weather expected to be same as yesterday.

Campsite not good. Still raining. Looks like I’ll be sleeping in the car tonight. Another campsite was found. And I did sleep in the car.

Monday 8 Sep 2014
Quite comfortable sleeping in the car last night. But it continued drizzling whole night and probably into tonight. But we’re going into a hotel at Bolshoy. So that’s ok. Let it piss all night. Our car demister went kaput. Used toothpaste, ok so-so; today bought Sonax spray at Mogocha. Worked beautifully.


Arrived Bolshoy 8.15pm. Full refuelling before motel above next to the petrol station. How convenient (but they don’t have wifi.)


Tuesday 9 Sep 2014
Destination Aldan today. Apparently there’s a hotsprings campsite there. It’s a 600+km distance and I don’t think we’d make since there’s a lot of roadworks slowing us down. Looks like the Russians are actively developing the Russian Far East especially now that they’ve found gold and diamond in the region. The town of Tynda is certainly a modern creation.

Russian policemen. Happy to serve in Tynda - the boom town.

Russian policemen. Happy to serve in Tynda – the boom town.

We didn’t make it to Aldan, 200km short. But Thomas soon found a campsite by 7.30pm just before it got dark. Where? By the roadside just off the main M56 highway. And everybody got to work setting up their tents and Jeremy his kitchen.
And Choy and I would sleep in the car like we did night before.

Wednesday 10 Sep 2014

It was cold last night. About 3°C according to Aman Yong. Looks like I’ll have to use double sleeping bags and double warmer packets from now onwards.
After breakfast and calisthenics we rolled at 10am for Nizthni on the east bank of the river at Yakults 750km north. I didn’t think we’d make it when at 3.15pm we only reached Aldan the town we were supposed to be yesterday evening; with another 500km to cover. The weather, however, was nice and sunny. But roadworks and diversions were still aplenty.

It’s  8pm now and we’re searching for a campsite; and Thomas did find a nice one. The weather is great but very cold and I’m not pitching a tent tonight.

Thursday 11 Sep 2014
I survived -7°C last night. Even our water in the bottle froze.

And Thomas also said it was the coldest he ever experienced. Well, it might be worse along the “road of bones” for the next 4-5 days.
Cliff Go who left us at Ulaan Baatar rejoined us us today at Nizhne. We’re bypassing Yakutsk (and hotel) to make up for time.
After lunch and refuelling we left for the ferry terminal but didn’t quite make it. So we camped by 8pm.


Friday 29 Aug 2014
Border crossing today from Erenhot, China into Mongolia. We were told to expect the worst ie delays and waitings. But we were cleaed by both countries’ Customs & Immigration in 3 hrs (9-12). However, once inside Mongolia, the process of currency exchange took quite some time. Anyway, we rolled away around 2.30 pm and drove north for lunch at a Yurt camp in the middle of nowhere. We got there at 4.30 pm for a surprisingly good lunch.



Then a bit of sightseeing of a monastery in the middle of nowhere.


Saturday 30 Aug 2014
We drove north to Genghis Khan memorial village some 400 clicks away.
The roads were bad in many places, so Thomas decided to go off road. It was quite fun driving in the steppes. Finally we arrived at Genghis Khan’s “village” – very interesting reconstruction of 13th century lifestyle. Then to dinner and another yurt camping. Facilities were sub-standard and I had to postpone the big job.




Monday 1 Sep 2014
Autumn officially starts today in Mongolia. It’s getting cold. But I had a pleasant night last night sleeping to a warm fire from a wood fed fireplace in the yurt. And a good English breakfast with my favourite cereals,  the cornflakes. Last night it was a chicken dinner and yesterday’s lunch was beef steak. I hope it’ll be just as good at Ulaan Baatar (UB) where we’re going to today.



Got into UB @ 10.45 am after a 75km drive, to a massive traffic jam. UB have half the population of Mongolia which is 3 million.
It was a busy afternoon since GENCO, our Mongolian trip handler already planned for some excursions before and after lunch. First a visit to Genghis Khan museum, Genghis Khan square and Parliament house. Then lunch, after that traditional massage, followed by theatre of traditional song and dance, BBQ dinner and back to hotel around 9pm.


Tuesday 2 Sep 2014
It’s sightseeing day again today. After breakfast the car owners/drivers sent the cars for servicing, while the rest of us went off to the big monastery.

After that to Russia-Mongolia friendship monument on top of a hill. And then lunch. After lunch it was shopping at a dept store; but there was nothing much really. No match for KLCC.
The cars receiving a much needed maintenance.

Buying provisions for camping in Siberia


Ulaan Baatar from the hill

Wednesday 3 Sep 2014

Farewell to those leaving us here

We’re going to the Russian border town of Darkhan today about 200 km north. But first refuel to the brim, including jerry cans. Fuel is more expensive in Siberia.
No highways but paved roads with long sections of offroad conditions in many places.

We arrived Darkhan around 3.15pm and stopped at this pub with everything Texan. Good lunch with wifi. At 4 pm we drove further north to the border town of Sukhbaatar arriving at 6 pm. Another opportunity for full refuelling before we bed for the night.

NE China

Thursday 21 Aug 2014

The Trans-Siberia trip began with me flying to Beijing by MAS MH360 (previously 370) to connect with China Southern flt CZ6124 the next morning for Dalian.
(Not very many people on this MH360 Flt)

When going for check in at T2 for Dalian a young girl gave me ‘special assistance’ and whisked me past the long queue. After she handed me my boarding pass all in a matter of less than 10 minutes, she said “pay money.” How much? 200 Yuan. First customer or first victim, I don’t know.

The group that drove all the way from Spore/KL on 31 July would also arrive Dalian (after a ferry ride across the bay) but in the afternoon.
Oh yes, today is the national mourning day for MH17. Lest we forget.

Sunday 24 Aug 2014
After two days in Dalian, Trans Siberia officially started. What did we do in Dalian? Nothing much except a bit of sightseeing, getting acquainted and organising/logistics. During the walk along the Peoples’ Park by the seaside I had my portrait sketched by a street artist for Y130. Quite nicely done but I soon lost it during our curiosity stroll down the Russian “souvenir” street.

We departed Dalian for Shengyang some 400km north. It was a pleasant drive along excellent tolled highways. So after 4 hrs we arrived Shenyang and had the whole afternoon for sightseeing. Two places were interesting namely the Tiger Park and Emperor Qing’s museoleum. At the tiger park there were about 200 Siberian tigers from cubs to adults. There were other animals too like the “liger” – a cross between a lion and a tiger; white Bengal tigers, African lions, South American jaguars, black bears and a collection of assorted dears, llama etc.

We just made it to the museoleum before closing time at 5pm. Apparently this Manchu emperor seized the opportunity to take over China from the Mings and created the Qing dynasty. Smart guy.

After dinner we hastened south across the city to the Shenyang Sheraton, a 5* treat to make up for the budget hotel in Dalian.

Monday 25 Aug 2014
We departed Shenyang early @ 7.30am for Chengde, SW some 7 hrs away along smooth tolled highways. For lunch at an R&R place, we were introduced to MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) which I thought was a brilliant take on the instant fast food system. (I’ll post a video once its edited later.)
We arrived Chengde at 5.30pm again JIT before the gate to the Imperial Summer Palace closes. Great exhibits of the Qing emperors’ and Dowager Cixe lifestyle. The palace gardens are well kept; the complex is now a tourist attraction.




Tuesday 26 Aug 2014

Before leaving Chengde in the morning we stopped at the Potalaka (mini Potala) palace. The Qing emperor had embraced Tibetan Buddhism; however, he wasn’t too keen to make the annual pilgrimage to Lhasa 5,000 km away where the Potala Palace is situated.  So he decided to build his own Potala and called it Potalaka.


We then moved on to the next town Zhanglanqi in Inner Mongolia.  Here we have the Kublai Khan one time capital of Xanadu and the Kublai Khan Museum (which we visited early the next morning.)



We arrived at the final destination Wembley Plaza Hotel, London around 16:00 hrs, not in an intact convoy but individually. It seemed ironic that the convoy was able to remain intact through all the cities of China, Central Asia and Europe, but we couldn’t remain intact in London. Even the GPS didn’t help so navigation to Wembley was by stopping and asking the pedestrians.

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Anyway, we got to Wembley and I got a message from the Rotary Club of Wembley-Willesden that they were hosting dinner for us and we should be ready by 18:00 hrs. We were there at 18:00 hrs.  Unfortunately, there was a small misunderstanding and some convoy members were prevented entry to the banquet hall for being “improperly dressed.” The Brits were expecting us to be in coat and tie. I was busy in my room preparing the PowerPoint presentation of the journey as I was the Guest Speaker for the night. Fortunately, I got down early enough to sort out the misunderstanding about dress code. We were, by the way, dressed in our Convoy uniform. So that problem got sorted amicably.
President Miriam Specterman of RC Wembley-Willesden had arranged for an intercity meeting and she had some 60 Rotarians from 12 North London clubs attending.  They were mostly 60+ in age, very British and loved their pre-dinner drinks at the Bar. Our convoy members were already hungry and probably angry that the sit-down dinner hadn’t started.  But these Brits continued with their drinking and chatting among themselves. They were not very sociable and our Malaysians also kept to themselves. Having got my notebook PC hooked up to the LCD projector, I was making small talk with the Mayor and DGE 2006-07 when I was informed that the Convoy Leader had walked out with the Management Team and their wives in tow.
I chased after them and tried to persuade them to come back as the function was due to start soon.  But the Convoy Leader was adamant to stay out and go for dinner elsewhere. I later learned that he was displeased that the brief notes on the tables with the map of our journey paid tributes to me as Chef-de-Mission rather than him as the Convoy Leader.

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Fortunately about half the convoy didn’t join the walkout. They made small talk, waited patiently through all the Rotary formalities and had their dinner, which, by the way, they had already paid for.  So there was quite a lot of unconsumed food that night. Understandably the Rotary Club only paid for my dinner as I was the Guest Speaker.  But I was deeply embarrassed and found it difficult to explain to my host why some of the tables were empty. Anyway, in my speech I did pay tribute to the Convoy Leader for having led us — 35 souls and 15 cars — safely from KL to London in the planned time of 61 days.

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The next day, after their return from Southampton delivering the cars for shipping back to Malaysia, I took the opportunity to say farewell to them in a matter-of-fact manner, last nights’ insult still hurting. The wives however, were extremely nice and decent.  They remembered that Zaki’s birthday was the next day 13 Oct and gave him hugs and presents. That soften my heart and acknowledged that they were after all “good wives.”

So ended a two months journey over two continents, several deserts, plains and mountains, rivers, seas and oceans, multiples cultures and three major religions and civilizations that I was fortunate to experience first hand. I told myself “I’ll do this again” and sure enough I have been all over the world since this trip in 2005.

Hungary and Europe

Into Hungary

Crossing the border into Hungary was not a problem.  But getting into the city of Budapest was quite a hassle.  Traffic was heavy and the feeling of being in a true European country was prevalent.  It’s a big city with some 1.7 million population.  It has a turbulent history but could boast of the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1867 to 1918.  The Ottomans were here too and ruled it for 140 years from 1541.  Budapest comes from the merging of two cities, Buda and Pest in 1873.

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Besides wandering around the monuments and memorials at the Central Square some of us had our own agenda.  Zaki and I went for a cruise on the Danube (which was greyish and not at all blue).  It was nice though for photography because most of the nice buildings are on the banks of the river.  I then met up with reps from two Budapest Rotary clubs, one for lunch and the other for tea. We exchanged banners.

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That night, the Malaysian ambassador, Dato Wan Yusof Embong entertained us for dinner. He was so kind that he even got the Embassy wives to cook us nasi lemak and kueh-kueh for sahur or breakfast. Puasa started at Targu-Mures (in Romania) and Sheikh, Zaki & I fasted.  After dinner, we took a group photo the only one since the group left Kuala Lumpur. Hence, those that dropped along the way missed this opportunity.  Big deal.

Into Austria and Switzerland

From Budapest we went to Salzburg in Austria, famous for the movie “Sound of Music.”  It was just a night stop for us; but Sheikh Abas, Zaki and I had the opportunity to buka puasa with a biryani dinner at an Indian restaurant.
The next day it was off again, this time to Lucerne Switzerland where we stayed at the Hotel Europe.  The Malaysian embassy staff from Bern — Encik Jamal Shariffudin bin Johan and Encik Nordin — came and had dinner with us.



Travelling in Europe since the formation of EU has become quite easy with minimal or no immigration or customs hassle. This we found since leaving Budapest, Hungary.


Into Luxembourg and Belgium

From Lucerne, it was a leisurely drive to Luxembourg.  In spite of the beautiful Swiss countryside sceneries, snow capped mountains in the distance, the drive was getting quite boring; nothing compared to driving in Tibet or Central Asia or even Eastern Europe.  We had plenty of time to kill, and since Switzerland was famous for the cuckoo clock some of us wanted to look at them.  So we stopped at this roadside tourist shopping complex with an unpronounceable name where all kinds of knick-knacks including cuckoo clocks were available. We even had a lesson on how the clocks were manufactured, assembled and tuned.  A question was asked as to what to do if the clocks failed to function properly.  The answer from the salesman was “buy a new one.”  This fellow must have been an engineering student — he was very technical with his explanations — working part time to earn some money.  He was also too honest; and he lost his Malaysian customers.

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Well, it’s a fact that the ordinary watch/clock dealers cannot really repair a cuckoo clock apart from changing the batteries. It’s too intricate and cuckoo clock technicians are few and far between. The modern ones are not too expensive either.  So if the old one goes “cuckoo” just buy a new one.

     On Sunday 9 Oct, we arrived in Luxembourg and stayed at the Sofitel. I met two Rotary club presidents and exchanged banners.  They were of course impressed with our exploits and wished we could give talks about our experiences. Unfortunately, being Sunday we couldn’t attend their meetings.  In fact, I was unable to attend any of the meetings of clubs that met me on the journey — Baku, Tbilisi, Budapest and Luxembourg — because our dates of being at their location did not coincide with days of their weekly meetings.

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From Luxembourg we drove on to Bruges in Belgium, stopping on the way at Brussels to admire the beautiful buildings and architecture of the city.

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At Bruges, it was housekeeping time. All car owners were asked to sort out their loads in their cars to determine what was to remain, what to be thrown away and what were to be taken out as personal luggage. This was necessary as the cars were to be driven to Southampton for shipping back to Malaysia on the morning of 12 Oct, the day after arrival in London.  There was no time available for any sorting out then. So better do it in Bruges. I was also busy doing my housekeeping especially updating the website, sorting out gigabytes of pictures and videos and backing them up into my portable hard disk. Zaki went to the city and took pictures of these nice buildings; unfortunately we don’t know what they are.

Calais, France

We got to Calais from Bruges early in the morning of Tuesday 11 Oct, and got into the ferry after Immigration and Customs check without any hassle. The crossing was smooth and we arrived in Dover England after about 90 min.

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I felt a sense of relief and achievement having reached the end of the 2 months journey. I also felt privileged to join the few that have successfully made it in the past. Of course, it was easier for us to do it because of better roads and facilities; and communication and navigation aids.  The only hazards were the elements but still much safer that those people who did it in the past negotiating the Silk Roads having to deal with ruthless thieves and brigands.

Into England

We got into Dover without having to go through Immigration and Customs again.  How nice. After re-assembling we convoyed to London, very happy to drive on the left side of the road again.  Then we did a very sensible thing which was to stop for lunch and shopping at a factory outlet at Ashford.

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All the wives and the experienced 4×4 travellers discarded their clothing here (underwear especially) and bought a complete new set of new personal clothing.  I only discarded my underwear and bought new ones because my wife had sent my set of fresh clothes from Malaysia via the safe had of nephew Dilan to be delivered to Raja Aman’s flat in Maida Vale.


On 4 Oct 2005, we moved on north to Romania, another former Soviet satellite state. Romania is well known for the Romani people aka Roma or Gypsies to some.  These people are nomadic, live in wagons and are fiercely independent. History has it that they originated from northwest India and migrated west in the 6th Century. They are found all over the world actually, but mostly in the US, Brazil and Spain in that order. Romania comes 4th in population density of Romani people.


Some gypsies are rich with apartments of strange designs


The name Romania was formerly Rumania, a name change probably influenced by the fact that they were part of the Roman Empire, but officially only done in 1861.  They were also under Soviet influence just as Bulgaria was after the Russian-Turkish War. But now they are a member of NATO (2004) the EU (2007) .

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Crossing the Danube

Palace of the Parliament

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Camping in Targu Mures, Transylvania

…Dracula country

Nicolae Ceaușescu was the President (and dictator) of Romania from 1974 to 1989 when he was tried, convicted and shot by firing squad on 25 Dec 1989.  He had visions of grandeur and built the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest mid 1984. It was only completed by the new government in 1997. Total cost about €3bn. 

Transylvania is in Romania and that’s Dracula country, if you are into all that scary stuff.  We camped there in Targu Mures; fortunately nobody incurred the wrath of Dracula and we slept happily in our sleeping bags/tents. BTW, Ramadan also began on 5 Oct; so Sheikh Abas, Zaki and I had sahur that night in Dracula country.