How to survive winter on the Road of Bones
Romanian Dan Popescu has been living in Bangalore, India, for the past year and a half. Before this, he spent most of his life in his country of birth, and served in the Romanian Air Force for several years. When Romania became a part of the European Union after years of Socialist Russian regime, getting a passport was a dream come true for Romanians. Some chose to cycle everywhere. Others chose buses and trains to traverse the length and breadth of Europe. Dan chose a motorcycle.
It all started when some of Dan’s colleagues, who worked in Bangladesh, invited him to visit them in Dhaka. Having accepted, Dan realised that this meant travelling halfway across the world. The problems started when he tried to get visas for Iran, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. His travel plans seemed intrinsically doomed by nations that were politically disinclined towards each other. He decided to give it up for the longer way round: through Russia. A part of this journey – a little over 2,000 km of it – involved riding his motorcycle through the Russian Far East, through the Kolyma Highway, locally called ‘Trassa’, that connects Magadan with the eastern bank of the Lena River, opposite Yakutsk. The road also serves as a poignant monument to the people who died while constructing it – their bones were laid beneath it – hence, the Road of Bones. Only a handful of people have managed to travel the road in the Russian summer. However, in 2012, Dan Popescu became the first person ever to successfully go the distance in winter.
The preparations that needed to be made before the journey were not just necessary, they were to be life-saving. Dan was to travel with a team which included a real military ambulance borrowed from the army, that would follow him at all times, a 4x4 that carried the video team of a cameraman and a director. Besides these, there was a mechanic, a back-up rider and an offload crew. Dan’s background in the army helped the team prepare for the trip like they were preparing for war.
The most important thing to do was to design the costume for Dan. At an average winter temperature of -30 to -40 degrees, an accident meant certain death within minutes. The battery with the engine off would keep him warm for 30 minutes. After that, the costume could keep him alive for perhaps another 30 minutes. The longest he could hope to live without backup, was an hour. The crew used aircraft technology and aircraft heating systems in the costume, including some state-of-the-art textiles that reflect temperature. Dan says the costume cost more than the bike, and he isn’t kidding. The motorcycle itself needed to be fitted with various equipment, including spikes on the tyres, which would allow the vehicle to plough through ice.
When asked about the skills required for riding on ice, Dan says it was pure lottery. “You can fall a hundred times on ice in one day or never, but you’ve got to be prepared for both kinds of days,” he says.
Even if the rider was having a good day, other things could go wrong.
Dan recalls times when the heating costume malfunctioned, and he had to ride with one half of his body boiling and the other half completely frozen. And there was also the not-so-small matter of being waylaid and mauled by Siberian bears. The rider and the team had to be prepared for danger every second of the way.
Dan only wavers when he talks about the brotherhood of motorcycle travellers that helped him on his journey.
Although many neighbouring countries are perpetually on the brink of war, the Russian Bikers’ Association, and the extended team that was a part of Dan’s expedition, have vowed to stand up for each other. If they recognise a friend from amongst the enemy troupes, they have promised each other that they will misfire. This is a testament to how widening your horizons and experiencing life out there, in the world, can only open your mind to humanity.