Kyakhta, Siberian Russia. 4th October 2014.
Now I was back in Russia, I only really had one aim – get to Vladivostok! A ferry awaited, I hoped, and beyond that, Japan. Whenever anyone asked me where I was going I would always say ‘Japan, or Yappon’, as it’s pronounced in Russian. All I had to do was get there.
Having crossed the border, my plan was to ride as far as I could towards Ulan Ude then find a hotel before it got dark. Well, you know what Robert Burns said about best laid plans, all those years ago. It still holds true today. About 5kms from the border, my rear tyre went flat. I started the well oiled repair process once more. Remove the wheel nut; lay the bike over on its right hand side; pull out the wheel spindle and remove the wheel; tyre levers at the ready, off with the tyre and out with the tube.
I couldn’t find a hole in the tube so I fitted my spare which I knew was OK. While I was working a guy stopped but couldn’t do anything to help. After a while a second guy stopped. It was getting dark by now and his headlights were very useful for lighting up the scene. Even more useful was his 12v compressor, which saved me time and effort. My helper’s name was Jan and he was a commander in an anti-tank regiment. He lived in the nearby town of Kyakhta, where there is a big tank battalion base. Once the wheel was back on we set off for the town where Jan was going to show me to a hotel. We didn’t get very far before the tyre went flat again. Jan’s compressor did the trick once more and we soon got to a hotel which had secure parking attached. Not a cheap place at about £25, with no wi-fi or breakfast, but I had no choice. At least the room was good and was comfortable. I was very grateful to Jan for his help. He spoke good English and before he left he told me this joke. ‘In Russia, if we’re going to the shops we take our car. If we’re going to the woods we take our Jeep. If we’re going to Europe we take our tank!’ Hmm. Topical if nothing else and I did laugh.
There were no shops anywhere near the hotel so it was lucky that I had some noodles and biscuits to make a meal out of. The hotels in Russia always have a kettle in the room and the metal cup-with-lid that I’d bought in Mongolia suddenly became a very good purchase.
A good sleep set me up for tyre and tube duties. It turned out that the yard I’d parked in also included a tyre changing shed and although the tyre removal machine was no good for motorcycle wheels, the airline came in handy. I repaired both tubes and managed to convince my self that part of the reason why I pinched the tube when refitting the tyre was because it was too big and therefore got in the way. Well, I had to have some straw to grasp to make me feel a bit better about failing to complete a simple task.
The ride to Ulan Ude was nice. Good weather, a bit warmer than before too. One straight road but with some hills and bends occasionally to relieve the boredom. I was surprised to see a couple of Buddhist temples along the way, one of them looking brand new. I learned later that there is quite a large Mongol population in this part of Siberia so I suppose it made sense.
By now I was getting good at finding Russian addresses and found my way to the hostel despite it having a different name to when I’d booked it on the internet. They spoke English there and didn’t seem too bothered that I hadn’t turned up the previous night, as booked. There was nothing much to see around Ulan Ude itself but I wanted to take a ride out to Lake Baikal. I’d considered going on a separate trip to Irkutsk, the main lakeside town, but decided against it in the end. It had turned very cold and the clock was ticking. I just didn’t think I had the time to spare and the benefit in terms of what I’d see at this time of year just didn’t make it worth it. Lake Baikal is a unique place and Russians, and especially Siberians, tend to be very proud of it. Here’s some info from http://www.lakebaikal.org.
Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world with a maximum depth of 1,632m It is also the world’s largest volume of fresh water 23,000 cubic km.
This means that one-fifth of all the fresh water in the world is located at Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal is 640km long and judging by its dimensions only it would be more of a sea than a lake.
Baikal is also the world’s most ancient freshwater lake, it originated 20-25 million years ago.
It is home to many unique species of animals and plants including the freshwater seal.
Lake Baikal is one of the clearest and purest bodies of water. On a good day you could see 40 meters into the lake.
Dimensions of Lake Baikal: It is 636 km long, 79 km wide. There are 27 islands in Lake Baikal, most of them being uninhabited. Baikal Lake’s coastline measures 2100 kilometers (around 1300 miles).
More than 300 streams and rivers flow into Lake Baikal, but there is just one outlet, the Angara. The water in the lake creates a mild microclimate around its shores. More than half the species found in Lake Baikal are unique to this place.
It is a very popular holiday destination with Russians and as well as the usual lakeside activities – fishing, boating etc., there are also small, isolated ‘hideaways’ where you could shut out the busy world and commune with nature during lakeside walks or from the comfort of a hot tub. Visiting a Banya would also be an option, a favourite pastime of many Siberians. My time there was limited to a day ride and I set off on a gloomy and cold morning for my Baikal experience. It took a couple of hours to get there and although the ride through the mountain pass was very cold, at 1200 metres, it was well worth the effort. It was late autumn in Siberia by now but even so, the tree colours were still a joy to behold. I’d often see small bushes among them, with flaming red leaves which provided a nice contrast to the greens of the firs and the and yellows of the laurels.
Eventually I came to the lake itself. It is certainly impressive to look at. I could see land when I looked across it, possibly an island, but could see nothing but water when I looked along its length. It certainly is very big! The strong, biting wind that was blowing across it created quite large waves, definitely giving the impression of it being a sea more than a lake. It wasn’t difficult to imagine people out there skating before too many weeks had passed. In fact it’s frozen over from January to May, with an average air temperature of only -21 degrees C. Only! Warmer than the rest of Siberia though, which can get as low as -70 degrees. Such thoughts had me itching to get back to the warmth of my hostel so I headed back, with a stop en route for fuel and a snack. A pizza from the shop across the street that evening had me feeling better, even though pizzas sold in Russia seem to have some kind of mayonnaise sauce as a base rather than tomato paste. Odd.
Some internet research on Horizons Unlimited had informed me of a shop called Jupiter Motorcycles, in Chita, the next major town along the Trans-Siberian road. I needed to get my luggage rack welded and maybe do an oil change too, although it wasn’t quite due. So an early start saw me heading out of Ulan Ude, picking up the signs for Chita and settling down for a long, cold ride. Over 700kms today and I was wearing all the warm riding gear I possessed!
As I rode up into the hills the sleet began to blow around me, soon changing to snow. It settled, but not on the road itself fortunately. My screen and heated handlebar grips are two of the accessories I valued most that day. The third is my Airhawk seat, which successfully separated ‘numb’ and ‘bum’. Once over the hills, the sun managed to sneak its way through the clouds and it actually warmed up a bit.
The landscape was pleasant enough although it was starting to lose most of its autumn prettiness. The rivers looked great, down in their valleys, carving their way through the landscape the way that rivers do. The road tended to run above them, which made for nice views to relieve the boredom. I didn’t pass through many villages or towns. The road seemed to have been constructed to avoid them. It was interesting to see that most of the buildings were made of wood, either board or logs. In fact I passed several places where I didn’t see a single brick building. It seems that simple old wood is the best material to resist the rigours of Siberian weather. A lunch stop at a roadside café helped me to do the same, where I enjoyed my favourite Russian dish of Borscht. A bit of a GPS glitch meant that when I arrived in Chita I ended up, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. A bit of rethinking soon had me in the station square where I found City Central Hotel, the one I’d been aiming for. In the middle of the square was a huge Orthodox church and next to it was a secure car park. They were happy to take in my bike at the princely sum of just under £1 per night. Just the job. With a guard on site and a church next door it ought to be secure enough. After all, I had been good. The room in the hotel was one with four beds in it, so I could have been sharing with three others, but at about £12 per night, including breakfast and good wi-fi, I was very happy. I ended up on my own in there anyway so it worked out to be a very good deal. Just like a hostel room but without the bunks. A complete contrast to the place in Kyakhta, down near the Mongolian border. The breakfast was nice, the sun was shining and it was definitely warmer.
I set off to find Jupiter Motorcycles, which didn’t take too long. The owner didn’t speak any English so I didn’t bother trying to discuss an oil change but I did manage to communicate my welding needs. He couldn’t help but ho drew me a map to get me to a place which he thought probably could. I found the road with no problem and, after a false start or two, managed to find the place he meant. As I looked into the yard I could see wrought iron fabrications at various stages of progress and the sharp, blue light of an arc welder doing what it does best. As I rode in I could smell that electric smell that welding delivers. Just what I needed. I rode in there and found myself getting treated like the prodigal son. I spoke to a guy in the yard and showed him what I needed. He sat me in the office and shortly after another couple of guys came to look at the bike. They told me to take the rack off and less than ten minutes later they brought it back out with the two breaks now repaired. I was about to put it back on the bike when a third guy indicated that it needed strengthening or it would snap again. I agreed with him so was happy to hand it over for further work. Five minutes later it came back out with a two inch length of rod welded alongside the original repair. It didn’t look pretty but it sure wasn’t going to be breaking again any time soon. They made it clear that no payment was required or expected so I set to refitting it to the bike.
I’d just about finished that when the foreman came over and asked me if I wanted some lunch. Me, refuse a meal? It’s never happened before and it didn’t happen this time either. Sergei took me round to their rest room where I could wash up and then we sat at their big trestle table in what was obviously the ‘works’ canteen. The woman who had been working in the front office joined us and we enjoyed soup and bread, followed by more bread and jam, which turned out to be delicious home made marmalade. Sergei could speak some English and it transpired that the woman, Natalya, was his Daughter. Her English was pretty good. She was 31 and and already has a son of twelve and a daughter of seven. Sergei is 52, so it seems he was already a grandfather at forty! I blame it on those long, Siberian nights and the need to keep warm. I’m still trying to decide if it makes me feel young or old. They told me they thought I was a hero for undertaking such a journey and also that Siberia was full of thieves and that I should be very careful. Hero? I’m on holiday! But I appreciated the warning and also the information that the road ahead had very few hotels along it. Some cold camping was likely to be happening. Everyone had made it clear they expected no payment but I managed to persuade Sergei to accept 200 roubles by getting him to understand he should buy some biscuits or cakes for his guys to share in the canteen, just by way of saying ‘thank you’.
I rode back to the car park and changed my front sprocket from the 13 tooth I’d fitted for Mongolia, back to the 15 tooth I needed for the long road miles that lay ahead. When I’d finished I went into the office to let the guy in there know, and he promptly gave a present of a clasp knife with a six inch blade. I was surprised in every sense at such an unusual gift. I accepted it gratefully. It was unfortunate that I had nothing I could pass to him in return. I also wonder if this was another, veiled, warning about the dangers that lay ahead. If the treatment I’d received in Siberia so far was anything to go by I was more likely to be overwhelmed by kindness than by evil. I enjoyed a walk around the centre of the town and was impressed by the huge square I came across,overlooked by the ubiquitous statue of Lenin pointing to, or at, somewhere or something. On one side of the square was a large building, possibly relating to local government, and in front of that was a large podium of the type you used to see Soviet leaders taking the salute from. Clearly a hang over from communist days.
I also took a good look around the church. There were some beggars outside and I gave an old woman some five rouble coins. She looked at them then started haranguing me, demanding notes not coins. I politely demurred and left her muttering into her old woman’s beard. Next morning I woke up at 07.00 but breakfast wasn’t served until 08.00. So I killed some time by packing my gear away then went down to eat. By 09.00 I was heading over to get my bike on a cold but clear day. I was just bringing down the last of my gear when I glanced at the clock in the lobby and saw it was 10.20. My watch said 09.20. Bugger! I’d already lost an hour between Ulanbataar and Ulan Ude and now I’d lost another one. How careless of me. There are eleven time zones in Russia and it doesn’t seem to take long to leave one behind and lose time.
I set off but soon had to stop to consult the map when the road I was on was closed by roadworks. That was when one of those ‘funny how these things happen’ moments occurred. My backpack has a water bladder in it so that I can drink on the move. I had filled it up earlier but hadn’t screwed the cap up properly. When I pulled my map out it was wet around the bottom edge. It was lucky I stopped when I did otherwise it would have been rendered useless by the leaking water. I was very surprised when I had to switch the fuel to reserve much earlier than usual. Having fitted the larger front sprocket, thereby raising the gearing, I’d assumed the fuel consumption would be much better and had been pushing the speed up a bit. Clearly, I was wrong and slowed things down a bit thereafter.
The other factor working against me was the terrain, which was very hilly, and the wind, which tended to be against me most of the time. I noticed that many of the smaller rivers were partially frozen and any standing water was completely frozen. I was was hoping that a hotel would appear on the horizon later. It looked like the night was going to be cold. While I was riding along I saw a timber wolf walking along behind the roadside barrier. It was totally unconcerned at my passing so close but when I turned around and came after it, hoping to take a photo, it decided it was concerned after all and loped off into the woods. Shame.
Things were going well until the inevitable happened. A flat tyre. How unusual! A previous repair had failed so I fitted my spare tube and yes, you’ve guessed it, I pinched it when putting the tyre back on. The air turned blue around me as I took off the tyre and repaired the tube yet again. While I was doing this a herdsman rode up on his horse. He gave me a hand to put the tyre back on and after a while I asked him if he was Russian. What with the constant changes in time zone and the severe sense of deja vue brought about by constant repetition of the same task, I wanted to be sure I hadn’t been transported back in time to Mongolia. He assured me he was Russian before trotting off to carry on with his business. Wheel now replaced, I went about mine. I called in to a garage in a village just off the road, hoping to buy some water. I knew camping was very much on the cards for the night. They only had small bottles in the fridge but had some bigger ones on the shelf. I asked if it was gassy water and the woman said something to me. I asked again and this time her husband repeated what she’d said. I asked if it was drinkable and eventually, from their gestures, I realised it was water for topping up batteries. I beat a hasty retreat and sneaked off as best I could. They’re probably still laughing at me now.
Further up the road I stopped at a cafe and got some food as well as some water. I was hoping not to have to camp but didn’t want to take chances. Just as well really because 10kms up the road my rear tyre went flat yet again. Off came the tyre and this time it wasn’t a previous repair that had failed but a split in the tube. I checked the inside of the tyre and found a corresponding split on the inner face, about 40mm long. I guessed that it had been caused by me having to run with a completely flat tyre on several occasions while I found a safe place to stop and fix previous punctures. So I patched the inside of the tyre, as well as the tube, just to try to prevent the split eating into the tube again. By the time I’d finished it was dusk so priority number one was to find somewhere to camp. This road is relatively new and passes across a lot of swampy ground. But eventually I managed to find a track that went up a slope and onto a clear patch of ground which, judging by the tyre marks and cleared area, had been a makeshift depot for roadworks vehicles and materials. Flat with minimum brush, just what I needed. I kept waking up in the cold but at least that gave me some thinking time. To go on and see what happens or go back to a town that I knew was forty kms or so away and try to get a new tyre or at least a decent repair.
Common sense prevailed so in the morning I headed back to the town and found a vehicle repairer who also fitted tyres. I’d looked up some phrases in the dictionary last night and they obviously worked because Nicolai, the owner, pulled open a draw and showed me some some nice, heavy duty vulcanising repair patches. Just what the doctor ordered! To the great amusement of the onlookers I simply laid Doris on her side, whipped out the wheel and Nicolai, and his assistant Andrei, got stuck in. It was clear Nicolai knew what he was about so I left there feeling confident I had a repair I could rely on and if it went wrong, it wasn’t for the lack of trying. He wanted 400 roubles for the repair, I was happy to give him 500 (£8). A cheap price to pay for the peace of mind. Unfortunately he didn’t have any new tyres or motorcycle tubes so I had to carry on with what I had.
The rest of the day went well, I’m pleased to say, including a lucky break. I’d stopped in a cafe at about 4pm, one which I thought had a hotel attached. I was wrong in that, but I got chatting to a Russian who was in there and asked him if there was a hotel anywhere nearby. He said there is one 142kms along the road. Well, I thought, that’s not a guess or an assumption so I think I can trust the information. At that time of day I wouldn’t have been thinking of riding so far before stopping for the night, which would have been a camp again. But I pressed on with confidence and sure enough, just as he said, a new hotel hove into view. They had a room, with two beds in it and I might have to share, and the price included breakfast. No wi-fi but I didn’t care. Things had turned out well after 500kms on the road, and I turned in, feeling very tired.
Thinking back, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t met the guy in the cafe. It would be over dramatising to say he saved my life but he certainly saved me from a huge amount of inconvenience, discomfort and possibly injury. When I woke up next morning and looked out of the window I saw a raging blizzard and two or three inches of snow on the ground. I shuddered to think how a night in the tent might have ended up, and I still do. The room price didn’t include breakfast after all and I didn’t care. They wanted and extra 100 roubles to use the shower and I didn’t care. All I cared about was that I was inside, not out. And there I stayed for two more nights. I’d arrived on Friday evening. The blizzard finally stopped late Saturday afternoon.
They began clearing the parking area of the hotel on Sunday and some of the trucks that had parked up during the storm moved on. There was plenty of snowplough activity on the road. Things were looking up. Annoyingly I discovered that the hotel seemed to have very little insulation in the roof. By Sunday the heat from the hotel had melted the snow and it was sliding off onto the ground. Unfortunately I had parked my bike out of the way just under the eaves and it was now covered in snow. I dug it out and moved it round the side. I wasn’t happy to see that something, probably ice, had broken the glass in my clock. What surprised me the most was that a building way out in Siberia didn’t have roof insulation. It seemed a criminal omission in such a climate. But after some thought I realised it may have been deliberate. The amount of snow that would sit on that roof over the long winter, and its weight, would surely damage the roof after a while so it made sense to allow it to melt and fall off. Having said that, the building was clearly of the ‘fast build’ variety, so who knows.
I spent my time writing, partly because I needed to catch up and partly to take my mind off my predicament. While the blizzard was raging I had no way of knowing if this was the Siberian winter setting in. Would I be stuck here until May with nothing to do but write and improve my Russian? No wi-fi and no mobile phone signal either. Lost in Siberia, no communication with the outside world? Common sense and logic prevailed. I knew it was too early to be proper winter and the behaviour of the truckers told me they were just sitting it out and waiting for it to clear up. By Monday morning it had melted enough for the road to be clear of snow. There was still plenty along the roadside but whatever methods the Siberians used for snow clearing, they seemed to have worked. I had no choice but to leave anyway as I was swiftly running out of cash. I showed the map to the woman who was in charge and gleaned the information that the next town had a Bankomat, there was another hotel further along the road but that everything was ‘balshai’, which I took to mean a long way apart. OK. That was enough info for me to feel that, on a bright, sunny morning, it was worth taking a chance. To be honest I was glad to be leaving. The staff at the hotel were a pretty off hand bunch, both in the cafe and those who looked after the rooms. None of them made any effort to allow for my lack of Russian or attempted to be friendly. I know there’s no obligation to do so but up to now everyone else had. Possibly fed up with having to deal with an idiot foreigner who shouldn’t even be there. Happy in their work? I think not! I was glad to get out for many reasons.
The bike didn’t want to start so a plug swap sorted that out and I set off onto clear, dry roads on a sunny day. I was amazed at how effectively the roads had been cleared. There didn’t seem to be any salt on them so I’m guessing they used ploughs and brushes. Obviously they have to keep the roads clear out there otherwise everything would grind to a halt. Maybe they use a special asphalt? I don’t know. What I do know is that I made good progress. I found the town and the Bankomat, so was feeling even more relieved. I had to deal with some stretches of slush which hadn’t been cleared up. I even came across a couple of snow ploughs too, getting some very odd looks from the drivers. Oddly, as soon as the road turned south,where I expected it to be warmer, the patches of slush became more frequent.
Around about 16.00 I came across a cafe and saw it had a motel attached to it. Easy decision to make, I go no further! This was another new building, just like the previous hotel, and was all shiny, pre-fabricated panels and a bright red steel roof. No snow on this one either. Called 777, it was lucky I decided to stop because I learned that the next hotel along the road was 400kms away. The cafe here was much better than at the other hotel, with a wider range of food and a servery where I could just point at something and say ‘That please’. I don’t know what it is about Russian eateries but they never seem to heat up the food enough. It’s only ever warm, never hot. But the food tasted good and the tea was OK too.
Sitting at a table near me where four truck drivers who came over to talk to me. I joined them at their table and we chatted about things as best we could. They were driving two trucks between them, both American, a Mack and an International, of which they were clearly very proud. I’d noticed that most of the long haul trucks were American, obviously well suited to the terrain. The four guys were Vova Snr., Vova Jnr., Denis and Kolyan. Kolyan is into bikes and does motocross. He showed me his biking scars and I told him about mine. He declared us to be brothers. The two Vovas are a father and son driving team and come from Irkutsk. They were delighted when I said I’d been to Lake Baikal. Denis comes from near Moscow but I’m not sure about Kolyan. Denis was the one who made the real effort to talk to me. My dictionary came in handy as I told him about my journey, where I’d been and where I was heading to. He asked me how old I am and his eyes nearly popped out of his head when I told him. The vodka was flowing although I declined. Eventually we parted, agreeing to meet for breakfast.
I went over to the hotel and secured a shared room for a very nice £8, and once again, I was on my own. Considering how late in the morning I’d left and that I’d stopped there at about 4pm, I was quite happy with the 300kms I’d ridden. There was still snow on the ground and it was still very cold, but I felt I was making some progress at last.
At breakfast next morning (which I had to take back to get warmed up and no truck drivers to be seen), I was watching the weather forecast. 22C in Sochi, where the Russian car GP was on; 9C in Kabarovsk, the next big regional city I would reach; 14C in Vladivostok, my final destination. This confirmed my thoughts that it would get warmer as I headed further south. I was looking forward to it! The snow gradually disappeared and the terrain changed too. The hills were left behind me and were replaced by flat countryside with plenty of agriculture, mostly hay crops as far as I could see. Now I was out of the hills my fuel consumption improved too, thankfully. That type of terrain was hitting it hard. The ground was also very boggy in places and I couldn’t help thinking that if I were to run off the road I might never see my bike again once the bubbles had stopped. Other stray thoughts came and went, as will always happen on a seven hour, 500kms, mostly boring, ride. The road, although only single carriageway, was in very good condition and was clearly quite new. I passed several new cafe/hotel type buildings so clearly the infrastructure was being built to support the truckers and travellers. I also noticed that some of the petrol stations were labelled ‘ECO’, and sold Euro 5 standard of fuel. That was good to see. All they need to do now is to shut down those smoke belching district heating systems and there might be an improvement in air quality in some places.
Soon enough I came to one of the roadside cafe/hotels and pulled in for food and sleep. The Goulash I ate was disappointing and came back to haunt me at 9pm and 3am. I was worried. Bike riding and a dodgy stomach don’t go well together but I was OK by the morning. This hotel was dearer, at nearly £17, but at least I had a room to myself in theory as well as practice. As I set off next morning, at 0C but expecting a warmer day, I was hoping to be able to knock off over half the remaining distance and get to Vladivostok in two days. All went well and when I stopped for lunch and fuel I was pretty pleased with the day. Soon afterwards my previous sins came back to haunt me as the rear tyre went flat once more. I just shrugged my shoulders and got in with the repair. While I was taking the wheel out a guy in a car stopped. He spoke some English and was a local biker. He couldn’t really do much to help me but he left me the remains of his drink before he left. I appreciated the gesture. The problem was a previous repair that had started leaking so I stuck another patch over it and pressed on. Not for long though as it had gone down again in less than 10kms. I pumped it up again and was wondering how far I could get in this manner before I had to give up. Just then I came to a town and when I saw a cafe/hotel I decided that was too good an opportunity to pass up so pulled in. The room was cheap enough at £8 but the whole place was a bit run down.
Once I’d settled my gear into the room I started on yet another repair. There was an older guy hanging around the place too and he came out and gave me a hand, smoking about ten cigarettes in the process. No wonder he had a cough! It took two goes with two tubes but eventually it was holding air. I wanted to repair my other tube too but I had now run out of glue. I wasn’t really surprised to be honest. I seemed to have done nothing but glue patches on to tubes for days on end. After cleaning up I ordered some food, being happy to accept whatever they had available. Chicken soup, burger and mashed potato. It’s clear that the adventure part of adventure travelling happens in the most mundane places, often on a plate. The hotel didn’t seem to do much business – I wonder why? There was a railway line just across the road with very loud goods trains from a very busy goods yard, where I was constantly hearing loud announcements about various things. I hope it wasn’t going to go on all night. When I went to bed I found I couldn’t hear the trains any more but could feel the whole hotel gently shake as they trundled past. I didn’t care, I was soundo!
What would today bring, I wondered as I woke up? A flat tyre was the answer. It had gone down overnight. Another failure and now no way of repairing it. So I asked Irina, mine hostess, if there was a tyre shop in town. There wasn’t, but she offered to take me down to a nearby town where there was a place that would repair my tube for me. I had to wait about two hours until she was ready. A fantastic offer for which I was very grateful. By the time I’d had breakfast Irina had changed her mind and wanted to leave straight away. Fine by me, so off we went. During the journey I discovered that Irina could speak some English. I learned that she had three children, the young boy and girl that I’d seen at the hotel and a 15 year old son who lived with her mother while he was at school. Not at all an unusual arrangement in Russia. She’s 35 and is married to an Armenian chef. She has just taken over the hotel, which is why it’s so run down. She has plans to renovate it so will start to redecorate soon. The guy who ran the tyre repair shop was also Armenian and he got stuck in to putting a patch on my tube as soon as we arrived. Then he tested it for more leaks and promptly declared it to be no good. At least that’s what I assume he meant. I’m sure the words he used were a little more fruity, judging by the way he looked at it. The tube had several pin prick holes in it and was beyond repair. He gave Irina details of a place in nearby Kabarovsk, the main city of the region, where we should be able to get a tube. Irina generously offered to take me there and after some close encounters of the sexy kind between her and the tyre man, we set off. It was clear there was, had been or he wanted there to be, something going on between them. None of my business although I had the impression he is more keen than she is.
The place he’d told her about only sold car parts but they directed us to a motorcycle shop where, finally and at last, I was able to get a new tube. I wanted to buy two but they only seemed to have one. No problem. The fitting of this new tube would be done with more care, attention and finesse than any Micheln starred chef had ever lavished on his finest meal. I made sure to clean all the dust and grit out of the tyre before fitting the tube. That had been part of the problem and was the result of fixing punctures at the roadside. No pinching of the tube this time. Inflation took place as rapidly as under a Thatcher government and all was well. It was just starting to rain as I refitted the wheel which cemented my decision to stay another night. It was 3pm now anyway, time for a shower and then some food. Irina didn’t want to take any money off me for driving me around but she accepted some for petrol costs. When I came down to eat I brought with me the knitted cat that Elena, from Novosibirsk, had given me. I gave it to Irina’s daughter. I hope Elena will forgive me for giving away a gift but I felt it would be enjoyed and appreciated by an eight year old more than by an oldie like me. It seemed like the right thing to do. I gave one of my Russia maps and some fridge magnets, that the truck drivers had given me, to her young son. Both the kids and Irina seemed to appreciate them. I was pleased to be able to return some of the kindness she had shown me.
Irina told me this morning that her husband had a new job in the western city of Sirina so they are all moving there and she will close the hotel up for the time being. She seemed very pleased. I couldn’t help but wonder how the Armenian tyre fitter would feel.
When we’d been driving back earlier I’d noticed some kind of building up on the hillside which Irina said was a memorial. So when I left next morning I went up to look at it. It seemed to be related to a battle that had taken place between Red and White Russians in 1922. It’s easy to forget that there was a long period of resistance to the Bolshevik takeover, mostly led by supporters of the Tsar.
I went back to the bike shop in Kabarovsk, hoping to be able to buy a puncture repair kit, or at least some glue, but they didn’t have any. On the off chance, I asked for another tube and that was no problem. I’d asked for a second one yesterday but clearly didn’t get my message across. Now I had a way of fixing any subsequent puncture and I left there a happy man, Vladivostok on my mind.
For some time now the road had been deteriorating. I seemed to have left the new section of road behind and on this stretch there were several sections of roadworks with Kazakh style diversions, i.e.down a bank and onto the dirt. I didn’t care. I was making good, puncture and snow free progress, and Vladivostok was within two days riding. The weather was getting warmer, the roads busier and Doris and I were singing along together. At the hotel that night the woman told me the price for a room (£18) and I said, in my best Russian, ‘That’s rather dear’. She replied, in hers, ‘No it bloody isn’t!’ I gave in. I needed to sleep and it was all there was.
On a nice, sunny and warm day it didn’t take me long to reach Vladivostok. On the way in I was amazed by the number of right hand drive Japanese cars I saw. I assumed that people went to Japan, bought them and drove them back but I later found out that they’re mostly imported, to order, by specialist companies. Even so, I hadn’t seen nearly as many up to now. I began observing groups of ten cars and only sometimes did I find one of the ten to be left hand drive. Irina had one but nothing like as good as these. They do create a problem though, especially in places like Siberia where most of the roads are single carriageway. Irina had a lot of trouble overtaking those big trucks.
Vlad is a big city and looked impressive in the distance on the other side of the bay as I rode across the causeway that led to it. I headed for the city centre, and eventually the railway station, my plan being to scout around for a cheap hotel or hostel. I hadn’t had any internet access for nine days so had not had any chance to research accommodation. But the simple rule of heading for the station and looking around had worked well up to now. Not in Vlad though. It was in the expensive part of town and the hotels reflected this. Then I had one of my rare brainwaves. I used my GPS Points of Interest facility to find an eatery that might have wi-fi. Magic Burger fitted the bill. So I ordered a pizza, sat down and logged on. I was busy searching online when, after about 30 mins I realised my pizza hadn’t arrived. I went back back to the servery and the guy pulled it out from under the counter where they’d put it. I’d deliberately sat right opposite him so he could call me when it was ready but that obviously hadn’t been covered by the instruction manual. I sometimes have to wonder where common sense has disappeared to.
I was able to find a hostel, in the same road as the burger place, and also the same road where I would find the agents who would deal with my ferry booking. In typical Russian style it was a long road and the hostel was 2kms further on. But I found it OK. The website said that English was spoken, only not by the staff, as it turned out. She was a woman about my age and I learned later that she was the owner. She was pleasant, the hostel was nice, if a little chilly, the price was good and the wi-fi was excellent. I was happy enough. My room companions were typical of those I’d come across in other Russian hostels. Apart from Hans, a Swiss Australian who was travelling on his bicycle, they were Russians who were in the city on business. It’s been normal to find people like this rather than holidaying backpackers, as in Europe. Russia is so big that people often need to find several day’s accommodation when they visit a city, rather than being able to pop in and pop out again. I had learned from Andrey, in Moscow, that bureaucratic business is very centralised and takes time to complete.
One of the guys spoke very good English and is a sailor. His job is to procure crew for ships and he said he needs to be good at several languages. Another guy was there in connection with his PhD course. A third guy was there regarding a car but I couldn’t work out exactly how as he spoke no English. Hans is a delightful guy. He used to own a bakery in Australia, up on the Gold Cost. He and his wife sold it so he’s been able to fulfill his ambition to cycle across Russia. He flew to Switzerland with his bike, visited friends and family, then set off across Europe, into Russia. He had hoped to get into China but his visa ran out before he got there. That must have been a real blow to him. He’s getting the ferry to Japan too and was hoping to bring his booking forward. Assuming I could get this coming week’s ferry too, we would be travelling together. That suited me as we got on very well.
My key concern now was the ferry to Japan so I walked down to the offices of Links Ltd, the agent I had been recommended by various people on Horizons Unlimited. I walked into the office and as soon as I explained what I wanted Yuri and his assistant, Svetlana, swung into action like a well oiled machine. Their main business is shipping the household effects of people from Russia who go abroad or foreigners who get posted to Russia. Quite high end stuff in the main so I wondered why they mess about with motorcycles. It seems it’s a bit of a sideline that Yuri got involved in as he’s a biker too. Once he’d helped a few travellers the word got around, mostly via Horizons Unlimited, and now it’s just another part of his business. And to be fair, they’re pretty good at it. They explained all the processes, timings and costs and I immediately realised I was in good hands. Today was Monday, the ferry sailed at 14.00 Wednesday. I met them at their office Tuesday morning and paid them their fee, they led me to the ferry port where the bike was placed in the secure customs compound. Then we went to the customs office where they took the customs document received when I came back into Russia from Mongolia. Back to the port to pay the ferry company their fees for freight etc., and to buy my passenger ticket. And that was that.
There was a slight query from the guy at DBS Ferries regarding my lack of International Driving Permit but as I was going to Japan he wasn’t worried in the end. The ferry goes to Korea before continuing to Japan and had Korea been my destination I wouldn’t have been allowed to put my bike on the ferry unless I had one. I took note of that as my plan was to come back to Korea later. An IDP needed to be obtained! The total cost for bike and myself was £600. Is that a lot of money? I have no idea. I thought it wasn’t too bad for a two day ferry trip and bike freight. When I had arrived at Links Ltd office there was a French family there, also arranging for transportation. Nothing as small as a bike or even a camper van. Their vehicle was a huge, in your face, 12 tonne four wheel drive Iveco truck, with living accommodation in the back. Cedric, Marion and their under five year old children, Ruben and Louvre, were on a world tour too. They were going to Korea, planning to ship out from there to Thailand. They’d had some adventures too, including Cedric being locked in a prison cell for an hour over a driving licence misunderstanding and a major welding job when the cab split in two on some rough roads.. They’re a great couple and I think it’s a fantastic way to bring up young children although their respective grandmothers weren’t quite so approving.
All of this only took until about 13.00 so I had the rest of the day free to stroll around the city. I’d already used my last afternoon with the bike yesterday to ride around the city, up and down the many hills and then out over a rather splendid suspension bridge (one of Dimitry’s?) to Russisky Island. There wasn’t much to see there so I came back to the city by a different route and another big suspension bridge which gave me a great view of the harbour.
Vladivostok is an interesting city. It has some great architecture as well as some huge apartment blocks. It is the home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet and there is plenty of military and naval memorabilia around the place. Close to where the fleet moors is a submarine, mounted on a concrete stand and open to visitors. It claims eight German ‘kills’. There were various memorials, some in the usual Soviet Brutalist style, others a little more subtle. There was also a display of guns and mini tanks at one place.
Yuri had mentioned a funicular railway which goes up one of the steep hills to the Eagles Nest, a viewing point on one of the city’s highest hills. A nice little train at a nice little price took me up and once I’d walked up to the top I could see why the lookout was so popular. The view over the city and the harbour was pretty special, even on a dull October day. There were several navy vessels moored there, along with a three masted sailing boat. Vladivostok has a bit of a special feel to it, partly due to its history and architecture and partly to its status as a naval base. It sits at the end of the Trans Siberian Railway. Catch a train there, you wont regret it. I’d looked around the railway station earlier and was very impressed by its design and some of the artwork on it. It was designed to be a twin to the departure station of the railway in Moscow. It really does look stunning.
Hans had managed to change his ferry booking so we’d be able to keep each other company. When he’d arrived at the hostel he’d mentioned to our hostess that his birthday was coming up. That evening she very kindly put on a little celebratory meal, with some red caviare, nice cheese and a little chocolate cake. Some sparkling wine was produced and the other occupants all joined in as we sang Happy Birthday to Hans in various languages. Hans was delighted and it was a very kind gesture from our hostess whose warmth made up for the chilliness of the hostel rooms. Typical Russian kindness.
Hans and I left next morning, he pushing his bike with me carrying luggage. We walked past yet more military memorials on the way to the port. Once there we paid a booking fee to get our passenger tickets and waited to board. Hans was travelling Economy Class, which meant he was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a room shared with sixteen others. I’d been warned against this and had paid a bit more for Second Class, which meant I had a bunk in a cabin of eight.
The ferry was quite full but we met our French friends in the lounge and Hans also found a young, German Swiss couple who came to join us. We all went up on deck to wave goodbye to Russia. I think I can safely say that nobody could visit Russia, for however long, and not be completely blown away by the size, the culture, the history and the people. A two week holiday in one big city may not give a visitor too much contact with Russians outside of the tourist industry. but if you travel, as against merely visit, you can’t help but find out what Russians are like, for better or for worse. As in any country, there’s a mixture of all sorts. But I think that being able to speak a bit of the language and finding myself dependent on their help and hospitality sometimes, I can safely say that I find them to be wonderful people. The worst treatment I received was indifference (at the hotel where I was snowed in) but the most common was an incredible level of hospitality and kindness without which I would have struggled to progress on my journey and for which I will always be grateful, and will never forget. Now, Japan awaited me. I couldn’t help but eagerly anticipate experiencing yet another very different culture.