RUSSIA and MONGOLIA OVERLAND #2

Ulan Ude 26-June-2004


After waiting four days for the ship to arrive and then another 5 business days we finally drove Troopy and Tom’s BMW motorbike out of the Vladivostok port on Thursday afternoon, the 17th June. With the help of the wonderful staff at Silver Wind Corporation (Vladimir Zhenikhaylov, Vladimir Myachin, Vladimir the Port Manager and Marina Averinov) the task of getting our vehicles through customs meant that there was little work for us to do other than signing documents and waiting. The customs process took all of Thursday beginning with a customs inspector accompanying us to the container to check Troopy’s engine number, chassis number and contents. It was very helpful to have a list of contents already translated into Russian. Thanks to Alex and Lilia for doing this for us. We are very thankful for Vladimir and Marina who took good care of us at the customs house by helping us fill in forms, ferrying us from one office to the next, and Marina did an excellent job translating our documents from English into Russian. We’ll add more practical details on shipping from Australia to Vladivostok when we get home.

Once we had our vehicle, it was a rather hectic evening packing everything in its place, bolting the rooftop tent to the roofrack, stocking up with supplies and filling the fuel and water tanks. We did not get to bed till after sunset (which is around 10:30pm) and got up before dawn (which is around 5:30am) to begin our journey across Russia and Mongolia.  We had a terrific time in Vladivostok and met some wonderful people but it was great to be on the road again.

Getting out of Vladivostok was not too difficult once we found the entry road onto the main highway north to Kharbarovsk. The GPS came in very handy showing Troopy the way. We did buy a Russian Road Atlas here but unfortunately, it didn’t have a road map of Vladivostok. Geoff had acquired GPS city maps for most main Russian cities and this came in very handy indeed.

The majority of the Russian drivers here are good courteous drivers, so we didn’t have to dodge the traffic like in Asia. Speed is very much policed here in Russia. Radar detectors are everywhere and in the towns. There is even a big cardboard picture of a police officer with a radar gun positioned strategically on the roadside to discourage people from speeding. We encountered the first of many police checkpoints. They were very friendly. We didn’t quite understand what they were wanting from us so we just gave them our passports and driver’s licence. We told the police that we are going from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg and they were quite envious. They wished us a pleasant journey and sent us on our way.

We stopped at a fuel station not far out of Vladivostok. It was interesting trying to tell the attendant to fill our tank with fuel. We didn’t know why he was standing there waiting beside Troopy. He seemed to be telling us something in Russian. Then the universal sign language for money came up and we realised that the way to get fuel here is to first go and pay the amount of fuel required and the cashier will release the fuel at the bowser. Note that you can get a refund if you bought too much. The cost of diesel is around AUD $0.60 cents per litre.

We just can’t get over how green everything is. The forest is very dense. Being summer here, the wild flowers are out in full bloom. There are hues of yellow, orange, cream, red and blues dotted all over the countryside. We noticed many young men stopping by the roadside to pick bunches of flowers for grandma or girlfriend.

The first place we wanted to call at was the Amur Tiger Sanctuary at Gaivoron which was highly recommend by David and Hazel Barker from Sydney. We managed to find our way there by asking the locals for directions and with the help of the GPS. We were very pleased to find Victor and Lena Yudin who very kindly showed us the two tigers in residence. They were both resting on a high stone perch looking very pristine and grand indeed. We also saw a family of bears being fed and the young cubs having a sibling squabble over who gets to have a drink first. While we were at the sanctuary, a group of 4 militia came to visit with Victor. They got talking with us and invited us to drink Vodka with them. They were very surprised that neither of us drank especially seeing that they had the best Russian Vodka on offer. In the end, Tom our travelling companion got “persuaded” to down a shot with them.

After visiting the tigers, we continued on our way to Kharbarovsk. As it was getting late, we decided to stop and camp. We found an old quarry just off the road and decided to make camp there. We could tell that the Trans Siberian Railway line was not far away as we could hear trains all night long. The mosquitoes were out in force with a special Siberian welcome for us. Ouch! The flies are also huge, plentiful and also bite.

The sun was up very early the next morning. We continued on our journey after a quick breakfast. Along the way, we stopped to buy strawberries and mushroom sold by some of the town folk on the side of the road. We also saw some water pumps as we drove through small towns on the way. Every town seemed to have a communal water pump from which the locals draw water. Some would walk to the pump with a big milk can sitting in an old baby pram or stroller. Some parts of this rural way of life, the countryside, and sleepy town/village atmosphere remind us very much of our previous travels through Malaysia, Thailand, India, Nepal and Western China.

We arrived at Kharbarovsk just as it began to pour rain! The Amurski Boulevard was immediately flooded. We stopped at a café to enquire about a possible ferry or bridge across the mighty River Amur. The Russians, as usual, were very helpful. We could see a couple of them really putting a lot of thought into how they could help us. In the end, after much signing and pointing to the phrasebook, we understood that two men would come with us and show us the way to the bridge that would take us across the River Amur. We were very grateful to these two Russian men who went out of their way to help us. We dropped them off at the railway station and made our way back to collect Tom who was waiting with his motorbike back at the riverfront. Unfortunately, Tom had his camera stolen while we were getting ready to go and have some lunch down in the main street. We did wonder why there were two teenagers hovering very close to Tom’s bike. One was at the rear pannier pointing to his padlock while the other was at the front extracting the camera from it case which was hung around the rear vision mirror bar. The camera was stolen despite the three of us standing right next to the bike. We decided to stay the night in Kharbarovsk so Tom could buy a new camera and we could have a look around this pretty city.

The main street in Kharbarovsk is a wide tree-lined street with old European style buildings on either side. It certainly is a tourist town with expensive looking stores and paved walkway from the centre down to the beach front. There were lots of people out and about shopping, drinking and strolling. Being a Saturday, the wedding parties were out having photos taken in front of the war memorials and statues of Lenin etc.

After a good night’s rest in the Hotel Amur, we were ready to hit the road again. Geoff had tracked the route we took with the two men the day before on the GPS. We were able to find our way back to the bridge and cross the Amur River without having to pay any toll. The bridge was over 2km in length and was very impressive.

The road to Birobizhan was quite foggy with a heavy mist. The locals were obviously menaced by mosquitoes on the sides of the road. There were smoky fires on the sides of the road to keep the mosquitoes at bay while people worked on the road and in fields. Again, the police checkpoints were no hassles at all and we were able to have a friendly chat about where we come from and where we are going to. We arrived in Birobizhan around lunchtime and decided to have lunch in town where there are fewer mosquitoes and flies. Birobizhan began as the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region since 1934. This did not last long due to the anti-semitism and persecutions of the Soviet years resulting in a remnant population of about 10,000 Jews in this city. The town is full of poplar trees in full bloom and lots of white fluffy flowers wafting everywhere carried by a slight breeze. A few townsfolk came up to have a look at the vehicles and to study the number plates. They shouted “Welcome” and shook our hands. One fellow got us to autograph his ten rouble note. We felt like celebrity!

The condition of the road from Birobizhan to Chita, a distance of 2000km, varies from little more than a bush track or rough corrugations to potholed tarred roads, smooth and in places, good gravel. There are massive road works going on everywhere with heavy machinery cutting into sides of hills, graders and bulldozers going in every direction. This road is a work in progress and will improve quickly given the amount of resources at hand. The Russian Government is spending 30% of their annual road budget on constructing the 2000km section of road between Birobizhan and Chita. The road is expected to be completed in 2008. When finished, Russia will for the first time ever, have a highway that links the entire country from West to East.

We met a Japanese overlander, Masayuki who was riding an Africa Twin 750 cc. He took his bike on the ferry from Japan to Vladivostok and is going across  to Central Asia and on to Iran, Turkey and India. Not long after we met, we found Masayuki and his bike sprawled on the gravel road. Two Russians cars were talking very excitedly and loudly as though in a panic. We stopped and were very relieved to discover that Masayuki was unhurt. He came off his bike on a stretch of loose gravel road. While he rested and recovered himself, we helped to pick up his bike and panniers and other bits. His dashboard and left hand indicator was bent. Geoff took off the whole front flaring and bent the dash and indicator back to allow the steering to move more freely. We then had to bend the pannier racks back into some sort of alignment so that the panniers could be locked back into place. It was not perfect but with some ratchet straps and bungy cords he was at least able to ride his bike. , We escorted Masayuki to the next town, Akhara, where we left him to sort out his bike. That night we found another old and disused gravel pit where we camped. It was open and secluded and we had a nice meal and went to bed early before the mosquitoes started looking for their evening meal. We were also thankful that we did not encounter any Siberian bears or tigers.

All along the way, we kept seeing lots of second hand Japanese vehicles that must have just come off the docks in Vladivostok. We were able to talk to a few of the drivers along the way at different roadside stops. We found out that they are driving these vehicles to cities in Western Russia. One driver said he has a car business and has just bought five of these from Japan. The others are driving their newly acquired Toyotas or are driving the cars back to be sold. Many people think that driving across Russia is pretty wild, but these drivers make it seem like just a long leisurely drive. They had the headlights and indicators heavily taped up to prevent damage from loose gravel. They also attached flaps of cardboard to the wheel arches to protect the paintwork getting damaged by stones. We followed them all the way to Chita. No doubt we will meet some more of these drivers on the road further west.

Russians seem to enjoy their outdoor life. We passed many vehicles stopped by the rivers and streams having picnics and a swim. We came upon a group of the drivers washing and bathing by a beautiful stream. It looked too inviting to pass up the opportunity to have a wash. So, we joined a few of them. The water was freezing cold to swim in and we could only manage a wash. We felt very refreshed after that.

The Siberian Forest is very impressive, thick with pine trees and poplar trees. The road took us up steep mountainous climbs and down to grassy undulating hilly country. This reminded us of Colorado in the USA. The taiga countryside is full of wild flowers which form a beautiful colourful carpet against a backdrop of pine, larch, spruce and fir trees. We also saw some chipmunks crossing the road. We followed the train line and were amazed at how often the trains run. We understand that there is a train going somewhere every two minutes or so. Everything looked so picturesque that it was hard to find the right words to describe it all.

We got stopped at a police checkpoint halfway. After having our passports checked, the five policemen wanted us to help them pump up a flat tyre on their patrol car. This brought back memories of our time in Wadi Halfa at the Egyptian and Sudanese border post where the Egyptian soldiers asked us to pump up their tyres so that they could deport us back to Sudan.

We got to Chita about nine o’clock at night after having to drive at a slower speed for the last 200 km. This was due to the fact that we had discovered two cracks in Troopy’s front window pillar. This is the third time that this has happened and is a weakness in the early 75 Series Troopy design. We tried to check into a hotel but there were no vacancies. A very friendly Russian man named Wiwo Vladimir helped to give instructions on how to get to other hotels. However, we were still unable to find a vacancy. Wiwo very kindly invited us to stay in his flat, 13 km from the city centre. We followed his vehicle to his apartment block. The Soviet era apartment blocks may look old and somewhat run down on the outside, but it was very cosy and comfortably furnished when we entered Wiwo’s two bedroom and one lounge apartment. It is a wonderful opportunity to be invited to Wiwo’s house and experience a little bit of the Russian way of life. We got to dinner very late and finally tumbled into bed way past midnight. There was a loud thunderstorm in the middle of the night.

We awoke to a very nice clear day. Our first task was to find a garage which could repair the pillars on Troopy’s front window. Our new found friend Wiwo helped us find a great garage that was able to accept the challenge. They did the repairs in about two hours. Meanwhile, the staff and Manager made us very welcome with cups of coffee and bottles of mineral water. It is a family business, so the Manager’s mother came to say hello. She heard that we are tourists from Australia. After the job was finished, we had to have pictures taken in front of both vehicles with all the staff. Once again, we are blown away by Siberian hospitality and welcome.

The next job on our list was to buy a new tyre. We had a flat tyre on the gravel section from Birobizhan to Chita. Wiwo took us to a universam. It was like a wholesale warehouse selling everything from toilet cisterns, toothpaste, shampoo, to car and truck tyres. It was not easy to find the right tyre for Troopy. Most of the tyres are wide and would not fit our rims. The owner of the store got involved in our search for a suitable tyre. He used to be a scientist in plasma research many years ago. He felt bad that he could not supply us with the right tyre so he gave us12 litres of engine oil as a gift. He also took us to many different tyre wholesalers but to no avail. In the end, we decided to try a Russian made tyre. The manager George served us personally. He had certainly gone out of his way to help us for which we are very grateful.

Wiwo then took us to a Decembrist Church. It was a very rustic looking church made of timber logs, very much like a log cabin but shaped like a small cathedral. As we walked around the church, we could hear beautiful music coming from the inside. We got invited to the recital. There were two sopranos accompanied by a pianist and a cellist. They were singing Russian Classical music written by various composers including Pushkin and Glincski. It was just a wonderful setting for a small recital. We were then approached by an American with a Russian wife and living in Chita. He teaches English at the Chita University and has a small business in bringing teachers from the US to come to Chita to teach English. We also met one such teacher called Sophie. Her one year contract finishes in July and she has had a great experience teaching English here.

The main organiser of the musical ensemble in Chita came over to introduce herself. She was very keen to offer passing tourists the opportunity of experiencing Russian classical music. Elena Alexandrovna would only be too happy to organise such music recitals for tour groups or even a small audience. We will include her contact details in the practicalities section.

Well, we have had many fantastic experiences so far. We have been so impressed with the Russian friendliness and hospitality wherever we go. There is always a lot of interest in Troopy and Tom’s BMW motorbike. The weather to date has been excellent with beautiful warm sunny days with only a couple of brief showers.

Our next destination will be Lake Baikal. So, dasvidanya for now. Stay tuned for the next update.

You can see pictures for this part of our journey by clicking here. Our WEB site containing our travels in Africa and Russia is http://overland.dreamers1.com.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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