Let me not mince words: today was a great day.
Today was an awesome day.
Today was the first truly excellent day on the road that I've yet had on this trip. One of those days when nothing (of significance) goes wrong, and you just want it to last forever.
The road was great, the weather was great, the winds were at my back, I made great time... all in all, everything went right.
I started, of course, in Birobidzhan. I woke up relatively early (for once) and made it downstairs in time to have the breakfast for which I'd already paid a few dollars extra.
The hotel's restaurant was closed for renovation, but they had a tea room which was set up for breakfast.
It wasn't a buffet; rather I was presented with a menu from which I could choose options. It wasn't clear to me how many things I could order, but I just selected a bunch of them, and they were brought out with no comment, so fair enough.
The breakfast was ehh... decent enough, and filling, but nothing to write home about. Coffee was surprisingly good for a country which is normally all about instant coffee.
There was one other, older, couple in the tea-room having breakfast. They were seated a couple of tables away, and I wasn't, at first, listening super-intently to their conversation, it was pretty clear that they weren't speaking Russian. I think I first noticed when they called the server over to order some more tea, and their level of Russian was about on par with mine. Serviceable, but basic and slow.
At times, the cadence of their speech with each other sounded almost English-like, but no, they definitely weren't speaking English.
There was the occasional word that sounded half-German. At first I wondered if, given the location, it might possibly be Yiddish? When suddenly I realized: they were speaking Dutch!
Breakfast over, I had a couple of hours before I needed to check out of the hotel, so I wandered out into the street to get some supplies for the road. And who knows: I might find an electronics shop that would have a replacement backup battery?
Well, no luck on the battery. But I did spend some time wandering through the Birobidzhan central market, which was a truly great experience.
The market was fascinating. At its centre, a big fruit-and-vegetable market truly overflowing with produce. The thing about the low-lying surroundings is that they are clearly great for agriculture.
And opening off the central produce market, in all directions, a maze of little twisty passages, all alike.
Er, by which I mean, a veritable rabbits' warren of alleys and passages, all covered with tarps and lined with scads upon scads of tiny shops and stalls. The maze was divided into sections: this section for hardware, that section for clothes, the other for watches and jewellery.
I spent some time wandering through the maze of alleys, just looking around and being a general tourist.
I imagine that other Russian cities probably have rather similar markets, and this just happened to be the first one I came across. But either way, very cool. Birobidzhan is hands-down my favourite town so far. I would have liked to stay an extra day to explore, but after spending an extra day in Khabarovsk and Bikin (the former planned, the latter not), the time on my visa is ticking away, so I needed to get going. Also, while today is sunny, the next couple of days are predicted not to be. So I should take advantage of the weather while I can.
I picked up a pair of pliers (for extracting pointy bits of metal from my tyre after repairing a puncture). And... there was... something else...
No, not the battery (well, that too, but the electronics stalls I found had nothing suitable). But no, there was something else that I knew I wanted to pick up, and just couldn't for the life of me remember. I pondered it for a while, regretting my failure to enter it into my iPhone, then finally gave up and returned to the hotel to pack, grabbing some juice and some more stuffed bagels to pack for the road.
After returning to the hotel and collecting my bike I was on my way. Another sunny and intensely warm day, like the first couple out of Vladivostok!
But once moving it was cool enough.
A few km out of town, my odometer ticked over: 1,000 km down!
It was 10km or so along a reasonably-okay access road to get back to the highway. Then once on the highway, the road condition was excellent. And it stayed excellent pretty much all day. There was one short section near Londoko, about 85km from Birobidzan, that hadn't yet been upgraded. It had narrow shoulders and 4 or 5 gravel stretches, mostly under 100m in length. But aside from that, it was a brand-new road all the way, new pavement, wide shoulders to ride on, good signage and lane marking; everything one could hope for.
I also picked up a tailwind a few km out of town, and it stayed with me all day, helping me achieve, for one of the first times on the trip, the kind of mileage I was hoping for: 134km!
The general trend of the road was uphill, which I really don't mind! I'm a BC boy at heart, I guess, and we have, y'know, mountains. So I really don't mind biking over hills. And besides, it got me up and out of the swampy lowlands, and into more suitable camping territory. Since there would be no more major towns for a while; not until Belogorsk, a couple of days away.
There may be some hotels somewhere in that stretch, but my map isn't showing them. Also: roadside motels are spaced fairly far apart, and may not always be conveniently-located related to where I want to end a day. That was okay during the first stretch between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, but now I really want to make some time, and not so keen on stopping early to accommodate hotel locations.
So anyway. I expect to be camping for a while, and it's better to do so in the hills.
None of the hills were particularly large, in themselves. A lot of up and down, with the ups slightly longer and steeper than the downs, leading to an overall general increase in elevation. Road-wise, it actually reminded me a lot of the Trans-Canada in Northern Ontario, between Kenora and Thunder Bay.
There were actually a few towns along the route, on the railway, but for the most part the road gave these a wide berth, and bypassed them further uphill, with the occasional access road down into the towns. Suited me well enough, but it did mean that I passed next to nothing in the way of retail opportunities. Which is, after all, why I had packed food in Birobidzhan.
After bypassing Bira, shortly out of Birobidzhan, there was a sign on the highway: next gas - 130km.
Truly entering the wilderness now! And with a good road and tailwind, I was A-Ok with that!
Spent all afternoon humming along, until about 5km short of the town of Izvestkoviy. It was an hour or so until sunset, and I was beginning to look for a place to camp, when I suddenly realized what I couldn't remember to buy in Birobidzhan: toilet paper!!
Don't get me wrong, I didn't experience a sudden need. But rather, I figured it might be several days until I was next in a place with a toilet, and... y'know.
Izvestkoviy was only a couple of km off the highway, so I decided to take a quick detour into the village in the hopes that there might be a place there where I could buy some.
Which is about when a car pulled parallel and slowed down so the driver could chat with me.
Many of the cars here are right-hand drive, brought over on the cheap from Japan. (60% or so? And most of the remainder are commercial or government vehicles.) So if a driver pulls adjacent and slows down a bit, he can easily hang out the window and talk to me, only 2 or 3 feet away. And since I am a somewhat curious sight, this happens relatively often; probably about 4 or 5 times a day.
So anyway, this happened again, the driver curious about me and asking questions. He mentioned that about 5km up, I could turn right and there would be a hotel in the village. Really? Yes, he assured me. Well, ok, that seemed convenient. And he was almost certainly talking about Izvestkoviy.
The conversation over, he went on ahead, I ran over a pointy piece of metal something, and got flat tyre #4.
35 minutes and several hundred mosquitoes later, the tyre was fixed and it was definitely approaching dark. I neared the Izvestkoviy turnoff, and right there was a gas station! A new one, not marked on my map, or indicated by the earlier road signs (it was not yet 130km from Bira).
I purchased some toilet paper, a chocolate bar and some lemonade, and asked the cashier about the hotel in town. (I hadn't seen a sign, and the town's access road was unpaved, so I was decidedly of two minds about the detour.)
The cashier and security guard consulted with each other and agreed: No. There's no hotel here.
Ah well. I wasn't terribly surprised. But the evening was a sunny and dry enough, so I had no qualms about camping.
Back on the road, and about 2 or 3 km later, with the sun just setting, I spotted a promising looking spot... yes... there!
A really good camping spot. Solid, dry, flat. Not far from the road, but invisible to it, immediately on the other side of an embankment.
The perfect end to a great day.
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