I woke up this morning quite rested. (I've always slept well in tents, when they're not in a swamp. A legacy, perhaps, of going across Canada in 1997? Back then neither showers nor the constant need for power-draining connectivity were issues, and I was happy to sleep in a tent every night for several months.)
I started the process of packing up my campsite and putting everything back in the bags when I heard this great commotion from the other side of the embankment, on the road. A great rattling, clanking and flapping, maybe 50m away from me.
I poked my head over the embankment, and there on the side of the road, immediately adjacent to my campsite, was a truck pulled over with a very obviously flat tyre. And a driver clambering down from the cab to check it out.
I climbed back down and continued my packing. On the other side, I could hear the driver cursing at the truck and various other things, accompanied by clanking and sounds of mechanical tinkering.
The poor man was having just as much trouble with the avian wildlife as have been I. The obscenities grew louder, now interspersed with words I recognized to mean "mosquito" and "flies". Finally, as I was nearly done packing, there arose a great howl of anguish, then silence.
I looked over the embankment again. The repair tools were left scattered on the side of the road, with the driver walking along the shoulder, talking on his cell phone. Apparently, this was something he couldn't fix himself.
Another 10 minutes and I was ready to go. I wasn't entirely sure what to do, then walked my bike through the trees, parallel to the road for a hundred metres or so, so I didn't emerge right beside the poor guy.
Down to the road, then got on the bike and continued my journey.
As I passed the truck (on the other side), I saw the very grumpy driver crouching beside the vehicle, and above him, a giant, grinning cartoon chipmunk: the logo for Disney's "Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers."
Oh, where's Gadget when you need her?
The hills picked up from where they left off yesterday: between 1 and 3 km in length, and generally 4-8% grade. The day was just as sunny and warm; yesterday's tailwind continuing.
Breakfast was generally the order of the day, but there wasn't anything in the near vicinity. I pegged my hopes on Obluchye, about 40km away and near the provincial border.
About 15km from Obluchye, as I was grinding up a hill and nearing the crest, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw... it couldn't be?
I turned around, and sure enough: yes! Another bicycle, powering up the hill behind me!
The rider waved at me to pull over, and as he neared, I did so, right at the top of the hill.
Alexei is also going across Russia: from Vladivostok to Crimea. We chatted for a while about our respective trips, exchanged contact info and social media accounts. Alexei is traveling super-light, and on a road bike, which allows him to make much, much better mileage than I can. He's sleeping just out in the open, without a tent or anything! I was going to allow myself some amount of jealousy, but... maybe not.
He also claims to have made it from Vladivostok in 3 days which just astounds me. That would mean 400km a day. Which I have done. Once. And it took me nearly 24h. And I wasn't trying to do it day-in-day-out. If he's really making that good time, I have nothing but the utmost respect. Godspeed!
I was pondering what he said about his destination being Crimea and wondering if it had any political significance, when Alexei pulled out a GoPro camera and wanted to interview me, briefly, for his YouTube channel.
This immediately makes me think of my own GoPro, buried in the middle of my pack. I had been planning to mount it on the bike and use it to take some videos of the road, but after my test back in Canada, decided that general "road" videos without a specific objective, are not particularly interesting.
There are still definitely opportunities, however, and things I could be taking videos of, especially when not on the bike. For example, the other morning in Birobidzhan, wandering around the market: that would have been perfect!
I will have to be more attentive to these opportunities in the future.
So anyway, the interview over, Alexei gets back on his bike, and roars into his future. After taking a swig of water, I too am on my way.
The hill at whose crest I had stopped turned out to be the last uphill for some while. The next 15km to the turnoff to Obluchye are all one long downhill. Apparently I'd been climbing a lot further than I realized yesterday; I didn't know I had that far that I could descend!
Obluchye is actually a ski resort (!) and pretty much closed for the summer. I could try going into town but it's several km off the highway so I'm uncertain. At any rate, the turnoff is just an intersection, nothing more. Nothing to eat here. I decide to press on: there has to be something soon (and there's supposed to be a gas station somewhere in the near future).
It was the right decision: only about 3 or 4 km later, I see a cafe off to the side of the road. It seems kinda deserted, just a drab cinder-block building and an empty semi-flooded gravel parking lot. I'm uncertain, but oh well: nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I head into the cafe, and leaning up against the wall just inside the entryway, I see a rather familiar road bike. I grin to myself.
Sure enough, as I go in, there's Alexei, just finishing off his lunch. "Hello again!" we nod to each other. He finishes and heads out the door just as I go up to order. On a tight schedule, that one!
The cafe is actually quite lovely, and the food very delicious. It's one of Russia's lessons, that I am slowly coming to learn. Things may look questionable on the outside, but are very friendly, bright and cheerful inside.
"Never judge a book by its cover," writ on a national scale.
A few km after leaving the cafe, the road crossed a bridge over the Khingan river, and into Amurskaya Oblast: my fourth federal subject (province)!
I think I actually end up spending more time (km) in Amurskaya than in any other province? Though I haven't actually done the analysis. It's up there, anyway. (It might be the next one, Zabaikalskiy Krai.)
The provincial border also marked the first time zone boundary. One time zone down, 9 more to go...
Shortly after entering Amurskaya Oblast, it was time to regain all the elevation I'd just lost. I passed by a gas station / cafe / hotel / truck stop, and was almost immediately presented with a 5km, 8% grade uphill.
I ground my way up the hill, came back down a tiny bit, and almost immediately another big uphill. Ah well!
Most of the afternoon progressed thusly: a big uphill, a short downhill, then back up. The road condition stayed almost uniformly excellent; indeed it's been excellent ever since Birobidzhan. Which does not surprise me (more on this tomorrow).
The bugs have been... something else. The mosquitoes and horseflies have a new companion!
Yesterday, I remember noticing: There sure are a lot of people with roadside stalls selling honey!
Today, I noticed: There are a lot of bees around!
Ya' don't say...?
Eh, bees don't actually bother me much. Unlike flies and mosquitoes, they generally aren't interested in biting me "just because." Rather, they're largely just curious.
But there sure are a lot of them. Clouds of bees, everywhere. The bugs are particularly bad when I come up a long hill; I'm going slow enough that they can keep up with me, and my sweat makes me an interesting target.
At least when I get to the top, I can speed up a bit and escape them. But at one point, I looked back and noticed a swarm of several dozen assorted insects buzzing and swarming, following me down the highway.
In late afternoon, while racing the bees, I was passed by a large, grinning chipmunk.
About 5 hours, and almost exactly 100km after leaving this morning's campsite. The difference between us, of course, being that I had planned on making this kind of progress...
Consider, in English, the difference between the following two questions (as asked, purely hypothetically, to someone bicycling along a highway):
The difference, I would argue, is subtle but significant. Now a native speaker of course would have no great difficulty parsing it out. The first asks about the more general case: where does the person call home? The second, more about the specific journey: where did they bike from?
However if the person is not a native speaker, it can be difficult, depending on context, to even hear the difference, let alone figure out which question means what, especially when added to all the other permutations and re-phrasings of the two questions that may exist.
As you can no doubt guess, a not-dissimilar situation exists in Russian. (Indeed, it is significantly more confusing, owing to Russian's system of "verbs of movement," which is a whole other topic.) I am undoubtedly an object of curiosity — to humans, not just insects! — and many people along the road ask me one, or both, of the those questions.
Some phrasings are easy to wrap my ear around, and I can answer with confidence. At other times, I am not entirely sure. When in doubt, I tend to assume the second question first: the most immediately "strange" thing about me is that I am biking. Not until I begin to speak is it necessarily obvious that I am a foreigner. (Although once I do begin to speak, that of course gives that game away in a hurry!)
As the early evening set in, I stopped for a bite to eat at the highwayside Дом у Дороги ("Home on the Road") snack bar. A couple of patrons hanging out on the patio with the proprietor were rather amused to see me pulling up, and launched into the usual questions.
Not being 100% certain which one it was, I mentioned that I had ridden from Vladivostok, but no no, they wanted to know where I was actually from.
"Oh Canada!" came the reaction to my answer. "Canada is great!" Everyone was all smiles and wanted photos with the Canadian biker.
The proprietor confirmed: "I like Canada!" But: "America is *ptui*, *ptui*." He made spitting motions toward the ground. "You, come in and buy something!"
Another fellow was keen on involving me in conversation about what we did in Canada: "You like sports, eh? Hockey!"
"Yes, we definitely like hockey! I watch hockey often!"
"Ah, yes, hockey! Pittsburgh Penguins!!!"
There was a chorus of general approval at the mention of this team. Even the proprietor relented a bit: "Okay, they're American, but maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins are alright."
"Sinkhosai...?" My mind searched through its lexicon, trying to figure out what word that might have been.
"Yes, Sinkhosai. They just played against Pittsburgh Penguins. But Pittsburgh Penguins are the better team!
"Ohhh... Sinkhos... yes! I agree, Pittsburgh is better. Although" - did I really want to go here? - "I prefer some of the Canadian teams."
"Sure, Canadian teams. Pavel Bure!!"
Maybe I should have brought some Flames patches with me as a culture-bridging gift? Then again, maybe not... Makarov was a long time ago. And he never wanted to be on the Flames anyway.
The conversation over for now, I went inside to get a quick dinnertime snack. They seemed to have a bunch of Samsas fresh from the oven, so I got a couple.
Samsa, so far as I can figure, is a variant spelling/pronunciation of "Samosa." They're essentially the same anyway, a triangular baked pastry filled (usually) with creamy chicken.
But whenever I buy some, I can't help thinking of Kafka's Gregor Samsa. I'm pretty sure I don't want to begin unpacking this entirely new angle on that already surreal tale.
My samsas downed with a chocolate bar and some lemonade, I got back on the road for a few more km while I sought a good camping spot. Unless there's a hotel in Arkhara?
Nope, nothing there so far as I could figure.
No worries; the weather remains good and I have enough iPhone power to last another day. A little past Arkhara, I went up another big hill. Good news! The ground at hilltops is likely to be drier and more suitable for camping than that at the bottom.
A side road at the top of the hill, a couple hundred metres in, and there was a seemingly-decent spot, secluded even from the side road, in the trees.
Time to set up camp.
Made 145 easy km -- all in all, another awesome day on the road. Two in a row!
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