Jun. 17, 2016: Zavitinsk, Amurskaya Oblast, Russia

List of creatures I have so far found crawling on my tent in the morning (and had to knock off):

Okay, maybe not bears.

So I awoke this morning, to the incredibly loud whine of mosquitoes, droning in my ear.

"Oh, great," I thought. "They've found a way into the tent."

But no. As it turned out, they were all on the outside of the tent - there were just so many of them that their collective whine sounded like it was inside. I started counting, but gave up when I reached 200 and had only scanned maybe a third of the tent. The hazards of sleeping in the forest... :-/

Actually, with the exception of the ants, the tent has so far done an admirable job of keeping all of the above creatures on the outside. Good job, tent!

But it didn't make it easy to get up and confront the world, knowing that I would have to run that gauntlet first thing.

Having an increasing need to go to the bathroom, however, put an end to that dilemma, albeit slightly later than might otherwise have been the case.

It had rained, very briefly, during the night, and the forest was still damp -- hence the mosquitoes, I suppose. But the sun was definitely out by now. Indeed, day comes very early to this part of Russia. At least: in mid-June, of course! Somewhere around 4AM. So it was only in the middle of the trees where the sun couldn't easily reach, that it was still wet. I dragged everything out to the little side road that I had wandered along, and that was dry enough to make packing easy.

Back on the highway, and not too far (mostly) downhill into Novobureyskiy, and the start of the "new" Chita-to-Khabarovsk Amur Highway.

Which perhaps requires to explanation (apologies for the repetition if you've heard me talk about this before).

Until only a few years ago, there was no highway across Russia. There was a road from Chita (closer to lake Baikal) west to Europe, and the road from Novobureyskiy (actually Blagovshchensk) east to Vladivostok. But the gap in between (part of which was sometimes referred to as the Wikipedia Zilov Gap) was just a tangle of roadless wilderness.

Then around 5-10 years ago, Putin (or rather, his government) built the ~1650km of road in between, connecting east to west, and closing the gap.

(It was actually officially declared open in 2004, but only actually completed and navigable as a fully paved road somewhere around 2010-2011.)

Reports vary as to how possible it was to drive this section previously. Some accounts say "no road," others just say "very bad" road. In any case, the going was definitely unpaved, definitely not well-travelled, and definitely included several significant river crossings with no bridges or official ferries. ("Go talk to Pyotr over there; he owns a boat and can maybe take you across.")

The recent completion of this highway has led to a minor surge in cross-country bikers. (Such as Yevgeniy, whom I never got to meet in Vladivostok, or Alexei, who I ran into yesterday. Or of course, me.) Many people have previously crossed the country on bike, but the two options at this point would be either to cut through Manchuria, or to take the train.

My original plan, when I first started contemplating this trip in the 90s, was to do the latter. But when the road was completed that solved that problem. (I had downloaded various Trichotomy.ca maps of the construction plans and was keeping an eye on the progress as it was happening.)

So in practice, this means a couple of things:

  1. The road surface and quality should be very good from here to Chita! Since the road is new and all. (As it has been since Blagoveshchensk. Which if you look at the above map, is actually part of the construction. The road was rebuilt from Chita pretty much all the way to Khabarovsk; it is only here at Novobureyskiy that there was no road previously and so I am now on "new" as opposed to "rebuilt" road.)
  2. However, there is almost nothing on this section. There are a few (mostly small) towns along the railway line. However the new highway almost entirely bypasses those, and there is basically nothing on the highway itself. I understand that when the road was built they also added gas stations every hundred or so km (gas stations: kind of a necessity over a 1500+ km route!). I also understand that these generally have hotels of some description attached. However I don't know what this will look like in practice. Will I occasionally come to what I expect to be a hotel, only to find it all closed and boarded up? I may want to stock up on various food and other supplies, just to be sure. I'm expecting to be camping a lot over the next week or two. (Again, this was the section for which I had really wanted the backup laptop battery, sigh!)

So in one sense this is the easy part where I hope to make up some time. In another sense it may be the hard part. We will see!

At least there promises to be Beeline cell phone coverage for pretty much the whole way. The question marks surrounding whether my phone would work outside Vladivostok have so far been answered in the affirmative, which is good! Although I've received an SMS indicating I have to pay some more money by the end of the month (not unexpected) and will have to figure out how that works.

I grabbed some lunch at a truck stop in Novobureyskiy, and continued along the new road, which true to expectations, continued to have an excellent surface.

The road was very similar to that of the previous few days: a lot of up-and-down hills, surrounded by forests.

The hills did seem to be getting smaller as the day progressed, and around late afternoon after having made some excellent progress, they petered out altogether as I approached the town of Zavitinsk, and my intended destination. I was mostly back in flatter farmlands again.

Google had indicated a hotel in Zavitinsk, but because that town was on the railway (again, bypassed by the highway), it would mean a 20+ km detour to get there and back (about 11km each way). I was hoping there might be something on the highway as well, as there had been in some previous towns, but the Internet didn't know about anything.

But as I approached the turnoff for Zavitinsk, I saw a billboard ad for the "Maxim" cafe and hotel, with a photo that looked relatively attractive. Emblazoned with a banner: "New!"

But: no location indicated! Indeed no phone number or contact information of any kind. Hmmmm...!

I checked my iPhone map: there was indeed a cafe Maxim on the highway, not 1km past the turnoff. I decided to scope it out.

Approaching the Maxim, it looked roughly similar to the photo, but it also looked rather like it was still under construction. Ominously, there was a poster for the "Hotel Luxe" (the one in the town of Zavitinsk that I already knew about) stuck up on a signboard right in front of the building.

The cafe seemed to be open, though, so nothing ventured, nothing gained: I went in.

It was devoid of customers, but definitely functioning - the stereo system blasting out a Russian dance-techno remix of "Smells like Teen Spirit."

Suppressing a smirk, I went up to the counter and asked about the hotel. Got the disappointing answer: "Не работает." ("Not working.")


Not terribly surprised. Oh well, back to the turnoff. I took another look at the billboard for the Maxim and noticed that the "photo" was actually a fairly well-done artist's rendering. Ha. "New," indeed!

So into town: I just hoped that the road would be paved. Many of the side roads, especially to smaller towns, aren't. Zavitinsk is a little over 10,000 so I expected it would be, but you never know...

No worries, it seemed to be paved! Well, sort of. Paved with crumbling concrete slabs that seemed to have been installed during one of Stalin's 5-year plans. (Actually, probably during the 70s or 80s or something, but the winters out here take their toll...).

In the end, I found it easier and smoother to ride on the dirt shoulder. It might as well not have been paved at all. 11km of this, each way?

Actually, no, only about 3 or 4 km; after which the road had been resurfaced, and was of fine quality all the way into town. Go figure!

On arriving at the town centre, I found the Hotel Luxe right on the main central plaza, opposite the railway station. The plaza was a hive of activity, with trains coming and going, taxis also coming and going, various kiosks and people milling about.

A loudspeaker system regularly blasted the plaza with this message or that, all fuzzy, staticky and completely indecipherable, at least to me; perhaps a native speaker would have more luck? It sounded for all the world like the loudspeaker sound effect in the game Papers, Please -- art imitating life, indeed!

I went into the hotel and talked to the receptionist. With any luck, an advantage of this place over the semi-existent Cafe Maxim would be that they could do a government checkin for me...

Asking if they had any room available, I got an apologetic-seeming response of which I only understood a little bit, including the words "other." Fearing that she was telling me to go to the "other" hotel, I confirmed: "So you have no room free?"

No, she clarified. She had rooms, but nothing cheap; only the other more expensive suites. She showed me the price list: ₽3000.

After 2 nights in a tent, I really needed a shower (and some power to charge my phone!). And after 2 nights in a tent, this extravagant price averaged out to all of $20 a day. I nodded: "That's fine."

"Really?" She seemed dubious.

"Yes, really!" What were my options anyway?

"Do you have a Russian passport?" She asked.

Seemed an odd question to me; the answer to that one should have been pretty clear by now!

"No" - I handed her my evil foreign passport, and as her face fell, the reason for her earlier responses clarified. She clearly didn't know how to deal with this, and wasn't eager for now to be a learning experience.

Crestfallen, she told me I'd have to wait, picked up the phone and began phoning first one person, then another, then another, trying to find out what she was supposed to do.

After no small amount of theatrical sighing, and pauses to roll her eyes at the heavens ("Lord, why me?") she made it through the process, photocopied every document I could give her, stamped and gave me a couple of forms of dubious utility, and I was checked in!

The... government can wait until Belogorsk tomorrow.

The room is certainly a deluxe suite, at least in the sense that it has two bedrooms, and a dining area complete with a full set of cutlery, tableware and the like. Also a decent-sized ensuite bathroom (hotels here seem to be 50-50 on whether it will be ensuite, or shared down the hall. I'm frankly mostly fine with either.

Although I arrived in Zavitinsk fairly early, by the time I got all the rigamarole dealt with, and had a shower, it was around sunset. The hotel doesn't have a restaurant, but with all the kiosks and whatnot lining the plaza, there is no shortage of food options.

So I wandered down, got a couple plates of food "с собой" ("to go") from the very friendly girls at the kiosk, and came back to the suite.

One of the plates was a "caesar" salad. I don't generally go for the salads here, because "salad" in Russia often means a bowl of mayonnaise with some bits of vegetables and greenery swimming in it somewhere. But, eh. Tonight I was feeling it.

My caesar salad, much like the previous one I tried a few days ago, is iceberg lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, mayonnaise, pepper, dill chicken, and shredded ham. I realize that I'm not even 100% sure any more which of those ingredients belongs on a caesar salad in Canada? I'm pretty sure the dill and the ham not. But tomato...? I can no longer be positive...

The food is all pretty good though. I am eating it as I bang away at some blog entries, late into the evening. My room windows open out onto the plaza, and I am serenaded by the sounds of trains and the barking of the loudspeaker.

It's neat. And I'm not bothered by it; I can sleep through anything!

Today’s weather: Quite warm and sunny.. Again! I'll take it after the rain from earlier in the week!
Today’s meal: Chicken kiev, mashed potato, "caesar" salad, random beer.. Takeout from the kiosk in the plaza. Surprisingly good - even the salad!
Today’s road: R297 (Fmr: M58). 105.0 km, 5h14. Road conditions continue to be excellent. Hills and forests earlier on, decreasing to flatter farmlands later. Broadly downhill. Access road to Zavitinsk has a couple km of almost unridable concrete slabs, then gets a lot better.

Posted on: Saturday Jul. 2, 2016 @ 13:19 MST
Re: Zavitinsk, Amurskaya Oblast, Russia
I'm glad you got into a hotel. I hope the Chicken Kiev was good.

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