On Saturday, I had about 140km to go from Zavitinsk to Belogorsk. An almost perfect distance, especially since I particularly wanted to make a stop in Belogorsk anyway.
At about 70,000 people, Belogorsk is the last major town until Chita, and indeed one of the last settlements of any real significance until Skovorodino, 550km away. So it made sense to stop there so I could check in with the government and give myself the maximum possible flexibility on my 7-day sliding window.
I made it out of the hotel reasonably well rested (as expected, slept just fine through the commotion from the railway station), went down for some most excellent ham-and-cheese-stuffed blini (crepes) from the two friendly (and slightly giggly) girls at the kiosk on the plaza, and headed out of town.
The road from Zavitinsk was pretty flat and uninteresting; a lot of agricultural and ranchlands, but not much else. At least it made for fast travelling. The road surface on the main highway continued to be impeccable.
It threatened to rain as I was leaving Zavitinsk, so once I made it past the section of old crumbly concrete slabs and back onto the highway, I pulled out the rain cover and wrapped it over my pack.
Sure enough it did rain, but never particularly heavily; rather just a lot of on-and-off drizzling that abated for good about halfway to Belogorsk.
55km from Belogorsk, near the turnoff for Pozdeyevka, there was a minor (1km) uphill, and this marked pretty much the only hill of note for the entire day.
Finally, 15km from town, I had to make the turnoff from the "Amur" mainline highway onto the spur to the provincial capital of Blagoveshchensk, about 125km distant. 8 or 9 km along the spur, I would again turn off, this time entering Belogorsk.
The spur highway turned out to be in just as good condition as the main highway. Indeed, a few km along I spotted ahead of me a small figure making strange slumping motions along the side of the highway.
I couldn't figure out what it could be until I closed in on it and discovered it to be a roller-blader zipping along, making pretty good time on the highway shoulder. (Just to give an idea of how good the road surface was!)
By and by I closed in on the town centre. Belogorsk is a not big, but fairly attractive town. It reminded me a lot of Paarl in South Africa, or (what I remember of) Malacca in Malaysia, the latter of course circa 1986. There's a river with one main road running parallel, and a bunch of side roads extending a few short blocks on either side. The town is maybe 5-10km long, and little more than 1km wide. A lot of the architecture, especially closer to the town centre, is very faintly colonial in style. It was one of the most "un-Russian" Russian towns I have yet encountered.
The Internet recommended to me the Hotel Malina, which turned out to be - as promised - reasonably priced, and a block or two off the main central square. Indeed the room was more than excellent, and one of the most "western-styled" I have come across in the country.
Unfortunately, when I checked in, I discovered they had no storage space or garage or any place to put my bike. I wasn't sure what to do about this -- I had been cautioned at length by Yegor not to leave it outside a hotel; even locked up. A lock means little in this country. (Indeed, he was skeptical of my desire to purchase one, asking me: "What's the point?")
Not to worry, however; the super-eager security guard set to phoning friends and contacts around the city, and in short order came up with a place with a garage only a few blocks away that would be happy to store my bike for ₽100.
He insisted on walking me over to the garage so I wouldn't get lost, asking me questions along the way. Very curious, like most Russians seem to be!
(Or maybe he just wanted a tip. Fair enough; I had no issues providing him with one.)
Back to the hotel, had a shower and came down to round up some dinner. The hotel's restaurant turned out to be booked solid for a wedding (or some other party), but the receptionist said I could order room service. She pushed a menu at me and started to dial the telephone.
No, I'm really not interested in room service. I indicated as much and asked if there was a good cafe or restaurant anywhere in the area. The receptionist and security guard looked at each other skeptically before turning back to me and suggesting there wouldn't be anything at this hour. The receptionist again pushed the room service menu at me, insisting it would be no problem.
Nope. Not doing room service.
"I'll just go out for a walk!" I announced to their dubious faces and headed out the door.
I pulled up my iPhone map, which showed a bunch of cafes in the downtown area. It was already past dark, getting late, so I knew many wouldn't be open, but surely there'd be something.
I should pause here to note that when I write "cafe" some are probably getting the wrong impression, thinking of something like Starbucks or whatnot; a coffee shop. Not at all. A "cafe" in Russia is just a restaurant, albeit a generally informal one. Ordering is usually done at the till, then one sits down and has food brought to the table; other than that it is a restaurant. A "restaurant" (quote-unquote) is a term generally reserved for a much higher-class establishment, and would only ever be found in larger cities than Belogorsk. To date, I have yet to eat in a place branded as a "restaurant."
So anyway, I started wandering around looking for cafes. As expected, many were closed, but a few were open. However every single place that was open seemed to have large parties going on, loud music blaring out into the street, wedding partiers and other dressed-up folks hanging around the doors... not really what I was looking for, if even they were open to the public.
It reminded me a bit of my first night in Khabarovsk when the hotel cafe was reserved, and I had to resort to a kiosk. About a week ago.
In fact... and it suddenly clicked, and I understood why the receptionist at the hotel had been so skeptical.
It was exactly a week ago. Saturday, and... Saturday.
So Saturday Nights
alright for fighting are the party nights, and people use them to book cafes for special events!
I will have to keep this in mind, and make a point of eating early on Saturday.
In the meantime, I was getting hungry. I hadn't had anything to eat since the blini in Zavitinsk - good as they were - and had biked 140km in the meantime. There were kiosks around, but in the city centre, none of them seemed to be 24h, or open at all this late.
I decided to head down to a supermarket (I'd seen a bunch on my way into town) for some bread, cheese and kolbasa, when I remembered the previous night in Zavitinsk, and how the railway station plaza was busy all night long.
I checked my iPhone, and the Belogorsk station was about 6 or 7 blocks away. I wandered over and sure enough, there were a bunch of 24h kiosks there, as well as a couple of non-partier-filled cafes, including one in the station proper.
I picked a cafe at random, had a decent enough meal (more borshch, bread, plov, cutlet, and beer), and wandered back to the hotel.
This morning I got up to hit the road relatively early. With 550km to then next known hotel in Skovorodino, I hope to cover that distance in 4 days. Which would be about 138km a day, or almost right on my overall target of 135/day across Russia.
I went to check out of the hotel and ran into a slight problem: they didn't actually know how to check me in with the government. Last night when checking in, I had used the magic word "документы" and all seemed fine, but while they gave me some papers and receipts at checkout, the papers conspicuously did not include the piece of paper I receive to prove I have been checked in (and which I potentially have to show if stopped by a police officer, etc.).
I asked about the paper, and showed examples from the previous hotels I had stayed at. Blank faces.
With the confused lady in Zavitinsk the other day, I hadn't had a proper check-in since Birobidzhan, and that wouldn't last me until Skovorodino. I wasn't sure how to proceed, but the receptionist was already on it; she had called her manager in, and they were both looking it up online, trying to figure out what the requirements were, what they needed to do, and so forth.
A few telephone calls ensued. Slowly, they seemed to be getting the hang of it. Printed off the correct form to give me, filled it out and stamped it all over with the official hotel stamp. So at least my paperwork was in order. It seemed that they made the correct phone call at some point? Either way, they printed stuff off for themselves as well, so I assumed that everything was in as much order as I could expect it to be.
Hopefully they are better prepared when the next "difficult" foreign visitor passes their way!
So as always, a slightly later start than I had intended, but I was on my way.
I could take the route back onto the highway the same way I came into town, but that would require 10-15km of backtracking. The alternative was an access road leading away on the west side of town (i.e.: the direction I was headed) that would save some distance. The only catch being that I didn't know what the quality would be like.
I decided to chance it, and discovered the quality to be... not great.
It was 35km back to the main highway on what at one time might have been a main road. Back during the Soviet era, for sure.
At least it was paved... sort of. The pavement was marginal along the better sections. At other times it was patchwork over patchwork over patchwork going back many many decades. The entire road surface a patchwork quilt of different styles, ages, and materials. If ever there were a definition of "smooth," this road would be - as the quote goes - the farthest thing from it.
It was rough, slow going, but I survived, and so - amazingly - did the bike! Without so much as a flat tyre!
But man oh man oh man did it ever make me appreciate the smoothness of the main highway once I got back on the latter.
After that point, it was pretty fast going. The farmlands gave way to forests pretty quickly after I got back on the highway and it was relatively uninteresting through the latter part of the day: just mile after mile after mile of aspen forest.
In the early evening, as I still had 30km I hoped to go, I suddenly noticed the most interesting thing off in the forests to my right: huge construction cranes! Brand new apartment towers and other buildings, all arising from the middle of the forest like an urban mirage! Out in the middle of near-nowhere!
I suddenly recalled something I had read several days earlier: there was a closed town somewhere in this region: Tsiolkovskiy. It contains a spaceport that the Russians are building out here to replace/reduce their dependence on Baikonur, now in Kazakhstan. That must be it!
A few unmarked, but very well-made roads leading off into the forest. And a bunch of red-and-orange warning signs posted along the side of the highway. I didn't feel the need to stop and read them too closely. Or photograph anything. Or spend too much time looking at / looking things up on my phone.
Probably best to err on the side of caution.
Although I did pretty quickly come across a road that was actually marked to Uglegorsk (the previous name for Tsiolkovsky: the above Wikipedia article has details). Complete with a police station and guard post on the side of said road, checking cars as they went by. Yup, must be it.
And almost right beside the guard post, a truck stop with a gas station and hotel.
You know: why not? It was unexpected, and somewhere about 20km short of my intended target, but ehh... an unexpected hotel is something I'll take.
I pulled in, asked about a room, and sure! So there we go: had expected to camp tonight, but I'll take this.
The hotel cafe had a big framed photo of Vladimir Putin visiting. Obviously a point of some pride.
I had dinner under the watchful eye of his patronage, then went to retire to my room. Along the way, I spotted one of the many standalone pay stations that dot commercial establishments all over the country. You can use them to pay... electrical and utility bills? Maybe? I'm not sure. But you can definitely use them to pay mobile phone bills! I'd seen a few people feeding banknotes into them before, and they have various company logos on them, including Beeline, my mobile carrier.
I remembered the text message I'd gotten a number of days ago, indicating I had to pay up in the next week or two. I'm not sure where I'll be during that time, but there may not be many more opportunities to pay. And I'll have to figure out how to use these things sooner or later, right?
So I looked at it, pressed the "Beeline" logo on the touch screen, and when asked, entered my mobile phone number. The payment slot opened up, and I recalled that my message said I owed ₽70. So I fed it a ₽100 bill, and a message came up saying it would take a 10% cut, so the amount paid was ₽90.
I tapped the Ok button.
It whirred away and a minute later I got a text message thanking me for my payment of ₽90.
Well that was easy.
I mean, of course it was.
Why wouldn't it be?
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