In the hotel cafe in Tsiolkovskiy the other night, while having dinner under the watchful eyes of the Rt. Hon. Vladimir Putin, I had the first chance since my arrival to watch some Russian TV.
Well, no, that needs clarification. It was far from my first chance - I'd had plenty of previous opportunities; every hotel room I've been in has had a TV. But not being one to watch much TV at the best of times, the prospect of spending my time here holed up in a bedroom watching Russian TV was pretty far down my list, so I'd never bothered.
But in the cafe, there was a wall-mounted TV tuned in to Россия24, the 24h news channel, and for the first time, I was grabbed by the impulse to actually pay attention.
A lot of the usual stuff - weather, sports reports. Some chatter about Brexit (this probably being what inspired me to watch in the first place). Some human-interest story about a festival of sorts -- looked kind-of medieval; "ren faire"-like -- somewhere down south of Rostov.
And a story about NATO provoking Russia by performing military exercises in the Baltic sea just off the coast of St. Petersburg.
Could it really be? How much of this was truth, and how much embellishment? I checked in online with a friend outside the country, who confirmed that yes, NATO was performing military exercises, but no, they weren't right off the coast of St. Petersburg; rather were in western Poland.
Interesting. So some kernel of truth, but things definitely being misrepresented. Although, as I rationalized, it was entirely possible that the bit about St. Petersburg was just me and my questionable Russian misunderstanding the story.
"Or," as my friend pointed out: "that may be the subliminal message intended."
Indeed. Always interesting to watch media in a country that doesn't do much more than pretend it's in any way distinct from the state.
At any rate, it was an uneventful sleep, and the following morning, post "hearty" breakfast of more meat-filled fried bread, I was back on the highway.
There... isn't much to say about this stretch of highway. For either yesterday or today. New road, so continued to be in very good condition, but also nothing on it. Indeed, the forest cranes of Tsiolkovskiy were the last signs of human development that I've seen in the last 2 days, other than the (very occasional) truck stop or gas station. Just endless, endless aspen forest. And the highway.
I mean, it's pretty enough. And I've been enjoying the scenery. But hardly what you'd call exciting.
I took a photo today and posted it to Social Media, whereupon a friend wisecracked that it "Looked like every single time (she'd) fired up GeoGuessr."
I had to laugh hard at this. Because it is so, so true. And it's been kinda like that, all two days. Not much variation; just endless "GeoGuessr scenery."
It's not even particularly hilly -- just a few very slight-grade hills. So the road doesn't curve, really, at all. It's not quite "Saskatchewan-straight" but not far off. A mostly-straight road through endless forests.
Extremely similar (no big surprise!) to highways in northern BC or Alberta. Or probably northern Saskatchewan for that matter, though I've never been there. I mean: boreal forest is boreal forest, I suppose.
Through to about Belogorsk, I had been surprised (and slightly impressed) at how every bridge over single little tiny stream or creek had a sign bearing the name of the stream. They were all named; however many countless thousands of them. Well, yeah. Not so much any more. Now the sign beside pretty much every bridge just says "ручей" ("creek").
Leaving Tsiolkovskiy, the weather was a little bit cooler and cloudier than the previous day, although still plenty warm enough for the most part. Leading on into evening I noticed the clouds gathering and growing darker. It was pretty clear there was a rain storm coming.
I wasn't really sure what to do. I hadn't seen a shelter (or any building of any description) in at least 50km. I knew from my map that there was a gas station 25-ish km away. Indeed it was my intended target for the day - the plan was to grab something to eat there, then find a place to camp. Could I try to race the storm?
This was beginning to feel a bit like that first day out of Khabarovsk; the one that ended in the swamp. Although mercifully the ground was a good deal more solid this time.
I quickly realized that racing the storm would be futile. It was moving much too fast.
I rather did want to make the gas station, though; I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. Oh well, nothing for it then but to brace myself.
Except... the storm never came. I saw it sweeping across the sky maybe 5km ahead of me, in a great shadowy path from left-to-right. But where I was stayed mercifully dry! The roads, to be sure, were completely wet from the storm that had been there not 15 minutes prior, but in the air: not a drop.
I had been berating myself earlier for making slower progress than I'd have liked, but some things may turn out to be blessings in disguise.
Speaking of blessings, when I finally did get to the gas station, it turned out to be a full-on truck stop with a cafe, general store and hotel!
An unexpected surprise, but a welcome one. I wasn't about to complain about a hotel almost exactly where I'd been planning to end the day. Especially since not 30 seconds after I arrived, the second wave of the storm hit, and the heavens began to open up.
Some things... couldn't go better if I'd tried.
The room at the Hotel "Дворик" ("courtyard") was cozy and comfortable, and I awoke the following morning again well-rested.
After breakfast ("Putin Was Here" too, with the requisite framed photo. The man gets around!) I got on the highway to discover a decent headwind blowing down the road. Oh well.
So much for any daily targets where I had hoped to make up for time lost due to stopping earlier than planned at Tsiolkovskiy.
The road was almost exactly the same as the previous day. A few slight ups-and-downs, but mostly endless straight highway through endless aspen forests. And not a single house or sign of human habitation in sight.
With the wind it was fairly tough going all day, despite the good road. I was wondering if there was a slight general elevation gain, or whether it was just the wind making me think so. I rather missed the altimeter on my bike computer in Canada.
In the late afternoon I passed a gas station where I grabbed a pocket dog (here they call them "French dogs") and some various snack things (packets of almonds, etc.) for dinner (such as it was). I knew from my map it was the only building I would see all day.
There was in fact another cafe about 140km from the truck stop, but with the headwind I wasn't quite going to make it, so it would have to serve as the following day's breakfast instead.
Rather, I made as my target a random point along the road, a little over 105 km from the truck stop. Random except for the fact that it happened to be 1000km from Khabarovsk.
There are numbered kilometer markers along all along every highway, and eh, I wanted a photo.
So I pushed through the wind until I reached the marker and took my photo. An Instagram commenter had earlier in the day asked for a selfie, so sure: why not? A 1000km selfie!
Except not quite. I got to the 1000km marker, only to find the sign gone. Had someone removed it as a souvenir? Who knows! It was, however, pretty much the first missing marker I've seen so far.
Oh well. A 1001km selfie would have to do. Close enough!
I took the photo almost exactly at sunset. Так. Time to find a campsite!
A few km later I found a promising candidate: a dirt road leading off into the forest. With the previous night's rain it was easy to tell that nobody had been along it that day, which seemed like a good sign. I decided to explore.
I turned off onto the road which led about 500m into the forest then ended at a large clearing with a depression in the centre and a small lake at the bottom of the depression. Again, no recent vehicle or human tracks in sight; also no garbage, firepits or other signs of recent use.
Just to be sure, I wandered along the edge of the meadow for a hundred metres or so until I was out of sight of the road, and set up camp.
At these latitudes, darkness comes slowly. So even though it was a good hour and a half past sunset by the time I set up the tent and crawled inside, it was still fairly light out.
Which was all fine. I got in a spot of internet-messaging, plugged my phone into the little backup battery to charge it, and slowly drifted off to sleep...
...only to be startled back into wakefulness by a loud scream.
Loud and very close.
I had no idea what kind of animal made that noise. What kind of animal was...
Another scream and rustling of bushes. Whatever it was, was maybe a couple of metres away.
I mentally went through my options. What did I have to fight with, if it became necessary? Not much. I had broken the very first rule of bear spray, and had left the can in my bag. The bag that was still attached to the bike, outside the tent.
Inside the tent, I had... my shoes? My bike helmet?
The first two screams had come about 15 seconds apart.
A third scream came maybe 90 seconds after the second.
Was it an owl? Was that maybe the shrieking of an owl?
Either way, my best option seemed to be to do nothing. If it could smell me, it already knew I was there, and had not attacked yet. If not, then not moving would seem to give it no reason to attack the tent.
In any case, the tent was probably big enough that it would give most animals pause, except for maybe a bear. And I know what bears sound like: this was definitely not a bear.
Then silence; there was no further sound in the darkening twilight but the rustling of the wind.
My mind still wondering about the possibilities, I fell asleep.
I can sleep through anything.
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