Jul. 01, 2016: Chita, Zabaikalskiy Krai, Russia


Having thought that I'd managed to find a campsite somewhere near the top of the hill the previous day, it was slightly discouraging to start out on Thursday with yet more seemingly-endless uphill.

Nearly 20km of it, all told. Looking at the map, it's a nearly 500m elevation gain from Bogomyagkovo, at the bottom of the previous valley, to the top of Thursday's first hill.

But then, finally, a 10km descent before the next uphill, another long slog.

This was really the tone for the day. Four or five major ranges of hills, each 10-20km on a side.

I remembered back to my meeting with Alexei, the guy cycling to Crimea that I'd run into a day out of Birobidzhan. He had asked me if I was finding the hills difficult, and I'd mentioned how the part of Canada I was from had sizable mountains, so I was used to highway riding over elevation, and the ones we were going over at that point weren't causing me any trouble.

Ah, he predicted: wait until you get closer to Lake Baikal: that's where the big hills start!

Yup.

The road has also become noticeably worse since Chernyshevsk. Clearly that's where the brand-new Amur highway ends, and I am back on a road that has been around for much longer. The surface is mostly okay, albeit with some short rougher sections, but the nice wide shoulders, with me almost since Birobidzhan, largely disappeared sometime Thursday morning, around Naryn-Talacha.

My destination was definitely Chita (325,000), and the end of the Amur highway. A good 170km, but I didn't mind getting in a bit late; the last little bit closer to the city should be lit up.

I was also planning to stay in town for a day: laundry and bike parts being priorities -- laundromats aren't really a thing in Russia, so I have to get it done at a hotel. Cheap enough, but takes a full day.

So anyway, with a rest day ahead, I didn't mind pushing for a little extra distance. But definitely hilly!

In every valley, there was more and more development along the highway. First one: a cafe. The next one: two cafes. Then: two cafes and a gas station.

Some on-and-off rain through the early afternoon. Just on and off enough to be annoying, causing me to regularly stop to either don or doff my rain jacket. At one point there was an ugly-looking cloud brewing just off to the side, and I thought for sure I was going to get hit with a thunderstorm. But no! It passed maybe a few km in front of me, and I only had the barest of drizzles for a minute, while those few km later, the road and trees were most definitely soaked with water. The weather here -- like around Calgary -- can be incredibly localized.

Finally, at a brief stop to grab some snacks and drinks. I consulted my map: 40km to go and about 2 hours until sunset. This was going to happen!

...only to run into the biggest hill of the day (other than the first one, which got divided in two by camping halfway up). A 13km, 400m climb. Again, with no shoulders to speak of.

And some pretty aggressive trucks. I find that the hour or two before sunset is one of the most annoying times to be on the road. All of the truck drivers get noticeably more aggressive, presumably because they are trying to make it to some particular destination before it gets dark?

But for whatever reason... while most of the day, the trucks are generally courteous, try and give me as wide a berth as they can, and slow down while passing, all of this goes out the window as sunset draws near. The trucks increasingly start passing at full speed, a few inches away from me. (I've even had my mirror knocked off once!) It can be a little terrifying.

So this last uphill took me a couple hours, nearly until sunset. But then, once at the top, only a quick downhill and I'd be almost there!

The downhill was indeed fast. About 8km straight down to the Nikishikha River, which went by at 50km/h... 60...

I had to deliberately slow myself down a few times and proceed super-carefully. A long, fast downhill at the end of a day with my mind on the anticipated destination and not on the road: this is exactly the kind of situation where I am most likely to run into trouble and crash (See: England 2013, New York, 1997).

So forced myself to be extra careful on the downhill and made it without incident. And a few km after the bottom: the end of the highway! Right at sunset, almost to the minute.

Then a left turn and 20km or so through suburbs into Chita.

It was an interesting and fun highway. A bit boring near the beginning, perhaps, but more scenic as I went along. And very good condition pretty much the whole way. In short a super-enjoyable ride.

The suburbs were surprisingly slow-going: fast at first along a newly-rebuilt access road, but when I got to the built-up area, much slower. It was almost midnight by the time I got downtown, to the Hotel Zabaikalie. Ул. Ленина (Lenin St.) - the main street through town - was being used at this time of night by kids as a drag-racing strip. Sigh.

On the way in, I was surrounded by American/western chain-store restaurants: Subway, Carl's Jr... it was very strange.

It always is, being suddenly plunged into "civilization" after a long period of time out.

The hotel was right on the main square on the centre of town, and the nice thing about arriving at midnight is I was only charged a half-night's rate for the first night. (This is a thing here. I've encountered it a few times so far.)

The restaurant was closed, although there was a mini-cafe (basically amounted to a bunch of vending machines and a microwave). The hotel receptionist claimed there wouldn't be anything open this late in the centre of the city, but I totally knew better: the train station was only a few blocks away.

Were there cafes open at the train station? Of course there were! Dinnertime!

The hotel room came with a free buffet breakfast (and, uh, a coupon for a free game at the billiards/gaming hall next door?), so I took them up on the first offer at least. Breakfast was good: a nice stack of fresh blini! And with that taken care of, and with my bag of laundry turned over to the hotel service, it was time to go on to other things.

I had some quick banking tasks I had to take care of in Canada, so I logged into my bank website, which seemed to be down. O well: later.

In the meantime: bike parts!

Chita is on the smaller side for a city, so I always knew bike shops would be a bit harder to come by here. I spent an hour or two trawling the internet, and came up with 4 possibilities. One of which was a long way out of the city, deep in the suburbs, so I mostly crossed it off the list and settled on the other 3.

The first and most promising was Trial·Sport Trial·Sport, which I knew to be a national chain of sporting goods stores, with a strong emphasis on bikes. And it was pretty close to the hotel. Seemed to be the best bet.

I got to the Trial·Sport, and it was closed. With no indication why, mind. The hours posted on the door indicated it should be open. There were a couple of people standing around out front with bent wheels or other bike parts that they were obviously looking to get replaced. I peered through the windows: with the power off I couldn't see much, although the bike advertisements on the wall were a good sign. While I was waiting, a few people came along, tugged on the door, found it locked, shrugged and went away. I asked one of the guys standing there but he knew nothing.

Well, I'd try the other places on my list; I could always loop past the Trial·Sport on my way back to the hotel and try again.

The second place sold pretty much every imaginable outdoor or sporting good on the planet, except bicycles. Next!

The third place didn't seem to exist. It was in the middle of an industrial area, with shops all over selling car parts, but definitely not bike parts. I asked at one of the other shops in the same building as the one where the bike store was listed, but they'd never heard of it.

Hmmm.

I remembered how in Birobidzhan there were stalls in the central market that sold bicycles, so I headed over to a district that seemed promising along that dimension. Sure enough, there were lots of stalls in the hardware area that sold bikes and bike parts.

Not exactly top of the line bike parts, mind. Definitely no Shimano to be found here (although there mighta' been a Shimono or two? ). Mostly Chinese non-name-brand parts for a couple hundred rubles a pop.

I kept it in mind, figuring that in the worst case, I could buy some and throw them into my pack as an emergency backup if my primary parts failed.

I also looked around for an "I Chita" (or somesuch) t-shirt. Or some kind of souvenir to get. ("I conquered the Amur Highway and all I got was..." etc?) However all I could find was "I NY". Every kind of souvenir I could find in the market was from somewhere else. O well.

I wandered back to the Trial·Sport: still closed. But I could at least get some sightseeing in, on a warm and very sunny afternoon.

There was a nice square in the centre of town and I recalled there being an interesting cathedral down by the train station.

As dinnertime approached, I went back to the Trial·Sport, and it was finally open! Apparently the construction next door had unexpectedly killed the power to the building, and so they'd had no option but to close. Or something like that.

Whatever. In the meantime, though, it was only a half-hour to close, and they didn't have time today to look at my bike. But I can bring it by first thing tomorrow morning before breakfast, and they can look at it before I leave town. Sounds like a plan!

So dinnertime. A block or two from the hotel is the Italian restaurant "Mama Roma," so why not?

I often say that "I'll try anything twice; once if it kills me the first time."

Having now tried Russian pizza twice, I can confirm that it is not for me. I figured the issue in Khabarovsk might have been that I got it from a roadside kiosk, but the pizza at the restaurant here wasn't much different. Basically very doughy bread smothered in tomato sauce, with other toppings in scant evidence. Well, the bread and (especially) tomato sauce are basically my least favourite parts of a pizza. So yeah.

O well, now I know.

I returned to the hotel to get my delayed banking done, and logged in only to find that the bank's website was still down.

Oh? That's really odd... oh... wait a minu...

Yep. A quick visit to ismywebsitedown.com confirmed that the bank site was running just fine.

But in not-entirely-unsurprising move for an Alberta bank, they'd blocked Russian visitors. Or at least ones with a source IP in the pool handed out by my cell provider. Again, not that I can really blame them!

I tried connecting both via cell phone and via the hotel wifi. Same result.

iOS app? Can't log in.

Ok, let's try the tech support phone line. I got a message informing me that my cell plan was not authorized to make international calls. Sigh. Fine. I switched my Canadian SIM card back in and tried again. By now it was 6AM or somesuch on Saturday morning in Alberta, and this message said the tech support line was closed for the Canada Day long weekend and would re-open Tuesday morning.

Oh for...!

Luckily I have a friend in Canada whom I completely trust, and who I strongly suspected would be awake at this time, so sent him a message and... yup! With some manoeuvering, he was able to complete the task on my behalf. Thank you again, you-know-who-you-are!

Of all the banking issues I expected I might run into, this wasn't really one of them! Ah well, now I know...

So finally, here we are. A slightly frustrating day, but eh.

I now have a decision to make: for the first time, I have a choice of two highways for the ~600km between here and Ulan-Ude. The main road (R258) or an alternative to the north (R436). Considerations:

I think I'm leaning toward the main road (R258), mostly because of the cell coverage. But we'll see.

Tomorrow!



Today’s lodging: Hotel Zabaikalie, Chita. Right downtown, so a bit noisy outside but that doesn't bother me. Good breakfast buffet; free wi-fi. ₽3100 (but half price if you arrive after midnight!)
Today’s meal: "Mama Roma" pizza. I have concluded that Russian pizza is not for me.
Today’s road: R297 (Fmr: M58) - A350 - Ул. Кирова. Very hilly from Bogomyagkovo onwards. Lots of elevation gain and loss. Also shoulders mostly gone (or at least very narrow) after Naryn-Talacha. Road surface still decent. A350 access road is of surprisingly excellent quality!

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