Jul. 03, 2016: Arei, Zabaikalskiy Krai, Russia


The first thing to do in Chita was make a quick break for the Trial·Sport (the bike store that had been closed the previous day) to get some parts and (hopefully) a quick tune-up. It was only a few blocks away from the hotel so easy enough to make a quick dash over before breakfast.

And... closed again. With (again) no power. And the construction next door going full swing.

So now what? So far as I could tell, it was the only actual bike store in town, other than the shops in the market selling off-brand parts.

I stood there, considering, for a few minutes, then decided that the bike wasn't in all that bad shape. The repair that I had made on the way to Skovorodino a week earlier seemed to be holding, and really that was the worst of it. I should be able to make it to Ulan-Ude, only about 600km away. My tyres were maybe getting a little bit thin, but I could stop at the market on the way out of town and get replacements for those.

So I went back to the hotel to grab breakfast and pack up.

I exited the hotel again and looked at my map. I had decided, after all, to take the main road (R258) to Ulan-Ude, mostly based on the regular availability of a cell phone signal along that road (at least compared to its near-complete absence on the alternative).

So looking at the map, I realized that I could save maybe 5-10km by heading out of town on a side road, the Moskovskiy Trakt (trakt: highway -- this is probably the old road), that cut south of lake Kenon, and joined up with the main, new, highway about 40km out of town.

I set out along this route. The traffic out of downtown Chita was the heaviest I had yet biked in in Russia. (I'd seen some heavier in Vladivostok, but thankfully had not had to bike in it). Bumper-to-bumper and absolutely crawling. I'd spent the better part of an hour in this traffic, and had gone maybe 5km, when it suddenly occurred to me that by taking this route I wouldn't be going past the market and so wouldn't be able to get new tyres. Which I had somehow completely forgotten about.

But I didn't really want to navigate the traffic back into town, twice over, and so figured I could make it to Ulan-Ude. Where there would be another Trial·Sport anyway. So I kept on going.

The road pretty quickly started climbing into the hills south of the city, and before long I came to a point marked on my map as "Старый Замок" ("High Castle") where the hillside jutted out over the valley in a promontory, with a parking lot and viewpoint of the city.

I turned in to take some photos, and as I was doing so, a procession of cars and limousines pulled into the parking lot behind me, full of revelers and honking horns. At the side of the parking lot was a small chapel, and this was a wedding party and they were here to perform (part of) the service and take photos!

I was finishing up with my own photos, when one of the guys in the party, a bottle of champagne in each hand, wandered over to ask me the usual questions: Where was I going? Where was I from? Etc.

My responses amused him greatly and he hurried back to the wedding party to excitedly tell them all about this Canadian biker guy.

Well. Everyone decides they want to get a load of this, so all come over and ask questions and try to feed me champagne and take hundreds of pictures. Anna, the bride, is very curious about the bicycle, and is peering all over it, sitting on it sideways and trying out the handlebars.

I am clearly a fascinating part of the day's festivities!

Among the questions, I am somewhat incredulously asked (as I always am) if I'm traveling by myself?!? Yes, I am. Do I have a wife back in Canada? No, no wife.

"Ahhhhh," responds one of the guys knowingly. "That's why you're able to do this!"

Suddenly everyone's attention turns to one of the bridesmaids standing beside me: "She's single too!" This observation is cause for delight among most of those present.

Yes, well. "I'm afraid I have to finish my trip first. Then maybe I can come back to Chita and we'll see..."

After 20 minutes of this, they finally let me leave, and I am back on the road, leaving the revelry and honking behind me.

The road out of town starts pretty good, but gradually gets worse and worse as I go along. There isn't much of a shoulder, and the pretty massive cracks in the pavement are bone-jarring, to say the least. There is also a strong headwind coming up the Ingoda valley. And it is hot. Hot and hazy; visibility isn't much more than 5km due to the thick haze. It's slow going and not exactly a pleasant ride.

I'm counting down the kilometers until I rejoin the main highway. The heat and headwind might be still present, but hopefully the road will be better.

It is somewhat strange to be back on an old, well-established road. Following the Amur highway, where I would see one truck stop maybe every 100-150km with not much in between. All along that highway, I would have to pay close attention to the map, and ration water and food carefully so I didn't accidentally run out while I was still in the middle of nowhere, dozens of miles from the next supply point. Here there are now villages and shops every 5-10km, and it's just not something I need to worry about at all. It's an odd mental adjustment to make.

Anyway, sure enough after a little over 40km, I round a bend and there's the Baikal highway.

(Highways in Russia, though numbered and signposted with those numbers, are also more commonly referred to by name -- much as e.g.: highways in Alaska. The road from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk was the "Ussuri" highway; from there to Chita the "Amur". From here to Irkutsk it will be the "Baikal".)

So approaching the highway there is a cluster of orange "construction" signs. I reach the T junction, and the road to the right -- back toward Chita -- has been all ripped up, and is just ugly, jagged gravel. A sign heading in that direction speaks of "Capital Repairs" for 8km. Apparently I made the right choice by coming along the side road after all!

I turn left, toward Ulan-Ude, on a smooth road.

Well, maybe "smooth" is over-stating the case. It's still pretty old and the pavement is worn. It's not gravel, at least, and it's better than the side road was, but not by a whole heck of a lot.

It is also still hot and hazy and the headwind is blowing and when I come across a cafe after a couple of km, I am only too ready to stop to get a late lunch. It's been pretty slow going all day; nearly 5PM and I've only gone 45km. And it doesn't look to get much easier.

Leaving the cafe, I get back on the bike and notice it feels a bit "squishy." I check the tyre. It's not yet flat, but definitely on its way. Seems to be a slow leak as opposed to a full on puncture. I wonder if this is perhaps a factor in the afternoon's seemingly slow and difficult ride?

Anyway. I chose to simply pump it back up - it seemed to hold - and continue on my way.

I made it about 10 - 15 km before realizing I was definitely riding on a now-flat tyre.

Took it off, found and repaired the puncture, got back on the road...

...and made it maybe another 5km. Another flat tyre.

Repaired that one too.

My third repair job -- a very frustrating few km later -- and after I remounted the wheel, I figured that I would definitely be well-served by rotating the tyres at the next opportunity. Between me and the saddlebags, almost all the weight is over the rear wheel, and it's taking the brunt of it. The front tyre was in significantly better shape.

As it happened, the third patch was the last of the day. But between the flat tyres and everything else, I was definitely well behind schedule. I had originally planned for Doroninskoye, about 145km away; that had been revised downward to Ulyoti, about 115, and even the latter distance was looking dubious.

Indeed by sunset I was still only 85 or so from Chita. The next hotel that I knew about was at Ulyoti, although I'd be happy enough to camp out.

Unfortunately this Ingoda River valley through which I'd been riding all day is very grassy and open, and there was no forest in sight. Grasslands don't make for good camping - I can't really get out of sight and am way too visible to passing traffic and other questionable folk.

At least the road was generally a bit better. A lot of the highway along here had been rebuilt recently, meaning repaved and also widened (an issue of no small importance!). So much alternation between new sections of good road and older sections of awful, narrow, crumbling pavement with no shoulders.

I kept looking for a place to camp, or a hotel, but didn't see anything.

Finally, about 4km from the hotel in Ulyoti, I passed by a cafe on the left with a sign out front reading "Hotel."

Ha!

But with only 4km to go, I figured that it would be easy enough at this point to press on - my tyre seemingly holding fast - and get those few extra km in tonight. This one didn't look like it had particularly anything to recommend it over anyplace else.

Immediately after passing the hotel, at the other end of the parking lot, I saw a first in all my time in Russia: someone else camping out! There was a van parked at the end of the parking lot, and a rather large tent on the grassy verge wedged between it and the river.

This was perhaps not the greatest sign ever. Were they camping here because there was no room at the hotel? Was there to be any room at the next one? Oh well; I figured that in the worst case I could always return here and camp near them, finding security in numbers? Or something.

But no need. 4km later, I came to the cafe and motel "Transit" and they definitely had room. It was a bit late, but we were all good! I settled in, then went to the cafe for a much-anticipated dinner.

Had some borshch and plov - the usual - and saw on the menu some "Pechen po-Sibirskiy." Which is to say, Siberian-style pechen.

Now, I was familiar with the word "pecheney," which means "baked" or "baked goods." So I figured this would be some kind of Siberian baked specialty.

(Any Russian speakers reading this are giggling at this point.)

I was, thus, a little surprised when they brought out a small dish of meat covered in sauce.

Well fair enough. "Pecheney" means baked because it comes from the root word "pech," meaning oven. So maybe this was just meat that had been cooked in the oven? I dug in.

... and shortly turned to my dictionary, to discover that "pechen" means "liver."

Now I know!

(I mean, fair enough. I don't have a particularly strong dislike for liver, and was happy enough to eat it. But it's not something I would normally go out of my way to get, and it was definitely not what I had in mind when I made my order!)

Dinner over with, I went back to the room and fell asleep. Hard.

This morning, got up and the first order of business was to rotate my tyres. No better place for it than on the porch in front of the motel room, I suppose? So I set about doing so. In front of one of the most gothic-looking motel doors ever. A blood-red door with gothic lettering, a gargoyle door-knocker and everything. Not sure why? Otherwise the "Transit" Motel seemed ordinary enough. But all the doors were like something out of a Dracula movie. As a friend commented on Instagram: "looks like the door to Hell!"

So anyway, finished rotating the tyres, oiling the chain, and performing other various maintenance tasks that I should have done before leaving Chita, then wheeled next door to have some breakfast (no pechen today!) before setting out.

And saw a woman in the parking lot working on a laden-down motorbike bedecked with stickers from Australia, various countries in Europe, South America, Africa -- all over the world. The various African ones especially looked interesting.

There was something about the woman (to say nothing of the bike) that definitely did not seem Russian. I took a glance over the bike, and saw the license plate was from Tasmania. Aha!

Not surprising it would be an Australian!

I went up and said "hi."

Margaret -- Beemerbird -- is (mostly) retired and spending her time riding, as was evident, all over the world. She is currently going across Russia, with a several-week detour into Mongolia, and will then spend some time tootling around Europe.

She was just fixing her GPS tether after the rough road out of Chita, and then came into the cafe where we talked a bit over breakfast and shared "war stories." She had lots of interesting stories about her times on the road, and mentioned something else that sounded rather interesting to me:

Apparently there is a public ("roll-on-roll-off") ferry that you can catch in Belgium, and for a couple thousand $US (food and everything included) runs down the coast to Dakar in Senegal, then across the ocean to Buenos Aires, Argentina. (!!!)

I'm not particularly enamoured with the ocean, and that's not necessarily something I want to do on this trip. But it definitely sounds intriguing! Might be worth investigating some time...

Soon enough, though, breakfast came to an end. I had some distance to make, and Margaret wanted to get to Ulan-Ude by tonight, where she had reservations at a hotel that is apparently famous/popular among the international biker community.

One last check on Margaret's part to make sure her GPS was tethered securely. "How did you deal with that rough road?" she asked. "Well," I shrugged, "I have no choice but to ride through them."

"The one just back there?" She asked, incredulously. "You rode your bike through that?"

I realized that she was referring to the section that I had, by sheer luck, managed to avoid by taking the side road out of Chita. This was the section that had caused the damage to Margaret's bike, and indeed caused her video camera to come flying right off. My happenstance choice of road was seeming better all the time. I mentioned as much and Margaret just nodded in agreement.

Anyway: time to go.

I came out of the cafe to see that someone had tied a Russian "Victory Day" ribbon on to the front of my bike. I will have to come back to this.

After a last check of the tyres, I pulled onto the highway, following Margaret toward the West.

The headwind was still with me, perhaps a little lighter than yesterday, although still strong. The road started fairly new, but quickly gave way to a crappy old communist-era road with lanes never intended to carry modern trucks, and so much narrower than they need to be.

The pavement was cracked, rough and full of potholes, making progress slow and painful. As with yesterday, I ended up having to downgrade my target because I wasn't making anywhere near good enough time to get where I wanted to. Eventually I settled on Arei, where my map indicated there was a hotel, and which seemed to be close enough I was very likely to make it. Indeed: only about 100km from Ulyoti.

I stopped at one point to take a photo, and as I went to upload it to social media, realized I had no cell phone connection.

Oops!

I had entered what was, according to the Beeline (my cell phone provider) map the longest stretch on the road without coverage: a little short of 100km. I had known it was coming up, of course, but hadn't been paying attention to it and now it was too late.

Oh well. From the map it looked like Arei was just back in the coverage area on the other side of the gap, if barely.

I passed through a couple of towns; now further apart than they were yesterday, closer to Chita. The pavement is generally significantly better through the towns and I can (ironically) speed up and make better time there, but inevitably it kept degrading again once I was past.

Finally, when passing the town of Novosaliya, about 15km from Arei, the road got good and actually stayed good. Where was this all day? I also started passing, for pretty much the first time today, significant forested areas, which would make a decent place to set up a tent if the hotel turned out to be a bust and I needed to camp. As I approached, I kept an eye out for promising camping spots, but eventually abandoned the enterprise as I passed so many the point was moot.

I wasn't terribly worried, though. Even if the hotel was full, or otherwise unacceptable, there was a lake just a kilometre or two off the other side of the highway, and at least on my map, was ringed by "resort" icons, including a couple of marked campsites. This would also be a first for Russia!

But sure enough, as I approached Arei, I started seeing along the highway signs for "Camping" at Areiskoe Lake. Huh!

I was of half a mind to check out the lake and ignore the hotel altogether, when I suddenly came to a clearing in the forest and there it was. The "Flaming Dragon" motel!

"Oh well," I figured, "If I'm here anyway, I might as well investigate the hotel."

Plus it had a great name.

(And a friendly hotel kitty. That's always half-enough reason to cause me to check a place out.)

I went in, they had a room, it seemed to be reasonably enough priced (if not exactly cheap) and would at least have a power outlet where I could charge. Plus would save me the extra side trip to the lake and back. I hesitated but decided to take it.

I came back downstairs to retrieve my bags and lock up my bike, and there in the lobby was a girl, late 20s or so, looking around searchingly. As she saw me coming down the steps, she came up and asked if it was my bike out front?

A pretty safe bet, seeing as how I was wearing my " : ∞ MPH" shirt and had chain grease all over my hands...!

So I obliged her, said yes, and followed her beckoning out onto the front porch. Where there was a group of 7 or 8 similarly-aged kids all hanging out on some pretty shiny bikes of their own, scrutinizing mine, and looking expectantly at me with no small amount of interest!

I was, as I often seem to be in this country, a source of great curiosity and some amusement. The gang were all out from Chita (they drove out) and spending the weekend at the lake. Questions, as usual, about my trip. It was a pretty fun, if chaotic, conversation.

They asked if I had anywhere to spend the night, inviting me to come out and camp at the lake with them. I had to sadly inform them that I had just got a room at the hotel, so: thanks but no thanks.

Too bad; it could have been an interesting evening.

Instead I locked everything up, had a shower, grabbed some dinner, and went back to my room.

I tried getting online so I could post photos and so forth, but nothing doing. No connection. I was apparently not quite yet back in the coverage area after all.

So perhaps doubly a shame that I hadn't tried to camp out at the lake. Oh well - too late for that now.

Instead, I went to bed early. As I did so, I thought about that Victory Day ribbon that had been tied to the bike this morning.

The ribbon is partly red-white-and-blue (the colours of the Russian flag), and partly the orange-and-black of may9.ru May 9 (Victory Day).

This all... requires some explanation.

I mentioned Trichotomy.ca early in my journal that this country is unusually chock-full of flower shops. It is. Incredibly so. I have more than once come to a town where there were almost no commercial establishments except for a couple of flower shops, usually open 24h/day.

At the time that I wrote the above, I posited that it might "have something to do with a cultural expectation on Russian men to regularly shower women with gifts" but allowed that there could be more to it.

Well. Yes.

The flowers here are (also) used to honour the dead.

Russia is not, shall we say, the best-maintained country in the world (more on this in a future entry). Indeed many things are not maintained very well at all -- they are jury-rigged to keep them functional, but little more.

The shining, prominent exceptions are the monuments to the dead.

In every town, every village, every inhabited nook, the WWII memorial takes pride of place. It is a splash of vibrant colour and an island of immaculate tidiness in an otherwise oft-crumbling landscape.

All along the highways, where someone has met their end on the road, there is a monument to the fallen. Usually no simple cross as we would erect in Canada, but a monolith, often set in a patch of neatly mowed grass, with picnic tables, sometimes a shelter.

And the flowers. A riot of colour around every such memorial. Flowers by the dozens or hundreds.

This is a country that has lost a lot. And there is no way to be better reminded of this fact than to travel its roads and towns. Whether through the staggering toll taken by World War 2, or the dictatorial purges that followed (and preceded)... or the tyranny of the modern killer: the automobile. Everywhere is a constant reminder of this loss.

I am, yet again, completely unqualified to assess the affect this would have on the national psyche. But it is clearly a matter of no small consequence. It would be unfair to characterize Russia as a country obsessed, per sé, with this history of loss. But it is ever-present.

And so we come to Victory Day. The Russian response to this nationally-shared loss is to meet it head-on, by emphatically honouring, and conspicuously appreciating the sacrifice. Victory Day is quite possibly the most important event of the Russian calendar. Even though it was in May, there are Victory Day banners, billboards; ads on TV. They are absolutely everywhere.

When I first arrived in Vladivostok I found it a bit strange; mentally categorizing this display with houses allowing their Christmas lights to linger into late January or early February.

Not so. These displays are -- very deliberately -- year round. They are the omnipresent celebration of life, of Russia itself, that prior sacrifices have allowed to exist.

I cannot emphasize this point enough.

Again, when I arrived in Vladivostok, I was talking with a couple of the people I was hanging out with at the time, and one of the girls mentioned how she believed that Victory Day was the only holiday worth celebrating; that things like birthdays and Christmas and whatnot were "imposter" holidays. I couldn't, at the time, entirely understand her point. It has taken me a month in this country to properly understand how fully Russian a claim like that could be, and to appreciate how earnestly she must have meant it.

I feel like I'm belabouring the point. It has taken me no small amount of time to figure out how to write this, and I still feel like I'm failing. But it will have to do. It may be it's one of those things that you have to spend time here to "get."

At any rate, there is a point to all of this:

The little Victory Day ribbon tied to my bicycle is not, in fact a thing I take lightly.

I'm not much of an aficionado of ribbons and charms and whatnot. But this one is somehow different. The ribbon tied to the front of the bike manages to sum up my travels and experiences in this country to date that I can't imagine much else being able to do.

I can't think of any better, or more meaningful, souvenir of Russia, than this small piece of an ethic that clearly means so much to its people.



Today’s lodging: Hotel Transit, Ulyoti.. Simple, cheap, gets the job done. 24h cafe is decent. ₽800.
Today’s road: Московский Тракт - R258 (Fmr: M55). 113.3 km, 6h42. Now on the "Baikal" highway! Road is decent to the edge of town, then it all goes to Hell. No better on the main highway: okay on the occasional rebuil sections but most of it is old, narrow, rough and crumbling.
Today’s lodging: Flaming Dragon Motel, Arei.. Okay and comfortable enough, but nothing special. No cell coverage (at least with Beeline). ₽1800.
Today’s road: R258 (Fmr: M55). 106.5 km, 6h23. Road just as bad as yesterday, if not worse. Mostly only decent through the towns, although it does get a lot better after Novosaliya.

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