Monday morning, it was time to leave the Flaming Dragon.
Well, maybe more like Monday afternoon.
It had rained a little during the night, but everything was mostly dry by the time I packed up, had
breakfast lunch, said goodbye to Hotel kitty, and got back on the road. Said road continued the previous night's excellent quality and I was humming along nicely... for about 18km.
Then I went over a bridge, rounded a corner, and the new road came to an abrupt halt. Instead, the lanes narrowed by about 2 feet each, the shoulders disappeared, and the pavement's very existence became at times questionable.
A few kilometres of this, and the previous night's rain decided to come back for an encore. Nothing serious, but enough of a drizzle that I decided to stop to assemble my rain cover. Just in case. The clouds were portending more on-and-off rain throughout the foreseeable future.
I pulled off the road at the next available opportunity, and as I stretched my rain cover over the bike, realized that I had gone far enough from the hotel by this point, that I might have cell phone coverage back.
I checked my phone, and sure enough: I did! Weak, but it was there. Time to catch up on some messages that I had missed the previous day.
...two hours later...
That... took longer than I'd intended. Unfortunately I had some photos queued up that I wanted to post to social media / Instagram, and the latter app ended up wanting to download a whole pile of photos that other contacts had taken over the Canada Day weekend and posted in the previous day. (And did I mention that my internet connection was still weak?)
So yes. This ate up a couple hours of my afternoon while I waited for Instagram to ever-so-s-l-o-w-l-y download its feed. I ended up having to delete several of my contacts, because: don't really have the time. To anyone who didn't make the cut, as it were, my apologies! It's nothing personal; rather almost entirely a function of the number of photos I would have otherwise had to download! I'll add you back when I once again have the bandwidth!
So this concluded with (and my own updates posted), back on the road, which almost immediately started to climb.
And... I hadn't realized that there would be quite this much of a hill here. At least the traffic was light so I could (mostly) ride on (what there was of) the road. Although occasionally I had to pull off, onto some very rough gravel that pretty much brought me to a halt.
It's how things go sometimes.
A couple of times I saw some coins on the ground. Half tempted to pick them up, but they were pretty small denominations, so I figured it wasn't worth the hassle of stopping and getting off the bike.
Eventually I reached the top of the hill, and came across a shrine on the side of the road. The surrounding trees were covered in small flags; the ground littered in offerings of rice, cigarettes and thousands upon thousands of coins. This... would explain the couple of coins I saw coming up the hill! I was now glad I didn't stop to grab any. (Although again, mostly of very tiny denominations (10 kopecks; about 1/5 of a cent).
The shrine itself had (to my eyes) Buddhist markings on it. I'm not far from the Mongolian border here; ever since Chita, I've seen a decided increase in the number of vehicles (trucks, mostly) with Mongolian plates. Also, this area (especially the Buryat Republic; the next province I go through) is a very Buddhist part of Russia. I'd even seen a few sites of some importance before, with the flags tied to the trees, but nothing quite on the scale of this, and not until now with any actual monuments.
I was curious about the significance (other than being at the crest of the hill), but my maps said nothing about it, and the cell connection was still pretty weak, so I decided not to spend too much (more) time looking stuff up. Instead I contented myself with taking a few photos to post to the internet.
As I was doing so, a couple of trucks with Mongolian plates going the other way came to a stop across the road. The drivers got out and started talking with each other, one very clearly gesturing over towards me and giving me several looks.
Was I causing offense by leaning my bike up against the shrine? That didn't seem in keeping with the otherwise anything-goes culture, but I didn't really want to stick around much longer anyway, so I got back on the bike and headed off down the hill.
Later, once I was able to take a good look a Google Earth, I discovered something interesting: at 1128m, that was the highest point in Russia, and on my entire trip (at least until western Europe)!!
(Not sure if that had anything to do with the shrine or not, but interesting!)
The several km of subsequent downhill was very welcome, if a bit wet as I passed through the occasional rain squall, and helped recover some of the time I'd lost to various factors earlier in the day.
It looked increasingly like my destination would be Khilok -- so far as I could tell, the largest town between Chita and Ulan-Ude. I'd originally hoped to make it a bit further, but was not to be, at least not without continuing for some time after dark, and I was already tired from the hills and the crappy road.
At least the road was marginally better once I got back to the bottom of the hill. Marginally.
Approaching dusk, I also approached Khilok, and was more than happy to turn off. I had hoped there might be a hotel of some sort along the highway, but nothing doing. My map did mention a hotel in town, though; the hotel Viola. And indeed, I'd seen a sign for the same as I approached the town, so that would seem to be the plan.
The Hotel Viola was just outside the centre of town: a couple km off the highway into town, then across the river, and finally on the other side of the railway tracks.
The first part was easy enough, but when I got to the railway tracks, there was a train parked there. Right across the middle of the road. With the crossing arms lowered and the lights flashing, etc.
The train seemed decidedly not about to go anywhere.
Now a thing about Russian towns: they are all built along the railway, and there is usually only one crossing (unless the town is particularly large). All cross-track traffic tends to funnel through a single road. So this situation would be a matter of some concern.
Except: when I looked at the tracks in the dust on the road, it seemed pretty clear that it all turned off here, and didn't really cross the tracks. This was interesting. I looked at my map - Khilok was big enough that there was in fact another road crossing the tracks... about 4km to the west. Hmm.
Just as I was pondering this, a car came up behind me, then turned off the road right where all the tracks in the dirt indicated others had been doing the same. Then I noticed:
The car went off the road, through a break in a retaining wall, down about 8 feet into what I can only call a drainage ditch, under the tracks, then back up the other side and onto the road.
Well, when in Rome...
I turned around, through the break in the retaining wall, and down into the drainage ditch.
This was clearly the way things were done.
The ditch was about 20 or so feet wide, and with maybe 7 feet of clearance below the tracks (I definitely had to duck to make it under), and with the day's earlier rain, was mostly mud on the bottom. Nevertheless, in the minute or so it took to traverse, I encountered 2 more cars, one other bicycle and about 7 or 8 pedestrians using it to get back and forth.
Once on the other side, I went through the centre of town, and made my way to the hotel. The hotel took a few minutes to find; it actually turned out to be more of a B&B than anything else.
A very charming B&B with a friendly enough proprietor, albeit one slightly bemused by hosting one of them evil foreigners.
As I was checking in, I noticed she had a pile of forms on the desk that are used when one checks in with the government. Perfect! (If a little unexpected.) I pointed to the pile of forms, and asked if I could do the checkin.
She shrugged, grabbed a blank form, and handed it to me with a pen.
Oh. So this time I get to fill it out myself! (That's a first.)
It was an interesting experience. The form is in several parts - one that goes to the government, one that stays with the hotel for their records, and one that I keep as proof that I've checked in. Now it's not a matter of one form in triplicate, or carbon-copied, or the like; these are three entirely separate parts of the form, containing different information. So the part that I keep? I could just copy/paste as appropriate from the earlier ones I'd received. But the other parts... were a different story.
There was definitely a lot of consulting with my dictionary as I determined exactly what I was supposed to be entering in each field, and figured out how one field differed from an adjacent one that seemed to be asking the same thing. (My Russian allowing me to get the general idea, but the devil, of course, being - as always - in the details.
I eventually got through it, though. The proprietor was patient.
And handed it in with my passport so she could fax it off, or do whatever she needed to do, while I went to have a much-needed shower.
Once finished with the shower I came back out to encounter the landlady approaching me with the form and a puzzled expression. Apparently, the last hotel from which I checked in, the one in Chita, had "helpfully" given me a bunch of extra days on their form, claiming I was staying there for a week, and not just the two days.
(Truth be told, I had actually once known/read this was a service that some hotels would provide, although in the meantime had completely forgotten, and it had never so much as occurred to me to ask.)
So how could I possibly check in from the Hotel Viola if so far as the government was concerned, I was still staying at the place in Chita?
Oh well. Scratch all that, then. At least it was an interesting learning experience!
In any case, getting late, I quickly made my exit to find some dinner, before the restaurants were all closed. Found a particularly good place a block from the hotel that was slightly "fancier" than any place I'd so far eaten on the road... although in practice, "fancy" just meant fancier tableware, hand having my beer served in a glass rather than a bottle. The food was pretty comparable.
By the time I finished dinner, Khilok was pretty dead, so I returned to the hotel.
This morning, I left the hotel, and looking at the map didn't see a lot of promising-looking places to eat once on the highway, so decided to grab something in the town centre.
Once arriving (said town centre is two cross-streets, each about 2 blocks long, forming an X), I pretty quickly came across a kiosk selling позы ("posies" -- although that's not quite the correct transliteration, it's close enough, and I think does a good job of capturing the essence).
Позы are a local specialty of the Buryat Republic and surrounding areas - they're a pastry (basically a pasta dough) filled with ground beef and onions, then boiled in broth and generally eaten with chili sauce. I've had them in a number of cafes so far and generally enjoyed them; this is the first time I've stopped at a kiosk specializing in same (although I saw a couple back in Chita).
Waited about 10 minutes for my posies to be cooked fresh - definitely worth it! - ate them sitting on the steps of the neighbouring building, then it was time to hit the road.
I got back to the railway crossing, and sure enough, there was a train parked across the road, with the gates down and lights flashing. So far as I could tell, it was the same train as the previous day?
At any rate, I knew this trick now! Back down into the ditch, under the tracks, and on toward the highway. With one last-minute stop to get drinks as I left town. The convenience store was guarded by a giant wooden bear. Seemed effective!
The highway was generally not much better than yesterday's. The pavement was of marginally better quality, but still very cracked and rough, and with extremely narrow lanes. After going over a sizable hill, it descended back down to the Khilok River (the same one it had just left), and followed the river valley for a while. I had hoped this might mean it would be flat(tish), but nothing doing; it kept leaving the river to go up into the hillside, then returned back down to the river valley. A lot of up and down. Despite said valley being pretty wide and apparently having lots of room for a highway, so uh?
Quite hot during the day and very dry; reminded me a lot of going through some of the arid regions in southern BC, along the Similkameen and Okanagan valleys.
At one point I came across a roadside memorial to the builders of the Ulan-Ude - Chita highway. It was dated 1971, so definitely a Soviet-era road. And quite clearly hadn't seen any upgrades or improvements since that time. Again, the lanes were very narrow all day. I'm guessing that during the Soviet era, there wasn't much truck traffic (or frankly, much traffic at all save for the occasional tractor or small Lada). So the narrow lanes would have been just fine back then.
But now there is an all-day stream of frequent large trucks and semi-trailers. These trucks are... wider than the lanes. So when two of them pass (not infrequent), they have to overhang the side of the lanes and ride along the gravel shoulder. Add a bicycle to the mix, and yeah. A lot of riding on the shoulder, and in the dust, and worried about the pointy rocks all over the shoulder and my already-stressed tyres.
It has not been a particularly fun day.
Somewhere in mid-afternoon, my map showed a cafe, just past the town of Bada.
I was out of water and out of any liquid and it was reaching well into the 30s and I definitely needed something, so seemed like a perfect place to get a snack and a whole bunch of stuff to drink.
I stopped at the cafe, and they had... no water. No bottled water at all.
This was a first. I had to double check a couple times to ensure I was understanding properly, as the server grew more impatient at my repeated questions.
The cooler was not working, so in fact, they didn't have much to drink of any description (!!), but did, at least, have some bottles of warm lemonade they could sell. It would have to do.
("Lemonade" is not the same drink Canadians are thinking of. It's something I've never actually encountered anywhere prior to Russia... it's hard to describe, and Google is not being terribly helpful. It's a soft drink - reminds me a bit of sodas flavoured with sugar cane (rather than corn syrup), which it probably is, although only lightly - and has a lemony/citrus element in about the same way that McDonalds orange drink has an orange (flavour) element. At only 1/3 the price of American soft drinks - Pepsi, Coke & associated products - I am drinking it all the time. It's actually super delicious. When it's cold.)
I downed my snack (plov - rice pilaf - and more posies) and the bottles of warm lemonade, then back to the bike. Leaving the cafe, there was a family on holiday getting back into their car, with Mongolian license plates. They had overheard me asking for water, and after a few minutes of "the usual" conversation (where am I from? Where am I going? etc.) indicated I could fill my empty water bottle from the tap.
Ummmm... not so sure about that one.
No, no! "Это нормально!" they insisted. "It's fine!"
Yes, well. Нормально or otherwise, I'm not taking any chances. Maybe a function of having traveled so much in countries with sketchy water supplies, but I am super careful about where I get my water. The prospect of being sick on the bike sounds really really awful.
I have made it so far without having had the slightest problem with illness whatsoever, and I intend to keep it that way. That includes not drinking any tap water. At least not until western Europe.
I thanked them for the advice but insisted I'd be fine. They looked at my empty water bottle dubiously.
My map showed a gas station only 5-10 km ahead anyway, I'd try there. I mentioned as much and got on my way.
Reaching the gas station after an increasingly hot half-hour, I realized this is where I should have stopped to begin with. There was an attached cafe and a couple of inter-city buses parked out front, with passengers scattered all over the parking lot and using the opportunity to stock up on food. There was plenty to drink here!
To... possibly the worst single stretch of road I have encountered thus far.
It was paved.
If you stretch your definition of "paved" to utterly mind-bending lengths.
Let's be more accurate: it had a spiderweb of asphalt barely holding together an amorphous collection of cobbles, boulders, potholes, caverns and fox-holes. Probably the body of Jimmy Hoffa. Maybe Stalin.
Luckily, it was only about 2km long, up a big hill.
The road itself was hopeless. Utterly hopeless. I headed for the very far edge of the shoulder, knocked it down into the lowest gear, and ground my way up the hill. I was going not much better than walking speed, but still probably doing almost the same pace as most of the motorized traffic trying to laboriously pick a route through the obstacle course that wouldn't leave them hung up somewhere.
I did make it to the top, though. And all under pedal power! It left me feeling rather triumphant, in a perverse kind of way. "If I can make my way past that," I thought to myself, "I can make it through anything."
Margaret, the biker from Tasmania that I encountered in Ulyoti a couple of days ago, is also keeping a blog, and I think her description of the road must be referring, in part, to this stretch, in her entry The Day from Hell! where she writes about "some of the worst frost heaving, pot holed road one could ever ride."
Another hour or so past this particularly awful stretch, I started to go up another hill. It was starting to become time to stop for the night, so I figured I'd make it to the top of the hill, then check my map to see what there might be by way of hotels in the near future. Or at least cafes; I wasn't entirely opposed to camping tonight, but wanted to at least grab some dinner first (the posies were delicious enough, but I was getting pretty hungry again).
So I started climbing the hill.
And kept climbing.
And kept climbing.
Halfway up, I gave in and stopped anyway to check my topo map. I didn't remember a departure from the river valley for another 50km or so, at least?
Well, no. It wasn't, particularly. The road was just doing it's thing; wandering up, away from the river for a dozen km or so, then turning around, and coming all the way back down into the valley, not far from where it had left.
I mean, I could understand it, perhaps, if this made the road straighter, or saved some distance, but no. If anything, it adds distance. And again, it's not like the river valley is particularly narrow or canyon-like?
So instead, there was this huge 15km long (with 650m elevation gain) uphill detour, only to come back down to where it started.
I... do not understand Soviet road planners.
At any rate, the next town was just past the road's return to the river valley. Which would at least be downhill (once I passed the top). And there was a collection of gas stations and cafes at one point. No hotel showing on the map, but perhaps there would be one anyway?
By the time I finally made it to the top, it was already a little past sunset. A tour bus was parked at the top with folks clambering back on (presumably having been out taking photos). If I'd been half an hour earlier, I would have had some great views. Ah well.
At least: thankfully thankfully the descent had been recently rebuilt and was fresh pavement. Oh thank lord! Coming 15km down through potholes, in the dark, would have been excruciating (and borderline suicidal).
I again considered whether I wanted to just camp there, but decided I was hungry, so: on to town!
After finally arriving at said town, I got to the jumble of cafes, and no obvious hotel. However one of the cafes had a big sign out front with a "hotel" logo on it, so maybe I could ask?
Indeed, they had rooms. Not hotel rooms, per se, but more like cabins out back. For ₽550 a night: sure, why not?
Except: no running water. There was an outhouse, and a shower house in a separate cabin. Sure, that would be fine. So I wanted to take a shower? Yes!
However I had a dilemma: the cafe closed at 11:00 PM. I looked at my phone - 10:42. I'd just have some dinner first, and then have a shower.
Um, no. See, the shower building had to be operated by that guy over there, and he also goes home at 11:00. So if I wait, no shower.
Well, dang. After today's dust and heat and sweat, the shower was really a necessity. Well, maybe I could take my stuff into the cabin real fast, have a super-quick shower, and return to get some food before the cafe closed.
And got back at 11:01, just as she was turning off the lights.
After some pleading I convinced her to quickly sell me a chocolate bar from the display and a bottle of lemonade from the fridge. At least it was something.
I returned to my cabin and pulled out my phone to check emails and messages, only to discover: no cell phone signal. My proximity to the town of Новопавловка notwithstanding.
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