Jul. 07, 2016: Ulan-Ude, Buryat Republic, Russia

The lack of running water and internet notwithstanding, the cabin was quite comfortable (and had power outlets so I could make sure my phone and associated bits were all charged); and relatively cool when I woke up. Definitely a step above the rustic cabins found at innumerable summer camps (which had halfway been my original expectation).

Cooler than the temperature outside, at any rate. I dallied in the cabin for as long as I could, slowly packing everything up, before guilt about not getting on the road made friends with my empty stomach and coerced me outside.

A standard enough borshch-and-blini breakfast later, I was back on the road, with several bottles of water, lemonade and assorted juices in preparation for what was already a hot day, and only promised to get hotter, if the previous one was anything to go by.

Indeed, hot weather, light forests and defiantly crappy roads were the order of the morning - or at least the first 30-odd km to Petrovsk-Zabaikalskiy. This latter town was the turnoff for a second alternate route into Ulan-Ude (the first being back in Chita). The same conditions basically held this time: no Google Street View preview of the alternate route, so unknown road quality, and no cell phone coverage. But it would be a bit shorter.

I had, at one time, pretty much mentally ruled out taking the alternate route, but was seriously reconsidering that plan. The quality of the main road was nothing to write home about, to say the least and I doubted the alternate would be much worse; but it might have lighter traffic? And I was still without internet connection ever since the hill right before last night's stop in Novopavlovka. So what did I have to lose?

So as I approached the turnoff and saw a cafe approaching on the left, I decided to pull over, get something to drink and mull it a bit. (I had already gone through half the supply I was carrying, and the rest - warmed by the sun - was already quite hot. Hot water isn't the most refreshing thing ever, and I was eager for something cold.)

I went into the cafe and checked my phone: the signal had (just) come back! After some though I decided that intermittent internet was better than no internet, so want back to plan A and chose to stick to the main highway.

I still don't know if that was the right choice.

At any rate, not 5 minutes out of Petrovsk-Zabaikalskiy, the sky suddenly got very dark indeed, a heard a loud crash of thunder, the wind picked up, and I pulled over to the side of the road, quickly grabbing at my rain cover and jacket, bracing for what looked to be a very ugly storm. I thought about returning to the cafe, but I didn't think I had enough time.

Within a minute or two, the storm blew in, I got a few spatters of rain, and then... nothing. It passed over, just behind me. If I had gone back to the cafe, I likely would have been drenched; at it was I was only grazed. Much sound and fury, to quote the bard, signifying nothing.

These storms are so localized!

I kept the rain cover on, however, and the jacked tied around my waist, just in case.

And started up a slope that turned out, as these things go, to be a many-kilometres-long slog to the top of a big hill, only to come right back down to the same valley. Not only that, but in this case, there was an alternate road right along said valley that I could have taken instead and probably would have been flat. If I'd thought to look at the topo map at all.


Just as I returned to the valley, the horridly-paved road ceased being horridly-paved, and instead just decided that gravel was the order of the day.

Not so bad as things go; the gravel is often easier travel than what sometimes counts as "pavement" here. Except that it's not exactly graded or anything, so the potholes and washboarding can be pretty awful, as was the case in this 10km stretch.

Following which there was much road construction. Stretches of nice, newly-paved road being built to a much higher standard, interspersed with more gravel. Riding on Russian roads is nothing if not exciting. You definitely have to pay close attention!

Pretty quick, I was suddenly out of the forests and into the grasslands; a transition nearly as sudden as the one a week previously near Chernyshevsk. I checked the map; about 13km to the provincial border. Maybe the roads would be better there?

With 10km to go to the border, the construction stopped, and I was on new, fresh pavement - for once with adequate lane widths and wide shoulders. A slight downhill trend stretched away from me into the grasslands as far as I could see. This was something I could deal with!

It was still hot, so when I reached the border with the Buryat Republic (6th province!) I only had some very hot water to sip on, but eh, it would do.

The provincial border also marked a new time zone, which would be helpful given my dallying in the cabin, although it of course wouldn't affect the sun at all, so it was closing in on sunset. But if the road kept up, I could make decent time, and hopefully another 50-odd km to Mukhorshibir, where my map showed a hotel.

The Buryat Republic lies along the border with Mongolia, and has an unusually high number of Tibetan Buddhists living here. It was interesting to see the border monument written in the Mongolian script, although this has not carried over to many other signs; a few here and there at most. I also started seeing a lot more cows and other livestock freely wandering along the highway. This has been present all the way through Russia, but much more prevalent here.

Of course, this latter may just have more to do with a higher concentration of farmland (and less forest area) than anything cultural.

At any rate, the good road seemed to continue, as did the slight downhill, at least for the next 25km to just past Khonkholoy. So I did make some pretty good time, and gained a bit on sunset.

Then the road construction began again.

I have been mentally grading the roads I've been riding along. There have been the very rare stretches of A+ (mostly back in Primorskiy Krai), quite a lot of A range in the Amur, a whole pile of B... and then since Chita, it's been mostly C and D ranges. Until the border area (which had been a good B+/A-), yesterday was mostly in the Ds.

But this stretch just past Khonkholoy finally earned a dreaded "F" grade.

I'd been reserving that... for something rather specific.

An F grade road, I'd decided, would be a road that was quite literally unrideable. One that would force me off the bike.

And that's what I ran into. Construction is, well, construction. And gravel is gravel. And I can deal with that.

But this stretch was not just gravel; rather it was all fist-sized cobbles, bordering on boulders. After a couple incidents where my wheel slipped sideways off a cobble and wedged itself between two rocks, I'd had enough. If I kept on riding, I was likely to start breaking spokes, or worse.

So I got off and walked.

Road, you get an F.

Luckily, there was only a couple km of that nonsense (although this stretch of gravel was 13km in total). After which the road became paved again, albeit not very well (D+). The sun began to set as I passed Kharashibir, about 10km short of my destination. It was a pretty glorious sunset, I had to admit.

And twilight lasts kind-of forever, so I wasn't too worried about darkness in that time.

Still warm, though, and I was pretty tired.

After a few more km of nonsense, I got a new, fresh road the last 6 or 7 km into Mukhorshibir. As I approached the town, and made to turn off onto the access road, I saw a sign for a hotel. Not the marked one on my map. I double-checked said map: nope. But this one was a lot closer to the highway, almost right in the town centre (the one I had marked was through town and a little ways up the hill off to the side).

I had to pass it anyway, so I'd check it out.

As I got to the town centre, there indeed was the Hotel "Vizit." It looked... kind-of alright? There were a couple of sketchy looking guys hanging out a couple of buildings over, but I figured I'd be ok for a minute or two while I inquired, so long as I locked the bike.

I did so, and wandered in. No-one to be seen. Hmm. I heard a noise upstairs, so went up, and there was a guy watching TV, who was all too happy to rent me a room for ₽800.

Cheap enough, for sure. I glanced in the room - looked good enough to me! I decided to take it.

Disorganized clerk was pretty disorganized. I handed him ₽1000 and he didn't have change, which was odd. No worries; I still needed to round up some dinner, and I could get change then - he was happy enough to wait to get paid.

I gave him my passport, but he didn't want to look at it. "No need," he said.

Wait, what?? That was definitely a first for Russia! I... was pretty sure that it was not legal for them to rent me a room without taking my passport details down. But whatever; his problem, not mine.

But at least I could stow the bike in the garage out back.

I went downstairs, and Pavlov's sketchy-looking-guys turned out to be a red herring. The bike (and the bags) were fine.

Got that taken care of, had a quick shower, went out to get food. No cafes open in this one-horse-town this late at night, but the supermarket a block away was open for another 20 minutes. Supermarket dinner, it would be! Got some bread, salami, cheese and juice - what else does one need? - and change for the hotel clerk, then back to my room.

Ate dinner then tried to get some sleep on what has to be one of the hottest nights I've ever spent.

It was no use. It was just awful. I spent the whole night uncomfortably sweating in the hot Buryat night, desperately fanning myself with a manila envelope. My juice was gone in no time, and there was nowhere to get more. I certainly didn't trust the tap water in this place.


Note to self: in the future, try to find out whether a hotel has any downstairs rooms.

As the temperatures resolutely stayed above 30° all night long, and my iPhone weather app forecast was showing 38 for the next day, I began daydreaming about those tacky truckers caps with little fans in them that can blow onto your forehead.

I have yet to see anything like that in this country, which is a bit surprising. It actually seems like kind of a Russian thing to have...

As I finally made my way out of the oven of a hotel into the (marginally) cooler outside air this morning, I handed the room key to the lady at reception, and made to retrieve my bicycle, when she stopped me.

"Wait!" she exclaimed. I don't have any documentation! I need to see your passport! Et cetera.

Ha. That's... about what I figured. I handed it over, explaining that the guy last night didn't want it.

She just rolled her eyes at me. I didn't quite get the full story, but I think he was just someone's husband, filling in for an unexpected absence. Or something like that. Anyway, he didn't know the procedures and had left averything for the morning staff.

Eh, all good.

I looked around the tiny town centre for some breakfast, but it was still pretty early (hadn't been able to get to sleep anyway, and I figured I'd try to get on the road while it was marginally cooler), so nothing much was open yet. There was a cafe advertising blini that looked promising, but when I went they weren't yet ready.

So instead I made do and went back to the highway, stopping at the gas station at the edge of town to buy juice and shrinkwrapped waffles.

(Yes. Shrinkwrapped waffles. Filled with jam. Those are a thing here.)

The monument beside the gas station read: "Ulan-Ude 119km". The sign beside that showed a car overheating and exploding. (Looking it up later, I see that it means no vehicles carrying explosives, but it sure seemed appropriate!)

I sat down in the shade of the gas station to eat my waffles and plan the day. There was a town - Tarbagatay - a tiny bit over half way. A couple of big hills before then, but mostly downhill or flat afterward. If I could get to Tarbagatay in the morning and early afternoon, tackling the hills while it was still cool(ish), then I could have lunch there and take a break through the worst of the heat, and head on to Ulan-Ude later in the afternoon and evening.

Seemed like a plan.

As I was scheming, I was visited by a very small and rather cute puppy.

I haven't written yet about the dogs of Russia. Some people (hi mom! ) have expressed concern about the possibility of being beset by dogs on the trip. Indeed, stories of same occur frequently in the blogs of others who have made similar bike trips through Russia and Eastern Europe, and it had been on my mind before I came.

Some have tried measures such as carrying a dog whistle, only to sadly report that it was ineffective.

In practice, I have found it to be a complete non-issue.

Which is not (at all!) to say that there have been no dogs. In Russia, there are dogs Everywhere.

Dogs in the streets
Dogs off the streets
Dogs in the bushes
Dogs in the forest
Dogs in the parks
Dogs chained up
Dogs wandering around
Feral dogs
Pet dogs
Dogs on their own
Dogs in packs...

What they haven't been, on the whole, is particularly aggressive. The vast majority (80% or more) are basically indifferent to the bike (and everything else, so much as I can tell). The remainder have been mostly friendly and/or curious. The only ones that have made much of a ruckus have been clearly guard dogs, chained up, who have yelled and barked at me. But being chained up, I haven't been much concerned.

When I was Trichotomy.ca just outside of Bikin and beset with bike troubles that required me to stop again and again to fix them, I was at one point patching my tyre, when I was approached by a gang of about 6 or 7 young dogs nosing around. I was a liitle concerned, since I my stuff was strewn around the highwayside, and I had no way to easily collect it an make a hasty retreat. But mostly they were just curious. Came up, sniffed around a bunch, gave me a couple quick yips, then were on their way, off to find something else to play with.

Since then, I've been much more at ease around the dogs, and haven't had any issues.

On three, maybe four occasions, total (out of a sample space of easily thousands of canine encounters so far - we're really talking about a very tiny percentage - I've had dogs chase after me, barking. My strategy has been to completely ignore them.

And it's entirely worked. They've chased for a little while, never attacked, then grown tired and wandered off.

Dogs: not a problem!

So anyway, this little fellow was of the friendlier, playful variety. And possibly hungry. The waffles were apparently smelling interesting. I finished eating all but ¼ of the last waffle, tossed it at the puppy, downed my juice, and set off.

The first hill passed uneventfully. The road out of Mukhorshibir was fairly new, in good condition, and I was glad to get it out of the way as early as I did because there was no shade.

Then a long slog across a very flat valley. Road mostly new, some under construction. It was definitely heating up. There is some vegetation in the valley, but mostly it's just rocks and dirt; a lot of dust kicked up by the construction. Extremely desert-like, especially in the rapidly-increasing heat.

30-odd km from Mukhorshibir, a mirage arose from the desert sands: a southwestern town nestled in the base of the hills on the far side of the valley! As I drew closer, the village of Khoshun-Uzur stopped resembling quite so much something out of a cowboy flick, and became marginally more Russian (or, I suppose, Mongolian) in appearance. But between the arid desert-like environment and the heat, I swear it wouldn't have been terribly out of place in Texas, as opposed to Siberia.

As I passed the village, the road started noticeably going up, and suddenly became much much worse. The new road was over. The remainder was (yet another) stretch of old Soviet road and... the less said about it the better.

A long, awful uphill trudge. It was hot and rough and bumpy and I had to stop several times for breaks, and completely drained my water.

A few km from the top, the desert-like conditions magically gave way to forest, and I finally got to trundle a bit through the shade (although it was still hot). And downhill to Tarbagatay along a mercifully new road that started about a third the way down the hill.

The new, good downhill road allowed me to make decent time to lunch, although the wind blasting against my face all the way down was still extremely warm, and I was glad to have the chance to stop for a while and eat lunch in the shade of the cafe, even if the lady at the counter was surly and ornery and clearly feeling put-out by having to deal with someone who didn't speak great Russian and was finding it hard to read the (handwritten in cursive) menu.

More construction over the last small hill out of Tarbagatay and into the Selenga River valley. Said river flows past Ulan-Ude and all the way down into Lake Baikal, so I basically get to follow this river (slightly) downhill for the next couple of days.

The river valley is actually quite dramatic in appearance, and offers some rather cool scenery. Right where the highway joins the valley is the "Sleeping Lion" Rock. I didn't quite see it at the time, but looking at it again in the photos, the resemblance is a lot clearer.

There was a trail up to the top of the Sleeping Lion, and a couple cars parked at the bottom with people making the trek to the top. I opted to pass; between the heat and my desire to just get to Ulan-Ude; I admit now that I regret the decision a bit. Oh well.

The scenery along the valley is interesting. The highway is definitely "interesting."

One of those words is a compliment. The other is not.

Awful horrible road. All the way along the valley and into town. No shoulder - completely broken pavement jostling me the whole final 40km - and pretty much nonstop traffic, so I was constantly dodging angry, honking truck drivers and bouncing over pointy rocks.

Awful, awful. More than twice, I caught myself muttering a mantra under my breath: "Dammit, Russia. Fix your bloody roads!"

Which is a little bit unfair. They actually are fixing them. As witnessed by the almost neverending construction the last couple of days (and frankly, most of the way since Chita).

And indeed where the construction has been effected, the roads tend to be much better. There's just... a lot of miles to fix. And Russians aren't exactly known for their efficiency in the same way as, say, Germans.

20km from the centre of town, the highway crosses to the other side of the river (bypassing the city centre), and there's an access road that takes you into town. I had hoped that there might be less traffic here? Yeah, right. No such luck. Might the road be any better? No. Such. Luck.

"Dammit, Russia. Fix your bloody roads!"

(Hmm. What I've been muttering to myself might be slightly more expletive-laden than I am recounting.)

5km from the centre, the road passes the city limit and: hallelujah! A different road authority, clearly, and suddenly the road is brilliant! The number of lanes triples, the pavement is new... the last couple km down into the valley are a really nice ride. Especially since it is just past sunset, and a little bit cooler.

At lunch, I looked up on the internet a bunch of hotels in town (as I have always so far done when approaching a city), and made a short list. The first one on the short list looked promising: the hotel Marrakesh. Right downtown, reasonably-priced, had a bunch of really good reviews. Also, according to the map, it was attached to a shopping mall, which seemed to be promising considering I had a few supplies I wanted to get while here.

I found the shopping mall easily enough, but... where's the Marrakesh?

Oh! Then I found it - the Marrakesh seemed to present itself as a cafe. I went in and tentatively confirmed with the girl at the counter that: there is indeed a hotel here?

Yes, came the answer. Wait just a minute.

She picked up the phone and made a quick conversation, then pointed me to a door in the corner, that turned out to be an elevator. A little tiny elevator with only two stops: one into the cafe, and the other 4 floors up, to a hotel lobby.

A very small hotel lobby. The Marrakesh, in addition to being a cafe, is basically one of those boutique hotels; I think it only has about 5 or 6 rooms.

But the rooms are nice! And so is the staff! And the rooms are decently-priced! And air-conditioned!!!!

I'll take it.

There was some question about the bike. As a boutique hotel tucked into a shopping mall, they don't really have their own parking lot, or much in the way of storage. Although there is a storage area up here on the 4th floor. But the only way to get here is via that tiny elevator.

After some tweaking, I managed to just barely fit the bike and me into the elevator at the same time (after removing all of the bags and everything), manhandle it up to #4, and wheel it into the storage area.

A shower later...

Nope. A bath later. O gods, I needed that bath. So badly.

A bath later and, well, I was actually falling asleep. I had planned to wander out to find some dinner, but I'm just too tired. Instead, I just went back downstairs to the Marrakesh cafe (which actually turned out to be a shisha bar - not too surprising, given the name) and got some posies and something to drink.

I glanced at the beer fridge and saw they had a bunch of cans of Guinness. Y'know what? That sounds A-Ok to me!

So there I was, sitting in a shisha bar in the middle of Siberia, drinking Guinness...

Sometimes the world just seems to fold in upon itself. I am reminded of my friend Tyson, who has a similar kind of story about eating Indian food (butter chicken) at an Italian restaurant in Frankfurt.

This planet can be like that sometimes, in this century.

So. In Ulan-Ude. But oh gods, the last 650-odd km since Chita have been just as difficult as the cumulative 3000 to Chita.

As I feared, the roads have become a lot worse since the end of the new highway. If they continue like this, I don't have a hope in hell of making it across the country before the visa expires. I am many days behind schedule already, and falling farther so as time goes on.

This... kinda sucks. :-/

Either way, that's a decision for (much) later. For now, I have some new tyres and other bike tuneup-y things to get at the Trial·Sport. And then we'll continue on, and see how far we get. Tomorrow is supposed to be the worst of the heat, so I'll spend it here in town (where I have an air-conditioned hotel room!) and it's supposed to get much cooler on Saturday.

I am looking forward to Lake Baikal. :-)

Today’s lodging: Hotel "Vizit", Mukhorshibir. SO HOT. Upstairs room, where all the heat collects. No A/C. No fan. Just ugh. ₽800
Today’s road: R258 (Fmr: M55). 116.8 km, 7h05. Really unnecessary big hill just past Petrovsk-Zabaikalskiy. Go around if you can. Random mix of horrible old road, decent new road, and construction. Mostly doors 1 and 3.
Today’s lodging: Marrakesh Hotel-Bar, Ulan-Ude.. Really nice boutique hotel right downtown. Good location and great staff. A/C! ₽2500
Today’s road: R258 (Fmr: M55) - Ул. Бабушкина. 114.8 km, 7h19. Big hill before Tarbagatay is the worst one, both in terms of road quality and length/steepness. A lot of good, new road but also a lot of bad. The highway and Ул. Бабушкина along Selenga River is awful awful awful, with neverending traffic.

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