Russia – OverLanding, OverRaining

I might have hurried up saying our goodbyes in the previous post. I forgot that we still have to go from Seoul to Donghae, where we will be taking a ferry to Russia.
The ferry was schedule before we even got the car in Busan, so that was all ready to go. But we have been so long sitting in one place that most of our vehicle contents have migrated to bedroom. On top of that add all the stuff that we bought in Korean AND all the stuff that Hyein’s parents decided last minute that we absolutely need to have. I thought starting the day before was a bit too much…nope, it took me most of the day and the car was full to the brim.

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I dont like carrying a lot of stuff with us, we are not going out into the wilderness, we can always resupply on almost anything. But also its nice not to worry about toilet paper for the next 6 months.

Anyway, car packed a day before we leave. We spent the day of actual leaving trying to busy ourselves and distract from the thought that this is the last day. I hate long good-byes, they make me even sadder. But this is Hyein’s family, we will make an exception.

Finally, the moment came. Everyone was in tears, Hodori started and we rolled off. Ahead is a relatively short journey to the port town of Donghae on the east coast of Korea. Althought it was only 180 miles away, it took us over 6 hours to get there. We missed a few exits, a few tolls gates and the fact that it was a holiday weekend and half of the nation was on the move, didnt help.

Got to Donghae late at night, found a gas station decided that we are back in overlanding mode and parked. Since it was my birthday and we spent most of it sitting in traffic, we walked over to the nearest watering hole for a drink. On the way met some Ukranian sailors that invited themselves to a beer. A few hours later finally managed to say good bye and walk back to our car.

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Bright and early, drove the whopping 100 meters to the port and started the boarding process.

We were told to arrive at 9:30 am with a scheduled departure of 2pm.

In the parking lot in front of the DBS ferry office there was a large group of motorcycles. At first we thought all of them are going over to Vladivostok, turned out only 8 were leaving and the rest were just sending them off in style.

At around 10 am, you drive around to the customs inspection area. At the gate you hand in your passport, drive through the gate and wait in line while each of the vehicles is individually inspected. I was second to last in line, so this took almost an hour.

Once you are done with the customs, you drive on the ferry, park the car and hand over the key to the manager. This was the first time we have done this and it felt uneasy.

Then back out from the ship, you go through security and back to Korean soil.

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Pay for the car ferry, then buy your ticket separately and be back 30 minutes before the ship leaves.

While waiting in line for customs inspection, I met a Russian guy named Denis going back to Vladivostok after 2 weeks in Korea. I asked him about the difficulty of doing the import process myself to which he replied…”Ugh…Vanya you DON’T want to do it yourself. You probably forgot that you are going back to Russia!” Shit, that means i need to find an agent and now! There is no internet on the ferry and we have like an hour to sort this out.

Another problem is that DBS has called us multiple times about this and we refused their help thinking that we will be able to do it ourselves. So now we the tail between our legs and minutes before the ferry leaves we beg them for help. Being Korean and in general awesome people, they help as much as they can. We frantically call, send emails and all the documents, but since this is a Sunday we are sending them blindly without any response. No worries, we will figure it out when we get there. Not going to stress about this.

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Can’t do anything now, lets just enjoy this little cruise.

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This ferry line connects Japan, South Korea and Vladivostok. The whole route takes a week and the ferry sail from Korea on a Sunday and arrives in Vladivostok at 3pm on Monday.

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This is the third and the most luxirious ferry we have taken so far. The Mexican ferry from Baja to Mainland was a bit rundown and Chile’s ferries are barebones functional, not much to them.

But this one has cabins, bunks, buffet, sauna and showers. All for anyone to use any time.

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If you are shipping a vehicle the price includes 3 meals. The bunks are clean and comfortable, overall really nice.

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Our cabin had 8 bunks. There was a Japanese couple, a Russian grand-mother, and a Russian mom with 2 kids.

These two adorable kids are half-russian, half-japanese. They understand Russian completely but speak mostly Japanese. Here they are sitting down with Hyein and teaching her the Russian alphabet on an iPad.

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Ah, the gloomy skies, this must be motherland! No seriously, we left Korea in shorts and t-shirts and by the time we got to Vladivostok we put on every piece of clothing we had.

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Denis is actually from Vladivostok and came prepared with an actual jacket, not that little flimy sweatshirt.

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The Sea Port Building of Vladivostok. A very small port, especially after seeing Busan and South American ports.

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This gentelman is one of the 8 motorcycle riders who will travel from Vladivostok and apparently he has heard of our travels through the grapevine. He wanted to take a picture and being the celebrities that we are, we have to do what the fans want…you know that’s how its done in the biz.

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These are the Korean guys that are going to travel Russia and Europe. Not surprisingly, no Korean girls. They were super excited to get on the road and start the journey. All on bikes, big and small. The size doesn’t matter, its all about the adventure.

The customs broker that we frantically emailed yesterday turned out to actually be the same guy who will deal with these guys’ bikes.

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The customs clearance company, or “Declarant” as it is called in Russia is a little outfit called GMB, Co LTD. There are three people working there as far as we dealt with. The person who met us and the Korean bikes at the port is Yuri. As a group we walked for about 10 minutes to their office. We waited as the other guys signed all their paperwork and tried to figure out the best way to proceed in our case.

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To understand the difficulty of this process you need to understand the intricacies of Russian bureaucracy…so here goes a little overview.

A temporary import of a vehicle requires you to first submit a personal letter to the head of Vladivostok customs, then once you get an approval from him you show all your documents to another customs officer who will actualy inspect your documents, your car and issue you a temporary permit. In some cases they have to do a visual inspection of the vehicle, not always.

Oh and i forgot to tell you, once you leave the ship you dont actually take your car. The port workers drive it off and park it in Customs Holding Parking garage.

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If we would have been smart about it and gotten in contact with GMB earlier, then they would have already had the documents ready for you to submit to the head of customs. The other bikers just signed their documents on the day of arrival and got their bikes the next day.

Another problem is that I am a Russian citizen and the customs office did not like nor understand why i would want to bring in a car only temporarily into the country. So we had to change all the ferry documents from my name to Hyein’s. Thank god I made sure that we are both listed as owners on the title.

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While all of this is being figured out we realize that we will not be able to get out of Vladivostok for a few days. So lets relax, get everything we need to get done and enjoy this cluster fuck of bureacracy… more time in Vladivostok.

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First lunch is at a “burrito” stand next to our hostel. Resembling a burrito only by shape, these “shaurma” are quite good. We tried a few places after this one, thinking that we could find better. No, we struck gold on the first try.  Made with chicken veggies and, of course, sour cream and mayo…can’t be bad.

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After dropping off our stuff at the hostel, we ran to the nearest supermaket to stock up on Russian deliciousness.

First order of business for me was kvas – a Russian fermented malt beverage that has a taste of rye bread and an inkling of beer. I love this stuff and have been dreaming about it for the last few weeks.

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Tuesday went to the office to change the documents into Hyein’s name, signed some papers and got ready for customs for tomorrow morning.

Right in front of the Sea Port a large statue of Lenin welcomes you into the city.

Trust me I’m not looking for cliches about Russia…they just present themselves without even trying.

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After the quick office visit in the morning we had the rest of the day free. But there is no such thing as a free day in the life of an overlander. If you’ve run out of things to do…then you might be doing something wrong.

The rear brake pads have been squeeking a bit so we decide to hunt down a supplier.

Turns out that Vladivostok is a heaven for Land Cruisers and people seeking their spare parts. It seems that every 5th car on the road is a Land Cruiser. And about half of those are 200 series. I have not seen that many 200 series in my entire life.

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Found a shop online, called them up to make sure they have the parts and asked how to get there. The guy told me to tell the taxi driver that they are located in the old furniture factory. _DSC7934

No way man, taxi? What do you think we are made of money…public bus it is.

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Got off the bus and started walking by following the phone GPS coordinates. At first, nothing weird… a little city park with a WW2 tank, then we had to walk through half demolished/half deconstructed old facotry with random shop everywhere. If it wasn’t day light, i would have not come to this part of town.

Just to be on the safe side we got 2 pairs of rear pads and a set for the front. I’d rather carry an extra than see my precious little disc ground up like last time in Peru.

If you got a Land Cruiser that needs to be fixed…Vladivostok is the place to do it.

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Next morning after spending two nights in a hostel we were invited to spend the rest of our time in Vladivostok at a friends place.

His name is Keunshik and he found Hyein’s blog and that we are in Vladivostok and invited us over.

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Realizing that we might not see our car for a while and there is no sense in paying for a hostel when you got a friend…we happily agreed.

Keunshik is a traveler himself and has done the same trip we are planning at least twice, once on a bike and once in a car.

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This is nothing weird…just a stop bell on a bus. But it leads to an interesting point. The red part of the bell actually has Korean writing and just underneath the same thing on a sticker in Russian.

Vladivostok is not like any other Russian city. It is so far East that it imports all its cars from Japan, so most of the cars on the road are right-hand drive. All the buses are old Daewoo’s and Hyundai’s from Korea. The billboards around the city announce that you can cure any disease by going to a medical center in Korea, or that you can travel to Guam without a visa.

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Finally, we get a call that the paperwork is ready and we can go pick up our Hodori in port. We meet with the agent, get our port pass and walk over to the garage.

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I was worried that some things would be missing from car when we get it back and there would be no one accountable. It seemed like nothing was touched and the car was handled very well. I’m proud to say that nothing got stolen in 3 days in Russian customs!

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Meanwhile the weather has not been very cooperative for the last few days. If you can make out in the background there is actually a building engulfed by a never moving fog/rain. Everyone we met kept saying that we just came in the wrong time and that Vladivostok is beautiful in July. It seems like we always come in the wrong time…

Lets the total process of getting the car out in Vladivostok.  Agent fee was 8000 Rubles ($120 USD), port unloading fee was 2200 Rubles ($34 USD) and car insurance for 4 months was 10,500 Rubles ($160). We could have gotten insurance for just a month at that would have been around 8000 Rubles, but there is a discount for longer periods.

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Found a mechanic to change our pads, oil and do the wheel alignment. While we are at it, lets rotate the spare tires to the rear.

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The turns out the rear pads had a lot of life left and were making a noise because they were not designed for a Land Cruiser.

Yeah, I remember in Peru the guy couldn’t find the right pad so he just made it work with some other ones. Although a good solution in a pinch, it resulted in the rotors wearing in unevenly, making them squeek a bit.

No worries, cleaned them up and put new ones on.

While we are at it, bought a spare oil filter. We can always find oil…not always the right filter.

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I guess there is not much fun things to do in Vladivostok, becuase it seems that everyone has outfitted their Land Cruisers for some serious off-roading.

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Or maybe this is a sign of whats to come and the roads we are about to expereinece.

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Proper high-tech alignment of Hodori under full operational load. Turns out we loaded it so much that our front wheels were leaning in towards each other just a bit. This is called …positive or negative camber…dont know which one because i dont have internet right now.

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Fancy numbers telling our Hodori is cross-eyed. This is the first time Hyein’s has seen a proper alignment and was fascinated with the laser guided system.

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As usual Hodori draws a lot of attention, especially in a shop that has seen a lot of Land Cruisers, but none like ours. After the tune-up I gladly gave a demonstration. Everyone wished us “Udachi” (“Good luck”) and we are ready to leave Vladivostok.

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We got here on Monday and are going to set 4 days later on Friday. Everyone else who was on the ferry with us has long left. For them this was the beginning, so all their bikes were in perfect working order, while we had to wait and mend a few things.

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To be honest we did not see much of Vladivostok. We were busy with the car and the weather was so bitterly cold and wet that we could not force ourselves to be outside for long.

But on the last day we had to brave this miserable weather and walked around.

These Hare Krishna folks did not seem to be bothered by the weather at all, and kept walking around the city chanting “Hare Krishna, hare Rama” for hours on end.

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Becuase of the weather and not the communist past, everything in Vladivostok was some shade of gray. I think the city is very similar to San Francisco and would be an amazing place to explore when the weather is right. From what we hear the best time is from mid July to September.

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Keunshik’s apartment is one of 8 in this beautiful 100-year-old brick house. He says that on a good day you can see the bay right behind the house…yeah…whatever i don’t believe these good days exist here.

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There is however a giant statue of an admiral right behind the house.

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Russian sticker on, full gas, full groceries…we are ready to go.

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Said good-bye to Keunshik, who promised to connect us with his friends along the road. Thank you for hosting us and for the great times!

We are off to Khabarovsk, the next big city from Vladivostok…only 450 miles away.

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Man…these are the roads we have to deal with. Nah…i’m just messing with you. There was only a 10 mile stretch of dirt road, everything else was paved. But paved, doesn’t mean good in these parts of the world.

The road was a patchwork of various colors of asphalt, i’m sure some of it older than I am. On top of that add the never ending rain and you got yourself a very long road. It took us over 10 hours to get to Khabarovsk.

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When we finally got to Khabarovsk, we called up Keunshik’s friend “Kombat” and told him we have a present for him. He asked where we are staying for the night and after seeing our begging looks informed us that he knows just the place. He disappeared back into this house and came out on his bike, told us to follow him. Turns out that he is friends with the local motorcycle club “Lynx of Amur” (Ryusi Amura) and they frequently host travelers like us.

They like hosting motorcyclists, but decided to give us a nice Russian welcome and let us stay for the night.

That’s Kombat on the left, and Ivanovich on the right of Hyein.

Our original plan was to head out in the morning to Vanino, a port city 8 hours east of Khabarovsk.

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We were supposed to meet some of friends of Keunshik and travel together. We called to confirm that the plans were still on and turned out that they were canceled because of the shitty rainy weather. So the frantic morning of packing turned into a relaxing hangout with the guys from the club. Thats Slava, nickname Sedoy (Gray Hair), and Sasha, nickname Trucker.

I’m not sure what i expected of bikers, but these guys are super nice all smiles and questions abou the trip. They even gave us two “Lynx of Amur” coffee mugs for the road.

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We asked the Annatolij Ivanovich, the founder and president of the club, if we can stay another night and look around the city during the day.

He said instead that he will get on his bike and show us around himself.

Man…this is awesome!

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Its raining and cold, but he is still willing to give us a guided tour of his city…talk about Russian hospitality.

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Ivanich, as the people call him, has been riding motorcycles his whole life and started this club in 2002 to do something good. They travel together, they host people from all over the world that need a safe place to sleep, fix bikes and have a shower to wash up. All of this is free of charge, thats what the club does. In the future they want to open up an actual traveler’s hotel with bikers and overlanders in mind…but for now you can have the dirt parking lot for free.

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Went over to the center of the city, parked in front of a church and walked over to take a look at Amur, one of the great rivers of Asia. The church in the background was recently reconstructed from the drawings found in the archives on exactly the same place where it used to stand. It was demolished by some people who did not believe in God and didn’t want others to believe.

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The plaza where we conviniently parked has quite a bit of controversial history. In front of you is the memorial to the heroes of the revolutionary war of 1918-1922 that led to the installation of communism across Russia and creation of the Soviet Union.

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And here you see these guys looking at the church that they destroyed some 100 years ago. The current generation of Russia realizes that we should not destroy everything every time we change our minds about our government. Lets keep everything for future generations to learn from it. Thats why the Lenin was still standing there in Vladivostok, greeting you as you got off the boat.

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It might seem that you are somewhere next to the sea, but no these are the Russia rivers when the snow melts and they flood, they really do turn into temporary seas that cover everything to miles.

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I’m sure that Ivanich has done this tour more than a couple of times, but to be honest with you it felt sincere. He is such a sweet and caring man, it doesn’t feel like he hosts people for any gain except to be a part of your trip and provide comfort to a fellow traveler.

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In the 40 years he has been riding, he has criss crossed this big land of Russia in every way possible.

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We looked at his log book and there is a million people from Japan and Korea. Maybe one day, while he has the strength to ride these riders would return the favor and host him in their countries?

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But  we are back in the club, seeking shelter under the roof, cooking our dinner.

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The rain never stops, our tent is not necessarily wet, but the humidity is getting everywhere and everything feels damp.

Not that i want to leave this place…i just want to drive somewhere in hopes of finding better weather.

Khabarovsk iron tigers

Aaah…I dug up this photo from our Baja California post where we met a Swiss couple that has traveled to Vladivostok and met a different club called Iron Tigers. I asked Ivanich about these guys and he said that he knows them and that some of his members went over to join this club. He said its their choice and did not say anything else bad about it.

I like that instead of bashing the other guys, he is just doing his thing and loving it.

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They even have an old stuffed Lynx in their guesthouse. Although its falling apart, Ivanich likes to keep it around, mostly to scare little Korean girls named Hyein.

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In the morning, we packed in the rain and set out also in the rain.

Seriously, this is what we have been dealing with for the past week. I dont even know how the sun feels on your skin anymore…will it blind me when it finally comes out?

So where are we going?

West. Thats is our general direction for the next few months. Just like South was in our previous life, now we will go as far West as the continent will take us.

The bridge you see takes you across the Amur river and is the beginning of thousands of kilometers long Amur Highway.

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Our general destination is Chita, a whopping 1400 miles away. And during this whole time there is only one city anywhere near the highway.

Its called Birobidzhan and it is the capitol of the Jewish Autonomous Region. I’m not sure how many Jews are left in this region, but the city sign looks like it has something similar to Hebrew on it. I’m assuming most of the Jews have long gone to Israel leaving only the name behind.

Once again it was pouring buckets so we didn’t properly get a look at the city, just met one of Keunshik’s friends and passed along a present.

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During the rain, there is a great deal of comfort to be inside a warm and dry car.

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Wait what? How are you taking photos like this?

Someone here suggest i get a fisheye lens. So we went into a store in Vladivostok and thanks to the ludicrous exchange rate picked up a Russian made Zenitar for $120.

And this is the kind of rain with are dealing with on daily basis, not your average spring shower.

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This way you will be able to follow our adventures in a new perspective.

We stopped for the day in a little cafe/gas station/rest stop. Although there are no cities for hundreds of miles, every 20-30 miles you will find at least a gas station, and every 100 miles a decent place to eat and sleep for the night.

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And just like South America as soon as you start cooking a dog will show, but not every day are we treated to such a beauty at our camp spot.

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Next morning we were faced with a choice, continue on Amur towards Chita or go off course and see a city on the border with China.

Not having anything better to do, we decided to go and wave at the Chinese people across the river/border and plotted our course for Blagoveshensk.

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Because we made this decision after the main turn off for the city, we had to drive for 100 miles on little county roads.

What they lacked in quality, they made up in beautiful scenery.

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The sun finally came out and with it our spirits lifted. During this time of year in this part of the world everything is green.

All the fields, all the forests, even the cities are all green.

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And when the sun comes out you can see the brilliance of the colors come to life.

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We did suffer a bit for making the decision last minute. This photo is important for a couple of reasons.

First, it does show the reality of the road situation in Russia.

Second, this road is only 30 imnutes away from Blagoveshensk…this will makes in a minute.

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A bit of geography first. The city of Blagoveshensk sits on the border with China on one side of Amur river and other side, in China, is the sity of Heihe. And both countries boast their properity by building the most beautiful high-rises right on the bank of the river, flaunting them into the face of the other country.

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China, not to be outdone, does the same.

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It even built and amusement park right on the riverwalk.

Btw, thats a Russian Coast Guard boat there, guarding the motherland!

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The scale of boasting is quite ridiculous. Everything on the border is perfect, the lawns manicured and buildings restored.

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I feel like the sun has joined the competition between these to cities and wanted some attention for itself, because it was burning brighter and hotter than i have felt since leaving Thailand.

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Just look at this…and then remember that road, only 30 minutes away from here.

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Believe me, i’m not complaining, i’m just amazed at this. I’m sure in China its a very similar situation.

Once you go half-a-mile away from the border its all little huts and dirt roads.

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But at the same time i’m impressed that this competition actually created something nice for people to enjoy.

Being from San Diego we know a thing or two about sharing a border with another nation and another city. There the border is something that neither Mexico nor US is proud of. Dirty and dangerous on both sides, we try to cross it as fast as possible and definitely do not go there for a liesurely Sunday stroll with the family.

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We finally parked the car and dried everything out. All the people were walking by, giving us weird looks. Some were brave enough to come over and talk to us. A lot of people approached carefully, judging if we can speak Russian. And only when I said hello, you could see their face relax…they can just speak Russian and not strain themselves.

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Satisfied with the dryness of our tent and done looking at the city we drove a bit more until the next rest stop.

You see that yellow racquet in my hand? Thats the ultimate in the latest mosquito murdering accessories. When Hyein’s mom heard that she got a tropical disease from a mosquito she bought this thing for us.

What is it? Instead of a net it has electrified wires that zap bugs with 5000 volts of electricity.

All you hear is a crack and the bugs are gone. You are supposed to use it inside your home to get rid of any bugs that flew in, but outside with a constant supply of fresh meat…you can hunt for ages.

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Now you are probably wondering how is the actual country, how is overlanding over there? Should i come here next time?

The answer is YES, if you like forests. This is the single longest stretch of wild forest that I have seen in my life. The highway runs away from even small villages, so you get a feeling of being completely on your own.

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The road is good and the eye is never bored, moving from forest to plains, to hills, to meadows and the biggest sky in the world.

I heard Montana is the land of big skies…people just haven’t seen this place yet.

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Yup, thats me, writing this blog post right now…somewhere between Khabarovsk and Chita.

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Everything is perfect…except the mosquitos…but they will not bother me for long.

Zap, zap!

2 Comment

  1. max says: Reply

    yeah – the distances are huge there. weather – sucks, but the skies do look nice with clouds when there’s sun also

  2. I could not find an e-mail adres to send this note to. Hence here. We drove from Amsterdam to Vladivostok and back in 2014. It was a total of 41,000 km in 132 days. We also traveled through the STAN countries. You can see our blog at welling family.waarbenjij.nu. Klick on the Amsterdam Vladivostok blog. Maybe it helps you in your further travels. I can also send you the coordinates of our campsites if desired. It is amazing how much our expenses are similar except than in Euro’s. We spend on average €104 per day. 37% on transport (camper/petrol) and 31% on food etc. Same as your S. America trip. Our next big trip is sending the camper to Buenos Aires somewhere early next year en then go south and up over the PanAm highway. I will go through your blog for info. Do you have a list of camp/hostel sites? My e-mail adres is wellingrwf@yahoo.com. Looking forward to sharing info with you
    Rudy Welling

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