Knowing the language completely changes the dynamic of your travel. During the first part of our journey we purposefully tried to be isolated by not buying any SIM cards. In the beginning our poor understanding of Spanish further isolated us from freely hanging out and meeting the locals.
But now we are in Russia…the Motherland…and we know the language, at least I think i know it.
Funny enough our first connection in Russia came through on a Korean channel. Keunshik, a fellow traveler that we have mentioned before, set us up with a few contacts all along our path from Vladivostok to Ulan-Ude.
That’s how we got to Lynx of Amur.
There we learned of an unfortunate loss of a traveler’s life. He was killed by the locals…for what we are not sure, maybe money, maybe the things he carried.
His death has spawned an annual event called “The Wave Remembrance” in which riders of all kinds of motorcycles ride to the memorial site, bridging the many motorcycle clubs across Russia and keeping Alexei’s memory alive. His memorial stand for all of those travelers who have tragically lost their lives on the road. If you are in the area, come by and pay your respects. GPS coordinates: 54.063263, 121.40383.
Now we understand why everyone we have met has insisted on passing us onto another person in the next town on our route. Since the tragic death the clubs have come together to keep riders safe by providing a safe place to stay along the road from Vladivostok.
After Khabarovsk the next big town is Chita, but between there lies almost nothing…a whole 1400 miles of nothing. There is only forest, other fellow travelers and the Trans-Siberian railroad. For over a hundred years it has been the life-line, connecting European part of Russia to the sparsely populated Eastern regions.
Until only recently,the railroad was the only way to get from Khabarovsk to the west within a reasonable timeframe. The opinions vary by the roads have become unsuable only in the last decade or so. Before this people would struggle on the dirt roads for days on end to get from Khabarovsk to Chita.
These days it took us only 4 days to get from Khabarovsk to Chita, we camped at roadside trucker’s stops. These places usually have a security guard and are a safe haven for stranded travelers.
The road is so good and the sights are so picturesque that I didn’t even try to go above the official speed limit of 90 kph (55 mph). Yeah its a bit on the slow side, but this way i could relax and look around without stressing.
Whenever we got a chance we stopped, smelled the beautiful blooming forest and fields. If we got lucky we met the locals and tried to find out about the region as much as possible. This Russian cowboy was eager to see us, but was not a big talker so as usual i had to do most of the talking. Still, it felt great to be able to just stop and have a fully understood conversation. Even though I have never been in this part of my country, i still feel very comfortable here.
We arrived in Chita almost at sunset, which in these parts of the world is very late in the summer, 10-11pm. Our contact for Chita was Zhargal. In our usual style of not thinking too much ahead, we called him just a few hours before arrival. Not only was this not a problem, he managed to call a few other people from the motorcycle club to come and join us that evening.
I’m beginning to remember the real Russian hospitality. These guys dropped everything, got food and beer and come over to meet us at their headquarters. Please welcome Vova (left), Alex (center) and we forgot because we drank too much (right).
And the man on the other side of the telephone – Zhargal. He is the fearless leader of the club and the point of communication for all the bikers going through Chita. In the course of a very, very long dinner with drinks we learned a few things. These days it’s mostly korean bikers that come through, some Japanese, some Europeans and a few Americans. We also learned that we are a very special team that connects the Korean bikers with the Russian clubs. In the course of the evening 2 different Korean bikers called Zhargal, trying to speak very basic English. Zhargal quickly gave the phone to Hyein, who in no time translated everything and helped the guys.
The more we drank the more honest our stories became and we learned that there are little annoyances brewing on the Russian side. The guys have come clean that a few improvements in the Korean biker culture would greatly benefit everyone around. We listened and tried to remember everything we can, promising in our inebriated state that we will call the President of Korea itself and have this taken care off.
In the morning we dragged ourselves out of bed, said good-bye to our new friends and went into the city with the only goal of find a place to upload our last blog.
Anywhere we are moving slow enough for people to get a chance to talk to us, we get stopped and asked what exactly are we doing with a California license plate in RUSSIAAAA.
This time it was Oleg…who happened to speak perfect English and i don’t mean just grammar…the pronounciation was there 100%.
It took us just over 5 hours to upload our blogs…a process that takes less than 30 minutes if you are in the States and 10 minutes in your are in Korea.
Annoyed by the disastrously slow internet we needed to get a breath of fresh air before heading out of the city. The only logical choice if you are in Chita is the Victory Park (52.050059, 113.47354)…not any victory…THE VICTORY, the one and only that matters…at least in the Russian mind. Till this day it is the single most important event in Russian recent history. The country has lost so much due to this war…but came out victorious.
In every city and town you will find a memorial, and many cars have stickers with various slogans commemorating the event.
If you are American then its sort of like the 9/11 but way…WAY bigger.
The park was closed for renovations, but we managed to find an open gate and snuck in to take some pictures.
In the photo above you can see the “forever fire”…”vechniy ogon”…these fires never go out, just like the memory of the lives lost.
In the same photo you can see the words “Everything for the Front, Everything for the Victory” written under the years 1941-1945.
This part of Russia never saw any combat action, when Hitler attacked and almost got to Moscow, a lot of scientific facilities and factories were moved East, far away from the front. So people remember giving everything they got to help out their country.
On the way to the park we noticed something strange, a regular Trans-Sib train but smaller. Intrigued we decided to stop by on the way back.
Turns out this is the “Children’s Railroad of Chita” (52.06565,113.46553) and it is completely run by children. From the lady selling you the tickets to the person driving the train. And no…this is not some juvenile colony where little Russian criminals get sent to do their time.
No…this is a railroad club, sponsored by the Russian Railroad Company. During the school year the kids come to the Railroad school and learn everything there is to know about railroads, from the tracks to the engines.
And during the summer school holidays they have 2 weeks workshops where they get to practice in the real world what they learned during the year.
Except on a dedicated little track. But they got real engines, real carts, real tracks. Everything is just half the size…really cute.
The train is actually run by one of the students under direct supervision of an adult instructor.
The tickets cost 50 rubles per person one way. We didn’t want to huff it back by foot, so we bought a round trip. It would take 15 minutes there, 15 minute stop and 15 minutes back.
Walking down the platform you see about 60 kids running around in uniforms, excited to have some hands-on experience.
There are more kids than actual passengers, each cart has a dedicated conductor and attendant. There are platform managers and track operators…all doing real jobs…but all extremely adorable.
We were the only “real” passengers on the train. About 5 minutes after we started moving a young conductor approached us and asked to see our tickets. She was very professional about it, but we couldn’t stop smiling. Is this how our parents look at us when get into college and proclaim ourselves as adults?
At the last stop, while waiting for the engine to go from the back to the front, we all got out of the train and stood around enjoying the warm Siberian summer sun.
At first we asked a couple of the guys if we could take a picture of them, explaining that we are traveling and writing a blog.
They happily agreed and soon enough the word of our travels spread through the group faster than fire. And Hyein not missing a chance decided to take a picture with all of them.
Since we finally speak the language and can have an actual conversation, i was happy to explain what we are doing and answer all the questions they have. I’m used to being the center of attention, but even for me it was a bit overwhelming to be surrounded by 60 kids…all looking at you, smiling, asking questions.
On the way back we got in the train a while on the way there kids didn’t know if they could talk to us…well, on the way back I don’t even remember looking out of the window. We were bombarded with questions…but for once I had just as many questions about them.
How did they get into the whole railroad hobby? Is this something they want or something their parents forced them to do? Are they going to work for the Railroad when they grow up? Do they like the summer workshop?
Seeing that we were eager to learn about the program one of the instructors told us that they would be happy to show us around the school and tell more about the program, while the kids are doing their final day debriefing.
Turns out this is not just a school, but also a club for anything associated with railroads. There is a large museum of hand-made model train engines. All operational, with some models being able to go 55 kmh and pull 200 kgs of weight.
Next to the museum there is a classroom for teaching during the cold winter months.
Actual engines, model generators and train tracks – everything they need to know about the railroad.
After the debriefing, we promised to show our car to them and explain how we travel day-to-day.
Although our Hodori is not as cool as a train, it has a lot of things packed inside. I’m not sure if the guys have seen a car like this before, but they seemed genuinely impressed and interested.
I also love showing the car and being able to fully explain all the things that we have done to it. Before it was a few words in Spanish and excited finger-pointing with arm waving. Now i can actually make a comprehensible statement about the installation of various things and their purpose.
We are finding out that the roof-top-tent and the hot shower are the two most popular things so far. Slowly the crowd thinned as the kids went home or got picked up the their parents. And soon it was just us. You know that feeling when all of a sudden you realize that an amazing party is done and everyone is gone? The kids…are awesome, their eyes are full of joy and happiness. Their excitement for your adventure makes you feel better somehow. Even though we just spent an afternoon with miss their smiles and never-ending questions.
To the kids of the Chita Children’s Railroad: “We remember you fondly and sending a big thank you from Lake Baikal. Keep up the good work!”
Somewhere around 5 pm, when in Central America we would already be posted up for the night, we set out towards Ulan-Ude. The sunset is so late that you can easily drive until 10pm and then park and still have enough time to make dinner before complete darkness.
And as you can see Russia is apparently like Peru…cows rule the roads.
Somewhere just before Ulan-Ude we stopped for the night. And in the morning were approached by a police unit…no, these are not junior officers in training…this is actual police. But they just wanted to check out our car…funny enough, the same questions as the kids.
Gladly showed everything to them, hoping that they don’t find any problems. I’m not sure why, but growing up in US you start to fear the police. So I get nervous even if i didn’t do anything wrong and have blue uniforms surrounding me.
Phew, the police gone we can finally go about our day. In the morning light we noticed that we parked across the road from a rural airport.
Since this is Russia, we thought it would be okay to go and take a closer look at the aircraft.
Greeted the guard, told him we just wanted a quick look. Not sure how many visitors he has during the day, but he was happy to show us the chopper and shoot the shit for a bit.
This is helicopter belongs to the Russian Department of Emergency Services. It’s the Search and Rescue, Fire Department and Red Cross all rolled into one government branch. Here is Siberia they fly out everyday to look for forest fires.
With such a population density, fire control is very difficult. The fires are found only when they are large enough to be spotted by aircraft, at which point the only way to put them out is by air as well.
Just wanted to show you the kind of bathrooms we have been using. This is the latest and greatest in the world of Eco-friendly toilets. Made from locally sources wood and a whole in the ground … this one has an extra feature. The inside wall that separates the two stalls only goes up halfway. So when you are in the business position…you got privacy, but when you are pulling up your pants you can look around and see your neighbors. No worries, this privacy innovation is only restricted to stalls designated to the same-sex. After all…Russians got manners.
Maybe its a left over from the commie times, but Russian’s love making monuments. When you cross a state line in US all you get is a simple metal sign post. NO…here you get a work of art. Depending on the wealth of the region some are old and crumbling probably untouched since perestroika and some are beautiful brand new sculptures, like this one – welcoming us to the Republic of Buryati.
As usual by now, Zhargal from Chita gave us a contact for a bike club in Ulan-Ude. The name of the club is “Opposite” and Zhenya, the president of the club greeted us and informed that tonight we will not be alone – 3 riders, 2 from Poland and 1 from Kazakhstan, will be joining us. Awesome, the more the better.
But first things first…after a long drive or ride if you are on 2 wheels, you have to eat some local food. And in Buryati land you HAVE to eat “Pozyi”, its like a large dumpling. When you eat it you first have to take a bite and suck out all the delicious meat juices. I heard it somewhere that it is a law, while you are in Republic of Buryati, that you have to eat the “Pozyi” with your hand and not a fork!
Forgot to introduce the folks from left to right – Sherik, Grisha, Marek and Meeeeee.
Ooops, I just noticed that both Marek and I are breaking the law with our spoons and forks.
Besides being the capital of Buryati Republic and the mecca for “pozyi” eating, Ulan-Ude is also known for having a really, really large statue of Lenin’s head. I’ve heard conflicting statements that it is either the largest or the second largest Lenin head in the world. Once again we are writing this in the absence of internet, so you will have to confirm fact by yourself. Please comment and let me know.
Another thing that i wish i had internet so i could tell you more about are the Buryati people. They don’t look like the Western Slavic Russians that you are used to seeing. They are ethnically different. Here i might be a bit politically incorrect, but this is not the first nor the last time. They are somehow related to the Mongol nomadic tribes. But I think they don’t like being compared or associated with them. I’m intrigued by this and will research more later on and update you guys in the Mongolian post.
Back in the motorcycle club headquarters. We went to take a shower in the public sauna…where i forgot to wear slippers, so i’m hoping my feet are not going to fall off from some crazy disease.
We got a few beers to share between all of us, but soon enough our numbers doubled as more members of the club came it to greet us. From out of nowhere the Polish guys produced a bottle of tequilla and a bottle of vodka. New arrivals brought food with them and we had on our hands a real party.
Sherik’s Honda…VFR? not sure, don’t judge. And on the right is Marek’s Honda Goldwing.
Aah…do you see the fisheye lens paying off already? Couldn’t have shot this with a 50mm prime … no space to back up.
And that’s Grisha’s Goldwing. It lights up like a Christmas tree with LED lighting hidden all around the bike.
Hyein really like the Goldwings…super spacious, comfy, good sound system.
General course of the evening… hanging out and drinking. The Polish guys all spoke Russian and I translated everything to Hyein.
Another Zhenya…no, not the president, just a friend of the club. Really welcomed us to Ulan-Ude and made sure we were properly drunk by the end of the evening.
Zhenya, the presiden of “Opposite”, on the left and Grisha on the right.
Here once again we drank a bit too much and as usual the conversation steered towards the issues of bike clubs in Russia. We were surprised to hear that the problems mentioned by the Chita club were the same here. Zhenya informed us that a lot of the Korea bikers come over to Russia unprepared, causing a lot of stress for the Russian guys. No one was really upset at anyone, people just wanted some things to change for better in the future. So Hyein and I listened to everything and wrote a “list of suggestions” on the Korean Motorcycle forum.
Here are the things that needed to be corrected.
1. Be prepared. Russia is big, the distances between towns are large so if you break down it will take a lot of time to reach you. Make sure that your bikes are not overloaded, this will help in preventing problems. It rains and can get really cold here even in the summer, so buy really good gear.
2. If you are here, then be with me. Some people treat the bike clubs as just a place to store their bike while they go out and meet their friend in the city. If you are coming to the club then you want to meet the people and get to know them. Treat this as a cultural exchange opportunity. Don’t park your bike and then go to sleep in a hotel.
3. Russians are not trying to rip you off. A lot of times the club members spend their own time and money towing, fixing and helping stranded bikers. So when they ask you to pay for something, dont feel like they are trying to make money off you.
4. This is the funniest one. Get a better nickname than Park, Kim or Lee. For whatever reason all the Koreans that come over introduce themselves by their last name…and since there are literally only 4 of them. This gets a bit messy after only 5 visitors.
That’s a very short version of the letter that Hyein posted on the Korean forum. We didn’t know what the reaction would be like. A few days later we checked back to see that a whole lot of people have left really positive comments. Someone posted “Say Hi from Park, they will remember me.” There was so much momentum behind this letter that it was posted in “Rules” section of the Korean bike forum.
But that’s not the end. The President of the Korean forum called our for an establishment of communication line between the Russian clubs of Siberia and Korean Bike club. So hopefully in the future Russian bikers will also get a chance to visit Korea and get to know the real Korean welcome.
If you think that this would be the end of the night, you are wrong. The great Russian welcome doesn’t stop here.
The guys organized a single sober person who was given the task of driving us around Ulan-Ude, showing the city sights.
Thats a complete tour package. We got a chance to visit the Buddhist temple, they are called “Dotsan” here. Once again saw Lenin’s big head. And went back to our headquarters.
Bright and early, around 6am…the time we rarely see with our eyes open. We got up to see the guys off.
Got a note from one of the Zhenyas, wishing us happiness and smooth roads.
Obligatory signature on the wall. Heyin is mastering the languages and managed to write in all three that she knows. Shoot, forgot to say something in Spanish. Or did we just waste those 6 months learning it?
Zhenya’s bike and our Hodori in the background.
Found a city water tap to fill up our car. And then heading off to Irkutsk.
It’s not a long drive, so we managed to get there around 5 pm and instead of camping went off to look for a cafe with wi-fi.
Found the most amazing place…yeah the cafe itself was nice and clean, but the people there were even better.
Anastasia, in the photo above, was so genuinely happy to get to know us that she got so emotional and needed a couple of minutes to cool off.
Another guy who works there, Erdani, offered to set us up with a friend next weekend. We hit it off so well that even though we were still recovering from the previous night, we promised to get together later that night to have drinks.
The original plan was to spend the night at a truck stop somewhere out of the city, but now we need to stay close by. Looked at iOverlander…nothing. Googled and found some German blogger talking about parking in the back of a hotel. Yes, just what we need!
Hotel Irkutsk – “Inturist”. For 150 rubles you can park in the back and sleep in your car. They have bathrooms and free wifi in the lobby!
Turns out that we were meeting up with two Anastasia’s that night. Yeah…not a whole lot of variety in Russian names. But we make up for it with our awesome personalities and great nicknames.
It was a pleasure to hang out with them, we got reenergized with that youthful energy of the early 20’s. Zero arrogance or acting too cool around us, just a good time with good people.
Spent the night under a torrential downpour which continued well into the morning. Probably the worst thing about overlanding is camping in the rain…everything becomes annoying, miserable and wet.
But we pack our stuff and move on…no need to be upset at the weather.
In the hotel parking lot we saw an overlanding Land Cruiser from Switzerland, left a note saying hi and moved on.
Where are we headed?
Lake Baikal – Olkhon Island for the annual meeting of Korandovod club. Where owners and lovers of Korean car maker Ssangyong get together for a week of drinking, off-roading and competitions.
And as luck would have it on the way to the island we see the same car we saw in Irkutsk! We pull over and the guy say instantley…”you are the guys that left the note!”
His name is Chris, we exchanged numbers and hopefully will meet again in Mongolia.
I haven’t done this in a while. So here it comes. Overlanding in Russia during summer is absolutely amazing. The weather is great, when its not raining. The day light is well into 18-20 hour range in the middle of June. People are nice and EXTREMELY welcoming. With the current USD to Ruble exchange rate, things are very affordable. So if you are thinking to go or not…drop everything and come over right this second.
The roads are no worse than what we have seen in South America. The infrastructure is good and the nature is even better.