Monday and Yuri is on the phone – the container has arrived! Although we were ultra keen to pick up our Patrol, the week had been filled with sightseeing and relaxation that took the edge off the delay. Another trip over the spectacular Golden Horn and Russky Island bridges with Vladimir’s colleague Stanislav, who showed us around Russky Island, proved to be one of the week’s highlights.
There are a series of gun emplacements dating from WWI through to more recent fortifications peppered around the island and generally they are ripe for a side trip. No signs restricting access and if you have a good torch there is a myriad of tunnels to be explored. I have to give it to the Russians – unlike Australia they actually make you take responsibility for your own actions, get lost down there and it’s your fault. Imagine that! If you do something stupid you can’t blame someone else! I think I could run for office on that one alone!
To my surprise, there were multiple locations on Russky Island where camping would not have been a problem and geographically its only about 20km from downtown Vladivostok! If we had a little more time I would definitely have recharged the batteries for a couple of days with views over the ocean!
By now we were chomping at the bit to get moving. There wasn’t much of Vladivostok we hadn’t seen and I could now say cucumber in Russian with nothing short of a pure Russian accent (Oguriat) Anyway, that’s another story!
Wednesday morning, Yuri picked us up and we headed to the shipping and customs offices to sort out the import paperwork. En-route, I mentioned that I had seen 6 car accidents since arriving and shortly after this Yuri said make it 7 – yep there was another one!
Shipping sorted and 3 signatures at customs were all that stood between us and the road! Piece of cake I hear you say. It’s an unusual situation when you find yourself in a government office not knowing what is going on and just nodding and also tricky to remember that Russians don’t smile!! To quote Svetlana, Yuri’s ever-efficient associate – “Only fool smiles without reason”. Hmmm there are a lot of fools in Australia then….
Yuri returns with 2 signatures, one remains to be collected! Tick-tock goes the clock and I’m thinking we are nearly there!
A tall woman (well, when your wearing 4 inch heals attached to leopard print knee high boots and touting a beehive haircut like something from the movie Grease you will look taller than those around you!) came out of an office in tears and walked past us. Yuri promptly appeared from the office and relayed that the lady in the boots was the customs inspection officer and she was having a bad day and would be unable to assist us, we would have to come back tomorrow! After nearly a week of shipping delays I was getting a little frustrated at this point and wasn’t overly enthralled with this further delay. It was at this point I noticed the little red box on the wall that read, in Russian of course, “break glass in case of emergency” I considered following the instructions if only momentarily just to see what the reaction might be. Alas, sanity prevailed and with an appropriately stiff Russian face I followed our small party out of the building for another day of sightseeing!
I must give credit where due, Yuri and Svetlana have both been professional and friendly towards us in all our dealings, always well organized and never too busy to assist. If your going to bring your vehicle into or out of Vladivostok then Links Ltd would be an easy recommendation for me to make!
The following day proved fruitful and after another trip to the customs building, the third and final signature was obtained.
Friday morning and after 6 weeks in the container we were finally able to cut the locks and open the doors. I was very relieved to find the Patrol in the same undamaged condition in which we had loaded it.
Onto the streets of Vladivostok and I would describe this as fairly intense!! Driving on the opposite side of the road is one thing but when you add some heavy and slightly unpredictable Russian traffic into the mix it makes for a wide-eyed experience. After making it back to Vladimir’s apartment we were feeling a little more relaxed. The driving style seems erratic initially but once you get more used to it, generally it flows quite well but you still need to be on your guard!
After parking the Patrol outside the apartment we went from being tourists to celebrities! Seems the vehicle was going to be a magnet for conversation. Ya ni gavaru parooski! (I don’t speak Russian) was fast becoming my new favourite phrase, however generally when we used the phrase the reaction seemed to be more questions in Russian. Maybe saying I don’t speak Russian in Russian clearly means you can speak Russian!
That evening was to be our last in Vladivostok and with a few beers and some snacks in tow, Vladimir took us on a short walk to a favourite spot which provided views over the hustle and bustle of suburban Russia! It was a warm and thoroughly enjoyable evening! We cannot thank Vladimir and Nina enough for their hospitality towards us – such generous people!
Saturday afternoon we headed to the southernmost point of the Vladivostok peninsula in convoy with Vladimir and Nina and after photos, hugs and farewells we set the trip-meter to zero and headed north! About 200km later we found ourselves camped along a power-line and all by ourselves. A bottle of red was enjoyed and during the next few hours the wind picked up, the rain came down, the lights of a distant town that had been visible early in the evening slowly dissolved into the gloom of the low cloud and I felt very excited about the adventure ahead.
The next couple of days saw long stretches of road-works with what can only be described as chaotic overtaking. One lane each way of heavily corrugated and undulating gravel road that consisted of intensely impatient drivers risking all for that extra car length! Having said that, although impatient they are a courteous bunch and a flash of the hazard lights after overtaking lets you know that they appreciate you moving over to help them pass.
Our next couple of days saw fairly heavy rain but with nice sunny breaks in-between. 800km from Vladivostok saw us arrive in Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 people who were all on the road to greet us. That’s what it felt like after a few days of fairly straight forward highway driving and all of sudden it was back to the hectic style of Russian city driving. Khabarovsk at its outskirts seemed a little run down and tired with electric trams that I thought were abandoned relics of a bygone era until I saw passengers in them. Central Khabarovsk however was a different story. A lovely riverfront promenade with picturesque parklands and a main city square reminiscent of many European cities was a pleasant surprise. A noticeable lack of litter was also a positive! Littering it seems is a popular pastime for some Russians and is a source of national embarrassment for the rest. On our travels north from Vladivostok it seemed that any side road taken for a quick pitstop served as a secluded location ideal for the dumping of bulk rubbish by locals – something that the authorities are trying to combat.
We found our way to the Platinum Arena near the city centre and here we were met by Eugeney and Vitali, the latter having just completed a 6 month round the world tour in his Land Cruiser 78 series with family in tow!
Once again we were about to be soaked in Russian hospitality. We piled into Eugeney’s VW Toureg and were promptly treated to a fantastic meal at what turned out to be his restaurant – Senore Pomidor! A city tour followed and then the offer of a night’s accommodation in Eugeney’s palatial villa! Another fantastic evening had slipped by in record time.
The following morning saw Vitali’s wife Galena pick us up and we headed for the Khabarovsk museum. I know that doesn’t sound too riveting but it turned out to be absolutely sensational and I felt fortunate not to have missed it! Back to their apartment and we met up with Vitali for a lunch of Borsch (soup) which was delicious! Vitali has a 4×4 shop in Khabarovsk! A discussion about our plans and a look at some exquisite photo’s from there round the world sojourn topped of the day. Their daughter Katia returned home from school around 3pm and we all headed of for some views of the bridge over the Amur River! The supermarket followed and we were pampered by Katia as she helped us to navigate the Cyrillic labels, I’m sure they all had better things to be doing than following us around while we food shopped but the generosity of these people once again amazed us.
Goodbye’s again and we were heading west!
As we travelled onwards from Khabarovsk towards Chita we began to look for a home for the evening and settled on a site near some marshland a few kms from the road as our night’s camp. Mosquitoes automatically accompany terrain like this but the sunset was magnificent and you would have been forgiven for thinking that we were camped in an African savannah.
Saw our first Russian wildlife in the form of a small squirrel as we navigated the boggy road back out to the highway. Later, when the elevation increased, so did the occurrence of ice along many waterways. As always, you discover the best campsites when you don’t need one and we found a burster alongside a river but later when we needed one it proved quite difficult and we finally settled on a track that looked like it’s most recent use had been the transit of cows. Settling in, we had dinner and a few drinks when the silence was broken by the sound of a motorcycle approaching.
Now let me clarify that it was a dark night, about 10.30pm and we were on a disused track off a dirt road. Passing within 6 inches of our car down the track was the first Russian motorcycle ever built complete with sidecar and no lighting whatsoever! No surprise then to discover that the bike and rider had then proceeded to crash into a rut in the track 2 feet deep which brought the screaming jalopy to a halt and silence again returned. Moments later a young Russian appeared from the darkness at the rear of our camper and despite no common communication territory it was evident he was seeking help. Justin first disappeared into the darkness with him armed only with a Maglite and then summoned my assistance also. A few good tugs and the bike was free but it wouldn’t start. Mobile phone coverage in Russia is excellent and no sooner than our Russian had made the call, reinforcements in the ever popular camouflage clothing appeared. We were a little nervous that the hill folk now knew our location but they seemed harmless enough and in time they disappeared into the night with the motorcycle and peace and tranquillity returned.
One thing that has been a stand out observation as we have been travelling through many small towns is the popular choice of roof and fence colour. It seems as though” Home Hardware” must have over ordered colorbond and paint in their trademark blue and sent the oversupply to Russia!
Camping for the last few nights in altitudes around 2500ft has tested out our setup with the mercury dropping to -10°C overnight. Water pipes and taps frozen in the morning mean that without forward planning the night before, morning coffee has to be abandoned and this is unthinkable! We are ever thankful for our wonderfully warm down quilt and find ourselves quite cosy at night despite the below freezing outside temperatures! However one thing that we weren’t quite prepared for was the adjustment or lack thereof to our internal body clock. Something tells us that the time zones are not quite right when you are on the same longitude as Perth but are experiencing a springtime sunset of 10pm without daylight saving and total darkness only achieved at about 11pm. I cannot fathom what time the sun will be setting in the middle of Summer!! Sunrise also seems to be out of adjustment and is rising much later than one would expect for Spring. What seems like late afternoon to us is in fact 8pm and we haven’t even camped yet. Before we know it midnight is upon us and we have only just finished dinner. Nearly three weeks in Russia and this is still something we cannot quite adjust to! Since when is the sun NOT directly overhead at midday?
Onwards to Chita and there has been much bad publicity about overland travellers being the targets of criminal activity in this area. Not overly filled with confidence, we opted to get in and get out with only the necessary stop at the supermarket on the agenda. The entry to town was ramshackle and unattractive to say the least and the drivers seemed a little more erratic. Supermarket found we went inside for what we always find to be an adventure as we decipher the Cyrillic characters on packaging to try and guess what it is we are about to consume.
On departing the supermarket, we found a man nearby the car wanting to ask questions of our vehicle and this time Ya ni gavaru pa rooskie worked and sign language, the names of the Russian Cities we had been through and Australia seemed to provide him with the necessary information. Aklishna (excellent) was his response and upon turning back to the car, encountered another 2 men wanting to chat. One obviously understood some English but hadn’t the confidence to try and speak it so resorted to translating my comments about our journey to his friend. Armed with bottles of Vodka in their pockets and lovely gold teeth they seemed impressed with our setup and were content to be on their way. These experiences did much to lift our impression of Chita and hope that maybe this is indicative of good things to come for this overland transit point. We headed for the nights camp 140km west of Chita en-route to Ulan Ude for another sub zero night.
Have plenty more photos but having trouble with wifi so will upload when we can
Justin and Jen