Where are we now?
I’m posting this update from the Mongolian town of Choilbalsan. We’re very excited to be in Mongolia and to have completed the first off-road stage of this trip. We’ve covered a lot of ground since our last pause in an apartment in the Russian city of Chita and there is much to tell. I would love to post smaller more timely installments, but my ability to get online lately has been limited as we head into increasingly remote places. In this post I will cover our time between Chita up to the remote and infrequently used Russia/Mongolia border I selected to cross. The border crossing and our first days in Mongolia will feature in a separate post coming very soon. Also in this post you can read about our unplanned exploration of an isolated Russian ghost town… that wasn’t a ghost town. Read on to find out what I mean.
The vehicle is fixed
I managed to fix my 4wd in Chita. I traced the fault to a failed switch near the front differential and happened to have a new replacement part in my spares box – problem solved! However, while I had the bash plates off to work in that area of the vehicle, I noticed that an output shaft from the front differential had excessive play, indicating that the bearing inside was failing. There had been no symptoms of this (yet!) so the timing of the initial fault proved fortuitous in that it presented an opportunity to recognise a bigger problem early, and just ahead of the first off-road stage of this trip! My spares box also contained all the parts needed to replace the bearing and overhaul that output shaft… prompting a member of the Pajeroclub to ponder just how big my spare parts box is?! My purpose in lingering for a moment on a mechanical issue is because it serves to highlight some of the preparation and planning that has gone into this trip. My family is heavily reliant on our vehicle, which is going to have to work hard every day for months on end. A reasonable degree of self-sufficiency, pre-planning and mechanical knowledge are all essential ingredients for a successful family overland expedition. But I am ever cognisant of the fact that I can't fix everything that might go wrong, especially when we're miles off-road. It is the risk we take to have these sorts of adventures.
What are the chances…
Two nights before we were due to cross into Mongolia I felt confident we were suitably prepared for what would be the first off-road stage of this trip, yet at the same time cautious because I had been unable to find much information concerning the level of challenge involved. All I knew for certain was that we would emerge into Mongolia in a part of the country with no roads, just dirt tracks, until the closest town 234 kilometres away. It’s difficult to even estimate how long it should take to cover that ground if you don’t know how difficult the terrain.
What are the chances then that on our final night in Chita, while parked outside a supermarket replenishing supplies, a Russian man with reasonable spoken English spotted the Pajero and approached me for a chat. It quickly emerged that he had recently been across the border we were heading for and even had photos on his phone to show me what the 234 kilometres of dirt tracks to the first Mongolian town were like. After all my fruitless searching online to gather information about this border crossing, someone possessing this knowledge just walked up to me and was able to tell me/show me everything I needed to know!
A couple of things worth mentioning from Chita
We found this Russian Far East city to be pleasant and leafy green (or at least it is in the early summer as we’re seeing it) with Russian families out enjoying the lovely weather. It seems an unusual contrast to us that this city has some flashy malls, gyms and modern children's playgrounds etc, yet some city streets are just dirt/mud.
We encountered a local woman with spoken English who seemed very intrigued to see tourists in Chita. Evidently, this is a rarity. I get so accustomed to going off the beaten path that I had to pause to consider this from the local’s viewpoint. A place like Chita is nearly 3,000 kilometres inland from Vladivostok, yet is still part of the Russian Far East by virtue of it being a further 6,000+ kilometres to tourist-ed places like Moscow. So, no, I suppose they wouldn’t commonly expect to see a tourist family in Chita. Even more rarely in the remote Russian villages we’ve been passing through. I’m acutely aware now that when I wander around taking pictures, I’m the only person to be seen carrying a camera. Take a good look at a world map and pay particular attention to just how vast Russia actually is!
Upon departing Chita to embark on our final stretch through Russia we stopped to refuel, creating something of a spectacle. As some will know I fitted a secondary ‘long range’ fuel tank especially for this trip. The way you go about refuelling in Russia is to work out how many litres you want to buy and then pay in advance. I walked into the station and showed the attendant on my mobile phone the number 6,700 Russian Rubbles. The woman showed me back on her calculator that this would be 140 litres; it was clear that she thought I had miscalculated my requirements. But I nodded to indicate that I was aware how much diesel I was buying (the Pajero can now hold 170 litres). I paid and the fuel pump was activated, but her boss evidently didn’t believe we could take that much fuel and came out to monitor. Dressed in full military camouflage, he stood by. He didn't speak even a word of English, matching my inability to speak any Russian. He appeared tense as the pump registered near 100 litres… and kept going. I began to hope that I hadn’t overestimated how much fuel was already on-board, which given the unanticipated level of scrutiny would be embarrassing. Fortunately, the fuel tanks swallowed all the diesel paid for without issue.
Half a Ghost-Town
As we were nearing the most southern reaches of Russia headed for the border, we spotted in the distance a ghost town in the middle of nowhere. Quite large, with big derelict apartment blocks lying in ruin, we decided to go in for a closer inspection. It seemed that this might make up for something I had very much wanted to experience in Russia, but had had to leave out of this trip. The background here is that originally we planned to include a trip up through very remote parts of Siberia, taking in a route often referred to as ‘the road of bones’; so-called for the prisoner labourers often worked to death whilst building the road in horrendous conditions (winters as cold as minus 60 degrees Celsius). Where they fell their remains were simply included in the road. It’s a sad and brutal history, as many of these prisoners were guilty of nothing more than being potential political opponents of the day.
Briefly, the reason we had to drop the ‘road of bones’ from our itinerary was because May wasn’t the right time of year to go. In winter all Siberian rivers are frozen solid and can be driven over. In summer barges carry vehicles over the rivers. But in a few shoulder months, May being one of them, you can neither safely drive over the rivers (might fall through), nor take a barge (they can’t operate owing to ‘icebergs’ floating down the rivers). One thing we would have gotten to experience had we travelled the ‘road of bones’ is some very large ghost cities falling into ruin in Siberia. These were truly remote yet fully featured cities, built on a large scale (and not so long ago) to attract workers to industrial plants that have since closed.
But I digress… we had found something on our way south to the Mongolian border that looked like it might be as ghostly as the cities we’d missed out on in Siberia, or so we thought. But as the photos will reveal, this proved to be only half a ghost town. It seems as if some sort of large plant had closed down in this place causing the workers to leave, yet many residents remain. What gave something of an eerie feel was the mix of derelict apartment blocks right across the street from inhabited blocks. In some cases there were apartment blocks that appeared partially both inhabited and derelict. Also notice in the pictures the large-scale soviet era propaganda near the centre of the town. Although this had initially appeared to us a ghost-town, from inside the town we could see that people walked the green leafy streets, children played in dilapidated playgrounds and cars came and went on the terribly pot-holed roads. Whatever went on here in the past is difficult to determine, as remaining parts of a dilapidated plant that must have once been the attraction for workers is surrounded by barbed wire and clearly off-limits. I resisted the temptation to fly my camera drone in for closer inspection.
Final night in Russia
Our final night in Russia was spent camped just out of the small town of Borzya. We had dinner at a tiny restaurant/cafe, mainly to try the food and because we wanted to ask to refill our on-board water tank - it was the last opportunity to do so before heading for the remote border with Mongolia the following morning. The restaurant owner was a friendly helpful man. He colourfully arrived during our diner in an old Russian UAZ convertible jeep and gave a block of chocolate to each of the kids. Before long a few locals at the restaurant were gathered outside watching the Pajero suck up water into its tank. I wish I could converse more readily with these locals, who were clearly interested in our travels.
Our camp spot for the night had a restless feel about it. Ahead of us, in the direction of the Mongolian border, were dark grey clouds. Lightning bolts with tremendous power were making regular ground strikes - we wouldn't want to be up there! And behind us was the constant sound of machine gun fire. Earlier in the day we had passed by tanks training as part of a military exercise; presumably (we hoped!) this was a further part of a military exercise.
We spent longer in Russia than originally planned. This was a 'road trip' part of our journey, necessary to get inland from the port city of Vladivostok towards Central Asia. But we greatly enjoyed our time in the Russian Far East. I was regularly approached in towns and villages by locals curious about our distinctive Pajero, with its foreign plates, which was always a pleasure. On a future trip I would like to explore the area around Lake Baikal and finally undertake the 'road of bones' to Magadan.
I’ll end this post with a photo taken the next morning, just a few kilometres before the Russia/Mongolia border. Details of our interesting border crossing and our first off-road section in Mongolia are coming next.
Russia in Review - for those interested in independent travel to the Far East
WHAT TO EXPECT • friendly people who like talking to you and are willing to help despite the language barrier • a little grocery in nearly every little town & village, some open 24/7 • reasonably fast WiFi in rented accommodation • 15gb of mobile data for a month for 250rubles (NZ$6) from Beeline! Passport is required to purchase a Sim card. • plentiful beautiful forested spots for your wild camping from Vladivostok to Chita • pedestrian crossings are respected by drivers (unlike in Vietnam) and they will often stop for you when they see you waiting to cross • cards are widely accepted at petrol stations and supermarkets. Having said so, when shopping in little groceries in small towns and villages we always ensured we had enough cash and never attempted to use a card. • good quality diesel. Our car is equipped with a number of filters to prevent a break down due to poor quality diesel. Nevertheless, we believe the diesel in Russia is of good quality due to the number of new cars, sensitive to bad fuel, that we've seen on Russian roads. The high number of modern cars comes from Japan. Importing a car up to 5 years old from Japan is cheaper than an older car due to high taxes on older vehicles. • you will be asked to take your shoes off to enter a Russian home. • a neat, little playground in basically every village and town and many among blocks of flats in cities • long days. In mid May/early June when we were there, it didn't get dark till after 9 and later on even 10 pm! And it was light again at 3.30am! • to cross several time zone. On the 3,000km distance we covered, we crossed three time zones out of 11 that Russia has.
WHAT NOT TO EXPECT • that people will speak English. If they do, it's very limited and often supported by Google Translate • to find a water tap to fill your water tank. Between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk there were only a couple of places that had water for that purpose (distance of 750km) and on the over 2000 km distance Khabarovsk-Chita we spotted only one such place. It cost us 20 rubles for 40l of water. We had to use our bowl, which we filled up in a bathroom. • Google maps to know all the streets in Russian Far East towns. We had lots of trouble finding the street where our Russian guides lived in Khabarovsk. • flushing toilets or toilet paper in public toilets at rest stops. These were simply a hole in the ground. • police cars dotted along the way. We've seen hardly any and were stopped only once. Our documents were checked, mainly the Russian and Mongolian visas. • window washers at petrol stations. Not a single one all the way from Vladivostok to Chita (3,000km) • to be asked for your visa registration documents when leaving the country. The law is ambiguous and it's hard to obtain clear advice even from an embassy, but technically you must register within 7 business days of your arrival and if you stay in a hotel, that's easily done. However, it is much more complicated if you rent an apartment or simply camp like us. We didn't register at all and were never asked for a registration document. Though any official not liking the look of you could in theory suddenly decide to observe your non-compliance and make issue of it. • Russian drivers to adhere to speed limits. We were told that as long as you drive up to 19 km over the speed limit, you won't get a ticket. It isn't official law but apparently everyone, including the police, follows this rule.