Two weeks on the road in the Russian Far East
After nearly two weeks on the road, we have made it as far as Chita. There are only three large cities in Russia's Far East - Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Chita - with considerable distances between them. Our last section between Khabarovsk and Chita spanned over 2,000 kilometres, with numerous villages and some towns dotted along the way. We’ve now covered most of the 3,000 kilometres that we needed to travel to reach our chosen entry point into Mongolia.
We’ve greatly enjoyed our time spent travelling through the vast, remote and beautiful Russian Far East; it has been spectacular. And as this initial on-road section of our expedition draws to a close, already we’re looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead in Mongolia. Our routes across Mongolia will necessarily involve significant off-road sections. Mongolia is a country with so much to see, but with very limited infrastructure outside its only big city - Ulaanbatar.
In this post I’ll recap on our time in Russia thus far
Russian people we’ve met along the way have been friendly, kind and very interested in our travels. Our vehicle tempts a curious few possessing some spoken English to approach us. We’ve been greeted on arrival into a small far east town by a Russian man with a full set of gold teeth, who warmly welcomed us to Russia. I’ve been asked for a few photos with the Pajero. We’ve also seen it show up in a couple of Russian Instagram feeds and on a Russian website. In one tiny village we passed through an ex soldier with no spoken English observed us failing to communicate with locals as to where we could fill our on-board water tank. He indicated for us to follow his car and he then took us to his home in the village, where we filled the tank. I took a great photo with this burly ex Russian soldier that I would love to post here, but he explained that as he has been out of the military for less than five years this is not permitted – fortunately Sylwia understands some Russian, even if she can speak less. I understand zero Russian and must make regular use of the Google Translate app on my phone.
Two helpful Russian men approached us near their village and a Google Translate conversation ensued. Upon learning that we were at the time looking for a nice camp spot down by the river they urged us to follow them and they showed us where the best spots were. In such situations we can tend to feel somewhat cautious, because we don’t know if people from the village might come for a look after we’ve set up camp – in Morocco they would – but here we were left to ourselves. All in all our interactions with Russian people have been positive.
We’ve also managed to befriend a young Russian family along the way in somewhat unusual circumstances. ‘Unusual’, because at the time we encountered Ivan, Vasalina and baby Fiodor, we were doing our best to find an isolated place in the forest where we could be fairly certain we would be alone. Our strategy for finding an out of sight spot in the forest to set up camp is to look out for a 4wd track disappearing into the trees from the road. If we want to be alone it must be a rugged 4wd track, as you’d be amazed how far a Russian driver can make a regular car go into the forest! On the evening we met new friends Ivan and Vasalina, just 50 kilometres east of Khabarovsk, we did all the right things. We took a 4wd track that led us into the forest, past tunnels with bombproof walls that led to a bunker; perhaps an old military training area. Eventually we emerged onto a clearing in the forest that was perfect for camping alone… and that’s where we met two young Russian families - evidently there were alternative routes into this particular spot!
Nevertheless, this turned out to be a fortuitous encounter. Vasalina and Ivan live in Khabarovsk, being one of the three largest cities in the Russian Far East. We gladly accepted their kind offer to take us on a guided tour of Khabarovsk. They proved to be wonderful hosts when we went spent three days there. I'll let our photos further down this blog post tell the story of our time in Khabarovsk, but suffice to say we found it to be a pleasant and clean city. Most people living in the bigger cities of the Russian Far East reside in small apartments in big blocks. We stayed in apartments rather than hotels; this gives deeper insights into the lives of ordinary Russians living out here, as well as being more practical for a family anyway.
We experienced all weathers along the way. When we first set out there seemed to be something of an unseasonable heatwave, with temperatures reaching 35 degrees one day. Since then it's cooled down again.
I was aware there was a brown bear population living in the forests of the Russian Far East, but I only learned along the way that the forests are also home to a population of about 500 tigers. Real tigers, not a pussy cat sized cousin of the species! As with bears, we’re most unlikely to encounter a tiger. They reside much deeper into the forests than we go in search of places to camp… still, it can play on your mind in the middle of a pitch-black night!
These vehicle inspection ramps are frequently found at rest areas along the roadside. The first time I drove up onto one of these sets of ramps it was mainly for the novelty of a photo, though with the Pajero up there I felt I should actually inspect underneath. An issue with the vehicle caught early can be rectified before actual damage occurs. I went up on another set of ramps a day before we reached Chita to discover that a diff oil seal has started to leak. I have spares of these in my parts box, though still it's time consuming to replace as a driveshaft has to be removed. My impression as to what I think these vehicle ramps signify is the wide ranging capabilities and self-reliance needed by people living out here. It's not mechanics using these ramps, just every day Russians who need to keep their vehicle going out here.
The few days we'll have in Chita was intended to include some catching up on various things (including this blog - 'tick'), attending to the leaking diff oil seal and getting in some city sightseeing. That plan may have to be amended because last night when shifting my Pajero to a secure car park (I was advised not to leave it unattended overnight here!) I found it didn't want to engage 4wd (and yes - the unpaved and ungraded city street to the parking garage was rough enough to warrant engaging all wheel drive!) Either it's the case that the front differential is actually engaging and the computer doesn't recognise it, or worse, we actually only have two wheel drive presently!
Needless to say, two wheel drive isn't going to cut it where we're about to go in Mongolia in the coming days. Our chosen border crossing goes straight into a remote area of Mongolia with no roads, just dirt tracks that are known to turn to serious mud if it rains, plus there are rivers to forward. We're equipped for these conditions, as long as 4wd functionality is working! So I must fix whatever has gone wrong and I must do it very quickly - our Russian visa's are nearing expiry and overstaying here is absolutely not an option. To do so is deemed a serious offence. Whilst researching for this expedition I read of a motorbike adventurer who attempted to exit Russia two days beyond his visa expiry, with the seemingly acceptable excuse that the chassis of his bike had fractured and he had to find someone to weld it. He was directed to return to the nearest big city, where he was arrested and detained.
So there we have it - I'd better get off this laptop and get out the tools!
Here's a selection of photos from our time in the Russian Far East thus far.