Leaving Russia, but not yet entering China

Today I flew from Vladivostok to Beijing. After five months in the country, a closing of that chapter. It all went uneventfully. Even my visa registrations remained unchecked. I’ll tell you some more about that later.

On arrival in Beijing, I hit a glitch, a big one. It started when I went through immigration control and heard “your visa is not valid, please sit over there”. I had ordered this Chinese visa at the end of February. In an attempt to keep some flexibility, I had filled in some dates beforeI was actually scheduled to enter the country, e.g. if I entered with Tour D’Afrique when they entered China. Unfortunately, the problem with this is it made the visa one with a “you must enter by” date, and that date has expired. I had seen the “you must enter date” but didn’t think anything of it in enough time to sort things out at the Chinese consulate in Vladivostok.

So now, I was sitting on a chair behind immigration control while they brought over someone from Vladivostok Airlines to help sort out my options (their responsibility to help since they flew me here with an invalid visa). The helpful and patient woman spoke better english than my Russian, so we went with that. First there seemed to be two options: return to Vladivostok to sort things out or fly to the USA. There was no option to sort things out in China itself – either Beijing or Urumqi. You need to be outside the country to apply for a visa. Yikes! On further exploration, one more option appeared. It is also possible to apply for Chinese visas in Hong Kong.

I went for this latter option without knowing exactly what it entailed (since I was in no man’s land behind immigration). I have since used the internet cafe in the Beijing airport to make a Hong Kong hotel reservation and understand more about how to get a visa, while I am waiting for a flight to Hong Kong this evening. It looks a like a possibility via a company such as Forever Bright Visa Agency. Unfortunately, October 1st is a holiday so it may take a day or two. As best as possible, I will see if I can get a new Chinese 60-day L visa along with a new flight back into China to join the Tour D’Afrique trip. If not, there are a number of other possibilities to go from Hong Kong elsewhere for cycling. I’ll post any updates as comments to this string as google mail seems to be intermittent. So, a bit unexpected but I’ll be exploring Hong Kong for a few days instead of Urumqi.

Update: I’ve arrived in Hong Kong and have a hotel room with a wireless internet connection. Now, time to explore things further here.
Update2: I was able to get a new tourist visa in Hong Kong and flew on to China. My China travels will appear on the internet at my bicycle touring web site: fietstocht.com after the trip is over.

Владивосток, epilogue to the trip

On completion of a trip like this, there are always mixed emotions. It is nice to have completed the trip, and particularly a goal such as having crossed two continents on a bicycle. At the same time, you realize that this particular adventure is over and it is now time to do the next thing. It is also a time to compare how the trip went against what you expected or what you might do different if done again. It is a time to thank those who helped make the trip possible. Finally, from a trip like this often spawn the first seeds of what you might do on future trips.

Thanks: I realize that I am very fortunate to be able to do a trip like this. There are a number of people to thank for having made this possible. I am very grateful to my employer, Hewlett-Packard granted a leave of absence from work that made time available. I thank my managers for allowing it in a time of change in the tech industry. Now, I’m getting ready to get back to work!

My tenants watched over the duplex in my absence. Friends in Russia provided logistical support including storing the “backup bicycle” in Penza. My parents helped in many ways, particularly in keeping this web site in good order, paying the necessary bills, contesting property taxes and receiving/sending the various backup supplies I had sent to Colorado. All these little things from different people make a trip like this possible. For example, my brother Bert brought a new back wheel to Irkutsk, just in time as the old bike rim was breaking apart.

There are a lot of little things along the way as well, so I hope I don’t accidentally slight someone by forgetting to mention it here.

Reflextions and comparisons with expectations:
A bicycle ride across Russia had been in my plans for a while. I spent time reading other trip reports and studying the area. At the same time, you can’t anticipate everything and things don’t always turn out as expected. Following is a slightly eclectic list of reflections on different aspects of the trip:

  • Cycling alone vs. with others; On my other big trips, I cycled alone – for this one I placed a “companions wanted” notice on the Adventure Cycling web site and magazine. I’m glad I did this, and really enjoyed cycling these months across with Mickey. We weren’t always matched in speeds, but would generally meet up during the day and camp together. In a country where you knew just bits of (Russian) language, it was great to talk with a partner or solve problems together. I was also very fortunate, to find a cycling partner with the right combination of humor, patience and problem solving to make this a more enjoyable trip. In response to my “companions wanted” ad, I was contacted by approximately twenty people. I would point them to the web site and to past journals to describe the trip. Most people I didn’t hear from again, and a few I heard more than twice. Mickey was one of the later to reply, but quickly organized things and set it up for travels. I also enjoyed the time Bert was cycling with us and extra logistical help he gave during the start of the particularly tough spots in the gravel road including the SMS/cell phone solution to almost daily location updates and his better Russian backup contacts and language skills. Too bad he wasn’t there for more of the trip.
  • Weather; We were fortunate with weather. Most of the bad weather happened on the “edges” with headwinds, rain or snow on the approach to St Petersburg or in the last week to Vladivostok (well not snow yet here). In between, it is surprising how much good weather we had during months of May, June, July and August. Also, surprising that if we had winds, they were more likely tailwinds than headwinds.
  • Insects; I expected there to be many insects. However, it still surprised me how consistently we camped with insects day after day after day, during the stretch from the Urals to close to Lake Baikal. I had anticipated they might let up occasionally more than they did. As a result, for almost two months the pattern was to duck into the tent as soon as we arrived at camp. A trip like this is not for the claustrophobic.
  • Other animals; I expected to see other animals such as deer, smaller mammals like weasels and reptiles – either explicitly on the road or as road kill. I was surprised at how few of these we saw on the trip. It was only really in the natural history museums that I saw some of the fauna of the area.
  • Plants and landscapes; There are some long stretches of taiga forests that are very homogeneous in a ride across Russia. I expected some of this (e.g. from people who have taken the train and remarked at days of sameness) and was even accustomed to some of it in previous rides such as around Australia. However, there was at least as much homogeneity in plants and landscapes between the Urals and Baikal as I expected. It was after Baikal that I saw some more of the variety such as steppes, valleys, flat parts, hills and others that I expected.
  • Gravel road; While I knew there would be 1600+ km of gravel road, it still turned out to be more difficult than I expected. Perhaps my expectations were informally set based on gravel roads in Alaska or Northern Canada. On this gravel road, there were two key differences that made things just a bit more difficult (1) traffic – there was a steady stream of imported Japanese cars raising dust when it was dry, splattering mud when it was wet and frequently with drivers who just kept wanting to know where you were from (2) surface treatments seemed to be primarily spreading of coarse rocks and loose gravel. In northern Canada there would sometimes be oiling of the roads or other treatment that would make things smooth. In contrast, this gravel road continued to be rough.My expectations for the gravel road had been “Alaska Highway in 1960” (before I was born :-)). I think this wouldn’t be quite right, with the larger traffic volume and the larger amount of grading. Fortunately, each year the amount of gravel road left will decrease and the construction zones will be completed. This won’t be on a four year timetable that Putin set expectations for in 2004, but this road will become easier to cycle each year.
  • Hitchhiking; On a ride across Eurasia, there of course a strong feeling to cycle every single kilometer, and hitchhiking is taboo. Otherwise what is the point? There is a slippery slope where one can just as well ride the train for the entire distance. It was with some trepidation that we ended up hitchhiking. On reflection, hitching a ride was the right thing to do, particularly for the part we skipped (263km). Other than the “we rode every kilometer” and the 4 or 5 days of tough slogging we really didn’t miss much by hitchhiking. It helped our spirits and progress at a particularly difficult part of the ride and I would hitchhike again in the same circumstances.  As a bonus, we got a view of how truck drivers saw the road.
  • Asphalt roads; Russia has some particularly busy asphalt roads. Once we passed the Urals, most were in better condition than I expected. Prior to the Urals, we had some particularly difficult roads (M7 is notorious but there were others) that were narrow, busy and in very poor condition. The trick to watch in the future is both to investigate roads as best you can – but also have enough flexibility to change plans to alternate roads if the ones you are on bad. It is also interesting that once we left the “standard routes” for more secondary roads, we tended to have roads that went through rather than around villages, we tended to have more interactions with locals and we tended to get more unique experiences such as cycling with tanks or having tea with railroad workers.
  • Bureaucracy; Prior to cycling Russia, I expected occasional hassles with police including roadblocks, checking of paperwork and similar encounters cycling. Somehow the stereotype of a Russian police state was still in my mind. It simply didn’t happen this way. There are occasional road checkpoints on the road. These seem to be oriented towards inter-oblast truck traffic similar to the “weigh stations” in the US. While there were five or six times agents at these blocks would ask me to stop, it was always a very friendly stop with a “where are you from” question. I never had to show any documents or otherwise justify where I wanted to go. The one spot we seemed to have occasional bureaucracy was in finding a hotel in the big cities. Each would have their particular system and rules for things such as registration (with official stamps) and these weren’t always the same. It was occasionally a hassle to be able to bring bicycles inside.
  • Where are you from? By far, this was the most common question. My answer was Holland (Галландия) rather than USA, unless I was showing my passport. The reason was primarily that there seem to be associations on TV, in media and others with US (at least as much as Americans might have with “Russia” if a large amount of the films on TV depicted a particular representation of Russia). Most of those perceptions are positive, but it was more likely to have the occasional bad perception than a country where the most prominent thing mentioned was the Ajax football team.
  • Russian People, crime and annoyances; My overwhelming perception of Russian people towards us as touring cyclists was “curious”, “cautious”, “friendly” and “generous”. Curiosity would come with the where are you from and the friendly/generous would come from the things offered to us or the general admiration I sensed of someone crossing Russia on a bicycle. On rare occasions, people would avoid us or specifically walk away to avoid us. We were sometimes asked if we encountered “bad people” or ones who might want to hurt us or steal things. This was much less than one would expect from how often the question was asked. Mickey did have some youths steal a bicycle pump. I had something (a dog?) take a food sack. The largest annoyance we had here was from public drunkenness. It seemed, particularly on weekends that we would run across people who had too much to drink, yet still wanted to befriend (read “annoy”, “pester”) these foreigner and also viewed themselves as friendly rather than boorish. Mostly we worked to avoid these public drunks as best we could. As a woman cyclist, Mickey would also relate that treatment of women was also different, particularly in some cases where I wasn’t around. There seem to be some more rigid communication patterns (e.g. women with women and men with men) than in Western Europe or USA
  • Cities vs. Villages; Life in the big cities is quite a bit different than the small villages. Our cycling patterns were also different with tent camping vs. hotels and the presence of many shops vs. just a small shop or two. We developed a pattern of several days of riding to reach the next big city and taking a rest day there to recuperate before repeating the pattern.
  • I was surprised at how homogeneous these cities were and how life in say Novosibirsk might be more similar than Ekaterinburg than in villages 100km from either of these cities. I was also surprised at how little ethnic mix we saw before Ulan-Ude (e.g. small Chinese sections in Irkutsk or Krasnoyarsk). If there is a division amongst Russia – it seems to be more between big city and small village than amongst parts of the country we saw.

Mike’s Recommendations for Russia Travel
Several of the recommendations are listed amongst the expectations above. Russia is definitely an intriguing country that I would recommend others visit. A somewhat eclectic list of recommendations for Russia travel, oriented not just at cyclists (I’m still adding to this list):

  • Go beyond Moscow/St Petersburg, there is a lot more of Russia out there
  • Learn a little Russian language, if only Cyrillic alphabet, it helps in reading signs.
  • If traveling by train, make a stop in a smaller city rather than just the largest ones.  For example, our stay in Svobodny or Архара was quite different from the big cities.
  • Stay long enough to have interactions with locals
  • Cyclists: the challenge with a cross-Russia trip will be more mental than physical. It is not particularly tough terrain, though there is a lot of it and you’ll need to keep going amidst some of the items listed above

What is next?
While this trip is complete, my vacation from work is not yet finished. I am following this trip with a bicycle ride with Tour D’Afrique on a 3600km section of their Silk Route ride across China. Plan is to meet the group in Turpan the first week of October and ride through to Beijing by middle of November. Prior to that, I’ll probably tinker and tune some small things on the web site, though I don’t expect to report my China cycling on the web until after I return to the USA.  It will show up on fietstocht.com rather than here.

I have created a 17-minute slideshow that runs as a Windows executable (64mb, 200 slides). I have posted a copy from the links section of this website.

I expect the Silk Route tour to be a different type of ride. The daily average distance is further (~110km+) at the same time the daylight hours are shrinking. The weather is getting colder.  Fortunately, it is a supported ride with our gear being carried. So, I expect this to be a physically challenging ride but more of a group setting. I hope I’ll be quick enough to ride daily distances before dark.

After the Silk Route ride, I expect I’ll be ready to come home and get back to work in Colorado. A trip like this is always refreshing as a break but I’m also eager to get back to something new at work in a different setting. I also plan to organize this web site a bit more including creating a slide show or other multi-media reports of the trip. I don’t expect to “write a book” from this trip at least since that is a different type of work to do that well – and instead concentrate on web medium including this blog.

Coming back from a trip like this (and the China trip that follows), is always a dangerous time to start scheming and dreaming of the next big adventure. This BikeRussia trip is the third long (3+ month) bicycle trip I’ve taken. I don’t expect it is the last long trip and expect to start a new cycle or dreaming and scheming of another big trip years down the road. However, I also expect the next several years I will instead do more shorter one or two week cycle trips closer to home.

Closing Thank You
Thanks to those of you who have read along with this journal, including sending occasional words of encouragement or helpful pointers. Getting a sense of Russia while also accomplishing a goal of cycling across Eurasia has been a highlight of this trip. I hope I’ve inspired some of you to travel or to ride a bicycle, if only for a shorter trip. In any case, be mindful if you see a touring cyclist out there on the road. It could be someone like me.

Владивосток, end of the trip

Today we cycled into Владивосток to complete the trip. Hooray, we’ve made it all the way to Владивосток! It was a busy ride not for the faint-hearted. Владивосток is located on the end of a natural peninsula. There appear to be two roads down the peninsula with the one we took being the most popular.

Almost all the road was two lanes highway with no shoulder and heavy traffic. The edge of the shoulder was sometimes rough, and hence one needed to be constantly on alert, with potholes ahead, potential traffic behind and a constant rush of traffic alongside. The other thing that made for a challenging ride was steady hills to climb up and over.

At 9km we climbed a hill and saw our first Владивосток city limits sign. We stopped for the obligatory photographs. Just beyond was a larger stone monument with both a natural ship and also a big stone Владивосток in letters. Time for a few more photos. After this, steady the nerves for a ride along the busy road. After 25km or so, the city became more built up, and hence bus stops (with buses pulling in and out), side streets and more cross traffic. At 32km, we decided to get off and walk some of the last bits. We climbed up over a hill and then descended down to the main square with monument to Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East. We were in middle of downtown Владивосток. Hooray, again!

We then walked some nearby streets to find a hotel and found one up on nearby hill. A little more expensive, but at least they had room. We’ve got some time now to run some errands and get everything ready for the next adventures. I also expect to write an epilogue with overall perceptions of Russia and what was surprising and went as expected. Below are a few of the final photos of the ride across Eurasia (currently having problem loading photos).

Today is also Mickey’s birthday! We could have an extra celebration on the main square for her birthday as well as a restaurant celebration in the evening. We even bought Russian Champaign, though this has to chill first.

36km today, 12749km across Eurasia [Photo: 303, 304, 311, 313, 318, 777]

Угловое, little motel by the tracks

We’re getting closer, today we briefly saw a bay that is part of the Pacific Ocean. It was an easier ride today, though I was somehow noticing that my back was hurting from yesterday. It was a damp mist when I packed up the tent and left the field. There was already a moderate amount of traffic as we cycled across some low hills and then into Михайловка. The road was bumpy which I noticed on my back.

We crossed into Уссурийск at 26km, slightly earlier than I expected. At least the streets became smoother. They also became double lanes of traffic mostly from here through the end of the day. It was a busy city, though traffic was also slower. We stopped briefly at 36km at buy some bread at a store. After this we crossed a river and started up a hill. There was a large auto market here. My guess is this is where some of those Japanese cars are bought and sold. The road crossed into the woods and across some gentle hills. Photo below shows a typical meal we might buy at one of these cafes, such as we did at 49km.

After this it became warmer and we actually even saw the sun come out. The road stayed two lanes each way as it went in a bypass around Раздольное. On the other end at 72km was a stop in Кипарисово. After this point, the road stayed consistently busy two lanes. We could cycle in the right lane, and traffic would move over though it took some concentration. There were some gentle hills to cross over. We were wondering where we might first find water and then where we might find a place quiet enough to camp when we noticed a little motel over by the tracks. It looked like a good place to stay and the price was right. Hence, we’ve found ourselves in this little motel. If all goes well, tomorrow should arrive in Vladivostok.

102km today, 12713km across Eurasia [Photo: 299, 301, 302]

Михайловка – 15km, easy first half and tough second half

We had a fun and easy first half ride today. The second half was one of the toughest rides we’ve had on asphalt. My back was sore this morning, which didn’t help. Perhaps pumping up the tire harder caused more jolts to the back. Overcast but dry as I left our secluded campsite. I came to a junction in 1km and then back to the main road at 6km. From here the road was both wider and busier as it skirted Спасск-Далний. This is a city of 50,000 but we bypassed most of it. It was otherwise peaceful riding to the first cafe at Малые Ключи at 31km.

After breakfast we saw more vendors out with fruits and vegetables. We particularly saw onions woven into long chains. We stopped in Дмитриевка at 40km to buy and eat apples. At least they no longer think of Владивосток as far. We stopped again at Чернигорка at 49km at a store

After this, the day became more difficult. The wind picked up. It started to sprinkle and then rain. Even the gentle hills became tougher. I could feel my knee and my back hurt more. The road also became much busier. There were lines of cars coming the other way, and sometimes they were not patient enough to wait (except close to where the police were watching). It was a slog to reach Сибирцево at 69km. Here was another drunk (pictured below) who had bothered Mickey for a bit before trying to ride away on his bicycle. He made it perhaps 100 meters before passing out beside the road.

We made a cafe stop at 72km on a hill before cycling to Ляличи at 86km. Here we decided to continue for a bit. We had a brief period of road construction for 2km before finally finding a gas station a little further to get water. Fortunately, we were able to camp in a muddy field not much further. The road continues to be busy with stream of cars driving past our field.

111km today, 12611km across Eurasia [Photo: 295, 297, 298]

Буссевка, watermelon season

It is harvest time and there are many stands along the way with produce: tomatoes, peppers, corn and watermelons. Today we especially saw and tasted fresh watermelon.

It was nice to see the sunrise after several overcast mornings. The wind was also less today. I pumped up my rear tire and cycled past a mixture of woods and open fields. At 13km was Глазовка where some dogs decided to give chase for a few kilometers as I climbed the hill. I hope they made it home. At 22km we crossed the wide Уссури river and the village of Горные Ключи. There were several cafes in the next area and we found a nice one at 29km for a second breakfast.

At little further at 38km we came to the small town of Кировский. It was a nice walk to the center of town to find a store. Along the way, we passed a park with obligatory Lenin statue. Students were busy cleaning the park including the memorial of a tank. People looked at us as strangers, and a few were bold enough to ask the “where are you from” questions. This was a fun little town, which I would recommend a visit.

After Кировский the road passed through countryside without villages other than Руновка at 56km. There were people here and elsewhere with produce for sale along the road. We stopped for a brief lunch along the road. At 85km we climbed a hill for turnoff to Свиягино where there were many stands. A few kilometers further Mickey had found a good stand and had gotten some watermelon from two friendly young women. They told us of bad roads ahead. We cycled another 13km of which 5km was gravel, but then were able to take a side road that passed through Буссевка and camped just past the village.

110km today, 12500km across Eurasia [Photo: 285, 290, 292, 293]

Лесное, headwinds bring sunshine

It rained overnight and was misty this morning. Fortunately we had winds to blow out the clouds. Unfortunately, those winds were from the south west, so we had headwinds all day. The terrain had gentle ups and down with occasional trees.

The mosquitoes knew to find me, so I quickly broke camp and was on the road. The village of Знаменка was celebrating 100 years this year. A few people were already out putting their produce along the road for sale. It was quiet riding through the woods that brought me to a cafe at 29km.a little before Дальнереченск. We passed along the city itself at 40km. We also came across a village of Аэропорт which curious enough didn’t seem to have anything to do with an airport.

At 56km was Филино which looked mostly like a military base. At 67km there were suddenly gravel roads for a few kilometers as we went through a road construction area. I even walked past the worst pot holes. I was getting hungry but we didn’t find a store until Ружино at 89km. A little further at 96km was turnoff to Лесозаводск and a cafe. We walked into the village of Лесное to get water and then camped some kilometers later in an open field.

104km today, 12390km across Eurasia [Photo: 281, 282]

Пожарский, one more oblast

Twenty-one oblasts cycled and one more to go! (Technically speaking, some are republics, some are krais, etc). Fortunately, it stayed dry today, we even had brief periods of sun. There were more gentle hills to climb, so a tough but otherwise good day.

Last night was wet and the floor of the tent was damp when I packed it in. I got up around sunrise but that keeps getting later now. I cycled mostly through woods to reach Бикин and a cafe at 15km. There was even a hotel here. This town was spread out and had several military bases. We’re noticing more bases in general as we pass very close to the Chinese border. Also noticing more police.

After Бикин it seemed like the road was both uphill and upwind. It was a bit of a slow slog, but near top of one of these hills at 40km was both the oblast boundary and a cafe.
There were one or two more uphills after this and then some good downhills. Closer to 50km the road became more flat, open and in the wind. We cycled through a short stretch of woods before reaching Лучегорск at 69km. Locals were again curious, though one of the young men thought Amsterdam was in America before he was corrected by his colleagues. They do generally seem to have heard of Amsterdam and the Netherlands here (particularly the Ajax football team). I tend to say “Holland” rather than “USA” since there are fewer connotations (good or bad) in peoples minds.

From Лучегорск it was tough cycling as the road was flat, open and directly in the wind. I slowly watched the kilometers tick down to reach Пожарский at 100km. A girl came to ask us the standard questions, so we asked her where to find a pump house. We filled up there and then cycled a little further before finding a place to camp. Earlier this summer we would find the trees for shade, but now we find the sunny spots to dry the tents.

109km today, 12286km across Eurasia [Photo: 278, 279]

Бойцово, Amur tigers need waterproof coats

We’ve been passing through temperate rainforest and can see why it gets its name. Today started overcast and dry but switched to drizzle and then to a steady rain. Rumor has it there is a cyclone in the area pumping in moisture. This area is supposedly home to the Amur Tiger, there are just a few hundred left.

I was quick to break camp as the mosquitoes were fierce. I was on the road and on to Вяземский at 20km for a cafe stop. My right knee decided to hurt some, not sure why it is bothering me now. My pedal also makes clicking noises so perhaps these are related. We came across many hills today and so that also took some extra effort. Mickey caught up in the cafe and we headed from here down the road. There were several small villages separated by dense woods. The road was sometime narrow though traffic was moderate. We stopped for lunch 10km past Котиково at 51km. From here several more hills and a stretch of new asphalt brought us to Лермонтовка at 79km. We bought a few more things at the store here.

After this it started to rain. Several hills brought us to Бойцово at 99km. We regrouped in the bus shelter before going to the village to look for water. The second house had a geologist and his friends. We had excellent hospitality here, not just water but also warm soup and good conversation. Alas, I couldn’t help them with their computer problem (windows crashed when booting up). It kept raining. They offered us a place to stay but we decided to cycle just a bit further and pitch tents under the trees. Hopefully the rain will stop tomorrow, though our geologist reported even more rain near Владивосток and a cyclone in the area.

101km today, 12177km across Eurasia [Photo: 274, 276]