Vladivostok to Lake Khanka
It was a beautiful sunny day and I wondered what all this Siberian ‘extreme weather’ fuss was about. Having said that, we weren’t actually in ‘Geographical Siberia’ yet (there are several definitions) and it was going to get colder the further inland from the coast we went.
It was almost 800 km to the next major city called Khabarovsk, and on the map about a third of the way up was a large lake called Lake Khanka. I ‘googled it’ and saw it had some nice sandy beaches, ideal for camping. As we were starting late (after watching the Vladivostok Victory Parade), I thought it would make sense to make our way to the lake (only a short detour from the main road) and camp there for the night.
Geoff hates camping, and I love it, but there was bound to be a hotel nearby for him to stay in, and I thought we could meet up again in the morning.
So off we rode into the sunshine, on a good surfaced road, and thought how easy and beautiful it all was. The open countryside stretched out before us like a welcoming friend – an eye catching mixture of grassland and birch forests.
We got to the lake turn-off after a couple of hours and stopped at a small grocery to pick up some camp dinner, and beer of course. It seemed we were quite the object of attention in this little town! (I did notice their eyes weren’t painted on 😉 )
There was only one tiny road showing on my Sat Nav (OSM maps) that led to the lake, so we followed it through some flat back country roads. After a while it led to a rocky, narrow causeway crossing a series of waterways, which was good fun to ride down.
There weren’t many people around, except for a few fishermen, as we bumped up and down along the track heading for the lake at the bottom, with beautiful water views either side.
Geoff was bit slower than me due to the smaller KLR, and so I rode on ahead to the end of the causeway to scope out any potential places to camp.
At the end the lake opened up in front of me – a peaceful and relaxing place, but unfortunately it was all wet marshland and no sandy beaches. I guessed the sandy beaches must be on the west coast of the lake, but that was too far out of the way for us to travel to.
I relaxed on the lake shore for a bit and chatted to a couple of interested fishermen (in sign language). Geoff was taking some time so I called him (he had also bought a local SIM), and he had broken down. He had been having problems with his bike earlier, and so I shot back to see if I could help.
When I arrived Geoff was on the side of the causeway with a local Russian who had kindly stopped to try and help. His bike started OK, but would cut out as soon as it was put into gear. It appeared to be an electrical fault, and Geoff had read that a common problem with the KLR is a temperamental side-stand safety cut-off switch. We tested this theory out with a length of wire to bridge the cut-off switch, and it worked, so we cut the wire and rejoined it, bypassing the switch altogether.
It was now late afternoon, so we shot off back to the main highway to look for somewhere else to camp. It was a beautiful, warm evening, and Geoff had decided to suspend his dislike of camping for one night to give it another go. I think he was pleased he did, because we found a wonderful spot off the main road down a track.
Once the tents were set up, I got the stove on and cooked us both up a delicious one-pot meal of pasta & chicken in a couple of weird sauces I had thought was something else. We ate it with fresh bread and drank cold beer as the sun went down. Life was good!
Lake Khanka to Khabarovsk
We got to bed early, and I slept very well, rising in time to see a spectacular sunrise.
Geoff also said he’d had a good night’s sleep, and he may now be a reformed non-camper!
As we were packing up a man drove up the track in his jeep with 2 huge dogs in the back, which looked like Afghan Hounds. We smiled and said ‘good morning’ in our best Russian, and he got out for a chat. I thought he was probably the land owner, but he didn’t seem to mind that we had camped.
After a while the man then drove away but then returned a few minutes later with a box of candy and mosquito spray for us – how nice!
Actually we were lucky with the mosquitoes; I’d noticed a couple biting me at the lake, but apart from that, I hadn’t seen or felt any. I’m told in later summer months when the rains start they are a real nuisance, and can eat a man alive through chainmail.
We set off again on a straight run to Khabarovsk, and again the weather was hot and sunny. Intermittently the road would turn to an un-surfaced mix of dirt, stones, gravel and sand, but as it was dry, it wasn’t a problem, although you had to remain alert to dodge some huge pot-holes.
We made great time, cruising at between 100-140 km/h (the speed limit is 90 to 100 km/h outside built-up areas), admiring the vast, green landscape that seemed to stretch on forever. Some of the roads were particularly beautiful, lined with Siberian Silver Birch trees as far as the eye could see.
I got into the habit of shooting off ahead on my Tiger and stopping for photos while Geoff caught up. Occasionally I’d also take a quick nap!
We took our time and stopped for coffee breaks and a nice lunch of local meat-filled pastries at a small garage. I had one which looked like a pizza, but actually had a burger in the middle – what a great idea!
We arrived in Khabarovsk around 4pm, filled up with fuel (92 benzine) ready for the trip out, and set about looking for digs. I’d seen a great looking cheap hostel on ‘booking.com’ and we went to have a look. It was in a huge apartment complex with no signs, and would have been impossible to find had I not asked a local couple who kindly called the phone number for me to get directions.
Geoff went in to take a look while I looked after the bikes, and came back looking not impressed, so we executed Plan B and shot off to look at another one.
It was a good decision, because the 2nd one was much better, and we met a lovely local Russian guy called Tim who (once we’d booked in) took us for a drink at the bar next door.
Then the fun started!
Just as we were about to enter the bar, I got stopped by a crazy looking local girl who kept trying to pull me off to the side to show me something. I could tell Tim was humouring her, although he didn’t look too impressed. However, we all ended up following her into a pet shop round the corner, where she produced a huge iguana lizard to show us. Lovely!
From then on, she attached herself to me and I couldn’t shake her off – but she was harmless (I hoped!), and apart from being crazy at least recognised the fact I was beautiful, which she kept telling me again and again, while trying to stroke my bald head. After all, she wasn’t made of wood I suppose 😉 This is something I have had to get used to over the years, of course. One question I have never been able to answer is: are women crazy before they meet me, or do I make them crazy?
We bought some beers and some traditional ‘beer snacks’ of salted fish, and sat around a table for a chat. Tim could speak English fairly well and was a really interesting guy – an ex-military bomber pilot.
Crazy girl’s friend was in the bar and was half-way through a bottle of vodka. She kept passing out on the table, intermittently waking up to shout out a toast and take another swig. They both joined us and made the evening entertaining at least.
Luckily I had an escape plan: I’d arranged to meet my own personal tour-guide, Jenya, who I’d met on a social travel website I occasionally use, and she had volunteered to show me around the city.
There’s no better way to see a new city than to be shown around by a local, and Jenya took me to see all the points of interests including Lenin Square and the Transfiguration Cathedral (completed in 2004) down by the Amur River.
The Amur River is called the Black River in Chinese and marks the dividing line between Russia and China for much of its path. Although it wasn’t quite black, it didn’t look especially inviting for a swim. Jenya said it was because it was joined by a Chinese river further upstream, which brought with it lots of pollution. Heavy rainfall caused the river to flood last year (2013) and it rose 8 metres (26 ft), flooding many parts of the city.
Jenya was 27 and already an Account Manager for a major Russian Bank – destined to be a high flyer. She spoke flawless English and was interested in meeting new people and liked showing them around her city. She was the perfect hostess.
We ended up in a Maltese restaurant for dinner, of all places, which was delicious, and then she took me on a tour of Khabarovsk’s bars and clubs.
We went to the Harley Davidson Cabaret Saloon and were enjoying frozen margaritas when my nostrils started burning. I looked around and saw people choking, so I told Jenya not to breath and rushed her outside with everyone else in a heaving crowd. I have no clue what gas it was that someone had let off – maybe CS or Pepper Spray, but I didn’t see anyone’s eyes watering. Someone obviously didn’t like that bar though.
Funnily enough I met a Nigerian guy outside who worked at the club. He was from Lagos, where I have worked in the past, and it was good to chat about things there for a while (he spoke excellent English, of course, as English is the official language of Nigeria).
I suddenly realised I hadn’t seen any black people in Russia so far, and so asked him what it was like. Unfortunately it seems many black Russians are treated with curiosity, at best, and open hostility, at worst.
We didn’t fancy going back into the gas chamber, so Jenya and I decided to join 2 other girls in a taxi to another club, and continued to dance the night away with the help a few more margaritas.
Khabarovsk – The Long Weekend
As Geoff was on a tight schedule to meet his wife in Paris, he got up early and left the next morning. He was riding directly west and south to Mongolia, whereas I wanted to head north to Lake Baikal first and spend a good week around there. It was nice to have travelled with someone for a couple of days though, although I never do get tired of laughing at my own jokes.
To clear my sore head I went for a run down Amurski Boulevard, a nice green avenue running all the way through the city and down to the river embankment at the bottom.
Later that day Jenya took me for a bike ride along the river embankment, which only last year was totally underwater. It was nice to spend an afternoon on a push-bike rather than on my motorbike, and I enjoyed the much slower pace (for a while).
On the embankment there is a small fun-fair with rides, games and fast-food, mostly for kids, but it was fun to hang about there and grab some dinner and a drink.
Khabarovsk was a nice city and I spent 3 days there in all. Then it was time to move on west, and I put my finger on the map and found a city called Belogorsk 660 km away that I thought looked doable in one day.
Then it started to rain.