No Time for Stalin’

Welcome once more to the writings of a compulsive road-trip enthusiast, from my second expedition in as many years. The first was a jaunt across the North American continent, through forty-eight U.S states and four Canadian provinces. It was an unforgettable 115-day voyage that inspired my girlfriend and I to attempt not to strangle each other once more on an even more ambitious trip.

We’re going on another three-month escapade, this time from her doorstep in South Korea to mine in the United Kingdom. Once again, we will be living in our vehicle – an old Hyundai SUV – and only sleeping in hostels when our visas require us to do so, or when our torsos smell so unbearable that we start attracting the local wildlife.

This blog of this journey will be slightly shorter and include more photos than my last as I must save as much battery on my laptop as possible. Actually, I just don’t want to spend as much time writing as I did last time, there’s just too much to do in Siberia. Eventually, I will attempt to write a book about our adventure, that will be somewhat more detailed. So, thank you in advance for reading, I hope you find it mildly interesting!

Day 1 – Donghae, South Korea to Vladivostock, Russia

With a heavy heart, on Sunday the 16th of July, 2017, we left the shores of South Korea to start our journey. I have been teaching little kids English in Korea for a little over one year. I say ‘teaching’, it was more an exercise in stopping Kindergarteners pooing themselves or punching each other in the face, neither of which I was very good at. If they picked up an English word or two over the course of the year then that’s a win. Anyway, there is a hell of a lot that I will miss about the country, they have got a lot more things right than wrong, and I’m sure I will return.

Anyway, we drove Toby (our newly christened vehicle) onto the ferry and found our cabin. Upgraded two-classes for no good reason, I can only assume they felt sorry for me being the only person not from Korea or Russia on the ship, and we were on our way. The twenty-six-hour crossing circumnavigates North Korean waters, carefully dodging the numerous missiles Kim Jong Un tests every Sunday in this sea. Night time entertainment included traditional Korean dance and song on the top deck, a quite surreal sight on a ship in the middle of the ocean, not too far from the North Korean coast.

Day 2 – Vladivostok, Russia

The crossing was extremely calm and I don’t believe any missiles struck during the night. The two impressive bridges that Vladivostok is famous for, almost the only things it’s famous for, were on the horizon basking in beautiful sunshine. That lasted until we landed at the dock and the heaven’s opened, and they have remained open all day.  With the car stuck in Russian customs, we have a couple of nights in a hostel (without functioning water) in Vladivostok to enjoy. Actually, it’s nicer than it sounds. Vladivostok has something that resembles a beach, a pier, and is much nicer to walk around than I imagined, it’s sort of like a Soviet Brighton.

Day 3 – Vladivostok, Russia

Yugyeong, being the ‘owner’ of the car, had to be at the customs office early, and spent most of the day there. So, I had the entire day to explore Vladivostok through the murk on my own, it didn’t take very long. It’s a small city, and by the time I had photographed their famous bridges and numerous war memorials I was out of options. It was time to put my Russian to the test. Combined, Yugyeong and I know two Russian words: “Hello” and “Thank You”, and it turns out that is all you need to buy Russian SIM cards and order food at a restaurant. Both of which had extremely helpful and willing staff. After finally picking up Toby, we could start mentally preparing for our ordeal in the morn.

Day 4 – Vladivostok, Russia to Salskoe, Russia

Another grey and stormy day, but excitement prevailed as we were able to drive the car on Russian soil for the first time. It is quite different from Korea. The drivers are far more patient, and I get the impression that they wouldn’t drive over their grandmothers if it meant getting to their destination faster, in Korea I was not so sure.

As we left Vladivostok behind, I was pleasantly surprised with the road we were taking North to Khabarovsk. I’m not sure what I had envisaged in my head but a lush green countryside, similar to that of Wales, was certainly not it. The verdant hills reminded me of where we were headed, as did the constant rain we have endured for four days. Speaking of home, we are actually still heading further away from it, North-North-East, and will do for another day or so. As we are not able to drive through China (a story for another time) we must take an immense detour around it. Look at a world map and you will see what I mean.

Somewhere on the way to Khabarovsk we pulled over by the side of the road, and shaved my hair off. One of the lessons I learned from our last trip is that hair is very difficult to look after when living in car, and so it will be far easier without any. I’m not sure if Yugyeong will take the same view as me and shave hers off as well, time will tell. After another nice Russian dinner where we had no idea what we were ordering (still can’t cook our own food as we forgot to buy gas), we find ourselves at a basic kind of truck stop, hiding in the corner by a swamp. Another 400km to Khabarovsk tomorrow.

Day 5 – Salskoe, Russia to Khabarovsk, Russia

Our first sleep in the car was actually a rather pleasant one. The temperature remained around 15 degrees all night, which is perfect for car-camping. What was not perfect was the local W.C. We are quickly discovering that ‘toilets’ in the Russian countryside are the worst we have ever set foot in. They consist of a small wooden shack, which may or may not have a door, and a hole in the ground. Whilst we have used many decent long-drops, the Russian ones always have a large swarm of portly dung flies living inside them, whilst it is impossible not to step in the faeces which is smeared all over the floor (and sometimes walls). The smell alone is enough to make one recoil in revulsion!

Recoil we did and continued on the road North to Khabarovsk. The 400km went by quickly today, as the favourable roads and weather aided our speed. Khabarovsk, a place I had never heard of before this trip, is actually much nicer than Vladivostok. The Amur river, which runs alongside the city and separates it from China, has its own beach and delightful promenade. The city also has several old churches, which are the most impressive structures we have seen on our trip to date – just beating this morning’s lavatory.

With night time drawing in, we had to leave the city in order to find somewhere to cook (we finally have gas for our stove) and to crash. For the first time in five days we were heading West, following the sunset in the general direction home. Our satisfaction quickly waned as we saw a sign to our next sizeable destination: 2,227km to Chita. Shita!

Day 6 – Khabarovsk, Russia to Vasilyevka, Russia

We decided to split up our marathon trip to Chita over four days, today being the first. Apart from the odd blue church, there isn’t much to see in this part of the world. Rolling hill after rolling hill, interspersed with villages that look a little like Hobbiton from The Lord of the Rings. It’s all very pleasant, if a little monotonous, and I think we have at least another few days of it. It’s nothing like what either of us thought this part of the trip would look like. I was expecting more heavy industry and signs of the Soviet past but they are few and far between. After 500km, and with the front of our vehicle looking like the busiest insect mortuary in Russia, we reached a gas station in the middle of nowhere and set up the stove. Having just discovered that we unknowingly passed through a time zone earlier in the day, we now have an extra hour to enjoy another attractive Russian sunset.

Day 7 – Vasilyevka, Russia to Oldoy, Russia

The Hobbiton villages have long since disappeared and the odd blue churches are no more; there is now NOTHING to see on this long leg of our journey. I find the lack of anything remarkable over this vast distance, remarkable unto itself. We drove for almost 600km today and there was zero to distract oneself from the monotony of the road – I’m starting to see why driving to Europe is not more popular. We passed the halfway mark to Chita (still another two days driving to get there) and took an uninteresting detour to a haggard town a few miles off the main road, getting some fascinated looks from the locals in the process. We set up camp early and, after applying lotion to our hundred or so mosquito bites, played a few board games in the car to keep us entertained.

We knew that the first few days of our journey would include a lot of driving and not much else, and we were not wrong! That said, we are so happy to be back outdoors and experiencing the randomness and intrigue of a new country. We can almost read the Cyrillic alphabet, although have no idea how to use it, and have met many interesting and curious characters in our first week. Russia has been very good to us so far and we are hoping that the road will remain clear to Lake Baikal on Wednesday, before hopefully crossing into Mongolia on the weekend. Guaranteed more interest next week – please for the love of god!

Distance Travelled: 2,297km

J

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