There's not much elevation difference between Spassk and Gornye Klyuchi, so a mostly flat day today; only minimal amounts of up and down.
Basically, long stretches of mostly-flat semi-cultivated grasslands interrupted by the occasional ridge of small forested hills, spaced between 5-10km apart.
The road - while in decent enough condition - has been mostly macadam. I've ridden on all kinds of surfaces in all kinds of countries, and if there's one thing I can say with certainty, it's that I hate riding on macadam. Especially when biking along the edge where the macadam gives way to the underlying pavement, it is bumpy and uncomfortable as all get out.
I mentioned in a comment to Ryan a few days ago that I don't much like panniers because it makes it hard to balance the bike, which in turn makes it almost impossible to ride hands-free. This, as I mentioned, is important on a long trip like this because it means that instead, I am spending 8 hours a day hunched over my handlebars bearing my weight down along my arms - bad on my back and near murder on my wrists. The bumpiness of the macadam edge exacerbates this problem, and I'm already - after only a few days - starting to feel a slight telltale tingle. Not so good!
As I was saying, mostly flat today. And in the unrelenting daytime heat, the sections, with the occasional scraggly tree remind me of nothing so much as (greener areas of) African savannah! Long flat straight road, flat grassy surroundings, hazy shimmery heat.
Has definitely been very hazy all day long. It started last night when I approached Spassk. At first I thought it might have been local industry in Spassk causing the haze. (There's a huge cement factory in the town, and it seemed rather industry-heavy.) But the haze continued and has been with me all day today. I wonder now if it's coming over the border from China? I'm riding along only 20-30 or so km from the Chinese border, to my west. If you look at this region on Google Earth, the difference between Russia and China in the border area is quite striking. The latter country sports a significantly more industrialized, more altered landscape.
Haze aside, it's also been cloudless and hot; my arm has developed its first blister or two. My original plan was to spend some time in Spassk doing a tour of the supermarkets and pharmacies, to see if I could dig up some sunscreen (and scissors, and electrical tape, and a few other things I've realized I'm lacking).
But Spassk is a few km off the highway, and when I found the Magnolia guest house right on said highway, I decided to forgo the detour, at the expense of a shopping trip.
And Spassk is also the last "large" town, really until Khabarovsk. I'm now properly entering the countryside, and away from anything resembling an urban area. So while grocery stores are still in abundance, they tend to be smaller, and less likely (so far as I've been able to tell) to have the variety of products I'm looking for.
So I'm making do in the heat. Sunburn has been less of an issue with the haze, just been drinking lots. At one point, just after having surmounted a particularly warm ridge of low hills, I was stopped by a couple of young folks in a car, curious - as are many people - to see someone out on an obviously long bike trip. Arina, Olga and Ivan. They were asking me about my trip, and on learning that I as from Canada, Arina excitedly asks if I speak French? Because so does she and really wants a chance to practice.
Ok, sure. Why not? Her French may be better than my Russian anyway. So we switch and it immediately becomes apparent that I... can't... speak French right now. It lives in the same place in my brain as Russian, and try as I might, I get the two languages hopelessly confused. I can understand it well enough, but whenever I try to say something in French, a strange mélange of half-French-half-Russian falls out of my mouth. Oh well. We bumble along, and they notice me obviously overheating, make a point of directing me to a set of springs a little way up the road where I can fill up my (by now rather empty) water bottle. "Look for a blue shelter on the right side of the road," Ivan indicates, tenting his hands to emphasize the point.
When I get to the springs, it's pretty obvious what they are anyway. There are big signs everywhere for water, several restaurants and cafes advertising natural mineral water, and a big gaggle of cars and semis strewn along the side of the highway. I fill up my bottle from the big row of taps, hop back on the bike and continue towards the town of Gornye Klyuchi ("Mountain Springs" - dead giveaway?) another 10 km up the road where I am planning to stay the night. Google has ideas about a hotel there.
I'm a km short of Gornye Klyuchi, when a DPS (police) van pulls me over to the side of the road. This may be interesting?
No issues. The officer is really friendly. Glances at my passport for a second, hands it back, asks where I'm going. "Umm... v Goryachye Klyuchi," I respond, pointing. ("Goryachye Klyuchi" - "Hot Springs")
He looks at me for a second, then clarifies: "Gornye Klyuchi?" Oh, right. That's the one. "Da! Gornye Klyuchi!" I agree. Oops.
He smiles, waves me on, and that's that. It's starting to get close to dark, and I think he just wants to make sure I'm not trying to ride at night (next town is a ways off).
The hotel Google found is down a side road and off the side of the side road, and as I wander into the remoter parts of the town where most of the roads are dirt, I'm starting to wonder. Google has only said anything about the one hotel here.
But soon enough I see a sign. Following it around the corner I come across a guesthouse even more charming than the one in Spassk, with a restaurant attached and an outside terrace with barbequeues and disco balls (seriously!) and kids playing and speakers blaring pop music. I am definitely down with this!
By the time I check in, stow the bike, have a shower and make it down to the restaurant, the outside barbequeue is pretty much done for the night. Looking at the menu, I try ordering the BBQ chicken, but the server says it's all gone. Ah well. I have some chicken cutlet that turns out to be salmon when it arrives. Not complaining! Very delicious! But I think I may have gotten over-confident about my abilities the previous night.
I also have some shchi. I have heard much about this soup in my Russian classes in Canada, as well as elsewhere. Wikipedia calls it a cabbage soup, although I had learned of it as being fish based. Either way, this one has chicken and hard-boiled eggs. So, uh? Maybe it's a regional thing. It's pretty good, but I think I prefer borshch.
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