Let's not bury the lede. Today was a very trying day.
I woke up early, as I had been underachieving my targets by a little bit (enough to make the difference between making it across the country before my visa expires, and... not) and wanted to get an early start to make up some time. So. I woke up early, to a grey sky. At first I thought it was just the haze from yesterday, but on further inspection, it turned out to be cloudy and overcast.
I checked the weather forecast, and said forecast was for rain through most of the afternoon, clearing up by the early evening.
Okay, that might not be so bad, anyway. Some respite from the sunburniness!
Yegor was rightfully pressuring me to to some updating to do on the Russian ВКонтакте blog, so I "quickly" wrote out an update and got on my way. ("Quickly" is relative. I write much less there than I do here, but of course writing in Russian is necessarily a slow process for me, so it still takes me almost as long - it was probably a good 2 hours before I could get going.)
My goal was Luchegorsk - about 165km away. Easily done in Canada, on my road bike with lighter weight. More of a challenge here, but definitely still doable. But if I could make Luchegorsk, that would put me into Khabarovsk Thursday evening - right on schedule. I was a little concerned about my later-than-intended departure, but oh well.
I was probably only 10 minutes out of Gornye Klyuchi when the rain started. For the most part it was a constant light drizzle, with occasional heavier bursts. Not particularly miserable, but nor was it pleasant. A welcome enough change from the hot sun, but mostly "meh." Not good photography weather.
Trundling along, I was watching the kilometer posts with increasing eagerness. On either side is marked the (ascending) distance from that direction's respective starting point, and the two numbers are inexorably converging on each other...
Finally I make it! At km.384, the two numbers match and I am halfway from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk! A nice little milestone. ((Almost) literally.)
I stop, take a photo, gulp down a chocolate bar, swat 941 mosquitos, get back on the bike and push off.
And notice that now the excitement of the half-way point has passed, I am suddenly rather tired. Pushing the bike through the rain is hard work and I just don't seem to have the... oh. I look down and realize I'm riding on my first flat tyre.
Wonderful. I pull off to the side of the road, do my best to duck into some bushes, and set about making repairs. I notice that I'm right across from the next km marker. I went a full kilometer on a flat tyre. (!!!)
Roadside repairs in the rain and a cloud of mosquitos are never going to be a particularly pleasant experience. I got it over with as fast as I could, put it all back together and prayed that I hadn't missed anything in my haste.
But all seemed much better. After another 5km or so of held breath, everything seemed to be holding fine, and I could exhale.
After some time in the continuing drizzle, I was a closing in on Dalnerechensk (the first town after Gornye Klyuchi). It wasn't quite yet 4:00 and Luchegorsk was about 95km away. By focusing so intently on the halfway point, I hadn't even realized that the rain and flat tyre notwithstanding, I was making quite good time! The rain was due to stop in a little while, and with some mental calculation, I figured that if all went well, I could make it to Luchegorsk in a little over 5 hours, or about 9:00 PM. Slightly after sunset, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I could still make my schedule! I got a bit of a speed burst out of this thought, and barreled down the highway rocking out to some nice energetic music. :-p
Remember that lede I said I didn't want to bury?
The terrain was similar to yesterday: wide flat valleys, small hilly ridges separating them.
About 15km short of Dalnerechensk I came over a ridge on a nice new smooth highway. Looking ahead, I saw the highway go down and across the valley. Then the pavement stopped, and up the other side, a tangle of traffic making its way up and down what seemed to be nothing more than a slimy, slippery, muddy slope.
Well, it's not like there's any alternative. So I make it to the edge and then start picking my way up the slope. The mud is slimy, thick and clumpy and gets everywhere. Into everything. With a lighter bike, I probably would have picked it up and carried it. But this one is way too heavy, and weighted down with the saddlebags. There's no such option. I bump and jostle over every rock, mud clinging increasingly to the bike. I wince in agony with every grind of the chain, thinking of all the hours that Yegor and I put into the bike.
For a while I am hopeful that this may only be a short section, and the pavement will resume at the crest of the hill. But my heart sinks about three feet when I get to the top and see the mud stretching away, off to the horizon.
The going is slow, painfully slow. It might not have actually been that bad the previous day, with the sun having baked everything solid. A little bumpy, but no big deal. Not like I've never ridden on dirt roads before, with my road bike, even. But the day's rain has made it a mess.
I jostle my way along. The entire section is a little under 10km. It's actually just a section under (re-) construction, according to the sign at the other end, the significance of which I now appreciate. But there are no crews or equipment anywhere in sight, so uh? Maybe they decided not to work in the rain? But you'd think there would be machinery around...
The one saving grace is that the rain stops and the sun does finally come out, about halfway along.
You know what? Macadam is fine. Give me back my macadam!!!
Finally, finally, after over an hour, I get to the other end and back onto the pavement. The bike is a disaster - half the gears don't work at all, and there is mud inside everything. I have half a bottle of water with which I do my best at rinsing things off, but it's only a stopgap measure. I'm only 3-4km from Dalnerechensk, so I put it into one of the working gears and limp into town where at the first gas station I buy some rags and oil, set up camp in the parking lot behind the gas station and set about doing my best to clean everything in what is at least some evening sun.
It takes me a couple of hours, and things are still not perfect, but it's at least ridable, and I don't think I'm doing any more damage by doing so.
Clearly any hopes of making it to Luchegorsk are completely gone, so this is where it will be. What does Google say about hotels in Dalnerechensk?
I ask, and am momentarily flummoxed when it gives me a pile of hits for hotels in China. Oh, of course! The town is on the east bank of the river that forms the border! Right across the river is Hutouzhen, only a few km away.
Well, on this side of the river, there seem to be three. One appears (as best I can tell) to be more like serviced apartments. One has a single review: one star. The third has a couple of 4-5 star reviews and is quite close to where I'm sitting. So I decide to try that one.
I head over, and am a little disappointed. The hotel is rather drab, uninspiring. I'm not seeing any lights in the windows, many of which are boarded up. Through one I see what appears to be a room under renovation. I'm considering whether to head into town proper to try the other hotels when Hotel Kitty wanders out to say hello.
Hotel kitty is the friendliest cat I have ever met. A bit scraggly, but purring loudly. I can't even take a good photo because every time I try to focus, she runs up and rubs between my legs. Well. If Hotel kitty likes the place, it can't be all bad. I try the door.
It opens and the lobby is decent enough. A proprietor appears and I ask if there is a room available. She quotes me a price that is more than twice what I have paid anywhere else so far. At the same time, I see the board with the room tariffs, and note that she is quoting me the price for the "deluxe" room - the most expensive on the board. I point to some of the others and ask about them - they're not available, apparently.
I rather suspect that I'm being taken for a ride. But you know what? It's been a long day, it's late, I'm tired, I'm muddy, I'm unsure about the state of my bike, and at this point, I'd rather be taken for a ride than do any more riding myself. (Also, the super-expensive rate is still less than $50 Canadian. All things in perspective.)
So I agree. There's also a sign saying the hotel has wi-fi, so that seems a good plan. Another sign indicates that the restaurant closes in about an hour, so I hastily arrange to have the bike stowed and run in to have a shower.
It amazes me that when I went across Canada I would go days - even weeks - without a shower. (Hey, I was a teenager: don't judge!) Now, they're one of the best parts at the end of a long day. Up there with dinner!
So I have a shower, come out, head to the restaurant and see a "closed" sign on the door. I ask the proprietor. "Не работает." ("Not working.")
I also discover that while the wi-fi signal is strong enough, it doesn't connect to anything much. I can get to the router just fine, but past that to the internet at large is slow, flaky and cuts out regularly for long periods of time. Likewise my mobile phone has the weakest data connection ever. Probably using the same service.
I head out to find the nearest 24h supermarket, and along the way, take a mini-tour of the town. (My phone can pick up a decent enough signal once I make it about 3 or 4 blocks from the hotel. Sigh.) I notice a number of people around with an Asian appearance (in contrast to my time up until now when I have seen extremely few). Obviously there is some cross-border migration here. I rather suspect that Chinese businessmen probably make up a large amount of the clientele for the hotel as well. Wikipedia tells me that Dalnerechensk was a site of skirmishes in the Sino-Soviet wars during the 20th century. Interesting!
The main drag through town is the улица "50 Лет Октябрия" (50 Years of October). Revolutionary sites in abundance, although it is already getting dark, so I don't linger. At the supermarket I buy some buns, sausage and cheese for dinner. Come back to the room and make some dinner, at which point I discover the buns are filled with apricot jam. Delicious! But not the best-ever accompaniment to the cheese and sausage. Eh, I'm flexible.
The hotel room has two saving graces. First: it has a little traveller's pack with soap, shampoo, etc... and a spare toothbrush! This is actually exactly what I've been looking for as it is the perfect tool to clean the last of the mud out of the chain and gears and wheel hubs and whatnot.
The second is that it has a kettle to boil water and packets of instant coffee. (This sort of thing - while usual in some parts of the world - is decidedly less so here.) The coffee packets are "3-in-1" ... including coffee, sugar and creamer. Or rather, reading the ingredient list, a (vegan) creamer substitute. Huh. They're tasty enough anyway, so there's that.
My dinner finished, I decide that the lack of internet may be a blessing in disguise, as it will aid the process of making it out early the next morning to try to make up time. I climb into bed, and once again, crash hard.
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