Saturday, August 28, 2010

Driving through the Biggest Country in the World (August 12-18)

The next several days we focus on driving the many kilometers from Ulan-Ude to the final destination of our Big Trip, Vladivostok. Before the trip, I had read that the roads, especially past the city of Chita, were horrible, and we had also heard that maps are wrong and navigation is really difficult. But after talking with Sandra and Holger, I’m much more optimistic. A lot of road construction has occurred and is still happening as we drive. Unlike Mongolia, whenever a road closed due to construction, they take the time to make a decent detour.

The back page of our atlas says it all

It rains on and off pretty much each day, but since we’re in the car, it doesn’t bother us. After about 1.5 days, we reach our first big city, Chita. Here we find a restaurant with wi-fi so Stani can work on trying to arrange shipping for the car once we reach Vladivostok. After lunch I walk into the city while Stani continues working on the computer. Even though it has been just one day since we registered our visas, I know that we will have several days ahead of us where we will not be able to register, so I want to try to find a way to do it while we’re in Chita. Lonely Planet mentions that it’s sometimes possible to register at the post office, so I make this my first stop. Unfortunately I’m handed some forms, but told I cannot register on my own – I need a hotel or tourist agency to do it. After some walking around, I find a tourist agency, but they say they cannot do this for us either. I walk back and meet Stani. The lights had gone out at the restaurant for him, so he hadn’t been able to get as much done as he needed, so we find a hotel with a café & wi-fi. I ask the receptionist about a room and if they can register our visas, but she tells me they can only register us if we stay there for more than one night. This whole registration thing is really a pain! Since the hotel won’t register us, we decide to save our money and find a camping spot outside of Chita and hope we’ll be able to register somewhere else.

Before leaving Chita we stop briefly to admire a beautiful Russian Orthodox church near the train station. Then it’s back on the road again (did we ever mention that Willie Nelson’s song, “On the Road Again” is our theme song for the trip?). Just outside of the city we switch from the road M-55 to M-58. This new road will take us all the way to our next big destination, Khabarovsk. There is even a km marker at the start of M-58 reminding us that we have 2,165 km to go!

Perfectly proportioned domes of the Cathedral in Chita

Only 2,165 km to Khaborovsk!

We spend the next 3.5 days driving to Khaborovsk. The road fluctuates between fair, great and excellent. I almost feel like I could be on a road in the U.S. Along the way we try to find a place to register our visas – even asking the police in one town – but no one seems to be able to help us. We camp each night in a spot that is unique from the previous night (gravel pit campsite, shopping mall campsite, pretty swamp campsite). At gravel pit campsite, there are quite a number of mosquitoes and the sky looks like it may rain, so we decide to sleep in the car for the first time. I’m excited to get to finally test the platform, curtains and screens that Stani worked so hard on designing and making before we left on the trip. I love it and think it’s super cozy but it’s a little too short for Stani to really stretch out. Shopping mall campsite is another gravel pit but it is so large that Stani says they could build a shopping mall here.

A stretch of the excellent section on M-58

The car camping set-up

We notice that as we get closer we get to Khaborovsk the number of police speed traps and checkpoints increases. I had been bragging to Stani that whenever I drive, the police let me go through without a stop, but now this changes and I average at least one police stop per day. They’re always interested in seeing our car documents and after a brief scan, they send us on our way. I did however getting pulled over once for speeding (going 60 kph instead of 40 as we enter a village). Thankfully the police look at our documents and let us go without a fine.

In the afternoon of August 17th, we finally arrive in Khaborvosk. Located on the Amur River, this is one of the most beautiful cities in the Far East of Russia. We check into Hotel Tourist and have trouble getting our visas registered because it had been more than 3 days since we last registered. I explain that we had tried numerous times to register and after a phone call, the manager eventually agrees to register us. She says it is the law to register every three days and that in the future we must insist that people register us. She then proceeds to say she can register us through August 19th even though we are only staying there through the 18th. The logic makes no sense to me! After unpacking a bit, we walk into town passing Lenin Square and find a delicious pizza restaurant called Manhattan Pizza. We end up liking it so much that we go back there for lunch the next day. We wish they could open a chain in Ann Arbor!

Lenin square near our hotel
The next day we follow a walking tour of the city which is listed in our guidebook and see many nice things including a renovated Russian Orthodox Church called Khram Uspenya Bozhey Materi. With a bit of sadness, we leave Khaborovsk and start our last leg of the trip - the nearly 500 km drive to Vladivostok. We see a big roadside sign telling us we’re on the Moscow-Vladivostok highway. It’s a big sign for a big road in a big country!

Khram Uspenya Bozhey Materi

Big roadside sign


  1. Thanks for great write.
    i am planning a motorcycle trip Vlad to Moscow in 2011.
    Road between Khaborovsk to Chita. Is it completely paved now?
    Yun in Korea

  2. Hi Yun-Soo!

    Glad you enjoyed our blog. The road from Chita to Khabarovsk is in good shape. When we drove it there was some construction because they were just finishing making the entire way paved. We met a Japanese guy on this road who was riding his motorcycle from Germany to Japan.

    Happy Travels!
    Kirstin and Stani

  3. Love the blog, this looks like so much fun.