Russia: the beginning

We left Vladivostok pretty late, around 5pm after spending the morning fixing Kim’s bike. Our target for the day was a campsite waypoint I had about 200km north, on the shores of a lake. Our plan was to take advantage of the extended daylght – sunset is around 10pm – and make a few km before dark.

After about 30 minutes riding the lovely sunshine turned to rain. I’d blame this on an inaccurate weather forecast but I’d read the forecast, knew it was going to rain, and decided to chance it anyway. At a stop for fuel, emptying water out of our boots, we decided camping would be pretty miserable and to head for a town, Spassk-Dalny on the main highway.

We arrived just after 9pm, shortly before sunset – shivering, wet and hungry. Got directions to a guesthouse from a passing car. It looked wonderful: warm and inviting. Parked the bike and walked in, to be informed by the lovely lady on reception that there were no vacancies. There was a pause as we looked to the empty parking lot, and then back to the three-storey, 100m long hotel building we were standing in: there must have been 30 or 40 rooms. Kim looked like he was about to break down. But no vacancies was no vacancies, and that was that.

What we hadn’t factored in was that Thursday the 12th of May is a major public holiday in Russia, and everyone’s very busy eating, partying, shooting things etc. In this case the latter was the issue: as we walked out of the hotel a busload of people rocked up in hunting gear. Apparently, Spassk-Dalny was the place to be this weekend.

We spoke to some dudes standing around a Landcruiser in the parking lot, and they made a few calls to other places but from the negative headshakes no dice. Kim’s Russian is much better than mine, so I didn’t quite follow what was happening but we eventually headed off following the guys in their Landcruiser. A short ride later we arrive at an apartment complex and get handed over to a different Landcruiser; in classic small-town-Russian fashion, the guys in the parking lot knew someone who knew someone who had a spare apartment they were willing to rent us.

Tony and Julia were amazing, driving us dripping wet bikers around in their car and recommending beer and food to buy in the shop. I asked what was good to eat, and Tony pointed at some dried fish behind the counter. It looked pretty good, so I said sure, I’ll take it. Tony ordered, and I realised too late that he had been pointing at the very whole, very wet fish in a bucket next to the delicious dried fillets. I was unable summon enough Russian in time to protest politely, so I filed this one under possibly interesting culinary experiences, paid and left.

Back in our apartment, we McGuivered up some hot dinner then turned to the fish. It stared back with dead, fishy eyes. Personally, I avoid fishing – it always seemed a bit … dull to me – and I was utterly out of my depth (hur) here. From the fish’s position in the shop next to the dried fish, it had possibly been marinated or pickled; was I supposed to cook it? Should I just start eating from one end like a popsicle? Which bits do you eat and not die? I poked it a few times with my knife, but it seemed to resist my attempts at turning it into food.

Fish

Fish

Eventually, Kim took over and with the sure hand of a professional chopped it into little bits. We ate them, and they were pretty good. I’m still not entirely sure if it was pickled, but I’m not dead yet.

Friday saw us heading off at midday. Stopping at a cafe for an excellent breakfast, we checked out some strawberries a lady was selling by the side of the road. My interest in one small punnet sparked a flurry of enthusiasm and the lady followed us into the shop, sure that having tried the first punnet of fairly average strawberries we would want another three kilos. “I think she likes you,” said Kim. I wasn’t so sure.

Our target for the day was a campsite about 300km away, which is a hard slog: the highway alternated between amazing high-quality 100km/h asphalt and 20km/h roadworks, where you’re driving through muddy potholes with other traffic. The muddy potholes were a lot of fun on my DR650 with knobblies, so I enjoyed myself and sped ahead while Kim went slower with his road tyres.

About an hour or so of riding and I stopped to let Kim catch up. 45 minutes passed, but there was no sign of the Korean and his packed bike. He had said in the cafe he had wanted to stop and taking photos, so I figured that was what he’d done. I sent him a message to check he was ok and headed on.

Camping that night was wet, if not entirely miserable. Got a fire going in the rain by setting fire to a whole box of matches, the only dry wood around. Still no sign of Kim; I found out later he had stopped in a town because of the rain.

Russian dinner. Not fish! Delicious pelmini!

Russian dinner. Not fish! Delicious pelmini!

As I lay there in my tent, it was pretty damn awesome: finally, after all this prep I was doing it, me and my bike through Russia. And everything going smoothly! For now…

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