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September 9, 2012 | Holidays in Shilka

Leaving Chita, the first few kilometers of the road are easily the worst we’ve seen so far. The 2,155 km sign to Khabarovsk seems like a bad joke in these circumstances – either our bikes or our trailers or our solar panel structures are almost guaranteed to fail over such a distance on roads this bad. However, our gloomy expectations are soon confounded: Only ten kilometers or so later, the road meets the outer of the two highways bypassing Chita, and suddenly changes from “alarmingly bad” to “brand new”. And in this condition it was to remain, for roughly the next 1,700 km!

It’s hard to overstate how much this simplifies our trip. Instead of being the hardest part, these 1,700 km are the easiest! The road is silk smooth, and there are maybe four or five others cars per hour: We feel as though we are riding on a long, oversized bicycle highway. It’s pretty Zen: Very few cars to disturb the silence, practically no towns or villages (the road seems to purposefully go around them), and calm and steady good weather. On top of this, though cafés are much sparser, there’s one about every one hundred or two hundred kilometers, and we manage to reach one at the end of each and every day. Filling up our batteries overnight, we regularly go well over 200 km a day, building up a comfortable buffer time in our schedule.

We continue to meet interesting people, however. There are six British guys going from London to Magadan, then via Anchorage to New York, in two cars. Then four more Brits, this time in one car, going the other way, from Vladivostok via Mongolia towards London. Two Australians on motorcycles overtake us; they are criss-crossing the continent and will eventually head to Vladivostok, too. Jeremy, an Indonesian fellow on a motorcycle, tops everyone we’ve met: He’s on year three of a five-year trip around the world; Russia being his 77th country! He says he’s riding for peace and hands us a bumper sticker – and two Snickers!

We meet him while we are waiting for our truck taxi to Shilka. Shilka is a small town roughly twenty kilometers from the main road; it’s only accessible by a pothole-filled dirt road that we didn’t want to ride with our bikes. Ordinarily, we never would’ve thought of going there at all, but the evening before, we had been overtaken by a couple in an SUV, and they insisted on us visiting them in Shilka. Anna and Dimar offered a Banja, a shower, and a chance to wash our clothes, and were really friendly and welcoming – given the leeway we had in our schedule, the decision was easy! Shilka was too far away to reach that evening, so we exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet the next day at the intersection of main road and dirt road, where we’d load the bikes onto Dimar’s truck.

Of course, there are actually not just one, but two dirt roads going to Shilka, and arranging a pickup place is really difficult: Dimar doesn’t seem to like SMS, and I don’t understand a word of what he’s saying on the phone. We spend at least two hours trying to figure out exactly where and when we’ll meet! Eventually things do work out, and we load the trikes onto the cargo platform of Dimar’s truck. The subsequent drive to Shilka is memorable: Dimar positively races along the dirt road, and the poor truck bounces and jumps in ways it was definitely not designed for. We fear the worst for our bikes, but surprisingly, they survive the experience unscathed.

Arriving in Shilka just after sunset, we first park the truck with the bikes at Dimar’s workplace, a car repair shop, then hop into his car and head off towards the Banja. A Banja is a special Russian sort of sauna and includes facilities to wash oneself and one’s clothes – “facilities” here meaning two large bowls that can be filled with hot and cold water from two barrels. We make intensive use of the bowls, and afterwards sit down together with Dimar and a friend of his in the very warm change room adjacent to the Banja. Still naked, we enjoy a few slices of bread with cucumbers, sausage and dill weed, and one-and-a-half bottles of Vodka!

Afterwards, we change into clean clothes, and Vodka or not, Dimar has no problems driving us to his home. Anna is waiting there with a great, warm supper she has prepared in the meantime. Russian hospitality is just awesome! We chat and eat and drink till late at night, and then I use the good network access to congratulate my grandma to her birthday, hoping she won’t notice I’m a little tipsy. Exhausted, we go to bed – the next day promises to be sunny, and we want to make good use of that and cover a big distance!

This plan, however, is thwarted: Instead, we are treated to a sightseeing tour through Shilka by Anna, and later on, visit Dimar’s brother’s WW2 vehicle collection. On the way, we finally find a shop where we can buy 16 inch tires for our trailers: The original ones are well past their useful life, but we just haven’t found any before despite searching extensively. Back at Dimar’s workplace, we make use of the great (and clearly selfmade) welding equipment available there and replace the aluminium holders for the axle linking bike and trailer with a steel bar welded directly to our steel frame. It’s a precautionary measure, but several of the holders have developed small cracks over time, and while they might hold on the rest of the way, they might as well not – better safe than sorry.

In the end, all of this, plus another great meal courtesy of Anna, takes up the whole day. It’s past seven as we finally hit the good main road again, after another hellride along the dirt road in Dimar’s truck. We bid Anna and Dimar farewell, thanking them for all they’ve done, and after only two meters, have to change one of the old tires for a new one: A loud bang notifies us that the old one now has a huge hole in it. Seems we got the new tires just in time! We say goodbye a second, final time, and ride for only fifty kilometers before setting up camp for the night. Given that we easily could have covered 250 or more on a day like this, that’s not good at all – but on the other hand, without the new tires, we wouldn’t have gone anywhere at all!

We’ll conclude with yet another aquaintance we made, this one quite a while ago, even before Lake Baikal: A family stopped us on a road, and was eager to show us a video of two Australian cyclists riding much, much more difficult paths than we do: Off the Rails. It’s the same family one can see in the linked video making music at their home! Apparently, they have the special gift of meeting long-distance cyclists. We continue to be amazed that we seem to meet all the right people at the right times, but maybe it’s actually the other way round: They meet us!