Yesterday I had traveled on what’s called the Ussuri Highway or A370 from Vladivostok, which is on the Sea of Japan of the Pacific Ocean, to Khabarovsk. The city sits on the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur Rivers and I, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to enjoy the historic city of Khabarovsk. 16th and 17th centuries saw skirmishes for dominance of the region among Chinese, Cossacks and the Koreans. Khabarovsk became part of Russia by mid-19th century. The city is also home to the notorious Stolz Khabarovsk, who are said to pick out LGBT travelers, Asians and Africans for special attention!
The lady who had checked me in to the hotel yesterday afternoon was still behind the reception when I went to hand over the key this morning. She handed over the breakfast pack with plenty of smiles and a warm handshake on a cold morning. It had rained quite a bit overnight and light rain continued as I got ready to set off on the Amur Highway, which is one of the seven highways that make the Trans-Siberian Highway. The 2100 km Amur highway connecting Khabarovsk and Chita has been the most problematic along the 11,000 km Trans-Siberian Highway. Till about 1920 even trains used to be transshipped at Khabarovsk from and to Vladivostok. It was only after 2010 that the Amur highway received attention, but it still is considered the most challenging of the entire stretch.
All that was in my mind as I started from Hotel Zarina at a quarter past 5 am. Google Maps safely guided me to the P297 through the city roads and soon I was enjoying a breezy ride on the bridge spanning the Amur River. The first 60 km of the highway made me feel that I am in for long driving days till Chita, which was 2100 kms away. The roads were pockmarked, with poor surfacing and at times with deep grooves which made the car skid without warning. Fortunately, the highway was sparsely populated at that time of the day and I could weave a bit using the entire width of the road. It took me slightly over an hour to do the first 60 kms. Thereafter, the condition of the road improved and I could drive along comfortably. The rain eased for a while and the sun was out. It was glorious time on the road with greenery all round and beautiful cloud formations against a deep blue sky.
With 500 km still to go for the day and two hours of driving already done I did what I normally never do when I am alone. I took a breakfast stop. I opened the packed breakfast and found an apple, two pieces of local breads, a bun, some cheese, four thick slices of salami, an egg, yoghurt and coffee powder! When I got out of the car the chill bit into my bones. It was 12 degrees Celsius and the breeze made it cooler. The air in the pristine surroundings smelt lovely. I braved the cool breeze and walked around a bit, munching on the bun with cheese first and later the breads with salami. It was so green all around and not a person was in sight. That has been a feature on the highways in China and Russia. Of course, Siberia is sparsely populated too, despite it being the largest populated land mass in the world.
After the unscheduled break I could not regain the momentum of the past hour when I had done 100 km. The breakfast made me very soporific too. In fact, after another 60 km I had to stop on the shoulder of the road for a 15 minute nap. I felt totally refreshed after that. During the course of the drive on the Khabarovsk-Belogorsk P297 highway I saw trains everywhere, to my right and to the left, mostly freight trains. Most of the freight trains were heavy haul ones with loco consists in the front and middle. At one point the tracks were so close to the highway that I ‘chased down’ a freight train that was travelling at more than 100 kph. Thetrains did not make the kind of noise they make in India. I guessed that sleeper density and better condition of freight cars were responsible for the smooth and fast ride. During the drive I passed many unmanned level crossings. In fact, I never saw a manned level crossing except in Khabarovsk when I was motoring into the city last evening. The unmanned level crossings are not protected by ungainly bumps or uncomfortable rumble strips. Road users are warned using lights. The blinking white light indicates that the track can be crossed with caution. Blinking red lights with siren warns the road users that a train is approaching the level crossing. It is up to the discipline of the road user to ensure that they stay safe because the railways have the right of way. In India, too, the railways have the right of way. Yet the railways are most apologetic when it comes to accidents at unmanned level crossings and a very costly plan to convert all unmanned level crossings to manned is already underway as part of an undertaking in Parliament! No one talks about the discipline that is needed to ensure everyone’s safety. Politics becomes an overarching umbrella to protect indiscipline. Playing God is in our blood and systems militate against that part of our DNA!
When Google Maps indicated at the start of the day that I will be in Belogorsk within eight hours I was skeptical. In the end, despite steady driving and a few short stoppages I reached Malina Hotel in Belogorsk in eight hours flat. Within the city I lost my way a bit but not seriously. At one of the intersections a young guy in a car lowered the window of his car and said, “India forever”! The lovely hotel, without a meal plan, has tastefully done up rooms and is very comfortable. The young lady at the reception communicated in Russian and I in English. Despite this, she showed me to the room after competing formalities and I parked the car where it could be watched on the camera. Most important was that the staff are extremely friendly and ready to help, even though I did not understand a word of what they said. But smiles are all that are required to settle you in.
At the reception I noticed that I had gained an hour travelling from Khabarovsk to Belogorsk. I decide on lunch in the café downstairs. There wasn’t an English menu I could go through. Finally, after scrutinizing the photos on the menu I ordered what looked like a beef steak. When it arrived in a while it certainly was what I had expected. The juicy portion had a tasty sauce on it. With yellow capsicum, tomato and cabbage as accompaniments I had a lovely meal. The result of that was a short nap.
After 6 pm I stepped out for a walk in the area and found that it was raining. Not many people were around; in fact, Belogorsk has a population of less than 70,000! We find more than that in some Indian railway stations!! With a hood over my head I walked a bit in the ‘ghost’ city and got back to the hotel with a can of Bud Beer, some chocolates and crisps.
I intend to start early as usual tomorrow for Mogocha, my next destination. It’s the longest drive of the Trans-Siberian stretch; 880 km. I do not yet know the condition of the road or how long it’s going to take me to reach the Yalta Inn in Mogocha. I am ready for the longest haul of the expedition.