And so it started… we were off. Getting out of Vladivostok was a little tricky, but thanks to the wonder of Garmin and open source maps, we at least had vague idea of where to go, even if we didn’t have the luxury of sat nav. Fortunately, once you get out of Vladivostok, you are rather limited by the number options you can take direction-wise. If you are heading north to the corner of China, and then west towards Moscow, there really is only one road to take. Unless you head north into Siberia and take the Bam highway. Initially this had been our grand plan – travel from east to west along the Bam highway as far as Lake Baikal, and then drop down into Mongolia from there. However, after working out that our time in Russia would be slightly time pressured (seeing as we’d had to get our visas well in advance, before we knew that GAC had caused such a delay on the car arriving in Vlad) and doing a little more investigating, we came to the conclusion that trying to travel the Bam highway in two and a half weeks with only one car was actually a really stupid idea. Even with a winch. So, we had to tailor our initial plan slightly, and decided that we would high-tail it through far eastern Russia on the main roads as far as Lake Baikal and spend a day or two chilling out there before heading into Mongolia for the rest of our time away.
I have to admit that I knew nothing about far eastern Russia before we arrived. I’d very much left Niall in charge of route planning and logistics, and, well….. pretty much everything to do with the trip really. I was mainly in charge of food and photos. And that was absolutely fine by me. The roads heading out of Vladivostok were mostly in pretty good condition, dual carriageway for the most part, without too much traffic it seemed. We didn’t have too long on the road on the first day before it would start getting dark, so we’d already pinpointed an area that we would try to hit for our overnight camping spot. We’d met a Kiwi guy staying in the same hostel as us, who was on holiday from the school he taught in in South Korea, and had shipped his touring motorbike over to Vladivostok to do a loop through Russia, Mongolia and China during his holidays. He’d been this way before and had told us about a couple of cool places along the way, as well as filling us with dread with stories of impending doom regarding the number and viciousness of the local mosquitoes (and we’d only brought two cans of mosquito spray with us…). There was what looked like an abandoned airfield and bunkers some way to the north of Vladivostok that the Kiwi had said was quite cool, so we headed in that direction to take a look before camping. We didn’t dare sneak our way in to take a closer look past the (old) barbed wire perimeter fence, but we did come across an old plane mounted in takeoff position just outside the military town that still existed. The local kids took Niall on a tour of it, including climbing up inside the plane….. where there were still all the electronics in place, in addition to what looked like two tail-mounted machine guns.
We were working very much on the assumption that camping in that area of Russia was very similar to camping in Oman – as long as you’re not pissing anyone off, you can basically camp anywhere. It’s always a little bit scary (for me anyway) on your first night in a strange country when you’re not 100% sure of their rules and regs….. and you definitely don’t speak the language. We drove up a long off-road track, through a lot of areas which looked very much like it was the local dump; there was an area for old flat-pack furniture, an area filled with old fridges and other white goods…. You get the picture. We found a stretch of the road past all this with a lovely view out over the plains that we’d just been driving along (complete with the first of many stunning sunsets); we could see the airfield we’d just been to, and the Trans-Siberian Railway. I hadn’t even noticed it until we saw the longest train I’d ever seen chugging its way slowly across the scenery. This was to be a constant for our time in Russia; we were basically following the path of the Trans-Siberian Railway along the spur that goes from Vladivostok heading west towards Moscow. Sometimes we were very close to it, sometimes we could just vaguely hear the freight trains rumbling by at night.
Fairly quickly we worked out that the majority of east to west heavy haulage and transport of goods was done by the railway – there just weren’t that many lorries and heavy loads travelling on the roads, with most of the traffic seeming to be domestic. The main road the next day was dotted with fruit and veg stalls along the hard shoulder, so we stopped at one of these before too long to fill up the fridge with veg (local supermarkets near our hostel in Vlad hadn’t done us great on fresh fruit and veg) – turns out you could only buy things in bulk….. like the entire bunch of carrots, or the whole tub of potatoes. Carrots and potatoes for a few meals then! As we headed on along the road, we realised why the majority of the heavy haulage is done by trains….. the roads very quickly started to deteriorate. Before too long we were back to single carriageways; tarmac surfaces intermittently broken up with long stretches of dirt road, with potholes big enough to use as a paddling pool… and seemingly no road rules when it came to avoiding them. Last minute swerves from the car in front were common, as was seeing the odd lorry seemingly heading directly for you, before swerving around the pothole at the last minute and returning to their side of the road!
Eastern Russia was a lot wetter than I had imagined it to be; lots of swampy, flooded fields, lots of really large rivers, and lots of lakes. What do mosquitoes love? Yes, that’s right, water. Lots of water. We were trying to pick campsites that were next to moving water rather than standing water for that very reason, but due to the sheer volume of standing water seemingly everywhere (lakes, ponds, swampy fields and lots and lots of very large puddles) this was actually harder than it sounded. Campsite number two was a delightful little spot nestled in-between a lake and a river that was very definitely in flood. And more midgies than I’ve ever seen in my life. Mozzie spray on every bit of skin showing, trousers tucked into socks, and some very fetching mozzie head nets that we’d picked up on recommendation from the Kiwi guy at the hostel. Mozzie spray didn’t make a blind bit of difference, so we went for the aggressively smoking fire to keep them at bay. Which was fine, apart from the fact that we had to sit in the smoke for it to work. You win some, you lose some I guess.
On the insect front, we then drove into an area that seemed to have been feeding their insects on some super growth food. They were absolutely enormous. Hornets the size of your thumb, enormous bees and some generally very nasty looking (and very inquisitive) beasties. Not a problem when you’re in a car though right? Well, you might think so, but when you drive a Defender with a windscreen that is almost vertical, you start to get worried about the integrity of the windscreen. Add to that the fact that Niall’s windscreen wiper had only lasted a day before becoming very intermittent, so it was a case of peering between the bug splatters until it got so bad that we had to pull over and clean the windscreen again.
Unsurprisingly, this area was also one where there was seemingly a lot of honey production, with loads of stalls along the roadside selling honey. When we pulled off the road that evening we went past a whole bunch of beehives and the camp of people there tending them and collecting the honey. We met a group of school kids and their teacher who were out on a school camp, presumably learning about the bees and the honey production. We didn’t really manage to find out any more than that (other than to be careful because there were snakes in the river below), but they were very interested in our trip and insisted on having photos taken with us. Always nice to meet people that are near where you’re camping – once you’ve shown a friendly face to them and vice versa, it’s a lot easier to relax when you can hear them getting on with their own thing and not worry about whether you’re intruding, or whether they are friendly or not (I’m a worrier by nature, these things freak me out – Niall, not so much). Anyway, we parked up well before sunset and managed to have a bit of time for housekeeping; airing the mattress and the sleeping bag so things in the tent didn’t start getting smelly and damp, and a yammers dinner of omelette, mash and kidney beans (variations on this were to become a staple dinner). We were treated to a cracking sunset, with the smoke from the campfires down the road combining with the incoming mist from the river and carpeting the low-lying fields surrounding the river with a little blanket of smoke and mist.
Heading on the next day, the main road passed through towns from time to time, but the scenery was mostly countryside; endless fields, patches of forest, swampy fields and long bridges spanning the wide rivers. I woke up from one of my (frequent) naps just as we pulled into a petrol station, with Niall swearing loudly. First mechanical problem….. Turns out the water pump had failed (not a problem, one of the many spares we had in the back), but in doing so, had also taken out the fan belt. Which was more of a problem, as Niall had forgotten to get a spare when we’d fitted the new one just before we shipped the car. After much umm-ing and ahh-ing, we decided that the only thing to do was to re-fit the knackered fan-belt (which was now only 4/5ths of its initial width after the water pump had stripped the edge off it), and hope that we could pick up another one somewhere along the way. One of the delightful things about travelling in a Land Rover (especially when you’re in a country where they are not very common, and you have foreign plates) is that people like to come and talk to you and see the car. A very helpful Russian guy who was on his was from Moscow to Vladivostok came to talk to us about the car, turned out he owned a new defender TD5. He phoned one of the local garages along our way for us to see if they stocked a fan-belt that would fit, but unsurprisingly not a lot of garages in eastern Russia stock parts that fit Land Rovers! He said we might be able to find one when we got to the next major city, Chita, which was still another couple of days of (slightly nervous) driving away. New water pump fitted, fan belt back on, sandwiches made (I’m far more useful as sandwich-maker than as a mechanic), toilet stop braved (I regretted it the instant I went into the long-drop shack) and we were on the road again, with fingers crossed that the fan belt would hold out until we could find a new one; fortunately it was a new fan belt so wasn’t at all worn, and aside from being narrower than it should be, was still in quite good condition.
As we drove on, we soon hit forest land on either side of the road, and before long, we also hit smoke. A lot of smoke. Thankfully not coming from the car! It looked like someone had lit a bonfire waaay to close to the road, but the thickness of the smoke soon made us realise that we’d driven into forest fire territory. This was especially obvious when we paid a little more attention to the trees that were lining the roads; almost all of them had black soot marks on the bottom 2-3 feet of tree, despite looking otherwise totally healthy. It was obviously something that happened on a fairly regular basis in this area. We drove through smoke all day, turning off the road towards some lakes on the map to see if we could get away from the smoke for our evening campsite spot. As we drove towards the lakes, the smoke cleared, but we discovered that all the flies in the region also had the same idea, and decided that we’d rather just park up in the next clearing between the trees that we found. So that’s what we did; a very non-scenic campsite on a patch of scrubland-dump area with enough distance between us and the trees to stop me from freaking out about burning to death in my sleep. I should add that we didn’t actually see any evidence of flame the entire day, just a lot of smoke; seems like it was a forest-smouldering area rather than a forest-fire area!
The next day dawned looking the same as the previous, patches of dense smoke along the road, interspersed with clearer patches; never enough to get clear sky and sunshine, but clearing enough to stop our eyes, noses and throats stinging. We took a little detour off the road down to the river to have a look, with the idea of having a quick wash in the river, and then following the minor road over the river and eventually joining back up with the main road. After negotiating our way down a section of stream under the rail bridge, we got on the track and headed down to the river. Coming round a bend we discovered that our idea of crossing the river here had one major flaw; we hadn’t counted on the bridge being half fallen-down, and on fire. We had our wash in the river anyway (or a full-on bath in Niall’s case) which was rudely ended by an almighty thunderstorm rolling in, with hailstones the size of peas. Not the nicest to be caught out in that, but made a little bit more amusing by watching Niall leg it up the hill squealing, back to the car to get his clothes…….. The hail turned into torrential rain, and we decided that we should probably make sure we got back across the little section of stream by the road before that turned into a river, made all the more amusing by the windscreen wipers deciding that they’d had enough, and that they didn’t want to work anymore.
Once we hit sunshine and no hint of rain, we had to stop and unpack the car, to dry everything off, and get the excess water out….. Defenders aren’t known for their water-tightness, especially one that’s been living in the Middle East for a large amount of time; rain isn’t really an issue over there! We stopped for a quick fuel up (with a cracking old-school diesel pump), then found a lovely little spot down by the river further along the road to camp. More flies, but only tiny midgies this time, rather than the fat bluebottles and mozzies from the previous campsite attempt.
The next day was less than optimum; we got about 300km further up the road to the next main town, and on stopping to buy a loaf of bread for lunch, Niall discovered he didn’t have his wallet…… so we unpacked the car again, and turned it upside down trying to find it. No joy. Cue hammering 300km back in the direction we’d just come from, to check the campsite area, then back another 100km before that to ask at the fuel station we’d filled up at the previous afternoon. Nothing. We didn’t really have anything else to do other than to carry on; I still had my cards with me, so it wasn’t the end of the world, but it did turn in to a very long day, with a lot of mileage. We made it just past the town we’d initially stopped in to buy bread, totalling about 800km of driving in the day, making a gain of only about 300km. Fortunately his bank text you every time you use your card, so he knew over the next few days that no-one had tried to use his card anyway; to this day we still have no idea where he lost his wallet!
The windscreen wiper gave up the ghost totally the next day, so Niall decided it was time to simply disconnect it and have it inside the cab with him, so he could reach out of the window with it when he needed to wipe the windscreen. Simple yet effective. We drove through rainstorms most of the following day, with the weather finally clearing late on in the afternoon. We turned off the road to find a campsite, and found ourselves driving along a faint track through a lovely grassy meadow, just as the sun was beginning to set. Perfect place for a campsite. Standard fare of campsite dinner, followed by a hot chocolate by the fire.
In the morning, we woke to find a field full of little candyfloss stalks, where the dew had settled on all the spider webs on the grass stalks (let’s not think about how many spiders there were to create that many!). For once Niall got out of bed too (once you have to get down from a rooftop tent to have a pee in the morning, I could very rarely be bothered to go back to bed – much easier to get the kettle on and entice Niall out of bed with the promise of a cup of tea) to have a look and take some photos. Then the next thing I know, after a quick cuddle, he’s gone down on one knee, pulls a ring box out of his pocket and asks me if I’d like to be his wife! Obviously I said yes (I mean, who wouldn’t with a beautiful ring like that?!). Quick cup of tea and breakfast, then time to hit the road again, this time with a very pretty opal and diamond ring on my finger!
A couple of km down the road, and Niall asks me if I can hear a funny noise coming from the car, to which I said something along the lines of “not really, this car makes a lot of funny noises” (anyone who has been in an old Defender will agree with me on this). After pulling over, and doing a walk-round on the car, Niall called me to come and look at something; the difference between the two back wheels…… one of which had 5 wheel nuts on, one of which had 1 wheel nut on…. Somewhere in the space of the last afternoon and evening, four of the wheel nuts had somehow fallen off one of our back wheels. After a bit of trial and error, we found the best solution was to balance the remaining wheel nuts between the two rear wheels, each having 3 of their intended 5 wheel nuts holding the wheels on (when we reduced the wheel nuts on the front wheels to have them evenly spread over all 4 wheels, we got a slightly scary front wheel wobble over 70 kph!). After pulling in at several roadside garages, we concluded that due to the fact that defender wheel nuts are metric sizes, and all Russian cars appear to be imperial size bolts and nuts, the chances of us finding something before we hit Ulaanbaatar (where there was a LR garage) was pretty slim.
We passed through the city of Ulan-Ude, and headed north-west on a bit of a detour towards Lake Baikal; the largest (and deepest) freshwater lake in the world, and home to the planet’s only population of freshwater seals. Rather than go on the main road to the most touristy bit of the lake, we decided to head towards one of the smaller lakeside villages instead. There were two roads on our map we could have chosen (open source maps mostly being a wonderful thing, so we chose which one we’d take, and made our way out of Ulan-Ude (with a fresh stash of marine-themed biscuits as snacks). Due to our little incident with the wheel nuts, we were a little behind our original schedule of reaching Lake Baikal that day, so we decided to camp about 60km from Lake Baikal, in another gorgeous field, surrounded by hills and woodland. Niall reckoned the 60km would take us an hour and a half or so with a decent track, or maybe two and a half hours if the track wasn’t great…. famous last words.
The road the next day soon started climbing up into the mountains, but was a wide, fairly well-travelled track by the looks of things, so we thundered along without too many problems, even being good and testing the depth of the first rutted, waterlogged section we came too (how hilarious in hindsight). After reaching the crest of the mountains, the road started to head downhill again, with about 30km to go to the lake. Having had fairly good roads up until that point we thought we were in for a fairly quick trip and that we’d be at the lake in time to set up camp and make sandwiches for lunch. We disturbed a bird of prey that was just hanging out by the roadside, which didn’t really seem to be too bothered by us, and would fly about 50m ahead of us, and then sit back down in the road and wait for us to get to it. Not 100% sure what it was, but I think maybe a Sparrow hawk of some kind?
As we carried on, the road started to get a bit wet, and a bit muddy. Then it got a bit wetter, and a bit muddier. And even wetter, and even muddier. We soon discovered that we were basically in a forest on a track that was only used by logging vehicles, with wheels a metre high. We discovered this as one went past us, fully loaded, with a lorry trailer stacked full of logs, in the opposite direction; back up the mountain. We thought this was a little bit strange, given that we were now only about 20km from Lake Baikal – surely it would be quicker (and easier on the lorries?) if they drove to the lake and then out on the main road? The lorry driver gesticulated at us, pointing back up the road to the mountain; I took it to mean, “move over, I need to get past to go up the mountain”, Niall took it to mean “what are you doing, you can’t get through that way, turn around and go back up the mountain”. Obviously he didn’t tell me that at the time, and smiled, waved and decided to carry on. We soon discovered why the road was so wet; the river ran parallel to the road for a lot of the time, and there had obviously been a lot of rain in the previous few weeks/months. Perfect spot for a lunchbreak and a quick wash (once I’d tested how cold the water was I opted to stay warm and slightly grubby), and a great opportunity to look at the car and think “ooooh it’s a bit muddy now!” (little did we know just how muddy it was going to get).
Shortly after this point, I stopped taking photos, as it became necessary for me to actually earn my keep as co-pilot, and scout a route out through the mud and puddles (some of which were just deep, sticky mud, others were just muddy water, and some were some nasty mixture of the two, often accompanied by a pretty vile smell if you were unlucky enough to have the window open as you went through), whilst Niall concentrated on keeping the car going in a forwards direction, preferably without going sideways. There was a lot of going sideways. The realisation that the road had been being used by logging vehicles was now our major problem; the ruts in the road had been made by wheels far larger than ours, and were now so deep, that we knew if one wheel slipped into them we were in a bit of trouble, but if both wheels slipped into them, we’d probably be stuck sliding through the mud on Henry J’s belly.
Niall drove the car brilliantly through it all; there is definitely a lot to be said for knowing your car and having done a lot of off-road driving before taking on a trip like that! There was only one point where we both thought the car was going over, and only one point that we hit a mud puddle that was so deep and sticky under the surface that we thought we might get stuck (with the exhaust pipe and winch both under the mud). Fortunately Henry J decided to crawl slowly (and very sideways/diagonally) out of the puddle and continue on. What an absolutely cracking road to drive down – we had great fun, even though in hindsight, doing that road with 4 missing wheel nuts, and a partially stripped fan belt was probably not the most sensible idea we’ve ever had. Our “hour and a half, possibly two and a half hours” to cover 60km had taken us nearly seven hours, but eventually we ploughed our way through the last set of swampland and popped out at the beginning of a (dry) track that led us straight in to the back of the village, where a local looked at us in amazement, gave us a thumbs up and a grin and then pottered into his house. After giving Henry J a bit of a wash in a stream (where we got told off by a policeman – no idea what he was saying, but apparently it’s not the done thing), we finally made it to the shores of Lake Baikal and set up camp, in time to watch a beautiful sunset and get a cracking fire pit going to bbq some sausages.
We stayed at Lake Baikal the following day, pottering around, swimming in the lake, doing some laundry (I even went for a run), trying to avoid the cattle and horses that were roaming around, before heading away from Lake Baikal and camping a few km along the road back towards Ulan-Ude. This time we’d taken the other road (from our initial option of 2 roads to get to the lake), and discovered it was a main, tarmac’d road that even tour buses could get along. Bet we had a more fun drive to the lake than they did though!
After driving through Ulan-Ude for the second time, we turned south and headed towards the border with Mongolia, less than a day’s drive away. We stopped about 100km from the border, and found another beautiful riverside spot to camp, complete with a local farmer’s dog that turned up as soon as we stopped, and lay happily snoozing underneath a tree nearby all afternoon until it got dark and it ran off back to the farmhouse. Mildly concerning at first as it was a rather large, Alsation-esque dog, but in reality it was pretty grey round the muzzle, walked a bit stiffly, and was generally pretty chilled out. I did keep an eye on it whilst I was cooking dinner though! Another beautiful sunset, and then we were on the road to Mongolia!
I am happy to say that eastern Russia totally surprised me. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but it was beautiful and vast, with lakes, meadows, mountains, swampland, forests, plains and wide, wide open spaces full of some spectacular scenery. What I’d initially envisaged as the necessary part of the journey to reach Mongolia had turned into a fantastic journey all of its own.