Дурак и дороги #3August 24, 2017 in Russia
Komsomolsk-on-Amur to Khabarovsk
Anton dropped me off by the traffic police check point just outside Komsomolsk and my journey began. The road was slow, most traffic seemed to be going into the city rather than away from it and of the few cars that were on the road most either had two people in the front, I'm yet to get picked up by anyone who wasn't alone in the car; were trucks that couldn't take passengers, e.g. petrol tankers; or they were simply driven by people who ether blanked me completely or looked at me in that stone faced way that Russians do so well.
I was starting to wonder if stopping by a police checkpoint was really such a great idea as it might give the guardians of the road an unwanted, on the driver's half, opportunity to check their documents. Then a car pulled in.
My first ride came from a youngish looking guy in some sort of official uniform. I thought he might've just been stopping to chat to the traffic police but as he didn't park up assumed it must have been for me.
"I'm only going up to (insert place name here)?"
"Alright, get in."
This time in the Far East I've heard the word местный (local) used a lot. Apparently it's something people from this part of Russia care about. The climbers I met in Vladivostok told me that to them even people from other parts of the Far East can be treated with some disdain. Alex though, unlike almost all the other (ethnic) Russians I'd met so far on this trip was definitely not местный. He was from Voronezh, a city 10,000 kilometers away that's closer, in distance, to Ukraine than Moscow. He was on service in Komsomolsk and had been for about five years, he wanted to get re-posted to Habarovsk but all his attempts hadn't worked out so far. I never actually asked what her actually did, I assumed given he said he was 'serving' and the uniform, blue jacket with a Russian flag on the sleeve, it must have been related to one of the seemingly many military branches located nearby.
Alex fired out question at quite a fast rate wanting to know what I thought of Russia and how it was different to home. Somewhat surprisingly, given the uniform, he quite quickly voiced his opposition to the government, 'Instead of doing things that help people, like in other Europe, they seem to constantly trying to make things harder.', and stated that he was a patriot who loved his country.
Unfortunately the ride only lasted about 30 minutes and I was dropped off by a bus station and warned several times to be off the road, and not in the forest, by nightfall as there are bears in the area. It was only 1230 so I assured him I'd be alright and he took off his jacket so we could get a photo - apparently it's forbidden to take selfies in uniform.
Whilst waiting for my next ride a lot of the same cars and trucks drove past that I'd seen earlier in the day. The man in the orange petrol tanker made a shrugging motion this time, backing up the 'X' he'd made with his arms an hour before. I decided he'd probably have offered me a lift if it weren't for the petrol.
After about 15 minutes wait Simeon pulled up in what looked like a camo outfit but having just looked back at the photo it was actually a sort of hawaiian (t-)shirt - autumn in Russia edition. Again he was only going down the road but the bears had probably already picked up the scent of peanut butter coming from my bag so it was definitely time to leave. At this point I stopped making such a point of explicitly stating 'I have no money.' to people as everyone who'd picked me up seemed to already get the picture: person with a huge rucksack who doesn't look местный and is stood in the middle of nowhere with his thumb up probably isn't looking for a taxi.
Simeon worked as some sort of mechanic in Komsomolsk but was on a day off and en route to his friend's/boss' house to pick them up for a fishing trip. He was pretty surprised by my plan to hitchhike across Russia, asking several times if I was serious or not then laughing when I answered. As he was dropping me off he asked to take a picture before I'd even gotten the chance to ask the same question. I chucked up the gang signs for his photo so he did the same for mine.
I was stood outside a truck stop that I'd stopped on the drive into Komsomolsk two days before. There were two cafes, a ramp for driving up encase you want to poke around under your car and a bus stop full of people. I'd walked away from the bus stop so as to create some sort of distinction between myself and the people looking to pay for a lift. Yet again I saw the orange oil tanker, this time the driver just seemed to laugh, which amused me for a while whilst waiting for the next car to appear. Again the road was slow and any cars that were pulling over were rolling straight over to the cafes.
The driver of a van that had pulled up over the road shouted across to me asking where I was from. I explained what I was up to and he came over to offer some advice.
'You should hold a sign saying 'иностранец' (foreigner), then people will find you interesting.'
He offered to drive me into Komsomolsk but as the bears still hadn't appeared, it being about 1:30, I declined and carried on the hunt. Eventually one of the vans I'd seen pull up a little whilst earlier pulled out of the car park, he looked like he was going straight past me so I put down my hand then turned to watch him drive off. He put his indicators on. I walked over, as ever assuming that he was stopped for some other reason. Before I'd even explained that I was a hitchhiker he was telling me to just get in, a task made quite difficult thanks to my bag. He jumped out and opened up the side door of the van's box, whatever that's called, and in the bag went. I know nothing about vans, yet, but this was the kind of thing Sainsbury's use to deliver food to people's houses, only without a fridge compartment. Like all the other cars it was also Japanese but! this one was left-hand drive (the correct side for Russia).
I was no longer in charge of saying whether it was safe to over-take vehicles or not and Sergei didn't seem too interested in chatting once the usual formalities were out the way. He, Sergei, must have been about 50 judging by the gold teeth (fronties), fact his four children were all grown up and by his general caring manner. At one point he suggested I sleep, which I'd read was the one thing you shouldn't do whilst hitching so decided against it. A little while later he handed me a battered thermos telling me it was tea then pulled over and gave me some прияники (sort of like ginger-bread though honestly most of it never tastes like ginger), after I'd poured some out he pulled away slowly so I didn't burn myself whilst drinking. I did the usual mental play through of the tea, then the gingerbread, being drugged and the bears being the least of my worries but as things didn't all start spiraling down into world of uninvited colours and I didn't find myself getting increasingly lucid and lightheaded I decided it was all going to be ok and got back to staring at the forest going past. With my bag in the back and Sergei not being that up for chatting there was little else to do and eventually I thought I'd try and take power naps - not actually sleeping but just resting my eyes and thus the journey continued.
The road between Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur has a couple of especially bad sections where they've stripped back the asphalt ready for resurfacing, they've also stripped back any workers and equipment so quite when they're going to finish the road is unknown. That stretch is only actually 10km of the 400km road but it sure goes on a long way. Also it turns out that bouncy might be a word used to describe all trucks as, like in the dumpster that drove me part of the way to Habarovsk, I gained air on a number of occasions as we bounced over the innumerable holes that pepper the road. All this made sleeping quite hard but on a couple of occasions I was startled into action as I felt myself losing balance as the truck hit another bump in the road.
Whilst most of the road is lined with birch trees on either side, there were a couple of sections that were tree-less and, Sergei told me, were actually bogs. Those sections stretched back and opened up what looked like miles and miles of perfectly flat land all green and lush until the trees begun again or you hit a hill somewhere off in the distance. Today I did more than the distance from home (up North) to Hounslow, 400km vs 300km, and saw basically nothing but trees, a few bogs and a relatively small amount of traffic on the road.
If Russia has anything, it has space. Miles upon miles of beautiful, undisturbed space. I've gotten back to looking at maps again and although they don't quite scare me yet it is going to be one hell of a journey home.
Note: The road pictures were actually done on the way North with Anton but as I didn't hitch that bit I'm not writing about it in this 'series' of posts. As they're of roads though the pictures belong here.Read more