Sunday, July 11, 2010

Crossing the border

This is a blog post in 3 parts.

The first concerns my adventures the day before yesterday. I awoke at 5am, strapped on my bag, and walked to the market, where I eventually found a van going to Kosh-Agach, the Russian border town. We set out, getting a free tour of the town early morning as we picked up some middle-aged business women, a bunch of (mostly) empty fuel cans and a rather fat man. The van took off, at the usual pace of about 40km/h and soon we had stopped, jacked the rear axle, wiped some oil from the rear hub and one of the women was car sick. Good start. Later, we followed earthworks of a new road being built to the Russian border from Olgii, which entailed some excitement as the road periodically ended in a chassis breaking ditch. Usually we escaped via some miracle. Eventually we made it to the Mongolian border town, where I had 5 botz (mutton dumplings) and the fat guy had about 30, one per bite. The staff pulled the 'extremely slow change' trick while the van drove away, but I waited (for about $15 worth of change on a 50c meal), then walked down the road to find the van stuck in a queue that would define the rest of the day. Despite there only being about 12 vehicles crossing to Russia that day, they were all held up behind two antiquated buses stuffed with undocumented Kazakhs migrating from Mongolia to Kazakhstan via the Altai Republic. After about two hours, we got to customs, where division of labour took place. One woman took the passports, the rest carried the luggage to be xrayed for illicit material.

Soon, we were back on the trusty dirty road heading towards the Russian Mongolian border post. Again, we were stuck behind the Kazakhs, this time for about an hour and a half of staring at nothing in particular, even the sign held up by vodka bottles has disappeared. I took the opportunity to fulfil a life-long dream and took a leak on the border. Once again, we passed through. In Russia at last! 5 metres beyond the border the road became tarmac and the dust began to settle. Mongolia, a country largely without running water, roads, and where most vitamins are gained through the ample dirt content of food (which I actually didn't mind), was behind us.

We rounded a corner and faced Russian border control and customs. After a while a man appeared and sprayed our wheels to disinfect various livestock diseases that run in the area, but again, 100 Kazakhs without passports, ID, or birth certificates had the effect of twice the LD50 of Imodium on the whole place. We waited, 20m from Russia, for 3 hours. While crossing I ran into four Irish men who were driving a 4WD to a rally in Mongolia, and very nearly got confused with them and sent back! Also at the post was a tall Russian soldier with a wicked sense of humour (he chatted to a few truckies for a while) and the most amazing Russian accent I have ever heard and hope to emulate at some point. Meanwhile the fat man has progressed from attempting to get me to buy him cigarettes, more food, a jar of pickles and beer, to eating my food, trying to steal my water, and offering on my behalf for me to pay a $100 bribe to speed things up. Needless I found such a corpulent lack of self-control utterly revolting. At customs he managed to piss off the business women by hovering around the queue then jumping it at the first available opportunity. For what? We were stuck there until the entire car was cleared. He was treated to a good lesson in sophisticated English invective. I am still alive, so I assume he didn't understand it.

At last, in Tashanta, the first true Russian town. To be fair, it was a nicer than average border town; it had one nice looking building. We stopped at gas station and reversed a previous trade in which we crossed the border with one less fuel can and one more pair of Kazakh sandals - presumably there's a quota? The road continued, straight as an arrow, for another 50kms (during which time the Uaz van threatened to approach 80km/h) to the more substantial town of Kosh-Agach. Here, I knew things were going to improve because when I asked a woman where to find a Bankomat (ATM), she sent her two 5 year old kids to show me; I gave them a toy koala each! With roubles in my pocket, nothing could stop me. I found a cheap looking guesthouse, and checked in. I was charged 3 times the going rate, which came to about $10. In a ger out the front was a Danish motorcyclist, who with any luck I may meet again in Vladivostok, and also in the guest house were two lovely girls from Novosibirsk (and their parents) with whom I had a highly amusing dinner, evening, and breakfast the following morning. I then slept in a bed for the first time in about 3 weeks (overrated, I say).

All up crossing the border took 8 hours.

The second part concerns the events of yesterday.

Next morning I sorted out a working sim card for my phone (in Russia), and began to try to flag down passing trucks to go to Biysk, 570kms further down the road (a big hop, but there is only one road!). Soon enough a car stopped and I got in. I sussed pretty soon that it was a commercial venture, but I could afford the price, and this man drove slightly faster than the average Russian Kamaz truck. In fact, the previous day 80km/h seemed an elusive prospect. This day, 80km/h was elusive also, but from the other direction. Early on I stated my intention not to die in a flaming car accident, and he assured me he had driven the route for 5 years, which would account for his complete ignoring of lines on the road, like a racing driver. We touched 155km/h (Toyota Corolla). He then told me it didn't matter, as he had lung cancer (hardly surprising, given his cigarette consumption). Great! Later, he pointed out a few places where he had crashed. :S Technically, speed limits were adhered to, but only after they had been doubled. Needless to say the ABS system was never not used.

All was forgotten soon enough, as I began the long task of memorizing the Russian-English dictionary, and the road opened out before me. It is no exaggeration to say that the Chuyskiy Trakt (M-52) is the most amazing road I have ever been on (and I've been on a few). The road winds along next to a river (for the most part), sometimes at water level, sometimes on narrow rock ledges far above the raging torrent. We were never once overtaken, but overtook every car we saw. Trucks were left far in our wake. On occasion passing a truck on a tight chicane bend the closeness of the passage and relativistic doppler shifting made it possible to see the whites of the eyes of the oncoming passengers. Above the river were endless forests of larch butting into reasonably large, vegetation encrusted mountains, where only the sheer faces were uncovered rock. Meanwhile clouds hovered at several different heights. My photos (taken with the last dying electron of 2 week old batteries) will not fully convey the 'avatar'-like feeling of wonder. In between times we slowed to let herds of cattle cross the road - in considerably better condition than accross the border. In Mongolia, the lack of trees leads to a high surface temperature and most rain evaporates before hitting the ground. In Russia, it was much wetter.

The overall time for the drive was 8 hours, so I arrived in the early evening. Travelling by truck I'd probably still be grinding up some hill half-way along, so IMO cash well spent. One minor hitch. As I paid for the trip in two parts, (to help buy petrol), the driver and I disagreed on how much I had paid the first time. Fortunately, the difference came to about $8 (maybe 6% of the total cost), so not as major a loss as it could be. There's a possibility it was a genuine error - he was not a young man, nor did he have my slight obsession with numbers.

At length we arrived in Biysk, I departed at the bridge across the river, called my couchsurfer, wrote my journal, and then went to the rather nice flat of another CSer, and the three of us ate dinner. This is the third part of the adventure. Somehow we ended up discussing, with our somewhat limited mutual intelligibility, how a laconic and self-deprecating sense of humour is a necessary precondition to enjoying travel. Eg FML, LOL, and other stuff. Well I enjoyed the conversation, and we're all scientists of one sort or another. Later, we talked of food, sport, and other stuff in which it is easier to communicate unambiguously one word at a time.

Overall, 20 hours in cars, one slow, one fast. A new country, a new currency. New friends. A new language. In one day in Russia, I've come to realise that probably 95% of the Russian I know from my previous trip is flawed in at least one major way. While comprehensible, I aim to speak in a correct and recognisable way over the next two months. At this rate I'm learning ~10^1 words a day, plus a bunch of grammar. I feel it is a good start. Already I'm far beyond where I was 48 hours ago! If I can maintain this rate of improvement, I'll proof-read Dostoyevsky in a couple of weeks (yay exponentials).

Now it's 2:30am. There is some chance of some photos (probably of China and Eastern Mongolia) tomorrow.

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