Russia #2 – Crossing Siberia 1 – Rubtsovsk to Chita -November 2014

February 22, 2019

After a final goodbye to our old friends in Rubtsovsk, we hit the icy roads of Siberia with memories of our crossing in 1996. Many good changes had taken place but it also brought much more traffic. Now instead of frozen mud and gravel roads, they were mostly paved, covered with treacherous black ice and hard-packed snow. The plows were busy but sometimes they could hardly keep up with the storm we were driving into. Passing semi-trucks would create near whiteout conditions in the dry powder.

Blizzards and treacherous Roads

This river was about to ice up.

This river was about to ice up.

Daylight hours were getting shorter as we headed east, demanding that if we were to make any real progress, we needed to drive 12 hours a day, some at night. Uncapping our PIAA 510 fog lights and aiming them low gave us an idea of the centerline and sides of the narrow two-lane highway, sometimes in blizzard conditions. Our 580 Driving XTreme White Plus Halogen Lamps were pointed about 60 yards down the road, giving us ample time to see potholes or other unannounced obstacles. Oncoming trucks with their own arsenal of lights were quick to let us know if we were slow in turning off the incredibly bright 580’s.

PIAA Lights and Michelin XZL’s 

Habitation fog created a moody sunrise.

Habitation fog created a moody sunrise.

Our Michelin XZL tires had been a concern back in Turkey. With already some 18,000 miles on them then, would they last on the bad roads through the Stans and then all the way across China? Much to our relief and amazement, even after the horrendous crossing of the Altai Gobi Desert in Mongolia, we had no flats. Even running at reduced pressures, (35 to 40psi front and rear), for three months when paved roads were so rough and potholed that they were worse than the dirt washboard of Mongolia, the XZL’s had not lost a single pound of air during the entire trip. Now at nearly 35,000 miles, the treads still had plenty of bite in the snow and slop. Nothing will stop on ice and packed snow. We did have Pewag Mud & Snow chains for all four wheels, but that would have reduced our speed to 35 mph. Without chains or studs, it made for some white-knuckle driving on the corners and passing slow big rigs, but installing chains at temperatures below 20°F is not fun.

Temperatures dropped way below Freezing

With shorter daylight hours, we uncapped our PIAA 510 fog lights and our 580 Driving XTreme White Plus Halogen Lamps. Oncoming traffic was quick to let us know if we were slow in turning off the incredibly bright 580’s.

With shorter daylight hours, we uncapped our PIAA 510 fog lights and our 580 Driving XTreme White Plus Halogen Lamps. Oncoming traffic was quick to let us know if we were slow in turning off the incredibly bright 580’s.

As temperatures dropped into the minuses we reflected on our adventure of driving up the frozen Lena River from Yakutsk to Lensk for 680 miles on the ice and then another 700 miles on winter roads through the Taiga forest in 1996, when it had never been above freezing. That was infinitely easier but exciting in a different way.

Our first leg was a short 180 miles to Barnaul where we parked outside the immigration office to be first in line in the morning. No problems! With all the forms filled out in advance and an English-speaking person willing to help us, planning ahead paid off.

The highway, when it was clear, was often arrow-straight through the seemingly impenetrable Taiga forest of birch. There were few villages, but we did spot a deep-well water spigot and filled our tank. It was another example of the useful water thief, a synthetic rubber fitting that attaches to an unthreaded faucet on one end and a common garden hose on the other.

A truck rear mud flap that got our attention!

A truck rear mud flap that got our attention!

Our next destination would be 1,853 miles to Chita, passing Irkutsk, called the “Paris of Siberia” and beautiful Lake Baikal. No time to pause and enjoy the scenery, but we did stop to buy some smoked Omul, a whitefish species of the salmon family endemic to Lake Baikal.

The historic mining town of Chita

Chita was an historic city dating back to its days of silver mining and then as a hub for the trans-Siberian railway. In 1996 when we crossed Siberia, driving up the Lena River for 680 miles and a then winter road for another 700 miles to Bratsk, Chita was the end of the road going east from Irkutsk. At that time there was no road of any kind across all the Far East to the Pacific.

We have happy memories camping on the shores of Lake Baikal where we spent a month with The Turtle IV in 1996.

We have happy memories camping on the shores of Lake Baikal where we spent a month with The Turtle IV in 1996.

Some of the old wooden homes were still standing, a tribute to the craftsmanship of their builders. New stone buildings were beautiful, reflecting the importance of Chita even today with the new highway finished from the east. Signs of westernization were everywhere, like a Carl’s Jr. Arriving during the day, we took time to walk around town and admire the beautiful old buildings and the central park where people were buying little bags of bird seed for the fat pigeons.

Monika gets another Visa Extension

With Monika’s visa extended again, we had ten whole days to get to Khabarovsk, 1,312 miles away, and then down to Vladivostok, another 472 miles away, but heading northeast over the hump in China, the weather was changing again. The dark clouds were not friendly.

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