Yes, Yes, YESSS! I am finally here!
Greetings from Vladivostok, the East Coast of Russia! Pacific Ocean! 100 short miles from North Korea! SEVEN time zones away from Moscow and Sochi where I began over two months ago. I’ve traveled 12,500 km (7700 miles) in that time. (I’m including Mongolia and Abhkazia.) The map of my route is on the bottom.
Wow, I wasn’t tired before I typed that, but suddenly I feel exhausted. That’s a long way.
I had had enough of trains and buses and I decided to put my hitchhiking clothes on again and try to go from Blagoveshchensk to Khabarovsk, an 800km (500-mile) jaunt southeast. “Hitchhiking clothes” is a bright colored t-shirt, which Russian men don’t wear. I’ve got a whole weird theory about how I want to present myself in Russia while hitchhiking.
I’d like to meet the schizophrenic who placed these road signs. Khabarovsk is 629 km from here. As you drive on, the next sign will be 644km, then the next one will be 612, then the next 633…
The last driver before Khabarovsk was a woman in this very nice Nissan Qashqai SUV. When she stopped and lowered the window I did my, “I speak little Russian” thing in Russian. She put her best border control impersonation face on and said “Dokumyent.” Document? “Passport” she said tersely. Oh. I handed it over, staying close to the car in case she decided to take off with it, but her mood brightened in an instant when she saw I was American and even more so, Californian. I’m telling you, the currency of being from California is immeasurable.
I stayed with two Couchsurfing hosts in Khabarovsk, and then this is the future in cheap hotel rooms: narrow. This was about a meter and a half wide (4.5 feet.) The bed was so narrow and so short I had to put the mattress on the ground. 900 rubles ($14) with TV. America needs this.
I can’t get a break at hostels or hotels. At this place I had a single room, but I had people talking loudly next door until 5am. It’s always someone. Once, a guy thought it was a great idea to fog the dorm room heavily with bug spray, leaving it inhabitable for hours. The only horrible Russians I meet are in hostels. A switch goes off inside some of them and their worst, inconsiderate selves blossom.
The Amur River has followed me from Blagoveshchensk to Khabarovsk. Couldn’t I have taken an inner tube and floated here?
A wood carving based on a famous Russian story, so famous I haven’t heard of it.
I had one last leg in my Russian journey:
A Khabarovsk tram dreaming of its former glory.
Khabarovsk to Vladivostok, 750km south. Everything has been going reasonably well hitchhiking, so much so that if I had to do this trip again, I would definitely hitchhike the entire way. It had all been going so well.
Maybe once or twice a year when hitchhiking I have a fatalistic, “This is how I’m going to die” moment of reckoning. I knew these people below were bad news the moment I got in the car. I had a premonition when I first saw the car swerve and nearly hit another car as it made an illegal u-turn to go to the gas station I was standing next to.
They were from Irkutsk, many days away, and they were kind enough to let me go with them, I kept trying to tell myself. They said they were going 500km, and I gleefully squeezed in the back seat next to a guy who I instantly realized was fully drunk. At 9:30am.
I have a low tolerance for drunks. Let me rephrase that: I hate drunks. What can I do with them? They’re always repeating their dumb jokes, forgetting everything or remembering and fixating on one small thing they can’t let go of, offering beer again and again. You can’t reason with them, their mood swings go up and down on a whim, they’re trying to be best buds, yelling, singing, spilling beer. It’s all a colossal mess. I’ve yet to meet the happy drunk.
These nutjobs, you can tell who the driver is, right? Days later I can still remember their names: Nastya, Dima, Natalya, Vitaly.
This drunk was no different, and he was excited by my presence, as was the driver, Dima. Dima wasn’t drunk, but he didn’t seem altogether there, either. Had he not slept the night(s) before? It was too late to ask. He drove fast while trying to narrate a video selfie of us in the back seat, having his girlfriend take the wheel while he attempted this. Really? I put my seat belt on, and was chastised for it, but then we had a close call and the drunk gave me a thumbs up.
Manic Dima was all over the place, trying to do one thing after the other every few seconds. He would blast the music as high as it would go, and turn it back down a few seconds later to say something, then back up again, then back down to get a cigarette, then up, then down because he was hungry, then up, then down to ask if I want a chunk of the kielbasa being passed around, then up…
The SUV was right-hand-drive, so passing cars required a level of precision I wasn’t sure Dima had. It was nerve-wracking. When not trying to passing cars Dima was so preoccupied with phone calls and telling his friends that an American was with them that he had to have his girlfriend take the wheel several times.
Throughout the drive they bickered, made up, had harsh words, laughed it off; it was like a roller coaster ride of emotions and it was all too much. Young Kent Foster would have stuck it out to the bitter end. These days I am pickier about how I want to realize my mortality, and I was wondering what excuse I was going to use to get out of the car. If I said blood was gushing from my ears from the speakers, they’d check, and want video selfies.
We got stopped at a highway police checkpoint.
This will be interesting, I thought, especially since Dima couldn’t find a paper and the drunk kept haranguing the officer: “Hey! We have an American here!” and other gibberish I couldn’t understand except “American” being a prominent part of each sentence.
The officer was curiously detached. He merely looked off into the middle distance while patiently waiting for Dima to come up with the paper, and then let us go. Let us go?! He couldn’t smell the beer? He couldn’t see all the bottles? What is going on in today’s Russia?! These highway police checkpoint guys used to be infamous for their rapaciousness, fleecing drivers with impunity for the tiniest problems, real or imagined, just to cadge a few rubles to augment their miserable salary, and now they’re like Sweden. Mystifying.
I could only handle 200km with the Wack Pack. When they made a stop to throw all their garbage on the side of the road, hurling bottles into the forest, and to pee, I told them I was going. Dima looked crestfallen, but it was a moment of clarity for him and he understood.
Escaping them meant I probably wouldn’t make it all the way to Vladivostok in one day, which was 750km south. I didn’t mind. I felt liberated.
The antidote to the Wack Pack was the next driver, this mellow college student. He said I was the first American he had met and said, “America is my favorite country.”
He couldn’t think of why, so I asked, “Not Russia?”
He thought this was funny, saying, “I’m not a patriot.”
He said he had a USA flag at home. He said it conspiratorially, like it might be a crime. He wanted me to go with him to a spring to get some water, but I had a long way to go and declined politely. 15 minutes later he drove back to bring me a big bottle of the mineral water.
This guy saved my hitchhiking butt, picking me up in a very bad spot and driving me for hours and then out of his way to a cheap hotel I found in Ussuriysk, about 85km north of Vladivostok. Then he gave me a watermelon as a gift.
What would Russia do without used Japanese cars? These aren’t Japanese cars you see in America or Europe. These are cars brought over on the boat from Japan, the Galapagos of the auto world
; oddball cars you don’t see anywhere else. They are in top condition as that’s how the Japanese are with everything they own—Japanese flea markets are sublime—and few people would want a new Russian car over a used Japanese car, even if the Japanese cars are all right-hand-drive in this left-hand-drive country. For safety’s sake, Eastern Russia should just drive on the left side of the road since the vast majority of the cars are right-hand-drive.
The Japanese sell way too cheap. I know that because I have a friend in Japan that sells these cars. The spigot has been turned off for now, as Russian has blocked used imports older than five years, if I am not mistaken.
It’s jarring to see these specific-to-Japan cars all gone through the wringer here in Russia, beat up and dusty. Nonetheless, descending south into Vladivostok with its bucolic landscape and odd Japanese cars, it felt like descending into Kagoshima, Japan, the end of the line in southern Japan.
The next morning I hitched from Ussuriysk to Vladivostok in two rides, the first was this true salt-of-the-earth type who didn’t care about our lack of a common language, he was going to talk anyway. No Japanese car for him, no Sir!
This is the best road I have seen in Russia, and it is in the Far East?!
I got accepted by a Couchsurfing host for two days in Vladivostok, and then when I was looking for an Airbnb host for two other days, I coincidentally managed to book with the same woman, so it looks like I am staying in the same place as a CS guest and as an Airbnb guest. The difference is that as a CS guest I am going to fit in with her schedule and try and spend time with the host. As an Airbnb guest, I can be as asocial as I want.
This is my route
in Russia if you can’t see the map below. Next I’m going to Kyrgyzstan for the World Nomad Games and Kazakhstan.
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