The long journey to Germany starts
On Saturday, June 9, 2018 I started in the morning from Vladivostok. My road trip through Siberia begins.
Where am I actually?
“Through Siberia”, that sounds really enormous now. But in reality I have only seen a very small part of this huge landscape between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean (7,000 km) and between the Arctic Ocean and Mongolia (3,500 km). Namely the lowlands of Amur and Ussuri and the South Siberian Mountains. Always along the border to China. Northern and Central Siberia are still waiting to be crossed by Landcruiser 😅
Vladivostok is the administrative centre of the Primorye region. Khabarovsk that of the Khabarovsk region. Chita that of the Transbaikalia region. And Ulan Ude that of the Buryatia region. So I drove here through four regions of Siberia.
Also the highways in Russia’s Far East are quite cleary arranged. Actually I only needed three there. The A370 (Ussuri) from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, 760 km. But there I was sometimes confused, because until 2010 it was still called M60. And that’s what it is still called partly today.
Then the R 297 (Amur) from Khabarovsk to Chita, 2,165 km. Mostly along the Amur river. Also here I had to get used to the fact that the road is called differently in Russian. Namely with P 297, because in the Russian alphabet R is written as P.
And also the R 258/P 258 (Baikal) from Chita to Ulan Ude, 609km. It continues even further to Irkutsk at Lake Baikal. Well, and finally the A 340 for the short distance between Ulan Ude and the Mongolian border (280km).
For contacts to Germany I also had to keep an eye on the time difference. In Vladivostok it is +8 hours compared to Frankfurt. And it would have been stupid if I had called someone at 8 am from there. Then it’s midnight in Frankfurt. And nobody wants to be disturbed at this time.
At 9 o’clock sharp, Egor and his family came to say goodbye. We took some photos and exchanged addresses. Then I am solely responsible for the Landcruiser and myself.
That means, not quite yet. Because I still want to shop in a supermarket. Mainly mineral water, coffee powder, canned milk and snacks for the road. And a few cans of liquid gas for the Australian camping stove from my son’s camping equipment. To make coffee on the way. By the way, the camping petrol cans can be seen in the photo in front of the passenger seat.
Therefore, Egor’s wife drives the first kilometres through the city in front of me to a supermarket, which is already at the beginning of the highway. So that I don’t have to drive through the city later.
In the end I only get going after 11 o’clock and managed about half the distance to Khabarovsk until late afternoon.
Daily routine on my tour
You will surely want to know how such an driving day on my tour generally looked like. So then, here we go: Most of the time I got up between 6 and half past 6. And after a good breakfast in the accommodation I started between 8 and half past 8. Since I mostly drove only with 80-90 km/h (depending on the road conditions and the speed regulations), I took a short break about every 2 hours. Also so as not to even nod off at the wheel. Because often only the clouds varied over many hours or sometimes an oncoming other car. Or a few animals that romped about on the road.
Searching for accommodation
Because there is no mobile phone reception in many countries outside the villages, I usually stopped at around 2 pm in a village or at a rest house on the side of the road. And there in my mobile app I booked an accommodation for the evening. Because at this time I could estimate how far I would get until the evening. The booking via the app had two advantages. First, I could pay the accommodation in Euro. So there were no credit card costs for using the card abroad. And secondly, I could also collect bonus overnight stays with it.
Since I was alone, I didn’t want to stay in a tent for security reasons. And also, so that the Landcruiser was parked within a fenced area. In addition it was still advantageous that I did not have to worry about a breakfast in the morning. And I could not sleep in the Landcruiser either. Because it was stuffed with camping equipment of my son from 2 years in Australia. 2 swags, 2 tents, at least 5 sleeping bags, blankets, tarpaulins, the tent extension for the awning, 2 folding chairs, 1 folding table, 2 Maxtrax sand plates, stove, pots, pans, dishes, and and and…
No night drives
In the summer months I drove until 7/8 pm, in autumn then until 5/6 pm. And in November only until 3 or 4 pm. Because I definitely did not want to drive in the dark. Because of the roads and because of animals. But also not because the Landcruiser still was equipped until Germany with a headlights system for left-hand traffic. And in all these countries there was right-hand traffic. So as soon as I switched on the lights in the dark, I dazzled oncoming traffic. And that was clearly shown to me by the oncoming traffic with a flasher.
It is true that in all countries except Austria and Germany there was also a daytime lighting obligation for cars. But first of all, my “wrong” lighting was not as noticeable in daylight. And secondly, instead of the headlights during the day, I usually only switched on the parking lights. The main thing was that the headlights and tail lights were not dark…
In the evening
After arrival I walked through the village, town or city. To move around, to see something, to have dinner and to talk to people. Since I was alone all day long, it was important for me to have some conversation in the evening. Either I was in contact in the restaurant or people were talking to me on the street if they looked at the Landcruiser. There were always opportunities for conversation.
Afterwards I took care of standard tasks. To save all pictures and videos of the day from the camera, the mobile phone, the dashcam and sometimes the drone to my laptop and an external hard disk. Feeding Instagram and Facebook with news. Checking mails and (sometimes) answering them. To make necessary bank transfers online and to arrange other things in Germany. Because there the daily routine continued in my absence, though. And writing diary notes. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to bring the experiences together so well today…
And finally, I roughly planned the next day via Internet. Where do I want to get to approximately? Is there anything interesting to see on the way – without a big detour? Do I have to do any shopping or refuel tomorrow morning?
Especially in the first few days this all took quite a long time. The routine had to be established first. But then it got better from day to day, so that I was already in bed before midnight. And not just at half past one, as in the first few days.
North of Vladivostok the landscape was rather flat at first. Later, behind Khabarovsk, then rather hilly. But no matter how, either Siberia was flat with fir trees, birches and many bushes. Or it was hilly with fir trees, birches and many bushes. In both cases beautiful, because it is not as densely populated as Central Europe. And there is a lot more open landscape. In both cases, however, sometimes boring, especially on the long roads.
I just had a look at the landscape photos from those days. Actually I only need to post one or two of them here. All others look the same… There was only a change, if I crossed one of the big rivers of Siberia (Amur or Ussuri) or its tributaries. Mainly the long bridges over the wide rivers are an eye catcher. And the wider the river (= the more important the bridge), the more likely there were guard houses with staff on both sides of the bridge. At smaller bridges these guard houses still existed, but they were not (no longer) manned. In the video below there is a picture of it. Because at and on the bridges it was not allowed to stop. So unfortunately no possibility to take a photo.
There was also a change in the sky, when the weather changed. Especially when a thunderstorm came up. That looks great in this wide landscape. But I liked it best when it was far away. Because with my loaded roof rack the Landcruiser was mostly the highest point in the landscape.
The sky in general. I would like to claim that it is different in Siberia, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan than in Europe. Higher, and the clouds are suspended below it. I miss this wide country and this big sky here at home.
Streets in Siberia
More than 80% of the Russian highways are perfectly developed. The other 20% are under construction or under repair. And a construction site like this can stretch 30 km. So I had no other choice than to join the caravan and follow the other cars with 50, 40 or 30 km per hour. Here the speed was determined by the slowest truck in front of us.
At Chita I had to change from the R 297 to the R 258. This crossing is probably quite north of the city. However, since I drove into Chita, I later had to drive to the R 258 on a country road. And this road was just being extended. 30 construction sites with single lane traffic. So I needed exactly the same time for the 600 km to Ulan Ude as I did for 900 km the day before. Below in the video there is a short section of this road shown…
You should also keep an eye on potholes (probably caused by the harsh winters) on otherwise well tarred roads. As a local explained to me, they are repaired according to the following pattern: First, the damage is milled out neatly. Then the edges are treated. And finally the hole will be asphalted. Except that between step 1 and 3 can be several days or weeks. That was another reason why I only drove in daylight.
Only a short stopover to get cash, for a coffee break and to refuel. So I didn’t see too much here. But it is a nice medium sized city (500.000+ inhabitants) with many old buildings. Some of them are still waiting for a renovation. Until 1990 the city was mainly dominated by the military, today by industry and mining. And by Korean and Japanese investors.
It was Sunday noon and cash was only available at the main station. And right next door was a nice coffee shop. At the gas station a friendly Russian driver helps me out with his tire pressure gauge and insect remover. He also gives me the spray can with me. Because the gas station had none in stock. And he told me that I would need it on the further tour. How true…
In the evening in a motel behind Khabarovsk I met a Japanese motorcyclist. Metabon (I don’t even know his real name) came from Tokyo and had given up his job as an undertaker there. Now he wanted to travel with his motorcycle through Siberia, Mongolia, the Caucasus and Western Europe to Paris and Spain. From there then through Africa. And then back to Japan. He managed that too. I’m still tracking his posts on Instagram.
For those first few days I stayed in motels along the highways. Not particularly comfortable, but after 10-12 hours of driving a day I didn’t care. I just wanted to sleep there for one night.
By the way: In Khabarovsk I was already one hour closer to Frankfurt. Only seven hours time difference between home and me.
The 2,100 km from Khabarovsk, east of China, to Chita, north of China, I made in two and a half days. As already described above, there was nothing interesting to see here either. And so this part of the trip was quite monotonous. On the other hand: This was not unpleasant to me. I wanted to get ahead as quickly as possible in Siberia. Because I only had a 30 days visa for Russia.
And the validity of the visa also continued during the time when I would be driving through Mongolia. And then of course later in the Russian Altay. I had to manage the whole 7,000 km from Vladivostok to the Kazakh border in 30 days. I would have liked to have had a 90-day visa. But unfortunately the visa office in Germany could not get it for me in March.
Somewhere here I came to a bridge over the railway. And there I saw from my car a train of the Trans–Siberian Railway. Or was it maybe only a regional train? I don’t think so, it was too long for that. In any case, bypassing all German traffic regulations, I quickly took a photo with my mobile phone while driving. Because before I reached the bridge, the train was long gone.
My vehicle equipment still has to be completed
Personally, I didn’t like Chita that much. The city is located in a valley, surrounded by mountains. That bothers me. Besides, it was rainy. And finally it is an industrial city that lives from engineering, metal processing and lignite. Also there was probably a rather large military command here in Soviet times. Wikipedia writes that there were 15 divisions here. Somehow I think that cities with a military past look differently…
But I just wanted to buy a warning triangle and a first aid kit for the car. Both are not mandatory in Australia and so it was missing in the Landcruiser as well. But I was told that the police officers usually are first interested in it when they check a car. This is not different in Russia than in Germany.
Then it took a while until I found a car parts store. And again another while until I could make clear to the salesman what I wanted to buy. At first he had interpreted my gestures regarding the warning triangle in such a way that I would have a corresponding engine warning light in the instrument display. But finally it worked. And for 450 rubles (approx. 6.50€) I was now the owner of a new warning triangle and first-aid kit.
Not alone on adventure tour
Like Metabon before, I met a group of Chinese in Chita who wanted to drive to Portugal and back to China in their off-road vehicles. While I was driving constantly with 80 to 100 km per hour they overtook me the following day several times and they waved to me friendly. The Landcruiser is not designed for speed but for difficult terrain. And I did not want to drive so fast. The Chinese also had a small yellow Audi A4 in tow. But how it should manage their whole planned tour was unclear to me at that time – and I never found out.
On the track between Chita and Ulan Ude Siberia became more mountainous. But even here there were no special highlights. With the exception of the construction sites which became more frequent. The R 258 was not yet as well developed as the more southern highways. And therefore there were often only single-lanes in each direction.
Already in Chita it had rained cats and dogs, and that got better only for a short time on the further drive. 300 km before Ulan Ude then again a thunderstorm with heavy rain. But somehow the road always led along the edge of the thunderstorm. So it stayed with the rain – but what a rain! Lucky me 😉
Ulan Ude is also located in Siberia, but…
Behind the last hilltop I suddenly found myself on a huge plateau. And what a contrast after the many hours and kilometers in the rain. Sunshine, grazing cattle and sheep, peaceful evening mood – like a Garden of Eden.
In Ulan Ude there was sunshine and it was 15 degrees warmer than before in the mountains. And I felt more like in China or Mongolia than in Russia. Because many people here come from Asian and Mongolian ethnic groups, although they are of course Russian citizens. By the way, I’ve come one hour closer to Frankfurt here again. The time difference between Ulan Ude and Frankfurt is only +6 hours.
Car wash please
First I wanted to have the Landcruiser washed. After two days through the mud. The search for a car wash was quite adventurous. But finally I found one in a backyard. There are no automatic car washes here, all the washing is still done by hand. But after that the car looks like new.
A nice downtown area…
In Ulan Ude I stayed for two days. On the first day I visit the Russian Orthodox Odigitrievsky-Cathedral (Cathedral of Our Lady of Smolensk). In Russian Свято-Одигитриевский собор Улан-Удэ, in German Hodegetria-Kathedrale.
Already with these different names I got sometimes problems. Because on German sites on the Internet I read the German name, in a brochure the English one and on the street signs the Russian one. Is this one or are these several different churches? No, it is only one!
But unfortunately this was the case on the whole trip. I had to find my way between the German, English and the designation in the respective national language. That went sometimes more and sometimes less well. Especially because I was mostly at one place only one or two days. And I also didn’t have the time to do long internet research every evening.
I strolled along the pretty pedestrian zone, the central street in the city, and arrived at a triumphal arch on the other side.
This triumphal arch was built in 1891, when the Russian tsar visited the city. It was demolished in 1936 and rebuilt in 2006 for the 340th anniversary of the city. Maybe that’s where the saying “Russia is big – and the Tsar is far…” comes from.
In the centre I walk past a huge Lenin head. But here in the Far East of Russia it looks a bit Asian.
The highest portrait bust in the world. 7.70m high and 42 tons in weight it is said to have been made for Lenins 100th birthday. And it stands here until today. After 1990 it was left standing. After all, you never know what is still to come – and maybe it will be needed one day again 😉
…a Buddhist monastery…
In the afternoon I went with bus line 97 to a mountain just outside the city. To a Buddhist monastery, the Rinpoche Bagsha Datsan. From here you have a great view of Ulan Ude.
And in the monastery area you feel like in Bhutan or Mongolia. Not like in Siberia. Especially impressive: A path with prayer flags and the prayer wheels.
Back in the city it started raining again. And so I did not want to walk to my accommodation but to go back by bus. I asked a passer-by at a bus-stop which bus goes to the city. And she said – from here there is none. But she wanted to call me a taxi. How friendly! And I had learned something new again. In Russia it is not usual/possible to stop a taxi directly at the street. You have to call the taxi office for a car. And of course I did not knew any local taxi phone number.
…and Lake Baikal
If you are already in this corner of the world, you should of course have seen Lake Baikal. The deepest freshwater lake on earth, 16.000m depth, the oldest and the most rich in water. But my trip there the next day turned out to be a failure. I drove almost 200 km each way for nothing. First of all, I could not get to the shore very well because of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs directly along the shore of the lake. And second, the weather above the lake was so foggy and bad that I had only about 200m visibility. So I did not even need to take any photos. And also not to start my drone. But at least I put my foot into the water of Lake Baikal on a small pebble beach.
From Siberia to the Mongolian border
Somehow I reached the border quite late the next day. Just before 2 pm. I was told in the accommodation that the border crossing can take up to 6 hours. My diary only says ‘got away quite late’. But why, I don’t remember anymore. Overslept? Or had too long breakfast? No idea.
But the distance from Ulan Ude to the border (Kyakhta in Russia or Altanbulag in Mongolia) via the A 340 was with 280 km not that long. The road was good and I did not dawdle around on the way. I only had a break at a resting area directly at a lake. Also here was a mongolian/buddhist monument.
But my border crossing therefore took only 3 hours. In general it always runs after the same pattern. When entering the border area the license plate number is noted. Then passport control and check of the car papers take place, mostly in a building. There are also ATMs to get money in the local currency.
Back outside again, the next step is to check the luggage in the car. Depending on the border and the traveller more or less accurate. For example, most travellers in front of me had to unload all their luggage from the car. I did not have to do that. By the way at no border. Instead, the border police always looked into the glove compartment of the Landcruiser at every border. Why? No idea. During the inspection the VIN number of the car is compared with the papers as well. So you should know where it’s stamped on your model.
When you leave the border area, it will be checked if you have done all steps. And your vehicle is removed from the list of the vehicles that entered the border area.
And because it was that nice, the whole thing again from the beginning
The described procedure always runs twice. Once on the side of the country you are leaving. And then on the side of the country you’re entering. When you enter a country, you must additionally take out a border insurance (third party liability insurance) for the car. And possibly pay road tolls.
By the way, the Mongolian entry was very professional in that. There was a routing slip provided. It was stamped at every position. And at the end it was checked if all stamps were on the paper. Besides car, passport, customs and road fees there were also the points disinfection and x-ray on the routing slip. Disinfection and x-ray of the car of course, not of the travelers. I did not need X-rays, but disinfection. And that cost me a few cents too.
Since I couldn’t read the routing slip in Mongolian language at all, a friendly young official took care of me and personally guided me from station to station. This had the advantage that I could get through some queues very quickly. And I wasn’t checked that much either.
While waiting on the Russian side I met Tatsral from Ulaanbaatar in the car in front of me. She had brought American tourists to Irkutsk and returned from there in a taxi with some Mongolian students. She was the only one who could speak English and gave me her phone number.
If I was in Ulaanbaatar I should give her a call. Then she wanted to show me the city. Already a great start for my visit to the capital of Mongolia. But then the Russian border officials forced us to go back into our cars again. We should wait in the cars and not stand around outside.
One last short delay…
In the insurance office just before the exit of the border area something funny happened. I had to buy the car insurance and the young employee there had her toddler with her. While we were still talking, the child closed the sliding door of the cupboard where the forms were inside.
And that door had a snap lock. And a key could not be found. So the employee went to get her colleague who broke the door down. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to bring your kids to work 😉
…and I am in Mongolia
With ways, detours and excursions the first 4.000 km of my road trip to Frankfurt/Main are done. And my Landcruiser has brought me here safely.
In the video (2m 35s, Music: Royalty Free Music by Bensound, www.bensound.com) you get a view ‘from the driver’s perspective’ through Siberia. That means from the Dashcam. Roads, the gas station in Khabarovsk, a bridge over a tributary of the Amur or Ussuri river and the border crossing. I hadn’t noticed that every time I started the engine again, the dashcam started recording 😉
Just click on the next photo, then the video will open in a new window. I have integrated it here with a picture and a link behind it. Because with normal integration the video control bar is missing. Why? I have not found out yet.
By the way, if you wonder why the Dashcam sometimes shows a speed of 0 km/h although the Landcruiser is driving: That’s because the display of the correct speed in the dashcam takes some time. Until the built-in GPS system has found its satellites.
And those of you who want even more Siberia can also watch my YouTube video from 2019 about this part of my trip.
For today just one more conclusion for this part of my trip: Siberia – A great landscape! With great people! How to proceed, from the border crossing to Ulaanbaatar and onwards through the Mongolian desert to the Russian Altay Mountains, I’ll tell you in the next part.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎