Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween... Japanese Style

Well, it's Halloween and I'm in Japan, where they seem aware of Halloween (or at least the girls at Tully's were wearing some sorts of outfits. (BTW, I'm now officially back in civilization as I've had my choice of Starbucks, Tully's, and Seattle's Best Coffee over the last two days!), even though they don't actually celebrate it. Well, I didn't celebrate Halloween either, instead I went on the 'Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route,' which, to me anyway, seems like an extremely Japanese sort of adventure. It's nothing more than a route across the mountains connecting a pair of cities. In Japan, they've turned it into a very well organized, precision-run tourist attraction, drawing it lots of local tourists, in the their ever-present large tour groups. But aside from giving an apparent insight into Japanese culture, the route is roughly a full-day trek, split up into 9 parts, which also happens to go through some gorgeous sites in the Japanese Alps, which reminds me, I've now been to the Japanese Alps and New Zealand's Southern Alps... perhaps it's time to visit the original Alps in Europe too... The 9 parts are each traversed by a different mode of transportation, so...

Part 1: Train

This part wasn't really all that exciting - it's just a normal local Japanese train that rumbles through some suburbs, then some scenic countryside, eventually leading to the foothills of the mountain range that makes up the Japanese Alps. We did have a nice site at a river crossing, pictured above...

Part 2: Cable Railway

This is where you suddenly start going up.. steeply! The cablecar gains approximately 500m of elevation over just 1.3km traveled. The incline is only some 25%, but it sure seems a lot steeper when you're riding up!

Part 3: Highland Bus
The bus starts at an elevation of 977m, at which point it's still relatively warm, and you can see just a bit of snow at the peaks off in the distance... An hour or so later, you arrive at the Murodo station, at an elevation of 2450m, and winter has clearly arrived:

There's also an alpine lake up here and some steaming hot springs:

The Japanese do diligently try to put English on a lot of signs... They just aren't always very good at the English... Gus is a dangerous fella...

Met some other tourists while up here (refreshing to find people who speak English again... Ian, Matt, and Ghwen? were in Toyama for a hydrological conference)

Part 4: Tunnel Trolley Bus
The next 10 minutes were spent taking a shortcut, tunnelling through the bottom of a mountain in a trolley bus... It wasn't particularly interesting to be honest - just rather odd to drive through a tunnel for a full 3.7km!

An action shot on the way

Part 5: Ropeway (a.k.a. gondola)

For the next kilometer and a half, we descended 500km in a gondola suspended on a ropeway... gliding over an expansive gorge, flanked by more snow-capped mountains:

Part 6: Cable Railway

This time heading down, very much like the steep ascent earlier in the trip... but all in a rather gloomy tunnel this time!

Part 7: Your very own two feet!

At this point, you've arrived at the Kurobe Dam. Roughly every single river in Japan has been dammed, so this isn't a particulalry rare site. I'm not sure if this one is bigger or smaller than the average dam in Japan, but you can walk across the top of it, and that seems like a tourist victory already!

Part 8: [another] tunnel trolley bus
This one is really no different than the first tunnel trolley bus. Except that it's much fuller of Japanese tourist groups - apparently most groups start from the opposite end that I started from and only come half way, then turn around and head back.

Part 9: Bus back to the city
And for the finale, you just take a perfectly regular bus back to a city on the other side of the mountain range... At which point, I hopped on a train and headed towards Tokyo, making a stop in the town of Matsumoto, famous for a castle, built entirely of wood:

I got there after dark... but the castle is well lit up!

tomorrow, it's off to Tokyo to meet up with some friends and do sight seeing for about a week. Then I'll have to go back across the country (fortunately Japan is a thin country) to pick up the car, which is sitting at the customs station in the Fushiki Port waiting for clearance documents in the form of a Carnet de Passage to arrive from Canada (of all places).

And speaking of the mini, here it is on Japanese soil! Just not very far onto it, sitting about 30 feet from the shore of Sea of Japan in customs. Considering that customs is willing to let me keep it there for free, I'd actually be happy to keep it there a while and travel around Japan without a car, but alas, I'll need to go back for it in another week or so...

And here's the Russian version of a cruiseship - the 'Rus' that got me and the mini across the Sea of Japan in 40 fairly boring hours. The ship is capable of carrying about 300 cars on board (and will on the way back), on this trip, the mini had the car deck all to itself!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

From sea to shining sea!

Have you ever driven from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Pacific? Lots of people have - you just take the interstates all the way across the US of A and cruise into the California sunset. I hear someone has driven the 3,000 miles from New York to Malibu in just over 30 hours...

Or you can be a bit more adventurous and head down to Central or South America likely making the route shorter, but almost certainly more exciting. But if you should really happen to be looking to make your life interesting (and difficult!), you don't go West into the California sunset, drive East from London and aim for the sunrise over Mt. Fuji in Japan!

Well, I haven't actually reached Japan yet (and still need to spend a day dealing with Russian customs before they let me and the mini onto the ship heading there), but:

The English Channel, Atlantic Ocean: July 20, 2008

Golden Horn Bay, Sea of Japan, Pacific Ocean: October 26, 2008

So, after a little more than three months, I have finally reached the other end of Eurasia! The totals:
- approximately 25,000km traveled (including 22,000 driven and the other 3,000 by train)
- number of breakdowns/visits to repair shops: I've lost count
- 28 countries visited, even though I still don't think I spent enough time in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Moldova for them to really count
- continents visited: 3. I got to go to Africa while waiting for the registration documents to be corrected...
- total bribes paid (so far): 500 Rubles in Russia, and ~$10 worth of Ukranian money in Ukraine
- armed conflicts breaking out along the way: only 1. If I hadn't spent 10 days de-touring back to Paris to fix the car documents, we may just have been in Georgia when Russia invaded...

Being here on the other coast still feels entirely surreal - I don't think I've quite come to accept it yet. Yesterday morning, went to pick up the car - it has arrived in Vladivostok on its truck seemingly without any problems; started right back up and ran about as well as normal to get across town. Today, it was auto-driver day in Vladivostok - I felt I probably deserved to participate, if only they had told me ahead of time! It also doesn't quite qualify as the total end of the road yet - presuming I can get all the customs paperwork squared away tomorrow morning, I will be boarding the fine vessel 'Rus' Monday night and arriving in Toyama, Japan roughly Wednesday morning, which will present me with another 500km of road East before I really reach the Pacific Ocean and the total end of the road, but Japan actually has roads, well-paved ones at that, so that seems more like a chance to do a bit of extra sight-seeing than real driving!

In the mean time, a few sights of Vladivostok I've been able to find in between the visits to various customs offices around town:

Beautiful arch in Vladivostok built to commemorate the visit to the city by Tsar Nicholas II in 1902. Of course, destroyed by the Communist regime, but recently rebuilt, in all its original beauty and glory

A WWII Memorial, now flanked by a small gold-domed church

A nice display at the top of a hill overlooking the city and the bay

And this is the view overlooking the city and the bay. Vladivostok has been the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet since its inception over a century ago. The ships still standing guard in the bay. The non-military ship to the right is the 'Rus,' which should be taking me to Japan tomorrow evening.

The Pacific Fleet museum is housed inside of an old Soviet submarine... with 10 kills on its resume apparently.

Well, I doubt the most famous of Russian poets, Aleksandr Pushkin, had ever visited Vladivostok, but they do have a nice statue commemorating him.

The most noteworthy thing about the city of Vladivostok, however, is the port. In fact, if the term 'port-city' is to ever make an appearance in a dictionary, Vladivostok is the city that they should use as an example, not Hong Kong, Baltimore, Odessa, or any others. Not only is it obviously the home of the fleet and Russia's main Pacific-facing shipping artery, but the entire city appears to be built around the port and the business of shipping things. It starts with the cars - enterprising Russians have started bringing used Japanese cars into Russia a number of years back and Vladivostok has always been the primary port of entry. As such, it is absolutely impossible to actually find a Russian-made car on the streets of Vladivostok. But if you want to find just about any car built in Japan (and increasingly South Korea) over the past twenty years, you might be more likely to find it here than you would be in Japan itself! And the vast majority of the businesses you find all around town are in some way or another enabling this steady flow of vehicles. So, I felt this pictue summarized the city reasonably well:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The last 3000km: Pacific Ocean or bust!

After an extended, two-week stay in Chita, on Friday, October 17th, the time finally came for me to leave the Transbaikal region behind, hop on a Russian train once more, and head for the coast to try and catch up with the mini (which, incidentally, was arriving in Vladivostok that very same Friday). Well, it was almost time to leave anyway, not before making a quick detour by Chia's WWII Memorial:

My train was set to leave shortly after 6 in the morning, so instead of, say, sleeping that night, we spent a few quality hours at a banya (Russian sauna) in Chita:

The train ride on the Trans-Siberian line East of Lake Baikal is certainly a chance to be fully immersed in the rather desolate Russian taiga. There's not a whole lot to see out the window, and while heading West from Baikal, you can just about count on running into a few other foreigners making the Trans-Siberian trip between Moscow and Beijing, hardly any of them choose to continue through Russia to Vladivostok instead of detouring into Mongolia towards China. In a word, I didn't have a whole lot to do. I chatted a bit with the other two guys in my cabin, tried a Russian sudoku book, and learned as much as Lonely Planet could possibly teach me about the history and culture of Japan and Belarus. I learned, for instance, that Belarus has expressed interest in re-merging with Russia - Lonely Planet is way ahead of the curve here by having already combined the two countries in a single book... I suppose, the Lonely Planet Belarus wasn't a hot selling commodity. And after a little over 30 hours of this, we rolled into Blagoveshensk, the skies having turned ominously dark and now pelting the train with droplets of rain. I'd decided ahead of time that I didn't want to sit on the train for 72 straigh hours to Vladivostok, but would instead make stops all along the way. Blagoveshensk was the first stop.

Blagoveshensk isn't what I would call a particularly attractive town. It's primarily color is the ubiquitous Soviet gray (accented by the rain the first evening, but still there the following [semi-sunny] day). The city hugs the Amur river, which also serves as a border with China, so out the windows of my river-side hotel, I could see China. In the lobby of my river-side hotel, I could see plenty of Chinese tourists, who, as far as I could tell, had come across the border simply to gamble. Blagoveshensk isn't Las Vegas, mind you, but it does have its fair share of slot machines and other assorted gambling enterprises. Wondering briefly through the little casino in my hotel turned up noone but the Chinese tourists there; the Russianas clearly prefer to simply sink their money into vodka - seemingly quite willing to drink themselves into oblivion without proper motivation, such as having lost all your money gambling... Blagoveshensk is probably sounding rather unimpessive right about now, but all in all, it was a pleasant enough break from the train ride, so absolutely no regrets having stopped there. And there's even a few sights from the city seemingly worthy of a photograph:

An Arc de Triomphe...

Things I found strange and/or ironic about this monument:
- It doesn't really look like most arches of this sort scattered around the world. Certainly nothing like the ones in Paris and Moscow that I can picture relatively easily. Instead, it looks a lot like the one in Vientiante, Laos...
- it's commemorating the treaty that gave control of the Amur region to Russia. Yet the caption on it states that the Amur region "is, has always been, and will forever remain Russian." Can't argue with the present of the future, but if we're building an Arc celebrating Russia's acquisition of the region, wouldn't that suggest that it hasn't always been Russian?
- Finally, I simply enjoyed that this symbol clearly celebrating Russia is lit up at night... by a pair of flood lights made by a Chinese company... both lights still proudly declaring their company of origin...

Speaking of China, this monument celebrates friendship between Russia and China... Sure, why not, I hear Russia just handed over some useless islands in the Amur back to China. The locals by the way, aren't paritcularly pleased by this sudden generosity...

This, I think, is Blagoveshensk's drama theater... or a welcome facility for aliens from outer space, it's a little hard to tell, really... It's not like I was actually inclined to try and see a play while here.

Clearly a day was enough for the Blagoveshensk metropolis, so the next evening, I was right back on a train, heading for the next stop East: Birobidzhan. The ride this time was just one night and this time it was punctuated by some excellent, and very Russian characters I met on the train. First there was this guy:

A retired colonel, Russian airborne infantry, tracing a few military generations back to Cossacks that had first established the towns that I was now riding through in the Russian Far East. He, being properly Russian, naturally, came on board the train equipped with salo (sort of a Russian delicacy - you'll have to look it up... at which point, you'll probably find it disgusting, but you'll be wrong), salami, home made mustard, some boiled eggs, and, of course, vodka (re-packaged in inconspicous plastic water bottles), so a feast was had! Another guy in my cabin was an arts (ceramics primarily) teacher from Khabarovsk - we debated philosophy and meta-physics for a while (see, you don't just drink vodka on Russian trains!). discussing whether or not it would ever be possible for us to create a computer or a robot that posessed a human-like consciousness and was thus effectively self-aware... We didn't really reach a conclusion - after all what would philosophy be with conclusions!? The other two guys I met just spent a lot of time being drunk (but were, of course, quite fascinated by how they could make it to America). One made off with the other's brand new, 3500 Ruble shoes when getting off at his stop in the middle of the night. Nobody knows if it was just a drunken mistake or theft. Considering that he'd left us his name, phone number, and address the prior evening and was rather drunk when I last saw him, it could easily be a mistake... then again they were brand new 3500 Ruble (~$140) shoes...

And then, we arrived in Birobidzhan:

Birobidzhan is the capital of the Jewish autonomous area, established by the Soviet Union back in the 1930's, well before Israel came into existence. Considering that Russia and the Soviet Union have traditionally been rather anti-semitic, I found this little region with signs in both Russian and Yiddish and a large menorah sitting outside the train station to be not only surprising, but almost paradoxical:

At its peak, the region had apparently boasted a Jewish population of over 40,000. Now that figure is down to less than 5,000 (I'm quoting the Lonely Planet here, so assume a large margin of error...), and thus the brand new synagogue and Jewish Cultural Center:

is paired with an even larger, brand new Russian Orthodox church just down the street:

After Birobidzhan, it was off to Khabarovsk, a downright metropolitan city with a population of over 600,000 and a healthy flow of tourists from China and Japan (driving up hotel prices as far as I can tell). In fact, my first surprising observation of the city was the site of tourists, taking pictures. The last time I'd seen tourists was in Ulaan Baatar almost a month ago! Chita, Ulan Ude, and Chernyshevsk may have some attractions (who can forget Chita's giant green pipe or the equally giant floating Lenin head of Ulan Ude... Chernyshevsk is pretty forgettable), but they don't seem to attract any tourists. Whether the Chinese gamblers had actually bothered to even bring cameras across the river to Blagoveshensk or not, I'm going to choose to not count them as real tourists.

Khabarovsk is fascinating in the way that it manages to juxtapose imposing Soviet relics with clear signs of the new age of a freer, more Capitalist Russia. Here, you'll find beautiful tree-lined boulevards, a scenic river front, a couple of shiny, newly rebuilt churches, a bunch of museums, and some excellent (albeit very expensive) sushi (which the Russians choose to call susi for some reason):

A tree lined boulevard and a small lake in the heart of Khabarovsk

The Amur waterfront

A newly rebuilt church stands proudly against the brilliant blue skies

The Church of Transfiguration, hiding behind the monolithic Khabarovsk WWII Memorial

And finally, I'm now at the last stop: Vladivostok, where I arrived early this morning. Sadly, it's been gloomy and gray all day here and I've spent most of my day talking to shipping agencies about getting my car to Japan, so no pictures just yet, but not to fear - more on Vladivostok to come! Looks like I'll be here at least 4-5 days...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bye bye, mini!

Well, not really - or at least I hope it's not really good bye, anyway! All I do know for the moment, is that after almost four months of owning the car, I have chosen to abandon it for an extended period of time for the second time - the first was at the Bratislava airport in order to fly back to Paris and get the registration documents corrected. The second is here in Chita, where after a protracred struggle against Russian roads, Russian weather, and the Russian people, I had finally decided to simplify my life just a bit and ship the car the final 3,000km from Chita to the Pacific coast in Vladivostok via a truck. Fortunately, there's absolutely no shortage of trucks ready to travel this route as Russia has become a booming export market for both new and used Japanese cars, which get shipped to Vladivostok, then either driven over the barely-existing roads as far as they need to go in Russia (I ran into a guy that had bought a car as a present for his daughter and was driving it all the way to Saint Petersbugh! I quietly concluded he was insane...) or, if the new owner cares enough to afford it, get shipped by truck of train. (An interesting side effect of all this is that most of the cars and trucks in this part of Russia have the steering wheels on the right side. In fact, the truck that's shipping my car, is a Volvo, built in Sweden. But built for the Japanese market, so the steering wheel is on the right. Of course, it has since been brought over from Japan to Russia, where we still drive on the right side of the road...) The trucks heading back East are generally empty, so shipping the car in that direction is a relatively affordable process - I'm being charged 7000 Rubles (~$275 USD), which is, ironically enough, barely more than it costs to park the car for a week at the Bratislava airport... and also not much more than I'd estimate gasoline would cost me to drive the remaining 3,000km (repairs would be a whole different matter...).

And now, since I have felt like posting anything in a rather long while, a bit of a quick recap of the mini and I have been up to the last couple of weeks, leading to our temporary (I hope) parting of the ways this past Saturday... It has now been over two weeks since I left Ulan-Ude and was pleased to learn that the car could still cover over 700km in a single day when I arrived in Chita.

A sign indicating the end of Siberia... Ok, it was just a village named Siberia... Later, I did, however, learn that I am, in fact, no longer in Siberia - Chita is in the middle of the TransBaikal region, and Siberia ends somewhere west of here... Who knew!?

The mini on the road in Siberia... erm, TransBaikal region. I like calling it Siberia better!

After spending a couple of days taking in all the sites that Chita has to offer

The new Chita cathedral. I'll go ahead and guess that the old one used to look a lot like the new one, but had the misfortune of offending the Bolshevik sensibilities of some Soviet leader 80 or so years ago...

Speaking of Soviet leaders... The Lenin statue, in the middle of the Lenin square here in Chita. The Communist memorabilia may have all been torn down in Moscow and Saint Petersburgh, but it's still proudly on display here in Chita.

and finding a mechanic here to do a bit more welding on the mini suspension (side note: the two most effective and commonly used tools needed to fix the mini turn out to be a hammer and a welding torch), I packed up and headed out further East towards Vladivostok. The road from Chita is paved, reasonably well, for the first 130km. Then, you get about 20km of sputtering stretches of brand new asphalt, interspersed with construction sites and your basic, Mongolian-style roadlessness. Finally, the asphalt gives up and turns into the, by now well-familiar, dirt and rock trek for the next 1500km. After about 150km of roadlessness, I had reached the town of Chernyshevsk, which boasted both a 'hotel' (some guy was renting out beds in his house) and a mechanic - as the rear left tire was once again making contact with the body of the car and it was already 3 in the afternoon, I figured it was a perfectly good place to spend the night. The next morning, I woke up to discover that the car was now covered in ice:

then proceeded to explore a bit of Chernyshevsk... it's not what I would call a remarkable town:

Remember the 1980 Olympics in Moscow? Well, probably not, most of the West did boycott them... but Chernyshevsk remembers!

I don't have a witty caption for this one - this is just what a small town in the middle of nowhere, Russia looks like...

Finally settling on a mechanic who adjusted the suspension a little more - enough so that the wheel was no longer making contact with the fender (most of the time).

CTO does not mean Chief Technical Officer in Russian - it's a service station sign. The car in the fence is clearly a failed repair job...

The cat seemed rather fond of the mini...

At this point, I took stock of the state of the mini, and found that having had a little more free time here in Russia, I'd been able to get it into a remarkably decent shape (I call it the mini Renaissance):

Ulan Ude:
- bent rim on the spare tire fixed: first time since Western Kazakhstan spare is fully functional
- battery replaced: first time since Western Kazakhstan car starts consistently (knock on wood). To be entirely honest, most of the time, the car wouldn't start because there was a wire loose on the ignition coil, which we fixed back in Altai, Mongolia... But the battery gave up only a few days later, and I was right back to recruiting people on the street to help push start

- gas gauge fixed (sender unit replaced): first time since Romania I have a functional fuel gauge
- horn replaced: first time since Mongolia (Bayanhogor-Arvaiheer?) my horn works. And by 'works,' I mean exists as it had actually fallen out somewhere in the Mongolian steppe...
- emergency singals fixed (blinkers still don't work): first time since France, I think?
- fuel fitler installed: first time ever... even though I'd tried back near Krasnodar, Russia, but that installation failed.
- Daisy Cutters sticker replaced: 1st time since Crimea, Ukraine it looks good (spares stolen in Krakow). Turns out you can get proper stickers made here in Chita quite cheaply...

That would be this sticker, the logo from one of my hockey teams back in Seattle. I didn't have the time to make a proper sticker out of it, instead having only basic paper stickers. Getting the car washed in Ukraine, finally destroyed the original - I had planned ahead by making a few spare paper stickers, but those were stolen when the car was broken into in Krakow...

- bought stereo in Chita, installed it here: 1st time since Krakow, the mini has a stereo! 1st time ever it has a functioning AUX input (for those who recall the fancy $30 stereo we purchased in Olgiy, Mongolia, I can report that the AUX input on it wasn't actually connected to anything)
- fix driver side lock: first time since Hovd(?), Mongolia both doors can be locked from outside
- fix glove compartment: first time since Eastern Kazakhstan/Western Mongolia it actually closes. This one probably won't last...
- re-install passenger side fan vent (using duct tape of couse): 1st time since Western Kazakhstan it's in place
- install fog lights (purchased prior to leaving Ulaan Baatar): 1st time, period... But this is really just accessorizing...

So, of course, I was feeling reasonably good about things at this point, and was all set to tackle the next ugly stretch of road East the following morning (I'd been told it would be even worse than the stretch I'd covered to get there), when fates intervened rather bluntly by virtue of having my wallet stolen that evening... I recall Cyrus complaining that when he left his wallet at a gas station back in Greece, his major regret was losing the wallet itself... I had no such aesthetic qualms - I was now stuck in the middle of Russian Far East without my ATM card (or my credit cards for that matter... not that, say, Chernyshevsk accepted those). So after spending (wasting?) an entire day talking to the local police, where a perfectly nice lady named Svetlana assured me that it was just a matter of time until they found all of my things, I figured I had no choice but to head back to the relative metropolis of Chita, where I could wait in the, once again, relative comfort of Hotel Arcadia for my cards to get replaced and shipped out here. Just as an aside, over a week later, I haven't heard anything from Svetlana or anyone else at the Chernyshevsk police station... I ain't holding my breath, as the saying goes...

The road back to Chita was fairly unremarkable until I was less than 30km away from the city, and apparently my subconscious chose to remind me that I really had noone but myself to blaim for getting stuck out here: as I was futzing with my iPod, now plugged into the newly installed Lada-brand stereo, I looked away from the road just long enough to have my right tires go onto the shoulder... Not quite sure if the following was a result of hitting one of the rocks strewn across the shoulder, or just swerving back onto the pavemenet, but the next thing I heard was a rather tragic snap, and the next discovery I made was that the rear right tire was now wedged right up against the fender and really in no mood whatsoever to spin... After briefly reviewing my options (no cell phone coverage, 30km away from Chita, 7PM, so getting dark and cold rather quickly), I figured I needed some help, so the third car I had flagged down turned out to be a guy in a pickup truck who did plenty of repairs himself - in fairly short order, we had found the piece that had snapped, had the wheel marginally closer to being back in place, and had wedged a piece of wood into the suspension to try and keep it there (a good Russian mechanic, of course, has an axe in his toolkit, and is happy to chop down a small sappling by the side of the road to make a suspension wedge out of). So I went on to spend the next two hours limping back into town (good thing, my emergency lights had been fixed)... and finalizing the plan for shipping the car to Vladivostok instead of driving it.

One last thing of interest about the trip - back in Ulaan Baatar, I'd been warned that the Chita police were known to be difficult to deal with... So far, I'm pleased to report that I have not had any trouble (knock on wood some more...) - in fact I've been pulled over twice so far: on the way to Ulan Ude, the cop asked me where I was going to and from, then sent me on my way wishing me good luck. The police checkpoint on the way out of Chita had also stopped me - this guy, I talked with for a few minutes, he then pulled out his cellphone, took a picture of the car, gave me a full scouting report on the upcoming road, and wished me luck on the way. Coming back to Chita, the same guy was there again (with two friends this time), so, this time, I stopped to chat for a few minutes... Upon hearing that I was planning to ship the car to Vladivostok, they suggested that a truck would be far cheaper than a train and offered to pull a truck over and arrange everything for me if I wanted to just come back by their checkpoint when I was ready to head out of town... All in all, so far so good with the Chita police forces!

Since being back in Chita, I haven't had a whole lot to do. The car's gone back to the same mechanic - they were excited to see me again. Replaced the axle that I had snapped in the rear suspension (after removing the supporting wooden wedge!) and recommended a company that could take care of the shipping. In fact, they're a good bunch of guys, so we've since gone out for a few drinks, been to one of their mother's birthday party, and have gone fishing at a nearby lake (where no fish was caught, but I rather thoroughly enjoyed spending an afternoon out by the lake). I've also been invited to dinner by one of the guys working for the shipping company, so that's in the plans for a few days from now.

The guys at this repair station, also like the mini. Much like every other repair station along the way so far. Well except for Zoran back in London, perhaps... but he's since come around upon hearing that I've actually managed to make it to Mongolia.

Seems like about the right size car for the kid, doesn't it?

At the birthday party...

I really ought to have pictures of the lake too... but, sadly, I forgot to charge my camera the night before. So, let's just say it was a beautiful, sunny autumn day by a lake in the Russian countryside, surrounded by trees with their leaves turning bright yellow and red colors, a few cows roaming around, and an occasional Moskvitch (old Soviet car, no longer in production) carcass sitting in the middle of the field, just to remind you that this is still Russia! In fact, here's a couple of good pictures of a different lake and countryside on the way from Ulan Ude to Chita:

All in all, I've been finding ways to keep myself entertained while stuck out here, but it really is time to get moving again. My replacement cards are now at the Moscow DHL station, so hopefully, they'll be arriving in Chita before the end of the week, at which point, I'll be getting on a train to head towards Vladivostok and be re-united with the mini. The trucks should be arriving there by this Friday. I've recently learned to not put any particularly excessive amount of trust into the people I deal with out here, but the fact that I have not yet paid for the shipping, makes me think that I am likely to see the car again, as collecting the 7,000 Rubles from me will be much easier than trying to deal with the Russian customs to get the car even semi-legally imported into Russia in the name of somebody other than myself...

And before we leave you, a few rather amusing sites I've found in Chita:

The Lonely Planet, Russia actually notes the 'Huge Green Pipe' on its Chita map... so, I guess it must be an attraction.

Go Vegan? In Chita? In English? One of the odder signs I've seen anywhere I've been in the past year...

This is a store that purports to sells consumer appliances. Those familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, however, will not that the name of the store spells out 'STALKER.' I guess you'll be seeing a lot more of the store employees if you decide to purchase one of their appliances?