Bikin and Khabarovosk were the first stops on our journey through Russia. We found friendly couchsurfers, drank ourselves silly at a Russian birthday party and cruised the Amur River.
With a feeling of gratitude to our new Russian friends we bade farewell to Vladivostok and began our journey towards Bikin, a small town 200km south of Khabarovsk, where we would be meeting our next couch surfer, Zhenya. Arythom, who we met in Vladivostok, had warned us, precisely, where the road would be shitty and it didn’t fail to deliver, we half expected to see our Japanese ferry mates broken down on the side of the road.
The journey passed with only one incident, with Sammi behind the wheel and shortly after a bush pee break, she let out a yelp as she looked down and saw a large technicolor spider crawling up her arm. Fortunately for us Sammi is cool as a cucumber and she gently pulled up betty to remove the spider and the mass of web it had spun in her hair.
We arrived in Bikin, a small backwater military town, and met up with Zhenya having been led to believe that he was taking us to a camp site. Instead he took us to a local bar/kebab shop run by the portly, jovial Azerbaijani Mahmed who offered to let us camp behind his bar. As the slightly arrogant and up his own arse Zhenya lectured us on his amazingness we were starting to regret our decision to come to Bikin.
Fortunately Zhenya’s friend Alena was lovely. The two of them took us for a whirlwind tour of Bikin’s two sights. With skies darkening rapidly we made haste to set up the tent before the inevitable downpour began. We weren’t quite quick enough: as the torrential rain started we were stranded with a semi erected tent. Fortunately some Russians drinking at the bar, having seen three idiot foreigners trying to set up a tent in a thunderstorm, took pity us on and helped us get the tent inside. And so began a brilliantly random night.
It transpires that one of the Russians who helped us was celebrating his birthday at the bar and with Russian hospitality as it is we were soon at their table surrounded by food, friendly faces and with the first of what would turn out to be many vodkas in hand. With Zhenya gone we were left with a merry band of Russians intent on getting us drunk. Fortunately Alena was on hand to help with translations. This well-travelled lady was an English teacher at the local school who had been begrudgingly transferred to Bikin due to her army husband’s work. We already had a good impression of her, and she turned out to be our saviour for the night. As more and more vodka was consumed and as our merry and increasingly drunk new friends dragged us to the dance floor, the realization that we might have to sleep in an already over stuffed car dawned on us.
Luckily Alena managed to persuade a friend to let us crash on his floor. The friend, a sniper for the Russian army named Koila. The floor, the living room of an army barracks. Having been smuggled onto the base, the drinking continued. Koila, who is one of the few snipers in the Russian army to have received the gold star turned out to be a top guy and with Alena and the booze doing the translating we spent the rest of the night chatting, laughing and listening to music.
Khabarovsk : graffiti artists and rock bands
The next day after another invitation to stay an extra day we said our goodbyes and headed off to Khabarovsk to meet our next hosts Stepan and his girlfriend Lera. Stepan, a postgrad architecture student, artist and photographer and his fitness instructor girlfriend live in a funky flat on the top floor right next to the mighty Amur river with their cool cat Frank. Frank has suicidal tendencies and had once somehow managed to survive a jump from the 9th floor – likely after having watched Stepan and his friends performing this Harlem Shake video. Freshened up, we were soon taken out for a pleasant long walk along the Amur river, around the very pretty Khabarovsk and for dinner and drinks at a local microbrew pub where we were joined by some of Stephan and Lera’s friends.
Amongst them Roman, the drummer for the locally well-known band, The Sistra. After dinner we got some beers and vodka and went to sit outside the new cathedral where the flamboyant Lera taught us to play ‘crocodile’, a Russian version of charades. After a phone call from Stepan’s friend Yaroslav, who was heading back to the flat we jumped in cabs to go and find him and get to the offy before it closed. Stepan managed to locate the passed out Yaroslav asleep on a bench behind his flat. Upstairs the drinking continued until morning. The next morning after a late beery breakfast we headed in to town to catch the ferry that takes people over to the other side of the Amur river. The people of Khabarovsk seem to enjoy heading over to the other side for a spot of flower picking, berry collecting or hiking.
A few more friends joined with more beer and we spent the next couple of hours cruising the Amur, beer in hand, before returning to Stepan’s flat for yet more beer and dinner. Monday was spent getting things ready for the upcoming wilderness camping and to get our final vaccination for European tick-bourne encephylitis, a nasty little disease that is untreatable and spread by the many ticks that lurk in the Russian wilderness. A tropical downpour meant that the barbecue our khabarovskian friends had planned for our last night was cancelled but after a delicious Chinese meal and a rummage through the rubbish tip we headed to the banks of the Amur with a discarded door for some campfire beers and more of Lera’s games and some farewells to our new friends.
We had had the idea of giving Betty a tattoo for each country we visited, the name of the country written in the local language and a picture to symbolize the country. Due to our lack of artistic merit we asked Stepan if he wouldn’t mind doing it for us. He spent most of the night cutting out a stencil for Betty’s first tattoo. In the morning with Betty packed up and us ready to go Stepan got to work and she now has a very cool Yuri Gagarin tattoo. It transpired Stepan was a bit of a graffiti artist and skilfully tagged a nearby skip with Gagarin and his catch phrase ” Let’s go Russsia”.
We leave Khabarovsk with warm hearts, we’ve had an excellent few days walking the beautiful streets of the city, cruising the Amur river and enjoying the company of our new friends. Wilderness here we come!