Seven days. This is how long you need to drive from Khabarovsk to Lake Baikal. 3000km of farmland, open savanna plains and mountainous taiga forest.
We had heard horror stories of the roads of Russia so were unsure what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the road was a newly laid highway for most of the way, with the occasional kilometre or two still under construction. With barely any traffic on the roads it was an easy journey into Siberia and a stunning drive through diverse landscapes including farmland, open savanna plains and mountainous taiga forest. The Taiga is the largest terrestrial biome in the world and makes up 29% of the earth’s forest cover, the main species being pines, spruces and larches. We were hoping for some wildlife spotting out in this incredible wilderness, but it turned out we were the only living creatures around. Or were we?
Free camping in Russia
Having failed to erect our tent in Bikin it was time for our first night camping in the wilderness! We were unsure of how we were going to find a suitable spot. So we came up with these rules:
The five commandments of free camping in Russia
Thou shalt not camp on private property
Thou shalt not camp on church land
Thou shalt not camp near a reservoir
Thou shalt ensure to avoid bandits by pitching your tent as far as possible from towns and roads
Thou shalt bring a decent shaker to prepare soirée cocktails and beat the Siberian cold
The three first rules are actually part of Russian law. However, how one can assuredly identify any of these forbidden lands we were unsure, and in the middle of nowhere it seemed you could easily be camping on them unintentionally. So we would search for tracks off the main road that looked relatively unused and hope for the best. The search for our first campsite was proving to be a failure and as it started to get late and patience was growing thin we spotted someone camped by a river on the outskirts of a town. We saw a man at the bridge. He wore an army green uniform with matching cap, an orange fluorescent vest and carried a rifle which made us assume he was some sort of guard. We pulled over and he approached with caution and a stern look on his face. I smiled and said “Do’brae den” (good day), motioned towards the river, made a tent in sign language and said “Khemping?”. He spoke rapidly in Russian and indicated in sign language that we should take the dirt track next to the road and follow it round to the river. I repeated his sign language, he had a bit of a laugh at us and as he didn’t seem to object, despite the less than warm welcome we received from his German Shepard, we carried on down to the river.
Our first camp out and we had broken our rules. Our big shiny Hilux and bright green tent were blatantly in view from the road 1km out of town. However, as the guard didn’t seem to be guarding anything in particular, the river perhaps, we decided the man and his dog were there to guard us, which made us feel quite safe. Success, we made it through the night with no unwanted visitors, not counting the swarms of mosquitoes and midges, and were on our way again.
The newly constructed highway across Russia was a blessing in more ways than one. The construction vehicles have created many dirt off-roads along the way for either workman camps or to extract dirt for the new road. This has created many potential campsites and we’ve generally not had too much trouble finding safe places to camp. On our fourth day out of Khabarovsk we arrived in the city of Chita, “The City of Exiles”.
A day in Chita
Chita is where rebel generals were sent two centuries ago as punishment. In 1825 generals of the Decembrist Revolt in Saint Petersburg were stripped of their titles and commands and sent into exile. They were forced to walk to Siberia, a journey which took two years and ended in the town of Chita where they were welcomed by the natives for their intellectual, cultural and political value. The Decembrists played a key role in the development of Chita as a significant trading route in Siberia.
We had arranged to stay with Alex, a sophisticated couchsurfer in his late 30’s who worked in finance. He generously put us up for the night in his mother’s apartment. The grumpy cat was most put out by our presence and showed his displeasure by throwing up everywhere. But let’s not complain; whilst camping out is brilliant fun it was nice to smell decent again and get some washing done. The next morning Alex took us on a tour of Chita. We enjoyed the incredible architecture and took a visit to the Decembrist museum located in a church built in 1776 and the oldest building in Chita. Although Alex works in finance he is very much an outdoors man spending every holiday he has camping and fishing out in the taiga wilderness, even in winter when temperatures drop to minus 50 degrees Centigrade. He didn’t seem to mind the cold: “I love my country and the city of Chita so much, he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else”, he told us.
Thankfully for us it was a warm, sunny day and after our brief tour, Alex treated us to an invigorating Russian lunch of borsch, salted vegetables, beef stew and crepes. We would have loved to have stayed longer to explore the beautiful city of Chita, but we had a date with a lake!
Another thousand kilometres, two camp outs, and a quick stop in Ulan-Ude to see the giant Lenin head and we finally made it to the city of Irkutsk and on to the town of Listvyanka. This town is on the west shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, and was going to be a major highlight of our trip so far.