Day 19: Qiqihar to Yakeshi

We had a beautiful drive today on the brand new G10 expressway through scenic Inner Mongolia. My map (which I purchased in the U.S.) depicted secondary roads for the rest of the trip, but it turns out that the G10 was completed from Suifenhe to Manzhouli (Eastern Russian Border to Western Russian Border) in the past year. The new road took more than a decade to build due to the short summers here.

We departed our hotel in Qiqihar about 9 a.m., but not before doing some troubleshooting on the brake lights again.


Brake light problems again

Brake light problems again (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

I also spotted two turtles on leashes outside our hotel — I’m not sure if they’re pets or if ingredients for soup is in their future.


Turtle in Qiqihar

Turtle in Qiqihar (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Leaving Qiqihar was easier than arriving, although we still had to go back through the mud bath from yesterday. Here’s picture of the road on the way out:


Leaving Qiqihar

Leaving Qiqihar (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

We stopped for gas about 10:30, and the station had an overhead walkway connecting the service areas on both sides of the road, so I climbed up and took the shot below. You can see Manzhouli, our destination for tomorrow, listed at the bottom of the road sign in the distance.


The G10 Expressway

The G10 Expressway (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

The scenery in Inner Mongolia is spectacular, as you can see from the picture below — rolling green hills with forests and lots of rivers and marshes. We also had blue skies for the first time in more than a week.


Scenery in Inner Mongolia

Scenery in Inner Mongolia (Eileen Bjorkman)

Unfortunately, we also learned that because the G10 in Inner Mongolia is so new, the service areas aren’t open yet. The Roadster was running low on fuel, so we got off at an exit, but the toll booth attendant said it was another 25 km into town, and we would have to drive another 25 km back to the expressway. The area around the toll gate was deserted, except for a truck apparently taking a break, so we pulled over and John added some fuel from the emergency cans that he carries. It was enough to get us to Yakeshi, about 150 km down the road.


Toll gate where we stopped to refuel

Toll gate where we stopped to refuel (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Emergency refueling

Emergency refueling (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

About 30 minutes after we got back on the road from the emergency refueling, we crossed over the railroad line that used to be the Chinese portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. We’ve been paralleling the track for some time now, but this was the first time we’ve seen it since we left Vladivostok. The original racers weren’t on the railway at this point in the race anymore, but they were following a nearby road, so we may have passed by some of the same scenery they saw more than a century ago.

Right after crossing the railroad, we ran into a downpour, and John had to stop to install the window panels in the Roadster. I appreciated the storm because it washed all the bugs off the windshield of the Envoy!

We arrived in Yakeshi about 3 p.m., taking only six hours instead of the nine hours we would have needed if we had taken the original route (the G301) the entire way. Part of us wishes we had been able to drive the old highway, but we really appreciated the smoothness of the new highway.

Yakeshi is much smaller than Harbin and Qiqihar, but Mir Corporation still managed to find us a very nice hotel!

At the hotel in Yakeshi

At the hotel in Yakeshi (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Tomorrow: Manzhouli, on the Russian border, 265 km.

Day 18: Harbin to Qiqihar

At this geographic point in the original race, it was already June 13, and the American team in the Thomas Flyer was past Harbin and gaining so quickly on the German Protos that the New York Times expected the Thomas to arrive first in Chita, Russia. Beginning in Harbin, Schuster and the Flyer abandoned the railroad tracks and took on a Manchurian guide to help them until they were past the Khingan mountain range. At the same time, the Italian Zust had just left Pogranichnyy. For the full New York Times article on this portion of the race, click NYT_19080614.

The racers encountered good roads west of Harbin and flat land that was almost a desert along “the route of Genghis Khan.” We encountered similar conditions in our drive to Qiqihar today, which turned out to be one of our more relaxing days — only about 180 miles. However, before we could get started, we had to get past the tangle of cars that littered the street where the Envoy was parked. The white one in the picture below blocked us from backing out:


Parking woes in Harbin

Parking woes in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

The parking attendants came to the rescue and we were soon on our way. Getting out of town was like driving a country road at midnight compared to our arrival on Saturday, and within about 20 minutes we were back on the G10 heading to Qiqihar. We stopped for gas after about an hour, and the Roadster was mobbed by the riders of three buses also stopped in the service area:


Three busloads of onlookers encountered at our first gas stop for the day

Three busloads of onlookers encountered at our first gas stop for the day (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

While John and Leo got gas, I checked out someone’s lunch,


Fish hanging out at a gas station

Fish hanging out at a gas station (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

and bought some popcorn.


Vendor selling popcorn

Vendor selling popcorn (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

We took the Q10 exit towards Qiqihar at about 12:45, and immediately encountered a mini-flood that probably resulted from a water main break. John and I both managed to avoid the water, and then we turned left onto the road into Qiqihar, which turned out to be almost as bad as the dirt road we took on Saturday; the Qiqihar road was paved, but in such bad shape that I feared the Roadster might be swallowed up by a pothole. After about 20 minutes of jerking along, we came to a better road that led us straight to our hotel. However, we did have to pass through one more area of mud even on that road — there seems to have been an epidemic of water main breaks in Qiqihar today. The mud pit was so bad that a passing car sprayed mud inside the Roadster and onto John.

We arrived at our hotel, shown below, about 1 p.m.,

Jun Hui Hotel in Qiqihar

Junhui Hotel in Qiqihar (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

just in time to miss a downpour.

Downpour in Qiqihar

Downpour in Qiqihar (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

After a lunch of noodles and soup, John, Luke and I did some exploring around the hotel. We found an endless underground shopping area and a seven-level shopping mall:

Shopping mall in Qiqihar

Shopping mall in Qiqihar (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

We did have one more casualty on this leg: John banged his left front hubcap on something while maneuvering around some cones at a tollbooth. Ow!

The distressed hubcap

The distressed hubcap (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Up tomorrow: Qiqihar to Yakeshi, 420 km.

Days 16-17: Harbin, China

We arrived in Harbin yesterday afternoon about 5 o’clock. It took us three days to get here from Pogranichnyy, but that was much faster than George Schuster and the Thomas Flyer — they took seven days and their adventure made ours seem pedestrian.

The Thomas Flyer left Pogranichnyy on June 3, but after about 15 miles of driving over the Trans-Siberian Railroad track, the driving gear was stripped. Schuster hiked back to Pogranichnyy and caught a train to Harbin to get spare parts. In the meantime, the other members of the U.S. team camped out with the car for three days. After repairs, the Flyer arrived in Harbin on June 9.

Click NYT_19080605 to read the New York Times article about their ordeal.

We left Suifenhe about 10 a.m. and headed through town toward the G10 expressway that would take us all the way to Harbin. I was driving in the lead car with Sim, our guide, and as we approached the toll booth at the expressway entrance, a police officer stepped into the road and waved us over. He asked for my passport, looked it over and then handed it back. He and two other nearby police walked back to the Roadster, and in the rearview mirror I saw them smile and pull out their cell phones to take pictures. John later told me that when the police reached his car, they came to attention and saluted him!

We stopped for gas at a service area after driving for about an hour, and then had lunch and refueled again at another service area about two hours later. The food was delicious, but the portions were huge — next time we’ll just order two dishes and share them!


Lunch on the road in China

Lunch on the road in China (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

I had planned to drive for about 200 km before stopping again, but through a miscommunication over the walkie-talkies, we thought the Roadster was in a dire fuel situation so we took the next exit that looked like it might have gas. Sim asked the toll booth attendant for the nearest fuel station, and he told us it was one kilometer up the road. About 50 yards after the toll booth, the road turned into a rutted dirt road that we followed (very slowly) into a village. We passed farmers tending rice paddies and multiple people on bicycles and scooters pulling wagons piled high with tools, food, and goods to sell. The gas station was located on the edge of town, and a small police van sat across the street from it.

We pulled into the gas station and curious townspeople, including the two young police officers in the van, flocked to the Roadster.

Small town where we stopped for gas

Small town where we stopped for gas (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

After getting gas, we bounced our way back to the expressway and continued non-stop to Harbin. Although we had encountered little traffic on the drive over, the traffic in Harbin was the worst I’ve ever driven in (and I’ve driven in Los Angeles and Washington, DC).

Harbin traffic

Harbin traffic (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

But Sim had his GPS and he gave me great instructions on how to deal with the traffic, which mostly consisted of him saying, “Keep moving, keep moving,” and me saying, “I’m afraid I’m going to kill someone.” After making only one wrong turn, we found the hotel, but there was no entryway, so I just pulled onto the sidewalk (after all, just about every other car on the block was on the sidewalk already). Sim negotiated with the hotel parking attendant (I use that term loosely here) and the Roadster wound up on the sidewalk out front and I moved the Envoy to a spot on a side street, which involved driving the wrong way down a one-way street, but no one seemed to notice, given the prevailing chaos.


Figuring out what to do with the cars at the hotel

Figuring out what to do with the cars at the hotel (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Here’s the view from my hotel room:


View from the hotel room in Harbin

View from the hotel room in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Later that evening, John had to move the Roadster to a more secure location because the crowds were causing too much of a distraction for the hotel management!

This morning, we took a tour of Harbin, which included a walk down the central street, called Zhong Yang, where we saw interesting sculptures,


Sculpture in Harbin

Sculpture in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

all sorts of goodies to eat,


Food vendor in Harbin

Food vendor in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)



Balloon vendor in Harbin

Balloon vendor in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

a memorial to the victims of floods from the Songhua River over the years,


Flood memorial in Harbin

Flood memorial in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

boats on the river, including one that looked like a crew team,


Crew team?

Crew team? (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

bottles of gum,


Bottles of gum for sale in Harbin

Bottles of gum for sale in Harbin (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

and the old Russian Orthodox Church of St. Sofia, which has been turned into a museum of Harbin’s early history as it transitioned from a village to a modern city with the arrival of the original Trans-Siberian Railroad route.


View of the ceiling in the Church of St. Sofia

View of the ceiling in the Church of St. Sofia (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

The museum had several pictures that depicted what Harbin looked like in 1908 when the original racers passed through. Here’s one of them:


Harbin in 1908

Harbin in 1908 (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

After dinner, John and I walked back down Zhong Yang to take in the night sights, such as this view of the flood memorial:


The Flood Memorial at night

The Flood Memorial at night (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Tomorrow we have a relatively leisurely drive of 300 km to Qiqihar.