Day 23: Zabaikalsk to Chita

Today we really followed in the footsteps of George Schuster!

We arrived in Chita this evening, although we didn’t get to claim a $1,000 prize as the German Protos did for being the first 1908 racer to reach Chita from Vladivostok on June 16. The prize was awarded by the Trans-Siberian Railway — click here for the full New York Times article.

We left Zabaikalsk about 9 a.m., anticipating a 3 p.m. arrival in Chita, but everything from construction to a flat tire to low fuel got in our way. I think our new guide, Ksenia (I spelled her name wrong yesterday) is probably already wondering what she has gotten into.

After about 45 minutes of driving this morning, we encountered construction and bumpy gravel and dirt roads that made for wild rides and slow progress. At one point, John said he saw the back tires of the Envoy fly several inches off the ground as we bounced across a pothole.

On the other hand, the leisurely pace gave us time to enjoy views of the Trans-Siberian Railway and traditional houses in this region — unfinished except for blue, white, or green trim — that are similar to what the original racers would have seen.


Trans-Siberian Railway on the drive to Chita

Trans-Siberian Railway on the drive to Chita (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

Typical house in the Biryat region, similar to what the original racers may have seen

Typical house in the Biryat region, similar to what the original racers may have seen (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

We stopped for gas at a station with old time pumps, which fit right in with John’s vintage Plymouth Roadster. Note that the pump is in liters, not gallons.


Old time gas pump meets old time car

Old time gas pump meets old time car (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

About 1:30, Luke called on the walkie-talkie and said the Roadster had a flat tire, so Leo turned the Envoy around and we headed back to watch the tire-changing show and provide unhelpful advice.


The flat tire -- first one of the trip!

The flat tire — first one of the trip! (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

John and Luke change the tire

John and Luke change the tire (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

While John and Luke changed the tire, the rest of us took in the scenery and basked in the 85 degree heat.


Roadside scenery -- if you have to break down, might as well do it here!

Roadside scenery — if you have to break down, might as well do it here! (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

The Roadster now had no spare tire, so Luke pointed out we would need to fix it. John said, “We’ll take it somewhere to have that done,” and Luke replied, “You wimp, Schuster wouldn’t have done that!” Actually, he used a different word than wimp, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

After a traditional Russian lunch at 2 p.m. from a roadside cafe,


Lunch! (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

and petting a local dog,


Cute Russian dog

Cute Russian dog (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

the road conditions improved and we picked up the pace, except for a brief roadside refueling for the Roadster — the gas stations in Siberia are few and far between.

Just before arriving in Chita, we stopped in the small town of Alamanovka to see if we could get the tire fixed. Ksenia found a shop on her second try, and four of us crowded inside the tiny building below to watch the repair.


Tire repair shop in Alamanovka

Tire repair shop in Alamanovka (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

If tire repair ever becomes an Olympic sport, the mechanic below is a sure bet to wing the gold medal! From tire into the shop to tire back out of the shop took about seven minutes, and he only charged 100 rubles, about $3. If you’re ever in Aamanovka, be sure to stop by and give these guys some business!


Olympic gold medalist in tire repair

Olympic gold medalist in tire repair (Eileen Bjorkman photo)

We arrived at our hotel about 6 p.m., not bad, all things considered. Tomorrow morning, we leave Chita about 8 a.m. to drive 590 km to Ulan Ude, where we’ll have a day of rest (and I hope laundry) on Monday.

Day 22: Manzhouli, China to Zabaikalsk, Russia

The Wi-Fi tonight is slow, so no pictures. We spent another eventful day at Customs, so there aren’t a lot of pictures anyway! And I’m very happy to have Wi-Fi, since we weren’t expecting any.

Two additional guides in a white Toyota Land Cruiser arrived at our hotel at 8:30 this morning to take us to the border. With Sim still in the Envoy with Leo and me, we followed the Toyota to the outskirts of town, where they signaled for a right turn. I slowed to follow him, and then I saw that he was turning onto the left side of a four-lane divided road.

“What’s he doing?” I asked, although I kept following him.

“We’re going to the cargo area,” said Sim, which I guess was supposed to clear things up for me.

The caravan continued on the wrong side of the road for another half-mile or so, when we came to a holding area filled with trucks heading to Russia and a building the size of a 7-11 off to the left. The guide vehicle parked at the building and we pulled up next to them in the Envoy and the Roadster. Sim went inside, and about 15 minutes later, he came back out and we left and drove about five minutes to another customs area, where we waited as both Russians and Chinese swarmed the Roadster for pictures.

At 9:30, we received our initial clearance into the holding area and we pulled up to the guard gate identified as “Immigration Inspection,” only to be turned away because the guards hadn’t received clearance from their supervisor. So it was back to the parking area, where we entertained more people who were crossing the border.

At 10:05, we were waved back to the guard gate, and at 10:15 we pulled past the guards after they gave each car a 3” by 4” scrap of paper marked with Chinese symbols and a circular red stamp, one of three stamps we needed to cross the border. We parked in front of the main customs building, which was the size and nearly the color of a Wal-Mart, but with better architecture, a lot more glass, and fewer goodies for purchase.

After about ten minutes of discussion between Sim and a customs officer, we entered the building and went up to a second floor office, where another officer looked at my passport and asked, “Four?”

“Passengers,” prompted Sim and I said, “Yes.” The officer smiled and sent us back downstairs, where we began a stamp scavenger hunt for the remaining two stamps for the border crossing. Sim led us out of the building and around to one side, where we entered a small office and a woman took the slips of paper and stamped them in less than a minute.

It was only 10:35 and we already had two of the three stamps. Maybe we really were going to get across the border by noon, as Sim had hoped.

We headed back upstairs to the customs office for the last stamp. About 10:45, an officer led us to a comfortable waiting room, labeled “Office for Prepared Service” in English, which held a flat-screen TV tuned to a playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma Thunder. The officer looked at our passports and when he saw where I was born, he smiled and said, “Texas!” and pointed at the TV. “Yes,” I said; I didn’t mention that I moved away from Texas when I was three years old.

After multiple trips in and out of the waiting area by three different customs officers, who looked at the scraps of paper, talked into their radios, and had more discussions with Sim, we learned that the customs director, who was the one to give us our last stamp, wouldn’t arrive until 2:30.

We trekked back downstairs to the main waiting area, and John and Luke went outside to guard the Roadster, which was attracting the usual amount of attention.

2:30 came and went, we still had no approval, and the customs director was now in a meeting. After a few more phone calls, an inspection of the cars, two trips back to the cargo area, and Sim pleading with the customs folks to get the director out of the meeting for a minute to get his signature, we finally had the last elusive stamp on the papers for both cars at 4:45. We went back up to Immigration, and then Leo and John drove the cars across the border while Luke and I walked to the other side with a customs officer escort. We met with the cars again about 5:30 and then crossed onto the Russian side.

Eight hours after arriving, we were half way there.

After going through a Russian checkpoint, getting in the wrong line, and then waiting for the usual photos now with the Russian customs officers, we were standing in line for Russian immigration and customs about 6:15. Luke and I made it across fairly quickly, but the cars were delayed another 1.5 hours for an inspection involving mirrors, dogs, flashlights and opening every door on both cars, including the engine compartments.

Reunited at 8 o’clock, which was really 10 p.m. given our most recent time change, we crossed the last checkpoint and met with our new Russian guide, Zhenya, who guided us to our hotel and a delicious welcome dinner, including a round of beer.

Many thanks to our Chinese guide, Sim, for his help in getting us out of China and to Zhenya for her patience as she waited all day for us to arrive!

Tomorrow we head to Chita, 485 km.