Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam! The Python folk must surely have spent some time in Siberia prior to writing that infamous song, for the much maligned canned meat product dominates our mealtimes. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – I swear there was some in a dessert at some point, but perhaps that was the vodka. As our Mazda Route3 convoy prepares to leave the bleakness that engulfs Skovorodino behind, we opt to sidestep this morning’s helping of Spam, throwing down a solitary cold fried egg. It’s fuel, and with just short of a thousand kilometere drive ahead of us, is much needed.
The city of Chita is today’s destination, our route regularly aping that of the Trans-Siberian Railway – first following the Chinese border, later the Mongolian. The dirt track that provides access to Skovorodino leads us across what is perhaps the most famous railway line in the world, countless carriages of freight rattle passed us, our procession of eight Mazda3s and a handful of CX-9 support vehicles attracting customary gawping from the locals. Some five minutes of train later and we head for today’s main attraction: Siberia’s largest road junction. Yes, a road junction…
Let’s talk about a road junction, shall we? Asphalt? Tarmac? Concrete? I’m no expert, but this was road, definitely road. Two of them, meeting, in the middle of nowhere. Like greeting a stranger with a bone-crushing bear hug when a simple raise of an eyebrow would’ve sufficed, this junction is wildly unnecessary. As reported yesterday, Siberian roads suck. Badly. Quite why – when many roads err on the impassible – the ‘authorities’ thought it fitting to bypass the logic of a simple roundabout and create this monolithic meeting of minor roads is anyone’s guess – could the fellow we saw last night in a stolen British car have had some inkling? Corruption? Siberia? We wouldn’t like to say.
Back behind the wheel, the scenery remains largely the same as our Mazda3 convoy rolls onwards towards Chita, eerie silver birches for as far as the eye can see, this is prime horror movie fodder. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Philosophical pondering aside, the roads themselves open up at times today, allowing the Mazda3 to demonstrate some surprising pace – quite literally the first eight cars off the production line, chance would have it that we’re driving the 2.0-litre petrol 120ps model; the prospect of a forthcoming 165ps petrol and 2.2-litre diesel is certainly an appetising one.
If, like the Decembrists who were exiled to Siberia, this experience takes the form of a sentence, today is a stretch in solitary. Hundreds of kilometres pass and little changes, we’re still hundreds more from our destination, thousands away from the Western civilisation we’re beginning to crave. Breaks from driving are increasingly a chance to fantasise over espresso, pizza and craft beers with fellow journalists involved in this ‘challenge’. A ‘picnic lunch’ is tipping point for many – the lack of any roadside dining options results in a pitstop on Siberian wasteland, a dusty clearing in the forest, presumably a stopover for Russian truck drives running low on toxic energy drinks. Or amphetamine. The relative normality of Blagoveshchensk seems a long time ago, there’s plenty of tired faces, but the promise of an Irish pub (two of Éire’s finest accompanying us have been doing their homework) in Chita spurs us on.
As the sun lowers, the scenery finally begins to evolve, trees become fields, a plain that could easily be British unfolds. Herds of farm animals. Life. Not civilisation, but life – it’s been hundreds of kilometres since even the last village, any semblance of human life is now welcome. Villages become more frequent, our sat nav informs us that Chita is close, but it’s not without one more hurdle to cross. We may, or may not, have taken a wrong turn, and find ourselves on a motorway construction site – it could be a typical Siberian road, nobody’s asking, and the workers aren’t protesting, but it offers rally conditions, and makes for a terribly exuberant end to the day’s driving. Chita is upon us.
The intriguing sight of a tank factory (now under Chinese ownership, interestingly) welcomes us to a surprisingly developed city – our home for the night Hotel Mont Blanc, whilst far from the luxury that the ‘white mountain’ invokes, is thoroughly average. Which, right now, basically makes it The Ritz. And, what’s more, Harat’s Irish Pub is only right across the bloody road. Indescribable meats dispensed with, it’s over to Harat’s for what will likely remain one of the most surreal evenings of our lives. Seemingly a hangout for Chita’s youth, we meet locals with the ability to converse in (varying degrees of) English for the first time. Clearly a novelty to the natives, as the drinks flow, we wind up under siege by fascinated kids who literally drag us to a nearby nightclub where we’ll be shown pictures of a local man’s favourite guns and camouflage outfits on his mobile phone, be invited to arm-wrestle prior to even being introduced, picked up (once again, literally) by another local man keen to demonstrate his strength and while the early hours away playing foosball.
Intoxicating on several levels, it’s a welcome release from a Siberia that had begun to overwhelm. There’s vague recollections of trying out newly learnt Russian expletives on a typically stony doorman, listening to one of the local kid’s NOFX-inspired pop punk band, vodka and arguing about football with a Siberian teenager of Chinese descent who supported Liverpool. Heady times, but leaving just a few short hours before the next drive begins. Who’s driving?…