Searching for Varikino – part two

Kurgan, 18.06.2019

After yesterday’s afternoon events at the checkpoint my first thought was to get out of Russia fast and drive into Kazakhstan the next day. The next morning I thought about this again. I had made a mistake, it was solved. I wouldn’t have a few policemen derail my plan of places to see in the area. I had travelled five weeks now and driven over 12.000 km to get here. The Ural isn’t really around the corner for me normally. So as I was here now, I’d go check the place out. One quick coffee after leaving Sberbank, and finally this day could start. Sunshine, blue sky with a few white fluffy clouds pained on it, and an hour later driving westwards out of Chelyabinsk the landscape started to get hilly and lovely. As I was driving towards Miass, the mountains appeared at a distance. So they did exist in the end!

From Miass the road started to resemble more to what I associated to a mountain road. I had to think about my Swiss part of the family that would probably laugh hearing me call a place with a max elevation of 690m a “mountain”. But after weeks of flat lands, this was as “mountain” as it got so far. Past Zlatoust the road merged into a bigger one that allowed to move a bit faster. First trucks started to appear. At Bakal I left the main road to get my drone out over some lakes I had seen on Google maps over the village. Some old open air mines had filled with deep green water at the bottom. A Soviet sign with a man taking off a mountain’s top gave me an idea of what people where up to around here, and indeed the mountains over Satka had no more tops, but open mines and lots of earth that got dug out and put somewhere else. The village itself was all wooden houses, standing or crumbling, cows strolling the streets, kids playing outside. The mix of Heidiland and industrial mining operations one next to the other was bizarre, but I’m getting used to this around here.

To check how far I could get off the big road crossing this part of the Ural, I ventured on smaller roads, trying to reach Beloretsk through a national park area. The roads got narrower and with pot holes galore, the tar sketchier the further I got. Then the tar disappeared altogether, converting into a dirt track. At Tyuluk, about one third of the road to Beloretsk, the track changed into a mix of mud, puddles and big stones. I couldn’t move on. Flashback to the attempt to reach the Khizi islands in Karelia. I had to turn around. The Mini got quite a beating, and a good cover of several layers of fine dust. On the smaller roads here in Russia there are some potholes that make the entire content of the Mini, incl. myself, just fly around suddenly. The ordeal ended at Yuryuzan, where I met the main road again. Just before it, there was a collection of burnt out or completely destroyed trucks and trailers on both sides of the road. And as I was about to turn on the main road, a policeman stopped traffic one car ahead of me. Behind him was a bridge, with a burnt out tanker truck, and a few other vehicles that tried to remove him. After waiting for a few minutes I turned off the engine, this would take more time. And indeed, more vehicles arrived to remove the debris. Then they opened the traffic from the other way, and an endless caravan of trucks and a few cars and minibusses started to pass over the narrow bridge. I must have waited at least half an hour, when we could finally move on. It had gotten late.

From there on a race to surpass one truck after the next started, through the mountain roads. I knew I would have light until about 22.00, and the last hour would be on flat land. It seems they have a “mountain Uber” service around here, there was a fleet of Toyota-Hyunday-Kia-Lada sedans, all in black, silver or white, black windows, speeding like crazy. About an hour later we had to stop again. I got out of the car, and a long line of trucks was standing ahead of me, reaching the top of the ridge. At some point one of the mountain Ubers started to overtake the trucks, as there was no traffic coming the other way. I followed, with a group of other cars. We must have passed at least a hundred trucks, when we almost reached the end of the line. I hate people that do this, passing vehicles waiting in line. And just before we reached the end, the trucks coming the other way started. I tried to squeeze into the line of cars to my right, but the Mini was half on the opposite side of the road. The trucks could barely pass, and the bigger cars behind me made things worse. The next half hour and endless caravan of trucks passed about 20-50 cm from my Mini, many of them honking and shouting. The Mini vibrated with each of them passing, blowing big Diesel clouds on my driver window. It started to rain, and the trucks wouldn’t end. When we finally could move, I was exhausted. But I was at the front of the line, the few trucks ahead were passed soon, and a race to Ufa started, in heavy rain, through the mountains. My windshield drowned in dirt water from the road and sight was limited. The sun was going down to my right, and to my left a double rainbow followed me until the plains and the last hour to my destination for the night, Ufa. At the hotel, I checked in and went for dinner. When I asked for a pivo (beer), the waitress replied “no alcohol”. I looked around, and saw Cental Asian faces. Ufa is on the European side, but down here in the South of Russia, Asia starts before the Ural.

The next morning from Ufa I took the southern road through the Ural, back to Asia, towards Magnitogorsk. The sky had cleared up, sunshine, bright sky, few clouds. 80km after I started the day I reached the mountains, and spent the next three and a half hours to cross them. Today there were almost no trucks, the road was perfect, traffic light. The landscape was so beautiful that it felt like a dream to drive through the woods, the fields and small villages. No factories around, but reaching Inzer I finally found the Russian version of the alpine mountain village, cows strolling around, wooden houses well maintained, no sight of comrade Lenin, tanks , eternal flames or other Soviet legacy. It was just wonderful. OK, a few roadside parking spots to take a break with a view would have been the cherry on top of the cake, it didn’t get that far. But I enjoyed every minute I drove. Towards the end, somewhere between Abzakovo and Morakay, there was a train station in a small village, on the main road into the nearby hills. I imagined this setting in a different time as I drove through.

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