Hitching Tales 3:  Siberia, Russia (Part 1)

Hitching Tales 3: Siberia, Russia (Part 1)

I woke in the morning in Yekaterinburg, foolishly expecting to somehow lie my head that night in Omsk, almost exactly 1,000 kilometers due east. The ambitious hitch plan would obliterate my single-day hitching record, which at the time was about 600km. But I was committed to trying. I already had secured hosts in Omsk, who were waiting for me, and I was rapidly running out of time on my Russian visa.

I could have taken a more comfortable night train, but the prospect of hitch-hiking alone across Siberia was too appealing to pass up.

After a quick breakfast, I said goodbye to my lovely host, Eva, and set out. The previous night, I’d scanned Google Maps and picked out what looked like a perfect hitch spot. Eva had told me how to get there by public transport. But just getting through Ye-burg and to the first hitch spot proved to be quite annoying. I had to take three different city buses, then walk about 1.5 kilometers; this excursion alone took over two hours, but I was finally standing at my pre-picked spot alongside the E-22 highway. It was already around noon, and my prospects for getting to Omsk didn’t look that great.

It did indeed look perfect; a wide shoulder of the road just beyond a popular highway interchange. Several fruit and vegetable stalls were set up there, meaning it was common for vehicles to stop. Cars wouldn’t be moving too fast because of the interchange and the wide shoulders.

Unbelievably, it took over two hours just to get my first ride.

Knowing I had no time to waste if I wanted to make it the full thousand km to Omsk, I quickly grew frustrated. I began asking truck drivers who were stopping at the vegetable stalls, but was met with mostly protest and indignation.

Finally, a kindly old man in a rusty old Soviet vehicle pulled up and summoned me inside. My initial excitement of securing the ride was short-lived, however, as the man only drove me about 50 kilometers and let me off literally in the middle of nowhere. It was peaceful outside and I enjoyed a cigarette and some hot tea, and just as I was finishing my ‘break’, another car stopped.

My next ride was by a younger man in a nicer and newer vehicle, but unfortunately he only took me about another twenty kilometers up the road. However, he dropped me off in a seemingly perfect place to hitch. A tiny village with a stop sign intersection (which means cars couldn’t pass by too quickly), wide shoulders of the roads (which means they have ample space to pull over), and surrounded by several gas stations and rest areas (meaning many cars would be stopping to fill up or get snacks). It was also far enough away from the Ye-burg area to mean that most cars would be headed due-east, the precise direction I was going. I figured I could get a ride easily from here, but this optimistic outlook proved to be severely mistaken.

I stood there for hours as countless vehicles passed by at slow speeds, obviously headed in the precise direction I was going, all looking directly at me but none bothering to stop.

I began getting really frustrated, unable to fathom why nobody would pick me up from this spot. I began standing around the nearest gas station and asking people who were stopping, but kept consistently getting cold-shouldered. Trying to keep from getting too discouraged, I reminded myself that situations like this are inevitable when hitching. Go with the flow and everything will work out in the end!

Finally, a very fat man driving a mini-lorry stopped for me. To my delight, he was going all the way to Tyumen, a large city which is kind of the midpoint between Ye-burg and Omsk. However, by this time it was already mid-afternoon and my prospects of making it to Omsk tonight looked exceedingly grim. Not helping the matter was that his overloaded old truck could barely sputter along at 60km per hour. It felt like we were going in slow-motion. The man spoke no English but kept trying to communicate with me.

He was beside himself that he’d encountered an American hitch-hiking in this region.

He was friendly enough, but our conversations didn’t get far.

Hours later, he dropped me off next to a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Tyumen. The checkpoint meant that cars had to slow, a good thing. I took a short break and gulped down some plov I’d bought that morning; I was starving. I looked at the map and was astounded that Omsk was somehow still over 600km away! I thought of just going into Tyumen and staying there for the night. Eva, my host in Ye-burg, had even told me she knew someone there who I could stay with.

But in the end I stubbornly decided to press on, determined to reach Omsk as soon as possible, even if it meant I had to go all night.

I stepped to the side of the road and resumed my hitching efforts.

Before long, a nice SUV pulled over and waved me inside. In the front seats were two very large and buff young military dudes. Awkward! The pair had thought they were picking up a Russian, but soon realized I was a foreigner.

When I told them I was American, they were highly entertained.

Using poor but understandable English, the soldier who was driving informed me there’s a large military base around Tyumen, where they are stationed. He showed me photos of his wife and new baby girl, and made some anti-USA jokes, but was very friendly to me. Sadly, the two could only take me to the opposite side of town. They posed for selfies with me before driving off, leaving me alone beside the road. It was already late afternoon and I was less than halfway to my destination.

Almost immediately, another old man stopped. Upon getting into his passenger seat, he began speaking in rapid Russian and was clearly startled when it became obvious I was a foreigner, even more-so when I informed him I was American. The old man was kind but spoke no English. As sunset neared, we headed east.

Unfortunately, he only drove me about 40 kilometers east of Tyumen, then pulled over next to a rustic bus stop in quite literally the middle of nowhere. It was sunset and I saw no structures around. What the fuck?! Stubbornly, I still tried to hitch until only the very last remnants of daylight remained.

At dusk, I trudged into the forest and set up my tent, about 50 meters from the highway.

It was thick forest and I saw no signs of civilization, but it was comforting to at least be able to hear the occasional car pass by on the nearby road.

I had no food and barely anything to drink, and not much else to do but go to sleep. Using my camping torch, I read my kindle for awhile. It quickly got quite cold outside, but in the comforts of my sleeping bag and bundled into my coat and sweats, I was plenty comfortable enough.

But then I heard the howling! 

Was it wolves?

Siberian wolves? Or just dogs from nearby farms? I’ll never know, as I never saw the beasts, but the howling persisted through the night and was more than a bit unsettling. Eventually I drifted off to a surprisingly deep sleep, despite the noise, hoping for better luck tomorrow….

Attachment: Journey through Russia [2015]