Russia part 6: Avoiding China on the way to Blagoveshchensk
When we were planning our Russia trip, the places we absolutely wanted to visit were Saint Petersburg, Lake Baikal and Kamchatka and Evgeny from MAK aviation built the itinerary around them. The other locations we stopped at were either necessary fuel stops or cities recommended by Evgeny such as Krasnoyarsk (“nice city, gourmet capital of Siberia with French chefs etc…”) and Vladivostok (“a nice province capital city on a sea with great nature, beaches, same longitude as Monte Carlo”). The two other variables of our itinerary were that it should follow the so-called Russian lifeline and that it would stay in Russia, no entering China airspace!
The Russia lifeline is the path of the Trans-Siberian railway and of the only Federal Road that goes from West to East, along which the main cities are situated. Everything outside of that line, especially in the East, is pretty remote, with few airfields, no Avgas and almost no assistance in case of mechanical issues. And the lifeline does not even go all the way East: Kamchatka (see blue arrow in picture below) is excluded and not connected to the rest of the country by roads.
We were following the red line:
Note: During Kim Yong Il’s visit to Lake Baikal in 2011, he only traveled by train because he allegedly does not like to fly and took the trans-Siberian to Ulan Ude before shopping at Mega Titan and continuing by car to Lake Baikal (just like we did 😊).
On the map above it is easy to see that we could not travel from Ulan Ude to Vladivostok in a straight line because that would basically involve entering China airspace for almost 1000 nautical miles, so we needed to go around, following the border as close as possible, along a bow-shaped path. Blagoveshchensk was the ideal choice for a stop because it has a good airport, is a nice city and the closest point to the straight line. But Russia is a very big country (with 9 time zones!), so we could not even go directly to Blagoveshchensk (900 nautical miles total), we needed fuel stop in between and Chita was the best option (needless to say we had never heard of either city before this trip).
We left Ulan Ude on August 16th (on schedule: halfway through the month, halfway through Russia) without any major issues, expect for a mosquito attack when we got to the plane which forced us to wear our long-sleeved jackets despite the warm weather while untying, checking and loading the plane. The untying took quite some time because it had been secured so well -with iron cables! - on its special platform when we arrived.
The team securing the airplane in Ulan Ude upon arrival
After take-off, before handing us off to the next frequency, the controller at Ulan Ude tower said, in perfect English, “you have a very beautiful plane” to which Alex answered “you have a very beautiful region”.
The sky was clear on the ground but when we reached 11000 feet, we were in the Siberian taiga fire smoke again… it was not too bad though and one hour and a half later we landed in XIAT, a small tower-less airfield close to the city of Chita where we would be able to top off the tanks to reach Blagoveshchensk without stress.
XIAT is such a small airfield that it does not show up in the Foreflight app but it does in Airnav. Another reason to always be using multiple apps outside of the US (you can find more information about pros and cons of flight planning apps in my post from August 22nd).
Right before landing, we had a little fright because we suddenly heard someone speaking Russian on the Unicom (the frequency everyone uses when flying around an airfield when there is no tower), making us believe that there was another aircraft in the area. Since we did not understand the language, we had no idea where it was, how high or low, how far or close from the airport and which side of the runway it was heading to or leaving from. It was especially tricky because the wind was calm, so it was not clear which runway should be used and we had picked 17 because it looked in better condition. Alex usually does most of the communication but in this case, it needed to be at least partially in Russian and Alex was busy looking for the traffic outside, so I pushed the PTT button and said, with my best accent, “eta Lima Victor Golf Quebec Foxtrot, nie gavarim pa ruski” and continued in English “we are on downwind to land on runway one-seven”. There was no answer so we continued the approach hoping for the best.
Once we were on the ground, without ever having spotted another aircraft (phew!), we saw a man on a motorcycle signaling to us but also a moving truck that looked like an airport car. Clearly, they were expecting us! We didn’t know who to follow, we chose the car because the motorcycle was on a grass path while the truck was on a paved one. And that was probably a wise choice because the paved path was bumpy and full of bushes that we could not avoid brushing with our wings. The car driver was dressed in military fatigues and introduced himself as Dimitri. The motorcycle man joined us immediately. His name was Alexei and we found out he was the one speaking on the Unicom to “help” us. He explained that the field was divided into a military side (where we ended up parking without knowing) and a private side (where he had wanted to take us on his motorbike). But Alexei and Dimitri were friends, so it was all good in the end and we felt very welcome on both sides. The field was full of interesting planes, trucks and cars and to go to the bathroom -a simple outhouse-, we had to pass under barbed wire to go to the private side. Apart from a very interesting experience, this was also one of the most efficient fuel stops in our journey and with a very interesting fuel truck: a WWII model with analog gauges that Alex had never seen before in his life, or ever again since then.
XIAT airfield (and the outhouse with the little red roof behind the red cars)
Getting ready to refuel
Thank you Alexei and Dimitri!
Brushing the bushes again on the taxiway out
Less than 30 minutes later, we were on our way to Blagoveshchensk (UHBB). Since we left Ulan Ude, the radio was very silent, apparently there are not a lot of people in the air in this part of the world, despite the fact that Seoul is only about 1000 miles away and Tokyo 1400, which is very impressive to see on the map.
So close yet so far: we really wanted to go to Japan and Korea when we first planned our trip, but due to Covid protocols we decided to go through Russia instead. We could also see China on the map, but that was less frustrating because we had never planned to go there: we were told General Aviation was not really welcome in the People’s Republic. However, we were so close that we could see it from the air. The best view we had was at point NIKTO, only 14 nautical miles from China. And we knew we would be able to see it from even closer in Blagoveshchensk where the city of Heihe can be seen on the other side of the Amur River.
The Amur River-border seen from point NIKTO
NIKTO and the border om Froreflight app
When we landed at UHBB, we were greeted by Roman and Larisa. He is a new pilot and his English is very good. She is an instructor with less English but lots of experience, including acrobatic flying, and a leader and advocate for women in Russian General Aviation, which probably helped expedite our arrival, and later our departure. While driving us to our hotel, Roman explained that he had just spent 3 months in Omsk to get his PPL (Private Pilot License) because that was one of the only places where there were official, government approved, flight schools. Apparently, many private schools had been closed in recent years following inspections and all licenses given by those schools had been cancelled. Therefore, there were airline pilots in his Omsk class who needed to redo their PPL! Seems like flight schools is not the business to be in in Russia.
Welcome committee in UHBB
From left to right: Amir and Tamra, our Russia travel companions with their N16AT Vision Jet, Roman, Larissa, Alex and I (with orange In-Reach tracker, as usual)
Our hotel, the Meridien, was located on Blagoveshchensk’ beautiful boardwalk along the river. The Amur looked very high: there were many stairs that lead directly into the water, indicating that there was probably a lower-level boardwalk that had been flooded.
We saw Heihe from the window of our room, from said Boardwalk and later on from the roof of the hotel. The roof tour had been arranged by Amir who convinced a security guard to take us up there: brilliant! The Chinese city lights looked wonderful and so exotic, especially since we knew that the border had been closed due to Covid: it had become an even more distant country.
Heihe, across the Amur river,seen from the boardwalk
The boardwalk and Heihe, seen from the roof
The next morning, Roman and Larissa met us at the airport, she helped us get through security (which included some negotiation, we were so glad she was there!), stayed with us all the time giving us advice for the flight and insisting we absolutely stay out of China (they call the country Kitai) airspace because entering it would mean big trouble.
Once airborne, we saw lots of flooded land with roads ending in water, farms that had become islands and an occasional treetop sticking out, all victims of the Amur River. It wasn’t just the boardwalk that was under water. We googled it later, apparently it is a recurring phenomenon and the floods reached historic levels in 2013 (worst in 120 years), but 2021 was quite impressive also.
The flooded banks of the Amur river
Our next stop was Vladivostok, “a nice province capital city on a sea with great nature, beaches, same longitude as Monte Carlo”, 4.5 hours away along the red line because no shortcuts allowed: we had to stay out of Kitai airspace!