After 11,000kms and six months of pedalling, we’re finally in Russia. We’ve been here over a week and I’m happy to report that contrary to the prevailing opinion of the doomsayers (both those at home and those we’ve met on the way), we have yet to be fined by the police, run off the road or mugged by the locals. In fact, it all feels pretty friendly and normal here….although we have both been ‘mugged’ by ticks and experienced the Russian health service first hand.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself….the last blog entry left off with us still in Crimea, catching up on a few chores in Yalta. Chores completed (including getting the tandem frame welded – don’t ask!), we’d planned to get an early start for a full day’s pedalling towards Russia, but a couple of huge cruise ships had just docked on the promenade and as we stopped to take a couple of photos of Lenin we ended up being mobbed by Dutch, American and French tourists, all keen to talk to us about the bike and our travels. Great fun as usual, but what should have been a 5 minute photo stop turned into an hour or more of chitchat. Honestly, I don’t know where time goes!
The road from Yalta to Alushta follows a trolleybus route (which continues to Simferopol and is the longest trolleybus route in the world) and has a fair number of large vehicles along it, but the tarmac was in good condition and the coastal scenery continued to delight.
After Alushta though, we found the holy grail of Ukrainian cycle touring…..decent tarmac AND hardly any traffic! Alushta to Feodosiya was without a doubt my favourite bit of pedalling in our Ukrainian trip, even though it was the most arduous physically. The hills followed each other in quick succession, climbing from sea level to 300+ metres and then back down to sea level, and then, straight back up again. We were grinding out just 50km a day, most of which was crawling at 5-6kph with a few 6-8 minute bursts of 60kph exhilaration, and perhaps 3 or 4 km of level riding in the entire day, but it was just lovely. Quiet, peaceful, unhurried, beautiful….just lovely. We would either camp on the beach or hidden by trees overlooking the sea, and the limestone hillside grew wilder and more rugged with each climb.
We were doing it the easy way though, as we discovered when we met some Russian cycle tourists who’d decided to cycle up over the high peaks (1100+ metres) off-road…and had been dragging their bikes up and down rocky trails for the last two days and camping at altitudes which saw ice forming in their water bottles overnight. We were quite content with tarmac thank you very much and the sun was still shining enough for Keith to be cycling topless (the tart!).
After Feodosiya, the weather started to feel a little more autumnal, and in the space of 24 hours we went from topless tartiness to long-sleeves and gloves…and then waterproofs. As well as saying goodbye to the sun, we said goodbye to the stunning coastal scenery and constant climbs….it was now flat or rolling farmland all the way to Kerch where we’d get the ferry to Russia. The only thing of note in that section was the sudden and unexpected lack of roadside vegetable stalls, which meant we had to buy some tinned peas and sweetcorn from a ‘producti’ shop. Ukrainian (and indeed Russian) shops are, well, to be frank, a slightly bonkers experience. I think it was probably in Romania where we first started to come across shops where all the goods were barricaded behind the counter and you had to ask the shopkeeper to reach whatever it was you wanted, but for the most part we used supermarkets there (Carrefour and PennyMarket were familiar haunts) where we could browse, pore over labels and work out contents and prices in our own time. In Crimea, however, particularly in the smaller towns but also in cities too, we found it harder to locate supermarkets so shopped more often at ‘producties’. The most bonkers ones would work like this: you’d enter the shop and be confronted with a counter running around all four walls, rendering all goods inaccessible. If you were lucky, there’d be a few other customers in the shop, so whilst they were being served, you could wander about, peering over the counter trying to identify items you wanted to buy. If you were really lucky there’d also be price labels. If you were less fortunate the shopkeeper would want to serve you immediately, and then would not serve anyone else until you were done so you’d be praying no-one else would come into the shop. Anyhow, in either case, you’ve asked for things you know the names for – bread, water, cheese, wine – but have had to guess at the type of wine and ask the price of a number of bottles, and tried to work out if the cheese is priced per kilo or per packet, and you’ve managed to identify some other things you need and obtained them by pointing, but half your shopping list remains unaccounted for, but you decide you’ll manage with what you’ve got so you try to pay, and then you discover that you can’t pay for everything at the same till. Oh no, that would be far too normal. You have to pay for wine and toilet paper at the left hand counter, water and cheese at the middle one and bread and everything else at the right hand counter…still being served by the same lady who has to trot round her side of the counter with your items. Utterly, utterly baffling. Variations upon this theme include the shops where the serving girl is talking to her boyfriend and is not going to serve you any time soon, the shops where the lady is on the phone and not going to serve you any time soon, the shops where there is a different woman at each till and you only want to queue once at each so have to work out which items are in that bit of the shop, but inevitably there’s something you need to go back for after you’ve then queued at other bits of the shop for other things, and then my favourite most baffling practice is having some delicious looking cakes on top of the counter, which you think will go down nicely for dessert that evening, but for some reason they’re not for sale. What on earth is going on??????? Has no-one here realised this is just an insane way to shop???
Anyhow, thank goodness for supermarkets. I’d go mad if I had to shop at producties all the time. We stock up wherever and whenever we can. That said, some of the producti cakes are really tasty if you can persuade them to sell you some.
Further shopping frustration was encountered when we reached Kerch and tried to buy tickets for the ferry to Russia. The ticket desks were initially closed and we were told would open in 20 minutes time. We stood outside with the bike and after 20 min went back in to discover a big queue, which we joined, but somehow the queue in front of us spread sideways a lot and we kept ending up further back, until finally after about an hour, the desks opened and it became a bit of a free-for all, but by then we’d discovered our elbows are just as pointy as Russian and Ukrainian ones so made reasonably good progress up the queue and managed to get tickets for both us and the bike with less difficulty than we’d initially feared. We then made the Ukrainian border guard’s day by rolling into view on our long rig. He was very friendly and escorted us through in front of the queuing cars. And then there we were….on the ferry….on our way to Russia….and more than a little bit nervous about getting through border control.
The visas had been really expensive, the paperwork had been confusing, and we’d had to get business visas even though we’re tourists, which we’d been assured was the thing to do and so long as the right ticks are in the right boxes no-one actually cares if you’re a tourist or a businessman, but I still wasn’t sure what I was meant to say if questioned, or indeed which box we were meant to tick on the visa registration forms that we were given on the boat. In the end, for consistency, we ticked ‘business’ as our purpose of travel and contrived to look as professional as we could under the circumstances.
Once off the ferry, the foot passengers all made a mad dash for a door into the customs building, and Keith and I pedalled at the head of the vehicle queue to the border guard dealing with cars, who promptly separated us and sent me in to join the back of the queue of foot passengers, which had been further swelled by the cars’ passengers who knew the routine and had all leapt out of their cars whilst I tried to work out what the guard was telling me to do. Bah. Keith then got through fairly smoothly but I was a further AGE waiting my turn indoors. I was asked a few questions that I couldn’t answer as they used vocabulary we hadn’t covered in Russian class but at last we were re-united and on our way into Russia, for about 8km until we came to a permanent police stop where they also wanted to look at our passports for about 20 minutes. We have no idea why, but nothing untoward happened apart from it was a frustrating delay as the night was drawing in and we needed to find somewhere to camp.
Camping has been a bit more difficult in Russia, especially at this time of year as the crops are now mostly harvested so there are no lovely big fields of sweetcorn or sunflowers to hide behind, and the way the Russian fields are laid out is different to other parts of Europe. Previously we’d invariably find a nice thick line of trees around the edge of fields, with a farmtrack running alongside to provide access. In Russia, there are hardly any tracks, and the trees between fields stop short of the roadside by some 100m or so, and the fields are bloody huge (1-2km wide) so we have to go a long way between tree lines and then have to hope it’s one of the few tree lines with an access track, or contemplate hauling over a freshly ploughed field (not really a viable option). Anyhow, we’ve managed OK so far, but we have to start looking a lot earlier than normal or risk having to ride in the dark, and it’s now getting dark at about 6.30, even though we moved our clocks forward an hour when we arrived in Russia.
Despite Russia having been something of a focus for us for the last six months, we hadn’t really had much of a plan for what we wanted to do when we got here. Partly because it seemed so far away and we were busy researching the places we were travelling through on the way, and partly because we didn’t know how much time we’d have here or where we’d be going to next, and partly because we’re just a little bit disorganised. We entered Russia with no map to speak of, but had a rough idea that the seaside resort of Anapa, on the Black Sea coast, would be a good first stop to find a hotel and get our visas registered (something you must do within 3 working days of arriving in Russia and if you stay anywhere longer than 3 days whilst there). We then thought we might head to Sochi, on the basis that the weather might remain better longer if we stayed south, but after buying a map at a petrol station we changed our minds. The route out to Sochi looked even hillier than the south coast of Crimea, and whilst we’d enjoyed the scenery and quiet road from Alushta to Feodosiya, we reckoned that with Sochi about to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the road leading to it would be fairly busy with trucks taking building supplies there, and from Sochi there wasn’t anywhere obvious for us to go next that didn’t involve rather high mountain passes…which we really didn’t fancy. Then whilst in Anapa we heard that Keith’s parents have finally completed on their house sale, so we will be pausing our travels for the winter and flying to Northern Ireland to help them renovate their new home. That gave us a bit more impetus to make the most of what, suddenly although not really unexpectedly, would be our last couple of weeks on the road. We decided to risk the weather and head north east across the Kuban Steppe to Elista, capital of the Autonomic Republic of Kalmykia and apparently the only Buddhist enclave in Europe, and from there back west to Rostov on Don, where we’d fly back to Northern Ireland (via Moscow and London). It was nice to have a plan and we left Anapa in high spirits, determined to make the most of the remainder of this instalment of our travels. Plus I, for some reason which currently escapes me, had the notion there was something rather romantic about pedalling across the wide, open spaces of the Russian steppe. How wrong I was. In reality it’s really, really, really boring.
Endless fields, giving way to endless grassland, interspersed with the odd clump of trees or small village. Things started well enough with a nice tailwind and we were zipping along at 30kph doing 130km days, but then the wind direction changed, and we spent far too many days slogging along at 15kph, unable to hear each other speak because of the wind, with nothing to look at but the road, the grass or my monotonously pumping knees.
As usual though, it’s the people who make a trip and most of the Russians we’ve met have proved to be just as friendly and generous as anyone else. So the tedium has been broken in a nice way by cars tooting merrily, people waving and stopping to take photos of us and offer us drinks (non-alcoholic) and chocolate, and when we run out of people there’s still a fairly regular supply of woofing dogs which amuse me by their ‘bravery’ as they chase after us but never quite dare catch us.
The tedium was also broken in a less pleasant manner when I awoke one morning and discovered a small brown tick firmly embedded in my inner thigh. I was not best pleased, but had to be grown-up about it so swallowed my disgust and set about trying to extract it. I’d read about how to deal with ticks before we left home, but that was a long time ago…..were you meant to twist them or pull them? One was definitely not recommended, but could I recall?? Of course not. So I poked and rummaged and the damn thing kept wiggling its legs in a very off-putting manner, and eventually I pushed the tweezers as deeply as I could to get a grip on its head, and pulled steadily. Well, my method clearly wasn’t quite right as it came to pieces and I was left with its mouthparts firmly embedded in my leg. I wasn’t at all happy about the way the morning was panning out, but then Keith inspected his own legs and discovered he’d got a little passenger too, and suddenly I felt a whole lot better. It’s really true what they say about a problem shared you know.
Keith’s attempt at tick extraction was as unsuccessful as mine so we decided we’d better seek medical advice. We’ve both been vaccinated for tick borne encephalitis, but couldn’t recall whether that meant we were OK or if we still needed treatment, and we also weren’t too pleased about the bits of tick still embedded in our legs. Luckily we weren’t too far away from a large town, so I drew a passable picture of a tick and went into the first ‘apteka’ to see if they could help or whether we needed to find a doctor. They advised we go to the ‘polyclinica’ so after some fun and games trying to find out where that was we eventually found ourselves at the hospital. No-one spoke English, but we managed to explain our predicament and I’d kept the bits of ticks that we’d got out so we were able to show the doctor how small they were (small is good I think….they probably hadn’t fed too much….plus we were pretty sure we’d picked them up only the previous lunchtime where there’d been quite a lot of insects bothering us in general). The nurse had a rummage in Keith’s leg, but couldn’t get the bits out, so they just stuck a dressing over it and told us which ointment we needed to buy from the apteka….and then took pity on us as I hunted for a pen and paper to write down the name of the ointment and just gave us a half-used tube of it for free. In fact, we didn’t get charged a thing for the whole experience. We weren’t sure whether we’d need to pay or not so had been to the bank en route, but apart from the initial difficulties in working out where to go and who to speak to, the whole medical process was remarkably smooth and speedy. And of course everyone admired the bike and gave us a good send-off as we pedalled away trying not to dislodge our dressings in the process.
I suppose we should be happy we’ve not picked up more passengers after so long living wild, but I have to say I’ve been a bit nervous about peeing in the bushes since then….but where’s a girl to go???
Anyhow, medical predicament dealt with, we carried on into the continuing headwind, over the tedious, monotonous steppe until we came to a gradual rise (oooh, excitement) and then as we rounded a bend at the top, Elista revealed itself to us.
It was a strange sight. After hours of pedalling with nothing but the occasional dilapidated farm to break the grassy view, we were suddenly confronted with a sizeable and vibrant town, and not only that, but the majority of inhabitants are of Mongolian descent and the streets are full of Buddhist temples and statues, so all of a sudden we felt like we’d been transported several thousand kilometres further east….except the signs are still in Cyrillic. There’s a beautiful park running alongside the busy main road, so we stopped for lunch there before looking for a wifi-enabled hotel at a reasonable price. Sadly this was not to be found so after riding round town and then out of town for several kilometers, we ended up back at the first place we’d been to: a big Soviet-style hotel with grim-faced receptionist and exhorbitant prices….but it was the best priced place with wifi and we need to book flights and sort out how to get the bike and trailer back to the UK…so needs must. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to do some sightseeing too when we’ve got our internet work done. So far all we’ve managed to do outside of the hotel has been a stroll round the market today where Keith bought some ‘Kalmyk tea’, which is very weak, very milky and floating with butter in the Tibetan style, and really only palatable if you convince yourself you’re drinking a rather oily cuppa soup….but even then we still tipped most of it away behind a tree. Oh dear, and there we were thinking we were becoming seasoned travellers.