What a lovely week’s cycling! Moscow to Nizhny has been a triumph of route planning (thank you Ilya!) with just 40km of juggernaut stress to get away from Lobnya and then we were onto predominantly well-asphalted roads with not too much traffic, and, even better, hardly any flies! We had one unexpected and rather long (24km) stretch with no tarmac and lots of pot-holes and corrugations that took the best part of 3 hrs to ride, but apart from that we think we’ve had a pretty good week as far as road conditions are concerned.
The area we’ve cycled through is referred to as the Golden Ring, and is full of well-preserved old villages with traditional wooden houses and loads of churches. Spires, domes and cupolas pop up amidst shabby soviet blocks of flats and pastoral villages alike.
Places mentioned in our guide book which didn’t disappoint were Sergiev Posad, where there is a large monastery and Suzdal, which seems to have more churches than people, as well as a museum of wooden architecture; but places that didn’t make it into the guide book were also full of nice little surprises. When we rolled through Yurev-Polski in search of a supermarket we somehow completely missed the main square….but found a ‘Magnit’ (the ONLY supermarket chain we’ve found in Russia outside of Moscow). Keith shopped and I looked after the bike. A couple of guys came out of the Magnit and struck up conversation with me, asking if I liked there town. To be honest I thought it was nothing special….a fairly standard, somewhat run-down mix of ramshackle wooden buildings and nasty beige/white brick apartment blocks that had seen better days. Of course I told him I thought it was a lovely place, but was curious that he’d asked. It was only as Keith and I were trying to find our way out of town that we suddenly came across the market square full of nicer wooden buildings, and on the other side of it, a kremlin (fortification) containing a beautiful little blue and gold gem of a monastery.
We didn’t go into that one, but did go into the larger monastery at Sergiev Posad. I’m not a churchy person, but we both usually enjoy poking around religious buildings when on holiday as the architecture and decor is usually interesting and often quite beautiful (and we are often encouraged by free entry) but I have to say I found visiting Russian Orthodox churches quite perplexing and to be honest a bit depressing. I must point out that the following views are mine alone. Keith feels quite differently and it makes for some interesting conversations between the pair of us.
First of all, it’s disrespectful for a man to cover his head inside the church, but it’s disrespectful for a woman not to cover hers. I’d love to know what the root of this apparent dichotomy is as I can’t for the life of me see a logical explanation for it. Keith suggested it could be to do with a woman having to modestly cover her hair, and I can kind of see how that might have come about….but I know lots of guys who are pretty proud of their locks so it doesn’t really make a huge deal of sense if you think about it. Keith has since got me to google ‘hat wearing etiquette’ and it would seem that, for men at least, there is a long history of it being good etiquette to take your hat off in any indoor setting, not just in orthodox churches. The rules seem to be up for debate as far as baseball caps go, some people reckon that women should also remove them indoors, but others say that it’s OK for men to keep them on. Oh, and enclosed public areas such as corridors, lobbies and lifts in public buildings count as outdoors so you can keep your hat on if you’re a guy. Women can apparently keep their hats on indoors because women’s hats are ‘accessories’ and outfit specific. But if you’re female and wearing a hat for warmth alone that rule doesn’t hold so take your hat off indoors…unless you go into a religious building where you have to put it on. Anyhow, setting hat-related perplexity aside, I donned my buff (essential tubular neck/headgear for cycle-tourists) and in we went.
Some of the walls were painted with some nice frescoes in soft earthy colours, but everything else was lavish and golden: gold chandeliers, gold picture-frames, the most ornate gold iconostasis and two gold and glass caskets containing relics (but you couldn’t see much as the contents were covered in gold-embroidered fabrics).
Kissing things is important in Russian Orthodox churches. Every picture had a little handrail beneath it for people to hold onto as they planted kisses and then touched their foreheads to the feet of each and every icon, including kissing the coffins. No one seemed to be getting much succour from the experience though, if that’s what’s supposed to happen. It was easy to tell the believers from the tourists as the ones kissing the icons all looked, well, to be honest, as miserable as sin. The women in particular looked utterly worn down and defeated. There seemed to be a pervading air of despair and personally I couldn’t get out of the building quick enough. Keith remained for a little while longer, looking around, getting a few photographs and musing on the setting.
Visiting these sorts of places does at least give us something to ponder over as we pedal away. Mind you, if there was a law that said we all had to have a religion then I’d go for that one that the Dalai Lama does…at least he looks happy.
One thing we wished we’d known when we went in was what holy water is used for. There was a huge fountain gushing with it and a throng of people were filling all manner of receptacles, including 5 litre water bottles, that could be bought from the kiosk next to the fountain. We almost went back out for our own bottles, which were running rather low, but we weren’t sure if the water was drinkable or not. We saw people cupping their hands in it and wiping it over their faces, and there were plenty of water bottles being filled, but perhaps it’s not for drinking, just for dabbing onto things? In the end we decided against it and went and bought some standard mineral water instead.
If the monastery at Sergiev Posad had been, for me at least, a bit depressing, then the town of Suzdal was a great tonic. It was full of life and vivacity when we arrived as we’d fortuitously rolled into town on festival day. We’d been hailed about 15km from town by a family in a car who wanted to take our photo and have a chat, and we gathered from them that it was festival day, and we think they said that it was a celebration of cucumbers and gherkins, and possibly some other vegetables too, we’re not quite sure. We pedalled eagerly on and, after making our way up and down a few streets that were rammed with parked cars, we finally found our way to the festivities.
The location was just beautiful. We made our way through streets lined with stalls selling all manner of arts, crafts, gherkins and general tat, and arrived at a gravel path, this time lined with tombolas and fairground rides, leading down to a small wooden bridge over a river, and then up a grassy slope to what from a distance looked like a mediaeval fair. Honestly, it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a set for Merlin.
Smoke from a dozen or more shashlik (skewered barbequed meat) stalls rose above jaunty-coloured awnings, and in the background was the crowning glory of the museum of wooden architecture, the Transfiguration Church. We gorged on barbecued meat, and wandered around, soaking up the festival atmosphere. Brilliant.
Actually, a ‘feel-good’ mood has been propagated in pretty much every town we’ve been in this week. People have been so damn nice to us.
The two guys who chatted to me outside the supermarket in Yurev-Polsky presented me with a sweet, delicious, sunflower-seed brittle-bar (which, before you say anything, I DID save to share with Keith!). Then in the unassuming little town of Yuzha, where we were again searching for a supermarket, we had another experience that completely turned around our opinion of the town. It was the afternoon where the tarmac unexpectedly ran out, and we’d just spent 24 hot and bothered kilometres weaving between pot-holes, avoiding patches of sand, bumping over endless corrugations on an unsurfaced road, and Keith having to bat off horse-fly attacks. After a brief respite back on tarmac again, we got to our biggest town of the day. On entering the town, the asphalt deteriorated to have us bumping along at 10kph again, worrying about our wheels The only shops we could find were little ‘produkti’ which contained nothing that we wanted (some vegetables that were not old and shrivelled, a bottle of wine, some muesli and perhaps a couple of nectarines). Then two small boys on a noisy motorbike insisted on riding next to us shouting questions at us which we couldn’t even hear over the roar of their engine let alone understand, and then, when they stopped, they still couldn’t tell us if there was a supermarket in town, however they did then ‘helpfully’ hail a passing cyclist who had loud music blaring from his trouser pocket, and who refused to switch it off when trying to talk to us so once again we couldn’t even hear, let alone understand what he said.
We eventually found a decent enough shop and, whilst Keith was shopping, I was approached by a car of teenagers. “Here we go” I thought, bracing myself for some more loud noise and miscommunication, but Katya, Sasha and the third one whose name has slipped our mind (it sounded a bit like Yuri but wasn’t) couldn’t have been nicer.
Katya practiced her few words of English, which was lovely, and, after Keith came out, we chatted as best we could in Russian. We established that the next section of road we’d planned to use had no asphalt either, so worked out a better route, and then took photos of them next to the town war memorial. In the midst of all this, the shop ladies came out and gave us a bar of chocolate and a calendar from a Russian Bank. Katya and co then escorted us out of town at with their hazard lights flashing to make sure we got on the right road and we pedalled off with huge grins on our faces.
The next morning brought yet more goodwill and friendly faces in the little town of Palex. We’d found a Magnit supermarket (Yay! The simple joy of being able to walk round and pick things off the shelves at our leisure instead of trying to peer over the counter at what’s on offer and ask the shop-owner for the few things we know the name of in Russian). Before we could even go into the shop the friendly florist on the corner stall came over to admire the bike and tell us we didn’t need to lock it as he’d watch it for us (we locked it anyway as we’d practically finished winding cables through it by then) and then he came over for another chat when we came out of the shop and gave us a book about a local artist, with some English in it. Then another man and his son came to admire the bike, and we managed what we thought was a quite lengthy conversation in our atrocious Russian. Then his teenage daughter and her friend came out of the shop so he pushed them in our direction and said they could speak English. They were quite shy at first but soon opened up and spoke very good English and asked really interesting questions, like what it was like travelling when we couldn’t speak much of the language, as well as the usual where are you from, where are you going etc.
Mean-looking, bare-chested men in dirty combat trousers have proved to be quite affable, and we’ve even had a few waves and smiles from the police, one of whom stopped to take our photo.
As we approached Nizhny the traffic levels increased (including the number of trucks), but we had plenty of smiles, waves and thumbs-ups from drivers. Pyotr (the driver of an elderly green soviet truck) stopped twice to photograph us. The second time we stopped as well and he thrust some roubles into our hands.
We’ve even had good camping this week. The forests have thinned out and there’s been much more agricultural land, so whilst we’ve had a couple of days where we’ve had to ride an extra 10-20km in search of a suitable spot, we’ve mostly been camping in recently mowed fields that have been relatively bug-free. We even managed to find a nice little forest spot reasonably free of mozzies just 25km outside Nizhny. Happy days indeed.
The only slight dampener has been the weather. We’ve had thunderstorms on several days. The ones in the evening whilst we’re snug in the tent are not so bad. The ones in the morning when we’re trying to pack up and get on the road are not so good. The ones in the late afternoon when we’ve finally dried out after our morning’s soaking are downright annoying.
No matter. Russian warmth and kindness makes us beam with pleasure even when it’s raining.