Heat, dust, flies, mosquitoes, appalling roads, belching trucks, undrinkable tap water, a dearth of fresh vegetables…Russia can be hard to love at times. But the friendly locals and our excitement at being back here go a long way to make up for the difficulties.
The last blog post saw us preparing to leave Camping Siveri in Latvia. We had a fairly easy run from there up to the Russian border near Zilupe, apart from a 15km stretch of un-surfaced road which we encountered shortly after stopping to chat to some Latvian cycle tourists who were on their summer holiday with their son on a tow-along bike. We hadn’t seen many other tourists on our trip this year so it was especially nice to stop and chat for a while.
We wild camped about 25km short of the Russian border and, after a typically lazy start the following morning, arrived at the border at around 1.15pm. We knew the clocks would go forward and we’d lose an hour, but still thought we’d got plenty of time in hand….until we saw the queue of traffic. We rolled past car after car after car, all stationary in the heat, and no sign of the actual border. Embarrassed to be jumping the queue, we turned and pedalled back to take our place at the back, and asked the car-driver in front of us if he was familiar with the crossing and if this length of queue was normal. He said it would take a minimum of 4 hours. We groaned inwardly and settled down to have lunch.
The sun beat down as we huddled in the tiny scrap of shade afforded by our trailer. It had taken about an hour to move two car lengths. Keith went for a stroll up to the front of the queue, and came back to report he’d found the border crossing and there was no sign of a foot-passenger queue or any obvious place for us and our bike other than to queue with the cars.
We waited. Aeons passed. Stars died and were reborn. Galaxies collided. We crawled forward another car length. Keith went for another stroll.
During Keith’s absence, one of the other motorists came up to me and indicated that I should take the bike to the front of the queue. Not knowing where Keith had got to I waited for him to return, which he did in due course announcing that he reckoned we should just ride to the front and take our chances. I told him this concurred with the motorist’s advice and so that’s what we did….cruised in a slightly self-conscious fashion past the patiently sweating motorists until we reached a red light with a sign in Russian and English telling us to wait until our registration plate had been noted and we were called forward. We ignored this and pulled forward to a respectful distance from the Latvian border guard’s booth, who, when he was free, greeted us with a big grin and an envious look at the Pino, stamped a bit of paper, and waved us through. We handed the bit of paper to the Latvian customs officials, who waved us through, and then finally, we stopped at a third Latvian booth and once again were waved through. At this point we met an English guy on a motorbike who lives in Moscow. He was well-used to the procedure and assured us it was fine for us to keep jumping the queues of cars. So we did, at every opportunity.
Next stop was the first Russian booth, where we were given an entry/exit card to fill in. We then had to hand that to someone at a second booth, and have our bike and baggage inspected (of a fashion) by a woman in military fatigues. She started to ask us to open the trailer, but when she saw what a hassle it was to remove the solar panel, spare tyres and other paraphernalia, just asked us to unzip a couple of pockets on the panniers, and then spent the rest of the time asking us about our trip. She then led us to the Russian customs booth where we answered a few questions about what was in our bags and showed them our bottle of wine (for that evening’s dinner) and vodka (bought in Latvia to use up the last of our Lats) and were then waved on our way to the fourth and final Russian booth where, for reasons unknown, they wanted to look at our passports again. So after two hours of pointless queuing in the heat, it only took a further one and a quarter hours of jumping the queue, passing bits of paper around and smilingly opening a couple of bags before we were free to pedal on Russian soil. Yay!
The M9 road runs directly from the border crossing to Moscow, but we guessed it would be the main truck route so as soon as possible we turned off towards the town of Sebezh, got some money from an ATM and then continued on a quiet road with pretty good tarmac for a small number of kilometres before camping near a lake.
We awoke to find we hadn’t been robbed or murdered by bandits, proving correct our suspicion that the nice people we met on our trip in Russia last year were more representative of the general populace than the bandits that many people seem all too ready to tell us about.
The next 25km or so were on the same quiet, well-tarmacked road that we’d been on the day before, but then we got routed back onto the M9. At first this didn’t seem too bad. A few big lorries came by but there was decent tarmac and plenty of space. Then, sadly the true nature of the beast was revealed: ruts, bumps and potholed tarmac that had us weaving across to the other side of the road at times to try to be as kind as possible to our wheels. The number of lorries increased and there was barely enough room for the two facing streams of traffic to pass each other, let alone pass a Pino too.
There was a tailwind for the first day or so, which was appreciated for a while, but then we realised it was enabling some large grey and yellow flies to cruise with us even at 30kph. It’s horrible sweating up a hill with half a dozen large, buzzing beasts performing figure-of-eights around you, pausing only to try to land on your face. Keith had the worst of it as in between swatting flies he also had to look out for pot-holes and keep an eye on the mirrors to make sure approaching trucks had seen us and were pulling out enough that he wouldn’t need to take evasive action onto the gravelly hard shoulder, and also keep an eye forward to see what the oncoming traffic was up to. After 25 hot, stressful kilometres we stopped at a petrol station and chugged down a couple of litres of Fanta, and thus fortified made our way a couple of kilometres off the M9 into a town to find a supermarket. We had lunch under the town statue of Lenin and then returned to the M9 to do further battle with the juggernauts and the flies.
It had been a few days since we’d washed (perhaps that explains the flies!), and after the lack of wifi in Camping Severi we were keen to post our belated blog, and also wanted to get our visas registered, so that evening decided to treat ourselves to a hotel – our first night in a bed for almost two months.
It took a bit of time and the promise that we’d be paying in roubles to reassure the proprietor to let us in, but eventually we managed to allay whatever concerns he’d had. We never did unravel the rapid stream of Russian sufficiently to establish what his concerns were but it seems that one of the problems was our visa registration, which they told us was unnecessary. We hope they’re right.
We had a shower and headed to the restaurant for dinner, deeming this to be the more prudent approach rather than risking the wrath of the owner by firing up the stove in the bedroom.
We tried our best to look at the menu, but the waitress was having none of it. After some confusing exchanges, during which the waitress enlisted the help of some other guests who spoke even less English than we did Russian, we eventually agreed we’d be very happy to have whatever it was we were being offered at the price they were offering it, and so enjoyed a nice meal and a beer before retiring to the reception area to post our belated blog from Latvia. Keith then stayed up until after 3am sorting out a load of banking and other important things to keep the trip and our lives running smoothly. I was in bed reading Turgenev to get me into the Russian vibe.
The next day, showered and in clean clothes, we resumed battle with the M9. It was actually a relief to have a headwind which meant there weren’t so many flies. Wherever possible we tried to move onto side roads, but aside from one slightly hilly but otherwise lovely 20km stretch we didn’t have much luck with them.
The next day saw us still on the M9: the distance from the Latvian border to Moscow looks insignificant on the overall map of Russia, but it’s around the same distance as going from London to Glasgow. Sadly the headwind had dropped sufficiently that pedalling was still difficult but the flies could now join us – which they did with gusto.
Any side roads were either un-surfaced or simply not well-signed enough for us to identify them working with our 1:750,000 atlas, and so we continued with the trucks, and the flies, and the headwind, and the heat, and the crap tarmac.
In the afternoon we had a treat though when we came across some other cycle tourists: three guys from Beijing who were cycling to Paris. After cycling across China they’d had to take a plane to Moscow as they’d been unable to get Kazakh visas, and in a converse situation to ours had only spent one night under canvas on their trip, preferring hotels each night. We chatted to them for a long time, comparing routes and kit and experiences, before going our separate ways. We gave them our Latvian and Lithuanian maps since they were heading that way and they told us we’d got about 30km of chaotic roadworks ahead of us. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that although they’d got the tailwind, they’d probably got more flies. It’s from small mental victories like this that strength is drawn when pedalling in adverse conditions.
The roadworks turned out to be comparatively pleasant. For much of the time we were able to sneak onto the new tarmac whilst the rest of the traffic made do with the single un-surfaced carriageway remaining to them.
In all it was five full days from the border until we left the M9 for good. We’d had a few brief detours into towns to buy supplies, and one disastrous attempt to follow what started off as a nicely tarmacked road but which ended up being a fly-ridden dirt-track that sapped our speed and had us off the bike at one point when a sudden unexpected patch of deep sand caught the front wheel. To frustrate us further the big noisy flies had been joined by horseflies that were happily drawing blood and even biting through our clothing. I donned the bug-mesh smock and sweated a lot; Keith just swatted and pedalled harder through the sand and gravel.
On the bright side though, we’ve now spent a day and a half on a road with good tarmac and fewer lorries, and Keith bought a new gear cable and borrowed some (crap) cable cutters from a market stall selling bikes, and has replaced the bent cable housing near the rear mech which had become kinked (probably when I caught the trailer on it by mistake). So today we’ve had a pretty good day with slick gear changes and not too many trucks or flies.
We camped last night in a mosquito-ridden forest through with some monstrous scary hornets buzzing around, plus the usual share of horse-flies and the large grey-yellow flies that insist on flying into the vestibules and then buzzing frantically between the inner tent and the fly despite there being two gigantic vents for them to get out through, not to mention the two open doors.
We’ve been discovered by locals twice now whilst trying to sneakily camp in Russia. The first time was at one of our more desperate spots in some woods just out of sight of a couple of small wooden houses. We’d already tried several other spots and decided they were no go, and were getting pretty fed up with the impenetrable, bug-ridden forest. The forests we’ve been in in the rest of Europe have been criss-crossed with paths and logging tracks and camping has been fairly easy. The Russian forests have few trails and thick with nettles and other dense plants. Even the meadowlands are mostly uncultivated in this area and full of waist-high grasses and flowers that make camping rather difficult. So we set up camp at a less than ideal place and I dived into the tent to escape the thronging mosquitoes (by far the worst we’d had to date) and Keith donned his bug-smock and went foraging for bilberries. We’d only been there 30 minutes or so when a man came walking by. He seemed unfazed by the appalling mosquitoes. Perhaps he’s immune to them. We asked if he minded us camping there, and he seemed OK about it and told us the name for bilberries in Russian, and tried to tell us a load of other stuff that we couldn’t understand, and all in all didn’t seem to upset by our presence at all.
Our second discovery was in a fairly mozzie-free field that had been recently mowed. I was just preparing to squat for a pee before retiring for the evening when I caught sight of an old Lada bumping towards us across the field, causing me to zip up quickly and try to look nonchalant. The old couple in the car waved and smiled enthusiastically as they passed us. We grinned and waved back. Wild camping in Russia can be pretty good!
In fact, the response we’ve had since crossing the border has generally been great. Truck and car drivers hoot their horns (in a nice way) and wave or give us a thumbs up. People stop to chat when we’re at the supermarket and pose for their photo next to the bike, and a few people have stopped at the side of the road to offer us water or simply say hello and find out what we’re up to.
In Rzhev, where we finally left the M9, we were asking some locals where the supermarket was when two cycle-tourists came riding by in the opposite direction. They were a French couple heading to Moscow from St Petersburg, en route to Mongolia and beyond. We’ve agreed to try to hook up in Moscow as we really enjoyed chatting to them about their trip to date and their future plans. We’d originally fancied Mongolia as a route into China, but have heard it’s next to impossible to get a Chinese visa in Mongolia. Mind you, we’d also heard it was impossible to get a Russian visa outside your country of residence but they’d managed to pick one up in Helsinki, so perhaps they know things we don’t.
We’re currently treating ourselves to lunch in a cafe with wifi in Tver and hope to arrive in Moscow in about 3 days time. We’re really looking forward to staying with the parents of a friend of my brother, who have kindly agreed to put us up for a few nights.
Oh, and Keith’s knee is looking much better. Not quite back to normality, but coping well with 90-100 kilometre days, so we’re very pleased and feeling pretty confident that it’ll settle down completely in due course.