Elista proved to be a gem of a place: a bustling, vibrant city tucked away in the middle of the vast and empty steppe. Full of contrasts, the main road was always busy with impatient drivers and the air resounded with a modern symphony of atonal honks and hoots, particularly near the main bus stop outside the Hotel Elista. Yet running alongside the main road was a narrow strip of relative calm in the form of a pretty, green park where people walked and talked and relaxed amongst numerous statues. Then a kilometre further on up the road was the main Buddhist temple, which seemed to exist in its own perfect bubble of serenity. Reds and golds shone cheerfully against the grey, autumnal sky and inside the temple, the bright, benevolent face of the Dalai Lama smiled over the congregation at their prayers.
As ever, the generosity of strangers has amazed and humbled us. As we chatted to some curious bystanders near a supermarket, a father pushed his small daughter towards us to present us with a souvenir key ring of Kalmykia, and about 500 metres further down the road, one of the stall holders in the fruit market adjacent to the supermarket, overtook us in her car, stopped and handed us some delicious oranges…right in the middle of a busy roundabout.
The city is full of statues, beautifully displaying its multicultural heritage, and at the statue of fictional chess master, Ostap Bender, we came across a group of school children on a daytrip who insisted we have our photo taken with them.
The short autumnal days were against us though and by mid-afternoon we had to make preparations to get on the road to get some kilometres between us and the city to start looking for a place to camp. We stopped to buy a couple of pastries to have for dessert that evening, and were waylaid by the producer of the local TV news channel, who was desperate to interview us, but unfortunately she couldn’t arrange for a translator, and although we delayed for as long as we could, in the end we had to say goodbye and get on the road as we now had our flights home booked and a deadline to get to Rostov.
The ride from Krasnodar to Elista, across the flat expanse of Steppe, had been really hard going into a strong headwind, and we were both expecting a similarly difficult ride from Elista to Rostov, resigned to our impression that the Steppe was a really tedious place to cycle…somewhere to endure rather to enjoy en route to more interesting places. But the ride to Rostov completely changed our perception.
With a more favourable wind the desolate expanse revealed its secret beauty and my misanthropic heart revelled in the glorious isolation. Even in rain and a cold side-wind it remained a joy to cycle across compared to against a headwind. (Well, I thought so at any rate….Keith needed a little persuasion as to the beauty of the cold rain.)
On the day before the aforementioned rain, we were coming towards the end of the riding day and hoping to get perhaps a further 10 or 20km done before stopping to camp, when a car drew alongside us and the passenger began questioning us (in Russian) through the window. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence and we shouted back where we were from and kept pedalling, not really keen to stop as nightfall was approaching we were keen to get a few more km covered. The men were really persistent though, and the situation was becoming silly as they crawled along beside us, shouting and gesticulating through the open window. In the end we stopped and two 40-50yr old guys hopped out to shake our hands and chat to us and we soon worked out they were trying to invite us back to stay at their home. We weren’t too sure at first, it was hard to communicate and we didn’t really know what we were letting ourselves in for…but we’re quite nosy at heart and the driver in particular seemed very decent so we said yes and arranged to meet them in the next village where the driver dropped his friend off and we then followed the driver to his house to meet his wife and daughter. Well, we really landed on our feet! Vasili, as we discovered our host to be called, was the village mayor, and he and his wife, Tanya, were great company despite our lack of common language. Tanya cooked us a fabulous meal of borsch followed by peppers stuffed with meat, and Vasili opened a large carafe of his home-made wine, which in absolute honesty was the best Russian wine we’d tasted. Despite our limited Russian and their lack of English, we had two dictionaries between us and managed, with quite a lot of amusing miming and acting, to cover a whole range of topics including local and international perception of Russian politicians, and whether or not we were safe camping in Russia.
Vasili seemed amazed we had not encountered axe-wielding bandits in his homeland, which I have to say alarmed me a little. When non-Russians warn us of bandits that’s one thing, but for the locals to warn us too… well, we decided that despite the fact we’d only met nice people so far, we would be wise not to become too complacent. That said, if we were too cautious we would never have gone back with Vasili and had such a wonderful evening with him and his wife.
Over the next few days as we made our way to Rostov, we continued to be showered with kindness. We stopped to buy water in a small village and a crowd surrounded us, took photos and gave us apples, someone else gave us a bag of pastries as we stopped to take photos on the outskirts of Rostov, and two people (on separate occasions) even insisted on pressing money into our hand! It has been really, really overwhelming.
So, with the aid of a favourable wind and the glow in our hearts, we made good speed to Rostov, where the kindness of the Russian people again overwhelmed us and made the last few days of our trip particularly special.
We’d heard that Rostov was an expensive place to stay, and our initial internet research had confirmed that view, with most hotels being way out of our budget, so we’d decided to wait until we got to Rostov and then perhaps ask taxi drivers if they knew of any cheap guesthouses.
Our first task however, was to find a map of the city. We bought one at a news kiosk and were stopped at the side of the road, getting our bearings and deciding our hotel-finding plan of attack, when a young woman approached us with a friendly smile and asked in impeccable English if we needed any help. We explained we were looking for cheap accommodation and she suggested we pop to a nearby cafe for some lunch whilst she made some enquiries for us. Well, within 30 minutes she’d secured us an apartment on the edge of town that was not only within budget but would be far better for dismantling and boxing up the tandem than any hotel room. She then caught a bus out to the apartment (which we cycled to) and acted as an interpreter for us as we made final arrangements with the apartment owner, and then, as if she hadn’t already given up enough of her day, she located a bike shop and again took a bus and met us there to help us ask for the boxes which we would need to package the tandem and trailer. The bike shop only had one box but they phoned their other branch on the other side of the city and they agreed to hold a box for us too. As the bike box was too big to transport on the trailer, Anna, our guardian angel in Rostov, wrote down which buses I’d need to get and which stops I needed, both to get back to the apartment and also out to the other bike shop. We still don’t know how to thank her enough for her incredible kindness, spending an entire afternoon at our service and helping us arrange things far, far quicker and with much less stress and hassle than we would ever have managed on our own.
Anna wasn’t our only Rostov Angel. Whilst we’d been in the cafe with her, a pair of women had come in and sat at a table near us, and as we were about to leave one of them had asked, again in excellent English, if she could ask us a cheeky question. Of course we were very happy to say ‘ask away’ and she explained she taught English, both to private students and also at an IT company, and would we mind meeting her class at the IT company to give them the chance to talk to native English speakers. We explained we would be very happy to, but only after we had boxed our bike and trailer and got the packages safely on their way back to the UK.
Yulia (the English teacher and our second Rostov Angel) and Anna (our first Rostov Angel) were exchanging phone calls all afternoon, and by the end of the day had arranged that Yulia’s boss would pick us and our boxes up at midday the next day and drive us to the DHL office to post our parcels. So we spent a busy evening bussing back and forth across the city collecting cardboard boxes and then dismantling the bike and squeezing it into the box, and packing up the trailer, and at midday the next day, were picked up as arranged by Roman, the IT company’s CEO, and his girlfriend, Kate, who’d given up her afternoon to come and help interpret for us. The DHL office was quite a drive away from our apartment and it then took over two hours to check in our parcels, having the contents inspected and weighed, and filling in the forms required to get through Russian customs and so on, and through it all Roman and Kate were unfailingly cheerful and helpful even as Keith was tearing his hair out with frustration at the bureaucracy.
Kate then went home and Roman took us for lunch in the office canteen where we met Yulia and some of her students. After lunch we gave a little talk and photo-show about our trip and that took us to the end of the working day, at which point we were invited to stay on as that evening they were having a party to celebrate the recent marriage of one of their colleagues. What a fantastic evening! Pizza, vodka, great company, emotional and lengthy toasts both to the newly-weds and to new friends and good international relations. We had a fantastic time, and no-one wanted to go home when the taxi arrived so we arranged to meet up with some of them again the following evening (Friday).
Keith and I spent Friday strolling around Rostov, pottering in the museum (trying but mostly failing to interpret the Russian information) and then we met up with Yulia and her students back at the office for a while before they took us to a restaurant down on the river bank. We ate traditional Russian food and enjoyed a brilliant evening chatting about everything under the sun, from serious things like the merits and otherwise of different political and economic systems, to the differences between Russian and English plumbing, eating habits and queuing etiquette.
And so our time in Russia, and indeed on the road, came to an end. After 6 and a half months, 11,500kms, 18 countries and hundreds of wonderful memories, it was hard to adjust to the idea that we’d be back in UK in a matter of hours. We’re looking forward to seeing friends and family, and will enjoy the challenges of renovating Keith’s parents’ new home, but it was still with a huge sense of disappointment that we sat on the bus from Heathrow back to Croydon and all the reminders of our ‘old life’. Being on the road has suited us very well, but we’ll just have to see what 2012 holds for us.