Tag Archives: banya

Perm to Yekaterinburg 5 – 11 August 2012

We have reached Asia!!!!

Keith and Pino at the Europe-Asia marker

We have also successfully surfed a couch! For those of you who haven’t come across it, couchsurfing.com is a website that links up travellers with hosts all over the planet. Getting your profile set up is a bit of a hassle, and feels more like a dating-agency than an accommodation bureau, but once that’s out of the way then it’s simple enough to search for and contact hosts.

Ilya setting up the tracking antenna

Our host in Perm was Ilya, who has an apartment overlooking the Kama River within walking distance of the city centre. Perfect!

One of his hobbies is aerial photography using a camera mounted onto a large radio-controlled plane. We spent the morning helping him make a couple of flights over the city. Keith would launch the aircraft skyward whilst Ilya operated the controls, and we also helped check that the radio-tracker was following the plane properly. It can operate over 3km away and it’s really unnerving to watch this expensive-looking piece of kit become a tiny glint against the sky and then, in the blink of any eye, disappear from view. Ilya seemed pretty calm though and has clearly been doing it for some time. Thankfully the plane returned successfully after each flight and we hope he got some good shots.

Take off!

Our arrival in Perm was rather badly timed as we arrived at Ilya’s about 40 minutes after the water had been switched off across the whole city (to enable some work to be done on the system). That was on Friday evening, and it was not due to come on again until Sunday morning. Ilya had filled the bath and some basins with water for flushing the loo and washing in, but our fantasies of warm showers and a washing-machine load of clean clothes would have to wait a while longer. To our delight the water came on earlier than expected at midnight on Saturday.

We didn’t visit any of Perm’s museums or galleries, but did pass an enjoyable afternoon following the ‘green line’ walking route. There are at least three walks around the city marked by painted lines on the pavement and leading to bilingual information boards at places of historical, romantic or architectural note.  Our favourite snippet of information was in one of the parks where we were told that “Anton Chekov had an amusing incident here – when he wanted to enter the garden he could not open the gate as it was blocked by a pile of snow.” A guffaw-inducing incident indeed and most worthy of record.

On Sunday Ilya was out all day at a shooting competition and then picked his wife and baby daughter up from their weekend away, so we had the flat to ourselves until late in the evening. We washed all our clothes plus sleeping bag liners, added a links page to the blog, read through the application forms for our Kazakh visas, bought our train tickets from Yekaterinburg to Omsk online (only to find out a week later when we arrived in Yekaterinburg, that the purchase failed) and tried to find a couch to surf in Omsk. Whilst Keith was working with the computer, I went out on a mission to get my hair cut, pa-Russki! Armed with our dictionary and a photo of a woman with cropped, short hair I strolled around looking for places that might be hairdressers. The first two I found were closed, but the third, located up a stairway and along a corridor in what looked like an otherwise unoccupied building, was open, and the woman was delighted to prune my unruly barnet.  Pedalling up hills is now a far less sweaty affair.

We said our goodbyes and thank-yous to Ilya and his wife on Monday morning and headed north for about 30kms and then east. If you know your Russian geography this may have seemed like an unusual direction to take to go to Yekaterinburg, which lies south east of Perm, but in our quest for quieter roads we decided to add an extra 100+km (turning a 4 day ride into 5 days) to our route and thus avoid the M7 and its incessant roar of trucks.

The roads have not been entirely quiet, but we’re pretty confident they’ve been quieter than the main Perm-Yekaterinburg road would have been, and the tarmac has been quite excellent in places. The Ural mountains lie between Perm and Yekaterinburg, so unsurprisingly the terrain has been increasingly hilly, but the good tarmac has taken some of the pain out of the climbs, and has meant the descents have been exhilarating affairs, seeing us reach a new maximum of 82.5kph (about 51mph). Big grins (and white knuckles) all round!

The towns have been few and far between, and in between has been forest. Lots of forest. Lots of dense forest. In other words, it took us ages to find somewhere to camp. On our first night out of Perm, we’d done 113km and arrived at the turn-off to the Perm-36 Museum (Perm-36 was a prison or gulag where criminal & political prisoners were interred between the years 1946 to 1987). We were only 2km from a village in a rare unforested section of unruly wild meadows and decided to head down towards the village as we thought the terrain looked more promising down there. To our delight, we found a mowed track leading off into a meadow, culminating in a turning circle. We couldn’t imagine why it was there, and decided it would do just fine for us. We were both tired after the hills so rather than pitch the tent we lay the blanket out and fell asleep in the evening sun. After about 30 minutes an elderly motorbike and sidecar bumped into view, ridden by an equally elderly, lean, weather-beaten man with an impish grin, and a young girl who turned out to be his granddaughter.

Geen, the old guy, was intrigued by our story and insisted we should stay the night with his family, and watch the Olympics on his telly. We said ‘thank-you very much’ and packed away the blanket. Before we left, he took Keith down to a small hidden river where the reason for the strange mowed pathway became apparent as he checked his nets for fish.

We began to follow him back to the village, but lost him within moments as he roared off on the gravel road, but it wasn’t a very large village and we found him again when we spotted his granddaughter walking down the street and she pointed to the house. We stepped into another universe at that point and situations veered from slightly uncomfortable to comedy gold and back again without warning.

At first we weren’t even sure if we were at the right house. There was a sidecar outside, but it belonged to another man, who’d arrived at the fishing site as we’d been leaving and was now sitting on a bench in the yard of the house as if it was his own. We didn’t know Geen’s name at that point and couldn’t make the man understand who we were looking for. After several minutes of us just hanging around as it was the house that the granddaughter had pointed to, Geen appeared from within a barn in which his own motorbike was parked. He indicated we should bring the Pino into the yard, and moved the other man’s motorbike, the goat and a territorial rooster out of the way to make room for it. He then started telling us about a hotel down near the museum. We said we couldn’t afford a hotel and he said it was free, but then he made no move to show us to the hotel so we hung around for a while longer in the yard whilst he chatted to the other man and to a woman who had appeared and who looked none-too-pleased to see us there. He then went and got some schoolbooks filled in with English and bade us sit and read it with him….we couldn’t work out whose it was but it passed the time and we learnt a few new Russian words in the process.

At length we enquired again about the hotel and he ushered us and the Pino into the barn. We left the Pino (somewhat reluctantly) amongst the chickens and followed Geen up some rickety steps into his home. We passed through a pantry area which also contained a stove, and into a room dominated by a traditional Russian heater. To the left was an archway leading to the granddaughter’s room and we were led to the right of the huge heater passing the small toilet (more on that later), some cupboards and around into the main living area, which contained a sofa (that we were to sleep on), a TV (with a hole cut into the stud-wall behind it to allow it to fit in the room), and a small L-shaped bench and dining table. In the wall with the cut-out for the TV there was an archway leading through into a further room, but we couldn’t see what was in it. On the windowsill, a heavily pregnant cat was sunning itself.

We were invited to sit down at the table, Geen disappeared, and the surly-looking woman took his place. She still didn’t look very pleased to see us, but gave us some mugs of tea, and then instructed me to start chopping tomatoes into a bowl for salad. It wasn’t clear if it was for everyone, or if just Keith and I would be eating.

We were trying to establish this when all of a sudden she gave a squawk and rushed from the room, shouting for Geen. When we’d been led up the rickety steps he’d propped the door at the top open for us, and the goat had taken full advantage of the situation and was now in the pantry causing havoc. We had to laugh to ourselves, but couldn’t help but worry that this wasn’t going to help endear us to the lady of the house, who we still hadn’t been introduced to, and so we started to try to work out how we could leave without offending anyone.

We couldn’t think what to do, and so, after the goat had been evicted and some semblance of calm had been restored, we said ‘thank you very much’ when the lady presented us with some mashed potato and kidney stew to go with the tomato salad, and it was genuinely delicious…and I’m not usually a kidney fan.

Geen had now reappeared and said we must have a banya, he then insisted we should sleep in the room through the archway rather than on the sofa. His wife (as we’d now finally established having at one point thought they were brother and sister, but then worked out the brother she’d been referring to was in bed in a small room up some steps from the pantry and was unwell) looked at Geen murderously, and we realised that we were being offered their own bed. We absolutely refused to go along with this and said firmly that we would sleep on the sofa or in our tent, at which point Geen’s wife seemed to like us a whole lot more and the evening became a lot easier from then on.

Keith was taken to see the banya and discovered that Geen had worked as a fireman in Bishkek and moved to the Urals 10 years ago, and this was his fourth wife. We never did establish his granddaughter’s story and where her parents were. I sat with his wife and granddaughter watching a crime drama and making occasional conversation with the granddaughter about their five cats….whose ranks were due to swell in three weeks time when the heavily pregnant cat was expected to give birth.

Banyas take about 2 hours to heat up, but at last it was ready for us, and Geen’s wife provided us with towels, shampoo, pyjamas (me), trunks (Keith) and socks to wear after the banya. Geen led us across the yard and into the banya. The set-up was very similar to the one we used when we stayed with Igor’s family: there is an outer room where you undress, and then a swelteringly hot inner room with a ferociously hot furnace, a tank of boiling water (mind your ass when turning round!), some basins of cold water, various scoops and buckets, and some wooden benches. Geen had also thoughtfully provided a bucket of boiling water with some leafy birch branches soaking in it.

I was told to wait in the outer room whilst Geen took Keith into the banya for a guided tour of the various implements. He explained one should go into the banya, soap, scrub, whip and rinse (we’re still not entirely sure of the order) and then take some time in the cooler outer room before going back in for more banya action. As a parting instruction after showing us the lock on the outer door, he gave us his impish grin and pointed at us in turn saying “Man. Woman. Sex.” before tittering into his hand like a schoolboy as we shooed him from the room.

The banya experience is growing on us, and this one particularly so as it wasn’t quite as hot as Igor’s, but we still felt like a shower would be nice afterwards as you’re still so sweaty after exiting. I’m not sure what slapping your body with flaccid birch leaves is supposed to do for you, but the exfoliating scrubbing band was very nice and our skin did feel good the next day.

After the banya, Geen’s wife showed us some photos of her and her family and friends, and we reciprocated with some of our pictures. The Olympic coverage started at midnight (Perm is 5 hours ahead of the UK) and at around 1am we all went to bed. Before retiring, Geen gave us a tour of the toilet. The loo itself was fairly standard porcelain, but with the lid removed from the cistern. The adjacent sink had no taps. To get water you pushed a plunger up into the bottom of a water container above the sink (filled by hand from somewhere else) and water trickled out. To flush the loo, you pressed the button on top of the cistern as normal, but then to re-fill the cistern you had to put an electrical plug into a socket beside the sink, which then powered a pump to draw water from somewhere. The water came through a piece of plastic hose-pipe that was strung along the wall behind the sink and emptied into the open top of the toilet cistern. When the cistern was full, you removed the plug from the socket and hung it back on the adjacent hook. Geen was very proud of his gadgetry and announced ‘Automatic’ with a big grin as he demonstrated the pump.

Geen making pancakes for breakfast

At 7am the next day we were awoken by a mewing noise and Geen stumbling around our bed in search of a cardboard box for the cat which was in the process of giving birth in the corner of their bedroom. His wife got up and took the goat for a walk along with the neighbour’s goats and we got ourselves up and dressed. Geen made us a huge plate of delicious pancakes and then his wife came in announced that the goat was eating our baggage. We’d been worried about the goat and our belongings the previous evening, but as it had been locked away after the pantry incident we’d ceased to fret and had (naively) assumed that after such antics it would be tethered somewhere away from our bike the next day….but no….it was free-range and had sneakily pulled open the zip on one of our bags and gobbled down a banana and a cling-film wrapped cake before being discovered. We were quite relieved it hadn’t eaten the bag. The unrepentant goat had been removed from the scene of its crime by the time we got there, but the territorial rooster still had to be held at bay with a rake before we could get to our bags which we decided to bring inside for safety whilst we finished our breakfast. Sadly our bags were not quite as safe indoors as we’d hoped. Whilst the mother cat laboured away just a few feet from us through the archway into Geen’s bedroom and the three other females attended to their breakfast beside the huge heater, the tom cat sauntered in, gave our bags a cursory sniff, sprayed his opinion across them, and then sauntered nonchalantly out again, whilst we sat rigid with impotent indignation and Geen’s quiet granddaughter broke into a rare and lovely smile. I could have wrung the damn cat’s neck, but saw the funny side of it too; having grown up in a house of animals and general chaos there was something soothingly nostalgic about Geen’s place.

With heartfelt thanks for their hospitality and generosity we left Geen’s house laden down with tomatoes and cucumbers that they insisted we should have, and pedalled the half a kilometre or so to the Perm-36 museum.

On our travels we’ve visited a number of museums about prisons and oppressive regimes: the Nazi concentration camps of Mauthausen in Austria and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Budapest’s Museum of Terror, and the utterly compelling Museum of Occupation in Riga, but whilst there are many common themes, each has its own story and Perm-36 was no exception. The conditions at Perm were not as brutal as at Mauthausen or Auschwitz – inmates were not slaughtered or worked to death in quite the same manner as at those camps – but its story is no less emotionally draining to hear and no less important. It should not be forgotten that many millions of people died while interred in the Soviet gulag system and during the worst times, life expectancy upon imprisonment, was as low as 7 months.

At one time there were thousands of prisons for political prisoners in Soviet Russia, but as the political system changed the prisons were destroyed in an attempt to hide the past. Perm-36 is the only one remaining in Russia. The period for which the museum has the most exhibits is the period from 1972 to 1987; before then, and particularly in the ’46-’53 Stalin years, the documentation is simply not available to confirm exactly what happened. The prison conditions were certainly more brutal in the early years: men were sent to do hard labour in the uranium mines of Eastern Siberia, and the wives and children of political prisoners were also imprisoned for their husband or father’s crime. There was a particular poignancy for me in the exhibits from the Stalin period as my Czech grandfather had been sent down the uranium mines in the early fifties.

By 1972 conditions had improved considerably – more food and sufficient medical care to keep people fit to work (manufacturing electrical cables and elements for irons) – but remained inhumane by any standards. Men whose ‘crimes’ ranged from translating into Russian books that the authorities disapproved of to speaking out against human rights abuses, or simply not agreeing with the government’s policies were housed along with non-political prisoners in cold, overcrowded dormitories where the men slept on bunks made of planks. Toilet and washing facilities were limited. In the evenings they had some free time in which they could write to their families (maximum two letters a month, which of course were censored) and then they had two hours of lectures on Soviet policy to encourage them to see the error of their ways. If they did not comply with the prison rules their mail privileges were rescinded and they were sent to punishment cells, which were spartan in the extreme, and their food rations were reduced.

Punishment cell for four. During the day the bunks are locked up and the men had only the blue pedestals for seats.

Prisoners who obeyed the rules were allowed visits from their families. Twice a year they were allowed a three hour visit, and once a year a visit of up to three days, although none of the ex-inmates who’d been interviewed could recall any visit longer than two days. We saw the rooms in which these visits took place, and, perhaps it’s the latent romantic in me, but I found these more upsetting than the punishment rooms. The three-hour visits were conducted in a small room containing three chairs. Two chairs faced each other and were for the prisoner and their spouse. At right angles to them on the midline between the facing chairs was a chair for the guard who would sit with them for the duration of the visit. Separating the two facing chairs was a wooden partition extending from floor to ceiling, with a glass panel at face height. Sometimes, the guard would cover his eyes and allow the couple to extend their hands around the partition and touch their fingers together. And this was happening as recently as 1987 to people whose only crime was to have the courage to speak out against a regime they did not agree with. And of course is happening in some places to this day. We feel humbled by our visit to Perm-36 and grateful to the people who work in the museum to ensure future generations understand and cherish the freedom they enjoy, and continue to speak out against human-rights abuses.

The visiting room at Perm-36 gulag

Free food and friendly faces at roadside cafe

We pedalled onwards and passed through a low point in the long band of the Ural mountains which run north to south. The continent of Europe ends at the watershed-line in the middle of the Urals and thus we passed from Europe into Asia and we’re pleased to report that Russian hospitality on the Asian side of the Urals is just as warm as on the European side. We were on a stretch of road with few villages and needed to get some water so stopped at a cafe in the hope that we could buy some water there. Not only did they fill our bottles for free, they also insisted on bringing us ‘compote’ (a drink made from jam we think) and a pastry-wrapped beef-burger and a plate of cakes, and then insisted we take with us a bag full of tomatoes, cucumbers, tinned beef and chocolate, and even though it was only midday and we’d had a late start (we’d only done 10km by that point) we had the hardest job turning down their repeated offers of a banya and a bed for the night.

Soraya’s delicious gherkin salad

Later the same day we were resting in the shade next to a Magnit supermarket after having done our shopping, when the owner of the adjacent cafe came out and invited us in to have some tea and cake and a wash. She also wanted to cook a meal for us but we were still very full from the first cafe so politely declined but nonetheless went away with a large jar of preserved gherkins in oil.  Russians are so incredibly generous!

The final couple of days into Yekaterinburg have been hard work, particularly the final 100km. The climb into, the traverse across the top and the descent out of the Urals has been one long series of smaller climbs and descents. Whilst the climbs were undoubtedly steeper and longer on the European side, the descent on the Asian side has still been tough going. The road has rolled along like a sine wave and at the crest of each climb our hearts would sink to see the road undulating ahead of us in a further series of peaks and troughs. So whilst we were generally losing height we were still doing an awful lot of climbing each day, with temperatures in the high 30’s.

Crossing the Urals….a pleasant, truck-free stretch.

The final 100+km was on an unavoidable busy dual-carriageway with no hard shoulder that we shared with a constant stream of large trucks, which belched fumes and were all too often nerve-wrackingly indifferent to our presence. Some drivers were great and pulled right over as they overtook us. Others held their line unwaveringly and thundered past in a roar of dust and wind. Some of them had the excuse that they were being overtaken themselves and so had limited space to respond, but some just didn’t seem to care and on one occasion one truck driver just blared his horn and forced us onto the gravel verge. There were few places for respite and we rode for over four hours without seeing a single shop, cafe or petrol station. The warm water in our bottles soon lost all appeal and made little impact on our thirst. All in all it was a fairly stressful day, dominated by fantasies about cold drinks and quiet roads. It was good to reach Yekaterinburg and our second couchsurfing hosts.

Nizhny to Perm 26 July – 3 August 2012

This post has turned out to be quite a long one, so for those of you who’ve more pressing things to do, here’s a summary:

We took the train from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan, which was an adventure in itself, and then began pedalling towards Perm and the Ural mountains. Away from the cities the roads have been nice and quiet but quite hilly. A headwind has also slowed us down and one day we also had a several kilometres of unsurfaced road to contend with, and also had to wait for a ferry to take us across a river…so that morning it took us nearly 5hrs to cover the first 28km. We have been treated to a traditional Russian ‘banya’ and drunk tea with jam in it (surprisingly tasty!) when we were befriended by an Udmurt family (a Finno-Ugric ethnic group – we think) who invited us to stay the night, and we’ve now pedalled over 5,000km on this trip so far. If you add that to the 11,000+km we did in 2011 we’ve pedalled over 16,000km – that’s over 10,000 miles – on the Pino!

And for those of you with nothing better to do….here’s the longer version:

There are a couple of reasons for our decision to let the train take the strain from Nizhny to Kazan. Firstly, if we’re to stand any chance of getting far enough south before the winter freezes our wheels off we need to reach Kyrgyzstan by September, which is not going to happen if we rely on pedal power alone, and secondly, we couldn’t see any Pino-friendly roads between Nizhny and Kazan – our map suggests we’d be doing 400+km of main road with loads of trucks – so it seemed to lend itself nicely to a train trip.

And so our first port of call upon arrival in Nizhny was the main train station, where we took it in turns to go in search of information whilst the other guarded the bike and entertained passers-by. After much to-ing and fro-ing we established that there was a train at 21:20 each day (but tickets were sold out for that day, and in any case we wanted to do some sight-seeing) and an elektrichka (information for which was in an entirely different and hard-to-find part of the station to the train information) at 15:45 each day. The elektrichka was considerably cheaper, but would arrive in Kazan late at night. The train would get in at 6am. We established that the bike could be taken on either, provided it was dismantled and parcelled up, but we could only guess at how the storage space in each would compare.

Cycling postman statue in Nizhny

Whilst discussing these options we decided to take a spin across the river and head up to the kremlin, situated in lofty splendour on a promontory at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers. It was a bit of a drag up with the loaded Pino, but worth it. What little we saw of the city centre was very attractive, and we rode up the main pedestrian street (uphill again) filled with shops and bars, and fun statues. We also found a newsagent kiosk where we bought a city map to assist in our search for accommodation for the night, as the ‘resting rooms’ at the station had proved far more expensive than we felt they were worth. By the time we reached the top of the hill we’d made our decision and descended down a wide and relatively new dual-carriageway that swooped in exhilarating, elegant curves to a second bridge leading us straight back to the station.

It was by then after 3pm so we fortified ourselves with a shaorma and a beer (shaorma is a delicious kebab-type wrap) before embarking on the challenge of actually buying a train ticket.

I usually send Keith to deal with scary interactions with people, but for once I was feeling serene and confident (those shaormas really are good!) so decided to take up the gauntlet myself. Attempt number one wasn’t entirely successful as it was only as I reached the front of the queue that I realised I’d forgotten that we’d been told we’d need our passports to buy the tickets. B*gger. I trotted back outside, got the passports, and queued again.

Each train ticket must be printed with your name and passport number, so the process isn’t fast, and Russians are impatient queuers with little sense of personal space. The woman behind me reached around and rested her hand on the counter, tapping her fingers just in my peripheral vision as I tried to concentrate on ticket buying. Pretty rude I thought. Anyhow, I came away with tickets for the pair of us, and what I hoped was a sufficiently comprehensive baggage ticket to cover the tandem, trailer and four panniers.

The next task was to find a cheap hotel. The guys at the shaorma stand had suggested a place so we went there first, but couldn’t find it. A woman in a nearby bar directed us somewhere else, but whilst we found the hotel, they had no rooms, which was not too much of a disappointment really as Keith said the lobby was filthy and none too pleasant smelling. The receptionist there then pointed us towards the completely inappropriately named Bugroff Hostel, which was clean, friendly and just about within budget…and had free wifi!

We spent the evening catching up on the last few days of the Tour de France, and finally discovered, several days after the rest of the world did, whether Bradley had worn yellow down the Champs Elysee. We then posted the blog and spent most of the next day replying to emails and arranging some couchsurfing accommodation for the next cities on our route (hotels are proving too pricey for our budget which will soon need to buy multiple visas and pay to extend our travel-insurance from European to World cover before we cross the Urals).

Whilst I was couchsurfing, Keith went out to look for something to package the bike with so it would be allowed on the train. It helps if you’re handy at charades when your vocabulary in the local language is limited. Keith wandered around for a while, randomly looking in shops to see if they might sell an industrial-sized roll of cling-film, but after not too long started asking people if they knew of a suitable shop instead. Our dictionary failed miserably by not containing the word for cling-film, so Keith started by explaining that we were getting a train, and then mimed wrapping a large package. Communication was successfully achieved and the name of a shop written down in an illegible scrawl (illegible at least to us as we struggle with any handwritten Cyrillic, which looks quite different to printed). It was, however, quite legible to Russians and he made his way to the shop by asking other helpful people on the way to fine-tune the directions until at last he arrived at a shop which sold all manner of things on rolls. Unfortunately, the shop was closed.

Luckily, the unit next door was open, and the woman there shouted through the door of the closed shop and found that the owner was still inside and more than happy to open up and sell Keith a 300 metre roll of ‘plonka-stretch’ (or cling-film to you or me).

Keith was delighted with both his purchase and his expanded Russian vocabulary.

By then, we only had a couple of hours before we’d need to be at the train station, so instead of heading back over the river for sight-seeing, we went for another shaorma and then strolled round some of the little markets and shopping centres nearby. Despite our poor Russian, and the fact we stick out as tourists, we’re beginning to feel remarkably at ease here. We’re starting to recognise different shops and get a feel for where we’re likely to find the things we need, and people are in general so helpful to us that we feel very welcome here in Russia.

Our train was at 21:20, so we arrived at the train station in what we thought was plenty of time, at about 20:30….but in hindsight this was nowhere near enough time. After buying some fanta for the journey, manhandling the bike up the ramp, through the metal detectors and into the station, we discovered that our train went from platform 3, which was accessible by an underpass! A security guard saw our dilemma and suggested we go onto platform one and then walk down the platform to the front of the train that was standing there and cross on the level-crossing in front of it….but when we got to the front of the train we found that it was parked unhelpfully on the crossing. The security guard had followed us to see how we were getting on and said the train would leave in 15 minutes, at 20:55. We didn’t dare wait that long as we still had to split and package the Pino, so he helped us take the bags off and squeeze the bike and trailer through the narrow gap between the train and a wall and then across the tracks in front of the train, and then led us and our re-assembled load down to platform 3 and to the correct carriage of our train. There was already a considerable crowd of passengers there, having their tickets and passports checked or having their last nicotine hit before the journey, so we had quite an audience as we started splitting the Pino into 2 parts and wrapping it, and the trailer, in plonka-stretch.

And time ticked inexorably on.

We finally got everything dismantled and packaged up, got our tickets approved and started to load our luggage onto the train….but all of a sudden it was 21:16. Four minutes to go….and Russian trains do not wait!

Our berths were way down the carriage and we started squeezing with our huge bags up the crowded carriage, back and forth. We got our four bags, the trailer, the solar panel and most of our water bottles on board but started to panic we would not have time to get the bike! Thankfully some other passengers saw our predicament and hauled the bike on board with seconds to spare.

Nicer cups, but the same execrable beverages as on UK trains.

The train was very full, and we were at a bit of a loss as to where to put everything. We were travelling plaskartny (3rd class), in a carriage with 54 bunks arranged predominantly in groups of 6 (4 across the carriage and two lengthways, with just about enough room to squeeze between them). We had two of the ‘across the carriage’ bunks. There was a storage shelf above the top bunk, and the bottom bunk flipped up to reveal a storage bin. After much trial and error we managed to fit the trailer and solar panel up on the shelf, the rear panniers and helmets went under the bottom bunk, the two small panniers went at our feet, and that left the two halves of the Pino which ended up wedged onto the top bunk, meaning one of us was without a bed. It was only an 8hr journey though so we figured we’d be able to manage OK sitting on the bottom bunk…we’d done a similar journey seated last year. But as it turned out there was one bunk going spare in the carriage so after a few stops when no-one claimed it Keith decided to have it….but we need to think of better plan for longer journeys.

‘Plonka-stretched’ Pino and trailer on the train

We had a very nice travelling companion in the lower bunk opposite us. Maria was a student, studying English and Spanish, and was on her way back from her first ever holiday abroad, to Spain. She spoke excellent English and was great company.
We arrived in Kazan at a little after 6am, and had a similarly frantic rush to try to unload the bike and baggage before the train left the station. Although the train terminated in Kazan it needed to leave the platform so other trains could come in. We’d waited for everyone else to get off before unloading so we wouldn’t be in everyone’s way but then realised we needed to be off the train quick sharp so then ended up rushing up and down the carriage under the steely glare of the train attendants.

The train station at Kazan feels like a small provincial station, but Kazan itself is quite a large city of about 1.2 million people and once we got away from the station the city really opened up. It’s the capital of Tatarstan and around half the population are Tatars. A lot of signage was in dual Tatar and Russian language.
It was a rather unusual for us to be riding round a city at 7am instead of snoozing in our tent. We did a 10-15km loop across the Kazanka river, through the newer side of town, and then back over a second bridge, past some swanky apartment blocks where posh folk live, and back into the old town, arriving at the kremlin at around 8:50. We stopped in to see what the entry prices were and a nice English-speaking lady said she’d guide us for 800 roubles (about £16). We said we’d think about it and went off in search of the tourist office (closed until 9.30) and a produkti for some yoghurt to go on our muesli for breakfast, which we ate sitting at a fountain on the main pedestrian street. Keith even fired up the stove for a coffee. No-one stared at us. Honest!

Where the wealthy Kazanites reside

After breakfast we went to a bookshop and bought a small world atlas to mark our route on and help with a) broadly planning where to go next and b) showing people where we’ve been.

Helpful cyclist (the one on the left) in Kazan

When we came out of the shop, the Pino was being admired by an old guy with a bike, who told us he had cycled from Vladivostok to Kazan (we’re not sure when; he lives in Kazan and had taken the train to Vladivostok and cycled back). We asked him if he knew of a good bike shop as we needed some new bearings for the trailer wheel, which was not sounding healthy, and he kindly accompanied us to two shops, neither of which, unfortunately, stocked sealed bearings. We said goodbye to our new friend and went back to resume our meander along the pedestrian street. Just round the corner we found a museum of soviet life (next to an Irish pub) and were debating whether to go in or not when we were hailed by Kazan’s biggest Beatles fan, who was drunk. It took ages to extricate ourselves from his rather persistent and overbearing presence, and that pretty much decided for us that we weren’t comfortable leaving the bike to go into museums.

After picking up a map of bicycle shops in Kazan (from what is possibly the only Tourist Information Office in the whole of Russia) and having a spot of lunch, we went back to the Kremlin and asked if the nice lady we’d spoken to that morning would still be able to show us around. She wasn’t there, but the Russian-speaking lady in the ticket office indicated she would be back soon, so we waited, along with about 20 other people sheltering from the pouring rain which had arrived out of nowhere whilst we were having our lunch.

The lady in the ticket office moved everyone out of the way so we could park the Pino undercover just outside her office where it would be safe, and as the rain abated, our guide arrived.

Kazan has had a long history (it’s older than Moscow) and as Tatars are predominantly Muslim, the kremlin contains both a mosque and an orthodox cathedral. The rain set in again part-way through our tour, and our coatless guide was getting drenched. Finally we couldn’t stand it anymore and when she forlornly said “And now I’d like to show you….” I butted in and said, “You don’t really do you. You’re cold and it’s far too wet.” So we returned to the cover of the ticket office.

Orthodox onion domes on the left and Muslim minarets on the right in Kazan kremlin

We’d planned to pedal out of Kazan that evening and find somewhere to put the tent, but the persistent heavy rain was really putting us off, so our guide recommended a cheap hotel nearby. As we stood outside the ticket office debating whether to take the hotel or to camp, the lady in the ticket office, who spoke no English, came out and invited us into her little den for tea and then chopped up some tomatoes, cucumbers and gherkins to go with some little hard bready/biscuity hoops. It was still raining when we’d finished so we went to the hotel.

Our guide had said it was 600 roubles per person, but when we arrived the receptionist said it would be 2200 for the room. I turned to go, but Keith began to plead our case, and the next thing we knew we were being offered the room for 1100 roubles….100 roubles less than we’d been prepared to pay. Result!

Of course, it stopped raining then, so we went for a walk to find a supermarket, and on our way back Keith couldn’t believe his eyes to see a small sparrow flying headfirst into a brick wall, repeatedly. What the….? As we approached all was revealed and we could see some fat, somnolent flies sitting on the wall and the sparrow was flying up and picking them off the wall one by one.

I fell asleep quite early but Keith woke me up at midnight to watch the Olympics opening ceremony. Lots of people are mentioning the Olympics to us here and can’t believe we’re here instead of London. As a result we were late getting up the next day to resume our search for some bearings for the trailer. Two further bike shops did not stock sealed bearings, but they directed us to an auto-parts open-air market a couple of kilometres away which had the goods.

With all wheels running smoothly we set off towards Perm and the Ural mountains. The majority of roads so far have been a rare combination of reasonable tarmac and hardly any traffic. We’ve found some nice camping spots too in recently harvested fields, free of mozzies and far enough from the already quiet road to be really peaceful and we’ve enjoyed relaxing in the evening sun. A strong headwind has made for a couple of fairly tiring days, but kept the flies off so it’s been welcome anyway.

Happiness is a mozzie-free field

Towns and villages have been further apart so we’re only finding one decent shop a day now, so are making sure we stock up, because even the one big town a day can let us down….eight shops and two villages of trying to find milk one evening drew a complete blank. Luckily we had a small carton of UHT cream in our bags so Keith watered that down to put on his muesli in the morning.

The tarmac also ran out on us for about 30km. We’d done a couple of km without tarmac just after the town of Malmizh and then camped for the evening. The next morning we continued to roll along at around 12-15kph, avoiding pot-holes if possible, until we rounded a corner and the road ran out. On our map it looked like there was a bridge, but in fact there was just a ferry, which only crossed when there were sufficient passengers for it to be deemed worth the journey. All of a sudden the quietness of the road was not quite such an attractive feature. We waited for the boat to fill up on the far side of the river, make its short journey across to us and unload the vehicles, and then waited some more until enough vehicles had accumulated on our side of the river for us all to be allowed to board, which in itself was a fairly slow process as lorries with articulated trailers had to manoeuvre themselves into position.

Waiting for the ferry

Eventually though we disembarked the other side where we found the road surface had not improved at all. Far too frequently we were reduced to dragging the bike through deep sand and the rest of the time we were crawling along at 8-10kph. Nothing lasts forever though and five frustratingly long hours later we were back on tarmac.

I’ve already posted a photo of my favourite Russian vehicle in the Siveri to Tver blogpost. Since then we’ve found out that this wide-eyed, earnest-faced little van is called an Uaz and affectionately known as a ‘bread van’ on account of its being shaped like a loaf of bread. Keith prefers the gangster style of the big Volga cars, but the Uaz has the added advantage of being able to fit a Pino and a trailer into it. We discovered this when Igor, an Uaz driver, flagged us down to say hello and then invited us for lunch at his home. The easiest way to get to his house was to load the Pino into the van. We then met his wife Valya, son Simeon, and daughter Julia, and a family friend, Masha, who is at university studying English. We had a delicious meal, and of course some vodka, and then were taken to Valya’s sister’s house for a traditional banya…a Russian sauna which you wash yourself in. It was stiflingly hot and we were both panting and gasping for air as we conducted our ablutions….but it felt good to be clean afterwards.
After our banya we were offered black tea and invited to stir in a spoonful of jam….which turned out to be a brilliant idea and definitely something to be repeated when we get home.

Our bed for the night was a traditional Udmurt bed which is enclosed in a low canopy to keep the mosquitoes out. It felt very romantic climbing in and pulling the canopy down to make our own private little cocoon. All beds should be like this.

Masha came round again the next day, and she and Simeon accompanied us on their bikes out to the turning towards Perm to make sure we got on our way safely. It never ceases to amaze us how kind and generous people are to us: how they give up their time at a moment’s notice to welcome us, feed us and look after us.

L-R: Igor, Valya, Keith, Masha & Simeon

We have now reached Perm and will be spending a couple of nights with our first ‘couch-surfing’ host before setting off through the Urals, passing from Europe into Asia.

Why is an Irish supermarket shopping bag being sold 1000km east of Moscow?

Tired Legs