Russia At Last

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To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries. ~Aldous Huxley

My few days at Kerem’s in Istanbul grew into a week as I waited for my overdue Russian visa to arrive. Altogether it took more than six weeks, from the time I first tried to mail it in Odessa until I had it in my hands. The last two days were particularly long: I dared not leave Kerem’s apartment, listening all day for the FedEx truck.

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Me, Mayara, Eser

The weekend before that, however, was tons of fun, an inversion of sorts. Kerem, Mayara and I, along with Kerem’s friend Eser, went on a bicycle camping outing in the countryside. It was a story in itself, but I’ll just say that we had a great time, camped at a lake, ate like royalty, and became even closer friends. Shared adversity and all that. Thanks to a wonderful fellow named Ilyas, a bicyclist we met while struggling to find our route, even the adversity was pretty much fun.

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Ilyas, Kerem

Ilyas took some of these pictures. He even returned to our lakeside campsite in the morning to guide us back to our starting point.

With the visa finally in my hands, eager to return to Ukraine and reach the Russian border, I left Kerem and Istanbul next morning. Again, regular ferries were expensive. It is no easy trick to get a berth on a cargo vessel. The guys in the office are used to dealing with trucking companies, in Turkish, and on the phone the best they could tell my interpreter was that the ferry leaves when it’s full, about three times a week, and come to the dock when I’m ready. I took a bus to Zonguldak, a pleasant experience over here where bus travel is taken seriously. Interestingly, my bus ride covered some of the same roads I had ridden on my loop through the countryside. Arriving around midnight, I was just a kilometer from the seaman’s hotel by the docks. At breakfast I watched a huge Russian cargo vessel dock, with the help of a tugboat and two anchors, which took nearly forty-five minutes. Then, after a five minute ride to the offices of Cenk Shipping and some sign language with two busy, hard-working clerks, I discovered that my timing was good: the ferry would leave in four hours. Turkey’s border control was conducted from lawn chairs under a shade tree, and then I was free to scramble up the ramp between the last few tractor-trailers.

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The steward, shirtless in shorts and sandals, showed me a bunk (tiny, sweltering, with no window) and explained, with sign language, that I would have three bunkmates. The first two to arrive were truly big men. The third was truly huge. Nice guys, though. But, without my asking, the steward came and motioned me to follow him. He brought me to the infirmary, a larger four-bunk cabin filled with first-aid supplies and a pile of linens. This was to be my private bunk. I couldn’t complain.

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Adin, from Azerbijan

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Ergil, crewman from Eastern Turkey

Sixteen hours later we docked in Evaptorya, on the Crimean penninsula. My second encounter with Ukrainian Customs and Immigration was more genial, and more thorough, than the first. They brought an interpreter from town and asked a lot of questions, and looked through my bags pretty completely. They asked if I had papers to prove my mandolin was not an antiquity. They were particularly suspicious as to why I required five harmonicas. An impromptu concert convinced them I was not a musical instrument smuggler.

Next stop was Sevastopol, 100 kilometers to the south. There I expected a package, long delayed, from the bike shop in England. Pannier parts and rain boots. It wasn’t there, a frustrating development. I have been tying one pannier on every day, an annoyance and possible danger if I don’t tie it just right. Long story short, the guys at FedEx didn’t follow through. It’s still at Kiev, and at Kiev they don’t speak English. Since frustration doesn’t suit my style, I gave up on it. Eventually it will be sent back to England and I will get a refund. I’ll keep tying.

Northward to Simferopol, a transportation hub. A train from there to Lugans’k would put me close to the Russian border, and the clock was ticking on my visa. My cabin was shared with just one other fellow, a landscape architect with a few words of English. But as soon as I played a few tunes on the mandolin, we had company. With cold beer, lots of food, and lots of vodka. Too much vodka. But you know me. If someone is pouring and asking for more music, I am eager to oblige. The beautiful, round, happy attendant was kind enough to pull a curtain across the no drinking sign, but we couldn’t get her to touch a drop. Since it was a train, our noise was not disturbing anyone. Anyway, everybody in the car was in my cabin, legs dangling from the upper bunks and six or eight people on each lower bunk. When we stopped in little towns, way after midnight, the guys restocked the beer and vodka. Among the foodstuffs was smoked horse meat; it’s a lot like beef jerkey. I’ll skip the gory details, but the last time I was that drunk was 1970, when my friend Ray and I drank too much Southern Comfort. The attendant, bless her heart, tucked me in and less than two hours later shook me awake, with strong, sweet tea and a teasing smile.

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Vladimir

The next thing I knew I was on the platform in Lugans’k, in painfully bright sunshine, with the worst hangover man has ever known. I wish I could remember the attendant’s name. She stood smiling at me from the train as I fumbled with my panniers, blinded and sickened by the sunlight. When the train started to move, I thought I was falling backward and lurched forward, scaring her and me. As she moved away with her hand covering her laughing mouth, nausea took over my life. The short ride to the nearest cafe was a nightmare; I spent the morning there trying to drink coffee and eat oatmeal. The staff was amused, and offered their best remedies: a bowl of ice cubes, hot Coca-Cola in a coffee cup, a half a lemon, various energy drinks, Ibuprofen. I started feeling better in the afternoon, and now a week later I have nearly recovered. Never again will I mix vodka and horse meat.

Lugans’k is the city where, legend has it, all of Ukraine’s beautiful women were exiled by a jealous empress back in olden times, explaining why it has such an abundance of tall, gorgeous women. Actually they are regular gals, but the standard for coture, make-up and hair style, all slanting toward the sexy look, is very high in Ukraine and in Lugans’k especially. Even plain looking middle-aged women have it together with the heels, tight pants and big hair, and the young women know all the tricks. I learned, from a couple sharing a park bench with me, that every clothing store (and there were plenty) has professional fashion consultants who help the girls make the best of what nature has provided, and the streets are lined with beauty salons, manicurists, make-up shops, shoe stores, and gyms.

This also happens to be the center of the Ukrainian marriage agencies and web sites. The woman on the park bench, who used to work at a marriage agency, told me it was just for fun, few people actually get married, and it was just a way to meet people for dates and such. Her husband had another opinion. He said the aim of many women was to get a well-to-do visitor, preferably a foreigner, to fall in love with her, string the guy along with promises, and get a couple hundred dollars a month (or week) in the mail from him for as long as possible. After a while, juggling several at a time, a woman could make a living. Many say that the Ukrainian mafia is involved, which is believable since it’s a multi-million dollar business that is only partly legal. At any rate, the women are beautiful and abundant and not my style, especially with the hangover from hell.

I managed the twenty miles to neighboring Lutugino where I had arranged to visit Steven, an American Peace Corps volunteer stationed here teaching English. He is a most interesting young man. He speaks fluent Korean and now Russian, and has done a lot of traveling. I found him on Couch Surfing (.org), and if you don’t know about it you should look it up. Whether you travel or would like to host travelers, or just meet interesting people, it’s a cool thing. Steven was a wonderful host; I was his first guest in his new apartment. We cooked up some chicken and talked late into the night.

Next day I took back roads to the Russian border. I expected even more scrutiny than Ukraine had given me, and the immigration lady did take a long time, asking me where I was going several times, comparing my face to my passport photo repeatedly, and fiddling with the computer. Finally I heard that sound I always wait for: the stamp in the passport. Customs, a few yards away, waved me through without a word except for “Bye-Bye.” Borders, what nonsense.

Within a couple of hours I was in Kansas-like wheat and hay fields, almost flat but with a slight rise now and then from which I could see the hugeness of it all. And that’s how it was for the five days it took to reach the next city, Volgograd. There were towns and villages at twenty or thirty mile intervals, but they were all off of the highway by at least a few miles. I entered one to get groceries; other than that I stuck to the highway all the way, which was pretty busy. I played hopscotch with a convoy of seven very large combines, presumably headed to their next giant field of wheat.

The sun is coming up at 4:30AM and setting at 9:00PM. With strategic camp placement in the hedgerows between fields, I can get a shady spot to enjoy dinner and have shade in the morning, too. If I blow it, the tent is a sauna by 5:00AM. I’m on the road early anyway, and sometimes it seems like I ride, eat, sleep, ride, eat, sleep, and little else. I rest at intervals, finding shade where I can, and take a long lunch break. Still, cycling from early to late gets me sixty or seventy miles each day.

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A good spot

Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, is a long, stretched out city on the Volga river that was largely destroyed during WW II. I sent out a few couch requests from Ukraine, and didn’t hit wi-fi until I got downtown, when I discovered that I had six invitations.

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Maria

I am staying two days with Maria, a 28 year old economist at the university here. She has a cute little house and garden in an extra-funky neighborhood not far from the center of Volgograd. Although she has had many couch surfing guests, I am her first American and her first bicyclist. She cooked the first night; next evening her friends came over and prepared a traditional Russian meal with potatoes, fish, salad and tea. While she was at work I did the usual chores: e-mail, laundry, route planning, blogging and sending couch requests to the next city, Saratov, four days ride up the river.

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Local Heroine

I like Volgograd. It seems bigger than it’s one million population. They are into big monuments here. Mother Russia, a national symbol, is taller than the Statue of Liberty. The Red October steel mill, 16 kilometers long and the largest in Russia, stretches along the Volga River, Russia’s Mississippi. Even during slow periods when the mill is idle, three full shifts report to work, drawing full pay for weeks; Soviet-style lifetime job security. Gasoline, diesel and heating fuels, and electricity, are inexpensive here, almost as cheap as in the USA. Food, housing, consumer goods and hotels are cheaper than the USA, and wages are much lower. Or so it seems from my limited inquiries.

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Mother Russia photo by Mr. Internet

I did some map research, finding that I had about 3,000 miles to go in Russia, and about 6,000 to my destination, Hong Kong. It’s about what I was thinking. It works out to 300 miles a week, or 60 miles a day, five days a week, average, from now until November. Almost exactly what my last week was like. If weather or other delays put me behind, I will take a train for a day or two, but I should be able to get to Hong Kong without the need for public transportation.

In the meantime, you can expect boring posts as I slog along through boring Russian countryside and cities. The Ural Mountains are coming up in three weeks or so, after which the computer images show mostly forested country for a couple of thousand miles. Since I have lost confidence in the shipping abilities of my bicycle supplier, I don’t know what I am going to do about tires and chain and chainrings and cogs, which will be wearing out before I leave Russia. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I am actually looking forward to this part. Bicycling and camping, two of my favorite activities, in an over-abundance.

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My office

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