Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. ~Benjamin Disraeli
The last few weeks have been quite a challenge. The road was rough and full of truck traffic; the weather was very hot, in the nineties, and sunny, which for me is harder to deal with than cold and cloudy; the cities were far apart and hard to navigate in; and I’ve had difficulty finding some necessities such as parts for the bike and alcohol for my stove. On the other hand, the camping has been superb, and I’ve found good shelter from every rainstorm. I’ve also increased my fitness and endurance, with longer days, more miles, and a faster tempo. And I’ve made a sizable dent in the Russian map.
In Volgograd I loaded up on groceries at a supermarket, outside of which there were half a dozen vendors selling honey from little stands. They watched my bike for me and gave me honey and honeycomb, and tried to get me to stay in Volgograd another night. That’s how it is here in Russia; most people are cold, distant, even unfriendly, and the friendly ones are very warm and sincere and nice. The beekeepers sent me away with gifts; all I had to offer them was a couple of tunes on the mandolin, which they seemed to enjoy. I have learned that singing draws a much better response than just playing the mandolin, and there have been plenty of chances to play and sing for people.
An impromptu jam at a truck stop diner
Heading north for a five days brought me to Saratov, where I had a couple of Couch Surfing invitations. I arrived in the city at 5:00PM and had a very hard and frustrating experience. My usual tried-and-true method for finding wi-fi (go to the center of the city, look for café umbrellas, search for wi-fi with my phone) just didn’t work. I couldn’t find the city center for the longest time, and once there found no cafés or wi-fi. It was not a very nice city. I tried to find a pay phone, and asked strangers if I could use their phone, and rode around looking for wi-fi for hours with no luck. With no way to contact my hosts, and with the sun setting at 9:30, I gave up and headed out of town. I hit a supermarket on the outskirts, and set up camp in the dark at around midnight.
The trusty bike
During the next few days it became apparent that my chain was worn to the point where the shifting was sloppy and I was risking wearing out my chainrings. I tried Syzra, a city of 300,000, with no luck, but I met a very nice bike shop owner who helped me find wi-fi there at a bank. That night I camped beside a gravel pit access road far from the highway. The mosquitoes were bad. Trucks woke me at 3:30AM, and at 5:00AM I was evicted by a security man, the first time that happened. A nice early start with mosquito bites.
I arrived in the next city, Tolyatti, early in the day and started looking for a bike shop. It was a good-sized city on the other side of Volga River, the bridge here traversing a dam with a huge hydroelectric station. Two fifteen-year old boys with some English spent the whole day with me, and helped me find a bike shop with a proper chain and cogset, at the fourth bike shop. The nice fellow at the shop installed them for free. It was a great relief to find quality replacements for my worn out parts, and I felt ready to hit the road. The two kids, Stepan and Ivan, were great guys, bike nuts who ride all over the city for fun, and they were so sincere and nice that I had to practically force them to let me buy them a meal at McDonalds. Thanks, boys.
Stepan & Ivan
It was so late by then I decided to get a room. In this city of 700,000 with a Lada automobile factory and other heavy industry, there were no tourist hotels and few “business” hotels. Stepan and Ivan helped me find one next to the Lada factory. There I ran into a snag. Visitors to Russia are supposed to get their papers stamped at a hotel or police station within three days of entering the country, and weekly thereafter, something I neglected to do. They like to keep track of people over here. The desk clerk saw I had been in Russia for a couple of weeks with no stamp; she refused to give me a room, and said that she was supposed to call the police. So I said goodbye to the boys and once again headed out of town as the sun set. I was in bed by 11:00PM this time. The next time I had internet access I looked into the situation and it seems that it will be difficult to remedy. I am at risk of jail and fines if I am stopped by the police, and I am far from border stations where I might find help fixing the problem. So I’m an outlaw on the run for now, avoiding hotels and trains, camping and keeping a look out.
After Tolyatti my route curved east. By this time I was in a new time zone and far enough north that the sun was setting at 10:00PM and rising at 4:00AM. The road varied from fairly new and nice to very broken, shoulderless and narrow. I left the flat wheat-fields behind as I neared the Ural Mountains, and soon I was climbing and descending long, easy grades through occasional pine forests.
Too many trucks
At the truck stops were restaurants, of sorts, but not like you’re used to. Most have no running water; some have a tank that is filled by a truck with river water, not clean enough to drink, so I have been buying water. The sanitation is poor, and the “toilet” is an outhouse, rather disgusting, with…that’s OK, I won’t describe them, but it takes a lot to disgust me. Nobody speaks English, and ordering a meal was sketchy. It was always rice or potatoes with some kind of meat, and some bread with no butter. Rarely a salad. No sandwiches that I saw. I met truckers at the truck stops who were nice; many showed respect for my undertaking by doffing hats and shaking hands, and they were surprised to see me out there on the road. It’s really kind of dangerous with the heavy traffic, mostly tractor trailers, crowding the road, and me bumping along where the white line should be, one eye on the loose gravel shoulder and another on the broken pavement in my narrow path. On uphills I can feel the heat from their engines, and often they come within inches of my shoulder. On downhills it is nerve-wracking as they pass close and the blast of air makes me waver and wobble. It’s especially scary when oncoming trucks pass each other, which happens dozens of times a day. I lock eyes with them, and they scream past my left shoulder at sixty MPH. No fun.
These truckers are the real deal
But every once in a while there is a stretch of new highway with wide shoulders and smooth pavement. And the drivers are careful of me, for the most part. A tiny percentage are angry already; they lean on the horn, come too close, and throw trash at me. Once or twice a day. But the others make up for it with friendly waves and horn toots, and by giving me a wide berth when they can. I return the favor by staying aware of the situation, listening for brakes and downshifting behind me, and watching the oncoming traffic. If there is no room for the overtaking truck and the oncoming truck and me, I will ditch it into the gravel or grass if I can, rather than make the overtaking trucker come almost to a stop. It’s easy on uphills (but hard to get going again), and tricky on downhills. So far so good.
These truckers are a lot tougher than their American counterparts. When they get a flat tire or they break down they fix it right there by the roadside; I haven’t seen a tow truck. I’ve watched as a driver changed a tire in the heat and it’s not an easy task. I’ve also seen men rebuilding their rear axles or tearing apart their engines on the road. I learned that they can get parts by using their CB radios and persuading other truckers to fetch them. They look out for each other. Here’s something I heard from a guy in Chelyabinsk: the winters are brutal here, and the truckers carry a couple of old tires on their rigs. If they have to change a flat or fix something, they throw the tire on the ground, pour some diesel on it and get it burning. It’ll burn for an hour or two while they work and use it to warm their hands every few minutes. There’s an old Russian saying; where an American might say, “Time to roll up our sleeves and get working on it,” a Russian says, “Time to burn a tire.”
A very few of the truck stops have paved parking, motels, tire repair shops and showers. The rest have dirt parking lots and primitive amenities. For three bucks I had an outdoor shower; an old fuel tank painted black with some crazy plumbing, little privacy, and a pallet to stand on. Little sinks stand outside the diners with a small tank of water above for rinsing hands and face.
Climbing a hill in the middle of nowhere, I felt a thump-thump-thump and discovered a cut in my tire where the tube was bulging through. I walked back to the shade at a truck stop and inspected the damage. The cut was big enough to put my baby finger through, and the surrounding area on the tire was compromised too. There were a dozen trucks in the lot, and soon I was riding in a big Mercedes Benz tractor trailer toward the next city, Ufa, population 1 million. Bolga has been driving these roads for thirty years (this was his eighth truck). His son Pasha was at the wheel. Great guys. Pasha had a few English words, but communication was difficult. Still, I learned a great deal. At a fuel stop they bought me my first blini. Later they stopped and made coffee on a little stove in the cab. After midnight they parked and I slept in the sleeper, with Bolga in the bunk above me and Pasha on the seats.
Bolga and Pasha
In the morning they left me on the highway, fifteen miles from Ufa. Rather than walk, I fashioned a “boot” for my tire, a reinforcement to place between the tube and tire, this one made from a piece of my water bottle. It allowed me to ride along thumping, and lasted half an hour before wearing through the tube. I patched the tube made a better one, smoothing the edges and rounding the corners. It got me to Ufa, where I had another flat. I patched the tube again and this time made an even better boot, with tape covering the rough edges and a piece of nylon cloth from my sleeping bag stuff sack to protect the tube. This one held all through the day as I searched the bike shops in Ufa for suitable tires. I could find the right size easily enough, but they were either knobby off-road tires or terribly cheap and shoddy. My boot was holding, the sun was sinking, and bike shops were closing for the day. I headed out of town and camped. In the morning I decided to try to make it to Chelyabinsk, five days off, where I had a Couch Surfing host. During those five days the boot held, but punctured my tube daily, sometimes twice a day. I thumped my way along the highway and went through all my spare tubes and patches. I found a rare wi-fi connection at a new restaurant on the highway, and called my hosts. Their friend owns three bike shops in town, and they started finding me suitable tires.
The camping in the mountains was superb: I have posted a few One Minute Campsite videos to YouTube. You can find them by searching for cyclismando, my YouTube user name. The Urals are geologically old mountains with soft curves and sandy soil. They are 150 miles wide, separating Europe from Asia, according to the map makers. It wasn’t really clear where the divide was. There were few people, just truck stops of varying size. The rivers are clean and rocky, and I enjoyed cleaning up in them every couple of days. I would go under a bridge and wash myself, then rinse out my clothes and put them back on. I went through all of my groceries and nearly all of my stove fuel, and ate once a day at a truck stop. This part of the trip was great except for the trucks and rough, narrow roads. As I neared Chelyabinsk I realized I had camped 21 days in a row, not counting the night in the truck. I arrived in Chelyabinsk (population 1.5 million) late in the day and immediately found a bike shop, one owned by my host’s friend. The girls in the shop were astounded when I mentioned the owner’s name. At the shop I called my hosts; a short ride brought me to their apartment building.
This couple, in their twenties, are what I like to think of as “the face of New Russia.” In their twenties, with good English, they have a clean modern apartment (in a dirty old building) and jobs at a stock photo company: Pasha is the CEO and Kate is a VP. Their company has thirty employees, their own studio, and offices in Moscow, Viet Nam, and elsewhere. They gave me my own room with a new Mac laptop, and fed me good healthy food. After my 21-day journey from Volgograd, the shower was memorable. Kate and Pasha devoted the next few days to my needs.
B.R. at the lake
We spent Saturday at a nearby lake, as clear and clean as any I have ever seen, huge and largely undeveloped except for Golden Beach, where hotels, restaurants and amenities were clustered around a cove. The beach was crowded, but pleasantly so with families, young people, old folks, picnickers, sun bathers, and us. Plenty of beautiful young women in bikinis, too. I stayed in the shade of big Scotch pines on the nice clean sand. I pulled out my mandolin and sang a few tunes; the young folk around us were too cool to notice at first, then gave a few claps and thumbs up, then, by the fourth song they were dancing and hooting. They gave me food and a goofy hat, and posed for pictures with me while Kate and Pasha translated my stories. I swam three times in the perfectly clear water. We strolled to a nearby café for a traditional fish soup lunch. It was just the relaxation I needed after a long stretch on the road.
Caught me swimming
As we were leaving, a storm came up that dumped inches of rain on the dry land, causing flooded roads, accidents, trees down and power outages. It was pretty dramatic. Kate’s expert driving got us through, even back in the city where the traffic lights were out and some intersections were too flooded to cross.
I’m tired here
On the way home we visited Pasha’s mom, an aerospace engineer, for tea and snacks, in her apartment. Then we visited Kate’s Grandmother at her dacha, or summer home. These really simple country places, what we might call a “camp” in New England, are clustered in neighborhoods in the countryside, and it seems that most people have one in the family. They have gardens, brick-and-iron wood cookstoves, and most have a small still for making vodka. Babushka served us tea and cake, and sent us home with cherries, tomatoes, cucumbers and a huge zucchini. Plus, I was presented with a bottle of home-made wine. I nearly fell asleep on the ride home in Kate’s new Volkswagen Jetta.
The next day Kate drove me to a shop where I found the exact tires I was seeking. Their friend Seva, who owned three shops in town, had found the tires for me at a competitor’s shop, and directed us there. On the way back I bought a pair of shorts at Seva’s brother’s shop. Then we had the best lunch ever at an Asian restaurant. And in the evening we went to Seva’s home, where Pasha grilled fish while I played a few tunes for Seva, his wife Larisa, their two cute boys and their two Babushkas. Seva is the coolest dude in town, with a big house (in what they call the “gangster” style, built in the nineties, right after perestroika, when excess and ostentation was in vogue), the latest bicycles, a big dirt bike, and the longest, largest snowmobile I have ever seen, what they call a “mountain snowmobile.” Out back was a banya, a Russian sauna, where we sat in an outer room enjoying refreshments before entering the wood-fired, hotter than hell sauna. On tap was a traditional Russian drink called kvas (my spelling). It is served on the street in cups everywhere, and our bottled supply was of best quality, supplied by Andrei, another guest. Kvas is made from bread and water, slightly fermented and fizzy but no alcohol. It is sweetened, and is somewhat like tea with a taste of gluten. It is delicious and refreshing even if it doesn’t sound good.
I was given a felt hat to protect my head and ears. If I had not already had experience at the Russian baths in New York City, I would not have believed that I could survive the heat. After Seva poured water with balsam oil on the stove, I watched the sweat nearly squirt out of my pores and run down my body like raindrops on a window. In the next room was a small, deep tiled pool fed from a deep well with cold, cold water. I did two rounds of sauna and pool jumping. Now I was really relaxed. This time I actually did fall asleep in the car on the way home.
While I was at Seva’s they asked what they could do for me. I need alcohol for my stove, I said, and I prefer the potable spirit ethanol to the paint solvent denatured alcohol. This prompted some laughter. Seva is an adventurer, a cave explorer who scuba dives in some exotic caves and climbs mountains. He knows about alcohol stoves. He said that Russians prefer petrol or naphtha stoves; the idea of burning alcohol goes against their instincts. “What, burn alcohol? You must be crazy!” is the standard joke. Pasha and Andrew agreed: Russians see a Russian vodka-crazed and alcoholic stereotype as having some truth, and jokes about drinking abound. Although the present company was health and fitness oriented, and no alcohol was served at this gathering, the image fits the Russian male. On city streets it is common to see staggering drunks, sometimes trying to flag down a car for a ride, and men walk around drinking from beer or vodka bottles in broad daylight. Stores sell stove-top stills next to the coffee-makers and tea samovars. Every little neighborhood has vodka stores, and in the big supermarkets a long row is dedicated to alcohol: wine and other spirits on one side and fifty kinds of vodka on the other.
Back to my stove fuel: unlike in America or Europe, 96% ethanol, potable spirits from the liquor vendor is not available here despite the emphasis on alcohol consumption. They told me vodka, 40% alcohol, is preferred, and the authorities don’t trust the average Russian male with such a potent drink. Hardware stores, paint stores and building supply stores don’t carry denatured alcohol, at least to the knowledge of my hosts. Pharmacies carry, in addition to rubbing alcohol (undrinkable and not suitable for my stove because it contains oil to protect the skin, which causes odors and soot in a stove), 96% ethanol in little 100ml bottles, but it requires a doctor’s prescription. For what malady I have no idea. However, some crazy Russians like to drink it, so there is a black market for the stuff. Seva got on his phone and contacted a friend who has a friend who can get some. It was like trying to buy marihuana; we had to wait for calls, talk price, talk about a rendezvous, check references to make sure it wasn’t a sting. We never did make the connection (it may still happen today), but it was good for a lot of laughter among people who don’t even drink.
Now it’s Monday. Kate and Pasha are at work, and I am blogging, e-mailing, changing tires and preparing to hit the road tomorrow. It’s ten days to Omsk, then another ten or twelve days to Novosibirsk, where I have some hosts lined up. I will miss my bed and office here in this Soviet-style, grey concrete apartment building. But with fresh laundry, a load of groceries, a fine rest, new tires, and good weather coming, I am ready. I’m still a bit behind an ideal schedule, but without proper papers I can’t take a train in this control-freak of a country. I plan to just push a little harder on the pedals, spend longer days in the saddle, and spend fewer days idle. The map shows a lake-studded wilderness ahead, with some agriculture and small cities here and there, off the highway. Here I go!