Volgograd to Chelyabinsk

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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.

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Tan Lines

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pasha

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Kate

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Seva

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.

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Danila

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!

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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

Istanbul Again

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A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. ~Lao Tzu

We last left our hero by The Black Sea at Karasu, in an Internet café drinking tea and composing a big “Thank You” blog post…

Karasu and the next seaside resort, Akçakoca, were both larger than I expected but still idyllic; at both I found inexpensive lodging with a view of the sea. The locals were busy preparing for the upcoming season, and the early bird tourists were mostly Turkish.

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The Guys. These fellows took me into their closed restaurant and sat me at the employee table. We had a party for an hour. They sent me away full of food and beer and stories in Turkish. Refused my dough. A hell of a crew.

Lounging around resort towns with time on my hands, I began to feel impatient; I wasn’t getting any closer to Hong Kong. Eventually the map and calendar told me to start looping back toward Istanbul. And even though it was just a loop, heading west took some snap out of my legs.

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I left the coast and climbed into the mountains; nothing too strenuous, a couple of hours on a well-graded highway. Once I was up there the climbs were short and the towns and cities were surprisingly big. Between them were beautiful dark green mountain sides, with the occasional farm, farm village, roadside fruit vendor, cows and sheep and orchards. The cities inland are a bit gritty and depressed. Düzce, destroyed by two earthquakes in 1999, was still only half rebuilt. Everywhere were outdoor tables of men, presumably unemployed, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Lots of men. I sometimes joined them. Sometimes the tea is good. When it gets too strong and bitter they just dilute it with hot water.

One night I stayed in a regular hotel. It rained hard during the night but let up in the morning. Then during breakfast it started up again, a steady rain with light wind. I hung around until 11:00, but by then it was established. It’s one thing to be caught in a rain shower, but it’s a whole different thing to be in where it’s warm and dry, and then decide to go out in it. But I suited up and put the mandolin in its dry bag. Down the road I went. Keeping my stuff dry is no problem, but keeping my self dry is a challenge. If I dress just right, and the road is flat, I can adjust my speed to be warm enough but not overheat. But in the mountains it’s nearly impossible. I’m sweating on the uphills and freezing on the downhills whether I wear rain gear or not.

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Good Kids

Lunchtime that day found me in the shelter of a rural hilltop bus stop eating yoghurt and cookies. Along comes a bunch of teens all dressed up. They tried out their minimal English, got all excited, and invited me to their party. It was in a school nearby, with about 30 kids and two teachers. I played mandolin, sang, danced, posed for pictures, ate party food. Then, back out into the rain.

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Future Bluegrass Star

By the time I got to Hendek I was pretty wet. My bike was filthy from the dirty roads and construction zones. I tried the first place I saw, a run-down truck stop. The price was right, 10 Turkish lira, $5.41, and the people were friendly, but it was the dirtiest room I ever had. The linens were OK, patched, clean enough, but he floor and table were disgustingly grimy, and the room smelled like a lifetime of cigarettes. A bare bulb with a filthy string, and an outlet with burn marks on the wall around it completed the amenities. Down the hall, past overflowing trash cans; two stinky pit toilets and two cold-water sinks, shared with a dozen men. One primitive shower. No towels or toilet paper.

Out my window was a wild-looking young Kurdish man pressure-washing his vintage Volvo “Globetrotter” tractor trailer rig. I brought my bike over and, with a look and a nod, he indicated where to lean it. In one minute he saved me a half-hour of work, and he expertly avoided the bearings, too. I learned he was Kurdish when we had tea later, terrible awful tea, at a table in the hallway. Two other Kurds joined us, unemployed seamen. Seamen always know a few words of English. The few Kurds I’ve met are different from other Turkish men. They make up 20% of the population here. Thank a Turkish man (there are several kinds in addition to Kurds) and he will smile and nod, almost a bow, and put his hand on his chest, the gesture for “you’re welcome”. These fellows ignored thanks, and maintained a stiff posture and gruff manner. My invitation was, “Chai!” (in a bark, not a question) and a chair kicked in my direction. Shaking hands was a show of strength. They glared at each other when they spoke, only softening their faces a little when addressing me. They responded to joking with their teeth clenched, laughing mostly with their eyes. They sat stiffly upright with their chins up and a dismissive scowl. Body language to match. Yet they wanted to know about me: my age, was I married, about kids, job, sports, if I had a gun, a motorcycle, a pickup truck. They answered my questions, told me about their jobs and cars, homes and soccer teams, and they warned me not to argue with the old woman downstairs. I liked them.

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Mehmet

Aahh, next day was good; sun in the morning, clouds later, tailwind. Closer to Istanbul now, 90 miles, and the cities are bigger and closer together. I chose a main road and it was like an interstate highway for the most part, exit ramps and overpasses, heavy traffic, but with cross roads and fruit stands and bus stops here and there, and often a parallel road with frequent access. It’s not like stateside, where a road is either/or. I’m used to it now, but it’s still wildly dangerous out there on a bicycle. With the tailwind and general downhill as I approach the sea, it was fast riding. It’s like a video game; I’m always swinging my head around to monitor traffic, furiously pedaling and operating the controls whili I try to merge with the chaotic traffic. One second I have a wide, smooth shoulder, the next I’m squeezed between speeding trucks and a rusty, jagged guard rail, with gravelly ruts to steer through.

I had a flat tire, only my second one; a piece of stainless steel wire as stiff and fine as a sewing needle. Then I hit an industrial area. By the time I found a hotel it was almost dark, but just in time. As I got out of the shower a huge thunderstorm shook the town, Gölcük.

It’s a nice town, on a branch of the Sea of Marmara. I went out later and ate, met some folks, played jump rope with some kids. I met a guy who was celebrating his win in the regional trap shooting championships; he showed me his big first place trophy and medal. I showed him the photo of my son Tim with the black bear he shot a few years back, and he said, “Mossberg. Good!” Then he opened his case and showed me his Beretta 12-gauge trap gun, a beautiful thing. Said he never shot an animal.

Back at the hotel I found my tire flat again. Awww. Maybe my patch didn’t hold. But actually it turned out to be a piece of glass ten inches from the patch. One flat in five months, then two more within one day. What are the odds?

I stayed another night there because it was cheap, had good Internet, and rain was forecast. I washed clothes and fixed my flat. In the afternoon another big storm knocked the power out for a few hours.

The hotel was downtown, next to a mosque. Five times a day the call to prayer is blasted from loudspeakers right outside my fourth-floor window. First time is 4:30AM. The wailing song goes on for five minutes.

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Thirty seaside miles brought me to Yalova, where a three-hour ferry ride to Istanbul departs. I passed a lot of tempting food joints and picnic spots, but pushed on. I wanted to learn the ferry schedule first, relax later. As it turned out, I arrived at the ferry terminal minutes before departure. With decent food on board, it was a delightful crossing that put me back in familiar territory, downtown Istanbul.

I biked over to the Old Town neighborhood I had stayed in two weeks earlier. My previous hostel was full, but there are hundreds more hotels, hostels, B&Bs, guest houses, apartments and boarding houses in this part of Istanbul.

In my first post from Istanbul I mentioned the silver-tongued rug merchants and maitres-de who stand outside enthusiastically charming tourists into showrooms and tables. The method really is effective. As one told me, “They are going to eat somewhere, right? I bring in fifty customers a day this way. My boss loves it, and pays me well. It’s hard work”

One such fellow, Jamal, remembered me from two weeks earlier. Our exchange had gone something like this:

“Hello, sir! Where are you from? You must be hungry from pedaling that heavy bicycle. Please, sit here. I will park your bike and watch it like an eagle! You like cold beer?”

“No thanks. Nice place, though. How’s business?”

“Not good because you don’t eat here. If you eat here the people walking by will see you and say, ‘Oh, this handsome American man eats here—must be good—I will eat here, too!’ And all of my problems will go away! Do you like inside table or outside table?”

I liked his style, so I played along, “I am just a humble bicycle man, and can’t afford to eat and drink in a fine and expensive a place such as yours. My clothes and dirty bike don’t fit with the elegant china and linen. Besides, I buy two beers at the grocery instead of one beer here!”

It went on for a while and Jamal won when I had a draft beer for $3. I couldn’t argue the facts: it was colder and better than grocery store beer, and the table on the busy street provided excellent people-watching. And Jamal was a treasure house of information. The stone-paved intersection of three narrow streets where he presided saw a very few taxis and delivery trucks, and was quite busy with pedestrians until after midnight each night during the 8-to-9 month season. Jamal, 28, took over the restaurant from an aging uncle last year. Four and a half employees. Competition is fierce: few restaurants are full.

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Jamal, AKA Jackson

The intersection is a few hundred meters from busy Kennedy Drive, a fine seaside park, many historic Roman-era ruins, attraction number one the Blue Mosque, the incredible Grand Bazaar, and many more attractions. It’s an area dense with tourist facilities, ranging from world class to hazardous, thronged with people all day long. Jamal grew up on this corner, which includes a grocery, a dive hotel, a tiny jewelry retailer and nearby another, bigger restaurant.

Now two weeks later, Jamal welcomed me like an old friend. Like all good hustlers, he remembered. Of course he had a place for me. The dive hotel: ugly outside with no sign, eight rooms, clean and nice enough but old and worn. I couldn’t afford it, we bargained, and I still couldn’t afford it. I actually had to get on my bike and click into my pedals before they believed I was leaving. Then they came down in price and practically dragged me and my bike back into the courtyard. For three dollars per night more than the dorm at the hostel, I had a private double room with a kitchenette, and good bike security, in a great location. Strong wi-fi, too. The three guys who own the Place are dear sweet men, bachelor brothers, third generation owners of a run-down hotel on a million-dollar piece of real estate. It’s always full. Celal is a policeman, the other brothers also work other jobs, and they cover the front desk, such as it is, an office crowded with luggage and boxes and my bike. A great breakfast is served on the roof, with a view of the harbor, while the brothers have their morning meeting.

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So I made my home there for several days. The whole neighborhood is so together. It’s not just that they are friendly with each other, but they all go back generations, grew up here, and they look out for each other’s interests. Jamal naturally dragged me over to his friends’ hotel, doing as he has since he was small. The corner store has all I need to keep me out of restaurants, and the beer is cold; the proprietor seems to work a 7:00AM to 1:00AM shift daily. He and his nine-year-old son would greet me by name whenever I stepped onto the street. It doesn’t take long to become a regular in a neighborhood like this. I took to playing my mandolin at one of Jamal’s sidewalk tables in the evening, three or four nights in a row, just for half an hour. I met a lot of nice folks that way, tourists from all over.

There are few dogs but many cats in this heavily Muslim neighborhood, therefore no evidence of mice or cockroaches. The fellow next door has a half dozen cats and two white geese. The cats make a racket at night, fighting and howling.

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During my stay I rode my bike to a different part of the city each day. I found that Istanbul is made up of distinctly different areas, cities within the city. My lodging was in the center of the Old City, on the European side. Tourism, The Grand Bazaar, banking, high-end retail and fine dining are mixed in with funky neighborhoods and lots of street hustle. Across a small bridge but still on the European side is the New City, with shipping companies, government offices, embassies, and an amazing variety of specialized retail shops, many for the shipping trades and industry.

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Roman Aqueduct Neighborhood

The Asian side is served by two huge, historic bridges (no bicycles allowed), and a couple of fast, convenient, crowded and cheap ferries. It’s more residential there, with a slower pace. Huge forts, mosques, mansions and parks line the waterway and dot the surprisingly green hillsides. It seems prosperous and modern on this side, with each neighborhood carrying a unique name and character.

With over a hundred named neighborhoods the city is too big for me to say I got familiar with he whole thing. But for several days I rode my bike through street after street, stopping wherever I could see something interesting or meet someone. And it’s easy to meet people in Turkey.

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Although I loved my little room at the hotel, it was hurting my budget. Plus I received news of a delay in my visa application, adding four days to my wait. I decided to look for a Warm Showers host. But then a warm showers host found me. Carine and Anael, my hosts in Amiens, France, have been following my progress and e-mailing occasionally. They encouraged Kerem, their their warm showers host when they were in Istanbul, to e-mail me with an offer of hospitality.

Kerem is great, 29, a computer program developer. He works hard, rides a bike around Turkey, and loves to host people through Warm Showers and Couch Surfing. Mayana, a 26-year-old woman from Brazil, was already a guest at Kerem’s large, beautiful apartment in the upscale Altintepe neighborhood in Istanbul’s Asian side. The area’s only stretch of bicycle path, ten miles along a waterfront park, passes close by.

I’m staying with Kerem for a few days. His busy schedule keeps him at work late, so Mayana and I enjoy preparing dinner for him. One day I took a ferry with Mayana to Bükükada Island, a beautiful enclave of some 10,000 residents. It’s a hilly, green paradise where motor vehicles are banned. Bicycles and horses serve the townspeople and visitors. A lively central district offers tourist services, bike rentals and plenty of ice cream. Horse-drawn carriages, dozens of them, bring tourists to the park-like hilltop center of the island. Turkish families on day trips from Istanbul crowd the lower streets, but in the hilly interior the shady roads provide spectacular views and quiet solitude. It was a very worthwhile excursion.

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Kerem may be the best Warm Showers host ever. He leaves Mayara and me in his comfortable crib all day where we sleep late and jab away at our iPhones between snacks. He comes home from work in the evening all cheerful and grateful to have people here (he hosts a lot of people). Yesterday Mayara and I found a farmer selling excellent produce right outside the apartment building and bought beautiful tomatoes, salad fixings, peas and eggplants. Then a ten-minute walk to the shore brought us to a row of fish-sellers with impressive selections of mostly unfamiliar fish. We selected some and the man cleaned them while we waited. Then we grabbed a tub of ice cream and some beer on the way back. By the time Karem was home we had a feast spread out.

The minute we were done Kerem said, “Get ready, we are going to see music!” A train, two ferries and a taxi brought us to a square in the Old City neighborhood of Nuripasa where an outdoor stage was surrounded by a large crowd. At the edges of the square were wall-to-wall restaurants with umbrellaed tables outside, and temporary bars set up. I saw lots of drinking but no drunks. The band was great; Kerem described them as among the best modern Turkish country bands, and that seemed to fit. The crowd was rockin’. Returning on the ferry Kerem was a deluxe tour guide, with a comment or story for every beautiful landmark. I’ll never forget the evening.

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Mayana

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Kerem

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Karem carefully administers lemon juice. The clam or mussel is stuffed with spicy rice.

So here I am, with a few more days to spend in Istanbul. This post is overdue, and I apologize for the length, but I don’t want you to miss a thing. Thank you for the e-mails, I love them; more, please.

I’m Tweeting now, @rompbilly, mostly about food; please check it out.

CORRECTIONS: In a previous post I reported entering Istanbul through a straight which I called the Dardanelles. Actually, that straight connects the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea, far south of Istanbul; my passage was through The Bosphorus. Also, I reported the population of Istanbul to be 5 million. Wikipedia reports a population of 13,624,240 (2011) in just the city proper. billyromp.com regrets the error.

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An Attitude of Gratitude

The relative leisure of my Turkish detour, and the hospitable café hangouts with endless glasses of tea, have given me the opportunity to work on my correspondence. While family and friends have received frequent e-mails, it has been a challenge to reply to all the mail from folks I’ve met along the way. In the past few days I’ve made some headway, often with the help of Google Translate, sending thanks and photos to those who have made my road easier.

The process has inspired this post, a general thanks to everyone, with a call-out to those who went beyond hospitality and courtesy to provide real support and friendship. It would be a cold, lonely and less meaningful journey without you, and I promise to spread the love as far and wide as my limited abilities allow.

You will notice that as we go back in time the photos are fewer. I lost some in a software glitch, but mostly I was reluctant to hold up a camera in people’s faces. I’ve overcome that reluctance now, and I truly regret having no photos of some people. If you are mentioned below with no photo, please consider sending me one. Thanks. Dank u wel. Merci. Gracias. Moltes Gràcies. Grazi. Hvala. хвала. Mulţumesc. дякую. Teşekkür.

In something like reverse chronological order:

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Erol guided me to lodging, interpreted, shared dinner, tea and conversation, for no other reason than because he saw my need. Kandira,Turkey.

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Atilla saved my ass! Why did he go to the trouble? He’s a good person with a big heart. Istanbul.

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Omer and his boss didn’t have to befriend me, shelter me from rain, watch my bike, feed me good food and free tea. They wanted to. Istanbul.

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Yunos offered inside info on ferries, and extended an invitation to visit, without a word of common language between us. He also helped to break the ice with the truckers on the Black Sea ferry.

Daniel So shared so much! A true gentleman. It is my crime that I have no photo of him. I will correct that oversight when I visit him in his Hong Kong home.

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Igor Tudoran and Tanya. With little privacy to begin with, they took me in, fed me, and really went out of their way to help me in Odessa. Igor spent an entire afternoon helping me with visa errands (while he should have been studying), but more than that, he shared his hopes and aspirations, fears and frustrations, like an old friend. Igor is a major inspiration for this post. He’s the next Steve Jobs. Tanya is simply as sweet as honey.

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Andrey Ivchenko is the man most likely to show up on my doorstep some day. And I will be hard pressed to repay the kindness he showed me in Odessa. He was just a long-haired dude on a skateboard; now he’s a friend for life.

Florentina asked ME for help, with a soft tire on her bike. My pump didn’t speak Romanian, but she and Andrei befriended me, put me up, and introduced me to the coolest people in Constanta. We still e-mail frequently, delightfully.

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Luci & Vali, Cazinesta, Romania. Before I met this family I passed hundreds of little farms wondering what life was like for the families there. If these folks are typical, life is rich and good and happy. It’s hard to convey just how much we shared in our sixteen-hour relationship. Just look at the love on those faces!

Livru, Mihaela & Lucien. I soiled Lucien’s car seat with my bike chain; no problem. I screwed up his work schedule; no problem. I got drunk and told coarse jokes in Mihaela’s kitchen; no problem. I am convinced that I met the finest, funniest and most interesting folks in all of Bucharest.

The Guys, somewhere in Serbia. No nonsense, just good food, abundant beer, and a bed to sleep in. Hello, welcome. Goodbye, good luck. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of hospitality.

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These guys, Mladen (with the white stripes) and his twin brother Marko, changed my scoring of Serbia from C-minus to A-plus. If they didn’t have such a good Dad already, I’d adopt them.

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Ervin & Arnela Kulašić. The lunch was great, but the least of their gifts. They opened my eyes, in one hour. I promise to keep them open, and never forget.

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Nedeljko. Thirty kilometers of climbing makes for close ties. You are looking at a very real, sensitive, thoughtful man. Croatia.

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Peter dragged me off of a dusty Croatian street and brought me home. I’m sure glad he did. A sincere, happy, humble and dedicated family man; we need more like him.

Matea (AKA Alex), Gordana and Josip sent me off with homemade bread and booze, after a home-like stay in Croatia. I’ll never forget how natural and comfortable it felt to get up early and sit in our pajamas on one big couch, with the whole family, while the fire crackled in the stove. No photo, my bad. Alex, send me one!

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These two, Simon and his dad Stane, dropped everything for two days to show me Slovenia’s beauty, history and cuisine. Ill never forget my hike/history tour with Stane. I miss them still.

Ailene in Venice rocked my world. Rocked it so much I came away without a photo. Don’t need one; I’ll never forget.

Another crime: no photo of Peter van der Straaten. Like a son, you drove me nuts for four days; now I miss you all the time! Really, send me a photo.

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Chris, an unforgettable character. Kind, sensitive, generous, real. Thanks for sharing. I wanna be like you when I grow up.

Claudio, near Bologna, Italy, gave me a tent site on his farm, and in the morning honored me by letting me help with chores. Then he thrilled me by bringing me into the kitchen, playing his violin, and giving me a bottle from his wine cellar. Much more, he told me his wonderful story.

Jordi in Girondella, Catalonia, Spain. The best, the most, the standard to which all others must be compared! That goes for the boys, too. If I return anywhere, it’s Girondella.

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Francis and Irene. I devoted an entire post to my stay in Saint Jean de Luz, and my gratitude still flows. See you in December!

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Lydie Giraud. The picture tells it all. I’ll never forget sitting on the couch, drinking wine, listening to jazz and…checking our e-mail!

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Catherine Rabier. Ever feel right at home the minute you step into someone’s house? Visit Catherine and you will. Generous spirit.

Lionel & Sophie encouraged me to stay three days. Without their special brand of hospitality and caring help, I might have missed Paris altogether. And what super kids! An inspiration.

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Jean Claude Lecompte. Former world’s luckiest man, until I awarded myself that distinction. We shared our love of jazz and grand bicycle adventures until past midnight. Way past.

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Carine and Aniel, living consciously and traveling widely, have developed big hearts and a knack for hospitality. They had good food and good advice for this would-be world traveler.

Francis Tabouret, Lille, France. Google Zingaro: that’s him. He deserves special mention; he cycled 25 kilometers with me, in the snow! I am very happy that we keep in touch.

Christel & Michiel. Elegant home, fine dining & wine, and genuine, down-home sharing and friendship. My Facebook friend. I wish I had half Michiel’s smarts and a wife like Christel.

Time & Tim, Ghent. I’m still using gifts and advice I received from these two world travelers and young lovers of life. Natural born hosts, funny and smart.

Marc and Christie, Wuustwezel, Belgium. I arrived at a difficult family moment, their first Warm Showers guest at that, wet and cold and full of needs. Their gracious welcome and hospitality was a godsend. Marc, remember that cold, pre-dawn 20 k ride to Antwerp? Crazy!

Simon Commercial. Now here’s a friend for life. He insisted I stay three days, encouraged me to start a blog, and shared his life story in the most heartfelt way. Thanks to his frank sharing and gift for communication, I KNOW this guy like I know few others. I am honored to be Simon’s pal, and I promise to live up to the honor.

Martin & Lucie, London. Long before you invited me to stay, I knew you would! You’re a cool family, with cool friends, and I really enjoyed the morning ride, an adventure and a pleasure. But your damn e-mail address is a dud! Send me a note, and give Lucie a kiss for me. Two kisses!

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Imelda & David, Staines, England. I have mostly forgotten the pain of the accident. Never will I forget being a part of this incredible family for three days. A Few weeks ago Imelda e-mailed me and said little Orlah still asks, “Is Billy is going to make it to King Kong OK?” I almost cried. I love you guys.

Simon in Basingstoke. Still sorting out my bike fit, I stayed with Simon, one of the few I have met who knows more about bike fit than I do. And a fine, generous host as well.

Fay & Kate. My first hosts. Their first Warm Showers guest. You set the bar pretty high, girls, for future hosts! I should have listened to you and stayed another night. But Hong Kong seemed so far away! Thanks for keeping in touch. I think about you often.

Steve Thomas scooped me up off the road and cared for me when, on my second day out, I bit off more than I could chew and choked on it. What a fine gentleman, what a fine family.

Finally and firstly, Steve, David and Josh at SJS Cycles sent me off on my first wobbly kilometers with professionalism, warmth and British wit. And they still look out for me with support and advice.

Turkey

The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful.
—Henny Youngman

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Warning! This post is huge. I’ve got time on my hands.

Sometimes it’s easy to find a place for the night, sometimes hard. As the sun sinks and evening comes, I evaluate my prospects with increasing scrutiny. Rule of thumb: when in doubt, press on. Down the road may prove to be less doubtful. It has worked so far, unless I count the time in France I nearly froze before finding shelter at ten PM, three hours after sunset.

So, as I left Istanbul one late afternoon and headed east, I wasn’t too concerned that the map showed fifteen miles of dense urban streets before the suburbs and eventual countryside. Surely I would either reach camping territory or find lodging.

When I took shelter from a rain shower in a gas station, I still had two hours of daylight left. The gas jockeys had a comfy employee lounge, with a kitchen, tea samovar, bathroom, and a little room with rugs for prayer time. The shower turned into the biggest storm Istanbul has had in a decade: hail piled up in the gutters and, as I found out later, there was flooding downtown; cars submerged, streets washed out and food stalls floating. By the time the rain stopped it was dark. The boys offered to let me stay there, and I should have accepted. But I had found cheap accommodations the night before, and they told me that there were hotels in the direction I was headed. I was still in Istanbul proper but, traffic notwithstanding, I don’t mind riding at night with an effective lighting system.
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Ahmed says,”No problem!”

I found the hotels, $200 a night Hiltons and such. I’d rather ride all night, I said to myself, and pressed on. Navigation was difficult, progress was slow. I spent some time under awnings and bridges as the rain came and went. The neighborhoods changed character, and soon my surroundings resembled the bombed-out projects in the worst sections of the Bronx. Streets were confusing, potholed and poorly lit. By now it was midnight. A bunch of young toughs tried to flag me down; the next bunch tried to block my way. One grabbed a handful of my shirt, and I almost went down. Whatever they had in mind, it definitely wasn’t friendly. I must admit to feeling some anxiety on the next few uphills.

A half-hour later the slums gave way to the outskirts—industry, car dealerships, strip malls and truck stops. At a gas station I was advised that the next hotels were twenty miles away, and another storm was coming in from the sea.

When in doubt, push on. At 1:00AM I saw a guy standing outside a sporting goods store—hunting, fishing, canoes and such. No English, but I made sign language for sleeping, tent. It started to rain. He got it, and motioned me to follow him. He led me to a big, steel-framed canvas storage tent, unlocked a padlock and lifted a flap. It was full of retail detritus: racks, mannequins, old life vests and paddles, boxes of disorganized junk. My bike just fit in. He shrugged and tied the flap.

I found an old camp cot and dusted it off, chuckling at my good fortune as I got into my sleeping bag and listened to the rain on the roof. I was exhausted and hungry, but warm and dry and thankful.

Then, just as the storm was starting to pick up, I heard a shout outside the tent. There was Atilla, my host, with an elegant tray of food on china dishes, great spicy soup, stuffed grape leaves, French bread, cake, yoghurt, and a glass of water. I thanked him in amazement. He just closed his eyes, put his hand on his heart, bowed his head and left. After my ordeal, exhausted as I was, it was overwhelming. I got all choked up.

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Atilla and I had tea next morning.

The storm shook that tent but I stayed dry. I woke to bright sunshine, steam rising from the wet streets, and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. I didn’t go. Next door was a gas station where I cleaned up. When I emerged from the bathroom the gas attendant, Mustafa, held out a glass of hot tea on a saucer, with two sugar cubes and a little spoon. “Hello!” he said, “Where you from?” They turned out to be his only English phrases.

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Mustafa and crew

In the days since, the generosity and hospitality showed by Atilla and Mustafa has proved to be the norm in Turkey. I stayed in a couple of small beach resort towns, where the accommodations (including a generous breakfast) were so inexpensive I couldn’t be bothered camping. Waiters, clerks and strangers behaved as if my satisfaction was their highest priority. Between towns were mountains with short but steep passes, and surprisingly green forests, farmland and apricot orchards. Food joints at the top of mountain passes offered grilled meat, corn on the cob, hot tea and cold beer.

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Chai?

Kandira, away from the coast, was a farming and trading center with extensive markets but no tourism and just one pricey downtown hotel. I asked a cabbie, “Otel?” (Some Turkish is easy.) He pointed toward the downtown hotel but I made sign language for “too expensive”. He understood, bid me to wait, and fetched two men with cell phones. They made calls while the cabbie made gestures of reassurance and a young man kept repeating, “No problem, no problem.”

Soon, judging from their expressions, the solution emerged, although it couldn’t be communicated to me. A teenager was dispatched to guide me to an address. On a side street a set of stairs led to a second-story balcony with a few men sitting outside drinking tea (they do that a lot here).

Luckily, a man named Erol had some English. He explained that it was a “Pensionne”. I first ran into these in Belgium. They are dormitory-and-cafeteria style accommodations for out-of-town workers, usually rented by the week and often paid for by employers. This one is run by a school district and intended for teachers. Some retired bachelor teachers, including Erol, live there permanently. It appeared to be run by middle-aged Moslem women. With Erol’s help they fixed me up with a five-bed dorm room, all to myself, with wi-fi and breakfast, for about $9.00. Erol brought me to dinner at a bohemian place, an apartment where the rooms were furnished as lounges and food came from the tiny kitchen with no menu; you got whatever was ready next from the teenaged waitress. We were served, in a hot pan, something like a pizza with everything, but without the crust. A basket of good bread was provided, with which we scooped the hot, spicy, cheesey stuff; it was quite delicious. Young people, Erol’s former students, popped in a couple of times for a warm, two-kiss greeting and a short visit. After a smoke on the back porch with the young owner, we were halfway down the stairs before we remembered to go back up and pay.

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Erol, Ismail, Turan

After breakfast with Erol and his policeman friend Ismail, it was another day’s ride from the next beach resort town. At lunch beneath a roadside oak tree a farmer took a break from his work, walked straight over to me and shook hands. Then he sat down three feet away and quietly joined me, as natural as can be. Although he refused bread and cheese and cookies, his face lit up at the strawberries and he had a few. Through sign language we learned a bit about each other’s lives.

You can say a lot with sign language. It’s important to speak in your own language as you do it, to convey meaning with tone of voice. Nodding or shaking the head are universal. Pointer fingers held together parallel; married? If the answer is single, a pointer finger indicates “one” as the thumb points to the chest. Divorce is like married, then quickly point in two different directions. Hold your hand at various heights, palm down, say “Children?” and you will be understood. Make the gesture nearer to the ground for grandchildren. (At this point, with gentlemen, the phones come out with photos of the grandchildren. But not with simple farmers, peasants or Gypsies.) Numbers are easy, and with a few gestures I am often asked my age. Make a shoveling or hammering motion, then rub the tips of the fingers together for the familiar “money” gesture, and that means, “What is your job?”

Which reminds me. For most of my life when asked my profession I have struggled for an answer. Not content with my livelihood for long, and changing careers so many times, I would often respond with an awkward list or a joke or a half-truth like writer or musician. This year I have started responding, “Christmas trees!” I wasn’t always proud of it, wishing for a more dignified profession. But in recent years I have come to understand that I enjoy it, I am good at it, and there’s nothing undignified about it; it’s honest work. I have become proud of it after all. And I receive a positive reaction from everyone, even in Moslem Turkey, where it takes some explaining.

Also, after finding that I’m an American, many people ask where in America I am from. I’m very proud to be a Vermonter, but answering, “Vermont” just gets puzzled looks in most places. Answering, “New York City” gets an instant reaction, oohs and aahs. And since I’ve lived there for two years over the last twenty-four years (a month at a time), and I love New York and my friends there so much, that’s my short answer. Much more than a half-truth.

But where was I? Between Kandira and the next beach town, Karasu. The hilly farmlands with orchards, hayfields, and patches of woods; the villages, tractor traffic, old cemeteries, streams and roadside springs; and most of all the hilltop vistas with tall pointed minarets marking the village mosques, all reminded me of my beloved New England’s green hills and church steeples. At times on these hilltops I could hear the call to prayer from several village mosques; first one starts, then another, then a third. Many times, bicycling Vermont’s back roads at midday, I have been treated to a similar symphony, of church bells tolling the noon hour.

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In the late afternoon a shady farm road beckoned me, and I followed it through a patch of woods to an apricot orchard. A sunny meadow and a cool breeze lulled me into lingering. Karasu, with beach hotels and restaurants and tea houses, was only a few downhill miles away. But I stayed, playing mandolin until sunset, and pitched my tent. I enjoyed a fine dinner (if I may compliment my own cooking) and read yesterday’s New York Times on my phone.

Distant thunder. Wind. I added four stakes and guy lines to the tent and got back inside just in time. What a downpour! The storm passed right over my camp, with lightning and thunder so close it scared me. Wind shook the walls of the tent, and the rain was so hard that when I put my palm on the wall, it felt like I was slapping five with an angry Thor. My gear and I stayed dry, though, even through a couple of encores. It rained on and off through the night. In the morning, sunny skies. By nine the tent was dry and packed, and I was on the road.

My morning cleanup at a gas station was again followed by complimentary tea from the attendants. Are there friendlier people anywhere on earth? In the villages, men gathered at shaded tables to drink tea don’t just wave, they wave me in, serve me tea and cookies, and ask for a mandolin tune (all sign language except for “Hey-low!” and “Where you from?” and “No problem!”). Farmers, construction crews, schoolchildren—they all stop, shout greetings, and wave their hats until I’m out of sight. More than half of the cars, and all of trucks and busses, toot friendly toots, wave, shout, and give thumbs up. Fruit vendors, after my strawberries are weighed and paid for, slip a few more into the bag, and maybe an apricot or two, with a smile and a twinkle. A Turkish lira, $.54, buys a pound of fresh strawberries, and I’m never far from a roadside stand.
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Even at this Internet cafe, a teenage boy greeted me with, “Hallo! Where you from?” Within a few seconds, friendship established, he brought me a tea.

I carry a pack of cigarettes with me, Marlboros or Lucky Strikes, and some hard candies, in my handlebar bag. The Gypsies always shout when I go by their camps, and I like to stop for a minute. They crowd around me, men, women and children. Here in Turkey they really are camps, tents and tarps and very few permanent structures, none by western standards. I don’t have to offer: the kids come up with their hands out, and within a few minutes after shaking hands, the men make smoking-cigarette sign language.

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I want to understand these people, but it’s hard. Their habit of remaining dirty, even filthy, when often there is a hose or a river nearby, and their open dishonesty (an oxymoron?) and shamelessness, puzzle and fascinate me. Grown men will reach into my handlebar bag to grab something, then smile sheepishly when I slap their hand away. As I leave, they say in English, “Wait! Stop! Money! Give me money!” not in desperation but with smiles, as if to say, “Come on, man, I’m your pal!”

I often see a teen or two who is clearly different from the rest, with clean clothes and a more civilized demeanor, always hanging back but staring intently, as if trying to communicate. I wonder, will they escape their siblings’ fate? Do they suffer for their “rebellion”? Are they ashamed of their living conditions, their families, their kinsmen?

As elsewhere, the local people despise the Gypsies, although I see them putting coins in their cups as they go from table to table at cafés, wordlessly begging. Only the women beg this way, often with a baby in her arms or a toddler in tow, and an imploring, desperate face. Gypsy kids from five to ten find places to beg, performing services like returning your cart in supermarket parking lots, or lifting the lid on trash cans for you. One tiny girl in Istanbul would press the signal button for pedestrians at a crosswalk with an upturned palm and a heartbreaking smile. In cities the Gypsy women and teens do their recycling, waiting as merchants empty boxes, then breaking them down and piling them high on hand carts. I never see the men outside the camps, where they disassemble appliances, autos and computers for recycling, and squat on their haunches under shade in groups.

You can count on another post from Turkey, since I have another week here. I feel very relaxed and contented here, but at the same time eager to make progress toward my goals.

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This two-week detour to Turkey is somewhat like a “vacation” from my expedition. I’m resting up for the challenges ahead. Soon I’ll have my Russian passport. Then I’ll be slogging across flat, agricultural European Russia, crossing the Ural mountains, and pushing eastward for two months through Siberian forests. Happily, my knee pain has mostly disappeared in the last week, sunburn is under control, and my mind is at ease. I miss my friends and offspring, and the English language, but not much else. From my position as the luckiest man in the world, I can only hope, sincerely, that you all slay all your dragons and enjoy the victory. Peace and love.

Detour to Istanbul

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The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.
—Isak Dinesen

It took an entire day to get on board my ship, starting in an office in Odessa then another office, where I met Daniel, a cool fellow my age who is traveling from his home in Hong Kong to London, through Siberia, by train, with a folding bike that he uses in cities. We were the only regular passengers on the Sea Partner, a huge cargo ship and truck ferry that was our home for three days.

After a wild taxi ride to the port, we finally found our dock, a shipping terminal where the closest thing to information was a little sign language from a longshoreman. Finally a bored young fellow with five words of English motioned us to follow him. Then, over the course of several hours, three different kinds of security and customs officers checked us out and asked me to open the mandolin case. Three times I complied, then played a couple of bars of “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, which cracked everybody up every time. They recognized the melody! Customs man got the biggest laugh, though, when he turned to Daniel’s bike case and said, “Piano-forte?”

Eventually we got to the last official, a tall, good-looking, heavily armed blonde lady in camo fatigues who cranked up a 25-year old computer and, after much delay and ceremony, stamped our passports, giving us permission to leave Ukraine.

In-between we were left in the sun on the crumbling concrete pier, dodging forklifts and trucks. No cameras allowed.

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The Sea Partner

We finally boarded and found our cabins, and watched as a dozen trucks drove onto the lowest deck (there were nine decks aft and six fore decks). The drivers came up to the lounge, and I never saw a tougher-looking bunch of characters; Turks and Russians from thirty to sixty with tattoos and scars, wild hair and mustaches, gold teeth here and there, knives on their belts and evil eyes for me and Daniel. They took tables, set up games of dominoes and backgammon, and opened bottles of vodka. Hi, fellas!

The ship got under way just after sunset. A harbor pilot boarded from his little vessel to guide us out to sea, then hopped back off to return home when the ship captain took over.

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The Cute Little Pilot Boat, 30 Feet Long

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Aaaahhhh

For three days we crossed the Black Sea, with calm seas, nice weather and other ships always in sight. Daniel and I took our meals together and got to know each other. A government administrator a few months from retirement, with two grown daughters, he has lived his whole life in Hong Kong. This was his first adventure. He speaks perfect English and we plan to meet again in Hong Kong.

As I expected, the truckers turned out to be a bunch of sweethearts. I broke the ice with some fractured Turkish and Russian. Soon they were sharing their candy and taking photos of each other wearing my hat. Vlad confessed to speaking a little English, and Yunos invited me to stay with him in Turkey. Translating Turkish to Russian, then to English, we got each other’s stories. Good men, hard workers. One was bound for Iraq, another for Tajikistan.

On advice from Yunos, Daniel and I arose at 5:00AM to witness our entry into the Dardanelles, the historic straight that separates Europe from Asia. Here the Silk Road from China, the Spice Road from India, and the sea route linking the Danube River (and many other rivers) with the Mediterranean Sea and the world, all cross. It was beautiful, with green hills topped by elaborate Mosques, ruins of Ottoman forts and castles, waterside mansions with huge yachts docked in front, and porpoises jumping alongside the ship. The waterway was busy with ships and boats of all sizes and descriptions; as we approached Istanbul it became a crazy scene thick with ferries and fishing craft, launches and yachts, huge tankers and container ships, sailboats and speedboats. Absolutely mad.

We docked. Daniel and I said goodbye to the truckers and crewmen, and we were handed over to Ahmed, a driver and “agent” (of what we never learned). He held our passports, which we had given up upon boarding, over my ineffective objections. Ahmed was handsome, nattily dressed, and can-do. We stuffed my bike and Daniel’s, all our luggage and us into a little sedan, and went on a wild ride through Istanbul (including a ferry ride and a bridge from Asia to Europe). We wound up at a gigantic customs building, where Ahmed arranged to have my passport disappear into a maze of offices and come out later with a Turkish visa. The entire bill, taxi and all, was $20. Ahmed bowed and left. Daniel and I said goodbye and I once again found myself alone and on my bicycle in a strange city.

Istanbul is mad, crazy, insane, wonderful, dangerous, delicious, huge. Everybody is buzzed on the strong tea they serve in little glasses. Men from the tea shops run all over downtown with steel trays with glasses of tea, keeping the taxi drivers, store clerks, cops, bank tellers, and construction workers, everybody, slurping tea with sugar. They collect empty glasses on the way back without breaking stride.

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Tea? Best in town!

Starbucks and McDonalds are deserted; the tea shops are full. They all have men smoking hookahs and playing dominoes and backgammon, noisy with the tiles slapping. The best bread since France, and the rest of the food is outstanding.

The traffic is beyond description. Aggressive (but not angry) drivers, lawless (but skilled) driving; it is dense with every kind of vehicle, plus throngs of pedestrians, pushcarts, vendors, double/triple/quadruple parking, loading and unloading, Gypsy cardboard carts, beggars, hawkers, hookers, cops and robbers. I had to go ten miles through this shit to find FedEx. The street kept changing from Times Square to the Cross Bronx Expressway (with pedestrians) to Canal Street to an alleyway to a bombed-out, long-forgotten construction zone and back again. I didn’t see a single other bicyclist, and I nearly got killed a dozen times.

There are miles and miles of street shops selling absolutely everything, stall after stall, carts, storefronts, kiosks, stands, guys carrying trays on shoulder straps. You could build a ship or furnish a skyscraper or supply a movie set, any movie, with the stuff I saw. Neighborhoods are devoted to sewing machines, tools, restaurant supplies, power equipment, fruit, phones, auto parts, office stuff, you name it. I found a store that sells goose down (five grades), duck down (four), and chicken feathers. A good part of downtown caters to the maritime trade, with separate shops devoted to rope and cable, brass fittings, pumps, bearings, boots and gloves, books and charts, radar and sonar, GPS, sattelite phones (I want one), anchors and chains, everything.

I got my visa stuff mailed and wound up in a hostel in a tourist area near the biggest, most historic mosques and ruins. It’s big, maybe fifty blocks of hotels, hostels, restaurants, shops, bars, tea houses, and art, antique and carpet dealers. These Turks! Waiters stand outside waving menus and greeting everyone (the streets are packed with tourists). “Hello! Welcome to Istanbul! Table ready! Best in town! You like beer? Wine? Meat? Tea? Pastry? Here’s my card! Please come back! Best in town!” Every shoemaker and trinket seller has a smile and a sales pitch, bowing and gesturing toward his goods. There is good healthy food for sale from street carts: corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, watermelon slices, all kinds of nuts and fruit, orange juice fresh-squeezed while you wait. Tea and coffee from big brass wood-fired samovars. Dried fish and delicious olives.

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I spent a morning cleaning my bike at the hostel, then rode all over town looking and eating. I can’t say ALL over, because this city is huge, five million people. But I got into ten different kinds if neighborhoods, mazes of cobblestone streets older than Jesus, hearing the call to prayer coming from mosques, back where the people live, far from tourist land, where no English is spoken. I’m exhausted.

Tomorrow I’ll load up the bike, do more of the same, then head out into the countryside in the evening, go camping. I’ve got two weeks to ramble before returning to Istanbul to pick up my visa and passport. Then it’s back to Ukraine to resume my eastward route into Russia. I’ll try to post once or twice in the meantime. Please send me an e-mail. It’s lonely out here sometimes.

Odessa Revisited

Here I am back in Odessa. It happened this way…

After sending my Russian visa application and passport to Washington, DC, I left Odessa somewhat sadly and slowly. The skateboard boys staged a going-away party the night before, a big one, a late one. I spent four days riding through flat agricultural land and sandy pine forests, camping in nice places and enjoying some smooth roads for a change. Towns and small cities were busy because of a Russian holiday, and I made pleasant noontime stops each day to check e-mail and have a beer or a snack at an outdoor cafe. The weather was very fine, sunny and hot in the daytime with cool nights.

Just after I entered Crimea I got an e-mail from my friends in Odessa informing me that my mail had bounced back. It is illegal in Ukraine to mail passports, and I got caught. That is, we got caught, because I had used Andrey’s address in the “from” section on the shipping form. I took an overnight train back to Odessa, got us off the hook without too much trouble, and found myself back where I was a week earlier, without a Russian visa. The American Embassy in Kiev was no help, suggesting that I fly to Washington with the passport myself, and hinting that they had more important issues to deal with.

After an evening of head scratching and Internet research I was still stumped. Russian visas are only issued in the passport holder’s country. Even if I sneaked my passport through the Ukrainian mail, there was no assurance that I could get it back again. And the clock was ticking: after my Western European delays, some hard pushing through Eastern Europe had put me within reach of my originally planned June 1 entry into Russia. Now I was losing days. For a while I considered skipping Russia altogether and changing the plan to Turkey (which I always wanted to visit anyway), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But I was discouraged from that after reading about the complicated visa application processes for four of those six countries.

I considered returning to Romania, where my friends Florentina and Andrei in Constanta would surely help. But as close as it is, a couple of hundred miles, the connections by rail, bus, taxi and ferry (including walking a few kilometers through Moldova, which has no rail, bus, or taxi connections in that area) are ridiculously complicated, expensive and slow.

In the morning I came up with a plan. I will travel by boat across the Black Sea to Istanbul, Turkey, where I can mail my passport and visa application to Washington, go cycling through the countryside for a couple of weeks while waiting for the visa and passport to return, then steam back to Odessa to resume my eastward path toward Russia. I’ll get to see some of Turkey, and the boat ride will be fun. It is early in the season for the cruise ships and luxury ferries, and they are expensive. But I found a cargo vessel that takes passengers in the few crew bunks that were freed up when technology reduced the number of crewmen needed on board. The ticket is cheap, no frills; I will bunk and eat with the crew. It will stop in Bulgaria for a day, so I can visit there. The whole process, including the time I have lost already in Odessa, will put me about ten days behind my June 1 target for Russia. I’m sure I can make it up on the 2500 kilometers of flat farmland between Odessa and the foothills of the Ural Mountains.

Waiting for my boat, I spent the day at the beach with Andrey and two new friends, Sergey and Volya (sorry about the spelling, boys).

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The semi-crowded city beach has clean sand, clean water, small waves and busy ship traffic on the horizon. The people-watching was unforgettable. Sorry fellas, I didnt bring my camera, but here’s one Sergey took.

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In the meantime, here are some random notes from my recent ride down to the Crimea.

Like the western part of Ukraine, there is a big contrast between the countryside with its peasant culture and small, underdeveloped, decaying villages, and the bigger towns and cities, where the centers are busy with modern shops and streets busy with well-dressed shoppers. Here the road surfaces are better, and the highways more often go through the cities instead of around them. I saw some huge modern factories that were freshly painted and clean-looking, with mowed lawns and cheerful signage, nothing like the dystopian industrial landscape I saw in other parts of Eastern Europe.

In addition to roadside vegetable stands I frequently saw old men or women sitting by the roadside with an upturned bucket or cardboard box with just a few eggs or scallions or apples for sale, desperate looking figures who don’t look up when I pass.

When I camp, washing up in the morning is limited to a quick face splash with a water bottle. I always stop at the first opportunity for a more thorough job, usually at a gas station. Some are disgusting, some are nice, but if there is running water, even just cold, I can wash, shave, rinse clothing, and feel good. The people are almost always nice, and I always buy something if it’s available, water or soda or peanuts.

One gas station I stopped at last week, at a crossroads far from town, was over-the-top nice. Spotless chrome, glass and tile inside and out. Four attractive women in uniform (black skirt and shoes, white shirts, perky hats like airline stewardesses used to wear) were cleaning, stocking shelves and pumping gas. The single male employee was cleaning tire marks off of white-painted curbs. The bathrooms were as you would expect in a fine restaurant, with three shining sinks and a mirrored wall. Espresso and pastries were available. At a small counter were four upholstered bar stools and three of these…

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…for charging your phone, and a sign inviting you to use the free wi-fi. As I was leaving, the staff was lined up for inspection by a stern female manager in the same uniform, but with stripes on the epaulets.

I have a lot more observations I’d like to share, but it’s time to catch my boat. I expect that I’ll have plenty of time in the next few days for more blogging. Thanks for visiting!

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