07.11.2015 4 °C
I'm writing this from the cosy corner of a sleeper train. A lot has happened in the last few weeks, least of all cycling! I'll start at the end of Tbilisi.
I met many cyclists on their way through in Tbilisi. Andrew, a middle aged Kiwi was half way through his attempt to break the round the world cycling record. He was spending a night in the city to get his bike fixed and to catch a flight to India. He was an ex speed skater, and had thighs like ............ Oak trees. They were big. He'd made his way from the west coast of Canada over a few months, and basically had a sleeping back strapped to the saddle of his carbon fibre bike, and a bank card in his pocket. To say he was travelling lightly was putting it mildly. He could probably cycle across the oceans. He's raising money for cancer research, and I should think he's in Australia by now. Anyway, God speed Andrew!
I also met Rory, a Scotsman, from Scotland. My last night we thought we try the city baths, so we made our way down in the rain. They were inside an ancient complex of bricked tunnels. We walked into the changing room, where about 7 or 8 men of all shapes and sizes were stripping down to bareness. Rory intended to keep his pants on, but was told this wasn't possible. He looked at me and said swiftly, 'I can't do this', turned around and left. I stripped off and jumped into the steaming pools with all the vigour of a 5 year old. The small, steamy white tiled room had pipes and taps running all over the place, and men laid out on marble tables, stretching, washing, or simply relaxing. I was definitely the hairiest. I walked into the cool air with that soothing tingling feeling you get when stepping out of a hot bath into a cold room.
All things checked and packed the night before I made an early start the next morning. As I slowly cycled out of Tbilisi my mind was filled with thoughts of the next few months. With a Russian, a Kazakh, and a Chinese visa in my passport, this would possible be my last stop until I reach Vietnam - about 4000 miles of winter cycling. The city development slowly gave way to open countryside. I was making my way up through the Caucasus mountains, where I would summit Jura pass and freewheel into Russia. The Autumnal colours where in full bloom, and rusty mountains contrasted to the deep blue lakes which lay in the valley bellow. The clouds where heavy and it was only a few degrees over. Ocassionally a break in the cloud would give way to sun, providing a brief blessing of blissful warmth.
I rolled into the next village, looking for somewhere to camp. Waving me over to join him, an old local sat on a bench, and offered me a bowl of fruit and a glass of vodka. From the smell of his breath he'd obviously been at it for a while. Following a friendly, but slightly over zealous exchange my initial instinct was to decline, but with an offer of dinner and a bed, I couldn't refuse. We spent the evening sitting by a small fire in his bedroom, and he continued to knock back the shots. The walls and ceiling were charred black, and the only light was from a single lamp sitting in the middle of the large room. His wife busied around with chores, providing us with various pleasantries, and after some food, marginal conversation, and Russian TV, I sank into a bed and what seemed a deep sleep. At 2 in the morning the old man woke me, wobbling at the door in his superbly white briefs. Pointing, He shouted at me to go and sleep on the sofa in their room. 'Should of camped', I thought to myself. I settled into my new abode, with the old man and his wife sleeping in the bed behind me. With a pillow over my head to subdue the old mans snoring, I was upon the fringe of sleep when 'Splaaaaaaashhhhh'. The old man was leaning over the side and wretching up the evenings intake all over the floor. Anticipating the smell I wiggled into the sofa, feeling sorry for his poor wife who had to clear it up, and I assume deal with this situation frequently. The next morning I made a hasty retreat, thanking the lady at the gate and continuing on my way.
Today to Russia. The road wound it's way up into the mountains, and the temperature dropped with every foot I gained. Thinking I wasn't far from the top I turned a corner to behold a view of the road, climbing away in the distance. 'Balls'. Gloves on, buff over my face and toes curled within my heavily socked Crocs, I continued on, boldly taking Crocs to a new frontier. Bonza! Falling snow welcomed me at the top of the pass, and stripped off to allow my sweat to escape. The view of the mountains was spectacular, evoking scenes and quotes of Lord Of The Rings in my mind. 'I SHALLLLL PAASSSSSS'............... I declared to the world as I rolled over the top, with a clenched fist in the air.
2 hours later I was at the border. Following the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 relations between the two countries wasn't great, so I wasn't suprised to find at least 5 kilometers of no mans land between the two border posts. Border guards dressed in long green coats and big fluffy Russian hats waved me in. To my surprise I was out the other side within 5 minutes, greated by a chilling headwind blowing up the valley and through my layers.
Cycling into the first Russian city was a delight. A long, leafy boulevard paved the way. Antiquated, Art Deco like trams rolled along to my right, and various statues lined my path to the left, each representing a virtue, from what I could deduce. Towns and cities in Russia are vast. They have so much flat land that I suppose they see no need to build upwards, and this one seemed to go on forever. I finally managed a camp on the other side, in a fruit plantation.
Now It was cold, every camping process - unloading my panniers, setting up the tent, cooking dinner etc.... would need to carried out quickly and efficiently. Small things like packing my panniers in the order they will be unpacked, or warming the stove whilst laying out my bed, would mean the difference between a good sleep and a bad one. Rehearsing every next step in my mind my learning curve was interrupted by the realisation that I'd left my diary in the market.
Next morning I back tracked 10 kilometers through cold morning fog, praying that my diary was where I thought it was. To my relief it was. The old ladies asked what I was doing, and after explaining to them that I was from 'Englisky', and that I was cycling to Vietnam they sat me down, boiled me up some noodles and brewed me chai. A man handed me a packet of sausages for my way. Throughout the day fog slowly lifted, and by the afternoon the sun was shining down. It was glorious. I cycled along long straight roads, with farmland stretching in every direction towards the horizon. The sheer size of the fields was amazing, and I wonder how any farmer, beginning at the entrance of a field in his tractor, could ever comprehend the seemingly endless task of ploughing it. But there where great stretches of corn, wheat and other crops, so they obviously manage.
The road narrowed into a valley, and a headwind picked up. I dropped my head, dropped my gears and cursed the wind with my usual rhetoric of profanities. 10 minutes and I could feel a pain building behind my right knee, a pain that steadily worsened through the day. I knew what is was. I'd pulled a bloody hamstring ligament. Shit. There's no silver bullet for this one. It's just rest and time off the road. Whilst setting up camp I considered the idea of catching a train. I only had about 8 days to make 500 miles, with an injury, and I wanted to make the border in good time - getting mixed up with the Russian authorities didn't appeal. So I decided to see how I felt the next morning. No surprise, no improvement. Hitchhike to the next town for a train. A Russian made campervan pulled over, and 6 old boys ushered me into the smoky vehicle. 7 men and a bike was a squeeze, but a fun one. They where donned in black leather jackets, and they smiled at me, some with golden teeth. 9 am and I was eating chicken, drinking beer and sharing some laughs. 'A romantic', one of them replied to my description of my adventure. They dropped me off in the next town, waving me off with smiles and a big box of yummy biscuits. After an hour of searching I gave up on finding any forms of transportation, and I decided to cycle for the day. The Injury seemed to hold, and I made a good 80 miles.
But I didn't feel right. The injury, the distance to the border and the cold led to me feeling dispirited and alone. I sat in my tent feeling hopeless, trying to contemplate what the hell I was doing out here, in Russia, in the cold. 'Bugga this, lets train it to South East Asia'. Warmth, good food and the prospect of some kitesurfing raised my spirits, and I fell asleep to warming thoughts of my new resolution.
That morning a snapping tent pole reinforced my change of plane, and the realisation that I'd again left my diary behind, this time for good (it has home address in it do fingers crossed). After a 5K ride to the next station, I arrived and promptly sorted out railway tickets, destination Astrakhan. A huge map on the wall showed just how massive Russia is. It's southern border runs alongside the huge countries of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, and continues still, ending at the Bering Straits, about 80 kilometers short of Alaska. It's railway network is equally as impressive. It's possible to take a train from Moscow, right accross the country to Vladivostok, taking a leasurely 146 hours to get there! Aaaah...... the romance of train travel. My journey consisted of 2 sleeper trains, with a 6 hour stop over in Volgograd.
I sat in the park eating bread and Jam, contemplating the prospect of warmth and a comfy bed. The golden domes of a Russian Orthodox church shone brilliantly in the morning sun, and a flock of gold finches wirld there way from shrub to shrub. A young looking chap swiftly walked his way towards me. 'Hello, I would like to help you'. With my dirty waterproof on, my Crocs and my black plastic bags laid around I clearly looked like someone who needed to be helped. Mr I've forgotten his name led me to his house. We walked our way over a railway and down a dusty track. He welcomed me into his house, where a breakfast of chicken, vegetables and bread was laid out for me. A shower and my washing done, I was trusted to enjoy the comfort of their house whilst they where out for the day. They took me to the station in the evening, loaded up with half a roast dinner, a jar of honey and many other things.
I put all my 573920 panniers through the security scanner and reloaded them onto the bike. Making our way to the platform, I managed to break a door off it's hinges on the way out. This attracted much attention from the staff, and a relay of boistrous looking officials ensued, each one with a larger Moustache than the last. I fretted with the prospect of a fine or imprisonment, and was thanfully waved on after 5 minutes of silent scrutinisation. Next drama. The Train rolled in, and we made our way to my carriage where a smartly dressed stuardess stood at the door. Having been told that the bike would be no problem when I bought the tickets, I wasn't really suprised when she approved all but my bike. Fortunatly superman Mr I've forgotten his name spent the next 15 minutes running around the station to reslove the problem. 'I asked the ticket lady if it was ok', I said to him as we ran down the platform. 'This is Russia' he exclaimed. 20 minutes later, passing the respective slip to the stewardess she explained that I had to take the bike appart and take it on board with me. This was all the more amazing when you see the size of Russian trains. They are wide gauge, very long, 'and they don't have a compartment for cycles'? Right. Farewell to my friends and I lumbered on board. Each compartment, or room, has 6 beds. I found mine, and spent the next 10 minutes carting in my wares. The two elderly ladies sitting there where aghast at the extent of my luggage, and stared at me in disbelief when I wondered though with my oily bike. Fearing an uproar, I was assured by the resiliance of my fellow passangers, who were suprisingly accepting to this mechanical invasion. Finally settled with a bike sitting precariously above our heads we rolled out of Mineralnye Vody, with the clicking of the rail joints slowly increasing in occurance.
The delight of night time train travel was a comfortable contrast to my previous night in the tent. I tucked into my tasty dinner, watching the lights of suburbs pass my window. The samovar at the end of the carriage provided tea through the night, and I awkwardly climbed into my bunk, dozing off as the cold emptiness outside slipped on by.
We pulled into Volgodrad the next afternoon, and Mr I forgotten his name had arranged for me to meet a friend at the station. Miss I forgotten her name had lived in Volgagrad all her life, and had started up a language teaching business with her ex-husband. I was really looking forward to seeing this city, and she gave me a tour of the sights. First stop was the huge concrete structure called 'Mother Russia'. A huge statue of a skantly clad women bearing a sword, it was commisioned by Stalin to incite strength and unity. The approach is a sort of external museum. Statues, writing, and scenes of war are crafted into walls on either side, and sounds of battlefields are played out through loud speakers. Then you are directed into a huge dome. As you walk around the path corkscrews up, rotating around an enormous eternal flame, burning in the middle. The names of those who died in the conflict are written on the inside wall, taking up most of the space. Finally you're led out at the top, and at the foot of the towering Mother Russia. She is the largest statue in the world. From the scenes of war and honouring the dead, to inspiring the future, it was an evocative journey of war and it's context.
Following a talk about my trip at her school, we drove back to the station. As we made our way the size of the infrastructure struck me. Everything was up a size. We crossed over the cold and fast flowing waters of the river Volga. A power station was bulilt across the entire span of the bridge. Giant concrete statures housed the mechanics, and steel towers supported the many cables which splayed off in every direction. Collections of pipes of all sizes ran alongside the roads, with the insulation tearing off in patches, and high rises, factories and chimneys punctuated the skyline.
Time for one last stop, and something I had been itching to see; the famous bread factory. Volgagrad was the furthest extent of the Nazi's invasion into Russia. It culminated into what is revered as the bloodiest battle in history; a 6 month occupation of Volgagrad which saw the advantage slowly tip from the Nazi's to the Russians. The Bread Factory was bitterly fought over due to it's strategic advantage, and has since been preserved as an emblem for the bitter struggle which gripped this city. It is proudly preserved alonside a museum, and a collection of tanks, guns and planes sourrounds the outside.
I would have loved to spend more time discovering the cities rich and famous history. But a train was to be caught! A farewell to my kind guide, I boarded, this time with my bike in a purpose made carriage. And here I am!
I'll be in Astrakhan tomorrow, where I will have to spend a few days until my Kazakh visa validates.
Russia has been an absolute gem, and I'll be sad to see it go. The people are the friendliest I've met yet, extending there generosity at every turn. I can't recommend it enough.
Right off to pee.