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Day Zero, Saturday the 2nd of June - from Lincoln, UK to the ferry
I thought i'd do a little write up of my bike trip which I embarked on in the June of 2012.
The plan was to sail from the UK to Norway (Brevik) via the DFDS freight ship, leaving from Immingham at 5.00am on Sunday the 3rd of June.
From Brevik I would explore Norway a bit, then head east through Sweden into Finland, dip into the Arctic Circle at Ronvaniemi in Lapland and then further east into Russia. On entering Russia I would hop south to the cities of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Volgograd, and then on to the Caspian Sea. Here's a rough route of the 'out' leg of the journey ('A' is where the ferry docks at Brevik);
From there i'd move back west to the buddist city of Elista and into the Ukraine and Crimea.
Then after a look around Crimea, i'd head north to Kiev while the Euro 2012 championships are on, a quick look around the Chernobyl zone and then head back west and home. Easy. 7000 miles or so according to a route planner, with the trip lasting around 19 days.
The plan was to camp where necessary and to stay in modest accommodation where I could. The bike is a 2000 ZX7R with pretty much every consumable replaced and tyres that will last an alleged 8000 miles (conti road attack).
All loaded up and ready to roll;
I was provisionally booked on the ferry leaving Immingham the next morning (a concrete booking on the freight ship isn't possible) so in the afternoon I fitted the new tyres to my bike and loaded it up in preparation. It was whilst loading the bike that I suffered the first set back; a phonecall from DFDS informed me that I hadn't got a place on the ferry. Freight drivers get preference for the 12 places on board and as another freight driver had booked in, it was tough luck for me. Oh dear.
I carried on with loading the bike whilst my support crew (Wife) found me an alternative sailing. The Harwich to Esbjerg ferry was fully booked, but there was room on the Harwich to Hook of Holland sailing. With Holland being a fair way from Norway, this would mean an unexpected 1050 mile detour before the 'start' of the trip, so I left earlier then expected at 7.00pm on that night to catch the ferry from Harwich at 10.30pm.
The first mechanical failure was experienced on the outskirts of Lincoln, 2 miles into the journey; the speedo needle dropped to zero on the way into a roundabout, a quick look down at the front wheel confirmed the cable had snapped. I presumably kinked it changing the front tyre earlier in the day. Not particularly reassuring with 6998 miles left to go, but not the end of the world; the sat nav displays the speed also.
I made the ferry in good time, had a few in the bar, went to bed for a bit and arrived in the Hook of Holland the next morning at 8am.
Near misses - 1
Mechanical issues - 1
Crashes - 1
Distance covered - 950 miles
I wanted to get to Norway ASAP and get back on schedule, so the aim was to smash as many miles in on day one as possible. I was greeted in mainland Europe by heavy rain and around an hour into the first day I took a serious wobble on the motorway. Accelerating at around 90mph in poor visibility a sidewind caused me to drift onto what must have been the largest strip of overbanding in Holland, 18" wide and 100' long. Both wheels on the slide on a top heavy ZX7R wasn't a great start but after a tense moment it pulled itself right.
Somewhere around the slide it became clear that my 'winter' gerbing gloves were not waterproof in the slightest. I bought them secondhand, and being heated, assumed they would be waterproof. Whether they ever were or not, i don't know, but they're not now. The bulkyness of them meant i didn't feel the moisture straight away, but once they were saturated....
Around an hour after that it became clear the my HMP waterproof overcoat thing that I borrowed from a friend in the prison service was also not waterproof. Around an hour after that it became clear that my helmet was not waterproof as water was running out of my soaked hair and down my face.
As I headed through northern Germany towards Denmark, after riding for six hours solid in heavy rain I was the world's wettest man. My leather jacket was absolutely saturated, my draggin jeans had wicked water down from the jacket so my bottom half was soaked, my boots and gloves were full of water and although the rain was dying off, my (genuinely waterproof) trousers and sort of waterproof HMP jacket were sealing the water in nicely, keeping my body weight to around one metric tonne.
I'd never been to Denmark but passed through it quickly, spending a relative fortune in the process. £40+ in tolls for two huge bridges, and £10 for a McDonalds and a bottle of water. The landscape was fairly forgettable apart from the view from the bridges, a large number of highly modified American cars, congregated near to Copenhagen being the only other noteworthy sight.
I entered Sweden via the Orsund bridge tunnel around 8pm (not my photo, obviously)
Once in Sweden I turned left and rode around 50 miles north up the west coast, before looking for somewhere to camp. I spotted a unexpected campsite sign on the dual carriageway and turned off the main road to find the site. On a minor road I 'slowed' to read a another sign, but after 950 miles of speed hardening and fatigue, misjudged how much I had (hadn't) slowed down and ending up having to brake harder than expected to avoid overshooting the sign. So keen was I to crane my neck and read the sign, I missed the edge of the road surface with my right foot when I eventually stopped. I gracelessly overbalanced, dropping the bike on its right hand side and rolled around 15' down into a ditch. Bugger.
After dragging myself out of the ditch (desperately hoping nobody had witnessed my misfortune), I assessed the damage to the bike. The 20 year old design of the ZX7R harks back to when sportsbikes could take a knock; the only damage was a crack indicator lens and a slightly dented ego.
After struggling with the heavily laden bike, a passing cyclist gave me a hand and then led me to a (immaculately kept) campsite where I spent the night. I lubed and adjusted the chain, bodged the indicator back together with some tie wraps and instant gasket, spread my clothes out in the hope they might dry a bit and then got some rest. Tomorrow Norway.
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 1
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 416 miles
Total distance - 1366 miles
My modus operandi; 45L top box affixed to the pillion seat by some roofing bolts with a slice of oak worktop wedged underneath to get the angle just right. My (friends) tent and sleeping bag were strapped to a small rack (the only luggage accessory you can get for a ZX7R), then a Pacsafe steel mesh was wrapped around the whole lot for security, to sure it all up a bit and to give me somewhere to stuff the rest of my stuff.
(Note yellow tie wrap on front indicator from the previous day's hiccup)
With the top box being as streamline as a house brick it hampered the aerodynamic performance a bit; I took it up to a GPS verified 135mph on the autobahn on day one; the front end was very flighty by that speed.
Anyway, I had a crap nights sleep at the Swedish camping partly due to not camping, er, pretty much ever. I'd wanted to go to Norway for a few years; the scenery looks awesome, i've read some great trip reports, but mainly I wanted to do this.........................
...................stand on top of the Kjeragbolten. Its an 1100m straight drop into the water if you wobble off there - looks great. Its well situated near plenty of other decent sights and roads in Southern Norway so the plan was to ride there, hike up to the Kjeragbolten and then see how I was fixed. This was the first planned sight of the trip (the 1050 mile ride to get to Norway was unplanned remember).
I set off from the Swedish campsite at around 10.00am after paying the very nice campsite owner lady the equivalent of E10. When I said I was heading to Norway she laughed and said that everybody heads to Norway but she doesn't know why, its wet and expensive. Later that day I would agree with her.
I headed North up the west coast of Sweden on a dual carriageway noting that 2/3rds of all the cars I passed were SAABs containing well-dressed, middle-class couples, each and every one with a look of serenity on their face. Splendid.
I entered Norway 2 hours later, skirted around Oslo and headed west towards the good bits. I'd heard about the speeding fines in Norway and didn't fancy incurring any, large fines for 2-3km/h over the limit, lube required for 20km/h+ over. Understandably, the pace of traffic was noticeably slower than anywhere else i'd driven.
Driving along a single carriageway road at 40-50mph gets boring quickly though, so I soon opted for normal tactics of making progress with my eyes wide open. After a couple of hours in Norway, the sun came out and I was (briefly, as it turned out) hot for the first time on the trip. I pulled over for a pee and took a couple of photos;
There is nothing particularly good about this photo other than the fact that 24 hours earlier I was on the autobahn in NW Germany getting drenched, and 24 hours before that I was on my driveway fitting a front tyre. NB. i'm no way that rotund, its the perspective (I think).
At a fuel stop a little later I was a little peckish and noticed there was a burger-bar (place with badly taken photos of fast food) type thing attached to the petrol station. I peered throught the window to examine the prices displayed on the backlit, high level menu board; £13 for an unappetizing 200g burger and a few chips, no thanks. Instead I go to look at stuff in the petrol station, thinking i'd get a few bits and bobs to keep me going. Jesus H. Christ its dear! £4.50 for a pack of very ordinary biscuits sticks in my mind. I ended up making do with a connective tissue hotdog of zero nutritional value from the petrol station. I paid £6 and remember being relatively pleased with my 'bargain'.
As I headed further west, the population density started to drop and roads started to get more interesting. By interesting I mean getting bendier, with greater changes in elevation and dotted with 'Caution, Elk' signs. By now I was travelling at what speed I felt comfortable at as it was clear from the terrain there was nowhere for a speed trap to be placed.
I got a reality check a little later when I rounded a corner to find a warning triangle in the middle of the road followed shortly by a car in my lane stopped dead (facing the same way as me). There were two adults comforting a child by the road side and a vehicle coming the other way had stopped. There were no obviously signs of an accident until I rounded the stopped car and saw the evidence. The windscreen of the car was badly smashed, both A-pillars buckled, but with no other visible damage. It had to be an elk which subsequently ran off, and by the state of the car, I wouldn't like to hit one on a bike. I heeded the 'Caution, Elk' signs a bit more after that.
I forget the road designations in Norway, but around 5pm that day I turned onto a 'B' road and the trip really got going, hammering out of hairpins with a little wheelspin here and there, ascend 1000ft or so, and then descend 1000ft or so around plenty more hairpins.
First sight of snow;
About 5 seconds before this there were two elks stood in the road, bold as brass. They buggered off as I got the camera out though;
I've just ran 20m in soggy bike gear here, hence the face;
It was somewhere around here, high in the mountains, that my sat navfuel gauge clicked over 100 miles (tank range is 140-190 miles to dry depending on use), I checked for nearby stations and was told the nearest one was 30 miles away (back the way I came). I assumed this to be incorrect, but decided to coast down the mountain to save fuel (plus its amusing, particularly trying to take the R/H hairpins on a bike with the turning circle of the QE2). As a coasted down towards sea level, the roads became wet and more level. I refired the engine as the roads leveled completely and rode into a small town called Dalen, noting the road spray was boiling off the header pipes as they got back up to operating temperature.
I then noticed the distinctive smell of burning coolant and so pulled over to inspect the bike. By the time i'd put the bike on the stand and taken my gloves off there was a decent size pool of coolant under the bike; a quick look under the fairing at the radiator confirmed it had sprung a serious leak. I limped it to one of two petrol stations in the town (lying sat nav) and went in to see if they had any rad-weld. They did indeed and one of the immaculate teenagers (think of those perfectly behaved, maturely dressed Aryan kids, you'd see in Nazi propaganda) outside the petrol station shop translated the instructions to give me the dosage. I banged it in the radiator along with 1.5L of coolant and after a quick check for leaks, set off to ascend the next mountain.
The colours in this rock face were far more varied than the photo suggests, they looked a bit like that rainbow sheen you sometimes see on sliced meat at a deli counter;
I found myself somewhere to stay around 8pm. I didn't fancy camping again as my gear was still damp from the Holland/Germany drenching and I needed to charge my camera. The second night's accommodation, a 'hytter' costing a mere 40 euros, you'd only get 4 pints for that around here;
There was a UK reg'd BMW GS outside another hytter, pressumably another bike tourist, but they had departed by the time i stirred in the morning.
When I say I could charge my camera in the hytter, naturally i'd left the lead at home so a stanley knife and some crocodile clips were required. So the green one is live, so that's red and then the black one is green so that's earth and, er.......;
I knew booze was expensive in Scandanavia, so had taken a bottle of Scotch with me. I'd arrived at the Swedish campsite too late to sample any on the first night so once I satisfied myself that the camera was charged (a bit), I got the Scotch out. I broke the seal of the bottle and then fell asleep.
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 2
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 253 miles
Total distance - 1619 miles
I set off from the Hytter place and headed towards Kjerag. The road (as are many roads in that area) was a narrow-ish single carriageway, but as you can generally see around the next couple of bends and traffic is light, you could treat it as a one way street most of the time.
Token pics next to huge snow drifts;
I forget what this was called, but it was the summit of the mountain I rode over to get to Lsybotten, loads of piles of small rocks
Video taken on the way to the Kjeragbolten. The weather could be shitty as you can see! I think these roads were only cleared of snow around 3 weeks earlier.
The Eagles Nest cafe. I had planned to eat breakfast here before the 5 hour hike up to the Kjeragbolten. Unfortunately as I was out of season it was closed. Thank god for the crushed tracker bar in the bottom of one of my canoe bags. Note the lonely ZX7R in probably one of the greatest designated MC Parking spots in the world
When I looked two minutes later (as long as i could climb for without a defibrillator being required) , it was gone
Here's why i was stopping every two minutes, its was steep, really steep. Its a 500m ascent from the car park, but its up 200m, down 100m, up 200m, down 100m......
I really wish that cafe had been open (Lysbotten visible in the distance, 800m below);
On the way up to the Kjeragbolten, the conditions changed rapidly several times, sometimes brilliant sunshine, sometimes wind and rain, sometimes visibility would drop to 10m. The path was marked by red symbols painted on rocks and were easy to find on the steeper bits as the path was logical anyway. As the terrain leveled out, it was more difficult. Large expanses of snow with bad visibility meant there was no obvious route.
There were very few people up there, in 1 1/2 hours I had only seen two groups coming the opposite way and nobody going my way. Then I ran into four well-equipped Norwegian guys who were panicking around a GPS unit and looked relieved to see somebody else. They said the path was impossible to find and I should turn back and return next year. Disappointed, I decided to rest a minute and think on it. After a short conference in their native tongue, the Norwegians (reluctantly, it seemed) left me alone, tracing my tracks in the snow to get back on the trail.
After a few minutes rest the mist cleared a little, a shaft of sunlight revealing a rocky outcrop around 100-150m away on the far side of an open snow-covered expanse. I decided I'd walk there and look for painted symbols, if no joy, i'd retrace my steps. Part ways across the field of snow mist descended and visibility dropped to, er, no idea as I could see nothing. I'd never climbed a mountain, had certainly never been in this situation before and was unprepared for how eerie a feeling it was to see nothing but white, 360 degrees around, up and down. After a tense few minutes of whiteout the mist cleared, revealing the rocky outcrop again. I stole my way across the snow field imagining scenes from various films in which mountaineers fell into crevasses, when I arrived at the rocks there was a familiar red symbol, present, so i was on track.
I employed the stop and wait technique across another two densely misted snow fields, but started thinking that I was pushing my luck a little. I hadn't seen anybody since the panicked Norwegians an hour earlier and I had long since used up the energy from the Tracker bar. I trudged across another snowy expanse and arrived at another symbol-ed rock. From here there was nothing to indicate which way to go. The only pieces of relevant information I had were that i'd been walking for 2 1/2 hours and according to my phone was at the correct altitude for the Kjeragbolten. I sat and waited to see if visibility would improve and could hear some distant panting. I couldn't determine which direction it was coming from, but it was getting slowly louder. After about 20 mins I saw a couple trudge into view. They said we were only about 300m away from the boulder, but they'd just been lost for two hours and had no idea where it was.
This latest piece of news was the final nail in the coffin, I was ravenous at this stage so set off back to the car park followed by the couple. I was disappointed to have missed what i had gone for, but i'd had a little adventure on the way. I got back to the car park 4 1/2 hours after setting off and was shattered; I laid down in the car park next to my bike for a bit, not letting the social norm of not lying down in car parks deter me from my rest.
I needed food badly so with helmet back on, headed down the excellent road into Lysebotn. Lysebotn is a small town at the end of a fjord that is primarily accessed by the ferries which sail into it 'regularly'. Presumably they ferries don't run in early June, because I fell foul of the out-of-season thing again. I couldn't find a single shop, restaurant, bar or hotel that was open for business. I saw a couple of vehicles parked outside houses, but apart from that, the place was a ghost town.
I went into what looked like a hotel which I noticed had several windows open. On entering the lobby I could feel that the heating was on but there was nobody inside. I went upstairs, down corridors, into rooms, through the kitchen and couldn't find a single sign of life, even the fruit in the fruitbowl was plastic. Weird. According to the sat nav the nearest, well, anything, was in Stavanger, about 2 hours west. I didn't want to go further west so I set off back to Dalen where i'd bought the rad weld the night before. This was an enjoyable ride, 2-3 hours going back up and over a couple of mountains.
Boring video, its just to show that it was pleasant when the weather was nice. This is heading down into Dalen.
In Dalen I couldn't find anything resembling a restaurant that was serving food, it seems Norway closes at around 8pm and it was now half past. I ended up buying a few slices of pizza-type cake things in a bar which were reduced to clear and very welcome.
When giving the bike a once over after eating, I noticed a couple of mechanical issues; the temp gauge had stopped working (probably from the rad weld repair the night before) and I had a weeping fork seal. The seals were new for the trip, but were 1500 miles old now and the pitted stanchions must have been causing a small leak. The damping was starting to feel a little soft as a result.
Winding on a little more damping and quick wipe with a rag allowed me to forget about that little issue;
With the bike 'repaired' again I found myself somewhere to stay, the immaculate Dalen B+B;
Day 4, June 6th - Dalen, Norway to Sundsvall, Sweden
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 0
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 478 miles
Total distance - 2097 miles
I'd planned to see loads of sights in Norway and travel up to the arctic circle, but the changeable weather at this time of year and the terror that accompanied any financial transaction had put me off the place. The scenery was to die for, but once you've seen it, you've seen it.
I needed to be in St.Petersburg on the 9th of June (it was the 6th now) so I decided to head East towards Russia and try and dip into the arctic en route.
The breakfast at the B+B was Scandinavian, so plenty of bread, jam and chocolate spread. I needed to get the best out of my E130 so ate 2/3rds of a loaf of bread's worth of chocolate spread sandwiches, tinkered with the bike and set off.
This is more representative of Norweigan roads, this was taken climbing back out of the far side of Dalen. Looking at the 'nod' of the bike when changing gear, you can tell the front damping is going off a little;
The roads were as before for a bit, but got more level, foresty and Swedish as I headed East. I noticed a pick-up truck in front driving quickly so followed it, thinking any stray elks would get collected by the pick-up rather than by me. Drivers in Norway fit into two categories, folks sticking to the 50mph-ish limits rigidly and folks who go 80mph+ everywhere. This guy was the second type.
As he went straight on at a small roundabout, he made the left round the roundabout with a bit of a slide and then turned right by clipping the apex. Except he didn't clip it, there was a 3-4" drop onto the dirt off the edge of the road and he turned hard enough to lift the inside wheels over the dirt.
The reason i bought a bike camera for the trip was so I could have it filming constantly and then edit the footage down to some kind of time lapse thing, but it turned out the AA batteries in the camera lasted about four seconds, so i've only got a few crappy clips. I got a bit of footage of the pickup guy though. The following is condensed from about 20 minutes of footage.
You could smell the rubber anytime you got close to him, the tyre marks on the way into bends are mainly his
Nothing of particular note happened all day, once you're away from SE Norway the scenery is far less interesting although the roads are still pleasant.
Somewhere around the Norway-Sweden border, after riding through a forest for 100+ miles i needed fuel. There wasn't a lot of life in this area, but the sat nav told me there was a petrol station in 10 miles or so. When I got to what turned out to be a small village the promised petrol station was not present. There was a surfaced area where there could have once been one, but it wasn't there anymore.
The next petrol station on the sat nav was 20 miles further on and I didn't think I had the fuel to get there, so I asked an elderly woman who was using a log splitter in her garden where I could get petrol using my best Norwegian (pointing theatrically to petrol tank, whilst saying 'gas-ol-ine' and grinning like a moron). She said several things none of which I understood and walked off into her house. I wasn't sure if I had offended or scared her, or she had gone to get help, but as I had almost no fuel, I waited.
About 5 minutes later a bloke in his seventies, with mobility issues shuffled into view from behind the house. It took him perhaps a minute or so to cover the 30 yards to the front gate where I was sat, he was carrying a silver petrol can. He was saying lots of stuff I didn't understand but seemed keen to get the fuel into the tank so I opened the filler cap.
I gave him all of my Norwegian money (£6-7 worth) which he took ages to count. I assumed that this as because he was partially sighted, but later realised that I had probably crossed back into Sweden (without seeing any signage) and paid him in unfamiliar Norwegian coins! He seemed happy enough however, and I was on my way once again.
Considering the effort it took the guy to fetch the petrol it was a very generous act and one was that was greatly appreciated. However this kind act wouldn't hold a candle to the generosity of several parties I would meet in Russia some days later.
This was taken after i'd crossed back into Sweden;
Spooky evening mist, the air was starting to get chilly, ooooh!
I had made it East across Sweden to the Gulf of Bothnia by that evening and decided that that was enough for the day. I spotted a campsite sign on the main road so turned off to find it, aware of the fact that the last time I did this in Sweden I ended up rolling down into a ditch. I found the campsite (which appeared to be more like a caravan park), situated right on the coast and looked pleasant. Due to the northerly latitude and the fact I'd crossed a time zone on entering Sweden, it was much later than it felt. I found the campsite kiosk closed, there was a sign saying something to the effect of 'when closed, take a pitch and pay in the morning' so I set off into the site to achieve this.
I prowled around the campsite trying to find the bit where folk had pitched tents, but could only find caravans. Most were static, all had big awnings and many had decking outside. There were a few non-static caravans, but it was clear it was a long time since these had moved. It then dawned on me that the caravans were probably the 'pitch' you rented for the night and all I had to do was find an empty one. This was good news as I could climb straight into bed instead of pitching the tent, brilliant.
Most of the static caravans did not have cars outside them, as it was an out of season weekday this made sense. Through the zipped-up awning of one of them I could see that the keys to the caravan were in the door. Excellent. I'd take this pitch and then settle up in the morning. I unzipped the awning and walked up to the caravan door thinking it was thoughtful of the campsite owners to supply flip-flops with the caravan (there was a pair about my size near the door). I opened the door and walked in (yes really) to hear a now very confused man waking from slumber. I apologized in english and backed out the door, closing it quietly in the hope he'd fall back asleep. He didn't and was shouting angrily in Swedish as I walked away. Slightly embarrassing and perhaps worthy of finding another campsite, but it was late and I am shameless so I pitched my tent and got some kip.
View from the beach on the edge of the campsite;
View from the beach looking back at the campsite, you can just see my bike and pitched tent if you squint;
Day 5, June 7th - Hudiksvall, Sweden to Rovaniemi, Finland
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 0
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 529 miles
Total distance - 2626 miles
Although I wasn't sure what time of day it was when I awoke in the tent with my neck scarf blindfold on, I felt I had had a reasonable nights sleep. I had a hotel booked in Rovaniemi that evening which was around 500 miles north so I needed to get moving. As soon as I had packed up I rode to the reception hut thing to pay for my pitch but it was still closed. There was a number to ring but my phone wasn't working, which coupled with my embarrassing error the night before, made me elect to just leave. Woo, free accommodation!
I took the main road up to Finland, a very boring dual carriageway. Zero police meant i could go fast enough to make it a bit better, but I was resigned to the fact that most of today was a necessary evil.
Early in the afternoon I stopped and filled up at a Statoil petrol station. I brimmed the tank and then moved my bike to outside the kiosk before going inside to get some food. When I returned to my bike, my heart sank.
A large pool of oil had formed under it. Bugger. The bike was in good shape before the trip, ZX7R engines are known to be bulletproof and there was nothing usual occurring before I stopped. But as I walked over to the bike, I cycled through various hideous scenarios anyway; did I check the oil level that morning, was it running hot etc. etc. (I didn't know whether it was running hot, the temp gauge hadn't worked since I rad-welded the radiator in Norway).
I dipped a finger in the oil which confirmed it was definitely oil, but thinner. There was also a strong smell of petrol. A check of the oil sight glass confirmed my suspicions. The oil level was still correct, so what had actually happened was the new petrol in the tank had expanded, leaked out of the breather pipe and washed some oil from the heat-shielding inside the fairing (it had soaked in there from a previous oil leak). There would have been plenty of oil soaked into the material thus giving a nice oily puddle. Phew, thank God for that.
Here's a photo of a smaller, less oily puddle from a couple of days later;
I made it to Finland without further incident, crossing into the country at Tornio. I stopped to fill up with petrol at an unmanned station despite still having almost half a tank left. My card didn't work so I fed a E50 note into the machine. I realised this was a bad idea when it came to my attention that the machine did not give change. So it cost me E50 for E15 of petrol, !
The road north to Rovaneimi was typical of the roads in Finland, straight-ish and tree lined. The sole purpose of heading to Rovaneimi was to cross into the Arctic circle. The circle cuts across around 4 miles north of the town, so I decided to cross into the Arctic before going to the Hotel. I passed through the town, went past Santa's House (actually a theme park, which was closed) and then crossed into the Arctic Circle.
The above photo marks the most Northerly point to which I travelled, a fair old way from the Lincoln i'd left five days earlier.
There is a visitor centre just out of shot to the right, but I didn't bother with it. I headed back to Rovaniemi for what is a holiday tradition of mine, eating at McDonalds. I try and seek out one of their 'restaurants' every time I travel to a new country. The only places i've drawn a blank so far have been Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania.
I already knew that Rovaniemi was home to the world's most northerly branch and here it is, the place where I had my 26th different nationality of Big Mac;
Finland is noticably more 'normal' in some respects, when compared to perfectly orderly Norway and Sweden. There were a fair few vehicles in less than A1 condition and even a gaggle of teenagers outside the McDonalds. Rovaneimi itself reminded me of British seaside towns in the off season. A lot of the Hotels were Santa themed and empty, for example my hotel was called the Santa Claus Rudolph Merry Christmas Mince Pie Hostel or something. I assume that the local economy is largely supported by the Santa theme park up the road. Its closed during the summer, I suspect that its difficult to create a Christmassy feel with permanent daylight.
Speaking of permanent daylight, I took this photo outside the Rudolph Prancer Christmas Tree Hotel at 12.02am;
Not midnight sun strictly speaking as i'm actually 4 miles south of the Arctic circle here and it was a couple of weeks before the summer solstice, but lets not split hairs.
Day 6, June 8th - Rovaniemi, Finland to Vyborg, Russia
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 0
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 502 miles
Total distance - 3128 miles
With the Arctic Circle box ticked, it was time for the main event; Russia. I had accommodation booked for the following evening in St. Petersburg so the plan for day 6 was to get close to, or just over the Russia border somewhere nearish to St. Petersburg. I set my sights on the border crossing at Imatra, around 465 miles due South from the day's start point in Rovaniemi.
I set off about 9am, my body clock was a little out so I didn't get to sleep until late the night before. This is basically what Finland looks like, only with loads of lakes too;
Finnish petrol stations seem to double up as betting shops. And cafes. And community centres. Where redneck Finnish folk congregate to play slot machines.
I still had some very nice bread that I bought in Dalen, Norway, It cost the earth so I intended to eat all of it. I'd brought a jar of Marmite on the trip with me as it supposedly wards off mosquitos (a big problem in these parts). I used my increasingly manky steak knife to make some Marmite sangers, the tank bag doubling up as a handy 'plate'. Lunch of champions;
The ride south to Imatra passed without incident and I arrived in the small town centre around 6pm. I decided that I would cross the border into Russia now, giving me a clean borderless run the 150 miles or so to St. Petersburg the next day. When trying to find the road out of town to the border crossing itself, I took a wrong turn down a road which terminated at a chain-link fence partially obscured by bushes. I peered though the bushes to see battered railway cars with Cyrillic script parked on a poorly maintained railway line. In my head this looked like something out of the opening scene of a spy film; it was my first glimpse of Russia and I was very excited.
I turned back and found the road to the border point, I passed hundreds of truck that were parked, enduring the 24-48 hour wait it takes for them to cross the border.
This was the first time i'd ever crossed a proper land border and I had what could have been an absolute nightmare. The border control consists of some very bored looking guards shuffling hand written forms around. I assume this is where you end up working when you have really pissed somebody off. The full story of my border experience is at the bottom of the page.
I entered Russia around 10pm and it was clear i'd entered a very difference place. Battered roads, crumbling buildings, belching chimney stacks, dogs running lose, pissed people staggering in the road, all within the first couple of miles. I loved it. The scenery was very much the same as the Finland I had just left, but that is where the similarity ended. Within the first 20 minutes I passed checkpoints, saw loads of Russian army vehicles and further battered my forks crossing a 'level' crossing where the rails were 5" proud of the road.
A little way into Russia, I used the ever handy sat nav to find a hotel for the evening. There were several hotels around 10 miles away from my current position in a town called Vyborg, so I selected one at random and let the sat nav take me. The sat nav instructed me to turn off the main road which I dutifully did, onto a road I couldn't believe. There were pot holes you could park a car in and be unable to get back out of. God knows how the ever got that big, as surely people would stop driving through them when they were, say, half that deep? The army trucks i'd seen were the only thing I could imagine driving through them. I traveled down the road for a mile or so into a village, going at 10-15mph and using the full width of the road to navigate around the pot holes.
When I entered the village the road ceased to be surfaced at all, the place was a dust bowl (and presumably a swamp when they'd had a bit of rain). The scene of battered Ladas with panels bungee corded on, tearing through the dirt at the village crossroads was one I wished i'd photographed. As with a lot of things I would see in Russia the dilemma was the same; is it rude to photograph other people's stuff for the reason of it being shit?
I passed through the village and on towards Vyborg, disbelieving that the track I was on could be leading to a settlement of any size, let alone a hotel. I rolled into town around 11pm, it was Friday night and the place was booming. Music pouring out of the open doorways of anonymous looking buildings, plenty of folk supping from bottles in the street. As I got to the town centre two youngsters went by on bikes at 60mph+ both with their elbows pretty much on the deck.
I saw the immediate aftermath of what had to have been a very high speed car crash (right in the city centre) and got beaten in the TLGP for the first time in my life by a bloke in a 4x4. After numerous u-turns in ropey alleyways I failed to find the hotel I was looking for, but stumbles across what looked like it could be another one.
Inside I paid 920RB for a massive room, although at this point I didn't have a clue how much money that was (it was about £19). I was instructed by the absolutely manic night manager to ride my bike through the hotel to get into the secure car park at the rear. Only when it wouldn't go up the steps into the lobby did he walk around and open the gate to let me in the normal way, i'm not sure why that wasn't option number one.
Border crossing story
The guards didn't speak a word (okay perhaps 2-3 words) of english (and me no Russian). After much deliberation and head-scratching they let me through passport control. There was no mention of customs but fortunately I knew I need an import certificate for the bike. It took two hours to get the cert. The well meaning, but utterly incompetent guard insisted on seeing all my documents and then having me explain each one. Every details of each one; in Russian: 'where is the VIN number on the form'.
I point, he gets up from his desk, i follow him outside
in Russian 'where is the VIN number on the bike'
I point, he checks, then back inside etc. etc.
(No exaggeration) he must have got up from his desk 20-25 times to have a look at the bike. Each time involved gathering all my paperwork up, walking around the counter and outside, shouting over a few other guards, stooping down to have a look at something on the bike, before walking back inside none the wiser, around the counter and back into his seat, swatting mosquitoes constantly. After a fruitless hour or so, an impressive queue of Finns was forming behind me. Fortunately they seemed to be finding my first experience of Russian bureaucracy amusing, perhaps recalling their own disbelief the first time they encountered it.
I have since realised that the guard was simply trying to walk me through the process by essentially filling the import form in for me, except he couldn't as he couldn't read any of my documents. If he'd have given me the form (the english version, which I only found out existed right at the end) i could have done it myself in 2 minutes.
Anyway, after much well meaning assistance from the guard, who was a decent chap if not a great border guard, I was eventually waved through with what I was lead to believe was all the paperwork I needed.
I rode 30 miles towards St. Petersburg and stopped at a hotel in Vyborg as mentioned above. It was now around 11pm, but still bright. When I tried to check in, it turned out I didn't have an immigration card. This was a huge issue as I could not check into the hotel (or any other hotel or guest house) without it. They would need to register my presence with the local police, and couldn't without the immigration card.
I had definitely filled one out and got it stamped when I went through passport control at the border crossing, but it was not in my passport any longer. It presumably got lost during the two hour customs saga where numerous guards had perused every inch of my paperwork, not understood any of it and let me into the country anyway. I foolishly didn't check whether it was still in my passport when I left the border.
I tried to laugh off this little error with the receptionist, then tried to pretend I didn't understand, then tried to ask if I could just stay for tonight if I promised to get an immigration card the next morning. These plans didn't even nearly work, the answer was 'nyet' and that was that. The only thing to do was to ride back to the border and either try to find the lost card, or generate a new one somehow. Initally I figured I could just ride back into Finland, then back into Russia again to generate a new immigration card. Then I remembered I had a single entry visa, so if I left Russia even momentarily, I left for good. Oh dear.
Now a sportsbike probably isn't the obvious choice of bike for this type of trip, but something they do excel at is covering distance very very fast. Right now I wanted to get this sorted as quick as possible so set my sights of arriving back at the border as quick as possible, ignoring all rules of the road if necessary.
When I arrived at the border some moments later the bloke who raised the barrier to let me into the compound was trying to tell me in excited Russian about (I think) bike racing, but didn't have a clue what I was trying to say to him. After his bike racing banter concluded I pointed to my passport and asked if he understood what my problem was. Whilst I didn't understand the words with which he replied, the tone and body language confirmed he didn't have a clue what I was saying, but was happy to let me past the barrier anyway.
I got to the border booth and an oafish looking guard who i'd seen lurking in the background earlier on also didn't know what i was saying, but noted the lack of an immigration card in my passport. The guard could see I was asking for something unusual and left his booth to wander off down the line of the 2-3 waiting cars (the border was much quieter by this time) shouting something in Russian.
It turned out he was looking for somebody to translate and luckily one of the few cars contained a young Russia girl who spoke fluent English. With her translating, it turned out that I had spectacularly misjudged the big oaf at the border, who was suddenly most accommodating.
Guard via Girl 'what do you want from these people?'
Me via Girl 'an immigration card'
Guard via Girl 'where do you want to go when you have it?'
Me via Girl 'Russia'
The Guard then filled me out a new card himself, stamped it, gave me a big bear handshake, signaled for me to do a u-turn, wished me on my way and the job was a good 'un. I was back into Russia for the second time in 90 mins, and got a cheery wave from the bike racing guy as he raised the barrier once more.
This was to be typical of my experiences in Russian, once the language barrier was brought down, nothing was a problem. I got some gaping-jawed looks at the checkpoints a few miles away from the border when I passed them for the third time in 90 minutes, the second two times travelling at around eighty billion miles an hour.
Here's a very poor video from the second time I approached Vyborg. I didn't realise the camera lens was that dirty, but it gives you an idea of the amount of mossies around in the evening. This isn't the really bad road i've already mention this is a much better road and the main 'A' road to the town. Its a little after midnight here, but still bright-ish;
I parked in my usual spot at the hotel in Vyborg where an hour earlier I'd been immigration card-less, to be checked in by the confused receptionist. Great success!
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 0
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 90 miles
Total distance - 3218 miles
This day was set to be the shortest stage of the trip, a mere 90 miles down to the pre-booked hotel in St. Petersburg. I had a Marmite sanger for breakfast and set off around 10am, stopping at a Shell garage on the way out of Vyborg to fill up. I'd heard that in Russia fuel must be paid for beforehand, a bit of an arse if you want to brim your tank, but this wasn't the case here.
Once filled up I set off to St. Petersburg, first on some crap roads a la the video above and then onto the 'Motorway', which was a single carriageway, mostly surfaced road. The traffic wasn't too bad, meandered along at around 50-60mph.
I'd read plenty about the corruption within the Russian traffic police, the DPS. There were regular checkpoints (the checkpoints look a bit like a small air traffic control towers by the roadside) usually with a uniformed DPS bloke stood opposite who would flag down 'offending' vehicles with a stick. Supposedly the DPS guys would then extract as much money as possible from the driver as way of a 'fine' for whatever minor offence they claimed had been committed.
The regular police checkpoints, the almost continuous solid white line (guaranteed tug for crossing that in Russia apparently) and the fact I'd yet to gain confidence on RU roads encouraged me to take it steady. The journey to the outskirts of St. Petersburg passed without incident.
The traffic increased significantly as I approached St. Petersburg, with the road now a dual carriageway (fancy!). I saw my first motorcycle in Russia (A Jap cruiser of some sort) and noticed that the biker 'nod' was different here. In Scandinavia the nod was a wave, with the left hand and forearm held out horizontally and rigidly. In Russia the nod was again a rigid wave, but this time with the left hand and forearm held like a Native American would do when saying 'how' in films.
The traffic took a bit of getting used to, but I found the street my hotel was on easily enough (with the aid of the sat nav). I got out the details of the hotel to find the building number and was approached by a local bloke who spoke reasonable english. He was a Triumph Thunderbird owner and very excited to learn of my journey thus far. He didn't know where the hotel was, but assured me I was on the correct street.
Fortunately one of the few bits of preparation I did for Russia was to learn the alphabet. Here's why that was very useful; the name of the Hotel was the 'Petrovsky Dvor', the only sign to indicate its whereabouts was a small sign on the wall outside which said 'петровски двор'.
The hotel was in an accommodation block, the reception was on the ground floor and the rooms were on the 4th and 5th floors. There was no lift and I can't say I enjoyed carrying 30-40kg stuff up the stairs in the 25deg heat whilst still in bike gear.
I locked the bike up in the courtyard in my designated space. When I say 'space' I don't mean there was a marked space in the car park sense, I mean that there was a notional space within which the entirety of my bike must remain. Every other resident in the block seems to know the extent of this volume of space and were only too happy to let me know when I was overhanging it.
Once sorted at the hotel I went out sightseeing, the hotel was very centrally located so it was only a few minutes walk to the sights.
Highlights of day in St. Petersburg;
In the early afternoon I saw a petite lady in skinny jeans, complete with stylish handbag wheelying a late model R6 down Nevsky Prospect (main street) at 60-70mph. Well impressed.
Later on when I was all sightseen I dropped into a sportsbar to watch the Russia Czech Rep. match (it was the group stages of Euro 2012). I ended up getting leathered with Sasha, Micheal and Victor, they were Russian army guys who sat at my table. We had a rare auld time, the language barrier causing little problem. The more we drank, the more we all forgot that the we didn't speak the same language. There were plenty of stories exchanged with loud sound effects and frantic miming which were definitely not understood by the intended audience, but enjoyed none the less.
The stairwell window at the Petrovsky Dvor. A gipping shared space full of fag butts and graffiti, leading to very well kept hotel rooms;
People in the Palace Square
I forget where this was, it was very nice though;
Parade in the Square;
Yep, there's one everywhere;
St. Petersburg answer to the Queen's Guards, far superior in my opinion;
Near misses - 1
Mechanical issues - 0
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 505 miles
Total distance - 3723 miles
Today started with a big hangover. In my infinite wisdom i'd bought myself a few tinnies on the way back from the pub the night before and polished them off in my room whilst making use of the first wifi I had all trip. They were big cans;
Never mind though, breakfast is included at the Petrovsky Dvor so I went down to the ground floor to fill my stupid face at the breakfast buffet.
I was disappointed to learn that breakfast was actually a choice between porridge and 'sausage and macaroni'. I liked the sound of carbs and meat so went with the second option, an error as it turned out. The sausages were the most tasteless of grey 'meat' hotdogs and the macaroni was unflavoured. I ate the room temperature yogurt on the table instead. I noticed that in the kitchen they had loads of unopened yogurts stacked up on the windowsill, so it seems yogurt doesn't need to be kept refrigerated.
When sightseeing the day before, I had not made it to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, so decided that I would stop off there on the way to Moscow. Here's a video which is better than the last one, albeit still not riveting, of me travelling from the hotel to the church. Look out for what looks like a giant diesel spill and the DPS honking their horn as I haven't got my lights on.
And here's the photo that I wanted to get;
So that was St. Petersburg, now onward to Moscow.
This was the leg I was most concerned about, 460 miles to pre-booked accommodation in central Moscow along the busiest road in Russia. In terms of eye opening factor, the M10 didn't disappoint, the traffic was 90%+ trucks some of whom would regularly be coming towards you on your side of the road.
If you were wondering how many 40' trucks can pass each other at 50mph on a single carriageway road, the answer is 'at least four'. The dirt verges double as hard-shoulders/slow lanes, so that when a following truck pulls out to pass another truck, the leading truck pulls half its wheels onto the dirt leaving the following truck room to squeeze down the middle of the road. This is happening near constantly, not usually in both direction at once, but I saw it happen.
Thankfully most of the road turned out to be dualed and the driving wasn't too horrible. The amount of trucks and truck related stuff on the road was unreal. Blown out truck tyres littered the sides of the roads. Truck drivers changing (blown out) wheels was a common sight, almost all the businesses by the road side were fuel stations or auto spares places with truck tyres and mudguards piled high outside. At any bottle neck (and there were many) filtering through the backed up lorries would involve avoiding the many drivers who were out of their trucks socializing or performing routine maintenance. The bulk of goods arriving by sea at St. Petersburg will be trucked down this route to the 13 million odd folk in Moscow. I got the impression that many of the drivers must live their lives on that road, the truck stops were suitably equipped, being complete with teenage hookers.
It was a fair old slog down to Moscow with little to break up the journey, a few war memorials etc., but apart from that just petrol stations and trucks. On the plus side the weather was fair and I hadn't got wet since waay back in Norway.
I had yet to nail down the refueling procedure in Russia and had a few frustrating exchanges with petrol station staff before getting what i wanted. Depending on the station it seemed you need to pay beforehand and also tell them the pump number and/or the fuel grade before commencing filling up. By the end of my time in the country I had come to use the following technique;
-park bike kiosk-side of the 95 pump nearest to the kiosk (so the staff can see what pump/fuel it is)
-approach kiosk with large denomination note (say 500RB)
-ignore all questions from the staff, whilst making a 'big upright fish' gesture
-walk back to bike and fill up when they eventually turn the pump on
-return to kiosk to collect change
-use change to buy water
-collect change from water purchase
I had one very near miss on this road.
My top box had a steel mesh around it for security. I was filtering down the outside (l/h side) of two lanes of tailbacked lorries, when i decided to move in and lane split between lane 1 and 2. I passed behind a lorry in lane 2 and then turned back left sharply to travel down the inside of it at which point I came to an abrupt stop. The mesh around the top box had got tangled on the bottom corner of the back of the refrigerated truck trailer. Bit of a sticky wicket with the bike in gear, my left foot down and no way of untangling it with my right hand. After what seemed like endless overbalancing and ****ing around I got it unhooked. Luckily the traffic didn't move forward in this time as I suspect myself and my bike being dragged along behind the lorry may have gone unnoticed. New pants please :-)
As I neared Moscow around 7.00pm I considered pulling over to fit my camera onto the bike, but decided i'd do it when i got further into the city. Soon the traffic was too heavy to make pulling over easy, four lanes or so of dense, 50mph-ish traffic (mainly cars now) and so I continued. This turned out to be a crying shame as around 20 minutes later, I heard the rev of a sportsbike behind me/to the left of me. I looked across to see a presumably local guy in Stuntaz type clothes with body armour outside his hoodie, riding a late model GSXR600/750. He sped off through the traffic and so I followed.
He wasn't messing around and we headed into the centre of Moscow, ducking and diving through the heavy traffic at 80-130mph. Its safe to say that the ten minutes or so of that was the adrenaline rush of my life.
I was staying at the cheap, well located Cinema Hostel about ten minutes from Red Square. I decided to head to the square first for the obligatory photo in front of St.Basil's. I'd like to lay claim to being one of the few motorcyclists to have a photo taken in from of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood and St.Basils on the same day :-);
There was some big concert thing coming up so the square itself was largely fenced off as you can see.
I had heard that Moscow is the only city in the world where you could see two Lamborghinis at the same set of traffic lights. I didn't see that happen as I was travelling around the centre of the city en route to the hostel, but I saw enough exotica to make me believe that it could happen. Many of the main roads in the centre of Moscow are 3-4 lanes each way with a well policed solid white line down the middle, or 3-4 lanes one way. This makes them ideal for a Traffic Light Grand Prix, which is seems that everybody in Moscow takes part in. Generally speaking the traffic will set off tentatively a couple of seconds before the lights go green and then once the lights are 'fully' green everybody floors it up to whatever speed they can reach before the next red light. Fast stuff like 911s etc. were comfortably topping 80-90mph between lights.
I found the hostel, which as with the hotel in St.Petersburg was in a shared accommodation block (with the usual horrendous shared stairwell leading to a very well kept hostel).
The view from the window;
The big headache for the day was secure parking for the bike. There was no parking at or near the hostel, so once unloaded I set off around Moscow armed with just the sat nav and Almax to try various secure car parks. I went to many car parks and generally the conversation went like this;
Me: er, motorcycli parking?
Me: parking? (gesturing towards the rest of Moscow)
Guard: (pointing to side of road) parking...... parking okay
Me: Is it safe? Er, securityiski?
Guard: LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL!!!!!!!
This happened thrice before I changed tack.
I spotted a police station with a billion police vehicles parked outside it, so asked a rotund policeman if I could park there. He laughed and asked his mate who was holding a sub-machine gun. He appeared to be thinking for a while and then just stared at me.
I smiled and said 'parking?' hopefully. He looked at the floor, then back at me and shrugged. 'Nyet'.
I changed tack again.
I was following the sat nav to another car park when I saw two young policemen outside a hotel who appeared to take an interest in the bike. I asked them where there was parking and they again did the whole 'pointing to the street and then laughing when I mentioned security thing', before pointing me to another guard in a booth around 50m down the road. This time I asked the policeman to come with me and ask on my behalf, a very effective tactic and one I would use several more times.
Initially the guard (who, in dark sweatshirt and jogging bottoms looked like a Russian version of 'Twiggy' from the Royle Family) was very puffing of cheeks, head shakes and 'nyet', but after a few counterpoints from the policeman, he soon got out of his booth and started to look for a space. There wasn't a big enough gap in the already rammed park, but he wasn't out of ideas. He did the universal slow rub of index finger on thumb signal, to which I nodded and said 'no problem'.
He then miraculously 'found' space behind an electric gate across the road. Perfect. I almaxed the bike to the substantial gate post, put the cover down over it and watched the guard close the gate remotely from the booth. I gave him the equivalent of £10 and with a handshake it was done; two days guarded parking in central Moscow for a tenner, what could go wrong?
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 0
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 0 miles!
Total distance - 3723 miles
With my bike safely (in theory) parked, today was a day of sightseeing. The hostel was only 10 minutes walk from Red Square, so I set off on foot to see as many of the main sights as possible. I had a working knowledge of Moscow city centre from my trying to find a safe parking spot the night before, although I was struggling to remember where I actually did park it in the end. As far as I could remember, I had saved the location in the sat nav.
I had a gleg at Red Square, St. Basil's, the Kremlin etc. I'll only include a few photos here as i'm sure you know what the attractions look like and also i'm crap at taking photos;
Outside the Kremlin, near the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, dozens of stalls selling absolute tat. In the left of the picture you can see an enterprising Russia lady charging American tourists 20RB (40 pence) to weigh themselves.
Similar area, massive eyebrows;
Peter the Great Statue, deceptively big. 98m tall and widely regarded as one of the ugliest attractions in the world. Moscow authorities have offered to give it to St. Petersburg as Peter the Great was closer to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg authorities have refused the offer.
Inside St Basils;
Entrance to Kremlin;
Kremlin. The tower crane is to help install Putin's new hot tub;
....and so on.
I did nothing of particular note on this day, just floated around being a tourist. There is clearly a lot of wealth in Moscow, plenty of very upmarket shops and restaurants with eye-watering prices. Plenty of supercars zooming around.
I learned a key Russian phrase today, 'domoneshne svetlo pivo bashalusta', local light please. I had several of these and some beef stroganoff in a slightly stylish gastro-pub type place. I was well fed and steaming when I left, and only £20 lighter. Not bad for central Moscow.
Near misses - 1
Mechanical issues - 1
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 640 miles
Total distance - 4363 miles
I can't remember if I mentioned this, but I like to visit a McDonalds in every country I visit (only drawn a blank in Bosnia and Albania so far) so I went to find a MacDonalds for breakfast. Whilst MacDonalds are pretty much the same the world over the Cyrillic script meant it took me a while to read the (different to UK) menu.
I saw what I wanted and sounded out the name to the fella behind the counter. He stared back at me aghast and the manager who was on the next till unashamedly looked at me, mouth gaping, as if I had dropped from the moon. You'd think a MacDonalds in the centre of Moscow would be used to english speaking customers, but it seemed they weren't. Or perhaps I made more of a pigs ear of it than most.
Volgograd (Stallingrad) was 608 miles away and I was planning to get there in one hit. Prior to the trip I had been unsure whether that distance was realistic on Russian roads, but the trip down to Moscow from Finland had given me some confidence in the 'motorways' at least. I was sort of looking forward to getting on the bike as it would be first genuinely warm day in the saddle. Before I could get going though, I needed to find the bike.
I check the sat nav in the Hostel room and luckily, or perhaps cleverly, I had indeed saved the location of the bike, so I set off on foot to pick it up. Bike theft in Moscow is rife apparently, sportsbikes in particular. The old ZX7R was only worth around £1000, but would fetch 3-4 times that in Russia, so I was less than fully confident it would still be there.
I found the bike at 9.30am, untouched, the same security guard who i'd paid £10 a couple of nights earlier was on duty so god knows what shift he was working. He waved and press the button to open the gate. I rode it back to the hostel in just a t-shirt, it was nice to be on the bike without all the gear on and it was noticeably nippier without the top box. When I got back to the hostel, I had a good half hour of messing around loading the bike up and lubing the chain. Whilst I was doing this on the street outside the hostel, a group of slightly alternative early twenties Russians had assembled and were boozing whilst appearing to make plans. They didn't seem drunk, so I couldn't tell if they were starting fairly early, or were at the tail end of a drug fueled night.
With the bike ready to go, I bid fairwell to the Cinema Hostel - by that I mean I left the room key on the table and silently exited - and headed out of Moscow.
The iconic khreschatyk apartment block appears a few times at 2.00-3.40 in the video below. Traffic in central Moscow isn't too bad.
Out of Moscow and into Ryazanskaya. The road ahead is long, very long. The plan was to head all the way south to the Caspian.
Volgograd (middle one) was today's target, i'd be passing through Astrakhan (bottom one) a couple of days later. I didn't know it at the time, but i'd never make Astrakhan.
The traffic between Moscow and Volgograd was much lighter than between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and bar the odd ropey overtake, the road appeared safer too. This would turn out to be one of the best days of entire the trip. As I headed further away from Moscow the settlements I passed through became fewer and further between and the vastness of the country hit me. I rode past fields that must have been a mile square, the flatness of the land making the hugeness more so.
One of the things I love about a long road trip is the slowly changing landscape. Barring some longer train journeys, you never get to see snow-capped mountains turn to forest, or as on this day, arable farmland slowly turning into to endless Steppes. Of course on the bike you can also feel the changing climate; by around 2pm I was making excellent time being almost half way to Volgograd and for the first time in the trip so far, I was a little too hot in my leather jacket.
I had only stopped thrice for relatively brief fuel stops but had drawn a crowd every time. You just don't see foreign bikes outside the major cities, let alone sportbikes and other petrol purchasers tended to collect around the bike while I was downing water. For whatever reason, despite the petrol stations being relatively remote, there was always a couple of men hanging around them who seemed to fulfill no particular function. The didn't look like they were employed at the petrol station, generally they didn't look like they were employed anywhere, but they were always the first to walk over with an out stretched hand and (presumably) a Russian greeting.
At fuel stop three, I filled up at a nameless garage where I could both hear and feel the gears in the underground pump grinding. The petrol trickled out for the first few litres but had gathered a head of steam by the end. I had been warned to only use reputable petrol stations in Russia due to the poor housekeeping practiced by the smaller places. I had been forced to fill up at this place, but having experienced no difficulties so far, didn't give it any further thought.
A heavily bearded, wizened bloke of some 40-70 years of age, informed me it was 5 hours to Stallingrad and also informed me it was definitely called Stallingrad and not Volgograd.
A car full of late teens/early twenties lads also gathered around taking great interest in everything. It was for these guys I drew the following surprisingly accurate map of Europe to explain my trip;
I adjusted the chain whilst taking questions which I didn't understand and noticed the 'will last 8000 miles' Continental Road Attack on the rear was not long for this world, despite only having a little over 4000 miles under its belt. I had the phone number of a competent mechanic in Volgograd called Viktor, who I had been informed by another horizonsunlimted.com forum member, spoke some english. The following day would be a day off for sightseeing, but I would also try Viktor's place for a tyre. I suspected a tyre that would last the 3-4000 miles home and come in a 190 section was going to be hard to find, but where there's a will, there's a way.
I saddled up and set off out back onto the M6, taking care to negotiate the bomb craters that occupy the entrance to many russian petrol stations. No matter how well surfaced the forecourt, or how reasonable the main road, the 20 metres of road that forms the transition between the two was generally in shocking condition. I did a very poor wheelie for the watching crowd at the petrol station and headed south to the nearby Tambov, the only town of any note I would pass through on the way to Volgograd.
Russia doesn't really do bypasses and the M6 passes straight through the centre of Tambov. As I slowed a little on the way into the town I became aware of a ticking noise coming from the engine which appeared to be relative to engine speed. I pulled the clutch in, leaned forward to get my ear closed to the engine and gave it a few revs. I tried to balance my desire to locate the source of the noise with my desire to remain alive in what turned out to be a relatively busy town.
I decided it might be a split header pipe, which whilst an arse, wouldn't have been the end of the world. ZX7R headers are notorious for rotting away before your eyes, although I had replaced these with some very low mileage ones prior to the trip. I pulled over in the town centre to inspect the headers; it was hot, I was hot and had that special sinking feeling that only an unexpected mechanical failure thousands of miles from home can bring. I couldn't see anything wrong with the headers, not without disassembling the bike to some extent and I figured the middle of a busy town wasn't the place to do that. I decided i'd chance carrying on, it was only 300 miles to Volgograd and I would be visiting Viktor's bike shop in any case to try and source a tyre.
I climbed back on the bike and set off, as the revs rose the ticking was now too loud to ignore. Bugger. It would have been foolish to limp it anywhere sounding like that and so I pulled over down a side road just outside Tambov. This time I bit the bullet, got my tools out (ball ache), removed some of the fairing and spotted the problem. The recently correctly torqued M10 header pipe nuts had decided that 4200 miles was exactly the correct length of time to remain torqued. The two nuts on cylinder #1 were both loose and needed a fair bit of finger tightening before it was worth putting a socket on them.
It was at this moment that the good people of Russia came to the rescue, well sort off, as I had basically fixed it already. Two helmet-less teenagers on a scooter pulled over; to say they were excited was an understatement. They were desperately trying to think of every english phrase they could and one of them was tripping over himself to help. I let him screw the fairing back on while his mate gave a running commentary to somebody on his mobile. This was a feature of many of the encounters south of Moscow, there was always a fella on the phone floating around in the background, giving a running commentary to persons not present.
The fourth emergency service, Russian style;
Once the bike was restarted, they cranked their excitement up another few levels and with a lot of handshakes, high fives and good wishes, they set off on their scooter. I set off a minute or so later and soon caught them up, there was some bike-to-scooter high fiving and then after a bit of encouragement I slowed before shooting past them at speed. With a final wave I turned off and joined a short queue for the main road consisting of a single Toyota. Judging by the faces of the scooter boys, this had been a great moment for all.
I'd had a fairly up and down 15 minutes, all had ended well, but you can never let your guard down. After a few moments the Toyota in front inexplicably pulled out in front of a passing Lada Riva which collected the front 18" of the Toyota at 50mph and wrote both cars off. That was the nearest i've ever been to a smash I wasn't involved it, but was a useful wake up call. Both drivers appeared to be okay, so speaking no Russian, having no first aid or other relevant skills and likely to be as much use as a chocolate fireguard, I let them get on with it. I rejoined the M6 and headed South towards the sun.
A few photos from the afternoon.
Here's a photo I took between Moscow and Volgograd, mainly because I had stopped to drink some water anyway. It was about 30deg and a bit warm for this outfit.
Here's a grain silo. I'd seen a photo of one of these before I got to Russia, I was intrigued by them for some reason;
This is a little later the same day, Steppes,
Russia's version of South Mimms services, less parking but much more fun;
After the minor breakdown and car smash outside Tambov the remainder of the day's ride was relatively uneventful. One thing that caught me out more than once though, was the sudden lack of sections of the road surface. This is relatively common in Russia; with very little warning the road drops down about 3" onto the substrate, only today for added difficulty the substrate was coated in wet tar. Whether it was the heat of sun I don't know, but it was sure slippy.
One other road surface related observation was that the road surface on bridges were often extremely deeply rutted from truck tyres. Its as if each bridge had first been used when the surface was still in a liquidus state, the truck tyres ploughing through the ashphalt and pushing it out to the side, snow plough style. Difficult to ride through on a bike as the sides of the ruts were too steep for the front tyre to climb and being asphalt, had no give in them. Should you catch the sidewall of the front tyre on the edge of the rut, you'd be off no question. Then the overladen Kamaz behind would run you over.
As I reached the outskirts of Volgograd, I could see it was a different animal to Moscow. Much more ramshackle, much worse roads and much hotter. The communist accommodation blocks were separated by scrub land and junk. Obviously, considering the importance of the city in modern history, there was plenty of military stuff too. The first reference to its past is on the way in;
It was about 8.30pm by the time I got to the city centre, I was on the look out for the delightfully named Flamingo Motel;
I pulled over into a restaurant car park to check the sat nav, but being near to the Volga, the mosquitos were unbearable. I ended up doing very slow circuits of the car park while browsing through the sat nav options, if i stayed still for a two seconds my helmet filled with the little bleeders. I set off to find the hotel again, but ended up a bit lost. The road it was on was very long and I couldn't follow the numbering system. There was a fair bit of high jinx going on in the city, wheelspinning Ladas on the roads and drinking youths on the footpaths, I liked the look of it.
Around 90 minutes later I was starting to grow tired of being lost, it was getting fairly dark and so harder to see the buildings by the side of the road. I decided i'd pull over to check the address again, so slowed and moved over to the right of the 2-3 lane carriageway I was on. As I was doing so a Lada Samara came past me and beeped, the passenger appeared to be signalling something. I assumed I had fallen foul of some unwritten rule, such as 'no dropping below 60mph in a built up area', but I decided to pull to the right anyway and slowed to a stop. Slightly worryingly the Lada pulled in about 30 metres ahead, I could see there were four men in it and once stationary the driver and passenger both got out and turned towards me.
These guys were huge, definitely powerlifters of some kind. I decided I had enough room to get the bike out and around their car, but I was going to need to swing out an extra 6 feet to get around the driver. I needed to do it now as they were striding towards me.
These guys were smiling though, the kind of genuine smiles that only the kindest of folk have and the most polished of grifters can imitate. They approached me with outstretched hands and we were all soon laughing and backslapping. This was Tvor and his father and they both spoke a little english. Tvor was a chef in Volgograd specialising in barbeques. He was 28 years old and enjoyed swimming (through treacle presumably, you don't see many 18-19 stone regular swimmers). After a synopsis of my reason for being there Tvor sent his Armenian friend who had now joined us back to the car for something. Tvor then said something about money, which I didn't like the sounds of.
It turned out that Tvor was giving me 1000RB (£20) so that I could have a few s and a meal on him and he wouldn't take no for an answer. He would also find my hotel for me, so I should follow him. He duly found the Flamingo Motel (I must have driven past it a dozen times and not seen it) and it was clear it was a matter of personal pride that he checked me in and made sure everything was okay.
The Armenian guy who's name I didn't catch scribbled his phone number down on a scrap of paper and with that they were gone into the night.
The Motel was great, it sold cold from a fridge in reception, had the first decent Wifi connection of the trip and I was able to park my bike in the secure garage downstairs which had a back stairs that lead to my room.
So there you go, if you're not careful in Russia people will fix your bike or flag you down in traffic to give you money
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 0
Crashes - 0
Distance covered - 10 miles
Total distance - 4373 miles
Today was to be mainly sightseeing around the city, trying to source a rear tyre and other boring stuff like charging things, researching stuff on the internet and making sure i've got enough supplies. The following day would see me heading off into the unknown, or at least the least researched leg of the trip.
Here's a rough recap of the trip so far;
And here's what was planned the next 4 days. The journey would continue South to the Caspian, then cut back west through the unique (in Europe anyway) Buddist city of Elista, continuing SE through Stavropol, before entering Crimea via the short ferry at Kerch. A look around Crimea would then finish with a potentially interesting blast up the length of the Ukraine to Kiev. Splendid.
I was looking forward to this leg as there was a good chance of seeing sand dunes and camels on the way to the Caspian and the picturesque Black Sea coast promised to be a match for the Fjords of Norway.
The Swallows Nest, Crimea, looking over the blue Black Sea;
Before all that though, was a walk to see the main thing that had brought me to Volgograd, the Motherland Calls statue. The centre piece of the memorial to 500,000 Russians who died during the Battle of Stalingrad.
It was a bit of a trek to the Statue. I set off confidently from the Flamingo using the GPS on the phone to locate the statue. What I did not know at this time was that the statue was in the centre of what was a large park, the entrance of which was on the opposite side of the hill atop which the statue stood. Basically it was miles further than I thought. I tried to regain some of the time lost by taking advantage of the lack of clear boundaries between public and private land, or roads and footpaths; I went as the crow fries towards the little dot on the phone map.
I walked through a couple of building sites, across some train tracks, between lock-ups and other, er, non-descript 'stuff'.
I got there eventually, but only after walking up the side of a reasonable looking dual carriageway. A helmetless rider zoomed past on a GSXR, the first such bike I'd seen since Moscow 1000kms ago. When I got to the memorial, I paid the entrance fee, bought an ice-cream and was walking towards the gate when I saw two BMW GSs arrive on Bulgarian plates.
I went over and said hello. They were a husband and wife duo aboard one bike and a solo fella aboard the other. They were hardy looking souls dressed in predominantly black leather but were unsure of me in my civvie clothes until I mentioned my trip. They had ridden all the way from Sofia in Bulgaria, but were clearly impressed by when they heard where I had come from. I asked if they knew where I could source a tyre and they did not. When they heard I could speak no Russia, they laughed. We bid each other fairwell and I went inside.
That's one impressive statue, the sword is over 100ft long, note the people in the bottom left for scale.
At the base of the statue is the memorial itself, a circular building within which a spiral walkway descends down past walls on which are the names of 7200 Russian soldiers who lost their lives in the battle. There is a circular hole in the roof, open to the elements.
The chimney lined Volga can been seen in the background, factory smoke is yellow ochre in Russia.
Inside the memorial itself;
This made me laugh, a little light relief in an otherwise sombre setting. The bottom of the pools were covered in coins that visitors had thrown in. This is a photo of a local kid who was repeatedly diving down to pilfer them. God knows how he was getting away with this at an attraction where there must have been a security guard to every two visitors;
After i'd had a good look around the war memorial - which is well worth a look if you are ever in the area - I set my sights on sourcing a tyre. The GSXR i'd seen earlier in the day had given me some hope that I would be able to source a 190 section tyre, although as I was about 3-4000 miles from home, a sports compound tyre probably wouldn't last, meaning another costly tyre change later in the trip. I'd considered the possibility of fitting a car tyre, so if no suitable bike tyre could be found in Volgograd, that was my back up plan.
I had the number of the local mechanic Viktor who spoke a bit of english, although ringing him proved to be difficult (I don't think I managed one successful call from within Russia). In the end I found a website for his bike shop and Skyped him from the laptop, hurray for technology! He said he'd check his stock for a 190 section tyre and I should ring back in 5 minutes, hmmm.
When I Skyped back, not only did he have a tyre in the correct size, he had a direct replacement for the Conti Road Attack that was to come off, result! With the help of directions from one of the car wash guys at the motel (the motel had a drive in car wash which, being a room completely covered in white tiles resembled an abattoir) I found custombike.ru just 5 minutes down the road.
Outside the shop was a bizarre sight among the dust and corrugated iron shacks of Volgograd. There was a 2007 GSXR750, a crashed Hayabusa and a CBR954 stunt bike complete with Renthals, wheelie bar and crash cage. I thought to myself that these were the kind of things you might see outside a bike shop/breakers in the UK, an unexpected taste of home if you will.
The owner Viktor emerged from a mildy blinged Lada that was parked nearby and we went inside to be greeted by two other mechanics and a couple of customers/socialisers. Whilst a chap who seemed to be the shop apprentice set to work on the bike, there was much wisecracking from the rest, particularly from one guy whose name I can't remember. He was a loan shark and owned the GSXR outside. He proudly showed me his extensive collection of scars from various bike accidents; he had sustained 7 broken vertebrae and a snapped femur in his most recent prang. He particularly enjoyed that fact that in five accidents, he had broken five visors but had never had to replace his helmet. It became clear that these guys were amongst the coolest in Volgograd, they spoke a little english, had holidayed and toured abroad and they rode expensive foreign bikes (about thrice as expensive in Russia).
Here's the owner Viktor;
One thing I noticed from spending time in the shop (I was there for around 90 mins) was how fond the Russians are of handshakes. Every time a customer entered, they shook the hand of everybody in the shop including myself before announcing the nature of their visit, this was a trait of theirs I really liked.
After paying £150 (i'd only paid £179 for a pair in the UK!) I left the shop happy and dropped the bike back at the motel.
As I write this now, I again curse the fact I didn't swap contact details with anybody, or take photos of the characters I met. A real shame, as the guys at custombike were hilarious
That evening, I went out around 6-ish having decided i'd spend the 1000RBs that Tvor had given me the night before. I wandered down Ulista Rokossovskogo looking for a some kind of restaurant and walked into the bar contained within the Hotel Europa -
The restaurant/bar was empty apart from two blokes sat at a table talking in Russia. Seeing that I looked a little lost, one of them asked me in Russian what I wanted. I replied that I didn't speak Russian and waited for the usual awkward exchange, but surprisingly the guy starting speaking in reasonable english. This was Yuri, an Armenian businessman and philosopher who owned several business including the hotel I was stood in. I told him I wanted food, he barked a few orders into the kitchen and a very bored and miffed looking Russian lady appeared and told me it would be 40 minutes for food. There didn't seem to be a menu, but I was told i'd be having meat and potatoes. Splendid.
Yuri then poured us an Armenian Cognac each from behind the bar and proceeded to tell me about the History of Armenia, a subject he appeared to be an expert on. He was a very interesting guy, he'd been a university lecturer back in Armenia and could speak Armenian, Russian, English and Chinese. He'd emigrated to Russia from Armenia 30 years earlier and looked like his face had been beaten into several different shapes throughout the years, wiping his glass eye with a handkerchief as he spoke. I learned about the genocide in Armenia starting in 1915 where over 1 million people were executed and learned in great detail about various aspects of the two world wars.
Yuri left me alone while I ate the dish which had been prepared for me. Potatoes, cheese and beef in a kind of a pie, very tasty. Afterwards he took me for a game of Russian billiards (bizarre game on an extremely big table) in his pool hall and told me if i showed up at the hotel at 9am the following morning, he would give me a guided tour of the city. This was very tempting, but unfortunately I was on a very tight schedule. An early start was required the following day as I was hoping to make it to the Caspian sea and then back westwards to the buddist city of Elista.
Yuri was a very likeable guy, his dream was that all Armenians around the world would one day move back to Armenia and the nation would become great once more. Quite a lofty dream and the sadness in his eyes when he told me was touching. I suspected his health was fading as he seemed to be becoming out of breath whilst playing pool. It seemed his enthusiasm for history and teaching me about it, was wearing him out. For his sake I bid him fair well and promised to stay at the hotel Europa when I was next in town.
Day 12, June 14th - Volgograd to Prishib, Astrakhanskaya
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 1
Crashes - 0.5
Distance covered - 153 miles
Total distance - 4526 miles
This day started out fairly ordinary, but turned hairy. The journey out of Volgograd was tedious, slow moving traffic on terrible roads and rapidly rising temperatures does not make for a fun trip. As I headed south past various villages dotted throughout the steppes and headed towards the sand dunes of Astrakhan it started to get hot, proper hot. Fuel stops now involved downing a couple of litres of water in an attempt to stay hydrated. In the early afternoon I stopped at a Lukoil (reputable fuel station) for around 30 minutes to eat, rehydrate and to enjoy the little bit of shade I found to the side of the kiosk.
When I climbed back on the bike, it was roasting. I'd had to leave it in the sun and parts of it were now painfully hot, all the more reason to get moving I thought. I rejoined the road and got up to a steady 80mph, thinking i'd be nearly as far as Astrakhan by the time I needed fuel again. Alas, just 10 miles down the road, disaster would strike.
At 80mph the bike just died. No warning, no spluttering, the engine just died and that was that. I left the bike in gear as I coasted in the hope it might refire, but nothing. As my speed dropped to 20mph I was very aware at how silent it was, just the swish-swish sound of the front disc that I warped when I dropped the bike back in Sweden. It was a very, very lonely moment. As I came to a halt I was already waay to hot. I remembered thinking when I was cold and wet in Norway that there would be a moment that i'd long to be cold. Well, it had well and truly arrived.
I had broken down in the semi-desert and there was absolutely nowhere to hide from the sun. There was little point in trying to start the bike as it had not even threatened to refire as I coasted to a halt. I got off the bike and tried to shed as much clothing as I could, the heat was insane.
I guessed that the problem was a blocked fuel filter, as i'd only just filled up, so it a case of whipping the tank off to get down to the fuel filter. There was no way to pull the bike off the road and when a few minutes later the first and only vehicle that passed was a lorry with its horn blaring I felt a little vulnerable for the first time on the trip.
Day 12 continued, June 14th - Volgograd to Prishib, Astrakhanskaya
Near misses - 0
Mechanical issues - 1
Crashes - 0.5
Distance covered - 153 miles
Total distance - 4526 miles
I checked the fuel filter and fuel lines, but couldn't see any problems. I laughed at the location i'd broken down in, approximately equidistant between Volgograd and Astrakhan and 2000+ miles from home. Leaning over a very hot engine, with the sun beating down on my back, I was silly hot, but at least things couldn't get any worse.
I reassembled the apparently working fuel system and decided to try and start the bike. For this I would need to put the tank back on, but I would just balance the tank on the bike for now. Due to a faulty safety switch, the bike needed to be off its sidestand in order to start. I stood to the side of the bike and sweating like a lunatic, heaved it up off its sidestand. Predictably this caused the tank to fall off the bike and in my determination to catch the tank managed to drop the bike. Oh, things could get worse then
Out of breath I picked the bike back up, and in hope rather than expectation stabbed the starter button. To my surprise, it started! Yay! I let it run a little before switching it off to bolt everything down properly and tidying my tools away. I was now very focused on getting some wind moving over my body and sourcing some water to drink, so tools were scooped up quickly and stuffed into pockets.
I heard some music coming from somewhere and looked up through the heat haze to see a tanned teenager on a scooter coming down the road. He had a parcel shelf speaker taped to the back of the scooter which was blaring out high-pitched, tinny dance music from the car stereo kept in the helmet storage space under the seat. Cleverly he had a USB cable running from his mobile to the stereo, allowing him to play his MP3s on the scooter. As he pulled up it was a surreal moment, the dance music, his bare chest and wrap around mirrored shades juxtaposing the sandy wilderness of Southern Russia rather well.
Seeing I was about ready to drop due to the heat, he gave me some very welcome, albeit very hot, fruit juice. Through a bit of mime I managed to ascertain that there was a town a few miles further down the road where I could purchase water. I thanked our young scooter friend and we set off in opposite directions.
After a couple of miles my body temp seemed to be dropping back into the thirties and the bike felt good. Then it died. It would have been soul destroying to have to remove all my gear again, so this time I just waited a minute before trying to restart the bike. It fired up no problem, so I set off at speed to cool off.
Five minutes later and it died again, but this time there were some buildings within sight. I banged the bike into neutral to coast as far as possible and just made it into a small petrol station. I could see they had a fridge outside containing water, the broken bike was a side issue for now.
I got myself some voda from the fridge and paid the lady in the kiosk. I then sat down in the shade while stripping sweat-saturated layers off, I was extremely hot.
As I started to remove the tank whilst still drinking with all the grace of a thirsty hippo, a young fella emerged from the side of the kiosk with a hand outstretched. He was another one of the people who seemed to hang around petrol stations, fulfilling no particular function. Its not as if the lady in the kiosk was being overworked by the odd vehicle to stop there on their way through the dustbowl that is Astrakhanskaya. He could see i was having difficulties and whilst pointing to a settlement across the desert, said something about a 'master'. I had learned this word from the guys at custombike back in Volgograd, it meant 'accomplished mechanic'. He set off on foot towards the group of wooden buildings, I assumed to fetch the 'master'. I could see the above ground pipework running around the outside of the buildings suggesting they were inhabited, although there was little sign of life. The guy returned a little while later and informed me that the 'master' was on his way.
15 minutes later and a stocky figure in combat bottoms was approaching the petrol station from the direction of the shacks. This was Vitali, a hobby mechanic in his forties, ex-French Foreign Legion, ex-Spetznaz and a father of three. I would be spending the next 30 hours with him.
Scene at the petrol station; Vitali the master has his back to the camera, the vested guy fetched Vitali. The youngest kid just appeared from somewhere. Note the bike has been pulled into the little bit of shade, despite it being the evening time, the temperature was still high. Half an hour after this and the mosquitos became almost unbearable.
The next day or so was to be the most interesting of the trip, unfortunately due to being concerned about the broken bike, and feeling a little unsure about taking snaps of ordinary folk going about their business, there are no photos.
Vitali diagnosed the problem as bad fuel, so siphoned the fuel out of my tank and removed the spark plugs. The plugs were covered in rusty deposits and some emery cloth was required. A phone call was made and in what was to be my only interaction with the police in the entire trip, two policeman arrived in an unmarked Lada, one of them brandishing a sheet of emery paper. The had a bit of a look around, shook everybody's hands, smoked a cigarette or two and then left. Many, many other people would do similar throughout the evening. Barely a vehicle passed that didn't dip into the petrol station for a gawk, a cigarette and a handshake.
Vitali worked quickly and had the bike back together and running in 30 minutes. Local kids were trying my helmet and gloves on and posing next to the bike. My scooter boy friend with the wrap around shades and music dropped in to say hello, and everybody had absolute confidence in Vitali's repairs. I was told by the master to put 10 litres of fuel in from this station, and he gave me directions to a station 70kms down the road where I could get decent fuel from. As the local auto stores were now closed, I was to source some new plugs in Astrakhan. Excellent.
I bid farewell to the guys at the petrol station, slipped Vitali a few bob and set off for Astrakhan (again) at 7.00pm.
Imagine my dismay when the bike died 2 minutes later
I eventually limped the bike back to the petrol station, and Vitali was once again summoned. This times he turned up with tools and told me to follow him and scooter boy to a shack that was beside the road, around 300m away. The door of the shack was 'secured' by a rock placed in front of it. Inside the unlit shack was a bizarre collection of things, loads of used furniture stacked up to the rafters, an inspection pit, a car with a blown engine, sacks of 'stuff', a few old tools on a bench and two grim looking blokes smoking. Emanating from somewhere behind the piles of furniture was the sound of fighting dogs and chains being dragged across the concrete floor.
The bike was wheeled into the shack, which whilst unlit, offered refuge from the mosquitos. There was plenty of handshakes and then plenty of phonecalls were made by Vitali and the grim twosome. More and more people came into the building, until there was a good dozen blokes there, most smoking, most of them making repeated short phonecalls, shaking their heads at the conclusion of each one. It became clear after a while that they were trying to source a translator, each of them was ringing everybody in their phonebooks trying to find an english speaker.
Vitali then took me to a restaurant/shop/bar next door which reminded me of an American diner inside. He ordered me some food; borscht and some kind of mashed potato and beef patty thing. While we were eating he was trying to tell me something, but couldn't make himself understood. After we had eaten we returned to the 'workshop' where the bike was, the grim twosome had for reasons known only unto themselves, started a fire in a bin and were stood over it smoking. It must have been over 25 degrees still.
It seemed they had found a translator and a few minutes later myself, Vitali and one other piled into a mosquito netted Volga ('luxury' russian car) with the bearded driver and we bounced across the sand and scrub listening to absolutely BOOMING russian dance music. A very surreal moment and one of the highlights of the trip
The car looked like this Volga would look like if you spent an hour going over it with a sledgehammer;
We arrived in a village and stopped outside an anonymous building. After much banging on fences and shouting a western-ish looking guy was produced and he climbed into the car to get away from the mosquitos, which by this time of the day were unbearable. His name was Sasha and he explained that my candles (spark plugs) were shagged and that I wouldn't be able to source replacements until the following day. I was to stay with Vitali that night and somebody would run me to a nearby town the next morning to source the spark plugs.
I thanked everybody for all their help and we returned to the workshop, collected the bike and took it to Vitalis house. His house was a modest dwelling, but with air con. Himself and his children lived here (I never saw his wife there) and once inside he gave me a seat in front of the air con unit and said something to the effect of 'best seat in the house'. I sat there feeling cool for the first time all day and tried to make sense of how my had panned out. Vitali's young daughter sat opposite me staring at the strange man, yet I felt right at home.
It turned out my host had gone outside to boil up some water so I could wash. He got me a towel and a clean pair of socks and pointed me to a hut at the end of his garden which was their wash room. Clean and slightly less smelly, I walked back to the house to see Vitali's son walk out past me stroppily. It seems he had been booted out for the night so that I could have his bed, jolly decent of him.
The village of Prisib, where Vitali and Sasha lived;
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What others say about HU...
"I just wanted to say thanks for doing this and sharing so much with the rest of us." Dave, USA
"Your website is a mecca of valuable information and the DVD series is informative, entertaining, and inspiring! The new look of the website is very impressive, updated and catchy. Thank you so very much!" Jennifer, Canada
"...Great site. Keep up the good work." Murray and Carmen, Australia
"We just finished a 7 month 22,000+ mile scouting trip from Alaska to the bottom of Chile and I can't tell you how many times we referred to your site for help. From how to adjust your valves, to where to stay in the back country of Peru. Horizons Unlimited was a key player in our success. Motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world are in debt to your services." Alaska Riders
10th Annual HU Travellers Photo Contest is on now! This is an opportunity for YOU to show us your best photos and win prizes!
Global Rescue is the premier provider of medical, security and evacuation services worldwide and is the only company that will come to you, wherever you are, and evacuate you to your home hospital of choice. Additionally, Global Rescue places no restrictions on country of citizenship - all nationalities are eligible to sign-up!
Horizons Unlimited is not a big multi-national company, just two people who love motorcycle travel and have grown what started as a hobby in 1997 into a full time job (usually 8-10 hours per day and 7 days a week) and a labour of love. To keep it going and a roof over our heads, we run events (22 this year!); we sell inspirational and informative DVDs; we have a few selected advertisers; and we make a small amount from memberships.
You don't have to be a Member to come to an HU meeting, access the website, the HUBB or
to receive the e-zine. What you get for your membership contribution is our sincere gratitude, good karma and
knowing that you're helping to keep the motorcycle travel dream alive. Contributing Members and Gold Members do get additional features on the HUBB. Here's a list of all the Member benefits on the HUBB.