May 05, 2008 GMT
Russian about in Hungary

24 April to 3 May 08

We have found that the best way to cross into a new country is to avoid moving straight from the border to the major city. Instead, we select a medium sized place that is within one hour’s ride from the border. We then concentrate on getting into town by mid-day with plenty of time to find accommodation and figure out how things are done in the new society.

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At the Hortobágy National Park we met this cute local. He is a rare, hairy Mangalica Pig. The park protects a large area of wetlands…

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…with lots of watery scenes like this nine arch bridge.

This thinking led us to make our first stop in Hungary the city of Debrecen, located in the east of the country and close to the Romanian border. Debrecen is Hungary’s second city but it is a relatively relaxed place. It is so relaxed, that it makes Canberra seem like Party-Town. Debrecen is also spacious, clean and well ordered, and a great place to get a feel for the country. Our two days there also allowed us to explore the surrounding area including the nearby National Park.

By the time we arrived in the “big smoke” of Budapest, we had Hungary tabbed; in short, orderly, beautiful and Western European expensive! The capital had a few more lessons for us. It is a truly beautiful city straddling the Danube River. One of those places you “have” to visit before you die.

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The spectacular Hungarian Parliament looks very imposing close up.

The trouble with this is that lots of people “have” to visit so the place has been inundated with “terrorists” for a long time. There are so many people wandering the streets studying maps that you could be forgiven for thinking there was an orienteering championship underway; or maybe, a Hash run. On! On! To the opera house!

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There are tourists everywhere. If you want to do your people watching in the fashionable areas like Váci Street, shown here, you will mainly be watching tourists. We solve this by staying in the suburbs and going to the local shops to do our Hungarian watching,

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Budapest has two international ports where Danube cruise ships pull in and discharge hundreds of passengers.

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Nearby, the tourist buses wait to recover the cargo of tourists they have let loose in the city earlier.

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For real tourist-tacky it is hard to go past the “Barbie” bus.

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We could only afford coffee at the Gresham Palace. Here the cheap rooms are close to $1000. But, it is stunning both inside and out.

To compound the tourist problem, the Hungarians had organised a four day weekend for May Day. As the holiday fell on a Thursday, they took the Friday off and made up for it by working the previous Saturday as a normal working day. This was the weekend that we had organised to meet our daughter Sarah and her husband Mike. Unfortunately, hotel beds were thin on the ground and it took a concerted effort to find two rooms in a nice, new, clean hotel on the Buda (western side) of the river.

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Sarah, Mike and Jo in front of St Stephen’s Cathedral. Another church for serious God-botherin’.

At the same time we fronted up to the Russian Embassy Visa Section with our newly arrived invitations and all of the other paperwork we should need for a visa. It was a frustrating visit as we failed to speak to any official who spoke any English whatsoever. We were simply told, through the good offices of another customer with a little English, that, as Australians, we could only apply in Australia.

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If we were frustrated after our visit to the Russian Embassy, it didn’t show as we enjoyed the spring sunshine and some food in the old Budayar district.

We left before tempers got too heated and our relationship with the Embassy staff suffered irretrievable damage. We then spoke to the Australian Consul who quickly agreed to speak to the Russians for us. With the four day break starting, we settled back to enjoy the weekend with Mike and Sarah.

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Budapest is another city we have got to know quickly by walking all over it. Fortunately, the Hungarians are law biding types who don’t J walk and obey the parking signs. This makes it easy to get around on Shanks Pony.

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Mike and Sarah try the local eats at a food stall in the old city.

We walked and looked and drank beer and walked and ate and walked some more. By the time the two Londoners left in a taxi for the airport, we felt that we had “done” Budapest and had enough of busloads of tourists swarming around us.

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The Danube isn’t such a big river, but we have seen its importance in spreading the skills of good beer making all the way to the Black Sea.

As our week ends, we are preparing for the next round of our struggle to get a Russian visa. A new plan is emerging out of the mist and we are still confident that we will get our visas, eventually!

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Jo, Sarah, Mike Green and Mike H. It has been a great chance for us to see the Greens again for a few days.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 10:33 PM GMT
May 12, 2008 GMT
Surf is up in Hungary

5 to 11 May 08

Our arm wrestle over a Russian visa dragged on into another week and consumed more of our days. By Wednesday our plan had solidified and our passports were dispatched back to Canberra with a courier company. This was no cause for celebration, however, as we are still not entirely sure that the Russian Embassy in Australia will give us the visa.

With 10 days before our passports return, we finally escaped from tourist central in Budapest and rode south to find lodgings in the provincial city of Pécs (pronounced Paytch).

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A rock band was organised to celebrate our arrival in Pécs (there didn’t seem to another good reason) doing covers of 70s metal standards.

This beautiful and sleepy university town is 200 km south west of Budapest and is a good base for exploration of the wine growing district of Villány and the Drava Duna National Park. We found a cheap panzio (pension) and settled in for a couple of days.

The city was very pretty, but like the other provincial towns we have visited it is very quiet. We visited one of a dozen small museums in the town.

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We found a beautiful, clean and well presented city that seemed very liveable.

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The historic centre of Pecs has been well preserved.

This one dedicated to the work of Csontváry a modern realist painter and contemporary of Picasso. On the same street we found two sections of iron fencing on which people had attached thousands of padlocks.

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Thousand of padlocks record the commitment of Pecs’ lovers

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Many padlocks have names engraved or written on them.

We didn’t find out how this custom started, but the locks were put there by couples who use them as a symbol of the strength of their relationship. Many of the locks had been engraved with the names of the couple. Others had the names written in felt pen.

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Jo found this ferocious guard dog in the old town. What every dog needs, a stuffed toy pillow.

This week we have finally started to come to grips with Hungarian food and drink. Our main conclusion is that a vegetarian would starve to death in this country. Meals include huge slabs of meat with little by way of vegetables except the ubiquitous fried potatoes and sour kraut. Jo, always one for the vegetarian option, ordered a vegetarian pizza one night. It was the first pizza made with tinned corn and peas that we have had. It will also be the last!

As we have travelled north we have left the salads and olives of the Mediterranean behind and moved into root vegetable country. Never mind, the slow cooked pork hocks are fantastic.

We haven’t found the great Hungarian red yet either, but we have discovered Hungarian Tokay which is a great treat. We also give Hungarian beer high marks, so much so that we signed up for a tour of the local Pécsi Sörfözde brewery.

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Jo checking the brew on our brewery tour.

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Pipes! Everywhere pipes!

Our guide, Norá, showed us around this small but modern brewery and was also able to answer some of our more general questions about the city and its people. We finished the tour with a glass of the local product and a pleasant stroll back across the city in the lengthening twilight.

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Our guide Norá points out yeast in a sight glass in the chilled fermentation room.

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The best part of any brewery tour.

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The Elephant got a new set of front brake pads in Pécs that Mike Green had brought over from the UK. The others still had some miles left, but these will get us all the way home and we didn’t want to carry the extra weight of a spare set.

Our meander around the Hungarian south led us to the town of Siöfok on the southern shore of Lake Balaton. The towns around this large lake are the seaside resorts you have in a landlocked country; all the fun of the Gold Coast with none of that pesky surf and no sand in your pants. Unfortunately we arrived on the Sunday of a long weekend and the place was crowded with holiday makers soaking up the spring sun.

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A day at the beach when you don’t have a beach. Enjoying the sun on the lake at Siöfok.

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As in many other countries, some of the Hungarian waterfront has been alienated from the non-paying masses.

The previous week had included a four day weekend for May Day which had caused us some accommodation problems. You will understand, therefore, how surprised we were to be caught out two weeks in a row. It took us an hour of shuffling around to find a bed but we ended the week in adequate digs with a bottle of local merlot and a box of treats from a Hungarian cake shop. All we need now is half a kilo of good olives and life will be perfect.

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Stopping for a brew in the countryside.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 09:29 AM GMT
May 24, 2008 GMT
A Monumental Week in Hungary

12 to 18 May 08

With a week still to fill in while we waited for our Australian passports to go to Canberra and return to Budapest, we decided to look at some specific aspects of Hungarian life.

We have seen a lot of public art during our travels ranging from round-about sculpture to massive, and generally dry, water parks. Some of it has been wonderful, some of it quirky or humorous and much of it banal.

During a few days of glorious late spring weather, we lazed about in the city of Siöfok and explored one small community’s public art investment. This little “coastal” village on Lake Balaton is best known as a holiday resort, but it does have some artistic pretensions. This was the birthplace of Imre Kálmán a composer, known in Hungary as Mr Operetta, Béla Bartόk, another composer, Imre Vaga a renowned sculptor, and a number of lesser artistic lights.

Sprinkled liberally throughout the town are interesting pieces recording important individuals and events. The best of them are life-size and insightful sculptures. This image of Béla Bartόk shows a small, neat and precise man, a little austere with sad eyes surveying the world along an imperious nose. We later found out that Bartόk had died in poor circumstances in New York.

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We found Imre Kálmán in a gazebo sitting in a favourite chair with score on the table beside him. A proper man, brought up in the pre-war elegance of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, his eyes give the sense of wistfulness for bygone grandeur while the mouth shows a gentleness hooded by an ample moustache.

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Jo loved these disembodied uniforms with medals and built up shoulders but no real people inside and standing on a single crippled leg. Spooky!

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Not all of the public art is interesting or inspiring. This shocker was contrived and out of proportion in its setting. It probably looked good as a model, but did not translate to full size very well.

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A few days after visiting Siöfok, we rode out the Memento Park on the southern outskirts of Budapest. Unlike the Bulgarians who still have some of their Soviet-era art standing, and the Romanians who seem to have pulled it all down, the Hungarians have gathered the best (or worst) into a single place and have made a tourist attraction out of it. We spent a few hours there looking at the sculptures and the associated museum.

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Compared with the life-size and sympathetic pieces of Siöfok, the Soviet Heroic monsters of Memento Park are intimidating and impersonal. This running revolutionary dwarfs Jo and looks plainly ridiculous to our eyes.

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Like many of these pieces, its subject is the ideology. The human figure is a caricature, with an idealised physique and devoid of any emotions except a blind rage. The face was just scary.

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Other fixtures were of the same nature.

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The trusty Trabant. A more likely emblem of the times.

There is probably some important philosophical point that should be made here about the art of these two eras, about artists serving the state and the way our own cultural filter affects our impressions. But it would be far too trite to include that critique in a motorcycle blog!

Besides, I lived in Canberra for 10 years during which time the number of monuments along Anzac Avenue increased dramatically; a veritable orgy of erections. A few, like the Vietnam Memorial, have a humanity with which us non-artistic types can connect. Others, like the oversized caricature of a soldier further up the street is so devoid of emotion or sympathy that it should be moved immediately to Memento Park. Or perhaps we should just change the name to Memento Avenue.

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The final word on public art goes to this piece recording the death of a 34 year old man who drowned close to the shore of the lake while others looked on unable to help. I am not sure if it is neat or tacky but we called it “Not Waving, Drowning”.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 05:17 PM GMT
Problems and Friends

19 to 22 May 08

Our son Nick did a great job with the Russian Consul in Canberra and had our passports back with the courier within two days of their arrival in Canberra. With luck we would have them in Budapest by Tuesday 20 May leaving us a full 10 days to cover the 2000km north to the Russian border in Latvia to stay on our schedule.

Our problems getting Russian visas meant that we spent a little longer in Hungary than we planned and that we would have less time to spend with the Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians. This gave us a great chance to settle into Hungarian life and meet the locals.

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In the village of Balatonfüred, we met Babi. When she saw the Elephant and the “Australia” sticker on the back we were whisked into the kitchen and given chilled brandy (at 1500hr the sun was over the yard arm) while we got out the computer and showed her some photos to make up for our lack of a common language.

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We met István Winter in a service station just north of Budapest. He showed great interest in the Elephant and our travels, and we soon discovered that he was a member of the Hungarian Suzuki Burgman Club and had his immaculate 650cc scooter parked nearby.

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We met Mariann when we stayed at a small pension on the outskirts of Budapest where the old apartment blocks tower over the suburbs in endless rows.

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Mariann had a small menagerie of animals including this Australian lizard (Pogona vitticeps) known as Muffin. Once again, a few photos made up for a shortage of language skills.

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It was also good to meet Australians Geoff and Chris from Adelaide who were lost in Eastern Europe in a camper. They seemed to be having a great time spending the kids' inheritance and didn't seem inclined to go home anytime soon.

Just when we were planning our final swoop into Budapest to rescue the passports from the courier's office, Jo received an SMS from an old friend, Jan Cashman, to say that she and husband Gavan were in Croatia and asking if we could meet in Hungary somewhere. This was too good an opportunity to miss so we adjusted the schedule again and headed back to the City Centre Apartments where we had stayed on two previous visits to the city. Our landlady Connie must have wondered if we would seek Hungarian residency after three visits in three weeks!

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We had three great nights with the Cashmans while, during the day, they waded out among the tourists around the city. It turned out to be a fortuitous stop because the day before we arrived, our little computer went on strike. We think the problem was caused by a virus contracted from a Russian website but, whatever the reason, we were off the net until further notice.

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Jo, Connie and Jan outside City Centre Apartments

We found a helpful technician who spent a full day trying to recover our system without success. Finally, at 2000hr I decided to run my recovery disc and reformat the drive. This meant that we lost all of the programs from our hard drive. We were able to save critical data before we wiped the disc, but it was still a significant setback.

Between 2000 and 0130 the next morning we rebuilt the computer using free-ware from all over the net. By the time we left Buda on Thursday 22 May, we had replaced all of our old software with the exception of our Garmin Mapsource programs. Not a bad effort and the total cost of the repair was 20 Euros.

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We parted company with the Cashmans, who headed west into Austria, and hustled the Elephant north across Slovakia and Poland making good time with the awful roads and heavy traffic. As we post on Saturday evening 24 May we are1000km north overnighting in an hotel on the border with Lithuania. Our taste of spring weather seems to be over. It is 10 degrees C and raining, but we are still on schedule despite a few setbacks, and we have our Russian visas.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 05:29 PM GMT
May 31, 2008 GMT
The Baltic States

25 to 31 may 08

After spinning our wheels (or wheel in the case of the Elephant) for a couple of weeks waiting for our Russian visas, we hustled north out of Budapest with a tank full of pent up energy. We took a deep breath and rode straight across Slovakia and Poland. By the time we reached Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, we had got the worst of our need for movement under control and we slowed to take our time through the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

These three tiny countries are huddled together at the eastern end of the Baltic Sea and share a great deal of common circumstance and history. Together they have an area of less than 175,000 square km. To put this in Australian perspective, Tasmania, with an area 68,400 square km, is larger than any of these countries. The populations are equally diminutive. Estonia can muster only 1,300,000 souls, the others just over 2 million each.

We spent a few days in each of the three capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.

Vilnius has the feel of a well ordered provincial city and with 500,000 residents it is relatively easy to get around. It does, however, have a lot of churches of almost every type. Apart from Russian Orthodox, there are Calvinist and other Reformist piles together with Roman churches from a dozen different religious orders honoring a spread of saints to meet every taste

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This is the Church of St Catherine.

Since the churches were the main feature of the city, we ended up visiting about a dozen of the notable ones. By the end of the day I was remembering a group of Irish pilgrims we had seen in the Bascilica in Esztergom (Hungary). They were so overcome by the experience that they spontaneously burst into a hymn. I didn't know any hymns, so when the church visiting become too much I started to hum the only suitable song for which I know all of the words. It is an old number by Janis Joplin:

“O lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz,
my friends all drive Porches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
O Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”

...and so on. After three verses we went to look for coffee.

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The three muses adorn the front of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre.

Vilnius is built at the confluence of the rivers Neris and Vilnia. The course of the Vilnia has been moved over the years as the city has grown. It now includes a number of islands including one that is the artistic quarter of Uþupis which has cultivated a Bohemian look.

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A gallery and coffee shop in the artistic quarter of Vilnius.

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The sign speaks for itself in any language. The area has declared itself a “republic” of artists. It has its own constitution, president and anthem.

As is often the case, a friendly local gave us a good overview of life in modern Lithuania. Neli, like so many young folk we have met in the Baltic States, was well educated and linguistically talented. Ian Walker will be pleased to hear that she spoke American with a soft Southern accent picked up while studying in North Carolina.

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Neli and Jo in Vilnius.

Lacking a critical mass of land, population, industry or political influence, all three of the Baltic States have been occupied by one foreign power or another for most of their millennium long histories. Vilnius, pretty town that it is, was also a convenient stopping off place for everyone from German crusaders to Napoleon who was just passing through on his way to invade Russia. They have all left their mark on the city and its people.

Further on up the road, in the Latvian capital of Riga, we found out how deeply the feelings about Russian occupation run. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is housed in a building as sinister looking as much of its content. There is no doubt that the dead hand of Soviet rule treated these countries badly.

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The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.

Riga had a very beautiful old city that was squeaky clean, neat and set aside for the tourist. It is one of those attractive places where you find yourself almost subconsciously looking in the window of estate agents for the price of apartments. That is, until you remember that average winter temperatures are about -5 degrees C!

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This building is nicknamed “Stalin's Birthday cake”. It was built in the 1950s to house the bureaucracy looking after collective farms. The main outcome of collectivisation was the failure of much of the agriculture sector.

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Our hotel, the Augustine, was recently renovated but showed the style of a lot of the traditional buildings built from the plentiful local timber.

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The house cat was called Pûce (owl).

Our final stop in the Baltic States was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The city has only 300,000 residents so hardly rates as a “big smoke”. Rather, it has the feel of a nice, comfortable, provincial city. Its historic centre is beautifully presented and well appreciated by the thousands of tourists that arrive each Spring.

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View over the old city of Tallinn.

The day we walked the old city we noticed a lot of security and several road blocks. A motorcycle cop told us the Prime Minister of France was visiting. A few minutes later, while we were looking at this Cathedral...

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...the official party and a huge gaggle of extras...

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... snaked into the square and around the Cathedral.

We headed off to look at other things and get a pre-Russia haircut. We did, however, take a fancy to two of the defensive towers on the old city wall. This one...

Tallinn 013.jpg called “Tall Hermann's Tower”, while this one...

Tallinn 016.jpg “Fat Margaret's Tower”. There is no prize for guessing why!

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided the first real opportunity for independence for the Baltic states. By 2004 all three countries had sought the solidarity of NATO and EU. membership.

One impact of such a long period of occupation has been the interesting solutions these states have arrived at to decide who is a citizen. The Russians had an active policy of settlement, including the settlement of retired military personnel, that resulted in a good percentage of the population being ethnically “different” to the nationalists that sought independence. This led to some somewhat convoluted rules on eligibility for citizenship.

While we were in Riga we noted a letter to the editor complaining that the writer had been in Latvia for more than 10 years and was still banned from some clubs in the city which were restricted to Latvians. I guess they will figure it out in the long run, or maybe not. In the meantime, the “Occupation Museums” in each country keep the memory of the dark days and the prejudice alive.

Our visit to the Baltic States was relaxing and enjoyable (put these places on your must visit list) but our Russian visas allow entry any time after 25 May so the clock was running. On Saturday 31 we spent our last Estonian currency on six litres of 98 octane and two cups of coffee a few km short of the frontier before sidling up to the infamous Russian border bureaucracy.

Our crossing took more than two hours and was neither as difficult as it could have been nor as easy as we would have liked. At 1600hr we rode out of the frontier checkpoint and headed up the goat track that passes for a highway towards St Petersburg. We were both as elated as we had been nine months ago when we started our journey. After all, this is what we came for. Russia, the big Gorilla. 12,000 km across. You can't say you've ridden around the world until you ride across Russia and now we were ready to try.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 06:53 PM GMT

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