September 16, 2004 GMT
Escape from Moscow

It took me two-and-a-half hours to get out of Moscow on Tuesday morning. Absolutely no roadsigns, and two maps which didn't join up so I rather floundered in the gap.

Oh, yes, and the one-way systems such that I could see exactly where I wanted to go but had to do an enormous loop and cross the river by another bridge completely (usually in the gap between my maps - and see later about buying roadmaps here).

When I finally made it on to the M5 'Ural' towards Chelyabinsk, the first sign confirming this was not until around 20 out of the city centre. After about 50 miles the dual carriagway ended at a T-junction on the A107, with absolutely no clue as to which way to turn. As always the map was no help. I turned left, on the premise that this was to the nearest town and I could ask. After about a mile was a crossroads, and I turned thankfully on to the M5 again.

Buying petrol is fun:

1. Find a garage with at least 92 octane, and preferably 95.
2. Estimate amount to fill tank (in my case miles/10 + 5 litres).
3. Write amount and desired octane on small piece of paper, remembering to use a Cyrillic L.
4. Shove piece of paper through small hole in blacked-out window, from behind which issues a stream of what sounds like Russian invective.
5. Receive paper back with incomprehensible annotation.
6. Cross out 95 and add 92.
7. Shove piece of paper back through hole.
8. Receive paper with amount written on it.
9. Shove appropriate notes through hole.
10. Receive change and receipt.
11. Give receipt to pump man who then fills tank.

Now, tell me how you buy a map, oil, other requisites from a petrol station like that?

It took me 8 hours to do the 300 miles from Penza to Samara yesterday. This includes an hour trying to find the hotel I wanted on the bank of the Volga (great river, crap hotel). A helpful policeman pointed me in the appropriate direction, which turned out to be a fair approximation to an enduro race special stage complete with BIG dusty whoops, only with decrepit Ladas charging in all directions and me on a quarter of a ton of misbehaving bike and wearing winter gear in a temperature of around 28 degrees C.

It's now becoming clear that to do more than 300 miles a day on these roads isn't sensible (Lonely Planet says 300km, so I must be Well 'Ard), and consequently I'm afraid I'm going to have to do far more train than I'd envisaged as I have 6000 miles to go in 20 days which I don't think I can do. Add into this equation the odd day off, like today to fix the bike's misbehaviour (tappets, mainly, which takes ages because of having to remove Ernie's wonderful crashbars) and do general checks and maintenance, and I've no chance of getting out of Russia before my visa, or the bike's, expires.

So, I'll ride to Ufa tomorrow (another hour ahead), then Yekaterinburg on Saturday. Yekaterinburg is a major rail junction on the TransSib, so I've a good chance of getting me and the bike on to it to Irkurtsk. I can then ride to Ulan Ude around Lake Baikal, then take the train to Khabarovsk and ride the last 760km to Vladivostok.

Sorry to disappoint you chaps and all that, but if the Russians had given me a reasonable length of visa in the first place . . .

Anyhow, Samara's rather nice. The hotel is very Soviet (no hot water, get what you're given for breakfast) but my room has a stunning view over the Volga and the car park attendant appeared to be perfectly happy for me to start dismantling the bike in front of his hut this morning.

Along the Naberezhnaya (promenade) is a sort of wooded park, and there are tented beer gardens here with wood-fired BBQs going. In the evening the place is full, each tent with a different flavour of live of piped music but mostly souding very traditional (i.e. not pop music). People dance, drink and eat. At 11pm I was still comfortable in a T-shirt. And there's no light pollution (mainly because most of the street lights don't work).

Another thing occurred to me about the border crossing thing - they can't check money in and out because ATMs dispense a choice of roubles or dollars, and a receipt isn't compulsory; I mean, how would they know what you started with and what you'd topped it up with?

DPS (traffic police) story: got randomly pulled again. Same as before, but looked at my driving licence upside down. Later I'd stopped for a ciggy after a particularly unpleasant stretch, and was joined by a pair of DPS setting up a random random checkpoint (as oppposed to the usual static random type). Very jolly, looking over the bike, finding out where I was going - the Horizons Unlimited sticker is very useful for that. Oh, and of course they support Chelsea.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at September 16, 2004 04:33 PM GMT

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