September 29, 2004 GMT
Falling off the Edge of the World
Location: Reception desk, Hotel Vladivostok, Vladivostok
Time: 10am, Tuesday 28th September (knackered, after appalling 10-hour night flight, including an hour or so in a transit 'lounge' at Irkutsk, on Air Vladivostok's oldest Tu154)
Dramatis Personae: Me (C); Receptionist (R)
C: I'd like a single room for a week, please.
R: We do not have single rooms.
C: OK, then. A twin or a double.
R: We do not have double rooms.
C: OK then. A twin.
R: We do not have single rooms.
C: I'll have a twin, then.
R: We do not have single rooms.
C: Is there a problem with a single person in a twin room?
R: We do not have a bellboy.
C: That's OK - I have two arms and two legs.
R: We do not have a bellboy.
C: Let's start again. How much is a room?
R: (shows 1190 roubles on a calculator)
C: OK. I'll pay for 6 nights now (produces plastic).
R: We do not have a bellboy.
C: Here's my passport. I'll go and get my bags from the taxi.
C: There, that wasn't so bad, was it?
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 04:37 PM
September 27, 2004 GMT
Trains and Planes and Motorcycles
Lots of people have asked me (including some Russians) whether I'm worried about the rumours of bandits, muggings, thefts, hijackings, dishonest policemen and so on.
Quite honestly, the only threat to life and limb (apart from the drivers, who make the Italians look like amateurs) I've come across is the bureaucracy, which can rapidly make one lose the will to live.
The policemen are unfailingly polite, and always let me off with a smacked wrist; the rather sinister-looking Russian youths on the streets at night help old ladies across the road and open doors for me; when I'd overestimated the amount of fuel I needed at a petrol station the cashier behind the blanked-out window emerged and came into the adjoining cafe to give me a refund; the hotel in Yekaterinburg insisted on giving me a discount because of the extra time I had to spend here because of the above-mentioned bureaucracy; and I could go on.
Where have all the sparrows gone? They're here. I've seen no more than a dozen pigeons siince I've been here, but the entire country is overrun with sparrows. In the cities they're very tame, perching on cafe tables waiting for crumbs and taking baths in puddles on the pavements.
I cracked looking like a local early on. Even carrying a camera doesn't mean you're not Russian, but the clincher is a placky carrier bag. Maybe it's a hangover from the Communist days when everyone carried a 'perhaps' bag in case they found a shop with something on the shelves. Absolutely everyone carries a hand- or shoulder-bag (men included) and a plastic carrier bag, with mandatory surgically-attached phone for teenagers.
The rules for booking a berth on the 'Rossiya' (train no.2 from Moscow to Vladivostok) seem arcane in the extreme. It's a 'passing' train, so you can't just go to an agent or the station and book. Sometimes you can secure a berth three days in advance; sometimes eight hours; sometimes one hour. Last night I went to the station at 11pm hoping to get a berth on the no.2 leaving at 1:30am. Yet another deranged harridan yelling "Nyet", of course. The whole thing seems to be down to luck and whether you can find the train conductor to offer a bribe. It's too late now as the next no.2 isn't until tomorrow night, so I'm flying (with which airline I've no idea) tonight on the redeye.
The bike is allegedly on train no.904, in the tender care of Tatiana and Sergei (whose mobile phone numbers I have but which may be useless as they probably don't speak any English). This should arrive in Vladivostok a week today at 4:30am Moscow time which, I think, is 11:30am local time.
Maps. They are available. Except a road map for the bit of road which now exists between Chita and Khabarovsk, opened by Putin about six months ago. Even road maps of the rest of the country are pretty hard to come by. There's a specialist map shop up the road which appears to be pretty well stocked, but even there the concept of a road map appears alien. Interestingly, nearly all the 'country' maps I've seen of the Russian Federation are in conic projection rather than Mercator.
This means that the country looks its real size and you get a crick in your neck trying to read the names. Perhaps if the Americans showed their country in conic projection they'd have a less-inflated idea of its importance.
TV. Lots of English programmes overdubbed (Prime Suspect, Midsomer Murders, wildlife stuff), the maddest of which is Top Gear (picture Jeremy Clarkson overdubbed with a Russian monotone). The adverts are hilarious; some are familiar, some are tacky, and many wouldn't be allowed in Western Europe. You can't believe the snake oil being flogged here. They do, however, appear to have a ban on tobacco and spirits advertising on the box. The news and weather is pretty good and more-or-less comprehensible.
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 04:16 PM
September 25, 2004 GMT
Parties and Easter Eggs
Whilst siphoning fuel out of my tank yesterday morning in the hotel car park (as you do) I was accosted by a policeman and one of the MVD men with bulging left armpits who've been infesting the hotel for the last couple of days.
They wanted me to move the bike right away from the hotel because the conference centre next door is hosting an exhibition of Faberge stuff, opening night yesterday evening, lots of VIPS expected, massive police presence etc. Naturally, I refused. They eventually let me hide the bike in a little corner by hotel reception.
I met Zhanna at the station at ten to three, where we were scheduled to meet Oleg at three. Oleg finally turned up at four. He and Zhanna seemed to talk for rather a long time, but eventually I was told to ride the bike into the compound and into the baggage shed. Oleg wrote a receipt (of sorts) and I handed over 7000 roubles (about 140 pounds). No guarantees, but the bike might have been on last night's train, or maybe tonight's. He supposed to be ringing Konstantin to confirm time and dat of arrival in Vladivostok. This whole performance has taken four days. The rules are that your baggage can weigh up to 75kg; you can have three packages of 75kg, but not one of 225kg. A cargo train can take anything up to three weeks to get to Vladivostok from here, so that's not really an option.
Getting me to Vladivostok is the next thing. There was no space on last night's train, and I can't find out if there's space on tomorrow night's until 6 hours before it arrives from Moscow. All stations and trains (except local ones) run on Moscow time, so the 23:30 train actually leaves Yekaterinburg at 01:30. The clocks at the station are on Moscow time, as are all signs (especially those saying Position Closed). I may have to fly instead, which would be a shame, but Oleg was insistent that I be there before the bike arrives. You have to bear in mind that the distance we're talking about is the same as that from London to New York.
At least the enforced stay here has helped to sort the nasty cold I caught in the Urals (that'll do, Piercy). Although this is the edge of Siberia the weather has been very warm - T-shirt day yesterday, and although it's raining today it's still no more than cool.
Was invited to a party last night at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Very interesting time talking with Russian girls about all sorts of things, and Evgeny (who I met the other day and turned up at the party) has promised to help if visa things get silly (he runs a big business conference organising company here).
Eggs. Thought I'd better have a look, so popped next door this morning. Very heavy security - I even had to empty my pockets and leave the contents in a numbered bag. I think they may have had suspicions about me because although I dutifully tagged on to the (mandatory) conducted tour I sort of lagged and did my own thing because there was no point in listening to a Russian commentary and anyway the exhibits had English captions. The collection was that from the Kremlin in Moscow. The Wow factor was pretty much off the scale.
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 04:13 PM
September 20, 2004 GMT
Riding a Ninja through Samara in a suit
On Thursday afternoon, the chores having been done, I paddled in the Volga and sunbathed on the beach all afternoon - well, I'm on holiday, aren't I?
So on Friday morning I set off for Ufa. ABout 40 miles down the road I had that awful wibbly-wobbly feeling from the back tyre and managed to stop. Flat as a very flat thing indeed. Managaed to cross the road to a wide gravelly area where I could spread out a bit. Removed luggage, propped rear of bike on pannier, removed wheel, removed tyre, removed tube. 3-inch rip, so not even the stuff-beginning-with-U-that-we're-not-allowed-to-mention could deal with it.
I retrieved my new, out-of-the-box Micheline Airstop spare from under the carrier and proceeded to fit it. The final 8 inches of the tyre wouldn't go on and I'm not heavy enough to make any difference by jumping on it. So I flagged down a truck and idicated to t he 2 chaps that I needed some jumping. They understood immediately, and from then on I could do nothing. Seated tyre, attempted to pump up. No dice. Distinct sound of escaping air. Oh no, not pinched? No. Tyre off, tube off, three holes. I scream. They smile. Out with the puncture repair kit, apply patches. Pump up. Seems OK. Refit. Wheel in. "Go to Samara" they say as they drive away. Norarf.
So I rode slowly back down the road, hoping to get to civilization before a) dark and b) the tyre went flat again. A Ukrainian Hells Angel overtook me on a Yamaha 1100 V-twin cruiser and pulled me in. I think his name's Orange, but can't be sure. I explained the problem (pretty easy with sign language, that one). He produced bike mags and we went through to try to find a bike shop in Samara. The Honda advert claimed one, but it turned out to be a car dealership when we rang. We rode together slowly, and he stopped at a couple of truck tyre places to see if anyone had any ideas. Nada.
Eventually he had to go (Saratov, visa running out) so I continued. As I entered Samara there was a big Yamaha sign at the side of the road. I stopped and wrote down the address and phone no. A chap loitering at the side of the road came over to see what I was doing, then pointed down a ramp to the right. The Yamaha dealer - or, actually, a Renault dealer who does bikes on the side. I rode down and didn't need to explain - the hiss of air from the rear was explanation enough.
They had me ride the bike round to the workshop. I was given coffee and somewhere to wash (I was absolutely filthy), a chap went off in a car to get 2 tubes, the back wheel came out, the damaged tube was mended properly (so now I have 2 spares) and I just stood back and chatted to the boss (I assume - suit, tie, sending people running around) who had a few words of English.
By this time it was 4:30, and it had been a very hot day. Boss gave me bill: 160 roubles for the tubes and 140 for fuel to get them. No labour. That's a total of 6 quid.
I needed a hotel (NOT the Volga - I needed a hot shower). Boss pulled a Ninja out of the showroom and led me through Samara, wearing just his suit - no hat or gloves. We did filtering and all sorts, but he knew what he was doing.
So I ended up at the Marriott Renaissance - a bit expensive but just the ticket. Boss didn't have time to stay for a drink, so I gave him a big kiss and away he went. The security guards' eyes were popping out of their heads.
I'm now in Yekaterinburg, in an internet cafe literally next door to the house where the Tsar and his family were murdered in 1918. Tomorrow I have to go and do battle with the ticket office at the station to get me and the bike on to the train. I may be here some time. It's a nice town, though, with plenty of interesting stuff to look at.
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 04:08 PM
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 04:33 PM
September 13, 2004 GMT
The "Rossiya", the M10 from St.Petersburg the 450 miles to Moscow, is the flagship route of Russia. It took me 12 hours.
It ranges from billiard-table to dire. Having found it (by dint of guessing that if I turned south on to Nevsky Propekt that would probably be it) I was pleasantly surprised for the first 10km or so - dual carriageway, decent surface. Then at the Novgorod turning it went to the other end of the scale. Narrow single carriageway, appalling surface, frequent suspension service establishments. And it started raining.
There were occasional good bits, but speed couldn't pick up as these were still in roadworks. New bits had absolutely no road markings (but as everyone drives where they bloody well want to that wasn't too much of an issue). Slightly older bits had three lanes - remember the old Left Side, Right Side, Suicide?
The bits in between - well, they'd tried but it wasn't quite right. The intention was clearly to have a crawler lane on the uphill sections (hurrah, no longer flatter than Norfolk), but the line painters hadn't been told this so they simply alternated on the basis that each direction should have an overtaking opportunity from time to time. This resulted in more or less slipping the clutch on uphill bits behind belching Kamaz trucks, and trying to overtake as many as possible downhill. After about 30 miles they got it right and normal progress was possible for a while, until a new painting crew took over who didn't know the score.
Crossed the Volga for the first time at Tver.
Stopped by the DPS (traffic cops) again. This time it was one for their normal checkpoints (every 30-40km) where they pull randomly (but all decrepit Kamaz trucks). The nice young man waved his baton at the road and talked a lot. "Anglyiski" I said. "Ah". "Deutsch?" I enquired. He indicated 'small' with his fingers. So we looked at one another for a moment. Then he waved his baton at the road. "Do svedanya". "Spassiba. Do svedanya" I said and rode carefully away.
Russian isn't really all that difficult once you get the hang of transliteration, as a lot of the words are quite recognisable. For instance, PECTOPAH = RESTORAN, MAPKET = MARKET, MOCKBA = MOSKVA and so on.
Doing the sightseeing today a bit. Staying at the Rossiya 50m from Red Square (fairly cheap hotel although pretty decent - only 3000 rooms). Interesting to see the changes since I was here in 1979 and 1986. No red flags on the Kremlin, for a start. They still don't have the hang of soft loo paper in the hotels, though.
From tomorrow I have to ride pretty well every day, but luckily not as far as yesterday, and emails may become a little rarer.
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 04:04 PM
September 11, 2004 GMT
Oh all right then, I'll go to St. Petersburg instead
Road signs are a nearly-extinct species in Latvia. Those that do exist are a) very small, and b) only at the turning. They therefore actually mean "Go 10 km up the road to find somewhere safe to do a U and come back again, you dopey cow".
There is a certain amount of disconnection between maps and reality, as well. Having successfully escaped from the centre of Riga on to the ring road (also involving a U as the slip road on to the ring road in the correct direction was closed) I duly found the exit for Ogre (being the first town on the road to Moscow). According to tthe map this should have been the A6, but was in fact the P-5. After 17km of reasonable going to Ogre (charming little place) the road deteriorated to what can only be described (as it rightly was) as a P-class road. A
dirt track with horrible adverse cambers and mad locals slithering round the bends at silly speeds.
After a few km it was no better, and there was no indication that any improvement would appear in the 200km to the border (if indeed the border crossing is actually open on that road).
Back to the ring road (not-bad single carriageway with very few road signs) and turned north towards Tallinn to take the A2 north-east. This road takes in 20km of Estonia before entering Russia on the road to St.Petersburg. At both the Estonian borders the guards demanded my V5 and checked engine and frame numbers. I suspect therefore that this route is used to take stolen vehicles out of the EU into Russia.
We read some of the horror stories about land crossings into Russia, so it was with trepidation I rode the hundred yards away from the EU.
At the gate into Russia my worst fears were confirmed. The light turned red and the gate closed. Ah. Then the resident roadmenders began to resurface a 2m strip across the road just inside the gate. We in the queue relaxed, lit ciggies and tried to look as though we had all day (the only way to behave at a border). To be fair, the men only took about 20 minutes.
The light turned green and gate opened. the 'first man' (who checks you have appropriate papers) was a woman, and when satisfied sent me over to the various glass windows one has to visit on such occasions.
The entire complement of border officials yesterday consisted of rather jolly ladies of around my age. They filled in all the forms for me so all I had to do was sign them. They wanted to know all about the trip. My destination was a bit vague, so the border chief (a large lady in civvies) was consulted. She decided we should put Japan as my destination. Insurance and road tax was 20 quid (dispensed by an avuncular gentleman who wanted to know all about the bike). The customs inspection, performed by a friendly blonde bombshell, consisted of a quick look at the tent in one pannier and my clothes bag in the topbox. Nothing about money, GPSs or anything (all of which I'd hidden inside the bike itself before leaving Riga). And all the time they were practising their English and German on me. It practically became a coffee morning, and the chaps behind me in the queue looked
increasingly worried - I don't think they'd witnessed anything quite like it before.
I've crossed a few borders in my time but this one has to be the most enjoyable (and surreal) ever.
So off I went rejoicing into the largest country on earth.
The Russians are very good at the headlight-flash-warning-of-speed-trap, but I still got caught bang to rights - 87 in a 60 (I genuinely thought it was a 90). So I did my mad Englishwoman act (it worked in America) and had my wrist smacked by a very nice young traffic cop and sent on my way.
So here I am, 2500 miles and 3 time zones from home. I have just one day here (have to go to Moscow tomorrow) but I've been here a couple of times before and spent days in the Hermitage and seeing all the other wonderful sights in this city so I shan't feel guilty about not doing the tourist thing too much today. Anyway, I'm a bit tired after yesterday's ups and downs (430 miles doesn't sound much, but this isn't western Europe) and need to chill out a bit.
More from Moscow on Monday - a good 500 miles from here, and although the roads are called M10, M20 and so on the Russians have a different definition of motorway. 65mph or so is as fast as you want to go, and you need eyes in the back of your head. Good surfaces are good, the rest goes from reasonable to suspension-testing. And what's a dual carriageway? There's also the boredom factor. The roads are dead straight for miles with forest either side - a foretaste of the taiga through Siberia and more reason to duck out and take a train for the
3000km stretch between Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk.
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 03:59 PM
September 07, 2004 GMT
Of MiGs and the Centre of Europe
I'd forgotten what a 486 PC running Win98 was like. But this is Riga.
When I tried to find the centre of Europe this morning it all went a bit pear-shaped, really. I tried to find the A14, I really did, and I followed the signs until they disappeared. And according to the sun I was going in more or less the right direction. But I wasn't. So I found a road which claimed to go left across country to the place I wanted. And across country I went. A few bits of the 43kms were tarmacked, to be fair, but most wasn't. All good practice, I suppose, but the big tank and tankbag don't do anything for one's stance.
Anyway, made it in the end, and if I hadn't left my GPS in the bike in the next-door courtyard I'd be able to tell you where it is. Got some nice pix, though.
So, back to Vilnius (more disappearing roadsigns) and on to Riga. The Via Baltica. Very grand name, and for the first 70 miles or so it's a nice dual carriageway with lots of little chefs. Mind you, the motel on the airfield (working) surrounded by relics of the Red Air Force made it all worthwhile. A fairly rusty MiG21, and L29 Interceptor and a CY15 (if any of that means anything to anyone), plus the odd
helicoptor (and I mean odd).
So now in Riga which has a dearth of hotel rooms. I have a decent one for tonight but I'm not sure about tomorrow or Thursday.
Small world: met a German chap last night who had to visit a dental equipment firm in Newbury and was extremely pissed off with the Stakis at Chieveley Services. He was very grateful for the list of decent places I gave him as he's there again next week.
Different universe: still free internet access (OK despite 486/Win98). They obviously haven't twigged, but I'm not going to argue.
Border guards: still grumpy.
Bikes: I've only seen rocketships and cruisers. About 2 of each. Although there was a fairly laden Pan 2-up today going south but I couldn't see the registration.
Language: Most people have a bit of English. The Latvian girl I met in Poland reckoned Polish was impossible. But when the Poles borrow a word they stick a Y on the end, which makes it Polish, so you can understand bits here and there. The Lithuanian word for beer is alus, and the currency is pronounced leeta which gives rise to confusion when the barmaid says "three leeta" and you say "but I only had one".
Talking of which . . .
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 03:55 PM
September 05, 2004 GMT
Had a lovely walk in the forest this morning . . .
. . . and saw more Lenins and Stalins than you could shake a stick at.
The son of the current mayor of this town decided to do an 'Up Yours' to the Soviet repression of the Baltic states in general and Lithuania in particular. So he's collected lots of statues of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet luminaries and erected them in the forest at Grutos Park, about 5km from here. You walk through the forest and there are glades containing the statues and busts, together with pix of their original location and biographical details. All the while, patriotic Soviet music blares out from watchtowers, interspersed with 40s and 50s dance music. The chap pokes fun at all of them. Apparently there are a number of people opposed to what he's done, so there's one glade containing small wooden busts of them in caricature.
I decided to stay here another night as it's such a nice place, the weather is gorgeous, the beer is cheap and I have plenty of time to get to the Russian border next Friday.
Had an interesting chat with a Swedish chap last night over pizza and a decent Chianti - his company (www.expleo.net) makes 'hard parts' for BMW, Audi, Merc, Volvo and so on and he's trying to establish a factory in Lithuania but having rather a hard time.
NB no USB port on this machine that I can find so the Lenin pic will have to wait.
And for the GPS anoraks, the Leninhenge is at
N 54 deg 01,517
E 24 deg 04,812
And yes, Phil is right, I missed the 1 so it's 1300 miles, but I did explain about the strange keyboard. I can't get the 'at' sign from any combination of keys so I had to cut and paste it. Still, not as difficult as the Farsi version of Netscape I had to contend with in Tehran. Oh, and I'm now 2 hours ahead of you. Looking at the map, there'll be some rather bizarre things in Russia: the time zone boundaries are very wiggly, so at one point I go back and hour then forward again, and at another place I go forward an hour and then again 100 km later. Hey, jetlag on an ancient G/S.
Posted by Cynthia Milton at 03:50 PM