Sunday, 24 August 2014

siberian pests

It's a strange introduction to a country cycling out of a train station at 1am on a Saturday night.  I'd not recommend it in England.  But Russia? Siberia? Barnaul?  It's a balmy night and everywhere is quiet - too quiet. We are not lost but there's no-one to ask to confirm that we are not lost.  The cheery/boozy women at the 24hr florists (an interesting business, surely) send us off in the right direction but it takes a bit of nerve to finally cycle down the dark unlit and unpaved street to find the hotel.  It's modern, it's clean, it's quiet - at least until we turn up in the dead of the night.

Comrade Vladimir Ilynich helpfully directs punters to the romantically named "24 Hours Hotel"
What's Siberia like? How are the people in Russia?  And how is our Russian?  Well, if dosvidanya is the best you can muster, you might as well give up now. Ya turista, nyet parusski!  After two years on the road we are possibly experiencing our greatest culture shock.  For a start everyone looks Russian.  Okay, you may think this is a strange comment.  We are in Russia after all.  But this is Siberia.  We have crossed thousands of Asian kilometres and suddenly find ourselves back in Europe.  Did we miss a turn?  Where are all the Siberians? Did they move? The other thing is that the people are normal.  I mean if you ask for help, for directions, in pretty poor pidgin Russian, they try and help.  They talk, they smile, they hold hands, and that's just the cops.

Barnaul is a city of half a million with a long main avenue still named Lenin. Step off this avenue and you can find some of the old wooden houses probably built when this was a small frontier town in the middle of the forest.  The sun is a constant and the air is humid.  We potter about and retreat to the hotel in the mid-afternoon swelter.  Gabor has given us his planned route and we will follow him south eastwards into the Altai region in the direction of Mongolia. 

The road out of the city is lively with traffic and we have to concentrate with just a narrow slice of hard shoulder on the new tarmac.  The landscape reminds us of Sweden - swathes of wheatfields cut out of the forest.  In the middle of nowhere we come to a long tailback.  A bridge is closed except for one lane, with no sign of any ongoing work or repairs.  There are contraflow traffic lights.  A young boogaloo with a mullet haircut (a mullet in Russia is akin to an Asbo in England) is selling Russian flags to the waiting motorists with no sense of irony whatsoever. 

We roll along to Biysk which was founded in the early 1700's.  We try and imagine the first settlers coming down the river and pitching up at this confluence.  Forest as far as the eye can see.  It's still breathtaking when you get a long view over one of the big rivers to the mountains off to the south.  There are an awful lot of trees.  The road is heavy with traffic and not much fun for the average cycle tourer.  But then you can look out over a primordial jungle.  Britain used to be like this once upon a time, I muse.  And then they built the M1.
We take the small road following the Bisa river all the way to Lake Teleskoye.  We think it'll take about three more days cycling, but haven't calculated for dirt roads.  However, this is not the main concern for the first 80 kilometres which pass through acres of farmland and no villages. No villages = no water.  The crops are being cut, the land ploughed over.  Russia's famous black earth is all around us. "Fecund!" Gayle shouts over her shoulder.  We will be if we don't find any water soon, I think.  And then Neninka hoves into view.

While we're refilling our water bottles from a tap in the street a Lada comes to a screaming standstill outside the village shop.  The doors are flung open and two men rush into the shop clearly on a mission of mercy.  We mooch over to get some food.  Sergey and Ivgenny emerge finally from the shop with 3 litres of beer and a bottle of vodka.  They hold each other up as they talk to us.  We don't speak Russian and they don't speak English, but nevertheless I am convinced most of the conversation would have been incomprehensible even if we shared the same language.  Do we want to get drunk with them?  Do we want to bathe? With them?
Ivgenny - a typical local Russian?

Do we have documents? Sergey is on the verge of tipping from friendly drunk to nasty drunk.  Gayle wants away.  Sergey says "Stop!"  Where are our documents? Where you won't see them, Sunshine.  He gets onto his phone straight away, but Ivgenny defuses the situation by persuading him to take photos of us together.  Cycling away Gayle wonders if we've met any sober Russian men yet when they're not working. 

The camping is tricky.  The hot days tell us it's summer, but the cool nights tell us it's nearly autumn.  We are desperate to avoid mosquitoes and ticks.  The former just mither us and leave us itching and scratching all night, the latter are carriers of Japanese encephalitis.  Dry, cut fields are best.  Riverside spots are worst.  Overgrown clearings in forest turn out to be okay.  And it turns out the biggest pest is neither mozzie nor tick.  On a Saturday night we take a track down to the river looking for any flat space in the forest.  We're not sure, but the light is fading and there don't seem to be many options left.  And then a big 4wd trundles along the track and three overweight naked men lean out of the windows and ask us something in a slurry Russki way.  Okay, this is not the right place to camp.

...but this is

Saturday, 16 August 2014

seven days

dinner (or tea - we can't agree)
....and finally we depart from Bishkek on yet another sunny day.  There's a sense of sadness saying goodbye to our cyling friends, waved off by Dino, Suzy, Damien and Hannah with Sam, Toby and Kate, but there's also the excitement of setting off into the unknown.  Er, sort of.  We've been to Almaty before and along this very same road.  My sole memory of the ride in a shared car is of seeing two nasty car wrecks.  Thankfully the road has a decent hard shoulder because the cars whizz by in the aggressive way that reminds me of England's A roads.  A painless border crossing - is it the quickest we've had since arriving in Georgia? - and on through parched fields of wheat or corn, sun blazing.  We camp in a fold of earth out of sight of the road.  A full moon rises, bulging above the horizon, just as the sun sets in the opposite direction.  It looks close enough to touch.

it needs a soundtrack
 The road to Almaty follows along the north side of  distant mountains.  The earth dips and rolls, the golden fields continue endlessly.  There are few settlements until we get close to the old capital.  Traffic picks up and we have to concentrate a bit, before getting into the city on our third day of cycling.  After a quick kebab we head straight to the main post office to collect two parcels sent by my mum and dad.  I am directed to a counter where a woman has a box of letters and packets.  She flicks through them and shakes her head, pointing me to another desk.  There I am asked by postwoman no. 2 for a tracking number.  I give her a made up one.  She disappears into the backroom where an older woman gets out of a chair, looks over her glasses at me, and then mooches about half-heartedly.  Postwoman no. 2 comes back smiling empty-handed and says no, sorry.  Hmmm.  I feel rather depressed knowing that some stupid bureacracy serviced by a bunch of jobs-worths has come between me and the parcel. Pah! It's as if the communists were still in power. I consider e-mailing the president Nazarbayev to complain, until I read that he was the first secretary of the CP in the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic.  Well, fancy that.

but what's under the cloth?

We are being hosted in Almaty by Brian, a bright, cheery American who meets us with camera in hand.  He's into his street photography when he's not teaching Air Astana crew English. His flat is a great old Soviet appartment bang in the city centre.  Regrettably we are here mid-week so he's off to work every day, but we catch up in the evenings.  Brian is contemplating cycling to Europe when he finishes teaching here and has lots of questions about cycle touring.  Bizarrely he has just hosted Chi from Shanghai, who is cycling with a friend around Central Asia.  We met Chi in Beijing in 2009 and have missed him by a matter of hours.  Small world. Many roads.  Brian is debating the Russia/Ukraine route versus Central Asia/Caucases.  Apart from a little ongoing difficulty in the first option there is also the knowledge that "from here to Moscow it's almost all forest". (Brian visited St. Petersburg taking advantage of his staff discount on flights and got the bird's eye view.)  Meanwhile we are touting Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as two of the "must sees" for all cycle tourists.  But wouldn't it be hard? Brian reasonably asks, bearing in mind he's never done anything like this before.  The answer undoubtedly is yes, but the rewards are immense. What to do?

we're lovin' it
The next day I return triumphantly to the post office, with authentic tracking number in hand.  I will not take "nyet" for an answer.  Last night I looked up the parcel on the Royal Mail website - it simply told me "it's on the way".  A bit like asking someone the distance to the next town and being told "it's a long way". This lack of information drove me in desperation to look at the Kazakh Post website which is available in English.  There I was invited to track my parcel.  Hey ho, I gave it a go and got a result.  All in Russian.  Translated, it told me that the parcel arrived at 2pm that day and was in storage.  So here I am brimming with confidence, handing over my tracking number to postwoman no. 2 who smiles and backs into the dragon's lair.  The dragon herself brings me a form to complete before handing over the main parcel from home.  Victory!

Our visa for Russia began yesterday and we have news from Gabor who is ahead of us and probably taking the same route as us through the Altai into Mongolia.  He helpfully fills us in with useful information on his train ride north to Barnaul in Russia, ticket purchasing, train times, bike storage on the train, train facilities, lodgings in Barnaul, number of power sockets in the room.  (All of which turns out to be completely accurate except for the number of sockets in the room.)  We feel no inclination to cycle the 1400km northwards into Siberia, even if our Russian visa hadn't already started ticking.  There remains nothing further to do in Almaty except find some chain lube.  Off I trot.  On my way back I make one last visit to the post office.  Postwoman no.2 smiles and says 'no' when I ask about the untracked packet that should also have come.  One last bid with postwoman no. 1 turns up trumps - the packet is safe with her.  So far my mum and dad have scored 100% success with sent parcels.  The odds on failure must be shortening.

On our last night Brian takes Gayle as a guest to his local baths - rated the best in Central Asia.  I can't face more sweating after traipsing around the city.  At night we have slept with the windows wide open and still lie in a pool of sweat.  So catching the train next day to Siberia is something I've been looking forward to.  It's cold in Siberia, right? 
represents the average wait in minutes for the toilet
At the station we find the train, and the right carriage.  The carriage stewards check our tickets but look away when we start unloading the bikes.  The woman looks very unhappy when I board with one.  I take it down to the far end where the carriage doors are locked - as Gabor described, there is just enough space for two bikes without blocking the connecting door.  Gayle waits with the panniers on the platform and sees the other steward telling the woman that it's all okay.  When I have put the other bike on she waves a baggage manifest at us and asks something in Russian.  We play the dumb foreigners.  We are the dumb foreigners.  She relents.  We're on.  Sweat drips down me as the train pulls out of the station.  Phew.

The train ride would make great copy if it was full of dodgy characters and wheeling-dealing smugglers who spit seed husks in between slugging vodka and chain-smoking.  But it's dull.  Most of the passengers are Russian families on their way home from holidays.  Everyone is quiet, polite and helpful.  Apart from the charmless and overweight dear who pushes past me in the queue for the toilet when I've been waiting over twenty minutes already.  Even the carriage stewardess has melted and is now filling in our immigration forms for us.  After seven days in Kazakhstan we are about to enter Russia.