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 Biya 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.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


the 'AT house' remains a great place to chill
noun: gaboritis;
  1. to be slow or late about doing something that should be done : to delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy ...
    'The visa is valid for only thirty days so avoid gaboritis if you wish to make the most of it'
The legendary Gabor lives on in his absence.  Jacques recalls fondly how he and Pascal were heading into the mountains while they waited for their Iranian visa.  Gabor demurs because he intends to leave the next day.  Five days later Jacques and Pascal return - he is still here.  We too might have gaboritis.  After endless tinkering with the bicycles I am finally done.  New rear derailleurs, cassettes and chains.  Gayle has new pedals and chainring too.  When I pump up my tyres the rear one won't pass through the brake blocks. On closer inspection my tyre has become a snake, twisting and turning over the rim.  Knackered.  The front one also has a bulge.  They are consigned to the bin.  Luckily Nathan has some spares.  And then Philip also offers us his spare.  Gayle's tyres are still okay even though they've done about 27,000km.  We hum and haw about whether to take an extra spare.  I mean, it's not as if we'll be going to Outer Mongolia is it? Er...........yeah.  

AT House, 8 Novosibirsk, Bishkek
Damien has been resisting any maintanence chores but finally succumbs.  First he has a turn at the 'meditation' stand - Nathan has built his own truing stand from an old front fork.  Then he pulls out Hannah's inflatable mattress to search for the hole that has turned it into an uninflatable.  He uses the bath to search for the hole. Holes. There are twenty of them at the final count.  He lays it into the sun to dry and shakes his head "It looks like they machine-gunned it".

Suzy's high tea
We are blessed to have Suzy here - Gayle begins to call her our Kitchen Goddess.  We eat very very well thanks to her efforts.  One memory I have of staying here in 2008 was sitting around in the evening with the other travellers drinking and swapping stories and of Gayle discovering the joy and pain of vodka and lemonade. (Altogether now, Joy and Pain like sunshine and rain.) Beer only now.  We notice in the supermarket that they sell a Boris Yeltsin brand of vodka.  David looks blankly at us when we remark on it at the guesthouse.  He's young.  Do you know who Boris Yeltsin is? we ask.  "He was a tennis player, wasn't he?"
why play today when you can play tomorrow

Bishkek is a mixed city of Kyrgyz and Russian, although it's rare to see a mixed couple.  Like Osh, the city seems to have no connection with the rest of the country which has a sleepy rural backwater air.  Here in the capital it's all shiny new 4-wheel drives and fast cars dashing around from traffic jam to traffic jam.  The tree-lined streets are a blend of crumbling neglected Soviet-era housing and brand new appartment blocks.  The backstreets have a village feel.  It's not such a bad place to hang out for a while, catch up on stuff and plan ahead while we wait for our Chinese visa.  Initially we asked for the express service but when we go to collect, our passports are not ready.  Never mind, we tell the agent, we can wait two more days.

recording and researching the journey or just catching up on the rugby scores
We hope to catch up with Gabor somewhere on the way to Mongolia, so we really shouldn't be delaying our departure any longer.  It's time to say goodbye to Suzy and Dino and Damien and Hannah.  Time to move on. We stay another day.  We have a touch of gaboritis.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

whatever happened to the likely lads?

It's almost 3 weeks since the World Cup final took place and we still don't know the result.  We have cycled across Kyrgyzstan from Osh to Bishkek without meeting any football mad locals or tourists.  Along the way Dino suggests we look for the match on the internet when we reach Bishkek but in our first few days here we've been doing other things.  But we've not forgotten.  Nor has Gayle.  Regrettably she keeps telling others at the guesthouse so now there's a dozen folk who are conscious that Dino and me are looking forward to sitting down in front of the screen and pretending we're watching the match live. First things first - we need to find the game on the internet to download.  Finally one night we get a copy but it's late, too late to watch.  Tomorrow night.
We can get the beer in, get settled in the comfy corner, maintain the illusion.  Unless.  Unless someone starts talking about the final, lets out the result.  It's been 20 days and still we have managed not to discover the score.  It's a miracle.

And then Thierry makes a jokey reference to the two cyclists "from the country that won the World Cup". Mmmm.  Would they be German or Argentinian, Thierry? 

I'm thinking of slashing his tyres..........

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

the time killers

We spent a while with Greg here in Bishkek in 2008.  He was waiting for his Iranian visa while we were waiting for a Pakistan visa.  After two months in the country we all failed.  In the end we got other visas and took different routes.  Greg was one of the cycle tourers we met who inspired us to turn to cycle touring.  I think this was principally because he was such a nice fella and started each day with a big fry up.  So when Greg sees we're in Bishkek he writes to Gayle on Facebook: "At least you're prepared for Kyrgyzstan - you won't be stuck in Bishkek waiting for visas." So, here we are in Bishkek waiting for a visa.
this sculpture represents the tourists' eternal struggle for visas in Bishkek
It's China this time. And there's trouble at t'mosque in Kashgar so there's an element of doubt. Whenever there's trouble in Xin Jiang the authorities get jumpy. Is the border close to Kashgar closed? Are foreigners being turned away?  Are visas being issued in neighbouring countries? Who knows. We hand our passports over to the woman in the agency who tells us we'll have to wait ten days. It's Eid tomorrow and the Chinese consul doesn't do anything on Fridays. She might be stringing us a line about the Chinese consul, but it is Eid tomorrow. We can't imagine many Kyrgyz observing Ramadan, but any excuse for a holiday - they celebrate Christmas and No Ruz too. And why not.

at guesthouse - a place to chill
At the guesthouse there's a peloton of cycle tourists all waiting for visas.  Most of us are camped out in the garden.  It's busy.  Nathan and Angie only opened up in June but they've not needed to advertise - the cyclists' grapevine has brought them more guests than they can manage.  Angie is taking a holiday back in Bulgaria, so Nathan has to cope on his own.  In his young life he's been a roughnecker, a horse wrangler and probably a pearl diver - currently he's training to be a paramedic. He's a quiet thoughtful guy who wanted to open up a guesthouse purely for cyclists.  He's got spare parts for bike repairs and enough tools to take apart your bike and put it all back together again.  But who'd be crazy enough to do that?  Nathan wants to keep the guesthouse only for cyclists and I think the number of guests has surprised him - although this is peak season.  The main reason is that no-one's leaving in a hurry.  Chad and Alison are studying Russian.  Chad talks a lot (disappointingly not in Russian), Alison doesn't.  Jacques is teaching the two kittens to chase and retrieve.  David is testing the limits of not washing his grey t-shirt. Dino is practising the trombone in the bathroom on the hour every hour.  Pascal is cultivating a long, flowing beard so that he can masquerade as a pilgrim at the holy Shia shrine in Mashhad.  Susanna is wistfully reminiscing about the young man "with a beautiful heart" who has passed through going in the wrong direction (yes, Chris, that was you).  Philip is having a 'fire sale' of all his unwanted gear having cycled here from Austria without ever cooking anything.  More seriously, Radu, a Romanian who cycled here and then climbed Khan Tengri, is receiving treatment for frostbitten toes at the local hospital.  He pads around in his bandaged feet.  To Gayle's horror she remarks to him one morning at breakfast "It was cold last night in the tent.  My feet were freezing" before realising her gaffe.

anyone seen me yoghurt?

service centre
The bikes get some serious maintenance.  It's not my strong point. Thankfully Nathan is on hand to advise and make suggestions and even show you how to do it if you keep making a pig's ear of it or discreetly withdraw while you steam in frustration.  But bike maintenance in the presence of twelve other cyclists can be a traumatic experience.  It's quite unnerving to be doing something you're not really confident about because you've never done it before whilst someone stands and watches you with hands on hips, head askance.  Or when someone asks "Why are you doing it like that?"
Anya and Barbara at the meditation stand
(The obvious answer: because I don't know any other bloody way!!!!!).  I've just removed the crankset for the first time using Nathan's crank extractor.  I'm feeling very pleased with myself - no cross-threading, no stripped bolts, no cracked parts - when I realise I don't actually know how to put the new cranks back on.  Nathan looks at me in astonishment.  "You're kidding, right?" Okay, it's easy. Just had to think about it for a minute.

at guesthouse - still a great place to chill
The days flash by in a blur.  This is ridiculous.  A friend from home asks "What exactly do you do each day?" Good question, Claire.  I'm not sure we gave you a proper answer.  So, after some consideration, here goes: Wake just before 7am to the sound of a loud Austrian explaining how he broke the frame on his 4000 euro bike. Breakfast until 9am interspersed with chit-chat and nipping into the bathroom for morning ablutions as soon as I can.  Messing about with bikes. More chit-chat and going up the road to the shops for lunch ingredients. 2pm (2pm??? where does the time go??) lunch. Further chit-chat about bikes/journey/photos/food/visas/restaurants and/or a trip to the main bazaar/local bike shops. Shopping for tea/choc ice/beer. Tea. Surfing (the internet.  Kyrgyzstan is landlocked, remember). Bed. How on earth do we ever cope with the Real World?

classic English cuisine - bread 'n' butter pudding

There's a sociable bunch gathered here, and some other cyclists also drop in to do repairs and buy spares from Nathan.  Damian and Hannah and Tyson and Hanne all turn up while we are here.  Their trips are about to finish so they're winding down.  Sam turns up coming from Mongolia and telling us how simple and cheap the Chinese visa was to get.  Gayle hurtles off to try and withdraw our expensive visa application but to no avail.  David, a young Englishman with a fine bushy beard, has recovered from his lassitude in order to set off for the Pamirs.  But you can see it's hard to leave this comfortable and friendly place and I wonder if we will have to push him out.  He's changed his shirt though - his mum'd be pleased.

six tents - so why does the cat piss on ours?

Suzy, who works in Sussex C.I.D. (and addresses her boss "guv" but has never used the phrase "you're nicked my son!") is now starring in her own mini TV series: The Cycling Detective. Each day there is a new case for her to solve. Who stole the yoghurt from the fridge? Who left two dirty saucepans on the cooker? Is the woman who turns up with just a tent really a cyclist? Why are there holes appearing in our merino wool t-shirts? Can watermelon really give you the shits?

Who's been munching the merino wool t-shirts?