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Country Summary
 

The one thing that is unarguable is that Russia is a big country. We entered European Russia from Estonia before continuing North Eastwards to the Elegant city of St Petersburg. From St Petersburg we travel towards The Golden Ring North of Moscow before taking the train (information on train here) from Moscow and heading into Asiatic Russia. From Irkutsk we then cycled along lake Baikal to Ulan Ude before reaching the Mongolian border. Here are the sections we cycled:

- Narva, St Petersburg to Vologda (not particularly recommended - a flat, long and forested section)
- Vologda to Moscow, along some of the historic towns of the Golden Ring (much more exciting)
- Around lake Baikal (Irkustk to Ulan-Ude) and up to the Mongolian border (an absolutely beautiful road)

 

 
map
 
 

 

 

 
Entry & Visas
 

Everybody has told us that a Russian visa was a pain in the bum to get and well, everybody was right.

Much has been written on the subject, and we found that the most complete information was provided by the Lonely Planet on-line forum (the Thorn Tree). But to give you a brief summary, there are three types of visas suitable for cyclotouring:

- A tourist visa which is good for a maximum of 30 days and cannot be extended or renewed without leaving the country
- A visitors visa which requires an official invitation from a Russian resident
- A business visa which is good for 30 d, 90 d, even a year

We opted for the business visa as it is the most flexible and covers a longer period. We therefore needed a business invitation, which was provided by the president of the Russian Cyclotouring Club association, Vladimir Fillipov. The costs (for the invitation only) were $120 for three months and $150 for a six month invitation. As we were running short of time before our departure, we asked Vladimir to send the invitation to the Russian Consulate in Tallinn, rather than sending it to England. There was an additional $40 per invitation. We paid Vladimir using Western Union services (international money transfer), which was a bit iffy because there is no refund whatsoever if things go wrong (and we would only find out once in the Tallinn Russian embassy!).

In Tallinn, we went to the Russian embassy to collect our visas. This is simpler said than done, as we were clearly ill-prepared and information was passed to us by the stern looking lady one at the time only. We had to fill up a form and we needed photos (first mistake). Then Isa needed to prove that she had a medical insurance for Russia, which involved a trip to an internet cafe to print the necessary documents. The reason seems to be that Isa is a French national living in England, but no more explanation was given. Unfortunately, World Nomads insurance was not listed on the 15 pages long of insurances that the Embassy holds and the woman left the counter saying that insurance for Russia had to be fixed for the visa to be given. Isa had to be very persistent and showed that World Nomads was part of Mondiale Assurance, and it is only sheer luck that Mondiale Assurance was listed on the embassy list under the section "France".

Then we had to pay. There is a long list of (arbitrary) fees: it was 1014 kroons for Terry and 946 kroons for Isa (about $100 each). We heard that fees vary depending on the embassy, the time in which visas are delivered and the time of the year.

Then we had to wait. It is a two days wait for us, but no option has been given to us. We were simply asked when we wanted to go to Russia and we said in four days time.

So to summarise, when you go to collect your visa from the embassy, you need: passport photos, a completed application form (can be done on the spot, but you can sometimes download a form and fill it before), a proof of medical insurance, enough money and enough time.

Crossing the border into Russia

Let's face it: we were very daunted by the border crossing. We thought we were going to face surly officials and that our quasi nonexistent Russian would be of no-help, but things went better than expected. This is what you will need to smooth out things:

- a pen to fill up your immigration card (handed over at the border). Keep preciously the stamped exit immigration card: you will need to show it at the border went leaving the country.
- to understand a deklaratzia form in Russian. There were no form in English, but luckily we brought along an English deklaratzia (PDF Here) that we found on the internet. It helped to no end. We declared only a few dollars, all our roubles (this is what the custom officer told us), our camera, laptop and mobile phones.

Visa registration

The rule no.1 is to get your visa registered within 3 days of arrival. We made prior arrangements with OstWest contakt service in St Petersbourg. Renting a flat is a cheaper option than booking in at a hotel, but not all renting agencies would register the visa. We made it to St Petersbourg within a day and a half, so our papers are in order. We will have to see how things develop with our wild camping during the next two months.

Customs and border crossing leaving Russia

We crossed the border with Mongolia on the 22nd of September. We crossed between Khyakhta and Altanbulag, but this is not the only option available to cyclotourers. We are told that the Altai border crossing has been open this year (2005) to foreigners - and even motorcycles are allowed through.

We arrived at the border crossing in the middle of the afternoon and there were several long queues of cars and vans, which worried us because we were told that the border closes at 18.30. But people showed us to the front of the queues we spent about 15 minutes chatting with the Mongolian waiting with us.

The custom guard at the gate then pointed at us and told us to come through. He spoke excellent English. Once inside the gate, we first had to fill two leaving deklaratsia forms each and the guards checked our panniers content half-heartedly. We declared the same amount of dollars leaving Russia that we had entering Russia. We hide most of them away, but felt we should declare a few dollars so the custom officers could snap their fingers onto something if anything went wrong. But all went very very smoothly. We had no trouble either with our passport check.

 
 

As we were happily cycling away towards the Mongol side of the border crossing, we were stopped by a Russian Official in a third booth. We got slighly anxious, but the woman simply wanted to check our deklaratzia and passeports again! This is typically Russian and we have witnessed it many times. In museums for instance, there is one person to sell the tickets for the entrance and another person next to them - the second persons job is to put a small tear in each of the tickets.

Photocopies

In St Petersburg, we had photocopies made of all our Russian documents (visa with registration stamp, immigration card and deklaratzia). If you loose any of them, it could be hell to get out of the country again (or cost a lot).

 

After all the faffing around and a good haircut we made it to Russia

 

 

 
camping

 

Camping sites in Russia, you must be kidding!

It's wild camping everywhere, the only problem being the large cities, where we intend to stay in Hostels etc. In the countryside, there have been plenty of lakes and rivers to provide basic washing facilities.

The biggest problem with wild camping in Russia is the mosquitos - they turn the most idyllic spot into a feast of human blood.

 
 
 


Campsite next to Posolskoye, Lake Baikal

 

Camping in Siberian Russia

The three main problems have been rubbish, broken glass (especially in the Buryat republic) and ticks. We were afraid of ticks and tried to avoid high grass and cover up our bodies as much as possible. We were lucky enough not to see a single tick as far as we know! Campsites in Siberia have been very easy to find. The population density is very low and the area is vast. Even around Lake Baikal it was straightforward to find quiet spots with fantastic views.

 

 
cycle shops

 

We have only found cycling supplies in Moscow, but have not looked for any in St Petersburg. In Moscow, we stumbled across a good outdoor shop at the back of Izmaiolo park, providing excellent camping equipment (primus stove, thermarest) together with bike equipment (for instance they had the same Marathon XR tyres as we got sent to Tallinn). Yet the greatest thing was to find out about a bike market. There are many small stalls selling everything to do with cycling. This market is discretly hidden in a non-descript building 50 meters from a metro station, which name I cannot remember (I am writting this five month later) but it is two stops East of Yaroslaw train station subway stop.


 
 

cycling Maps

We have used a road atlas that covered most of Russia. Needless to say it was less than precise (the scale for Siberia was 1:3,000,000!). For the section covering European Russia, some roads were not marked, some were wrongly marked as tarmac and some junctions never appeared. We have also tried some very detailed oblast maps that can be found in some bookshops (generally called Dom Kniga).

The first problem is that you need to know the name of the oblast you intend to cycle through - this is not always obvious. Secondly, these maps turned out to be quite old. When we tried around Vologda some smaller tracks, we rapidly found out that most of them have been left to disappear and were not ridable anymore, many had not been maintained since the 1980's. Whatever map or atlas you try and buy check the issue date - if it has one!


 
  Cycling in Russia: how to deal with the crazy Russian drivers?

 
 

There is one thing that is worth noting for the courageous cyclists who intend to come to Russia. You will get scared! We put this down to a certain dose of impatience that every Russian has built into them. If one driver decides to overtake, he will do it, whether it be on a bend, on brow of a hill or with other vehicles coming head on (including cyclists). We think it must be considered to be a loss of face to Russians if they have to abort an overtaking manoeuvre. Our most scary moments were on the outskirts of Moscow, where two lanes were used as four lanes and undertaking on the inside was normal practice. Irkustk's drivers were the most appalling: we witnessed five minor bumps during our three days stay in the city. One of our Russian friends (we will keep his name quiet) got his driving licence for 800 rubbles. This seem to explain many things about Russian drivers. How to deal with this? Fasten you cycling hat, have eyes in the back of your head and cycle on with utmost prudence!

But there are a few other things we will always remember about the Russians and we don't know where else to mention them: their kindness, their silly and useless rules, their stubborn administrators, and their smiles full of golden teeth! It is a great country full of contrast! It will at moments make an independent traveller despair and seriously question their motives - and then with the next chance meeting leave you with a feeling that you are in the friendliest, most idyllic travel location imaginable. It really is a roller coaster of a ride.

 

As we approached the Mongolian border we saw this sign, what does it all mean? As we have already noted the Russians are crazy drivers but do they really set fire to their cars so often. If your car were on fire, would you be taking note of the road signs and have that difficult debate - "do I turn right or go straight on?"

 

 
food & drink
 

We have now entered a much less cycletourer friendly environment with regard to food. Fresh fruit and vegetables are increasingly difficult to find. At times we have cycled 50km between one shop and the next. Some petrol stations have some mediocre stocks of staple foods - but this is a very unreliable source of sustenance. In big towns though, everything can be found without difficulty.

Care needs to be taken in the local shops as to the quality of the produce - many of the things we have brought turn out to be out of date - including tinned produce!. The Russian system of shops means that everything is kept behind the counter - so everything must be asked for individually. The goods are only handed over once the cash is forthcoming. The small village shops do not have a volume turnover and tend to stock a very limited range of goods.

 

A typical village stores - this particular shop had 30% of the basic items we were looking for - a good hit rate.

 

 
 

Available at all good magasins (shop), Pyarniki come in all shapes and sizes - these are sugar coated raspberry flavour

 

 

Water can be difficult to obtain - we now carry between 5 and 8 litres of water between us to prevent being caught short. The rivers contain quite a high level of colour so we have not yet resorted to filtering directly from a river. In the big cities such as St Petersburg we were warned not to drink the tap water or we could fart for years! True. There is an indestructible virus in the water supply and there is no cure for it. Terry has happily resorted to the local beer (Sphinks) and was quite satisfied with this.

High energy cycling food is also a problem to find - although good old fashioned alternatives such as porridge oats, dried fruit and nuts can be found.

Bread is available in all the small village shops - it is made of virtually indestructible bread dough producing a strong rubbery type bread that keeps for much longer than a French baguette.

Also common to all village shops are the selection of pyarniki. These are loose cake/biscuits made in different flavours, sometimes with fillings and sometimes called something totally different. They are very cheap and provide a good reliable source of snack food and energy for the day (although I'm sure nutritionists would argue otherwise)

 

 
 

We have also stopped at the roadside Kafe that appear along the major highways. These offer good basic food for about 100 roubles - the only problem is decyphering the handwritten menu - not easy. We ended up going for pot luck and so far have not been unpleasantly surprised.

 
 

Local babushkas line the roads outside small villages selling their garden produce. At this time of year (August) typically one can buy potatoes, raspberries, black currants, forest mushrooms, garlic and mini cucumbers. Unfortunately these are normally sold by the bucket load and so is not ideal for cycling.

Bread - this is a leftover from Communist times. Bread is available in two types white and brown. The bread is always exactly the same size and consistency over the entire range of our travels in Russia. The White bread is stale before you get it and the brown bread is made of a remarkable material. It stays fresh for several days but has a consistency to make suitable for shock absorbers.

 

Some sort of fresh water fish, smoked and then sold in lay-bys on the larger roads. Each lay-by seems to specialise in different produce

 
 


Some sort of cake/biscuit full of sweet brown stuff, no idea what they were but we ate 1kg of them

 

 

Isa relaxing next to the river in Vologda, with a fermented rye bread drink (beer) and red caviar flavoured crisps

 

 

In the Buryat republic, you can find food in the many Zakoosotchanaya (written of course in cyrillic). They sell brilliant food and the local speciality is the Pozi (a small or large open topped ravioli, full of mutton and juice. Eaten by hand with noisy squelching and sucking of the juice).

Drink then... We have been lucky enough to be the guests of Babouska Tamara and Mikhail. It is true: Russians drink vodka like the English drink tea. After a heavy night out, we had some more vodka for breakfast, but with pickled cucumbers and potatoes - a delicious combination.

Beers are okay according to Terry who keeps buying very cheap Baltica 7 (the only beer name he can pronounce without too much difficulty). We have also sampled a Russian speciality served from a funny metal container on wheels in biggish towns: kvas, a brew made from fermented rye bread. Tastes better than it sounds.

Cheese Report

Finding proper cheese remains a big problem. All cheeses look the same paltry pale yellow block and are named "cir". "Cire" in French means "Wax". This seems to explain a lot about the Russian cheeses. Having said this, we can now distinguish between different levels of cheese blandness.

 

 

Isa tucking into a selection of Posi at a Zakoosotchanaya

 

 

 
Weather

 

We were in European Northern Russia during August. The temperature has been very pleasant ranging from 22 to 29 degrees C. Less pleasant has been the wind which has blown from the South East at up 60 km/hr. The evenings have been cold enough to need a thicker sleeping bag. Late afternoon has also seen an increasing occurrence of summer thunder storms

 

 
Medical

 

Well we have the E111 but are not really sure it will help much. We have taken out travel insurance with World Nomads which seems to cover all countries and most eventualities - fingers crossed we don't need to test it out.


 
 

Post and Telephone

We sent parcels from St Petersburg, Irkustk and Ulan-Ude and they all reached England within a month. We were surprised and amazed to see that when we sent our first parcel, the post-lady repacked it beautifully with brown-paper and string (does this remind you of your favorite things?). This probably so that the customs can easily unpack it to check it. But we had three custom declaration forms to fill (a very lenghty process). The next time, we turned up with loose items (map, books, CDs, postcards) and it was again all packed in brown paper and string. It saved us time to find a box and package the whole thing, and it also saved us time to fill the declaration forms.

As for telephoning back home, we used some cheap international phone cards and they all worked from the hotel telephones (local calls are normally free). They also work from phone boothes centres, but it is best not to say you are using such a card to make a call to England or France because people stop you using it in their call centre. The hotel phones may need to be switched between pulse and tone dialling part way through the call to allow everything to work.

We tried to buy a Russian sim card for our mobile phone - but gave up in the end after three attempts. This would appear to be one of the most beaurocratic areas of current Russian business. The reasons ranged from passport, to visa's, to registration non conformity - at the end of the day other places just couldn't seem to be bothered with the paperwork. And if you do get a SIM card it will only cover a local region within Russia - other regions are treated as roaming.

And, before our computer pathetically failed, Terry has used local internet cards in St Petersburg and Moscow to upload our website and it work a treat both times. A typical 5 hour card costs about 100 rubles. Access is through a local (free) telephone number. All the exchanges we came across used pulse dialling rather than tone.


 
 

Trains

This one of the best things about Russia. The train system is reliable and great value for the distances covered. We took the best train (reportedly), which is the Baikal #010 from Moscow to Irkutsk. The prices at September 2005 were as follows:

  • Lux (first class with 2 berths) cabin: 10,765 rubbles per person
  • kupe (2nd class with 4 berths) cabin: 6,625 rubbles per berth
  • Platskarny (3rd class - open carriage with lots of bed) 2,053 rubbles.

As we were travelling for more than three days (and wanted to use our computer), we opted for the lux cabin. But there was none available and we ended up with a full 2nd class carriage booked. It was more pricey than expected, but was perfect because we could fit the bikes in our compartment above one of the beds. We did not have to pay a baggage supplement and to leave them in another carriage, so it was great for peace of mind.

However, this was not an easy task. The Provodnitsa or carriage attendant was strongly opposed to us taking the bikes in our compartment. Our friend Vitali argued our case and a second Provodnitsa confirmed that it was our right to take the bikes with us since we had booked a four berth. So with little time left and the bolshy Provodnitsa getting more flustered, we went for it and transferred our bikes and luggage as fast as we could in our cabin. When she came back, it was too late: ten minutes were left before the train was due to leave. But she was talking to the police!!! Needless to say, we did not feel safe until the train started! We took care to pack the wheels in plastic bags, to use our tent ground sheet to cover the bikes and we secured them so they would not fall. It seemed to calm down the Provodnitsa and the rest of the trip went well.

If you have to put your bikes in the baggage wagon, the system is simple: there are some big scales at the start of platform one at Yaroslav station and you pay for the weight and the distance covered. The office is open 24 hours.

The funny thing about taking the train for such a great distance is the change in time. Overall, we lost five hours. We adjusted our watch everyday by one or two hours. This was not helped by the fact that we had some meals and they came at a totally random times. We were never sure if we were having breakfast or lunch, lunch or dinner.

And finally, the real challenge about taking the train was to book the tickets. We went to a service centre in Yaroslav Station and what service? The lady could not be bothered to turn her head properly towards us and no, she did not speak English. We then went to a normal booking desk. The lady was very efficient, but we needed to pay cash and we did not have enough. So we went back to our hotel where they had a small travel booking office (the price was similar to what was quoted earlier) but it was still hard to get ourselves fully understood. This is how we ended up with a full 2nd class cabin and food booked. Not what we wanted in the first place, but it worked fine.

 

 
Flora & Fauna
 

Typical boggy woodland next to the main road. It makes wild camping impossible and also appears to kill off many of the trees

 

Overall the evidence of fauna has been remarkably low. Frogs abound everywhere, when it rains the roads are covered with them, when it's dry there are flat frogs along the sides of all the large roads.

The intense, thick forests make it very difficult to see any wild life.

The larger birds of prey have been evident on a couple of occasions - but again the forests seem to be strangely quiet and devoid of birdsong.This is particularly strange when compared to Estonia where the wildlife was far more evident

 

 

The main feature of the Northern Russian landscape is forest. In between the forest are many areas of previously farmed land. Much of this land now seems to be turning back to wild land. What is not arable is wet and boggy and as such does not make ideal arable farming land (especially given the harshness of the winters)

Between Cheropoviets and Vologda the height rises to about 250 m providing a lovely rolling landscape crossed by small, winding rivers and oh joy, less marshes! In this area arable farming is still active with oats, barley and wheat being grown.

The real gems of the area are the rivers. They provide a real contrast to the incessant forest and obviously are fantastic natural habitats for all sorts of creatures. Unfortunately due to the lack of roads sustained access to the rivers is difficult - often one has to satisfied with a quick glimpse before disappearing back into the forest.

 

The long winter keep the grass at bay and allows a good covering of lichens and moss to cover the ground. The moss is used in the building of houses to act as draught excluder between the wooden structure.

 

 
Graphs & Stats
 

So far in Russia we have cycled:

Km's Cycled - 976 km

Cycling Days - 11 days

Average - 89 km/day

No of Lenins - 9 (1 bust, 1 lifesize, 1 wearing a cap)

Unsolicited Vodka Incidents - 2 (breakfast incident, Vodka bus incident)

 
         

 
Velocipied reports

 

1st August 2005 - Narva to Klgasino - 111 km

We planned to enter Russia via the pedestrian only footbridge, thus avoiding the queue with lorries full of goods and families with all their belongings on the roof of old Ladas. The Estonian border guards were very friendly and said maybe the Russians would let us through, then a middle aged lady stepped in and said absolutely not - the Russian border guards would not allow bikes over pedestrian border crossing - so we had to return to the big bridge with lorries cars and a 4 hour wait. At the big bridge the Estonian border guards said it was not possible to cross with the cars and instead directed us to the Pedestrian only part of the big bridge!

The border crossing went relatively smoothly, but it still took us an hour to queue, fill up the required forms (deklaratzia and immigration cards) and cross the long bridge that spans the river Narva between Estonia and Russia between the two fantastic castles. After resetting our watches (we are another hour ahead), we launched ourselves on the main road leading to St Petersburg. Luckily, it was not too busy with cars and the road surface being pretty good. The road even has some bends and pretty wooden villages alternate with ugly towns, made half of tall and old white bricks buildings, half made of shanty little sheds. A lot of people sit along the road to sell whatever grows in their garden: potatoes, raspberry, cottage cheese... We were fearing a boring and uneventful straight road but there was actually plenty to see.

I suppose we were also providing a bit of entertainment. A man stopped his van and told us to "come in my van!". We politely declined and carried on cycling. He then overtook and began singing over a PA "I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bicycle!". Freddie Mercury with a Russian accent, lovely! And another man set up his baby in its pushchair to wave us as we passed along. We were feeling a little bit special that day!

 

Welcome to Russia, if you want an armed Militia guard for your HGV just call this number.

Typical Russian corner shop, translates as Products - it could do with an additional clarification of "Stuff for Sale" to avoid any ambiguity.

 
 

Peterhof palace

 

 

2nd August 2005 - Klgasino to St Petersburg - 78 km

Our plan was to get to Petrodvorets (or Petergof) in good time, visit its palace and grounds, then take the ferry to St Petersburg.

The palace and fountains were built for Peter I, but what we saw is mainly a reconstruction as all was destroyed during WWII. Some say by the Germans, some say by Stalin who wanted to stop Hitler celebrating the New Year in the palace.

 
 

Unfortunately, the ferry pier is in the paying area of the gardens and it is not accessible by bike. "C'est la vie" said the guard at the door of the park. That meant another 30 km ride through St Petersburg suburbs that neither of us really fancied. Still, it was a risk we knew about, so we left the palace without unfortunately seeing its famous grand cascade.

To compensate, there was plenty to see on the way to St Petersbourg. There is the impressive Orthodox Cathedral of Petrodvorets and two other palaces in Strelna, one chosen by president Putin as a summer residence (and it is not a small one). The traffic grew heavier and heavier as we were getting closer to Saint Petersburg. There was some immense buildings; the cross roads were the largest we ever had to cross on bikes. But the main feature, undoubtedly, is the drivers themselves. Terry nearly got run over by a chap who was simply driving onto him and we witnessed two close misses. Isa was not complaining about having to wear a cycling hat this time!

 

Peterhof Palace

 

 
 

Peterhof Orthodox Cathedral

 

 

3rd to 5th of August 2005 - walking for kilometres on end in St Petersburg

We have rented a small flat in the city centre for four nights. However it is only when we saw the size of the river Neva that we realised the scale of things: the city is absolutely huge! None of the cosiness of Tallinn, Riga or Krakow. Here, all is about splendour and size.

Orthodox church, power station and canal - It's Russia, the Black Country and Venice all in one

 

 
 
We had a few worthwhile freebies in the cities: the war ship Aurora (the very one which started the October revolution) is open to all and has a very good exhibition, but all in Russian. The Hermitage (fabulous!) is free every first Thursday of the month, so we took advantage of this. Otherwise, there is a double fee system everywhere: foreigners can pay up to 20 times the price Russian pay to visit museums or monuments (fair enough considering the low russian wages). But we have not bothered doing too much visiting as there is plenty to see around the city and most of our time seems to be spent walking anyway!
 

Our accommodation in St Petersburg came with some absolutely disgusting graffiti.

 

 
 

Isa at the gun of the Aurora - a blank shot from this started the October Revolution in 1917

 

 

A feature of the St Petersburg landscape - brides and grooms everywhere getting their photos taken at famous view points (there were 4 brides at this particular spot)

 

 
 

St Peter and Paul Cathedral

 

 

The Saviour on the Spilt Blood - very fancy

 

 
 

Domes from the Saviour on the spilt blood - built where Tsar Alexander II was blown up.

 

 

 

Allow at least a fortnight to fully appreciate the Hermitage - and wear comfy shoes - and get a good nights sleep before - and don't go with a hangover - and take emergency supplies in case you get lost - a compass is probably a good idea - but no GPS because they are illegal in Russia

 
 

One of the many fancy rooms in the Hermitage, at times the splendour of the rooms can be more stunning than the remarkable collection of art

 

6th August 2005 - St Petersburg to South of Lake Ladoga - 98 km

After a big lazy morning packing our bags we were eventually thrown out of our comfy apartment and back onto the streets of St Petersburg. We needed to send some packages back to England and mistakenly thought that a visit to the post office would be trouble free in the big city.

The first post office was open (ie the door was ajar and people were inside) but was closed for sending post, but was open for weighing post, but couldn't sell the stamps to allow the post to be sent. We were directed to another post office.

 
 

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg

 

 

Smolny Institute, the first Bolshevik government sat here in 1917

 

 
 

Post office number 2 was easy for the letters - stamps, letters and postbox it couldn't have been easier. The small parcel was more complicated - we were sent to post office No 3, sub divided into seperate sections (especially if your are posting books). After much cursing, queueing and re queueing the parcel was sent - whether it ever arrives is in the lap of the gods.

Our route out of St Petersburg followed the river loop South and Eastwards via the impressive Smolny Cathedral, Alexander Nevsky Gardens, church and monastary and the home of the first Bolshevik government at the Smolny institute - with it's Lenin statue.

The route following the river was disappointingly congested for the 60 km to Schisselburg (the alternative would have been the motorway over the Neva river (or a passenger ferry to Moscow which we only missed by 2 weeks).

We followed the South coast of lake Ladoga hoping for a quiet spot to camp. We were quickly disappointed as we realised that most of St Petersburg seemed to have their Dacha (weekend retreat) along the coast. At every small track and turn their were people, drinking, chatting and just relaxing. We continued for another 20 km before finding a camping spot between a canal and a river in the gathering gloom.

 

 
 

7th August 2005 - South of Lake Ladoga to Starolo Ladoga - 83 km

The camping site proved to be quiet and we set off in the morning continuing along the yellow road (ie. improved surface according to our atlas). After 1 km the tarmac finished and we were left with gravel, mud and huge puddles to avoid. Terry hit a big rock in one puddle filled a pannier with muddy water and sank 2 feet deep into the gloopy mud. Isa took note of the route and carefully avoided any problems whilst Terry repaired the damage. Terry's repairs were interrupted by Isa's yelps as her bike slid down into the next puddle and tipped her off sideways into the waiting mud.

We had been advised by friends in the Czeck republic not to look too smart or tidy when travelling around Russia (this is called poo-camouflage)- a mud bath certainly does the job.

 

 

Bridge over the mosquito infested river

 

 
 

Fisherman cottages alongside lake Ladoga

 

 

The river parallel to Lake Ladoga

 

 
 

Monastary at Starola Ladoga

 

Isa picking and scratching off the remaining mud following that mornings puddle challenge

 

 
 

Eventually we regained the M18 highway eastwards and continued along with the traffic flying past at horrific speeds - and always seeming too close.

We reached the small town of Starola Ladoga later that day, famous for being the first capital of Russia. It is now a small town with a monastary, castle and hilltop church, all in a wonderful setting next to the wide bends of the river Volkov. While we restocked our supplies, we were photographed by a dad who set his young son on Terry's bike. Made us feel like film stars! We found a place to camp on the steep slopes above the river and took in the wonderful views.

 

 

 

 
 
 

8th August 2005 - Staralo Ladoga to Tishvin - 115 km

We knew we were in for a difficult few days cycling. It was 550 km to Vologda and only one road to follow. And yes you've guessed correctly the wind was exactly in the wrong direction - blowing straight into our faces. The road was big, straight, lined with thick forest and had too much traffic for our liking.

We soon found that shops were going to be a problem as the road didn't go through any villages and the infrequent petrol stations held meagre supplies.

After a long struggle against the wind, we made it to the town of Tishvin and restocked. We did not expect any special from the town, but it was surprisingly nice and it was frustating to get there too late. In addition to the classic Lenin Statue and war memorial, the centre of the town is dominated a fantastic monastary next to a lake.

We headed out of town looking for a campsite and stumbled across a beautiful round lake with access for swimming (washing facility for cyclotourists) - perfect.

 
 

Monastary and lake at Tishvin

 

 

One of the common sighs along the main roads and in the towns. War memorials using old military vehicles, howitzers and gun turrets

 

 
 

9th August 2005 - Tishvin to Zagolodno - 70 km

Well if yesterday was difficult then today was the worst headwind of the trip so far. 60km/hr headwind and 29 degrees C, weather sent to test the most patient of people. Frayed tempers and irritableness were the order of the day. This wasn't helped by a 12% hill with headwind which when the top was reached the air turned yellow and the nostrils were filled with the stench from the local sulphur processing plant at Pikalevo.

Each time a huge Kamaz lorry sped past it would send up clouds of dust to get in the eyes and stick to the sweat on our faces.

 

 

Camping and swimming near Tishvin

 

 
 

Past the town of Pikalevo, things worsened as roadworks stretched on for 5 km (the road surface was being relaid). This looked like organised anarchy to us. Adults and kids were cutting trees on the side of the road, lorries full of gravels and branches were driving up and down the road, some trees were actually across the road and the men cutting them were wearing camouflage army clothes. We were driving amidst holes and stones with tractors, beepping impatient cars and where happy to make it in one piece. We did not carry on very far that night; we stopped in the first field we saw (fields are a rare occurence amongst the forest) and collapsed on our karrimats!

10th August 2005 - Zagolodno to River Kavogha Novia - 95 km

During the night, there was an almighty storm and we woke up hopping that the weather would have changed, i.e., no flipping wind in our tired faces! But no, the wind was decidely still blowing in the wrong direction.

So here we were again cycling on the long busy straight road. Not much too mention on that day: forest, marshes, food stops in magasins and water stops at villages pumps.

The highlight of the day was crossing the border between Leningraskaya and a new area (we forgot the name). Unfortunately that meant that the lovely smooth tarmac road was coming to an end: a worn out concrete road was stretching in front of our eyes.

 

Late night camping in the forest - sometimes one has to resort to extreme measures to try and defeat the mosquitoes - fashion will have to wait for the morning.

 
 

11th August 2005 - River Kavogha to Berkobie - 109 km

Even less to report than the day before. Very few villages, forest and marshes. The only even of the day was stopping at a road side cafe (we did not have enough food for lunch) and tried to decipher the hand written menu. Mission impossible! We chose soup (CUP) as it was the only word we could recognise. Absolutely delicious, unfortunately not filling enough for cyclists. Isa's legs were refusing to work in the afternoon and she swallowed avidly the last nuts and dried fruits we carried.

 
 

Ah, and also, we reach our 6000th kilometer. We celebrated in compagny of Ded Moroz (or dead Morose?), who is the Russian Father Christmas. He is said to live in Veliky Ustiug and the town is signposted for 750km. What a trip for the little ones (we don't envy the parents driving them there!).

12th August 2005 - Berkobie to Lapatch - 80 km

Finally things were happening! We reached the city of Cheropoviets by lunch time. We could see from miles that it was going to be a beast of a city: a sea of smoking chemineys was looming against a grey sky in front of us. With the wind in our face, we made slow progress through an impressive aray of immense chimeneys, grey smoking buildings, leaking pipes and flares. The smell was constantly changing (from bad to worse) and at some point we were under a slight mist and decided to carry on as fast as we could - which was difficult.

We were starting to think that the city centre did not exist, but we soon find a little produkty amongst a few sad looking buildings and we managed to buy some lunch. There were many workers eating and drinking vodka there, they were as dirty as the factories they worked in. It makes you realised how lucky you are to only be passing through and not to live in front of this industrial monster.

 

Another Lenin statue, this time head only - the only Lenin bust seen to date.

 
 

Care needs to be taken with route planning - forest tracks can be muddy and boggy - or as in this case the materials available from the forest can be used to provide a rudimentary road surface.

 

 

Typical Russian wooden houses with decorative window surrounds

 
 

On the long road to Vologda - but plenty of "Dead Morose" (Russian Father Christmas) paintings and signs to alleviate the boredom

 

 

6000 km was celebrated with one particular bus stop mural of Dead Morose sporting a lovely Hitler moustache

 

 
 

We left the factories behind, in search of a more inspiring picnic spot. We crossed a typical wooden village, totally twarthed by the chimeneys, and we spotted the only sign for city centre we have seen in Russia (this was very lucky). We were soon amongst high buildings and beautiful people in a very busy streets. And as we carried on towards the river, we passed many old buildings being renovated and found a beautiful church overlooking the river. This is Russia for you: it is all together impressive, big, ugly, beautiful and surprising.

We gathered strength by the river and our picnic was livened up by a defilee of brides and grooms. We spotted six couples literally queueing up to enter the church on the hill and then go down to the river to take pictures by some maybe famous statues. Do not expect to feel special and unique on your big day in Russia!

 

Finding good drinking water has become more of a problem as the region is not heavily populated.
The village pump has been used on several occasions and then filtered to ensure it is
potable. Most locals do not drink the water.

 
 

Typical winding river in the area from Lake Ladoga to Vologda

 

 

The next challenge was to get out of the town on the other side of the river towards some tiny villages (for the first time, we had the chance not to follow the main road and we were happy to take it). This was a challenge because there were no signposts in Cheropoviets. We spotted the bridge on the river - easy task: we found out later that it is one of the three biggest bridges in Russia. Then after asking two policemen, one drunk man, another drunk man and getting lost twice, we finally made it to the village of Lapatch where we stopped to buy water (supplies were running low after two hours of cycling around Cheropoviets).

 

 

 
 


Lapatch was an almost invisible village from the road, tucked behind a high hedge we almost missed it. It was made of rows and rows of Dachas with beautiful flowery gardens. In the small magasin, we were soon to become an attraction to some drunken man named Vladimir, but he was whipped out back home by his angry mum (very funny scene!). Then we met Dasha, 15 years old, and her friends. Dasha speaks English perfectly, after only three years of studying it. She was keen to practice her English with us and as she says there are not many foreigners coming to the area, so the kids had plenty of questions in stock! They wanted to know how fast one can cycle with loaded bikes, but they also asked us if we had any problems with the police. This is a bit of a scary question when it comes from kids...

 

 

Always a sad sight to others cyclists - another cyclist who has hit the wall (bonked) through poor nutrition. Isa's bowl of watery soup proved to be insufficient for a hard days cycling
into a fierce headwind

 
 

The kids wanted to take us to the river, which was beautiful they said. It was indeed an impressive sight: such a big river and they said it frozes over in winter! From the river banks, we could see Cheropoviets buildings, which was where the kids were living out of holidays period.

The field by the river was rather quiet and the kids confirmed that not a lot of people come down there. We hid the tent by the woods and started to relax. Ooops, we forgot it was Friday night: groups of merry people were gathering by the beach and we were easily spotted when they walk to the woods to gather branches for a fire! Damnit, this was going to be a noisy night! It is the last time we follow kids' advise when it comes to wild camping! Oh and they also forgot to mention the party boat that sails past every hour through the night full of brunken wedding parties blasting out drum and bass.

The road sides are littered with crosses and memorials to people killed in car crashes - this particular one brings the message home quite dramatically

 

 

Communist roads are based on the Roman model. Planning and surveying for such projects is easy - all one needs is two places on a map and a straight edge (a ruler or cigarette packet will do). Job done, give me another road to design. The end result is great for cars but demoralising (and dangerous) for cyclists

 
 

The wonderful industrial heart of Russia. The largest industrial factory complex in the country at Cheropoviets. Count yourself lucky that the
internet does not include a smellivision
function.

 

 

13th August 2005 - Lapatch to Romanova - 93 km

Luckily, the drunks who had gathered by the river were maybe to drunk to bother us and we had no problem during the night. We left Lapatch and started cycling on wide gravel roads amongst a rather hilly landscapes. As the marshes were absent from the landscapes, there were many fields and many very quiet villages every few kilometres. What a change from the previous oh so boring cycling days!

As in St Petersburg the popular local landmarks are smothered with brides, grooms and their entourages doing their photo shoots. This particular beauty spot in Cheropoviets had a peak concentration of 5 brides/monument (very close to saturation point)

 
 

Dasha, Igor, Maxim and friend at the river side in Lapatch

 

The day carried on making good progress and enjoying the views. We were lucky to miss an almighty storm, but we could only see that all the fields had been thoroughly soaked and we were getting ready to spend a wet camping night. It was getting late and we got a bit lost amongst the small bumpy roads. We asked directions to a man in a car and suddenly we were following him in the direction of his house.

We have just met with Mikhail and we had been invited to Babushka Tamara's home!

 
 
It was a double celebration night: Mikhail had just finished building his house in Vologda and Dedouchka (grandfather) was 79 years old. So vodka, vodka, vodka, a bit of delicious food and a banya for the dirty cyclists. The banya deserves a bit of explanation: it is the typical Russian bathhouse. Set in a wooden house in the garden, it is a steam sauna. Terry helped Mikhail to get it ready: get the fire going and filled up a big tank of water. Once you are in, sweat pours all over you and you can wash with cold and hot water in big bowls. Excellent after a hard day cycling! Just be carfeful not to spill boiling water on your more delicate body parts
 

Route planning needs to include careful thought to river crossings - the rivers are immense - and the bridges few and far between

 
 

After 800kms from St Petersburg and too many Vodkas for breakfast, 2 tired cyclists eventually made it to Vologda

 


But it was not the end of the day yet. After the meal, we jumped in Mikhail's car in route for a Russian karaoke in the next town. The trip in itselft was a real piece of entertainement. We were not to tight our seat belts and Mikhail drove fast through holes, big puddles and frogs in his old Lada. It was nice to set foot on the ground again!

In the small bar we went to, there were no karaoke. But it was maybe as well as an almighty bolt of lightning struck the building with a huge explosion and flash of light(so loud!) and all went dark for a few very long minutes, the only light coming from the fizzing electrical wires. If you have seen the movie "War of the Worlds", it felt a bit like it. As we were in the middle of the once top secret Russian air force base surrounded by soldiers and pilots in uniform this was all a bit disconcerting.

Ira, Mikhail's girlfriend was getting pretty drunk and upset by some other drunk people, so off we went back in the car for an even more epic trip back to Babouska Tamara.

 

 
 

 

We stopped en route to buy one more bottle of Vodka, which of course had to be finished before we went to bed. We slept in the same room as Babuschka Tamara. We could not speak much with her and Dedouchka, but all the same, we were welcomed admirably!

14th August 2005 - Romanovo to Vologda - 44 km

And the next morning, we woke up to a breakfast of homemade pickled cucumber (a delish) and kartoushka (potatoes) grilled by Lucia the next door neighbourg. Babouchka Tamara served us two more shots of vodka and gave us her benediction for our trip.

Dedouchka came to inspect our bikes and Mikhail finaly managed to explain to him what we were doing. "Ya ni panimayou" said Dedouchka ("I don't understand"). The whole concept of our trip was beyond his comprehension. Dedouchka was indeed born in the house next door and has never been far from the tiny hamlet of Romanovo. It is worth saying that Dedouchka is quite a special man in the neighborhood for he is the only grandpa around. There are only Baboushkas and as Mikhail explained, vodka is mainly to blame for the lack of elderly men. Dedouchka's secret is to drink just a little bit of vodka (still a lot by our westerner standards!).

We said goodbye to the whole family and set off realy tired on the main road to Vologda. What a bunch of genuinely nice people we just met!

 

 

Yep it's another Lenin. This one is particularly noteworthy as being the first to be erected in Russia and it's life size. He must have been quite short as they obviously decided to extend his pedestal a little higher to provide more impact - well if it's good enough for Tom Cruise it's good enough for Lenin.

 
 

The Vologda Kremlin and St Sophia Cathedral - a cracking set of onions

Terry didn't need a head scarf despite the strong wind, a great view from the top of the Vologda Kremlin tower

 

Isa eventually found somewhere selling head scarves. This wasn't just a fashion based decision
or some sort of hippy statement it was a practical purchase. All women entering a Russina Orthodox church must wear a head scarf

 

 
 

Alexander Nevsky Church, Vologda

 

The last 40 km to Vologda seemed pretty hard for our two tired, vodka saturated bodies. Terry had some problem with his back tyre, which has developed some serious wear. We spotted a quiet and shadowy rest area by the side of the main road and decided to change the tyre. 15 minutes later, a bus full of people stopped and they all sat around at the table next to us with two bottles of vodka. We tried to ignore them (too tired to talk), but their curiousity was too strong. We were suddenly surrounded by 5 men asking loads of questions in Russian, two of them were trying to drag Terry away from his bike so he could get some vodka. We tried to resist, but we gave up and had to share half a plastic beaker of vodka before the men stuffed chocolate into in our mouths (traditionally something sweet is taken after each shot of vodka). And just by magic, they all went back into the bus and disappeared as quickly as they had descended upon us.

We had an offer to put our bikes on the bus and go to Moscow with them, but we managed to decline the invitation. Somehow, with our throbbing heads, we were not quite tempted...

We finally reached Vologda, tired but happy and in need of a big recovering siesta. As it happened, it took us two days to recover. We were still hangover on our rest day in the city.

 
  15th August 2005 - Sightseeing in Vologda  

 

St Sophia Cathedral, Vologda. For the continuation of our Russian exploits please follow the link Russia Part 2

 
         
         
         

 
For more information or questions please contact us at isaetterry@mac.com