Cycling Diary - Russia Part 2

The perfect camping spot, high above the river Volga - that was until the duck shooting began!

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16th of August 2005 - Vologda to Zakharovo, pretty much in the middle of nowhere - 45 km

Typical Russian holiday homes known as Dacha's. These collections of wooden buildings can be found in the countryside around all towns and cities.

We left Vologda rather late after updating the internet and collecting our emails; the usual computer faff. The day was breezy and sunny, the road heading South of Vologda was lovely. After 40 km riding ahead, Terry finally stopped and Isa caught him up. Terry pointed towards a very muddy track leading to a small village off the main road and said this is our turn. Hum.... Terry had decided to put the local map purchased in Vologda to the test: we were going to follow the small tracks that were indicated crossing the oblast (or district) border.

It was enough to test the patience of a saint. Hard, muddy, slow and painful. And then we had to turn around and do it all again.

After 3 km of hard cycling in the mud and deep puddles and One and a half hours later, we reached another small wooden village. A man came to meet us and when we showed our map, he said that the road was old and not accessible anymore but there was a way of crossing the oblast at the end of the main road. Back to square one and 3 more kilometers of cycling in very deep mud and another 1 1/2 hours. The mud was thick and blocked up the wheels such that they refused to turn - we were not happy bunnies. By that time the mosquitoes were feeling very hungry and the legs were very tired.

Our six kilometers muddy detour took us three hours, Isa's freshly washed trousers were dirtier than ever (very upsetting when you do the handwashing yourself)..


17th August 2005 - in the middle of absolutely nowhere, from Zakharovo to Vasilieskoye - 44 km

We knew that day was going to be hard and we were not disappointed. It all started well as we followed the main road to an immense opening in the forest with 5 small villages spread around beautiful fields. But where was our road? We had a first try and met a friendly mushroom picker who confirmed we were going in right direction, but there were many fallen down trees and it would be difficult, if not impossible with our bikes. There was an alternative old communist road was a bit further along the valley - apparently this was our best option.

The wide communist road was better than a small track but the surface was unrideable. The mud would stop the wheels turning after just 100 metres.

So off we went, we found and followed the muddy but wide communist road to the next village. We were now closer to the oblast border, but where was the road. Apart from the communist road, there were no more tracks leaving the villages and the electricity lines were also stopping there.

We knocked at a door and met a very friendly babushka who pointed us the direction of the barely discernible tractor route to the next village. Before we left (we had fortunately arrived at lunchtime), we were invited for tea and she gave us some potatoes and pickled cucumbers for the way. Such a nice Babushka! But we had an oblast border to cross, so we left her after a nice big hug and followed a grass track until it totally fizzled out.

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A lovely quiet bit of countryside, but the road was disappearing rapidly.

We managed to find another track heading in the right direction. Unfortunately, the track crossed the forest and was extremely muddy. Additionally, with forest always come mosquitoes. And these were fierce and bit through our cycling trousers and shirts. We became totally bogged down in the mud and as a few drops of stormy rain started to fall on us, Terry heard some wailing noises coming from Isa's direction - she was starting to lose her normal calm collected self! It was time for Terry to unveil the whole truth: on top of the mud, cold and pain, we were also lost! The compass has been indicated that the track kept on turning back towards were we had come from. Despair was setting in, but the mosquitoes forced us to keep on moving.

Behind a field of stinging nettles, about 2 km and 2 hours later, we saw some wooden houses. Yes, yes, finally it was a village and not the one of the nice Babushka!!! Hooray!!!! We had no idea of where we were, but a chap in a house confirmed that we were in the next oblast, finally! If we follow the track to the next village, we could find a tarmac road again.

When you are soaked to the bone a river crossing is no problem.

At last we had reached civilization.

We were dirty, knackered, but not lost anymore. We had to tackle a river crossing before reaching the next village, but it turned out to be quite easy as we were soaked through anyway: just walk through and wash the mud off your bikes. We then made it to the deserted main road, set camp for the night and were very grateful for the Babushka to have provided us with some potatoes as we had no other provisions..

That day we really felt like we were pushing our bikes through the middle of nowhere. But it was a surprise to find out how many people are actually living there!


18th August 2005 - Vasilieskoye to Liaza - 83 km

The start of the day was very grey and rainy. The road was extremely quiet and we passed many abandoned kolkhozes (soviet collective farms) and some tractors cemeteries. When we hit the village of Krasnoye, with its one stray dog and two shops, it felt strangely like a return to civilisation.

Soviet realism, this time in the form of one of the many war memorials.

We picknicked in Pochekonie, not a great town, but it has a great location as it sits on the confluence of two rivers at the far North of Ribinsk reservoir. We then followed the road South along the reservoir, but sadly did not get a single view of this massive lake (far too much impenetrable forest).

Typical Russian wooden houses.


19th August 2005 - Liaza to Kroomeich - 97 km

By lunch time, we reached the town of Ribinsk and the amazingly wide and beautiful Volga river. We did not spend much time visiting the town as the main buildings and churches were all covered by scaffolding (a very common sight in Russia ? everything is undergoing extensive renovation). We found the market and spend quite some time replenishing our supplies and treating ourselves to some delicious zakuski or salads. There was a fish section in the market that really amused us. All the fish was dried and presented in buckets, a little bit like you would present bunches of flowers. The market was so pleasant that we decided to have lunch there. We sat down on the floor, but this did not please the security man. It was not the fact that we were having lunch, but the fact that Isa was sitting on the floor. He borrowed a chair from the toilet lady and brought it so Isa could sit down properly during her lunch. We indeed forgot a small detail: in Russia, ladies do not sit on the floor. Actually, nobody sits on the floor and men tend to crouch on their heels rather than simply sit down.

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The Volga river and surrounding riverbanks.

We left Ribinsk under the sun and our shoes, still wet from our muddy escapade, finally dried. Heavens! We had lovely views on the Volga river all afternoon and even took a ferry across to the town of Michkin (a friendly driver told us that the road we were following would turn into a bumpy track if we did not cross the river and we had too much of bumpy tracks for the time being). Taking the ferry was in itself an experience. Clearly the boat we took was not designed as a car transporter. Each car has to reverse back into each sides of the boat. It took ages for everybody to get organized and a lot of shouting at the bad parkers who took to much room. After half an hour, a big van was still struggling to park and even the captain chip in and barked something from the loudspeakers. That was it, doors locked, off we went to the other side in 10 minutes only!.

We did not spend much time in Michkin, but there seemed to be a good museum there. It may be a history museum because we saw some people with costumes (or maybe some very backward locals?). We kept on pedaling South along the Volga until we found our most beautiful camping spot so far. We had an amazing view on the river and a fabulous sunset, not to mention our first wash after four days of mud and rain!.

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The Volga river near Michkin. A local hunter warned us to be wary of the mafia, but worse still the police!

Unfortunately, the river is also appealing to duck hunters. We have seen only two ducks so far in Russia, but this did not stop hunters starting some wild and loud shooting from 3.00am onwards. Our night of rest was curtailed abruptly.


20th August 2005 - Kroomiech to Berisoglebsky - 109 km

The morning was nice and fresh and we reached Uglich in good time. This was our first touristic stop in the Golden Ring, which is an area North East of Moscow with many historical towns all having a full suite of kremlins, monasteries and churches. We were firstly impressed by the almighty lock on the river Volga (sad engineers we were, sad engineers we stay!). This lock was so big it could take an enormous triple barge loaded with gravel, an immense passenger ferry and still had some room left for more big boats!.

Soviet engineering never did anything by halves.

Uglich was a lovely town, but we were somewhat disappointed or maybe a bit disorientated. You have to pay to visit every single church in the kremlin, sometimes quite a lot, but that is the way things are set up in the Golden Ring. We preferred to avoid the crowds and simply enjoyed a stroll around the town and kremlin. We then headed towards Rostov Veliky, further to the West. The road was quite tedious, but we had our first good view point in Russia. Forest, forest everywhere and quite a few working wheat and oat fields now. Along the road, there are also many churches and a big monastery in renovation. This area is definitively gearing up to become a main tourist attraction in the years to come.

Uglich onions.

As the evening approached, we came across two surprises. The not so nice town of Berisoglebski has the most fantastic and decrepit Kremlin. All was closed as it was quite late, but we enjoyed having a stroll around its mighty defense walls, churches and gigantic gates. We also met another couple of cyclotourers, Andrei and Carolina from the Netherlands. As it happened we slept in the same field that night, without knowing it, and we met again the day after..

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The fantastic surprise kremlin in Berisoglebski - not worth mentioning in the guidebooks apparently.


21st August 2005 - Berisoglebski to the river Sookhoda after Ilinskoye-Khovanskoye - 74 km

Rostov Veliky has the most surprising Kremlin we have come across. Once you step inside, it is like another word: there is a fury of churches of all shapes and colours, some are gate-churches and in the defense walls, some are cathedrals, some are chapels, some are castles. Onion domes everywhere! There are also some enormous swinging bells which plays many beautiful tunes (for a certain fee!). In the morning, we got the Kremlin mixed up with a nearby monastery. This tells you how beautiful things are in this area.

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Rostov Veliky kremlin, generally considered to be Kremlintastic.

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Thrown in at no extra cost - Rostov Veliky monastary, it certainly made 2 cycletourists happy.

We cycled away to the West of Rostov, there are many beautiful villages with Babushkas selling all sort of garden vegetables in front of their home. Passed the town of Ilinskoye-Khovanskoye, we noticed that two kids were following us on their bikes at a distance. Normally it is not a nuisance, but we just wanted to set up camp unnoticed by the river, so we seriously pushed on until they were not to be seen anymore. As we reached the river and started looking for a spot, the two kids turned up! Damnit! But it was in fact Natalya and her son Roman who spotted us in town and chased up to take a picture of us and our bikes. We were really surprised and were quite happy to pose like sporting stars, hey, hey Unfortunately the night and cold were then setting in and our very quick wash in the river was spoilt by mosquitoes. Cyclotourer life is tough!.

Now we both like onions, we cook them in most meals, but we began to wonder whether it was possible to tire of onions eventually.


22nd August 2005 - Ilinskoye-Khovanskoye to Podolets - 93 km

The day started badly with Isa sitting on an ants nest. Yes, it does hurt, especially when you have a days cycling ahead of you, ouch!!!! The cycling started along a wide boring road until we managed to find a small turning off the main road (there were many turning off the main road, but none are signposted in this area).

A local village shop (essential to replenish the biscuit supply).

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View across the now disued cereal fields and the derelict kolkhoze buildings, abandoned by the local farmers. Huge areas of land once under intensive cultivation have now been left to gradually return to wild land.

We camped after the town of Gavrilor-Posad where there is an immense, but apparently disused, horse house. There are also many kolkhozes and many fields, but they are all in working order, which makes a nice change from what we saw earlier on in our trip.

Another common site along the roadside. Lack of maintenance of field and road drains leads to areas which one does not consider for a wild camping spot.

Russian driving is terrible, the evidence is there at the side of every road in the form of graves, headstones, memorials sometimes incorprating the remains of the damaged vehicles.

Many memorials incorporate a small table and chairs (also common in the Russian Ortodox graveyards. We were not sure of the etiquette or acceptability according to local tradition but it provided a lovely spot for a respectful lunch


23rd August 2005 - Podolets to the river in Bogolioubovo - 71 km

We visited the famous town of Suzdal. We did not know quite what to expect, and we found a lovely big village nestled by the river, with a multitude of churches and monasteries all around. There are said to be 30 churches. We have not counted that many, but they are at every corner of the town. Obviously there is the obligatory kremlin as well, whose cathedral has a rather sagging central onion dome. Quite entertaining once you noticed it! .

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Some onions last longer than other onions. Isa's headscarf was a serious attempt to blend in with the locals (it's also obligatory for women in Russian Orthodox churches).

A view in suzdal, we felt these had more of a shallot quality to them.

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The fantastic interior of a Russian Orthodox church. Also more onions, some of them even made of wood!

We spent the afternoon cycling on the main road to Vladimir. It is a far too busy road and makes cycling along it not pleasant at all. Our road atlas is not very accurate and does not give any alternative options to leave the main road in the direction of Bogolioubovo, which we also wanted to visit. A bit of a winge here, but non-accurate maps are a problem in Russia..

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Boundary markers for the old Kohlkoze.

Anyway, back to Bogolioubovo: there was an impressive monastery, plonked by the main road and all freshly renovated. The sister at the door was a bit grumpy, but nonetheless we were allowed to wonder in the monastery. There was the most enormous bell tower, with a reception hall and big chandelier on the first floor, and a massive hay stack in front of the main entrance We left the sisters and went down to the river to see a lovely little church and find a spot for our tent.

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Monastary in Bogolioubovo and campsite nearby.

The church we found stands at the end of a small track, but despite its isolation, it is a major piece of history in the architecture of the Golden Ring. It is one of the few churches dating from the 12th century that have not been destroyed by the Golden Horde (the one from Chenggis Khan). It is simple in design, with a few external carvings.

Simply beautiful.

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The little church (inspired by Kiev Cathedral) in Bogolioubovoin and starting the ride back towards Vladimir.

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At least the hats don't match!.


24th August 2005 - Bogolioubovo to Yeltsino - 81 km

Vladimir was a much bigger city that we expected and it took us ages to cross it. There were many, many apartment blocks, followed by many, many factories and a big power station. There was also the usual Russian city madness of wild driving, bad pavements and pipes criss-crossing the town everywhere (we think these ones were hot water pipes). Still, the effort was rewarded by a fantastic view point on the river Kliazma and two beautiful cathedrals, also salvaged from the Golden Horde destructions. As for the little church from Bogolioubovo, there were both simple in design and very beautiful.

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Vladimir Cathedral (also Kiev inspired), and obviously one has to have a Vladimir Lenin statue in Vladimir!

Yet, the main attraction of the city was to change for a moment: it became us! A group of Chinese businessmen were really intrigued by our bikes and we told them to have a go on them. The first man to try crashed mightily in general laugher. I am sure it hurt though

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(left) The mad Chinese businessman couldn't resist crashing Isa's bike!
(right) More Soviet realism in a war memorial.

We left Vladimir and turned off the busy main road to Moscow to take the more scenic P75. The road has been seriously hilly since Suzdal and we were lucky to find a delightful camping spot in a river valley for a good nights sleep.

A nice quiet spot to contemplate our strategy for cycling into Moscow.


25th August 2005 - Yeltsino to Moscow second ring road - 115 km

Our objective for the day was to get as closed to Moscow as possible. Not surprisingly, the roads got busier and busier all through the day and the villages grew charmless, apart from one or two exceptions. New houses and various buildings, most of them cladded in concrete, were a big contrast to the tranquil and pretty feel that the wooden villages were used to.

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(left) A typical street scene. Small kiosks all selling very similar produce. All transactions are carried out through a tiny low level window (normally bodged to further reduce the available area). This particular kiosk had just received a delivery of 200 loaves - all passed through the miniscule hatch individually.
(right) 7000 km's arrived on a less than attractive stretch of Moscow bound motorway.

We took some time finding a camping spot after Terry got attacked by crawling green bugs in the forest (we are still not sure what they were, but the large warning signs on the side of the road encouraged us to move on), but we finally found a nice green field off the road.


26th August 2005 - Moscow second ring road to Moscow Izmayolo park - 50 km

We spent most of the morning whipping our panniers to get the mud off them. We were aware of our dirtiness (our poo camouflage was at its peak!) and we had hotel staff to convince to take our bikes in. Pine branches and whipping proved to be an efficient way to shed the mud off the panniers, which is good because our cleaning equipment is rather limited!.

There must have been an air force base or factory nearby, probably extra top secret because we couldn't find any clues.

The road to Moscow was absolutely horrendous. For the first time, it was actually scary to drive amongst cars. The road had three lanes, but the drivers took it as four or five lanes and overtaking on the inside seem to be the norm. The lorries would simply not swerve around us and twice we were nearly pushed off the road.

Moscow seemed to rise suddenly off the ground. All the high rise development have been kept enclosed inside the main ring road and it contrasts sharply with the flat surrounding landscape. Once inside the ring road, the traffic was much quieter. We took some side streets with hardly any traffic and then crossed Izmayolo Park. It is an immense woody park close to Moscow centre. It is immense and very quiet, so our crossing of Moscow city turned out to be rather easy.

The hotel we booked was just on the other side of the park, but booking in turned out to be a real nightmare. The bossy ladies from reception would not register us because we have not registered our visas during the last three days. We explained the situation, got our travel agent involved, but nothing would do it, we had to surrender ourselves to the police and pay a heavy fine (3,570 rubles for both of us, bargained down from 5,000 rubles). There are plenty more explanations about our visa registration trouble in the visa section of Russia Part 1, if you feel the heart to take on this challenge as an independent traveller.

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(right) The elaborate and spacious Moscow Underground - never a wait of more than 2 minutes (we know because there is a timer above every tunnel).
(left) View over the river towards one of the Stalinist "Seven Sisters".


27th of August to 2nd of September 2005 - Moscow here we are!

We spent a few days at our hotel, to secure the holy Moscow visa registration and then two nights at our friend Vitalifs. We did not spend any more nights with Vitali to keep out of trouble with the police, but as it turns out, they do not seem to bother tourists very much. It is easy for them these days: they simply have to wait for cyclotourers to turn up at the station. They have it sussed!.

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It is difficult to know whether St Basil's looks better by day or by night.

We did so many things in Moscow, it is hard to recall all of them at once. Obviously we saw the main sights: Kremlin, St Basils, the amazing underground stations, etc We are really raving about Lenins mausoleum. It was the most surreal experience of the trip (and it comes for free!), it felt like being in a video game. All physical sensations seem to be taken away as you drop down into the pitch darkness and silence, with soldiers at every turn before suddenly reaching the main man himself. .

The other fascinating place was the USSR hall of exhibitions (VDNKh). It used to present in a glorious (but tacky) manner all the technical achievements of the USSR and is now a giant and messy shopping mall. It includes rockets, gold fountains, aeroplanes, all styles of architecture and best of all the Electrification building (Lenin said Communism was Socialism plus electricity? Rock on Electrical Engineers of the World? We have the power).

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Monument to Yuri Gagarin and other cosmanauts.

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The cosmonaut monument and the "real thing" in the USSR hall of exhibitions (VDNKh).

Meeting Vitali made our visit to Moscow very special as he indicated the good places to go, and also took care of entertaining us after his long hours of work. We met many of his friends, it was great!.

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Electrification where would we be without it? Meanwhile Process Engineers just sit on their arses (in front of the Kremlin).

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Two of the giants of Russian History (left) Mr Lenin again and (right) The new monument to Peter the Great. This monument is horrendously big, and in our opinion quite hideous. Apparently it is not held in high regard by most Muscovites - after all Peter did relegate Moscow when he moved the Russian capital to St Petersburg. (Please note that even though it constructed right next to the Moscow chocolate factory the statue is disappointingly not made of choclolate

We managed to cross Moscow twice on our bikes: from the hotel to Vitalis and from Vitalis to Yaroslav Train Station. This is actually not as bad as it sounds, if you are ready to breathe all kind of car exhaust fumes, allow plenty of time and use the pavements where possible. Another achievement was to book a train ticket without mastering Russian properly. We did not quite get what we wanted, but it turned out to be the perfect option eventually (see our section on trains).

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Our kind and generous host Vitali (on the left) and a gathering of other Russian Architects in an initially quiet Moscow childrens park. The red wine and rum combination soon had the Russians showing their impressive gymnastic skills. Fortunately there is no photographic record of Terry's dismal effort.

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More of the Seven Sisters.

And sadly, it is in Moscow that our computer let us down.


3rd to 5th September 2005 - Moscow to Irkustk ? 5900 km easily!

Three days locked in a train, raaahhh! It is hard after four months spent outside on the roads. Still it was nice to chill out properly. We did not have the computer anymore, so we spend lots of time reading, writing, eating and drinking. The landscape by the window is pretty, but mainly flat and not very varied: woods, dachas villages, more woods, big fields. We really appreciated covering such a great distance in only three days. The only break was to stretch our legs at the regular stops. We were hoping to see lots of babushkas selling goods, but they were only at a few stations. Maybe the babooshkas are now forbidden as there are now plenty of ugly kiosks with tiny openings to conduct the transactions.

A 4 bed Kupe, booked out for 2 persons and two bikes - not without some initial altercations with the train staff. Both bikes are on the upper bunk bed, with the wheels in overhead storage.

The time went surprisingly fast, but this may be due to the fact that everyday we add a couple of hours onto our watch so the 5 hours time difference between Moscow and Irkustk would not come as too much of a shock on our arrival, which is still did to us - the two unseasoned travellers.

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(left) One of the less well presented platforms, no chance of pushing a trolley along here.
(right) Isa chilling out/going mad due to the confinement. Luckily Terry had recently watched the Great Escape and managed to put a variety of techniques into practice to stay sane and alive.


Buryat Republic - 6th to 22nd September 2005

6th to 7th September 2005 - Irkustk

We arrived in Irkustk fresh and early and by 11.00am we had secured a rough hotel room at the hotel Russ and were visiting the city. The most striking thing about Irkustk is the completely appalling driving. During our three days stay, we witnessed 5 minor bumps in town (with the police involved? It was the first time we saw them doing anything except taking backhanders!) and two people nearly got run over crossing the street. We have deveoped a theory about this. We think every Russian is built with a certain dose of impatience in them. Car drivers simply cannot tolerate that the car in front of them need to slow down for a red light or a pedestrian. There is always loud, frantic beepping, then a harsh braking noise and sometime a bump.

A leftover from communist times "L'Internationale" celebrated on the end of a building

It was amusing to see schoolchildren crossing the main street ulitsa Lenina (every single Russian town or city main street bares a street of the same name). Two teachers stood in the middle of the street and they urgently persuaded all the children to cross the road. The kids were obviously shouting and laughing as they ran across. Impatient car drivers then started to force their vehicles through before all the kids had made it to the safety of the pavement. And then a scary moment, one kid lost a shoe! The teacher, following behind, swooped in a majestic way as a international rugby player effortlessly picks up the ball, sidestepped the remaining traffic and touchdown! One class across a pedestrian crossing and not one pupil missing or injured.

Another striking feature of Irkustk is the real poverty of some of the people. We had not witnessed it so much in European Russia, but some people here clearly survive on whatever they find in the bins and on the streets. It is a really sad sight and we don't know how on earth they manage to get through the arctic winter.

We spent half a day visiting the small village of Listvyanka. We took the hydrofoil from Irkustk. Nice village, but we have seen nicer on our bike travel through European Russia. The setting by the lake Baikal is fabulous though. There were many other tourists hanging around, without quite knowing what to do with themselves, just like us. There is not much to do but strolling along and buying touristy nick-nacks. We chose to try smoked Omul, some kind of endemic trout, for which we paid a touristy price. Scary looking (the fish is cut open and stretched using tooth-picks before being smoked at the roadside), but very nice and we didn't get ill from it! We spotted another fine example of Russian impatience in Listvyanka: our boat was coming, but the driver and impatient assiatant decided that there was no time to moor it properly. The boat was 20 metres long and the assitant tried desperately to pull the hydrofoil to the shore with a single rope. People started alighting the boat when it was still 1.5 metres from the bank. A chap was helping them to jump across the water, but a rather fat older lady could not make it, and obviously she was slowing down the unloading and loading of the other passengers. Somehow, they managed to get her across but then a tourist nearly fell in the water following the old "one foot on the boat, one foot on dry land trick". It was at this point that the assistant decided that perhaps it would be quicker to moor the boat from both ends. By the time we got onto the boat, it was properly moored and secured so it was a disapponitiingly easy to get aboard.

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(left)View on the hill above Listvyanka, Lake Baikal
(right) Smoked Omul, obviously make a tasty meal

We spent a lot of time investigating lots of options for cycling away from Irkutsk; Olkhon Island, which look fabulous or to cycle the Circumbaikal railway line, which is said to have fine views on the Baikal and to be an engineering masterpiece of bridges and tunnel (hum). To go to the Olkhon Island involve a 5 hours bus ride or more than a week cycling back and forth there, so we gave up the idea. As for the Circumbaikal railway line, Vladimir from the Russian Cycle Touring Club had organized a tour in the past. Check out this link to see how they made it with their bikes ( http://www.geocities.com/TheTropics/8640/baik03.html ). With our big panniers, we did not feel up to the job. Having ruled out all these options, we decided to follow the main road around the lake. And we did not regret it.


8th September - Irkustk to well Irkustk - 35 km

On our last day in Irkustk, the hotel staff decided that we should leave at 7.30 in the morning because they had a big group of tourists coming that day and they needed to clean the room(!). We managed to negociate a 10.00 o'clock checking out time, but left with a bitter feeling and worse - no breakfast. We went to pick up our Mongolian visas. It all went so smoothly, that we still cannot believe it. The lady who dealt with us even asked us in perfect English "Do you have any questions". What a service! Certainly not a question that one hears froom Russian officials.

And then we left Irkustk. As usually, it was not easy as are no sign posts in Russian cities. But somehow, we managed to get in the completely wrong direction. We only found out from the melon saleman in a layby who kindly pointed us back where we had come from. After 35 km, we were finally just out of the town, but it was night already so we set up camp in the first quiet field we found.

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(left)Top quality roundabout furnishing
(right)A nice spot for lunch

As we were coming through the busy suburbs of Irkustk we saw a sight that was remarkable, in fact it could be classed as a miracle. We were cycling slowly up a busy hill, past bus stops, queues and beggars. Terry saw a poor blind beggar sitting with his white stick and hand outstretched. As we struggled by the blind beggars head turned to watch the strange site of 2 loaded touring bikes plough up the hill.


9th September 2005 - Irkustk to Gramatoucha - 62 km

The day was fabulously sunny, but the road after 11 days of rest turned out to be quite a good challenge. It was up and down all day and we climbed a total of 1162 m, which is the second highest hilliest day of the trip. The car drivers were giving many friendly beeps, but they still drive like maniacs and sadly enough there are one or two tombs or memorials at each twist and turn of the road.

The road was beautiful though as the forest, mainly pine, birch and larch, has put on its autumn colors. The horizon wass jagged and we were clearly into the mountains. In the evening, we had no choice but to camp in the forest, despite our fear of tick bites. We covered up well and went for it through the high grass.

Autumn colours in Siberia


10th September 2005 - Gramatoucha to Soukhoy Routsey - 57 km

The morning started with bucket loads of rain and we stayed cold the whole day. As we were now higher, the trees were bright yellow and the babushkas were selling the autumn mushrooms in flimsy home made huts made from plastic sheets - they looked colder than us. We carried on along the road, up and down, until a fabulous downhill with our first view on Lake Baikal. It was simply beautiful.

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(left)Our first view of Lake Baikal, and a well needed cafe stop
(right)Perfect cycling weather, and glorious views

We stopped at a cafe to warm our bones and carried on to Slioudanka. This is such an ugly town with collection of non-smiling people. Maybe it was the cold weather, but it makes no sense to us as it is set in the most beautiful location imaginable: by lake Baikal and at the start of the Circumbaikal railway line, surrounded by steep mountanis and beautiful autumn forests. Clearly the town has not taken advantage of these features. So we pedalled away to find a camping spot in the forest again. We were not bothered by mosquitos from that day onwards, as they had been killed off by the cold, but we they were by tiny biting tiny flies. These flies looked innocent but would swarm around and jump into your nostrils, eyes and mouth - quite irritating. Terry then discovered that when they bite they draw blood. That night we lit our first fire - it kept us warm and kept the little blighters away.

Apart from flies beware of ticks - they spread some sort of disease that turns human brains the colour of custard and it leaks from your ears


11th September 2005 - Soukhoy Routsey to Tankhoy - 83 km

The weather had chosen to be on our side. The sky was a deep Provence blue and the forest had golden and bright red shades. With a lovely views over lake Baikal, the setting was fantastic. The lake itself is 60 km wide at the southern end - so the other "coast" is just seeable - the Northern end is over 600 km away so we couldn't see that.

Facts of the day - Lake Baikal is the worlds largest lake, it contains 20% of the worlds freshwater, is 1600m deep and has its own species of freshwater seal.

As the road flattened out, we lost sight of the lake (there are forests and the Transiberian railway between the road and the lake), but we still had magnificent views on the mountains that surround the South of the lake. Our picnic spot was unfortunately spoiled by the damned little flies. They got everywhere and before you know it, you have snorted three and swallowed five. We had to wear our mosquito head net, which is always a risky manouvre when eating a sandwich.

As we drove along, we noticed many convoys of imported, left hand drive, used cars from Japan. 90% are white and 100% are plastered with mud. The road up to Vladivostock has only fully opened last year and has been turned into a mud track with the rain from the previous days. A few things amused us. First, the fact that nearly all cars are white (if you chose a red car, according to our friend Vitali, you are either very strange or a woman) and secondly, the fact that there doesn't seem to be any car transporters or transport by train. Instead convoys of 10 men/10 cars are travelling backwards and forwards between Moscow and Vladivistock. At the best part of 9000km this is quite an undertaking as well as putting a few miles on the car.

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(left)A siberian river and beautiful mountain backdrop
(right)A small Siberian village, on the shore of Lake Baikal

A lorry driver stopped and insisted that he should give us a lift, apparently he was looking for company as he picked up a few walkers a bit further on. But we declined, too happy to enjoy our sunny ride (had this happened on the way to Vologda, our answer would have been different).

In the evening, we found a beautiful mountain stream to wash ourselves (it was about time after four days cycling). The water was crystal clear, but extremely fresh! It was our fastest and most invigorating wash on the trip!


12th September 2005- Tankhoy to Kliouevka - 73 km

Another cool and sunny day. The cycling was made easier by the fact that the road was now much flatter than the previous days. We stopped in the nice town of Tankhoy. We interrupted the school sports lesson at the comprehensive - the kids were racing in the middle of the road and obviously all was disturbed when we turned up. They indicated the direction of the local shop, by the train platform, and we were surprised to find it half empty. There was no bread. We met two men working on the railway line. Well, one said that he was working but he just sat down by the railway and drank his beer from the shop. Anyway they directed us to the petrol station, which did not sell any food at all. We must have looked quite desperate at that point: a car stopped and the driver told us that there was a hotel in about 12 km. We explained that we are looking for bread, not a hotel, and the driver immediately gave us a loaf of bread he had in the back of his car before driving off. Fantastic! There were also many babouskas along the main road, but all of them sold the same thing: sour little red berries, obviously in season. Since we have learnt that you can only buy them by the bucketload, we did not investigate any further.

We camped by a big but disused harbour peer after Kliouevka. This provided us our first oppurtunity to swim in the lake Baikal.


13th September 2005 - Kliouevka to Posolskoye - 76 km

We carried on the main M55 and stocked up on food in Babushkin. Contrarily to Tankhoy and its lonely, half-empty shop, Babushkin had about 12 shops and a little market with babuskas selling all sorts of vegetables and pine nuts.

We left the M55 to explore the Selenga delta. The change of scenary was striking: we were now crossing a very wide and flat river delta with many fields and herds of cows and horses. The town of Posolskoye has a working monastery and many fishing boats, but all the wells were dis-used. We asked a Babuska where we could get water and she told us that lake Baikal water is good for drinking. The lake is such a local pride, it is amusing. But we had no choice, so we had at first go at drinking Baikal water (after filtration). After Posolskoye, we rode through sand dunes and we found a cracking camping site on the shore of the lake.

A nice spot on the shore for lunch


14th September 2005 - 0 km - resting by lake Baikal near Posolskoye

The camping spot we chose is apparently very popular with Russians, as shown by the many plastic bottles and the rubbish left on the site. But the place was so beautiful and so quiet following the holiday season that we decided to stay for a whole day. We spotted herons, ducks, flying geese and eagles.

All went well until seven o'clock when two duck hunters turned up with their boat. They parked their car just behind our tent! This annoyed us a lot because the area is so huge, but maybe we stole their favourite mooring spot. They looked around for an hour or so and went off, leaving the boat ready to sail and we saw no more of them.

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(left)Another sunset next to Lake Baikal
(right)It was 24 degrees and perfect for swimming and sunbathing, we had no idea that we would be freezing our extremeties off the following day

Later, as we were preparing for bed, three loose dogs started staring at us from a distance. In the dusk, it was quite spooky and we armed ourselves with big sticks, not an easy task because most of the small branches have been burned in the fires the Russians always light whilst camping. By ten o'clock, we were finally ready for a very noisy night as we were also aware of a mouse which had visited our bags the previous night. But nothing happened. Instead a wind from hell rose in the middle of the night and the rain started pouring down.


15th September 2005- Posolskoye to Talovka - 81 km

This was our coldest day ever: 5 degres celcius in the rain and wind. This spoilt enjoying the beautiful landscape of the Delta and it was simply too cold to stop and look around at the views. We hardly met anybody in the morning (people seemed wiser than us), but there was many free-range horses and cows. We started to have a feel for Mongolia. We had to stop to warm our bones in a cafe (or Zakoostsnaya). We tried to ask for all the food we could decipher on the menu (an impressive three meals: soup, borsh and goulash), but we could only get "posi" whatever we asked for. So we went for Posi. We found that the people are the next table were eating in quite a noisy and slurpy fashion, but we soon found that we were the ones who embarassed themselves by asking for a fork to eat the posis. A posi is a big steamed ravioli (with a hole in top) and you are supposed to bite in it, suck and slurp the juice out as noisily as possible without burning your whole mouth and then deal with the meat. Apparently, it is a Buryat speciality (both the Posi and eating the Posi).

A statement as to the reliability of Russian cars and maintenance, every layby has it's own service area


16th September 2005- Talovka to Ulan-Ude - 77 km

Our last day before Ulan-Ude was again cold and grey, but this time we were back into the mountains before following the beautiful Selenga valley. As we approched Ulan-Ude, many Dacha villages appeared and deforestation was very obvious in places. The landscape was now hilly and bare. The two highlights of the day were spotting a cowboy on horse and Terry being beeped and waved by a Transiberian train driver - now that doesn't happen everyday!

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(left)War memorial near Ulan Ude
(right)The trans Siberian railway over the Selenge river, it was bitterly cold - nothing that a quick cuppa can't fix!


17th to 18th September 2005 - resting in Ulan-Ude

We liked Ulan-Ude more than Irkustk. Maybe it is the huge 10 m high head of Lenin on the main square, maybe we simply took time to enjoy it more. We visited the fine art museum and went back to the Opera House twice. They are fabulous left-over form the Soviet period. The quality of the shows is so good for only 100 rubbles each (2 pounds), it still seems too good to be true to us. And for those who are wondering, yes, Terry did enjoy the ballet and the opera!

Mr Lenin, a quite impressive 10 metre head in the centre of town

The people were also very friendly, they tried to speak to us in English and we were even offered a set of postcards from Ulan-Ude from 1988. This was an excellent present as we could really see how the city, and most towns of Russia, have changed in the past 17 years. The pavements are now crumbling and filled with ugly kiosks selling drinks and cigarettes and the motor car has completely stolen the open spaces from the people.

On our second day in Ulan-Ude had a very different flavour to it. We spent the whole morning looking for an internet cafe. We found one at the post office, but the security settings was so high that we could not send or receive emails, check our bank accounts, attach a USB memory card or opwn web folders - completely and utterly useless. The only option left was to use the internet centre in our hotel for a hefty price. Later we rang our families from the telephone office. This was a pain in the ass because you have to say exactly how long you want to call for and pay up front. There are no extension possible, you are simply cut off. And when the office staff realised we were using a local phone card to call internationaly, they sent the security guard into our phone cabin and terminated the phone call - even though Terry was in the middle of a conversation with his mum. The reason was that the office computer did not work, so we argued that everything was working fine. Terry had an excellent go at winding up the grumpy woman behind the plexiglass in English. He really wound her up, but she deserved it and we felt (a bit) better for it. We had lost our fight against Russian nonsense rules on this day!


19th September 2005 - Ulan-Ude to Klioutsi - 46 km

The morning started with a dispute with the cleaners. We tried to explain to them that Terry had drunk two bottles of beer from the fridge, but one had been opened before, partially drunk and recapped. We did not want to pay for it. They were not happy with our explanation and we could not believe it when we saw them coming back with the bottle we discarded two days ago, still nearly full! Their argument was that the bottle top and the bottle were not matching, so we must have drunk the bottle. Hey?... And on we went... We think they made us pay for that bottle by not giving a breakdown of our bill to reception. Cheeky!

Finally we were ready to go and we were stoking up for the trip when Terry realised he had not packed his compass. This is every traveller's nightmare: you are looking for that small essential item somewhere in your freshly packed luggage. It took Terry 40 minutes of packing - unpacking without success. Isa had to go back to the hotel, ask for the cleaners to open the room (it took them ten minutes to turn up) and found the compass hidden under the television! We were finally ready to leave at 14.00!

We left Ulan Ude grumpy and fed up with awkward, unhelpful Russian beaurocracy. This was only exaggerated when the petrol pump attendant refused to fill up our petrol containers with that helpful Russian Mantr "Niet". We had 600kms to the Mongolian capital and no fuel. It was then that an 80 year old chap beckoned us over to his old, beat up Lada. He opened the boot whipped out a hose pipe and siphoned a litre and half of petrol into our containers, jumped back into his car and sped away. Just another typical day in Russia - one minute frustration and beaurocracy - the next kindness and help from a perfect stranger.

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(left)The Buddist Datsan
(right)The vicious tiger at the datsan

We reached Ivogolski Datsan (a buddhist monastery) at the end of the afternoon. Our road atlas was useless and the monastery location was shown in completely the wrong place. But we were stopped by the side of the main road by a white car with no number plate. Two rather drunk men jumped out. Terry shot off thinking the worst, leaving slow starting Isa to deal with them. They asked straight away: "Datsan, Datsan ?". "Da, da" said Isa and they kindly (but drunkenly) pointed us in the right direction, i.e., on the opposite side of Ivogolski. Another example of unprovoked help and assistance from the ever friendly Russians.


20th September 2005 - Klioutsi to Goosinooserk - 87 km

We woke up to a fabulous sunshine and we cycled all day through beautiful and rolling landscape. The Landscape was very different from that surrounding of lake Baikal, mainly due to deforestation. People seem also to have more time to stop and speak to us. We met twice the same lorry driver on our way. As he stopped to speak with us, a few other car drivers also stopped and we ended up twice forming a little congregation by the side of the road with everybody looking at our bikes and maps, nodding, pointing and shaking hands before jumping back in their cars. Very friendly people. Unfortunately Terry got stopped by the militsia at the entrance of Goosinooserk in the evening. As Isa cycled closer, she recognised one of the policeman and said Hello. He was so happy! He was one of the three drunken chaps who gave us directions to the Datsan the day before. Today, with his uniform and big gun, he seemed to have sobered up a little and Terry did not recognise him!

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(left)Early morning sun on top of a small mountain
(right)An unfortunate sight found all over Russia. Wherever people gather at beauty spots there are always huge quantities of broken glass.


21st September 2005 - Goosinooserk to Kalinisha - 66 km

This part of our cycling trip was getting better and better. The landscape is truly scrumpsious and with the perfect weather, it was a real pleasure to ride. The rivers were a glorious blues and the vegetation had fabulous autumnal tinges. We stopped at Novoselengisk to refill with water and food. The town is so run down that the drinking water main was also broken and we took water from a big tank on wheels that the inhabitants had to bring along.

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(left)Another Kohlkotz (collective farm) boundary, obviously Mr Lenin gets mentioned again.
(right)A beautiful campsite above the lake next Goosiooserk

We met a few school children and before we realised it, we were surrounded by the whole school and one English teacher. The school is a boarding school for all the kids of the surrounding villages. It was a great to speak to them and it was the first time the kids had seen cyclotourists. We spent one hour answering their questions and lending Isa's bike to all the boys for a ride. When we left, two kids escorted us ot the main road and pretended to come to Mongolia with us!

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(left)Our helpers from Novoselenginsk
(right)The river Selenge, the last we saw of it before Mongolia


22nd September 2005 - Kalinisha to Altanbulag in Mongolia - 67 km

After a big woody hill, we reached the border down of Kiartha, which was not particularly pleasant (it is a garrison for a large Army unit) but where a stop was nonetheless needed to stock up with food and water again and spend our few last rubles before the border crossing.

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(left)8000km's in the bag just before Kiartha
(right and below)Our hilltop campsite, the last night in Russia, one of the best spots so far

We did find a nice cafe in which to have our last Posis, and the ladies were adament that the bikes must come in the cafe with us for safety. We did not hang around for much longer in the town. The border crossing went extremely smoothly (see our section above) and by the evening we were finding a camping spot across the border - in the land of Horsemen, nomads and Ghengis Khan!


For details of our next destination please follow the link Mongolia

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