From Russia with love

From Russia with love

A personal record of the Cycle Russia Challenge which took place between the 5th – 14th September 2008 by Carol Graves
Why Russia ? you may ask. Well, it has been “on my list” for a while, and 2008 has evolved as the Year of Eastern Europe, so to speak. I had a holiday in Poland in May, worked for a charity in Sarajevo in July, so cycling in Russia in September was a logical next step.

Our ride of 550 km was promoted as St Petersburg to Moscow – those were our start/finish points, but the actual distance between cities is much further, so we had to hitch a train ride part-way (or else our cycling would have needed another week !)

St Petersburg was beautiful, a very “European” style city, sometimes called the Venice of the North. I hadn’t realised that it was built on many islands, and has hundreds of bridges. Good old Peter the Great really had a vision here. The Peter & Paul fortress with its very slim cathedral spire topped by the Angel wind-vane, is visible for miles. Tsar Nicholas and family – the last Romanovs – are now buried here, as are all previous Tsars , under plain white tombs topped with the Orthodox cross.

We saw the Changing of the Guard at midday – a band playing, and soldiers (so young, and doing the goose-step!) giving a clever display of marching in and out, back and forth. But the atmosphere felt very different to our Horse Guards in London – I wouldn’t want to argue with the Russian army. Thought of Georgia, still in the news.

We also saw the battleship “Aurora” from which the first shots of the 1917 Revolution were fired. And St Isaac’s cathedral – the fourth biggest in the world, and the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood (on site where Tsar Alexander 2nd was assassinated) , and the huge Winter Palace and Hermitage museum (only from the outside, it would have needed another week to see inside !) I decided that Everything in Russia was Big and Strong and was telling us to take it seriously Or Else.

Our hotel was comfortable (and Big) and just off the Nevsky Prospekt, where our day guide, Anna, kept telling us we should go to experience the night life. She seemed unaware that we had a very energetic journey ahead the next day. Some of us went out to change our Euros into Roubles, and found a fairly good rate in a money-changers underground den, hidden from the street, and feeling rather creepy; an unfriendly woman sat in a little cell, thrust our notes through the hatch, and we almost ran out just to get away fast.

Off then to the railway station, but you cannot just hop on a train in St Petersburg, you have to show your passport and woe betide you if the name on your ticket doesn’t match exactly. The two women “guards” at the train doors reminded me (in manner and in looks) of Helga, the German army mistress in ‘Ullo, Ullo’ as they scowled at each one of us until we felt sufficiently intimidated.

On the train was OK, we had a peaceful 3 hour journey to Okulovka where we were at last united with our bikes from the tour company. I must say that one of the few bright spots of the week was the standard of the mountain bikes provided – they were mostly quite new and I got a perfect size one with a good saddle and 24 gears, so I was happy.

Our ride that late afternoon was 42km, an easy distance, and the only time – sadly – when we had sun and blue sky. The road was interesting, full of enormous potholes that would have caused a possibly fatal accident had we ridden into them. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but what did go by gave us inches to spare, and we realised that Russian drivers have no regard for cyclists.

We rode to Borovichi, to stay at the Msta Hotel (I would give it one star, no more) – a large grey grotty building. Our bikes had to stay in a garage at the back, dark inside, and with an open car inspection pit ready for us to fall into (Health and Safety are words not found in the Russian language).

At the reception we had to hand in our passports, then negotiate a tiny lift (the doors closed literally in seconds, whether you were in or not). We had small twin rooms with fascinating bathrooms: there was a hip bath so high that I could barely climb into it, and a hose-style shower from the adjacent handbasin. Having a shower was quite an adventure, water was either cold or boiling hot. Down at the bar I tried to get a vodka and tonic. Vodka – yes, there were dozens of varieties, but nothing to dilute it; the young barman spoke not a word of English, so I went behind the bar myself to inspect the stock. I had to settle for neat vodka – just as well I like it !

Cycling day 2

Overslept the next morning until 0645, but somehow got up dressed and packed within 10 minutes.
Breakfast was a slice of omelette and dry bread – this was to be the standard hotel breakfast, sometimes supplemented by “porridge” – a non-descript cooked cereal similar to rice pudding. Tea usually arrived at the end of the meal, and was black, with the option of lemon. The good weather had now disappeared, it had rained heavily overnight, so our planned route including a 10 km stretch of “off-road” was abandoned, as it was likely to be impassable. The alternative road was memorable for its many potholes, and it required some concentration and skilful steering not to be thrown over the handlebars.

We made some “pit stops” by the roadside, typically making use of a bus shelter where our support vehicle could park, and we could gather and try to keep warm. The countryside was fairly bleak, with long stretches between villages, fairly flat, some forests, no particularly scenic areas. Our hotel was in the small town of Bologoe, an improvement on our last night, and we were rather glad to arrive after everybody except one rider had got seriously lost – we decided it was because Someone had moved a vital direction sign.

A few of our group had already begun to suffer with aching necks and knees, so I did some massages for which I was rewarded with free vodkas. Food was again very inadequate, and the few vegetarians among us were really suffering, as this style of nutrition seemed to be unknown in Russia.

Cycling day 3

The next morning – more rain and a drop in temperature – we had another short train journey, and had an exciting time getting our bikes on and off, as there were steep steps up to the train doors (heaven help the disabled) and the train only wanted to stop very briefly at our station.

We had a 65km ride in cold rain, all wrapped up in our wet gear, and I must say I have never cycled in so many clothes: leggings, waterproof trousers, overshoes, rain-jacket with the hood up and my helmet stuck on top, even gloves didn’t keep my fingers warm, and I could have done with windscreen wipers for my glasses. We all looked quite comical actually.

We rode past little wooden houses that looked in very poor repair, the few cars on the road were all old bangers, and everything seemed depressed.

There was the very occasional little Orthodox church that looked in use, but it was more common to see large churches in a state of complete dereliction, boarded up, overgrown. However, there were quite a few roadside cemeteries, well kept, full of flowers. We had our lunch stop by a WW2 Polish memorial in pine woods, with thousands of names of Polish soldiers who had been killed en masse. It was a very moving sort of place, proudly decorated with red and white flags, and with a group of large birchwood crosses.

Our route then took us across a trunk road/motorway, which we managed to cross safely, but then were told to ride one km along the verge against the flow of traffic – it was like a motorway hard shoulder – we were very glad to reach the end, and most of us had visions of a fatal accident if an oncoming vehicle skidded.

We then had a fun ride of 2 km “Off-road” through woods, which was a bit nerve-racking for some. We stayed the night at Tver, a largish town, in a better hotel except that it had no lift, and we had to carry all our bags up 103 stairs to our rooms. That was the final insult to those poor cyclists with dodgy knees ! However, we had a better supper, served in such record time that we’d barely finished one course before our plates were whisked away for the next.

Cycling day 4

More rain and cold – its about 10 degrees. Thank goodness we had a better breakfast today, but we had another delayed start as the mechanics hadn’t done their jobs and were still fixing peoples bikes from yesterday.

We had a long ride to get out of town, and were accompanied by a dog with three legs who behaved like a sheepdog with us and attacked passing cars ! The days journey was 105 km, mostly on the same fairly busy road with fast and close traffic, and not inspiring at all. I would actually call it miserable.

During the afternoon we spotted a roadside café so piled in to have a break. As I had the odd few words of Russian I went first and asked for “Chi” – accompanied by a little mime. The woman behind the counter took some time to leave her seat, gave us a good stare, and eventually decided that she would serve us. She must have thought we were Martians, in all our wet gear and bike helmets. But we paid well for our tea – 10 roubles for a plastic cup ! and bought chocolate, so she did pretty well. (Chocolate from little cafes or shops can be interesting – the Sell-by date was often two years ago.)

The last leg of the ride was hard going, really wet and cold, we all struggled, and were thankful to arrive at Jaropolec to stay in a rather grand mansion that had once been occupied by Pushkin, and was now termed a Guest House. Pushkin is to Russia as Shakespeare is to England, so to speak. We spent a long time under the hot showers, and hung our wet clothes over every inch of the hot pipes. Sleep was unfortunately delayed due to a party of drunken and noisy Russians in the room next to ours.

Cycling day 5

Another long day of 113 km. including some Off-road,and a very memorable stretch of 0.5 km where there was No Road Yet Built. It was a sea of mud and water, with ditches and long grass, OK for a Land-Rover, but not quite right for cyclists !

We ploughed our way along this, carrying or dragging our poor bikes which were so caked with mud in all their moving parts by the end that we had to spend some considerable time trying to de-clog the brakes etc.

Our shoes had also picked up several kilos of mud. Fortunately it wasn’t raining at this point, or that would have been the complete pits. More boring road to follow, with cold stops by the roadside; I rode with one of our slow struggling cyclists for some miles and I don’t think I have ever been so frozen.

However, worse was to come. Our stop for that night was at Mozajsk, in an old Army barracks now used as a Guest House. We nearly didn’t get in through the entrance, due to an officious and unfriendly policeman sitting in his panda car who told us to stop ! but we ignored him and rode past, he followed us and gave us grief, and we thought we might need to bribe him to leave us alone.

Our spirits fell further when we saw the barrack block that was our accommodation – it was grotty to say the least, with crumbling brickwork and torn curtains – and then our tour leader told us the all the Water was OFF. It was being fixed, we were assured, would be OK by midnight! There was also some sort of mix-up with our rooms, and we waited in the lobby, tired and wet, while a bureaucratic woman sat and filled in endless forms.Supper-time was fast going, and we didn’t want to miss food, so we decided to change our clothes there and then in the lobby, ignoring the protests of the Russian staff. It would have been good to film this chaos.

The supper was awful, and was served on small child-size plates ! so we had to ask for more, like Oliver. Morale was very low. And no water supply meant No Loos, so we had to use the bushes. We finally got keys to our rooms by 10pm. What a Guest House! In the morning there was still no water – turning on the taps just produced a dark brown effluent and a lot of gurgles – I don’t think the water had been on for ages.
Probably the worst place I have ever stayed in on my travels. (And this was the night when one of our poor lads had an acute stomach upset – I will leave the details to the imagination but it was a real nightmare)

Cycling day 6

It was still raining the next morning, but by now we were resigned to the weather. Breakfast was “porridge”, spaghetti with pink sausage (served cold), stale bread and butter, with hot (warm) chocolate. I was always dreaming of piping hot bacon sandwiches and good coffee – – –

We waited again while our Russian mechanics prepared the bikes, which needed washing and oiling after the mud-bath of yesterday. Our Group leader Claude wisely decided to give us an option today – either to cycle 90km, or just do 30km with another train ride. This last option was taken by the exhausted and injured, leaving 15 of us to do the full distance.

I still felt so cold that I wore a sweatshirt under my rainjacket, quite unprecedented. After a tea-break huddled in a bus shelter we then had an amazing treat for lunch – Claude took us all for a Pizza – and paid the bill – this proved to be the best meal of the week so far ! We stripped off our wet clothes and hung them on every available radiator in the café, to some amusement from the locals.

The rest of the day was a depressing slog mostly on busy roads with lorries sending spray over us; it was also quite windy, which drove the rain into our faces, and there were more hills than previously. I fell off my bike while crossing some uneven rail tracks, but due to my layers of clothing I had no damage except a large leg bruise.

We were mightily relieved to get to Zvenigorod where our hotel was a nice one, we had single rooms, and I stood under the hot shower for at least 20 minutes ! as it had been a day of suffering a state of near exposure from the elements. Celebrated with a decent supper and a very large cranberry vodka.

Cycling day 7

Our last day of cycling was actually dry, and a bit warmer, with glimpses of blue sky. Only 65km.

Landscape was changing, the roads getting bigger and busier, and as we rode into the Moscow suburbs we were almost on a motorway – very scary.

We saw enormous grey tower blocks of faceless flats, one after another for miles. Moscow must have a huge population. As we neared the city centre the buildings became a bit more attractive, but were still very high. Main roads in the city can have about 8 lanes of traffic ! (imagine that in central London). Sadly we were not allowed to finish our ride in Red Square as hoped, but stopped on Vorobiev Hill, where there are panoramic views over Moscow. This is a popular place for wedding couples to have their photos.

We had our team photos, and mutual hugs and kisses to celebrate our achievement of survival !
A coach took us to Red Square, we were running late so only had a brief half hour to gaze at the fantastic domes of St Basil’s cathedral (the architect was blinded afterwards, so he couldn’t repeat his work elsewhere), and the forbidding walls of the Kremlin with the Lenin mausoleum outside.

I discovered a beautiful little Orthodox church at the far end of the Square: Vespers was being sung, and I really wanted to stay, but sadly this was impossible, as our coach was waiting. Our hotel was about 5 star ! it had been built for the 1980 Olympics, and our rooms were on the 21st floor with amazing views. We had a very special supper with free wine, and I don’t think I have ever stayed in such a posh hotel. It did make a nice change, but it was rather too opulent.

Russia appears to be a land of contrasts – a huge gap between the sort of people who could afford that hotel, and the countryside dwellers who still work fields by hand and try to sell pumpkins and other produce on roadside stalls. It was remarkable how few people anywhere seemed able to smile, and I guess that life is very hard for most. Things have to be seen in historical context, but you wonder where priorities lie now – how much money goes into their space programme and armed forces ? a bit towards fixing the potholes in the roads would be welcome !