“Why am I doing this trip?” is a question I get asked a lot. My usual response is simply, “to meet you”. It’s witty and it really is true. Sure, I want to ride my motorbike a very long way and visit some beautiful places, but it REALLY is about meeting the people of these countries. It’s the people that I have met along the way that have made this adventure extraordinary. And I have no doubt it will continue to be this way. Indeed, this is exactly what I have heard from other travellers but it’s not until you are thousands of miles from home and meet people, completely by chance, who make the mundane experiences magnificent. I have been very fortunate in my travels thus far, I have enjoyed the company of every stranger I have met and hopefully forging what may turn out to be lasting friendships. But I want to talk about the people I have met whilst in Russia.
I arrived in Russia on the first day of my visa and I am writing this after only three days in this great country. Already I have met some incredibly kind and generous people; generous in the sense of sharing with me their company. I first met Matt and Ingrid, two lovely American travellers doing the Mongol Rally, at the Kazbegi border in Northern Georgia, a crossing said to be closed to all but CIS citizens but actually now open to all. So I pulled up behind this red Vauxhall with a British registration plate and couldn’t believe it, what a small world this is. After a quick word with the Georgian border police, he confirmed for me their nationality. At the first opportunity I pulled alongside and said hello. Whilst we were waiting to cross Matt came over and we chatted merrily for a good 45 minutes discovering that we actually have a lot in common.We quickly decided to travel together for a bit and as we crossed the border, which was incredibly quick (about an hour), easy and efficient, particularly given some the horror stories we had both heard about other border crossings taking several hours, our first stop would be the Caucasus town of Vladikavkaz to purchase 3rd party liability insurance. Of course whilst at the border the bike had a number of admirers and I faced lots of inquisitive questions about my trip, but one guard in particular showed an especially keen interest. As I was about to depart I thought I’d try my luck and see if I could grab a photo, normally strictly prohibited, so I asked the guard if he wanted to stand by the bike to pose for a photo. I was expecting him to say ‘NO PICTURES” in an authoritarian border control way but instead he said okay, one of his friends even got in on it too. Not 30 seconds later though a different guard said “no pictures”. I told him that the other guy said it was okay but he wasn’t impressed, I put the camera away, happy that I’d flouted the rules and got away with it.
We slowly made our way to Vladikavkaz with me in the lead, as I had the GPS and the details of the place where we were to get our insurance, and after a few directions we were ushered through the a no entry point to the Russian bank where MCK was situated on the first floor. I had a jolly old time chatting away with the girls in the insurance office, I even got a fresh apple from them, for my entertainment value I guess. Right from the start I emphasised that I wanted 3 months cover, “I understand” she said, as I gestured to write down the period of cover I wanted. How much was my next question, half expecting it to be about £150 but instead it came out as roughly £35. Bloody hell, that’s cheap, keep schtum I thought, I’ve got 3 months of insurance at a bargain price. As I was signing it I thought I’d just check, no wonder it was cheap, it was only for 1 month. I pointed this out and she amended the date. How much now I asked and she gave me the same price. WTF? I checked and double checked, I was indeed getting three months of insurance for the original price of £35, even her English speaking colleague confirmed it, I was well chuffed.
Matt & Ingrid, however, had to return in an hour, evidently I was the last punter before they broke for lunch. So while they were dealing with me my US comrades went into town and I promptly went over the road to get something to eat and drink from the local shop. I discovered that they made something very delicious that I can only describe as a deep fried, meat filled batter pancake. I later found out it was called a cheburek. I ordered one and sat outside to eat, chatting with passers by.
Once we had both acquired our insurance we made our way north to Elista, but it was further than probably we both realised, we soon decided to get some supplies and find a wild campsite. I had spotted a lake on the GPS so we decided to check it out. However, it wasn’t long before I realised it was a bit further than I thought and we probably wouldn’t make it before dark so I found another a bit closer. We eventually turned off to find a pretty decent spot, which had half a dozen fisherman that were set up for the night. We found a quiet spot, set up camp and set to cooking up some dinner: rice and beans for Matt and Ingrid and spagbol for me, with sausage, onion and a jar of Dolmio, yummy! Just as the sun was setting we cracked open the beers, and spent the rest of the evening chatting away about a whole host of stimulating topics. We finally hit the sack where I had the worst night’s sleep of the entire trip. I made the calamitous error of leaving the mossie flap open after putting my things in the tent, only to find that Russia’s ‘entire’ population of bugs had made their home inside my tent.
I’m already a magnet for insects, who love to feast on my sweet flesh, so I should have known better. I tossed and turned throughout the night and I awoke early next morning just as the sun was bursting over the horizon, to find my legs covered in bites, which HAD to be manically scratched throughout the night, which obviously didn’t help. Unable to sleep I decided to get up and as slowly and as quietly as I could, I began to pack things away. I must have been packed up and washed by 0700hrs. I waited patiently, for Matt and Ingrid to get up in their own time while I laid in the warm sun listening to my audio book and doing what I could to while away the time.
We were soon back on the road travelling north to Elista; as the crow flies it’s probably 150miles but given the state of one of the minor roads, which the GPS wanted to take us the day before, we decided to stick to the main highway, which added roughly 70miles to the journey. The drive to Elista took us the best part of the day. When we arrived in Elista we headed to the Orient restaurant to grab some dinner. I found the last 15 miles a tough one, counting down the distance, knowing we would soon be going in different directions; Matt and Ingrid were going east for the Kazakhstan border and I was heading north to Volgograd. I would have really liked to camp with them one more night but our routes didn’t allow it. We said our goodbyes and inside my helmet I privately found the whole thing incredibly emotional, I would miss their company on the solitary roads that would come. This sadness was exacerbated by the terrain, which completely opened up to reveal it’s astonishing vastness of nothing but grass and farmland. I had only just met these wonderful people and whilst we barely knew each other, and were separated by our different modes of transport, I felt like I had known them a lot longer. Thank you ‘Khan’t Stop Us’ for your company, conversation and for dinner. Good luck in Kazakhstan and I’ll see you in Ulan Bataar.
On my own again, I decided to get as many miles under my belt on the way to Volgograd before stopping to find a wild camp. I found another lake on the GPS and set off. But passing another lake, after not 5o miles I decided to have a look; I’d learnt early to NEVER pass up an opportunity. So I pulled off and saw people swimming so I thought this could be a good spot, fancying a swim myself. So, I rode around the lake and found a nice spot, which looked like it had been used in the past for camping, unfortunately the water’s edge was a bit muddy and didn’t look that great as a spot to swim. Five minutes later a car pulls up and out gets this Russian fella in his army camo. I make nice and introduce myself using the little Russian I know, dropping into the conversation that I planned to camp here tonight. No problem he says and begins to unpack a rubber dingy, a bag full of fish and some bait boxes and sets to chopping up the still wriggling fish. Okay, he’s gonna be here a couple of hours and he’ll be off I think to myself. He mentions vodka and I offer him some Johnny Walker Black, he seems a bit hesitant to drink it, I don’t know if he thinks its poison or some date rape drug but he has a sip and decides he’s not a fan. I never think about what it must be like for others be nervous of me but the apprehension soon dissolves and we’re chatting away as best we can. He speaks zero English and does that classic thing that Brits are known for when they aren’t understood by foreigner, he shouts. I chuckle inside, realising it’s a universal trait.
I’m using the Russian for ‘I don’t understand’ more and more and soon enough it becomes a bit of a standing joke with him saying it for me, before I have the chance to make such an utterance myself. He slices open a delicious watermelon and gestures for me to help myself; I graciously accept and tuck in. I’ve been meaning to stop and buy a watermelon from the hundreds of vendors that sell them by the side of the road since Croatia. It’s deliciously sweet and refreshing, just what I needed after setting up camp. Attention soon turns to the bike and my trip and he’s giving me his camera to take pictures of him posing next to it. He picks up the helmet and poses as if he’s holding some roman centurions headdress so I gesture for him to put it on and get on the bike. The latter didn’t translate but he put on the helmet, which was miles too big for his small noggin, and I snapped away. Not thinking about grabbing my own camera I try and communicate for him to send me a copy and give him my card, I think he understood and I await his email.
It soon materialises that he’s planning to stay the night and sleep in his car, no worries we’re getting along like a house on fire. Speaking of fire he goes off and brings back some wood for a camp fire, great I thought, that explains the scorch marks, maybe he does this regularly. So I also collect some wood when he comes back with a bag, which I think is full of wood. Tonight could e interesting. Remembering I still have some sausages and cheese I whip them out and indicate that we’ll cook this scoff over the fire. He then gets in his car and I wonder if he’s heading home but he tells me he’s off to buy some smokes. Excellent, I’m nearly out and I set to breaking up the wood into more manageably sized pieces when look in the bag to find it’s full of cow shit. I’ve heard of this in Mongolia, there are no trees but the cattle dung is rich in hay, but I’d not heard of this practice in Russia.
When my new friend Valieri returns I expect him to crack on with the fire instead he sets out again in his inflatable row boat to bring in his catch. He does this periodically for the whole night, between bouts of sleeping in his car. I play about with the camera while he’s out and when he returns gestures to me to start the fire. He then pulls out a couple of beers, good move sir, while I spike up my last two sausages onto sticks and position them near the fire. We crack open the beers, make a toast and split the tomato and cheese between us, which we also roast over the fire. The sausages, and the cheese, were outstanding, as much for the location and company as the delicious pig flesh itself. What a great night. Valieri throws some shit on the red hot coals and they soon erupt into flames. We finish the beers and I get my head down and sleep pretty much all the way through the night, waking revitalised at about 0630. Thank you Valieri for a great night, I love a good campfire and have been unable to have one so far. And thank you for the very kind gift, I will treasure this little souvenir of our meeting.
Meeting Valieri, just like meeting Matt and Ingrid, was one of those out of the blue, unplanned moments that really bring the trip to life and confirms in my mind that the essence of this trip is about meeting new people and connecting with them. It was especially good timing after the downer I was privately feeling following our parting of ways. It made me realise that this is an integral part of this type of adventure, not just meeting people, but also saying goodbye and it made me think of that old saying, “as one door closes another opens”, that’s exactly what happened on this day of days.
I’m off early next day, I want to get into Volgograd and chill out, update the blog. I roll into Volgograd and randomly meet a guy, who is also a biker, to confirm the directions to the ‘hostel’. He goes that extra mile and walks me the half click directly to the hostel, nice one. I go in and make my inquiries. It’s a bit more expensive at £17 a night; but it has no secure parking and no Wi-Fi! I power up the phone and check if there is another I could go to, there is but the GPS is not recognising the address. I resolve to stay here for two nights and head back to bring the bike up, which I park right up to the front door and turns out to be right under my room, I feel confident it will be okay. Another lady informs me that there is an Ethernet point in the rooms so I’m happy again. I have a nap, take a shower and look for the internet point, but nothing. I ask and they want to send me to another room with an Ethernet point but also want to charge me an extra 400 Roubles (for the 2 days) as well as 25 Roubles for each day I use the internet. I try to communicate that I’ll just need it for an hour but the tight arses are having none of it. I ask to see the other room and take my netbook with me, I’m using that fecking internet and I aint paying. But nothing! The other room, which has the Ethernet point doesn’t work.
Two beautiful Russian hotel guests, who speak some English, come and try to get it to work but apparently you need to alter a bunch of settings on your computer. There’s absolutely no chance I’m paying extra, twice, for something that doesn’t even work. The manager starts getting a bit arsey, “you can’t sit here”, okay I’ll go back to my room but I’m checking out 2mora and I want a refund for the day I’ve already paid for. The girl helping out asks me up to her room and offers her laptop for me to use as I tell her I only really need to get my emails and update the family and friends back home where I am. But we can’t change the Linux settings on her computer to English. Oh well, I go back to my room and start transferring pictures onto my hard drive when Irena knocks on my door (we were getting on very well up I her room and I asked her to come down for a chat anytime), and asks if I want to go into town where she’ll show me the internet café.
Sounds good to me, I’m like the ‘Yes Man’ these days, never passing up an opportunity. So I pull on some shorts and don my trainers and off we trot into town. It’s a nice little place, we take a seat and order a coffee while Irena hooks me up on the café Wi-Fi. She wants to hear all about my trip so I happily oblige, I have company and the undivided attention of a beautiful Russian gymnast who wants to hear all about me! I’d be crazy to pass that up. We finish our coffees but continue to chat for the next couple of hours, the time fly’s by. This is great, we discuss all sorts of interesting things and she seems to be hanging off every word. She’s seems particularly interested in my trip and my humanist world view, which comes up because as I check my emails there is one from the British Humanist Association, and this leads off into a discussion about life, morality and social change. I pay the bill, which comes far too soon for my liking, and we head off back to the hotel but not before I grab a picture of us together. I secretly wish we could have spent more time in Irena’s company. I make a mental note to leave her my card so we can stay in touch and so she can read what I have written about her on my blog. Thank you Irena, for a great afternoon, for being so open and for sharing yourself with me.
So, with less than 3 days in Russia I’ve already met some amazing people, if my adventure continues in this vein I know I’m going to continue to have a great time. I am honoured and privileged to have met such extraordinary people so far.