This post has turned out to be quite a long one, so for those of you who’ve more pressing things to do, here’s a summary:
We took the train from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan, which was an adventure in itself, and then began pedalling towards Perm and the Ural mountains. Away from the cities the roads have been nice and quiet but quite hilly. A headwind has also slowed us down and one day we also had a several kilometres of unsurfaced road to contend with, and also had to wait for a ferry to take us across a river…so that morning it took us nearly 5hrs to cover the first 28km. We have been treated to a traditional Russian ‘banya’ and drunk tea with jam in it (surprisingly tasty!) when we were befriended by an Udmurt family (a Finno-Ugric ethnic group – we think) who invited us to stay the night, and we’ve now pedalled over 5,000km on this trip so far. If you add that to the 11,000+km we did in 2011 we’ve pedalled over 16,000km – that’s over 10,000 miles – on the Pino!
And for those of you with nothing better to do….here’s the longer version:
There are a couple of reasons for our decision to let the train take the strain from Nizhny to Kazan. Firstly, if we’re to stand any chance of getting far enough south before the winter freezes our wheels off we need to reach Kyrgyzstan by September, which is not going to happen if we rely on pedal power alone, and secondly, we couldn’t see any Pino-friendly roads between Nizhny and Kazan – our map suggests we’d be doing 400+km of main road with loads of trucks – so it seemed to lend itself nicely to a train trip.
And so our first port of call upon arrival in Nizhny was the main train station, where we took it in turns to go in search of information whilst the other guarded the bike and entertained passers-by. After much to-ing and fro-ing we established that there was a train at 21:20 each day (but tickets were sold out for that day, and in any case we wanted to do some sight-seeing) and an elektrichka (information for which was in an entirely different and hard-to-find part of the station to the train information) at 15:45 each day. The elektrichka was considerably cheaper, but would arrive in Kazan late at night. The train would get in at 6am. We established that the bike could be taken on either, provided it was dismantled and parcelled up, but we could only guess at how the storage space in each would compare.
Whilst discussing these options we decided to take a spin across the river and head up to the kremlin, situated in lofty splendour on a promontory at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers. It was a bit of a drag up with the loaded Pino, but worth it. What little we saw of the city centre was very attractive, and we rode up the main pedestrian street (uphill again) filled with shops and bars, and fun statues. We also found a newsagent kiosk where we bought a city map to assist in our search for accommodation for the night, as the ‘resting rooms’ at the station had proved far more expensive than we felt they were worth. By the time we reached the top of the hill we’d made our decision and descended down a wide and relatively new dual-carriageway that swooped in exhilarating, elegant curves to a second bridge leading us straight back to the station.
It was by then after 3pm so we fortified ourselves with a shaorma and a beer (shaorma is a delicious kebab-type wrap) before embarking on the challenge of actually buying a train ticket.
I usually send Keith to deal with scary interactions with people, but for once I was feeling serene and confident (those shaormas really are good!) so decided to take up the gauntlet myself. Attempt number one wasn’t entirely successful as it was only as I reached the front of the queue that I realised I’d forgotten that we’d been told we’d need our passports to buy the tickets. B*gger. I trotted back outside, got the passports, and queued again.
Each train ticket must be printed with your name and passport number, so the process isn’t fast, and Russians are impatient queuers with little sense of personal space. The woman behind me reached around and rested her hand on the counter, tapping her fingers just in my peripheral vision as I tried to concentrate on ticket buying. Pretty rude I thought. Anyhow, I came away with tickets for the pair of us, and what I hoped was a sufficiently comprehensive baggage ticket to cover the tandem, trailer and four panniers.
The next task was to find a cheap hotel. The guys at the shaorma stand had suggested a place so we went there first, but couldn’t find it. A woman in a nearby bar directed us somewhere else, but whilst we found the hotel, they had no rooms, which was not too much of a disappointment really as Keith said the lobby was filthy and none too pleasant smelling. The receptionist there then pointed us towards the completely inappropriately named Bugroff Hostel, which was clean, friendly and just about within budget…and had free wifi!
We spent the evening catching up on the last few days of the Tour de France, and finally discovered, several days after the rest of the world did, whether Bradley had worn yellow down the Champs Elysee. We then posted the blog and spent most of the next day replying to emails and arranging some couchsurfing accommodation for the next cities on our route (hotels are proving too pricey for our budget which will soon need to buy multiple visas and pay to extend our travel-insurance from European to World cover before we cross the Urals).
Whilst I was couchsurfing, Keith went out to look for something to package the bike with so it would be allowed on the train. It helps if you’re handy at charades when your vocabulary in the local language is limited. Keith wandered around for a while, randomly looking in shops to see if they might sell an industrial-sized roll of cling-film, but after not too long started asking people if they knew of a suitable shop instead. Our dictionary failed miserably by not containing the word for cling-film, so Keith started by explaining that we were getting a train, and then mimed wrapping a large package. Communication was successfully achieved and the name of a shop written down in an illegible scrawl (illegible at least to us as we struggle with any handwritten Cyrillic, which looks quite different to printed). It was, however, quite legible to Russians and he made his way to the shop by asking other helpful people on the way to fine-tune the directions until at last he arrived at a shop which sold all manner of things on rolls. Unfortunately, the shop was closed.
Luckily, the unit next door was open, and the woman there shouted through the door of the closed shop and found that the owner was still inside and more than happy to open up and sell Keith a 300 metre roll of ‘plonka-stretch’ (or cling-film to you or me).
Keith was delighted with both his purchase and his expanded Russian vocabulary.
By then, we only had a couple of hours before we’d need to be at the train station, so instead of heading back over the river for sight-seeing, we went for another shaorma and then strolled round some of the little markets and shopping centres nearby. Despite our poor Russian, and the fact we stick out as tourists, we’re beginning to feel remarkably at ease here. We’re starting to recognise different shops and get a feel for where we’re likely to find the things we need, and people are in general so helpful to us that we feel very welcome here in Russia.
Our train was at 21:20, so we arrived at the train station in what we thought was plenty of time, at about 20:30….but in hindsight this was nowhere near enough time. After buying some fanta for the journey, manhandling the bike up the ramp, through the metal detectors and into the station, we discovered that our train went from platform 3, which was accessible by an underpass! A security guard saw our dilemma and suggested we go onto platform one and then walk down the platform to the front of the train that was standing there and cross on the level-crossing in front of it….but when we got to the front of the train we found that it was parked unhelpfully on the crossing. The security guard had followed us to see how we were getting on and said the train would leave in 15 minutes, at 20:55. We didn’t dare wait that long as we still had to split and package the Pino, so he helped us take the bags off and squeeze the bike and trailer through the narrow gap between the train and a wall and then across the tracks in front of the train, and then led us and our re-assembled load down to platform 3 and to the correct carriage of our train. There was already a considerable crowd of passengers there, having their tickets and passports checked or having their last nicotine hit before the journey, so we had quite an audience as we started splitting the Pino into 2 parts and wrapping it, and the trailer, in plonka-stretch.
And time ticked inexorably on.
We finally got everything dismantled and packaged up, got our tickets approved and started to load our luggage onto the train….but all of a sudden it was 21:16. Four minutes to go….and Russian trains do not wait!
Our berths were way down the carriage and we started squeezing with our huge bags up the crowded carriage, back and forth. We got our four bags, the trailer, the solar panel and most of our water bottles on board but started to panic we would not have time to get the bike! Thankfully some other passengers saw our predicament and hauled the bike on board with seconds to spare.
The train was very full, and we were at a bit of a loss as to where to put everything. We were travelling plaskartny (3rd class), in a carriage with 54 bunks arranged predominantly in groups of 6 (4 across the carriage and two lengthways, with just about enough room to squeeze between them). We had two of the ‘across the carriage’ bunks. There was a storage shelf above the top bunk, and the bottom bunk flipped up to reveal a storage bin. After much trial and error we managed to fit the trailer and solar panel up on the shelf, the rear panniers and helmets went under the bottom bunk, the two small panniers went at our feet, and that left the two halves of the Pino which ended up wedged onto the top bunk, meaning one of us was without a bed. It was only an 8hr journey though so we figured we’d be able to manage OK sitting on the bottom bunk…we’d done a similar journey seated last year. But as it turned out there was one bunk going spare in the carriage so after a few stops when no-one claimed it Keith decided to have it….but we need to think of better plan for longer journeys.
We had a very nice travelling companion in the lower bunk opposite us. Maria was a student, studying English and Spanish, and was on her way back from her first ever holiday abroad, to Spain. She spoke excellent English and was great company.
We arrived in Kazan at a little after 6am, and had a similarly frantic rush to try to unload the bike and baggage before the train left the station. Although the train terminated in Kazan it needed to leave the platform so other trains could come in. We’d waited for everyone else to get off before unloading so we wouldn’t be in everyone’s way but then realised we needed to be off the train quick sharp so then ended up rushing up and down the carriage under the steely glare of the train attendants.
The train station at Kazan feels like a small provincial station, but Kazan itself is quite a large city of about 1.2 million people and once we got away from the station the city really opened up. It’s the capital of Tatarstan and around half the population are Tatars. A lot of signage was in dual Tatar and Russian language.
It was a rather unusual for us to be riding round a city at 7am instead of snoozing in our tent. We did a 10-15km loop across the Kazanka river, through the newer side of town, and then back over a second bridge, past some swanky apartment blocks where posh folk live, and back into the old town, arriving at the kremlin at around 8:50. We stopped in to see what the entry prices were and a nice English-speaking lady said she’d guide us for 800 roubles (about £16). We said we’d think about it and went off in search of the tourist office (closed until 9.30) and a produkti for some yoghurt to go on our muesli for breakfast, which we ate sitting at a fountain on the main pedestrian street. Keith even fired up the stove for a coffee. No-one stared at us. Honest!
After breakfast we went to a bookshop and bought a small world atlas to mark our route on and help with a) broadly planning where to go next and b) showing people where we’ve been.
When we came out of the shop, the Pino was being admired by an old guy with a bike, who told us he had cycled from Vladivostok to Kazan (we’re not sure when; he lives in Kazan and had taken the train to Vladivostok and cycled back). We asked him if he knew of a good bike shop as we needed some new bearings for the trailer wheel, which was not sounding healthy, and he kindly accompanied us to two shops, neither of which, unfortunately, stocked sealed bearings. We said goodbye to our new friend and went back to resume our meander along the pedestrian street. Just round the corner we found a museum of soviet life (next to an Irish pub) and were debating whether to go in or not when we were hailed by Kazan’s biggest Beatles fan, who was drunk. It took ages to extricate ourselves from his rather persistent and overbearing presence, and that pretty much decided for us that we weren’t comfortable leaving the bike to go into museums.
After picking up a map of bicycle shops in Kazan (from what is possibly the only Tourist Information Office in the whole of Russia) and having a spot of lunch, we went back to the Kremlin and asked if the nice lady we’d spoken to that morning would still be able to show us around. She wasn’t there, but the Russian-speaking lady in the ticket office indicated she would be back soon, so we waited, along with about 20 other people sheltering from the pouring rain which had arrived out of nowhere whilst we were having our lunch.
The lady in the ticket office moved everyone out of the way so we could park the Pino undercover just outside her office where it would be safe, and as the rain abated, our guide arrived.
Kazan has had a long history (it’s older than Moscow) and as Tatars are predominantly Muslim, the kremlin contains both a mosque and an orthodox cathedral. The rain set in again part-way through our tour, and our coatless guide was getting drenched. Finally we couldn’t stand it anymore and when she forlornly said “And now I’d like to show you….” I butted in and said, “You don’t really do you. You’re cold and it’s far too wet.” So we returned to the cover of the ticket office.
We’d planned to pedal out of Kazan that evening and find somewhere to put the tent, but the persistent heavy rain was really putting us off, so our guide recommended a cheap hotel nearby. As we stood outside the ticket office debating whether to take the hotel or to camp, the lady in the ticket office, who spoke no English, came out and invited us into her little den for tea and then chopped up some tomatoes, cucumbers and gherkins to go with some little hard bready/biscuity hoops. It was still raining when we’d finished so we went to the hotel.
Our guide had said it was 600 roubles per person, but when we arrived the receptionist said it would be 2200 for the room. I turned to go, but Keith began to plead our case, and the next thing we knew we were being offered the room for 1100 roubles….100 roubles less than we’d been prepared to pay. Result!
Of course, it stopped raining then, so we went for a walk to find a supermarket, and on our way back Keith couldn’t believe his eyes to see a small sparrow flying headfirst into a brick wall, repeatedly. What the….? As we approached all was revealed and we could see some fat, somnolent flies sitting on the wall and the sparrow was flying up and picking them off the wall one by one.
I fell asleep quite early but Keith woke me up at midnight to watch the Olympics opening ceremony. Lots of people are mentioning the Olympics to us here and can’t believe we’re here instead of London. As a result we were late getting up the next day to resume our search for some bearings for the trailer. Two further bike shops did not stock sealed bearings, but they directed us to an auto-parts open-air market a couple of kilometres away which had the goods.
With all wheels running smoothly we set off towards Perm and the Ural mountains. The majority of roads so far have been a rare combination of reasonable tarmac and hardly any traffic. We’ve found some nice camping spots too in recently harvested fields, free of mozzies and far enough from the already quiet road to be really peaceful and we’ve enjoyed relaxing in the evening sun. A strong headwind has made for a couple of fairly tiring days, but kept the flies off so it’s been welcome anyway.
Towns and villages have been further apart so we’re only finding one decent shop a day now, so are making sure we stock up, because even the one big town a day can let us down….eight shops and two villages of trying to find milk one evening drew a complete blank. Luckily we had a small carton of UHT cream in our bags so Keith watered that down to put on his muesli in the morning.
The tarmac also ran out on us for about 30km. We’d done a couple of km without tarmac just after the town of Malmizh and then camped for the evening. The next morning we continued to roll along at around 12-15kph, avoiding pot-holes if possible, until we rounded a corner and the road ran out. On our map it looked like there was a bridge, but in fact there was just a ferry, which only crossed when there were sufficient passengers for it to be deemed worth the journey. All of a sudden the quietness of the road was not quite such an attractive feature. We waited for the boat to fill up on the far side of the river, make its short journey across to us and unload the vehicles, and then waited some more until enough vehicles had accumulated on our side of the river for us all to be allowed to board, which in itself was a fairly slow process as lorries with articulated trailers had to manoeuvre themselves into position.
Eventually though we disembarked the other side where we found the road surface had not improved at all. Far too frequently we were reduced to dragging the bike through deep sand and the rest of the time we were crawling along at 8-10kph. Nothing lasts forever though and five frustratingly long hours later we were back on tarmac.
I’ve already posted a photo of my favourite Russian vehicle in the Siveri to Tver blogpost. Since then we’ve found out that this wide-eyed, earnest-faced little van is called an Uaz and affectionately known as a ‘bread van’ on account of its being shaped like a loaf of bread. Keith prefers the gangster style of the big Volga cars, but the Uaz has the added advantage of being able to fit a Pino and a trailer into it. We discovered this when Igor, an Uaz driver, flagged us down to say hello and then invited us for lunch at his home. The easiest way to get to his house was to load the Pino into the van. We then met his wife Valya, son Simeon, and daughter Julia, and a family friend, Masha, who is at university studying English. We had a delicious meal, and of course some vodka, and then were taken to Valya’s sister’s house for a traditional banya…a Russian sauna which you wash yourself in. It was stiflingly hot and we were both panting and gasping for air as we conducted our ablutions….but it felt good to be clean afterwards.
After our banya we were offered black tea and invited to stir in a spoonful of jam….which turned out to be a brilliant idea and definitely something to be repeated when we get home.
Our bed for the night was a traditional Udmurt bed which is enclosed in a low canopy to keep the mosquitoes out. It felt very romantic climbing in and pulling the canopy down to make our own private little cocoon. All beds should be like this.
Masha came round again the next day, and she and Simeon accompanied us on their bikes out to the turning towards Perm to make sure we got on our way safely. It never ceases to amaze us how kind and generous people are to us: how they give up their time at a moment’s notice to welcome us, feed us and look after us.
We have now reached Perm and will be spending a couple of nights with our first ‘couch-surfing’ host before setting off through the Urals, passing from Europe into Asia.