The weather became noticeably hotter as we approached Tver, but a cool headwind has for the most part has kept things bearable on the bike. As we approached Moscow the towns became larger and better catered for in terms of bars and cafes, so we stopped a few times to escape the heat and treat ourselves to a beer and some wifi. We’ve accommodated this in our budget by adopting different sleeping & washing habits. Instead of spending the occasional night in “paid-for accommodation” (in Russia this means a hotel as we haven’t come across any campsites), we’ve continued to wild-camp and spent the money on a couple of meals out and some beers. Very nice.
Tver is a lively town, bisected by the Volga. We arrived on a Sunday (8 July) and it seemed like most of the town were cooling off in the river, sunbathing on the sandy beaches along the river bank, or enjoying pony-rides on garishly bedecked animals. We were tempted to join the swimmers as it had been a while since we’d washed, but as we’d spent quite a lot of time in a bar posting the last blog-entry we decided to get a few more kilometres done before finding somewhere to camp.
We’d planned on getting quite a few kilometres done that evening but not far out of town we found a mowed field – something of a rarity in this land of overgrown meadows and dense forests – and decided we couldn’t pass it up and would just have to put in a couple of big days to get to Moscow. In hindsight we might as well have spent time swimming in the river, as the field remained intolerably hot until about 10pm, so we lay and sweated and didn’t even think of cooking dinner until after dark.
We were on the road reasonably early (for us) the next day and enjoyed good tarmac, a tailwind, and hardly any traffic from Tver to Kimry. We wanted to get a big day done so put the hammer down a bit (encouraged by a persistent entourage of horseflies) and arrived in Kimry for lunchtime having covered 80km…..a distance that we usually manage in the course of a whole day. The mozzie-smocks had been invaluable on the ride as the horseflies are strong fliers and were able to sit happily in our slipstream even at 30+kph and, before we donned the smocks, could take bites out of us as and when they pleased. Smocked up we felt much happier and were able to relax and enjoy the riding instead of pedalling frantically in a futile attempt to outpace our tormentors.
We were hot and bothered by the time we reached Kimry, so after a spot of lunch in a shady park, we found a bar, had a beer and caught up on emails, and then made our way down to a quiet beach to wash ourselves and our clothes in the Volga. Bliss. It was so nice to feel clean and cool, especially as the next day we would be meeting our hosts in Moscow and didn’t want to appear looking too much like a pair of tramps.
From Kimry we followed the Volga to Dubna, did some supermarket shopping and then found a secluded site in some woods just outside the town to set up camp. The mosquitoes swarmed relentlessly, but once again Keith put his smock on and foraged a nice bowl of bilberries for our breakfast.
The next day would see us arrive at one of the key points on our journey: Moscow.
We’ve been hosted in Moscow by the parents of a friend of my brother. They live just north of Moscow in Lobnya, so from Dubna we just followed the main road south, which wasn’t too bad in the morning, but after Dmitrov the terrain became hillier and the road became a dual carriageway full of speeding juggernauts. Not pleasant riding, although the tarmac was in good condition so that helped to a degree.
The road infrastructure in Russia is completely unlike that in the UK. If you want to travel the length of Britain on minor roads you can do so fairly easily. In Russia, the minor roads generally don’t link up, they just branch off the main road and then terminate in a village. To our chagrin we’ve found that planning a route away from main arteries full of trucks is frustratingly difficult, or simply impossible.
But the day to Lobnya wasn’t really about the riding, it was all about the excitement of meeting our hosts…an event which was delayed slightly when we had our first puncture of the trip about 5km from Lobnya. We limped on, pumping the tyre repeatedly until we found their house.
My brother’s friend’s parents (Big Ilya and Vera) have access to a neighbour’s dacha (summer house) which they kindly said we could use. Little Ilya and his wife, Varya, arrived shortly after we did, having been delayed in the Moscow traffic, and we spent a lovely evening sitting out in the garden, feasting sumptuously on Vera’s delicious ploff (rice and chicken) and pie, and drinking beer.
After cycling past so many quaint wooden houses it was a bit of a treat to be living in one. The facilities are basic; we have a pit toilet down the garden, and the shower is fed by well water that Ilya Snr pumps up into a tank just above the shower where it is then heated up, but there’s not much of a head of water so the shower trickles a bit feebly. But we’re perfectly happy with basic facilities and the house itself is full of retro-rustic charm, with wooden floors, 1950’s furniture and wallpaper, and the family’s photos and books on walls and shelves. It’s a perfect Moscow base for us…so good in fact that we planned to stay two or three days but have been here a week.
After dinner, Ilya and Varya drove us round to the train and bus depot to explain the rather confusing timetable and show us where to buy tickets, which was really helpful. We have a choice of fast trains, slow trains and a bus to connect us with the Moscow metro.
Our time here’s been a mix of socialising, sightseeing, shopping and chores. The first thing we did was some laundry, and Keith fixed the puncture we’d picked up as we approached Lobnya. Our tyre had lasted 4,000km, which is about 1000km more than we got out of any of our rear tyres last year.
Previously our tyres had failed on the sidewall (just near the bead where the rim and tyre connect) long before any of the tread had worn, but this year whilst the sidewall is showing signs of wear, we’ve preserved it long enough to wear the tread from the tyre too. We put this down to the fact that this year we’ve gone against all previous advice to pump the tyre as hard as possible, and have been running slightly soft. It was an experiment borne of frustration but one that seems to have worked.
The wheel also needed truing as quite a few of the spokes were loose, so it was quite late in the day on Wednesday when we finally caught the train into Moscow and headed to “Atlas” a map shop on Kuznetsky Most where we bought a Moscow map, a map of Kazakhstan, and a Baedeker’s guide to China, in English, with an accompanying map. Let the route-planning commence!
After that we went for a stroll past the Bolshoy Theatre and down to Red Square to admire St Basil’s and the Kremlin. Ilya met us at Lenin’s Mausoleum and took us for a guided walk around the Kitay Gorod area and showed us some little gems like the building that housed the very first embassy of Britain in Moscow. After drinks, some food, and some websurfing in a bar Ilya drove us around Moscow, pointing out the key sights, including the dramatic State University up on a hilltop where there was a huge aid effort for the flooded Krasnodar region being organised and which also afforded excellent views across the city, before kindly driving us back to Lobnya where Vera had waited up for us with some delicious home-made borsch.
On Thursday we thought we’d better get our visas registered. When in Russia, you’re meant to get your visa registered if you stay somewhere for more than 7 nights. This is something of an inconvenience for cycle tourists as we rarely stay in the same place for more than a couple of nights, but the border guards can get sniffy if you try to leave Russia with no registration. So, we went to the Moscow branch of the agency who’d arranged our visas and asked them to register us. They said we should have already registered as we’d been in Russia for 10 days, but we explained our situation and that we’d tried unsuccessfully to register at our first hotel 2 days into Russia, and they very kindly then registered us for the entire period of our visa, so now we don’t need to worry about it unless we stay for more than 7 working days somewhere else, which we may well do in Omsk where we’re planning to apply for our Kazakh visas.
We then found a quiet corner in a Ukrainian restaurant (which Ilya had told us was the best place to get Russian food), had some lunch and then researched the next phase of our trip until it was time to meet Antoine and Elodie, the French couple we’d first met in Rzhev.
We found a laid-back underground bar, with a Kazakh waitress who spoke great English and couldn’t believe we were planning on cycling there, and also found our indecision over the menu pretty funny. We were joined by the French couple’s Russian friend Slava and the evening flew past (accompanied in the latter stages by what Slava informed us was known as ShitRock from a live guitarist) until we realised we’d have to dash to make the last train back to Lobnya.
The next day we returned to the agency to pick up our visa registration and also made enquiries about Chinese and Kazakh visas. The girl at the agency was really helpful and confirmed what we’d already suspected – that there was no way we’d be able to get Chinese visas in Moscow as we’re not residents – and also gave us some advice on the Kazakh visa. She printed out all the forms we’ll need, including spare copies in case we mess them up, told us how long the process would take, and even said she could come to the embassy with us if we have any problems. So helpful! But we’re going to leave it until Omsk, where we’ll have a better idea of our timings for being in Kazakhstan, and where hopefully, at a smaller consulate, the queues won’t be so painful.
We then headed to a place Slava had recommended for shopping for a few new clothes (ours have worn out a bit since we first set off in April 2011), but although I was seriously tempted to blow £60 on some down booties to keep my tootsies warm on cold nights, we failed to find the long-sleeved shirt that was the main focus of the shopping mission. We had to cut the shopping short though to meet up with Antoine and Elodie again in the evening.
The French couple both work at the Eiffel Tower and are members of The Federation of Great Towers – which includes the Moscow Television Tower – so they get free entry for themselves and a guest each at any of the 38 great towers that are in the federation. It was quite funny when we first arrived, as the woman on the reception desk, who spoke good English, had never heard of the Federation that their tower is a member of, and was politely incredulous when Antoine asked for free entry. She insisted that this was not possible in Moscow. Antoine equally politely insisted that it was possible, and after she conferred with a few other people, we were suddenly guests of honour and were in.
After passing through the extensive security checks we went through to the base of the tower itself where the tour guide sought us out and gave the four of us a separate introduction to the tower before going to look after the other Russian visitors.
The lift up to the viewing platform was almost as impressive as the view itself: 337 metres in 58 seconds, and yet barely any sensation that you’re moving at all. If it hadn’t been for the rapidly scrolling numbers and the video from the camera pointing up the lift shaft I’d have thought we were still on the ground.
In the time between us entering the ticket office and entering the base of the tower the weather had changed dramatically from sunshine to heavy rain. We all eagerly exited the lifts to be momentarily baffled by what looked like a white glass wall. The tower was shrouded in cloud and we couldn’t see a thing. Thankfully the wind was blowing quite strongly and the cloud dispersed and we had a stunning view of the storm crossing the city.
We’re really grateful to Antoine and Elodie for inviting us up there as it would have been too expensive for us to consider otherwise, but was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Moscow. It was particularly pleasing seeing the landmarks that Ilya had taken us to the day before and getting a better sense of the orientation of the city.
The next day was Saturday and we got two buses to Decathlon to see if we could get some new clothes. Keith successfully bought a pair of trousers and a new sleeping bag liner, but a suitable long-sleeved shirt continued to elude me.
Ilya and Varya then met up with us in the car and took us to a treasure-trove of all things outdoor. Three huge floors stuffed with small independent retailers selling anything and everything related to cycling, skiing, surfing, skating, hiking, camping, shooting and fishing. We came away with a new chain for the bike, some vulcanising solution, a Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyre (which are like bloody hens’ teeth in Russia, trust us!) and I bought TWO new shirts!
Back in Lobnya, Ilya cooked some shashlik and Keith made a summer pudding and another enjoyable evening was spent in the garden, talking until it was long dark. One of the highlights of the evening was making friends with Ilya and Vera’s large guard dog. The dog’s huge but barely more than a puppy, and if Ilya Snr is around then it’s quite playful…..with Ilya Snr. It behaves respectfully towards Vera and Ilya Jnr, rather less so with Varya who gets pounced on, and it barks like an absolute maniac if Keith or I so much as look at it. However, as we were going to bed on Saturday, and long after Ilya Snr had said his goodnights, I managed to approach and stroke the dog, and it finally seemed quite relaxed and friendly. But it would appear that that was a bit of a fluke as the next day Ilya Snr was out and we were talking to Vera and the dog went quite berserk trying to get to us. I’m pretty confident it would have bitten us if it had been able to reach us. It’s the first time I’ve met a dog that I really thought might bite rather than just bark. I’d love to spend more time here and work out how to get on with it. It’s such a nice playful hound underneath the snarling and bravado.
The next day we went sightseeing. We decided that we’d already spent far too much money to justify spending more on entering the Kremlin, particularly as we weren’t sure if we were really in the mood for churches, palaces, thrones and great halls, of which we’ve seen quite a few on our travels. So instead we decided to go to the Andrei Sakharov (Russian nuclear physicist turned human rights advocate) Museum, which was free and sounded a bit different….but it was closed for their summer holidays. At a loose end we took a stroll along Arbat to see the street artists, but it was a bit of an anti-climax, so we headed down to the Art Muzeon Sculpture Park, where some of the old Soviet statues ended up after they were pulled from their original pedestals in the 1990’s wave of post-soviet feeling. The old soviet statues have since been joined by an eclectic mix of more contemporary sculptures and installations, including some hilarious musical litter bins, and there was also a small arts market where Keith indulged me and let me succumb to an ammonite necklace made of pyrite. That absolutely MUST be the last extravagance or our budget will be completely shot to pieces.
Ilya met us in the Sculpture Park and then drove us to see the Memorial Zone of the Great Patriotic War (more tanks, guns, boats and planes than you can shake a stick at) and the All Russia Exhibition Centre (formerly the USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition) which was originally created in the 30’s and expanded in the 50’s and 60’s to showcase Soviet successes and splendours. The Lonely Planet sums it up pretty well when it says “Here you will find the kitschiest socialist realism, the most inspiring of socialist optimism and, now, the tackiest of capitalist consumerism.” It was a fun place to hang out for a while despite the pissing rain.
I’m not normally a fan of big cities, and to be honest hadn’t really been looking forward to Moscow very much, but I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m glad we’ve been based several km outside the city as the massive 8 to 12-lane roads look pretty daunting for a bike, but from a pedestrian’s point of view it’s been a great city to visit. The metro is cheap and efficient, and spectacularly beautiful. Some of the stations feel like you’re entering a posh hotel or a theatre rather than a tube station.
If you miss a metro train there’s usually another one along in just 45-90 seconds – unlike the several minutes you wait in London – and the local train, bus & mashrutka (minibus) services are easy enough to manage with a bit of local help to get you started. When our bus broke down one day in an unfamiliar location we just approached other bus and mashrutka drivers, enquired “Metro?” and within minutes were back in motion again. Easy! Mind you, I’m not sure if travelling regularly by mashrutka would be conducive to a long life. The one we took was fairly elderly and rather dubiously maintained, and driven in a fashion that gave scant consideration to the state of the tyres, the wetness of the road and the general chaos of the other traffic.
We could probably spend another week in Moscow quite happily, but a) it’s too damn expensive – food, beer and museum entry is pretty much the same London prices with beers costing around £3 – and b) we’ve already realised we’re going to have to take trains across parts of Russia and Kazakhstan if we’re to get to China before the winter, which is our current plan (visa acquisition permitting), and we’ve been convinced that winter in Xinjiang will not be fun on a bike. So Monday 16 July was a day of fettling and chores with a view to setting off pedalling again on Tuesday…or maybe Wednesday.
Keith has fashioned some platforms from some pieces of metal he found on the road as we pedalled into Lobnya last week, so that we can sit a couple of 6 litre water bottles one either side of the trailer’s wheel and carry more water through central Kazakhstan and Xinjiang. I drafted this blog and did some laundry.