Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Were in Russia!

It's hard to comprehend we are in RUSSIA! Getting the visas seemed for a long time impossible so crossing the border was a very special moment. Both of us half expected something to go wrong at the last moment, right up to the last boom gate. But it didn't. They let us in. And not only that, they even gave us VIP treatment at the border! We couldn't believe our luck.

We hadn't actually intended to cross the border that day. The plan had been to slowly ride towards the border, camp somewhere before it and cross early in the morning. That didn't work out for a couple of reasons, the main one being: we couldn't find a place to camp. The Caucasus mountains proved not only incredibly beautiful but also very steep, so steep that getting a bike up would require a seriously skilled rider on a trails bike. So we ended up at the border at 4 o'clock in the afternoon... Dumb idea! 

The ultimate Adventure machine
It was an absolute madhouse. The road was designed for 2 lanes, one in and one out of Russia, but crammed full with 5 rows of cars and trucks... The only thing we could do is join the madness, which wasn't hard as nothing was moving. One of the military guys was very angry with car drivers going against the traffic and thereby blocking everything both ways. We looked at the 'activity' and started to wonder how long the queue actually was... when the military guy came up to us and said we should ride around the truck, go against the traffic and ride to the front... I couldn't believe what we were just told... against the traffic while he had just shouted at the car drivers who tried the same thing and then ride all the way to the front... eeeh? Naturally we did it and only whilst riding past a couple of kilometres of stationary cars did we realise how lucky we were... We would have been there all night otherwise! 

First they check your paperwork... and then they all want to be in the photo!
All the military along the road knew we were coming and the guys right at the front helped us fill in the paperwork and directed us in front of everybody else... The formalities went smoothly. Plenty of questions were asked and our panniers had to be opened for the first time this trip, whilst our passports were scrutinised with the aid of a magnifying glass and ultraviolet light to see if it was a forgery or not...! Meanwhile I looked around me in amazement, having always thought the Russian uniforms seen in James Bond movies were a Hollywood invention, they turned out be real! The weird hats, the women in their strangely tight uniforms, the platform shoes... everything! This really was a different world! 

With everybody happy we received our passports back, I asked what the Russian word for 'thank you' was, which sounded like Pasiba (the spelling checker tried to change this into Pasta...). I said Pasiba upon which she said 'have a good trip! We could continue to the next gate, having no idea what it was for. The people in front and behind us spoke no English and neither did the officials. As it turned out we needed some sort of declaration... what declaration? Where can I get one... The man yelling at me that i needed one was the first nasty official we found and clearly without any patience... perfect time to play dumb, I thought, and it worked. It took him too long so he took us to the right office and helped us fill it in (as it was all in Russian).

The road doesn't look all that bad here, that's because the hard parts needed all our attention... so we didn't take any photos there! Have to do better next time I guess...
And then... we rode into Russia! The whole crossing and taken us almost 3 hours, while were directed straight to the front! We rode for a couple of kilometres, found a track into some bushes, plonked the tent down and called it a day. Wild camping in Russia... is that even legal? No idea :-) That evening we wanted to load the route through Russia into the GPS. Normally a simple procedure but not this time. The route took longer than usual to load and we couldn't get the GPS to work at all anymore after that. It started up but halfway during startup froze and shut itself down. We tried all the tricks but to no avail... Great: in Russia, 1,000 km to go on shocks hanging together with zip-ties, no decent map, no GPS and all signs in unreadable cyrillic...

The only thing I could think of was trying to find Wifi somewhere and hope that there was a system update for the GPS. Riding into Vladikafkaz we wondered where to go. The road signs were unusable so we sort of followed the traffic. For all we know we could have been heading for Moscow...! I looked for a hotel, a shop or anything where we could find wifi and someone who spoke English. Which took us quite a while. We stopped at an electronics store, which was closed but should be open in half an hour... until we realised we were in a different timezone... which meant 1,5 hours waiting.

I took a walk and found a pharmacy. The nice girl working there spoke hardly any English but was friendly enough. I asked her for a piece of paper, drew a picture of a GPS, which she understood and then wrote 'Error' on the screen. She nodded. I then made a drawing of a laptop with a cord to the GPS, she nodded again, and then the Wifi symbol... she understood and said 'ok!' I walked back to Mike, who had stayed with the bikes, picked up the laptop and the GPS and went to the pharmacy. She gave me the wifi code, typed it in my trusty MacbookAir, performed the update (which replaced the corrupted firmware) and we had a working GPS again!

Only then did the lady point at my computer and said 'this town is not so good' I looked somewhat surprised upon which she quite visually pointed out that I could be killed when I walked around with a laptop in this town...! To our utter surprise we not only had a working GPS again... we were also perfectly on route! We had been told our GPS would not work in Russia as we don't have a GPS which works with the Russian system. As it turns out it works perfectly fine (we have a Garmin 62).

Several people had told us the Russians drive dangerous and crazy... not when you've just been in Georgia! We found the driving a relief compared to where we had just been. Sure they don't drive as western Europeans, Americans or Australians, but Russians don't display anywhere near the mindless aggression the Georgians have. We actually felt quite safe... most of the time anyway :-) We received quite a few 'thumbs up' too! Getting past the Russian bureaucracy had been frustrating but now that we were in the country we found Russians very friendly and helpful despite the language being a huge barrier. This lead to quite a few funny situations. Like when I wondered if I had found a can of meat, spam or corned beef and I exchanged animal sounds with the old shop owner to work out if it was cow, pig or sheep which was in the tin. I then tried to work out if I could eat it cold or it had to be warmed up... my sign language obviously wasn't good enough as he came back with a tin opener... and then a huge steak knife... :-)

The guy in the white shirt donated us two tanks of fuel on the spot! Like I wrote: Russians are  friendly people!
Filling up at a petrol station works a bit like some of the pumps in Canada, where we had to pre-pay. Perhaps the Russians and Canadians share the same 'fill-and-run' mentality? While we were there a local stopped, well local, he was from Grozny and invited us to come with him to his house and stay the night there. As the new shockies should be in Astrakhan by now we kindly declined and explained why. He then insisted that he would pay for our fuel...! That has never happened to us before! I wrote above that Russians are very friendly, this also applies to the Police and the Military. They have checkpoints in virtually any town and we were picked out a couple of times too. The procedure is always the same: they ask us something in Russian, we apologise that we don't speak Russian and add we are from Australia. They check our papers, which is a sort of funny procedure as we have to explain what it is as they haven't a clue what an Australian rego looks like... Then the smart phones appear and they all want to be in the picture with us... Imagine being surrounded by heavily armed military guys who want to be photographed with you...!?!

... and more sunscreen
Leaving the Caucasus mountains behind we entered a semi desert like landscape. Yesterday had been pretty cold when we rode through the mountains and even this morning hadn't been that warm. But as soon as we dropped to sea level, the temperatures soared to 41°C (105°F) according to several temperature gauges we saw at pharmacies along the road. The few motorcyclists we saw were all in T-shirt but for safety reasons we were still in our bike gear. We were sweating of course but the non-stick liner in this gear works as we still had free movement. Rukka had told us there is no such thing as a 4 season jacket, which is why they have the air jacket. The Cosmic jackets in 41°C are no problem at all though as they are khaki coloured. Simply leaving the front zipper open and only close the magnetic belt does the job. The pants are black, which causes more heat inside, but the main problem is limited ventilation, mind you this is at 41°C... hardly anything to complain about is it? I mean at these temperatures anything becomes hot, Temperatures like this had me open the visor to add to the up till now perfect ventilation on the Icon helmet too. Our boots were sweaty too, riding with the zippers open does wonders though while the gloves were just fine. As we go further and further into the desert, entering Kazakhstan, no doubt it will get worse. Will keep you posted! 

Shortly after the last checkpoint of the day we turned into a sandy track, rode for a couple of kilometres and pitched the tents. The canned meat turned out to be something like corned beef, but the water we also bought was carbonated after all... We also received a message from Rita Morren. DHL had stuffed up big time... the shock absorbers could not be send to Russia after all and were stopped by Customs in Russia... now what? Rita worked out how to get them to Aktobe, drove especially to the distribution centre for us so that they would leave before the weekend... and they should be in Aktobe next week! All it means is that we'll have to keep the shocks together for another 1,000 km, which means replacing the zip ties about 3 more times as the springs are rubbing through them. 

Free camping in Russia
The day after started early. This part of Russia is linked to a timezone which doesn't match the sunrise/sunset at all. For some reason they've adopted the same timezone here as in Turkey. Even the GPS feels it's wrong and comes with an hour later than it is, which is actually far more logical. Sleeping-in is not an option here as the sun belts down mercilessly even early in the morning. At just 10 am we recorded a temperature of 35°C, around lunchtime it was well over 40°C again. The plan had been to start and stop early, hopefully finding a tree somewhere to put the tent under. That plan actually succeeded... but it at the same time that was about the only thing which went according to plan!

Just 500 mtr underway we were stopped, again, at a police check point. The sheer number of police checkpoints in this part of Russia is getting somewhat ridiculous, I mean just 1 km previously there was one too and all our paperwork had been checked at the border anyway. The policeman had a Mongolian appearance and was a big bear of a guy. It was only then that I realised we had just entered the autonomous republic of Kalmykia... we were at a sort of internal border if you like. Our Mongolian bear wanted to see all our paperwork, passport, drivers license, bike papers, insurance and 'something else'. We have no idea what 'something else' was and in the end he gave up trying to explain as all the rest seemed in order. While I was packing all the paperwork away he suddenly asked me where I was from... had he actually read the paperwork or just pretended? I wondered. 

It was a hot day...
Just an hour later the day started to fall apart... Waiting for a traffic light, which was somewhat amusing as we were in the middle of a desert without any traffic at all and a clear view in all directions for kilometres, a local on a Ural sidecar asked us where we were going. Kazakhstan was the reply, he asked again and we replied again Kazakhstan. He didn't understand. Just 5 km later we knew why he asked when the road abruptly stopped... In the rest of the world a dead-end road is marked that way at the beginning, here they put the sign 1 mtr before you crash into the shrubs... According to the GPS the road continued... in real life it didn't. It seemed as if they had started and then ran out of money. It made me realise this was the first time ever this has happened with our garmin.openstreetmaps. Not bad going and to be fair the roads around here are a mess, as we were about to find out. We returned to the traffic lights and asked another local, who directed us to the only other road, which took us to Komsomolskiy. From there we could ride towards Lagan and possibly pick up the 215 once again.

It meant a detour of over 200 km... and the road turned out to be in a seriously bad state, while it was a main road. Potholes, frost heaves, missing tarmac and something I can only describe as sink holes, to name but a few. It battered our bikes so bad that I felt sorry for them. There isn't much to see there either, the wind was strong and the temperatures high. When filling up the bikes, we found an uninterested lady, who later tried to short change me... It made me realise she was the first one doing it. The rest of the pump attendants had all been fine.

The GPS showed us the turn-off to the 215, which was a sandy track once again. At the same time a road sign told us to continue on the road we were on if we wanted to go to Astrakhan, so we did. Fifty-odd km further we ran into the end of the road again... now what? A 4WD stopped behind us, the driver just as surprised as we were, and he was from Kazakhstan! We were just debating on what to do now and if we had perhaps missed a turn, when a little 4WD truck struggled towards us from a track ahead. They verified this was in fact the road to Astrakhan... We had to follow the tracks he just came from for 46 km, which according to them was in a very bad shape. But there was also another route, in a much better state, if we returned to Dzhalykovo and followed the coastal road.

Strange houses in Kalmykia
We looked at the track ahead and decided this wasn't an option, nor did the man from Kazakhstan in his 4WD... it was seriously bad and sandy. Zigzagging our way through town, which resembled something I had until then only seen on TV as something from Siberia, I started to wonder if we were on the right road. I hadn't seen any roadsigns for a long time and it seemed we were heading in the wrong direction. Another dead end followed... and another diversion. The Kazakh came back too... The 'road' out of town was gravel... full of corrugations and soft and hard sand in between. It was in such a bad state that after just 20 minutes I wondered why Putin wouldn't stop pumping millions in his wargames and drag some of the roads in this country out of the stone age. It was criminally bad. And before you start, I know how to ride corrugations: get your speed up and ride over the tops. But with the crater size holes and soft sand patches all over the place that simply wasn't an option, I might as well go for a head-on with a Kamaz truck as an easier way to die. Apart from that, with the state my shock absorbers were in I could not afford a mishap as the whole lot might fly apart. 

Corrugations in hard packed, almost cement like, grey gravel are incredibly hard on the suspension... and the rider. I felt like my helmet was being battered with a hammer. Standing on the pegs wasn't an option as I was being thrown off them. Sitting down caused my spine to be hammered. The only thing that seemed to help somewhat was sit almost on the tank, more centrally between both wheels. My eyeballs were bouncing in their sockets, which didn't help visibility. The engine conked out too as the corrugations were so rough that my hand kept blipping the throttle which upset the fuelling and the computer. It restarted straight away and from then on I rode just on the choke, which on a Bonneville is just a hand throttle and raises the revs to about 2,500 rpm. The only thing which managed to get over these kind of conditions sort of were the Russian UAZ vans, also known as Bukhanka which is Russian for Bread Loaf, so named after their shape. UAZ also makes an ambulance version, known as the Tabletka which is Russian for Pill, while the Golovastik which is Russian for Tadpole is the pick-up version. They have an incredibly good suspension setup. All the European and American trucks we had seen in Russia were nowhere to be found anymore either. The only truck still working here were the Russian Kamaz, the same brand which has won the Dakar rally for decades. 

      Back to the UAZ, they deserve a special mention. You see them
           everywhere in Russia, and quite a few outside Russia too.
            As far as I've worked out they started making them in 1965...
             and they still make them today! Little has changed over the
             years. See
             to see what I mean! Cute little buggers aren't they? Don't be
        fooled into thinking it's cute but not practical, these things go everywhere! The slogan on the UAZ brochure reads: 'Deliver your cargo anywhere in the world' having seen them here on serious off-road tracks, we know they mean what they claim.

The gel pad on the tank bag so that I could sit further forward...
lost on a hard part of the 'road'. I was bouncing around so bad
that I didn't even notice...
At the end of the road, which was all of just 30 km long, I found I had lost my gel pad, also found the Tutoro hanging at a 45° angle, had a sore neck, hands, spine and ass, found the Wolfman bags had shifted 20 cm (which had never happened before) and I was exhausted. Somehow the rest of the bike seemed to have survived... which is the most amazing part. Even the already wounded Hagon shocks were still in one piece. Mike on the superbly sprung XT had a much easier life but nonetheless the GPS, mounted securely with a Ram-mount, had come undone too (again this has never happened before). We found shade at a local petrol station, which turned to be out of fuel but still offered us a place to have lunch.

A couple of hours later through this hot and arid landscape, we saw trees at the horizon...! It almost looked like a fata morgana. But there were quite a few of them even. A welcome relief from the relentless dry and hot desert landscape we had just been through. We turned off the road, bashed through the shrubs and parked the bikes in the shade of what almost seemed like an orchard. We called it a day. Mike fell asleep within 10 minutes... clearly exhausted.

The first part of our ride through Russia we had been pleasantly surprised about the good roads, the cleanliness of the towns (i.e. no more rubbish strewn all over the place like in Georgia), the more relaxed way of driving (again, compared to Georgia) and the friendly people. In the second part we learned why Ladas have such a high ground clearance, where Kamaz trucks got their incredible off-road performance from, that a Russian UAZ van would probably make the best off-road camper ever and that apart from the odd one trying to short change us, Russians are very friendly and helpful people.