Reflections on two months in Russia.

As you’ve probably noticed I update very rarely these days. Part of the reason is it’s not so easy to spend time writing when you’re in your tent, tired and dirty after a day’s ride. Another reason is I’ve become slightly disillusioned with the whole travel blogging industry. Every man and his dog seems to have a blog now, and the most successful bloggers seem to be more interested in making money and  bragging about what they get up to… However, I feel I need to share some thoughts about my two months cycling in Russia.

As I arrived in Russia and stepped off the Ferry I couldn’t quite believe I had arrived. It took such time and effort to get the visa it was a bit surreal that I actually made it. I cautiously made my way to the road to get peddling. Let’s be honest Russia doesn’t have the best reputation. I didn’t know what to expect.

I spent almost a week staying with a warmshowers host. We left good friends and I felt reassured the people would be nice. After staying with another host the day after I left Vladivostok and being handed flares and a weapon that reassurance was slightly diluted. I know with my experience travelling that most people are nice so I wasn’t worried about the people. But the animals I was told could be a problem. As I set off, 4,000 odd kilometers in front of me I was a little nervous.

The days slowly rolled by however. I was feeling good on Stella. The roads were in great condition, and the people as expected were mostly very kind. I was given vegetables and fruit, and even 1.5L of Honey… This was quite an extra weight to carry, but by far the best Honey I’ve ever tasted. Drivers often honked their horn as they passed or pulled up alongside me and asked where I was going. Shaking their head in disbelief that I was heading to Ulan Ude, before giving me a big thumbsup and then speeding off into the distance. These moments certainly encouraged me when I was feeling tired or battling a big hill. Along certain stretches I also got to know the local road workers. They were cutting grass or doing maintenance on the road. I would cycle past, then an hour or so later they would drive past ready to work on a new stretch, and then I would slowly pass them working again. None of them spoke any English, but none was needed. Simple gestures go a long way! I also had some days where families of small Sparrows would follow me along the side of the railings. Ducking up and down as I tried my best to keep up with them. I at times swelled up with emotion during these times. I was free as a bird and I had a family of birds following me to prove it!

The biggest challenge those first couple of weeks was the hordes of Mosquitoes which appeared almost instantaneously when I stopped. Coming from Australia I’m use to the odd Mosquito or two. Russia was something else. I would spray myself head to toe before cooking and setting up camp, then jump in my tent, imprisoned until the morning. I would often point my flashlight outside to be greeted by hundreds of them resting and moving around my canopy. In moments like this a trusty ‘pee bottle’, is an essential bit of kit! As it started to get cooler the Mosquitoes slowly disappeared. Then the majority of insects were bees. However they were harmless enough and didn’t sting, thankfully!

The more I cycled on the better I got at spotting a good place to camp. The first few days I was worried about being caught not finding a place by sunset so generally chose anything I could. However I got good at knowing where a good camp was. As the road was constructed fairly recently there were lots of abandoned quarries which always had open space to camp with limited insects; so by 5 or 6pm I would start scouting and If I saw something which looked promising I would stop. Although I set a target of 100kms a day, if I found a good place earlier I would stop. I made a conscious effort not to become obsessed with the amount of kilometers I was doing every day. I kept count, but I always like a couple of hours to relax before sunset.

As August slowly came to an end and September approached the weather was now becoming the biggest hurdle. Gone were the days sweating in my shorts and tee. Now it was starting to get chilly. I also had some days with the cyclist’s biggest hate: The headwind. Since I left China I had very rarely had any type of wind to complain about. However when you have a strong headwind blowing against you the whole day it almost brings you to tears! I remember one day I stopped after 76kms. Simply too exhausted and annoyed to continue on.

Another challenge as I continued further on was the amount of infrastructure. Well, there was none. Villages became less and less and further and further apart. Not knowing when or where the next ‘magazine’ (Russian for shop) would appear I always had 4-5 days worth of food on me. Water was easier to get, replying on roadside cafes or rivers.

As I got closer to Chita not only was the weather changing but also the scenery and culture. The landscapes started to look very Mongolian. Fast open grasslands with Mountains surrounding. I was also surprised at the change in culture. Most faces now looked more Asian, and as I later learned the Buryat culture, descendants from various Siberian and Mongolic peoples were Buddhist. At times I had to remind myself I was in Russia!

I arrived in Chita and stayed with a nice couple before taking a secondary road to Ulan Ude. I met two French cyclists a week or so prior who suggested I take the Northern road. It was off road I was told, but less Hilly. I’d certainly had plenty of hills up to that point, and very little off road. So it was a nice change. Of course when you’re bumping along at 8kms an hour you wonder why on earth you chose this route! All in all though it was worth it. Some lovely scenery, and on the last day I met two lovely ladies who stopped me outside their cafe, brought me inside and fed me and offered me lots of tea. Although I had received lots of hospitality on the journey I hadn’t been offered inside someone’s place to eat. They were very kind and after taking their photo I promised to send them their photo (which I later did).

I arrived in Ulan Ude after riding 140kms in the day. It was my longest day so far. Upon arriving I had a sense that my Russian journey was already over. All along when people would ask me where I was heading I was shout ‘Ulan Ude’! Now I had arrived it seemed that I needed to start looking and shouting towards Mongolia.

I still had some time left though; I spent a couple of days resting and seeing Ulan Ude with Valetina, my lovely host before taking the bus to Irkutsk to visit Zhanna, my friend and former colleague from China. After spending 6 hours cramped in the back of a minivan I thought to myself how on earth I managed to travel like this for so many years. Travelling by bike gives you so much more freedom and a sense of attachment to nature.

I spent almost a week in Irkutsk. It was certainly a change of scenery, which I admittedly found a little difficult. After spending two months on my own, all day and night, I was now meeting and greeting all of Zhanna’s friends and ‘socializing’. I decided to stop drinking for this trip however I knew I would have to relax a little. Russians certainly aren’t the most outgoing when it comes to speaking English, and therefore I spent a good amount of the time sitting in silence or doing my best to follow Zhanna. I was staying with her friend Sergey, who’s English certainly improved in the week I was there!

So I caught the bus back to Ulan Ude and got ready to head to Mongolia. It was a three day ride. The second last night I woke up to snow. It was now pretty much winter in my eyes! My Russian adventure was off. Too soon it seemed.

So what are my impressions after cycling 4,000kms through Eastern Russia and Siberia? Well I certainly enjoyed my time there. I can say that although many Russian stereotypes do exist, they are not nearly as bad as everyone makes out them to be! I saw very few drunken people in public; saw no bears (thankfully). What I did see and experience were welcoming and friendly locals and some lovely scenery. The elements certainly don’t make life easy in this part of world, and in many ways I can completely understand why some people become rather glum and turn to drink.

It’s certainly an adventure cycling this part of the world, after doing it I’m a bit amazed why more people aren’t! So, if you’re after a challenge, get yourself to Russia!

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3 Responses to “Reflections on two months in Russia.”

  1. Heather Elley
    October 8, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    Hi Sam, Wow!! thank you so much for sharing. You are an amazing person and I have so enjoyed and looked forward to reading your regular updates of your adventure. So glad that overall there have been no major mishaps and in your hindsight you are even recommending the challenge. You are so positive although I am sure there must have been hours or days that were so overwhelming that we cannot comprehend; the distance and the loneliness plus the unknown. Looking forward to the next chapter in your journey.

  2. October 15, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Sounds like an adventure and a half!

  3. October 25, 2014 at 2:39 am #

    Hi Heather, thanks for your comment. Yes it has its good and bad days. Mostly good though. I enjoy the challenge! :)

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