How not to Depart
June 28th 2012. Having packed all our gear over the past four days or so in Aberdeen and vacated our rented bungalow, we made the now familiar trek down to Milton Keynes with a van packed to the gunwhales with the bike and gear. I’ve never seen the van packed so tight. In MK we did more stowing of gear that we weren’t due to take on the trip. Before leaving we had a meal with Kieran and Calum, Diane’s sons along with their Gran Moira.
The plan is to ride through Scandinavia, crossing from Finland to Estonia and thence over the border to St Petersburg. After a couple of days there we plan to ride down to Moscow, then on to Volgograd. There’s a lot more planned after that but I guess we should concentrate on getting safely to Volgograd before getting too carried away with ourselves.
After a meal with Matt, Suzie, Gary and Hannah (my son and daughter and their partners), Thursday dawned a bit damp with a lot of work to do packing the bike while the navigator (Diane) did final clearing up of the detritus in the house. Things became a bit desperate as the morning wore on. We’d been so busy with completing our work in Aberdeen and packing the house that we hadn’t practiced loading the bike, something I’d done ten or twenty times over before departing for America on the last trip and the result showed how serious an omission this lack of preparation was.
When the bike was finally loaded and everything crammed into every nook and cranny, I tried a quick test ride in the car park behind the house. With twenty minutes left before we were due to depart for the ferry, I came to the horrible realisation that my packing strategy had failed spectacularly! The bike was teetering on the edge of un-rideable with the front wheel barely making contact with the ground. I ran inside the house. ‘Houston we have a problem! We’ve got to ditch gear. A lot of gear!’
In a desperate flurry of activity we dragged everything out of bags and started chucking stuff away that we planned to use but hopefully could get away without. Out went the emergency bivvy and bivvy bags, articles of clothing and other sundries. Also ditched were our treasured Kermit chairs and the ‘bog in a bag’ that the Navigator felt ‘might be an essential’. In the end the bike was nudged just inside the performance handling envelope this side of totally unstable, and the navigator climbed aboard in an elaborate routine that seemed to take twenty minutes. When we finally headed out of Milton Keynes we were late. Very late. We might just make the ferry, but it would be a very close run thing.
29th June. The DFDS Sirena is best described as an overnight ferry but, in order to charge an eye-watering price for the crossing, it tries quite hard to morph itself into a mini cruise liner, complete with a children’s entertainer to keep the kids happy. And very skilful at blowing balloons up he is too.
Berthing in a grey overcast Esbjerg, with rain threatening to take hold, we use dead reckoning and vague memory of previous visits to locate the main arterial road that crosses the country (one isthmus and two Islands) right the way to Copenhagen. We have a plan to try and find a campsite near Copenhagen. Having just finished working for a Danish company I had the benefit of local knowledge passed on by Tom from Copenhagen, who showed me what looked like a very nice campsite ‘just next to the bridge’ (to Sweden). ‘So it’s at the end of the airport runway Tom, ‘ says I (having worked in Copenhagen for a year or two a few years ago). His smile said it all.
We pass at a steady 60 – 70 mph through the open countryside of Denmark – mainly flat, with neat farms and the smells of the livestock occasionally wafting across the carriageway. The roads are really good, much better than I remember them from a few years ago. In some places they are billboard perfect. That’s what you get for your 150% tax on vehicles - perfect roads to drive your old banger on. It was explained to me that even a second hand Ducati is out of reach of the average biker and it explains the high ratio of aged vehicles and newer Fiats that can be encountered all over the country. Having said that the empty buses run like clockwork as does the Health Service and most Danes I’ve met appear to accept the high taxation with a shrug.
After a couple of stops to get our bearings and take on a bit of fuel, we pick up a free map which helpfully shows campsites and a command decision is taken to head for Roskilde. ‘I hope it isn’t festival week,’ I say to the navigator. When we arrive we notice a high incidence of youngsters, some of whom are wearing strange white caps that look like something you would wear whilst navigating the Norfolk Broads, and some who are wearing backpacks and pulling trolleys full of beer crates. I think the first lot have graduated school and the second lot look suspiciously like they are heading to a rock festival. Roskilde has two claims to fame that I know about: One is its rock festival and the second, which I want to show to Diane is the Viking ship museum. It is also usefully close to Copenhagen which we intend to visit tomorrow.
It isn’t a big town particularly and the campsite is located on its northern fringe, on the edge of a lake (which I think they call a Fjord but which is really a sea inlet). The slightly trendy receptionist with a pointy hairstyle tells me there is room for a tent and asks me if I have a camping card. I don’t. ‘You should have one,’ I’m told. There are rules in Denmark and you’d better abide by them if you want a quiet life. I found this out when they evicted me from Copenhagen because I owned a house elsewhere (despite the fact that it was in another EU country). That’s the price for not following the rules. But when we see the campsite all that is forgotten, because it is a truly superb one with excellent facilities and a lot of people staying in old caravans, with old cars next to them having a wonderful time (the people not the cars). To a Brit, Denmark may seem a bit alien and odd, but I do like it a lot I have to say.
The campsite at Roskilde has a fantastic view across the inlet, over to the town itself. Our first night under canvas in our new Redverz tent, which can accommodate two of us, our gear, and at a push our motorcycle too, is christened with a fair squall and some rain. The tent flaps around quite alarmingly – so much so that I feel it is prudent to get up out of the sleeping bag to check the general condition of the strappy-downy bits. Despite the horrible flapping around it seems fairly secure so I check back into the comfy down filled sleeping bag and manage to drop off back to sleep. The navigator, despite sounding the gale alarm, remains firmly ensconced in her sleeping bag.
In the morning, after a very satisfactory shower and a bit of camping type ‘messing around getting ready’, we load ourselves up on the bike and head into Copenhagen. The overcast nature of yesterday’s weather has gradually given way to a really lovely morning with hot blue skies. If truth be known it’s a bit too hot. We haven’t been used to this in the UK this year – well certainly not in Aberdeen of late. After a quiet bimble into the city I manage to get my bearings and take us past the Town Hall square and, hanging a right head for the area I used to live in, parking the bike up outside 10 Birkegade, my old apartment block.
My original plan was to walk from here into town and visit the city museum, but we don’t get far and end up taking lunch in a cafe that used to be a launderette. In fact part of it seems to still be a fully working launderette, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone washing their clothes. Never mind, the food is pretty good. After that we manage about another ten yards before spotting a hairdressers and deciding that I need a nice baldy trim. This isn’t really going to plan! Time is slipping away from us. We’re well fed and I’m looking a bit smarter, but the walk into town will take too long and we’ll miss the museum. In the end we decide to ride back into the city. The trouble is, when we get there the museum doesn’t seem to be where I remember it. Why do we want so desperately to go the museum? Well they do a very good line in Bog bodies. People who were buried in bogs and are so complete that you can still see their hair and their clothes – despite being dead 10,000 years. I think this is very cool, but I just can’t seem to find them. They must have moved.
After entertaining the navigator with a guided motorcycle tour of the city, part of which involves getting lost, we eventually find ourselves at the tourist honey-pot surrounding a very small statue of the ‘Little Mermaid’. The most famous of Copenhagen’s sights for a reason that is a complete mystery to me. Apparently it is one of the most photographed statues in the world, a fact that must cause great upset to many sculptors. It’s very hot down here by the harbour so we crash out with a soft drink and do a bit of people watching as bus loads of different nationalities spill out to have their photo taken next to the mermaid.
The wearing of strange hats amongst the student population of the country has reached epidemic proportions and now, to add oddness to previous strangeness, they’ve taken to driving around in ancient military lorries waving flags and balloons, sounding off klaxons and screaming in high pitched voices at anyone paying more than a passing interest. They also appear to have copious amounts of alcohol at their disposal but no-one seems to be particularly drunk. It’s a very confusing phenomenon.
In the morning, before departing Denmark, we head over to the Viking ship museum which is housed in Roskilde on the waterfront. I’ve been there before, but Diane hasn’t and I think it would be worth her seeing the exhibits, the remains of five ships that were sunk as blockade vessels in the 1000s AD. It’s a very impressive museum with reconstructive archaeology ongoing in the re-creation of some of the vessels that were recovered from the Fjord. The most impressive of these was a longship originally built in Ireland. It’s quite surprising to see how far the Vikings roamed in their voyages and where they settled. In fact there are probably very many people around the British Isles who think they’re Celts but are really Vikings. According to the map in Roskilde there’s a few people in Baghdad who share the same issue. It reminds me of my trip to the north of Nova Scotia, the place in North America where the Vikings landed and settled around the time some of these vessels were originally built.
Our roaming has only just started and we’d better be getting a hoof on because our next destination is Sweden. We head off in blistering heat along the road towards Copenhagen for a few miles before veering off towards the airport, following the signs for Malmo. This takes us across the amazing bridge that spans the waters between the two cities and the two countries, first diving under the sea in a long tunnel (that strangely only goes downhill and doesn’t come back uphill – it’s difficult to explain, but it definitely is downhill all the way until the daylight appears), then across an island in the middle before heading over a rather beautiful bridge.
1st July 2012
Straight after the bridge we follow the signs for Stockholm which then seem to dry up and are replaced by ones for Gothenburg. After a while we pull into a petrol station and fuel up. Diane, the navigator, sensibly buys a map. Our Garmin satnav isn’t working and won’t accept the maps from the computer. Nothing new there then. The map quickly confirms the growing suspicion that we’re on the wrong road. We pull off to the right and plot a course across country at a small village called Saxtorp, a typically smart and clean settlement with well tended lawns and immaculate farms. We’ve been heading up the E20 when we should have been on the E22. Never mind the route seems pretty straightforward over to the 22 via a place called Kalvinge.
When we get to Kalvinge the signs don’t seem to match the map. The reason is fairly obvious right away. The map is too small a scale and doesn’t show enough detail. After a fair bit of faffing around we follow the signs to a place called Lund, which is completely in the wrong direction but finally throws up the E22 and gets us back on track.
With all the navigational errors the afternoon is slipping away and after a mere sixty or so kilometres we see a restaurant called ‘Bella’s Place’, which turns out to be an American themed road diner and motel. The cost of a room is pretty reasonable so we decide to stay there for the night and just for the experience. There are a couple of interesting vehicles parked up for the night. In the room next door to us is a Grandfather who’s brought his grandchildren for a night out in his immaculate 1960’s Chevrolet DeVille. At the far end of the motel block, which does a fair job of copying an American one, is a cute Fiat 600 transporter with a neat trailer hand made in wood and metal in the style of an Italian scooter, on which is mounted an old Vespa.
Our room is brand new, themed and immaculate. The theme is a dedication to the boxer Ingermar Johanssen with a large photographic collage on the long wall opposite the bed. The shower seems to be a perfect copy of the one in the film ‘Psycho’! The diner is, to be honest, a complete pastiche, delivering the perfect Hollywood version of an American diner complete with mock car bench seats to sit on and a custom Knucklehead Harley suspended from the ceiling. It’s very well done and has only been open a few months. 10 out of 10 for effort.
In the morning, after a continental style breakfast, we re-pack the bike and make a decision on a fair proportion of the ‘top-weight’ that could be considered surplus (including a rummage through the extensive toolkit looking for things that are, in effect, duplications). We end up with a fair sized bagful of gear which we donate to the motel staff telling them to have a look through and keep what they would like to keep. The effect is quite marked on the weight of the bike and has allowed us to pack things down to a more appropriate height. Pulling out of our overnight stop, it is clear that the bike is handling a lot better and the front wheel is certainly a bit more ‘planted’. But I haven’t stopped yet and am determined to find some more weight saving as we go along.
This southern part of Sweden is typified by quite high intensity farming – all the farms look immaculate – often comprising red and white wooden or ‘tin’ walled, ‘tin’ roofed buildings. We’re heading up along the coast (which we can’t see but know is out to our right), in the direction of a town called Kalmar on the E22. What comes as a bit of a shock is that this highway, the main one to Stockholm, is not even a dual carriageway. For such a modern country I find this very surprising and certainly different to Denmark which, with a smaller population, has still managed to build a reasonable motorway right across from east to west. The cautious Swedes have built a road that is wide enough for three lanes, is completely fenced in with wire crash barriers for most of the way and which alternates the dualling of the carriageways. So you spend a bit of time sat behind some lorry or car then can overtake for a kilometre or so before you have to sit back at 80kph for the next stretch. This would be very tedious if you were sat behind the average British truck, because you could bet, pound to a pinch of salt, that the truck driver would decide to block the dual carriageway up with an outrageous overtake of a truck going 2 miles per hour slower as soon as the chance arose, just like they do in the UK on our dual carriageways.
Sweden this is either illegal or they are just downright polite. In fact, I nearly fall off my bike when I see them pull over on to the hard shoulder on the single carriageways when there is an opportunity to let other faster traffic.
The other noticeable new feature are the numerous warnings to watch out for Moose, although how they would manage to get on the highway is a mystery to me since the Swedes have managed to build the longest fence in the world trying to keep them out. Maybe the Moose can pole vault thei r way over....
Joking aside, it takes a while to work it out but there are gaps in the fences to let Moose make their way over and that’s where the signs crop up. Or at least I think that’s what they are there for. It surprises me that, having spent a fortune of the taxpayer’s money on fencing they don’t do the sensible thing and build a few Moose bridges. The road standard is very good, if not quite as good as the latest ones the Danes are spending their taxpayer’s money on. Swedes also drive slightly smarter cars than Danes although many of them are Volvos.
The ratio of Moose signs to Moose sightings for the day is 352 – 0. In this Moose sighting-less state we eventually pull into a very small town called Gamleby following signs for a very elusive campsite which has hidden itself behind a Scania factory in a most cunning fashion. It takes us a while to find it during which time I note with some satisfaction that Gamleby is just very slightly tired and shabby around the edges, so Sweden isn’t clinically perfect after all. Having found the campsite we find that they do a nice line in rented cabins for a reasonable rate and we book into one of those to try it out. We are situated opposite three generations of ladies from a family who have managed to cram themselves, young daughter, mother and (presumably) grandmother into one of the smaller cabins which appears to be no bigger than a beach hut on Whitby seafront. Our cabin is palatial by comparison and even sports a television. Watching it is pointless since we don’t have a clue what is being said. Then just before switching it off we come across an episode of Family Guy and all is well with the world.
Another very hot day appears to be in the offing as, loaded up, we pick our way off the campsite and head back on to the highway. As we ride northwards, for a while it seems like the landscape is getting a bit wilder. It’s very beautiful, reminding me of the north shore of Lake Superior with pine forests and the occasional lake that is a very dark blue – almost black. Occasionally the road cuts through rock faces and in the woods a lot of large boulders can be seen – I guess they were deposited at the end of the last Ice Age. In the late afternoon we arrive at the outskirts of Stockholm, passing a huge Scania truck factory with lines of white trucks lined up in the truck park. The traffic increases considerably. We noticed on our map that there are two or three campsites actually in the environs of the city and, sure enough, before long we see a sign for the first of these. Peeling off the highway, we head up through a very slightly dilapidated part of the city (and these things are very subjective – it isn’t rough or anything like that), and then spot the campsite entrance which, as far as campsites go is rather swanky. We book in for two nights and pitch the tent in a space at the back of the site just behind a posse of Italians in their motor homes.
Having set up the tent and unpacked the bike, we head into Stockholm for a ride around and a look-see. What a fine city! It’s quite a bit bigger and grander than I expected, nestling around many branches of the sea inlet that leads to the Baltic. There are many ships, ferries and boats bustling around the waterfronts, fine cafes and restaurants and attractive buildings, often painted in pastel colours. We aren’t following a map, despite being presented with one at the campsite reception and we have arrived where we are, outside one of the main museums, by the simple expedient of following signs for the city centre. We ask a taxi driver if parking is permitted here and he says ‘Yes’ with a shrug, pointing to a parking meter. Being an ex-matelot, I can’t ignore the sight of a magnificent white three masted sailing ship berthed across a bridge, a short walk away. We head over to it, taking photos as we make our way over.
It turns out to have a bar and cafe onboard so we decide to stop for a coffee. The lady serving explains to Diane, who has asked what is below decks, that the ship is a youth hostel. It turns out to be the AF Chapman, built of steel in 1888. In fact it was built in Cumbria, England.
When we arrive back at the campsite, the Italians have come out for their evening meal and, in true Italian style, have set up and long table and are eating together, flushing it all down with large jars of red wine. The tent is still quite warm when we settle down for the night.
The mission for today, which I have already chosen to accept, is to pack the bike up, break camp, then head into Stockholm, fully loaded, to visit the Vasa ship museum before heading northwards. A visit to see the Vasa, a 17th Century warship that was found in the waters of Stockholm’s harbour, was the only item on my personal itinerary when I knew we would be visiting Sweden. Fortunately, the trip in to the city yesterday has helped me no end with my bearings and I’m fairly certain I can navigate us to it, despite the satnav being ‘non-operational’. I’ve had no luck whatsoever loading my maps to the pesky little Garmin and my four year relationship of misery with it continues unabated.
We ride the same route into the city as last night then take a brief stop to get our directions before navigating right to the museum. Our only mistake is to miss the entrance road and to have to do a ‘U’ turn to get back. It’s at this point that I get a worthwhile reminder that it is important to look over both shoulders regularly when riding abroad on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. I’m just about to pull across the road into the entrance when a tram whistles past my left shoulder. I make a mental note to check in all directions wherever there are tram lines.
The outside of the museum is an ugly building in a state of slight disrepair. In fact from the outside it might almost put you off if you didn’t have any idea what you are about to see. If that doesn’t put you off then the huge queue might finish the job off. But when we walk inside the huge building, having paid our perfectly reasonable entrance fee, we both feel the hairs on the back of our necks rise at the sight before us. Kept in semi darkness in a remarkable state of preservation, the Vasa is quite simply one of the most amazing objects I have ever seen.
The brine waters of the Baltic Sea are much gentler in terms of decomposition to items made of wood, a fact that led to the condition of the ship, which sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage. The ship had been built with no expense spared and is decorated in very elaborate carvings which were originally very colourfully painted. She was designed to a Dutch design with a very shallow draught known in Rotterdam as the ‘sinks very quickly export model number 1’. Having managed to sail less than one mile a small puff of wind made her heel alarmingly over causing much anxiety to those watching from the shore, but thankfully she managed to right herself for a moment or two. Then a slightly stronger breath of wind caused her to tip back over. Water flooded into her lower gun ports, which, in the Dutch ‘sinks very quickly’ design were cunningly set a few feet too near the waterline. She was thus consigned to a watery grave without firing a gun in anger.
The records also apparently show that she sailed without proper ballast having been taken onboard and with very hasty preparations, on orders from the King who was busy making war with the Poles over in Poland. Her hasty and badly prepared departure mirrored to some degree our own one a few days ago.
Having taken a couple of hours break looking around the ship and the superb exhibits in the museum we take our leave and quickly pick up the signs for the road north, the E4 which heads in a determined fashion across country, past Uppsala, Tierp and on to the sizeable town of Gavle, where I’ve decided we will spend the night. Having taken a fuel stop in Tierp, we arrive in Gavle in the late afternoon and head for the city centre on the lookout for a hotel. Without the benefit of the recalcitrant satnav, we are consigned to scanning the roads as we go along and are fortunate in spotting a Best Western sign pretty quickly, situated near the centre of the town. Hopping of the bike at a convenient pick up point next to the hotel (which is inventively called ‘The City Hotel’), I pop in reception and am relieved to find that there is a room available at a fairly reasonable price.
I ask where I can park the bike and am directed to a multi-storey car park opposite the hotel. Having unloaded the bike and deposited the Navigator in the small but quite smartly decorated room (reflecting the minimalist Swedish taste, which includes the very annoying single duvets which just end up becoming tangled and useless) I jump on the bike and try to find the way in to the car park. This involves a convoluted ride around the streets surrounding the town centre. There’s every chance I’ll get lost and not be able to find the hotel again! Fortunately the recognisable feature of the car park eventually heaves into view and I manage to park the bike. What a palaver.
It’s a bit late in the evening by the time we get round to looking for food and the most obvious choice appears to be the pizza outlet across from the hotel. A command decision is made and we trot over to check it out. Heavily American themed, it turns out to be Turkish run. The man at the counter appears to be a bit surprised at being confronted by two Brits and he goes out of his way to serve us up a couple of pizzas with great flourish. And mighty fine they are too!
Despite the Swedes being very enamoured with Americana, and particularly American cars, we detect no fireworks or alien invasions on this celebratory night for our cousins across the pond.
On a short walk through the precincts of the town the previous night, we spotted an outdoor shop. Diane has been struggling gamely with a punctured mattress. The effect of this has been a very stiff Navigator trying to climb on to the back of the bike every morning. Her trials of mounting are something akin to a final assault on the north face of the Matterhorn. Something has to be done about it.
Thankfully the outdoor shop is very well stocked with top notch gear and, some considerable money lighter, we exit with a very nice semi-insulated item similar to the half length one I’m currently using.
Thus equipped we commence the tedious task of loading up the bike. Despite taking on a new piece of kit, we’re still shedding items at every overnight stop. ‘Do we really need this?’
‘Right, let’s bin it!’
In such a fashion, dozens of items, that were previously carefully gauged and considered important, are consigned to the bin. Nonetheless, the load on the bike is still too heavy. In truth the majority of the gear is camping gear.
There’s a small problem with the load. I can’t get the bike out of the car park. When I put the ticket in the machine to pay for the overnight stay it eats up the ticket and declares something in Swedish which I think is something along the lines of ‘Invalid Ticket’, but could just as well be, ‘you are ugly and your mother dresses you funny.’ Either ways there is a standoff at the machine and right now the machine is winning.
I press the button that indicates ‘Help’. There is a ringing tone and no answer. Hmm. I thought everything in Sweden was efficient. I stand for the next ten minutes listening to the ringing tone. Then, just as I’m about to look for a way to ride round the barriers, a female voice answers in Swedish (big surprise). I explain in English what the problem is and am told to press the second button down on the right hand side. Maybe a large fly swat will descend from the roof and squish me. No, the machine just issues a new ticket to replace the ‘lost’ one with the correct overnight fee on it. Praise the Lord. I make a dash for freedom.
A very large bus has taken up nearly all the loading lay-by at the hotel. I park the bike directly behind the bus and commence loading operations. After the first load the bus driver appears, a relaxed individual who asks, ‘will you be long in this place?’
‘About fifteen minutes,’ I reply, immediately realising it will be double that to conclude the battle with all the gear.
‘Oh that’s OK I won’t start the engine then,’ he helpfully says
‘If I start the engine, it will kill you with the fumes.’
We chat while I load. I ask him if he’s carrying a load of tourists. He opens the back of the engine compartment and starts doing a few checks.
‘No, this is a band tour bus. The band are over there,’ he says nodding to a group of trendily dressed ‘heavy rock’ types that we’ve noticed at breakfast.
‘They played here last night and are now going down to get the ferry to Helsinki for the next gig. I’d like to ask more about who they are but am too busy in the race to load before the engine starts. One of the band members wanders over. ‘I’m holding off starting the bus for this guy, but I can start it if you like?’ says the driver. ‘No that’s cool we can wait'.
Maybe he’s famous but I don’t recognise him. I get the impression they are famous in Scandinavia.
The driver jokes with me. ‘I was told not to park here, but they think I’m Finnish in the hotel.’ Swedes don’t understand Finnish so I didn’t let them know I’m really Swedish. I just pretend I don’t know what they’re on about.
It’s a good ploy. One I will probably end up using a few times myself. Except I genuinely don’t understand a word anyone is saying hereabouts.
The road northwards is taking us ever further away from the urbane south, plunging into wilder territory. Today we need to do some serious miles. The towns on the road signs gradually slip by: Soderhamn, Hudiksvall, Sundsvall. Apart from riding we stop once for fuel and lunch (at a service area with a fussy little gift shop and lots of people crowding in for chow). Other than that we take a couple of comfort breaks at roadside parking areas. I’ve set my target as the town of Ornskoldsvik.
Traffic in these parts is lighter than that to the south and there is an increase in the number of cars bearing un-feasibly large spotlights and trucks bearing moose shaped bull bars. I’m not quite sure why they need such large spotlights which, no doubt, have enough candle-power to capture a Lancaster bomber at 15,000 feet, but I suspect it’s more to do with fashion than it is to do with spotting wildlife on the road.
At each comfort stop by the side of the forest we are accosted by the local flying insects a foretaste, no doubt, of what is ahead. After around three hundred and fifty kilometres we follow the signs off to the left and find a small campsite by a lakeside just south of Ornskoldsvik in a place called Overhornas. Despite a few mosquito bites this is a really fine campsite with very clean facilities and friendly locals. The tent is erected in quick time, with Diane becoming the acknowledged expert in ‘getting the footprint straight’, which is essential to the effective operation of the door zips (I’m told).
If things go to plan this will be our last day in Sweden as we pass quickly through and onwards to Finland. I have to admit it’s been a passing visit and we haven’t done it, or Denmark for that matter, too much justice. That’s the downside of long distance travel – not enough time to savour the places you pass through. The north of Sweden proves to be just a little bit wilder the further you go and you get the feeling that this is a less wealthy area. Although many of the houses are as smart as those we’ve passed before, there are some that are poorer and less well kept. When we stop for lunch at a service area, we end up in another Turkish establishment and sample a rather nice pasta chicken dish.
Wherever we’ve been people have spoken good English and have smiled and laughed when I’ve tried my Elvis impression of saying ‘Thank-you very much’ in Swedish.
For the first time since Malmo we have seen the odd hill. Quite an occasion after over 1000 kilometres of flatness (albeit interspersed with forests, lakes and sea inlets). Looking at the map, I’m hoping to head above the Arctic Circle tomorrow – right now we’re turning the corner around the very top of the Baltic sea. I’m hoping that we’ll be camping tomorrow night and, since campsites are a little less frequent up here I decide that we’ll hotel-it tonight. When we eventually pull into the very last town in Sweden, a town with the slightly unlikely name of Haparanda, we are faced with two choices. We pull into town, have a look round for the campsite options anyway, then follow signs back down the road a bit for hotel accommodation.
When it hoves into view, after a very convoluted set of road junctions, it turns out to be a Spa holiday resort hotel, looking very expensive and swanky. Too much so for us anyway. A bit miffed, we ride off looking for the other options.
The one that presents itself, which I originally ignored on my first ride around the town is the rather wonderful, slightly faded Stadshotell. We are offered a reasonable room rate (although I can’t continue spending this much too often), and are given the electronic key for a fabulous room on the upper floor. The hotel itself has fixtures and fittings that would be prohibitively expensive if it were to be built today. On the second floor there is a room of magnificent opulence with beautiful period light fixtures that are truly works of art in themselves, mounted on fine polished wood faced walls.
We repair to the bar for a beer. The young barmaid asks us what we think of Haparanda. Before I can really reply she adds that the town was voted the worst in Sweden just this year. I say that I haven’t had time to really look around, but it didn’t seem that bad (although in truth it does look a bit downtrodden by Swedish standards). Apparently it’s got the worst social services such as schools, hospitals and council services. She asks me if we’ve been to Stockholm and, when I say we have, tells me that she lived there a while and didn’t like it.
‘The thing is people are friendly here, everyone knows everyone else and we care about each other so I don’t think it’s that bad a place. I’m from Finland originally, but have lived in Sweden for quite a while and I really like Haparanda.’ I guess that says it all really. It’s whether you like living in a place that matters at the end of the day. Tomorrow we head into Finland. Apparently they don’t speak English and the roads are worse, but the Finnish people get a vote of confidence from the young lady in Haparanda.
Can Scandinavia be toured economically? The answer is yes. The fuel is round about the same price as the UK (in 2012) and there are plenty of opportunities to camp. Also, when we come back, as we hope to do so, we will almost certainly use more of the cabins at the campsites (especially if we want to travel lighter). We found that it was possible to just turn up at campsites and book a cabin since most sites had at least one free. Generally there are different classes of cabin from very basic ones through middling ones which might have running water in them and then the top of the range with their own showers. The middle range ones seemed reasonabe – if not cheap – value at around 40 Euros. It was quite difficult to find decent wine. Depending on your dependency needs this can be quite a hassle. Denmark deserves more than we gave it, I’ve lived there before and wanted to see Sweden. I like the Danes. They remind me of Yorkies – the county folk not the chocolate bars.
The bike is running well, not using any oil right now and rustling along with its typical Teutonic efficiency, but it should be said that, after 20,000 miles across North America, it needed a new set of rear wheel bevel bearings. This is a recognised weak spot for the R1200GS and its road based siblings with a similar shaft drive. You would think that BMW, after nearly a hundred years of building shaft drive motorcycles, would be able to design one that was bulletproof. I only spotted the problem after attending Simon Pavey’s Adventure Motorcycle Maintenance course which meant that the course probably paid for itself straight away. On the course they showed us how to pick up the early signs of bearing failure. I went straight home and tried it out on the Mutt and realised mine had a very slight rumble – the first signs of failure.
Finland – Plenty Mosquitoes
Today the plan is reasonably simple. Take a light breakfast (they don’t do a Scottish one here), load up and head for the border across the river, leaving the worst town in Sweden (although we like it), and entering Tornio. From there we will fuel up and then head for a few kilometres along highway 29 before cutting north in the direction of a place called Sodankyla, which is north of the Arctic Circle.
The first stage of the plan works to perfection. Following the advice of the barmaid last night we expect to be met with blank expressions if we speak English. The first petrol station we arrive at is a fully automated one. Finland feels distinctly strange after Sweden. The petrol station refuses my bank card. ‘I don’t think your card will work here,’ says a Finnish lady queuing patiently behind us, ‘It doesn’t like Visa, you might try the one down the street that has a kiosk.’ Myth number one is quickly dispelled.
Despite this Finland does feel a bit alien. Riding northwards on the road to the aforesaid Sodanklya, we can see that the landscape appears a bit less familiar to the one of the last few days. There are fields which each have a wooden building in them, sometimes in disrepair, other times looking quite new. Are these some kind of barn? I’m not so sure. Sometimes they have the base much smaller than the roofline, lending them a ‘pinched in’ feeling. The settlements are few and far between. We are heading at a steady 80 kph towards the land of Santa and his elves.
After a while the sky ahead of us takes an ominous dark turn. I pull over and shout to the navigator that we ought to get our wet weather gear on. We’ve left the internal wet weather lining of our BMW suits out and have brought Hein Gericke one piece rainsuits with us. A small problem is faced when Diane finds that she can’t squeeze into hers. Her other suit is much less bulky than this new BMW one and we have to force the two sides of the HG suit together to get the zip up. Once in she ain’t coming back out without assistance!! As we depart the bus stop at which we pulled over, I realise I’ve been bitten by mosquitoes.
Fifteen minutes before arrival at the town of Rovaniemi we hit the rain. We decide on arriving at the town to pull over for a bite to eat. Today is an easy short leg and we’re in no rush. To us the town seems a bit downbeat and grey – maybe it’s the weather. We pull into one of the main streets and find a place to park. Wandering into the main shopping centre we’re confronted by a bunch of guys drinking rowdily at a bar. Across the street there’s a Chinese restaurant. ‘Fancy a Chicken Fried Rice?’ I ask the Nav hopefully. She nods in approval and we bundle in.
Its a bit of a surprise though because they do a nice line in Reindeer in Black Bean Sauce which is a bit too different to ignore. And rather tasty it is too. I feel a bit guilty having scoffed Rudolph, but what the heck, when in Rome.
A few miles north of Roveniemi we pass Santa’s official residence. There’s a temptation to pull in just to take a look, but somehow it all feels a bit like Butlins and we just bimble on by. A bit later we come to the official line for the Arctic Circle, which feels oddly like crossing an international border where Santa shops are the border post. Weird.
All along it’s getting just that bit wilder, except we haven’t seen any reindeer (although I’ve eaten one) and we haven’t seen any moose. Eventually we arrive at our target – Sodankyla, which lies maybe 60 miles inside the Arctic Circle. We search around for a campsite and quickly find one following the signs. As we dismount we are immediately nibbled somewhat by mozzies. The girl in reception ignores our discomfort and checks us in. A couple of other bikers arrive, riding on BMW’s and hailing from Switzerland. ‘Are you heading for Nordcap?’ asks the first of them to approach.
No, haven’t heard of that one,’ is my honest reply.
He gives me a weird look. A bit like I’ve dropped a sly one. We head over to pitch the tent. The Swiss riders are more sensible and have booked a cabin.
As we dismount and go to unpack the tent there is the familiar ping of mosquito against baldy head which is an out-rider recon mission for the most unhealthy swarm of the little gits that you could ever hope not to meet (apart from the one met in Maine – but for that you’ll have to read about 160 pages of the America blog – it’s not for the lighthearted).
We hastily rummage around for our mosquito nets and hats and very quickly take on the appearance of Franciscan Monk beekeepers. We’re the only people on the campsite who look like this but, until a couple of cyclists from Italy appear to help out, we appear to be the only people with our own personal swarm in attendance. It’s a proper misery.
Our Redverz tent is mosquito proof in the inner citadel which is erected with much sweatiness and cussing and allows us some respite. Once we’ve settled in and unpacked the sleeping gear, things return to normal although we’ve been bitten in all the places the horrible little critters can crawl (like around the ankles and even halfway up the legs. We head into town to find food and arrive at the Supermarket just as the doors are locked and barred.
A bit further into town is a gas station that sells fast food. After our exertions putting up the tent, we’re pretty knackered and just go for loads of diet coke. We need some kind of sustenance be it liquid or solid so we head back to the campsite where the nice receptions (who did not warn us of the mozzies) told us there was a ‘very good bar’. And there we hole up for the night, playing darts and pool (AE 3 – DR 0) and sampling the Lapland beer which is rather nice it has to be said. Or I should say we hole up for the endless day, because we’re just after the summer solstice and, sure enough, there is no night at this latitude, it stays light until we bail out at quarter to eleven and is still light at 3am in the tent. Bright as can be. It really feels very strange I can tell you.
I would also say that, in the morning we get up early to pack the tent, but this would also be inaccurate. First of all there isn’t really a morning as such – more like the continuation of the previous day since it never got dark – and secondly we have a bit of a lie in, safe in the haven of our inner tent. When we do rustle up enough get-up-and-go to shower then pack the tent we are again assaulted by our little friends from the swamps and have to resort to wearing headgear. Strangely enough they’ve taken a particular liking to Mutley the motorcycle and it has its own personal swarm circulating its environs. This isn’t too bad until the time comes to climb on the bike and fire it up – at which point it’s like making one’s way into a cloud of insects. And you can’t wear a net and ride the bike. Worst of all you can feel them working their way into the sides of the helmet to have a good bite of your head and ears. Horrible!
Diane sensibly decides to walk down to the reception hut to check us out. I’m very hopeful that I can shake of the swarm by the time I get down there on the bike, but it’s a hopeless cause and I end up sitting in the swarm waiting for her to get checked out and climb on the bike.
Once we’re on the road we can forget all that because they can’t muster 30 miles per hour and we’re safe from their attentions if itching quite badly.
The ride is pleasant enough and the miles start to slip away under the wheels. This part of Finland is all about forests and lakes. Lots and lots of beautiful lakes. The roads aren’t too bad. Maybe not quite as good as Sweden, but more than acceptable it has to be said. We’re travelling down Highway 5 which will take us more or less right down to Helsinki if my calculations are correct. After an hour or so we pass a large and quite impressive monument telling us that we’ve reached the Arctic Circle again. The bus driver in Gavle told me that the favourite trick of Finnish geezers is to put a foot on each side of the line (which he said is painted on the road but I can’t see it) and to urinate on both sides of the line. I don’t quite get that one and decide to just stop for a photo call.
A bit further on, whilst riding a particularly quiet section of road, I lean back and shout to the Navigator that it’s a great shame to have ridden to the Arctic Circle and not to have seen a reindeer (although to repeat myself, I have eaten one). Blow me down about a kilometre later we round a bend and there’s the unmistakable shape of not just one reindeer, but a whole posse of them. Most amusingly they’re heading straight up the road towards us directly in front of a motorhome (as my sister likes to call them now she’s bought one – caravanette to you and I). It looks just like Santa’s sleigh, complete with kitchen and loo. We slow down to a halt and let them pass by. As they get parallel with us an opportunity arises for them to trot off the road and up a logging access lane which they all do apart from one juvenile who has got separated from the herd and is a running along on the our side of the verge in rascally fashion. One of the adults waits for him and kind of guides him over in the correct direction so that the traffic can start to move again. It’s all very well organised I have to say.
After this initial sighting we just see hundreds of the things. Some by the roadside grazing, others just congregating in the middle of the road. I can say this for them: they are much better organised than normal deer that are crazy loons when it comes to road manners. Reindeer know what they’re doing and they do it well. There’s no way those fellas are going in the nasty forest which is full of mozzies, wasps and wolves. Nope, the road is the place to be without a doubt.
A bit earlier in the day, at a fuel stop we chatted to a couple of bikers who spoke pretty good English. They asked if we’d been to the Nordcap? ‘No we haven’t,’ we replied. I slowly started to realise that all the bikers we saw in Sweden heading south had been to the Solstice at the Nordcap. The lady who approached us was the pillion. She admired the Mutt and said that her husband, who was out back checking the tyre pressures on his Honda Blackbird, is going to get one. ‘He buys the bike I like, that way he gets his toys and I get to feel he’s spoiling me,’ she joked.
After covering a good portion of our journey to Helsinki we decide to call it a night in a fairly large town called Kuusamo where, after trying to find cheap accommodation, we give up and check in to a Scandic hotel which has quite a nice room (although no bath). I haven’t seen a bath since Milton Keynes and I’m starting to get withdrawal symptoms.
It’s raining. Not just a bit but quite a downpour actually. Loading up in the rain isn’t fun and putting the waterproofs on is even worse. Diane is wrestled womanfully into hers by both our best efforts. Once she’s in she looks well trussed up and can hardly climb on the bike at all. Something will have to be done about this situation. At each stop we dump a bit more gear and the bike is very slowly getting that bit lighter and better packed, but we haven’t got it shipshape for Russia yet and more work will have to be done to rationalise the load. An hour into the ride and the heavens literally open and we end up riding in a full on no-holds-barred downpour. It’s getting to the point where I can’t see properly and we take the opportunity to pull over when the chance shows itself for a meal and a bit of a dry out. The service area is quite heavily populated by riders of other motorcycles in varying degrees of drippyness. Most of them are wearing a black two piece waterproof suit which looks much easier to get on than our one piece ones. I take a mental note that the Navigator needs one such suit if the opportunity to buy one arises.
I should note at this point that Finland has quite a few endearing features and two of the best are that they love their motorcycles (there are lots of them and their riders are very friendly) and they also like that paragon of four wheel loveliness – the Toyota Hiace van. What’s more they are very adept at pimping their Hiaces which gives me a lot of ideas about doing the same to mine when I get home.
Despite us heading further and further south, the sightings of reindeer haven’t eased up. And the ones this bit further south are just as keen to use the roads as all the others. On one occasion we meet a young male trotting up the road towards us. We slow down and Diane tries to take pictures. All seems well until we draw level when he gives us a right shirty look before deciding the better of arguing and heads off towards a side forest road, hooves clopping the road surface and legs bandying a strange flappy-legged stride. I feel guilty about eating one. I really do.
We’re on a long leg today and just take the opportunity to stretch our legs when we top up fuel. Eventually the weather clears and we find ourselves riding in more pleasant conditions. We pass a strange sight. Hundreds of scarecrow-like dummies in a field, something that reminds me vividly of a similar scene in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I shout back to Diane that we’ll turn round and take a look.
It turns out to be an art sculpture called ‘The Silent People’, created by an artist who is also a dancer. It sits next to an outdoor service cafe called the ‘Niity - Kahvila Field Cafe’. Two young ladies are running the cafe, one being very happy and chatty – trying out her English, while the other one plays a quieter supporting role. The menu is simple: large sausage and pancake, cooked on an outside open griddle heated by wood fire (which keeps the mozzies at bay, just about). Inside the shop part of the cafe, which is a rough log cabin, all manner of home made goods are for sale, including some rather nice hand-made forks which are just the right size for our canteens.
I mention to our cook that we haven’t seen any moose. ‘There are lots of them. You just need the right road. We get dozens every morning on my road. And we got wolves and bears too.’ It is only later, when I look at the map, that I realise we are but a few short kilometres from the Russian border.
We’ve still got quite a few miles to go so we crack on. Eventually we need to take a turn and that’s when things go wrong. Passing through a town and hooking up with a guy riding a Triumph I get a bit carried away with formation riding and miss the junction. When I discover the error of my ways it’s far too late to turn back. We stop at an information point which is populated with Russian truck drivers and get our bearings. I think I can ride a bit further and then cut across eastwards to pick up the road we should have taken. But within two kilometres we run into a police road block.
A policeman approaches and speaks in Finnish. ‘Sorry I don’t speak Finnish,’ I reply. ‘You must take a breath test,’ he says in broken English. That’s a bit harsh isn’t it? Just for not speaking Finnish? Never mind. I haven’t had a drink since Sweden. I wonder how the Russian truck drivers got on?
Having been given the all-clear, I ask the policeman if the road across to the Helsinki road is nearby and he says ‘Yes five Kilometres’. Ten kilometres later it hasn’t turned up. I realise that my navigation has gone very badly and we’re further south-east than I originally though. My suspicions are confirmed shortly after at another information post. We are well out of our way and the time is slipping by.
Eventually, by a bit of top class map reading blended and now knowing where we are, I manage to find a road that will take us across and link up with the road we should be on. We turn into it with a bit of trepidation, because the main roads may be fine, but many of the side ones seem to be not much more than dirt tracks. It turns out to be a lovely twisting, turning road through the forest, which would present a good opportunity for a bit of bend swinging except for the fact that it has been recently repaired and has a lot of bitumen stripes on it and odd bits of loose chippings. This late in the day it seems a bit stupid to risk a spill so I just do a bit of mild and harmless cornering. All of which is very frustrating because we’ve been on straight roads all the way since the roundabouts o f Milton Keynes (and we teetered round them – overloaded to the point of insanity!)
We stop for a quick snack at a fast food outlet set out in the middle of nowhere when we eventually find our correct road. Then it’s another two and a half hours ride down to a place called Porvoo, which sits about twenty five miles outside Helsinki and has a campsite. The final frustration of the day is finding the campsite, which is signposted to reside in an area that is being built up with modern apartments, coffee shops and restaurants. I come to the conclusion that the campsite has been built upon. Diane isn’t so sure and prompts the cussing swearing pilot to ‘have a look up there’. Where the signs had disappeared, they suddenly re-appear and we wind our way up through a slightly dilapidated place into a wooded area and there it is.
Whilst checking in we are accosted by a rather drunk man who I think is one of a bunch of bikers. He asks us how far we’ve come. ‘I think maybe two thousand six hundred kilometres.’ He’s a bit astounded at this. ‘How far are you going to go?’
‘I think about thirty six thousand kilometres.’
3 Nights Camping 9th to the 12th July
Pitching the tent is another mosquito nightmare. Very frustrating trying to dodge the bloodsucking so and so’s whilst pegging out a recalcitrant tent that doesn’t want to go up straight. Diane isn’t happy with the pitch I’ve chosen and we decide to relocate. Eventually we get pitched and can settle in for the night.
In the morning we decide to spend the day in the town, which looked to be a very pleasant one on the ride through the night before. We saw a Yamaha motorcycle dealers on the outskirts of Porvoo and we decide to check them out to see if they have the two piece rainsuits that are so popular with Finnish riders. The first guy we approach doesn’t speak much English but he signals for us to stand by while he gets someone who does. A younger chap comes through and turns out to have really good English. He’s very friendly and helpful. It turns out that they don’t have my size of suit but they do have one that will fit Diane. She won’t let me detail the size. A new stock replenishment is due tomorrow so they agree to hold on to Diane’s suit until then and we agree to pop in then to finalise the transaction.
Porvoo is a town of two halves: new and old. Just like Whitby in Yorkshire, which it reminds me of quite a lot. The old side is very charming, with cobbled streets and wooden buildings. For some bizarre reason it is also populated by Ford Anglias, made in Dagenham, Essex.
When we get back to the campsite we decide to have a couple of beers at the reception area which has a patio area ‘for consumption of alcohol’. Here we meet an older gent who is now retired. I think he’s just using the campsite as a pub. He turns out to be a very interesting chap who has worked all over the world assembling printing presses (including Southend-on-Sea which he thought was a ‘bit rough’). Our conversation ranges widely across the history of Finland and its relationship with its large neighbour to the east. ‘My father fought the Russian invasion in 1939. He always hated guns after that. I had plenty of guns for hunting but he wouldn’t have them in his house. He said he had killed many men and would never touch a gun again.’ Diane asks him what his favourite country is after all his travels. ‘New Zealand is the best place I’ve been and I’m going back for at least one year,’ he tells us. After about half an hour of deep and wide ranging conversation he says he must go and says his goodbyes before climbing into his Chevrolet pick up. A very interesting and entertaining person to meet.
Later in the evening we decide to cook some chicken that we bought in the local Supermarket on a large communal grill that sits in one of the wooden buildings on the campsite. It is already populated with two couples who indicate that we are welcome to join them. Shortly after settling down with our chicken spitting on the grill, the younger guy says cheerio – he has to go home because he must work in the morning. His wife and the other couple remain behind. The remaining guy is called Vesky and his lady-friend is called Sirpa, both of them hail from Lahti ‘about an hour’s drive away’.
The lady who’s husband has just departed is called Iaana and she speaks good English, whereas Vesky and Sirpa speak virtually none. Vesky is very keen to get a conversation going though and tells us, with the help of Iaana that he has visited London and likes it a lot. In fact he’s flown Ryanair to Stansted, poor soul – ‘very cheap’. Vesky tells us that Sirpa’s daughter is studying trees in London, not conifers but something else – at this point we kind of lose communication since Iaana doesn’t really know how to translate the type of tree that Sirpa’s daughter is studying, but I’m guessing it’s deciduous ones. We have a very enjoyable time with the rest of the three of them, including a nip of vodka.
In the morning they wander over to inspect the bike, which Vesky is very interested in it and takes quite a few photo shots, especially of the stickers on the top box. Iaana and I chat about the plans for our trip and the one I did over in Canada and America in 2009. It’s been a real pleasure meeting them and I have to say that we’ve found the people in Finland to be very friendly, warm and entertaining. I really like Finland and am pretty sure we’ll want to come back here and explore more of it. That despite the mosquitoes.
This morning, after a quick breakfast at the reception bar consisting of a very small ham salad sandwich in a strange dark bread roll, washed down with strong coffee, we head off into Helsinki. Our first task is to find the ferry terminal for the sailing to Estonia, so we can buy a ticket for tomorrow and make sure we know how to get there. Forward planning at it's most efficient. All of this goes to plan apart from one minor misunderstanding with the guy selling the ticket (who speaks excellent English). All the while he's been telling me the ferry sails at 'two-thirty', but when he runs through the detail on the ticket I notice that he says 'two-thirty' and the ticket says 1:30.
'It says 1:30 on the ticket,' says I.
'No that is 'Two-Thirty',' he replies
'In English it is 1:30.'
He looks very confused and then becomes more and more embarrassed. So much so that I feel a bit guilty.
We spend the rest of the day walking around Helsinki. It's a workmanlike capital, not at all like Stockholm, despite having some impressive buildings. I particularly like the railway station, which is a fine example of the bold architecture of the inter-war years (at least I would guess that was when it was built). I think Helsinki feels as though it is caught between Scandanavian influences and those from it's neighbour to the East. In fact it surprised me a little last night when our dining companions told me that they thought perhaps that they paid the most tax in Scandinavia for their social welfare which they considered to be 'the best'. All the Nordic countries are proud of their social security and their standard of living.
To balance that out though, the gentleman we had a drink with at the reception bar last night also explained to us that there is a kind of hidden crisis ongoing in the landscape here as big business drains the wetlands for forestry and removes the ancient woodland replacing it with a farmed woodland. This, he told us is killing off the natural habitat for the wildlife. 'You won't see it from the road, they're very clever. They leave the variagated woodland along the roadside, but if you pass through it a few hundred metres, then you'll find it disappears and all there is left is dried out farmed woodland.'
That seems to explain the huge piles of roots that can be seen at intervals along our route of the past couple of days.
The 12th of July arrives, slightly cloudy and threatening rain. We just don't get packed in time and, amongst a few Anglo-Saxon choice words the tent is packed nicely wetted. We will be staying in hotels for quite a few weeks now since campsites are thin on the ground, so somehow I've got to get this thing dried out in the next day or two.
As soon as we're on the road the rain eases off. Our new rainsuits fit very nicely and we drop by the Yamaha shop and donate our old ones to the staff. They're a bit worn but will fit a mechanic or his girlfriend no doubt, as long as they aren't wearing BMW Rallye suits underneath. After that it's about forty five minutes to the ferry terminal arriving nice and early to sit in a queue of bikers, most of whom are very pleased to see us and chat with us apart from one individual who won't talk to anyone. His patch tells us that he's a fully signed up club rider. It turns out that there is a big motorcycle rally on the border of Russia and Estonia. 'Are you going?' we get asked. 'Well we're going to Russia, but we aren't going to the rally,' I reply. Everyone seems to think we're either very brave or very stupid to be going to Russia, but hey-ho, that is where we are bound.
Estonia - A slight hitch
The Tallink Star is quite a sizeable ferry, but it doesn't have correct tie down points for motorcycles. The bikes are lined up in threes and really need six points to tie down the bike properly (with the strap tight in to the bike) - there are only three, one for each row. So the people parked on the far right have to strap their bikes with a ratchet strap passed over the bikes in the middle row - hardly ideal and more than likely to cause some kind of tip over if the sea is rough. Fortunately we're in the middle row and I'm more than used to strapping bikes into the van so the Mutt is very quickly made secure. A very grumpy crewman helps the Germans to strap down and kicks big bits of wood under their bikes to make them a bit tighter.
Inside the ferry there is a large bar area and plenty of seats available so we settle down for the two hour crossing which goes smoothly.
The bikes are amongst the last vehicles off the deck (being first on), and we ride in a long snake through the port and into the city. Most of the riders seem to be peeling off to head east towards the rally. I'm a bit nervous, wondering what the roads are going to be like. They certainly don't seem to be to the same standard as Helsinki (despite the fact there were a lot of cobbles in Helsinki). Very quickly though I spot a big hotel called the Viru and decide to stop and check out the room rates. The satnav isn't working and we don't want to be messing around too much on unfamiliar streets with what appear to be slightly nutty drivers. The room rate isn't particularly cheap but we decide to bite the bullet - secure parking being a key consideration. Everyone has warned us that from now on in the bike may be a target.
The room is a good one right up on the twenty first floor with a fine view of - well the back of the hotel. Out on the shared balcony across from the room, where people can go and smoke, there is a fine view of the old city of Tallinn though.
An evening wander into town reveals a rather lovely place, full of quaint medieval streets and quite a few tourists. Tallinn is a walled city (well the old part is anyway). The centre is almost exclusively given over to tourism and one of the main lines of souvenir is Baltic Amber. You can buy this in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki if you want to, but if Tallinn is on your itinerary then this is the place to pick it up - it is much, much cheaper here. I've always wanted to pick up one of those pieces with an insect in it and, in fact did pick one up in Copenhagen some years ago - and very expensive it was too for a tiny fragment with a microscopic bug in it that you can only see with the plastic magnifier in the box it came in.
We have a nice meal in a restaurant. The couple next to us are clearly on a first date and seem to have met via internet dating. Quite romantic really.
Today after breakfast we head off into town. Diane, the Navigator thinks she knows the way, based on our short walk around last night and, after a few minutes of walking through the remains of an old factory, we are quite quickly on the cusp of getting lost. But, true to her professional status on the trip, a few careful turns up back streets results in us getting back on track heading for a church which we've spotted and decided 'might be worth a visit', it turns out to be St Olav's church which was apparently once the tallest building in the world. Enough of Kulture. We want to buy something! Can't say what or it might spoil the surprise for some of the recipients but we hit the shops with a vengeance, always bearing in the back of our minds that we have a weight problem on the bike already.
Another place of interest is the st Nicholas' Church, which has many old and interesting medieval icons and suchlike, the best of which, to my mind, is the 'Danse Macabre', by Bernt Nokte. Unfortunately only part of it has survived. Tallinn unfortunately lost some of it's art treasures over the years and was badly hit by the Soviet Airforce in the closing stages of World War 2. St Nicholas' Church was badly bombed and burnt in one of these attacks. The Danse Macabre (Dance of Death)shows death (in skeletal form) dancing in turn with each of the living starting with the Emperor and Pope and working his way down (aparently all the way through all the classes until he gets to the new born infant, but only the first few have survived). Each of the people being danced with realises too late that they came into the world with nothing and their status cannot save them from death. It is thought that the influence on this and other similar works was the coming of the plague.
Back at the hotel and we're out with all our gear again nominating stuff for postage back home. Why in the name of all things to do with sanity have we got seven torches? Seven - including the head torch I bought in Gavle. Fortunately, across the road there is salvation in the form of a Post Office. A package is made up and, after a bit of difficulty in communication with the assistant behind the desk, Helen, who looks a bit stern and cannot be made to raise a smile, the package is (hopefully) safetly on it's way. I hope that the aircraft can handle the weight.
The big day has arrived. The visa for Russia starts today. The ride to the border is roughly two hours so we decide to get up early, take breakfast, then head off. As the task of loading the bike commences, we decide to check our paperwork, remembering the occasions in America when I realised I didn't know where my passport was just before getting to the Canadian border (!)
Passports, check, visa date, check, Motorcycle registration document, check, Driving License original, 'no we don't have that , only a photocopy,'
There is a moment of stunned silence. There has been a dreadful cock up in the communication department just before our hasty departure from Milton Keynes. I remember it well, where I said to Diane, 'don't forget to take a photocopy of my driving license counterpart,' meaning 'don't forget we need the original and a photocopy.' I got exactly what I asked for!
It doesn't take long to decide that it isn't worth risking trying to get through the border then having a problem later, mabye even in another country than Russia. Calls are made back to the UK. Suzannah is woken at some unearthly hour on a Saturday morning with an urgent request to DHL the original to us. I head down to the hotel reception to see if we can book in for another day or two. We can't. The hotel is fully booked and we have to leave anyway. A command decision is taken that we will ride towards the border and set up in another hotel that is hopefully a bit cheaper ready to cross the border when the paperwork arrives.
Riding out of the city we pass through some of the dull communist era tower blocks and the graveyard of the old heavy industry that has now died away, giving way to the brave new world of (similarly broken) capitalism in the form of large supermarkets and retail outlets. Long lines of grimy railway oil tankers line the sidings of an enormous rail complex. The roads become a mess, broken slabtop that EU money hasn't got round to fixing before Greece, Portugal and Ireland went into meltdown. Poor old Estonia. Economically out of the frying pan and into the fire.
On the outskirts of the city a bit of EU money finally makes itself known with a decent stretch of motorway where we can make a bit of progress. After about thirty miles of fretting I pull over into a bizarre service station which sports a full blown bar, complete with a very fine selection of spirits for the thirsty motorist. We have a coffee and a conflab. 'I think I'll pull in at the first sign of a decent motel or similar with wi-fi,' I say to Diane. We're both a bit glum it has to be said. Back in Blighty Suzannah is going to find the document and then find a carrier. After having gone and ridden her horse Archie of course. There are some priorities in life after all.
The search for accommodation takes us well off into the backroads, where people are parking up and heading into the forests to pick berries and collect mushrooms. We end up at a very remote hotel on the edge of the Baltic sea which looks fantastic and very rustic, but which takes one look at us and says 'Niet'.
We then find a fascinating place. A derelict palladian mansion which is just about this side of being able to be rescued but is just gently falling apart with a little shop in one end of it where, we are told the signpost for a guest house is somewhat out of date. The lady in the shop can't speak English but indicates on a local map that there is a campsite nearby. We have a very half hearted look for it before I decide to ride back into Tallinn. It's getting late in the afternoon and the search is proving quite fruitless. On the outskirts of town, not too far from the railway complex a sizeable hotel appears across on the other side of the road called the Susi. The room price is reasonable until the point where we get in the (very 1980's) room and Diane gets on the internet, finding that we could have booked via Expedia for half the price we've paid. Communication from home tells us that Fedex are the best option, but that they can't get the paperwork to us until Wednesday - four days. Haven't they got any pigeons?
Sunday. A day of rest. We laze around the hotel, do a bit of clothes washing and find a supermarket where we can buy food and drink to sustain us. They do an excellent line in cooked chicken which put the UK's similar outlets completely to shame. The pool competition continues: AE - 6, DR 0.
Thank goodness it's Monday. We need a bit of Kulture. The map of Tallinn, kindly given to us by the nice people on reception shows an art museum not too far away, although distances can be deceptive and we decide to give the bike a rest and book a cab. The driver is very chatty, does not concentrate on his driving at all and drives 'pied a planchette', managing at one point to get just about airborne on a broken road that has become a ramp. We both get the feeling we are being taken the long way round (pun intended) as he points out places of interest on the way. 'This is the place where lots of dancing takes place, here is where the president lives, he working.'
What he absolutely does not bother to tell us is that all public building and offices are closed on Mondays. He just deposits us at the museum and drives off, no doubt chortling to himself about the British ******s that he's just wangled eight euros out of. The museum is open, we can walk in, but it takes security about ten seconds to spot us and kick us back out. Just as it starts to rain. And of course we haven't brought our rain gear and we threw our brolly away in the first cull of excess luggage. As they say. At times like this it doesn't rain, but it pours.
We are not to be put off! We are made of sterner stuff than that. We decide to stretch our legs and walk into town and we do just that, getting plenty wet in the attempt and even wetter spending a day soaking up a bit more of what is left to see. Just before we get there though, we stop off at a little cafe not 400 yards from the city walls where the locals eat and get an Estonian version of a pizza and a coffee for a fraction of the cost in town. If the tourists just looked a little bit further out they would find Tallinn really, really cheap. Tantalisingly there are hostels that advertise clean accommodation for 21 euros - if we didn't have to park the bike there I'd be sorely tempted.
At least in town the Monday rule doesn't apply and we get to look around a few more places - the old town hall, originally built in the 11th Century, just after the Normans started Westminster Abbey, and the Church of the Holy Spirit, which has a memorial to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, remembering their efforts in the War of Independence with Russia in 1919. In that fight the Estonians were successful and managed to retain their independence for a few years through to the end of the Second World War when the Red Army came and stayed.
The Susi hotel in the meantime is turning out to be quite an interesting place to stay. We are undoutably a bit of an oddity here. Last night a group of Estonian bikers arrived from the rally and left their bikes outside without any locks at all on them. The Mutt on the other hand is chained up, locked up and alarmed so heavily that it looks like the gates of Fort Knox. I'm starting to wonder if all the horror stories we heard in Scandinavia might be slightly exaggerated.
Tonight we are entertained in our accommodation by a number of working Russians on business trips. The room next to us is occuppied by two Russian men who spend the whole night talking very loudly keeping us awake. They have a break at midnight when someone bangs on the wall, but recommence at 3am with a second round. It is interesting how the Russian language sounds aggressive to an English speaker - reading our phrasebook it's quite clear that the reason for this is that Russian uses intonation to gain meaning, so to us it sounds like they are being pushy. No doubt their conversation was about the finer points of growing bedding plants from seeds, but to me it sounded like the louder of the two was about to throttle his companion on more than one occasion.
Thankfully the Russian horticulturist and his friend have checked out. We decide to visit the art museum, but on this occasion we're taking the bike. We walked a good six miles yesterday and that's enough fitness for a day or two. We get lost riding there, but very quickly realise that the taxi driver did indeed take us on a right royal goose chase yesterday. The Kumu museum of Art is quite an extraordinary building - very modern and, of course, very architecturally 'arty' in its own right. It houses a very rich collection of paintings (at least in the opinion of we two heathens) and is great for a couple of hours sauntering around admiring them. I find the art from the communist years to be very striking, being based around propoganda, and wanted to spend a bit of time looking at it. It's interesting to see how, by the 1970's it all started to change and there was more and more of a liberal feel to what was being painted - albeit nothing that could be directly connected with rebellion as far as I can see.
My favourite painting of all, and probably one that will be my all time fave is 'The Sermon on the Mount' by Eduard von Gebhardt, painted in 1904 which depicts the poor who are gathered to hear the sermon. It's a very, very powerful painting and the artist, a Baltic German who studied in St Petersburg, was a very fine portrait painter. Worth checking out on the internet.
Diane's pool playing is coming on leaps and bounds despite a tendency to pot the black far too early.
Tomorrow a little package should arrive.
We can't do anything much today, at least not until the package arrives. So we sit in the comfy leather chairs in the lobby keeping an eye out for a Fedex van. The internet tracking tells us that the package, which has been as far away as Paris and Stockholm is now safely on a van in the mayhem of Tallin's traffic, winging its way towards us. In the early afternoon our wait is over as the familiar colours on the van tell us our little wayward scrap of paper has arrived. Well done Suzannah!
We have one more night in the aptly named Susi hotel and tomorrow we will, finally, set off for the border. We've both enjoyed staying here. The staff have been friendly and the hotel has been comfortable. If we come back sometime we would certainly book in here. The only slight nagging feeling I have about Estonia as a whole, or at least Tallinn, is they just don't seem to be very happy people. With a few notable exceptions we've found them to be a little bit glum and dour. Maybe they're just sick to death of tourists.
Russia - Plenty Ladas
The big day really has arrived this time and there are no reasons to abort. We pack up and depart the hotel past a line of weeping staff throwing flowers in our path. Well something like that.
The bike seems to be running well in the drone along to the border, past field and forest, within sight of the Baltic on just one occasion. The nearer we get to Narva, the last town in Estonia, the worse the road gets. At one point they have dug it up with huge gouges down the road waiting for fresh tarmac. I shout back at Diane that I hate riding on this stuff. It unsettles the bike and feels like riding on a slick of oil. No doubt this is just a fortaste of what is to come. Then the road gets even worse. Not that I can blame Estonia. They joined the EU and they're getting a bit of their money's worth by building a nice new road to Russia. Just for us.
As we get nearer to Narva, things take on a new and exciting twist with the sightings of a few storks, some of which are bringing up a brood on a nest over in a field on top of some kind of chimney. I wonder if there are many carp ponds in gardens round here.
While we sat in reception yesterday waiting for the Fedex pigeon post, I looked up Narva and was surprised to find that it is populated to a high degree by people of Russian origin. It seems that they don't really want to be Estonian and would much prefer it if the border would shift a few miles over. Although a treaty was signed when Estonia became an independent state, it hasn't been ratified and the Russians don't really agree with the border being where it is right now. It's all in the history I suppose. The Estonians have drawn a line where the border was after the war in 1918-1920, whereas Russia would like it pushed a little bit further towards Tallinn. Anyway, that notwithstanding, it's where it is right now and, if the blogs of other travellers are to be believed we should get ourselves some Russian motor insurance at one of the petrol stations in Narva. 'You can pick it up anywhere very easily' is the quote of one blogger.
Times have a-changed on this front. We stop at a petrol station to find that they only speak Russian and have no idea what we are on about. There is no sign of the said insurance, no forms or anything like that. In fact, for a couple of years Russia has accepted the EU green card insurance system and we are fully covered by it for Russia. Buying Russian insurance would just be a precaution in case we are stopped for a document check. Never mind. We can't and we are directed by the garage staff to some kind of holding place for vehicles near the border. Deciding there's no time like the present we pop in and are immediately approached by a Russian Biker from Moscow who has a limited amount of English, but helpfully points us in the direction of a small hut where a Russian guy asks for our passports. He then charges us a couple of Euros and tells us to wait in a line with the Russian biker at the far end of the park. It's quite a good business this border parking malarky, nice if you can find the opportunity to set one up. When we get to the far end we have to take our ticket which we purchased 300 metres away and present it to another Russian who checks it on the computer and tells us we should head for the border and charges us again for the priviledge.
Our new Russian biker friend most helpfully rides through Narva showing us the way to the border, which is only partially signposted. The border post itself on the Estonian side is very modern and involves a bit of queuing (which is to be expected). People in smart uniforms with guns tell us to 'stay there' or 'come to here' and we pass through a couple of checks, with things entered into computers at each stage. I guess it's immigration at this point. This takes a while giving time to chat with the biker who tells us he's been riding through the Baltic states and Finland and is now heading back to Moscow. I view his shattered front mudguard with a bit of trepidation, wondering if it is a sign of the road carnage we're about to put ourselves through.
After a while we get through the final check and then are past the barrier and heading over the brigde across the river that separates Estonia from Russia. Two fortificaitons glower at each other across the river, one bearing the black, white and blue of Estonia and the other the blue red and white of Russia. Our initial elation at having made it is quickly tempered by the sight of another sizeable border post on the Russian side of the river. A serious looking fellow in a very Russian looking uniform tells us that we're in the wrong lane (by signal language) and instructs us into a lane that looks like 'stop we're going to search you my laddie'.
Here we are told to wait. Quite a long time. Our Russian biker buddy is quickly whistled through and heads off with a cheerful wave.
After quite a long time we are signalled to go to another booth. I pop my head round and stoop a little to see the official on the other side of the window. Blow me down and take me to the foot of our stairs if it isn't Posh Spice herself, Victoria Beckham. Victoria Beckham in a rather fetching customs uniform that she pulls off extremely well by embellishing it with what looks like a fake Gucci watch and very carefully painted finger nails. She also has a very nice, charming smile which then makes me doubt my first identification of her because now she looks more like Sandra Bullock.
Sandra/Victoria tells me that she doesn't speak very good English and then goes on to say, 'you must fill this form in here, here, here and here, this is where your name goes and this says you are travelling from Estonia to Russia, here you must fill in the identification of the motorcycle. Please fill in two forms.' This I do dutifully taking ten minutes or so, during which time Diane is engaged deep in conversation with a Russian who speaks very good English and gives her a few tips on travelling in Russia.
I return the forms to Sandra/Victoria who checks them over after flashing me another of her ray of sunshine smiles. 'Ah, you have made a mistake,' she says, 'The form is not filled in with your name here, but rather up here.' I've put everything one line too low. 'I'm sorry you will have to fill it in again.' Another disarming smile. I feel like I should put on a pointy hat and go and sit at the back of the class. This time I take extra care and try not to be made to fill the forms for a third time. When I go back to the window Sandra/Victoria seems more nervous than me. She reads it through diligently and then, praise the Lord she reaches for her rubber stamp. A lot of stamping takes place - a very satisfying sound. After having stamped things very thoroughly she carefully explains the documents and how important it is to keep them until we leave (more of which later), and then flashes me another smile and says, 'I hope you enjoy visiting Russia.' I decide that I was definitely wrong in my first assumption, she is Sandra Bullock, albeit quite a few years younger.
Fully armed, with forms we head off. To another border post manned (womanned) by another young lady who asks for passports but then needs to make a phone call and waves us through. The reason for the problem appears to be the queue heading for Estonia which is absolutely massive! Heading, finally, into Russia we pass rows and rows of cars and trucks, all waiting patiently, the queue seems to last for miles.
If Estonia had a slightly outlandish feel to it, then what we are now greeted with is very, very different to the western half of Europe. It's as if Estonia was a gentle introduction to the real thing across the border. For a start we are faced with a completely different alphabet, meaning road signs that are illegible. The roads are tired, but the street signs and markings are brand new and it's some relief to find that driving along the roads is fairly standard stuff.
Based on everything I'd been told, I was expecting the road to be virtually unrideable, but this isn't the case. After passing a long, long line of trucks - all of which are parked up with their drivers either lounging in the cabs, doors open, or congregating at the side of the road - we reach the outskirts of the border town and pass a long flat stretch of countryside. It is very hot and slightly dusty. Anything that is built up along the way seems part derelict. Despite this we make good progress, following the signs that say 'CAHKT-NETEPbYPr'. After a few miles of this good progress I notice, at nearly the last moment, that a road sign is indicating a left turn. As we approach the junction the road suddenly departs from reasonable and descends into a cut up mess of potholes and twisted bitumen. There is a fair level of chaos in the traffic which we manage to avoid and make the left turn.
Suddenly the road gets even worse and the truck ahead of me starts weaving around in a haphazard manner trying to avoid the worst of the potholes. Good grief! If we've got three thousand or so mile of this to contend with we'll need two months to complete the Russian stage! The broken highway continues for a couple of kilometres. Surely this can't be the road to St Petersburg, one of the jewels of Russia? I decide I must have been mistaken and, arriving at some road works on a bridge I decide to make a U turn and head back to the junction. Diane didn't see the sign and thinks the turn was incorrect. When we arrive back at the junction and head back the way we came to make another U turn to check the sign it turns out I was actually correct and that is the main M11 highway to SP.
After negotiating the roadworks at the bridge we grit out teeth and press on, hitting some truly awful sections of road, where the tarmac (if there was ever any put down in the first place) has been rutted into a washboard that hammers the bike and it's contents like a jack-hammer. I doubt if the machine can take this for too long and end up behind a lorry following his weaving to try to avoid the worst. Sometimes he leaves the road completely. While all this is going on, people in big 4X4's are roaring past and flying off into the distance. Plucking up a bit of courage I decide to set the suspension to a softer setting and see how the bike copes - it is after all a dirt bike. The result is quite satisfactory. The Adventure is fitted with electronic suspension adjustment, at least between whether the chosen setting is run soft, normal or sport and we've been running 'sport' for the whole trip so far because the firmer setting copes with the amount of baggage onboard.
After a while too the road seems to improve in stretches and we can relax a little and take in the scenery which passes the occasional town, many small villages with small traditional houses and rich vegetable plots in the gardens. We also notice that the ubiquitous Lada is very much alive and well, living in its natural habitat in Russia. Born of the humble Fiat 124 and imported in substantial numbers into Britain in the 1980's it is a truly remarkable little car. In Britain it was synonymous with flat caps and pigeon fanciers, but here it is driven by all kinds of people and pimped up by the young. It copes admirably with the roads. When cheap cars flooded the UK from the Far East in the late 80's, Lada couldn't compete and closed down its UK operation. The Russians then came and bought back all the Ladas we had clearing them out through the port of Hull. I guess they probably used them for spares since they were right hand drive cars. Anyway, it was our loss in my humble opinion because, in the hands of the Russians, they are known to be able to acheive 300,000 miles plus at very low running costs. They also exude a certain retro chic.
At a point of checking my mirrors I notice that something is missing and shout back to Diane, 'Where's the umbrella?' The one we replaced at the Tallinn supermarket is nowhere to be seen. 'I last saw it at the border car park,' she reports back. If stolen rather than accidentally dropped, it's the first thing we've lost on the road. Apart from some eggs, pinched in Luzern - suspect is a Scot riding an old Gold Wing who I foolishly told we'd never lost anything on the road - and the remains of my dinner in Cape Cod - suspects a delinquent gang of Racoons, last seen escaping through the woods, fighting each other for the proceeds of their crime.
As the roads improve a little the pace ups and we are able to make reasonable time across to St Petersburg. When we get there, by some miracle, the road changes from its previous state to what is perhaps one of the finest stretches of approach road to any city in the world - all graceful curves, perfect tarmac and neat curved lamposts that are more an architectural tour-de-force than piece of street furnature. It turns out to be a toll road. It's a good job we changed some money before the border.
A little further back we stopped at a petrol station and bought a map book of the city using sign language, much to the amusement of the garage attendant, which gave us a rough idea where to go to get to the centre. A couple of days ago I tried to download my purchased maps from Garmin for Russia and the download froze half way through. Having sent a rather terse e-mail to their support team I got back the usual polite reply with a stream of different things to do to the computer to make the download work. This left me 'fairly sure' that the maps weren't working on the satnav, but much to my surprise, when I switch it on it springs into life and I can punch in an address close enough to the hotel that Diane has re-booked and it comes up with a cunning plan to get us there.
So we're now humming along nicely in the St Petersburg rush hour following a pale purple thread to roughly where the hotel should be on one of the main 'Prospekts' that run roughly north to south through the city. The traffic is a little bit like Rome - initially very forbidding and apparently aggressive. My tactic in such situations is to try to ride with a blend of smooth progress, careful lane changing and controlled assertiveness when it is deemed to be essential. Very quickly we realise that the Russians apply a kind of rule to their driving. If you want to go somewhere put on your indicator and just go there. The other car will give way. If this is applied across the board you end up with a kind of democratic agreement that road space belongs to everyone and can make quite good progress. Only occasionally do tempers rise and a bit of tooting commences. Beyond this apparent controlled mayhem I find that they are 1) quite biker friendly - much more so than some parts of the UK that I won't mention right now (Aberdeen bow your head in shame) and 2) Really very interested in our number plate and all our bags.
People pull alongside giving the thumbs ups and smiling at us. We get followed by one family for quite a while before they pass by with a toot and a wave. We already feel very welcome. 'Where are you from' is shouted from wound down windows.
Eventually we arrive at our invented destination which should be near the hotel. I'm lost but the navigator now comes into her own. She's been wandering the streets of St Petersburg for weeks on Google 'Streetview' and, like a seasoned hunter on the track of game she peers around almost sniffing the wind before saying, 'Drive along a bit then pull down there' Blow me down sideways, she's spot on. As if by a miracle we waft up alongside the St Petersburg Novatel Hotel, a mighty fine sight for the weary traveller.
First impressions of St Petersburg are that it is a very clean city with wide streets flanked by quite distinguished buildings in various states of repair. Those that are less well maintained still hold a certain dignity and sense of cohesion with the fabulous buildings around. Our hotel is modern and strangely circular in design, something that determines the unusual shape of our room which is up on the top floor of one of the two buildings that make up the hotel complex. The bike is given very secure parking right outside the security adminstrator's office.
We spend a bit of time preparing for the day because we intend to walk down through the city to do a bit of sightseeing. There are plenty of warnings to make sure your valuables and documents are secure from pickpockets. Once on the street, I have to say that I don't feel particularly at risk and find St Petersburg to be a wonderful city. I'm not particularly keen on cities, but this one is really worth visiting. Stockholm lays claim to being the 'Venice of the North', but that just can't be upheld when compared with St Petersburg, which is criss-crossed by many canals teeming with sightseeing boats of all descriptions. It just needs a few Gondolas and there you would have it.
The architecture is both part-alien and 100% glorious - the multi-coloured onion domes of the churches, gleaming with gold and the pastel beauty of the Winter Palace. All of it is in a reasonable walking distance of any of the main hotels that line the streets that feed into the centre. When we get to the Winter Palace we see that we have missed the opportunity to visit the Gold Rooms and decide to come back tomorrow to get access to that exhibit, choosing instead to visit the Russian State Museum which is housed in a fine building not too far from our walk back to the hotel. Despite the strange entrance in the very side of the building - almost through the tradesman's entrance, the museum houses a superb collection of art going back through the ages.
On our way back to the hotel we sniff the unmistakeable whiff of Chinese food and decide on a nice Chicken Fried Rice. Our noses are waylaid twixt sniff and restaurant because we end up sat in an Azeri restaurant, Diane eating a lamb dish with rice while I tuck into my first ever try of mutton, which tastes a bit like - well sheep really I suppose. In a relapse of the reindeer eating incident, I end up feeling a bit guilty eating a sheep. I quite like them. Recent studies have revealed that they are very intelligent animals that can understand the mood and morale of their farmer. I won't ever eat mutton again. Unless I'm a bit drunk at the time.
Another day of the highest Kulture is in store for us today. My good friend Ed, e-mailing from America, advised us to take in as much as is possible in this city crammed with so much art, so many museums and such rich history. The truth is that you are limited by how far your feet can take you and how rich the sights are within each place you visit, holding you back to stare at them and thus wiping the time away very quickly.
Our first stop today is the Winter Palace, a fair walk away from the hotel, but easily found since the Prospekt we are staying close to heads straight towards it, depositing us by the park gardens that are adjacent to the Admiralty building and just a (long) stones throw from the palace itself. When we go to buy our ticket to the palace we find out disappointingly that the golden room is 'closed now' - despite us being in good time for the ticket sales. The only thing I can think of is that they have sold their quota of tickets.
The Navigator and I are quite different in situations like this. She is very organised and hovers around the idea of taking a tour, whereas I like the disorganised freedom of just wandering and experiencing without necessarily fully knowing what I am looking at. Then, at my leisure I will research on the t'internet and gradually build up knowledge of what I've been looking at. A guided tour is the last thing on my mind. The truth is that you could easily spend three or four days exploring the Winter Palace and you would barely scratch the surface. The inside is oppulent to the richest degree, all gold, white, deep reds and pale greys, with wonderful wooden inlaid floors and sweeping staircases. Measured against the oppulent baroque of some other palaces I've seen, the Winter Palace always seems to hold exactly the right balance of restraint in its portrayal of wealth. I wonder what the first members of the revolution thought when they broke into the place?
The other overiding feeling is one of size. It is simply huge. But it also has surprising touches. The two hundred or so year old double glazing, for instance, really still works today, shutting out the sound from the traffic passing outside. Also the feeling of being at one with the city - the windows all casting out straight onto the street. Did the Czars watch their subjects pass by on the street below, or watch the river traffic passing by? Some of the rooms are very private, possessing relatively simple and comfortable furniture and the library, whilst impressive, retains a feeling of being a private retreat and is not as extensive or grand as the palace around it would suggest it would be.
When we leave the palace we have reason to rue the loss at the border of our umbrella as it starts to rain. The initial light rain gets steadily worse as we tramp across a huge bridge spanning the river towards our next and final destination of the day, the cruiser Aurora. On the far bank we have to take shelter with a bunch of Russian tourists underneath the broad canopy of some trees that border the large fortress that sits across from the palace.
As the rain eases off we walk through one of the ordinary back streets and stop off for a coffee at a little cafe frequented by a couple of locals. In trying to make our order, it is apparent to us that we need to learn more Russian than we can currenlty muster! At least in St Petersburg they are used to tourists but from tomorrow this won't be the case.
Being ex-navy I rarely pass by the opportunity to clamber aboard a ship and the Aurora is quite a famous one, not least for it's part in the October Revolution, but also as it turns out, for it's part in the earlier war with Japan, in which it was quite badly damaged, but lived to fight another day. Surprisingly it turns out to be a serving warship, manned by Russian sailors and is open free to visitors. As long as they are prepared to wait.
We end up stood at the front of a sizeable bunch of Russian toursists, some of whom are not happy about being made to wait. They grumble at the young sailor on point duty, who answers them back politely but firmly. After fifteen minutes they get properly fed up and leave having a good old chunter as they do so and, with a wry smile, as soon as they are gone the rope barrier lifts and we are ushered aboard. Nicely done that one, nicely done.
I don't know what I was expecting a pre-dreadnought warship to be like, compared say to the ships I served on in the 1970s, but the Aurora has quite a nice feel to it below decks, and not as ancient or rudimentary as I think I was expecting. There's a lot of the fittings that are exactly as I remember them on more modern ships. And one example of the old being more accommodating than the new is the surprising fact that the anchor handling gear is below decks rather than above decks - I recall many cold and wet winter nights huddled up on deck waiting to drop the anchor in some bay or other.
Most of the Aurora though is given over to a museum of the revolution which is entirely in Russian - something of an annoyance as I'm sure it would be very interesting. More internet research will need to be done before I can report further. Our trek back to base camp takes us through a back street route and involves a stop off at a local supermarket which boasts a fine array of food and drink and where most of the security cameras seem to point at the cashier. A bit like the cash counting room at a casino.
In the evening we cap off a fine day of Kulture, with a nice 12" feast from that most ancient of Russian food providers Subway, washed down with a nightcap of Russian champagne, which I have to say is every bit as good as the French stuff as far as my subtle pallate can detect. Well the bit that touches the sides does anyway.
Sadly it is time to depart St Petersburg, having just scratched the surface of what it has to offer. Perhaps most importantly though it has given us a glimpse of the Russian people themselves. We have observed a few salient points:
A) Russian women are more or less uniformally beautiful. B) Diane reports that the young Russian men are more or less uniformally handsome. C) Russians might look a bit severe at first but they are quick to smile and very friendly, especially if you try to speak even the slightest word or two of D) Russian women are more or less uniformally beautiful.
With the bike loaded and the appropriate registration form handed over to us (you are supposed to get the hotel to register you with the authorities), we head out into the traffic hang a right, follow the one way signs then end up in what I think is the right direction. Within a few minutes we are hopelessly lost; a far from unusual situation. We retrace our steps and make a second attempt which only results in us getting a lot loster but leaving me convinced that we are heading in generally the right direction which is commonly called southwards. This is an example of the fine art of dead reckoning and boy scout level reading of the compass which the Garmin satnav helpfully provides.
Our getting lost results in us pitching up outside a rather impressive stadium which I decide must be a landmark that we can get a bearing on so we pull up and decide to consult the atlas of Russia which I bought this morning at a bookshop. It is of too small a scale to make much sense of in terms of cities and will henceforth be known as the 'Boys own Atlas of Russia' in fond memory of the 'Boys own map of America' which allowed me to regularly lose myself on the North American Circumnavigation Adventure thingy of 2009.
No sooner have we drawn the said Boys own Atlas from the top box than a friendly voice says, 'Can I help you?'
It's a young Russian mother who has brought her child to the park and noticed our lostness. How she guessed we were English speakers is a bit of a mystery to me, unless we are bearing minature neon signs above our helmets pointing downwards and declaring us to be 'Idiots Abroad'. We ask her if she can point out where exactly we are on the small scale map of St Petersburg. She looks, then looks closer, then by her demeanour indicates to us that she can't pinpoint it. The map isn't detailed enough. Another lady approaches and joins in in English. Good grief! It's just like London buses this is. Then an older man approaches and joins in. He can't speak English so I can report that English speakers do not flock in threes.
A phone call is made by the second lady to her husband when I explain we want to ride to Moscow. She gets bearings. Quite amazingly it turns out that we've just about navigated ourselves by accident to the correct road. Everyone is happy. Flowers are handed out and cheeks are kissed. International relations have never been better between the UK and Russia. The old man heads off and the first lady says goodby and good luck. The second lady explains that her husband is a biker and would have come down himself to show us the way if necessary.' We leave St Petersburg with a warm glow, getting a bit lost again but being suitably informed enough to be able to rescue the situation.
The abberation of getting lost has now been soundly confounded and we are now on the right, and indeed the correct road. This is known in Russia as the M10 St Petersburg to Moscow main road type thing. It is not what we would call in the UK a motorway, or what would be called in the USA an interstate, or in Germany an autobahn. Leaving the wonderful and ancient metropolis of St Petersburg, it rapidly descends into a very broken down piece of two lane road. This does not augur well for the day or days ahead. The road is choked with traffic (including a high percentage of trucks) and is badly cut up. Once it starts to shake itself of the city it passes through what appears to be quite a rough area consisting of a mish-mash of retail units that are cheerfully decrepit, kind of 'trade yards' really. It's Russia as you would expect it to be with a Western European mindset.
Eventually though, having shaken off the city completely, we're into a very different realm. To my absolute delight we find ourself passing through a more rural scene, with fields, trees and small hamlets which almost always consist of the old wooden houses that you just knew must still exist in Russia. The houses are mostly made of a herring bone pattern of wood, sometimes single storey, sometimes squeezing a second one in. The only brick in them appears to be a chimney stack. Some are broken down to the point of surely being abandoned - and yet the gardens are maintained, richly planted with vegatables. Others are immaculate and brightly painted. And people sit on the roadside selling the produce from the gardens: potatoes and other vegatables, often jars of what looks like honey. The little hamlets often have a small shop which has no window and maybe a garage in a shed, helping to fix broken down cars or fit lorry tyres.
It would be easy to thus report that Russia is backward in a quaint rustic way, but that is just a tiny bit of the story. Fact number one. Russia is spending a huge amount of effort and money on vitalising it's infrastructure - especially the roads. Fact number two. The transport system is buzzing with trucks moving goods in all directions. There is simply an air of vibrancy that is immediately apparent. Fact number three. There are lots and lots of Ladas, so at the very least they still have a car industry. And so, with all the infrastructure work that is going on, the humble M10 varies widely in quality. In some stretches the road is of better quality than the very best we've come across in Denmark. In others it is a broken nightmare. But I'm pretty sure that in a few years time it will rival anything that we in Western Europe can produce if they keep on spending money like they are right now. Why is this the case one wonders? Because at the moment Russia is cash rich and I'm guessing that they are not building roads by digging out their credit cards. This is deeply ironic when one considers the plight of the EU and America. Shortly after Glasnost I think we all thought that Russia would quietly decline, but it seems to be back with a bang.
Very quickly I notice a bit of an unusual quirk in the road design. It's the same as the one in Sweden. I think at this point I'm going to hazard a guess that the Swedes originally helped the Russians build their roads. My theory is initially based on Volvos and goes something like this:
The Swedes needed to build a home grown car. Being Swedish they did everything back to front (although not quite as back to front as the Germans when they built the first Porches). 'Let's build a car that looks like a brick and make sure it handles like a brick,' the Swedes said to each other. 'That will confuse everyone and the Americans will love it.' Once the design had got off the drawing board and hit the test track they realised very quickly that they'd built a death trap. 'Let's add so much metal and safety devices to it that even if you crash it you will survive,' said the cunning Swedes. 'And let's call it a Volvo - the safest car on the road.'
Once they'd built the Volvo they needed a road of similar design to drive it on. 'Let's build a road where everyone drives at 110 kph directly at each other then swerves at the last minute to miss each other.' This was a great success. Tests proved very quickly that even Volvos couldn't withstand such road conditions. 'Great. Now lets' make sure that volvos will be safe by adding double thickness road barriers for the full length of the road.
The Russians particularly liked this road design and copied it. 'It's a masterpiece of reverse engineering design,' said the senior design commissar. 'But something is not right. I know! Let's get rid of the crash barriers.'
The result is something close to automotive anarchy. As soon as one side has the double carriageway all manner of traffic swerves violently into the fast lane and makes a pell-mell dash for the point where the road gives it's right of way to the other side. At the very last nano-second any number of cars then lunge desperately to the right to avoid the precipitous collision with traffic coming the other way. In the early encounters with this mayhem I elect to drift along in the slow lane studiously making way for the argy-bargy in my mirror. This lasts for about three iterations then I get fed up with being cut up. There's nothing for it I'm going to have to join the fray. Unless you're in a 40 ton Kamaz truck the slow lane is not a safe place to be. It is time for Diane to clench her buttocks.
And then the truth is revealed and indeed reiterated. Despite the inherently unsafe conditions, which would make the whole HSE department from any one of a thousand western companies blanche and have a collective heart attack, there is indeed (as noted in St Petersburg) an unwritten chivalry on Russian roads. It's a kind of open democracy that makes order of the chaos before it. You can overtake until the last second and, if you get things wrong, you can be sure that the other lane will give way to you. It's kind of expected of you. I'm not quite that brave and always try to pull in in good time, which guarrantees that some dude in a large 4X4 or maybe two will come haring past well into the danger zone, but anticipation is a guardian and snucking in nice and safe a bit early and giving them space to make their Hari-Kari last ditch maneouvre seems to work fine.
This is a long haul though with the varying state of the roads. I was so pessimistic about it that I'd anticipated two to three days to cover it. In fact, if we'd got up earlier and hadn't got lost leaving St Petersburg we could easily have covered the six hundred or so miles in one day. As we get to around four or five in the afternoon though, we decide we maybe should look for an overnight stop, something that hasn't been readily apparent as we've passed through forests and wide farming lands.
After spotting what looked like a really good motel a few miles back we start to look in earnest and presently pass a sign indicating a hotel (or motel) with a small black and white bed on it and a km distance to the establishment presented helpfully beneath. Eventually we pass a second sign indicting that it is a couple of kilometres away but that we have to leave the M10 and head for a nearby town. The road instantly degrades into a broken down mess with huge potholes and ruts and a prison thrown in for good measure. This puts me off any thought of committing any offence of any kind which could, by the widest stretch of the imagination, conceivably attract a custodial sentence here in Russia I can tell you.
My main concern now though is keeping the bike upright as I follow a car that is elaborately picking it's way round the potholes, until the point where the road runs out. This is at a roadworks barrier. Strangely, for some reason known best to themselves the municipal authorities are carrying out road works to a tiny section of the main road into town. That bit must have had a 20 foot deep crater in it. The diversion takes us off road as there is only one tarmac'd road in the whole town. Eventually we end up, after a very interesting and I have to say entertaining ride (at least for the rider who has enjoyed the off-road excursion hugely), at a hotel type thing in the centre of town. There are no roads but the road signs do work very well.
There are two ladies behind the reception, the receptionist and the administrator. They both look severe but the administrator's severity borders on very scary. I have no Russian whatsoever and ask if they speak English. Their expressions get more severe which is my answer I think. I fumble through the phrase book and attempt to ask for a room. The answer is 'Niet'. We ride back through the town with no roads to the main highway and press on with a faint feeling of moral defeat in not having been able to ask properly for a room. Phrasebooks are of limited use in such situations.
Fortunately a little further there are more signs for accommodation and this time it's located on the main highway. It turns out to be a trucker motel. I don't know what one of these is but I'm about to find out.
The first problem with the language barrier is overcome by finding the correct phrase in the Collins Russian phrasebook which says 'Do you have a double room available?' 'Da' is the reply from the rather tough looking lady who is obviously in charge of the joint. The price is punched onto a calculator. The room will cost the equivalent of £21. She takes us on a whistlestop tour of the facilities. Firstly a very plain and worn room which has two beds and, quite bizarrely the kind of ornament display stand that used to grace a 1960's front parlour - a piece of furniture that is quite useless really. A quick lap back round the other side of the establishment turns up the toilet and 'douch' which is, it turns out, the shared shower for residents and 20 or so truckers who are parked up behind. We accept the room to mutterings from the Navigator that she is NOT using the 'douche'.
Last thing before turning in I pop to the loo and am accosted by four very drunk women of indeterminate age who seem to have decided to spend their Sunday evening in the company of the truckers. 'Niet Ruski!' slurs one of them smiling at me. 'No English.' I reply. This leads to a lot of cooing and some kind of ribald joke to the woman in the (shared) cubicle. With a smile to them that bears all the charm of a grimace I beat a hasty and cowardly retreat.
Monday morning. My usual routine. The truckers have left, it's around ten thirty and I'm giving the bike a bit of a clean. Today though I've got the tools out and am bucking up a few of the bolts, checking them to see if yesterday's road conditions have loosed them off. They all seem OK. The noise of an aircraft taking off catches my ears. Having previously lived in Norfolk for many years I can tell instantly that it is a fighter, but can't catch a glimpse of it and return to my task. Then five minutes later is flies by, wheels down, coming in to land. I can't place it because it looks very sharp and angular (a later foray on the internet reveals what I think to be the T50 - the brand new Russian fighter).
Today we are on our last leg into Moscow. About twenty kilometres up the road from the motel we arrive at a small town and spot a BP filling station, pulling in to fill up the bike and grabbing a coffee and pastry at the 'Wild Bean Cafe'. It feels a bit strange to be in familiar branded surroundings so far from home. I've learnt a couple of new phrases and have started trying to learn the alphabet. I can now say 'Spasiba' and 'Dus-Vidania' (or something like that) and have found that it immediately brings a smile and the willingness to help. A guy who speaks English comes over and asks us where we are from and we chat briefly. It's all very friendly. Earlier this morning I went over and practiced my new phrases on the motel staff. 'Spasiba, Dus-Vidania' eliciting huge smiles and waves - the Englishman speaks, it's a miracle. And he used the toilets and showers last night.
The road continues to be a mix of good, bad and roadworks. I bide the time, when the riding isn't too demanding, studying the plethora of trucks that are grinding their gears in both directions. On the road is every imaginable brand of truck including the Western European ones: Scanias, DAFs, Renaults, Volvos, even the odd ERF. Then there are the Russian brands which are harder to identify. I think one brand is called MAZ and for definite the other is Kamaz (older versions are branded Kama3, because the 3 is a Z). These are everywhere and look almost military in the sturdiness. Then there are others that look like they've re-appeared from the 1960s. The level of movement of goods and the work being carried out on the roads seems to be highly significant. Russia is definitely on an upward curve. The other very notable feature are the people lining the roads selling foodstuffs. Notable among these are honey, potatoes, corn on the cob, blueberries and mushrooms, the latter two picked from the forests. We pass many forests, quite a lot of farmland and lots of small settlements with the same wooden houses as yesterday. Occasionally we pass through sizeable towns and the odd city. These have the communist era high rise apartments that appear on the point of derelict but are communities for thousands of people.
When we start to hit the outskirts of Moscow the traffic grinds to a halt. We pass through a fairly well to do and busy town where the traffic starts to get a bit tight. People are trying various tricks to get past the traffic queue. We sit resolutely in line being 'good'. A van driver next door smiles and gives the clasped hand signal of friendship and indicates that we should skip up the middle of the traffic. I peer down at the wide panniers and shrug with a smile.
As we get nearer the city I skip through the satnav looking for the Moscow Novatel hotel which is in the very centre of the city and tell the Garmin to 'go there by road'. A huge mistake. It takes me on a ride through hell. The nearer we get to the city centre the faster the traffic gets. Eventually we are racing large posh blacked out 4X4s and the odd Ferrari. Every time we get close to the hotel the satnav bleeps just that bit too late and we miss the turn off and are sent on another excursion around the metropolis. Very quickly the air is blue with a Yorkshire dialect. Fun this is not!
After an hour of this we abandon the satnav and just ride around looking for something. Then in desperation we switch on the satnav and it takes us to a dodgy part of town with broken and vandalised cars. By some miracle we then end up riding past the Raddisson hotel. It looks very posh and very well guarded and will probably cost a fortune. I pull over and head in to ask. Diane waits by the bike. £150 per night is well over budget, but then again £21 last night helped a bit. We're still spending way too much what with St Petersburg and the delay in Tallinn, but I decide to bite the bullet. At least we are reasonably near the centre and can go and look at the Kremlin and Red Square tommorrow.
When I get back to the bike Diane is found to be in conversation with an English speaking biker. He was riding in the opposite direction and spotted the my helmet on the ground by the bike. Apparently this is a signal of distress in these parts. He rode right up the road to execute a U turn then rode all the way back to check she was OK. The biker brotherhood is alive and well in Moscow.
After a light breakfast in a bar next to the Kiyevskiy Metro station we head down to sample Moscow's Underground on a short hop to the centre of the city. Finding one's way in a different alphabet isn't as bad as I'd imagined and we manage to get the correct line and the correct direction, something that has occasionally eluded me when travelling on London's magnificent network.
We exit the metro one stop early and walk the rest of the way past a number of impressive buildings that appear to be something to do with defence, decorated with symbols from the communist period and populated by people in military uniform. Moscow itself is scrupulously clean from what we've seen and is very, very modern towards the centre. It's a singularly impressive city but doesn't have the older world charm of St Petersburg. After a short walk we arrive at the Kremlin and, taking a pedestrian subway (which serves a secondary purpose as a venue for small touristy market stalls) we end up in the gardens outside the Kremlin where tickets can be bought to visit the interior. The queues are quite large.
After queuing to buy tickets we then have to queue to get in. Russians are very good at queuing, I guess they got a lot of practice at the supermarket in the 1980's. We meet a Canadian couple who are not quite so well practiced at queuing and are a bit frustrated with everything Russian. They ask us what we think of Russia and we tell them that, so far, we've really enjoyed visiting the country and find the Russians very friendly. It's interesting that this couple who have presumably flown in and taken the 'normal' more direct route, haven't really had the same experience as we have. When we tell them a few things about our adventures so far - the roads, the help we've had on the way and the pleasures of staying at a trucker motel, it seems to change their negativity a little and they end up laughing as we gradually make our way to the front.
The Kremlin looks a bit bleak on all the pictures that you normally see, which makes it all the more a surprise when you get into the fortress for real. Inside it is a haven of peace with quite beautiful grounds and many religious buildings. The access for visitors is limited because this is a functioning area of government. Restriction is by clearly marked lanes with military policemen ensuring people who transgress are whistled at with a referee's whistle (which is much better than being hauled off to a Gulag I suppose).
After our visit to the Kremlin we walk around the outside in the direction that I think will take us to the Red Square, the place I really wanted to visit. Diane isn't sure that we're heading in the correct direction but, as the official trip navigator, that means that we are definitely on the right track. I really should buy her a little compass one of these days. After a short while we turn a corner and the famous sight of St Basil's Cathedral heaves into view. It's another beautiful example of the red brick and coloured 'Onion' spires that we've seen many of (and will never get bored of seeing). The square which is covered in cobbles is, of course, an iconic townscape known by millions. It's not surprising to find it to be an expansive space with the Kremlin and Lenin's mausoleum on one side, St Basil's behind us, the Kazan Cathedral in front and the rather impressive GUM department store to our right. I really wanted to pop in and see Vladimir in his embalmed glory, but his tomb is very much closed and guarded by a rather attractive young lady soldier. Some dead historical figures have all the luck it would seem.
Because the hotel is a bit above budget we have taken to shopping for food in a supermarket in the mall next to the hotel. It has to be said that this particular supermarket has a really exceptional range of food. This shouldn't be a surprise, because there are some very, very rich people wandering around. The women, in particular the young ones, look like they've all sprung out of the centre pages of Vogue magazine. It must be pretty boring when everyone looks like this and everyone also shops in Prada or other similar stores. I mean it would be very difficult as a young Muscovite male, to be able to make a decision which girl to go after. They all look exactly the same and they all behave the same, with a slightly aloof look but always with the tiny sideways glance to see if you are looking at them. Being a strict non-conformist I decide the best approach is to studiously ignore them. This has the added benefit that I won't get swiped at by the Navigator.
Before we ride out of Moscow we decide to try to locate the Harley Davidson shop to by some T shirts. It shouldn't be too difficult because the Garmin satnav says it knows where it is. Throwing caution to the wind we follow our trusty guide which successfully negotiates us to the correct street, a broad prospekt that I think is heading back in towards the centre of the city. When we arrive at the place where the dealership should be we find a McDonalds. Somewhat flummoxed I turn around and, with some difficulty because the traffic is a bit 'full on', head back the other way with Diane, in Meerkat mode, scanning for the wayward shop. No luck. Diane is saying something into her helmet but I can't hear her. I decide to follow the road right into town, staring again at the McDonalds as we pass by it.
Strangely we don't hit the centre of Moscow but find ourselves heading towards Kiev! After that we get lost and end up in a suburb outside the city, full of communist era blocks of flats and a bit of industry. After a lot of faffing around I manage to get us heading back the way. As we pass the McDonalds for the third time Diane shouts out 'There it is!!!'. The pesky place has cunningly used the Mr Macs as a camouflage aided by a few trees. Harley don't want you to find them.
After buying our shirts and being told we can't park a BMW outside the dealership while we get a burger bun, we head towards the motorway south. It's at this point that everything seems to be upside down to the map, a bit like looking in the mirror. Before getting lost (again) I realise that I've been assuming north to be south and east to be west. Basically my usually excellent navigational dead reckoning has failed me and I've been heading in the wrong direction all the time! When I explain this to the Navigator she tells me 'I tried to tell you that two hours ago!' For the first time my Navigator has been on the right bearings. I need to pay more attention to her in the future.
To add to my misery the Garmin, that little liar on the handlebars, has also been absolutely on the ball. Not only that but I've just worked out the secret code of bleeping that tells me when to turn. This after only four years of getting it wrong. But before the support team at Garmin start skipping around throwing flowers in the air, there is more angst on the horizon, so put the bubbly away for the time being.
Our next major destination is Volgograd. That is if we can find our way there. We have a map book (in Russian) and we have the satnav. What we don't have is a satnav that can find it's way from Moscow to Volgograd. It spends a lot of time thinking about it then says, 'not enough memory to compute.' Then it returns to telling me where I am. Not to worry. I just need to find the M4. The trouble is that the time taken to find the Harley dealership has eaten into the available time to travel today. So when we do find the M4, and then when we discover that it's a broken up mess just like the road leaving St Petersburg, with the odd semi-OK bit thrown in, it's awfully tempting to give it up for today and find somewhere to hunker down for the night.
This throws itself up when we miss a road sign and end up driving through a small town near the airport to the south of the city. A sign tells us that a few kilometres up the road we will find the Green Park Hotel. It sounds a bit like London. At exactly the correct distance a sign pointing into a bit of forest tells us we've arrived. We turn in and follow a short bit of road up to what looks like some kind of holiday complex. It's all a bit odd. I park the bike up and wander into something that looks like a swimming pool, asking the staff in there 'Hotel??' Damn my Russian is improving.
They indicate that the reception is in a building a bit further back so I wander over there and am further directed through a maze of corridors to a cunningly disguised reception area where a rather severe lady stares at me waiting for me to lose my nerve and run for cover. I ask if she speaks English. 'Niet.' I take out my phrasebook and find the sentence that says 'Do you have a single/double room?' A few days ago I highlighted the word for 'double'. She breaks into quite a charming smile and says, 'Yes.' Then she reverts to Russian. It turns out to be very reasonably priced when you consider how close it is to the capital. The room is spacious and very clean and there is a top notch restaurant on site. In fact it's quite a strange set up where you can choose to eat in one of a number of cabins which are all beautifully set up with the waiters working between each one. We have a cracking meal and a few drinks in the evening.
True to form, after departing the Green Park Hotel I make a wrong decision at a road junction and quickly realise that I've missed the M4 for the second time in two days. I know I sound like an idiot, but this is much easier to do that one would assume. It isn't a full on motorway and the road signs creep up on you and display themselves at the actual junction leaving you seconds to make a decision. Well that's my excuse anyway. The other problem is getting maps. I haven't been able to find a decent 'all encompassing' map on paper, just on a hardbound book that looks remarkably like the RAC one my dad had in the 1960's. I can't put that in my map pocket on the top of the tank bag and have to pack it in the top box. The Navigator has been re-assigned to 'Official Trip Photographer' despite the improvements in her accuracy of yesterday, although I've allowed her to keep her original job description. It's a kind of sideways promotion, the kind loved by oil companies the world over. The Garmin has too small a screen to help much and is almost invisible in the bright sunlight.
All of this conspires to force me to try and memorise a section of the forthcoming journey and navigate from the front seat. I try to write down the main junctions to help me but it seems that the road signs don't always show the places you've written down. This combination leads me to my second faux-pas, but that's a bit further down the road and will be dealt with in a paragraph or two. For the time being, I manage to execute a rather impressive 'U' turn (bearing in mind the weight of bike, rider, pillion and baggage) and then another one when I find I can't turn left onto the M4 when I really want to. After all that we're back on the right track.
And eventually, after a bit of poor road surface argy-bargy, it turns out to be quite the finest bit of road we've encountered so far. Before long bluebirds are racing across the sky as the sun rises above white fluffy clouds and the Red Army choir sings in their full throated glory. OK, scratch the bluebirds, and the clouds, and the choir. It's just a very hot fine day and we are making extremely good headway. Mile after mile after mile. Wonderful stuff. I am seriously loving this! I begin to suspect we will make Volgograd before nightfall.
Eventually we decide to pull over for a break at a petrol station/cafe combination. The Mutt doesn't need fuel right now, so large is its long range tank, but we certainly do. Choosing from the foodstuffs at the counter rather than braving the menu. I get the map in from the bike and try to work out where we are. It dawns on me that we've missed a junction and are heading down the wrong bit of motorway. No surprise it was so good then! A very pleasant couple try to engage in conversation with us, the man attempting a mix of english and a bit of German/French. It works and we find we can converse a smidgen. I ask him where are we on the map and he tries to work it out, eventually making an exclamation of success in Russian and pointing to the spot. Oh dear! I was right. We are heading faster than the speed of a bullet towards Rostov-on-Don. That's put a damper on things.
As our new friends depart with a friendly 'Dus-Vidanya', which is one of the words in my very limited vocabulary, a group of bikers arrived and park themselves at an adjacent table with friendly 'brother and sisterhood' nods. They're a bunch from the Moscow branch of the Gold Wing owner's club who, it turns out, are on an extended tour and are heading for Rostov. One of their group, Max, speaks excellent English and helps us out with some advice. 'It's very easy to miss the turning to Volgograd,' he says, smoothing my embarrassed ego. 'I don't think there's a sign - the road just veers off in a big loop. Correct! It does and it did. Oh well, we'll have to head towards Rostov, then make sure we get on the road to Volgograd that no doubt 'veers off' in similar fashion some few hundred miles to the South. We will not be making Volgograd by nightfall now. We've got three pages of very small scale map to negotiate and it might take us ages. I do hope the road stays good.
Max says, 'You can ride with us if you like, we tend to stick around 140 kph..'
'Oh that's ok we'd be too slow for you guys. The bike is heavily loaded and I'm riding at around 110 to 120,' I reply. If the bike was a little less like an overloaded shopping trolley it would be great to play tag, but what with the load and the quality of the fuel hereabouts, my bike is a bit asthmatic above 120 kph. Normally it sings along nicely at 130 - 140. We head off in before them and I ride along expecting them to overtake any time soon. Strangely though we've covered a good 30 to 40 kilometres before I spot them in the mirrors. I look down at the speedo and see I'm doing 125 - 130. I've been secretly racing them! They sweep by with waves and toots of their horns.
Before we parted company Max wrote his mobile number on my little bit of Swedish wood that I use as a sidestand puck. 'Call me if you have any problems, I can find a way of helping you.' Nice bloke. Nice touch.
Gradually the landscape is changing. The fields are huge and the distances to the horizon seems so far away. The land is gently undulating. We ride on through the day and eventually arrive at a large town where, yet again, I miss a turning completely - meaning we head into the town. It turns out to be the city of Voronezh which is quite a pleasant place. Unfortunately though it is also its rush hour right now. We discuss if we should search for a hotel. I punch in the search on the Garmin and it comes up with a few examples to try. The first one involves us driving down some unlikely streets ending up at a place where there is patently no hotel. This is very frustrating. Our next attempt wants to send us down a street with no tarmac. I feel like throwing the device into the next bin and realise that I have gone into curse mode.
Eventually I give up and head out of town. There must be some motels on the way surely.
A bit later on, at another town, we hit two things. A roadside market for truckers and travellers with a myriad of stalls selling all sorts of food, fresh and salted, and the odd trucker motel. We are following a family in a Kia 4x4 who seem decent sorts. All of a sudden the driver sees a half decent trucker motel and dives to the right in there. He's obviously cased it out and decided it's good enough for his kids (who were happily waving to us a few minutes ago). It's getting late, the shadows are getting long. Shall we go back and try and get in too? It's right on the highway and the bike will be very obvious sat outside the place. I decide to press on in the hope that something better will turn up. Big Mistake!!!
As the shadows lengthen even further nothing really turns up. We pass losts of people in their Ladas having late picnics by the roadside at field entrances, others selling produce by the roadside. We also pass a couple more very, very dodgy motels, then the night descends upon us. And we left our bivouc gear at Milton Keynes. I shout over to Diane that we might end up kipping by the bike tonight. I don't like it one bit. Most of all I don't like riding in the dark. I can't see the condition of the road in time to take evasive measures if it becomes really bad (although it remains fine at the moment). One of my spotlights was broken tying the bike down on the Estonian ferry just to add a further twist to the sorry tale.
My pillion is made of very stern stuff and remains silent, no doubt waiting to see what I'm going to do. I try to latch on to the back of other vehicles as we ride over a dark sea of steppe with no lights showing on either side. Eventually we spot some light. It's a roadside market, still carrying on into the night with loads of lorries parked on the roadside. we pull over and are waved at enthusiastically by some stallholders who are cheering at us. That's nice!
The basic set up seems to be that they have a nice little barbeque going and roast grub up on demand for the truckers, who are gathered around the bike admiring it, I'm right up for a nice grilled chicken sarnie, but Diane takes one look at the sanitary arrangements and puts the party pooper on that one straight away. 'Dva Kaffe Spasiba'is all I can get agreement on.
'Is there Hotel?' I attempt.
'Dva, five kilometre,' comes the reply
After refreshment, feeling a little perked up we head off into the night.
Five kilometres come up, nothing. Then ten, then twenty. Nothing but darkness. I give up and start seriously planning a rough stop by the bike. Then, at a quarter past ten there appears in the sea of blackness a pin prick of light - far into the distance it glimmers like a beacon for a lost mariner. It grows to some kind of blue light, then recognisably, maybe two miles away, into a service station. It's like an oasis in the desert. By some miracle a sign also appears saying 'Motel' (in Russian). Not only that it's a really, really nice Motel, from some kind of Russian chain. And the cafe is open 24 hours. We have been very, very lucky. We are only to realise just how lucky tomorrow morning.
This is a very splendid motel. It is very modern and the rooms are well appointed and very clean. Across at the service station there is a lovely little Orthodox chapel with oinion spire, made of timber, with icons inside. We light a couple of candles in memory of my mum, brother-in-law Ed and Diane's grandparents. Those loved ones who have, in nautical terms, 'passed the bar'. At breakfast I sampled Russian pancakes and last night tried out a rustic soup which was a proper thin chicken broth, garnished with herbs, with an egg floating around the bottom of the bowl. It was delicious. We couldn't decipher anything on the menu and just selected something other people were eating at other tables. At the moment it's the only way we can stay alive.
Very shortly after departing we find out exactly how lucky we were last night when we hit an enormous traffic tailback. The reason for the loggerjam becomes apparent after about half an hour of gently simmering in the 36 degree heat. Basically the road builders have got as far as they can go right now and the motorway disappears just like someone has waved a magic wand. The old, soviet era road isn't really a road at all. It's a formation of something resembling tarmac that has been folded into waves, with very pronounced peaks and troughs. In the troughs it has broken up into ruts and holes. Riding along it at 1 mph, feeding the clutch in and out, is a form of motorcycling hell for bike and rider because I just can't see the road ahead until it is too late and we're in some rut or other. The vehicle in front is just too close to predict the state of the road and if I leave a space some chimp in a BMW or Mercedes will carve me up and steal my spot. What is it that makes people in these two marques drive like this? All the Lada drivers are fine, but these rich so and so's are a pain in the ass!! They're behaving like a bully kicking sand in a wimps face on the beach, but when you look through the tinted glass it ends up being some bald git in sunglasses. Probably Mafia. Probably best left unhindered.
A large number of drivers with local knowledge have abandoned the road altogether and have headed off across the fields to a dirt track running parallel where they are bouncing along raising a huge dust cloud. It's very tempting but I decide to play by the rules. Eventually we arrive at a small town where the road just gets even worse. I'm beginning to wonder if the Government looks after roads outside the towns but makes the towns pay for it when it arrives at their border, because all the towns have really crap roads and some, like the one between St Petersburg and Moscow don't have any roads at all.
Eventually though we leave all that behind and end up on an improved section of road. Then a worse bit, then a better bit. After many miles we spot a small town with what looks like a rather posh Thai/Chinese restaurant that seems to beckon to us, 'stop here and all will be well with the world.'
We park up and enter the cool interior. A couple of guys are finishing their meal. Besides them it is deserted.
We're given a menu that we can't decipher. One of the guys speaks English and kindly offers to help.
After helping us order he pops back. 'You shouldn't park your bike out of view here,' he says. 'Too many thieves.'
I didn't think it was that bad, but who am I to argue. I go outside and move the bike. Triple locking and alarming it at the same time. The guys leave the restaurant as I go back inside saying goodbye and climbing in their big black BMW with tinted windows. Hmm.
One other bit of help they gave us was to show us where we are on the 'boys own atlas of Russia' which helped me work out that we have about 50 kilometres to run until our turn onto the M21 to Volgograd. 'How long is it after that?' asks he Navigator. 'I dunno, about 150 kilometres I think (wrong - more like 150 miles). It's still quite a long way if the road is poor and we don't want to get caught out again. We press on.
It's a very good job we checked at the last stop because there is precious little warning when the road does appear. Just a sign really late - right by the slip road which curves purposefully round and terribly broken. We are on the main Volgograd road which is kind of a broken mix of what would be a minor 'A' road in the UK. The traffic is very heavy and is rattling along at a fair pace until it gets held up by a truck. At this point it becomes a bit like the TV program 'Wacky Races'. I can sense the Navigator's tension.
There are two choices. Go slow, get cut up and breath in belching black diesel fumes or ride like a manic loon and risk death. It's not really a choice at all. I don't like it and I'm not proud of it, but I have to revert to my much younger days and start properly overtaking traffic in the most aggressive manner. Diane has never ridden like this and I feel as though I'm scaring her.
That is just the start of it though. The overtaking coming the other way becomes deadly. On four counted occasions it forces me to ride off the road to avoid a head on 150mph closing speed collision - certain death on a motorcycle as the people overtaking misjudge the distances and speeds. I am not exaggerating here, it is truly white knuckle stuff. Riding off the road at seventy miles per hour is not a great thing to do. On something as heavy as the Mutt, loaded to the gunwhales with gear, it is not advisable. I manage to just keep balanced on the last strip of tarmac before the dirt, braking heavily and somehow the cars coming the other way squeeze through on each occasion.
You may have gathered if you are reading this that although I write in the present tense I am recounting something that happened a few days ago. I have to report that this driving on this leg is nothing compared to what is to come later in the Ukraine. I also have to report that I found it strangely satisfying to experience it and arrive at the other end of the journey. I feel like I've ridden it to the best of my capabilities. The road in places was dreadful, sometimes they've scraped it completely away and just left gouges, waiting to be tarmac'ed. I now laugh at my complaints in Estonia where I slowed right down over such gouges. I've found that the GS can easily handle everything thrown at it and still maintain the same speed as the fast 4x4's. It really is a remarkable machine. Travelling at 70 to 80 mph on such a road and realising that the bike's suspension (which is set on 'off road' settings) can cope, is very confidence inspiring.
We end the day as we started, in a traffic jam, waiting for a goods train at a railway crossing. The area on the edge of Volgograd is very run down. A number of people who I've been swapping overtakes with for the last hour come over and check out the bike. They're all really friendly and want to know where we're from. Suddenly, people who I thought were 'out to get me' morph into a normal guy with a family, or three young lads heading home. After ten minutes of laughing and joking they climb back into their cars and give big waves as we get moving again.
And so, quite late on, with a bagful of road experiences packed away in one day, we arrive at Volgograd. And we promptly get lost.
Getting lost can be fun, but in a strange city with no geographical references at all, riding through rough areas of town, it isn't really that great. And as we get a bit 'loster'I get a bit nippier. Diane is just superb in these situations. She seems to know it's tough riding the bike in a strange city on broken up roads whilst trying to find a hotel and she bites her lip. A lip that has one or two too many bite marks. I need to control my frustration.
Eventually we find our way, through a myriad set of streets, into the city centre. Diane researched the hotel situation some days ago and is looking for one particular hotel called the 'Intourist' but before that heaves into view we find the 'Hotel Volgograd'. I seem to recall some dodgy remarks about this hotel on the internet, but I can't be arsed to find anywhere else and walk into the reception area to see if they have a room. They do, and it is of reasonable price, so it is promptly booked and paid for. When I exit to let Diane know and to park the bike round the back of the hotel in a 'safe area' which is really a building site a remarkably attractive young lady comes over and, almost apologetically (for hassling us) asks us where we are from. In the subsequent conversation she makes us feel like we are film stars. It's an introduction for Diane to something that happened to me a lot over in America. Suddenly we're made to feel very special that we've managed to ride all the way here. It also makes us feel very welcome, something that is increasingly the feeling given off by ordinary Russians. In fact I have decided officially that I really like ordinary Russian people. They are welcoming, charming and possed of a very disarming sense of humour.
The Hotel Volgograd is one of those places that exudes character. It might not be to everyone's taste, but it certainly isn't boring. It was built in the communist era and is therefore, I suspect, built of bricks then rendered in something like concrete which is then cunningly shaped to look like the facings of much more expensive material. The building standards of the time when it was built (very shortly after the Germans departed the city) have not weathered the test of time and like most things built by the Soviets it is in a state of gentle decline.
Inside, the corridors seem to be infinitely long, carpeted many years ago and now a bit threadbare and stained, with crimson curtains draped at intervals, their purpose a mystery. The lift is tiny. It is all we can do to fit two of us in. In our spacious room the shower is similarly tiny and I nearly detach it with my shoulders every time I take a washdown. I guess we're in a room that was reserved for minor party officials, with a view over the central courtyard cum building site. It looks like they are doing a bit of renovation on one of the wings of the hotel.
But there are a couple of things that really redeem the hotel in our eyes. Firstly the rooms are clean, despite being worn and tired. I've stayed in very posh business hotels where the pong from the bathroom made a mockery of their star status. Secondly the staff are really friendly and accommodating. Oh yes - and the bed is really comfy. And the air conditioning works well, so more than a couple of things really.
In front of the hotel we are surprised to spot two British registered cars kitted out in rally style: a Vauxhall Corsa and a Nissan Micra. The stickers on them proclaim that they are part of the 'Mongol Rally 2012'. This is their final day in Europe I guess, the road East takes them into Asia.
Our mission today is to do a walking tour of Volgograd which was, as most people will probably know, originally called Stalingrad. When we rode in last night we passed the amazing monument that is situated on a hill above the city. It's a huge statue of a woman, sword in hand, called 'Motherland Calls'. The hill that it is sited on is man-made, a Tartar burial mound called the Mamaev Kurgan. Before the war this was where the residents would picnic and relax. Looking out eastwards to the River Volga, on their left would have been the massive factories that had sprung up in this new model town, to their right the city itself. Even today there is a sprawl of steel works belching out a cloud of orange smoke and dust which settles over that part of the city - not a very healthy place to live.
Before we go there though we head down to the river along an initially impressive garden/monumental gateway which finishes at the bank of the Volga. This, I believe is where the Russians ferried reinforcements from the eastern bank of the river to those who were holding an increasingly tiny strip of the city against the German 6th Army. The battle arguably affected each and every one of us who live today, because it was here that the tide of the Second World War turned. This battle put and end to Hitler just as effectively as the self-administered bullet two and a half years later. So, to my mind, we owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who fought and died here.
Reading about battles is often a sterile affair. There's no way we can imagine the horror of warfare if we haven't been involved in it, and here it is most certainly the case because it was the focus of an idealogical struggle between two totalitarian states. We in the West simply can't comprehend what that meant. One simple fact that isn't popular to discuss in Russia is that they executed 35,000 of their own men right here, for a raft of offences ranging from desertion, self inflicted wounds to simply being in charge of or watching comrades desert and not shooting them, or voicing concern over how things were going. At this point where the river was crossed many thousands died, including civilians, relentlessly targeted by the Luftwaffe and the German artillery and even machine gun fire when the Red Army salient was reduced to a tiny area of the city. Nowadays it is the site of a small fun fair.
After wandering around the banks of the river and grabbing a coffee at a restaurant where the staff don't speak a word of English and don't understand the three or four Russian words we attempt, but still manage to raise a smile in the attempt, we head back up the hill into the city and hang a right to walk the two or three miles to the Mamaev Kurgan. It's a hot day.
In front of the great burial mound which towers above us, there is a football stadium which is strangely tipping into disuse. I don't know the exact status of it, but it was clearly built in the days of the USSR and is now becoming overgrown and unkempt - almost ghostly. We cross the wide highway and tram lines to the Mamaev complex, mounting an impressive set of stairs in the blistering heat along with many Russians who seem to have arrived on some kind of pilgrimage, people of all different ages. The complex is formed of a number of different areas, reminding me a little of the Roosevelt monument in Washington (strangely enough). There are many statues that portray soldiers in heroic poses and broad shallow water features followed by a very stark portrayal of the battle where the people are cut from a relief of buildings and bricks. This is perhaps the starkest reminder that in this battle individual people didn't matter at all, sacrifice was all and the people were part of the city.
Then we arrive at a large wall with low relief figures cut into it. Here the soldiers and people are again heroic conquerors while the Germans are portrayed as a defeated and strangely un-military line heading off into captivity (from which very few would return). We pass through a dark tunnel and enter a round building which is full of light and strangely resembles a cathedral, with two soldiers guarding the enternal flame. There are thousands of names written on the wall, but they can't be even a tiny fraction of those who fell - I need to research the meaning, but I'm guessing that they may be those who won medals or something like that. While we are in there a soldier approaches a group of young men who are still wearing baseball caps and curtly orders them to remove the caps.
Quite bizarrely there is a wedding party in the crowd, here to have their photo's taken. We realise very quickly that they are not alone. There's a church near the top and they are churning out wedding parties like there's no tomorrow.
And so on to the Kurgan itself. I'm not sure that all the visitors know exactly what this place is. At the height of the battle the Mamaev Kurgan was a strong point that was subject to some of the most furious and bloody fighting of the battle. For quite a few years nothing would grow on its blackened soil and the whole of the mound was formed on the surface of a mixture of fragments of bones, German and Russian mixed with shrapnel. Nowadays grass grows on it, but it remains a monumental boneyard formed of the fragments of countless bodies. I'm not sure I would pick it to have my wedding photo set taken. Along the pathway that works it's way to the summit and that amazing statue, are the gravestones of some of the leading Red Army soldiers who fought here, for buried here, quite fittingly, are the generals who led the men and then lived on after the war. Heroes of the Soviet Union all.
The statue on top of the mound was, for many years, the largest statue in the world. It is quite an astonishing feature and, to my mind, rather beautiful.
After our visit to the statue we decide to try and find a different and quicker route back to the hotel via an entrance to the complex at its western end. This turns out to be a big mistake. As we head down the dusty hill we notice that it isn't built on and is just scrub land. Following the edge of the road when the pathway peters out, we make our way down and round the hillside. A group of young men in a Lada stop and say something to us which we indicate that we don't understand. Then we pass people who are in vans sitting just inside the wasteland and it dawns on me what may be the problem. I think this is uncleared land which is probably not fully safe from unexploded munitions.
It's a long, long walk back to base. That evening we have a meal in the restaurant and, with our limited Russian vocabulary manage to order a brandy for Diane that costs more than the cost of the rest of the hotel stay.
A 'lazy day'. Spent washing clothes and catching up on the blog.
Getting out of Volgograd and finding the M21 again proves a little difficult. We arrived in such a circuitous fashion that I'm reduced to trying to remember the google map and use the compass option on the satnav. I've found that the Garmin Russia maps aren't particularly useful for anything other than a detailed street view. Initially the roadsigns help but very quickly they peter out and we find ourselves leaving the city in a northerly direction near the airport which is completely wrong. Retracing our steps we end up riding on roads that are really just dirt tracks until we pick up the correct one and manage to find the westbound road that we originally arrived on (recognising a familiar 'T' junction).
Some miles out of the city we stop at a static display of a wonderful steam locomotive, resplendent in black, with red and white wheels and a huge red star on the front. A close inspection shows the fundamentally basic construction employed in those days. Nothing is given to style or build quality. But no doubt, like the T34 tanks which were of extremely rough build quality, it worked and was reliable. Just like a Lada.
For some reason the ride back along the miles of road with their chewed up broken surface isn't half as bad as the ride into Volgograd three days ago. Firstly, the traffic coming the other way doesn't seem to be quite as suicidal and secondly, I seem to be getting more and more familiar with bike control over rough surfaces. I feel a lot more relaxed riding along and picking out the 'least worst' course. It's strange too how coming back in the opposite direction to a previous trip along a road, the features seem different and almost completely new.
With the riding a little less frenetic, I find I can pay just a tiny bit more attention to the passing landscape, noticing that the crops here in this part of Russia are predominantly corn and wheat fields, sunflowers and melons. We don't recognise a lot of melons being grown, but we do see lots of them for sale on the impromptu markets by the roadside.
There is also quite a lot of military traffic. At one point we pass some impressive wheel driven armoured personnel carriers and there are plenty of military Kamaz lorries heading in both directions. We've passed a number of bases around the edge of Volgograd.
There are a number of reminders of the huge battles that took place out here on the steppe in the Second World War, one of them is particularly poignant. It is a memorial on a hill (probably one of some significance but I'll have to research it when I get home) with the graves of a number of soldiers. On each grave are Russian tin hats, some complete, others with very graphic damage that is, to be honest, quite shocking. One helmet in particular is riddled with bullets. As a westerner is is very difficult to imagine the brutality of the fighting that took place here seventy years ago.
It was out here in the steppe to the west of Volgograd that the battle was eventually decided by an audacious attack by the Red army from the north and the south creating a pincer that cut the Sixth Army and it's allies off in the salient. The Germans, on Hitler's orders attempted to relieve the pocket and re-establish supply lines, but they were beaten off. Re-supply by air was attempted, but the Russians managed to overun the main airfield in a surprise tank attack and there were never enough supply aircraft available anyway. Those in the city, holding on hoping that the Fuhrer would save them, or in other cases just holding on, began to starve to death.
There are plenty of memorials to the victors of the battle, all along the road, but this one is the one that really brings it home to me. Of the German Army there is no sign. They have been turned into the earth where millions of them remain.
Today we decide to take an early overnight stop at a motel we noticed on the way in. It looked very clean and secure and it turns out to be just the case. The lady in reception also speaks quite good English which is a bonus. She tells us that they get a number of motorcyclists from Europe staying over on their way to Volgograd. It also seems to be a popular stop for Russian Army personnel and a couple of them are staying here.
Another very hot morning with the temperature gauge on the bike nudging 36 degrees. Even with a full Camelbag water backpack it's very difficult to keep hydrated and we are having to replenish the pack at least once a day when we are on the move.
Our route today involves heading westwards on the M21 then cutting south on the M4 (again). After a while on the bike, we spot one of the many impromptu markets and decide to stop to try and buy some fruit. Unfortunately though, despite the considerable number of stalls, they're all selling exactly the same product: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and lots of very large melons. There's no way we can buy one of these monsters - the bike will tip over if we try and stack one on top. Instead we decide to purchase some tomatoes which turn out to be extremely tasty - much better than anything our supermarkets back home can rustle up.
While we trying to eat whilst avoiding dribbling, I notice a couple of old boys sat in a Lada checking out the bike and decide to wander over and attempt a conversation. They nod approvement at the 'machina' and I do likewise at their ancient carriage. The driver is very proud of his motor and explains that it has covered one hundred and fifty thousand miles and is currently towing two tons in the trailer behind. Apparently it's much better than a Mercedes on the rough roads too. Another benefit of Ladas from what we see a bit later down the road is that you simply dump your old one in the ditch adjacent to the nice shiny dealership and drive your new one away. Honest. Check out the picture.
Part of this leg of our journey today takes us across an impressive bridge spanning the river Don. Behind us lies the steppe that saw the encircling Russian armies execute their pincer attack trapping the German 6th Army in Stalingrad on the River Volga. In front of us the western bank of the River Don towers high above the river, a natural defensive line that the Russians managed to also breach during the battle.
After a good four hours of riding we arrive at the outskirts of Rostov-on-Don, that centre of crime (according to the gentlemen we met a few days ago), stopping at an impressive monument which has a T34 tank mounted on a plinth. I still find these to be an amazingly modern looking tank, with their sloped armour. And there's no doubt that they were built very quickly with no attempt to 'round off the edges'. The turret in particular is very rough cast - a similar quality of build to the locomotive we saw yesterday. Despite that they gave the Germans a particularly rude shock when their anti-tank rounds just bounced off the armour.
Rostov turns out to be a large city with a fairly long ride in towards the centre. We are on 'hotel watch', something I find very stressful. The satnav indicates that there is one nearby at the airport. As we head in that direction we both notice a BMW dealership and the navigator shouts that there are bikes there. This immediately starts a chain of ideas in my head. We also pass a fine roadside display in the shape of a Mig fighter mounted on a high pedestal above the road. I think it's a Mig 15 but it could be a 17. It isn't really safe to try and do aircraft identification riding through a city I'm not familiar with so I can't really improve on that assumption.
When we get to the airport, using a 'U' turn at the first available traffic lights and heading back up past the Mig whatever it is, we find that the hotel isn't particularly nice looking from the outside. I tell Diane that I'd like to pop by the dealership and see if they would be able to fit the bike in for an oil change. I have all the gear I need to do an oil change myself apart from a tray to catch the oil, but I need to buy some oil and also need to be able to dispose of the old oil properly. So it seems to be that it would be sensible to let the dealers do it and get them to fit a filter at the same time. I have two filters in the travelling kit but I can keep these for later.
So we head up the way, execute a second U turn on the dual carriageway road and quickly roll up at the dealership. There are a few bemused faces as I walk in the cool interior and ask, 'Do you speak English?' at the reception desk. The girl facing me doesn't and actually looks slightly scared, but she promptly signals me to stay where I am and goes off to find someone who does, a very nice lady who looks like a model and calls herself Anna. She speaks very good English.
When I ask if they could fit the bike in for an oil change tomorrow she asks me to wait and heads off into an important looking office. After a bit of negotiation she comes back and says that the 'Direktor' says they will be sure to fit me in. Not only that but she recommends a 'very good' hotel nearby and says they will book a taxi for me. This is absolutely first class service!
We unload the bike under the scrutiny of a number of customers and mechanics. The senior mechanice comes round and takes the keys, riding the bike around the back with a flourish. On a monitor in the 'cafe' area we watch him park up the Mutt and amusingly see that it is quickly surrounded by other mechanics checking out the stickers and the 'optional extras' fitted to it.
Our hotel turns out to be a very nice one with a really good room, at least a UK 4 star standard for a very reasonable price. At dinner in the evening we are entertained by a very slightly camp waiter and a very long wait for our food which then all arrives at the table at the same time - soup for starters and main course with it.
It is worth noting for anyone reading this who is considering visiting Russia that when you arrive at a Russian hotel, they are supposed to register you with the local authorities. This isn't much to worry about and is carried out by the hotel. At St Petersburg the staff told Diane that we didn't need to keep a copy of the registration, but a Canadian lady in front of her insisted in retaining a copy of hers and Diane followed suit. We subsequently have found that the hotels have been asking for previous copies so it seems like the Canadian lady was absolutely correct. The hotels photocopy the old ones and keep the copies. The motels on the main roads don't register you at all (as far as we've found so far).
I must admit I was a bit worried about all the officialdom. It seems when you read various blogs and internet sites that it's going to be a right pain. But it really isn't bad at all.
On the road there are police check points roughly every thirty kilometres. As you approach these checkpoints the traffic slows right down and a copper with a black and white truncheon can be found by the roadside. Truncheons are twirled with gay abandon, but we haven't been stopped so far. A twirled truncheon means ' drive on' and one held horizontally means 'stop right now sucker!' Trucks get pulled over regularly but we haven't been bothered at all. The only time I've been addressed by a policeman was in a petrol station when a rather young and impressively tall rozzer heard me trying to order a tankful of the finest 95 RON and shouted out from the back of the queue, 'I speyak fairy gooad Heyenglayash!' then roared with laughter. He repeated the same as I departed out towards Diane and the bike laughing again and I flashed a smile and replied, 'You most certainly do!' At this he roared with laughter again shouting 'Fairy gooad!'
This is my only experience of Russian policemen and it's one that has impressed me greatly.
1st August 2012
The bike has had its oil change and is sitting in the workshop surrounded by a bunch of mechanics. The amount of interest it's generated is a bit wierd really, bearing in mind that there's a brand new one just like it sitting in the showroom. After they've brought it round we can load it up.
Before that though I have to pay at the 'payment office', which proves to be a bit of an experience (as does the dealership armed guard). The office is in a secure area away to the side and is, well, very secure. Maybe they do take things very seriously regarding crime after all. Last night I wandered down the road to buy a bottle of wine, some chocolates and some beers for Anna and the mechanic to say thanks for fitting me in. These are all gratefully received and everyone is happy all round.
We now have to negotiate our way through Rostov-on-Don, which I now fully imagine to be something like Gotham City. We've had a good look at the map and have decided to head for the Black Sea Coast, exact destination not quite known just yet. The initial part of the navigaton goes quite well because we just need to follow the E4. Even I can't fail on that one, surely. Negotiating the large roundabout at the end of the road just down from last night's hotel location we pick up the road signs and before long are in the middle of the city heading along a bustling road full of cars and buses, getting stared at quite a lot. Rostov seems quite a nice place really despite the bad press. The sky is bright blue, the day is hot. Presently we crest a hill and get a great view of a large bridge ahead that spans the River Don - our third crossing of the trip over this impressive river.
Straight after the river I pull up at a petrol station and surprise myself with the ease of communication going on with the lady in the office brought about by the simple expedient of having the amount of petrol I need and the grade written on a bit of paper. I've put down in Russian 10, 15 and 20 litres 95ron and just point to the one I want after saying 'Hello' so they know that I'm a foriegner - works a treat. They always crack a smile and laugh. It can be a bit daunting at first but once you've attempted a couple of words, generally you are fine and they will go out of their way to help. Not only that, but with the assistance of that modern marvel, the desk calculator, they can translate the price back to you.
Pretty soon after leaving Rostov we realise that we don't seem to be on the correct road (largely via input from the Satnav compass,which is pointing in the wrong direction). We do a 'U' turn and check the map outside a filling station. It seems like we were correct all around so we do another 'U' turn and continue in the 'wrong' direction. One of the finer features of the newer russian roads is the regular facility to carry out 'U' turns!
And so we head off, eventually heading generally south-east wards, past a few large factories, some of which are derelict, experiencing the wild variety of road surfaces that we've come to know and love (mostly) in something approaching 36 degrees of wilting heat. At a couple of points we hit long traffic queues and we regularly see people selling by the roadside. It would be nice to make the Black Sea coast in one day, but travelling conditions and the distance mean that won't be possible. In fact, it's a tough six hours on the bike before we arrive at a city called Krasnodar, which looks big enough to warrant having a hotel. Without too much consultation with the back seat passenger we pull off to the right and start winding our way into the city. From this point of entry Krasnodar is very typical of most of the cities we've seen so far. The roads are pretty poor on the way in and there are signs of communist era housing conditions along with quite a lot of industry. We are arriving at what must be the evening rush hour and the traffic is, erm, a bit hectic.
Diane is put on 'Hotel Meerkat' alert duties. The city is a bit bigger than I expected and we seem to have entered what can only be described as the 'toy district'. Dozens of toy shops appear on both sides of the roads, which just goes to answer the question put by Sting and the Police: The Russians do love their children too. Nestled within all the toy stores we spot a Hotel called the 'Forum'. Hooray! They have a double room. Double Hooray! And it's cheap. Enough already.
I know it sounds stupid, but the morning routine of loading the bike is becoming a proper chore. Lugging the bags down in 36 degrees of heat, through the hotel and strapping everything takes time and means that I'm pespiring freely (to put it politely) by the time we clamber on and make our escape. I wish we'd travelled more lightly.
We trek back the way we came to navigate out of the city and hang a right at the M4 to continue our way towards the Black Sea. The actual distance today is very short and initially I'm confident that we're going to arrive early, find a hotel and be able to relax for a couple of days at least, even maybe 'hit the beach!' (in marine parlance) sometime later today. After an hour or so of riding through the now familiar flat farmlands interspersed with the odd town, the land bubbles up into the unmistakeable signs of hills and we clip the most westerly edge of the Caucasus Mountains.
With this the road starts to climb as it winds it's way into the hills. It's the first sign of decent twisty bits of the whole trip and is very welcome! The Russian drivers seem to revel in it too, throwing their assorted Ladas into the bends with gusto - too much gusto in some cases. Occasionally things get a bit ragged and you wonder if they're going to make the corner, especially when we hit some proper switchbacks. The lorries are grinding up hill and down dale slowing everyone up and frustrating the efforts of the big 4x4's to carve everyone up.
My fears are realised on one left hand corner when a Lada appears in the flash of an eye, out of shape and clearly heading straight for us. I'm forced to pick the bike up from it's rather acute left hand angle and head for the curb, narrowly avoiding contact with the out of control car. Phew!
With this change in landscape there is also a noticeable change in the towns and villages and in the agriculture, with a new emphasis on growing grapes. The roadside markets are now selling seaside objects for children, a sign that we are approaching the main holiday resorts for Russians. After passing through quite a few working villages we happen upon a town that is very clearly a holiday resort - and quite a nice one at that - with apartments, shops and trips for holidaymakers in Russian built jeeps. We don't spot any hotels though and decide to press on. It doesn't take too long before we get our first glimpse of the Black Sea, which is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a very fetching colour of blue. As we descend down towards the nearest towns on the coast the pace hots up considerably. Everyone seems to be racing each other down the twisting roads , which don't look too grippy to me with their shiny surfaces and the tendency for a light dry dusting of powdery deposit from the hills.
Here at the coast the road splits. The M4 taking a right to the north-west and the M27 heading in the opposite direction. What seems like a short hop is turning into a much longer foray. We start looking for hotels as we enter the town of Vostochnyy. It doesn't look that promising and we crack on to the next town, a sizeable place that we can eventually glimpse from the hills. A place that erm, looks more like Parkgate Iron and Steel Works circa 1968 than the Cornish Riviera. This is starting to look quite dire. Not only that, but my satnav - that little device with which I've had so many trials and tribulations - seems to have given up the ghost and converted it's display into a solitary circle in a sea of blue, declaring at the same time that it has lost it's satallites (or something similar). Why can't they just make it say, 'I'm plenty lost'?
Arrival in Novorossiysk coincides with a lot of traffic many of which sport young men driving around sounding their horns and waving large flags from the windows of their beaten up cars. The flags are all the same. A Parachute in between two aircraft on a blue and green background. These are the Russian Paras, the 7th Guards Airborne Division to be precise (according to Wikepedia) and I'm guessing that maybe they've just passed out of their training. Presently we pass their base which is impressively modern and has a fine collection of historical fighting vehicles and guns in front of the heavily guarded main gate.
A little further on, whilst still staring at a blue satnav screen, we get a bit lost and do some practicing of the U turn technique before finding the correct road to take us on to the next major town, Anapa. I'm really hoping that this is a bit more like a seaside resort!
The traffic thins out as the road heads inland a bit. After twenty or thirty miles of pretty slow going we find ourselves heading across a very flat landscape and arrive at a large roundabout where the roadsigns and the satnav (which has sprung back to life) advise a left turn. And so in the late evening we finally roll into Anapa. The town is very typically Russian in that the outskirts feature the large apartment blocks that most Russians seem to live in, lining each side with little sign of any hotels. Then after passing a couple of miles we spot one which doesn't look too entertaining and is a bit far out of town I would guess, so we crack on a bit further. This kind of arrival is becoming a bit of a common occurence where I get a bit tetchy and Diane must be dreading the 'hotel search' mode. I hate riding around a strange foreign city trying to find accommodation!
Thankfully though Anapa turns out to be a proper holiday resort (and then some - to be discussed later). Before long we find ourselves in the middle of what could be Benidorm. Not my normal cup of tea, but there are clearly quite a few hotels and we just need to find a decent one with parking for the bike and a 'vacancies' sign (whatever one of those would look like). In our attempt to do so we get a bit lost again. This is becoming a regular habit. Well dammit, I'm always getting lost. The art is in the re-finding yourself. We execute another 'U' turn. Then after a bit of faffing around we head up a road that initially seems to have some strange holiday camps along either side, a bit like Billy Butlins meets Uncle Joe Stalin. Very wierd. Then, praise the Lord, we happen upon a large and impressive hotel that looks like it might fit the bill but equally might be a bit expensive. It impressively declares itself to be the 'Hotel Sofia' and it is about to provide us with quite an entertaining couple of days.
Parking the bike up outside I leave Diane to play guard under the curious stares of many tourists who are all clad in beachwear and carrying various implements associated with wacky animals and a bit of light sea floatation. Inside the hotel I realise that now I'm not moving I'm sweating profusely. The two young girls at the reception can't quite seem to make sense of the apparition in front of them. I decide to go for broke opening with, 'do you speak English?' One of them does, thank the Lord.
It turns out that they do have room for us but we can't pay by card. We have to pay by cash. From that machine over there. I head outside and tell Diane the good news, then head inside and try to get cash from the machine. No such look. In the end they take a deposit and say we can pay once we've extracted the dosh. How very nice. More than that we find the room to be very nice too. Sans Mosquitoes. What we don't quite realise yet is that we've landed in a place that can't quite make up it's mind if it's cast itself whole heartedly into the brave new capitalist world, or whether it would be best to treat people to a good old Russian Communist state holiday. Let the fun commence!
There are orders to be followed! 'It is essential that you turn up exactly at the correct time for your breakfast, lunch and evening meals. The restaurant is run by an 'administrator'. You must report to the administrator with this bit of paper so that you can be allocated your table, which will remain your table for the rest of your stay. There is just time to go for dinner now.' We head into the dining hall, me tripping over the final step on the staircase and embarrassingly nearly going arse over tit! We can't find the administrator.
Everything is organised. Everyone knows what they're doing. Except us.
Eventually the administrator arrives and papers are filled in. By a combination of Russian and sign language we gather that they want us to eat in an overspill room which is much quieter and more relaxed than the main restaurant. Nice. Young girls produce a menu. We don't know what to do with it. We can't read it.
'Can I help you?'
We turn round to find a very pleasant, quietly spoken gentleman has approached, leaving his family at the adjacent table. He introduces himself as Alexander and proceeds to explain not just the menu, but also the routine of ordering in advance for the next day's meal.
The next morning we turn up dutifully at the correct hour and present ourselves at the administrator's table (assuming that last night's table was a temporary one). No. We are politely escorted to the annex on the floor above and placed at 'our' table. This is all quite strange.
It seems like the routine is as follows: eat your breakfast and then head for the beach. Lay on beach, swim and carry out other activities until your alloted lunch time. Go back to hotel and eat lunch. Head back to beach until prescribed time for evening meal. Go to bed. Well not quite that extreme. You can have a pint or two of Russian lager before bed. Which is very nice. I mean the lager not the routine. In an attempt to 'fit in' we head down the the beach and go for a swim in the Black Sea, which is a bit green. On account of the seaweed. Lots of it, which makes it feel like swimming in tepid soup.
On the beach we are approached by a couple.
'Are you the Americans staying in the hotel?, asks the man, introducing himself as Igor (now that's more like it - a real Russian name, except Igor is from the Crimea so maybe technically a Ukranian, or an ethnic Russian born in the Ukraine - are you confused. I am).
'No we're British. I'm English and Diane is Scottish,' I reply, trying to rid myself of the strands of seaweed.
Igor is excited with this news.
'We want to be married in Scotland,' he tells us
'Will you wear a kilt?'
At this his fiance has a look of horror. 'No he will not'.
It seems like we have become instantly famous as 'The Americans who have ridden here on a motorcycle'. It is Diane's first introduction to the phenomonen of 'Famous Road Rat' that afflicted me in parts of America. People have started pointing us out to their children.
Heading down to dinner I fall over exactly the same step as I did the evening before. That is very not cool.
The temperature here is baking hot and slightly humid. This leads to a bit of a crisis when we decide to take a walk into town to allow Diane to do a bit of theraputic shopping. After breakfast we head off, walking at a respectable pace, overtaking a number of families who are heading that way. When we get into town I realise that I don't feel particularly well. It starts with a light head and a very weak feeling, especially in the legs. Then my left leg actually starts wobbling uncontrollably. I guess it could be one of many things but my immediate thoughts are that I'm suffering some kind of diabetic episode. I've never experienced anything like it and it is quite alarming!
We look around for a shop selling food and drink and I quickly top up on fluids and food. Gradually the symptoms ease off. Later, in retrospect, I consider the possibility of de-hydration and endeavour to drink more water.
On the way down to the town centre we passed a series of very interesting 'holiday camps'. These are the remains of the Soviet era camps that entertained the workers on their annual break. Some have been brought up to date, presumably taken over by commercial concerns and are very much in use, others are closed and run-down, their gates festooned with communist symbology and their barrack-like buildings betraying an almost military association.
Anapa is a curious mixture of markets, amusements for children, lots of shops and the inevitable bars. The souvenir shops are aplenty, but are all selling the same stuff, which means that, once you've seen a couple, you've seen them all and thankfully can stop looking.
The markets are something else though. They're very extensive and sell lots of different things. Quite surprisingly the single most common symbol, perhaps after the fake designer labels, is the Union Flag, which can be found absolutely everywhere. Right now Britannia is uber cool in this part of the world. I wonder if it's the Olympics? The American flag is also quite prevalent as is (of course) the Russian flag. Strangely though, people don't seem to understand the term 'Britain'. They recognise 'England' and immediately ask you if you are from London. I've given up by now and just say that I live 'to the North of London' since they have no idea where anywhere else is outside London and definitely can't place Rotherham.
Despite being very cool, unfortunately Britain/England doesn't sit at the top of desirability. That honour sits firmly with America, then (surprisingly) Germany, then England (not Britain). Russians desperately want to meet Americans.
Following our shopping mission we repair to the pool area for a bit of sunbathing (an alien experience for me), and the odd Russian beer (which turns out to be rather nice). In the early evening we head for the small but perfectly formed 10 pin Bowling Alley that resides next to the Hotel's night club. The Bowling Alley is brand new and bang up to date. Despite being just on the 'slightly unusual' side of the scale, the Hotel Sofia has proved a great place for a couple of days rest from the road. Very friendly people all round, even those who don't speak a word of English. Everyone is smiling at us and acknowledging us. This kind of sums up our experience travelling through Russia, one I would happily repeat without hesitation.
Chief amongst the friendly staff is the guard. This tough looking individual, probably ex-military gave me a right telling off when I tried to use the wrong gate parking the bike on day 1. It was all tongue in cheek and he cracked a big smile and belly laugh when the parking had been successfully completed. Each time I've tripped down to the garage to check the bike or recover something from the panniers he's cheerfully greeted me. I think a lot of them still think we're American.
Departure from the Hotel Sofia is a bit of an occasion. As Diane waits, fully kitted up, outside the front of the hotel in the searing heat I ease the bike out of the ground floor garage with the assistance of my new friend, the security guard - the one who gave me a jocular hard-time when we arrived. Outside there is a fair crowd standing round to watch us set off. We feel like superstars! I'm pretty sure that if you arrived in a Ferrari, the interest would be around the same. This is not a good time to lose one's footing and tip off. That would be very embarrassing.
Fortunately we avoid such a disaster and manage to ride off with a smidgen of panache. It's important to keep your public entertained.
In an effort to avoid just repeating the ride down from Krasnodar, which was a slow old drone despite not being that great a distance, I decide to take the A146, thus avoiding the dogleg that we would have to take if we followed the M4. Our route takes us past a huge depot providing crushed aggregate for the roads. There's a massive lorry park packed with Kamaz trucks. We've been seeing these trucks, each pulling two trailers, all the way down Russia. I've gained a healthy respect for their drivers on the way. It looks like this is one of the hubs for the provision of materials for the massive road-building programme which makes Russia seem so vibrant in comparison to everywhere else we've been so far. The drivers, facing huge distances to drive no doubt, have formed a huge encampment, probably waiting days to get loaded.
Initially we make good progress. But after a while we start hitting traffic queues. It's tempting to try to scoot past them, but there are good reasons to avoid doing so. Whilst the road is OK there are plenty of other drivers trying to gain an edge, making the traffic unpredictable. Also I don't know how the police would view filtering, it's better to remain as inconspicuous as possible. We opt for sitting in the traffic, switching the engine off if we find ourselves stationary for any length of time.
The main traffic queue is on the outskirts of a town where fairly major road improvements are taking place. It's difficult to see if it is the roadworks that are the problem. The traffic is merging from three lanes (well two lanes and a very decrepit hard shoulder), into one. Tempers are very slightly frayed. It is noticeable that people in posh cars seem to think they can argy-bargy their way into spaces nudging the Ladas out of the way. Increasingly there are bikes passing by, all with a greeting. I realise that they are returning from a bike festival that we saw coverage of on the TV. Pity we missed that, I'm sure a Russian bike rally would be an interesting experience. Come to think of it I recall the guys on the Gold Wings that we met on the way down to Volgograd saying that they were thinking of going to a rally on the Black Sea.
One particular rider comes and sits just behind us, unable to pass due to the logger-jam. When the opportunity arises he pulls up alongside giving us a big nod and a smile and shouting a greeting in Russian. I grin back at him nodding like a Churchill dog. He offers me up his fist and we do a 'respect' bump - then he sees a space and roars off with a wave. Nice one!
About an hour later we eventually arrive at the head of the jam. There's been a massive, no doubt fatally tragic, road crash. A truck is smashed to bits and I think a car may be somewhere underneath it. Cranes are assisting in the recovery. It's a timely warning that the traffic conditions are spicy to say the least.
After clearing the scene of the accident we are able to make much better progress, putting a bit of a spurt on, although making up lost time is not an option, not on these roads. Yet again we will arrive at our hopeful destination a lot later than we had calculated. I've decided to head for the same hotel that we stayed in on the way down.
When we eventually arrive at Krasnodar it's a bit of an eye opener. Approaching from the south is a completely different experience to the north (which is much more run-down). Here the town is modern and burgeoning with new hotels and roads. It's quite a large city. We negotiate our way through following the prompts from the satnav, passing right through the centre before finding our way to the 'toy district'. The hotel pops out on the left hand side quite by surprise, everything looks only vaguely familiar from this southerly approach. Braving heavy traffic heading in the opposite direction we make a lunge for the car park entrance and thump over a bump in the pavement nearly bottoming the suspensing and then we are home and dry.
This will probably be our last-but-one day in Russia. Today we intend to depart the Hotel Forum, Krasondar and head back northwards towards Rostov-on-Don, skirting the city and heading for the Ukrainian border. Still ahead of us lies the decision as to whether we book on to the ferry from Odessa to Georgia or whether we attempt the relatively monumental ride right round the Black Sea to end up in Georgia which lies a few miles south of our current position. If we could get across the border we could just about accomplish it today, but a recent war between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia has put paid to that possiblility.
Back home it all seemed so remote and only vaguely familiar, but now it is actually very real and causing us a bit of a navigational problem. Sometimes I wonder why on earth I'm so determined to go to Georgia, but I think it's the snippets of information I've heard about the place - that the people are so friendly and the landscape so beautiful. I imagine it to be mountainous and covered in forest. Certainly the Georgians we've met who are living in Russia have been really friendly.
Once the bike is loaded (this time with a little less cussing), we head off past the toy stores, heading north back into the jumble of pre-Berlin-Wall-topple factories and apartment blocks, negotiating the twisting, bone jarring roads. The traffic this Monday morning is heavy. Then it's off into the countryside on the M4 making good progress and feeling very sorry for a huge traffic jam that sits on the opposite carriageway sweltering away. At quiet moments of light traffic I have a good look around, marvelling at the vast fields that head away in the distance as the road passes them by. Russia truly is a monumental landscape, especially so in the south.
One of the stand-out features of the southern half of our journey has been the ever present sunflower fields. When we first arrived the flowers were standing proud, always facing the same way, which bizarrely (to me) seemed to be away from the sun. According to a bit of research, it would seem we have recently witnessed them at the point they all turn to the east. Prior to that they did face the sun. Then gradually over the past week, they've started to all bow their heads, losing their pale green fresheness and slowly drying up. That's the state of most of them now as they presumably get close to harvest time, their seeds forming in the heads. They remind me of 'Little Weed' in Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. I'm showing my age aren't I? C'mon! Who else remembers 'Watch with Mother'?
The mixed modernity of the cities is in complete contrast to the countryside, where farmers sell their goods by the roadside, stocking up stalls from the ubiquitous blue and white Zil trucks which are loaded to the rafters with melons. Everyone seems to be selling water melons. In the early afternoon we skirt around the edge of Rostov-on-Don and head out on the M23 along the north shore of the Sea of Azov in the direction of a city called Taganrog. This is the target for tonight. Diane has already sussed out, in best navigator form, via the internet, that Taganrog has some hotels. Let's hope they are easy to find!
Our stay last night in the city of Taganrog was at a pleasant and quite interesting hotel, suprisingly called the Hotel Taganrog. Built in the communist era it was, well kind of jerry-built really, but has been kept quite spruce and was frequented largely by businessmen. Everyone was extremely friendly. The bike was parked safely around the back behind a metal gate in a spacious car park. The city itself is very typical of Russian cities, that is to say the roads are very run down and there are lots of the typical soviet era buildings - badly built and tatty to behold, every last one of them.
Having negotiated our way out of the city we head for the border, along a very passable section of road. At one point we spot a huge Cargo Plane, passing by ahead of us, just too far away to get a decent photograph. There is very little traffic heading either towards the border or away from it. Eventually we arrive at the Russian exit station. We really don't know what to expect, but if rumour is correct, the problem won't be in the leaving of Russia, rather it will be in the arrival in the Ukraine. Various (quite recent) blogs have documented all sorts of shenanigins passing through the Ukrainian border.
There are no problems whatsoever on the Russian side. A policeman/border guard asks for our passports which he inspects then hands back letting us move on to the next stage where we have to hand our passports in again along with our 'machina' passport - the bike's registration document. Computers are scrutinised, data is entered, stamps are flourished. We have been very careful to keep hold of the precious temporary import document that the lovely Sandra/Victoria issued to us at the Estonian border and that seems to be very much in order. More stamping. Then we have a final check at the last kiosk and we're through. Well that wasn't too bad. It took less than an hour.
On into the Ukraine. Here a rather robust young border guard checks our passports. 'Vehicle Passport' he declares very firmly. We rummage in our plastic wallet. Things have gone a bit awry in our document case. Diane recovers it and passes it to him. 'Park over there! Park over there!' Oh dear what now? He strides off to a kiosk further up in a purposeful manner. We look at each other. He comes back. 'Go there! Go there,' he says pointing to the cubicle. Suddenly it dawns on us. We're getting the VIP treatment. I think he might be a biker. Our fears are not realised. We are treated with efficiency and politeness and are both a tiny bit surprised to be riding in short order up a rather rough road westwards into the Ukraine.
Before long we arrive at a small village the main part of which runs down each side of the road. We pull up outside the village store, a small mini market and dismount, drawing bemused stares from people arriving and departing the store. The first priority is to get some money from the cash machine outside the front. I'm guessing that Russian money won't be particularly welcome here. The machine works and delivers some dosh. That's good! We head inside out of the blistering heat. It's a strange shop. The counters run the lenght of the walls and different things are situated in different parts of the shop. So you have to wait for someone to come and serve you. The problem is we can't understand each other so a lot of pointing and gesturing takes place for us to buy a large packet of Lays crisps and some cola. Lays sour cream onion crisps are rather nice.
Arrival in the Ukraine reveals a simple fact. Since gaining independence in the fracturing of the old Soviet Union it seems to have missed out on the new economic energy apparent whilst travelling through Russia. The infrastructure isn't being renewed - as a result, if anything, riding conditions are worse. After a while we realise that the drivers are too!
A short distance from the border we come upon a very impressive war memorial. Carved statues of soldiers - men and women - are portrayed emerging from teh walls of a city - another representation that the people were somehow part of the city itself, formed of it, the image of heroic strength, all facing to the west.
Our initial objective is to visit Yalta. The maps seem to indicate that this is situated within reach of today's ride, but I have a nagging doubt that this seems to be geographically incorrect - I thought it was situated on the Crimea. Never mind, we'll pop by and have a look. The nearest sizeable town is just along the coast from the border so we decide that would be a good place to stop for the night - a nice early stopovers that will give us a bit of time for relaxation. Arrival in the city is a bit of an eye-opener. The eastern fringes are dominated by a massive steel works which looks like a refugee from another time, reminding me of the Don Valley in South Yorkshire in the days of my youth, when the number 69 bus passed right through the heart of the steel works and the red dust cloud that billowed out from them.
This rather grim and strangely fascinating landscape passes us by until, turning a corner, we come to the main factory gates, which are suitably grand and still festooned with old Soviet imagary which exhorted the 'hero's of industrial endeavour' to work harder for the good of all. Arthur Scargill would be most impressed.
After passed through this industrial area we pass up and over a hill and on to the city centre where we inevitably get lost. Since it's nice and early and there isn't any pressure to find a hotel just yet I (mostly) avoid a fit of cussing. We 'ride around a bit', see a nice one in the main square type of thing, but decide that it doesn't have good parking, and eventually end up outside a building that might be a hotel, but then again doesn't quite look like one. We ask a young guard who's uniform looks decidedly offical, almost military in nature. He doesn't speak any English, but after a few confused looks realises we're try to find a hotel and tells us 'Niet'. It appears we're trying to check into a military training academy of some sort!
After this faux pas we ride on the compass southwards to try and find the Black Sea. Hopefully there'll be a hotel or two down there. The road becomes more and more decrepit. The seafront is decrepit too. But at least it is a seafront of sorts. There's a railway line between us and the beach but we can see holidaymakers on the beach. Then suddenly on the right we spot a hotel. It's called the Posiedon and it turns out to be so brand new that we doubt at first that it will be open. After wandering in and enquiring we find that it is indeed open, that the rooms cost less than any room anywhere in the UK and that the room is totally modern and massive with a huge bathroom. This is more like it!!
Across from the hotel lies the aforementioned railway line then the beach area, which has a bar and patio area and the beach itself. Our sleep last night was much disturbed by a constant heavy beat of music from the PA going on into the early hours of the morning. It kind of spoilt the enjoyment of the quality room provided by the hotel. This morning sees the beach packed out, mostly by schoolchildren who are chaperoned by a group of adults and are kept in a roped off section close to the bar. I have a notion of getting a good close up photograph of one of the trains as it passes bay.
This is entirely possible because there is total access to the railway line, indeed everyone heading to the beach just wanders across the line!! We are comfortably far removed from the out and out safety culture that pervades Western Europe, of that there is no doubt. Safety here takes the form of a bloke with a shed by the railway crossing who waves at people when a train is on it's way. This takes a bit of getting used to. In the Oil and Gas industry back home we are constantly encouraged to 'think about safety every minute of the day, both at work and at home'. Contrast this with what we are doing right now and it couldn't be further removed. So what do you do when you find yourself in the midst of the cut and thrust of a Ukrainian traffic flow? The answer is soon to be discovered.
Unfortunately, although a train seemed to thunder past every hour or so through the night, no doubt heading for the steel works, not a single one passes by in the half hour we spend sitting on the side of the railway line. The crossing guard doesn't even look up from his newspaper. Time is running out and we have to load up and hit the road. I joke with Diane that as soon as we turn our backs one will turn up! We head on back to the hotel and load up the bike in the sweltering heat. I think I'm gradually getting fitter - this is as good as a workout in the gym and I'm finding it easier than it was a week or so ago.
Today's ride first involves trying to get out of the city so we can find Yalta. We do this by trying to follow the coastline - a reasonable strategy bearing in mind that Yalta is a bit further along the coast. Fairly quickly we hit the port area then the road peters out. Clearly this isn't going to work! The buildings, even the walls around the dockyard here are redolent of times gone by. Everything has been built down to a price, glammed up occasionally by a tasty rendering of concrete and then left to decay. It's like downtown Rawmarsh 1960 (near Rotherham), but then with an extra twist of roughness. If it sounds like I don't like it, well actually I do. It's a very interesting place and has some kind of down to earth honesty about it that is missing from the swish shopping malls of Moscow with their Gucci clad lovelies.
When we do manage to shake ourselves free of the city we soon find that the Yalta we're looking for isn't this one here. We end up in a long thin village that is some kind of seaside resort. There are plenty of holidaymakers who stare at us as if we've arrived from Venus, but I think we can be fairly sure that the heads of state of the free world didn't have a get together in this location. If the RAF flew Churchill here there would have been a few red faces (no pun intended) when they realised their map reading faux-pas! Nope, that particular Yalta is most certainly in the Crimea. And that's where we are heading.
It's early evening and we are staring, not a little dumbfounded by the sight in front of us. Lined up neatly on each side of a wide paved parking area are a number of huge aircraft sporting the faded pale blue and white colours of the Ukrainian Air Force.
We've been driven across a very rough road crossing a wasteland that was once a very major Soviet Airbase. Now it is part Ukraininan Air Force and part civilian housing, the barracks having given way to domesticity in many places. Our guide, Andrew, is a motor mechanic who I started talking to whilst he and his friend were admiring the bike outside the (very spartan) motel we are staying in. I say we were talking but the truth is that neither of us speak each other's language so we more or less communicated in 'Bike-speak' until Andrew pointed to his phone and called his friend Roy who is an Englishman, married to a Ukrainian and bringing up his kids in Melitopol, the city we have washed up in.
Once communication had been secured we discovered that Andrew, ethnically a Russian, was formerly an Officer in the Ukrainian Air Force flying as an engineer in the huge Ilyushin IL76 Strategic Transport aircraft that we are now photographing. Andrew advises me that the aircraft are now grounded, all apart from one, which manages to take a technical flight once a week. The Air Force has run out of money. After time to take a few more photos we notice a moderately agitated armed guard making his way over to us somewhat nervously - Andrew indicates that it might be time for us to return to the car and get the hell outta here! Not a bad idea.
Back in the car we head out of the base and around the edge of the city at breakneck pace, the driver expertly avoiding the worst of the potholes and broken drains. Our next destination takes us past a huge derelict radar station, through a strange settlement comprising further barracks which are apparently occupied by the Fire Service to a remote place that turns out to be the site of a neolithic settlement - which has just closed. Andrew is clearly gutted and, with commendable perseverence, talks to the guards pointing in our direction and clearly explaining that weve ridden thousands of miles to see the site and will be very disappointed at missing it. Eventually they give in and open the site up for us.
We climb up the strange rocky outcrop that forms the neolithic town, Diane, myself, Andrew and his wife Elizabeth who we picked up when we first drove out to the airbase.
It occurs to me that we have placed our trust in this amiable man, simply on the basis that he is a biker. Anything could have happened, but I chose to trust him simply because my first impression of him was that he was genuinely a good person. I was correct in that. Later in the evening we meet up with Roy and his wife Nadia and drive with them into the city centre, a wide square that is a parking up place for the local bikers. Flanking the square is a fine restaurant which has a laid back, almost Western feel to it. We have a good meal and a few drinks, chatting into the night.
When we leave in the morning, following breakfast with Andrew, we are guided out of the city by Roy and Nadia who cheerfully wave us on our way. What a great bunch of people. Meeting folk whilst on the road has been one of the great experiences of travelling. It's a shame in some way that they are the briefest of meetings, but they leave you with a firm belief in the downright decency of most people.
We discussed the state of driving with our new biking friends from Melitopol and were given some sobering tips. First of all Ukrainian drivers are not very used to the speed and power of modern motorcycles and often hold the belief that a motorcyclists correct place is riding in the gutter. They don't take kindly to those of us who ride on other parts of the road and will try to force you off the road if you have the temerity to try to occupy what has, by tradition, always been theirs. Well I can't say I've seen much of that so far. Secondly the gutter is not a great place to be. It is likely to be even worse that the rest of the carriageway (which is pretty awful) and suffers from the simple statistic that there are far more manholes than there are manhole covers. All of which reinforces the wisdom of our decision to try and avoid riding at night on unfamiliar routes.
Today we are riding down to the Crimea. It's a long old haul. At first it goes pretty well. There aren't many fast cars around and it's relatively easy to maintain one's road position when the main throng is comprised of Lada's of various hues. The roads are of mixed quality, never rising above dreadful and often descending into total unadulterated shite. We pass over mile after mile of open farmland, often with trees lining the road, passing regular opportunities to stop and buy produce.
At one particular place we can't resist the temptation to look around - it's a huge dried fish market, with dozens of stalls selling a fantastic mix of fish. The stall owners are very good at selling. A lady stall holder more or less arrests me and insisists on giving me a sample of a large fish, species unknown. I have to say it is delicious. Not to be deterred by my umming and aahing about actually buying anything she next force feeds me with a smaller traditional dried fish. Yeuk! No! I definitely don't like that one. So it's back to the bigger one. Will I buy some. In the end I give in and we walk away with a nice piece of fish that will, we are told, keep for quite a few weeks.
We were told that riding onto the Crimean penninsula (if that is what it is, because it looks more or less an island to me) is quite an experience. And so it is. It is almost a state withing a state, complete with border crossing which fortunately isn't closed - so we manage to ride in without being stopped, crossing the broad salt marshes that are a feature of this part of the landscape. And then the fun begins. The traffic starts getting heavier and mixed in amongst the other cars are a fair sprinkling of posh ones - 4 x 4's mostly. The drivers of these are aggressive and arrogant and, sure enough, not pro-bike at all. We end up with a number of attempts to carve us up or try to force us over. Eventually I get completely sick of it and decide to give it back with interest. In doing so a strange fact emerges.
If you allow one of these arses to pass then lock yourself on their tail it sends them into a complete tail-spin. It's like they would die of humiliation if you then overtake them in return and they go absolutely beserk, overtaking into traffic and risking death rather than losing face. It's not just one of them, but absolutely all. They just go completely mental. In the end, after a few digs in the ribs from the Navigator I settle for riding only semi-aggressively, trying to hold my own with them and cursing at the near misses which are far to many and in both directions of traffic. If the ride to Volgograd was scary it was a pale shadow of this ride.
After many miles of this I'm fairly exhausted when we finally pull into Yalta (the real one this time), which reveals itself as a rather well-to-do city with a nice, almost mediterranean feel to it. There are a number of hotels but each one I check is full and the ones I don't look pretty dire. There is one really posh five or six star joint just off the seafront but that looks way off budget and Diane, who is guarding the bike while I find somewhere doesn't really need to know that I haven't even asked the price of that one!! In the end we decide to press on towards Sevastapol to try to find a decent hotel that isn't full up. As we ride the coastal route over there we are blessed with the sight of the most incredible set of pale cliffs that tower above us, hard edged and brutal, glimmering as the last rays of the pastel pink sunset strike them. It is almost surreally beautiful.
Updated 13th June 2013
The hotel we found last night, arriving in Sevastopol late into the evening is strange. So much so that I've given it the title 'Hotel Strange'. It is trapped, at least in part, in the period before the fall of the Berlin wall and is ruled with a rod of iron by a manager who will not come out and discuss payment with us directly, but sits in a back office carrying out delicate negotiations over the phone through a slightly confused and apologetic lady on reception. The security is good though and the guard, who sits opposite reception at his own desk monitoring the CCTV makes me place the bike exactly where he can keep a 24/7 watch on it. The room, when we eventually get into it is actually an apartment. It isn't blessed with a TV and feels like a throwback to a much earlier era.
Sevastopol is famous for many historical features, one of which is very close to a visitor from the UK - it was here that the Crimean War was played out and just a few miles away on the approach to the city that we passed along last night is the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade, or put in Russian terms, 'the charge of the twits that we whupped most effectively'. No, seriously, there isn't any point in coming to a country that we invaded and expect them to think much of us for having done so.
The city is also famous for another more modern feature - it is the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet, something I think I knew vaguely but still find a bit of a strange set up. You see Sevastopol isn't part of Russia any more, it is part of the Ukraine. But someone seems to have forgotten to tell the Russians that fact.
Despite being quite expensive, the Hotel Strange doesn't serve breakfast and we are forced to wander into town a) to get money because negotiations last night involved paying a deposit of all the money we had on us and b) to get breakfast. This is served up for us in a rather charming and laid back bar/restaurant called 'The Patio' which is, well kind of a temporary affair build very cleverly of mainly scaffolding draped with canvas and made to look quite posh, when in fact it is a temporary rig that sits on an old patio overlooking the deep inlet that serves as a berth for some of the Russian fleet. The bar/restaurant is quite bohemian in feel and we are made to feel very welcome.
After breakfast, we trek back up the steep hill to the hotel and pay them the balance of what we owe them, then we walk into town and very quickly pitch up outside the Museum of the Black Sea Fleet, a fascinating exhibition of the history of the fleet over hundreds of years that resides in an old admiralty house. There are many moving exhibits covering the various seiges that the city has suffered, but for me the most moving is the little case with fairly modern objects brought up from the sunken submarine, the Kursk. This is quite close to my Navigator, Diane, because the company she worked for most of her working life was the one that supplied the the deepsea divers that went down to the Kursk during the initial recovery. The watches, torches and badges worn by the sailors are very, very poignant. As an ex-sailor myself I can say that I felt very sad thinking about those lads who survived the explosion and were trapped on the bottom of the sea.
Access to the Black Sea Fleet is just incredibly open. We walk along a road that is directly above one of the dockyards and can watch the auxilliary ships moving around the harbour and berthing. I give Diane a running commentary of the seamanship that entails berthing a ship manually (without winches), something I did many many times during my time in the Navy. A bit further along and we start coming across the proper hardware in the shape of a fast missile boat and then a Krivak class frigate, which is pretty immaculate.
We then end up on the waterfront, a rather lovely place surrounded by parkland that kind of reminds me a bit of Plymouth Hoe. In the distance is the bulk of the fleet, all of which are reverse berthed using their anchors out the front, something I haven't really seen before. The largest ship in is the 'Moscow', a Slava class cruiser which is a rather beautiful ship in a rakish sort of way. Surprisingly we get approached by people offering a boat trip. They show us a map indicating that the trip goes up and around the creek we've just walked along. I'm not interested in that! I point over to the 'Moscow'. 'We want to go over there,' I declare. Much to my surprise for £15 each we can do just that in our own private boat. Blow me down! Off we go!
Today is a self imposed 'lazy day', allowing ourselves to recuperate as we did in Volgograd. I'm keen to get rid of some of our souvenirs, so we spend quite a bit of time trying to find the post office, initially after breakfast at the Patio bar and then following directions given to us at the 'Hotel Strange'.
When we eventually discover the Post office we find that the concept of posting a letter or a parcel is an impenetrable 'Bridge too Far' because no-one speaks English and there are just rows of counters and no sign of any kind of packaging for sale. So that's the end of that.
Another culture shock comes when we go to the bank in order to change some foreign exchange that Diane has managed to secretly stash without me knowing about it. There is a fair amount of administration going on and a rather serious looking armed guard thrown in for good measure. Goodness gracious! Is it really that bad round here?
The presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet leads to a very strange mixture. In the evening we get chatting to a waiter at the restaurant who tells us that there is quite a bit of concern amongst the Ukrainians that Russia hasn't given up on the Crimea. 'They say that they made a mistake and shouldn't have handed it over to us. And they want it back!' It all sounds a bit worrying. It is very noticeable that the Russians consider themselves top dogs around here. It isn't uncommon to come across a Russian officer carrying an attache case guarded by two young sailors, strutting through the town in a very boss like fashion. The strange thing though is that if feels more like a garrison than a true naval presence to me. They don't look like proper sailors and the ships look like they are more or less permanently moored up. They've even painted the anchor chains right down to the waterline. I seriously wonder if these ships could quickly put to sea.
I think a lot of Russians live here and come on holiday here. All the souvenirs lean towards a Russian influence and pride in the Black Sea Fleet, an ineresting stall is selling Russian militaria and, interestingly items recovered from the Crimean war. We buy up a few Britsh rifle bullets that have been used in anger.
The hotel is accommodating a professional football team who have played the local heros and are scattered around the place, their colour matched team coach parked outside. In the evening a terrific thunderstorm hits the town lighting up the night sky and crashing around the deep rock valleys.
Thankfully the thunderstorm of last night has abated and we are back to blue skies and sweltering heat. Sadly though the storm has fair trashed our new favourite haunt and the little waitress who has attended us so well in our meals there is wrapped up as if it is mid winter. One bit of rain and she's caught a cold. The storm was the portent for very strong winds apparently and the jerry built bar took a right old battering.
We head off across to Balaklava. I want to check it out because of its historical connection the Royal Navy who cocked a snub to the Black Sea Fleet and set up a supply dump in the harbour there. Unfortunately the Victorians weren't too clever about sanitation and with the harbour chock-a-block with supply ships of all shapes and sizes and the odd warship too, the place very quickly turned into a cess-pool, ushering in disease aplenty. I do hope they've managed to clean it up a bit...
It turns out that they have and it's now a rather pleasant town full of tourists. We get a few funnly looks - I don't think they see too many western tourists.
After a quick snack of the local fast food, which is rather nice I have to say, we head out of town and up into the hills. We're trying to find the British memorial to the Charge of the Light Brigade. I'd like to find the valley of death, but it isn't really very well signposted. This is quite understandable. The Russian Black Sea Fleet museum that we visited put us properly in our places. Sevastopol is famous to the Russians as a place where foreign invaders regularly get their ass well and truly kicked and the British are no more popularly represented than the later tourists from Germany. Basically their version of events merely mentions the enemy and most certainly does not popularise them.
We're looking for a white memorial that photo's tell us is sitting on some kind of hilltop. I spot one up a dirt track on top of a fairly high hill. Diane dismounts to walk the rough steep trail while I try to ride the Mutt up there. It turns out to be a World War 2 fortification where some heroes of the Soviet Union bravely staved of the German hoards. Sadly it is turning slowly into a derelict ruin and a place where people come and drink beer amongs the zig-zag trenches that have gradually filled in. Quite a haunting place.
Our next attempt finds a rather well-kept monument to soldiers from Sardinia. Really? Can this be correct?
I'm starting to give up hope when our next one is clearly Russian, proclaiming the victory in battle. This one is well-kept too.
On the point of giving up (which will be a personal disaster), we head back along the road towards Sevastopol whereupon Diane gives out a shout. The Navigator-cum-meerkat has come up trumps and has spotted a memorial sitting folornly in the middle of a vineyard across a railway line which runs adjacent to a petrol station. We have to leave the bike and tramp up a rough service road to find a memorial that is sadly run-down. So here it is. Somewhere around here the Light Brigade made their charge into history, something we consider the epitome of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds, whereas everyone else (especially the French) considers it an act of suicidal stupidity and bad generalship. I think the Russians nowadays consider it a gnats nip on the arse of a rather large bull elephant.