Since the China part 2 plan has gone down the drain for mysterious reasons, I had to do a bit of brainstorming to get my act together and keep going the way I want and the way that brings me more satisfaction. I don’t want to take a plane during this trip unless I really have to. This is not one of those times.
Today, I went down to the train station and bought myself a train ticket to Beijing. So there is a bonus in all this, I get to travel on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, part of the same network as the Trans-Siberian. Meanwhile, my dear Z will be shipped straight to Bangkok and will be waiting for me there until I arrive. From now on and until I get to Bangkok, I will be on foot. It will be a new experience but I have high hopes for this new part of the trip. It will be something different being back to depending on other people to get from one place to the next one.
After I got the train ticket, I went for a walk in the town center, checked rucksacks at the camping store (too expensive) and then at the black market (too cheap). Since I will only need this rucksack for a couple of weeks, I will go for the too cheap one and bring my straps, bungees and cable ties with me into China in case it needs “roadside maintenance”. Finally, I went for lunch inside the black market. I had already had lunch there yesterday with David and really enjoyed it: good cheap food, who could say no to that?
I sat at a random food stall and ordered a random dish from the menu around 4000 tugrugs. I have no idea what I ordered but a couple of minutes later I had in front of me a sort of prison tray with a full meal on it: soup, fried noodles with meat, Russian salad, two other kinds of salad and a strange but not completely disgusting hot white drink.
After that royal lunch, I was going to check the auto parts market for a couple of tools I am still missing and a 13 spanner for Lorraine who had asked me to kindly buy it for her but a sudden dust storm and the menace of rain convinced me to stick my hand out at the side of the road to go back home. In no time, a random local had lowered his window and was asking me where I wanted to go, I hopped on and went back to the hostel to finish repairing the bike.
Of course you don’t know what was wrong with the bike because I haven’t told that story yet but the rest of the afternoon was very productive: I put a new chain that Richard kindly agreed to sell me, I put the missing bolt in the pannier rack and finally I hammered my panniers back into shape, they are waterproof again. Actually, I didn’t hammer them myself, the hostel’s watchman saw me doing it and obviously thought that I was using the hammer like a little girl because he took the hammer off my hands and did it himself.
When I had finished with all my repairs and maintenance for the day, it was already time to go for dinner with the group. Today is the last night we are all together, from now on we more or less all go our separate ways. Neil is flying to Hong Kong, Iain is flying to Bangkok, Lorraine may be flying to Korea, David is driving back to the UK through Russia (I hope he doesn’t freeze!), Richard still doesn’t know and Chris is taking the same train as I am but will be crossing China a bit faster than what I have planned to. The group was created with the sole purpose of crossing China together on our bikes (+David’s car), now that we are not allowed to do that anymore, it makes no sense to stick together any longer. We all have different plans for the future and have already set them in motion but meanwhile, we absolutely had to find that English pub with the funny name that we had spotted a couple of days ago.
PS: Since my bike and I are going to be parted for some time, I have set up a new wallpaper on my computer, something to remember her by.
3 hours the Russian border took me. My two passports make a lot of things easier but they also make some other things take more time. Usually it’s not a problem. At the Georgian border I explained that I had two of them, one Argentine and one French and that the blue one didn’t need a visa for Russia. I wasn’t even asked to show it. But the Russian border is special, everyone needs a visa. Except the ones who don’t but no one knows exactly who those people are and by the way, where is your Georgian stamp? I have none, I have just parachuted into your border crossing, you ape! No, really, I never understood why border officials care so much about the other country’s decision to stamp you or not. That part actually went smoothly once they called up the guy who knows.
Come the bike declaration part. See, this is Russia, we speak Russian and all our forms are only in Russian, mind you it is a beautiful language so why should we stain our forms with ugly little gibberish in English? There was this (sort of) nice guy in a military uniform who could parrot some English to help foreigners fill the form. The only problems is that he had stubby fingers and every time he pointed at a yes/no question, I got the wrong answer and he would scrap my form and yell “Answer my question” (can you guess what his job would have been were he in the KGB?). I filled it 5 times until I got it right and then had to make a duplicate. He did say sorry when he was making a golf ball with my 4th form and made a face as if to say “it needs to be flawless, sorry”. I managed to hide from him the small mistake I had made on the duplicate and was off to the counter were the lady fill the computer version of the form and stamps the paper version without even looking at it. The truckers were a happy bunch and one of them was trying to sort us out in Russian while allocated order numbers to us in Turkish. I was lucky, he gave me the only number I actually know in Turkish: beş (5).
Once I had crossed the border the landscape started changing fast, from mountains to plains and very soon I was in Vladikavkaz where it took me some time to find a hotel. Didn’t feel like camping in a militarized area :S.
The next day I set off on my way to Astrakhan where my new tyres would be waiting for me while trying to avoid riding into Chechnya so instead of going East, I had to go West through Pyatigorsk. It was around Pyatigorsk that it became completely flat and a vicious crosswind started blowing. I stopped for the night in Budyonnovsk, feeling it had been enough for the day with the wind and the many hours I had been riding.
The next day I left from Buddyonnovsk at my usual “early” hour, 11AM and took the road that Google Maps had suggested as the shortest one to Astrakhan while asking the locals for confirmation. At some point, Google’s road made a sharp right and so did I, into a dirt road. No problems, I kept asking locals for confirmation and it seemed to be the right road and besides, it was a good dirt road, I could almost ride it at 100kph. Until it wasn’t. Potholes, deep ruts and sandy patches started to appear but it wasn’t so bad. At a small bridge (over a dry stream?), I noticed the landscape was becoming more and more bleak and I started thinking I was riding into a desert. I stopped by a Lada whose occupants were waiting for the engine to cool and chatted with the guys in it. One of them was from Astrakhan and they confirmed that it was the right road and that it would become a lot better in 30km, that there was an oasis and a shop and that the road became tarmac. So I rode on but after what seemed like an eternity of sand, I decided to turn back.
While turning back I realized there was a bit of a harder trail and decided to go on but when it became pure sand again, I just had to turn back. I didn’t have actually, but I did. That was a road mistake, there will be others but this was the first big one. It cost me two days and big dent in my pride. When I finally turned back, I dropped the bike. Twice. In the desert that means that you have just “lost” four liters of your water reserve because, I tell you, you are going to sweat them. That said, the rest of the ride out to the little bridge was alright and I didn’t drop the bike again. At the little bridge I ran into the guys in the Lada who couldn’t understand that I was turning back without getting to the beautiful tarmac road or the oasis. I said I was too tired and didn’t care. Later on the road a couple on a Mitsubishi almost insulted me because I was turning back but I repeated that I was too tired and would like to ride on asphalt. They couldn’t understand and so I continued all the way to the tarmac and tried to reach Elista, the road Neil had taken the day before. Everyone was saying that I should go back to Budyonnovsk to get to that road but at a gas station they told me that there was another way and that they would show me, through Arzgir, and we set off. It turned out that the guy guiding me had something else in mind, another road. A dirt road! He was really nice and really wanted to show me the shortest road and so left me on another dirt track and told me to ride by the canal until I saw a farm (I understood silo) and then ask but the tarmac would be really close.
Whilst on the way there, I hit a pothole so hard that my top case flew off the bike. I went back to pick it up and realized why it had flown off, it weighed like 20 kilos. Not only that but the attachments were all broken and I couldn’t put it back in place so I tied it to the bike the best I could and went on my way. The farm was there, the asphalt road was there… but it was barred. There was a farm and I asked the people about and they confirmed that I couldn’t ride it.
After some hesitation (including going back 1km to try to take the other road), I asked them if I could rest there, camp somewhere and sleep. Luckily they said yes and they showed me a room at the back of their house with a mattress and a quilt. They also gave me melon, watermelon and tomato. Yummy! Later, they shared dinner with me and we talked what we could about my trip and their lives. They were a Muslim family from Daguestan who had moved to this farm by a dam 12 years ago. Dinner was pasta with fresh tomato sauce and more watermelon, melon and tomato. While we were finishing dinner they sent me to bed on account of how tired I looked. I didn’t have such a great night because it was very hot but I won’t complain. The next day I woke up with the sun and rode off very early after having some breakfast. Coffee and melon that Ruslan, one of the kids had shared with me.
I doubt they will ever read this but thanks Maria and husband, Ruslan, Jamal and Aya, you were great!
After 20 or so km I finally arrived to the tarmac road, police check on the way by a guy wearing khakis, a knife and a police t-shirt. My road just changed from dirt to tarmac in the middle of (almost) nowhere. From there it was a breeze, albeit a very long one, to get to Astrakhan. I got there around 2 or 3pm and I was just about to relax in my hotel room when I discovered that I should to the tyre change that day or I would have to stay 2 nights in Astrakhan. On the bike again to the bike shop where they were very nice and changed my tyres but took like 3 hours to do it, especially since they were missing the tool to remove my front wheel (and me too btw).
Finally, around 7 or 8 I was free and went to look for some dinner. Two very special days that had left me with very mixed feelings about Russia had just ended happily.
Some things lose their meaning as you travel East, other radically change their meaning. Take this roadsign for example:
In Western Europe it usually means that there is some kind of roadworks ahead, probably taking one lane of the road you are riding. From Romania tu Turkey it means that you are in for some traffic jam and alternate circulation for probably a hundred km. I don’t really know what it could mean in Georgia because I have never seen it. Up to now, the meaning is about the same but when you get to Russia, it starts getting more difficult to decode. So far, I think it means “some time ago, this road has been worked on and there may be a better bit ahead” whereas in Kazakhstan it gets more philosophical. In Kazakhstan, the presence of this sign just means that there is a red triangular sign with a black worker holding a black shovel drawn on it by the side of the road. It gives absolutely no indication about the future characteristics of the road.
Another sign that completely lost its meaning after the Russian border is this one:
Even when it is accompanied by a “15 km” panel.
Other signs that are usually useless in Western Europe should actually be put at the entrance of the country together with the ones announcing the local top speeds. I’m talking about this one:
It starts in Romania but then in Georgia, they’ve just given up using it.
By the time you get to Kazakhstan, it’s a whole different thing…