Rush across Russia

Ok.  Here we go into mother Russia.  I thought I might be more apprehensive.  Maybe later.  The roads up to borders are often shit and this one is no exception.  It looks like your average city pavement covered in chewing gum.  Patches on patches on patches.  I bought some 2nd hand Ohlins a couple of years ago off a dodgy scouser on eBay. His idea of ‘new’ was ‘new to you’ and these had already been well used. I got them serviced before I set out on this trip. I guess you simply don’t see how good these things really are until you’re riding over Tarmac like this.  Keeping all the bumps from my bum.  Luuuuuvery.  Wouldn’t fancy this road in the winter though. So, out of Latvia in a minute with a ‘good luck’. Rock up to the Russian border and join the queue. uk2c_0113Well the Russians aren’t rushin that’s for sure. It’s a simple process but it’s not a short one. Especially if you’re behind 3 cars traveling together that comprise 10 nationalities, include several stolen children, a boot full of ivory and a cat with ebola. And thats just the start of it.  The motley crew is taking so long to process that I’m moved to a different lane.   Stage 1 takes 10 minutes but then I get to customs.  There’s me, and there’s this dodgy looking bloke driving a German registered Merc. He’s not German. The woman in the booth has her eyes on stun and Mr Dodge is clearly turning up the heat. The Russian is getting faster and louder by the minute. After 10 minutes it’s full on 100db at 100mph. This is going nowhere fast. It looks like a real domestic to me.  I think these two are married.  I think she asked him to get her a blue Merc and he got her a silver one.  He’s gone all contrite and he’s trying to calm her down but she’s not having it.  The dummy is is out and wedged in the wall.  This goes on for another 10 minutes. They’re full at each other now.  She’s bringing up the time she caught him with his fingers in a bridesmaid at their wedding and he’s saying that isn’t as bad as the time he caught  her taking a DNA sample from his dad. She’s got a major hump now and is properly screaming. I don’t think she has blinked for 5 minutes and she is just throwing documents out the window at him. Mr Eyebrowski from the next booth has come in and hit the emergency sprinkler system to cool her down. While she steams away in her chair, Mr Dodge is taken away to have his testicals photocopied and I take the opportunity to get through. Took me about 2 hours.  Should have taken 15 minutes. Still, all part of the journey.  Only about 100 miles to Viliki Luki today.  Anyway, guess who I bump into as soon as I cross the border? My Satnav! It’s there waiting for me, saying it’s sorry but it had a lot on it’s mind but it wants us to try again.  It promises me it’s bought the right maps this time and it will concentrate and not let itself wander.

uk2c_0121Get into Viliki Luki and its a proper Russian town.  Very very run down and dilapidated. The sort of place they test anti-depressants. Satnav does a good job of getting me close but this hotel is off the map in what looks like a war zone. The kind of place I expect to see Ross Kemp cowering in a corner.  Through broken roads and deep puddles I find the place. A bit of an oasis.  I think it used to be a school or a nursery.  Looks shit on the outside. Really nice inside though.  uk2c_0115There is a small guarded compound in the middle of the ghetto where guests leave their vehicles.  Later, some army blokes turn up in a small green van.  They park in the compound too.  That must say something. This place looks fine in the day and I take a walk through to the supermarket.  Wouldn’t fancy it at night though.  I’m eating in the bar later and there seems to be a drinking/shouting contest going on in one of the booths.  One of the blokes shouts “hello” to me.   Oh bollocks, here we go.  They want to do some English practice and to find out what I think about Ukraine and Putin. Nothing controversial or heavy, just the usual international relations. Piece of cake. Turns out one of the group is the owner of the hotel.  A young bloke built like a tiger tank and so wide he has to go through doors sideways.  Spend a couple of hours chatting/back slapping/fearing for my life before the owner insists he upgrades my room and gives me one last bone fusing handshake before bed.


Check out the Robert Palmer hotel (where the women’s uniforms are so fitted they only have a little ‘wiggle’ room left) and run the gauntlet through the ghetto. Say “do svidaniya” to Ross Kemp as he stands with his hands on his hips, up to his nuts in a muddle puddle, then I’m on the M9 to Moscow. It’s trees trees and trees for miles and miles and miles. uk2c_0132I’m bumbling along and stop to buy some apples (one of the only Russian words I know so I thought I might as well use it) from an old bloke with a side car.  He’s jibber jabbering away and a big 4×4 pulls up.  The window winds down and it appears the passenger is a lovely black and white cat. The bloke put some apples through the window and the car’s screams off in a plume of dust.  Certainly no pussies these feline drivers.

Ok.  What are people doing selling fur coats on the sides of the road in the middle of summer? I go past furs hanging on racks, loads of them.  I stop at a junction where some of the furs have ‘lumps’ in them. There are stuffed foxes, badgers, squirrels, beavers, hedgehogs, an elk thing’s head with antlers and TWO brown bear pelts compete withs heads and paws.  uk2c_0138The bear fur is soooo soft and thick.  Closer inspection shows some ‘holes’.  I’m sure its where it probably just fell and hurt itself long before finally handling its old coat into the charity shop.  I ask if she would sell me something smaller, like some claws.  She won’t though, she’ll only sell me a whole bear.  Bugger, I cant carry a whole one.  Maybe I could wear it.  Bit hot for that though.  Anyway,  she whips out a skull from the van but its all sticky like someone has only just finished scooping out the brain with a nickerbocker glory spoon so I refuse and ride on.  There are loads of these stalls for miles.  Not something I’ve seen before.

uk2c_0150It’s a lovely lovely day.  Sunny and warm.  Riding through a town I see police everywhere blocking roads.  What’s up here then?  I see a group of bikers assembled by the side of the road in a garage.  Now usually I’m an extremely anti-social animal.  I genuinely think I’m missing the warm and cuddly gene and I would usually happily do a 500 mile detour in 100 degrees to avoid this kind of thing but for some unknown reason my bike seems to want to try out it’s Russian and steers me into the middle of them.    WTF am I doing here.  I’m not feeling the love.  They slowly approach me, like a growling pack of dogs.  We walk around each other, sniffing.  I let a couple of them piss on my bike and I think one mounts it – I just hear a small whelp.  I think he should have let it cool down a bit more…  uk2c_0148Anyway, the teeth disappear behind their lips and the hackles are dropped to be replaced by handshakes and smiles.  Weird the Russians.  Tough nuts with soft centres. There is always an English speaker, of sorts anyway, and I can speak 2 words of Russian (I hope he likes Apples) so away we go.  It turns out they’re going to do a parade as part of the fiesta in town and would I like to come along and join them.  ‘Sure’.  So off we go through the police cordons and down into the bowels of an imposing housing estate where there’s a big party going on.  Lots of food and drink, laughter and noise.  Looks like 1990 fashion is the order of the day though.  There is stuff like horse riding, stunt riding and bear wrestling going on in the school playground.  I think it’s probably on the curriculum out here.  We get to do a few laps of the running track on the bikes which is a laugh until the bloke in front of me decides to do a burn out and shoot bits of hot rubber up my nose.  ‘Ahhhhhhh Dunlop.  1995 if I’m not mistaken.  Vulcanization with notes of nylon.  Lovely’.  uk2c_0144I’m getting my panniers signed as I travel round and when I get my pen out it’s like a prostitute appearing in a prison, everyone wants to grab it and have a go.  They could be writing anything but who cares.  If I get stopped by a copper who looks at the panniers, winks and points to the nearest bush then I’ll know who to blame.  Still, good fun, and I’m really glad I did it.  Couple of strange hours in good company.  There are tears and man hugs when we say goodbye.  Raving poofs.


Later afternoon and on towards Moscow I go. Like in any big city, I feel like a plane on final approach as the traffic seems to intensify and funnel in, getting denser and faster as it goes.  Go over some mad bridge with what looks like a huge red glass beetle perched in the top of it.  Satnav is doing her best but with turnings appearing thick and fast I miss a few and end up flying around like one of those ball bearings in a puzzle, going in all directions before finding the right grove towards my pillow somewhere near the centre.   Satnav says 5km, 10 minutes then suddenly STOP!  OK, this isn’t good.  The road I want is blocked by a big column of trucks and the traffic is locked solid.  There are lots of very well dressed people about and I can hear loud music from somewhere.  I’m up and down,  on little roads, footpaths,  all blocked.  Some have X-Ray scanners for the pedestrians and I’m pretty sure a 250kg GS would set one of those off if I went through – I’ve heard they’re quite sensitive.  The bike is getting HOT.  It’s getting dusky and the bike is glowing red.  I stop for 10 minutes and check the map.  It appears Red Square & the surrounding area is shut off for some concert or another.  My destination for tonight is ‘conveniently within walking distance of Red Square’.  Fuckidy wanky bollocks. Eventually I get pushed onto a road that every other Moscovite is on….parked.  There is an ambulance about 200 yards behind me with it’s blue lights on and it’s going nowhere.  The bike has started to melt now, dripping liquid metal on my boots.  I have to turn it off and wait again  – no choice.

I’m sitting there when suddenly a GIANT of a bloke walks over to me.  He is MASSIVE. Made of stone or something as he is leaving dents in the tarmac.  He gabs and shakes my hand.  I now have a flipper with all my fingers fused together but I’m just glad it’s still attached.  I’m going to swim in circles for ever more. ‘Where you from?” he booms. ‘England’ I reply.  ‘Me, Chechen’.  This is strange because only the last night, my rough Russian dinner buddies were talking to me about the Chechens.  They told me they use a bad word for them.  A word we use in the west too.  The call the Chechens the N word.   One of the bloke’s parting words last night was ‘just look out for those crazy Chechen [Nwords]’!  And so here I am with one in the flesh/metal/stone.  He claps and a shock wave runs down through the traffic shattering windows and setting alarms off, then he gets in a brand new white Bentley parked behind me and pulls into the traffic which parts like the sea before Moses for him and he’s away.  It’s been an hour since the satnav said 10 minutes.

The bike wont make this traffic so I set off pushing it.  It only moves a few feet every few minutes anyway and the ambulance still hasn’t passed me.  I hope it’s not going to anything serious.  Maybe it would try the siren then too eh?.  90 minutes later, and after watching Chris De Burge (I thought/wished he was dead) for an hour on a big screen I find a way to the hostel, hidden behind a church.  Check in, knackered.  I hear the first English voice for a while.  Young Londoner called Gabriel going to Beijing on the Trans Siberian.  Quick chat about philosophy, as you do, and he’s away to the station.  Tonight is a bed in a room that was built around it.  The smallest room I’ve ever stayed in.  Literally the size of the bed with a 1ft gap on one side to stand.  Who flippin cares.  Shower and out to look for food.  Moscow is a flippin expensive place and it’s late.  Get a lovely baked potato and watch the young shapes move past in the dark through misted up windows.  I’ve got some nasty oozing bite on my ankle that is so swollen I can hardly get my trousers over so I go to a pharmacy to seek a cure.  Still open at 11pm thank God.  The pharmacist doesn’t want to give me anything without knowing what this weeping wound is about but luckily a couple of young and extremely drunk Russian girls with barely a stitch on fall into the shop and help.  One speaks english really well.  She is a lot better at english than she is at keeping her knees together.  Her knees seem to have fallen out and they don’t want to be near each each other as she staggers to a chair, sits down and parades all her body parts to the public.  All her concentration is going into the English/Russian translation at the expense of everything else.  I just hope that isn’t going to include bodily functions.  She translates for the pharmacist who gets a big key and opens a red safe behind the counter.  She puts on a thick glove and hands me a tube of something she clearly thinks should be handled in care.  I get instructions only to apply once a day, in an open field with no animals or children within a mile, and never to apply just after midnight.  Flippin expensive but I’ve got to do something.

Up and out of Moscow. The complete opposite of last night.  Empty roads.  No road blocks.  Red Square in 5 minutes flat.uk2c_0164 I Park next to a policeman and take some pictures, he couldn’t be less bothered.  Get down to the river opposite the kremlin and snap the bike in front of the towers glistening gold in the morning sunshine.


uk2c_0168South today to Tambov. Hammering down again for a while but that doesn’t stop the crazy Russian drivers.  The Russians have a bad rep for driving.  I’ve not seen anything too bad so far but today i see things I’ve never ever seen before.  Total, complete and utter madness. Absolutely any opportunity to overtake and they’re on it. Both sides are game.  Exit slips, verges, tracks, bus stops, pavements, anything. Sitting in a lane means nothing.  I had cars virtually brushing my legs in the pouring rain as they passed in my lane. It’s very difficult. The only ‘safe’ way is to do what they do, keep up with the traffic and pass where ever and whenever  you can. When you find yourself alone it’s worse as a bike is ignored. Come round a corner or over the brow of a hill and you feel like you’re riding down the wrong side of a dual carriageway. uk2c_0198Streams of cars on your side of the road. Not just cars but artics and coaches too.  Bat shit crazy. I saw one bloke overtake a big lorry on a grass verge in the rain, slithering about and kicking up mud with his foot hard down.  Loads of police about doing spot checks.  I presume they’re checking all the laws have been broken.
“Have you exceeded the speed limit by at least 100%?” “Da”
“Have you crossed solid White lines on a corner?”
“Have you come within 10 millimeters of on coming traffic?”
“Da, 10 times already today”
“Have you sat astride the centre line with at least 75% of the car in the opposing lane for 10km at a time?” “Um, da.  Da.  Yes”
“You’re lying to me aren’t you?”
“Niet, definitely Niet”
“Do I have to stick my ribbed baton of truth into your dark passage to check?”
“OK, OK, sorry, niet. The kids.  It was the kids and the wife. They were screaming so loud and crying I had to stop.  I’m really really sorry officer.  I’ll buy some tape and put it over their mouths and eyes I promise”
“Niet.  This is bad.  Very bad. You will have to be sent on a speed unawareness course and have this behavior corrected at once”
Later in the day there’s the result. Two cars have met in the middle somewhere and one is way off in the fields.  The other is sitting, wrecked, in the middle of the road, 2ft shorter than when it left home. No police yet.  They’re probably looking for some medals to give to the drivers. Get to Tambov quite late to a cheap (£10) hotel over a shop in a market. Clean room though and somewhere off the street to park the bike. The surrounding area is totally dive.  I go wandering about to look for food and I see people going in and out a shop.  It has a big 24H sign outside.  Excellent, I’ll get some biscuits or something.  In I go.  It’s a bloody flower shop. A 24H bloody flower shop.  Anyway, I buy some nice begonias for my dinner and some roses (White) for breakfast and head to bed.

Last night’s hotel was a last minute thing arranged yesterday on the phone.  When I turned down the road last night it was an “oh mother” moment.  All potholes, rubbish, stink and staring people. The road is the site for a daily fruit and veg market and the hotel is over some shops. The room is fine.  The receptionist is ….fine, the surroundings are a bomb site. It’s flipping hot and so all the windows are open cos the air conditioning is …. missing. I take a walk looking for coffee early in the morning.  You’ll be flippin lucky mate.. I didn’t sleep well last night either.  It’s difficult when you’re providing the all night, all you can eat buffet for a million fruit flies.  I did wake up once with a craving for carnations though.  Quick trip to the fast florist cafe cured that.

Small cities like this, you’ve got to wonder how people get any pleasure at all from life. It looks like someone has let some slow motion demolition charges off and the the whole place is falling to rubble. No bloody wonder nobody smiles. How lucky I am that I can turn that key, twist that grip and leave, never to return. I do like the Russians though.  For all the dilapidation and despair, the Russians keep pushing on.  Crack the surface and they laugh and joke and slap you on the back, wish you well and don’t seem to bear you any malice.  I’ll come back here one day.   Out of Tambov and as I go south I’m on smaller and smaller roads.  Initially there is just more and more mechanical madness as cars push and shove each other about. Not Many police about down here though. As I ponder my 10th brush of the day with death I can only assume that the Russian driving test is a simple one. No horrible exams.  No pesky cars involved.

“Good morning Mr Bonkerov, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable.  Please feel free to use your phone, drink a coffee, read a book, do some knitting or dismantle and clean your gun during the test. Now, please could you just extend your right ankle for me? Da.  Da. Very good. You’re a natural.   I’m pleased to tell you that you have passed. Please collect the keys to your new BMW M3 on the way out.  Do svidaniya”


As you get further away from the capital, things seem to go downhill fast. Out on the country roads the little towns look like Wimpy and Bovis have had a scrapheap challenge. Buildings barely standing but still in use.  Rust, rust and more rust.  You could make a shit load with collecting scrap metal out here I reckon, though 50% of it is probably still in use. The roads just get worse and worse.  Initially they degrade to patch patch patchwork and then they just give up and put signs saying “Road fucking awful for the next 200km.  Pack bollocks carefully” they’re not wrong either.  uk2c_0206I spend 100 miles standing up on the pegs in the pouring rain, trying to avoid all the holes and help out the poor old suspension. My forks are pumping like a teenage tosser trying to finish before his mum walks in.  I’m hoping they’ll stay the course. Get to Saratov.  The rain is torrential now and you can’t see the holes under all the water. Every time you put your foot down you don’t know where the road surface is going to be as there are huge dips and troughs.  Arrive at the hotel and it’s like a cheap whore ….  so I’m told.  The “reception area” is all clean and tidy but go upstairs and it’s all falling about and needs major surgery.   Still a carry over from old soviet times too.  There is a woman on each floor that holds the keys to the rooms.  She lives in a sad little room at the end of the floor and sits watching telly on a small wooden chair.  Some life.  Outside it’s all sad buildings and rubbish.  Looking for somewhere to eat I twice walk into hairdressers – then i see a bar advertising nice looking platters of food, served on a naked woman.  I wonder if they let you lick the plate.  I’m not quite that hungry tonight, unless it’s a very small woman.  I could probably manage a few titbits though! Titbits aren’t on the menu unfortunately so I’ve got to look elsewhere. Just as I walk away, Gary glitter turns up and asks them if they do kiddy meals…   Anyway, I find some pizza place with pictures to point at instead.

A day off in Saratov. That would be great if were were attending a muddy pavement convention or you were am architect interested in how buildings could remain standing when seemingly only supported by rot and ivy, or if you are a physiognomist… Personally I think that most people’s faces look like you’ve just stamped on their pet hamster and shot it’s eyes out 10 foot across the floor.  The weather isn’t helping today either.  Its absolutely titting down, hardcore styley.  It’s making a real racket, bouncing off the road and forming rivers of blue and green as diesel flows through the streets.  I walk around for a few hours and watch the wet world go by. I don’t usually travel this long alone and I’m finding I’m talking to myself all the time.  Must be practicing for my old age.  Not long now!






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