St Petersburg

Day 11 – Friday 24th June – St Petersburg – 160 kms

We left the cabin in the woods ( and the millions of mosquitoes!) after a quick breakfast of yogurt and juice.
The road to St Pete was very busy. Often we were pushed out by cars overtaking very close to us, despite oncoming traffic, or, cars overtaking trucks, in the incoming traffic, bullying us out of the way.
I did some Advanced Riding with the IAM ( institute of advanced Motorist) and if I rode following the position rules they  advise, I would last a nanosecond before I became as flat as a hedgehog lost in the motorway!
Anyhow, we arrived near St Pete and the road turned into a massive motorway with spaghetti lanes out everywhere, confusing even our GPS! Then a bridge was closed, causing chaos and more deviations in big downtown traffic jams. After two hours in the traffic jams we finally found our hotel, near the Town centre! It was about time.
We parked the bikes just in front of the reception desk in the private parking. Safe area, so I was happy!
We did not do much more that day.
Overnight, I was sick… Maybe dehydration, fatigue… It happens. The next day we took the tube to the centre, and took a boat tour by the canals… The metro system is easier to navigate that in Moscow.
The guide was all in Russian ( very few boats in English!) so we took pictures and rested in the little boat.
In the evening, we met with Eli and Chezarina. They were kind enough to come to our local metro station.
We went for a drink at a local pub. When you are a biker, you have friends everywhere… And Russian bikers are very welcoming! It was really nice to meet with them and get some advice as well.
The architecture in St Pete is very Italian, for a good reason. I am currently reading “The Romanovs”, by Virginia Cowles. Quite eye opening!
St Petersburg was founded by Peter the great, a top guy who sent his first wife into seclusion in a Convent ( so he could marry his mistress, forget about divorce!) and killed his son from his first wife, because he thought he was too much of a wimp! Top guy like most of the Romanovs. The son, Alexis if I remember his name, was so scared of his father that he fainted when he was summoned for an audience !
So St Pete was founded by Peter the Great. It is estimated that 200,000 people died building it. The Tsar was against cutting trees so the poor people were only allowed to boil water once a week only.
During the Romanovs, there were two classes, the land owners nobles ( about 5% of the population) and serfs. Serfs were like slaves. When a guy pleased the Tsar, reward would be land but also say 5000 or 10000 serfs! Family meant nothing, children could be taken from the parents, wife from the husband, they were just slaves, owned by landowners.
As a result, there was never any middle class in Russia at that time.Therefore, all skilled jobs, like architects, engineers, astronomers, doctors and so on were all foreigners, often Germans engineers,  Italian and French architects, doctors…. Hence the very Italian flavour of St Pete.
Reading the book I can see how the revolution was truly inevitable. And why the people put up with so much afterward… Because their situation before was near slavery.
So really, forget the road of bones. St Pete is the city of bones!
On Sunday we visited Peterhof, taking the express boat to get there, as it is about 20km out of town.
Sunday was very hot so it was nice to wander round the beautiful gardens.

We passed on visiting the museums… We live in London and I can have my overload of looking at dusty paintings anytime!

Today Monday, I am sorting out our itinerary for the next few days while Alistair is changing the oil on the bikes.
My problem is with the Solovesky islands.
Our travel guide talks about a ferry to the islands, but a passenger ferry only.
Not sure we could take the ferry with the bikes. And without, it would be difficult. It is not only a question of finding a safe parking for the bikes, it is also a question of what to do with all our motorcycle gear ( helmets, boots, jackets and trousers)! All these are very bulky and cannot be attached to the bikes. And we cannot take everything with us, we would need help to carry all!
Also, none of our bags are lockable , anyone can open the bags and take what they want!
So it is very simple. We either can take the ferry with the bikes, or we cannot go! Currently trying to find out!
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Into Russia

Day 10 – Tuesday 21st June 2016 – Zarasai (Lithuania) – 320 kms

We left Poland and cross quickly into Lithuania. The raids were straight for miles on end. This region is flat and roads just go on and on for ever through dense forests.
We crossed Lithuania quickly and arrived near the village of Zarasai, where we found a nice guest house, with a little chalet for us. It was lovely and, as the chalet had a kitchen , we ate an omelette, looking at the storks coming to feed in the gardens.
Day 11 – weds. 22d June – Pskov (Russia) – 320 kms
In the morning, in our lovely chalet, overlooking a large pond and gardens, we took our home made breakfast of eggs and mushrooms.
We had looked at the map The previous evening, and decided to make it to Russia.
So we left relatively early. We chose the small northern border crossing in Latvia.
Crossing Latvia was quick.
Of all the Baltic states, Latvia seems definitely the poorest, while Estonia looks like Germany! All is clean, tidy, lawn cut and flowers in baskets, all is clean and tidy and pristine. Latvia, in another hand, looks like just out of Stanilism!
Anyway, they seemed to be rebuilding roads so we had many road works to ride through, under, once again pouring rain.
We arrived at the border soon after midday. Leaving Latvia was quick, entering Russia was another matter! We picked a small border crossing, this one is usually quiet and there are no queues. There were no queues!
At the passport control, the lady spent a long time looking at my passport. Followed then various phone calls while trying to look with a magnifying glass at the photo ID. Then a senior officer was called in, lots of chat, then the boss left. The girl still spent a long time huffing and calling on the phone…. Another large guy with a very big hat (so he must have been very important!) came too into the cabin.
More magnifying glass looking at my passport! By then I was wondering if I would be thrown out, or thrown into jail!
Eventually, she took the Sacred Stamp and stamped my passport with it! I was in!
Customs took as long as they need to fill the same info  into millions of IT systems!
After over two hours we were let in, but it was not the end of it! We had then to buy insurance for our motorbikes. We stopped at the first petrol station, just outside the border compound.
There, there was a lady selling insurance. She kept asking for a date, even now we still have no clue what this date was about, we showed her all the dates of the V5, but for some reason, they were not what she wanted. In desperation, I got my English insurance document out. Somehow, she picked a date from there and we managed,  after nearly two hours, to get our insurances! Never had this problem last time!
By then it was late afternoon, and we decided to make it to Pskov, about 120kms away.
We arrived in Pskov at what appeared to be rush hour! After turning a bit we managed to find the same Soviet style hotel that we used last time. We knew they had a guarded compound for the bikes.
So we took all the luggage and straps out and got a room.
After a quick change and shower, we went hunting for a place to eat. The only local place we found was a Hesburger in a shopping mall. Like McDonald, but worse!
At least the hotel had good wifi although the beds were probably from Stalin time and the bed sheets, as often in the East, were too short to cover the entire mattress! The joys of travel! A truck like our friends Nick and Les, or like Hamish, seems more and more appealing, sometimes!
I tried to change my hotel booking, for St Petersburg, so we could go the next day, but it was too late and the hotel was full for that night, so we picked a place, half way, to spend the night.

Day 11 – Thursday 23rd June – near Luga – 170 kms

In Booking.com we found a place that looked really nice in the pictures, with a mini farm, beautiful chalets, by a lake, with wifi, swimming pool, spa etc… It looked picture perfect, so we aimed to that place.
It took us a while to find as it was off the main roads, through various tracks. When we arrived, it looked just like we have seen before, no wifi that we could find, soviet style holiday camp, rough and rustic cabin, some falling down in ruins, no one around, the swimming pool being a black dirty pond that even a dog would turn his nose at… Oh well, that will do for one night. We will have some luxury in St Petersburg hopefully.
I managed to do some laundry and it was handy to hang it out as it stopped raining and even had some sun.
 One problem with the country side in Russia is the mosquitoes. When Alistair went to buy some food for our dinner, the first item in the list was mosquito spray. There are big, hungry and legions of them!
I had one bite and my hand turned bright red and swollen… I had to apply some antihistamine cream but not much result!

Meeting friends in Warsaw

I read a quote a long time ago: “strangers are only friends you have not met yet”… This has been so true on all our trips!

As I just published my blog update, on Friday evening, a ping signalled  a message on my iPad. Opening messenger, I saw that Sambor (as he is known) was starting a conversation. Chris Samborski is the founder of http://www.advfactory.com. His company will bring our motorcycles back from Central Asia in September. We never met but had been exchanging few emails to organise the bikes return to the UK.

Sambor is well known in the motorcycle world for his stunning trip reports and has been touring Central Asia for 25 years, founding his shipping and motorcycle tour company.
He was inviting us to stay at his house in Warsaw. We never planned to go to Warsaw, as it is a bit off our planned route, but after checking the map, it was only a small detour. And how could we miss the chance to meet both Sambor and his, as extraordinary as him, partner Ola?
So we agreed and after exchanging phone numbers, we set up the GPS for his house.
Day 7 – Saturday 18th June – Warsaw – 410 kms
We did not leave town too early, as Chris and Ola were just coming back from holiday that day and would not be home before 7pm. So we took our time. For once, the day was dry, after torrential rains and huge storms the previous day. We saw many uprooted trees by the side of the road.
We arrived at the house few minutes before Chris and Ola. They welcomed us into their home and showed us our room. Then Ola went off to walk the dogs while Chris went off to buy some food, for a barbecue!
Soon, the fire was started, beer offered and meat and sausages in the BBQ….
Day 8 – Sunday 19th June – Warsaw, 0 km ( on the bikes).
After a generous breakfast, Chris looked online to help find something in town for my bike’s seat.
Chris found a suggestion in a bike forum: buy a gel seat from decathlon, on the horse riding range! It was genius. The gel pad is thick ( a good inch!) and perfect for my saddle! As Ola had to buy few things from Decathlon as well, for her summer trips ( she is doing guided tours of the Himalayas among others!) we just all jumped in the car and went there. For about 40 euros, my problem with my very hard painful seat was solved!
Then, our friends dropped us at the town centre so we could spend the day visiting the old town.
Not much is left of Warsaw, as it was completely destroyed during the war, but the old town was rebuilt and renovated and is very nice. The day, for once, was very hot and sunny.
Here are few pictures of Warsaw:

Warsaw is the birth place of Marie Curie:

As well as Chopin!

Later in the afternoon, we managed to negotiate the very puzzling ( and incomprehensible!) public transport and train network and make it home. The house is just at the edge of town, set in a beautiful forest, in a very peaceful area.
In the evening, Ola showed us the video for her tour of the Himalyas on Royal enfields. It looks amazing. She is guiding several tours, and I think there may still be some spaces on one, so anyone interested should contact her : http://advfactory.com/?lang=en
Here is the link to this video: https://youtu.be/vdY7UTvNzTs
We then watched a very amazing video of Chris exploring the Wakham valley, on the Afgan side, few years ago. It was incredibly impressive!
“Wakham, where the road ends”: https://youtu.be/qM72c1AlIQY
Both Ola and Chris have been scouting and touring to many places around the world, and are experts of Central Asia. Ola had many sporting trophies on the wall, and is an amazing motocross and enduro rider, riding bikes that even Alistair would think too tall for him ( she is about my heigh!)…
They both have talent, but brain too. Ola was a lawyer for many years while Chris was a journalist and still write occasionally.
As you guess, they made a big impression on us.
Later on, I sat down with Chris and we looked at the maps of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, he knows all the roads and trails. He was able to tell me which roads to take, what would be beautiful and worth the detour. Now I can’t wait to get there!
Day 9 – Monday 20th June – Suwalki – 310 kms
We were planning to get close to the Lithuanian border that day, so we were not in any rush.
We left rather late, after making our goodbyes.
The day was wet, once again, and very windy, but it got progressively better in the afternoon. We almost had some sunshine in the evening!
My seat was, at last, bearable. The wind at speed ( we have no fairing on our bikes) was very tiring.
We found a hotel outside town and holed up there for the night, with a trucker place for a quick dinner.
Here a map of what we have done so far.

Crossing Germany and Poland

Day 4 –  weds. 15th June – Waren – 410 kms.

We left the sleepy town of Visbek, and rode through country lanes and small roads, across valleys and many dense forests. We were aiming for the fairly touristic town of Waren, in East Germany.
The town is set by a large lake and seemed to have many places to stay.
After a long day ride, punctuated by many showers, we got there. By then I was greatly suffering with my hard sit. Two hours non stop on the XT and I would be ready to confess to anything! This was becoming a problem.
Arriving at Waren, we turned a bit in town . The first place was one of those “unmanned” hotels where you have to phone somewhere to be let in! Eventually we found a small guest house with a human being at reception. Unfortunately, it had no wifi! That was a bit of an inconvenience as we were using online maps for next day itinerary and looking at potential places to stop for the night!
Germany seems very provincial for such things. For example, when we rode to Romania, 3 years ago, every fuel station had free wifi and every hotel certainly had wifi, even in tiny places where no tourist would venture! In Germany, not only very few people seem to speak anything else than German but also, wifi is not wide spread, at least for tourists!
To be fair, the average age of the local tourist in Waren, was about 100! We must have brought the average age down by 40 years, just by being there! I don’t think the old folks use much wifi !
I have to say that technology has changed very much the way we travel these days! Even 4 years ago we had no tablets or smart phones, while now, with a tablet and wifi usually widespread, it is very easy to stop on the road and look ahead, deciding which town to stop at, looking for hotels and guest houses…
This will change once we cross into Russia and leave the main roads for the back country….
Day 5 – Thurs. 16th June –  Szczecinek – 340 kms
We left Waren after a small breakfast, and after 150km crossed into beautiful Poland. The day was brighter and we had no rain!
We remembered crossing Poland, back in 2009, on our way to the Baltic states, and the roads were then in very bad conditions. Roads now are fairly good and we made good progress.
Soon after the border, we stopped at a McDonald. No I do not have an obsession with their food, but they offer free wifi! We checked at a potential place to stay for a couple of days. We decided on the region around Drawski park and booked online a nice guest house by a lake. We then set the GPS to this address and arrived there by about 4pm.
The owners had try to call us but failed to contact us. To be honest, we don’t speak polish and they did not speak any English, so not sure what sort of conversation we could have had.
Anyway, when we got there we found out that we could not stay! No clue why! We said it was not a problem, and as we got ready to leave the owner asked me where we were going as final destination ( or so I understood!) … When I told him Russia, Siberia and Kazakhstan, his eyes nearly popped out!
I was a bit surprised by his reaction, at first, but then, I suppose it is unusual?
For me these trips have become so much the norm that I am surprised at people’s reaction…
To be fair doing what we do is easy, it requires some preparation and organisation and, as I keep saying, if I can do it, anyone can…. Not many chose to, though!
So we rode further and arrived at Szczecinek… After turning a bit, and finding once again, once of those “unmanned” hotel with just a telephone number to call, we finally found a nice large house near another lake! It had a big room and we decided to stay for a couple of nights.
By then we were fairly tired, as the last few weeks had been quite busy and stressful, and my back side needed a rest! And a solution!
That evening, trying to find a place to eat ( the locals seem to live off pizzas, kebabs and ice cream!) we found a restaurant in a shopping mall. I took the opportunity to buy a “shami” for few pounds, from a sport shop, hoping this will help a bit when riding my very hard seat!
Day 6 – Friday 17th June – 0 kms – still Szczecinek
The day was grey and very wet once again. When will it stop raining?
After doing some bit of laundry we walked into town, trying to find a bicycle shop. After wandering a lot we came across a huge Tesco. We found cheap  gel seats and bought two. Alistair got himself few items as well from a sport shop ( replacing his very old shoes among others).
Britain seems to be very popular in Poland, at least British clothes, as you can see from the picture below. We saw at least three shops selling second hand British brands ( like Next, M&S… ) in the high street!
Planning ahead is important, occasionally. As we plan to be in St Petersburg next week, we need to find a place to stay. Finding a hotel in a big town is not a problem, finding one that has secured parking for our motorbikes is!
After having my motorbike stollen in South America, back in 2007, I am now very cautious!
I spent part of the morning looking into this and looking at my maps and deciding which border crossing to take into Russia, either via Latvia northern border, or the small Estonia Southern border. It will depend on timing. We have to be in St Pete on Friday next week, as I now have a hotel booked. We have plenty of time to get.
That’s all for now folks! 🙂

Russia here we come!

Sunday 12th June – near Norwich – 211kms.

Note that this time round, distances will be in kms, as my bike is Japanese import and data is only in metric.
Our first day was to be short and sweet, just a small ride to Norfolk to visit some friends before catching the ferry.
As expected, we woke up on Sunday to very heavy rain. I could have bet a year in ahead that our departure day would see a wall of rain, it always does!
We had to delay our departure by a couple of hours and finally left by 1pm. The respite did not last long as  we got caught on and off from light drizzle to heavy rain.
It was the first time we were riding our bikes fully loaded and we were happy with our minimalist approach!
Monday 13th June – Harwich/ ferry
We spent the day with our friends, reminiscing on our year trip round South America, where we kept meeting them on their three years motorcycle tour around the world.
We had a nice walk around Norwich, which is a very nice town with beautiful modern buildings (like the library, with its vaulted roof and immense glass panels!) and many very old historic buildings too. Downpour followed another downpour.
We left it as late as possible, but in the end we had to brave the weather. The ferry was due to leave at 11pm. With instructions for a short cut, we finally set off…. And promptly missed a turning at some point.
The GPS took us through a shortcut of its own, through single track country lanes, covered in mud and gravel, and under very heavy rain, that made difficult to see much through my visor! Somehow, we managed to get to the ferry terminal soon after 8pm, and after buying some food for the trip, we got through the passport controls.
 A bit of a wait ensued, without any place to take refuge from the wind and rain. We finally got to our cabine, drenched, once again, and cold. A hot shower was great to warm up a bit.
The ferry trip to the Hook of Holland was uneventful.
Tuesday 14th June – Visbek, Germany.
Despite leaving Harwich late, the ferry arrived at destination on time (8am local time). We soon rode off into…well… You guess it, more torrential rain. We made our way along the Motorways and stopped at a McDonald for some sort of breakfast. And also to use the free internet there. That allowed us to do some routing  and to program the GPS.
We then went back into the storm until crossing the border with Germany. From Germany we left the terrifying Autobahn ( with no speed limits, having a BMW appearing from nowhere at the speed of light, and staying one inch from my back wheel while I am trying to overtake a truck, is terrifying!) and we took the back roads.
By mid afternoon, after a quick stop for coffee, we went back into the national roads and finally got to Wildeshausen. The couple of hotels we checked were full! So we rode further away and found a small town and a place to stay.
On the plus side, our waterproof gear is very good and nothing leaks yet!
Depending on the weather, we will see if we can make it into Poland tomorrow. We are in no rush as we plan to be in St Petersburg for the Scarlet Sails festival, on the 25th, so we can take our time!

Frantic last few days!

My work’s leaving drinks came and went last Thursday, I left work on Friday and that was it!

Since then, the last 5 days have been very busy as we managed to source an alternative sprocket for my bike as well as sorting out all our luggage.
The roll bag containing the camping gear (and few other bits like maps, parts of a guide book, fuel bladder etc …) is sorted and weight just under 10kg. In 2014, for our trip to Mongolia, it weighted 12kg, so good effort there.
The panniers, at this stage weight about 6.5kg each. In addition we are fitting a 10l tail pack for the spare parts, on the TTR. We will also carry a small 10l roll bag each to carry the waterproofs and a jumper.
So my estimate would be a total luggage of about 28kg (not sure how much the spares parts weight…. I don’t think we can go lighter that that!
We have also been tidying the house and getting all ready for Ian and Brenda (our home and pet sitters!)  arrival on Thursday evening.
We are now going through the list to ensure every document, spare part, pharmacy, every single item we meant to take with us is ticked on the list. I am a list person. I have spreadsheets for everything!
My bike is now with our mechanic getting new sprockets and chain fitted and checked all over. Too late for anything else as we would not get the parts. It is leaking a bit of oil but nothing major. We will get the bike back this evening.
Meanwhile we finalised the TTR with a small tool box bolted to the top quality frame done by Gabriel (zen overland).
Check out the small tool box bolted to the frame!
Scruffy helping with the bike!
The luggage frame looks solid! Hopefully this will be the only trip I don’t have to spend my time looking for a welder!
So, we are almost ready. Almost….