Across the Altai (Siberia)

Day 44 – Monday 25th of July – Gorno-Altaysk – 0 km

We had a day rest in Gorno-Altaysk, doing some laundry ( as always) and having a small walk around town.
We were close to the Museum, which we visited last year with Vladimir and the gang. ( see  in this blog, July 2015 report about my Altai ride for details).
I had been in contact, for the last two months, with an Australian couple, travelling around the world. They had been ahead of us and had done a different route. They were arriving in town today,  so we went around,  to find a place for dinner.
Their hotel was rather far from the town centre, thanks to booking.com. This site has been awful as far as location of hotels in Russia, is concerned. Instead of their hotel being 500 metres from ours, it was several miles out!
They  arrived and we met at our hotel. From there, we walked into a nice newly opened grill bar.
The menu was not in English but the owner and chef, came out , and talked us through the menu, in excellent English. He was absolutely lovely, and could not do enough for us. I must say that the grilled squid was the best I have ever eaten! It was credibly tender and tasty!
We had a long discussion with Curt and Lynette, looking at maps and looking at itineraries. They were  going to Mongolia next.
It was a great evening!
Day 45 – Tuesday 26 July – Manzherok – 40 kms
Registration done, we moved to Manzherok, at the Altai-Moto.ru base camp.
The house was full of people, all involved with the incoming Altai Enduro race that was happening at the weekend.
We were very happy to see Vladimir once again. We spent an amazing ten days, last year, riding with him and our friend Anton ( the same we went to see in Tomsk, if you follow!) around the Altai mountains .
Vladimir gave us a bear hug and we had tea and biscuits, after being shown our room. He had to ride out with his crew of professional enduro riders, as they had to go check and do some work on the place of the race. Vladimir, through his company Altai- Moto, is one of the main organiser of the rally, if I understand. So all the riders disappeared for most of the day.
We had a walk into town with Alistair. We remembered a place we ate a nice Plov, last year. We found it and had another Plov for lunch.
Lynette and Curt, still in Gorno-Altaysk,  were planning to visit the Altai-Moto house, in the afternoon, but with a massive storm coming, they decided to wait.
With lots of more people busy in the house, once the storm passed, we went for a walk with Dina and Sergey, two friends of Vladimir, helping with the event.
We had a lovely walk along the river.
Back at the house, the riders were back, jet washing everything, their riding clothes , bikes, socks, boots…. They were totally covered in mud. Conditions for the race would be challenging!
Meanwhile, dinner was being prepared. A traditional Plov, on a wood fire, In the garden.
The chef also brought some tasty nibbles out, to eat while drinking Russian home made “whiskey”:
Strong stuff!
Once the Plov done, everyone sat down around a large fire.
And as always in Russia, when people meet, they all gather around an outside fire, someone grabs a guitar  and everybody will be singing old Russian songs!
Vladimir below:
The team’s coach arrived. He was from the Volga region, the  Russian call them Kazak ( not to confuse with Kazakhs from kazkahstan). Anyway, he had spent a career in the army and gave a Kazak massage to some of the riders. This involved using a large machete, and hit the guy with the blade on, quite hard. We could hear the blade hitting the bare skin, although no blood I must add! It was impressive to watch.
Vladimir asked us if we would be back next summer to ride with him. Alistair replied it was a good idea… Maybe if we find a few friends and can convince Anton, it would be nice. I still want to ride the Tuva track ! So watch this space!
Day 46 – Weds. 28 July – Belokurikha – -50kms
The next day, after breakfast, we started packing. Vladimir was super busy and we did not want to get on the way. The race was a very big event.
As we packed the bikes, he was nowhere  to be seen. The van was gone. When asking Dina, she though the guys were probably gone for the day. So we took a last picture with Dina and Olga, and rode off to the nearest fuel station.
After buying fuel, I saw something like fluff on my sheepskin. So before sitting on the bike, I brushed it off. I did not have my gloves on, big mistake! It was a bumble bee, and I had a nasty sting on my left thumb! I can confirm a bumblebee sting does hurt a lot! After a lot of F words, there was not much to do but just get on the bike and ride!
My thumb swelled to double its size! It did hurt a lot! We rode through small roads to the resort of Belokurikha. It seemed to have lots of hotels, online, so we thought it would be interesting as a stop over.
We got there relatively early and found a nice cheap hotel for the night.
Day 47 – Thursday 28 July – Krasnoshchekovo – 230kms
The day started nicely, but soon in the afternoon a big storm approached. We saw the lightening getting closer and closer. We decided to find shelter. The GPS was showing a hotel in the next town.
We rode there in the rain.
The place was a bit of a dump, and the room was expensive, but the owner was friendly and we had  no choice.
Soon he came to show us the menu, so we had to pick our dinner. It was still very early but we said what we wanted.
Soon after,  dinner was ready , at  barely 5pm!
The owner showed us the hallway and indicated we should put the bikes inside for the night. That was nice.
The room was interesting, as the shower only had hot water… Very hot! The light switches for  the room and bathroom was in the main corridor, outside the room… Strange set up!
A large party of men and few teenage lads arrived. They were unbelievably loud. They seemed to have been drinking most of the night for some of them, and stomping around the corridor all night. No need to say that, in addition to a very small uncomfortable antique double bed, with all the noise, we had a very bad night!
Day 48 – Friday 29 July –  Oskemen, Kazakhstan – 280kms.
As we loaded the bikes, the big party of holidaymakers came out and took pictures of us!
We were further from the border than I had planned but the road was paved and we arrived there by late morning.
One thing we realised, is that, two years ago, when we rode from the same border, basically the reverse of what we were riding this time… We actually never rode these roads.
To this day we have no idea where the GPS took us through, but it was only small gravel roads, farmer tracks and floating a large bridge across the river…we never went through any of the big towns like Kurya, or Zmeinogorsk.
Two years ago, we had been riding through beautiful country side and hills… While this time, we rode the correct road and it was mostly tarmac, busy and not really that interesting!
We arrived at the border crossing and getting into Kazakhstan was easy and fast. Both countries share a custom agreement so there was no need to do any paperwork for the bikes, simply keep the document given to us when getting into Russia last June!
As we rode across Kazakhstan, the landscape was beautiful. Everybody imagine this country as only desert, but this is not the case. There were huge fields of blooming sunflowers, high hills and rivers and lakes. Some parts, high in the hills, reminded me of Exmoor, back in England.
Unfortunately the weather was still awful and we arrived in town under a downpour. The streets were covered in water. Changing country we gained an hour! We had been six hours ahead of the U.K. While now, we were only five!
We looked for a hotel that had good reviews and was fairly cheap in booking.com, but as usual, if it exists, it is probably in another street in the other side of town!
We came across and old soviet style hotel and it was good enough for the night.
We went to change some dollars, as the rate at the local shop was quite good, and ATM machines restrict severely how much we can get!
We also found a better hotel, to spend a day rest and doing our chores. So we would move there the next day.
For dinner we found a shashlik (skewered meat grilled) place. It was like a beer garden, but all the area was covered with very large solid marquees. Rain loomed, as expected, once again.
The white clouds were the front of the very black clouds behind them….
As we just started to eat our meat and drink our beer, the sky turned black, the storm arrived. Not just a  small storm, this was a massive storm. We thought, under the large marquee, we would be fine, but not so!
Within seconds, massive guts of wind got us completely soaked, everyone ran to the tiny restaurant.
It was very packed in there. A group of men, already very drunk, were drinking even more. It was only a matter of time, in such confine space, that a fight would start. We had to move out.
We waited for the rain to calm down a bit,  as it was a mix of hail and rain. I had never seen anything like that, even in Vietnam!
As soon as we could, we ran out to the nearby shopping mall. It was closing and we could not get in. By then, we were drenched to the bone, so we decided to run the 500 or 700 meters back to the hotel. The problem with that, under the massive downpour, was to cross the streets. The pavement was already like a river, the roads were 4 to 8 inches deep in muddy water.
We ran through all and got back shivering to the hotel. We got changed and dry. Everything was soaked. We hung our clothes where we could. We then noticed that the floor in the room, window side, was totally flooded. We mopped the floor using one of the small towels provided. That would have to do. Our shoes were full of water. Nothing would dry that night. The weather forecast for  the next day was not better.
Later on, as Alistair went to reception to buy some water, the security guard asked if he was the owner of the bikes. A huge branch had fallen on the bikes! Lucky enough, it did not tip the bikes over, as they we chained together, and no damage was apparent, once they moved the branch. What a night!
Then there was a wedding party nearby, and to top it all I was ill all night with something wrong I ate!
An interesting start to Kazakhstan!
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Into the Altai

And so we left Tomsk and our friends there.

The last evening, Anton invited us to dinner at his flat and we met with all his family.
It is quite extraordinary that, despite a busy job in IT, with lots of responsibilities, and with a toddler (17 months old) and new born (2 months old), he still managed to find a lot of time off, changing his hours to get two days week days free for us, and spending most of those days working on the TTR! What a great, kind  and generous friend! We hope to see them in London in the future!
Few more pictures of Tomsk:
One of me without my helmet for a change, and riding a Ferris Wheel instead of a bike!
Day 41 – friday 22d of July – Leninsk-Kuzetskiy – 300kms.
The ride to LK was boring, a busy highway through industrial towns. Late afternoon we arrived and quickly found a business hotel with the usual sunken antic beds and non functioning wifi.  One corridor looked like a hospital corridor, with chairs out for waiting patients, offices etc…. All very bizarre.
We rode the bikes to a guarded car park. The town was ugly, with derelict buildings. Back in our room, someone knocked  on our door. It was a girl in uniform with a restaurant menu, in English! Lucky!
So a while later we went to reception and the staff pointed to a cheap looking wooden door. We went through it….into the most extraordinary entrance for a restaurant that you could possibly imagine…. Regrettably I did not have my camera with me.
A security guard was sitting in a sofa, fit for a queen, watching a giant plasma screen in the wall.
 Actually this hallway would have been ideal for Marie – Antoinette… The mock chimney, the intricate luxurious wallpaper, the stairs, with bling, mirrors, Perspex and lights everywhere, the amazing chandelier and the Statue of a woman, in shiny mirrors and gems, with an extravagant hat…. Then we went up those extraordinary stairs to the restaurant, through another magnificent hallway…. The restaurant was jaw dropping and looked like the mad dream of a Russian oligarch! A bar in one side, covered in mirrors, gem, lights and bling…. A little scene for an occasional singer, a space for dancers ( empty when we arrived).
The tables and chairs were covered in luxurious purple velvet, lights in the ceiling of luxurious modern chandeliers, the wallpaper in dark red and gold tones. There was a large party of people in a big table, and four young women in another. All were dressed to impressed with designer ( or copy!) of designer gear and drinking champagne.
On occasion, a singer would appear with a saxophonist! We did feel slightly under dressed in our cheap and creased Decathlon t-shirts, rambling trousers and walking shoes!
However dinner was inexpensive and the waitress left us a very nice note, when bringing the bill, using google translate, as no one spoke any English, and wishing that we had a good time and would come back again!
I cannot tell how deeply I regret not having my camera! If you ever get the chance, don’t miss it!
Day 42 – Saturday 24th July, Sheregesh – 320 kms
In Yandex, a dot in the middle of nowhere was showing lots of hotels! Intriguing! So we decided to go there. It seems to be a ski resort during the winter.
The ride to the village was mainly a motorway, then we finally hit the small roads! And at last, we started climbing.
The GPS was showing many hotels, but to get to them was not easy. It even took us through very steep rough trails  and stone tracks and through a river bed and a river!
After turning round a bit we finally found a guest house. They only had rooms in a chalet, with one shared bathroom. On the plus side, we appeared to be the only guests, so effectively we had an entire chalet to ourselves, with a large living room and a large kitchen!
In the nearbye store we got some frozen Plov, so that sorted our dinner as finding a cafe or restaurant was not easy!
Day 43 – Sunday 24th July – 320 kms.
We were finally done with Russian highways! The roads were twisty, not busy, very few trucks…. And through the mountains! We soon ran out of Tarmac, for about 100 or 120 kms, but the gravel road presented no difficulty. The main issue at one point was overtaking a smal truck. It was producing so much dust that it was impossible to see through the cloud of sand! We had to wait until a steep hill to be able to see and get passed! We also had some rain, so all our clean gear got muddy again!
We arrived at Gorno-Altaysk just as a storm and lightening started ! Lucky! I had booked a hotel for two nights, as we had not had a registration done for several weeks! I was a bit concerned we could get in trouble with the police in that case!
Sorry for any typos. Very difficult in my tiny screen and then autocorrect can cause havoc!

Siberian friends

We spend the week end ( 16th and 17th July) in Novosibirsk.

Andrey left us the use of his beautiful flat and went to his parents’.
They live in the scientific in city, about 20 km south of Novosibirsk. The city is built in beautiful woods, within walking distance of the labs, universities and even what they call the “sea”.
A large dam on the river Ob has created a massive lake, so big, it looks like a sea, with beach and all.
This is where the locals go during the summer to get a tan.
We went to lunch with Andrey and his parents, at their flat and they walked to the Sea.
Our wonderful hosts:
The next day we went with Andrey and his dad, Constantine, to the town centre of Novosibirsk. The town is the third biggest in Russia, and is quite recent as well, so no old buildings.
We visited the local museum , it was very interesting, but I was not sure I could take pictures, so none taken.
It is indeed a modern vibrant busy city.
This is of course Lenine, but here he is represented next to three figures, each represent the proletariat, the peasants, and the red army.

In the evening we went back to have dinner with them. Such an amazing hospitality! Although my brother is very good friend with them and work closely with them, for what I understand ( I am no physicist!) for them we were still complete strangers, and yet welcome us as if we were family!

Day 37 – Monday 18th of July  – Tomsk – 300kms
We left not too early, under a very grey sky. It took us a while to cross town and get on the main road. Then the rain started, as always!
I had booked a flat through booking.com in Tomsk. It would be a good opportunity to clean everything, including panniers, bike gear and all our clothes! The flat had a washing machine, I clearly checked and made sure of it!
After getting into the flat, we emailed our friend Anton. We met him on our way to Mongolia, two years ago, and rode with him, and Vladimir, last year, in the Altay.
Anton had received the parts for the TTR. We rode the bikes to his grand mother garage. It also has lots of tools to work on the bikes.
Then it was time for few beers!
Tuesday was spent, Alistair and Anton working on the TTR, me on buying supplies and doing the laundry and various other chores.
Wednesday and Thursday, we had a good walk into town.
Tomsk is an old city, very provincial in feeling, but very young at heart, with many students around, it has many cafes, bars, pubs, night clubs, restaurants…
 It has 6 universities, most of them among the three best in Russia, in their fields. Mainly scientific and technical, come again. Russian seem rather brilliant at these fields ( science, technology…).
Tomsk is a very beautiful and charming city. It has a flavour or St Petersburg, with its pastel low rise buildings, combined with a Siberian twist with many big wooden houses. Most streets are lined with trees and there are many parks. It is a very green city!
One of the universities:
Botanical gardens:
The boys working hard on the TTR:
Departure tomorrow, to get to Gorno-Altaysk. It will take three days. Things should become more interesting as we plan on leaving the highway and taking some back roads!

Into Siberia

Day 29- Sunday 10th of July – Perm, 0kms
Perm hasn’t got the touristic charm of Petrozavodsk, with its bohemian bars and Parisian cafes, it hasn’t got the faded beauty of Velikyi Ustyug, with its many crumbling churches and monasteries, Perm is a business town.
If we had any doubts, it’s very wide avenues, with tall business buildings, its luxury designer shops, its many business hotels and the few Porsche Cayenne speeding past would put you right. If still in any doubt, the big signs of Gazprom, Luk Oil as well as the  small office of StatOil ( Norway Oil company) over massive offices, confirm what this is all about: oil!
Perm has two lines painted on the ground, for tourists to follow. Unfortunately there is not that much a great interest to see. Even the Monastery is under hiding, with its tower under massive restoration work.
In the afternoon the weather turns to storm. We take refugue in the hotel, catching up on laundry. We even manage to wash our riding jackets, they were starting to look embarrassingly dirty!
The forecast for the next day is not great.
Alistair visits the Bear that is the symbol of the town. If you rub its nose and make a wish, it may be granted. He wished for good weather.
His wish is realised.
Day 30 to 35-  federal highway to Novosibirsk – about 2,100 kms
 We bypass Yekaterinburg, Tyumen and Omsk. We have one mission, get to Novosibirsk, where we are expected. Usually we prefer to avoid large towns and their crazy dangerous traffic and traffic jams. We live in a very big town, we prefer small communities and countryside, when we get out of London.
Ekaterinburg, and the Urals Mountains, mark the separation between Europe and Asia. We are finally in Asia!
Each day follows the same routine. We get up, pack up and ride. The ride is interrupted by stops in petrol stations and cafes, to buy petrol, water, food. Each night, I use Yandex App, to plan the next day ahead, calculate distances, and find our next hotel ( usually truckers stops!) , on the way.
The forest, that has dominated the landscape since East Germany, starts to give way, occasionally, to fields. None of those fields are as we would see in Europe. The forest is still present everywhere, sometime in the middle of a field, crops surrounding it….
For days on end this will continue… The dense forest conceding temporary defeat, but always omnipresent, as if to say, “I dominate this land!”.
It speaks of ancients times, where giant bears or mammoths walked unchallenged, when men were just beasts among beats. It was here long before men, it will be here long after we are gone. The forest, that has been so intense for nearly a month, remains. It owns this land, all the way to Kamchatka. It is the heart of Russia. Somehow, during those long rides, a name comes to mind for it: Pangea. It seems to suit the forest.
Mile after Mile we keep riding, cafes are all cafeteria, often 24/7, with food on trays left there until it is gone, unrefrigerated,  with flies around and no glass to keep the food away from them. LukOil Petrol stations’ Cafes  are a bit better as they offer pastries, in glass cabinets. Not great for my poor stomach but less chance of rotten food!
 It is slow going, as the highway is only a dual carriage way, and it can often turn into single track with the many road works! With its contestant stream of trucks, we are always behind a truck.
On a couple of occasion we buy a bottle of beer that seems to have gone off! How can beer goes off? Eventually, when we reach Novosibirsk, Andrey tells us that lots of food and drinks are counterfeit, so the beer may have been done with who knows what.
People on the federal highway are very different from the Russians we know. Most are sulky, with sullen faces, unfriendly staff, indifferent, even aggressive. When someone smiles, it feels like a miracle! I come to hate that road. I understand now why some bikers, who cross Russia and stay all the way on this federal highway, have such a  negative view of Russia. Had I done this road before anything else, I would have never returned either! However, to make some progress, we have to use it. It’s mood sips on me and I become myself grumpy and sullen…. Time to get out!
By Friday evening, after dreadful traffic jams across Novosibirsk, we finally arrive at Andrey’s flat, in the Scientific City. The day was wet and we are covered in mud. A bit embarrassing arriving at his immaculate flat with all our bags, rain gear, boots, helmets and us covered in mud and grime. Such are the roads.
We had been in contact with Andrey since we rode to Mongolia, two years ago. At the time we  did not ride past Novosibirsk.
 Andrey spent two years working with my brother in his physics lab, in Angers. Andrey  is a theoretical physicist. Funny enough, him, my brother, and Andrey’s father, all share the same birth day (27th of August!) and funny enough, all three are physicists in the same narrow field of Optronic ( whatever that may be, to do with lasers and optic fibres is as far as I understand !).
We have never met before but he is close friend of my brother and always insisted we should stop. So done. We are welcome into his flat. The bikes packed to the underground carpark at his dad’s flat , a mile away. 
 
Then we are offered dinner and then Andrey leaves us and go to sleep at his parents’ flat, leaving his flat all to ourselves! 

Riding East

Day 24 – Tuesday 5th of July – Velikiy Ustyug – 0kms

Velikiy is an ancient town that is now enjoying a sort of Renaissance since 1998. This is when the then Mayor of Moscow declared Velikyi Ustyug to be the home of the Russian orthodox Santa Claus: Ded Moroz. It means Grandfather Frost.
He brings presents to children on The 31st of December.
Since then, the post office in Velikyi has received many letters from children. Ded Moroz is often depicted wearing both a blue as well as ared coat and looks very much like Santa. There are images of him everywhere in town.
The town is still run down, with pavements of dust and sand, many churches and monasteries that are pretty much falling in ruins. I thought despite of that, or because of that, they were very beautiful in their faded grandeur.
High street:
Many churches!
What seems like a massive monastery, but closed:
And mor churches:
After a long walk into town and lunch and a beer at the town centre main cafe ( it even had an English menu!!!!!!) we walked back to the hotel, a mile away, and spent the end of the day with Alistair working on the bikes and fixing stuff, like his loose fuel tank, and other bits, while I did some research for the next few days ( places fro the night on the way etc…)
Day 25th – Wednesday 6th July – Velikyi Ustyug – 0kms
Alistair woke up very early and very sick. He blames the beer at the cafe at lunch time, it was cloudy instead of clear, and rather flat. I did not drink it,  so I was fine. The only thing we did not both ate or drank.
He was way too ill to ride, so I strolled to the admin desk and paid for another night.
We took some rehydration salts, me for my on-and-off upset stomach, him due to his bad day.
Nothing much was done that day as it was a rainy cold day and Alistair was too ill to walk.
Day 26 – Thursday 7th July – Sharya -320 kms
We left Velikyi mid morning.
The destination was Perm, but it would take three days to get there.
Sergio, our friend from St Pete, had introduced me to a Russian App called Yandex. It calculates itineraries but also shows hotels on the way, fuel stations and much more.  I finally managed to find the English version! It is amazing! Love it although it does not seem to have all the functions he was telling me about. The Safari version is better but still not complete. In any case, using it I found a place to break our journey, in Sharya.
The road was good, the weather wet and rainy, still riding through dense forest. It was a boring ride south all the way, but we got to Sharya and found the hotel by the side of the road. It was simple and cheap. It did the deal.
It even had wifi!
Day 27 – Friday 8th of July – Belaya Kholunitsa – 370kms
Belaya was just another dot in my map. Once again, Yandex showed a couple of places where we could stay, for the night.
The settlement ( can’t call it a town!) had a feel of frontier town, local drunks and junkies hanging around, lots of passage , two small hotels between a petrol station. Just a stop over place.
The hotel was virtually empty, like everywhere we go, but it was a new building with a nice bathroom and it was perfect for the night. Still very cheap. I was concerned about the bikes but we were able to put them in a factory yard, with a very savage looking dog in a large pen. The bikes would be secured!
Although we took the sheepskins off, as I already had a sheepskin shredded to pieces once, by a guard dog, in Argentina…. And as we know from bitter experience, finding a sheepskin is not that easy!
I tried to get online  to book a place in Perm, but the wifi was not working! Usual thing in many places. Do you have wifi? “Yes”.
Does it work? “Yes”.
Actually not, it does not work!
Oh well!
We had a small walk out to the local Stalovaya but it was a small poor display in a sort of self service, like school canteen. I was not hungry as we had had a descent Plov for lunch in a little Cafe.
We bought some bread and cheese spread ( a bit like the “Vache Qui Rit”, but a big square of it).
So much bread was not a good idea for me!
Day 28 – Saturday 9th July – Perm – 430kms
It was a long day ride. Although, surprisingly, the forest cleared out occasionally to reveal (you will never guess this!) farmland! Yes, not huge, but fields and villages of farmers. Well massive buildings, probably of the cooperatives.
The day was windy, but at least the sky cleared up. Eventually we had nice weather with white clouds dotting the sky. Our first day of really nice weather!
We stopped at a cafe to have breakfast (fried eggs) and continued, punctuating our ride with stops at petrol stations, for fuel, tea, water and toilets! At least Yukol petrol stations have real toilets, not the hut at the back with a hole in the ground and a stench that makes you wonder how anyone can come close to it! Give me the bush any time!
Unfortunately, none had any wifi, so we could not book  any hotel online.
 At the day progressed I started feeling unwell again. It could not have been dehydration, the weather of the last few days had not been hot, or dry, and I had been taking some rehydration salts, just in case. They did help for few days.
Eventually I had to make an ” emergency stop” and run behind a bush! The problem of being on the road is eating  a lot of crap that does not agree with my stomach anymore. Eating lots of bread with cheese the night before was a big mistake! As I only had the fried eggs from breakfast and no lunch, on the day, I can only blame dinner the day before. I have to cut on bread ( and pastries and all stuff loaded with wheat).
I had the same problem with grapes. I used to eat grapes, then, once, years ago, suddenly, I was very sick after eating some. Trying again few months later, the result was within two hours! A third time confirmed! I had not touched grapes since! One or two is ok, a lot is not. I will test my wheat theory by reducing or cutting my bread/ pastries  intake. My usual diet is mainly protein and vegetables, and if I eat cheese it will be with few small crackers only.
Anyhow, we continued. The day was very windy and it was rather tiring, as none of our bikes has any fairing.
About 70 kms before Perm, we came across a junction into a busier road. It was absolutely packed with slow trucks, impossible to overtake, crazy impatients drivers in 4×4 cars, in a hurry to meet with their ancestors, driving erratically, ( maybe drunk or on drugs? How can anyone drive like that otherwise?) and lots of very bad stretches of Tarmac and gravel, where the trucks crawled at walking pace and the car drivers became even more hysteric, if such thing is possible .
It was slow going and full of near death experiences!
We finally arrived in town. Few days before, I had selected few hotels that had private parking for our bikes, and taken pictures of them in my iPad.
We had programmed the GPS for one of them. We arrived, the place was empty. We had a room, cheaper than in booking.com and with an additional 15% off in addition! Way to go!
The bikes put aside in the guarded carpark, we got changed and showered and went for a dinner.
Since Lithuania we had been on Moscow time ( 2 hours ahead of the U.K.), even at a small stop 150kms before town, it was still Moscow time. Then, in Perm, we lost not one but two hours.
It seems that there is hardly any time zone “Moscow -1 “! And next time zone we will most certainly lose again two hours at once!
Our route so far:

The missing cattle mystery

There is something that has been bothering me for a while.

Over the last two years, we have ridden thousands of miles across Russia (west, southern and central Siberia), flew over it twice, and crossed it on the trans-siberian train too… And yet, everywhere we went, I never saw a farm, any  crops, or any animal farm anywhere! No chickens running around in the villages, no cows, sheep, pigs, horses or goats grazing around in the fields, and no fields as we know it anyway, only dense forest or waste land of wild flowers. Sure , everyone seems to have a small vegetable plot, but no animals….
The only exception was a reindeer farm in the Altai, kept for the horns that sell for a fortune to the Chinese market as a remedy!
Surely, from my history books there used to be many peasants in Russia, which means there were crops and animals…. And the Russians eat a lot of meat, and lots of eggs! So…. What is going on?
Why are the fields empty, why is there not even a couple of chickens running around in the villages?  Where are the crops? What are people on those villages doing there, if they are not farmers?  We saw plenty of logging ( they have plenty of forest so wood is big business) but that’s about it, otherwise, complete wilderness….
So I checked the CIA website country files. For those not familiar,  there is a CIA website with fact files for every country of the world, including details of economic data. It is an interesting website but I did not find my answers there, I had to dig further, but with Alistair sick, I had some time today as we are not riding.
So it appears that agriculture is still fairly  underdeveloped since collectivisation. At the heyday of collectivisation, the production of a Russian farm were only 10% that of a US modern farm ( comparing like to like). Currently production is in the Volga region mainly. Due to geography and climate, only 10% of Russia’s land is suitable for crops. From what we xperienced, most land is sand, beneath the grass…
What remains of collective farms are set up as cooperatives. However, it seems that over 40% of food production, like potatoes, come from dacha plots… i.e. small vegetable plots that most Russians seem to own everywhere. So there, microproductions!
Currently it seems Russia is near self sufficiency for most of its food, ( thanks to all those vegetables plots!) and,  following the international sanctions, Russia is now trying  to invest and become a net exporter of GM-free organic food by 2020. They certainly have the space and water necessary for it… ( source RT.com).
Still, where are the cows?

Northern Russia taking its toll

Outside town we refuelled and reassessed the situation. No place to stay for a long time. What to do?
Camping was pretty much out of the question. Every time we stopped we were surrounded by millions of mosquitoes, massive flies, wasps and millions of midges that flew into our eyes, nostrils, mouth etc… Difficult to breath sometimes!
 We had to leave the area as we did not know how big the “special permit zone” was.
After an hour ride, through bad roads and gravel or dirt, we stopped at a cafe. We were very dehydrated, it was incredibly hot. We had a drink and a snack, and asked the cafe owner if she knew of a hotel around. She did not. However, a couple overheard us and told us where we would be able to find one, about 100kms away. We rode and rode but never found it.
We finally reached the intersection with the M8 and spotted a fuel station. We stopped for fuel and make a decision.
The M8 could take us north to Akhangelsk, ( among detour north, nothing to see there but plenty of hotels, then come back the following day) or ride south and hope that the highway would have few truckers’ places. It was getting late. We were tired, covered in dust, sand, dead flies…. We asked the cashier about a hotel, she gave us the card of a guest house, about 40kms away! Our lucky moment!
We rode to Emetsk. Even with the GPS it was not obvious but after asking, we found it. A big house, no sign.
I knocked on the door and two guys came to answer. I asked about a room. They were only guests, to speak with the owner we had to phone. I cannot speak Russian much, even less over the phone!
Luckily, Constantine helped us by getting, after a long while of trying, in touch with the owner. There were lots of talking over the phone.  Constantine said she was reluctant because the house would not be clean enough for us! She obviously did not see the state of us!
Eventually, the guys invited us in the entrance/ kitchen and we had water and tea with them, while we waited for the owner to come. They offered food and snacks but we were not hungry and too polite to eat their food! They were very welcoming, and luckily, one of them, Elia, spoke good English!
There was suggestion that we could stay in another place, although the huge guest house was empty, apart from Elia and Comstantine.
The guys, and their driver, were living in the guesthouse for few weeks. They are surveyors for the electric companies and survey electric pylons.
Eventually the owner came and we were able to stay. We had a big clean room with 4 beds and private bathroom all for us.
Unfortunately the water was out, we had to wait for a shower. Instead, with Elia we went to the local shop which was closing. It was 9pm and Sunday! He managed to convince the owner to reopen just for us. After buying some snacks and water and a couple of beers, we went back to the house. We had not had any lunch or dinner that day, but to be fair, I was just dehydrated and extremely hot. I just wanted  a shower.
Back to the house we had a drink with the guys. Their driver was busy watching football in his room, but Constantine fetched his computer and we saw few videos of their job! Obviously they love it. One was Elia with his skis trying to reach a pylon,  with his instruments, clipping off one skis and plugging into very snow down to his neck. Getting out of this was hilarious to watch. Another was him using a beavers’ bridge to pass a river… The pylons are in the most remote and difficult areas to reach so make for interesting viewing!
Comstantine on the left, Elia on the right. Two top guys who were very welcoming and super friendly! What a pleasure to meet such kind and friendly guys, especially after such a day!
Finally there was water and I went first to have a shower. Just as I came out of the shower, the owner came back. She was swimming in a lake with friends and wanted to invite us for a swim! A bit late for that, although we were so far north that it did not get dark at night. We woke up hearing the guys talking, we thought they were getting ready for work, as it was fairly light outside, but it was only 1am!
When we got up the next morning, the guys were gone to work.
Day 23 – Velikiy Ustyug – Monday  4th of July – 480kms
The day started ok. We had nice weather, good road, we found a cafe, about 90 kms down the highway and had a smal breakfast with fried eggs and bread.
We then took the turn off toward Kotlas, the last town in the Oblast of Arkhangelst. It started fine, but after a bout 20 or 30km, it turned into a gravel/ sandy road. I can tell you that this is the WORSE gravel road since Bolivia! And I rode across Mongolia!
It was incredibly loose gravel mixed with  insane corrugation and deep sand. Keeping the bike up was a struggle , my front wheel was all over the place and I was very concerned that I could not make it all the way!
After about 10kms I lost control of the bike in a sandy section And broke the brake lever. I had enough length on the lever  to continue. Alistair helped me to pick up the bike ( well, he did it while I watched!) and we discussed whether to continue or turn back. It was very hard going… And scary! A bad fall and it is easy to break a bone. Also, there was a lot of traffic on that road, buses, trucks, many cars, barely slowing down and not giving us much space… Once wobble at the wrong time and  we would be toast!
We pressed on. After a while we came across a fuel station. By then we had covered a good 30km of gravel. We asked the guy how much we had of gravel or if it was all like this. We would have some Tarmac he said. That kept us going.
After about 30km we had a bit of Tarmac , briefly. By then I had found my balance on the bike. Sand has always been my nemesis, mainly because there is nowhere to train in sand in the UK. Also, I was not familiar with the Heidenau tyres, my previous tyres were more off-road orientated and gave me better grip on deep mud. These are more dual sport. Tyres are always a compromise in such trip!
I manage good speed and somehow, through all the 300kms that this road was until Kotlas, with about half of it horrendous gravel, we managed without further problem, despite few hairy moment; but the road took its toll on the bikes.
The TTR’s Acerbis fuel tank was loose. It is fixed to the frame on two brackets and two screws. Obviously, not strong enough for such bad corrugation. One screw disappeared, another one sheared.
Some bulbs need to be replaced and I hope this is all. So some fixes to do.
Once we reached Kotlas, we took the southern road to Velikiy Ustuyg. It had many hotels and seemed rather pretty, unlike Kotlas, It was only another 50kms and the road was good! At last!
We found a hotel in town. We must have been quite a sight, panniers covered in white dust from the sand, us covered in a mix of sand and dead insects! At some point we need to clean our riding suits maybe!
This had been our hardest day in this trip so far! Any worse road, I won’t be able to make it! It tested my balance to the limit!  I found that sand behaves like mud, so I rode accordingly ( this is my only reference point after all, after the winder riding the muddy trails of Surrey!), but worse than that would be pushing! These muddy days in the green lanes had been productive to get me familiar with the bike and finding, somehow, my balance! I will never be a good enduro rider, as I will never be a good horse rider, but I muddle through, and I guess this is good enough.
I still managed to keep up to speed and we arrived in town before 6pm despite the long distance! I was quiet please with myself! 🙂
Health wise, I had been plagued by diarrhoea on and off since St Petersburg. Every two or three days it comes back. Not the best time on that road but we found a pit toilet in a fuel station. I may have to get some antibiotics if it does not get better! Luckily, in Russia, there is no need for prescription to get antibiotics, so I will get some ciprofloxacine at a pharmacy today.
I leave you with the best building you will ever see for KFC: ( in Petrozavodsk!)