May 31 2008

Friendly Russia

Published by under World Tour 2008

Friendly staff in Russian village canteen
Friendly staff in Russian village canteen

In Rostov a lot of people told us that Russia is a dangerous country and that cycling alone was a very bad idea. However we’ve felt completely safe since we left the big city for the small villages. On the road everyone waves back at us with a smile and whenever we stop people aren’t afraid to come for a chat and ask the usual questions. Even shopkeepers are friendly! Yesterday we stopped in what we thought was a cafe but it was in fact the village canteen. They gave us drinks, food, and we left with a bag full of doughnuts. That same day someone gave Olivier a small Russian flag to add to his bike trailer. So far a lot of people have mistaken the French flag for the Russian one, they won’t have any excuse now!

Russian countryside near Salsk
Russian countryside near Salsk

Tonight we have been invited by a Chechen familly in a small village called Solenoye (Соленое) in Kalmykia. (Show on Google Maps) This was a relief for Olivier as he only has a hammoc and trees start to become scarce in this region. Olivier’s tent was stolen in Ukraine and in Rostov he didn’t buy a new one, thinking he could do without for the next couple of months. He is now regretting his decision, especially since Southern Russia is much wetter than Southern Ukraine!

A few minutes before the deluge
A few minutes before the deluge

Every day we play cat and mouse with large storms and we sometimes have to push the bikes through thick mud. On the other hand the paved roads are much better than in Ukraine and the South-Westerly wind has been very favorable so it’s easy to make up for lost time once we’re back on the main roads.

A lot of people we see in Kalmykia have asian features, Kazakhstan isn’t too far now!

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Jun 01 2008

Wild camping in the Russian steppe

Published by under World Tour 2008

After being offered a copious breakfast based on salted milk and rice, we leave our hosts at noon. Olivier has also gained a new flag to add to his collection: Chechnya. I had some reservations about waving a Chechen flag around Russia but this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Even the militsia around here is relatively friendly and tonight we’re sleeping in the middle of the steppe 100m from a police control where they told us it was ok to camp. (Show on Google Maps) There are a lot of these permanent police checkpoints between towns, they usually stop lorries and sometimes ask us where we come from (otkuda?) but they haven’t asked to see our passports yet.

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Jun 03 2008

Photos Russia: Rostov to Elista

Published by under World Tour 2008

A week of cycling in pictures, from Rostov to Elista with Olivier:

Russia - Rostov to Elista

Cycling in Rostov Oblast and the Kalmykia republic

Russia - Elista to Astrakhan

Elista to Astrakhan - Steppe and the city

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Jun 03 2008

Cycle touring in Russia (Video #2)

Published by under World Tour 2008

[DESC]Cycling in Russia – Rostov – Elista[/DESC]

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[AUTHOR]frogonabike[/AUTHOR]
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Jun 03 2008

Cycle touring in Russia (Video)

Published by under World Tour 2008

[DESC]On the road near Salsk, between Rostov and Elista.[/DESC]

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Jun 03 2008

Russian steppe (Video)

Published by under World Tour 2008

[DESC]The steppe between Rostov and Elista.[/DESC]

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[AUTHOR]frogonabike[/AUTHOR]
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Jun 03 2008

Cycle touring in Russia (video #3)

Published by under World Tour 2008

[DESC]Olivier on the road[/DESC]

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[AUTHOR]frogonabike[/AUTHOR]
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Jun 03 2008

Elista, Republic of Kalmykia

Published by under World Tour 2008

My thermarest has developed a strange illness
My thermarest has developed a strange illness

We are staying for a couple of nights in Elista (Элиста) to do a bit of shopping. Elista is famous for being the chess capital of Russia but not for its camping shops. We only found a couple of sport shops near the market not far from our hotel in the centre of town.
There aren’t many trees in the steppe for Olivier to use his hammock so he has finally bought a tent: 15 euros and it pops up in 3 seconds!
I also bought a karimat as my thermarest has started delaminating a few days ago and is now completely unusable. I’ll miss the comfort of the thermarest!

Buddhist prayer wheel
Buddhist prayer wheel

Kalmykia is inhabited by people who migrated from Mongolia centuries ago and everyone around here has Mongolian features. This is also the only region in Europe where buddhism is the main religion. We’ve seen a few temples and prayer wheels around town. The president of the not-so-autonomous Republic of Kalmykia is a chess fanatic and has even imposed chess as a mandatory school subject.

There aren’t many villages on the road from Elista to Astrakhan (the first one is 90km away!) and we will have to start planning a bit more for food and water. Astrakhan is only 300km away and we should be there in 3 days. Olivier will have to sort out his Kazakh visa there. I already have a 3 months visa so I will wait with him until he gets it or until my Russian visa runs out, whichever comes first! Red tape is a nightmare in this region. In Kazakhstan we hope to meet the other Olivier on his recumbent bike, he is in Rostov at the moment, only a week behind us.

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Jun 06 2008

On the road to Astrakhan

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The day we left Elista, the Kalmyk hotel staff in Elista gave us a free lunch and 200 rubbles (£5) despite our protests. We visited the enormous new buddhist temple on the edge of town and met an elderly woman who told us she came back to live in Elista after Stalin deported her whole family to Siberia at the end of WW2.

The steppe between Elista and Astrakhan is much drier and more desolate than the green steppe East of Elista. We were even caught short of water on an empty 70km stretch between two cafe stops. the roads are very good (much better than in Ukraine) and the traffic very light. We see a lot of old coaches and lorries imported from Germany, still with the German brands on them.

It is very hard to evaluate distances in this environment: we see villages on the horizon 20 or 30km away and it seems to take forever to reach them. It is psychologically hard to cycle in such a featureless landscape.

We are 70km from Astrakhan (Show on Google Maps) and should arrive there tonight. We will stay there a few days to sort out visas for Olivier and also buy another tent (the 500 rubbles tent bought in Elista didn’t last long!)

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Jun 08 2008

Photos: Elista to Astrakhan

Published by under World Tour 2008

New photos: the steppe from Elista to Astrakhan:

Russia - Rostov to Elista

Cycling in Rostov Oblast and the Kalmykia republic

Russia - Elista to Astrakhan

Elista to Astrakhan - Steppe and the city

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Jun 08 2008

Astrakhan, last stop before Kazakhstan

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Astrakhan theatre, brought to you by Gazprom
Astrakhan theatre, brought to you by Gazprom

Like most Russian cities, Astrakhan (Астрахань) is an expensive place: the first hotel we find, the Azymut hotel on the Volga, asks for 3000 rubbles (£75) for a room with 2 beds. Fortunately, after 10 minutes of pondering how long we could afford to stay in the city at this rate, someone tells us that there are a few rooms available in the city stadium for 250 rubbles (£6) per person. Later that day we meet Maksym, a 24 years old student, who is very keen to speak some English and offers us a sandwich and a beer.

It seems that if you’re an obvious foreigner and you stand around in the street long enough in Astrakhan, someone will come and try to help you, especially if you’re on a loaded bicycle!

The Kazakh consulate in Astrakhan is closed during the weekend so we have time to relax. Everything here is being renovated mostly thanks to Gazprom, the big sponsor of the city. The petrol business is already big here! It would be a nice place on the Volga delta if not for the armies of flies that invade the city in May and June and make it impossible to stand still for more than a few seconds without being surrounded by thousands of insects.

Tilo and Barbara
Tilo and Barbara

On our first day walking around the city we meet two German cyclists, Tilo and Barbara who are also on their way to China through all the Stans and with a much more relaxed schedule than us. Barbara is covered in nasty mosquito bites and that comforts us in the choice of our route accross the steppe rather than down the Volga.

At the terrasse of the Piknik cafe near the Kremlin we also meet two French locals who have been living in Astrakhan for a few years: Nicolas and Patrick. They will soon open their own cafe so if you visit in a few months, make sure to pay them a visit!

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Jun 12 2008

Cycling in the Russian Steppe (1)

Published by under World Tour 2008

[DESC]Leaving a bivouac between Elista and Astrakhan[/DESC]

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[AUTHOR]frogonabike[/AUTHOR]
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Jun 12 2008

Cycling in the Russian Steppe (2)

Published by under World Tour 2008

[DESC]Following a track in the Russian steppe 100km from Astrakhan[/DESC]

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[AUTHOR]frogonabike[/AUTHOR]
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Jun 12 2008

Crossing the Volga in Astrakhan

Published by under World Tour 2008

[DESC]A busy bridge on the Volga in Astrakhan[/DESC]

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[AUTHOR]frogonabike[/AUTHOR]
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Jun 12 2008

Fame in Astrakhan

Published by under World Tour 2008

Xavier, Olivier, Olivier#2, Arnaud, Geraldine with our Kazakh visas!
Xavier, Olivier, Olivier#2, Arnaud, Geraldine with our Kazakh visas!

After almost a week of waiting, Olivier has finally obtained a two months Kazakh visa. In the meantime the other Olivier I met near Odessa three weeks ago has rejoined us as well as Geraldine and Xavier, a couple traveling to China on electric scooters. It is actually much more challenging than on bicycles as they need to find a power socket every 100km to recharge their batteries, not an easy task in the steppe.

We’ve had time to make ourselves comfortable in the very dynamic city of Astrakhan. Everything here is being renovated thanks to the large gas industry that surrounds the city. Prices are already high and they will probably reach European levels in a few years. Russia isn’t cheap!

Interview with local TV
Interview with local TV

Nicolas, a French local who is studying Russian in Astrakhan, arranged an interview for us with the local TV station. The interviewer spoke English but found it more interesting to do the interview in Russian: “I go to China”, “I eat pasta every day”, “Russian people good”, “Astrakhan nice city”!

The 3 weeks I’ve spent in Russia have been the best of the trip so far. People have been extremely friendly and helpful with us. For example in Astrakhan we fortuitously met Adil and Irina who ended up spending the day with us to show us all the bike shops in Astrakhan. We had a meal later in a nice restaurant and they invited us to their Dacha the next day (Unfortunately we didn’t have the time).

I have added a few more pictures to the Elista-Astrakhan gallery.

For future travelers to Astrakhan I would advise to look for Nicolas (email available on request) who knows everyone in the city. He is going to open an English pub in a few months, so ask for the “Bear and Roastbeef” if you’re in Astrakhan from September 2008 onwards! I have also scanned an annotated map of the city centre.

Today is my last day in Russia as my visa runs out tomorrow. There are 80km left to the Kazakh border and I will leave tomorrow morning and hope that I don’t have any mechanical problem en route! The two Oliviers will be staying a few more days as they still have a few admin tasks to complete and we should meet again next week in Kazakhstan. There are 3000km of wild steppe left to cycle to Almaty and I don’t think the internet connection will be as good as in Russia so I will probably update the blog much less often.

Thermarest has very kindly agreed to send me a free replacement for my damaged sleeping mat via UPS to Atyrau, 300km on the other side of the border. My next stop will be in this very expensive city, thanks to the petrol business again!

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Jun 14 2008

First days in Kazakhstan

Published by under World Tour 2008

I arrived to the Russian border with only 6 hours left on my Russian visa but I didn’t get any hassle from the Russian guards, they were even very friendly! The Kazakh side was the classic border control experience with 6 booths to visit and many forms to complete in duplicate.

Villages in Kazakhstan are much poorer than in Russia and people even more curious. I am currently in a small town 250km West of Atyrau (Show on Google Maps) where I found a bankomat and a local SIM card with limited internet access (WAP).

It’s very hot (40-45C) and there is a lot of sand in the air. The roads aren’t as good as in Russia, but still not as bad as in Ukraine (for the moment!)

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Jun 18 2008

Photos – Astrakhan, Russia to Atyrau, Kazakhstan

Published by under World Tour 2008

Kazakhstan - Astrakhan to Atyrau

First steppe in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan - Atyrau to Qandiagash

Atyrau to Qandiagash: Makat and the start of rough roads

Kazakhstan - Qandiagash to Toretam

Qandiagash to Toretam via Embi, Shelkar, Aral. Accident in Aral.

Kazakhstan - Shimkent to Almaty

Shimkent to Almaty, a hillier Kazakhstan and a very expensive city

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Jun 18 2008

Atyrau, the door to Asia

Published by under World Tour 2008

After 2 months and 5000km, Asia at last
After 2 months and 5000km, Asia at last

After 300km of headwinds and intense heat I finally arrive in Atyrau, a small city on the Ural river which is the official border between Europe and Asia. The only business in Atyrau is petrol and you can even smell it in the air when the wind blows from the South where all the large Caspian oil fields are being exploited. Next to the road from Astrakhan I’ve seen many trains pulling dozens of petrol tanks, a stark contrast with the poverty I saw in the villages they cross. People on the road and in small villages are very friendly, this is the first country where locals haven’t warned me against “bandits”; wolves, on the other hand…

Erzan and his family, only 60km from the Russian border
Erzan and his family, only 60km from the Russian border

I have been invited for tea a few times and as most people understand Russian, basic communication is still possible. The Kazakh language uses the cyrillic alphabet but has 10 more letters and is closer to Turkish than Russian. Like in Western Ukraine I have the impression that some people do not like to be addressed in Russian at first. My guidebook even recommends to make sure people understand you are not Russian: the old Soviet times have left a sour taste!

People in villages seem to have a distorted view of the West. Since Ukraine people often ask me how much my bicycle costs and how I can afford to take a year off work but I had never been asked before if there were a lot of Ferraris in France!

Camels in the steppe
Camels in the steppe

So far I’ve only cycled 300km in the Kazakh steppe but it has already been a very different experience from the Russian steppe West of Astrakhan: I have seen many horses and camels, and a few snakes with bright “leave me alone” colours. Not any wolves yet, I think they stay away from the road as much as they can. The land is much drier, the road surface is much worse (not as bad yet as in the West of Ukraine though) and I have had a constant strong headwind. I think in this region the prevailing winds are Easterlies so I don’t expect things to improve much for the next 2000km. The intense heat, especially from noon to 5pm, is becoming a problem too: at 45C, frozen water becomes hot in less than 30 minutes and eating chocolate bars (fuel!) becomes a very messy affair. I drink about 10 to 15L of water a day. There isn’t any shadow in the steppe and sometimes not a village or cafe for 50km or more, so stopping for long isn’t an option. In the evening the nuisance of the strong headwind is replaced by fierce tiny mosquitoes that can even sting through clothes. I think in the future I will try to stop in villages for the afternoon and cycle later, maybe until night time.

I have been in Hotel Kair (£25/night) in Atyrau for a couple of days where I am waiting for the two Oliviers to catch up with me (they crossed the border two days ago) and also for my Thermarest replacement. At the moment it is stuck with customs in Almaty so my hopes to see it arriving in time are quite low. The red tape in all these ex-Soviet countries is insanely heavy and inefficient, I suppose it still exists to support the millions of jobs that come with it. Yesterday I tried to register my 3 months business visa (tourist visas are only valid for two months maximum) and ended up spending 4 hours at the OVIR (registration office) and only got out with a 10 days registration because the inviting business is supposed to register me 3000km away in Almaty, not myself. I am not sure if I’ll try to register again in 10 days if I happen to be in a large town, or wait to see what happens when I want to get out of the country.

Xav and Gege leaving Atyrau
Xav and Gege leaving Atyrau

Finding a good map of the region in Atyrau seems impossible, I can only find very large scale maps of the country or city maps. I think I’ll be stuck with my 1:2M map for a while, it doesn’t matter for navigation as there is only one road to Almaty but I like to have smaller scale maps to look at during the day on these long empty stretches in the steppe.

I also bumped into Xavier and Geraldine yesterday as they were about to leave after staying in Atyrau for two days to fix mechanical problems with their electric scooters: the bad road surface is very harsh on their equipment designed for Western cities. I hope I won’t see them again in Kazakhstan as this would mean they ran into more problems! Good luck to you Xav and Gege!

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Jun 19 2008

Reunited in Atyrau

Published by under World Tour 2008

After three days in Atyrau I finally meet again Olivier ‘rouk’ and Olivier ‘petit jedi’. We will be leaving tomorrow together to face hundreds of kilometres in the deserted steppe. We have been warned that the road ahead towards the Aral sea (or what’s left of it) is of very poor quality. Our main concern is the sand which would make our progress extremely difficult. I’ve sent back home 2kg of unnecessary stuff (old maps, a russian dictionary, a few bike tools, a computer mouse!) to try to save a bit of weight and room on my bike. For some reason 2kg was too much for the Kazakh post to handle and they had to split the parcel in two. It only took 1h30 and £15 to complete the process (faster and cheaper than in Russia!) and I will be pleasantly surprised if the two parcels ever arrive in France!

On the red tape front, the two Oliviers have tried to register their tourist visas today and also got out 4 hours later with only a 10 days registration. I think we won’t bother with it anymore and see what happens when we get out of the country (GULAG?)

Our plan is to head towards Almaty where we will get a visa for Kyrgyzstan (scrabble bonus) and then cycle to Bishkek. From there we will see… China is still not an option for now: I would need a 3 months visa to cycle through the country and you can barely get one month nowadays. I am thinking about cycling back home through a few more stans (Uzbek and Turkmen), Iran and Turkey. More visa headaches in sight!
Another option would be to fly from Bishkek to somewhere else on Earth…

I have the feeling that there will be a lot of adventurers stuck in Bishkek this year!

My themarest replacement is still stuck in Almaty and my attempts to contact the local UPS representative have so far been unsuccessful. Maybe they will keep it long enough for me to pick it up there in a few weeks.

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Jun 20 2008

A nice surprise

Published by under World Tour 2008

A new thermarest in Atyrau
A new thermarest in Atyrau

I just received my new Thermarest this morning from UPS as we were about to leave from the hotel! It took 10 days to get from Ireland to Atyrau. Thanks again to Thermarest and especially Tina in Ireland for their incredible support!

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