Motherland is Calling !
Mother Russia is vast, by far the biggest country on earth and with diverse climate and topographical regions. I’ve only traversed a tiny section from Ukraine to a point close to the Kazakhstan border and have deliberately avoided commenting on the place and its people until I’d absorbed as much of it as possible. Vast though it is, there’s a sameness about it and a terrible sadness too. This sadness has being weighing heavily on me ever since I entered Ukraine almost three weeks ago. I’ve brooded on the sadness as I pedalled eastwards but couldn’t find expression for it until I visited the Motherland is Calling Monument in Volgagrad this morning. I’d spent almost all day yesterday in the wonderful Scotch Hostel, resting, eating and blogging. The visa problem which I’ve run into took up a lot of time but I was overwhelmed by the response to my plea for assistance and I’ve no doubt that the difficulty can be surmounted. Later in the evening I went into the city centre, visited the Irish pub and had a grand old time socialising with international folk, finding it difficult to get back to the hostel on the far side of the city. I was having my vodka night cap in the kitchen when I bumped into Tanya, the most charming, intelligent and beautiful girl I’ve ever met. She was Russian, young and only 23 years old but a connection was forged between us immediately. She was in Volgagrad to do a college exam in the morning and I had a difficult days cycling ahead of me but that didn’t stop us chatting and laughing away until the wee hours . Hostels are wonderful places! Because everyone sleeps in dormitories, there’s none of the sleaziness which goes with encounters like this in plush hotels. She was as fascinated by my story as I was by hers and we spoke of glasnost, perestroika, Putin, love, loss and our past, present futures until we were ordered to bed. I slept well and early this morning Tanya made me a wonderful breakfast of porridge with delicious homemade jam and coffee. Later we went our separate ways, she to her exam and me onwards to Kazakhstan but the encounter left me feeling elated and full of youthful exuberance. Tanya is one of a growing number of people I’ve encountered on this trip who have turned it from a simple cycle adventure into a pilgrimage of self discovery and fulfilment. And so, having left the hostel fairly early, determined to put in a good days cycling, I decided to visit the Motherland is Calling monument on my way out of Volgagrad. Followers of this blog will know how much I despise tourist traps but my sister and one of my sponsors had requested photos of this iconic monument so I was happy to oblige. Motherland is Calling is located in a park on a hill on the banks of the Volga. Despite my touristphobia, I was drawn up the hill as though a magnet was pulling me skywards. Russians are generally quiet people but a really weird silence descended on everyone as we got closer to the top. The monument itself is huge and is surrounded by various smaller memorials and statues dedicated to the triumphs, glories and sorrows of Russia. After shooting some video and taking photos I visited the soldiers memorial, a vast circular building where a huge torch illuminates the names of many hundreds of thousands of fallen heroes. Sentries stand to attention, solemn music is played and the tourists file around the flame in dignified silence. As I filed past in the throng, I was overcome with emotion once again. I’m often brought to tears by places of beauty and in this sacred place I felt the pain and sorrow of the people of Russia. I felt sadness for Tanya who was destined to spend her life here despite the fact that she deserved so much more than Russia could offer. I felt a joyfulness also, a feeling of pride in what I’ve already achieved and a feeling of boundless hope for the future. I’d intended to spend only a few minutes at the monument but ended up spending several hours engulfed by its magic. At about noon, I felt like heading onwards. It was only then when I realised that the wind had abated. Whether it was the lack of headwind or the emotions which had welled up earlier, I felt invincible as I powered eastwards towards Kazakhstan. By dusk, I reached a small village where there was a bar of sorts and where I was the only customer. Nina, the landlady plied me with food and drink and offered me a bed in a small cabin in the garden, all for less than a tenner. It has been one of the most memorable days of Gogodermo to date and although I don’t know if I’ll even be allowed into China, I am eagerly anticipating the people and places that await me when I cross the border into Kazakhstan and into the wonderful oriental place that is Asia.
Epic day cycling today!
It’s been a long time since I was able to report a really great days cycling but today I managed to exceed the 160k target for the first time in two weeks. I covered 205k in above 9 hours averaging a little more than 20k per hour and flying along at 30k per hour for the last few hours. I’m staying in a town called Khabarail tonight. That is pronounced as ‘lHorribilza’ and there was never a town more appropriately named. I’m cycling along the Volga river valley towards a big city called Astrachkan. On the map Horribilza looked like a great location with the river and lush vegetation. In reality it’s a shantytown in a swamp with lots of heavy industries and pollution. Again I opted to stay in the only hotel in town-the Hotel Horribliza and as you might have guessed, it’s really horrible. However I shouldn’t be complaining because it costs only five Euros for the night and it’s raining outside so sleeping in the tent would probably be even more horrible. As I cycled towards Astrachkan, I came very close to the border with Kazakhstan and it was tempting to chance crossing. However,I’ve been advised not to do so as all the roads eastwards from the border are little more than farm tracks and I’d have to cycle nearly 1000k on them just to get to the road I need. So I’m spending 3 days cycling down the Volga to the Caspian Sea where Roisin a border crossing and a good road eastwards. I was confused by the time this morning as my phone told me it was 8.00am when I started cycling by my watch said it was only 7.00. I figured that I’d be passing into a new time zone at the border but it seems that the Volga itself divides the two zones and I’d crossed it yesterday afternoon. So. Ow I’m three hours ahead of Irish time and will be for my month in Kazakhstan. My Russian visa expires on Tuesday so I’ve got 2 days to rest before Kazakhstan. Tomorrow night I hope to find a pleasant place to stay so that I can sort out my Chinese visa problem, plan my route and prepare for the long haul in Kazakhstan.
8,000k and still motoring!
Yes, on Saturday afternoon the cyclometer ticked over the magic 8,000k mark. This means that just as I enter Asia, I’ve covered a quarter of the entire distance and there’s only another 24,000 k to do!!!! Last night, I’d indulged a little too heavily on the vodka with the security man in the horrible hotel so it took me a while to get going but when eventually got motoring, I found that I was full of energy and power. Astrachkan, my destination was only 150 k away and I set myself the target of getting there by early afternoon. Weather conditions were perfect with a strong crosswind on a fairly good road. It seems that all the male population of the area was going fishing and several thousand cars with dinghies strapped to the roof passed me. I was now deep in the Volga delta and cycled over many big bridges on my way to Astrachkan. I was able to maintain a 25k per hour average speed and even after taking 2 short breaks, I got there by 3.00pm, my earlier finish to date. Trip Advisor recommended the Gabzov Hostel and as I’ve found with all of the hostels in Eastern Europe, it lives up to its top quality rating. By a curious coincidence a young British cyclist who’s trying to be the youngest to circle the globe, had stayed here in July. He’d also been at the hostel in Belgrade and it looks like we’re following the same route. I may catch him yet and we could cycle a bit together. On some days I really could do with company by to be honest, most of the time I’m happier immersed in my own little world. As always, there are lots of wonderful people in the hostel. This morning Slavo, who is visiting his soldier son here is taking me and some other lads to a traditional Finish sauna. I’ve read about these and am looking forward to the experience. Finally, I want to sincerely thank everyone who’s been reading, liking, sharing and commenting. I got one message from a mother this morning which was especially touching. She has bought an exercise bike for her daughters so that they can cycle some of the journey with me. It’s comments like this that drag me over the pain barrier and I hope will carry me home seven months from now.
Reds under the bed!
Everyone who remembers the Cold War will know that expression. Even now, many years after the Iron Curtain has been discarded and when the presidents of the combatants in that war, appear to be best mates, there’s a great deal of Russophobia around! It may be a legacy of the Cold War, Hollywood spy movies or it may be just plain ignorance but many of us still fear the reds which could still be hiding under our beds. I’ve only been in the former Soviet Union, -Ukraine and Russia for three weeks but I think that my journey through both open countryside and in some big cities has given me a much broader insight into the people’s and cultures of this massive chunk of the earth. First of all there’s a massive difference between our world and theirs. The difference can be felt immediately when you cross the border into Ukraine. There’s a feeling of oppression and a sort of grim solemnity which is quite palpable. Everything is valued according to it’s functionality. Most people don’t smile because it serves no purpose and many are totally disarmed or confused when you smile at them. A great deal of poverty is evident here, especially when you pass through tiny villages and hamlets or find yourself in the slums of the big cities. Lots of the population lives at subsistence level and their living conditions are poor by our standards. Something which took me by surprise was the lack of interest in leisure. There are very few bars and restaurants outside the big coo and towns, very few theatres and art galleries, people don’t go for a stroll or a cycle on a Sunday morning. In fact, after spending three weeks on the road, I can report seeing only one group of leisure cyclists-and they were Austrians! On the subject of foreign visitors and again I’m not referring to Moscow or St. Petersburg,there are very few. Kazakhstan , the eighth biggest country in the world receives only a few thousand visitors a year. Apart from the young educated people hardly anyone speaks English. In some of the really isolated places I was the first westerner some of them had ever met and incredibly they had no understanding of the fact that I couldn’t comprehend what they were saying, assuming that ?I was either deaf or stupid. Petrol and electricity are ridiculously cheap. A litre of petrol costs 60 cent and as power is cheap, people don’t conserve energy. Recycling simply doesn’t happen and there’s an awful lot of litter, despite the fact that so many people seem to be gainfully employed in the business of sweeping it up with old fashioned brooms. Everything here is on a huge scale. The uninhabited steppes stretch out for hundreds of miles. The factory farms are vast. One day I cycled past the same chicken shed for more than a kilometre! The oilfields, mines, factories and the associated water and air pollard all on a massive scale. And yet, despite the fact that much of the above is negative and I’m fully aware that it doesn’t apply to the big cities, I’m still glad that a new regulation in the USAs migration policy prevented me from going to Iran and directed me to this much misunderstood place instead. Have I contributed to the Russophobia? I hope not…..
I made it to Kazakhstan where the roads are worse than in Ukraine! My tracker doesn’t appear to be working and wifi is very limited here so don’t worry if yo don’t hear from me for a while.