Vladikafkaz -what a great name for as town. Sounds like an exotic drink or a mad dance or something.
Such a lot has happened today. First of all, it was insurance. When we came through the border yesterday, they were insistent that we had all the papers that we needed, and shooed us out of he border post after giving us a document which of course we cant read as its all in Cyrillic script. We thought this might be insurance but it wasn’t so we needed to get some urgently across town so went to what people told us was an insurance office but although people could understand us, they didn't know what to do and thought we had been inn an accident. Eventually a really nice girl arrived who spoke great English. Urns out she was a mate of one of the office people and they;d phoned her for help so she turned up. What a godsend she was. Not only did she find out exactly what we needed but did all the translation for us, and then led us out of town and put us on the right road for Astrakhan. She had apparently gone to the international school in Barcelona, where she;d learnt English and had been a professional tennis player before starting to study again. It was exceptionally kind of her and she really helped us out. Many thanks Enna.
Thirty minutes later, we got stopped for the first time. A police roadblock for a full on document check; a bit of nervous moment as stories about Russian police abound, so it was just as well we had insurance . They were OK though despite looking scary and the other police waving and blowing kisses at us from the gun post across the road also lightened things somewhat. But that set the tone for the whole day and we were stopped four more times, once so the police could just chat about our bikes and our trip, and three more times for document checks. They clearly like their admin in Russia as our passports and vehicle documents have been transcribed about 12 times already and we've only been here a day.
Progress today was a bit slow. I didn't feel great, it was hot again, and road signs are not that plentiful. Trouble is, every time we stopped to check the satnav or map, passers by and vehicles stop to chat and have their pictures taken with us and the bikes. Super friendly people but is is very hard to get anywhere unnoticed. Every car toots and waves and again, people hang out of the window, call and and call out to us. Fantastic genuine people.
It must be a bit odd for them though as we obviously have a high novelty value. the border has only just opened for non Georgia and non CIS citizens, so we are amongst some of the first foreigners to come this way, and moreover on motorbikes. But they must wonder what is going on because at least seven foreigners on bikes ( six Brits and one displaced Aussie) have now passed through this region in the last few days. A bit of the old bus syndrome – none at all then loads at once.
But prize of the day for chatting must go to a Kazakhstan policeman who stopped to 'help us in Chechniya and insisted on taking us into Grozny for an impromptu sight seeing tour. We didn't even realise we were in Chechniya, mostly because we couldn't read the road signs, so it was quite a surprise to discover our actual; location. Same thing happened in Dagestan; we ended up there too because we were unable to read the roadsigns. But people in both places were great and really friendly.
The policeman was clearly used to getting his won way as he didn't give us any choice but to accompany him, but his heart was in the right place and he was a nice man. We also saw several thing that we would never have seen otherwise, or might have seen but not known what they were. But it is clear that from now on, any top we make must be out of sight and when we are cornered, we must be a little more as
The funniest thing that happened to day, also in Grozny was a car tooting his horn at Nadine who had inadvertently stopped in the right filter lane. When she pulled over to let him pass, he handed her two ice creams then drove off without a word but a huge friendly wave. We had to stop and eat them almost immediately as they were melting, and were besieged by people from a nearby bus queue who wanted to chat and take photos.
We were eventually led out of the city by an off duty policeman who put us on the right road towards the Caspian Sea. We passed through natural gas fields and associated towns ( all illegible and unpronounceable to us) and are currently wild camping in a field up on the hill over looking the flames. Sounds nasty but it is quite surreal and very peaceful – except for the giant grasshoppers, and cicadas that keep jumping on the tents.
Bikes nipped along well today and are better for yesterday's titivating session; tomorrow we hope make Astrakhan.
Russia day 2
Up and on the road early and made good progress, Fared bit better not getting stopped or waylaid too much. Roads were not too busy but they were very bumpy. Hot again with a hot wind blowing. Rode through flyblown towns with nothing much going on except old ladies collecting litter from the grass verges and cows doing their thing. Although these towns have seen better days and nobody really goes there – and I suspect that many of the residents rarely if ever leave – there is most definitely a strong sense of civic duty in each place and they are surprisingly well kept, if a bit derelict and tired. Good on them; we could learn a lot from these people about self respect and responsibility.
Were stopped twice by police within sight of each other and the second one quizzed us about Chechniya, what we had been doing there, and drugs. He didn't seem at all bothered when we told him that we hadn't even realised we were in Chechniya until somebody told us, but it was very nice anyway, and no, we hadn't got any drugs.
In the afternoon, we stopped at a garage to buy water, and there on the forecourt was a woman with a leech on her leg, draining nasty stuff from a horribly swollen leg. It was one of those fascinatingly disgusting sights that you can't help but take note of. She didn't seem at all bothered though, and chatted to me quite happily about where e were going and where we'd come from while the leech gorged itself on her infected body fluids.
Two boys from Dagestan then appeared and wanted their pictures taken with us. We obliged of course and answered all their questions about where we were from, how long it had taken, where we were going and how fast the bikes were.They were most impressed we had visited Dagestan, although like Chechniya, we hadn't meant too.
We were were making good time until the road disappeared and we had to detour 150kms. Most annoying and a bit of a blow because it really put us back. The road was almost deserted too, so we could relax a bit while riding. We slowed down at one stage for the obligatory herd of cows, and as I passed, one which was standing on a mound lifted its tail and weed. Unfortunately, it caught the wind and I copped a full face of cows pee. And m mouth was open at the time.Very amusing to others but it tasted awful.
There was very little vegetation along this road either, so looking for a wild camp spot was difficult, but we eventually found one in the sand out of sight from the road.
People are noticeably different now – much more Asiatic than European. Travelling by land as opposed to air allows you to pick up such subtle changes, yet it is still surprising when you suddenly clock the differences..
Day three – still trying to get to flipping Astrakhan.
This Russia place is huge – overwhelmingly so, and much bigger than you can imagine; what looks a reasonable daily distance on a map means absolutely nothing in terms of getting to places. It also doesn't help that the roads keep disappearing. And we're talking major roads, not just tracks.
It happened again today too. After getting back onto the intended route after our detour of yesterday, the road suddenly came to an end again although cars still drove over the very rough terrain at full pelt – terrain that was difficult even on a bike. But it would have taken us too long, so we back tracked and found the better road that people told us about. However, that too was an unmade gravel and sand track for a good 10kms, then intermittent tarmac and rough track for a few more. I fell off and snapped the exhaust, but not a problem as it still works. Nadine, being a caring health professional, went straight into the ABC of biker incidents - airway, breathing, camera. Cow.
Met a lovely girl in a local shop this morning who wanted to know all about where we were going. She invited us for chai which we declined because we needed to get going, so she bought us a souvenir of her town instead. A dragon money box from Kalmikya. Then an old man joined in – he wanted to know about the bikes and where we were sleeping. He was quite alarmed when we told him we were camping because of the spiders and snakes in the bush. But we'd already worked that out from the various spider and snake holes. Although the element of surprise remains, its changed. They're no longer surprised at where we're going but now its surprise at where we've come from; London must seem the other side of the world top them, and its getting that way a bit for us too.
We spent most of today riding relentless straight roads through really boring flat featureless landscape. Its like those pictures of the prairies that you see – wide open spaces and big skies but little else, and it is quite a soul destroying the ride. But a notable sight was a family all on a Chinese motorcycle – mum, dad and toddler, all enthusiastically waving at us as we approached and dad raising the beer can from which he was drinking while riding as we passed. Classic.
It also doesn't help that Russian signs are woefully inaccurate when it comes to distance. One sign will say 300kms to a place, yet another 20 kms further on will say 350 – to the same place. Maybe its as the crow flies, but we reckon its a left over from the Cold War – domestic sabotage to foil any would be western invaders, and much cheaper than WMD.
Finally made it to Astrakhan though and as usual, arrived in peak hour with everybody staring at us and jamming the traffic. We are now exceptionally filthy and the bikes are tatty, so much so that even a beggar in the traffic refrained for asking us for anything but instead tried to talk to us about where we'd come from. The lights changed before we could answer though, so that was that.
So we decided to try and make the border tonight and were doing quite well until my bike started to play up in traffic, coughing and stalling. Reached the outskirts of town but then conked to a halt, right outside a house. Spent about 90 mins going through the electrical and fuel system logically but couldn't trace the problem. Not the spark, not the carb, not the in-line fuel filter or the kill switch. Wouldn't even fire when kick started, although the ignition fired every time. Even had the man from the house helping us but to no avail. So we left the bikes in his garden overnight and he took us to a nearby hotel.
The woman at the hotel was rather alarmed at our appearance – her hotel is in the back streets of Astrakhan and we were covered in sand, dust and grease from working on the bikes, and she became a bit suspicious when we didn't have enough cash to stay ( its costing about £30.00 for both of us) and she wouldn't take a card. But a local man said something to her and she relaxed a bit . Garden man also drove Nadine to a cashpoint to get some money while I stayed and chatted to the grandmother who threw a whole load of white powder over me. Turns out it was an insect repellent to sort out the swarms of horrible little midge things that are everywhere. And it was far more effective than Deet.And it tasted better.
So tomorrow we have to look for a mechanic to help us. It could be the valves as we've excluded everything else We shall see.
So today we did what we've done for the last three weekends – had bikes repaired. Started off at the car mechanic behind the garden man's house. They tried but couldn't help so we ended up at a boxing cum bike repair project, where a whole gang of young lads worked on my bike. Although we said we thought it was a valve problem, they clearly didn't believe us and so went through it themselves - before triumphantly announcing it was a valve problem. They were not only caked but also bent so they bought some more, and also welded the exhaust that I snapped yesterday. Then they cooked us lunch, gave us chai, bought us a bag of fruit and chocolate, took us on a motorcycle tour of Astrakhan – and wouldn't take any money for anything. We tried several times to pay them, but they were having none of it, but then asked for some 'British coins because they are very foreign and we won't ever see them here. We want to know what pfund ( pound) looks like because it is from London and London is cool'. They were chuffed with the pound coins and loose change we found in our bags.
It is quite surprising how kind people are here. Its not put on or played up, but they genuinely seem to want to help solve problems and difficulties. The people in the first garage were delighted that we'd called in on them, and although they couldn't help us, we were there for about an hour, during which time they chatted and plied us with chai and coffee. And when the truck came to take us to the bike garage, they all came out to shake our hands and wish us well.
We are just riding our bikes, and happen to be doing so through their towns, but foreigners on bikes - particularly women – just don't come their way very often, so our appearance amuses and intrigues, and they are fascinated that we would want to wander away from our homes. We've been called “ crazy womans”, “ super womans” and today “yes yes womans” – accompanied by a thumbs up meaning “ good on yer”, which amused us both. The concept of travel just isn't what they do yet its nothing to do with wealth, but more about their own sense of belonging to where they live, a sort of “ I live here, why would I want to go somewhere else?” type thing. But there are many people in the west like that too. Nothing wrong with it, just a different way of thinking.
It was astonishingly hot today too 43 degrees and clouds of really annoying midges. Nothing seems to thwart those little buggers and they fly up your nose, down your throat and land on your skin. They really are such a nuisance, and that was one of the reasons we're staying in a guest house tonight – midge free. Having endured them all day, there was no way we were going to camp with them tonight.
The whole of this bit of Russia is very low lying and brackish water flows quite a way in land from the Caspian Sea and Astrakhan is surrounded by amazing flooded fields and woodland. in the evening light, the reflections in water and misty defraction of light through the trees looks just like a Turner painting.
Our spin around the city was interesting too. Scooters can nip about easily and the traffic was light, so the youths took us to various tourist spots and a tattoo parlour run by a friend, a where we were given a tee shirt each. Goodo; something clean to put on! And Astrakhan of course sits astride the the mighty Volga River, another sight to tick off the list as being seen.
We are now holed up in a guest house about 10kms from the Kazak border. To get here, we had to cross the oddest bridge ever – a mulberry harbour type effort, stretching across a big river. we were stopped going onto it by police but as we were being led by Egor and another mechanic, we were allowed to pass without inquisition.Hoever, I was told not to take photos. Not sure what that was all about; it was a rusty buckled old bridge spanning an inconsequential rural river. and anyway, the Uzbekistani truck in front of us was having such trouble negotiating it and looked like it was going to topple in, that the camera came out again once the policeman turned his attention to the next vehicle. Uunfortunately for me, the truck stayed on the bridge but he did ground the rear end as he drove off.