1 US$= 150,000 Ukrainian kupon

 

May 24, 25

Yalta, Ukraine

 

We envisioned the ride across the Black Sea to be something quite different than it turned out to be.  Back in Sinop Alex purchased a big bottle of Raki (Turkish hard alcohol).  We thought we'd be drinking in the warm sun on deck, enjoying the view and playing cards while a cool mist came over the bow. 

 

The ride turns out to be a rather rough fifteen-hour rock and roll ride.  The rolling of the open sea keeps me, and the rest of us, in bed, clinging to the mattresses.  Never make it above to enjoy the ride.  The only way to keep from vomiting from the motion was to lie down and try to sleep.  The result was not much of an interesting ride.  Just five pukey, sweaty bodies holed up in a sailors cabin.  It hit all of us really had. 

 

We are offered borscht soup this morning for breakfast.  We fear that it is an omen of Soviet food yet to come - cold, colorless, lifeless, limp, flavorless, …  We further fear that that food is an omen of Soviet / post-Soviet Soviet life, ….  I get a mere mouthful of the borscht soup before darting for the cabin and holding on for my intestines.  Brandt, surprise, dawdled and then puked all over. The bald cook later appears offended to have had the four of us walk out, but Oleg was happy to oblige; never one to turn down a meal prepared by someone else.  I do believe he polished off the entire pot.

 

Our vessel is circa 1955; a former Soviet navy submarine destroyer turned merchant boat named Mitch (320048) - Yalta.  We can still see the rails over which the depth-charges were dropped.  All part of the depth charges–to-tomato program implemented after glasnost, we joked.  We had always believed that there would be trade between the Ukraine and Turkey, and that it would manifest itself in a boat ride for us between Yalta and Sinop.  We were happy to be proved correct by finding Mitch.  Mitch's first mate seems very excited about showing us around - he says that we are the first Americans ever to set foot on this vessel.  He was a black beret and fought in Angola where he was shot from his helicopter and imprisoned for two months.  He has some nasty scars and combat stories to back up the claim.  He says that he was dropped off and eight of his buddies were killed within the first minute.  Those are dark days when "getting lucky" relative to your friends means getting a bullet to the leg and being held POW.  The ship's cargo is produce; a seemingly meager amount to make the crossing profitable.  The merchants are mainly gaudy, nouveau-riche looking overweight women with orange hair.  See-through blouses, peroxide blonds and chain-smoking sidekicks.    All around the ship there are reminders of a different world.  My first exposure to the Cyrillic alphabet.  We are excited that we can finally use the Russian skills we've been practicing.  Too bad Ethan (fluent in Russian) is not here yet.  In any case, we feel lucky to have Oleg and know that his translation skills will serve us well.  We can’t help but laugh, being five guys on mountain bikes, dressed in spandex pants going onboard a Soviet (former) military boat for a cruise across the Black Sea to begin our journey through a wide swath of the former Soviet Union. 

 

Oleg is looking decidedly Californian in his tight black/pink lycra shorts, his lycra logo-emblazoned cycling jersey, and his gold Oakleys.  Kind of ironic - we all try to purge much of that display from our gear, finding it silly exhibitionist crap.  Oleg has been denied consumer goods with any semblance of flash, so he eagerly embraces it.  I can’t get over how damn lucky we are to have the resources - financial, emotional, physical, the wherewithal, and the intellectual - to try to pull this off.  Obviously, were we to be born here, it would not have been possible.  For all but the last few years, the sheer concept of our trip would have been an absurdity, a complete and total impossibility.   

 

Oleg is really psyched because he is "going home."  For the last two weeks he has mocked Turkey, constantly contrasting its backwardness to the efficient, modern industrial state that is the Ukraine.  The rest of us loved Turkey, but also very much look forward to this next chapter and next country.   We are excited to see the long-fabled Ukraine of Oleg lore.  I’m kind of curious to meet real Ukrainians- not just my Canadian relatives.

 

Yalta looks beautiful from afar.  It is a nice town nestled in amongst some epic cliffs.  Clearing customs the officer asks to see my money and then slowly, deliberately, counts every bill I have while scowling at me every time he counts off another hundred.  This must to infuriate him, that our lunch money exceeds his monthly pay.  Alex, meanwhile, is talking it up with the stunning, svelte officer serving him, Lena.  Alex says that she would like to meet him tomorrow to go swimming at the hotel pool.   Sergei - Oleg's cycling contact here in Yalta - has arrived.  He is a physiotherapist.  For the first time we see Oleg smile for more than a few seconds.  He is thrilled because his beautiful young wife, Natasha, has come down (from Kiev) to see him.  She meets him and they walk arm in arm, clearly very much in love.  It is going to be darn hard for him to leave her and continue on. 

 

Oleg will be sending much of his gear back with her.  We finally jettison all of Oleg’s excess baggage (probably 20 kg (44 lbs)).  Our bikes look remarkably lighter.  Will Oleg keep up now?

 

Sergei leads us down the Yalta boardwalk.  We people-watch.  The Ukrainians walk tall.  They are fashion conscious.  We pass signs of emerging free-market enterprises.  Kiosks selling vodka, cigarettes and $3 bootleg musical recordings.  Sergei proudly shows off the finer buildings as we pass.  Big and stately, but empty, crumbling and decrepit.  Sergei gives us the thumbs up and says “Four-star.  Nice!”   A few families bathe in the water off the main beach.  Big, sturdy Ukrainian women and their speedo-wearing husbands.  A statue of Lenin overlooks sternly; surrounded by palm trees.  I wonder how many post-Soviet countries can boast Lenin statues surrounded with palm trees.  Cuba, maybe?

 

Sergei leads us to his home; a small apartment a few blocks uphill from the waterfront where he lives with his mother.  The town has pretty streets with plenty of trees.  What does a physiotherapist earn in Ukraine?  Probably not enough to keep his own place.  We’ve become self-conscious of showing off too much of our equipment in the presence of locals.  I feel bad doing this, despite their curiosity.  It also makes me uneasy that envious eyes could be watching.  Sergei proudly shows us his shitty, 1970’s era AM/FM radio with crappy reception and a broken aerial.  Brandt pulls out our 16 channel digital Grundig shortwave in a poorly judged move of show and tell.

 

We are still swaying from the ships motion but now have appetites. We are starving.  Sergei’s mother has prepared a dinner for us; noodles, a meatball, cheese and figs; toasted and washed down with an awfully sweet Madera wine.  Just what we need.  We are ravenous as we see it being assembled, then our forks screech out of the gate when the starting flag is waved.  Brandt is not digging his wine - I catch him none-too-subtly pouring his into a tomato plant beside his chair.  Poor plant, hope it lives.  For dessert Natasha has prepared a crusty cake.  It resembles pie crust, about four inches thick.  Did she forget to add the sugar?  Isn’t there normally some sort of filling?  Was it really supposed to be this dense?  I watch my utensil bend as I try to penetrate it.  Our jaws creak under the pressure, but we chomp it down anyway, knowing that our bodies need fat for the upcoming road and that we should expect the food to provide us with calories, but - given where we are - certainly not flavor.  Can’t get over the sight of seeing Oleg smile.  The last time I saw him smile this much was when he figured out how to get his SPD pedals to work ("Thees SPD pedal.  I like eet.!"). 

 

We tour the nighttime streets; empty save the vodka kiosks and a few tourists along the boardwalk.  I think that half of the retail sales of this country must be vodka or cigarettes.  A group of westerners passes us by; one annoying woman from Washington with an even more annoying, very condescending woman from the UK, (“oh, so you blokes are from the colonies!), along with a Quebec nationalist, (I ask him what country he is from and he has the gall to say "Quebec!”)

 

Sergei leads us through the streets, narrating the shops in one-word monotone as we pass:  “Bank.  Flower shop.  ‘Touristic’ shop; expensive.”  At a police check we are frisked for drugs and have our visas checked.  They demand a “service fee” because Brandt doesn’t have his passport.  We laugh at them and give our best "Nyet!"   Sergei talks them out of bothering us.  It is the beginning of what will become a relationship of increasingly little respect (us for Soviet cops).  We will grow increasingly bold at flaunting their silly rules, knowing when to avoid them, how to get around them, and when to attempt our best Obi Wan Kenobi Jedi mind trick: "You do not need to see our papers.  There is nothing here you need.  We will carry on now." 

 

The currency is a repeated target of mockery.  The flimsy notes look more fake than monopoly money.  I could probably crank out tons of effective counterfeit in a few minutes at any decent Kinkos.  The current exchange rate is 150,000 koupon to the dollar.  Buy much of anything and the tab is millions.  We joke that the country could improve its GNP by several percentage points just by getting rid of some of those darn zeros.  Shudder to think how much time is spent counting zeros.  Sometimes we loose count of all of the zeros and offer ten times too much, or ten times too little.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most stores don’t have calculators - just an abacus.  They "ring up" our stuff by throttling the abacus beads up and down, then point at the total.  Of course, we can't read an abacus.  They look at us like we are idiots.  We finally figure out the hand motion for "write it down, please" and they oblige. 

 

May 26

37 km. time 1:44

883 km to date

Alushta, Ukraine

 

Our welcome party at Sergei’s turned out to be too good to be true.  How disappointing.  More on that later.

 

I’m happy to be on the road again, if only for a short day.   Good to get the rust out of the legs after seven days off.  Oleg has gone to Simferopol to see Natasha off to the train.  This was the best way to get out of Yalta and get a few miles under the wheels, and still have Oleg catch up to us by taking the bus.  Important to keep Oleg happy.  We are still very hopeful that he will prove his value, that he will prove to be something more than a grand emotional drain, that the endless cynicism, pervasive darkness, and awful biking will, in the final analysis, prove to be balanced against cutting-edge insights, critical translations, added safety, and better navigation.  We hope. 

 

We find the others in Alushta, staying in a backyard pancion. The owner lets us cook eggs on our stoves on the patio.  This being a short day; we walk down to the waterfront.  Alex and Nathan walk down to the beach and do some heavy drinking with some guys they meet, returning really buzzed, cracking themselves up.  More kiosks.  A few tourists.  A car that tows around a huge trailer to dispense cheap, hard alcohol.  We search for a bread shop and end up buying right from the factory.  We are realizing that we must, from now on, always must be on the lookout for food.  We never know where we will find it, if there will be any inventory or if the facility will be open.  Sturdy babushkas in white hats surround us at the back door chattering like my Timmins, Ontario relatives.

 

Back on the water, a revelation: Oleg looks stylin' sportin' a speedo.

 

The scenery is nice, but certainly nothing as epic as we thought it would be.  Reminds me of the south-central California coast.  Rolling hills with low density forest.  All of the infrastructure is crumbling.  Alex refers to it as the "New Jersey tourist area coastline in January" look.  This is charitable.  Everything is rusting, crumbling, or zacrete (closed).  You know something is wrong with this place when, by necessity, one of your ten most commonly used words is zacrete.

 

We can see that Oleg is gradually more and more embarrassed.  After he continually denigrated Turkey, we look back on it now and it clearly was, on a relative basis, a well-oiled machine of friendly people, a land of prosperity, optimism, peace, decent food, and progress.  Ukraine clearly pales and, more importantly, seems to be slipping ever more backward.  No one smiles here!  This is the surliest bunch I’ve ever seen.  We walk into stores the size of a typical convenience store and they only have three items for sale (bread (the size, texture, and flavor of bricks), burnt pear juice (how the hell did they burn all of it?  Every jar is black on the bottom from the burnt debris) and fish (not sure which kind, or what body part.  We’re not that desperate yet). If you didn’t have a sense of humor, this place would kill you.  Or, I guess, turn you into someone who never smiles.  I guess the people have largely taken their pick.   

 

Yesterday morning I spotted our first cycle tourists of the trip.  How I hope these photos turn out!  They were a Ukrainian group, led by the friendliest Ukranian (not a difficult title to obtain) I have yet encountered, Anatoly.  They all posed for a photo in their Black Sea Fleet navy shirts.  Their bikes are such that, back home, we would consider them trash: rusted, bent, dented, re-welded, with really crappy components.  Anatoly and the boys (five total, I think) loaded (meaning their baggage, but God, were they drunk too; vodka breath that knocked me down) with panniers resembling a pair of old football pants sewn off at the ankles, filled with all their belongings, and draped over the rear rack.  “How many spoke you break in one day?” they ask.  Astounded and disbelieving that I haven’t broken any yet.  “That is impossible!!”  Where do you make trip to, Astrakhan?  Mongolia?  MY GOD!!”  Odometer talk.  They couldn’t comprehend how the radio-transmitting speedometer worked.  They all have the old-style clicking type.  This place is an incredible time warp, clearly decades behind the rest of the world, and seemingly slipping further back (both on an absolute and a relative basis) every day.  A guy at the water cooler gives me his investment proposal after the photo session - he is looking for western investors.  I guess they don’t get too many through here; a poor velotourist will have to do.  We shake hands, hug, drink vodka and exchange addresses.  I have been laughing the whole time at their Black Sea Fleet shirts; though here in Ukraine they are the proud outfits of the once-proud Soviet Navy, at home they are usually what mimes wear.   Can’t get over how pervasive the alcohol is.  Seems to be about a third of all items sold in stores.  Besides university on a Thursday night, I have never seen so many drunken people. 

 

We stroll around Yalta, a city that was once the crown jewel of the USSR.  It is now bleak by any standard of mine.  I look in grocery stores for road food.  Fatty, low quality meat fit for livestock in Canada is all that I see.  One type of bread is available; 40,000 kupon (30 cents).  This town, Alushta, has a feeling of November in a small, central Ontario cottage town long after the summer carnival has left.  I order a soda and the kiosk owner pulls one from a box - never a cold one- sometimes wet, usually dusty.  This place is stuck in the last century.  Lena, the customs officer wooed by Alex, has a masters degree in computer science, but makes more money stamping passports.  She is a crack-up.  Incredibly sultry.  She is married but goes out of her way to tell us that her husband lives far away and that they only see each other once a month.  She loves to practice her English on us, also seeming to go out of her way to emphasize that her favorite words to practice are those in the "Romance" section of her English book.  Then she asks us to meet her at the pool deck on the fanciest hotel in Yalta, where she meets us in the tiniest of bikinis.  A battleship loaded with crates of oranges seems ludicrous in Sinop, but in Yalta, not such a misallocation of resources.  Here, these items from the ship; oranges and fruit are luxury items to be sold in small quantities on street corners and from kiosks.

 

We mail a dozen postcards from the Hotel Yalta.  Later, I found out that not one of them actually made it.   I guess it was naive for us to hope for anything more.   Someone on the inside has stolen the stamps and resold them, no doubt.

 

We were taken to Sergei’s home, fed what they had which was not much: Noodles and bread and tea and a few extras.  Our daytime trip to the Lavidia Palace was guided by Sergei on his homemade bicycle.  He shows us the 72 spokes he has drilled into each wheel.  He has improvised to an incredible degree.  It is as if he has heard of the mountain biking concept, but did not have any new gear, so he got his old stuff and a drill press and hacked it together to be thoroughly mountain bike-like.  Crude, but nevertheless impressive.  We wheel along a perfectly maintained trail cut into the hillside; hidden so we would never have found it ourselves.  Great route.  The $1 entrance fee to the Lavidia is hiked to $5 when they learn that we are foreign.  This is the birthplace of the Cold War, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt carved up post-war Europe.  Now it has definitely fallen from grace with its walls cracked and crumbling. Maybe they are headed for better days here, but it seems like no one really cares to fix anything.  Seventy years without personal incentive to improve; this is how it all looks now.

 

We continue along the trail, Sergei leading us to a mock-castle cut into the hillside about seven km from town.  It is an Italian restaurant.  Go figure.  I wonder if it’s authentic.  Even we think it is expensive.  Full of big-haired Kiev tourists.  Who can possibly afford this?

 

At dinner Sergei presents us with a surprise.  We’ve been grateful for his humble hospitality.  We’ve been impressed with his 72-spoke bike, his outdoor chin-up bars, his drainpipe covered bike and his 32-tooth granny gear.  We decide that we’ll pool together $60 for food and thanks; it is more than enough and the equivalent of two months salary.  Oleg agrees.  But we are shocked and disappointed when, before we can do so, Sergei presents us with a bill, annotated and itemized, for his hospitality, totaling $130- including a $20 “accompany” fee to the Lavidia palace.  We are annoyed.  Oleg is thoroughly embarrassed, though initially we suspect him of being in cahoots with Sergei.  Clearly not.  He is near tears; ashamed for himself and for his country.  Alex and I confer on the waterfront, away from the melee, for some perspective.  Naive, we agree, to think that our values of hospitality are universal, especially in this land of struggle.  Poor Sergei, a starving massage therapist who, at 36, would do anything for a buck and clearly wants to move out of Mom’s place.

 

Oleg?  We wonder.  How long will he last?  His dislike for cycling seems magnified around Sergei and Slava, the young cyclist with the mop of blond curly hair, a friend of Sergei’s who accompanied us out of Yalta on his bike.  Though he spoke no English, we seriously considered swapping out Oleg and replacing him with the enthusiastic Slava.  We fantasize about pulling him over to the side of the road, explaining the situation, giving him Slava's bike and some money to make it home, then continuing on with Slava in his place.  Oleg is obviously very much in love with Natasha and seems to be increasingly despondent now that he has spent time with her in Yalta.  Damn shame that Oleg hates biking.  Darn shame that he really is not an athlete of any sort.  Doesn’t really get the pace thing.  Or the anti-bonk.  Or how to avoid dehydration.  Concerned that all this exercise is bad for his heart.  And that we will get weak because we don’t eat enough meat.  Darn shame that he hates to translate.  Darn shame that is the most negative guy I've ever met - obviously an incredible culture clash against our North American can-do, make-it-happen, work-hard, figure-it-out, lets-have-a-great-time attitudes.  Not an evil guy in any sense of the word, but clearly an awful fit.  Astrakhan, we think, for sure he’ll make it.  After that, his fate is a tossup.  Certainly no further than Tashkent.

 

Brandt is sick again.  His frailness concerns us.  These should be easy cycling days.  Many, much more difficult days ahead.  How can he possibly be sick after eight great days of bountiful rest?  Tomorrow begins a change in topography, and a long, haul-ass ride to Astrakhan.  We won’t need our granny gears for probably the next three weeks.  There will be no mountains, and virtually no hills, until we are outside of Tashkent.  We anticipate a struggle for sustenance.  Taste buds will be dormant; survival intake for a very long time.  Pickings are meager here now, and this is the tourist capital of Soviet Europe.  Things will get much worse, we anticipate.  Amid the grayness today came my first pangs of homesickness.  A little longing for easy access to things I crave; like shopping in a normal grocery store.  Ah, well.  I didn’t come here for the food.

 

Tomorrow begins some real, cruising, long-haul riding. 

May 27

93 km. time 5:32

avg. 16.7

976 km to date

Sudak, Ukraine

 

Our last day of climbing for a very long time by the looks of it.  Damn, damn, damn.  I left my Swiss Army knife on the boardwalk yesterday in Alushta.  Not a killer loss but a reminder of how a little stupidity can be magnified here. Normally I'd be able to shell out some cash and get another one, but here you simply can’t buy anything like it.  Zero bike parts.  Virtually no consumer goods - certainly nothing that is made within the former Soviet Union.  They don’t seem to be able to make anything that people want, or much of anything for that matter. 

 

We are camped right on the Black Sea, outside Sudak, at the end of a beach.  It is really beautiful.  I take a cold bath in the sea.  A local cyclist hangs around our camp for a while, talking with Oleg, sitting on the beach as the sun sets. Now, as I write, Oleg is wandering around, in a daze, panicking about losing his sleeping bag.  Oleg stands in one spot looking lost himself.  Not searching.  Not asking around.  Damn.  This could be a major setback for Oleg.  He thinks I am playing a joke on him.  “Doug.  Why you make joke me.  Joke not funny!”  Reiterates, again, how a little problem turns into a big problem here.  If it was North America we could find one in the next town.  Or, worst case, I could call Mountain Equipment Co-Op and get them to Fed-Ex me a new one to the next town.  Shit.  I have no idea how we will get out of this one.  Can get blankets for now, but that won’t cut it when we are in the Tien Shen or on the Karakoram Highway. 

 

Brandt is collapsed in the long grass near our campsite.  He called home today to consult his family doctor.  He looks terrible: pale and listless.  The remaining three of us (Oleg did not bike today) had a very strong day of biking.  Alex, Nathan and I hammered.  Eight days off, and right back into the climbing.  My knees are fully healed and feeling stronger.  Kept to Alex on the big climbs.  Even Nathan, who struggled the last few days in Turkey, was keeping up with us and joining our pace line. 

 

We stop to buy bread in a small farming village – like stepping back in time, until a new Volvo with tinted windows pulls up beside the same bread shop.  We all stare shamelessly at the good-looking young woman that emerges.  What a body!  Her burly companion sugar-daddy glares at us.  We keep staring.  She starts talking to us, but gets ordered back in the car.  Nice dress.   I’m amazed that I’m aroused by the sight of an ankle.  She is a strong looking woman, yet another potential Oleg replacement.

 

May 28

131 km. time 6:52

avg. 19.1

1107 to date

near Kerch, Ukraine

 

Oleg spent last night shivering, sleeping in his clothes, no sleeping bag, wrapped in a garbage bag and his neoprene booties.  At least he is somewhat in his element.  These people are professional sufferers, and damn good at it.  Most Canadians would attempt to get out of it - very actively.  I am convinced that the Ukrainians are actually comfortable suffering, that it is something in which they excel, that they feel virtually uncomfortable not suffering. 

 

Oleg is sure we will be able to buy a replacement sleeping bag in the nearest “sportive store.”  We later see how that fails to develop: zero stores sell them.  Secondly, he never seems to get it into his schedule to actually arrive when the stores would have been open.  He never has a back-up plan or stop-gap measure (like getting a blanket).  Damn, sleeping in that Hefty® bag has got to get old. 

 

Big change today.  In terms of topography, it seems that we have left the Crimea.  In a matter of five kilometers we saw the land change from steep, limestone peaks to rolling grasslands.  We could be in southern Alberta were it not for the old guys in the 1945 style motorcycles and sidecars transporting hand cut bundles of grass stacked higher than a their head.  Why?  “Because of rabbits”, answers Oleg impatiently.   Rabbits. 

 

I begin the day as Brandt’s escort/ pacesetter, crawling at 15 km/h as he sweated it out.  He is so hurting.  Painfully slow speed.  At the 20 kilometer mark I break away and started riding hard, the best I’ve felt yet.  The local fellow from Sudak paces us until lunch in Fedosia.  Alex and I have a kick-butt pace line into lunch.  Very exciting.  Another keen cyclist on ridiculously crappy gear.  He marvels at our equipment.  His granny gear maxes out as we climb.  Another Oleg replacement?  Will our patience with him be rewarded, or should we just swallow hard, be rash, and find a replacement now?  When will Oleg pay dividends?   Our guest rider stands and rocks his bike to keep up.  We gorge on dill pickles, ice cream and bread for lunch.  Just like my relatives in Timmins, Ontario, they do make some mighty impressive preserved pickles.  Children and drunks lurk around us.  We say goodbye to our Sudak companion, and continue towards Kerch.

 

I fall apart at the end of the day.  Bonk.  We’ve decided to push an extra 25 kilometers to this town, near Kerch.  After leading strongly all day I ran out of gas on a 20 kilometers very slight incline.  Bonk-a-tola.  We hit town at dusk.  It’s hot and humid here. The only food around is sold at a roadside row of covered tables, the village market.  One of the market workers, a dye-blond woman in her 40s (but looked like in her 60s), has taken us in to her home for the night.  It appears that her eldest son, about our age, was killed four months ago, shot while working as a security guard for a soccer team in Simferopol.  Very awkward here, but sad.  She has a shrine set up with photos and his personal effects, including his bloodstained shirt.  She speaks quickly in Ukrainian, gets choked up, and begins weeping.  We remind her of her son.  She points at the picture, the shirt, and starts weeping again.  She talks to us for minutes on end as if we could bring him back.  Now we are nearly in tears.  We want to console her but it is obviously awkward.  Oleg is rude and even grumpier than usual.  Our host talks to us for half an hour, crying, wildly gesticulating with her hands, obviously telling us about her son.  We ask Oleg to translate.  He sneers and says "This woman has nothing to say."  He is quiet, distant, and sad.

 

May 29

130 km. time 6:00

avg. 21.7

1237 to date

Temriuk, Russia

 

Kerch.  Site of an epic WWII battle between the Germans and the Soviets.  Incredible war monuments scatter the hills that lead into town.  The area was of strategic importance because it sits on the narrow channel that separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea.  Soviets love their epic monuments to their epic victory in "The Great Patriotic War."  Twenty-five million Soviets died in the war.  They vanquished Hitler only to see the further rise of Stalin.  How many died in the purges and gulags?  This country's greatest pride is its victory of Hitler.  Certainly, they are far more to credit for the victory than the Americans.  It was the eastern front, the grinding day in day out of the sieges of Moscow and Stalingrad and Leningrad.  It was the daring, continual raids on the overextended German lines.  Those were what won the war, not some risk-averse American forays in bombers, or some petty three-year late landing on the beach.  By the time the American's came, Hitler has been brought to his knees, reeling, punch drunk, wounded, deeply bleeding, and demoralized.  And then the Americans did the final punch and claimed that they won the war.  Typical American self-centered arrogance.  Soviets lost 100 times as many men as did the Americans.  Maybe it is because of their great war pride that this country still seems like a country that is in war - in terms of the scarcity, the lack of infrastructure investment, the lack of respect for individual rights, the checkpoints, the paper checks, the pathetic real economic output

 

We try to phone ahead to figure out about catching a freighter from Astrakhan to Krasnovodsk.  A simple task of phoning is amazingly frustrating.  No wonder people take on the Oleg-like defeatist attitude amid such pathetic infrastructure.  “Impossible”, is Oleg’s most over-used English word.  He uses it over and over.  Maybe twenty times a day.  He says it, then always sets out to prove himself right.  I wonder if the Ukrainian translation is, “as usual”.    Placing a call to Astrakhan to confirm a boat ride to Krasnovodsk, Turkmenistan, takes at least ½ hour, and costs $2.50/ minute (realize that a monthly wage is about $30, and it becomes all the more absurd).  This is so frustrating.  Oleg makes it so much worse.  Anything less than 100% certain is “impossible”.  Such a different mindset.  Just make it happen – a phrase foreign to his vocabulary.  I am losing patience with Oleg.  Is it just Oleg, or are so many of his countrymen like that too once you get to know them?   Even if he couldn’t speak a word of English, even if we had to carry all of his gear, do all of his cooking, it would all be worth it if he at least smiled and did one act of marginal utility.  We ask for too much.   

 

Placing a phone call requires going to a select government office.  There we tell a woman what we want to call.  We write it down and pay her.  We wait and wait.  Then wait some more.  Finally she yells out what booth to go to pick up the call.  We learn nothing about these supposed freighters. 

 

The Russian border crossing is a formality at most.  I’ve had a harder time getting into a "R" rated movie.  Maybe the fact that we couldn’t communicate helped our cause.  They simply have no formal way to deal with velotourists.  We ride up to the Azov ferry dock.  Four or five baby-faced kids in uniform look very confused, not knowing what to do with these foreigners.  Alex buys our tickets.  They stare again at our passports, reading each visa stamp with wonder.  A little dog sniffs our bags while we munch on bread and honey.  They open my pannier and laugh when the first thing they see are potatoes.  Away we go.  Meanwhile a lineup of Ladas honk and drivers swear as the same baby-faced guards act sternly and demand payment.

 

As we roll off the ferry, a few soldiers push their countrymen around and we merely glide by.  We are met with fresh pavement – slate concrete, so it bumps, thump-thump, every ten meters.  I hope the whole country isn’t like this or I’ll have one hell of a sore butt.  It smoothes out and we are then blessed with a howling tailwind.  Oleg, Brandt and Nathan disappear as specks behind us as Alex and I hammer into Russia.  Walkman's blaring, a new country with free movement within it, sun at our backs, hooter in the legs -this is great riding!  Yeah!  “Hammerin’ the Sickle.”  Hehe.

 

We are conditioned to believe that mileage numbers are to city center.  We budget our energies accordingly.  Today we reach "Temriuk" but it is only another huge Soviet sign.  The town must still be fifteen kilometers away.  We go slowly the last ten, with energies that we didn’t really budget for.  We can finally see it, dead straight ahead, but the sign clearly says Temriuk to the right.  We take it to the right.  What a mistake.  We make a huge detour, a complete forty-five minute circle!  Fortunately we complete the circuit before the next rider, Nathan, makes the same error.  We regroup, buy a soda, and coast along the waterfront looking for a suitable campsite.  Dusk hits, and we’re frying potatoes in the dark.  We have a beautiful view of the Sea of Azov, though the mosquitos descend.  Arrgh.  We find refuge in our tents.