168 km. time 8:15
1405 to date
Starkorsunskoye, Russia (not quite)
In the morning we are greeted by a truck - looks to be WWII vintage. It is full of hot bread. This is the second one we've seen that goes around dropping bread off in all the villages. The driver/vendor asks us for our ration cards and is frustrated to find that we don’t have any. We double our cash offer and finally the driver relents. The food is vaguely reminiscent of a cinnamon roll, though it lacks cinnamon and sugar. For that matter, it lacks pretty much all flavor. Come to think of it, it more closely resembles a newspaper patty that has been pressed together then very lightly spiced. But if you think about it hard enough, the blandness goes away and you can imagine what it might have been in another life in another country in another time, and the thought alone is powerful enough to potentially afford you a few indulgent moments of flavor pleasure.
After another shivering night in his Hefty® garbage bags and neoprene booties, Oleg is certain that today he will be successful, that today he will find a "sportive store” to buy a new sleeping bag. We have an easy morning ride, stopping for lunch in Slavinsk Na Kubani. Alex and I wait for others against a magazin, (store) chugging actually tasty raspberry sodas. Too bad we can’t stock up on more to take with us. An impressive bazaar here, by our rapidly moderating Soviet standards. Sides of pig are unloaded from the trunks of Ladas and loaded on to the market tables. No one except us seems to mind the swarms of flies that fester on the carcasses. At least this bazaar is well stocked. Encouraging. Piva, or beer, flows in great froths from 45-gallon drums, funneled into gas cans. We have lunch in a restaurant near the market. A gold-toothed waitress brings us stacks of peroshkis - greasy deep fried meat pastries. We buy a few then explore the peroshki innards to find pork innards, and plenty of honest-to-goodness gristle. At least it’s cooked. We comfort ourselves with the notion that, surely, deep-frying has to kill any errant organisms. I try not to think of the carcasses and the flies outside.
Oleg finds the “sporting goods” store. No joking, the inventory consisted of the following: one skateboard (with steel wheels, circa American stores 1955), a cheap plastic chess set, one soccer ball, and a variety of Hollywood action film trading stickers. Oh yeah, no sleeping bags. How does a storeowner make enough money to pay employees, rent, utilities? Another shivering night for Oleg. He is certain that in the next town, Krasnodar, he will be able to buy one. It is a larger town. We check the mileage. Another four hours of cycling at 20 km/h; we should be able to make it no problem. What’s more, Oleg has vowed to cook tonight. After 21 days with us on the road, he has not offered to cook a single meal or wash a single pot. We have had multiple conversations about the need for the government (ride leadership) to rise up, then to dissolved as it is replaced by a democracy of educated volunteers. He clearly prefers a benevolent dictatorship, very much wanting to be told what to do. It is not something I really comprehend, but it is very real. Tonight he promises he will cook. And maybe he’ll have a sleeping bag too. Is he coming around?
Cycling in Southern Russia is flat. Consistent. Lots of walkman riding. The roads are good. We are lucky. I consider it far safer than biking at home because there are so few cars and their average speed is so slow. It is rare to see anyone going over 40 km/hr. No one is in a hurry. They give wide berth too. Farmland surrounds. Cars pass infrequently. I pull off the road at a market and eat some cherries. Alex is already there. We haven’t far to go to get to Krasnodar, but the others are behind us, so we relax before hammering the remaining mileage. At a confusing intersection near town we stop and decide to wait for the others. We have some time before the stores close so Oleg will be able to buy his sleeping bag. We park our bikes, buy some 'ice cream' and wait. And wait. And buy some more 'ice cream'. Shit. We wait and wait and only Brandt has made it yet.
While we are waiting, an old man comes from his home to meet us. He is thrilled to have guests. He brings us some boiled eggs, pickles, bread and tea. He chatters away, fingering Alex’s Russian dictionary, carefully turning each page, searching for a certain word, reading every line. He finds his page. What is Russia like? - He has been trying to tell us. The word he is pointing to is “poverty.” He points to it over and over again, at first thrilled and proud that he has succeeded in communicating with us, followed by pain. It is the word, the only word he chooses to describe his country. He is so very proud that he has found that word, but also so very sad and ashamed.
It is a hot and thirsty afternoon ride as we wait in Krasnodar for Nathan. He forgot to eat. Despite our lectures, he doesn’t quite get the bonk thing yet. He had a really bad case of bonk logic - "I was behind, so I didn’t want to stop and eat, but then I just got slower and slower, so then I really couldn’t stop and eat because that would take awhile and put me further behind, so, as a result, I got slower and slower…." The Bonk: feed the legs, or the mind rots with it. He arrives thinking that he is finished, useless, that he can’t possibly go on. We buy him three candy bars and some Soviet 'ice cream'. Within fifteen minutes he is laughing again, cracking himself up, back to the old Nathan.
Oleg 'volunteers' to cook for dinner, but leaves our gathering spot a minute early, makes a few lights that we don’t, and next thing we know he is breaking away from the pack at sunset in the wrong direction. Like a bat out of hell, the only time I can remember not being able to catch him. So fast, so suddenly, a tiny speck of horizontal blue and white striped shirt disappearing into the sunset. Oleg has disappeared. We are frustrated, but also, strangely, at peace. It all makes such perfect sense: losing Oleg as he hauls ass in the wrong direction, with the sun setting down the middle of the road, in the heartland of Russia.
We weave through town, looking for the town that where we all knew we were intending to camp - Starkorsunskoye. It gets dark and the town is further than we had anticipated. We stop at a checkpoint to ask for instructions. Five fully geared scowling Russian guards look at us with disgust and confusion and then they laugh. We all hand them three or four water bottles, asking for them to be filled. They won’t let us in their station, so they set down their Kalishnikovs and grab our water bottles. Nathan jokes that now is our chance to squeeze off a few rounds into the sky, maybe our only chance to finally get a grip on the trigger of the legendary Soviet semi-automatic. We decide not to, probably better to just sit there and pick a few scabs instead.
We go on up ahead and finally settle into a potato field to sleep. Our target town is too far, it is too late, and we are too tired. We aren’t there more than a minute when we see a motorcycle headlight coming our way, bumping up and down the dirt road. This guy is pissed. It is obvious that he really does not want us to sleep there. Belligerent, he berates us, and even pretends to kick us. Nathan mimes that he is tired and wants to sleep. The guy is not buying it and clearly does not like the Russian words we lob his way as reconciliation. He has some strange whip and militaristic pants and a sidecar on his circa 1945 motorbike. This is really weird. Best to move on.
We head out to the main road and continue on towards the elusive Starkorsunskoye. The man on the motorcycle follows us at a distance, with his headlights off, making sure that we don’t go back into his field. After about ten minutes, he is finally gone. We cross the road and settle in an apple orchard. It’s late, we’re tired, but too wired to sleep. We munch on apples, crackers and cheese chattering away, musing about whether we’ll ever see Oleg again. I stretch out in my sleeping bag in a just-wide-enough tractor trench and eventually fade off.
1805 km to date
We find Oleg at a bus depot / repair yard outside town. He is angry with us for not meeting him at the town center, where he insists he waited for us last night until midnight. It’s not worth arguing with him. A yappy dog is barking at us and we just want to get moving. It is amazing that we are in such a foreign place, all biking at different paces, often alone, and yet we, almost always, manage to find each other.
We fill our water bottles at a small stone house and buy some eggs from the smiling, gold-toothed Babushka. We haven’t quite grasped the essentials of Russian yet, so conversations with locals usually start with “hello” or “good day”, then regress to the Russian babushka repeating herself, closer and louder. We know enough Russian to say, “I don’t speak Russian”, but, of course, it comes across as somewhat contradictory to actually say that phrase in Russian, so the downward spiral continues. We just want to buy some eggs. No, we don’t want vodka. Hand gestures work best. Oleg appears and waves people off, usually quite dismissive of his countrymen. Definitely not the newspaper reporter behavior we had anticipated. Where is the curiosity, the interest in and continual quest for people and stories? This is getting frustrating. We expected him to help us build bridges with the people, but he is only burning them.
We cook up some delicious omelets on the water’s edge. The small, muddy lake appears to be reservoir, but to our filthy, salt-crusted bodies it is as good as Maui. We jump in a feel refreshed. We take a picture of Oleg's leg. First time I have really seen it; it looks like a can of worms just under the skin. What the hell is it?
As I write about last night’s escapades, my four companions are stretched out around me, soaking up the sun, catching up on lost sleep. We’re a bit dopey from poor rest last night. There’s a monument in the village center commemorating those who fell during the Great Patriotic War. Our rough calculations estimate the dead to be something around eighty percent of the men from town. Astounding.
Leaving town, Oleg pulls a fast one on us. Thinking he’s lagging behind, we continue at a leisurely pace out of town for 5 km or so until mysteriously, from nowhere, he appears up ahead. He’s proud that he knew a shortcut out of town, but rather than tell us about it, he’s used it as a sort of lever to prove that his local knowledge is superior to ours. Some guide. He just doesn’t get it.
Meeting for lunch in Ladzhskoya, Alex and I roll through the village looking for food. Slim pickings, but we do find some single serving imported fruit juice packs (visne, or cherry juice) from Turkey. The Turks know how to make some mean vishne. Expensive, but worth every kopec. Gliding back to meet the others, we’re commenting on how orderly this town appears. Clean, trimmed boulevards; all of a sudden a building in the distance collapses. Demolition crews at work. Ominous. That becomes our lunchtime entertainment - watching the building being slowly demolished. Nothing like some hard-core destruction to invigorate.
We chow down at a bleak, grimy restaurant. Empty, but for us and a few truck drivers, with their “stol milliliters” (100 millimeters) of vodka, bottomless glass after glass chased back with canned weiners. Yum. Pure invigorating nutrition. We are waved over to enjoy a few shots with these smiling, wavering patrons, but decline. Still lots of miles to make today. Borscht soup and more peroshkis served up by a feisty but charming waitress. She wants Brandt’s camping mattress. Determined, she brings out a huge butcher’s knife and hacks off a piece. We don’t stop her, and Brandt certainly doesn't. She could carve us with one swipe. I can’t help but think of “Jaws”, 007’s formidable foe in Moonraker.
We have this running joke that there is no such thing as drunk driving in the former Soviet Union. If you are so drunk that you can not drive, obviously, because you aren't driving and you therefore can not be accused of drunk driving. If you are intoxicated but still able to drive, you are obviously not drunk enough to be classified as a drunk driver. There you go, zero drunk driving.
Outside, a crowd of children has gathered. Word has spread of our arrival. Like rock stars, we are swarmed by our “fans”. They want autographs. Stardom goes to my head. I sign my name, “Neil Young”, “to my great Russian fans, you rocked my world! Grow up to be cool. Keep on Rockin’ in the free world!” Alex and Nathan follow with themes of their own. One of these days we're going to run into someone who really understands us, and they'll see the humor, and they won’t appreciate it, and we'll get into trouble. Wonder if we’ll ever get fan mail? Of course not, what was I thinking. The entire postal system of the entire post-Soviet system has entirely ceased to exist.
It’s a walkman afternoon. We’re dispersed, riding alone in our thoughts. I leave lunch in great spirits, tunes cranked. With the joy of The Tragically Hip pulsing through my brain, I’m the only one to miss the turnoff to Kropotkin. When I finally realize how off the map I am, dusk is falling and I’m at the wrong end of town. Our default meeting place is the bus station, but I’m alone and my Russian is still lamer than it should be. I make lots of hand gestures, growing increasingly frustrated, tired and hungry. I'm only digging myself a bigger hole. In the failing light, an hour and a half later I find the others, patiently waiting, well fed and cheerful. No one to blame but myself. Alex has been out drinking with some Georgians who invite him to visit the beautiful Tbilisi. Brandt found some tasty snacks and lies on the bed munching them, thoroughly enjoying his own little world.
Soldiers mill about town. Kropotkin is the southernmost railway depot in Russia, picking up fresh-faced recruits to ship them off to Chechnya so that they can return ashen-faced, looking down, with a bullet ripped through their heart or a leg blown to hundreds of pieces. What a miserable lie that war is. The veneer of deception upon which the war was predicated is far thinner than most of the predicate veneers, so necessary for instilling the drive towards war. "Territorial integrity" pounded Yeltsin. Yeah right. Just gave up 40% of the country to fourteen newly formed countries, and now, all of the sudden, a fractional percent is so very passionately worth dying for. Realize that this is an area with the lowest ethnic Russian percentage of the population of any part of the former Union (south of the Terek River it is single digit, decreasing to virtually nothing up in the mountains). Understand that the North Caucasus is an area of over 30 different languages, an area of little economic development, of little secondary education, a region heretofore largely ignored and neglected. It is an area of league's-deep and centuries-old long-lasting hatred for the Russians. "For peace and an end to the chaos these people bring" he pounded. Liar. He has only lit a powderkeg while simultaneously draining his already meager coffers, all the while ignoring the vast rotting mothership that he pilots firmly out of control, but nevertheless consistently awry and downward.
I have a friend who lives in New York. Always loves to joke, the way New Yorkers joke about the dark side of their home, about the bicycle thieves. His joke is that it is a virtual code of honor amongst the bike thieves to either successfully steal the bike or, in the rare instance that that is not possible, to fuck it up so entirely badly that it is of no use to the owner. That is what I see as the intellectual level of development of the Russian's in Chechnya. No one in their right mind thinks that the Russian's have a chance. The only question in my mind is how many tens of thousands of Chechens will die, home many thousand Russian soldiers will die, how much the Russians will loot, how many women they will rape, how much infrastructure they will destroy, and how base the Russians will become before they decide to withdraw in what yet untold further lie.
The once-proud Soviet military is devastated. Above all, they are fighting Muslim militias who are fighting for their homeland. Many of whom were trained in the Soviet armies. Most of which are armed with guns from Soviet stockpiles. Those weapons are further augmented by those the rebels can buy from Russian troops who are so ill-fed that they willingly sell their weapons to the men who will later use those same weapons to kill them. These people have carried a dark animosity for Russians all their life - certainly exacerbated by Stalin's bloody deportation of their people to the deserts of Central Asia during WWII. These people are united in their ties to their land, their hatred for Russia and their unfailing commitment to a cause. They were born martial and are a guerilla force par excellence, a group who could rise to the plodding, consistent, often-bold, strategic, relentless efficacy of Afghan rebels who eventually persevered against the Soviets. The rebels will win a landmine at a time, sniper action by sniper action, Russian soldier killed in the market by Russian soldier killed in the market. What a truly fucking stupid war this is, fighting people who will never give up, for an entirely inconsequential piece of land, at disastrously high costs. Every village towards which the Russians lob mortars, every home they rob, every woman they rape, every male between 10 and 70 that they pull off of the street, detain, interrogate, torture and kill, only serves to inspire another multiple to the rebel cause. It is the reason why, when the Russians claim there are only 1000 rebels remaining and, months later and a thousand dead rebels later, the rebel cause is only stronger.
The war's cause is remarkably simple, i.e., the Russian need to recover its pride by rediscovering anything that it can be successful at, and the hope that that success can be found in their long proud domain: WAR. The Russians will finally leave like the American's left Vietnam, entirely vanquished by a passionate rebel force they could rarely see. Exhausted at seeing their brave young men going home in body bags, twenty per day, day after day. And, most resolutely, when they finally awake on some dark day to see that they have slowly but surely transformed themselves into something they despise, that all of the bold rhetoric about the just cause of this war has been subjugated, that there is now nothing that anyone can say, in either method or goals, that separates the rebels base actions from those of the occupying force. When that day finally comes, people will finally realize that there is nothing worth fighting for, and then they can only go home. A saddened, even more disgraced country brought to its knees once again, this time by nothing more than the unstoppable power of a few thousand entirely passionate rebels.
The war deprived us of our desire to visit the Caucasus (particularly Georgia). We stay fairly far north and will make a bee-line between Kerch and Astrakhan before going across the Caspian to Turkmenbashi. They say that the wind starts in Astrakhan and howls along the plains all the way to Ukraine. Hope not. We’ve got some headwinds to fight is it’s true.
96 km. time 5:00
1641 km to date
We were delayed leaving town this morning. Oleg’s front rack has become loose on the rough roads. Simple, preventative maintenance, but Oleg blames the rack. “This would not happen on a Ukrainian bicycle.” Such is the logic of Oleg. Luckily, we fix it with Loctite and a new nut with antivibratory elastic. It will never come loose again.
This part of Russia seems to have lots of confusing sideroads and alternate routes. We’ve been meeting each morning to decide on the meeting towns for the day. Meet for a mid-morning break, lunch, afternoon break, and camp. We don’t want to lose anybody in Russia. Alex and I often bike together, or at least within a few hundred meters of each other. Sometimes Oleg and Brandt bike together. Nathan is usually by himself, but is sometimes with Brandt, and occasionally with Alex and I.
Our lunch stop is Novoalexandra. We pull out the stoves and cook up a huge pile of pasta and sauce on the patio of what used to be a storefront. A quick survey of the town reveals more of these abandoned stores; faded signs on top; no hope of the “maroshnoye”, or 'ice cream', promised within. The town center is now cluttered with a collection of portable kiosks all seeming selling the same three items: cigarettes, vodka, candy—staffed by a sleeping babushka who seems profoundly unsurprised, if not bored, at the sight of five cool looking velo-tourists that have just doubled her daily revenue. Airport variety stores, without the magazines.
When we’re lucky, we arrive in town early enough to buy produce at the outdoor market. Every town has one, though often only a row of tables on the side of the road. Slim pickings: onions, potatoes, pasta, cabbage, cucumbers; but enough for the evening meal, and eggs, if we’re really lucky, for breakfast. Cheese? Nyetu. There is often open laughter when we ask for cheese. Meat is often available, but the flies on the decaying, non-refrigerated carcasses cost extra, so we don’t usually bother.
A viable alternative to the market are the babushkas hanging out on the street, selling food from their garden. The Russians are remarkable backyard gardeners. Because it is difficult to buy fresh food, and because they have little money, they really crank at the backyard gardens. Usually tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and potatoes. Often they sell eggs too. The fun thing to do is to stop and buy something, then to hand them a note. Knowing that your compatriots are following close behind, draw a fast sketch of a velotourist and indicate that the Babushka needs to stop the next velotourist to give them the note. When an Oleg or a Brandt or a Nathan cruises by a few minutes later, the women start motioning and screaming at the top of their lungs. The guys do a 180 to go back and see what was up. The women proudly present their note, which I usually pen with "Love this woman like she is your one and only, like there is no tomorrow. Please, a big wet sloppy one for her." Inevitably, they oblige and the women love it.
We’re enjoying our shady spot after a big pasta lunch cooked up over our stoves, waiting for Nathan to make it. The roaring of our stoves has attracted a group of curious kids. Disheveled, drunk men soon close in, offering vodka and smokes. Oleg enjoys a smoke with the men, conversing at length with them, but not offering us any insight into their thoughts or questions. I’m thinking, man, these guys sure stink—then realize how bad we must smell after five days on the road.
Oleg buys “Astra” brand cigarettes. At ten cents a pack, they are 1/10 the cost of Marlboros, packed in a vintage Soviet, non-glossy, cardboard pack. By the reaction Oleg gets when he offers someone a smoke, they must be rolled pine needles or something more hideous. Invariably, the intended recipient of Oleg’s charity produces his own pack of Marlboros, offering one to Oleg as if to say, “Uh, thanks but no thanks for the Astra. What the hell are you smoking that shit for? Have a real smoke.” Have yet to see Oleg fail to come out ahead on these little transactions. Maybe Oleg has actually, strategically, thought this one through, planning to bike all across Asia on his single pack of Astra.
My face and legs are covered in a dusty brown smear. Before lunch we rattled over what might have been the worst dirt road I have ever seen. For six km I found the drainage ditch beside the road to be a smoother ride than the “road”. Big dump trucks force us to the side, but we’re in the ditch anyway. The baseball sized rocks that make up the road make for brutal riding. Loose, dusty dirt surrounds. Slow progress.
Still no Nathan. We’re worried that he may have missed the town and carried on through. He knows where our night stop will be, so we press on to catch up with him.
Great afternoon. Many opportunities to catch drafts off the trucks, which are really slow to accelerate. Most cars are at 40 km/hr. Few cars ever get much over 60 km/h (what is the hurry? Where is the power anyways?), so catching a draft is easy if you can time it right. Brandt rides with Alex and I, the three of us trading off on the lead, depending on who has been getting the best drafts. Later, a half-empty dump truck pulls on the road ahead of us. Alex and I latch on as it accelerates. We pull deep out of the bank to accelerate our heavy bikes, whipping them side-to-side furiously. Must stay very, very close to the bumper or you miss the draft and your effort is worthless - you can never get back on no matter how hard you try. Brandt pulls in so the three of us are riding abreast one meter behind the accelerating truck. Up to 50 km/h, and we’re cruising. Pure exhilaration. Sand from the truck’s load kicks up and starts to swirl in my eyes. I drop back and coast, watching Brandt do the same shortly after. Alex hangs on and cruises on up ahead. Suddenly, something big and white appears from under the truck. Alex can’t steer away in time, if he ever even saw it at all. He hits head on at 55 km/h, his bike bucking like a rodeo bull. Somehow he stays on, but quickly decelerates to the side to stop. What the hell was that? A rock? A sandbag? When I catch up I see what ended Alex’s draft - a dead midsize dog, tongue hanging sadly out to the side. Dead, but not yet flat. Fully 3-D. Further up, Alex is on the side of the road, still no clue what he hit. Amazingly, his front wheel is okay. Alex is shaken up, but fine. We’ll be more cautious about drafting now I think. It will probably be at least another two or three days before we get the courage/idioacy to try that again. That could have been a trip-ender. Would have been quite a way to go home.
We are now in our rendezvous town and still see no sign of Nathan. A babushka waves us down with her broom, telling us that Nathan passed through town ten minutes ago. The woman says something about vodka, and makes a gun shape with her fingers. Alex rips away in full chase. Brandt and I wait for Oleg, who we dropped in 30km post-lunch carbo-loaded aggro-high-speed paceline stretch. Oleg meets up with us and is certain that Nathan is in big trouble with “bandits”. We join the chase, along with a village motorcycle and sidecar sent ahead to rescue Nathan. We are lucky that Oleg is along to help us in times like this, when we really need him.
It turns out the “bandits” were a couple of well-meaning fellas only wanting to drink vodka with Nathan. Nathan's nerves were frayed from a lonely day, so at one point he pulled his ginsu knife out and hold them to get the hell away. That only made the "bandits" laugh. Next thing you know they circumferentially approached even closer, this time offering a vodka peace offering. Nathan had mistakenly written down one too many towns this morning and blown through our rendez-vous with his head down.
Today is Brandt’s birthday. I buy him a beer and shotgun it with him. Our curious villagers are shocked that I would waste a beer in such a manner. I’ve got a one-beer buzz going, feeling good.
We are camped in front of an old, crumbling, but once beautiful, church. It has been quiet for the last 75 years.
92 km time 4:39
1737 km to date
Last night we had “the talk” with Oleg. It’s becoming clearer that its really not working out, that he is not only of minimal value, but that he is actually making our experience much worse. Guide, storyteller, historian, interpreter, friend, cyclist; Oleg is getting failing grades on all counts. His grinding negativity really hurts. We joke about this place constantly, but, in comparison, look like the shiniest of glowing optimists. The lack of virtually any initiative or value-add is really painful to watch. We reiterate how we can best work together. Despite the mutual frustration, it is clear that he really wants to be with us.
At one point today, he stops ahead of us at a farmer’s driveway, a dirt track that obviously goes nowhere, and says, “Alex, I have checked my map. We do not take this road.”
Tough headwinds today. Mid day heat is topping the high 30s C (over 100F). We spend much of the day trading leads in the paceline. Oleg drops back and we wait for him later in the shade of a bus shelter. It is carpeted with broken glass and, like most of the bus shelters, the wooden benches have been stolen, apparently for firewood. Thirsty afternoon. We stop in town to fill our gas bottles—looks like long stretches between towns till we get to Astrakhan. Oleg finds a cobbler to repair a hole in his SPD shoe—a hole that apparently would not have occurred had they been Ukrainian-made SPD shoes. That is one positive effect of a country that can't make much and is too poor to afford most everything - they have a fairly fine network for repairing what they do have.
In one small village we send Oleg to find us some eggs. This isn’t easy in this country. Sometimes you find the babushka saleslady on the side of the road, hanging out all day to sell her half dozen. Sometimes it requires us to literally go door to door, offering money to buy eggs from each house. Nearly all homes keep some livestock and grow their own food. Not all are willing to sell their food.
Whew. It has been getting damn hot these days. While waiting for Oleg we peel off our shirts and join a group of kids in an irrigation canal. Jump in upstream, and let the current take us down to the bridge. It’s a muddy, opaque, pesticide contaminated flow, but boy does it feel great. The layer of salt crust on my face washes away. I’ll bet these kids are in here every day.
We wait for the others at the town “Gai”, or checkpoint station in Takda. The wind is howling. I’m relieved to be off the bike. The officer emerges and chats with us about our journey and our homes. On learning I am from Canada he begins to rhyme off a list of Russian hockey players now playing in the NHL. He is clearly not pleased at this development in post-Soviet Russia. He is proud that the finest are from his country, but he is saddened that they have left, that they are employed in the rich clasp of their former foes. While debating this issue with the guard Alex and I down an entire gallon jar of dill pickles.
Takda has a long, tree-shaded boulevard of grossly deteriorated but formerly stately white homes. We take our pick of the deserted lot of them, parking our bikes in front of an old schoolhouse. It doesn’t take long for the town youth welcome wagon to find us. They watch our every move as we unload our bikes and cook our eggs. The boys bring out the vodka and offer us shots. A young girl named Denise has a crush on Alex. Another, Jane, peruses every single one of my postcards, demanding I let her have one. She kisses me, pouts, and I’m putty in her hand. Damn. I forget to ask for her phone number. The kids hang around. Feels kind of like a slumber party.
No need for tents tonight. It is finally cool enough to get some good sleep.
186 km. time: 8:33
1922 km to date
25 km before Elista.
We know that we have a darn big day ahead of us, so we wake at 6:00. We go to the town waterpump and pump away, filling our every bottle for the upcoming trek.
The morning's discussion was centered around cutting grass. We awoke to find a 60 year-old man with a scythe dutifully swinging away, cutting the grass in the promenade. Realize that this promenade must have been two kilometers long by 100 meters wide. Beautiful, but very, very expansive for a maintenance staff. I start talking about my high school years, when I had a summer job mowing people's lawns. I bought a riding tractor and had 34 customers, cutting their lawns every week. The concept is something that Oleg finds inconceivable. The very concept of buying a machine of that cost while in high school. The very concept of the investment paying itself off through enhanced future productivity. I argue that one of the reasons for our wealth is our productivity, that the investment in my machine allowed me to do the work of ten men, and that I therefore was able to garner the wages of ten men. Oleg is baffled, and argues that we should all be like Ipatova, and that it is the way things should be. For 75 years they could claim that they were forcefully held down. That they were limited by the force of the gulags, the prison system, the lack of any due process and limitations in free movements. The sad thing is that there is now no one holding these people down, but that they are now strongly captive to their own ill ideas, which seem to be all the more powerful.
My afternoon trance is interrupted by a flash of bright colors amid a group of people off the side of the road. It’s a wedding; the bright white dress of the bride and the scarlet red sash shine brightly in contrast to the drab landscape surrounding. I wheel up the procession for a closer look and before I know it I’ve got a glass of vodka in my hand. Dutifully, I haul it back, wishing the best for the bride and groom. With weddings on my mind, I realize further down the road that today is the very day that a good friend of mine is getting married back in Canada. So I did manage to make it to a wedding today, just not the right one.
168-km. time: 7:27
2090 km to date
170 km from Astrakhan
We knew this section would be the big-boy miles, and now we are getting them. Hard-core days as the land gets more hard core. We have left the trees and the farmland. It is the big, hot, dry, wide open, the final haul to our second major landmark. The distance between towns gets longer and longer. There is little reason for towns to exist here on this dusty plain. Our first big goal was Sinop. Now we are soon upon our second big goal - the fabled Astrakhan. Where the mighty Volgan sturgeon live in the marshy banks that meet the Caspian.
Elista is a real surprise. It is in a region called Kalmykia - a small enclave of Buddhist Mongols. The architecture and the people jump out to you, significantly out of place. Definitely friendlier than in the past three days in Russia. This morning I buy spaghetti from an Asian kiosk and as I pay, the woman smiles, hands me a box of chocolate, and says, “present.” Alex and Oleg stay behind to send some mail, and I trek on, leading ever Eastward.
Ten kilometers before our lunch town, I stop at a hot and dusty roadside turnoff. It’s a plain, soviet looking restaurant with two guys outside tending a barbecue that burns a two by six board of wood; probably a former bus stop. One guy is a Russian named Ivan, the other, Mongolian. They offer me mineral water and shashlik (shish kebab) while I wait for the others. It’s tasty, but takes about a year to chew. I do my best before faking cough to get the gristle out of my mouth and tossed behind me.
I take two afternoon swims. The first is in a muddy irrigation canal. Oleg also jumps in, but he runs frantically when he thinks he sees a snake in the water, his white, bare ass leaping through the grass back to the road. The second is in mineral laden salt ponds. I can’t resist and jump in to cool off. After the swim I catch a wicked draft off of a bus. We scoot past Alex and he didn’t think he had a chance, only later did he realize that he had an awesome shot, given that the bus never went over 50 k/h. I raise my fist and shout as I pass. Nah, couldn’t be any dead dogs on the road out here. I hitch a great draft for the last sixteen kilometers into town.
Our last town before camp is a doozy. Multiple cars cruise by with the drivers and occupants blatantly intoxicated. We go into a 'store' to buy more 'food.' We settle for a few two-liter bottles of Serino brand Soviet soda. Tell me, how the hell do you screw up soda this bad? How in the hell can you be cranking out hundreds of thousands of bottles of soda, day after day after day, and have it taste this blatantly awful? Not by my standards, but by any objective world standards, this stuff is downright awful. I am not picky, but honestly, some of it is borderline undrinkable. Stay particularly far away from the Serino pineapple flavor. Beyond description. Maybe there was some sort of industrial / chemical mix-up, in which the soda ended up in the floor washing detergent bottles, and we were unlucky enough to be drinking the floor washing detergent that ended up in Serino bottles. Or maybe the entire socio/political/economic system is just inherently, continually, incessantly, unsurprisingly, designed such that these things are a mere matter of obvious and direct course.
This is a really strange town. At least half a dozen guys are out back watching us, smoking plenty of marijuana. We walk in to the trailer-magazin, sunglasses on, headbands crusty, legs dripping, dead bugs caked on our shirts, walkmans still playing. We go out back and pee, then drink nearly two two-liter bottles each. Dehydration is a constant battle. We wave, mount our steeds, then cruise out of town another fifteen kilometers for a hot and dusty desert campsite.
Oleg arrives and is grinning ear to ear. "Alex, I have secret." "Great Oleg, what is it?" "I can't tell you Alex, it is secret." "I'd like to hear it Oleg." "No Alex, it is secret." "Okay Oleg, I'd really like to hear it, but if you really don’t want to tell me, then don’t." Oleg is obviously bummed that we didn’t beg him more. "Okay Doug, I tell you secret. I talked to man in last town. He says that KGB is following us." Alex spits out his water, laughing so hard. Nathan is exhausted, but manages to chuckle and wave his head. Brandt's ears perk up. Alex and I talk about what their report must read: "They stunk. They peed. They refused the weed. They drank their soda. They burped. They looked through their bags for a cassette tape, inserted it, turned it up, yelled some primal yell, then biked on the road east." Fascinating stuff. Alex tells Oleg to get the word out that the KGB is officially invited to our dinner, or any subsequent meal for that matter. Oleg scowls.
Another night of Oleg in his Hefty bag. He is clearly embarrassed, but not such that he actually has done anything. He hasn’t even bought a blanket yet.
We are really excited to taste Nathan's dinner. We warn him about the intensity of some spices we bought. He didn’t quite believe us and made a beautiful meal that was entirely inedible. Burning red-hot meal. We need food for the legs tomorrow, but can't eat because of the pain. Damn it.
193 km. time: 9:28
2283 km to date
Big, big, big, day. At 35 km we are low on water, so we stop at a small building to get water from their well. Down the road is a massive monument to the Great Patriotic War. Huge, huge monument thrusting high into the sky, radically, boldly, as is so typical of the Soviet War monuments. This spot marks the eastern most advance of the German troops. Massive tank battles filled the flat plains. We ask Oleg for a translation of the plaque. His response: "History is politics. I have no interest in politics." And with that he bikes off.
The midday heat is sweltering. Well above 105 F / 40 C. For lunch there is no shelter to be found, so we set up the tent on a salt-plain on the side of the road. We are out of the sun, but it is a sweat lodge. Ah yes, the feeling of a hot, sweaty body on tent material, rolling in crusty bed crumbs. Not sure if lunch has made us stronger or weaker.
We start up again, the road seeming to melt under our tires. It is soft and sticky like gum, seeming to grip our tires, slowing us down.
By afternoon, Oleg is totally bonked (again): "Alex, I must stop and have a glass of milk." We cruise into a small town and Alex buys cookies, bread, drinks, and candy. We devour it and trudge on. It is getting late but we are convinced that we will make it to Astrakhan tonight. The last I see of Oleg is his wide eyes searching vainly for his elusive anti-bonk elixir, a warm glass of milk.
The four of us ride four abreast; taking an entire lane to block the crosswinds. Definitely the strongest, most impressive riding we have done. We ride very swiftly, as a team, trading the lead pulling the peloton. We pass the military installations on the outskirts of town and triumphantly cross the bridge at dusk. Is the strength and order and ability and we just saw a reflection of how things will now be, or a mere errant anomaly? We all pray for the former. Like an epiphany, gliding along the plains with our tires howling in the draft, cycling as a team of four, we unanimously decided that Oleg must go. We agree that we shall be better off, on the bikes and off, without him. It hurts, but there is no doubt amongst any of us that it is the right thing to do. Tomorrow Brandt, who has been the closest to Oleg, will break the news to him. With that last image of him in my mind: pale, shivering, severely bonked, thinking of the comfort of his home and Natasha, I rather doubt that he will protest too much.
We meet Grecia, a German photographer there to photograph the story of the region's fabled sturgeon. He directs us to the hotel, the only one in town that allows foreigners. God forbid this place would allow itself the revenue or expansive thoughts of a few foreigners. Nah, far easier to rest with reactionary xenophobia. We check in at 50,000 rubles each per night. Brandt pays that much again as a tip to a man who spends at least three minutes helping him to get his stuff to his room.
The next day we call home then go out with Grecia. Astrakhan is more sophisticated than most of the Soviet towns we have seen, even though it still boasts a Lenin statue. Strangely, its sophistication disturbs us. Too 'European'. Surely we haven't biked this long to still be in an area that is inherently recognizable. Turkmenistan will be something different we think, something we crave, because it will be the next level of foreign. We have grown to feel too comfortable with this country and yearn to take it to the next level. Our original plan was to find a freighter that would take us to Turkmenbashi. However, our ride with Mitch across the Black Sea took away some of that romantic notion. A plane is far faster and easier. We buy tickets for a one-way flight on Air Turkmenistan, leaving in two days.
At night Nathan and Alex and I go out with Grecia again, this time to a bar. Plenty of young men and women, tacky Soviet rock music, and alcohol. We hit it off well with a group and they invite us to their dacha (country home). We are nervous, but take them up on it. We vow to have fun, but also to watch our backside very closely. We walk down the street to their car - a cheap Soviet rip-off of a VW van. We sit on the floor in the back, being careful to avoid the holes in the rotting plywood, through which water erupts like a geyser after the crossing of every water-filled pothole. We stop at a bank and the guy riding shotgun tries to roll down the window, it doesn’t go, so he whacks it. The entire window shatters. He's drunk and pees his pants laughing so hard. Saltine crackers have higher shatter resistance than that window. We cruise on up ahead, keeping a vague sense of direction in case we are forced to retrace our steps on our own. Coming around a corner, we are greeted by three heavily armed militiamen. Surely we are screwed. The driver is quite drunk. He is pulled from his seat and his arms wave as he pleads his case. Surely our night is over. He shows them his passport then, strangely, they let him go. Silly us. Of course, remember that there is no such thing as drunk driving here in Russia. By showing that he can drive, he does not meet their definition of drunk. The passenger is another story. His passport shows that he is Georgian. Russians deeply despise most Georgians - viewing them - as they view most people from the Caucasus, as revolutionaries, disobedient troublemakers, petty-merchant thieves, rebels, and Mafioso. They roughen him up and yell at him, but do ultimately let him go. The three of us think we are screwed, but the militiamen only laugh. What the hell are we doing with these guys?
We are shaken but soon laugh it off. We listen to cheap Soviet imitation rock tapes as we cruise to the countryside. Luckily, my faint recall of high school French allows me to communicate with the Georgian. The dacha, yes it is beautiful. We will drink and their girlfriends will meet us there and it is in the country and there will be food and it will be beautiful and we will party all night and we are their prized guests.
Shit. The van just ran out of gas. It is cold and getting colder. The driver gives Alex his shirt to stop him from shivering, but that doesn’t make for a compelling pull-over - a single 22 year old male, topless, standing on some lonely country road at one in the morning, waving an empty gas can frantically. We slowly lose faith in our hosts and, despite their pleas to stay, take off. Two in the morning, Nathan, Alex and I buzzed, cold, running down the middle of some dark Russian road in the middle of nowhere, back towards where we think we can find Astrakhan.
After nearly an hour's run we find a gas station and wait for patrons. Most are openly confused if not scornful - clearly, they want nothing to do with us. Please oh please, I really don’t want to spend a cold night huddling like a stray dog beneath some dumpster, hoping for the increased opportunities that will come with daylight. Luckily, the fourth patron, after nearly an hour's wait, is a taxi. We pay him to take us back to our hotel. Barely before dawn, we arrive back in our rooms.
The next night we meet some Georgians down the hall. We were merely walking by, glanced into their room, made a fraction of a second of eye contact, and next thing we know they hauled us in to be their prized drinking partners. We gobble two cocktail wieners, then do a shot. Again and again. We are buzzing hard, and it is good. Damn those cocktail wieners would look ugly coming back up. The mere thought is enough so that we throttle back, just enough but no more. In typical Georgian fashion, they toast us, they toast beautiful women, children, peace, food, anything, anything that makes life joyous. We toast smooth roads, and SPD, and visas, and vistas, and a clean drive train, and health, and the anti-bonk. They love our photos of home and vow to come to America to marry Alex's sisters. They enchant us will tales of beautiful Tbilisi. We must make it to Georgia someday when it is peaceful enough to travel.
The next day we stumble out of bed to make it to the airport. How will they package our bikes? No worries - they take them whole, do a little riding of their own down the runway, then lift them into the cargo bay. Luckily, the metal detectors are down. We walk on the plane with knives, tools, and full fuel bottles.
The flight quickly takes us into our next zone. The marshes of the Volga/Caspian confluence quickly give way to open water, which quickly gives way to the Eastern Shore. It is bone dry, with rolling dunes and little vegetation. As we approach we see camels and oil rigs. It is a vaguely Muslim land with a totalitarian Soviet leader. Exactly what we need, something entirely new and different. Fed, rested, and eager, our mouths widen with anticipation. Just the place for a new round of adventure.