Five men on the road
5/1/96 u.s. mirror.
Five men on the road
by Oleg Yeltsov
by Vadim Tkachenko
Early fall of 1994 a came across a small article in one of Fidonet
echoconferences that was a forwarder message from Nathaniel Rutman about
Monster Asian Bike Tour planned the next summer. Of course, I was interested
to take part (they were need a russian and chinese guide) and started to
negotiate. Next spring all detasils were clear, I was ready to depart, but
Oops! My boss refused to give me the vacation. I couldn't neglect my job
(that was valuable enough) despite Alex proposed to pay off, and Oleg
Yeltsov, who was talking with the group along with me, joined them while I
stayed back. That is the story. And Oleg is a journalist, so, he wrote a
set of articles when he returned home. One of these articles is the one you
- Alex Tilson,
Menlo Park, California
- Alex is the veteran of five bicycle tours. After bicycling
across the United States three times (at age 16, 17, and 18), he conceived,
organized, and lead the highly successful 7 man, 11000 kilometer Arctic
Ocean Expedition (Oregon to the Arctic Ocean to California). In the fall
of 1993, culminating a five year effort, he led the Stanford University
solar car team to a fourteenth place finish in the 3000 kilometer, trans
Australian World Solar Challenge. He is currently employed as a
mechanical design engineer building robotic marine mammals for the film
industry. Alex is an excellent domistique and is good at fighting
- Doug Sage,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Doug has toured the West Coast, the Canadian Maritime provinces, and
Southern Ontario. He recently graduated from McMaster Universtiy in Ontario
with a Bachelor's in Commerce. A downhill skiing fanatic, Doug has raced
competitively for 15 years, taught for five years, and currently works at
Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler, British Columbia. No stranger to extreme
conditions, Doug has spent each spring for the last five years in remote bush
camps near the Ontario/Northwest Territory border, in Quebec and in Alberta,
treeplanting as a crew foreman; in the offseason he was responsible for
recruiting and hiring five hundred employees.
- Nathaniel Rutman,
San Antonio, Texas
- Currently a masters student in Robotics at MIT, Nathan
has always enjoyed building things. After graduating with a
Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford in 1991, he worked at
Hughes Aircraft as a satellite systems engineer. A competitive roller
hockey player, avid wilderness camper, professional slam dancer and emerging
cyclist, Nathan boasts "by this time next year my calves will be able to
crush cocnuts." Nathan looks forward to documenting the trip and is currently
- Brandt Haagenson, Lake Oswego, Oregon
- Brandt is a mathematics graduate from Willamette University where
he was a member of the school's nationals qualifying swim team. After
graduating, he lived in Japan for one year; he also served as a missionary
intern in Mexico, helping to build housing for the homeless. An active
athlete, Brandt also runs and races cyclecross. He is currently working
as an intern in a machine shop. Proficient in Japanese, Spanish,
Arabic, Russian and Korean, Brandt thrives on experiencing other cultures,
especially through languages.
- Ethan McKee,
- Ethan is a senior at Brown University, double majoring in Russian
Studies and International Relations. Ethan has spent most of his life
living overseas, including El Salvador, Costa Rica, Egypt, and Siberia. A
competitive rower and member of Brown's 1994 NCAA national champtionship
crew team, he is ready for a change in his life: "After four years of
sitting down and traveling backwards every day, I look forward to finally
sitting down and travelling forwards." Ethan is fluent in Russin; in his
spare time he enjoys big game hunting, pyrotechnics, and poetry.
The majority of Ukrainians can ill-afford vacations, struggling as they are
simple to survive and maintain hearth and health.
Those who can travel prefer shopping tours, cruises or relaxing at 5-star
hotels along the Adriatic coast. Neither by character nor by
income I am suitable for such company. I prefer a camp, rucksack, lunches on
the grass and sitting by a bonfire everything that the
majority of my fellow Ukrainians consider symptoms of mild schizophrenia.
However, the numbers of adventure tourists are growing. The West is literally
obsessed by adventure vacations, so I decided to look
for brothers-in-madness abroad. Thanks to the an ad on the computer taiga of
the Internet, I found three Americans and one Canadian
who were getting prepared for a long-distance trip and were looking for a
companion from the FSU. The itinerary of the expedition
included: Istanbul-Sinop-Yalta-Kerch-Astrakhan thus covering three countries,
some 3,000km, and a month of a bike race.
After running the gauntlet of bureaucratic redtape applying for foreign
passport and visas, I began my desperate search for sponsors.
The salary of a freelance journalist hardly pays for a trip to the suburbs.
Surprisingly enough it worked! Reebok-Ukraine fully equipped
me, Turkish airlines provided a free-flight to Istanbul, Maket photoshop
provided 80 rolls of film and Ostra-Kyiv Insurance provided free
medical insurance. All I had to do was promise to mention them in my article.
I met my companions May 8 in the Istanbul airport. They proved to be easygoing
24-26 year old buddies whose pockets were obviously
no more burdened by cash than my own.
By bus and tram we traveled to Sultan Akhmet square in the heart of Istanbul,
where the ancient wonder of St. Sofia mosque stands.
After checking into a US $5 per night hostel with all the amenities, including
a courtyard garden, we immersed ourselves in the whirlpool
of a city of 10 million inhabitants.
Although Turkey is situated in both Asia and Europe, its soul is unquestionably
Asiatic. If truth be told, after visiting museums, mosques
and numerous markets, I got bored for the simple reason that women are almost
invisible there. They hide their beauty under scarves on
their heads and are no more than a shadow of a human being. For a someone who
instinctively looks for a beautiful face or a slim shape
in a crowd, the surrounding landscape becomes gray and unattractive. From the
bottom of my soul I do not envy Turkish men, who spend
their nights in boredom, sitting in cafes reeking of tobacco, sipping their
traditional tea not in cups but in small shot glasses throughout
the night. No wonder that semi-legal Ukrainian and Russian tour agency
organizing sex tours to the CIS are so popular in Turkey.
The Istanbul market proved most impressive. All dirt, hullabaloo, venders,
and shoe-shine boys who capture a foreigner and do not let
go until he fishes money from his pockets it is more extortion than a business.
Salespeople in the market are as loud and exuberant as
if they were at a religious revival. In fact, Turkeys are the most easygoing
and hospitable people I've ever met. Regardless of the fact
that I had Reebok equipment and an expensive camera, I saw neither
pickpockets nor suspicious swindlers.
During three days spent in Istanbul, I saw virtually no drunks or hooligans.
Perhaps this is because police officers and law-enforcement
troops are everywhere, due to terrorists' activities.
We began our bike trip May 12 at 5 AM starting at the grand Blue Mosque and
heading off towards the Black Sea and then on to Sinop.
The coastal mountains proved to be so steep that we could barely struggle up
using granny gear, but afterwards we rushed down hill at
60km/hr. As the temperature changes between the top and the bottom of the
mountains were significant, we all developed sniffles and
sore throats from these constant changes. Nevertheless we were not beaten. We
covered 90 to 130km daily. And if all the hills we
climbed were stacked on each other, we would have been near the top of Mount
Everest by day's end. We were pushing our bodies to
the limit. We suffered burning sun, mountains, huge physical strain, plus
rationed food and sleep.
The Americans are strange. They only drink filtered water -- even the dishes
have been washed with filtered water exclusively. But at the
same time they could live without a bath for a couple of days. Even when we
settle into camp for a night they do not bother to look for
a lake or a stream. They just don't care (I instantly recall one of
The Rules: You became the Real Mountain Biker
when realize that washing your bike is as useless as bathing --
. But they sure think
I'm crazy because I jump out of my clothes and splash in the water of a nearby
lake or pond to wash off the crust of dust, sweat and sunburn ointment.
The situation with food was even worse. We cook once a day in the evening. Our
diet includes exclusively spaghetti or macaroni richly spiced with tomato
sauce and onions slightly sauteed in vegetable oil. Not a single gram of fat,
nor a slice of meat. Oddly enough, they do not buy fresh fruits and
vegetables. They also do not drink tea or any other warm drinks. They do buy
bottled juice. And the obligatory bread -- they eat much of bread. At least
one loaf per person during each meal. They eat much of bread en-route,
swallowing it down with a warm water. They say it is very good for your health.
And I thought that one has to eat something with vitamins and calories. Maybe
all this is extra, because I keep pedaling along on par with the group. Or
maybe the Holy Spirit is moving me.
Russian tracks in Turkey
They say that Northern and Southern Turkey are two different countries. I
missed seeing the Mediterranean part with its fancy restaurants, where
tuxedo-clad waiters serve western tourists on the beaches. For over 900 km we
passed through an almost nearly deserted landscape along the Black Sea coast.
At each village we were always met with hospitality and pressed by crowds of
noisy, insatiably curious kids.
We covered the final leg of the Turkish route in nine days of laborious
mountain biking and came to the port of Sinop. We spent four days awaiting a
ship to Yalta, the Crimean port of Ukraine on the other side of the sea. Sinop
proved to be a cozy European town where I felt the comforting nearness of my
a native land. I dug up some information about Ukrainians from a policeman
who said he knows of some Ukrainian teachers living nearby. He was not sure
why they were there, however. The hotel clerk was shocked by my FSU passport
until he figured out I'm Ukrainian and gave a sigh of relief. He explained
that he has problems with Russians.
Russia and Ukraine: riddles with no clue
We made a 16 hours voyage to Yalta on a small ship of one private Ukrainian
shipping company. Once it was a mining trawler. I even noticed remnants of
some military equipment on board. The captain assured it was for the first
time that Americans climbed on board his ship.
After a couple of days we spent in Ukraine our team suffered the first theft.
During a night someone has grabbed my sleeping bag. Anyway it was not so bad
because it was relatively warm. The most frustrating thing about that was that
during 1,500 km across Ukraine and Russia I could find no single sack for sale.
Every day at dawn I learned to sleep inside two polyethylene bags that are used
for trash encapsulation in the States.
Later it turned out that sleeping bags are not the sole deficit goods for sale
in Ukraine and Russia. It was pretty hard to move on because it was tough to
get some food even in rather densely populated areas. Those stores adjacent
to the roads often sold only mineral water and alcoholic drinks.
Brief analysis of Asiatic and Slavic hospitality
The differences in cultures are seen best from the highway. I often had warm
reminiscences of Turkey. We all could not forget about the fact that hundreds
of people were saying hello to us throughout the road from Istanbul to Sinop.
Kids were shouting the only word we could understand: Hello! Hello!
While riding across Ukrainian territory instead of hello people returned
shocked glances, kept silence and looked sulky. Maybe it was just an effect
of difficult times or it is a feature of Ukrainian culture.
Stavropol region. Motherland of Gorby and Kazaks
In fact, the population of the Stavropol region was much too hospitable. We
were stopped, asked, proposed a bed, treated with milk, given milk and eggs
as a gift on the road. It might look quite showy and extraordinary when we
were moving on our bikes overloaded which looked like Harley Davidson,
overpassing horse carts, passing by wonderful Russian temples which were
hardly ever seen by American tourists. We were covering Krasnodarsk and
Stavropol regions, the most fertile soils of Russian Federation. In front of
our eyes were prosperous Kazak's settlements -- stanitsa. Before the revolution
Kazaks were the pride of the Russian Army. Thanks to Peter The Great tsar
conquered Siberian parts and, all in all, that's the homeland of Mikhail
Gorbachev - the then tsar of the CPSU.
Kalmykia -- the country where they do not miss socialism and democracy
In front of us lay Kalmykia -- the autonomous republic of the Russian
Federation. The President of the republic is a young millionaire Iliumzhinov.
When he was balloted for a presidential chair he promised to give US $100 to
each Kalmykian in case he is elected. But he decided to invest those moneys
in economy for the benefit of his nation. Having come to power Iliumzhinov
appointed all his relatives and friends as top officials who became
millionaires pretty quickly. All the same Kalmykia is just a dot on
Russia's territory which we covered in two days proved to be the sole place
in the FSU where there was no nostalgia for the good old socialist times. It
seemed like Kalmykia as centuries ago just made hay and dealt with cattle
breeding having no sorrow for the lack of democracy.
Hot, Windy and Insects
Our Russian itinerary included Middle Russia Lowland. But this part was no
less a job that a mountain climbing in Turkey. We rushed like hell covering
200km daily. It means 15 hours per day on the road with brief breaks, plus
food problems, severe wind biting our faces.
Local people call this wind an Astrakhanets since it is blowing from
Astrakhan -- our destination. But the heat was the most drastic challenge.
Kalmykian steppes were as hot as 40 degrees in the shadow but there is no
tree to give that shadow over there. And sometimes we had to cover 80 km to
reach the nearest settlement.
The last challenge en-route to Astrakhan was mosquitoes. We faced them close
to Astrakhan. They appear over there for a short time just after Volga flood.
That's just when we arrived there. All of a sudden we rushed into a solid wall
of biomass. Millions of microscopic flying piranhas stuck all over our faces
and bodies and were very eager to bite off our skin. The only rescue is the
velocity. We had to run at 20km per hour without breaks. Any times we ride
slower the mosquitoes stick us all over and over again. We had to forget
about having some rest or camping. Thus we pretty soon got at the ancient
Russian city of Astrakhan, standing near one of the word'ls largest rivers
This was the destination of my biking trip that lasted over a month and covered
over 2,000km. but my companions pedaled on, to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan,
Kirgizia, China, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Mongolia.
Original Copyright © Oleg Yeltsov
HTML presentation Copyright © Vadim Tkachenko