Five men on the road Last modified 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 reading now.
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 headwinds.
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 studying Russian.
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, Cairo, Egypt
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. Thanks, guys.

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.

Turkish Dreams

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.

Market Mania

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.

Biking Everest

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.

Journal Entry

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 -- VT). 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 Volga.

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