On completion of a trip like this, there are always mixed emotions. It is nice to have completed the trip, and particularly a goal such as having crossed two continents on a bicycle. At the same time, you realize that this particular adventure is over and it is now time to do the next thing. It is also a time to compare how the trip went against what you expected or what you might do different if done again. It is a time to thank those who helped make the trip possible. Finally, from a trip like this often spawn the first seeds of what you might do on future trips.
Thanks: I realize that I am very fortunate to be able to do a trip like this. There are a number of people to thank for having made this possible. I am very grateful to my employer, Hewlett-Packard granted a leave of absence from work that made time available. I thank my managers for allowing it in a time of change in the tech industry. Now, I’m getting ready to get back to work!
My tenants watched over the duplex in my absence. Friends in Russia provided logistical support including storing the “backup bicycle” in Penza. My parents helped in many ways, particularly in keeping this web site in good order, paying the necessary bills, contesting property taxes and receiving/sending the various backup supplies I had sent to Colorado. All these little things from different people make a trip like this possible. For example, my brother Bert brought a new back wheel to Irkutsk, just in time as the old bike rim was breaking apart.
There are a lot of little things along the way as well, so I hope I don’t accidentally slight someone by forgetting to mention it here.
Reflextions and comparisons with expectations:
A bicycle ride across Russia had been in my plans for a while. I spent time reading other trip reports and studying the area. At the same time, you can’t anticipate everything and things don’t always turn out as expected. Following is a slightly eclectic list of reflections on different aspects of the trip:
- Cycling alone vs. with others; On my other big trips, I cycled alone – for this one I placed a “companions wanted” notice on the Adventure Cycling web site and magazine. I’m glad I did this, and really enjoyed cycling these months across with Mickey. We weren’t always matched in speeds, but would generally meet up during the day and camp together. In a country where you knew just bits of (Russian) language, it was great to talk with a partner or solve problems together. I was also very fortunate, to find a cycling partner with the right combination of humor, patience and problem solving to make this a more enjoyable trip. In response to my “companions wanted” ad, I was contacted by approximately twenty people. I would point them to the web site and to past journals to describe the trip. Most people I didn’t hear from again, and a few I heard more than twice. Mickey was one of the later to reply, but quickly organized things and set it up for travels. I also enjoyed the time Bert was cycling with us and extra logistical help he gave during the start of the particularly tough spots in the gravel road including the SMS/cell phone solution to almost daily location updates and his better Russian backup contacts and language skills. Too bad he wasn’t there for more of the trip.
- Weather; We were fortunate with weather. Most of the bad weather happened on the “edges” with headwinds, rain or snow on the approach to St Petersburg or in the last week to Vladivostok (well not snow yet here). In between, it is surprising how much good weather we had during months of May, June, July and August. Also, surprising that if we had winds, they were more likely tailwinds than headwinds.
- Insects; I expected there to be many insects. However, it still surprised me how consistently we camped with insects day after day after day, during the stretch from the Urals to close to Lake Baikal. I had anticipated they might let up occasionally more than they did. As a result, for almost two months the pattern was to duck into the tent as soon as we arrived at camp. A trip like this is not for the claustrophobic.
- Other animals; I expected to see other animals such as deer, smaller mammals like weasels and reptiles – either explicitly on the road or as road kill. I was surprised at how few of these we saw on the trip. It was only really in the natural history museums that I saw some of the fauna of the area.
- Plants and landscapes; There are some long stretches of taiga forests that are very homogeneous in a ride across Russia. I expected some of this (e.g. from people who have taken the train and remarked at days of sameness) and was even accustomed to some of it in previous rides such as around Australia. However, there was at least as much homogeneity in plants and landscapes between the Urals and Baikal as I expected. It was after Baikal that I saw some more of the variety such as steppes, valleys, flat parts, hills and others that I expected.
- Gravel road; While I knew there would be 1600+ km of gravel road, it still turned out to be more difficult than I expected. Perhaps my expectations were informally set based on gravel roads in Alaska or Northern Canada. On this gravel road, there were two key differences that made things just a bit more difficult (1) traffic – there was a steady stream of imported Japanese cars raising dust when it was dry, splattering mud when it was wet and frequently with drivers who just kept wanting to know where you were from (2) surface treatments seemed to be primarily spreading of coarse rocks and loose gravel. In northern Canada there would sometimes be oiling of the roads or other treatment that would make things smooth. In contrast, this gravel road continued to be rough.My expectations for the gravel road had been “Alaska Highway in 1960” (before I was born :-)). I think this wouldn’t be quite right, with the larger traffic volume and the larger amount of grading. Fortunately, each year the amount of gravel road left will decrease and the construction zones will be completed. This won’t be on a four year timetable that Putin set expectations for in 2004, but this road will become easier to cycle each year.
- Hitchhiking; On a ride across Eurasia, there of course a strong feeling to cycle every single kilometer, and hitchhiking is taboo. Otherwise what is the point? There is a slippery slope where one can just as well ride the train for the entire distance. It was with some trepidation that we ended up hitchhiking. On reflection, hitching a ride was the right thing to do, particularly for the part we skipped (263km). Other than the “we rode every kilometer” and the 4 or 5 days of tough slogging we really didn’t miss much by hitchhiking. It helped our spirits and progress at a particularly difficult part of the ride and I would hitchhike again in the same circumstances. As a bonus, we got a view of how truck drivers saw the road.
- Asphalt roads; Russia has some particularly busy asphalt roads. Once we passed the Urals, most were in better condition than I expected. Prior to the Urals, we had some particularly difficult roads (M7 is notorious but there were others) that were narrow, busy and in very poor condition. The trick to watch in the future is both to investigate roads as best you can – but also have enough flexibility to change plans to alternate roads if the ones you are on bad. It is also interesting that once we left the “standard routes” for more secondary roads, we tended to have roads that went through rather than around villages, we tended to have more interactions with locals and we tended to get more unique experiences such as cycling with tanks or having tea with railroad workers.
- Bureaucracy; Prior to cycling Russia, I expected occasional hassles with police including roadblocks, checking of paperwork and similar encounters cycling. Somehow the stereotype of a Russian police state was still in my mind. It simply didn’t happen this way. There are occasional road checkpoints on the road. These seem to be oriented towards inter-oblast truck traffic similar to the “weigh stations” in the US. While there were five or six times agents at these blocks would ask me to stop, it was always a very friendly stop with a “where are you from” question. I never had to show any documents or otherwise justify where I wanted to go. The one spot we seemed to have occasional bureaucracy was in finding a hotel in the big cities. Each would have their particular system and rules for things such as registration (with official stamps) and these weren’t always the same. It was occasionally a hassle to be able to bring bicycles inside.
- Where are you from? By far, this was the most common question. My answer was Holland (Галландия) rather than USA, unless I was showing my passport. The reason was primarily that there seem to be associations on TV, in media and others with US (at least as much as Americans might have with “Russia” if a large amount of the films on TV depicted a particular representation of Russia). Most of those perceptions are positive, but it was more likely to have the occasional bad perception than a country where the most prominent thing mentioned was the Ajax football team.
- Russian People, crime and annoyances; My overwhelming perception of Russian people towards us as touring cyclists was “curious”, “cautious”, “friendly” and “generous”. Curiosity would come with the where are you from and the friendly/generous would come from the things offered to us or the general admiration I sensed of someone crossing Russia on a bicycle. On rare occasions, people would avoid us or specifically walk away to avoid us. We were sometimes asked if we encountered “bad people” or ones who might want to hurt us or steal things. This was much less than one would expect from how often the question was asked. Mickey did have some youths steal a bicycle pump. I had something (a dog?) take a food sack. The largest annoyance we had here was from public drunkenness. It seemed, particularly on weekends that we would run across people who had too much to drink, yet still wanted to befriend (read “annoy”, “pester”) these foreigner and also viewed themselves as friendly rather than boorish. Mostly we worked to avoid these public drunks as best we could. As a woman cyclist, Mickey would also relate that treatment of women was also different, particularly in some cases where I wasn’t around. There seem to be some more rigid communication patterns (e.g. women with women and men with men) than in Western Europe or USA
- Cities vs. Villages; Life in the big cities is quite a bit different than the small villages. Our cycling patterns were also different with tent camping vs. hotels and the presence of many shops vs. just a small shop or two. We developed a pattern of several days of riding to reach the next big city and taking a rest day there to recuperate before repeating the pattern.
I was surprised at how homogeneous these cities were and how life in say Novosibirsk might be more similar than Ekaterinburg than in villages 100km from either of these cities. I was also surprised at how little ethnic mix we saw before Ulan-Ude (e.g. small Chinese sections in Irkutsk or Krasnoyarsk). If there is a division amongst Russia – it seems to be more between big city and small village than amongst parts of the country we saw.
Mike’s Recommendations for Russia Travel
Several of the recommendations are listed amongst the expectations above. Russia is definitely an intriguing country that I would recommend others visit. A somewhat eclectic list of recommendations for Russia travel, oriented not just at cyclists (I’m still adding to this list):
- Go beyond Moscow/St Petersburg, there is a lot more of Russia out there
- Learn a little Russian language, if only Cyrillic alphabet, it helps in reading signs.
- If traveling by train, make a stop in a smaller city rather than just the largest ones. For example, our stay in Svobodny or Архара was quite different from the big cities.
- Stay long enough to have interactions with locals
- Cyclists: the challenge with a cross-Russia trip will be more mental than physical. It is not particularly tough terrain, though there is a lot of it and you’ll need to keep going amidst some of the items listed above
What is next?
While this trip is complete, my vacation from work is not yet finished. I am following this trip with a bicycle ride with Tour D’Afrique on a 3600km section of their Silk Route ride across China. Plan is to meet the group in Turpan the first week of October and ride through to Beijing by middle of November. Prior to that, I’ll probably tinker and tune some small things on the web site, though I don’t expect to report my China cycling on the web until after I return to the USA. It will show up on fietstocht.com rather than here.
I have created a 17-minute slideshow that runs as a Windows executable (64mb, 200 slides). I have posted a copy from the links section of this website.
I expect the Silk Route tour to be a different type of ride. The daily average distance is further (~110km+) at the same time the daylight hours are shrinking. The weather is getting colder. Fortunately, it is a supported ride with our gear being carried. So, I expect this to be a physically challenging ride but more of a group setting. I hope I’ll be quick enough to ride daily distances before dark.
After the Silk Route ride, I expect I’ll be ready to come home and get back to work in Colorado. A trip like this is always refreshing as a break but I’m also eager to get back to something new at work in a different setting. I also plan to organize this web site a bit more including creating a slide show or other multi-media reports of the trip. I don’t expect to “write a book” from this trip at least since that is a different type of work to do that well – and instead concentrate on web medium including this blog.
Coming back from a trip like this (and the China trip that follows), is always a dangerous time to start scheming and dreaming of the next big adventure. This BikeRussia trip is the third long (3+ month) bicycle trip I’ve taken. I don’t expect it is the last long trip and expect to start a new cycle or dreaming and scheming of another big trip years down the road. However, I also expect the next several years I will instead do more shorter one or two week cycle trips closer to home.
Closing Thank You
Thanks to those of you who have read along with this journal, including sending occasional words of encouragement or helpful pointers. Getting a sense of Russia while also accomplishing a goal of cycling across Eurasia has been a highlight of this trip. I hope I’ve inspired some of you to travel or to ride a bicycle, if only for a shorter trip. In any case, be mindful if you see a touring cyclist out there on the road. It could be someone like me.