23 July, 2008

Goodbye to Russia and hello to Western Europe

Firstly, apologies to all readers for my lack of updates. Internet access has been a trifle difficult in Russia and it is only now, in Sweden, that I can easily access all the sites I am used to. This is not because the sites are blocked in Russia (as they are in China), but simply a case of me struggling with Cyrillic keyboards and Russian language Windows messages which are indecipherable to me, and just the sheer logistics of finding an easily accessible Internet cafe.

Heading north from Sochi my first surprise was to find the local bus stop populated by cows, instead of people!.

Continuing on my way north further surprising sights were to be found.

Ex Aeroflot plane used as a restaurant just south of Tuapse.

Beachside resorts north of Sochi.

More natural obstacles on Russian roads.

After leaving Sochi I headed North for the final leg of my Russian journey. The roads were mainly excellent, however, my rapidly balding rear tyre was a major concern and dwelt in the back of my mind all the way through (not without good reason either - I had my first puncture on the Burgie,

which I repaired myself, but the tyre damage was such that the repair was not permanent and I had to add more air every day otherwise it was flat in 2 days).

Only 1,000 km to go to Moscow.

First stop was a camping ground outside of Roston on Dov

and I had my first experience of nearly poisoning myself on Russian vodka. Now vodka is cheap in Russia ($4 for 0.5 litres) but very sneaky in the way it goes down easily (and makes you feel like death the next day!).

Harvesting in the massive wheat fields of the caucasus.

I ended up writing off a whole day before 5pm before I was ready to pack up camp and hit the road. Hit the road I did though and was soon on the outskirts of Volgograd (ex-Stalingrad), scene of the bloodiest battle of World War II.

City limits sign on entry to Volgograd

Riding into the Volga valley.

I visited the war museum and have tremendous respect for the Russian soldiers and civil ans who participated in the drawn-out conflict.

Next day was off to Saratov - home of Yuri Gagarin - and the university which is named after him. Regrettably, after another incident with the local constabulary I was too frazzled to find the Gagarin museum but did get to enjoy the city.

For the remainder of that day it rained and I had a rather unpleasant night finding a secluded camping area, and more importantly, slithering and sliding my way through the fields to a copse of trees were I could camp without being noticed by all and sundry travelling down the main highway.

It was then off to Moscow

to meet Anton of the international Burgman community.

Anton proved to be an energetic and gracious host and I spent 3 days of enjoying the sights and sounds of one of the most exciting and beautiful cities I have ever visited. The motorcycling community is huge and I saw more Honda Goldwings than I have ever seen in my life.

Parking in Russia is very relaxed.

Along with half a dozen other Burgman riders

we got to enjoy a myriad of activities including, believe it or not, downhill snow skiing in the middle of 32 degrees July (Moscow, like Dubai, has a very impressive year round indoor skiing slope).

After 3 days of 4am/6am bedtimes, including a 4am visit to Red Square and the kremlin,
and very hot days,
it was time to say goodbye to Anton and his fellow Burgman owners - many thanks guys for all your support - I had a great time

and head up to St Petersburg.

en route I passsed a funeral.

In St Petersburg I was kindly hosted by Anton's friend Alex, and his family. They have a wonderful old huge flat in downtown St P, and a country dacha which I had the opportunity to visit.

St P has many great sites and sounds (as the site of the October revolution) which Alex and family showed me, but the really enjoyable part was the visit to the dacha with Alex's father Pavel.

Never have I had such tasty and delicious fruit and vegetables before - organically grown and absolutely delicious.

Unfortunately all good things have to come to an end and on the 19th July my visa was expiring so I had to set off on the road north from St P to Finland.

The road was good and ride uneventful except for my final run in with Russian bureaucracy. When I had re-entered Russia from Kazakhstan it seems that the customs officers in Astrakhan had put the wrong date on my motorcycle papers. I was told I couldn't leave and asked (rather brusquely) why I had overstayed my welcome. I said that it was their mistake, not mine, but they would have none of this. Finally, a kindly female customs officer took me to a private room, handed me a pen and paper, and in a Kafkaesquian twist, dictated to me what I should write (that I was ill and couldn't ride and this is why I didn't leave on time). I said "do you want me to lie?" but she simply said, this is Russia, do as I ask and you can leave straight away otherwise it will take a day to clear you if you insist on telling what really happened.

I thought this incredibly funny and for a moment thought about insisting on doing it right and seeing how the system really works, but time had the better of me and I chose to write what she dictated and 5 minutes later I was on my way into Finland.

Finland was great, fantastically clean country, but a little sterile.

Two days ago I arrived in Kalix Sweden to enjoy the hospitality of Magnus (from the Suzuki GSX1400 club, and his family (1 set of twins and 1 set of triplets).

Midnight sun in Sweden - 50kms south of Arctic circle

Magnus and his wife are famous throughout Scandinavia for their family and I had a great time enjoying the company of three 3 year olds and two 6 year olds.

After replacement tyres, new rear wheel bearings and oil and filter change I'm saying goodbye and leaving this morning for Nordkapp - the Northern most point in Europe and the wild and woolly scenery and roads of Norway.

Bye folks, many thanks for your hospitality.

Norway here I come!