29, 30 Sept
I left Kazan optimistic that this change of plan would bring me warmth and headed south past Lenin’s home town of Ulyanovsk, then Syzran and by the end of the day found a motel outside of Saratov. By the end of the day I had reached 51 degrees north latitude. Since Novosibirsk I had been travelling across Russia around 55 – 56 degrees north. I was making progress towards warmth. I had thought of stopping a couple of times today … Ulyanovsk has some great Lenin memorabilia, museums and the like, but time and the cold that accompanied it was weighing on me. I decided I would just focus on heading south.
The 30th was another day of heading south. It turned into a day of 2 unexpected features … one was Dutchmen, and the other was traffic fines.
While continuing my march southwards I saw two foreign looking bikers and two bikes saddled down with metal boxes filling up with fuel in a petrol station. I slammed on the brakes and stopped for a chat. Two dutch guys from Eindhoven were heading for Novosibirsk … and were planning to go via Kazakhstan. I explained to them its already very cold up north, and getting colder … then I told them how I was frozen in on the Kazakh steppe not too much later than this last year. It sounded like I was the bearer of gloomy news, and I wished them well, but at the same time, I knew they would have quite a few unpleasant days ahead of them.
As for me, things were looking up. I reached Volgograd by early afternoon and took off one jacket. (I ride with 3 in the cold … a fleece, a Klim windstopper and then the Klim Adventure jacket on top of that). It was warming up. I figured mid teens by now. Watermelon stands lined the highway.
I thought about stopping off at the monumental war memorial, the Rodina Mat (Mother Russia) statue atop the Mamaev Kurgan, for a few fotos. But I had been to Volgograd twice before – significantly for me, I had been there in winter. The memorial has a completely different feel in winter when it is cold and bleak, and you feel how insanely miserable it must have been for the 1.1 million Russian and 400,000 Germans soldiers who died here. The scale of the battle of Stalingrad is insane, add in the civilian casualties and the total toll of the battle is between 1.7 and 2 million lives. The life expectancy of a soldier arriving into Stalingrad to join the battle was less than 24 hours. The Mamaev Kurgan itself is probably the biggest burial ground on earth. Entire divisions were wiped in a morning trying to take or retake it. A visit to the museums and memorials in Volgograd is an intensely moving experience. It’s one thing to visit it on a bike, but to really soak it in, nothing beats a winter visit.
More info here; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stalingrad
For a deeper perspective, read Beevor’s book “Stalingrad” before you visit. It’s a great primer and the great names that feature in the museums – the Chuikov’s and the Rokossovsky’s etc – really mean something once you have read up on their roles in history.
Taking pictures on a warm autumn day doesn’t do the memorial justice. I will defer to my winter pictures:
I passed a police checkpoint on the southern edge of the stretched out city and was asked where I was headed.
“Sochi” I replied.
“Ah – there are two Dutchmen that went through 20 minutes ago, also headed for Sochi.”
“20 minutes? OK I better head off and try to catch them, Spasibo!”
“Don’t worry, you will catch them, they are on tractors!”
I headed off, still southbound, now thinking to myself …. Tractors? I guess that means they are on 1150GSs or something like that.
100 km south of Volgograd, I caught the Dutch guys … they were on Quads! We stopped and chatted. They were just 1400 km from breaking the world record for longest journey by Quadracycle. From Rotterdam they had driven their quads to Mongolia and were now headed back. I noticed they had also tricked out their quads with Hyperpro suspension.
For more info, see http://silkoffroadsurvival.com/
The dutch guys were headed past Elista tonight to camp somewhere on the open steppe, and I was headed into Elista itself to hook up with Zhenya, the Kalmyk biker I had met last year when passing through Elista. We agreed to meet up somewhere on the road to Sochi tomorrow and I sped off, leaving the guys fielding questions at a Kalmyk police checkpoint.
I went into the Kalmyks in last years posts, so anyone wanting more photos and info on the Kalmyks, see here: http://www.advrider.com/forums/showpost.php?p=9811659&postcount=24
I myself ran into a Kalmyk police officer sometime down the road and was shown a photo of me doing 102 km/h 15 km back down the road. 90 km/h (56mph) is the open road limit in Russia.
“You must pay a fine” the cop scolded.
“Come on mate, it’s only a small bit over the limit.” I pleaded
“Then make it a small fine” he said, exasperated …
I slipped 300 rubles (7.50 EUR) into by driving permit and handed it back to him in the time honoured method. In 3 seconds I had my emptied driving permit back and a “good luck” from the cop.
Just 50 km from Elista I was pulled over again for speeding … more overzealous Kalmyk policery … this time I was apparently doing 55 km/h through a 40 km/h zone for roadworks. Fortunately the head honcho among the 4 cops started chatting to me and asked where I was going. “Elista” I relied. “To see the Grand Hurul.”
His face beamed with pride. The Grand Hurul is a huge landmark in Elista and the biggest Buddhist temple in Europe. Kalmyks are very proud of it. “The Grand Hurul!” he roared with a huge smile across his face. Then he reached out and hi fived me and told the junior officer to give me my documents back and let me go.
I reached Elista and was met on the outskirts by Zhenya. I was now down to just 46 degrees North. Another 5 degrees south today. We parked the bike up and Elista Lada, his workplace, and he gave the bike a good check over. My starter button was non-existant. I had been starting it for the last 24 hours now by touching two wires together. Zhenya said we will get a new button and fix it tomorrow morning. We went back to his apartment that he shared with a room-mate and dinner was prepared by his roommates girlfriend.
– – –
Zhenya woke early and headed into to work at 8am. He works as a mechanic at the local Lada dealers service centre. When I rocked up about 10am he had already been playing with my bike for an hour. The chain had been cleaned and relubed. And we jumped in the car to buy a new starter button. The button was replaced and I eventually was escorted to the outskirts of town by Zhenya about 11:30am. I said farewell and hope we meet again next year, then hit the road south-west, towards Stavropol.
About 70 km out of town I crossed into Stavopol region, via a serious police checkpoint with machine gun toting guards and concrete barriers – a reminder I was now in the North Caucasus, a volatile region on Russia’s southern fringe. I chatted to the cops there and asked about the Dutchmen on quads. They passed through at least 2 hours ago, was the reply. I had some serious chasing to do!
I rode hard into a very strong headwind – I figured I would make good ground on the quads in headwind. Their cross-section must be 3 times that of the bike, and they had a similar size engine to push it all.
3 hours later I passed the city of Stavropol, and decided to stop for some lunch. I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and it was now 3:30 in the afternoon. I found a good shashlik place on the corner of the Kavkaz highway and ordered a big portion. As I sat and waited for my shashlik to be cooked up, a local came up to me and asked me if I was headed to Maikop. Yes I replied, I am heading through Maikop. He turned around and yelled to his wife “This guy is heading for Maikop too”.
I stopped him … what do you mean “too”?
“2 guys on tractors asked for directions to Maikop not long ago”
“How long ago?” I asked, knowing that was the Dutchmen.
“No more than 20 -30 minutes”
So I was catching them. I set off after feasting on my shashlik, dodging traffic along the Kavkaz highway. 45 minutes later I caught them. They were fixing a flat tyre about 100 km from Maikop.
We all rode into Maikop together and found a nice pizzeria. We were all headed for Sochi, so decided to ride there together … but for today we would just go a short distance outside of Maikop and find some accommodation – I wanted a cheap roadside hotel and the boys were going to camp in the woods. After failing to find a cheap hotel, I decided to join them – for my second camping night of the trip.
– – –
The road to Sochi was a twisty one, and surprisingly took us most of the day to cover the 260 km. The quads are not as quick as the bike on the road and they need to stop often for fuel. Mark looks concerned at this fuel stop. He had a problem with one of the rear seals on his quad.
It was raining when we finally reached the Russian Riviera city of Sochi, and as expected all the hotels in town were expensive. The boys resorted to a tactic that had worked for them several times in the past … go to an expensive hotel, talk to the manager, explain that they are doing their Guinness world record attempt and would like to stay at their hotel – if they can get a super duper rate. A couple of times they had managed to stay at 5 star hotels for 10-15 USD a night. The Radisson in Sochi whose basic room rate is about 250 EUR a night, was the target. They got as far as getting the duty manager to agree to a 10 USD rate for the 3 of us, but he didn’t want to pull the trigger without confirmation from the general manager – who was away until Monday. Close but no cigar.
And so we rode down the road to find a smaller hotel, where I did some sweet talking and got us some rooms for 1000 Rubles (25 EUR) each instead of the normal 1600.
A quick visit to the port told me there was a ferry leaving for Turkey in 48 hours time. We had 48 hours free in Sochi!