A Travellerspoint blog

July 2012

Ride into Saratov 65km

Welcome to another home from home

sunny

27th July – Ride into Saratov

Once I'd managed to drag myself from my state of slumber I was soon out on the road this morning and heading for Saratov. Unlike Kazakhstan Russia has small cafés and restaurants everywhere and therefore it's meant I've been able to dispense with cooking breakfast myself in the mornings. It's so much easier to just pop into one of these for a few eggs and cup of coffee.

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Today's cafe

As I pulled into the café car park this morning I was a little unsure about whether to eat in this place or not. I could see a man of considerable bulk who appeared to be wearing the same clothes as a surgeon. I didn't know quite what to make of this, it looked well and truly out of place and I had images of some horrific slasher movie in which patrons are tempted in only then to be taken out back and turned into sausages! My imagination, as you can see is really beginning to run away with me. Naturally I had no need to be fearful and my 'surgeon' chef served possibly the best plate of fried eggs I've had on this trip. Not only were they cooked to perfection, sunny side up but also garnished with fresh basil and slices of tomatoes.

I've been in regular SMS contact with my host Anna in Saratov and I texted her this morning with my ETA. Once again I had Google maps to thank for finding her address. This function has been invaluable since I started this trip and in particular when locating specific addresses in a city.

The city of Saratov looms large off the banks of the River Volga and in order to get to it you must cross one of the huge bridges spanning this massive expanse of water. Yesterday I passed through the town of Marks and today it was the turn of Engels. My route to Anna's house saw me avoid riding through the centre of the city and instead I was taken on a road leading to the outskirts. Saratov or as I've come to call it over the past few days 'CapatoB' (Kappa Tob) such would be the English pronunciation of it, is a city with plenty of hills as I soon came to realize. We're talking short steep climbs followed by equally short rapid descents, almost roller coaster-esque.

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Anna was at work when I finally arrived at her apartment but she had told her mother who also lives at the apartment from time to time to be prepared for my arrival. Her mother, obviously spoke no English but nevertheless welcomed me like a long lost son returning home. Bike and I were both ushered into the apartment as Evdokiya spoke rapid fire Russian to me. I did my usual nodding and 'dah, dah' while understanding precisely zero of what was being said to me.

First on the agenda was a warm shower and then Evdokiya prepared a delicious lunch for me. I felt a little bad as it seemed I'd pulled her away from the Russian soap opera that was playing on the TV. While eating my lunch I tried to ask her whether she liked soap operas by using a quite comical combination of hand and body gestures. With this being the first impression she had of me I've no idea what she must have thought. Not to be deterred I tried to explain to her that soap operas such as the one she was watching are also really popular in England.

I was exhausted after lunch, not due to the ride you understand but due to my foiled attempts to explain Eastenders and Coronation street to 60 year old Russian lady. She invited me to take a rest on the couch in the living room and I duly accepted.

Anna returned home around three with her sister Elena who is also on a ten day holiday in Saratov. Refreshed from my sleep it was back into the kitchen where Evdokiya was preparing stacks and I mean stacks of pancakes for afternoon tea. Fresh cream, honey and butter were loaded into small dishes around the table as my mouth watered, how I wondered would I be able to contain myself and not appear too eager to simply devour all of the food that was being placed in front of me in a matter of minutes. It was simple I had arrived in culinary paradise.

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What better way than to start the weekend than to all pile into Anna's car and head for a swim in the river. I said goodbye to her mother who was returning to her village for a few days. Earlier while stuffing my face with pancakes I'd recounted the story of losing my spoon on the trip and how on a couple of occasions I'd eaten yogurt using my fingers. Obviously shocked by such a story …... Evdokiya presented me with a beautiful wooden spoon and bowl set before she left.

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I love the fact that people in both Kazakhstan and Russia have such a close relationship with the nature around them and a dip in the river after work seems very common. Saratov as I was to find out actually has a whole host of 'beaches' along the banks of the river in which local residents flock to in the boiling hot summer months.

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Anna and Elena took me to a an Italian restaurant down by the river for dinner and we then spent a lovely evening walking around the city centre. Historically Saratov has close links with Germany and previously served as the the capital of the Volga German Republic, I'll resist the temptation to simply copy Wikipedia and pass off the knowledge as my own but do check out the interesting history of the city for yourself on Wikipedia.

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Elena and Anna

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McFlurry time!

Once again I've rocked up to a place with no expectations of what or who to expect and once again I've been welcomed with open arms, nothing surprises me anymore on this trip.

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Due to the fact that I was up at 6:00 in the morning I politely declined Anna and Elena’s invitation to go dancing at midnight and she was more than happy for me to stay in her apartment and watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics on TV. Anyone who knows me will know that I'm completely useless at staying awake when I have to. I would probably make the worse lookout guard in history. This was also the case tonight as I struggled against my fatigue. I valiantly made it through all of the opening ceremony and even managed to make it past the letter S as the countries paraded around the track. I was determined to see the GB team come out and also obviously see who would light the Olympic flame. I then however made the fatal mistake of closing my eyes and thinking to myself 'I'll just listen to it and wake up when they announce Great Britain' and that was that, I was out like a light!

Posted by Ontheroadagain 06:58 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Past Pugachev – Marks 130km

sunny

I've heard many people state that they sleep better in a tent than in a bed in a hotel. This statement obviously needs to take into account just exactly what kind of hotel one is staying in but for the most part it's a sentiment that I've come to concur with.

I was really very comfortable in my tent this morning and enjoyed an extended lie in. This I suppose was also partly due to the fact that once I get up and out of the tent the body then becomes somewhat robotic in the process of packing up.

Step one – Deflate and roll up the sleep mat.
Step two – Put it into the bag which goes on the back of my bike.
Step three – Stuff the sleeping bag in with the mat
Step four – Attach bag to the top of rack
Step five – Fold up tent and pack away
Step six – Attach handlebar bag to the front
Step seven – Unlock the bike
Step eight – ……..and we're off again

This is carried out with almost military precision now and is often done so whilst still half asleep.

Today was the wedding anniversary of both my parents, sister and brother-in-law. Part of me is still convinced that they actually got married on the same day to benefit me in that it's easier for me to remember such is my incredibly bad memory when it comes to birthdays, anniversaries and the like. I decided to pay tribute to them by riding with 'ink' on my arm today to celebrate this joyous occasion. I'm not sure what people outside the café thought of me as I scribbled blank ink on my arm but I've come to expect strange looks from passers by on this trip.

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I finally caught up with my Tour de France podcasts. It has been strange following the tour via this medium and it's a pity I've not been able to witness the amazing feet of Wiggins. His success and listening to the pods have really inspired me over the past few weeks of riding. I'm obviously not in anyway reaching speeds or the physical effort these guys put in but I can share with them the fact that we all spend extended hours in the saddle. There though the similarities end.

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The more I ride in Russia the more I've come to the conclusion that the countryside is very similar to that of back home in England; lots of rolling hills, wide open fields and what appear to be oak trees. The presence of trees off to the side of the roads now makes wild camping much easier but one still needs to spend time scouting out the perfect spot to hide and this can be a time consuming process. This was very much the case tonight as just when I thought I'd found a nice secluded area for myself someone else would either appear on the scene and I'd have to up and find a new place.

I rode through the town of Marks today and tomorrow will head through Engels all very highbrow intellectual stuff.

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With day 143 on the road behind me I look forward to arriving in Saratov tomorrow. I've been out in the open for the past three nights now and it will be nice to have a couch to sleep on. Saratov is just 60 kilometres away so until then.......

Posted by Ontheroadagain 06:50 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Matyevka – Past Pugachev 123km

The BIG 10

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Today was a day I'd been looking forward to for a while now. Coming from England we are obviously brought up using miles as a way of measuring distance but my mindset has changed somewhat since living in China and I now more often than not think in terms of kilometers. From a cycling point of view it's a simple numbers thing, 123 kilometers sounds better than 76 miles.

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It was today that I passed the magical figure of 10,000 kilometers. When I did so I remembered back to the day in China when I passed my first 1,000 and thought at the time 'that was easy enough, just another nine more of those'

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Keep going, just one more.....
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Get in!

In many respects I'm now almost unable to comprehend distance. When I set out from Xiamen on that rainy March morning and after my experience of numerous punctures on the very first day I think if you'd have asked me at the end of that day I'd have been happy just to have made 100 kilometers let alone 10,000.

When I passed the 'big ten' I had thought about how to celebrate this moment, I always mean to prepare some small 'treat' to pull out at this time but always forget to do so. It was simply a case of pulling over to the side of the road, taking a quick snap of the cycle computer, giving myself a quick pat on the back and of course giving thanks for having safely got this far.

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My small milestone came near the end of the day, it was a day of little else to report to be honest. When I write I often feel the need to give updates on the state of the roads in much the same way as a weather forecaster. I suppose you could say this is my 'road reporter' segment.

The road, bike and I are intrinsically linked and therefore it's only natural I suppose for me to offer up my opinion. I'm sorry to say that the surface took a turn for the worse today, plenty of cracks and bumps to contend with and very little room to manoeuvre thrown in for good measure.

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Campsite for the night.

We continue onwards though, checking off the kilometres as we go, we are very much Westward bound now.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 06:44 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Samara – Matyevka 130km

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It was goodbye to Sara and Shenja this morning and once again a glowing endorsement from me for couch surfing. I was extremely skeptical about taking part in this relatively new phenomenon and certainly had reservations about just going to stay in a total strangers house but this is now my third experience of using it and once again it's been really amazing.

Like summer and holiday, afternoon and tea, red wine and cheese, Shenja and Sara go together perfectly. I couldn't have asked for more welcoming and helpful guests. I'm always totally blown away by the levels of hospitality shown to me. Our common love of the great outdoors meant that we had lots to talk about and they may well have convinced me that I should buy a kayak for my next trip. I very much hope they also make it to England as I know they would appreciate its stunning countryside and I'd be more than happy to show them around.

I left Samara pretty early with Sara packing me on my way with a colossal breakfast. This didn't however stop me from popping into McDonalds one last time before leaving, not because I was hungry but to take advantage of their free WI-FI.

The traffic out of Samara was as one might expect heavy and always a touch difficult to negotiate especially when you throw the early morning traffic into the equation.

I was particularly worried about what the road would be like. I was now venturing off the M32 and onto what appeared, according to my map at least to be a smaller road. The P226 out of the city actually turned out to be really very good. A nice smooth surface and pretty wide at times.

Russia really is a country of sunflowers, they are everywhere and they make the perfect backdrop for a days ride.

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In the same way as riding in China Russia has a huge amount of petrol stations. This is good news for any traveler but especially so for cyclists who constantly need to top up their energy levels with all sorts of sugary snacks. I couldn't believe it when I pulled into one petrol station and instead of my usual Snickers and Coke and I found this......... it was like stepping back into the eighties. I guess these are still sold in England but I certainly didn't expect to find this kind of stuff in Russia. Russians obviously share us Brits fine palate for such delicacies.

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Shenja had set me up with a Russian SIM card for my phone which also meant I was able to get online on while out on the road. I was able to pick up the good news that I would have a couch to sleep on in Satatov. It was also interesting to note that Derek, the motorcyclist I'd met and stayed with in Uralsk was currently staying with this lady. I'm following his tire tracks, albeit at a much slower pace!

It was back in the tent tonight as I found a nice spot next to a huge field of sunflowers and nestled in amongst some trees.

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Today was a good day on the bike, I felt really good riding. The weather was absolutely perfect for riding and it was a massive relief to have gotten my bottom bracket replaced and I could now banish the thought of this putting a stop to my progress.

Posted by Ontheroadagain 03:36 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Samara

This blog is brought to you courtesy of McDonalds free Wi-Fi.

sunny

I was up really early in the morning largely due to the fact that I knew I needed to make the most of my limited Internet time and of course to update this blog. There was also enough time to take advantage of the shower for another one of those extended long washes.

The checkout time at the hotel was as is the norm 12:00 and I think I checked out at around 11:59. I still had the piece of paper from yesterday with the directions to the bike shop but I knew it would be relatively easy to find due to the fact that it's located very close to a huge space shuttle.

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Me and Mr. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin

Samara looks like a city of cyclists, they are everywhere mostly mountain bikes but I've seen the odd sleek carbon race frame around. I was so pleased to finally find a really decent bike shop and could at last carry out a repair job on the bike that has been bothering me for some time.

My bike has been amazing, a real sturdy tourer which dealt with the nightmarish roads of Kazakhstan with graceful ease. However I've been experiencing problems with one of the components that of the bottom bracket. I noticed probably about 1500km ago some slight movement, or 'play' in the cranks. This is obviously not good. Like most cycle tourists I've met we're not all mechanically adept in fixing problems beyond those everyday difficulties.

When I left I had to assess what replacement parts I'd need and what tools. It's impossible to obviously take a whole workshops worth so I was naturally selective. I hadn't anticipated having a problem with the bottom bracket so thus hadn't thought that tool necessary. In the end it turns out that simply having the tool wouldn't have been enough because the bracket itself needed replacing.

The guys in the shop didn't speak any English but replaced the bracket within five minutes and I could rest easy once again that this problem had now been resolved. I would have replaced it earlier but in Kazakhstan there simply wasn't the option to do so. It wasn't ideal to ride such a long distance with this little movement in the cranks but I had little other choice. I just prayed everyday that it would hold out until it could be fixed. There was no point in worrying about it on a daily basis, it would either make it or it wouldn't and thankfully it did.

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For bike devotees this shop was heaven, it had been a long time since I'd been in such a well stocked shop so I also took the opportunity to purchase some new grips for my handlebars. The ones that I'd put on originally had only been intended as a temporary measure and then it had slipped my mind to change them before I set out but now they had become so worn that they were offering very little in terms of comfort to the palms of my hands.

I'm really pleased with the way things are working out in Samara. I got my visa registered at the hotel and now also had the bike fixed. My next task was to meet up with my couch surfing hosts Sara and Shenja. The had gone away for the weekend but informed me that they would be back around 6. That meant that I had the whole afternoon to keep myself amused.

With the bike now fixed I decided to take a little tour of the city. One nice thing about Samara is that it still uses trams, I'm a huge fan of them but for cyclists they can be a little problematic as I now have to deal with crossing the tram tracks on the road.

As I was cycling along one of the main streets I saw a lot of cars pulled over to the side of the road each adorned with a variety of ribbons and flags of varying sizes. As I got closer it was clear that they were in fact football fans of the local team FC Krylia Sovetov Samara. I pulled up alongside them and introduced myself. Thankfully one of the females in the group spoke good English and she acted as a translator for the other supporters. Many of them were in high spirits and were engaging in the customary pre-match drink. I was offered a swig on a bottle of vodka but politely declined. It was a shame that I had my bike with me as I would have loved to have gone and sampled the game with them. I was presented with a small flag to attach to the back of my bike and waved off by the hoard of fans. It's official I suppose now FC Krylia Sovetov Samara are my adopted Russian team.

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I took the bike down to the Volga river which I had seen from my hotel room the day before. It was a real haven for sun worshipers and there were also plenty of the local rich playing around on their speed boats and jet skis.

I didn't stay long as I wanted to make sure I could find Sara and Shenja's apartment and be there in time for when they got back. I tried to buy a Russian SIM card for my phone today but it's impossible to purchase one without a Russian passport. Eventually I did manage to contact Sara and thanks once again to my GPS I'd managed to put myself in the general vicinity of their apartment.

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Sara is from Germany and is studying here while Shenja is a local guy working as an Engineer. He wasn't at home when I arrived as he was at the football game but Sara was most welcoming and spoke near perfect English. Shenja came back around an hour later, he can speak English but is obviously a little shy in doing so. They are a thoroughly nice couple and once again it was so kind of them to just welcome me into their apartment. I couldn't believe that they also just gave up their bed for me and and when I protested that I'd be fine on the floor they replied that this was the Russian way.

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We took a short walk around the park near their apartment which is known as 'Voroneshskaja Ozera' or the 'Lakes of Voronesh' It was full of people of all ages all enjoying the late evening sun. Sara explained to me that this is how most Russians like to spend their weekends, drinking some beer and eating barbecue. I was quite surprised to see even middle aged women walking around drinking beer but when in Rome so we went off to a small cafe and sat down for a nice refreshing pint ourselves.

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Down at the Volga

When we got back to their apartment it was already getting a little bit late but they insisted once again on fixing me some supper and we sat down to eat a delicious salad with chicken and potatoes.

What with it being a Sunday Shenja had to be up early obviously for work the next day and they also informed me that they go running at 5:30 every morning, naturally I told them I wouldn't be joining them!

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My great hosts Shenja and Sara on the left and their friend Katrina on the right

Posted by Ontheroadagain 22:39 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

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