Friday, 28 June 2013

To Russia With...Fear

Yes, I know, I know. Just over a month ago I promised you the second part of a blog about Belarus and I didn't deliver. I've seen four more countries since then too. I could have told you about Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, but I haven't. One excuse was the exam I had in Riga whose revision took up all my time, but even that was two weeks ago. But look at it this way: Why would you buy my book at the end of this ride if you knew everything that had already happened? You wouldn't, would you? Oh, and the things I've seen! That woman in Warsaw giving birth to a live monkey! That velociraptor on the loose in downtown Vilnius! That amusing parsnip shaped like a penis! OK, I made the last one up. So you'll just have to buy the book.

Amazing times though I've had, amazing people though I've met, amazing food though I've eaten in all these countries, I don't want to linger on the past. I want to talk about the future. My immediate future. And, if the advice I've received is correct, my immediate impending doom. Y'see, Monday brings me to the border of Russia, and apparently Russia is scarier than a naturist weekend on the surface of Venus.

This advice has come from Brits, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and, most worryingly, real life Russians living in Estonia. There was an all-night party a few days ago and about twenty of them impressed upon me just how likely I am to be robbed, skinned and eaten alive as soon as I take my first breath of Russian air. And some of them had even been there!

Last night I Skyped The Lovely Nina. I mentioned my concerns and the warnings about being robbed. Always positive, she said, "You'll be OK. No one'll rob you. You look like a tramp." Now, I'm not sure how much consolation that should be from your loved one, but I've gone and ruined it. Today, here in Tartu, only two days' ride from the Russian border, I foolishly went and got my hair cut. I've de-tramped myself. With my newly coiffured Estonian style and slightly greying stubble I could pass as super-tycoon Roman Abramovich. I'm a sitting duck. I may as well just fling my rouble-stuffed panniers from my bike as I pass the robbers in the streets.

A lot of Russia's problems seem to revolve around alcohol and I've seen a few warning signs myself. The closer I've got to the border, whether in Ukraine, Belarus or the Baltic states, the more people you see stripped to the waist, clutching bottles and staggering about the place. I saw one wobbly guy like that today, but he had the charming additional feature of very recent and extensive Dr Frankenstein-style facial stitches from which leaked fresh blood.

If people are *that* pissed I don't mind so much. There's only so much damage you can do when your central priority is balance. But here's the worry: Put them behind the wheel of a car and their balance isn't an issue. They can scream around, pinging cyclists from the road at will, just for a laugh. And, according to one person I spoke to, here in Estonia the police are incorruptible and so drink driving equals prison, whereas in Russia all you need to do to avoid arrest is to buy the copper a bottle or two of vodka and it's all sorted. And then I might be being pinged off the road by the fuzz!

Then there's the other problem: Moscow. Moscow is absolutely massive! If you've ever wondered how daunting it might be to cycle into London or Paris or Rome, all I can say is don't be a wuss. Moscow is sooooo big that the whole of London could comfortably fit inside the first 'o' of Moscow. More people live in Moscow than in the whole of Europe, including Russia. That's how big it is.

But I have a map of the city. And I think I have a small party of British cyclists meeting me about 100 km from Red Square to escort me in, although they've never attempted this route either.

Mmm, what could possibly go wrong?