Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Giant Hogweeds of Destiny

Let's start off with some drama. Today it was only down to pure luck that I wasn't killed. But let's come back to that in a bit.

So I'm in Russia. I'd been told all sorts of horror stories about Russia and so let's explode a few myths:

Myth 1. The Border is Bad: I'd been told border formalities can take up to three hours and include a full bag search - yikes! I have self-labelled blood pressure pill bottles. My crossing involved no search whatsoever and took less than ten minutes. Next!

Myth 2. The People are Bad: You'd think that Russians were demonic if you believed what I've heard. They aren't. Yesterday, due to reasons that I'll explain later, I had another spoke go pop. Although I was only halfway through my day, luckily I was just a few kilometres from Ostrov, a town of about 20,000, which around these parts is massive. I figured it'd have a bike shop. In the past, most bike malfunctions have resulted in some serendipitous interaction with the locals. Given Russia's monstrous reputation I doubted it this time.

I saw a man with a bike. He had his head down. So I asked him, in my finest Russian (which isn't fine at all) where  the bike shop was. He looked up, pissed as pint glass full of newts, with food - or vomit - all around his mouth and slurred, 'Da!'. OK, maybe he misunderstood and so I tried again. But no. I got another 'da!' And then another. Maybe his sense of the absurd lead him to an extremely literal form of dadaism. Or perhaps, as I suspect, he'd had one bottle of vodka too many. Not a good start, Russia.

But the next cyclist I asked, Alex, spoke about ten words of English, took me to the bike shop, waited outside with me until it reopened after lunch, purloined a spoke and a spoke key - at least I saw no money changing hands - took me to his garden, introduced me to Valya, his retired English teacher wife, gave me lunch, attempted to fix my bike with less knowledge than I have (the bike shop only sold spares, it didn't repair), gave up and, as time was getting on, helped me find a room for the evening at a place for Russian army officers. I don't want to sound ungrateful but the hotel - which, by the way, is too grand a word - had hints of Patarei Prison, the scary one I'd seen in Tallinn the other day. But on the plus side it was cheap, and cheap is good. Alex and Valya were a great couple and if the entirety of this country is filled with Ian Huntleys, their loveliness still balances out Russians on the niceness scale pretty damn well.

Alex and Valya

Myth 3. The Roads are Bad: Ha! They aren't bad. They are fucking atrocious. They would make the transport minister of a banana republic blush with shame.

I'd been lulled into a false sense of security. From the Estonian border to Pskov, the road was fine - nice tidy tarmac, a little hard shoulder, and no traffic. Only the nasty Giant Hogweeds standing sentry along the roadside gave a hint of the horrors to come. After Pskov, the hard shoulder becomes a sand and gravel pit, alluringly rideable at times, when the intimacy of a speeding juggernaut three inches from your left-hand cheek gets too much. The road surface itself became Ukrainian in its shitness, which was another reason why the sandpit was alluring. For the quality of ride, these roads may as well have been made of cobbles, and that was the coroner's verdict for yesterday's spoke death.

Today things just got worse. The trucks got closer and so the sandpit became even more alluring and, like all sandpits, you never know how deep they are. And then your front wheel goes in and your handlebars go somewhere else and you fall into the road on to the tarmac, skinning both knees, praying, "Please, please, please let there be no cars coming from behind." I got up as quickly as I could and spun around. Phew, an oddly clear bit of road. Not wanting the shock of a dismount to unnerve me, I continued immediately, with a racing heart and stiffening, bloody knees. It was a few kilometres before I stopped and took stock of what had happened. Then I carried on and the same thing very nearly happened again, this time with a juicy truck hovering just close enough behind to squish my head. Luckily I caught the bike before it threw me from it.
Roads in Russia are scarce. There's no alternative to the route I've been taking. It took the rest of the day to come to a big decision.

That this is stupid.

Myth 4. Moscow is Rubbish: Apparently, Red Square aside, there's very little worth seeing. This is one myth that I won't be able to explode, because my decision is that I'm not going to go there. I've checked on Google StreetView, and with the information available, I would be encountering these types of roads every day for the next three weeks. I just don't think that my luck could hold out that long. Besides, I have a lovely girlfriend and a doting mum (and a dad, but dad's don't get factored into these equations for some reason) and I'd like not to die just yet. I'm not missing out on much. Russia is just a massive forest. There are few settlements of any size. There are only so many times you can look at a tree and go, "Oo, it's a tree!" But boredom isn't the reason for avoiding Moscow. Death: That's the reason for avoiding Moscow. Even the stupidly expensive visa isn't enough to make me want to carry on.

Opuchka, the town I'm in right now, is my last chance to escape Russia relatively easily. It's only 70 kilometres to the Latvian border. The rest of my trip will carry on as planned but I'll get to see both Latvia and Estonia again, which is nice. I liked both of those countries. Neither of them tried to kill me.

So has my challenge failed? In a way, yes. But in another way, hell no. I started off with a plan to see 50 capitals. But then I decided to include Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. So even by dropping Moscow, I will still have done 52 capitals. Turn a negative into a positive.

UniCycle52 - it's the future, baby! And I'd quite like to have a future.