The next few days proved an interesting challenge for my rear wheel, with a ridiculous number of potholes that I’d be focused on avoiding and then still end up landing in. It was so bad in parts that it was actually a relief when the surface turned to light sand, although the washboard parts weren’t fun, as at least I would hopefully not worsen the crack. I’d not been seeing many bike shops, although that was possibly partly because I wasn’t seeing much of anything other than trees, and hoped that if it didn’t last all the way to Bucharest, where I was thinking of flying home from, then it would at least have the decency to fail in a convenient place.
Having seen so little on the road when it was pothole avenue, it was nice to see a couple of small 5-house villages when it turned to sand. With the sun going down I was looking for someone to talk to, but with it being cold outside everyone was wrapped up warm and my Russian skills definitely weren’t to the level where I felt confident knocking on people’s front doors. In the 3rd hamlet, I got my best sign, a light switched on in the garage. I stopped and hesitated a little, before getting the attention of the lady inside. Her name was Yelena, and she was probably in her late 40s, although Russians don’t seem to age that well, maybe it’s from the harsh conditions that they live in. Anyway, I explained my situation as much as I could to Yelena and she didn’t seem completely certain what to do and gestured to wait.
A few minutes later, a car arrived and a man came out. I assumed it was her husband, but looking back I think he was a lodger. She explained the situation to him, and despite mentioning my tent and pointing at the nearby fields, I was shown to a battered people-carrier. With a bit of pulling the door opened, and I showed my enthusiasm. Yelena nipped inside and came back out with a pile of blankets to make sure I’d stay warm and having thanked her I got everything organised.
As I was about to settle down to sleep, I was offered a tea, and Yelena gestured for me to go inside. It was a bizarre structure, seeming like a building around another one. There were lots of branches hanging to dry from the ceiling. They’re the type used in the Russian sauna, a banya, which involves wearing a hat that looks rather like a fez and then being hit by the branches to help you relax or something. Anyway, there was no banya there so I managed to avoid being hit. Instead I was shown into the kitchen, where the man was eating and a plate of food was put out for me as well as a cup of tea. There was a sink, but it was connected to something that looked like someone had taken the tank from a toilet and hung it up above a large bowl. The stove was gas powered, thanks to a large cylinder in the corner of the room. There was a TV, but it was smaller than my laptop screen and even though it was on for about 30 minutes I wasn’t sure if it was monochrome or just an awful signal. After eating Yelena got her photo album out, which had pictures of her and her family since she was a kid, and not a single one seemed to involve any smiling. Someone I asked about this later speculated that it could be from a fear of cameras and thinking that they might take part of you, which is a reason I’ve heard as to why certain indigenous tribes don’t trust them, and Yelena definitely didn’t seem to want a photo taking when I asked if it was possible.
In the morning, I was planning on going away, but was once again invited in for food and tea, definitely welcome with the chill in the air. My Kindle, which had worked in every country on my trip other than Cuba and Costa Rica didn’t have free internet in Russia either so in the next town, Damyansk, I tried to find Wi-Fi. A ride around the whole town lead to no open networks, so my solution was to find a computer shop. They had a Wi-Fi network and when I walked inside, Vasiliy, the man behind the counter, had no problem telling me the password and being able to send some overdue emails.
After about 30-40 minutes, Vasiliy came outside and said he was going off for lunch. I’d almost finished with what I needed doing, and the restaurant in front of his shop had been tempting having not had a restaurant meal since Moscow. He could speak a little English so I asked him how it was, and he was definitely not filled with much positivity. When I asked him where there was good food in town his response was “my place” and so that’s how I got myself an invite for lunch. We rode the two kilometres back to his place, where I met Valentina, his mum. I don’t know if she had already eaten, but only Vasiliy and myself sat down to eat. She seemed content to look on happily as I enjoyed my meal and told her it was delicious. I chatted with Vasiliy over Google Translate until it was time for him to go back to work, and when I tried to go I found a bag on my bicycle. Valentina had filled it with about 30 apples, some small cucumbers and a matchbox filled with salt for the cucumbers. This of course meant we needed a photo, and as you can see below there was a slight smile from their friend and Vasiliy but Valentina’s face was rather stern looking, proving that photos don’t show the whole thing!
Eventually I ended up on a large road, with there being no small alternatives, and it seemed short on decent camp spots. Having been so successful in Brazil at petrol stations I decided to see how it would work in Russia. The sun was about to set, but it’d only take a few minutes to get rejected and keep going so I’d not lose much. To my surprise, the cashier inside said it was fine and her colleague showed me where I could put my tent up. Being around sunset it of course meant it was mosquito time, and so I got bitten to death for the best part of 40 minutes while I struggled to make sure the tent was properly staked out as the clouds looked like it’d rain that night. Eventually it was all done, and I was about to go inside when the cashier came out and told me to move my bike to make sure it was more out of sight behind the tent. Sure, no problem.
I was going to get cleaned up in the bathroom, when the cashier came out again and started to explain something urgent to me. She was speaking to her Android phone and getting it to translate back to me. The voice activation was terrible and it took her about 5 times to get it to recognise her saying Hello Google before it would even listen to every sentence. I liked her persistence, as I’m sure there was probably the option of just pressing a button instead of this. My good humour went away as she started telling me that the place where I’d been directed to put my tent was private property and so I couldn’t stay there. It took about 5 minutes of Hello Google to find out that a call had been made to head office and they had said that it wasn’t possible for me to stay there, even though she had of course given me permission. I expressed my displeasure, and asked for an alternative. She had one. It was “Go to village”. Considering it was pitch black outside, I asked her about where in the village but this just lead to a circular conversation. “Go to village.” “Where in village?” “Go to village!” “Yes, but where in the village?” “Go to village.”
The only people outside in Russian villages at that time of night had a bottle of vodka in their hand, or were homeless. It’s not that there was a church, police station, hotel, park or anything at all but some houses in the village but that was her solution. The circular conversation went on for a fair amount of time, until thankfully my saviour walked through the door. A guy called Arkadiy broke the circle and asked if there was anything he could do to help. I explained what had happened, and that constantly being told “Go to village” was getting slightly tiring. He could speak English and after speaking to us both came up with a plan. His mum lived back in the city that was about 10km behind us (there had been no fire station that I could find) and he was sure I could camp outside it. Not having a better option, that’s what we went with and so after taking my tent down we put my bike and stuff in the back of his car and drove back to the city to his mum’s place and I put my tent up on the side of the river behind her house.
I chatted with Arkadiy for over an hour before he turned the lights off on his car. We then kept talking before I excused myself to go to sleep. I assumed he’d be staying at his mum’s, but no, he was driving to Novgorod, 100km away. He tried to start his car, but the battery had gone flat and so we pushed it down the sandy bank towards the water in an effort to start it up again. This almost worked, but he had to stop as it was otherwise going to roll into the water. He was certain that it’d sort itself out if he left it for another while and so I went to bed half-expecting to see him sleeping in his car in the morning.
Arkadiy had left by the time I got up, and so I got to re-trace my steps past the petrol station and to Novgorod. Having been able to find mainly small roads for the previous few days I wasn’t really enjoying the traffic, but other than in one section with roadworks where everything decided I had no right to be there and I got to avoid a couple of psychotic trucks, I made it to Novgorod without incident. It turned out to be a sign of what was to come, as in my 48 hours in the city of Novgorod I saw 3 car crashes. Not somewhere that I’d want to live.
In Novgorod, a historical city, I had a place to stay in Warmshowers with Peter & Yulia. Peter had a great command of the English language, and seemed to have no problems answering any question. Some of it was a bit bizarre to hear, for example he let me know that Belarusian & Ukrainian weren’t real languages and that they had been made by the Nazis as a way of destabilising Russia. The current conflict in the Ukraine was apparently proof of this, and all the fault of the Nazis. It made me think of an earlier conversation I’d had in Bratislava when a Russian guy had told me that Belarusian sounds like Russian spoken by someone who is poorly educated and doesn’t understand grammar. Something that a teacher friend of mine disagreed with as he thinks that one of the things that Belarus has going for it as a strong educational system. Other comments included how there should be a push to increase the population of Siberia as Russia has so many natural resources that who cares what it costs. I had heard that average costs for running a house in Siberia are about 5x as high as in European Russia so the idea to have lots of people living there just seemed bizarre. It’s not like there’s a lack of space in the western part of the country, and apparently the population of the country has dropped from north of 200 million to about 140 million now.