Me and Gleb woke pretty early, he had about 1700km to ride in a day… probably not going to happen but he was going to give it a good go. He got packed up and we said our goodbyes, and not nearly enough thanks. He left me with strict instructions not to stray from the highways until Elista, no shortcuts, there might be more military ground between here and there, but the highways will be fine. I hung around for a bit before packing and setting off, I was only doing around 500km.
It was a weird days riding. After the last week riding solely in mountains it was back to plains. These weren’t like the plains I rode in Turkey around Erzurum though, those were high and circled by mountains. These were just vast swathes of farm land with the road cutting right through them. Occasionally there’d be a town with the basics and some cafe’s so I stopped for some grub to be constantly barked at by an idiot stray dog; she barked until I gave her some food then she was my best friend.
The language is definitely harder now, this is the next step up. Turkey was a step up from European languages but Russia is a step again. The Cyrillic alphabet is different enough that it takes time to reconfigure the word in your head before you can even pronounce it, let alone translate it to English. This makes even simple things like ordering food from a menu or reading road signs much harder. I have to get used to it though, most of central Asia uses it and I’ll be riding in it for around 2 months.
I made it to Elista in the evening and just rolled around looking for a hotel, but it instantly felt like a weird town. Everything was stretched out and misplaced, nothing seemed to fit anywhere. I stopped by a huge Buddhist Temple, which was odd to find in the middle of a city in Russia. I checked the map and I was right across the rode from a “Bike Post” which is Russia’s version of a motorcycle hangout + hostel. Score! Unfortunately there was nobody else even staying there so it was a pretty lonely night, my one alone for a week after Oki, Matt and Gleb. I tried and failed to even find somewhere to eat, there were only 2 cafes in walking distance, one was closed and one wasn’t even serving food. Thankfully the owner was a really friendly guy and knew a takeaway pizza place and got me one ordered. Not the end to the day I was expecting, but then, when is it ever on this trip.
I started Day 58 pretty slowly, I knew I didn’t have a massive day ahead, just a very long stretch all in one go, since there was nothing in between. There’s no point setting off early when you know there’s nothing on the road. Instead I had the first big re-juggle of all my luggage since Spain, nearly 2 months ago. I got rid of some things I couldn’t see any point in keeping: A ratchet strap, very useful if I was going on boats but I don’t plan to for at least 4 months; brake cleaner I bought in Spain and didn’t use again, a spare pair of winter gloves and a few other smaller bits. Along with repacking slightly differently and compressing things a little I ended up with more space and an easier to manage set of bags. Having things in the right place helps so much.
I got finished up packing and on the road, grabbed some fuel and headed out of town. Then realised the GPS said “Turn right in 150 miles” that was the next turn. Oh. OK then, guess I’m settling in for a long stretch. I stuck on an Audio book and got comfortable. Endless fields rolled by with not a great deal interesting happening, other than the occasional surprise insect swarm to ride through, splattering me and the bike with guts. 3 hours later I rolled into Volgograd and headed for the hostel I’d seen online. It was a little hard to find, nestled in a residential estate, but a woman who lived close by helped me out when I was looking lost walking up and down the street.
Once I got settled in the hostel I realised I still had some time and energy to spare so I headed off to find a bike mechanic. I needed a new indicator to replace the one I smashed on the mountain track, and I needed to organise an oil change. The first place I went to was another Bike Post, I was hoping they’d at least be connected to someone who could help. Turns out they didn’t work on big bikes, but they knew someone who did. He had some new indicators in stock that would fit, but they were a bit Chavtastic, and did’t look particularly hard wearing. I organised the oil change for the next day and left back to the hostel. I decided to give it a go fixing the indicator, I had some Gorilla tape, which is awesome stuff, the problem was the indicator was in about 20 pieces. I started piecing together the worlds dumbest jigsaw puzzle, and in the end, only used about 5 of the biggest pieces, the rest was tape, but it held together and the bulb was covered again. Success!
Day 59 and 60 were both days off, but still getting things sorted rather than relaxing. I wanted to try and extend my Russian visa, poor planning meant I only had a couple of days left on it, and I have a lot of time to spare in Kazakhstan so it would be nice to have a few extra days here. Luckily I’d ended up near one of the Government buildings where you can apply for it, so I headed over to ask. With some very broken English and Google Translate I got across what I wanted to do and why. When she asked for my passport though, she took one look and chuckled to herself and just said “Nope”. I tried to get more of an explanation but it was difficult and obviously not happening. Oh well, at least it didn’t waste too much of my time.
I headed over to get the oil changed and tell them I didn’t want their chavy indicator but that turned into a lot more work than I expected. I was used to working with foreign mechanics now and not at all keen on leaving anyone alone working on the bike. It turns out that fear is based on some evidence. The guys went to change my filter with the oil and started removing the bash plate, I stopped them and said they should just leave it on, the small amount of oil from the filter will drain onto the plate, and I can clean it off afterwards anyway. They were adamant though so I started helping them remove it, it’s a bit of a pain. Then we found a more serious problem. One of the bangs the plate took on the mountain track must have really bent the plate, the rear attachment points were bent up and angled the wrong way, along with the frame mount it attaches too. Luckily it had bent up and stopped because it hit the centre stand, rather than anything more important like the engine block or exhausts. It did mean it was a even harder to get off though and we couldn’t even bend the frame attachment back. The owner started getting a bit irritable when the simple oil change had taken 30 minutes and we weren’t done. So we got it all back together bent again as best we could and left it at that. I’m not sure I want to attempt a better fix, if I manage to get the bar out, getting it back in could be a nightmare with some heavy duty tools and it’s still doing it’s job of protecting the engine. One more big bang could really upset the centre stand though.
Once we’d finished up I decided I should actually try and see some of the city, so I took a walk around, trying to find somewhere with something going on. I failed entirely, I walked for about 3 hours around various area, but I didn’t see anything more than isolated expensive bars or restaurants with nobody in them. There were odd shops dotted around but it seems the centre of the city was just not the place to be. I went to a couple of museums that were pretty nice, depicting the Battle for Stalingrad and the capture of the main German command post that ended the conflict. The whole city seems really proud of it’s heritage and importance, there’s army monuments and statues all over the place and more museums than you could get around.
There was one shop I found that I did like. A basement music shop. They had a nice wall of acoustic guitars I was ogling, considering a replacement for the one Matt and Oki got me. I played a few and settled on a really nice Fender 3/4 size acoustic that was around £50. I was just beginning to love it and deciding to buy spare strings and a capo when I realised I’d got rose tinted glasses on my maths and I missed a zero. It was £500. Put it down slowly and back away. They had some full and 3/4 size for under £100 but they were all pretty terrible so I left a bit dejected, wondering if it was going to be easier to attempt to fix the other one. Turns out, no, it’s not. I have a feeling someone decapitated it and replaced the neck with another guitar’s, and it didn’t quite fit, which makes it pretty un-fixable.
I did some other basic maintenance stuff to the bike too, cleaning the filter and changing the brake pads among some other things. I’d bought 2 spare sets of brake pads for some reason, it’s a good job I did. I obviously wasn’t paying attention when I bought one set online because I’d managed to buy 2 pairs of right-sided pads, so I had 3 sets for the right front brake and 1 for the left, not so helpful. I changed to the complete set and bought a replacement set again, glad I realised when I did, they will be hard to get hold of soon.
After that it was chilling out in the evening and reading up for Kazakhstan, making sure I knew the rules and border procedures and planning the routes. I’d be crossing in 2 days and wanted to be as prepared as possible, the border itself is pretty remote, at least 100 miles from the cities. My visa runs out in 3 days so I don’t really have any room for problems.
Somehow I ended up doing some modelling too, they were recording a promotional video and taking photos in the hostel and they wanted a token hippy guitar player in the background so I groomed my homeless person beard and put on my best “campfire hippy” face to silently play a broken guitar for 20 minutes on the sofa surrounded by good looking girls. It was weird.