“Toureest important …”

Having dressed and vacated the Boss’s office (just before he arrived), I loaded up the bike and was about to depart. But, before I could, there was a gathering. News travels fast around here and a number of people had arrived to see the strange guy who slept in the garage office, and to look at the bike. This brought irritating news.

I had already melted one of the bike cable locks, as it wasn’t the right length to fasten securely around the top box mount on the rear of the bike. But that was ok, I sent that one back with Brigid and I kept the good one, always taking care to make sure that it wasn’t anywhere near the exhaust! On leaving Beyneu I had even looped it through the cargo net which was keeping the bag on the back seat. No problem I thought, but hadn’t reckoned with the road from Beyneu … At some point during the world’s longest switchback, the cable had escaped its secure mounting and, yes, you’ve guessed, it sagged – right in front of the exhaust. Not only was it melted, the lock was knackered as well, to the point the only way to get it off was by use of an angle grinder. Oh Bu**er, that’s it for me and cable locks. Chains all the way from now on, when I can find one, I suspect I may have to wait until Almaty!

Jakesh returns with my bikeI was just thinking of moving on when Jakesh asked if he could have a go on the bike. I was horrified, I mean he only had a tee shirt and sandals, but they had been so kind how could I refuse without losing face? I couldn’t. So, trying to put on my best smile, I gave him the keys and said “ok!”. He got on and rode it like he had been riding it for years. Accelerating at a rate of knots down the road, he looked like he was going to finish my trip for me! A minute later he was back, beaming from ear to ear. He had loved it!

Having finally got on the road to Muynaq (at the southern end of what used to be the Aral Sea),  and just as I had reached a sign indicating a diversion away from the route, I was caught up with by one of the curious crowd from earlier. The first thing he asked was, “Are you a policeman?”, news did travel fast! “Well I was, in London, but I have retired”, I replied. He then told me that the road was flooded from yesterday’s rain and led me through Kungrad to a point where I only had to follow the road. Kindness personified.

Waiting for the Sea to returnThe Aral Sea used to be one of the biggest inland seas in the world, until man changed all of that. Apparently the Russians diverted the route of the rivers following south into the lakes to water their vast wheat crops. The sea has been disappearing ever since, with rusting hulks of ships tilting precariously across the sand that had previously been a seabed. It has been a disaster of epic proportions, putting a whole industry out of work at both ends of the sea. To see the rusting hulks listing on their sides on the semi desert floor was really sad. There is good news at the north end of the Aral Sea, however, as they have diverted water sources to start filling it again, keeping the water restricted by building two dams. That said, it’s taken 50 years to get it this low, Lord knows how long it will take to fill it again.

Anyway, having seen all there was to see it was back to Kungrad to fill up again at the same garage. Having done so, I was no more that half a mile down the road when the bike started swaying alarmingly. I stopped, checked the wheels. No, nothing wrong there … Then I noticed that one of the panniers had come adrift from the top mount, and had caused the front extension to break away from the frame. The only thing that stopped it falling off were the two bungees holding the bag on the back seat.

Disaster! I know nothing about metal, but the frame didn’t look as if you could weld it. What the Hell could I do? I couldn’t leave the pannier there while I got help?!. It would take days, or weeks, to get a replacement and could make me late for my rendezvous with GlobeBusters in Kyrgyzstan. Despair! Hang on a minute, there must be a way. Could I tie it to the back seat? No. Nowhere to secure it. The frame is broken …… But I did have more bungees. If I pushed the broken bits back together and used a load of bungees, it might be enough to get me back to the garage I had just left. All of this probably no more than a few minutes, but it seemed like hours, as I went through a whole dictionary of emotions, thinking my goals were in tatters.

I bungeed the frame back on to the bike, and gingerly put the box back in place ….. and it held. Ever so gently, I got back on, and rode – ever so slowly – back to the garage. It was really easy to show them what had happened. The boss looked and made one phone call. Motioning me to leave the box there and follow him, we set off in convoy to another garage, where he spoke to one of the mechanics. “No. Follow me”, he said, again and off we set again!

Top bolt welded junctionAt the next garage, everything happened so quickly. I saw the mechanic start to get his spot welder together and sent off a couple of quick text messages to Brigid. I was about to take a photo of the guy at work, but he had already finished! Hells’ teeth that was quick! I had seen the boss pay the man, so I got out my wallet and started to pull some money out.  But, no. The boss closed my wallet and gave me the wagging finger, “No, no, no! That’s from me.” I was astounded as to why he had paid for my repair and then I remembered a comment made by another man, just before we set off for the garage.

The Boss was explaining who I was and this unknown man had just said “Toureest important.”It then became clear to me that this poor country has high regards tourists, for the money they spend in hotels, restaurants and elsewhere and, if paying for my repair meant that I was happy, then maybe more “toureests” would come. Now, it could be my fanciful thinking, but one thing is indisputable, the Uzbeks are generosity personified. And the whole episode took no more than one hour, though it seemed like a week!

So having left the garage for the third time that day, I eventually reached Nukus and made for the impressive-sounding “Hotel Nukus”, which seemed nice and big – and appropriately impressive – on the outside. The room wasn’t up to much but, frankly, I was shattered. The last two days from Beyneu, down the 90 kms road of Hell, no hotel and sleeping on the garage floor, followed by the emotions of the dead Aral Sea and then the luggage rack problem, had all caught up with me. I was exhausted and couldn’t ride around trying to find another hotel – which could have ended up being worse than this one. So I took the room, had a bit to eat, dosed for a couple of hours, went for a walk around the block, had a beer in the hotel, and collapsed into bed.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t sleep right through. Just thinking about the kindness of the people here and their friendliness has got to me. Since I crossed the border from Kazakhstan, I have been flashed at (by cars!), tooted at, waved to and smiled at by just about everybody. I’ve lost count of the times I have got off the bike to check my lights were still on and everything was secure. It took until the Boss paid for the welding that the “Toureest important!” message really hit me.

A real day of emotions!

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Kungrad

Well, there are no flies on me, or fleas either for that matter – thankfully! So, today I have to leave Kazakhstan or get a fine for overstaying and not registering my visa. I was on the road by 8.30am, hopeful about the road ahead, bearing in mind the nice new tarmac into Beyneu from the north.

I could not have been more wrong.

The road from Beyneu down to the border was the worst road I have ever seen, and that includes the Salmon Glacier road in Alaska! It is a mix of old, corrugated tarmac, hard packed sand and gravel, and mineshafts. I kid you not.

Many of the holes were so deep that my wheel would go all of the way in and the front suspension would bottom out. All of the vehicles on the road were swerving violently from side to side to try and avoid the worst parts of the road. That included the lorries, they were just doing it slower than the cars. The advantage of a motorcycle is that you only need one track, the rear wheel naturally follows the front. However, this can be a disadvantage, if one wheel goes in a hole, so will the other – with bone jarring consequences. Just imagine going over a speed bump too fast, sitting in the back of a heavily laden car, now multiply each individual bump by ten, then multiply that one bump by 93 kilometres. And these bomb craters were interspersed randomly across the width and length of the road. To be fair, there were places where the surface was manageable, but they weren’t very long, or very many. In other places there was a strip about 18 inches wide near the side on the road where it was level, relatively speaking and I could make good progress. That I managed to cover the 93 kms in just over 2 ½ hours, without dropping the bike or even having a skid was nothing short of a miracle! The bike did slide a little once or twice, but the new Goldentyre dual purpose tyres fitted a couple of day before seem to have been a brilliant find, I am very impressed, so far.

I eventually reached the border, got through the Kazak side in half an hour and then spent an hour in no man’s land, despite being ushered to the front by everyone else in there. Fat lot of good it did me. It still took 2 hours to do the small amount of paperwork on the Uzbek side. It’s not that they don’t know what they are doing, there is just no structure or organisation to it. It was very frustrating. Never mind, I eventually passed through the maze of windows and was given the golden ticket to escape.

First stop was the insurance booth which was mercifully quick, but I had to pay in Uzbek money and he didn’t do currency exchange. However, an opportunistic young woman who did was conveniently on my shoulder, literally. She was standing right next to me. Knowing that I was going to be staying at hotels, I decided to change $200, for which she offered me a carrier bag full of notes. I had forgotten that the Uzbek currency exchange rate is something like 3,000 to the dollar; £200 will make me near enough a millionaire! On hearing me exclaim “WHAT, I’m not taking that!”, she gave me a more manageable armful of notes that would get into my A4 sized zip wallet.

Next stop Kungrad, from where I could get to the south end of the Aral sea. But first I had to get there, and it had rained, hard, while I was going through the tortuous processes in passport control and customs. I was concerned that I would have a muddy, flooded road to contend with. However, although it was wet with puddles, it wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. The puddles could hide big holes and road wasn’t great in places, but newly informed by the road down to the border, it was OK!

The GarageNevertheless, by the time I got to Kungrad, I was running out of fuel and light was fading. I found the place I was hoping to stay but it was closed. The first two garages only had deisel. At the third I struck lucky. They had petrol; only 80 octane, but it would do. I asked, hopefully, “Hotel?”, “No”, “Where?”. The reply came in the classic Gallic shrug. I gestured that I needed somewhere to sleep. The young man then had an idea, “Hotel!” and drew a map in the mud of how to get to one. Now the problem was that I had no idea of scale and didn’t want to riding around aimlessly in the dark, but I set off to find it anyway. I didn’t find it, but I did find somewhere to eat and by sheer chance selected what must be a typical dish here, which is mince meat with chopped potatoes and carrots in parcels of what passes for pastry. By now it was dark and I had been concerned about my lights. However, the new dipped headlight was much brighter than the old one and the new auxiliary lights were brilliant!

Kakesh Johnand BazikI found the garage again, and Jakesh and Bazik were good to their word, very welcoming and even offered my some of the very tasty stew that Jakesh had prepared. We managed to make ourselves understood and after an hour or so it was time for bed. I was given the office, the thin mattress wasn’t great but it was warm and was far better than sleeping on the bike!

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Beyneu

I was up early and on the road by 8.30. It was a nice sunny day, with a cool breeze and I left the hotel – having double checked Garmin was showing the route I wanted to go. The road out of town was ok; not great, but nowhere near as bad as the last few days. However, once out of the city it was nice, smooth, tarmac. This can’t last I thought, my luck can’t be that good!

How wrong I was. The weather stayed sunny and cool, and the road stayed level with good tarmac. In fact, the last 20 kms into Beyneu actually had new tarmac and the quality of the surface was excellent.

Grand Mausoleum 3One thing I have noticed in Kazakhstan, is the number of mausoleums by the side of the road, away from any residences.  Some of them are really grand, while other less-expensive looking ones are, nevertheless, quite impressive. It is obviously a part of the culture and it is quite normal to see people paying their respects at any time of the day and day of the week.

I made such good progress that I was in Beyneu by 3pm and decided that I would spend a bit of time just driving around to try and find a decent hotel. The first one I saw looked ok on the outside and had a motel behind it. However, on riding up to the motel, I saw a police car and a second immediately pulled in fast to join the first. Now, they may just have been late for lunch, but to me it looked like they meant business! So, scratch that motel then.

I carried on driving around and after the third circuit had come to the conclusion that Beyneu is just a typical border town, with no centre to speak of. By now, the landscape had turned from semi-desert to three-quarters-desert and I saw groups of women sweeping sand from the side of the road into dustpans, presumably to prevent the town being over taken by desert. Sergey and Antun

I rode back to the first motel and checked in. Like the town, it has little to commend it.  The room smelt musky and the décor was very late 50’s but, being the only hotel I could find, and at £20 for the night, it was better than sleeping on the bike! As I walked out to unload my luggage I met two other bikers: Sergey and Antun – Russians. Having exchanged pleasantries with Antun, who spoke passably good English, and taken photos, they decided not to stay. I saw them over an hour later still riding around and they were last seen heading back out of town. I guess they felt that sleeping on their bikes was a better alternative.

I’ll let you know tomorrow if I have caught fleas!

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Atyrau

Atyrau is a sprawling town whose economy seems to be based on the oil industry. Apart from that, there is little to commend it. I saw nothing worth the effort of sight-seeing, so I spent the morning sorting out my erratic Garmin – the little darling! However, I also thought it wise to check with the hotel receptionists about registering my visa, as I had just seen comments about it on the internet. They didn’t seem to know much but said they would find out.

As it happens, I went on the internet and found out for myself. OH BU**ER!

If I am in the country for 5 days or more, I have to register my visa and if I don’t I get fined when I leave the country. That means getting to the border (about 520 kms away) and out of Kazakhstan by Friday evening –  on roads of an unknown quality. All of the information I had read said it was partly tarmac and partly sandy gravel, the latter part being BAD.

Lads from the Riverside InnNow I have been messaging David Pickering, on a similar route but a few days ahead of me, picking his brains about how he was doing. For Atyrau, he recommended the Riverside Inn, frequented by ex-pats, so in the evening I had a pleasant stroll down the river to try and find it. As it turned out, there was a group of three Brits walking in the same direction and one of them was going there, so I joined him. On entering, there was quite a gathering as, apparently, one of them had “been let go”. Sadly, the falling price of oil is taking its toll of oil workers and, as is the norm, they get a month’s pay in lieu of notice and have to leave immediately as their visa is invariably cancelled.

Malcolm and JohnA number of the oil workers were bikers, and mentioned talking to David last Saturday. Unfortunately, no-one knew what the road was like as their bikes were at home, not in Kazakhstan. Never mind, they were a very friendly bunch. I had a very nice curry and a very pleasant evening, with great craic, was had by all. Thanks for recommending it guys!

It also turned out that the Riverside Inn, far from being full (according to Booking.com), was nearly empty. It has two buildings with just over a 100 rooms in each and only a dozen or so were taken, so there was plenty of room! Note to self don’t trust booking.com, just find the hotel through them, Google it and contact them direct.

I got a taxi back to the hotel, worrying about tomorrow’s ride and, being the skinflint that I am, concerned about being fined for overstaying.

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Bloody Garmin

Today’s the day. The day I enter Central Asia – crossing the border from Astrakhan in Russia into Atyrau in Kazakhstan. I understand from someone who did the same thing only a few days ago that the border crossing is painless, and “only takes an hour and a half. But the roads are BAD!” Hmmm, how bad can they be? First you have to find the right road…… Bloody Garmin!

Brigid and I have been planning this trip for around 4 years or so, off and on. One of the first things I did was to plan a route. Ok, it kept changing, but at no point had I planned to ride down to Astrakhan from Moscow … and then ride back again to Moscow to get to Atyrau – which is only 360 kms from Astrakhan!

U-turn if you want toGarmin, however, had made her mind up that that was exactly what I must do. On starting her up – sorry, but in my mind all technology is female, just like cars and boats etc. are – she decided that it was almost 2100 kms to Atyrau. WTF?! I fairly quickly realised that this was not right a kilometre or so after leaving the motel. I knew that I had to change my route out of the city and eventually she would re-program herself to the correct route. Fortunately, I saw a sign-post for Atyrau; I cottoned on immediately and took that route. At times the sign-posts disappeared and I had to stop and re-assess the route, but we eventually escaped the maze called Astrakhan and I saw a sign indicating that indeed Atyrau was only now 350 kms away. Garmin, however, insisted it was now over 2100 kms. This continued even up to no-man’s land between the Russian and Kazak border posts where she wanted me to do a U-turn.  Bloody thing. Half way to Atyrau she was shaken into sense and decided that the short distance between two points was a straight line, Halleluia!

Kazak Kodak momentA nice interlude at the Russian side of the border, just after I stopped in the line of traffic came when a number of Kazak’s approached the bike, obviously impressed or intrigued by it. I immediately got off and by gesture invited them to get on and try it. I obviously broke the ice and the whole family got on, one at a time, and there was much laughing and photographs taken. That was immediately forgotten in a mad scramble to the cars, reminiscent of the old style Le Mans start, as the barrier was raised. They knew what I didn’t, that once the other side you leave your vehicle to go into a building to go through Passport Control, so having been second in the queue as we stopped, I was last into the building. Hey ho, my quick assessment of the speed of the queue meant I wasn’t the last one through.  Ha! That’ll learn ‘em!

Did I mention the Russian roads were bad? Well forget all that, unless, of course, their leaving present to Kazakhstan was the road from the border post on the road from Astrakhan to Atyrau! Even the big lorries were travelling at a snail’s pace. They didn’t want to join their colleagues who were missing in Russia – at least they were missing in their home land. Who the hell wants to go missing abroad, when you can’t even speak the bloody language?!

These holes weren’t holes, they were mine shafts! I swear I heard the sound of a Didgeridoo echoing up from one of them. There were times when it was impossible to avoid them and on a number of occasions my front suspension bottomed out. So, having already adjusted it a bit, I now have to stiffen it up a bit more. Fortunately, it’s only turning a screw near the to of the handlebars so it’s a 10 second job. So, back to the teeth shattering jaw breaking road, which went on most of the 280 kms to Atyrau.

Having, finally, got to the end of the dangerous road surface, the cars in front of me slowed down to a stop at a stop sign in the road, as you do. A quick look around revealed it to be a Police check point and most vehicles were waved through, apart from Jo Muggins here.

The flat-capped officer strolled up slowly and gestured for me to pull in to the side of the road. I wasn’t worried, I had my newly purchased insurance costing 1300 roubles (€24, £17) for 10 days. He saluted me! Then spoke very politely in what may just as well have been Klingon, as I understood absolutely nothing. “Ya nePonimyoo po-Russ” said I hoping it may have been close enough to be understood. “Ah”, he tapped the headlight and spoke more Klingon. “Oh”, said I, getting off the bike to look at the dipped beam, which automatically comes on when the ignition is switched on. It wasn’t on, and it was a fairly new bulb, so the evasion techniques on the road were insufficient to avoid the cunning enemy, and the shock blew the bulb. Just to show him that I still had lights, I turned on the main beam and the new auxiliary lights installed in Moscow with Maxim’s help. (Thanks again Maxim!) Another short Klingon phrase was uttered which sounded like something to the effect of, “That’ll do!” and he walked contentedly back to his car.

Once in Astrakhan, I was poodling around looking for the Apartment I had booked online, carefully selecting the option to pay on arrival. This was a wise precaution as despite being in the right area from the map on the website and knocking on the door of the right block, the owner didn’t understand me and seemed to know nothing about it. Having done some homework the night before I knew there was a Guns and Roses bar nearby so made for that, well it seemed like a good plan to me! In looking for it I found a nice looking hotel and asked for a room. Fortunately they spoke English and priced the room at 10,000 Kazak Tenge per night … HOW MUCH, I thought, hang on let’s think about this … err 17k tenge for 100 US$, um this 170 per Dollar, right, 10k divided by 170 is err about just under $60 or just under £40. “OK, that will do!”

Turned out that the Guns and Roses bar was in the hotel, “That will do nicely!”

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“Big Tig” has new boots!

New bootsOK, it might be a bit early in the day to be writing today’s blog, but I don’t care! The whole purpose of stopping in Astrakhan was to put new tyres on my bike. Despite lots of help searching on the ‘net, the barman couldn’t find anywhere to fit them, but “the Owner will know!”. Enter, stage right, Sergey, the Owner.

After one phone call, he says, “You follow me”. So off we went to a car tyre fitters, who didn’t have the right tools to take the wheels off, but I do. So Sergey drove me back to the hotel to pick up the tools, then stayed while I took the wheels off, bought me a new 27mm spanner when I forgot the socket, and would take nothing Balancing the wheelsfor it. He waited while the tyres were changed and balanced by the fitters, who took great care to put the tyres on the right way around, prompted, no doubt, by Sergey. And, yes, it does make a difference!

He then helped me to put the wheels on again, getting his hands very greasy in the process. It turns out he is a biker and showed me pictures of him riding his BMW G650GS Sertao on sand! That was exactly the bike Brigid and I were thinking of getting for this ride, by coincidence.

Sergey just checkingOn getting back to his hotel, Sergey asked for my Facebook page, so I gave it to him and told him about the ride page. He wasn’t aware that to get the login for the internet here you need a Russian mobile phone, and consequently I can’t get on. There are no guarantees that he will change that, but I don’t think it will be for the want of trying, after all, he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty!

Thanks Sergey!

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A leap of faith

Leap of Faith DinnerOh come on! You really didn’t think you’d get away that lightly did you? Really?!

So, you will recall I mentioned the Russian roads being bad. I went out this evening for a bite to eat in a local coffee/cafe shop – this is a bit of a misnomer because it was really a restaurant come bar. Now, although I had my phone, with my friend “Google Translate”, it had an off day and couldn’t make a decision. The waitress’ app was likewise misfiring – a recipe for disaster. I picked out one dish, which looked interesting (or at least didn’t have some of the ingredients which would have spelled certain disaster, if you get my drift) and, using my misfiring friend, I asked the waitress for her advice as to what she though I should have with it. Bearing in mind I had no idea what I had ordered in the first place, this was either a real leap of faith or just plain blind stupidity, I just prefer the sound of the former, personally!

The meal was delicious, very tender pieces of pork in fried potatoes and onions, sprinkled with a mix of fresh herbs. It was accompanied by wraps containing a mix of mince beef and what looked like very small pieces of potato, but my friend had, at times, suggested there pieces of apple in it. Hey ho, whatever it was, it was excellent.

AstrakabLakeNow you may be wondering where the Russian roads comes into this. Well, as it turned out while I was in the restaurant, sorry coffee shop or …. whatever, it rained. A lot. So I had to walk back to the hotel in the dark accompanied by another friend, the torch app for my phone. It was ok until we got to about 40 yards from the door. At this point the famous, or maybe infamous Russian roads came into play. Earlier on today I took a photo of the bit of road in question, bearing in mind they haven’t any rain here for decades ….. OK days … ish, there was still a huge lake, big enough to hold a sailing regatta.

Getting back in the dark with my rapidly failing torch app, and having to play stepping stones was another leap of faith – the risk being that I could have drowned never to be seen again; well, not for another thousand years or so when I floated up in some far flung remote island, transported through a hidden vortex through the Earth’s crust.

At this point, kidding aside, I have to thank Brigid for encouraging me to take a leap of faith by continuing with the trip. I really would have preferred her to be with me. However, it has been an opportunity for me to do something new, something I really didn’t fancy at all. To travel alone. I am not, by nature, a loner, but this is a chance to try something different, something we should all do from time to time. Plans might not always work out for us, but if we never tried anything new we would still be struggling with square wheels wouldn’t we?

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Gusty winds may occur!

OK, so yesterday’s blog was a bit serious, but for me there is no more serious subject than war. That said, I will try and lighten the mood a little. As Brigid and I have found out to our cost, booking hotel rooms over the internet can be a hazardous operation. To date, the only issues I have had was yesterday’s, where they didn’t take credit cards and, as it has turned out, the hotel in Tambov.

I was aware there there were three mosquitos in the room there and thought I have dealt with them efficiently, if a little messily in one case! Sadly, as it turned out, they had got in first and I now have a few nice red lumps on my arms and neck to show for the encounter. And they itch, a lot, bastards!

So I went to pay the bill at the hotel, only to find out they don’t take credit cards and the bill came to 10 roubles less than I had in my wallet, and it was Sunday so the banks were closed and I don’t read Russian well enough to use the ATMs. Oh ******! Looks like I might get hungry today then, mind you I could still do with losing a little weight.

On leaving the hotel I thought I would give the bullet cam another go, and kept it on whilst I visited Pavlov’s House again and rode out of the city. I was pleasantly surprised to find out later on that it worked, the only problem is that I didn’t quite set it into the mount straight, so the video looks as if it was shot by Quasimodo!

countrychurchThe roads for first 50 kms or so going south from Volgograd are really bad, for the most part. After that they are fine and so I then made good progress. The area bewteen Volgograd and my destination, Astrakhan, is very flat as far as you can see. The few trees seem to be a short stubby variety that offer little shelter from what seemed to be a constant, strong wind, although there was the occasional strong gust that did blow me across my lane. Fortunatly there is little traffic on the road. The whole region could easily be swopped with that part of Route 66 west of Amarillo and the only give away would be the amount of wooden telegraph poles holding upcitychurch the electricity cables and the single carriageway road – those, and some of the very ornate churches which stood in great contrast to the ramshackle, wooden or bare concrete block houses some of which must have been put up by the Church, as the fact that they remain upright is a miracle.

I made good progress and was saved the agony of not having any lunch when I filled up the bike for my second tank. I took the opportunity to have a bottle of water and a large picnic – healthy eating or what!

Tonight’s hotel is again nice and smart and boasts free WiFi, which was one of the reasons for selecting it.  That and it was put on the Horizons Unlimited board by someone who has, presumably, stayed there. Unfortunately, the Service Provider has taken a leaf out of the German MacDonalds franchise’s book, and they insist on sending an access code to a Russian phone. I though I had got round it by mentioning it to the receptionist who said I could use her phone number and she would let me know the code. Great stuff I thought. Sadly, the Russian ISP must have smelt a rat because try though everyone did, no-one could get me on to the internet. ******!

I did go for a walk to what passes for a high street and successfully managed to get enough cash to buy a couple of beers before exchanging some cash tomorrow. Just in time for beer o’clock, nice.

 

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“Stalingrad”

I had a number of things I wanted to do today: sort out my missing bolt (on the bike, not in my neck!), laundry, and to see Pavlov’s House. The import of the first two items pale into insignificance, having seen the third, and I really want to thank my son Dave, for suggesting I see it.

Pavlov's House memorial

The inscription on the memorial reads: “In this building fused together heroic feats of warfare and of labor. We will defend / rebuild you, dear Stalingrad!”

I make no apologies for pointing out what may be obvious to some, but just for the benefit of those who were not aware, Volgograd used to be called Stalingrad, and World War 2 saw what is arguably the bloodiest battle in human history. Russian “total casualties” amounted to 1,129,619, whilst the German “total casualties” amounted to 850,000. A significant event during the battle was the seige at “Pavlov’s House”.

During the battle Sergeant Pavlov, in charge of his platoon, withstood a siege for two months before being relieved by Russian forces. The monument is the much photographed corner wall, which Dave sent me. When I went to see it I was not prepared to see the actual building preserved exactly as it was, and was seen in photographs taken at the time. The atmosphere near it is tangible, to the point that, while I was there, many coach loads arrived and went, but very few actually approached the building. Again, while I was near the building, I heard no one speak, they only stood, paid their respects, took their photographs and left, all in total silence. The memory of that building, and the atmosphere will stay with me forever.

Pavlov's House preservedIt helped me understand maybe some of the Russian psyche when it comes to politics. The Russians have long memories. They remember Napoleon – indeed, many Russian words have their origins in France, e.g. the Russian word for a shop is the French word magazin, just spelt differently – and they also have the visible reminder of Hitler.  No wonder then, that the present Russian leader worries about the West encroaching on what has been a traditional area of strategic interest, or “buffer zone”, between Russia and the West.

Politicians start the wars, they don’t fight them, if they did there would surely be far fewer of them.

I got a temporary replacement for my bolt but, as for my laundry, it won’t have to wait for two months for relief, and another day or two will make no difference.

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Excuse me, you have a screw loose …

BarEndWeightSo, there I was sitting in front of a set of traffic lights at yet more roadworks and getting hot, when the car behind me tooted his horn. I looked at the lights and they were red. What was his problem, I thought, and looked back to see him shaking his fist at me! I gave him the Gallic shrug of the shoulders and raised my hands, palms upwards as if to say “What?”. He then got out of his car and started shouting at me and waving his fist ….. Oh, hang on a minute; he is actually pointing down at the ground. I looked down and saw a familiar chunk of metal. It was my handlebar end weight, which attaches the handguards to the handlebar and stops everything falling off the end of the bar. Oh ****** !

Somehow the retaining bolt had come lose and dropped off back down the road. I was lucky the driver behind saw the weight fall off or I would have had a problem. Fortunately, it was the left side and the grips are secure, so I now just have to find somewhere to get the bolt.

On I rode, into Volgograd, following Garmin to my chosen hotel – forgetting that I had not programmed in a specific point on the map for Volgograd… Now, anyone who uses GPS’s, knows that the problem with setting a random point in town as your destination is that, while you often end up in the middle of it, sometimes you end up in the middle of no-where. And this was such an occasion. It took me down a very bumpy road with potholes that you could have lost a lorry in and never seen it again. They were BIG! So, Garmin reprogrammed for my hotel, I carried on – only to find that the building was being rebuilt. Literally! I could see the main concrete structure, with no walls and no roof. Back to my Garmin it was, and quickly set off for the next nearest hotel.

The Astoriya is a smart hotel, nicely tiled staircase, very smart rooms and friendly staff. In most big towns it would have cost a fortune to stay there, but this is Volgograd, the home of thousands of missing lorries and thousands of people looking into huge holes in the road, wondering how to retrieve the wreckage …..  Ok, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but the roads are really dreadful. The room was very reasonably priced at about £35 per night, you wouldn’t find a Premier Inn for that in most of western Europe. They even let me bring my spare tyres up to the room for safe keeping, so now my room looks like a motorcycle wreck!

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