Thursday, 3rd September: OK, so we are playing catch-up with the blog. The first thing we did on arriving in Moscow was to hire a car. The operation on John’s leg meant that he had no plaster cast and, since it was his left leg that was injured, he could easily drive an automatic. He put us both on the hire agreement but, in fact, I was quietly glad not to be asked to drive. Illogically, perhaps, I find it a scarier prospect launching myself into the unremitting traffic on the 3rd Ring Road in a car, than on a bike. It might seem a bit “Mad Max”, but there’s far more vision, and the power-to-weight ratio of a bike means that you can very quickly accelerate to outrun the other vehicles. Also, bearing in mind that even the most minor ‘coming together’ on a public road must be reported to the Police, and despite appearances to the contrary, Muscovites do actively try to miss each other. The bikes weren’t due to arrive until Monday 24th, and we were by no means sure how quickly John would be able to ride. He was certainly restricted in terms of the amount of walking he could expect to do on any one day, but having the car meant we weren’t entirely captive at the Night Train Motel for the period of his recuperation.
And just as well, as the following day we had an invitation from Stephen Dalzeil, formerly with the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, and whom we met while planning our 2011 Moscow ride. He happened to be in Moscow with his Russian wife, Marina, and their son, Alex.
We were invited for dinner at Marina’s father’s tiny top-floor apartment in South Moscow but, having got there, Stephen asked if we would like to stay overnight and go to the Annual Autumn Honey Fair in Kolomenskoye Park with them on Sunday. As with much of the trip, this was entirely unplanned and a rare opportunity to gain a real insight into Russian life. As in France, a two room apartment generally consists of one bedroom and one living room. Marina’s father was away for the weekend, but he normally lives on his own. Having the family over on a visit means that things get cosy. But, as we are learning, what to us might seem unconventional sleeping arrangements, are perfectly normal in Russia so, relieved of the necessity to drive back to the Night Train, we accepted a pre-dinner Pimms and Marina made up a sofa bed for us.
It transpired that the family were in town to visit the dentist – as first class dental work is considerably less expensive in Moscow than in London. I must confess that John and I both subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke …” school of thought on dentists, so I haven’t been anywhere near one in at least 21 years – as long as I have known John, in fact. Even so, under unforgiving bathroom lighting, I had recently begun to notice that my pearly whites weren’t quite so pearly any more, and here seemed to be an opportune moment to do something about it. Marina called her hygienist and set up an appointment. No matter that I don’t speak Russian. Who is able to talk during a dental check-up, anyway? With all the incidents and accidents that we have experienced over the last few months, John and I have become quite brave. (Possibly to the point of recklessness. But more of that later …)
We dined on cold meats, fish, and a variety of salads, breads and cakes, which Marina had carefully chosen as being typically Russian. Spare toothbrushes were found, and t-shirts to sleep in … and, in a stroke of ingenuity, Marina produced a sterile container for my contact lenses, and made up some saline solution with boiled water and a pinch of salt. Did I mention she normally works as a GP in London?
Breakfast followed the same pattern. Again, keen that we should experience ‘real’ Russia, Marina prepared millet porridge for us. Whilst John and I have reacquired a taste for oat porridge in Moscow, the millet version was a bit … meh! Even with the addition of jam. It didn’t matter; the small table was laden with all manner of other goodies. There were yoghurts and bread, small cakes and biscuits, and black and green tea. Again, like the French, Russians see nothing wrong with eating chocolate for breakfast, but I struggled a bit with the cloying sweetness of it all.
I’d got over myself by the time we got to the Honey Fair, where there was sweetness aplenty. Who knew there were so many varieties? Every corner of Russia was represented in the huge marquee, and every colour, texture and consistency of honey. At each stand, we were handed two or three disposable plastic wands and invited to sample honey from lime flowers, honey from wild flowers, honey from heather, honey from acacia … chestnut … coriander … You get the picture. There are literally hundreds of varieties on sale, each with their own very distinct flavour, and often accompanied by outlandish claims as to their health-promoting or healing properties. There’s nothing I like better than a dollop of honey on a slice of hot, buttered, toast. Resistance was futile, so John and I bought far more than we could carry and had to prevail on Stephen and Marina to ship a couple of tubs home in their luggage.
On Tuesday morning, I received a text telling me that two motorcycles had been received at Ratek’s Moscow warehouse, conveniently just around the corner from the Night Train. Unfortunately, that was just about the only thing about the delivery that was convenient.
John’s bike was brought out first, and the staff set about dismantling the crate. I could see mine, wedged up against a wall at the back of the warehouse. Even from the door, some 30 metres away, I could see that something wasn’t quite right. But, for the moment, it was John’s bike that was causing most concern.
The bar end weights had been removed and the hand guards were loose. The left-hand indicator had been smashed, one of the headlight protectors was missing and there was a gash in the left-hand grip and a deep scratch on the plastic fairing. The bike started ok, but John was understandably upset. What were we to do? The bike was rideable, yes, but the damaged and missing items would amount to hundreds of Euro to repair and the bar ends and indicator would need to be fixed before we left Moscow. There was nothing else for it. Reluctantly, I messaged Maxim … who quickly dispatched the unfortunate Dennis to the scene to assess the damage, fix what he could, and sort out an insurance claim.
Now we turned our attention to my bike. The crate was completely shattered and the bike required two men to hold it upright on the forklift. WTF?! In fact, when the remains of the crate were peeled away, there was no visible damage to the actual bike at all. Well, there wouldn’t be; the bike was filthy. But, even so, it wouldn’t start. No! Not another flat battery, surely? Dennis asked one of the warehouse staff to help jump start the bike from his car, but the bike was having none of it. Then a truck driver offered a more substantial battery. Still no joy. It didn’t make any sense. The battery had been new in July, remember, and had been kept charged by regular riding ever since Irkutsk. Dennis suspected a loose connection and removed the fuel tank for an inspection. What we found was a completely dry battery. All the electrolyte had somehow drained out of it, leading us to the conclusion that there was more to the crushed crate than met the eye. At some point during the truck ride from Mariinsk, the bike must have fallen over and been left on its side. Dennis went to buy a new battery …
We spent the following afternoon drinking tea and watching Russian television, while Dennis fixed John’s broken bike in his workshop behind Leningradsky Station. Although we couldn’t understand the language, the (seemingly interminable) programme, entitled “Military Secret” or something similar, was a highly inflammatory piece of propaganda portraying the Ukrainians as a nation of rabid fascists. Anyway, there was nothing to say and this was no place for a political argument via Google Translate.
With the bikes now back on the road, there was no further need for the hire car, so we returned it. Alas, when we arrived back at SixT’s office, the rep noticed a small scratch on the bottom of the plastic bumper. We looked at each other and shrugged. “We have no idea how that happened”, we lied. Actually, we knew exactly how that had happened. The very first morning we had the car, John had backed it into one of the concrete planters that line the Night Train’s parking area. Oooops! Anyway, there was nothing to worry about, was there? John had taken out full insurance, so we should be covered.
Wrong. In order to claim on the insurance, there would have to be a police report. You have got to be kidding! Well, we weren’t about to be stung for the cost of polishing out a small scratch, so we had better make a report. Luckily, the female rep was sympathetic and called the police for us. Remarkably – considering the sheer quantity of minor accidents they are required to attend – an officer arrived with 30 minutes.
The policeman listened patiently as the rep explained our predicament. We invented some sort of cover story about the damage probably having occurred in a fictitious stretch of roadworks, and the officer obligingly took a photo of the scratch and fetched a sheaf of forms from his car. There followed much writing and document checking and re-checking, all necessitating the translation skills of the pretty rep, who seemed to be quite enjoying the whole episode … as was the police officer! We’re only happy we appear to have brightened up their otherwise dull afternoons.
So, here we were, back on two wheels and approaching the end of John’s convalescence. Soon we must start our final homeward journey but, before we left Moscow, there was one last thing that John had promised himself: a tattoo. Back in our hospital room in Mariinsk, he had briefly toyed with the idea of getting a dart board tattooed on his backside, but the ride to China had been such a massive achievement, he felt it deserved something more meaningful … and more visible. He came up with Carpe Diem, which translates roughly as “live for the moment”, and perfectly sums up our attitude to life. And, since John was having a tattoo, he could hardly object to my ‘improving’ one of mine. I knew exactly what I wanted …
Maxim introduced us to Dmitry, the Night Train’s resident tattooist, who occupies a small studio above the Honky Tonk Roadhouse. He asked what we had in mind. John’s tattoo was straightforward, but my idea made Maxim hesitate. “Your mother will not like it”, he said, “you’ll have to wear long sleeves …” I assured him that my mother had long since got used to my unconventional ways and would be delighted to have me back in one piece, with or without the tattoo.
Anyway, the deal was done and, at the appointed hour, Dmitry tracked down a couple of suitable images on Google and did some clever wizardry with Photoshop to create his design. He applied the transfer and asked if my mother would be happy with it. Ah… Dmitry had understood my conversation with Maxim. So as to avoid any misunderstanding, I used the Translate app on my mobile phone, “For the purposes of this tattoo, Maxim is my mother.”
This raised a laugh but, given that Maxim is effectively Dmitry’s Landlord, I’m not sure he was particularly reassured. He made me a cup of coffee and started work. It was 5pm.
I had assumed that the tattoo would be done in two or more sessions, but it wasn’t painful and Dmitry, fuelled by coffee, cigarettes and (dare I say it) heaven knows what else, was happy to carry on. At regular intervals throughout the evening, various Night Train regulars put their heads around the door to ask (in English) if I was still alive. John and I kept each other up-to-date by means of text messages. At 3.45am, I texted to ask him to let me into the motel …
A few days later, we had a last meal at the Honky Tonk and made a vague plan to meet Maxim in Amsterdam on our way home. The following morning, we packed our bikes and bade goodbye to Moscow and the Night Train Motel.
До свидания, Москва.