How much?!

 

Tuesday, 14th July: My brief stay in beautiful Irkutsk got off to an ignominious start. Exiting the station, I was confronted with the usual throng of taxi touts at the station entrance. They can be quite aggressive, and my plan was to ignore them completely and find my way out to the taxi rank. Unfortunately, one of the more persistent ones caught me up and directed me to his driver. The car was a beaten up shit-heap, but that isn’t unusual. I asked the tout for the price. After all, that’s what the touts do – negotiate the fare for the drivers. This tout waved his hands dismissively and just said “taximeter, taximeter”.

I really should know better by now, but he took my bag and put it in the boot and opened the door for me. He explained to the driver where I was going … and then got in the car himself! A small alarm bell went off in my head. Taxi touts don’t generally travel with the passenger. He asked if I minded if he smoked, and lit up before I had a chance to answer. I couldn’t see any evidence of a ‘taximeter’. So here I was, a foreigner with no Russian language, in what was presumably an unlicensed taxi, with two strange men. I took my folding walking stick out of my day bag and snapped it together as noisily and purposefully as possible!

The hotel was not a good choice. Thanks, Booking.com. It was in a housing estate, 4 or 5 kms from the city centre. The driver couldn’t find it and there was much checking of the address and the GPS before, in desperation, I handed the tout my phone showing the location in map view.

We stopped outside and the tout showed me his ‘taximeter’ – a dodgy-looking app on his mobile phone. 4,500 Roubles (approximately £50)!!! In English, I told them they had got to be kidding and that the cost of their taxi was more than the price of two nights at the hotel. It wouldn’t have mattered what I said. I could have called them a couple of thieving gobshites and all manner of other unflattering names, but they got the message that I was extremely angry. I opened my wallet and took out a 1,000 Rouble note. It was more or less all I had on me, and should have more than covered the ride. No. It wasn’t enough. I told them I didn’t have any more. They said they would take me to the ‘bankomat’.

There really wasn’t an awful lot I could do about it, as they still had my bag in the boot. So we went to a local supermarket and I drew out 7,000 Roubles (which I needed anyway) from the ATM. On my way back to the car, I made a great play of writing down the car number. The tout started protesting in a hey-what-are-you-doing sort of a way, waving his phone at me, “taximeter, taximeter …” “You can turn that off, right NOW!” I slammed my stick into the ground and had another rather public rant about their dishonesty. No one would have understood a word I was saying, but I was making a bit of a scene. The fare dropped to 2,000 Roubles, to which I reluctantly agreed. At least they took my bag out of the boot before I paid them. I was angry at myself. Since I’ve been back in Russia, I’ve encountered nothing but help and friendliness wherever I’ve been. I let my guard down for a moment at the station and ended up about 1,500 Roubles out of pocket. Still, it could have been worse. Much worse.

Feeling the need for English-speaking company, I logged into the Horizons Unlimited boards and asked for recommendations for ex-pat pubs in town. Within minutes I had a response from one of the members who was actually in Irkutsk, starting a ride to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan with a mate … just as soon as their bikes cleared customs. They invited me to come and eat with them, so I asked the hotel to order me a taxi.

Following a very good meal with Paul and Daniel, I asked their hotel to order me a taxi back to the sticks. Now this was a perfectly respectable, professional, taxi driver – with a proper taximeter and all – but even he couldn’t find my hotel. When we did eventually arrive (after he phoned the receptionist for directions), I paid for the one night and said that I would be moving into a more central location the following day. I was sorry to do so, because the accommodation was very comfortable and the staff, though non-English speaking, were friendly and helpful, but I couldn’t be doing with getting lost every time I wanted to go into the city.

By midday on Tuesday, I was installed at the Victoria Hotel, just off Karl Marx Street, in central Irkutsk. By 2pm, the English-speaking receptionist had arranged for me to pick my motorcycle up from the railway depot first thing on Wednesday, and ordered a taxi to take me there. Things were looking up.

Wednesday morning arrived and I was duly collected and delivered to the freight depot. The warehouse staff took my paperwork and extracted the bike crate from the dozens of other crates and boxes that had, presumably, arrived on the same train. Remembering how solidly it had been put together, I did momentarily wonder how I was supposed to dismantle it on my own.

I needn‘t have worried. Intrigued by this strange English woman and her yellow motorcycle, two of the depot workers set about the crate with a couple of crow-bars. I produced a knife and sliced away the layers of cling film and, minutes later, the bike was free of its cage. My next problem was how I was going to get it down to street level. One of the workers went to fetch a fork-lift truck! But no. They weren’t about to move my bike with it. They simply moved some other freight that had been stacked in front of the shutter door, leading to the railway platform, and motioned me to roll the bike outside, pointing to a ramp at the far end.

Now for the moment of truth. Would it start? Don’t be silly. Of course it wouldn’t! I had barely ridden the bike at all since Denis had installed the new battery and, over the course of the last week or so, it had run flat again. With hand signals, I explained the problem. They gestured that they could jump start it with cables, to which, in turn, I pointed out the inconvenient siting of the battery underneath the fuel tank. We would have to lift it. A tool kit was produced from a back room.

A car was driven onto the platform and the jump leads were attached as well as they could be. I gave the starter another try. No. It needed a bit more charge yet. We let the car run. More people gathered on the platform. Suddenly, everyone was an armchair biker. Some had a few words of English. I explained that I was meeting my husband in Mongolia. “Mongolia?” “You’re going to Mongolia?” “On this bike?”” I like this bike.” “Skola mototsickle?” “How much?”

By the time we got the bike started, I probably could have sold it three times over!

But this is Omsk!

Sunday, 12th July: As well as picking me up from the station, Anastasia’s father used his connections with a local hotel to get me a good room with a view of the river. She came back a little later with her brother to give me a whistle-stop tour. While it might not be the most attractive of Siberian cities, it does have its share of history and a pretty old quarter boasting a number of designer shops. I wasn’t too bothered, though I would have liked to find a pair of shorts to replace mine that suffered a boating accident last weekend. Unfortunately, though, there wasn’t too much choice for the older (or larger) woman. Damn. I was quite fond of those shorts. They had got a bit big for me, but they were comfortable … and not too short. Maybe I’ll remake them when I get home.

Before she left, Anastasia kindly helped me buy my onward ticket to Irkutsk. Frankly, I never would have managed on my own. I should have used the Internet. You might not get quite as much control over your accommodation (I wanted a female-only compartment), but at least the pages on the RZD website are logical and translated into English … and you can pay by credit card. Yup, you’ve guessed. I had to go and raid the ATM again. I wouldn’t mind, even, but the daily limit on most machines is 6,000 – 7,500 Roubles. That’s no more than about £75-£85 – not even enough to pay for the train ticket. It’s embarrassing when you continually find that you have no cash on you. I pointed out that I had paid for my train ticket in Moscow by credit card and was told simply, “But this is Omsk.”

My sight-seeing intentions were thwarted by the weather on Friday. I hung around the hotel, watching wedding parties pose for photos on the steps of the museum next door. It seems to be a tradition in Russia that the happy couple get driven around to pose for photos at well-known landmarks. Though John and I were delighted with our wedding photographs, the thought of having to spend a whole afternoon getting in and out of the car for them, not to mention all the fixing of make-up and hair that must go on would, I suspect, be grounds for divorce in themselves. I must be missing something.

Unfortunately, my train on Saturday was not due to leave until 10pm and I needed to check out of the hotel by midday. I packed my bag and put it in the left luggage room, taking the essentials (my documents, computer, and toiletries and a change of undies for the train) in my day bag.  I’d slightly given up on sight-seeing, but I wanted to buy some picnic food and I had promised postcards.

The picnic food was easy enough. I couldn’t find any Trail Bars to replace the ones from the UK, but I spotted what appeared to be the next best thing, ‘fruit batons’. The illustration on the box showed an appetising-looking bar, apparently containing apricots, plums and apples; along with which, I bought some salami (same word in Russian), water, and a selection of small pasties.

The postcards were more problematic. I tried various souvenir vendors but, despite showing them the word for postcard in the dictionary, none of them seemed to be familiar with the concept. The tourist office seemed to be my best bet, but the battery in my old HTC phone (now containing a Russian SIM) was almost flat again and gave me no time to interpret the directions. By pure good fortune I stumbled across the main post office.

The woman behind the stationery kiosk pulled out a smart pack of 10 assorted postcards and four pre-stamped envelopes. “Spaciba”, I said, “I’ll take the lot.” Five minutes later, having failed to work out the queuing system for the post office counters, I was back for stamps. The envelopes were, presumably, good for Russian addresses, but I felt sure that I would have to attach extra stamps for England. “Angliya”, I said, while miming a weighing action with the envelope. The woman looked at me blankly. I pointed at the pre-paid frank on the envelope. “Evropa”, I tried again. The penny dropped, and she went off to ask a colleague. Do I expect too much from people, I wonder? After a few minutes she came back and sold me four 13 Rouble stamps, one for each envelope. 13 Roubles? That’s about 2p. Seriously?! I have now forgotten how much the pre-stamped envelopes were, but I was sure that European destinations would cost more than 13 Roubles extra. I was powerless to ask anyone else, so we’ll have to wait and see whether they arrive.

I ordered a taxi to the station at 9pm and waited for the 242 to Irkutsk to come in. By that time, I had walked half way round Omsk and I was exhausted and fit only to climb into my bunk bed. I just hoped that I wouldn’t have noisy companions. I couldn’t be as lucky as I had been with Olga and Nika, could I?

I boarded at about 9.45pm and quickly found my place in Wagon #5, next to the restaurant car. There was only one other woman in the compartment, but she had made herself at home, spreading her luggage, magazines and picnic over every surface. She cleared the unoccupied lower bunk so that I could stow my bag underneath, and then I sat and waited for the carriage attendant to check my ticket and give me my bed linen, while my companion packed away the rest of her belongings.

As the train moved out, the carriage attendant duly appeared … with a man! Hadn’t I requested a female-only compartment after all? Oh, well. If Russians don’t mind mixed-sex compartments, I suppose I won’t have to either. I was confused as to which bunk he was taking, as he was already in possession of a pack of bed linen and was trying to stow the spare mattress and pillow from ‘my’ upper bunk. I got out of the way, so that he could lift the lower bunk, but my case was taking up the chest underneath so, with a few words of apology, he rolled up my companion’s mattress and bedding and tried her side. Already in her nightdress, she waited patiently in the passage, while he tried to put everything back the way it had been.

I was tired and getting increasingly frustrated. I just wanted to go to bed, but the carriage attendant called on the translation services of a young woman in the next door compartment. Her English wasn’t good, but it was a great deal better than my Russian. It transpired that the man was a railway employee and was only trying to help me make my bed. Oh dear. It was a kind thought, but he was quite clumsy and I really wasn’t in the mood. I asked my translator to thank him and tell him that I would be ok from here … Now there were only four people left in the compartment. The attendant checked my ticket and passed on various messages about the facilities on board and, in particular, the rules about using the toilet.

At last, job done, the carriage attendant went away and, with her, the girl from next door. The lights had been turned out apart from my companion’s reading light, so I brushed my teeth and got into bed. (Note to self: top bunks are provided for use of the young and athletic!) Suddenly, all the lights came on again by themselves. WTF?! Neither of us had stirred. I reached down to the switch by the door and turned them off again and closed my eyes. Peace, at last.

There was a knock. The door slid open and the lights came on again. Christ! What is this? I just want to go to sleep. Here was the carriage attendant, the translating girl from next door and a third woman, dressed in a sort of tea-lady’s tunic. The carriage attendant said something to the effect of “Sorry, were you asleep?” and the girl explained that the tea-lady had come to take my order for meals. Meals? “Yes, they’re included in the price on this train.”

The choices for breakfast, as far as I understood, were “porridge” or “eggs”. Since neither appealed, and I had my ‘fruit batons’ and jasmine tea, I declined. Lunch was “meat or fish”, and dinner was … “meat or fish”. I chose “meat” for both and went back to bed. Moments later, the door opened again. It was now close to 11pm and the attendant was selling souvenirs! To be fair, she did have a rather nice glass tea cup in a fancy metal holder bearing a pair of imperial eagles, and I needed a cup, so I asked how much it was. 1000 Roubles. “Niet, spaciba!” She closed the door behind her and I turned off the light again.

I don’t think I slept very well, but I must have dozed off at some point in the early morning as, when I awoke, I found my companion preparing to disembark in Novosibirsk. Now alone, and in a much better mood, I got up and went to buy a cup of tea – mainly so that I would have a cup that I could reuse. The attendant produced a teabag, so I mimed drinking from a cup. “Ah,” she said and, opening a cupboard, she handed me a smaller version of the souvenir glass tea cup and a teaspoon – on loan.

My ‘fruit batons’ need to be reported to the advertising standards people. Rather than a satisfying Trail Bar-style biscuit illustrated on the box, they turned out to be small lozenges of dried fruit that looked suspiciously like some sort of laxative. I tried one with caution.

East!

Thursday, 9th July: All good things must come to an end, and it was time for me to get on the train. Though I had successfully managed to pack everything non-essential into my new sailcloth bag, it was now extremely heavy and a bit of a struggle to keep the shoulder strap in place over my day bag. Maxim had kindly said he would be there at midday to see me off and I joked that it was probably the only way he could be sure I’d get on the right train. If so, he was very nearly right. I had over an hour till my departure, so went upstairs to the waiting area and bought a couple of bottles of water.

Right on cue, Maxim texted to say that he was ‘outside’. Assuming he had had difficulty parking, I thought he was aiming simply to say goodbye ‘outside’ the station and go and, knowing a little about Moscow traffic, I wouldn’t have blamed him. Oh well, how difficult could finding a platform possibly be? I lugged the bags back downstairs and out of the station entrance. Maxim was nowhere to be seen. “Where are you?” I texted. “Outside. By the trains.” Oh, flipping heck …

So I put the bags through the security scanner and hobbled quickly through to the platform entrance. In front of me were a row of platforms serving suburban trains. I looked around. Still Maxim was nowhere to be seen and, clearly, these were not the right platforms. Though John might tell you different, my panic mode is generally reserved for small stuff: lost keys, phones, handbags, etc., which almost always turn up exactly where I left them. Important stuff, over which I have little or no control, tends to engage my problem-solving mode instead. However, as I scoured the concourse for a panel showing my platform number, I was feeling distinctly rattled. I rang Maxim, “Where are you?” “Near Platform 4.”

Platform 4!? Why Platform 4 and, anyway, where the fuck was Platform 4? They seemed to end at 6 and I could see the street beyond. But logic dictated that, even in Moscow, the platforms would be arranged in numerical order, so all I had to do was keep walking … I was so visibly relieved when we did eventually see each other that Maxim laughed.

In fact, the platform number isn’t displayed until the train comes, in about 30 minutes before its advertised departure time. True to his good nature, Maxim waited with me until it arrived and – having given me a light-hearted ticking off for its weight – carried my bag the full length of the platform to Wagon 2 at the front of the train. He saw me into the correct compartment, and explained me to my new travelling companions, a young woman and her small daughter. He offered to arrange for someone to meet me in Omsk, and we agreed to keep in touch. Then, after a well-deserved hug, Maxim was gone and I was on my own.

Travelling East so fast, overground, is strangely disorienting. Seemingly minutes after leaving Moscow Yaroslavskaya station, we were racing into the twilight. Seasoned railway travellers know this and prepare their bedding as soon as they can. Certainly, my companion, Olga, wanted to get her daughter, Nika, off to sleep quickly. Unfortunately, Nika had already made friends with Mathias, a boy of about 10, travelling with his grandmother. He was a nice lad though, sharing his toy cars and playing peek-a-boo with her until ushered back into the next door compartment by the attendant.

The other thing seasoned travellers know is to pack a picnic. Though there was a restaurant car somewhere on the train, most people seemed to be unpacking fruit and cakes to see them through the night. I had water and a couple of Trail Bars, which I thought I had better save for the morning. While Olga mixed some puree for Nika, I settled down and reconciled myself to going to bed hungry.

The entire Russian railway network operates on Moscow time, so changing my watch would have been counter-productive as the timing and duration of all the stops en-route is posted in the passageway. It doesn’t matter anyway.  You simply rest or read until the light fades and then you go to sleep. You wake when it gets light and the routine starts again. The only problem is that it gets light at 2am.

The bedding was surprisingly comfortable. Each passenger is issued with a rolled mattress, a pillow and a duvet, a pack of crisply starched bed linen, and a towel. I settled down at about 8pm on Tuesday (Moscow time) with every expectation of a good night’s sleep, but it wasn’t to be. My companions were silent as mice but, as early as midnight, I found myself awake and gazing out of the window at the breaking dawn.

We pulled into a station and I could hear the sound of doors banging in other carriages. A freight train passed. Only after the first dozen or so wagons had gone by, did I start counting. 84; It was a long one.

By 4am it was fully light and my companions were awake; there was already a queue for the washroom … and I was hungry. I reached into my day bag for a Trail Bar and a bottle of water. Olga pointed to the other end of the carriage. I understood two magic words, “coffee, chai …” Sure enough, the friendly carriage attendant had a small selection of snacks and instant drinks for sale and (scalding) hot water was freely available from the slightly scary-looking boiler opposite her compartment. She even lent me a spoon for the teabag.

Needless to say, by 7am I was fast asleep. When I opened my eyes, an hour or so later, I found Olga playing quietly with Nika, having closed the door on Mathias. She smiled at me and I got the distinct feeling that I’d been snoring. I took out the ziplock freezer bag that contains my toiletries and went to see if the washroom was now free.

Now, Maxim had assured me that all trains provide charging points for mobile phones and laptops and, indeed, had pointed out a socket conveniently situated directly outside my compartment. I opened the cover of the elderly smartphone into which I had put the all-important Russian SIM; the battery symbol was now showing 10% remaining. Yikes! I realised that there would be no way that I would be able to connect to the Internet until I charged it. Lucky there was a socket handy, eh?.

Alas, the socket was not working. Mathias, eager to show off his few words of English, ran to find the attendant. To give her her due, she did seem to worry that the socket wasn’t working as it should. She pointed out the label showing low output and took me down to the 220V shaver socket outside the washroom. It worked. Intermittently. But I had to hold the plug in place. I asked if I could sit there. “Pashalsta!” And that, folks, is how I became the washroom attendant for two hours.

Anyway, two hours gave me enough charge to connect to the Internet at the next station; enough to receive a message from Maxim reminding me that I had forgotten to give him the money for the bike crate. I explained the problem with keeping the phone charged and apologised profusely for forgetting the money. I’d had to make an extra cash withdrawal the previous morning to pay for the motel, so had thought of nothing else on the way to the station. I had even separated out the amount I owed, but with all the bother finding the platform, it had completely slipped my mind. I offered to pay him next time I see him and he didn’t seem overly bothered about it.

Mathias and his grandmother got off in Yeterinburg. Predictably, he was immediately missed and, to both Olga’s and my consternation, Nika began to cry. Olga tried calming her with juice, sliced sausage and chunks of cucumber, but Nika wasn’t having any of it. Olga tried a DVD, but that didn’t work either. Mercifully, children of that age (I’m guessing 2 years) are fickle and it wasn’t long before she was once again playing happily with her Peppa Pig train. I must have dozed off.

As I came to, I became vaguely aware of a snuffling sound. Olga was looking down at her phone. She noticed that I was awake and rubbed her nose. Something didn’t seem right but, not wishing to intrude, I closed my eyes again. The snuffling continued.

What do you do at times like this? Olga’s life was none of my business, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, trapped on a train with a tiny child and a mute foreigner. It would have been cruel to ignore her completely. “Narmalna?” I ventured. She nodded, wiping her eyes. “Ya hachoo peetz. Vuy hachietay chai … coffee?” She nodded. “Chai zeelorni. Spasiba.” It was the only friendly thing I could do and, after all, wherever you are in the world, tea and chocolate are an easy fix … for most things!

We arrived in Omsk at about 10.30am. I managed to negotiate the crowded platform without too much difficulty, ignoring some rather aggressive taxi touts. Reaching the security screen inside the station hall, I thought I was safe, but a large hand grabbed at the handle of my bag, “Taxi?” Luckily, the weight of the bag surprised him, but I got such a shock, I gave him a good poke in the chest with my walking stick for his trouble. Sensibly, he backed off before things escalated … as, to my eternal shame, things have been known to do in the past.

I reached the station entrance with no further drama and scanned the car park for a bus stop. I hadn’t heard anything further from Maxim and hadn’t a clue where I was going. The laptop battery was flat and I had forgotten the name of the hotel I had identified in my earlier planning. Suddenly, a woman’s voice called out, “Brigid!”

I was saved again.

Onwards and upwards

Monday, 6th July: Having made the decision to ship the bike by train to Irkutsk, I needed to get a crate made – and, for that, I needed to take the bike back to Andre’s warehouse. A frequent criticism from John is that I never have to find my own way anywhere, as I’m always following him. It isn’t quite true, but he has a point. I’ve never liked or trusted GPS and haven’t, up until now, had to use my new unit. But how hard could it be?

Not at all hard, as it happened. In fact, I arrived early, on the basis that I needed to visit a bank. I asked Andre if there was one nearby. Andre speaks no English, but he understood my lousy Russian well enough. Unfortunately, here’s where I have a problem with these audio learn-any-language-in-a-matter-of-hours-type courses, they never, ever, give you anything like enough practice with comprehension. So, although there might, very possibly, have been a bank within walking distance of Andre’s warehouse, I would never have understood Andre’s directions to find it. Lack of communication is a dispiriting experience and, in the case of Russian, one that I hope to remedy.

Cling Film CocoonAndre sighed and pointed to a couple of wooden pallets that had been fixed together to make a bike-sized platform. A hole had been cut in the top to hold the front wheel. Andre motioned for me to ride the bike onto it. Apart from removing the panniers, that was the end of my input. Within minutes, his team had strapped the bike down and removed the windscreen and mirrors. The panniers and tent were wedged in place beside the bike, and a couple of unsuccessful attempts were made to syphon the remaining fuel from the tank. Then the entire bike was wrapped in several layers of cling film, giving the appearance that it had been trapped in a cocoon by some monstrous alien being. The crate itself was then built around the bike using lengths of timber around the sides and two more joined pallets for the top. Then more cling film.

LoadingWith immaculate timing, Maxim arrived with his truck just as the crate was being finished. It was loaded on board and we took it straight to the freight depot … via a bank!

I changed the last of our Euros, giving me 20,300 Roubles which, on the basis that the bike freight, passenger ticket and motel would all be paid for by credit card, and allowing for the money I owed Andre for the crate, should have given me plenty of cash to see me to Ulaanbaatar. Should have.

We arranged for the bike to leave on Thursday, with a scheduled arrival in Irkutsk on Monday 13th. The plan was that I should leave on Tuesday and take a couple of days break somewhere along the way.

The bike was unloaded from the truck and weighed and then ‘inspected’ for any signs of fuel in the tank. If there had been any doubt as to the integrity of Andre’s crate, now would have been the acid test. One railway worker jumped on top of the crate and put his ear to the cover, while two or three others rocked the crate back and forth in the expectation of being able to hear any fuel slopping about. Nothing. So a hole was punched in the outer wrapping so that they could tap on the fuel tank. Zilch. There had, in fact, been too little fuel left in the bike to syphon – a tiny quantity that I illustrated to Maxim between my thumb and index finger. “Don’t show me your fingers,” he said quietly, “I don’t want to be here all afternoon!”

Forms were filled and a (discounted) price was agreed: 20,200 Roubles. I reached for my credit card. Nope. They don’t take credit cards … So I handed over the cash and was back to square one. The whole transaction was friendly and helpful and was wound up by the clerk writing the address and telephone number of the receiving depot in Irkutsk on a Post-It note, which she handed to me with a business card. This brings me onto another issue I have with audio-only language courses. How the Hell are you supposed to find your way about or order from a menu, if you can’t read the language?

In fact, I don’t have a problem with printed text or signage, as I taught myself to pronounce the Cyrillic alphabet back in 2011, on our first trip to Moscow – and many words, even if you can’t speak Russian, are so close in their pronunciation that you can often hazard a guess at their meaning. However, the railway clerk’s hand-written note posed a new problem. Russian print and Russian handwriting bear very little resemblance to one another!

With my onward travel plans quickly beginning to crystalise, I needed to buy myself a passenger ticket and do a bit of shopping. Maxim dropped me off at Yaroslavskaya station and left me to my own devices.

I cashed some money at the ATM by the entrance and bought a mobile SIM from the Megafon kiosk in the main hall. Then I joined the queue for tickets.

Russians don’t do queues; not as we British know them anyway. There were only two people in front of me when I arrived, but as the ticket-issuing process dragged on, more people crowded in to see what was causing the delay. Short of whacking the lot of them on the back of the legs with my stick, there was very little I could do about it. Eventually, three or four people were served ahead of me and then, just as I arrived at the window, the cashier signalled that he was off for his tea break. I cursed under my breath and moved to the next window, where the routine began again.

Every ticket took about 15 minutes to issue so, unsurprisingly, everyone in the queue was impatient. At last, the old man in front of me reached the cashier. He explained what he wanted and presented his passport and money. The cashier reached for it, only to be interrupted by a young woman who had pushed in from the left. She bellowed at the cashier, and shoved her money and documentation under the screen. The old man complained feebly and grabbed his money and passport back. The cashier was unmoved by the girl’s lack of manners and dealt with her ticket with the same lack of urgency with which she dealt with everyone else’s.

The old man was next and then, at last, it was my turn. I took a deep breath and prepared to explain myself. A young man who had been bobbing about impatiently to my right looked as if he were about to wet himself. Though my left leg was now beginning to ache from standing, he clearly considered that his time was more valuable than mine. I asked, in my best Russian, whether he thought was likely to be quicker than me – which, of course, he did. So I said “Pashalsta” and waved him through. Some gangly-looking Herbert at the back of the queue decided he might also try his luck, but he got a swift, and rather fierce, “Niet!”

However, it seems, although I didn’t intend it that way, that one good turn really does deserve another. So, having failed to impress the cashier with Google Translate on my phone, an English-speaking student came to my rescue. In surprisingly short order, I was leaving the station with a one-way ticket to Omsk, a destination picked at random for no better reason than it was approximately half-way to Irkutsk.

Biblio GlobusThe complete train journey to Irkutsk was going to take four days, even without the two nights in Omsk, and I was going to need something to occupy me. Here was a God-given opportunity to learn Russian handwriting. So I caught the Metro to Lubyanka station, where I found Biblio-Globus, one of Moscow’s biggest bookstores, and bought myself a child’s handwriting primer and Petrov’s Basic Training Course; Russian in 16 Lessons.

Back at the motel, I repacked my bags ready for the following morning and, having had a bit of a snooze, ventured out for dinner at the Honky Tonk bar. I hadn’t intended to stay out late, as I hadn’t been sleeping very well, but I was joined first by Dmitry Khitrov, then by a Spanish rider, Ricardo, and lastly by Maxim, who all took great delight in teasing me for my choice of Omsk as a staging post. Ricardo regaled us with stories from previous rides and amused Dmitry and Maxim with his rendition of a Georgian folk song which, though his seeming fluency in Russian impressed me, was apparently delivered with a thick Spanish accent! Fuelled by nothing more potent than tea and hot fruit cordials, we chatted and laughed until well after midnight.

Childhood revisited

ATVLessonSunday, 5th July: Knowing I would otherwise be alone in Moscow for the weekend, Maxim very kindly invited me to spend it with his family at his dacha. I’ll admit I was a bit worried, as his English is good but, as far as I knew, his wife and children have none at all – so I would be hard work for Maxim and probably a bit of a nuisance to everyone else. But he assured me it would be fine and, anyway, he had bought himself a fishing boat and could do with some help.

Perhaps I should say something about “dachas” before continuing. The dacha is a uniquely Russian concept. You often hear about Russian politicians escaping to their dachas for the summer, so you might be inclined to think that I had been invited to some sort of luxury country pad. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This article explains that, during the 60’s, the government allowed every Russian to claim a small plot of land and build a ‘summer house’, for leisure and/or for raising their own fruit and vegetables.

A taxi collected me from the motel on Saturday morning and I arrived at Maxim’s Moscow home to find him hooking up the “fishing boat” to his 6-wheel V8 Ford truck, onto which he had already loaded an appropriately muscular-looking ATV quad bike. His wife, Valeria, and children, Max2 and Dascha, and their Yorkie dog, occupied the bone-jarring back seat, leaving me the (infinitely) more comfortable front passenger seat. I didn’t argue. We stopped to pick up food and fuel and were quickly on our way.

Maxim’s dacha, on the banks of the Volga River, about 100 miles north of Moscow, doesn’t quite measure up to the picture-postcard image from the article. Bought over an internet auction, it comprises about a hectare of land in the middle of a forest, on which stand the dilapidated remains of a railway workers’ holiday resort. Our journey was slightly delayed by traffic to Russia’s answer to the Glastonbury Festival. Traffic stopped while hordes of pedestrians, already in varying states of intoxication and undress, trooped to and from the car park, blocking the route to the ferry.

Once over the river, the tarmac ran out and the road became sand until we suddenly turned off into a field, where the only evidence of traffic was a pair of ATV tracks disappearing into a thick wood – and we were in a vast SUV-type truck, towing a 20’ boat! We had to wind the windows up to stop the tree branches slapping us in the face and populating the cab with bugs and spiders! The trail passed two or three ramshackle flat-roofed buildings. Maxim smiled and said “This is where you are sleeping.” I nodded and smiled back. “You think I am joking”, he said, and paused before adding, still smiling, “I’m not.”

He wasn’t. The place did, in fact, have windows at the front, but no electricity or running water and consisted of two rooms with several beds in each. Maxim’s family took one room and I got the huge ‘kitchen’ and a choice of 6 single day beds/sofas.

But, first things first, the most important thing was to get the boat in the water. There were a few other families with boats at the river bank, so there were plenty of men around, only too pleased to help launch Maxim’s shiny new speed boat. No matter that no one seemed to have the first clue what they were doing. As with everything this weekend, it was all good humoured and there was a lot of laughter. Despite having been brought up around power boats, sailing dinghies are more my thing recently but, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King!

One of the guys pushed us off the shore and threw the painter rope back into the boat, while Maxim tried to start it. He looked to the crew, but I couldn’t help. We drifted out. The other men started shouting instructions from the shore. A phone call was made to the previous owner and, after a couple of minutes, the engine burbled to life. With no further ado, Maxim opened the throttle and we sped off up river for a few practice runs before coming back to collect the family. Valeria and Dascha didn’t seem wild about the boat to start with, but Max2 loved it, “Buistra, Papa! Buistra!”

I don’t think I’ve been in a powerboat of any kind since long before my father died in 1982. The boat, thumping across the slightly choppy water at speed, brought back so many happy memories. I wondered whether the fact that I was a) used to the motion of a powerboat, and b) clearly enjoying it, helped Valeria relax a bit … even if Dascha continued to cling to her like a limpet!

We stopped to let the children play on a little artificial island that was being used commercially for the extraction of sand. It wasn’t hard to imagine the excitement for a small boy, arriving by boat on the shores of a giant sandcastle. All he needed was a cutlass and a Jolly Roger flag! I had completely lost track of time, but was vaguely aware of lengthening shadows. I looked at my watch and was surprised to find it had already gone 7pm. Valeria signalled that it was time to light the barbeque back at base.

Railway ResortThis was my first proper look at our accommodation. Behind the featureless backs of the ramshackle buildings we had seen on the way to the riverbank, there were a dozen or so other small wooden houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Bembridge Forelands. They were rather charming in a dilapidated sort of a way, but terribly overgrown with nettles, shrubs and small saplings. There were also some rusty children’s swings and a little playground roundabout. When Maxim bought the land, he understood that the buildings had been abandoned for about 10 years but, in fact, there were three or four other families using them. He greeted everyone like an old friend, but confessed he hadn’t a clue who most of them were.

A rusty metal box on wobbly legs was retrieved from the undergrowth and filled with charcoal, twigs, broken roof shingles, and any other combustible material, onto which barbeque fuel was liberally sprinkled, creating a reasonably-sized inferno. We applied mosquito repellent and opened some slightly warm bottled beer and white wine and waited for the charcoal to reach cooking temperature. Dinner consisted of barbequed marinated chicken pieces, ‘cakes’, bread, tomatoes and cheese, and the obligatory cold tea. By 10pm, we were all exhausted and I retired to my dormitory room, where I chose one of two beds that appeared to have been made up with sheets and a blanket. It had a thin, slightly hollow, mattress, and I slept like a log.

On Sunday morning, I was woken at 6.30am by movements in the room next door, which sounded as if some sort of breakfast was being prepared. I don’t know Maxim terribly well, and had no idea whether they might be early risers. In any event, I didn’t want to be the annoying guest who one is forever having to wait for, so I thought I’d better get up. I gave myself a bit of a wash with baby wipes and got dressed. I was well and truly awake by the time I realised that there was another family in the adjoining part of the building. Maxim and his family were still fast asleep and the other buildings were quiet, so I took advantage of my solitude to visit the outhouse. Mercifully, faced with a smelly, dark, spider-infested ‘dunny’, my normally all-too-regular plumbing had gone into emergency shut-down mode, and I could only manage a pee.

Breakfast consisted of tea or coffee, croissants, small doughnut-like cakes, and the leftover sausages from last night’s dinner. We didn’t waste much time on it, as there were more important things to do. Max2 was clearly wanting a ride on the ATV, so it was unloaded from the truck. He’s too young to use it on his own, of course, but that doesn’t prevent him sitting astride it twisting the handlebars and making revving noises – much as you would expect from any small boy.

Valeria wanted mushrooms, so the two Maxims were delegated to collect them. I haven’t yet mentioned that I am still using a stick, as walking any distance is still a bit of an effort. Maxim asked me whether I could ride the ATV. “Err, no”, I said. “There is first time”, he said, to which I couldn’t argue, and he gave me a 30-second run-down of the controls. Max2 gleefully jumped aboard and pushed the starting button, at which point I suggested to Maxim that maybe taking his son and heir for a ride on my first attempt might not be altogether safe. He agreed and asked Max2 to get down.

At this point, I really must mention that Max2 is one of the nicest, most unselfish, children I’ve ever met. There had been absolutely no doubt that what he wanted, more than anything else, was for Papa to give him a ride on the ATV – and, once it was unloaded from the truck, he must have been sure that he was going to get one. In my limited experience, almost any other child his age would have gone into meltdown, but not Max2. He and Maxim set off down the track on foot, while I took a first test run to the riverbank on the ATV.

On my way back, Maxim directed me to turn left onto an almost invisible trail through thick woodland and told me to follow it to the creek. Well, I’m guessing that most people would learn to handle an ATV riding in circles, graduating to figures-of-eight, in a safe open space. Not me. I found myself riding up and down steep dips and ducking under branches, and having to reverse every now and again to manoeuvre around fallen branches and other obstacles. I quickly got used to the machine, but not without a few ‘oh shit’ moments! The small bridge over the creek was broken so we made our way back to the trail, coming across a patch of tiny wild strawberries on our way. We collected as many as we could find and I was dispatched back to base with the haul, while the two Maxims went to find some mushrooms for Mama.

Actually, the strawberries weren’t quite sweet enough to appeal to the children, leaving all the more for the grown-ups, but the mushrooms were spectacular in anyone’s book.

Initially, the children hadn’t known quite what to make of me – this strange foreign woman who doesn’t understand anything! Dascha was overcome with shyness at any hint of eye contact, but Max2 seemed relatively at ease with the whole idea … until I tried out my three or four Russian words, which completely threw him! My saving grace was my folding walking stick, which Max2 found a dozen uses for: Jedi light sabre, Pirate’s cutlass, Samurai sword, Gondolier’s oar… Maxim said, rather apologetically, that Max2 was a “very active” boy, but I didn’t find him abnormally so. He’s a polite and thoughtful child, and always gave my stick straight back if I asked. He took a shine to my camera too, so I let him try it out.

Later, Maxim asked me if I had a shortened ‘familiar’ version of my name and suggested “Biddy”. I had to laugh. I don’t think he could have possibly known how appropriate a nickname that would have been, given that most ‘old biddies’ in the UK have flowery folding walking sticks, just like mine. Maxim explained that Max2 wanted to call me “Aunt Biddy”. Old biddy or not, I couldn’t have been more flattered.

Gone fishinWe took the boat to a local restaurant for lunch, after which I was expecting that we would drive back to Moscow. Instead, we went back to our riverbank, where the children learned to swim in their life jackets. Max2 did, anyway. Dascha was true to type. Papa led her into the shallow water, where she splashed about a bit until she decided it was too cold. Then she ran back to the safety of Mama. Maxim then waded out to supervise Max2’s swimming lesson, only for Dascha to race back into the water shouting “Papa, Papa!” So Maxim would leave Max2 and offer his hand to Dascha, who would then scream “Niet, Niet!” and rush back to Mama. I’m sure parents everywhere will recognise this routine.

Eventually, it was time to pack up and head back to the City … or so I thought. For it was now about 5pm, well after lunchtime, and I was aware that drive back into Moscow would be particularly dire with thousands of festival goers adding to the normal weight of Sunday traffic. But no, another picnic was laid out: more bread and cakes and the reheated remains of last night’s barbequed chicken. Then we cleared away the debris, packed up our things and prepared to lock up the house. But there was one important thing left to do. Before he loaded the ATV back into the truck, Maxim took Max2 for a quick spin around the woods.

Both children slept soundly in the back seat of the truck all the way back to Moscow. The weekend had been a magical experience for me, like taking a step back 40 years into my childhood. I really can’t thank Maxim and his family enough for making me feel so welcome.

On the road again

Friday, 3rd July: Ok. It’s about time I started my own version of events. I arrived back in Moscow on Thursday, with the intention of leaving on my own Trans-Siberian adventure on Saturday.

A taxi arrived on Friday morning to reunite me with my bike, which has been stored in a warehouse on the East side of town. I arrived to find that Andre had already rolled it outside and it was waiting there, with the keys in the ignition, ready for me to ride away. Or not, as it turned out.

Somehow, over the 9 weeks or so that it has been in Moscow, the battery had run completely flat. There wasn’t even enough charge left to illuminate the instruments. Nothing. Nada. We lifted the tank and tried to jump start the bike, but the Odyssey battery didn’t want to know. Mercifully, at this point, the cavalry arrived in the form of Maxim, who made a quick phone call and, 10 minutes later, Denis arrived.

After unsuccessfully trying to jump start the bike himself, Denis declared the battery unsalvageable and said that there really was nothing else for it but to buy a new one. Seeing that everything was now in hand, Maxim left to attend to a licensing issue at the Police station, while Denis and I went to find a suitable battery.

The new battery was a traditional wet cell type, requiring the addition of electrolyte to start the chemical reaction. Denis didn’t have any … but he knew a man who did. So we waited outside on the street for another knight in shining armour to arrive – this time on an earsplittingly-loud Harley Davidson chopper. A suspicious brown-looking liquid was produced from a pannier. Denis sniffed it. After a brief discussion, this new hero was sent on his way to buy a new bottle, while Denis and I made small talk in a halting combination of English and Russian, aided by my (woefully inadequate) beginners’ dictionary.

Denis bought some sausage rolls and water for lunch, and the day wore on as we waited, first for the electrolyte, and then for the battery to cool and the volatile gases to dissipate.

At last, the battery was fitted and the bike started. This was my moment of truth. Despite confidently assuring everyone that I was perfectly fine to ride the bike, I was all too aware that I was taking a bit of a gamble as I manoeuvred out of the warehouse and onto the Moscow streets.

It was now about 5pm and I still had to get the new set of Heidenau tyres fitted. On any other day of the week, I would not have bothered. There was a fair amount of tread left in the Tourances and our original intention was that John and I would change our tyres in Astrakhan. However, what with one thing and another, I simply didn’t want to be carrying the new tyres with me across Siberia and, given the sort of roads that John encountered on his ride south to Kazakhstan, the Heidenaus seemed a better choice for Siberia than part-worn street tyres.

By the time I got back to the motel, it was 7pm. I was hot and exhausted, and it was more or less a foregone conclusion that I wouldn’t be going anywhere on Saturday. I texted Maxim to let him know where I was and to say that I was now open to the idea of shipping the “Yellow Submarine” by train. It transpired that Maxim had spent an equally frustrating day at the cop shop and his reply – not aimed at me – contained some impressive usage of English vernacular! We agreed to meet up later at the Night Train to make a plan.

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!

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.

Two adventures for the price of one?

So I bade a rather sad farewell to John and to Russia this morning. I would have given anything to be riding on to China with John. In fact, GlobeBusters’ Director, Kevin Sanders, warned me not to cancel my trip if there was any possibility that my leg would heal in time to meet their group in Kyrgyzstan. But it simply wasn’t to be. As I responded to him, even if I was out of plaster in time, my leg would still be fragile from the break and weak from being immobilised for 5 weeks. It wouldn’t withstand weeks of rough roads, standing on the pegs, and if I had another fall, I would be a liability to the group.  Whatever regrets I might have had, the decision was made and my focus was now to get myself and my bike home.

Ever since we arrived in Moscow, we have been debating what to do about my motorcycle. Strictly speaking, I temporarily imported a motorcycle into Russia, and Customs regulations would normally dictate that it should leave with me. Certainly, that seems to be a commonly-held understanding. However, a quick phone call by Maxim to an ex-Customs Officer friend, was more encouraging. There should be no problem, she said, as long as I declared the bike as “Unaccompanied Baggage”. We then looked at our options for getting it home – possibly shipping to an EU country, or possibly getting one of Maxim’s friends to ride it to the UK. However, as opinions still seemed to be divided about the legalities and – in the current political climate – practicalities of either option, no concrete decision could be made until I spoke to the Customs Officers at the airport.

I arrived, wheelchair-bound and slightly panic-stricken, at the Goods to Declare desk, expecting … Well, to be honest, I’m not sure quite what I was expecting. The patient EasyJet clerk explained my predicament to a bemused Customs Officer, who took my Declaration form and flipped it over. Maxim had taken a quick photo of the front of the form, where the bike’s details were printed. The back of the form was, to all intents and purposes, blank, except for my signature … and an all-important hand-written note, validated with an official Customs stamp, permitting me to keep the bike in Russia until the 8th August! The Customs Officer gave me an almost Gallic shrug and half a smile and handed the form back, gesticulating towards the Green (Nothing to Declare) Channel.

LegRoomThe mistake we had made was to assume that the date of departure that we had put on our Entry forms at Russian Border Control, had anything to do with the Customs Declaration that we made after our visas had been checked and validated by Passport Control. So, while all along we had assumed that the bikes had to leave Russia with us on 20th May, the reality is that, having 6-month Business visas, we can come and go as we please – at least until August.

I now have the consolation of knowing that, once my leg is out of plaster, I will be able to return to Moscow, solo, and collect the motorcycle myself and ride it back to Ireland – a little adventure of my own to look forward to.

In the meantime, a few words of praise for EasyJet. I don’t have a problem with budget airlines. You get what you pay for and, by and large, the staff are pretty good humoured and efficient. Even so, my previous experiences with EasyJet have tended to be short flights to and from France, where it’s hard to avoid comparing the departure lounge to a crowded cattle market. EasyJet’s staff today have been exemplary. They have done everything possible to make my journey as comfortable as possible. From the Russian member of the Ground Crew who offered translation services at the Customs Desk, to Billy, and his Cabin Crew who offered me an empty row of seats, so that I could keep my leg elevated during the flight, they have been kindness personified. Thank you all.

Beginnings and endings

Having left Inagh on 26th April, my trip has ended some 500km short of Moscow, following an innocuous fall on a sandy road, in which I carelessly broke my left fibula. After much soul searching, we have agreed between us that John will continue the ride – meeting up with the GlobeBusters group in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, as planned. This, then, will be my first and last ‘ride report’, before handing over blog authorship to John.

The first section of the trip was destined to be a fairly fast blast up to Moscow, stopping en route in Warsaw to collect our Uzbekistan visas. It might be fair to say that, for me, the auspices were unfavourable from the start. We came off the Rosslare ferry in Cherbourg at about 2pm on Monday 27th and I immediately discovered that I had lost my passport somewhere on the car deck. A few minutes of blind panic ensued.

The passport was quickly found and returned, but 100km down the road, I became aware that my phone was also missing. More panic. However, before calling Vodafone to cancel my SIM, John sensibly suggested that I call my phone to see if it had been found and handed in. Imagine my relief and surprise when we heard the familiar ring tone coming from somewhere under the bike. The passport and phone had, in fact, dropped out of the same pocket while we were loading the bikes for disembarkation. The passport had landed on the deck but, unbelievably, the phone had lodged in the belly pan of the bike.

The ride from Cherbourg was otherwise uneventful, but further problems ensued when I discovered that my GPS unit wasn’t charging.  Given that John’s slightly older system didn’t recognise our address in Vilnius, and I’ve never been a great fan of GPS anyway, we eventually arrived at our (admittedly lovely) rental apartment, late, tired and not in the best of humour.Ooops (800px)

It just seemed to be one small thing after another and so, when I picked myself up after that fall, the fact that I could only change gear by hooking the plastic moulding of my boot heel under the lever, told me that I – not the bike – had developed a serious mechanical fault. Riding was ok, to a point, but any attempt to put weight on my left foot resulted in agonising pain. So much so, that when we pulled into a fuel station and accidentally stopped at a 92 octane pump, there was absolutely no way on earth I was going to risk moving the bike across the forecourt to another. Luckily, I held it all together until we arrived at the hotel, by which time my body had had enough and I collapsed in an embarrassing heap in the Reception area.

Now, if anyone ever tells you that most Russians speak a bit of English or that all road signs are written in both Cyrillic and Roman characters, you have my permission to laugh in their silly faces. You might find a plentiful supply of English-speakers around the tourist spots in Central Moscow and some of the major road arteries are sign-posted in both Cyrillic and Roman characters, but this is not the norm. Certainly, none of the dismayed staff on night duty had a word of English between them. Luckily, John had been talking to an English-speaking female biker called Nastya a few minutes earlier. A doctor, then an ambulance, were called and Nastya, John and I were soon on our way to the Emergency Room of Velikiye Luki General Hospital.

Consultation (800px)

Kind biker-lady Nastya (in colourful gilet) translates as a nurse removes the temporary splint.

The ambulance driver (no ‘crew’ here) transferred me from their gurney onto a painted metal trolley that wouldn’t have been out of place in a morgue. This was nothing like A&E. As they wheeled me through a maze of narrow passages, I might have been the only patient in the hospital. I was certainly a curiosity. We stopped in a corridor, outside the x-ray department. Nastia explained the accident to the doctor, while a couple of nurses and a radiographer (all similarly dressed, so their function only became clear as my treatment progressed) removed the temporary splint and decided what to do about my motorcycle trousers. Although slightly woozy from a hefty dose of analgesic, I remember silently pleading that they wouldn’t take the scissors to my new pair of Klims.

It was all very quick and matter of fact. I was pushed into the small x-ray room, where, amongst a OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAjumble of trolleys and assorted hospital apparatus, the radiographer positioned my lower leg under the business end of a portable x-ray machine and disappeared into an adjoining room. The machine beeped and she repositioned my leg for a second shot.

Back in the corridor, the doctor held up the plates and confirmed what I already knew. I had fractured my fibula. Nothing complicated. No operation necessary. But there it was. Literally. In black and white. The end of my Inagh to China Motorcycle Ride.