Feck the Itinerary

Motorcycle adventures and other stuff …

Moscow to Moscow – Tuesday, July 12th

July 30th, 2011

The day got off to an inauspicious start. JP arrived at the hotel complex as planned, but the receptionist at the Ibis hotel simply told him that there was no-one of our name booked in. She didn’t think to direct him across the car park to the Etap hotel … We caught up with JP at the Eurotunnel terminal but, like JR, he doesn’t function well on an empty stomach.

Eurotunnel: quick, dry, efficient … but still comes bottom of the list of my preferred routes to the ContinentFrom my point of view, the best that can be said about the Eurotunnel transit was that it was quick and efficient … and it didn’t leak! I don’t usually suffer from claustrophobia, but I have been avoiding the Channel Tunnel since it opened in 1994. I view the Tunnel in the same light as air travel. Given the choice, I would rather travel by sea. Even so, Eurotunnel had generously donated tickets in order that we would be in time for our rendezvous with our Royal Patron, HRH Prince Michael of Kent, at the Clackett Lane Services on the M25. Never let it be said that we lack style!

As we pulled in, on the dot of 9am, Jim could barely contain his excitement (and his relief) that we had made it. With him was our very own Mr Fix-it, Robin Jeffreys, our supposedly redundant support driver who had, none the less, remained on call, seemingly 24/7, for last minute hotel bookings and other logistical problems throughout the ride.

White Knights: Lord Fairfax of Cameron and HRH Prince Michael of KentPrince Michael is a keen biker himself and general motorsports enthusiast. In 2005, he took part in a trans-Siberian charity ride, and it was through one of the organisers of the White Knights ride (from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg), that he had become involved with ours. He had arranged quite a welcoming committee for us. His distinguished group of “Knight Riders”, consisted of Lord Fairfax of Cameron, Olympic Bobsled Champion, Victor Emery, and Lady Rose Cecil (of the White Knights); as well as the motorcycle-mad Earl of Clanwilliam and avid explorer, Carletto O’Donnell. One can only imagine what the baristas at Costa Coffee made of the cheerful mayhem, as the Prince’s Protection Officer tried to round us up and make sense of the coffee order, with only partial success “… Two expressos, three medium lattes, and one large with skimmed milk. Two, sorry, three medium cappuccinos … Make that five lattes, four medium and one large … One medium black americano, two medium americanos with cold milk, one with hot milk. That’s three americanos altogether … and we’ll have eight almond croissants and three cinnamon pastries … Oh, you only have five croissants. Make that five croissants and six cinnamon pastries. Sorry, seven cinnamon pastries and four croissants … Have I forgotten anyone? Did someone want tea?” We had all arrived very punctually, so there was plenty of time for coffee and conversation.

JR and Brigid with Poppa Guttmann Trustee, Philip LewisThe route to Stoke Mandeville had been the subject of much debate. Although motorway riding is nobody’s idea of fun, it was mid-week and the roads were still busy from the morning rush hour. Theoretically, using the M25 and M40, it should have been easier to keep the riders together. Even so, from Robin’s vantage point, bringing up the rear in our car, rather than a disciplined convoy, we arrived on the motorway like a bomb-burst, with bikes filling every lane. It didn’t seem to worry our Special Escort Group officer, Mick, who took off ahead on his BMW S1000RR to check for potential obstructions. The faster riders followed, while John, JP and I rode together at our customary 60mph. In our mirrors we could see Jim, a couple of other bikes and the two cars. We regrouped as we came off the motorway and arrived at the National Spinal Injuries Centre in an altogether more orderly fashion.

The Wee Riders at Stoke Mandeville with Poppa Guttmann Trustees, Mike Mackenzie and Philip Lewis, and HRH Prince Michael and guestsWe were greeted by Poppa Guttmann Trust Chairman, Mike Mackenzie, and Trustees, Philip Lewis and Dr Alison Graham. The riders and Trustees were interviewed and photographed and Prince Michael chatted to staff and patients before touring the facility. As always, JP’s MT350 generated much curiosity and admiration for his achievement. More group photos were taken and then The Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, of which Stoke Mandeville Hospital is part, laid on a buffet lunch. There were speeches from Mike and from Anne Eden, the NHS Trust Chief Executive, but the mood was relaxed and informal. We had made it. Jim’s mad idea was a success. Initial estimates put the money we raised at around £14,000 and, with the cheque presented to Mike by the Health Authority, the future of the Poppa Guttmann Recognition and Celebration Project is now assured.

Of course, for us, the ride wasn’t quite over. We still had to complete the round trip to Moscow, Ayrshire.

Moscow to Moscow – Monday, July 11th

July 30th, 2011

All of a sudden, we found ourselves starting our last full day in Continental Europe. Malmedy to Calais is, by recent standards, a relatively short day. JP suggested lunch at the Atomium in Brussels, which he had last visited as a child. Why not? Ironically, on one of the few occasions that we could have afforded to meander slowly through the countryside and still reach our destination in daylight, Garmin offered no minor roads alternative to the motorway. It made sense to make the most of the day.

Due to Belgium’s bizarre copyright laws, I am obliged to publish this copyright notice covering images of The Atomium: © www.atomium.be - SABAM 2011 - Brigid RynneThe Atomium is a 102-metre high structure consisting of nine stainless steel spheres representing an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Inside are a network of viewing platforms, exhibition spaces and restaurants. Considering it was built in 1958, I did find myself wondering how they manage to keep it so shiny and new-looking. Mr Sheen, perhaps? Unfortunately, when we arrived there was an enormous queue for tickets to tour the structure itself. No sooner had we made the decision to save ourselves the entrance fee and concentrate on lunch, than the queue evaporated. JP bought some postcards and then we manoeuvred the bikes onto the grass and took our photos.

Bicycles parked in the Grote Markt in BrugesThe next stop was Bruges, where JP had hoped to see the Cathredral of Sint Salvator. In common with too many of the ‘must see’ items on our itinerary, it was closed … for renovation. Disappointing for John, but it hardly seemed to matter. Bruges has a lot more to offer in terms of architectural interest. Actually, I confess it was such a hot afternoon, that I was more interested in an ice cream … Oh, and chocolate. I couldn’t leave without eating some chocolate. JP picked up a Mr Whippy cornet from a kiosk and went to download his email and check up on any late changes to tomorrow’s schedule in the Quick burger restaurant. Meanwhile, I persuaded JR to buy me a disgustingly decadent chocolate ice cream sundae at the adjacent Häagen Dazs restaurant. Häagen Dazs being, err hum, that well-known authentic Dutch brand … invented by a Polish immigrant in the Bronx. Who cares? It’s good ice cream wherever it comes from…

And that was that, really. We topped up with fuel and got back on the motorway. Unusually, JR and I had our accommodation booked, while JP wanted to spend one last night under canvas. We identified our Etap hotel on JP’s GPS, made arrangements to meet up for breakfast the following morning, and went our separate ways.

Moscow to Moscow – Sunday, July 10th

July 29th, 2011

Crossing the border into Germany on Saturday morning was a simple matter of driving across the bridge into Gorlitz. We rode on for 50km or so before stopping for breakfast in Bautzen. What attracted us was a roadside advertisement for what, in theatrical terms, might be called “the Scottish Restaurant”. In fact, our reliance on their free wi-fi had become something of an irony. For all our wanting to experience local culture, over the last few weeks, throughout Europe, we had become increasingly dependent on McDo’s. And, of course, every visit required a purchase of some sort, so three intelligent and mature people who would not normally set foot in the place, had gradually become addicted to soggy burgers, fries and milkshakes.

Bautzen, GermanyAs it turned out, Bautzen was a pretty market town and the advertised branch was on the autobahn. So rather than commit ourselves to the tedium of the E40, we installed ourselves at a sunny table in a My family have always been fans of the ’sausage dog’. My mother and grandmther had several between them.popular-looking café. The serenity of the moment, however, was soon disrupted by the arrival of a Dachshund Owners’ Club and two dozen or so barking “sausage dogs”. They moved on quickly enough, but were almost immediately replaced by the arrival of a party of noisy Serbian students. JR groaned. In his fragile state, it was all too much to bear, before even one cup of coffee! Being the only German-speaker amongst us, JP ordered a continental-style breakfast …

Having eaten, we paid up and rode on westwards. We stopped for a brief Kodak moment in Dresden before JP’s Garmin got its knickers in a twist and we found ourselves making an illegal right-hand turn against the lights. After the slightly tense conversation that followed, it was decided that we should follow the same plan as the previous day, with JP taking the scenic route using the minor roads, while we plough on and identify a suitable campsite for the night.

JP caught us up in Sunset over Drei Gleichen campsite where, much to our own surprise, we had successfully managed to negotiate a double tent site, using what can only be described as “Englicht” and sign-language. Despite a light shower or two, we were treated to a beautiful sunset, further enhanced by a couple of beers supplied by the resident couple from the next door plot.

Inevitably, one person can break camp much more quickly than two. Rather than watch us faff about with tents and coffee on Sunday morning, we agreed that JP should get on the road and we would catch him up. It sounded sensible enough but, despite leaving less than half an hour later and hammering down the autobahn at 90mph, we would not have caught up at all, had JP not stopped for coffee. While we discovered that, in Germany, McDo’s free wi-fi is restricted to those who possess a German mobile phone (Germans, in other words), JP had discovered that Burger King was more welcoming to foreigners. He monitored our progress using Plant-I’s tracking website and, as we approached, positioned himself at a very obvious vantage point at a major junction.

We were heading for Malmedy in Belgium and, determined not to have to use the autobahn, JP had programmed his GPS to avoid motorways. Coming out of Koblenz, this seemed to me eminently sensible, as the main road between Mayen and Blankenheim was designated “scenic” and appeared, on the map, to be twisty into the bargain… JR commented that I would be in my element, and, since it was raining lightly, making life difficult for JP on his knobbly tyres, it was agreed that I would take off ahead of the guys to enjoy the ride. We stopped for fuel and I checked the road number and general direction against JP’s Garmin just as a group of British bikers pulled in, coming from the opposite direction. After exchanging greetings, I led the two Johns as far as Mayen, checked we were on the correct road for Blankenheim and accelerated away …

The road was full of bikers and it didn’t take a genius to work out why. Rather than Blankenheim, the road signs listed Nurburg as the next major town. “Great”, I thought to myself, “We’ll get a photo op of us all at the Nurburgring … what a bonus!” I rode on, blissfully unaware of the impending storm.

At Nurburg, I stopped. It was still raining and I supposed that the two Johns were not far behind. I waited by the side of the road. Minutes passed. Then my phone rang …

By the time the two boys caught me up, JR was spitting bullets. Why had I ridden on ahead without checking that they knew the way? Why hadn’t I waited at the junction? Why hadn’t I …?

Hang on. Hadn’t I just done what I said I was going to do? I had checked the road number with JP, hadn’t I? He did know the way. It was simply a case of following the road signs. Why would I have turned off the main road? “Anyway, here we are at the Nurburgring. The track is visible from the road back there. Isn’t that kind of cool?” I looked to JP for support. “You knew which road I was taking. I showed you the map. You agreed.”

The famous Nurburgring … Ah well, another time, eh?“You can’t expect me to memorise road numbers and place names”, said John, “Besides, I wasn’t listening. I was more interested in talking to the other bikers.” I looked to JR and shrugged. “Well”, said JP, defensively, “I’m a bloke. It’s what we do.” There isn’t much one can say to an answer like that.

We took our photos in front of the Nurburgring HQ and rode on. I took my rightful place at the back of the group and we allowed JP’s GPS to lead us the rest of the way to Malmedy: through tiny hamlets, wind farms and road closures – via the shortest distance, preferring minor roads …

Moscow to Moscow – Saturday, July 9th

July 28th, 2011

JR was still under the weather in the morning. John Plumb called round to give us some useful pointers for places to see and things to do, then went off to track down the local Harley dealership. JR slept until lunchtime and I used the time to do some washing and catch up with some non-ride-related admin.

So childish, but these signs for liquor stores always raised a smile …Feeling slightly refreshed, we headed out into the sunshine and booked a tour of Auschwitz for laterThe famous Veit Stoss Atlar in St. Mary’s Basilica, Krakow in the afternoon. Then the two of us took a gentle stroll around Krakow’s lovely historical Old Town. Hearing the hourly bugle call from St. Mary’s Basilica, we were reminded of John’s recommendation to see the famous , one of the world’s greatest Gothic sculptures. The Basilica is well worth the entry fee. Having taken a few photographs of the Altar and the equally impressive stone Crucifix, we sat quietly for a few minutes to admire the Cathedral’s magnificent ceilings and painted decorations. Then we did some window shopping in the old Cloth Market, climbed the Town Hall Tower, and bought ourselves a picnic to eat on the tour bus.

View from the old Town Hall Tower, KrakowWe couldn’t have come to Krakow and not have visited Auschwitz Birkenau. It makes for a harrowing pilgrimage, somehow far more gruesome and upsetting than any television programme or film on the subject. But to go away without bearing witness to the sickening cruelty employed by the SS to systematically exterminate millions of Arbeit Macht Frei (’work makes free’) - the cynically worded slogan at the entrance of Auschwitzfellow humans, would be a crime in itself. JR and I spent about two hours touring the two sites, during which we barely exchanged a word.

It was no surprise that we had no appetite for dinner when we got back to Krakow.

Wednesday’s rain had provided us with a welcome break, but had also put us a day behind schedule, meaning that we would have to skip Prague and make up the mileage elsewhere. I had promised Poppa Guttman Trust Trustee, Philip Lewis, that we would take pictures in Guttmann’s birth town, Toszec (formerly Tost), and also at the hospital that now occupies the site of the Jewish Hospital in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), on our way through. We had been due to stay in Wroclaw, but circumstances now meant that we needed to pick a stop point closer to the German border. Nevetheless, both places were on our route, within easy reach of the E40 which, west of Krakow, is now all motorway. Unfortunately, for JP, this would have meant an exceptionally tedious and tiring ride with his top speed of around 60mph. Instead, we agreed to take care of the photo-shoot, allowing JP to ride on at a more relaxed pace on minor roads.

Having no address for Guttmann’s childhood home, we only needed general photos. Rather optimistically, JR did approach a couple of teenage boys to ask if they knew anything about Poppa Guttmann or the Guttmann family. The boys’ English was limited but it was apparent that they had never heard of the town’s most celebrated son. I took some pictures in the square and was about to move on, when one of the boys caught up with us to ask if we had seen “the Castle”. A castle? In this small town? “Oh yes”, he said proudly, “just up the street over there”. Now, Poppa Guttmann came from a modest Orthodox Jewish family and left Tost when he was three years old, but a castle is a castle, so we took some photos anyway.

The Jewish Hospital was demolished after the war and rebuilt. It is now an orthopaedic hospital, but is currently undergoing some sort of administrative changes and appears a little run down. We located it easily enough using GPS and were fortunate to find an English-speaking patient leaving the building just as we arrived. Luckily, she was able to explain our mission and the reason for the photographs. No-one present remembered the Jewish Hospital and all were quite bemused to be told of Poppa Guttmann’s work there and his link tJP welcomes us at Zgorzelec campsiteo the Paralympic Games.

JP had booked into a campsite in Zgorzelec but, most unusually for him, had been tempted by the relative luxury of a newly-built cabin with ensuite facilities. When we caught him up, we found him ensconced with his log book on his veranda, beer in hand, looking very pleased with life. There were only two of these new cabins on site. Happily, John had persuaded the manager to reserve the next door cabin for us …

Moscow to Moscow – Wednesday, July 6th

July 25th, 2011

At 8.45am on Monday, we were ready and waiting for the bus to take us to Chernobyl. It was already warm. As advised, we wore long sleeved shirts, long trousers and our sturdiest shoes, and we were carrying plenty of drinking water for what promised to be a hot day. 9am came and went with no sign of our guide. We had paid a $50 deposit over the internet and, by 9.30am, were beginning to wonder whether we had fallen victim to a scam. Alas, a phone call to the tour organiser revealed that the Ukrainian government had cancelled all Chernobyl tours, with effect from the previous week. We had, in fact, had an apologetic email with the offer of a refund, but – due to lack of internet access in Orel – had not downloaded it.

Independence Square, KievSo, here we were on a lovely sunny day in Kiev, with a day to spare and nothing planned. The tourist brochures at the hostel were not inspiring, so we went in search of the tourist office, clearly marked on our freebie map as being located in the Metro station. There was a Chernobyl museum that might have been interesting, and we were intrigued by “Lenin’s Secret Tunnels” and there were regular 2-hour walking tours of the City’s main attractions. However, first, we had to locate the Tourist Office … which was not in the Metro station, and none of the Metro staff were in the least interested as to where it might have moved to. Never mind. We had a map, so we set off on foot to look for the Chernobyl museum, having a bite of lunch on the way.

The Museum was closed to the public. The notice on the door indicated that it should be open, but the surly attendant didn’t speak English and was unwilling to waste his time attempting a Dumb Crambo explanation.I nearly got arrested taking a picture of these beautiful Art Nouveau doors in the main Post Office …

By this time, we were all getting a little fed up. Kiev is an attractive city. In spite of an odd blend of Communist and Capitalist, the city has an almost Parisian feel to it. Elegant mansions rub shoulders with modern utilitarian blocks. There is music and street theatre, Western designer labels and statues of Lenin and medieval warriors. But now that it had lost its principal tourist attraction, Kiev didn’t seem very interested in tourists. We cut our losses and headed back to the hostel to retrieve our laundry.

The following morning we left early, taking the highway to L’Viv: the trans-European E40 artery that would, eventually, carry us all the way back to Calais.

OK, cheesy as fc*k, but lovely L’Viv is full of genuine olde worlde charmL’Viv is situated about 50km from the border with Poland and the contrast in character with Kiev couldn’t be Old style tram, now reinvented as a restaurantgreater. The city has an abundance of old-time charm. Its narrow cobbled streets are lined with bars and restaurants and its historic buildings seem to have survived both War and Communist occupation unscathed. Not for the first time, we wished we could have stayed a little longer …

Our reluctance to leave L’Viv was intensified by the sound of heavy rain hitting the roof of our loft-style hotel bedroom in the early hours of Wednesday morning. We could only hope that the weather would pass over by the time we needed to leave.

It didn’t. AnTrams and cobbles may be pretty to look at, but are not a biker’s best friends in the wetd to make matters worse, our three bikes were parked in the hotel car park … some distance from JP’s hostel, on one of the few occasions, so far, that we had opted for separate accommodation. By the time he had trudged round to the Swiss Hotel, he was soaked … and by the time we had loaded up our own bikes, we were also soaked. The rain came down in sheets, seeping into the smallest opening in our waterproof layers. We were miserable and in poor humour.

The cobbles and raised tramrails were treacherous on two wheels, and I was in no mood to repeat the previous evening’s “Garmin experience”, whereby we had entered L’Viv by a convoluted backstreets approach: apparently an exclusively male amusement, culminating in the dodging of restaurant tables as we followed the GPS directions across a pavement! But what would I know? This morning, at least, with JP rendered almost blind by his steamed goggle and glasses combo, I was allowed to use the signposted main road out of town.

Visibility in the rain was extremely poor and the road surface made passing slower traffic nigh on impossible. At the border, we tried the usual trick of pushing into the line of traffic a few cars from the front. Confronted by an angry driver, it seemed the border guard was going to adhere to the rules, meaning we would simply have had to turn around and join the end of the queue. But, after a few minutes pleading, he took pity on our soggy state, and let us through.

The Ukrainian exit procedure was roughly similar to the entry. An official collected up the documents for all the waiting vehicles and disappeared into a cabin, calling each of the drivers in turn. It didn’t take long and, as the steady rain became a squall, we moved under the shelter of the customs shed on the Polish side.

We rejoined the E40. Only, rather than a European-style motorway, we were dismayed to find a narrow dual carriageway, clogged with slow-moving trucks. The rain was unrelenting. JP’s inadequate clothing was wet through. JR was dry from the waist down due to his new trousers, but the waterproofing of his 5-year old Joe Rocket jacket had given up and his upper body was soaked. I had decidedly damp knickers and my (too short) Hein Gericke all-terrain trousers had ridden up, allowing water to run into my boots. We were all cold and, by the time we arrived in Krakow, it was generally agreed that we needed to rethink our schedule to allow time to dry out our kit.

JP was the first to discover the launderette at the end of our street and, consequently, was the only one in any fit state to have continued on the road the following day. However, as he had rightly pointed out, Krakow turned out to be one of the loveliest cities on our route and, as he was staying with a friend, he was easily persuaded to take a day’s rest. Just as well, as JR had picked up a stomach bug, and was in no state to go anywhere. There was a pizzeria underneath the excellent Free Hostel, so we shared a Four Seasons and got an early night.

Moscow to Moscow – Monday, July 4th

July 24th, 2011

So we were on our own again. Maxim had been highly sceptical of our choice of route into the Ukraine. We were due in Kiev on Sunday, and had booked a Chernobyl tour for Monday 4th.When planning the route, John had simply looked for a reasonable-sized town or city approximately midway, and had landed on Orel. Although we had heard reports (favourable and otherwise) about the Ukraine, we had not met anyone who had actually driven there from Russia.

Actually, despite the general state of disrepair, Russian roads would be fine … if it weren’t for Russian drivers. When the dual carriageway section ran out and a queue formed due to road works, drivers in both directions simply used the dusty central reservation as an extra lane, effectively creating a sandstorm! The almost total lack of visibility was no deterrent.

Orel - City of the First Salute (the City was honoured by a firework ’salute’ to celebrate its 1943 liberation from German occupation)In Orel, there were clear signs that some attempt was being made at an interior revamp of the Hotel Salute. The Salute Hotel, OrelThe loud flowery wallpaper that graced JP’s room was gradually being replaced elsewhere with pastel shades. And, although the taps needed a bit of encouragement and there was no plug in the bath, the bathroom fittings appeared new. Certainly the hotel provided the fluffiest and most-luxurious towels that we had seen anywhere on this trip! Other than that, Orel seemed to have been left behind by post-Communist Russia. Definitely no McDonalds’ wifi access here!

The sign reads simply, “Where were you?” No idea. But we liked the car.The following morning, we had nearly 200km to ride to the Ukraine border. It was slow progress. Now we began to understand Maxim’s scepticism. We had skipped breakfast in the hopes of finding a roadside café somewhere along the route, but there were none. None open, anyway. And, once off the M2, the road, despite its optimistic A-road label, deteriorated to little more than a farm track.

Trucks, trucks, and more trucks, as far as the eye can see - waiting to cross the Ukrainian border with RussiaArriving at the Ukrainian border, we had hoped that we would be able to jump the queue, as we had at the Estonian border. Leading the group, I boldly pressed on to the front, where a border guard was checking the papers of the first car. He spoke no English, but signalled to me to turn around and go back to the end of the line. I put on my best ‘blond’ impression, and pretending not to understand … then clumsily manoeuvring my bike into an impossible position, embarrassing the two Johns, and effectively blocking off the oncoming traffic. Exasperated, the guard actually seemed quite relieved when I eventually managed to squeeze the bike into the queue about five cars back, restoring order to the line of traffic … and saving us an hour or two’s wait!

The Russian half of the border crossing was dealt with fairly swiftly. No one was in the least interested in our hotel registration forms and we weren’t arrested for our many Moscow traffic violations. Our passports were stamped and we were free to move on to the Ukrainian side … where any progress came to a complete halt.

We waited for an age while various officials came and went, each one inspecting our papers and asking us to open random items of luggage. No traffic moved through the border post at all. Then, alarmingly, a uniformed guard appeared and collected up all the documents from the twenty or so waiting vehicles and carried the whole multi-national bundle into the office. We needn’t have worried. Gradually, the cars ahead of us were processed and we moved under the shelter of the building – happily enough, just as it started raining. Even more fortuitously, the rain stopped just as we ready to leave.

As with our Russian border crossing, we needed to sort out insurance for JP’s bike before moving on.

There must be a good reason that UK insurance companies refuse to insure vehicles for travel to Russia and the Ukraine and, whatever it might be, it made us uneasy. Was it the widespread police corruption that we had heard so much about, or the state of the roads … or was it a perceived image of some sort of post-Chernobyl nuclear wasteland that worried the underwriters? In any event, it didn’t take long to dispel any negative images.

For the majority of the journey to Kiev, the newly improved M02 was as good as any major Western highway. At most junctions, though, we would notice that the tarmac quickly gave way to dirt track, stretching away into the lush green countryside. Roadside John and JP working on the MT350 under a busy bridge in rush hour traffic on the way into Kievcatering was an improvement on Russian standards too. Having missed breakfast, we were ravenous by the time we crossed the border, but we soon came across an attractive log-built café, complete with English menu, serving the first proper food we had eaten since leaving Moscow.

The sun had turned to light rain by the time we reached the outskirts of Kiev but, even so, the day would have been almost perfect … if JP’s bike hadn’t suffered a broken clutch cable on the way to our city centre hostel!

Moscow to Moscow – Saturday, July 2nd

July 11th, 2011

Classic Russian side car set up with 3-wheel drive from Maxim’s collectionWith the memory of our start-stop journey on Wednesday evening still fresh in our minds, our hearts sank a little as we saw Maxim’s truck pull into the car park. But we needn’t have worried. First stop on our tour of Moscow was Maxim’s “studio”, where he builds his custom trikes and keeps a respectable-sized personal collection of other motorcycles – including, amongst other things, several classic side car outfits (one of which was an ex-Russian military model with three-wheel drive), a small fleet of ex-Police Kawasakis, his Harley Ultra and his three-wheel Piaggio scooter.

Two of Maxim’s own custom trikesMaxim’s small office was testament to his love of motorcycle touring, plastered with pictures from past trips. These including the White Knights’ Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg ride of 2005, through whose riders we had made contact with him in the first place. Outside, he pulled the dust cover off a trailer to reveal two of his trikes. The first was a chopper-style with Formula 1 rear tyres and chrome fittings. The second was a show-stopping creature that slightly resembled a steel plate lobster with a pair of claw-like front wings acting as air-intakes. The fastest of Maxim’s trikes appeared to have a bike front-end attached to a racing car’s rear end!

Anyway, there was no time to waste, so we donned our helmets and, in T-shirts and jeans, headed out into the Moscow traffic.

KGB HQ, Lubyanka JailFirst stop was, in fact, not Red Square, but Lubyanka Jail, formerly HQ of the KGB and one of the most feared buildings in Moscow. There was a popular saying that it was also one of the tallest buildings in Moscow – not because of the number of storeys, but because it was said that you could see Siberia from its basement!

Striking a pose in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red SquareJust around the corner was Red Square. Although it is a pedestrian area, the traffic passes close by the barriers in one or two spots and it was possible, with the forbearance of a young police officer, to park the bikes for long enough to get one quick snapshot. The officer even stopped the traffic for us.

We re-parked behind St. Basil’s Cathedral and had a bit of a stroll about, taking more pictures in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Then it was onwards and upwards for a whistle-stop tour of the rest of the City. We had baked potatoes for lunch from a kiosk near the State University, where JP’s father had studied in the 60’s, and then rode to one of Moscow’s three Harley Davidson dealers for T-shirts.

UnfortunThe Harley Davidson Club of Russia. Maxim was a little cagey about the provenance of his Star Spangled Banner …ately, while food shortages may be a thing of the past, Harley Davidson seem to have an on-going issue with T-shirt supplies. They had none in Large, and only one in XL!

What?! No souvenir T-shirts?! We have Harley Davidson T-shirts from nearly Maxim’s Night Train bar. From this angle, you cannot see the locomotive which ‘emerges’ from the far end of the building.everywhere we’ve been. This was unthinkable!

All was not lost, however. The Harley Davidson Club of Russia operate from a clubhouse above Maxim’s own biker bar and he was pretty sure that he could sort us out some Club T-shirts. Last stop on the day’s sightseeing tour then was the Night Train bar …

Maxim’s preferred commuter bikeWe arrived back at our hotel, hot and dusty and rather sunburned. But we had seen all the major sights and had had the best fun ducking and diving through the traffic. Like true Moscovites, we paid no heed to the speed limit, parked on pavements, U-turned wherever it suited us and zipped in between laIf you ever visit Moscow, you absolutely, positively, have to experience the Metro at least once!nes of stationary traffic with our hazard lights blinking, tooting our horns for other road users to let us through! With Maxim as our guide, we rode as we would never have dared on our own, and got a unique view of Moscow that few other visitors would ever experience.

Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the KremlinOn Friday we arranged to meet Maxim in the evening. We left the bikes at the hotel and set out by Metro to explore the Kremlin Museum.

We were just heading back, when we received a text asking us if we would mind stopping by the Television Centre before dinner, as Maxim had been invited to The Tsar Cannon, the Kremlingive a quick interview about his trikes for a cable channel. We couldn’t understand a word, of course but, again, it must be a pretty rare thing for a group of British tourists to end up spending an evening watching an interview being taped in Moscow’s Television Centre. The interview took longer than planned, needless to say, but JP took a lot of photos in the studio and one particularly good shot of the Television Tower from the Gents’ loo window!

Hearing that we had missed the All-Russia Exhibition Centre in the afternoon, Maxim drove us there at dusk. This theme park houses some of Russia’s most iconic Soviet-era statues and pavilions represenThe Tsar Bell, the Kremlinting each of the former Soviet states as well as permanent displays representing various Soviet industries. Unfortunately, it had closed for the evening. The security guards were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unsympathetic and, although there were still a lot The Central Pavillion at the All-Russia Exhibition Centreof people inside, refused to let us in for even a few minutes. Undeterred, we got back in the truck and drove round the perimeter until we came across an open gate where “the guards didn’t have machine guns”.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, some of the pavilions have fallen into disrepair. But the park is still impressive and, evidently, popular with the young. There were fountains (turned off for maintenance), music, sideshows and cafes. None of which showed the least sign of closing for the evening, despite having gone closing time.

Our last experience for this stay, was a visit to Russia’s oldest and largest biker bar. Called simply, “The Biker Centre”, this extraordinary site is home to the Night Wolves Bike Club. It looks like a real-life set from Mad Max. All the buildings, fixtures and fittings are hand made from recycled scrap metal and the interior of the bar was hung with animal hides and weapons … and disco lights. Lots of disco lights! All bikers are welcome, as are car drivers (though they have their own section). Scooter riders, however, if they even get past the gate, are swiftly shown the exit.

And that was the grande finale of our Moscow visit. The following morning, Maxim picked us up from the hotel at 9am and escorted us out of the City, putting us on the right road to Orel. We said our goodbyes and started our return run to Moscow, Ayrshire.

Thanks for everything, Maxim. As “Plumb” would say, you’re a Dude!

Moscow to Moscow – Wednesday, June 29th

July 11th, 2011

A fellow biker provides an escort on a quiet back road …So … we left Saint Petersburg on Tuesday morning and rode as far as Vychniy Volochek, a little over half way to Moscow. Considering this is a main arterial route, the road was in shockingly poor condition. We had been warned about the weight of traffic and road works, but I don’t remember anyone telling us about the bits between the road works: the long stretches of unsurfaced carriageway, interspersed Kodak moment on the road to Moscowwith potholes … and I don’t think we saw anyone actually working on the road at all. Safe navigation was further frustrated by the need to overtake slower traffic. The road is a three lane highway, which meant that you had to take your chances quickly if you were to stand any chance of getting by before your overtaking lane came to an abrupt end  – usually signalled by the sight of a heavy lorry hurtling towards you in the same lane!

There’s little I can say about Vychniy Volochek, except that it was probably once a rather lovely holiday resort. There were hints of a former grandeur in the run-down buildings and unloved statues that lined the main street, but the overall impression was of a dusty border town from an old Western. It was hot and humid, flies buzzed around the carcass of a dead dog on the pavement, and our unventilated hotel room seemed to be home to a number of well-fed mosquitos. We left before breakfast on Wednesday …

Roadside refreshment: vendors sell tea from samovarsThere is something wonderfully reliable about Ikea. It doesn’t matter what country you are in, branches of Ikea look exactly the same, even if the words for Entrance and Exit are written in Cyrillic script. And they are always visible from the motorway. Even so, I managed to cause confusion when I spotted Ikea’s flags flying outside their distribution depot, just off the inner ring road, but still some 20km out from the City. Having arrived safely in the store car park, we called Our first taste of Moscow: a welcome ice cream in Ikea’s car parkMaxim – only to be told that there was heavy rain in town and traffic was at a standstill. We were to meet him at his place instead. The address was simple enough. We were to stay on the motorway and he would be waiting for us outside Building 31. Uh?!  This sounded ominously like a repeat of our Saint Petersburg experience.  We asked for clarification. “Yes, yes. It’s fine. Just carry on the road you’re on. After the fifth tunnel, you’ll see a sign for Building 33, and I’ll be waiting in the road in my painted Ford Focus.”

Now, imagine, if you will, a City, not so much smaller than London, and try giving someone directions to a house on, say, the A4 …

What could we do? We rode into the City, as directed, and noticed that the buildings did seem to have very obvious numbers. We had ridden a long way without seeing any tunnels, so, losing our nerve slightly, we turned off the main road when we saw tower block number 35. There then followed a very comical discussion with the caretaker of that building, a former Soviet pilot, who tried to explain that they had run out of numbers on the old part of the road, so they had built a new road and restarted the numbering beyond the airport … we were on the new part of the road. He spoke briefly to Maxim on John’s mobile, then drew a few arrows on our map … with a little stick man waving at the spot where Maxim would be waiting for us. About 15 minutes later we spotted Maxim and his “painted Ford Focus” outside Building 31, just as he had promised.

Ford Focus, Moscow-styleThe Ford Focus, incidentally, was not the compact hatchback car we know in the UK, but an enormous 6 litre 4×4 pickup, not unlike Jim Humphreys’ Mitsubishi Warrior – except that it was emblazoned with lightning bolts and a familiar-looking orange and black shield on each passenger door, advertising Luber Custom Trikes.

Moscow’s evening rush-hour lasts from about 4pm until about 8pm. Having no knowledge of the City or even what hotel we were booked into, we had no option but to follow the truck at snail’s pace through the baking traffic. The BMW’s oil warning light came on. The Triumph’s temperature gauge was practically off the scale. Of the three bikes, the MT350 was the only one not to show any signs of complaint. On the other hand, that may be because there are no warning lights on John’s Harley …

Eventually we arrived at the 3-star Gamma Hotel: similar in many ways to Saint Petersburg’s Moscow Hotel –a throwback to the Communist era, but within a gated community that also boasted an Alpha Hotel, a Bega Hotel and a Delta Hotel … all practically identical, with every conceivable service laid on within the hotel complex. The Gamma was perfectly comfortable and, best of all, Maxim managed to negotiate a nightly rate less than the cost of the stuffy, mosquito-infested room we had had in Vychniy Volochek the night before!

Naturally, being Russia, nothing happened very quickly. Our passports were collected and we were asked to wait in Reception while our registration was processed. After the heat of the Moscow traffic, we were filthy and looked like three boiled beetroots.  Nevertheless, the wait gave us a chance to discuss our plans for the next couple of days.

We had realised early on that a ride out with the Harley Davidson Club to Suzdal, would be out of the question. Even without the handicap of the MT350’s top speed of 55mph, from what we had seen of the roads coming into Moscow, we would not have been able to travel much faster than that on any bike. Suzdal is north east of Moscow and we would not have been able to make up the miles to get to Orel for our pre-paid Saturday night hotel booking … which we were not about to waste.

Top priority for the moment was to get the photo of us having successfully arrived in Moscow … and, for us, that meant a picture of the bikes in Red Square. However, Red Square is a pedestrian zone and we had been warned that such a photo would be impossible. But not for Maxim, apparently … He would come for us on his scooter at noon the following day, and he would show us the sights.

Moscow to Moscow – Tuesday, June 28th

July 4th, 2011

The distance from Ivangorod to Saint Petersburg is less than 100km, so we might reasonably have expected a short day. However, we lost an hour on crossing the border into Russia, so it was already late afternoon and we had yet to find somewhere to stay. JP had been expecting to stay with Alex, but Alex was not due back in Saint Petersburg until 7pm. He had kindly looked up a couple of hostels for us, and had sketched out directions to find them on a Post-it note. The sketch looked ominously like a bunch of grapes with some twirly stems. But it apparently represented some blocks of flats and a complicated series of junctions (which we were to ignore). However, Alex had assured John, it was all much more simple than it looked, “just follow the road into town until you reach a big arch and then turn left at the lights …”

Things started to go wrong with the directions, when we misinterpreted the word “Prospekt” for a street name. We dutifully followed Alex’s instructions, and ended up in an industrial area, quite clearly miles from the historic and beautiful centre of the City. We needed a rethink.

Of course, both the guys had Garmin. Unfortunately, neither have detailed Russian maps. This was no oversight. JR had ordered and received Russian maps a month or so earlier, but they turned out to be incompatible with his unit, rendering the Cyrillic alphabet as gobbledygook. Nevertheless, with his knowledge of the relative layout and geography of Saint Petersburg, John was sure that if he zoomed out to the large scale map, he should be able to pick a route to the centre.

Our renewed optimism was short-lived. After the first turn, the road ahead was closed and, unable to find an escape from the one-way street, we found ourselves heading back out of town. Then it started to rain …

We musThe magnificent Hermitage Palace, St. Petersburgt have gone round in circles for miles before John’s system paid off, and we arrived on Nevsky Prospekt … but we were a long way from Alex’s recommended hostels, and we had no way of getting reliable directions for alternative accommodation. We weren’t even quite sure how far we were from Saint Petersburg’s main tourist areas. The only thing we could say with any certainty at all was that we were all soaked through and thoroughly fed up. Somehow we hadn’t expected Saint Petersburg to be so … big!

Now it was my turn for a brainwave. What we needed most, I decided, was McDonalds: the comfort of a hot coffee and a Big Mac, and access to the Internet. In my best BBC Beginners’ Russian, I asked directions from a passer-by. Most of her reply was, of course, lost in translation.  We did establish that there was a branch about 2km further on, but we couldn’t find it. We spotted an Ibis Hotel across Ligrovsky Prospekt, but were prevented from getting to it by a railing separating the two lanes of traffic. The rain was still coming down in stair-rods and we could make no sense of the road system. We turned left and made a two or three kilometre det… Unfortunately the Hermitage is closed on a Mondayour before arriving back on Ligrovsky Prospekt.

The hotel was full, but the kind receptionist rang through to the Moscow Hotel and asked them to save a couple of rooms for us. The cost seemed exorbitant, but we were in no position to argue. JP declared that he would spend the following day searching for an alternative. Spirits were low and tempers were frayed. We badly needed a lift and, luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for things to start looking up.  John and I arrived back in the car park to find JP talking to some chap on a Harley. Maxim!

Maxim was in Saint Petersburg for a Harley Davidson rally and, at some point during the kerfuffle over finding a hotel, he had texted John to find out whether we had arrived in town. As soon as we were able to let him know that we were booked into The Moscow, he came over to meet us and find out our plans.

The Aurora, now a monument to the October RevolutionIn fact, Maxim was due to leave for home in Moscow the following evening and asked if there was any way he could be of help. JP, who had, regrettably, taken the brunt of the fallout over his inept couch-surfing friend’s directions, did not hesitate. “Yes please, Maxim. Please find us a decent hotel in Moscow … near the Metro, with bike parking and Wi-Fi.” “… for $50 per night”, added Maxim with a smile. “Absolutely”, said John, “… and then please meet us somewhere really, really, easy to find, and escort us to it!”

We agreed to meet on Wednesday in the car park at Ikea.

On Monday morning, we ate a strange and rather bland-tasting breakfast of anaemic sausages, “egg porridge” and “baked pudding”, in The Moscow Hotel’s enormous dining room. Then, equipped with a tourist map from the receptionist, we set off to explore Saint Petersburg on foot.

Top of the list was, of course, the Hermitage Museum, with its vast and priceless collection of treasures and antiquities from the era of the Tsars. Our guidebook told us that the Hermitage was founded in 1764 and comprises eight departments, housed in 350 halls. Unfortunately, if we had read to the bottom of the page, we would have noticed that it is closed on Mondays …View of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

We were disappointed, but it didn’t matter. The Hermitage is so huge, it is said that to see everything on display, you would need to visit the museum every day for three years.  Since we only had a day, it meant we could spend more time looking at other things. We took some photos and walked over the bridge to the impressive hexagonal Peter and Paul Fortress.  It is from this fortress, founded in 1703, that Saint Petersburg gains its name.  Originally called Saint Peter’s Burgh, the fortress was renamed Peter and Paul Fortress after the Peter and Paul Cathedral that was built there. We had a bite to eat at the Fort’s café and then continued on to see the Aurora battleship, launched in 1900 and is now, since its retirement in 1948, a monument to the October Revolution.

By the time we got back to the hotel, we had extremely sore feet.

Moscow to Moscow – Sunday, June 26th

July 4th, 2011

John Plumb had taken up the offer of a bed from “Couch Surfer”, Alex, a native of St. Petersburg, so we met up in McDonalds for Wi-Fi and a quick coffee, before tackling the border. We had been told that motorcycles don’t need to queue, which was reassuring, but it was clearly not going to be a particularly speedy transit.

First stop was the Bridge Toll office – illogically situated about 2km out of town. The Toll serves no purpose in the immigration process, other than to issue a ticket with a queue number on it : 1€ for a motorcycle, no change given!

The Narva Friendship Bridge forms the border between Estonia and RussiaWe rode back to the bridge and handed over our tickets. The Toll officer immediately raised the barrier and waved us through to the next stage … Polish Border Control. On the other side of the road, half a dozen Latvian and Lithuanian Harley riders were returning from a Rally in St. Petersburg. We noticed they didn’t hang around long. The Border Guard wasn’t interested in the purpose of our visit. He checked our passports, visas and vehicle registration, made an entry on his computer  and signalled to us to continue to the Bridge … passing all the waiting cars and lorries, and coming to a halt at the barrier on the Russian side.

The female Guard checked our passports, visas and vehicle registration again, and issued us with three forms: a multi-lingual immigration card, and duplicate copies of a customs form. In our haste to get the process over and done with, it took a moment to realise that the customs form was in German. It was quickly exchanged for an English version.

On to Border Control, and John Plumb’s MT350 was beginning to raise a few smiles. We showed the Customs Officer our Russian-language postcard, describing our trip. He glanced at it briefly before helping us to fill out our Customs forms correctly, gruffly marking crosses in boxes we had missed and then checking that we had correctly duplicated the entries on the second copy. By the time we reached the Immigration booth, there was genuine humour behind the stern façade. Dealing with our Immigration cards, the officer laughed as he told us that, two weeks earlier, he had seen some mad Brit who was planning to cross Siberia on a Honda 90! The gruff Customs officer, meanwhile, engaged in light-hearted conversation with John Plumb, as he proudly showed off the luggage-carrying capacity of his front-mounted ammo-carriers!

John Plumb proudly shows off his Russian Green CardImmigration completed, we wheeled our bikes forward a few paces to the Customs booth. With our forms correctly completed, this was really no more than a slightly time-consuming formality. Entries were made on the computer, and a cursory inspection was made of our luggage. Our forms were stamped up, and we were away … at least as far as the first Currency Exchange booth, where John Plumb also had to buy Green Card insurance for his bike. (JR and I are resident in France, and our bikes are French-registered. Our French Green Card is valid throughout Europe, including all the Baltic States, Russia and the Ukraine – though, in my case, the validity was only confirmed after the agent borrowed a pair of reading glasses!)

The whole “fast track” process took a couple of hours. But it was painless and good-humoured. There was no sign of any corrupt activity, and no money was taken off us, aside from the 1€ bridge toll. Cars and lorries, however, are a whole different ball game. Some can queue for 5 days to cross!