Russian experiences

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“Irbitski Mototsikletny Zavod”, the den of the Ural sidecars

After riding 2,500 kilometres towards East, we reached Irbit, place where our sidecars were made. The following day of our arrival in this city of 40,000 inhabitants located nearby the plains of Siberia, it was time to discover the den of the Ural sidecars.

We had an appointment at 10am, but without any news since a fefw days from Marina, our contact in the Ural manufacture, we were a bit worried. We crossed the city to reach the Ural manufacture. Just arrived on the parking and turned off our engines, Marina arrived with the Security Manager.

Only a sticker on a window of the building showed the name of the brand. The heavy blue metallic gates opened. Here, no sliding doors or patio doors. The reception area was not welcoming and gave the tone. The manufacture is not a place to promote the brand, no showroom or fancy marketing office, we were in a rustic atmosphere. The main entry is used every day by the manufacture employees. The hall was dark and there was only a security guard to welcome. His job was to ensure the good working of the metal detector gates. On the opposite side of the gates, a door going outside. We crossed the main courtyard. In the middle of this wide place, a platform with a M-72 motorbike lifted at 3m, the model of the beginning of the IMZ manufacture: Irbitski Mototsikletny Zavod (meaning the motorbike manufacture of Irbit). No doubt anymore, we were in the den!

We followed Marina and went to the assembly workshop. Once the main gate opened, the alarm rang meaning our arrival inside the building.

In front of us, a main alley with many shelves on each side. There were all the parts of our sidecars, ready to be assembled on the next frame available. The Ali Baba’s cave!

To finalise the assembly, the technicians do a full set of tests. The one for checking the breaks stayed in our memories. Going from the end of the main alley, the driver was going as fast as he could on a straight line of 50m and braked hardly leaving a trace of tyre rubber on the ground.

Once we explored the workshop, we asked Marina for doing some mechanics on our sidecars. We wanted to change our clutch starting to be tired after 8 months of travel. She suggested to us to park the sidecars in the main courtyard of the manufacture. After going around all the shutdown buildings, the witnesses of the glorious time of the manufacture, Emilie and Julien arrived by a gate and parked in the middle of the main courtyard.

We visited the offices of the engineers. By going outside of the building, the lunch break started and the workers of the manufacture went around our sidecars. Artem, a Russian traveler, joined us. He wanted to go to the most Eastern part of Russia with his Ural sidecar. We had a chat, in English, about our trips.

Enjoying our soup, we received a Whatsapp message from Marina. She told us the technicians will take care of the clutches of our sidecars. We will be able to collect them at 4pm. We were surprised by this message and a bit worried. It can be strange, but we were worried to let our sidecars in the hands of other guys, even if they were the Ural experts. Indeed, we got used to do everything by ourselves from the beginning of the trip.

To wait patiently, we decided to go to the motorbike museum, next door. But it was closed, like every Monday. We will go the following day. We had the feeling to be orphans, without our “babies”. At 2:30pm, while doing some shopping, Marina asked us to come back, to give the keys of the petrol tanks of our sidecars. As we were close-by, we arrived in the workshop just 5 minutes later. Our sidecars were there, surrounded by the technicians and engineers working on them. They were changing the clutches and the rocker arms. It was 6pm when we left the manufacture. The sidecars should be ready for the next day at 1pm.

At noon, Marina sent us a Whatsapp message to let us know our sidecars were ready. We stopped by a supermarket to get some chocolates for the manufacture workers and a bouquet of flowers for Marina. We withdrew a bundle of bills, quite small compared to the service given, to pay our debts for the repair. At the workshop, everyone was happy to get chocolates. A woman in charge of bringing the parts from the painting area to the assembly line, arrived discreetly, winked and took a batch of chocolates. We chatted with the engineer, the test driver and the workshop manager and thanked them for their work. A R&D engineer, being also pilot for the brand, invited us to follow him to his office. He showed us the itinerary to reach Aktau in Kazakhstan.

We left the manufacture at around 3pm and enjoyed the end of the afternoon to visit the motorbike museum. The atmosphere was like in the old time. The museum was full of Ural sidecars showing their evolution. Some foreign models including BMW sidecars and impressive sportive ones.

With this nostalgic atmosphere showing the glorious period of Ural, we ended our visit of Irbit.

 

The Orthodox mass of Cathedral of the Dormition in Iaroslavl

By exploring Russia, from a city to another one, we noticed how much the religious heritage was important. Churches were everywhere – old or modern, wooden or white. The majority of churches were Orthodox. This is the main religion of the country (70-80% of the population).

Along the Volga river, we enjoyed the beauty of the Cathedral of the Dormition. Its name come from the feast of the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, celebrated on the 15th of August, named Assumption for the catholic people. The cathedral has been built in 1215 at the confluence of both rivers surrounding the city, the Kotorosl and the Volga. The history of the building is linked to the relationship between the Orthodox churches and the Russian history. With the fall of the Tsar, the Soviet revolution brought the atheism in the country, persecuting the believers and sacking the religious buildings. The Cathedral of the Dormition has not been saved and has been destroyed in 1937.

 

After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the Orthodox churches rose. A new and bigger Cathedral of the Dormition has been built in 2004. Indeed, when we discovered it, between the trees and isolated at an extremity of the park of Strelka, we were impressed by its majesty. In the middle of the square, the white walls with an impressive golden dome invited us to explore more.

We went up the stairs to enter inside. To respect the traditions, we removed our caps and the girls covered their hairs with a scarf.

Surprisingly, the cathedral was bright inside. Many religious icons decorated the walls. Painted on wood, their gilts enlightened the white walls.

In the middle of the Cathedral, like in any Russian churches, there was the sanctuary whose the entrance was forbidden by an iconostasis. This is an important symbol of Orthodox churches. It’s made of several layers with icons placed on top of each other, in the middle there are two holy gates.

While watching all the details of the decoration in the main nave, we were surprised to see the bishop followed by the other members of the clergy.

Reunited in the middle of the cathedral, in a space without a bench or a chair, we attended the beginning of the Mass with believers standing up.

Like the Catholicism and the Protestantism, the Orthodox religion is coming from the Bible. But here the service is very different and named the Divine Liturgy. First, the mystical atmosphere was intense with the solemnity of the priest and the lighting effects of the candles, the icons and the smoke escaping from the incense. In addition, the texts were sung, not only the hymns but also the prayers and the readings of the Bible. Songs were therefore omnipresent, which made this moment impressive and dynamic. During the service, and after some research on internet, we attended the blessing of the opening, the proclamation of the epiclesis when the doors of the sanctuaries opened, and then the communion. At this specific moment, we were surprised to see all the believers getting closer to the middle of the building. Embarrassed, we preferred to go back to the entrance of the Cathedral, we attended the bishop’s procession around the believers, carrying the chalice and the paten followed by the priests and deacons, one of them was filling the Cathedral with smoke by balancing his censer and thus blessing the assembly.

Once the procession was over, we tried, as discreetly as possible, to return outside. Unfortunately the imposing entrance gates of the building did not facilitate our task.

Skateboarding session on the straight roads of taiga

The road trip started without them. South America has been crossed without skateboards. Quickly, we missed it. Riding was the leitmotiv of this trip; taking his board on his motorbike and during some skateboarding session, to touch the asphalt with the finger was the logic extension of this trip.

The sweet smell of adventure with the good perfume of asphalt. A picture smelling like the rebel spirit of an American road-trip movie. But this time, the playground was in Russia.

The first spot was a few kilometers from Leninskoye, a small town lost in the middle of the taiga. At the end of the afternoon marked by a quick mechanic session, we had to change our mind. Nothing is better that an improvised skateboarding session at sunset for that… It was between the motel and the Lukoil petrol station that, with Julien, we went looking for the closest downhill with the skateboards under our feet. Due to the trip, it was not with my usual Vans shoes but with runners bought in Chile that I started to push. Followed by a gain of speed, before to carve and execute the first turn. As I did not go to the barbershop, it is with the hair blew by the wind squatting on the board, that I grazed the macadam for expressing my love to it. The feelings were back, a magic moment! From down to uphill, it was time to go back. In front of us, the beam of the drivers lighted us up before to disappear at the next bend. Once we were back at the petrol station, it was time to restart again until we were full of adrenaline at dusk.

A bit before Yekaterinburg, a break in the middle of the taiga was the perfect opportunity to take out our skateboards. We used a straight road with a smooth and long downhill between the pine trees. We have definitely transformed this great and surrealist landscape as a great playground with our different vehicles. Its asphalt was not a great quality, but as said Paul Verlaine: “destroyed asphalt, here is my road – with the heaven at the end.”

On the Russian roads

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The Narva river separates Estonia and Russia, in the city of the same name – Narva. Upon our arrival in this city, we checked-in for the flat we rent for the evening. We booked on the website www.goswift.eu a slot time to cross the Russian border on the following day. This administrative process reassured us. Indeed, it looked very organised giving us the hope of a fast border crossing.

At 9am, the time of our appointment, we arrived at the border post located at the bottom of the massive castle of the town-centre of Narva. Finally, it looked more complex than expected. We understood that we were actually supposed to be at 9am in a waiting area located outside of the city. Once we reached the huge parking of this zone, we filled some paperwork and joined one of the queues made of tens of vehicles. We waited half an hour for our plates to be shown on a massive screen.

We got a ticket and went back to the first border post, in the town-centre. We joined a new queue alongside the castle. Again, we waited about an hour. We took the opportunity for going on the ramparts to enjoy the view over the Narva river and Ivangorod, a Russian fortress on the opposite side.

We were moving slowly in the queue, until the traffic light specially put in front of the line showed a green light for us. We gave our passports and vehicle documents to the customs officer. He checked quickly and opened the barrier. We were out of the European Union.

We rode slowly on the bridge separating both countries and joined a new queue. At the end of the road, we saw the last checking point: the Russian border post. Someone gave us a form to fill. We were surprised as everything was written in Russian. Due to the complexity of their alphabet, we couldn’t guess the meaning of any words. We asked someone in the queue for some help. Finally, a customs officer gave us the same form but translated in English. Lucky us! It was much easier! After waiting some time, we had a quick check of the vehicles including the opening of our cases but with no further searches. No questions about our itinerary.

The border behind, we looked for an insurance policy in the small border city of Ivangorod. Sadly, we got the same replies in each insurance office: “Niet”! So we headed to Saint Petersburg, our next stage, with no insurance policy.  

Our first kilometres in Russia were identical to the ones made the previous day in Estonia. Except this time, we were not able to read the signs with the Cyrillic alphabet. Some birches on the side of the road. We crossed many villages with wooden houses next to tall buildings.

We shared the road with the most symbolic Russian vehicles: the Lada which is a basic car and the UAZ vans. We were going back to the Sovietic time when the Lada 2101, also named “Jigouli”, was everywhere in the cities in spite of being well-known for breaking down all the time ; while the Lada Niva 4×4 was crossing the taiga through muddy paths. The UAZ vans, also named “Bukhanka” (meaning “a loaf of bread”) due to its body shape, looked also coming from another century but was unbreakable. Its reputation was due to the numerous trips made through all the country in tough conditions.

Thirty kilometres before our arrival, a sign indicated the entry of the city. The road was getting wider, a 6-lane highway. The beginning of a crazy time with a lot of overtaking and sometimes with no safe distance. The traffic was heavier in the town-centre. We managed to arrive at the motorbike shop to collect tires we ordered. The city was impressive by its wide avenues, huge palaces and bridges spanning the Neva river.

We spent two days in Saint Petersburg for visiting and finding an insurance policy. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to find one due to the Bank Holiday, the 1st of May. So we continued our trip towards East without insurance and we left the second biggest city of the country.

We arrived in the Russian taiga. As expected, a forest with birches as far as we were able to see with some streams and rivers. The straight roads cross this forest. Wood is here a big industry. On the side of the roads, there were many piles of tree trunks offering a smooth smell of pine trees.

Kilometres after kilometres, there was a monotony on these straight roads going towards the infinity.

When we stopped on the road, people were very curious about seeing two Ural sidecars. Many people thought we were crazy. For them, these vehicles were only good for harvesting potatoes and not for travelling over thousands of kilometres.

We shared our daily life with the lorry drivers, but also all the ones being along the roads everyday: the sales representatives, the ambulance drivers, the policemen, the petrol pump attendants, the hotel employees and the café staff. In the roadside cafés, the menu of the day was written on a window or a slate, but in Russian. Each time we opened the door of one of these cafés, we had the impression to be in an old western movie. Everyone was looking at us, in silence. Like cowboys, we moved forward to reach the main desk. A lot of tension in the atmosphere, but after we said a couple of Russian words… there were only smiles and laughs! The language barrier made many incongruous situations. With our fingers we usually showed the name of the dishes we wanted, without knowing what we will get. For an appetizer, a soup or a hot dish and a dessert, we never paid more than 2€.

Once our stomachs being full, we were going back on the road. At the end of the afternoon, we usually stopped in a “motel-garage”. We got use to struggle with our vocabulary to have 4 beds for the night at the best price. All the strategies were good to get a lower price: two people in a single bed, or in the best case, a small room isolated at the opposite of the parking. After unloading the side-cars, the first questions were asked by the other guests. With many people, we shared advice, tips and good stories thanks to the Google Translate app.

In spite of the monotony of the road, making us a bit sleepy, we needed to be very careful about another issue of the country: the alcohol. On the road, we noticed many vehicles having trouble to go straight in spite of a clear and straight road.

It was 4pm when, after a last break, we went back on the road. A few minutes later, a Kia overtook Julien and Marie’s sidecar, and cut in front of them. Same thing with us. The lorry at the front started to overtake another lorry. The Kia car didn’t wait and tried to go through, between both lorries. The car ended in the ditch and rolled over twice. One of the lorries stopped on the emergency lane. We stopped behind him. We had a brief chat with the driver with a couple of English words: “Ok?” and “police”. He crossed the road to check on the Kia drivers. Before to reach them, the Kia driver started the engine and managed to go out of the ditch and stopped on the emergency lane. The driver and the passenger went outside of the car to check it. The front tire was flat. There were staggering and had a quick chat with the lorry driver while we were shocked to see all of this happening.

The lorry driver suggested to us to go back on the road and reassured us by saying he will wait the police and will testify.

At the end of the afternoon, we reached the city of Cherepovets. At dusk, on the way back to our place after dining, we saw a police car with flashing lights. Inside, a man with a survival blanket. Behind the police car, we recognised the damaged Kia car. The drunk driver managed to drive 90 kilometres after the accident, with a smashed roof before to be stopped by the police. This encouraged us to change our daily schedule and to avoid driving after 4pm.

With no troubles, after crossing the taiga, we reached the Ural mountains. Between Tchelibinsk and Oufa, the hills were sloping. A tough tile for our sidecars between the lorries. The temperature was getting lower and the first snowflakes arrived. Around Zlatoust, we reached the tip of a summit at 800 metres above the sea level, a true windstorm with snow. We stopped in a café place at the summit to warm up with a good “Solyanka” soup. A person next to our table preferred his flask of vodka.

When we were in South of America, we used to compare the fresh temperatures to the ones we will have in Russia. In the coldest days, we didn’t want to put all our winter clothing to reassured us, thinking we will need to go through worst in Russia. But when we were 4 000 metres above the sea level, in the Andes mountains, you can guess we didn’t have always a nice weather. We thought it will be worst in Russia. But usually, Russia doesn’t have great temperatures in May. The forecasts said between -5°C and +5°C. So after hundreds of kilometres, when we started to have a tough weather, we were almost excited. We wore many layers, like an onion, due to the freshness of the temperature. Underlayer, top, fleece jacket, winter jacket, rain coat and winter gloves: we were ready for the straight Russian roads!

But the showers, the snow and the hail became interminable. We lost the excitation of the first kilometres. The fingers were painful and our legs were like gone. Every little sunny spell were a bit of hope like the light at the end of a tunnel. Each service station became a corner of Heaven. We entered soaked to take the closest table to a radiator. The pins and needles in our fingers reacted to the hot coffee or tea…

We were prepared to make face to these difficulties and to avoid the same destiny as the Napoleonian troops. For this reason, we have chosen the month of May ; to avoid the crossing of the Ural Mountains with Siberian temperatures. But it was the hardest meteorological conditions we had since the beginning of the travel…

On the side of the temperatures, our second difficulty on the Russian roads was the hundreds kilometres with very bad asphalt conditions. A direct consequence of the wide temperature variations in this country. The sidecars and their passengers were shaken in every directions by the tough surface of the roads and its potholes, damaging our motorbikes and forcing us to happily fix them.

For the first mechanical stop, it was again the fixation of the seat, a large crack appeared and was fixed on the same day by Julien with a welding machine in a motel.

The second one, was during the first break of the day on our way to Perm. After around 100 km, we stopped at a Lukoil service station to fill our tank. Julien, by intuition after a portion of bad road, checked the frame of our sidecars. A new crack appeared on the fixation of the suspension on both sidecars. In front of this difficulty and the time to analyse the situation, we took a coffee at the station. Like usually, we were struggling to order but the waitresses was very nice. Marie went there again another time to ask if they know a good welder. She asked us to wait 10 minutes, without saying the reason…

10 minutes later, two men arrived with an old and tired van. After a few minutes of chat, we followed them and we went two kilometres back on the road to a motel where it was perfect for doing mechanics on a smooth concrete floor, surrounded by lorry drivers. To work on both sidecars at the same time, we used bricks to elevate and stabilise the bikes.

Once swinging arms were removed on both sidecars, Emilie and Julien went to Alexander’s workshop. He ground them to stop the crack, reinforced and welded them, a great job made by a professional. Once we asked the price for this work, he did a funny face before to smile and to say in English with his great Russian accent: “Present”. Another proof of the Russian generosity. After warmly thanking him, we needed two extra hours to reassemble back the bikes. We enjoyed a beer break with Alexander who came with his beautiful “Jigouli” nicely painted. Michael, the security guard joined us as well before to start his shift and to keep an eye on the sidecars during the night.

While we were approaching the Kazakh border, a last misadventure came to conclude our trip on the Russian roads. The previous day, we talked about it and it didn’t wish us luck. 40 kilometres after our departure from the town of Louriouzan, Marie and Julien were not visible anymore in our mirrors. Once it has been possible we parked on the side before to try to make a U-turn in the middle of this really busy road with a lot of trucks.

A few hundreds of metres further we saw them parked on the side. After a second U-turn, we parked near to them. It appeared to be the first flat tire of the trip, after 32 832 kilometres. From our departure, we had snow in the Ural Mountains. Buck luckily, the repair was done during a sunny spell. Very quickly the jack was out and the tire changed. It was done in less than 40 minutes. We left the side road to insert ourselves in the traffic. We shared the last kilometres leading to Kazakhstan with the Russian lorry drivers, Kazakhstan is the land of our next adventures…

Yekaterinburg & the Ural mountains – 11 days – 237 metres above sea level

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After 350 kilometres, on the main road between Perm and Yekaterinbourg, we crossed the symbolic line separating Europe and Asia, this separation is also marking the beginning of Siberia.

With surprise, we discovered we were not matching the local time. After verification, we had to add 2 hours. In spit of their proximity, there is a jet lag between the two “oblasts” (equivalent to a county) of Perm and Yekaterinburg. A few kilometres after entering in Asia, we arrived in the capital of the Ural area which is also the 4th city of the country. In spite of its massive size, we had no issue to reach the town-centre.

The night of our arrival, we have been invited by Marina at the Double Grill and Bar. With delicious burgers, we discussed about our dailylifes and the Russian culture. Once we described our trip in details, Marina offered to share our trip in the news. An article was written and published this same night and triggered by surprise a massive amount of “likes” on our Instagram account. After a last glass of wine, we went on our way back to our flat by the busy and lively quay alongside the Isset river. On the few steps going towards the Lenine avenue, we watched a spectacular show with a guitarist and a drummer. They were entertaining a large group of people dancing on their song.

After a great lie-in, ready, we went to the bottom of our building to meet Lubov, she will guide us to discover the secrets of the city.

Yekaterinburg, from its strategical geographic situation, became across the centuries an important trading hub. Connecting the railways from the East to West, it had a massive economical growth with the major mines of Ural.

Today, the city is still influenced by this history, but it is also looking towards the future: for example the important scientific centre, its innovating architectural project. A sure thing, our walk along the streets were really enjoyable. Many pedestrian area have been identified. The scooter was, here too, a means of transport used by the youngers. On numerous squares, the urban furniture was used as a playground area for skaters. We went on the Opera square, then to the former KGB quarter. Lubov explained to us the life of the isolated family living in this quarter, expecting every day to see their husband/wife to come back at the end of the day. We also visited the Church of All Saints, Built in 2000 in memory of the Tsar Nicolas 2nd, killed with his family at this place in 1918. All along this tour lasting 4 hours, our guide teached us the Russian history and the secrets of this capital of Ural. All of that, under a 20°C with sunshine and blue sky. Hard to imagine the city as a paradise of ice, where it’s snowing 170 days per year and where the kids made snowmen 15 days ago. But one hint was the salt which was still covering the pavement.

At the beginning of the afternoon, we left Lubov and continued our tour on our own. We took the opportunity to walk between the shelves of the market on the Lenin Square, where the statue never had pigeons on its head. In the modern quarter, we climbed the stairs leading to the Yetsin Museum and then we enjoyed the summery weather in the Newton Park. The kids were running in the fountain, with a great and nice innocence. We walked again along the Isset river. On the lake, there were kayaks on a line going back and forth, in the meanwhile two dinghies were tacking simultaneously.

The following day, we headed to Irbit, 200kms further away. We crossed fields, streams and bushes. The asphalt was in prefect conditions. We road at an usual 80km/h and enjoyed a nice spot with trunks of birches for a shooting photo. Arriving in Irbit, we stoped the sidecars in front of the column symbolising the entry of the city. Here we are! Irbit, the place of birth of our loyal sidecars. 

We found a “gostinitsa”, without too much troubles, matching with our budget, in spite of the hotels we saw on Internet which were too expensive. After 5 days spent in the city, we knew it quite well. We were not too sure about it when we arrived as it looked very quiet after a rich past. It was its golden age when the Ural manufacture was the heart of the city. At sunset, walking between the buildings which shut down was a key step of our trip. Crossing the old gate of the manufacture when it was working at its best, was a great symbol of our trip.  

The identity of Irbit seduced us step by step. The city kept some of its little treasures: a little bridge spanning a river which gave its name to the city and offering a specific atmosphere. In the streets, we regularly saw old and noisy Ural sidecars with often a crate in spite of a seat for the passenger on the side. After all, as our Russian friends said: « there are more often used for harvesting potatoes than for travelling ». 

But it was with our Ural that we left Irbit and headed to Yekaterinburg and Kazakhstan. We did a first stage in a big and empty hotel in the city of Aramil. There was a torrential rain in the morning. As we were disappointed by the diner in the hotel, we preferred to avoid breakfast. With empty stomachs we jumped on our sidecars. The first coffee place was at 20 kilometres ahead, under heavy rain. When we arrived, a new deception. No table to seat down and to warm up. So we decided to go back on the road and to try the next coffee place, 5 kilometres ahead. Upon our arrival, around 8:30am, the place was closed but a sign showed the opening times. 9am this morning giving us enough time to fix a rear break issue under the rain. Half an hour later, we enjoyed crepes and tea for breakfast. 

We continued our trip in a cold and rainy weather. We were supposed to use the ring road but we finally crossed the city of Chelyabinsk due to a mistake from me. The sidecars were noisy due to the heavy traffic they didn’t really enjoy. We were pleased to see a bit of sunshine at the end of the road until Kichigino. We found two rooms in a little “gostinitsa” where we put our clothes to dry. No heaters and no hot water, but it will be enough to warm up. Nothing better than a good soup named “salienka” with 7 different meats for some of us, or a Georgian soup with beef named “karcho” for the others. 

After crepes for breakfast, we went back on the road. First we headed to Orsk and then Aktobe in Kazakhstan. But with a map of the Russian roads in our hands, we were afraid to cross roads in tough conditions. We changed our mind and went back to Chelyabinsk. Then we went towards West and the Oufa city. At the beginning of the day, the road was surrounded by wide fields before to see again the mountains of the Ural. This time, we crossed it from East to West, under a little layer of snow. 

We spent the night in a small city between the mountains, Yuyuzan, where we stayed in a hotel owned by a nice grandma. For dining, we couldn’t resist to a Mediterranean menu with a Margarita pizza and a Greek salad. 

Breakfast in our rooms while watching the snow falling down. Hard to find the motivation to go outside with this freezing temperature. Back on track, the sunshine was finally back too. With no troubles, we took the ring road of Oufa and headed to South. We stopped in Sterlitamak in a “gostinitsa” with a higher quality than usual. To enter in our rooms, we even needed to put sleepers given by the hotel!

We continued towards Orenbourg. On the roads, fields as far as we were able to see. Sadly, this massive farming industry doesn’t offer always a nice smell of wheat… We arrived mid-afternoon in Orenburg with strong wind gusts. We collected the keys of a rent flat, located on the 14th floor of a Russian tower, nearby the town centre. The following g day, we visited the city with Ivan, met the previous day while we were looking for engine oil.

After a day walking in Orenburg, we went towards Ilek, the last Russian city, just 5 kilometres before the Kazakh border. As we didn’t know how long it will take to cross the border, and if we could reach Uralsk – the only big city after the border at 150kms further ahead where we could find a hotel – we decided to spend the afternoon and the night in Ilek. Picnic in a parc of the town-centre before to enjoy a running session up to the Ural river. In the evening, we walked to find a place for dining and understood how much bicycles are used in this city. But there was nothing open. We crossed the city and finally found a sushi restaurant. Dina and Nastya, the owners, were being very kind with us and offered the diner before to give us a lift to our hotel. 

We left early in the morning to arrive at the Kazakh border. We did our last beak at a Lukoil service station to spend our last Roubles and buy some biscuits. In a few kilometres we will will be in Kazakhstan! 


OUR FAVOURITE PLACES
Where to eat?

Double Grill and Bar
Yekaterinburg

This place is actually a fancy restaurant showing how the city can be trendy! Our adventurer clothing was not really matching with the other guests of the restaurant. But it’s a great place to enjoy a good burger or one of their grilled specialities. 

What to visit? 

Lubasusl – City tour of Yekaterinburg
https://yekaterinburg4u.ru/en/

Do not hesitate to contact Lubov, the guide of this agency, to follow her and discover the capital of the Ural area with all its secrets. 

Tcherepovets and the crossing of the Russian taiga – 8 days – 130 metres above the sea level

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Leaving our hostel between two showers, the sat nav indicated 390 kms. The weather was cold. We had to wear several layers including waterproof suit and winter gloves. 

From the first kilometres to the middle of the journey, we had showers, snow, hail and sometimes a bit of sunshine giving us, at each time, some hope. The coffee breaks at the petrol stations were life-saving. We entered, in the station, wet and cold for some warmth with a big mug of coffee after some tough 100 kilometres.

Our arrival to Tcherepovet was through its industrial area. We arrived between the massive metal chimneys transpiercing the sky. Steel industry is the main economics activity of the city. Once the massive factory of Severestal was behind, we entered in the city by one of the main avenues. Its architecture was constituted by several ageing blocks of flats. We were sleeping in one of them. The neighbourhood was quite austere. At the park between the blocks, the playground was looking like c coming from another age. While we were not feeling confident in this area, once parked, the neighbours were coming to warmly welcome us. 

The night was coming, we were feeling the coldness during our walk on the way to the center to get some food. There again, our stroll in the street of this industrial city did not reconciled us with its architecture. The Soviet atmosphere resulting from that, could have inspired Emile Zola to build a contemporain Germinal. Around the market square, we observed some remaining houses from the 19th century, but it was the massive statue highlighting the workers of metalworking industry which will remain in our mind.

The next day, we left the city by the South by crossing the Cheksna river. It merged a few kilometres further with the great Volga river, the longest of Europe. We continued on a secondary road following it. Its width was so large that it was impossible to see the opposite shore.

Our little road was crossing little wooden villages with economics activity linked to the river. After that, the landscape was replaced by deep forest and tiny rivers which were Volga’s affluents.

Upon our arrival in Iaroslavl, two policemen helped us to call the owner of our flat. He indicated that the flat keys were hidden on the sill of the window. Once we opened the flat, both policemen insisted with two old guys for leaving our sidecars in a secured parking, just a few hundreds of metres further down, rather than in front of the flat. At the secured parking, we were welcomed by another old guy who opened the barrier with a big smile. With easy gestures, we understood that he was very proud to keep an eye on our Ural sidecars. Our vehicles being in safe hands, we went exploring the historic town centre, a listed UNESCO World Heritage.

Iaroslavl is the perfect example of a regional capital. Unknown abroad (except a few inhabitants of Poitiers, the French twin city of Iaroslavl) in spite of being one of the oldest cities of Russia. The city was a mix of modernity and tradition. We saw many Lada cars in front of old orthodox churches with cupolas while shops of Western brands were opening on the other side of the street. The city was being under a big refurbishing plan symbolised by the arrangement of the promenade along the Volga river leading to the Strelka park. This green area, located at the crossing of the Volga and Kotorosli rivers, was decorated with a bear-shape flowerbed. The bear is the symbol of the city and was to commemorate its 1000th anniversary. The promenade was great to enjoy the beauty of the town centre in a quiet atmosphere. We discovered the impressive cathedral of Dormiton, the beautiful church of the prophet Elie and the ancient door of the Znamenskaya tower. 

After this stage, we continued through the taiga on a road, still, in bad conditions. However, the sun stayed with us all along the day and the temperature was getting warmer. 

Due to the bad conditions of the road, we stopped in a motel at Kady. Again, it was hard to communicate and to ask for 4 beds for the night. Google Translate helped us a lot. Julien repaired a seat by welding and we did some maintenance by greasing and tightening. 

Our effort was awarded by the taste of our first bortsch, the traditional Slav beetroot soup. We enjoyed it in a wide room, the restaurant of the motel with Zaz and Joe Dassin for the background music. 

Cheesy pancakes for breakfast before to continue our adventure through the taiga. The sunshine was going through the branches of the pine trees. The light was beautiful. After following it over 90 kilometres, we left the straight line of the road 33p to get some rest in the village of Leninskoye. On the secondary road to reach this little village, there was à goods train crossing the road. On the main square, a horse and its cart were waiting their owner. The only hotel marked on the « Maps.me » app didn’t exist. A guy gave us another address but the “gostinitsa” was out of our budget. The owner was kind enough to give us the address of a motel just outside of the city. We went back on the 33p road and in front of a Lukoil service station we saw the rudimentary building of the motel. 

The manager showed us the place and the various possibilities for sleeping. We preferred the cheapest: sleeping in a small room, usually for 3 people, isolated at the opposite side of the parking and next to the mechanics’ workshop. Our evening started by visiting this workshop as we noticed some damages due to the quality of the road. The bearing of our front tire worn its hub. As a rudimentary repair, we spread some thread locker and hoped that it will last the longest possible. 

We dined in the canteen of the motel. Sat at the table, we had the nice surprise to see the journalist of the local news arriving in the room. She has been informed of our presence by the manager of the motel. She did a quick interview with a mix of Russian and English words and without any assistance for translating by any kind of technology. For desert, we enjoyed some pancakes, a traditional dish in Russia. We spread some sugar but the locals were surprised by our way to eat these pancakes. 

The next day, the weather was nice for riding. We stopped in the city of Kirov to find some thread locker and grease for the next maintenance day. To find those, we targeted the big Russian store of Leroy Merlin (the equivalent of B&Q): Леруа Мерлен. A quick selfie for Emilie’s dad as it’s his favourite shop. He spent hours inside with Emilie when she was a kid. Sadly, we didn’t find the products we were looking for but we bought a new tarpaulin. Finally, we found our products in a mechanics auto shop, just a few hundreds of metres further. We were already mid-afternoon but decided to continue our journey. We wanted to find a place for the night in the next village. The hotels were finally too expensive. After 40 kilometres in plus, we found a motel matching our budget with a sweet welcoming in the Nikony village.

For our next stage, we wanted to be at Perm for the celebrations of the 9th of May (the National day celebrating the victory of the Second World War). But the road decided otherwise. A crack of the swinging arm next to the suspension, on both sidecars, made us to stop for the rest of the day at Omoutninsk. A new mechanical session on the parking of a motel. After disassembling during all the afternoon, welding and assembling back, we finally opened a beer with Alexander the welder and Michael the security guard of the parking before to enjoy a great goulash at the motel. 

As a symbol of kindness of the people we met on the road, we will remember the receptionist of the motel who went outside as soon as she heard our engines. She ran to give us water, a chocolate bar, and a nice hug. One hundred of kilometres before Perm, during a new break at a Lukoil service station, we met Stepan and his family. Happy to meet Ural travellers, the sidecar he got, he took a group photo and offered us some bottles of water. After a day on the road, we arrived in Perm without troubles in spite of the frightening road conditions described by our friends we just met. We strolled in the town centre, the sixth biggest Russian city. On the main square, there was a concert given for this national day. Then, we watched the sunset over the Kama river where we shared a flask of Cognac with a retired guy who was proud to tell us the life he spent in France during a few years. Tomorrow, we will ride 350 kilometres separating us from Iekaterinbourg, our next stage. 

Saint Petersburg – 3 days – 3 metres above sea level

Version française disponible ici. 


It was 9am when we arrived at the Estonian border office along the Narva river. We needed more than four hours to cross the bridge spanning the river before to ride for the first time in Russia. As an award, we enjoyed our first soviet lunch with a great view over the Narva castle and for the last time, Estonia plus the European Union in the background.

We rode 157kms to reach Saint Petersburg. 

The road was straight and surrounded by several pine trees. While the sat nav was indicating our point of arrival at 30 kilometres further, a sign was showing the entry of the Saint Petersburg city. The road was wider, in only a few kilometres we were from a 2-lane road to a 6-lane road. We made our way through the jam-packed trafic to reach a motorbike shop located in the town-centre, nearby the “Finland train station”. We parked the sidecars next to a kids’ playground and looked for the shop. We ordered tires through Ural Russia and they have been shipped to this address. But at the exact place, there was nothing! When we looked up, we saw the name of the shop indicating to go to the second floor of a building. We arrived in a beautiful place dedicated to BMW motorbikes with an industrial style including metal and brick. We left with 5 brand new Duro tires. 

With a lot of energy, we started to visit this famous Russian city early in the morning. Saint Petersburg has been built in 1703 when Pierre de Grand, Tsar of Russia, started its urbanism project with the inspiration of German engineers, Italian architecture, Dutch and French experts. Saint Petersburg is often considered as a window of Europe. On the pavements of the streets, we felt like the Lilliputian of Gulliver. Due to the excessive size of the architecture, the wide avenues and the orthodox churches, the city was inappropriate for our size. 

To reach the historic town centre, we walked alongside the Neva river. This one was winding between the oversized buildings of the town centre. On the quays, there were old ships, the old boats of the imperial armada.

We crossed the Champs de Mars, place previously reserved for the military parades. In the middle, there was the monument of the “fighters of the Revolution” (1917-1919) plus the eternal flame commemorating the victims of the “Great Patriotic War” against the Nazi invader. The date of the 9th of May being soon – it’s the commemoration of the victory (celebrated one day after due to the jet lag of the other allies countries) – the preparations of the biggest military parade already started. We discovered two old Ural sidecars a the light machine gun at the front, parked on the esplanade. 

A few steps further, we saw for the first time the beautiful cathedral of the “Savior on the Spilled Blood”. This amazing building has been built in the true tradition of the Orthodox cathedrals and was in homage to the Tsar Alexander II, murdered at this place in 1881. Among the other visitors, we spent a long time to observe the details of the facade and the sumptuous colourful domes. Sadly, the top was being refurbished during our visit. Once we watched meticulously the outside, we wend inside. First, I was surprised by the benches which were missing before to be amazed by the colours of the mosaic of the icons covering each corner of the walls from the floor to the ceiling. 

At the exit of the cathedral, we attended the parade of the 1st of May on the Nevski avenue, the main avenue of the city. During almost one hour, and in spite of arriving late, we attended the parade of the Poutine politics party came to celebrate the Labour Day, in its on way. The flags with the bear symbol and the colours of Russia were moving at the same pace as the drums and percussions. At the end of the cortege, the communist party was marching during 20 minutes with its red flags. A cortege composed mainly by retired people distributing flyers and newspapers while singing on the music of the Bolshevik revolution. At the end of the cortege, we were surprised to see the fart-left wingers an vegan, just in front of a group from the right politics party. The whole cortege moved without violence, surrounded by militaries. 

A few minutes later, the time to turn some pages of a few books at « the house of books », the Nevski Avenue was  back to its usual business. We walked along the street and turned to the left after a channel to join the impressive « Palace Place » in front of the « Hermitage Castle ». A place showing well the magnificent side and the greatness of the city. The Alexander column was in the center of the place, in commemoration of the victory of Alexander 1er against Napoleon. We walked to the bottom of Isaac’s Church before to enjoy the green area of the Alexander’s Garden where we ate a sandwich next to an antifascist group.

Once we were refreshed, we took the Dvortsovy Most bridge spanning the Neva river, the Vassilevki island and more precisely, the Stock Market place. This square is situated where the river divides in two arms, offering this afternoon a great panorama over the Saint-Petersburg historical town center, illuminated by the warm rays of the sun going through the Neva river. We kept going and arrived at the Pierre and Paul fortress by the narrow beach along the ramparts. In the gardens, we observed families playing a traditional game with wooden pins shot by throwing a long wooden stick. Our stroll ended at the nice and without pretension Saint Vladimir Cathedral and its sky blue domes. Our colourful sunny day finished by walking through the street towards our flat, under the warm colours of the dusk.

But Saint Petersburg knows only 35 days of sun per year, therefore it was without surprise that we woke-up with the sound of the rain for this second day in the city. A weather calling the visit of the famous Hermitage Museum. A giant museum hosting artistical and mythological treasures. For optimising our visit, we prioritised the collection of impressionism masters. We went rapidly across the rooms and climbed up the stairs of the Winter Palace, before to discover, by asking to a guardian, that the impressionism collections were, at the opposite of the Great Palace, in the Palace of the General Staff. Quickly, we went on our way back in the opposite direction of the other tourists. Once in front of the large collection of Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Renoir, Monet, we were surprised by the lack of people around the artworks, a pleasure for our eyes… we discovered with a lot interest the artworks of an American artist named Rockwell Kent, which revealed a great work of colours and lights. 

In the middle of the afternoon, we had to leave Saint Petersburg. We continued our trip in direction of East. With a cold and rainy weather, we arrived at the village of Andreyevshchina.

We spent the night in a family inn next to the road. The village was at the end of a muddy path. We had a few difficulties to understand the owners, but we finished to take place in two rooms and to share a corner of the kitchen with the family for the diner.

It was time to go back to our rooms for a good sleep because the next day will be dedicated to the long straight roads of the Russian taïga.