The next day was tough. Ulf’s bike was not handling at all and he wasn’t going to make it on some of the Russian and Kazakh roads we’d heard about. His hi-tech shock absorber was only 3 weeks old and was already fit for the junkyard. His bike was handling like a cheap supermarket trolley with a rogue wheel.
It was a hot day as we entered the city of Kirovograd in the centre of the Ukraine. The sun was beating down, I had all the vents open on the motorcycle clothing and had been wrestling with some debris that had got into my eye some 150 kms earlier. We stopped on the side of a busy city street and I set about using a nalgene bottle to flush my eye out. I didn’t care that people were looking at me like I had just come from another planet…I just needed my eye back. Suddenly Ulf was talking to someone who had just pulled up on a large throaty motorcycle. He was wearing a cut off denim jacket with “Black Ravens” emblazoned across the back. I was concerned, the last thing we needed was to get involved with the local Hells Angels now. He introduced himself as Igor ….yes Igor…..and we spotted the shoulder holster under his left arm and the blue steel handle of the pistol therein. My blood pressure was now at a level that my doctor warned me about. It became very evident withing 30 seconds that no one could understand each other and we were asking if there was a place in the city where Ulf could get his shock absorber repaired. Igor jumped on the phone and barked a few commands. Within 5 minutes, his nephew had arrived and could talk English, in fact he was over on Vacation from his new home in Vancouver. Again, we explained our predicament and he explained that the closest place for repairs would be Dnipropetrovsk, 150 kms away. Here’s where the language barrier doesn’t always work. We though Igor (his pistol now lying on Twiggy’s saddle) had said he would show us out of the city and point us in the right direction. Instead, he rode all the way to Dnipropetrovsk with us and handed us over to…the “Angels MC” club member…a formidable looking guy called Nicolai. Fortunately, Nicolai wasn’t packing a gun….i’m sure he has one somewhere but right now I felt at ease. He made us follow him across the city to the local Yamaha Dealership, on a Sunday. They opened up their doors and we were asked to ride the bikes down the 6 steps into their showroom and park up among the shiny new models on the showroom floor. Nicolai then drove us up the road and booked us into a very nice western style hotel for the night and paid for our meals. We would meet at Yamaha again at 8am the next day.
Here’s where my education was furthered. I am so used to seeing bike gangs in the west that I had come up with a stereotypical picture of Nicolai and Igor. In fact I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In the Ukraine and Russia motorcycle riders look after each other on a level that is unparalleled. Ulf and I were experiencing this in a big way. We were fed, housed and gifted to the n’th degree by these gentlemen….and I mean gentlemen in the truest of terms. They greet you with a hearty handshake and a hug every time as if you were a long lost relative. The simple fact that you’re on a motorcycle qualifies you for respect and care because they know how hard it can be out on the road most times. I am humbled and overwhelmed by their generosity and hope I get the chance to return the compliment someday.
Monday morning rolled around and we caught a taxi to the Yamaha dealership. Twiggy was still on the showroom floor looking like one of the ugly sisters from the Cinderella story and we set about getting the bikes into the workshop. I was going to do an oil change on Twiggy and Ulf would set about his shock absorber. Not to go into too much detail here, we managed to repair the shock absorber over a 2 day period and even got some air into it….not before a fellow came in with a second hand shock absorber in his hands for Ulf. Nicolai….yes there are now two Nicolai’s in the story, had spent the night removing this from his bike, had cleaned it all up and had driven the 50 kms into the city to give this to Ulf if he needed it. This was all brought about by a few phone calls from the Angels the night before. We were so humbled by this act of generosity. Nicolai hung out for the morning with us and took notes as to what he could do to his bike. We all got along famously and before long had met the president of the club, he spoiled us with more food and drink and then we had to say goodbye because Russia was calling. Just as we were putting the bike gear on outside the shop we were visited by a guy in motorcycle leathers. He had been told by someone that we were here and he wanted us to come and stay at his house. Two hundred kilometers later we arrived at a beautiful place in Central Ukraine. He opened up the door to his garage and there were giant photos of him riding his motorcycle to Magadan everywhere. This guy had ridden the road of bones and wanted to spend the evening giving us advice. We listened like we were in class again for he was a mine of information. Once again, we were fed and housed by complete strangers. I think we have a lot to learn in the west. The new day saw us off bright and early and heading for Russia and who knows what?
Western Ukrainian roads are generally very good…..that is until you get past Donetsk. The road here was as ugly as a welder’s bench and we bucked and bounced around for a couple of hours. At least this would be a good test for Ulf’s shock absorber. The Russian border came up quickly and my nerves were kicking in. Russia was an integral part of this trip….in fact it was about half of our trip. What would happen if our visas were in error? We would have to turn back! The Ukrainian border guards are slow here. It takes twice as long to check out of their country than it does to enter. They were all asking for “presents” too but we just ignored the comments and set about approaching the Russians. Things couldn’t have been easier here and we were done within half an hour with a Heavily accented voice, a Russian border guard raised the barrier and boomed “Welcome to Russia”. We rode into beautiful farm country……at seven in the evening…….looking to buy Russian motorcycle insurance which is compulsory. Our European Insurance was now invalid here. After asking a few simple questions and pointing to my Lonely Planet phrase book we were directed to a dodgy looking little shack with a couple of old ladies sitting out front. This was where we buy our insurance?? After 20 minutes and about $80 we came away with a certificate written in Russian. I had no idea what it said and could have just bought shares in some shaky business venture for all I knew. Bedtime was looming and we were in search of the Hotel Grant in Kamensk Shaktinskiiy. It’s a business hotel and has the capability of processing your passport and validating your visa. Something you must do every 5 days there. Russians love paperwork….and it all has to be exact or you won’t get very far. This fact tickled me…I love bucking the system a bit, but maybe this was the wrong country to do it in.
It was a long ride to Volgograd the next day, We rode through a big countryside full of giant farm fields and straight roads. Every once in a while we would encounter a police checkpoint and would have to stop and answer questions as to our business and where we were going. On the whole this is not a bad experience at all. Small towns appeared and disappeared and we pressed on. People sat outside their homes on chairs selling fruit, honey or some form of moonshine looked on as the deep noise of Twiggy’s exhaust came into earshot. We were warm and dry and now collecting dead bugs on or bikes, helmets and jackets. Turning south from Volgograd we entered the Volga river valley. It’s not really a valley per se but I can’t really come up with a word for it at the moment. It’s a major river and shipping channel from the Caspian Sea to inland Russia. Further toward Volgograd the river is well defined and cuts deep into the flat warm countryside with relative ease. Further south the river contuse to braid over and over again and then becomes a giant Delta akin to that of the MacKenzie at Inuvik in Canada. This is where the world gets its supply of flies. To stop anywhere along this valley is hell. Small flies are on you within seconds and I chuckled to myself as I saw Ulf wrestling with this for quite obviously the first time in his life. Northern Canada will be an education for him I thought to myself. In the meantime we had to find somewhere to stay….away from flies. Our digs for the night could only be described as odd. It was cheap and cheerful and full of drunk locals that wanted to talk to me about “America” while they were watching the wrestling on TV in the common room. Nobody here was happy. I put it down to the flies. How the hell do people put up with living there? Why don’t they move away? I hate flies.
The next day was also a fly ridden start. We rode across the delta toward the Kazakh border. Every gas stop was hell as we dealt with flies that could swarm so thickly that they would land on your eyes and inside your nose. I even inhaled a bunch. One of our maps showed a river bridge, and there was one but it was a pontoon floaty thing. We paid our 20 rubles to cross and then entered the crap shoot. The pontoon bridge is nearly two cars wide and everyone wants to get off it before it sinks. The deck is steel and slick. There are large hinges every so many metres that make this crossing hard on a motorcycle because not only are you looking out for where your front tire is going, you’re also dealing with oncoming vehicles. Don’t get me started about that either! These people don’t care about you….you’re small and in their way so any rights you think you have at this point are a figment of your imagination. Basically I was using all my motor skills at this point and was getting educated again.
More flies for an hour or so then out of nowhere we came up to the Kazakh border. Well actually it was the checkout point for Russia…the Kazakh border was 11 kilometres hence. It was 35 degrees and we were baking in the sun in black motorcycle gear. The queue of cars was about a hundred and fifty metres long and people were sat with their car doors open, trying to get their elderly in the shade or tending to uncomfortable kids. Women wrapped in white head wear and shirts were pacing the queue selling water and fruit juice. It was quite surreal….rather like a casting call for the “invisible man” in the desert. I couldn’t see any means they had of keeping their wares cool so I declined to purchase. Slowly we inched along metre by metre until we were motioned to a small shack with a sweaty border guard inside. He was actually quite affable considering he was sat in a wooden box with a tin roof up top.Maybe he could empathize with us, or was my mind just fried in the heat? Within ten minutes at the shack we were out of Russia and heading to the Kazakh border control. I needed a shower badly but at least there were no flies here.