Best Biking Summer Holiday... Russia

Best-ever biking summer holiday to Russia so you can get some ideas for your own. You don’t have to spend thousands of pounds or be away from work for long

RUSSIA

Name: Jon Urry
Bike: BMW 1200gs Adventure
Miles covered: 4,876
Total cost: £1,500
Pros: The Challenge
Cons: It’s a long way

Summer of 2006 wasn’t a great time for me. I’d just split up with my girlfriend and, to be truthful, my head wasn’t all there. So I decided to get away for a while. Far away. Far enough away to forget all the shit at home. So I rode to Moscow. Why Moscow? Russia sounded dangerous, a bit of a thrill, a challenge and I reckoned that would be just the ticket to clear my muddled head up.

So I got a BMW R1200GS Adventure, obtained visas for Belarus and Russia and set off. That was the extent of my planning, I was on a wing and a prayer. The first day was spent crossing Europe and I managed 700-miles before stopping to spend the night in a hotel just outside Berlin on the Polish border. Travelling around Europe is easy and it wasn’t until I crossed into Poland that the adventure began.

Signs advertising ’24 hour discos’ (brothels) announce your arrival as does the terrible state of the road surface and slight waft of cabbage. Countless lorry tyres have dug twin trenches which when it rains (as it did the whole time I crossed the country) fill up and become mini-canals. Tidal wave after tidal wave of dirty, diesel saturated, water washed over the BMW and myself as I battled to keep the GS upright. Although people say it’s a lovely country I have nothing good to say about Poland and was relieved when I reached the Belarus border. Until I encountered Russian bureaucracy.

Pulling up at the border I showed my documents and was given a piece of paper with a series of blank boxes on it before being waved on. Foolishly I assumed that was all that was required. Four hours later I was still being forced to jump through the various hoops required to collect the six official stamps issued by the sour-faced inhabitants of various grey porter cabins. But I managed it in the end and passed through the Iron Curtain.

As soon as you enter the former Soviet Union you can see the mark of communism. The border town of Brest is dominated by ugly communist flats while ancient trams clank along the streets. It’s not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but outside the city is more appealing.

One road leads directly from Berlin to Moscow (the E30, started but not quite finished by Hitler) and it cuts a straight line through Belarus and onto Moscow. Like the rest of Russia it’s rather functional. The tarmac bisects vast Russian forests and it’s basically a flat, 800 mile run, into Moscow. On the side of the road local farmers sell buckets of apples or locally picked mushrooms to truckers while their daughters sell their bodies a few miles up the road. Life is hard if you live in rural Russia and western money is sought after.

Nearing Moscow the street vendors change to small roadside markets selling dried fish or snacks while the level of driving takes a decided turn for the worst. Russians seem to treat crashing a car as a national sport, I don’t think I’ve seen as many smashes in as short a space before.

Entering Moscow this level of vehicle armageddon is stepped up a gear. Imagine a swarm of myopic grannies driving dodgem cars and you get a rough idea of the Moscow one-way system. If you want a challenge then try taking it on with no map, during rush hour while simultaneously looking for a hotel. But Moscow is a rich city and hotels (generally converted communist blocks) aren’t hard to find.

Moscow itself was entertaining for a few days, but soon felt like any other European city. Trendy Moscovites want to be European, and as such the highstreet is dominated by multinationals such as Gap or D&G. Red Square, The Kremlin and such like were impressive but there isn’t much tourism in Moscow and after a few days I found myself kicking my heels around.

My best summer holiday ever? As it turned out, yes, despite my slightly depressing reason for going. When you tell people you rode a bike to Moscow they are amazed. In reality it’s not that hard, but it is a challenge. The sheer number of miles you have to cover is tough, dealing with stony-faced border guards, a totally different culture, weather and foreign drivers all adds up to quite an undertaking. The sense of achievement when you make it is worth all the hassle. Okay, the city itself isn’t the hotbed of culture you might expect, but this is a trip for the true adventurer. Looking back this is exactly what I loved about the whole experience. It was far from a holiday, more of a target very satisfyingly fulfilled and a good head-clearer. It’s a test for man and machine that you will never forget, an achievable test, but one that requires substantial effort from both parties. Ready to step up a gear?

WHOWHATHOW?

Russian and Belarus visas cost about £85 and £50 respectively and can be obtained from the individual embassies. Hotels in Moscow are from £80 a night with secure parking, a Dover/Calais ferry is about £100 and the whole trip is around 5,000 miles, so assume £600 for fuel. Most insurance companies will cover you across Europe and into Belarus and 20 Euros gets you Russian insurance on the border. Realistically it’s probably not worth the paper it’s written on.

Contact: www.hctravel.com

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