every now and then the trees open up into wide swamplands filled with dragonflies and ducks. By car, bus or train this would be a smudge of brown and green passed all too quickly but under our own steam we see the appeal of this wild land to a nation of outdoorsmen.
With a week of cycling ahead of us before the next sizable town of Kirov, we’re firmly off the tourist map and have only the forest to distract us. The thick wooded tranquility is sporadically interrupted by lines of long distance truck traffic, but there is still plenty of time to appreciate Russia’s natural beauty and daydream about the next truck stop cafe meal. Preoccupied by contemplation of bandana making (me) and whether a second pair of sports socks would be useful (my partner Justin), we put our heads down and do some serious pedalling.
The forest changes slowly around us – sandy river bed soil becomes richer and redder, and we occasionally cycle past wide open spaces which feel like high mountain plateaus complete with snow fences, all at less than 200m above sea level. The ground closest to the road is soaked with stagnant waterways but every now and then the trees open up into wide swamplands filled with dragonflies and ducks. By car, bus or train this would be a smudge of brown and green passed all too quickly but under our own steam we see the appeal of this wild land to a nation of outdoorsmen.
Three days into the week an annoyingly persistent headwind switches to a tailwind and we start moving faster. Our average speed starts to sit above 20kph, often tipping past 30km with little effort on our part. It feels liberating and cycle touring through vast Russia at this pace makes more sense. The uneven surface beneath us is muted by the speed and after putting in several 100+ km days in a row we can finally see ourselves moving across the map.
The Russian approach to road-fixing may not be the best we’ve encountered but only one stretch slows us significantly – the road we take out of the sleepy town of Manturovo sees us push through sand for an entire hour. Justin manages to ride a little more than me and is soon off in the far distance while I grit my teeth and walk through the worst of it, muttering all the while that it is good preparation for Mongolia.
A few nights later we have our first Russian campfire and continue Justin's celebrations by making our first attempts at a campfire chocolate cake cooked in a kidney bean can.
Finally returning to paved roads, we’re surprised to find a road signposted for Kirov that strangely doesn’t appear on our map. Better yet it cuts our distance by at least 100km of minor roads, which we’re anticipating will be in poor condition. We double check with staff at the next petrol station and are pleased to find the road not only exists, but rolls gently downhill and has some of the best tarmac we’ve cycled in Russia.
Having been warned by our hosts in Kostroma that we’d be bordering bear territory we keep an eye on the forest at all times. Us innocents from New Zealand aren’t used to dealing with dangerous animals and have gleaned two not very positive pieces of information about these big forest dwellers - apparently bears are usually only aggressive when they were waking up from hibernation or if they have young. The snows haven’t long melted so we are left wondering just when they wake up from hibernation and just how often they venture towards the roads with their young.
Used to hiding ourselves as far from the roads as we can sensibly push our bicycles, we have been a little more cautious about where we pitch our tent and started looking more closely at the ground for clues of who or what may have recently passed through the area. We usually don’t find anything outside the disappointingly frequent piles of garbage but one night we did see huge hoofed animal prints which we hoped were from a moose. Mostly wild camping in Russia has been amazing with pitches among wooded glens, forest tracks to wander down and all-night bird calls usually drowning out the all-night lorry traffic.
Justin’s birthday is the only night where we really can’t find water, neither to buy at the few shops we pass or in village wells. Finding a campsite is also a challenging prospect, and instead of a much promised afternoon off, we end up cycling 104km before pushing our bicycles for nearly a kilometre along a riverside track until we eventually find some trees to tuck behind. A few nights later we have our first Russian campfire and continue Justin’s celebrations by making our first attempts at a campfire chocolate cake cooked in a kidney bean can.
Outside pauses in small villages and towns for food supplies, our only diversions are stopping at roadside cafes which seem to pop up at just the precise moment I’m willing one to appear. We judge the quality by the number of long-haul trucks parked outside.
Despite seemingly cosy interiors, these roadside cafés aren’t places to linger - food usually appears seconds after a tell-tale microwave chime sounds, is eaten without conversation and the customer is gone as quickly as they arrived. We have moderate success showing our phrasebook to waitresses and asking them to point to the dishes that are available. This isn’t helping us learn Russian, but we eat well enough.
While the roads are still unfriendly compared to the enthusiastic hellos heard daily in Turkey, as we’ve moved further from Moscow we’ve started to notice the occasional friendly horn hooted and sometimes even scored a wave. A day from Kirov we were shouted a meal in cafe just outside Yuryevo, much appreciated despite the fact we’d not long finished a picnic lunch.
Russia’s dreaded mosquitoes finally rise up against us on our last night before Kirov and despite a reasonable breeze they manage to cover my back with bites within minutes, through my cycling shirt no less. Justin is much less bothered than me and gamely offers to complete evening chores while I take refuge in the tent.
A busy red road takes us into the city centre, fighting with manic weekend traffic and endless streams of lorries. Again weary and grubby we’re welcomed with warm words into the Sputnik hotel, where the manager clinches the deal by giving us an unasked for discount and a complimentary session in the hotel’s private sauna.
We work hard to wash an entire week of grime off our bodies and then sit back and soak up the warmth of one of Russia’s traditional pastimes in a wood paneled room. I grin as I think about how appropriate an end this is to a week spent in the forest.
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