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Across the Gobi to the Trans-Siberian
1 August 2008 Gośka Romanowicz, Hervé Bonnaveira

Over the last months our journey feels like a film running backwards. 11 months ago we took a train across Europe, crossed the Caspian Sea, the Kazakh and Uzbek deserts, then the Kyrgyz Pamir mountains. This time it’s the Gobi desert and Mongolian yurts, and across the mountains in Russia we’ll finish our big cycle on the shores of the Siberian Sea, Lake Baikal. Finally the Transsiberian Railway will take us to Europe across Asia’s third country-continent - Russia.

Direct link to our latest news from Russia

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Red line shows the end of our cycle journey, yellow line - the beginning of our return by train.

Mongolia: the land of dreams

Good to be free again! No more troubles with the police here - Mongolians are a relaxed nation. Since 1990, Mongolia said goodbye to communism and chose democracy. Our site is no longer blocked and we are free to update it. A big thank you to Santiago, Thierry, Renata and Basia who helped us with the updates in China. Our route across the land of Genghiz Khan takes in the Gobi desert, the mountains and lakes of the North, and a lot of wilderness. Travel conditions are quite difficult: wind, sand storms, roads in bad condition (or no road at all), lack of tourist infrastructure (no shower at the hotel). But meeting Mongolians, both sedentary and nomadic, and experiencing their hospitality makes up for everything.

Gobi desert: full of surprises

– 3 June: Crossing into Mongolia at Zamyn Uud.
Just a few kilometres separate the Chinese town of Erlian and Zamyn Uud, its Mongolian neighbour. But the problems begin when the Chinese border guard refuses us entry: “Bicycles forbidden! Go back! Mongol bus!” They continue at the train station where bad-tempered officials tell us to send our bikes in a cargo coach. A bit later we load our bikes and bags into the trunk of a jeep, but lose patience with the driver who takes us around town for an hour looking for other customers, all the time promising to leave in five minutes. But all these bad experiences don’t manage to spoil our entry into Mongolia. At either side of the border we find a friendly guide. In Erlian it’s Unensaikhan, a Mongolian traveler who speaks perfect German and English, who gives us directions for the bus station where we finally find a way of getting across the border. Once on the Mongolian side in Zamyn Uud we are lucky to meet Sarah, a young and dynamic Mongolian girl whose mother is a circus performer in South Africa – hence her perfect English. Thanks to Sarah, buying a ticket and leaving our bikes at the left luggage storeroom is a piece of cake. It’s funny how short encounters can transform your travel experience, especially when you’re feeling lost as you enter a new country.

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Goska with Sarah, our first friend in Mongolia, at the border (Zamyn Uud, Mongolia)

– 4 - 5 June: By train to Ulaan Baatar and back to get our Russian visas.
This first attempt to obtain the elusive Russian visa ends in failure: the rules have changed recently and it’s now very difficult to get a Russian visa at an embassy outside of your home country. We take the night train back to our bikes in Zamyn Uud, and wonder how on earth we’ll get into Russia.

– 6 - 10 June: Zamyn-Uud to Sainshand.
As soon as we’re out of town, the tarmac ends abruptly and the washboard track starts. We are well prepared for the desert this time: 20 litres of water on our bikes, food for 3 days. The landscape gets drier and barer as we move closer to the heart of the desert. The single dirt track disperses into many diverging trails as each vehicle traces its own route across the sand and pebbles. On the second day we take a detour of around 20km to get water from the railside village of Ulaan Uul (Erdene). A new road is being constructed that will link the capital with the Chinese border - the Chinese workers building it told us it should be finished in 2009, although, unfortunately for us, not much has been done so far. Arriving in the town of Sainshand, which looks big on the map, we discover a little concrete town surrounded by hundreds of yurts. When we find out that a room with a shower costs $40 we decide that we prefer to save water and wash in a basin like the locals.

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Our first meeting with camels (Zamyn-Ud, Mongolia)

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Strong wind against us ! (Ulaan Uul, Mongolia)

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Yurt suburbs (Saynshand, Mongolia)

– 12 - 15 June: In the middle of the desert!
According to the two American walkers we met earlier, the tarmac should begin after Choir. As we’re only 200km from Choir, we feel as if we’re almost there. Wrong - the desert is only just beginning, and it’s as full of surprises as ever. It throws us into a sandstorm on a day that started with clear blue skies, at 25km from the next inhabited place (the usual three-house village). The sand on the track and the wind force us to push our bikes, sometimes over thorny plants, and we end up with two flat tyres (including one whith 8 holes to repair!). The night falls but it’s impossible to put up the tent because of the wind. We decide to continue on foot for the last 5km before the village - at 4km an hour against the sand and wind. Fortunately for us, the driver of an empty bus stops takes pity on us and offers us a lift. He leaves us in front of the three houses where we are warmly welcomed by the owners of the village shop. They feed us and invite us to sleep with the whole family of 4 in a shed next to the house - for some reason only the grand-father sleeps in the big brick house where we ate our dinner. The rest of the road to Choir is very sandy, the skies overcast. Near Shivigovee, the desert surprises us again with a short-lasting but heavy downpour.

- See “Mongolia: life in an extreme habitat”.

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Following the railway (Dalanjargalan, Mongolia)

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Unexpected rain in the desert (Shiveegovi, Mongolia)

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Long live the tarmac! (Choyr, Mongolia)

– 16 - 19 June: desert to mountainous steppe.
Once on the asphalt, we move fast at 100km a day. A new sand storm catches up with us and we find refuge in an empty house opened for us by a villager. The land here begins to fold into hills spattered with patches of green, as springs become more and more frequent. At 90km from Ulaan Baatar, we decide to leave the main road to see Eej Had, the sacred "Mother Rock" surrounded by majestic granite outcrops. We then stop at the monastery of Manzushir Khiid, where we see the first Mongolian forest. Although this time the desert is finished for good, more adventures await us before Ulaan Baatar. Goska’s derailer gets bent and gets in between the spokes. Then it’s time for the chain, already very used, which breaks a few kilometres later. We are lucky to find a new derailer for sale in the corner of a clothes shop in the small town of Zuunmod!

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The sacred "Mother Rock" (Eej Had, Mongolia)

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Just like the Swiss Alps with yurts (Zuunmod, Monmgolia)

– 20 - 26 June: Ulaan Baatar
After a two-week journey through the tranquil countryside of desert and steppe, Ulaan Baatar shocks us with its concrete, its aggression, and most of all its twisted bureaucracy. The Mongolian capital is nothing like the rest of Mongolia - although paradoxically almost half of all Mongolians live in Ulaan Baatar.

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I love UB (Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia)

The Mongolians as we knew them so far were open-minded, honest, and very easy to deal with - life in the desert is too hard to over-complicate things. In UB things change dramatically - it’s difficult to find a hostel, it’s difficult to find a place for our bikes, and it’s excruciatingly difficult to prolong our Mongolian visas. Herve’s passport is almost full - a single clean page left for the Russian visa. It takes us hours to persuade Mongolian immigration officials to stamp the visa extention on an already crowded page. Then it’s time for the Russian visa, and things get even more complicated, as the single page may not be enough... our fate hangs on the end of an embassy official’s pen. Although our stay in UB is at first depressingly dominated by bureaucratic procedure, we eventually find the time for some long-neglected cultural activity. This consists of visiting the museum of communist oppression and seeing the new Indiana Jones film.

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Good weather for paperwork (Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia)

Northern Mongolia: green valleys and yurts

We leave UB and head for the Russian border in good spirits, having filled up on pizza, goulash and travel stories with fellow cyclists, and with our propects for Russian visas looking hopeful (final verdict 16 July).

– 27 June - 2 July: UB - Sukhbatar
Lush green medows, grasslands and forests surround us all the way to the border town of Sukhbatar, even greener after a week of rain. Feeling lucky the rain coincided with our stay in the capital, we soak up the sunshine. The green valleys unsurprisingly attract more herders than the Gobi desert and dry steppe. There are yurts occupied by herders’ families everywhere, often by rivers and streams, and we usually camp with them - mostly for the company but also for the protection it gives us from annoying drunks, and perhaps wolves, if the rumours are true.

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Last week’s rain has pleased some (Bayanchandmani, Mongolia)

The road to Sukhbatar is asphalt and in very good condition, but hilly, and eventually Goska’s well-worn chain packs up. It keeps skipping so much that finally we change it for a new one and - surprise surprise - the new chain works perfectly well on at least 9 gears, despite the pignons being very used. The $2 Chinese derailer we changed earlier is working just fine, so it looks as if the old bike won’t have trouble finishing this trip after all.

We only spend two nights in towns and the experience cements our belief that it’s best to stay out of Mongolian towns (which is easy - there aren’t many). In a hotel-flat in the run-down town of Bayangol, we are kept awake by the friendly proprietress singing her lungs out with friends over several bottles of vodka into the early hours. The singing is actually quite beautiful at the beginning but then degenerates as the vodka takes its effect and finishes with the sound of loud puking into the toilet around 5am.

Fortunately our next camping spot more than makes up for the discomforts of Bayangol. We set up camp among yurts by a river surrounded by mountains in the glow of the warm, setting sun. Surrounded by children playing in the tall grass and horses wading across the river we decide on a rule - when in Mongolia, do as the Mongolians do (camp).

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A perfect place to camp (Orhon, Mongolia)

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A nice place to wash dishes too (Orhon, Mongolia)

We later learn of the riots in Ulan Bator on the 1st of July, when protesters, some of them drunk, burned down the ruling party headquarters and much of the National Gallery in the capital. In the tranquil countryside the far-away violence seems improbable.

- Read ‘From steppe to slums: urbanising Mongolia”.

The road to Sukhbatar is a beautiful ride - not too busy, asphalted, with plentiful water and only blue rivers and white yurts breaking up the green of the valleys. The vegetation turns from steppe to flowery meadow dotted with trees to Siberian-style forests as we approach Sukhbatar, and we know we are not far from Russia and Lake Baikal. As all border towns, Sukh Baatar is full of people passing through, money changers and dubious “businessmen.” It’s not a place that makes you want to stay. Unfortunately, we can’t cross the border yet as our Russian visas will be ready on the 16th of July at the earliest, which at least lets us enjoy the freedom of Mongolia for a few more days before entering Russia.

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Getting closer to the Siberian taiga (Shaamar, Mongolia)

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A beautiful paved road right up to the border (Sukh Baatar, Mongolia)

– 4 - 8 July: Stay in Erdenet
A night train takes us to Erdenet, Mongolia’s second biggest town, constructed in 1974 after the opening of a giant copper mine – now one of the 10 biggest copper mines in the world. After a cycle trip into the hills around Bulgan we unofficially visit the mine, and forced to flee by a raging storm. The proliferation of mines in Mongolia suggests that the government, encouraged by investors, has chosen mining as the industry of the future for the country.

- Read “Mongolia – mining a new future”.

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Camping in the wilderness (Bulgan, Mongolia)

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The biggest skies in the world (Erdenet, Mongolia)

– 9 - 12 July : Naadam festival
We are back in the Ulan Bator area for Naadam, a sort of Olympic Games for Mongolian nomads. On the programme: horse racing, archery and Mongolian wrestling.

- See “Naadam : Nomad Olympics”.

We spend the festival period with the family of Solongo, a girl of 16 who had studied for a year in London (hence her good English) and was now helping out at her parents’ shop during the summer holidays. The whole family gives us a taste of the Mongolians’ innate sense of hospitality. Our only “obligation” is playing with Nomiko, the sister-niece, and Zaia, the sister-cousin. The most unforgettable experience is the Naadam dinner of beef cooked with vegetables and stones in the yurt, where Sukhenbatar, the father of the family, manages to make us drink three glasses of vodka each.

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The family who invited us in for the Naadam festival (Khuu Doloon Hudag, Mongolia)

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Goska swaps her bike for a horse (Khuu Doloon Hudag, Mongolia)

– 13 - 15 July: The end of our long wait for Russian visas.
A near-accident in the suburbs of Ulan Bator convinces us to pass the last three days before we get our Russian visas in the countryside. The national park of Gorkhi-Terelj is only 60km from the capital, and boasts giant water-sculped granite rocks, children as enthusiastic as ever to try our bikes, and of course great places to camp.

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The little Mongolians are fighting to try our bikes (Terelj, Mongolia)

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Tent or "ger" (yurt) - a house for everyone (Terelj, Mongolia)

–16 -18 July : Ready to cross the Russian border.
The wait for Russian visas was long and uncertain. Now we have all the papers – invitation letter, proof of insurance and a visa on our passport – Russia opens its doors to us... but only for 28 days. Now we just have to get back to the Russian border at Sukhbatar as quickly as possible (by train this time), and to hope that the immigration officials don’t put new cogs into our bike wheels.

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Haw haw haw! We managed to get the elusive Russian visas (Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia)

Russia: transition towards Europe!

Following culture shock in China and nomadic bliss in Mongolia, Russia seems more familiar. A strong dose of Asian exoticism is still present here, especially in the faraway province of Buryatia where the locals are a Mongol people who worship in Buddhist temples and shaman holy places. But blond heads start to replace Asian faces, and beautifully decorated wooden houses take the place of yurts, while stalinist blocks occuply city centres. Our 28-day Russian visas, which cost us so dearly, do not allow us to cross the country by bicycle – it’s too big. We planned a week of pedaling from the Mongolian border to Lake Baikal (Buryatia and Irkutsk province). For the rest there’s the trans-siberian train, which will take us to Moscow.
Whether it’s from the seats of our bikes or from the train window, Siberia offers us its great unspoilt open spaces to admire: birch and conifer forests (the taiga), crystal-clear lakes and wetlands teeming with wildlife (including giant mosquitos). Environmental issues come in big dimensions here – the huge task of preserving these immense territories, still little known, very fragile and crucial in preserving the equilibrium of the planet. Travelling by train gives us an opportunity to meet many Russians. The elusive Russian soul seems full of nostalgia, of decadent pride, of vodka and songs sang in a rough voice. The Russians sometimes seem grumpy at first but each time turn out very helpful in the end. They tell us stories of murder, drugs and mafia worthy of a James Bond film.

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What a surprise to see little blond heads again (Kyakhta, Russia)

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A real Russian babushka (Tomsk, Russia)

– 18- 20 July: From the Mongolian border to Ulan-Ude without a kopec.
Welcomed by friendly, smiling border guards, crossing into Russia is a piece of cake. The only problem: the cash machines in the border town of Kyahta do not accept our visa cards. With only 500 roubles in our pockets, changed at the bank for our left-over mongol tögröds. During the 3 days it took us to get to Uland Ude we were forced to tighten our belts and ration our meagre provisions. The situation was made worse by the fact that Russian prices are around double of those in Mongolia. The evening of the second day we spent our last bank notes on a few glasses of kompot at a “zakusochnaya” (roadside café), and asked permission to put up our tent nearby. The two Buryat women running the café offered us a place to sleep inside without hesitation and the next morning, realizing we didn’t have much money, served us a huge breakfast for free.

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Buryat hospitality: free breakfast and new friends in this roadside cafe (Ivolginsk, Russia)

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16 000 km by bike! Comrade Lenin is impressed (Ulan-Ude, Russia)

– 21- 23 July: Along the lake Baikal
From Ulan-Ude we only had to follow the Selenga river to reach the great lake. Our impatience to see the Baikal, the pearl of Siberia, grew with every kilometre. The road now led through forested hills that line the coast. Our first glimpse of the lake was from the top of one of these hills, but we soon lose sight of it again as the road again plunges into hilly terrain which becomes increasingly boggy. Clouds of Siberian mosquitos, enormous and ruthless, don’t let us rest for a second and cause panic at every pee-stop. It’s impossible to camp in these swamps and we have no choice but to reach Babushkin – 150km in one day, arrival at 10pm. The next day the landscape opens up progressively and we discover the immensity of lake Baikal as seen from the South, between Slyudyanka and Kultuk. We spend the last night at the idyllic country house of Nina Alexandrovna, a former lecturer in French language at Irkutsk’s technical university, recommended to us by a fellow cyclist.

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The immense, majestic Lake Baikal, "the pearl of Siberia" (Kultuk, Russia)

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An oasis of peace by the lake Baikal (Kultuk, Russia)

– 24- 25 July: End of the big cycle in Irkutsk.
The last day of our journey – Kultuk to Irkutsk – takes in 100km of hilly road across forested mountains. What a beautiful way to finish a cycle of 16000km across Asia! We are all the more excited because we have someone to meet in Irkutsk – Santiago, the president of our association, came all the way from Rouen to accompany us back on the trans-siberian. Note that he did not take the plane but passed 6 days and 6 nights in the train. How very sustainable.

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Santiago with his new friends, Anatoly and Valentina (Transsib, Moscow-Irkutsk, Russia)

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Arriving at the station after 4 days and 4 nights of tugudumtugudum.

– 26- 28 July: Trip to Olkhon island.
As soon as he arrived Santiago acquired a bicycle and the three of us left Irkutsk for the Olkhon island on Lake Baikal. Despite the rising number of tourists and rubbish, this sublime and wild place is an ideal platform from which to explore the Baikal. Once there, we pedal all day long across an alternately muddy and sandy track to finally arrive at the end of the island where we look out into the “open sea” from steep cliffs. Baikal, the deepest lake in the world at 1600m, contains 20% of the planet’s fresh water. An unforgettable moment!

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Santiago, the "sage of sustainability," points the way

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Olkhon island, a refuge from pollution..

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...or is it? (Olkhon, Russia)

– 29 July: Visit to the Baikal Environmental Wave NGO in Irkutsk.
Goska knows the Baikal region since her journalism thesis was based around sustainable development issues in the region. Our visit is an occasion to re-establish contact with local environmental activists and for an update on what has changed over the last 3 years.

- Read article – to come.

– 30- 31 July: By train from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk.
It’s the end of the cycle adventure, but a new one begins – that of the trans-siberian. Our two-wheels, instruments of our freedom over the last 12 months, become a source of problems. Trains which take bicycles are rare. It is necessary to send them on a different train, but delivery is not guaranteed in less than 10 days!
The railway line passes through Angarsk, where a large scale nuclear waste project is worrying local inhabitants.

– 1- 2 August: Double whammy in Novosibirsk.
The choice of this stop on the trans-siberian was first of all motivated by an event not to be missed: a total eclipse of the sun takes place in Novosibirsk on August 1st. We witness the magic moment near the university campus of Akademgorodok on the banks of the river Ob, in the company of the members of the local SibEcoCenter NGO.

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Sasha from the SibEcoCenter NGO tries our solar panel (Akademgorodok, Russia)

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A few minutes before the eclipse the light becomes surreal..

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At 5.42pm the moon eclipses the sun to reveal stars "from the other side of the sky"

Goska takes the opportunity to interview Alexandr and Elvira from the NGO about the threatened Siberian forests and endangered species respectively.

- Read article to come.

– 3 - 5 August: picturesque Tomsk
A few hours’ train ride from Novosibirsk, Tomsk is a beautiful town which has managed to preserve its ancient charm. Its magnificent wooden houses, although sometimes badly conserved, fully justify this detour. A visit to the banks of the Tom river and numerous encounters with the locals, all very proud of their town, complete our contentment. Herve’s shoes are finally repaired by a friendly Tajik named Saiid – a welcome change after two weeks of looking for a repaireman willing to do the jobs, and several days pedaling in flip-flops.

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Still pedalling during a stop between two night trains (Tomsk, Russia)

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Traditional wooden house (Tomsk, Russia)

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A local woman named Violetta offers us a glass of home-made apple lemonade (Tomsk, Russia)

– 5-6 August: On to Yekaterinenburg – and the trouble with Russian trains
Given the great distances crossed by Russian trains, all passangers enjoy the right to a couchette and numerous comforts which make the journey very pleasant: a domestic feel to the compartments, a hostess in each wagon, and an atmosphere that lends itself ideally to chance meetings and conversation. The only problem is that it takes an eternity to obtain tickets for ourselves and our bikes.

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The rest of the trip by train..

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The "provodnitsas" are not always this friendly and smiling (Transsiberian, Russia)

– 7 - 9 August: waiting for our bikes in Yekaterinenburg
A few days of waiting in Yekaterinburg allow us to put the site in order and to explore the town with Jack and William, our two friends from Ireland and England met on the train who are passionate about Russia. It makes it easier to ignore the weather – often cloudy and rainy. After several trips to the railway station we find out that our bicycles have been left on the train – the staff didn’t unload them “because they didn’t have a tractor!” – and they will be there in 4 or 5 days. This puts an end to our plans of crossing the Ural mountains by bike across the geological border between Asia and Europe. We take a direct train to Moscow and fill in documents for the bikes to be transferred there too.

– 9- 10 August: the way to Moscow
A day and a night in the trans-siberian spent drinking tea (a samovar in every carriage provides a limitless, free supply of hot water) and eating what’s available in the station kiosks and by peddlers on the platforms. Careful with the smoked fish of doubtful freshness and the unwashed vegetables...

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30 minute break! Enough to buy provisions..

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Joe Dassin! Joe Dassin! The Russians invariably ask Santiago to play his songs

– 10 August: Panic in Moscow, Russia

From one railway station to another, by metro and by taxi, we only get a fleeting glimpse of the Russian capital which surprises us by its mix of colossal Soviet buildings and new commercial centres teeming with advertisement boards.

The reason for the panic - our bikes. "They should arrive around the 16th at the earliest!," we are told at the baggage desks. What a coincidence - that’s the date our visas finish. How are we to get the bikes from Moscow to Warsaw, our next stop? Is it possible to transfer them directly after we’ve left? The bored attendant is sure of the rules: "-The sender must be present with the luggage to be sent and personally fill in the customs declaration and other documents. The only other option is to ask a friend in Moscow to send the bicycles on for you.”
All this trouble would have been avoided had the employees of the Yekaterinenburg station hadn’t been so incompetent. They had "forgotten" to unload our bikes from the postal wagon, explaining that they had no tractor to carry them!
Luckily we find a solution thanks to Taus, a friend of Goska’s living in Moscow. As soon as we call her she comes to our rescue. A few hours later, we find ourselves at a notary’s office to sign an (apparently necessary) document allowing Taus to pick up our bikes and send them on to Poland. Santiago offers Taus his own bike bought in Irkutsk as a token of thanks. Welcome to the association! A very big thank you to Taus for saving our bikes. To be continued…

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Taus finds us a Notary’s office on a Sunday - success!!

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Missing our bikes, lost on the great Russian railway...(Moscow, Russia)

To see where we are now, click here.

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