Rim repair – Barcelona vs. Astrakhan

So, time to get the rim repaired! I thought it would be a good opportunity for some Top Gear-style useful consumer advice. Where is it easier to have a rim fixed? In Astrakhan, a 500,000-inhabitant city in the Volga delta I was completely unfamiliar with and with a language I did not speak, or in Barcelona, my hometown? Let’s compare experiences!

Finding a workshop that would repair the rim proved to be a lot easier than in Astrakhan. I just had to Google it, check out some opinions on bikers forums and choose one. In Astrakhan I had to wander round the centre until I found a biker gang, enlist the help of one of its members, Arkan, and trust he would know what he was doing because he did not speak a single word of English. So, the first point goes to Barcelona.

I contacted XR Llantas, which build and repair wheels of all kinds, both for individuals and competition teams. They have a very good reputation and trusted they could do a proper job.

I sent them pictures of the damage to the rim to see whether it was repairable or not. They said that they needed to see the rim to confirm, but it looked possible. Once I had removed the tire from the rim, I took it to their workshop in Barcelona on a Monday morning.

The place was smaller than I expected,there were rims of all kinds in every available inch of space in the shop, but it seemed they clearly knew their business. I gave the rim to a guy who inspected it carefully and said that they would need to carry out some tests (he mentioned infrared light and ultrasound) to see if they could repair it. Compared to the junkyard Arkan took me to in Astrakhan, this looked like a NASA lab, so Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 0.

They said that they were very busy and would not be able to get it done until at least Thursday.  I was using the AT in the meantime, so it sounded reasonable to me. At least I was not stuck in the stifling heat of summer in Astrakhan.

A  week later I still had not had any news from them, so I called. They mentioned that they had started looking at it, but had had to stop because they had more urgent business. The guy I talked to on the phone was not the one in the workshop apparently, but he said that he thought that the wheel would be ready the following day, and that they would call to confirm. That was eight days, while in Astrakhan it only took from Monday to Friday morning. Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 1.

Tuesday came and went with no news, and I was too busy with classes to call. Back in Astrakhan Arkan had called when we said he would. Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 2.

I called the shop on Wednesday morning and the guy on the phone sounded surprised that they had not called me the day before, as he thought the rim was already repaired. He promised to talk to the workshop and call me later.

Half an hour later I got the promised phone call, but not with the news I was expecting. They had run their tests and determined that he wheel was too badly dented and bending it back into shape would weaken the aluminium too much and there was a risk that it might crack and cause an accident. So, it was not repairable. In Astrakhan they took a wheel in much worse shape than this one, fixed it with no objections in four days and it remained usable for two more years and thousands of kilometres, after which it developed a microscopic leak and I had to have replaced. Barcelona 2 – Astrakhan 3.

There you go, then – if you want something fixed, get a Russian mechanic to do it.

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Day 35 – Thursday 1st September – Barcelona (6,2km)

Barcelona is a relatively small city in extension, its growth limited by two rivers on either side, a range of hills behind and the sea in front, but that is one of the many things that make it such a great place – it has size that makes it friendly to citizens and visitors alike, if you do not mind walking you can get to most places on foot within an hour. The other positive side effect of its size is that, for travellers, is one of the most beautiful cities to approach.

When you fly to other cities your plane usually overflies nondescript fields, industrial areas and satellite towns before landing at an airport several miles away from the city. It is impossible to identify your destination from the air, and you only realise you have reached it after travelling through (usually) grey suburbs. For those cities you reach by boat, the story is similar. Ports are not the greatest sights, and the beauty city you want to visit is behind a long expanse of oil and gas tanks, shipping container yards and railroads.

Barcelona is a completely different story. The approach flight path to its airport is along the coast, right in front of the city, and those who are sitting on the starboard side of the plane are rewarded with one of the best views of the city skyline that makes it easy to spot the most important landmarks they are so eager to visit. Coming from the sea, the experience is similar, and the port for passenger ships is right in the city, so when you drive off you are already practically in the centre, no ugly transition through industrial areas.

I had never arrived in my city by sea, and when the crew announced that we were an hour away from port I got to the top deck to try to spot land and see the approach. It wasn’t long before I saw a faint line of mountains appear over the horizon, and sooner than I thought I was able to identify the unmistakeable silhouette of the mountains of Montserrat a few miles inland.

img_1373The second thing that became recognisable against the sky was the Collserola television tower, and then the mountain of Montjuïc, the Montseny range in the distance and finally the first tall buildings of Barcelona right by the sea.

img_1376Little by little the buildings became more recognisable, and I saw the Mapfre tower and Arts hotel, the Agbar tower… an Italian kid visiting the city for the first time squealed with excitement when his father pointed at the Sagrada Familia, and much faster than I expected, we were docking at the port terminal.

img_1387I got the bike off the ferry and rode straight into the afternoon rush hour traffic of the city. After so many kilometres in places where there seem to be no traffic rules, I had to do my best to control myself and not start overtaking cars and riding on the wrong side of the road to get home faster.

img_1396I once saw this little sign on a hostel in Sweden, and as I lay my head on my pillow I thought what a great truth it was.

The longest ride ever

Day 8 – Tuesday 1st of September – Brussels to Barcelona (1,352km)

I had done this journey before, when I lived in Belgium, but by car. It took about twelve hours, and other then being tremendously boring, there was no difficulty to it. On the motorway things are very different on a motorbike, however – no music, you can’t move much, you need to take breaks more often, wind and buffeting are an issue at high speeds (the legal limit is 130km/h on French motorways), etc. On the way up to Normandy I had divided the trip in two days, stopped past Bordeaux to spend the night, and that was the plan on the way back home as well.

I did not even set off particularly early, we got up, had a good breakfast and I left when my friend went to work, at around 9am. I had to deal with heavy commuter traffic riding out of Brussels, and even come congestion caused by a motorbike accident – I forgot to mention it was raining hard.

Once out of Brussels things went smoothly – no more rain, practically no traffic, no wind… So I started covering good distance without problems. The wind deflector I had fitted a few weeks before was doing its job, and for the first time ever I was using earplugs. This is something I have heard from a lot of bikers, but I had never felt the need for it. However, travelling for extended periods of time at high speeds, they make a world of a difference. Wind noise is greatly reduced and so is fatigue.

On the big Stroming The World trip I met a Czech guy in Volgograd with a GSA, Martin, he told me he had been doing 800km a day to get there, trying to get Europe out of the way quickly and save days for the interesting bits. At that time I was doing about 500km a day on my V-Strom, and was shocked at the distances he was covering. Fast forward to 2015 and sitting on the Yamaha I could see that it was very relaxed cruising at 130km/h (real, not indicated), and I was not getting tired. By lunchtime I was approaching Clermont-Ferrand, and I was still feeling fresh. It was at this point that I started considering pushing on to Barcelona on the same day. If I stopped for the night later on, I would already be near the border, and in that case I did not really fancy spending the cost of a hotel night so near home. In addition, the route from there became quite interesting for a motorway. My experience of previous trips through France so far had been mostly on the eastern route – Montpellier, Lyon, Dijon, Nancy, Metz… or the western one – Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes… both of which I had found tremendously boring. This time I had taken the middle route, going from Brussels to Paris on the A2 and A1 and then the A6 and A77 to Clermont-Ferrand. There is a bit between Magny-Cours and Nevers that is not motorway, and after Clermont-Ferrand the A75 travels through mountainous terrain, passing near the Auvergne volcanos and crossing the Cévennes national park. It is a mountain motorway, with corners, steep gradients and great landscape, and best of all, the Millau viaduct, an amazing feat of engineering and a sight to behold. All in all, it was a much more entertaining journey than I anticipated, and cheap too, there are long sections that are toll-free. Oh, and one more sign that the French are super nice towards bikers, motorbikes pay a reduced fare on tolls, almost 50% less in some cases. No wonder this is the favourite route for holidaymakers heading from the capital to Spain.

I got to the border at 8pm, and crossed it in reserve – fuel is cheaper in Spain. The sun set as I was filling up, and by 9:30pm I was already in Barcelona. It had taken 12 hours and 31 minutes, stops included. This made me realise that what Martin had been doing was perfectly feasible on my new bike, and that when the day comes to go back to Russia, Kazakhstan, etc. I can cut through western Europe faster.

Well, it had been a very interesting week, and given the time and the money, I would have spend at least another week exploring the coast of Normandy, there is so much to see there. If anybody is thinking about taking a trip there, do not think twice, do it. Obviously, my advice is to do it by motorbike, as it is the best way to enjoy the roads, and you will save a lot of money on tolls and parking fees, but if you are not a rider, a very good alternative (I cannot believe I am going to say this) is a motorhome. There are lots of specially prepared places where you can park and spend the night for free, saving lots of money in accommodation, which is not cheap up there, you have your own means of transport to get around and visit things, and if you do not have one or do not want to drive one all the way to Normandy, there are lots of campsites that rent them at very reasonable rates. I would definitely not recommend a car, as it has zero advantages over the motorbike – you have to pay to park it everywhere, and while it is just as boring to drive as a motorhome, at least this last one gives you a cheap place to sleep in. Go visit Normandy.

See you on the road.

Russian Visa and the Russian consulate

I have read a lot about Russian bureocracy in all the adventure travel discussion forums I have visited, so when I started looking for information on the kind of visa I would need to enter Russia multiple times on a motorbike, without exact dates of entry or exit, hotel reservations or letters of invitation, I already expected a certain degree of difficulty.

After reading about different types of visas, requierments and companies that do all the paperwork for you, I decided to try and do it myself in order to save a few euros, so I went to the Russian consulate on Barcelona.

As you would expect from such a country, the consulate is not an office on the second floor of a building in the center, but an impressive mansion in the high part of the city. Their web site clearly states that it is impossible to visit it without an appointment, so I logged in and filled in the necessary information to get one. The system turned out to be rigidly Russian: the only option available on the list of reasons to visit the consulate is ‘visas’. I guess you need to be somebody and know the right people to visit the consulate for any other business. I got an appointment for a Thursday morning, and when the day came, I went there hoping to get first hand information on exactly what kind of visa I needed for such a trip, and if whoever was there was nice enough, maybe some information on border crossings, state of the roads, etc. How wrong I was!

The entrance to the front court of the building consisted of a two-door cage system, with security cameras, an intercom and a burly security guard who was letting somebody out and quickly closed the door behind her as he saw me approaching. When I reached the first door he blurted out something in Russian and I told him I had an appointment (in Spanish, of course, my Russian is non-existent and if the guy is stationed in the Consulate in Barcelona, I expected him to understand the local language…) and he said ‘name?’ I gave him my name and ID number and he proceeded to check a printout he had on a folder. He nodded and pressed a button that let me through the first door and into the cage. I had to wait for the first door to close and then somebody opened the second one from somewhere else. He pointed at the main entrance to the mansion and said ‘left’.

The arched door opened into a roomy entarnce hall, where some people were sitting, apparently waiting to be called. The door leading from the hall into the building was open, and I caught a glimpse of some people on desks and guys in suits walking around. I was wondering whether they also had had to make an appointment through the web site and how they had managed to get some other option than ‘visas’ on the menu when the voice of the security guy saying ‘left’ again brought me back to real life. He was behind me, pointing at a smaller door to the left of the hall. I walked in and found a small room with a couple of tables to fill in forms on and a tiny window to the right. It was obvious that the rest of the mansion was not accessible to mere mortals.

There was nobody queuing at the window, so I walked to it. Behind bullet-proof glass was a bored looking soviet civil servant stamping visas. He raised his sight, saw me and said ‘papers?’ I started explaining my story – travelling on a bike, entering several times into the country, no invitation, blah, blah, and I think he was overwhelmed by the sheer number of words I was wasting; everyone I had met so far in the building seemed to use only one word at a time. He said ‘they’ll inform you’ and pointed behind me. I turned around hoping to find a smiling young Russian girl sitting behind an information desk, but there was no one else in the room. I looked at him and he pointed again. This time I realised he was pointing at a notice board on the wall where there was a poster advertising a company called Central de Visados Rusos which arranged visas. I had seen other companies online, and several people had recommended using Real Russia, but I wanted to avoid paying a company to do the paperwork if I could do it myself. However, it was clear that was all the information I was going to get in the consulate, and the offices of the company were near my home, so I decided to go and see if they could shed some light on how to get the visa I needed.

There was no security guard on my way out, so I approached the first door and pressed the button on the intercom. Someone barked a few words in Russian and I replied ‘I want to get out.’ The first door buzzed opened and I walk into the cage. Once the first door had closed, the second one buzzed. I pushed it, but it would not open. I waited for them to unlock it again, but it refused to move. There was nobody in the front court and I was stuck in between doors. Great. I pressed the intercom button and asked to be let out again. The same voice yelled something in Russian and the door buzzed again, but it refused to open, no matter how hard I pushed. I was starting to feel a bit stupid trapped between doors when a woman walked up to the door from the street, said something in Russian to the intercom and the door buzzed one more time. She pulled it effortlessly from the outside and walked in, as I took the chance to leave that charming building.

I did find the smiling young Russian girl I was hoping for in the visa company. She listened to what I wanted to do and explained that the only multy entry visa for Russia is a business one, the tourist visa only allows people to enter the country twice in a period of one month, a business one allows multiple trips over a period of three months. She said that it did not matter that I was not going to go there on business, I only needed a letter of invitation from a Russian company in order to obtain a visa. When I asked her how I would get one without contacts, she smiled, handed me a form and said ‘we provide them for 50€’.

It was becoming clear that I was not going to be able to do the whole application process myself, and on top of that, they were the only company that the Russian consulate in Barcelona had officially approved to handle visa applications, and I still had to apply for the visas for Kazakhstan and Mongolia, so I decided to save time and use their services.

2013-04-11 12.07.28

After having my picture taken, taking out travel insurance in one of their approved companies, filling in a request for an invitation letter and the form downloaded from their website and making sure my passport didn’t expire in the next six months and had at least two consecutive blank pages, I finally handed in all the paperwork needed this week, and by Tuesday next week I should have a multy entry business visa for Russia.

The Consulate of Kazakhstan in Barcelona exists!

A month ago I started gathering information about the visas and all the paperwork they would require and visited the consulates in Barcelona. I need visas for Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. I got all the information I needed in the consulates of Russia and Mongolia (more on that on another post), but I went to the consulate of Kazakhstan on three separate occasions only to find it closed, no matter what time or day.

Fortunately, today has been a very productive day and I have found a phone number for the consulate. I called this morning and they are indeed in Barcelona, but only receive people by appointment. They can issue visas, but they do it through the consulate in Madrid, and charge 120€ for the service. If I get the paperwork to Madrid myself, it will only cost 35€, so I’ll take advantage of the fact that my sister lives there and I have friends regularly coming and going between Barcelona and Madrid and try to do it myself.

In the meantime, I have downloaded these very official-looking forms:

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