In Moscow without a visa

Day 23 – 22nd August – Bishkek to Moscow to Barcelona (6010km – by plane)

The alarm clock woke me up at one o’clock in the morning. I was deeply asleep and could have gone on for 10 more hours, but I had to get home.

The taxi driver was a young guy that turned out to be a lot more helpful than the two from the day before – he helped me get from the lobby to the car and once we got to the airport he left the car in the drop-off area and took me to through security and up to an information desk where I could ask for assistance. The woman at the desk asked for my ticket and said she would call a Ural Airlines representative.

I had really been looking forward to this. Finally, three days after breaking my foot, I was in the hands of an airline that would take me home. They sat me on a wheelchair, pushed me to the front of the check-in queue, took my suitcase, printed the boarding passes and, most importantly, reassured me that I would have no problems to connect flights in Moscow.

When I was buying the tickets the website kept insisting that it was my responsibility to have a proper transit visa for Russia, the same warnings were written on my ticket, and I had found contradictory information online – most people said that there was an international transit area and that a transit visa was not needed so long as you did not leave that area, but everything I could find was several years old and EU-Russia relations have been deteriorating since the war in Ukraine. Then there was the information on Domodedovo Airport’s website, which said that I needed to take my luggage through security and customs before taking the connecting flight and that required going through customs myself. I had seen several warnings that travellers without a proper visa would be returned to their point of departure. I must confess that I was rather worried about finding myself on a plane back to Bishkek after all the trouble it had taken me to get here.

Fortunately, the staff from Ural Airlines told me that they would take care of my suitcase and there was no need to leave the international transfer area.

I had to wait for two hours in the departures area because the flight had been delayed, and finally, past six in the morning, the boarding started. Instead of going through the regular boarding gates, I was wheeled through some restricted areas, onto the ramp and to the airstairs – Bishkek airport has no fingers. I was hoisted up the stairs and sat in the front row before the rest of passengers started boarding the plane.

I had a four-hour layover in Domodedovo, but because of the delay, that had been reduced to just under an hour. I had to wait for everyone to deplane, then a special truck docked onto the R1 door, which is only used to load the catering or emergencies, and I was put on a wheelchair, transferred to the truck and then driven to the terminal.

There, I went through a security check that seemed to be the one used by airport staff and then through a door right to the gate area where my plane was departing from. It was nine in the morning and the flight was leaving in twenty minutes, so I thought everything was going great until they told me that the flight had been delayed until midday and parked me next to the gate.

I spent my time reading and watching people argue about the delay with the ground staff. I tried to move around and see the terminal, but my back and ribs still hurt, so I could not get any further than a nearby restaurant where I had a sandwich. I hated having to pay airport prices, but I had not eaten anything since the pizza the night before.

At noon, we boarded the plane and headed to Barcelona. I think I have already said this many times, but Barcelona airport has one of the most beautiful approaches in the world. As the airplane lines up for its final approach you are over the sea and can see the whole city to your right, all the landmarks easily recognisable and, this time, I was particularly emotional to see my city.

I went straight to hospital, where they confirmed the three broken bones in my foot and also found that I had two broken ribs. They changed the cast and told me that the foot looked better than they had originally thought seeing the x-ray I brought from Osh hospital – it might not be necessary to operate the foot. They told me the medical team would study the case and tell me something in a few days. In the meantime, I had to keep my foot up and try to rest as much as possible.

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Russian hospitality

Day 30 – Wednesday 24th of July – Moscow (0km)

I woke up at about 8 am after a very good night’s sleep, and while I was folding the sofa bed back into a sofa, I noticed a delicious smell coming from the kitchen. I walked in to find a wonderful breakfast waiting for me – eggs, sausages, toast, coffee… Ilia told me that he had called his job and taken the day off so that he could show me around Moscow.

We talked about our respective jobs over breakfast, and got to know each other a bit better despite the language barrier. I was surprised to find that he was a major with the Russian army, and his job involved security in the city, liaising with the police. His father had also been in the army, as well as his grandfather, who had fought against the Germans in WWII in the Black sea. He showed me his medals.

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After breakfast we took the bus and then the metro and went to see the VDNKh Park, which used to be a kind of universal exposition but only of the countries that formed the former USSR. The exhibition covers a vast area, and to give you an idea of the size of the city, this was all still in Ilia’s neighbourhood, which was not the center.

We walked around the pavilions, drank Kbac, saw a rocket like the one that put Gagarin in orbit, a Yak-42, the fountain representing all the soviet republics and then took a ride on a ferris wheel that presented us with a great view of the area. At the other end of the exhibition we walked past the space museum and the imposing Cosmos hotel, with a statue of Charles DeGaulle in front of it.

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The underground took us to the center, were we visited the Tretyakov gallery, containing some of Russia’s finest artist’s woks. From there, we took a walk across the Moskva river and I saw the Kremlin for the first time.

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There are some cities that are so embedded into popular culture that they somehow become part of a collective subconscious, and when we visit them for the first time, they feel familiar, as if we had been there before. That was the feeling I had when I walked past the Kremlin’s main entrance, around the corner and into the Red Square. My second thought was ‘how did Mathias Rust manage to land a plane here?’ as the square looked smaller than I had imagined. Part of the blame for this impression lay with the fact that there was some kind of religious music concert going on at the square, and they had erected a huge stage that completely ruined the view of the place. Talk about bad luck…

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We went for lunch at a place called My-My (pronounced Mu-Mu) which is a Russian fast food chain, and then visited the interior of the Kremlin. On the way back home, Ilia took me on a tour of the most spectacular underground stations in the city, with their great halls, sculptures and lamps.

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It had been an exhausting but wonderful day, and I decided to leave straight for St. Petersburg the following morning, as I had seen what I had planned to see in Moscow and I wanted to make sure I had time to complete my route and visit everything I wanted to visit on the way down from the Nordkapp. After dinner, however, Ilia had one more surprise in store for me. He waited until dark, and with no traffic on the streets, he took me on his car for a night tour of the city. It was great, not only because I got to see the main streets, but also because being a passenger meant that I could appreciate what I was seeing. The problem with riding in Russia is that you have to concentrate 100% in what you’re doing. Take your eyes off the road to look at the landscape or a building, you hit a pothole, you fall and you die. Take your eyes off the traffic around you, a huge truck changes lane, crushes you and you die. Take one hand off the handlebar to rest or touch the GPS screen, your front wheel catches a rut, the bike flips and you die. All this means that you really do not have time to see anything else than the road and the traffic for miles and miles, so the night drive across the city was a welcome break.

To culminate the drive, Ilia took me to a place in front of the university where bikers meet. Now, if you ever hear that there are a lot of bikers in Moscow and think that it might not be that many, because you do not see a lot on the streets, visit this place. There are hundreds of them, every single night of the week, gathered there.

It was getting cold, so we headed back home, sat down and drank some beer that Ilia had bought earlier. I regretted having to leave the following morning, he had been a wonderful guest, but I had a long ride to the next city and an even longer ride to the north.

Crazy Moscow traffic

Day 29 – Tuesday 23th of July – Voronezh to Moscow (546km)

My plans to get up early and set off with plenty of time in case the traffic into Moscow was bad were thwarted by a mosquito that did not let me sleep until very, very late. In the end I left at about 10 am, after exchanging contact details and taking some pictures with the Serbian guys.

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I left the waterproof layers on the suit, as the sky was very cloudy and it was a bit chilly, and put on the winter gloves. I left Voronezh without any problems, and soon was on the motorway to Moscow, which was excellent – no traffic and very good tarmac. I was surprised, however to find a toll not long after Voronezh, but it was only 60 rubles, so it was no big deal.

The way to Moscow felt longer than I expected, in part because it got colder and the rain kept coming and going, not making the journey exactly enjoyable. It was weird to think that just two days ago I was baking in 40ºC heat and today it was 14ºC. In the end I had to stop and put a jumper on, which made things much better, as did the heating grips.

When the GPS indicated that I was about 80km from my destination I started looking out for the infamous Moscow traffic, and sure enough, it did not take me long to find it. As I rode into the outskirts, the traffic grew thicker and the drivers more reckless, cutting in front of one another at crazy speeds. My host’s flat was in a residential area in the north of the city, which meant that I had to leave the motorway I was on at some point and take the fourth ring road to bypass the center. When I got to the ramp leading off the motorway and down to the ring road, it was complete gridlock. The cars and trucks were three abreast on the one lane exit ramp, and traffic was completely stopped down on the ring road. I thought that if I had to do 40km like that it would take me hours. I decided that the only way to deal with crazy traffic was to drive like them or worse, so I started darting for tiny gaps between cars and trucks, trying to make some progress in the maze of idling metal. I made my way down the ramp and into the four-lane ring road, and then across to the fast lane. Cars were not moving there either, and while I was trying to work out whether I could fit between cars with the panniers without ripping any wing mirrors off, I saw a motorbike zoom past between the fourth lane and the Armco barriers. I had thought there was no space there, no hard shoulder, but it turned out that there was just about enough space for me to ride, so without thinking twice, I pulled into the space, and started overtaking cars. About 10km later, the traffic started to move, and in a while it was clear enough for me to get back to a normal lane. I rode around the city and when I got to the point where I had to exit the ring road and find my host’s street, it was the same story. All traffic stopped, with hundreds of cars trying to get in and out of the ring road at the same time, blocking each other’s way. I made it out using the same technique, and in 10 minutes I arrived at my destination.

Ilia came down to meet me, we dropped my things at his flat and he took me to the car park where he kept his KTM and left my bike there. Back in the flat, he sat me down for a delicious meal, and then waited for his wife to arrive while we showed each other pictures, mine from the trip, his from his family and his trip to the Altay mountains (which made me quite jealous).

In the evening, we went for a long walk and he showed me his neighbourhood. It was a classic Soviet style residential area, but unlike all the others I had seen, this one was really nice. All the buildings were new or well taken care of, as were the streets, gardens, parks, etc. It looked like a very nice place to live in, with lots of facilities and green areas, and I imagined this is what the original idea was. It is a shame that lack of money, maintenance, corruption and other factors have slowly destroyed it.

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Ilia told me that the following day would be a long day, he would take me to see other areas of his neighbourhood that look very promising and then to the center, so off to bed early it is.