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.

Follow that cab!

Day 9 – Wednesday 3rd of July – Lviv to Kiev (557km)

There is a tunnel at the top of the Transfagarasan pass that connects both sides of the mountain. It is not very long, maybe one and a half kilometers, but it is very narrow, with just enough space for two cars, the road surface is broken asphalt almost turned into gravel with the occasional big pothole and it is pitch black, there is not a single light in it. When I rode it two days ago, the fog that covered the top of the mountains had also got into it, so visibility was almost zero. With the screen covered in moist, I had to stand on the footpegs to see over it, and I could see no further than eight or ten meters, the headlights hopelessly trying to pierce the fog. Had you asked me this morning, I would have said that was the most frightening experience I had ever had on the bike, but what I did today was far, far worse.

In the morning, Igor took me to an ATM so I could get some local money and then to the bike. I loaded it and checked the oil, a bit worried about a developing leak that I had spotted in Romania. When I started the journey I noticed a bit of oil on the bash plate, but since I had had the valve clearance checked and it was a job that required opening the engine, I thought that it had got dirty then. Just to be sure, I checked again when I got to Budapest, and things seem to be the same. However, once in Romania I noticed that there was a bit more oil, and on closer inspection I discovered that there was oil in the V where the cylinders meet, and it seemed to be coming from somewhere in the back of the front cylinder.

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I cleaned it to see how long it would take to get dirty again, and today, after two days and about 1,200 km, enough oil has accumulated in the V to leak down the side of the engine. In normal riding conditions, it would take weeks for that much oil to leak, since I barely do more than 20 km a day, but things happen faster on the trip. I cleaned it again near Kiev to check how long it takes this time. The oil level has been descending at a normal rate for the number of kilometers I have been doing, so I do not know how worried I should be. I will be in Volgograd in three days (1,200 more kilometers) and since I need to have the bike serviced there, I will have the leak checked. I hope it does not get any worse before getting there.

I said goodbye to Igor, who refused to let me pay for the car park, thanked him for his hospitality, and went across Lviv center to get the road to Kiev.

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It is a shame I did not have more time to visit the city, as what little I saw from the bike was great. What was not so great was the time it took me to get out of there, through streets clogged with traffic, and cobblestones and tram rails to make things more challenging.

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Once out of the city the road was good an clear all the way to Kiev. The landscape was beautiful, green fields stretching far, but it was one of the most boring rides so far. After my last experience with the police I was not going to give them a reason to stop me, so I stuck to the speed limit (90), and did not overtake unless it was legal. Since I was the only one following traffic regulations, that meant that I was the slowest thing on the road, and on roads that were mostly straight and smooth, I had to fight hard to stay alert. On the plus side, I managed to get the best fuel economy form the bike ever – 4,1L/100km for the whole journey.

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As soon as I got to Kiev things changed quickly, little did I know that I was in for a hell of a ride. Luda, my host’s secretary, who speaks some English, had told me to meet her at an underground station on the main road on the city limits, because it would be easier if she showed me the way from there. I was glad she had taken the bother to do so, as navigating big city traffic is usually hard. She got on a cab and told me to follow it. I thought it would not be very far, since she had come to get me, but boy, was I wrong!

The cab driver sped off into the afternoon rush hour traffic in 8-lane avenues chocked full of cars, trucks and buses, and I was left to do my best not to lose him. I was determined not to, and that meant sticking to his tail, absolutely no safety distance to speak of, and even so, the moment I left a couple of meters between me and him, somebody would try to get in the gap. And all that at speed well above what you would expect in the city. I could not even check the mirrors, as taking the eyes off the car in front for even half a second might mean an accident. And on top of that, the roads were badly potholed, which meant that the ABS was constantly kicking in, providing some extra scariness tot the whole experience, and obviously, riding so close to the car in front I could not see the potholes in time, so I basically ate them all.

After the longest ride of my life, we got to the apartment, on the 14th floor of another soviet-style building, and I was shown into the shower and then sat down for another enormous dinner consisting of the finest traditional Ukranian dishes.

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Luda made her best to translate for me, and I managed quite a conversation with Sofia, my host. After dinner, a friend of hers told me he would lead me to his car park, where I could securely leave the bike for a couple of days. I followed him, fearing another crazy ride, but by that time the streets had emptied, and it was a lot easier. We left the bike there and he drove me back to the apartment. Sitting on the back of his plush car, I almost dozed off after the adrenalin rush of the afternoon.