Decisions, decisions… 80m off the ground

Day 26 – Saturday 20th of July – Astrakhan to Volgograd (450km)

On the road again! It felt so good to be back on the road this morning… The sun was shinning, the bike seemed to work fine and I had found a couch in Volgograd with a guy named Ivan. But before getting to his home, I wanted to make a quick stop at Bike City 34, the workshop where I had had my bike serviced the first last time I was in the city, to see if they could fit a couple of screws to my windshield and GPS support, which was still attached with two pieces of cable.

There were menacing clouds ahead, but I made it to the city just after it had rained. Good, but it meant that it was now hot AND damp, not the best conditions to face the city traffic, and even less so with the streets full of puddles hiding the potholes.

I met Kate again, who had read about my problems and was very happy to see me again. They had no screws in the workshop, but one of the mechanics took a scooter and went to find some somewhere else, and in the meantime, I bought a couple of summer gloves. Mine had been blown away by a sand storm in Kazakhstan and I had tried to ride from Astrakhan in my winter ones, but it was just too hot and I just rode bare-handed.

The mechanic was back soon and they fitted not two, but four screws, using the extra mounting points to change the height of the windshield, so now it was rock solid. I thanked them all and went to meet my host for the night, who lived only a couple of streets away.

Ivan was a really nice guy, and we hit it off immediately. I dropped my things at his apartment, had a shower and we quickly discovered that he liked climbing. I told him about vias ferratas and showed him some pictures, and he was really interested in trying it someday. He then called Sasha, a friend of his and said he would take us to see an abandoned factory near his home, another hobby we shared.

It turned out to be one of this plants that heated the water for the whole city. Nowadays there are many small ones all over Volgograd, but he told me that in Soviet times they build everthing bigger, and this was supposed to be one of the biggest ones, but it was half completed when the Soviet Union dismembered and it was never finished. All that was left today was an enormous empty building and a 120-metre tall chimney.

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This being Russia, the place was wide open and they had only cut the first 6 meters of metal ladder in the chimney to stop people from climbing it, but someone had put a wooden one to reach the first steps, and it was easy to access. Ivan said that he had been to the top many times and that it was safe to climb, so we got on the wooden ladder and started climbing.

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I was only wearing shorts and flip flops, and when I got to the metal ladder I saw that it was all bent and rusty, so I had to climb carefully to avoid a nasty cut. As we climbed to the first level of the chimney, the ladder moved and pieces of rust fell, so I started to wonder if it was as safe as Ivan said it was.

We made it to the first level, which was about 30 or 40 meters high, and had a walkway all around the chimney. We were already higher than the building around us, and someone had built a wooden structure on the walkway, on the opposite side of the ladder. Ivan told us that some people attached a rope to it and jumped from there.

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He convinced us to walk to the next level with a complete walkway, which was three levels up from where we were, the intermediate ones having only small balconies. I was not very sure about it, the ladder looked even worse from there on, but he said that he had done it plenty of times and there was no problem, and I thought that you do not get the chance to do something like that very often, so I decided to keep going.

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We stopped for a rest a the next two levels, the views getting more and more spectacular, and then proceeded to the next one. When we get there we were about 80m high, and the sun was setting. We sat down on the walkway and enjoyed the view.

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It was a good moment to think about the rest of my trip. I could not go back to Kazakhstan because my tourist visa only allowed me one entry, and I had lost a week waiting for the rim to be repaired. On top of that, I had been told to avoid bad roads if I did not want more trouble with the bike. I had realized that despite having changed the springs, the suspension was still too low and it did not have enough travel to handle the worst roads with the bike fully loaded, so if I wanted to go to Ulaanbaatar I would have to do it on good roads. That meant riding through Russia all the way to Irkutsk and then down to Ulaanbaatar. It was a long and possibly boring way, doing 600-800km a day to keep on schedule. When I was planning the trip, Ulaanbaator was not the final destination, it was just the point I had chosen to turn back. The real trip was all that I wanted to see and experience between my home and there, and I thought there was little point in pushing to get there just to say I had been there. Moreover, the first three weeks I had been travelling quite fast, stopping only for one night at most places, and after meeting so many great people I felt I was missing the most important thing in this trip – the trip itself and the people, that is what was important, not the final destination. I had two months to travel, and it did not really matter which way I went. I wanted variety, I did not want to follow a schedule. So I decided that I would head north, take it easier and spend some more time at each place I liked.

We headed down again, and I noticed that some of the screws that held the ladder against the chimney were missing. Nice… We made it back on the ground in one piece, and then Ivan and I bought a pizza and he took me to the center, where he and his wife had just opened a hostel, and we had dinner there with a couple from Astrakhan who were going on a hiking tour for a couple of weeks.

The following morning I started my new route, destination: Moscow. It was about 1000km, so I had to split that in two.

Russian mechanics

Day 15 – Tuesday 9th of July –Volgograd (0km)

I got up today and sent a message to my contact in the city, Vitali, from the Ferrum MC, who I had found on the HUBB before leaving Barcelona. He told me the address of a bike shop where I could have my bike serviced and the oil leak checked, so I put the address in the GPS and went off, no riding suit on, as it was tremendously hot in the city and I did not fancy negotiating the traffic jams on full riding armour. Lex, the Dutch guy, had left an hour earlier, heading for Astrakhan, where he had already arranged a Couch Surf.

Maybe the traffic was better, or maybe I was just getting used to it, but I found the 30km ride to the workshop quite easy. When I got there, I rolled the bike into the forecourt and an enormous Russian guy came out. I told him about Vitali, but he did not seem to know what I was talking about, and he shouted for a girl to come out from inside the workshop. She was Kate, the secretary, and she spoke some English. I told her that I had been told to go there by Vitali, but she did not seem to know who he was either. I got him on the phone and they talked in Russian for a while, then they told me to roll the bike into the shop, and asked me what I needed. I told Kate that I wanted to have the tires I was carrying fitted, replace the spark plugs, the oil, to have the air filter cleaned and the oil leak checked. They told me that there was no problem, and they got started on the regular service while the “master” mechanic, as they called him, was coming. Used to Spanish waiting times at workshops, I thought it would take all day, so I was thinking about getting a bus back to the apartment and come back on the following day to get the bike when the big guy pointed at a comfy leather sofa in the air conditioned back office and said “sit”. I sat there and took out a book. After five minutes of reading I was already bored, so I walked into the office and started talking to Kate. In ten minutes we were sitting at the office’s computer, and she wanted to see all the pictures I had on Facebook from back home. She was really, really nice, and made me feel at home all the time I was there. We talked a lot, she got me some tea, and at lunchtime she even ordered some food we ate together in the office.

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Shortly before four o’clock, the bike was ready, oil leak repaired and all. It turned out it was a broken chain tensioner seal, and the “master” had just cut a new one and replaced it. All the mechanics and Kate took pictures with me and the bike and wished me good luck, they were all really nice and helpful people.

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Back at the apartment, me and Martin went for a swim in the river Volga in the late afternoon, and then had a beer sitting by the river and watching the sunset. It was an amazing moment and it made me think how little I could have imagined I would be here doing this a year ago.

Martin is a programmer, and he is working on his laptop while he is travelling. His intention was to stay in the city until Friday, but today he was able to advance some work and he will be joining me on the ride to Astrakhan tomorrow, it will be nice to have some company on the road for a change.

At night, Andrey, our host, took us for a traditional Russian version of the Shish Kebab, and I made a new friend.

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Three adventure bikers in Volgograd

Day 14 – Monday 8th of July – Luhansk to Volgograd (506km)

No problems at the border crossing today. The Russian bureaucracy at the border was easy, it just took time to fill in all the immigration papers for me and the bike and then I was welcomed into Russia, border guards much nicer than in Ukraine. I rode on decent roads for most of the morning and then stopped at a lay by to eat some fruit for lunch before riding into Volgograd. As I was there, a lorry driver passed by, stopped the truck and reversed back to where I was. In Russian he asked where I was coming from, and when I explained the best I could that I had come from Barcelona and I was going to Mongolia, he was very surprised and wished me luck. A few minutes later, an old man and his son stopped their old Lada, got off, and said something pointing at the bike. From lots of gestures I understood that he also had a bike in the nearby village he was from, and then he took my address notebook, which I had taken out to call my host in Volgograd, and wrote his name and address there, making gestures indicating that I could sleep at his place if I needed to. I had only been in Russia for a few hours, but the people here were the most helpful and welcoming I had seen!

A couple of hours later I rode into Volgograd and into a traffic jam, and when I looked down to my GPS I could not believe my eyes – I was already in the city and the thing said that I still had to ride more than 30km to get to my host’s home. After about an hour of more crazy Russian traffic, I got there and discovered that Volgograd is a massive city – it extends for about 80km along both sides of the river Volga, despite only having 1.5 million inhabitants.

I stopped the bike in front of my host’s door and waited for someone to come, and I was more than surprised when his girlfriend turned up accompanied by two other couch surfers that were also staying at the flat… and who were also bikers!

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One of them, Lex, was from Holland and was riding an old Transalp down south into Georgia and then Turkey, and Martin was from the Czech Republic and was riding his GSA more or less along the same route I was doing, the only difference being that he was doing all the Stans, while I was only doing Kazakhstan. Our host’s girlfriend told me to drop my things and have a shower, and then took us for a walk. I did not take my phone or anything else, thinking that we would only be away for a while, but we went on a night tour of the city of Volgograd and were not back in the apartment until well past 2 am. I was shattered, but it had been more than worth it, we visited the city’s memorials of the battle of Stalingrad, and they were a magnificent sight at that time of the night, no heat and no other tourists around. Amazing experience.

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