Cycling 12,000 miles from Lisbon to Shanghai
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Day 139 (15/11/09) – Kamensk-Shakhtynsky, RUSSIA (34.39 miles)

From Russia with love, Kalashnikovs and bribes

There are only 9 hilly miles from Krasnodon (which surprisingly is actually a town in Ukraine, not a dinosaur) to the Russian border and we get there by about 9:45.

At the Ukrainian checkpoint a rather officious looking customs bloke gets us to park our bike and grumpily asks for our passports. After an examination of these, he demands our customs declaration. Uh-oh! We explain that we don’t have one (when we entered Ukraine the customs official just laughed, stamped our entry card and waved us straight through when I explained we were travelling by bicycle). He sighs and mutters something that our limited Russian lessons didn’t comprehend! We are beginning to fear a long drawn-out process when he starts to question us about where we are going and where we have come from, etc. As we tell him about our trip, a couple of the other border guards come over to listen and he starts to lighten up and soon we are all having a good laugh. I reckon he figures that anyone stupid enough to try to cycle through Russia and Central Asia in winter probably isn’t likely to be a smuggler. After a cursory check through a few of our bags he waves us through to the passport control section.

The guard there then spends about 15 minutes examining our passports in minute detail, shining ultraviolet light onto our visas, re-examining the passports, holding them up to the light, and so on while we wait outside. Eventually he waves us round into the office and then makes yet another show of slowly examining the same three pages of the passport and then tells us it will be $10 for him to stamp the passports. Y asks “Why?” and he shrugs and say “For stamp”. I tell then we have no dollars, only roubles. Surprisingly this works. They have a quick discussion amongst themselves and the other guard smiles cheekily at us and says “A present!”. There is another long silence, another slow check of our passports (just in case something had changed since 5 minutes ago), a very slow entering of details on the computer and then a sullen stamping of our passports and we are on our way! Crikey, getting out of Ukraine is a damn sight harder than getting into it!

The Russian side goes smooth as clockwork. Everyone (guards and other people crossing the border) are friendly, chatty and interested in our trip. Apart from confirming that we have medical insurance, there is no mention of the flu epidemic. After reassuring the guards that we do not have a stash of Kalashnikovs and drugs in our panniers, it’s a big “Velcome to Russia!” and off we go. The whole process took about an hour (45 minutes of which was on the Ukrainian side).

After each border we’ve crossed since leaving Italy I’ve been hit by the same, increasingly strong feeling of, “Bloody ‘ell I can’t believe we are in ———!” and Russia is no exception. I spend about the first hour just thinking, “This is crazy! We’ve just cycled to Russia!” I remember, when I was about 8 or 9, listening to the faint and crackly Russian World Service on an old medium wave radio and thinking that I couldn’t imagine anywhere further away or more alien. And now we’ve just cycled there!

We have about 25 miles to get from the border to Kamensk-Shakhtynsky. The first stretch is easy enough as we head north (across the wind) and we get friendly beeps from cars of the people we had chatted with at the border. The last 20 miles are right chore though, as we turn into rolling hills and headwinds again and it starts to drizzle.

We head towards the hotel that we had emailed a few days’ earlier to confirm that they could register our visas (something we have to do within 3 days). This turns out to be the most expensive hotel we’ve been in since Parma in Italy. It then also turns out that they can’t register the visa until Monday so we may not be able to leave until Tuesday. Given the difficulty we’ve read about some people having to find a hotel willing to do the registration process we have no real choice. It then turns out that the hotel, despite being a fancy “business hotel”, can’t accept payment by credit cards so I have to use up all the roubles we’d exchanged in Ukraine to pay for the first night. This doesn’t seem too much of a problem until we head out to get more cash and dinner later on. After trying 5 bank machines and getting the same “service unavailable” message on all them, we start to get very worried. We have no roubles left, tomorrow is a Sunday so no banks or exchange offices will be open and we have to pay for the hotel for tomorrow – oh yes and some food would be nice (we had to skip lunch today so we are starvin’ marvin’). We’ve been to every bank we can find in the centre and are wandering around, stressed out, trying to figure out what to do when we finally spot another bank next to a club. We have little expectation of success but thankfully it coughs up some dough for us!

A pizza and a medicinal beer later and Russia seems a friendlier place again!

7 comments

1 tas { 11.16.09 at 11:02 am }

welcome to russia next country is kazaksthan cant wait to see u guys we have a lot of stories for u and u are gonna have a great time here let me tell u but its goonna be cold cold cold on the road ,just hope your glove sand booties are holding up ok,we have -3 here today and maybe +1 in atyrau

2 Anna and Diarmuid Cunniffe { 11.17.09 at 9:19 am }

Hi Guys!

We have been reading your journal with interest. Its interesting to hear the experiences of others cycling in the Ukraine. We look forward to reading your posts on Russia and of course Central Asia. Enjoy! We are currently in Mongolia having spent the last few months cycling in Central Asia. http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/ridingeast is our blog.
Safe riding,
Diarmuid and Anna. (From Ireland)

3 tas { 11.21.09 at 6:54 am }

hi guys what day u expect to reach atyrau or u not sure as yet?? hows things coming along u doing very well

4 Yie { 11.21.09 at 3:42 pm }

Hi Tas, we are planning to cross into Kazakhstan by 1 Dec so should be in Atyrau by about 5-6 Dec… we plan to stay a few days there as we can’t enter Uzbek until 30 Dec. Look fwd to meeting up!

5 Yie { 11.21.09 at 3:55 pm }

Hi guys,
It’s funny cos we’ve been reading your blog too! We both started on the same day… May 15. Photos from Mongolia looks amazing – we would’ve loved to go there… unfortunately not this time. We’re bracing ourselves for winter which hasn’t quite hit here yet. Look fwd to reading more of your adventures. Safe travels :-) G & Y

6 tas { 11.22.09 at 8:14 am }

hurray for the tail winds u must love that ,strange u having trouble with hotels as here in kazak i have never heard of them refusing a foreigner,i assure u there are good hotels in atyrau and almaty but u have my hse in ala and between there and here u will find some amazing experiences

7 chris { 11.17.14 at 9:08 am }

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