(This post features 37 photos)
On the final few meters in Latvia we see it for the first time. Something, that I’ve been craving to see from the very first meter back in Austria, wait, no!, from the very first days of planning this trip 2,5 years ago: the road sign to Moscow. I look at it and a wide grin appears on my face and I can’t help but feel a sense of euphoria sweeping over me. “We did it”, I think to myself, “we’ve come so far, we’re nearly there. Moscow. Russia! Putin!!” I feel so pumped up that I could ride the distance of 611 km in a single day.
The next morning, we get up in the small forest we called home the night before. The flood lights and speakers are long gone, but our tents are still there. It’s a new dawn. That morning, I remember looking with sorrow to the Russian border 1 km down the road. I remember getting the camera and talking about how the border guards might deny us entry, saying that our visa is invalid, saying that we need some sort of special permission for the bikes or rejecting us simply because of a bad mood. In the end they’re Russians, right?
None of that happened, though. You just have to fill out a so-called “migration card” (see photo). It consists of two parts: one for arriving in Russia and one for leaving (they’re pretty much identical). You basically fill in your passport’s data, plus write down the information regarding your stay in Russia (i.e. arriving and departure date, inviting organization, …). You leave the left part of the migration card right there, at the border. The other half I would guard with dear life: you need the right part to exit the country. Note: you NEED it. Should you dare to lose it you’re doomed. The Gulag in Siberia is waiting for you and you might not even be allowed to choose your favourite colour for your shovel.
Then, after some more passport control, we hear the distinct sound of a stamp striking two times: zack, zack! Through the booth’s window, a female hand returns our passports back. Incredulously we browse through the little, brown book. Truly, there it is: the Russian entry stamp, right next to our Russian visa. We’re done, we’re in. Welcome to Russia! We’re standing right on the main road M9/E22, bringing us straight to Moscow. That was easy.
Especially the first day in a new country is associated with stress and uncertainty. Obviously, we run out of food and water from the last country and need to stock up on supplies. But: we have no local money, yet. Even worse, chances are high that the next bigger city (with banks) is some hundred kilometres away. Not to mention that you have to deal with a new language. Well, you guessed it: I described our situation. At least we manage to buy a SIM card right away. It’s the first time on tour that we don’t have to solely rely on WIFI anymore (which, starting with Russia all along to Asia, is hardly available). That’s pretty neat, since we started to update our Facebook and Instagram accounts on a daily basis. Dominik immediately facetimes a friend back in Austria while on the bike. We take a detour into a small town to buy some food. On the way back Dominik says that he had found a better way, a shortcut. “A shortcut, in Russia? I don’t trust this”, I think to myself, while we follow the path for some time, when all of the sudden… mud. Mud everywhere. Not the sort of mud that you can sweep away with your feet because it just covers the surface. But sticky, stinking, awful mud, deep as the abyss. It hasn’t been raining for days, how long is that brown, mouldy water in there?? There’s no escaping. Dominik tentatively tries to push his bike through… and instantly sinks in nearly up to his knees. The bike with its 50kg doesn’t necessarily make life any easier. I suggest going all the way back, taking the paved road out of the city to the main road like normal human beings, in a sane mental state, would do. However, up to that point we’d have had to make a detour of 15km. From our mud-location, however, the main road is just 300 m away. It sounds so tempting to fight nature. Especially Dominik set his mind on, and since “one for all and all for one” the marsh-route is established. First, we had enough patience and motivation to put dry grass on a length of 10 m in order to push the bike through. It worked surprisingly well (the grass was for the tires only, so our feet were in the mud, of course). We naively thought that we won, that we did it, heroes. It took us no more than a short walk around the nearby group of trees to show us how wrong we were: even more mud everywhere, worse than ever. Longs story short: looking back we should have taken the detour, since these were the longest 300 m in our lives. Especially Dominik was fuming in the end. At least we set up the camera, so we might have filmed some good scene there.
There’s one administrative thing about Russia that’s a pain in the ass, really. Especially for tourists. It’s called “registration”. Every tourist that enters Russia has to register at a certain office, within 7 days of being in the country. And that’s about all the information we had. Which is pretty little and confusing. We heard that hotels can do all the hassle for you, so we looked for a stay this evening (since we had to shower the mud off, anyway). The 40 year old, black-haired woman at the reception spoke no English. Since we couldn’t possibly be the first tourists here, I hoped that the registration would be a mere formality, that they’ve done it dozens of times. Oh boy, oh boy, was I wrong. The more we didn’t understand her Russian, the louder she repeated the very same sentences over and over again, until she was nearly at the verge of screaming in the end. Funny. We still didn’t understand shit. However, with a small tinnitus, but somewhat positive, we went back to our room, about an hour later. Eventually she seemed to know what we needed and said that everything would be fine.
The next morning came. Time for us to get back on the road. Before leaving, we wanted to check with the receptionist. From the internet we knew that we needed to get back a stamped, small piece of paper as evidence for our registration. That’s also the very piece of paper you need to show when being stopped by the police. And the very piece of paper that you need to show at the border when exiting the country. Guess what. You are right: no piece of paper for us at the reception. God knows why. Which meant making an even bigger detour into a city called Welikije Luki that day, trying to take matters into our own hands. The internet states that you can (maybe) register yourself in every post office. We tried different post offices. Sounds good, doesn’t work. Doesn’t work at all. Many employees have never even heard about registration. So, our last hope was to look for the immigration office. Guess what. It was Saturday. They are closed. At the end of the day I just wanted to kill somebody. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for that because we needed to get back to the main road. Regarding the registration: screw that. I essentially didn’t care anymore. If the police stopped me, I would happily go to Gulag with a green shovel, I cynically decided.
The landscape gradually changes. Day by day, trees slowly shed the winter’s weight and start to grow leaves. We’re in the middle of May now. The unending forests to the left and right of the main road provide just little shelter from the chilly wind coming from the north. Putting your head down and cycling faster slightly helps heating up. The chin is constantly looking for a warm spot in the turtleneck pullover. What really helps are hot instant noodles! We made a habit of stopping at every gas station, asking for boiling hot water for our soups. Everything else we have ourselves: plastic plates, spoons and the soups. When hunger is exceptionally strong (and behaviour alarmingly low) we timidly ask for a second or even third helping. We always offer to pay for the water, but nobody ever wants our money. Oh boy, we probably really do look like homeless people. In Russia’s countryside the bike is considered a poor man’s choice. That’s good for us since it means warm soup for the stomach for free. As “payment” we sometimes buy a bottle of water, then.
After 6 days going in a straight line on the M9/E22, the forest road suddenly turns into a proper highway with heavy traffic. It’s the last 100 km to Moscow, and our excitement rises. When I, once again, have a flat tire, I pray to God that a gas station may be nearby, since I don’t want to flick a tire next to heavy traffic on the side line, in the full sun. I frantically pump some air into the damaged tire, ride some hundred meters until the tire’s flat again and repeat everything until a gas station is in sight. The tire mending itself is an easy exercise by now and quickly done. It’s noon by now. Hundreds and thousands of cars are waiting in a massive traffic jam to get into the city. We squeeze in between the cars and quickly cover ground. I can’t wait to stand on the Red Square, to see Moscow’s places and buildings that I’ve seen only on TV so far. And then, when dawn arrives, we’re there. From afar I can see the iconic buildings. All the tension of the last days falls off of me in that very moment. I’m here. I did it. We spend the rest of the evening on the Red Square, looking at the world-famous GUM warehouse and the St. Basil’s Cathedral. I’m just blown away, simply by just standing here, by knowing how I got here.
It’s actually not hard to understand why Moscow marks a milestone on this tour. In many people’s minds (mine as well, up to that point), Austria and Russia are two distinct places with no connection whatsoever in between. You can go from one to the other just by means of an airplane, that’s how separated they are. However, here we are, standing with our bikes on the Red Square. The bikes being proof, that Austria and Russia are not islands, segregated by unending oceans. My bike is the very proof that there is indeed a land connection, a road from my house in Marchtrenk to the very Red Square in Moscow. It’s true, believe me. I went every single meter by bike, over mountains and through valleys, through rain and snow storms.
That evening we find a nice hostel. With a sense of achievement that only very few things in life ever gave me I eventually fall asleep. “I really am in Moscow, after 55 days and 3.552 km … crazy”, that’s the last thing I can remember thinking about.
There were different things we did in Moscow the following days. Of course, we went back to the touristic places and took loads of photos. We ate a lot at Russian McDonalds. We had showers after not having washed for a week straight. On Sunday, we went to Hillsong Moscow (a church. They use a cinema hall as location. It was strange that they didn’t have their own preacher but rather watched an American sermon on screen [which was no problem since we were in a cinema and the seats were accordingly comfy. Win]. People were very friendly, we got invited to Hillsong coffee). We needed to physically mail our application forms for the Indian visa to Vienna. The guy at the post office wanted to charge us 50€ for sending two pieces of paper (sure, as if we’d do that, there was a different solution, anyway). And many more things that I can’t remember now. What about the registration? It’s done. The hostel in Moscow did it.
However, Moscow couldn’t hold us forever. There are still so many kilometres to Australia, there’s still so much to do and so much to see! One morning we simply packed our stuff and off we went, into the distant unknown, like we are used to by now…