We didn’t leave Moscow one minute too early. We are 60 km out of the city, sitting on our bikes heading south, when, by chance, one of us turns his head and sees it. Dark-grey, layered, low-hanging clouds: a massive storm approaching rapidly. The peculiar thing is, that our front view is still one of a perfect summer day but behind us, doomsday seems to arrive. It’s clear to us that there is no time to waste. Without talking we both know that we need to find a camping spot as fast as possible. We are aware that we should’ve found a camping spot 5 minutes ago rather than in the following 5 minutes. However, here’s the problem: although outside the city, we’re still in an urban area. There’s not really a field to set up a tent! I can already hear the powerful wind sweep through the nearby trees. Leaves are blown away in every direction. “It’s going to hit us any moment now”, I’m sure, keeping my head low and pedalling harder. There! A path leading away from the main road. Not a second too soon. We have enough time to follow the path for 5 more metres, when the rain starts to set in. I never had to set up a tent in a storm. It’s terrible. The only thing that keeps my tent from being blown away, is the strong grip I have on it. Despite of all the effort, I am constantly aware that the tent poles might snap any moment. It’s hard to describe the sensation and helplessness in the face of such an incredible storm. There were whole minutes when I couldn’t let go of my tent because in that very moment it would have been blown away forever. (At this point you might believe that I’m overexaggerating. Well, I’m actually not. This very storm killed 13 people and left, in Moscow alone, over 120 people injured. Read the news story here.). Eventually, we sit in our tents, wet, but happy. Again, we were lucky. It could have gone way worse.
The next morning, we see what the storm had done overnight: uprooted trees lie across the street. Only now am I aware that we had no reason at all to sleep as peacefully as we did. We set up our tents pretty near to a group of trees! It’s a miracle that “our” trees did not decide to hit the tents throughout the night.
The next days go by uneventfully. In fact, going by bike is (contrary to what people at home might believe) most of the time uneventful. You have to be able to cope with that boredom (the very thing you try to escape by going on a long-distance bike tour, in the first place. Funny.). However, if you pay attention there are small distractions throughout the day. For example, on one of the days we both found license plates of Russian cars. We wanted to take them along as souvenirs. The very same day mine got taken away by the police, since I just loosely attached it to the outside of my panniers, rather visible.
“Yes, officer, of course I was looking with all my heart and strength for the police in order to return the plate to its rightful owner as soon as possible.”, is what I might have said in order to escape a fine.
It doesn’t matter, a few days later I found another license plate anyway, which I was able to hide well enough. On yet another day I bought a babushka puppet (a puppet, in a puppet, in a puppet…) from a tiny stand on the side of the road for my mother. Some time later there was also that particularly blissful occasion, when we ate Shashlik (impaled pieces of meat) at a small street restaurant owned by two robust, black-haired women. A mother and her daughter. The mother asked us about our age and whether we had girlfriends. Upon hearing the answers, the mother didn’t waste any time and eagerly tried to pair up Dominik with her timidly grinning daughter (who seemed to quite like the idea).
However, one day was especially outstanding. It was the day we met the Viking. Dominik and I were taking a short break at a small cafeteria of a Gazprom gas station around 300 km south of Moscow. As we were sitting in that glass cage with a 360 degree view of the road, a guy was parking his fully loaded bike right next to ours. Then the tall, lanky, young looking guy with nerd glasses, entered the cafeteria holding his handlebar bag in both hands. His appereance immediately reminded me of the mega-youtuber Pewdiepie. Although I can’t really put my finger on why, there just was something about his face that resembled him. He stopped in front of our table.
“Hi. Are you the guys with the touring bikes?”
“Ahm… yes. You too?” (stupid question, I mean we literally saw him arriving on his bike)
“Yeah. Mind if I sit down?”
His name is Erik. Erik is around 30 years old and comes from Sweden. He is currently on a bike trip around the world too. Starting from Sweden he plans on going to Hong Kong in China. From there he wants to fly to the U.S. West Coast and ride the bike to New York. Turns out that Erik and the two of us will have the same route for the next weeks and months, namely riding the exact same streets through Russia and Kazakhstan. We even crossed the Russian border on the very same day! It’s strange that we didn’t run across each other on the 600 km stretch from the Latvian border to Moscow. Then again, we “preferred” the mud rather than the main road (see previous blogpost). Erik’s story is sad: back in Sweden, together with two other guys, they formed a trio but his teammates had a different pace than him (or rather wanted to go by train), so they decided to split up in Moscow. From there onward, Erik was all by himself – until we met.
“Can I join you? We have the same route up to Kazakhstan. We can go together for, like, months.”, Erik says, and I can hear the hope in his pleasantly croaky voice. His English is flawless.
“Hm… Let’s go together for the next amount of time. We’ll see how it works out.”, Dominik and I defensively try to give an undetermined answer, while maintaining eye-contact.
On one hand, I honestly think that it will be great to have company; on the other hand, Dominik and I already have a well-established day-to-day routine. We don’t really want any deviation from our routine, since it works very well for both of us. For example, we like to be as efficient as possible on the road, making many kilometres without too extensive breaks, pausing only for a wee, so we can end the day early and have long evenings of resting in the tent. I can’t really get an idea of Erik now, but he doesn’t seem like the sort of guy who would take very much pleasure in The German Efficiency. However, when riding with a group of people, you need to take into consideration everyone’s way of doing things.
As we start riding together, leaving the gas station as a trio, all my doubts vanish: Erik is a freaking machine! I thought that Dominik and I are fast, but Erik is just insane. (Actually, Dominik is insanely fast too. I’m the weak link in the chain). It’s difficult to stay Erik’s his slipstream though, because he has a very irregular pattern of pedalling: the first few seconds he goes totally apeshit just to completely stop kicking for the next few seconds, thus accelerating and slowing down constantly. It doesn’t matter, as we cover ground rapidly. Again, we look behind and for the second time this week, the sky behind us is full of black, low-hanging rainclouds. Slowly the dawn sets in and the upcoming wind announces bad weather. We try to convince Erik to stop and to look for a spot to set up our tents because that storm’s going to hit us without mercy. At first, he is reluctant, muttering something about going another 70 km to the next motel. However, in the end we’re all on the same page. Dominik and I manage to put up our tents just in time. Not a second too soon! As we crawl into our tents, heavy raindrops hit the outer cover. I love the sound of rain hitting the tent, considering that I’m sitting in the dry. Phew, that was close! But then, I hear another sound. It’s a feeble voice outside. “Guys, can you please help me?” It’s Erik. What is he doing? And more importantly, why is he not in his tent?? Easy answer: because he hasn’t even set up his tent! It lies in a shapeless pile on the ground, slowly getting wet. By joint effort, we manage to set up his tent as well. However, now all three of us are soaked to the skin. Talking to him after the rain, we eventually understand Erik’s inexperience of using his tent: he usually stays in motels. With “usually” I mean always. He barely uses his tent, it’s a mere backup. With “barely” I mean never.
Erik’s fondness for motels is a good excuse for Dominik and me to stay the following evenings at motels, too. Erik is a fun person. He’s not aware of it, but some things he does are funny and drolly, in the most positive way. Take that occasion when Dominik and I went to the motel’s kitchen to get free hot water for our instant soups. Erik stayed upstairs in the room, cooking on the room floor. With gas. In a closed room with closed windows. I couldn’t help laughing seeing him sitting cross-legged on the floor. Erik is a crazy man, a true Viking! Also, it took some time to get rid of the smell of gas, afterwards. At the same motel, we zig-zag tied a cord as a clothesline across the whole room, securing it unstably on dismantled lamp holders on the wall. Other times Erik can’t help but be clumsy, in the sincerest way possible. For example, he tries to speak English to Russian people, when they ask him where he’s from and what he’s doing. Erik often ends up awkwardly smiling until the Russians walks away. This cracks me up every time.
However, as clumsy as Erik sometimes seems to be, he is also an experienced traveller. It’s by far not his first longer bike tour. We could see his expertise when he gave us a crucial tip regarding how to tackle the route in Russia and Kazakhstan. In our bad plan, we had around 10 useless days off in Russia (not because we wanted or needed them but because we finished the route through the country and still had time left because of the visa). However, on the other hand we had a way too crowded schedule in Kazakhstan (which definitely would have broken our neck, looking back. No days off for a month, just bike riding). Erik’s tip didn’t necessarily save us kilometres but overall gave us an easier time. (see the following picture)
Furthermore, he showed us how to save money when buying water. Before meeting Erik, we always bought 1.5 litre bottles, for obvious reasons: easier transportation because of the fitting bottle cages on our bikes. However, Erik showed us that you can buy the cheaper 5 litre canister instead (same brand, same content) and just transfer the water to the empty bottles you already have. Such an easy trick! Call me stupid, but I never thought of that.
If you haven’t noticed by now, we really like Erik. He is a super-nice, extremely likeable guy. It’s more fun being a trio. Furthermore, I know for a fact, that Erik enjoys our company too. He never intended to go alone in the first place. That was not what he wanted. He wanted a team. He needs a team. We are a team now, going together all the way to Kazakhstan, staying together for several more weeks. He often talks about this… and that’s where the problem lies. We need to tell our Swedish Viking something.