Posting July 31, 2017—After it took four months to get our Russian visas sorted out back home last winter (reasons why will be in a what not to do post after we’re back), it was with no small amount of excitement Dave and I crossed into the world’s largest country on July 3.
Our border crossing from Ukraine into Russia took 2.5 hours and other than language barriers, it all went smoothly. This was a big relief for many reasons. We’d heard stories about Russian border patrol being especially strict and wondered how much explaining we’d need to do about our reasons for coming to Russia on a business travel visa, which was the only visa we could get allowing us multiple entries (we wanted to ride through Kazakhstan and Mongolia as well, each time entering back into Russia) and give us more than 30 days in the country. Also of concern was the water damage to Dave’s passport. He had been carrying it in a ‘waterproof’ pocket in his Klim riding suit one especially wet day, and discovered the pocket had leaked. His ID photo was very faded and some of the stamps were smeared. But I guess what was important to the officials was only that we had a Russian visa in the passport and in fact, they all seemed pretty happy to see two travellers on bikes from Canada.
In Kaluga, about 180 km (110 mi) to the south-west of Moscow, we found a hotel and contacted our friend Al Sova. We had never actually met Al in person. She and I had become friends on Facebook when I was searching for help from Russia for our visas. Al is also a rider and said she’d come to the outskirts of the city to guide us into the chaos that only 17 million people trying to get from A to B can create.
But the morning woke us up with torrential rain on the roof and we messaged Al to say we would wait out the storm for another hour or two and that if she could give us GPS coordinates to her storage unit where she wanted to meet, we would be fine getting ourselves there. We didn’t want her to have to ride in the rain, although after meeting this super cute little dreadlocked and tattooed firecracker, I don’t think riding her S1000RR BMW sport bike on wet pavement is something that fazes her.
The rain stopped in Kaluga around 11:00 a.m. so Dave and I set off for the short ride into Moscow, but it seemed we’d caught up to the storm and most of the ride was seen only through the soggy, foggy visors of our helmets—a somewhat terrifying experience, like driving a car without wipers.
We made our way to find Al at the garage. She was a welcome sight, standing no higher than 5′ tall, waving for us to follow her car up three floors to the storage unit she shared with her husband, Eugene. Dave tucked our bikes into their space and we unloaded our gear into her car, as instructed.
Still breathing heavy from hauling our bags around, Al said, “Let’s go,” and whisked us, soaking wet, off to the hotel where she had very generously paid for two nights already. She’d spent a considerable amount of time sourcing out a place for us to stay that was close to her garage (so we could work on the bikes), was nice, clean and, as she said, “not run by the mafia.”
Al stayed with us as we checked in, which was fortunate because not only could she translate everything for us (she speaks English very well), she was invaluable when a problem arose. Apparently, when we crossed the border the day before, they forgot to give us immigration cards. The hotel was adamant we had the cards and just weren’t looking hard enough but after 39 countries, the majority of which required crossing borders, Dave and I weren’t prone to losing track of important documents.
Our afternoon of rest now kiboshed, Al said, “Let’s go,” and again we were whisked off in her car, now with the hotel manager in tow, to a nearby immigration office. Dave and I were not looking forward to this at all, if immigration offices at home were any indication as to wait times. But Al said firmly, “Don’t worry,” and drove with determination somewhere down the block. She explained there were many immigration places spread throughout the monstrous city. Russians are required to have their passports on them at all times, and a trip to the immigration office could be more frequent than dentist visits.
Once inside, the hotel manager, Igor, (that was seriously his name, I didn’t just choose the most Russian-sounding name I could think of), cut through random groups of people, who didn’t seem to be forming any kind of line or care that he had just breezed past them, and disappeared behind a door with no sign or indication it was any more special than all the other blank doors in the office.
Dave, Al and I sat leisurely talking about travelling for about 15 minutes letting Igor do our dirty work, when he suddenly emerged from a completely different door, leaving us to wonder if there was a secret underground tunnel as we didn’t see him pass us. Igor was sweating profusely about the face and upper lip. Panting, he said, “passports, passports” making a motion with his hand for us to give them over quick. We did and Igor ran—no, sprinted—back behind the blank door.
He was released only moments later, handing Dave and I our passports back with a completely different disposition. There wasn’t a sign of sweat or heavy breathing now and his chest was broad and puffed out, in the way of a proud man who’s just done something of considerable importance.
He said something to Al and they started walking out the exit from the immigration office. Dave and I tripped along behind them asking what was next and they ignored us until we were out on the street and Igor clamped a hand much bigger than his size would suggest, on Dave’s shoulder, saying, “Everything good. Everything taken care of.”
In the car Al explained Igor knew some girls at the office who expedited some paperwork for us that no longer necessitated the need for the immigration cards. At least not at the hotel where Igor worked. Dave and I said, “Okaaaay…” in the way only circumstantial confusion forces you to trust what goes on for you behind the scenes.
We wondered what might happen at other hotels down the road when we still didn’t have either the immigration cards or Al. But there wasn’t time to worry for long as Al announced we were going for lunch and drove us to a mall where she recommended we eat baked potatoes with an assortment of fillings on top. The potatoes were huge and filling and we all left half of them on our plates. When Dave wanted to order a beer for lunch, Al turned her head quickly to him and said, “What about tonight when we must ride to go see my guys?” She had arranged for us to meet some of her riding friends whom, she said, were very keen to meet us and hear about our travels. Dave asked wasn’t that in a few hours? She explained Russia has a zero-tolerance law for drinking and driving. If you have even one beer, you can be fined some preposterous amount equivalent to, like, $3,000 CAN or jail time. If you’re found driving drunk, your license is revoked for life. It was serious stuff and Al became even more valuable to us now that she’d saved us from a Russian prison, which is more than we can say for the waitress at a restaurant in Slovakia who, although raised an eyebrow when we each asked for a beer at one of our lunch stops, didn’t tell us her country also had a zero-tolerance rule.
After our late, liquor-free lunch, Al drove Dave and I back to our hotel where I looked very much forward to a few hours of rest before Al would come and pick us up again at 7:00 p.m. and bring us back to the garage to jump on our bikes and go meet her guys.
At 6:45 p.m., Al sent me a message on Facebook saying, “I’m leaving in 15 mins. Be ready.” I wasn’t sure whether to love or feel intimidated by the incredible efficiency and assertiveness of someone 15 years younger but so far, I, and I believe Dave too, felt happy to have someone else take the reins for a while.
Our first evening in Moscow was spent with our new friend Al and her fun, happy group of guys, (plus one other female, an adorable look-alike to Al and her dreadlocks, whom they call the Green Chipmunk). At first, we were both far too tired to think about getting on our bikes and riding around a huge city. We tend to avoid cities unless we absolutely need them for parts, and we have rarely parked our bikes after a day’s ride only to take them out again in the evening, but Al was excited to introduce us and she had been so helpful, kind and generous, we couldn’t say no. And I’m glad we didn’t.
Moscow’s downtown area, Red Square in particular, makes it one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to. Maybe it was the perfect dark blue sky that caused the city lights to stand out even more intensely against the night. Or the fact that we were still high from zipping at a good clip around the city with six other bikes, giving us a gang-like authority. Or that I was still laughing inside at the guy who came over to me while we were parked at The Hill along with a hundred other bikers, and said, “Is this your bike? Isn’t it too big for you?” (Yeah. I can’t seem to get the hang of it, even after 85,000 km!), the night with Al and her friends was fantastic fun and we didn’t get back to our hotel until after midnight.
I don’t think Dave and I have stayed out so boozelessly late on our whole trip!
Next post: how Dave and I end up in the clubhouse of Russia’s notorious motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves.
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