Apart from the war-related sites, we did not find anything especially interesting about Volgograd. We enjoyed the cosiness of Astrakhan more than the rather bland and unremarkable centre of Volgograd. Having visited what we came to see it is now time to move on again. But before setting out into the countryside we’ll need to fill up on fuel. I pull over at the first service station we pass and thinking I’ve figured out the normal procedure in Russia I walk into the shop to declare how much we need and to pay before we start filling up. While I attempt to pay, the girl behind the counter ignores this and just keeps asking questions and exchanging pleasantries. What do we think of Russia? Which countries did we like most? So far, all countries have been fantastic but Russia obviously has the most beautiful people.
She smiles at the compliment but still won’t let me pay. From where I’m standing I can’t see what is happening outside, but I imagine Sofie getting impatient having to wait so long to start fuelling up. Until suddenly the girl asks me to put the credit card in the machine and lets me pay. When I get back to the motorcycles, it turns out they have already been filled up. I guess I haven’t entirely gotten the hang of this fuel purchasing thing yet.
We stick to the highway until we are well clear of the suburbs and then pick a smaller, much more interesting looking road. The landscape has gradually changed from steppe to agricultural lands and a few trees are popping up here and there. We ride through it all enjoying some quality pistes.
By late afternoon, after spending most of the day on backroads through the fields we are getting low on fuel. On our last fumes we manage to make it to a Lukoil and fill up again. Rather conveniently a small shop across the road has everything we need for a camp dinner tonight.
The next morning, after a night of bush camping, we are awoken early by the heat of the sun. The temperatures during the night were a bit more agreeable than the past few days, but it was very humid. No rain, but a few bolts of lightning at the horizon again. So far we’ve been quite lucky with all the thunderstorms passing us by. Yesterday we had some interesting encounters on the way. People wanting to hear where we’ve been and what we think of Russia. Even a few really surprised reactions when we claimed we hadn’t had any problems with corrupt police or aggressive drunks in the southern republics. It’s funny how these preconceptions about the big dangerous world exists even within one country.
To start the day off, we stick to some main roads. At least until we get close to Voronezh, where smaller roads again lead us around the city and its suburbs.
During our fuel and lunch stop, a Russian biker comes over to say hi before paying inside. Like so many people he seems interested to learn where we’re from. When he returns, he makes a claim that still confounds me to this day. “You are from Belgium, pravda? Leon Degrelle is a great man!” … I am so surprised I don’t even know how to respond to that. Here’s this biker, from Volgograd none the less, who not only knows this fascist politician and Nazi collaborator from Belgium but even praises him. I would expect the voluntary leader of a Waffen-SS contingent that was responsible for many Russian deaths on the Eastern Front to be rather unpopular in these regions. I am still not sure whether he was serious or just wanted to provoke a reaction. When we say we’re from Belgium, most of the time people we meet only know football players, so this was just genuinely weird.
Around 5PM we start looking out for places to put up our tent. I get the impression Sofie isn’t very keen on camping today. She ignores pretty much every dirt road we pass. Even those that look to me like they lead to someplace nice. Before we know it we’re in Livni and decide to get a room. After some negotiations we settle for the Gostinitsa next to the cinema, opting for a cheaper soviet style room over one of the more expensive western style rooms in a new wing of the establishment. It is pretty basic and reminds us of the student dorms from our youth, but it will do for the night.
A kind passer-by guides us to the secure parking for the hotel. The hotel administrator tried to give directions, but our limited Russian is not sufficient for her complicated explanations. Again this guy can’t believe we hadn’t had any problem with the police so far. But honestly we weren’t even stopped once although we passed quite a few police checkpoints, especially in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. Around Voronezh on the other hand where, according to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were sure to see a lot of police and military presence due to the (relative) proximity to the Ukrainian border and the Donbass region, we did not meet any at all.
The next day, the landscape changes dramatically again. We are now surrounded by large scale agriculture and birch forests. It’s still strange to see agriculture on such a huge scale since in our part of the world, there’s just no space for it anymore.
After a rather unremarkable day we find a nice and quiet place to put up our tent in the evening. A recently mowed hay field far away from everything and everyone will suit us. Despite its apparent remoteness, while preparing our dinner, we spot a sidecar rig speeding across the field leaving a large cloud in its wake. The farmer, Ilya, had spotted us and comes to check us out. He doesn’t mind us being there, as long as we clean up in the morning. I’m not sure a farmer in our part of Europe would have reacted the same way. After wishing us a good night, he speeds away again on his Izh Planeta 5, leaving us in a cloud of smoke and perfect peace and quiet. Apart from the mosquitoes. They come out in droves after the smoke has cleared. Just when we are debating to seek refuge in the tent, we hear the familiar sound of the 2-stroke engine again. Ilya has returned, this time bearing gifts. He hands over freshly baked bread, fresh milk and loads of tvorog cheese. The kindness of people never ceases to amaze.
The next morning we leave Ilya’s glass jars behind on one of the bales of hay, together with an icon of the Virgin Mary we had picked up in Georgia. We don’t carry much on the bikes, so we try to repay hospitality with what little we do have. Hoping that the gesture touches others in the same way their gifts have touched us.
We stop on the way for a late breakfast in the sun on a little bench at a bus stop. Ilya’s bread tastes delicious with the mountain honey we bought on the roadside in Svaneti.
The landscape has changed again now that we’re getting closer to the Latvian border. Large scale agriculture is making way for forests and swamp lands and we’re genuinely enjoying the ride along some beautiful gravel roads and trails.
Just before lunchtime, the weather changes dramatically. After spending weeks in 30+ degrees, all of a sudden over the course of an hour, we see the temperature drop from 32 degrees to a mere 18. This. Is. Cold. And it starts raining. Not just a drizzle or a summer’s day shower, but proper cold wet rain with no end in sight. When a cart trail with already pretty muddy sections starts to get more slippery by the minute, we decide to turn back and pick a more enjoyable road in these circumstances. Due to the late breakfast and the sparsely populated nature of the area we were riding through, it is already past 3PM by the time we do find a place to have lunch. The little cafe is out of warm meals for the day, but they can warm up some pastries for us. With the cold and wet weather outside we’ll take what we can get. With a large cup of tea, please.
From here on the weather pushes us onto larger roads again. The temperature drops even further and the riding is quite boring. The cold, wetness and monotony weigh heavily on our concentration. When Sofie makes a sudden emergency stop because we unexpectedly cross another road where we don’t have right of way anymore, I know I won’t be able to get stopped in time. Both the front and rear ABS are pumping like crazy, but the bike still has too much momentum when the front wheel bumps into Sofie’s rear fender. The impact makes us both drop our bikes, but luckily the damage is relatively limited: a broken license plate holder and a broken tool tube on Sofie’s bike and twisted front forks on mine. The forks are easily put straight, the license plate is fixated to the Magadan soft bag with some tie wraps and a rubber strap, the content of the tool tube is moved to the top bag. We’ve come across bigger setbacks on this trip.
By the time we reach Nevel’, we have lost all enthusiasm to put up our tent though, so Sofie finds a little apartment on booking.com. The place is really nice and clean and the owner even gives us an additional 400 RBL discount on the price advertised online. After a quick pasta whipped up in the small kitchenette, we look forward to a nice warm bed so we can rest up for the final push towards the Latvian border tomorrow.