Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Cycling in the Former Soviet Union

Привет товарищи как вы все?....... or rather "Hello Comrades how are you all?" I am sure some of my more regular readers might have noticed my absence.......or perhaps not.

Well the past six weeks has seen me spending time pedaling like fury across various southern parts of the former Soviet Union. Yes I know....what did possess me? Well to tell the truth the dreaded "W" word. While a Gentleman hates to admit it, there are sad occasions when it is necesary to put ones shoulder to the wheel as it were and earn a crust. This being just such one of those times, I thought it might be rather interesting to look at velocipedial issues Soviet style.

Yes I realise that the Bolsheviks have long since disappeared from view, but the Former Soviet Union is still an entity of the mind, if not in reality. I have to say the experience has been rather a pleasant one and not at all what one might have expected from my narrow minded initial expecations.

The first thing to say is that the distances are huge, so for pity's sake don't go trundling off from Krasnodar thinking its just a gentle run down to Sochi. It is most certainly not. I have restricted myself to mostly urban cycling in the immediate environs of towns and cities transporting my bike by various means between hotels. Sartorially I have probably let the side down being reduced to moleskin trousers, jhodpur boots and my Swiss army Pea Coat, but I did manage to buy the most wonderful old style Politburo worthy mink hat (an "Ushanka" for those in the know) for an absolute steal which has proved a godsend. Quite what the locals have made of an idiot Englishman cycling around their neighbourhoods in a 1960's fur hat God only knows, but everyone has been most kind, if at times a little alarmed.

Soviet Russia claimed that the nation invented the bicycle in 1801 when a peasant named Efim Artamonov is supposed to have presented the world’s first bicycle, to Russia’s Tsar Alexander the First. “Artamonov’s bicycle” convieniently reappeared at the Nizhnetagilsk Museum in 1923 as an example of worker ingenuity, but after analysis of the metal components it has been proved that it could not have been constructed any earlier than 1876. A statue of Artamonov now stands on the Vaynera Street in Yekaterinburg.

Anyhow, enough of history what of my travels? Well the great advantage of travelling in the region is that tea and alcohol are both available in great fact I've even had tea WITH alcohol in it!  Sustainance for the cyclist can also be had all over the place for an absolute pittance. I particularly like the flat squashed roll thing full of mashed potatoes...a sort of Russian pasty which always went down well for breakfast and I have probably consumed a veritable herd of pigs in the form of pork shaslik. 

The other most significant thing is that bicycles are notable by their utter, or almost utter, absence. People looked askance at me whenever I took to two wheels. Why would I not travel by car? The indignity of riding that machine when you appear to be well heeled? Have you taken leave of your senses? "Он является английский" (He is English) seemed sufficent to excuse my rather bizarre behaviour amoungst the indigenous population.

Apart from the rather unrestrained driving methods employed by locals and a few near misses at junctions, brought about no doubt by the sheer absence of such two wheeled hazzard on the roads in ordinary circumstances, the experience has been wonderful. In one location I encountered a former soviet scientist reduced to selling vintage pocket watches, who spoke the most extrodinarily good English yet who had never left the former Soviet bloc in his life. At another I met a woman selling enameled jewellry who once again spoke the most wonderful English yet told me she had learnt it over forty years ago at school and had never travelled further than Moscow (....come to think of it that was a dashed long journey from where she was!).

Whatever else the Soviet Union might have stood for, the quality of its education system cannot aparently be denied. Which leads me to a not unrelated point of running repairs .....not thankfully to the bike.....but to my spectacles, as one of the arms gave up the ghost in the vicinity of a little known southern outpost of the former Communist domain.

Damn I thought!......sellotape might be the only solution.... but I'm hardly going to cut a dash with any of the local fillies with plastic wrapped around my goggles. Pedalling on a little further, mercifully blind to the dangers of a Lada heavy rush hour braking out around me I came upon a suprisingly up-market opticians. Thinking it might be a couple of days before something could be done about repairing them if at all I resigned myself to a blurry visioned 48 hours at the very least. Not a bit of it! A rather glamourous assistant, again with impressive command of my mother tongue, took the glasses from me negotiated her price and summonded a bespectacled gentleman from the rear of the premises. The glasses were made of tungsten and had snapped clean off .....surely this would be beyond repair save for replacement? Rather alarmingly Uri pointed to an overlarge piece of opticians equipment which bore striking resemblance to an oxyacetylene welding torch. Ten minutes later, miraculously the thing was as good as new!....

Travelling through these regions is rather like travelling back in time to my childhood in the 1970's. People sit, they talk, they meet friends on the street, they are interested in each other, they don't facebook or text, they interact face to face. The country may be poor, people may be struggling, but what my brief experience of the area has also taught me is that the people here are tough, resilient, and yet open in a way that we English now are not. The make do and mend culture may not be something to hark back to, but if the friendliness and openess of the people and my welcome has been anything to go by, it can have its advantages.

До свидания товарищи!

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