It is raining as our ferry pulls into Sochi and we couldn’t help but compare it to our auspicious arrival in Santander a year ago. Here too the town is shadowed by a mountain range, but in low clouds we don’t see a hint of it. We waited to clear the customs and immigration into Russia’s Rivera standing in a cold drizzle, wondering how we’d managed to arrive in yet another resort town in unseasonably bad weather.
Our British learnt queuing skills ensure we are the last of the scrum to be stamped into Russia. My visa is given a cursory glance in one booth while Justin’s is thoroughly examined in another – other immigration staff are called over and I hear him saying ‘Thank you’ a number of times. The staff have told him that he has a beautiful passport.
After a month hugging the Black Sea coast we were itching to leave the water so we ride in the wet to the railway station to figure out the logistics of getting up to Moscow on the next scheduled train. Justin went in search of information, coming back with the following fragments: We must have only two bags. Bikes must be in boxes. If we have excess luggage we needed to pay extra money, but no-one can tell us what is too much or where our boxed up bicycles would fit on a train.
We need time to sort out our luggage requirements and decide it would be better to spend a night in Sochi where we can register our Russian visas at a hotel instead of working against the clock to find everything we need. The next hour or so sees us touring central Sochi in the rain, being told that hotels are ‘closed’ when we suspect that means ‘closed to foreigners because registration is a hassle’; some have no room because we had arrived on a long weekend and others are out of our price range.
Almost resigned to sleeping at the train station we try one last place, directions handed to us by a receptionist who insists that this place will be cheaper and we excitedly find ourselves checking into the cheapest wing of our first ever Soviet-era hotel. We have to walk a long way to our rooms but are a little overexcited about the antique light-fittings, odd shaped toilet, sit down bath-shower thingamajig and general shabbiness.
By luck there is a sports store across the road and we drag two bicycle boxes back to the hotel before hunting out tartan holdalls big enough to fit all of our panniers in. Train tickets are purchased without hassle and the rain finally clears leaving us time for an evening stroll down Sochi’s waterfront promenade.
The next day we return to the train station with about five hours to spare and find a quiet spot in to pull our bicycles apart. I go in search of sustenance for the 24 hour journey ahead while Justin gets to work taking pedals, handlebars, front racks and wheels off. Without too much trouble we have bicycles in boxes and two huge bags fitting all of our panniers, except a rack bag of food for the train and our handlebar bags. We’ve just made our super-portable equipment into an unwieldy mess and we wonder at the logic of this luggage rule as we carry everything in shifts to the platform stairs.
We’re just a little concerned that the train will be standing at the platform for just six minutes, definitely not enough time if we need to walk any length to our carriage. We quiz other passengers about our carriage number but no-one knows how long the train will be or where we would be best placed to stand.
As the train pulls in, I count carriages and see ours disappear into the distance, but other passengers see our struggle and a couple of young guys help us bring everything to the carriage door. We manage to push one bike box into the train corridor as Justin is hit with a barrage of Russian from the train attendant. I run down the centre of the train dragging the tartan bags and shove them under our seats before returning for the boxes. The last box is lifted onto the train and as it pulls away we survey our options for storing the boxes. There are overhead luggage compartments above the bunks and with a little help we manage to squeeze one box into each.
I sit back relieved that the hardest part is over, but Justin glumly reports on what happened outside. Another passenger had spoken some English so translated for him. The attendant has reported that we brought too much on and we will be fined or possibly we’ll be thrown off the train at the next stop. As dusk falls outside he sits in silence, dreading the worst.
I am the one beckoned by the attendant and she takes me to a small cabin reserved for such issues as this. They expect us to buy a ticket for the boxes. At 500 roubles (approx £12) this doesn’t seem to unreasonable to me and I return to Justin to grab our wallet. Returning together to the attendant, Justin remembers a forum response he had received a few days prior that indicated boxed bikes should be transported free of charge:
Translated from Russian train regulations Friday 29 Apr 2011
Changing tack with the attendant we use the magic words ‘internet’ and ‘regulations’ pointing to the wall mounted lists around the tiny office. Surprisingly the words work their magic and we are waved back to our seats with no fine.
After the initial excitement of boarding the train the rest of the journey is more relaxed with reading, eating and staring out the window high on the agenda. We’re surprised at the laid back attitudes and dress sense of fellow passengers with some spending the whole trip lying in bed sheets and others walking around half naked only to put their best clothes on as we approach Moscow. Our cabin mates are very quiet and don’t seem to like each other (or us – we blame the bicycle box fiasco) so spend most of the trip ignoring everything. Suffice to say we don’t share any vodka with them.
Its a more orderly affair to take our belongings off the train in Moscow. Much to the disappointment of the many porters, we make a few trips up and down the platform before locating a suitable spot to reinstate the bikes to their former glory. Lots of train passengers watch our work in silence and we wonder if we could be an advertisement for cycle touring in Russia. “Take your bike on the train… its (really not that) easy!”
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route map for this post
The map below shows the waypoints for this blog post. To view the details of our trip to date take a look at our complete route map.