Needing a decent wash of ourselves and our clothes after a week of cycling and camping, we had finally crossed the mighty Volga river after our dead-end detour to Ples, and cycled around the central part of Kostroma searching for a cheap hotel for the best part of an hour before giving up.
Our entrance into Kostroma coincided with the arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a little unfortunate for us because of the chaos that the accompanying huge police presence caused. We were amazed at the number of police officers seeming to protect small sections of walkways, directing pedestrian traffic into other police blocks and generally working at cross purposes to each other. For us it meant navigation was tiring and laborious.
We decided to have lunch and a small look around before cycling on. I returned with a bag full of supermarket ingredients to find Justin deep in conversation with Amya, who lived nearby with her husband and 3 year old son Mika. We were promptly invited to stay, an offer we gratefully accepted.
Later at the house we met her husband Oliver, who was employed by the German government to teach German in Kostroma – a post he had accepted after considering Mongolia and New Zealand as alternative destinations. With little in-depth conversation since leaving Turkey, we spent long hours talking with them about their experiences of living in a Russian community and tried to unravel the reasoning behind the German policy of paying teachers to teach the language in far-flung corners of the world.
We walked with Amya and Mika over to the local Soviet-style fairground which had just opened for the summer, receiving a guided tour of Kostroma along the way, complete with sightings of buildings freshly half-painted for the president’s visit. In the central riverside park foundations of the destroyed Kremlin could be seen and as the sun set the temperature dropped fast. When we heard it was still hovering around zero during the night we were glad to be indoors for a change.
Oliver couldn’t believe we were travelling through Russia without being able to speak Russian and we showed him our rudimentary language tools – a small section in our Eastern European phrasebook and a note that I had translated in Istanbul by one of my Turkish school classmates. We weren’t sure how much confidence that instilled in him of our ability to communicate our basic needs.
Finally leaving their snug home after a two night stay, we double-checked directions before confidently pedalling off. By the time Justin had a feeling something was wrong, we had been on the wrong road for 6 kilometres. Surely there was another option which didn’t require a backtrack through town?
Sighting a network of roads on the GPS which didn’t appear to be connected to the city road network, we took a gamble and started down tracks towards them. To start with we were on tarmac, cycling past go-kart racing in full swing, an aircraft scrap-yard and a team of men pushing a huge piece of scrap metal on a trolley. Our road turns into a small track and we hesitate before pulling our bicycles over a big bank of earth.
A few minutes later we found ourselves on the wrong side of an active airfield and someone appeared in the distance walking towards us. I assumed we’d be told off, but it was just some random local person walking. He didn’t blink. Our track turned to mud, then crossed train tracks which we thought looked infrequently used. After my bike was heaved over we had to wait for a train to slowly chug by. Oops.
We emerged into a bank of garages where mechanics were busy tinkering. Again no questions were asked of us as we cycled past with our fully loaded touring bikes, though I wondered if I could hear someone laughing as I turned onto the main road and pull away from the city. Oliver’s warnings about the bear and wolf territory ahead was ringing in our ears and we wondered if our newly acquired bike holding sticks would be sufficient protection.