With a week of cycling ahead of us before the next sizable town of Kirov, we’re firmly off the tourist map and have only the forest to distract us. The thick wooded tranquillity is sporadically interrupted by lines of long distance truck traffic, but there is still plenty of time to appreciate Russia’s natural beauty and daydream about the next truck stop cafe meal. Distracted by contemplation of bandana making (Emma) and buying a second pair of sports socks (Justin), we put our heads down and do some serious pedalling.
The forest changes slowly around us – sandy river bed soil becomes richer and redder, and we occasionally cycle past wide open spaces which feel like high mountain plateaus complete with snow fences, all at less than 200 metres above sea level.
Three days into the week an annoyingly persistent headwind switches to a tailwind and we start moving faster. Our average speed starts to sit above 20 kph, often tipping past 30km with little effort on our part. It feels liberating and cycle touring through vast Russia at this speed makes more sense. The uneven surface beneath us is muted by the speed and after putting in several 100+ km days in a row we can finally see ourselves moving across the map.
The Russian approach to road-fixing may not be the best we’ve encountered but only one stretch slows us significantly – the road we take out of the sleepy town of Manturovo sees us push through sand for a whole hour. Justin manages to ride a little more than me and is soon off in the far distance while I grit my teeth and tell myself that it is good preparation for Mongolia.
Finally returning to paved roads, we’re surprised to find a road signposted for Kirov that strangely doesn’t appear on our map and cuts our distance by at least one hundred kilometres of minor roads. We double check at the next petrol station and are pleased to find it not only exists but is easily one of the better roads we’ve taken in Russia.
Outside stops in small villages and towns for food supplies our only diversions are stopping at roadside cafes which seem to pop up just when I’m willing one to appear. We judge the quality by the number of long-haul trucks parked outside and manage to have moderate success showing our phrasebook to waitresses and asking them to point to the dishes that are available. This strategy isn’t really helping us learn any more Russian, but the results are often delicious.
Since warnings of bears and wolves in Kostroma, we have been a little more aware of where we pitch our tent and have started looking more closely at the ground for clues of who or what may have recently passed through the area. We usually don’t find anything outside the disappointingly frequent piles of garbage but one night we did see huge hoofed animal prints which we hoped were from a moose. Mostly wild camping has continued to be amazing, and bird calls usually drown out the all-night lorry traffic.
Justin’s birthday is the only night where we really can’t find water, neither to buy or in village wells. Finding a campsite is also a challenging prospect, and instead of a much promised afternoon off, we end up cycling 104 kilometres before pushing our bicycles for nearly a kilometre along a riverside track until we eventually find some trees to tuck behind. A few nights later we have our first Russian campfire and continue Justin’s celebrations by making our first attempts at a campfire chocolate cake cooked in a kidney bean can.
While the roads are still quiet compared to our time in Turkey, as we’ve moved further from Moscow we’ve started to notice the occasional friendly horn hooted and sometimes even scored a wave. A day from Kirov we were shouted a meal in cafe just outside Yuryevo, much appreciated despite the fact we’d not long finished a picnic lunch.
The dreaded mosquitoes finally rise up against us on our last night before Kirov and despite a reasonable breeze they manage to cover my back with bites within minutes. Justin is much less bothered than me and gamely offers to complete evening chores while I take refuge in the tent.
A busy red road takes us into Kirov, fighting with weekend traffic and endless streams of lorries. Again weary and grubby we’re welcomed with warm words into Kirov’s Sputnik hotel, where the manager clinches the deal by giving us a discount and a complimentary session in the private sauna. We can hardly believe his generosity.