The change in season comes upon us like a light switch turning on: the air is full of a snowstorm of thick white fluffy pollen which slips inside our sunglasses as we cycle, we switch to short-sleeve shirts, sunscreen and sunburn are suddenly concerns and along with the high temperatures come ferocious afternoon thunderstorms. We’d been hanging out for summer, but so was the notorious Siberian mosquito…
Arriving by train into central Novosibirsk we had jumped another time zone so were fighting dusk to build bicycles and find a hotel. I only suffered a few mosquito bites before we finally unlocked the door to our least comfortable soviet-era hotel yet just before 10pm.
We quickly decide to stay another day, which we spent walking the central city while trying to locate bubble wrap and envelopes to send a package to New Zealand. Late in the afternoon I learnt that it is the job of one old matron to take any carefully packaged items and repackage them in official Russian Postal Service materials. The afternoon thrown away, we managed a last big city dinner before loading up on supplies for our last few weeks in Russia.
We had 450 kilometres to cover until the edge of the Altay Republic and had expected our route on the only through road in the area to be fairly similar to the route to Perm. Instead the first few days of cycling was through densely populated suburbs and small towns with heavily populated cultivated fields stretching between them. Traffic came in thick batches, as did the cafe facilities, often with four or five in a row competing for business.
Hawks and eagles followed us out of Novosibirsk on a busy duel motorway, casting shadows as they glided above the traffic. They made repeat appearances as we cycled on, hunting over the enormous fields and following tractors as they ploughed the fields.
We talked to a group of curious truck-drivers one morning and one offers us a lift to Kazakhstan. He is unfazed by the fact we’re actually heading for Mongolia. Later that afternoon on a long, boring and busy stretch of road, we wonder why we didn’t take him up on his offer.
Every day without fail we battle with the fierce mosquito population. The mosquitoes turn our mealtimes upside down, and the ease of our free camping routine to date goes out the window. We eat a huge meal at the first cafe we see each day and don’t touch our cooker at all – when the tent is up in the evening, we eat bananas and bread in its mosquito-netted safety.
I don’t go a day without getting bitten despite pulling on a fleece and wearing trousers over my cycling shorts as soon as we stop cycling. We manage a new longest day record of 133 kilometres, on a day where one of the little blighters manages to bite me right next to my eye. Safe to say, I am not a happy camper.
The next day as I’m looking at a possible camping spot, a man spots Justin and makes a wide u-turn driving his scooter into a ditch in his drunken excitement. He wants to pick Justin’s bicycle up by standing on its wheels, and gets a little angry when Justin decides that’s not a good idea. We cycle on leaving him to try to upright his scooter. A few hours later, finding little else suitable we stop in defeat at a roadside cafe hoping to get dinner before moving on. The cafe is grim, infested with mosquitoes, and the flustered waitress won’t serve us anything but soup, but she does give us directions to a hotel 5 kilometres down a side road in a village called Troitskoye.
Its getting late and we can’t find the hotel but we spot a group of policemen who we stop to ask. Surprisingly the drunken scooter driver we met a few hours earlier is talking with them and we hope has been arrested. Stepping between us and the suddenly talkative drunk man, one policeman offers to walk us to one of two hotels which is an unmarked building down an overgrown path, which may not currently be open. The policeman speaks with someone on the phone to clear us staying. Its the cheapest room we’ve had so far in Russia.
It was only 70km from Troitskoye to another hotel in Biysk but an all too familiar clunk slowed us down. Despite rescue efforts from the bike shop in Perm, my front hub was starting to fail again. We limped slowly into Biysk wondering what on earth we could do outside getting a new wheel sent from the UK or learning how to rebuild a wheel ourselves.
With the town spread over a much bigger area than we had anticipated we struggled to find a cheap hotel with somewhere safe for the bicycles. The third place we tried seemed like it might be a not-yet opened brothel with the slightly drunk staff unable to give us a price for the room. The fourth was located behind an un-scenic stretch of apartment blocks, called ‘Hotel California’ and charged by 2 hour, 6 hour or 24 hour blocks. While we sat on their front step forlornly debating our options, the young staff decided that we should stay, so encouraged us to shift our bikes and bags inside to their tiniest room all but swallowed by a king size bed.
Surprisingly our dubious hotel (which we nicknamed the ‘love hotel’) was within five minutes walk of a branch of a good bicycle shop chain and after explaining our problem using pen and paper they contacted a local wheel builder and instructed us to return at 10am the next morning. We didn’t wander far, though in the nearby mall we saw the sad sight of a tiny scared monkey for sale for €2,000.
The wheel-builder meets us at the bike shop at 10am the next morning. Dropping his satchel on the ground, he pulled my wheel off my bicycle and got to work on the shop floor. A new hub was installed on my front wheel within hours and well before our 24 hours at the hotel was up. Such luck we can’t imagine will repeat itself and we hope we won’t require it again.
Despite another impending thunderstorm, we decided against another night of ‘luxury’ and tested the new wheel on the road south to Gorno-Altaysk. After a leisurely 40 kilometres we came across a perfect spot for free-camping. A light breeze kept mosquito numbers down on a bank overlooking the river we’ve been following. We managed to cook and were in the tent before dusk. We had just a few kilometres before Gorno-Altaysk and the Altay Republic where we hoped the increase in altitude would keep some of the bugs at bay.